OTTAWA — Prime Minister Justin Trudeau will unveil on Oct. 26 the roster of cabinet ministers who will shepherd his government into a third mandate focused on finishing the fight against COVID-19 and rebuilding the pandemic-ravaged economy.
His ministers will then have about a month to settle into their jobs before Parliament is recalled on Nov. 22 — just over two months after the Sept. 20 election returned Trudeau's Liberals with a second consecutive minority.
The timing of Parliament's return, announced Friday by the Prime Minister's Office, was slammed by opposition parties who accused Trudeau of being uninterested in getting back to work.
In a written statement, Trudeau's office said the prime minister plans to talk by phone with opposition leaders early next week to discuss Canadians' priorities and how the House of Commons should resume operations as the fourth wave of the pandemic continues to rage.
Among the first orders of business, the statement said, will be working with opposition leaders to ensure all members of Parliament are fully vaccinated before setting foot in the Commons — an issue on which the Liberals, Bloc Québécois and NDP are in agreement.
But it creates a potential conflict with Conservative Leader Erin OToole, who has refused so far to disclose how many of his MPs have had two shots and who continues to defend the right of individuals to make their own personal health choices.
At the same time, the Conservatives want the Commons to resume normal, in-person operations and are adamantly opposed to any continuation of the hybrid model — with only a small number of MPs physically in the chamber and the rest participating virtually — used during the earlier waves of the pandemic.
Mandatory vaccination was a central pillar of the Liberals' election campaign and, since the Sept. 20 vote, Trudeau has moved quickly to deliver on his promise to require proof of vaccination for federal employees and anyone planning to board a plane or train.
His office said requiring MPs in the Commons to be fully vaccinated is a matter of showing leadership.
"Canadians expect their elected representatives to lead by example in the fight against this virus, and the Prime Minister will be raising this with other leaders," the statement said.
Once Parliament is back, the statement suggested, extending pandemic support benefits will be high on the agenda.
"One of the immediate areas of focus for the next Parliament will be the COVID-19 support benefits that many Canadians and businesses still rely on, and the government will work collaboratively with other parliamentarians to continue to have Canadians’ backs," it said.
Emergency rent and wage subsidy programs are set to end later this month but can be extended to the end of November. New legislation would be required to extend them beyond that — a process that the Canadian Chamber of Commerce fears could stretch into the new year, with benefits cut off in the meantime.
While it welcomed the priority placed on extending business support programs, the chamber said the Nov. 22 start date for Parliament is too late for small businesses in the hardest-hit sectors.
“Extending these programs through November needs to be an immediate priority, followed by legislation to introduce programs for the hardest-hit sectors as soon as the House returns,” said Alla Drigola Birk, the chamber’s director of parliamentary affairs.
Businesses need "support and certainty now, not a retroactive payment months from now," she added.
NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh said the delay in recalling Parliament shows that the Liberals "are not interested in helping struggling families and small businesses in this fourth wave of COVID-19."
Conservative House leader Gerard Deltell said it demonstrates that "the $600-million ‘urgent’ election was nothing more than a power grab for Justin Trudeau trying to secure a majority government, and that he is in no rush to get back to work."
“It’s wrong that in the middle of the fourth wave of the COVID-19 pandemic, Justin Trudeau is waiting 63 days to return to work. That’s 63 days that Members of Parliament should be working in the House of Commons to address the pandemic, inflation, labour shortages, and a number of other issues important to Canadians," Deltell said.
According to the statement from Trudeau's office, other "early priorities" will include reintroducing legislation to ban conversion therapy, the practice of forcing individuals to undergo therapy aimed at altering their sexual orientation or gender identity. A bill to criminalize the practice was passed by the Commons in June but did not make it to a vote in the Senate before the summer break and ultimately died when Trudeau called the election.
The government will also move quickly on the promise of 10-day paid sick leave for federally regulated workers and work with the remaining provinces and territories that have not yet signed on to the federal plan to create $10-a-day child care across the country.
Just one week after the election, Trudeau announced that Chrystia Freeland will retain her crucial dual roles as deputy prime minister and finance minister.
But whether he'll opt to leave most other ministers in their current portfolios or conduct a major shakeup remains to be seen. He is under pressure to at least shuffle Harjit Sajjan out of the Defence portfolio, where he's been widely criticized for his handling of serial sexual misconduct allegations among the senior ranks of the military.
Trudeau has said gender parity will be the "base starting point" for any regionally balanced cabinet he puts together.
Trudeau lost three female ministers in the election — Fisheries Minister Bernadette Jordan, Gender Equality Minister Maryam Monsef and Seniors Minister Deb Schulte. A fourth, Infrastructure Minister Catherine McKenna, did not seek re-election.
While only Trudeau and a handful of his closest advisers know who the prime minister will choose to fill those vacancies, speculation has centred on rookie Halifax West MP Lena Metlege Diab, a former provincial justice minister, to fill Jordan's Nova Scotia slot.
McKenna's Ottawa slot could be filled by Orleans MP Marie-France Lalonde, a former Ontario cabinet minister, or newly elected Kanata-Carleton MP Jenna Sudds, a former deputy mayor of Ottawa.
Other women who could be promoted into cabinet include newly elected London West MP Arielle Kayabaga, a refugee from Burundi and former city councillor; Harvard-educated businesswoman Leah Taylor Roy, newly elected in Ontario's Aurora-Oak-Ridges-Richmond Hills; and Pascale St-Onge, a former union leader in Quebec's cultural sector who eked out a slim victory over the Bloc in Brome-Missisquoi.
Trudeau could also choose to promote more experienced, re-elected female MPs who've already proven themselves to be strong performers, including Pickering-Uxbridge MP Jennifer O'Connell, Brampton North MP Ruby Sahota and Toronto Centre MP Marci Ien.
Randy Boissonnault, elected in Edmonton Centre in 2015, defeated in 2019 and re-elected last month, would seem a shoo-in for cabinet as one of only two Liberals from Alberta.
The second Albertan, Calgary Skyview MP George Chahal, was also initially considered a lock for cabinet. But his ambitions may be thwarted by the fact that he was caught on a doorbell camera removing a campaign brochure left by his Conservative rival, who has asked the elections commissioner to investigate.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Oct. 15, 2021.
Joan Bryden, The Canadian Press