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Cotler’s priorities underlined by rights concerns

May, 2011

Of all the concerns of Canadians, health care may be the most pressing.

Early in his campaign, before the leaders’ debates, Irwin Cotler, Liberal candidate for Mount Royal and former minister of justice and attorney-general of Canada, told voters that this would be the issue he would most speak about in Parliament. “Health care is, in my view, an overriding issue. That’s what affects people in their daily lives and in everything they do,” he said in an interview at his campaign office.

“I regard this as the most important priority, that we have health care in all its aspects.”

To say that health care falls under the jurisdiction of the provinces is a kind of myth-making, Cotler says. “As soon as that’s said, that means there is no role for the federal government and this is a complete misnomer. Yes, the delivery of health services is done by the provinces, but the overall question of health policy, of national standards, of a national health strategy, is clearly federal.”

Cotler evoked the five principles of the Canadian Health Act, noting that this fundamental federal law forms the core of our health-care system.

“These principles are universality, accessibility, comprehensiveness, public administration and portability. We take these things for granted, but they are the pillars of our health-care system.”

Cotler referred to the country’s first comprehensive health accord, a 10-year contract put in place by the Liberal government in 2004. “It guaranteed secure funding to the provinces for health-care purposes and also attached to it uniform standards that had to be met for the provinces to qualify for the funding.”

With only three years before the contract must be renewed, the Liberals want to put health care back on the front burner and recommit to the Canada Health Act, working with the provinces to properly implement the existing health accord. Their proposed approach to health care embraces different measures to well being, including increasing the number of medical professionals, reducing wait times, health promotion, prevention of illness, information processing, equipment and a national pharmaceutical strategy. Other aspects important to seniors include a comprehensive family-care plan that goes beyond purely medical needs and is rooted in a social justice agenda, such as a care tax benefit and employment tax benefit. These and other measures support health indirectly through fighting poverty and alleviating the distress of family caregivers. With a holistic vision and a focus to protect the most vulnerable in society, Cotler says the Liberal government would set up mechanisms to correct inequities that so far have not been covered by the public system, such as providing access to the guaranteed income supplement to those who have fallen between the cracks.

Health care is “the most important priority,” Liberal candidate Irwin Cotler says. Photo: Kristine Berey

“Our point of departure is that the federal government not only has a necessary and constitutional role to play in health care, but a leadership responsibility.”

The bills that Cotler has put forward in Parliament—combating poverty, children’s and women’s rights, promoting freedom and protecting the environment—reflect his background as a defender of human rights. At a recent candidates’ debate at the Cummings Centre, he said the one issue all the parties agree on is support for Israel.

“Israel is not a Jewish cause, it is a just cause, deserving of support from all Canadians.” Cotler said that Conservative leader Stephen Harper making support for Israel seem like it’s coming only from the Conservatives is not necessarily good for Israel. “Making it party ideology and misrepresenting the public record undercuts Israel’s cause. We disagree on many things, but not on Israel.”

While Cotler commends Harper for the important statements Harper has made in support of Israel, he says Harper doesn’t go far enough.

“While words are important, actions are also important,” he says. A case in point is a private member’s bill Cotler introduced in 2009, called the Iran Accountability Act, calling on Canada to deal with what he calls a fourfold threat—nuclear, terrorist, incitement to genocide and human rights violations—emanating from Mahmoud Ahmanidejad’s Iran.

“The bill sets forth the threats and the remedies to combat each of the threats. I said to the government, this isn’t a partisan matter, we all realize that Iran is a threat to international peace and security, Middle East peace and security, a threat to Israel and the Jewish people, therefore make this legislation government legislation and act upon it.”

Cotler says he asked for comprehensive sanctions to be adopted to hold the officials involved in each of these threats accountable, but the government acted on the nuclear threat only. “The European Parliament sanctioned Iranian leaders who’ve been involved in the domestic oppression of the Iranian people. Canada has not yet done so.” Cotler deplores the fact that while Iran has a record of torture, executions and massive repression of its own people, at the United Nations Israel has more resolutions against it than any other country.

Another example Cotler cited was the inspiring speech Harper gave at the Inter-Parliamentary Conference for Combating Antisemitism, which Cotler chaired. “The prime minister gave a great speech, which went viral,” Cotler said. “The conference unanimously adopted the Ottawa protocol to combat anti-Semitism—130 parliamentarians from 50 countries across the world adopted this protocol. We now want to get governments to endorse it,” explained Cotler, who works on this issue internationally. “The prime minister who gave a great speech (in November) has yet to endorse the protocol. It is the same pattern of strong support of Israel but with it you need actions along with words.”

When his constituents ask Cotler why we need an election, he doesn’t mince words.

“For the first time in Canadian parliamentary history, a government fell on a non-confidence vote because of contempt of Parliament. It’s not a technical thing. It first required a ruling by the speaker, a finding of contempt, then a debate and a determination by the House as a whole to support the speaker’s finding of contempt. This goes to the heart of democratic accountability.”

Why exactly were they held in contempt?

“Because for six months, the members of Parliament had been asking the government to give us the information that they were required to give us by law,” regarding the building of mega-prisons and purchasing the F35 fighter jet, which Cotler calls a catastrophic set of proposals.

“We have no other choice in the absence of getting information we are entitled to. As parliamentarians, we have a constitutional responsibility with respect to the oversight of public spending but we can’t discharge that responsibility unless the government tells us what it’s spending on these matters. It didn’t tell us.”



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