Liberals promise new mental health transfer of $4.5 billion over five years

OTTAWA — A re-elected Liberal government would give provinces and territories $4.5 billion over five years in targeted funding for mental health, but wouldn't dictate how they deliver that support, Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau promised Tuesday.

The funding would be delivered through a new, permanent mental health transfer, he said.

"The past 18 months have been really tough, for parents, for seniors, for essential workers, for all the people who are grieving the loss of family members, for everyone who’s faced discrimination or hate — no matter who you are, you deserve the right support and that includes on mental health," Trudeau said.

"We’ve made real progress, but if you’ve been in crisis and faced a wait list, if you’re a student struggling to pay both rent and a therapist, you know there’s a lot of work still to do."

The Liberals are also promising $500 million over four years to increase access to mental health services on university and college campuses, which he says will support the hiring of 1,200 mental health counsellors.

Tuesday's announcement, made in Ottawa, also includes the creation of a national, three-digit suicide prevention and mental health support hotline.

A Conservative motion to create such a hotline was unanimously supported by the House of Commons last December and that party has also included such a promise in its platform.

The Tories have vowed to provide enough funding through health transfers for an additional one million Canadians to receive mental health treatment every year. But Conservative Leader Erin O'Toole has said that his pledge of increased health spending, which he has pegged at $60 billion over 10 years, will not come with conditions.

"In our Canada recovery plan, we’re making historic investments in our public system, a minimum of six per cent increase per year without tying Ottawa-knows-best conditions," "O'Toole said Tuesday.

"I know that all provinces know that we've seen alarming rates in domestic violence, in youth depression. I know all provinces will focus need on mental health, but I will respect provincial decisions."

Trudeau's promise to provide dedicated funding to hire doctors and nurses was criticized last week as emblematic of an overly "centralist" approach by Quebec Premier Francois Legault, who also took aim at specific funding pledges issued by the New Democrats.

Legault bristled at what he deemed to be overly targeted health funding promises, saying health transfers should increase while allowing Quebec to set its own program priorities.

"We're not micromanaging," Trudeau said in French on Tuesday when asked whether his latest announcement could fuel similar criticism.

"We know what the goals are. Canadians need access to doctors and mental health experts, they need support, but we won't tell provinces exactly how they need to deliver that," he said.

Trudeau shifted focus to post-secondary education later Tuesday, announcing a boost in funding for minority language institutions during a rally at the University of Sudbury.

The university suspended its operations this summer as it seeks to restructure after its partnership with Laurentian University was terminated earlier this year. Laurentian asked the court to sever its ties with the university and two others as part of creditor protection proceedings.

Laurentian's president announced in February that the school was insolvent, and an interim report by a government adviser found it had run deficits at least as far back as 2014.

The report also found Laurentian had sought financial help from the province starting late last year, but that the two sides had been at an impasse.

In the budget, the Liberals committed $121.3 million over three years to support minority language post-secondary institutions — funding they promised Tuesday to double and make permanent if re-elected.

"While education remains a provincial jurisdiction and requires serious action on their behalf, we are stepping up for Canadians, countering the cuts that took place at Laurentian University, and working hard to ensure that francophone communities in the North have the education that they deserve," the party said in a statement.

Trudeau announced the funding on a rooftop as a small crowd of protesters shouted below.

The Liberal leader, whose campaign has been dogged by throngs of angry demonstrators in recent days, took a far more combative tone than on previous occasions as he denounced the demonstrators and called on the Conservatives to do the same.

"Those people are putting us all at risk … and Erin O'Toole is siding with them instead of with Canadians who did their part and stepped up?" Trudeau said.

"He's talking about personal choice. What about my choice to keep my kids safe? What about our choice to make sure we're getting through this pandemic as quickly as we can?

"So shame on you, Erin O'Toole. You need to condemn these people, you need to correct them."

Trudeau has previously vowed to confront "anger with compassion" when asked about the protests, including one that prompted the cancellation of an event in Bolton, Ont., last week due to security concerns.

O' Toole has warned his supporters that they're not welcome on the Conservative campaign if they engage in harassment and intimidation of other party leaders.

Earlier Tuesday, the Liberals also vowed to review the Disability Tax Credit and Canada Pension Plan disability benefits, establish a fund to support Black Canadians in the public service and include mental health as a specific element of occupational health and safety under the Canada Labour Code.

It was the Liberals' second mental health announcement in as many days. On Monday, they pledged $1.4 billion in added funding over five years to co-develop an Indigenous mental health strategy.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Aug. 31, 2021.

Paola Loriggio, The Canadian Press

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