Public health care: We have it, Americans still don’t, they wish they did – there’s a lesson in that

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PHOTO: Sorry, no relevant photos tonight. Just this shot of a typical American public servant crossing the rotunda of the New Mexico State Capitol in Santa Fe, deep in thought. She is doubtless wishing the United States had Canada’s system of health care.


The economy, Harper Fatigue Syndrome or however one should define “old stock Canadian” may or may not be the main issue in the interminable political campaign north of the Medicine Line, but it’s not the No. 1 issue for Americans who pay attention to Canada.

As I always notice when I travel in the United States, as I am doing this week, Americans pay attention to Canadian policy, if not politics, in surprising numbers, and they focus on one issue: health care.

The reason: We have it. They still don’t, Obamacare notwithstanding. And they wish they did.

A day never passes when an openly Canadian person travelling in the United States doesn’t hear a positive comment about Canadian health care once, twice, numerous times.

This tells me, as I have long thought, that our American cousins are not fools. They are merely stuck with a sclerotic separation-of-powers system of government that makes change disliked by the most powerful elements in society extremely difficult to implement, an accident of history.

All the efforts at propaganda expended by the U.S. insurance industry, private health care corporations, their lobbyists and their bought-and-paid-for politicians don’t seem to have made a dent in the widely held perception here that in Canada we have something valuable in our public health care system, which our American cousins wish profoundly they had too.

For the many times I have heard Americans expound on the benefits of the Canadian single-payer system of public health insurance – which they also understand with a fair degree of technical sophistication in surprisingly high numbers – only once or twice have I encountered one who had heard about Canadian wait times, which the American health-care-industrial complex likes to harp about, or if they have, believes they are getting the straight goods.

This public consciousness of Canadian health care is not only widespread, it is apparent in most economic classes of U.S. citizens. Bartenders and store clerks, at any rate, are as likely to be well informed on the topic as hoary headed senior citizens like your blogger.

There is nothing particularly new about this. A friend many years ago took part as a Canadian Naval rating in a parade on San Juan Island in Washington State recalled the locals cheering, “Here come the Canadians! Now we get medicare!” as the Senior Service marched up the main drag of Friday Harbor to the inspiring strains of Heart of Oak.

If anything, the successful attempt by President Barack Obama to bring a degree of sanity to the U.S. health care system seems to have increased the awareness of what we Canadians are fortunate to possess among our American neighbours.

Typically, they are deeply shocked at the thought Prime Minister Stephen Harper and the Conservative government seeking re-election in Ottawa would be just as happy to see Canadian public health care relegated to the pages of history – which is why, of course, his government has refused to negotiate a new Health Accord with the provinces but instead has imposed a deal that, over time, will starve the system of the oxygen of funding.

Mr. Harper and his party, as is well understood, love all of the worst things about the United States, above all the inevitable power of capital in its system of government, and dislike the best things about it, especially its profound commitment to freedom of expression.

Yet, despite the fact a lot of the Americans I inevitably meet in my travels are a pretty close approximation of what Mr. Harper, the old dogwhistler, really had in mind when he spoke of  “old stock Canadians” in Thursday night’s Globe and Mail debate, which was mercifully unavailable here in this most and least atmospheric of U.S. state capitals, he’s probably very lucky they don’t get to vote in Canada.

Hint: you can count on it that Mr. Harper didn’t merely mean, as he later claimed, “the descendants of immigrants for one or more generations.”

The lesson or those of us who reside in the northern half of this continent is probably that, in this or any other election campaign, we ought never to allow health care to be relegated to the political back burner. Especially not now!

As our neighbours, who don’t have it, well understand, we have built something profoundly valuable in Canada. We need to take action to ensure we preserve it. I think we all know just what that action needs to be.

Categories Alberta Politics