How being a doctor prepared Jane Philpott for politics

Jane Philpott talks to Paul Wells about her decade in Africa, life as a political rookie and working on the government’s toughest file

There’s no more unlikely political star in Ottawa than Jane Philpott, a soft-spoken family doctor who hates trading partisan barbs with her opponents and shuns the spotlight. But she gets things done. That’s probably the best explanation for Justin Trudeau’s decision last August to move Philpott from the job of federal health minister into a new post, as minister of Indigenous services. In an interview before a live audience at Ottawa’s National Arts Centre, she spoke with Maclean’s senior writer Paul Wells about the difficulties and rewards of one of this government’s most high-pressure assignments.

Q: You are still fairly new to politics. You had never run for Parliament before 2015. And you were a health care administrator before then. Now that you’re in it, what is your sense of politics, and how does it compare to your expectations?

A: I don’t know whether anyone who goes into politics really understands what it’s like until they get there. But I’ve been surprised at how transferable my skills and experiences as a family doctor are to the political world. You’re still trying to gather a history, you’re still trying to do some objective analysis, you’re trying to make a diagnosis and then develop a plan.

READ MORE: Jane Philpott has a lot on the line at Indigenous child-welfare summit

Q: What’s question period like for a new minister?

A: It’s an important part of the democratic process, but I think there’s lots of room for improvement in what that process looks like. I actually love question period in the Senate. It’s quite a different style. There’s a lot more time for both the questions and the answers. There aren’t television cameras there, which I think helps a little bit. And we really dig into an issue. So I think that has demonstrated that there are better models out there for being critical of what the government’s doing while actually allowing a pause for reflection.

Q: One thing that always gets mentioned about your previous career is that you spent nearly a decade in Africa providing health services. What was that experience like?

A: In medical school, I had taken an interest in international health. So in my final year, I spent four months in western Kenya and I came to realize—in a way that you can’t get through books or media—that the world is a very unequal and unfair place. I came back and decided that I wanted to spend the first part of my medical career in a place where my skills were less available. And so we lived in a wonderful little village about 500 km east of the capital city in Niger, and they were amongst the happiest years of my life. And then I later became a professor at the University of Toronto and realized that I could be helpful through teaching. Ethiopia did not have a family medicine program, so I was part of a partnership between the University of Toronto and Addis Ababa University. I visited multiple times over a number of years to help launch the first family medicine training program in Ethiopia.

Q: How much of what you did during those periods in Africa is applicable to what you do as minister of Indigenous services?

A: My experiences in Africa changed my life permanently. The overriding message was that the world is a very unfair place. To paraphrase a Bill Clinton quote, when you travel the world, you see that intelligence, aspirations, hopes and dreams are equitably distributed, but the systemic capacity to give life to those dreams is not. And what I’m thinking about right now is the inequities that exist in Canada and the unfair distribution of opportunity and capacity. And my job is to work with first Nations, Inuit and Métis to close those opportunity gaps.

Q: I read your mandate letter again this afternoon. It’s long. Even by the standards of ministerial mandate letters, you’ve got a lot of requests from the Prime Minister. What’s the biggest challenge you’re facing?

A: I would say the biggest challenge isn’t directly within my portfolio. The top-priority issues within my department are related to child and family services, education, health care, infrastructure and economic prosperity. But addressing the practical, day-to-day issues in each of those areas is not in my portfolio; it’s a whole-of-government job. Deep socio-economic gaps exist in this country because of past government policies. For a very, very long time, Canadians and Canadian governments have denied the rights of Indigenous peoples. I can make a lot of progress on each of my files, but unless we collectively—as a government and as Canadians—wake up and affirm the rights of Indigenous peoples to control their lives, I will not be able to be successful. So that’s the hardest thing to do. I can’t do that myself. That’s an all-of-Canada job.

Q: Meanwhile, on a case-by-case basis, it must sometimes feel like it’s two steps forward and one step back. You said in a speech last November that we’ve made a lot of progress on water advisories—26 have been lifted and there are 70 left to go. Today you said on Twitter we have now lifted 64 water advisories and there are 74 left to go. What’s happened since November?

A: Well, I’ll try not to burden your audience with too many details. But before we formed government, there was no spreadsheet with an itemization of every single boil-water advisory. We have that now, and we track it very, very closely.

As we first looked at how big our list was, we began to hear about communities that weren’t on it. At first, we were told some of those advisories were for gas stations or other private facilities, so those aren’t the responsibility of the government. But we realized some of them are in nursing stations or community halls. Surely it’s the responsibility of the federal government to support fixing them. So we made a decision last January to make our work harder. It didn’t seem right to ignore that the original list was incomplete. So we added to it; that’s why it grew from the very beginning.

But I have said very, very clearly to my department that failure is not an option. The Prime Minister has mandated me to deliver on his promise to make sure that all long-term drinking-water advisories for public systems on reserves will be lifted by March of 2021. And if we can get there sooner, that would be great.

