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A Constructive Proposal for the Moment

As our country and provinces respond to Covid-19, we’ve seen a heartening coming together by people from across party lines to tackle the problems that are coming each day. We’ve seen all parties put ideas out there, good ones that governments have then acted upon for the betterment of everyone. Unlike some of the petty infighting we’re seeing in the United States right now, here our politicians are rising to the moment for the most part.

But maybe the most notable thing that I’ve taken from this moment is the willingness and ability of our governments to react quickly and change course on announced initiatives when it’s been clear that there were issues. When we’ve seen cracks form, governments have been pretty good about moving to fill them. In a time when moving with speed is needed instead of moving with perfection, it’s necessary for governments to reach just as fast as they originally acted.

As we’re seeing new programs get announced, we’re seeing some needs crop up. We’ve seen a few come up around the announced Canadian Emergency Relief Benefit (CERB) and the 75% wage subsidy. One of those issues involves an important subset of people in our society who are uniquely affected by this pandemic and the timing of it hitting. I’m talking about students, particularly post-secondary students, and the concerns facing them came up in today’s daily press conference with the Prime Minister:

For students either finishing high school or in post-secondary programs, there are unique and big problems they face. Most were getting ready to try to find summer work to help pay for their education. Given everything we’re hearing about how long shutdowns, and such may last, it’s reasonable to assume that this summer will be a write off for student hiring this summer. Even if things start to open up at the start of the Summer months, it’s easy to assume that our behaviours in the immediate term will change which will have big effects on industries that tend to employ a lot of people in the summer months.

Think of the tourism sector, summer camps and childcare and other kinds of special programing that tends to come in the summer months. It’s easy to see how many of those jobs either won’t be there this summer or even if they were, most post-secondary students will have lost at least a couple months of potential income. On top of that, those same students do not quality for any of the benefits announced to date, as was raised in the press conference today. The Prime Minister replied by saying that they’re working on this, and that’s good. But hearing this situation brought an idea back to my mind about an idea that might help in this case. It’s an idea I first heard raised by then NDP MP Olivia Chow, which she went into it during a House of Commons committee meeting back in June of 2009, then later again in another tragic circumstance in the House of Commons in February of 2013:

The Canada Summer Jobs program has been a successful federal initiative that’s help subsidize the salaries for summer students for a very long time. It’s helped not-for-profits and community groups offer programs they might not be able to otherwise, it’s helped municipalities bring on extra help in the summer months to offer needed programs and it’s helped many small businesses create good jobs in their communities. All the while, it’s also given Canadian youth great work experience that’s helped to further their future careers while earning a good wage to help pay for their schooling. It’s a win-win program, one that I got to work on directly and help administer during my three years that I spent working for HRSDC in Ontario.

But one of the drawbacks of the program has been that it only funds jobs during the summer months, from May to August. Ms. Chow’s idea way back then was to simply make Canada Summer Jobs a year-round program, allowing for those kinds of jobs and experiences to be available to any student in school to continue through out the year. In the meantime, many of those groups and municipalities that offer kids camps and other kinds of important programing could offer similar things going forward. It could offer students an easier chance to get practical experience in their areas of study during the school year, with the backing of the federal government.

And it’s a program that could be adapted to not only the situation we find ourselves in now, where social distancing measures are changing the ways that we are working, it could help many of those groups that receive money, and the students they hire, make an easier transition after we get past this phase and life goes a bit more back to normal. The only change that would need to be made to the rules of the program would be to simply eliminate the firm date parametres that exist for it now and because under the terms and conditions of the program students must be paid at least minimum wage, the salary earned by students under this program would at least be as good as what the CERB is offering.

Now this proposal doesn’t resolve the immediate situation of income for all students in this position, but right now we have government offering to pay 75% of wages up to $58,000 (which is about $43,000 by the way). So to my mind it seems totally reasonable for the Federal government to tweak and use this program, which funds up to 100% of a minimum wage position for not-for-profits, charity groups and alike to hire a student, and up to 50% of that same minimum wage for private businesses and municipalities (although this could easily be bumped up to 75% too for the sake of consistency).

In a time when we’re looking for existing programs to build off to help get money out the door, this could be a tool to help now, but also to keep in place after this horrible period passes. It’s not perfect, but I believe it takes a solid program that’s employed hundreds of thousands of Canadian students and with the right tweaks, can help us get through this period and the fall out from it. I hope that the Federal government is considering ideas like this, because in this moment all good ideas are on the table and this strikes me as one that could very well fit the moment.

