Lauren Dobson-Hughes: Are we actually a country?

We either consider ourselves an effective country and invest accordingly, or we lower our ambitions and accept the consequences.

By: Lauren Dobson-Hughes

Once upon a time, there was a fairytale castle with soaring turrets and gabled windows. The castle had long been undergoing renovations, so the owners draped the scaffolding with trompe l’oeil cloths — fabric imprinted with the image of the historical building beneath, to maintain an impression of the beauty hidden below.

From the cloth, you imagined the castle must be stunning. And yet behind the façade, it is crumbling. Its walls are mold-ridden, and the floors are rotten. The scaffolding props up a shell.

This metaphor has come to represent the way I’ve come to think about Canada since this pandemic began. As a country, we are so fixated on the mythology we project out to others — the trompe l’oeil cloth — that we’ve allowed the actual capacities, systems and structures of our country to crumble.

The first inkling came early in the pandemic. As COVID-19 numbers rose, it was revealed that the Public Health Agency of Canada did not have nationwide case numbers. This piece delves further, but “Ottawa does not have automatic access to data in [provincial and territorial] systems.” Provinces were sending daily case numbers to Ottawa on paper. This is one small example, but a revealing one. In fact, we lack a nationwide public-health system at all. And as the auditor-general’s report showed, we also lack the knowledge and expertise — the skilled people — to manage crises like this, too.

Then came protracted discussions about financial support for Canadians affected by lockdowns. The debate was not about whether Canadians deserved help — it was that Canada’s financial systems are so outdated and disjointed, that we literally could not work out how to get money from the federal government into bank accounts. It shouldn’t be this complex. In a functioning country, the central revenue agency should be able to transfer money to people without task forces of bureaucrats and experts, the establishment of new IT systems, and McGyvering an assortment of existing programs.

The final penny landed with vaccine procurement. Politicians weren’t straightforward with us: Canada is middle of the line for global vaccine supply. But they told Canadians we should be first in line (prompting other politicians to claim that we were in fact, at the very back of the line, which seriously? Try being Mali and get back to me).

Of all 198 countries in the world, Canada should be first in line for the single hottest global commodity? For the love of every single Timbit in the country, why?

Was it our oversized purchasing power? (We have none.) Our willingness to pay far beyond market price? (We weren’t.) Because we are dominant as a consumer of global pharmaceutical products? (We are not.) Or is it ... because we’re really nice and have this awfully outdated impression of our importance on the global scene? (Bingo!) There is no rational measure by which Canada ought to come first.

The list it goes on — the chaotic vaccine roll-out, the fractured public communications, the devolving of responsibilities to the very most local level with little overarching purpose or even organization. All of it marked by disjointed, outdated systems, lack of skills and know-how, and no overall goal or narrative. We need to face it — we have allowed our nation to crumble from the inside, while holding tight to the mythology that we’re an effective, functioning country.

At this point, I feel the need for a disclaimer that I love Canada. But loving a country also means being honest. We should never get high on our own own flag-covered, syrup-scented supply.

I often hear politicians note we’re a G7 nation. This serves two functions; either it’s intended to assert our own importance in a way that downplays our problems, or it’s to rank us to other jurisdictions as if we are comparable to them. During this pandemic, we lament our performance in comparison to countries entirely out of our league (ie; the U.K. on vaccine manufacturing). Or we smugly sniff at others to excuse our own poor performance (ie; the U.S.’s COVID-19 death toll).

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What we don’t do is measure ourselves against how we should perform. Are we doing the best we can to address the challenges we have as a country? I’d argue the challenges we’ve faced in the pandemic were entirely predictable. We didn’t have the capacity to tackle them. But it doesn’t have to be this way — the choice not to invest or maintain the capacities was exactly that — a choice.

And let’s be honest, we are an accidental G7 nation. We maintain that honorific because we were originally invited to serve as a North American ally to back the U.S. against a European-dominated bloc. We have been sheltered for a long time by our undeserved but privileged position next to the US, which has allowed us to coast economically, culturally and militarily. We send a lot of talent into key global positions, and we have seats at tables other similar countries could only dream of. In many ways, this geopolitical coasting has worked out. Our mediocrity hasn’t cost us much. The stakes haven’t been high enough. In a peaceful, prosperous world, sharing assets and protection is smart strategy — that is, until we have to face a big problem all by ourselves.

The idea of developing nationwide capacities seems an anathema because we’ve been unwilling to engage in a serious conversation about what kind of country we want to be. It would require us to have an actual strategy for a future economy, or a clear foreign policy, or an industrial strategy — rather than a directionless, never-ending series of “national conversations” about them.

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Canada is terrified of ambition. Politicians don’t think they will succeed, so they don’t try. Consequently, bureaucracies aren’t equipped to deliver. And in not even considering them, we tell citizens that big ideas are impossible in Canada anyway.

Yes, reactive, short-term electoral thinking is baked into democratic politics, and the compromise of our political system doesn’t reward the bold, quick moves needed in a public-health crisis. But this problem does not exist to this extent in other countries. There are no key electoral demographics in swing seats demanding better back-end IT systems, yet other countries manage to establish them, for example.

Hard things are indeed hard, as the saying goes. They are also expensive, especially when you’ve let affairs decay for decades. But if we cannot fix the crumbling castle because it is too hard, then we need to right-size our understanding of ourselves. We cannot say we deserve to be at the top of global supply chains, or that we can protect ourselves in global health crises. We can’t expect the quality of life, or a say on what happens in an increasingly connected world, if we haven’t invested in the systems, capabilities or skillsets to deserve it.

The question that has repeatedly arisen for me in the last year is, “Are we an effective country or not?” Or are we merely an increasingly sclerotic incoherent jumble of devolved authorities with no overarching systems, direction or ambitions? We have a choice — we either consider ourselves an effective country and invest accordingly, or we lower our ambitions and accept the consequences.

Lauren Dobson-Hughes is a consultant specializing in gender, health and rights. She was previously executive director of an international development NGO, and past president of Planned Parenthood. Lauren worked for the late NDP leader Jack Layton.


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