I call the meeting to order.
Welcome to meeting number 34 of the House of Commons Standing Committee on Finance.
Pursuant to the committee's motion adopted on Friday, February 5, 2021, the committee is meeting to study all aspects of COVID-19 spending and programs.
Today's meeting is taking place in the hybrid format, pursuant to the House order of January 25, and therefore members are attending in person in the room and remotely using the Zoom application.
The proceedings will be made available via the House of Commons website.
Before I turn to witnesses, I believe Mr. Kelly had a point or a motion he wanted to make. Pat, the floor is yours, and then we'll go to witnesses.
I have a comment first, and I do have a motion to put on notice.
I was disappointed in the last-minute cancellation of one of our first panel witnesses, Generation Squeeze. I don't know if it was a sudden unavoidable time conflict on their side or if they had other reasons to decide at the last moment not to appear.
Further to that, I now put this motion on notice. The motion is as follows: “That the committee hold one three-hour meeting consisting of two 1.5-hour panels, including Andrew Cowan and Steffan Jones of the CMHC in one panel and Eric Swanson of Generation Squeeze and Charlie Ursell of Watershed Partners in a second panel, to testify about the study entitled “Wealth and the Problem of Housing Inequity across Generations in Canada”; and, that opening statements for the meeting be limited to five minutes per panel.”
Mr. Chair and honourable members, thank you for the privilege to be here today.
Air Passenger Rights is Canada's independent non-profit organization of volunteers devoted to empowering travellers. We take no government or business funding and we have no business interest in the travel industry. We speak for passengers, whom we help daily in their struggle to enforce their rights. We also recognize that the aviation sector is important not only to passengers but also to aviation workers, who have also experienced considerable hardship over the past year.
The pandemic brought to the forefront systemic issues that have plagued the aviation sector for nearly a decade: airlines not respecting, and the government not enforcing, passenger rights. The refund controversy exemplifies these anomalies. It is a cornerstone of every transaction that if the consumer does not receive the goods or services they paid for in advance, the vendor must refund all monies paid.
Air travel is no different. Passengers have a right to a refund for flights cancelled by an airline, even if the reason is outside the carrier's control. In 2013, this was coined a “fundamental right” by the federal regulator, yet since March 2020, we have witnessed an unprecedented assault on passengers' private property and the collapse of consumer protection in Canada. Airlines whose revenues were decimated by the pandemic have helped themselves to passengers' money and pocketed airfares paid in advance without providing any services in return.
For more than a year now, the government has taken no enforcement action against airlines that have violated passengers' fundamental right to a refund for flights the airlines cancelled. Instead, the government has turned passengers' legal right to a refund into a bargaining chip in bailout negotiations.
This was wrong. First, in a democracy, the laws must be enforced against citizens and corporations alike. Otherwise, we risk creating a two-tiered society in which, as George Orwell put it, “all animals are equal but some animals are more equal than others.” Second, the failure to force airlines to promptly give refunds to passengers has undermined consumer confidence and goodwill, which are the lifeblood of the entire travel industry.
The Air Canada bailout suffers from the same flaws. It lacks any enforcement mechanism to ensure that passengers are indeed refunded. Instead of getting Air Canada's shareholders, who previously reaped profits, to foot the bill for refunds, it is taxpayers who must.
The bulk of the bailout is in the form of unsecured loans. This means that no assets can be seized if Air Canada is unable to repay the loan. Unsecured loans tend to become grants. Also, taxpayers assume only a token 6% equity stake in Air Canada. For comparison, Germany took a 20% stake in Lufthansa.
In addition, the sweetheart deal with Air Canada skews the market and undermines fair competition. This has nothing to say about Sunwing, WestJet, Porter and other airlines whose passengers are also waiting for refunds.
The Air Canada bailout is not only a bad deal; it also overlooks that it is not possible to cure the aviation sector's chronic illness by throwing billions of dollars at the current symptoms.
Air Canada's new refund policy is an example in point. On April 13, hours after the bailout was announced, Air Canada added to its terms and conditions an exception to its obligation to refund passengers for cancelled flights. The purpose of the exception is to legitimize refusing to refund airfares in the event of a new wave or a new pandemic.
It is unclear whether and were aware of Air Canada's plan to add this exception or whether they were misled. Either way, Canadian taxpayers were shortchanged. They paid billions of dollars, but the systemic issues of lack of consumer protection have just gotten worse.
Addressing these systemic issues is a vital interest of passengers, aviation workers, travel agents and the entire travel industry. Consumers will pay for services in advance only if they have confidence that they will receive the services they paid for or, if the services are not provided, receive a full refund of their hard-earned money. If Canada provides no such assurances, consumers will take their business elsewhere, to airlines based in jurisdictions that do offer such guarantees, such as the U.S. or the EU.
Canada therefore needs declaratory legislation, such as Bill C-249, to protect passengers' rights to a refund and to restore consumer confidence. In the absence of such legislation, no amount of taxpayers' money will save our travel industry.
Thank you very much, and thank you for this invitation to speak to this committee. I am very privileged to be able to do that.
To tell you who we are, the Antigonish Affordable Housing Society has been in existence since 1993 as a non-profit organization. We received our charitable status in 2014. Since then, we've been working very hard. We opened up four units in 2017. We had to do it in two phases because we couldn't secure the finances for the whole thing, and then the following year, we opened up another 10 units. We have 14 units of affordable housing that are high quality and energy-efficient. Four of those are barrier-free units.
Since then, we've been working to secure financing for the second complex that we're building, which is 12 units. It's directly across the street from elementary and junior schools—a very good location. Again, we've been struggling to get the financing for that. We planned on 15 units; we're going for 12. We've started and hope to sign off, finally, in the next week or so. We've started, and we hope by the end of the year to have these units open. This is very much needed in Antigonish, which is a small university town with very high rents. It provides a much-needed avenue for people to access affordable housing.
Our vision is to be environmentally, socially and financially sustainable while providing community-supported affordable housing to the residents of the Antigonish town and county. We develop and research new opportunities for affordable housing. Our vision and mission are based on our values of respect and dignity for all people and our understanding that access to good-quality, affordable housing is a basic human right.
That's who we are and what we are doing.
COVID-19 had quite a significant effect on the organization as well as on the tenants who live in our units. For the tenants themselves, stress was a major issue, and I think that's been known all across the country. COVID has increased stress for many people. A couple of our tenants actually had mental illness crises during that time. Fortunately, because we put such a focus on social sustainability, we have in place, in our unique model, a community navigator who is there to support the tenants in accessing resources and supports in the community. We were well positioned when COVID hit to be able to support the tenants in that way.