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With Allies Like These: An Ugly Watershed Moment

Okay everyone, we’re in dangerous times right now, that’s very clear to everyone. We’re seeing the number of cases of Covid-19 and deaths from it continue to grow. We’re seeing more and more communities get struck by this pandemic, and more and more strain being put on our institutions as they try to respond. These are the times when we pull together and count on our friends and neighbours to help us all get through.

Or at least that’s normally the case, and right now normal seems to be in increasingly shorter supply. The episode of the past 48 hours, where we’ve seen the President of our neighbours, biggest trading partner and most important ally, throwing us aside as he tries to save himself. It’s been so striking that in this most important moment, when our alliances matter most, Donald Trump showed us just how far he believes “America First” goes.

The news has had an amazing galvanizing effect on Canadian politics, with leaders from across the political spectrum, from Justin Trudeau, to Doug Ford, to Jason Kenney, BC Health Minister Adrian Dix and Scott Moe. Words like “betrayal” have been thrown around with passion at this news, as everyone understands the importance of this moment.

In the past four years of living next to the Presidency of Donald Trump, we’ve become sadly accustomed to the cycle of Trump spouting insanity off the cuff, to be walked back by others, followed by more insanity and continue. But it’s been rare that we’ve seen the follow through on some of the most insane or craven things that Trump has threatened to send out way. Since last night, that seems to have changed at the worst possible time. The first clue came from a piece in the New York Times, with some quotes that blew my mind:

In this piece, we saw the usual bureaucracy try to walk back Trump’s words from earlier, putting language of exceptions that you could drive a dump truck through. Normally that’s where this story would have ended, but then Trump Trade Advisor Peter Navarro stepped up and blew that exception out of the water. Navarro went right after 3M, all but accusing them of disloyalty to their country. He went onto say “while hundreds of other large American multinationals are stepping up with pride and patriotism, 3M remains an outlier and its propaganda war must stop.” Propaganda war? What the fresh Hell? Is that what he calls calling out the Trump Administration on their B.S.?

Mr. Navarro didn’t stop there adding that the company was “operating like a sovereign profit-maximizing nation internationally.” Think of how crazy that is folks, seriously. This is a senior, hand-picked Trump Administration official trying to call 3M a war profiteer and propagandists that are disloyal to their country, all for daring to point out that they have commercial obligations to countries that are some of the US’s biggest allies. The way Navarro was speaking, you’d think that we were in the 1970’s and 3M was trying to sell nukes to the U.S.S.R.

Of course, Navarro is the same guy who threw cheap shots at Justin Trudeau a couple years ago for daring to not agree with them. But even if we put those cheap theatrics aside, we could reasonably say that we’ve still not reached a watershed moment in this yet. In that past incident with Navarro, an apology of sorts eventually came, and life went on, so surely that could happen here again right? Well that assumption took a very serious hit just this afternoon, at the latest Trump press conference, where he had this to say:

“We need the masks, we don’t want other people getting it”. “You could call it retaliations. Because that’s what it is. It’s a retaliation.” All of that coming from the mouth of the supposed Leader of the Free World, our biggest and closest ally, our biggest trading partner and all of that, in the span of a minute. With those short words, Trump made it clear that he does want us to get the equipment we need. It’s not just that, no, it’s “retaliation”. “Retaliation for what?” you might be asking yourself. Retaliation for constantly giving them more access to our market in trade deals, like the new NAFTA 2.0? Retaliation of constantly shipping millions upon millions upon millions of barrels of oil to fuel their economy, at a discount no less.

Is it retaliation for sharing air defences with them? Is it retaliation for giving them access natural resources like our minerals and forests? Is it retaliation for all the clean hydro electricity we ship to them? Or for all our medical professionals that work in their hospitals every day of the week, especially during this global pandemic? I could go on and on, but Christ “retaliation”? We haven’t done a damn thing to the United States of America that would ever come close to deserving any kind of retaliatory measures from them.

We’ve been there for them time and again in their times of need. On 9/11, we took in thousands of Americans, seeking safe harbour as their country was under terrorist attack. We had emergency responders who went to New York to help search through the rubble of the World Trade Centre. When the US invoked article 5 of NATO for the very first time, we didn’t flinch, question or whine about it. No, we were there.

