Justin Trudeau’s government has announced ambitious plans to spend billions on childcare, housing and healthcare – partly financed by taxing “extreme wealth inequality” – as Canada braces for an economically devastating second wave of coronavirus.
“We are at a crossroads, and the future is in our hands” the prime minister said in a televised address to the nation Wednesday evening.
But opposition parties quickly dismissed the minority government’s proposals, prompting speculation that Canada will soon head into another general election.
“Across this country, millions of Canadians have lost their jobs. Many fear losing their homes. And too many have lost hope,” said Conservative leader Erin O’Toole, who has been self-isolating after testing positive for the coronavirus last week. “Mr Trudeau says we’re all in this together. But Canada has never been more divided.”
Earlier in the day, the prime minister’s speech from the throne – which customarily starts a new session of parliament and outlines a government’s priorities – was delivered by governor-general Julie Payette on Wednesday afternoon.
The speech included calls for green investment and a plan to create more than a million new jobs, but was overshadowed by the pandemic which has killed 9,241 Canadians and left 2 million unemployed. In recent weeks, the number of new cases has surged, alarming public health officials and prompting a stern warning from the prime minister.
“We’re on the brink of a fall that could be much worse than the spring,” Trudeau said on Wednesday. “It’s all too likely we won’t be gathering for Thanksgiving, but we still have a shot at Christmas.”
The government’s address was delivered to a sparsely populated senate chamber: only a handful of members from various parties were present as the rest participated remotely.
Two opposition leaders – O’Toole and Yves-François Blanchet of the Bloc Quebecois – were absent after testing positive for coronavirus.
Trudeau’s government has won broad praise for its response to the pandemic – but also criticism from the opposition for its hefty spending on recovery.
But in Wednesday’s address, the government said it would do “whatever it takes” to fight the coronavirus and rebuild the economy.
“This is not the time for austerity,” said Payette. “This Covid-19 emergency has had huge costs. But Canada would have had a deeper recession and a bigger long-term deficit if the government had done less.”
A major element of the speech was a plan to raise revenue by finding “additional ways to tax extreme wealth inequality” including “tax avoidance by digital giants”. The speech also focused on a growing concern over the power of tech companies like Facebook.
While Canada has been spared the rates of mortality seen in the neighbouring US, it has seen a surge of cases in recent weeks, and the unprecedented setting and content of the speech underscored the deep impact coronavirus has inflicted.
Announcing the prorogation of parliament in August, Trudeau said his government’s previous pre-pandemic throne speech in December had “no conception of the reality we find ourselves in right now”.
But a looming second wave of the coronavirus has derailed much of that vision, instead making the immediate response to the pandemic the most pressing issue. Since the summer, cases have jumped from roughly 300 cases per day into more than 1,200 and the economy has remained in the doldrums.
The plan to create a million new jobs is meant to address economic concerns. But it comes just as a C$2,000 monthly payment for residents unable to work because of the coronavirus, is set to end on 26 September.
While the government plans to relax unemployment insurance rules, it is unclear if all workers will qualify for new benefits.
Trudeau’s minority government will need the support of at least one opposition to survive a confidence vote in the coming weeks.
While opposition parties had called for paid sick leave guarantees and more funding for provinces, neither were explicitly mentioned in the speech.
Following the speech, Conservative deputy leader Candice Bergen said her party was “very, very displeased” with the Liberals’ plan. “We believe that it is not what Canadians need,” she said
NDP leader Jagmeet Singh – whose support appears critical for the Liberal government to survive – suggested he will not support the throne speech without further protections for sick workers and a guaranteed monthly government benefit.
“I’m not looking for an excuse to go to an election,” he said. “I don’t think that’s going to help people.”