In this edition: one-on-one with Anthony Rota, responding to Omicron, back-to-school uncertainty, work-to-rule begins in Ontario colleges
Happy Monday. Welcome to POLICORNER — your insider’s guide to Canadian politics, policy and power. Oh-muh-kraan, ah-muh-kraan, o-mike-ron? We’re trying to settle the debate — how do you pronounce Omicron? Drop us a line.
In this 10 minute read, a one-on-one interview with Speaker Anthony Rota. He reflects on adapting to the pandemic and maintaining civility in the House of Commons. The latest on Omicron — the modelling, public health measures, RATs free-for-all and back-to-school uncertainty. Plus, college faculty begin work-to-rule.
When his time in politics comes to an end, Speaker Anthony Rota hopes to be remembered for his ability to bring people together. The longtime MP for Nipissing—Timiskaming was awarded a second term as Speaker of the House of Commons late November, widely praised for his handling of Parliament throughout the pandemic and “defending parliamentary democracy.”
Days after commemorating the second anniversary of his first election, Rota sat down with newsBeyond to reflect on his experiences in the chair, adapting to the COVID-19 pandemic and maintaining civility in the House of Commons.
The 60-year-old — who oversaw Canada's first-ever virtual parliament — is the first Speaker of Italian descent. He speaks four languages fluently, including French, which he studied in school as a French immersion student.
Rota studied political science at Wilfrid Laurier University and earned a master's degree in business administration at the University of Ottawa. After graduating, he was diagnosed with cancer. “I’ve got a rather interesting life,” he said.
Entering politics and a run for Speaker
Rota entered politics serving as a councillor in North Bay. He chaired the city’s economic development committee. He then made the leap to federal politics, running under the Liberal banner in Nipissing—Timiskaming. Rota was sent to Parliament Hill, where he served as the riding’s representative until 2011. He held various roles, including the party’s caucus chair and the critic for the Economic Development Initiative in Northern Ontario.
Then came 2011. Rota’s tenure was “rudely interrupted” after Conservative Jay Aspin defeated him in a nail-bitting race by 18 votes. Following a teaching stint at Nipissing University, Rota ran to reclaim his seat in the House.
He became one of thirteen previously-defeated Liberals who returned to Ottawa following the Liberal Party’s surge to power in 2015.
That is when the idea of running for Speaker first came to Rota.
“It was a position that interested me a lot. I thought I could help Parliament shepherd its way through,” he said. Rota was appointed as the Assistant Deputy Speaker. “I really enjoyed it,” he added.
Rota decided to let his name stand in the race for Speaker when the Liberals were sent back to Ottawa with a minority. He won on the first ballot, defeating then-incumbent and caucus-mate Geoff Regan. “It’s something I was honoured to have happened to me. The nice thing is that you're elected by your peers, which really means a lot to me. I think it should mean a lot to any Speaker,” he told newsBeyond.
Rota acknowledged that he was concerned about how his constituents will react to his run. “I was very concerned,” he said. “Suddenly, they're having to share you with Parliament. But, when you look at it, the parallel to the Speaker of the House is a minister in the government.” To Rota’s surprise, he recieved support from constituents. “The surprise is how proud constituents are to have their MP be the Speaker of the House of Commons,” he said.
A day in the life of the Speaker of the House? “There's no such thing,” Rota laughed as he came to the conclusion. Aside from the Speaker's Parade and Question Period, “you really never know what’s going to be thrown at you.”
“Things took a little bit of a twist”
Three months into the new job, “things took a little bit of a twist” for Rota. As cases of COVID-19 continued to rise nationwide, Rota had the responsibility of ensuring Parliament functioned amidst the pandemic. For him, the biggest challenge was making sure that no one on the Hill was exposed to any danger.
“It was new. When we weren't quite sure what the virus was, we had to be overabundantly careful. We started looking at different options.”
The House of Commons was suspended to make sure those who work on the Hill can stay home. “We weren't sure how long that isolation was going to take place. So once we saw it was going to last a little bit longer, we started looking at different options,” Rota recalled.
“We then went into Committee of the Whole, which allowed a semblance of a regular parliamentary session. Once we had that down, our next step was to make sure that we could have a hybrid system. Once we got the hybrid system going, it seemed to work fairly well. The voting took a little bit longer than it normally would. Then, we started using the voting application.
For Rota, the pandemic gave him an opportunity to interact with global and provincial counterparts, to learn from their mistakes and discover “what was working and what wasn't. There was a network of speakers that got to know each other quite well,” he explained.
Rota communicates regularly with his predecessors — including Peter Milliken, the longest-serving Speaker of the House in Canadian history.
