Transport Minister and Mississauga MP discusses new federal budget, affordable childcare and emerging from COVID crisis
Recently, the federal government unveiled its first budget in two years and made some big promises to Canadians who have been asking for more affordable childcare, a better long-term care system and more support for residents impacted by lockdowns.
Last week, Mississauga-Centre MP and newly-appointed Transport Minister Omar Alghabra chatted with insauga.com about the new budget and how the government plans to utilize it to "finish the war on COVID" and bring long-awaited changes to the long-term care and childcare sectors.
While the government—and Alghabra himself—has spent a great deal of time fielding questions about vaccine procurement and border control measures (the federal government recently announced that it is suspending incoming passenger flights from India and Pakistan for the next month as cases of COVID-19 surge in both countries but has not yet said if it will ban all travel), the budget (which does touch on border control and vaccines) is heavily focused on spending.
The budget, presented by Finance Minister and Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland, offers more financial support to those impacted by ongoing lockdowns and pledges funding for affordable childcare.
"The eventual goal [for childcare] $10 a day, but by next year, we're going to cut the cost in half and then gradually see costs reduce until we hit $10 a day," Alghabra says.
"There's $30 billion in the budget for this to be achieved and it needs to be done with the provinces so we need to get to work with our partners at the provincial level by signing agreements. Some have already indicated enthusiasm and support."
Calls for a national childcare program have been growing over the years, as some families report paying close to $1,300 a month in cities such as Mississauga.
The budget, which mentions affordable childcare programs in Quebec, says that decreasing costs will help women—who are often primary caregivers—remain in the workforce.
"A Canada-wide early learning and child care plan is a plan to drive economic growth, a plan to secure women’s place in the workforce, and a plan to give every Canadian child the same head start," the budget reads, adding that lower-income and racialized families are more dramatically impacted by high daycare costs.
Alghabra said the promise to make childcare more affordable came from a need to address one societal inequity that COVID sharply exposed.
"The pandemic really did expose or highlight the various vulnerabilities we have in society. Maybe at one point, we thought of childcare as a luxury or a nice-to-have. The pandemic showed how difficult it is for families, especially women, to work while raising children. The pandemic exposed how affordable childcare is not a luxury, it's an economic and social necessity," he says.
Alghabra also says the budget has allocated $3 billion to improve long-term care homes across the country.
Advocates have called for the federal government to get involved in the sector (which is typically operated by provinces and territories) because of how hard it was hit during the first and second waves of the COVID-19 pandemic. Prior to vaccines being rolled out aggressively in facilities for seniors, long-term care and retirement home residents made up the bulk of COVID-19-related fatalities in Canada.
"Our elders have been this virus's principal victims. The pandemic has preyed on them mercilessly, ending thousands of lives and forcing all seniors into fearful isolation. We have failed so many of those living in long-term care facilities. To them, and to their families, let me say this: I am so sorry," Freeland said in the budget.
"That's why we propose a $3 billion investment to help ensure that provinces and territories provide a high standard of care in their long-term care facilities."
The federal government also pledged to increase Old Age Security (OAS) for Canadians 75 and older.
Alghabra says that should the budget pass, the government will increase OAS by 10 per cent for seniors over 75, including a one-time payment by the remainder of this year for $500.
As for what the government will do for long-term care homes specifically, Alghabra said federal supports will vary based on need.
"We're focusing on increasing the level of service available to seniors and their loved ones and specifics will be tailored by provinces. Some might want more workers, others might want to focus on infrastructure and increase capacity," he says.
As for COVID-19, Alghabra said the federal government will continue to offer financial supports to impacted residents until at least September 2021.
"We'll gradually start reducing the benefits in these programs, but we're extending into September because we think it'll be a transition period. A lot of families lost their jobs and they were reliant on these support programs, including support for small businesses."
The budget, if passed, promises to spend $100 billion over three years to "get Canada back to work" and create nearly 500,000 new training and work experience opportunities.
"We will fulfill our Throne Speech commitment to create one million jobs by the end of this year," Freeland said.
As far as housing and transit go—both of which are important to Brampton and Mississauga residents who are being priced out of increasingly expensive (and growing) cities—the budget promises to tackle both transit (with a focus on green technology) and housing affordability.
When it comes to transit, the budget mentions a February 2021 pledge to invest $14.9 billion over eight years to build new public transit, electrify existing transit systems and help to connect rural, remote and Indigenous communities.
As for housing, the budget says the federal government will invest $2.5 billion and reallocate $1.3 billion in existing funding to help build, repair and support 35,000 existing housing units. The budget also pledges to convert empty office space to residential units.
The budget also aims to discourage foreign investors from driving up Canada's already sky-high housing prices (and taking much-needed inventory off the market) by introducing a national tax on vacant property owned by people who are not Canadian citizens and who do not live in the country.
When asked about hiccups in Canada's vaccine rollout—such as the recently-announced delay in AstraZeneca shipments—Alghabra says that more and more vaccines are arriving and that he hopes residents will continue to follow public health measures until a greater number of people are protected.
"As a resident of Peel in Mississauga, I am feeling the stress and the pressure every day because of the third wave. The numbers are concerning and I want to ask people to continue to follow public health advice. The entire world is competing for the vaccine. Almost a quarter of Canadians have received one shot and millions are still coming in but vaccine alone won't be the answer,” he says.
"There's no button we can push that bring millions tomorrow, so while they are arriving, we need to follow public health advice until a significant portion of the population is vaccinated."
Alghabra says that ultimately, the budget—which, if rejected by other parties, could trigger an election—aims to support people and the economy as Canada slowly emerges from the pandemic.
"[It's about] finishing the war on COVID, economic recovery and job stimulation," he says.
As for whether the budget—criticized by many for its generous spending promises—will ultimately pass, Alghabra says that remains to be seen.
"We are a minority parliament and it remains to be seen. We need at least one other party to support this budget or we'll be an election."
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