Former Markham-Stouffville MP Jane Philpott takes on new role with Nishnawbe Aski Nation


Jane Philpott is living proof of the adage that when one door shuts, another one opens — and sometimes it opens to the direction you were always meant to travel in.

Philpott, the former Liberal MP who resigned from cabinet over Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s treatment of now Independent MP Jody Wilson-Raybould during the SNC-Lavalin scandal, is going to work for Nishnawbe Aski Nation.

The former Indigenous Services minister will be a special adviser in health care to the organization, which represents 49 communities in Treaty #9 and parts of Treaty #5 in northern Ontario.

Although it covers an area roughly the size of France, NAN territory includes just one hospital — in Moosonee — and health care services are nearly non-existent. Children who live there have died from strep throat, a treatable illness, due to a lack of qualified health workers and medications. A lack of mental health care has also led to desperately high rates of youth suicide.

“This is about the most meaningful thing I can imagine doing,” Philpott said on Thursday. “I will be at the service of NAN and where they see I can make a contribution.”

Philpott believes the time is right to build a health system in the north that’s run by First Nations.

NAN Grand Chief Alvin Fiddler and Ovide Mercredi, the former national chief of the Assembly of First Nations, have led the drive to wrest control of health care funding away from Ottawa and into the hands of NAN communities. Mercredi has often said that “white men in ties” should not be making decisions on First Nations health care, but it remains a federal responsibility under the Indian Act, a racist piece of legislation that has been on the books since 1876. NAN has been in negotiations for the last several years with the federal and provincial governments on an initiative known as Health Transformation to transfer health-care responsibilities.

Now Philpott will be joining that fight after losing her re-election attempt in the riding of Markham-Stouffville. “This is a good spot for me to jump in to,” she said. “Time will tell if I ever go back to politics as an actual politician.”

A physician by training, Philpott was in cabinet when she signed the accord that kick-started Health Transformation. Now, part of her role with NAN will be to address the severe shortage of doctors and nurses in the territory, and to look at ways to drastically improve standards and quality of care. She’ll also help build bridges to medical schools, the Ontario College of Physicians and Surgeons and other medical associations in order to bring attention and providers to the north.

“I know there are people out there willing to do the work and to help,” she said, while acknowledging that many communities are left vulnerable when medical workers come in on short term government contracts.

Philpott will work with Mercredi and Fiddler to help build a co-ordinated health care system. Their long-term goal is to develop an education infrastructure so First Nations people can work in health care in their own communities.

“Jane has always been a strong ally to NAN, and having an opportunity to continue to develop this relationship through Health Transformation is very exciting for us,” Fiddler said. “She is an invaluable addition to the team who, amongst other things, will explore and develop strategic partnerships with health professionals, institutions and government.”

Since Canada was formed, there have been two tiers of health care in the country — one for non-Indigenous people and one for First Nations, Métis and Inuit peoples. For decades, Indigenous people were often turned away from hospitals or given second-rate treatment — one only has to look at the lack of doctors and fully serviced health clinics in NAN communities.

Having been both a health minister and minister of Indigenous services, Philpott understands the nature and roots of this problem — and the possible policy responses — better than most. It would be hard to find a more qualified advocate for this crucial cause.