Amidst the COVID-19 pandemic, the Liberal campaign pillar of “building a strong middle class” may be taking on a stronger meaning. The economic stimulus package released on March 18th ensures all Canadians have access to the funds required to afford food and shelter. Bearing access to resources in mind, Trudeau’s government closed the Canada-US border to non-essential travel, while ensuring goods and services continue to flow.
COVID-19 provides a stark reminder that for many Canadians the ability to fulfill basic human rights, like the right to food or shelter, is tenuous. With Parliament cutting back the 42nd session by two weeks, Canadians should expect less legislation passed. It remains to be seen how this will affect campaign promises relating to inequality and human rights.
Bills Protecting Human Rights
Bill C-8, moved by Justice Minister David Lametti, amends the criminal code to ban conversion therapy. Lametti has been particularly active since receiving his mandate in December 2019: Bill C-5 will require sexual assault training for judges on and Bill C-7 creates a medically assisted dying regime. These bills will check off at least three of the minister’s mandate goals.
C-5 and C-7, in particular, are reintroductions of bills from the 41st Parliament. Considering the bills were able to skip the early debate and were reintroduced at the same stage at which they were left, if other parties are supportive, they will likely be reviewed in time for the summer break.
The medically assisted dying bill was given a deadline of March 2020 by the Quebec Superior Court last year. Given that parliament is adjourned for the remainder of the month, Lametti may seek an extension.
While the government has committed to using gender-based analysis, Bill S-209, moved by Senator Mary Jane McCallum will expand the role of gendered analyses in government decisions by requiring analysis from the Department for Women and Gender Equality. Few private member’s bills pass every session. However, this one fits well within Trudeau’s feminist image and may prove to be an exception.
As COVD-19 panic sends Canadians to the grocery stores, Bill C-201, moved February 4th, would require the Department of Health to create a report on what should be considered ‘healthy’ foods and how federal transfer payments could ensure such food is available to children at school at low cost.
According to UNICEF, Canada ranks 37th of 41 developed countries in achieving Sustainable Development Goal Two, which pertains to food security and healthy eating among youth. One in six Canadians experiences food insecurity, a statistic which is doubled for Northern communities. The most recent data also points to a rise in food insecurity across Canada.
Inequality Between Individuals and Across Regions
Over the past decade, Canadian consumer debt has steadily increased to today’s almost all-time high. While the Bank of Canada has worked to ensure that interest rates remain manageable for most consumers, the nearing of the interest rate floor indicates that a COVID-19 related recession may be hard to shake.
Even without a potential COVID-19 recession, Canadians already face precarious housing situations; by March 16th, 74,000 individuals had signed a petition to have the government pause rent and mortgage payments.
The stimulus package passed March 18th expands the Canada Child Benefit, Employment Insurance, and creates the Emergency Support Benefit. The government will also allow individuals to defer mortgage payments. Acknowledging that COVID-19 affects everyone, an additional $157.5 million will be allocated to the Reaching Home program to help those experiencing homelessness. In Toronto, for example, homelessness has doubled from 2006 to 2020. As such, the expanded funding for shelters and health care for the homeless is needed – whether the Liberals’ concern for this group will remain after the pandemic remains to be seen.
On March 17th, Charlie Watt, the representative for Inuits living in northern Quebec, asked that all travellers stay out of the North, where health care services would not be able to handle COVID-19.
Similar concerns were expressed by Indigenous communities in northern British Columbia: when communities do not have access to safe housing, clean water, or health services, how can they prepare for a pandemic? Parliament has sought to address this settler-Indigenous divide in access to services by providing “$305 million for a new distinctions-based Indigenous Community Support Fund.”
The effort to protect the most vulnerable is laudable. However, more will be required to improve baseline living conditions during normal times. COVID-19 reminds us that Canadian society is far from equal and that the fault lines open into ravines with only a little pressure.
Bill’s the Name, Winning Elections is the Game
The Angus Reid Institute’s March 5th and 6th poll measuring how Canadians perceive the government’s handling of COVID-19 may point to the most important issue in the next election.
Roughly half of Canadians are happy with the way the crisis is being handled, though this number was closer to 40 per cent among Albertans. When broken down by party, two-thirds of Liberal and NDP supporters viewed the measures positively while for Conservatives the number was 23 per cent. A second poll, conducted on March 15 and 16th, showed a 10 per cent increase in positive views towards the government response, felt across party lines and provinces.
With provinces and the federal government amping up their response during the week of March 23rd, polling results may change. However, should the government’s response continue to be viewed positively, Liberals may capitalize and call an early election.
In such a case, the bills passed during the spring session are unlikely to be a deciding factor. Either way, at the end of this crisis, other parties and voters will have to hold the Liberals accountable to their promises to help rebuild the middle class and protect the most vulnerable Canadians.
Edited by Eyitayo Kunle-Oladosu.
The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author and they do not reflect the position of the McGill Journal of Political Studies or the Political Science Students’ Association.
Image by Saffron Blaze via Wikimedia Commons.