Kicked out of the Harper Conservative caucus for standing up for his region, a former Nova Scotia MP is now linking the lack of funding for cancer research in Atlantic Canada to lack of representation on parliamentary committees.
Bill Casey, who quit as an MP in 2009 after serving nearly 20 years in the Commons, wrote this week to Prime Minister Stephen Harper and other party leaders criticizing the lopsided committee representation, which he believes leads to the provinces with the most MPs on the committee getting the most per capita funding.
“The numbers are so wonky, it’s hard to believe,” Mr. Casey said in an interview Friday. He’s a strong advocate for his region after being kicked out of caucus for not supporting the Harper 2007 budget because of what he saw as a broken promise over the Atlantic Accord.
The Commons health committee, he notes, does not have one MP from either of the four Atlantic provinces, while Canadian Cancer Society statistics show the region's cancer rates are the highest in the country.
There are 32 MPs in the Commons from the Atlantic provinces.
Mr. Casey has suffered from melanoma and prostate cancer. The society’s recent statistics show that Prince Edward Island, New Brunswick and Nova Scotia have the highest rates of prostate cancer in the country; Nova Scotia had the highest rate of melanoma.
Meanwhile, eight of the 12 MPs on the industry committee are from Ontario; there is one each from Alberta, Quebec, British Columbia and Nova Scotia. Half of the provinces, he notes, have “zero representation” on the committee, although industry oversees most of the funding agencies for cancer research of the federal government.
The cancer funding figures he compiled show that, per capita, the federal government is investing $8.92 for Ontario residents and $9.14 for Quebeckers, compared to 31 cents for New Brunswickers, $4.82 for Nova Scotians, $2.10 for Newfoundlanders and $1.17 for Prince Edward Islanders.
Mr. Casey wants two things – that the federal parties “get us representation on these committees,” and that “Atlantic Canada has our fair share of cancer research funding.”
Experts in the field, such as Atlantic Cancer Research Institute’s Rodney Ouellette, said the numbers are “pretty dismal.”
“It’s a systemic problem,” Dr. Ouellette said. “The way it is, why it is, is nobody’s fault. But is there a way that we can improve so that we’re able to tap into the benefits – and the benefits can be as basic as providing an environment where we’re competitive in attracting quality health-care professionals.”
In a Parliament that is increasingly run by the Prime Minister’s Office, Mr. Casey believes committees still have an impact, making recommendations to ministers and influencing policy.
But Cape Breton Liberal MP Rodger Cuzner doesn’t agree. He says committees have been “reduced to an exercise of babysitting” with a lot of the issues debated being force-fed by the government.
And Scott Armstrong, the Tory Atlantic caucus chair, says it’s almost impossible to have representation from his region on every committee. It’s a scheduling nightmare, given that the Tories are allowed seven MPs on every committee and have only 14 Atlantic Canadian MPs – five of whom are cabinet ministers, who don’t sit on committees. Two are parliamentary secretaries and sit on the committees under their portfolios; two are committee chairs, leaving five MPs to sit among 26 committees.
“It’s a numbers game,” he said, dismissing any perception that Atlantic Canada isn’t getting a fair shake. Committees don’t allocate money, he says. Besides, if anything important comes up, he says he or a colleague can sub on the committee.
But Green Party Leader Elizabeth May believes Mr. Casey is onto something. “Regional insights make a difference,” she argued. “My hunch is that the witnesses who come forward reflect the networks and knowledge base of individual MPs who are sitting there. So the chances are you have less advocacy, for instance, for cancer research in Atlantic Canada,when you have a health committee with nobody sitting on it from Atlantic Canada.”