As wildfires rage across Canada, debates about anything but dominate Parliament

As wildfires rage across Canada, debates about anything but dominate Parliament

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OTTAWA — At the best of times, Parliament reflects the country’s anxieties and ambitions. At the worst of times, it seems oblivious.

Wednesday was one of those days when the House of Commons seems somehow to barely pay lip service to what’s top of mind for just about everyone else in North America.

Even as Canada’s worst ever wildfire season drove smoke into the halls of Parliament and caught in the throats of MPs, it did not drive political debate.

Instead, Opposition questions to the government were dominated by Conservatives demanding Liberals put forward a balanced budget plan; the Bloc Québécois pressing for a public inquiry into foreign elections interference; and the fourth party, the NDP, reaching for irony, as it accused the government of not taking the climate crisis seriously before moving on to demand greater taxes on the wealthy.

“Today is supposed to be Clean Air Day and at the same time, our country is burning,” said NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh. “We can even smell the smoke in this chamber. Our country is literally on fire and the current Liberal government thinks that business as usual is fine.”

The Liberal government had just an hour earlier underscored that it is anything but.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau led a news conference on the wildfire response, noting Environment Canada has issued air quality warnings across the country.

Late Wednesday Trudeau spoke to U.S. President Joe Biden as the Canadian wildfire smoke obscured skies in New York City and across the northeast, discussing what additional resources might be needed, said a senior official.

Yet it was Conservative leader Pierre Poilievre and the Conservatives who reached for metaphors that seemed oddly jarring, talking about “fuel” on inflationary “fires” while ignoring the actual flames burning across the country.

On a day when the Bank of Canada raised the overnight interest rate again, Poilievre blamed Trudeau for pouring “gas on the fire” of inflation, promising to block “disastrous, risky and inflationary budget” bill until Trudeau introduces a balanced budget plan (never mind that in reality, only five hours of debate on the bill remained).

What Poilievre didn’t do, however, was underscore his second demand — touted with great fanfare two days ago — that the Liberal government must also “cancel planned carbon tax increases.”

On Wednesday, an exasperated Trudeau, after nearly 50 minutes of questions, retorted that if Poilievre “has a better plan” on climate change than carbon pricing, “let him say it, because we have been waiting a long time for it. He has no plan to fight climate change. He still questions whether it exists while Canada is burning.”

For hours afterward, the House of Commons voted on more than 900 budget amendments introduced by Poilievre’s Conservatives to stall the budget bill.

The cynics call it “silly season” but this year’s end-of-session legislative dash on Parliament Hill feels not silly but rather detached.

On Monday, Poilievre simply asked for an update on the wildfire response. On Tuesday, the NDP noted 15,000 firefighter vacancies across Canada, and asked the government to support a private member’s bill to increase a volunteer firefighter tax credit from $3,000 to $10,000.

Meanwhile, Environment Canada said the smoke from Canada’s wildfires didn’t just cover the skies over North America. “It reached as far as northern Europe, over Norway, Sweden and Denmark.”

And worse may yet come.

Much of the country is expected to be under high to extreme risk for most of the wildfire season, Ottawa warns.

Emergency Preparedness Minister Bill Blair told reporters while there’s been no direct loss of life in Canada yet, this year has been the most “challenging” since wildfire records have been kept, with 2,293 wildfires and 3.8 million hectares burned.

Across the country, as of Wednesday there were 414 wildfires burning, 239 of which are determined to be out of control, with 20,183 people evacuated from homes and communities, he said.

In the Commons, the burning question that involved numbers wasn’t about disaster response or about how to drive down carbon emissions that cause global warming.

It was about which statistics reflected economic reality.

Poilievre said Canada had the highest household debt in the entire G7, and demanded to know if Trudeau would “reverse his inflationary and high interest rate policies before people go broke?”

Trudeau said Canada has the best economic performance of the G7 emerging from the pandemic. He argued his government is delivering financial support in a “targeted” and noninflationary way, and accused the Conservative leader of stoking “erroneous fears” and ignoring “what is actually happening in Canada.”

“Forest fires are raging. It is the worst year on record for forest fires already,” said Trudeau, slamming the Conservative Party for standing “against the climate action we have been taking, and … against the investments we are making to support families and to support first responders.”

Poilievre shot back that the prime minister had sunk to “the low of exploiting these fires for political gain to distract from his inflationary and high interest rate policies?”

Trudeau was having none of it.

“It is complete garbage from the Leader of the Opposition,” Trudeau said.

Green Party co-leader Elizabeth May captured the weird dynamic before demanding an end to pipelines and oil and gas developments.

“The prime minister is right about one thing, that climate change is real, but the policies of the current government do not meet the requirements of the moment. We are in a climate emergency. Our eyes are burning in this place. The Ottawa parliamentary bubble has been pierced by the forest fires across this country, yet in this place the debates are inane.”

Tonda MacCharles is Ottawa Bureau Chief and a senior reporter covering federal politics. Follow her on Twitter: @tondamacc

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