Opinion-Policy Nexus

Canada is a favoured nation in many, many ways, not the least of them being the strength of our political institutions and the ability of our elected leaders to rise above partisanship and self-interest in times of crisis.

I can think of no better way to illustrate the point than by comparing the responses at the highest levels in Canada and the United States to the coronavirus pandemic. The response in Ottawa may not have been perfect, but the Trudeau administration clearly understands that the paramount responsibility of government is the protection of the public.

Justin Trudeau and his key ministers on the pandemic file – the unflappable Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland and the rising new star, Health Minister Patty Hajdu – have been calm, reassuring and consistent in their messaging: the crisis is real; Ottawa, the provinces and municipalities are all on the same page; and, as Freeland put it in a TV interview, “We will do whatever it takes.”

Doing whatever it takes means pumping stimulus money into the economy and setting concerns about deficits and disputes over jurisdiction aside until the crisis is over. There will be time to worry about such things later, post-COVID-19.

Doing whatever it takes means the prime minister placing himself in voluntary self-isolation for 14 days when his wife tests positive for the virus. So far, he hasn’t missed a beat. He has consulted other world leaders, met remotely with Indigenous leaders and provincial premiers whom he could not meet physically, chaired cabinet meetings the same way, issued messages of reassurance and determination to the public, and addressed the nation from the foot of the steps to Rideau Cottage, declaring, “We are pulling out all the stops.”  

(Two of his cabinet ministers – along with NDP leader Jagmeet Singh – had also self-isolated by the weekend, and it seemed inevitable that others would have to do the same at some point.)

Regardless of what anyone may think of Trudeau and the Liberals, he was setting a personal example of the regimen that the government hopes individual Canadians will adopt: protect yourself and your family; restrict travel; avoid large gatherings; practice “social distancing”; if you feel ill, stay home; get tested; be prepared to quarantine yourself; don’t worry about your job or lost income because the government will step in with employment insurance and other measures to support your family; your government has your back.

The provinces followed suit. For example, Ontario – after an initial gaffe by Premier Doug Ford who urged families to travel and enjoy March break this week –  announced that all publicly funded schools will remain closed for at least two weeks following the break, urged cancellation of gatherings of more than 250 people and suspended jury selection for future trials, among other measures. Theatres went dark and many of the province’s universities and colleges cancelled classes for the remainder of the semester.

In Washington, protection of the public was not among President Donald Trump’s priorities. He seemed more concerned about his re-election in November and the health of the stock market than about the health of Americans. He bobbed, weaved, stumbled and stalled. At first, he ignored the crisis. Then he acknowledged that while a few people might be sick from something they contracted abroad, Americans were better protected than any other people, thanks to his administration’s wise precautions.

As the crisis worsened, he blamed foreigners. He blamed the media. He blamed the Democrats. He claimed that his uncompleted wall along Mexican border would somehow keep the pandemic out of the U.S. He banned travellers from Europe, except those from Britain and Ireland (two countries where, as the Washington Post was quick to note, he happened to own golf courses). He mangled his prepared text; corrections were offered; the public grew increasingly worried, and the stock market cratered, until Trump finally declared a national emergency.

It’s easy to say, well, that’s just Trump, he’s ignorant, he’s a known idiot and he doesn’t reflect the American system. That may be true, but it is worth noting that 63 million Americans cast votes for him in 2016. They chose to make the idiot their leader they may well choose him again this year.


Sunday, March 15, 2020 - 00:00