OTTAWA — Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is suggesting a modified House of Commons could resume business during the COVID-19 pandemic using a "hybrid" model, in which some MPs are physically in the chamber while others participate virtually.
Trudeau signalled his support for the idea Wednesday as the governing Liberals were in the midst of negotiations with the four main opposition parties to determine in what form Parliament may or may not return next week.
"I think there's a lot of interest in a hybrid Parliament model where some people will be there in person, where others will call in via videoconferencing screens," Trudeau said.
"I think there are ways of making it work and ensuring that MPs from every corner of the country get to participate and make sure their citizens are reflected in the debates that go on in Parliament and not just those who live in the National Capital Region."
Stories of Canadians across the country who are struggling with the fallout from the pandemic were a driving feature of the questions MPs rose to ask the Liberals on Wednesday.
MPs also used the chance to buttonhole cabinet ministers directly outside the Commons, with a least one pairing of a Liberal cabinet minister and a Tory MP spotted, standing two metres apart and both wearing masks, as the MP pleaded the case of constituents.
A demand for more face time with the government — even if masked — is the consistent thread among the opposition parties as they negotiate Parliament's return.
As structured at present, the House of Commons has turned into a special COVID-19 committee, meeting three times a week, twice virtually and once in person, for up to six hours of discussions that are supposed to focus entirely on the pandemic.
It is that set-up, sources say, that the Liberals are proposing to move to a hybrid model.
That model was proposed by the House of Commons administration as well, and a simulation of the proposed proceedings has already been successfully carried out, Commons Speaker Anthony Rota told a committee in a letter earlier this month.
The sources, who spoke to The Canadian Press on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak publicly about the negotiations, said the number of times that hybrid committee would meet each week is under discussion.
But a heated exchange between a Conservative MP and Rota Wednesday underscored one of the issues the opposition currently has: when can MPs ask the government about anything other than the pandemic?
Conservative MP Michael Barrett, who attempted to ask about spending on the prime ministerial residences, was challenged repeatedly for posing a question that had nothing to do with the pandemic.
"I am at a loss how you expect us to hold the government to account, how you expect committee members to question the government, when we have to filter through a narrow channel, that is approved again by the (Prime Minister's Office)," Barrett said.
He then suggested that Rota — who was elected as a Liberal but as Speaker is expected to be non-partisan — was filtering out questions to do the bidding of the government.
As he sat down, Barrett muttered "for shame."
"For shame is right," Rota replied.
The few in-person meetings that have been held on Parliament Hill have featured just a fraction of the 338 MPs. On a typical Wednesday before the COVID-19 shutdown, nearly all would be present.
Now, the Conservatives have a rotating roster of those who attend. The Liberals have drawn largely from cabinet, as part of the committee's focus is for ministers to be available to answer questions.
On Wednesday, the number in the chamber hovered around three dozen MPs overall.
For some, even that many is too many. Bloc Quebecois Leader Yves-Francois Blanchet raised that as one of several issues he has with what is required for the House of Commons to potentially resume next week.
He pointed out Wednesday that an all-party agreement that ensures the MPs in the House proportionally represent the party standings isn't being respected — a point that had Trudeau sit up and appear to try and do a quick count of his party's status in the chamber.
Trudeau, Blanchet, the NDP's Jagmeet Singh and Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer all attended parts of the Wednesday sitting, though they do not always show up for the three meetings a week.
During Wednesday's meeting, Scheer wandered in and out of the chamber, while Trudeau spent a great deal of time scrolling through his phone, his mask sitting on the desk in front of him adjacent to a black briefing binder that was largely kept closed.
Singh had argued earlier Wednesday that as the Liberals expand the financial supports designed to blunt the impact of the pandemic, his party wants more transparency on where those dollars are going.
He would support a hybrid approach, he said.
"We want to make sure that money that is being put out by the government goes directly to workers, that it is tied to jobs, that it is tied to employment," Singh said.
"To do that we need to get back to a more normal operation of Parliament."
Blanchet said Wednesday his party is looking for improvements to a number of existing support programs, among them those that help with businesses' fixed costs, as well as the commercial rent subsidy. He also wants the Canada Emergency Response Benefit and student aid programs amended so recipients can also take jobs.
"We don't want the government to say, 'Oh yes, we're going to do it,' " Blanchet said.
"We want the government to say, 'This is what we're going to do, this is when, this how, and this is how much it is going to cost.' And in that case we'll say 'OK, now you're being true to your word.'"
This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 20, 2020
Stephanie Levitz and Joan Bryden, The Canadian Press