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Minister of Health Jean-Yves Duclos applauds after announcing Dr. Leigh Chapman as Canada’s Chief Nursing Officer during a news conference in Ottawa, on Aug. 23.Justin Tang/The Canadian Press

Ottawa has appointed a Chief Nursing Officer for Canada to help inform its health policies, as the federal government is under pressure from premiers to increase transfers to the provinces so they can shore up health systems that are under heavy strain.

Federal Health Minister Jean-Yves Duclos said federal transfers are already scheduled to increase substantially in the next few years. He also said Ottawa will make an announcement in several weeks on its commitment to provide dental coverage for certain children this year.

Leigh Chapman, a registered nurse with two decades of experience, will take on the role of chief nursing officer.

“There are already a number of jurisdictions in Canada reporting nursing shortages, which is having an impact on the functioning of emergency rooms and other critical health services,” Mr. Duclos said at a news conference Tuesday. “With this growing crisis, we need to support our nurses, make sure they are heard and that their challenges are met with solutions.”

Ms. Chapman will provide advice to Health Canada and help expand the country’s health care work force, Mr. Duclos said. In the first quarter of 2022, there were 22,900 vacancies for registered nurses and registered psychiatric nurses in Canada, according to Statistics Canada. Many in the nursing profession have reported that short-staffing, excessive overtime demands and burnout during the COVID-19 pandemic have made them consider leaving.

Ms. Chapman, who was most recently the director of clinical services with Inner City Health Associates in Toronto, acknowledged that the pandemic has been very difficult for nurses, but also said she hopes that nurses can find the support they need to stay in the profession.

“We’ve had nurses doing end-of-life care by iPad; working critically short[-staffed] – beyond what was ever imaginable,” Ms. Chapman said. “I know it’s been gruelling and difficult.”

The federal chief nursing officer position was eliminated about a decade ago, but in recent years, health care organizations have pushed for its reinstatement. In an August, 2020, letter to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, the Registered Nurses’ Association of Ontario argued that Canada would be a healthier country if nurses had a voice in the federal government.

Mr. Duclos fielded questions Tuesday about his government’s promise to provide dental coverage to children from low- and middle-income families by the end of the year.

Premiers have generally resisted Ottawa’s efforts to tie additional funding to expanded services, such as dental care and pharmacare, arguing that the existing core services are under strain and should be the priority.

NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh has recently said, however, that his party will pull its parliamentary support for the minority Liberal government unless it delivers on the agreed-upon timeline to implement the initial phase of a dental-care program this year.

In his comments, Mr. Duclos said the Liberals have been working closely on the issue with the NDP for several months. He also said new funding for dental care will produce broader health benefits by reducing related illnesses.

“We are very confident – and we look forward to providing more details – that the plan we will propose in the next few weeks will meet everyone’s expectations and meet the need,” he said.

For several years, the premiers have urged Ottawa to increase its share of total government health care costs from 22 per cent to 35 per cent. Mr. Duclos argued on Tuesday that the federal government has already met the 35-per-cent threshold, repeating a position that is based on a 1977 deal in which Ottawa gave up tax room to the provinces so they could have more direct tax revenue to fund health care.

Mr. Duclos said he wants to have a useful collaboration with the provinces and territories – “not a futile debate on dollars and percentages.”

The premiers of Ontario and the Maritimes met in Moncton on Monday to discuss health care challenges. There, The Globe reported, Ontario Premier Doug Ford urged the federal government to increase its funding, but also said the solution goes beyond just dollars.

“Keeping the status quo is just not working,” he said.

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