Bloc Québécois leader Yves-François Blanchet aptly summed up the Trudeau government’s thin and flaccid 2021 throne speech in one cutting sentence: “It would have taken a half day for a junior college student to write it.”
Blanchet and New Democratic Leader Jagmeet Singh both pointed out that the speech was long on platitudes and buzzwords, and frighteningly short on anything resembling tangible commitments. In Singh’s words, this government appears to have “run out of steam.”
The speech started by naming the government’s big priorities, namely: to “fight climate change, strengthen the middle class, walk the road of reconciliation, keep Canadians safe and healthy, and position Canada for success in an uncertain world.”
But good luck to you if you expected to find anything in the subsequent enunciation of details beyond vacuous banalities.
On climate change, for instance, the speech recognizes that “Canada’s children and grandchildren will judge this generation by its action – or inaction – on the defining challenge of the time” and promises net zero emissions by the year 2050.
How does the government propose to achieve that goal?
Well, in addition to the carbon tax currently in place, the government “will help to make energy efficient homes more affordable” and introduce non-specific “measures to build clean, efficient, and affordable communities.”
It will also “make it easier for people to choose zero-emission vehicles” – not sure how exactly – and work to make “clean, affordable power” available in every Canadian community.
There is a nod to the private sector, with a pledge to “work with businesses to make Canada the best place to start and grow a clean technology company.” When governments have no plans, they are fond of saying they will “work with” somebody or other.
There is an eight word — count them — eight-word response (which looks like it was inserted at the last moment) to the kind of climate-change-generated disasters of the sort we are witnessing in British Columbia. The government will “provide help for people displaced by climate-related disasters.”
“Provide help.” Thanks. British Columbians are no doubt overwhelmed by gratitude at that pledge.
The NDP leader, who represents a British Columbia riding, was particularly outraged at the government’s weak effort on this issue. (Meanwhile, the B.C. NDP is likewise being criticized for its weak response to the current emergent flooding and for its dedication to the Coastal GasLink project on Wet’suwet’en territory. Singh has also been criticized for remaining tight-lipped on the provincial NDP’s actions).
The speech says nothing about strengthening infrastructure, improving emergency warning and response systems, or even of doing an inventory of regions and localities susceptible to climate-induced damage.
The government seems to think that after an election and a five-month pause in Parliament it can get away with an offer to “provide help” of an entirely non-specific nature to Canadians victimized by catastrophic weather events.
No recognition of global dimension of climate change
As is the Trudeau government’s wont, the speech pays dutiful obeisance, while addressing climate change, to the other side, the polluting side.
The speech seeks to allay any fears on the part of Canada’s extractive industries that climate change actions might hurt their bottom lines. Indeed, the speech goes further, when – despite warnings from experts that Canada’s exported emissions might be more harmful than our domestic ones – it states:
“While the government takes strong action to fight climate change, it will also work just as hard to get Canadian resources to new markets.”
There is not a word in the throne speech about eliminating, or even reducing, this country’s world-beating high subsidies to the oil and gas industries.
Singh picked up on that omission, and was not impressed. Canada’s fossil fuel subsidies, in the form of tax breaks for exploration, for instance, or government support to exporters, are an embarrassment for us on the world stage.
More surprisingly, there is not a word on a just transition for workers in the energy and natural resource sectors who could be displaced by measures to reduce net emissions to zero.
Finally, when it comes to consideration of the global aspects of climate change – a major matter of concern at the recent Glasgow conference – it is also entirely absent from the speech.
In the speech’s five short paragraphs on foreign policy, there is general talk of trade, multilateralism, coalition building and a rules-based international order. But there is no answer whatsoever to the urgent calls for increased global solidarity at the Glasgow climate change conference.
Just a bit more than a week ago, Patricia Espinosa, the United Nations climate change chief, called on the wealthy countries – which have produced most of the climate-changing emissions over the past six decades – to close the “technical gap” with poorer nations and to live up to their 2015 pledge to those countries of $100 billion for climate change mitigation.
Prior to the United Nations climate change conference, Canada had been part of an effort, together with Germany, to convince fellow wealthy countries to pony up. The throne speech is deafeningly silent on the subject.
It boggles the mind that climate change could be such a huge priority for the government, at least rhetorically, one day, and a matter of such minor importance the next.
