Anita Anand came into politics out of nowhere in 2019. She had been an elected MP for about two weeks when the phone rang in early November summoning her to an interview with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s transition team. She wasn’t told what Anne McLellan, a former deputy prime minister, was vetting her for. A position as a parliamentary secretary?
For Ms. Anand, not knowing was vexing. It didn’t give her enough clues about how to get ready.
“I am the queen of preparation,” she said in an interview. “I want you to know that I do not go anywhere without having prepared.”
Among those who know her, there is a consensus about this. Details-oriented, some call her. Thorough. Opponents question her results but associates are unanimous about her approach.
She calls herself cautious, an analyzer of risks. Her sister Sonia remembered a childhood drama festival where she and the other actors enjoyed ad-libbing to throw off Anita, who stuck to her lines. She found it upsetting.
“We had practised the plan and we weren’t executing the plan,” Anita Anand recalled with a little smile.
Now Ms. Anand, 53, the Minister of Public Services and Procurement, finds herself responsible for executing a plan in a pandemic world full of script-changing chaos. She weighed the pros and cons of leaving her role as a respected law professor for a venture into politics. Now she is the minister responsible for buying COVID-19 vaccines.
Few ministers have even been thrust into such life-or-death pressure. Certainly not a minister plucked from political obscurity less than 18 months ago. When Mr. Trudeau gave her a cabinet post, it was to oversee a workaday department with a usually low-profile role managing contracting for supplies. Now the survival of Mr. Trudeau’s government may well hinge on vaccine supply.
And the plan? The public thinks it is going badly. Opinion polls show half the country doubts vaccines will arrive as promised. They blame Ottawa.
By mid-February, Canada had administered 3.5 doses per 100 people, behind most of Europe, far behind the U.S. and Britain. Depending on the day, behind close to 40 countries. Scheduled deliveries had been reduced. The opposition Conservatives called it incompetence.
Ms. Anand’s answer – and Mr. Trudeau’s – is that there’s a plan, and results are coming. The government bought a lot of doses, from a diversified “portfolio” of vaccine suppliers. Week-to-week deliveries have fluctuated with production issues, but the supplies were promised on a quarterly basis, and six million doses will still arrive by March 31.
She repeats that message in TV interviews and press conferences. When pushed for details of vaccine contracts, she insists they are entirely covered by confidentiality clauses. Her answers often cite numbers, and can seem repetitive. Sometimes, she lectures like the professor she was; In an interview with CTV’s Evan Solomon two weeks ago, she used the word “coterminous.” Twice.
She is in her second wave of pandemic procurement crisis. Ten months ago, she was getting reports when planes landed with N95 masks, and working with liquor distillers to switch to making hand sanitizer, and contracting for what turned out to be not too few, but too many mechanical ventilators.
“She’s accessible. She’s smart,” said Goldy Hyder, the president of the Business Council of Canada, who got to know Ms. Anand during that first wave. “I’m respectful of someone in their first time in public life being thrust into a pivotal role. It’s not like there’s a playbook for handling this, in a department that the public service itself would probably call old and clunky. To make that department central in handling this – she has my respect.”
That does not mean unqualified praise. The government appears to have missed out on negotiating more regular shipments of doses, rather than a quarterly total, he said, and keeping contracts completely secret only fuels questions. “There are things that could have been done better,” he said. “And then some things she had no control over.”
The biggest obstacle to acquiring vaccines quickly, Mr. Hyder argued, is that Canada had let its vaccine industry hollow out. Most of the countries vaccinating faster are in jurisdictions like the European Union that manufacture vaccines. Some others rely on Chinese or Russian vaccines. Ms. Anand, trying to buy what every county wants from a handful of multinational suppliers, doesn’t have a lot of leverage.
Ms. Anand knows she is trying to execute the plan at a time when, as she says, “every country wants to buy the same product.” She said she has built relationships with vaccine-suppliers, with ambassadors from countries that make them, and that those will pay dividends.
Off camera, she smiles and has a gentle sense of humour, but she will tell you firmly that she’s on top of her files – and that she taught contract law and reads the fine print. When the Toronto Star asked her if Mr. Trudeau was calling global CEOs of pharmaceutical companies to push for quicker deliveries, she reportedly bristled, “I’m in charge of this file.”
She told The Globe and Mail she saw the question as a little belittling. “I don’t see my male colleagues being asked those questions,” she said.
Mr. Hyder thinks they should be. In this case, he said, it’s not a sexist slight. Ms. Anand has been dealing with the Canadian CEOs of vaccine suppliers like Pfizer since August, but until recently, there was no sign Mr. Trudeau had called the companies’ global chiefs. There is an assumption the global CEOs will talk to national leaders, he said. “We should have been much more aggressive in getting those relationships built.”
