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opinion

Paramedics bring a patient to the emergency department at Toronto Western Hospital on July 14.Fred Lum/the Globe and Mail

Looking across the country at the provincial governments that are responsible for delivering health care in Canada, it’s hard to tell that the system is in crisis.

A crisis, after all, calls for a rapid and focused response. If your house is on fire, for example, you immediately call the fire department and move to safety.

What you don’t do is tell your family that the house is burning because you never kept your promise to upgrade the wiring, announce to them that you are working on an extensive plan to fix the problem that you will release in the coming months, and then, to distract your perplexed spouse and children, mail them individual $500 cheques addressed to the smoking ruins of your home.

If that’s not enough, you can also vow to build a bigger driveway and a tunnel to the suburbs. Sound familiar?

The well-documented weaknesses that existed in Canada’s health care system before the pandemic are the faulty wiring that has led to the current 10-alarm crisis.

The country faces a critical nursing shortage that is a direct consequence of a nursing shortage that existed before 2020. Operating rooms are sitting idle because there aren’t enough nurses available, and the backlog of elective surgeries that built up during the pandemic isn’t getting cleared.

Some emergency rooms are closing for days at a time because of staffing shortages, or because they are overrun with patients for whom no acute-care hospital beds are available.

No acute-care beds are available because Canadian hospitals, which combined have among the lowest number of beds per capita in the developed world, and which for more than a decade have struggled with the dilemma created by aging patients who don’t need to be in acute care but can’t move on to long-term care because of a chronic lack of beds in that sector, are once again overloaded. Ontario currently has 5,800 so-called “alternate level of care” patients across the province.

And yet, in the middle of what is obviously a crisis that needs the full attention and resources of governments, what are some premiers’ most urgent priorities?

Cutting cheques for voters, and other populist grifts.

Saskatchewan this week became yet another province to send a small windfall to its residents – a $500 cheque for every person over 18 – under the guise of relief from higher prices. It’s a potentially inflationary move that will pump $450-million into the economy all at once.

Quebec sent most residents the same amount earlier this summer, and Premier François Legault is promising he’ll send out a second round of cheques before Christmas – if he’s re-elected in October.

Mr. Legault is also campaigning on a promise to build a commuter car tunnel under the Saint Lawrence River at Quebec City, a project that will cost at least $10-billion, and for which there is no urgent need.

In Ontario, the Ford government, facing re-election, suddenly rebated drivers their car registration fees this spring, sending out cheques of $120 per year, per car, at an annual cost of $1.1-billion.

And it won re-election in June with a promise to build yet another major highway in the Greater Toronto Area. The government has refused to reveal the cost, but guesstimates ballpark it at $10-billion or so.

Yes, it is possible for a government to focus on more than one issue, and to spend money on more than one thing. But the crisis in health care, while apparent to the Canadians who are being hurt by it, doesn’t seem to have registered with provincial governments the way it has with the public.

It’s to the point that it has become somewhat off-putting to see the premiers band together to demand more health funding from the Ottawa. It’s needed, but do they want it merely so they can spend more of their own revenues on self-serving electoral unguents?

The one real impact the crisis seems to have had on some premiers is their sudden willingness to entertain the idea of letting the private sector play a bigger role in health care delivery.

It could be part of the answer. What it is more likely to be is a distraction – more hot air from governments that are really good at doing easy things, like cutting cheques at election time, but so often ineffective at tackling a difficult, long-term issue. Fire? What fire?