How Far Can Canada Go to Slow Spread of the New Coronavirus?

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It’s well beyond the space limitations of this newsletter to summarize the new coronavirus developments of the last week internationally, let alone in Canada. Here at The Times, we’ve been drawing on our journalists around the world to produce a steady flow of reporting on the health crisis.

[Read: The Times’s latest coverage of the coronavirus pandemic.]

Please note, and spread the word, that The Times is providing free access to our coverage of the outbreak.

Canada, of course, has been hit two ways. Aside from the infections, one death and rapidly multiplying postponements and cancellations, there has been extraordinary turmoil in financial markets. And the already sickly oil industry was pummeled by price drops that were intensified because of a coincident feud between Saudi Arabia and Russia.

It was an extraordinary day here in Ottawa on Friday. First, the House of Commons voted unanimously to suspend its session until April 20. Then, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau held an outdoor news conference in front of his official residence, with journalists kept at a distance. After his wife, Sophie Grégoire Trudeau, tested positive for coronavirus, Mr. Trudeau, who said he is in full health, has voluntarily isolated himself for two weeks.

The prime minister, members of his cabinet and public health officials both in Ottawa and in several provinces outlined a variety of new restrictions and closings during the day. While everyone accepts that the coronavirus is here and likely to spread, the current hope is to slow the growth rate of infections. The Opinion side of The Times has created an interactive graphic showing how various measures can “flatten” the infection growth curve. It uses the United States as an example, but its principles apply to Canada as well.

The empty schools, theaters, sports venues, libraries and other public facilities across the country raise a big question: How far can the government go? If necessary, can Canada be locked down the way Italy is currently?

To find some answers, I spoke with Steven Hoffman, a professor of global health, Llaw and political science at York University in Toronto.

The federal government’s main tool, he told me, is the Quarantine Act, which was updated in 2005 after the SARS outbreak.

“The powers it gives are quite extraordinary,” Professor Hoffman said. It allows the minister of health to declare any building in Canada, even a private home, a quarantine zone; enables public health officials to question and examine anyone entering the country; and can even force people to accept medical treatment.

It’s the law the government has used to quarantine cruise ship passengers who have been flown home as well as Canadians who were repatriated from the epicenter of the outbreak in China.

He said that during the current situation, the terminology around this issue was often getting muddled up. Under public health laws, quarantine refers to people like Mr. Trudeau. They have been in close contact with infected people but they are not apparently infected. People who have tested positive for the virus and who have retreated to their homes, like Ms. Grégoire Trudeau, are in isolation.

In Canada only the federal government can order quarantine, Professor Hoffman said. Provinces are limited to isolating infected patients.

Canada, he said, is taking the right approach in concentrating on slowing the spread of the virus “but it needs to be done in an appropriate and precise way.”

He doesn’t anticipate that we’ll see anything like quarantine orders being issued for entire cities, provinces or regions. Although Quebec’s premier François Legault mused this week that a quarantine for the island of Montreal might be necessary at some point.

The powers in the Quarantine Act, Professor Hoffman said, have to be balanced against the Charter of Rights and Freedoms in the constitution. In that test, he said, shutting down an entire city or region would likely be declared illegal by courts “because it is not proportional to the risk involved.”

There is a wild card in all of this, however. Governments in other countries in similar circumstances in the past have introduced illegal measures during crisis situations, banking on the hope that no court would overturn them until the emergency was over.

“It’s illegal, it’s not good, but it happens,” he said.


Dan Bilefsky profiled four women whose lives and careers have been affected by Quebec’s ban on the wearing of religious symbols while on the job for schoolteachers, police officers, prosecutors and other government employees. The article, illustrated with some exceptional portraits by photographer Nasuna Stuart-Ulin, has provoked a lot of discussion on Facebook and elsewhere.

“It’s a nasty law, pandering to the very worst of Quebecois isolationism,” James I. Hymas wrote. “A civilized government does not persecute its minorities.”

But other readers supported the measure.

“If your religious convictions take precedence over your position as a representative of the government, then you should look for another career,” Ben Schreibman wrote.

It was a rare retreat for the Google tech empire. Sidewalk Labs, a sibling company of the search engine giant, has drastically pulled back on its proposed sensor-laden, algorithm-optimized city of tomorrow on a piece of derelict waterfront land in Toronto. Its step back was driven by fierce opposition. And one of the most fierce critics has been Jim Balsillie who, as co-chief executive of BlackBerry, helped make Canada into a global smartphone powerhouse. He also was still at the top when the company crumbled in the face of competition from Apple and Google. I wrote frequently about Mr. Balsillie during BlackBerry’s glory day. When we met again to discuss Sidewalk Labs, he showed that he hadn’t abandoned his blunt spoken approach to issues. “I smoked them out,” he said of Sidewalk Labs. “They were playing us like a bunch of colonial supplicants and suckers.”

[Read: You Can’t Fight City Hall. But Maybe You Can Fight Google.]


A native of Windsor, Ontario, Ian Austen was educated in Toronto, lives in Ottawa and has reported about Canada for The New York Times for the past 16 years. Follow him on Twitter at @ianrausten.


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