The lessons from recent crises are helping federal and provincial governments work together to respond to COVID-19, but also signal hurdles ahead.

COVID-19 has changed daily life. We are living through a monumental crisis. As this virus spreads across the globe and our country, it is wreaking havoc on our society and economy. Many have noted that what is happening is showing us the importance of capable governments. The chaos south of the border speaks volumes to this deadly reality. In Canada, our governments have so far responded to this problem admirably. This is no small feat.

Pandemics cannot be stopped by any government on its own. They are a global force that knows no border (much like climate change). The inability of any one government to mount an effective response is all the more evident in a federation like Canada, where we divide responsibilities between the federal and provincial governments to manage key aspects of a health crisis. In federations, the response to a situation like COVID-19 requires high levels of coordination and collaboration between governments. But, in a cruel paradox, COVID-19 makes this collaboration difficult by its very nature. Faced with this new and demanding situation, governments must find ways to work together on the fly.

Situations like COVID-19 are a special set of policy challenges for governments. We call these “complex intergovernmental problems” (CIPs).

While COVID-19 is a novel coronavirus, the type of problem it represents is not. CIPs challenge existing modes of interaction, roles and responsibilities within an intergovernmental system. By their nature, CIPs demand considerable adaptation and flexibility on the parts of cooperating governments to ensure effective and legitimate policy results, as well as to avoid negative outcomes that could impact the entire federal system.

Learning from earlier complex intergovernmental problems

We have faced CIPs many times before in Canada. So have many other jurisdictions around the world. We have learned a great deal about how to respond, and about the problems that are likely to play out over the coming weeks, months and years as we recover from this pandemic.

SARS is clearly the most applicable example of a complex intergovernmental problem that is shaping our response to COVID-19. During SARS in 2003, our front-line health care workers did not have the resources and training they needed, endangering their safety and their ability to care for Canadians. We did not have a central body to coordinate our response, which impacted our ability to distribute resources across the country and provide guidance to Canadians. The inability of federal and provincial-territorial governments to work together and share information slowed our response. David Naylor’s report on the lessons from SARS and the concrete actions taken afterwards, like establishing the Public Health Agency of Canada and increasing intergovernmental information sharing and coordination mechanisms, are guiding how our health care system is working in the face of this challenge.

But a more recent episode is also clearly shaping how governments are behaving today: the surge in asylum seekers crossing the border in 2017 and 2018. From 2017 to 2019, 55,862 asylum seekers entered Canada outside ports of entry. This surge fit all the criteria for a CIP. The causes of the problem — the global displacement crisis, changing US immigration policies and Canada’s Safe Third Country Agreement with the United States — could not be controlled by any one government. Receiving, screening, housing and providing services to asylum seekers required the federal, provincial and municipal governments to work together in new ways.

The federal government has long taken the lead in the asylum policy area; but in this case the arrival of large numbers of asylum seekers significantly affected areas of provincial jurisdiction like housing, education and social services. While the number of irregular border crossings into Canada is extremely small when compared with other parts of world, this situation also presented like a crisis: pictures of asylum seekers housed in Montreal’s Olympic Stadium and overflowing shelters reinforced a sense of panic. As with COVID-19, the crossings seemed as if they would never end. The urgency of the situation was compounded by the increasing delays at the Immigration and Refugee Board in determining the status of individuals and an ever-changing political landscape south of the border.

Our forthcoming IRPP study looks at how Canada’s intergovernmental system responded to this complex intergovernmental problem. Examining how intergovernmental relations played out over the last three years, in relation to the irregular border crossings, can help us see best practices for Canada’s response to COVID 19 and some of the challenges that lie ahead.

What worked when responding to the irregular border crossings? Federal, provincial and municipal governments recognized early on that they needed to work together. They used their existing political and bureaucratic networks to coordinate on-the-ground operations at the outset. But they also recognized that irregular border crossings demanded quick coordination of actions by agencies with little experience of working together. As a result, they set up a new intergovernmental task force. This task force played a particularly important role in identifying the key policy problems at various stages, coordinating action and building norms related to the substantive roles of the various governments. In working together, the provinces and Ottawa came to understand they would have to share the financial consequences of the crossings. Ottawa has been transferring funds to offset costs incurred by the provinces and has also created some new programs. In 2019, it set up the Interim Housing Assistance Program, which provided $324 million in support to house newcomers in affected provinces and cities.

