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Big Moments In Canadian Politics You May Have Missed Because COVID-19 Fatigue Is Real

It's been a blur.
Gov. Gen. Julie Payette removes her face mask before delivering the throne speech in the Senate chamber during the coronavirus pandemic in Ottawa on  Sept. 23, 2020.
Gov. Gen. Julie Payette removes her face mask before delivering the throne speech in the Senate chamber during the coronavirus pandemic in Ottawa on Sept. 23, 2020.

OTTAWA — There was no sleepy start to 2020.

In January, two Russian-made anti-aircraft missiles struck an Ukrainian passenger jet after it took off from the Iranian capital of Tehran. The plane downing killed all 176 people on board, including 55 Canadian citizens and 30 permanent residents.

By month’s end, COVID-19 was declared a global health emergency by the World Health Organization. And while public health officials in Canada monitored its transmission in Canada, it was the railway blockades that dominated news in early February.

Watch: Indigenous solidarity protests shut down railways. Story continues below video.

The demonstrations seized CN Rail traffic and VIA Rail services. They brought attention to the plight of Wet’suwet’en First Nation hereditary chiefs who opposed a natural-gas pipeline project through their unceded traditional territory in central interior British Columbia.

Then, in the following month COVID-19 was declared a pandemic on March 11. The next day, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s wife Sophie Grégoire Trudeau tested positive for COVID-19, forcing the Liberal government to treat the pandemic with added urgency.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau emerges from Rideau Cottage to hold a news conference in Ottawa on March 13, 2020.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau emerges from Rideau Cottage to hold a news conference in Ottawa on March 13, 2020.

Every day since, there has hardly been a piece of news that hasn’t been touched by the coronavirus pandemic.

Here are some standout non-COVID-19 moments that shaped Canadian politics this year.

Black Lives Matter brings police brutality to the fore, again

In late May, the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis and Regis Korchinski-Paquet in Toronto turned a sitting audience of Canadians waiting out the pandemic at home to police brutality and the omnipresent tendrils of anti-Black racism in society.

The moment put leaders on the spot. Quebec Premier François Legault insisted systemic racism did not exist in his province despite the existence of Bill 21.

Claims of police brutality turned a spotlight on the RCMP’s history with Indigenous communities. Increased attention on the issue compelled RCMP Commissioner Brenda Lucki to admit she “struggled” with understanding the definition of systemic racism — a comment she would later flip-flop on after the prime minister confirmed its existence in the national police agency.

Protesters chant near the Parliament Building during a Black Lives Matter protest in Ottawa on June 5, 2020.
Protesters chant near the Parliament Building during a Black Lives Matter protest in Ottawa on June 5, 2020.

The prime minister himself took a knee at an anti-racism rally in between his office and the House of Commons on Parliament Hill in early June. Confronted again with the reality that the senior ranks of the public service poorly reflect Canada’s diversity, by mid-month, Trudeau pledged to take actions. He promised to announce a suite of new policies to tackle systemic racism “very soon” — a promise that has yet to fully manifest at year’s end.

Documents tabled in the House last month show the Privy Council Office signed a $39,547.74 contract with BIPOC Executive Search to create an “inventory” of candidates, who identify with minority groups, for senior federal roles.

That contract ends in March 2021, nearly nine months after Trudeau’s promise of swift action.

All about WE

Of course, the WE Charity controversy consumed the Liberal government during the summer — to the point where Parliament was eventually prorogued. That tempest for the government was spurred by a cabinet decision to tap the Toronto-based organization to administer a summer grant program to help students impacted by COVID-19.

Marc Kielburger, screen left, and Craig Kielburger, screen right,  appear as witnesses via videoconference during a House of Commons finance committee in the Wellington Building in Ottawa on July 28, 2020.
Marc Kielburger, screen left, and Craig Kielburger, screen right, appear as witnesses via videoconference during a House of Commons finance committee in the Wellington Building in Ottawa on July 28, 2020.

The controversy sparked multiple probes by the federal conflict of interest commissioner into both the prime minister and then-finance minister Bill Morneau. Both men had family links to the WE Charity. In the end, it was Morneau who paid the price.

He resigned in August and Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland was tapped to lead the country’s finances and pandemic recovery.

National statistics agency finally starts collecting disaggregated data

The pandemic has had a disproportionate impact on visible minority communities. Those inequities underlined the lack of official disaggregated data collection in this country.

In August, Statistics Canada released a report with disaggregated data for the first time since the national statistics agency started publishing its monthly labour market survey 40 years ago.

Canada was playing catch-up. Other countries, including the United Kingdom and United States, have been tracking disaggregated race-based data for years to map inequalities in health care, education, and employment outcomes.

Historically, disaggregated data hasn’t always been used in good faith in shaping public policy. The collection of race-based data has been associated with reinforcement of the Indian Act, which required Indigenous people to submit personal information that could be used against them to perpetuate racist state-sponsored policies such as the residential school system.

Recently, national disaggregated data was collected in the 2016 census but Statistics Canada didn’t make use of the measures routine afterward — until its July Labour Force Survey, released four months after the initial pandemic lockdown in March.

