Yes, it’s been two years since the Liberal government in Ottawa rose to power, and along with it, local MP and current Minister of Indigenous Services Jane Philpott. The national press has given the smooth-talking Prime Minister and his government mixed grades, including traditional media supporters like the Toronto Star who recently hailed some successes but admonished the government for “arrogance, ineptness and needless foot-dragging”.
However, Philpott’s assessment is predictably brighter and well it should be. The local MP has consistently been centred-out as one of the bright lights in cabinet, managing to achieve gains on tricky files like federal-provincial health funding, and not collapse under the weight of contentious issues like injection sites or pot-legalization where she lent a hand to beleaguered point-man MP Bill Blair, while she was Minister of Health.
“I think we’ve made very encouraging progress on some of the most important priorities. Obviously, top of mind for Canadians is economic growth” she says, pointing to the overhaul of child and family benefits programs she says has produced higher returns for 90% of families. A shift in tax on the wealthy, lowered rates for others and growing GDP are noted. Philpott also highlights Canada’s prominence on the world stage and Chrystia Freeland’s performance there, notably heading negotiations with an erratic U.S. government, prompting her to assess a better-than-passing grade for her government.
“I think it depends on which particular file but I think Canadians are happy (with our performance)
I’d say we’ve done an “A” job overall on the key issues.” She might be right. Recent polls seem to suggest that the shine might be coming off the government’s agenda but the Liberal’s have enjoyed a particularly long honeymoon with popular support well over 40% – a typical benchmark needed to receive a majority government in an election.
One of the particular files that the government has taken heat for is also one of it’s declared priority issues – aboriginal relations. The file has traditionally been a political bog for past governments and a notably tough cabinet role. Perhaps due to her successes in the health portfolio which included work with aboriginal communities, Philpott has been put smack in the middle of it full-time, joining fellow physician Carolyn Bennett as co-headliner on the file. Bennett is tasked with working on land claims and reconciliation while Philpott directs services.
“We know expectations are high,” Philpott says of her new file. But she is characteristically optimistic and states that progress has already been made with First Nation housing. But the biggest reason she feels she may succeed is that she is being resourced better than others in her role have been – specifically long-term funding that will allow not only purchase of basics like water filtration systems, for instance, but also the training and ongoing support to maintain the infrastructure.
Referencing her time at hospitals she relates that “when you procure a major piece of equipment you also procure the ongoing maintenance of that system”. That common-sense approach is something that she plans to insist on when allocating service contracts. The Liberal’s have daringly stated that within 5 years, they will be able to withdraw the almost 70 boil-water advisories currently in place on native reserves. In this case, time will tell of any success.
In addition to Philpott being a go-to minister for the Prime Minister, she also remains popular locally, carving out time for her own riding hosting town-halls on local issues, meeting constituents at her office and the odd local media representative. While she will occasionally slip into talking-point speak – the party scripts given to all MP’s to repeat in public and keep them on party message, she quickly jettisons them in most conversations, referring to her own well-rounded grasp of issues and an earnest, down-home approach to conversation and listening honed as a family physician in the area. At a recent breakfast with local business leaders, many angry over proposed changes to small business taxation rules, a number prefaced their remarks with polite, personal greetings to her before offering scathing criticism at the government that they pointedly remarked were ‘not directed at (her) personally.’ That authentic, personal connection, enhanced in this case by her impromptu offer to have a sit-down, one-to-one with the complainants is something the government likely wishes they could duplicate in other ridings – like those visited by embattled Finance Minister Bill Morneau who is leading the charge on the changes.
Morneau, along with the Prime Minister, recently visited Stouffville to kick-off Small Business Week and announce key changes to the proposed legislation. Morneau and Philpott stressed that all the comments on the small business tax issue will be incorporated into the soon-to-be-finalized legislation.
The completion of the federal, urban Rouge Park, a project begun before her time in office, is nonetheless a source of pride for her locally as the last land from the province has now been transferred to Parks Canada. Similarly, progress on wait time for immigration matters has progressed nicely in Philpott’s evaluation. Considering that this issue occupies much of her constituent office’s time, this is welcome news for newcomers and Philpott’s re-election fortunes.
“We have a few more promises to follow through on” she concludes. “But I think, overall, I hear positive feedback from constituents, that they feel we’re going in the right direction.”
In two more years, we will find out for sure.
Photo: Minister Jane Philpott (left) at a recent Chamber of Commerce breakfast event with (l-r) MPP Helena Jaczek, Mayor Justin Altmann