This op-ed was originally published in the Winnipeg Free Press Wednesday, February 15, 2023
Despite the highest of stakes - the future of Canada’s universal, public healthcare system - Canada’s premiers and its prime minister have been locked in a heated but insubstantial debate. That the premiers are now set to agree to the federal government’s healthcare funding proposal without counter or caveat only goes to prove how desperate both sides are to limit the terms of their debate. Neither side has the conviction necessary to speak to the values of our country and the urgent need to fix public healthcare and ensure the core tenets of the Canada Health Act are secured for a generation. The inevitable result of a political fight with no conviction, on either side, is to kick the proverbial can down the road.
The premiers have, for some time, vigorously pursued a disciplined line of argument: that the provinces should receive “an immediate and unconditional injection to the Canada Health Transfer to bring the federal share [of spending] to 35%” from its current estimated 22%. Increased federal funding is greatly needed. Even given the necessary injection of pandemic-related funding from the federal government to the provinces, it is clear that there is a dire need throughout the country. But the notion that there would be no conditions for such an increase does not pass the smell test. When the federal government had the temerity to say so, the premiers accused their sparring partner of “negotiating in the media” - ignoring their own paid advertisement campaigns (launched in March and October of last year) on the issue.
The premiers strained credulity in their unhelpful negotiating stance. None more so than the Chair of the Council of the Federation, Manitoba’s Heather Stefanson, whose government has pursued over $1 billion in tax cuts and handouts, primarily benefiting the most wealthy individuals and corporations, throughout a global pandemic and a healthcare staffing crisis. If ever strings needed attaching, it is here.
But the fault lies not entirely with the premiers. There was nothing transformative in the prime minister’s underwhelming, kick-the-can proposal. Neither the funding levels nor the attached bilateral initiatives respond meaningfully to the need to address, and point a path past, the current crisis. In real terms, the Trudeau government’s initiative amounts to a continuation of Stephen Harper’s balkanizing approach, rather than an attempt to fight for pan-Canadian solutions. Conservatives - both federal and provincial - know this. That is why Conservative Leader Pierre Poilievre so easily climbed on board with the proposal, despite his supposed antagonism to anything related to his political rival. And it’s why the premiers, even those who have openly courted profanely anti-Trudeau extremists, will do the same.
They know this ten-year deal - as currently constituted - will do nothing to stop the steady race to the bottom amongst the provinces on healthcare privatization. In Manitoba as elsewhere, the provincial government’s approach since 2016 has been to cut public healthcare services, creating chaos in the system and leaving the door open to further privatization. A simple google search would lead one to believe there are more home care companies in Manitoba than there are home care workers, given the severe shortage in the provincial program; our flagship response to the surgical backlog is to send Manitobans out-of-province rather than to make necessary investments in our own capacity. The list goes on. And this problem is only deepening as private surgical clinics across Canada seek more and more to blur the edges of the Canada Health Act to allow the wealthy to cut the line - putting your credit card above your health card. That’s wrong, and should be stopped.
The growing threat of American-style, two-tier health care is a major reason why public health care advocates like the Manitoba Health Coalition want strings attached to federal funding - to ensure public dollars go to public care. We also want to see the realization of a long-promised, public, universal pharmacare program that would make a massive difference in the lives of millions and take pressure off the system.
The problem with kicking the can down the road is that, eventually, you run out of road. It’s time to get serious about fixing public health care, and fulfilling the promise of Medicare for a new generation. The premiers and the prime minister won’t do it on their own. It’s time for Canadians and Manitobans to fight for public healthcare.
Thomas Linner is the Provincial Director of the Manitoba Health Coalition, a non-profit, non-partisan organization dedicated to the protection and expansion of public health care in Manitoba.
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