While our series is fictional, the principle objective is non-fictional – to explore the likelihood that sooner or later, Canadians will demand a full-scale investigation into the management of the COVID crisis by our federal government.
Due credit was given to those responsible for safeguarding hundreds of thousands of Canadian lives through the health protection measures adopted. But the hearings shed a glaring spotlight on the millions of lives that were adversely affected by those measures – not only in the short run but for years to come.
At the outset of the hearing process, the Commission made a conscientious effort to invite key federal officials – cabinet ministers, health department bureaucrats, political staffers, and consultants – “to give us the facts as you see them and provide your side of the story.” But, for the most part, these invitations were conspicuously spurned – the Commission being labelled by the Prime Minister as “an illegitimate witch hunt by right-wing extremists.” And on the few occasions where federal officials did agree to “testify” before the Commission, they primarily used the opportunity to blame any mismanagement of the COVID crisis on the provincial and municipal governments.
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For several weeks, the seeming inability of the COVID Commission to “get at the facts from knowledgeable government sources” appeared to undermine its credibility. Most of the mainstream media began to mock its pretension to be a legitimate inquiry into the management of the COVID crisis. In the House of Commons, members of the Liberal/NDP coalition mercilessly castigated the Official Opposition for being in league with “an illegitimate and incompetent phony Commission.”
But then a remarkable thing happened. The Commission began to be approached – tentatively and in small numbers at first – by “government insiders” willing to provide their inside knowledge and experience of the federal government’s management of the COVID crisis. Some of these insiders were only willing to testify in camera to protect their identities and careers. But as the information they provided became publicly known, an increasing number of current and former federal officials and consultants with additional inside knowledge also expressed their willingness to testify before the Commission, in some cases publicly.
These inside witnesses were almost always individuals within the federal government or under contract to it who had grave reservations about various aspects of the government’s strategy and tactics for managing the COVID crisis.
Most had expressed those reservations internally but had been over-ruled, told to keep quiet, and threatened with career-ending or contract-ending retaliation if they failed to do so. Now, however, troubled consciences and a sense of public duty were compelling them to speak out, and the public hearings of the COVID Commission provided a suitable forum for doing so.
Almost overnight, public and media interest in the hearings of the COVID Commission revived. For the first time, the public believed it was getting accurate answers to the various questions raised by the Commissioners – information from knowledgeable sources and free from government “spin,” censorship, and obfuscation. The value and credibility of the Commission’s hearings restored, Commission counsel now felt encouraged and emboldened to vigorously pursue the lines of questioning prescribed by the Commission’s terms of reference.
One such line of questioning sought to ascertain how the creation, amplification, and persistent use of “fear” became the primary instrument whereby the federal government sought to secure and maintain public compliance with its health protection edicts.
As one witness, a political and communications consultant formerly attached to the Prime Minister’s office, testified: “In our business, it is well known that the cheapest, quickest, and most effective way to generate public support for a government policy is to generate fear – pure, unadulterated fear – fear of the consequences if that policy is not accepted and strictly adhered to. It worked very effectively in generating public support for the Trudeau government’s climate change initiatives so it was a natural step to apply the same strategy to generating public support for the government’s COVID regulations.”
Commission counsel also questioned communications insiders involved in framing the government’s messaging of health protection measures about their frequent use of “the war analogy.” One such insider explained it this way:
“In order to secure compliance with government edicts, we vigorously promoted the narrative that ‘we are at war’ – at war with the coronavirus. When at war, everyone has to follow orders. In a war, there is little room for dissent; the enemy must be defeated, and all attention and every resource must be focused on this one concern.”
To quote another witness, a former communications staffer: “The Canadian mass media were quite amenable to communicating and expanding our use of the war analogy. For example, the Globe and Mail, on September 21, 2020, boldly advised its readership that “Canada is at War.” Most of Canada’s major media are now either reliant on outright direct government funding (the CBC, for example) or dependent upon online user engagement. The financial incentive is overwhelming to use alarming headlines as “click-bait,” and the war analogy works perfectly to this end. As they say in the media business, ‘If it scares, it airs; if it bleeds, it leads.’”
A second line of questioning pursued by Commission counsel had to do with the use and interpretation of the science which supposedly guided the government’s response to the COVID pandemic.
The Commission noted that no matter what health protection measures the federal government imposed, it purported to be “following the science” – that this became the prevailing mantra, with science simplistically personified as a single voice rather than multiple voices, not always in agreement with each other but willing to submit their hypotheses and conclusions to analysis and testing by the scientific method.
