In early days of the coronavirus pandemic, the prime minister’s office grappled with provincial disputes over personal protective equipment, grew frustrated with the Public Health Agency of Canada, and undertook careful diplomatic dances with China, newly released emails show.
The massive dump of documents, which includes pages upon pages of internal emails from the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO), shines a light on the struggles that characterized the early days of Canada’s pandemic response.
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Emails from within the PMO aren’t generally made public, as they’re exempted from the Access to Information Act. However, this series of emails was requested as a part of a much larger motion that passed in the House of Commons — giving Canadians a rare look at the inner workings of Canada’s handling of COVID-19.
In one of those emails, staff from PMO appear to be caught flat-footed when the Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC) decided to publish its personal protective equipment (PPE) guidelines for essential workers.
“Shannon & Bud just flagged that PHAC has posted PPE guidance for essential workers…It is quite detailed,” writes Sabrina Kim, an issues adviser at PMO.
“None of us were aware.”
Kim then suggests the guidance be taken down while the office gets their “ducks in a row.”
“We can’t take down public health advice. Let’s work on dealing with it,” responds Samantha Khalil, who is the deputy director of issues management and parliamentary affairs at PMO.
Later in the email exchange, Khalil expressed her frustration with PHAC.
“I have made it clear to health that it is unacceptable this has happened for a second time,” she said.
Problems with provinces
In addition to the frustrations with the federal health agency, the emails also provide some insight into disagreements between provinces and the federal government. In one email, PMO staff express their frustration with Quebec’s attempts to “stockpile” PPE during the rollout.
Kim describes that Quebec was requesting “far greater” numbers of swabs than what other provinces had asked for.
“…it is clear that they’re stockpiling a full year of supply. We may have a problem (with) them & it may be helpful to manage their expectations a bit,” she wrote.
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Matt Stickney, who works as the executive director of operations at PMO, replies that the government should have “a strategy specifically to deal with Quebec on this.”
“They are asking for 3x what other provinces are asking for to create a stockpile and we are going to have to give out stuff in a reasonable and responsible manner, not just give Quebec everything they want which would impact other provinces,” Stickney wrote.
Quebec wasn’t the only province to present procurement problems. Prince Edward Island also reached out to PMO when they heard that they might not receive any PPE in the “first wave” of deliveries, expressing their concern.
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Adam Ross, a spokesperson for PEI Premier Dennis King, details that health officials from each provinces discussed splitting the “first wave of orders” among all the provinces and territories, so “everyone gets some from the first wave of equipment.”
Ross adds that most provinces and territories were in favour of this more even split — “but not all.”
The publicly-available correspondence ends with federal government staff briefly emailing about how best to navigate the response and discussing which department should take charge of calling the province.
Navigating relations with China
Finally, the emails provide a glimpse into the diplomatic dance Canada performed with China in the early days of the pandemic. China manufactures much of the world’s supply of PPE, which meant Canada’s early procurement efforts meant rubbing shoulders with the Chinese government on a regular basis.
“FYI. We are hearing of China reaching out directly to provinces on whether or not they have needs re: medical supplies. BC for sure and we think Alberta and Ontario,” wrote Stickney in one email.
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Just two days later, he sent another email to staff in the foreign affairs minister’s office, telling them to contact the Chinese government from the federal level.
“Chinese Consuls around the country are reaching out to Mayors and other elected leaders to say that they can send us medical equipment (masks, ventilators, tests, etc.) on an expedited basis (like on planes asap),” Stickney wrote.
“Would it be possible for you two to chat and get Minister Champagne to call the Chinese Ambassador today to see what the possible is.”
Francois-Philippe Champagne’s Chief of Staff responded that it might not make sense for Champagne himself to be the one to place the call.
“In terms of level it might be preferable to have Rob (our [parliamentary secretary]) speak to the ambassador today – as there is a dance in terms of appropriate levels with China (better to have Champagne speak to the [foreign minister]),” wrote Laurence Deschamps-Laporte in response.
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Meanwhile, in another email regarding the Chinese government, a statement that political staff from the Liberal government were going to send to a journalist initially thanked the Chinese for their help with PPE procurement.
“Canadian officials are working closely with Chinese authorities as part of our efforts to ensure that Canada has the medical supplies we need in the fight against COVID-19. We thank them for their collaboration as we navigate the complexity of logistics on the ground with such a high global demand,” read the initial statement.
However, Stickney pushed back on the wording.
“Do we need to *thank* them?” he asked.
Stickney sent an alternate wording for the statement – one that did not thank the Chinese government.
The political staff agreed, and sent that version of the statement.
More emails to come
The emails were a small portion of the 30,000 documents the government has provided to Parliament to date, with many more awaiting translation.
The motion underlying this massive document dump demanded that departments and ministers’ offices cough up their e-mails, memos and any other documents tied to the COVID-19 response.
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