That’s on Mr. Trudeau. But like a lot of things, from past industrial policy to vaccine nationalism to production problems at a Pfizer plant in Belgium, it can still weigh on whether Ms. Anand’s political career is a success or a failure.
The task she has been handed affects the lives of all Canadians. Millions of them are tracking the progress. Politics means unpredictable pressure, but rarely like this.
When Anita Anand was seven or eight years old, her mother told her two youngest daughters to put dresses on, and drove them 44 kilometres to Greenwood Air Force Base.
“My mom wore her traditional Indian sari. And we all just stood in a crowd,” said Sonia Anand, who is a year younger than Anita.
“Then a helicopter landed and Pierre Elliott Trudeau emerged from the helicopter. He saw my mom and her sari, and came right over to her. And he made the Hindu greeting of namaste. That was very touching for my mom. And I remember on the drive back home, she said, ‘You know, you girls need to serve your country. Your country needs you.’”
It wasn’t Pierre Trudeau who became the role model that sparked Anita Anand’s interest in politics. It was her mom.
As an Indian girl living in Uganda in the 1950s, Saroj Daulat Ram had told her father, a school headmaster, that she didn’t want to go into teaching. She wanted to be a doctor. He helped her get to medical school in India, before she transferred to Trinity College in Dublin. In 1965, Dr. Ram and the surgeon she married, Sundaram Vivek Anand, packed up their four-year-old daughter Gita and emigrated from Nigeria to Kentville, N.S., where Anita and Sonia were born.
The three daughters all describe their childhood in Nova Scotia as approaching idyllic. Their parents told them to work to make it in a new society, Sonia said, and to live a full life in the small community. Anita was a point guard, and played clarinet.
Dr. Ram, who passed away in 2014, had told her daughters to be self-sufficient, to expect to make their own living and to think of public service, perhaps as a doctor or teacher. (Gita and Anita became lawyers, Sonia a doctor.) But Anita was encouraged to think in terms of politics.
She advocated. “If she didn’t think something was fair, or just, she would speak up about it,” Sonia said. In high school, she went to a school board meeting to ask for more teachers for her school. She was student council president in junior high, and again in high school, when she campaigned to have the school bring back celebratory initiation activities for first-year students.
That is a textbook profile of a future lawyer, but when Ms. Anand did finish law school years later she warned the folks interviewing her for an articling position at Bay Street firm Torys that she would go back to academia one day. Corporate and securities lawyers are supposed to dream of deals, but she said she always knew she wouldn’t stay in practice – she was interested in public policy.
She talked University of Toronto law professor Michael Trebilcock into supervising her thesis, even after he protested that he had no expertise in the topic: preferential policies, like affirmative action, for visible minorities. She completed it while working at Torys and pregnant with the first of four children, Mr. Trebilcock noted. She had already studied at Oxford and moved on to a fellowship in economics and law at Yale.
Her LLM thesis bore some of the hallmarks of thinking that would be reflected in later work on corporate governance. She generally didn’t support numerical quotas for visible minorities, citing arguments mined from philosophy and economics that questioned their fairness and efficiency. She exhibited confidence that there is a benefit in diversity for companies, and that with a policy nudge, the “market” will find a new equilibrium that reflects that. Her decades of work as an expert in corporate governance exhibit the same interest in showing economic actors that environmental and social responsibility are in their interests. There is big-L Liberal idealism and some small-l liberal laissez-faire. “She’s not trying to set the world on its head. That’s just not Anita,” said Mr. Trebilcock. “She would twist it and nudge it to make things better over time.”
Ms. Anand made a career as a law prof, first at Queen’s University in Kingston, then in an office two doors down from Mr. Trebilcock at the University of Toronto. She published papers, became a prominent expert in the dense field of corporate governance, was quoted in the media, and wrote business op-eds for The Globe and Mail.
She and her husband, John Knowlton, a senior managing director at the infrastructure arm of giant pension fund OMERS, were affluent, living, as they do now, in a big four-bedroom house in an upscale neighborhood of Oakville. She had an endowed chair at a top law school. It had been a long time since her mother had encouraged her to go into public life. But her op-eds were sliding from dense legal issues to Ontario Premier Doug Ford’s meddling in Hydro One. “A part of me felt that I should be speaking to a broader portion of the Canadian public,” she said.
Provincial Liberals in Ontario approached her about running in 2018, but she felt she wouldn’t go into politics until her youngest daughter finished high school. When the local MP for Oakville, John Oliver, made a surprise announcement he would not run again in 2019, her husband told her doors were opening and she should walk through.
Mr. Trudeau’s federal Liberals – she won’t say whom, exactly – asked her to run. She was, after all, the J.R. Kimber Chair in Investor Protection and Corporate Governance at the University of Toronto, an accomplished woman with a long C.V. who sat on several community organization boards, and an Indo-Canadian from the Hindu, rather than Sikh, side of the community. Another Oakville Liberal, former provincial cabinet minister Kevin Flynn, had thought the party wanted him, but despite his opponent’s lack of Liberal background, there were a surprising number of big-league Toronto lawyers and top Liberals, like former Dalton McGuinty staffer and campaign manager Don Guy, endorsing her.
