The House of Commons returned from its holiday break on Monday, January 29, and will sit for three weeks until February 16. The Senate returns on Tuesday, February 6.
The major parties in the House were all involved in preparations for the resumption of policy and partisan activities:
The Liberals led off with a three-day cabinet retreat in Montreal from Sunday to Tuesday, proclaiming in a January 23 statement from the prime minister that they continue to be “squarely focused on delivering for the middle class.” During the meeting:
- Cabinet received updates on the Housing Accelerator Fund and initiatives to combat organized crime, including the announcement of a National Summit on Combatting Auto Theft that will take place in Ottawa on February 8, 2024.
- Cabinet received a briefing from outside experts on immigration levels and the admission of non-permanent residents, and Immigration Minister Mark Miller announced a two-year cap on new study permit applications to stabilize the number of international students in Canada. (More below)
- Cabinet also was briefed by several Canada-U.S. experts ahead of this Fall’s U.S. presidential election, and the prime minister announced, “a renewed Team Canada engagement strategy to promote and defend Canada’s interests in and with the United States.” The strategy will be co-chaired by ISED Minister François Philippe-Champagne, and Trade Minister Mary Ng, along with Canada’s Ambassador to the United States, Kirsten Hillman.
- The Liberals hoped their cabinet retreat would serve as a reset in advance of the return of Parliament, but on its last day, the Federal Court ruled that the federal government’s use of the Emergencies Act to end the trucker convoy protests two years ago was “unreasonable” and violated the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. (Federal ministers immediately promised an appeal.) Additionally, Liberal MP Ken McDonald called for a party leadership review immediately following the retreat, although he has since walked back his comments.
- Finally, on Thursday this week, former justice minister David Lametti resigned his Montreal seat effective January 31. These events made Liberal hopes of a clean reset all the more problematic.
The NDP held its own pre-return caucus session in Edmonton from Tuesday to Thursday, where the agenda included the upcoming federal budget, the increased cost of living and the remaining elements of the Supply and Confidence Agreement (SACA) with the Liberals, namely pharmacare, the “anti-scab” replacement worker legislation and sustainable jobs. A recent senior staff shuffle in the NDP resulted in Anne McGrath moving from National Director of the party to Principal Secretary to the leader, with a clear mandate to lead the negotiations to complete the commitments of the CASA with the Liberals. Replacing Anne McGrath at the party as National Director is Lucy Watson, the former Provincial Secretary of the Ontario NDP under Andrea Horwath, who will be focused on getting the team ready for the next election.
The Conservative caucus held its caucus retreat on Sunday, January 28, in Ottawa.
The national economy
StatsCan reported on January 16 that inflation rose 3.4% on a year-over-year basis in December, disappointingly up from a 3.1% increase in November. Inevitably, economists speculated that the increase would push back the date when the Bank of Canada (BoC) would find it possible to begin lowering interest rates. In its January 24 announcement, the BoC kept its benchmark interest rate at five per cent, the same level for the fourth time in a row.
In a statement that accompanied its announcement, the Bank said, “Shelter costs remain the biggest contributor to above-target inflation. The Bank expects inflation to remain close to 3% during the first half of this year before gradually easing, returning to the 2% target in 2025. While the slowdown in demand is reducing price pressures in a broader number of CPI components and corporate pricing behaviour continues to normalize, core measures of inflation are not showing sustained declines.”
Major policy developments during the break
The “missing missiles”
In January 2023, Canada announced it would purchase a National Surface to Air Missile System (NASAMS) for Ukraine at a cost of $406 million. Former defence minister Anita Anand erroneously told CBC in April that the missile system was already “en route” to Ukraine. While the government says the missiles have been paid for, a year later, the new system is nowhere to be seen and the government of Ukraine is getting restive.
The idea was that Canada would pay the U.S. to build the system and send it to Ukraine. The system is made jointly by U.S.-based Raytheon and the Norwegian-based Kongsberg. A spokesperson for Kongsberg recently told CTV News that the company does not have a contract with the U.S. for the Canadian donation. The Globe and Mail reported on January 17 that the secretary of Ukraine’s National Security and Defence Council said the system has yet to be delivered. Apparently, delivery has been held up by the requirement of a foreign military sales agreement between the United States and Ukrainian governments, which is still under negotiation. Defence minister Bill Blair reportedly met with the U.S. ambassador to Canada, David Cohen, last week to request that the process be expedited. The saga continues.
New security system for university research
On January 18, ISED Minister François-Philippe Champagne announced the details of a new security system for university research to prevent tech secrets leaking to key Chinese, Russian or Iranian research institutions. The new system would bar federal Canadian funding for “sensitive” research projects linked to any of 103 foreign universities and institutions that the government says “could pose a risk to Canada’s national security.” The minister also released a list of Sensitive Technology Research Areas “that are important to Canadian research and development, but may also be of interest to foreign state, state-sponsored, and non-state actors, seeking to misappropriate Canada’s technological advantages to our detriment.”
