Does Canada work?

Originally published in the Mayneliner.

We are now in a pandemic that has lasted more than a year.

At the same time, we are in a climate emergency.

There are a number of commonalities in facing both of these emergencies – COVID and the climate crisis. Both require that governments base policies on evidence. Both require that we respect science. Both require decisive government action.

Obstacles to success share other traits – and they are not good.

Our willingness to learn from success and failure – whether on environmental policy or COVID – seems halting and inadequate.

On environmental policy, we had tremendous success in the 1980’s fighting acid rain and protecting the ozone layer. Canada’s tried and true approach from that era has never been applied when it comes to climate. In the 1980s, the federal government and the provinces made binding agreements, one province at a time. On climate, we have negotiated with all the governments at once – moving to lowest common denominator decisions. Federal-provincial jurisdictional, petty squabbles have undermined action. The federal government for the last thirty years has been unwilling to set climate policy that would anger any premier.

On COVID, we see the same thing. At the beginning of the pandemic, the federal Public Health Agency could not answer even the most basic questions about the R0 (R-naught) values of COVID. We did not know how many people would contract COVID-19 from one person who is infected. The reason the Public Health Agency did not know is that provinces kept data in different formats. As well, provinces sent the information to Ottawa in an inconsistent way – some by fax. Some provinces exercised their “right” not to share information if it was embarrassing. Each province acted on its own approach – some deciding to go hard and fast (Atlantic provinces), while others decided to try a lock-down and then a bit of opening and then back to (ineffective) lock-downs. In Mary Carney’s new book, Values(s), he describes these two approaches as the Hammer versus the Dance. I wish we had learned from the Atlantic provinces, as well as New Zealand, Taiwan, Australia, among others. They chose the Hammer and now have opened up. We are still in Dance mode. Instead of setting a goal of Zero COVID, we opted for “bending the curve” to keep COVID at a low level until we could all be vaccinated.

In Parliament, when Paul Manly, Green MP for Nanaimo-Ladysmith, asked if it was not time to move to Zero COVID and use the Emergency Act to get there, the reply was that we did not want a Constitutional crisis.

We are a federation. In some ways, so is the European Union. While not a nation state, the EU negotiated as a bloc in the 1997 Kyoto climate conference. When the deal was done, in short order, the nations of the EU negotiated a fair apportionment of the target. Wealthy industrialized members, with strong green mandates took on relatively bigger burdens of GHG reductions, to keep more recalcitrant nations on board.

Canada with 14 governments (10 provinces, three territories and a federal government) – all part of the same country after all – never even attempted Europe’s approach. The EU is now nearly 44% below its 1990 GHG emissions, while we are 21 % above.

The same lack of effective cooperation typified our COVID response. Australia is a good choice for comparison as, like Canada, it is a federated state (six states, two territories and the federal government). Those governments decided at the beginning of COVID to cooperate. Two committees were formed – one a committee of top health officials from each government; the other, the elected leaders of each government. The results of coordination– in deaths per 100K of population: Canada 62 versus Australia 3.59.

We are a great country – and yes, we work. But we could work better. We have interprovincial barriers to trade, to movement of labour, to a national securities regulator. These barriers are clunky and inefficient for our economy, but in terms of our health in a pandemic and our chances of survival in the climate crisis, we must find ways to make Canada work.

Canadians should not be dying to avoid a potential Constitutional crisis. Our global responsibility to act on climate should not be hostage to provincial sabre-rattling. We need to get our act together.