Canada's vaccine rollout will be 'extremely efficient,' says intergovernmental affairs minister
Dominic Leblanc says it's not 'realistic' for feds to commit to $28B health transfers during the pandemic
Canada's intergovernmental affairs minister says the federal government is working closely with the provinces and territories to fight COVID-19 and get Canadians vaccinated as soon as possible.
COVID-19 was a top priority this week at Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's 23rd meeting with Canada's premiers. But Trudeau wouldn't commit to the premiers' appeal for a permanent annual boost of $28 billion to health-care transfers, instead vowing to increase the funding at some point after the pandemic ends.
Dominic LeBlanc, the minister responsible for federal-provincial relations, says discussing that funding request was not "the most constructive use of the time."
Instead, he says Canadians want their leaders to work together to ensure a timely and effective vaccine rollout. Health Canada approved the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine on Wednesday and some provinces plan to start inoculating high-risk populations by next week.
Here is part of Leblanc's conversation with As It Happens host Carol Off.
What message does it send Canadians when they see Ottawa and the provinces having disputes over health care at this crucial moment?
I wouldn't qualify it as a dispute. I think we had a constructive discussion with all of the premiers on Thursday evening. And what I think is most important is that Canadians properly expect their governments to continue a collaborative focus on the fight against COVID-19, on the economic and health measures that are necessary to protect them.
We talked about vaccines. We talked about the logistics of getting the vaccine efficiently to Canadians. We told the premiers that the government of Canada would assume all of the costs for vaccines, that they would be free for Canadians.
We talked about increased federal investments for health care. We talked about an immediate desire to work with them and increase federal funds available for long-term care settings.
So we had a very constructive and, I think, positive conversation about working together to improve health care.
Well, then why do you think that the premier of Quebec [François Legault] … after yesterday's meeting, he called it "a missed opportunity"? He said, "We're very disappointed." So how is it, if everything was so positive, that he came out with that conclusion?
Well, that was maybe his view. That wasn't shared by some other premiers. In fact, I got a text message this morning from one premier who said, "How do I sign up to work on long-term care and the high cost of medicines for rare diseases? What can we do starting right away?"
I think the premiers arrive with a figure of $28 billion as a permanent ongoing increase. You know, that would be almost $300 billion over 10 years at the worst economic circumstance the country's been in in 90 years. So it probably wasn't realistic to think that the government of Canada was going to start the meeting by saying, "Look, here's $28 billion, you know, every year going forward. Is there anything else we can do?"
That wasn't, in our view, the most constructive use of the time. It was to understand what are the pressures driving their increased health-care costs, looking at the immediate priorities of Canadians, which understandably are the current fight against COVID-19, the health measures, the economic measures, the issue of the vaccine, and particularly, Carol, long-term care.
Right, but you've been hearing from those western premiers, the conservative premiers in the west, who have accused your government of failing to deliver a vaccine plan, of not being as transparent as countries like Australia, where people know exactly what's going to happen, when it's going to roll out, and also somewhat managing expectations by saying, "Well, we're hoping it all works out." Are you holding back on them?
No, not at all. And we're way, way, way beyond hoping it works out.
There have been over 35 meetings since the month of May with provinces and territories to plan the logistics around vaccines, some of the complicated cold-chain logistics around the Pfizer vaccine.
We have a national operation centre where Maj.-Gen. [Dany] Fortin from the Canadian Armed Forces is working with provincial health authorities and emergency measures organizations.
We've delivered high-capacity, ultra-cold freezers across the country.
[Editor's note: None of the first batch of the Pfizer vaccine will go to the territories, because they lack the freezers needed to store it. Instead, the North is relying on the pending Moderna vaccine, which is not expected to have the same storage and shipping requirements.]
And the vaccines are arriving next week and there have been multiple practice runs in every jurisdiction.
So the idea that there's no line of sight on the vaccines or there's no plan is simply not true. And frankly, it would be irresponsible for premiers to say that because Canadians, understandably, are urgently anticipating the arrival of vaccines. It's the most immediate way to improve the public health context. And I think it's going to go very well.
But that's the whole point, is that … they believe Canadians have not had this information shared with them. Having a plan and being transparent about it, making people aware of what the plan, are different things.... What the premiers and the Opposition are saying is that you have not been transparent enough about what the plan is, that they needed to know more about what was going on in order to inspire that confidence that you want Canadians to have in your plan.
So, again, I wouldn't accept the premise of that sort of comment, because we have been, as information becomes reliable and real, sharing it with provinces and territories and with Canadians.
It was only this week that the first vaccine was approved for use by Health Canada as safe and effective for Canadians, and it will be on Canadian soil next week. In fact, it's en route to Canada as we speak now.
So there's a great deal of transparency. But there's an understandable urgency. And I think that Canadians need to be reassured. And we'll see very quickly that a great deal of excellent work has been done by provinces and the government of Canada. And I'm very confident that the vaccine rollout will be extremely efficient and very effective.
The Conservative Opposition has actually accused the procurement minister of securing that initial batch of those doses of the Pfizer vaccine, the 250,000 doses, in order to provide cover to the prime minister for failing to put Canadians at the front of the line for mass vaccinations. And the accusation is that you're playing politics with vaccines. Is there any truth to that?
I think that if the Conservative Opposition were saying that … they're looking in a mirror. Because we have said to Canadians consistently that we have a diverse and very significant portfolio of seven different potential vaccines representing over 400 million doses. And as soon as we can get them to Canada, once they're properly approved by Health Canada as safe and effective, they'll be coming to Canada as quickly and in as plentiful a way as possible.
The chairman of Moderna, which is another vaccine likely we hope to be approved soon ... said that Canada was at the front of the line with respect to that vaccine.
So just because the Opposition makes something up and repeats it a few times doesn't make it true.
Conservative Leader Erin O'Toole has even said that people have fear of the safety of the vaccine. And we know that there are those who are afraid of it or are skeptical of it. And he says that even a petition sponsored by one of his own MPs, which reflects some false ideas about the vaccine ... wouldn't have happened if you had been more transparent from the beginning.
If Mr. O'Toole has an MP that's spreading a false or a fake petition about vaccines, I don't think it's really reasonable to somehow blame the government for one of his MPs spreading fake news around vaccines. That, to me, is the ultimate hypocrisy.
Do you think you could have done more to inspire confidence in the rollout of this vaccine?
I think we've frankly done — with provincial and territorial leaders, and with scientists, and with the National Advisory Committee on Immunization, which is an eminent group of experts and doctors and scientists — I think we've done a good job of being very transparent with Canadians.
And more importantly, we've done a good job in preparing the logistics of the most important immunization program ever undertaken in Canada in record speed, and I think with a very aggressive procurement effort that will show Canadians that we'll be among the first Western countries to undertake this mass vaccination in a safe and efficient way.
Written by Sheena Goodyear. Interview produced by Kevin Robertson. Q&A has been edited for length and clarity.