I must say that we very much appreciated the support we received through the emergency community support fund. With that $2,000 funding we received, which was distributed by the United Way in Pictou County, we were able to provide tenants with masks, hand sanitizers and bus passes.
For your information, some of the masks were purchased from a newcomer Syrian refugee who set up a new tailoring business, so that funding supported a new local business. The bus passes that are very much needed are also supporting the Antigonish Community Transit. That small amount of money was well used and also put much-needed cash into the local community.
As an organization, our fiscal year ends at the end of March. In 2020, we experienced a $20,000 decrease in our revenue from donations and fundraising as a direct result of COVID. We were very pleased to receive the Canadian emergency benefit account loan of $40,000. This loan was very helpful in covering some of our operating costs for that fiscal year, which just ended, and will continue to assist us in our operating costs for this fiscal year.
In December we applied for increased funding in the amount of $20,000. We still haven't received that yet. It seems as if our financial institution is having trouble obtaining these funds. Supposedly it's on the credit union end and not the government end. We're hoping to be able to access that soon.
Again in May 2020 we applied for the Canada emergency wage subsidy. This has been very useful in our program to help address some of the effects of the drop in revenue.
Overall, these programs have been beneficial for us. As a charitable non-profit community organization, we depend on fundraising and charitable donations to cover some of our operating expenses—most importantly, the role of the community navigator. This is very important, in our mind, for sustainable affordable housing. Having our navigator in place before COVID hit put us in a good position to assist the tenants during COVID when they were experiencing high stress levels. Accessing these funds was not a big challenge, which was a pleasant surprise for us. In the business of looking for funds, it often is a challenge.
This past year it became very apparent that many people in our society were living in precarious positions that were exacerbated by the pandemic. We had an increased number of callers desperately looking for affordable housing. COVID really exposed the financial and social gaps in our society, which really cannot be ignored anymore. As we think about preparing for any future pandemics, whether COVID or something else, we really need to build a resilient community. As the emergency programs helped mitigate some of these negative effects of COVID, I would suggest now that government programs need to be geared towards building resilient communities for the next emergency pandemics that are going to be hitting us.
To build resilient communities, you have to have healthy people. By “healthy”, I mean mentally, physically and socially healthy. They are more resilient to shocks and stresses and contribute to building resilient communities. Addressing the social determinants of health through an equity lens is a requirement for people and communities to be healthy.
Ensuring everyone has access to quality, accessible and affordable housing is also part of a resilient community. I would suggest that there needs to be a re-examination of the national housing strategy, which we are pleased to have, in improving access to the programs and ensuring organizations like ours have access to them. We have been working on this for 18 months now. It requires a huge amount of time and skill. When I think of all the people who put in time and expertise from our side and from the other side, it was a lot of money that would have been spent on that.
Thank you, Mr. Chairman, and thank you for your patience with me. I'm scheduled to make a speech in the House, and I was just resolving that conflict.
Thank you to both our witnesses, Ms. Cameron and Mr. Lukács. I'm going to be directing most of my questions to Mr. Lukács.
Thank you for your presentation. I think I've had the privilege of listening to you once before on what you do for passengers' rights. It's always very interesting and informative.
You talked about the bailout that was given to Air Canada recently. It's interesting that it's been reported just recently that in this new language that was added to its terms and conditions, they gave themselves the legal right to refuse future refunds to passengers, and I think you touched on that. This comes exactly on the heels of the federal government providing the $6-billion bailout.
You've indicated your reaction a bit. Why do you think they missed that in their negotiations?
That's a very troubling question.
The legal validity of that contractual provision, of course, would have to be determined by a judge. We have some serious doubts about whether any vendor or business can contract out the obligation to refund its customers in the event a service cannot be delivered. Even if it is a war, a pandemic or the sky is falling, it doesn't matter. There is a fundamental right for all consumers, in all contracts, to get back their money when they don't get the goods or services they paid for.
Setting that aside, the short answer is that Air Canada is doing this because it can, because the government is not taking action, is not taking enforcement steps against airlines that disregard passengers' rights.
With respect to Air Canada, the Canadian Transportation Agency could disallow the tariff provision tomorrow. The CTA wouldn't even need a complaint from us; it could simply look at it and say that this is an unreasonable term and condition, especially since Air Canada has gone public and made broad public statements to the contrary. Air Canada assured the public through its press releases that from now on, for tickets that are purchased, it would refund passengers if a flight is cancelled, regardless of the reasons. Air Canada is talking out of both sides of its mouth, and we haven't seen yet any enforcement action.
You also talked about the potential unfairness of providing a bailout for one airline while leaving others trailing in the distance. You mentioned WestJet, Sunwing, Air Transat and Porter.
Recently the federal government also gave the provinces money to distribute to northern and indigenous service providers in the airline industry. My province of Manitoba received $12 million from the federal government to distribute to scheduled airline service providers that service the north and indigenous communities. The problem is that we have airline operators like Wings Over Kississing that service the exact same communities as the scheduled service carriers, often competing for the same businesses, but they got zero support.
In fact, in Manitoba, two airlines in particular, Calm Air and Perimeter, received $9 million of the $12 million, whereas Kississing, which is about a third of the size of Perimeter, received absolutely nothing.
I know you're as concerned for the employees and operators of small airlines as you are for passengers. Can you comment on that situation?
First of all, I'm not sure if Air Canada was that much in need of national support as they claim. There were, perhaps, other airlines that were, but Air Canada went into this crisis, this pandemic, in a very good, strong financial position.
In terms of support, money should go primarily to restructuring for improving service and making services better, for better technology, for expenses that make the industry as a whole more competitive, and not just padding the executives' pockets or the corporation's coffers.
Also, money spent on preserving the skills of aviation workers and ensuring that they keep up with their training and their skills is definitely a good public money investment, because while the corporations and the shareholders are dispensable, the aviation workers are not. They are a national asset.
Thank you, Chair, and thank you to both of our witnesses.
I'll focus my questions on the issue of housing in small communities.
Ms. Cameron, it's good to see you here. Thank you so much for joining us today and for your testimony.
One of the reasons I'm particularly intrigued by your testimony, Colleen, is that we obviously have put forward a lot of funding toward housing through the national housing strategy. It works fairly well for really big operators that have full-time paid staff. I have had the benefit of working to assist on some of the projects you mentioned and I fully appreciate the lengthy period of frustration you're going through as you work towards finalizing support for the next build.
I'm curious if you have advice for the government on how we can improve access to the national housing strategy funding opportunities for small communities that may rely so heavily on volunteers, as your organization does.
