Snowbird Interview with Jack Layton

Fall 2006 CSANews Issue 60  |  Posted date : May 30, 2007.Back to list

"Different rules for snowbirds‘ridiculous’ and‘not right" says Jack Layton

The issue of health care for Canadians who happen to be snowbirds is one that I’ve had a very personal connection with,” says federal NDP Leader Jack Layton.

That connection dates back to the 1950s when his maternal grandparents, Jack and Virginia-born Constance Steeves, began spending their winters in Daytona Beach, Florida.

Layton’s mother, Doris – now 80 and a Lifetime Member of the Canadian Snowbird Association, her son proudly points out – continued the tradition and became a snowbird herself at the age of 44 .

“I started going down after I had back surgery in Canada,” says Mrs. Layton, who lives in Mississauga but continues to spend her winters in Florida in a bungalow she and her late husband, Bob Layton (who served in former prime minister Brian Mulroney’s cabinet) purchased in New Smyrna Beach, south of Daytona on Florida’s east coast.

Jack Layton has also made regular treks down to Florida to spend time with his parents, especially after his father – who died in 2002 – was diagnosed with prostate cancer and Parkinson’s disease.

Given that experience, the 56-year-old member of Parliament for Toronto- Danforth appreciates and understands the concerns and frustrations which snowbirds feel about leaving behind some of the benefits of the Canada Health Act whenever they leave their province or territory of residence.

The NDP leader recently spoke to Ottawa journalist and Canadian parliamentary press gallery member Christopher Guly about health carerelated
issues facing snowbirds and about his party’s “seniors charter.” This was introduced by the NDP caucus’s youngest member (at 43) and seniors critic, Chris Charlton – the rookie MP for Hamilton Mountain – and received the support of most MPs (251-33) in the House of Commons on June 20.

CSANews: As you know, the CSA advocates standardization of healthcare payments for out-of-province emergency medical expenses, regardless of the province or territory of residence. Currently, there is a patchwork of payment plans in Canadian dollars that finds ritish Columbia paying $75 per day, Prince Edward Island $919 per day and Nunavut the even-higher rate of $1,269 per day.

JACK LAYTON : It doesn’t seem right to us that the system is staggered. It’s true that these rates get set by the provinces [and territories], but there ought to be standardization. A Canadian is a Canadian. And our feeling is that efforts should certainly be made to try and achieve that standardization. Otherwise, you end up with Canadians really not having the feeling that they’re part of a country where after you’ve worked all your life and you’ve managed to get some retirement, no matter where you live in the country – with respect to health care – you’re receiving the same level of support.

So we’d like to see a process put in place to rectify that. It doesn’t strike me that it should be so difficult. It’s not as though we’re talking about massive sums of money here. We’re talking about a fundamental fairness approach to it, and that’s what we’d like to see.

I think that’s reflected in our seniors charter – the concept that seniors should be entitled to good-quality public health care across the country.

CSANews: The charter also deals with such issues as income security and housing.

JACK LAYTON: We only had two votable motions this spring and we chose to make seniors the subject of one of them because we felt that seniors’ issues just have not had the attention that they should have, given that they built this country.

We took this as a first step to set out a framework for the kinds of issues that our country should be paying attention to for seniors. We’ll follow that up now with legislative proposals in each of the areas and budgetary pressure where we’re able to exert it in each of those areas

CSANews: The NDP’s seniors charter states that “secure, public, accessible, universal health care” would be an enshrined right for“every senior living in Canada.” Would this right also be portable and follow Canadians when they travel?

JACK LAYTON: Yes, we think that’s very important. That’s why this idea of health-care payments for out-of-province medical services being so different across the country really gets your head scratching. You’ve got to wonder why.

We think standardization is what should be sought. Fairness for everybody needs to be a part of it. And of course, this also means the provinces all need to be treated fairly by the federal government.

Sometimes, this issue gets tied up with that – where you have unfairness in the equalization system that makes it difficult for provinces.

CSANews: How could the federal government get involved in equalizing out-of-country health-care coverage with the benefits snowbirds receive at home when, as you pointed out, this is a matter under the jurisdiction of the provinces and territories?

JACK LAYTON: An NDP federal government would take leadership to bring the provinces together and say, ‘Let’s get this standardized here. Let’s find a way to make this happen.’

It’s not fair for a Canadian travelling abroad to be anything other than a Canadian.

CSANews: What about the disparity between the quantity of prescription drugs snowbirds are allowed to take with them when they leave the country and the amount of time they’re allowed to be away and retain their residential status.

In Ontario, residents are allowed to be out of the province for 212 days per year, yet are only permitted to obtain two 100-day supplies of medication under the provincial drug plan for seniors.

JACK LAYTON: That’s just plain ridiculous and that can be fixed easily with a regulatory change, and all provinces should fix that situation. It makes no sense.

CSANews: There’s also the issue of residency status. For instance, Ontario snowbirds outside of the province for the maximum 212 days per year are required to remain in Ontario for the balance of the year or risk losing their residential status and such benefits as their health insurance plan. Have you any thoughts on that?

JACK LAYTON: We certainly think that travelling within the country should very definitely be allowed. There shouldn’t be these kind of restrictions within Canada on having to return to one province or another. We’re one country here. Let’s start behaving like it.

[Snowbirds] have been suffering in silence. I find senior citizens not the most vocal. They sort of say, "I guess I’ll just make do."

That’s one of the good things about having a snowbirds’ association – to flag some of these issues, being able to do the background research, build some public awareness about it, so individuals are not feeling so isolated in their concerns.

Great work is being done. Let’s take a few of these issues at a time and see if we can’t fix them.

CSANews: The charter also calls for the creation of a seniors’ advocate who would report annually to Parliament regarding government policies and programs affecting seniors. How do you envision that advocate fulfilling his or her mandate, should the government proceed with the charter?

JACK LAYTON: [It’s] an idea of having someone that’s able to pull together some of the issues facing seniors – take a look at whether the federal government is attending to the issues affecting seniors effectively.

We’ve got an environment expert within the auditor general’s office who does a report on how we’re doing on environmental issues and points to areas where the government’s own objectives aren’t being achieved. It’s a way of internally whipping the government into shape.

When you talk about seniors, a great many of them really aren’t in a position to put pressure on government about something that’s affecting them – due to failing health or low incomes or the fact that they’re dispersed and not really part of an organization like they would be if they were in a neighbourhood or business association or trade union. They end up somewhat isolated.

We feel that having an opportunity and a venue for these kinds of issues to be put into the mix and having somebody making sure that Parliament fulfils the responsibilities of the kind we outlined in the [seniors] charter is very important. It can give a voice to the voiceless. We’ve seen this work in other places.

[NDP MP for the Toronto riding of Trinity- Spadina] Olivia Chow [49], my wife, formed this notion of a child and youth advocate in the city of Toronto. In fact, she became the first advocate [as a city councillor] and formed a group to give her advice; it was composed of all of the people working in and concerned about youth and children’s issues, including young people. And all of a sudden, the government of Toronto got better input and some very good policy ideas and took some very important steps around the issues of children and youth as a result of having that office of the advocate.

We feel something like that would be very helpful for seniors in Canada.

CSANews: Do you ever see yourself becoming a snowbird?

JACK LAYTON: That’s a good question. We certainly do some travelling.

I haven’t really thought much about retirement, to be honest with you.