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COVID-19 is a catalyst for change as much as a crisis

This article originally appeared in the Toronto Star on March 29, 2020.

Responding to the events of the past few weeks, Canadians have proven their remarkable capacity for compassion, understanding and sacrifice. As the impact of COVID-19 has set in around the world, here at home our governments, businesses and fellow citizens have, for the most part, set out in earnest to do the right, Canadian thing.

In Ottawa, that’s meant an $112-billion bailout package passed with multi-party co-operation, albeit with a few tactical hiccups along the way. For provincial and territorial governments, it has meant ramping up expert medical briefings and passing legislative relief of their own. For each of us, doing the right thing has meant self-isolation, staying at home and appreciating the very real sacrifices made by health-care professionals and front-line workers.

As I wrote in this column last week, Canadians can rightfully take some comfort in the serious and responsible approach of their political leaders, who continue to demonstrate their resolve to bolster our capacity for recovery: medical and economic.

But the reality is, the upheaval caused by COVID-19 will go well beyond its medical and economic impact. Comparable more to the events of 1918 than the 2008 recession, this pandemic will upend the status quo for every country, every sector and every walk of life. So, while we, of course, need to focus on our near-term response to the quakes and tremors of this crisis, we are damned if we ignore the various tectonic-like shifts that are taking place well beneath our feet.

Before this outbreak, the past decade was marked by a transformative redefinition of issues like income inequality, tax fairness, political freedom and the purpose of the corporation.

Consider the Occupy movement, which followed the financial bailouts of the 2008 recession. While it has faded, its underlying principles and impulses live on in movements like France’s gilets jaunes and the wave of populism that has since swept Western politics.

Similarly unprecedented protests for democracy in places like Hong Kong, Lebanon and India have abated in recent months as now 10 per cent of the world has been ushered into quarantine.

As for discussions of the role of the corporation and ESG (environment, social and governance) considerations, these will no doubt take a back seat to companies’ bottom lines as COVID-19 wreaks havoc on the global economy.

But to think of these phenomena as trends that will simply “pause” while this crisis plays out, only to resume after the fact in the same form and with the same velocity, is simply incorrect. Each of these issues is a log in a fire on which this pandemic has been poured like an accelerant. Rather, what is correct is that they will return more disruptive and ferocious than ever.

On an individual level, this health crisis is not equally trying on every household, as exemplified by social media outrage over wealthy individuals’ ability to seemingly jump the queue for testing kits. Even the embrace of crucial work and study from home initiatives belies the tragic reality that for many employees and students, home is not a safe or comfortable work environment.

COVID-19 has not only revealed and exacerbated these inequities, it has ensured there will be real and lasting fissures in civil society as well. It has become impossible for us to return to the norms and social order we have enjoyed for so long.

The fact is, once this is done, major corporations and wealthy people will be viewed very differently. Just as we saw in 2008, that mistrust and sense of inequality will be compounded by the very responses that governments now deem essential to our recovery.

And so, governments and business must realize the playing field has changed. Entirely. With that change must come a response that acknowledges the world looks very different. That means not just fiddling around the edges or making incremental improvements but an entirely new response.

And there is more. Government and business leaders must understand they will be judged by how they acted in this time of crisis.

If we don’t address the fault lines exposed by this pandemic, the aftershocks will prove even more damaging than the quake.

Biden our Time

This week on the “Biden our Time” edition of Political Traction, Amanda reaches this week’s insider, Nelson Cunningham, in Washington D.C. A political strategist and advisor, who formerly worked for vice-president Joe Biden and served on the Obama-Biden transition team, Nelson will unpack the United States’ response to the coronavirus and highlight its impact on the race for the White House. Plus, thoughts on the best Joe Biden memories and the sports we miss most.

Doug Ford has risen to the coronavirus challenge

This article first appeared in the Toronto Star on March 22, 2020.

As the spread of COVID-19 has utterly transformed life as we know it, it has also emerged as the most profound test of political leadership in a generation or more.

Of course, the pandemic is, first and foremost, a health crisis. In the global response, doctors and public health authorities have been foregrounded, and rightfully so. But it is also a crisis of public confidence and so it is appropriate to look at the crisis through the lens of the political leadership as well.

In the United Kingdom, Prime Minister Boris Johnson, having gotten Brexit done, now faces an even greater challenge. He has been forced to pivot from an initial anachronistic approach of herd immunity (i.e., letting the virus run amok) to proper suppression and mitigation efforts as in the rest of the world.

Meanwhile, in Ireland, Taoiseach Leo Varadkar was voted out of office last month, but while a new government has been unable to form, the former doctor-turned-politician has, quite literally, risen to the role of caretaker government. On St. Patrick’s Day, he delivered a national address that marked the high watermark of his premiership.

The pandemic has forced Angela Merkel, long averse to televised displays of leadership, into doing precisely that. And in so doing proving why she continues to be primus inter pares among world leaders.

As for Donald Trump, there is only one word: disaster.

Here at home, Canadian leaders, at all orders of government, have acted on the advice of scientists, doctors and public health experts, as they bloody well should. And for that we can, as a people, be grateful.

From Prime Minister Trudeau to our premiers and mayors, the performances of our leaders have been commendable.

But perhaps the biggest success has been the commanding performance of Ontario Premier Doug Ford. It was not even two weeks ago that Ford was embroiled in a kerfuffle over manufacturing defects with new provincial licence plates; today, it seems hard to imagine a scandal with smaller stakes. And a protracted dispute with the teacher’s unions had dragged his government’s approval rating underwater. Now, in his daily briefings about the province’s response to COVID-19, he is modelling leadership in real time.

