IN THE NEWS MPs to consider new mailing guidelines as some call for shuttered service's return

Hill Times, by: Samantha Wright Allen

'We cannot be deprived for a long time from this tool to reach out to our constituents,' says Bloc MP Stéphane Bergeron.

When Parliament shut down, Members of Parliament lost the ability to mail their constituents en masse, which some worry is stopping key information from getting to vulnerable residents in the middle of a pandemic.

Parliamentary mailing privileges grant MPs the ability to print and send up to four "householders" to every home in their riding each year, along with other constituency mail. Constituents, too, can mail their federal representative free of charge-a back-and-forth that MPs say is an important line of communication. It also lets them cater the message about the novel coronavirus to the riding's specific needs or to make sure they target certain populations, like seniors. These mailing services were shut down when Parliament suspended due to COVID-19 in mid-March.

Liberal MP Adam Vaughan (Spadina-Fort York, Ont.) said it's worth re-examining these suspended privileges. The householders are an important way to get to key communities in the riding like to "people with different languages, to get to seniors, to get to rural parts of this country, to get to people who don't trust telephones and computers or who want something tangible in front of them to absorb it in way they feel comfortable-all these ways of communicating-we need to explore and re-establish where we can," said Mr. Vaughan, who is parliamentary secretary to the minister of families, children, and social development.

Over the last couple of weeks, discussions about re-establishing mailing services have been happening among MPs and through the Speaker's office, he said.

Asked if it had been brought forward, Heather Bradley, director of communications to House Speaker Anthony Rota (Nipissing-Timiskaming, Ont.), said it was a matter for the Board of Internal Economy (BOIE). In March, Mr. Rota emailed MPs to note printing and mailing services were among suspended services on Parliament Hill, a list that also included parliamentary library branches, cafeterias, outbound postal and messenger services, the shuttle bus, and specialized tenant services, like photography, framing, and dry cleaning.

Liberal Whip Mark Holland's (Ajax, Ont.) office confirmed by email on April 14 that the Board would be addressing printing and mailing services, and a new policy and set of guidelines would be released later this week.

NDP MP Peter Julian (New Westminster-Burnaby, B.C.), also a member of the Board, said the "emergency situation" creates a greater need to get critical information about COVID-19 to constituents, including where to go for help, key government programs, and more.

"It would be a very useful tool," he said, adding that discussions to make that possible are happening.

"We all realize in an emergency there are limitations, but at the same time this is information that would be crucial to get in the hands of Canadians right across the country, and I think it would also assist MPs, because we're getting flooded with calls and emails and the ability to get more information into peoples' hands is really paramount right now," said Mr. Julian.

In a normal year, he said his constituency office would deal with about 1,000 constituent cases. In just the last few weeks, he said his team has already reached that total. The householders should be used only to disseminate crucial coronavirus-response information, he added, and MPs should forgo updates about their work, or praising the government, for example, which is often how the mail-outs are used.

Now the 'ultimate' time to contact constituents: Diotte. Given how so many seniors in Edmonton Griesbach, Alta., respond to Conservative MP Kerry Diotte's mailings, he said it's worth discussing whether the contact constitutes an essential service.

"It would be the ultimate time to get it out," said Mr. Diotte, adding it's discouraging he hasn't been able to send householders out, which he typically makes full use of.

It's been a topic of discussion among some colleagues and he said many, like him, think it would be a very useful tool right now. Mr. Diotte said he's raised the issue with Conservative House Leader Candice Bergen (Portage-Lisgar, Man.), who sits on the BOIE.

"Every method of communication is important, and those mailings, I think, would be absolutely important and very effective. It's amazing how well-read they are," he said. "I think it's certainly a consideration that they be declared essential services and a lot of seniors are worried right now, and I don't blame them."

Many in that segment, some of whom don't have internet, have been calling his office with questions and Mr. Diotte is worried some are missing valuable information. In the mailings, he often asks residents to respond with feedback-it's also free to mail your MP-and he estimates about 80 per cent of the mail he receives is from elderly people in his riding.

"This is crisis time, this is like wartime, you want to communicate to people and I would be glad to send out householders as often as possible," he said, adding he's got them ready to go but for the time being is sending them out to his "far smaller" email list.

"I think we're really missing the boat on that. That's just under-education and we could improve."

There are various ways to make sure the service can continue, including going local, said Mr. Julian, but it's up to the House administration to determine how it's done, and those discussions are happening.

With provincial, municipal, and federal directives changing by the day, Bloc Québécois MP Stéphane Bergeron (Montarville, Que.) said he couldn't say whether the service should be declared essential, but called it a "valid question" to consider.

"The longer the crisis will last, we'll have to put that question forward," said Mr. Bergeron. "We cannot be deprived for a long time from this tool to reach out to our constituents."

Parliament should 're-examine' ways to get mailings out

The MPs interviewed by The Hill Times all spoke of creative ways to get their messages out, like mass texts, e-newsletters to subscribers, and more frequent-and interactive-posts on social media. It's meant being "very imaginative," said Mr. Bergeron. So far, his team has been putting ads in local newspapers and sending out a robocall to let residents know his office is still operating, despite being closed, and to reach out if they need help.

Under the Canada Post Corporation Act, Parliamentarians can send up to four mailings, which must be using Neighbourhood Mail-or postage-free government mail-in Ottawa through the House of Commons Post Office. Often referred to as "franking" privileges, MPs are also allowed to send mail anywhere in Canada postage-free, by signing the addressed piece of mail.

The approach to mail franking could also adapt to the new reality, suggested Mr. Vaughan, which may mean shifting away from the current process of going through the House services. "Maybe it's topping up the Member's budget and we can do direct mail, but I think we need to re-examine that, because getting those written messages out to every corner of the country, every corner of the riding, every corner of a person's neighbourhood, I think that's really important especially when we're dealing with different languages," Mr. Vaughan said.

The shuttered service raises these questions, said Mr. Bergeron, though the answers might not be the methods used in the past.

"Should we continue to centralize or should we decentralize these operations in the constituencies?" he said. "We have to adapt, and as long as I don't know what will be, I can't answer those questions today, but we will have to ask the questions at some point if the crisis were to last longer."

When constituents can't find answers, they often turn to their MP for support, he said, and the householder might be a way to better answer questions that crop up in different ridings. For example, Mr. Bergeron said his team created charts about applying for financial aid based on the volume of similar questions received after the robocall. The charts were posted to his Facebook page, but he said he would have liked to get it to all residents.

"We might design tools with the householders in order to answer questions and tell them how to reach us," he said, noting that feedback about gaps is also valuable in directing government response. "Officially not considered as an essential service, but in reality we are because when constituents have no way to obtain answers to their questions, they turn to their Members of Parliament" and provincial representatives, he said.

swallen@hilltimes.com

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