PM Trudeau's pandemic promises: What was kept, what was broken?
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau holds a press conference from Rideau Cottage amid the COVID-19 pandemic in Ottawa on Tuesday, June 16, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick
OTTAWA -- Prime Minister Justin Trudeau began what became nearly daily press conferences outside of Rideau Cottage just over a year ago. There, he urged Canadians to follow COVID-19 precautions, but over those early pandemic months he also made a lot of promises.
While initiatives like the safe restart funding to provinces, national vaccine procurement, the wage subsidy and other major emergency response benefits continue to make headlines, many announcements have hardly been heard about since.
From support for charities and farmers, to health research funding and domestic PPE manufacturing, the government has far exceeded the initial $1 billion committed on March 11, 2020 to combat the emerging pandemic. A year later, CTVNews.ca examines what became of some of those early pledges.
VACCINES, PPE & MEDICAL RESEARCH
In addition to millions of dollars in global COVID-19 aid, the federal government focused on made-in-Canada protective gear and medical treatments for the novel coronavirus. Here are some of the notable commitments made before the second wave.
- March 20, 2020: Trudeau announced a new plan to mobilize businesses and manufacturers to pivot their manufacturing capabilities to produce personal protective equipment to boost the health sector’s stockpile of life-saving supplies. Since that initial callout was made, more than 6,500 companies have offered their capacity to date, with more than 1,000 companies that have re-tooled to supply personal protective equipment (PPE) such as face shields, surgical masks, medical gowns, respirators, ventilators, and testing equipment, according to Innovation, Science and Economic Development Canada (ISED). "In many cases, what started off as retooling efforts to meet emergency needs have now become permanent lines of business to meet Canada’s current and future healthcare requirements," said ISED in a statement on March 17.
- March 23, 2020: The prime minister announced the federal government would spend $192 million on the Canadian development and production of vaccines and treatments for COVID-19 through domestic research and life-science companies as well as educational bodies. In the months since, millions of dollars more has been announced and is going into Canadian biomanufacturing and research. Among the examples of where the money has been allocated, according to the department: $175.6 million to Vancouver-based AbCellera for its antibody therapy research and to build a production facility, $126 million for the National Research Council of Canada to build a new biologics manufacturing centre at its Royalmount site in Montreal, and $114.9 million from the Canadian Institutes of Health Research for projects aimed at accelerating the development and implementation of measures to mitigate the spread of COVID-19.
- March 31, 2020: Trudeau announced the federal government would put $2 billion over two years into the Public Health Agency of Canada to support procuring diagnostic testing, ventilators, and personal protective equipment. So far, Canada has procured 43.5 million rapid tests, of which just over 31 million have been delivered. It terms of PPE, as of last month Canada has received 60.3 million face shields; 782 million pairs of gloves; 130.7 million medical gowns; 20.6 million litres of hand sanitizer; and 115.3 million N95 masks. As well, Canada’s ordered more than 40,000 ventilators though just over half have arrived so far.
- May 22, 2020: The prime minister announced the government would be coming forward with a contact tracing app, and two months later it was released. Called COVID Alert, it is an exposure notification app that notifies Canadians when they’ve been in proximity to someone who has the virus. It’s since had a series of app updates to address bugs or other usability aspects. And, as Health Minister Patty Hajdu signalled early on, not all provinces have adopted the app. As of March 16th there have been 6.3 million downloads, though it has still not been adapted in all provinces, with British Columbia, Alberta, the Yukon, and Nunavut opting out.
BUSINESS LOANS, GRANTS, RENT RELIEF
When the Canada-U.S. border shut, the federal government first promised $27 billion in direct aid to workers and families, as well as $55 billion to businesses, available in liquidity. In the weeks and months that followed this support expanded considerably.
- March 27, 2020: Trudeau unveiled a new emergency business account program for small businesses seeking banks offer $40,000 government-guaranteed loans interest-free for the first year and if the company can repay the balance of the loan by the end of 2022, up to $10,000 would be forgiven. To date under a program with expanded eligibility, more than 840,000 businesses have received CEBA loans, totalling over $44 billion in support. A very small percentage of businesses have paid back their loans already.
- April 16, 2020: The prime minister announced a rent assistance program for businesses that was initially made available over the spring but later extended. Rolled out in collaboration with the provinces and territories, it provided loans, including some forgivable loans, to commercial property owners to either lower or forgo collecting rent from small businesses.To date there have been 138,550 unique applicants who have had claims approved, with more than $1.9 billion in subsidies paid out.
- May 5, 2020: The federal government announced $252 million to address food supply issues and safety at processing plants. This included $77.5 million to help food processors purchase protective equipment for workers, adapt to health protocols and expand domestic processing capacity to increase the amount of food made in Canada. According to Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada, to date, 558 projects have been approved for funding. The funding basket has already seen a $5 million top-up and there are plans to add another $5 million. Among the food processing companies to receive funding are B.C.-based Earth's Own Food Company; Quebec cucumber producer Serres Toundra; and Alberta meat processing facility Viva-Deli.
