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Third Reading, Appropriation Bill No. 5, 2020-21

Honourable senators, I would like to thank Senator Gagné for her comments on Bill C-17. In this bill, the government is requesting $21 billion. However, Supplementary Estimates (B), which support this bill, also outline $59 billion in statutory spending. This $59 billion in statutory spending has already been approved by existing legislation. For example, $29 billion for the Canada Emergency Response Benefit, or CERB, was approved by the Public Health Events of National Concern Payments Act, enacted last March. Almost all of the $59 billion in statutory spending is COVID related.

Of the $21 billion requested in Bill C-17, $15.5 billion is COVID related. The Public Health Agency of Canada is requesting $9 billion of the $21 billion. Of this amount, $5.3 billion is for medical research and vaccine development, while $2.2 billion is for protective gear and medical equipment. The remaining $1.4 billion is for a variety of items, including border and travel measures and isolation sites at $196 million, development of a COVID-19 vaccine at $46 million, five respirators at $6.4 million and Kids Help Phone at $3.3 million.

In addition, $8.7 billion has already received approval under the Public Health Events of National Concern Payments Act. Included in this $8.7 billion was $3.8 billion for medical research and vaccine developments and $3.3 billion for protective gear and medical equipment.

Given the extent of funding for vaccines in Supplementary Estimates (B), there was a significant amount of interest expressed by senators during Finance Committee meetings regarding the COVID-19 vaccines. Officials from the Public Health Agency informed us that government has signed agreements to secure what they refer to as tens of millions of vaccine doses. The three most promising at the time of the committee hearings were Pfizer, Moderna and AstraZeneca. At the time of our study, public health officials also said the agency was expecting doses to start coming into the country likely in January and February. However, no vaccine numbers were provided to the committee.

Officials further indicated that there is no order-of-country priority stipulated in the contracts for the vaccines. We are now seeing small amounts of vaccines coming into the country for distribution. Vaccine availability and distribution will continue to be a subject of discussion.

For example, my province is 1 of 14 distribution sites, and we expect to receive 1,950 vaccines around December 14. I expect additional vaccine funding to appear in Supplementary Estimates (C).

The Department of Finance is requesting $3.2 billion, of which $1 billion is for the Safe Return to Class Fund, $1 billion is for the Province of Alberta to clean up inactive oil and gas wells and $700 million is for the Safe Restart Agreement.

The $1 billion requested for the Safe Return to Class Fund is part of a $2-billion program to help provinces and territories cover the costs of adapting the education sector to ensure a safe return to class and cover costs related to increased hand sanitization and hygiene, personal protective equipment and cleaning supplies.

Another $1 billion for the Safe Return to Class Fund was already approved under the authority of the Financial Administration Act. It is disclosed in the Supplementary Estimates (B) document as a statutory item, the Financial Administration Act being the relevant authority.

Since that section of the Financial Administration Act was repealed on September 30, it required the second instalment of $1 billion to be requested in a supply bill.

As I indicated previously, the Department of Finance is requesting $700 million for the Safe Restart Agreement. The Safe Restart Agreement is a $19-billion program, which supports all of the provinces and territories in restarting their economies, notably in the areas of health care, testing and contact tracing support, child care, sick leave, municipalities and personal protective equipment procurement.

While $700 million is being requested by the Department of Finance in this supply bill, the department has already been provided with $12.2 billion as a statutory amount under the authority of the Financial Administration Act.

However, that section of the Financial Administration Act was repealed on September 30. Any payments after that date must be approved by a supply bill.

The Department of Health is also requesting $315 million for the Safe Restart Agreement, while $18.5 billion payments have already been approved under the Public Health Events of National Concern Payments Act.

Tracking the funding for the Safe Restart Agreement has presented its challenges because funding for the agreement is included in two departments, and within each of those departments, some funding is being requested in the supply bill while other funding has already been approved by the Public Health Events of National Concern Payments Act and the Financial Administration Act.

The Department of Finance is also requesting $461 million for the Essential Worker Support Program. This is a $3-billion program, of which $2.5 billion has already been drawn down by the provinces. This $461 million is the remaining instalment.

The Department of Health is also requesting $737 million, of which $319 million is for medical research related to COVID-19, $315 million is for the Safe Restart Program and $100 million is for drugs, medical devices and virtual care.

Of interest, officials told us that before the pandemic, 5% of visits with doctors and other health care providers were virtual. This has increased to over half of interactions with health care providers now being done by phone, video conferencing or by other virtual means.

The Department of Transport is requesting $516 million in this supply bill. The largest item is $180 million for the purchase and refit of the marine vessel Villa de Teror. The purchase cost is $155 million and refit costs are estimated at $25 million.

This vessel was acquired to provide ferry service to the residents of Îles de la Madeleine. It will be retrofitted and will provide service during the summers of 2021 until 2026.

Officials assured us that these were the final costs associated with the Villa de Teror. Some senators were interested in the cost of the acquisition and retrofitting of the Villa de Teror because some jurisdictions, when acquiring used marine vessels, significantly underestimate the retrofitting costs. My province is one of those jurisdictions. The cost of the Villa de Teror will be followed up when we study future estimates.

Honourable senators, as I mentioned earlier, $15.5 billion of the $21 billion in this bill is COVID related. Of the $59 billion in statutory expenditures in Supplementary Estimates (B), almost all is COVID related. I will have further comments on COVID-related expenditures when I speak to Bill C-16 later this evening.

In closing, I would like to thank my colleagues on the National Finance Committee for their probing questions during committee meetings, as well as to our chair, Senator Mockler, deputy chairs, Senator Forest and Senator Klyne and, of course, the fourth member of our steering committee, Senator Richards.

I also express my appreciation to officials and staff for their hard work and support during discussions of these expenditure items. Thank you, honourable, colleagues.

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