IN THE NEWS - Ottawa to end pandemic aid program

Canada Recovery Benefit to be phased out, sources say, as feds decide fate of other measures

by: Raisa Patel Toronto Star With Files From Heather Scoffield

The Canada Recovery Benefit is on the way out, the Star learned late Wednesday.

Two sources told the Star that the benefit, which replaced the Canada Emergency Response Benefit (CERB) last year, will be gone sooner rather than later. But some support will still be available for those who are not able to go to work temporarily because of strict lockdowns.

The fate of the federal government's soon-to-expire pandemic support measures could be revealed as early as Thursday. Supports for struggling businesses will remain in some form but be streamlined and made far more stringent in terms of applicants demonstrating losses.

The CRB has brought in more than two million unique applicants as of Oct. 10, government data shows.

The program, along with the Canada Recovery Sickness Benefit and the Canada Recovery Caregiving Benefit, is slated to end Oct. 23.

Also set to expire Saturday are two major relief programs for businesses: the Canada Emergency Wage Subsidy (CEWS) and the Canada Emergency Rent Subsidy (CERS).

"The benefit had to be wound down at some point, but the question then is, what is the federal government doing in co-operation with provinces and territories, in terms of, if it's not cash transfers, then ... other programs and services to support reintegration into the labour market," said Jennifer Robson, an associate professor of political management at Carleton University.

"It's really not clear to me ... from the U.S. experience, as well as the literature, that a sort of tough love approach is really going to have the impact in terms of motivating people to get back into the workforce."

The Liberal government, however, has repeatedly signalled that it intends to continue shepherding Canadians through the remainder of the pandemic.

Under the Budget Implementation Act, the federal government can extend the wage and rent subsidy programs to Nov. 30 without new legislation. Support programs for individuals, including the CRB, can also be extended until Nov. 20 without requiring a green light from Parliament, which returns Nov. 22.

But it's also true that the country is in a different position than it was when the first iterations of these programs were put in place earlier in the crisis.

Employment returned to pre-pandemic levels in September, although the number of people working fewer than half of their usual hours is higher than it was before the pandemic, among other caveats.

"While many Canadians are back to work and the recovery is underway, we know the fourth wave and new outbreaks have hit some parts of the country harder than others. We are focused on providing support that responds to current economic conditions and the federal government will announce next steps soon," a spokesperson from Deputy Prime Minister and Finance Minister Chrystia Freeland's office told the Star earlier Wednesday.

The details over what becomes of the pandemic aid measures are poised to be a political issue just as much as an economic one.

When Prime Minister Justin Trudeau spoke to opposition leaders Wednesday, Conservative Leader Erin O'Toole asked him to take a more "urgent approach" toward the economic challenges facing Canadians and small businesses.

"With inflation reaching its highest point since 2003 and the ongoing labour shortages facing businesses from coast-to-coast, Mr. O'Toole asked the prime minister to end the CRB benefits by Nov. 20. The prime minister did not answer," the Tories said in a statement following their meeting.

The Prime Minister's Office said Trudeau committed to ensuring Canadians and businesses continue to be protected from the fallout of COVID-19.

And on Oct. 15, NDP House leader Peter Julian asked Freeland and government House leader Pablo Rodriguez for an extension of the CRB and other emergency supports until the pandemic has fully run its course.

"I am writing to urge you to reconvene the House earlier, in order to provide ample time to debate and pass the legislation needed to avoid an interruption or loss of support for people in this fourth wave," Julian wrote.

The same divides can be found among economic experts, business groups and labour leaders.

The Canadian Chamber of Commerce has called for current programs to be extended into November "without delay," followed by a retooled program that would target hard-hit sectors throughout the spring.

"We've been advocating for the wage and rent subsidies to continue, but only for specific sectors that still have public health restrictions that limit their ability to operate. This includes the hospitality sector, tourism and travel," said the chamber's Alla Drigola Birk.

The need to extend the two programs is a view shared by the Canadian Federation of Independent Business, even though it believes the CRB is contributing to a shortage of part-time labour in the country.

Canadian Labour Congress president Bea Bruske, however, told the Star earlier Wednesday that individual supports like the CRB must continue to flow.

"We know that workers are still struggling, that those jobs are still not there," Bruske said "And even though some employers may be saying that they're having a hard time hiring, they're not hiring to the same extent that they were before."

With the clock ticking toward Saturday, the government must make clear what will happen next, Robson said. And what's missing now are more targeted measures, she added.

"I'm not hearing nearly enough discussion about the need to provide active measures and employment services, whether it's job training, re-skilling, coaching ... work placement programs, all that sort of stuff that is more readily available if you're in the employment insurance system," she said. "That does seem to have a meaningful impact on people's ability to re-enter the labour market."

With files from Heather Scoffield

2021 Toronto Star (ON)

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