The pandemic is breaking down political barriers between provincial and federal governments

While Canadians are being asked to keep their distance from one another to slow the spread of COVID-19, the pandemic is bringing Canada’s leaders closer together.

On Thursday night, there was a tangible spirit of goodwill around the virtual table when the prime minister and Canada’s premiers took part in a teleconference on the novel coronavirus outbreak. Sources tell CBC News that gratitude and appreciation was expressed at both ends for the collaborative work the two levels of government have been doing.

Meetings of first ministers can be acrimonious but there was no troublemaker at the table this time. One source said that “everyone [was] very sympathetic to Quebec,” the province that has been hit the hardest by the outbreak. In the past, the province has butted heads with other premiers on everything from pipelines to face veil bans.

Speaking on background, a federal Liberal source told CBC News that some premiers were willing to divert deliveries of personal protective equipment (PPE) from their own province to provinces with greater needs.

Alberta Premier Jason Kenney, normally an inveterate foe of Trudeau, tweeted during the call how he was “impressed by how [Canada] is coming together to fight this invisible enemy” and “moved by strong solidarity for Alberta’s double whammy: the COVID recession [and] the energy price crash.”

Ontario Premier Doug Ford, another regular sparring partner of Trudeau’s, said in a news conference earlier on Thursday that he would “never break ranks” with the prime minister or his fellow premiers in the midst of a crisis. In an interview with the Toronto Star, Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland called Ford her “therapist” and the Ontario premier reciprocated her praise.

It is the kind of unity of purpose among Canada’s first ministers that is almost without precedent.

There are, of course, some obvious incentives for provincial premiers to stay onside with the federal government at a time like this. Ottawa has the fiscal capacity and the jurisdiction to do some things the provinces can’t — such as subsidize wages and restrict movement across international borders.

When Newfoundland and Labrador could no longer find buyers for its provincial bonds, the Bank of Canada swooped in with a program to buy short-term provincial securities. It allowed Newfoundland and Labrador to “make payroll.” It might not be the last province to find itself in such dire straits.

Trudeau has few friends around the table

The political map across the country is not one that should make this kind of collaboration between provincial and federal governments easy.

Only two of the 10 provinces are headed up by Liberals — Nova Scotia and Newfoundland and Labrador. The other eight have conservative premiers of various stripes or, as in British Columbia, a New Democrat.

Little more than a year ago, Ford and Kenney were featured on a cover of Maclean’s magazine standing beside Manitoba Premier Brian Pallister, Saskatchewan Premier Scott Moe and federal Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer. Together, they were dubbed “the resistance” and Trudeau’s “worst nightmare.”

Now, Ford says they are all part of “Team Canada.”

Politics didn’t always disappear in past crises

Past prime ministers have had more friends around the premier’s table when facing national crises than Trudeau does today. When Stephen Harper led the country through the Great Recession that began in 2008, he had fewer opponents among the premiers than Trudeau had at the beginning of this year.

Robert Borden, who led Canada into the First World War, had more fellow Conservatives in provincial capitals than opposing Liberals in 1914.

In the early stages of the Great Depression, W.L. Mackenzie King was reluctant to assist the four provinces led by Conservative premiers (there were five led by Liberals or Progressives). He told the House of Commons in 1930 that, while he might work with some friendly premiers, he would “not give a single cent to any Tory government.”

It was a statement that contributed to his defeat in the election he called later that year.

Prime Minister W.L. Mackenzie King (right) with (from left to right) the Earl of Athlone, Governor General of Canada, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill and U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt at the Quebec Conference in 1944. (Canadian Press)

Back in office when the Second World War began in September 1939, King again had plenty of provincial allies. All but two provinces had Liberal premiers.

But even that didn’t lead to the kind of united front we’re seeing today. Maurice Duplessis, who led a conservative Union Nationale government in Quebec, bristled at restrictions imposed by the War Measures Act and called an election for that October. He campaigned against the federal government’s encroaching power and on fears that conscription would be imposed.

With the assistance of the King government, the Liberals under Adelard Godbout defeated Duplessis.

In Ontario, the premier might have been a Liberal but Mitchell Hepburn didn’t see the prime minister as an ally. He instead teamed up with the leader of the Ontario Conservatives and together they criticized King’s early prosecution of the war in both the press and on the floor of the Ontario legislature. It was enough to spur King into calling a federal election in 1940 as a show of strength against his provincial critics.

At the moment, that kind of partisan jockeying between the different levels of government seems unthinkable. But it wasn’t long ago that the kind of cooperation we have seen between premiers and between them and the prime minister would have been just as unthinkable.

It’s one of the many ways in which the COVID-19 pandemic is unprecedented. It’s also a good reason for confidence.

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