‘Ottawa’ Reevely: NCC Blew it on Finding a New Civic Hospital Site, Catherine McKenna Says
The National Capital Commission hung her out when it recommended offering Tunney’s Pasture for a new Ottawa hospital, Ottawa Centre MP Catherine McKenna said Monday.
“When they came out with their decision, I found out when everyone else did,” she said. “And I assumed that the NCC, including the NCC board, had come up with an arrangement that would make sense for the hospital.”
The capital’s senior minister in the Liberal government praised the commission’s “hard work on this file” back in November and welcomed its recommendation to offer the Ottawa Hospital a section of the federal complex at Tunney’s Pasture for a new Civic hospital campus.
The statement is now off McKenna’s website. She and pretty much every other elected Ottawa Liberal repudiated the idea a week later, in favour of a site at the eastern edge of the Experimental Farm where the Sir John Carling office building used to be.
In between, the Ottawa Hospital’s board voted unanimously to reject the Tunney’s Pasture site. The primary problem is that Tunney’s Pasture is too hard for patients and families to get to because of bad traffic between it and Highway 417, the hospital said, but it’s also more expensive and could take a long time to build on.
Provincial politicians supported the hospital board. McKenna dangled.
I spoke to her on her way to the mayor’s office at City Hall Monday morning, by chance. She had the air of someone who’s tired of the controversy — and maybe just plain tired, after a year of being environment minister in addition to her constituency duties — but also vibrating with fury over it. We talked for just a few minutes before Mayor Jim Watson appeared and invited her away.McKenna criticized not just the NCC’s staff but its board, separately, for not making sure the staff had answered all the necessary questions. Bob Plamondon, a Conservative appointee, was one of the few who made a big deal at that November meeting of the lack of clear support the commission had from the hospital for the Tunney’s Pasture idea.
“So in the end, what did I learn? That I should have just called up (Ottawa Hospital chief executive) Jack Kitts, because I talk to Jack Kitts, and said, ‘Hey, is this something you can live with?’ I did call him — I called him once I realized there was concerns and then we both agreed that there was this other place, the Sir John Carling site, that met the requirements of everyone,” McKenna said.
McKenna has taken heat for overriding the NCC’s recommendation. She’s taken heat for making the commission include Tunney’s Pasture on its list of possible sites, which she denies having done. She’s taken heat for getting the NCC to reconsider the previous Conservative government’s decision at all.
“I had no idea Tunney’s Pasture was ever available. I learned a hard lesson in politics: That people will spread untruths. Because I never had any idea about Tunney’s,” McKenna said. “I thought this was a solution that had been arrived at that met what people had heard in the consultations, but also met what the hospital was able to live with. Clearly that was not the case.”
The criticism that McKenna’s naive to the point of incompetence came in a Hill Times story Monday morning, quoting unnamed Liberal sources saying that opening such a tricky matter to public consultation just created controversy and burned Liberal political capital needlessly.
That ignores the circumstances in which McKenna found herself after the last election: although plenty of people opposed the Farm as a hospital site on principle, plenty more might have been convinced if the federal government had the homework to show it was really the best site. There was no foundation for a federal position on it other than John Baird’s say-so.
In the end, messily, the hospital did its planning, the NCC did its planning, and politicians found a compromise between competing interests — which is what we have politicians for.
McKenna said she’s pleased with the results: a central site, close to transit, acceptable to both the hospital administrators and fans of the Experimental Farm.
“But I did learn a hard lesson in politics,” the minister said again. “That unfortunately, you have to watch your back a bit more.”