On the House of Commons’ response to the Omicron variant, Rota says discussions are underway. “As for as any concrete action, I don’t have anything to share. That could completely change depending on what our experts tell us and what we see fit.” The Board of Internal Economy and the House will decide on how to react to this variant, he told newsBeyond.
Civility and decorum in the House of Commons
“Civility is something that comes down to definition,” Rota says. While acknowledging that some days are “rowdy,” Rota says decorum has not been too bad when compared to previous Parliament.
“I've found different techniques works. Standing up and waiting for everything to calm down, as opposed to shouting and trying to keep everybody down. One of the tactics that I've used is if it is noisy while somebody is answering a question, asking the person to repeat the answer. I find that if you come down too hard at the beginning, then you have a revolt on your hands. But overall, I think the members understand what the possibilities are and what the repercussions are. So, it's it's been working out fairly well.”
His message to Canadians who think the House of Commons is polarizing? Watch the House of Commons during Question Period. Then, watch proceedings during the rest of the day. “Question Period is just that one hour a day. There is a certain amount of showmanship that goes on in Question Period,” he said.
“During the day, it's mainly the workings of Parliament. You can see the dialogue going back and forth. Not to forget that a lot of the work that gets done is behind the scenes. There is much more that people don't see going on, unfortunately. That’s what keeps our democracy going.”
On the long term, Rota says the next four years will be very interesting. Rota will be watching how long this Parliament lasts, though he says there is a commitment from most members that they want to “see this work out for longer than most minorities.” “Let's see if they can make that come through,” he added.
As for his holiday plans, Rota will spend “nice, quiet time” with his wife Chantal and daughter Samantha.
New modelling and public health measures — what you need to know about the Omicron variant
Get your booster and stay home — that was the message from federal and provincial public health officials last week amid new measures and grim pandemic projections showing a potential surge in cases of the soon-to-be dominant variant in the country.
Here’s the latest on the response to the Omicron variant:
BREAKING: Quebec is shutting down several public settings amid a rise in cases of COVID-19. All schools, threatres and gyms will close effective 5 PM today and restaurants will operate until 10 PM. “The situation is critical,” Health Minister Christian Dubé told reporters. The province reported a record 4,571 new cases of COVID-19 today.
New restrictions, extended eligibility and a RATs free-for-all
Ontario’s COVID-19 Science Table unveiled new provincial projections on Thursday. Dr. Steini Brown had a warning — the surge in cases of the virus could translate into “unsustainable levels” in ICU occupany. The table called for immediate "circuit breaker" measures to stop the spread of the virus. The modelling shows that without new public health measures and an expansion of booster eligibility, Ontario could have up to ten thousand cases a day by January.
“This will likely be the hardest wave of the pandemic. There is still some uncertainty but there is an undeniable urgency.”
A spokesperson for Health Minister Christine Elliot cited the province’s decision to introduce capacity limits in indoor venues. “The modelling would not have factored this into their assumptions.” A member of the Science Table responsed.
The province introduced new measures to combat Omicron — gatherings are limited to 10 people indoors and 25 indoors, a 50% capacity limit has been placed on restaurants, gyms, malls, movie theatres and other venues and an 11 PM closing time for event spaces and eating places. The province has opened booster shot bookings for individuals 18+ effective today.
On the day the province began a holiday rapid test blitz in shopping malls and at selection LCBO locations, the LCBO ran out of testing kits. A spokesperson for the corporation tells newsBeyond that over 200,000 rapid test kits were distributed in select stores and its supply of COVID-19 rapid test kits has run out. The province says it has learned that “millions of tests expected to be received from the federal government have been delayed.” Ontario is “directly procuring additional rapid tests where possible,” according to the Ministry of Health.
Return to in-person learning in January is uncertain
Speaking to reporters, Premier Doug Ford had a message to parents — the province is “simply not in the position” to say if schools will reopen to in-person learning in January. However, local school boards across Ontario have asked students and staff to bring home all personal belongings needed in case a switch to online learning happens.
In a memo to parents, Toronto District School Board says it “received no indication that schools will close but wants to be prepared to implement any decision made.” Peel District School Board called it "a precautionary measure," while York Region District School Board said it is prepared “to move to virtual learning if that announcement is made.”
Several union sources told newsBeyond that while there have been rumors the province would announce a switch, the government has not conveyed that information to the education unions. “That may change in the next couple of days,” one source said.
