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Quebec minister under fire from First Nations groups for comments on air ambulances

Last Updated Jun 22, 2018 at 10:00 am PDT

Quebec Health Minister Gaetan Barrette responds to the Opposition during question period in the National Assembly, in Quebec City on Wednesday, March 14, 2018. Several prominent native leaders are calling for Quebec's health minister to resign or be demoted in reaction to comments he made that were deemed offensive, regarding people who use the province's air ambulance system.THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jacques Boissinot

MONTREAL – Quebec’s Health Minister apologized Thursday for comments about intoxicated parents on air ambulance flights, but insisted that he wasn’t talking about Indigenous families when he made the remarks a few weeks ago.

The apology came after several prominent Indigenous leaders called for Gaetan Barrette to resign or be demoted in reaction to comments that were deemed offensive toward Inuit parents.

An audio recording of Barrette obtained by Le Devoir and CBC Montreal has him saying in English that within six months, there will be at least one case of a person who will not be allowed to board an air ambulance plane because they are agitated, drugged or under the influence.

Barrette was referring a decision taken by the government in February that reversed a policy forbidding parents or guardians from accompanying their children on emergency flights from northern communities to medical facilities.

The health minister apologized repeatedly on Thursday but insisted to reporters at a Montreal event those comments were about general issues surrounding air ambulance use and not a direct reference to Indigenous communities.

“I apologize that my remarks offended Aboriginal communities, I never intended to target them in the explanations I gave, and I have the greatest respect for the Aboriginal communities,” he said in a statement.

In the audio recording, Barrette said, “I can tell you one thing, if you follow that in the news, I guarantee you that there will be one instance in the next six months, someone will not be made allowed to board a flight, not allowed to get on the plane.

“Why? Because no one — agitated, drugged, under whatever influence — would get on the plane at any cost. That will not happen. And that happens all the time.”

He made the comments two weeks ago in a conversation with a citizen at an event in his riding on Montreal’s south shore.

“If you’re over there, and your kid has to be transported, and you’re the parent and you’re agitated, you’re under the influence or whatever, you will not get on the plane,” Barrette said in the recording. “As simple as that.”

Ghislain Picard, chief of the Assembly of First Nations Quebec-Labrador, said the comments suggested the “very deep roots of discrimination and prejudice against Aboriginal Peoples.”

“The minister’s utterly unacceptable statement clearly indicates that these roots are deep into the heart of Philippe Couillard’s government, who should immediately demand the resignation of Minister Barrette, or dismiss him,” Picard said in a statement.

Charlie Watt, the former senator and president of the Makivik Corporation, the organization representing Inuit in Nunavik in northern Quebec, called the comment “unbelievable.”

“We hear people say very bad things about Inuit and First Nations, but to hear a health minister say things about Inuit in this manner is very bad. He needs to apologize and I don’t think that will be enough,” Watt said. “He needs to go. The trust is gone.”

Tunu Napartuk, the mayor of the Nunavik’s largest village, Kuujjuaq, told the CBC he was profoundly shocked and disappointed by the comments.

Quebec was believed to be the only province that refused to allow parents or guardians to accompany their children on emergency medical flights.

Starting later this month, Quebec’s new policy should take effect to allow at least one parent to join their children on the aircraft.