Mandate Letters Show the Power and Need for Public Pressure

Keeping with a tradition begun by Prime Minister Trudeau in 2015, mandate letters for federal Cabinet Ministers were shared publicly on December 17, 2021. These letters provide Canadians with an overview of the government’s key priorities for the new parliamentary session, and signal areas of responsibility for each Minister, as well as some key targets and timelines.

Echoing messages of the November Throne Speech, the themes of trust and accountability feature prominently. In the preamble common to all mandate letters, Prime Minister Trudeau states that Canadians have “entrusted [the government] to finish the fight against COVID-19 and support the recovery of a strong middle class.” He also emphasizes that Canadians expect “bold, concrete action to build a healthier, more resilient future” informed by “science and evidence-based decision-making.”

The mandate letters demonstrate the power of public pressure in shaping government priorities. The increased emphasis on climate change, reconciliation, the right to housing, and combating racism, for example, are all “wins” for advocates who have been calling for change for decades. Similarly, the mandate letters show that continued pressure is needed to make sure these commitments go beyond the surface to bring about meaningful, transformative justice. There are some promising beginnings, but also some significant gaps.

There is a subtle, but fundamental difference in how the government views their overall mandate versus how we at CPJ understand the responsibility of government. Whereas these mandate letters speak of end goals of economic growth (with a focus on the middle class) and global competitiveness, we invite the Prime Minister, the Cabinet, and all Members of Parliament to consider how priorities and policies might shift if we measured our actions in terms of their impact on dignity, human rights, and the flourishing of all creation; measures of wellness, connectedness and justice for all, instead of wealth and competition.

Immigration and Refugees

The mandate letter for the Minister of Immigration and Refugees presents promising initiatives to strengthen Canada’s immigration system. From the new immigration stream for human rights defenders, to the elimination of processing fees for citizenship application, to the projected expansion of pathways to Permanent Residence for International Students and Temporary Foreign Workers, these steps to regularize the status of immigrants and simplify strenuous application processes are in the best interest of all.

An area that was notably absent in concrete policy plans is the establishment of protections for asylum seekers and refugee claimants. As presented in a recent report by Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, thousands of individuals experience human rights abuses in immigration detention centers and provincial correctional facilities, where practices akin to solitary confinement are enforced, and no processing time limits exist.

On the topic of irregular migration, the mandate letter talks about continued work with the United States to “modernize” the Safe Third Country Agreement. As members of the Canadian Council of Churches and The Canadian Council for Refugees, who alongside Amnesty International are defending the unconstitutionality of the STCA before the Supreme Court of Canada, we reiterate our call to rescind the STCA with the United States based on its violation of refugee claimants’ Charter rights.

The government proposes an increase in the number of newcomers to enhance Canada’s “economic growth and social vibrancy”, particularly in small and medium-size communities through pilots like the Municipal Nominee Program. It is important to remember that even though immigrants contribute significantly to the economic prosperity of a country, we must primarily welcome individuals seeking safety or a better life based on their fundamental human rights and dignity, not on the basis of their economic contributions. Also, even though immigrants are essential to the social fabric and cultural capital of Canada, the responsibility of making communities more “diverse” and “vibrant” should not fall on them.

Lastly, it is important to note that to successfully implement these new pilots and expansions of current programs, the adoption of a two-way integration strategy that emphasizes the responsibilities of the host country is necessary. The Government, in particular Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada (IRCC), Sponsorship Agreement Holders (SAH), resettlement agencies, and the Canadian population at large are crucial for the success of newcomers. These stakeholders must collectively work to strengthen the infrastructure of existing and new host communities, particularly those outside of large cities where most resettlement support is located.

Addressing the Climate Emergency

The Government of Canada declared a national climate emergency in 2019, but has been slow to bring environmental and energy policy into alignment. At the end of a year that saw new climate accountability legislation, a new emissions-reduction target, and new climate finance commitments, as well as action towards honouring Indigenous rights, the December 2021 mandate letter to the Minister of the Environment and Climate Change signals progress and promise. More encouraging still is the mandating of the entire federal cabinet to “seek opportunities … to support [a] whole-of-government effort to reduce emissions, create clean jobs and address the climate-related challenges communities are already facing.” This government-wide approach is further emphasized in the naming of specific climate action measures in a wide range of mandate letters, including those to the Ministers of Finance, Innovation, and Emergency Preparedness.

CPJ has repeatedly called on the federal government to align policy and financial decisions with Canada’s commitment to the Paris temperature target, and are pleased to see the Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Finance mandated to “ensure budgetary measures are consistent with the Government’s climate goals.” This goes hand in hand with the multi-ministerial mandate to eliminate fossil fuel subsidies by 2023. We are also pleased to note the shift from the previously qualified phrasing of “inefficient fuel subsidies” and the expansion of the concept to all public finance to fossil fuels, including that provided via Crown corporations.

Similarly, we welcome the mandate to make investments towards a 100 per cent net-zero electricity system by 2035, as this will serve to significantly reduce emissions. It is, of course, imperative that we avoid the use of “less bad” bridge fuels, such as natural gas, and instead emphasize renewable sources of energy including wind, solar, geothermal, and tidal. Financial assistance should be made available to support the participation of people with low income, as well as those in remote rural and Northern communities, in this transition.

