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Trudeau, premiers expected to meet in February to move health-care talks along

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Prime Minister Justin Trudeau will table his offer to premiers on how much money his government is willing to add to the health-care funding pot when he meets with them next month to work on a long-awaited new health-care deal.

Trudeau said Wednesday he issued an invitation for the premiers to join him in the capital on Feb. 7, but he warned that “we’re not going to be signing deals on that particular moment.”

“It’ll be about starting the very direct hard work of the bilateral arrangements that will happen with every province, while at the same time moving forward with a frame around data, health information and results that I think every Canadian wants to see,” he said.

The meeting will also be when the federal government finally shows its cards to the premiers on whether it will agree to their demands that the federal government increase its share of health-care spending from 22 per cent to 35 per cent.

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“This will be a detailed conversation where the government of Canada will put before the premiers what we think are detailed and significant proposals that answer so many of the common priorities that provinces and territories have been discussing with our government over the last number of months,” Intergovernmental Affairs Minister Dominic LeBlanc said.

Estimates suggest a 35 per cent share in 2022-23 would require close to $30 billion in additional transfers to the provinces, though Trudeau has never committed to hitting that target. If he did, it would likely be a phased-in increase that would not hit 35 per cent for several years.

The talks are looking for a long-term arrangement that could last at least 10 years.

Trudeau said in French he would be offering an “appropriate” amount of money.

Ottawa transferred $45.2 billion to provinces for health care for the current fiscal year, and currently expects that amount to increase to $49.4 billion in 2023-24. Under the existing agreement, the transfers increase by a minimum of three per cent a year, or more under higher economic growth.

LeBlanc said he is hopeful a deal can be hammered out before governments table their budgets this spring. He added in French that he does not envision a scenario in which there are any “fundamental disagreements.”

The prime minister announced the planned meeting during a news conference Wednesday morning in Hamilton, where the Liberal cabinet was finishing a three-day retreat ahead of the return of Parliament next week.

Provincial and federal governments have been jockeying for a new deal for months, and premiers were waiting to see if the cabinet rendezvous would result in the meeting they’ve been asking to have with Trudeau for more than two years.

If they couldn’t get a commitment from Trudeau, they planned to hold their own meeting in Ottawa Feb. 12 and 13 and invite him to attend. Instead, Trudeau wrote to them and invited them to a meeting five days earlier.

Ontario Premier Doug Ford immediately said he would be there.

“We have a lot discuss, including making sure the federal government properly funds the health care people rely on,” he said on Twitter Wednesday morning.

Quebec Premier François Legault said he spoke with Trudeau Tuesday night about the meeting. He said he is “optimistic” a deal is possible, but he wants funding without conditions.

Trudeau and Health Minister Jean-Yves Duclos have been firm that any new funding will come with accountability requirements to ensure the money creates real improvements to patient care.

They are specifically looking for improvements on family medicine, seniors’ care, mental health and surgical backlogs. They also want a national digital medical records update so patients can get access to their own records and their health-care providers can access them quickly to ensure timely and effective care.

Trudeau indicated Wednesday that the deal he’s looking for would involve some elements that affect every province the same way, such as the medical records issue, while others would be signed on a bilateral basis to allow provinces to tailor the funding as best suits their needs.

Manitoba Premier Heather Stefanson, currently the chair of the premiers’ group known as the Council of the Federation, said it’s difficult to comment on the idea of bilateral deals without seeing the details of any offer.

“For right now, we are still sticking to (the position) that we want to see this go to the bottom line of the Canada Health Transfer funding and up to that 35 per cent, so that they’re paying their fair share,” she said.

Conservative Leader Pierre Poilievre wouldn’t say Wednesday whether he supported the premiers’ call for more health-care money.

Instead, he said that when it comes to improving the country’s health-care system, he would focus on priorities that include shortening wait times and working with provinces to speed up credential recognition for immigrants.

NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh said that he wants any deal to protect the public health-care system, as Ontario and Alberta look to private clinics to help clear surgical backlogs.

Bloc Québécois health critic Luc Thériault said in a French statement that the party is thrilled to see Trudeau will “finally” sit down with his provincial counterparts, saying it has been 28 months since premiers first asked for such a meeting.

Canada’s health-care system is strained to the breaking point following three years of COVID-19 and amid a growing shortage of health-care workers. Trudeau said Canadians have long prided themselves on the country’s universal public health-care system.

“But what Canadians are experiencing right now is simply not living up to that promise or pride,” he said. “Too many people don’t have access to a family doctor or nurse practitioner. Wait times in emergency rooms across the country, particularly in rural areas, have become dangerously long.”

He also pointed to the strain on health-care workers, many of whom are “on the verge of burnout.”

In November, a health ministers’ meeting ended in turmoil when provinces refused to accept any new funding deal that had strings attached.

But progress has been made since the holidays, and both Ontario and Quebec have indicated a willingness to give Ottawa what it wants — at least when it comes to data and medical record technology.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Jan. 25, 2023.

— With files from Stephanie Taylor and Mickey Djuric in Ottawa and Steve Lambert in Winnipeg.

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Northwest Territories releases fiscal year 2023-2024 budget

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Northwest Territories releases fiscal year 2023-2024 budget

The Northwest Territories government released its new budget Wednesday, the last before the territorial election set for the fall.

Finance Minister Caroline Wawzonek said the plan aims to maintain the stability of the territory’s economy during times of “volatility and uncertainty” without reducing services and programs.

“I am confident that we are leaving the next assembly with a fiscally sustainable foundation on which to build,” she said.

