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The Year Ahead: Politics in 2023

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Trudeau, Poilievre, and the fight for democracy take centre stage

The Smith-Notley fracas escalates in Alberta as Trudeau wages multiple battles federally. Meanwhile, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine continues to reverberate around the world, while cost-of-living woes dominate on the home front.

1. The highest-stakes election will be in Alberta

Maybe by the time Albertans head to the polls in May, Premier Danielle Smith will be done dousing her political tire fires. She spent her first days in office walking back controversies, including an assertion that unvaccinated people are “the most discriminated-against group that I’ve ever witnessed in my lifetime.” She can probably count on the votes of those unvaccinated Albertans, but her broad appeal remains uncertain. The NDP is competitive in Alberta—in one recent poll, respondents favoured NDP Leader Rachel Notley by a 14-point margin. Elected to government in 2015, Notley lost to Jason Kenney in 2019, toughed it out in opposition, and might yet complete a phoenix-like comeback. 

2. Trudeau will have a year from hell

Justin Trudeau’s fight card for 2023 is already full. Premiers are banging the table for more health money. Quebec Premier François Legault is chafing over his province’s share of federal immigration targets (which he says are so high as to cause social unrest), while Bill 21, his legislation banning public-sector workers from wearing religious symbols, may end up at the Supreme Court. Alberta, meanwhile, wants to pass a Sovereignty Act that would allow it to ignore federal laws. In February, we can expect a potentially damaging verdict on Trudeau’s use of the Emergencies Act to quell the Freedom Convoy’s occupation in Ottawa. And we may see more premiers thumb their noses at his father’s legacy, the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, by invoking its notwithstanding clause—the back-door provision, recently used by both Legault and Ford, that overrides the rights the Charter is intended to guarantee.

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3. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine will be felt on Canadian soil

Since Russia invaded Ukraine in February, Canada has imposed sanctions on Russian oligarchs, given Ukraine $3.85 billion in cash, trained Ukrainian soldiers for battle and gifted all the matériel we had to spare. As fall turned to winter, Russia’s flailing boots-on-the-ground invasion gave way to sustained bombing of Ukraine’s energy infrastructure—a cruel strategy in a frigid country. What Ukrainians need now are heated homes. That means more people seeking refugee status and, with energy in short supply across Europe, more looking to leapfrog across the Atlantic. Canada needs to get ready; we’re still struggling to process the roughly 200,000 Ukrainians who’ve already applied. Meanwhile, Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland has promised to fast-track energy projects to help Europe. Allies will expect progress by 2024. 

4. The fight for democracy will eclipse trade disputes with the U.S.

In a speech in Washington last February, trade minister Mary Ng described the Canada-U.S. relationship as having “a million moving parts.” Those include the perpetual popped springs of cross-border trade, American dairy and Canadian softwood lumber. Meanwhile, supply chains continue to sputter and American protectionism is hampering Canadian business. But in another Washington speech in October, Chrystia Freeland warned of bigger problems ahead: autocracies are on the rise and will challenge democracies for global dominance. As dark as her vision is, it spells good news for Canada-
U.S. relations–the need to co-operate will outweigh petty squabbles. 

5. We’ll welcome a record number of newcomers

Canada is admitting more immigrants than at any time in its history: the previous record of 400,000 was set in 1913, equalled in 2021 and crushed this year. And the plan is to keep setting new records, ultimately hitting 500,000 in 2025. The economy depends on it: more Canadians are now leaving the workforce than entering it, creating a persistent labour shortage, with nearly as many job openings as there are unemployed workers. The challenge is to match immigrants’ skills to jobs, especially in sectors such as education, health care and construction.

6. Everyone wants an electric car—but good luck charging it 

Electric and hybrid cars now account for more than seven per cent of new vehicle registrations in Canada, a rate that doubled in two years. That means we need more charging capacity, and fast. There are now 22,000 EV charging stations in Canada, about 420,000 short of what we’ll require by 2035. Ottawa is funding 50,000 more chargers over the next three years through the Canada Investment Bank, which the Liberals launched in 2017. A lingering question is whether Canadians are ready to change their travel routines. Even the fastest charge takes 30 minutes, compared to a quick two-minute fill at the pump. If Canadians keep buying EVs at a record pace, of course, that question will answer itself. 