Ms. Anand organized meet-and-greets, armed with her resumé in an unglamorous campaign to sign up Liberal members. “Basically the question was, ‘We know Kevin, we don’t know you. So who are you?”
Even after she won the nomination, and the election, she was an unknown. Even after Mr. Trudeau, who had never met her, made her a surprise cabinet appointee.
Public Services and Procurement Canada is a sprawling pile of files. Real estate. Shipbuilding. Defence procurement. A privacy breach with the the botched Phoenix payroll system for federal employees was one headache.
Ms. Anand had met Mr. Trudeau, for the first time, and been appointed its minister, and, she said, immediately went off to study the entire portfolio.
“Every day something new and exciting happened,” she said. “Really. I got elected. I got appointed to cabinet. I’m going to Meech Lake for a cabinet retreat. And all the while I’m saying to myself, ‘I’m going to Meech Lake, I’m going to Meech Lake.’”
Then lockdown. And Ms. Anand’s department was at the centre of things. With cases rising, hospitals and long-term care centres were screaming for masks, gowns and hand sanitizers. It was feared that a shortage of mechanical ventilators would force doctors to choose who would live and die. PSPC was supposed to get the things everyone wanted. Ms. Anand said she called in the entire management team and told them to get aggressive.
“I said, ‘Do not rely on one manufacturer.’ You gotta go to different countries. You gotta go to different manufacturers and you gotta use diverse thinking to attack here,” Ms. Anand said.
It’s possible to forget now the intensity of that crisis. On April 1, Mr. Trudeau announced Ottawa would spend $2-billion on pandemic supplies. Quebec Premier François Legault had just warned some items like masks would run out in days.
The Canadian government set up logistics chains, with the assistant deputy minister usually responsible for buying military equipment, André Fillion, put in charge. Planes were given a few hours to load at the packed Shanghai airport, where every country was collecting PPE. Ottawa hired people to track goods as they came out at Chinese plants.
“I was watching the planes – like, I’m actually getting notifications about planes landing with N95s on them,” Ms. Anand said.
By Easter weekend, there was another impending crisis. In some parts of the country, COVID-19 testing was in danger of being halted because of a shortage of nasal swabs. Staffers dubbed it “Swabmageddon.” Ms. Anand spent the weekend calling companies to find enough, one insider said.
The whole rush was complicated by a deluge of solicitations, some from fly-by-night suppliers, so officials had to figure out technical standards and separate real suppliers from dodgy ones. “It was more, ‘I know someone who knows someone,’ " she said.
Legitimate manufacturers were gearing up to change production from liquor to hand sanitizer, or from car parts to face shields. They wanted to know what the government wanted, what the specs were, what liability they might face, and so on. Flavio Volpe, president of the Automotive Parts Manufacturers’ Association, said he was up in the middle of the night calling a Japanese company working with Canadian foam parts manufacturer Woodbridge to make masks, and he sent an e-mail to Ms. Anand, who quickly replied, connecting him to officials.
“You can critique some of the plays that she called. But she was always a willing quarterback,” Mr. Volpe said.
If there’s an audit, it will find her department went too far. In a panic, Ottawa ordered 40,000 ventilators. It has received 22,000, but thousands aren’t being used. Some products didn’t meet standards. Before Canadian-made nasal swabs could be certified, supply from Italy and the U.S. became available. Ms. Anand touts the fact that the government quickly bought 2.7 billion items overall.
Now, she is more or less assuring Canadians that vaccines will turn out the same way, that the lagging rollout in February will catch up by the end of March, and be plentiful in the fall.
The scale-up needed to meet the timelines still looks daunting. Details of what might go wrong could be in the fine print of those contracts with pharmaceutical giants, but Ms. Anand insists – despite opposition howls of disbelief – that they are entirely covered by confidentiality clauses.
Recently, Ms. Anand found herself skating around reporters’ questions about what recourse the government will have if vaccine suppliers don’t deliver promised doses this quarter. The answer is not much, as her former corporate law professor and colleague, Mr. Trebilcock, could tell her: Lawyers for the multinationals producing new vaccines would have included contract caveats about making “best efforts” to deliver, he said. Ottawa could sue, but that won’t speed deliveries.
The large and diverse portfolio of vaccine contracts won’t matter if shots don’t go into arms. The criticism is intense, immediate, and right now, public opinion doesn’t appear to be allayed by calls for patience. That would get to anyone. One colleague said she copes with it all with preparation, to feel like she’s got things covered. But when asked how she feels about the ongoing pressure and criticism, Ms. Anand didn’t reveal much.
“Determined,” she said.
In depth: Vaccines vs. variants
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