10/17/2020 13:46 EDT | Updated 10/19/2020 10:09 EDT

Is Pandemic Unity Between Ottawa And The Provinces Starting To Slip? (Analysis)

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has suggested that if things are not running smoothly in the provinces, his government is not responsible.

The Canadian Press
Ontario Premier Doug Ford, second left, speaks as Alberta Premier Jason Kenney, Quebec Premier Francois Legault and Manitoba Premier Brian Pallister look on during a press conference in Ottawa on Sept. 18, 2020.

OTTAWA — Has the blame game started?

Canada’s pandemic response has, until now, mostly been defined by a collegiality between different levels of government. The sparring that existed a year ago, when Ontario Progressive Conservative Premier Doug Ford’s unpopularity found him guest-starring in the federal Liberals’ election attack ads, has been replaced with beaming smiles and kind words from one leader to another.

Just last week, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and the Ontario premier were full of praise for one another. During a joint press conference, where each announced a $295-million commitment for Ford Motor Company’s Oakville plant to help keep 5,000 jobs in Canada, the prime minister noted his close working relationship with the premiers, contrasting it with the situation in the United States.

“In Canada, we are extremely lucky to have different orders of government, whether it is Premier Ford, [Quebec] Premier [François] Legault, or other premiers across the country who have all worked well together, and with the federal government, to be there to support Canadians and not bring overly political elements into our response,” Trudeau said. 

The Canadian Press
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau takes part in a press conference at the Ford Connectivity and Innovation Centre in Ottawa on Oct. 8 2020. He was joined virtually from Oakville by Ontario Premier Doug Ford.

Ford, whose pandemic press conferences focus on his empathy, has seen his personal popularly — and that of his party — skyrocket. Last week, he bluntly noted that a “big chunk” of people who had voted for him had also voted for the prime minister, and he went on to say how much he appreciated his relationship with Trudeau, as well as with deputy prime minister Chyrstia Freeland, whom he applauded “for doing such a great job.”

Fast forward a week, though, and the federal foundation appears to have cracks.

Perhaps, it’s owing to public opinion polls that show support for the premiers slipping as Canadians become increasingly concerned about the coronavirus.

With the second wave of COVID-19 hitting most provinces, many premiers have grappled with frustrated residents waiting in long lines for testing, longer waits for results, and changing instructions on safety measures in schools, how many people it is safe to associate with, which businesses can remain open, even whether or not Halloween is a go.

Ontario Premier Doug Ford holds a press conference with his medical team regarding new restrictions at Queen's Park during the COVID-19 pandemic in Toronto on Oct. 2, 2020.

A poll by Abacus Data released this week suggests that, while most Ontarians still approve of the job the Ford government is doing, disapproval is up by nine points compared with last May. The top issue respondents felt the government had bungled was the reopening of schools this fall.

In Alberta, Jason Kenney’s United Conservative Party government is now tied with the provincial NDP, according to pollster Angus Reid (although the reasons cited there may have less to do with the government’s pandemic response and more to do with local circumstances). 

In Quebec, Legault’s popularity — while he remains one of the most well-liked premiers in Canada — is also down, from an approval rating of 77 per cent this May to 65 per cent in late August, according to Leger Marketing

The Canadian Press
Alberta Premier Jason Kenney answers questions after announcing $43 million in repairs and improvements to provincial parks at a news conference in Calgary, Alta. on Sept. 15, 2020.

On Wednesday, Trudeau told a Winnipeg radio station that Ottawa is doing its part to help get the second wave under control — by purchasing rapid tests, vaccines and personal protective equipment, all while helping workers, families, seniors, students and small business owners survive financially. 

If things are not running smoothly, the prime minister suggested, his government is not responsible.

“It is the provinces that determine what level of orange or red you are in, what businesses should shut, how people should behave,” Trudeau told 680 CJOB about the colour-coded zones with permissible activities that some provinces use. “Our job is to support the provinces in the things that they need.”

Trudeau was asked to respond to concerns about a lack of testing and contact tracing in Manitoba and in Toronto, where officials announced earlier this month the suspension of contact tracing for some COVID-19 cases owing to a lack of resources. Trudeau said he had spoken to the premiers about this “many times” back in the spring during their first conversations focused on getting testing levels up.

“We gave them $19 billion dollars over the summer so they could ramp up their testing,” he said. “Unfortunately, not every province has hit their agreed-to targets, that they committed to in terms of tests per day.” 

