In March 2020 Canada and the world, like Alice, stepped through a looking glass and into another dimension, a world so strange and unprecedented that no one could find a historical analogy that did not break down on closer examination. There was the plague that devasted ancient Athens during the Peloponnesian War in 430 BCE; the Black Death of the 1340s that killed perhaps 60 per cent of the European population; and the Spanish influenza pandemic of 1918–19 that may have killed 50 million people, more than perished during the preceding First World War. None really resembles the particular challenge of COVID-19 or provides templates for responses.
There were famous chroniclers of such past catastrophes, from Thucydides to Boccaccio to Dafoe to Camus, yet none seemed to speak from their experience to the utterly unique situation of an entire world going into voluntary or involuntary lockdown, deliberately shutting much normal economic activity; nor to a bizarre realm in which from one day to the next governments could transform from near-silent shareholders in a globalized corporate enterprise to Leviathan states instantly funding and taking command of a private sector that, for the most part, had been regulated not by government but by the market.
Like Yeats after the Easter Rising of 1916, pundits sententiously declared, “All changed, changed utterly.” Perhaps; perhaps not. There are, however, some things that should change after this searing experience.
Trump and Brexit populism rode a wave of suspicion of science and expertise. Remember Michael Gove dismissing ironclad arguments of economists about havoc in the wake of Brexit: we “have had enough of experts”? Now life and death literally hang on the expertise of scientists and health professionals. Surely this renewed trust in expertise should carry over into the post-COVID world. Surely climate change deniers will give way to the professional opinion of the scientific community that the world is heading for catastrophe if we do not get to net-zero carbon emissions.
For years we have heard tireless reiterations of the neoliberal theme that government is the problem, not the solution; that private enterprise does everything better than bureaucrats; and that deregulation and marketization are the keys to good public policy. Depredations on the tax base by the rich create a hollowed-out state, which is then pointed to as evidence of public sector incompetence.
And then comes the plague. Suddenly everyone – corporations, unions, big and small business, workers, rich, poor – rush to the comforting arms of the state. And the state, astonishingly to those who believed the antigovernment rhetoric, delivers quickly and effectively. Ottawa rolled out massive relief programs of unprecedented complexity and had money flowing into people’s bank accounts within days. When coverage gaps were pointed out, adjustments were made: the public service could be not only efficient but resilient in the face of overarching crisis, even when bureaucrats had to work from home. Surely the performance of the state, matched against the manifest incapacity of the unassisted private sector to cope, should be a salutary lesson to free market evangelists.
Neoliberalism went hand in hand with unchecked globalization. This COVID crisis has brought home the danger posed by extended global supply chains and “just in time” delivery. Globalization had led to concentration of food production and delivery in a small number of multinational conglomerates with resulting dependence on food imports, and now a crisis in Canadian food security. Surely the post-COVID era should see serious efforts at shortening critical supply chains, ensuring adequate inventories of crucial products and refocusing on local food production.
Neoliberalism had notoriously encouraged greater inequality, with the corporate elites paying themselves multimillion-dollar “earnings” and “performance bonuses” while a state starved of resources cut back and privatized social services, providing derisory wages and employment conditions for those who work in the service sector. The COVID crisis highlighted the crucial and heroically self-sacrificing role of health care workers who put their own lives on the line daily in defence of the public.
In Quebec and Ontario in particular, it also shone a harsh spotlight on the shockingly substandard conditions in long-term care facilities, many run for profit, where COVID raged out of control. Seniors are most at risk from the virus, but the ghastly contagion and death rate could have been prevented had conditions not been as Dickensian. Surely the future should see a redistribution of resources to reflect decent remuneration and working conditions for those whose services truly are essential. Surely we should see proper public funding for essential social services like seniors’ care, decoupling of these services from the for-profit sector and an end to simply warehousing the elderly who cannot afford premium care.
Politics in liberal democracies have increasingly in recent years been characterized by relentless partisanship; by the “permanent campaign”; by the commodification of politics and the reduction of citizens to consumers; by the active fostering by politicians and partisan media of social distrust and incivility and aggression in public debate. The COVID crisis has highlighted in ways not seen since wartime that Margaret Thatcher was never so wrong as when she notoriously declared that “there’s no such thing as society.” Surely this crisis will have brought home that there is a collective good that transcends individual self-interest, that people will rise to the challenge of doing their best to help their fellow citizens in adversity, and that partisan politics as usual must change to reflect a greater sense of common purpose, uniting rather than dividing people.
