Ottawa shuts down

By Maura Forrest and Andy Blatchford

OTTAWA — Over five extraordinary hours on Friday, Canada’s federal government suspended Parliament, delayed its federal budget, imposed new restrictions on international travel and promised a major fiscal stimulus package, while the Bank of Canada slashed interest rates as the country collectively braces for the impact of coronavirus.

The announcements rolled out, one after another, while Prime Minister Justin Trudeau remained in isolation at his home in Ottawa, dealing with the fallout of a global pandemic that has turned personal — his wife, Sophie Grégoire Trudeau, was diagnosed with Covid-19 on Thursday, though her symptoms are mild. Trudeau has no symptoms of the virus, which has so far infected 157 people in Canada and caused one death.

Speaking from outside his home at Rideau Cottage, Trudeau assured Canadians the government will take any measures necessary to slow the spread of the disease and to cushion them against its economic impacts. “We do not want any Canadians to have to worry about whether or not they’re going to be able to pay their rent,” he said. “We need to make sure that Canadians have the options and the ability to follow the best public health advice and keep themselves safe.”

Friday’s announcements mark a dramatic escalation in the government’s response since the World Health Organization labeled the coronavirus a pandemic two days ago, and a stark change in tone — on Thursday evening, Finance Minister Bill Morneau was still saying the budget would be tabled on March 30, as planned.

But on Friday morning at 10 a.m., all five of Canada’s major political parties agreed to a motion to adjourn the House of Commons until April 20, in response to the spread of Covid-19. The suspension could be extended if necessary. Parliament has also passed spending-related bills that will allow the government to keep cash flowing while the House of Commons and Senate aren’t sitting. “We will face this together, and we will get through this together,” Government House Leader Pablo Rodríguez told reporters.

The parties have agreed to a process to allow Parliament to be recalled over the coming weeks, if needed, with a skeleton crew of members present — likely those who live within driving distance.

Before Parliament shut down, MPs and senators rushed to pass the USMCA, which received royal assent on Friday afternoon, making Canada the last country to endorse the new North American free trade pact. A few procedural steps remain before Canada formally ratifies the deal, and it will be several more months before it goes into force. President Donald Trump said Friday that Trudeau told him during a phone call the day before that Canada was on the cusp of approving the trade deal.

The all-party motion on Friday also delayed the federal budget, previously scheduled for March 30. Morneau did not say when the budget might now be introduced, or whether that could happen before April 20.

The budget, however, has suddenly become an afterthought as Morneau turns his attention to the far more urgent task of keeping the economy afloat. In an exceptional act of coordination Friday, Morneau held a rare joint press conference with Stephen Poloz, governor of the politically independent Bank of Canada, to introduce emergency measures in an attempt to buttress the economy before it suffers significant damage.

Poloz made the biggest splash by introducing an unscheduled interest rate cut of half a percentage point — his second 50-basis-point reduction in nine days — to cushion the economy from the effects of coronavirus and battered crude prices. The governor left the door open to do more, if necessary. Morneau also provided a boost of C$10 billion in available credit for businesses through two business development agencies. Jeremy Rudin, the superintendent of financial institutions, joined them to announce changes that will effectively add more than C$300 billion in lending capacity for major banks.

Morneau promised that more help is on the way. Ottawa will unveil a "significant" fiscal stimulus package next week, he said, including direct support for individuals. The new measures will come on top of a C$1 billion support package the government unveiled on Wednesday, which included money for provincial health care systems. The finance minister said another volley of economic support could come out of a phone call scheduled for Monday between Trudeau and his fellow G-7 leaders. He added the G-7 is looking for a coordinated approach.

Ottawa is also taking new steps to limit the spread of Covid-19 to Canada from beyond its borders. Transport Minister Marc Garneau said international flights arriving in Canada will be restricted to a smaller number of airports to allow for screening of all passengers. The list of airports has not yet been released. Garneau also said all cruise ships carrying more than 500 people, including crew, will not be allowed to dock in Canada before July 1.

Canada’s chief public health officer, Dr. Theresa Tam, said Canadians should postpone or cancel international travel, and should practice social distancing, including by avoiding crowded places, waving or touching elbows instead of shaking hands and staying two meters away from other people. She warned that anyone who travels internationally will be subject to any new rules suddenly imposed in those countries. “Your one-week trip may become much longer,” she said.

However, as of yet there seems to be little discussion of any possible closures along the Canada-U.S. border. Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland said conversations with U.S. counterparts on Thursday highlighted “how important that border is for both of our countries,” while Trump told reporters the border had not come up during his conversation with Trudeau. “I think what we have to remember is that viruses don't know borders,” Health Minister Patty Hajdu said. “A border is not going to contain the virus.”

The new measures come less than 24 hours after Trudeau’s wife tested positive for Covid-19 after returning from a trip to the U.K. and exhibiting mild, flu-like symptoms. Grégoire Trudeau is currently in quarantine, and the prime minister and their three children will remain in isolation for 14 days. Trudeau has no symptoms and therefore has not been tested for the virus.

Other parliamentarians, including International Trade Minister Mary Ng and NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh, are also in self-isolation after experiencing symptoms, though they have not been diagnosed with the virus. Natural Resources Minister Seamus O’Regan had also shown symptoms, but tested negative for coronavirus on Friday.

The federal government’s new approach to the coronavirus comes in the wake of tighter restrictions imposed by a number of provinces during the past 48 hours. All four of Canada’s largest provinces have now recommended canceling events with more than 250 people or have banned them outright, and Quebec and Ontario have both closed schools for at least two weeks. Trudeau spoke with provincial and territorial premiers on Friday afternoon, but at least one premier has already made clear he believes Ottawa isn’t doing enough. In a news conference before the call, Quebec Premier François Legault called on Trudeau to "rapidly limit the entry of visitors to Canada."

On Parliament Hill in Ottawa, the announcements came in a rush, landing in a city that has only seen a few cases of the virus so far, and where there’s a sense that the storm must be coming but somehow isn’t quite real. Just before noon, ministers and public health officials clustered together on a stage in the National Press Theatre, telling Canadians to stand two meters apart and not to gather in large groups. A large group of journalists faced them, sitting side-by-side, passing around a couple of microphones that got a quick wipe-down between each question.

And then, a few hours later, everything was quiet on the Hill, except for the strange vestiges of business-as-usual that hadn’t yet ground to a halt. At 3 p.m., two small groups of tourists were being led through the galleries overlooking the empty House of Commons, one numbering just three people. They were among the last visitors to be allowed in, before the building closes to the public.

Two floors below, the House of Commons cafeteria was shutting down for the day and staff were getting ready to leave. They didn’t know when they’d be back.

Lauren Gardner contributed to this report from Washington.