Inside Ottawa’s ’light-speed’ epidemic-driven overhaul

Treasury Board President Jean-Yves Duclos talks to Paul Wells about the early outbreak efforts and what could come next, including even tighter border controls
Minister of Public Safety and Emergency Preparedness Bill Blair, left to right, Leader of the Government in the House of Commons Pablo Rodriguez, Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Intergovernmental Affairs Chrystia Freeland, President of the Treasury Board Jean-Yves Duclos, Transport Minister Marc Garneau, Minister of Health Patty Hajdu, and Deputy Chief Public Health Officer, Dr. Howard Njoo hold a press conference at the National Press Theatre in Ottawa on Friday, March 13, 2020, regarding the COVID-19 pandemic. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick

Canada’s federal government is considering further restrictions on cross-border traffic to ensure a runaway coronavirus pandemic in the United States doesn’t wreck Canadian efforts to contain the outbreak, a senior cabinet minister says.

And Jean-Yves Duclos says major new components of the federal government’s response to the deadly virus will come soon. Those measures, he said, could include commandeering shuttered luxury hotels to serve as temporary shelters for some of the most vulnerable Canadians.

In a skeleton-staffed office suite in the Jim Flaherty Building on Ottawa’s snow-swept Elgin Street, Duclos spent an hour on Monday talking with a reporter about his work as vice-chair of the Trudeau government’s special cabinet committee on the Coronavirus pandemic.

Duclos, 55, was head of the Laval University economics department before he ran for the Liberals in the Quebec City riding of Quebec in 2015. Since the Liberals’ 2019 re-election he’s been President of the Treasury Board, responsible for machinery of government and, in theory, for enforcing spending restraint.

The Coronavirus pandemic has changed all that. Now Duclos, committee chair Chrystia Freeland and their colleagues are trying to organize a massive overhaul of the federal government’s operations, its goals and the way it talks to Canadians. All while much of the public service is working from home. All, Duclos said, “at light speed.”

The goal is to save Canadian lives and to preserve the Canadian economy. The government has already taken startling steps to accomplish both goals. Duclos suggested more lie ahead. This transcript has been edited for length and clarity.

Q: You’re co-chair of a committee that’s existed for three weeks. Tell me what the start of the committee was like. Did you know the scale of the challenge then, at the beginning of March?

A: We didn’t know for sure the scale of the challenge. But we had clear anticipations of what it would be. That’s why we had to think in a different mode. Governments are used to thinking over the long term. We shifted with the creation of that committee into crisis-management mode. We needed to be not only meeting daily and sometimes more than daily, we also needed to make decisions quickly.

Q: There’s an epidemiological challenge, there’s an economic challenge, and there’s a governance challenge. How would you rank them? And how would you describe the problems on each of those files?

A: Well, I think your description is apt. Because you have the health shock. You have then, obviously quickly, an economic shock. You also have a social shock because with the combination of these two—the health and the economic shock—you know, you also generate a lot of anxiety. A lot of stress.

Then you have a governance challenge because governments are not accustomed to working in this type of environment. We have a public service of 300,000 people, dedicated, committed to serving Canadians. But they are currently facing their own professional, personal challenges. They also must be mindful of protecting their own health and the health of their families and colleagues. It’s stressful for them. But they also know the responsibility they have to keep serving Canadians in the current crisis. So we are both making sure they are protecting their health, and also protecting their ability to serve Canadians.

READ MORE: Coronavirus in Canada: These charts show how our fight to ‘flatten the curve’ is going

Q: It has often seemed like the government was taking three days to prepare change that could have been announced on the first day: closing the U.S. border, or closing most businesses, or ending most flights from international destinations. Is there an element of having to prepare the population? And in doing that, are you wasting valuable time?

A: I don’t think in most cases the objective is to prepare the population, because Canadians expect swift action from the government. I think it’s really to secure our relationships with other partners. In the case of the border the obvious partner we needed to secure our relationship with was the United States.

We had $3 billion of goods transiting the frontier every day until recently. Four hundred thousand people crossing the border both ways. And essential goods and services: medicine, food, medical equipment. These things are absolutely essential.

It took a few days, yes. But it took years to renegotiate NAFTA. As citizens we always want governments to act swiftly. But it’s exactly what we’re trying and, I think, we are honestly succeeding at doing.

