Finance Minister and Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland delivers the fall economic update to the House of Commons remotely on Dec. 14, 2021. Credit: Screenshot / CPAC video

Finance Minister Chrystia Freeland delivered her Fall Economic and Fiscal Update on Tuesday afternoon, December 14, but she was upstaged by the latest news of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Just as the Justin Trudeau government was trying to show it is on track to getting Canada into full economic re-building and recovery mode, a microscopic mutated virus called Omicron, invisible to the naked eye, put a huge roadblock in its way.

The update clearly shows the marks of Omicron’s uninvited intrusion. The document’s cover does not depict economic activity taking off once more. Instead, it shows a nurse administering a vaccine to a child. The unmistakable message is, to quote baseball’s great malaprop-ist Yogi Berra: “It ain’t over ‘til it’s over!”

The document makes no mention of a number of the key pledges of last spring’s budget or the more recent election campaign.

Indeed, the budget barely touches on the massive global challenge of climate change, which, a few short weeks ago, the Trudeau government deemed to be a dire existential threat. The most significant mention of climate change comes when Freeland blames it for contributing to “economic volatility”.

This year’s update does not lead with the usual overview of our current economic performance. It saves the debt and deficit, unemployment, tax and other revenue and government spending figures for the back half of the update.

The opening section is all about our current and unavoidable obsession with the never-ending pandemic. It outlines the government’s ongoing work on COVID-19, starting with what it calls a “world-leading” vaccination campaign. (An easily debatable claim).

The Liberals tout the decision they took from the outset of the vaccination campaign to prioritize first doses, in order to get as many jabs in as many arms as quickly as possible.

More recently, the update tells us, the government approved at least one vaccine, the one produced by Pfizer, for children ages 5 to 11. The update goes on to boast the government has moved quickly to get that now-approved vaccine into the arms of youngsters throughout Canada.

Freeland’s document points out that by early November of 2021, one fifth of new COVID cases were in children under 12. The hospitalization rate is low for children, but it is not zero. And children can contribute to the spread of the virus to more vulnerable populations.

The government also touts its more recent success with the booster, or third shots for adults. The update reports that the federal government has contracted for enough Pfizer and Moderna shots to get every Canadian adult boosted.

Making that happen, in practice, is up to the provinces and territories. They each administer their own vaccination programs.

So far, provincial and territorial performance on that score has been uneven, at best.

New money, mostly for COVID, but a pittance for ventilation

While the update fails to address many of the promises the Liberals have made over the past year, there is some new money in it, most notably what many in the media breathlessly reported as a whopping $40 billion to re-dress the historic, inadequate funding for Indigenous child and family services.

In fact, while that $40 billion figure does appear in the fine print of the update (page 35 to be exact), there is less than meets the eye.

This spending would be spread over at least six years, and divided into a number of different programs. The update is obtuse in its characterization of the $40 billion. Some of that money might be spending that would have happened as a matter of course. 

More important, there is no actual plan, as yet, to spend anything to “compensate for harms by the First Nations Child and Family Services program and for delays or denials in needed children’s services,” to use the government’s own words.

The key fact is that the $40 billion is only a provisional sum.

What the government will ultimately do – and spend – will depend on the outcome of its current negotiations with Cindy Blackstock’s organization, the First Nations Child and Family Caring Society, and the Assembly of First Nations (AFN).

Among other highlights is a commitment of $60 million in new money, via a Performing Arts Workers’ Resilience Fund, to help artists in the live performance sector whose incomes have been devastated by the pandemic. That has been a key Bloc Québécois demand, and the government needs Bloc support to get at least part of its legislative agenda through the House of Commons.

As for the planned re-launch of the economy post-pandemic, we will have to wait for the spring 2022 budget for that.

The most significant spending commitments in the update are all COVID-19 related. And among those are some you can find in a section of the update most overlooked: on Clean and Healthy Indoor Air.

Our understanding of COVID-19 has evolved greatly since the virus first made its appearance nearly two years ago.

Remember when we were enjoined to constantly wash out hands and avoid touching our faces? When many medical authorities said masks were not necessary – and, in any case, were not easy to find.

That has all changed.

Scientists now understand this virus to be principally transmitted by, in the language of the U.S. Center for Disease Control, “fine respiratory droplets and aerosols.” Aerosols are droplets or particles suspended in air.

Where we all encounter the greatest danger of inhaling the virus, especially during the winter months, is in poorly-ventilated, indoor spaces. Governments, businesses, school boards and other institutions knew this simple truth many months ago, but were painfully slow to take the necessary measures to decrease risks.

Many schools throughout Canada (and elsewhere) continue to be inadequately ventilated. The same goes for shopping malls, factories, warehouses, restaurants and retail stores. It is rather late in the game, but the federal government is finally acting, although only with some very tentative measures.

The finance minister’s update includes a Small Business Refundable Tax Credit of up to $10,000 per location and $50,000 per business organization, which businesses can receive for “eligible air quality improvement expenses.”

There is, in addition, $100 million for provinces and territories for “improvements to ventilation” in schools, and an additional $70 million to the $100 million the government announced a year ago “to support ventilation projects in public and community buildings such as hospitals, libraries and community centres.”

It’s something, but it’s not much, considering the degree to which stopping the spread of this virus entails getting it out of the air we breathe.

In the hours and days after Chrystia Freeland delivered it to the House – remotely, because of her own potential exposure to COVID-19 – many stepped forward to praise or criticize the update.

The NDP said it did not do enough for Canadians in need.

The Conservatives said spending, government debt, and inflation were out of control.

The progressive Centre for Policy Alternatives pointed to the lower-than-projected deficit figure and suggested the government has more fiscal room to make real reforms to inadequate social programs such as employment insurance.

The main small business lobby group, the Canadian Federation for Independent Business (CFIB), thanked the government for extending an emergency business loan program until the end of 2024, while it complained the new business supports announced in Bill C-2 are too limited.

Nobody who commented on the update had a word to say about ventilation or air quality.

Unless more Canadians get seized with the crucial ventilation issue and start pushing their governments to take it seriously, it is doubtful we will get more than the weak and half-hearted measures in the update.

Karl Nerenberg

Karl Nerenberg joined rabble in 2011 to cover news for the rest of us from Parliament Hill. Karl has been a journalist and filmmaker for over 25 years, including eight years as the producer of the CBC...