Skip to main content

A COVID-19 suspected patient is brought into a resuscitation bay in the adult emergency department at the Health Sciences Centre in Winnipeg on Dec. 8, 2020.Mikaela MacKenzie /The Canadian Press

Manitoba has announced a plan to hire 2,000 doctors, nurses and other health professionals in an effort to end its reliance on mandatory overtime in hospitals, as the country’s provinces and territories continue to shore up scarce health care resources following a breakdown in talks between them and the federal government earlier this week.

Like other provinces, Manitoba is experiencing critical staffing shortages that have overwhelmed hospitals, burned out remaining health care workers and left some ambulances sitting idle for lack of paramedics.

Manitoba Premier Heather Stefanson revealed the province’s plan on Thursday. She said an investment of $200-million will go toward retaining, training and recruiting medical staff across the province, and toward boosting safety in hospitals.

“This action plan is a critical turning point to address Manitoba’s health-human-resource challenges,” she told a news conference.

The talks with the federal government, which took place Monday and Tuesday in Vancouver, were intended to bring the country’s provincial and territorial health ministers together to discuss a range of pressing issues, including health staffing challenges, public-health priorities during the COVID-19 pandemic and the protracted drug overdose crisis.

But the gathering concluded with finger pointing and no progress. Federal Health Minister Jean-Yves Duclos accused the group of focusing solely on money, while the provincial and territorial ministers countered that Mr. Duclos was attempting to negotiate through sound bites in the media.

Federal health funding through the Canada Health Transfer was not on the meeting agenda. Premiers have been demanding an additional $28-billion a year from Ottawa, on top of the current $45-billion annual transfer, which increases by 3 per cent each year, and another $19.6-billion in tax points.

As the meeting opened on Monday, both Mr. Duclos and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau separately told reporters that Ottawa was willing to increase the transfer by an unspecified amount if provinces and territories committed to sharing heath indicators through a countrywide health data system.

B.C. Health Minister Adrian Dix, who co-chaired the meeting, said Monday that the ministers would be “delighted” to see the funding offer, and that it was good news that it appeared Ottawa seemed to have had a change of heart on discussing the Canada Health Transfer.

But no such offer came, and by midday on Tuesday, as talks were still under way, Canada’s premiers issued a joint statement saying no progress had been made. A leaked copy of the statement was dated Nov. 3, suggesting it had been written days before the meeting began.

Two items ministers were asked to approve – a pan-Canadian action plan on health work force challenges and a pan-Canadian health data strategy – were left unsigned.

As the talks deteriorated into acrimony, podiums that had been arranged for a joint news conference upon the meeting’s conclusion Tuesday afternoon were separated. Mr. Dix told reporters Mr. Duclos had chosen not to address media alongside his provincial and territorial counterparts, and had also pulled out of what was supposed to be a joint communiqué.

Mr. Dix said the parties were “a sound bite further ahead,” but that a meeting with Mr. Trudeau was needed to address the “foundational” issue of the Canada Health Transfer.

“Unfortunately,” Mr. Duclos said at a separate news conference afterward, “despite yesterday’s gesture of good faith, our colleagues have received marching orders by their premiers not to make further progress.”

The measures Manitoba announced on Thursday to retain its roughly 40,000 health care workers include weekend premiums, wellness incentives and the reimbursement of licensing fees. Doctors and community health clinics will be incentivized to extend their hours.

Investment in training will go toward expanding a program that pays undergraduate nurses to work in the field while they complete their studies. It will now include nurses returning from retirement and internationally educated nurses. And the province will increase the number of publicly funded psychiatry and psychology positions.

Manitoba Health Minister Audrey Gordon, who appeared alongside Ms. Stefanson at Thursday’s announcement, said the provincial government had heard the concerns of front-line nurses, who are required to work shifts up to 16 hours because of staffing challenges.

In an interview, Ms. Stefanson was not able to provide timelines or dollar figures for the new programs, but she said the government will be sitting down with doctors’ and nurses’ unions to work out details.

She held Ottawa responsible for the collapse of the meeting earlier in the week. “There was no proposal of any kind that was brought forward by Minister Duclos whatsoever – and especially not with the Canada Health Transfer,” she said.

“We need to have a serious proposal in front of us. The unfortunate part about this is that the federal government has decided to have these discussions through the media rather than sitting down at a table and having a discussion.”

She added: “Why wouldn’t we call out the lack of progress there?”