Alberta Politics
Immunization in 1943 – Canada had more vaccine production and manufacturing capacity then than now (Photo: John Vachon, Public Domain).

Canada’s lack of vaccine capacity really is a scandal, but there’s no way Conservatives are actually serious about fixing it

Posted on February 01, 2021, 1:15 am
9 mins

The fact Canada lacks capacity to manufacture its own coronavirus vaccine should be a scandal. 

But there’s a certain irony in Conservative leaders like Ontario Premier Doug Ford and Alberta’s Jason Kenney jumping on this bandwagon now that its potential to be used against Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and his Liberal government in Ottawa has become evident. 

Ontario Premier Doug Ford (Photo: Facebook).

When Pfizer Inc. announced it was retooling its plant in Belgium to increase production of COVID-19 vaccine, resulting in delays in it shipments to Canada, Mr. Ford was soon thundering about how he’d deal with the problem if only he were the prime minister. 

He would have been on the phone to Pfizer CEO Albert Bourla pronto, Mr. Ford insisted. “I’d be up that guy’s ying-yang so far with a firecracker he wouldn’t know what hit him,” he blustered, an image most of us would rather not contemplate. 

For his part, as long ago as last spring when the main concern was a shortage of personal protective equipment, Mr. Kenney was calling for Canada to start “reshoring” capacity to make non-medical facemasks, respirators and ventilators closer to home. 

That was when Donald Trump was still president of the United States, so Mr. Kenney loyally framed his remarks to a conservative-packed Washington-based organization called the Canadian American Business Council as an attack on China and called for manufacturing capacity to be shifted to North America.

It’s probably a good bet Mr. Kenney is less enthusiastic about the U.S. part of that equation now that a pipeline-skeptical Democrat named Joe Biden is president.

This week federal Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole demanded the federal government make its contracts with suppliers like Pfizer public. That’s not a bad idea in principle, although it’s probably smart not to break a contract you’re relying on to supply your country’s vaccine needs before the stuff is in hand. 

It is, of course, ironic that this should be suggested at the same time as the Kenney Government flatly refuses to provide any details of his multi-billion-dollar gifts and promises to TC Energy.

Alberta Premier Jason Kenney (Photo: David J. Climenhaga).

Regardless, while it’s true Canada does need its own capacity to develop and produce vaccines, it’s important to remember that no matter what they’re saying now, Conservatives have very little interest in this idea. 

This is all about putting the Trudeau Government on its back foot.

Even if by some miracle it were to come about, the prevailing right-wing ideology means Conservatives would set it up for failure by ensuring it was run by the private sector according to neoliberal principles.

So despite their rhetoric, which exploits legitimate Canadian concerns about the faltering rollout of coronavirus vaccines in Canada (much of which is the fault of Conservative provincial governments), voting for Conservatives to get action on this file is not a good bet. 

Unfortunately, voting for the Liberals isn’t either. And there’s no guarantee the federal NDP would be much different, although their current policy is better. Still, the worst of the three major federal parties to address this issue would be the Conservatives because of the ideological blinders they wear, in particular their deep hostility to anything that shows the value of government and public enterprise. 

Conservative Party of Canada Leader Erin O’Toole (Photo: Facebook).

Remember that an important part of this story is how Conservatives under Prime Minister Brian Mulroney, practically a big-L Liberal by today’s Republicanized Conservative standards, privatized Canada’s storied Connaught Laboratories in 1986 and allowed its ownership and assets to pass to other countries. 

Between 1914 and its demise, Connaught Labs played a key role in the discovery, development and distribution of insulin, created and manufactured vaccines for polio, smallpox and influenza, and pioneered numerous other revolutionary treatments and therapies.

So of course Conservatives decided it would be better to sell it off to the private sector! 

Notwithstanding plenty of evidence to the contrary, their faith the private sector always does a better job is unshaken. Their instinct with any public enterprise – especially one that visibly does a better job than the private sector can – is to dismantle it as quickly as possible. 

So, as we saw in Alberta with the medical testing lab planned by the NDP in Edmonton, the United Conservative Party pulled the plug as soon as it was in power, never mind the absence of a viable private-sector alternative. Construction work stopped within days and the site was seeded with grass. I suppose we’re lucky they didn’t sow the ground with salt!

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau (Photo: Justin Trudeau/Flickr).

As we all understand, Canadian Conservatives have not changed their views about the imagined superiority of private over public enterprise since the Eighties. Indeed, they are far more rigidly dogmatic in their ideology now. 

