Provincial pandemic missteps met with local — and vocal — pushback

It's hard to think of a time when local authorities have so directly — and publicly — disagreed with, pushed back at, and even defied directions from the provincial government the way they have over the past week.

Ontario witnessed rare 'political disobedience' by city authorities in last week, says expert

Ottawa Police Service officers staff a checkpoint on the Ontario side of the Chaudière Bridge on April 19, 2021. The next day, police announced they'd only be enforcing the checkpoints sporadically. (Trevor Pritchard/CBC)

It's hard to think of a time when local authorities have so directly — and publicly — disagreed with, pushed back at, and even defied directions from the provincial government the way they have over the past week.

Not that Ottawa's leaders would put it that way. Indeed, at a Wednesday afternoon news conference, they took pains to point out that no one in our fair city was disregarding any provincial orders or guidance.

No municipal figure was more diplomatic on this front than Ottawa police Chief Peter Sloly, who explained that it wasn't that his force "rejected" the directives from Queen's Park, but rather that they had "customized them."

    That's an interesting way to describe the chief's public refusal to stop people randomly on the street or to patrol interprovincial border crossings 24/7 — both directions straight from the province's solicitor general.

    Across Ontario, local leaders who are seemingly fed up with the way the provincial government is handling this third wave have gone their own ways.

    For instance, Toronto and Peel have issued local orders that they'll close any non-essential workplace with more than five positive cases. In Ottawa this week, Coun. Keith Egli wrote to Premier Doug Ford on behalf of the board of health to ask that workplaces that "are not essential to the provision of food, medications and products or services essential for health and safety" be closed.

    Dr. Vera Etches, Ottawa's medical officer of health, believes more workplace shutdowns could help a number of Ontario municipalities. She's made it clear that if the province declines Ottawa's request, she'll move to close some businesses on her own.

    University of Ottawa municipal law professor Stéphane Émard-Chabot says it's rare to see the sort of 'political disobedience' that local authorities have shown toward the province in recent days. (CBC)

    This sort of "political disobedience" — as one municipal law expert characterized the recent local pushback against the province — is rare.

    "This type of disagreement usually happens behind closed doors before measures are announced," said Stéphane Émard-Chabot, University of Ottawa law professor and one-time Ottawa city councillor.

    "Typically governments will bend in private before it becomes policy. This [provincial] policy was decided very quickly, decided not in conformity with the advice of the scientific table. And on the ground, the reaction was swift."

    As Mayor Jim Watson has made abundantly clear this week, the province didn't check with any local authorities before bringing in some controversial measures that other leaders appear to have asked for, a couple of which had to be rescinded within hours due to the public backlash.

    Consultation on new provincial rules could have ‘saved a lot of awkwardness,’ Ottawa mayor says

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    Ottawa Mayor Jim Watson says municipal officials could have warned the province that some of the new restrictions, including border checkpoints, playground closures and new police powers, would not be well received.

    So how did the province come to these roundly opposed decisions? Some say they were led more by party dogma than by what most experts would deem sensible.

    "This provincial government has shown itself time and again to be incapable or unwilling of making decisions based on science and the advice of top medical advisors," Coun. Catherine McKenney told CBC. "A global pandemic that is raging in this province is no time to make decisions based on ideology."

    Nobody's pretending Ford has easy decisions to make, as lockdown measures carry the potential to harm many segments of society. Even the mayor readily admitted Wednesday that he doesn't envy the position the premier and his cabinet colleagues are in.

    Still, the measures the province chose to take appear to be coloured by ideology, said Émard-Chabot, with the government choosing to target individuals instead of bringing in wider societal measures.

    A curfew, for example, would have sent the message "you don't go out, you don't spend the evening at a friend's house," he said. "That's a very different structural message than giving the police the power to stop a person walking down the sidewalk for no reason."

    Ottawa taken own road before

    Ottawa's municipal and public health officials haven't backed away from standing up to the province before.

    In March 2020, when a mere 10 cases of COVID-19 had been confirmed in Ottawa, Etches told us there were likely 1,000 undiagnosed cases in the city and asked us to stay home. Her provincial counterpart, Dr. David Williams, questioned her conclusions publicly, before declaring a state of emergency 36 hours later.

    A year later, Etches — along with Anthony Di Monte, the city senior manager overseeing the vaccination rollout — decided not to wait for Ontario's booking system to go live before giving older folks in the city's most high-risk communities the jab two weeks earlier. Ottawa was one of the only cities in the province to take that early step.

    Ottawa residents who cannot work from home are next to be vaccinated, OPH says

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    Vera Etches, Ottawa’s medical officer of health, says most residents aged 60 and over will have received their first vaccine dose by the end of April, making way for other high-risk groups to be vaccinated, including those who work in food distribution, child care and transit.

    But there's only so much local authorities can do on their own, especially when it comes to vaccines, for which supply isn't keeping pace with demand. 

    Coun. McKenney, who joined two dozen other public delegations at this week's three-hour-long discussion at the board of health urging local health officials to prioritize vaccinating essential workers faster, said dropping the eligible age for pharmacy vaccinations to 40 and older made "no sense."

    In making that decision, the province was disregarding its own priority framework. People who cannot work from home are supposed to be vaccinated before people younger than 50 under Ontario's own rules.

    Yet the province decided to open up access to a limited — and delayed — number of AstraZeneca-Oxford vaccines to almost two million people aged 40 to 49, instead of targeting them to, for instance, child-care workers, or teachers, or public transit drivers, or any of the other thousands of workers who need to leave home every day to keep society running. 

    This week, the province lowered the eligible age for receiving the AstraZeneca vaccine to 40 in order to 'get as many vaccines into arms as quickly and safely as possible.' (Justin Tang/Canadian Press)

    While the province can decide the inoculation rollout on the fly, Ottawa cannot. Local governments must follow the vaccination priority order set out by the province, which means essential workers won't get their turn at the large community clinics until next month at the earliest.

    That doesn't sit well with McKenney who argues that the people of Ottawa should no longer look to Queen's Park to guide them through the COVID-19 crisis.

    "Municipalities and local boards of health are on their own to make decisions in the best interests of residents."


    Joanne Chianello

    City affairs analyst

    Joanne Chianello is an award-winning journalist and CBC Ottawa's city affairs analyst. You can email her at or tweet her at @jchianello.

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