Why Do Premiers Reject a National Pandemic Plan?

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As the pandemic lingers on, and the threat of a third wave looms large with the arrival of several far more contagious virus variants, the calls for a coordinated national approach to this crisis grow ever louder. Public health experts, scientists and medical practitioners are unanimous in expressing their concerns over the uneven level of restrictions imposed by different provinces, and by the lack of effective testing and contact tracing taking place across the country. Equally concerning to them are the different approaches taken by provinces in the distribution of vaccines.  In short, there appears to be little doubt from both a scientific and a practical point of view that a nationally coordinated pandemic response would be desirable.

However this has not happened, nor is it likely given the attitude of several premiers. This failure is hardly due to lack of effort on the part of the federal government. It has tried gentle persuasion, and the promotion of evidence-based decision-making, as well as offering figurative carrots through federal funding. The prime minister has repeatedly stressed that the federal government is ready to work with the premiers, to provide assistance when they request it, and to ensure there is no lack of funding for appropriate relief measures. In the early days of the pandemic both Quebec and Ontario took up the federal offer of assistance, calling for help from the Canadian military when their own prevention measures fell far short and thousands of lives were lost in long term care homes.  But since then many premiers remain stubbornly impervious to federal pleas for a common set of procedures and standards to address the most pressing issues of this crisis. Instead, a combination of political power struggles and ideological differences have proven insurmountable barriers to even the most minimal attempts at national coordination.

Take, for example, the recent revelation that many provinces have not yet implemented the national data collection and sharing program – Panorama — designed by the federal government for tracking infectious diseases and vaccinations. This program was developed and paid for by the federal government and provided to all provinces after the SARS epidemic, in anticipation of just such a future crisis. Yet, in the midst of the current pandemic, it turns out that so many provinces have failed to implement this system in whole or in part that “the end result is thirteen different vaccine-tracking systems, many of which do not communicate with each other or Ottawa.” [i]

Then of course there was Alberta premier Jason Kenney’s stubborn refusal to adopt the federally developed national contact tracing phone app in favour of an inferior “made-in-Alberta” solution which his own privacy commissioner declared would be a serious risk to individuals’ privacy. Even more problematic is Manitoba premier Brian Pallister’s recent announcement that he has decided to go it alone and commit substantial provincial funds to the purchase of a still-unapproved Canadian vaccine which will not be available for at least a year, despite the massive number of approved vaccine doses purchased by the federal government and already delivered or committed to his province. And what can anyone say logically about the implacable refusal of Ontario premier Doug Ford to provide paid sick leave for vulnerable workers, even though experts have described this as the single most important tool for limiting community spread, and despite the federal government imploring him and other premiers to do so by offering financial support in their July “Safe Re-start” aid package?    

As earlier columns outlined in detail, under the constitution the responsibility for health care lies with the provinces. Provincial premiers have been zealous in protecting their jurisdiction, even as they have asked the federal government for more money, but with no strings attached. For many of them the term “minimum national standards” is anathema. In the case of right-wing conservative premiers such as Jason Kenney, Scott Moe and Doug Ford, they have also zealously followed their ideological preferences for minimal state intervention by refusing to provide paid sick leave, or by introducing only limited restrictions on their residents very late in the day, (many of them merely “voluntary”), and then lifting them far too soon.

Of course the federal government does have one constitutional weapon left in its toolbox, namely the imposition of the National Emergencies Act. In the face of continued provincial recalcitrance, some experts, journalists and politicians have called repeatedly for it to do so.[ii] In the early days of the pandemic the prime minister raised this as a possibility with the premiers, while stressing that he would only consider this move as a last resort and only after consulting  them. However the premiers, in a rare show of unanimity, immediately objected vociferously and made it clear that they considered the idea to be a “non-starter.” Arguing that they were perfectly capable of handling the crisis themselves, they warned that any attempt by the federal government to impose this “nuclear” option would result in a firestorm of controversy and non-compliance.[iii]

In a federation as large and diverse as Canada there are inevitably local and regional differences which benefit from the ability of provincial governments to address issues somewhat differently. However the concept of minimum national standards is one that has served Canadians well in our existing federal-provincial agreements on a range of subjects, and especially in health care. The federal government has consistently shown respect for provincial jurisdiction in its approach to this pandemic, but its attempts to craft a nationally coordinated approach to issues such as vaccine distribution or conditions in long term care homes, through consultation and consensus, have fallen on deaf ears. Rather than participate in constructive discussions the premiers have chosen to fight turf wars and engage in partisan bickering while Rome burns.  

[i] J Ling. “Provinces Working with Outdated Vaccination Data Systems” Globe and Mail. Feb 22, 2021.

[ii] Amier Attaran. “Trudeau Needs a Covid-19 Emergency Order: Here’s How to Do It” Macleans. Nov. 27, 2020; Vincent Lam. “Canada Must Invoke the Emergencies Act Now” Globe and Mail. Nov. 30, 2021.; Susan Riley. “No More Mr. Nice Guy” Hill Times, Feb. 8, 2021

[iii] “Need for Emergencies Act Rejected by Premiers”. CBC.ca. April 20, 2020. https://www.cbc.ca/news/politics/emergencies-act-premiers-consensus-1.5529119