Throne Speech resets government agenda with pandemic as job one

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau arrives at Rideau Hall on September 23 for the unveiling of his government’s new Throne Speech. Governor General Julie Payette delivered the hour-long pledge of how the government would address the COVID-19 pandemic as its principal priority. Shutterstock

OTTAWA – Under siege over the WE scandal fallout and facing unprecedented challenges from the COVID-19 pandemic, the federal Liberal government of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau prorogued Parliament, preparing the way for a new Throne Speech where the government’s priorities are set out in broad policy terms.

A Throne Speech is usually given in general terms and, as such, rarely contains much in the way of details. Those come in a budget that usually follows close on to the start of a new Parliament.

But the guideposts usually set out the government’s broad map, and in the negotiations that followed the Throne Speech that saw proposed emergency benefits bumped from $400 to $500, the federal NDP has indicated that they would support the government, possibly into a full term (the government mandate continues for the next two years).

Her Excellency the Right Honourable Julie Payette, Canada’s governor general, delivered the Throne Speech where she laid out that the government’s approach will have four foundations.

“The first foundation of this plan is to fight the pandemic and save lives,” she said. “The second foundation of the government’s plan is supporting people and businesses through this crisis as long as it lasts, whatever it takes. Effectively dealing with the health crisis is the best thing we can do for the economy. Government action has already helped Canadians stay safe, and buffered the worst economic impacts. The third foundation is to build back better to create a stronger, more resilient Canada.”

The ‘build back better’ catchphrase would feature regularly in the speech.

“To do this, we must keep strengthening the middle class and helping people working hard to join it, and continue creating jobs and building long-term competitiveness with clean growth. We must also keep building safer communities for everyone. The fourth and final foundation of this plan is to stand up for who we are as Canadians. We cannot forget what has made us a country that is welcoming. A country that celebrates two official languages. That achieves progress on gender equality, walks the road of reconciliation, and fights discrimination of every kind.”

“This is our generation’s crossroads,” said the governor general. “Do we move Canada forward, or let people be left behind? Do we come out of this stronger, or paper over the cracks that the crisis has exposed? This is the time to remember who we are as Canadians. This is the opportunity to contain the global crisis and build back better, together. Beating this virus is a Team Canada effort.”

The official opposition lost no time in dismissing the government’s plan, even though newly-minted Conservative leader Erin O’Toole is currently sidelined after testing positive for COVID-19. He pre-recorded his response.

“We must remain extremely vigilant in our battle against the spread of COVID-19,” he said. “We must also be very vigilant about the future of our country. Across this country, millions of Canadians have lost their jobs, many fear losing their homes. Too many have lost hope. Mr. Trudeau says we’re all in this together, but Canada has never been more divided.”

He went on to say the Conservatives would vote against the Throne Speech that left too much of the west out of the mix.

“The throne speech includes a number of items that could make a difference in Algoma-Manitoulin-Kapuskasing, but without any details it is difficult to say whether they will or are merely nice sounding ideas,” said Algoma-Manitoulin-Kapuskasing MP Carol Hughes. “Many were re-announcements of what they had already put forward in previous budgets or promises they made, yet not delivered on.”

Ms. Hughes offered as an example Employment Insurance, which she said “needs to reflect the way we work today with so many people cobbling together a living by holding down multiple jobs. If it is reworked to help people who lose one of those jobs until they can find another, that will be good. It also needs to be available to the self-employed who haven’t been able to effectively tap the fund in the past. But we will need to see the plan before passing a verdict.” 

Ms. Hughes said “the same can be said for the notion of closing the Indigenous infrastructure gap. We don’t know what that means to the government and if there’s any new money for this.”

As for the internet/broadband commitments contained in the speech “they only accelerate existing funds that aren’t really helping us improve service in Algoma-Manitoulin-Kapuskasing,” she said. “I will be watching that intensely since we really need to improve service and affordability in the North so that we can be as productive as urban areas—that would be a great leveler of opportunity.”

Ms. Hughes noted that a lot of the items put forward by the government could be found in the NDP lexicon, but that doesn’t bother her. “They can borrow our ideas all they want because they will help us get to where we need to be,” she said. “We know from previous experience that retrofit programs for efficiency have been popular and successful.”

