by Isabel Mosseler

Published April 4, 2020

Marc Serré is back at home in Verner, ensconced in his house as everyone else is, keeping the lines open to his constituents in the safest ways possible to protect the health and safety of his staff. The Nickel Belt MP has been inundated with questions and concerns, of course, as people try to figure out how they will come out of the COVID-19 crisis and how recently-announced government aid will help them if they’ve lost their job, are self-employed and not earning income, or otherwise affected by this unprecedented situation.

“We’re doing the best we can… I’ve been going to the office a few times a week to sign stuff… We have all the staff working from home and have regular staff meetings by conference call. Individually we use Zoom, that’s working really well. We also, right from day one, got IT to make sure all staff could answer parliamentary emails from home, set up March 13th… My staff are still doing case work, CPP, EI. We’ve got a lot less passports, that’s all… At the beginning there was a lot more concern about the unknown and confusion, should we stay home?… There’s more awareness today than 2 weeks ago… Now people are wondering how long this is going to last, and every family is different. My wife is working every day at a retail store in Sudbury. … People are worried, with reason.  Every situation is different. I’m worried about my Mom.”

His mother, Jeannine Serré, lives alone in Sturgeon Falls. “We set up Zoom with her, and she takes walks around the parking lot. I call her every day.” Serré himself had to self-quarantine for 14 days because he went to the same PDAC mining conference in Toronto where a Sudbury man was infected. “That was March 10th, right at the beginning.” Additionally his mother lives in a seniors’ facility. “Forty percent of deaths in Canada are nursing home related. So the message is - be cautious in nursing homes or apartments with lots of seniors,” he stresses.

Serré notes that adjusted policy is coming out of Ottawa daily, and his boss, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, is addressing the nation daily. “Every day or second day, there are new policies coming on board, which is the right approach to phase this in. On Friday, he provided for United Way to help out delivering food, and the Kid’s Help Line.” There are regular caucus and government calls every day, so MPs have an opportunity to ask questions and get updates. Everything is transparent. “We have Dr. Tam (Chief Public Health Officer of Canada), and part of the challenge is to make sure we have the health approach first. The key here is to inform people and at the same time assure people we are on this and moving forward. Some people are concerned we aren’t moving fast enough, but Canada is a large federation of provinces. This is a good example of the federal government working closely with the provinces, and the provinces working with the municipalities.”

While there is always the odd political jab, Serré feels a lot of differences are being put aside to face this crisis together. “It’s important we find ways, municipally, provincially and federally to get the job done…  In general it’s been a good example of how things should work, as compared to south of the border in the U.S.” Serré notes that everyone has concerns about the failures in the American response. “You know 30-40% of our economy is dependent on the US. (…) We have the longest unprotected border, $2.4 billion a day in trade. A lot of jobs are dependent on the trade between the two countries. Possible future protectionism by this current administration is a concern. But at this point we’re not talking about recovery. We’re talking about keeping people safe.”

Asked about whether the drivers coming through the border on deliveries present a danger, and if supply chain workers are being tested for COVID-19, Serré responds, “That is a concern… We have an agreement to keep the supply chain flowing between both countries; for 35 U.S. states, Canada is the number one trading partner. There’s as much advantage to the U.S. to keep the supply chain intact as there is for us… People will be turned away if they are sick, if they are symptomatic.  The essential service truck driver crossing, there is no huge screening process…  but we are putting more and more measures into place.”

On the domestic front, he believes there needs to more invested in health care response. “The issue right now is how we put more money into health, for more testing. That’s the key moving forward. As a country we haven’t funded public health properly. It’s always easy to compare province to province, but public health moving forward is an area where Canadians will expect governments to work more closely together. We’ve got to test more. We have to look at some tracking mechanisms, and we definitely don’t have the staffing at public health to do tracking and monitoring of people that have tested positive.” That’s going to raise flags for some people when it comes to privacy concerns, but Serré is straight up about the issue. The technology is there as almost everyone has a cell phone. “Well, there’s an issue about privacy, and obviously privacy is an issue important to Canadians, important to me… This virus has created another dilemma of tracking individuals who are positive. Some of the countries that have been successful in containing the virus have utilized strong tracking mechanisms. But yes, there are concerns about that.”

By now people have seen videos of police in some jurisdictions beating people and forcing them back into their homes.  “That won’t happen in Canada,” Serré assures. “The police right now are doing a great job in the sense that they’ve got to deal with regular crime happening. They don’t have the resources to track people who aren’t obeying quarantine. Public Health doesn’t have the resources. But we did put a Quarantine Act into place and we’re asking individuals to monitor their community and if people are not [complying], report it to Public Health. Don’t call 911, those lines are challenged at the best of times… Call Public Health.”

West Nipissing does have some advantage in having a degree of separation from the major centres, but even inter-provincial borders are being closed because of spread and persons coming back from holidays who refuse to obey the need to isolate. “Quebec, their March Break started a week earlier and they also have a lot of visitors from France, and they have the snowbirds. Locally, because of our space, we’re a bit more fortunate, but it doesn’t mean we can relax. If we get a few cases then it can spread fast because people get complacent in a small community. For the next few weeks, we really need to respect the stay-at-home and self isolate.” As for people who deliberately don’t comply, “This is unacceptable. I’m hoping people are getting the message this is serious. We’ve had cases in New Brunswick and Quebec where people have been charged.” The Health Unit has the authority to charge people under the Quarantine Act. “The enforcement will be challenging, but there are a few people who may be held accountable for their actions. I just encourage people to be patient, but report those individuals.”

Serré admits there is no solid indicator as to how long the current measures will remain in place. “At this point, the cases are still going up… The important point is to “flatten the curve” – you’ve heard that term often. It’s important to maintain our health system. What we are doing today will bear results two weeks from now. Our numbers are still going up but not going up as fast because, in general, Canadians have realized and have applied social distancing...  The message to Canadians, to people in West Nipissing is, number one, thank you for doing the self distances, thank you for supporting the shelters, and Community Living, and we have to look at ways to support individuals who are isolated and at home and who need food. The Snowbirds, their families are bringing them food. Unfortunately we have a small portion that are not respectful, are selfish and thinking only of themselves. If you are not self-isolating after coming back into the country, you are being selfish, and not thinking about your community. We have vulnerable people, a nursing home, and we need to make sure we protect our vulnerable population. And with the shelters, unfortunately in these times, abusive situations increase… We have to make sure we continue, because this is not over. It might be weeks or months.”

There remains a concern about adequate supplies of ventilators and PPE right across the country, and even though China is supplying Canada with a number of ventilators, governments and businesses are also stepping up to the plate. “Fairly early on… we had universities and manufacturers who have been given procurement by the government to build ventilators. Universities already had some…  so we are stocking that inventory, and they are producing more. The federal government is there for the gaps; the provinces are managing, and then the federal government is preparing those back-up measures... Typically government doesn’t move fast but they responded and federally we responded pretty quick… There are orders given, and we have the army ready if a province needs it… We’re on it, phasing it in. Ventilators is an issue…  We’ve got some stock back from China, masks and gowns. I’ve talked to companies here who have masks, mining companies, SnowLab, they had tons of masks they are donating to local areas.”

Serré realizes a lot of people are hurting, but a lot of people are coming together as well. “While the situation of each family is different, we are all in the same boat,” he sums up.

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