No politician wants to take the blame for mistakes, and certainly not for the illness or death of citizens. And they know bad luck or bad timing can befall governments as easily as people, sideswiping their best laid plans with unanticipated events like 9/11, the 2008 global recession or the fallout from Donald Trump’s election as U.S. president. They also know the party in power usually pays the price at the polls for these disasters, regardless of whether it is their fault, and even if no one else could have handled things differently.
The COVID pandemic is obviously one such unanticipated event, so Canadian politicians know their fate will likely hinge on how they handle this unprecedented crisis. In the early days of the pandemic most premiers wisely presented a united front with the federal government to reassure Canadians. But their initial cooperation and Team Canada mantra of “we are all in this together” has faded fast in the last few months. Increasingly it has been replaced by a shameful display of finger-pointing based on half-truths and deliberate misrepresentation of facts. Why has this happened?
The simple answer is that we are now more than a year into the current pandemic and Canadians are much less willing to cut those in power any slack, especially after some egregious examples of “do as I say, not do as I do” behaviour. This obviously makes it much harder for politicians to accept responsibility for the continuing human tragedy and economic hardship wrought by this pandemic if they hope to be re-elected. Still, improving their government’s performance, transparency and communications with citizens are all positive ways to enhance their prospects, although this requires hard work and tough decisions. Resorting to blatant partisan attacks and peddling misinformation is much easier. Sadly, some provincial premiers are turning to this last resort in order to escape the political consequences of their own failures.
It is no coincidence that those doing most of the finger pointing are also those whose governments have the worst records in this crisis. Atlantic premiers and the NDP government of John Horgan in BC have been noteworthy in their support of the federal government, and also have the best records in the pandemic battle. All three prairie premiers have received failing grades for their handling of the pandemic in public opinion polls, as has Ontario premier Doug Ford.[i] Both Ford and Alberta’s Jason Kenney also saw their low approval ratings fall even further with revelations that several of their cabinet and caucus members flouted public safety recommendations by traveling outside the country for winter holidays while most of their citizens remained dutifully hunkered down in place. These premiers have led the charge in blaming the federal government for all manner of imaginary failings in order to deflect attention from their own incompetence and bad decisions.
Many in the media are aiding and abetting these premiers by following their example, criticizing the federal government, highlighting the premiers’ negative attacks and/or failing to provide balanced or informed analysis. This emerging culture of blame is not only counterproductive but, left unchecked, poses a serious long-term threat to national unity. And it already appears to be having an impact. Where once public confidence in the national government’s handling of the crisis was high (up to 78%) Canadians’ confidence in the federal response has now sunk to less than 50% while approval levels for even poorly-performing provinces now have risen to roughly 55%.[ii]
The consequences for public health are significant. If citizens are convinced by misinformation to attribute blame (and constitutional responsibility) incorrectly, they will be less likely to focus on more important and immediate issues and demand appropriate action from those in a position to make a difference. In this context it is clearly crucial that Canadians have a solid understanding of the actual roles and responsibilities of both levels of government in managing this pandemic, as well as the history behind some current issues the premiers are promoting for their own benefit, at the expense of issues in their own domain that they choose to ignore.
To begin with, provincial governments have by far the most important role to play in managing this pandemic. As constitutional experts have repeatedly stressed, health care is an undisputed area of provincial jurisdiction. The provinces, not the federal government, are responsible for hospitals, public health units, long-term care homes and the distribution and administration of vaccines. They are also responsible for determining the extent and nature of emergency measures, such as lock downs, and for providing economic relief programs, such as paid sick leave for vulnerable employees. And in doing so, they are expected to follow the advice of their scientific and public health experts.
Seen in this light it is surely striking that the provinces with the worst records are those that have failed to take effective action to protect seniors in long term care homes or to improve conditions in schools, (even with the advance warning about the second wave), just as they have resisted calls for lock downs and then, belatedly, imposed minimal or even “voluntary” restrictions on residents. They have also steadfastly rejected the unanimous calls of medical experts to introduce paid sick leave provisions for workers, the measure often described as the single most important tool available to them to control the virus until widespread vaccination is achieved.[iii] They also have publicly disagreed on several occasions with their own expert advisers. (Ontario premier Doug Ford’s decision to loosen restrictions in mid-February, for example, was met with outright disbelief by one of his senior public health officials, who cautioned that the data pointed to imminent spikes in cases due to new variants of the virus.)[iv]
It is striking also to note that all of these poorly-performing provinces are led by conservative premiers who often appear to give more weight to the needs of the business community than others. In Alberta, premier Jason Kenney was still condoning and even promoting ‘safe’ foreign travel as a means of supporting the struggling local airline Westjet when everyone else had long ago urged that such travel be curtailed.[v] Meanwhile in Ontario one of premier Doug Ford’s first acts after his party was elected in 2018 was to eliminate the provision for two paid sick days that the previous Liberal government had introduced. Another was to cut $34 million from publicly owned long-term care facilities and remove the requirement for frequent inspection of private LTC homes. In the initial stage of the pandemic, he also removed the requirement for training of staff in private LTC homes. (Fully 58% of such LTC homes in Ontario are now privately owned as a result of a privatization drive under a previous Conservative premier, Mike Harris.) [vi]Perhaps most damning has been Ford’s steadfast refusal to introduce paid sick leave despite the unanimous consensus among health care professionals that such a move is essential to slow the community spread of the virus until widespread vaccination has been completed.
