Refugees, powerful women and food: how federal politics touched us this week

OTTAWA – Official Ottawa was on the edge of its seat all week, anxious to see how the CETA soap opera would end. Would the Walloons sabotage the free trade agreement between Canada and Europe that had been seven years in the works? Could Wallonia be bought? Was the conflict exaggerated just because journalists loved writing the word “Walloon”?

Belgium seems to be satisfied with extra assurances on investors’ rights, and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is expected to be on his way to Europe soon to sign off on the deal.

But not before he had to face two rounds of protest — first from anti-pipeline activists on Parliament Hill, then from young people who turned their backs to him when he attended a youth labour conference to take questions.

Beneath the noise, government officials and politicians were making concrete decisions that touched on refugees, the influence of women in business and the food we eat.

Here are a few ways politics affected Canadians this week:


For months, the Liberals have resisted pleas from the Conservatives to make special allowances and prioritize the admission of Yazidi refugees to Canada. The Yazidis are a religious minority from Iraq who have been exposed to some of the most brutal treatment by the Islamic State — rape, torture, murder on a large scale. But because they live in remote areas, they have not always been able to seek refuge in camps sanctioned by the United Nations.

This week, the Conservatives were suddenly able to convince the Liberals to commit to start bringing in Yazidis within 120 days. We don’t yet know how many, or what type of government program will be used to bring them to Canada.

Why the change of heart? Backroom politics. The Liberals have opposed the Conservative lobbying on Yazidis in the past, mainly because the government’s policy is to help refugees selected by the United Nations rather than hand-pick a specific group.

But Conservative MP Michelle Rempel, with the help of a dynamic former Yazidi sex slave who flew to Ottawa for a few strategic days, was able to find enough sympathetic Liberal backbenchers to back her cause that the front bench had little choice but to follow.

It’s a recipe that will no doubt be copied.


The Liberals are concerned about the lack of women in senior positions at Canadian companies, partly because companies tend to do better when they have a diverse selection of bosses. So this week, they picked up on an initiative begun under the Conservative government, pushing forward legislation that would force publicly traded companies to disclose the gender composition of their boards and senior management.

If companies don’t disclose their diversity policies and also tell their shareholders how many senior women they have, they would be forced to explain why not.

The Conservatives’ 2015 budget contained mention of the same initiative.

But legislation without firm targets is too timid, according to Catalyst, a non-profit organization that advocates for women in the workplace. Ontario has already gone in that direction.

Economic Development Minister Navdeep Bains said Ottawa may well go there too, eventually. But first, he wants to see how the name-and-shame approach works.


The government-authored guide that so many educators use to teach Canadians good eating habits is up for review — and not a moment too soon, according to senators who have been studying obesity.

Health Minister Jane Philpott announced on Monday that the influential Canada’s Food Guide needs an update to reflect the latest scientific evidence, especially since six out of 10 adults in Canada are considered overweight. There’s a high risk that most of us will eventually be susceptible to cancer, heart disease or Type-2 diabetes, all of which could be linked to the food we choose.

A Senate report found that Canadians don’t get enough fruit, vegetables, whole grains or milk; and we eat too much sugar, fat and sodium.

Consultations start now, and changes will come by the end of 2018 — even though they will have an impact on Canada’s burgeoning food and beverage industry, Philpott said.

That’s a discreet shot across the bow to the industry. Pressure from business in the past has led the federal government to opt, on occasion, for voluntary guidelines rather than iron-clad rules that would force conformity in food manufacturing.