News and announcements
On December 13, as Members of Parliament prepared to leave Ottawa for the holidays, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau released the mandate letters his office sent to all Ministers. The letters outline the actions he is instructing them to take over the tenure of the current Parliament and give a sense of the Federal Government’s priorities.
All said, the mandate letters include a lot of good news for people concerned about public health, poverty reduction and affordability. However, while they increase support for families with children and seniors, more should be done to support single working-age adults, who are becoming increasingly vulnerable.
Poverty and food insecurity
It has been widely documented that decreasing poverty is the most effective way to decrease food insecurity. In Canada’s Poverty Reduction Strategy, announced in 2018, the Federal Government has given itself the target to reduce poverty by 50% by 2030. Much of the action plan for the next mandate seems to be around increasing supports for children and seniors, continuing to implement the National Housing Strategy, and improving Employment Insurance benefits, mostly with an eye on families. The mandate letters do not lay out how much the government expects these measures to reduce poverty over the next four years.
The top priority is a tax cut for “the middle class and those working hard to join it”. However, as noted by the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, those making under $21,000 will only see an increase of $56 per year. The nearly $6 billion being spent on this measure could be more useful if spent on other tax measures (such as boosting support for people with disabilities) and/or programs.
Building on the major social policy of the last mandate, the Canada Child Benefit will be increased by up to $1,000 per child under the age of one. The government will also support families by creating 250,000 before- and after-school child care spaces and creating a secretariat to lay the groundwork for a pan-Canadian child care program. This is vital, as child care rates across much of the country are increasingly unaffordable: infant care in Toronto is more than $20,000 per year.
The government will also work to improve Employment Insurance, chiefly around family leave. For example, a Guaranteed Paid Family Leave will be created to ensure all Canadians can afford to take time off after having a baby. Other changes to EI include a Career Insurance Benefit for workers whose employers go out of business, making permanent a pilot project for seasonal workers, and extending EI sickness benefits to 26 weeks.
The government will also increase support for seniors by increasing Old Age Security by 10 per cent for seniors over 75 and by increasing the Canada Pension Plan for people whose spouses have died by 25 per cent. While food insecurity rates among seniors are low, some seniors, particularly those who are single, struggle with low incomes.
Incoming Minister of Families, Children and Social Development Ahmed Hussen has also been charged with moving forward the National Housing Strategy. The implementation of the Canada Housing Benefit, which will help people in core housing need, will be particularly helpful to low-income Canadians struggling to afford rent.
For post-secondary students, the government will increase Canada Student Grants by up to $1,200 a year and add a couple of safeguards for new graduates and low-income earners with student debt.
Finally, they will continue to ensure Canadians know about the benefits they can access. This is particularly important for on-reserve families and the Canada Child Benefit — it is estimated that one in five Indigenous families on reserve does not receive the benefit.
Trudeau’s crown jewel seems to be a national, universal pharmacare program. While there’s no timeline, it does now seem that the government will be working toward a universal program, rather than simply targeting people without private drug coverage. One in five Canadians struggles to pay for their prescriptions, and 730,000 of those cut spending on food in order to be able to afford their medication.
In a nod to the NDP, the mandate letter to Minister of Health Patty Hajdu also includes a promise to study the possibility of national dental care. Thirty-two per cent of Canadians have no dental insurance, and the costs of seeing a dentist can be prohibitive for people living on low incomes. Adding prescriptions and dental care to Medicare would fill in the gaps and improve the health of the most vulnerable Canadians.
Another notable inclusion is the reintroduction of two key planks of the Healthy Eating Strategy: restricting the marketing of unhealthy foods and beverages to children, and front-of-package labelling for products high in sugar, sodium and saturated fats. Minister Hajdu will face intense corporate lobbying against these initiatives, both of which were successfully kiboshed in the last Parliamentary session. International best practices suggest multifaceted approaches, including restricting advertising and food labelling, are most effective at influencing population-wide dietary behavior.
Finally, the government has recommitted to ending long-term drinking water advisories in First Nations communities by 2021. Since 2015, 87 advisories have been lifted, and 57 remain.
Opportunities for further action
While the letters instruct more action to support parents of children and seniors, more should be done to support single-person households, particularly for those who cannot work. Single adults have overtaken couples with children as the most common household type and have higher risks of being in core housing need or using a food bank. Unattached individuals, whether living alone or with others, comprise 43 per cent of all food insecure Canadians.
Thirty-seven per cent of adult participants at Community Food Centres are unemployed, and many of them live with disabilities that prevent them from working. We believe that all Canadians deserve to access good food with dignity and will continue to advocate to ensure the government delivers on its promises and for programs and policies that support the most vulnerable among us.