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Trudeau says feds will create EI-like benefit for gig, contract workers

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OTTAWA — The federal government plans to move as many out-of-work Canadians into the employment insurance system when a key emergency benefit runs out in the fall, and provide an EI-like support for millions who can’t qualify under existing rules.

The change signals a potentially sweeping overhaul to the decades-old social safety net criticized in recent years for not keeping up with a modern labour force marked by increasing contract and gig work.

It was partly because of those holes that the government created the $80-billion Canada Emergency Response Benefit at the start of the pandemic, which is set to wind down over the coming weeks.

Those who already qualify for EI will be moved to that program.

The government is promising a parallel, transitional benefit with EI-like components for those who can’t yet — “and I emphasize yet,” said Employment Minister Carla Qualtrough — get into the EI system. It will include access to training and the ability to work more hours without having as steep a clawback in benefit payments.

The government is also promising to relax EI eligibility rules like the number of hours required to receive support payments.

Speaking Friday morning, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said the goal is to move everyone receiving CERB to employment insurance, and cover anyone looking for work “with a better, 21st-century EI system.”

Details will be rolled out in the coming weeks.

The government’s most recent CERB figures show $62.75 billion in benefits to 8.46 million people. About half of those recipients have gone to EI-eligible workers.

Those eye-popping numbers were the reason the EI system was shelved in favour of the CERB in March, as federal officials worried the volume of claims would overwhelm the decades-old system.

The government is still expecting millions to be on EI come the fall — about four million, Qualtrough said, adding that the system has been tested and was ready to handle the deluge upon its restart.

“We believe that the CERB has served its purpose and the reason it was created is no longer the main focus of our efforts as a government to support workers,” Qualtrough said during a mid-afternoon press conference.

“We are going to move on to something different.”

The Liberals are hoping the change prods more Canadians to either go back to work or look for a job as the economy moves into what the Bank of Canada has described as a recuperation period before a long, bumpy recovery.

The recuperation appears to have started in May when the economy grew by 4.5 per cent, Statistics Canada reported Friday, re-emerging from severe lockdowns in March and April. That figure beat expectations, and a further sign of optimism was a preliminary estimate of five per cent growth in June, which will be finalized next month.

The national data agency said rebounds in May were seen across multiple industries, including retail trade registered that saw its largest monthly increase since comparable readings began in 1961.

“May’s GDP numbers demonstrate that our economy is rebounding from all-time lows, but the growth numbers we’re seeing simply represent businesses reopening after needed lockdowns,” said Trevin Stratton, chief economist at the Canadian Chamber of Commerce.

Despite the two months of growth after two months of negative readings, Statistics Canada’s preliminary estimate is that economic output contracted by 12 per cent in the second quarter compared to the first three months of 2020, which would be a historic drop.

Statistics Canada said economic activity still remained 15 per cent below pre-pandemic level despite the gains over May.

Recouping the remaining percentage points will take months, if not longer. Much will rest on how many companies may yet close, how many jobs disappear with them.

“It’s a question of uncertainty at this point and how much damage the shutdowns have done,” said Benjamin Reitzes, BMO’s director of Canadian rates and macro strategist.

“We don’t really have that much information at this point, but if you consider the number of small businesses that are under significant pressure, maybe not surviving this period and the scarring broadly on the economy from things like that … it’s going to take time to recover from that.”

The federal government also announced Friday that it is extending a commercial rent-relief program through August as a lifeline to many small businesses whose revenues, while slowly returning, still lag behind their fixed costs.

So far the program has helped about 63,000 small business tenants through forgivable federal loans totalling $613 million. It is well below what the government hoped when it rolled out the aid.

The Canadian Federation of Independent Business said the announcement is good news for those who can access the program, but called it a “slap in the face” for those whose landlords refuse to apply.

The organization called on the federal government to allow tenants to apply directly for help.

“Rent relief needs an overhaul now,” said Laura Jones, CFIB’s executive vice-president. 

This report by The Canadian Press was first published July 31, 2020.

Jordan Press, The Canadian Press







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Air Force, UN food agency tackle skyrocketing COVID-19 hunger in Latin America

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OTTAWA — The head of the UN World Food Program says the COVID-19 crisis has dramatically increased the number of starving people in Latin America, which could trigger a refugee exodus to North America if not addressed.

David Beasley, the agency’s director, issued the warning as the Royal Canadian Air Force began Saturday to prepare to end its nearly two-week mission in which a mammoth C-17 Globemaster transport crisscrossed Central and South America and the Caribbean delivering tonnes of medical supplies.

Beasley said there has been a 269 per increase in food insecurity in the region since the pandemic struck.

Beasley tells The Canadian Press that 4.7 million people were already “marching to the brink of starvation” before the pandemic but now that number has that has risen to 16 million.

Beasley praised Canada for lending the Globemaster and nearly three dozen personnel to work in tandem with the WFP and World Health Organization to deliver supplies throughout the region from a newly built hub in Panama.

But he said unless the world answers the biggest humanitarian crisis in the World Food Program’s history, people will die and economic and political upheaval will ensue.

The agency is launching a six-month US$4.9 billion appeal to help feed 138 million people in 83 countries. Since the pandemic struck there have been serious food-insecurity increases in west and central Africa (135 per cent) and southern Africa (90 per cent).

Beasley says tackling the problem will also mean spending hundreds of millions of dollars more to battle the rising hunger in Canada’s Western Hemisphere backyard.

“The first thing is: let’s do what’s good; let’s do what’s right. And if that’s not good enough, do it out of your national-security interest,” Beasley said in an interview.

