PM: Canada-U.S. border closing; $27B in direct aid, $55B to businesses
OTTAWA -- Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has announced that the Canada-U.S. border will close to all non-essential travel, and that the federal government is prepared to spend $27 billion on direct financial help and $55 billion for mostly tax deferrals in response to the COVID-19 crisis.
Among the “extraordinary” aid measures unveiled: deferring the tax deadline, boosting the Canada Child Benefit, wage subsidies for small businesses, and targeted assistance for vulnerable demographics to help “bridge to better times.”
The prime minister said that all Canadians will feel the consequences of COVID-19, and many are wondering how long the current restrictions are going to last, and whether they can endure them.
Trudeau said the government’s measures are meant to “make sure that no matter where you live, what you do, or who you are, you will get the support you need during this time.”
“In Canada, public health should never hinge on financial considerations,” Trudeau said.
By day’s end federal opposition leaders were stating their intent to back the measures the government is taking at this time of crisis.
Moments before Trudeau began speaking, U.S. President Donald Trump announced that the border between Canada and the United States will be "temporarily" closed to tourists and visitors, "by mutual consent."
The major new economic measures that the federal government is taking in response to COVID-19 include $27 billion in direct assistance to workers and families, as well as making $55 billion available in liquidity to businesses to help stabilize the economy.
Speaking from self-isolation for the third time in as many days, the prime minister addressed the nation on the latest moving parts in his government's response to the COVID-19 pandemic. He said he remains symptom-free.
Though, before taking reporters’ questions, Trudeau paused his announcement to run back up the stairs of Rideau Cottage to grab his coat, explaining that he is supposed to be leading by example on healthy behaviour given the “brisk” morning it was in Ottawa.
The prime minister was followed by Finance Minister Bill Morneau and Bank of Canada Governor Stephen Poloz, who elaborated on new economic supports aimed at offsetting the wide-ranging impacts of the novel coronavirus outbreak and subsequent shutdowns.
"COVID-19 is having a significant impact on our economy, an impact that continues to evolve. At this stage, the full breadth and the scope of the impact remain unknown,” Morneau said. "Clearly the impacts of this pandemic have been profound and will continue to be profound. Households and businesses are already feeling the effects.”
The financial aid package includes ways to see money delivered directly into the hands of Canadians and their families; as well as new help for the country's hardest-hit sectors; and broader economic stimulus measures.
The Liberals say more will come if needed. “Whatever it takes,” said Morneau, explaining that, typically, his job is to keep Canada on good fiscal track, but now his only focus is making sure Canadians can stay fed and housed.
He said he’s spoken with the heads of Canadian grocery chains and they’ve committed to maintaining supply and fair prices as people continue to stock up in the face of what could be weeks of social distancing or self-. These efforts are underway across the country to try to flatten the curve of cases in Canada, in an effort to avoid a surge of sick patients requiring hospital beds.
As for what's included in the $27 billion for families, aimed at relieving pressure to make rent and mortgage payments or paying for groceries:
- Temporary boost to the Canada Child Benefit payment by nearly $2 billion;
- Introduce emergency care benefit of up to $900 bi-weekly for 15 weeks for those who have to stay home and don't have paid sick leave like those who can't access EI and are sick, or who are taking care of a child or someone who is sick;
- A $5 billion emergency support benefit through the CRA for support workers who are facing unemployment as well as an additional amount for low-income people through the GST credit;
- Waiving the one-week waiting period for EI sickness benefits for six months and waiving the requirement for a doctor's note to access this assistance;
- Extending the tax filing deadline for individuals to June 1, and allowing taxpayers to defer payment until after August 31;
- Providing eligible small businesses a 10 per cent wage subsidy for the next 90 days, up to a maximum of $1,375 per employee and $25,000 per employer;
- Allowing lenders to defer mortgage payments;
- Plus a host of other targeted supports for vulnerable groups including seniors, the homeless population, implementing a six-month interest free moratorium on student loan payments, Indigenous people and women and children fleeing domestic violence.
As for what’s in the $55 billion being offered to stabilize the economy and boost consumer confidence:
- Allowing all businesses to defer until after August 31, payment of income taxes, interest-free;
- Making additional funds and credit available to businesses of all sizes, including farmers; and
- Purchasing up to $50 billion insured mortgage pools to stabilize funding to banks and lenders.
This massive package is equal to three per cent of Canada's GDP.
Trudeau, facing questions about the reality of Canada entering a recession, said that Canada has the fiscal room to take these multi-billion dollar actions in order to “ensure that our economy gets back up to speed very quickly.”
