Amid progress on the Indigenous file, Jane Philpott warns journalists against 'sloppy' reporting

Indigenous Services Minister Jane Philpott says journalists must be held to the highest standards and she has no qualms about calling out reporters for publishing inaccurate reports about her contentious file.

'I think, as a minister, it's important for me to get the facts out there'

Indigenous Services Minister Jane Philpott is proposing a new ten-year granting program for First Nations that would require little reporting requirements. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

Indigenous Services Minister Jane Philpott says her department has made progress in the four months she has been in charge of the contentious file — including meeting the government's obligation to First Nations children.

And she says she won't shy away from calling out "sloppy" reporters for stories that "perpetuate the myths of despair."

After a slow start, the Liberal government earmarked some $382 million to close gaps in care between Indigenous and non-Indigenous children and funds are now flowing to help thousands get the health care they need.

Philpott also oversaw the negotiated end to a legal dispute with First Nations activists at the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal — a fight that lasted some 10 years under two successive governments.

She has also, unusually, begun taking news outlets and their reporters to task on Twitter for perceived misconceptions about the government's commitment to implementing Jordan's Principle, a federal policy that guarantees First Nations children equitable health and welfare services to non indigenous children.

In the last month, Philpott has taken aim at at least four different news stories, including a couple published by CBC News and one from the Postmedia-owned Saskatoon StarPhoenix, in which she called a story by one of that newspaper's columnists "irresponsible reporting."

"When people aren't accurate, or they're sloppy in terms of printing old information or information they haven't fact-checked, I think, as a minister, it's important for me to get the facts out there ... perpetuating myths and misunderstandings about what's taking place in this day and age does a disservice. Communities are thriving, growing, taking on leadership roles and succeeding, we need to tell those stories," she said in a year-end interview with CBC News at her office in Gatineau, Que.

"Let's not perpetuate the myths of despair."

Most of the tweets — which originate from Philpott's personal account — are directed at stories about Jordan's Principle, which stipulates no Indigenous child should suffer denials, delays or disruptions in health and welfare services available to other children due to jurisdictional disputes over which level of government will pay for those services.

Jordan's Principle is named after Jordan River Anderson, a four-year-old boy with serious and complex medical needs who died in hospital in 2005 after a drawn-out court battle between the federal government and Manitoba over who should pay his home-care costs.

In 2007, Parliament voted unanimously to adopt the principle, guaranteeing First Nations children the health care they need without delays. But, in January 2016, the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal found the government was discriminating against those children by under-funding the provision of care and allowing child welfare systems to languish.

At issue for Philpott is a suggestion by some that the Liberal government has not fully implemented Jordan's Principle — in the face of three non-compliance orders from the tribunal — and that it is adhering to a restrictive definition of the principle, namely that it only applies to children with multiple disabilities.

"So far, the federal government hasn't complied with the compliance orders and First Nations children are caught in a jurisdictional nightmare," Doug Cuthand, the columnist at the Saskatoon StarPhoenix, wrote on Dec. 16.

Cuthand did not respond to a request for comment.

A social media video, tweeted by the CBC's Indigenous unit on Dec. 12, cites critics that say "almost a decade later, little has changed" on Jordan's Principle.

'Took a while to ramp things up'

The minister insists these are old accusations about problems that are now being rectified under her watch. "Literally on every single sector there's been significant movement," she said of her four-month stint on the Indigenous file, rhyming off new investments in infrastructure and a reduction in the number of long-term boil-water advisories.

As CBC News first reported in February, just 1,500 requests for health care services in fiscal year 2016-17 been approved by the Liberal government to Jan. 11, 2017, despite a $380 million injection of new funding to finally implement Jordan's Principle.

Since then, Philpott said, that number has climbed to more than 29,000 — a significant improvement. "Well over 99 per cent of the time we're able to say yes to the request. We've clarified the definition ... it just took a while to ramp things up. I'll remind you ... the fact is until our government took office there was zero requests granted on the basis of Jordan's Principle."

The new funding is earmarked for services previously denied by Health Canada — but offered by the provinces — such as mental health supports, home care, help for children living with disabilities and for things as basic as formula for infants with dietary issues, hearing aids and wheelchairs for paraplegics, among other services.

"There's no question the media has a role to play in critiquing and calling out inequity and injustice. I think that's part of what the [fourth] estate is supposed to do ... [but] to criticize the government incorrectly doesn't help anyone and I believe that people need to get the message straight."

And — albeit 18 months after the tribunal's ruling — the government has agreed to end legal wrangling over some aspects of the tribunal's findings, and clarified timelines for how long the government has to respond to requests for health care.

"I have no desire to solve these problems through the courts, it takes away money and time ... I'd rather improve quality and access to the services children need," she said.

"We're making up those gaps and closing those gaps as quickly as we possibly can but, unfortunately, it does take some time."

'We don't have to go through expensive legal mechanisms to solve problems,' says Indigenous Services Minister Jane Philpott. 6:43
 

About the Author

John Paul Tasker

Parliamentary Bureau

John Paul (J.P.) Tasker is a reporter in the CBC's Parliamentary bureau in Ottawa. He can be reached at john.tasker@cbc.ca.