POLITICS

3 Ways Federal Politics Mattered This Week

03/12/2016 01:20 EST | Updated 03/13/2017 05:12 EDT
OTTAWA —The spectacle of Justin Trudeau in Washington this week was something to behold. The easy camaraderie with U.S. President Barack Obama, the galas, the celebrities, the spotlights, the glamour. Did any of that matter to the lives of ordinary Canadians? Not immediately, beyond the entertainment value of it all.

But the relationship between Canada and the United States is of primordial importance over the long term to the health and welfare our country and Canadians.

At the same time, the noise around the Washington visit may have drowned out or at least muffled some of the other developments on Parliament Hill this week that will have material effect on the population. New immigration targets, and support for troubled aboriginal communities come to mind.

Here are three ways federal politics this week matter to you:

1. The Washington trip

Border crossings, no-fly lists and emissions reductions were all part of the package unveiled with great gusto on the blossom-lined lawn of the White House on Thursday. The new arrangements will mean travellers who take the train to the United States from Montreal or Vancouver can get pre-cleared for the border crossing, and avoid a big long wait in line on the other side. Same with flying from the island airport in Toronto or Quebec City's airport.

obama trudeau Prime Minister Justin Trudeau thanks President Barack Obama while speaking at a bilateral news conference March 10, 2016 (Photo: AP)

The leaders also decided to sort through the myriad problems related to the no-fly list, which has been the source of travellers' greatest paranoia: getting added to the list for no apparent reason, and never being able to get off. And on emissions, Trudeau and Obama agreed to dramatically reduce black carbon and methane — the low-hanging fruit in the world of emissions. They can be cut easily and with significant effect. It's the beginning of a stronger pact that will eventually include Mexico and lead to a continent-wide approach on climate.

These concrete yet incremental announcements pale in comparison, however, with the larger take-home of the bilateral meeting. During the era of former prime minister Stephen Harper, Canada had a fairly civil relationship with the United States that was overshadowed by one disagreement: whether to build the Keystone XL pipeline. Now that the dispute is settled — there will be no pipeline — and now that Harper has been replaced by an Obama-friendly Trudeau, the U.S. president sees an opportunity to take the relationship with Canada to another level. Not just a relationship characterized by mutual respect, but a partnership of shared advocacy at the global level. Will that eye-to-eye withstand the presidential elections late this year? Will the renewed alliance with arguably the most powerful country in the world help Canada leverage its middle-power standing and gain heft in international relations? The Canadian economy and security are at stake here.

2. Immigration targets

Numbers released on Parliament Hill on Tuesday show that Canada's neighbourhoods will see a larger influx of newcomers this year. And the increase will come in the form of bringing in relatives and families of immigrants who are already here, rather than economic immigrants accepted mainly on the basis of their potential to add to Canada's labour market. It's a different emphasis than the previous government, which made economic immigrants their top priority. But officials are quick to point out that the number of economic immigrants remains stable, and high.

mccallum Minister of Immigration, Refugees, and Citizenship John McCallum. (Photo: CP)

The larger change comes in the mix of refugees, and how they'll be streamed into Canada. Since the government-sponsored refugee stream has been flooded with the arrival of 25,000 people from Syria, other refugees will have to turn to private sponsors to find a home in Canada. Vulnerable people fleeing Congo, Eritrea or Colombia, for example, will  be dependent on Canada's church groups and community organizations if they want to claim refugee status here. But those organizations have also been tapped out, pooling their networks and savings and spare clothes and furniture — not to mention their spare time — for the Syrian families that have arrived over the past couple of months. Do we have enough charity left in us to integrate others?

3. First Nations Emergency.

Another First Nation declared a state of emergency this week. It's the second such declaration in as many months. Just as Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, his family, staff and much of his cabinet jetted off to Washington, the Pimicikamak Cree Nation, also known as Cross Lake in remote Manitoba, announced that it could no longer deal with the suicide epidemic haunting its community. Six suicides in the past two months and 140 attempts in the past two weeks.

Ottawa is sending in health professionals and is looking for other ways to help, in Cross Lake and elsewhere.

perry bellegarde Assembly of First Nations national chief Perry Bellegarde says a national strategy is needed to deal with First Nations suicides. (Photo: CP)

But clearly — and the government recognizes this — these measures are merely a Band-Aid on a precariousness that haunts not just Cross Lake, but many isolated communities in many provinces.

The federal government's independent prison watchdog showed another side of the fragility of First Nations in his report this week, pointing out — again — that Canada's prison population is far too dominated by aboriginal prisoners, especially in maximum security. First Nations, Inuit and Metis offenders make up about 25 per cent of the federal prison population, despite representing 4.3 per cent of the general population. And the aboriginal numbers have surged by 50 per cent over the past decade.

The suicide epidemic is beyond sad while the prison situation is downright dangerous. Where is the fix? The government's big initiative for aboriginal policy is an inquiry on murdered and missing aboriginal women. The scope of that inquiry will determine whether or not the root causes of Cross Lake and aboriginal incarceration are explored.

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