Oct 17

It's a quintessential late October in southern Alberta; the nights are reliably frosty, an early snowstorm has come and gone, and this week the remaining yellowed leaves that had been gamely hanging on to their faded beauty were mostly stripped away by a howling windstorm.

Another frigid prairie winter beckons, in blithe defiance of the warm and insistent assurances of most climate scientists (97 percent!).  I'm almost certain they're just toying with us.

And, as if in abject obedience to the season of freezin', little children are crowding the local emergency department, busily swapping streamers of snot and coughing trillions of viral particles in every direction.  Cold and flu season, eternally joined at the hip to the onset of winter, is here in its full infectious glory.

The scene at the children's hospital yesterday generated a flashback to my youth, as I used an alcohol swab to wipe cooties off the bell of my stethoscope in between patients for the umpteenth time.

I'm not sure who initiated the ancient practice of mashing up the livers of cod fish to extract the oil contained therein, so that it could be stuffed down the gullets of protesting children.

For hundreds of years this unsavoury process fed the ritual practice of parents in northern climates such as Norway, Canada and Scotland.  As winter threatened and the weather turned bleak, dusty bottles of cod liver oil were retrieved from the dark recesses of medicine cabinets where they had been patiently and malignantly waiting; rancid liquid was liberated onto teaspoons and crammed into children's mouths in the interests of fending off colds and flu.

It was a ritual attended to with puritanical religiosity at my house. The stuff was abhorrent, revolting, nauseating - but it was "good for us", so there was nothing for it but to choke it down.

Other parents, in those days, came up with all kinds of additives to convince stubborn and resisting children to swallow the noxious stuff - they added peanut butter, masked it with chocolate, mixed it in juice, chased it with honey, offered all manner of bribes. In my household,  inducement more commonly took the form of a gruff and heavily accented "swallow it, or else", which had a remarkable and salutary effect on our compliance, sans sweeteners. Post-traumatic stress disorder has one of its long and tangled roots in the cod liver oil era, assuredly.

But as it turns out, and though I hate to admit it, centuries of collected wisdom surrounding the benefits of cod liver oil proved to have some scientific basis.  Old-fashioned smelly cod liver oil contained reams of vitamin D, along with vitamin A and omega 3 fatty acids; undeniably healthy stuff, and probably effective at least to some degree in fighting off marauding viruses. And the epic struggles to shift oil from spoon to stomach laid the foundation for all sorts of effective strategies to get people to "take their medicine", many of which we use today.

Needless to say, the exhortation to just "take your medicine" has wide applicability, far beyond the dutiful ingestion of doctor-prescribed pharmacopeia.  The messy unspooling of human affairs spawns many a circumstance which demands simple acceptance of unpleasantness without carping and complaining.

With all of that as preamble, let me turn briefly to the ongoing great Canadian tax furor as a present-day exemplar of this sort of thing. Justin Trudeau and  Bill Morneau, ministers prime and finance, having jointly applied their political stethoscopes to the aging and ailing beast that is the Canadian tax code, quickly generated as a diagnosis, "The Rich Are Not Paying Their Fair Share."  Not an unusual diagnosis, this one, rather on par with "The Common Cold", as evidenced by the frequency with which it seems to infect political jurisdictions everywhere.

Nevertheless, a remedy was deemed both necessary and urgent, and so the two men swiftly concocted what they felt certain would be an effective cure, an antidote loosely described and energetically advertised as "Leveling the Playing Field".  

To their dismay, however, long-suffering Canadian taxpayers simply refused to  "take their medicine". Farmers, doctors, small business owners, and entrepreneurs took umbrage at being labeled tax cheats and scoff-laws.  They rose up in anger and in unison, stubbornly resistant to the new tax treatment.   And multitudes of seasoned tax experts quickly offered robust "second opinions", warning of the harm that would ensue if the proposed "remedy" was employed.

But despite the growing mountain of evidence that they had got their diagnosis completely wrong, Mssrs. Trudeau and Morneau did not withdraw their medicine. Not at all.  In homage to cod-liver-oil-administering mothers of yore, Mr. Morneau spent the past week adding sweeteners and adulterants to his original brew, in the vain hope that by "tweaking" the mixture taxpayers would open up and just swallow it, already.

It's been an extraordinary spectacle.

After all, in my own profession, incorrect diagnoses are not rare.  Medicine remains a stubborn mix of art and science;  signs and symptoms of disease don't always arrange themselves neatly around a clear verdict.  And, in this predawn era before robotic doctors assume control, physicians remain human and fallible. So incorrect conclusions are drawn, despite careful and thoughtful deliberation.  And wrong diagnoses lead on to wrong treatments, and bad things happen.

Of course, in the light of new evidence that destroys original clinical hypotheses, competent physicians immediately cease prescribed medications, revise their clinical opinion and plan, and set about trying to mitigate any harm that has been done. What they don't do is double down on their original diagnosis, and continue on with treatment, simply tweaking it to make it a bit more "palatable."

Not if they want to continue on as doctors, that is.

The ire of Canadian taxpayers continues to build, fueled by the realization that the immense fortunes of the Prime Minister and the Finance Minister will survive utterly untouched by the proposed tax hikes.  The outrage reached fever pitch this week with revelations that Mr. Morneau has knowingly made governmental decisions that will add to his massive wealth, already of such magnitude that he misplaced an entire French villa.

Mr. Trudeau has managed to turn Canadians against Canadians, doctors against nurses, business owners against their employees; perhaps that sad outcome was part of his grand plan - I don't know, and I sincerely hope not.  But I do know that he has turned great numbers of Canadians  squarely against his young government, disgusted by the ethically dubious bumbling of his party and the growing stench enveloping Parliament Hill.

The situation for the Liberal Party and for Mr. Trudeau could scarcely be more dire. And the toothpaste is not going back in the tube.

But all is not lost. Yet. There is a way forward, a narrow path out of this self-inflicted mess.

As physicians know, by far the best way to address medical error is to confront it, head on.  A patient or family harmed by a medical blunder is usually and understandably very upset, but that wrath truly boils over when a physician refuses to acknowledge error.

A sincere and simple "I'm sorry", along with a thorough explanation of what transpired, is a tremendous thing, a veritable balm of reconciliation, a sturdy bridge to restored trust and renewed respect.

And so to Mr. Trudeau I offer this healing elixir, freely:

Address the nation, sir.

Tell us that you are sorry.

Tell us that you misread the situation, that you made the wrong diagnosis, that you offered the wrong prescription.

Tell us that you had the best of intentions, but that you now realize your errors.

Tell us that you will immediately repeal all proposed tax changes.  Go even further, cancel that top-bracket rate hike - it didn't work, and you know it.

Tell us you will go back to the drawing board, that this time you will consult deeply and widely with experts, to plan the surgical, wholesale revision the tax code so desperately needs.

It really is the only way to proceed, sir.  And it would be unprecedented, a bona fide master stroke.

Canadians are a gentle and merciful people, incapable of resisting an honest and humble display of contrition.  They would count your motives as pure, and gauge that you genuinely desire what is best for our country.

They would forgive you. 

The twin and ominous thunderheads of scandal and ineptitude that threaten your administration would retreat, clearing the way for sunny days and sunny ways; your popularity would scale new heights.

As for Mr. Morneau, alas, it is too late:  his Canadian goose is thoroughly cooked, I'm afraid, another decent man laid low by pitiless political combat.

But you can survive, Mr. Trudeau, and even thrive.

Just choke down the cod liver oil of repentance and apologize.

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