Parliamentary digital releases in the time of COVID-19

Article 8 / 11 , Vol. 45 No. 1 (Spring)

Parliamentary digital releases in the time of COVID-19

Emma Davies is a Web Editor with Information Services at the Legislative Assembly of Ontario.

When public health measures made in-person meetings and events difficult, parliaments across Canada began to experiment with new digital apps and programs and promoted existing digital services to help both parliamentarians and the public access information, and connect. In this article, the author highlights some of these new releases.

Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, Canadian parliaments have greatly increased their use of platforms such as Zoom, Skype for Business, Cisco WebEx, and Microsoft Teams. Indeed, meetings of the House and committees across the country now rely on these resources to discuss the very issue necessitating their use. However, Parliaments have not only been making use of pre-existing digital platforms; they have also been working on releasing their own digital tools.

In Ottawa, the federal parliament is currently testing an electronic voting app. This House of Commons digital product allows MPs to cast votes without being present in the Chamber, and operates “using combined facial and fingerprint recognition technology”.1 While more testing is required, the app is a first for the Canadian Parliament and would represent a major shift in daily operations should it be approved. Over the course of the pandemic, the Library of Parliament and the National Film Board of Canada also released a virtual reality tour experience of the Centre Block on platforms like Steam, Oculus, YouTube, and Facebook.2 Despite the Centre Block’s lengthy rehabilitation project and associated closures, the public is still able to interact with the building thanks to this technology.

Virtual options for tours and educational activities have also been a priority for provincial parliaments during the pandemic, as many of them have used social media and video communications platforms to continue facilitating their public outreach programs. In British Columbia, the Legislature has created a Virtual Classroom program designed for students in grades three to 12.3 Similarly, Québec’s National Assembly uses Facebook to livestream Les têtes à Papineau, a quiz night for members of the public looking for fun, educational activities.4 The Legislative Assembly of the Northwest Territories has taken this kind of outreach work a step further by commissioning a self-guided touring app. The app would enable the public to experience the Parliament virtually in thirteen different languages, and could mark the beginning of further digital developments for the Legislature.5

In Ontario, the Office of the Legislative Assembly developed an educational podcast called ON Parliament as a means of further connecting with the public.6 Focused on explaining the history and heritage of Ontario’s Legislature, this monthly podcast is a first dive into the medium for the provincial parliament. Others, such as the Legislative Assembly of British Columbia, have used podcasting more consistently as a method of broadcasting their daily Question Period.7 Certainly, having additional means of accessing legislative meetings is crucial during this time, as public health measures have made it more difficult for interested citizens to view them from the public galleries. To establish wider availability, the Ontario Legislature has also launched Parlance, an app designed for livestreaming meetings of the House and some committees.8 Compatible with Apple and Android smartphones, tablets, and TVs, Parlance allows the public to more conveniently view meetings of the Legislature. Similarly, the Legislative Assembly of Manitoba began broadcasting the entire sitting day to preserve transparency with the public during the pandemic.9

Canadian parliaments have taken strides to ensure that other kinds of routine activities and events run smoothly in light of the closures. In Saskatchewan, the Legislative Assembly started using a combination of remote and onsite production services to publish Hansard.10 Swearing-in ceremonies in Saskatchewan and British Columbia were streamed on various social media platforms.11 The Legislative Assembly of Manitoba transformed its annual holiday concert into a pre-recorded video for home-viewing.12 Through these examples, we see how parliaments have repeatedly worked to maintain the usual rhythm of their legislatures by turning to digital solutions.

Keeping pace with an increasingly technological world has never been more important for parliaments in Canada. The work of the legislature has traditionally been almost inseparable from the physical space of the parliamentary building. However, as physical distancing remains in effect, our country’s parliaments are clearly committed to digital innovations as a means of connecting both elected officials and members of the public to legislative work. It will be interesting to see which solutions will be permanently incorporated into the daily operations of parliamentary life in a post-pandemic world.

Notes

1 Bryden, Joan. “No rollcall votes in Commons if new electronic voting app adopted.” CTVNews, CTV News, 21 Jan. 2021, www.ctvnews.ca/politics/no-rollcall-votes-in-commons-if-new-electronic-voting-app-adopted-1.5275952

2 Parliament: The Virtual Experience, https://learn.parl.ca/sites/Learn/default/en_CA/VR

3 Virtual Classroom, https://www.leg.bc.ca/content-peo/Pages/Online-Learning.aspx

Les têtes à Papineau https://m.facebook.com/events/412680513417655/

5 Correspondence with Nicole Bonnell. March 16, 2021. E-mail.

6 ON Parliament Podcast, https://www.ola.org/en/whats-happening/listen-parliament-legislative-assemblys-new-podcast

7 Legislative Assembly of British Columbia QP Podcast, https://www.leg.bc.ca/documents-data/broadcasts-and-webcasts

8 Parlance app, https://www.ola.org/en/parlance-app

9 Manitoba Legislative Assembly Adopt Measures to Reduce COVID-19 Transmission, https://www.gov.mb.ca/legislature/business/press_release_public_gallery.pdf

10 Correspondence with Iris Lang. March 4, 2021. Email.

11 Saskatchewan Cabinet Swearing-in Ceremony, https://www.facebook.com/SKGov/videos/2020-cabinet-swearing-in/377730513443639/; Buffam, Robert. “Historic NDP caucus sworn in ahead of fall B.C. Legislature session.” Vancouver Island, CTV News, 25 Nov. 2020, https://www.vancouverisland.ctvnews.ca/historic-ndp-caucus-sworn-in-ahead-of-fall-b-c-legislature-session-1.5204033

12 Manitoba Legislative Holiday Show, https://www.safeathomemb.ca/events/the-legislative-holiday-show/

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