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Ontario Premier Doug Ford puts on a mask at the opening of a new Daily Bread Food Bank in Toronto on May 25, 2020.

Frank Gunn/The Canadian Press

Those looking for explanations as to why Canada has been able to flatten the COVID-19 curve, whereas the virus is reaching new heights in the United States, have many answers at hand. Universal health care here; its absence there. A greater trust in authority here; a greater degree of suspicion of the authorities there. And, of course, there’s that man in the White House.

But the biggest difference-maker, and the key to Canada’s comparative success, may be how our conservatives – leaders and voters – have responded.

For example, in April, when the Texas county that includes the city of Houston tried to bring in a rule requiring people to wear masks in public places, including fines, Greg Abbott, the state’s Republican governor, blocked the move.

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That same month, when a handful of protesters gathered at Queen’s Park to demand an end to lockdown measures, Ontario Progressive Conservative Premier Doug Ford labelled them “a bunch of yahoos,” and called their behaviour “reckless” and “selfish.”

“I understand that people want to get out there, but we have to be responsible,” said the leader of the largest province, who is arguably Canada’s most influential conservative.

Mr. Ford was expressing traditional peace, order and good government conservatism: To beat the virus, we’re all in this together, so we’ve all got to follow the rules. What could be more conservative?

The anti-pandemic policies chosen by Ontario and the other six provinces led by right-wing governments do not differ from the paths embraced by Canadian Liberals or New Democrats, or U.S. Democrats. But from U.S. President Donald Trump on down, the virus and the response to it have been treated by many Republican leaders and voters not as matters of life and death, to be addressed by reason and science, but as new fronts in the culture war.

On July 16, the governor of Georgia, Republican Brian Kemp, sued the city of Atlanta in an attempt to force it to ditch its mask rules, and its local ban on gatherings of more than 10 people on city property. For Georgia, this is just the latest politicized pandemic fight. In April, Mr. Kemp began reopening his state, over objections from many local leaders. And prior to suing Atlanta, he issued an executive order aimed at striking down other local mask rules.

In the seven days prior to Aug. 3, Georgia recorded a daily average of nearly 3,400 new COVID-19 cases, and 46 deaths per day. The per capita rate of new cases and deaths is about 30 times higher than Canada’s.

Now consider Alberta. The day before Georgia’s governor sued his largest city, Alberta Premier Jason Kenney was asked about an upcoming anti-mask rally.

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“If they’re upset about mask usage then the alternative will inevitably be more widespread suspensions of economic activity if we get a second outbreak,” said the United Conservative Party leader. “I think the responsible exercise of personal freedom through mask usage where people cannot physically distance is a lot better alternative.”

Mr. Kenney has not issued a province-wide mask order, but he’s supported cities that have chosen to do so, when and where they think it necessary.

Reasonable people can disagree about how various Canadian governments have handled the pandemic response. We’ve criticized the too-early reopening of bars, and a failure to prioritize schools over drinking establishments. Back in April, we repeatedly called for testing to be ramped up, particularly in Ontario. And for months we’ve been pointing out that Ottawa needs more and better screening at the border.

But Canada’s debate over the best response to COVID-19 hasn’t been partisan. Provinces run by right-wing parties and a federal government run by Liberals have co-operated, and have largely been on the same page. No conservative leaders are acting like science is a left-wing con.

One lesson to draw from this is that Canada is not the United States. Similar, but not the same. Different history, different attitudes, different voters – and different conservatives.

Canada’s conservative parties have in recent decades developed the habit of turning to the U.S. for guidance. But conservatism in Canada grew from a different tree, in different soil. In the time of COVID-19, provincial conservative parties remembered their terroir. The federal Conservative Party, which chooses a new leader this month, will only be relevant to the extent it does likewise.

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