Canada’s Health Minister Patty Hajdu and a team of public servants from Health Canada and the Public Health Agency of Canada offered their best guidance this week on how to respond to the spread of the coronavirus – or COVID-19. The news conference reminded me of the last time our country faced a similar outbreak back in 2009 with H1N1. Canadians are once again facing a public health outbreak with the backdrop of the politics of a minority government in Ottawa.

The last time we had a major public health outbreak in Canada was with H1N1. I was a director in the health minister’s office from November 2008 to July 2009, and during that time, Canada was faced with a significant health crisis in what later became known as the H1N1 influenza pandemic.

The crisis began to unfold several months after the federal election had returned the Conservatives to minority status. The political backdrop on Parliament Hill was not ideal – a disastrous fall Economic and Fiscal Update had brought the government to the brink of collapse. There was deep distrust between the political parties. To put it bluntly – it was a tough, weird time on Parliament Hill.

My boss, Leona Aglukkaq, was not new to being a health minister – she had held the post previously in Nunavut. Still, she did not have experience dealing with a flu pandemic. None of us working in her ministerial office did.

As a governing, political, and communications exercise, managing this major public health influenza outbreak was a high wire act.

As with any outbreak, the biggest challenge in managing H1N1 was our responsibility to educate the public while not raising alarm. Typically, the public servants write a first draft (and even a second) of communications materials before they are given to the minister’s office. Given the nature of the issue and how fast the media cycle moved, we didn’t have this luxury, and a pair of us political staffers worked concurrently with the public service.

Our communications and political challenges for H1N1 could be summarized as:

  • Needing to inform and educate the public while not scaring people;
  • Navigating the minority Parliament and figuring out how to engage with our political counterparts;
  • Advising and supporting a minister who was not experienced in high stakes politics and whose communications skills were still being developed.

To respond to these challenges, we made a strategic communications decision early on – which the Liberal government in Ottawa appears to be doing now – to lean heavily on the public service and public health professionals and let them lead. The last thing the public wants in a time like H1N1 or COVID-19 is the appearance of a politician managing public health.

We were lucky to have one of the most experienced deputy ministers in Ottawa on our side, Morris Rosenberg. Morris was deputy minister of justice when 9/11 occurred, so he had seen this type of movie before. We were also supported by the late Dr. Frank Plummer and Dr. David Butler-Jones as chief public health officer (CPHO). Coincidentally, Dr. Theresa Tam – Canada’s current CPHO – was also involved as director general for the Public Health Agency of Canada’s Centre for Emergency Preparedness and Response. These career public servants were used to being the unsung heroes, but our decision to put them front and centre was easy: they were highly credible government spokespeople.

The other strategic decision was political. We decided to engage our opposition critics and bring them inside the tent. Why? Because, you’ll remember, this was a minority Parliament and we had a rookie minister who would have been shredded by her opponents and the media if we weren’t careful. I remember the look on people’s faces when I suggested the idea. After a short conversation with the PMO, we made the calls to our critics to open a dialogue and brief them on the ongoing issues.

Why would we brief our critics? A few reasons. For one, briefing opposition MPs and seeking their input meant they became vested in our overall success. Secondly, the Liberal party actually had two health critics; one who was a licensed physician (Carolyn Bennett) and one who had an actual doctorate in pandemics (Kirsty Duncan).

Finally, the New Democratic Party’s critic was a firebrand and legend of Parliament, Judy Wasylycia-Leis. Wasylycia-Leis could generate a headline with remarkable ease – and the support of her party in the Commons was what we need to get anything passed in Parliament connected to H1N1.

So, the first Sunday evening call from the minister to her opposition critics turned into daily briefings. These briefings were usually an hour long and in person, and included senior public servants as well one or two political staff from our office. Bennett and Duncan offered really good policy ideas. Wasylycia-Leis was thoughtful and constructive in providing input and advice on how we should communicate with Canadians. These briefings were often held in the morning and usually before our daily ministerial press conferences. Why? The opposition proactively and willingly helped us refine our messaging for the press conference and because the meetings were held before question period, each of these MPs would often give us a head’s up on whether or not they had a question about H1N1 and what they’d be asking.

As the winter of 2009 progressed, we deployed many of the same tools to combat H1N1 that the government is using now on COVID-19. I expect we will see a full communications and advertising blitz in the coming months on health education, and if a vaccine is discovered, a campaign of persuasion to ensure the public gets vaccinated.

From January to July 2009, there was lots of praise for how we handled the crisis. This was a team effort and success built on many shoulders. But if I could boil down the “why” things worked, it would be this: we were excessively available to the media; we brought our political opponents inside the tent and sought their input in how to manage this public health outbreak; and we arranged for regular briefings from Health Canada officials for anyone who wanted them. Transparency. Engagement. Humility. Inclusion.

During health crises such as H1N1 and now COVID-19, Canadians don’t expect perfection. But they do, as I wrote in the minister’s speech for her first press conference, expect leaders to make judgment calls in the best interest of Canadians with the information available.

A byproduct of bringing the Opposition inside the tent on H1N1 was the building of trust inside the Commons. During the same H1N1 period, Aglukkaq passed three pieces of major legislation with unanimous support from the Conservatives, Liberals and New Democrats. The bills covered everything from the security of pathogens and toxins, to consumer product safety, and tobacco control. Health Canada was, by a country mile, the most productive government department during that time. In what was a highly partisan period during that minority, we somehow had a common, unified voice on all kinds of public health issues. This non-partisan approach was even more credible because the Minister of Health came from a consensus-driven territorial government in Nunavut.

The Prime Minister announced this week the creation of a special cabinet committee that has been charged with coordinating cabinet’s response to the COVID-19 outbreak. Whether a new, additional cabinet committee is required to manage this issue can be debated by others, but what is absolutely clear is the expectations of Canadians when it comes to responding to issues of critical national interest: viral pandemics are not a time for partisan politics.

And who knows? If political parties in Ottawa can work well on this major public health issue, it might help get other things done in this minority Parliament, too.

Photo: In October 2009, then-health minister Leona Aglukkaq and then-chief public health officer Dr. David Butler-Jones provided an update on the H1N1 flu virus at a news conference in Ottawa. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Fred Chartrand

Do you have something to say about the article you just read? Be part of the Policy Options discussion, and send in your own submission. Here is a link on how to do it. | Souhaitez-vous réagir à cet article ? Joignez-vous aux débats d’Options politiques et soumettez-nous votre texte en suivant ces directives.

Regan P. Watts
Regan P. Watts is a corporate affairs executive based in Toronto. He served as a senior aide across four federal departments from 2006-2012, including Finance, Transport, Health, and Foreign Affairs.

You are welcome to republish this Policy Options article online or in print periodicals, under a Creative Commons/No Derivatives licence.

Creative Commons License

More like this