The proposed $2.2-billion budget forecasts the territory will have an operating surplus of nearly $178 million. It projects revenue to increase by 2.9 per cent, largely due to an increase in federal transfers, while spending will increase by $187 million or 7.3 per cent compared to the previous budget.

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Wawzonek said initiatives to address the rising cost of living in the North include increasing student financial assistance, improved income assistance for seniors and people with disabilities, and support for non-government organizations.

“Students, seniors, the non-profit sector, these are areas where we can have a real impact and hopefully help mitigate the impacts of inflation,” she said.

Increased spending in the budget is to include $82 million for mandate priorities and enhancements to existing programs, as well as $62 million to cover the costs of flooding in 2022. Thousands of residents in Hay River and the nearby K’atl’odeeche First Nation reserve were ordered to evacuate their homes due to the worst flooding on record in May.

Other budget highlights include $10.9 million for the transition from the pandemic to endemic stage of COVID-19, $10.1 million to help recruit and retain front-line health-care workers, $10.3 million for the territory’s $10-a-day child-care agreement with the federal government, $8.3 million to help offset the effects of the increased carbon tax, and $4 million for core Northwest Territories Housing Corporation programs.

The budget also proposes $833,000 for community governments and $89,000 for the Deline Goti’ne Government to reach the territory’s goal of reducing its municipal funding gap by $5 million between 2019 and 2023.

The N.W.T. government is not proposing any new taxes, but property taxes are expected to increase due to inflation. The territory also plans to change its carbon tax system to align with new federal requirements.

The federal government announced in August 2021 it would increase the carbon price by $15 per tonne of carbon dioxide equivalent emissions annually, starting at $65 a tonne beginning in April and rising to $170 a tonne by 2030. It is also prohibiting rebates that directly offset the carbon tax. In response, the N.W.T. plans to adjust its carbon tax rates, replace its heating fuel rebate by increasing its cost of living offset, and replace a carbon tax rebate for large emitters with a rebate tied to a facility-specific baseline.

Some legislature members have expressed concern with the plan as heating costs are high in the North, especially in the Arctic, and many communities are reliant on diesel.

Wawzonek said if the proposed changes aren’t passed by the legislature, the federal government will determine how to return revenue to the N.W.T.

The territory projects borrowing will increase by 4.5 per cent, bringing its total debt to about $1.5 billion, which it said is well below the federally imposed limit of $1.8 billion.

When the previous budget was tabled a year ago, the territory expected its total debt to increase to more than $1.6 billion by the end of the fiscal year. In October, however, the territory revised its capital estimates or the amount of money it expected to spend on infrastructure, to better reflect the territory’s capacity to complete projects, reducing spending from more than $500 million to a cap of $260 million.

The territory’s 2022-2023 $2.1-billion budget saw a 2.3 per cent increase in spending compared to 2021-2022.

Wawzonek touted that budget as a sustainable plan, promising to not cut programming or add new taxes while limiting new spending.

While the budget was passed in April 2022, several legislature members opposed the plan, criticizing limited spending on communities outside of Yellowknife.

Wawzonek said at a news conference Wednesday that she suspects there may be similar criticisms of the new budget.

She said, however, that she believes the budget can respond to those concerns, adding she has had discussions with legislature members about what they wanted to see in it.

“I think we as a collective 19 are getting a little better at doing that,” she said.

“I actually think this is maybe going to be the best year for the consensus-style approach to passing a budget.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Feb. 8, 2023.

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This story was produced with the financial assistance of the Meta and Canadian Press News Fellowship.

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Driver charged with first-degree murder in Quebec daycare bus attack that killed two

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Quebec daycare bus attack

The driver of a bus that crashed into a suburban Montreal daycare this morning, killing two children, has been charged with two counts of first-degree murder.

Pierre Ny St-Amand, 51, appeared by video late this afternoon from a hospital room and will remain detained

Court documents show he faces a total of nine charges, including attempted murder, aggravated assault and assault causing bodily harm.

Six other children were injured and transported to hospitals in Laval and Montreal, but doctors said their lives were not in danger.

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At around 8:30 a.m., a Société de transport de Laval bus crashed into the daycare building, which sits at the end of a driveway a significant distance from the nearest bus route.

Witnesses who rushed to the scene said they had to subdue the driver, who seemed to be delirious and removed his clothing after getting off the bus.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Feb. 8, 2023.

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Canadian assessment team deployed to Turkey after earthquake

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Canadian assessment team deployed to Turkey

A senior government official says a Canadian assessment team is on its way to Turkey to determine how Canada can contribute to earthquake relief efforts.

International Development Minister Harjit Sajjan was expected to formally announce the deployment of the Canadian Disaster Assessment Team this evening.

The senior official, who spoke on background pending Sajjan’s official confirmation, said the team consists of a handful of military and Global Affairs officials.

The official underscored that the deployment of the team does not automatically guarantee a further deployment of Canadian resources to the country.

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The earthquake, which razed thousands of buildings in Turkey and Syria on Monday, is one of the deadliest quakes worldwide in more than a decade and the federal government is facing criticism that the window to help with rescue efforts is closing.

Search teams from more than two dozen countries have joined tens of thousands of local emergency personnel and Canadian humanitarian aid workers with charitable organizations were arriving Wednesday

Defence Minister Anita Anand said late Tuesday that the federal government had not ruled out sending a Disaster Assistance Response Team, to help with the recovery effort, but that it was working to figure out what would be most useful.

The assessment team would recommend whether to send additional support, such as a DART.

Earlier Wednesday, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced the federal government would match funds donated to Canadian Red Cross relief efforts up to $10 million on top of an initial aid package of $10 million.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Feb. 8, 2023.

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