A Possible Election Call as the Pandemic’s 4th Wave Gets Underway


The country may, or may not, be headed into an election at the same time that a fourth Covid-19 surge is now underway thanks to the Delta variant.

Based on indications to officials in his government and the Liberal Party, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is contemplating a visit to Governor General Mary Simon, perhaps as early as Sunday, to dissolve Parliament and set an election for Sept. 20. That call on timing is Mr. Trudeau’s to make, and on Friday afternoon it was still unclear if he had reached a decision.

[Read: Trudeau Weighs Snap Election in Canada]

Whatever the precise date of the election call, it is widely anticipated that the vote will come soon. And it won’t be the first campaign Canada has seen during the pandemic. Including Nova Scotia, which votes on Tuesday, elections have unrolled in five provinces plus Yukon.

In Alberta, any federal vote in the near future will come on top of municipal election campaigns as well as referendums on Canada’s equalization system and daylight saving time.

While none of the provincial elections were blamed for major outbreaks, a surge in cases caused Newfoundland to switch to mail-in ballots just 12 hours before voters were supposed to visit polls on Feb. 12, and to extend the election period until March 1. Things only got worse after that, with the final results not being confirmed until the end of that month.

Stephane Perrault, the chief electoral officer, has warned that a pandemic vote will likely lead to an enormous increase in mail-in ballots and perhaps a delay of a few days in announcing some results. Canada does not start counting mail ballots until the day after in-person voting to make sure that no one double-voted and to allow people to submit their ballots right up to the closing of polls.

That may leave some close races in limbo. In-person voters will also see changes such as voting at movie theaters because many usual voting spots like schools are currently reluctant to open up to large numbers of outsiders.

For weeks it’s been apparent that an election is coming soon. Mr. Trudeau and his cabinet members have been traveling the country making spending announcements, and the opposition leaders have similarly hit the road.

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If Mr. Trudeau goes ahead less than two years into his last mandate, it will be the third time since it passed in 2007 that Canada’s fixed election date law has been treated with roughly the same respect as highway speed limits. (After introducing that measure Stephen Harper, the former Conservative prime minister, made the first two early calls.)

Early elections are rarely greeted with enthusiasm. And a poll released earlier this summer found little enthusiasm for a fall election. Both Erin O’Toole, the Conservative leader, and Jagmeet Singh, leader of the New Democrats, have condemned the idea of a pandemic vote as reckless.

Mr. Singh sent the governor general a note asking her to turn down any request to dissolve Parliament from Mr. Trudeau. (When that happened in 1926 to William Lyon Mackenzie King, the Liberal prime minister at the time, it set off a constitutional crisis over the powers of the governor general. Most experts agree that Ms. Simon will not refuse to dissolve Parliament.)

The question, then, is whether voters will punish Mr. Trudeau for the early vote. Shachi Kurl, the president of the Angus Reid Institute, a nonprofit opinion research firm in Vancouver, told me earlier this week that history suggests it won’t be a worry for the prime minister.

“At the beginning of every advantageously called election, there are always several days of grumbling,” she told me. “Then people get on with it and judge the leaders and the issues accordingly.”

The other question, of course, is will it be safe? While announcing that Canada is now in its fourth wave this week, Dr. Theresa Tam, the chief public health officer of Canada, added that “cases are plotting along a strong resurgence trajectory.”

Deaths, she noted, remain comparatively low.

Of course this resurgence of the virus comes at a time when vaccination rates are high in Canada and still rising. Vaccination does not 100 percent guarantee protection against Covid infections or death from them. But a team of colleagues at The Times went through data from 40 American states on so-called breakthrough infections — when fully inoculated people contract the virus.

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The findings of their analysis, which likely apply broadly to Canada, are encouraging: “Fully vaccinated people have made up as few as 0.1 percent of and as many as 5 percent of those hospitalized with the virus in those states, and as few as 0.2 percent and as many as 6 percent of those who have died.”

The Times report also found that “people who were not fully vaccinated were hospitalized with Covid-19 at least five times more often than fully vaccinated people, according to the analysis, and they died at least eight times more often.”

[Read: See the Data on Breakthrough Covid Hospitalizations and Deaths by State]

Earlier this month, Dr. Tam said that in-person voting can be done safely with public health guidelines but added that mail-in ballots are an option for anyone who feels uneasy.

That will likely lead to an unusual campaign, assuming it begins before the current infection wave ends. The leaders will be spared endless handshaking, and they won’t cozy up to voters for selfies and baby kissing — something that in my experience happens with astonishing frequency. Big rallies will likely be outdoors with participants socially distanced, and virtual events will likely be common.

And perhaps I’m being optimistic, but the pandemic may also have the effect of creating a campaign, whenever it comes, that’s actually focused on issues and substance rather than personality and stagecraft.

  • In a case widely characterized as an act of hostage diplomacy by China, a court in that country sentenced Michael Spavor, a Canadian businessman, to 11 years in prison for spying this week. The decision followed another Chinese court’s rejection of a death sentence appeal by Robert Lloyd Schellenberg, a Canadian convicted of drug trafficking. The decisions came as final arguments were underway in Vancouver at the extradition hearing for Meng Wanzhou, a Chinese telecommunications executive held in Canada who is facing fraud charges in the United States. The Canadian government contends that the two men as well as a Michael Kovrig, another Canadian arrested in China and accused of spying, are victims of political retaliation by China for Ms. Meng’s detention.

  • Vjosa Isai continues to follow the disruption and devastation brought by wildfires in Western Canada and has also written an overview on how British Columbia is battling 300 wildfires all at the same time.

  • Catherine Porter revisited Ted Freeman-Atwood, 90, a long-term care home resident who is now back in the greater world after nearly a year locked indoors because of coronavirus restrictions.

  • I headed down to the border with the United States earlier this week when it reopened to fully vaccinated Americans for nonessential visits. While there were considerable delays crossing into Canada, largely because of new rules, the number of visitors heading north did not surge.

  • Qianshi Lin, a botanist at the University of British Columbia, has discovered the secret of the Western false asphodel, a wildflower: It’s a carnivore.

  • Tony Esposito, the Chicago Blackhawks’ goaltender for 15 seasons, died at the age of 78.

  • As a director, David Cronenberg is credited with creating a subgenre of film known as body horror. Now he’s acting and starring in Season 4 of the Canadian horror anthology series “Slasher.”

  • Joshua Barone, a music critic for The Times, writes that Robert Carsen, a Canadian, “might be the most, well, reliable director in opera. I meant it as high praise: His work is by no means repetitive, cautious or dull. But in more than 125 productions over three decades in the field, he has been peerlessly dependable.”

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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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