- May 11, 2020: Trudeau announced a multimillion-dollar loan program aimed at providing financing access to large employers impacted by COVID-19 and the economic downturn it prompted. Called the Large Employer Emergency Financing Facility (LEEFF), the plan allows big companies to access additional liquidity to keep their operations going, retain workers on payroll, and avoid bankruptcy. According to Finance Canada to date just over a dozen large employers have applied for the program, with four loans approved and others still being considered. Calling the program "a lender of last resort," the department said businesses sometimes apply while weighing other financing options and end up not participating.
SUPPORT FOR PEOPLE
Aside from the emergency aid programs for unemployed Canadians and the benefits that came later on to support those who don’t have paid sick leave through work, the federal government made a series of other people-focused announcements during the early months of the pandemic.
- April 22, 2020: Students, whose job prospects vanished due to the pandemic, were at the heart of a $9 billion package announced in late April that saw eligible postsecondary students receive $1,250 a month from May to August. That amount increased to $1,750 for those with a disability or taking care of someone with a disability. This program ended after the summer. Part of this announcement included the creation of the now-nixed Canada Student Service Grant initiative – a contract that was rewarded to WE Charity without a proper tendering process. It has raised accusations of conflict of interest implicating Trudeau and his family, as well as former finance minister Bill Morneau, who have close family ties with the Charity.
- May 7, 2020: Trudeau unveiled an agreement with all provinces and territories to top up the wages of some essential front-line workers though a cost-sharing initiative. The federal government budgeted up to $3 billion to go to workers who are making "very low wages, while doing extraordinarily important work." According to Finance Canada, to date the federal government had provided $2.6 billion to the provinces and territories through direct payments, but it couldn’t say how many workers saw their wages increase as a result. "It is up to each province and territory to determine which workers are eligible to receive a top-up and how much they receive," said spokesperson Benoit Mayrand in an email.
- May 14, 2020: After initially shutting their gates, the prime minister announced that some national parks would soon be partially reopening with some modifications and plans to open widely for camping later in the summer. Heading into spring of 2021, Parks Canada says that visitor access and services like camping may once again be limited in the coming season and will vary across Canada depending on the state of the pandemic locally.
- August 26, 2020: In preparation for in-person learning – the first time since March – the federal government pledged up to $2 billion to provinces and territories to help ensure a safe back-to-school season. The funding commitment was on top of the $19 billion Safe Restart Agreement with provinces and territories. Education advocates and teachers to this day raise concerns about the size of classrooms and have called on various provincial governments to invest more in COVID-19 safety measures. Corinne Havard, a spokesperson for the minister of Intergovernmental Affairs, told CTVNews.ca the first half of the $2 billion was transferred in the fall of 2020 and provinces and territories had to submit a letter by the end of December, 2020 to receive the second half. "The letter was to describe the additional investments made with the first billion to support the safe return to class and map out how the second billion would be spent during the second half of the school year. All provinces and territories submitted their letter and all have received the second transfer."
MAJOR TRAVEL UPDATES & AID
Air travel largely ground to a halt as the pandemic took hold last spring. Some have been critical of the federal government’s decision to keep Canada’s borders open for as long as it did, given the majority of our early cases came from foreign travel. Research since shows among the first 118 cases on Canadian soil, most came from travel from the Middle East, the U.S., and Europe, though travel-related cases have decreased considerably over time as border measures were imposed.
- March 16, 2020: An announcement that kicked off a series of travel limitations. Trudeau said the border would be cut off to most non-Canadian citizens. Permanent Canadian residents, the immediate family members of Canadian citizens, diplomats, air crews, and U.S. citizens were still being allowed into the country.
- March 18, 2020: Just two days later, they went one step further announcing the U.S., Canada border would close to non-essential travel and it remains closed to this day. Trudeau said in an interview on CTV’s Your Morning on March 12, 2021 that vaccinations and case counts will dictate when the border reopens. "We will listen to experts on when we can start easing restrictions, but the safety of Canadians needs to come first," he said.
- March 20, 2020: Trudeau said the government was in talks with airlines to repatriate Canadians stranded overseas. For those unable to get home immediately, the government offered loans of up to $5,000 to cover basic needs. According to Global Affairs, more than five thousand Canadians have been approved for the loan to date. The total value of those loans is more than $20 million.
- April 14, 2020: The government announced more severe quarantine measures, including a requirement that passengers provide a "credible quarantine plan" or be forced to spend 14 days isolated in a designated location. This was the start of the use of assigned quarantine hotels – a measure that is now mandatory upon entry into Canada. As of March 1, 2021, the RCMP has issued 129 fines to individuals totaling more than $169,000 under the Quarantine Act.
- April 17, 2020: Mask up, or be denied boarding your flight – that was the message in mid-April, when masks or face coverings were made mandatory to travel. Transport Canada also urged anyone travelling on ferries, by rail, or on buses to do the same. Canada’s masking policy remains intact.