Despite their reluctance to act on many fronts to stem the impact of the virus, these same premiers have repeatedly demanded more financial aid from the federal government. On September 18, 2020, just days before the federal Throne Speech, four provincial premiers went all the way to Ottawa to hold a press conference. There they demanded $28 billion more in funding from the federal government for health care. They also insisted that it should be provided to them with no strings attached. As Ontario premier Doug Ford said “Give us the money, and we’ll deliver health care in the most effective, efficient way. We all have our different needs.” In response, Nova Scotia’s Stephen McNeil, who did not attend, said “They can target all of that funding to specific aspects if they want, whether it is mental health, wait times. We just need them to increase the level of funding.”[vii]
The four premiers’ demands fell on deaf ears for a reason. As the federal Throne Speech of September 23 took great pains to stress, in addition to the hundreds of billions of dollars the federal government had already committed for social safety net programs for individuals and businesses, it had already handed over $500 million to the provinces specifically for health care measures in the early days of the pandemic.
Then in late fall 2020, when these same premiers’ testing and contact tracing efforts during the second wave were widely criticized as far too slow and disorganized, when outbreaks in LTC homes again soared and teachers complained of unsafe classrooms, their common response was to blame the federal government for a lack of equipment or funds. Yet the federal government had announced a Safe Restart program in July 2020 which expressly provided some $19 billion to the provinces for testing, contact tracing and acquisition of personal protective equipment as priorities, along with provisions for paid sick leave and expanded child care facilities. Ontario’s Doug Ford happily noted that his province alone would receive some $7 billion through this agreement. The puzzling lack of progress over the next four months was finally explained in mid-February 2021 when it was revealed that several of these provinces, and especially Ontario, were hoarding much of this money rather than dispensing it as intended.[viii]
Similar scenarios unfold almost daily. It was these premiers, for example, who berated the federal government for failing to first approve and then provide them with rapid testing kits. The initial response from federal Public Health Agency (PHA) professionals was that the tests were too unreliable to be useful, resulting in many false negative and false positive readings which could actually be counterproductive. Still the premiers persisted. Eventually three types of rapid test were approved by PHA and the federal government distributed 18.9 million kits to the provinces. Several months later only 3 million had been put to use and most were sitting idle in storage facilities, primarily because premiers now had different priorities and many provincial health authorities had determined that the tests were indeed not helpful due to the high number of false negative and positive tests.[ix]
Western premiers such as Jason Kenney and Bryan Pallister have also joined Ontario premier Doug Ford in blaming the federal government for the rapid spike in cases during the second wave because of its “failure” to adequately monitor and control the entry of passengers at airports until recently. This blithely ignores the fact that data consistently demonstrate less than 1% of cases can be traced to foreign travel, and that Canada already has among the strictest entry measures in place worldwide. The premiers and media also frequently point to the case of Australia, ignoring the very different situation its leaders faced given its relative isolation and the benefits of being an island, to say nothing of the various draconian measures politicians have put in place there, none of which these premiers have been willing to consider. They also conveniently ignore the fact that Australia, like New Zealand, has yet to begin its vaccination program.[x]
Similarly, in the early stage of vaccine distribution and administration in late December and early January, some provinces were noteworthy for their ability to target LTC homes and to administer shots quickly and efficiently while others were not. Here again Ontario as well as the prairie provinces failed to impress. Widespread criticism of the slow and somewhat chaotic rollout of vaccinations in Ontario began in December and intensified after the premier announced a one-week “pause” in vaccinations over the Christmas holidays.[xi]
Perhaps not surprisingly, the beleaguered Ford seized on the temporary delay in vaccine deliveries announced over a month later — in late January — to mount a concerted attack on the federal government as the principal cause of his province’s poor vaccination record. Along with his accusations of federal incompetence for failing to secure foolproof delivery guarantees from manufacturers, the Ontario premier also stressed the lack of domestic vaccine manufacturing capacity and implied that this too was the fault of the federal government. This theme was then quickly picked up and expanded upon by various Conservative MPs as well as Alberta premier Jason Kenney, and the media followed suit.[xii]
Apart from the obvious fact that such attacks are not productive in resolving a difficult situation and only serve to increase public anxiety, they are deliberately misleading. It is hardly the fault of the Trudeau Liberals that there is now no domestic manufacturing capacity in this country. It was Brian Mulroney’s Progressive Conservative government in the 1980’s that privatized and then sold off a genuine Canadian success story, Connaught Laboratories. A world-renowned leader in vaccine research and production, Connaught played a key role in the development of polio vaccine in the 1950’s and was so well-regarded that WHO specifically requested its help to lead the global campaign to eradicate smallpox in the 1960’s. Although some private sector manufacturing remained after the demise of Connaught it depended on federal support for research, something that the Harper Conservative government drastically cut back once it came to power in 2006. As a result, between 2007 and 2011 Astra Zenecka, Johnson & Johnson, Merk’s and Sanofi either closed their operations in Canada or disbanded their research units through layoffs.
