Scenes from a capital in crisis


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OTTAWA — March is normally a noisy time on Parliament Hill, when the government tables its budget and departments scramble to spend untapped allocations before the fiscal year wraps up.

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 04/04/2020 (1081 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

OTTAWA — March is normally a noisy time on Parliament Hill, when the government tables its budget and departments scramble to spend untapped allocations before the fiscal year wraps up.

Annual reports and audits come out, giving opposition parties ample material for heckling in the Commons, while committees scrutinize legislation the government has prioritized for rolling out by the summer.

The governing Liberals seemed ready to get down to business after coping with rail blockades and a tragic plane crash in Iran. Legislation was in the works on assisted death, clean-fuel standards and border-guard oversight.

Yet the past three weeks have been eerily quiet, even as things move at an astounding speed.

Ottawa has curtailed some freedoms, restricted border crossings and spent at an unprecedented pace, all in an attempt to save Canada from economic and social collapse.

Partisan sniping has almost evaporated, replaced by a daily ritual of hours-long press conferences.

Public servants are rolling out some of the most expensive programs in our history, knocking the economy into a coma and putting businesses on life support.

Meanwhile, the checks and balances designed to keep Ottawa accountable are straining to do so, as policy-makers figure out the details of their decisions and politicians try meeting through video-conferencing.

Here are just some of the unusual moments from the past three weeks in the national capital.

Thursday, March 12

After a slow creep, the coronavirus suddenly interrupted the rhythm of Parliament Hill.

Canada had just over 100 cases of COVID-19 and public-health officials floated the idea of implementing social-distancing measures.

Ottawa had already chartered planes to airlift Canadians stuck in China and aboard a cruise ship in Japan. A week prior, the Bank of Canada dropped interest rates.

Just a day before, the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a pandemic, and Ottawa issued a $1-billion fund to help stem its spread.

Yet the threat seemed to largely surround China and Italy, until it hit home in Ottawa.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s wife, Sophie Grégoire Trudeau, had just returned from a conference in Britain with flu-like symptoms.

“Following the advice of our doctor she is self-isolating as we wait on COVID-19 test results,” the prime minister tweeted.

“Out of an abundance of caution, I too will be self-isolating,” he wrote on Twitter, cancelling the next day’s meeting with the premiers.

At 9:47 p.m., a time usually reserved for notifying Canadians about breakthroughs in NAFTA negotiations or mass tragedies abroad, press-gallery reporters received an email from the Prime Minister’s Office.

“Following medical recommendations, Sophie Grégoire Trudeau was tested for COVID-19 today. The test came back positive,” reads the email, announcing Trudeau himself would rely on videoconferencing to speak with his cabinet and world leaders.

Friday, March 13

Members of the various parties gathered in the Commons foyer to declare Parliament is suspended until late April.

A temporary bill allowed the government to keep spending as needed, as long as an independent audit is later conducted.

“We will get through this together,” House leader Pablo Rodriguez said, flanked by MPs from the four opposition parties.

Over the lunch hour, Trudeau gave the first of what would become a near-daily ritual — a press conference outside his home at Rideau Cottage. He urged Canadians to follow his example and stay at home.

“Of course it’s an inconvenience and somewhat frustrating,” he said.

“But we have to do this because we have to protect our neighbours.”

Monday, March 16

In the crammed National Press Theatre, cabinet ministers tried to keep their distance from each other. A few raised their hands to their face but put them down before making contact, following the advice of public health officials.

An hour-long press conference kicked off another daily tradition, this time with reporters asking why passengers arriving in Canada weren’t being told the official advice to stay home for two weeks.

Over the weekend, Quebec and Nova Scotia took it upon themselves to deploy officials to major airports, to inform travellers of the federal directive.

The ministers didn’t give a clear explanation, but said federal policy is rolling out as quickly as possible.

A decision that evening to turn away foreigners at the Canadian border, except Americans, was expanded two days later to block U.S. nationals from non-essential travel to Canada.

Tuesday, March 17

From his driveway, Trudeau disclosed he’s considering invoking the legislation that succeeded the War Measures Act, if provinces don’t adequately contain COVID-19.

Moments later, the daily ministers’ press conference kicked off, this time inside the large West Block room normally limited to party caucus meetings.

Before the ministers arrived, reporters tried to co-ordinate which questions to ask in the limited time frame.