Here comes the middle class – once more
The middle class is one of the Trudeau government’s favourite buzzwords. The prime minister eliminated the job of “minister of middle class prosperity” in his most recent cabinet shuffle. But the speech does not forget the Liberals’ favourite class.
Here again, tangibility and concreteness are almost entirely lacking. There is one rare specific pledge amidst the platitudes and generalities here: to lower cell phone bills by 25 per cent. How will they do that? And when? Don’t ask.
There is another pledge, which the government had made previously, to increase the federal minimum wage. That measure will touch federally-regulated sectors such as ports, rail and air transportation, communications and broadcasting and banking. The idea, which the Liberals once vigorously opposed, came from the NDP.
In addition, as part of its middle-class agenda, the government will “give more support to students” and compensate farmers in the supply management sectors whose lost out in the renegotiated North American trade agreement.
Plus, the government will “pursue a responsible fiscal plan to keep the economy strong.”
And that’s pretty much it for the supposedly high-priority middle class. Better luck next time.
Nothing on Indigenous control of natural resources
Then comes reconciliation with Indigenous peoples.
The speech enumerates what the government believed to be its successes on this file: elimination of 87 boil water advisories, equity in funding for First Nations education, Indigenous jurisdiction over child and family services, and completion of the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls.
All of that is salutary.
However, when it comes to the government’s plans for this coming session of Parliament, the speech mostly offers generalities and housekeeping measures.
The government will take unspecified “action” to implement the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples in the first year of its mandate.
It will work with Indigenous people on legislation to assure Indigenous communities “have access to high-quality, culturally relevant health care and mental health services.”
The government will work to “close the infrastructure gap” (more of a gaping hole, in fact) by 2030, and “ensure that Indigenous people who were harmed under the discriminatory child welfare system are compensated in a way that is both fair and timely.”
A human rights tribunal and the federal court forced the government’s hand on that one. Marc Miller, the minister of Crown-Indigenous relations, has promised a negotiated agreement on compensation and other related issues by the end of the year – which is coming soon.
The speech makes only the vaguest of vague allusions to the big issues for Indigenous peoples: self-government and control of land and resources.
The government will “take new steps to ensure it is living up to the spirit and intent of treaties, agreements, and other constructive arrangements made with Indigenous peoples.” And it will “continue to move forward together to ensure that Indigenous peoples are in control of their own destiny and making decisions about their communities.”
If that sounds like meaningless and mushy pablum that’s because it is.
It is perhaps not surprising that a government which is intent on pushing pipelines and other resource-development projects through and on Indigenous lands would shy away from any talk about natural resource royalties for Indigenous nations.
Nor is it surprising that the speech does not come close to acknowledging Indigenous peoples’ sovereignty over their true traditional lands – not merely the scraps of reserve land the Euro-Canadian colonizers foisted on them.
Bloc will support; NDP not happy
One area where the speech makes tangible commitments is that of gun violence. The government will ban military-style assault rifles and “take steps” to introduce a buy-back program, and, more important: “municipalities that want to ban handguns will be able to do so.”
The commitment to a municipal ban on handguns is a concrete response to pressure from big city mayors, notably Toronto’s John Tory and recently re-elected Valérie Plante of Montreal.
The Conservatives will almost certainly side with their gun-lobby friends and oppose the Trudeau government’s gun control measures. For the most part, however, their objections will focus on excessive government spending which, they say, fuels inflation. That is traditional small-c conservative – as opposed to populist conservative – territory.
And while the NDP’s Singh and the Bloc’s Blanchet were both contemptuous of the vapid speech they appear to take opposite approaches when it comes to supporting it.
Blanchet says it will be hard to vote against a throne speech which is so inoffensive and says so little.
Singh says it is obvious from this weak and non-committal speech the government is not interested in “working together” with the party to its left. Aside from the flabby plans on climate change and Indigenous rights, Singh points to the absence of any commitments to universal pharmacare and dental care.
Oddly, the Trudeau government had at least mentioned those as long-term goals in the past. For Singh, we have gone backwards on the goal of expanding health care in Canada.
And so, the NDP will consider its options. The government only needs the support of one party to get anything passed, and they appear to have it with the separatist Bloc Québécois.
As Parliament resumes business mere weeks away from the winter holiday break, it will have to hurry if it wants to get anything passed.