Canada, Maternal Health & the G8/G20

Heads of state, ministers and other dignitaries are assembling in Toronto and Huntsville, in the province of Ontario, for the G8/G20 summit. While Canada has hosted several G8 meetings in the past decades (the last one in 2002, under the leadership of Prime Minister Jean Chrétien), this year’s iteration of the political summit, with its inclusion of the G20 countries, is a first for the host country. In the lead up to the meetings, the government of Canada has had to contend with much criticism, both on the organizational side and some of the policy dimensions of the summit.

In recent weeks, local Canadian media have been lambasting Primer Minister Stephen Harper for the public funds being spent on hosting the two meetings, which will cost Canadian taxpayers C$1.1 billion – nearly 90% of that money going towards security. More than C$930 million is being spent on the implementation of unprecedented security arrangements in downtown Toronto and Huntsville. A $2 million “fake lake” in the event’s “official” media center also got a frosty reception (note that, for the first time in recent history, the Canadian organizers decided not to include NGO and civil society representatives in the official media center. Instead, civil society groups are housed in an “alternative” media center.) For many Canadians, the price tag of the G8/G20 summit is an indication of what they perceive as skewed priorities on the part of their government.

It’s Stephen Harper’s paradoxical position on maternal health, though, that has attracted relentless criticism from the media in recent months. Harper resolved to make maternal health the G20 summit’s key area of focus, with a pledge of at least $1 billion from the Canadian government. Meanwhile, though, his government also decided to eschew funding for programs providing abortions to women in developing countries. Following in the footsteps of their conservative brethren south of the border, the Harper government’s decision is difficult to square with his promise of earmarking $1 billion for maternal and child health. While it is of course possible for the Canadian government to pledge funding towards improving maternal and child health without having to fund programs that provide safe abortions – by focusing on nutrition, training of health workers, etc. – the government’s stance on abortion undermines the integrity of their push to make maternal health Harper’s “signature initiative”, and a top priority for world leaders.

A couple of weeks ago during the Women Deliver conference in Washington D.C., UN Dispatch caught up with Keith Martin, a Canadian MP representing British Columbia. A physician who has worked extensively in Africa and an outspoken advocate on maternal and child health, Keith Martin discusses Prime Minister Harper’s decision to cut funding for abortion, as well as concrete initiatives that the G8/G20 countries can undertake to improve maternal health.

[note: While the audio track of this video is intact, the image was compromised during the uploading process. Apologies for a garbled image]