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A year for substance on Parliament Hill

This year is a time for governments, opposition parties and the media to focus on substantive issues instead of “got-cha” personal attacks and hot-button issues. Christians can also help focus attention on the serious public policy issues that could contribute to the well-being of individual bodies and the social body in which we live.

A year for substance on Parliament Hill

Should ads for junk food target kids? Should the government require banks to have wheelchair-accessible counters? Are there better alternatives than time in prison for some crimes?  

2018 will be busy for Christians who care about the ways that Canadian society, the larger body within which we live, is shaped by public policies. The next session of parliament is time for the Trudeau government to move from consultation to action on a number of significant matters. Many of the following issues will not make headlines, but their potential for good or harm is substantial. Our health and the way we relate to others are affected by changes in our society.

Food security
Bill S-288, if passed, will restrict the marketing of unhealthy foods to children. This is one measure to reduce high obesity rates, which are linked to diabetes and other health risks. Plans for the promised national food strategy – the first such policy – are expected before the summer. Will access to nutritious food be the top priority? How will it fit with the focus on agri-business that has dominated food policy in recent years? Many Canadians are also concerned about how ongoing NAFTA negotiations might affect supply management and food production.

Charity law
In March 2017 an expert panel report proposed reasonable changes to address concerns about charities and advocacy work. If adopted, these changes would remove the fear of losing charitable status for charities engaging in advocacy activities. There is no excuse for delay on this one. This should be done in 2018 – one check-mark in the category of “promises fulfilled.” The proposed changes would continue to ban partisan political activity but permit advocacy for public policies related to a charity’s work.

Persons with disabilities
Federal accessibility legislation, expected soon, could help to reduce barriers for persons with disabilities. Advocates for the rights of persons with disabilities hope the legislation will go beyond physical access to include access to services, such as aids for employment or education  that allow full participation in our society.

Criminal law reform
More restorative justice options are expected to be part of what the government is calling transformative change in the criminal justice system. After years of tinkering that catered to a “fear of crime” political agenda, a comprehensive approach has merits. Rules for solitary confinement, as one example, will be changed to comply with recent court rulings. However, some are now advocating for quick passage of changes to the minimum sentence laws, out of concern that a comprehensive package could easily get bogged down in parliament, resulting in no change before the next election. The scope of proposed change should become evident this year.  

Family law reform
Children could benefit from promised reforms of family law and the family court system in 2018. Two priorities are finding better ways to protect the best interests of children and reducing the unacceptably high rates of domestic violence in Canada through earlier and less adversarial measures. The death of two girls on Christmas Day in Victoria, B.C., while in the care of a troubled parent, and high profile deaths of women through intimate violence are tragedies; they add pressure for changes that have been discussed for years by those who provide family services in Canada. But this is a complex, messy area of public policy with a high potential for unintended consequences, which makes change difficult. Public consultations this year should reveal whether proposed changes will be cosmetic or substantive.

Indigenous language and child welfare
Progress is expected in at least two areas of the nation-to-nation approach. Hopes are high for substantive change coming from the National Summit on Indigenous Child Welfare at the end of January, and legislation on indigenous languages has been promised for this year. Many Indigenous languages are endangered – spoken fluently by fewer and fewer people each year. Indigenous peoples have identified preserving their languages as an important way to rebuild communities. Land use and other big issues will continue to boil.

Poverty plan
Getting it right and getting it done are in tension for a national poverty plan. After extensive analysis and consultation in the last two years, the direction of proposed solutions should be public before the summer of 2018. If not, those who are losing patience worry that people living in poverty will wait again, until after the next election.

Youth policy
The government has promised to introduce a youth policy, something that Canada does not currently have, unlike other countries. It would likely address matters affecting ages 16 to 24, although the age range is still under discussion. High priorities include the transition from school to employment in the context of a rapidly changing workforce and mental health services. This will be of interest in many churches who focus on this age group.

Building for climate change
Recycled steel and locally-sourced timber. Energy loss goals of zero. How we construct our buildings makes a big difference for energy conservation, pollution and waste reduction. Changes in our built environment are expected to contribute 40 percent toward climate change targets. While the goals are widely accepted, expect heated debate about how much and how fast building codes should change.  

Loose ends
There are a lot of loose ends in major policy areas, such as the national housing strategy, early childhood, medical assistance in dying and marijuana use. Details matter in public policy. Christians engaged in these issues will be attentive to how implementation affects daily life across the country.

Each of these issues warrants detailed analysis. This year is a time for governments, opposition parties and the media to focus on substantive issues instead of “got-cha” personal attacks and hot-button issues. Christians can also help focus attention on the serious public policy issues that could contribute to the well-being of individual bodies and the social body in which we live.   

About the Author
A year for substance on Parliament Hill

KATHY VANDERGRIFT, COLUMNIST

Kathy Vandergrift (kathyvandergrift@rogers.com), a public policy analyst, brings experience in government, social justice work and a Master’s Degree in Public Ethics to her reflections.

About the Author