Capital Dispatch: Your Biden visit preview

Everything you need to know about what's happening on the Hill this week.
March 19, 2023
Capital Dispatch

Biden is coming to town, and is a House interference showdown ahead? 

Could the House of Commons be in for a confidence vote and a speech from the U.S. President in the same week?

With the high-stakes and highly-political fight over how to best handle the issue of foreign interference set to continue playing out alongside the high-profile visit of Joe Biden, this week is shaping up to be one for the history books.

Here's what you need to know to be on top of it all.

The week ahead

U.S. President Joe Biden will be making his first official visit to Canada as president this week, and oh are there preparations underway.

From Ottawa setting up the necessary security and logistical accommodations, to the diplomatic and ceremonial aspects of his two-day tour of the nation's capital. 

Here's what I can tell you ahead of the official itinerary being issued: 

Biden is arriving on Thursday and will be delivering a speech to Parliament on Friday. Two other typical features of official visits to expect: a joint media availability and a fancy dinner.
He will of course be meeting with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, but also other federal ministers. Meant to "reaffirm" the two countries' close ties, the visit between two friends is likely to echo that of former Democratic U.S. president Barack Obama's in 2016.  

As for the substance of what'll be on the agenda, my colleague Will Dugan in our Washington Bureau has published a top-down comprehensive policy piece detailing the hot cross-border topics the two world leaders are set to talk about. 

Plus, this full transcript of U.S. Ambassador to Canada David Cohen's pre-visit conversation with CTV's Question Period host Vassy Kapelos is worth a read. 

The other major thing to keep an eye on this week: A fresh round of parliamentary focus on the foreign interference story.

Armed with an anonymous Globe and Mail op-ed from a whistleblower and more discussion around David Johnston's rapporteur mandate, I'm not expecting the opposition to let up in the days ahead. 

If you thought that Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's blunt and highly-critical call-out of the Conservatives' politicization of an issue as important as Canadians' confidence in elections may have appealed to Conservative Leader Pierre Poilievre to rethink his tone, well, think again. 

The Conservatives are about to attempt an end-run around the Procedure and House Affairs Committee (PROC) Liberal filibuster, to see if they can get the House to vote on calling Trudeau's chief of staff Katie Telford to testify before a different House committee. Monday is one of two opposition days scheduled this week the Conservatives have given notice that this is the motion they'll be forcing the House to debate. 

To decode the procedural speak a bit, the Official Opposition are essentially forcing a vote -- not tomorrow but as early as Tuesday -- on whether the House instructs the ethics committee to strike a foreign interference study of its own. In addition to Telford the motion calls for testimony from numerous officials that PROC has already heard from, to say all that they can/can't say... again. Plus, Trudeau Foundation folks, and Canada's ambassador to China. 

It's going to be interesting to see how the NDP respond to this. Alone the Conservatives and the Bloc won't have the votes to see it pass without them, and the New Democrats have wanted to hear from Telford and have more airing of the facts around interference done in public, which this committee study would allow.

However, if Trudeau makes this a confidence vote then New Democrats' hands would be tied unless they want to end the confidence-and-supply agreement, which I don't think they do right now, as NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh has already indicated he's got key budget asks he's trying to leverage.

In weighing whether this motion is confidence vote-worthy Trudeau would likely be considering whether risking forcing the country into an election over an election interference controversy is the right move. Either way, it's shaking up to be another interesting week for those following this file. 

And, what a week for former Conservative prime minister Stephen Harper to show up in Ottawa.

That's right, according to the conference schedule for the Canada Strong and Free Network, Harper will be delivering a keynote address on Wednesday evening, followed by a fireside chat with Preston Manning, to discuss "the 30th anniversary of the Reform Party electing its first MP to Ottawa and the legacy of the Reform Party. Curious if he'll be sticking around for Biden. 

The only government bill the Liberals have signalled will be up for debate this week is Bill C-23, the Historic Places of Canada Act. That leaves me with one big question: What about Bill C-11? After making clear his plans to take some but not all of the Senate's changes, Heritage Minister Pablo Rodriguez has yet to indicate when his motion will come to a vote. Once it does, and should it pass (rather than the Conservatives' motion to scrap it) then the Senate showdown could begin. 

Of note for those of you still aghast at the state of air travel in this country, NDP MP Taylor Bachrach has plans Monday to present his plan to improve the system for passengers experiencing delays. He's got a press conference scheduled for the morning where he'll be joined by airline passenger rights advocate Gabor Lukacs and others to outline how they think the system can be fixed, ahead of Transport Minister Omar Alghabra's promised passenger rights reforms.  

