Canadians more concerned with actual fires than the foreign interference firestorm

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That two opposition parties moved away from foreign interference indicates that the public is not as engaged with the issue while wildfires rage across the country.

By Sheila Copps
First published in The Hill Times on June 5, 2023.

OTTAWA—The political fires surrounding foreign interference are being dwarfed by real fires.

Special rapporteur David Johnston’s decision to ignore a negative parliamentary vote could have added fuel to the firestorm.

But even Conservative Leader Pierre Poilievre toned down his Question Period rhetoric, asking only one foreign influence question on June 1, the day following the Johnston vote. NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh, who introduced the “Dump Johnston” resolution, did not lead off on that issue, focusing instead on fires in Nova Scotia.

The fact that two major opposition parties moved away from Johnston indicates that the public is not as engaged with the issue as some believe.

Most people don’t know David Johnston, but they do know that he served two different governments and has a personal history as a non-partisan. He has been widely recognized for his experience in legal and university sectors, and accepted the responsibilities of being governor general.

The opposition may not like Johnston’s answer, but it is pretty hard to argue with his logic. In his decision to stay on, Johnston made it clear that he was mandated by the government and could not be removed by Parliament.

That is obvious. But it doesn’t coincide with the opposition’s attempt to keep the issue burning.

A majority in parliament should wield huge political clout. But by refusing to annul his own mandate, Johnston is banking on the fact that his personal history is strong enough to withstand the critics.

And the public may be moving on to other issues.

With real fires burning across the country, Canadians are rightly focused on that.

With firefighters working round the clock in Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, Quebec, Ontario, Saskatchewan and Alberta, Canadians are getting a taste of the damage that global warming can wreak upon a country with so much land vulnerable to forest fires.

According to the federal government, multiple fires are the new normal.

With the summer still ahead, politicians are rightfully concerned about fire fatigue. Professional help to fight the fires has arrived from as far away as South Africa.

More than 200 homes have burnt to the ground in Nova Scotia, with evacuees awaiting the green light to return to residences that still remain.

The forest fires and floods were predicted by scientists more than a quarter century ago, but the human toll taken by the heating of the planet is only starting to be felt.

The mayor of Halifax and the premier of Nova Scotia are working diligently with emergency services to keep residents of that city safe and battle the flames. They are also working with Ottawa to clarify the level of support coming from the federal government once the rebuilding process begins.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau tweeted personally that he would be there for any measures required to restore normalcy.

The country’s attention has been riveted by urban encroachment and the speed of fires in Halifax. The sister of a friend of mine had 10 minutes to get out of her house, which subsequently burned to the ground in a matter of hours.

The before and after pictures of her home were devastating. There was literally nothing left. No photos, no mementoes, nothing.

She has insurance, but it is going to take months to figure out whether her family will rebuild onsite or simply move on.

Heat wave warnings are in place across the country and the military is moving in to help with the aftermath of the fires in Nova Scotia. But we should expect that the evacuations being suffered in eastern Canada will continue over the summer in all parts of the country.

There are currently 2,400 firefighters attacking blazes in Alberta. Northern Quebec is currently evacuating citizens from two smaller communities.

When it comes to political issues, the public’s attention is shifting just as quickly.

At a press conference to update citizens on the situation in Nova Scotia, Progressive Conservative Premier Tim Houston accused the federal government of dragging its feet on post-Hurricane Fiona funding. He urged the federal Liberals not to repeat that mistake.

The Prime Minister’s Office rebutted his claim, saying the Fiona fund was approved within six hours of receiving the request.

In an emergency situation, all parties work together, but as the damages mount, forest fires can also become a political issue.

In the end, the real fires facing Canadians have nothing to do with China.

Sheila Copps is a former Jean Chrétien-era cabinet minister and a former deputy prime minister. Follow her on Twitter at @Sheila_Copps.