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COVID-19, an indicator of canadian divisions

April 8, 2020


by Gérard Boismenu, Professor at the University of Montreal, President of the scientific committee of the Institut des Amériques.


It's during times of social and sanitary crises that countries reveal their personalities. 

In Canada, intitutional divisions tied to the federalism and political identity that is strongly influenced by the national issue are asserting themselves in particular ways. Yet again, Canada stands out as different from his US neighbor.


The pandemic sprouted in homeopathic doses in February with the arrival of a person of Chinese origin here, and there from Iran, then with the increase in international travel. The first week of March, a month when schools are let go in Quebec, the second week in Ontario, accelerated it with the addition of international trips. This wave will be followed by the return of the snowbirds end of March, usually older and retired people, that live in Florida or elsewhere in the "southern countries". Soon, the contamination will not longer be "imported", but "local".


In hindsight, the government's response was slow, or should we say deficient in terms of anticipation. It is true that with so few cases in February it would have been difficult to put general measures in place so soon without appearing to be the prophet of doom. The H1N1 flu is still quite fresh in one's mind and the feeling of invulnerability to epidemics is well rooted.



Canadian federalism, such as it is, gives quasi absolute authoriy to the provincial stage when it comes to health and social services. Within pancanadian parameters, of which a universal and free healthcare (financed by taxes), there are then ten distinct sanitary pathways - one per province, with particular traditions and configurations. 


The Quebec governement was the first one to announce a "pause" on March 12, by closing schools, universities, child care and then by deciding to close non-essential businesses and stores. The freeze was then followed little by little by the other provinces, with in the end, what was an initial voluntary isolation, a requirement throughout Canada.


The Federal government was at first slow on the trigger, but then got its marching orders by making decisions on matters where it has discretionary margins and authority. The financial help given, whether to businesses or individuals, is enormous. Jointly with the provinces, this "federal government activisme" is without precedent (except during war one could say) in a country that values the division of legislative power. Conservative thinking, usually restricts if not forbids government intervention, is being discreet; one day will be written an opuscule titled "the day this thought was silent".



Everyday now, we see a succession of well-paced press conferences: first the Prime Minister's, Justin Trudeau, from his administrative residence (in isolation, for his wife came back from the United Kingdom diagnosed positive to Covid-19), who gives the latest updates on what is going on around the world and announces the federal government actions to help the population and the businesses; the Premier's of Ontario, then Quebec's Premier (flanked with the National Director of Public Health and the  Minister of Health and Social Services). These televised exchanges with the media are watched and are beating audience viewing records.


In general, the satisfaction rate is very high. For Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, the Canadian division is manifesting itself again. The Canadians, except Quebec, are happy with the federal government's actions from 67 to 83 % in accordance with residency, but in Quebec the percentage fell to 44 % while satisfaction toward the Quebec government is at 94 %. The Quebec Premier started these press conferences and announced the first strong action and since, he maintains a complicity with the population with a direct and rigorous, but congenial style.  It seems that the population adheres to the belief that the situation is under control and that respect for the measures is the key to "flatten the curve".



On April 7, 2020 Canada's global situation can be seen in the image.


Responsability for following the spread of the epidemic is decentralized and each province decides its own order of priority. Each one knows what the other is doing, but their actions are different. For example, the intense use of testing and targeted populations not only changes over time, but is also different according to the province. Managing beds, protective equipment and treatment, the deployment of healthcare personnel, is done at the provincial level. It is therefore difficult to compare statistics: obviously, provinces that test extensively will have more cases, but won't necessarily reveal a more alarming sanitary situation - think of the difference between Germany and the rest of Europe's situation. Each provincial government's read on its situation is pretty well revealed in the different approaches. The way they sketch possible scenarios of the spread of the epidemic also shows significant variations. In facing this epidemic therefore, all of Canada manifests decentralized philosophy  that undercuts the central government's effort to exercise its leadership.

A comparative political specialist, Gérard Boismenu has had a solid career as a research professor and administrator at the University of Montreal (Director of research centers and the University of Montreal Press, Head of the Department of Political Science, then Dean of the Faculté des arts et des sciences and vice-rector of the Développement académique et à la transformation institutionnelle, President of the scientific committee of the Institut des Amériques). A specialist in social protection, he focuses on political-institutional models of representation and regulatory methods. He has written many books (which you can find here) of which Les mécanismes de régulation sociale [1988], Politique et régulation [1990], L’aide au conditionnel [2003], La pauvreté [2011]. His book Un fordisme à forte tonalité libérale. Les Trente glorieuses au Canada will be published next Septembern (2020).