Bruce Arthur: Alberta’s meltdown finally made the pandemic an election issue. It should have been the focus from the start

Alberta is burning, and it is one of the worst kinds of tragedy. On Wednesday, Premier Jason Kenney said ICUs could be as few as , and so, he had to act. Saskatchewan, next door, is not far behind. It will still get worse.

Like Ontario’s , the worst tragedies are the ones that could have been avoided. Alberta’s fourth wave has been a deliberate dereliction of governance, but it comes after three waves’ worth of lessons and in the era of abundant vaccines; it is the least forgivable failure of Canada’s . And because there is an on, it became an election issue.

But this should have been an election about the pandemic all along, and maybe it finally is. Forget the one-day back and forth. Yes, the Liberals and NDP Conservative leader Erin O’Toole. Yes, O’Toole did his best, amid repeated questions, to avoid acknowledging that Alberta specifically existed at all.

The pandemic, though, should have been the defining issue of the campaign. There are so many problems in this country that need fixing, from our shameful treatment of the Indigenous population to an aging population to unaffordable housing to whatever the hell happens if the United States fails as a democracy. Canada has been sheltered by a stable partner for a long time, and those days could be numbered.

The pandemic, though, has been a fundamental test of how a government should work, and how well it does. Everyone makes mistakes. Everyone messes up. You can argue the Liberals have been too timid in managing the pandemic, maybe too deferential to the provinces, too shoddy on borders. Jamming 500 people into a room in Brampton the other night — which was technically in keeping with capacity, though distancing is a problem everywhere these days — looked desperate. This election could have waited, too.

But the Liberals also ran an immensely successful vaccine procurement program, and without actually being in charge of health care, the Safe Restart Agreement attempted to tie the every province needed to actual pandemic response. The Liberals are in favour of vaccine mandates; they have not pushed provinces to reopen too soon. In Canada we often measure by a mediocre bar, and all you can hope is that sometimes the bar is cleared. That’s the Liberals, for the most part.

The alternative is far worse, though, and the fact that this election was not about the defining catastrophe of our lifetime is baffling. Canada’s political media often treats Liberals and Conservatives like Coke and Pepsi — the NDP is Orange Crush, clearly, and British Columbia has its own pandemic peculiarities — and collapses the difference into scoreboard-watching talk about wedge issues. The Liberals have played their part in this election with talk of guns, or abortion. Which, to be clear, are actual issues.

But on the pandemic, it shouldn’t take Kenney’s Alberta meltdown to point out that certain Conservative politicians have been the biggest pandemic problem in the country, and that the federal Conservatives aren’t equipped to deal with any of it.

It’s not just that Erin O’Toole endorsed Alberta’s road to ruin. It’s not just that he showed up at the Alberta Masque of the Red Death Stampede as Kenney flipped pancakes, declared it the best summer ever, and proclaimed restrictions were gone for good. It’s not just that he tacitly endorsed it as Kenney’s team sold Best Summer Ever merch and fundraised off opposition to vaccine passports, and snidely derided the doctors and journalists who disagreed as fear-mongering. It turns out the .

And it’s not just that O’Toole refuses to acknowledge Alberta’s current tragedy. The notion that there might have been a tacit understanding between the federal CPC and the provincial United Conservative Party that restrictions could be delayed until next week is disturbingly plausible.

But too often the federal Conservatives don’t seem to understand what’s happening, or to be playing to the worst of their audience. On March 29 of this year, Conservative shadow health critic Michelle Rempel Garner published an in the Toronto Sun urging the federal government to chart a path out of lockdowns. Within two weeks, Ontario was in its own of Alberta’s , and in utter crisis. They may just be reading the wrong newspapers.

The differences matter, because the differences tell. Alberta and Saskatchewan have finally given in to vaccine passports, despite being the two most vaccine-hesitant provinces, but faced with the People’s Party of Canada as a potential lunatic threat on its far-right edge, O’Toole is still opposed to vaccine mandates, and declares vaccination to be a . It was five days ago that O’Toole said partially vaccinated candidates could campaign in long-term care homes. When you’re beholden to the wrong base, things can become a .

All these are defining ways to view not just a pandemic, but a country. Do we have responsibility towards a shared society? With climate change arriving, do we want a government that at the least understands how a crisis works?

Instead, Canada held a normal election, if with an extra to it, and either one of the two main parties could still win.

Alberta is a warning, as Ontario was, and as Saskatchewan is, too. Kenney ascribed some of his inaction to the notion that not enough Albertans — his base, specifically — would comply with a renewal of restrictions. He probably could have said the same for caucus and cabinet members. When you have to negotiate with a lunatic fringe suddenly you’re closing the playgrounds or removing masks. Doug Ford isn’t the only premier who has avoided leading until he had to.

And so Alberta watched the fire sweep in from the horizon, and Kenney’s government was too stupid or arrogant or afraid of its own constituents to do anything but let it burn. At some point bad enough governance can cross the line to something monstrous, and it’s not a game. This was an election in a pandemic. It should have been an election about the pandemic, too.

Bruce Arthur is a Toronto-based columnist for the Star. Follow him on Twitter: