A broad sketch of Trudeau’s agenda to “build back better” was outlined in a highly anticipated “speech from the throne,” a centuries-old ritual that reopens Parliament. The speech was written by Trudeau and his aides, but delivered by Governor General Julie Payette, Queen Elizabeth’s representative in Canada.
Trudeau, who was on the defensive for much of the summer during an ethics controversy that has weighed on his approval ratings, made the controversial decision last month to seek the suspension of Parliament. He pledged to return with an “ambitious” plan for a green recovery that would remake the social safety net, and to put it to a confidence vote.
But he had recently dialed back expectations amid the resurgence of the virus across Canada, including in the capital. As if to underscore the threat, the leaders of the Conservative Party and the Bloc Québécois tested positive for the virus last week. Public health officials unveiled modeling Tuesday showing that Canada is on track for 5,000 cases a day by late October if it continues on its current course.
“Whatever it takes, effectively dealing with the health crisis is the best thing we can do for the economy,” said Payette, a former astronaut, who alternated between English and French passages while reading the speech.
The address laid out a mix of short- and long-term goals. Trudeau pledged to create a federal coronavirus testing response team, to revise the unemployment insurance system, to address systemic racism and to legislate net-zero emissions by 2050.
He also promised targeted support for sectors hit hard by the pandemic, such as travel and tourism, as well as to “identify additional ways to tax extreme wealth inequality,” including by addressing corporate tax avoidance by large digital companies.
“Web giants are taking Canadians’ money while imposing their own priorities,” Payette read. “Things must change, and will change.”
Trudeau also reiterated several old pledges, such as giving municipalities the authority to ban handguns, knocking down interprovincial trade barriers, implementing the recommendations of the truth and reconciliation commission on residential schools for Indigenous children, and moving toward a national program for prescription drugs.
In a rare address to the nation following the speech, Trudeau delivered a stark warning about the coronavirus, saying the country is in the middle of a second wave that could be more severe than the spring wave, when soldiers were deployed to hard-hit long-term care homes and much of the country shut down.
Most throne speeches are light on specific dollar figures, and this one was no different. Pandemic relief programs are projected to push the federal budget deficit this year beyond $250 billion, or 16 percent of the country’s gross domestic product. There were no details on how the government would eventually close that gap; Trudeau pledged to use “whatever fiscal firepower” is needed to address challenges.
Support for Trudeau eroded this summer after his government tapped WE Charity to run a summer grant program for student volunteers. The Toronto-based organization had paid his mother and brother several hundred thousand dollars to appear at its events.
The agreement was eventually severed, but it sparked parliamentary investigations. Those were halted during Parliament’s suspension. An independent ethics watchdog is investigating possible violations of conflict-of-interest laws. WE Charity later shut down in Canada.
Trudeau has pledged to put the speech to a confidence vote. With his government reduced to a minority in last year’s federal election, he’ll need the backing of one main opposition party to survive. Speculation about a possible fall election has abounded.
The New Democratic Party is likeliest to provide support, but it did not commit to backing it. Other parties panned the speech.
The Conservatives said they would not support it; they called it a “another speech full of Liberal buzzwords and grand gestures” without a follow-up plan or any mention of the oil and gas sector, orchestrated entirely to shut down the committees probing the WE Charity scandal.
Bloc Québécois leader Yves-François Blanchet, who is in isolation after testing positive for the coronavirus last week, tweeted that Ottawa had not listened to the “urgent and legitimate” demands of the provinces and failed to respect their jurisdiction in areas such as health care.
This throne speech was unique: There were no handshakes. Lawmakers were encouraged to watch it remotely. The handful who joined the procession to the Senate Chamber with the Usher of the Black Rod — a senior parliamentary officer whose origins date back to the British House of Lords — wore masks.