And when the time came to take the fight back to those responsible for the attack on them in Afghanistan, damn it, we were there too. Our sons and daughters, brothers and sisters, fathers and mothers, went to that place, on a mission where we were never directly attacked by this enemy and fought alongside our American neighbours. And many of those who went there died in that fight, serving their country and supporting our ally, who always told us would be there for us when we needed them. When I worked on Parliament Hill, I saw the monuments to the fallen in Afghanistan there in the Centre Block, a reminder of the sacrifice that they made not just for our country, but for our allies as well. They died for them just as much for us, in the knowledge that if the time came that we needed them, the US said they would be there for us.

And that’s why the awful press conference we saw this Saturday afternoon feels like the ugliest watershed moment that we’ve seen in Lord knows how long. Today, we saw the President of the United States, that ally who has said they would always be there for us, tells us with venom and spite “we need the masks, we don’t want other people getting it.” With that statement, Trump was telling us “yeah, we’ll get back to you on that whole “being there for you in your time of need” thing”. That was Trump telling us that to him “America First” really means “America Only” and to Hell with the rest of us. Because what Trump made clear today was that he doesn’t see us as friends, neighbours or allies. No, he sees us as “other people”, with everything that means in this moment. I’ve been saying for a while that we allies will not forget this once this is all over. But if Trump keeps going down this road, he may find just how lonely “America First” can be after he’s actively tried to keep deny nations like ours access to life saving materials in a global pandemic. After getting his cold shoulder today, next time he might find that Canadians won’t be as willing to lend their helping hands.

With Allies Like These: The Next Outrage

It was just yesterday at this blog that I wrote about the questions that many allies are having to ask right now about our relationships with the United States and their response to Covid-19. I pointed to two stories where the Trump Administration had seemingly snaked NATO and G-7 allies over personal protective equipment, taking “America First” to a disturbing new level. It was galling, striking and the kind of thing we’ve never seen in our living memory, an ally throwing us under the bus to try to save themselves.

As I stated yesterday, “you have to know that so many western nations are looking at those two stories above and are wondering if they will be the next nation to be pushed aside.” When I wrote those words, I did so in the hope that we’d be able to hold off on the wondering for a while, that we wouldn’t see another violation of our relationship like that anytime soon. Well it turns out I was being a bit naïve, as we didn’t make it another twenty-four hours as this unnerving story came out this morning:

Okay folks, this is an escalation in this behaviour by the Trump Administration that goes way beyond ugly. Yesterday we saw examples of them simply trying to take vital equipment out from under allies like us, which was bad enough. But this is another step further. This was Trump trying to force 3M to deny Canada and Latin American countries access to this product. It’s one thing to try to hoard for yourself, which is a selfish behaviour. But it’s something totally different to take the next step to try to actively deny your neighbours access to medical equipment necessary to save lives.

That’s cruel, immoral, repugnant behaviour that is so far beneath what you’d typically expect from an American President, but given their behaviour, this seems to be on brand for this administration. But thankfully for us, it seems that 3M isn’t taking this lying down and are telling the Trump Administration where they can stuff their order, with a statement released that speaks a lot of truth:

It’s amazing the moment that we’re in when it’s falling to a corporate leader like 3M to teach an American President lessons on humanity and the consequences that naturally come from such ghoulish behaviour. As 3M states in their statement, there are “significant humanitarian implications of ceasing respirator supplies to healthcare workers in Canada and Latin America.” Yeah, that should go without saying that denying your neighbours lifesaving medical equipment in a global pandemic would have major humanitarian fall out, but here we are, with 3M having to explicitly say it.

On top of that, 3M points to another practical point about this demand by the Trump Administration. They stated that “ceasing all export of respirators produced in the United States would likely cause other countries to retaliate and do the same.” I want to say “Well D’uh!” to that obviously statement, but the point continues to be that when it comes to the actions of this administration, the obvious needs to be continually stated.

And finally 3M pointed out that “if that were to occur, the net number of respirators being made available to the United States would actually decrease.” Bingo folks, that’s on the mark. The fact is that because of how our global economy has been constructed over the past decades, if you force countries to retaliate in kind to this kind of anti-social behaviour, you can’t make enough of the product to serve your own needs. It’s the ultimate example of cutting off your nose to spite your face, and just makes it even harder to serve your own needs. But hey, that doesn’t seem to matter to Trump and his team.

We keep saying, and it bears repeating, that we all have long memories and after we get through all of this, we will remember this crappy behaviour. By taking this to a whole new low today, the Trump Administration is assuring that important allies and neighbours will remember clearly where the United States stood when we needed to support each other. It’s one thing to try to look out for your own people in a time of crisis, but it’s something completely different to actively go out of your way to try to stop your allies from helping themselves in that pursuit. That will have reverberations going forward and I have a strong feeling the US will not like that when they come calling on us for help. We will remember this all, that’s one of the few guarantees we have in these hard days.

