Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is promising a national childcare and early education system as the coronavirus pandemic continues to batter gender equality gains by forcing Canadian women out of the workforce.
But just how such an unprecedented national system could work is unclear and there were few concrete signs in the throne speech presented Wednesday of how the Liberals plan to rein in the massive federal deficit incurred with pandemic emergency spending.
The throne speech outlines sweeping plans to tackle things like climate targets, systemic racism, and the deep blow the pandemic has delivered to Canadians in vulnerable jobs and communities across the country.
It comes as cases spike in many regions including Ontario and Quebec, and as frustrations grow with long wait times for testing and with a lack of reliable at-home or rapid test options.
There were few specifics, though, on plans to address those daily realities, though the speech laid out promises that the federal government will help provinces ramp up testing capability and move as quickly as possible to get new testing methods approved and available.
“This is our generation’s crossroads,” the speech said.
“Do we move Canada forward, or let people be left behind? Do we come out of this stronger, or paper over the cracks that the crisis has exposed? This is the time to remember who we are as Canadians.”
The speech outlined what the government described as four “foundations” for the approach moving forward.
The foundations are the need to fight the pandemic, the need to support people and businesses through the crisis, the need to “build back better” and the need to “stand up for who we are as Canadians.”
Each foundation included a range of promised action points but one of the biggest pledges made early on deals with the need to concretely tackle the fact that the coronavirus pandemic is taking a disproportionate toll on women – and in particular, mothers.
“Women – and in particular low-income women – have been hit hardest by COVID-19. This crisis has been described as a She-cession,” the speech said.
“We must not let the legacy of the pandemic be one of rolling back the clock on women’s participation in the workforce, nor one of backtracking on the social and political gains women and allies have fought so hard to secure.”
The government is pledging to create a national action plan for getting women back into the workforce, to be guided by a task force of diverse experts.
It also acknowledged the work done 50 years ago by a royal commission that highlighted the need for national childcare to ensure women can participate equally in the workforce.
“Recognizing the urgency of this challenge, the government will make a significant, long-term, sustained investment to create a Canada-wide early learning and childcare system,” the speech says, citing the existing model in place in Quebec.
“There is broad consensus from all parts of society, including business and labour leaders, that the time is now.”
However, it remains uncertain whether the proposals laid out in the speech will be enough to gain opposition support.
As a minority government, the Liberals need the support of at least one other party in order to pass legislation and survive confidence votes, of which the throne speech is one.
The Conservatives and Bloc Quebecois have already said they will not support the speech in a vote, leaving the fate of the government likely in the hands of the NDP.
Conservative Deputy Leader Candice Bergen said the speech lacked any plans to reduce spending and to help the struggling natural resource sector, which were key asks the party had made of the government.
“We are not happy with the speech,” Bergen said. “We believe it is not what Canadians need.”
NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh said on Wednesday that while the throne speech has “pretty words,” the Liberal track record does not make him optimistic that the words will lead to action.
“They’ve been really good at saying the right words but not so good at actually delivering the right action or making people’s lives better,” said Singh in an interview with Global News.
“I’m not looking for a way to tear down government. I want to continue to fight for people … right now, our test to the Liberal government is this. You’re saying a lot of words. Where are your actions?”
He suggested his key priorities are implementing paid sick leave and keeping the new system of Employment Insurance payments to those transitioning off the CERB at the same level as on that benefit.
It is unclear at this point when a vote on the throne speech will come.
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Few hints of a plan for reducing deficit
Trudeau prorogued Parliament last month amid the WE Charity scandal and in the weeks since, touted the need for an “ambitious” new vision for the way forward.
But that has come amid a projection that the federal deficit will hit $343 billion this fiscal year and as credit ratings agencies like Fitch Ratings warn that they view the lack of a plan to rein in spending as a major red flag.
Parliamentary Budget Officer Yves Giroux also warned that level of deficit will be “unsustainable” if not rolled back within one to two years.
The government has offered few hints though about crafting a strategy to lower the deficit, with Trudeau repeatedly citing low interest rates in defence of spending.
The throne speech offered little in the way of a plan for reducing spending.
“This is not the time for austerity,” the speech said.
“Canadians should not have to choose between health and their job, just like Canadians should not have to take on debt that their government can better shoulder.”
The throne speech also included promises to extend the wage subsidy until the summer of 2021, expand access to rural internet and virtual health care, offer new disability income supports, and pass legislation implementing the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People by the end of the year.
Climate change goals as a ‘cornerstone’ for growth
Climate change, as many had speculated, also emerged as a prominent theme.
Many of the promises outlined in the throne speech were reiterations of those offered by the Liberals during the 2019 election campaign, including an emphasis on banning more single-use plastics and hitting net-zero carbon emissions by 2050.
The single-use plastics ban will go into effect next year, the throne speech said, and stressed a green recovery as a “cornerstone” of the government’s plan to create one million jobs.
As well, the throne speech made a promise that the government will “immediately” bring forward a plan to exceed Canada’s 2030 emissions reduction target under the Paris climate accord.
The government is also vowing to cut the corporate tax rate in half for companies making zero-emissions products and put the focus on building zero-emission vehicles and batteries in Canada.
There are also promises to “modernize” the Environmental Protection Act and create a new Canada Water Agency.
The energy sector, which has been struggling for years amid low oil prices, got only a brief mention.
“Canada cannot reach net zero without the know-how of the energy sector, and the innovative ideas of all Canadians, including people in places like British Columbia, Alberta, Saskatchewan, and Newfoundland and Labrador,” the throne speech said.
It went on to pledge the government will “support manufacturing, natural resource, and energy sectors as they work to transform to meet a net-zero future, creating good-paying and long-lasting jobs.”