Prime Minister Justin Trudeau (The Canadian Press) Prime Minister Justin Trudeau (The Canadian Press)

Trudeau offers $14B to provinces for anti-COVID-19 efforts through rest of year

Making a difference in municipalities is a pricey proposition

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said Friday he has offered provinces and territories up to $14 billion in new federal transfers if they work with Ottawa on a “safe-restart agreement” that will help Canadians return to more normal living without a massive surge in new COVID-19 cases.

Trudeau said the “substantial offer,” which he made during his weekly conference call with premiers Thursday evening, will include money to cover 10 days of paid sick leave for workers. It will also include protective gear for front-line health workers and businesses who need help keeping their employees safe, money for child care facilities to be able to reopen safely and for municipal governments to help keep city services like transit running.

He did not specifically mention long-term care centres, which have borne the brunt of COVID-19 deaths in Canada, but said funds for protecting vulnerable seniors would be in the mix.

He said resuming economic activity requires the right resources so all Canadians have access to the same protections.

“Canadians have sacrificed too much over the past couple of months to lose the progress we’ve made,” Trudeau said.

More than 94,000 Canadians have now been confirmed to have COVID-19, but the spread of the novel coronavirus has slowed substantially in recent days, and the vast majority of new cases are being found in and around Montreal and Toronto.

All provinces have lifted some of the restrictions on public activities and gatherings but to varying degrees. The federal jobs report Friday showed nearly 290,000 jobs were added to the economy in May, a sign the federal government said is hopeful, though far from what is needed. Trudeau said governments have to keep their eyes squarely on getting more people back to work.

Trudeau said the $14 billion is intended to roll out over the next six to eight months, but the fine print has to be negotiated with the provinces. He has not yet specified how the money will be divided, other than to say it will be targeted to getting specific results. In other words, provinces will need to show how they plan to spend the money before they get anything.

That was an immediate no-go zone for Quebec Premier Francois Legault, who said Quebec should get the most money because it has had the most COVID-19 cases and that the funds should flow without any strings attached.

“If he really wants to help us in the (long-term care homes), he could transfer us money, but it has to be without conditions,” Legault told reporters during a news briefing in Orford in Quebec’s Eastern Townships region.

“I was very, very clear that yes, we want our share of the $14 billion, but we don’t want any conditions.”

The money would increase federal transfers to the provinces by 17 per cent this year. Ontario Premier Doug Ford said it is a good start but he was looking for $23 billion for his province alone.

“Fourteen billion dollars for all of Canada just won’t cut it,” he said.

Toronto Mayor John Tory said he was pleased to see an acknowledgment from Ottawa that cities need help but appeared frustrated at the lack of detail on what his city might actually get out of the deal. He said if the provinces and Ottawa fail to come up with real help, a city like his will be forced to massively hike taxes or massively cut services, both of which he said are unacceptable options that will hurt people.

Municipal governments have faced drastic declines in revenue as money-making services like sports and recreation programs were forced to stop, and transit revenues plummeted as people stayed home. Bill Karsten, president of the Federation of Canadian Municipalities, said the new money was the “clearest commitment yet” from Trudeau.

“This is real progress,” he said. “Canadians need all governments working together on this.”

The new funds were announced a day after Dr. Theresa Tam, the chief public health officer for Canada, warned that resuming economic activities too quickly, or without proper public health protections in place, will result in another surge of cases of COVID-19.

A new modelling report issued Thursday suggests that if Canadians can maintain high levels of protective activities like physical distancing, handwashing and wearing face masks, and if governments can ensure the testing and contact tracing capacity is there to get new cases identified and isolated quickly, Canada can avoid a second wave of the virus entirely.

Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland wouldn’t explain how the government decided on $14 billion as the figure, other than to say negotiations have to start somewhere.

“We understand that a safe restart is essential and that it is expensive,” she said.

Ottawa is also introducing a $548-million program to send cheques for between $100 and $600 to Canadians with disabilities.

Seniors with disabilities who receive the old age security pension and the guaranteed income supplement will get $100. Seniors who receive only the OAS will get $300, and others with a valid disability tax credit certificate will get $600, including parents of children with disabilities.

Seniors with disabilities will receive a total of $600 because all seniors on the OAS and GIS are getting top-ups of $300 and $500 separately.

Mia Rabson, The Canadian Press

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