Mar 3, 2022

Shifting From the Pandemic to a Sustainable and Secure Future

Canada appears to be exiting the acute phase of the global COVID-19 pandemic as an “outlier” of sorts, mainly because the country has managed to build and sustain a critical mass of public health protection.[1] The two-year crisis has claimed the lives of about 36,636 people,[2] severely tested the Canada’s national and regional health care systems, and caused a surge in mental health issues. [3] But the national economy performed better than expected, with the gross domestic product (GDP) rising 4.6% in 2021, after a record decline of -5.2% in 2020.[4]

The critical drivers of Canada’s relative “success” are both institutional and social. They include on the one hand, the effectiveness of federally procured COVID-19 vaccines and regionally managed vaccination campaigns, and on the other, high levels of government trust and compliance with public health guidance. These combined factors have created sufficient policy space for the phased relaxation of social gathering and mobility restrictions across the country – a welcome sign of better times ahead. On that basis, business and consumer confidence are returning. Globe-trotting travelers are gathering at Canada’s airports and the vibrancy of city-life is rebounding, just as Winter turns to Spring.

Nevertheless, it is unrealistic to expect that Canada’s transition throughout 2022 (possibly extending to 2023) is going to be risk-free and orderly. There are three main reasons. First, Canada’s pandemic experience has revealed the vulnerability of the country’s federal system to long-tail risks like the occupation of downtown Ottawa by the so-called “Freedom Convoy.”  Second, the shape-shift nature of the SARS-CoV-2 virus means that there is unlikely to be a single endpoint to the global pandemic. In a hyper-connected world with suboptimal vaccination and reduced SARS-CoV-2 testing, Canada’s major cities could face an elevated risk of COVID-19 disease transmission and infectious outbreaks for the foreseeable future. A third and interconnected reason why Canada’s near-term future could involve higher than anticipated levels of risk is the growing uncertainty associated with the dangers of climate-induced environmental destruction.

As Canada adapts to the next phase of the global pandemic, more attention should be invested in developing a robust all-hazards risk management approach among cities. While there is scope for bold visions about how to strengthen Canada’s future resilience and prosperity, that integrated policy work must be grounded in a realistic appraisal of today’s urban security risks.

Ottawa: National Capital Siege

On 15 January 2022, the Canadian federal government issued a mandatory vaccination rule for all long-haul truckers crossing the international land border with the United States. The United States government enacted its own vaccine requirement for truckers one week later. By month’s end, a loose network of anti-vaccine mandate protesters including a large convoy of truckers had occupied the downtown streets of Ottawa, Canada’s national capital and fourth largest city (population: 1,017,449). Media reporting indicated that self-professed convoy organizers expressed political views that are antithetical to Canada’s multicultural heritage and pluralist social values.[5] The organizers also publicly refused to vacate Ottawa unless the federal government acquiesced to their political demands which included an end to the vaccine mandates (a regional responsibility) as well as the dissolution of the recently elected parliament (later rescinded).

For three weeks, all three levels of government in Canada dithered while the anti-vaccine protesters fortified their street encampments, extended their logistical supply networks (ie., gas and food), and strengthened their social media campaign. On weekends, the crowd swelled to several thousand people and overwhelmed the Ottawa Police Services. A group of residents and business owners, frustrated with the ineptitude of city councilors and managers, sought, and won a court injunction forcing the truckers to end their incessant horn blowing. Meanwhile, the Ottawa Police Services made few arrests as downtown roads remained choked with parked vehicles. Even the federal Minister of Emergency Preparedness, Bill Blair, stated that the failure of the Ottawa Police Service to secure the city was “inexplicable.”[6]

It was only after a second group of anti-vaccine demonstrators blockaded the Ambassador Bridge on 7 February and severed a strategically important transportation corridor for North America’s Great Lakes economic region, that the federal government intervened decisively and forcefully. On 14 February, Prime Minister Trudeau invoked the Emergencies Act (1988), granting federal ministers extraordinary authority to mobilize coercive power in managing emergency situations.[7] Within a few days, the combined law enforcement teams that were dispatched from across the country began clearing the makeshift barricades, vehicles, and defiant protestors from the “redzone” – a large downtown section of Ottawa encompassing the Parliamentary precinct, many federal government headquarters, corporate offices and retail stores, and some foreign embassies. By the evening of 18 February, the police had impounded 115 vehicles, arrested 191 defiant protesters of which 110 were charged for various criminal offenses.[8] The spectacle of hundreds of police tactical officers battling an equal number of defiant protestors for three days in the streets of Ottawa is a stark contrast to the buoyant image of a revitalized city openly contemplated by at least one policy think tank just weeks earlier.[9]

Warning Signs

Future generations will invariably look for historic lessons to evaluate the significance of the Ottawa siege and occupation of the Parliamentary precinct. They will not have to look far. There are no less than two significant parallels between the siege of Ottawa in February 2022, and the violent insurrection of Washington, DC, on 6 January 2021. The first similarity is the derisory behaviour of national security agencies when faced with defending their respective national capitals. Even casual observers of urban history unschooled in early warning and political risk analysis, understand that what makes modern cities so fascinating is that they function both as hotbeds of creative innovation and political targets of social unrest.

