Canada

Chris Selley: Ottawa can’t beat COVID-19 alone, and it’s doing a questionable job trying

On Wednesday in the Senate, Health Minister Patty Hajdu announced that, as of 12:01 a.m. Thursday, the recommendation that people arriving in Canada from abroad self-isolate for 14 days would become a legal requirement under the federal Quarantine Act. The question immediately on many lips was: “Why only now?” Curtailing civil liberties should never be taken lightly, but it deserves answering.

It has been very clear for many days that not enough people are doing the things the federal and provincial governments are imploring them to do. We have seen images of crowded public parks and sidewalks: Vancouver, we’re looking disapprovingly in your direction. We have heard stories of travellers stopping for groceries and doing other errands on their way from the border into isolation — and those were entirely believable, not least because the federal government didn’t tell people not to.

The yawning incompetence on display in the official documents issued to travellers arriving in Canada is staggering and will eventually need to be answered for. It is killing people. One sheet of paper tells people to “self-isolate,” but defines it as “not having visitors, especially older adults or those with medical conditions.” That misbegotten adverb, “especially,” does nothing except weaken the advice. Nothing on the handout suggests anything as alarming as “don’t even stock up on groceries or refill your prescriptions before you lock yourself inside.”

We shall see if the feds manage to communicate a legal requirement better than they communicated a stern request. But since they’ve failed utterly at the latter, perhaps it’s best they snap people out of it with threats of fines or imprisonment.

It has been strange, however, to see how much attention has been paid to the federal government’s response relative to the provinces’. Ottawa controls the border, true enough, but it’s not at the border that this thing is going to be beaten. It’s wide open.

Canadians are coming home in the hundreds of thousands, from all over the world. On Monday, between them, Vancouver’s, Montreal’s and Toronto’s main airports welcomed flights from Australia, the Bahamas, Barbados, Belgium, Belize, Brazil, Chile, China, Colombia, Costa Rica, Cuba, the Dominican Republic, Dubai, France, Germany, Haiti, Honduras, Hong Kong, India, Ireland, Jamaica, Japan, Mexico, Morocco, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Panama, Portugal, Qatar, Saint Lucia, South Korea, Switzerland, Taiwan, Turks and Caicos, the United Kingdom and 18 American states. Some of those passengers will have COVID-19 and not know it. They will infect others. From then on, it’s up to the provinces. The feds can’t do anything but cut cheques.

It’s not clear why the provinces need anything extra that’s in the federal Emergencies Act

No one denies this, of course, and it may be simply a matter of there being more journalists on Parliament Hill than at any other Canadian legislature. Certain members of the media seem hellbent on the federal government triggering the Emergencies Act, but they’re not the only ones. On Monday New Brunswick Premier Blaine Higgs asked for it to be triggered, in the name of “consistency.”

“I think we need (the same) standards across the country,” he told reporters in Fredericton.

But why? The problem isn’t the same in every part of Canada, any more than it’s the same in every part of Europe — a landmass of comparable size. Some parts of Canada are going to recover more quickly than others, and we should not want to delay them in trying to get back to normal. It’s not as if the provinces lack powers.

Under New Brunswick’s Emergency Measures Act, the province’s Public Safety Minister can order confiscation of private property, entry “into any building or on any land without warrant” and “demolition or removal of any building, structure, tree or crop.” He can fix prices. He can “control or prohibit travel to or from any area or on any road, street or highway.” And he can “order the assistance, with or without remuneration,” of anyone he deems necessary to get all that done. Other provinces’ acts read largely the same.

New Brunswick Premier Blaine Higgs Stephen MacGillivray/The Canadian Press/File

The federal Quarantine Act might be a useful new arrow in the anti-coronavirus quiver; but it’s not clear why the provinces need anything extra that’s in the federal Emergencies Act. The provinces can even impose their own travel restrictions: Nova Scotia and P.E.I. are already advising people arriving from other provinces to self-isolate for 14 days. Indeed, it’s not at all clear why federal advice would differentiate domestic travel from international. But by definition, in a country this huge and diverse, the feds can only wield blunt instruments. By design, the provinces have sharper, more precise ones.

The nature of the Canadian federation can sometimes lead to absurd outcomes: not long ago a pipeline project in British Columbia was at the mercy of protesters thousands of miles away because the Ontario Provincial Police wouldn’t enforce a court order to clear a federally regulated railroad. But in general it’s a feature, not a bug. Ottawa can’t beat COVID-19 on its own, and it’s doing a highly questionable job even doing what it can. Canadians need to focus their attention squarely on their provincial capitals.

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