Committee meetings at all levels of government provide essential information and direction to elected officials. Meeting in smaller numbers to discuss items under a focused category, committees are able to explore issues in greater detail than what can fit in the meeting timeframe of regular municipal council, provincial legislature or parliamentary sittings in the House of Commons.
On Oct. 8, the Conservative Party of Canada announced that Foothills MP John Barlow had been appointed to the Commons standing committee on health. The committee’s focus is to direct and hold the government accountable for policies regarding issues of health, as well as working with the Canadian Food Inspection Agency and Pest Management Regulatory Agency.
Of course, most of the committee’s work will deal directly with the federal government’s continued response to the Covid-19 pandemic.
“The No. 1 priority is going to be accessing effective, accurate rapid testing,” says Mr. Barlow. “I think that is the pillar of keeping our economy running, keeping stores open, opening tourism and travel, and keeping schools and long-term care facilities open.”
With results being made available within half an hour, rapid testing would ease the mandatory two-week quarantine period for international travellers and essential workers who may have come in contact with a positive case.
The lack of progress in making rapid testing available is a major point Mr. Barlow wants the government to address.
“I find it very frustrating that they almost seem happy to keep people isolated and keep them scared,” he says. “It’s available in many other countries — we’ve fallen well behind our G7 counterparts in the access and use in rapid testing.”
The issue, he continues, will be the committee’s primary focus over the next couple of weeks.
“If we want our economy to get back up and running, if we want stores to stay open, we need access to rapid testing. Our airline industry will collapse if we do not have access to rapid testing, and [the Liberals] were just dragging their feet on this, but now we’re starting to see them get the very slow wheels of the bureaucracy turning to get this done.”
Mr. Barlow points out that rapid testing for the whole country will also help address many concerns surrounding mental health in the pandemic, since cutting down quarantine times will help people maintain social circles between family, friends and colleagues.
Another topic the Foothills MP is eager to address is how the pandemic has affected Canada’s food-producing sector.
“What we’ve learned from Covid is a couple of things: it’s addressed some gaps in our food supply chain, but it’s also highlighted a need for us to be more self-sufficient,” he says.
“We’re really good at growing the raw materials, but it’s that next level of not just exporting those commodities but processing and manufacturing more of that added value here at home,” Mr. Barlow adds. “I think we have to look at attracting more new business or investment into that value-added aspect to the agri-food and processing side.”
The pandemic has also highlighted Canada’s tenuous situation with agricultural labour, which often depends on seasonal labourers and foreign workers coming into the country. If labour shortages aren’t addressed, the country will rely on imported food to satisfy food demands, something Mr. Barlow says will affect food quality and cost as well as increasing Canada’s carbon footprint.
Fortunately, an in-house solution exists.
“Right now with Covid we’ve got hundreds of thousands of Canadians out of work — well, there are jobs for them in agriculture,” says Mr. Barlow.
“We have to find a way to introduce Canadians to the employment and career opportunities in agriculture. Over the years, these are just jobs that Canadians have just lost touch with as we’ve become more urban. We have to do a better job of connecting those dots or breaking that gap.”
Some of the challenges the government could help address include people having transportation to farms and ranches from their homes in urban areas. Wages, Mr. Barlow acknowledges, are also a factor.
“Wage is always a question, but not all [agricultural jobs] are just minimum wage,” he says. “Greenhouses, the mushroom facility in Carstairs — these are highly skilled positions that can pay quite well. You certainly have to start somewhere and work your way up, but that is traditional of any job or career.”
Overall, the opportunity to work with other members of Parliament from all the different parties on such significant topics is exciting to Mr. Barlow.
“I quite enjoy committee,” he says. “That’s where a lot of the work gets done, and I get along with my colleagues from all the different parties on the various committees that I’ve been on over the years.”
While public perspectives of politicians may paint a picture of partisan practices — the sort of active combat that takes place during question period in the House of Commons — the Foothills MP says committee meetings are rarely like that.
“Traditionally, it’s much more collegial, and for the most part you are working to try to come up with solutions and policies that are going to make things better for Canadians,” he says.
“It’s a chance to kind of take the partisan hat off for a few hours a day and just try to work together — you’re all colleagues at that point.”
The most recent meeting of the health committee was held this past Monday, Oct. 26. Recordings of meeting proceedings, as well as other committee information, can be found at www.ourcommons.ca/Committees/en/HESA.
Sean Oliver, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Shootin' the Breeze