Throughout 2019, Health Canada is celebrating 100 years as a federal department. We took a look into the archives to find out more about the part the Canadian Medical Association (CMA) and its members played in its creation.
Starting at the CMA’s inaugural meeting in 1867, CMA members showed broad support for a national health department. While it would be several decades before the legislation to create the department was even tabled in Parliament, historical records reveal many members were early advocates for a nation-wide coordination of public health.
“The announcement (of plans to create the department) comes like a breath of cool air from the Laurentians, and it is hoped that after fifty years the prayers of the medical profession and all hygienists will be answered.”− CMAJ editorial on the creation of a federal health department, December 1918
An editorial in the Canadian Medical Association Journal (CMAJ) outlined how “resolutions of committees urging a Department of Health were adopted yearly (by the CMA) for several years after 1868.”
The editorial also stated “that at almost every annual meeting of the CMA since 1901, reports were adopted outlining in the clearest manner the views of the profession as to what the scientific, social, and economic needs of the country demanded on the part of the Dominion Government.”
One of these reports, penned in 1907 by prominent Nova Scotia physician and politician Dr. J.B. Black, argued that “when governments, national and provincial, and municipal, undertake the prevention of preventable disease, then shall preventable diseases disappear from the known world.”
Later, at the CMA’s annual meeting in 1917, the same Dr. Black moved a resolution − which was adopted − that “fully apprehending the pressing necessity of a Federal Bureau of Health and Physical Education, respectfully urge[d] upon the Federal Government the formation of such a bureau at the earliest possible date.”
Other physicians tied the creation of a health department to the urgent need to control venereal disease and tuberculosis.
“In view of the diversity of provincial health laws and the supervision of hospitals and similar institutions in Canada that some general federal legislation for all Canada is essential to the successful treatment and control of venereal diseases.” - Dr. Peter Bryce, chief federal public health officer, CMAJ, November 1918
In fact, the CMA lobbied so long and hard on the issue, the eventual announcement that a federal department would be formed was met with some skepticism. An April 1918 CMAJ article stated:
“The older members of the Association fear that little will be done. They have brought this matter to the attention of the legislature for so long with little or no result, that they are not optimistic about the subject receiving the attention it deserves.
In the end, though, when the federal department of health opened officially in July 1919, with Newton Rowell as its first minister, the CMA was in full support, even offering to assist in the selection process for a deputy minister.
Over the next decades, bringing the physician perspective to the work of Health Canada has remained a cornerstone of the CMA’s advocacy and policy. The CMA has offered policy direction on issues such as opioid use, the legalization of cannabis, tobacco and vaping regulations and the Canada Food Guide.
“Health Canada has played an important role in supporting the work of physicians and the health of Canadians, and we look forward to another 100 years of working together.” – Dr. Gigi Osler, CMA president