Editor’s Letter: Navigating Responsibility

How do you find meaning in actions that feel inadequate or inconclusive?

A ship with lined paper for a sail crashes into an iceberg as its passengers start jumping off-board.

“We’re all in this together” has been a rallying cry during COVID-19, if not an official tag line. But, since the prime minister said those words at a news conference in March 2020, they have taken on a different meaning. After everything we’ve done to prevent the spread of the virus, the pandemic is still here. And, for many, the recent surge has felt overwhelming if not surprising. Watching the reopening of many provinces and the end of most mask mandates coincide with different levels of immunity across the population, it has seemed like it’s everyone for themselves.

Experts may look back over the last two years and be able to point to exactly where and when specific actions and decisions could have prevented this outcome. What’s surprising about the most recent wave is that nobody—neither government leaders nor public health officials—has stepped forward to apologize for it. Nor, so far, does anyone seem to expect them to. “We have to learn to live with COVID-19” is the new catch phrase—even if we don’t all share in the virus’s effects equally. We’ve mostly had to make our own decisions about masks and whether to observe five or ten days of isolation. With the shift to personal responsibility, we are micromanaging 38 million pandemics instead of working together to stop a single, national one.

Perhaps our increased emphasis on personal responsibility is what led us here. Politicians and public health experts know more than anyone what happens if you make an unpopular decision that no one listens to. When it comes to defending the greater good, it often falls to parents, doctors, and teachers to lead the way, such as by going on social media to point out policy failures and call for lawmakers to correct them.

Accountability is a theme that runs throughout a number of stories in this issue. Our cover story, “Discredited” by Emily Baron Cadloff, looks into the secret world of credit scoring—a private industry dominated by a handful of companies. Tracing the rising influence of credit scores in banking and real estate over the past two centuries, Baron Cadloff shows the lasting effects of inaccurate and inequitable ratings on individuals. How can we insist on accountability for companies whose methodologies are proprietary and inscrutable even as they wield the power to ruin people’s lives?

In 2018, Jaskirat Singh Sidhu inadvertently killed sixteen people and injured thirteen others in one of Canada’s most tragic traffic accidents, the Humboldt Broncos bus crash. As Sharon J. Riley reports in “Crime and Endless Punishment,” Sidhu was handed an eight-year prison sentence and now faces deportation‚ a consequence for permanent residents who, like him, have been convicted of serious crimes. The debate surrounding Sidhu, who pleaded guilty to all charges against him and has shown nothing but remorse, reflects what may be an unresolvable question: How much punishment is enough?

In Sarah Lawrynuik’s story “Leaving Ukraine,” a Canadian soldier reflects on Operation Unifier, a military mission launched in 2015 to prepare the Ukrainian army for anticipated attacks that have since arrived. As interviews with “Nathan” (a pseudonym) and military experts demonstrate, one of the biggest challenges anyone can face in such circumstances is finding meaning in actions that feel inadequate or inconclusive. How do you balance a sense of responsibility with a lack of control over the outcome?

In this time of rapid change and disruption, it’s possible to feel too accountable for factors beyond our control. As an editor, I’ve often felt frustrated by the media’s limitations in the face of big-picture problems like misinformation or the polarization of political conversation. Perhaps, if we think about an entire war or pandemic, it’s too easy to feel defeated. But I see hope in the examples of people around me right now—including doctors, teachers, and activists—who are fighting with the tools they have. Can we save one single patient? Can we help one person understand? In a way, each feature article, essay, and poem in this issue—produced by individuals working together—makes its small contribution to change. 

Jessica Johnson
Jessica Johnson (@ejessicajohnson) is a former editor-in-chief of The Walrus.
Graham Roumieu
Graham Roumieu (roumieu.com) is a National Magazine Award winner and a regular contributor to The Walrus. He draws for The Atlantic, the New York Times, and the Wall Street Journal.