The Honourable Anthony Rota is the Speaker of the House of Commons, and the Member of Parliament for Nipissing-Timiskaming, Ontario.
As it became apparent in March 2020 that the COVID-19 pandemic would significantly disrupt many aspects of Canadian life, the MPs and the House of Commons Administration began to discuss how parliamentary business could continue in these exceptional circumstances. In this article, the author, Speaker of the House of Commons Anthony Rota, explains how the Standing Committee on Procedure and House Affairs (PROC) met to determine how to resume parliamentary sittings in a way that would respect health and safety protocols while maintaining their parliamentary rights and privileges. He notes that longstanding relationships within the House of Commons Administration were key to facilitating a shift to hybrid virtual sittings in a timely manner. By learning from the experiences of other parliaments and drawing on technical infrastructure that had been built over several years, the House of Commons Administration helped make the seemingly impossible possible. The author concludes by noting that the Members have drawn on the modernity and nimbleness of the Administration to transform the way they fulfil their parliamentary responsibilities during the pandemic while honouring the history and tradition of the House of Commons.
On March 13, 2020, in response to the COVID-19 outbreak in Canada, the House of Commons unanimously adopted a motion that adjourned its scheduled sittings until April 20, 2020.
The nation went into lockdown, and our lives came to a standstill. It quickly became apparent that the disruption to the regular proceedings of the House would not be short-lived. Behind the scenes, the House of Commons Administration was already talking with Members of Parliament to find some way for them to once again come together, and also to reach out to their constituents.
On March 24, the House was recalled and empowered two standing committees, Health and Finance to meet by teleconference or videoconference to receive evidence in relation to COVID-19.
On April 11 the House of Commons was recalled again to add (among others) the Standing Committee on Procedure and House Affairs (PROC) to the list of committees allowed to meet. PROC was instructed to study ways in which Members could fulfill their parliamentary duties while the House stood adjourned.
The recall of the House was something that had only happened 12 times since Confederation.
It would be recalled six times through the summer to pass emergency legislation to support Canadians during lockdown until Parliament was prorogued on August 18.
PROC began its study and, over the next month, held nine meetings and heard from 38 witnesses, myself included. In my capacity as Chief Administrative Officer, I appeared before the Committee four times to inform its discussions and decision-making.
During my appearances, I reaffirmed that the House Administration remained committed to providing all necessary operational support for members to sit and hold meetings in a format of their choosing and in a way that would respect health and safety protocols while maintaining their parliamentary rights and privileges.
There were principles I felt important for the Committee to keep in mind as they weighed the various options for enabling Parliament to sit.
Any model would have to uphold the rights, immunities and privileges of the House and its Members.
It was essential for simultaneous interpretation in both English and French to be available to Members.
All Members would have to be able to participate.
Any changes to the House’s rules and practices (Standing Orders) would have to be made in a manner that ensured the legal validity of the proceedings.
Finally, any solution would have to limit the changes to the rules and practices of the House to what would be temporarily required for its implementation.
As a result, the Committee discussed a number of options and presented two reports on the issue to the House, the first on May 20, the second on July 21.
The Committee also advocated for Members to maintain reasonable expectations and demonstrate patience as the House’s technical capacity grew and improved.
And so, employees from across the Administration marshaled their talents, their ingenuity and most importantly, their determination to ensure that Members of Parliament could continue their vital work, whether in person or virtually from another location.
The story of how this happened is ultimately a story about relationships. At the heart of the Administration of the House of Commons is an intricate and longstanding personal and professional network, and it is the ties that bind the people throughout this organization that helped make the impossible possible.
Many people who were instrumental in creating the virtual Parliament have been part of the Administration for decades. These include employees in the Information Technology team, Procedural Services, Human Resources and Finance.
Over the years, their professional paths have crossed countless times, and today they have achieved a familiarity with one another that proved to be a real advantage during the preparations for the virtual Parliament. When time is short and deadlines are tight, it helps to work with experienced and trusted colleagues who know you so well they can almost finish your sentences.