I do have advice, as you know I always do.
One of the biggest challenges now with the national housing strategy is that when we built our last building, we got funding from our municipal governments and from Housing Nova Scotia. We did a lot of fundraising and we were successful in that, but since then the housing strategy has rolled out. When we went to Housing Nova Scotia, expecting a significant contribution to our new build, they said, “We're not doing that. You go to CMHC.”
Housing Nova Scotia has given us some money, but the bulk of it is through CMHC, and I don't think CMHC is used to giving out money. They have been in the business of mortgages and loans. I heard Evan Siddall talk about protecting the money, using it wisely, which is very good, but it's such a challenge to get access to that funding.
From our perspective as a small organization that's totally volunteer, the amount of time and effort needed to go into that is absolutely phenomenal. We're treated exactly the same way as a large developer in downtown Vancouver. When we first did that last year, I was absolutely shocked at our assessment, because as a provider of 100% affordable, energy-efficient housing with solar panels, we weren't given the points that I thought we should have had. A big developer could have 30% of their housing affordable for 10 years only, and have no barrier-free units, which cost a lot more money, and that really didn't help us a lot. It's the assessment that we are all the same that is not right.
The other thing is that the government has talked a lot about.... Big developers not being interested in rural areas; they go for the big ones. Community organizations have been trying for years to be able to access funding. We are one of the very few small organizations that have succeeded, so there's something wrong in that process. To me, there should be separate processes for community non-profit organizations and large developers.
Greetings to all my colleagues, including Ms. Damoff and Mr. Masse, who are joining us today.
I'd like to thank both witnesses for being with us and for their presentations.
My first questions are for Mr. Lukács.
Thank you again for raising the important issue of travellers' rights. My first question relates to something in your presentation and the exchanges you had with Mr. Falk.
Looking at what's been done in other countries, what should the government have done to better protect travellers? What best practices have other countries adopted that we could have learned from?
Thank you for the question.
The very first thing the government should have done was to declare and enforce passengers' fundamental right to a refund. This happened in the United States on April 3, 2020, when the U.S. Department of Transportation issued an enforcement notice. In the European Union, it happened first around March 18, 2020. The European Union even went as far as suing some of its own states to ensure compliance with passengers' fundamental right to a refund. Had the Government of Canada done so, it would have probably been much easier to provide industry-wide relief because there would not have been such a strong opposition to it, publicly.
The other aspect is that Canada should have followed the German model—Lufthansa's model—whereby the state assumes a substantial stake in the airline that is being bailed out in exchange for taxpayers' money. The 6% that was provided to Canada's taxpayers in the current deal is dwarfed by the 20% in Germany, which actually has an option to go all the way up to 25%.
The last point is that those loans that were given to Air Canada were all unsecured loans, with one exception. Maybe Air Canada doesn't have sufficient assets as collateral—I don't know, and that's something to investigate further—but in the absence of assets, equity is a reasonable way to ensure that taxpayers receive a return on their investment.
With respect to the issue of competition, the deal between Air Canada and Air Transat would have significantly decreased competition over transatlantic routes and sun destinations. In terms of the data, for the medium-concentration to high-concentration market, this would have resulted in higher airfares and consumers paying more money.
Certainly Canada, even now, is suffering from a lack of adequate competition. What it would need to do is open our market for more airlines, even for the carriage of passengers within Canada—perhaps not all airlines, but airlines from trusted partner states—because it should not be a choice between Air Canada and WestJet only.
In terms of regional routes, it's a very tough question because, on the one hand, it may be very important for communities, but on the other hand, we cannot expect airlines to operate a route that is not profitable. If as a state, as a society, we decide that regional routes are important, then airlines have every right to ask for a subsidy for recovering those specific costs.
Thank you, Mr. Chair, and it's good to see you, as always.
Thank you to our witnesses.
Mr. Lukács, I want to start with your take on Nav Canada. I don't know if you noticed, but it finally ceased its studies on the closure of airports. It's something I have been pushing for, and I have a private member's bill on it. It will be interesting to see what will take place in the budget or the upcoming deal with Nav Canada, because in testimony at other committees I've been to, Mr. Bohn, the CEO of Nav Canada, has said that they would not consider removing bonuses if they got public funds as part of a package to deal with Nav Canada. We'll see what comes out in the details.
What is your response to those who are now concerned about the process of dealing with Expedia and other parts of the complications of getting refunds? I'm concerned that it may not even be equal. You've pointed out some major problems in the deal, but one thing that I don't think gets a lot of attention is the complications for consumers going through third parties to try to recover their money.
I don't purport to be an expert in competition law; however, I am aware of how some of its aspects affect passengers and airlines.
My understanding is that the Competition Bureau doesn't have the tools to deal with, for example, predatory pricing, which happens when a large airline tries to effectively strangle a small airline by engaging in undercutting prices, even below cost. By the time a court order and an injunction are issued, it is maybe too late for the small airline; it would be out of business.
I agree to the extent that I see, from an airline perspective and passenger rights' perspective, that a significant overhaul would be necessary for faster remedies for anti-competitive behaviour of this nature. Whether one should give more powers to a government body raises some questions. Generally we believe that independent decision-makers—and I'm referring to independent of government, such as courts and judges who have tenure of office—should be making significant decisions.
Certainly the laws could and should be updated to ensure that access to injunctions in such situations—and, more generally, access to some interlocutory injunctions—would be easier. It's a matter we came across last year in the context of refunds. The federal courts are interpreting the legal test for interlocutory injunctions very narrowly, in such a way that in many cases they are virtually impossible to get, not only in competition matters but also in cases of trademarks and intellectual property aspects.
Mr. Lukács, I really appreciate the perspective you're coming from, in that you're looking to ensure that taxpayers are getting good bang for their buck. It's very much appreciated.
I can't tell you how terrible this was in the very beginning when we were repatriating constituents. There were families who were buying tickets, and then the flight would be cancelled. They'd buy another ticket, and the flight would be cancelled. They'd buy a third ticket, and the flight would be cancelled. They never received a refund. It was absolutely shocking.
You basically said that had the government taken quick action against the airlines for doing this, as other countries did, it could have had a bigger impact on what the deal looks like today.
First, let me take a step back. Airline policies don't matter, because they can't override the law. The law has been that you have to refund passengers, full stop. Unfortunately, the federal government failed to enforce that law.
In terms of policies, in some ways Air Canada was the worst offender, in that they made a false proposition that if you bought a so-called non-refundable ticket, then they can just pocket your money and give you no service in return. That's nonsense. That's absurd.
