"Any initiative that decreases poverty will improve the health of Canadians."
That statement by PEI family physician Dr. Jenni Zelin encapsulated the activist sentiment apparent during the CMA's latest town hall on the social determinants of health, held March 28 in Charlottetown. It was an attitude that town-hall moderator Ken MacQueen described as "anger and empathy."
The Charlottetown meeting was the third in a series of town halls being held by the CMA this spring in partnership with Maclean's and CPAC. All five meetings are focusing on health inequities.
This meeting featured comments from both audience members and a panel that included Maritime health advocates, who spoke on issues ranging from homelessness in Newfoundland to poverty in New Brunswick. The failure to acknowledge and address mental health issues was also stressed.
MacQueen, Maclean's Vancouver bureau chief, said that while PEI residents have a life expectancy on par with the rest of Canada, "every community has pockets of poverty, need and want that can kill us before our time." He said Canada's "social safety net has frayed" and Canadians need to remind governments that policies to protect this safety net "are not frills."
Sitting on the panel were Zelin, who is also a member of the PEI Food Security Network; Brian Duplessis, co-chair of New Brunswick's nonprofit Economic and Social Inclusion Corporation; Kimberly Yetman Dawson, executive-director of the Newfoundland and Labrador Nonprofit Housing and Homelessness Network; and Paul Wells, Maclean's political editor.
"If you don't have enough money to eat, you're going to get sick," said Duplessis, noting that that a new poverty reduction plan in New Brunswick succeeded in raising the minimum amount available for those on social assistance but that amount still means people struggle to get essentials beyond basic housing.
Wells said that while it was easy for politicians to get attention and show they "care about health care" by cutting a ribbon to open a new hospital, it is much harder for them to be interested in addressing basic needs, such as providing adequate food, housing or income, because these don't involve high-profile activities.
Zelin responded by saying voters should force politicians "to deal with the long-term solutions that don't have the ribbon."
CMA President Anna Reid noted that the CMA is asking the federal government to look at all of its policies through a health lens to ensure they address the fundamental issues.
"We need voices in a variety of settings where they're going to be heard by the right people," a nutritionist in the audience stated before congratulating the CMA for raising the profile of the debate.
"To me, this is how we start," another audience member said.
"When the Canadian Medical Association raises important issues, Canadians listen," Reid acknowledged in a recent letter to the CMA's 78,000-plus members. "I am proud it is the CMA initiating these debates." During the Charlottetown town hall, she stressed that physicians have an "ethical duty" to help everyone lead a healthy life.
Future town hall meetings will be held in Calgary and Montreal, and those who have participated in the meetings to date or who wish to contribute are urged to post comments at www.healthcaretransformation.ca.