MONTREAL — 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.
Gaetan Barrette defended himself Thursday, insisting the new reports citing his comments didn't reflect what he was actually talking about.
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.
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.
Tunu Napartuk, the mayor of the Nunavik's largest village, Kuujjuaq, told the CBC he was profoundly shocked and disappointed by the comments.
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."
Barrette apologized repeatedly on Thursday but insisted to reporters those comments were about air ambulance rules in general and not a direct reference to Indigenous communities.
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"I'm very, very sorry that some people misinterpreted comments I made to a citizen who'd asked a question," Barrette said. "I'm sorry people misunderstood what I said, I didn't say what was reported in the sense that I wasn't referring to the Indigenous population."
Barrette announced in February that Quebec would change its policy and allow at least one parent to join their children on the medical flights once the planes were reconfigured.
Quebec was believed to be the only province that refused to allow parents or guardians to accompany their children on emergency medical flights.