Three Policy Issues to Watch for This September

Deanna Veltri

Coming off the heels of an eventful summer recess, Parliament is set to reconvene on Monday, September 15. A new Northern Canada Research Program, controversial prostitution legislation, and an overhaul of the Temporary Foreign Worker Program marked only a few of the major policy moves made over the summer months.

Standing on the outside, the Liberal Party has spent much of the summer promoting leader Justin Trudeau in advance of the 2015 General Election, while Thomas Muclair’s NDP has been forced to contend with scandals concerning the misuse of Parliamentary resources. Those holding seats in the House of Commons will take the next year to, explicitly and implicitly, allude to their political platforms to set the stage for the campaign period leading up to the October 2015 fixed-election date.

Amidst all the political hoop-la, a few stand-out issue areas are likely to take centre stage this Fall.

1. The Drug Debate: Marijuana Policy

If this summer has been any indication, the Liberal and Conservative parties are set to have it out over the legalization and regulation of Marijuana, both medical and recreational. The Conservatives seem to have latched on to Trudeau’s stance in favour of legalization as an opportunity to destabilize his growing popularity. Tory MPs have mailed out anti-marijuana flyers claiming that the Liberal leader’s “pot-plan” will make the drug more readily accessible to children, inciting alarm among parents given recent studies of the impacts of marijuana on developing brains.

More recently, Health Minister Rona Ambrose was forced to refute claims that a $5 million anti-pot campaign by Health Canada was a “thinly veiled partisan attack” on Trudeau. Despite originally agreeing to endorse the campaign, the Canadian Medical Association has since described it as a “political football”. Trudeau’s stance is based on social, health and medical research which maintains that legalizing and regulating marijuana will control access to the drug – keeping it out of the hands of children and “starving organized crime of its lucrative marijuana trade”. The NDP has not been at the forefront of this debate, although Muclair has echoed statements that the Conservatives are the ones guilty of politicizing the issue.

Justice Minister Peter McKay has publicly stated that more “lenient” marijuana laws are not off the table, and Canadian police officers have expressed a desire to be able to hand out tickets to those possessing smaller amounts of the substance. Canadians currently face up to a $1,000 fine and/or six months in jail for under 30 grams of the contraband—rules introduced under Harper’s watch. It will be interesting to watch the Conservatives rationalize McKay’s comments, given their recent anti-pot crusade.

2. Foreign Policy: Canada’s Response to Crisis Zones

This summer has seen both the resurgence of longstanding conflicts and the onset of new global crises. Ebola has taken centre stage in recent months, with the virus having now spread to five African countries and resulted in over 1,500 deaths. As the number of those affected continues to rise, the international community will undoubtedly be called upon increasingly to help control the spread of the virus, as well as to control the growing political and social unrest. The Internet is flaring up with comparisons to the SARS outbreak, and it remains to be seen just how far the politics of fear will reach.

Erupting unrest in conflict zones has put additional pressure on foreign policy officials. Beyond the ever-expanding list of sanctions placed against Russia for their actions in the Ukraine, violent upheavals are taking place in Syria, Libya, Iraq, the Gaza Strip, and beyond. The international community has committed to varying levels of involvement, ranging from financial aid to diplomatic support, and as Parliament reconvenes questions will no doubt arise about what the appropriate Canadian response should be in some or all of these crises. The country’s reputation as a humanitarian nation will likely colour this debate.

The United States is currently deploying targeted air strikes and emergency aid drops in Iraq, and has participated in ceasefire talks between Israel and Hamas. Will Canada align with its neighbours, as in our recent commitment to further support campaigns in Iraq following the murder of an American journalist? Will there be pushback from other parties’ as Harper announces his next moves, given his often-criticized foreign policy stance? The resources of the international community are clearly stretched thin, and Canada is no exception.

3. The Social Housing Debate: Toronto Community Housing 

Toronto Community Housing (TCHC) is the largest social housing provider in Canada, housing approximately 58,000 mid and low-income households in over 2,200 apartments, townhouses and single-detached homes throughout the city. Former Ontario Premier Mike Harris’s decision to download the responsibility for social housing onto municipalities in 1998 is said to be a contributing factor to TCHC’s now overwhelming capital repair backlog – a deficit slated to reach $2.6 billion by 2024.

In recent months, Toronto Community Housing has called on all three levels of government to split the bill for repairs and upgrades to the existing housing stock. While the City of Toronto has committed $800 million over 10 years, it remains unclear whether the provincial or federal governments will sign on. Given the recent election of MP Adam Vaughan in Trinity-Spadina, the issues is likely to be raised when Parliament returns. Vaughan has long been an advocate for TCHC, and took up the federal position with the housing platform in mind. He has publicly stated that providing the cash is the least the Federal Government could do since they have largely detached themselves from social housing provision in recent years.

All in all, this summer’s recess has played host to a mixed bag of good and bad politics, and is one that will certainly make for an interesting return to office. Regardless of what issues are raised this Fall, Parliamentary sessions occurring in the shadow of an election period tend to be particularly exciting. The House of Commons, now more than usual, will act as a stage for Harper, Trudeau and Muclair to present to Canadian voters with their unique approaches to leadership – be it on marijuana, foreign policy, social housing, or a range of other policy issues.

Deanna Veltri is a Master of Public Policy student at the School of Public Policy and Governance, and holds a Bachelor degree in Political Science from McGill University. Her areas of interests include gender policy and health policy.