Manitoba MLAs wrap up physically distant fall session with poetry, wish lists and partisan shots

A physically distant and part-virtual question period wrapped up the year at the Manitoba Legislature on Thursday, complete with a few nods to the peculiar nature of this session.

Speaker of the House Myrna Driedger made a point of thanking the legislative staff that kept democracy running in these unusual times.

“There were some technical glitches here and there,” she said, “but no more than the average Zoom meeting.”

Only a quarter of Manitoba’s 57 MLAs took to their usual seats in the legislature to ensure physical distancing. The rest of the legislators debated and voted for bills through teleconference — their faces laid out on big-screen television screens hauled into the chamber.

Speaker of the House Myrna Driedger reads a speech to thank the staff at the Manitoba Legislative Assembly for pulling off a physically distant and part-virtual fall session. (Manitoba Legislative Assembly)

Tory MLA Greg Nesbitt (Riding Mountain) put his own spin on the classic poem A Visit from St. Nicholas (more commonly known as The Night Before Christmas), to commemorate a legislative session and year marked by a pandemic. He’s made a yearly tradition of offering holiday greetings in rhyme. 

“Sweatpants now can work, when wearing your suit, but remember that when speaking, please first press un-mute,” he told his teleconferencing colleagues.

MLAs referenced the holiday season a few times as they traded barbs.

Opposition NDP Leader Wab Kinew laid out his Christmas wish list. He said Manitobans want Brian Pallister’s government to deliver reopened emergency rooms in Roblin and Grandview and a return to CancerCare services at Seven Oaks and Concordia hospitals, among other wishes.

Later, Health Minister Cameron Friesen had a list of his own. He pointed to issues he said the Opposition can no longer criticize the government on, like the number of COVID-19 screening sites or the number of employed contact tracers, saying his government has addressed those concerns.

The list, he asserted, was too long to read in full.

“My only regret this Christmas season, I won’t even be able to get to the issues of PPE, dedicated [testing] sites for health-care workers and mental health response,” Friesen said.

Once the partisan back-and-forth was out of the way, a number of bills were passed into law.

Among them, a piece of legislation eliminating Sunday and holiday shopping restrictions and another bill that would permit Manitoba to join a class-action lawsuit against opioid manufacturers.

Leaders of Manitoba’s opposition parties say they don’t have many fond memories of legislative business in 2020.

Kinew said the province dodged accountability by refusing to meet in the summer, after the legislative session was prematurely cut short in March due to the pandemic.

MLAs convened for an emergency sitting in April, followed by only four question period sessions the next month. 

Kinew also accused the government of bungling the pandemic response, which has left many Manitobans sick and dying, he said.

A masked clerk, as seen in April, overlooks the Manitoba Legislature as measures were taken to prevent the spread of COVID-19. (John Woods/The Canadian Press)

Liberal Leader Dougald Lamont called the province’s budget, released in the spring, immoral. He railed against the budget implementation bill as well, which prevents the province from being sued for keeping millions of dollars in funding it didn’t remit to children in care.

“Look, it should be a national story,” Lamont said. “It’s an absolute travesty.” 

Both Kinew and Lamont said a high point was the all-party collaboration to pass several COVID-19 relief measures in April, including measures to freeze rent, ban landlords from evicting tenants and implement travel restrictions.

Question period will resume next March. The government will try to pass dozens of new bills next year, including ones that would reform the school system and prevent the blocking of railways.