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Leader of the Opposition Andrew Scheer rises to question the government on its financial response to COVID-19 during a special sitting of Parliament in the House of Commons, March 25, 2020 in Ottawa.

Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press

Parliament is being recalled for the Easter weekend for its second emergency session to adopt a $73-billion wage-subsidy bill to help Canadian businesses, non-profits and charities cope with the economic hardship caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.

House of Commons Speaker Anthony Rota announced on Thursday that the House of Commons will sit on Saturday at 12:15 p.m. with a small number of MPs. The Senate will sit at 4:15 p.m. on the same day, also with a reduced number of senators, to give final passage.

The recall during the Easter break came after Prime Minister Justin Trudeau called on the Conservative Party to set aside partisan squabbling and allow Parliament to resume sitting immediately to pass the massive wage-subsidy package.

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The government hoped to have the wage-subsidy legislation tabled and passed this week, but the Conservatives were demanding that there be an agreement to allow for regular sittings of the House of Commons with a small number of MPs, which would allow the opposition to question the Prime Minister and his ministers.

Mr. Trudeau said Thursday the opposition parties have few problems with the newly amended wage-subsidy legislation and he accused the Conservatives of holding up its passage until they could get their way on having the House of Commons sit.

The Prime Minister said he disagrees with the Conservative position that the House of Commons should remain sitting throughout the week with a reduced number of MPs.

“When we do gather in smaller numbers, first of all, it still requires a significant number of support staff to come into work to be there when Parliament is functioning and that puts them at risk as well,” Mr. Trudeau said. “But it is also something that doesn’t allow for members of Parliament who live in further-off parts of the country to be weighing in and to make sure that their communities are being heard and that is why we are so interested at looking for virtual ways of gathering the House."

A senior government official, who was not authorized to speak publicly on the matter, said the return to Parliament was scheduled even though no deal had been reached regarding the Conservative Party’s request for some form of a regular Question Period.

The official said that the two sides were close to reaching an arrangement and planned to continue talking ahead of Saturday’s sitting. The official indicated a deal would likely see the Commons sit one day-a-week with a small number of opposition MPs, who could pose questions to the Prime Minister and cabinet ministers.

Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer sent a letter to Mr. Trudeau on Thursday, saying he believes in-person sittings are required for proper transparency and accountability.

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“You have publicly said that you ‘believe in our democratic institutions’ and that 'Parliament and opposition parties have an essential role to play.’ Now is the time for basic parliamentary oversight and increased transparency measures,” he wrote.

The letter says this would mean regular opportunities for the opposition parties to question the Prime Minister and cabinet ministers in the House of Commons, as well as weekly meetings of committees.

Mr. Trudeau’s comments came on the same day that Statistics Canada reported more than one million jobs were lost in Canada in March, boosting the unemployment rate to 7.8 per cent.

Also on Thursday, Parliamentary Budget Officer Yves Giroux released a report that updates where the federal deficit may be heading.

The PBO said that based on measures announced to date and lower economic forecasts, the federal deficit could reach $184.2-billion in the fiscal year that started April 1. That would represent a deficit of 8.5 per cent of GDP.

The report cautions that this is an illustrative scenario and is not a forecast of the most likely outcome.

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The last time the budgetary deficit was near 8.5 per cent of GDP was in 1984-85.

Finance Minister Bill Morneau cancelled plans to release a March budget. The government’s most recent fiscal forecasts were released in December, well before the outbreak of COVID-19.

The government’s December update said the federal debt-to-GDP ratio was 31 per cent and would be declining over time.

Thursday’s PBO report says the debt-to-GDP ratio could climb to 41.4 per cent in 2020-21.

“Moreover, after support measures are provided, fiscal stimulus measures may be required to ensure that the economy reached lift-off speed, especially if consumer and business behaviour does not quickly revert back to ‘normal’ conditions,” the PBO report states.

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