Groups of teens will not be allowed to watch groups of adults argue on the floor of the House of Commons in the near future.
Parliament is planning to make the House and Senate off-limits to tour groups, including those made up of students, while the chambers are in session.
The change will come when the House and Senate leave Centre Block on Parliament Hill in the coming months as the building undergoes years of renovations, and move to their new homes in West Block and the Government Conference Centre, respectively.
Sonia L’Heureux, the Parliamentary Librarian, said the new temporary House of Commons can’t accommodate tour groups.
“The way it’s designed, the way the sound may or may not travel, there’s all sorts of considerations that make it very difficult,” Ms. L’Heureux said. “It’s a question of physical space. … We just can’t physically have [that many] people there.”
She said the Library is developing a travelling program that will send virtual-reality equipment to schools around the country so “children can visit a virtual Parliament in their classrooms.”
Ms. L’Heureux said visitors will be able to see virtual tours in the Visitor Welcome Centre at the new location and that those not in groups will still be allowed to view Question Period in person. It’s not clear if tours will be allowed back once Centre Block renovations are completed.
Groups of students have been a fixture of the House’s public galleries for years. The Library of Parliament, which is responsible for tours, says 58,000 students came through the building on group tours during the 2016-17 fiscal year. At least 4,000 of those visitors reserved seats to watch Question Period, the Library said, though it said that students could watch the House without making reservations through the Library.
On Friday morning, there were more people in the galleries watching Question Period than there were MPs participating in it. Fridays are usually slow for House business and only a third of the 338 MPs were present.
Fred Bortolussi, a history teacher at St. Michael’s Catholic High School in Kemptville, Ont., said he took his Grade 12 class to Parliament on Friday because his students love the experience.
“This openness and democracy is so important, it’s essential for Canadians to understand what’s going on and to get them involved,” Mr. Bortolussi said, adding: “We aren’t any more noisy than they are down there.”
One of his students, Sydney Murray, 18, said she was surprised by how lively the MPs were in person.
“They’re not as reserved as I thought they’d be,” she said. “They don’t mind taking shots at people.”
Michael Ferrabee, a Toronto consultant and former political aide, brought his uniformed troop of young Scouts up to Ottawa to tour a number of national institutions − which included a visit to Question Period Friday morning.
“It’s really important for them to understand how decisions are made in their country,” he said.
His 13-year-old son, James, agreed. “I don’t really follow politics in general, so it was enlightening for me,” he said.
Liberal MP Robert-Falcon Ouellette, who asked Ms. L’Heureux about school tours at a parliamentary committee on Thursday, said he’s disappointed that Canadians will have less access to their elected representatives.
“This is supposed to be a public institution,” he said, “where people can come see the debates and not simply view them through the prism of the camera.”
Centre Block is set to shut down this summer for renovations that will last at least a decade. However, the work in the new temporary chambers is running behind schedule, and the move may be delayed until January or next summer. MPs on the Board of Internal Economy are set to decide in June whether to delay the move.
Currently, visitors to Centre Block enter through its first floor and are screened by security, before joining a tour group or going up to the public galleries in the House or Senate to watch the proceedings.
Once the House moves to West Block, visitors will enter through the newly constructed Visitor Welcome Centre, an underground structure built into Parliament Hill that connects to the other buildings through tunnels. The new centre will have a gift shop twice as large as the old one.
The House of Commons is usually in session for 26 weeks out of the year, though sometimes MPs rise early before the summer and winter breaks.
The Library of Parliament’s main location in Centre Block will also close during the renovations. Its services will be scattered among five satellite locations in the neighbourhood.
The Globe and Mail, May 27, 2018