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Slow asylum, fast trains: three ways federal politics mattered this week


Published on June 16, 2017

OTTAWA — The intrigue in the corridors of Parliament Hill this week was all about where the Liberals would draw their line in the sand with the Senate.

The newly empowered senators have been chipping away at the Liberal agenda for months now. Would they stand in the way of a weighty budget bill by insisting on breaking it into pieces, to more closely examine plans for a new infrastructure bank?

They'd better not, the government responded — or else.

As legislators and government officials pored over the rule books to see what "or else" actually means, the parliamentary calendar crept relentlessly towards summer, provoking a restlessness that could well be the most powerful impetus for compromise.

Outside the upper chamber, the government announcement machine was in overdrive ahead of the summer break, including developments on emissions reductions and new financing for infrastructure. Not announced, but no less impactful, was news of an asylum system so clogged that without action, claimants could one day wait 11 years — yes, 11 years — to be fully assessed.

Here's how politics touched us this week:

SLOW ASYLUM

Asylum seekers are coming in droves into Canada, but the system can't keep up, say internal government documents unearthed this week by The Canadian Press.

Unless the government takes urgent steps to beef up its Immigration and Refugee Board system for hearing asylum claims, the newcomers could eventually wait more than a decade to have their cases heard, under a worst-case scenario.

Asylum claims have been rising steadily since 2015, when there were 16,115. As of this April, there were already 12,040 and the memo projects there will be about 36,000 by the end of this year.

If claims continue to rise, the backlog would cost Canada up to $2.97 billion in benefits and support from 2017 through 2021, the analysis says.

Refugee advocates point out that some of those costs are offset by the taxes that claimants pay. Regardless, the Conservatives warn, the government needs to deal with the backlog. Otherwise, a dysfunctional asylum system would politicize what is generally accepted as a welcoming atmosphere for newcomers.

FAST TRAINS

Among the billions of dollars changing hands in government announcements this week was an agreement for the federal government to put $1.28 billion towards a huge $6-billion electric light-rail system around Montreal, connecting the city to its international airport and surrounding suburbs.

Talks among the federal, provincial and municipal governments and the Caisse de depot (the province's public pension fund manager) have been long and complicated on this project — about how to finance it and who would pay. Now, with the federal contribution in hand, construction should be done and the trains ready for riding by the end of 2020.

The federal government wasted no time in making politics out of the deal. The $1.28-billion will come from an existing pot of money set aside for infrastructure in Quebec, the government said. But once Justin Trudeau's infrastructure bank comes into existence, the bank could consider the rail project for funding, and then free up $1.28 billion for other projects.

It was a not-too-subtle jab at senators tying up the infrastructure bank in wrangling about the Budget Implementation Act. The message? Stop preventing the provinces from accessing billions of dollars in projects.

SLOWING CLIMATE CHANGE

Environment Minister Catherine McKenna has begun to explain how Canada will spend $2 billion in efforts to reduce climate change — rolling out funding details to go with a federal-provincial agreement hammered out months ago, and poking a stick in the eye of Saskatchewan Premier Brad Wall.

On Thursday, McKenna explained that $600 million will to towards industry and public sector projects that are aimed at lowering carbon. The money will be handed out on merit on a project-by-project basis.

Another $1.4-billion will be sent on a per-capita basis to provinces that signed on to the fed-prov agreement that lays out how carbon will be priced in Canada.

But Manitoba and Saskatchewan are out of luck. They won't get any of the per-capita funding until they sign on to the pact, McKenna said.

Wall, who has refused to sign on because he objects to a federally-determined carbon tax for his province, called the tactics "extortion" and "a new low in Canadian federalism."

Heather Scoffield, The Canadian Press