Several major think tanks at the request of the Commission, and the research offices of the Library of Parliament at the request of the Official Opposition, painstakingly assembled hundreds of statements made by federal officials, including cabinet ministers, describing the science which purportedly guided the federal government’s management of the COVID crisis. Some of the scientists employed by the Government of Canada and responsible for providing this advice were quite willing to repeat and explain it again in testimony before the Commission. This testimony was then fully documented by the Commission.
Commission counsel then cross-examined dozens of other scientists whose perspectives and conclusions differed markedly from the official government line, fully documenting this testimony as well. What then became quite clear was that in no way did science “speak with one voice” on the COVID issue as implied by the government. Rather, there was a diversity of hypotheses and conclusions relevant to the “science of COVID,” which should have been acknowledged, respected, and taken into account in arriving at the government’s COVIID response.
For example, the Commission was told:
- That with respect to projecting how many people might die from the coronavirus, peer-reviewed studies published by the World Health Organization in October 2020, based on examining 51 different locations, determined that the estimated Infection Fatality Rate (IFR) was 0.23 per cent or lower worldwide, rising as high as 1.63 per cent in hard-hit areas, but, according to other studies, dropping to 0.15 per cent worldwide in February of 2021 – all figures significantly lower than the fatality rates predicted by Canadian officials in justifying the drastic health protection measures they recommended to cope with the pandemic.
- That with respect to the efficacy of wearing face masks to halt the spread of COVID-19 (as distinct from wearing face masks as a virtue symbol), in May 2020, the American Center for Disease Control and Prevention published a study in Emerging Infectious Diseases in which the authors reviewed 10 randomized controlled trials estimating the effectiveness of face masks in reducing the transmission of laboratory-confirmed influenza viruses. Their conclusion? “In pooled analysis, we found no significant reduction in influenza transmission with the use of face masks.”
- That with respect to relying on pharmaceutical interventions (i.e. drugs) to treat COVID-19 and its mutations, at the outset of the pandemic the major regulatory agencies strongly advised against this approach and strongly denounced those promoting it. More recently, however, the prestigious scientific journal Nature reported that “the COVID-19 drugs pipeline is primed to pump out novel treatments …. there being a desperate need for better (drug) therapies to treat people who cannot – or choose not to – access the vaccines, whose immune systems cannot respond fully to vaccination, or who experience breakthrough infections.”
- That with respect to relying on vaccines as the ultimate protection against the spread of the COVID virus and its mutations, a prominent Canadian virologist had warned: “As someone who develops vaccines, I can tell you that it is difficult to make a vaccine that will perform as poorly as the current COVID-19 vaccines.” In the UK, the Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency also acknowledged that there were legitimate concerns about the safety of vaccines. Thus respected scientific voices advised that the poor overall efficacy of the COVID-19 vaccines and associated safety concerns meant that “they cannot be the simple answer to ending the pandemic.”
- That after more than a year of Medical Health Officers across the country insisting that segregated lockdowns and vaccine mandates were absolutely essential to combatting the COVID pandemic and that any opposition to these measures was to be ignored and condemned as “anti-science,” the same officials were obliged to essentially reverse their positions in February 2022 based on an authoritative study by the Social Science Research Network (SSRN) entitled “The Unintended Consequences of COVID-19 Policy: Why Mandates, Passports, and Segregated Lockdowns May Cause More Harm Than Good.” The study stated that such policies may lead to detrimental long-term impacts on uptake of future public-health measures, including COVID-19 vaccines themselves, as well as routine immunizations.”
With respect to vaccine mandates in particular, the following is a sample of the testimony received by the COVID Commission from reputable expert witnesses with perspectives and concerns at variance from the official positions of the federal government:
- From a distinguished medical academic: “In a time of further enlightenment into the issues of diversity, equity and inclusion, we have seen a new kind of discrimination emerge that has distinguished the vaccinated from the unvaccinated, which has created medical apartheid. Freedoms that we took for granted just two years ago are now special privileges where submission to vaccination provides a temporary passport for unrestricted access.”
- From a recently retired healthcare official: “We repeatedly told the public that their safety was the primary aim of all our health protection measures. Then when they questioned us as to whether some of these protection measures – such as vaccines – were themselves “safe,” we castigated them for being unnecessarily concerned about safety.”
- From a government communications consultant: “At first we told the public that getting vaccinated was the surest way to be safe from the virus. Then we modified that by saying this safety was time-and-situation dependent and that additional vaccinations and booster shots were required to be safe. Then we were forced to acknowledge that it was still possible to contract COVID-19 even if one had been fully vaccinated. No wonder people were confused.”
Or, as a journalist reporting on the contradictory evidence and confusing communications surrounding vaccine mandates asked, (with tongue firmly in cheek): “Why did the protected need to be protected from the unprotected by forcing the unprotected to use the protection that didn’t protect the protected in the first place?”