7. Big tech will throw a fit about CanCon rules

Ottawa’s ambitious effort to regulate big tech (companies like Alphabet, Apple, Meta, Microsoft and so forth) will get its first real test in 2023. The combination of the Online Streaming Act (Bill C-11) and the Online News Act (Bill C-18, still under consideration in the House of Commons) will make internet firms subject to Canadian content regulations, force them to contribute to the country’s content subsidy programs and have them share revenues with media organizations whose news they post on their sites (and whose ad revenues they’ve poached). Big Tech is chafing at the prospect, but for the federal government, it’s about forcing these companies–which happen to be among the world’s most valuable–to invest some of their Canadian profits back in Canada. Ottawa is also threatening to implement a three per cent Digital Services Tax on these companies’ Canadian revenues starting January 1, 2024. Washington has warned Canada not to collect the tax, even as the U.S. stymies a collaborative, global approach to the issue. All in all, 2023 has the makings of a ticking Big Tech time bomb. 

8. The country will go deeper into debt for dental care

As part of their deal to avoid another federal election, Justin Trudeau’s Liberals promised Jagmeet Singh’s NDP a national dental care program in 2023. A recent poll showed that 72 per cent of Canadians support it. Dentists have expressed only minor quibbles. The provinces, though often touchy about new federal programs, have kept mum. Money, of course, could yet scuttle it. The Parliamentary Budget Officer reckons the five-year price tag could be nearly double the $5.3-billion estimate. The PBO is also forecasting deficits for the next five years, which means the government would have to borrow that money at ever-rising interest rates. Other priorities beckon—a brewing recession, aid to Ukraine—and Pierre Poilievre’s Conservatives oppose the plan, saying it will goose inflation.

9. We’ll finally get cheaper daycare

Last year, the Liberal government made good on its promise to sign agreements with the provinces to reduce daycare fees. But the details will vary from province to province. In most cases, provinces will phase in reductions, reaching $10 a day by 2026. And though the plan will create new subsidized spaces, there still won’t be enough for all of the country’s 2.1 million kids under age six. Nevertheless, parents are already dreaming about what to do with the thousands of dollars they’ll save. Of course, maybe it’ll just go to their mortgage renewals: the Bank of Canada predicts that in a few years, a typical mortgage payment will be 30 per cent higher thanks to rising interest rates. 

10. Poilievre will hammer Trudeau with more populist rhetoric

Last October, it was revealed that CPC Leader Pierre Poilievre’s YouTube channel was using a hidden hashtag favoured by misogynist groups. To his critics, it was just another step in his continuing descent among the deplorables of populism—part of his plan, surely, to pull his party’s right flank away from Maxime Bernier’s People’s Party. But he’s also trying to broaden the spectrum of acceptable opinion. He was an early opponent of mask mandates, has embraced populist calls to defund the CBC and has pledged to make federal funding to universities contingent on their commitment to free speech. He’ll pick his next populist move the same way he did with his convoy support: he’ll be opportunistic, then lean in hard. In the meantime, he’ll buttress his traditional fiscal-conservative bona fides by endlessly harping on the cost of living and pushing his promise to simplify Canada’s income tax system.

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Uyghur refugee vote by Canada MPs angers China

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OTTAWA –

The Chinese government says a motion MPs passed Wednesday to provide asylum to persecuted Uyghurs amounts to political manipulation by Canada.

MPs including Prime Mister Justin Trudeau unanimously called on Ottawa to design a program that would bring 10,000 people of Turkic origin, including Uyghurs, to Canada from countries other than China.

They passed a motion that acknowledges reports that Uyghurs outside China have been sent back to their country of birth, where they have faced arrest as part of Beijing’s crackdown on Muslim groups.

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Foreign ministry spokeswoman Mao Ning said in Beijing that people in the Xinjiang region live in peaceful harmony, contradicting widespread reports of forced labour and sexual violence.

An English translation by the ministry said Canada should “stop politically manipulating Xinjiang-related issues for ulterior motives,” and Ottawa is “spreading disinformation and misleading the public.”

The non-binding motion said the government should come up with the outline of a resettlement program by May 12 that would begin in 2024 and meet its target within two years.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Feb. 2, 2023.

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Republicans push to remove Ilhan Omar from foreign affairs panel

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Washington, DC – In one of his first moves since becoming speaker of the United States House of Representatives, Kevin McCarthy is leading an effort to block Congresswoman Ilhan Omar from serving on the chamber’s Foreign Affairs Committee over her past criticism of Israel.

