Canada Election 2021: What took so long for the COVID-19 pandemic to become an issue?

For long stretches of this campaign, the media coverage has been dominated by Conservative party talking points

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      It’s almost like there was no pandemic. 

      From the moment Justin Trudeau called #elxn44 the question has been: why an election now? It continues to be the question among many editorialists in the media and the Conservative party who’ve launched campaign ads in recent days playing non-stop on television about Trudeau calling a “unnecessary” election. 

      It should be obvious now after anti-vaxxers have been showing up to block access to the country’s hospitals that there is a marked difference of opinion among Canadians (and the main political parties) about how we get out of this pandemic.

      Only we haven’t been talking about that in any meaningful way until the last week of the campaign. It took Alberta Premier Jason Kenney’s about-face on September 15 to put the issue of COVID-19 response front and centre. Kenney imposed a state of emergency in the province after lifting all restrictions and declaring the pandemic over in July.

      Conservative party leader Erin O’Toole has been running for his life ever since, avoiding reporters’ questions on what a Conservative government would do differently if he were PM after praising Kenney’s handling of the pandemic only days earlier.

      On Friday, the Globe and Mail reported that more than 80 percent of Conservative party candidates refuse to say if they are vaccinated. 

      What took so long to turn COVID into an election issue? 

      News flash: Canada’s so-called mainstream media ain’t so mainstream anymore. 

      For long stretches of this campaign, the media coverage has been dominated by Conservative party talking points. Many important issues have been lost in the cacophony. Climate change, Indigenous self-determination, Islamophobia, and what Canada’s economic recovery should look like are but a few. It was a Conservative strategy all along to distract from what was actually done to fight the pandemic.

      And more than a decade after Stephen Harper opened the door to media concentration and foreign ownership, lack of diversity in Canadian media has never been more pronounced.

      Most of Canada’s media properties are controlled by a handful of companies, and by and large, they espouse a conservative point of view.

      Bell Media, which owns the Globe and CTV, and Post Media, which owns the National Post and Sun Media Group of newspapers, are decidedly right of centre, oftentimes stridently so. 

      Globe and Mail columnist John Ibbitson, for example, recently offered that the People’s Party of Canada has legitimate gripes about “non-European immigration” and “deserves” representation in parliament.

      Ibbitson suggested there will be hell to pay—“they will find another way to be heard,” he wrote—if Canada’s mainstream parties fail to listen. “And you might not like their methods.” Some took that to mean the threat of violence.

      After a public backlash, the Globe’s editors added a footnote to the story qualifying that the PPC’s views can indeed be viewed as racist.

      But the Globe has also done its bit to stoke the Conservative party’s anti-China rhetoric, publishing a gotcha that Trudeau’s 2014 memoir Common Ground was republished by a “China state-owned company” that “reports to the local Chinese communist party”. The Globe suggested that republication of the book could be used by the Chinese to “curry favour”. Only, it read more like something that could have been written in the Conservative party war room. China conspiracies are a fave topic of the Conservative base.

      The Post weighed in with a story of its own that the Trudeau family had agreed in 2005 to Pierre Trudeau’s book being published by a “Chinese Communist-run company”. Apparently lost on the Globe and Post editors is the fact that even Donald Trump has had his book republished by the Chinese.

      Social media has also played a significant role in framing the election narrative. Political operatives are fond of pointing out that conversations that take place on Twitter rarely take place among voters in the real world. But often during this campaign, the media has turned chatter on Twitter into headlines—sometimes missing important context. 

      The most obvious example came earlier in the campaign when Chrystia Freeland posted an edited video on Twitter of O’Toole expressing his support for the idea of privatizing some health care services. Freeland’s thread included a link to the full video but the story became the fact that Twitter had slapped a “manipulated media” label on the tweet. O’Toole’s position on health care was mostly blurred by the dust-up. So was the Conservative party’s connection to the Ottawa lobbyist who originally complained to Twitter. The Post weighed in anyway to say that Freeland’s tweet smelled of “desperation”.

      There have been other examples aimed at twisting the election plot. 

      When Peterborough-Kawartha Liberal MP Maryam Monsef made a plea to Afghanistan’s Taliban early in the campaign to allow Canadians to safely leave the country during its recent takeover, the overwhelming focus of the coverage was the fact that Monsef had referred to the Taliban as “our brothers.”

      Monsef is originally from Afghanistan. She explained that it’s customary for Afghans to refer to male elders in the community as “our brothers”. But her comments were reported to suggest that somehow she supports terrorists.

      Monsef has been a fave target of the Conservative party. In a video talk with supporters leaked during the campaign, O’Toole called Monsef a “disgrace” and a “fraud”. O’Toole could barely hide his antipathy and said the party would work to defeat her specifically during the campaign. 

      The cultural indifference to Monsef’s comments and insensitivity was lost in the controversy. Some media outlets demanded Monsef’s resignation. Meanwhile, the Conservative candidate in the riding, it was revealed recently, campaigned in a long-term care home despite the fact she had only received one vaccine dose. 

      At other times during the campaign, the country’s largest media chain, Post Media, which owns most of the major broadsheets and tabloid dailies in the country, has leveraged its influence to set the tone for the election narrative.

      After the French-language leaders’ debate, for example, the take-away of most observers was that O’Toole had fared badly. 

      But the Post’s headline story shared with many of its outlets in the country was that Trudeau had “threatened” to call another election in 18 months if the Libs failed to win a majority. 

      Trudeau’s actual statement on that was more matter of fact than a threat. It actually came in response to a question on whether the leaders would work in a coalition should a minority government be returned. None of the other leaders offered an answer. But voters who only bothered to read the Post’s headline wouldn’t know that. 

      Similarly, when Trudeau was pelted with rocks at a campaign stop in London a couple of weeks ago, a reporter for Global News sought to clarify with the Liberal leader whether he had in fact been hit. He had been hit, but the subtext was clear: it’s only “news” if Trudeau was hit. If a rock falls in the forest, does anybody hear? 

      The headline on the Global News story soft-pedalled the incident. It notes that “protestors” threw “small rocks, debris” at Trudeau. The individual behind the rock-throwing, a PPC riding president, was later charged by police.

      The Global reporter was reportedly acting on the instructions of her editor. But the lens through which most of the media following Trudeau has been absent important context.

      More recently, a Globe reporter retweeted a CBC tweet stating that Trudeau had talked back to a man who showed up at a Liberal event in Burnaby to challenge him to a fight. Trudeau was quoted as saying “Isn’t there a hospital you should be going to bother right now?” 

      But initially lost in the social media thread was the fact the man made “a vile and offensive comment” about the Liberal leader’s wife. He reportedly called her a “whore.”

      The Liberal leader was taken to task recently by the Twitterati for taking issue with how a Global television reporter in B.C. omitted to touch on the issue of climate change during their one-on-one interview. It’s an important issue—the number one issue according to pollsters and especially in B.C. where the Trans Mountain pipeline and forest fires have been top of mind for voters. Trudeau was derided on social media for being “petulant”. It’s also possible that he was trying to make a not-so-subtle point about the media’s perceived bias toward the Liberal campaign. 

      To be sure, at times throughout the election it’s been difficult to tell the difference between the talking points of Conservative operatives and reporters on social media. 

      At a Liberal rally in Brampton last week, attended by former PM Jean Chrétien and Mississauga mayor Hazel McCallion, the topic of media conversation was whether the 400 or so in attendance in the 1,000-person capacity ballroom was in keeping with COVID protocols. 

      At least on this occasion, the story was (sort of) about the pandemic, although McCallion’s view that it was “unfortunate” an election was called ended up dominating other headlines.