When Prime Minister Justin Trudeau meets with provincial and territorial premiers this Thursday, political watchers can expect no shortage of fireworks … or at the very least, some red-faced emojis. The Council of the Federation (COF) will serve as a critical inflection point for a fed-prov relationship that has oscillated between cooperative and combative over the last 12 months. The stakes now though, have never been higher.
The provinces and territories come into the meeting with a unanimous demand that Ottawa up its share of the Canada Health Transfer. This is the annual payment through which the federal government contributes a portion of the total national costs of healthcare. The current transfer sees Ottawa cover only 22% of national healthcare costs and that percentage is expected to continue to fall as health care costs escalate. The provinces and territories are pushing the federal government to increase that percentage to 35% and fix it to inflation so the amount will rise over time.
This meeting also comes against the backdrop of a very different set of fed-prov relationships. Quebec Premier François Legault is the current Chair of the COF, and has proven himself to be a formidable opponent for Trudeau over the last 12 months. Despite Quebec’s rising COVID-19 case totals, he still enjoys strong popularity in the province. He also has the ability to put pressure on the Liberals in the House of Commons itself, through an informal alliance that has developed between the Quebec government and the Bloc Québécois. Ontario Premier Doug Ford and Alberta Premier Jason Kenney, once the chief nemeses for Trudeau among the premiers, have both seen COVID totals rise rapidly in their provinces in the last two months. Alberta recently asked the federal government and the Red Cross to provide field hospitals to manage the overflow of patients. Both governments are feeling the public pressure to respond and will come into Thursday’s negotiation in critical need of federal support.
From the Liberal’s perspective, there is obviously good political logic to being seen as spending on healthcare during a pandemic. However an increase to the CHT also represents the biggest federal bargaining chip in an FPT relationship that is fraught with big, complicated files. If the Liberals are going to sign over a no-strings-attached healthcare cheque to the provinces for the next ten years, then they will most certainly want to see some political return on investment from their provincial counterparts. The Liberals have made big promises in areas of provincial jurisdiction, namely pharmacare and childcare. They will need support from some previously reticent provincial partners in order to get those promises over the line.
Thursday’s meeting will also give the federal government an opportunity to make its case that Canada is not behind our allies in terms of our acquisition and distribution plans for a COVID-19 vaccine. Several premiers across Canada have called on the federal government to release more clear plans about how and when vaccines will be rolled out in Canada. If the Liberals want to stamp out doubts once and for all, they would do well to have Canada’s premiers leave Thursday’s meeting with a clear sense of the government’s plan. Last Friday’s contract award for vaccine logistics lays the groundwork for this discussion to be one of substance.
That said, the Liberals face a tricky situation as they balance speed of delivery with the need to allow Health Canada the appropriate time to conduct its due diligence on vaccine candidates. This is a particularly thorny issue given the rise of vaccine skepticism in Canada. Last week Conservative MP Derek Sloan sponsored a petition in the House of Commons which directly questioned the safety of vaccine trials in Canada, and called on Ottawa to create a review panel that included “vaccine-safety experts” to examine vaccine applications. Though Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole made it clear that he and his family will be getting the vaccine, he is now facing questions about whether his party shares Derek Sloan’s views.
With the heat cranked up to max on Prime Minister Trudeau and the premiers, there is no doubt that Thursday’s meeting will be both a contentious and critical milestone in the national fight against COVID-19. Canadians are hoping that their leaders don’t let them down.