Singh would use federal money to 'encourage' provinces on health services

WELLAND, Ont. — The billions of dollars the federal government transfers to provinces for health care give Ottawa leverage that NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh says he'd use to push for better local services.

Earlier this week, Singh told the Winnipeg Free Press he would push for a particular emergency room in that city to be re-opened. He also kicked off his campaign by promising to get a new hospital built in Brampton, Ont.

But health care is a provincial responsibility and decisions about hospital operations and services are made by provincial governments, not federal leaders.

"We don't have the power to force anything, but we have the power to be persuasive. We have the power to encourage things," Singh told reporters during a campaign stop in Welland, Ont.

"When we negotiate things like universal pharmacare and dental care ... we can sit down with provinces and talk about when we're increasing investments, we want to see better health care services."

A number of Singh's signature platform promises would require provincial buy-in, including his pledge to implement a national pharmacare program by 2020 and to ensure all families in Canada have access to quality, affordable child care.

Singh has admitted he hasn't spoken to any premiers during the campaign to see how he could make these plans work, but notes three of his key campaign promises can be implemented without provincial co-operation. For example, his pledge to make dental care coverage public could be enacted though a program like employment insurance, Singh said, and his plan to lower cell phone bills through a price cap imposed by the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC).

While it's not unusual or unprecedented for the federal government to attach conditions to federal transfers to the provinces, getting as specific as re-opening an ER or building a hospital is unusual, says Gerald Baier, an associate professor of political science at the University of British Columbia who specializes in intergovernmental relations.

"(Those are) not the kinds of conditions normally imposed," he said, noting they are usually "much more general, historically, though they may be targeted to specific programs or services."

Meanwhile, when it comes to the provincial jurisdiction of Quebec over its controversial secularism law, Singh has tried to give that a wide berth.

Known as Bill 21, the law bans civil servants in positions of authority from wearing religious symbols and is popular in Quebec.

Every time he's been pressed to say whether that means he'd seek intervener status in a court challenge of this law, so the federal government could make arguments, Singh has said he doesn't want to "interfere."

Fareed Khan, founder of Canadians United Against Hate told The Canadian Press last week he has been "gobsmacked" at Singh's lack of conviction to go after the bill.

"Of all the people, I would think he would be the one who would be leading the charge to say not only is this wrong but were I to become prime minister I would immediately take action legally," said Khan, referring to the fact Singh wears a turban and a kirpan as symbols of his Sikh faith. Singh would be personally affected by the law if he tried to work as a teacher, for example, in Quebec. 

When asked about why he's willing to get involved in provincial matters of health services while staying away from Bill 21, Singh sidestepped the question.

"I think (that) speaks entirely to a strategy not to offend or challenge Quebec voters who support the secularism law," Baier said.

"No other good reason."

Although the law only affects Quebec, the stances federal leaders are taking on whether they would use federal powers to challenge it as discriminatory have become an issue both within and outside Quebec in the federal campaign, a test for how far federal leaders are willing to go to support minority rights.

Campaigning in Quebec on Thursday, Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau did not answer a direct question about whether he thinks Bill 21 is discriminatory, instead saying a re-elected Liberal government is open to intervening later.

“We have Quebecers taking their government to court right now to challenge a law that they feel is unjust,” Trudeau said at a campaign stop in Trois-Rivieres, Que.

“We are not going to intervene in this step of the process, but as I’ve said, a federal government always needs to be ready to defend fundamental rights, whether it be women’s rights, LGBT rights, rights of minorities or rights of francophone communities outside of Quebec,” he said.

Earlier this week in Quebec City, Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer was also asked directly whether he thinks Bill 21 is discriminatory. He, like Trudeau, sidestepped, and repeated a previous commitment that he wouldn't intervene.

Singh spent his day campaigning in key swing ridings outside Toronto that polls suggest are still too close to call.

He drew the party's biggest crowd of the campaign in an evening rally in Brampton East — a seat without an incumbent after Liberal MP Raj Grewal, who took a leave from federal politics to deal with gambling problem, decided not to re-offer.

The New Democratic leader told the crowd he felt the economy has been "rigged" against ordinary people and pledged to "tax the rich" to rectify this imbalance.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Oct. 17, 2019.

—With files from Joanna Smith in Trois-Rivieres

Teresa Wright, The Canadian Press