CSG motion on Technology and Emergency Situations


No 47: Motion to Authorize the Clerk of the Senate to Prepare a Report Identifying the Procedural and Technological Options Best Suited to Ensure the Continuity of the Senate’s Operations During Emergency Situations—Debate Adjourned

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Hon. Scott Tannas: Honourable senators, this is my first attendance in this chamber since mid-March. I would like to thank my colleagues in the Canadian Senators Group who have been able to attend the number of special sittings that we have had and indeed all senators and also Senate administration employees throughout the organization who have supported us in our sittings and in our various committees and other meetings that have taken place.


It was truly sobering to travel here: getting to a deserted airport, getting on an almost deserted airplane, flying across the country with a glass of water as sustenance and then arriving at an empty airport here in Ottawa. I know most Canadians have not yet had the opportunity to travel. It has lost a lot of its glamour.

It was a funny situation: I got off the plane and walked through the Ottawa airport, which is normally very crowded. I got out to the taxi stand, and there were no taxis. There were no cars in the streets. There was me and a squirrel standing on the sidewalk at the taxi stand. Maybe he was going to the other place, I don’t know, but we waited together for a taxi.

I want to thank Senator Verner for giving the notice of motion on my behalf on April 11. This is a CSG motion, not simply my own motion. The CSG will not always agree on issues, but this motion comes from all of us.

When the notice was given, it was given in recognition that we were not going to be able to direct the technological solutions that we were going to be given in the midst of the crisis. It was too late for us to be properly involved in the planning and execution of the very best technological solution for us in the Senate, so it was aimed to achieve the following three things once the Senate was back and we were back in normal times.

First, it was to direct the Interim Clerk of the Senate to review and report on available technological options that would ensure that the Senate can continue to operate normally and fulfill its parliamentary and constitutional duties at all times.

The second was to have CIBA and the Senate Rules Committee review the report, once it has been completed, and to recommend to senators the best technological, procedural and administrative practices it should adopt in a plan to ensure the continuity of its legislative functions in the case of future emergencies after this particular wave of the pandemic.

Third, it was to propose to senators the implementation of a contingency plan to allow the Senate to rapidly adapt its rules and practices, as well as in the use of technologies and safety measures for a second wave and for other future emergencies.

We had hoped that the motion could have been adopted on April 11 and that the clerk could then get to work focusing on that long-term project in addition to the work that was going on to help the Parliament of Canada get back on its feet. The hope was that the notice of motion would also be a notice of motion to the clerk and to administration to begin to think about that as an issue separate from what is going on right now.

We were not able to agree to pass the motion. We didn’t have the Rules, Procedures and the Rights of Parliament Committee ready. It didn’t work out, but what has happened since has helped to highlight what this motion is about and why we need to think about what happens after this.

Let’s go through what’s happened and where we are now. The normal proceedings in this chamber have been adjourned for three months, and more than two months have passed since this notice was presented. What has happened? How are we senators exercising our constitutional and parliamentary duties? Are we? We’ve had a question on that this very day.

So far, due to the efforts of the Senate administration employees and committees, we have Social Affairs and National Finance. They have been able to hold weekly virtual meetings on the government response to the COVID-19 pandemic. We know that the Senate Ethics Committee and the Internal Economy Committee have also been able to meet, and some of its subcommittees have had some virtual meetings as well.

We need to appreciate the work that’s been done and continues to be done by Senate administration employees, as well as the work of senators’ staff who have made these meetings possible.

Outside of these developments, I and other colleagues in the chamber have been made briefly aware of other initiatives that would allow for virtual or hybrid actual sittings of this chamber in both official languages sometime in the near future. We still don’t have a clear idea of what is actually going on behind the scenes and what the timelines for implementing these temporary measures are so that we can all get back to work and debate and vote either in the chamber or virtually.

There has been a lot of frustration by senators and it’s growing. The lack of information, transparency and progress after three months has become unacceptable, especially in the context where governments, public health authorities, hospitals, companies, small businesses and Canadians are preparing for a second wave of COVID-19 cases while maintaining normal activities. Our democratic system requires a robust Parliament, including the Senate which can serve its vital role of holding governments to account whether it’s in normal times or during a crisis.

There is no question there is a growing frustration and exasperation from many colleagues in my group as well as in other groups for not being able to fully participate in the debates on the four COVID-19 budget bills that have been adopted so far.

Some strict provincial and territorial travel restrictions, justified health concerns, limited flights and accommodation options, as well as health and safety measures in this chamber prevent several of our colleagues from being with us today.

I suspect these frustrations will likely grow over this current sitting as they sit at home, watch us on television or over the internet and feel the fact that they are still unable to exercise their privileges and responsibilities remotely and/or virtually on debate on government bills, votes and other business. We are, after all, a chamber that represents the interests of all regions and minority groups, and since mid-March, we have not achieved this and are still not achieving this.

In the meantime, our colleagues in the other place have been active and transparent since mid-April in committee through virtual meetings and consultations with experts across Canada and abroad to address the challenges that I’ve just discussed. A first detailed report of 74 pages was tabled last May, and a second one is expected in the coming days that will likely include recommendations on a remote voting system that would be employed during virtual and hybrid sittings.

In the public eye, I think it’s fair to say that we are lagging severely behind the other place, which has been holding hybrid special sittings since late May.

Canada is not unique. Other countries have conducted similar studies. I’ll limit my remarks to the House of Lords in the United Kingdom.

On April 16, the House of Lords in the United Kingdom issued a guidance document in preparation for its recall on April 21 to implement measures that balance their constitutional requirements for minimum physical presence in the chamber with technology that facilitates virtual proceedings and protects safety. On June 8, the House of Lords, having completed their guidance document, held its first-ever hybrid sitting. By June 10, they had held a total of 20 virtual or hybrid sittings. The House of Lords, on June 15, announced that an online voting system through a smartphone, tablet or computer was in effect.


Colleagues, the current pandemic has exposed a weakness in our institution. It has clearly not kept pace with the technological progress of other Westminster chambers, including the other place in our country, in this Parliament.

Why? I don’t know. We will, I think, very soon learn of a solution that we can use to meet. It will work for us. It will have been developed for us and for the other place. It will build on the experience of the other place. But we need to recognize, as we go to use that technology next time that, when we use it, we will likely be one of the very last institutions to have a plan and to be exercising it.

So in the coming weeks and months we also have to conduct a comprehensive lessons-learned exercise so that members of this chamber are not once again deprived of their rights and privileges to serve Canadians. We should not accept, over the next months and years, a temporary solution in our own chamber as a cut-and-paste of the other place’s response.

We need a long-term solution, a sober-second-thought solution, and one that is uniquely crafted for us. Unlike the other place, we represent regions, Indigenous people, linguistic minorities and cultural ethnic communities. We also have to take into account the unique demographics of our particular members of this chamber.

We can take inspiration from initiatives that are adopted in other jurisdictions, but we have to carry this exercise independently, in order for this solution to be the best tailored to the specific characteristics and needs of this chamber.

We also must consider making the appropriate investments so as to stop being so dependent on the other place for technology, training and operational support. We should not be an afterthought to be dealt with as a second priority, as we appear to have been in this crisis.

I submit to you that, with all of that considered, this motion, which seeks to establish a permanent solution for future situations, remains worthy of your consideration, and I ask you to do so. Thank you.

Hon. Senators: Hear, hear.

(On motion of Senator Omidvar, debate adjourned.)