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Deficits in big-spending pre-election budget tee up ballot-box choice

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  • OTTAWA — The final budget of the Trudeau government’s mandate will scatter billions in fresh spending — on everything from pharmacare to retraining workers to first-time home buyers — as the Liberals commit to an electoral fight that pits their deficit-spending vision versus the Conservatives’ balanced-books approach.

    Finance Minister Bill Morneau’s budget Tuesday resembled Liberal economic plans that preceded it: the government will exhaust a big windfall, run near-term deficits of about $20 billion and offer no timeline to return to balance.

    The document tabled in the Commons showed that a stronger economy last year will put an extra $27.8 billion into the federal treasury over the next six years, compared to government predictions in its November economic update.

    With seven months to go before the election, Morneau’s plan will spread around $22.8 billion of that additional cash. The government also said it’s booked another $4 billion in spending since the fall update.

    Out of all this new spending, most of it will be aimed at Canadians’ pocketbooks.

    Funding for some of Tuesday’s commitments will only start kicking in after October’s election, giving voters the chance to weigh in on the budget’s contents at the ballot box.

    The Liberals’ plan places them in stark contrast with the Opposition Conservatives, who have called on the government to rein in spending.

    “The opposition would like to see us make cuts very rapidly — their idea is balance the budget at any cost,” Morneau told a news conference Tuesday after being asked about his deficits.

    “Well, if we had taken that approach in 2015 we would not be where we are today with a better outcome for middle-class Canadians. We’d be in a more difficult spot.”

    The measures in Morneau’s fiscal blueprint cover a lot of territory, with a clear focus on individuals — particularly younger adults — as opposed to businesses. The plan includes:

    — $4.6 billion over five years to help more Canadians afford and access skills training to keep up with the rapidly evolving workforce

    — $4.5 billion over five years to improve living conditions for Indigenous Peoples

    — $1.8 billion over four years to enhance the guaranteed income supplement for low-income seniors

    — $885 million over five years to make homes more affordable for first-time buyers

    — $500 million per year, starting in 2022-23, to help cover the cost of drugs for rare diseases.

    The government will make several large, one-time investments for 2018-19, including $2.2 billion worth of new infrastructure funding and $1 billion towards improving energy efficiency.

    The budget also pledges up to $3.9 billion for supply-managed dairy, egg and poultry farmers affected by recent trade deals with the Asia-Pacific and Europe.

    Even with these investments, Ottawa’s fiscal track promises to be a key issue on the campaign trail.

    The annual deficit projections in Tuesday’s budget — which reach as high as $19.8 billion — are less than one percentage point of Canada’s gross domestic product, a modest level when compared internationally.

    Still, the Liberals will be forced to explain themselves repeatedly until election day.

    They came to power in 2015 on a platform that vowed to post annual deficits of no more than $10 billion and to return to balance by 2019.

    After the 2015 election, the Trudeau government abandoned the promise, arguing more investments were needed to lift Canada’s long-term economic growth. Instead, Morneau has focused on lowering the net debt-to-GDP ratio — a measure of how burdensome the national debt is — each year even as the actual debt has increased.

    The Conservatives have attacked the Liberals for breaking their deficit promise and have demanded Morneau map out a return to balanced books. They’ve accused the government of borrowing today on the backs of future generations.

    Morneau introduced his blueprint Tuesday just before 4 p.m. ET, but his customary budget speech to the House of Commons was delayed an hour by a series of procedural manoeuvres by the Conservatives.

    When Morneau finally started speaking, Tory MPs drowned out most of his address by stomping and shouting.

    The Tories were protesting the Liberal-dominated justice committee’s decision earlier Tuesday to pull the plug on its probe of the SNC-Lavalin affair. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s and his senior officials have faced allegations of judicial interference.

    Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer told reporters that, given the SNC-Lavalin scandal, his MPs refused to stand by and watch Morneau table a budget as though it were business as usual.

    On the new spending in the budget, Scheer warned that Canadians will have to pay for it through higher taxes if Trudeau is re-elected.

    “Conservatives will fight to bring fiscal responsibility back to this country,” he said.

    Leaders in corporate Canada and some economists have also criticized the Liberal deficits, especially since they’ve come during good economic times when many believe governments should be focused on paying off debt.

    A big question is what will become of the Liberal spending plan — and how big the shortfalls will grow — when Canada is hit by the next economic downturn.

    The economy has had a good run, but experts say it’s debatable how much of Canada’s recent economic performance has come from Liberal policies and how much has been a result of the stronger U.S. and global economies.

    New Democrat Leader Jagmeet Singh said the budget didn’t go far enough on universal pharmacare, skills training and pensions.

    He also questioned the budget’s measure to allow people to use a larger share — $35,000 instead of $25,000 — of their registered retirement savings plans to buy their first home.

    “How many people have enough in their RRSP as a first-time home buyer to make that in any way meaningful?” Singh asked. “This is a budget that gives crumbs to Canadians when the government has already given the entire pie to the wealthiest.”