A Courageous Proposal

We’re in unprecedented times and everyone is trying to figure out how to operate properly during them. For some that’s much easier than others, and certain groups positions are easier to adjust than others. One group in the political sphere that finds themselves in an interesting position are opposition parties at all levels. Let’s face it, these aren’t times when the public want to hear from opposition politicians and the usual things from them.

Opposition politicians do perform an important function in any parliament, but it’s not always the easiest thing to see. In normal times, we tend to see their worst work highlighted in the media, with either embarrassing examples raised, or untimely things being brought into the public debate. In the best of times, the good work they do doesn’t get the attention that it deserves. So in the worst of times like these, when everyone’s focus is rightfully closer to how and worried more about directly tangible things in their lives, there is even less patience for the usual box that opposition parties find themselves in. That all means that Opposition parties are trying to find their best way forward, to operate in this environment without blowing themselves up, something that they have not all been successful in during this current crisis.

Striking the right balance has been key, not just in words but in tone. On the federal scene, one of the best examples I’ve seen has come from the New Democrats. They have taken a very propositional approach, putting ideas out there for consideration but also not being so demanding about them as to hold up needed progress with timely responses to the issues before us. An early example of this was their call for a 75% wage subsidy and $2,000 a month for those who qualify. While the Liberals didn’t follow their proposal 100% of the way, in approach and delivery, they did take those key goals and marry it with their original wage subsidy proposal, getting people to the same end result. And where an Opposition party might have normally whined publicly about the lack of their details being followed, the NDP stayed away from that, happy they made a difference and helped to improve things. That’s what Opposition parties should be striving for right now.

In a continuance of that approach, the NDP has now come forward with another proposal, one that I have to admit speaks to the moment while also addressing some real concerns about the current set up of things. It’s an idea that likely wouldn’t have been possibly just a month ago, but in this moment, it’s one that seems to be common sense. What is it? Check this out:

“A courage bonus”, what an interesting idea and one that’s on the mark in this moment. These days we’re seeing that some of the biggest heroes in our society, taking some of the biggest risks to help keep society going and keeping us all safe are earning minimum wage. People working in grocery stores, cleaners in hospitals, delivery drivers, truckers and transit drivers, people who are continuing to work in the face of Covid-19, allowing the rest of us to stay inside and do our part to flatten the curve. In this moment, government should be doing more to help them keep doing what they’re doing.

But being a minimum wage worker means that you face all kinds of other problems. As the Huffington Post piece on this points out, “some essential workers who earn $12.50 an hour are making less each month than the $2,000 Ottawa is giving employees who’ve just lost their jobs because of the coronavirus pandemic.” To put some of that into perspective, “hourly minimum wage across Canada varies from $11.65 in Newfoundland and Labrador to $15 in Alberta.” Here in Ontario, it’s $14 but if you’re earning that in high cost communities like Toronto, that money doesn’t go very far at all. There is a lot of stress making ends meet for those workers at the best of times, and that only increases in these.

Some employers have stepped up in this moment, with some retailers like Sobeys, Safeway, Metro and Loblaws, announcing wage increases to reflect their importance. Part of that has been in response to the United Food and Commercial Workers Union’s campaign calling for “Hero pay”, a great initiative on their part.

In response to all of that movement, NDP Finance Critic Peter Julian has put the idea of a “Courage Bonus” forward. The idea is simply: giving every essential worker in the country making less than $15 per hour a top-up on their salary of 20 % during this crisis. Doing this would alleviate a few issues. First off, doing this would remedy the odd situation where we have essential workers risking their lives for minimum wage making less than those who are receiving federal wage subsidies or the Canadian Emergency Relief Benefit (CERB). That’s not to say that government shouldn’t be doing those other measures, but it does create an inequality that’s impossible to ignore and is easy enough to address.

Also doing this would help to address the concerns and fears that so many of these important workers are facing everyday they go to work. Many of them were struggling to get by before this crisis, and that hasn’t changed. Some in their homes may have been laid off, and then there are the worries about not just their health, but the health of their families and children. Or as one retail worker quoted in the Huff Po piece stated, “Everybody is stressed out, but most of us cannot afford to quit.” That’s a terrible dilemma to find yourself in during this important moment, so this is one way that government can help.

