Trudeau Promises Bold Plan to Reset Canada, and His Political Career

By Ian Austen and Catherine Porter

The prime minister promised dramatic actions to fix the economy and more as Parliament resumes. But his agenda is short on detail.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau of Canada listening to the national anthem before his legislative agenda was presented to Parliament in Ottawa on Wednesday.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau of Canada listening to the national anthem before his legislative agenda was presented to Parliament in Ottawa on Wednesday.Credit...Dave Chan/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

OTTAWA — A brand-new Canada — greener, healthier, more compassionate, fairer.

That was the vision that Prime Minister Justin Trudeau outlined on Wednesday when he revealed his much-anticipated legislative plan to a country grappling with rising coronavirus cases, fears of a second wave of the pandemic, and continuing economic woes because of shutdowns to fight the virus.

His plan, presented in the so-called throne speech to Parliament, included sweeping promises of new social programs to help working women and families; beefed-up financial support programs for businesses and workers hit by the economic downturn; and measures to combat climate change while leading the country to recovery.

“This is not the time for austerity,” the speech declared.

Mr. Trudeau’s proposals, though, were short on details. Much of the package was a reworking of earlier promises from his Liberal Party, but with measures tailored to fight the coronavirus and the economic woes it has brought the country. The plan was immediately criticized by his main political rivals in the Conservative Party, who said it lacked fiscal restraint.

“They’re still talking that budgets balance themselves,” Candice Bergen, the deputy Conservative leader, told reporters. “It is another speech that is full of Liberal buzzwords and grand gestures.”

Jagmeet Singh, the leader of the left-of-center New Democratic Party, also a rival to Mr. Trudeau, called the speech “empty words.”

ImageAfter suspending Parliament last month, Mr. Trudeau promised to present the country with an ambitious recovery plan from the coronavirus.
After suspending Parliament last month, Mr. Trudeau promised to present the country with an ambitious recovery plan from the coronavirus.Credit...Blair Gable/Reuters

Kathy Brock, a professor in the policy studies department at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario, said the speech was so stuffed with promises, it may be difficult for the government to deliver.

“It was a speech of promises as opposed to a speech that leads to action,” she said. “It looks to me like it’s preparing the way for an election.”

In an unusual televised address to the nation later Wednesday evening, Mr. Trudeau said, “It’s up to us to build the world of tomorrow.”

Canada is already in the midst of a second wave of infections, he said, warning that “we’re on the brink of a fall that could be much worse than the spring” unless Canadians wear masks, avoid parties and other large gatherings, and download tracing apps.

Among the most expansive of Mr. Trudeau’s proposals were measures to work toward a national child care program, a plan to cover the cost of drugs through the health care system and new standards for long-term care homes, which have disproportionately been the source of Canada’s more than 9,000 deaths related to the virus.

The prime minister also proposed an economic recovery plan tied to dealing with climate change and other environmental issues as well as adding one million new jobs.

Since the coronavirus arrived in Canada earlier this year, the government has been grappling with high unemployment, a soaring budget shortfall and an uncertain future for many of Canada’s businesses particularly in the economically important oil and gas sector.

As coronavirus cases have increased in recent weeks, some provinces have revived restrictions, leading to worries about even more economic woes.

Last month, Mr. Trudeau suspended Parliament, saying his government was working on an ambitious legislative agenda to address these problems. “This is our moment to change the future for the better,” he said at the time.

It is also an opportunity for Mr. Trudeau to reset his political fortunes. Over the past few months, he has had to contend with his government’s decision to award WE Charity — which had paid Mr. Trudeau’s mother and brother to speak at events — a multimillion-dollar contract to administer a summer program for students.

A line for coronavirus testing in Brampton, Ontario, on Monday. Coronavirus infections are on the rise in Canada, as are fears of a second wave of the pandemic.Credit...Rick Madonik/Toronto Star, via Getty Images
Margaret Trudeau, the prime minister’s mother, at a WE Charity eventin Toronto in 2018. Mr. Trudeau faced a political scandal over his government’s decision to award a hefty no-bid contract to WE charity, which has ties to his family.Credit...Christopher Katsarov/The Canadian Press, via Associated Press

The plan was presented in a speech given at the reopening of Parliament by Governor General Julie Payette, the representative for the head of state, Queen Elizabeth II. Mr. Trudeau is scheduled to follow up with a rare televised speech to the nation Wednesday evening.

Chief among Mr. Trudeau’s proposals was a revision of the unemployment insurance system to make qualifying easier and to include self-employed and contract workers. But his plan would not extend an emergency program that paid unemployed workers 2,000 Canadian dollars, about $1,500, every four weeks, an amount that in some cases was higher than what some recipients once earned.

Without offering details, Mr. Trudeau also promised to improve a wage subsidy program put in place earlier this year by extending it to next summer, and adding other supports for businesses.

To help women get back to work, Mr. Trudeau proposed that the government make a major long-term investment to create a Canada-wide early learning and child care system so that “no parent, especially no mother, will have to put their careers on hold.”

To make many of these proposals reality, though, Mr. Trudeau will need the approval of provincial governments, which have a history of bristling at federal intervention in social programs.

The speech hinted at the possible difficulties with provinces in a section that pledged to work toward including the cost of drugs in public health care, noting that it will work “with provinces and territories willing to move forward without delay” rather than immediately attempting a national program.

While the speech outlined several green recovery measures, that idea holds little appeal among the Conservative opposition.

Mr. Singh, the New Democratic Party leader, criticized replacing emergency benefit payments with a revised unemployment insurance plan. He suggested that if Mr. Trudeau withdrew that measure and fulfilled a promise to introduce mandatory paid sick leave, his party would probably support the plan.

Since Mr. Trudeau’s Liberals are a minority in Parliament, his plan must attract enough votes or the country will head into an election campaign even though the next federal vote is supposed to be in three years. No government in Canada’s history has ever been defeated on its throne speech.

Canada's Governor General Julie Payette delivering the throne speech on Wednesday.Credit...Patrick Doyle/Reuters

The details of how Mr. Trudeau will pay for any new initiatives will not come until he releases a budget update this fall. But there is already widespread debate over how much more the government can afford after pandemic spending has pushed its deficit to levels not seen since World War II.

Most economists agree that the government needs to keep spending on support programs because of the pandemic. But some economists argue that Mr. Trudeau doesn’t have unlimited license.

“Households and businesses do still need ongoing support,” said Douglas Porter, the chief economist of the Bank of Montreal. “But I’m not convinced that this is the time for moving way beyond that and bringing in all kinds of new, big, bold policy initiatives that reshape the landscape when we’re not sure where we’re going to be in six months.”

Ian Austen reported from Ottawa, and Catherine Porter from Toronto.