The Liberal government has unveiled the roadmap it says will help Canadians weather the unrelenting storm of the COVID-19 pandemic and “build back better” for a fairer, more resilient country.
In the Senate chambers Wednesday, Gov. Gen. Julie Payette delivered the Liberal government’s much anticipated throne speech to mark the second session of the 43rd Parliament. The speech, penned by the Prime Minister’s Office, clocked in at about an hour.
The plan promised a full-court press on the pandemic, guided by science, until a vaccine is available. With fears of an imminent second wave as cases rise, it urged Canadians to come together to face an “invisible enemy” that respects no borders, calling it “the most serious public health crisis Canada has ever faced.”
It also called on parliamentarians to meet the crucial moment like past Canadians who led the country through wars and depression.
“Like a reed in high winds, we may sway but we will not break. Because our roots are firmly in place, our goals clear, and because we have hope — the hope that lifts the soul on dark days and keeps us focused on the future,” Payette said, reading from the more than 6,800 word text.
The pandemic exposed “fundamental gaps in our society” and in countries around the world, it reads, from the parents (“especially moms”) forced to choose between their career and children to the neglect in many long-term care centres that shocked the conscience of Canadians over these past six months.
The government’s approach to the crisis will have four “foundations,” the speech said:
- Fighting the pandemic and saving lives;
- Supporting people and businesses through the emergency “as long as it lasts, whatever it takes”;
- “Building back better” by creating jobs and strengthening the middle class;
- Standing up for Canadian values, including progress on reconciliation, gender equality, and systemic racism.
“This is our generation’s crossroads. 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,” Payette said.
The speech included elements meant to appeal to the Liberals’ political rivals, and ignored some other requests from opposition leaders. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s minority government will need support from at least one of the main parties to survive a confidence vote and stave off a fall election. Conservatives have already announced they won’t support the plan.
For those expecting a fiscal anchor or path back to balanced budgets, the speech made it clear that “this is not the time for austerity.” Liberals are promising an update to Canada’s economic response to the COVID-19 crisis this fall that will include fiscal projections.
Here are some key highlights.
“The Government is pursuing every technology and every option for faster tests”
The speech promises that Liberals will help provinces and territories ramp up their COVID-19 testing capacity so that Canadians are not stuck waiting in line for hours. But the promise to seek out faster tests for Canadians from coast-to-coast seems tailor-made to respond to concerns raised recently by Conservatives.
Tory Leader Erin O’Toole, who has been diagnosed with COVID-19, and his health critic Michelle Rempel Garner have both been pressing for Health Canada to approve rapid tests being used in other countries that are cheaper and can deliver results in 15 minutes.
“As soon as tests are approved for safe use in Canada, the Government will do everything it can to seem them deployed,” it reads. The government will also create a “testing assistance response team” to meet the increased demand for tests, including in isolated communities.
“The surge this fall reinforces what we already know — that we must do even more.”
The speech promises continued work to secure the personal protective equipment (PPE) Canadians need by building up domestic capacity with thousands of manufacturers and businesses who heeded the government’s call to manufacture the equipment.
In a readout of his conversation with Trudeau on Friday, O’Toole said he stressed the need to “ramp up testing capabilities and methods” and focus on Canada becoming more self-reliant by producing more PPE and medical equipment at home.
The speech notes Canada has secured access to vaccine candidates and therapeutics while “investing in manufacturing here at home.” The government is pledging to get vaccines to Canadians when they are ready with investments to beef up its capacity for distribution.
“Canada’s top scientific minds are guiding the Government every step of the way.”
“The Government will launch a campaign to create over one million jobs”
Though the speech touted how emergency measures such as the Canada Emergency Response Benefit (CERB) cushioned the blow for Canadians who lost work during the crisis, unemployment remains in the double digits. Women, young people, and racialized Canadians “have borne the brunt of job losses,” it reads.
