Nunavut Sen. Dennis Patterson is calling on the Senate Speaker to resume sittings of the Red Chamber, citing an inability to adequately represent the territory in the current parliamentary structure.
On Friday, Speaker George Furey extended the Senate’s adjournment to June 16, saying “public interest does not require the Senate to meet.”
But Patterson, Nunavut’s only senator, says sittings are necessary for his territory to be represented on COVID-19 relief matters, which are currently being done through the Senate’s national finance committee and social affairs committee — neither of which Patterson is a member of.
He’s calling for in-person sittings with a proportionately limited number of senators of a maximum of 40 in order to maintain physical distancing, a number floated by Conservative Senate Leader Don Plett, who has also been calling for a return to semi-normal operations.
The Senate has had a series of one-day sittings, which Patterson says were to “rubber stamp” items. But the 71-year-old Conservative senator says with Nunavut’s mandatory 14-day isolation for residents to return to the territory, jetting down to Ottawa for a one-day sitting isn’t feasible.
The Senate also hadn’t held any virtual committee-of-the-whole meetings like the House of Commons has, where senators can ask questions of the government.
“There are many ways in which the federal response needs to be modified if they’re going to properly address the needs in the North,” Patterson told CBC News.
“A parliamentarian needs the tools to advocate, to ask questions — written and oral — to make statements, to debate. And it’s being shut down. And so I’m upset.”
There is still not the same level of oversight and accountability that should go hand in hand with the type of rapid-fire expenses we see.– Dennis Patterson, Nunavut senator
In a statement sent out Tuesday, Patterson says he has turned to colleagues to ask questions and speak up on his behalf.
Otherwise, he has relied on email correspondences with federal ministers to get his concerns across.
“While some ministers and their offices have been better to work with than others, there is still not the same level of oversight and accountability that should go hand in hand with the type of rapid-fire expenses we see,” Patterson wrote in the statement.
Northern businesses ineligible for some COVID-19 funding
Patterson pointed to a number of sectors which haven’t been able to tap into Ottawa’s COVID-19 relief funding. Among them, he noted the mining, construction and hotel industries in particular.
Back in April, the NWT & Nunavut Chamber of Mines wrote to Northern Affairs Minister Dan Vandal, saying mining companies in the North didn’t qualify for the Canada Emergency Wage Subsidy because they didn’t meet the requirement of a 30 per cent drop in revenue.
“Due to the seasonality of operating in the North, some have uneven revenue generation, and some were ramping up to bring their mines into full operations last year,” the organization wrote, asking for an exemption to the 30 per cent condition.
“In both situations, a comparison of revenue to the same period last year is not reasonable or reflective of their revenue losses in 2020.”
Patterson says this is one example where he can’t advocate for his constituents.
“These programs were hastily designed. They were drafted in Ottawa. They were drafted without consultation with the North, including Indigenous peoples. So we have been left out in many ways, unsurprisingly,” he said.
Nunavut MP also struggling to connect
Back home in Baker Lake, Nunavut, MP Mumilaaq Qaqqaq was able to connect to and participate in the House of Commons’ Standing Committee on Indigenous and Northern Affairs on Friday.
But Monday and Tuesday saw her ability to participate in virtual meetings stymied by Nunavut’s notorious connectivity issues.
“I could never 100 per cent confidently say, ‘Yes, I would be able to do virtual Parliament, or virtual committee,'” Qaqqaq said, adding she raised her connectivity issues to the House of Commons procedure and house affairs committee.
“We’re asking Canada to work from home, to use education tools for children that aren’t at school. And the reality is with connectivity here, it’s not a realistic ask.”
Qaqqaq is planning to return to Ottawa the week of June 8.
Asked if the Senate should resume sitting to give Nunavut two active layers of representation in parliamentary affairs, Qaqqaq said it’s important for Nunavut’s leaders to collaborate.
“I’ve definitely been in touch with Senator Patterson. It’s about how are we going to work together and how are we going to support one another,” Qaqqaq said.
“That is happening, and the more that we can have things happen for Nunavut the better. How it happens is something that unfortunately may be out of our control sometimes.”