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Bernie’s impactful talk encouraging thoughtful conversation about Canadian health care


After attending the Bernie Sanders Live in Toronto event, Fellows from the Muslim Youth Fellowship wrote about their experience and what they learned from Senator Sanders’ visit to Canada.

In the earliest hours of the morning of October 29, Fellows of the Muslim Youth Fellowship were up and eager to listen to the indomitable U.S Senator Bernie Sanders give a talk at the University of Toronto.  With Canadian politicians in attendance, the line of audience members waiting to take their seats stretched around Convocation Hall. There was a buzz in the crowd — the atmosphere felt similar to a Beyoncé concert. The new NDP leader, Jagmeet Singh walked into the hall to a booming applause and a standing ovation. We snuck down later to take a selfie with him.

Dr. Meric Gertler, President of the University of Toronto, began with a land acknowledgement, while Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne made mention of the province’s new free tuition policy, and the their pharmacare coverage for people under 25. However, we noticed Dr. Gertler’s remarks was the only one to make reference to Indigenous peoples, in relation to providing equitable health care to all citizens.

Senator Sanders, an engaging and enigmatic speaker, electrified the audience with his passion and vision for the type of health care system he would like to see implemented in the U.S. He noted that Canada supplies health care for its citizens at 50 per cent of the cost of the American system, and pointed to Tommy Douglas’ achievement in establishing accessible health care. To the Senator, the right to adequate health care is as crucial in a functioning democracy as the right to vote. He pointed to grassroots movements as the catalysts for real and lasting change, and demanded that Canadians stand up and be proud of  — and defend  — their accomplishments of achieving a public health care system.

However, the speech, rousing though it was, brought to light a few issues. The Senator repeated the phrase “the Canadian system is not perfect” several times without pointing to where its flaws might lie. Here are a few examples of these flaws. In Canada, dental care is privatized, as a result, many Canadians cannot afford to see a dentist. Indigenous reserves receive dismal, if any health-care services, and most prescription drugs are not covered in provincial health-care plans, even though doing so would save us money.

As the Senator pointed out, the way we organize our societies demonstrates what we value. Given the fact that these problems are discussed openly in Canada, with a focus on finding solutions, speaks to the value we place on progress and care for one another. In his remarks following Senator Sanders’ speech, Dr. Kwame McKenzie of the Wellesley Institute, reminded the audience at Convocation Hall that 60 per cent of what makes and keeps us ill are social determinants, such as poverty and discrimination.

While, we are very lucky in Canada to live in a country that is leading the way towards a more accessible and equitable society — we still have our flaws. There is space to start and continue these important discussions to ensure that we push for improvements. Bernie Sanders’ visit serves as a reminder to fight for what we value.  Our healthcare system is progressive, but we need political leadership to make it a truly universal system that we all know it can be — and that Canadians deserve.

In his closing remarks, Ed Broadbent reminded us that when social democrats brought healthcare to Saskatchewan many expected it to fail. Yet it eventually spread across our country. This reminder serves as a call for the courage to push for social change and the persistence to win struggles.  As Canadians we should embrace and be proud of healthcare system. Now imagine if we took it one step further, by continuing to be persistent and courageous in our pursuit for progressive social change.

Muslim Youth Fellowship (MYF) is a leadership development program that aims to provide motivated students the opportunity to work with a Toronto City Councillor and to gain valuable skills through training and networking. The goal of the program is to develop a deep commitment to public service and building an inclusive Toronto.

Photo via Broadbent Flickr.