Q: The Canadian instinct is to keep that border open. It’s non-partisan, it’s essentially universal. When did you realize that that border posed an epidemiological risk for Canadians?

A: Well, initially our public-health experts at the federal level said, ‘This is not the top priority. We need to ensure that provinces and territories have all the information and the support we need to put into place public health measures that are most effective: to follow every person that could be infected; to make sure that he or she doesn’t contaminate others; and that he’s given the proper medical services.’

But we knew from the start that there could be a threat from the south, given that [the U.S.] doesn’t have the same universal, accessible and free health-care service that Canadians do.

So we knew that was a challenge. We also knew actions on the part of the U.S. government were not initially where they needed to be. So we thought, and we were told, that they would present a challenge at some point. So when it became clear that this challenge was forthcoming, we acted quickly. And just a week later we do see a serious challenge from the United States. So that was an important action.

But there will be other actions around the border as we get to know more what happens south of the border. Because you’re right, that land border, from a public health perspective, is the most sensitive frontier we have, in our current context.

Q: If nothing changes New York State will have more cases than Italy by the end of the week. Does that endanger everything Canadians are doing domestically?

A: Well, all Americans, all Canadians and all New Yorkers know that they cannot—and absolutely should not—try to travel across the border. That directive is very clear and it’s supported by both [countries’] governments.

So we rely on this clear directive—and on the consequent important actions of border agents—to make sure this is followed closely. You understand that there will probably always be a need for some absolutely essential persons to travel. Health-care professionals and security people.

But we’ll see for the others, truck drivers and others, who are still able to travel as long as they follow important guidelines. Those guidelines will be reviewed.

Q: You anticipate another one of my questions: The supply chain has been protected, but at some point the supply chain might need to be constricted because of health considerations?

A: Yeah, I think further restrictions and the movement of goods will probably have to be considered. And that of course means that there will be further restrictions on the movement of workers. However important the work of truck drivers is, the health and security of Canadians is the most important.

Q: I think maybe since Thursday or Friday the big question on everyone’s mind is, how long are we going to have to do this?

A: Well, from a public health perspective, you understand that the objective is to reduce and to slow down this curve. From an economic perspective it’s like handling an airplane which is in a terrible storm.

So the first thing is to land that plane. That’s why the immediate economic measures that we put into place are measures that bring the plane down landing safely. The second objective is to protect that plane on the ground once it has been landed. Make sure supply chains are secured for the longer term. Because once we move into the next step, which is to take off again, we need to have the basic structure of the plane intact so we can take off again.

So that means protecting our industrial structure—both from a national interest and from a structural interest. We don’t want all of our companies purchased at negligible values by foreign governments. We want to keep some ownership and capability at the national level.

From a structural perspective, we want the complex supply chains that have been built over decades to be operational once we need the plane to take off again. So that will require a lot of structural answers to preserve our industrial fabric. But that’s soon. That wasn’t immediately needed. First we needed to land the plane safely. So the liquidity measures that the Bank of Canada, OSFI [the Office of the Superintendent of Financial Institutions] and the BDC [Business Development Bank] announced already two weeks ago were absolutely essential to land the economy safely.

Then protecting Canadian and families, sending the signal that although all the measures are not yet known—the details about what [Finance Minister Bill] Morneau announced last Wednesday, these details are not yet available on the internet, forms are not there, people still are not clear as to when exactly they will see the benefit—but we need to tell them no one will be forgotten. We’ll look after each other.

And we’re working very hard to put measures into place that have never been implemented in the history of Canada. The income protection measures to protect workers, these measures cannot be built on the operational framework of Employment Insurance. EI was created after the Second World War. It’s evolved, of course, but there are still two big holes in the system. One is, 30 per cent of workers are not admissible to EI. The second is that even if you are eligible to EI in principle, for regular benefits, you might not be entitled in normal circumstances to receive support if you are just staying at home because you are afraid of being sick. Or because your boss told you to stay at home because you might be risking infection in the work environment. Or you need to look after your children.

