As summer approaches, Parliament is still at a crossroads

When the second session of the 43rd Parliament began last September, Canada was said to be at a crossroads. Nine months later, it’s fair to say the country’s still there.

It hasn't been a quiet 9 months, but the timing of the election remains uncertain

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau gives Finance Minister Chrystia Freeland the thumbs up after she delivered the federal budget in the House of Commons earlier this year. The budget bill provides for the transfer of federal funding to provinces to begin establishing a national system of child care and early learning. (The Canadian Press/Sean Kilpatrick)

When the second session of the 43rd Parliament began last September, Canada was said to be at a crossroads. Nine months later, it's fair to say the country is still facing a fork in the road.

That's not because nothing has happened since then, but rather because so much remains unsettled. With a possible (and potentially pivotal) federal election looming, the spring sitting of the House of Commons is now grinding to a close.

The House will officially adjourn sometime this week; MPs won't be due back until September 20. If past practice is any indication, the last few days of business will see a small flurry of legislative activity — the stakes heightened, in this case, by the possibility that MPs won't be back as scheduled in the fall.

With time running short, the government has prioritized the passage of four bills: C-30, which would implement measures from the spring budget; C-6, which would ban conversion therapy; C-12, the government's climate accountability legislation; and C-10, which would apply Canadian broadcasting regulations to some of the major online content hubs.

Passing most or all of those bills would add much to the list of legislation the government has been able to get through Parliament over the last nine months. That list includes bills to mandate new training on sexual assault for judges, to establish a National Day for Truth and Reconciliation, to amend the citizenship oath to acknowledge Canada's treaties with Indigenous peoples and to implement the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. Parliament also passed four bills to provide pandemic aid to individuals and businesses.

Other bills that have been tabled recently or have otherwise failed to advance would die on the order paper in the event of an election — including C-22, which would repeal a number of mandatory minimum sentencing guidelines.

There are still key pieces of the Liberal agenda in these bills — items that could have a lasting impact on federal policy, regardless of who is in power. Among other things, the budget bill provides for the transfer of federal funding to provinces to begin establishing a national system of child care and early learning.

But the throne speech in September envisioned far more than could be done in nine months. Back then, coming to the crossroads meant finding a way to rebuild the economy while respecting the lessons of the pandemic and the urgent need to confront climate change.

In December, the Liberals released an updated climate plan and then committed Canada to a new emissions target. In April, Finance Minister Chrystia Freeland tabled a budget that made a break with the pre-2015 political orthodoxy of austerity.

Dr. Barry Lavallee, CEO, Keewatinowi Inniniw Minoayawin, administers the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine to Sam Hallett, 12, at the Aboriginal Health and Wellness Centre in Winnipeg earlier this year. (Canadian Press/Winnipeg Free Press-Mike Deal-Pool)

The months since September have given the government new reasons for a sense of urgency. The discovery of children's remains near a former residential school in Kamloops, British Columbia. The killing of four members of a Muslim family in London, Ontario. Military leaders brought down by a reckoning over sexual misconduct. The election of a new president in the United States. The new willingness of provincial governments to play around with the Constitution.

These are all big things — big things on which the Conservatives and New Democrats may soon be making competing offers to voters that can be debated in an election campaign.

Speculating about election timing generally isn't worth the effort, but it's not hard to see the outlines of a fall campaign coming together.

At the current pace, most Canadians over the age of 12 should be fully vaccinated by the end of the summer. Parliament, meanwhile, is increasingly fractious. The government is loudly complaining that the opposition parties are being overly obstructionist, while the opposition and the government are in a stand-off over access to secret government documents.

A moment for rest

At the very least, the Conservatives don't seem worried about giving the prime minister an excuse to ask the governor general for an election. Or perhaps they've decided the prime minister is going to go regardless, so they might as well make things as difficult as possible in the interim.

In his remarks on Friday, Justin Trudeau criticized the opposition parties, particularly the Conservatives, for what he described as lamentable conduct (rest assured, the opposition parties aren't too flattering when they talk about his government, either). It's the sort of thing a prime minister planning an election campaign would be expected to say.

But it probably would be a mistake to assume a fall campaign is inevitable. For one thing, the last nine months have shown us that pandemics are stubborn things that don't respect timetables.

It's still entirely possible that MPs will be back in their seats — virtually or otherwise — on Sept. 20. And maybe they'll find a way to keep this Parliament going until October 2023, when the next scheduled election is due.

With another two years, this government could better establish the agenda it laid out last September. Then again, it could do even more with another four years and a majority in the House. A new election could give the Liberals that majority — or it could take everything away from them.

But one way or another, the summer of 2021 might be a moment for relief and rest before a choice has to be made.

This article is part of CBC News' Minority Report newsletter, which will help you navigate the parliamentary waters of a minority governmentSign up here and it will be delivered directly to your inbox.

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