Opinion by Rayyan Esmail.
As the COVID-19 situations in Alberta and Saskatchewan deteriorated in September 2021, the Prime Minister took the opportunity to score political points in the final days of the federal election. He criticized the Conservative premiers of those provinces and associated them with the federal Conservative Party, but spoke little about his own responsibility for the COVID crisis . With the election over and Trudeau still Prime Minister, some Albertan Intensive Care Units (ICUs) are implementing drastic triage measures while Saskatchewan is forced to transfer ICU patients out of province . Lives are at risk as seriously ill patients cannot access ventilators and resources from other hospital wards . Even after this wave is over, there will be a backlog of delayed surgeries and other medical care, with potentially significant repercussions.
Provincial governments have led Canada’s COVID response thus far. Lockdowns, reopening, curfews, and vaccine eligibility have all been decisions made by our premiers, with varying degrees of success. It may seem sensible, then, to assign the blame to those same provincial governments when their decisions fail. However, this analysis assumes that just because provinces are the ones making these important decisions, they should be the ones to decide; that is a dangerous move.
The provinces' dominant role in our pandemic response is not a law of the universe, nor of our constitution, but a deliberate policy choice made by the federal government. The federal government has the constitutional authority to step in during an emergency such as this . Pierre Trudeau was the last to use these powers, in response to the October Crisis of 1970 and rapid inflation in 1975. This power still exists and is referenced in federal legislation, including the Emergencies Act. The Prime Minister previously dismissed calls to use these powers as unnecessary, but at key junctures in this fourth wave, when the consequences were reasonably foreseeable and provincial governments refused to act, federal intervention was absolutely necessary .
In August, Canada’s Chief Public Health Officer warned of a fourth wave, but Alberta relaxed restrictions, most notably removing its isolation requirement for those who tested positive. The end result was predictable, with the premier apologizing for his previous approach and asking for federal help . As this was happening in Alberta, Saskatchewan declined calls to increase restrictions as its ICU capacity dwindled . Now, they have brought the military in while sending ICU patients out-of-province for treatment . The federal government could have heeded the calls of public health experts for lockdowns when both Alberta and Saskatchewan refused. It could have mandated vaccine proof weeks before either province did. It could have proactively reassigned ICU staff and capacity across provincial borders. Any of these responses may have lessened the devastating human toll of the fourth wave .
It is, of course, worth contemplating the potential negative impacts of using this power. One may cite the damage to federal-provincial relations or political popularity . With respect to federal-provincial cooperation, it is true that the relationship has been key to much of the COVID-19 response thus far. However, the current crises in Alberta and Saskatchewan are indicative that the cooperative approach to pandemic management, in these two provinces during this fourth wave, has utterly failed. Shirking the responsibility to save lives to protect a framework that has shown its inability to do so is silly. As to political popularity, any damage to the popularity of the federal government in these provinces or nationwide deserves little concern against the tangible human toll taken by the pandemic.
Ultimately, the case herein advanced shows no signs of being heard by the federal government. The fourth wave in these provinces will almost certainly end with hundreds dead and all the blame assigned to the provincial governments' failure to act earlier. They will deserve to be questioned as to why they did not act earlier and what will be done differently if a future wave occurs, but the federal government ought to face the same level of scrutiny.
1. Emerald Bensadoun, “Trudeau says Alberta, Saskatchewan made ‘wrong choices’ during COVID-19 pandemic,” Global News, September 19, 2021, https://globalnews.ca/news/8202628/trudeau-alberta-saskatchewan-covid/.
2. Dean Bennett, “Alberta emergency doctor says major parts of health triage have begun,” The Globe and Mail, September 24, 2021, https://www.theglobeandmail.com/canada/article-alberta-emergency-doctor-says-key-parts-of-health-triage-have-begun/.
3. Phil Tank, “Sask. set to transfer up to four COVID-19 patients a day to Ontario,” Saskatoon StarPhoenix, October 22, 2021, https://thestarphoenix.com/news/local-news/sask-set-to-transfer-up-to-four-covid-19-patients-a-day-to-ontario.
5. Linda McKay-Panos, “The Use of the Peace, Order and Good Government Clause in Canada’s Constitution,” LawNow, July/August 2020, 13.
6. Kathleen Harris, “Trudeau says most premiers don’t think Emergencies Act needed yet to cope with COVID-19,” CBC News, March 24, 2020, https://www.cbc.ca/news/politics/trudeau-tam-covid19-emergencies-act-supplies-1.5508035.
7. Rob Gillies, “Alberta leader apologizes, imposes restrictions and passport,” ABC News, September 16, 2021, https://abcnews.go.com/International/wireStory/alberta-leader-apologizes-imposes-restrictions-passport-80048268.
8. Phil Heidenreich, “COVID-19: Kenney says Alberta to accept help from feds, N.L. as health system under ‘enormous pressure’,” Global News, September 30, 2021, https://globalnews.ca/news/8234332/alberta-health-covid-19-september-30-2021/.
9. Adam Hunter, “Sask. premier’s messaging diverges from health-care officials amid refusal to adopt COVID-19 restrictions,” CBC News, October 9, 2021, https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/saskatchewan/sask-covid-19-fourth-wave-1.6204791.
11. Canada, Parliament, House of Commons, Standing Committee on Health, Evidence, 2nd sess., 43rd Parliament, Meeting No. 034, 2021, https://www.ourcommons.ca/Content/Committee/432/HESA/Evidence/EV11297963/HESAEV34-E.PDF.
12. David Robitaille, “La COVID-19 au Canada : le fédéralisme coopératif à pied d’œuvre,” in Vulnerable: The Law, Policy and Ethics of COVID-19, ed. Colleen M. Flood et al. (Ottawa: University of Ottawa Press, 2020), 89.