Surely and should do not connote certainty, however. There is nothing assured about the way Canada will come out of this crisis.
We need only look south of the border to see how lessons may not be learned. Divisive populism and destructive neoliberalism continue apace in the United States. The Trump response to the downside of globalization has been reversion to 1930s-style nationalist protectionism and issuance of threats against other countries, precluding the kind of globalism that is still needed: international cooperation against the virus. Trump has deliberately promoted disunity over unity, set groups of people against one another and relentlessly sought to extract partisan advantage from the crisis. The result: instead of any coherent national strategy, there is chaos; instead of a common national purpose, there are right-wing thugs carrying assault weapons and even invading state legislatures and threatening elected officials, demanding the end of lockdowns.
Canada sets an admirable contrast to American carnage, not only combating the virus more effectively (with nine times Canada’s population, the United States at the end of April had 30 times the number of reported COVID fatalities) but establishing generally nonpartisan direction with large-scale voluntary compliance with guidelines for appropriate behaviour. But the best contrast with this newfound Canadian unity is not with our neighbours but with ourselves, on the very eve of the onset of the pandemic.
When every television network in the country simultaneously broadcast Canadian musicians, artists and athletes all contributing emotive voices to a collective performance dubbed “Stronger Together” on April 26, it is wrenching to take our minds back just two months, to February 28. On that date the National Post published a poll under the blaring headline “Canada is broken”:
In a time of widespread disagreement and ever-increasing polarization, there remains a bitter solidarity among Canadians in the belief that the government doesn’t know what it’s doing. In the wake of regional discontent from the western provinces and blockades jamming up the country’s rail network, a towering majority of Canadians agree with the statement, “Right now, Canada is broken.”1
A few days later another National Post piece spelled out that “Canada is broken because Justin Trudeau broke it.”2 Columnist Chris Selley followed this up with, “The Fathers of Confederation might well find consensus on the word ‘broken’ to describe Canada, 153 years on. Surely 26 million Canadians can’t be wrong.”3
Apparently they could. Two months later, the “bitter solidarity” of distrust in government had been transformed into an even more “towering majority” who expressed faith that the same government would see them through a crisis that made Alberta discontent and rail blockades seem trivial in comparison.
Briefly revisiting the “Canada is broken” moment may also point to the kind of Canada we might expect when we finally step back through the looking glass into a post-COVID era.
Some of the concern about the state of the country was sparked by the widespread protests, including rail blockades, supporting the opposition of some hereditary Wet’suwet’en chiefs to the Coastal GasLink pipeline crossing their traditional unceded territory. The complexities of the legal issues surrounding Wet’suwet’en territorial and governance claims are examined in detail by Gareth Morley in this issue.4
The magnitude and extent of the protests, and the economic damage and inconveniences caused by rail blockades, appear disproportionate to the causes, intensified by the way Indigenous sovereignty claims were conflated with the environmental case against liquefied natural gas, despite being separate issues. The federal and British Columbia governments are continuing to negotiate territorial and governance issues with the Wet’suwet’en while the pipeline proceeds. While reconciliation with Indigenous peoples remains a leading goal of public policy, working out Indigenous consent to megaprojects will be complex and difficult when First Nations are always divided as much as non-Native Canadians on environment-vs.-economy issues. But Canada is hardly “broken” by these difficulties.
The other, larger, problem supposedly threatening to break Canada, the alienation of Alberta (now joined by Saskatchewan) from Ottawa and central Canada, is a very old story.5 Most recently it has risen to new heights as the Alberta petrostate has seen the future of its leading staple product, oil sands bitumen, called into question. Under Stephen Harper, a prime minister from Calgary, the oil sands were declared to be the leading driver of Canadian economic development. When global oil prices started falling, oils sands profits stalled. Alberta identified completing pipelines to tidewater and export markets in Asia as the answer.
But when Northern Gateway was shelved and Trans Mountain ran into environmental and Indigenous opposition on the B.C. coast, Alberta pointed the finger at environmentalists and federal and B.C. governments concerned with environmental protection as the enemies of Alberta. B.C. Premier John Horgan and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau became hated figures to many Albertans. Even Trudeau buying Trans Mountain when its Texan developers backed out did nothing to allay Alberta rage.
