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NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh and NDP candidate for Edmonton Centre, Trisha Estabrooks kick off the NDP caucus retreat by knocking on doors in Edmonton, on Jan. 22.JASON FRANSON/The Canadian Press

Working with the Liberals on pharmacare legislation has been like wrestling eels covered in oil, as NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh describes it.

Singh told a town-hall meeting in Edmonton, where the New Democrats are holding a caucus retreat, that dealing with the federal government is “not fun.”

“They’re just slimy and break their promises,” Singh said this week, getting laughs from the crowd.

“They say one thing and then try to get out of it, but we’re not giving up and we’re not backing down.”

When the House of Commons returns on Monday, NDP members of Parliament say they will continue to press to get the bill drafted, with Singh calling the effort “the next big fight.”

The NDP has been pushing for a system to cover Canadians’ prescription medicines as part of its deal with the minority Liberals.

The New Democrats rejected a first draft of the bill back in September. Since then, the two parties have exchanged more proposals, but the NDP is withholding details and saying they will not negotiate in public.

Singh told the crowd that he took the eel description from his party’s health critic Don Davies, who has been negotiating with the government on a framework bill.

He said the entire caucus agrees with the characterization.

Davies said he will leave those descriptions to Singh, but he is optimistic a bill will be tabled by the March 1 deadline.

The NDP is currently waiting for a response to its most recent proposal, said Davies, adding he expects to resume talks with Health Minister Mark Holland next week.

On Thursday, Holland said it was “disappointing” and “unfortunate” to hear that Singh referred to him as a slimy eel.

He said he takes great pride in being direct and staying true to his word.

“So I’m not sure what he’s referring to. I’m sure it’s just overheated political rhetoric. I get that there’s some games to be played on that, but I think we should try to refrain from personally attacking one another.”

Both parties have been working on the legislation for months, with both characterizing the negotiations as tough.

New Democrats said the government’s first draft of the prospective legislation had left the door open for a mixed public-private system in which the pharmaceutical industry would continue to make “huge profits.”

“We’re battling for the proper way to deliver prescription medicine to Canadians, and that’s through our public system,” Davies said.

“The NDP have been very clear on this. We set down a very clear line in the sand.”

In October, delegates at an NDP policy convention agreed to make pharmacare a red line in their confidence-and-supply agreement with the Liberals.

They voted to withdraw their support on key House of Commons votes if the minority Liberal government doesn’t adhere to their demands.

Should the NDP pull out of the deal, that won’t necessarily trigger an election. The party would instead handle each parliamentary vote on a case-by-case basis.

Holland maintains that conversations have been positive with New Democrats, but some “ambition” needs to tempered because the Liberal government is in a restrained fiscal environment.

“We have to cost things out. They have the advantage of being able to raise an idea and we have the disadvantage of actually having to dig through what is possible and what isn’t possible,” Holland said Thursday in Ottawa.

But Davies said the New Democrats are not looking for money at this point in the negotiations. They are focused on a foundation for a future program.

The confidence-and-supply agreement says a list of prescription drugs deemed as essential medicines must be in place by 2025, Davies said, followed by negotiations with provinces.

“We’re not talking about any expenditure money for several years down the road,” Davies said.

New Democrats ended their three-day caucus retreat on Thursday eager to advance pharmacare and other priorities, including housing, during the upcoming parliamentary sitting.

The NDP is trying to get the Liberal government to address housing needs for lower income households in the next federal budget, and discussions with Finance Minister Chrystia Freeland are already starting, the party said.

The next big thing New Democrats are pushing for on that front, Singh said, is a national acquisition fund to help municipalities or non-profits buy buildings that are being sold off and use them for affordable or co-operative housing.

– With files from Laura Osman in Ottawa

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