The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted at least two features of the Canadian federation. First, it has made clearly visible the division of powers between the federal and provincial governments in the face of a public health crisis. Early calls for the federal government to use the Emergencies Act faded when it became clear that many if not most of the measures needed to counter the COVID-19 crisis were within the provinces’ purview.

Second, COVID-19 has also underscored how decentralized federalism enables provinces to innovate and learn from one another. Since March 9, when both Ontario and Nova Scotia restricted visits to long term care centres – a policy since adopted by all provinces – Canadians have witnessed this learning and innovating in real time. Provinces have responded to their own contexts in their own way, and polls published throughout the crisis indicate that the public has generally been satisfied by their province’s handling of the crisis.

So who did what, when and how? To compare how Canadian provinces have reacted to the COVID-19 crisis, we have collected data on key measures put in place at the provincial level to try to limit the propagation of the virus as well as the dates on which these policies were implemented (see note below for more details on the data).

Table 1 lists all the measures for which we collected data as well as the number of provinces that have implemented them.

The picture that emerges is one of consensus on the essential measures that had to be put in place but also one with important variation in the timing of these measures. For instance, all provinces have declared a state of emergency in one form or another but have done so at different points in time. Figure 1 shows the timing of state of emergency declarations and the number of confirmed cases of COVID-19 at that time.

What Figure 1 shows is that most provinces declared a state of emergency when the number of cases was between 0 and 25. The outliers are Ontario, British Columbia and, to some extent, Alberta. All three provinces declared a state of emergency on the same day, at a time when Ontario, BC and Alberta had 189, 186 and 97 confirmed cases respectively. In contrast, Nova Scotia had only 28 cases when it declared the state of emergency five days later, the last to do so.

Similarly, a closer look at all the measures implemented by provinces to limit the propagation of COVID-19 shows different patterns and combinations. To this day, Quebec, Prince Edward Island and Ontario have implemented the most measures, 17, while three other provinces have implemented a total of 16 measures (Manitoba, New Brunswick, Newfoundland and Labrador). Figure 2 shows the different timing of these measures since the beginning of March, when provinces started to take action.

Though the timing has been different, there seems to be a consensus on the types of measures needed to limit the propagation of COVID-19. The measures implemented have been highly similar across provinces, with very few exceptions: closing of non-essential businesses, closing schools, prohibiting visits to long term care homes. While several provinces have restricted interprovincial travel, Quebec is the only province to have formally restricted intra-provincial travel. Only three provinces have closed cannabis stores (NL, PEI, ON) – though online sales continue – and only three instituted fines for profiteering (ON, BC, SK). At the same time, some of these more localized policies might have very limited effect compared to more major measures such as closing schools and non-essential businesses.

Seen from other provinces, the situation in British Columbia has been puzzling. British Columbia was home to many of the very early cases – five of the first 10 cases in the country were in BC – but it declared a state of emergency much later than all provinces except Ontario, based on the number of active cases. It did not follow up with a ramping up of measures like other provinces did. For instance, it limited social gatherings of more than 50 people while many provinces did so for all gatherings of two people or more.

BC also never officially closed daycares or non-essential businesses, again highlighting how different contexts might call for different actions. Given that BC is one of the large provinces that appears to have been least affected by the virus and that things have stabilized, it will be an interesting case to study as provinces prepare for the next pandemic.

Next challenge: Lifting restrictions

Some have argued that the crisis laid bare the absence of a coherent intergovernmental framework of cooperation on public health issues, which precluded concerted actions. Once the dust has settled, it will be important to revisit where and how relations among provinces and the federal government have helped or hindered public health officials and governments in dealing with the crisis. One thing is clear, however, as the crisis developed, relations between the different orders of governments were free of the partisanship and polarization that have plagued the response to COVID-19 south of the border.

This “bonne entente” could be tested, however, as we move to the next phase.

The next important test for “COVID-19 federalism” will be how provinces lift the restrictions imposed since early March. What happens when one province decides to lift some restrictions, as Saskatchewan Premier Scott Moe is contemplating, and neighbouring provinces do not feel like they are ready to do so? And as some provinces lift restrictions one by one, public pressure will mount on those who do not.

Horizontal relations – relations between provinces – have been important in responding to the COVID-19 crisis, and they will remain important, perhaps even more so, as the post-COVID-19 era begins. Interests were aligned when the crisis hit, but they might not be as aligned in the months to come.

A note on the data

You can find the data (here). Comments or corrections are welcome. Please note that the data only tracks the date at which a policy became effective, not when it was announced. When a policy is enacted at midnight, the following day is indicated. For Ontario, Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island, we have treated March 16, the first day of March Break, as the day that school closures took effect even though they were formally applied on March 23, the day students were supposed to return from the break.

This article is part of the The Coronavirus Pandemic: Canada’s Response special feature.

Photo: A normally busy street in Toronto during the COVID-19 shutdown. by BrianStock.

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Charles Breton
Charles Breton est le directeur du Centre d’excellence sur la fédération canadienne à l’IRPP, et l'ancien directeur de la recherche à Vox Pop Labs. Il détient un doctorat en science politique de l’Université de la Colombie-Britannique.
Mohy-Dean Tabbara
Mohy-Dean Tabbara est conseiller politique à Maytree. Il était précédemment chercheur à l’IRPP. Il travaille principalement à l’amélioration du filet de sécurité sociale et à la réforme du droit criminel.

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