It is exceedingly rare for cabinet ministers to do what Jane Philpott just did. She called a press conference to brief reporters on how bad things are.
Dr. Philpott, the Minister of Indigenous Services in charge of a five-month-old department, spent an hour describing its responsibilities, with a series of bleak indicators: Forty-four per cent of kids on reserve graduate from high school, compared with 88 per cent of other young Canadians; the life expectancy of Indigenous people is 15 years shorter; Inuit people are 270 times as likely to have tuberculosis; about 7 per cent of Canadian children under 14 are Indigenous, but about 52 per cent of those in foster care are Indigenous.
Remarkably, while she talked about little pieces of progress, she didn't really tout major Liberal successes. Even when it came to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's high-profile promise to eliminate boil-water advisories for contaminated water on reserves, she reported less-than-spectacular improvement.
The government has lifted 40 boil-water advisories since the Liberals came to, but 26 more have been added.
There's an "emergency meeting" with provincial ministers coming up later this week on the failings of child-welfare services in Indigenous communities – and Dr. Philpott said there will be money in this year's federal budget to address the issue, without saying how much.
There has to be, if Ottawa is to live up to Canadian Human Rights Commission order to provide comparable social service to Indigenous children. But Dr. Philpott didn't really launch much in the way of other efforts to deflect the criticism Ottawa can expect when that meeting is held.
This isn't the way politics is usually done. A minister doesn't call scribes together to provide a survey of statistics regarding their responsibilities that are at once depressingly familiar and shocking, not unless they're there to lay out how they've changed things, or some specific new plan. But Dr. Philpott often said things such as "there's a lot or work to do."
Dr. Philpott was setting an anchor. The new minister of a new department facing seemingly intractable problems was setting a series of markers for how far there is to go.
Yet that implies a laudable level of ambition. There isn't much point describing the baseline for your department, with its big, complicated challenges, unless you intend to tackle it broadly. Politically, setting markers for how bad things are might make an argument for bigger spending on the issue, but doing so in front of the Ottawa press gallery sets up the government – and Dr. Philpott – for future criticism about not doing enough.
"It doesn't help anyone to be in denial," Dr. Philpott said. "We have had a relationship with indigenous peoples in the past that's been based on a denial of their rights, where there has been inadequate funding in a whole range of areas and where real people's lives have been suffering as a result."
Dr. Philpott doesn't appear to be a typical politician. She is a medical doctor who spent nine years practising medicine in a village in Niger. She somehow manages to deliver a litany of statistics that are depressing to anyone who listens without appearing discouraged. Her new department was created in an attempt to split away the complex issues of self-government and treaties from the matter of poor services – in part because Mr. Trudeau made a lot of promises on both, and in part because of the long-running litigation that ended with the Canadian Human Rights Commission ordering the government to deliver comparable social services to Indigenous children.
The catch is she hasn't yet offered a lot of detail on how she will change things. One notable exception is on boil-water advisories, where the PM made a high-profile promise, and the government is devoting money and attention to the problem. Dr. Philpott argued that progress on that score is coming, because water-system projects that can take two years are in progress.
Her department should have more clear, public goals like it. Dr Philpott insisted it has "elaborate plans" in other areas, but in many cases Indigenous communities should be setting the goals. Still, she said that in March she will announce a target date for eliminating tuberculosis in Inuit territories.
Specific goals have one great virtue in government: They are harder to miss. Mr. Trudeau's government will work to meet them; if his Liberals lost the 2019 election, another government would find it hard to drop the target. There was something refreshing about the way Dr. Philpott laid out figures to demonstrate the stark problems. She sometimes described how she sees long-term success. Now she needs to map some specific targets on the way.