He is the President of the Treasury Board and the vice-chair of the federal cabinet committee on COVID-19, but deep down, Jean-Yves Duclos is still a professor.
A graduate of the London School of Economics, Mr. Duclos was the head of the department of economics at Laval University before he went into politics in 2015. As he talks about his role at the forefront of the federal response to the coronavirus crisis, the 55-year-old minister sometimes sounds like he is back in front of a university classroom.
Mr. Duclos compares and contrasts the current situation to the Great Depression of the 1930s and the stagflation of the 1970s, before explaining the series of economic and social shocks now affecting Canada. Throughout his explanations, he talks about the need for a human approach to the problems facing Canadians who are struggling to make ends meet or to care for their loved ones.
“There is a mix of economy and sociology in what we are going through,” he said in an interview. “The key messages are trust and empathy. Trust in the sense that we absolutely want to preserve the population’s confidence in their health-care system and our long-term economic prospects. But secondly, we have to continue to look out for one another.”
During the first Liberal mandate, from 2015 to 2019, Mr. Duclos was the Minister of Families, Children and Social Development. He was put in charge of turning social policies he had studied in academia into new or improved social programs, creating the Canada Child Benefit and working on issues such as housing and poverty.
Appointed to Treasury Board after the 2019 general election, Mr. Duclos seemed destined to work in the shadows as the head of the federal department that oversees government spending and program delivery. One of the previous holders of the job, former Liberal minister Scott Brison, has described being at Treasury Board as akin to getting a “profile-hectomy” because of the lack of political visibility that comes with the position.
The coronavirus crisis, however, has turned the thoughtful, studious and rational Mr. Duclos into a key government spokesman at daily ministerial briefings and during frequent French and English-language media appearances.
Mr. Duclos has also been heavily involved in developing and delivering tens of billions of dollars in emergency funding to workers affected by the crisis and companies struggling to stay afloat. The new Canada Emergency Response Benefit (CERB), which will offer $2,000 a month to individuals who lose their jobs and have to stay home, is a perfect example of an imperfect policy developed in a time of crisis.
The eligibility criteria are highly flexible, and the payouts are the same regardless of the amount of income someone loses during the crisis. The new program will be launched in the coming days, with Ottawa estimating that four million Canadian workers will apply online or through an automated telephone system.
“The two key criteria are emergency and speed, and when you do things quickly, they are rarely perfect. I think Canadians understand that. They want the federal government to act quickly and to adjust as need be,” he said.
Mr. Duclos said the CERB was designed to ensure that “no one would be left behind,” explaining that Employment Insurance was not designed to cover the millions of people affected by a crisis like the COVID-19 pandemic. In addition, he said workers will be able to receive the CERB even if they have not been laid off.
“When the economy starts to recover, it will be easier for companies if they can bring back the same employees to work,” he said.
Mr. Duclos added that other measures are in the works, including stabilizing supply chains across the country and keeping key industries in Canadian hands. Sectors of the economy being considered for federal help include oil and gas, tourism and hospitality, and airlines.
"We want Canadians to continue to control certain sectors of the economy that are in the national interest,” he said.
Asked about being a minister in a time of crisis, Mr. Duclos said there is no training to get prepared for the current circumstances.
″Even though my previous life prepared me very well to do many things, one is never fully ready to deal with a crisis that is unlike anything we have seen in the history of the country," he said.
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