Lastly, in case you had it penciled into your calendar for this week, Auditor general Karen Hogan's tabling of four performance reports has been bumped from Thursday, to next Monday.

Here's what she'll be reporting on: Accessible transportation for persons with disabilities; connectivity in rural and remote areas; rehabilitation of Parliament's Centre Block; and international assistance in support of gender equality.  


Not to be missed

Poilievre pledges lawsuit against big pharma

Poilievre said last week that if he were to be elected prime minister he would launch a $44-billion lawsuit against pharmaceutical companies to account for what he calls their role in the opioid epidemic. As CTV News' Spencer Van Dyk reports, he said that a Poilievre government would join, as a plaintiff, an existing class-action lawsuit filed by British Columbia, seeking an additional $4 billion in damages to the federal health-care system, and launch "a separate federal lawsuit to go after non-health costs, like border security, prisons, Indigenous programming, etc."

Duheme named interim RCMP commissioner 

The federal government has named Michael Duheme as the interim commissioner of the RCMP, as the search continues to find Brenda Lucki's permanent replacement. Friday was Lucki's last day on the job, and it remains to be seen how long former deputy commissioner Duheme will be on duty in the top job, as seemingly a month after Lucki said she was leaving, the Liberals still haven't articulated the process to identify the next commissioner. 

Dany Fortin suing PM and feds for $6M 

Maj.-Gen. Dany Fortin has filed a $6-million lawsuit against the government and several high-ranking federal officials, including Trudeau. He's alleging defamation, misfeasance in public office, negligent investigation and more, in relation to his removal as the head of Canada's COVID-19 vaccine rollout in 2021. Fortin was dropped after being accused of sexual assault in connection with a historical allegation dating back to 1988 --  a charge he was acquitted of in court last December. In his statement of claim, Fortin alleges that he suffered damages as a result of how top political and government officials handled his case, "tainted by considerations of political expediency, by unfairness and by lack of due process." The government has said it is reviewing the claim but wouldn't be commenting further. 

Popular e-petition asks for pre-existing trans protections 

And, more than 130,000 people have signed an e-petition calling on Canada to give transgender and non-binary people fleeing harmful laws in their home countries the right to claim asylum, but that's already possible in this country. Despite the e-petition asking for Canada to allow asylum claims on grounds that are already established, it's currently garnered the most signatures by far of any current petitions on the House of Commons' site, from all provinces and territories. 

On notice

Then there are all the insights and intrigue committees provide. Obviously we'll be watching to see where the Liberal-led Procedure and House Affairs Committee filibuster goes on Tuesday, pending the outcome of the aforementioned Conservative opposition motions.

On Monday, the House Agriculture and Agri-Food Committee will continue its look at food price inflation, hearing from the Assembly of First Nations, the Daily Bread Food Bank, and the Canadian Taxpayers Federation, among others. 

Also happening tomorrow: a nighttime meeting of the Special Committee on the Canada-China Relationship. Among the witnesses on the roster: former chief of the Asia-Pacific unit at the Canadian Security Intelligence Service Michel Juneau-Katsuya, and president of Canada-Hong Kong Link Gloria Fung. 

On Tuesday Bill C-35, the Liberal effort to cement their child care approach in law, will be discussed at the House Human Resources, Skills and Social Development Committee. Witnesses include daycare centre operators and the Canadian Labour Congress. 

Then on Thursday, the House Health Committee will hear from Health Minister Jean-Yves Duclos and Minister of Mental Health and Addictions Carolyn Bennett as well as top officials from the Canadian Food Inspection Agency, Public Health Agency of Canada, and Canadian Institutes of Health Research about the supplementary estimates -- basically how they plan to spend more money they're getting. 

As for what's of note from the Senate committee roster: on Monday, the Senate National Security, Defence and Veterans Affairs Committee will hear from a long list of academics and officials on matters of national security and defence, including from the Canadian Centre for Cyber Security at the Communications Security Establishment. 

On Tuesday, the Senate Indigenous Peoples Committee will hear from Kimberly Murray, the independent special interlocutor for missing children and unmarked graves and burial sites associated with Indian residential schools.

On Wednesday, the Senate Foreign Affairs and International Trade Committee will hear from former prime minister and former minister of foreign affairs Joe Clark as part of that panel's ongoing look at the Canadian foreign service. 

And, the Senate Legal and Constitutional Affairs will hear from Justice Minister David Lametti on Wednesday about Bill C-9 regarding the Judges Act, where it wouldn't be out of the question to think he'll be asked about the investigation into Supreme Court Justice Russell Brown. 

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