Canada Day in the time of COVID: Maybe this year is a chance for Canada to really, finally, look in the mirror

Before all this, every Canadian had their own version of Canada Day. Maybe it was a barbecue, a fair, a parade. Maybe it was just a day off, finally. Maybe it was on Parliament Hill, or in your backyard, unless you didn’t have a backyard; then maybe you could join the crowd, all carrying little Canadian flags, to see the fireworks.

But this is the pandemic year, and our collective experiences have been atomized as we were kept apart, together. So now our most common Canada Day experience may be this: how much can you pretend that everything’s the same?

Unlike everything else, the pandemic has touched all of our lives at once. Not equally, of course, but universally. The pandemic split a nation of many Canadas into individual Canadas; for most of us, the country was smaller than ever before.

Geography was one destiny: Nova Scotia opened up restaurants to full indoor capacity on Friday of last week, and you still can’t sit indoors in Toronto. The pandemic barely brushed large parts of the country, Alberta bent the curve, and B.C. wrestled it to the ground.

But Quebec and Ontario were Canada’s sinkholes. They have 62 per cent of the population but 87 per cent of Canada’s coronavirus cases, and a stunning 8,150 of 8,566 deaths. Most deaths were from the generation of our parents and grandparents, warehoused in the best housing our society was willing to pay for as old age devoured them. Two to a room, or four, more privatization, fewer inspections.

Ontario waited far too long to bar workers from multiple homes. Quebec likely spread infections to long-term-care homes while trying to cover for staff shortages. Both happened because personal care workers make $15 an hour to care for your mother. Most things are the result of policy choices over the years.

In mid-March, Canada seemed to be in great shape: among countries with at least 150 cases, only Japan had a lower infection rate per capita. But we were slow, too slow, cautious, too cautious, too Canadian, and we were tied to America. Among nations with at least 100,000 publicly identified cases, Canada is now 10th in COVID cases per capita, and ninth in deaths. Among the nations ahead of us are European nations that were hit first (Spain, Italy, France), or struggling South American nations (Chile, Peru), or absurd populist failures (the United Kingdom, Brazil, and of course, the United States).

So Canada failed, too. At some point a smart doctor told me the medical successes of the pandemic involved the areas we gave a damn about, like hospitals, and the failures came in the ones we didn’t.

It’s been the same for people, too. Maybe this year is a chance for Canada to really, finally, look in the mirror.

We’re all in this together, right? The Prime Minister said it over and over, and added that we are there for you, we have your back. And in many ways, that’s happened. The federal government has spent approximately a quarter of a trillion dollars on pandemic relief, and the cities haven’t been bailed out yet. It’s what a government should do: take care of the citizens when they need help.

But that doesn’t mean we’ve all been in the same lifeboat, or on the same sea. At the start, some people hoarded toilet paper and hand sanitizer, and some people raised money to buy personal protective equipment (PPE) for health-care workers. Some politicians listened to their aggressive public health officials, and some had already driven theirs away. Quebec’s early spring break set their pandemic in motion, and the same day Dr. Bonnie Henry told British Columbians to avoid any non-essential travel, Ontario Premier Doug Ford told families to “go away, have a good time, enjoy yourself.”

Four days later, the federal Liberals closed the borders to everyone but non-citizens and Americans, but were slow to close the border to the U.S., and ineffective in effectively screening and quarantining returning citizens; public health officials in Ontario will tell you they were on top of things until the flood of returnees in mid- to late March. Data later showed that almost no travel cases came from China; a heavy plurality came from the United States, though.

But that didn’t stop anti-Asian hate crimes from blooming across Canada, and in Vancouver, most of all. And it didn’t stop Conservative leadership candidate Derek Sloan from questioning whether Dr. Theresa Tam, Canada’s chief medical officer of health, was loyal to Canada or China. And it didn’t stop the current or would-be leaders of Canada’s Conservative Party from declining to contradict him for several days.

Dr. Tam was born in British Hong Kong and attended the University of Alberta and the University of British Columbia. Sloan remains in the Conservative caucus.

But for a time, most Canadians listened to public health advice regardless of partisan stripe, from coast to coast to coast. Remember when our roads and offices emptied and the air got cleaner and there were more birds everywhere, weren’t there? For a time the whole earth stopped vibrating enough that seismologists could detect an eerie quiet.

Still, you carried something, didn’t you? Being a parent has been so much weight. Living alone, too. And some people lacked even those luxuries.

“You know, this COVID’s not fair to people, a lot of people, a lot of communities,” said Ford Monday, talking about the hundreds of migrant workers who have been hit with the virus as a result of long-established substandard working conditions. “And people are getting hurt for no fault of their own, and it’s just not fair, this pandemic.”

Ford and Justin Trudeau’s governments were warned about the migrant workers, as were the farms, as was everyone. B.C. spent millions to house their migrant workers; Ontario did not. Similarly, Ford’s government tried to cut public health last year, and in so doing hobbled it before it faced the test of a lifetime. Ford’s government punched down until it had to open its hand.

