A parliamentary pile on over national vaccine rollout kicks off new Commons sitting

OTTAWA — The seats were nearly empty Monday as the House of Commons returned in hybrid form, but the opposition was full of fighting spirit over the Liberal government's handling of the COVID-19 vaccine rollout.

A new sitting convened after an extended winter break for MPs, though many remained in their ridings Monday after reaching an agreement to resume sitting in a format that allows them to either log in virtually or attend in person.

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While a smattering of Conservatives, New Democrats and Bloc Québécois MPs took up their seats, Liberal cabinet ministers — including the prime minister — appeared from their homes or offices to fend off criticisms from their rivals about their COVID-19 response.

The fury emanating from the Opposition was such that Speaker Anthony Rota was forced to remind them several times to watch their language, even as he also had to remind MPs to unmute their devices. The sitting began as the country continues to reel from the COVID-19 pandemic: over 19,000 people are dead, there are new outbreaks of a highly contagious variant ripping through long-term care homes, curfews, stay-at-home orders and a vaccine rollout that started with promise now being compromised by manufacturing delays.

The Liberals insist their goal of getting a shot in the arm of every Canadian who wants one by September remains feasible even as Canada was set to receive no doses of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine this week, and sharply curtailed deliveries next week.

Conservative health critic Michelle Rempel Garner challenged the math, noting the time in between the required two doses of vaccine means September seems impossible.

"This means that Canada, on average, needs to be administering roughly two million doses per week to meet this goal. This week's total is zero," she said.

"How the hell did this happen, and what are the Liberals doing to fix it?" Though she was rapped on the knuckles by Rota for her language, Rempel Garner continued her pressure unabated, a theme picked up by MPs from all opposition parties as they castigated the government for appearing to fail Canadians.

Procurement Minister Anita Anand insisted again and again that was not the case.

The delays — due to Pfizer needing to retool a factory in Belgium — won't compromise the ultimate goal, she said.

Claims from Ontario that it has run out of vaccines are untrue, she said, as there are thousands of doses yet to be used.

Anand invoked the fact her own 90-year-old father is waiting for his vaccine as proof she understands the pressure to get the rollout right.

"We are on track to have vaccines for all Canadians before the end of September because we will stop at nothing to ensure that all Canadians have access to a vaccine this year," she said.

The political scandal that broke last week — the resignation of Julie Payette as governor general ahead of a damning report into working conditions at Rideau Hall — barely made the cut in question period.

Ahead of time, opposition leaders had demanded the prime minister provide more transparency around the terms of her departure.

Both Conservative and NDP leaders said given the circumstances around her departure, Payette should not receive the customary lifetime salary afforded to outgoing governor generals, and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau ought to disclose whether he offered one.

NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh said the scandal created by Payette's departure was one of the Liberals' own making and also serves as a distraction from the goal at hand: managing through the pandemic.

But even as he pushed on the vaccine rollout, Singh also sought — and won — a symbolic victory on another subject: all-party consent on a motion condemning white supremacy and asking for the group Proud Boys to be listed as a terrorist entity.

The group has ties to Canada and was involved in the deadly riots in the U.S. earlier this month.

Conservative Leader Erin O'Toole was also successful in his efforts to get emergency debates on vaccines, and also on the implications of a decision by the new U.S. president to cancel the Keystone XL pipeline, which will kill thousands of jobs in Tory-held ridings in the prairies.

Such a show of unity was not in place for efforts by the Liberals to fast-track their first piece of legislation for the sitting, a bill that would close a loophole allowing anyone forced into quarantine for COVID-19 to access government benefits.

The bill, which was in response to people returning from vacations abroad accessing the benefit, will now move through the legislative process.

The key piece of legislation up ahead for the government, however, is the next federal budget, which Finance Minister Chrystia Freeland said Monday is one of the most significant of a generation.

It could also send Canadians to the polls, as any vote on its contents will be a confidence motion.

The NDP and Conservatives suggested the Liberals are too focused on pre-positioning for an election than on pandemic response, a charge Trudeau denied Monday.

"Our focus is on delivering for Canadians and supporting Canadians through the tragedies and the incredible heroics we're seeing on display right across the country from our front-line workers," he said.

"There are far too many tragedies but we know that Canadians are continuing to be there for each other and this government will continue to be there for them." This report by The Canadian Press was first published Jan. 25, 2021.

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