In November 2020, WestJet made some statements that they would gradually refund passengers whose flights were cancelled by WestJet. We are seeing some progress with that, although in many cases what passengers are doing and what helps them to get money back is doing a statutory chargeback under provincial statutes if they made a purchase with a credit card.
With respect to Sunwing, probably they are also among the worst offenders. They first promised passengers a refund, as they should have, and then said they were sorry, but they didn't have enough money. Air Transat is also in with that. They have also been refusing to provide refunds.
I think it's an important model for all of Canada, not just Nova Scotia. If we want healthy people and healthy communities, we have to acknowledge that income plays a big role in that. With the CERB funding that came out, many people were moved out of poverty. The CERB was set at a level just above the poverty line. That made a big difference for a lot of people.
We have people living in poverty because the policy states that they can receive only a certain amount if they are disabled or on assistance or single parents. It is kept below the poverty line. To me, that's not right. If we'd made sure that everyone had a livable income and we'd had that in place before COVID hit, it would have saved all kinds of problems and people's lives. You wouldn't have people going from job to job just to make enough to barely get by. With their job and a guarantee, they would have enough money to do that and be well.
To me, it's a no-brainer, in the sense that people are ill, are not well, because they are living below the poverty line. A guaranteed livable income, just as we have with old age security, could be a guaranteed supplement there. What the government did with the CERB I think should be continued. We wouldn't be in such a housing crisis if people had sufficient funds to be able to afford housing.
Yes, it is. It's a big part of it, and that's why, I believe, the housing strategy was put in place.
As you know, the federal government did a lot of input into affordable housing and housing 30, 40 and 50 years ago. My father was involved with the Veterans' Land Act to help people get housing. Then the government moved away from that, and municipalities don't take responsibility, so it has been a big issue. It has been neglected for so long that we are really in a major crisis. In order to get out of it, there needs to be partnership at all levels—federal, provincial and municipal, and with community members—but it should be done in such a way that every partner is respected and trusted, which is not the case now. We are often talked to and told to do things, without the government listening to what the issues are. I'm not saying to have a whole bunch of different models, but there just needs to be something for non-profit developers that is different from the for-profit developers, I would think.
Thank you, Chair. It's an absolute pleasure to join this committee today.
Thank you to both of our witnesses.
Ms. Cameron, I thoroughly enjoyed your testimony, and I now know why your MP speaks so highly of you. It was really helpful and speaks to my heart.
I firmly believe that without safe, affordable housing, you can't do anything else. Everything flows from that. You can't get a job, care for your kids properly or get an education. Your testimony really resonated.
I wonder if you could speak a little bit more about it. If we're going to have a sound, sustainable, solid recovery, how important is it for us to invest in housing and the resilient communities that you talk about?
I think you said it yourself: Housing is the basic right that everybody needs to live. Without it, you don't have anything.
As you said, if there is no address; you can't get funds or an education. Then, from a health perspective, so many people are living in very unhealthy situations, physically unhealthy as well as mentally and socially unhealthy. When there are drugs and violence in the area, that just exacerbates things.
To me, it's something that everyone needs. It's obvious, if you look at our health statistics, that people on lower income, living in poor conditions, are much more likely to be sick. They're much more likely to put a greater burden on the health care system, and similarly the justice system, and to drop out of school. I understand that every time a family moves, a child loses three months of school just from making that move. It affects every aspect of life, and it is one of the most basic things. Food, water, shelter and clothing are your basic rights, so that is needed.
The homeless situation and the lack of affordable housing are the tip of the iceberg when we're looking at poverty. That's what we see. Those are the symptoms of poverty.
It is absolutely critical. With our model of focusing on the social, environmental and fiscal, it is very important. That's a holistic approach.
With regard to the community navigator, the role is to assist the tenants to access the resources they need in the community to live well. I live very close to public housing and I see the problems. There are 700 units, and one person said that she used the navigator for the.... A navigator for 700 people is just not sustainable. People are trying to get out of the public housing and come to us because it is a good safe place to live.
Everybody needs support at some point. If you have good, affordable, safe housing, it breaks the cycle of poverty for many people. It helps them to move out. We've had a couple of success stories—single mothers finishing education, getting a better job and moving on—and that's the sort of thing you need. However, that support is key. Putting a roof over somebody's head and then leaving them on their own is not going to solve it.
People have various levels of need. We don't provide counselling and that sort of thing; we connect them to those resources, and sometimes it's a very simple thing that they need. To be sustainable, I think it is extremely important.
Thank you very much, Mr. Chair, and thank you very much to the committee.
Good evening. I apologize in advance; I have a cold. It's just a cold. I've been COVID tested a number of times. I apologize if I cough during my presentation.
I've decided to make my presentation rather short tonight, so I don't believe I will take anywhere close to five minutes. I just want to make a very firm point.
My name is Patrick Sullivan. I'm the president and CEO of the Halifax Chamber of Commerce, which is a best-practice business advocacy organization that continuously strives to make Halifax an even more attractive city in which to live, work and play. Together with approximately 1,700 member businesses that represent over 65,000 employees, the chamber acts as a single powerful voice to promote local business interests.
I want to thank the federal government for its prompt and meaningful support for our business communities throughout the pandemic. Programs like the Canadian emergency business account, the Canadian emergency wage subsidy—which we utilized to retain our full-time staff—and the Canadian emergency rent subsidy were all crucial to the survival of many businesses, both large and small.
It's apparent, though, that while vaccines are rolling out throughout the country, many of our hardest-hit sectors, like tourism and hospitality, will once again feel the impacts of COVID-19 throughout the balance of 2021.
Businesses need predictability. They need a view of what that business can look like or will look like in order to plan for the coming months. We ask that the Canadian emergency wage subsidy and the Canadian emergency rent subsidy be extended until December 2021 so that those highly affected sectors can remain viable and return to full capacity in 2022. With over $1 billion lost in revenues in Nova Scotia during the 2020 tourism and hospitality high seasons, we must keep these sectors and businesses afloat, not only for the employment of many Canadians but also for our continued economic growth and recovery from COVID-19.
Thank you very much. I'd be happy to answer any questions you may have.
Thank you for the invitation to appear before you today.
The people who work at Canada's hotels are just like every other Canadian: We want to get back to normal as soon as possible. However, our industry is unique.
We are in the business of bringing people together face to face at conventions and weddings, or just to visit family, and that's simply not possible right away. For our sector, the end of this pandemic will not happen quickly with the flip of a switch.
We continue to face a balancing act. On the positive side, a potential recovery is on the horizon, with vaccines under way that could lead to a possible domestic tourism recovery this summer for some segments, such as resorts.