“If the Liberals followed through on their past commitments we would already have a national pharmacare program and a national child care program,” continued Ms. Hughes. “They can’t just continue to say nice things and not act on them–they have to be judged by their actions. At the end of the day the proof will be in whether the government is willing to work with opposition parties to improve their efforts and• in the legislation and the budget that supports it.”

Anishinabek Nation Grand Council Chief Glen Hare also expressed some scepticism over the fine words contained in the speech. “We’ve heard it all before,” he said. “It’s the same old, same old. It’s an election thing,” he surmised. “Everybody knows that COVID-19’s second wave is going to be devastating.”

The Manitoulin-Sudbury District Services Board (DSB) is one of the organizations watching the signals from the federal government closely, although as DSB CAO Fern Dominelli agrees, the devil is always in the details.

“The items that I found of interest from a DSB perspective were the federal wage subsidy top up for personal support workers (PSW),” he said. “Hopefully this will assist with job retention in this field; the hiring and retention of PSWs is a real challenge, especially on Manitoulin Island.”

“Secondly, the Canada Employment Wage Subsidy for Employers will support employers to keep their employees at work and off of EI or social assistance,” he notes. DSB administers the Ontario Works and Ontario Disability Support Program.

When it comes to the scaled up Canada Summer Jobs program for next summer, “that is always a great way to provide youth with their first employment opportunity and experience being in the workforce,” he said. “(That) pays dividends in the long run.”

“The Canada Emergency Response Benefit (CERB) will end and move into the EI system but the federal government is creating the Canada Recovery Benefit for people who do not qualify for regular EI, such as people with insufficient hours, the self employed and something they are calling the gig economy,” Mr. Dominelli noted. “Again, this will be of assistance, keeping people financially stable through these troubling times end avoids people disposing of all their assets in order to qualify for social assistance.”

Of particular interest is the commitment to accessible, affordable, high quality child care by expanding the Canada-wide Early Learning and Child Care System. “Learning from the Quebec system the government will continue to subsidize before and after school programs and providing flexible child care options for parents,” he pointed out. “Any expansion to a universal early learning and child care system is a great benefit to all families and will help the economy recover as parents look to returning to the workforce.” DSB administers the daycare programs on Manitoulin.

On another side of the ledger, there is additional support for the Canada Emergency Business Account. “Any support for business also helps sustain employment and keeps people financially independent,” noted Mr. Dominelli.

“The new Canadian Disability Benefit sounds interesting, but really there are no details at this point,” he said. As for the Universal Pharmacare System, national formulary and a rare disease strategy, “again this sounds great but will depend on how this is rolled out.”

“There was one billion for homelessness, which originally worked on reducing chronic homelessness by half; the new goal is to eliminate chronic homelessness all together,” said Mr. Dominelli. “This will include rapid housing and a first time home buyers plan which does seem extremely promising, but again we need to see details.”

Other points of interest to the DSB were the mentions of food insecurity where the government talked about strengthening the food supply chain, but again further details are needed.

Labour also seems pleased with the direction indicated in the Throne Speech. “The government is making it clear that it is listening to the concerns of workers and their families by recognizing that investments are the only way to get us through this pandemic,” said Canadian Labour Congress president Hassan Yussuff. “We only have to look at the United States to understand how critical it is for us to keep working together towards a full recovery.”

“I want to remind Prime Minister Trudeau that almost half of 133 First Nations communities in Ontario are under boil water advisories (BWAs) and four communities have do not consume orders,” said Ontario Regional Chief RoseAnne Archibald. “The original target date to end all BWAs was March 2021. We will clearly not reach this goal. Therefore, we need accelerated and increased funding to ensure that this basic human right is met for First Nations in Ontario. We support these commitments; however, the path forward requires a deliberate, targeted approach grounded in partnership and collaboration with First Nations. The government must begin by addressing the clear social and infrastructure gaps that disproportionately affect First Nations citizens and communities. Further, we ask for concrete actions to truly address economic and social inequities that have been highlighted by the pandemic.” 

“Today’s Speech from the Throne is a positive and hopeful signal to municipalities, and a clear statement that federal government will be a partner to cities and communities on the way forward,” said Federation of Canadian Municipalities (FCM) president Bill Karsten. “As frontline municipal leaders, keeping Canadians safe remains our top priority as the COVID-19 pandemic evolves. Every day, we are delivering essential services and tackling urgent challenges in ways that also lay groundwork for a stronger post-COVID Canada.”