Photo by Deborah Gyapong

Ambitious plan for Liberals as they get down to business

  • November 10, 2015

Ottawa - As the new Liberal government pushes ahead with an ambitious plan to resettle 25,000 Syrian refugees by Christmas, it is also faces urgent challenges on three other issues important to the Church: climate change, indigenous rights and assisted suicide.

Deadlines loom on the COP21 United Nations climate change meetings beginning Nov. 30 in Paris, and on laws regarding euthanasia and assisted suicide that face a Supreme Court deadline of Feb. 6, two months after euthanasia becomes available in Quebec under the umbrella of health care.

Only days after the cabinet's swearing in Nov. 4, rookie Minister of Environment and Climate Change Catherine McKenna was off to Paris to attend pre-climate change meetings Nov. 8-10.

"The Government of Canada is determined to deliver real results on climate change and the environment," McKenna said in a statement. "We will work with our international partners on the adoption of an effective climate change agreement and in the transformation towards a low-carbon, climate resilient global economy."  

The Liberals, however, have not been specific on what targets they will set out to achieve in Paris.

Citizens for Public Justice executive director Joe Gunn noted the name change of the environment portfolio to include Climate Change.  

"That's a great thing," he said.  

But for Gunn and the CPJ, the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops (CCCB) and the Canadian Council of Churches (CCC), the issue of climate change is linked inextricably with poverty, as indicated in a recent joint statement by religious leaders and letters from the CCCB and CCC presidents to the new Prime Minister.   

McKenna does not have a background in environment issues, but "she has one in law, international development and international justice," said Mark Cameron, who served as a senior policy advisor to the Harper government, and is now is executive director of Canadians for Clean Prosperity, an organization promoting using market principles to clean up the environment.

Since the Paris environment talks are a "big international negotiation her background will probably serve her quite well," he said.

The new minister will have help on this file. Foreign Affairs Minister Stephane Dion, now heading up the newly named Department of Globalization, has an extensive background in environmental issues, having served as a former Environment Minister and Liberal leader.

He will chair a new cabinet committee on "environment, climate change and energy" that will include the new Science Minister Kirsty Duncan, who is a climatologist.The former University of Windsor professor had been a member of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

The UN Climate Change meetings will already be underway when the House of Common begins its first session of the 42nd Parliament Dec. 3, with a Speech from the Throne slated for Dec. 4. The first item on the agenda is a promised tax cut for the middle class the Liberals hope to pass before the year end.

On indigenous issues, Trudeau has promised to implement the Calls to Action in the Truth and Reconciliation Commissions report.

"I think the whole way of going forward is about a relationship, a relationship that's respectful and with real partnership with First Nations, Inuit, Metis and a distinctions-based approach," said the new Minister of Indigenous and Northern Affairs Carolyn Bennett.

The new Liberal government will also deliver on its promise of an inquiry on missing and murdered indigenous women, Bennett said.

"We want to make sure we get it right."  

Assembly of First Nations Chief Perry Bellegarde welcomed the appointment.

"Minister Bennett has deep experience in First Nations issues and served as an effective and informed critic in the previous parliament," he said. "I look forward to working with the Minister to move on our immediate priorities and a comprehensive, strategic plan for transformative change."

He also welcomed two indigenous cabinet ministers, the new Attorney General and Justice Minister Jody Wilson-Raybould and Fisheries Minister Hunter Tootoo.  

"Minister Wilson-Raybould's appointment is a powerful acknowledgement of First Nations peoples and the skills and abilities of the Minister herself," Bellegarde said. "Her role will be key as we act to give life to First Nations rights and treaties and ensure Canadian law and policies are consistent with those rights."

He said he enjoyed working with Wilson-Raybould when she served on the AFN executive as a former B.C. chief.   

Gerry Kelly, a consultant who advised the Catholic entities party to the Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement and before that directed the CCCB's Aboriginal Affairs secretariat, said both appointments were "hopeful signs."

Bennett "has a long history of being very attentive" to indigenous issues and committed "to the process of reconciliation," he said.

Kelly said another promising sign is the naming of an indigenous person into a major cabinet portfolio that does not just concern indigenous issues.  

Though the Liberals face an almost impossible deadline of Feb. 6 to craft new legislation governing assisted suicide and euthanasia, the Liberals are more vague on this urgent issue and face pressures from those for and against doctor-assisted death.

"It's definitely a priority that we're moving forward on, and I look forward to talking about that in the days and weeks ahead," said Wilson-Raybould Nov. 4.  

She would not respond to a question on whether the government would ask for a delay from the Supreme Court of Canada before its Carter decision, striking down the Criminal Code provisions against euthanasia, goes into effect.

The new Health Minister Jane Philpott also faced questions on assisted suicide.

"Many of these issues of course that affect health like physician-assisted suicide also cross other portfolios," she said. "Certainly I will be collaborating with all the relevant stakeholders in those kinds of issues."

An even more immediate challenge comes from the province of Quebec, which will implement its euthanasia law Dec. 6. Quebec is proceeding to implement "doctor-assisted dying" as health care, challenging the jurisdiction of the federal government over Criminal Code matters.

The Conservatives had launched an external panel to examine legislative options on the Supreme Court's Carter decision that continues its consultation under the new Trudeau government.  

The Catholic Civil Rights League (CCRL) made its presentation before the panel on Nov. 6, and like the CCCB, COLF and a recent joint statement by religious leaders that included the CCCB, the Evangelical Fellowship of Canada and Jewish and Muslim leaders, it opposed euthanasia and assisted suicide on principle. All the groups call for governments to improve access to quality palliative and hospice care and for protection of conscience rights of health professionals.

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