In this scenario, if we get most Canadians vaccinated by June, the government will need to pivot quickly to allow for a safe reopening and invest in stimulating our recovery to maximize the summer tourism season, but the reality is that right now we find ourselves in a third wave. People are encouraged to stay home, domestic and international borders remain closed and bans on mass gatherings are still in place. Unfortunately, this means we will very likely lose the most important season for our industry again in 2021. In this scenario in which restrictions are still necessary for the summer, the government will need to provide financial support for the tourism and hospitality sectors to survive until a recovery is possible.
While most other sectors can bounce back quickly once restrictions are lifted, we cannot. Business travel will take time to pick up. International visitors come mostly in the summer, not the fall or the winter. The conferences and events that drive our business in the off season take months of planning and lead time. Most festival and event organizers have been forced to cancel any planned activities for this summer and fall.
The challenges we expect to encounter until the end of 2021 are not the result of individual business decisions. They are the result of the final stages of this pandemic. We have every confidence that once COVID is completely behind us, Canadian tourism will rebound and conventions and major events will resume, but that recovery will be further down the road for us and certainly won't be happening in a meaningful way this summer.
Until a recovery is possible for seasonal and events-based businesses, the wage and rent subsidy programs will remain a lifeline for hotels. As other sectors bounce back quickly after June, it is both prudent and practical for the government to tailor these support programs to sustain those industries most affected by the pandemic.
Our member survey from March showed that 70% of Canadian hotels will go out of business without an extension of the Canada emergency rent subsidy and the Canada emergency wage subsidy to the end of the year. Simply put, if the government does not extend these programs past June, we will lose major segments of the hotel industry.
The government deserves credit for rolling out these programs quickly and for providing tailored debt solutions to the hardest hit. These programs are the reason we still have an industry today, but our members are reeling from the worst year in their history, and they are facing the second-worst year in 2021 with very little hope that we will have a summer season. Now is not the time to pull away from the sectors that will lag behind through no fault of their own.
We heard a strong commitment to support the hardest-hit businesses in the Speech from the Throne and the fall economic statement. In the upcoming federal budget, we need to hear a clear commitment that the government will support our sector through to the end of the pandemic and the end of 2021.
Specifically, we need to see an extension and enhancement of CEWS at 75%, targeting hard-hit industries until the end of 2021, and an extension and enhancement of the CERS program for hard-hit businesses, including deeper support for medium-sized businesses. That commitment in the budget would give our businesses the confidence and predictability they need to get to the other side.
Canadians want to and will travel again. When the time comes, Canada's hotels will be ready. We have invested in an industry-wide enhanced standard of health and safety protocols and remain committed to the health and safety of our guests and employees. We are ready to continue supporting essential travel, hosting events like hockey tournaments and weddings, and we are ready to welcome back guests when restrictions are lifted; but without continued government support and tailored relief measures, many hard-hit businesses like ours will fail. That means long-term unemployment and a lost capacity for the anchor businesses, like the hotels that enable tourism here in Canada, the most beautiful country in the world.
I'm pleased to appear before you today to address issues related to the pandemic and the various measures that the Canadian government has taken to support workers.
We'd like to begin by commending the Canadian government for its efforts so far to support people hard hit by the health and economic crisis.
At the Confédération des syndicats nationaux, or CSN, we represent people from the cultural and hospitality sectors. Ms. Baker talked about the importance of supporting the hotel industry. It's clear to a labour organization like the CSN that the Canadian government must continue to take advantage of low interest rates and borrow to support the working class. It must maintain wage subsidy programs so that the cultural, tourism and hospitality industries can weather this extremely difficult crisis for everyone.
The CSN, like the Government of Quebec and the other provinces and territories recently did, is asking the federal government to increase the Canada health transfer from 22% to 35% of provincial and territorial health expenditures. We believe that the current crisis, particularly in the health and social services network, requires major new investments, especially since we are going to see an aging population in the coming years, in Quebec and elsewhere in Canada.
We believe that the provinces must be given the financial means to create more housing, whether in the form of residential and long-term care centres, or in the form of housing co-operatives. We could even innovate. In Quebec, new ideas have been proposed to address the issue of housing for seniors.
So, at the CSN, we stand behind the Canadian provinces in calling for a substantial increase in the Canada health transfer.
Also, as I mentioned, assistance programs for workers must continue. I think the federal government needs to take this opportunity to reform the employment insurance program in Canada. The crisis has shown that all workers, whether self-employed, non-standard workers or seasonal workers, are not currently covered by the EI program. The crisis must be used to modernize it and improve coverage for non-standard workers. We think that the federal government should reform employment insurance.
As far as economic recovery is concerned, as a central labour body, we are choosing a recovery that will also be green, in other words a recovery that will take into account the importance of sustainable development. We have labour-sponsored funds in Quebec. At the CSN, we have Fondaction, which invests in companies that are going green. We must take advantage of the current crisis to reorient the national economy and make a transition to much greener production methods that will allow us to reduce our greenhouse gas footprint.
On the manufacturing and industrial side, in a more targeted way in Quebec, we represent the Davie shipyard workers. For several years now, the federal government has been telling us that the National Shipbuilding Strategy must take the Davie shipyard into consideration. There's also the whole issue of the contract for Diefenbaker, the famous polar icebreaker, which was to be awarded to the Davie shipyard. For the greater Quebec City region, and even for Quebec in general, a shipyard integrated with the National Shipbuilding Strategy represents thousands of direct and indirect jobs.
Those are essentially the comments I wanted to make in the five minutes allotted to us. Again, we thank you for listening. We assure you that we are available to you should you wish to discuss further issues relating to public finance or social and economic development.
Thank you very much, Jacques. I expect there will be some questions.
Before I turn to the last witness, the people in the lineup for questions will be Mr. Falk, Mr. Fragiskatos, Mr. Ste-Marie and Mr. Masse.
We turn now to our last witness, from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development. Philip Hemmings is head of the Canada desk, economics department.
Welcome, Mr. Hemmings. The floor is yours.
Good afternoon. Thank you for this opportunity to appear before the Standing Committee on Finance.
This presentation draws largely on the OECD economic survey of Canada that was published on March 11. Our report is generally positive about the suite of economic policy measures that was introduced in 2020 and the subsequent evolution of those measures. The initial policy response was viewed as being appropriately rapid. The steps taken were also seen as having performed a reasonably good job in ensuring income support to those households and businesses most severely affected.