“If patterns of experience are of any indication, if the economic deterioration due to COVID continues as it is, and we don’t have safety-net programs in place, I don’t see how you don’t have mass migration,” he added.

“You won’t have a mass migration today, tomorrow, but you will have it soon.”

The region was already struggling under the weight of Venezuela’s political and economic crisis. Prior to the pandemic, the UN estimated that six million Venezuelans would flee their country by the year’s end, as its economic, health and education systems collapsed. Neighbouring countries such as Colombia, Peru, and Ecuador have been bearing the brunt of the influx.

While those countries have been welcoming, COVID-19 has added an extra layer of strain and Beasley said the leaders of those countries told him last week they are extremely worried.

“This is why the international community has to step up. Otherwise there’s going to be chaos,” he said.

“And we have a vaccine for this chaos — it’s called food.”

The former Republican governor of South Carolina visited Ottawa in mid-March, meeting multiple Canadian politicians right before the pandemic slammed normal activities to a halt. Beasley would test positive for COVID-19 himself days later, touching off a short-lived panic and rush of testing among the MPs and officials he saw; he’s since recovered.

Beasley was in Panama last week as part of a six-country tour, where he met Lt.-Col. Adam Pentney, the commander of Canada’s military airlift. He also met with Pentney’s crew as they loaded tonnes of personal protective equipment, medical supplies and other humanitarian supplies onto the Globemaster.

“That C-17 is a workhorse and it is a blessing in a time when we need it most. As you can imagine, we’re extremely grateful to the Canadian government for providing this support,” said Beasley.

“It was a beautiful sight. It was absolutely magnificent because that’s life-saving humanitarian support. It shows what happens when the world collaborates.”

Pentney said C-17 mission is the first time he has been part of such a large humanitarian relief effort so close to home.

“It’s in a region where we don’t often get to visit,” Pentney said in a telephone call from Panama this past week, where he was preparing to pilot the Globemaster’s final mission himself.

Friday’s mission to Guatemala was to be its last before the start of weekend preparations to the bring the plane and the 31 people supporting it back to Canada.

“My message to Canadians is they can be very proud of the support that’s being provided and the work that’s being done to look after our global neighbours,” said Pentney.

“The pandemic is very real here. Canada does have a role and a presence here in our backyard and we’re happy to be able to contribute to that.”

Pentney said he didn’t know if another Globemaster crew would be returning. But Beasley said he’s ramping up his fundraising efforts to target another group of donors because he said governments around the world are already strapped because of the pandemic.

“We’re in the worst crisis since World War Two and it’s time for the billionaires to step up and say, ‘We care about humanity, we care about planet Earth’ because we are at a crossroads on this planet right now,” said Beasley.

“The billionaires, especially those that are making billions because of COVID, they need to step up. We’re taking about millions of people dying.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published August 1, 2020.

Mike Blanchfield, The Canadian Press

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Top court orders parts of N.S. cabinet docs disclosed in judges’ salaries case

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OTTAWA — The Supreme Court of Canada has ruled the vast majority of confidential cabinet documents in two provinces should remain secret, in cases dealing with how judges are paid.

However, the ruling does order parts of a cabinet document in Nova Scotia to be disclosed.

The decision deals with two separate cases in Nova Scotia and British Columbia where lower courts had ordered the production of cabinet documents that are traditionally kept highly confidential.

In both provinces, independent commissions set up to review salaries for provincial court judges in 2016 had proposed significant pay hikes, but the cabinets in both provinces rejected those recommendations and decided on smaller pay increases.

In B.C., the judicial compensation commission recommended an 8.2 per cent salary increase for 2017-18 and 1.5 per cent increases for each of the next two years. The B.C. government disagreed with the first raise, going instead with a 3.8 per cent increase for 2017-18, but agreed with the subsequent two raises.

In Nova Scotia, that province’s independent commission recommended a 5.5 per cent pay hike with an additional 1.2 per cent increase the following year and 2.2 per cent more the year after.

Nova Scotia responded by freezing judges salaries for two years and only allowing a one per cent increase in 2019-20, saying at the time it was to bring judges’ salaries in line with what provincial civil servants were receiving at the time.

The judges’ associations in both provinces applied for judicial reviews and wanted to see cabinet submissions that justified altering the recommended salary hikes.

In its unanimous decision Friday, the Supreme Court of Canada quashed the B.C. Court of Appeal’s decision ordering the B.C. government to produce the cabinet documents.

Supreme Court Justice Andromache Karakatsanis wrote that the judicial commission failed to establish there any reason to believe the cabinet documents in that province may contain evidence to show the government failed to meet a three-part test that must be applied in decisions related to judges’ salaries.

However, in the Nova Scotia case, Canada’s top court ruled most of the cabinet submission should remain confidential, except two components: a paragraph in one document labelled “government-wide implications” and an appendix to the report called the “communications plan.”

The Nova Scotia case differed from the B.C. case because of public statements made by government at the time comparing the salaries of judges to those of civil servants. Also, the Nova Scotia salary freeze that was eventually imposed was exactly what the government had proposed in its submissions to the independent commission before it had formulated its recommendations. 

These circumstances called into question whether the Nova Scotia government properly showed respect for the commission’s process, which is a requirement under the law, the ruling states.

Karakatsanis writes that excluding the two portions of the Nova Scotia cabinet documents from being disclosed would undermine the lower courts’ ability to determine whether the three-part test for judges’ salaries was appropriately applied by the Nova Scotia cabinet.

The ruling is not expected to be widely precedent-setting when it comes to the protection of cabinet confidentiality for provincial governments, as the decisions are based on the specific facts and circumstances of these particular cases involving judicial remuneration.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published July 31, 2020.

The Canadian Press

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august, 2020

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