As the crisis has deepened, Ford is exemplifying the tenets of good crisis communication. He has been transparent and forthcoming, hosting daily briefings which may seem routine, but are in fact distinguished by attention to small details.

The premier begins promptly on time, wearing a suit and tie. He has been honest and plainspoken about the scale and severity of the challenge before us. He has delegated and empowered his bench of ministers, including Deputy Premier and Health Minister Christine Elliott and Finance Minister Rod Phillips. He has put aside partisan considerations.

He is working hand in hand with his federal counterparts. And, for a man whose political career has been defined by animosity towards the mainstream media, this week’s explicit recognition of their essential role marked a turning point.

The premier has consistently struck the right tone in these briefings and in his other public comments, tempering the flow of essential information with genuine compassion. If there has been one misstep, it was his comment that families should go away for March Break and “have a good time.”

But as even his predecessor and opponent Kathleen Wynne noted, this rare, off-message comment can be chalked up to a surplus of empathy. “He was trying to do that out of the goodnesss of his heart,” the former premier told Newstalk 1010. “I could hear it in his voice, he was trying to calm the waters.”

In the past, Ontarians have been quick to recognize and reward leadership during a crisis. Former premier Ernie Eves’ approval jumped after he confronted the SARS epidemic in 2003. Premier Ford might come to enjoy the same.

There are uncertain times ahead, to be sure. Scientists tell us that no one knows how long this crisis may last or how severe its consequences might be. But, today, Ontarians can take solace in the actions and behaviour they have seen to date from the premier.

Such leadership has saved lives.

In CPC leadership race, one candidate stoops to a new low

This article originally appeared in the Toronto Star on March 15, 2020.

I was disappointed this week to learn that one candidate in the race for the Conservative Party of Canada leadership had stooped to a new low by besmirching the name of an opponent while hoisting the standard of racism and Islamophobia.

If you’re unfamiliar with the name Jim Karahalios, you could be forgiven. After all, the Cambridge, Ont.-based troublemaker is best known for his Axe the Carbon Tax campaign and his legal disputes with the Ontario PC party. In other words, he is a nonentity in a race which will almost certainly come down to the two leading candidates: Erin O’Toole and Peter MacKay.

So it is perhaps unsurprising that Karahalios is relying on name-calling to draw attention to his otherwise lamentable campaign. Last weekend, Karahalios’s team distributed an email attacking O’Toole and accusing O’Toole’s volunteer campaign co-chair of advocating for the implementation of Sharia law in Canada.

Karahalios’s decision to attack O’Toole co-chair Walied Soliman was not just desperate and inappropriate, but also bizarre. For context, Soliman is a long-time party activist and fundraiser. He is widely liked and respected. Further, not only is he chair of the Canadian arm of Norton Rose Fulbright, one of the largest and most successful law firms in the world, he has served as their global chair as well.

Soliman has consistently been ranked as one of the country’s top lawyers, serves on the board of Toronto’s SickKids Hospital Foundation, and just months ago was recognized by the United Nations Association in Canada as its 2019 Global Citizen Laureate. His accolades speak for themselves, as does his long record of generosity and service.

But that’s beside the point.

Karahalios’s xenophobic attack is a reminder of the unfortunate reality that even with a reputation like Soliman’s, Canadian Muslims face uniquely vicious scrutiny for their faith.

I say his record is beside the point because it simply shouldn’t matter how successful or charitable an individual is. Like every other Canadian — Jewish, Christian, atheist or otherwise — their belief (or lack thereof) should be a matter for them, their family and their community. It most certainly should not be a political football to be lobbed in order to undercut the legitimacy of an opponent’s campaign.

In a country like Canada, which prides itself on the secularism of its public sphere, we cannot lose sight of the lived experience of those who face prejudice for their faith. Even as other barometers of social progress like the status of women and acceptance of homosexuality have moved in the right direction, religious tolerance remains a work-in-progress.

It’s easy to forget that just a few decades ago, some of Canada’s largest cities were essentially segregated along lines of faith: Catholics lived in certain neighbourhoods, while Protestant and Jewish families lived elsewhere. While that reality has changed, attitudes toward religious diversity can still be problematic.

Think of Quebec’s Bill 21, which essentially bans all religious symbols from the public sector. Not only does it send a frightening message to Muslims and other religious groups, it sows the potential for social discord.

Consider the example of a veiled woman boarding public transit. Thanks to the specifics of the law, a bus driver or transit employee is now entitled to ask her to verify her identity by removing her covering. Beyond the humiliating nature of such a request, it goes against the principle of individual liberty that a public employee should be empowered to discriminate based on someone’s clothing or religious observance.

At a time when Canadians are as divided as ever along lines of geography, class and political affiliation, it’s incumbent on our leaders to face down divisive language about religion and faith, loudly and definitively condemning nonsense from the likes of Jim Karahalios.

As with the homophobic views of Richard Décarie, I look forward to Karahalios’s realization that his opinions will find no home in the Conservative party or in Canada at all, for that matter. With two weeks to go until the next leadership race qualification deadline of March 25, with a bit of luck he will not have to wait very long to learn his lesson.


This week, on the Pandemic edition of Political Traction, host Amanda Galbraith speaks to Navigator’s Executive Chairman Jaime Watt from the comfort of their homes to unpack how COVID-19 has changed life as we know it. Navigator is in the business of crisis management, and in critical times like these, Jaime provides his insights about what good leadership looks like and what companies can do to confront sweeping social changes. Plus, thoughts on the Prime Minister’s COVID-19 aid package and the best self-isolation Netflix shows to binge.