The Canadian Press
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau makes his way to a press conference during the COVID pandemic in Ottawa on Friday.

Trudeau also said Ottawa had made available federal employees who “are only waiting for an ask from the provincial governments to come in and actually do more contact tracing.

“It is up to the provincial government to roll out the resources that we have made available to them in the right way, and ask for more if they need it.” 

In Toronto, Ford suggested Trudeau couldn’t be talking about his province. 

“We are kicking everyone’s butt on testing,” the premier said, before adding that he planned to get on a conference call to find out more. “I hope it wasn’t us.” 

In July, the federal government signed bilateral agreements with each province, handing over $4.28 billion for conduct testing, contact tracing, and collection of public health data. The money was expected to ensure 200,000 Canadians could be tested each day.

Canada’s Chief Public Health Officer, Dr. Theresa Tam, told reporters Friday that labs across the country have tested an average of 77,000 people daily. 

As of last week, only two provinces, Manitoba and Alberta, had reached the capacity they pledged to achieve, respectively, 3,000 and 22,000 daily tests. Ontario was far below its 70,000 target with actual capacity, with 50,692 tests; and Quebec’s capacity, targetted at 35,000, has not increased at all since early September, with the province able to perform only 20,000 daily tests, according to federal government data.

The federal government would not say Friday how many employees have been lent to the provinces to make contact tracing calls. 

The Canadian Press
Quebec Premier Francois Legault walks to question period on Oct. 6, 2020.

Ontario has taken up Ottawa’s help, using more than 600 employees from Statistics Canada to help its 2,750 tracers interview, track and isolate COVID-19 cases. The province announced this week that is has hired 100 new tracers and has plans for another 500 by mid-november. 

Innovation Minister Navdeep Bains’ spokesman, John Power, said Statistics Canada has the capacity to conduct more than 15,000 calls a day and could increase that number to 20,000 if the provinces and territories required it. The agency has signed agreements with the provinces of New Brunswick, Ontario, Alberta and Quebec, and is about to sign deals with Newfoundland and Labrador and Manitoba. It is still in discussions with Saskatchewan and Prince Edward Island, Power said.

Although most of the $19 billion Ottawa agreed to spend this summer has been disbursed  — $12.2 billion, according to Intergovernmental Minister Dominic LeBlanc’s office — $700 million is being held back until the provinces reach their promised testing capacity.

The rest of the money  — $6.9 billion — is in in-kind contributions, such as the PPE the federal government purchases and distributes and the paid-sick-leave program just being established, said Corinne Havard, LeBlanc’s spokeswoman.

“We are doing our part,” LeBlanc told reporters Friday afternoon, listing 321 ventilators, 12 million N95 masks, 43 million surgical masks, 97 million pairs of gloves, 7 million gowns, 20 million face shields and more than 8 million swabs that the federal government has sent to the provinces and territories.

In addition to the $19 billion, LeBlanc noted, Ottawa established a $2-billion “safe return to class” fund to help the provinces and territories improve air ventilation in schools, increase hand sanitation and hygiene, and purchase even more PPE and cleaning supplies. 

Havard told HuffPost Canada that part of the government’s message is to educate Canadians on which level of government is responsible for what.

If the premiers are feeling the heat, they too seem to be trying to diffuse blame for unpopular actions.

On Wednesday, Ford was accompanied by Ontario’s associate chief medical officer of health, Dr. Barbara Yaffe, who was asked by the premier to take a question directed at him about closing high-risk activities in areas that are not hot spots.

“I’m sorry. I have to hand it to the expert. Dr. Yaffe will answer that,” Ford said of an outbreak at Spinco, a spin cycling gym in Hamilton, that led to more than 74 infections. “I do think we need to review the guidelines, and that is in process,” she told reporters of coming rule changes.

On Thursday, Legault said in Montreal he was hoping the medical advice he would receive from Dr. Horacio Arruda, the province’s director of public health, would grant kids the right to engage in group sports. 

“Dr. Arruda knows that there is a measure that I really don’t like,” he said, looking sideways at his medical expert, “and it’s [forbidding] sports for young people.” Still looking at Arruda, he added: “I don’t want to put too much pressure on Dr. Arruda, but if we could allow young people after Oct. 28 to engage in sports, I’d be very pleased.” 

The Canadian Press
Quebec Premier Francois Legault responds to a question during a new conference in Montreal on Thursday.

