Unions representing most of the employees in Health Canada’s Indigenous services branch have lambasted Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s government for announcing that the branch would be moved under the jurisdiction of a new minister and likely a new department without consulting them ahead of time.

The branch makes up nearly three-quarters of Health Canada’s total budget and accounts for about one-quarter its workforce.

Union leaders also said they believed one or more senior executives in Health Canada were not consulted ahead of time on the government’s Aug. 28 announcement that responsibility for First Nations health would be moved under the new minister of Indigenous services, Jane Philpott (Markham-Stouffville, Ont.), who will helm the new Indigenous Services Department once it is created in the coming months.

The government has raised the possibility that the First Nations and Inuit Health Branch will be moved out of Health Canada and into the new department, causing “a lot of anxiety” among members of the Union of Health and Environment Workers, said Todd Panas, the union’s national president. He says he spoke with a Health Canada executive who said they had no prior knowledge of the government’s plan announced during the Aug. 28 cabinet shuffle.

That anxiety among union members comes partly from unanswered questions about whether employees in the branch will have to move to new offices in other locations, and what will happen to jobs made redundant by the switch, he said.

Now that the announcement has been made, Carolyn Bennett (Toronto-St. Paul’s, Ont.), the new minister of Crown-Indigenous relations and northern affairs, has been tasked with beginning a roughly six-month government consultation on how to execute the split of the Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada department and related moves, spokesperson James Fitz-Morris told The Hill Times earlier this month.

Mr. Trudeau (Papineau, Que.) announced last month that INAC would be dissolved, and two new departments would be created: one for Indigenous Services and another for Crown-Indigenous Relations and Northern Affairs. He made the announcement after shuffling his cabinet. Ms. Philpott, formerly the health minister, was sworn in as the new minister of Indigenous services, and Ms. Bennett, formerly the Indigenous and northern affairs minister, into her new position.

Ms. Philpott told reporters after the shuffle that she would carry the responsibility for delivering health services to First Nations into her new role, and the Prime Minister’s Office issued a statement that said “services currently delivered to Indigenous Peoples by other departments shall be considered for transfer into the new department (e.g. health delivery).”

Four days later, the two top bureaucrats at Health Canada’s First Nations and Inuit Health Branch sent a memo to the branch’s staff reiterating that it was being considered for “transfer into one of the new departments” to be created out of the INAC split.  

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