OTTAWA—Connie Wright has a good job as a Toronto aerospace worker, seniority and a house, but can’t help worrying that one economic bump could upset it all.
“I don’t feel secure … even with a good-paying job, I’ve had my struggles,” Wright said. “Yes, the economy is holding its own right now, but people are scared.”
For 33 years, Wright has worked at the Downsview plant that produces the Dash 8 aircraft, commuting more than an hour each way from her home north of Toronto. She enjoys the work, feeling a sense of pride every time she sees one of the planes fly overhead.
“They are just beautiful. It’s a piece of art,” she said.
Yet she harbours an unease about her economic future.
While the federal Liberals tout the benefits of new trade deals with the United States, the European Union and Pacific Rim nations, others see a potential downside to liberalized trade, making it easier for companies to move manufacturing out of Canada to cheaper jurisdictions.
Trade tensions with the U.S. over negotiations for a new NAFTA and steel and aluminum tariffs, just lifted, have also stirred uncertainty that is felt among workers.
“How many paycheques are we away from being in the same situation as tens of thousands of other workers in this province?” said Wright, who describes herself as an NDP supporter.
Those are jobs that have disappeared due to outsourcing, she said. In other cases, people have to juggle two or three minimum-wage jobs to make ends meet, Wright said.
She’s not alone in her concerns and federal politicians know it. Such economic jitters introduce a wild card into the coming election. It’s a potentially dangerous factor for the governing Liberals and represents an opportunity for the opposition parties, one they are already trying to leverage to their advantage.
This even though Canada’s economy has been performing well, at least until a slowdown in the final quarter of 2018 that is expected to dampen performance this year. The Bank of Canada forecasts Canada’s GDP to grow by 1.2 per cent this year, rising to about 2 per cent in 2020.
On Friday, Statistics Canada employment data revealed that 27,700 more jobs had been created in May. That brought the year-over-year job gains to 453,100, pushing the unemployment rate down to 5.4 per cent, the lowest level since 1976.
But the challenge for government is whether voters share the sense of optimism suggested by the numbers.
“People at the household level are not looking over economic trend charts and saying, ‘Well, the trend line is going in the right direction, therefore I feel great,’” said Shachi Kurl, executive director of the Angus Reid Institute.
“For many of them it’s about affordability; for many of them it’s about what is going out of their wallet come tax season and for many of them it’s about job security,” she said.
“When you have people not feeling it, one of two things is happening. One, they’re genuinely not feeling it, or two, there is a lack of connection or communication around how those good numbers directly relate to people,” Kurl said.
Kurl said the issue is less about “the” economy. Rather it’s “whose” economy: the notion that each Canadian will have their own perspective — and sense of optimism or pessimism — on economic issues, based on their own circumstances.
In that sense, an individual’s measure of economic performance may be their job prospects, their ability to enrol their kids in dance classes or hockey, or whether they can afford a bigger house, she said.
“Concerns about the economy mean different things to different people,” Kurl said.
Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer made the topic a theme of a keynote speech on the economy last month, saying that despite rosy economic numbers, the personal stories “paint a different picture.”
Too many Canadians feel close to the financial edge, overwhelmed by debt, he said. “People are barely getting by. And they’re definitely not getting ahead,” Scheer said.
Deputy Conservative leader Lisa Raitt said the economy will be a key election theme for the party. In her Milton riding, she said the concern is about rising living costs. But in Nova Scotia, the concern is jobs, said Raitt, a native of Cape Breton.
“Everyone is coasting along OK, but one bump in the road is going to get their attention. I don’t know where it’s going to come from. Is it taxes? Is it a loss of a job?” Raitt said in an interview.
“Everyone is being told you should be grateful the economy is doing well … but they don’t see a future of doing better for themselves,” Raitt said.
The Conservatives have laid out several proposals they say will help a family’s bottom line: scrapping the federal carbon tax, removing the GST from home heating and energy costs, and making parental benefits tax-free.
“What we’re going to do is talk to families specifically, talk about affordability, talk about how much money you have left at the end of the month,” Raitt said.
Federal New Democrats have also made the issue a priority, but they link economic anxiety to worries about climate change.
“People are concerned about the future, not only the future of our economy but the future of our planet,” said New Democrat MP Pierre-Luc Dusseault (Sherbrooke).
“Even though you might be in a comfortable position, a comfortable job, you know that there will be big change coming up because of climate change,” Dusseault, the NDP’s finance critic, said in an interview.
The NDP’s recently released strategy to curb climate change calls for $15 billion of federal investments in environmental initiatives that it says would create 300,000 jobs.
“People expect our government to lead the pack in that field and make the transition today,” Dusseault said, predicting the issue will be big in the coming election, especially in Quebec.
The Liberals came into this election year knowing it would be an issue they would have to tackle head on. Now with Parliament poised to rise and summer campaigning set to begin, Liberals privately concede that pitching the country’s economic performance during their time in power while at the same time addressing concerns will be a “fundamental challenge.”
Federal Finance Minister Bill Morneau told the Star that anxieties stem from transformations underway here in Canada and in other industrialized nations.
“The reality is that the increase in international trade and the advancements we’ve made in technology are hugely positive, but they create anxiety for people that are not necessarily seeing those opportunities and, in many cases, feel left behind,” Morneau said.
“Our approach has been to address it head on,” Morneau said as he prepared to board a flight for a weekend meeting of G20 finance ministers and central bank governors in Fukuoka, Japan.
One of the Liberals’ first moves was to trim the tax rate on incomes between about $45,000 and $90,000. In 2016, the government brought in the income-tested Canada child benefit — replacing tax credits and the Conservatives’ universal child benefit — that they say has helped lift children out of poverty.
Morneau pointed to more recent measures in the 2019 budget to help first-time homebuyers get into markets where rising prices have put ownership out of reach for many, as well as more than $1.7 billion in funding for skills training to help workers at various points in their careers.
Morneau said the Liberals will run on their track record and lay out new initiatives “that are the things we think we need to address moving forward.”
“We see this as the appropriate way to deal with it and frankly the opposite of what some others are doing not only in Canada but around the world, using those anxieties as a focal point for anti-establishment or populism,” he said.
“I think Canadians have seen some examples that they don’t like. They might not like the example of what is going on south of the border, they might not like what is going on in the United Kingdom and they really, in many cases, look at what’s going on with Doug Ford’s Ontario and see that it’s one where the slippery slope of continuous cuts looks pretty pessimistic,” Morneau said.
Will the economic issues be the ballot box question for voters this October when Canadians go to the polls? For some, it will be, said Kurl.
Politicians can campaign on the theme that the “land is strong, but if people aren’t feeling the land is strong, the land is not strong,” Kurl said. “It’s all about perception.”
Bruce Campion-Smith is an Ottawa-based reporter covering national politics. Follow him on Twitter: @yowflier