As for PPE, if we insist on structuring public health care as if it were a for-profit business, even without privatization the instinct to pad the bottom line by purchasing supplies from low-wage foreign suppliers will quickly reassert itself once the COVID-19 crisis ends. And in the era of globalization, private-sector operators of even proudly national enterprises are unable to resist the lure of low-cost manufacturing opportunities abroad.

Alas, the memories of capitalists are remarkably short when there’s a quick buck to be made.

So while they may advocate for a made-in-Canada solution to the vaccine shortage right now, Conservatives are likely to lose all interest the instant the COVID-19 crisis has passed, as it inevitably will.

What’s owned by the private sector is easy to break up and sell off. That’s the way the system works.

Even now in the midst of the pandemic, the Kenney Government is positioning itself to lay off health care workers as soon as possible and keep federal subsidies that might form an argument for higher wages in future out of the hands of front-line health care workers. 

Once the pandemic is over, does anyone seriously expect any Canadian Conservative government to stand in the way of a private-sector Canadian vaccine corporation offshoring manufacturing to low-cost countries in the Third World?

Of course not.

The minute memories of COVID-19 begin to fade, this Conservative clamour for domestic vaccine and PPE manufacturing will disappear as quickly as a Canadian summer. 

16 Comments to: Canada’s lack of vaccine capacity really is a scandal, but there’s no way Conservatives are actually serious about fixing it

  1. jerrymacgp

    February 1st, 2021

    We’re seeing protectionism being flipped on its head. Instead of restricting imports to protect domestic manufacturing — the usual definition of protectionism — we’re seeing countries around the world seeking to restrict exports of vital health products, from masks to vaccines, in order to ensure they have sufficient supply for their own populations.

    As for making vaccines in Canada, Erin the Tool’s Conservatives are clearly hoping Canadians don’t remember their history. While there is little resemblance between the Stanfield-Clark-Mulroney era federal Progressive Conservatives, & today’s Conservative Party of Canada, the CPC remains the political heir of the PC legacy, even if it is really just Reform lite. As such, they must own that legacy that torpedoed our ability to produce vaccines in this country.

  2. Bob Raynard

    February 1st, 2021

    “I’d be up that guy’s ying-yang so far with a firecracker he wouldn’t know what hit him,”

    Presumably this procedure has worked for Mr. Ford in the past. After the firecracker went off, did Mr. Ford realize what had hit him? That could explain the smell.

  3. David Bridger

    February 1st, 2021

    It never ceases to amaze me how the Conservatives always demand effective action to solve a problem with a private enterprise solution when common sense says the goal is to just to solve the problem period.

    There is and was no reason why a private company wasn’t already doing just that but none are because private companies won’t budge unless backed by a generous public research grant. The real kicker is that private companies want the government to take all the risk and let the private sector take the profit. Publicise the risk and privatise the profit.

  4. Anonymous

    February 1st, 2021

    With the UCP at the helm, all I can say is their handling of the Covid-19 pandemic in Alberta has been nothing short of abysmal, and it won’t get better. The same thing applies to anything else the UCP are looking after.

  5. Kang

    February 1st, 2021

    When one suggests the Conservatives should be eligible for a Darwin Award, in their culture, they think of it as a compliment.

    Incidentally, public health measures can work if your leadership respects them: Taiwan, with a population of just under 24 million has suffered only eight (8) total Covid deaths since the start of the plague. Don’t like islands? How about Viet Nam with almost 98 million people? Only 35 total deaths. Feeling a bit racist? How about Norway with just over 5 million people? As of yesterday, they have 567 total deaths. Alberta with a smaller population has 1,639 deaths, which is almost as pathetic as Canada with a total of 20,068 deaths (all numbers as of Jan 31/21).

    The new Covid variants are apparently more contagious and initial reports from MIT indicate some of the new vaccines may be less effective on them. Obviously our political class in general, and Conservatives and Liberals in particular, have gone from deserving a Darwin award to deserving jail time for criminal negligence causing death.

  6. Bruce Turton

    February 1st, 2021

    YES!! So very true and unfortunate. Would that the Federal Liberals with NDP backing would actually re-establish a Connaught type system of research and production that would be the envy of much of the world again. Alas, not too likely as the Liberals are not really out of the ideological loop of neoliberalism, as are most politicians throughout the world. Being beholden to corporatism is rather too endemic. Big $$$’s have a lot to say, but not a lot to offer in the way of livability and at least adequate livelihoods for us serfs.