Even before the pandemic struck, in fact, for the past three or four years, the Information Technology team was investing in technology infrastructure, recognizing the importance of providing Members with the ability to connect to their constituents. It was just as important to enable all House Administration employees to stay in touch with the organisation network from anywhere, at any time.
However, when COVID-19 confined almost everyone to their home, it became critical for both parliamentarians and employees to be securely and reliably connected to the House of Commons and to one another. And of course, speed was of the essence.
To help decide how best to provide the House with a safe and effective way to work remotely, the Administration reached out to industry leaders, national and international security partners, and to several of its counterparts to share information and advice. Building on its longstanding relationships around the world, the team met on a daily basis with colleagues in a number of legislatures to discuss strategies and exchange ideas.
Not only were the approaches taken by the different legislatures interesting, they sometimes helped guide the choices made by our Parliament.
The House of Commons of the United Kingdom was an obvious choice for consultation; it made the decision in April to hold hybrid committee and chamber meetings because the Speaker did not want to forbid members from entering the chamber at Westminster, which he described as “a very ancient right.”
In the National Assembly of Wales, the only statutory requirement that affected the implementation of virtual proceedings was the requirement to hold bilingual proceedings, an obligation shared by our House of Commons.
The team also consulted the Brazilian Parliament, which shares our geographical challenges and was the first Parliament to conduct a hybrid broadcasted plenary meeting.
Within a week, Members of Parliament and Administration employees working from home had the tools they needed. Members were not just connecting remotely for committee meetings, they were also finding ways to stay in touch with their constituents, despite the challenges posed by the pandemic.
While witnesses outside the capital have appeared before parliamentary committees via videoconference for many years, organizing a committee meeting where both MPs and witnesses would be participating remotely was a much more ambitious task.
When West Block was renovated to serve as the interim home of the House of Commons during the rehabilitation of Centre Block, committee rooms in the building were fitted with all the technology required to conduct videoconferences; in addition, employees from language interpreters to IT technicians were deployed so as to enable more than one committee to host witnesses appearing by videoconference.
This was certainly an impressive achievement but adapting to the effects of the pandemic would require a level of complexity, collaboration and agility few could have imagined. It was one thing to arrange and conduct a committee meeting with several witnesses making virtual appearances; it was a much more elaborate undertaking to organize one where MPs and witnesses were participating both in person and remotely.
On April 20, the House agreed by unanimous consent to create a special committee that would examine the response to COVID-19 in Canada. COVI, as it was called, would be composed of every Member of Parliament, chaired by me as Speaker, and would meet virtually. It would be difficult to overstate the technological and logistical challenge of preparing for such meetings.
To ensure that every MP could attend COVI meetings, the Administration had to conduct an inventory of the technological and electronic equipment in each Member’s constituency office. It would then locate, purchase and ship any missing equipment to the MP in time for the first meeting. Given the remoteness of some ridings, and the world shortage of headsets, the Administration was fortunate (and grateful) to be able to call on some of its private sector partners for assistance. Over the years, it has worked closely and well with these external organisations; when it became necessary to secure a thousand headsets and ship them quickly across the country, they were instrumental in making it happen.
The Administration determined that Zoom, when integrated with the House’s existing systems and infrastructure, was the platform that could best be used and adapted to serve the needs of the COVI meetings, as it has built-in simultaneous interpretation functionality and contains a number of important measures that would make it safe and secure for Members to use.
Once again, the Administration drew on its valuable relationships with other Parliaments to test Zoom, observing the process and applying its findings to its preparations.
It took three weeks to integrate videoconferences into committees, from ensuring the technological setup in all committee rooms, to ensuring the privacy and security of in camera meetings. This required complex and ongoing internal development, simulations and technical tests by the Administration employees.
To prepare for the eventuality of a virtual meeting of all Members of Parliament, the Administration held large scale simulations using its employees.
In addition to the more than 300 employees who filled in for Members, the Administration dedicated more than 120 managers and employees to establish the virtual meetings.
