Mr. Speaker, I thank the hon. Parliamentary Secretary to the Prime Minister for splitting his time with me today.
It is absolutely a pleasure, as it always is, to be here with all of you. I am delighted to see some members for the first time in months and I really did miss everyone. Once again, it was not easy getting here. I packed up my family and we drove here from New Brunswick. They are with me for the long haul. We will be here as long as we need to be to do the work of Parliament that is very critical and essential during this time.
I do think of all the MPs who are not here today, and it is not because they do not want to be here or that they are not working. As I look at this chamber, at the 30 or so of us spread out with several seats between us, I am reminded that each empty chair represents roughly 100,000 Canadians. Their voices will not be heard here today.
Certain members of this House believe that perhaps a responsible representation of MPs by party status is adequate for decision-making and questioning the government. However, let us not forget that our jobs are first and foremost to our constituents and not to our parties.
I am delighted to be here on behalf of the riding of Fredericton and raising the issues that are important to my constituents. Just like the member for Foothills said, this is also the thrill of my lifetime to be an elected member of this House and to stand here in this historic place, a symbol of our freedom and democracy. It is a place of honour and respect, yet there have been some disrespectful comments made, such as insinuations that our fellow members are not showing up to work because they cannot be here in person.
We have heard wartime anecdotes and quotes from Winston Churchill, among others, all suggesting that COVID-19 in the year 2020 is somehow the same as World War II or the influenza outbreak. Of course, we know this is not the case.
The word “unprecedented” has been used an unprecedented number of times to describe the situation that faces us. We are not seeing the forces of the world clashing under tyrannical regimes. We do not have bombs bursting overhead. We are facing an invisible enemy. It is an enemy that does not discriminate, that infects its host at a rate we have never seen before and that has left our communities vulnerable.
We most certainly have an essential role to play as parliamentarians, but it looks different than it has at any other time in our history. The motion before us asks us to be creative, collaborative and accommodating to our members of Parliament. I believe it is meant to allow the fulsome participation of all elected members of this House from all ridings across this great country.
Few other MPs from Atlantic Canada are able to be here today. That is concerning to me. The issues facing my home region are urgent and unique. Right now, our region of Canada is facing challenges with the lobster season, quotas for fishers and processors unable to recruit enough workers. Temporary foreign workers were only allowed in New Brunswick as of last Friday, meaning a delayed season with major implications for the economy and the agricultural yields.
There are also calls for a public inquiry into the handling of the Portapique tragedy. There is the broader conversation it has started about support for mental health initiatives and our collective response to domestic violence, especially in rural areas.
Cities, towns and villages in Atlantic Canada are much smaller than the major urban centres of other provinces, meaning that some of the federal funding earmarked for New Brunswick, P.E.I. and even Nova Scotia cannot be implemented by the municipalities that need it most.
Let us not forget New Brunswick's unique role as a bilingual province and the challenges faced by Canada's minority francophone population to receive accurate, current information about the virus. We also see that New Brunswick is one of the most enviable jurisdictions in the world in terms of its total number of cases and zero deaths. Finally, it pays to be a New Brunswicker.
Canada should be watching closely as my home province continues to open up elements of its economy as a test case for which businesses will flourish post-COVID-19, and which will need continued support. These issues are regionally specific and deserve to be voiced. Most of the MPs representing those voices cannot be here due to restrictions on interprovincial travel, limited domestic flights and the requirement for pared-down numbers in Parliament.
I also note that it is not safe for other members of this House, those who are from isolated communities or those who will put their or their communities' health at a greater risk of COVID-19 by travelling to Ottawa. How can we ask those who cannot be here today to risk becoming vectors of transmission? At the same time, how can we hope to make decisions and represent Canada without a single voice from these vulnerable regions?
It remains my opinion that until we can have a full integration of virtual participation with in-person meetings of the chamber or special committee, we are doing a disservice to rural, northern, Atlantic and west coast Canadians. As we stand here today, we are not ensuring equal representation for Canada, which is one of our most fundamental principles. Having said that, I see the effort the government is making with this motion to integrate virtual participation with the in-person sittings.
I also recognize that the day-to-day sittings would be in the Special Committee on the COVID-19 Pandemic rather than full sittings in the House of Commons, which would be more ideal.
With these elements considered, I will be supporting the motion because I believe it is in the best interests of democracy at this time.
When we have figured out how the whole virtual integration of MPs will work, we will need to see the House reconvene to table some pressing legislation, such as on medical assistance in dying. In February, the Minister of Justice asked the Supreme Court for a four-month extension to the ruling in order to avoid the creation of separate MAID frameworks in Quebec and the rest of Canada. We have already taken advantage of an extension. Difficult issues still need to be addressed and Canadians who wish to receive MAID depend on us to pass that legislation.
In March, the government introduced legislation to criminalize the cruel practice of conversion therapy. We need to commit to ban that practice without further delay. We also need to see the specifics of the firearms legislation meant to accompany the regulatory changes made on May 1. Canadians need to see the full details of this plan to end the suppositions on this issue that are polarizing Canadians.
Figuring out the integration of virtual MPs with those of us here in person will enable us to lead the way for Canada as the world of work shifts permanently through this period of history. Some Canadians will need to continue working from home for some time to come. Some will want to continue working from home. Some will need to work partially from their homes and partially from their offices. We are being creative. We will see less travel by plane. We will see less commuter traffic in general. Let us set the example for workplaces across the nation by enabling MPs to make the best decisions for their constituents and to engage fully in the debate and decision-making that occurs in the House.
My hope is that all Canadians will know how hard we are working for them every day. Whether in our living rooms with our kids hanging off us in front of a Zoom screen, or here on the floor of the House of Commons, our commitment and our efforts are unwavering.
My mind is constantly on those I know are still slipping through the cracks of our COVID relief initiatives: the not-for-profits, charities and church groups, which for one reason or another find themselves ineligible for the wage subsidy program despite the critical services they provide in our communities; the cleaners and cashiers who have been left out of the essential workers wage top-up in New Brunswick; the dentists who are concerned about their practices moving forward and are finding barriers to pursuing PPE; the international students who still do not qualify for the student benefits and who have nowhere to go and no support; the pregnant women who still do not have adequate answers about their parental leave benefits in the weeks to come, and so many others.
My colleagues and I work for them. I know that we can continue to do this work in a way that protects the health and safety of our home communities.