The government is pledging to use a range of tools to spur job growth, “including direct investments in the social sector and infrastructure, immediate training to quickly skillup workers and incentives for employers to hire and retain workers.”
The government is also promising to eliminate barriers for interprovincial trade and scale up its Youth Employment and Skills Strategy.
Obliquely acknowledging the possibility of more lockdowns similar to what we saw in the early months of the pandemic, the government is also teasing “additional financial support directly to businesses” which might have to shut down because of local public health decisions.
“The Government will help businesses adapt for the future and thrive”
The Canada Emergency Wage Subsidy — which sees Ottawa cover up to 75 per cent of wages for eligible businesses who have lost revenue during the crisis — will be extended until next summer. “The Government will work with businesses and labour to ensure the program meets the needs of the health and economic situation as it evolves.”
Liberals are also committing to:
O’Toole said last week that he stressed to the prime minister the importance of additional support for small businesses, including more support for “workforce recovery,” especially in the hard-hit tourism sector.
“Canada needs an EI system for the 21st century”
As expected, the speech outlined the phaseout of the popular CERB, set to expire on Sept. 26. Liberals had already said they would expand employment insurance with the goal of moving everyone on the CERB to that system. A new benefit that pays $400 a week for up to 26 weeks — the Canada Recovery Benefit — will replace the CERB for those ineligible for EI, such as “gig” and contract workers.
UPDATE - Sept. 24, 2020: Liberals tabled legislation a day after the throne speech to increase the value of the Canada Recovery Benefit to $500 a week, instead of $400.
“Over the coming months, the EI system will become the sole delivery mechanism for employment benefits, including for Canadians who did not qualify for EI before the pandemic,” it reads. “This pandemic has shown that Canada needs an EI system for the 21st century, including for the self-employed and those in the gig economy.”
NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh had been calling on the government to extend the CERB until the benefit could be replaced by something paying the same level of support. CERB has paid $2,000 for a four-week period, up to 28 weeks, to eligible Canadians.
Singh suggested to reporters Tuesday that a CERB extension and federal leadership on paid sick leave would be enough to secure his party’s support for the throne speech. The speech made no explicit mention of paid sick leave.
“The Government will make a significant, long-term, sustained investment to create a Canada-wide early learning and childcare system”
In what has been dubbed a “she-cession,” the COVID-19 crisis has been hardest on women, particularly low-income women, the speech states.
The government is promising an action plan for women in the economy, led by a task force of diverse experts, to ensure the pandemic’s legacy is not “one of rolling back the clock on women’s participation in the workforce.”
The Liberals are promising to do more to create affordable childcare by learning from Quebec’s universal model introduced in 1996, and to “work with all provinces and territories to ensure that high-quality care is accessible to all.”
The government also reiterated a commitment to “subsidizing before- and after-school program costs.”
“The Government will… identify additional ways to tax extreme wealth inequality”
In what might be music to the ears of NDP MPs, the Liberals want the rich to pay more. The speech says the government will “limit the stock option deduction for wealthy individuals at large, established corporations,” and take on “corporate tax avoidance by digital giants.”
While it falls short of the NDP push of a so-called “super-wealth tax” on Canada’s 1 per cent, the party has long called on Liberals to scrap a stock-option deduction that taxes 50 per cent of the earnings an employee receives when they cash in as part of compensation packages, provided certain conditions are met. The NDP say the loophole mostly benefits CEOs and wealthy executives.
The NDP has also demanded the government scrap tax exemptions for multinational web giants operating in Canada, such as Netflix and Facebook. “Web giants are taking Canadians’ money while imposing their own priorities,” the speech states. “Things must change, and will change.”
The government repeated a promise to ensure revenue is shared more fairly with creators and media on this side of the border and ensure digital giants “contribute to the creation, production, and distribution” of Canadian stories.
The heritage minister has signalled his intention to introduce legislation by the end of this year, but the throne speech did not outline any specific measures Canadians can expect to see on this file.
