Reality Check: Canadian Federalism, Health Care and COVID-19

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Much has been written lately about the federal government’s “tardy” release of national data and modelling projections related to the current pandemic. Some have even suggested the reason for the perceived delay is deliberate, a form of censorship, or an “intellectually foolish” degree of secrecy and “opacity” that is “shocking” and “indefensible”.[1]

Nothing could be further from the truth. To begin with, health care is a provincial responsibility. Even those who favour a strong centralist brand of federalism, such as this author, cannot fail to recognize that health care – for better or worse –is indisputably the constitutional jurisdiction of the provinces.

The proof of this has never been more obvious than over the past few weeks, when each province has responded differently to this health crisis. As news reports are constantly pointing out, this lack of standardized response is reflected in the different measures each province has introduced, the different timing of their implementation and, most importantly from the perspective of the critics identified above, the different ways in which each province has accumulated and reported statistics. (Recall the huge one-day jump in cases reported recently by Quebec as it moved from one method of reporting to another, or Ontario’s initial reliance on local public health units to compile and announce data rather than to do so at the provincial level.) This is why the prime minister has repeatedly said that his government has every intention of releasing such national modelling information but only when his officials, who are working in consultation with the provinces, can “ensure they have the best data to be able to paint a clear picture.”[2] Put another way, there is no point in comparing apples and oranges. Sorting out the provincial variations in data and reporting time periods is a sophisticated exercise which will take time.

Nevertheless Canada is much better positioned to respond to this current pandemic as a result of the SARS crisis of 2003. That earlier crisis revealed a shocking lack of coordination between the federal and provincial governments on health-related issues, and afterwards led to numerous improvements in federal-provincial communication and coordination. The result is obvious now in the daily press briefings by officials across the country, all of whom repeatedly refer to each other and the fact that they have been consulting regularly.

At the federal level, as a direct response to the problems revealed by that earlier pandemic, the federal government established the Public Health Agency, created the post of Chief Public Health Officer and overhauled the archaic Quarantine Act, all of which have played prominent roles in recent weeks. In addition, the federal government has long had other important roles to play in protecting the health and safety of Canadians, roles which the provinces readily recognized must be implemented at the national level. It is the federal government that conducts research on the safety of new products, (for example by ensuring there are no carcinogenic dyes in lipstick or that breast implants will not disintegrate), and likewise the federal government will be responsible for ensuring the safety and efficacy of any new vaccine proposed for combatting this virus.       

The federal government has also taken the lead in acquiring vital protective clothing and equipment for health care providers and first responders across the country. This includes the many arrangements it has recently made with domestic manufacturers, who are now retooling their production lines, and the contracts it has signed with international companies already manufacturing these products such as 3M. It also includes the arrangements the government has made to ensure a reliable supply chain for delivery of these products to the locations in need, such as the recently-announced contract with Amazon Canada.    

Finally, the federal government has long been the major source of funding for researchers and scientists across the country, notably through its creation of centres of excellence and of the Canadian Institutes for Health Research. As a result the government was able to roll out a Covid-19 Rapid Research Competition in March which awarded 99 targeted grants for a total investment of $54.2 million in research related to areas such as vaccine development, transmission dynamics, and therapeutics.[3] Some encouraging progress has already been reported. Researchers at the University of Saskatchewan in Saskatoon, for example, are determining which animals may be used as models for human infection, while the university’s Vaccine and Infectious Disease Organization is building a pilot-scale plant on campus for vaccine development.

In short, the federal government has been active on the health care front during this pandemic, but it has also respected the jurisdiction of the provinces while working closely with them. When national data and projections are released in the near future, as promised by the prime minister, Canadians should have confidence that these figures will be based on the most accurate and up-to-date information available. 

[1] See for example Stuart Thomson’s article “Shocking and Indefensible: Feds Should Release National COVID-19 Modelling Information, Experts Say.” Ottawa Citizen. April 3, 2020.

[2] Op cit

[3] For a complete breakdown of subjects, regional and other allocation data, see the Canadian Institutes of Health Research dedicated website at