On the darkest day since the frightening spring, Justin Trudeau returned to the stoop of Rideau Cottage and attempted to enlist the rhetorical powers of his office against the crashing second wave of COVID-19.
For the first two minutes, the prime minister ignored the prepared text and spoke plainly and directly into the camera.
“So …” he began. “I don’t want to be here this morning. You don’t want me to be here this morning. But here we are again.”
Probably no crisis has ever been defeated by the power of the bully pulpit alone. Trudeau’s own televised address eight weeks ago obviously did not change the trajectory of this pandemic.
But the public platform of national leadership is one thing a prime minister can bring to bear against a health emergency — and without necessarily subverting the practical and political realities of constitutional jurisdiction in a federation.
WATCH: Prime Minister Justin Trudeau on the second wave
It remains to be seen how much further Trudeau might be compelled to go, either in words or actions.
As the rate of infection has increased across successive provinces this fall, there have been calls for the federal government to do something. Again, for instance, Trudeau has been asked by reporters whether he might invoke the Emergencies Act.
However frustrated some experts and critics might be with how certain provincial or municipal leaders have handled this fall’s second wave, it’s not obvious that anything would be improved if local decisions were suddenly being made out of Ottawa. In fact, it’s easier to imagine how federal imposition could make things worse, practically or politically.
The limits of federal authority
No government can claim to have handled its response to this pandemic perfectly and conflict between different levels of government is unlikely to make responding to the pandemic any easier. A premier who is reluctant to impose new restrictions might become only more recalcitrant after being chastised publicly by the prime minister.
Ontario Premier Doug Ford already has publicly warned the prime minister against trying to assume provincial authority. And it’s fair to assume that politicians and citizens in places like Alberta and Saskatchewan would be even less inclined to welcome anything that looked like Justin Trudeau telling them what to do.
There has been a scramble for tidy answers in and around the House of Commons lately. After being briefed on Thursday about the latest modelling, Conservative leader Erin O’Toole — whose position presumably is complicated by the fact that several of the provinces struggling the most to contain COVID-19 are led by conservative governments — released a statement that revived his party’s claim that federal regulators should have moved faster to approve new rapid tests, and that the current spread of COVID-19 can be somehow blamed on a lack of such testing.
O’Toole also criticized the Trudeau government for not yet explaining how a vaccine will be distributed (though the arrival of a vaccine is likely still months away) and called on the federal government to provide more timely information about regional outbreaks (though municipal and provincial governments have the most direct control over such data).
NDP leader Jagmeet Singh, meanwhile, called on the federal government to take over management of a chain of long-term care centres that is owned by the Public Sector Pension Investment Board, a federal Crown corporation.
As one epidemiologist suggested earlier this week, jurisdictional realities do not prevent a prime minister from seizing the bully pulpit that comes with his office.
The release of the new national data this morning set the stage for Trudeau’s appearance at Rideau Cottage. Every slide of the presentation was bleak, culminating in a chart that showed how much worse things could get. The heading on one page read: “Longer-range forecast indicates that a stronger response is needed now to slow the spread of COVID-19.” Another page showed “rapid growth” occurring in each of the six provinces outside the Atlantic Bubble.
Providing cover for the premiers
Two hours later, Trudeau stepped forward to attempt to commiserate, cajole, warn and motivate.
Even if the prime minister can’t tell other levels of government to take action, he can help clear space for his provincial counterparts to act. With scary new projections hanging over everything, Trudeau empathized with premiers and mayors who were making the “very tough choices” to re-impose restrictions on public activity and he made the case for those decisions. “The best way to protect the economy is to get the virus under control,” Trudeau said.
WATCH: Trudeau pleads with Canadians to protect front-line workers
Showing as much emotion as he ever has when addressing the public, Trudeau singled out the efforts of front line workers. “They have been heroes. they have been going above and beyond anything they might have thought they were signing up for,” he said. “We need to help them. We need to give them a break. We need to stop this spike in cases.”
He beseeched Canadians to download the COVID Alert App and he tried to make the pandemic personal. “Every person that we lose to this virus is someone just like you who had a family and friends who love them, who had plans for tomorrow and things they still wanted to do,” he said.
Ottawa’s best tool is still money
He was asked whether he was calling for a national lockdown. “No I’m not,” he said. “I am using my voice and my position as prime minister to talk to all Canadians to tell them that we’re in a serious situation … And while I say that, I also am reminding people of the federal government’s promise to people that we would have your backs.”
If there is a lever Trudeau can pull to make it easier for provinces and municipalities to implement the restrictions necessary to limit the spread of COVID-19, it might be in those direct supports to individuals and businesses that the federal government has rolled out, in various forms, over the last nine months.
Speaking to reporters after Trudeau, Singh expressed a general concern that current support programs aren’t sufficient. The federal government has provided $214 billion in such aid, but its resources have not been exhausted and if there is something more that the Trudeau government can do to help people hunker down in the weeks and months ahead, that might be where the discussion needs to go next — at least at the federal level.
Near the end of his prepared remarks, Trudeau indicated that he would be back in front of Rideau Cottage on Monday — signalling a possible return to the daily appearances that he kept up through much of the early spring.
“In the coming days, I’ll be working from home as much as possible and I’ll be addressing you again from these steps next week,” he said. “Now is the time for each of us to once again rise to the occasion and do our part.”
In the ninth month of this pandemic, the extent of a prime minister’s role in responding to the crisis — and Trudeau’s ability to rise to the occasion — are being tested again.