Richard Fadden is a former national security adviser to the prime minister. He was director of the Canadian Security Intelligence Service from 2009 to 2013 and served as deputy minister of national defence from 2013 to 2015.
As COVID-19 case counts continue to decline and Canada looks optimistically ahead to our future after pandemic restrictions are lifted, it may be time to also start looking back – specifically, at how this country handled the pandemic and how we should organize ourselves to deal with the next major disruptive event. The only way this can be done comprehensively and objectively is through the establishment of a public inquiry with national scope and freedom from political interference.
Two points can be made in favour of such an inquiry. The first is that it is indisputable that the pandemic could have been better handled. We were not properly prepared and many of the decisions taken from the very beginning were the wrong ones, or were at least not explained nearly as clearly as they might have been. The expiry of much of our national stockpile of personal protective equipment and the confusing initial advice on the wearing of masks are just two examples. A careful examination of the reasons for these types of mistakes could help us avoid repeating them in the future.
The second point underlying the need for an inquiry is the worldwide consensus that serious disruptive events will continue to occur and are likely to grow in intensity and variety. Other pandemics, flooding, fires or migration are the most obvious and likely. To fail to better prepare for such events will border on criminal, and proper planning requires a clear understanding of how the management of past events can be improved upon.
There are a number of ways to review our management of the current pandemic, but nothing short of a nationally oriented public inquiry established by – but not beholden to – the federal government will do. Internal reviews by the public service would be too narrow and they would be undertaken by the very institutions whose activities and advice need to be reviewed. Review by Parliament would fall prey to the excessive partisanship that seems to govern relations within our various legislatures. Auditors general will have a contribution to make to our understanding of what happened, but they are limited to their respective jurisdictions and have little if any ability to consider activity in the private sector and in civil society.
The COVID-19 crisis is unquestionably a national and international challenge that paid little attention to borders, and as such the inquiry must be structured to allow for a review of all aspects of how Canada fared. Three issues should be of particular focus.
The first is the need to consider to what extent Canada should ensure that certain essential goods be available, no matter what. This is not a matter for governments alone; it requires the participation of the business sector and the provinces.
The second issue is one of personal freedoms. We live in a country of rights and responsibilities, and that balance always needs to be carefully calibrated. The question of whether an individual’s right to refuse public health advice supersedes government efforts to ensure the greater good needs at least some measure of resolution.
The third issue involves the roles and responsibilities of the numerous levels of government within Canada, as well as the roles of other countries and of international institutions. The management of interprovincial and international borders is perhaps the most obvious example of something in this area that needs to be probed. The broad distribution of responsibility and action to deal with COVID-19 may or may not have been essentially correct. Either way, it needs an objective review to determine if any adjustments are necessary for the future.
A process like this could also help us recognize and fortify our strong points. The objective of an inquiry is not to assume bad faith or assign blame, but rather to look into what was done and how, with a view to proposing corrective action. Any inquiry must recognize what went well. In this respect, the relatively positive response of the public to instructions and the general level of co-operation between the federal and provincial governments (as evidenced by many First Minister virtual meetings) need mention.
Given the number of deaths Canada has seen throughout this pandemic, the enormous social and economic adjustments Canadians have made, and the unprecedented cost to taxpayers, this country needs a credible, practical and comprehensive look at how we can be better prepared for the next pandemic. A public inquiry established by the federal government, but independent of it, is the only practical vehicle to accomplish this. It needs to be set up before the next election to prevent its work from becoming a matter of partisan debate. Now is not too soon to get started.
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