Thank you, Mr. Chair.
First, I would like to thank you for inviting me to join committee members to discuss the federal government's response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
I come to this question from a variety of perspectives. I spent eight years on Parliament Hill as a political staffer, including five in the office of Prime Minister Jean Chrétien. I spent 11 years at Queen's Park as an MPP, seven in cabinet, including four years as Ontario's Minister of Training, Colleges and Universities.
I retired from politics to academia. I am currently the director of the Centre for Public Ethics at Martin Luther University College, the founding institution of Wilfrid Laurier University. I also serve as the practitioner-in-residence in Laurier's political science department, and I teach in the University of Waterloo's master of public service program.
From all these different perspectives, let me briefly make four observations related to the question before you.
The first involves jobs. As Canada begins to emerge from COVID-19, there is little question that we will face a jobs crisis of unprecedented magnitude. Many jobs lost during the pandemic are simply going to disappear. Youth have been particularly hard hit. The most recent job numbers out of Statistics Canada have been bleak for both non-student and student youth. [Technical difficulty—Editor] parents' basements on a temporary basis to ride out the pandemic are now asking themselves whether this is a permanent situation. So what do we do? Creating the right economic environment is crucial, but we also need to make sure that job seekers have the necessary skills.
During the 2008 recession, I was the minister who brought in Ontario's second career program, which still exists. It was fairly successful in supporting certain categories of laid-off workers in upgrading their skills. We're going to have to go much further than second career and adopt an “all hands on deck” approach, where all of our post-secondary institutions work much more closely with potential employers to ensure their programs correspond to the needs of a changing economy. Continuous intake, micro-credentialing, year-round learning and mandatory experiential learning should all be part of the post-pandemic dialogue.
We can do it. COVID-19 has taught us that, if pushed, our somewhat sluggish post-secondary and training sector can become nimble and creative in altering the way we do business. Just ask all those who had to quickly transform their in-class courses into distance learning due to COVID-19. This doesn't mean the end of literature and theology programs, but there's plenty of room to teach subjects like these in a way that builds needed competencies and gives students practical hands-on experience.
Although the Government of Canada has a key role to play in this transformation, it needs to recognize the leadership of the provinces and territories in this area, which is my second point: Respect jurisdictions. Many Canadians, particularly those in Ontario, often look to Ottawa for leadership in a time of crisis, even in areas that fall under provincial or territorial jurisdiction, and there's a temptation within the federal government to respond by encroaching upon that jurisdiction.
As a former provincial minister, my plea is for the federal government to recognize the leadership of our provinces and territories in areas like post-secondary education and training. Support them, but don't try to create capacity and programming federally that is duplicative. Provinces and territories know their needs. They know their educational institutions and training providers. Yes, by all means, act as a convenor and reshape EI programming, federal support for students and federal tax policies, but do it in direct partnership with our provinces and territories. There is remarkable energy out there, and governments at all levels need to harness it, which leads to my third point.
As the director of a centre at a faith-based institution concerned with public ethics, my advice is not to forget Canada's faith communities as you develop and implement policies and look for partners. Religious voices have something to offer our current public debate. Collectively and individually, they are anxious to see our world transformed into one that focuses on those on the margins and challenges the consumerism and indifference of our society. Canada's faith communities have a long history of involvement in progressive issues and have been active during the current crisis in supporting the lonely, the poor and the vulnerable. They have also turned their attention to what happens next.
I think of the work of Joe Gunn, the executive director of “Centre Oblat – A Voice For Justice” at Ottawa's Saint Paul University, and Sister Sue Wilson, director of the Office for Systemic Justice for the Federation of Sisters of St. Joseph in London, Ontario. Their thoughtful commentary on the need for an ethical framework for the post-COVID-19 world is but one example of many voices of faith calling for real change when it comes to issues like income inequality, the environment and indigenous reconciliation, voices that include 43 Lutheran and Anglican bishops who have collectively voiced their support for a guaranteed annual income. Engage and involve these voices.
I am going to change my focus a bit for my final point and address the role of committees like yours.
I was the government house leader during Ontario's last minority government. I recognize the important role committees play in listening to Canadians, advising Parliament, and reviewing legislation and programs. I also understand the power of committees to send for persons, papers and records, virtually unchecked in a minority government situation. Yes, this power can be used to hold the government to account. Unfortunately, it can also be used to go on wild fishing trips and exploit gotcha moments by demanding an endless supply of documents and witnesses from government simply in an effort to make them look bad.
I have witnessed committees paralyze governments as scores of public servants drop everything to hastily respond to a complicated committee request dreamt up on a whim by opposition research, neglecting the needs of citizens and being forced to remove flexibility and nimbleness from programs in order to escape committee scrutiny.
Yes, hold the government to account, but recognize that decisions over the last few months were made quickly in uncharted waters. Lots of mistakes were undoubtedly made by people working in good faith. Resist the temptation to make them the focus of your work.
This is not partisan advice. I would offer the same advice to the Liberals if they were in opposition.
That brings to a close my presentation today, with four admittedly different points: focus on education and training, respect jurisdictions, engage faith communities, and resist the temptation to use the power of committees in a minority parliament to undermine the work of government.
I look forward to any questions.