Dispatch from the Front Line: Read this quick, before the PM bans us!

When your government is slow to ban flights from India and eager to erect a Great Canadian Internet Firewall.

Well, this week sure lasted a lifetime, Line readers. It’s exhausting. Your Line editors have been juggling quite a bit in recent weeks, on both the personal and professional sides, so be aware that this dispatch basically constitutes the very last drop of blood we could squeeze from the stone of our fritzing cranial computers.

Enjoy it, mainly, is what we’re saying. We insist.

You know what we don’t enjoy? Have any of you noticed how absolutely bent Canadians are on letting the perfect be the enemy of our COVID-policy good? Seriously. Your Line editors are optimists — we think we'll crush COVID underfoot in the coming months as vaccines keep flowing in. But we're still in a bit of a mess now, and need to get through it, particularly in Ontario (and we’re keeping wary eyes on a few other places, too). We are so close to the end of this mess that there is just no excuse for screwing it up now, and yet, at every opportunity, we seek out ways of doing exactly that.

Consider the recent "debate" over whether to ban flights from India, which has fallen into a nightmarish outbreak that may — may — be driven by a new dangerous variant. We don't know! We won't know for a while! We should still try to keep the variants out anyway!

This isn't rocket science, folks, and it's a good thing, too, because we'd never get off the launchpad. We are just a few short months away from reaching some functional degree of herd immunity, or at least having enough Canadians protected to blunt the worst outcomes of COVID — hospitalizations and deaths. We don't need to do much more than buy time, and not even very much time. But the mere notion of shutting down flights was immediately met with a bunch of "But that isn't perfect" objections that were ultimately overcome only yesterday when the government decided to ban flights from India for 30 days.

Yes, we know, most imported cases have come from the United States. But we can't do a whole fucking hell of a lot about that, because if we completely shut our border with the U.S., the only outstanding question is how long it would take us to starve. Shutting down flights from India will accomplish a lot less than hermetically sealing the U.S. border, but we can do the former without social collapse.

Gee, let us mull that one over for a minute. OK, we’ve decided: Cancel the damned flights.

And yes, we know that the worrying Indian variant is here already. But that's a really stupid reason to continue bringing in more potential spreaders. This is why the firefighters we send to battle wildfires don't casually ash their smokes out in local piles of dry grass, bundles of sun-bleached newspapers and stacked twigs — you don't go lighting small fires just because there's already a big one. Cancel the damned flights.

And yes, yes, we know — some people will just fly into Canada indirectly. They'll connect in Chicago and then fly into Toronto from there. Well, guess what? Every additional step will add is some extra layer of deterrent. We can't stop everyone, but we can stop some people. Cancel the damned flights.

Let's be honest: if we actually had a proper mandatory hard quarantine for air arrivals, we'd be much better off. We'd still have the U.S. border, true, but we probably could have at least slowed down the arrival of new variants in Canada, including the British variant that is currently kicking Ontari-ari-ario's ass. Proper quarantine for all arrivals would also have helped the government side-step thorny political questions about snowbirds and foreign governments that don't like getting singled out.

Alas, actual South Korean-style quarantine of all arrivals, regardless their citizenship or origin, is quite simply beyond our meagre competency. We wish it wasn’t! It’s bad that it is! But we live in the real world, and sometimes, the good is all you got. So your Line editors will happily accept the good of an Indian flight ban in place of the perfect of a moderately competent federal government enacting an entirely feasible real quarantine of air arrivals. It's thin gruel, but we'll chug it by the tin cup. And Canadians should too.

Oh, and a quick update on a file we at The Line have been watching. The revelations around the sexual misconduct scandal in the Canadian Armed Forces went full Maury Povich this week, when Gen. Jonathan Vance was accused of fathering two children of a subordinate officer, a development that can best be summarized in gif form:

You can check out that revelation here, but it wasn’t even the most dramatic part of this week’s developments: a senior member of the prime minister’s office confirmed during Parliamentary testimony that the prime minister’s chief of staff, Katie Telford, was directly informed of the allegations regarding Gen. (ret.) Vance. If you’re the PM, and especially if you’re Ms. Telford, shit just got awful real.

But, I mean, hey, we guess this statement will totally satisfy everyone’s questions and the matter will just drop, right? Right?

Meanwhile, we must give a nod to the ever-dauntless Colby Cosh, who had the audacity to note that the terrifying modelling that has worked much of Ontario into a state of panic have “already suffered an unfortunate rectal prolapse.” As bad as Ontario’s case numbers are — and they are bad — they aren’t as bad as its august Science Table predicted they would be. In fact, there are early indicators that the third wave is reaching its peak and beginning to crest weeks ahead of schedule.

And, before you ask, no: the miss can’t be attributed to strong public health measures. The current case rates are below the Science Table’s most optimistic predictions — the very ones that baked in 100K-per-day vaccination rates, and strong public health measures.

Now, noting that "the models were wrong” has grown into its own kind of morbid pastime in these parts, but this error is worth poking in particular for a few reasons. Firstly, so much of the terror Ontario is facing was a direct consequence of this particular presentation. And, hindsight being 20/20, there are a few things in those slides that should have raised questions several weeks ago; for example, “Strong” “Moderate” and “Weak” public health measures were never defined. The slides didn’t offer any insight into what mathematical or behavioural assumptions led to their conclusions — which means, there was no way to ascertain the quality of the meat that got got stuffed into the model, er, sausage.

Further, when these we can’t help but notice that when these predictions don’t pan out, nobody few people seem keen to own up and explain the error; instead, its progenitors double down, claim that they were right all along, and hope that no one outside their circle has the quant skills to spot the difference. (They’re mostly right.)