The 25 meetings of the Special Committee on the COVID-19 Pandemic were successful, with more than 300 Members from across Canada taking part simultaneously. Given that success, the House agreed to move to additional virtual proceedings, during the pandemic, for all regular business of the House.
For the first 13 weeks following the initial adjournment of the House on March 13, the employees of the Administration setting up a virtual Parliament did so without a break; quite simply, it was the only way such a monumental task could be accomplished in the time available.
As it has always done, the House Administration took up the challenge with the team spirit that is its hallmark. After all, its reason for being is to meet the evolving needs of Members so that they may continue to work on behalf of the Canadians they represent. The employees have their individual roles and responsibilities, but all place their skills in service to the Members and to the House of Commons.
Perhaps the greatest adaptation the Administration had to undergo was to become more comfortable with taking risks. This did not mean acting recklessly, rather it meant adapting the internal culture to take more calculated risks while continuing to provide the best service possible.
As the Administration worked to manage and mitigate the inevitable risks of creating a virtual Parliament, I tried to demonstrate by example that it was possible to make the transition fairly easily.
For example, I worked with the information technology team to be able to chair the early COVI meetings from home and I did so using a headset. It was my hope that this would encourage Members to embrace the concept of teleworking.
There were growing pains, to be sure. I regularly found myself having to ask Members to either mute OR unmute themselves, and I myself would occasionally miss the “raised hand” of a colleague trying to get my attention.
From time to time, I may have had to remind a Member that there is a dress code, even if one is at home, or that props are not allowed…
But like many Canadians, Members learned to adapt to teleworking, and I found that, until in person meetings could resume in the Chamber, it was just as easy and quite a bit safer to chair the meetings from home.
I felt it was important for Members to appreciate that the first stages of a virtual Parliament would be a work in progress, that things would not immediately work perfectly, but that we would learn from our mistakes, and that everyone would strive to improve the process over time.
Members of Parliament live and work all across the country and given its sheer size, vast rural lands and multiple time zones, consistent and reliable internet is not a given.
However, the Administration regularly worked with Members to address these issues, and, while there were some initial technical challenges – something to be expected when you are conducting videoconferences for hundreds of people – these were largely resolved.
Members from all parties expressed their thanks to the team that made it possible for the House to assemble once again.
Since the early days of the pandemic, there has been a remarkable evolution in the way Members conduct their parliamentary business.
Since September 23, following the will of the House, the House of Commons has been sitting in a hybrid format. A limited number of Members are in the House, observing physical distancing and following the health measures in place, while others are connected virtually.
Earlier, the House Leaders came to an agreement and directed the Administration to prepare options for a secure electronic voting system for conducting votes in virtual sittings, and on September 28, the House held its first remote vote.
Shortly before the House returned on September 23, the Administration conducted several hybrid voting simulations involving its employees at first, then Members of Parliament. As with the first few virtual meetings, things did not go perfectly, but the Administration continues to improve its service to Members. Although it has learned that it cannot let the perfect be the enemy of the good, it will nevertheless strive for perfection, as it has always done.
In addition, following a decision by unanimous consent of the House, a secure remote voting application was developed. On February 25, I received notice from the House leaders of all recognized parties that they were satisfied it was ready for us. On March 8, the Members participating remotely used the electronic voting system for the very first time. The application, which makes it even easier for Members to vote remotely, will be available until June 23.
The adjustment the House has undergone in the last months is just part of a much longer story. The pandemic, and the enormous challenges it has posed and continues to pose to the institution of Parliament, has provided a silver lining of sorts.
The House of Commons has adapted to some of the challenges posed by COVID-19. Not long ago, telework was viewed with skepticism, but we have seen over the last months that work can continue from home or remotely.
The 338 MPs are now using Zoom to take part in meetings and social events with their constituents, and a number of them have begun conducting virtual town halls, with great success.
While honouring the history and tradition of the House of Commons, the Members have drawn on the modernity and nimbleness of the Administration to transform the way they fulfil their parliamentary responsibilities during the pandemic.
The second session of the 43rd Parliament is now underway, and the House of Commons Administration stands ready to support the Members as they write the next chapter of their story.