Prime Minister Justin Trudeau returns to Rideau Cottage following a news conference in Ottawa, Friday December 18, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld

Pandemic forced Trudeau back to centre stage, improved his political fortunes

OTTAWA — Justin Trudeau always knew 2020 was going to be a difficult year, his first leading a minority Liberal government dependent on opposition party support for its survival.

But that’s turned out to be the least of the prime minister’s worries as the country has lurched from one crisis to another.

It started in early January with the deaths of dozens of Canadians whose plane was shot down by Iranian missiles and it’s ending with the country still in the grip of a deadly pandemic that has killed more than 14,000, left the economy in tatters and sent the federal deficit into the stratosphere.

Not exactly what Trudeau envisioned when he sat down for a year-end interview 12 months ago.

Chastened by his failure to win a second majority a couple of months earlier, Trudeau told The Canadian Press that he intended to take a lower-profile, more businesslike approach in 2020, focusing on the concrete things his government was doing to “make life better for Canadians.”

There has been nothing businesslike about 2020, certainly not any semblance of business as usual for Trudeau’s government.

It was rocked early on by the Ukraine International Airlines disaster and then by weeks of protests and blockades over a pipeline across traditional Wet’suwet’en First Nation territory that threatened to disrupt the economy and derail Trudeau’s vaunted goal of reconciliation with Indigenous Peoples.

And then COVID-19 swept across Canada in mid-March, forcing the country into lockdown. Keeping a low profile was not an option for Trudeau as his government scrambled to curb the spread of the deadly coronavirus and contain the economic fallout.

Throughout the spring, Trudeau conducted daily pandemic briefings in front of his Ottawa home, Rideau Cottage.

After a bit of a break over the summer, he’s been back doing at least two briefings a week since the second wave of the pandemic began sweeping the country in September.

“It was my responsibility to reassure people, but also to show them that we were there to help them, to give them confidence, to inform them of what was happening,” Trudeau said during a year-end interview with The Canadian Press last week.

Trudeau stuck to one part of his 2019 year-end plan: remaining focused on the programs intended to make Canadians’ lives better. Indeed, the pandemic made that an imperative, in ways he could never have imagined a year ago.

“We all know a little bit more now but in those first weeks, people had so many questions about what it means, what it would mean for them, for their life, for their career, for their work,” Trudeau said.

“I certainly didn’t have all the answers to all of their questions, but I knew I could show them that their government was 100 per cent focused on them.”

His government threw billions into hastily crafted emergency aid programs to keep Canadians afloat as businesses shuttered and millions were tossed out of work. Those programs or variations on them are set to continue until next summer with the deficit forecast to soar to nearly $400 billion.

Navigating the pandemic “is unlike anything else I’ve had to do,” Trudeau said last week during a chat with Montreal radio host and old friend Terry DiMonte.

Having to make “weighty decisions” goes with the job of prime minister, but he noted, “It’s not all that often it’s life and death decisions.”

Indeed, historian Robert Bothwell says not since the Second World War has a prime minister borne the weight of so much direct responsibility for the lives, and livelihoods, of Canadians.

Trudeau’s vow to continue spending whatever it takes to see the country through the pandemic reminds Bothwell of the approach C.D. Howe, then munitions and supply minister, took to mobilize Canada for war in 1940.

Questioned about the massive cost of setting up factories to produce aircraft and munitions, Bothwell says Howe reportedly said something along the lines of: “If we lose, what does it matter and if we win, nobody will remember it.”

“There was no ceiling on the amount of money they could spend,” Bothwell says. “I think that’s very similar to what Trudeau and company were doing back in the spring, just taking the lid off the budget and abandoning all the ordinary constraints.”

Historically, Bothwell says the billions in emergency aid Trudeau’s government has shovelled out the door is “plainly the most daring thing that we’ve done budgetarily probably in the last 75 years, since World War II came to an end.”

For now at least, that daring is paying off for Trudeau politically.

Opinion polls suggest overwhelming approval of his government’s handling of the health crisis, boosting support for Trudeau’s Liberals in the process.

Briefly last spring, Liberal support shot up to about 40 per cent, roughly the level needed to recapture a majority. But that dipped in the midst of controversy last summer over the government’s decision to pay WE Charity $43.5 million to manage a student services grant program, despite the organization’s close ties to Trudeau and his family.

Still, the Liberals are ending the year four or five points ahead of the Conservatives — an improvement over last fall’s election.

“Despite how challenging a year it’s been for people and how much anxiety it’s created, I think there’s more goodwill for the government today than when this all started,” says Abacus Data CEO David Coletto.

At no point in 2020 was the survival of Trudeau’s minority government ever in serious doubt. Opposition parties largely co-operated in speedily approving emergency aid programs, not wanting to be seen standing in the way of financial support or triggering an election in the midst of a pandemic.

But the initial spirit of collaboration that prevailed at the outset of the pandemic had largely evaporated by year’s end and the coming 2021 budget, promising more historic spending to stimulate economic recovery, could well tip the country into an election.

Coletto detects little appetite at the moment for austerity but he sees some potential for Conservative gains if the Liberals fail to reassure Canadians that they have a long-term plan to get the country back on a more sustainable fiscal track. And he sees some potential for NDP gains on the issue of federal funding for health care.

But ultimately, he says, elections are “80 per cent about character and who do we just feel good about.”

And in that respect, Coletto says, “I just think the prime minister comes out of this crisis in a stronger position. I think he demonstrated a sense of maturity and strength to people and that’s been reassuring.

“Whether that’s what they want going forward, I suspect it is because we’re heading into an even more challenging period.”