And everyone knew homeless shelters would be a problem before their positive test rates hit 20 per cent. The cops at Pearson airport started seeing more homeless because the shelters got full and put them on a bus, and most cops left them alone. But if airport security called, they had to confront them, get them out, put them back on a bus to the city.

“This is probably the safest place for them, honestly,” said one airport police officer with a shrug. Eventually, the airport decided you couldn’t walk in without a ticket.

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Canada has never cared enough about First Nations reserves, prisons, people with disabilities, migrant workers, the working poor, homeless people, and the elderly, some of whom died with nobody to take care of them. Even universal health care isn’t universal — the investigation by the Star’s Kate Allen, Jennifer Yang, and Rachel Mendleson showed access to the health-care system was insufficient in the northwest corner of the city, with its majority Black population.

Combined with the conditions that come with being the working poor in a rich city, cases exploded. And they still don’t have regular mobile testing, over three months into the pandemic.

“I think the talk of universal health care has been very damaging, because it’s allowed us to be complacent,” says Dr. Andrew Boozary, the executive director of social medicine at University Health Network, a son of Iranian immigrants who grew up in St. Jamestown apartment buildings. “And comparing ourselves to the United States and its regressive social and health-care policy, I think it’s held us back from the meaningful reforms we need.

“If you’re homeless, there was already a 20 to 30-year drop in life expectancy. And this is nothing new: COVID is just exacerbating how bad the inequities have been. We know from the data that income is the number one determinant of health. And there are major gaps between rich and poor neighbourhoods.

“Our universal system is not so universal. And that is something that we have really not gone upstream to address, and instead have decided to rest on our laurels to say, we have a universal health-care system, and look how bad it is in the U.S., with their health care.”

“If we don’t face this as a moral choice, a moral obligation, we’ll continue to shirk it, and the costs will be enormous.”

“The more vulnerable the population, the more protection we need to provide them,” says Dr. Nitin Mohan, a physician epidemiologist whose parents came here from India in the 1970s, and grew up in working-class Etobicoke.

Do we? No. Did we? No. Will we? Maybe, if we remember.

Damage is being done. Thousands of Canadians learned to say goodbye to loved ones over Zoom, and without much of a funeral. So doctors and nurses bore that burden, as they have the whole way. Paramedics, too, who had to tell frantic family members in the doorway to wait, we have to put on PPE before we try to save your dad. The biggest weight has been carried by the health-care community, and it will all take years to unknot. I spoke to one ICU nurse who works overnight shifts. When a patient was dying and she had time, she would sit with them in the dark and hold their hand.

“You know what? We never know what they feel,” she said. “And they say hearing is the last thing to go. So I’ll talk, and say something, say anything that’s comforting, tell them they’re not alone, that someone is with them, that this is a safe place. They do say hearing is the last to go. They might hear, they might not. I don’t know what they’re going to feel. I just don’t want them to feel like they’re by themselves.”

Good people did good things, and that is a lesson to remember, too. Even the best of us needed courage; the night Bonnie Henry went home after shutting down British Columbia she wanted to run away, anywhere, as far as she could. Some Ontario public health officials have felt the exact same thing.

But people have persisted, even as the public got tired. The status quo has already started to muscle its way back in; back in March, the supermarkets instituted hero pay bumps of $2 an hour, and almost two weeks ago every one of Loblaws, Sobeys and Metro pulled it back on the same day. All recorded rich profits in the quarter. There will be such a pressure to return to the profitable, familiar, unequal comfort of how things used to be, before all this.

But maybe Canada is waking up from a long slumber, and being shown our reflection. We tell ourselves hockey is the essence of Canada, but Dan Carcillo’s class-action lawsuit alleging horrific, systemic abuse in junior hockey is cracking that world open: he says hundreds of former players are telling him similar stories.

Similarly, our comfort myth that Canada isn’t a racist country is falling apart under the steady weight of evidence, with every unmuted voice. This pandemic has hit racialized communities harder because of their vulnerability in employment, housing, health care, and more; we are hearing more and louder evidence of the Indigenous Canadians we never quite help, the Black Canadians we don’t actually include, and of unequal, race-based policing across the country.

Our myth of scientific excellence was punctured, and our pandemic planning was pedestrian, and our lack of manufacturing meant one hospital held a sewing drive to stitch together homemade surgical gowns. Some arms were different lengths. The community held them up, even as government let them down.

And while universal health care is the closest thing to a national policy identity, it turns out not to be universal after all. America shouldn’t be the bar in any way, and neither should what we pretend Canada is. This year we have a chance to look in the mirror, and remember what we see. To pretend everything is normal this year is impossible; to return to better than normal might be our greatest challenge going forward. We’re all in this together, except when we’re not, and everything, at some stage, is a policy choice. Happy Canada Day.