Issue 29: Is Pandemic Federalism the new normal?

The demands of fighting the pandemic have led to huge shifts in the balance of power in our federation. How much of it will become permanent remains to be seen.

Today’s briefing is by Andrew Potter (AP), who is an associate professor at the Max Bell School of Public Policy at McGill University.

IT IS HARD TO REMEMBER WHAT IT WAS LIKE BEFORE TIME FROZE, but 2020 was actually shaping up to be a bad year on the national unity front. The anger and alienation in the West was on a high simmer, while the biggest story in February was the #ShutCanadaDown movement, the series of cross-country blockades and protests in support of the Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs who were trying to stop the Coastal GasLink pipeline from pushing through their territory. 

And then came the pandemic and everything changed. 

But in what way,  exactly, did everything change? And how much of it is liable to be long-lasting?

The conventional wisdom is that times of great international crisis serve to strengthen the power of the federal government. The Second World War is the obvious example -- Ottawa came out of that conflict full of itself, ready to apply its new war-forged capacities to building a national welfare state. The attacks of 9/11 changed and strengthened the federal government in different ways of course, but the underlying rationale is the same: When the outside world is a threat, the central government takes control. 

That was the thesis of a handful of early-pandemic newspaper columns. “Decades of decentralization have been reversed in a matter of weeks,” wrote John Ibbitson of the Globe and Mail in a column that concluded, “Ottawa is all-powerful as Canada goes to war against a virus.” More recently, the pundit pendulum has swung the other way, with Susan Delacourt of the Star writing this week that when it comes to the pandemic, it’s actually the provinces that are in charge. 

The reality is considerably more complicated. Because while Ottawa has in some ways stepped up and imposed itself on the national agenda and into areas of provincial jurisdiction, the opposite has also happened -- most notably when three provinces (Alberta, Quebec, and Nova Scotia) sent their own officers to screen arrivals at the airports after federal officials showed no interest in doing it. 

In fact, what makes the COVID-19 pandemic so different from a conventional war, or from international terrorism, is the extent to which is has localized our politics. Even though we like to talk about the national caseload and death rate, and the federal chief public health officer, Theresa Tam, has become a national figure, the truth is there is no “Canadian pandemic” strictly speaking. What we have are a small handful of regional outbreaks and a smattering of cases elsewhere, with huge tracts of the country virtually free of the virus. And that in turn has shaped the response, with provincial and municipal health authorities wielding most of the real power and doing most of the heavy lifting. 

How any of this shakes out in the medium to long term is anyone’s guess. But it is worth flagging a few areas in which things are quite fluid, and where national institutions seem at risk, or where the balance between federal and provincial authority threatens to tip in directions that could end up being very hard to reverse. These include fiscal powers, internal mobility, and the status of Parliament.

Monetary and Fiscal policy

The most obvious display of federal power during the pandemic has been its willingness to use whatever monetary and (more significantly) fiscal levers it has available. As Chris Ragan wrote in the first briefing in this series, Ottawa’s fiscal response has been aimed at providing “relief,” not stimulus, to both individuals and to corporate actors. It’s hard to keep track of all the various programmes and policies, but it includes billions in direct cash payments to workers and students, wage and rent subsidies, and in some cases, outright bailouts.

In one of his recent newsletters, Alex Usher expressed some astonishment at the extent to which “we seem to be re-writing all the rules of federalism without even noticing it.” In particular, he pointed out how shocking it was that the feds are providing direct income support to individuals outside of a programme like EI. He notes that this probably points to the need for a long-term rebalancing of the federation, and suggests that it might mean something like Ottawa taking over income support for individuals, with the provinces dealing largely with institutions.

Internal borders

The right for a Canadian citizen to move anywhere in Canada is a fundamental constitutional right. But in the early days of the pandemic, a number of provinces set up checkpoints or barriers to travel, both inter-provincially and, in the case of at least Ontario and Quebec, intra-provincially. By early April, at least eight provinces and territories had some sort of border checkpoint in place, and for some jurisdictions such as Nunavut, which has had no cases of COVID-19, you can’t get in without first spending two weeks in quarantine.

Most of these measures would probably be considered by the courts reasonable limitations on individual rights during a pandemic. But it is a bit disconcerting how quickly and easily the barriers went up, and how little pushback there has been. Of particular concern is the blocking of the interprovincial bridges joining Ottawa to Gatineau, with police turning back motorists trying to cross over from Ontario whose travel is not deemed essential. One quarter of the National Capital Region’s 120 000 federal employees work in Gatineau, and the ability of a provincial police force to prevent them from getting to work suggests that moving to a D.C.-style governance and administrative model for the NCR should be near the top of Ottawa post-pandemic agenda.

Parliament

Which brings us to Parliament, the seat of our democracy, the upholder of our liberties, the ultimate expression of our identity as a people. And, in the eyes of many, pretty much disposable during a pandemic.

The river of disdain for Parliament has many tributaries, though its headwaters lie in the federal cabinet and the office of the prime minister. Whether it is Bill Morneau’s attempt at seizing nearly unlimited power to tax and spend for 19 months, or Justin Trudeau’s insistence on running the country from his front door, it is clear that the Liberals have not seen much use for the Commons during the pandemic.

Bizarrely, the government has been encouraged in this view by the Green Party, the NDP, and the Bloc, all of whom have seemed happy to have the Commons stay out of the government’s way. Only the Conservatives made a stink about having the Commons sit, something that brought them a great deal of condemnation from the press gallery, and which reveals a disturbing level of fascination with technocracy over politics.

If there is good news to be found here, it is that the Commons has finally found its feet and is starting to do its job. Yesterday, the opposition parties forced some useful changes to the government’s student handout bill — as John Ivison wrote, it was a welcome victory for parliamentary accountability.

Pandemic federalism

What emerges from this is a Canada where the provinces are doing most of the dirty work fighting the pandemic, with the federal government serving as the national quartermaster.

This is probably as it should be. It isn’t just that the health care is a provincial responsibility. It’s that the pandemic is a local thing, that needs a local response. The time for Ottawa to act within its powers was in January or February, when strong decisive actions in areas of clear federal responsibility -- closing the border, setting up quarantine, screening at the airports -- and going back further, proper pandemic preparation and stockpiling. But once the virus was here, Ottawa became somewhat less useful -- in many ways, it has just been getting in the way. 

Where all of this ends up is anyone’s guess. It depends to some extent on how long this drags on, and how much debt Ottawa has to take on to keep the country afloat. But what there is also the question of political leadership, whether Canada’s post-pandemic politics simply reverts to the squabbling norm or whether the response to the coronavirus motivates new political energies.

And finally, there’s the very real possibility that all of this might need to be sorted out in the way all of this always gets sorted out: An election, maybe in Spring 2021. (AP)

In writing this briefing, my thinking has been influenced hugely by Alex Usher, who has emerged as one of the country’s indispensable thinkers during the pandemic. Follow his writing, heed his words, hire his firm.

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Policy for Pandemics is produced and edited by Andrew Potter and co-edited by Charlotte Reboul and Paisley Sim (bios here) If you have any feedback or would like to contribute to this newsletter, please send an email to andrew2.potter@mcgill.ca