Rural mayors put health minister on defensive

Written By Rob Shaw

Rural mayors concerned about the crumbling state of healthcare in their communities finally got a chance to plead their case to Health Minister Adrian Dix this week.

It did not go well.

Dix showed up to a public panel with mayors at the Union of BC Municipalities on Sept. 13 already on the defensive. 

Apparently, he’d been planning to make some sort of announcement on boosting ambulance service — a key problem in smaller communities where some people have died waiting for a response in recent months. But the news was scuttled by government’s adherence to a mourning period resulting from the death of Queen Elizabeth II.

“This is an unbelievably challenging period for the public health care system.”

Adrian Dix

Dix spent his portion of the panel outlining the challenges facing the system and the steps the government has already made to address them. It was heavy on statistics, but short on news.

“This wasn’t a set piece for me to give an announcements, it was for us to talk about the very serious issues we have to work on together,” Dix told reporters.

Not good enough

Not good enough for a growing coalition of small-town mayors who have publicly demanded more immediate action from the province as they grapple with repeated emergency room closures and absent ambulances that can require multi-hour drives to the next community in an emergency.

“If I can be completely honest, the feedback from the room after it was over was very disappointing,” said Port McNeill mayor Gaby Wickstrom, who was on the panel with Dix and whose community ER was closed for the weekend just as the UBCM conference began.

Wickstrom, who is helping lead the coalition of rural mayors on health care, said she found a marked contrast between Dix and a senior official from the BC Ambulance Service who came up to UBCM to speak to her about challenges.

“The gentleman was very humble, he said, ‘We thought we had an answer. We did not. We did not come to the community and we apologize for that,’” Wickstrom said in an interview.

” I heard deflection on past parties. I heard deflection to the federal government. I heard statistics.”

Gaby Wickstrom

“It was very humble when he spoke, and he committed to working with communities going forward. I did not hear that from the minister. I heard deflection on past parties. I heard deflection to the federal government. I heard statistics. And I heard engagement with municipalities and that we’re all in this together, but I haven’t seen it to date,” said Wickstrom.

‘Help us, help you’

Clearwater Mayor Merlin Blackwell, who was also on the UBCM panel with Dix and Wickstrom, said he felt the minister interpreted the stories of healthcare challenges as attacks against him. He attended a private meeting with Dix the next day for what he called “an intense dialogue” and to try and clear the air.

“I have the deepest respect for (Dix).”

Merlin Blackwell

“I have the deepest respect for the man,” said Blackwell. “It’s really hard to advocate for the system, because everybody thinks you’re going to be critical, including the minister. He thinks that you’re coming after him. That’s not what this is about. This is about help us, help you… but because we have made so much noise, that’s a lot to take in, I’m sure.”

Blackwell has said the mayors want to help identify and work with the government, BC Ambulance and health authorities in solving the staffing challenges in their local communities that only people on the ground can see.

What had started out as a group of local politicians from Clearwater, Port McNeil and Fort St. John has expanded to include more than 30 communities, said Blackwell.

“The more people that talk to each other, the more solutions we put on the table,” he said. The government, health authorities and employee groups are “very siloed,” added Blackwell.

Dix said he’s not trying to duck responsibility for the challenges.

“This isn’t an NDP issue. This isn’t a Liberal issue. This is a rural B.C. issue.”

Gaby Wickstrom

“This is an unbelievably challenging period for the public health care system,” he said.

Doing more than ever before

“And the system, objectively, is doing more than ever before… we’re working hard and driving every day to bring the changes in place that aren’t just announcements, but a real change for people.”

Meanwhile, the mayors continue to rally, hoping to speak with an increasingly large voice on the issue.

“If there’s enough of us working together, the numbers will be there, the voters will be there,” said Wickstrom.

“I would do the same with any government that’s out there. This isn’t an NDP issue. This isn’t a Liberal issue. This is a rural B.C. issue. And healthcare is suffering. People are dying.”