OTTAWA — Parliamentarians are expected to pass Bill C-14, the second piece of emergency legislation of the COVID-19 pandemic, allowing for the $73-billion wage subsidy program to be enacted.
After days of talks between the government and opposition parties about the contents of the bill and more broadly how the House of Commons functions during a crisis, an agreement was struck late Friday night to grant the minority Liberals and the opposition parties to make changes to the bill.
The House of Commons began its emergency Saturday sitting at 12:15 p.m. EST, where Prime Minister Justin Trudeau delivered his daily address, which until today has been occurring from his driveway.
During his address, Trudeau called COVID-19 the greatest challenge of a generation and drew parallels to past wartime efforts of parliamentarians, his grandfather included.
“But Mr. Speaker , this is not a war. That doesn’t make this fight any less destructive, any less dangerous. But there is no front line marked with barbed wire, no soldiers to be deployed across the ocean, no enemy combatants to defeat. Instead, the front line is everywhere: in our homes, in our hospitals and care centers, in our grocery stores and pharmacies, at our truck stops and gas stations. And the people who work in these places are our modern-day heroes,” Trudeau said.
“As Canada confronts this crisis, we are all called to serve. To fight for and alongside each of our fellow citizens, to fight for someone’s mother, someone’s grandfather, someone’s neighbor… Without reservation, without pause, we must fight for every inch of ground against this disease. We must be there for each other as we spare no effort to safeguard our collective future,” the prime minister said.
The leaders of the other parties are now responding to Trudeau’s address, and once those are finished the House will enter into what’s called a “committee of the whole,” where the bill will be debated and fast-tracked through all legislative stages.
Once the bill passes the House, the Senate will convene at 4 p.m. EST, where it is also expected the legislation will pass by day’s end.
Ahead of the sitting, the leaders of the NDP, Bloc Quebecois, and Conservatives spoke about the negotiations that had been underway, and indicated they intended to support the legislation that is being presented by Finance Minister Bill Morneau after gaps identified have been rectified.
Outgoing Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer said his party would vote to approve the government’s plan after the Liberals agreed to make some changes to the bill.
He said his party has been working on offering “constructive solutions” to improve Canada’s response to the pandemic and insure no one falls through the cracks. He offered several examples of where the Tories called for tweaks to the billions of dollars in financial aid measures that have been unveiled in the last month.
“The way the government originally had the wage subsidy structured, businesses would have only found out if they qualified halfway through the benefit period. Thanks to our suggestions, businesses will now find out if they qualify up front. Not only will this give businesses more certainty, it’s also better policy,” Scheer said.
The Conservatives have framed the second bill as a “fix” to the first, while the Liberals say the legislation would enact the “biggest economic measures in our lifetimes.”
An initial 10 per cent subsidy was included in the $107-billion aid package passed during the first emergency sitting of the House that went overnight last month, but the government rolled out a massive expansion in the days following that needs to be legislated in order to come into effect.
The subsidy would be on 75 per cent of employees’ salaries, up to $847 a week per employee for 12 weeks, retroactive to March 15, for companies big and small as well as charities. Further tinkering to the eligibility was announced on Wednesday, with the intention of keeping as many Canadians employed despite the pandemic shutting down many aspects of society and the economy.
All sides had agreed there will be a limited number of MPs in the Chamber for the sitting to keep in line with physical distancing guidelines, with 14 Liberals, 11 Conservatives, three Bloc Quebecois, three NDP, and one Green.
Talks about a virtual Parliament will continue past Saturday’s sitting—as the government wants to find a way for the Commons to convene digitally while the opposition has been eyeing more in-person sittings— but in the interim an agreement has been reached to see additional House of Commons committee hold virtual meetings, as the health and finance committees already have been doing.
Government House Leader Pablo Rodriguez said that the industry, human resources, government operations, and House procedure committees will all begin holding video teleconference meetings.
He flagged the health and safety concerns the government has with a typical recall of the House, even with a limited number of MPs, such as having to bring back administration staff, interpreters, and security.
The Procedure and House Affairs Committee has been recalled with a specific task: Studying the way forward on virtual sittings. House of Commons Speaker Anthony Rota has previously said he also has a team looking into the possibility for the House to hold virtual sittings within the next four weeks.
Rodriguez said that Parliament needs to be able to continue its businesses, but will have to be done in a different way during this nationwide public health crisis.
“On one hand we can’t tell Canadians ‘stay home because that’s the way to fight this’ and then come here every day and meet,” Rodriguez said.
“We have to be creative, we are asking Canadians to be creative,” he said.
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