New Brunswick

Trudeau says he'll continue to pressure N.B. over abortion access, but offers no specifics

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said he’ll continue to push New Brunswick to fund abortion services at Fredericton’s Clinic 554, even as he grossly exaggerated the financial penalty he’s already imposed on the province.

In Moncton, Trudeau doesn't elaborate on how he would get the province to fund services at Clinic 554

Speaking in Moncton on Tuesday, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau had no specifics on how his government would force New Brunswick to fund abortions at Clinic 554. (Shane Magee/CBC)

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said he'll continue to push New Brunswick to fund abortion services at Fredericton's Clinic 554, even as he grossly exaggerated the financial penalty he's already imposed on the province.

Trudeau told reporters Tuesday morning his government withheld "millions of dollars in health transfers" in this year's federal budget to punish New Brunswick for not funding the procedure. 

But within minutes of his event wrapping up, his press secretary Ann-Clara Vaillancourt contacted CBC News to say the prime minister "misspoke" when he referred to millions of dollars.

The actual amount withheld this year was $140,216, she said.

Last week Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland said in Fredericton that the federal government would have "more to say specifically in the coming days" about Clinic 554.

But Trudeau made no announcement about it in Moncton, instead using a visit to a COVID-19 vaccination clinic to announce Canada has now received enough doses to fully vaccinate everyone in the country who is eligible.

Trudeau vowed to ensure provincial funding for Clinic 554 in Fredericton as part of his 2019 election campaign. So far, his government has not succeeded in that goal. (Mike Heenan/CBC)

On abortion access, he said only that government was continuing to work "extremely hard to ensure that everyone across the country has access to the full range of reproductive services, including through Clinic 554 here in New Brunswick." 

In the 2019 election campaign, the prime minister promised he would use the Canada Health Act to "ensure" New Brunswick funded the procedure at the private downtown clinic. Almost two years later, that still hasn't happened.

"We have continued to work with partners across the country and to impress strongly upon the government of New Brunswick how it needs to keep up its obligations under the Canada Health Act," he said.

"The fact that New Brunswick hasn't yet done that is exactly why we withheld millions of dollars in health transfers to New Brunswick," he added, emphatically. 

Trudeau's government initially said it would withhold $140,216 in the 2020-21 fiscal year, but quickly reversed itself because of the cost provinces were facing to deal with the COVID-19 pandemic.

Instead it withheld that amount this year. 

But that penalty has not caused Premier Blaine Higgs to budge from his position that the province providing abortion services in three hospitals is enough to meet the requirements for access under the Canada Health Act. 

That law says nothing can "impede ... directly or indirectly … reasonable access" to publicly-funded health services.

Clinic still partially open 

Last fall Higgs dared anyone who disagreed to take the province to court, and early this year the Canadian Civil Liberties Association filed a lawsuit aimed at forcing the province to fund abortions at the clinic.

Clinic 554 announced in 2019 it would soon close, blaming the province's refusal to fund abortions at the facility. The clinic also offered other services funded by medicare.

Despite that warning, the clinic remains partially open.

A voice message at the clinic says it remains open for abortions and for the insertion or removal of intrauterine devices, a form of birth control. No one has responded to messages seeking an update on the clinic's status.

Abortions funded by medicare are now provided at three hospitals in New Brunswick: two in Moncton —  the Moncton Hospital and the Dr. Georges-L.-Dumont University Hospital Centre — and the Chaleur Regional Hospital in Bathurst.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Jacques Poitras

Provincial Affairs reporter

Jacques Poitras has been CBC's provincial affairs reporter in New Brunswick since 2000. He grew up in Moncton and covered Parliament in Ottawa for the New Brunswick Telegraph-Journal. He has reported on every New Brunswick election since 1995 and won awards from the Radio Television Digital News Association, the National Newspaper Awards and Amnesty International. He is also the author of five non-fiction books about New Brunswick politics and history.

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