Budget erred by suggesting Ottawa backing away from Inuit TB eradication, minister says

Indigenous Services Minister Patty Hajdu and Natan Obed, president of Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

The Indigenous services minister says the Liberal government made a mistake in the federal budget by appearing to back away from its promise to eradicate tuberculosis in Inuit communities.

In the document released last week, the government announced $16.2 million over three years for “interventions to reduce rates of tuberculosis” — a departure in language from its commitment to eliminate the infectious disease from the four regions that make up the Inuit homeland, known as Inuit Nunangat, within seven years.

Patty Hajdu told CBC News the word “reduce” was an error.

“The goal from our perspective has always been to eliminate tuberculosis,” the minister said.

“I regret that the reduction is phrased in that way in the budget and I think it was quite honestly an error of (the Department of Finance).”

Natan Obed, president of the Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami (ITK), welcomed the admission but said he’s still concerned about Ottawa keeping its promise to Inuit.

“I’m really disheartened by the terminology,” Obed said. “We are worried about Canada’s commitment.”

$16.2M falls well short of $131.6M request

In 2018, the Liberals pledged to cut the rate of tuberculosis in Inuit Nunangat by at least half by 2025, and then to eradicate it completely by 2030.

The rate of tuberculosis among Inuit living in Inuit Nunangat remains 300 times the national average, Obed said, adding government funding is lacking.

The government initially set aside $27.5 million to eliminate tuberculosis.

The additional $16.2 million announced in the budget amounts to roughly a quarter of the $131.6 million that the ITK requested to get the job done.

“It is not a terribly complicated illness and there are not terribly complicated solutions toward eliminating tuberculosis,” Obed said.

“But we certainly aren’t going to do those things with less money than we did in the first five years that the government has worked with us on the elimination pledge.”

Hajdu said she believes that objective is still within reach.

She promised to work with the ITK and other Inuit organizations to meet the target, and to address the issue in renewed bilateral health-care deals with the provinces and territories.

“If everyone really puts their mind to it, with the number of different kinds of pots of money that will address the needs of people living with tuberculosis or at risk of contracting tuberculosis, we could eliminate tuberculosis by that deadline,” she said.

Hajdu also said the budget is designed to address the social determinants of health that continue to fuel tuberculosis in Inuit communities, such as food security, housing and health care.

Obed said he also believes eliminating tuberculosis from the district by 2030 is possible, but only if the federal, provincial and territorial governments step up their funding.

He said Inuit-designed regional action plans that cover community screening, housing, health infrastructure and reducing the stigma associated with tuberculosis need to be implemented.

“It would be really unfortunate if the only time in Canada’s history that the Canadian government has pledged to do something with us to lower our rates of socioeconomic gaps, that it decides that it no longer wants to walk this path together before the timelines are even up,” he said.

Related stories from around the North: 

Canada: Nunavut declares tuberculosis outbreak in Pond Inlet, CBC News

United States: Coronavirus hurting Alaska attempt to reduce tuberculosis, The Associated Press

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