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Benefit to COVID-19 impacted workers may be model for future: Qualtrough

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OTTAWA — The newly created benefit for workers whose livelihoods are affected by COVID-19 may be a model for how the federal government helps unemployed Canadians in the future, Employment Minister Carla Qualtrough said Thursday.

Dubbed the Canada Emergency Response Benefit, the $2,000-a-month taxable benefit will be available to any worker who earned $5,000 in the previous year and whose income drops to zero due to COVID-19.

Qualtrough says the government opted for the single benefit because the decades-old employment insurance system wasn’t designed to handle an economic shock where millions of workers wouldn’t qualify for assistance.

Funded outside the EI system, the new benefit has pushed direct financial aid in the economic package to $52 billion, out of the $107 billion overall total.

Qualtrough said close to 10 per cent of EI-eligible workers have applied for help in just over a week and the labour crunch is likely to get worse.

That works out to approximately 1.5 million workers.

But there are still more than five million workers — or almost one-quarter of the overall Canadian workforce — who aren’t eligible for EI, including because they may be self-employed, a gig worker, or don’t have enough qualifying hours.

“What we’re going to show through the CERB is that we can actually have a really straightforward income-support system at the federal level,” Qualtrough said in a telephone interview with The Canadian Press.

“This could be the impetus to really, radically simplify how people access income support from the federal government.”

That’s a discussion her department has been having for some time, and the pandemic will fuel those talks, she said, but it’s a conversation that won’t be settled quickly.

Instead, Qualtrough said the government is focused on the labour situation right now — one she warned would get worse before it improves.

With the benefit about to be introduced, the government warned Thursday of a text scam that may be praying on concerned workers by asking them to reply or click on a link to get the CERB, which isn’t officially available yet.

“I want to remind everyone that the government’s website is the best place to find reliable information on everything we’re doing,” Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said.

Trying to contain the spread of the novel coronavirus has forced governments to order businesses closed and companies to ask employees to work from home. The uncertainty has many small- and medium-sized businesses wondering if they’ll reopen once the economic storm has passed.

An analysis published Thursday by the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives estimated that nearly two millions workers are at the greatest risk of being laid off by the end of the month. If three-quarters of those workers lost their jobs by March 31, the national unemployment rate would rise to 13.9 per cent — the worst it’s been in 70 years, wrote David Macdonald, the centre’s senior economist.

The government is urging any worker eligible for EI who loses their job due to COVID-19 to apply now for help. And for those who don’t qualify, Qualtrough said they should sign up for an online account through the Canada Revenue Agency to prepare for the new benefit being made available next month.

To qualify, an affected worker will have to reside in Canada and have earned $5,000 in the previous 12 months — including new parents who earned EI parental benefits —and have had their income dried up because of COVID-19. An online portal is supposed to be up on April 6, with the first automatic payments arriving 10 days after people apply.

Those who receive the benefit will have to reaffirm their eligibility every four weeks.

The benefit will be taxed, like EI payments, and the government will square up any issues during tax time next year.

“If we find out that you weren’t truthful or that you had income you didn’t declare, that will actually be swept up at the back end,” Qualtrough said.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 26, 2020.

Jordan Press, The Canadian Press

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Trudeau remaining in isolation longer despite wife recovering from COVID-19

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OTTAWA — Prime Minister Justin Trudeau says he will remain in isolation at his home for almost two more weeks even though his wife recently announced she has recovered from COVID-19.

Trudeau says the couple took steps to remain apart, but staying at home for another two weeks is prudent because he was sharing a roof with someone who was ill.

“I have to continue in isolation in order to be sure that we’re following all the protocols and the recommendations by Health Canada,” he said at his daily briefing to the nation in front of Rideau Cottage.

Sophie Gregoire Trudeau issued a thank you to Canadians for their support Saturday in a Facebook video announcing she had been given the “all-clear” from both her doctor and Ottawa Public Health.

“I have a clear bill of health by medical professionals,” she said.

Gregoire Trudeau tested positive on March 13 after returning from a trip to England.

Trudeau says his wife has now taken their three kids to the prime minister’s cottage residence in Quebec while he remains at their Ottawa home.

Trudeau was the first major world leader to go into isolation because of COVID-19, and his role as both the head of a G7 nation and the only parent at home able to care for the couple’s three children garnered him headlines around the world.

He has shown no symptoms himself and neither have their kids, Xavier, 12, Ella-Grace, 11 and Hadrien, 6.

Over the last two weeks Trudeau has overseen the launch of more than $100 billion in aid for Canadian families and businesses in an unprecedented nationwide economic slowdown prompted by public health demands that Canadians stay home to slow the spread of the novel coronavirus.

On Sunday Trudeau appeared to be turning the government’s attention more specifically to the most vulnerable in Canada, designating $7.5 million for Kids Help Phone and $9 million for United Way Canada to assist seniors.

He said more aid for Canada’s charitable sector is coming but also urges those Canadians who can to donate to charities or offer to volunteer right now.

Canada’s chief public health officer Dr. Theresa Tam said Sunday the most up to date national numbers show 5,866 positive cases of COVID-19, and 63 deaths. She said about three per cent of Canadians who have been tested for the illness actually have it, but warned not to get complacent because the test results lag behind the actual spread of the illness.

