The House of Commons descended into chaos Friday after the Liberal government invoked a rarely used rule to shut down committee debate on Bill C-10, which would apply federal broadcasting regulations to online streaming services.
Members of Parliament continue to operate in a hybrid format due to COVID-19, with some MPs in the House Chamber and many others participating remotely by video link. The debate was often indecipherable as Conservative MPs repeatedly interjected with points of order protesting the government’s plans.
“The reason that [MPs] are seeing this lack of decorum today is because we are outraged,” Conservative MP Karen Vecchio said. “We recognize that they are taking the right of Canadians’ free speech away in this bill, and this is exactly what we are seeing here.”
The Liberal government moved a time-allocation motion Friday that would impose limits on the length of time the bill will be debated in committee. While motions to limit debate are fairly common, it is very unusual for such a motion to tie the hands of a committee.
Conservative MPs noted that the party could only find three previous examples of this practice, with the most recent being more than 20 years ago. In those cases, the committee was given a limit of 10 more hours of debate, while Friday’s motion would limit the Canadian heritage committee’s work to just five more hours.
The Bloc Québécois supported the Liberal plan, while NDP and Green Party MPs criticized the move to shut down debate. Conservative MPs ultimately used procedural tactics of their own Friday and prevented the motion from coming to a vote.
Green Party MP Elizabeth May called Friday’s events a “gong show,” adding that the possibility of a fall election was not a proper justification to rush the bill into law.
“This is a bad motion. This is anti-democratic,” she said in an interview.
Bill C-10, which updates Canada’s Broadcasting Act, was introduced in November, 2020. The government said the goal of the bill is to require online streaming giants such as Netflix to financially support Canadian cultural productions and ensure Canadian content is promoted on their platforms – which would in turn subject these companies to oversight by the Canadian Radio-Television and Telecommunications Commission. Several former CRTC commissioners have spoken out against the bill, warning that it is fundamentally flawed and raises free-speech concerns by allowing excessive government regulation of the internet.
Canadian arts groups, such as the Professional Music Publishers’ Association, strongly support the bill and have called it “absolutely fundamental” to the future of Canadian culture as movies, music and television are increasingly consumed via only streaming services.
Reaction to the bill is also divided along linguistic lines. Canada’s English-language media has carried numerous opinion pieces opposing the bill, while the legislation has received largely positive coverage in the French-language press. Quebec’s National Assembly passed a unanimous motion in May in support of the bill. The motion called C-10 a “significant advance for the protection and promotion of Québécois culture.”
Janet Yale, chair of the broadcasting and telecommunications legislative review panel, said she is supportive of the motion to limit debate in the committee. “It’s not clear that further debate is going to lead to a consensus,” she said, adding that no matter how much time is left for debate, “parties that aren’t in support of the bill would find ways to keep the discussion going.”
Ms. Yale appeared before the committee last month as an expert witness, along with Michael Geist, a University of Ottawa law professor who has been critical of the legislation. Mr. Geist called the motion to limit debate “enormously problematic.”
Laura Tribe, executive director of OpenMedia, an organization advocating for widespread inexpensive internet access, also said the motion raises issues. “Nothing about rushing this bill through addresses any of the very real criticisms and concerns that people have about [it],” she said. “Silencing debate does not provide confidence in the bill.”
Bloc Québécois Leader Yves-François Blanchet announced in mid-May that his party was prepared to support a procedural move to shut down debate and pass C-10 quickly, but the Liberals had not committed to such a plan until Friday.
The sole NDP member on the Canadian heritage committee, Heather McPherson, tried to introduce a motion on Friday to have the committee sit during the summer and work through the bill’s amendments. Procedural debates prevented the motion from being introduced. “We know how important this legislation is,” Ms. McPherson said. “All I want is for committee members to act in good faith and try to move this legislation forward.”
Ms. McPherson added that time allocation is a draconian measure and too heavy-handed, and that she would rather see the committee take extra time to work through the amendments. “We don’t have a good piece of legislation to vote on right now,” she said.
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