Members of Parliament returned to Ottawa to resume sitting for the first time in 2023 on Monday, with the state of Canada’s health-care system, the health of the Canadian economy, and rates of violent crime in this country all top of mind.
As MPs began filing back into West Block — which continues to serve as the temporary home of the House of Commons during Centre Block’s decade-long renovation — the parliamentary precinct was relatively quiet after this weekend’s one-year anniversary of the “Freedom Convoy” protest kickoff came and went with little fanfare.
On Monday afternoon, question period provided the first opportunity for politicians to square off on the headline-grabbing issues during the month-long holiday hiatus. From another chaotic travel season, to questions swirling around past comments about Quebec made by the Liberals’ newly appointed special representative on combating Islamophobia, there was plenty for MPs to dig into.
The first item of government business up for debate was the Liberals’ Bill C-35, aimed at enshrining in law a long-term commitment to Canada’s early learning and child care Act system, beyond the $10-a-day-deals the federal government has signed with provinces and territories. Early debate was an indication that the Conservatives won’t be supporting the legislation, barring amendments.
LIBERALS PLEDGE TO STAY ‘POSITIVE’
Ahead of the House of Commons’ opening, party caucuses held meetings to plot their political and legislative priorities. For all, inflation, affordability, and Canadians’ ability to access services remain key issues of concern.
Top of mind for Prime Minister Justin Trudeau this winter will be balancing a number of upcoming big ticket commitments, with the Liberals’ pledge to be fiscally responsible given the widespread warnings of an economic slowdown.
“There’s a host of hot issues, obviously. But, more than that, I think there’s an important priority for the prime minister and his government to look like they’re moving from arguments to achievements… Talking about the cost of living crisis, talking about economic wellbeing, talking about health care, talking about crime,” said CTV political commentator Scott Reid on CTV News Channel on Monday.
“And I think the fundamental mission for the government right now is to demonstrate that it can fix those things that people are worried aren’t working, and that they can make real progress,” Reid said. “This session is an opportunity for him day in and day out, measure to measure, policy to policy, question period to question period, to prove his point, that this government is getting things fixed and getting things done.”
In his caucus-rallying speech to MPs on Friday, Trudeau said, while the country and the world are facing “difficult times” given the risk of a recession and the ongoing war in Ukraine, it is important that Liberals reaffirm their “positive vision” for the future.
“This is a pivotal moment, not just for our country, but for the whole world. And, as we head together into this new sitting of Parliament, we — all of us — we must be ready to meet this moment. We must remember to always put Canadians at the centre of everything we do,” Trudeau said.
CONSERVATIVES FOCUS ON CRIME RATE
Heading into a new year as the head of the Official Opposition to the Liberal minority, Conservative Leader Pierre Poilievre has vowed to continue calling out reckless spending. As his caucus plans to push a number of committee studies connected to what they see as the Liberals’ inability to govern without ethics breaches, or deliver services without relying on private consultants, Poilievre on Monday deliberately emphasized the fact that Trudeau has now been in power for “eight years.”
During question period, the Conservatives largely focused their questions around the ongoing discussion of how much the federal Liberals have spent on contracts granted to consulting firm McKinsey and Co., while at the same time placing the blame on the federal government for a range of issues.
“After eight years of this prime minister, we have 40-year highs in inflation, we have a 32 per cent increase in crime. We have the TTC transit system in downtown Toronto overtaken by crime. We have more people eating at food banks and living at homeless shelters … but not everybody is doing badly, his friends at McKinsey are rolling in cash … How much did he give McKinsey?” Poilievre said Monday, echoing his own fiery address to caucus last week.
On Monday, Conservative deputy leader and MP Melissa Lantsman requested an emergency debate “regarding the unprecedented levels of violent crime across Canada,” but her request was denied by House of Commons Speaker Anthony Rota, who deemed it didn’t meet the criteria.
The two main federal parties are heading into this political year looking to make their respective cases for why Canada is, or is not “broken.” Trudeau has accused Poilievre of choosing to amplify anger without real solutions for the problems he’s pointing to, while Poilievre is suggesting the prime minister has his head in the sand and should “get out of the way.”
“We’ve got an interesting battle shaping up between Pierre Poilievre and Justin Trudeau… I think that the richest vein to be mined by the Conservatives, is simple government incompetence,” said CTV political commentator Tom Mulcair on CTV News Channel on Monday. “This is a core question of, you know, can the Conservatives do better?
NDP PRIORITIZE PRIVATIZATION DEBATE
NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh — holding tough on seeing some big-ticket supply-and-confidence deal items fulfilled — started off Monday’s sitting calling for an emergency debate on what he considers a “big shift” in the way health care is being delivered in Canada, sounding alarms over provinces’ plans to increase privatization in certain areas.
During a return-to-Parliament-focused press conference Monday morning, Singh told reporters that he’s been “surprised” to see that Trudeau is considering what Ontario is doing with its plan to allow more private clinics to perform surgeries as “innovation,” as he recently told the Toronto Star newspaper.
Singh called it a “complete flip-flop” from the last election campaign when Trudeau went hard at then-Conservative leader Erin O’Toole for his musings about increased private options.
“That’s why we’re calling for an emergency debate today, because really what’s at stake is a turning point in our health-care system,” Singh said. “The decisions we make today will define the type of healthcare we have in the next decade.”
Singh’s emergency debate request was also denied by the Speaker, but he told reporters that he had plans to bring up his privatization concerns directly with Trudeau as the two leaders had a meeting planned for Monday, a week before the health-care talks come to a head.
PREMIERS PUT ON PRESSURE AHEAD OF HEALTH TALKS
On Feb. 7, Trudeau is set to sit down with the premiers in Ottawa to discuss reaching cross-Canada health-care funding deals, a meeting that provincial leadership considers a long time coming.
The prime minister has said he views the gathering as a chance for federal, provincial and territorial governments to discuss an agreement — or series of agreements — that will see more funding put into health-care systems across the country, in exchange for improved care.
In a collective statement issued Monday morning, the premiers restated their expectation that the federal government increase the Canada Health Transfer from 22 per cent to 35 per cent, despite indications from Trudeau and his top negotiators that they aren’t looking for a one-size-fits-all approach.
“As a federal proposal has not yet been received by premiers, this meeting will mark the beginning of the direct First Ministers’ dialogue and follow-up required to achieve the significant investment and outcomes expected by all Canadians on this fundamental priority,” reads a statement issued by Chair of the Council of the Federation and Manitoba Premier Heather Stefanson.