YELLOWKNIFE -- Most Canadians say health care should be Ottawa's top priority and the federal government should play a leading role in protecting and strengthening the system, a poll conducted on behalf of the Canadian Medical Association suggests.

The Ekos Research poll was released Monday at the CMA's annual meeting in Yellowknife, which opened with an address by federal Health Minister Leona Aglukkaq.

Aglukkaq said there's been "a lot of negative, over-the-top rhetoric" in the last year from organizations and individuals about Ottawa's role in health care, but she suggested they need to look at the bigger picture.

Her government has come under fire for mishandling the national drug shortage and has been accused of failing to take a leadership role in ensuring Canadians have equitable access to health-care services across the country.

"As federal minister of health, I will not dictate to the provinces and territories how they will deliver services, or set their priorities," an unrepentant Aglukkaq told about 260 physician delegates representing 76,000 Canadian doctors country-wide.

"But this does not mean there is not a role for the federal government. Because clearly there is."

Aglukkaq said besides providing $27 billion in health transfers to the provinces and territories in 2011-2012, the government has provided funding to increase the number of qualified practitioners, including the training of more than 100 family physicians to serve rural and remote communities.

And each year, almost $1 billion is invested in research and innovation aimed at improving health-care delivery to patients, she said.

"We are putting long-term, stable funding in place across the country to allow all the provinces and territories to focus in areas of health, to focus on health as opposed to the financial piece," Aglukkaq told reporters. "Long-term, stable funding will allow them also to focus in areas of their priorities.

"I think it's very important to recognize that the priorities in Ontario are not the same as in Nunavut or the Northwest Territories. And we need to allow the jurisdictions to be able to have the flexibility to focus in areas that are their priorities."

NDP health critic Libby Davies called the health minister's repeated references to flexibility "a code word for 'do nothing."'

Davies, in Yellowknife attending the meeting, said Aglukkaq's speech to doctors confirmed the Harper government's hands-off approach to health care, which she called "hugely problematic" and counter to the poll results.

"Health care's the No. 1 priority of Canadians," she said. "They are calling, expecting the federal government to show leadership.

"I think their whole disengagement from health care and basically saying, 'Here's the money, go and do what you want,' is absolutely not what Canadians want to see."

In the telephone survey of 1,044 Canadian adults, respondents were roughly split on the question of government responsibility for improving the health-care system. Half assigned a leadership role to Ottawa, while the other half roughly (46 per cent) pointed to the provinces and territories under the Council of the Federation.

"What this poll tells us is that Canadians see an opportunity for all levels of government to exercise leadership and collaborate to transform health care to make it focused on the needs of patients," said outgoing CMA president Dr. John Haggie.

"Our health-care system originated through collaboration. It is time to bring it back at all levels."

The poll conducted Aug. 3 to 9 has a margin of error of plus or minus three percentage points, 19 times out of 20.