Health Minister Patty Hajdu asked Canadians to limit their outings, and lost her composure when thinking of Canadians pushed into sudden lockdown.

“Make sure that you’re kind to one another,” Hajdu said, her voice cracking.

“There are lonely people, there are frightened people, and it doesn’t take a lot to reach out to them and say that you’re there, even in spirit.”

She was reflective the next day, recalling the short conversation she led with cabinet ministers during their Winnipeg retreat in January.

At that point, Canada was at low risk, and federal officials’ main talking point was about racism towards people of Asian descent.

“It’s like an earthquake went off in Wuhan,” Hajdu said. “At that time, we didn’t really know what we were dealing with.”

Wednesday, March 18

Trudeau announced an $82-billion support package.

“Our government is here for you, and your fellow Canadians are here for you, too,” the prime minister said.

Thursday, March 19

In normal times, Ottawa’s small downtown core bustles for a short period before and after work. The city is a punchline for its empty streets on weeknights and evenings.

But a week into public servants being asked to work at home, the streets were bare at rush hour, save for some construction workers and people who appear to be homeless.

Already a daily fixture on national television, Dr. Theresa Tam, Canada’s chief public health officer, searched for new ways to urge the public to stay home.

“We don’t just need to flatten the curve, we need to plank it,” she said. “The price of not doing so is too high.”

Normally, Ottawa office towers are pitch-black by sundown. But the lights in some buildings remained on as late as 9 p.m., particularly Finance Canada, as staff crafted a massive economic package.

Some of the tens of thousands of public servants working from home were having trouble activating the secure network connections needed to check their emails.

Managers urged them not to overload their work phones’ data plans, and tried to get employees to work before and after business hours, to not overload data servers.

For the first few days of the lockdown, phone calls would regularly drop, as many federal departments use the same carrier.

In a single week, a half-million Canadians applied for Employment Insurance, overloading the decades-old software.

Before the government ordered Service Canada offices to close, front-line staff and call-centre employees reported widespread abuse from stressed-out Canadians.

Friday, March 20

By this point, journalists and camera crews have established a ritual for congregating in Trudeau’s driveway.

After passing two security checkpoints on the grounds of Rideau Hall, the press walk along a winding road towards a large dumpster, where RCMP officers stand with sniffer dogs. They escort journalists to a large, spiked gate, which leads to the prime minister’s residence.

A camera facing a lecturn streams live to multiple channels.

A child-size basketball sometimes made an appearance in the camera’s view, as did a pile of discarded snow shovels. Outside the shot sat a basketball hoop, a mini hockey net and lots of security cameras.

A white tarpaulin tent covered the reporters and audio technicians, clustered around a small space heater while keeping a metre apart.

“This is like Groundhog Day,” one producer lamented, referring to the 1993 film about Bill Murray’s weatherman character caught in a time loop repeating the same day.

When Trudeau wasn’t at the podium, he tried to balance prime ministerial work leading the country while taking care of his three children without his spouse or any staff.

With some instruction from PMO staff, Trudeau’s 11-year-old daughter Ella-Grace took a photo of her father on a videoconference call with G7 leaders, which was released as part of official PMO communications.

Sunday, March 22

While stepping away from his kids to address Canadians, Trudeau thanked children for washing their hands and supporting their parents.

“All of a sudden, you’ve heard you can’t go on play dates or have sleepovers. Your playgrounds and schools have closed and your March break was certainly different than what you’d hoped for,” he said, urging them to not be afraid.

“I know this is a big change, but we have to do this, not just for ourselves, but for our grandparents, our nurses, our doctors and everyone working at our hospitals. And you kids are helping a lot.”

Monday, March 23

A small group of MPs and senators headed to Ottawa; many took their cars from Ontario and Quebec ridings, while a Transport Canada plane flew in Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer from Regina, as well as Tory House leader Candice Bergen and Sen. Don Plett from Winnipeg.

They would be gathering to pass the Liberals’ $27-billion financial-support bill, after negotiating the details with other parties for days over the phone.

Yet on the eve of Parliament reconvening, numerous media reported on a draft of the bill with sweeping powers.

Sandwiched between measures to protect gig workers and the big banks, a section dubbed “Part 2” called for allowing the federal cabinet to tax, spend and borrow an unlimited amount without any parliamentary approval — upending centuries of Westminster tradition — until the end of 2021.