Finally, we are in a place where government is very open to different ways and approaches to help during this pandemic. With the introduction of the updated wage subsidy, it’s no longer anywhere near as controversial for the government to give money to directly support private sector jobs. So if the government is willing to give employers who are struggling 75% wage subsidies to keep their workers hired, it also makes sense for government to give an extra 20% subsidy to workers who they have already deemed to be essential to the country. That logic may not have washed over a month ago, but now it seems like common sense.

During a House of Commons Finance Committee meeting yesterday, Julian did raise this idea and while the response wasn’t an open embrace of a yes, it was far from a “hard no” either. It seems that maybe there might be an openness to this idea, and I’d hope that this government seriously consider this reasonable proposal. In the meantime, we’re seeing a good example of how an opposition party can operate in these hard times, addressing concerns as they arise and bringing forward constructive potential approaches to solve them.

With Allies Like These….

Over the past many years, we’ve seen a lot of stress and strain put on institutions and alliances that have helped create stability for so many western nations. Frankly a lot of that strain has been brought about by a certain American President, his distain for those institutions, his attacks against them and his attempts to weaken them. It’s been a big problem for so many NATO, G7 and G20 nations to deal with, and has left many wondering how to move forward.

As the their closest neighbour and biggest trading partner, we in Canada are particularly sensitive to this dynamic and our leaders have been forced to ask themselves difficult questions about how to deal with this. These institutions have been in place to help our collective societies in times of crisis and need, to help protect each other and assure our mutual well beings. So you’d think that in a moment of global crisis, like the Covid-19 pandemic, this would be a time when we’d see these bonds be stronger and that cooperation grow. But a couple of stories that have come out in the past couple of days are really putting that assumption up for serious questions, and raising serious concerns. The first story came from France yesterday, one that was shocking on its face:

For those who don’t speak French, here is what the story basically says. Recently a region in France had bought a bunch of personal protective equipment (PPE) from China, paid for it in full, and as it was on the tarmac at the airport to be sent to France for delivery. But then the story took an unexpected turn, as the United States swooped in out of nowhere, bought it out from under them with a big cash bid to the supplier, and that plane that was on the tarmac ready to go went to the United States instead.

Let that sink in for a moment folks; one of the United States longest allies, going back to their Revolutionary War to get freedom from England, was trying to buy equipment to keep their people safe. And instead of respecting their order, the time they took to prepare for it, ordering ahead and doing their due diligence (unlike the Trump administration), they decided to treat this like “Lord of the Flies” and take it from them. And that’s what they did to an ally folks. An ally!!! This story is so crazy compared to normal standards that the French paper that printed it actually had to print a statement to point out that “No, this isn’t an April Fools Joke, it’s real”. Now you might be thinking that if this was an isolated incident and that we here in Canada shouldn’t need to worry about that, another big story from the Journal de Montreal is making the rounds in Quebec and it bears an eerie similarity:

Source: Journal de Montréal

In this story, a company in Montreal ordered 10,000 N95 masks from a company in China, to supply local hospitals in Montreal. On Sunday, the first delivery of some of these masks arrived from Hong Kong at DHL’s centre in Saint-Lambert, assumedly to then to be delivered to local hospitals. But then suddenly and seemingly without explanation, that delivery was then redirected to DHL’s site in Cincinnati, Ohio. Sound familiar people? What the Holy Hell is going on here? Is our closest neighbour, military ally and trading partner swooping in and basically stealing desperately needed protective medical equipment from us in the most desperate moment? It looks that way for sure, as it looks like the Trump administration, after trying to ignore the problem away, is now acting like George Costanza at an ill-fated birthday party.

It’s in these moments of crisis that the true strength of our alliances is tested and are proved. As a student of history, I can’t think of an example like those two from France and Quebec, where a close ally basically snaked their other ally in a brazen attempt to save themselves to the exclusion of all else. That might be the worst example this “America First” attitude that we’ve seen over the past four years, at the worst possible time. I hope and pray we don’t see any more examples like those going ahead, but something tells me those are just going to be the tip of the iceberg when it comes to this global crisis.

I keep pointing to when this is all over, when we start to move ahead, how we’ll move ahead and how we’ll remember those who acted poorly. These are the kinds of actions from a supposed ally that will force many western governments to question the stability and wisdom of their alliances with the United States. We hope that after the November election there will be a new administration to be deal with, one that actually values their allies, but we can’t assume that will be the case. In the meantime, you have to know that so many western nations are looking at those two stories above and are wondering if they will be the next nation to be pushed aside, like George did the elderly and children alike, as the Trump administration tries to safe itself. We’d prefer to be confident in those alliances that have helped us so much for generations but because Trump’s actions, those are now legitimate questions that we are forced to ask.