This pandemic is redefining what qualifies as a political 'crisis'

Deficits and irregular border crossers used to qualify as "emergencies" in our political discourse. The pandemic has turned those assumptions upside-down.

On Friday, the federal government reversed itself on some core policy — and no one even remarked on it

Remember images like this? A RCMP officer directs a group of irregular migrants to a border station at Roxham Road. Not long ago, the issue of irregular border crossings was considered by many a 'crisis' - but the pandemic is changing how we define that term. (Charles Krupa/Associated Press)

It may be hard to believe now, but it was only a few weeks ago that some commentators were arguing over whether Canada was "broken."

Their concern at the time — a time that seems very distant now — was a series of rail blockades triggered by Indigenous peoples' objections to a resource project in British Columbia.

Lost in the tumult of everything that has happened since was a report by the Parliamentary Budget Officer that estimated that the total economic impact of the blockades was likely to be a decline of 0.01 per cent in Canada's nominal GDP for 2020 — a "blip," in the words of the PBO.

We're in another world now.

One estimate released this week projects that Canada's nominal GDP for the year will decline by 5.1 per cent as a result of the novel coronavirus, including a "double-digit" decline in the second quarter.

A pivot point for Canadian politics

In the space of a week — one of the most extraordinary weeks in the history of this country and the planet — nearly everything has changed, and some of the basic parameters that defined political debate before this crisis have been either upended or discarded at breathtaking speed.

Canada has experienced pandemics, two world wars, a Great Depression, a Great Recession and the social and economic shock of the terrorist attacks on the United States in 2001. But perhaps nothing has affected our politics exactly like the COVID-19 pandemic has.

"This is one of a kind," the Canadian historian John English said in a conversation on Friday, noting that the speed of current events seems to distinguish this moment even from the Spanish Flu epidemic of 1918.

The past seven days offer any number of points from which we can measure how much has changed, and how fast.

Here's one: the effective closure of the unofficial crossing at Roxham Road in Quebec, through which thousands of people — so-called "irregular migrants" — have entered Canada over the last few years.

Sudden, massive policy shifts

As of Friday, Canadian officials are under orders to detain those migrants and quickly turn them over to American authorities. That may not have been the most dramatic thing that Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced on Friday. It may not have been even the second-most significant he said.

But at any other moment, it would have represented a massive shift in the Trudeau government's policy stance on irregular migrants.

The issue of people crossing into Canada at Roxham Road — and, earlier, in Manitoba — has been a political football in this country since 2017. In the wake of Donald Trump's election, thousands made their way across the border and claimed asylum.

Conservatives cried out for those asylum seekers to be turned back and described the situation as a "crisis". The Liberals, even as they discouraged people from coming, were reluctant to turn anyone away and instead treated the influx as something that could be managed.

But the Trudeau government had already decided this week to ban all non-essential movement across Canada's official border crossings with the United States. And now it apparently has decided that the irregular arrival of hundreds of people at Roxham Road is not something that can be easily managed in the midst of a global pandemic.

'Exceptional times'

Public Safety Minister Bill Blair said on Friday that anyone crossing the border would now normally be expected to self-isolate for 14 days. "Accommodating and managing that is a difficult challenge," he said.

These are, Trudeau said, "exceptional times."

Maybe some progressive voters will be uncomfortable with what the government has done. But nobody's going to be awarding prizes right now for maintaining perfect ideological consistency.

On Wednesday, the government announced $82 billion in aid for individuals and businesses — and the only question anyone was asking was whether it was enough. 

For much of the past four years, the idea of the federal government running a $20 billion annual deficit was the subject of heated political debate (even if most economists were unconcerned).

Taking into account this week's spending and a significant downturn in the economy, the federal deficit is now projected to approach $80 billion. Assuming there will be a need for further federal aid, Scotiabank is projecting a deficit of $100 billion for the current year.

Wartime spending

But few critics, if any, seem willing to bat an eyelash at those eye-popping numbers. The case for spending these borrowed sums now is obvious, of course, and the alternative — leaving households and businesses to fend for themselves — is clearly worse.

The announcement about Roxham Road on Friday was overwhelmed by two other items.

First, Trudeau said that manufacturing facilities would soon be refitted to produce medical equipment — a step that was immediately compared to a "wartime effort."

Health care workers speak with patients at a drive-thru COVID-19 assessment centre in London, Ontario on March 17, 2020. (Geoff Robins / AFP via Getty Images)

Second, Trudeau reported that the federal government has received more than 500,000 applications for employment insurance this week, compared to fewer than 27,000 such applications during the same period last year.

That's a breathtaking figure, the enormity of which was captured in a graph by Trevor Tombe, an economist at the University of Calgary.

On Friday, Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland also thought it necessary to talk about how hard this moment must be for children.

"Speaking very personally, I would like to thank Canada's children and sympathize with them," said Freeland, a mother of three herself.

Freeland asks Canadians for 'patience and understanding'

2 years ago
Duration 2:06
Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland is asking Canadians to be patient as the government tries to implement policies quickly during the COVID-19 crisis.  2:06

A minister thinking it's necessary to address the strain on the nation's children does more than any statistic to underline the gravity of this moment.

"I know this past week has been hard on people for many reasons. Working from home while the kids are running around, not being able to visit your parents at their nursing home, not hanging out with your friends. It can take its toll," Trudeau said, standing again in front of Rideau Cottage, where he is both overseeing the government's response and making sure his youngest son's bathtime is still enforced

"But it is in these challenging times that we also see what we're made of."

The issues and concerns that dominated the political conversation in this country before this crisis erupted were not trivial ones. And those problems will still exist whenever we emerge from this dark hour. Once we make it through this, those problems might seem a little less dire than they seemed not too long ago.

"This past week," Trudeau said, "no matter how difficult, was further proof that Canadians are generous, kind and compassionate and that should give us all hope."


Aaron Wherry

Parliament Hill Bureau

Aaron Wherry has covered Parliament Hill since 2007 and has written for Maclean's, the National Post and the Globe and Mail. He is the author of Promise & Peril, a book about Justin Trudeau's years in power.

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