Canada-U.S. Border shutdown
It remains unclear precisely when non-essential travel will be restricted across the border, as it’s still being worked out, though it’s expected to be within days.
“In both our countries we’re encouraging people to stay home,” Trudeau said, adding that essential workers will still be able to cross between the two countries.
The border is already closing Wednesday to most non-citizens, and international flights are being rerouted to four airports where enhanced screenings are happening and passengers returning to Canada are being instructed to enter a 14-day self-isolation, to lessen the spread of the global pandemic.
Shipments, trade and commerce will not be affected by the new restrictions at the Canada-U.S. border.
This unprecedented measure is the latest effort from governments attempting to limit the cross-border spread of COVID-19, while considering the ongoing need for workers who cross the border daily, such as truck drivers who are transporting everything from groceries to medical supplies.
Trudeau and his federal cabinet are also deliberating whether to invoke the Emergencies Act, which would grant the federal government sweeping powers to regulate the movement of people and goods within the country during a state of emergency.
As of Wednesday, Trudeau said his government is not closing the door to this measure but it's not the step to take at this point.
Parliament likely recalled next week
Parliament is expected to be recalled imminently to pass the legislative approvals needed to enact the measures announced today, in response to this rapidly evolving health crisis. Trudeau is committing that the money will flow to Canadians as quickly as possible, despite the pressure of intense demand on federal departments.
Government House Leader Pablo Rodriguez said he’s been in talks with the other parties about the logistics of bringing MPs and Senators back to Ottawa.
The Commons sitting will be done with the minimum number of MPs needed, and the Senate will likely follow suit, given a virtual sitting of Parliament is not possible. Expect these to be politicians who do not need to fly to get to Ottawa, and for there to be a proportional spread across party lines, likely not many more than the 20 MPs and 15 Senators needed for quorum in their respective chambers.
He said that while the details are being ironed out the goal is to return imminently. Once the government writes to the Speaker to indicate the need to recall, if accepted it can then sit 48 hours later. Rodriguez said they are working in the direction of having this happen “next week.”
The prime minister said that he’s confident all opposition parties and Senators will pull together and support passing these measures to help Canadians.
In interviews on CTV’s Power Play, both outgoing Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer and NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh said they will support the coming legislation when Parliament resumes.
Scheer said members of his caucus continue to hear from constituents who are anxious about the current situation, both from a health and job security standpoint, and he thinks the government is taking appropriate actions to respond to the concerns of such an unanticipated turn of world events. He said his party has expressed some concerns to the government about the gaps they are seeing in the plan so far, and that the Liberals seemed receptive to their feedback.
“There’s a great deal of common ground and goodwill between the opposition parties… This is something unprecedented that really has brought us all together to look at what we can do for people,” Scheer said. “At the very least we now have an opportunity to put some more ideas on the table.”
Similarly, Singh said his party will support passing the measures unveiled today, but do have concerns about the time it’ll take for some of the financial help to reach people’s pockets.
“We're prepared to work with the government to quickly pass any legislation that puts money into the pockets of working people right away,” Singh said.
'Sharp rise’ concerning: Dr. Tam
Before concluding his remarks, Trudeau offered his thanks to all of the front-line workers and first responders who are out attempting to triage the crisis everyday.
“Working together is how we'll get through this. As families, as a community, as a country,” Trudeau said. “Like many of you, over the past few days I've seen stories of people doing just that…I have to tell you, it gives me a lot of hope.”
Chief Public Health Officer Dr. Theresa Tam and other federal officials also provided an update Wednesday afternoon.
Dr. Tam said that what is “most concerning” is that in the last week there has been a “sharp rise” in cases across several provinces, with no confirmed travel links. She said the public health approach remains focused on interrupting transmission chains.
Health Minister Patty Hajdu offered a frank summation of the situation and the progression of the virus that’s led to this point. She said that because new things about the virus and its spread are being learned daily, that means the health response and research is also ever-evolving.
Looking back to January, Hajdu said Canadian officials “didn’t really know what we were dealing with.”
“We knew we had a new disease, we knew we didn't have an antidote... And we didn't really know what extent it would pose [a threat] to the world health situation,” Hajdu said.
Now, it’s clear that all aspects of Canadian life, and therefore every federal portfolio is being affected, despite what Hadju described as “a ton” of scenario planning.
“Every day is feeling like it's a week and I think it's that way for Canadians too,” she said.
Prior to Trudeau's address, there were 599 confirmed COVID-19 cases in Canada, and more than 200,000 globally.
By the time Tam and cabinet ministers completed their update, there were 645 confirmed cases in Canada.