Acutely aware of this problem, federal officials negotiating the purchase of vaccines over the summer and fall of 2020 tried repeatedly, but unsuccessfully, to convince various manufacturers to produce their vaccines in Canada as part of their contractual agreement. All of them declined citing the lack of appropriate facilities. As for the unexpected delays in supply announced by Pfizer and Moderna in late January, their spokespersons repeatedly stated that such delays were a surprise to the producers as well, and that the altered delivery schedules affected not just Canada but all of their clients including the European Union. At the same time they assured Canadian officials that supplies would resume in time to meet their contractual obligations, and by mid-February shipments had in fact resumed.
Meanwhile other important facts have literally been drowned out in this firestorm of provincial criticism of the federal government, or simply ignored by the media. For example, to make up for this lack of manufacturing capacity the federal government not only purchased many times more doses than would be needed to vaccinate the entire population, (in fact more total doses than any other country), but it prudently spread its contracts among several manufacturers. And, in an effort to speed delivery, it also chose to sign contracts with the European-based production facilities of these manufacturers, due to the grave uncertainty of supply from their American facilities, due to President Trump’s repeated threats to prevent any American-made vaccines from leaving the country until vaccination there had been completed.
In the aftermath of the Biden victory, which restored a measure of normalcy to Canada-U.S. relations, the federal government also signed an agreement with American vaccine manufacturer Novavax to produce its vaccines in Canada at the National Research Council lab under construction in Montreal with federal funding and support. The federal government has always acknowledged that this production will come online after the current vaccination exercise is expected to be completed in September. At the same time the prime minister and his officials have stressed the importance of having such a publicly-owned facility in place in the event that booster shots or even ongoing annual shots are needed for this COVID virus, and for others in the future.
Yet despite their earlier hysteria over the lack of such domestic facilities, the response of the premiers and of many in the media, to this federal announcement has been nothing short of scornful. One editorial in the Globe and Mail declared “In response to a crisis in 2021, Mr. Trudeau has put forward a plan for 2022…All anyone can say for sure is that Tuesday’s announcement will have zero impact on the critical period between now and September”[xiii]
Clearly there is no pleasing some premiers or some media analysts. No one would suggest the federal response to the pandemic in its areas of responsibility has been perfect, but it has been far superior to that of many provinces and especially of Ontario and Alberta in their far greater roles. In view of public health predictions that it will be early fall at best before widespread vaccination of the Canadian population is completed, more focus should be placed on the performance of provincial premiers, and their ongoing failure to implement proven virus control and mitigation measures, rather than continuing to blame the federal government for imaginary failings.
[iii] “Get sick. Stay home. Get paid.” Globe and Mail. Editorial. Feb 10, 2021.
[iv] “Ontario’s New Math Doesn’t Add Up”. Globe and Mail. Editorial. Feb 17, 2021.
[vii] C Nardi. “We don’t want strings: premiers oppose conditions” National Post. June 6, 2020. https://nationalpost.com/news/canada/trudeau-says-hes-offered-provinces-14-billion-to-help-safely-restart-canada and https://globalnews.ca/news/7512981/coronavirus-premiers-health-care-meeting-preview/
[viii] https://ipolitics.ca/2021/01/26/ontario-sitting-on-billions-of-unspent-covid-relief-cash-report/ See also https://cupe.ca/ford-conservatives-sitting-billions-meant-schools-health-care-and-jobs-cupe-ontario
[xii] L. McQuaig. “When Canada Was a World Leader in Vaccine Research and Production”. Toronto Star. Nov 30, 2020. and Z.Lunn. “Trudeau Blames Conservatives for Canada’s Vaccine Manufacturing Decline” Huffington Post. Jan 30, 2021
[xiii] “A great vaccine plan for the year 2022.” Globe and Mail. Editorial. Feb.3, 2021.