It might seem like it was just yesterday that the re-elected Liberals decided to call Parliament back in session. But this Friday, December 17, Parliament will wind up for the year. It will not return until the very last day of January, 2022.
There is not a lot of time to get through the remaining business, and the Trudeau government has a lot on its plate.
The government managed to get a law banning so-called conversion “therapy” through the House of Commons in record time, thanks to a rare all-party agreement.
And the government can count on New Democratic support for another bill that extends sick leave for federally-regulated workers and raises their minimum wage.
The Trudeau team is not in such a comfortable position, however, when it comes to yet another key bill, C-2, a package of targeted measures designed to supplant the much more expansive (and expensive) COVID-19 emergency measures.
C-2 would replace the emergency wage, rent and hiring subsidies enacted last spring with a new, more limited payment.
It will only be available to the beleaguered tourism and hospitality sectors, and, in the words of the legislation, “the hardest-hit organizations that face significant revenue declines.”
The bill would also replace the Canada Recovery Benefit (CRB) with a new, more narrowly focused program.
The CRB, which had replaced the earlier and even more-inclusive Canada Emergency Recovery Benefit (CERB), was available to all workers not covered by employment insurance who had lost work and income due to COVID-19.
The new measure in C-2 is a Canada Workers’ Lockdown Benefit (CWLB). As its name suggests, this benefit will be available only to workers directly affected by a government-ordered COVID lockdown.
The legislation does not define what would constitute such a lockdown. When asked, Finance Minister Chrystia Freeland suggested the definition would be left to the discretion of officials.
Liberals need the Bloc to get C-2 through the House
The Conservatives are unlikely to help the government pass Bill C-2. There are extreme limits to the official opposition’s willingness to support their Liberal adversaries.
The Conservatives’ main battle cries these days are the traditional small-c conservative calls for restraint on government spending and for stern measures to combat inflation. They are not interested in any new federal spending initiatives.
The New Democrats have been the Liberals’ main dance partner for the past two years, but they too are unlikely to support C-2. They believe the bill is excessively narrow in its focus and leaves out too many businesses and individuals which are still struggling.
New Democrats are also angry with the way the government has treated low-income seniors.
Many Canadian seniors receive the Canada or Quebec pensions (CPP or QPP), which are based on lifelong contributions by worker and employers. And most seniors are entitled to Old Age Security (OAS), which is not based on contributions, and which goes to all, based only on age. Affluent seniors have part or all of their OAS clawed back.
Seniors at or below the poverty line also receive the Guaranteed Income Supplement (GIS), a measure that has helped raise many Canadians out of lifelong poverty. Some of those senior Canadians work to supplement the GIS. They were thus entitled to the CERB when the pandemic took away their income.
Now, the government is recovering that CERB money from these low-income seniors, by cutting their GIS payments, in whole or in part.
New Democrats consider these cuts to be unconscionable and unfair.
NDP MPs are particularly irked at the fact the government has not gone after high-paid executives who received bonuses while their companies received pandemic support. Nor has the government targeted any of the many companies which paid out big dividends to their shareholders while happily cashing federal pandemic relief cheques.
Instead of taking on the big guys who can afford armies of lawyers and accountants, federal tax collectors – as is their wont – are going after the low-hanging fruit.
Any ordinary person who has ever dealt with Canada Revenue Agency (CRA) officials will know they can be relentless. When they have a mind to, and when they are unlikely to encounter much resistance, CRA bureaucrats will do their absolute best to collect every penny they consider to be theirs.
As for wealthy Canadians with offshore accounts or mega-corporations that evade taxes in various ways – the government walks on eggshells when dealing with them.
And so, low-income seniors are suddenly finding themselves short of cash to pay for life’s basic necessities.
As the NDP’s finance critic Daniel Blaikie put it:
“Working seniors already struggle to make ends meet. Denying them the GIS, or severely reducing it, as a result of last year’s emergency benefits is not only unfair but will make it impossible for some of them to make rent. The point of the emergency benefits was to prevent evictions and keep food on the table, not to merely delay homelessness and hunger.”
Minister Freeland expressed sympathy for this group of seniors when testifying at the House of Commons Finance Committee. But the minister suggested fixing the problem was, somehow, technically complicated.
That, at least, is what bureaucrats have told Freeland.
Senior Liberals do not dare defend teacher victimized by Law 21
The finance minister might want to put a priority on finding a fix to the GIS conundrum. The one party that has been most supportive of Bill C-2, the Bloc Québécois, has made ending cuts in GIS payments to low-income seniors a key condition for its support. And the government desperately needs the Bloc to get this one through the House.
New Democrats have a number reasons to vote against C-2. Dealing with the cuts to seniors who got pandemic help would not likely be enough to win their support.
The Bloc, on the other hand, has only one other condition for its support.
It wants new targeted measures to assist people who work in the arts and cultural industries. There ought to be few technical barriers to satisfying that demand.
But there is another – unspoken – issue for the Bloc.
The Quebec-based party regards itself as the defender of Quebec in the federal parliament, on all matters. Among those matters is Quebec’s now notorious Law 21.
That law prohibits people who wear visible, notionally religious symbols or clothing from holding a variety of jobs in the provincial public service.
Law 21 is in the news again after the Western Quebec School Board was forced to reassign a teacher who wore a hijab, a headscarf often associated with the Muslim religion. The teacher says she does not consider her scarf to be a religious symbol. It is, rather, she says, an expression of her culture and tradition.
No matter. This mild-mannered and much-beloved teacher can no longer, it seems, be trusted to help impressionable youngsters learn to read.
Some federal politicians have spoken out in defence of the teacher, including a very few Liberal backbenchers.
Canada’s ambassador to the United Nations Bob Rae also added his voice to the protests. Bloc Leader Yves-François Blanchet reacted by proposing the ambassador be hauled before the House of Commons Global Affairs Committee to justify his flagrant disrespect for Quebec’s jurisdiction.
But no senior elected Liberals have weighed in with any vigour.
Quebec premier François Legault has not held back. He upbraided the school board for hiring the teacher in the first place, and had not a word of solace for a qualified individual who was just trying to do a good job.
If Justin Trudeau has decided to keep his powder dry in this case, it might be because he doesn’t believe federal intervention would do any good.
He might have concluded that even Quebeckers who do not approve of Law 21 could be sensitive to federal interference in what they see as Quebec’s internal affairs.
In fact, at a news conference in Ottawa on Monday, December 13, he said as much.
The prime minister said he did not want to give the Quebec government or supporters of Law 21 the “excuse of a battle between Ottawa and Quebec.”
Trudeau did not want to raise the spectre of “federal interference” in Quebec affairs, which would distract from the essence of the controversy over Law 21 – a law which, he emphasized, he did not believe was “good for Quebec.”
Trudeau cited the many ways in which he believes Quebeckers are strong supporters of human rights – on gender, for instance – and opined that “Quebeckers themselves profoundly disagree with the fact that a teacher could lose her job because of her religion.”
The prime minister did not say anything about his government’s current legislative agenda. For his part, the Bloc’s Blanchet claims his party does not link its absolute and relentless support for Law 21 to other matters before the House of Commons.
The Liberal government might not want to push too far to test that statement, however.
The prime minister needs the Bloc right now. And that gives him at least one pressing reason to be as discrete as possible about the way Quebec’s Law 21 has victimized a teacher who works just a few kilometres from Parliament Hill.