A second parallel between the two threat incidents is the apparent inattentiveness to the possible formation of long-tail risks in the wake of the pandemic emergency. A long-tail risk is a low-probability, high-impact event that is not easily understood by statistical modeling and for that reason overlooked even by experienced analysts.[10] Canadian policymakers cannot claim that the Ottawa siege and occupation was unprecedented given the media coverage and U.S. criminal investigation of the national capital riot. According to open-source media reporting, Canada’s Integrated Terrorism Assessment Centre (ITAC), an intelligence fusion centre within the Canadian Security and Intelligence Service (CSIS), had briefed Canadian decision-makers about the threat of extremist infiltrators “advocating civil war” which also included the possibility of “copy-cat” demonstrations elsewhere in the country.[11] However, that threat warning was reportedly prepared in late January 2022 and may not have provided sufficient lead time for local officials to prepare a robust contingency plan.


These overlapping failures in leadership and foresight reflect an endemic culture of complacency within Canada that is well-documented by researchers and government oversight bodies. Policymakers at all government levels must now dedicate themselves to repairing the loss of citizens’ trust in Canada’s public institutions. That will not be an easy undertaking. On 16 February 2022, two days after the invocation of the federal Emergencies Act, Ottawa City Council imploded in a three-hour televised meeting, unable to cope with the public and political pressure of the unlawful occupation.[12] The federal government’s integrity has also been severely damaged even though it has no direct responsibility for urban governance. Nationally, few Canadians approve of the federal government’s management of the Ottawa occupation. In a recent public opinion poll, 65% of Canadians perceived that the Prime Minister made the situation worse.[13] With the Ontario provincial election a few months away, Premier Doug Ford may also be facing a political backlash if voters think that he hesitated to invoke the regional state of emergency.

The well-funded Ottawa occupiers that mobilized in opposition to the country’s public health interventions is a cautionary tale about the challenge of urban planning and the perils of siloed managerialism. The long-tail risk of the pandemic protest, including the “copy-cat” demonstrations at multiple Canada-US land border crossings, has been a resource-intensive diversion from the much-needed recovery process. This is unfortunate given that Canada’s productivity, competitiveness, and business investments remain stagnant or in decline relative to its peer competitors. Even more regrettable, the task of reviving the economy is likely to be more uneven and complicated than previously forecasted. Further complicating the situation is many cities, important catalysts for the country’s rebound, are beholden to outdated definitions of urban security and resilience. To better prepare for an uncertain future, municipal governments need to proactively broaden their policy apertures and complementary repertoire of in-house analytical capabilities.

Urban Nation: Sustainable Security Shift   

Four months after 190 world leaders converged upon on Glasgow, Scotland, for the Conference of Parties (COP 26) conference in November 2021, where they and committed to meaningful action on climate change, the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released its sixth assessment report on the drivers of global climate change. [14] The expert analysis of the lead authors is that while some aspects of global climate change are permanent, more catastrophic outcomes can be avoided if the global temperature rise is kept within a margin of 1.5 degrees Celsius.

The IPCC report warns about the impacts of human-induced climate change as well as the long-term repercussions of policy inaction. It explains that the world will increase its exposure to multiple climate-induced hazards (ie., extreme weather events like heatwaves, flooding, sea-level rise), prompting secondary effects like large-scale population displacements, unless countries scale up their COP 26 commitments immediately. This is a sobering assessment for Canada which has been warming faster than the rest of the world despite three decades of collaborative action on climate change.

Crossing the Rubicon

In 2022, Canada will introduce its two-phase National Adaptation Strategy. The federal government has promised to bring together regional governments, local communities, and the private sector around a shared vision for a more sustainable and resilient future. Priority action by policymakers must be directed towards balancing climate mitigation, through aggressive emission reductions targets, and adaptation to climate-induced impacts (ie. sea level rise, species extinction) that are irreversible. Additionally, the federal strategy must comprehensively address today’s urgent demands and enhance all-government capacity to better anticipate tomorrow’s human security challenges, consistent with the goals and targets of the United Nations 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development (2015).[15] Satisfying that twin objective will require the establishment of agile institutions that foster proactive, multi-governance action including collaborative arrangements with enterprising risk takers.

