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

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Never mind that I personally have rarely seen "innovation" arise from any committee - that's just my experience - the premiers' new tactic seems to be appealing to seniors.

The hope, it's assumed, is to win over that demographic, who tend statistically to vote Conservative. Will it work? In a few hours, we'll hear again from the premiers, but any dramatic announcement seems unlikely at this point. Stay tuned.

Monday, January 16: 3 p.m.

The media room is quieting down now as premiers continue their meetings into the afternoon. Around 1 p.m., B.C. Premier Christy Clark announced that in only a few hours of meetings, premiers had reached agreement on one thing: the federal government's unilateral decision to gut medicare over several decades, and to step back from the health care table, is a Bad Thing.

The question remains of how far that unity will go, if Prime Minister Stephen Harper refuses to budge, as seems likely considering his tough stance on medical costs.

On top of that, Clark has continued downplaying wide differences between provinces, with some vociferously opposed to the Conservatives' cuts, and others (particularly in the West) expressing concerns about the form the decision took (unilateralism) and the issue of seniors' cost to the health system.

Clark's concerns seem much easier for Harper to compromise on, should he decide to pull out the rug from under this stated "unity."

But I spoke with critics outside the proceedings, who expressed some hope that Clark came around from her previous position praising the federal government. Will she stick it out, though? asked Maude Barlow, of the Council of Canadians, when I sat down for an interview with her.

The increasingly tight government communications machine is evident here, and other reporters in the media room were moments ago bemoaning the loss of access to politicians that used to exist in previous decades. Everything is now stage-managed - we weren't even allowed to attend a government photo op outside.

Tonight, I'm attending a public town hall on health care, and will bring you news from there on the live blog. Stay tuned.


10:30 a.m.

The morning in Victoria started with a slushy walk to the premiers' conference, with a dusting of snowfall across the city (and much more expected tonight). As I arrived at the Laurel Point Inn, a cluster of twenty-somethings with red umbrellas gathered by the waterfront. 

I assumed it was a protest of some sort, but from a distance worried that it might in fact be a quarantined group of journalism students holed up in a hotel only blocks away with a mass outbreak of norovirus. Perhaps, I thought, the red umbrellas are a warning to stay away. 

Luckily I ran into the assistant for MP Libby Davies, who explained that it was a group of students in support of public health care. I spoke to several senior medical students who said that health care needs reform -- but not in the direction Prime Minister Stephen Harper is taking it with his hands-off approach.

First-off on the schedule was a press conference with Quebec premier Jean Charest, who lambasted Harper's cuts to provincial transfers and new funding formula. In the strongest words yet of the two-day meetings, Charestexpressed outrage at the Conservatives' unilateral and surprise imposition of a funding formula:

“We have always in Canada, because of our federal system of government, had a dialogue on this, an exchange of information, a dialogue and decisions were made," Charest told us. "Never have I witnessed a process by which the federal government, as they did only a few weeks ago here in Victoria, come in and said 'This is it.'"

It is clear that B.C. premier Christy Clark's downplaying of divisions among the provincial and territorial leaders last night -- when she took us journos on a tour of a Victoria hospital -- is contradicted in reality by substanial chasms over how to deal with the federal government.

Next up, a photo op of the premiers in their meeting. We had to wait until they finished their breakfasts, no doubt a final chance for one-on-one networking before formal meetings began. So we waited... and waited... and waited.

It was a long breakfast.

Finally we got the green light to hit the elevators, split into still photographers (my group) and video news -- with the warning: "You have only two minutes with the premiers, we have a timer" (cellphone clock waved in air), no delays allowed.

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