Skip to main content

Andrew Cohen is a journalist, associate professor at Carleton University, and author of Two Days in June: John F. Kennedy and the 48 Hours That Made History.

As the novel coronavirus careers across the world – isolating, infecting, crippling, killing – we have searched our vocabularies and plumbed our memories for parallels in language and history.

In a world under siege, there has been a run on military metaphors. The U.S. Surgeon-General warned Americans this week of “our Pearl Harbor … our 9/11.” Leaders have spoken of “going to war” – which means going home, and damn well staying there.

Every day brings warnings of economic collapse. Recession and depression. Unemployment and bankruptcy. Debt, deficit and deflation. Cheap oil. Idle factories and empty shops.

When the public-health emergency lifts, economic winter will loom, more neutron than nuclear. We’ll awaken to a world where things are standing but little is living in industry, trade and commerce.

Is this our dystopia? Maybe. Although we cannot say April will be the end of the beginning of COVID-19, we must act like this is the beginning of the end. The threat of economic Armageddon is too frightening.

Let us organize ourselves now so we can consider reconstruction and renewal after this crisis is over. We can begin by establishing a blue-ribbon commission on the economy and social welfare.

A national commission would convene representatives of business, labour, the academy and civil society to examine life in post-contagion Canada. The Institute for Fiscal Studies and Democracy at the University of Ottawa, for example, has boldly introduced “The Recovery Project,” an international coalition of think tanks and research institutions.

There are many questions to consider. How can we put Canadians back to work? How can we create jobs amid declining demand for our resources and the shrinking manufacturing industry? What does the new economy look like? If we believe we should reduce our dependence on fossil fuels, how do we start retraining and for what? Can we make that painful choice, accepting the social convulsions? How do we embrace the green economy, assuming our rehabilitation will demand more than that? How do we create self-sufficiency in energy and beyond?

How can we rediscover the soaring ambition that built the Canadian Pacific Railway, St. Lawrence Seaway, Trans-Canada Highway and other great national projects? How can we encourage critical urban transit that is expanding fitfully, but not quickly enough?

When do we get serious about extending and accelerating passenger rail in Canada, decades behind Europe? When do we recognize the environmental and economic benefits of trains worthy of an industrialized power?

There is much to build – and build we must. With sustainability, yes, but beauty, too. Bridges, parks and museums. Wastewater treatment. A national electricity grid. Broadband for rural and Northern Canada, and affordable housing in Indigenous and poor communities. A national program of energy conservation.

Where do we find the money? Will it be through the Canada Infrastructure Bank, under the new leadership of Michael Sabia? How can we sort out conflicting jurisdictions and get going? Catherine McKenna, the Minister of Infrastructure and Communities, had been addressing these questions with urgency and imagination, but that was before the crisis.

How do we prepare our health-care system for the next epidemic? How do we make social welfare more comprehensive and compassionate? Do we do this by revisiting the idea of a guaranteed annual income?

We need to find answers, as Franklin Roosevelt did in the Great Depression. His New Deal famously established the National Recovery Administration and Civilian Conservation Corps. We will need that creativity, too.

Yes, it will cost money. We will incur huge deficits. But as Bob Rae and Mel Cappe wrote, “We are all Keynesians now.”

National commissions are not new to us. Steven Bright, an associate with Campbell Strategies, wrote this week about Mackenzie King’s establishment of the Committee on Reconstruction in 1941, which was led by Cyril James, principal of McGill University. While the government fought the war, the committee planned the peace. It did excellent work.

Commissions have shaped Canada’s thinking on identity (bilingualism and biculturalism) in the 1960s and on economic renewal in the 1980s. The Royal Commission on the Economic Union and Development Prospects for Canada, led by the gifted Donald Macdonald, brought us free trade, among other policies.

And who should lead this national commission on recovery? Why, Mark Carney, of course.

Having led the banks of England and Canada, he brings the experience, intellect and temperament to run far and think big.

This Carney Commission would tap the strains of prudence, resourcefulness and ingenuity in our national character. For 153 years, they have given us stable, good government, regardless of party. They will again.

As Canadians know well, spring follows winter. And opportunity follows calamity.

Editor’s note: (Apr. 13, 2020) A previous version of this op-ed incorrectly referred to the Institute of Fiscal Studies and Democracy as the Institute of Fiscal Progress and Democracy.

Keep your Opinions sharp and informed. Get the Opinion newsletter. Sign up today.