After four months in the premier's chair in a year unlike any other, Premier Andrew Furey is projecting optimism for 2021, despite ongoing challenges seared into the provincial outlook in coming months.
Furey won his bid to become leader of the provincial Liberals earlier this year, and later won a byelection in Humber-Gros Morne, after former premier Dwight Ball resigned the seat.
That byelection was the first time the doctor's name appeared on a public election ballot.
"Experience is a relative thing," Furey said of his first four months in the premier's office. "No one has the experience of being premier until they sit in that chair, and they feel the weight of the responsibility to the people of the province on their shoulders."
At some point in 2021, Newfoundland and Labrador will head to the polls, as rules dictate that an election must be called within a year of a new premier being appointed.
While the opposition has been pushing for the government to delay an election until the fall, Furey and other Liberal MHAs have repeatedly said the Liberal minority government will "follow the letter of the law," but have yet to reveal a timeframe.
Furey echoed that phrase in a year-end interview with CBC, discussing that upcoming vote and describing the hurdles his office has faced.
The election will "happen in 2021," he said. "I've made no hidden statements about it, I'm going to call an election, I'm going to follow the law, which I believe is a good one, and call it in 2021.… I've only been here now for four months, so I guess I have eight months left to call it."
When asked further about his party's reticence to disclose a date, Furey pointed to other major elections in Canada and the United States, all held during the pandemic, as a reassurance that the date won't be postponed by COVID-19.
WATCH | Andrew Furey talks vaccines, economic troubles and the certainty of an election in 2021:
"I'm sure I could tell you now when the election would be, and I'm sure you would really like that, but that's my prerogative and mine alone," he told CBC.
'Weight of empathy'
Furey, an orthopedic surgeon prior to entering politics, described the most unexpected element of his new job: the "weight of the empathy" he discovered for residents encountering challenges this year.
"I feel the anxieties that families feel. I go home with that at night," Furey said. "I understand that people are incredibly anxious and fearful about the uncertainty that this pandemic and this global economic crisis has caused. And I feel it too — my family feels it too — and I guess I wasn't sure how I would respond from that perspective.
"As a surgeon, people complain about pain and you're used to fixing that pain, you're used to being able to give a quick fix to the pain that someone presents … but in this job, sometimes the fixes aren't easy, sometimes the fixes aren't immediate. But there are fixes there."
He points to emerging COVID-19 vaccines, already being administered in Newfoundland and Labrador ahead of schedule, to support that cautious optimism.
But a vaccine does not mean the global pandemic is over.
"We can't lose sight of the fact that there is gonna be this time of transition. As people are vaccinated and inoculated, the virus is still going to do its thing and spread, so we need to make sure that we're getting the vaccine out as fast and as effective and as responsibly as we can," Furey said.
"At the same time, it's still incumbent on the people of the province — and they've done an amazing job to date — to continue to follow those public health guidelines, restricting the size of crowds, wearing face masks, washing your hands and keeping social distancing."
Furey has not received the vaccine himself, nor has Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. Janice Fitzgerald or Health Minister John Haggie.
While some have said it would be a good endorsement of the vaccine if the premier and other officials were to receive it, Furey said it's just a matter of it not being their turn, as the availability of the vaccines is still restricted.
"If you look at statistically, the epidemiology surrounding this virus, I'm at fairly low risk. So I wouldn't be able to sleep at night if I took a vaccine away from somebody who truly needed it — an elderly person, a person who's working in long-term care, an Indigenous community member," Furey said, adding that his wife, who still works in health care, was recently inoculated.
"I'm no longer a front-line health-care provider. My wife is. She has the confidence in the vaccine, I have the confidence in that she's getting the vaccine.… So I recognize the value in having leaders publicly endorse the vaccine, but my family is endorsing the vaccine, and hopefully that's signal enough in the confidence of this vaccination process."
A different holiday season
While Newfoundland and Labrador "should be very proud of is the way that we've handled this pandemic to date," Furey said if the virus has taught us nothing else, it's that things can change in the blink of an eye.
The holiday season has Furey "very worried," with some people saying they still plan to visit family and friends during a traditionally social time of year.
"I recognize that Newfoundlanders and Labradorians want to get together with their friends and family — I want to get together with my friends — but we need now more than ever to resist that temptation," he said, adding that his own Christmas traditions won't be happening the same this year.
"We just need to check it for a little bit more. I'm hopeful that people will continue to follow Dr. Fitzgerald's guidelines, because this will be what gets us through the Christmas season and then into January."
'We've all put in a rough 2020'
The pandemic, economic crisis, challenges in the oil and gas sector, and the province's dwindling — and aging — population will retain their status as pressing issues in 2021, Furey said.
"The men and women who work in the oil and gas sector in particular have put in a rough 2020. The tourism industry has put in a rough 2020. And in addition, the health-care industry's put in a rough 2020 — we've all put in a rough 2020," Furey said.
"I see the challenges still on the horizon, but I also see them as an opportunities."
Furey said it's a chance to "re-imagine" what the province can be over the next couple of decades.
"That will be our true legacy, that will be how people, future generations, look back and judge us — not based on the virology of the pandemic, but they will judge us based on how we responded to this pandemic and to these challenges," he said.
"We can't revert to the mean. We need to set a new mean and reach higher so that we can be a stronger, more caring, more compassionate Newfoundland and Labrador, one that is sustainable for all families."