MPs back more modest option for Parliament visitors' centre as Centre Block renos roll on

Hill Times

'I appreciate we're not going for the Cadillac option. ... The larger option was much more expensive,' says NDP House Leader Peter Julian. 'We're talking about over $110-million in savings.'

by: Beatrice Paez, Palak Mangat

A House Board of Internal Economy's subcommittee overseeing the decade-long project to renovate Centre Block says the government should opt for a more modest and less costly option for the next phase of the Visitors' Welcome Centre.

In a Friday briefing before the Board of Internal Economy, or BOIE, Conservative MP Bruce Stanton (Simcoe North, Ont.), who chairs the working group for the project, said members are "satisfied" that the so-called medium option meets the demands of both the House and the Senate. The Board was presented with three different options, with the middle proposal featuring committee rooms for the Red Chamber, food services for the public, a boutique, and guided tours.

"A key point for the group when it was looking at this was the medium option would not create any kind of further encroachment onto the lawn of the Commons, and effectively, all of the new works would be effectively below ground, the surface-level appearance of the Centre Block would effectively be unchanged," Mr. Stanton, who also serves as deputy House Speaker, told the committee.

Parliamentarians were first presented with the three options in the winter for the final phase of the underground Visitors' Welcome Centre, the first phase of which was constructed alongside renovations to the West Block building. Once complete, the VWC will connect the West Block, Centre Block, and East Block underground and serve as the new public entrance for all three.

The smallest option would allow for one large committee room for the Senate, along with "limited" parliamentary business and material-handling spaces, and a boutique and tour co-ordination space for the Library of Parliament. The medium-sized option would also fit in a multimedia room, a multipurpose room, postal and printing services, three Senate committee rooms (one small, one medium, and one large), space for storage and Senate administration offices, a "curated Parliamentary program" for visitors, and a re-located Charles Lynch room for press conferences. The largest option would allow for all three committee rooms to be large.

NDP House Leader Peter Julian (New Westminster-Burnaby, B.C.) expressed his support for the subcommittee's recommendation. "I appreciate we're not going for the Cadillac option. ... The larger option was much more expensive," he said. "We're talking about over $110-million in savings."

Settling on the medium option over the large option means the Senate would not be getting roomier committee rooms and would have to make do with four rooms of varying sizes. "That quite frankly didn't seem necessary," Mr. Julian said of the initial push for larger rooms. The Senate, which has its own, separate, subcommittee to provide input on the renovations, has yet to make its recommendation on the Chamber's preferred option.

Mr. Stanton said the working group accounted for visitors' experience, heritage-design considerations, mechanical and plumbing issues, and Parliament's functions in deciding on the medium option for the visitors' centre.

Final decision on which option to endorse rests with the Trudeau government, through the minister for Public Services and Procurement Canada (PSPC).

The final price tag for the project has yet to be shared, though an analysis of all three options before the Board estimated the cost for the visitors' centre is at up to $733-million.

Jennifer Garrett, director general of the Centre Block Rehabilitation Program at PSPC, said the department has yet to issue a second tender for the final phase of the excavation work and is unable to share the total costs.

"We have tendered and awarded the contract associated with the mass excavation for the program," she said. "It does not represent the entirety of the excavation program. We still have to award the program that digs in and creates the connection between that parliamentary welcome centre and Centre Block."

She said about $66-million in spending is associated with the current excavation activity.

There was some initial confusion raised by Conservative Whip Mark Strahl (Chilliwack-Hope, B.C.) about the exact spacing measurements that correspond with each option.

"The medium option is now referred to as 32,000 square metres; last year, the large option 27,344 square metres," Mr. Strahl noted. "The medium option is now bigger than the previous large option."

Rob Wright, assistant deputy minister at PSPC, clarified that the measurements provided last year were based on usable space, not the entirety of the space.

Government House Leader Pablo Rodriguez (Honoré-Mercier, Que.) asked about the work ahead for the working group.

Susan Kulba, director general of real property and executive architect at the House of Commons, said there are plans to hold another briefing in August to "flesh out" Parliament's functional requirements, including examining the Chamber, lobbies, and galleries in anticipation of its expansion over the next few decades as the country's population grows.