Establishing a baseline level of adaptation and resilience is a difficult test for an expansive and population-dense country like Canada which has been deficient in meeting its existing commitments.[16] The challenges of moving forward expeditiously are manifold. First, climate-induced disasters and their related impacts are not evenly distributed geographically or demographically. For example, northern Canadian regions are warming at twice the global rate while the country’s marine ecosystems are threatened by acidification, overfishing, and pollution. Certain demographic groups are less adaptable to changing environmental conditions, putting them at a greater risk should current circumstances worsen. A second challenge is that Canada’s shift to sustainable security promises to be complicated and unpredictable, despite the federal government’s promise to drastically reduce its carbon emissions by 40-50% (below 2005 levels) by 2030.

The planned transition from carbon-based to renewable energy sources in an accelerated manner implicates every Canadian region, city, economic sector, and business. However, Canada has yet to reach an inter-governmental consensus on the challenges and opportunities that this transition portends. This, a third major challenge, means that some core assumptions about how best to strategically position Canada’s economy and workforce in the low-carbon world, may warrant further analysis. While there are many open questions about the unfolding of these developments in the near-term future, what remains clear is the strategic role that Canada’s cities are bound to play.

Anticipating 2030

In February 2022, amid the turmoil of the Ottawa occupation, Statistics Canada began releasing the first reports of the 2021 Census of Population.[17] Since the last census of population in 2016, Canada’s population has grown to just under 37 million, an increase of 5.2% which is the highest among the G7 countries. Eighty percent Canada’s population growth was driven by large-scale immigration, which tapered off in 2020, while the in-country birth rate, or natural growth, accounted for 20%.

The preliminary census findings also show that 27.3 million people, or about 73% of the total population, reside in 41 of the country’s largest urban centres (ie., more than 100,000). At the time of the last population census, Canada had 35 large urban centres. The census data also indicates the onset of a sizable exodus from the largest cities (in reaction to skyrocketing housing prices (ie., Vancouver and Toronto) to smaller cities with more affordable housing. In combination, Canada’s immigration-induced urbanization and urban sprawl reflect an intensification of population mobility trends that will have significant implications for Canada’s national adaptation strategy, both today and tomorrow.

With less than a decade until 2030, Canada’s sustainable security shift must be strategically focused and purposeful. A focus on sustainable urbanism is the most strategic way for national policy makers to “road-test” innovative visions for the low-carbon economic transition and to promote social resilience through compact urban planning designs (ie., eco-city model). At its core, urban sustainability exemplifies the federal government’s goal of hastening socially inclusive and environmentally friendly economic growth. From a tactical perspective, urban density and proximity provide the shortest route to low-impact living, notwithstanding the cumulative impacts of technologically driven-life-style choices and Canada’s new immigration targets (400,000+ per annum) on scarce ecological “services” (ie., clean air, fresh water, non-renewable energy).[18] On a strategic level, cities are logical places for Canada to fulfill its United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (ie., SDG 11, Sustainable Cities and Communities) and catch-up with a majority public opinion that supports bold and ambitious climate action.

All-Hazards Risk Management Approach: Centering Cities  

The global pandemic has expanded and intensified some underlying risks that jeopardize Canada’s international reputation as an economically competitive, resilient, and democratic country. Additionally, the clumsy government response to the anti-vaccine protests and Canada’s doleful sustainability record, underscore the need for more sophisticated methods of securing an open and democratic society.

In 2022, policy discussions in Canada are likely to gravitate towards the changing role of cities and their complicated power-sharing relationship with higher levels of government. Given that complex emergencies are mostly local in nature, city managers will need to keep up with the evolving nature of security threats and complex emergencies in close partnership with their provincial and national counterparts. Now that the country appears to have moved past the worst phase of the global pandemic crisis, urban leaders should have time to proactively review their all-hazard risk management strategies with a view to improving their mitigation and emergency response capabilities.

All-hazard risk management is an evolving area of urban governance and a strategic management challenge for local leaders. In the all-hazards approach, risk managers do not restrict their focus to imminent or the most impactful events when assessing emergency response capacities and adaptation requirements. At the same time, they do not engage in hedging behaviour by scattering their operational resources to cover every imaginable scenario. In recognition of the asymmetrical nature of contemporary security threats (including long-tail risks), this risk management approach focuses on strengthening capabilities and responses that are most strategic and impactful. Effectively managed, the all-hazards approach provides an integrated framework to facilitate multi-level governance, knowledge sharing, and organizational learning.

A New Deal for Cities?

