Ottawa tables legislation to begin 'last step' of Canada's COVID-19 support programs
New financial programs will be available until at least next spring
In one of its first acts since the return of Parliament, the federal government has tabled legislation to create a suite of new, more selective pandemic support programs.
The Liberal government says the change represents a more targeted approach to economic recovery that will carry Canada through the next phase of pandemic.
"I see this legislation as very much the last step in our COVID support programs," said Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Finance Chrystia Freeland during a Wednesday evening news conference.
"It is what I really hope and truly believe is the final pivot."
Freeland said positive recent developments — including high vaccination rates, the return of children to schools and the country's continued economic recovery — mean the broad government supports offered last year are no longer necessary.
Ottawa estimates the cost of the new measures at $7.4 billion for the period of Oct. 24, 2021 to May 7, 2022.
The federal government spent $289 billion on economic support programs from the start of the pandemic to October 2021.
The changes were first announced on Oct. 22.
Supports for workers and businesses will continue
The new support programs include measures meant to help individual workers and industries that have been slow to recover from the economic disruption caused by the pandemic.
Workers affected by any future local lockdown measures will have access to a new Canada Worker Lockdown Benefit, which will provide $300 per week. That program is slated to run until May 7, 2022.
The government also plans to extend both the Canada Recovery Caregiving Benefit and the Canada Recovery Sickness Benefit to May 7, 2022.
Businesses that continue to suffer losses compared to their pre-pandemic activity will also have access to several ongoing programs.
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The tourism and hospitality sector will have access to some wage and rent subsidies with rates as high as 75 per cent. The government says businesses such as "hotels, tour operators, travel agencies, and restaurants" will be among those with access to these subsidies.
Other businesses experiencing what the government describes as "deep losses" will have access to similar subsidies, though they will be capped at 50 per cent.
Any businesses that face future local lockdowns will also have access to subsidies.
The Canadian Chamber of Commerce welcomed the new programs in a media statement.
"We are very pleased that legislation extending critical business support programs for the hardest hit sectors was priority number one for the government in this new Parliament," said chamber spokesperson Alla Drigola Birk.
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The Canadian Federation of Independent Business, however, said qualifying for the programs remains too difficult because some businesses have to show losses of 40 to 50 per cent in order to qualify for certain supports.
"This is not the comprehensive change needed to help small firms make it until all COVID-19 restrictions end," wrote CFIB President Dan Kelly.
Another national organization representing Canada's unions slammed the proposed legislation, saying that it does not offer adequate protection to workers.
"This bill has been conceived so narrowly, it's not a pivot, it pulls the rug right out from under struggling workers," said Bea Bruske, president of the Canadian Labour Congress in a statement.
Bruske says the legislation will not protect workers if regional governments choose not to implement lockdowns, citing Alberta as an example.
Bill could meet resistance in House of Commons
NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh said Tuesday his party couldn't support a bill that would cut help for workers, adding that he wants the government to reverse drops in income-tested benefits for low-income seniors and families who received aid last year.
In a letter issued Wednesday, NDP finance critic Daniel Blaikie asked House Speaker Anthony Rota to allow an emergency debate on the issue in the House of Commons to press the government to help "these financially vulnerable Canadians before they lose their home."
The minority Liberal government needs enough opposition MPs to vote for the bill to get it passed.
The government may turn to the Conservatives and Bloc Quebecois, which suggested separately that they may support the bill — the former because benefits will go where they're needed most, the latter because it may mean help for cultural workers.
With files from the Canadian Press