Canada was ranked as having one of the largest packages of fiscal support in an international comparison the OECD made in autumn of last year. Canada's package at that time, when we added it up, was worth around 13 percentage points of GDP. Other countries with large fiscal packages in this comparison were Italy, Germany, Australia and Japan. We'd also underscore that prudent fiscal policy in Canada over past years has helped provide scope for this sizable fiscal support.
Canada's menu of support has become more targeted, which is welcome. Notably, there has been the transition from the Canada emergency response benefit to the more focused benefits, including the Canada recovery benefit, the CRB. To be sure, there will be scope for technical improvements to some of these schemes that are still operating. For instance, our report flags that the 50% clawback rate of the CRB could perhaps be dissuasive to individuals in returning to employment.
Our report emphasizes that for the time being, a focus on keeping these supplementary channels of support open is appropriate to help economic recovery. Financial assistance for households should ensure gaps and support are covered. For businesses, continued focus is needed on nurturing their recovery.
It is worth emphasizing, I think, that, even with the retention of supplementary support, the very large deficit generated in 2020 will partially unwind. The shift back from blanket support suggests smaller outlays. Also the recovery process itself, unless reversed by another shock, will bring deficit reduction through revenue increases and diminished spending demands.
The crisis has raised a question as to whether the safety net provisions available in normal times are adequate. The recent commitment to introduce automatic tax filing for simple returns, partly so that more low-income households receive the tax credits as well, is welcome. In addition, permanent change to income support may be required to make social safety nets more reliable, timely and effective. This is challenging to implement. Our report suggests that one route would be for provinces and territories to upgrade their safety net welfare provisions, possibly with financial assistance from the federal government.
In principle, a guaranteed income scheme offers another solution; however, our report concludes that such a scheme is likely to be overly expensive and may reduce incentives to work. While support programs should remain on offer while the economy is fragile, a clear and transparent road map for preventing a spiralling public debt burden is needed. Canada's past record in federal deficit and debt suggests that, to date, broadly defined fiscal rules have worked adequately; however, a more precise rule may provide a useful anchor for reining in the debt burden. Our survey and previous ones have specifically suggested the introduction of a numerical debt-to-GDP target.
Finally, I think it's worth underscoring—and this is something emphasized in our report—that a successful post-COVID economy also requires structural reforms that do not necessarily involve direct fiscal costs. To help the business sector, our report urges faster progress in particular on the removal of non-tariff barriers between provinces. It also supports continued attention to the competitiveness and quality of telecommunication services. In addition, it identifies scope for improving business insolvency processes. For households, the report advocates the creation of more affordable housing through measures that encourage the building of more homes, for instance, through lighter planning regulation.
This brings my introductory comments to an end.
Yes. Canada is among countries—the other country I work in is Norway, and there are other examples around the world at the moment—where the house prices have continued to rise quite steeply through the pandemic.
What we're facing here is this classic situation in which, in order to help the economy, the interest rates have been reduced. This further fuels the already fairly strong increases you had in prices before the crisis. Overall, household incomes have been supported, so the demand for housing has continued.
As I mentioned, among our solutions to this, our long-term calls are often for efforts to try to increase the supply of housing. One move there could be to try to look at building and planning regulations to see if there are ways of allowing for more accommodation to be built that way.
One thing I would add is that we don't have much of this in our report because it's really not clear at the moment, but it's going to be very interesting to see what happens to the geography of housing demand in the next while. We know there's going to be some sort of permanent shift towards more teleworking. The scale of that and the nature of it will be quite interesting, and the impacts on the housing markets will be interesting.
You're absolutely right. Our employees are scared and anxious about their future employment prospects. We employ some of Canada's most vulnerable populations: 60% are women, and we have millennials, immigrants and visible minorities. All of these vulnerable groups have been disproportionately impacted by this pandemic.
They're scared for the future. Many are facing limited retraining options as a result of language skill barriers and other socio-economic factors that we need to take into consideration. The future of our industry right now is, frankly, uncertain.
As I said, we find ourselves in a third wave situation. If we don't have extensions and enhancements to these critical programs, 70% of our hotels will be forced to close their doors. That leaves our employees, of course, in a very vulnerable situation. We need these extensions and enhancements so that we can hang on to our employees and get to the other side, so that they do have a future that they can look forward to.
Thank you, Mr. Hemmings, for your presentation. It was very interesting. I always appreciate hearing from the OECD. Your reports are great, and the committee is better off when we have a chance to hear testimony from an organization of your stature.
When you were speaking, I was reminded of the presentation given the other day here at the this committee, virtually, by the Canadian Chamber of Commerce. The chamber made the argument—I can summarize it—that basically they expect that pent-up demand on the Canadian economy will be such that, post-pandemic, it will sustain long-term economic growth in a very real and significant way. The advice that the chamber gave was that the federal government should therefore look at investing in areas that will boost Canada's competitiveness and productivity. Their examples included research and development, broadband expansion and interprovincial trade barriers, which you've mentioned here at the committee.
I heard something along those lines in your presentation. Did I understand you correctly? If so, could you expand on that?
Thank you very much. It's an interesting point.
Economically, this downturn has taken a different form. It's fair to say that it is not quite like economic downturns of the past and therefore requires some creative thinking and pointing towards anything that will boost productivity and competitiveness. We've just given some examples here. I'm sure we could list many more. Your point is well taken.
Mr. Hemmings, I remember about a year or a year and a half ago, when the emergency programs were being put in place and being refined, some of my friends in the opposition and some in the media were saying that the government was doing too much and that the government should hold back. They were more or less making an argument for austerity, in many ways, although they did not use the word.
I wonder what your thoughts would be if we just imagined for a moment that the federal government did not introduce emergency programs or if they had been much more restrained in nature. The programs that have been introduced have been generous and have held up the Canadian economy, in my view. We've heard that same view articulated here from experts who have testified in recent weeks and months.
What is your view? If the Canadian government had not put in place the various emergency programs, where would the country be right now?
Good morning to you all. I thank you for being here and for your presentations.
My first questions will be directed to Mr. Létourneau.
First of all, thank you for your statement.
You have stressed the importance of maintaining subsidies for workers in the cultural, hospitality and tourism sectors, which have been hit hard. We understand that this must be done as long as the pandemic lasts.
You also emphasized the importance of Ottawa adequately funding health. This echoes studies by the Parliamentary Budget Officer and the Conference Board of Canada, which point to the debt levels of the provinces and show that they will eventually be unable to sustain their spending levels. So Ottawa has to play a role in that.
Also, you talked about the importance of doing a thorough reform of employment insurance. This echoes, among other things, what former Bank of Canada Governor Poloz said to this committee, that the system collapsed as soon as the pandemic began. It is important to have good coverage for atypical and self-employed seasonal workers.
