The federal Liberals have introduced a two-for-one piece of legislation that would provide sick leave to almost 600,000 workers, and bring the law down on anyone harassing doctors, nurses and patients.
The omnibus bill checks off two issues at the top of the government’s legislative to-do list when MPs returned to Parliament Hill this week for the first time since the Sept. 20 election.
In one swoop, the government looked to deal with two issues the pandemic showed needed to be addressed, while also upping the political pressure on Conservatives in the House of Commons and their counterparts in provincial legislatures.
First, the bill would provide 10 days of paid sick leave to federally regulated workers, who make up roughly six per cent of the overall Canadian workforce.
By government estimates, 586,000 workers in the federally regulated private sector don’t have access to that long a sick leave, creating a gap in the social safety net the Liberals say must be addressed.
“At some point, there will be another pandemic, likely. When that happens, we need to be ready,” Labour Minister Seamus O’Regan said Friday.
“It would be irresponsible for us, I think, for the federal government, not to take a leadership position and protect those workers and their families where we can.”
The Liberals plan to push provinces and territories to replicate the leave in their labour codes, which cover the remaining 94 per cent of the country’s workforce of nearly 20.6 million.
NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh in a statement criticized the Liberals for not moving on the measure fast enough, saying that front-line workers needed this over a year ago.
Some provinces have also been criticized for moving too slowly, which Unifor president Jerry Dias said has meant some workers have been on the job sick over fear of not being able to pay the bills.
The Canadian Federation of Independent Business warned against imposing any new costs on the small companies who are still recovering, saying many businesses could close for good, or slash staffing to manage financially.
At the same time, the bill would create two new offences in the Criminal Code: one for anyone threatening a health-care worker, those who assist them, and anyone trying to access health services, and a second for anyone caught obstructing access to a health-care facility.
It is already illegal to do either, but the Liberals want to up the maximum sentence to 10 years in prison from five, and let judges use a health-care setting or victim as a factor in sentencing.
“This type of behaviour is abhorrent and it’s unacceptable, particularly at a time when access to health-care services is more critical than ever,” said Justice Minister David Lametti.
Lametti also said provisions of the bill would cover situations at abortion clinics, an issue which the governing party used as a wedge against Erin O’Toole’s Conservatives during the recent election.
Dr. Katharine Smart, president of the Canadian Medical Association, asked MPs to quickly consider the bill, saying legislative action is necessary to prevent avoidable altercations that during the pandemic have included anti-vaccination demonstrators protesting outside of hospitals.
The Liberals want to see the measures through the House of Commons before mid-December when MPs go on a holiday break, which is a tight timeline absent cross-party agreement to fast-track the bill through the normal legislative process.
“I would be stunned and very disappointed if there’s not unanimous consensus to protect health-care workers in this country with this bill,” said Linda Silas, president of the Canadian Federation of Nurses Unions.
“We’re not playing politics here. We’re talking about the security of those who care for us.”
—Jordan Press, The Canadian Press