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‘Glacial pace’ for new hospital frustrates Tofino-Ucluelet region

Optimism remains that united clamouring will bear fruit with Island Health
The West Coast is hoping to secure a new hospital to better serve the region. (Westerly file photo)

The West Coast continues its collective push for a new hospital and while patience has long-since been replaced with frustration for many, optimism remains that united clamouring will bear fruit.

The only hospital serving the region was built in 1954 and served a population of around 400 residents back then.

“It was small and quiet. We had two stores. We had a post office. There wasn’t a lot of people in the community,” Tofino resident Arlene McGinnis told the Westerly News. “There was a gravel road through the village. It was very quiet and we felt very safe.”

McGinnis was born in 1944 and moved to Tofino from Duncan when she was three years old. She recalled the efforts that went into building the current hospital after the region’s original hospital, built in 1936, was destroyed in a fire in 1952.

“I stood on the corner of Campbell and First Street and watched it burn. I was just a little girl,” she said. “It was devastating.”

She said the West Coast communities came together quickly to get a new hospital underway.

“The community support and cooperation was exceptional,” she said. “They all came together and they were just amazing. They were just amazing at getting a new hospital built.”

She remembered the area’s loggers, fishers and First Nations communities all contributing funds to the cause, suggesting the facility’s price tag came in around $177,000 and local efforts initially came up about $20,000 short at the deadline.

“At this zero-hour, the bank manager from Port Alberni arrived in Tofino and accepted signatures for notes totalling $23,500. Local residents secured these notes using their homes and fishing boats as collateral,” she said.

She said construction began on April 18, 1953, and on August 12, 1954, the new hospital officially opened.

“This could not have happened so readily if it wasn’t for the exceptional goodwill and sacrifices that so many folks made. First Nations, locals and RCAF (Royal Canadian Air Force) all had a part in this,” she said.

Now, 70 years later, McGinnis finds herself leading the charge for another new hospital. McGinnis has served as chair of the Tofino General Hospital Foundation for about 12 years and expressed frustration over what she perceives to be too much red tape holding up the process.

“It doesn’t matter if it’s to build a new house or get a commercial development done, there’s so much red tape by all levels of government, federal, provincial and municipal. All these levels of government don’t like to admit that red tape is holding things up big time,” she said.

“We’ve just finally gotten tired of it. We need a new hospital. There’s many things wrong with this hospital. It’s old…The foundation isn’t good, the plumbing isn’t good, there’s so many different things that are wrong with it, plus the waiting room is just too small…The emergency room is too small. There’s many things that need doing.”

In an emailed response to the Westerly, an Island Health spokesperson assured that the process to replace the region’s only hospital is underway.

“Island Health recognizes the need to address the ageing infrastructure at Tofino General Hospital (TGH) and a renewal of TGH has been noted among our priority projects,” the spokesperson wrote. “Island Health is working on concept planning for a proposed TGH project. This is an important step that takes place prior to final approval from the Ministry of Health…We will continue to ensure the hospital is maintained to a standard that enables us to deliver the best care possible.”

That concept plan is the first of five phases the proposed facility will need to navigate through before being realized.

The spokesperson explained the concept plan must establish that there’s a need before the process can graduate to a business plan, which will determine how the new facility will be built, then a procurement stage to sort out who will build it and how, followed by design and construction and finally an operations phase to transfer the building to the health authority.

McGinnis acknowledged the concept plan is underway, but added that promises of progress towards a new hospital have become repetitive and she fears the process won’t be as swift as the communities that depend on the facility need it to be.

“How long is that going to take them? How long do they drag it out? That might be blunt, but it’s true,” she said. “We just try and keep them aware that we’re here and we want them to hear us. We just keep on pushing and pushing…There’s always an excuse. I think people have to realize that it is true and if you want to get things done, you’ve got to cut the red tape. It’s simple.”

She stressed that the hospital serves the entire region, including Tofino, Ucluelet and surrounding First Nations communities.

“When I believe in something, I’ll speak about it and I believe that we need a new hospital. It’s for everybody. We can’t forget that. This hospital is for all of us on the West Coast,” she said. “I think we needed a new hospital 10 years ago, or 20 years ago. It’s long past time to get a new hospital.”

Coun. Tom Stere is Tofino’s representative on the Alberni Clayoquot Regional District Board as well as the Alberni Clayoquot Regional Hospital Board.

