Health Minister Adrian Dix faced protesters and some pointed questions on Vancouver Coastal Health’s (VCH) deal with Trellis Seniors Services to build a new long-term care facility during a stop in Sechelt Monday.
The deal, which would see VCH pay for beds in the for-profit facility while shutting down the fully public facilities at Shorncliffe and Totem Lodge, has been controversial since it was first announced in 2016.
Dix and the NDP have faced criticism from some in the community after confirming earlier this year that they’ll allow the deal to go ahead, but on shíshálh Nation land instead of earlier proposals for sites in West Sechelt and Gibsons.
About 50 people lined Wharf Avenue as Dix arrived at the Sechelt Legion for a public meeting carrying signs that read “NDP: Traitors to public health,” “People before profits” and “Yes to meaningful community engagement.”
There were more than 150 people inside the hall by the time Powell River-Sunshine Coast MLA Nicholas Simons stood up to introduce Dix.
Simons praised his colleague for having the “fortitude” to come to the community and face questions on the Trellis-VCH deal.
Dix opened with a list of NDP initiatives on health and other files since taking office, which got smatterings of applause, before outlining how his ministry came to the decision to support the 2016 Trellis-VCH agreement, with a new location on shíshálh Nation land.
He said the original agreement was made in good faith and could not be broken by the NDP. He compared it to the Campbell government’s handling of teachers’ contracts, which led to years of court battles, although during the Q&A session he clarified that it wasn’t meant to be an exact comparison.
“You have an obligation when you sign a contract, and the obligation of the contract doesn’t change when the party in power changes,” he said.
Dix told the crowd that the NDP government intervened in two areas it felt justified in pursuing: keeping the location in or close to Sechelt and protecting workers.
He said the shift to a Gibsons location was an opening his ministry could use to get changes. “We used what was happening with respect to the move to Gibsons to protect workers, to involve the shíshálh First Nation and deliver beds to Sechelt.”
Dix said he instructed VCH to go forward with the shíshálh Nation location, and ensure workers are guaranteed jobs at the new facility with wages and benefits protected.
When challenged by a man in the crowd to promise the jobs would be the same, Dix replied: “You bet.” He also told Coast Reporter later that there would be protection from contract-flipping.
“What did we have in July 2017? We had a delay on the beds, we had no involvement of the shíshálh First Nation, we had all the jobs going,” Dix told the crowd. “And what do we have now? The jobs are going to be protected, the shíshálh First Nation is involved and we’re going to have the beds.
“We did what we could do, and I’m proud of it,” Dix said before opening the floor to questions.
“Did we make it perfect? Did we do everything you wanted us to do? Did we overturn or rip up contracts? No, we didn’t. But within the power we had, within the means we had, we spoke out.”
As well as questions around why the NDP chose not to cancel the deal outright, Dix was asked about the NDP government’s plans for Shorncliffe and Totem Lodge. The original VCH plan called for them to be shut down. Dix didn’t offer a firm commitment, but said the government is “just getting started” when it comes to improving services.
“Those are two obviously potential sites for the [seniors care] as are other sites in Gibsons as well,” he said.
Some audience members expressed disappointment in the government’s handling of the issue.
One man, who called himself a disillusioned NDP member, told Dix: “You people are acting as cheerleaders for the private sector… It’s almost a betrayal to the people of British Columbia.”
A woman said, “I was expecting so much more from the new NDP government. You promised us so much more. A for-profit facility is unacceptable. And, by the way, I’m mad as hell.”
According to Chief Warren Paull, the agreement between Trellis and the shíshálh Nation is still being finalized, and Dix could not give a firm timeline for the project.
He told Coast Reporter after the meeting, “We’re trying to get things done as expeditiously as we can, because the care is important… We’re doing our best to respond to public demand and make progress.”
Dix also said he heard what people had to say, and felt he was able to get his message across. “I came here tonight and I knew what the night was going to be like, but I wanted to hear from people. And I met with groups throughout the day – workers, community people [and] councillors.”
Members of the group Protect Public Health Care-Sunshine Coast (PPHCSC) were among those who met with Dix.
PPHCSC’s Ian McLatchie said the group didn’t hear much in the way of answers from the health minister at that meeting or at the public event.
“One could almost say we got no answers to the questions we asked on all the key issues we’ve been pushing in our campaign for the better part of two years now, namely: genuine job protections; protection of the volunteer services that exist within the community; quality of care; private versus public centres. All of those things were left unanswered,” McLatchie said.