“The Government will work with Parliament on Criminal Code amendments to explicitly penalize those who neglect seniors under their care”
The government is promising to do more on long-term care, an area of provincial and territorial jurisdiction, by bringing in new criminal measures for those who fail seniors in their care.
The pledge comes months after members of the Canadian Armed Forces were sent to Ontario and Quebec long-term care homes ravaged by COVID-19 outbreaks. Military members blew the whistle over the shameful conditions in some facilities, which included cockroach infestations, force-feeding and residents left crying for hours.
The Liberals say they will also work with provinces and territories to set new national standards for long-term care and “further targeted measures for personal support workers.” The feds reached a deal with the provinces and territories in May to top up the pay of essential workers in long-term care centres.
“The Government remains committed to a national, universal pharmacare program”
Liberals reiterated that universal pharmacare, an expensive proposition that cracked their last throne speech in December, remains a priority. It was also a major NDP plank in the last federal election.
The government says it will “accelerate steps” with the provinces to achieve the system by establishing a national formulary to keep drug prices low and a rare-disease strategy that will help Canadians save on expensive drugs.
“The Government will immediately bring forward a plan to exceed Canada’s 2030 climate goal”
Though the throne speech may not have had the focus on climate change that some were hoping, Liberals have promised to create thousands of jobs retrofitting homes and buildings and to make zero-emissions vehicles more affordable.
The government is promising a fund to attract investments in zero-emissions products and “cut the corporate tax rate in half” for companies seeking to make Canada a leader in clean technology.
Though Canada committed in the Paris climate agreement to cut its greenhouse gas emissions to 30 per cent below 2005 levels by 2030, the government isn’t currently on pace to hit that goal.
Still, Liberals say they will “legislate Canada’s goal of net-zero emissions by 2050.”
Green Party parliamentary leader Elizabeth May told reporters earlier in the day that she and her two MPs would not vote for a throne speech unless it committed to a massive decrease in Canada’s greenhouse gas emissions.
“The Green MPs are calling for a doubling of Canada’s climate target reaching a 60% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions, relative to 2005 levels, by 2030,” the party said in a statement last week.
The speech also says Ottawa will support manufacturing, natural resource and energy sectors as they “transform to meet a net zero future.”
The government said it will ban single-use plastics next year — another campaign promise possibly put on the backburner this year.
‘There is work still to be done, including on the road of reconciliation, and in addressing systemic racism’
The throne speech also promised new measures after a summer of reckoning over anti-Black and anti-Indigenous racism.
“Many people — especially Indigenous people, and Black and racialized Canadians — have raised their voices and stood up to demand change,” the speech reads. “They are telling us we must do more. The Government agrees.”
Among other things, the government says it will accelerate work on the national action plan responding to the calls for justice from the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigneous Women and Girls, and the implementation of the calls to action from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.
Liberals also say they will introduce legislation to implement the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples before the end of 2020.
To tackle systemic racism, the government is promising “better collection of disaggregated data,” an action plan to increase representation in the public service, and “action on online hate.”
Acknowledging the over-representation of Black Canadians and Indigenous Peoples in the criminal justice system, Liberals say they will bring forth legislation to “address systemic inequalities” in all phases of the criminal justice system, including sentencing, and enhance civilian oversight of law enforcement agencies, including the RCMP.
The Liberals also want to modernize training for police, including “standards around the use of force.”
The government says it will:
- Bring in a “new Canadian disability benefit” modelled after the guaranteed income supplement for seniors;
- Keep its earlier commitments to increase Old Age Security once a senior turns 75;
- Move forward on its plan to empower municipalities to restrict or ban handguns;
- Work to ensure all Canadians have access to high-speed internet;
- Increase funding for rapid housing as part of its national housing strategy;
- Continue to invest in international development and work to ensure developing countries have access to a vaccine.
With files from The Canadian Press