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Ford draws protesters at ribbon-cutting for new Markdale hospital

Posted: September 16, 2023

(September 15 2023)

By: Scott Dunn, The Owen Sound Sun Times

Ontario Premier Doug Ford helped cut the ribbon to ceremonially open the nearly $70-million Markdale hospital Thursday, and drew a crowd of protesters.

The community has waited more than 20 years for a new hospital and on Sept. 24, a Sunday morning, it will open to the public, replacing the Centre-Grey General Hospital which opened in 1958. A come-and-go tea takes place at the new hospital Friday from 11 a.m. – 2 p.m.

Ford and Health Minister Sylvia Jones, the deputy premier, were greeted by about 150 protesters who stood along the roadside in front of the hospital, which prompted frequent honking of support from passing vehicles.

Taking land from the Greenbelt and the way the Progressive Conservatives did it was the thrust of the protest, along with concerns that the government will be privatizing health care with its plan for privately run medical procedure, diagnostic imaging and surgical clinics.

But protest organizers said they welcome the new Markdale hospital and that it will be a great facility. The current hospital has 12 beds and the new one has eight, a point of contention for some.

One protest organizer, Brenda Scott, who is organizing Ontario Health Coalition buses to protest at Queen’s Park Sept. 25, said she thinks this riding could be up for grabs in the next provincial election.

Wednesday a poll showed Ford’s popularity was tied with Manitoba Premier Heather Stefanson for the lowest among premiers in Canada, at 28 per cent support — a five percentage point drop for Ford attributed to the Greenbelt controversy.

Inside the new hospital foyer, the protest wasn’t mentioned and Ford’s staff informed reporters before his remarks that he would not be taking questions.

Ford gave credit for the hospital to lots of people but said it takes advocacy at Queen’s Park to build a hospital and he singled out Bill Walker, the former Bruce-Grey-Owen Sound MPP, and others including current local MPP Rick Byers.

“Folks, there’s never been more money put into our health-care system in any government in the history of this province, of this country . . . $50 billion in 50 sites around the province you’re either getting a brand new hospital” or an addition.

He said more than $6.4 billion has been invested by his government in building long-term care homes. More than 3,000 beds have been added, with 3,200 more on the way, he said. Ford pointed to thousands of nurses ready to graduate.

Jones highlighted the government’s “Your Health” plan and a 10-year health infrastructure plan, its incentive programs, including “Learn and Stay” grants, to bring for nurses, lab techs and paramedics to rural areas, and MRI expansion plans.

A Markdale hospital physician, Dr. Erica Ferguson, warned in January the new hospital won’t have enough beds, given new local housing planned and underway.

Brightshores Health System CEO Gary Sims (formerly Grey Bruce Health Services) has said there’s room to expand in the new hospital which is nearly double the size of the old one, but other challenges must also be addressed first. Thursday he acknowledged “we all wanted more beds.” He thanked numerous people including staff, whom he called the hospital’s “heart.”

Dr. Ferguson, who attended the hospital ribbon-cutting wearing her stethoscope and a black T-shirt which read “Hands off the Greenbelt!,” said hospital administration has been open to working with medical staff to support them.

“I am really upset with the provincial government,” Ferguson said in an interview. She’s concerned about Ford’s plans to create privately run clinics paid through OHIP to address backlogs, and with the Greenbelt “scandal,” she said.

She said given the “degree of deception,” Ford’s response “wasn’t dire enough. I feel the premier should be involved in the repercussions of that” but she allowed that “I know it’s not finished yet.”

The private clinics Ford is pushing for “really just erodes our public system and it hurts everyone in the end,” she said. “We’ve seen with long-term care, the for-profit homes having such dismal record during COVID. That’s the same thing that’s going to happen to our public health-care system if we continue to let privatization come in.”

The new hospital will have a 24/7 emergency room, three exam rooms and a treatment room, palliative care room, physiotherapy, and a room for procedures such as endoscopy and colonoscopy.

It will include diagnostic imaging, ambulatory care, a laboratory, a café, spiritual care and an office for the Centre Grey Health Services Foundation. There is also undesignated flex space on the ground floor for future expansion.

Others at the protest included a group organized by Dave Meslin called the Grey County Farmland Protection Committee that’s concerned about the Greenbelt.

Grey Bruce Labour Council pointed out “months and months of emergency room closures” across the Grey-Bruce region and the “horrifying story of negligence in the long-term care sector” during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Grey Bruce Health Coalition stressed how important small rural hospitals are to saving lives, particularly when so many don’t have a family doctor. Brenda Scott, who co-chairs the coalition’s small and rural hospital caucus, worries frequent emergency department closures at small hospitals like Chesley’s threatens the entire hospital’s future.

The Ford government has defended removing parts of the Greenbelt to help meet the target of building 1.5 million new homes by 2031. But the provincial housing affordability task force has said there’s already enough land outside of that protected area to do that.

Last month, Ontario’s auditor general and the integrity commissioner found the housing minister’s chief of staff, Ryan Amato, favoured certain developers over others when selecting which lands would come out of the Greenbelt.

Amato resigned in August while saying he did nothing wrong. The housing minister, Steve Clark, resigned a few days after the integrity commissioner’s report was released.

Ford has admitted the process was flawed, and has accepted the auditor’s recommendations on procedural changes. The new housing minister, Paul Calandra, said a Greenbelt could see more protected lands added or removed.

Last year, the province took 7,400 acres of land in 15 sections out of the Greenbelt to build 50,000 homes and replaced it with about 9,400 acres elsewhere.

(Files from Canadian Press)

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