Politics

Parliament adopts wage subsidy bill as MPs applaud all-party collaboration

The federal government's wage subsidy legislation was passed by Parliament Saturday after an emergency sitting that saw MPs applauding collaboration between parliamentarians of all political stripes.

'Today has been an exceptional day in the midst of exceptional times,' House Speaker says

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer and Members of Parliament convened in the House of Commons April 11 to debate the federal government's multi-billion-dollar wage subsidy legislation. (Justin Tang/The Canadian Press)

Parliament passed the federal government's wage subsidy legislation Saturday night after an emergency sitting that saw MPs applauding collaboration between parliamentarians of all political stripes.

The legislation cleared both chambers of Parliament after days of protracted negotiations between the government and opposition parties produced an agreement to pass a bill that will flow billions of dollars to companies during the COVID-19 crisis.

The bill received royal assent from Governor General Julie Payette shortly after 9:30 p.m. ET.

House Speaker Anthony Rota characterized the occasion as an "exceptional day in the midst of exceptional times."

While the Conservatives said they still have some issues with the implementation of the $73-billion wage subsidy, they agreed to waive normal parliamentary procedure to get the legislation through the Commons in a single day to allow bureaucrats to start sending money to businesses in need.

Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer said his party's support for the legislation was conditional on the government agreeing to more accountability measures — namely allowing more parliamentary committees to meet throughout this pandemic. One of those committees will be tasked with studying whether Parliament can meet virtually in the weeks ahead.

"The prime minister said we need to prepare for a second and perhaps a third wave. Canadians want to know how this government is preparing to get ahead of those waves," Scheer said in a speech to the Commons.

"Parliament has a vital role to play now. Through debate and discussion and regular questions from the opposition, we will get better results for Canadians."

Conservative Senate Leader Don Plett said further parliamentary review of Ottawa's COVID-19 response is necessary after documents revealed the government was slow to respond to COVID-19 in the early days of the outbreak.

Government briefing notes, tabled with the health committee Wednesday, detail a bureaucracy reluctant to put inbound China passengers in mandatory quarantine or close borders to arrivals from other hotspots.

Federal public health officials advised Health Minister Patty Hajdu as late as March 10 that the risk of COVID-19 to Canada was "low." A week later, the prime minister ordered a shutdown of social and economic life.

"It was like the government was oblivious to the fact that this virus posed a real danger to Canadians, even though other countries were already in advanced stages of infection, lockdown and quarantine," Plett said in a speech to the Red Chamber late Saturday.

"While the virus walked, flew and drove across our borders, this government was asleep at the wheel," he said.

Challenge facing Canadians

Addressing a small contingent of MPs, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said that Canadians' determination to fight the virus and look out for one another could be put to the test — though he thinks they are up to the challenge.

The prime minister likened the current situation to a war, but instead of a front line marked with barbed wire, he said the front line in this pandemic is everywhere — in homes, hospitals and grocery stores.

"Without reservation, without pause, we must fight for every inch of ground against this disease. We must be there for one another as we spare no effort to safeguard our collective future," Trudeau said.

During his opening remarks in the House of Commons Saturday, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said Canada's seniors are one of the populations "most threatened" by COVID-19. (Justin Tang/The Canadian Press)

He called essential workers modern-day heroes who are making sure Canadians can heal, receive care and stay home to ensure the virus does not spread.

While Canadians are standing physically apart, they are united in a collective resolve to do what must be done until COVID-19 is defeated, Trudeau said.

Bill designed to prevent layoffs

The bill at the heart of Saturday's debate will put in place the multi-billion-dollar Canada Emergency Wage Subsidy (CEWS), which is designed to help companies avoid laying off employees during a pandemic that has led to many businesses shutting their doors.

The CEWS is intended to encourage companies to rehire workers by offering a 75 per cent wage subsidy over the next three months to businesses that have lost 30 per cent of their revenue due to the crisis. Companies will need to reapply for the program each month.

Finance Minister Bill Morneau speaks at a press conference on the government's response to the COVID-19 pandemic Saturday. Morneau said the wage subsidy bill will make sure "that employers can keep their employees attached to their enterprise." (Justin Tang/The Canadian Press)

Morneau said in a news conference Saturday that the money will be sent to businesses soon through an online portal operated through the Canada Revenue Agency.

"A week ago, we said this would take three to six weeks, obviously now that's two to five weeks," Morneau said. "We're aspiring to do that as rapidly as possible. I'm assured we will be closer to the short end of that time."

Scheer: Conservatives to 'facilitate' bill's passage

A draft version of the legislation was shared with opposition parties on Monday in an attempt to get all parties on board for fast passage of the legislation.

Before the debate, Scheer, NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh and Bloc Québécois Leader Yves-François Blanchet delivered remarks on their parties' plans to support the bill.

Scheer said he would "facilitate" the bill's passage now that the federal government has accepted some of his party's proposed changes.

The outgoing Conservative leader said he looked forward to the government implementing the party's suggestions, which include reducing eligibility hurdles for some businesses.

Scheer continued to push for in-person meetings in the House while taking public health advice into consideration, given that Parliament is not sitting regularly at this time.

The Conservatives say they want to see MPs in the Commons itself as opposed to the virtual sittings the government has proposed because it will lead to stronger parliamentary oversight. 

As part of an all-party agreement, the government's operations and estimates, human resources and industry committees are now permitted to proceed via video or teleconference, provided meetings are focused on evidence related to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Trudeau has previously raised health and safety concerns over holding regular meetings to respect physical distancing, as has the Bloc's Blanchet.

House heeds NDP amendment

Meanwhile, Singh said Saturday that his party would support the legislation necessary for the subsidy to become a reality.

The NDP leader's calls to improve access to the Canada Emergency Response Benefit (CERB) were ultimately adopted in the motion, including addressing the needs of seasonal workers and those who have exhausted their employment insurance benefits.

WATCH | Singh calls for expanded eligibility in government aid bill:

NDP leader Jagmeet Singh said Saturday that pandemic aid needs to be expanded to include those who don't qualify because of a 'technicality.' 0:26

Green Party parliamentary leader Elizabeth May said that while she was nervous to travel to Ottawa for the proceedings, she was heartened by the teamwork displayed by all MPs to pass the subsidy and improve the CERB.

Bloc Leader Blanchet said that the draft bill includes "some very good things" for workers.

In a letter to the prime minister Tuesday, Blanchet wrote that he welcomed several aspects of the legislation, but noted that it initially did not include support for businesses struggling with operational costs.

Blanchet said that Finance Minister Bill Morneau has since acknowledged those concerns. 

The leader also expressed concern that temporary foreign workers were not being tested for COVID-19 after arriving in Canada. 

The Canada Border Services Agency responded on Saturday, saying that temporary foreign workers must self-isolate for 14 days before being able to come in contact with anyone in Canada and before they can start working. 

WATCH | Blanchet warns about workers not tested for COVID-19 upon arriving in Canada:

Bloc Québécois leader Yves-François Blanchet says he has an 'obligation to inform everybody,' as a plane arrives from Mexico carrying over 150 workers who have not been tested for the novel coronavirus and will not spend 14 days in isolation. 0:38

With files from the CBC's Catherine Cullen, Vassy Kapelos and The Canadian Press

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