Last week’s revelation that Vancouver Coastal Health (VCH), Trellis Seniors Services and the shíshálh Nation are close to an agreement on a site for a long-term care facility is getting mixed reviews, despite assurances from Health Minister Adrian Dix on jobs.
Dix confirmed the deal was in the works late last Wednesday, nearly 20 months to the day after the original 2016 announcement of a Trellis/VCH contract and the planned closure of Shorncliffe and Totem Lodge in Sechelt.
The exact location under discussion has not yet been identified, but it’s widely believed to be a site on shíshálh lands in Wilson Creek.
Dix also said he’ll be looking to VCH and Trellis for a commitment that existing staff will be hired at the new facility “with the same wages and benefits that are provided to those staff now.”
Powell River-Sunshine Coast MLA Nicholas Simons, one of the loudest voices opposing the original deal, said the latest version of the plan addressed the jobs issue, but not the broader debate over public or private service delivery.
“I stand firmly by my strong conviction that we need to prevent the erosion of our public health care system. What happened in this case is that we got imposed a decision by the parties,” Simons said.
“I said that I didn’t like that and I said that I thought that we needed to protect our public facilities. Unfortunately the cost of doing so – the implications of doing so in this case – because this deal was signed by the previous government, was clearly not in the best interests of the public.”
Protect Public Health Care – Sunshine Coast, a group formed to oppose any private involvement in a new long-term care facility, called the assurances around preserving jobs “a sham.”
“The NDP have pursued a course almost indistinguishable from their predecessors. Community engagement has been non-existent,” the group said in a statement reacting to the announcement. “More importantly, [Adrian] Dix has signalled his support for a project that offers no improvements to the original proposal that our citizens strongly rejected almost 18 months ago.”
The union that represents most of the workers at Shorncliffe and Totem Lodge, the Hospital Employees Union (HEU), said it’s pleased the health minister was clear in his expectations for preserving jobs as well as wages and benefits.
HEU secretary-business manager Jennifer Whiteside said, “I think the expectation expressed certainly puts a different light on the situation. It means that there is an understanding and recognition of the value of the work our members do … and the importance of maintaining the continuity.”
Whiteside also said the union is hoping to move quickly to end the uncertainty the workers have been facing since 2016.
“I think it’s important for there to be a restoration of a sense of stability and confidence for our members so they know what’s going to be happening, what the terms will be, they know that they’re not going to be losing their terms and conditions of work, that they’re not going to have to re-apply for their jobs – all of those kinds of threats that were hanging over them for so long,” she said.
“I’m very much hoping that we’re coming to the end of that period because it’s been, frankly, a completely unacceptable way for the [Vancouver] Coastal Health Authority to treat its employees.”
Trellis Seniors Services president Mary McDougall is quoted in a joint release with VCH and the shíshálh Nation as saying that “unexpected delays” with its original site led it to negotiations with the shíshálh Nation.
For its part, shíshálh said part of the reason it wanted to pursue an agreement with Trellis was shared community concerns about the long-term care beds potentially moving away from Sechelt.
“We’re excited about potentially being a part of this project as the construction phase and operations of the facility itself offer many job opportunities for people who live on the Sunshine Coast,” said Chief Warren Paull.
Sechelt Mayor Bruce Milne said he doesn’t think his municipality’s process led to any unexpected delays or barriers.
“I’m really pleased with the results that we had,” he said. “Back when this was first announced [in 2016] it was a bombshell… None of us had any idea that it was coming. It was proposed for raw land that doesn’t even have a road into it let alone the zoning, and the community was in an uproar. I think it’s really important to listen to the community and we did that.”
Gibsons Mayor Wayne Rowe said although he wasn’t explicitly told, he was aware a new plan was in the works. He also said the $2.24-million land deal with Trellis was always dependent on VCH approving the location.
“I’m disappointed from the perspective of the Town of Gibsons. I think it would have been a significant development for us, but more important – and we’ve maintained this all along – is that the need is urgent for these extra beds in order to free up hospital beds, and if they can get this moving quickly, that’s great,” Rowe said.
Milne also said he sees a deal with the shíshálh Nation as good news that could lead to a final result where “the District of Sechelt gets all of the benefits with none of the costs,” as well as a strengthening of the shíshálh Nation’s position as a key partner in health care services on the Sunshine Coast.
The potential deal with shíshálh, however, leaves unanswered questions around Trellis’s original site for the facility.
There’s still an open rezoning application for the lot on Derby Road, and when Trellis shifted focus to the Gibsons site last July the company said it planned to keep the Derby Road site to “await other seniors housing opportunities.”
In an email to Coast Reporter, Trellis’s McDougall said until a final plan is in place for the long-term care facility, the company prefers to defer comment on what, if anything, it might have in mind for Derby Road.
Milne was critical of the company’s approach.
“Mary McDougall and Trellis currently have an open application with the District of Sechelt, and an announced agreement with the Town of Gibsons and now an announced agreement with shíshálh – that’s the story. They’ve been playing all three governments. I don’t think they’ve been straight with our community from the start.”