Conservatives say they disagree with a committee of MPs deciding that only fully vaccinated MPs, staff and visitors can enter the House of Commons.
Their objection represents the first challenge to Tuesday’s ruling by the all-party board of internal economy – the governing body of the Commons – that only people who are double vaccinated will be allowed to enter the precinct.
The Liberals, NDP and Bloc Quebecois agree that members of Parliament should be fully vaccinated to take their seat, making it a rule for their candidates who ran in the recent federal election.
Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole did not, saying that while he encourages vaccinations, he respects people’s individual health choices.
In a statement, Conservative whip Blake Richards said the Tories believe that a negative result from a rapid COVID-19 test can assure that a workplace is safe.
Richards is one of two Tory MPs who sit on the nine-member board of internal economy. He said he couldn’t discuss what happened behind closed doors, but his statement suggested both Conservative MPs opposed the measure.
“While we encourage everyone who can be vaccinated to get vaccinated, we cannot agree to seven MPs, meeting in secret, deciding which of the 338 MPs, just elected by Canadians, can enter the House of Commons to represent their constituents,” he said Wednesday.
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O’Toole, who is vaccinated, has yet to say how many of his 118 elected members are fully immunized against COVID-19.
An analysis by The Canadian Press shows at least 79 Tory MPs are vaccinated, with two MPs saying they cannot due to medical reasons and a third who reported being partially vaccinated with the intention to book a second shot.
Re-elected Conservative MP Rachael Harder from Alberta posted a photo of Canada’s Parliament building on Instagram on Wednesday with text saying “freedom is ?. the ability to hold one’s own beliefs without damnation.”
The cross-party board of internal economy has the authority to make decisions about the administration of the House of Commons, even when Parliament is not sitting, under the Parliament of Canada Act.
Heather Bradley, director of communications for the Commons Speaker, said the board has “full authority” and “a mandate” to make such decisions.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau continued Wednesday consulting with opposition leaders about how the House of Commons should resume work and what the priorities should be once it is back in operation.
He scheduled phone conversations with O’Toole, NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh and the parliamentary leader of the Greens, Elizabeth May.
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In a readout provided by the Conservatives, O’Toole said he asked Trudeau during their call to “stop using vaccines as a political wedge tool and to prioritize addressing the issue of vaccine hesitancy in Canada.”
He said he told Trudeau the Conservatives would put forward ideas to reduce and address vaccine hesitancy in the coming weeks.
He asked the prime minister to recall Parliament immediately, and to end the Canada recovery benefit, set up to help people during COVID, on Nov. 20, according to the readout, which added Trudeau “did not answer.”
In its own statement about the call, Trudeau’s office said the prime minister stressed the need for all MPs to be fully vaccinated in the House of Commons.
Trudeau said he would work with parliamentarians across parties to ensure that Canadians and businesses received the support they need, in an apparent reference to emergency COVID-19 benefits.
His office also released a brief readout of his conversation with May, saying Trudeau stressed his priorities include tackling climate change, reducing emissions and protecting Canada’s Arctic.
Next week the parties will begin formal talks on the shape of the new Parliament, and whether MPs will attend in person, or continue with a hybrid format, with some participating virtually.
The Conservatives are opposed to a hybrid Parliament, and believe all 338 MPs should attend in person as usual. They have voiced concerns about too few ministers being present in the House to take questions.
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But both the Liberals and NDP favour a hybrid Parliament.
Peter Julian, NDP House leader, said the Conservative concern about ministers not being present in sufficient numbers in the last Parliament was “valid.” But he said this could be resolved in talks, with reassurances from the government that ministers would be present to be questioned.
He warned that having all 338 MPs “crowded into a small room” risked turning MPs into “vectors” spreading COVID-19 around the country.
“Having 338 MPs in the House of Commons with the fourth wave, with cases rising in some parts of the country you can imagine somebody from one of the areas where cases are increasing coming to Ottawa and transmitting COVID and then other MPs catching it and taking it back to their end of the country where there is a lower transmission rate,” he said.
“This has been our concern all along and this is why we rose on March 13, 2020, because we realized that MPs, given our travel, can be real vectors to spread the virus.”
Fully vaccinated people can still contract COVID-19 and potentially spread the virus to others, although at much lower rates than unvaccinated people.
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NDP deputy House leader Lindsay Mathyssen said a virtual Parliament would also make the House more “equitable,” allowing parents with young children who might be sick to fully participate in proceedings.
But Tory whip Richards said in a statement: “Canadians deserve a government that is accountable to its constituents and that’s why under no circumstances will Conservatives support virtual Parliament.”
O’Toole may yet be forced to accept hybrid sittings _ allowing MPs to participate virtually from their homes or offices _ as the only way to enable his unvaccinated MPs to take part in parliamentary proceedings.
On Tuesday, Trudeau exchanged ideas on the resumption of Parliament with Bloc Quebecois Leader Yves-Francois Blanchet. The Bloc wants to resume normal in-person sittings.
Singh has been pressing Justin Trudeau to extend COVID-19 benefits to help people and businesses during a fourth wave.
The NDP leader said in a statement before his talk with Trudeau: “In the next three weeks, the prime minister has opportunities to show Canadians that he means what he says and prove that he’s actually going to deliver help for people.”
The board of internal economy’s decision to require vaccination applies to all MPs, their staff, political research office staff, administration employees, journalists, business visitors, contracts and consultants.
Anyone with a medically valid reason for not getting vaccinated will have the option to show proof of a recent negative COVID-19 rapid antigen test result.
— With files from Joan Bryden