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Canada's health care: premiers gather in Victoria to discuss system's future

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I got the only "aerial" shot on a spiral staircase at one end of the narrow meeting room -- before a police officer closed in and stepped up towards me. I got the message. Photo ops are strange things: no one is allowed to say anything controversial or meaningful, lest it become the next headline. And yet, everyone must seem to be engaged in discussion for the shoot. Pleasantries and smiles abounded.

My last engagement of the morning was to attend a press conference hosted by the BC Health Coalition, featuring several practicing nurses and doctors, as well as the Council of Canadians and a youth global education group. Like at the New Democratic Party's event yesterday, the participants warned of provinces being stretched to the point of breaking under the new formula -- leading down the path towards a two-tier system and, ultimately, privatization.

One highlight was watching as the Council of Canadians' Maude Barlow -- in severely faltering French -- struggled valiantly in a media scrum with several all-Francophone news channels. 

She joked with me after that it wasn't until she was asked WHY she felt Harper was cutting health funding and backing off from medicare that her French improved dramatically. Her explanation: She just got "angry" and ran with it.

Language learners, take note! More to come early in the afternoon with the first premiers' press conference. Stay tuned.


Sunday, January 15: 7:29 p.m.

The premiers' conference starts tomorrow here in Victoria. I spent the weekend preparing, and today attended two very different events anticipating the two-day gathering.

This morning, the New Democratic Party (NDP) hosted a roundtable on the future of health care, in which advocates for safeguarding and strengthening Canadas public system heard from medical professionals and experts.

I spoke with Libby Davies, Vancouver-East Member of Parliament and the NDP's health critic, as well as the Council of Canadians' Maude Barlow - who will be profiled in an in-depth interview tomorrow here on VO - and health care activist Colleen Fuller.

Participants at that gathering warned of a Conservative agenda to gut public medicare and move towards a two-tier private system - which they said is being sneaked in through the backdoor with recent federal funding announcements.

Ottawa, they argued, needs to take stronger leadership in health care because it is the leading issue of concern for most Canadians, they said. 

Later in the afternoon, I toured a wing of Victoria's Royal Jubilee Hospital, opened last winter, with B.C. premier Christy Clark, as well as five other Canadian provincial premiers.

About 20 journalists were somehow crammed into a sweltering private care room, one of a number in the expanded hospital - which Clark touted as a success story for reducing patient care times and reduce the spread of disease. It was a mad scramble at times to photograph the premier, and patients and nursing staff seemed amused by the circus.

The Globe and Mail's Ian Baillie asked Premier Clark afterwards about divisions amongst the provinces over their reaction to a recent Conservative announcement: Ottawa will no longer direct how health care transfers are spent - and will gradually cut provincial transfers relative to rising costs.

Initially, Clark had praised federal finance minister Jim Flaherty (who arrived in Victoria today) for his no-strings attached funding plan.

But she has since joined other prominent premiers in criticising aspects of the plan, warning that Ottawa's "per capita" funding of health care does not take into account B.C.'s greater number of seniors, who cost much more to care for. 

Check back here over the next few days for updates. Tomorrow: VO sits down with renowned Council of Canadians chairperson Maude Barlow to discuss the future of public health care.

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