On Wednesday, the Republican majority in the House advanced a resolution to remove Omar from the panel. Democrats opposed the move, accusing McCarthy of bigotry for targeting the politician – a former refugee of Somali descent who is one of only two Muslim women serving in the US Congress.

A few Republicans initially opposed McCarthy’s effort, casting doubt over his ability to pass the resolution against Omar, given the GOP’s narrow majority.

But on Wednesday, all 218 House Republicans present voted to move forward with the measure, as Democrats remained united in support of Omar with 209 votes. A final vote is expected on Thursday as progressives rally around Omar.

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The Congressional Progressive Caucus (CPC) defended Omar, calling her an “esteemed and invaluable” legislator.

“You cannot remove a Member of Congress from a committee simply because you do not agree with their views. This is both ludicrous and dangerous,” CPC Chair Pramila Jayapal said in a statement on Monday.

The resolution

The resolution aimed at Omar, introduced by Ohio Republican Max Miller on Tuesday, cites numerous controversies involving the congresswoman’s criticism of Israel and US foreign policy.

“Congresswoman Omar clearly cannot be an objective decision-maker on the Foreign Affairs Committee given her biases against Israel and against the Jewish people,” Miller said in a statement.

Omar retorted by saying there was nothing “objectively true” about the resolution, adding that “if not being objective is a reason to not serve on committees, no one would be on committees”.

While the Republican resolution accuses Omar of anti-Semitism, it only invokes remarks relating to Israel, not the Jewish people.

For example, the measure calls out the congresswoman for describing Israel as an “apartheid state”, although leading human rights groups – including Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch – have also accused Israel of imposing a system of apartheid on Palestinians.

Early in her congressional career in 2019, Omar faced a firestorm of criticism when she suggested that political donations from pro-Israel lobby groups – including the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) – drive support for Israel in Washington.

Omar later apologised for that remark but Palestinian rights advocates say accusations of anti-Semitism against Israel’s critics aim to stifle the debate around Israeli government policies.

In the past two years, AIPAC and other pro-Israel organisations spent millions of dollars in congressional elections to defeat progressives who support Palestinian human rights, including Michigan’s Andy Levin, a left-leaning, Jewish former House member.

‘Different standards’

Although the Democratic Party is standing behind Omar now, the Republican resolution prominently features previous criticism against the congresswoman by top Democrats.

Lara Friedman, president of the Foundation for Middle East Peace, an advocacy and research group, said Republicans are trying to validate their talking points against Omar by using the statements and actions of Democrats.

“They own this,” she said of Democrats who previously attacked Omar. “They made a decision in the last few years to jump on board and score political points at Ilhan’s expense … And that decision is now the basis for the resolution that is being used to throw her off the committee.”

Friedman added that Omar and her fellow Muslim-American Congresswoman Rashida Tlaib are held to “different standards” when it comes to addressing the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Both legislators were the subject of racist attacks by former President Donald Trump who in 2019 tweeted that they, along with other progressive congresswomen of colour, “should go back to the broken and crime-infested places from which they came”.

Omar in particular became a frequent target of Trump’s anti-refugee rhetoric in the lead-up to the 2020 elections. At one rally in 2019, Trump failed to intervene as his supporters chanted “send her back” in reference to Omar.

Friedman said attacks on Omar appeal to the Republican base and play well for the party politically.

“It’s a really handy way to embarrass and corner Democrats because when Democrats vote against this tomorrow, the Republican argument is going to be: ‘I don’t get it. You said all these things [against Omar]. Why are you not holding her accountable?’ Politically, this is just fantastic for them.”

For her part, Omar has remained defiant, calling McCarthy’s effort to remove her from the committee, against initial opposition from his own caucus, “pathetic”.

Yasmine Taeb, legislative and political director at MPower Change Action Fund, a Muslim-American advocacy group, praised Omar’s commitment to a “human rights-centered foreign policy”.

“Rep. Omar speaks truth to power – a rarity in Congress. And House Republican leadership would rather waste time by attacking a progressive Black Muslim woman and pushing a far-right agenda than working on addressing the needs of the American people,” Taeb told Al Jazeera in an email.

