The country’s current state is often presented as simply a grim fate lacking any single cause: a “miasma” of political, cultural and institutional factors, to quote the Toronto Star’s diagnosis of Alberta, where new covid-19 cases now number the highest in North America. At best, pundits seem most comfortable blaming “the system,” broadly understood, and the mediocrities imagined to be running it.
“We are here, in large part, because many of our politicians have ignored the core facts of the covid-19 virus and the main strategies that will clearly fight the pandemic,” was how Justin Ling confidently put it in a recent piece for Maclean’s. John Ivison in the National Post bemoaned the “incoherence of the federal and provincial responses” in a column pointing the finger at wide-ranging bureaucratic incompetence. In the Globe and Mail, John Ibbitson claimed the “pandemic has revealed to all the mediocre performance of our political system.”
More than a few Canadians must be feeling a bit of psychological whiplash from all this since, as I first discussed in November, this sort of doom and gloom contrasts sharply with the triumphalism that filled Canadian media outlets last year, when the country’s infection rates were much lower. What makes it even more head-spinning is that many of the wildly optimistic takes of yesterday were written by the same people pushing pessimism now. Amid an unprecedented crisis that defies easy answers, the Canadian press has been a monument to the perils of premature, stereotype-heavy speculation masquerading as substantial analysis.
Take Susan Delacourt at the Toronto Star, one of the more respected columnists at Canada’s largest-circulation newspaper. Last June, she proclaimed the “global pandemic is demonstrating every day how much it matters to have Canadian-style health care and a political system that is not American.” In October, she praised the competence of Canada’s leaders, again suggesting that “all Canadians need to do is glance south to see what happens when politicians drop the ball or ignore the medical advice they’re getting.” A column last month, however, painted an image of a far less functional country in which “people are angry, frustrated, incredulous that this pandemic just won’t quit and they need someone to blame.”
Throughout 2020, numerous columnists suggested the greatest threat to Canada’s low covid-19 rates was not internal, but rather the United States. The Globe and Mail’s Robyn Urback, for instance, worried last April that President Donald Trump would soon blackmail Canada into opening its borders “to feed the mirage of his country’s return to normalcy” and thereby invite a stampede of infected Americans into Canadian cities. A year later, she now blames complex systemic deficiencies in the Canadian health-care system for “this country’s mediocre performance.”
And then there were those like the Ottawa Citizen’s Andrew Cohen, who continuously argued Canada was winning the pandemic because Canadians were just, well, better people.
Unlike the United States, he wrote last March, Canadians are lining up obediently to follow the instructions of their “calm, competent and professional” leaders. “Canadians accept big government, which is how we built the social welfare state. Two-thirds of us voted for progressives last year. We defer to authority.”
More recently, however, Cohen has taken to blaming Ottawa’s slow vaccine rollout on the fact that Canada is “the most decentralized country in the world, unrushed and unconscious.”
“The Americans have their pathologies that have killed too many,” he concluded. “Canadians have our conceits that have saved too few.”
To be fair, in addition to voices such as these, there have always been a few Canadian pundits eager to prick the balloon of national smugness and suggest Canada’s early pandemic successes were actually quite fragile. But these were lonely islands amid mostly unwavering media assurances that Canada’s political “consensus” about “a go-slow approach to reopening the country” (in the words of the Globe’s Lawrence Martin) was heroic, well-informed and yielding self-evident results. Many columnists now clearly feel embarrassed about their early rhetoric, with newfound theatrical frustration at the country’s imperfect institutions offered as repentance.
Given that infectious viruses are outside the wheelhouse of virtually everyone who talks about politics for a living, the correct disposition for public commentators in this pandemic has always been humility — a tone that does not come easily to many of us know-it-alls. There are, obviously, political dimensions to this crisis, yet its most important truths will not be revealed by sloppily using transient data we barely understand to reinforce ideological priors. Canada’s editorial pages over the past few months certainly demonstrate that.