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Flaherty slammed by opposition over native health-care comments

TERRY PEDWELL Canadian Press

Monday, January 21, 2002

OTTAWA (CP) -- The federal government could boost health-care funding for "real people in real towns" by cutting the bureaucracy that serves only aboriginals, Ontario Finance Minister Jim Flaherty said Monday.

The remark had Ontario's opposition parties calling for his head, saying it was insensitive to natives.

Flaherty, who is campaigning to succeed Premier Mike Harris, suggested Health Canada has thousands of employees who deliver services to natives only.

The provinces, on the other hand, must provide services to everyone else, he said.

"They've got more than 7,000 people working in the Department of Health," Flaherty said during a campaign stop in Ottawa.

"The federal Department of Health delivers health-care services only to aboriginals. All the provinces have the responsibility for delivering health-care services to real people in real towns, hospitals, doctors, nurses."

Charles Fox, vice-chief of the Assembly of First Nations for Ontario, was surprised by Flaherty's comments.

"If we're not real people, I have a real problem with that," Fox said.

Flaherty later issued a statement apologizing for his remarks.

"I am deeply saddened by the way my comments are being interpreted," he said. "As many people in aboriginal communities in Ontario will attest, I have always had positive and mutually respectful relationship with them. ...

"The purpose of my comments about the federal bureaucracy was simply to point out that the federal government should redirect its resources towards actual health-care services and away from a bloated bureaucracy. ...

"I apologize if I have offended anyone in any way."

Flaherty also said he planned to meet soon with Fox to discuss the matter.

Mike McGuire, president of the Ontario Metis Aboriginal Association, backed up Flaherty.

"He is a friend to aboriginal communities across Ontario," McGuire said. "I know that Jim would never say anything negative about aboriginal people, and that his comments have been misinterpreted."

But Howard Hampton, Ontario's NDP leader, called on Flaherty to resign.

"This is not a campaign slip-up," he said. "It's very clear that this is aimed at garnering Mr. Flaherty votes at the expense of native people.

"You've got, within the Reform party, the Canadian Alliance, a group of people who denigrate, vilify and attack native people at every opportunity. And it's very clear Mr. Flaherty is trying to appeal to that very nasty right-wing fringe."

Gerry Phillips, Ontario's Liberal native affairs critic, said Flaherty's remark "goes beyond insulting people."

"I just don't know what was in Mr. Flaherty's mind, but it's an extremely insensitive remark and indicates some bad judgment by the minister."

Fox challenged the notion that thousands of bureaucrats are devoted to aboriginal health services.

A spokeswoman at Health Canada said the department has 7,500 full-time employees, of which about 1,400 work on First Nations health issues. Ottawa is also responsible for health promotion and policy matters involving veterans, military personnel, federal prison inmates and the RCMP.

Flaherty urged the federal government to give the provinces more money to pay for medicare.

He said the funding shortfall is hurting other provincial services.

"We're already in the provinces -- including the province of Ontario -- squeezing out funding for other programs," he told a news conference. "It's a question of priorities."

Flaherty maintains the federal government owes Ontario $2 billion this year for health.

Fox argues that aboriginals don't get their fair share of federal funding when it comes to provincial health services.

"In terms of transfer payments, the dollars that go to the provinces that are earmarked for aboriginal or First Nations, we don't see that, we don't see those monies," he said.

Fox plans to meet with Flaherty in the next couple of days and said he'll raise the issue with him.

Copyright 2002 The Canadian Press

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