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Across Canada, the public sector struggled to put in place pandemic public health measures, provide emergency relief to households and businesses, and continue to deliver a vast array of services to Canadians. These efforts are now going through after-action reviews supported by an extensive array of officers and agents of Parliament.

I cannot personally attest to the inner workings of government during the pandemic years. My focus here is on Canadian governance – our ability as a democracy and a federation to take decisions and, most importantly, to learn and adapt. Over the past three years, Canada has been affected by what can only be considered a disruption or “black swan event” – not just COVID-19 but also the Black Lives Matter movement, the discovery of graves at the sites of former residential schools, the war in Ukraine and the passing of Queen Elizabeth II. In retrospect, the Canadian federation performed remarkably well as a system for taking decisions.

Let’s start with the basics. Canada is a parliamentary democracy, based on the Westminster model, with the unique addition of a justiciable Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. It is a federation where many key services are delivered by provinces, territories, local and Indigenous governments.

During COVID-19, parliamentary democracy turned out to be quite resilient. MPs and senators learned to use online platforms to meet and work, and now they continue to use hybrid approaches to committee meetings. At the peak of the pandemic, parties worked together to pass emergency relief programs and deferred much of the scrutiny to later.

Accountability to citizens was not disrupted or suspended. With some agility and adaptation by election authorities and candidates, we had a federal election; seven provincial and two territorial elections; full rounds of municipal elections; and an assortment of byelections. A million Canadians voted by mail in 2021, providing valuable lessons for the future.

A test of all branches and levels of government

The judicial system and an array of tribunals continued to operate. A “dog that didn’t bark” in Canada would be two Supreme Court appointments in 2021 and 2022 with none of the bitter partisan rancour that we see south of the border.

Part of our core software is the role of the Crown. The resignation of a governor general in 2021 and the death of the Queen in 2022 led to a seamless transition to their successors while the institution itself carried on.

Canada’s federation performed well in responding to the many different decisions that had to be made. In the United States, state governments split along partisan lines and many red state governors and legislatures actively fought and undermined federal initiatives and attacked federal health officials. In Canada, public health ministers and officials worked closely together on vaccine procurement and distribution, and public health measures generally moved in step.

Not one of the premiers or mayors saw an upside to fighting with the federal government, not even in January 2021 at the peak of the disparate coalition of anti-lockdown, anti-vax forces.

The high degree of alignment across the federation on public health measures demonstrably saved lives. More than 89 countries had higher death rates – most notably, the U.S., the U.K. and France.

The resilience of our federalism had been tested before the pandemic. Opposition parties and first ministers also came together with remarkable unity and effectiveness when former U.S. president Trump posed an existential threat to our economy. No one bolted and undermined the Team Canada unity that thwarted his threatened termination of NAFTA as Ottawa negotiated a new and better deal.

A protest and an untested law

The occupation of central Ottawa in early 2022 was perhaps the clearest test of Canada’s governance and federalism. What began ostensibly as a protest attempting to persuade democratically elected governments to change specific policies morphed into a bizarre set of demands, including the replacement of the democratically elected Trudeau government. To borrow a medical metaphor, the Canadian body politic rejected them utterly. Parliament and cabinet continued to meet. Canadians continued to support public health measures and supported the actions that brought the occupation to an end. The solidarity of provincial premiers didn’t waver. The invocation of the Emergencies Act and the review into its use was a successful exercise in resilient democracy.

The response of the broad public sector that supports elected governments was remarkable. The greatest shocks from the pandemic hit front-line education and, of course, primary health care, seniors’ residences and long-term care facilities. These systems bent but did not break. There will be future pandemics and health emergencies, so it is important to integrate what has been learned and to invest in preparedness.

The resulting economic shock from closures, supply chain slowdowns and employee shortages points to the need to work on more robust safety nets for workers and small businesses.

Beyond the front-line health response or the emergency economic relief, typically change-resistant parts of the extended public sector made rapid adjustments at a pace that normally would take a decade or more. Some shifts are becoming enduring parts of the post-pandemic normal. Courts and tribunals made quantum leaps in their approach to work processes. Universities and colleges pivoted to online instruction and evaluation. Some workplaces are embracing platform-based work tools and severing the link between where you live and where you work. But of course, not all public sector workplaces have that option.

Non-profits were tested by COVID-19 but proved resilient

Managing future crises with lessons from COVID

Less known are the hidden-in-plain-sight stories of how the Border Services Agency, the Canadian Coast Guard and others kept commerce flowing while enforcing health restrictions. Little attention will now be paid to how public sector organizations kept services running after sending much of their workforce home before widespread vaccination. For example, the May 2021 census was an outstanding accomplishment, as were three successful tax-collection cycles. Even less attention will be paid to how the internal services of the federal government that make it all possible found ways to cope and to innovate.

Now, as Canada climbs out of the pandemic and all the other associated shocks, it’s worth recognizing how well this country continues to do on indexes of freedom, transparency and the rule of law. Our basic governance has remained open and democratic despite the stress.

Proactive risk-taking in “peacetime”

Journalist Paul Wells says in his recent book An Emergency in Ottawa: “The hardest thing, when you know how the story ends, is to remember what it felt like not to know how it would end.” We need to avoid succumbing to hindsight bias when we go over the record of the last three years. We also must avoid the fallacy of composition – to assume that what is true of a part is true of the whole – and avoid generalizing from specific problems among the hundreds of public sector organizations that the entire system is broken.

The challenge now is to capture enough of that spirit of proactive risk-taking and sustain it in “peacetime.” There will be a tendency by politicians and public servants to drift back to old behaviours and mindsets, where risk aversion is reinforced by the feedback loops. There is a clear and present danger that as governments move to address their balance sheets, they will cut back on investing in the capabilities of our public sector.

Every shock to the country is an opportunity to learn, adapt and commit to do better in the future. We need to double down now on investments in training and leadership development and in strengthening the supply chain of ideas, not just about policy but especially about how the public sector can work better.

The basic governance of Canada has proven to be resilient. But now is not the time for complacency. It will be important to put more effort into protecting democracy and strengthening our public sector across all parts of the federation, as our politics becomes nastier and the space for public discourse shrinks. That will help us be ready for the next shock when it inevitably arrives.

Michael Wernick spent his time during the pandemic writing Governing Canada: A Guide to the Tradecraft of Politics published through UBC Press.

This article is part of the Resilient Institutions: Learning from Canada’s COVID-19 Pandemic special feature series.

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Michael Wernick
Michael Wernick served as 23rd Clerk of the Privy Council from 2016 to 2019 after many years as a federal deputy minister. He is a consultant at MNP Digital, the Jarislowsky Chair in Public Sector Management at the University of Ottawa and the author of Governing Canada.

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