In Canada, every new session of Parliament opens with a Speech from the Throne. The most recent was this week, when Governor General Julie Payette presented the Throne Speech as the Queen’s representative in Canada. Traditionally, the government indicates its priorities for the coming session through this speech.
Unsurprisingly, Wednesday’s speech confirms the COVID pandemic as the country’s top priority. But the pandemic has been the great revealer in terms of exposing the cracks in Canada’s social safety net, and there are a number of social initiatives referred to in the speech.
While we’ll focus here on what was in the speech, it’s also striking to note what wasn’t. There was zero mention of any help for urban Indigenous people and the community organizations that serve them, even though the majority of Indigenous people in Canada live off-reserve. Nor was there mention of improved sick pay, despite the pandemic’s hard lessons on how unreasonable it is to expect low-income, part-time workers to stay home when sick if they don’t get sick pay.
(Good on BC Premier John Horgan for raising that point with media after the speech, telling the Globe and Mail that he’s anxiously awaiting movement on that issue before the cold and flu season is underway.)
But onward to what the speech did include.
Everyone having to work from home in the pandemic has finally brought home the fact that good childcare and economic productivity are indelibly linked. “There is broad consensus from all parts of society, including business and labour leaders, that the time is now” for addressing issues of access and affordability in childcare. Government is also committing to subsidize before- and after-school programs.
Our political leaders obviously didn’t take in ALL of the lessons from the pandemic, however, as they are still viewing affordable, accessible childcare as an issue for women’s participation in the economy, even though we all just witnessed how the suspension of childcare affected men’s participation as well.
“It has been nearly 50 years since the Royal Commission on the Status of Women outlined the necessity of child care services for women’s social and economic equality. We have long understood that Canada cannot succeed if half of the population is held back. Canadians need more accessible, affordable, inclusive, and high quality childcare. 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…to ensure that high-quality care is accessible to all.”
The speech notes “substantial investments” coming in housing for Canadians. The 2017 National Housing Strategy will increase investments to rapid housing in the short term, and “partnering with not-for-profits and co-ops in the mid- to long-term.”
Commitment to a better “normal” and addressing gaps in the social system:
The Throne Speech mentions addressing gaps in the social system, investing in health care, and dealing with “one of the greatest tragedies of the pandemic” – the lives lost in long-term care homes. New national standards for long-term care are in the works, as well as “additional action to help people stay in their homes longer.” That sounds like funding for home care for aging Canadians, even though that’s a provincial responsibility.
“Although long-term care falls under provincial and territorial jurisdiction, the federal government will take any action it can to support seniors while working alongside the provinces and territories,” notes the speech.
Homelessness, the opioid epidemic, mental health supports and violence against women also get a mention in the speech, though with scant details on how these big issues will be tackled.
The government “is now focused on entirely eliminating chronic homelessness in Canada,” and will accelerate investments in shelters and transition housing and advance work on its National Action Plan on Gender-Based Violence. “Women’s safety must be the foundation on which all progress is built.”
A new Canadian Disability Benefit
“COVID-19 has disproportionately affected Canadians with disabilities, and highlighted long-standing challenges. The Government will bring forward a Disability Inclusion Plan, which will have:
- A new Canadian Disability Benefit modelled after the Guaranteed Income Supplement for seniors;
- A robust employment strategy for Canadians with disabilities;
- A better process to determine eligibility for government disability programs and benefits.
PPE (Personal Protective Equipment):
Did the average British Columbian even know what PPE stood for a year ago? That’s certainly no longer the case anywhere in the country. Our sector in particular felt the impact of a sudden global shortage of masks and gloves due to huge demand, and then was impacted again when supplies were prioritized for health-care workers. But it appears that Canada will be in much better shape in the event of a second wave.
“From shop floors to companies big and small, Canada’s dynamic businesses met the challenge for PPE as their workers stepped up. And in less than six months, Canadians are now manufacturing almost all types of PPE. The Government will continue building that domestic capacity, while securing supply chains to keep Canadians safe and create jobs.”
More jobs, more Employment Insurance:
“This is not the time for austerity,” notes the speech, which highlights that women, racialized Canadians and young people have borne the brunt of job losses in the pandemic. Government is creating an Action Plan for Women in the Economy to help more women get back into the workforce and to ensure a “feminist, intersectional response to this pandemic and recovery.” The work will be guided by an expert task force that government says will be both diverse and representative of all funding departments.
Government has pledged to create more than one million jobs through direct investments in the social sector (not sure if that means us?), infrastructure, and immediate training to quickly ‘skill up’ workers and incentives for employers to hire and retain workers. The Canada Emergency Wage Subsidy has been extended through summer 2021.
For those who don’t typically qualify for Employment Insurance, there’s now the new Canada Recovery Benefit. “This pandemic has shown that Canada needs an EI system for the 21st century, including for the self-employed and those in the gig economy.”
Increased digital access
Another hard lesson from the pandemic: When services suddenly have to go virtual, you really see where the gaps are in digital access, whether because of a lack of technology, internet connection, or barriers in the lives of the people needing that access.
So while it has indeed “become more important than ever that all Canadians have access to the internet,” we hope the government recognizes that its promise to accelerate the Universal Broadband Fund for high-speed internet access is just one necessary step in increasing digital access.