Migrant workers from Mexico wear masks and practice social distancing to help prevent the spread of the coronavirus disease during a mandatory 14-day quarantine after arriving at Mayfair Farms in Portage la Prairie, Man. on April 28, 2020. 
Migrant workers from Mexico wear masks and practice social distancing to help prevent the spread of the coronavirus disease during a mandatory 14-day quarantine after arriving at Mayfair Farms in Portage la Prairie, Man. on April 28, 2020. 

The July survey gave firm official national numbers that racialized Canadians who identify with the South Asian, Arab, and Black communities were experiencing disproportionately high unemployment levels during the pandemic.

Those communities represent segments of Canada’s population whose labour market experiences were previously rendered invisible in past decades, flattened together under broad “visible minority” category labels.

The evolution of Canada’s national data collection is significant given immigrants are expected to make up to 30 per cent of Canada’s population by 2036.

Julie Payette faces allegations of workplace harassment

In July, sources came forward to CBC News alleging Gov. Gen. Julie Payette fostered a toxic workplace by bullying, verbally abusing, and publicly humiliating employees at Rideau Hall.

Sources told the public broadcaster that a high turnaround in Assunta Di Lorenzo’s office, Payette’s longtime friend and secretary, suggested an unhealthy workplace culture.

Gov. Gen. Julie Payette prepares to deliver the Throne Speech in the Senate, as parliament prepares to resume in Ottawa on Sept. 23, 2020.
Gov. Gen. Julie Payette prepares to deliver the Throne Speech in the Senate, as parliament prepares to resume in Ottawa on Sept. 23, 2020.

Rideau Hall responded to the allegations with a statement saying these matters are taken “very seriously.” The statement defended Payette, stating since the beginning of her mandate there had been “no formal complaint regarding harassment has been made through any of these channels.”

The claims of mistreatment of current and past Rideau Hall employees compelled the Privy Council Office to launch an independent review of the allegations.

Trudeau defended his governor general at the time, calling her performance in the vice-regal role as “excellent,” and pointed to her “long and successful role as a scientist, as an astronaut.”

Two elections award majority wins to incumbent minority governments

Several provinces also held elections, high-risk gambit during a pandemic that awarded incumbents B.C. Premier John Horgan and New Brunswick Premier Blaine Higgs with majority governments.

NDP Leader John Horgan stops to pet candidate Melanie Mark's dog Max as he greets supporters on election day in Vancouver on Oct. 24, 2020.
NDP Leader John Horgan stops to pet candidate Melanie Mark's dog Max as he greets supporters on election day in Vancouver on Oct. 24, 2020.

In Saskatchewan, which had a fixed election date in the fall, Scott Moe’s Sakatchewan Party won another majority government. It was the fourth straight majority government for the party.

Death of a former prime minister

When summer started turning into fall, Canada said goodbye to a former prime minister.

John Turner died in September at the age of 91. His state funeral at Toronto’s St. Michael’s Cathedral Basilica followed COVID-19 public health protocols.

Inside, the mourners were few. Up to four people sat at each pew that wasn’t empty — and there were plenty of empty ones in between.

Former Canadian prime minister John Turner's caskets rests during the state funeral service at St. Michael's Cathedral Basilica in Toronto on Oct. 6, 2020.
Former Canadian prime minister John Turner's caskets rests during the state funeral service at St. Michael's Cathedral Basilica in Toronto on Oct. 6, 2020.

Elizabeth May steps down, Annamie Paul steps up

After 13 years at the helm of the Green Party of Canada, Elizabeth May stepped down last fall, triggering a leadership race.

Voting day occured at the end of September and after eight rounds of ballot counting, Toronto lawyer Annamie Paul emerged victorious, making history as Canada’s first Black person and Jewish woman to lead a federal party.

New Green Party Leader Annamie Paul holds a press conference in Ottawa on Oct. 5, 2020.
New Green Party Leader Annamie Paul holds a press conference in Ottawa on Oct. 5, 2020.

She was the second new face to the federal leadership scene after Ontario MP Erin O’Toole beat former Conservative cabinet minister Peter MacKay in a race a month earlier.

Racism in Canada’s fishing industry exposed, again

Systemic inequities boiled over in Saulnierville, N.S. in September when Sipekne’katik First Nation fishers sought to address poverty in their community by launching a fishery at a federal wharf. They distributed licences to Mi’kmaw fishing boats outside the commercial lobster season.

The move angered non-Indigenous commercial fishermen. They were riled by Mi’kmaw fishers’ pursuit of a “moderate livelihood” to share a piece of the province’s lobster industry.

A woman wears a face mask honouring the Treaty of 1752 as members of the Sipekne'katik First Nation and others attend a ceremony on the wharf in Saulnierville, N.S., to bless the fleet before it launches its own self-regulated fishery on Sept. 17, 2020.
A woman wears a face mask honouring the Treaty of 1752 as members of the Sipekne'katik First Nation and others attend a ceremony on the wharf in Saulnierville, N.S., to bless the fleet before it launches its own self-regulated fishery on Sept. 17, 2020.

