Prime Minister Justin Trudeau didn’t need to make much of an argument that Canada is getting hit by a second wave of the COVID-19 pandemic.
As his government delivered a throne speech Wednesday containing a blueprint to get through the next phase of the crisis, the leaders of the two largest opposition parties were self-isolating at home after testing positive for the coronavirus.
The throne speech laid out an ambitious – and very expensive – four-pillar plan to fight the pandemic, support people and businesses affected by the outbreak, “build back better” a badly-damaged economy, and, “stand up for Canadian values” with progress on indigenous reconciliation, promoting gender equality and combating racism.
Gov. Gen. Julie Payette, as is the custom in Canada’s British-styled parliamentary system, delivered the hour-long speech: “This is our generation’s crossroads. 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,” Payette said.
In a rather rare act for a Canadian prime minister, Trudeau requested network time to deliver an address to the nation, a few hours after Payette had delivered the throne speech. Canadians had become used to Trudeau’s daily briefings for the first few months of the pandemic, so his appearance at this phase of the crisis seemed to signal it’s gravity – as well as the precarious position Trudeau’s minority government might find itself in.
Trudeau warned: “The second wave isn’t just starting, it’s already underway. We’re on the brink of a fall that could be much worse than the spring. We can’t change today’s numbers or even tomorrow’s. Those were already decided by what we did or didn’t do two weeks ago. But what we can change is where we are in October and into the winter.
“It’s all too likely we won’t be gathering for Thanksgiving, but we still have a shot at Christmas.”
Thanksgiving weekend in Canada, it should be noted, is in two weeks.
Liberals had been touting the plan as a “generational opportunity” to set a progressive agenda for the country as it emerges from the worst combined health and economic crisis it has ever experienced.
It was, in the end, not a ground-breaking manifesto of environmental activism as the engine of economic recovery, the Liberals clearly sensing the priority for COVID-weary Canadians is not global climate change, but domestic survival.
Those most directly affected by the chill in the economy, workers and businesses, would have quickly zoomed in on the measures to extend the wage subsidy program for employers and transform the emergency response benefit, the fast-tracked $2,000 per month payment some nine million Canadians received, into a new unemployment insurance program.
Of course, all this sea of spending is worrisome. Though the speech declares “this is no time for austerity,” a deficit soaring beyond anything previously imaginable must be dealt with eventually. Trudeau simply proffered “low interest rates mean we can afford it. And in fact, doing less would end up costing far more.”
The nation’s book-keeping will be the challenge Trudeau’s new finance minister, Chrystia Freeland – the first woman in the post – must deal with in an upcoming budget statement. The Liberals did vow taxes on “extreme wealth” and on digital giants as some extra revenue to help bridge the jaw-dropping gap.
The Liberals’ massive rebuild plan will all be for naught, however, if it is defeated in a confidence vote possibly as early as next week. Trudeau needs the support of just one of the opposition parties to get the plan passed.
The Conservative official opposition, under new leader Erin O’Toole, said it would vote to defeat the government. The separatist Bloc Quebecois leader Jean-Yves Blanchet said his 32 MPs would vote nay unless Trudeau removes jurisdiction-encroaching strings attached to an extra $28 billion in transfers to provinces to spend on health.
That leaves the fate of the Liberal government in the hands of the leftist New Democratic Party, whose leader, Jagmeet Singh, was careful to make relatively easy demands to get his support and score some political points.
Canada is indeed at a crossroads, and it’s not all about the pandemic. The prospect of political turmoil looms as Parliament convenes – under COVID rules – to debate the fate of the Liberal government.