WASHINGTON — In the time of the novel coronavirus, Canada and the United States seem to be playing to type: the friendly apologizers of the Great White North coming together against a common enemy, America’s combative revolutionaries threatening to tear each other apart.
While state governors and federal authorities outbid each other for precious protective gear, Alberta has promised its surplus masks, gloves and ventilators to provinces like B.C. and Quebec, two of Premier Jason Kenney’s favourite political targets.
Ontario’s Doug Ford, leader of a province where fed-bashing is like political oxygen, has been getting moral support from the unlikeliest of sources: Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland, who insists the feeling is mutual.
Then there’s those White House briefings, as much like Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s doorstep chats as chalk and cheese.
“I’ve never liked the term ‘political culture,’ but it does say something to me about the vast cultural difference between the United States and Canada from this perspective,” said Richard Schultz, an expert on federalism and a 40-year veteran of teaching politics at McGill University before retiring last summer.
“There is this culture (in Canada) of … more deeply rooted community and social services. We fight about the size of government, we fight about deficits — but when push came to shove, we said, ‘Look, there’s no one fighting this.’ “
Political scholars have long seen Canada as one of the world’s most decentralized federations — a place where Ottawa yields much to the provinces and territories, which manage key services like health and education. Schultz has never shared that view, citing Elections Canada and employment insurance as evidence.
COVID-19 has undermined his argument, he acknowledged.
“The traditional image that the Americans are much more centralized and top-down from the federal government, compared to Canada, I think is overstated,” Schultz said.
“And yet, I think this is a highly exceptional case that we’re dealing with. We have the 10 provinces and the federal government — in a way that I haven’t witnessed in the 56 years I’ve been studying it — working relatively collaboratively, co-operatively together on this issue.”
Stateside, meanwhile, governors on both the east and west coasts, each hit hard by COVID-19, got together Monday to strategize the best way to re-open their shuttered economies, openly if not explicitly defying Trump’s insistence that when the time comes, “sooner rather than later,” it will be the U.S. president’s decision to make.
He made that argument again Monday, in breathtaking fashion.
“The president of the United States, the authority is total. And that’s the way it’s got to be,” Trump said during a brazen, unrestrained news conference so drenched in partisanship that it even included a campaign-ad sizzle reel, assembled by White House staffers, meant to defend his administration’s response.
“That being said, we’re getting along very well with the governors and I feel very certain that there won’t be a problem.”
New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo has warned that re-opening his state, which has seen 10,000 of America’s 23,000 COVID-19 deaths to date, will be an intricate, interstate process that demands gradually starting up systems like schools, transit and key businesses in tandem, all the while carefully monitoring the infection rate to ensure it remains under control.
“The federal government has to be realistic about this — you can’t just wish it and then it is so,” Cuomo said Tuesday on CNN, warning of a protracted and divisive constitutional fight in the courts if states find their hands forced.
“We don’t have King Trump. We have President Trump.”
In an election year, Oval Office patience is clearly running short.
Trump’s new “Council to Re-open America” task force is a panel of loyalists, including daughter Ivanka and son-in-law Jared Kushner; Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin; economic adviser Larry Kudlow and Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross. U.S. trade czar Robert Lighthizer and Mark Meadows, Trump’s new chief of staff, round out the lineup.
Presidential wild cards, cultural stereotypes and pandemic-fuelled pandemonium in the U.S. aside, though, why has Canada’s response to COVID-19 seemed so orderly by comparison?
Katherine Fierlbeck, a political theory professor at Dalhousie University in Halifax, traces it to the SARS outbreak of 2003, a deadly viral outbreak that hit Toronto in particular and exposed some of the failings of Canadian federalism when it came to public health.
While the provinces and territories do maintain jurisdiction over health care, public health is one of the exceptions, Fierlbeck said. And the Charter of Rights and Freedoms gives Ottawa the power to exercise its judgment and step in “when things get really bad.”
But it didn’t do that in 2003, when Toronto and Ontario were leading the offensive against SARS and the World Health Organization was looking for a federal response to travel advisories around the world urging tourists to avoid Canada’s most populous city. The WHO responded with a crippling advisory of its own that lasted a week and dealt a billion-dollar blow to the city’s economy.
“It was because of this international humiliation that Canada really changed the ways that it designed its federal-provincial relationship when it came to public health and especially infectious diseases,” a process that spawned the Public Health Agency of Canada, Fierlbeck said.
The idea was to integrate federal governance into the public health sphere, both in terms of day-to-day surveillance as well as responding to a crisis, embedding federal officials into provincial agencies to better ensure effective lines of communication and a mutual grasp of how the two levels of government operated.
“It was trying to facilitate communication and understanding so that when something happened, there was an understanding, and there’s also personal connections with various provinces, and there was an understanding about how resources would be distributed.”
The agency has also been tested: in 2009, the virulent H1N1 outbreak exposed not federal-provincial breakdowns, but a patchwork of regional health authorities that made it hard for the provinces to co-ordinate efforts.
“Canada, because of historical circumstances, really has what I would call a reasonable institutional framework for co-ordination between jurisdictions,” Fierlbeck said.
“And at the current point, I think for the most part, the first ministers have not decided to play politics with COVID the same way that certain American officials have been.”
This report by The Canadian Press was first published April 14, 2020.
— Follow James McCarten on Twitter @CdnPressStyle
James McCarten, The Canadian Press