Here’s the problem; a model that can never be falsified isn’t science. A forecast that doesn’t communicate its degree of confidence or uncertainty in the result is suspect. And a prediction that can’t account for the mysteries of human behaviour, or the real-world outcomes of the virus itself, is almost useless as a tool of public policy.

None of this is intended to be dismissive of Ontario’s very real problems. As we write, more than 800 COVID-19 patients are in stretched ICUs; and while we’d put some money on the bet that this trend is going to plateau in coming days along with case rates, that figure is still high. Ontario is not out of the woods, so to speak.

But these models — at least as they have been displayed to the public — aren’t science. They’re communications, and communications intended to persuade politicians into making specific policy changes, and the rest of us into adopting particular behaviours at that. If we were less kind, we’d call them something else.

On an entirely unrelated note, there is no writerly wonk in all the land who pays more attention to the world of Internet and telecommunications regulation than Michael Geist, and so when he warns that the government is dickering with legislation in such a way that it can be construed as an “an unconscionable attack on the free expression rights of Canadians,” we ought to perk up.

Bill C-10, an Act to Amend the Broadcasting Act appears to be expanding the role of the CRTC as a regulator to encompass more of the content delivered via Internet. As Geist noted, the act previously excluded user-generated content, like videos uploaded to YouTube. However, as he reported on his blog, that exception is under threat with this bill, which raises the prospect of the CRTC gaining the power to regulate and potentially block user-generated content uploaded to social media.

To wit: “The government believes that it should regulate all user generated content, leaving it to regulator to determine on what terms and conditions will be attached the videos of millions of Canadians on sites like Youtube, Instagram, TikTok, and hundreds of other services.”

Geist wrote another excellent post worth reading this week, noting just how far this government has come on all matters Internet — from one that championed digital innovation, to a party that profoundly feared it. Now, under the leadership of Heritage Minister Steven Guilbeault, we see a government that seems keen to require “Internet providers to install blocking capabilities, create new regulators and content adjudicators to issue blocking orders, dispense with net neutrality, and build a Canadian Internet firewall.”

One of the most erudite defenders of the principles of freedom of expression, the late Christopher Hitchens, would frequently make this point to neuter the impulse towards censorship. “I have never met nor heard of anybody I would trust with the job of deciding in advance what it might be permissible for me or anyone else to say or read.”

The Liberals, apparently, do not seem to share this problem. They seem to be deeply confident in their own historically unique competency in this regard.

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Lastly, we at The Line have noted on previous dispatches the particular woes of the Toronto Star, which is notorious among Canadian media types for its particularly difficult — even hostile — newsroom dynamics.

This week, the paper’s health reporter Theresa Boyle spilled a little tea on her keyboard, to illustrate the point.

Round up:

  • Jen Gerson got us started on Monday with a follow-up to her Friday column, which didn’t quite fully purge all the hate from her heart. In the Monday addendum, she covers so many topics it’s kind of hard to snappily sum up here — so maybe just take our word for it and check it out if you missed it, mmkay?

  • Next up was Dionne Pohler, who said that all the fuss about Doug Ford’s refusal to enact some kind of paid-sick leave policy in Ontario was missing the point — there’s a better option available, she says. A universal basic income for low-wage workers. “Paid sick days legislation would mostly impact non-unionized workplaces and thus require a huge amount of government enforcement to ensure compliance, she wrote. “We had very little enforcement capacity of employment standards in Ontario even before the pandemic started, and the provincial government has even less capacity today.”

  • Daniel Tencer took over the next day, arguing that getting housing prices under control is an urgent necessity if Canada wants to stave off the kind of corrosive populism we’ve seen in the United States. “If [high prices] persists, we can expect to see a young generation of Canadians vent their rage as they realize they have been shut out of the middle-class dream their parents and grandparents took for granted,” Tencer warns. “Immigrants in the cities will discover that, here as in the old country, you will live forever in a small apartment no matter how much you work.”

  • On Thursday, the Rev. Dr. Cole Hartin added his thoughts to Ken Boessenkool’s recent column about GraceLife church’s public-health rebellion in Alberta. “To prioritize religious observance of a certain kind (whether monetary donations or gathering in large numbers) at the expense of the safety of one’s community is to risk becoming a religious fanatic, elevating tradition above the people whom God loves,” he wrote, and he even cited scripture. Who are we to argue with that?

  • Matt Gurney closed out the week for us, noting several major recent failures by Canadian political leadership during the COVID-19 pandemic, and also discussing Cold War-era nuclear warfare training scenarios, the Pearl Harbor attack, intelligence failures in the run-up to the Yom Kippur War, and the dispersal of key government personnel during the Sept. 11 terror strikes on the United States. There’s also a Ghostbusters reference. This column therefore ranks a solid eight out of 10 on the Gurney Scale, but is worth reading, trust us.

    “When [the pandemic] finally hit Canada,” Gurney said, despite many weeks of warning that it was coming, “it seemed like no one in authority, with a few very possible rare exceptions that largely prove the rule, had the slightest idea what they were supposed to be doing, the critical first steps that should have been taken immediately, or even what their ministries and agencies were (and were not!) capable of.”

    And that hasn’t really changed much, has it?

OK, beloved Line readers — we’re off to crack a beer and stare at a wall for a while while our brains decompress. Thanks, always and forever, for reading. We hope you have a wonderful weekend, and for those who are just free readers for now, it’s time to subscribe. You’ll feel better for it. We’ll feel better for it. Everyone wins!

The Line is Canada’s last, best hope for irreverent commentary. We reject bullshit. We love lively writing. Please consider supporting us by subscribing. Follow us on Twitter @the_lineca. Fight with us on Facebook. Pitch us something: lineeditor@protonmail.com