Premiers and PM agree: Let’s not make the pandemic worse

OPINION: The “safe restart” agreement announced Thursday promises billions in federal support for municipalities and public health. It took long enough
By John Michael McGrath - Published on Jul 17, 2020
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced on July 16 that the federal government will provide provinces and territories with $19 billion to help support a safe restart of the economy. (Sean Kilpatrick/CP)

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In the midst of a historic pandemic that has felled thousands of Canadians, harmed tens of thousands more, gutted the economy, and sent the liberties of women back to the 1980s — and, as yet, with no concrete promise of a vaccine that could end all this — the prime minister of Canada and the 10 provincial premiers (leaders of the federation, with the power to shape and organize the resources of tens of millions of people) have come to a historic agreement: they’re not going to make things worse.

When it comes to the provinces, the “safe restart” agreement announced by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau on July 16 is, as Premier Doug Ford put it, “not even good — this is great.” The federal government’s initial offer of $14 billion has been increased to $19 billion; of that, Ontario will see $7 billion. It’s arguably even better for municipalities, as Ottawa has indicated that they and their transit systems will get specific allocations of money, and it has managed to horsewhip the provinces into matching at least some of that money.

(Note: Ontario’s $7 billion is far less than the $23 billion the government previously insisted it needed in federal aid, and yet the premier was happy with the agreement. Does that suggest this province was simply making the biggest possible opening bid in the expectation that it wouldn’t get everything it wanted? You might think that; I couldn’t possibly comment.)

We don’t have all the details yet, and, in the absence of clear numbers, we sometimes have to rely on other people as proxies. So, take, for example, Toronto mayor John Tory, who had issued a series of increasingly frantic warnings to the province and the feds about the consequences of letting cities run out of money in the midst of a pandemic. The scale of budget cuts the city would have needed to implement — from transit to child care to very nearly everything else — would not only have rendered Toronto a hollow shell, but would also have risked turning the current crisis into a catastrophe.

So it’s notable that Tory called yesterday’s announcement “very good news” and that other groups, such as the Federation of Canadian Municipalities and the Large Urban Mayors’ Caucus of Ontario, similarly praised the governments involved for having eventually gotten their checkbooks out.

“I know first-hand that the negotiations have been challenging,” Tory said at a July 16 press conference. “Not because of an unwillingness to help on the part of either order of government, but because Canada’s governing structure often makes it difficult to determine who should be doing what.”

The mayor is clearly being diplomatic here — and he should probably keep being diplomatic, at least until the money has arrived in Toronto’s accounts — but the rest of us are under no obligation to be that way, and we shouldn’t live under any illusions, either. The question of who’s responsible for health care, municipalities, and their transit systems is not at all ambiguous. I won’t repeat myself at length here except to say that these are all, exclusively and unequivocally, provincial responsibilities. There is simply no text in the Constitution to suggest otherwise. What there is instead is the oldest unwritten rule of Canadian federalism: the national government has money, and the provinces want it.

It's not exactly high-minded political principle, but it’s also not a scandal — just the normal working of politics in our federal system. It’s perhaps somewhat sad that everyone retreated back to “politics as usual” on this file so quickly, but this agreement is still good news for Canadians, if only because the alternative (letting municipalities collapse) had the potential to be so much worse.

One particular detail of the restart agreement that shouldn’t be overlooked is that the provinces have agreed to the federal government’s proposal for 10 days of paid sick leave (Ontario law currently guarantees only three days.) It’s going to be up to the provinces to amend their laws or regulations to make workers eligible for this, but, when they do, it will be Ottawa footing the bill. Leave is an important factor in any recovery plan, as, more than ever, we don’t want people dragging their sick bodies into workplaces for fear of losing their jobs — nor do we want parents bringing their sick kids to school because they can’t miss a day of work. But this will also, predictably, turn into another fight between the federal and provincial governments if and when Ottawa decides to wind down the funding: the provinces will have to either fill the gap with their own money or take a work entitlement away from their voters.

In Canada, the arguments between Ottawa and the provinces are never done; the most we ever get is a bit of rest in between the last one and the next one.

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