Hon. Jane Cordy: Honourable senators, I rise to speak in support of Motion No. 28, and I do so on behalf of my Progressive Senate Group colleagues. On this issue we are unanimous. We support this motion and, in fact, we would support extending the motion until the end of June at this time.
However, we do agree to proceed with this motion as it is today, and wish to re-evaluate the COVID-19 situation and the hybrid measures again before the end of April.
Honourable senators, while I’m keen to return to fully in‑person Senate sittings and committee meetings, I’m also well aware that some senators are immunocompromised or have immunocompromised family members. We should be sympathetic to our more vulnerable colleagues who don’t feel comfortable participating in the chamber at this time. They don’t want to risk their health or the health of their loved ones.
We must also be cognizant that if we continue in a hybrid setting, we are better placed to have the infrastructure in place in the event of another wave. Ottawa’s Medical Officer of Health just yesterday warned that the level of COVID here in Ottawa is rising, with the level in waste water rising dramatically over the last two or three weeks. Dr. Vera Etches said in her special statement:
The pandemic is not over and we are currently experiencing another resurgence.
In my home province of Nova Scotia, 5 members out of 55 members of the legislative assembly now have COVID. The legislature is currently discussing a move to hybrid sittings, and there are concerns about it because it cannot happen instantly while the legislature is sitting.
Given these obvious warnings, we must keep in mind that it is easier to maintain hybrid until the end of June than it would be to convert back to hybrid if COVID cases rise significantly here in Ottawa or in our own provinces and territories.
Finally, I don’t think I am telling any secrets to say that many of us in this chamber are in the age group that is more susceptible to poor COVID outcomes than are members of Parliament. It is also interesting to me that the other place continues with their hybrid model until the end of June. Why shouldn’t we do the same here in the Senate?
Hybrid sittings, and settings, do not prevent anyone from attending Senate sittings in person. If a senator wants to be here, as most of us are, they can be. But an in-person-sitting-only environment, at this time, will certainly prevent some of our colleagues who are immunocompromised or who have immunocompromised family members from being able to fulfill their responsibilities as senators.
To be clear, hybrid sittings should not be a long-term occurrence. We all want to be in Ottawa in person with our colleagues, in this chamber and in committees. But I do not want to negatively impact the health and well-being of my colleagues or Senate staff to do so. I believe it is absolutely essential to remember that these decisions not only affect senators but our staff and Senate staff as well.
I will support the current motion, and I look forward to re‑evaluating the Senate’s position at the end of April. Thank you.
Hon. Dennis Glen Patterson: I would like to ask Senator Cordy a question, if she’d take one.
Senator Cordy: Certainly.
Senator Patterson: Senator Cordy, you asked why we should not follow the House of Commons in continuing hybrid until the end of June. I would say to you that the problem we have in the Senate is that, unlike the House of Commons, we clearly do not have the adequate resources to support our committees while we’re in the hybrid mode. You understand that those resources are interpreters, technical operators and camera operators. That limits us to one committee meeting per week.
So I would like to ask you this: Would you agree that until we get adequate resources to allow our committees to do the important work that Senate committees do, we should not be embracing the hybrid motion because it’s crippling our ability to do our committee work?
Senator Cordy: Thank you very much. You raise a really good point.
We all would love to be sitting in our committee meetings. For those of us who normally sit twice a week, it’s now down to once a week. We all understand.
But you also have to recognize that a number of our staff have developed COVID as a result of working in circumstances with a lot of people around. We know there are senators who have contracted COVID, whether that’s in the Senate Chamber, getting on an airplane and flying to Ottawa or whether it’s when they’re at home. We don’t know that, and it’s very challenging to figure out where the contacts have come from when you’ve been on an airplane, in an airport or even in the Senate Chamber as a whole.
It would be great if committees could sit twice a week, but I don’t go back on what I believe, which is that we should, at least until the end of June, maintain hybrid. I’m willing to support this motion, but I think it should be the end of June when we could better make an evaluation. We should, in fact, go along with the House of Commons — and I don’t often say that. However, in this case, I believe the motion should be until the end of June.
Hon. Marc Gold (Government Representative in the Senate): Would the senator take a question?
Senator Cordy: Certainly.
Senator Gold: Thank you for your speech, Senator Cordy. As some of you may know, in the month of March alone, there have been 23 cases of COVID in the Parliamentary Precinct: 12 in the Senate family, 7 in Parliamentary Protective Service and 4 in Public Services and Procurement Canada.
As we all know, the Parliamentary Precinct pretty much operates in an integrated fashion, so when cases are compiled and reported they include all of those I just mentioned, including, of course, employees of the House.
