Canada needs to start marshalling resources on a massive scale — now

OPINION: Housing. Infrastructure. Health care. We have enormous work ahead on a variety of fronts, and we’ll need more than just money
By Matt Gurney - Published on Sep 10, 2021
Our long-term-care and health-care systems need thousands of new trained staff. (Frank Gunn/CP)

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The kids are back in school, and we’re now waiting to see what the fall will bring. So let’s use this brief lull to talk about plans. We’ve got a lot of work to do. 

We’re talking a lot about plans right now for two unrelated but important reasons. First of all, we have a federal-election campaign happening, which means the various parties are making assorted promises about all the wonderful things they would do if elected (and with a majority, please and thank you). The second issue is that the pandemic will be ending sooner or later, and when it does, there will be a period of recovery that will, one assumes, involve trying to shore up institutional and societal weaknesses. Over the past couple of months, I have written two entire series of articles here talking about those exact issues. When this damn pandemic is finally over, what the hell are we going to do? What can we do quickly? What will take a while? What has to happen first?

I’ve been thinking about this a lot. And I noted with interest that some of the big challenges here have been covered by other articles. David Miller, former mayor of the city of Toronto, recently wrote an article for TVO.org in which he laid out five things we should do to combat climate change. John Michael McGrath wrote about constitutional jurisdiction and what federal and provincial governments are supposed to do if they stick to their constitutional knitting.

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You might not have realized, when reading both of those articles, that they’re actually really writing about the same kind of thing that I was writing about in my series this summer. We have enormous work ahead on a variety of fronts. Making any progress is going to require the marshalling of resources on a massive scale; those obviously includes money and actual human labour, but we’ll also need societal energy, public buy-in, and political will. Meanwhile, the pandemic has revealed that Canada is not really capable of getting even fairly easy stuff done, and our challenges have been mounting. We need to actually start thinking long and hard about how we’re going to face them.

Not to put too fine a point on this, but we won’t be making any headway on any of Miller’s five points if the politicos don’t listen to McGrath and start co-operating within their spheres of influence, and neither of those gentlemen will get listened to until people start listening to cranks like me who are screaming from the rooftops that we have massive capacity problems in this country and that we can’t get anything done until we address them. 

This column isn’t a roadmap to solving these problems, and it’s not even a full itemization of the challenge. (That would require another series of articles, I suspect.) But earlier this week, while procrastinating away an afternoon I should have spent working, I sketched out in a Twitter thread just a few of the obvious challenges we face right now. There’s a massive problem (nation-wide, province-specific numbers are harder to find) of both unbuilt infrastructure and poorly repaired infrastructure. It’s hard to pin an exact dollar figure on this, because you can get wildly different results by defining things this or that way, but here’s the unavoidable truth: we could sink hundreds of billions of dollars into repairing the stuff we’ve already built and haven’t taken proper care of through regular maintenance — literally hundreds of billions of dollars — and that wouldn’t build a single new anything. Not one bridge. Not one mile of road or LRT track. Not a single school or hospital or water-treatment plant. The hundreds of billions of dollars would just fix what we have, and we don’t have nearly enough. 

So we could probably spend another few hundred billion dollars — this number is even harder to pin down — building new stuff that would not only allow our economy to grow, but also catch us up on desperately needed infrastructure. If you’ll forgive me a very Toronto-specific example, this city could drop tens of billions on new transit lines and still not end up with a complete system. 

Add to that the specific weaknesses revealed by the pandemic, primarily in the long-term-care and health-care systems. There the need is both for physical assets — buildings and the equipment inside them — and thousands of new trained staff. And then we have to either build new green stuff as part of a decarbonization strategy or retrofit existing stuff to make it more efficient. 

And I haven’t even mentioned housing. We’re short about 2 million units, so we need to figure out a way to sustain all the current levels of construction and then dramatically ramp it up to begin erasing the deficit before the rising cost of housing stops being an economic issue and starts becoming a social issue that cracks our society apart (this might, in fact, already be happening).

If that isn’t a grim enough, consider this: we have to do all this with a badly eroded fiscal position, while contending with continuing global logistics disruptions and a destabilized geopolitical world order that makes future crises more likely.

So, yeah. There’s a lot of stuff to do. 

That list, by the way, is by no means complete. It’s just one dimension of the problem: we need to build and then staff an enormous amount of stuff, now, and do it with a limited budget and even more limited labour pool. We don’t have nearly enough skilled tradespeople to do all the stuff we need doing, nor do we seem to have any real sense of what it would take to train them or import them via immigration measures. 

As I said on Twitter, I’m not a defeatist. We have a lot of smart people in this country. We can figure out solutions to all these challenges and let the engineers and the builders do their work. 

But we need to start by realizing how much stuff there is to do. It would be nice to hear more about that during the federal campaign. Thus far, though, no luck. 

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