Immigration, non-permanent residents (foreign students and temporary foreign workers), asylum seekers and family reunification
In 2023, Canada’s population grew by 1.2 million or 3.2%, which was five times higher than the average of the OECD nations. In addition, all ten provinces grew at least twice as fast as the OECD, ranging from 1.3% in Newfoundland to 4.3% in Alberta. A January 15 report from the National Bank kicked off a continuing debate on whether Canada is caught in a “population trap”: “We currently lack the infrastructure and capital stock in this country to adequately absorb current population growth and improve our standard of living.”
The debate quickly expanded to which category of newcomer was to blame for everything from flagging investment and the housing crunch to the fact that 6.5 million Canadians can’t find a doctor. Despite frequently expressed concerns that the widespread Canadian consensus on the need for newcomers is showing signs of fraying, for the most part the public discussion of the issue has been moderate and respectful.
The recent federal announcement of a two-year cap on new study permit applications to stabilize the number of international students in Canada calls out those provinces that have allowed the “wild west” of private sector diploma mills to flourish, namely Ontario, British Columbia and Nova Scotia. Long established universities and colleges have also expressed concerns about the freeze. It will likely take some time for the real impacts of the federal initiative to be known. Provinces will now have to decide how colleges and universities will “share the pain.”
Israel vs Hamas
As the Middle East war heads towards its fourth month, the Liberals continue to struggle in finding an acceptable balance in the government’s foreign policy. As we have noted in the past, there are serious fault-lines in the Liberal caucus on this issue that reflect Canadian public opinion. Recently the situation has been further clouded by the rejection by Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu of the “two state solution,” which has been the cornerstone of Canadian Middle East policy for forty years. Recently, the prime minister and foreign affairs minister Joly struggled for days to respond to the South African case before the International Court of Justice accusing Israel of genocide, and Minister Joly’s statement was widely criticized for being vague and ambiguous.
On January 26, the International Court of Justice ordered Israel to take emergency steps to prevent genocide in Gaza and to allow urgent humanitarian aid in the Palestinian territory. While the ruling stopped short of ordering a full ceasefire in Gaza, it is considered a major victory for South Africa’s bid to establish that there is a plausible case that Israel may be committing genocidal acts in Gaza. The court ordered that Israel must prevent any acts of killing or physical destruction in Gaza that would violate its obligations under the Genocide Convention, which was introduced in 1948 after the Holocaust.
Key issues to be watched
Medical Assistance in Dying
On February 2, 2023, the federal government introduced legislation (former Bill C-39) to extend the temporary exclusion of eligibility for medical assistance in dying (MAID) for one year, where a person’s sole medical condition is a mental illness. On March 9, 2023, the extension of the temporary exclusion of eligibility for medical assistance in dying received Royal Assent and came into force, postponing the eligibility date for persons suffering solely from mental illness until March 17, 2024.
Subsequently, the Special Joint Committee on Medical Assistance in Dying was appointed to review the provisions of the Criminal Code relating to medical assistance in dying and their application, including mature minors, advance requests, mental illness, and the state of palliative care.
In a Canadian Press interview published on December 15, Justice Minister Arif Virani raised the possibility of another pause, after the government considers the report of the Special Joint Committee, as well as advice from medical experts and other stakeholders. The report of the Special Joint Committee will be released shortly. Several provinces have urged delay, saying they are not ready to implement an expansion of MAID.
Under the Supply and Confidence Agreement signed between the Liberals and the NDP, the Liberals have committed to make public a plan for pharmacare and the legislation to implement it. The NDP have been holding out for a universal and publicly administered program with a single payer to be legislated, while it is assumed that the Liberals would prefer a smaller but more affordable plan that covers people without existing drug coverage. The NDP are armed with a resolution from their 2023 policy convention calling for the caucus to back out of the SACA arrangement with the Liberals if their demand is not met. Negotiations between the two parties are continuing. A deadline of March 1 has been set by the NDP for a resolution.
Earlier this week, NDP leader Jagmeet Singh told a town hall meeting in Edmonton that working with the Liberals on pharmacare legislation “has been like wrestling eels covered in oil. They’re just slimy and break their promises.”
- January 29: Parliament of Canada resumes sitting (Ottawa, Ont.)
- January 30: Quebec National Assembly resumes sitting (Quebec City, Que.)
- February 6: Senate of Canada resumes sitting (Ottawa, Ont.)
- February 20: B.C. Speech from the Throne, Legislative Assembly resumes sitting (Victoria, BC)
- February 20: Ontario Legislative Assembly resumes sitting (Toronto, Ont.)
- February 28: Alberta Legislative Assembly resumes sitting (Edmonton, Alta.)
- March 4: Federal by-election in the riding of Durham, Ont.
- March 6: Manitoba Legislative Assembly resumes sitting (Winnipeg, Man.)