Given this integration, senator, do you think it would make sense for the Senate to transition back to in-person sittings before the House does? Would this not just simply be increasing the risk, not only for ourselves but for the entire precinct?
Senator Cordy: I absolutely agree that it would be best if we followed the House in this matter and that we ought to continue hybrid until the end of June.
The numbers you’ve presented to us today are not surprising, but they are startling. They certainly give one cause to pause. They suggest that if you wish to be here in person, you can be in person, but if you are immunocompromised or if you are really nervous about going to an airport and flying, then you can certainly fulfill your functions as a senator via the hybrid model.
I spoke earlier and told you that five MLAs in Nova Scotia have COVID, and that’s out of 55 members of the legislature. In Nova Scotia, the Conservative Premier Tim Houston said:
We’re in a pandemic and you’ve got to be willing to roll with it. . . . Very strongly in favour of a hybrid session to make sure that every voice, every Nova Scotian has a chance to be heard through their MLA.
And I would say the same thing would be true in Ottawa Every senator has the responsibility to work on behalf of their constituents in their provinces, and every senator should have the ability to do that in the middle of a pandemic. The numbers that I’m seeing — and my staff in working on this looked at the numbers — are rising, whether we like it or not. It’s a pandemic, and I think we should follow the House of Commons and make our situation hybrid until the end of June.
Having said that, I will support this motion, but my wish would be that it would be until the end of June. I look forward to revisiting this at the end of April and making adjustments if they are necessary at that time.
Hon. Frances Lankin: Senator Cordy, you will take another question, I hope?
Senator Cordy: Yes, I will.
Senator Lankin: Thank you very much. I want to indicate that I agree with everything you’ve said, including the comments that most of us want to get back to in-person sittings and two committee meetings a week.
I’m concerned that, even without hybrid sittings, our resources are very stretched. One of the things that concerns me is that there is a cyclical argument of, “We’ll go to April, and then after that, maybe to June.” There is a hope being held out that we may, within the next couple of months, fix this problem of resources.
I wonder if you could tell me if you would support an initiative where we sit down with the Standing Senate Committee on Internal Economy, Budgets and Administration, attempt to seriously address these issues and not wait until we know if we’re coming back to a full sitting or not. Thank you.
Senator Cordy: Thank you very much for that. I couldn’t verbalize it any better than you’ve already done. I think it’s really important. Resources were stretched before COVID, and they’re stretched now. Our office staff and the Senate staff have been going above and beyond, and I’m sure that exhaustion sometimes leads you to be more vulnerable to picking up COVID, colds or flu when you’re exhausted. I would like to take this opportunity to thank the Senate staff and our office staff for going above and beyond.
You have raised a really good point that maybe we should have a working group looking at resources. We’re looking now, and Senator Gold gave us the numbers of people within our institution who have been getting COVID. However, we should certainly look at it and see where we need people and where we have to hire more staff. Thank you very much for raising that.
Hon. Patricia Bovey: Would Senator Cordy take one more question?
Senator Cordy: I will.
Senator Bovey: Senator Cordy, you mentioned that the hybrid sittings allow those who are immunocompromised to fulfill their responsibilities and take part in the chamber. You’ve talked about the hybrid continuing until the end of June. I certainly agree with that, especially at a time when direct flights from our cities have not yet been put back in place. I’m from Winnipeg. Mine is not going to be back in place until June. That increases the occasion for some of us, as I have, to contract COVID. The hybrid sitting has allowed me to take part this week. I would not have otherwise, though I’d much rather be in the chamber, as you know.
Would you agree that hybrid sittings allow those who do contract COVID to continue to be active in chamber deliberations?
Senator Cordy: Yes, I did speak about those who are immunocompromised. I did not speak about those who may have contracted COVID and who are able to still take part by sitting at home and not going out of their house to spread it. Provided they’re not in a serious condition, bedridden or even in the hospital, they are still able to sit in a room in their house and take part.
You spoke about the lack of direct flights. I think all of us who have to fly to get here understand that. Flying to Nova Scotia used to be very easy with a choice of five or six direct flights a day. Now there are two direct flights a day. If I wait until the next day, it’s either 6 a.m., which doesn’t lead to a very productive day when I arrive at home — and that’s not a direct flight — or getting home late on Friday afternoon and heading back to Ottawa either on Sunday night or Monday morning.
I’ve spoken to one person who has to take three planes to get to Ottawa and could probably drive faster to Ottawa if she wished to do so. You’re absolutely right. There are a lot of things happening during the pandemic times and lack of convenient flight times would certainly be one of them. Thank you for raising that.