Fact vs Ideology in Canada’s Covid Politics

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Here are two phrases to live by: “Not all opinions are created equal” and “Those who forget their history are doomed to repeat it.”

Sadly, in Canada both of those warnings have never been more relevant than during the second wave of the pandemic, although they are hardly limited to healthcare issues alone.

In recent months, for example, the leader of the Bloc Quebecois has described the federal government’s response to the 1970 FLQ crisis as an “armed occupation” of his province. Yet every student of history should know that the Trudeau government only intervened with great reluctance, after both the mayor of Montreal, Jean Drapeau, and the premier of Quebec, Robert Bourassa, had pleaded with him in writing to send in the army to re-establish order.

Then there was the farcical example of Alberta premier Jason Kenney criticizing the federal equalization formula, a formula introduced by the Conservative government of Stephen Harper in which Kenney himself was a cabinet minister at the time.  At least the new federal Conservative leader, Erin O’Toole, apparently recognized that his newly-found enthusiasm for labour unions and the working class would strain credulity after decades of deliberate attacks on public and private-sector unions by the Mulroney and Harper governments. Yet he spent the bulk of a Labour Day speech attempting to convince Canadians that that was then and this is now.

And so it is hardly surprising, but very concerning, to see the numerous unsubstantiated or patently false claims being made by various right-wing conservatives during this second wave, as they put ideology ahead of facts and science at the expense of citizens’ health and safety as well as social cohesion. Here again Alberta’s Jason Kenney has taken the lead. First claiming the virus was merely another form of the flu, he then defended his unconscionable failure to act, framing it as a defence of individual rights rather than a slavish deference to the marketplace and powerful business lobbies. Kenney has much to answer for. His province currently has the highest per capita infection rate in the country and there is no end in sight. By now, even he appears to be aware of his precarious position, but his response is once again to lash out at the federal government rather than take appropriate measures himself. This time he has criticized the Trudeau government for the country’s lack of domestic vaccine production capacity, even though the demise of Canada’s pharmaceutical industry took place under the Conservative regimes of Brian Mulroney and Stephen Harper. Apparently ignorant of their history, or else deliberately casting false aspersions, Kenney’s claim was taken up by Conservative MP Michelle Rempel Garner, who accused the Liberals of “gross incompetence” for this lack of facilities, despite the fact that it was Mulroney who privatized the world class Connaught Laboratories in 1986 and allowed its sale three years later to a French conglomerate. The trend continued under Harper, when the few remaining companies were either sold off or left the country voluntarily due to lack of government support.

Meanwhile Ontario premier Doug Ford’s veneer of non-partisan folksy charm should surely be wearing thin as his claims to have scrupulously followed the advice of public health experts has been repudiated by a senior Public Health Ontario official who was involved in the preparation of his infamous colour-coded regional chart. Similarly his government’s overall weak response to the pandemic has been severely criticized by the Ontario Auditor General. Yet much less attention has been paid to the fact that it was Ford’s government, in its first budget after being elected in 2018, that cut $34 million from public long-term care, removed the requirement for frequent inspection of private LTC homes and, in the initial stage of the pandemic, removed the requirement for training of staff in private LTC homes.

Evidently sensing his support is waning, Ford has also begun criticizing the federal government after an initial period of seeming solidarity, for example by unreasonably suggesting that minute details of the planned vaccine rollout should have been made available much earlier, and by raising unwarranted fears that Canadians risk finding themselves “at the end of the line” for receipt of the vaccine. (This claim, of course, pales in comparison with that of Conservative Manitoba premier Brian Pallister’s own charge that providing vaccine to vulnerable indigenous communities in his province will place “Manitobans” at the end of the line….)

With Ontario’s daily new case counts heading for the stratosphere along with Manitoba and Alberta, it is not difficult to imagine that an enhanced campaign of blame, misdirection and fear will not only continue but increase dramatically. This fear is also being stoked by individuals such as Conservative MP and failed leadership candidate Derek Sloan, who has used his public podium to promote an anti-vaxxer petition which had garnered 29,000 signatures by December 7. Asked for his views on the petition — sponsored by his own backbencher — leader Erin O’Toole merely stated that he did not agree with it and then proceeded to blame the Trudeau government for the petition’s success, arguing it was due to the Liberals’ failure to convince Canadians the vaccine is safe. 

With the rollout of the vaccine now imminent, one would hope Conservative politicians across Canada take note of the fact that their citizens have borne the brunt of the pandemic. If they are unable to put aside partisan squabbling in order to facilitate a smooth delivery operation, no amount of re-writing of history will save them from the wrath of voters, nor should it.