  7. Just Me

    February 1st, 2021

    Canadians have already made their judgments about the Toole and Premier Angry Midget: they would rather see everyone dead than offend their voter base.

    This establishes that much more evidence that the CONs are a dead cult, like their GOP cousins. Rather than rational policy decisions, they thrive on conspiracy nonsense and other boogeymen to their base fearful and ignorant. One need only look at Kenney’s $7 billion on a Trump win. Or at the very least, a successful overthrow of the 2020 Election and the Republic. Yes, this is the level of the muck that the CONs are willing to slop around in.

    Canadians have no doubt that the CONs are guided by anti-maskers, anti-Vaxxers, and the most extreme of kook-burgers.

    Brian Mulroney does seem like a leftie when compared to this CON mob.

  8. Dave

    February 1st, 2021

    In the long run, how much vaccine was supplied this week or last week isn’t going to matter much. It is one of those things, the success or not, which that will be judged over a longer period say 6 months or so. I get that opposition parties feel they have to make a lot of noise about this, but I am not sure it has much effect politically. It is like a little dog constantly yapping. It gets your attention, but maybe not in a good way.

    As you pointed out decisions that affected Canada’s current ability to produce vaccine were made years ago by previous governments, so I don’t think it is accurate to try put all the blame on the current federal government for the situation we are in. I would hope we have learned some lessons out of this pandemic about the value of producing or doing more things more locally, but I suspect after this pandemic ends they may soon be forgotten.

    There is also a lot of hypocrisy here, particularly for the Federal Conservatives and some of their provincial brethren, to talk about producing PPE and vaccine in Canada now when it is politically convenient, when they and their predecessors privatized and ceded control of such things in the past. Here in Alberta the UCP Government has recently pushed tele-health services from a British company and diagnostic testing by an Australian company. They sure do love their far away multi national companies. Maybe they contribute more generously to their PAC’s or leadership campaigns. Who knows.

  9. Neil Lore

    February 1st, 2021

    Real good article. If Canadians weren’t too busy working to not get evicted, more of them could be educated on things like knowing enough history to remember Connaught labs, and it would be more difficult for our plutocratic masters to instruct our elected officials to work against our best interest. One of the best lines from Adam Smith that routinely gets edited out is what he calls “the vile maxim of the masters of mankind: all for us, and none for anyone else.”

  10. Farmer Brian

    February 2nd, 2021

    If you asked most Canadians which American president they felt was the most incompetent I am sure they would respond Donald Trump and on many fronts I would agree. But when it comes to Covid-19 vaccinations, Trump’s America out performed Justin Trudeau’s Canada. As of January 14,2021 30.6 million doses of covid-19 vaccine had been distributed in the U.S of which 11 million had been administered. As a comparison I found this CTV news article:In 29 days Canada has given enough vaccine doses to cover 1 percent of the population. In Canada by the 13th of January 388 000 doses had been administered. The U.S has roughly 10 times the population of Canada so a relative comparison would would be 3.88 million doses of vaccine administered in the U.S if it was being done at the same pace as we are in Canada. So Justin Trudeau is only managing to vaccinate Canadians at one third of the pace that Donald Trump was vaccinating Americans. But of course in Canada it is really the fault of Conservative policy from over 30 years ago?! Believe what you want but it is very sad when your government was being out performed by a government run by Donald Trump!

    • Anne

      February 2nd, 2021

      The US has vaccine production capacity, while Canada doesn’t. It’s important to this criticism that our vaccine capability, Connaught Labs, was sold by a conservative PM, Brian Mulroney.

      • Farmer Brian

        February 3rd, 2021

        Israel has the highest percentage of its citizens vaccinated in the world, approaching 50%. Israel has no domestic vaccination capability. Now you can argue there are certainly issues with how Israel has rolled out the program but lack of production capability hasn’t slowed them down. Sound management has yielded good results. Justin Trudeau bet on the wrong horse out of the gate in China!

    • Alan K Spiller

      February 2nd, 2021

      Maybe Farmer Brian should look at the facts. Who do you think has the most power in the world and has the ability to produce some of their own vaccine?

      We received the vaccine a month earlier than what we expected and due to the volumes that we knew were needed we knew there would be problems along the way , there has to be.

