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Over the past few days, as you were enjoying summer and otherwise occupied with trying to get back to normal life, all the virus curves shifted, ever so subtly, in the wrong direction. The rate of new COVID-19 infections, which had ranged from low and flat in provinces such as British Columbia and Alberta, to moderate and falling in Quebec and Ontario, began turning up in much of the country.

It’s not a crisis, yet, because the numbers are still relatively small. But it is the first challenge of what might be thought of as Canada’s second round against the pandemic, as the country tries to reopen the economy, and restore millions of jobs, without restarting an out-of-control chain of infections.

That is Job No. 1 for Canada.

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We are at war with a virus, and the future depends on winning. To the extent Canada gets it right, there will be more health, more life, more jobs, more income and more normalcy. To the extent the country doesn’t get it right, there will be less of all of the above. For the foreseeable future, Ottawa and the provinces have one big job, with everything else largely dependent on it.

So what is the federal government focused on right now? Something else.

It’s still not clear who concocted the idea of a giant pay-students-to-do-volunteer-work program. Nor is it yet known who first thought of putting the Kielburger brothers and their WE Charity – with its many financial and marketing connections with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s family, its connection with Finance Minister Bill Morneau’s children, and an extremely cozy relationship with the Trudeau government – in charge of the scheme. It is not clear when, where and how the decision was made; nor is it known if the chain of decision-making that led to WE landing the no-bid contract flowed, as the government improbably insists, from the bureaucracy to the politicians, or the other way around. Answers to these and other questions may eventually be unearthed by Parliament – ah, the virtues of minority government – or the ethics commissioner.

In the meantime, however, the PM, the praetorian guard in the Prime Minister’s Office, and the entire government has its hands full trying to stanch a self-serving, self-inflicted wound.

At a moment when Canada needs to focus on what matters, the Liberal government is focused on self-preservation. Instead of all hands on deck working to prevent a pandemic from infecting more Canadians, the Liberals are increasingly fixated on preventing a scandal from spreading from WE to he, and further infecting the PM.

There’s that old saw about how crisis is just another word for opportunity, and it looks as if Mr. Trudeau and his government took advantage of this year’s pandemic spending opportunity, to either pursue a pet project – that’s the most charitable possible reading – or to reward some friends and fellow travellers for their continued support. There was at the very least an inexcusable appearance of conflict of interest, and both Mr. Morneau and Mr. Trudeau have admitted as much, and apologized for not recusing themselves.

But could the head of the government, and the minister in charge of the public purse, really have removed themselves from a cabinet vote, let alone the entire chain of decisions that led to WE getting the contract? Not easy to imagine.

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The Trudeau government could, of course, end this scandal tomorrow.

Release all the documents, give a full accounting of the germination and growth of the program, and reveal if there are any further connections between WE and Mr. Trudeau. Come clean and move on. So far, that’s not how the Trudeau government is playing this. It has all the details on the many known unknowns, but is being extremely cautious about which questions it answers, and how.

Right now, Ottawa should have both eyes on the road and both hands on the wheel. Instead, it’s a severely distracted driver, with one eye on the fly it introduced into the car, and one hand groping for something to hit it with.

The good news, at a moment like this, is that public health in Canada is largely up to the provinces. But the federal government, with responsibility for pandemic essentials from the border to air travel, is the co-ordinator of Confederation. It has the highest bully pulpit, and the deepest pockets. Round Two against the pandemic will only be won if Ottawa is all-in.

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