While our series is fictional, the principle objective is non-fictional – to explore the likelihood that sooner or later, Canadians will demand a full-scale investigation into the management of the COVID crisis by our federal government.
The final, two-volume Report of the COVID Commission was completed in early June of 2023. Time and space limitations do not permit a complete summary of all its conclusions and recommendations here. But let us draw particular attention to several major features of the Report, especially those that generated intense interest and debate – not only in the House of Commons but also across the country and in hundreds of thousands of Canadian households.
The Report of the Commission was brutally frank in its analysis of the role of federal healthcare bureaucrats and politicians in mismanaging the COVID pandemic. But the Report the Commissioners first and foremost expressed the whole-hearted gratitude to those front line doctors, nurses, and other caregivers who toiled month after month under the most stressful of conditions to meet the healthcare needs of persons infected by the COVID virus in all its manifestations. The Commission also expressed public appreciation to those civil servants and law enforcement personnel who sought to faithfully administer the government’s health protection measures, even when they had personal reservations about the wisdom and value of such measures.
The Commission further commended the science community for its contribution to public understanding of the virus and the various treatment and preventative options available. But this commendation was accompanied by a strong advisory – that in the future, members of the science community should be much more involved in communicating their findings and recommendations directly to the public rather than allowing the relevant findings to be communicated by bureaucrats, politicians, and media who tended to interpret the science in accordance with their own agendas, biases, and un-scientific perspectives.
As the Chief Commissioner declared, “Science filtered through the mindset of bureaucrats, politicians, and headline-hunting media, and communicated to the public through them, is not the genuine science that needs to be brought to bear on a health crisis such as the COVID pandemic.”
The Final Report of the Commission put forward some 75 conclusions drawn from its hearings, data gathering, and analysis – many of them in response to the major questions previously raised by the public and non-establishment experts but ignored and dismissed by the federal government during the course of the pandemic.
One of the most significant of these, with major ramifications for dealing with future national emergencies, was that the federal government, at the political level, grossly mismanaged its response to the COVID pandemic when it chose at the very outset to assign the crisis management to Health Canada – the federal health department bureaucracy – rather than to Emergency Management Organizations designed, equipped, or even specially created to handle such emergencies.
The Commission questioned whether anyone in the Prime Minister’s Office or the Privy Council Office was explicitly directed, at the very beginning of the COVID crisis, to analyze and recommend the best possible mechanism to manage the pandemic response, and if not why not?
As one of the Commissioners well versed in government organization and crisis management wrote in an insightful internal memo to the Commission:
“There is a vast literature on the pros and cons of bureaucratic structures and processes. Bureaucracies are suitable for administering and managing a variety of tasks and services, but managing emergencies is definitely not one of them. With their layers and layers of organization between the situation on the ground and the decision-makers at the top, bureaucracies are generally too slow, too cumbersome, and too susceptible to red tape entanglements to deal quickly and decisively with “emergency” situations. They are particularly unfit to deal with “people emergencies” as distinct from dealing with the management of material resources or the administration of public works because bureaucracies invariably tend to “depersonalize” – to reduce people to cases, numbers, and faceless files that meet the information management and decision making needs of the bureaucracy but not the needs of the human beings in question.
“Because bureaucracies also tend to divide responsibilities into a myriad of levels and compartments, it is also very hard to hold any particular official or group of officials accountable for overall outcomes. When questioned about the impacts of their actions and decisions outside their particular area of responsibility, such officials are likely to answer “that’s not our department.” Thus if the Commission was to ask officials of the federal Health Department why they didn’t take into account the impact of their health protection decisions on the rights and freedoms of Canadians – their intuitive response will likely be: “Rights and freedoms aren’t our responsibility – go talk to the Justice Department.” Or, if the Commission was to ask those same Health Department officials why they didn’t foresee and react to the enormously negative impacts of their health protection measures on the jobs and incomes of millions of Canadian and the economy, they are again likely to answer: “Why are you asking us about that? Jobs, incomes, and economic impacts are not our responsibility – go talk to the Finance Department or the Economic Development ministry.”
In defending its conclusion that responsibility for managing the COVID pandemic should have been assigned, at the very outset, to Emergency Management Organizations designed, equipped, or even especially created to handle such emergencies, the Commission also squarely addressed push-back from officials of the Health Department and others who argued that EMOs (particularly at the provincial level) “were only designed to deal with emergencies such as forest fires and floods, not a health emergency created by a virus-based pandemic.”
The Commission argued that even if previously established EMOs were not specifically equipped to handle health emergencies, they could have been quickly repurposed and re-equipped to do so and that, in retrospect, this would have been preferable to assigning the emergency response management to the traditional bureaucracies.
In the case of the federal government, the Commission noted that the Public Health Agency for Canada, established after the SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome) outbreak in 2002-04 and headed by the Chief Public Health Officer for Canada, actually was created in response to a health emergency and might well have been established as just such an EMO. But instead it was simply mandated to coordinate a response to any health emergency by Ottawa’s already established healthcare bureaucracy. As such, it became an indistinguishable part of that bureaucracy and of relatively minor importance. In 2015, for example, the position of Chief Public Health Officer was left vacant for 15 months and when it was eventually filled, it was filled by a candidate drawn from the bureaucracy.
