In advance of Labour Day, Canadian federal leaders hone messages for the working class

Mental health on the job, employment insurance, and pensions are all being highlighted in this campaign

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      On August 31, the Liberal Party of Canada promised a suite of initiatives to help Canadians cope with mental-health issues. And the timing isn’t a coincidence.

      Not only does it come in the lead-up to Labour Day on Monday (September 6), but it also offers a rejoinder to the federal Conservatives, who have been trying to make inroads on this issue in the federal election campaign.

      “In a typical year, one in five Canadians experience mental-health challenges,” Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau said in a party news release. “The pandemic intensified those existing challenges, especially for front-line health-care workers, youth, seniors, Indigenous people, people with disabilities, and racialized and Black Canadians.”

      The Liberal response has been to offer a permanent ongoing funding to the provinces for a new Canada Mental Health Transfer, as well as a new fund for student well-being.

      In addition, the Liberals have promised to develop a mental-health and wellness strategy with First Nations and a review of disability benefits and programs with an eye to assisting those with mental-health challenges. The Liberals say they’ll work with community partners on a fund to support Black Canadians’ mental health.

      The Conservatives have promised to boost funding to provinces for mental health but not through a new transfer program.

      Leader Erin O’Toole decided instead to boost the annual growth rate of the Canada Health Transfer to deliver an additional $60 billion to the provinces for health care over 10 years.

      He also said that he’ll “encourage” employers to add mental health to employee-benefit plans with a 25 percent tax credit over the first three years.

      Conservative Leader Erin O'Toole is trying to present himself as a friend of the working class.
      Conservative Party of Canada

      The Liberals have been the only party to raise the issue of the “right to disconnect” from technology in this campaign. It has been enshrined in legislation in four countries but not Canada, according to the federal government website.

      By passing a law, this would allow workers to disengage from mobile technologies to promote work-life balance. The Liberals say they’ll work with federally regulated employers and labour groups to codevelop such a policy for this country.

      If they’re reelected, the Liberals said, they’ll also “introduce 10 days of paid sick leave for all federally regulated workers”.

      In fact, the NDP pushed for this change last September in return for supporting the throne speech and avoiding an election in 2020.

      This month, NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh scoffed at Trudeau’s promise on sick leave, saying he had been demanding this for 18 months.

      “Every day since then, people went to work sick because they didn’t have another way to pay their bills,” Singh told reporters. “Now he wants us to believe he’ll do it after the election. He’s saying the right thing now, but he has no intention of doing it.”

      NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh hopes that working people respond to his party’s promise to put pensioners at the front of the line when companies go broke.
      Joseph Costa/Unsplash

      Traditionally, the NDP has been the party supported most heavily by organized labour. But in this campaign, O’Toole has surprised his opponents by stressing labour issues. He promised to give workers’ representatives a seat on corporate boards.

      In addition, O’Toole has pledged to extend employment-insurance benefits for seriously ill workers to 52 weeks. And he has indicated that gig workers would become part of a separate private scheme for EI under a Conservative government.

      The latter pledge did not go over well with the Canadian Labour Congress, which described the promise to gig workers as a “kick in the teeth”.

      “The Conservatives’ plan denies over a million gig economy workers access to not only the protections of basic labour standards, but to the Canada Pension Plan and Employment Insurance as well,” CLC president Bea Bruske said in a news release. “These workers kept Canada going during the darkest days of the pandemic, yet Erin O’Toole and the Conservatives would deny them retirement security, EI benefits, and even basic legal protections. That is reprehensible.”

      The CLC followed that up with a video accusing O’Toole of an “anti-worker record”, which included voting against extending emergency pandemic help for workers and proposing a law that made it easier for corporations to “walk away from pension obligations”.

      The NDP, on the other hand, has made pensions a key issue in this campaign.

      “To that end, we will make sure that pensioners are at the front of the line when a company goes bankrupt—making sure unfunded pension liabilities owed to workers, and employees’ severance pay, are the top priority for repayment,” the party declared in its platform.

      “We’ll stop companies from paying out dividends and bonuses when pensions are under-funded, and we’ll create a mandatory, industry-financed pension insurance program to make sure that no worker is deprived of the retirement benefits they’ve earned through no fault of their own,” the NDP noted.

      The NDP platform also maintained that the federal government “has a critical role to play in protecting defined benefit pensions across the country”.

      “The Liberal and Conservatives’ openness to target benefit plans in the public sector, which don’t guarantee stable benefits for retirees, puts defined benefits at risk for all Canadians—and we will immediately put a stop to this chipping away of retirement security.”

      That’s in addition to creating a “Pension Advisory Commission to develop a long-term plan to enhance Old Age Security, boost the Guaranteed Income Supplement to lift all seniors out of poverty and strengthen the Canada Pension Plan”.