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A View from Parliament Hill: A summary of the COVID-19 emergency response act

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The House of Commons began debate early this morning on the federal government’s response to the economic and social upheaval caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.

The COVID-19 Emergency Response Act was presented to parliament after a marathon of last-minute negotiations among the major political parties and outlines the framework that will be used by government to spend the proposed $107 billion to assist individuals, small businesses, along with the nation’s housing, banking and financial sectors.

The Senate followed suit to fast track the legislation by creating a Committee of the Whole which is a process that allows the entire Senate to study a proposed piece of legislation and receive witnesses as if the Senate were a single committee. This process provided the opportunity for the Minister of Finance, Minister of Health and Minister of Public Safety and Emergency Preparedness to answer questions from Senators in the Chamber. The legislation received Royal Assent this afternoon and the House and Commons along with the Senate adjourned until April 20, 2020.

Under normal circumstances the government would have to continue to submit an outline of many of the proposed expenditures from the Consolidated Revenue Fund to parliament for debate and study. As we would expect, the regular parliamentary process takes time but the unanimous passing of the C-13 legislation demonstrated that Members of Parliament and Senators felt the government required sufficient flexibility to react to the needs of Canadians under the current circumstances. There have been time limits placed on the majority of the changes in the bill but there are a couple of parts that will allow the government to address future national public health crises.

Individuals

There has been $27 billion made available for direct spending to assist workers and businesses. The government will use $5.5 billion to offer a onetime additional payment to individuals receiving the GST/HST tax credit. The average amounts to be paid out to eligible recipients are expected to be approximately $400 to single individuals and $600 for couples. Individual income tax filing deadlines have also been pushed back to June 1, 2020.

The government will spend $2 billion on the Canada Child Benefit which will provide a onetime payment, estimated to be an extra $300 per child and an average increase of $550, to approximately 3.5 million families. The withdrawal minimum for Registered Retired Income Funds (RRIFs) will be reduced by 25% for 2020. The government has also suspended the requirement for repayment of Canada Student Loans and interest on loans from March 30 to September 30, 2020.

There have been changes to the criteria for applying for Employment Insurance to assist those affected by COVID-19. Employees will no longer require a note from a doctor or health professional and the one week waiting period of EI for those in self-quarantine. The eligible length of time for these changes according to the legislation will be from March 18, 2020 to June 19, 2020.

Many Canadians who are not eligible for EI will be provided support through the creation of the Canada Emergency Response Benefit Act. This temporary Act will provide Canadians assistance up to $2000 a month for a maximum period of four months with the application deadline being limited to before December 2, 2020.

Small Businesses

Small businesses affected by COVID-19 will be provided with access to a subsidy of 10% for employee wages for up to three months. The maximums allowed under the subsidy are $1,375 per employee up to $25,000 per employer. The government has proposed amendments to the Farm Credit Canada Act that will allow the Finance Minister to increase the amounts available to the corporation. The proposed changes will be published in the Canada Gazette.

Changes Related to Future Preparedness

The COVID-19 Emergency Response Act also provides the government the ability to create additional legislation to address the immediate and future needs of the nation. The bill created the Public Health Events of National Concern Payments Act that will provide the federal government access to funds to not only directly purchase necessary medical supplies, but also to transfer support funds to provincial and territorial governments until September 30, 2020.

A change to the Food and Drugs Act (FDA) and the Patent Act provides the government the authority to respond to future public health emergencies. The changes to the FDA allow for the Governor in Council to make any regulations that will prevent shortages and ensure continued availability of therapeutic products in Canada. The amendment to the Patent Act allows for the Minister of Health, or any person they identify, to recreate, sell and use a patented medicine or device during a national public health emergency. 

Housing, Banking and Financial Sectors

The Minister of Finance has been granted the ability to access a variety of funds to ensure the government can work to stabilize housing through the Canadian Mortgage and Housing Corporation. Furthermore, the Minister of Finance can assist in the stabilization of banks through the Canadian Deposit Insurance Corporation, as well as the stabilization of businesses through the Business Development Bank of Canada. This is done without having to return to Parliament for permission until September 30, 2020.

A series of motions were also presented by the House of Commons to allow parliamentarians to work together by providing relevant committees the ability to meet while the House and Senate are adjourned. The Standing Committee on Health and the Standing Committee on Finance will be permitted to meet at least once a week to discuss measures related to the new legislation with permission to meet via teleconference if required.

For further more detailed information read the Canadian Government’s summary Canada’s COVID-19 Economic Response Plan: Support for Canadians and Businesses.

Robert Rivers PhD., was born and raised in Lindsay. He earned his PhD from the University of British Columbia in Population and Public health. He currently serves as the Director of Parliamentary Affairs to the independent Senator Marty Klyne. He is the Advocate's volunteer Ottawa correspondent.

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