As the Liberal government unveiled its proposals for the coming years of federal spending in its first budget in over two years Monday, it also started to paint a rough outline of what Canada might look like after the COVID-19 pandemic that shattered lives and shuttered businesses finally ends.
From childcare aimed at paving the way for women to re-enter the workforce to a new hiring program that would help foot the bill of giving Canadians new jobs, the budget offered small glimpses into the government’s vision of a post-COVID Canada – and a timeline for when that might come to pass.
“This budget is about finishing the fight against COVID,” Finance Minister Chrystia Freeland said, speaking Monday in the House of Commons.
“It’s about healing the economic wounds left by the COVID recession. And it’s about creating more jobs and prosperity for Canadians in the days and decades to come.”
But as variants emerge and race against the country’s vaccination efforts, the reality of the weeks and months to come remain foggy. Global News combed through the budget to figure out clues help to shine some light on the government’s vision for the pathway out of the pandemic.
When will Canada reopen?
While Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has repeatedly reiterated that all Canadians will be able to get vaccinated by the end of September, public health officials and politicians alike have been hesitant to provide any firm timeline with respect to a reopening.
But the budget provided some hints about which reopening dates the government is putting its money on. The budget says the government expects Canada’s economy will “fully” reopen over the summer.
The whisper of a tangible timeline was unveiled as the feds announced theirs for scaling back emergency COVID-19 benefits, including Canada Response Benefit (CRB) and the Canada Emergency Wage Subsidy (CEWS).
The CRB will remain in place until September, the budget said — but it will be “stepping down to $300 a week after July 17 as our economy fully reopens over the summer.”
The summertime reopening date was reiterated as the budget laid out timelines for scaling down other emergency benefits.
“Budget 2021 proposes to extend the wage subsidy until September 25, 2021. It also proposes to gradually decrease the subsidy rate, beginning July 4, 2021, in order to ensure an orderly phase-out of the program as vaccinations are completed and the economy reopens,” the budget read.
Another clue for the timeline ahead lies within the government’s proposed rehiring program. The program is aimed at offsetting a portion of employer’s payroll costs by covering as much as 50 per cent of pay increments for workers. The funds are available for employers offering raises, more hours or even hiring new workers, all in a bid to help jump-start the economy as it reopens.
The proposed program would be rolled out in June and would go until November 2021, a hint that the government wants businesses to have the funds to re-hire employees by the summer.
However, as COVID-19 variants continue to circulate, the government is ensuring it’s equipped for any unforeseen delays in reopening.
“The government will seek the legislative authority to have the ability to extend further the (rent subsidy) through regulations until November 20, 2021, should the economic and public health situation require further support beyond September 2021,” the budget read.
It’s possible that the government has already had to contend with a slightly less optimistic timeline than they had previously anticipated, according to one economist. The third wave may have forced the feds to drop some of their more ambitious proposals in favour of the extension of relief programs.
“They left a lot of things out of this budget that I think were being kicked around, bandied about before the budget,” said Sahir Khan, executive vice president of the University of Ottawa’s Institute of Fiscal Studies and Democracy.
“With the increasing (COVID-19 third wave) pressures, there was really only an opportunity for a couple of signature measures.”
And while the budget paints a potentially optimistic picture for anyone hoping to see a glimmer of normalcy before the fall, it offers a slightly more pessimistic vision in one area: international travel.
“We’re all eager to be able to travel again,” Trudeau said today during a news conference in Montreal on March 15.
“But I think we’re all going to wait patiently until such time as the health situation allows us to loosen border restrictions internationally. That’ll be eventually, but not for today.”
The budget did not offer any looming dates for the resumption for international travel, either. Instead, it focused on the fun activities Canadians can do within our own borders over the next year.
“As we emerge from our COVID lockdowns, let’s spend the next year supporting each other and exploring our own breathtaking country.”
What could post-COVID Canada look like?
When the dust finally settles on the COVID-19 pandemic, the Liberal government has laid out some ambitious plans for what Canada could look like — though, according to Khan, the budget’s proposals stop short of being totally “transformational.”
“It’s transformational in a couple of dimensions, but probably not in every way that was discussed,” Khan said, reacting to the budget on Monday.
The budget proposes $50 billion in new spending during this fiscal year alone, with childcare serving as the crown jewel of its proposals. It vows to cut childcare costs by 50 per cent by the end of 2022 and put a full program in place nationwide for $10 per day within the next five years.
However, depending on whether opposition parties support the proposed budget bill and whether provinces play ball with the federal government’s childcare plan, the workforce could like quite different than it did before the pandemic — and significantly less feminine.
Women’s participation in the workforce fell to its lowest level in three decades at the start of the pandemic, according to a study from the Royal Bank of Canada, which was published last July.
Low-wage workers were also hit hard amid the pandemic, an issue the government tried to touch on in its budget proposals. If the budget passes, about 25,000 federally-regulated employees have been promised a $15 minimum wage.
On top of that, the government plans to boost Old Age Security. It also lays the groundwork for businesses to hire new workers, or bring back those who were let go, with its new subsidy program.
“There is economic scarring as part of this recovery and I think there’s a recognition that the scarring has to be dealt with,” Khan said.
On top of the economic havoc the pandemic has wreaked, it’s also had a real impact on the lives of Canadians. Amid a mounting death toll from the virus and isolating restrictions, many Canadians found their mental health took a hit because of COVID-19.
One-in-five Canadians have felt anxious, lonely and depressed amid the pandemic, according to a series of online surveys conducted by the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health.
The budget proposes to spend $257 million over the next five years on mental health services, aimed at developing new national mental health standards and ensuring those hit hardest by COVID-19 – including racialized communities – have access to trauma and post-traumatic stress disorder programs.
How likely is this timeline and this vision?
The government will have to secure the support of at least one opposition party in order to pass its budget bill. Because they’re a minority government, the failure of any money bills can trigger an election – which could delay, or quash, the passage of many of these measures.
While none of the political party leaders have indicated whether they intend to support the bill, Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole called the budget “an out-of-control debt plan without any real stimulus.”
Criticisms were also levied by both the Bloc Quebecois and NDP leaders, though both said there were positive aspects to the budget – leaving the possible result of a budget vote as a big question mark for the time being.
In addition to the uncertainty surrounding the government’s proposals, if the last year has taught us anything, there are many variables that could impact the proposed reopening timeline.
The government is set to arm itself with the legislative backing to extend emergency supports until November, should variants or supply chain disruptions impact Canada’s path towards reopening.
Despite all the variables, Freeland ended things on a firmly positive note as delivered her budget speech on Monday.
“After a long, grim year, Canadians are ready to recover and to rebuild,” she said.
“We will finish the fight against COVID. We will all get back to work, and we will come roaring back.”
— With files from The Canadian Press, Global News’ Amanda Connolly