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Doug Ford didn’t want to talk about a national crisis during the ‘Freedom Convoy.’ What’s the difference with health care?

Posted: December 12, 2022

(December 12, 2022)

By: Susan Delacourt, Toronto Star

Doug Ford has clearly had a change of heart in 2022 about the value of federal-provincial meetings.

Last February, the Ontario premier expressed the view that the so-called “Freedom Convoy” protest paralyzing Canada’s capital and major border points would not be resolved by “a bunch of people sitting around a table talking.”

Jim Watson, then the mayor of Ottawa, told a public inquiry this fall that when Ford dismissed the idea this way, Watson quipped that “a bunch of people talking” sounded a lot like a cabinet meeting.

Still, there was no moving the premier. Ford’s government simply boycotted the proposed “tripartite” meetings between the federal, provincial and municipal governments to co-ordinate a response to the convoy blockades.

Yet here we are at the end of 2022, in the midst of what is clearly a health-care emergency in this country, and there was Ford last Friday, asking for — yes — a federal-provincial meeting. Or, as he might have put it, a bunch of people sitting around a table talking.

“Nothing should be more important to the prime minister than meeting with the 13 premiers. That’s the bottom line,” Ford told a news conference convened by all the premiers to demand a face-to-face meeting on health care with Justin Trudeau.

OK then. But what if Ford was correct last winter? What if a seriously urgent situation required more than a bunch of first ministers sitting around a table talking? And make no mistake, the health-care crisis in this country is urgent — probably more urgent and life-endangering than the convoy protest was.

It’s doubtful that anyone currently sitting in a Canadian hospital emergency room, waiting perhaps for one or two days now, is thinking, “You know what we need? A first ministers’ meeting.” An exhausted nurse, heading into her second, back-to-back shift of the week, knows her dismal working conditions won’t be fixed simply by the prime minister staring across the table at the premiers.

Similarly, the beleaguered health-care system may deserve an emergency debate in the House of Commons — as New Democratic Party Leader Jagmeet Singh demanded on Monday — but a talking cure seems inadequate to the magnitude of the current breakdown.

I don’t want to mock the idea of meetings. “A bunch of people sitting around a table talking” does pretty accurately sum up 90 per cent of what a political job involves.

In interviews on Monday, the president of the Canadian Medical Association was asked whether a first ministers’ meeting was at the top of his list for getting health care fixed in the short term. Not really, Dr. Alika Lafontaine said.

“One of the things for Canadians to remember is that these things don’t have to happen sequentially,” Lafontaine told CBC TV.

“You know, the funding needs to come, but there are a lot of things that we can do in the meantime. And if these meetings are mainly focused on just a discussion on amounts, I don’t think they’re going to lead to the solutions that we’re looking for.”

What he was saying, essentially, is that politicians have to stop talking about talking. “We have to move past this conversation that somehow we can’t do anything about funding in place, because people are suffering right now,” Lafontaine said.

At Queen’s Park on Monday, the Ontario Health Coalition was rattling off all the things governments could do right now without waiting for some mythical meeting or sum of money. They could recall retired health-care workers back to duty, pay them well and pay their licence fees, suggested coalition executive director Natalie Mehra. Money is definitely necessary, she said, but right now she’d take “boots on the ground” over more squabbling over money.

“This is beyond emergency,” Mehra said. “This is like nothing we’ve ever seen before.”

One of the things we learned during Justice Paul Rouleau’s inquiry into the convoy protest is that Canada’s first ministers talk very differently to each other behind the scenes than they do in public. Their language is more coarse, but they do a lot less posturing for the cameras.

So we probably shouldn’t discourage them from having some kind of conversation. But if it resembles the usual way they talk past each other in public, that will be a sideshow, not a fix for the crumbling health-care system. Federal Health Minister Jean-Yves Duclos has been hinting in recent days that some progress is being made behind the scenes, but we don’t know what shape that’s taking.

Anyone contending with the massive strain on Canada’s health-care system right now would no doubt say that Ford was right last February — that a real emergency requires more than a bunch of people talking around a table.

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