Pandemic means premiers are no longer in limelight

The ‘resistance’ isn’t exactly futile, but it isn’t Trudeau’s biggest problem any more

In the olden days, before the pandemic, the four men sitting behind a long table in an Ottawa hotel on Friday represented Justin Trudeau’s biggest problem — the “real” opposition.

Ontario Premier Doug Ford, Alberta Premier Jason Kenney, Quebec Premier Francois Legault and Manitoba Premier Brian Pallister were in Canada’s capital to remind the prime minister that neither they nor their demands have gone away.

But Trudeau was busy with opposition closer to home, talking to the Conservative and New Democratic Party leaders who have the power to blow up the Liberal minority government if they don’t like what they see in this week’s speech from the throne.

Time and a pandemic have changed the face of Trudeau’s major opposition, at least for now. He has a new Conservative leader, Erin O’Toole, keen to take him on, and an NDP caucus to appease for any hope of surviving a confidence vote in the weeks ahead.

Six months ago, the conservative politicians who posed on that now-famous cover of Maclean’s magazine as “the resistance” were the clear and present danger to Trudeau getting anything done in this country.

Ford, Kenney and Pallister were among that lineup of blue-suited resisters.

On Friday, they presented themselves as fellow nation-builders and COVID-19 fighters, in Ottawa not to confront Trudeau, but rather, to haunt him.

Ford, who has spent more time than any of the other premiers cultivating a very friendly relationship with Trudeau’s government during the pandemic — and Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland, in particular — insisted he wasn’t in the capital to play politics or administer a “knock” against anyone.

Kenney, who has taken many pokes at Trudeau’s intelligence and political bent over the years, kept the gloves on, saying at one point that he realized he sounded more like an accounting teacher than an angry premier.

(He was explaining how Alberta has been hurt by the equalization formula he wants Trudeau to fix.)

The old “resistance” is a more mellow lot than it was in the heady days when we thought that 2020 would be the year of the national-unity crisis. Compared to COVID-19, a fragmented and polarized nation now looks like a walk in the park.

Friday was the day that the coronavirus was officially declared to be on the rise again in Ottawa and the premiers arrived in the city with a second wave of their own.

The same demand they intended to press at a planned first ministers’ meeting in March — scrapped when the pandemic was declared that very week — is back, with a vengeance.

Canada’s provinces and territories want a lot more money for health care: roughly $70 billion annually in this latest calculation of their needs.

They are not going to get that money this week. Though their appearance in Ottawa was timed to showcase the demand in advance of Trudeau’s big speech from the throne Wednesday, the federal government has already said it will discuss the demand for more health-care money at some meeting farther down the road.

Intergovernmental Affairs Minister Dominic LeBlanc said, amiably enough, that the demand wasn’t a surprise, but he had hoped the premiers had come to town to talk about something more urgent and COVID-19-related.

LeBlanc’s entire reply to the premiers was the equivalent of those auto replies on the phone: “Please hold, your call is very important.”

The premiers argued at their news conference that a pandemic is a perfect time to talk about health-care needs.

“Nothing is more important,” Ford said, and it’s hard to argue with that. But the federal government, essentially, said that it is paying the lion’s share of pandemic-related health costs for the provinces at present, and this is where everyone’s sights ought to be aimed.

What this means is that the premiers are going to be disappointed when Trudeau’s government unveils its blueprint this week for governing through and past the pandemic.

On this, they will be united with the green advocates and environmentalists, who have also been told in no uncertain terms that COVID-19’s resurgence has put the brakes on any ambitious “build back better” dreams.

The storied Chateau Laurier hotel was the scene for Friday’s news conference of four of Canada’s leading premiers. It has seen a lot of history over the years and many momentous political events.

The quiet, polite news conference by Ford, Kenney, Legault and Pallister probably won’t be remembered as one of them, but it was a reminder of a more recent history that has been transformed by the pandemic.

The “resistance” isn’t exactly futile, but it isn’t Trudeau’s biggest problem any more.

Susan Delacourt is a columnist for Torstar Syndication Services.

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