In summarizing the science related to the management of the COVID pandemic – that cited by the federal government and the science cited by others questioning the government’s interpretation and use of the science – the Commission painstakingly compiled a 50-page Appendix to its report documenting the sources of each science-related statement contained in its review. In listing and quoting alternative science and medical information from sources such as the Barrington Declaration, the Canadian Covid Care Alliance, and the Social Science Research Network, the Commission made clear it was not necessarily endorsing the representations of any of these sources – only maintaining that they represented legitimate scientific positions worthy of consideration and discussion by governmental authorities and the public rather than denunciation and cancellation.
For example, the Commission in no way denied that vaccination to protect against the COVID-19 virus and its mutations was a legitimate health protection measure to be vigorously promoted and pursued. What it considered as an illegitimate and anti-democratic exercise of government authority was the denunciation and censorship of legitimate scientific and public concerns with respect to the vaccines promoted and the imposition and enforcement of arbitrary vaccine mandates.
Commission counsel also made clear that the Commission was not questioning the relevance of the science on which Canadian officials relied in managing the COVID pandemic, nor their sincerity in doing so. But Canadians and the Commission now insisted on knowing why “following the science” did not include taking into account the considerable body of legitimate scientific evidence, also relevant, but often at considerable variance from that relied upon by the federal government?
Why, instead, was any proposition or argument that challenged “the science” as defined by the Canadian authorities – no matter however reasoned or evidence supported – either systematically ignored or mischaracterized, caricatured, and censured as the “anti-science” rantings of outliers, quacks, political extremists, and “COVID deniers”?
A third line of questioning vigorously pursued by the Commission involved the facts concerning the federal government’s representation and treatment of the Freedom Convoy organized by independent truckers – thousands of whom had lost their jobs and incomes due to hastily imposed federal vaccine mandates.
In the view of the Commission, this was an exercise in democratic protest which drew significant support from across the country. Commission counsel, therefore, sought to ascertain why federal officials acted as they did in responding to the Freedom Convoy? In particular:
- Why was no effort made by the Prime Minister or senior ministers to meet with the Convoy leaders and seek to negotiate a modification of or an end to the vaccine mandates that were at the root of the protest?
- Why did the Prime Minister go even further in the opposite direction, giving the distinct impression that he was “afraid to meet” – hiding from the protesters, the media, and the public for days at the outset of the protests?
- How could a security advisor from the Defense Department possibly come to the fantastic conclusion that a peaceful democratic protest by truckers was an “organized attempt to overthrow the Government of Canada,” and report such a conclusion to the Prime Minister?
- Why, in responding to the protests by the Freedom Convoy, did the federal government, in hastily invoking the Emergencies Act, display a hypocritical double standard?
- Why did it claim, for example, that the disruption of Canada-U.S. trade through the temporary blocking of the Ambassador Bridge at Windsor was such a serious economic disruption that it justified invoking the Emergencies Act but had taken no significant action at all when American supported activists blocked rail lines and pipeline developments carrying western resources and goods to tidewater in British Columbia?
- And why, for example, did federal ministers also claim that the potential for violence was so acute in the case of the protests by the Freedom Convoy that the Emergencies Act had to be invoked in the name of public safety but displayed no similar concern with respect to the much more volatile Black Lives Matter protests a few months previously?
As the Commission was obliged to report: “No satisfactory answers were forthcoming from federal officials, including ministers, in a position to answer them. The perspective provided by “insiders” willing to share their experience and insights indicated that while there was considerable angst about the nature of the government’s response to the Freedom Convoy, the tendency was to “blame somebody else” for any mismanagement – the civil servants convincing themselves that the politicians were to blame for the over-reaction, and the ministers convincing themselves that the ‘over-the-top’ response was largely the fault of the Prime Minister.”
Several of those testifying to the Commission concerning the government’s heavy-handed response to the Freedom Convoy referenced public opinion surveys taken immediately after the Emergencies Act was invoked that showed a majority of Canadians were supportive of such action. Commission counsel then investigated the validity and endurance of this alleged “majority support” by asking the Commission’s independent pollster for her explanation of these polling results. She replied as follows:
“Public support for a just-announced government action, as measured by responses to a polling question, very much depends on when and how the question is asked. If the pollster simply asked, immediately after the action was announced: “Do you support the government’s use of the Emergencies Act to end the protest by the truckers?” – without time to consider or debate the options, 50 per cent or more of the respondents might well answer “Yes….”
But suppose that respondents were first given time to consider that action and alternative options and then asked: “If the government must act to end the protest by the truckers, would you prefer:
Option (1): they simply cancel the vaccine mandates that the truckers and their supporters are protesting?
