Opinion: Those masks are proving useful

Canada’s own Dominic LeBlanc was way out front in the debate over politicians wearing masks.

Last November, LeBlanc was wearing a surgical mask when he showed up at Rideau Hall to be sworn into his new cabinet job in Justin Trudeau’s government.

It was an arresting sight and now, in retrospect, an eerie foreshadowing of what 2020 would bring to Canada and the world.

The pandemic wasn’t even a blip on the radar at that point — LeBlanc was wearing the mask in November to protect his fragile immune system after receiving a stem-cell transplant as treatment for non-Hodgkins’ lymphoma.

But LeBlanc’s mask blazed a trail in politics nonetheless. Last week, Trudeau himself put on a mask to attend ceremonies in Trenton, Ont., in honour of fallen Canadian Forces soldiers, in his first official foray outside the national capital region since March.

In choosing to wear a mask, Trudeau became part of a growing league of politicians covering their faces in public — Donald Trump being a notable, and controversial exception.

As an analysis by The Associated Press noted last week, “While not yet as loaded as a ‘Make America Great Again’ hat, the mask is increasingly a visual shorthand for the debate pitting those willing to follow health officials’ guidance and cover their faces against those who feel it violates their freedom or buys into a threat they think is overblown.”

Trump so far is in the no-mask camp, although his Secret Service detail was ordered on Monday to wear masks after two White House officials tested positive for coronavirus.

The president even refused to cover his face when paying an official visit last week to an Arizona factory that made masks, though Trump did say later he’d been wearing one “backstage.”

Mask-wearing has become, like everything else in the United States, a polarizing issue. One poll showed that Democrats were more likely than Republicans to wear masks when leaving their homes during the crisis — 76 per cent of Democrats favouring masks compared with 59 per cent for Republicans.

Chalk up another way in which pandemic culture is exposing differences between Trump and Trudeau, and our two countries.

Here in Canada, it’s not that hot a political issue — at least, not yet. The advice has been evolving throughout this crisis, with public health officers such as Dr. Theresa Tam saying masks weren’t necessary, then urging they be worn in situations in which physical distancing and other measures aren’t available.

According to officials in the Prime Minister’s Office, Trudeau now has his own supply of masks to use whenever necessary.

No word on whether they will have some custom branding, such as the one French President Emmanuel Macron recently wore, which was blue to match his suit and sported a French-flag label.

My bet is that Trudeau will stick to something sober and generic, in keeping with the more serious presence he’s been trying to convey since the election. Masks won’t become the new socks.

For ordinary citizens, it’s not yet clear how much masks will become part of everyday culture in the gradual reopening plans now under way across Canada.

Should they become commonplace on transit or in the workplace, it seems only a matter of time before we’ll have to get used to our politicians wearing them, too — Trudeau, premiers, ordinary MPs and ministers. The sight will be jarring initially, just as it was when LeBlanc strolled into Rideau Hall last November.

Previous face-covering debates have been fraught and polarizing in Canada, where we’ve seen some ugly controversies over whether veils can be worn in the voting booth, at citizenship ceremonies or pretty much anywhere in Quebec.

The irony has been noted. “We are all niqabis now: Coronavirus masks reveal hypocrisy of face covering bans,” read the headline on a recent column by University of Toronto lecturer Katherine Bullock on the website The Conversation.

Agreed. Who wouldn’t like to see some of the most vocal opponents of the niqab wearing a medical mask right now — especially all those who called face-covering an “insult” to Canadian culture? Sometimes, that COVID-19 virus carries karma, too.

There’s another advantage to wearing a mask in formal, government settings, as LeBlanc reportedly discovered during the swearing-in ceremonies.

LeBlanc, a childhood friend of the prime minister who is well known for his sense of humour, apparently kept up a steady stream of whispered wisecracks while his colleagues were filing up one by one to take their oaths.

The ministers sitting beside him had to struggle to keep straight faces, while LeBlanc’s cheeky grin remained discreetly covered.

So not only do masks prevent the spread of the virus, they also make it easier to laugh in public, political spaces.

After two months of lockdown, it seems like we could all use that.

Susan Delacourt is a columnist with Torstar Syndication Services.

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