Of course, there's also Davie.
Finally, you spoke of the green stimulus. In the United States, there is a debate about the need for the Biden administration's $1.9-trillion stimulus package. That program has echoes here as well. Next Monday, will present her budget to us, and she told us last fall that it would include a stimulus package of $70 billion to $100 billion.
Feel free to address the other topics I mentioned, but I'd like you to elaborate on your expectations for the stimulus package that is to be announced.
I think an infrastructure program is an important part of economic recovery, of course. At the same time, I think the OECD, the IMF, and even the UN mention very clearly that we need to take advantage of the crisis to move in a different direction. In my opinion, Canada must stop actively supporting the hydrocarbon sector. It is clear to us that if we want to build Canada differently and put economic development in a sustainable development perspective, we must make other choices.
I would say that we also need to focus on service sector jobs. As I mentioned with Davie Shipbuilding, we need to position the manufacturing and industrial sector, which is important, but we also need to make sure that the entire service sector is supported.
I would like to pick up on what Ms. Baker said in response to Mr. Falk's question. Tourism, culture and hospitality are important sectors. As we know, they will unfortunately not be able to be revived as we would have liked during the next summer season. These sectors rely on skilled workers. When you support businesses and workers, you ensure the sustainability of the workforce.
In Quebec, as elsewhere in Canada, there is currently a labour shortage. Workers in the tourism, culture and hospitality sectors should not be allowed to migrate to other sectors. That's why I think the social safety net is something that is extremely important.
I was hearing earlier about the staggering increase in the cost of rent. In Quebec, nearly 1 million workers earn less than $15 an hour. Even if they are sometimes unionized, these workers live in a state of near poverty, unfortunately. Other speakers mentioned the importance of funding the construction of social housing and the creation of housing cooperatives to support the middle class and workers. These people often have very limited incomes. When real estate market costs in the Montreal area explode as they do in the Toronto or Vancouver area, it becomes untenable for middle class people.
I wanted to respond to Mr. Ste-Marie, but I also wanted to take the opportunity to address this issue. As Mr. Hemmings said in the words of the OECD, if Canada had not made the efforts it made to support the middle class, it would have been a disaster. As evidence, the working class in the U.S. has suffered from the lack of policies and a social safety net, which the Trump administration refused to put in place. In this regard, the Canadian government has not been shy about doing much of the work. As Hemmings said, Canada will pay down its debt through economic recovery. If austerity policies are reintroduced, we will once again destroy the entire social safety net, which would be a disaster in anticipation of the crises that are sure to arise in the future, unfortunately.
Thank you, Mr. Chair. It makes for good TV.
This question is for Ms. Baker.
I'm part of a border community. I represent Windsor, across from Detroit. Wayne and I both serve on the Canada-U.S. parliamentary association. We have had extensive ties with tourism with the United States. When Canada held the Vancouver Olympics, we moved the then Canadian Tourism Commission out to Vancouver. There was more of a concentrated attempt to get visitation from Europe and other parts of the world overseas. It kind of pushed down our American numbers a little bit. That went down over the different years.
Can you tell us about your members' experiences right now in border communities? Tourism in general across the country is down. Some things, when they had been opening up a little bit, were covered, but in border communities I think there's an extra layer of difficulty. We still cannot get at any of the customers we had before, in everything from entertainment to visitation in hotels.
There's been a proposal from the Wilson Center, a think tank organization in Washington, with Canadian businesses, and there's also been the Canadian business council. I've been pushing for a border task force to be created. We used to have more of a working organization. There's the COVID task force right now, which is the cabinet and whoever they decide to consult.
We've seen in the past on border communities that some of the programs that have been instituted have become quite complicated. Some are outdated. Some need improvement. In the case of Nexus, we changed some things to make travel more accessible and get higher sign-ups and so forth. Do you think that's something an organization like yours would like to participate in? I know that others—chambers of commerce, manufacturers and so forth—are now going on board with this type of philosophy. They're looking to be part of more of an ongoing management style to help advocate and develop policies, even post-COVID, that would help the free flow of traffic, goods and services. We've even seen that for tourism.
There are just so many border complications right now. It should be more of an ongoing working process versus that of waiting month by month.
Mr. Létourneau, you mentioned shipbuilding. When I hear that, I always hear the voice of my former colleague Peter Stoffer, who used to yell “What about shipbuilding?” in the House of Commons at every opportunity. We have the United States with their procurement policies on buy America, the Buy American Act, the Jones policy and a series of incentives to do domestic procurement. I don't see a contradiction for Canada to do some of that, especially for the military, the Coast Guard and so forth. I think we could be more assertive and aggressive, quite frankly, on procurement policy. Some of this we have to do anyway, outside of stimulus for COVID.
What's your thought about using and leveraging those elements? If we are able to do that, perhaps we could do co-agreements with the United States, if possible. It might be a way of joining together, as opposed to being isolated right now, outside of their entire policy, because that's kind of where we stand.
Personally, I believe that it is possible for Canada to get along with the United States and position itself through the three existing shipyards. Davie Shipbuilding has been pushing for its share of federal shipbuilding contracts for several years, but so have Seaspan in Vancouver and Irving in Halifax. In fact, in December 2019, the government prequalified Davie Shipbuilding to be an integral part of its shipbuilding strategy. It is still in the Canadian government's plans. Now, it's a bit like in other sectors: if there are no immediate projects for Davie, it will be extremely difficult to retain the workforce.
With respect to the commitment that made regarding the Diefenbaker, we were surprised to hear recently that Seaspan in Vancouver may also qualify to work on the Diefenbaker.
I think Canada needs to have a self-sustaining shipyard policy that is independent and complementary to what is being done on the American side. I guess it's possible to do that. Above all, we must ensure that there is cohesion within Canada. Unfortunately, we have to admit that Quebec has been left out of the picture in recent years, while the Halifax and Vancouver yards have been awarded several construction contracts. In my opinion, we can maintain a balance in the country, while ensuring that Quebec has its place.
I remind you that the Davie shipyard is the largest shipyard in Canada. It is the shipyard that succeeded in carrying out, a few years ago, an important and ambitious project, that of the Obelix.
In my opinion, it is possible to hold discussions with our North American neighbours, while having an effective naval strategy that is specific to our production capacity.
Okay, that's fine. I appreciate that.
Your report also mentions that shortages of affordable housing could be addressed through measures that increase supply, such as reducing rent controls and relaxing zoning and land regulations. I'd like to quote my colleague, who said how insane it is that we live in one of the least densely populated nations on Planet Earth—there are only four Canadians for every square kilometre in this country—yet have some of the most expensive real estate. There are more places in Canada where there's no one than there are places where there is anyone, yet Vancouver is the second and Toronto is the sixth most expensive housing market in the world.
