House Call with Carol Hughes

It’s back to Ottawa for MPs

Parliament resumes this month with unfinished business and a number of prominent issues that emerged over the summer. In addition to that, October will mark the halfway point in the government’s mandate. Faced with criticisms that their legislative agenda has lacked ambition, how they proceed over the next year will go a long way to determining the extent to which they were able to deliver on electoral promises. We have already seen big promises, like the one to change our first past the post electoral system, abandoned. Unless the government picks up the pace at which they pass legislation, there will be other commitments that fall by the wayside.

One item sure to dominate politics this autumn is the negotiations to re-set the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). Last June, government members on the House of Commons Trade Committee blocked an NDP attempt to have the Prime Minister explain the government’s priorities for these negotiations. New Democrats want Canada to push for improvements to environmental and labour standards as a new deal is hammered out. How much parliamentarians will be privy to negotiations remains unclear, but NAFTA will surely be an ongoing concern in the months ahead.

Perhaps the biggest change in this summer’s cabinet shuffle was the dismantling of the department of Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada. It was replaced with two new ministries, Crown-Indigenous Relations and Northern Affairs and Indigenous Service. The move was met with mixed reviews which may be due to the government’s inability to make headway on issues of importance that require a financial component. The government is still sending lawyers to fight the hallmark decision by the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal which ordered the federal government to provide equitable funding for child and family services on reserves. New Democrats will continue to advocate on behalf of these children until the government calls off their lawyers and provides equitable funding.

In addition to NAFTA, there is the unresolved trade dispute over softwood lumber which has already cost many Canadian jobs. As negotiations carry on in back-rooms there is speculation the dispute is headed to the courts. The government rolled out some assistance for people affected, but it is unclear if there is enough in the pot for softwood dependent communities to sustain themselves over a lengthy dispute. With so much at stake for rural and northern communities, we can expect softwood to take its place among the prominent issues in parliament this fall.

Parliament will also be seized with legislation to legalize marijuana. The provinces will be in charge of how it will be made available to consumers, but first the bill has to make it through the House of Commons. New Democrats are pushing the government to move quickly on a mechanism to help pardon people who have been charged with simple possession. It will be entirely unfair for someone to be burdened with a criminal record for something that is no longer a crime.

Finally, there will be a new NDP leader elected this autumn. After months of debates and cross-country travel, New Democrats will vote in a series of run-off ballots until one of the candidates emerges victorious. All of the candidates have shown they have the talent and charisma that is necessary for the job. By Thanksgiving, barring any unforeseen events, all the leaders that will contest the next federal election will be in place, giving Canadians a sense of the debates that will follow.