We are encouraged by plans to “continue to work in partnership with First Nations, Inuit and the Métis Nation to address climate change and its impacts,” and to “protect communities and abundant and diverse natural habitats and waters, including by … advancing Indigenous-led conservation efforts.” We note, however, that compared to other commitments in the mandate letters, commitments to Indigenous-led climate action remain far too vague to be readily operationalized. And once again, we lament the inconsistency between this language of partnership and collaboration, and ongoing violations of Wet’suwet’en land rights.

Calls for the Ministers of the Environment and Climate Change, Natural Resources, and Labour (supported by several others) to advance legislation and comprehensive action to achieve a Just Transition are welcome. However, such action has been promised again and again; consultations have been started and stalled; workers, communities, Indigenous Peoples, and environmentalists remain wary and uncertain in the absence of a clear plan. Across the board, there is growing consensus that the creation of an inclusive, green economy that promotes good jobs is necessary. Now we need to see exactly how this will be achieved, and who will be included in its design and implementation.

Finally, the commitment to “cap oil and gas sector emissions at current levels and ensure that the sector makes an ambitious and achievable contribution to meeting the country’s 2030 climate goals” is critical. So, too, is the operationalization of a managed phase-out of oil and gas exploration, production, and distribution.

Addressing the climate emergency requires a massive transition. The Government of Canada can and must simultaneously implement measures to reduce GHG emissions, support workers and communities, and move us towards a decarbonized economy that also addresses existing socio-economic inequities. This will build resiliency and well-being in Canada and globally.

Poverty in Canada

One of the most promising features of these mandate letters is the number of times Ministers across sectors are instructed to focus on equity, with distinct targets and policies listed for historically marginalized populations. As CPJ has laid out in our Poverty Trends 2021 report, without addressing these underlying inequities, we will not eradicate poverty in Canada. We may reduce it, as current efforts have already proven successful, but the system will continue to benefit some while leaving others ever further behind.

It was welcome news, therefore, to read of Ministers’ responsibilities to improve their practice of intersectional GBA+ analysis across sectors, as well as some specific distinctions-based targets and policies for historically marginalized populations.

Health equity is named in relation to both physical and mental health, as well as the development of distinctions-based strategies and legislation for housing, health (including mental health), and for long-term and continuing care for First Nations, Inuit, and the Métis Nation. Multiple Ministers are to work together to “close the infrastructure gap” in First Nations, Inuit and Métis communities by 2030. There is also reference to strengthening employment and pay equity, specific policies to tackle anti-Black racism and co-develop a legislative framework for First Nations policing, and strengthening a whole-of-government approach through the Federal Anti-Racism Secretariat. The implementation of the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples is also named in all mandate letters, as well as specific responsibilities for certain Ministers to implement the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s  Calls to Action and the 2021 MMIWG and 2SLGBTQQIA+ National Action Plan.

There are also a number of critical programs named in the mandate letters that provide universally accessible services that would provide a strong foundation for public health and well-being. Pharmacare is named, with the caveat of working with “willing” provinces and territories, as well as early learning and child care programs (including a specific Indigenous early learning and childcare program), a national school nutritious meal program, a Canada Disability Benefit, and a new Aging at Home benefit to help seniors stay in their homes longer.

There is some unfinished business for the new Minister of Housing, Diversity, and Inclusion left from the previous session, including the appointment of the Federal Housing Advocate and the co-development of an Urban, Rural and Northern Indigenous Housing Strategy with Indigenous partners. CPJ will also be interested to track the development of a new Fairness in Real Estate Action Plan, which will include measures to prevent “renovictions” as well as tax measures for landlords, Real Estate Investment Trusts (REITs), and home buyers. If done well, this could be an important tool to tackle the financialization of the housing market and improve housing affordability.

Another critical, but perhaps underrated directive is for the Minister of Families, Children, and Social Development to ensure “modern, resilient, secure and reliable services and benefit delivery systems for Canadians” and to “ensure those services and benefits reach all Canadians regardless of where they live.” This may seem obvious, but increasing uptake of available benefits by increasing tax filing rates and serving people who cannot access traditional banking services (particularly internet banking) could go a long way in reaching many historically marginalized populations.

CPJ hopes that this new explicit focus on equity, intersectional analysis, and human rights (including Indigenous rights) will result in robust accountability measures accompanied by strong legislation, the expansion of existing benefits, and a shift to poverty eradication efforts. There are some much-needed programs and benefits already included in these mandate letters, but socioeconomic policies continue to focus mainly on the middle class, seniors, and children, without addressing the gaps in benefits and services available to those who are single, working-aged adults, those with precarious immigration status, and others who don’t fit within existing eligibility criteria (including definitions of disability).

While the commitments in these mandate letters are encouraging, true accessibility, and eligibility criteria that both allow and account for the complexities of marginalization are critical to ensure these programs can close the gaps for historically marginalized groups. Success for these mandates relies on design, implementation, and accountability that center the realities of marginalized lives; otherwise, they are destined to recreate the very inequalities they seek to alleviate.

Looking Forward

So what if we measured our actions in terms of their impact on dignity, human rights, and the flourishing of all creation? We would see a federal government that delivers on the many promises to improve the lives of everyone in Canada, to welcome all newcomers, to support wellness, to embrace the challenges inherent in the simultaneous crises in health, climate, housing, racism, and marginalization, and respond accordingly. We at CPJ will continue to hold to this vision and invite you to join us on the journey.

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