Opinion: Unlike in the U.S., Canada’s leaders’ health is a mystery

Donald Trump would never trade jobs with Justin Trudeau, but right now, the U.S. president might opt for Canadian-style privacy around the health of political leaders.

The U.S. is currently awash in contradictory reports on just how badly Trump has been hit by COVID-19. The actual details may conflict, but they are at least details — the type that would likely not be disclosed in Canada about any political leader.

Trudeau, in fact, only revealed on Monday that he had been tested for COVID-19 a month ago and did a brief time in self-isolation because he had a “raspy” throat and his doctor recommended that the prime minister get checked out.

As well, it was only a couple of weeks ago when Canadians learned that members of Parliament had a separate COVID-19 testing system available to them — and only after Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole stood in a public lineup first.

Canada may be in a public-health crisis, but there is nothing really public about the health of our politicians, even in the age of COVID-19. So far, Canadians seem fine with this distinction, some even proud of it.

This contrast between Canadian and American standards surrounding political leaders’ health was hard to ignore this past weekend with all the Trump drama unfolding south of the border.

Journalists and political commentators in the U.S. fumed that they were not being told enough; that Trump owed Americans every scrap of medical data available.

To some extent, Trump’s doctors obliged that outrage, emerging from the hospital to clarify the sketchy information they initially provided.

Here in Canada, even that first, vague report from the Trump doctors went well past the standards of health disclosure. Then again, Canada is also a country that does not expect political leaders to make public their tax returns or even their detailed daily itineraries.

The none-of-our-business policy stretches past medical issues.

On Saturday, for instance, while Americans were trying to find out blood oxygen levels from Trump’s doctors, Canadians knew only that their prime minister was in “private meetings.”

Trudeau, to be fair, is the first Canadian prime minister to issue any kind of daily itinerary to reporters and the public, but it’s usually extremely light on details, especially in comparison to the itinerary that comes out of the White House.

In the U.S., reporters know when, how and where Trump is spending his days off (usually on the golf course), but Canadian media is normally notified with one word — “personal” — that Trudeau is not on the job that day.

When I made the observation on Twitter this past weekend about the different standards for health disclosure in Canada and the United States, various theories were offered: It’s the difference between a republic and a parliamentary democracy, or the fact the president, unlike the prime minister, can trigger a nuclear war.

Actually, the difference is rooted simply in two different political cultures. Americans, and particularly the U.S. media, basically expect a much greater degree of openness from political office holders.

Stephen Harper was annoyed when the media learned about a visit to the emergency room shortly before he was sworn in as prime minister in 2006; Jean Chretien disappeared for a while when he was Opposition leader in 1992 to have an operation on his lung.

Neither leader said more than the bare minimum about these medical dramas.

The closest Canada came to debating the lack of transparency here was in 2011, when New Democratic Party leader Jack Layton, after battling cancer, went into an election campaign brandishing a cane to deal with a broken hip.

Layton died several months after that election, prompting a large discussion about whether enough hard questions were asked and answered about his fitness to run for the prime minister’s job.

One of the most thorough analyses of how Canadians deal with politicians and their health was done by Radio-Canada journalist Catherine Lanthier, in an investigation that also was a master’s thesis submitted to Carleton University in 2013.

Seven years later, it’s still an enlightening exploration of the questions around whether Canada wants to be more American in what citizens are allowed to know about the health of our politicians.

Lanthier talked to many experts about how we could be more transparent here without going wide-open American style — requirements that office holders privately file their medical-health data with someone like an ethics commissioner, for instance.

Trump is no poster boy for political transparency, but his COVID-19 diagnosis has shown that even the most powerful leaders owe the public some assurances about their fitness for office — healthwise, anyway.

Canada’s none-of-our-business approach seems almost quaint in the age of COVID-19, when politicians are not just human beings, but potential superspreaders, too.

Susan Delacourt is a columnist with Torstar Syndication Services.


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