One witness with a historical perspective on federal responses to emergencies pointed out that if federal officials actually believed the fight against the COVID virus was the equivalent of a war effort – if they actually believed in the “war analogy” they were so strongly promoting in their communications with the public – they might have recalled one of the primary lessons in emergency management taught by Canada’s initial experience in organizing to fight the Second World War.
Did not the legendary federal Minister, C. D. Howe – very shortly after being made Minister of Munitions and Supply – recognize that the traditional bureaucracies of the Defence and Public Works Departments were not capable of organizing quickly and efficiently enough to meet the demand for munitions and other supplies urgently needed for the war effort? And did he not then resort to the immediate creation and mobilization of several dozen crown corporations – smaller, leaner, and outside the traditional bureaucratic structures – to handle the job? Something which they did with great success.
As this witness also pointed out, what was particularly tragic about the federal government’s decision to unthinkingly hand over the management of the COVID crisis to a bureaucracy was that this quickly became the pattern followed by all the provincial governments – not one choosing a different organizational structure or procedure to manage the crisis.
Other major conclusions reached by the Commission, again with significant ramifications for the management of future national crises, included the following:
- That the federal government’s consistent and persistent use of “fear” as the primary instrument for motivating Canadians to comply with its health protection measures was a deplorable tactic, deserving of censure, especially when employed in a free and democratic society as the principal means of generating support for a government policy.
- That the federal government, in failing to conduct timely assessments of the impacts of its health protection measures on the rights and freedoms of Canadians guaranteed by the Charter, was guilty of gross negligence. By failing to determine those negative impacts, the government failed to equip itself with the means of striking a balance between health protection and the protection of those rights and freedoms supposedly guaranteed by the Constitution.
- That the courts failed in their duty to be the ultimate guardian of those rights and freedoms, siding far too easily and unquestioningly with the government’s contention that the limitations it was imposing on the constitutionally guaranteed rights and freedoms of Canadians were “reasonable” and “demonstrably justifiable” under the circumstances – even in a free and democratic society.
- That the federal government was to be strongly condemned for failing to present Parliament with a specific law imposing the limitations it sought on Charter-guaranteed rights and freedoms, for not allowing that specific law to be expeditiously debated and cross examined by Parliament, and for not seeking and obtaining majority support for that specific law in the House of Commons and the Senate.
- That in ascertaining the reasonableness and justifiability of any limitation on the rights and freedoms of Canadians, it is the Supreme Court’s “Oakes Test” which should have been rigorously applied. i.e. that in limiting rights and freedoms, the government must clearly demonstrate that the benefits outweigh the negative impacts. Thus in future, any law or regulation limiting rights and freedoms, for whatever cause, should specifically require the conduct of economic and social Impact Assessments so that a proper balance can be struck between rights protection and other aspects of the public interest.
- That many of Canada’s mass media, by slavishly adhering to the federal government’s interpretation of the COVID crisis by uncritically defending the efficacy of the health protection measures adopted, by pointedly ignoring the negative impacts of those measures, and by ruthlessly censoring and pillorying those who questioned the legitimacy and efficacy of those measures, grossly neglected their duty to fairly and impartially serve the Canadian public.
- That the federal government at both the political and bureaucratic levels, in failing to determine and acknowledge the negative impacts of the health protection measures adopted on the jobs, incomes, and economic wellbeing of millions of Canadians, was again guilty of gross negligence – since by failing to conduct economic impact assessments of the health protection measures adopted, the government failed to equip itself with the means of striking a balance between health protection and sustaining the economic wellbeing of Canadians.
- That the federal government was again guilty of gross negligence in failing to launch, in cooperation with the provinces, urgently needed reforms to Canada’s antiquated and under-performing healthcare system when it became abundantly apparent that the system was incapable of meeting the increased demands generated by the COVID pandemic.
- That the federal government, in invoking the Emergencies Act to deal with the largely peaceful protests of the truckers and their supporters, was guilty of a foolish, heavy handed, and divisive over-reaction when simply cancelling the outdated and ineffective vaccine mandates which were the cause of the problem was the obvious solution.
The Commission then went on to make a series of recommendations based on its conclusions – recommendations covering everything from reform of governmental responses to national crises to withdrawing federal support of the CBC and the discredited Canadian Human Rights Commission to opening the door to wholesale reform of Canada’s healthcare system, and much more.
All the conclusions and recommendations of the Report of the Commission were summarized in Appendices to its Report. And because the Commission’s hearings were completely open to the public and nationally televised, the Canadian public was made fully aware of those conclusions and recommendations regardless of any omissions or biases characterizing the coverage given to them by the mass media.
Preston Manning’s long record of public service includes work as founder of the Reform Party and as a Member of Parliament.
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