PM says Liberals will always defend charter, as Ford prepares to override it

PM says Liberals will always defend charter, as Ford prepares to override it

SASKATOON — Justin Trudeau kicked off a Liberal caucus retreat Wednesday with a distinct election flavour, including a ringing declaration that his party will always stand up for the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

The prime minister did not mention Ontario Premier Doug Ford, but his assertion came just as the Ford government reintroduced legislation to reduce the size of Toronto's city council — using the Constitution's notwithstanding clause to override the charter.

"Our government will always stand up for the rights of Canadians and will always respect the Charter of Rights and Freedoms," Trudeau said in French as he opened the two-day caucus retreat.

"I think that bears repeating," he added before reiterating the same pledge in English.

The caucus retreat is aimed at plotting strategy for next week's resumption of Parliament, but Trudeau's opening remarks left little doubt the Liberals are also preparing for the next federal election just over a year from now.

They also signalled who Trudeau sees as the Liberals' primary opponent — Conservatives, both federal and provincial. He made no mention of the NDP.

Trudeau opened the retreat by recounting his government's accomplishments since it came to power in 2015.

He boasted that the Canada Child Benefit has lifted more than 300,000 children out of poverty. And he said his government's middle class tax cut and investments in infrastructure have boosted the economy and resulted in "historically low" unemployment.

"Our focus from the very start has been real progress that makes a real difference in people's lives and delivers results for Canadians," he said.

By contrast, Trudeau accused Andrew Scheer's Conservatives of being "stubbornly" opposed to measures to help the middle class and to fight climate change, thus "jeopardizing the future of our planet and our kids."

What's more, he said, "they have absolutely no plan to grow our economy.

"After 10 years under Stephen Harper of slow growth, rising income inequality and inaction on the environment, they're offering the same flawed approach. Well, that's completely unacceptable," Trudeau said.

But it's not just federal Conservatives the Liberals are preparing to campaign against. With Trudeau's indirect dig at Ford over the charter, and his refusal during a later meeting with Saskatchewan Premier Scott Moe to back down from the federal carbon pricing plan, the Liberals signalled their readiness to campaign against right-leaning provincial parties as well.

"I was disappointed, to be honest," Moe said following his tete-a-tete with the prime minister.

"It's no secret that we've had a frosty relationship when it comes to economic files," he added, calling on the federal government to repeal its carbon pricing plan and legislation to beef up environmental impact assessments.

Moe's government is going to court to challenge the constitutionality of the federal plan to impose a tax on carbon emissions in those provinces that don't come up with their own carbon pricing scheme by January. Ford's government has vowed to join that challenge.

Just prior to Moe's meeting with Trudeau, federal Environment Minister Catherine McKenna made it clear Ottawa has no intention of budging on the issue.

"The prime minister's been extremely clear that if provinces don't take serious climate action ... we will have to step in and we will return the revenues to individuals directly," McKenna said, adding that Saskatchewan has the highest per capita emissions in the country.

Moe signalled that the federal Liberals will have another fight on their hands if they move to ban handguns and assault weapons in Canada — as some Liberal MPs, and city councils in Toronto and Montreal, are urging the government to do.

"Here in Saskatchewan, we come from a society where hunting and being outdoors is deeply ingrained. We would not endorse the banning of firearms here in the province," he said.

Joan Bryden, The Canadian Press