      While he blames Ottawa like Kenney wants him to do we hear of countries who have not received any does of vaccines at all and we knew that would happen , and my American relatives point out the fact that there are 30 states that are in the same boat as Alberta short of vaccine and waiting shipments.
      I would suggest that Farmer Brian keep his shirt on. I think Trudeau is doing the best that he can considering Canada has no say in the delivery of it and all the whining in the world won’t help.

  11. Alan K Spiller

    February 2nd, 2021

    It’s no secret that after these Reformers , starting with Ralph Klein, got control of our beloved Alberta Conservative party it’s been one financial disaster after another . Watching them deliberately destroy everything our conservative hero Peter Lougheed created for us is sickening.

    By destroying Lougheed’s royalties and tax structures Albertans have lost hundreds of billions of dollars in revenues, and by destroying his regulations they created the horrific orphan wells mess for our children, farmers, and ranchers to have to deal with.

    As soon as Kenney hired that rural hospital destructor from Saskatchewan we knew our rural doctors were in trouble. The game plain was to get them mad enough to leave so they would have an excuse to close down their health care services that Lougheed had created for them, while retired doctors were pointing out that it would definitely cost some rural Albertans their lives. She is responsible for closing 52 rural hospitals in Sask. and getting the NDP defeated by the Brad Wall conservatives, as friends from Saskatchewan have pointed out.

    After trying to destroy Lougheed’s provincial park system, he created for our enjoyment , they destroyed the regulations he had put on our eastern slopes to protect us from coal polluting our fresh water supply, without any care or concern. After the same coal corporation had been driven out of Australia and not allowed to operate there we were told.

    Their handling of the Covid crisis has been a farce and some of us are convinced that it has cost some of our seniors their lives, refusing to listen to our doctors has been their theme. Apparently they are a lot smarter.

    Then there is the Keystone XL pipeline farce that President Joe Biden couldn’t have made his intentions any clearer on but Reformers listen to no one, not even the most powerful man in the world and now they want our money back because of their damn stupidity and are trying to blame it on Trudeau.

    I don’t think Canadians outside of Alberta are that stupid, do you?

  12. Scotty on Denman

    February 2nd, 2021

    It is the habit of knaves like the HarperCons and their offspring in various nominal conservative parties across the land to get rid of public enterprises suddenly and then look around like somebody else farted: ‘Huh?…did you hear something?…I didn’t hear anything…wasn’t me…” The ploy is this: the faster you make something disappear, the easier it is to say—or behave as if— it never existed in the first place. But it’s not always easy to get away with and, accumulatively, voters eventually twig.

    But availing any opportunity to slag Prime Minister Trudeau rather blows their cover: here, pseudoCons like O’Toole and Kenney (alumni of the HarperCon universe), and the D’ohFo, oaf-ogre of Queen’s Park, blaming Trudeau for lack of national capacity to develop and mass-produce vaccines invites questions about a hitherto seldom recalled history, in this case that it was actually the Cons themselves, not Justin Trudeau, who privatized Connaught Labs; thus, if Canada’s lack of vaccine-making capacity is worthy of criticism in the grips of the year-long (so far) Covid pandemic, then the CPC itself should be blamed rather than be doing the blaming. Plainly O’Toole assumes Canadians will have forgotten Connaught Labs. Just as plainly: he intends to keep up the scapegoating whether they’ve forgotten or not: it just doesn’t matter, one way or the other, to his chauvinistic electoral base.

    Had the neo-right usurpers of nominal conservative parties kept their Covid bellows shut, the CPC’s imprudent sale of Connaught Labs might have remained well under the radar of public opinion. Other attempts at ‘sudden-public-enterprise disappearances’ have had mixed success— at flying under the radar, I mean. The CPC’s decommissioning of the federal scientific archive, for example, raised only momentary protest and has since slid off-radar; the attempted privatization of Ontario Hydro, in contrast, forced premier Mike Harris’ resignation while his successor led the guilty party to the electoral gallows—and the privatization was stopped dead, a double-trouble fail.

