While it will lack the usual pomp and ceremony, a new session of the Manitoba legislature begins on Wednesday with the throne speech and a return to regular sitting days for the first time since March.

Behind the scenes, MLAs and legislative assembly staff have been working for months to develop a combined in-person and virtual structure that will accommodate the 57 elected members.

MLAs did a live walk-through Tuesday, with some members in the chamber and others appearing remotely. Afterwards, both government and opposition officials appeared satisfied with the result.

"I anticipate we're going to have a few glitches," Speaker Myrna Driedger said. "We watched what's happened in the House of Commons...We're all in a big learning curve."

Speaker Myrna Driedger runs through a semi-virtual throne speech rehearsal, with some MLAs in the chamber while others connected via video-conferencing at the Manitoba Legislative Building in Winnipeg on Tuesday.

MIKAELA MACKENZIE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

Speaker Myrna Driedger runs through a semi-virtual throne speech rehearsal, with some MLAs in the chamber while others connected via video-conferencing at the Manitoba Legislative Building in Winnipeg on Tuesday.

Lt.-Gov. Janice Filmon is scheduled to begin delivering the throne speech, which sets out the government's legislative agenda, shortly after 1:30 p.m.

Rather than reading the document to a packed room, with close to 100 guests jammed in seats behind MLAs on the floor of the chamber, as is the custom, the atmosphere will be less charged.

Eighteen government MLAs, nine NDP MLAs and one Liberal member will occupy half the normal number of seats, ensuring they are two metres apart. The only guests allowed to be seated among elected officials this year will be Richard Chartier, the chief justice of Manitoba, and the lieutenant-governor's spouse, former premier Gary Filmon.

Those MLAs who are unable to attend in person, due to social distancing rules, can watch the proceedings just like any other Manitoban. The speech will be streamed on the legislative assembly's website.

A throne speech like no other

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• Rather than a jammed legislative chamber with close to 100 guests seated behind the province's 57 MLAs, the large circular room will contain just half the legislators and only a couple of visitors.

• All MLAs will wear masks as they enter and exit the chamber and if they move around within the room. Once seated, they can remove their mask if they wish, as they will be two metres from the nearest person.

• Each desk will have hand sanitizer and disinfectant wipes.

• The throne speech, read by Lt.-Gov. Janice Filmon, and all other legislative proceedings this fall will be livestreamed on the Manitoba Legislative Assembly's website.

• Singing in the legislature will be forbidden. Normally, MLAs sing O Canada and God Save the Queen as the lieutenant-governor departs following the reading of the speech. This year, canned music will be played while MLAs stand and the Queen's representative makes her exit.

Later in the day, MLAs will debate a sessional order that sets new rules to accommodate the rest of the members via Zoom. If passed, all MLAs will be able to participate in the legislative session beginning Thursday.

"It is important that the legislature functions as normally as possible in abnormal times. I think it's good for the public to see that that work continues," government house leader Kelvin Goertzen said Tuesday.

MLAs only sat for a total of five days in April and May before the legislature recessed until this month. The old session was to resume this week, but the Pallister government opted last week to prorogue the house and begin a new session with a throne speech. Dozens of government bills introduced since last November died on the order paper.

During the last few sitting days in spring, few MLAs were present in the legislature due to social distancing requirements, and there were no provisions for others to participate online. That all changes with the new session.

"This will give us the flexibility to ensure the full democratic participation," said NDP Leader Wab Kinew.

"Some MLAs, I know, will participate from their offices here in the legislature, others will (connect) from their constituency offices, including our MLAs from northern Manitoba," he said.

It's expected some MLAs who begin the session participating remotely will be rotated into the chamber to participate in person as the sitting continues.

"Without the MLAs being in the legislature, either personally or virtually, the people they represent aren't there either," Goertzen said.

Government house header Kelvin Goertzen says the legislature should function as normally as possible. (Mikaela MacKenzie / Winnipeg Free Press files)

Government house header Kelvin Goertzen says the legislature should function as normally as possible. (Mikaela MacKenzie / Winnipeg Free Press files)

Driedger said a fourth row of desks was added to the chamber to better space out MLAs during sittings. The new design ensures two metres of separation between members.

She said MLAs will be required to wear masks as they enter and exit the legislative chamber and if they move about the room.

"Once they're at their desks, they do not have to (wear a mask) because they are socially distanced, but they can if they want to," she said.

MLAs will be required to "self-screen every day" for COVID-19 symptoms before entering the chamber, following guidelines set by the province.

Driedger said her office is examining other means of seating more MLAs in the legislature, such as through the installation of Plexiglas partitions.

Such efforts would take place in the future, depending on how long the virus lingers.

"Right now, I think everybody is pretty comfortable with the measures that are in place and the social distancing and the masking," the Speaker said.

larry.kusch@freepress.mb.ca

Larry Kusch

Larry Kusch
Legislature Reporter

Larry Kusch didn’t know what he wanted to do with his life until he attended a high school newspaper editor’s workshop in Regina in the summer of 1969 and listened to a university student speak glowingly about the journalism program at Carleton University in Ottawa.

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