OTTAWA — Manitoba’s federal cabinet minister says the Trudeau government is ready to start executing the platform it was elected on a year ago — and send Canadians to the polls if it can’t.
Northern Affairs Minister Dan Vandal is bullish about cutting down Canada’s carbon emissions while giving Indigenous people more say in major project reviews, two examples of policy planks the Liberals put on the back burner in the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic.
"I don't think we need an election, and I don't think we want an election. But I do know that we're ready for an election," he told the Free Press in a wide-ranging year-end interview.
"In a minority government, that is just the reality," Vandal said. "You can be held hostage by the opposition, who have more seats than you."
Métis, province must figure out vaccine plan: VandalClick to Expand
OTTAWA — The only Métis minister in the federal cabinet says he won’t push the province to ensure Manitoba’s Métis are prioritized for COVID-19 vaccines.
The province has welcomed First Nations leaders onto the provincial COVID-19 vaccine task force, but as of this week had still not invited anyone form the Manitoba Metis Federation.
That’s despite the Liberals asking provinces to work with all Indigenous groups, who are generally more at risk of dying from the coronavirus.
The Manitoba government says it’s in no hurry to include the Métis.
“The province is starting with a small team, focused right now on this initial phase of vaccine rollout, during this period of vaccine scarcity,” reads a Dec. 23 statement from a provincial spokeswoman.
“The province will review its planning team as we move through the phases of vaccine deployment.”
MMF president David Chartrand has said he doesn’t trust the province, and wants Ottawa to negotiate directly with the MMF as part of its duty to look after Indigenous people.
“I understand his frustrations,” Dan Vandal said. “But right now we have to take a co-ordinated approach.”
The MMF and Premier Brian Pallister have sparred over numerous issues for almost three years, including data-sharing agreements on COVID-19 cases that apply for First Nations and Inuit, but not Métis.
— Dylan Robertson
The Opposition Conservatives are particularly upset about a bill to enshrine the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples into federal legislation, which would set a higher bar for governments and industry to solicit consent over major infrastructure and energy projects.
In the last Parliament, MPs passed an UNDRIP bill, but it was held up in the Senate, largely by Conservatives.
The Liberals tabled a similar bill Dec. 3 and got instant blowback from six provinces led by conservative-leaning governments, including Manitoba.
They warned the "hasty adoption of ambiguous legislation" would undermine reconciliation and "create uncertainty and litigation" if provinces and Indigenous groups weren’t better consulted.
"UNDRIP has been around since before I was elected," he said, referring to the 2015 federal vote. He was part of a House of Commons committee that held hearings across Canada on the bill, and MPs voted to accept its findings.
"Parliament spoke on that report and approved it," he said, blaming "senators not wanting to impose the will of duly elected members (of Parliament)."
On Dec. 11, the Trudeau government announced it intends to raise the carbon tax substantially after 2022. What currently amounts to an extra 2.3 cents per litre of gasoline is already scheduled rise by an extra 12 cents per litre by 2022.
The new proposal is to escalate that increase, to another 27.6 cents per litre by 2030 — 39.6 cents per litre more than 2018, when there was no carbon levy in place.
By 2030, the typical Manitoba family of four would receive $2,633 in an annual carbon rebate, representing roughly the average cost of the carbon tax that year. An adult living alone would receive about $1,317.
The money is remitted in full to the province where it’s collected, mostly to a universal household tax credit with a small top-up for rural communities. The idea is that people riding the bus benefit more than those driving SUVs.
Vandal argues it’s the approach favoured by many economists.
"We really need to ramp it up significantly," he said, arguing the eventual recovery from the pandemic is the best time for "investing in a greener economy."
The Liberals will need support of another party to get legislation for either initiative passed.
The Tories have argued both the UNDRIP bill and carbon plan could imperil the economy without much tangible benefit. The third-place Bloc Québécois have concerns about the carbon plan infringing on provincial jurisdictions.
The federal NDP has saved the Liberals’ skin at almost every logjam since the October 2019 election, arguing it has been able to leverage support for things such as improvements to paid sick leave and making unemployment payments more generous.
The New Democrats could ramp up demands for support of either the UNDRIP bill or carbon tax.
Last fall’s economic update promised cheques every few months to middle-class households with children. The stated purpose was to help families weather the pandemic, but past governments have implemented such payments to help bolster support ahead of a snap election.
"I'm certainly prepared, and I know our team will be prepared, if we have to battle an election, even in winter," Vandal said.
The Liberals have been a step behind with their policy agenda since being re-elected with a minority mandate in fall 2019.
Hardly any legislation or visible work of governing took place for two months, until a plane carrying multiple Canadians was shot down over Iran, and Indigenous-rights protests crippled the national supply chain.
"It's been a crazy year," Vandal said. "COVID's consumed everything so much."
“Hopefully by next summer we can get back to some normalcy, and (for me) the regular life of a parliamentarian in Ottawa.” – Dan Vandal, Northern Affairs Minister
Since mid-March, Vandal’s days have been consumed by rounds of calls with Indigenous and territorial leaders, to figure out if they have enough public-health support, and if economic aid is working in remote regions for businesses and people.
Most mornings start by chatting with Indigenous Services Minister Marc Miller and Crown-Indigenous Relations Minister Carolyn Bennett.
"The work they're doing is really nation-building, and I'm proud of what we've done," Vandal said.
"Reconciliation is alive and well; we're moving forward — but we're not moving fast enough."
With such a focus on the territories, Vandal’s job representing Manitoba at the cabinet table has largely fallen to the Prime Minister’s Office holding direct talks with premiers.
That will likely hold as governments figure out how to get COVID-19 vaccines rolled out.
"I’m confident we’re turning the corner," he said. "Hopefully by next summer we can get back to some normalcy, and (for me) the regular life of a parliamentarian in Ottawa."