Canada·Opinion

COVID-19 is helping to unite Canadians like nothing has in years — and we'll need unity for what's to come

The Canadian response to the pandemic stands in marked contrast to the partisanship displayed in the U.S., and may be the most critical component of a successful response to the COVID-19 virus.

Canada's response to pandemic stands in marked contrast to political partisanship displayed in U.S.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau addresses Canadians on the COVID-19 situation from Ottawa on March 25. Political action around the pandemic has involved more cooperation between the federal and provincial governments than Canadians have seen in several years. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

This column is an opinion by Peter Loewen, professor of political science and at the Munk School of Global Affairs & Public Policy at The University of Toronto; Taylor Owen, associate professor of public policy at McGill University; and Derek Ruths, associate professor of computer science at McGill University. For more information about CBC's Opinion section, please see the FAQ.

Canada's response to the COVID-19 pandemic stands in marked contrast to that of the United States, and the crisis seems to be helping to unite Canadians like no other event in years.

Canada's federal and provincial governments were quicker to act than their U.S. federal and state counterparts. Policies to provide economic relief to Canadian businesses and families have been developed with broad consensus rather than written by lobbyists. And perhaps most importantly, our public discourse has been largely free of the stark partisan divides that we see in the U.S.

It is this partisan consensus, seen in our political elites, media and shared by the broad population, that may be the most critical component to a successful response.

So far, Canadian political action around the COVID-19 pandemic has seen more cooperation between the federal and provincial governments than we have seen at any other point since 2015. Ministers are actively avoiding criticism of one another, and are largely focused on the same goals. Indeed, much has been made of the camaraderie between Doug Ford and Chrystia Freeland, and it has overshadowed larger political concessions, like Ontario all but laying down arms in its political opposition to a carbon tax. 

Opposition parties continue to criticize the government's handling of the crisis, but argue for more and not less action. They are fulfilling their crucial role in our democracy by voicing specific actionable concerns, such as the unique challenges of indigenous communities or continued border crossings by asylum-seekers.

This partisan consensus is unique to modern Canadian history, and has undoubtedly fostered a broad willingness of Canadians to make sacrifices to address the pandemic.

The Media Ecosystem Observatory recently launched a research project, surveying 2,500 Canadians between March 25 and 31. When we analyze the data, we find no differences across partisan lines in terms of social distancing measures that are being taken. Conservative voters are just as likely to engage in social distancing as Liberal voters and NDP voters. 

Moreover, the majority of respondents from every voter group expressed some or a great deal of confidence in the federal government's response to date.

There are likewise no measurable differences between partisan groups in terms of how serious they believe the COVID-19 pandemic to be.

Clockwise from left: Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, Conservative leader Andrew Scheer, Bloc Quebecois leader Yves-Francois Blanchet and NDP leader Jagmeet Singh. A Media Ecosystem Observatory survey recently found no differences across partisan political lines in terms of social distancing measures that Canadians are taking. (Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press)

There are still some differences, of course. When asked who they hold primarily responsible for the outbreak, a third of Conservative partisans choose Justin Trudeau, for example.

But before one thinks that is a large share, it is only twice as many as the share of Liberal respondents who assigned blame to the prime minister (15 per cent), and far less than the percentage of Conservatives who blame the Chinese government for the outbreak (47 per cent). This represents a greater degree of political consensus than we have seen at any point in decades.

This consensus is critical to a successful response to COVID-19, for four main reasons.

First, fighting COVID-19 is going to take a sustained and costly effort.

Citizens are just now coming to understand the severity of the restrictions placed on them, and there are likely seasons of these to come, not just weeks or even months. Having a broad set of leaders sending the same messages about the importance of physical distancing is centrally important to maintaining broad public consensus and consent.

Second, fighting COVID-19 likewise requires a sustained effort and coordination across policy levels. We need cities, provinces and the federal government working together. Public opinion consensus makes it possible to do this without great political costs.

Third, we are engaged in a pan-Canadian social endeavour, one unmatched by any collective effort since the Second World War. We need individuals to feel closer to one another, to have greater senses of social obligation and common purpose.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announces that he will recall parliament to pass new legislation to deliver enhanced COVID-19 emergency aid measures and faces questions on personal protective equipment, as well as COVID-19 projections. 32:17

The challenge is that before this pandemic, the trend in Canada was in the opposite direction — toward more polarization between political partisans. By having a common view of COVID-19 and a shared purpose in fighting it, we can overcome the narcissism of small partisan differences which undermine such an effort.

Fourth, acting together means having common conversations based on reliable information.

This does not mean we all need to agree, nor does it negate the need for Opposition accountability. But we know that our current media ecosystem too often incentivises unreliable and divisive content over reliable information that brings consensus.

Minister of Health Patty Hajdu looks on as Chief Public Health Officer Theresa Tam responds to a question during a COVID-19 news conference in Ottawa. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

We have seen elected officials and journalists both take their responsibility to inform the public seriously, even on social media platforms that can often be sources of polarization. We need to ensure that the voices of our health leaders, such as Dr. Theresa Tam, continue to be widely shared across our partisan divides as they have been thus far, and that reliable journalism rises to the top of our social media feeds.

There have been challenges with our response to the pandemic, and we are clearly in precarious and uncertain policy terrain. But so far, Canadians have responded to this crisis with remarkable unity.

That is something to recognize, value, and to do everything we can to maintain.

(The work cited by the authors in this story was conducted through the Media Ecosystem Observatory, with Eric Merkley, Aengus Bridgeman, and Oleg Zhillin.)


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