This is a global crisis. Why is Doug Ford talking about who has jurisdiction?

OPINION: The premier owes Ontarians his best during the pandemic. The prime minister owes Canadians his best during the pandemic. Let’s focus on the results, not who gets them
By John Michael McGrath - Published on Nov 13, 2020
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau (left) talks with Premier Doug Ford at the Iamgold Cote Gold mining site in Gogama on September 11. (Nathan Denette/CP)

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On Monday, Premier Doug Ford was asked whether the results of the recent United States election mean there’s a prospect that the U.S.-Canadian border will be reopened. Ford said that he hadn’t had that discussion with the prime minister but that he wanted to see the federal government transition from the current 14-day quarantine for all new arrivals to rapid testing of all arrivals when they get off the plane at Pearson.

For emphasis, he added, “But I need the federal government’s help on this, and if they don’t want to do it, then we’ll go it alone, even though it’s not our jurisdiction.”

A prolonged national emergency was never going to be kind to a strict reading of the constitutional division of powers, and there’s a principle of a kind here: Toronto Pearson Airport may be the feds’ jurisdiction, but it happens to be located in Mississauga. Lots of Ford’s constituents live and work around it, and he owes them the best protection he can give them — whether or not it fits neatly into the confines of sheets of parchment from 1867.

But wait: on Thursday, Ford was asked whether Prime Minister Justin Trudeau should make more muscular use of the federal government’s emergency powers: Specifically, should Ottawa (the federal government) send Ottawa (the municipality and public-health unit) money directly to address the pandemic instead of first having to negotiate with provincial intermediaries?

Well, dear reader, you’ll be interested to learn that Ford thinks that’s an entirely different kettle of fish.

“That’s not their jurisdiction,” Ford said in response to a question from Global News’ David Akin. “We don’t need the nanny state telling us what to do.”

(Ford leads a government that has, in the name of fighting this pandemic, intruded on some of the most intimate details of our personal lives: what are and aren’t permissible social gathering in our homes, the practice of our faiths, how we celebrate such milestones as weddings. And, yet, he rails against a federal “nanny state.” Words fail.)

If there was a defensible principle at work in Monday-Ford’s view of the proper constitutional order, it cannot possibly survive contact with Thursday-Ford’s. Ontarians are also Canadians: if Ford owes Ontarians his best efforts in a pandemic, then Justin Trudeau owes Canadians his best, too — jurisdictional niceties be damned.

Of course, this view of Canadian politics didn’t start with Ford, and it won’t end with him. Provinces have been playing a game of “heads I win, tails you lose” with the federal government since at least the era of Sir Oliver Mowat, and it will undoubtedly continue until the aging sun swells and boils the oceans, assuming we’re still electing governments in this country then.

If the prime minister is entertaining the idea of shoehorning money into the accounts of local public-health agencies to get around provincial foot-dragging, that might be because it’s one of the only plausible federal responses left. I wrote near the outset of the pandemic that people demanding that the federal government make use of its emergency powers were missing the point: this is a health crisis, and the provinces are best-equipped to handle health issues, because they already employ an army of doctors, nurses, and other health experts. That figurative army is, by the way, substantially larger than the federal government’s actual army.

But if the prime minister can’t wish up a federal force of public-health professionals that he can deploy like paratroopers against the coronavirus, the national government’s spending power really is substantial, as this year’s rapid creation of CERB demonstrated. The federal government had, by far, the healthiest long-term balance sheet of any order of government in Canada before COVID-19, and it can use that fiscal firepower to great effect now. The fact that the Bank of Canada is literally a creation of the federal parliament probably helps, too.

Sending money directly to public-health units is one idea that might work in Ontario, but it might not be possible in other provinces; sending cash to municipalities instead might also let the feds achieve some of their aims. At this point, however, the biggest thing the federal government could do is something like CERB but for small and even medium businesses: a clear and explicit guarantee that they won’t be forced into bankruptcy due to new closures, that people’s livelihoods will be protected.

Something even more generous than the wage subsidy is called for — even though it’s not the first, second, or even third priority in directly fighting the virus. Instead, it’s the kind of measure that might actually shift conservative premiers’ opposition to necessary restrictions. It’s been true since the beginning, and it’s true now: our public-health measures need to be politically sustainable, and if paying bars and restaurants to stay closed is what it takes to lower the body count, then Ottawa should cut the cheque.

It is not, admittedly, the most romantic vision for what a national response to COVID-19 should look like. But it has the advantage of promising a more realistic chance of success than pounding the table and shouting that Trudeau do some unspecified thing.

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