Pandemic hasn't adversely affected project's timeline

Even as the pandemic has forced most industries, including construction sites, to reorganize and adjust workflows, Mr. Wright told the committee that the construction hasn't "really seen many impacts."

"There were a few adjustments that had to be made on supply chains, but we've been able to keep the schedule on track," said Mr. Wright.

Given the size of Centre Block, which spans 55,000 square metres, Mr. Wright noted, construction crews have been able to physically distance from one another. He said that crew members follow a protocol upon arrival each day, with temperature readings and mandatory mask-wearing on site.

At a previous appearance before the Senate's Internal Economy Committee on May 14, Ms. Garrett said the construction industry estimated there could be a five per cent increase in site costs associated with complying with pandemic guidelines and regulations.

House CFO to update Board on pandemic's impact on House finances in fall

Daniel Paquette, the House's chief financial officer, also appeared before the committee to seek approval to carry over $17.5-million in lapsed funding from the previous fiscal year to the 2020-21 supplementary estimates. He was given approval to tack those funds to the forthcoming estimates to be used for the budgets of MPs, House officers, and administration costs.

Mr. Julian asked whether Mr. Paquette has observed significant changes in House expenditures due to the pandemic, and whether he forecasts expenses will increase or decrease.

While Mr. Paquette said there's been a dip in expenses related to travel, with MPs largely confined to their home provinces and trips for committees and parliamentary associations suspended, but he said the House has had to allocate more money for IT and telecommunications with the shift to virtual sittings on Zoom and other digital meeting platforms.

"It's still too early early to draw any conclusions," he said of whether he expects House administration costs will rise. "In the fall, I'll present to you the state of the situation."

Last month, the House passed $87-billion in additional spending estimates, which partially covers expenses related to the pandemic.

The main estimates approved by the Board last December saw a 2.6 per cent increase in House spending from the previous fiscal year, from $503.4-million to $516.4-million. The slight uptick was attributed in part to a $3.1-million boost for MP travel expenses and office budgets, a $1.2-million increase for the salaries and allowances of MPs and House officers, and the addition of the Bloc Québécois as a recognized party following the October election, bringing the total to four.

Three open cases before human resources

Robyn Daigle, the director of Members' human resources services, shared an update on policies for preventing workplace harassment through the 2019-20 annual report.

During that time period, Ms. Daigle said there were five new cases that were "dealt with" by the office of the chief human resources officer, one of which was "formally investigated." One case was resolved and three remain "open," she added.

"The report also outlines the training and awareness related to the policy framework. There is an online training that is available to the members and their staff," Ms. Daigle said, noting 782 people have taken part so far. There have also been five sessions of mandatory in-class training on prevention of harassment made available to all new workers since last year's election, with 250 MPs having received training.

The House had scheduled "a couple of sessions" in March for the remaining MPs, but those were cancelled because of the pandemic. There are plans to provide that training virtually, she added.

Bloc Québécois Whip Claude DeBellefeuille (Salaberry-Suroît, Que.) said she is "quite proud" that nearly all Bloc MPs have taken the mandatory training, as Ms. Daigle said there are only about two MPs from the party left. Both will have taken the training by the end of August, the MP said.

Ms. DeBellefeuille also asked if the addition of new HR advisers, which the Board approved last year, were making a difference in the number of complaints that came before the office for sexual, psychological, or other harassment. "To invest in human resources advisers is a great expenditure that allows MPs to be even better at their jobs and to be respectful in their roles as employers," said Ms. DeBellefeuille.

In 2018-19, HR reported that it fielded 16 complaints and inquiries, 10 of which were only inquiries. Of the remaining six, one of three was formally investigated, one was resolved outside of provisions in the policy and the other was resolved by mediation. At that point, three remained active.

"If we look at the data from the last three years, the number of complaints that were treated have gone down. It was an election year, however, so we could've thought that the numbers would go down, regardless," said Ms. Daigle.

- With files from Laura Ryckewaert

The Hill Times

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