Quebec Health Minister Gaétan Barrette says comments on 'drugged' medevac passengers were 'misinterpreted'

"If there is something I am not, it is a racist," said Gaétan Barrette, adding he's sorry if people "misinterpreted" remarks about the likelihood of having to bar parents "under the influence" from accompanying children on medevac flights from the north.

'If there is something I am not, it is a racist,' says Barrette, but Kuujjuaq mayor still insists he must quit

Quebec Health Minister Gaétan Barrette said his comments were not meant to be directed at the Indigenous population, which are largely the communities served by the province's air ambulance system. (Charles Contant/CBC)

Health Minister Gaétan Barrette says he's sorry if people "misunderstood" remarks he made that have been criticized by Indigenous leaders as racist.

"Look, if there is something that I am not, it is a racist," said Barrette, flanked by the premier and other Liberal cabinet ministers, at an event in Montreal this afternoon. 

"I'm quite aware of the sensitivity of the issue and all the problems that the First Nations do live with and the challenges they are facing in this province and across this country."

Barrette's comments relate to a longstanding policy in Quebec that required ill children from Quebec's Inuit territory of Nunavik and other northern communities to travel unaccompanied by a parent or caregiver on air ambulance flights to hospitals elsewhere in the province.
The Challenger 601 transports patients from northern Quebec. The government has bowed to pressure from doctors and northern residents urging it to change its longstanding policy and allow a parent to accompany a sick child who must be flown south for medical attention. (Government of Quebec)

After pediatric associations urged the government to end that practice, Barrette announced in February that "the human factor" had compelled him to change the regulation barring parents from accompanying their children on medical evacuation flights.

Asked by a citizen at a community event on Montreal's South Shore why it was taking so long to make that change, Barrette said the issue was never raised at the time that Quebec acquired two Challengers, designed to be flying hospitals.

"I'm the one and only, the first health minister who had to face that issue, and I solved the situation," he said, explaining that the two Challengers with the capability of flying to Nunavik have now been modified and are operational.

Without prompting, he then added, "I guarantee you that there will be at least one instance in the next six months where someone will not be allowed to get on the plane" to accompany their child.

"Why? Because no one — agitated, drugged, under whatever influence — would get on the plane at any cost. That will not happen. And that happens all the time," said Barrette, speaking in English.

Listen to a recording of his remarks, obtained by CBC, here:

Gaétan Barrette's remarks about northern parents 'under the influence' 1:12

Barrette implied the comments were taken out of context and apologized that people had misconstrued his intentions. 

"I am very, very sorry that some people misinterpreted the comments I made to a citizen who asked me a question," Barrette said earlier today.

"It's too bad. I am really sorry that people misunderstood what I said."

Barrette said he had been generally addressing aviation safety rules, which apply to anyone on any commercial flight in Canada. 

"The simple act of mentioning that rule is not an insinuation [toward] the Indigenous population, who have always supported my policies," he said. 

Kuujjuaq mayor refuses apology

Kuujjuaq Mayor Tunu Napartuk, who earlier called for Barrette's resignation over the comments, said the health minister called him after this morning's news conference in Montreal to apologize. 

"I don't accept his apology, and I'm still demanding his resignation," he said. 
Kuujjuaq Mayor Tunu Napartuk expressed shock and disappointment over the Quebec health minister's remarks. (Submitted by Tunu Napartuk)

"Mr. Barrette attempted to explain his comments, that they were not necessarily directed toward any specific Aboriginal group. But from what I've heard and what I've read, his comments were about the medical evacuations and the rules and regulations that the government is working on that directly affect the Inuit of Nunavik."

"Therefore, his comments were directed on the Inuit of Nunavik." 

Kuujjuaq, just south of Ungava Bay, is a fly-in only community and the administrative capital of Nunavik, with a population of just under 2,800.

Ghislain Picard, the regional chief of the Assembly of First Nations of Quebec and Labrador, said the Quebec Liberal government has "failed Indigenous people on a number of fronts" since it came to power.

"There's a lot of skepticism within our chiefs' circle," said Picard. "Gaétan Barrette's comments were just adding to many mishaps that we've seen over the last four years on the issue of lands and resources and the absence that we see in terms of really good faith engagement on the part of government."

Liberals support Barrette's record

Opposition politicians were quick to condemn Barrette's comments.  

"It's shameful to try to scapegoat a parent for a problem that is made by the Liberal government," Parti Québécois Leader Jean-François Lisée said. "The issue is that parents should be able to accompany their sick children in these planes."

Quebec's Minister responsible for Native Affairs, Geoff Kelley, defended Barrette, choosing his words carefully.

"It's not the Gaétan Barrette that I know," Kelley said at an event this morning. "I haven't heard the tape. I wasn't there.... But I can attest to the fact that when it comes to [key] decisions the government has taken in the last months, he was an ally."

Barrette, Kelley and Premier Philippe Couillard all pointed to recent health care investments made in Indigenous communities, suggesting Quebec is actively taking responsibility for the health of people in those communities instead of bickering with the Federal government.

Barrette is one of the few Liberal cabinet ministers who is expected to run again in the fall provincial election. 

"Dr. Barrette has my trust. He's done very important things for the health care system and for Aboriginal people within the health care system," Couillard said.

"I understand the reactions. I think Mr. Barrette has just spoken. He's sorry that his words have been interpreted that way," Couillard went on.

"I suggest that we leave it there and now look at actions taken on the ground, such as the one that was announced around Quebec City for the Hurons a few days ago."

About the Author

Melinda Dalton

Melinda Dalton is a digital journalist at CBC Montreal.

With files from CBC's Leah Hendry and Jaela Bernstien