Two budget measures can actually unite Canada

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The re-establishment of a federal role for housing makes sense and the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corp. is the right vehicle to affirm national leadership. The same holds true for training investment.


First published in The Hill Times on Monday, March 27, 2017.

OTTAWA—Everything old is new again. Two major new investments in last week’s federal budget involve housing and training.

The re-establishment of a federal role for housing makes sense and the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corp. is the right vehicle to affirm national leadership.

The same holds true for training investment. In a highly mobile world, the need for national training investment and strategy should be self-evident. But Canada has lost two decades of valuable time because of wrongheaded former federal decisions to get out of housing and training.

Does anyone remember the constitutional wrangles that almost led to the breakup of Canada? One of the core provincial demands was that the federal government vacate the fields of housing and apprenticeship training as they were deemed to be areas of exclusive provincial jurisdiction.
Back in 1992, the federal government exited most social housing investment, making an exception for cooperative and urban aboriginal projects. That decision reflected a mistaken national consensus that provincial governments were better positioned to deliver housing at the local level, as they bear responsibility for the management of municipal governments.

During the 1990s, pressure mounted for the federal government to hand over all labour market planning and responsibility to provincial governments via individual bilateral agreements.

That move succeeded in fragmenting an existing national workforce strategy designed to analyze, forecast, and implement national labour market modernizations.

While the rest of the world moved to homogenize and synthesize in an effort to anticipate the needs of emerging global workforces, Canada’s national housing and training policies were replaced with provincial programs that differed in scope and application from province to province.  

So distorted is our national labour market that in some cases, federally funded programs designed to help students can actually attach a provincial residency requirement, blocking applicants from other jurisdictions.

The country also abandoned the development of national assessment tools designed to measure educational and training performance in different provincial jurisdictions.

According to the most recent Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development report on Canadian education, there is only one area where standardized testing applies. That involves Grade 8 students participating in the Pan Canadian Assessment program which includes testing skill levels in reading, math, and science.

Otherwise, a review of most education curricula reveals a hodgepodge of trial-and-error methods designed individually by 13 different jurisdictions.

The Council of Ministers of Education Canada, headquartered in Toronto, manages inter-provincial liaison among Canada’s 13 ministers, who meet once a year to discuss issues of cooperation.

The formation of the CMEC occurred during Canada’s 100th birthday, when it was agreed that even though education is a provincial responsibility, there is a need for inter-provincial sharing.

That being said, there is no national mandate guiding the council, so every resolution and decision is referred back to 13 provincial and territorial ministries for implementation.

In this highly decentralized system, it is no wonder that skills training and employment mobility are often sacrificed to the holy grail of Canadian constitutional division of powers.

The same can be said for housing. It is impossible to ignore the mounting evidence that home ownership is increasingly beyond the grasp of urban millenials in most of Canada’s major cities.

Yet, because of the decision made a quarter century ago, the country’s national housing corporation was stripped to the bare bones, with little more influence than underwriting some higher risk mortgages for potential homeowners.

A national vision to tackle problems of homelessness and under housing, are no longer on the national radar, relegated to largely provincial issues. More money is generally spent on local task forces to study the problem than on concrete solutions to secure different housing solutions for changing demographics.

The major financial commitments included in the budget were welcome. The provinces need federal financial support, and these investments will get the national government back into housing and skills training.

With border turmoil engulfing the United States and the United Kingdom, Canada’s open approach can actually become a huge boost for our economy.

But we have to be smart enough to mobilize at home first.

At the moment, it is easier for many Europeans to move between countries in some industries than it is for Canadian workers to move to new jobs in different provinces.

The time is ripe for a “back to the future” look at housing and training. The issues need to be tackled through a national lens.

In a world where borders are breaking the world up, these two budget measures can actually unite Canada.
Sheila Copps is a former Jean Chrétien-era cabinet minister and a former deputy prime minister. Follow her on Twitter at @Sheila_Copps.