OTTAWA—With two federal Opposition party leaders in self-isolation due to close contact with the coronavirus, growing testing backlogs in several urban centres and fears of a second wave, it’s now all COVID-19, all the time.
For a brief month, it looked like the Liberal government would shift its sights to an ambitious governing agenda with next week’s throne speech, even if it triggered an election.
But Prime Minister Justin Trudeau ended three days of cabinet meetings here on a more cautious note, saying his immediate and near-term priority is ensuring the health and economic well-being of Canadians.
Trudeau announced Safe Restart Agreements with all the provinces and territories were completed, deals that will finally push $ 19 billion out the door for a range of pandemic responses by lower levels of government.
“We must stay focused on the task ahead,” he told reporters. “Healthier Canadians will mean and have already meant a healthier and stronger economy.”
Gone was his talk from Aug. 18 of the “unprecedented opportunity” presented by COVID-19.
That’s when the prime minister shuffled his cabinet, suspended Parliament, and shut down committees looking into the pandemic response, racism in policing and ethics questions about the WE Charity-run student volunteer program.
At that time, Trudeau primed Canadians to think beyond the short-term swath that COVID-19 was cutting. “This is our moment to change the future for the better. We can’t afford to miss it because this window of opportunity won’t be open for long.”
By Wednesday, four weeks later, after hearing from experts, ambassadors abroad, the German chancellor, and cabinet colleagues, Trudeau said his government has not abandoned plans to support a “clean and green” relaunch of the economy, but repeatedly underscored his government’s focus is squarely on the “challenge” of the moment.
“We have to remember we are not out of this pandemic yet and the actions we take every single day, not just as a government but as individual Canadians matters in how we keep each other safe and how we’re able to get the economy going again.”
Trudeau adamantly insisted he does not want an election, but he turned aside suggestions that it might be reckless to have one, saying it’s “irresponsible” to suggest as much. Trudeau said Canada’s democratic institutions are strong enough to adapt to the challenges of COVID-19, and he pointed to the New Brunswick election held Monday.
Still, the need for all parties to focus on the immediate crisis was sharpened when federal Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole revealed he, his family and other staffers are in self-isolation, after a member of his staff with whom he’d travelled to Quebec, had tested positive for COVID-19.
It comes a day after Bloc Québécois leader Yves-François Blanchet, and his entire caucus, went into isolation after a Bloc staffer tested positive.
Trudeau said their situations demonstrate that it would not be “responsible” for Parliament to fully reconvene with a full complement of 338 MPs and advocated the Liberal proposal of a hybrid model with remote voting for MPs.
Later Trudeau’s House leader Pablo Rodriguez said the Liberals are prepared to agree to up to 86 MPs in the Commons — as recommended by House of Commons administrative staff.
For the Conservatives, O’Toole’s isolation is unquestionably a setback.
The party had been arguing for a more regular resumption of parliament including having up to 86 MPs in the Commons, and votes in person, not via an electronic voting system.
“My family and I are feeling well, but we take COVID-19 very seriously,” said O’Toole in a statement. “Today was going to be Jack’s first day back at school, but instead we will be getting tested and self-isolating per public health guidelines. The health and safety of my family and all Canadians is my top priority.”
O’Toole, who had received a government briefing on the pandemic the night before, cancelled a Western Canada trip, and hoped to be tested Wednesday, although long lineups in Ottawa’s testing facilities have left many families without access to COVID-19 tests as schools reopened.
Premier Doug Ford vowed the province would ramp up testing quickly, and promised to move mobile testing units to Ottawa and London, and to launch “a couple of thousand additional testing areas” in the days ahead at retail locations like pharmacies and large retailers.
Trudeau said he knows Canadians are still very worried about the coronavirus and their jobs, and said he will still present plans in his throne speech to “build back better with the level of ambition Canadians expect” and to “drive the most important economic recovery of our generation.”
“Canadians deserve an ambitious plan for a healthier and safer Canada, a Canada that’s fair and inclusive. A Canada that’s clean and competitive, and with the speech from the throne on Sept. 23 that’s exactly what our government is ready to do,” he said.
However, cabinet minister after cabinet minister insisted that even after the pandemic crisis passes, there will still be a climate change crisis that Canada must deal with.
Environment and Climate Change Minister Jonathan Wilkinson insisted the government remains “absolutely committed” to exceeding its Paris emission reductions target by 2030.
The Pembina Institute has said that as of the end of 2018, Canada had only achieved 0.4 per cent of the progress needed to hit its current 2030 target to reduce national emissions 30 per cent below the 2005 level.
Wilkinson downplayed the prospect of a specific announcements next week, however, saying a speech from the throne will set out “broad priorities” and be an “important signal” to public servants, but “it’s not a budget, it’s not a funding mechanism.”
Wilkinson promised a comprehensive energy framework would be ready “before” the next UN climate change conference. That conference had been set for November this year, but was postponed due to COVID-19 to November 2021.
The agreements released Wednesday by Ottawa outline specific details of funding, and commitments by the federal and provincial governments to tackle everything from transit to vulnerable populations.
One of the main goals going forward will be to ramp up testing so that 200,000 COVID-19 tests are being done each day across the country.
The federal government will divvy up $ 4.3 billion between the provinces and territories over the next six to eight months and it will go to bolstering contact tracing, data management and testing capacity.
Under the deal, each jurisdiction pledged to use the funds to help boost the amount of testing being done in their respective jurisdictions, with some pledging to double and even triple the number of tests being done daily.
Canada is now reporting 138,803 total COVID-19 cases, with 9,188 deaths, and 7,775 active cases.
The Public Health Agency of Canada has not released updated modelling or forecasts since Aug. 14.