Maybe border restrictions could be tighter — but Ford is in no position to cast stones

Ontario Premier Doug Ford — previously a big fan of Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland — is suddenly very eager to let Ontarians know how unhappy he is with how Justin Trudeau's government is handling the pandemic.

Attempts to deflect blame won't save lives or offer comfort to people living through lockdowns

Ontario Premier Doug Ford puts his mask on after speaking at a press conference at Queen's Park in Toronto on April 16, 2021. (Frank Gunn/Canadian Press)

Ontario Premier Doug Ford — previously a big fan of Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland — is suddenly very eager to let Ontarians know how unhappy he is with how Justin Trudeau's government is handling the pandemic.

Ford's office sent a news release to reporters at Queen's Park on Tuesday to alert them to the fact that the provincial government had sent three "urgent" letters to the federal government calling for stricter border measures to better screen travellers to Ontario for COVID-19.

Ford's Progressive Conservative party has also now purchased ads on Facebook to criticize the federal government's handling of the border. And it is reportedly planning to use "significant TV and radio time" to launch attack ads against the Trudeau government's border policies.

The temptation here is to ask how much less dire Ontario's situation might be right now had the Ford government put the same kind of energy into addressing its own responsibilities in this pandemic — from paid sick leave to contact tracing to stricter workplace protections.

Glass houses

In fairness to Ford, it's reasonable to wonder whether more could be done at international borders to reduce the spread of COVID-19.

But unless or until Ford can claim he's done everything in his own power to curb the pandemic, he'll be standing on very shaky ground when he tries to point the finger elsewhere.

The simplest explanation is usually the right one and Ford's media campaign is probably what it appears to be: an attempt by the premier to redirect the blame as the third wave batters his province. After it appeared that Ford had rebuilt his public standing during the pandemic, his personal approval rating has crumbled over the past month.

WATCH: Premier Doug Ford urges Ottawa to tighten border controls

Doug Ford urges Ottawa to impose stricter border controls to fight COVID-19

2 years ago
Duration 2:05
Ontario Premier Doug Ford wants Ottawa to impose stricter border restrictions to fight COVID-19. But the federal government insists — as shown by Ontario's own data — that travel has not driven the surge in case numbers.

If Ford's government is unwilling to take any further action of its own to change the situation, it can at least try to convince voters that the third wave isn't its fault.

This isn't the first time federal and provincial leaders have criticized each other, implicitly or explicitly, over the pandemic. It's certainly the first time that any level of government has threatened to use attack ads to do so.

Old habits die hard

As extraordinary as it would be to see attack ads in the midst of a global crisis, it's possible the Ford government simply feels more comfortable when it's fighting with the Trudeau government.

Moments before Ford's first meeting as premier with Trudeau in 2018, the premier's office issued a statement blaming the federal government for costs associated with housing asylum seekers who were making refugee claims after crossing the border at Quebec's Roxham Road.

A year later, the Ford government forced gas stations in the province to display anti-carbon tax stickers on pumps and earmarked $4 million in public money for government ads attacking the federal policy.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, left, talks with Ontario Premier Doug Ford after taking part in a groundbreaking event at the Iamgold Cote Gold mining site in Gogama, Ont., on Friday, September 11, 2020. (Nathan Denette/The Canadian Press)

If Ford only wants to pressure the federal government to take further action at the border now, he has other options.

He could hold a news conference every day to draw attention to his concerns, and offer interviews to any regional or national media outlet that would have him. But then, of course, he would be putting himself in a position to be asked questions about his own handling of the pandemic.

He could also insist on using the resources of the provincial government to fill whatever gaps he sees.

Beneath the partisan politics, the federal government's handling of the border is not beyond reproach.

Federal officials can point to statistics that show only a small percentage of cases have been linked directly to travel and to border measures that include pre-arrival testing, mandatory quarantines and a ban on non-essential travel. In a statement on Tuesday night, Public Safety Minister Bill Blair's office offered to assist the Ontario government if it wished to implement new screening measures for people travelling from other provinces — which falls under provincial jurisdiction.

Ottawa's 'bronze medal' border policy

But Ford is not the only one questioning the federal government's approach.

"I'd say maybe Canada is like a bronze medal standard, possibly," Kelley Lee, the Canada research chair in global health governance at Simon Fraser University, told CBC Radio's The Current last month, comparing Canada to "gold" standard approaches in Australia, New Zealand, South Korea, Vietnam and Thailand.

"We have a long list of exemptions, we have some loopholes to close, we have quarantine measures that need to be more strictly enforced."

There is a legitimate debate to be had about the border — even if it's also fair to wonder how Canadians would feel about the strict policies adopted by, say, Australia, which have stranded thousands of citizens abroad.

But even if you accept the premise that the Trudeau government could be doing more to keep COVID-19 from getting in, the Ford government can't escape its responsibility to do whatever it can to deal with the COVID-19 that manages to slip through any cracks.

Bail or blame?

Dr. Colin Furness, an epidemiologist at the University of Toronto who has criticized both levels of government, describes the relative culpability of Ottawa and Queen's Park by invoking the image of Trudeau and Ford sitting together in a boat. Trudeau, he said, may have drilled a few small holes in the bottom — but Ford is pouring even more water in.

In the Atlantic provinces, he said, the boat has the same two holes, but public health officials are bailing enough to keep the vessel afloat, if not dry.

"The Maritimes are labouring under the same federal government, but have achieved very different outcomes," Furness said via email this week.

It's fair to point out that just one of the Atlantic provinces — New Brunswick — shares a land border with the United States. But the difference in outcomes between the four eastern provinces and the others is glaring. And if Ontario's containment policies were being praised as equally impressive, Ford might be in a position now to claim that the only remaining issue in his province is the border.

As it is, it's hard to imagine anyone in Ontario taking comfort from attack ads about which government is to blame for the death, illness and isolation that is afflicting the province — except maybe for the partisans fighting with each other on Twitter to pass the time in lockdown.

The primary function of government is still to protect its citizens — and the Ford government might ask Ontarians to imagine that attack ads will persuade the Trudeau government to do more to secure the border.

But of all the things the Ford government could be doing right now, launching a political blame-deflecting campaign against another level of government is surely one of the least effective ways to save lives.


Aaron Wherry

Senior writer

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.

Add some “good” to your morning and evening.

A variety of newsletters you'll love, delivered straight to you.

Sign up now