OTTAWA — Parliament Hill has been through a week of deep thought on electoral reform, and some innovative thinking on financing. But what was most notable over the past few days was not so much thought, but anguish.
Suicide — how to allow it, in some cases, and how to prevent it, especially on First Nations reserves — has caught up politicians from all parties in an emotional turmoil that knows few party boundaries.
Soon, though, they will need to put the anguish behind them and make decisions that will affect many families across Canada.
Here's how politics affected our lives this week:
The federal and Ontario governments are sending in health care workers, mental health workers, money for youth, and plenty of high-level political attention now that the remote First Nation community of Attawapiskat declared a state of emergency over its alarming suicide rate. Police had to break up a suicide pact among teenagers on the reserve on Monday, and cries for help are growing louder.
Attawapiskat First Nation a state of emergency after 11 suicide attempts in one day. (Photo: CP)
There is not a politician in the land who believes the experts and the money are any kind of lasting solution. But what is the solution for a problem steeped in poverty and troubling history that keeps reappearing?
At the same time, some forms of suicide have now been codified and circumscribed in federal legislation that was tabled this Thursday. The right-to-die bill needs to be passed by June to conform to the Supreme Court's order that Canada cannot let dying people suffer unnecessarily.
But the new bill does not sit well with many people, and it will now face a rough ride in the House of Commons, the Senate and among the general public. The bill would allow the assisted suicide option for dying people who are in distress — but not if they are under 18, and not if they once gave an advance directive and now have dementia.
Suicide is a subject that makes many a politician squeamish, but one that is in their faces right now and needs to be dealt with rationally.
Discussions about how to replace the only electoral system present-day Canadians have ever known are heating up.
Democratic Institutions Minister Maryam Monsef laid out principles for democratic reform. (Photo: CP)
The Liberals promised that the 2015 election would be the last one fought under a first-past-the-post winner-takes-all system. The goal is to modernize the voting system, encourage voter turnout, and make sure votes aren't perceived to be wasted. But the Liberals have yet to say what will replace today's system, and Elections Canada needs a couple of years' leeway to set up a new one. So time is running short.
This week, Maryam Monsef, the minister for democratic institutions, laid out some principles to serve as a basis for reform — principles which are to guide a yet-to-be-formed all-party committee which would consult with the public and eventually make recommendations.
Monsef says the new system must be perceived as legitimate by the public; must give Canadians confidence they can influence the political process; must ensure inclusive politics; must not be too complex; must reduce barriers to voting; must consider the relationship between citizens and their representatives; must protect the integrity of a person's ballot; and must inspire Canadians to find common ground.
But opposition parties say the fix is in, and the Liberals have already rejected proportional representation (the NDP's favoured solution) as well as the status quo (what many Conservatives would prefer). So finding common ground is already proving difficult, and the process has yet to begin.
Via Rail told The Canadian Press this week that it is looking for $4-billion to build high-frequency electric-hybrid trains for the Windsor-Quebec City corridor within a few years. But Via is not just knocking on government's door; it is testing the waters with pension funds too, in what is undoubtedly a sign of the future for the financing of big, expensive infrastructure projects. The funds have money to invest as long as they can go big, go long term, and as long as there is a decent, steady return.
It's not just funding of infrastructure that is entering an experimental phase. For the past few years, federal and provincial governments of all stripes have been looking at ways to involve the private sector in the provision of social programs as well. This week, a Toronto-based company, Social Capital Partners, started a new project in three cities, offering small businesses interest-rate rebates if they hire disadvantaged workers — students with limited work experience, people with disabilities, older Canadians and unemployed indigenous people.
They're working with several banks and the Ontario government in a risk-sharing arrangement that should reduce the cost of social services to government while opening up opportunities for people who could use a break.
Innovative financing is not a panacea for every big cost governments face, but other countries' experiences suggest some experimentation may well be warranted.
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Maryam Monsef, Democratic Institutions Minister