    Harris’ acolyte and admirer, then-BC premier Gordon Campbell, was inspired by Harris’ so-called “Common Sense Revolution” (which was supposed to make sense to public-enterprise shareholders that any profiteer may make off with their assets —and sometimes actually charge for the privilege of taking away their stuff). Gordo’s privatization of BC Rail was strictly deployed by the Common-Sense playbook of spells—sudden, unexpected (Campbell had promised NOT to sell BCR on the recent campaign), and announced to the public as a done deal. Yet, it was one that was subsequently found to be corruptly done, one that resulted in the conviction of two BC Liberal ministerial aides, that contributed to Gordo’s eventual resignation in disgrace and earned the enduring suspicion of the once-powerful regime—and might yet rear its ugly head under further investigation. In short, it was a public relations, administration, and accountability disaster which left even the judiciary smelling bad but, more importantly, a scam that ripped-off BC citizens for a billion-dollar public asset. (Nota Bene: as the BCR scandal slowly unfolded in court, Gordo postponed similar plans to privatize the gigantic BC Hydro—that is, in light of the Ontario Conservative government’s thrashing at the polls and ongoing investigation into the corrupt sale of BCR, Gordo’s cold feet decided to run to a piecemeal approach instead of the whole-hog method recommended by the ‘sudden-death’ privatization manoeuvre—which really only underscores his perfidy. In this sense, the failed Ontario Hydro IPO might be called a ‘triple-trouble fail’—‘quadruple’ if you count Gordo’s political demise.)

    The sudden privatization tactic has had mixed results for everybody. Sometimes, to sustain suddenness (!), the neo-right government must institute a ‘public relations’ dysinfo agency. Other times, an agency which should be public is born private so’s to avoid FOI requests (Alberta’s “War Room” investigators of alleged anti-Alberta operatives, for example). Still other times, an agency which should be public behaves as if it were private (the bogus “privatized” BC Ferries Services Inc contracted to administer the 100% publicly owned BC Ferries is, itself, 100% publicly owned but is allowed to hide its books from its real owners as if it were wholly private; the BC Office of Civil Forfeiture seizes what it alleges are proceeds of crime—only without public charges or trial in open court). The basic tactic is stealth, naturally suggesting that voters mightn’t approve of sudden privatization, or of the remuneration realized for the disposition of their share of the public weal, or of the rationale for privatization, or of the means by which it is done. Unfortunately for the perps, if and when these perfidies are revealed, it looks more like they’re trying to hide something unethical rather than spare the queasy middle class the sounds, sights and smells of ordinary, Bismarckian sausage-making.

    One thing I can’t blame the conservative imposters for is their sense of impending doom (I mean, I don’t blame them for feeling that way in the circumstances they should be blamed for) . The depth of their existential crisis is only made all the more apparent by the ethos CPC leader Erin O’Toole freely admitted during his leadership victory speech: shattered pseudoCon self-confidence can only be maintained by winning (or ‘taking back’) power instead of doing the job CPC MPs are elected to do: in the current parliament, to provide loyal opposition to cabinet’s governance for the sake of constructive criticism, consensual policy development, and legislation. Instead, the CPC’s struggle against voters’ democratic choice requires rote partisan assault against whomever holds power the CPC (but not voters) thinks it rightly deserves. It’s like saying the pseudoCon neo-right can only exist if it holds power. Given its raft of failures, both of us citizens and of its own members, that’s probably a good thing to know: if a party’s so obsessed with getting power, it’s probably best not to give it power. We might spend the next decade trying to figure out why we didn’t seem to understand this simple thing for so long (that is, at least half of the last forty years—the era of attempted neo-right globalization).

    Let me spell it out for my ‘conservative’ compatriots: any party which willingly exposes both its perfidy and its hypocrisy in order to gin the delusions of a chauvinistic base in the hope it can regain power and keep sabotaging public enterprises and ripping off citizens so’s to get and keep power forever (or, actually end history) simply has to be way too desperate to trust. But, you know, if O’Toole feels safe enough to expose his party’s hypocrisy by blaming Trudeau for the CPC’s own ill-advised privatization of Connaught Labs, I guess he’s already reckoned his electoral base is completely immune to any advice a nonCon like me might have to offer. I can’t promise I won’t relish saying “I told you so” when this dying cyst of reactionary puss makes its final orbit around the event horizon of its own black, black hole.

    Meanwhile, in a lift, O’Toole casually glances a the sole of his shoe, “…what?—Connaught Labs? The Atomic Energy public enterprise? The Lake Project? The federal science archive? Portraits of the Queen?…never heard of them. Phew! Did somebody step on a duck in here?…”

    Yeah, right, just get off the elevator on the next floor, okay?

    PS Now, I suppose, O’Toole will rail that the fed’s plan to recreate another vaccine research and manufactory is outrageously too little too late. Wait for it.

  13. VelmaV

    April 3rd, 2021

    The liberals must replace Trudeau. He’s incompetent. Certainly you can do better.

    People make mistakes. That’s ok. The dishonest attempt at deflection, not so much.


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