Deal with New Brunswick the latest adventure in federalism for Trudeau

Speaking on behalf of his colleagues Monday, P.E.I. Premier Wade MacLauchlan said the provinces and territories were "united" in their fight for more federal dollars for health care. But just 2½ days later, New Brunswick secured an exclusive deal with the Trudeau government.

Province gets funding and the federal government gets a potential break in health negotiations

New Brunswick Premier Brian Gallant doesn't deny he was working in tandem with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to secure a health-funding deal for his province. (Instagram/Brian Gallant)

Speaking on behalf of his colleagues at the conclusion of Monday's meeting with the federal government, P.E.I. Premier Wade MacLauchlan declared the provinces and territories were "united" in demanding more for health care.

"What we gained today, and what Canadians gained, is a unified position of the provinces and territories," MacLauchlan said when a reporter suggested the provincial ministers were no further ahead than they'd been at the start of the day.

That unity lasted just about two hours, or as long as it took New Brunswick Finance Minister Cathy Rogers to appear on CBC's Power & Politics and announce her province was open to signing its own agreement with the federal government.

P.E.I. Premier Wade MacLauchlan said the provinces and territories were unified in their efforts to get more federal funding for health care. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

Two and a half days later, New Brunswick Premier Brian Gallant convened a news conference in Fredericton to announce that just such a deal had been signed.

It's a potentially useful break in the negotiations between the federal and provincial governments.

But it's also more evidence that Justin Trudeau's sunny disposition and promise to work with the provinces were not to be confused with a commitment to Kumbaya federalism.

What New Brunswick got by getting in now

New Brunswick will get $125.1 million for home care and $104.3 million for mental health over ten years, in keeping with the federal government's desire to direct funds at those two areas.

On Monday, the Trudeau government proposed the federal transfer for health care increase by 3.5 per cent going forward, but Gallant opted to revert to the existing arrangement whereby transfers would increase by three per cent or at the rate of growth in nominal GDP.

The premier estimates that with projected economic growth, that could mean an annual increase of 4.1 per cent.

As of Monday, the provinces were asking for 5.2 per cent.

But Gallant also got the federal government to agree that if any other province negotiates a better deal, New Brunswick will receive those terms.

Some of Gallant's provincial counterparts weren't so pleased with his health-care deal with the federal government. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

The premier declared himself "pleased" with his agreement. Ministers in other provincial capitals were decidedly less impressed.

Gaétan Barrette, Quebec's pugnacious health minister, quickly tweeted that New Brunswick was settling for a diminished contribution from the federal government and relying on "other provinces to fight for a better offer."

At his announcement, Gallant said he was "flabbergasted" that Barrette had criticized New Brunswick's handling of the file earlier in the week.

"The irony is beyond me," the premier said. "If another province were to go into Quebec to tell Quebecers and the Quebec government how they should do health care and how they should negotiate with the federal government, I think we all know what the reaction of the Quebec government would be."

Earlier this week, federal sources said more than one province was having discussions with the government, but it remains to be seen how many, if any, will follow New Brunswick, which is faced with the pressure of providing for one of Canada's oldest populations.

It also remains to be seen how much harder it might be for Trudeau to convince the other provinces, particularly the giants of Ontario, Quebec and B.C.

The latest adventure in federalism

On Monday, MacLauchlan urged reporters to look at a letter Trudeau sent to the premiers in September 2015, back when he was campaigning to be prime minister.

"Though federal leadership on health care has been missing during the past decade, I strongly believe that the federal government has an important role to play," Trudeau wrote. "The absence of a federal-provincial partnership and engagement on the expired federal-provincial Health Accord was a missed opportunity."

Though Trudeau has resisted sitting down with the premiers for an official meeting on health care — he did agree to discuss the matter over dinner earlier this month — his government has at least been more engaged on the file. But just not always with the gentlest tones.

In October, Health Minister Jane Philpott arrived to a meeting with her provincial counterparts and declared that federal funding sent to the provinces for health care needed to be spent on health care and lamented that the medicare system isn't as healthy as it should be.

Then, last week, Finance Minister Bill Morneau gave provinces an ultimatum: agree to a new deal on Monday or never mind. When no deal was reached, Morneau said the offer was off the table.

Trudeau has resisted sitting down with the premiers for an official meeting on health care. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

And all of that came after the prime minister's declaration in early October of a coming national price on carbon: a dramatic announcement that prompted three provinces to walk out of a meeting of environment ministers in Montreal.

Two weeks ago, the prime minister signed a national climate deal despite the stated objections of Saskatchewan, the reluctance of Manitoba and the quibbles of British Columbia.

Speaking to a CBC reporter in Charlottetown on Thursday, MacLauchlan, a former academic, was philosophical.

"The fact that New Brunswick has a bilateral deal doesn't concern me," he said. "I go back to the beginning of medicare, that was exactly how it was put together. In fact, that time around Prince Edward Island was one of the last provinces to come in."

So possibly, even in unity, the premiers might have predicted this would happen.

Will other provinces cut deals with the feds on health?

6 years ago
Duration 8:37
'It will not surprise me if there are further bilateral agreements,' says federal Health Minister Jane Philpott.


Aaron Wherry

Senior writer

Aaron Wherry has covered Parliament Hill since 2007 and has written for Maclean's, the National Post and the Globe and Mail. He is the author of Promise & Peril, a book about Justin Trudeau's years in power.