FREDERICTON — Justin Trudeau is promising that a re-elected Liberal government would come to the rescue of an abortion clinic in Fredericton that could be forced to shut down without provincial funding, even as critics argue his own refusal to act more quickly helped create the problem.
The Liberal leader said he would sit down with New Brunswick Premier Blaine Higgs to remind him that his province has an obligation to fund out-of-hospital abortions — and of the fact that Ottawa has the power to enforce such requirements under the Canada Health Act.
Clinic 554, a family practice that also caters to LGBTQ needs, has become a flashpoint in New Brunswick, where the Progressive Conservative government is refusing to expand its health-care funding to include surgical abortion procedures at private clinics.
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There has been no real change in policy since Brian Gallant, the former Liberal premier who was often seen as an ally to Trudeau, was in power, but that did not get in the way of the political rhetoric.
“A Liberal government will always defend women’s rights, including when challenged by Conservative premiers. That’s something that we know (Conservative Leader) Andrew Scheer will not do,” Trudeau said Tuesday morning in Fredericton.
The Canada Health Act spells out the conditions under which provinces are entitled to receive their shares of federal health transfer funds to deliver services, giving Ottawa leverage to penalize those that don’t follow the rules.
“I will sit down with Premier Higgs, if re-elected, and let him know that we will use all tools at our disposal, including tools that exist under the Canada Health Act,” Trudeau said.
One of those tools could include holding back the funding that Ottawa transfers to the province to pay for its health-care system, but using federal dollars to keep the clinic open could be another way to resolve the issue.
In 2014, another private abortion clinic in Fredericton closed after 20 years, saying it could no longer afford to provide services that were not funded by the province.
That closure prompted Gallant to remove a regulation that required a woman seeking a hospital abortion to have two doctors certify it as medically necessary, a change that happened before Trudeau came to power in Ottawa.
Gallant did not, however, remove the regulation limiting funding to abortions performed in hospitals.
The New Democrats responded to the comments from Trudeau by issuing a news release arguing the Liberals had four years to do something about the Canada Health Act to protect abortion access in New Brunswick.
“If Justin Trudeau was serious about standing for the right to choose, he would have acted on this four years ago instead of just talking about it,” NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh said in a statement.
The NDP is promising to enforce the Canada Health Act right away.
When pressed on why he had not challenged Gallant, a fellow Liberal, on abortion the way he is now doing with Higgs, Trudeau insisted that he had.
“We encouraged Premier Gallant to expand access to abortion services and there were steps made,” Trudeau said Tuesday.
Ginette Petitpas Taylor, the federal health minister who is seeking re-election as the Liberal candidate in the New Brunswick riding Moncton-Riverview-Dieppe, said she met with Ted Flemming, the provincial health minister, about the issue this summer.
“We had a conversation indicating that it was important that those services be covered because they are medically necessary and they are to be covered under the Canada Health Act, so it is no surprise,” Petitpas Taylor said in an interview Tuesday at the Mill Creek Nature Park in Riverview, N.B., where Trudeau stopped to campaign.
“This is an ongoing conversation that I’ve had with this government and also with the Gallant government as well,” she said.
Sarah Kennell, director of government relations for the advocacy group Action Canada for Sexual Health and Rights, welcomed the commitments from both the Liberals and the NDP.
“This is a problem for Canada, not only New Brunswick — and our next federal government must prioritize ensuring all people have equal access to the health care they need,” Kennell said in a statement.
Scheer, a practising Catholic who has voted in favour of restricting abortion rights in the past, has said that he is personally against abortion but would oppose any attempt to revive the issue in the House of Commons.
Trudeau spent the day in Nova Scotia and New Brunswick, where his party is expected to lose some seats after having swept the entire region of Atlantic Canada in 2015.
Bill Casey, the outgoing Liberal MP for the Nova Scotia riding of Cumberland-Colchester, said the province is known for sweeping one way and then, in the next election, sweeping another.
“It’s the best example of democracy anywhere,” Casey said Tuesday as he joined Trudeau at the Masstown Market near Truro, N.S.
The 1993 election saw Nova Scotians elect all Liberal MPs, joining the rest of the country in throwing out the Progressive Conservatives, including Casey, who was with that party then.
Then in 1997, Nova Scotians changed their minds and chose only NDP and PC MPs.
“It doesn’t happen in too many places where they do that,” said Casey, although he is confident that big a change is not coming next week.
“They have a way of sending a message and I’m not getting that message at all this time,” said Casey, who decided not to seek re-election this year. The Liberal candidate to succeed him is Lenore Zann.
Earlier Tuesday, Trudeau made two stops in New Brunswick, including the nature park in Riverview, where he watched children make s’mores but told them he would not indulge because he does not like marshmallows.
Trudeau has been telling voters who might cast their ballots for NDP or Green candidates that it is better to have a progressive government than a progressive opposition.
Alaina Lockhart, the Liberal candidate seeking re-election in Fundy Royal, said she agrees with that approach, but noted she is keeping her campaign focused on local issues.
“We have a lot of progressive votes in this riding and their voices are being heard,” Lockhart said after Trudeau visited the nature park.
“I don’t prescribe to telling people how to vote at all,” she said.
Trudeau closed out the day with a rally at the Halifax Brewery Farmers Market, where supporters heard the Liberal leader urge them to knock on doors and get out the vote.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Oct. 15, 2019.
Joanna Smith, The Canadian Press