Noah Richler divides his time between Toronto and Sandy Cove, N.S. His most recent book is The Candidate: Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail, a finalist for the Shaughnessy Cohen Prize for Political Writing
Fifteen years ago now, back in Canada after a couple decades’ absence, I wrote a book about the home I’d returned to but no longer presumed to know. For three years, I travelled the country, talking to writers and storytellers in the particular corners of the territory they’d made their own, wanting to understand what preoccupied us.
History – the kind with a big H – was something I deliberately put to the side. I did so wanting to approach this absurd country – one that seems perennially on the brink of falling apart – without prejudice, but also because I thought of our stories as written on the land, which is why all my life it had been so important to me to travel it, see it, walk it, work it.
The country I’d come to learn again was beautiful to me for many reasons beyond its staggering landscapes, but most of all for its lack of absolutes. In my years away, what I’d particularly felt the lack of was the constant reinvention of the very idea of the country that takes place here every day, the necessity that is also an opportunity to pitch in. I realized that one of the few things that could be said to bind the scattered lot of us – and I am speaking here of all who share the territory, i.e. Inuit, Métis and First Nations, and so-called “settler” Canadians, too – was the question, “What does it mean to be a Canadian citizen?” Or, to put it another way: “How should I be with others?”
Canadians at their best, I decided rather optimistically, had come to understand almost genetically just how tenuous was their grasp of the territory – and that the only possible way to survive it was through association, through respect for each other and learning from others already here.
But if I write all this in the past tense, it is because for some time now, I have found myself despairing for Canada. I feel as if I am watching a country collapsing in on itself. We’re sick with COVID-19, but Canada is the patient – ineffectually seen to by an incompetent federal government and shunted into the corridor by wary, go-it-your-own-way provinces triaging in favour of themselves.
We are, in Canada, a deferential lot – and, at least during the country’s initial response to the pandemic, this trait granted Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and the Liberals an accommodating laissez-passer. During that brief moment, we understood the very point of government, which is to take care of us and help us put our differences aside. The West was quiet, and so was Quebec. Atlantic Canada had not yet decided, out of terrified necessity, that it was a territory apart. Toronto was not yet regarded as the country’s Sodom and Gomorrah, Ontario not yet scapegoated. We shared a common and familiar goal, which was to survive, and so we trusted in the Prime Minister and government whose job it is to mind the population and the economy.
But today, Canada waits on a gurney unattended as the Liberal Party of Canada slouches its way toward an election, hoping to take advantage of the pandemic at the polls, just as the incumbent parties of B.C., New Brunswick and Newfoundland and Labrador did. The most notable acts of the Liberals’ tenure have been ones of absence: Mr. Trudeau and the cabinet’s shameful evasion of Parliament’s unanimous censure of China’s treatment of the Uyghurs as genocide, and their complete and utter botching of early COVID-19 vaccine acquisition and the subsequently sputtering and piecemeal rollout that has been at its worst in Ontario.
Their mismanagement has been exceeded only by Doug Ford and his Progressive Conservative government’s catastrophic ineptitude – though, credit where it is due, in his now infamous cage-the-children and make-Ontario-a-police-state presser, Mr. Ford did at least start with the truth, if inadvertently, saying he has “never shied away from tough decisions, and today I am here to do just that.”
The policies and communiqués not just from Ottawa and Queen’s Park, their unrelenting contradiction and persisting obfuscation, have amounted to a constant and stunning gaslighting of the Canadian public, the platitudes of politicians claiming to be data-driven and their exhortation that we remember “we’re all in this together” ringing resoundingly false.
The trust with which we started has been abused, our path forward increasingly desperate, and, as ever, determined by the hope of a cure other countries make and provide. We are scrambling, provinces behaving as if the pandemic is a zero-sum game – Newfoundland and Labrador the exception, offering distressed Ontario concrete and unqualified aid – and if Canadians are finding their way through the fog, it is because they are guided by outspoken doctors, the municipalities, and young “vaccine tracker” volunteers stepping into the void created by too many of our elected officials demonstrating a spectacular lack of leadership.
The provinces attribute infections to vaguely defined others. Ottawa keeps its distance, the disunity of the premiers a convenience, publishing the stats on vaccine supply only when such “transparency” can be used to point fingers – as Minister of Health Patty Hajdu did – at the provinces for their seeming failure to roll out doses delivered just a day or two before.
The chorus of dog-whistles is shrill: Mr. Ford blames Manitobans, travellers at the airports, children in the parks; B.C. blames Albertans. Quebec lives out a separatist fantasy and closes its borders almost completely, Manitoba blames Ontario, and in Nova Scotia, the province’s Chief Medical Officer singles out Ontarians as the source of the rise in of cases, warning out-of-province folk to stay away and stoking locals’ fear by proclaiming a “400 per cent” increase of non-permanent residents coming in. No matter that so many of the Ontarians falling ill are working in factories and distribution centres supplying food and goods to Nova Scotia and the rest of the country – in fact, could be said to be dying for the rest of the country – they are still blamed.
And all the while, the absence of clear and articulate moral leadership in the morass – of a leader who capably speaks for everyone – exacerbates debilitating social divisions not just in villages across the country, where “community” has become a byword for the “us” in “us versus them,” but also in cities, where those who have fortuitously received a dose in the slowly remedied distribution of vaccines are often portrayed as culpable because their wealth or skin colour has trumped through no fault of their own.
And so we stay home, isolated in body but more so in mind – unable to travel, unable to read the land, learning enmities and rivalries and resentments rather than the shared ideas, collaboration and partnerships that used to bind us. We are becoming Balkan in our factions – tired and exhausted and dizzy when we stand, it’s “long COVID” that Canada the patient has. It will take a considerable time to recover – and we won’t at all, unless we really do start acting as if we’re all in this together.
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