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Premiers facing off with feds on Arctic, health-care spending

Yukon premier led talks on Arctic while premiers as a whole demanded health-care spending
Premiers (back row L-R), Sandy Silver (Yukon), P.J. Akeeagok, (Nunavut), Scott Moe (SK), Doug Ford (Ont),Francois Legault (Que), Dennis King (PEI), Tim Houston (NS), Blaine Higgs (NB), Andrew Furey (NL and Labrador) and (front row L-R), President of Institute for the advancement of Aboriginal Women Lisa Weber, National Chief of Congress of Aboriginal Peoples Elmer St. Pierre, Heather Stefanson (MB), Songhees Nation Chief Ron Sam, John Horgan (BC), Esquimalt Nation Chief Rob Thomas, Caroline Cochrane (NWT), Cassidy Caron (Metis National Council) and Terry Teegee (Assembly of First Nations) gather for a family photo during the summer meeting of the Canada’s Premiers at the Songhees Wellness Centre in Victoria, B.C., on July 11. (Chad Hipolito/Canadian Press)

Yukon Premier Sandy Silver specifically wants to know the federal government’s funding plans for the Canadian Rangers, while premiers across the country jointly call for more spending on the Arctic.

Silver told the News during a July 12 interview at the tail end of the Council of the Federation meetings that Northern communities are “the eyes and the ears” when it comes to providing services on “non-wartime or peacetime” fronts.

“To me, that’s a real overlap between a national program and an Arctic program,” he said.

“They need more support, now more than ever, as we see aggressions from Russia in Ukraine.”

Silver led discussions about the Arctic with his provincial and territorial counterparts over two days of meetings at the Fairmont Empress in Victoria. A July 12 communique from the 13 premiers noted the challenging times facing people in Canada, marked by environmental, economic and security concerns, as well as problems with peaceful co-operation in the Arctic.

“Significant strategic investments are needed to improve Canada’s Arctic sovereignty through strengthened resiliency of Northern communities in collaboration with concerned partners and governments,” reads the statement.

“Federal investments dedicated to defending the Arctic should be informed by provincial and territorial priorities as well as the needs and interests of northerners,” it continues.

“Premiers call on the federal government to identify new financial resources to support sovereignty in Canada’s North and the implementation of the Arctic and Northern Policy Framework. This includes support to turn the North’s resource and trade potential into shared wealth and prosperity, while investing in the people and their communities.”

‘Ready to go’

Silver acknowledged the $4.9 billion the feds have promised to spend on defence. The plan Defence Minister Anita Anand announced June 20 for that money includes “a series of new and enhanced capabilities to ensure our Canadian Armed Forces and NORAD can detect, deter and defend Canadians against threats well into the future.”

NORAD, also known as the North American Aerospace Defense Command, is the binational military command system shared with the United States.

“I keep on explaining Arctic sovereignty and Arctic security like the insulation in your attic: you don’t know it’s there until it’s gone,” Silver said.

Silver said the premiers expressed understanding of the difference between national defence, Arctic security and Arctic sovereignty in the face of global disruptions.

“It’s sometimes frustrating because folks don’t necessarily know the difference,” he said.

Silver said Arctic sovereignty cannot responsibly exist without technology, roads and health care.

“The question is: will there be a financial commitment from Ottawa attached to the Arctic and Northern Policy Framework, because without that money, it’s just another document,” he said.

Silver said the Yukon’s chapter of the policy framework is “ready to go.”

“Worst case scenario, I should say is, you know, [the framework] would languish on a shelf somewhere,” he said.

“Best case scenario, with a financial commitment from the federal government, is this will help to nullify a whole bunch of issues that are going on across the circumpolar North right now.”

Health-care spending

Silver expressed “bewilderment” to the News after joining a chorus of premiers calling for an increase in federal government health-care spending following their first meeting since the COVID-19 pandemic.

During a July 11 press conference, B.C. Premier John Horgan, who chairs the Council of the Federation, said the top issues discussed by the group related to the publicly funded health-care system, affordability and economic recovery coming out of the pandemic, particularly when it comes to the labour shortage.

In a July 12 communique, the premiers made their unanimous call for the federal government to increase its share of provincial-territorial health-care costs from 22 per cent to 35 per cent through the Canada health transfer.

Health-care groups including the Canadian Medical Association, ​​Canadian Federation of Nurses Unions, Canadian Nurses Association and HealthCareCAN have called on the premiers to prioritize Canada’s “collapsing health system.”

Dr. Katharine Smart, president of the Canadian Medical Association and a Whitehorse resident, urged leaders to prioritize the issue in a July 7 statement.

“We know that fixing the health-care system will take time but deferring any tangible action will only deepen the cracks,” Smart said.

In another statement on July 12, Smart agreed that swiftly increasing federal funding is part of solving the health-system crisis.

“Five million Canadians do not have primary care providers. Emergency departments across Canada are routinely closing because of staff shortages. Physicians and other health-care workers are burning out. Yes, the pandemic wreaked havoc on the health system, but the reality is that cracks were visible in the system long before COVID-19,” Smart said.

“We appreciate the fact that the premiers have recognized the need for better labour mobility among health care workers, and we are eager to see action here. Much more needs to be done to address pervasive issues that have continued to push the health system to the brink of collapse.”

Waiting room

In the closing news conference on July 12, Horgan reiterated that the country’s crumpling public health-care system is the primary concern.

“We see the strains and cracks in communities,” he said. “Whether it be primary care, whether it be acute care, whether it be our long-term care infrastructure, we see new and emerging technologies that are costly and require more investments than ever before.”

Horgan said Prime Minister Justin Trudeau promised a meeting on the issue eight months ago. The two reaffirmed in January they need to meet face-to-face, then “it got quiet,” Horgan said.

“We had a couple of phone calls with the minister of Intergovernmental Relations, and that was it,” he said.

“I got a phone call from that same minister on Sunday morning — Sunday morning, the day we started this conference — asking how things were going, and I gave him a candid response to that question, and here we are.”

Silver was the longest standing premier at the table. He told reporters he has never seen the table “so sophisticated” in their attempts to modernize healthcare across the country, despite the federal government’s shiftiness on the issue.

Silver said Alberta Premier Jason Kenney had been helpful in his previous experience as a federal minister, and Ontario Premier Doug Ford had been helpful when he sent nurses up to the Yukon at a time “when he probably couldn’t afford to.”

“What we’re seeing now is nurses and doctors in [emergency rooms] that are afraid that they’re going to hurt themselves or their patients, and they’re looking for us to find solutions,” he said.

Newfoundland and Labrador Premier Anthony Furey has seen it as a surgeon, and Horgan has seen it as a cancer patient. The Yukon has been struggling with doctor shortages and recently temporarily limited access to some rural health centres due to staffing issues attributed in part to burnout.

Last string

Meanwhile, Silver said, the premiers have been told to wait until the COVID-19 pandemic is “no longer such a big issue” and to wait for major provincial elections to wrap up.

“We’ve been told a few different times what to wait for,” Silver said.

“We need the federal government to tell us when we’re going to have this conversation and give some hope to people that are on their last strings.”

During a July 13 news conference, Trudeau said he has met with the premiers more than any other prime minister in history and did not commit to the premiers’ specific request.

Contact Dana Hatherly at

Dana Hatherly

About the Author: Dana Hatherly

I’m the legislative reporter for the Yukon News.
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