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Commons committee asks Liberals to look to basic income to help ‘gig’ workers

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OTTAWA — A cross-party committee of MPs says it’s time for the government to take a deeper look at a guaranteed minimum income to help workers caught in the tectonic shifts of the “gig economy.”

The MPs’ report on declines in traditional, full-time employment in favour of short-term contract work says the government needs to explore new types of income supports “that do not depend upon someone having a job.”

To that end, the committee calls on federal officials to review a minimum-income program, which is typically a no-strings-attached government payment to every citizen that replaces an assortment of targeted benefits, as an option to help those between gigs who fall through the existing social safety net.

The report calls for a revamp of the employment-insurance system to widen that net, reducing the minimum number of hours someone must work before qualifying for benefits, boosting payments to low-wage workers, and reconsidering the benefits available to self-employed workers. It also calls on the government to modernize federal labour regulations.

MPs on the committee nod to some recent federal efforts, such as a soon-to-be-launched tax credit for individuals to offset the cost of work-training courses.

But here, too, the committee urges the government to pay close attention to the design of the Canada Training Benefit to make sure it is accessible to low-wage, part-time or self-employed workers and to make every effort to ensure they use the program.

The training benefit, to launched in late 2020, would provide a $250 refundable tax credit each year, accumulating over time if it isn’t used, to Canadians earning between $10,000 and about $150,000 a year. The plan is expected to cost $710 million over five years.

Federal officials have considered the idea among a wide range of possibilities to reshape social-safety-net programs that were designed for a workforce that needed help at certain fairly predictable points, such as upon losing a full-time job, having children and retiring. Lifetimes of freelancing, contracts and multiple part-time jobs punctuated by returns to school don’t fit the model.

A discussion paper crafted in December 2018 for the deputy minister at Employment and Social Development Canada identified rising income inequality and the growth of the “online platform economy” — exemplified by companies such as Uber, Lyft and Airbnb, which broker work while doing everything possible not to become formal employers — among the top issues to tackle in a redesign of federal policies.

Officials wanted to look at a small number of policy areas to keep work manageable and “stress-testing” alternative policies under “more extreme scenarios” than officials had previously envisioned, such as if unemployment spiked. The Canadian Press obtained a copy of that paper and accompanying briefing note under the access-to-information law.

The Commons committee says its report can form the foundation of future federal research and planning but stresses the need to revamp the social safety net.

“The nature of work is changing. Yet, the blueprints of our social safety net and our foundational labour legislation were developed in a different time,” the report, released Monday, reads.

“In this new world of work, it is essential that government and employers take necessary measures to protect workers from precariousness, the effects of which can be mitigated with efficient policies and social safety nets.”

The Canadian Press

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Ethnic media aim to help maintain boost in voting by new Canadians

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OTTAWA — Zuhair Alshaer spends most of his day editing articles and organizing interviews with politicians for his Ottawa-based Arab Canada newspaper, to introduce Arabic-speaking new Canadians to federal politics.

The community Alshaer’s paper serves is growing — more immigrants are arriving in Canada from Africa, Asia and the Middle East than ever before, surpassing Europe that was once the dominant source.

And it is also becoming more politically engaged: The voting rate of immigrant from West Central Asia and the Middle East increased to 73 per cent in the 2015 election from the 57 per cent recorded four years earlier, the largest increase among the 10 immigrant regions studied by Statistics Canada.

For Alshaer, and other ethnic media outlets, all his efforts are aimed at helping Arabic-speaking new Canadians kick isolation and get involved in politics.

“We’re trying to encourage our audience to integrate,” he said. “We show them how important is to participate in politics.”

Research published by Statistics Canada in 2016 highlighted that new Canadians made up about one-fifth of the voting population. Their numbers are likely to increase in the coming years: Statistics Canada projects the proportion of foreign-born individuals who immigrated to Canada could reach between 25 per cent and 30 per cent by 2036.

Alshaer, a Palestinian immigrant who came to Canada 20 years ago, is hoping that his monthly newspaper, launched three years ago, will connect his community with federal politics, so more people cast a ballot on Oct. 21.

“We should believe that Canada is our country and behave accordingly,” he said.

The most recent issue of his newspaper, published earlier this month, included an op-ed signed by Environment Minister Catherine McKenna, and an extended interview with Conservative finance critic Pierre Poilievre, who are seeking re-election in their respective Ottawa-area seats.

“We worked on building trust between our audience and the politicians and candidates,” said Alshaer, the paper’s editor-in-chief. “We don’t have any affiliation with any candidate or political party.”

