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First ministers’ meeting cancelled as prime minister self-isolates

Sophie Grégoire Trudeau delivers the closing remarks at Women Deliver 2019. Photo: Gerry Kahrmann/Postmedia
Sophie Grégoire Trudeau delivers the closing remarks at Women Deliver 2019. - Gerry Kahrmann


I suspect that there's a rising fear amongst the premiers, not just of the health implications, which are really important, but the budgetary implications for their own economies

- Don Desserud, political science professor

OTTAWA — With Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s wife testing positive for COVID-19, and concern rising about the virus’s spread in Canada, a first ministers’ meeting scheduled for Friday has been postponed.

The Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) announced Thursday afternoon that instead, the prime minister and deputy prime minister will speak with premiers over the phone, with the focus of being collective action to limit the spread of COVID-19 and keeping Canadians safe.

Trudeau’s wife, Sophie Grégoire Trudeau, began exhibiting mild flu-like symptoms, including a low fever, on Wednesday after returning from a speaking engagement in London, U.K. She has sought medical advice, is being tested for the virus and is self-isolating at home. The PMO says her symptoms have since subsided.

“The doctor’s advice to the prime minister is to continue daily activities while self-monitoring, given he is exhibiting no symptoms himself. However, out of an abundance of caution, the prime minister is opting to self-isolate and work from home until receiving Sophie’s results,” the PMO stated in a news release.

Rescheduling, cancelling

On Thursday, Indigenous leaders from the Assembly of First Nations, Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami and Metis National Council were scheduled to meet with the prime minister and Canada’s premiers, but that meeting was also postponed indefinitely. A call between the prime minister and Indigenous leaders on COVID-19 will take place on Friday. It’s not clear how many of the meeting’s intended participants had already travelled to Ottawa when the cancellation was announced.

Don Desserud
Don Desserud

University of P.E.I. political science professor Don Desserud said most of the work is done behind the scenes, so the cancellation of one day of meetings likely will not change the outcome of what happens next.

“These conferences are important, but an awful lot of it is for show. I don't think in the long term this will have any real impact,” Desserud said. “I think the message of caution is the right message to send and I’m glad we’re seeing leadership from the top.”

Though there haven’t been any directives from the federal government on the issue, many large-scale gatherings have been cancelled or postponed, and some jurisdictions are taking it upon themselves to issue broad directives about large events. 

On Thursday, Quebec Premier Francois Legault called for the cancellation of all indoor events attracting crowds of more than 250 people in the province and all other non-essential large gatherings. 

The NHL announced Thursday it has suspended the 2019-20 season due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The 2020 Junos have also been cancelled.

Impact in Canada

New Brunswick’s chief medical officer of health Dr. Jennifer Russell announced the province's first presumptive case of COVID-19 during a press conference on Wednesday, March 11. - Contributed
New Brunswick’s chief medical officer of health Dr. Jennifer Russell announced the province's first presumptive case of COVID-19 during a press conference on Wednesday, March 11. - Contributed

As of Thursday, there were 140 confirmed cases of COVID-19 reported in Canada, including one presumptive case in New Brunswick.

Premiers have been calling for a meeting with the prime minister since the October election.

When premiers met in Toronto in early December — without federal involvement — their focus was largely to find some common ground to set the stage for federal policymaking. The provinces came up with a number of requests, two of the major ones being more money for health care and a retooling of the federal fiscal stabilization fund to assist oil-producing provinces facing financial struggles — mainly Alberta, Saskatchewan, and Newfoundland and Labrador.

With the number of cases of COVID-19 rising rapidly in Canada and around the world, and a major economic downturn fuelled in part by a crash in the stock markets and oil prices, these concerns will likely be even more pronounced for the premiers.

Desserud said he expects discussions between the provinces and the federal government will take a more collaborative tone than might otherwise be expected, due to the pandemic. Provinces will look to the federal government for how they should proceed, and what will be offered to assist with the economic downturn and COVID-19, he said.

“I suspect that there's a rising fear amongst the premiers, not just of the health implications, which are really important, but the budgetary implications for their own economies,” he said.

From an Atlantic Canadian perspective, Dalhousie political sociologist Howard Ramos said he expects premiers will lobby around shoring up more health-care support.

The federal government has already announced $500 million, as part of its $1-billion COVID-19 response fund, to support health care in the provinces and how they deal with this new public-health threat. For provinces with more instances of chronic health issues and an aging population, such as the four Atlantic provinces, the virus will likely hit harder and require more resources.

“The Trudeau government announced significant funding for health care, but I imagine that the provinces will still feel taxed if this outbreak hits the 30 per cent to 70 per cent infection rate that scientists are predicting,” Ramos said. “With the rural areas in Atlantic Canada and health care issues that are facing people in rural areas, as well as the aging rural areas, this will be something that's going to be of prime importance to Atlantic Canadian premiers.”

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