By Steve Scherer
OTTAWA (Reuters) - A recent surge in COVID-19 cases is forcing Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to scale back his plan to outline an ambitious green economic recovery package next week.
In a speech seen as a possible campaign template in the case of an early election, Trudeau is set to pledge an expansion of unemployment benefits, federal money for child care, as well as some pro-environmental elements including a retrofit program to make buildings more energy-efficient, sources said.
A month ago Trudeau handed the reins of the finance ministry to his deputy prime minister and trusted aide Chrystia Freeland as he promised "bold" solutions in a green strategy that would be outlined on Sept. 23 in what is known as a throne speech. Sources said he was "thinking big."
But as the Liberal leader and his ministers huddled behind closed doors on Monday to hammer out the contents of the speech amidst rising COVID-19 cases, Trudeau shifted his focus.
"We need to get through (the pandemic) ... in order to be able to talk about next steps," Trudeau said that day.
Trudeau is expected to pledge federal money for child care, and to tailor the employment insurance program to cover all Canadians, including the self-employed. He will also offer help to long-term care homes rocked by the pandemic, sources said on condition of anonymity.
"It would be irresponsible for government to tell people we're in a recovery phase when we're not," one government source explained this week.
But there will be green economic initiatives, too.
"The Throne Speech will give you a roadmap," a senior government source said, referring to the speech outlining the government's priorities that is read by the governor general - head of state Queen Elizabeth's representative in Ottawa.
Some of the investments will be detailed in a "pre-Christmas" fiscal document, and others in a spring budget, the senior government source said.
Retrofitting residential, commercial and institutional buildings to be more efficient and resilient to climate change, which would generate jobs, "is one of those things that you'd want to see earlier rather than later," the senior government source said.
Incentives for the use and production of zero-emissions vehicles, along with national rules requiring dealers to increase their sales of them, could be coming, sources said, as the government renews its commitment to net-zero carbon emissions by 2050.
In Ottawa, talk of an early federal election had been building in recent months as support for the Liberal minority government grew during the pandemic and as case numbers declined this summer.
Trudeau depends on at least one opposition party to survive the confidence vote that will follow the Throne Speech, which if lost could trigger an election just a year after the last one. But he is likely to win the vote with support from at least the left-leaning New Democratic Party.
"The reality of infection rates as high as in the spring ... changed the thinking that this is the time for putting forward a bold new vision that would be the basis for testing the electoral waters," said Frank Graves, president of polling company EKOS Research.
More than 9,000 Canadians have died from COVID-19 and more than 139,000 have been infected with the coronavirus that causes the disease, according to Health Canada.
So for now, Trudeau's green revolution will take a back seat to fighting COVID-19 and helping struggling Canadians.
"Sure, we're concerned about climate change, but I'm a mother. I'm concerned about my kids going to school," Infrastructure Minister Catherine McKenna, a former environment minister, said on Tuesday.
($1 = 1.3207 Canadian dollars)
(Reporting by Steve Scherer; Additional reporting by David Ljunggren; Editing by Denny Thomas and Paul Simao)