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Q: A bit of an Ottawa question: How much autonomy do you have as a minister from the Prime Minister’s Office? Do they check in on you daily, weekly, monthly, or are you basically running the joint?

A: I have a lot of autonomy. Obviously, everything we do, we do as a team. And much of my work involves issues that aren’t just within my department, and that work is clearly done in collaboration with other cabinet colleagues and the Prime Minister. But in terms of my particular file, we have an incredible amount of autonomy. The Prime Minister, I believe, trusts me and has high expectations for what I need to do. He made very clear to me that we’re going to say what we expect, we’re going to trust you to run with it, but come back to me where you need help. And I’ve done that.

Q: The Prime Minister was asked about the United States, where parents are being separated from their children at the border. And the Prime Minister said it’s wrong. He said this is not something we do in Canada. And I’ve seen comments saying, well, actually, sometimes it is something we do. Children are separated from their parents every single day in Indigenous families. And that’s something you’ve been trying to change. Tell me a bit more about that.

A: So let me say, first of all, the Prime Minister would absolutely agree that we do still have this terrible over-apprehension of Indigenous children.

This was an issue that came to the forefront for me very early on in my experience in this portfolio. The Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs had data showing that, even now, there are more than 400 babies taken from their mothers every single year. There is a particular hospital in Winnipeg where, almost every single day, a baby is taken from its mother. The reason would be because the mother was a child in foster care herself, or because she’s too poor, or because she doesn’t have a private bedroom for that baby. And I said this is absolutely abominable. This can’t go on.

So we held an emergency meeting, pulled together all the people we thought had to be part of that. We put together a six-point plan. We’re now looking at engaging across the country on the possibility of legislation around Indigenous child well-being.

Q: The motivation of the system—however misguided it’s become—is the safety of children. Are there not families where the child is not safe in that home?

A: I don’t want to unfairly suggest that the people working in these systems, or their agencies, aren’t trying to do very good work. But they’re working under rules that are not necessarily fair. Until now, more money flowed to those agencies when more children were apprehended, which is an extremely disturbing incentive. And surely there are better ways of addressing our concerns. If there’s an aunt or a grandmother, we should support that aunt or grandmother. Can we not find ways to provide treatment for those parents who may have addiction or other health issues while keeping the family bond with the child? We clearly have to have a whole fresh look at these issues.

Canada’s Minister of Indigenous Services Jane Philpott in conversation with Paul Wells during Maclean’s Live at the National Arts Centre in Ottawa June 20, 2018. Photograph by Blair Gable

Q: You have gotten a bit of a reputation around town as a decisive minister. Do you ever run into people around Ottawa who have a hard time making a decision? And do you have advice for them?

A: I’m not sure whether I want to answer that question.

Q: I sure want you to.

A: I don’t want to imply that it’s easy. It’s not easy work. Maybe being a little bit older, I feel like my time here is short. For all of us, we don’t know how long our time is in any particular job. I just want to get stuff done.

When I look at my officials in my department, who are often heavily criticized—not necessarily fairly—they too have been working in a system that has suppressed their enthusiasm and ambitions. But then you start talking to them about housing policy, for example. I have a little bit of a passion around finding a way for Indigenous people to live in beautiful homes built out of the fantastic natural resources that surround them, as opposed to the horrific, disposable homes that are currently in many remote communities. And I start to see people’s eyes light up. People just need someone who will say yes, we can do this. And then people work so hard. Our officials work crazy hard. They just sometimes need to know that there’s somebody there who will champion them along the way.

Q: People are used to not hearing good news from federal governments on Indigenous issues. So when the federal government bought the Trans Mountain pipeline, many people said this government hasn’t paid attention to the objections of Indigenous populations along the way. I assume that’s a frustrating analysis for you.

A: The challenge of making sure we have fairly and adequately engaged with people is a huge challenge on any file. There are 1.7 million Indigenous people in this country, and they’re not homogeneous in their mindset. So when it comes to really hard decisions, like resource revenue development, you’re going to get a range of responses.

Q: I was struck by some of the language in the Prime Minister’s mandate letter to you, where he asked you to leverage the ingenuity and understanding of Indigenous peoples. It’s an idea that we don’t often hear, that your stakeholders bring their own genius to some of these issues. Have you had examples of that in your day-to-day work?

A: I could sit here for the next three hours or more and tell you all the genius things I’ve seen in the past number of months. I could tell you about this incredible place at Six Nations where IBM is working with Six Nations Polytechnic on an academy where kids can get their high school and college diplomas at the same time, studying state-of-the-art technology alongside Haudenosaunee arts and culture. Everywhere I go, I see stories like that, stories that I’m glad you’re giving me a chance to amplify, because there absolutely is hope and there absolutely are genius ideas out there waiting to be given an opportunity to fly.