Jagmeet Singh/Photo: NDP.ca
Jagmeet Singh. Photo source NDP.ca

The Trudeau Liberals and the party that gave them their most reliable support over the past two years, the NDP, have just had their first major disagreement since September’s election.

The dispute is all about the way the government is winding up most of its COVID-related measures, precipitously and without forewarning. It does not augur well for cooperation between the two parties in the new parliament. 

On Wednesday October 20, Prime Minister Trudeau and New Democratic Leader Jagmeet Singh had a cordial conversation. 

Trudeau, his staff reported, “reiterated the government’s steadfast commitment to supporting Canadians through the fight against COVID-19.” 

The prime minister said the government’s legislative priorities – when Parliament finally meets on November 22, after a six-month pause – will include ten days of paid sick leave for federally-regulated workers and making it a criminal offence to harass or threaten health care workers.

Both have long been high on the NDP’s wish list. 

Other high priority items for the New Democrats are child care and housing. In his chat with Singh, Trudeau emphasized those are also priorities for his government.

Then, the next day, Thursday October 21, the Prime Minister and his most senior minister, Finance Minister and Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland, announced the government would end a number of its key COVID-19-related financial supports, as scheduled, two days later, on Saturday October 23. 

Notable among the terminated programs is the Canada Recovery Benefit (CRB) of $300 per week for laid-off workers. That benefit was the successor to the more generous $500 per week CERB, the Canada Emergency Response Benefit. 

As the pandemic struck and closed down much of the economy early in 2020, federal civil servants came up with a plan for the CERB in record time. Among the CERB’s virtues was that it would be paid to gig and part-time workers not covered by Canada’s inadequate and archaic Employment Insurance system.

When she announced the end of the CERB’s successor and a number of other COVID measures, Freeland explained that Canada has now recovered 100 per cent of the jobs lost during the pandemic. That’s a better record than the United States, which has only recovered 78 per cent of its lost jobs. 

The Finance Minister’s point was that our economy is doing very well, and no longer needs large-scale pandemic-related measures. At the same time, Freeland was giving more than a wink and a nod to the loud voices who have persistently complained the CRB discourages workers from accepting low-wage jobs, especially in the service sector. 

Mind you, the government is not totally abandoning workers displaced by the pandemic. 

It will institute a new Canada Worker Lockdown Benefit, which will provide $300 per week to Canadians forced out of work by provincial COVID-related closures of economic sectors. 

The government has yet to provide details on this new program. 

It did not, for instance, say what it might do if a province such as Saskatchewan were to refuse to institute mandatory lock-down measures even in the face of a catastrophically high case count, and chose instead to leave it up to individual businesses to decide how to best protect their customers and workers. 

No plan to reform flawed EI system

In addition to ending the CRB, the Trudeau government is also planning to allow the emergency rent and wage subsidies to lapse on Saturday October 23. It will, however, maintain the special COVID-related sickness and caregiving benefits, and the Canada Recovery Hiring Program, until May 2022.

The government will also create two new programs which target businesses in particular need of support: a tourism and hospitality recovery program and a program aimed at “hardest-hit businesses”.

“Targeting” is the name of the game in this new phase of the Trudeau government’s COVID recovery plan. 

The government has pledged over seven billion dollars to transitional measures which are more narrowly focused than the broad-based programs it deemed necessary during the darkest days of the pandemic.

For their part, New Democrats do not believe those dark days are over quite yet.

They point to the severe pandemic situations in Saskatchewan and Alberta, and argue that it is too soon to put an end to the CRB and the wage subsidy. 

Shortly after the government’s announcement, NDP Leader Singh issued a statement saying “the Liberal government is walking away from Canadians in need.”

New Democrats are particularly critical of the fact the government is winding up the CRB before it institutes “long-needed Employment Insurance reforms”.

The NDP want the government to maintain the CRB “for as long as we are in a pandemic”. More important, they want the government to “fix the critical gaps in our Employment Insurance (EI) system to make sure people aren’t left to fend for themselves.” 

Reforming EI, which the government promised in a vague and non-specific way in last spring’s budget, would require new legislation. And to introduce new legislation the government would need Parliament to sit. 

Right now, Parliament will not get back to business for another full month. And even then, it will likely only sit for a few weeks before going on its habitual six-to-seven-week winter hiatus. Whatever long-term plans Justin Trudeau and Chrystia Freeland might have for the economy, they are in no hurry to share them with Parliament or with the Canadian people.  

Karl Nerenberg

Karl Nerenberg joined rabble in 2011 to cover Canadian politics. He has worked as a journalist and filmmaker for many decades, including two and a half decades at CBC/Radio-Canada. Among his career highlights...