“Of all the challenges that confront me as federal health minister,” Jane Philpott said in a speech last week, “the most daunting is the need to address the deplorable gaps in health outcomes faced by First Nations, Inuit and Metis peoples in Canada.”
In the next breath, Philpott acknowledged that “the current state of Indigenous health in Canada is a direct result of government policies in our collective past.”
After reviewing some of what she had seen and done in her 22 months as minister of health, she attempted to both square up to the tragedy and find reason for optimism.
“When I consider the living conditions and social opportunities, or lack thereof, experienced by many First Nations, Inuit and Metis peoples, I am ashamed. I acknowledge the tremendous amount of preventable suffering, injustice and loss of life in Indigenous communities,” she said. “But the future offers the opportunity and obligation to do better, to do right.”
Perhaps she had some inkling then of what was about to be announced.
Almost exactly one week after she delivered those remarks to the Canadian Medical Association, Philpott’s responsibility for doing better and making things right has significantly increased.
Hanging over her head is Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s promise of real change and reconciliation.
2 departments created
There were other subplots to Monday’s cabinet shuffle — political stocks rising and falling — but only Philpott could use the word “historic” in her post-shuffle news conference.
As the first minister of Indigenous services, Philpott is one half of a potentially significant reworking of a portfolio that can trace its history back to the 18th century and Britain’s superintendent of “Indian Affairs.”
Twenty years ago, the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples recommended eliminating what is now known as the Department of Indigenous Affairs and creating two departments: one responsible for negotiating self-governing agreements between the federal government and Indigenous communities, the other responsible for delivering federal services to those communities in the meantime.
That structure is now in place, with Philpott and Carolyn Bennett, two doctors, in charge.
“These are seismic shifts in the structures that oversee the relationship that Canada has, as a representative of the Crown, with Indigenous peoples of the country,” Philpott said.
In theory, Philpott’s job could one day cease to exist, with self-governing Indigenous communities responsible for delivering their own services.
In the meantime, and unless a future government reverts to the old form, the task of undoing and resolving centuries of dysfunction will be the responsibility of two ministers
Philpott’s emergence at health
As health minister, Philpott had not quite checked off all the items on her mandate letter, but her successor, Ginette Petitpas Taylor, inherits a decent amount of progress.
New health accords, including dedicated funding for mental health and home care, have been completed with all ten provinces. New regulations for pharmaceutical prices, tobacco, food labelling and the marketing of unhealthy foods are being worked on. Legislation to legalize and regulate marijuana has been tabled. Seventeen safe-consumption sites have been approved and doctors have been cleared to prescribe phamaceutical-grade heroin to some patients.
All the while, Philpott has emerged as one of this cabinet’s most capable performers: steady and reassuring amid the tumult and acrimony of federal politics.
Most lists of Justin Trudeau’s best ministers would now include her, alongside the likes of Chrystia Freeland and Ralph Goodale.
Change is overdue
As health minister, Philpott was necessarily confronted with some of the challenges facing Indigenous communities. A year ago she went to Attawapiskat and Kashechewan in northern Ontario after a series of suicide attempts. In July, she visited Wunnumin Lake First Nation, also in northern Ontario, and signed a tri-partite agreement with the Nishnawbe Aski Nation.
“She’s the right person for this important file,” says Alvin Fiddler, the grand chief of the Nishnawbe Aski Nation, who has also travelled with the minister.
“I’ve been impressed by her commitment to get to know our communities more. Not just reading briefing notes or correspondence, but actually to take that time to visit our communities and to hear directly from our leadership, front-line workers and community members.”
A healthy curiosity and good bedside manner will likely serve her well. But it is results that the Trudeau government is being challenged to show on this front, with the Liberals regularly accused of not moving fast enough or far enough.
“The splitting of these Indigenous-related files is an acknowledgement that the Liberal government has so far failed to comprehensively address the formidable challenges Indigenous communities face in Canada,” surmised Romeo Saganash, the NDP’s Indigenous affairs critic, in a statement on Monday.
However difficult the task, impatience is justifiable. And even if this is the right structure and process, even if it puts the federal government on the right path, Trudeau’s Liberals have just two more years to demonstrate why they deserve another four years.
Philpott’s turn from medicine to politics has been traced to a bit of advice from Paul Martin: that you can accomplish more in 10 minutes in politics than you can in 10 years of advocacy.
Even still, time in politics is precious. And, on this file, so much is long overdue.