    — Follow @AndyBlatchford on Twitter

    Andy Blatchford, The Canadian Press


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    Environment

    Soldiers deploy across Quebec after flood-caused sinkhole claims woman’s life

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  • MONTREAL — Canadian Armed Forces are deploying in three regions across Quebec, officials say, as rising water levels continue to wreak havoc on the province after claiming a life.

    About 200 soldiers were poised to start filling sandbags and carrying out evacuations in the Outaouais and Mauricie regions Saturday night, with 400 more troops set to deploy there as well as Laval on Sunday, said Brig.-Gen. Jennie Carignan.

    The soldiers are “extremely well-trained and prepared” for the flood fight, Carignan said. “They are used to doing it.”

    Quebec’s public safety minister urged residents throughout the day to stay safe and cooperate with authorities.

    “Be careful, be vigilant…please,” Genevieve Guilbault said alongside Carignan at Canadian Forces Base Longue-Pointe in Montreal Saturday evening.

    As of Saturday night, turgid rivers had resulted in 903 flooded residences, 251 isolated residences and 317 evacuees across the province, according to Urgence Quebec.

    Eight major floods were identified by Urgence Quebec on Saturday evening, threatening thousands of Quebecers: the Chaudiere River at Saint-Georges, Saint-Joseph, Scott and Vallee-Jonction, all in the Beauce region; Lake of Two Mountains at Rigaud and Quesnel Bay; and the Beaurivage River in Levis in the Chaudiere-Appalaches region.

    Guilbault also offered her condolences to the family of Louise Seguin Lortie, who died early Saturday morning after driving her car into a massive sinkhole caused by flooding in the Outaouais region, according to police.

    The accident left the 72-year-old’s sedan upside down in a swollen stream after rising river levels swept away part of the road overnight, police said.

    Sgt. Martin Fournel of the MRC des Collines police said a pair of witnesses parked near the washout tried unsuccessfully to warn the driver as she approached.

    “That lady, who was driving by herself on that road, fell into a sinkhole basically because of the flooding. There was a culvert that was not there anymore, so the road was cut in half and she was not able to brake and avoid the accident,” Fournel told The Canadian Press.

    The woman was taken to hospital but died shortly after, he said.

    The accident occurred at about 3:30 a.m. in the Municipality of Pontiac, about 30 kilometres northwest of Ottawa.

    Pontiac, which sits along the Ottawa River, is one of at least four municipalities in the Outaouais region to declare states of emergency, along with Gatineau, Saint-Andre-Avellin and Val-des-Monts. Trois-Rivieres is also under a state of emergency.

    Rigaud, west of the Island of Montreal, saw at least 68 evacuations, as residents feared a repeat of 2017, when record flooding forced thousands from their homes.

    William Bradley, whose house in Rigaud sits on a street that hugs the Ottawa River, said he filled several hundred city-supplied sandbags this week. He’s stacked them four-high around doors and windows, wrapping the makeshift barriers in polyethylene.

    “It’s still coming up, coming up,” said Bradley, 72.

    He said flooding two years ago caused about $100,000 in damage to the ceramics equipment he stores at home for his small business.

    “We’ll stay as long as we have gas for the generator. We’ve got a boat — my daughter bought a boat and a motor for us in 2017,” he said. “By the way, never buy a boat during a flood season. It gets pricey.”

    More than 45 millimetres of rain fell on the Montreal area between Thursday and Saturday, according to Environment Canada. Rainfall warnings have been lifted, but water levels were already high and are expected to rise sharply over the weekend with warm temperatures and snowmelt runoff.

    The City of Laval, just north of Montreal, said in a statement it had distributed sandbags to 900 homes and knocked on 550 doors to make sure people were safe as more than 1,500 homes and business remained under flood watch.

    Quebec City and the Gaspe Peninsula can expect up to 30 millimetres of rainfall this weekend, said Environment Canada meteorologist Andre Cantin.

    “That will help the snow to melt again, and we do not expect the river will be able to go down for at least 48 hours,” he said Saturday.

    Guilbault has said the province will allow stores — usually closed on Easter Sunday — to remain open this weekend so residents can stock up on supplies.

    Some of the worst flooding Saturday appeared to surge through the Beauce region south of Quebec City, where 868 homes were flooded and 94 people evacuated as of 3 p.m., according to an Urgence Quebec bulletin.

    In Beauceville, about 90 kilometres south of Quebec City, officials have asked the Canadian Armed Forces for assistance with evacuations ordered by the municipality.

    Earlier this week, the Chaudiere River burst its banks and flooded a large part of downtown. Officials called it the worst flooding since 1971, with 230 homes and businesses flooded.

    In Saint-Raymond, about 60 kilometres northwest of the provincial capital, 24 seniors in three residences have been moved to higher ground as the Ste-Anne River continues to rise.

