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Healthcare and infrastructure on Northern agenda at Western Premiers Conference

Nunavut Premier seeks to make clear the massive infrastructure gaps compared to other provinces
Nunavut Premier Joe Savikataaq gives his opening remarks during the media portion of the Western Premiers Conference. Zoom/screenshot

On June 15 western premiers met virtually to discuss shared priorities, such as reopening plans, healthcare and economic recovery.

The day before, Northern premiers also met online to speak on shared priorities in the Arctic, including reopening plans, healthcare and reconciliation in the context of ongoing searches of former residential schools.

Hosted by Nunavut, the Premiers of Alberta, British Columbia, Manitoba, Saskatchewan, Yukon were present at the Western Premiers Conference as well as Northwest Territories Premier Caroline Cochrane and Nunavut Premier Joe Savikataaq.

Maintaining and increasing healthcare funding which came with the COVID-19 pandemic was one topic Savikataaq touched on in his opening remarks.

“Notably, we discussed the many challenges in fiscal and human resources in our healthcare system as we find our way out of the third wave.”

In December 2020 Prime Minister Justin Trudeau acknowledged the Government of Canada needs to increase its share in healthcare funding.

“We need reoccurring funding through the Canada Health Transfer (CHT), and we will continue to lobby the federal government on this long-standing issue,” said Savikataaq.

In a shared release, the western premiers were unanimous in their call for immediate and ongoing increases to the CHT, to achieve and maintain a federal share of 35 percent of provincial and territorial healthcare funding.

Among healthcare concerns are mental health and the impacts long-term COVID-19 related lockdowns will have on people going forward.

“We need dedicated programs and services and funding to help our most vulnerable,” Savikataaq added.

Cochrane spoke about the need for Indigenous communities to take the lead in the ongoing searches of residential school grounds, saying it was a topic of discussion even before the discovery of 215 bodies in unmarked graves at Kamloops Indian Residential School.

“Our Indigenous people have spoken about missing children and (the discovery at Kamloops) actually validated it. You can’t erase history now, this is a reality,” said Cochrane.

She made clear to other premiers Indigenous communities must take the lead in the ongoing searches of residential schools.

“It was necessary for me to take a step back and recognize the bitter truth in reconciliation. Articles 71 to 76 (of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s calls to action) talk about the missing children and the burial of these children and state it shall be led by Indigenous people. It shall not be public governments doing this.

“They will take the direction, they will tell me what to do,” Cochrane said. “As a public government, this shall not be led by me, it shall be led by the Indigenous governments in the NWT.”

Earlier in the Western Premiers Conference, Savikataaq led a discussion regarding infrastructure in Nunavut, making clear the considerable gaps in the territory’s infrastructure compared to the jurisdictions of the other premiers, stating that all jurisdictions in Canada should be connected.

“Investment from coast-to-coast-to-coast is nation-building,” he said.

With regards to reopening plans, both Nunavut and the NWT are keeping an eye on their own vaccine uptake rate as well as the pandemic situation in the south.

“I think all jurisdictions are wanting to open up, people are tired of COVID-19, we need to find out what the new normal will be,” said Cochrane.

She added it all depends on how the southern premiers fare with their own vaccine uptake.

“I really emphasize to all the southern jurisdictions, keep up with the vaccinations, because if we can get your people vaccinated then we can actually open up.”

Cochrane ended on a need to find common ground in this time, and to think of their respective constituents.

“Parties don’t matter, it’s when we work together as all premiers that we do the best for the residents of Canada.The NWT is just one jurisdiction in Canada, but I’m proud to stand as a Canadian.

“By working together, finding commonalities we can all stand up for, that is the way, in my opinion, that we represent Canadians.”