The Conservatives said they objected to the bill as soon as they received it. Leaks to media started a day later, suggesting the Liberals weren’t backing down.

Absent any Hill watering holes, political staff and journalists speculated over phone calls and Facebook messages about what would happen. Some feared the brinkmanship would cause the minority government to accidentally collapse, sparking an election in the middle of a global pandemic.

Tuesday, March 24

In an uncharacteristically brief tweet the next morning, Trudeau announced: “The legislation will be tabled without Clause 2.”

He told reporters that morning something leaders generally don’t have to articulate: “I want to make it very clear: I believe in our democratic institutions.”

Fewer than 35 of Canada’s 338 MPs gathered in the Commons at noon, sitting at least two seats away from each other.

The deputy speaker announced that proceedings would take a minute-long pause every 45 minutes, so clerks and interpreters could swap duties with enough time to disinfect microphones and tables.

The parties expected an afternoon of debate, but suspended after just five minutes. The imbroglio caused an all-nighter, with 15 hours of marathon closed-door negotiations.

Wednesday, March 25

The Commons resumed at 3:14 a.m. The massive spending bill passed all phases of the House before sunrise.

“This is a very heavy load to bear,” Bergen told her colleagues, her voice echoing through the nearly empty chamber.

The Manitoba MP is among the most partisan on the Hill, but wasn’t on this day.

“I am glad we can be here together — not always agreeing, but agreeing on one thing, that we are putting the needs of our fellow Canadians first and foremost,” she said.

The Senate passed the massive bill in less than four hours, while Gov. Gen. Julie Payette eschewed the ceremonial passing of a bill into law, instead giving her royal nod while sitting at a table in a massive lobby at Rideau Hall.

At midnight, the Quarantine Act came into effect, authorizing police and other officials to do spot checks on Canadians who arrive from abroad. They could now fine or jail citizens who leave their homes within two weeks of arriving in Canada.

Thursday, March 26

In his morning address, Trudeau told the nation’s unemployed in French that they’d receive benefits in the coming 10 days, and then in English that they’d receive money within 14 days.

His staff clarified the turnaround time is indeed 10 days.

A day prior, the employment minister told CTV this benefit wouldn’t be taxed. But the department’s notice said it was. Ministers similarly had mixed messages on which day the Quarantine Act came into effect.

Confusion surrounded the details of many decisions, which minister’s staff stressed were still being worked out as they were announced.

To add to the confusion, U.S. President Donald Trump mulled putting troops along the Canadian border, an idea he later dropped.

Monday, March 30

At his daily doorstep briefing, Trudeau responded to a reporter asking why he’d implemented travel restrictions after weeks of rejecting them.

“There are going to be lots of analyses after the fact, around what happened when, what could have happened a few days earlier,” Trudeau said.

He argued the government was adjusting as quickly as it could, and heeding the advice of experts as that advice evolved.

“We’re obviously not, in an unprecedented situation, always going to get things perfectly right,” he said.

Later that day, Ontario Premier Doug Ford rebuffed a reporter’s question about whether Ottawa should drop its carbon tax, which Ford had spent months attacking.

He instead praised Trudeau’s handling of the crisis, and called Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland “an absolute champion.”

Tuesday, March 31

A historic first kicked off with technical issues.

The health committee met via a teleconference, in what the House of Commons speaker said was the first for Parliament.

The call started late and had choppy connections. At one point, the head bureaucrat at the Public Health Agency of Canada had to disconnect, after her speakerphone started echoing; she rejoined the call after 30 seconds of silence.

“I apologize; I have a phone that once it’s on hands-free I can’t get it off, unless I hang up.”

The language interpreters interrupted MPs multiple times, saying they couldn’t properly hear. There were many exasperated sighs.

“Honestly, this is ridiculous,” said Conservative MP Matt Jeneroux.

The scope of MPs questions — the effectiveness of cloth masks, the readiness for a military deployment and Manitoba First Nations seeking visas to bring in Cuban doctors — showed just how much has been upended over the past three weeks.

Committee chair Ron McKinnon ended the briefing by thanking everyone for making do with the technical challenges.

That evening, the Prime Minister’s Office put out a notice for another round of press conferences the next morning.

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