The COVID-19 pandemic is forcing many people to re-think how to interact with each other, and politicians are no exception. Fredericton MP Jenica Atwin spent the evening of April 15 in her Oromocto home facing her computer connected with her team across North America. They were hosting their first online Town Hall with about 200 constituents in the riding.
Elected in 2019 as the first Green Party MP outside of British Columbia, Atwin has been a vocal advocate for using online technologies to do the business of politics. She recently travelled to Ottawa by car with her family to sit as the only Green MP in a special session of Parliament to pass the emergency legislation to flow funds to Canadians struggling with loss of income.
During the House of Commons debate, Atwin stated “Many of us are setting an example by operating from home as well, and we can continue to play a leadership role here by exploring digital options for the work we do here in the House. Let us continue to have that conversation.” After returning home to Fredericton, Atwin wrote that such travel during the time of COVID is unsafe, and other options need to be explored.
As a MP during this crisis, Atwin is in regular ongoing contact using digital networks and virtual tools, with not only her team and federal Green caucus members in BC but also other MPs across the country. And of course, with constituents in her riding that stretches from Fredericton to Oromocto including small communities on both sides of the Wolastoq (Saint John River).
More than 200 people registered for the Town Hall session promoted on the Jenica Atwin Facebook page. “We were very pleased with the turn-out for our first attempt at hosting such an event,” reported Robert Sheidow, Atwin’s Fredericton Constituency Representative and former campaign co-manager.
Shannon Carmont, Atwin’s Parliamentary Chief of Staff and former campaign co-manager also helped facilitate the gathering from her home office in Oklahoma where she is waiting out the pandemic with her husband. Other members of Atwin’s team joined from their home offices as well.
Before the session started, Atwin engaged in friendly shout-outs to some of the people she knew who had logged in. The informal chit-chat and Atwin’s radiating personality helped to make everyone comfortable in this new digital setting.
The bilingual session began with instructions about how the session would be conducted, and then Atwin gave everyone an update on her day-to-day routine during the pandemic. She engages in back-to-back online sessions with federal ministers and their program managers to discuss issues raised by constituents and to get briefings on how the government is dealing with the pandemic.
Atwin emphasized her close collaboration with federal cabinet ministers of the various departments and the direct access she has to these ministers on a regular basis. She is also experiencing the same level of collaboration across New Brunswick with provincial MLAs and government officials as well as the provincial Green Party caucus.
Atwin thanked New Brunswick Minister of the Environment and Local Government, Jeff Carr, for joining her Town Hall and answering questions about provincial topics. New Maryland Mayor Judy Wilson-Shee also attended the session.
Sheidow invited the online participants to use the zoom function of raising their hand to indicate they had a question to ask Atwin. For the next 90 minutes, participants asked a wide variety of questions in the official language of their choice. Many began their questions by thanking Atwin for doing this town hall, expressing how much they appreciated the opportunity to participate in this event from their homes. Most appeared on screen with their video camera on, and others had their cameras off or came in by telephone. The diversity of the group was remarkable, as were the questions.
Many participants raised issues about the new federal funding programs:
- applying for the Canada Emergency Relief Benefit (CERB) program: timing of application, record keeping, reporting, eligibility, possible claw-backs, completing the questionnaire questions especially the need for child care to be able to go back to work;
- identifying people and circumstance who require assistance but are still falling through the gaps of existing programs;
- being unable to reach anyone when phoning about inquiries, clarification of issues.
There were questions about travel, international relations and immigration in light of the crisis:
- the international finance implications about Canada’s reaction against China;
- immigration process and obtaining information about the status of application;
- the use of temporary foreign workers when there are so many unemployed Canadians;
- the proposed reopening the border with the United States;
- decisions taken for more aggressive action with border controls, travel restrictions, etc. when the virus was first identified;
- the use of the military in the crisis.
Questions about health and safety issues:
- the development of anti-body testing for the COVID-19 virus and the desire to help others after recovery;
- pregnancy concerns and being able to access the midwifery program to avoid hospital use;
- dental care for patients experiencing problems, creating a potential high-risk environment for both patient and dental teams and the need for a timely antibody test;
- opening up hospitals for delayed non-essential surgeries;
- continuation of support for valuable new health services put in place due to the pandemic, including EVisitNB.ca for seeing a doctor;
- update on the status of the federal commitment to support Clinic 554 staying open and the fear that it is being forced to close during the pandemic due to funding issues.
Nursing homes and care homes issues were also raised:
- requirements for quality support for seniors and nursing home workers including their safety when masks are unavailable;
- mixed standards of care, the use of crowded elevators, common meal times, and workers involved with multiple homes and taking multiple jobs to make ends meet;
- personal protective equipment being stored waiting for an emergency to happen instead of preventing the virus from entering the homes.
Support services issues included:
- gaps in the existing support programs including Crisis Intervention, private human services counsellors, those looking for work before the outbreak without any positions now available;
- access to public services such as the libraries providing seed bank distribution.
Students and educational issues included:
- the needs of students being left out of any assistance program to date beyond the freeze on student loans, rental eviction freezes and the expansion of student employment program with more support being promised;
- summer employment applications opening up again for organizations offering a critical service and can accommodate additional workers, with April 20 as the cut-off date for new applications;
- educational support systems for autistic children after school closures without a communication network to ensure continuity of care for special needs children;
- the start of the new school year and the availability of child care services for children.
How people can help others:
- how registered charities can access required funds to continue operating;
- donating money to worthy causes affected by COVID-19 with recommendations to support food security (food banks, community gardens) along with healthcare and safety groups (women and homeless shelters);
- volunteer opportunities.
And finally some general questions were asked about:
- the new society and opportunities arising out of this pandemic;
- the spring opening up of cottages when small communities and government is restricting travel;
- the willingness of politicians to continue the collaborative work with other parties and levels of government after the pandemic passes;
- the introduction of 5G telecommunication systems in Canada and the use of new technologies to address increasing bandwidth requirements;
- the demands of working from home where internet problems exist and the need for rural broadband infrastructure equitable to other centres;
- recognizing large-scale change within our society and systems with this moment being used to explore a different way of doing things including food security, doing business with others, eliminating industrial emissions;
- food security with local production support systems, victory gardens to grow our own food;
- homeschooling. reimagining how the future looks;
- parental alienation and the misuse of the court system to prevent children from visitation rights.
The MP’s team ended the session after nearly two hours with Atwin’s concluding remarks where she promised to continue these online discussions. The video of the April 15 session is now available for anyone to view. Atwin’s Facebook page also has a link to the first e-newsletter that constituents can sign up to receive by email. Atwin and her team invited everyone to send her an email with any questions or concerns at Jenica.Atwin@parl.gc.ca.
Brian Beaton is a writer and the calendar coordinator for the NB Media Co-op.