The review of the Online Streaming Act (Bill C-11) heads to committee next week as the Standing Committee on Canadian Heritage plans to devote roughly 20 hours to hearing over the next two weeks. I have received an invitation and may appear as soon as next week. While the House of Commons committee study is just getting underway, the Senate has been debating the possibility of conducting a “pre-study” of the bill at its own committee. Pre-studies are somewhat unusual since they are conducted before the bill has formally been referred to the committee or, in the case of the Senate, even passed the House of Commons. In fact, Bill C-10, the predecessor to Bill C-11, started with a pre-study which ultimately undermined the overall committee study that many believed was inadequate.
The proposal for a Senate pre-study comes from the government as a motion in support was introduced by Senator Marc Gold, who represents the government in the Senate. A vote on the plan could come next week, but yesterday Senator Donna Dasko, who sits with the Independent Senators Group and was appointed to the Senate by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau in 2018, articulated the concerns with the pre-study approach and what it could mean for Bill C-11:
However, in my view, the process has been unsatisfactory. Typically, government witnesses present the bill and take questions, followed by other witnesses who offer a critique of the bill or propose changes to it. In some cases, their suggestions for change cannot be adequately assessed. We want to know: Are they practical changes? Do they fit with the goals of the bill? Are they doable? Are they good ideas? These questions come up after the witnesses testify, but often these questions remain unanswered in this process; that is what I have observed. Often there are time limitations to this process, and that is one of the reasons why some of these questions cannot be addressed, but in other cases, proposed changes from witnesses that do seem desirable cannot become amendments to this bill, because this is not possible with our pre-studies.
My concern with Bill C-11 is that I fear we will be doomed to this inadequate process and its shortcomings and that we will not conduct the proper investigation we need on Bill C-11, and we have no assurances that a regular committee study would follow from our pre-study. With Bill C-11, the ideal process, in my view, would be for us to take into account all the learnings from the House of Commons committee, their proceedings and their report, and build from there.
Let’s look at their witnesses, the issues arising from their work and the arguments that have been made, and let’s go forward from there. Of course, amendments may result from their process as well, which a pre-study here would not have and, therefore, could not consider. We wouldn’t have them in a timely fashion, and therefore, we couldn’t consider them. Remember Bill C-10, and how that bill was significantly changed very late in their process.
Honourable senators, during the pandemic over the past couple of years, the number of our Senate sittings was cut back dramatically, our scrutiny of legislation was reduced, with minimal review of so much legislation, and our committee work was curtailed. I look forward to returning to a better and more thorough process as we go forward.
In the end, colleagues, when it comes to Bill C-11, I am looking for assurances that a regular committee review process will take place. Even if a pre-study is undertaken, we should and must commit to this. If committees are indeed the masters of their fates, as we learned yesterday, I will be seeking the views of committee colleagues over the next several days for their commitment to a fulsome process.
But there is more than just that. We also need assurances that the committee will have the time it needs to do its work. When I hear about the urgent need to pass a bill, I can’t help but wonder whether we will really have the time to review a bill. If we keep hearing about the urgent need, it most certainly raises questions about whether we will be given the time.
After Senator Gold responded by arguing that the pre-study could mean more study, Senator Dasko made plain what many suspect: that the pre-study will ultimately be used as a pre-text to shorten the formal study of the bill with pressure to pass it before the summer without the proper review:
My view of this process is that I feel it’s a lesser process. From what I have observed, it doesn’t feel like it’s a thorough process; it seems to be truncated, in my observation. It also doesn’t allow us to make amendments. So from what I have observed, I feel that it’s lacking.
I know you have given some assurances of time, but at the same time, senator, yesterday, you did talk about the absolute need and the pressures coming from various communities. I understand there is pressure. I live in Toronto, and the cultural community in Toronto is very supportive of this bill. They want this to go forward.
But when June comes — and it’s just around the corner — we always get this feeling of pressure to pass bills. I fear that we have this pre-study coming down the track along with the end of June coming, and they end up colliding with each other. Then we end up getting pressure to pass a bill.
In this case, I worry we will be in a process that doesn’t allow us to examine it the way I feel it should be examined, especially given the uncertainties in the other place and what they will do, as well as what sorts of amendments and changes they may come up with. The last time this happened, it was really rather a mess. You might remember from last year what happened in their committee and all of the amendments. They were rejected by their Speaker and they had to go back. It truly was a mess.
That is where I am coming from with my concerns. This is coming along this track and the end of June is there; we know what June is like. You yourself have said that there is an urgency to get this bill passed because of the various stakeholders and so on who are involved. So this all leaves me just a little bit suspicious.
Senator Dasko’s suspicions are on the money. Canadians’ confidence in Bill C-11 depends upon a comprehensive review by both the House and Senate. Any effort to limit that review – including by way of a pre-study that seems likely to limit formal committee review – should be rejected.