- June 12, 2020: In a continued effort to try to curb international travel heading into the summer, Ottawa put in place mandatory fever checks for international travellers, which was expanded to domestic travellers at Canada’s four largest airports by the end of July. Travellers are now required to present their airline with a negative PCR test taken within 72 hours of their departure flight to Canada and must take another test upon arrival or face fines or imprisonment.
SUPPORT FOR MOST VULNERABLE
While no Canadian has been immune to the impact of COVID-19, its effects on the country’s most vulnerable has been disproportionate. People without homes or in precarious living conditions were challenged to heed strict stay-at-home orders. The requirement to limit contacts exacerbated many people’s pre-existing mental health issues. And for the elderly in long-term care, the toll was deadly.
The government sought to target these hard-hit groups in the early stages of the pandemic.
- March 29, 2020: In the government’s first attempt to support the most vulnerable at the start of the pandemic, Trudeau announced $9 million to the United Way to help local organizations support seniors. The Kids Help Phone also received $7.5 million to bring on additional counsellors. According to a United Way report online, the government funds were distributed in late April to 77 local units across the country. Among other notable figures, "1.3 million interventions were offered to support 703,339 vulnerable seniors during the pandemic through 937 programs offered by a network of 876 community agencies across Canada." Kids Help Phone also told CTVNews.ca in a statement that, with the added support, they were able to bring on 60 new counsellors.
- April 3, 2020: Trudeau announced $100 million to address the "urgent food needs" of Canadians before emergency benefits kicked in. Food Banks Canada received $50 million of that batch, while another $20 million was divided between Salvation Army, Second Harvest, Community Food Centres Canada, and Breakfast Club of Canada. Unspecified local-level organizations focused on food insecurity received the remaining $30 million. In a statement to CTVNews.ca, Food Banks Canada said all funds were disbursed by May 15, 2020 and the food purchased was shared throughout the summer. "Funds were allocated based on the proportion of food insecure people in each province. One exception was that a slightly larger per cent was allocated to the Territories given the high food insecurity rate and high cost of food and transporting food into the North. Overall, over 800 organizations from coast to coast to coast received direct support from this funding, whether food or funds or both," the statement reads.
- April 4, 2020: The government announced $40 million would go to Women and Gender Equality Canada, a group within Status of Women Canada, while another $30 million would go to address immediate needs of sexual assault centres. Another $10 million went to Indigenous Services Canada's network of 46 emergency shelters. A spokesperson for Indigenous Services Canada told CTVNews.ca in a statement the funding was distributed directly through the department’s Family Violence Prevention Program, which supports the day-to-day operations of shelters that provide services for women and children living on reserve in provinces and in the Yukon.
- April 14, 2020: Support was unveiled for northern Indigenous communities, specifically; $73 million to territorial governments; $15 million for businesses that didn’t meet the federal government’s emergency aid requirements; $17.3 million to subsidize northern air carriers to ensure the supply of food; $25 million to Nutrition North, which helps subsidize the higher cost of food in remote communities. As of December, the federal government has spent $4.2 billion on specific COVID-19 support to Indigenous and northern communities and organizations.
- May 3, 2020: Trudeau assigned more than $240 million to develop and launch virtual health care resources to Canadians, which included the creation of Wellness Together – an online portal with mental health tools and access to professional services. According to the federal department of health, as of March 2, more than one million individuals across Canada accessed the portal.
- May 12, 2020: Seniors were told they were getting a direct injection of cash to help with immediate pandemic needs. Those entitled to the Old Age Security pension would receive a $300 payment, and $200 if eligible for the Guaranteed Income Supplement. The total cost of the program is estimated to be $2.5 billion. The cash was distributed in July. Laura Tamblyn Watts, the CEO of national seniors advocacy group CanAge, told CTVNews.ca in a statement that, while the support was "appreciated," it was "notably delayed and far below what the increased costs actually were for transportation, delivery services, internet costs and other expenses." She added that CanAge is calling for additional tax relief for seniors.
- June 5, 2020: Trudeau announced a one-time tax-free payment of up to $600 for some Canadians with a disability. As of June 1, the full amount of support went to all those eligible for the Disability Tax Credit. Meanwhile, Canadians with a valid Disability Tax Credit certificate and who were eligible for the Old Age Security pension received $300. Canadians who were eligible for both of these programs and also eligible for the Guaranteed Income Supplement received $100.
- July 31, 2020: In an effort to curb rising COVID-19 cases among migrant workers on farms over the summer, the Trudeau government pledged $35 million to improve safety standards in employee living areas, more than $16 million to enhance health inspections, and more than $7 million for outreach and support organizations. Executive Director for Migrant Workers Alliance for Change Syed Hussan told CTVNews.ca in a statement the measures don’t go far enough. "Migrant workers need permanent resident status to have the power to protect themselves and assert their rights without risk of deportation or losing their jobs. The government refuses to address this issue - instead it has given more money to employers for migrant worker housing and to inspections that only enforce inadequate laws and policies," he said, adding that there were 63 new outbreaks in Ontario food processing plants and farms in the first two weeks of March alone as a result of congregate living situations.
Edited by CTV News' Kieron Lang
A segment in this article has been corrected: Prince Edward Island does have the COVID Alert app.