Mike Medeiros is an assistant professor of political science at the University of Amsterdam. Daniel Béland is the director of the McGill Institute for the Study of Canada. André Lecours is a professor of political studies at the University of Ottawa.
The COVID-19 crisis has been tremendously challenging for the provinces and the federal government. Canada’s federal system entails that this national public-health crisis has been managed through a variety of priorities, criteria and policies depending on the provincial jurisdiction.
The panoply of measures to deal with the pandemic can be confusing. In the spring, as Canada was still in the initial phase of the crisis, certain public-health experts, and federal politicians, proposed that the federal government invoke the Emergencies Act to allow for more consistent policies and measures across the country. In recent weeks, as the situation has worsened in most of the country, the calls for a uniform and stringent national approach have returned. Such new calls are motivated in part by provinces that have been hesitant to enact strict measures to combat the outbreaks. While we do not believe – unless the situation drastically changes – that the federal government will try to impose national measures any time soon, we are, as scholars of Canadian politics and of federalism, nevertheless concerned by the tenor of the continuing debate over having the federal government supersede provincial jurisdictions in the management of the COVID-19 crisis.
We believe that most public-health experts who have proposed uniform national measures have done so because they are concerned by the public-health situation. Yet, in the present context, important realities of Canada’s federal system need to be highlighted.
The fact that there are different strategies used across the country to combat the pandemic is not in itself problematic. This important characteristic of Canadian federalism allows for a more localized form of management that is better aligned with the needs of the different provinces than countrywide measures would be. Furthermore, the perceptions that one or two provinces are not being strict enough also does not constitute a situation that warrants the federal government undermining the federal character of the country.
As Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has stated, the usage of this significant step needs to be the last resort. The imposition of national measures by the federal government would need wide-ranging political support from Parliament and the provinces to prevent provoking a serious political crisis. As the invocation of the War Measures Act during the October Crisis and the National Energy Program demonstrate, superseding the provinces can leave important political fractures in the country that can last for decades and ultimately threaten national unity.
We believe that calls to have the federal government impose uniform national measures at this point, which implicitly depict the federal government as being above the provinces, pervert Canadians’ perceptions of their country and they ultimately weaken our federal culture. Canada is not a country in which the central government is hierarchically above the provinces. Rather, Canada is a country in which the federal government and provinces govern in partnership.
This does not mean that we cannot imagine an increased role for the federal government in the current COVID-19 crisis, or that pan-Canadian measures to tackle the pandemic are not welcome. This is specifically what the Premier of British Columbia, John Horgan, had called for on Nov. 18, requesting non-essential travel across Canada be limited.
A successful federal state is built upon co-operation and mutual respect. In Germany, this is the strategy that Chancellor Angela Merkel has used to deal with the divergent views of state premiers on which measures to enact to fight COVID-19. And for the most part, co-operation and respect have also been the hallmark of Canadian intergovernmental relations during the COVID-19 crisis.
We understand that some might be worried about the approach taken by their province to deal with the surge in cases and would want the federal government to impose stricter measures. Yet, this not only goes against the spirit and tradition of Canadian federalism, it could also create a dangerous and politically divisive precedent.
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