Translating high-level policy frameworks into local planning actions is usually an incremental and long-term process. But this is an auspicious time for municipalities to forge stronger relations with the federal government by leveraging the cross-cutting urban issues highlighted in Prime Minister Trudeau’s mandate letters to the federal cabinet. The mandate letters prioritize the work of the federal government in each parliamentary session, providing strategic guidance to individual cabinet members. Like climate mitigation and adaptation, the challenge of urban governance (ie., public transit, affordable housing, immigration) is spread across multiple cabinet portfolios. Embedding urban governance tasks in the mandate letters represents a unique opportunity to mitigate the persistent dysfunction within Canadian federalism. In fact, this may be the best time to tackle urban governance issues since June 2001, when federal finance minister Paul Martin spoke about a “new deal for Canadian cities” at the annual meeting of the Canadian Federation of Canadian Municipalities (FCM).[19] The Big City Mayors Caucus of the Canadian Federation of Municipalities (FCM) may be an ideal platform to advance those strategic discussions since it has an established relationship with the Deputy Prime Minister.[20]


Present-day global risks are evolving faster than the adaptive rates of Canadian institutions that are responsible for securing an open and democratic society. This disjunction increases the vulnerability of Canadian municipalities which are often left scrambling in emergency situations. The prolonged crisis of the global COVID-19 pandemic, in combination with the consequences of climate-induced environmental emergencies, underscores the strategic importance of cities in mitigating and adapting to complex threat scenarios. Although the federal government has implicitly recognized that the pathway to a more sustainable and secure future runs through Canada’s cities, meaningful progress on sustainable security is just beginning. The all-hazards risk management framework provides for municipalities to realistically assess their emergency response requirements and to help federal and provincial government better understand the dynamic operating environment. Over the next few months, as Canada’s federal ministers develop and refine their policy priorities for the current session of parliament, local government authorities should advance quickly to shape this historical moment to their long-term advantage.


[1] National Preparedness Collaborators, “Pandemic Preparedness and COVID-19: An Exploratory Analysis of Infection and Fatality Rates, and Contextual Factors Associated with Preparedness in 177 Countries, From Jan 1 2020, to Sept 30, 2021,” The Lancet (1 February 2022).

[2] Health Canada, “COVID-19 Daily Epidemiology Update,” (24 February 2022).

[3] Angus Reid Institute, “Pandemic Fatigue: One-in-Three Canadians Report Struggles with Mental Health; 23% Say They’re Depressed,” (24 January 2022).

[4] Statistics Canada, “Gross Domestic Product, Income and Expenditure, Fourth Quarter 2021,” The Daily (1 March 2022).

[5] Rachel Gilmore, “Some Trucker Convoy Organizers Have History of White Nationalism, Racism,” Global News (29 January 2022).; Kawser Ahmed, “Dismantling Freedom Convoy Must Be Coupled with Education on the Dangers of Extremism,” The Conversation (14 February 2022).

[6] Catharine Tunney, “Government Considering Emergency Powers with Appropriate Caution, Federal Minister Says,” CBC News (13 February 2022).

[7] Government of Canada, Department of Justice Canada, The Emergencies Act, (17 February 2022).

[8] City of Ottawa, Ottawa Police Services, “Update on Police Operations to Remove Unlawful Protesters,” News and Media (21 February 2022).

[9] Kathryn Kay, “How COVID-19 Could Bring a Downtown Ottawa Revival, Policy Options (14 December 2021).

[10] Ian Bremmer, The Fat Tail: Political Knowledge in an Uncertain World (2009). Oxford: Oxford University Press.

[11] Justin Ling, “Canada Was Warned Before Protests That Violent Extremists Infiltrated Canada,” The Guardian (17 February 2022).

[12] Joanne Chianello, “How a council Meltdown Let Down a City in Crisis,” CBC News (22 February 2022).

[13] Angus Reid Institute, “Blockade Backlash: Three-in-Four Canadians Tell Convoy Protesters to Go Home,” (14 February 2022).

[14] United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), “Climate Change 2022: Impacts, Adaptation and Vulnerability,” Sixth Assessment Report (27 February 2022).

[15] Government of Canada, Employment and Social Development Canada (ESDC), “Canada Takes Acton on the 2030 Agenda and the Sustainable Development Goals,” (7 January 2022).

[16] Office of the Auditor General of Canada, Reports of the Commissioner of the Environment and Sustainable Development to the Parliament of Canada, “Lessons Learned from Canada’s Record on Climate Change,” (2021).

[17] Government of Canada, Statistics Canada, Census Program, “2021 Census of Population” (9 February 2022).

[18] Jennie Moore, Cornelia Sussmann, and William E. Rees, “Vancouver’s Sustainability Gap and Lessons from the Southeast False Creek Model Sustainability Community,” in Penny Gurstein and Tom Hutton ed., Planning on the Edge: Vancouver and the Challenges of Reconciliation, Social Justice, and Sustainable Development (2019). Vancouver: UBC Press.

[19] David Lewis Stein, “Canada’s Cities Seek a New Status: Municipalities Push for a Charter with Powers and Funding,” Federations, Vol. 3, No 1 (February-March 2003).

[20] Government of Canada, Department of Finance, “Deputy Minister Speaks with Canada’s Big City Mayors,” Readout (31 March 2021).


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