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Hugh Segal, Matthews Fellow at the Queen’s School of Policy Studies, is a former chief of staff to prime minister Brian Mulroney and the former chair of the Senate Committee on Foreign Affairs.

It may seem odd to associate the pain and dislocation of the pandemic, which is still with us, with a fresh start. But the hard reality of COVID-19’s effect on our population, various operational aspects of government at all levels and the relative fiscal and financial structure of Canadian society suggests that simply muddling through may not be enough.

If there was ever a postwar period worth investigating, the first two years of the pandemic – which brought unforeseen conditions that demanded jarring and dynamic changes to how Canadians live, a shift in what was expected of governments, and quick adaptations on the part of those governments – clearly qualify.

But some Canadians, focused on regaining the old normal, have chosen to just see this period as an aberration that is almost over. Others, taking part in personal political pursuits (such as the Conservative leadership race), may seek to stoke the anger, embrace the lawless option and rail against all the constructive measures governments took in an emergency situation, such as vaccine mandates, short-term liquidity support for the abruptly unemployed, or public-health lockdowns. Peaceful dissent is part of our democratic way of life.

Our history, however, tells us how these kinds of dislocations were best addressed: through transparent, public and incisive commissions.

The Rowell-Sirois Commission in the late 1930s came in direct response to the destructive effects of the Great Depression, which began in 1929 and massively increased unemployment and poverty. Its recommendations, filed in 1940, called for the creation of equalization to protect provincial fiscal capacity in the face of new demands on health care and social services, as well as for the federal government to embrace unemployment insurance to fill the gap that underfunded provinces could not meet.

After the Second World War, the Glassco Commission in the early 1960s took a fresh look at how our federal government was organized, especially in terms of the efficient discharge of taxpayers’ interests. It looked at other governments’ efforts at postwar reform, especially the work of the Hoover Commission in the United States. It brought in recommendations that underlined departments’ responsibilities to execute their statutory missions and called on central agencies to get out of the way. The mandate of the Treasury Board to keep a sharp eye on the public purse was enhanced. It was a step in the right direction.

At the end of prime minister Pierre Trudeau’s term in the early 1980s, the Royal Commission on the Economic Union and Development Prospects for Canada was set up under former Liberal cabinet minister Donald Macdonald to assess our country’s economic and social policy challenges at a time of increasing U.S. protectionism. The commission, one of the largest socioeconomic research exercises in Canadian history, brought in a broad range of recommendations, including the pursuit of a free-trade agreement with the Americans. Not all of its recommendations were adopted, but the ones that were – often implemented by subsequent governments of another stripe – had compelling and far-reaching positive effects on Canada’s economy.

The options here for Prime Minister Justin Trudeau are very constructive. A royal commission examining what we have learned from the pandemic, and what those lessons should mean for the organization and priorities of all governments going forward, would not only galvanize positive analysis and objective research – it would also provide open national hearings to allow the many different and strongly held views on the best way forward to be heard, on the record.

Pausing to reflect, in an open and focused way, would not be a sign of weakness. It would be a sign of common cause, national self-confidence and openness to new ideas and different paths.

Like the royal commissions of the past, it would signal our collective determination and inherent commitment to moving ahead together. At a time of war in Eastern Europe, increased incoherence in U.S. politics, and a clearly adventuresome and threatening People’s Republic of China, pausing to reflect in a non-partisan way would be a strong and productive measure.

Yes, partisan debate between different political parties is important, but so is objective, evidence-based analysis of strengths to be preserved and weaknesses to be addressed. All of our governments have faced challenges, failures and setbacks during the pandemic, and it will only be through a detailed understanding of how and why they happened that we can begin to achieve wisdom.

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