As federal officials begin negotiations with the provinces on Ottawa’s multi-billion health funding offer, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau says it’s time provinces and territories “step up” and use more of their own surplus budget dollars to support health-care workers.
During a question-and-answer session with a class of nursing students in Ottawa Friday, Trudeau was peppered with queries about why nurses and other health workers are not offered higher wages, free tuition and other supports, given they have been working under extreme conditions over the last two years of the pandemic and are now dealing with the strain of nationwide staffing shortages.
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Trudeau told them the federal government took on the lion’s share of the financial costs and debt of the COVID-19 pandemic so provinces didn’t have to.
That’s why it’s now time for provinces and territories to start putting more of their own money into measures that help nurses and other health-care staff, Trudeau said.
“The provinces are largely in surplus situations. They can now lean in on improving the conditions of learning, the conditions of work, the conditions of pay that they control for nurses and for health-care professionals,” he said.
He noted that earlier this week, Ottawa put forward a $196-billion, 10-year funding package for health care for the provinces — of which $46 billion is new — and some of this money will go toward supporting, retaining and recruiting health workers.
But salaries for health workers, tuition fees and working conditions for these employees are provincially managed and regulated, and Ottawa can’t tell the provinces what to do, Trudeau said.
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However, federal officials will be using the negotiations with provinces and territories on the health funding deal to try to push them to use some of this new money and more of their own funds toward helping make the lives of health workers easier, he said.
One of the nursing students who questioned Trudeau Friday told him she is currently working in three hospitals while also doing an unpaid placement for her degree and has been forced to rely on her credit card to pay for groceries.
She said she sometimes survives on cookies offered at work because she can’t afford lunch.
Trudeau shook his head in dismay, acknowledging the high cost of living for Canadians.
“We’re going through a really difficult time right now, not just as a country, as a world. And we’re going to have to do a better job of being there for each other to support each other through these times,” he said.
“And that’s why as a (federal) government, we’re going to continue to step up — but why also we’re going to be pushing on provinces and municipalities to do their part as well, to be investing in affordable housing, to be investing in, and to be negotiating in good faith at the bargaining table with front-line workers to make sure that you can actually start and support a family on the salaries you’re making.”
It’s not the first time Trudeau has suggested provinces aren’t using enough of their own funds to address the significant pressures facing Canada’s health system.
In November 2022, the prime minister questioned why provinces are demanding more money from Ottawa in health transfers while they simultaneously “turn around and give tax breaks to the wealthiest.”
That same day in November, talks between federal, provincial and territorial health ministers broke down after the premiers expressed disappointment Ottawa wasn’t coming to the table with the funding commitment they wanted.
They’ve been calling on the federal government to increase the Canada Health Transfer so that its share of health-care costs rises from 22 per cent to 35 per cent.
The premiers didn’t directly respond to Trudeau’s shot across the bow about tax breaks, but they did argue they have been working hard to improve health services for Canadians “under heavy strain through the COVID-19 pandemic.”
“Substantive resources are required to support and accelerate this essential work, and provinces and territories need a predictable federal funding partner,” the premiers said in a statement issued Nov. 8, 2022.
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Speaking to the nursing students Friday, Trudeau said health workers should be acknowledged for their hard work and given more respect for choosing to continue to work amid trying conditions and an exodus of new and veteran nurses alike.
But he also said concerns about wage caps, high tuition costs and other measures that are controlled by provincial governments should be kept in mind during voting time, noting that most provinces are now run by conservative parties, and that conservative governments “tend to lean a little less towards a universal public system (and) tend to look at a little more at privatization.”
Pointing to his own 2021 campaign promise to raise wages for personal support workers (PSWs) to at least $25 per hour, he admitted that hasn’t yet materialized.
But there is a measure in the new health funding deal that would provide $1.7 billion over five years to support wage increases for PSWs, Trudeau said.
“We did step up on PSWs, but we’re not done yet. They’re not yet making the $25 an hour that we committed to,” he said.
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“But the provinces have to step up on part of that as well, not all of them are doing it. But there is no reason for people who are working three jobs, like you, to not be able to pay for your groceries.”
Deputy Prime Minister and Finance Minister Chrystia Freeland said Friday she is encouraged by preliminary talks that began this week with Ontario on the health accords, which were described as “good.”
She said Health Minister Jean-Yves Duclos and Intergovernmental Affairs Minister Dominic LeBlanc will now be travelling to each province and territory to kick-start these talks with all provincial leaders on the funding deal.
Fixing Canada’s ailing health system is the goal, Freeland said, noting that this will involve significant investments from both the federal and provincial governments.
“I think what Canadians really care about, though, from the health-care discussions is people just want better health care,” she said.
“People want to be able to call up a family doctor, have a family doctor and see their family doctor when they need to. People want to be able to get surgery when they need it. And so, I really do think that we need to focus on, and what we are focusing on, is working collaboratively to get those good outcomes.”