Normally these don’t give you EI benefits. But in the current context, these big holes create big gaps in the confidence of Canadians. So we need to fill these gaps. That’s what we’re doing now—at light speed. This is another matter: to land not only the economic plane, but also the social fabric of society. We need people to have confidence in the future.

Q: The Canadian Federation of Independent Business, the Business Council of Canada and others have said the wage-subsidy component of the package the government has announced isn’t enough. Employers can’t meet payroll with a wage subsidy that small. Does that argument make sense to you?

A: We are hearing those views. They will be taken into account as we make progress on the [next] set of measures, again, to secure the plane.

Q: You had a bad weekend a week ago. In three provinces, provincial or municipal authorities sent their public servants to airports because they figured that the federal government was not adequately handling the arrival of returning travellers. That’s an unusual moment, because it’s essentially the provinces seizing federal jurisdiction. Was that preoccupying? And how did you need to respond to that?

A: That’s a good question. The guidelines were very clear at the higher level. We did anticipate that there would be implementation challenges. But it was still unacceptable that cities, Montreal in particular, felt that [the systems in place] were insufficient to reassure Canadians.

So we not only thanked them for letting us know that, but we absolutely needed to intervene quickly to reinforce the sequence of action that needed to be taken.

Q: To get back to a question I’ve already asked: how long can this go on? In the early days of this crisis, people were saying, ‘Look people die from the flu every season. It’s unfortunate, you try to avoid it, but we don’t shut the economy down because of that.’ And that’s a question that will recur. The longer this moment continues. How do you make the calculation of whether the damage to the economy is worth the human cost? It’s a brutal question.

A: We must be mindful of the importance of social cohesion. The economy, profits, jobs, that’s all important. But we’re also mindful of the importance of protecting our social fabric. We want everyone to feel that we’re there to help each other. We’re all in it together.

Q: But again, these considerations stop being theoretical if I’m out of a job and it’s next Christmas and we’re still doing this. Some people are going to say, ‘Look. I’m going to the mall. I’m going to reopen my store, and if people get sick they’re going to get sick.’

A: So that’s why the measures we’re putting into place—the universal income-loss protection that we never had in Canada, which we’re going to implement soon—that has the value of securing the economic security of people.

Of course there will be sacrifices. The benefit that people will receive will, in many cases, be far different from their usual wage level. So there will be sacrifices on the part of everyone. But that will allow people to focus on protecting their health and the health of their loved ones. Because if we succeed in doing this the economic impact will be lower.

Q: A lot of attention has been focused on respirators and acute-care beds. Is that a general preoccupation that governments need to keep an eye on? Or is it the next big crisis?

A: It’s absolutely essential. That equipment is important for people that are sick. [But] we also need to be prepared—and [Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan] has already alluded to that—we also must be prepared to provide further, supportive, ways to help people self-isolate. For a lot of people, housing conditions are not particularly good. Social distancing is difficult to implement. So at some point—and it might come quickly—we might need to use hotels.

The Château Laurier is closed for the first time in its history. Now, can the federal government use such infrastructure, in combination with National Defence, not only to address the immediate medical support that people should receive when they are ill, but also to provide conditions where they can protect their health and follow the self-isolation guidelines that we are asking them to follow? Like homeless Canadians. Indigenous Canadians. These are absolutely critical populations to protect. We will need to do a lot more, very quickly, to help secure the conditions of those Canadians. And also those living in circumstances of domestic violence and other circumstances which make it impossible for them to self-isolate. So just think more broadly about both the health and the social determinants of this crisis.

Q: In country after country, we’ve seen governments grow frustrated with general populations that, in many cases, are not taking this thing seriously. Or who believe they’re powerless to personally make a difference, so they’re not going to try. A lot of Canadians think this is not their problem. How do you get through to them?

A: That’s right. It’s everyone’s problem. And we here, we are very troubled by that. We know that provinces have been increasingly good at sending the right signals, making sure that these signals are heard. But we do hear increasing concerns. So we’re considering further ways for the federal government to be even more supportive of the responsibility of provinces, territories and municipalities in that context. Now, we understand that local governments are typically better able to manage those decisions. That’s how the Federation works best. But we’re not in the usual conditions. And we are mindful and we are hearing those concerns.

Q: Which are the provinces that might need help or might see the feds stepping in?

A: You won’t be surprised if I don’t name any.