He acknowledged frustration across the region over the time the process has taken, but expressed optimism that patience will pay off and suggested his confidence is largely based on the Coast’s strong, united voice pushing towards the same goal.

“It’s not just Tofino. This has been a regional ask. The communities of Tofino and Ucluelet and every one of our First Nation communities on the peninsula from Hesquiaht to Yuułuʔiłʔatḥ (Ucluelet First Nation) have all been involved in this conversation,” Stere told the Westerly.

He said the region has been calling for a new hospital since before he moved to Tofino in the 1980’s.

“These conversations have been going on for a long time,” he said.

He added that McGinnis and the Tofino Hospital Foundation sparked a push to create a subcommittee that included representation from then mayor and now Mid Island-Pacific Rim MLA Josie Osborne and local chambers of commerce around 2017.

“A lot of work happened with that subcommittee. We had a consultant and we put together a report basically establishing the need for a better healthcare delivery system, a.k.a, a new hospital facility,” he said. “It’s an old hospital and it’s not meeting the healthcare delivery of our region. It has become a little bit more complex than 70 years ago when the hospital was built, so I think we’ve clearly recognized for a while now that the facility is not meeting the current healthcare delivery system in our region…That lobbying has been a regional push and Arlene and the subcommittee was very much front and centre in those initial lobbying efforts.”

He added the hospital serves a wide variety of needs within the region and has been significantly outpaced by the area’s growth.

“We have a growing regional population. We have a shadow population in the summers. At any given time in the summer, we have thousands of extra people on the peninsula. We clearly recognize that the facility itself is not able to meet those needs,” he said.

“There are some questions about what is the best way to go about that and that’s what this whole process of building a new facility is all about.”

He added that while the length of the replacement process has brought frustration, seeing it through will be more effective than trying to change it.

“There’s always going to be a level of frustration. We know that the processes of governance from federal on down to municipal moves at what we often refer to as a glacial pace. Without question, the general public has frustrations with the process and generally about the length of time,” he said.

He pointed to a new hospital underway in Cowichan, noting it carries a $1.5 billion cost and began its process towards development with a concept plan in 2013. He said Cowichan’s business plan was approved in 2020 and construction started in 2023 with an estimated opening for patients is 2027.

“This is all hospitals in the province that have to go through this. It is bureaucratic, there is a lot of red tape, there’s a lot of planning,” he said. “Everyone, I think, would be frustrated because we want things to happen tomorrow. Unfortunately, that’s not the case when we’re building large public health infrastructure.”

He suggested the West Coast’s hospital process is moving relatively less glacially in comparison and he expects the concept phase to be completed in May.

“We are in the process and we have to, in this case, trust the process. If we want to reform the process, that will be a whole different level of engagement with the province. I’m focused now on getting that service delivery here to our region, so that means I have to be in the process and work within that process,” he said.

“Let’s be frank, I don’t want to be a pessimist, but we are not going to change the system unless we reform the whole healthcare delivery system and if that’s our goal then we’re not going to have a hospital here in Tofino anytime soon. Right now, my goal is to have that healthcare service delivery to our region. This is the process and we’re going to make sure that we’re very, very actively engaged in that process to expedite it as fast as possible. I think that’s what all the players in our region are doing, right from our community foundations, a.k.a, the Hospital Foundation, to the Regional Hospital Board who are 100 per cent behind this as well.”

He declined to put a ballpark timeline on when the region will break ground on a new hospital.

“You know that’s a fool’s game,” he said. “What I will say is that I’m optimistic that a new healthcare facility will be coming to the Coast…I’m very cautiously optimistic that we will have a new healthcare facility in the region within my lifetime.”

In the meantime, he added West Coasters should be proud of their current hospital staff.

“We are fortunate that we have an excellent hospital in terms of the service that’s there. We have some excellent service providers. Our staff at the hospital provide excellent service,” he said.

McGinnis agreed.

“I’ve received many letters on the care that people have received at our hospital and they are so thankful for the hospital and the care they’ve received. Visitors who have come here and been injured or whatever it might be and it’s wonderful to hear that they’re getting such good care,” she said.

“I’m proud of our staff that we have. They do a really good job. They’re hard workers. We’ve got to keep them. This is a way to keep them, give them a new hospital, give them the equipment that they need and support them. I think that’s really really important.”

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Andrew Bailey

About the Author: Andrew Bailey

I arrived at the Westerly News as a reporter and photographer in January 2012.
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