On Wednesday March 10th I had a follow up debate on my question about the lack of federal-provincial coordination in Canada's response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
One of the things that the pandemic has laid bare is the dysfunction in our system of cooperative federalism. In this debate I wanted to know why the Government of Canada had not lead a national approach to the pandemic. There are lots of examples of countries that took a coordinated national approach and succeeded in controlling the spread of the virus - New Zealand, Australia, Taiwan, South Korea, Vietnam, Thailand etc.
The response I received from the parliamentary secretary is that the government didn't want to create a 'constitutional crisis'. I find this response astonishing. More than twenty one thousand people have died, we have seriously harmed many sectors of our economy, put a huge number of Canadians and small businesses in financial distress, and run up a massive deficit because the government didn't want to create a 'constitutional crisis' by having a coordinated national response?
Rather than one serious short-term lock-down with measures to control any new outbreaks, we have a yo-yo response with multiple lock-downs that have extended the economic pain. The same dysfunctional approach can be seen in Canada's response to the climate crisis. We have the worst record for climate action compared to other G7 countries and the European Union. There is no serious coordination with the provinces to reduce emissions. It's a sorry state of affairs.
Below is a transcript of my debate.
I would like to start by recognizing the personal and economic sacrifices Canadians have made during this pandemic. They stayed home, they followed public health orders and they did everything in their power to flatten the curve and beat COVID-19. Families across this country are grieving the 21,000 people who have died. Now, a year into this pandemic, Canadians are exhausted and frustrated.
The repeated lockdowns and restrictions have taken a heavy toll. Small and medium-sized businesses are struggling to survive. Millions of people are experiencing financial hardship. Mental health challenges, drug overdoses and domestic violence have all increased. Despite the sacrifices, COVID-19 is still spreading in our communities, and new variants are a growing concern.
Canadians are looking at what is happening in other countries, and it is not lost on them that our strategy in Canada is not working. Inadequate coordination between federal, provincial and territorial responses has failed to stop the spread of the virus.
In countries such as New Zealand, Australia, Taiwan and South Korea, the spread of COVID-19 has been arrested, case levels are down, the death toll is much lower, the economies are up and running, and people are going about their lives. What can Canada learn? Where did we go wrong, and how can we move forward in a way that will result in less hardship for Canadians?
Countries that have eliminated the spread of the disease shared these key aspects: they had a national strategy; they closed borders; they required quarantines for citizens returning from international location; they limited internal travel within the country; they mandated masks for indoor public spaces; they tested and used contact tracing; they continue to use circuit-breaker lock downs to quickly stop new outbreaks; and the health minister is in charge of vaccine procurement, not the industry minister.
The key to success was to isolate outbreaks and use multiple tools to limit the spread of the virus. These are actions that the Green Party MPs advocated for in the early days of the pandemic. Instead of a well-coordinated national strategy, Canadians have had a patchwork of provincial health orders that were often contradictory and confusing. In some cases, COVID-19-related decisions appeared to be driven by politics instead of science.
I appreciate the fact that the government organized an intergovernmental coordinating committee with medical health officers from across the country, but we needed more than a committee. We needed more than a patchwork of confusing protocols and mandates that change from province to province.
Canada is a federation, and it is true that provinces have jurisdiction over health care. I understand that the federal government is reluctant to use its emergency powers to create and enforce a national strategy. Some provincial governments have, at times, politicized this pandemic, and such actions have been detrimental for Canadians.
Australia is also a federation with jurisdictional and political differences between the national and state governments, but they worked together successfully in a coordinated effort to stop the spread of COVID-19, and the population there is much better off for that co-operation.
The vaccines are finally rolling out across the country, but with the spread of new variants, it is not certain how effective the vaccines will prove to be. We need to be prepared to stop the spread of variants that may be vaccine resistant. We are not out of the woods yet, and a lack of national coordination can still have dire consequences.
Chris Bittle (Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister of Transport, Lib.):
Madam Speaker, it is disappointing that the hon. member is glossing over constitutional requirements and authority. Summoning up the Emergencies Act does not help anyone in this situation because it requires provincial consent. I am sure the hon. member has read the legislation. I do not know why he would want a constitutional crisis in the middle of a pandemic.
That being said, the federal government is committed to protecting the health and safety of Canadians, and this remains our top priority. I would like to assure Canadians that the Government of Canada has developed and is implementing its plan to respond to the pandemic on all fronts.
We are working to ensure that we have enough vaccines to vaccinate all Canadians by the end of September. The government has been hard at work negotiating with manufacturers and suppliers to secure a significant vaccine supply for Canadians and planning for a vaccine rollout. In the development of this plan, the federal government has engaged and consulted all levels of government, indigenous leaders, international partners, industry, and medical and scientific experts.
On December 8, the government published “Canada's COVID-19 Immunization Plan: Saving Lives and Livelihoods”. At the heart of the plan are six core principles: science-driven decision-making, transparency, coherence and adaptability, fairness and equity, public involvement and consistent reporting. These principles are governing and informing our vaccination rollout actions.
The plan outlines seven steps in the rollout process, which are communicating and engaging with Canadians throughout the campaign, obtaining a sufficient supply of vaccines, obtaining regulatory authorization from Health Canada, allocating and distributing vaccines efficiently and securely, administering vaccines according to a sequence of priority populations identified by experts, and collecting data to monitor vaccine safety, effectiveness and coverage. We are making progress and laying the groundwork for great gains and momentum in the coming months.
As the hon. member is no doubt aware from the news, we have procured, through advance purchase agreements, more than enough vaccines to vaccinate all eligible Canadians. Without compromising regulatory integrity, we have expedited the regulatory review of promising vaccine candidates. Vaccines that have been approved by Health Canada are currently being administered to priority populations that were recommended by the National Advisory Committee on Immunization, an independent committee comprised of health experts. During the first phase of the rollout campaign, our strategy is to vaccinate those deemed most vulnerable to infection, severe illness and death.
We are deeply grateful to the members of the Canadian Armed Forces working within the operation of the vaccine rollout task force. As logistics experts, they are playing a vital role in the success of our campaign.
In addition to the Canadian Armed Forces, we have engaged with the private sector to support the logistics of this ambitious undertaking. To assist with the administration of vaccines in the provinces and territories, we are enlisting the help of the Red Cross and other health care professionals. This is truly an unprecedented situation, and it has called for all hands on deck.
In closing, we must continue to implement the public health measures that have helped us tap down the number of cases and hospitalizations over the past difficult year. We can remain optimistic that our efforts will start to pay off if we remain steadfast.
Madam Speaker, the national strategy in Australia did not create a constitutional crisis there and I do not think it would cause a constitutional crisis here. It would have done us a lot of good.
When the pandemic was declared a year ago, the Green Party caucus made a series of recommendations to the government. We added to those recommendations as time went on and as we saw what other countries were doing successfully to combat the spread of COVID-19.
Successful countries have all had unified national strategies. There has been a lack of political courage to do what is necessary at the federal level in Canada. On both sides of the House, there is little appetite to do anything that might upset a premier, but a lack of a unified national COVID-19 strategy continues to have poor outcomes and hurts Canadians in a myriad of ways. We need stronger national coordination, and the sooner we start to do that, the better the results.
Madam Speaker, the hon. member is comparing apples to oranges. The Constitution of Australia and the Constitution of Canada are completely different. We are working within our constitutional framework, and it is disappointing to see the Green Party suggest that there are magic solutions to real constitutional problems.
This government has worked steadfastly with premiers and the provincial governments. The vaccines are rolling out at an enormous rate, and all Canadians should have access to vaccines by the end of September.