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People registrar before casting their ballots at the Delta Hotel on voting day for the 2021 Canadian election in Montreal on September 20.ANDREJ IVANOV/AFP/Getty Images

During the provincial election in Ontario in 2014, incumbent Liberal premier Kathleen Wynne framed the choice as one between her “safe hands” and the opposition’s “reckless schemes.”

It was an unintentionally hilarious slogan for a party drowning in scandal, dysfunction and waste, but the message nevertheless resonated with Ontarians. Voters were asked to consider whom they believed they could trust to safeguard their fundamental needs and interests, and in the end, Ms. Wynne’s “safe hands” were it.

The circumstances of that election were far less grave than those that set the scene for Monday’s federal election, which was called in favour of the Liberals Monday evening. Ontario in 2014 was a normal time; police were investigating a former top Liberal staffer for wiping government hard drives, sure, but a little criminal activity is to be expected in the routine functioning of any government (she writes, from the blackened grotto where her youthful optimism used to reside).

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But Canada in 2021 is not normal. The country has endured a type of collective trauma; a disruption so thorough and profound that not a single person has remained unaffected. It revealed the folly of running hospital systems with such tight capacity constraints that just a couple hundred intensive-care patients could throw an entire province into disarray. It sent women’s participation in the work force spiralling backward, shuttered schools leading to learning loss among students, and sent drug overdose deaths across the country soaring. Every single Canadian has lost something: a job, a loved one, a connection with friends, a routine, a sense of security, or a belief that, in the end, our leaders are capable and willing to make the tough choices to keep us safe.

This election should have been the one about “safe hands” – about the candidate who possesses the right sensibilities, the political bravery, and the wisdom to recognize his own limitations to see us through the next major disaster.

Yet COVID-19 was invoked mostly as a cudgel over the past five weeks: to thwack the Conservatives for failing to disclose vaccine uptake among their own candidates, or to chastise the Liberals for being too slow to close the border, or for the NDP to boast about their own influence over the generosity of relief programs. The pandemic was listed off as just one of many national concerns – no more or less significant than gun violence, abortion, carbon taxes, and which leader is more privileged and out-of-touch with the average worker (spoiler: they all are) – as if COVID-19 wasn’t the one thing that united all Canadians in anxiety and grief, and rattled our collective faith in the people and institutions that are supposed to protect us from harm.

Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau, who will again become Prime Minister, may have been correct in suggesting that this was the most important election since 1945, because not since then has the electorate had such ready demonstration of the effect that electoral choice can have on even the granular aspects of life. It could have been an election where war rooms put the cheap shots and contrived wedges aside, recognizing that Canadians endured – and continue to endure – something that will probably stay with them for the rest of their lives. And it could have been an opportunity for those vying to form the next government to demonstrate why they have the backbone and humility to lead Canada effectively in a future time of crisis.

The Conservatives clearly tried to make hay of the collective apprehension that’s been bred from this pandemic with their slogan – “Secure the Future” – which sounded like something a cartoon character might say to his anthropomorphic skateboard before travelling back in time. They were just words. But had a candidate at any point in the campaign demonstrated a willingness to adopt an unpopular position for the greater good (on Quebec’s Bill 21, for example) or a swiftness in decision-making when the situation demanded (on fraught or problematic candidates, for example), or a readiness to engage honestly with complex and laden issues (such as firearms regulations or pipeline politics), it would have demonstrated a capacity for leadership far more meaningful than any counterfactual about what he might have done differently if guiding Canada through this pandemic.

After all, provincial and federal leaders have faltered throughout this pandemic when they acted too slowly, often out of concern for personal or political popularity. Alberta Premier Jason Kenney is just the most recent casualty of this vain and destructive impulse. Yet none of the front-running candidates in this election campaign ventured to engage with challenging ideas, or dared step offside of politically advantageous positions. That bodes poorly for whatever faith the public should have in the capacity of the next government, whatever its specific composition might turn out to be, to capably deal with whatever crisis comes next – be it climate change, or an aging population, or another pandemic – just as long as the tough but necessary decisions risk political penalty. Indeed, if this election was a test of leadership – of who among the leading candidates had the “safe hands” to make the tough calls when the stakes are high – then none of them passed, even though one of them won.

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