P.E.I. legislature sitting despite province's COVID-19 restrictions

·4 min read
Prince Edward Island Premier Dennis King is shown at the legislature on Feb. 25. All three parties have to agree to a suspension of the legislature, and agreement on that issue couldn't be reached Monday.  (Kirk Pennell/CBC - image credit)
Prince Edward Island Premier Dennis King is shown at the legislature on Feb. 25. All three parties have to agree to a suspension of the legislature, and agreement on that issue couldn't be reached Monday. (Kirk Pennell/CBC - image credit)

The P.E.I. legislature went ahead with its regularly scheduled sitting Tuesday afternoon — in spite of an effort to reach agreement among all three parties Monday to delay the sitting while the province remains under a COVID-19 lockdown.

On Tuesday morning both the PCs and the Greens issued statements saying all three party leaders had agreed Monday to adjourn the house until Thursday, but that the Liberals had backed out — something interim Liberal Leader Sonny Gallant referred to as a false accusation in his own statement, issued just as the legislature was about to sit Tuesday.

Gallant said he made it clear to the other leaders any agreement from him to adjourn the house was "contingent on [a] conversation with my colleagues."

And after speaking with the rest of the five-member Liberal caucus, in his statement Gallant said "a collective decision was made that we could proceed safely with a sitting of the House — and that, like thousands of Islanders, we could do the jobs we are paid to do."

Two-week lockdown

On the weekend, the province announced a two-week lockdown period with restaurants closed to dine-in customers, and stores and gyms operating at reduced capacity. Schools are also in the midst of a three-day shutdown.

MLAs are considered essential workers on P.E.I., and even if they weren't, they operate outside the jurisdiction of the province's chief public health office and thus are not bound by its restrictions.

In his statement Gallant said "an emergency is precisely the time for government to be explaining the situation and its response to Islanders."

But Opposition leader Peter Bevan-Baker accused the Liberal party of political grandstanding.

"I am at a loss to understand how following CPHO guidelines, striving to secure the health, safety, and security of Islanders, is of less importance than political posturing and gamesmanship," Bevan-Baker said in his statement.

In his statement Premier Dennis King said there had been "unanimous" agreement among the three leaders and speaker Colin Lavie that the house should adjourn until Thursday, and for the three leaders to sign a joint statement to that effect.

"Both the Leader of the Opposition and I signed the letter and returned it yesterday by end of business day," King said in his statement. It was communicated late last night that the Third Party had changed their mind and would not agree to adjourn until Thursday."

Peter Bevan-Baker, the leader of the Green Party of P.E.I., is one of three leaders who have to agree to a suspension.
Peter Bevan-Baker, the leader of the Green Party of P.E.I., is one of three leaders who have to agree to a suspension.

The clerk of the legislature, Joseph Jeffrey, said the assembly has consulted with public health since the latest lockdown began and instituted additional measures to prevent the spread of COVID-19 at the Coles Building.

Among those measures, the house suspended the legislative page program for two weeks. That program has Island high school students serving as couriers within the legislative assembly.

As the legislature got underway Tuesday, some members were absent: among them, Green MLA Hannah Bell, who said she stayed away because she's immuno-comprised; and Environment Minister Steven Myers, the father of young twins.

"I don't believe anybody should be in there today," Myers told CBC. "Based on the CPHO guidelines laid out for the 72-hour shutdown, I feel like it's the best decision for me to stay home. Having 27 people from 27 different geographic locations meet in a single spot during an outbreak is irresponsible."

On Monday, P.E.I. Premier Dennis King said all Islanders "should take this [lockdown] very seriously and act accordingly."

Privately, some MLAs told CBC that each caucus was divided on whether MLAs should sit or suspend the legislature, and that some were worried about the optics of suspending the legislature while other essential workers like grocery store clerks and medical staff were required to keep working.

Sonny Gallant is the interim leader of the Prince Edward Island Liberal Party; he is shown at the legislature on Feb. 25.
Sonny Gallant is the interim leader of the Prince Edward Island Liberal Party; he is shown at the legislature on Feb. 25.

MLAs have adopted new rules which would allow for a virtual or hybrid sitting, but the clerk said the house would have to break for one week to be prepared to do that.

The house can also sit with a quorum of 10 members, but the Liberal and PC caucuses resisted a call to sit with fewer members one year ago, after a provincial state of emergency had first been declared.

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