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Huge Health Canada branch could be moved to new ministry, unions blindsided

By Peter Mazereeuw      

The feds didn’t consult with unions, or some of their own top bureaucrats, before suggesting they could move Indigenous health out from under the health minister, says union rep Todd Panas. Indigenous health makes up nearly three-quarters of Health Canada’s total budget.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced Aug. 28 he would be revamping the way services were delivered to Indigenous peoples, including by splitting up the Indigenous and Northern Affairs Department into two new ministries: one devoted to Indigenous services and led by Jane Philpott, second from right, and another devoted to Crown-Indigenous relations, led by Carolyn Bennett, left. Ginette Petitpas Taylor, centre, will take over responsibility for Health Canada, but Ms. Philpott could take a big part of its budget with her as she moves from that role to her new one.
The Hill Times file photograph

Unions representing most of the employees in Health Canada’s Indigenous services branch have lambasted Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s government for announcing that the branch would be moved under the jurisdiction of a new minister and likely a new department without consulting them ahead of time.

The branch makes up nearly three-quarters of Health Canada’s total budget and accounts for about one-quarter its workforce.

Union leaders also said they believed one or more senior executives in Health Canada were not consulted ahead of time on the government’s Aug. 28 announcement that responsibility for First Nations health would be moved under the new minister of Indigenous services, Jane Philpott (Markham-Stouffville, Ont.), who will helm the new Indigenous Services Department once it is created in the coming months.

The government has raised the possibility that the First Nations and Inuit Health Branch will be moved out of Health Canada and into the new department, causing “a lot of anxiety” among members of the Union of Health and Environment Workers, said Todd Panas, the union’s national president. He says he spoke with a Health Canada executive who said they had no prior knowledge of the government’s plan announced during the Aug. 28 cabinet shuffle.

That anxiety among union members comes partly from unanswered questions about whether employees in the branch will have to move to new offices in other locations, and what will happen to jobs made redundant by the switch, he said.

Now that the announcement has been made, Carolyn Bennett (Toronto-St. Paul’s, Ont.), the new minister of Crown-Indigenous relations and northern affairs, has been tasked with beginning a roughly six-month government consultation on how to execute the split of the Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada department and related moves, spokesperson James Fitz-Morris told The Hill Times earlier this month.

$3-billion budget in play

Mr. Trudeau (Papineau, Que.) announced last month that INAC would be dissolved, and two new departments would be created: one for Indigenous Services and another for Crown-Indigenous Relations and Northern Affairs. He made the announcement after shuffling his cabinet. Ms. Philpott, formerly the health minister, was sworn in as the new minister of Indigenous services, and Ms. Bennett, formerly the Indigenous and northern affairs minister, into her new position.

Ms. Philpott told reporters after the shuffle that she would carry the responsibility for delivering health services to First Nations into her new role, and the Prime Minister’s Office issued a statement that said “services currently delivered to Indigenous Peoples by other departments shall be considered for transfer into the new department (e.g. health delivery).”

Four days later, the two top bureaucrats at Health Canada’s First Nations and Inuit Health Branch sent a memo to the branch’s staff reiterating that it was being considered for “transfer into one of the new departments” to be created out of the INAC split. 

The First Nations and Inuit Health Branch, or FNIHB, is a huge part of Health Canada. It supports or delivers health services on reserves and in Inuit communities, and provides drug and dental services to First Nations and Inuit people. It covers divisions related to health infrastructure and delivery that were to account this year for about $3.1-billion, or nearly three-quarters, of Health Canada’s total $4.3-billion budget. The branch this year was to employ 2,083 full-time equivalent positions, about one-quarter of the 9,261-person workforce in the department, according to its departmental plan.

Mr. Panas’s UHEW represents between 1,200 and 1,500 of the workers in FNIHB, in administrative jobs in offices and call centres. Mr. Panas called the decision to split INAC and change the delivery of Indigenous services a “political move to score some points before the election.”

He said a senior management official in the department told him they were were not consulted on the move ahead of the government’s Aug. 28 announcement.

Debi Daviau, the president of the Professional Institute of the Public Service of Canada, said members of her union who were briefed on the announcement after the fact by the assistant deputy ministers in charge of FNIHB—Sony Perron and Valerie Gideon—were left with the “perception” that top executives in Health Canada were “annoyed” and may not have been told about the government’s Indigenous affairs announcement ahead of time.

Both labour leaders questioned the government’s decision to make the announcement before talking to their members.

“If you’re going to make a major change to how you’re delivering health services to the North, it’s just common sense that you’re going to have a conversation with the professionals that are going to be delivering health services in the North,” said Ms. Daviau, whose union represents the front-line health-care workers within FNIHB, including about 600 nurses.

Debi Daviau, the president of the Professional Institute of the Public Service of Canada, says her union’s members should have been consulted before the government announced it was moving them under a new ministerial position, and likely a new department. The Hill Times file photograph

The Hill Times reached out to the Prime Minister’s Office and Health Canada with questions about who within the department was consulted about the planned change-up before it was announced. A spokesperson for Ms. Philpott, Andrew MacKendrick, responded to the questions sent to the PMO, referring to the background document released on the day of the cabinet shuffle, which did not address the questions asked. A spokesperson for Health Canada, Adriana Willson, wrote in an emailed response that “It would not be appropriate for Health Canada to comment on the internal deliberations of government leading up to the Aug. 28 announcement.”

Attempts to reach Mr. Perron and Ms. Gideon directly were redirected to departmental communications staff.

Mr. Trudeau justified the move to split INAC and shake up the delivery of Indigenous services on Aug. 28 by pointing to the work of the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples, which recommended the split in a 1996 report, and by saying the “creaky old structures around INAC” were preventing the government from accomplishing its goals of improving the services delivered to Indigenous peoples.

Mr. Fitz-Morris told The Hill Times earlier this month that details of the reorganization would be worked out over the consultation led by Ms. Bennett. The reorganization would not include a round of layoffs, said Mr. Fitz-Morris, who as of earlier this month had been temporarily serving as communications director to both Ministers Philpott and Bennett.

Mr. Panas said he was concerned about layoffs nonetheless, pointing to jobs in human resources and corporate services that provide support to the front-line workers in FNIHB. He said he was concerned that some of those support workers could be made redundant if the employees they support in FNIHB are shipped out of the department, and that there could be duplication among some of the jobs reassigned to the new Indigenous Services Department.

“To say there’s no job losses to me is very premature,” he said.

Mr. Fitz-Morris said the government’s ultimate goal is to eliminate the need for the Indigenous Services Department entirely by signing self-governance agreements with First Nations, but said that target was likely many years down the line.

peter@hilltimes.com

@PJMazereeuw

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