Tensions simmered for weeks, agitated by raids and vandalism by non-Indigenous commercial fishermen. Then in mid-October an act of violence destroyed a lobster pound in Middle West Pubnico, N.S. where Mi’kmaw fishers had stored their catches.

The incident drew attention again to systemic inequalities and treaty rights in Canada. Scrutiny followed the apparent unwillingness of the federal fisheries minister to step in and handle the issue. Reluctance from the RCMP to address Mi’kmaw fishers’ calls to intervene and defuse threats of violence was also magnified.

Racism in health care exposed, again

Frontline health-care workers have emerged as heroes in this pandemic, but the Sept. 28 death of Joyce Echaquan in a Joliette, Que. hospital reminded Canadians of pre-existing systemic inequities.

The Atikamekw mother of seven had filmed herself hours before her death, laying in a hospital bed in clear pain. She recorded hospital staff taunting her and hurling slurs while she lay in the bed, asking for help.

Protesters gather during a demonstration in central Montreal on Oct. 3, 2020, to demand action for the death of Joyce Echaquan, an Atikamekw woman subjected to live-streamed racist slurs by hospital staff before her death.
Protesters gather during a demonstration in central Montreal on Oct. 3, 2020, to demand action for the death of Joyce Echaquan, an Atikamekw woman subjected to live-streamed racist slurs by hospital staff before her death.

Advocates pointed to Echaquan’s death as the latest example of racism, a “tip of the iceberg” of similar experiences that show the inequitable treatment of Indigenous peoples in the health-care system.

Quebec’s premier said in a statement that Echaquan’s death, and the racism she experienced in her last hours of life, was shocking. Months earlier, he was unwilling to acknowledge the existence of systemic racism in his province.

Liberals’ climate plan evolves, federal deficit soars

The federal government announced in October that it will move ahead and ban an initial list of six single-use plastic items by the end of 2021.

It was the latest piece of a plan the Liberals hope will move Canada closer to the goal of reaching zero plastic waste in landfills by 2030.

The use of single-use plastics has surged during the pandemic, an observation some opposition politicians flagged as a concern in fear a ban would gut manufacturing jobs in Canada.

Watch: Ottawa adds 6 items to its proposed plastic-ban list. Story continues below video.

Across the border, U.S. industry groups also warned a ban could violate market-access terms renegotiated and ratified under the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement. Environment Minister Jonathan Wilkinson said he’s not worried about U.S. retaliation.

In early December, the Liberals pledged billions in new spending to address climate change and meet the government’s carbon emissions reduction and offset targets over the next decade. The plan included a commitment to increase the carbon tax to $50 per tonne in 2022 and to $170 per tone by 2030.

The billions in new spending add to the soaring $381.6-billion deficit this year, which has been pushed to new heights due to emergency pandemic programs launched to mitigate the business impacts of widespread physical-distancing measures.

Number of female MPs hits 100 for the first time

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau introduces new Member of Parliament Marci Ien before Question Period in the House of Commons on Nov. 25, 2020 in Ottawa.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau introduces new Member of Parliament Marci Ien before Question Period in the House of Commons on Nov. 25, 2020 in Ottawa.

In October, the Liberals kept two federal ridings in the Toronto area after byelections replaced the men who left their seats with women.

When Marci Ien and Ya’ara Saks were sworn in at the end of November, wrapping this hellfire of a year with the number of female MPs reaching 100 for the very first time in Canadian history.

Detention of two Canadians hits two-year milestone

Canadians Michael Spavor and Michael Kovrig continue to be detained in two separate Chinese detention centres.

The two men were arrested in December 2018 shortly after Huawei Technologies Chief Financial Officer Meng Wanzhou was arrested by Canadian authorities executing an U.S. warrant while she changed planes at Vancouver International Airport.

Pictures of Michael Spavor, a Canadian businessman, and Michael Kovrig, a former Canadian diplomat, both detained in China since December 2018, are displayed on a video monitor as U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo speaks during a news conference in Washington, D.C. on July 1, 2020.
Pictures of Michael Spavor, a Canadian businessman, and Michael Kovrig, a former Canadian diplomat, both detained in China since December 2018, are displayed on a video monitor as U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo speaks during a news conference in Washington, D.C. on July 1, 2020.

Western allies have repeatedly pressed China for the release of the two men, saying they’ve been detained on false espionage charges in retaliation for Meng’s arrest.

The Wall Street Journal reported earlier this month that U.S. authorities are exploring a potential “deferred prosecution agreement” which could allow Meng to return to China if she admitted to wrongdoing.

The lack of a significant development in the case at year’s end prompted Christoph Heusgen, Germany’s envoy at the United Nations, to use his last scheduled meeting of the country’s two-year term on the Security Council to press his Chinese counterparts to release the two detained Canadians.

“Let me end my tenure in the Security Council by appealing to my Chinese colleagues to ask Beijing for the release of Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor,” he said Wednesday. “Christmas is the right moment for such a gesture.”

China dismissed Heusgen’s remarks.

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