But newcomers from countries with no established democratic traditions is an obstacle that makes participating in Canadian politics more challenging. Research has also shown that lower-income individuals — a group that includes newcomers — may not see voting as a priority for because they are more focused on more immediate concerns, adding another obstacle.

“A lot of newcomers, in the first few years, are facing tremendous anxiety and challenges when it comes to economic and social integration,” said Liberal MP Omar Alghabra, who was born in Saudi Arabia to a Syrian family and immigrated to Canada about 30 years ago.

Statistics Canada data show that turnout rates for established immigrants, defined as those who lived in the country for at least 10 years, was a few points higher in 2015 than recent immigrants.

Overall, turnout rates were up by 14.4 percentage points in 2015 compared to the 2011 election, Statistics Canada said, with above-average increases recorded for newcomers from West Central Asia, the Middle East and Africa.

Getting used to the idea of voting “takes a few years for newcomers to wrap their heads around it,” Algabra said. He added it was important to explain to new Canadians that the outcomes of the election “will have an immediate impact on their lives” and each outcome could mean different things to different people.

A few of the volunteers with Algabra’s re-election campaign are newcomers. Some don’t even have their permanent residency or citizenship, but are “excited about living in a country with a society that encourages participation and democratic practices,” Algabra said.

“I’ve also seen a group of newcomers who are extremely excited about earning their Canadian citizenship,” Alghabra said. “They are really keen on not only voting, but also participating in democratic process.”

Maan Alhmidi, The Canadian Press

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Saskatchewan abandons commitment to improve northern airport after crash: chief

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Louie Mercredi of the Fond du Lac Denesuline First Nation

REGINA — A chief of a remote Saskatchewan First Nation says the province’s decision not to help improve an airport runway in his community while doing so in a city outside Regina shows racism.

Louie Mercredi of the Fond du Lac Denesuline First Nation says the province is abandoning its commitment to develop the runway near his isolated northern reserve.

He says the airport is in poor condition and the runway needs to be expanded. He’s been pushing for changes since one person died and nine were seriously injured following a plane crash there in December 2017.

Lori Carr, minister of government relations, says the province didn’t receive a completed application for the project.

She says officials requested in June that the First Nation hand in a full application, but it was not done.

“It should not come down to an application,” Mercredi told a news conference in Regina on Thursday.

“I have told my people that we are getting a runway upgraded so the province (has) created a liar. I’ve lied to my people.”

Mercredi said the province was almost done with the design of the project. He says the First Nation submitted an application in March, but it was incomplete because staff lacked technical expertise.

He wants the province to help finish the application and fund the project, since the government committed to doing so.

“Now that I’ve found out a Moose Jaw airport application was also late and that was accepted by the province, what is going on here?” he said.

“Are they just supporting their ridings? What I’m seeing is racism here.”

“This airport is the only access point for many northern communities and the fact that needed improvements still haven’t been made is ridiculous,” said Opposition infrastructure critic Buckley Belanger.

A runway expansion for Moose Jaw was one of nearly 30 projects the province brought to the federal government in a request for infrastructure funding, which has been the subject of an ongoing dispute between Saskatchewan and Ottawa.

The Saskatchewan NDP said the government has been engaged in “partisan finger-pointing” over infrastructure funding.

Mercredi said he has sent about a dozen letters to the provincial government seeking updates to his proposal and was under the impression the province was still committed to paying for runway improvements.

“Still ’til today no response.”

He said he learned through a news report that the runway wasn’t a priority for the province.

Deputy premier Gord Wyant has said the upgrades are not a priority for the government this budget year.

“What is more important than human lives?” Mercredi asked.

“What kind of government is this when they prioritize landfills before human lives?”

Bobby Cameron, chief of the Federation of Sovereign Indigenous Nations, said applications shouldn’t be the issue and the province should focus on safety.

Mercredi said the Fond du Lac runway isn’t safe for larger aircraft, so people are transported on smaller planes and their flights are consistently delayed.

As well, he said, most of their food is flown in and that’s fallen behind due to having to downsize the planes being used.

Carr said Fond du Lac’s existing runway is safe and the Transportation Safety Board didn’t find the airstrip contributed to the 2017 crash.

The safety board said in a report in December that the pilot of the plane took off despite noticing ice on the aircraft during a pre-flight inspection.

The board said people using remote, northern airports are at substantial risk because of a lack of proper equipment for de-icing planes.

The federal government announced in February that it was spending $12 million for safety upgrades at the airport.

Stephanie Taylor, The Canadian Press

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