OTTAWA — The federal Liberals are pushing for Parliament to meet virtually, but some Manitoba MPs would be left buffering, because the keystone province ranks among the worst for internet connectivity.
"In the House of Commons, we all sit there with the same privileges and rights," said Tory MP James Bezan.
"A virtual sitting may take away that equality, because of the inequity of wifi, broadband, 4G and whether you have fibre optic or cable."
Manitoba has some of the slowest internet speeds in Canada, according to the the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunication Commission. A CRTC map of broadband coverage shows gaps around Pinawa, Boissevain, the Interlake and across the north.
An internal briefing note Industry Canada prepared for its deputy minister noted that as of August 2018, "northern Manitoba has the worst connectivity in all of Canada."
He’s among MPs who say they can’t get a solid connection for a video call, as public-health officials urge everyone to stay home.
Parliament is set to resume regular sittings Monday, after two sets of emergency assemblies where a small group of MPs and Senators passed large spending legislation.
Most expect the same small-scale Parliament to take place Monday, dominated by Ontario and Quebec MPs.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau cited Friday that lack of regional representation in pushing for meeting and voting online.
"The point of virtual sittings would be to ensure that Canadians who are not within driving distance of Ottawa continue to have their views represented and their concerns heard," Trudeau told the Free Press at his daily news conference.
"We need to make sure that our democracy continues to function and this is something that we are very serious about."
The Conservative caucus have been meeting through Zoom calls, and Bezan said Manitoba and Saskatchewan MPs in particular have struggled with garbled audio and freezing video.
Even in urban Canada, network providers have been grappling to maintain high-speed service, as people try working at home through video calls, and those laid off tune into Netflix and streaming video games.
Vancouver’s city council had a bumpy start to online meetings Tuesday. Councillors struggled to hear each other, with the feed at one point broadcasting the sound of a flushing toilet. The mayor eventually drove down to City Hall.
In their homes, Tory MPs such as Candice Bergen, Ted Falk and Larry Maguire said they can get a decent connection in Winkler, Steinbach and Brandon, with somewhat reliable video calls.
But they all felt Question Period helps hold governments to account. Falk often requests data and reports that the government by law only tables when Parliament actually sits.
“We’re not just talking about a couple of weeks here, we’re looking at months with COVID-19.”
— NDP MP Niki Ashton
NDP MP Niki Ashton strongly supports a virtual Parliament. She has been live-streaming to constituents from her home in Thompson, which has fibre-optic internet.
She said the Liberals should look at getting the government to expedite the construction of high-speed internet infrastructure.
Ashton said MPs in remote areas have crucial issues to raise, and can’t simply rely on colleagues from central Canada.
"We’re not just talking about a couple of weeks here, we’re looking at months with COVID-19," said Ashton. "Its not about partisanship; it’s about accountability."
Bezan suggested, instead, parties could rotate some regional MPs who can isolate and don’t have vulnerable family members.
The Samara Centre for Democracy, a non-partisan think tank, will release a report next week on how Westminster legislatures have met during COVID-19.
The latest updates on the novel coronavirus and COVID-19.
In Ottawa, "there’s been consideration given to balancing out representation between the parties, but not between the regions," said research director Michael Morden.
Britain is moving towards a virtual Parliament, but the country has far better internet speeds than Canada, Morden noted. He suggested some temporary mechanism such as using costly satellite connections.
Between provinces, infection rates and economic issues differ, which he feels shows why Parliament needs regional voices to help craft massive spending packages.
"I’m not really sure why this is a moment where we feel we can dispense with the niceties of regional representation," he said. "The skeleton crew isn’t really providing that."
A committee of MPs is studying the idea of meeting virtually. Already, some parliamentary committees have met through choppy phone and video meetings, with multiple issues involving simultaneous translation.
Manitoba lags when it comes to internet connectivity
OTTAWA — The federal Liberals pledged in last fall’s election to implement high-speed internet for 95 per cent of homes and businesses by 2026, and all across Canada by 2030.
That would require massive development in Manitoba, which has some of the country’s worst internet connectivity.
Among Indigenous communities, “Manitoba (has) the largest connectivity gap in the Prairies,” according to an internal briefing note from Industry Canada, which the Free Press obtained through access-to-information laws.
According to data compiled by internet analytics firm Tutela, Manitoba came in eighth place this fiscal year among the 10 provinces for wifi connections doing complex tasks like a video call.
The firm has said one issue with both cellphone and landline connections in Manitoba is latency, with most internet traffic having to reach servers on either coast of the country.
Even just outside the Perimeter Highway, the Winnipeg Metropolitan Region has flagged connectivity as the biggest gap to the rural economy.
The head of advocacy group OpenMedia says she hopes choppy Zoom calls encourage policymakers to speed up efforts to beef up rural broadband when the pandemic is over.
“There are real concerns about MPs’ ability to show up on equal footing,” said Laura Tribe. “(But) these are issues their constituents are facing everyday.”
Tribe suggested Ottawa lift companies’ caps on cell-phone data usage in the short term.