It is now often said in Alberta that Trudeau’s secret agenda is to destroy the Alberta economy (why any prime minister would harbour such a politically self-defeating agenda beggars the imagination, but apparently not that of conspiracy theorists from the fever swamps of the Alberta far right). When the Liberals committed to the introduction of a carbon tax as the centrepiece of a national climate strategy, suspicion of Ottawa reached paranoid levels. Then the 2019 election saw the return of a Trudeau government with the support of three other parties equally or more committed to the carbon tax and to serious climate action, while Alberta and Saskatchewan returned crushing majorities to a Tory party fully backing Alberta. Canada, it seemed, was breaking apart. “Western” (sic) separatism was bubbling up across the Prairies.
In the real world, even if some environmental activists do seek the closure of the oil sands, majority opinion across the country has clung to the belief that the environment and economic development could be balanced, as reflected in the decision to put Trans Mountain under public ownership. Whether any viable compromise might ever have been found is now a moot point, as the pandemic has thrown all calculations about the future of oil and gas into confusion. Global lockdown has led to a drastic drop in energy consumption and resulting oversupply, while a Saudi-led price war had already driven down North American oil to uncompetitive levels. North American prices briefly went negative, with the surreal result that on one day producers would have had to pay buyers $37 a barrel to take the stuff off their hands.
This situation will not endure and eventually there will be a price rebound. But it is doubtful that it will ever rebound to levels that make the Alberta oil sands a profitable producer. In fact, there were abundant signs pre-COVID that the oil sands’ day was done. All foreign investment, including from some oil giants, had already fled the field, and sovereign funds and other big institutional investors had divested oil sands stocks. Ethical concerns may have played a small part, but the larger reason was hard financial calculation: the world was transitioning away from fossil fuels for reasons of self-preservation. The oil sands, being among the most expensive (and dirty) sources of crude in the world, are roadkill in the global downsizing of the carbon economy. The COVID pandemic has given even more impetus to the move away from the petro-economy: this virus is only a preview of the horrific damage the earth can wreak upon a human species fouling its own nest and upending the delicate balance of nature.
Even if there exists a transitional period when oil is still in demand, consider that the Saudis, with low production costs, can break even at a price in the low $20s a barrel. The break-even point for oil sands bitumen is the mid-$50s. For exports to be reliably profitable, prices would have to be in the $60 range, which is the aspirational forecast for Jason Kenney’s 2020 Alberta budget. Energy analysts are not predicting anything like $60 oil in the foreseeable future. No wonder Kinder Morgan backed out of Trans Mountain and Teck Resources dumped Premier Kenney’s pampered Frontier oil sands development (which posited $80–$90 a barrel over 20 years!).
The bottom line is that the real enemy of the Alberta petro-economy is not found among the Liberals, Greens, socialists, federal bureaucrats and environmentalists of Albertan demonology. The real enemy is the market. There is great irony in this, in light of the Alberta Conservatives’ vociferous free enterprise ideology, not to speak of their constant self-congratulation at their genius at finding oil in the ground. One is tempted to sneer that those who live by free enterprise die by free enterprise, but that would be both ungracious and self-defeating. The collapse of the petro-economy will wreak havoc not only on Albertans but on the entire Canadian economy. This is of course only intensified by the downward spiral induced by the pandemic lockdown. Not surprisingly, Alberta is already coming back to Ottawa, this time not as a threatening creditor but as supplicant, grateful for whatever assistance is offered. Ottawa initially offered the same assistance to laid-off oil and gas workers that it offers all other laid-off workers. It also tied specific aid to the industry to environmental purposes: cleaning up abandoned oil wells, for instance. This has won support from both environmentalists and the Alberta government.
What must be resisted are demands that good federal money be thrown after bad into the pit of existing big oil investment in the oil sands. Instead, there is the major challenge ahead of assisting the transition of the Alberta economy to much greater reliance on alternative non-fossil energy sources (geothermal, wind, sun, etc.), toward a greener economy rather than a petro-economy.
This will certainly not be easy, and may be very disruptive and extremely expensive, especially in the early stages. But the pandemic crisis offers an opportunity along these lines that would otherwise have been more difficult to achieve. The transition of Alberta toward a greener future should be part of the renewed common purpose coming out of the crisis, showing that Canada is in no way broken, but indeed stronger together.
1 Stuart Thomson, ‘Canada is Broken,’ Say Majority of Canadians in Poll Taken in Wake of Rail Blockades, National Post, February 28, 2020.
2 Barrett Wilson, Canada is Broken because Justin Trudeau Broke it, National Post, March 4, 2020.
3 Chris Selley: Most Canadians Believe Canada is Broken and That’s Nothing to Sneer at, National Post, March 4, 2020.
4 Gareth Morley, The Perils of Postcolonialism.
5 See the articles in the What Makes the Prairie Provinces Different? section in this issue.