The importance of a united front

How are these lessons informing our governments’ response to COVID-19? We are seeing many of the same actions early on in how our intergovernmental system is handling this crisis. Public health officers across the country — at both the provincial-territorial and federal levels — are clearly communicating with the public, coordinating their actions and sharing information. Our federal and provincial-territorial leaders are holding conference calls early and often. They have reinforced the need to work together on the problem — to present a united front. What would normally be highly divisive topics are being discussed in a collaborative manner with everyone’s voices carrying weight in the decisions. Ottawa is heeding the calls of the provinces and territories to respect their jurisdiction and use the Emergencies Act powers only as a last resort. We have never seen our premiers and prime minister getting along so well. This is particularly striking given how acrimonious relations were just a few weeks ago. In short, the operational, front-line response is being led at the provincial-territorial level, but it is being backed by a national approach of sharing information and coordinating action through high-level venues like first ministers’ meetings and institutions such as the Public Health Agency of Canada.

This is not how this CIP is playing out everywhere, even in advanced democracies. The government response in the United States lacks a clear, coherent strategy. Governors in impacted states are pleading for federal support that is slow to come. Mixed messaging from federal, state and local political and health authorities is leading to confusion. In the European Union, national borders have acted as significant constraints to collaborative action. Countries are stockpiling medical supplies and limiting their export to higher-need areas. In contrast, Canada’s intergovernmental system is doing relatively well at coordinating a coherent response across our federal, provincial-territorial and municipal borders. But there are also some signals of troubles on the horizon once we get past the crisis stage of COVID-19.

As with the positive lessons learned from recent CIPs, the problems faced during the irregular border crossings can help us see what may come to pass. Two issues emerged that added significant tensions to intergovernmental relations with the asylum file. The first was the distribution of asylum seekers across Canada. The desire of Ontario and Quebec to incentivize new arrivals to settle in other parts of the country, to alleviate pressure on their housing and medical systems, went largely unrealized. Other provinces were not keen to actively resettle asylum seekers to their communities. A pilot distribution system was set up, but it moved only five families before being wound down. The second issue was money. Much of the conflict over the irregular border crossings stemmed from Ontario and Quebec seeking funds to cover the costs they incurred in housing and providing social services to asylum seekers.

Emerging tensions

Both issues — distribution and money — are potential challenges for intergovernmental relations with the COVID-19 crisis going forward. Fault lines on both points are already developing.

Calls to share medical resources across the country are increasing. Plans to address respirator shortages, though, are running up against the interests of provinces that want to hold on to their own stockpiles. There are significant differences  in resources across the country. Ontario has an estimated 12 ventilators per 100,000 people, a level similar to Prince Edward Island’s. Quebec has an estimated 35 ventilators per 100,000 people. Shortages in personal protective equipment, particularly masks, are becoming acute. But the difficulties of redistributing resources across the country are apparent. As Alberta Premier Jason Kenney said at a press conference on March 25, “We need the equipment that we have in Alberta, for Albertans.”

The second emerging issue is, predictably, money. The economic costs of this crisis are orders of magnitude larger than anything Canada has ever faced before. The impact on the economy and government revenues and the need for spending to support Canadians and the health care system will put pressure on all governments. This pressure will be particularly felt by the provinces and territories, given their responsibility for health care. The federal government has taken significant steps to alleviate some of the economic costs of the virus for Canadians and businesses. But support to help provinces and territories manage their costs will also be needed.

Leaders are already asking Ottawa to plan for future fiscal support. Manitoba Premier Brian Pallister, for example, has called for the creation of a federal credit agency that would borrow funds at a better rate than provinces are able to access. These funds could then be distributed to provinces to help cover their deficits, which will grow exponentially as a result of COVID-19. Pallister expects Manitoba will need to borrow up to $10 billion for this year alone as a result of COVID-19. Other provinces and territories are likely to echo the request, with the total figures needed to cover budget shortfalls likely coming to hundreds of billions of dollars. This will become a major tension point between the federal and provincial-territorial governments as we move beyond the crisis stage of this pandemic.

But the lessons from the past can show us how to manage these tensions. So far, governments in Canada have been doing a remarkably good job at working together to protect the safety and lives of Canadians.

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

Photo: Shutterstock, by Andre St-Louis.