July 15, 2020

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Manitoba's fickle internet frustrates MPs

Selkirk-Interlake-Eastman MP James Bezan says internet connectivity issues could affect equality during virtual sittings of parliament. (Sean Kilpatrick / The Canadian Press files)

Selkirk-Interlake-Eastman MP James Bezan says internet connectivity issues could affect equality during virtual sittings of parliament. (Sean Kilpatrick / The Canadian Press files)

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.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau says virtual sittings would allow for broader regional representation. (Sean Kilpatrick / The Canadian Press)

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau says virtual sittings would allow for broader regional representation. (Sean Kilpatrick / The Canadian Press)

"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."

Churchill—Keewatinook Aski MP Niki Ashton has been live-streaming from her home in Thompson, but says MPs in more remote areas might not have the same reliable internet service. (Sean Kilpatrick / The Canadian Press files)

Churchill—Keewatinook Aski MP Niki Ashton has been live-streaming from her home in Thompson, but says MPs in more remote areas might not have the same reliable internet service. (Sean Kilpatrick / The Canadian Press files)

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.

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.

dylan.robertson@freepress.mb.ca

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