Omar has been a vocal proponent of human rights and diplomacy in Congress. While her comments about Israel often make headlines, she criticises other countries too – including those in the Middle East – for human rights violations.

Still, critics accuse her of perpetuating anti-Semitic tropes in her criticism of Israel and even allies have described some of her comments as “sloppy”, if not malicious.

On Thursday, Win Without War, a group that promotes diplomacy in US foreign policy, decried the Republican push against Omar as an attempt to strip the House Foreign Affairs Committee of a “progressive champion and skilled legislator who challenges the political status quo”.

“Rep. Omar has helped raise the bar for progressive foreign policy in Congress. She has steadfastly advocated for cuts to the Pentagon budget, held US allies accountable for human rights abuses, and confronted the racism and Islamophobia present in US foreign policy,” Win Without War executive director Sara Haghdoosti said in a statement.

Committee wars

Congressional committees serve as specialised microcosms of Congress. The panels advance legislation, conduct oversight and hold immense power over the legislative process.

Usually, the party in power appoints the chairs and majority members of committees, while the opposition party names its own legislators to the panels.

But back in 2021, Democrats voted to remove Republican Congresswoman Marjorie Taylor Greene from her assigned committees for past conspiratorial, anti-Semitic and Islamophobic comments.

That same year, the Democratic House majority also formally rebuked Paul Gosar, another far-right Republican, for sharing an animated video that depicted him killing Democratic Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.

Now, Greene is an outspoken proponent of removing Omar from the Foreign Affairs Committee.

“No one should be on that committee with that stance towards Israel,” Greene said earlier this week. “In my opinion, I think it’s the wrong stance for any member of Congress of the United States – having that type of attitude towards our great ally, Israel.”

After Greene was stripped of her committee assignments, McCarthy had openly promised payback against the Democrats if they became the minority in the House, an event that came to pass in the 2022 midterm elections.

“You’ll regret this. And you may regret this a lot sooner than you think,” McCarthy said at that time.

The newly elected speaker has also blocked Democrats Adam Schiff and Eric Swalwell from joining the intelligence committee. Schiff was the former chair of the panel.

Meanwhile, Republican Congressman George Santos, who is facing calls to step down for lying about his heritage and professional and personal history, “temporarily recused” himself from committee assignments as he is being investigated over his campaign conduct.

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Former interim Conservative leader Candice Bergen steps down as MP

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Member of Parliament and former interim Conservative leader Candice Bergen has resigned her seat in the House of Commons.

Bergen, 58, has represented the Manitoba riding of Portage—Lisgar since 2008. She served as interim leader of the Conservatives and leader of the Opposition from February to September 2022. Prior to that, she served as deputy leader of the Conservatives.

In a video posted to Twitter Wednesday, Bergen said she has submitted a letter of resignation, “ending an incredible and very fulfilling 14 years.”

Bergen thanked her constituents, family, volunteers, staff and political colleagues “on both sides of the aisle, regardless of your political stripe.”

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Bergen announced in September of last year that she would not seek reelection. Pierre Poilievre replaced her as Conservative leader that month.

Bergen did not give a specific reason for her resignation and did not mention any future plans.

“I’m choosing to leave now not because I’m tired or I’ve run out of steam. In fact, it’s the exact opposite,” she said in the video.

“I feel hopeful and re-energized. Hopeful for our strong and united Conservative Party, and our caucus, under the courageous and principled leadership of my friend, Pierre Poilievre.”

Bergen ended her goodbye message on a hopeful note.

“With God’s grace and God’s help, I believe that the best is yet to come. Thank you so much Portage—Lisgar, and thank you Canada.”

The Toronto Star was the first to report the story.

“On behalf of the Conservative Party of Canada, thank you Candice for your leadership, your devotion to our Conservative movement and your service to the people of Portage—Lisgar, and all Canadians,” Poilievre said in a tweet Wednesday.

The news means there will be a byelection in Portage—Lisgar to replace Bergen.

Manitoba Finance Minister Cameron Friesen announced last week that he’d step down as an MLA to seek the federal Conservative nomination in the riding.

The death of MP Jim Carr late last year set up a byelection in another Manitoba riding — Winnipeg South Centre. The Alberta riding of Calgary Heritage and the Ontario riding of Oxford are also up for byelections later this year.

“I thank her for her many years of service,” Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said of Bergen in a media scrum Wednesday.

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