Canada hit a sad milestone this week: 10,000 deaths from COVID-19. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau marked the moment by calling the pandemic a “horrific national tragedy.” He’s right.
The question now is, how did we get here?
No one should assume it was inevitable that this moment would arrive. There are things all levels of government could have done to better protect Canadians. As the economic and social consequences of the pandemic drag on into winter, it’s important to ask why they weren’t.
At the provincial level, these include: Why weren’t long-term care homes better prepared for the coronavirus? Why were there no ready supplies of personal protective equipment, such as masks, gowns and gloves, when the pandemic first struck? Why is there still no adequate testing and contact tracing in hot spots, the lack of which is forcing some provinces to resort to lockdowns again?
At the federal level, the questions are just as tough: Why didn’t Ottawa close Canada’s borders sooner? Why are people entering Canada still not being tested at the border, or as they board a plane overseas? Has Ottawa done enough to help equip the provinces with testing kits and PPE? Does the country have the latest therapeutics and equipment for treating COVID-19, and has it secured enough doses of vaccines when they become available?
These are relevant questions, and Canadians have a right to transparency. So it’s good to see that the federal opposition parties have had the audacity to try to force the Trudeau government to provide some answers.
The Conservatives teamed up with the NDP, the Bloc Québécois and the Green Party this week to pass a broad motion empowering Parliament’s standing committee on health to examine Ottawa’s handling of the pandemic from a public-health perspective.
The motion gives the government until the end of November to hand over every possible document – “memoranda, e-mails, documents, notes or other records” – related to the government’s response. The Prime Minister’s Office, the Privy Council Office, the departments of Health Canada and Public Services and Procurement, as well as the respective ministers' offices, all have to pony up the paperwork.
The government, of course, is aghast. Its chief complaint is that the order to produce documents related to its procurement of PPE, testing kits, vaccines, ventilators and other vital goods could jeopardize its relations with suppliers.
This is not an invented worry. Companies have the right to protect their market information, such as pricing. Industry associations, as well as the pharmaceutical giant Pfizer, have let it be known they are worried about possible “unintended consequences” arising from the motion.
But the opposition has responded, adding language stating that documents must be vetted “for information the disclosure of which could reasonably be expected to interfere with contractual or other negotiations between the Government of Canada and a third party." Any such information will be redacted by the Parliamentary Law Clerk.
The members of the health committee – five Liberal MPs, and four from the opposition benches – ought to be able to protect sensitive information. This isn’t the first time a parliamentary committee has had to deal with this issue.
If there is a complaint to make, it’s that the motion covers so many bases – “Canada’s level of preparedness to respond to another pandemic,” for instance – that it reads like the mandate for the kind of independent inquiry that will inevitably take place after the pandemic is over.
But the committee hearings will be nothing like that. They will be highly politicized. The Conservatives in particular will be less interested in preventing the next pandemic than they will be in dredging up things they can use to embarrass the Trudeau government.
Had the Liberals not been so keen to sideline Parliament and the opposition over this entire year, and had they not governed by press conference and acted for all the world like they had a majority government, perhaps there would be less justification for overbroad hearings that risk being more theatrical than productive.
But there are 10,000 good reasons to try to learn more about the missteps that have brought us to this point. The opposition has the power to demand answers from a minority government, and it is right to use it.
Keep your Opinions sharp and informed. Get the Opinion newsletter. Sign up today.