As Canadian governments, both Federal and Provincial, have been fighting Covid-19 and doing their best to meet the needs to the public, that effort has required steps to be taken that some of those governments wouldn’t want to normally do. We’ve seen government intervention and support for people, organizations, and businesses on a scale that we’ve never seen, and it’s generally accepted that this is just the beginning of the help that will be needed.

For parties and governments from the conservative side of the ideological spectrum, this has brought responses that would normally fly completely in the face of their ideologies. We have seen conservative governments in Ontario, Quebec, New Brunswick, PEI and even the United Kingdom embrace the role of government to help and address the needs right in front of us. It’s happened to such a point that even “The Beaverton” has been able to joke about Ontario Premier Doug Ford being tested for contracting socialism. These are strange days indeed.

To their credit, most of those conservative leaders have done what was needed, even if it didn’t jive with their political view on the world. But that hasn’t been universal, as Alberta Premier Jason Kenney showed us when he laid on 25,000 education workers a while back, a move that spoke more to his ideology than common sense in the middle of a global pandemic. And now today out of Manitoba we’re hearing rumblings about another conservative Premier thinking about using this moment of crisis to advance an ideological goal, rumblings that fly completely in the face of the lessons we’re learning during this pandemic:

Yes folks, the Conservative government of Brian Pallister is looking at this moment of crisis as an opportunity to kneecap the capacity and scope of the services that Manitobans depend on. Last week, news came out that Pallister was trying to revive the “Rae Days” concept, bringing it to Manitoba and putting some of their employees on E.I. to help stretch funds. That same day news broke that Pallister’s government was “looking to claw back or cancel funding to service providers it doesn’t deem essential during the COVID-19 pandemic”, giving all government departments a mere couple of days to “compile spreadsheets of all the funding and grants they give to non-governmental service providers for the current fiscal year.”

Manitoba is not the wealthiest province and it’s understandable that their provincial government might be having a hard time coping with the extra expenses. So normally it would be understandable if a government was trying to find a best way to use its resources. But when it comes to Brian Pallister, you cannot use that assumption. In the middle of this pandemic, Pallister has used the moment to pass other legislation that has nothing to do with fighting Covid-19, including most gallingly when his government buried in their latest budget bill a provision to “legally end the ability of current and former children in care to sue the Manitoba government for clawing back their monthly Children’s Special Allowance.” With that move the Pallister government used the cover of a global pandemic to take an estimated $250 million from Indigenous children in care in the province. Not only is that outrageous, it speaks to the mindset and approach of this government.

With ugly examples like that, it’s easy to understand why Manitoba’s public servants don’t trust this government in their intentions. This is compounded when you see some of the language coming out of the government itself. As CBC Winnipeg’s Bartley Kives points out today, the language used in one request from Manitoba’s Treasury Board Secretariat raises seriously, legitimate concerns about Pallister’s intents. As it was put to all different agencies, universities, and such in this document,  “Join us in thinking about ‘Government 2.0… How will all organizations emerge post-COVID-19 as more agile and relevant parts of government? The world will have changed forever — how will your own organization?”

That folks, is as clear a signal of intent as you can get. Usually you don’t ask questions about how to make government more “agile” or “relevant” when you’re looking at improving government services. Usually those are the buzzwords that accompany initiatives to slash government services, eliminate jobs and leave the people with less help. The timing of this is not only disturbing, as it’s clearly an attempt to use the chaos and difficulties of the largest public health crisis in a century to advance his own partisan, ideological goals. It’s also disturbing in that these moves completely ignore the actually needs of people and the lessons that this moment is teaching us.

We’re in a time when we’re seeing that government surely has a place and role in our lives, contrary to what conservative politicians have been pushing for decades. Maybe worst of all, we have seen concrete examples of what happens when governments cut services and lay off thousands of workers in the middle of such a crisis. That was what happened at the beginning of the Great Depression, and we saw the economic ruin and damage those moves by governments of the day created. It was so awful that as our country came out of that time, we saw forward-looking governments learn from those mistakes and start to build the social safety net that we became proud of.

Since the 1980’s we’ve seen that safety net targeted and eaten away at, by conservative politicians who decried the role of government and who looked to remove red tape. That had continued unabated until this crisis hit us and so many people of all ideological stripes were reminded of why we had that net to begin with. We’ve seen the inherent value of having that safety net in place, as governments have scrambled to try to rebuild it and undo the damage of the past 40 years, doing it all on the fly. And despite that experience so far when other political leaders, including conservatives, are talking about rebalancing those needs & rebuilding that safety net, Brian Pallister has decided to whistle past the graveyard and keep on his safe path. “Facts and experience be damned” seems to be the approach of this government.

Now Pallister’s government says this is not the case at all, that they have no intent to use this crisis as cover and slash government services permanently. That’s despite the fact that in the same CBC piece, Manitoba Organization of Faculties president Scott Forbes is quoted saying he was told by Economic Development and Training Minister Ralph Eichler that “a 30-per-cent cut to universities would result in a new funding baseline for post-secondary education, going forward.” That sounds like a permanent cut to me. So someone is not telling the truth here and given the track records, I’m more inclined to take Mr. Forbes at his word than the Pallister government. This is a government that has proved that it’s more interested in its ideology than doing what’s needed, and in moments like these that’s just unacceptable. People will remember moves like these, and the people who decided to use these moments to do things like this. Making a move like this is like trying to save a plane in flight by cutting off its wings. History has taught us that doesn’t work, and we don’t need to repeat the mistakes of the Great Depression today to figure that out.