Canada’s Fragile Democracy

The global pandemic has shifted the way we work, live, and interact with each other on all levels. It has given us the opportunity to view ourselves and our country in a new light. We have an increased appreciation for things that before we might have taken for granted. While in other areas things we viewed as subtle cracks we are beginning to see them for the graver challenges they are. Canada’s democracy is one of them. Canadians are proud of our democracy, but it may be one of those fundamental elements that “we don’t know what we’ve got until its gone”.

Parliament has not been in session since March and few seem concerned.

In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, the government passed a motion to grant itself extraordinary spending powers and cancel Parliament’s scheduled sittings. This was an astonishing decision. The House has not altered its usual sitting calendar since 1867.

Parliament must resume and it must not be “virtual”.

In lieu of regular sitting days the government created a temporary Special Committee on the COVID 19 pandemic comprised of all MPs. This special committee has been referred to by the media and others as a “virtual parliament”, but this characterization is a misrepresentation.

This special committee is not subject to parliamentary rules or procedures. In fact, the special committee isn’t even subject to all the rules of a regular House of Commons standing committee. The Special Committee on the COVID 19 pandemic is merely a forum for Members to ask questions of cabinet ministers followed by a special form of presentation that allows Members to express their opinion on a topic.

There is no debate, or deliberation. The special committee does not pass legislation, there are no votes, no decisions made, and no action taken as a result. A meeting of a Special Committee on the COVID 19 pandemic is not a sitting of the House of Commons. It is not Parliament.

And now the government is on a terrifying path to move the work of Parliament “online”. They deem the virtual format of the “special committee” a success. The government, therefore, argues that moving to a virtual Parliament is next logical step. But a special committee and Parliament are not the same. The logic is flawed.

The House of Commons is the foremost deliberative body in the country. It is comprised of 338 elected Members of Parliament representing all regions and voices in Canada.

At its core it is the forum for Members of Parliament, government and opposition alike, to argue points for and against, and ultimately create and pass more robust legislation. This can only be achieved when MPs are physically, together in each other’s presence.

A debate is more than just one person speaking and another responding. Non verbal cues from not only the presenter but the other decision makers in the chamber play an important role. 93% of communication is nonverbal and is completely lost in a virtual setting. But the value of this information must not be discounted.

There are also technology and security concerns with online platforms, which cannot be overcome. Simply put, not all areas in Canada have the internet access, bandwidth and consistency to meet the requirements of a virtual Parliament. Garbled and interrupted feeds, or no connectivity at all puts Members of Parliament at a disadvantage, and with them the people they represent and democracy as a whole.

Over and above the technological limitations are the security threats that a virtual setting enables. Tools such as “Zoom” are neither owned by Canada nor secure to the level required to guard Canada’s national interest. It is impossible to protect confidentiality and confirm that the platform hasn’t been hacked, surveilled, recorded or interfered with or that foreign agents have not gained access to the information. For critical actions like voting on federal legislation this is a risk too great.

Democracy is fragile and it can not exist without Parliament. The cost of experimenting with a virtual parliament would not be known until irreparable damage has been done. Democracy, freedom of speech, and the rule of law were hard fought and once lost would be difficult to regain. Virtual parliament is the first step on a path that Canadians should be unwilling to walk. Parliament must resume, in the form that has served Canadians well for over 150 years, anything less is a threat to our democracy.

Originally published in the Auroran Newspaper