In a federal election during a global pandemic, provincial policies still rule
Border openings, vaccine debates part of the discussion, but larger health strategies are mostly off the table
A global pandemic has been going on for 17 months, and COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations across Canada are on the rise once again.
But the debate around how much the pandemic should be fought at a national level remains somewhat muted, even during an election campaign.
"Under the constitution, health care is a provincial responsibility, and that's where it sits," said Gordie Hogg, the Liberal candidate for South Surrey-White Rock.
A former mayor, MLA and MP for White Rock, Hogg is a student of the division of powers in Canada. He believes the federal government has been responsible in allowing provinces to set their own restrictions and policies around the virus in virtually all public spaces, with Ottawa mostly focused on border control and vaccine procurement.
"You can't be dictatorial in that. There has to be a relationship … unless things get really out of hand, and that's when you have to step in and think how you can manage that more effectively," he said.
While the political parties have policies on preventing future pandemics or on economic recovery from this one, none propose a significant change in the division of powers in the pandemic's administration.
Swing riding, border riding
Hogg is running in South Surrey-White Rock in what amounts to a rubber match against Conservative candidate Kerry-Lynne Findlay: After defeating her by 1,600 votes in a 2017 byelection, she defeated Hogg in the 2019 election by 2,700 votes, in both cases with the NDP and Green Party well back.
In addition to being a swing riding, South Surrey-White Rock is also a border riding, home to the Peace Arch Border crossing, the busiest in Western Canada.
Many businesses in the border city of White Rock are happy for the increased business coming from Americans now allowed to cross on land, but they're cautious about further reopenings with cases so high.
"I don't want the borders to open for any other reason than it's safe to do so. It's not about money for us. It's about safety and the health of the community," said Pam Glazier, owner of 3 Dogs Brewing.
"The science is out there. Follow the science."
Mandates vs. rapid testing
But what "the science" means to each of the political parties when it comes to pandemic policy promises is somewhat different.
"The mandate is because [it's] the best advice we're getting from the health professionals," said Hogg, explaining why his party supports a vaccine mandate for all federal employees and anyone wanting to take a plane or train.
"We don't want to put people at risk, and we don't want to shut down the economy."
In a statement, Findlay said the Conservative Party's position of requiring rapid tests for any unvaccinated person wishing to get on transportation was better because "Canadians have the right to make their own health choices," and criticized the Liberal government for not doing more to incentivize rapid testing.
She also criticized the Liberal party for not having clear metrics for when the border would be reopened to Canadians wishing to travel to the United States.
The NDP has said it would enforce a federal vaccine mandate, while the Green Party has criticized the Liberals for introducing the mandate during the election and said more details were necessary.
Caroline Colijn, a mathematician who specializes in infectious diseases at Simon Fraser University, said utilizing rapid tests more would be helpful, though vaccine mandates would be superior in reducing transmission of the virus.
But she said that the effectiveness of either strategy would greatly depend on implementation.
"Exactly how different they would be would depend on how much vaccination you achieve by mandates. Are they enforceable? How much rapid testing do you do? And what do you do with those rapid test results? Are people able to successfully isolate?"
At the same time, she said the federal election was unlikely to change the provincially-led approach to the pandemic.
"There have been a lot of calls and interest in pan-Canadian standards," she said, "but I think fundamentally, health is a provincial jurisdiction and the federal government is not really empowered."