Riding the first wave in Quebec
As I began to write this review, the occupation of downtown Ottawa by anti-mandate protesters, anti-vaccine militants, and right-wing populist extremists was unfolding. For weeks, the horns of big rigs that jammed the streets near Parliament Hill had kept residents awake. In a city of rule-respecting public servants, the culture shock was huge.
In this context, it was almost a relief to return to the early shock of another crisis, through Alec Castonguay’s Le printemps le plus long (The longest spring), a detailed account of how Quebec responded to the first wave of the coronavirus. Castonguay is a talented reporter who, not long after his book was published, in March 2021, left the magazine L’Actualité to become the host of Radio-Canada’s daily news program Midi info. His narrative begins with a phone call from Yves Ouellet, the province’s top public servant, to a long-time colleague, René Dufresne, the deputy minister of agriculture, fisheries, and food. “René, how long can we live in Quebec eating mainly pork, chicken, and eggs?” Ouellet asked on March 13, 2020, worried that the province would run out of groceries.
By then, store shelves had been emptied by panicky shoppers, and the premier, François Legault, had announced a series of restrictions, along with the closures of schools and daycare centres. “We can tough it out a long time eating lard and yellow potatoes,” quipped Dufresne. But behind the jokes, both men were worried. For his part, Legault admitted to Castonguay that he too was scared. This was winter in Quebec, and the prospect of the international border being closed to fruit and vegetable imports was unnerving. Provincial authorities were in constant contact with the federal government, which assured Quebec that it was negotiating with the Trump administration to keep food and prescription drugs moving, even if the border did shut down. Meanwhile, they were appraising various telecommunications networks, which were suddenly under pressure as the working world moved online. The fragility of those networks and of so many other features of modern life that we take for granted surprised everyone.
In May 2021, the American writer Michael Lewis published The Premonition, about the public health officials and epidemiologists who had long predicted that something like COVID-19 would occur. A month later, the New Yorker staff writer Lawrence Wright published The Plague Year. Pandemics, Wright observed, “are disruptive, divisive, and always political. Science does not necessarily get the last word. Political leaders have to balance saving lives and saving the economy.” A pandemic is also the type of event ripe for “blame-shifting and bitter recriminations,” one that’s sure to “generate irrational actions.”
Wright drew some sweeping conclusions, and he identified two key factors determining early success with COVID: experience and leadership. Those countries that had been stricken by previous epidemics — whether SARS, MERS, HIV, or Ebola — did better than those that had not. The same was true of nations and states that were led “by strong, compassionate, decisive leaders who speak candidly with their constituents.”
There are advantages and disadvantages to getting a book out quickly during a crisis. One advantage is immediacy. Another is the addition of depth, access, and context to the flow of daily news. The disadvantage, though, is the risk of being overtaken by events. The optimism that Wright conveyed in The Plague Year — thanks to the remarkably quick development of vaccines — now seems dated. The solidarity with front-line workers and the pot-banging enthusiasm of those first days are distant memories indeed.
With his pandemic volume, which has sold an impressive 13,000 copies in Quebec, Castonguay also reflects the rosy outlook of early 2021, but his strength as a journalist — his curiosity and his ability to follow his nose to get a story — is nonetheless noteworthy. Ten years ago, he wrote a lengthy account of the formation of the Coalition Avenir Québec and, in doing so, won Legault’s confidence, an achievement that clearly opened doors in the premier’s office and in the senior ranks of the public service. So even if prematurely optimistic, Le printemps le plus long is a fascinating insider look at Quebec’s initial response to “the worst humanitarian and health crisis in our history.”
Castonguay paints vivid portraits of the men and women around Legault, as well as their colleagues throughout the provincial health care system. Some, including Horacio Arruda, the former director of public health, became known across the country. Others include Michel Léveillé, a veteran of crisis communications who previously worked on the devastating train derailment in Lac-Mégantic in 2013 and the floods in Alberta that same year, plus the fires in Fort McMurray in 2016.
Despite his tight focus on Quebec, Castonguay also describes tensions inside the federal cabinet, including over the Canada-U.S. border: such high-ranking politicians as Chrystia Freeland, Mélanie Joly, and Pablo Rodriguez argued in favour of closing it, while Justin Trudeau was reluctant to do so. Similarly, Castonguay captures Freeland’s shock when Donald Trump blocked the export of medical supplies to Canada, along with the all-hands-on-deck scramble to reverse that move.
The book touches upon other fateful decisions, such as the transfer of elderly patients from hospitals to long-term care in order to free up capacity. Even by the end of 2020, it was possible to see that this was a mistake — one that led to disastrous outbreaks among patients and staff. Castonguay quotes provincial officials who concede that if they had to do it again, they would make different choices.
Occasionally, journalists pay a price for access. Castonguay graphically conveys the numerous pressures and the tensions among key players in Quebec City and, less often, in Ottawa. He vividly shows how some feared that Quebec’s entire health care system would collapse. But there are also times when he lets Legault off the hook. He describes, for example, how Legault and others were taken aback by revelations, first reported in the Montreal Gazette by Aaron Derfel, that conditions in the Herron long-term-care facility were appalling. But he neglects to mention that Legault publicly lashed out at Derfel several times — at news conferences and in parliamentary committees — accusing him of systematically trying to discredit the provincial government. The premier who emerges in Castonguay’s account is certainly impatient, but he’s not as angry and thin-skinned as the one who blamed a reporter for his problems.
Nonetheless, Le printemps le plus long is an important and instructive look at one government’s handling of a health emergency. Castonguay concludes, perhaps prematurely, by saying that the shock of COVID-19 has revealed our collective and individual strengths and weaknesses: “Despite the noisy conspiracy-minded minority, thrown off stride by an event that is at once too simple, abstract, and too difficult to understand, science and knowledge have proven their usefulness in a crisis. Knowledge and the knowledgeable are back.” He also suggests that “the state as an engine of change” has made a comeback. “When the situation is serious, governments have shown that their ability to act is almost without limit.”
Perhaps at one point in this continuing ordeal, reading that bracing hopefulness would have been encouraging. But it was certainly more difficult to sustain hope as the noisy conspiracy-minded minority occupied the streets of Ottawa, venting their rage at knowledge and the knowledgeable.