Local health units also await guidance from the province. In a statement, Peel Public Health said that it is awaiting “additional guidance from the Ministry of Health” on the school year, but is working with local school boards “to focus on ending the school year in as safe a manner as possible.” A spokesperson for Niagara Public Health said Dr. Mustafa Hijri has “not been party to any discussions around a 2 week virtual learning period, so he cannot give any insight into whether that is something that might happen.”
Travel restrictions and federal modelling
Goodbye to old travel measures, hello to new travel measures — Ottawa lifted the widely-criticized travel ban on the ten African countries. Speaking to reporters, Health Minister Jean-Yves Duclos said the measure has “served its purpose and is no longer necessary.”
Canada will now require a negative pre-arrival PCR test to enter Canada. The previously-implemented testing exemption for trips less than 72 hours has been lifted. More measures could be coming — the Star’s Tonda MacCharles reports that the federal government is still considering a ban on non-essential travellers.
The latest Omicron-themed modelling shows that Omicron could further accelerate the already-forecasted resurgence in cases over the coming weeks. The Public Health Agency of Canada says COVID-19 activity is surging across the country — primarily thanks to epidemic growth in Ontario and Quebec — and “severity could begin to rise.”
College faculty in Ontario have entered the first phase of a work-to-rule campaign, after the faculty bargaining team recieved a mandate to initate job action. As newsBeyond first reported, faculty voted 59.4% in favour of job action. In a memo, the bargaining team says the partial withdrawal is intended to “specifically target administrators.” “Other types of job action are all options under consideration for future, escalating phases of our job action," read an FAQ document. In a statement to newsBeyond, Green Party leader Mike Schreiner said he supports calls for more stability for contract employees and empathizes with “students caught in the middle.” NDP MPP Laura Mae Lindo urged the College Employer Council “to return to the table and negotiate a fair contract.” Background here.
The federal government delievered an apology to victims of military sexual misconduct. Minister of National Defence Anita Anand, Chief of the Defence Staff Gen. Wayne Eyre and Deputy Minister Jody Thomas provided a 40-minute apology from the National Defence Headquarters. “I apologize to the thousands of Canadians who were harmed because your government did not protect you, nor did we ensure that the right systems were in place to ensure justice and accountability,” Anand said.
Universities in Ontario are shifting to remote learning for the start of the second semester amid a rise in cases of COVID-19. University of Toronto will not proceed with in-person exams and has delayed the return to in-person learning until the end of January, as newsBeyond scooped this week. Other universities — including Queen’s University and the University of Ottawa — have all taken similar decisions.
Mayor of Brampton Patrick Brown penned a letter to mayors across Canada urging them to denounce Quebec's controversial secularism bill and contribute to a legal action against it. “We can’t allow the defence of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, the defence of religious freedom, to lie on the backs of racialized communities,” Brown said.
The fall sitting at Queen’s Park has ended and MPPs have returned to their constituencies for a ten-week Christmas break after eight weeks of sitting and the start of a new legislative session. The Legislature passed 42 bills in the past year — one which Government House Leader Paul Calandra says was “successful and productive.” Ontario Liberal leader Steven Del Duca is calling on the Ford government to recall the House so “we can have an all hands on deck response to Omicron.”
The mandate letters have arrived. The letters were released on the PMO’s website on Thursday, outlining each minister’s to-do list and objectives. The highlights: work with the provinces to improve healthcare, ensure continued pandemic supports are in place, outline how Canada will achieve its 2030 climate goals, enforce vaccine mandates on federally-regulated transport and improve the federal leaders' debates.
WHAT WE’RE READING
TORONTO STAR: “Stop criticizing Quebec’s ban on religious symbols, Erin O’Toole warns Conservative MPs in tense meeting” by Stephanie Levitz
“How Ontario hospitals are planning for the Omicron wave — and what they’re worried about” by Megan Ogilvie and Kenyon Wallace
GLOBAL NEWS: “Conservatives believe 13 ridings were targeted by foreign interference in 2021 election” by Alex Boutilier
THE NARWHAL: “‘I felt kidnapped’: a journalist’s view of being arrested by the RCMP” by Amber Bracken
NEW YORK TIMES: “Manchin Pulls Support From Biden’s Social Policy Bill, Imperiling Its Passage” by Catie Edmondson and Emily Cochrane
In our last edition, we asked for the name of the provincial Minister of Colleges and Universities during the previous college faculty strike. That would be Deb Matthews, who served as a cabinet minister under both Dalton McGuinty and Kathleen Wynne. She did not seek re-election in the last provincial vote.
THIS WEEK’S QUESTION: Which MP has taken up the tradition of reciting a Christmas poem in the House of Commons at the end of each year? Send us your answers or reply to this email.
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