Or Option (2): they invoke the Emergencies Act giving the government and the police extra powers to forcibly end the protest?”
In that situation, a substantial majority of the Canadian public would most likely have voted for Option (1). I am especially inclined to believe that this would have been the case in February 2022, when public support for ending most if not all of the restrictive vaccine mandates was already growing, with several provincial governments, partially in response to their own polling, already pursuing that option.
In the interests of fairness, the Commission also undertook to investigate the alleged “dark side” of the truckers’ protest – evidence that some demonstrators carried Nazi flags and that others hurled obscenities at the police, seriously damaging the image and credibility of the protest in the eyes of many observers.
In doing so, Commission counsel recalled the political and communications consultant once attached to the Prime Minister’s Office who had been so candid in describing the government’s efforts to mobilize fear to secure public support of its COVID policies, and asked for his perspective on this negative aspect of the truckers protest.
“It may well be,” he said, “that there were such disreputable characters involved in the truckers’ protest – I don’t know for sure. What I do know is that in the political business today, there are basically three ways for a government to respond to a public protest organized by opponents of its position on some issue. One is to simply ignore it. The second is to mount a counter-protest from among the government’s own supporters, although this is time-consuming, expensive, and sometimes risky. But the third – which is far easier – is to discredit the protest by encouraging ideologically motivated counter-demonstrators or even “demonstrators for hire” to infiltrate the protest with offensive signs and behaviours – like brandishing swastikas or screaming racist or homophobic slogans – and to make sure that these get “on camera” when doing so. Whether this happened or not in the case of the truckers’ protest, I don’t know, but it’s definitely a possibility which should be considered and investigated.”
In further probing the federal government’s responses to the protests by the Freedom Convoy, the Commission also undertook to ascertain the veracity of numerous public statements made by the Prime Minister and other members of Cabinet concerning it. In particular:
- Statements by the Prime Minister at a number of news conferences in which he alleged that anti-vaccine protesters “did not believe in science,” that they were often “misogynists and racists,” that members of the Freedom Convoy held “unacceptable views “that ought not to be tolerated,” that right-wing American groups were the major funders of the Convoy, and that conservatives and others who supported the truckers were “sympathizing with fascism and Naziism.”
- Statements by three federal ministers – Justice Minister David Lametti, Emergency Preparedness Minister Bill Blair, and Public Safety Minister Marco Mendicino at an Ottawa press conference on February 16 – to the effect that border blockades and the occupation of downtown Ottawa by the truckers and their supporters were “foreign-funded, foreign-organized attacks meant to undermine Canada’s economy, sovereignty, and democracy.”
In thoroughly investigating the above charges and statements, however, the Commission ultimately found:
- That both the Freedom Cavalcade’s Ottawa protest and the border blockades were wholly planned and organized in Canada.
- That at least 88 per cent of the funding of the Freedom Convoy came not from Americans but from Canadians, the same conclusion reached by a Commons Committee investigating the same issue.
- That the statements made by the Prime Minister and federal ministers to justify the invoking of the Emergencies Act were not only unsubstantiated by concrete evidence but were largely false and misleading.
In the sobering words of the Chief Commissioner: “The hypocrisy, cowardice, and deceitfulness, shown by the highest representatives of the federal government in relation to the Freedom Convoy did more than any other government action to undermine public confidence in the federal government’s management of the COVID pandemic.”
Throughout the public hearing phase of the Commission’s work, Commissioners heard a bewildering array of testimony, some of it contradictory, most of it useful, and on a few occasions “unbelievable.” However, throughout the entire process, the Commissioners, in particular the Chief Commissioner who chaired the majority of the public hearings, displayed great patience.
The one and only occasion on which the Chief Commissioner lost patience was when the Commission was presented with a public statement by the Defense Department official who had reported to the Prime Minister that the truckers’ protest and the Freedom Convoy represented “an organized attempt to overthrow the Government of Canada.”
Interrupting the presentation, the Chief Commissioner declared: “This is truly the most ridiculous, unsubstantiated, and unbelievable claim that this Commission has heard in all these weeks of hearings. It is contradicted by all the other evidence this Commission has received on this subject. It disgraces the Department of Defense to be associated with it, and it makes the Prime Minister look like a gullible fool if he believed it. If this Commission were to believe and accept this report, that would be like believing reports that Elvis Presley is still alive and driving a cab in Temiskaming. I order this nonsense struck from the record.”
Preston Manning’s long record of public service includes work as founder of the Reform Party and as a Member of Parliament.
Next: The Final Report of the Covid Commission
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