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The creation of the hybrid Parliament

As a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, Parliament has devised a way of continuing its work by putting in place a temporary hybrid meeting format. In this way, Members of Parliament can participate in a House of Commons sitting either in person or via video.

The Speaker has been invited a number of times to speak about how this hybrid Parliament was established. The following is the text of his presentation in bullet point form.

  • On 13 March 2020, in response to the COVID-19 outbreak, the House of Commons unanimously adopted a motion that suspended its scheduled sittings until 20 April 2020.
  • It quickly became apparent that the disruption would not be short-lived.
  • On March 24, the House was recalled and empowered two standing committees, Health and Finance to meet by teleconference or videoconference to receive evidence in relation to COVID-19.
  • On 11 April, the House of Commons was recalled again to add (among others) the Standing Committee on Procedure and House Affairs (PROC) to the list of committees meeting. PROC was instructed to study ways in which members would be able to fulfill their parliamentary duties while the House stood adjourned.
  • The recall of the House was something that had only happened a dozen times since Confederation.
  • It would be recalled 6 times until Parliament was prorogued on August 18.
  • The PROC Committee held 9 meetings and heard from 38 witnesses, including me.
  • I appeared before the Committee 4 times to inform the Committee’s discussions.
  • I told the Committee that the House administration would work to provide all necessary operational support for whatever meeting format the House decided would best serve Members.
  • There were principles I felt it was important for the Committee to bear in mind as they weighed the various options for enabling Parliament to sit.
  • Any model would have to uphold the rights, immunities and privileges of the House and its Members.
  • Simultaneous interpretation in both English and French must be available to Members.
  • All members would have to be able to participate.
  • Any changes to the House’s rules and practices (Standing Orders) would have to be made in a manner that ensured the legal validity of the proceedings.
  • Finally, any solution would have to limit the changes to the rules and practices of the House to what would be temporarily required for its implementation.
  • As a result, the Committee discussed a number of options and presented two reports on the issue to the House, the first on May 20 and the second on July 21.
  • For the past several years, the Information Technology team was investing in technology infrastructure to provide Members with the ability to connect to their constituents.
  • When COVID-19 confined almost everyone to their home, it became critical for both parliamentarians and employees to be securely and reliably connected to the House of Commons and to one another.
  • To decide how to provide the House with a safe and effective way to work remotely, the Administration reached out to industry leaders, national and international security partners, and to several of its counterparts to share information and advice.
  • The team met on a daily basis with colleagues in a number of legislative bodies to discuss strategies and exchange ideas.
  • Some of the approaches taken by those legislatures helped guide the choices made by Canada’s Parliament.
  • The United Kingdom’s House of Commons decided to hold hybrid committee and chamber meetings because the Speaker did not want to forbid members from entering the chamber at Westminster, which he described as “a very ancient right.”
  • In the National Assembly of Wales, there was a requirement to hold bilingual proceedings, an obligation shared by the Canadian House of Commons.
  • The team also consulted the Brazilian Parliament, which shares our geographical challenges and was the first Parliament to conduct a hybrid broadcasted plenary meeting.
  • Within a few weeks, Members of Parliament and Administration employees working from home had the tools they needed; Members were not just connecting remotely for committee meetings, they were also finding ways to stay in touch with their constituents, despite the challenges posed by the pandemic.
  • While witnesses outside the capital have appeared before parliamentary committees via videoconference for many years, organizing a committee meeting where both MPs and witnesses would be participating remotely was a much more ambitious undertaking.
  • On April 20th, the House agreed by unanimous consent to create a special committee that would examine the response to COVID-19 in Canada. COVI would be composed of every Member of Parliament, chaired by the Speaker of the House of Commons, and would meet virtually.
  • It was a huge technological and logistical challenge to prepare not just for another committee meeting, but a meeting made up of all Members.
  • It included ensuring that MPs had the equipment and internet capability needed to participate in COVI meetings, as well as choosing a platform that would permit simultaneous interpretation.
  • To prepare for these virtual COVI meetings of all MPs, the Administration held large scale simulations using its employees.
  • In addition to the more than 300 employees who filled in for Members, the Administration dedicated more than 120 managers and employees to establish the virtual meetings.
  • The 25 meetings of the Special Committee on the COVID-19 Pandemic were successful, with more than 300 Members taking part simultaneously.
  • As a result, the Committee recommended that the House of Commons move to additional virtual proceedings during the pandemic for all regular business of the House.
  • It was a very interesting learning process for me to chair the virtual COVI meetings, with the last such meeting taking place on June 18th.
  • I learned to become comfortable with a headset and encouraged other Members to use them so that we could communicate more clearly.
  • There were growing pains, to be sure; I regularly found myself having to remind Members to either mute OR unmute themselves, and I would occasionally miss the “raised hand” of a colleague trying to get my attention.
  • From time to time, I may have had to remind a Member that there is a dress code, even if you’re at home, or that props are not allowed…
  • But like many Canadians, we learned to adapt to teleworking, and I found that, until in-person meetings resumed in the Chamber, it was just as easy and quite a bit safer to chair the meetings from home.
  • I felt it was important for Members to appreciate that the first stages of a virtual Parliament would be a work in progress, that things would not immediately work perfectly, but that we would learn from our mistakes and that everyone would strive to improve the process over time.
  • Members of Parliament live and work all across the country, and given its sheer size, vast rural lands and multiple time zones, consistent and reliable internet access is not a given.
  • However, the Administration worked with Members to address these issues and, while there were some initial technical challenges, these were largely resolved.
  • Members from all parties expressed their thanks to the team that made it possible for the House to assemble once again.
  • Since September 23, following the will of the House, the House of Commons has been sitting in a hybrid format.
  • A limited number of Members are in the House, observing physical distancing and following the health measures in place, while others are connected virtually.
  • In May, the House Leaders came to an agreement and directed the Administration to prepare options for a secure electronic voting system for conducting votes in virtual sittings, and on September 28th, the House held its first remote vote.
  • Following a decision by unanimous consent of the House, a remote voting application was developed for testing.
  • Further to the adoption on January 25th of the motion extending virtual proceedings, the House proceeded with two simulations of the hybrid voting solution with all Members being invited to participate.
  • On February 25th, I received notice from the House Leaders of the four recognized parties that they were satisfied it was ready for use.
  • The application was approved for use until June 23rd.
  • On March 8, the application was put into use, and now makes it even easier for Members to vote remotely.
  • While honouring the history of the House of Commons, the Members of Parliament have drawn on the modernity of the Administration to transform the way they fulfil their parliamentary responsibilities during the pandemic.