Parliament resumes against backdrop of pandemic and mass murder

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Prime Minister Justin Trudeau in the House of Commons. Image: Justin Trudeau/Twitter/Video screenshot

There are hardly any events that could force the COVID-19 story off the top of the news. Here in Canada, it took the worst mass murder in our modern history. 

On Sunday, April 19, the day before the House of Commons was to resume regularly scheduled sittings, a white, middle-aged, comfortably well-off male went on a rampage that took, at latest count, no fewer than 22 lives in rural and small-town Nova Scotia. 

Few news accounts describe the presumed murderer in that way -- that is, with details of his ethnic and socio-economic status. Nor do many media stories belabour the fact that this series of ghastly murders looks very much like an uber-extreme case of toxic masculinity.

Many stories, however, pointedly mention that the likely perpetrator of these vicious crimes once helped a cancer patient, in his professional capacity as a denturist. 

Contrast that with how certain Canadian media covered the case of Manitoba Indigenous teenager Tina Fontaine, who was found dead in the Red River, in August of 2017.

Some media reports made a point of mentioning that traces of drugs were found in Fontaine's body which had been wrapped in a blanket and weighted down with a rock. 

A year after the teenager's body was recovered, in 2018, a court acquitted the one person charged with Fontaine's murder. The sitting judge accepted defence counsel's argument that there was insufficient evidence the victim's death had been the result of a criminal act.

Horror, outrage, empathy from all sides of the House

When a quorum of MPs returned to Parliament on Monday, April 20, they unanimously expressed the horror all Canadians feel at the horrific extent of a single man's murderous rampage over a large swath of territory in northern Nova Scotia. 

"This senseless violence has shocked all of us and has caused deep pain," said Liberal House leader Pablo Rodriguez.

Official Opposition and Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer shared his and his colleagues' condolences and sympathy for "the family and friends of Constable Heidi Stevenson and all those who lost their lives in the senseless attack over the weekend in Nova Scotia."

British Columbia Green party MP Paul Manly told the small group of MPs present: "I am sure that none of us is unaffected by this horrific event." He added that his own party's parliamentary leader, Elizabeth May, a proud Cape Bretoner, is a friend of the family of one of the victims.

Bloc Québécois Leader Yves-François Blanchet expressed the outraged puzzlement of many Canadians when he said, "I find it hard to imagine what this senseless trail of violence, played out over some 120 kilometres, is like." 

And NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh also reflected what is on a good many Canadians' minds, when he put the murders in Nova Scotia in the context of the other scourge now afflicting all of Canada -- and, indeed, all of the world: 

"The senseless violence and loss of life is all that much more painful given the safety precautions and measures that need to be taken with COVID-19 and how these will limit loved ones from coming together to mourn in the usual way." 

Dispute over in-person vs virtual House sittings

Notwithstanding all the talk about pain and suffering, the gathered MPs did find some time for partisan business. 

At the outset of the day's business, the sole Green MP present, Paul Manly, rose on a matter of privilege. He argued that "the rights and privileges of many members are prima facie violated by any motion to proceed with regular sittings of the House in which they cannot participate."

Manly cited the example of members from the four Atlantic provinces who, according to their provincial governments' rules, would have to be quarantined for 14 days were they to travel to Ottawa. As well, he said, the Quebec government has asked all of its citizens, including its 78 MPs, not to travel.

Parliament, Manly said, is not a mere vehicle for political parties, which are not even mentioned in the Constitution. Nor is it supposed to be a "debating club" for a handful of members. Parliament, he told the House, is a legislative body, with 338 elected members, representing all Canadians. And, he said, every single one of those elected MPs, from every part of the country, has the right to personally represent their constituents in the House. 

In that light, Manly asked the Speaker to rule that the House of Commons should not sit at this time, face to face. Until public health authorities deem it safe to have sittings of the full 338-member house, the Green MP argued, there should only be virtual, electronically facilitated sittings. 

The Speaker took that proposal under advisement.

The Liberal government then tabled a motion that would have a small quorum of MPs sit only once a week, in person, for an extended question period. There would also be two additional days of sittings by videoconference.

Except for the Conservatives, all of the opposition parties accepted this proposal. Andrew Scheer and his party insisted that there should be three full days per week of in-person sittings. 

Conservative MPs pointed out that the handful of House committee meetings that have been taking place virtually, of late, have sometimes faced technical challenges, and have not all gone smoothly. As well, some Conservatives said, many MPs in rural and remote areas do not have good broadband internet connections.

"Conservatives believe in oversight and accountability," Andrew Scheer told the House. "Millions of Canadians are going to work every single day to help their neighbours get through this pandemic. Parliamentarians should be doing the same thing."

Later, in response to a friendly question from one of his own MPs, the Conservative leader added, "The real question is why the prime minister does not want to come into this chamber. I believe it is quite simple: He prefers the controlled environment in front of Rideau Cottage, where he controls the number of questions and can call an end to them whenever he likes."

All of that was a bit much for the other opposition parties. 

As the NDP's only Quebec MP, Alexandre Boulerice, put it: 

"To be perfectly honest, I have had just about enough of this childishness and obstruction, when people are dying out there, and others are risking their lives to care for the sick … Of course, the government needs to be held to account, and I have lots of questions for the government too … One in-person sitting per week is enough. Two additional virtual online sittings with a new procedure would enable us to do our work … and hold the government to account. Why is the Conservative party rejecting modernity?"

In the end, the government had the necessary votes to get its motion passed. 

Assault weapons ban returns to front burner

And so, over Conservative protests, the House will meet in-person only on Wednesdays, for the time being. When parliamentary staff have worked out the details for video conferences that could include all 338 MPs, the two days of virtual sittings will get underway. 

As for Manly's request that there be zero in-person meetings while COVID-19 requires social distancing -- the Speaker ruled that he did not consider MPs' privileges to be breached by the blended arrangement the government proposed.

Outside the House, reflecting on the lessons of the horrific events in Nova Scotia, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau pledged to use some of Parliament's time in coming weeks to introduce new gun control measures, including an assault weapons ban. 

Those were Liberal election promises, and part of the government's plans for the spring 2020 session of Parliament. Because of COVID-19, they got pushed to the back burner. They've returned to the front burner now.

The Conservatives have kept their powder dry on that prospect, for now. 

But there is a good chance that when new gun legislation does come before the House, Andrew Scheer's MPs will again find themselves to be the only ones opposed to a Liberal initiative. 

Karl Nerenberg has been a journalist and filmmaker for more than 25 years. He is rabble's politics reporter.

Image: Justin Trudeau/Twitter/Video screenshot

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