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Trudeau cites uncertainty around pandemic as reason for budget delay

OTTAWA — Prime Minister Justin Trudeau isn't saying when his government will provide a budget or fiscal update, citing economic uncertainty around COVID-19.

OTTAWA — Prime Minister Justin Trudeau isn't saying when his government will provide a budget or fiscal update, citing economic uncertainty around COVID-19.

The government's first budget since the fall election wasn't delivered in late March as originally planned when the House of Commons went on an extended hiatus as a result of the pandemic.

Trudeau says the government is having difficulty determining what's going to happen to the economy over the next few weeks, let alone the next year.

He says the government will look for ways to keep taxpayers apprised of spending.

Federal spending to combat the economic fallout from the pandemic is approaching $150 billion, not including tens of billions more in loans and tax deferrals to help companies cover costs, prompting an expected tenfold increase in this year's deficit.

On Tuesday, the parliamentary budget officer told a House of Commons committee the deficit would likely be more than $250 billion, up from the $28.1 billion estimated in the Liberals' fiscal update from late last year.

Yves Giroux also warned all that emergency aid, and possible spending to aid in a recovery, will likely shoot the national debt to $1 trillion.

"Unlike previous recessions or economic downturns, this is a situation that has no antecedent," Trudeau said Wednesday.

"It is a completely outside health issue that has caused us to choose to cease a massive amount of economic activity in this country to keep Canadians safe."

Trudeau made the comments after saying that seasonal and tourism companies that don't qualify for other federal programs, or that are still facing cash-flow issues, can get help through one of six regional development agencies.

The $962-million regional relief fund will also, in some cases, help non-profit groups that offer unique financing that entrepreneurs can't get from traditional lenders.

Perrin Beatty, president of the Canadian Chamber of Commerce, said in a statement the money will provide "desperately needed help" to small- and medium-sized businesses that have fallen through the cracks of federal aid programs.

"As we enter the third month of economic lockdown, many businesses that have not qualified for support urgently need help now. Unfortunately, for some it's too late," he said.

The most recent federal figures on a new wage subsidy program show the government has paid $3.36 billion in a few days to 123,642 companies, helping to cover payroll costs for almost 1.7 million employees.

About 95 per cent of the applications to the $73-billion program have been for $100,000 or more in help.

The Liberals have promised to extend the program beyond its June 6 end date. The Canadian Federation of Independent Business had asked for the extension, and its president said Wednesday that he hoped the government would quickly make changes to other federal programs.

"There are many firms who find themselves too small or with unique circumstances, preventing them from accessing other forms of support," Dan Kelly said in a statement. "For others, including tourism and hospitality businesses, the COVID-19 challenges will be far-reaching — particularly as tourism is expected to be very soft during the critical summer months."

Trudeau also said Wednesday that students will be able to begin applying Friday for a new emergency benefit that is part of a $9-billion package to catch students who haven't qualified for the $35-billion Canada Emergency Response Benefit.

The student benefit will be available for students who want to work but can't find jobs due to the pandemic. Postsecondary students and graduates can receive payments through to August. The duration of the benefit for eligible high-schoolers will be based on their graduation dates.

The CERB has so far paid out $30.5 billion in benefits to over 7.8 million people, based on the most recently published federal figures.

The Opposition Conservatives have been pressing the Liberals about potential fraud in the program. The government has said that anyone wrongly receiving payments will be dealt with at tax time next year.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 13, 2020.

Jordan Press, The Canadian Press