In this pandemic year, Canada has proved its resilience as a bumblebee nation.
For decades, especially during the wars over the Constitution and Quebec sovereignty, commentators liked to joke that, just as bumblebees flew even though it was aeronautically impossible, so too Canada carried on despite being ungovernable.
We carried on particularly well throughout this pandemic. Our federal and provincial governments have generally worked well together. Canada’s mortality rate ranks below that of most similar countries, the economy is in as good a shape as could be expected and, though a grim winter lies ahead, the vaccination program is under way.
The Bloomberg COVID Resilience Ranking places Canada 11th of 53 in its response to the disease, ahead of all non-Nordic European countries and far ahead of the United States. (New Zealand ranked first, with Taiwan, Australia, Norway and Singapore also in the top five.)
“Our governments faced the challenge directly, and they talked to each other throughout it,” said Kathy Brock, a professor at Queen’s University’s School of Policy Studies. “Of course there were some mistakes, some things that were not done that could have been done better, but on the whole, it was much like the bumblebee flying, I think.”
But before we become too self-satisfied, we also need to realize the challenges Canadians will confront once the emergency wanes.
“Federalism works during a crisis, because federalism is all about a willingness to collaborate, to co-operate,” said David McGrane, a political scientist at the University of Saskatchewan.
But once the crisis is over, he warned, “the other federalism qualities that do not work so well – stubbornness, self-interest, lack of empathy, not understanding what other people are saying, ignoring problems – all that stuff goes up.”
Overcoming that downside of federalism will determine how well Canada weathers the challenges ahead.
Our federal and provincial governments made some terrible mistakes in the early months of the pandemic: failing to swiftly close borders; failing to realize how vulnerable people in nursing homes were to the disease; not urging people to wear masks soon enough.
Some parts of Canada responded more effectively than others. Bonnie Henry, B.C.’s Provincial Health Officer, became something of a rock star after she persuaded politicians and the public to take the pandemic seriously, which contributed to the lowest per-capita case count of any province outside Atlantic Canada.
New Brunswick Education Minister Dominic Cardy – who happened to have a life-long interest in epidemics – persuaded his colleagues to take swift action. The province locked down early and reopened early.
All in all, the country’s performance has been satisfactory. By mid-December, nine months after the World Health Organization declared a pandemic, Canada ranked 52nd in deaths per million, far ahead of the United States, and better than most major European countries, though behind Germany.
Ottawa used its vast spending power to attack the economic consequences of the emergency, through such instruments as the Canada Emergency Response Benefit (CERB) and the Canada Emergency Wage Subsidy (CEWS), while giving provinces the flexibility to tailor their response to local conditions.
“It defies logic that it turned out as well as it did,” said Gerald Baier, a political scientist at the University of British Columbia. But all in all, he concludes, “emergency federalism” got the job done.
The cost has been staggering – a federal deficit that could end up north of $400-billion this year. But most economists agree that the alternative of offering little or no support for workers or businesses, apart from being cruel, would have left the economy crippled.
One question is whether Canada will be able to acquire enough vaccine to immunize the public at about the same pace as in similar countries. That is likely to be the standard by which the federal government is judged going forward.
And once COVID-19 is defeated, politicians and the public face a reckoning.
Federal and provincial deficits must come down, which means spending cuts, even as businesses continue to close and workers continue to lose their jobs. Future audits are bound to uncover evidence of financial abuse, testing Canadians’ confidence in their governments.
At the same time, public pressure will increase to improve the health care and especially long-term care systems.
The pandemic has worsened social cleavages: between those in the broader public sector and professional private sector – where most people are able to work from home – and those whose jobs are more fragile and front-line, placing them physically and economically at risk.
Communications consultant and former conservative adviser David Tarrant tweeted about those “who haven’t missed a single paycheque,” while demanding tighter lockdowns. “If you’re comfortably getting paid while publicly demanding sacrifice from others, you’re part of the problem,” he said.
Other cleavages are regional. Alberta was struggling with falling demand in the oil-and-gas sector even before Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced steep increases in carbon taxes to fight climate change. The Atlantic provinces faced economic and population decline even before the pandemic flung a recession at them.
Though federalism worked well during a time of emergency, said Prof. McGrane, the question looking forward is: “How it will perform in peacetime?”
Still, “we have a remarkable ability to muddle through,” said Prof. Baier. The endless wrangling among first ministers may be inefficient at best and infuriating at worst, but “its informality is an advantage rather that a weakness,” he said.
“Our governing institutions are very strong” because “our governments talk,” Prof. Brock said. “They keep the dialogue going.” No matter how much our political leaders may disagree with each other, as long as they are talking, “that should stand us in good stead.”
This informal, impractical, talkative bumblebee of a country keeps on flying, no matter who says it can’t.
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