    A local dam gave way Saturday, said Mayor Daniel Dion, prompting concerns about flooding. “The problem today is that there is a lot of ice. If they clog our channels the water will have no space to circulate and that’s where it overflows,” he said.

    In the Mauricie region, Canadian Armed Forces are focusing on Trois-Rivieres as well as the municipalities of Becancour, Louiseville, Maskinonge and Yamachiche.

    Christopher Reynolds, The Canadian Press



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    Environment

    Quebec officials urge caution after flood-caused sinkhole claims woman’s life

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  • MONTREAL — Quebec’s deputy premier and public safety minister is urging those affected by flooding to exercise extreme caution and vigilance as rising water levels continue to wreak havoc on the province.

    “Do not take unnecessary risks, please,” Genevieve Guilbault said at the Ti-Oui Snack Bar in Saint-Raymond on Saturday.

    Regional liaison officers for the Canadian Armed Forces are deployed in five districts and prepared to assist residents, she said: Outaouais; Montreal, Laurentians and Lanaudiere; Monteregie and Estrie; Quebec City; and Chaudiere-Appallaches.

    Tragedy struck early Saturday morning when a woman in her 70s died after driving her car into a massive sinkhole caused by flooding in western Quebec, police said.

    The accident left the woman’s sedan upside down in a swollen stream after rising river levels swept away part of the road in the Outaouais region overnight.

    Sgt. Martin Fournel of the MRC des Collines police said witnesses parked near the washout tried unsuccessfully to warn the driver as she approached.

    “That lady, who was driving by herself on that road, fell into a sinkhole basically because of the flooding. There was a culvert that was not there anymore, so the road was cut in half and she was not able to brake and avoid the accident,” Fournel told The Canadian Press.

    The woman was taken to hospital but pronounced dead soon after, he said.

    The accident occurred at about 3:30 a.m. in the Municipality of Pontiac, about 30 kilometres northwest of Ottawa.

    Pontiac, which sits along the Ottawa River, is one of at least three municipalities in the Outaouais region to declare states of emergency, along with Saint-Andre-Avellin and Val-des-Monts. The city of Trois-Rivieres is also under a state of emergency.

    In Beauceville, about 90 kilometres south of Quebec City, officials have asked the Canadian Armed Forces for assistance, with military vehicles en route to help with evacuations ordered by the municipality.

    Earlier this week, the Chaudiere River burst its banks and flooded a large part of downtown. Officials called it the worst flooding since 1971, with 230 homes and businesses flooded.

    In Saint-Raymond, about 60 kilometres northwest of the provincial capital, 24 seniors in three residences have been moved to higher ground as the Ste-Anne River continues to rise.

    A local dam gave way Saturday, said Mayor Daniel Dion, prompting concerns about flooding.

    “The problem today is that there is a lot of ice. If they clog our channels the water will have no space to circulate and that’s where it overflows,” he said.

    Dion said he expects the high-water mark to come Sunday evening.

    Four major floods have already been identified by Urgence Quebec: the Chaudiere River in Saint-Georges; Saint-Joseph and Vallee-Jonction in Beauce; and Deux-Montagnes Lake in Rigaud.

    As of noon Saturday, there were 72 flooded residences, 53 isolated residences and 197 evacuees across the province, according to the most recent Urgence Quebec bulletin.

    The most affected areas are Beauce — south of Quebec City — and Rigaud, west of the Island of Montreal.

    Provincial police are checking up on residents door to door in Beauceville and Rigaud, where the Surete du Quebec (SQ) have set up command posts, said Sgt. Marie-Michele Moore.

    About 40 millimetres of rain have fallen on the Montreal area since Thursday, with five to 10 millimetres more expected Saturday, according to Environment Canada. Rainfall warnings have been lifted, but water levels were already high and were expected to rise sharply with warm temperatures and snowmelt runoff.

    Guilbault has said the province will also allow stores — usually closed on Easter Sunday — to remain open this weekend so residents can stock up on supplies.

    Thomas Blanchet, a spokesman for the province’s public safety department, said residents should be ready for a sharp spike in water levels that could come quickly, and he implored them to follow the instructions of local officials.

    In Laval, just north of Montreal, officials said some 1,500 homes and businesses were under flood watch. In Montreal, Mayor Valerie Plante toured various parts of the city under flood watch.

    Plante said the boroughs were well prepared, having learned lessons from record floods two years ago.

    “We’re putting in all our energy, but in the end Mother Nature decides,” Plante said.

    In a statement, the City of Laval said it had distributed sandbags to 900 homes and knocked on 550 doors to make sure people were safe, as concern rises along with water levels in the Thousand Islands and Prairies rivers.

    Quebec City and the Gaspe Peninsula can expect up to 30 millimetres of rainfall this weekend, said Environment Canada meteorologist Andre Cantin.

    “That will help the snow to melt again, and we do not expect the river will be able to go down for at least 48 hours,” he said Saturday morning.

    The Canadian Press




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