When we compare median incomes to median housing price, it's more expensive than New York, more expensive than L.A., more expensive than London, England, and even more expensive than a tiny island nation called Singapore. All of these places are vastly more populated, yet less expensive to live in.
Why? Is it because our central bankers print money to spur demand and our local governments block construction and therefore constrain supply? With demand up and supply down, the price rises.
Would you agree that government intervention at all levels and in myriad ways is the source of the housing crisis here in Canada?
I wouldn't say it's the source. The difficulty from monetary policy is that they wanted to support the economy. Their main lever for doing that is their policy rate, so they lowered the policy rate. Interest rates have been low for many years, and this has fuelled housing markets throughout the world.
To counteract that, what governments have been doing, including the Canadian government, is what they call macroprudential policy, which tries to place limits on mortgage borrowing so that it doesn't drive house prices up. You can also introduce supply-side measures, as I've mentioned.
One thing to think about with countries that statistically have a very low population density.... I used to work in Australia, and in a way Australia had the same sort of housing market issues. Australia has a very urban population, and I think that's probably true of Canada, in the sense that a huge percentage of the population live in urban areas. They're rather like islands, if you like.
You're absolutely right. If you view Canada's population density, it doesn't seem to make sense, but people want to live in cities, and that drives the price up. It might change with more teleworking. We'll see.
Thank you to all our witnesses this afternoon for your very thoughtful, interesting and important presentations.
Mr. Hemmings, thank you so much for appearing before our committee. Your testimony, I'm sure, is very important to everyone on the committee and to all Canadians who are listening.
I will refer to the economic survey by the OECD that was released on March 11 of this year. It notes that the expected fiscal stimulus package, the historic fiscal stimulus package in the U.S., could boost Canadian exports and the economy as a whole.
What areas of the Canadian economy will benefit most from this stimulus? Can you share some thoughts on how Canada can fully take advantage of stimulus spending in the American economy to generate growth here at home?
I don't have a very precise answer. Of course, in principle, it looks very much like the U.S. stimulus package will provide a lift to Canada's economy, principally through exports. I guess, as we've been talking a little bit about tourism, one issue there is that it depends to what extent people will be able to move around. That's one factor.
The other thing I'm aware of is that the connection between the U.S. stimulus package and the Canadian economy is probably a complicated one, because a lot of the exports from Canada to the U.S. are sort of raw materials or intermediate products. Ultimately, it depends on whether the demand and extra spending in the U.S. will go to the final products that Canadian inputs go into. Those kinds of supply chains will influence the effect on the Canadian economy. It's not an easy thing to calculate, to be honest. The effect could be reasonably substantial.
Exactly what you could do about that, I'm not 100% sure, but I suppose the more rapid vaccination is and the more people can move around and spend their money, the better it is, basically. It comes back to that point about the faster everyone gets vaccinated, the better things are.
My question is for Mr. Hemmings, but I would also like to hear from Mr. Létourneau.
A few days ago, CBC/Radio-Canada revealed that, in the Panama Papers affair that occurred five years ago, Canada recovered 15 times less money than the United Kingdom and 12 times less than Germany, which puts it fairly low on the list. Even Revenue Quebec recovered more money than the Canada Revenue Agency.
The OECD suggests a series of actions to combat tax evasion and avoidance. Clearly, Canada is lagging behind in terms of concrete implementation of the suggested actions compared to other OECD member countries.
Mr. Hemmings and Mr. Létourneau, what do you think?
I am not a tax expert, but I know that, even today, Canada is unfortunately a real sieve for those who transfer money to tax havens to avoid paying their taxes in Canada.
We are part of the coalition that has been calling on the Canadian government and provincial governments for several years to take action on this issue, especially at a time when the Canadian government has taken steps to support the economic activity of small businesses as well as workers affected by the pandemic. How will Canada's debt eventually be paid down? It is, of course, through the taxes generated by the economic recovery. This brings me back to the question I was asked earlier about the notorious GAFAs.
We need to ensure that companies and people who get rich in Canada pay their taxes in Canada. All necessary mechanisms must be in place to prevent the movement of wealth to tax havens to avoid Canadian or provincial taxation. In fact, as long as we cannot work cooperatively within the framework of the OECD or other international organizations, hundreds of millions of dollars will escape the Canadian tax system and unfortunately will not be part of the so-called redistribution of wealth among the population.
In fact, we had appeared in committee on this two or three years ago. I don't remember the numbers, but the amount of money that was escaping the Canadian tax system and ending up in tax havens was pretty staggering.
I thank you for the question.
I don't like to use committee time to debate other members of the committee, but Mr. Fragiskatos made a number of comments in his intervention that were quite patently false and demand correction.
Members of the opposition—certainly not Conservative members of the opposition—at no point opposed the emergency aid measures during this crisis. In fact, it was quite the opposite. It was, in fact, the Conservative opposition that quite quickly understood the insufficiency of some of the support measures, including the wage subsidy as it was initially rolled out, and we spent the early months of the pandemic working constructively to solve many of the problems in delivering these aid measures. Austerity, whether stated or unstated, was therefore never part of the Conservative response to the crisis.
What the Conservative opposition opposes is further spending of, say, up to $100 billion in further undefined stimulus, especially at a time when the savings rates of Canadians and many businesses, although not all, are extremely high. We expect that there will be economic recovery if we can ever get our people vaccinated.
That needed to be said in response to the incorrect characterization made by Mr. Fragiskatos.
I'm going to continue with—
Thank you so much, Mr. Vice-Chair.
I want to thank all the witnesses for their excellent presentations.
I'm going to direct my first couple of questions to Mr. Hemmings. I want to talk to you about employment and jobs.
On Friday, Stats Canada reported that employment numbers rose by 303,000 in March in Canada, and we're within 1.5% of our pre-COVID, February 2020, job levels. How well is Canada doing compared to other OECD countries with respect to job recovery?
Certainly Nova Scotia has been at the forefront of rapid testing.
That said, we are speaking directly about distributing rapid tests. The Chamber of Commerce is speaking directly with the federal government about distributing rapid tests. We have learned recently that we will have to work more closely with our public health department.
Ontario, I believe, has outsourced that a bit more. The province has said that if businesses want to focus on rapid testing, or rapid screening through rapid tests, they could do that on their own. In Nova Scotia, the request has been that it funnels through the public health department. We don't quite know what that means, but we're still very keen to provide rapid tests to our members and to our businesses.