Tam said she is cautiously optimistic about signs in British Columbia that the spread of the disease has slowed, but said the next seven days will be critical for getting a true understanding of what kind of impact social distancing is having on Canada’s case load.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 29, 2020.

Mia Rabson, The Canadian Press


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Canada keeps up push for UN Security Council seat during COVID-19 crisis

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OTTAWA — The COVID-19 pandemic ended the secret handshakes and deal-making in the world’s power corridors, but Canada’s campaign for a temporary seat on the United Nations Security Council is full steam ahead.

Foreign Affairs Minister Francois-Philippe Champagne and International Development Minister Karina Gould confirmed the continuing campaigning in separate interviews with The Canadian Press this past week.

They say Canada’s voice on the world’s most powerful decision-making body is needed more than ever because of the big decisions that lie ahead in managing the pandemic and its aftermath.

Canada faces tough competition from Norway and Ireland for the two available seats for a temporary two-year term that would start next year.

Both countries are viewed widely as having an advantage because they spend far more than Canada on international development to poor countries and have far more military personnel deployed on UN peacekeeping missions — two key issues for UN member countries.

Champagne and Gould say that Canada’s international stature has grown because of its response to the COVID-19 outbreak, which so far includes a $50-million foreign aid package, but some ex-diplomats say Canada needs to spend more in that area to win votes.

“The UN Security Council is the body that determines how the world reacts to issues of global security and instability,” said Gould, adding that it has never been more important to have a “rational voice” on the 10 rotating, non-permanent members of the council.

“It just demonstrates why it is important for Canada to sit on the UN Security Council. That campaign carries on, but in a different way.”

After taking part in a teleconference with fellow G7 foreign ministers this past week, Champagne said Canada’s membership in that exclusive club of leading nations would help it in the ongoing UN campaign.

“Canada has been chairing or organizing a number of calls with G7 countries,” he said. He said Canada has “a voice that is much needed in the world where we need to co-operate, co-ordinate and work together. I think Canada brings something unique to the table.

“I think more and more countries want to see their voice amplified through Canada.”

That includes during the pandemic itself, he said, “but also once we will be in the post-COVID world (we) will need countries like Canada to be there.”

Canada’s international credibility has also risen in recent months because of the role it has taken in leading the quest to get answers from Iran about its January downing of a Ukrainian passenger plane, as well its recent completion of a new North American trade deal, said Colin Robertson, a seasoned ex-diplomat.

“The new responsibilities of middle-power status, especially G7 and G20 membership, differentiates us from Norway and Ireland,” said Robertson, vice-president of the Canadian Global Affairs Institute.

Canada’s shortfalls in peacekeeping and foreign aid remain a crippling factor in the UN bid, but the COVID-19 crisis gives it an opportunity to make up for it that, said Stephen Lewis, Canada’s UN ambassador in the 1980s.

Canada received negative reviews for its “brief peacekeeping mission in Mali” and for pulling out earlier than the UN wanted, said Lewis, who remains active in UN circles as one of the leaders of an international organization trying to stamp out abuse by peacekeepers.

“Although Canada may consider that trivial, it registers deeply with the international peacekeeping community around the world, countries whose vote Canada would want,” said Lewis.

That can be rectified by giving cash — “several hundred million” — to the African Union for its peacekeeping operations and increasing its foreign aid contribution to COVID-19 well beyond the current $50 million, which Lewis calls, “woefully inadequate.” He said Canada’s fair share would be $140 million at minimum.

“The government espouses generosity: in fact, they’re begrudging pretenders,” said Lewis.

Spending matters more than ever, especially during the pandemic, and especially in Africa where 54 of the UN General Assembly’s 190-plus countries hold a crucial bloc of votes in the Security Council election, said Bessma Momani, an international affairs expert at the University of Waterloo.

So far, Canada’s $50-million pledge looks modest, and individual African countries will want more, she said.

“If I were an African government expecting COVID-19 to knock on my door any minute now, maybe if you’re choosing between Norway and Ireland, I would use that as leverage … If you want me to vote, where’s my help?” said Momani.

Canada should campaign to address a more pressing need at the Security Council — the fact that it has been missing in action in combatting the pandemic, according to the Canadian-led World Refugee Council. Its leading members include former UN ambassadors Allan Rock and Paul Heinbecker, and Lloyd Axworthy, Canada’s foreign minister when the country last served on the council two decades ago.

“The Security Council’s silence is a troubling symptom of the deep dysfunction that has beset its 15-member body in recent years,” the group said in a statement.

“As Canada campaigns for one of those seats in this year’s election, it should pledge in its platform to bring the Security Council back to life and face up to its responsibilities.”

The pandemic raises questions about whether the General Assembly, whose members are to hold a vote in June, will be able to meet to hold an election.

The Security Council has been meeting recently via video conference so it is conceivable that the General Assembly could convene that way in June, said Adam Chapnick, a Royal Military College professor and author of a new book on the Security Council.

“That said, there is a real chance that this pandemic will be significantly worse (at least in the global south, where it is only beginning) in a few months, so I suspect that we will be in unprecedented territory by the time the meetings are supposed to be held,” Chapnick said.

“Still, I can’t imagine that an election won’t be held, because the seats do have to be filled.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 29, 2020.

Mike Blanchfield, The Canadian Press



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