Q&A: Prime Minister Justin Trudeau on affordability in Canada

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is shown at a housing announcement in Dartmouth, N.S., on Tuesday. (CBC - image credit)
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is shown at a housing announcement in Dartmouth, N.S., on Tuesday. (CBC - image credit)

From housing to food prices to the carbon tax, affordability is proving to be a key issue for Canadians.

As the next federal budget draws near, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau joined host Jeff Douglas amid a series of announcements that provide a glimpse of what his government has in store.

Some of the questions and answers have been edited for length and clarity.

LISTEN | Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's full interview with Mainstreet:

The carbon tax rebate is there to encourage people to make greener choices, to choose to reduce their carbon emissions. But for many Canadians — especially in rural areas — those choices don't exist. Are we going to see something in the budget that addresses this?

We as a country have, for decades, not hit our carbon targets because governments have all said, 'Oh yes, we're signing on to international agreements,' and we've never actually been able to reduce our emissions because we haven't been able to uncouple economic growth from emissions going up. That's just the way it's always worked.

We got elected. We realized, OK, it's time a government actually attacked climate change and started reducing our emissions. But the problem — and why other governments had never done it — is because it always ends up landing on the middle class, on people who are having a hard time making ends meet. And you tell them, OK, you're going to have to change. It always costs a little more. So we designed the price on pollution systems so that yes, there is now an extra charge on polluting fuels, whether it's gas or home heating or whatever.

But we're going to return that rebate to Canadians and the amount works out so your average families ... and particularly low-income families, you are getting back more with the Canada carbon rebate then it costs you on average with that extra price on pollution. So we're fighting climate change and bringing people along. In rural areas, we recognize that and gave a 10 per cent top up. Now, incidentally, we just chose to boost that top up to 20 per cent, but that's being blocked in the House by Pierre Poilievre and his Conservatives, who are preventing the money from getting to rural families right ... because they don't like anything to do with the price on pollution.

So what we're doing is putting more money in people's pockets. Now what that means is if you can't do anything to change your pollution profile as a family, you're still going to be better off for eight out of 10 in cases across the country. If you can make slightly better choices, the amount of that rebate is larger because you're paying less in the price on pollution, so it encourages indirectly for people to make better choices.

For people to make these greener choices, are you making any concrete investments there?

We've had green home initiatives that'll give you supports and rebates on various initiatives whether it's insulation or a new furnace. One of the things we did that we recognized is the price signal of the price on pollution wasn't enough, wasn't big enough, wasn't clear enough to help the low income people who still rely on heating oil to be able to change their furnaces because we're talking about a $20,000 outlay.

So we suspended the price on pollution on home heating oil because it's dirtier and more expensive, and more vulnerable households tend to use it, and we're giving free heat pumps across Atlantic Canada and, indeed, across the country to low-income families, there's already 12,000 or so in Nova Scotia that are signed up for it. You get the $250 bonus once you do it.

So we're making it easy for people to make massive savings in their bill regardless of the carbon price. It actually is less expensive to heat with the heat pump.

Why is carbon pricing such a hard sell?

Let me flip that question on its head. Why are there so many people out there pushing misinformation on Canadians?

Why don't they trust you when you give them information?

That's a larger question, why they don't trust the mainstream media, why they don't trust politicians in general.

I think one of the things is certain politicians realize there is a lot of anger and frustration because times are tough ... people love to point fingers. Opposition parties or premiers who are Conservative who are happy to blame a federal Liberal government are busy talking about the fact that gas is going up by a couple of cents a litre because the price on pollution is going up, and don't talk about the fact that the rebate cheques people see four times a year are also going up because of that.

There is a choice to attack climate action and wrap it in affordability concerns that is totally disingenuous and they're taking Canadians for fools, and I refuse to do that ... we're bending our curve on emissions faster than any G7 country, we're actually putting more money in people's pockets, we're better on inflation than most of our peer countries. We are doing things well. The level of vitriol and attack on this by Conservatives who aren't putting any plan forward on fighting climate change and have no plan for affordability at the same time.

Is is frustrating to me, but my job is to keep doing the right things for Canadians.

In the context of young Canadians, they're hurting. What can you offer them for hope in terms of home ownership?

Young people actually, in general, have pretty good jobs.There are lots of great jobs out there. It's just the cost of rent, the cost of housing is going up so much faster. What should be the kind of job that allows you to build equity and buy a home is no longer matching that.

What's the solution?

Two things. Building more housing and that's what we're doing with the housing accelerator. We're changing zoning laws across the country for more density, to accelerate construction, to make sure there is more purpose-built rentals to make sure there is a pathway there.

If you have a young person who pays $2,000 per month for rent versus somebody else paying $2,000 a month on a mortgage, you get credit for being a reliable payer of your mortgage. You get no credit for being a reliable renter. That's something we're trying to change.

But people can't save for a down payment.

On saving up for a down payment, we've created the first-time home buyers incentive which is a savings account that is going to allow them, tax free, to accumulate money to be able to put down a down payment. We're also doing a lot more to build up supply, building up rentals, building up zoning for townhomes and duplexes and triplexes that you can actually own a place as a starter home you can start building equity around.

These are changes we're making across the country with 179 different agreements in municipalities. This next step, what I announced today, is around infrastructure that is going to build out the capacity to enlarge neighbourhoods. More wastewater treatment, more freshwater treatment. These are things that are necessary for developers and municipalities to build more homes.

How fast will this happen?

It's not going to happen tomorrow because we've got a lot of homes to build, but it will be in your future. We're going to put that back in the future for young people. And that takes investments, it takes partnership, it takes nudging the provinces to do more.