This week also saw an increasingly tense relationship between Ottawa and Quebec, as Legault and Trudeau traded barbs on the existence of systemic racism and the possibility the federal government might establish national norms on long-term-care homes.

On Tuesday, when asked to comment on systemic racism, the prime minister took a not-so-subtle jab at the premier of Quebec, who has not publicly acknowledged that any systemic racism exists in his province.

While saying he didn’t want to comment about other premiers or other levels of government, Trudeau then said “the federal government has known for a long time that recognizing systemic racism is the first necessary step to walk the road towards reconciliation, to eliminate the real barriers and violence that is too often aimed at Indigenous people across this country, as well as other visible minorities.” 

He finished his comments by saying he encourages “all people in positions of authority, not just politicians ... to recognize the reality of systemic racism.”

A displeased Legault suggested Trudeau was out of touch with Quebecers and was “making an error” by turning his back on a whole group of people who do not believe systemic racism exists. 

“Almost every Quebecer says racism exists in Quebec,” the premier said, but some do not believe there is a system of racism. His role, he said, is to bring Quebecers together and fight racism, including with police officers, and in hospitals, such as in Joliette where Joyce Echaquan, an Indigenous mother who before dying, posted on Facebook a video of racist and abusive comments she had endured from medical staff.

“For me, that’s the best approach,” Legault said. “I know Mr. Trudeau has another one. It’s his choice.” 

The Canadian Press
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau takes part in a press conference during the COVID pandemic in Ottawa on Friday.

Trudeau hammered the message on systemic racism all week, ending Friday, following a large virtual conference on racism in health care with a tweet, referring to Echaquan’s case. “We will keep working to make sure it never happens again.”

Trudeau also focused his message this week on saying national norms in long-term-care homes are needed to avoid a repeat of what too many families experienced in the spring. The Public Health Agency of Canada reported 81 per cent of Canada’s COVID-19 deaths during the first wave in such homes.

In Quebec and in Ontario, where the army was called in to help, the Canadian Forces reported cases of gross neglect: residents left for days in soiled diapers, hungry and thirsty, while other homes had cockroaches and rotten food, and residents were subjected to “borderline abusive, if not abusive” treatment.

“No Canadian wants to see their parents, their grandparents, their loved ones not well cared for in facilities across the country,” Trudeau said Tuesday. “I don’t think there should be some regions of the country that offer better or worse protections to elders than others.

Watch: Trudeau says provinces need to fight racism in health care. Story continues below.

Legault wanted none of it.

“Mr. Trudeau is playing with fire,” he told reporters. “The federal government should not involve itself with the running of the CHSLD [Quebec’s long-term-care centres]. I think Mr. Trudeau is making an error by proposing these centralization measures,” he said.

Some attribute the calamaty in the homes to a lack of inspections, doctors’ unwillingness to enter residences to treat COVID-19 patients, and staff who, underpaid and with few or no sick days, worked in multiple residences to make ends meet.

Others suggested that a lack of PPE and testing and infection control measures were to blame.

Still others noted how some residences crammed multiple residents into one room, sharing one bathroom, making it difficult to isolate COVID cases.

In Mississauga, for example, the 236-bed Camilla Care Community had 83 people sick with COVID-19. Sixty-eight died. 

In British Columbia, which experienced the first COVID-19 case in a long-term-care facility, authorities were much better equipped to handle the virus. Experts pointed to the province’s greater funding for long-term care, fewer shared rooms, more comprehensive inspections, and better infection prevention and control measures. 

Federal officials declined this week to state publicly what national norms might look like. The Prime Minister’s Office told HuffPost “standards could mean rules, it can mean training, it can mean enforcement of the rules and it probably, most definitely, means money.”

Agreements with provinces

Carleton University Assistant Professor Vandna Bhatia suggested Ottawa might try to sign bilateral agreements with each province,  as it did in 2017 with home care and mental health. Those agreements differ substantially province to province, with Quebec’s agreement vague on how the money will be spent and reported.

The topic was discussed Thursday during the prime minister’s 20th call with the premiers. 

The outcome? 

Friday, Trudeau and LeBlanc were talking about sharing “best practices” as a first step between the provinces, rather than imposing national norms.

But still, it seemed, the prime minister couldn’t help himself.

“I absolutely respect provincial jurisdiction, but when we are talking about the dignity and health and the life of people, there are no jurisdictions,” he told reporters.