Spared the axe: the arguments that helped save the Plant Health Centre

On Thursday, November 15th, 2012 in Island Tides

We had some very good news at the end of October. Agriculture minister Gerry Ritz confirmed that the Plant Health Centre on the Saanich Peninsula would not be closed after all. As this is the 100th year of the centre’s existence, it was very happy news indeed!

In spring 2012, Ritz announced that the Plant Health Centre on East Saanich Road would be shut down as part of budgetary austerity measures. The axe was swinging wildly in the wake of the March 2012 budget. We lost jobs in Parks Canada, losing critical capacity in the Gulf Islands National Park. The entire Marine Contaminants Programme, with 80 scientists across Canada under the leadership of Dr Peter Ross at the Institute for Ocean Science, was cancelled. The National Round Table on Environment and Economy was killed. And critical science and research facilities, from the PEARL lab in the Arctic to the Experimental Lakes Area in western Ontario, were on the hit list.

So many cuts all at once have the effect Naomi Klein described in Shock Doctrine–it becomes hard to think clearly with the repeated body blows of repealed laws, omnibus bills and lost programmes and facilities—radical agenda can be imposed as civil society is shell-shocked.

It is even more difficult to fight back in Harper’s Canada because civil servants are not allowed to speak to Members of Parliament–even their own.

In the case of the Plant Health Centre, the new plan was to transfer all the functions of the centre to Summerland, BC. It would mean the loss of about 40 jobs in the area, including contract and part-time staff. I have learned a lot about the Plant Health Centre (PHC) since the announcement of its pending execution, but I knew then that it is the national facility for the quarantine of viruses for fruit growing-plants and trees. Not being able to speak to personnel at the PHC, right after the news of the cuts, I stopped by the centre and helped myself to all the public information brochures in the lobby and went online for the description of the mandate of the Plant Health Centre.

Two things immediately struck me. Firstly, that the Plant Health Centre is run by the Canadian Food Inspection Agency, while the Summerland facility was run by Agriculture Canada (potential for inter-agency rivalry?) and, secondly, that the isolation of viruses on Vancouver Island made more sense than having that function in the heart of the fruit growing Okanagan region. I began to see the possibility for persuading the minister to change his mind.

Now, before I share all the rest of the developments, I want to emphasize that I do not know which factors swayed Minister Ritz. As my mom always said, ‘you can accomplish anything you want if you do not care who gets the credit.’ So, at the request of our dauntless Island Tides publisher, Christa Grace-Warrick, I will share what steps I took, while not claiming saving the centre was due to my efforts. I can be sure that, at least, my efforts didn’t hurt!

I wanted to assemble a science package supporting keeping the quarantine centre on the Island to share with the mostly Conservative MPs from the Okanagan. I hoped they would review the information and speak to Minister Ritz to suggest leaving things as they are, rather than risk a quarantine facility in the Okanagan. My first hurdle was finding a credible scientist willing to help me. Every scientist I approached currently working in plant virology has some relationship with Agriculture Canada and was unwilling to attach their name to my background package. But as I kept calling experts, I was told of the retired scientist, holder of the Order of British Columbia, Richard Stace-Smith. Dr Stace-Smith turned out to be my saviour. An octogenarian living in Vancouver, Dr Stace-Smith was intimately involved with the decision to place the national quarantine centre with the Plant Health Centre in 1965. At my request, he wrote a detailed, foot-noted, letter to the Prime Minister, noting:

‘The Centre for Plant Health was selected for its location because there is always a danger of serious pathogens being imported together with the plant hosts from other parts of the world. Despite using extreme precautions, pathogens may escape and the danger is reduced when imported material is tested distant from the commercial agricultural industry. It made sense in 1960 when the Plant Quarantine and Diagnostic Services was established in Saanichton and it seems to me that it makes no sense to move it to Summerland today.’

I hand delivered the letter to Stephen Harper, as well as Agriculture Minister Gerry Ritz. I also put together more background details and gave packages to the five Okanagan MPs. Fortunately, through one thing or another, I was already friends with all of them. Within days, Ritz told me he would reconsider the matter.

Meanwhile, the Summerland facility was shown to be inappropriate for other reasons. It would need at least two new large greenhouses to handle the work done by the PHC, and there was not enough space for them in the current facility. The idea of cost savings began to fade.

So, for the last few months, whenever I have seen Gerry Ritz I have asked him how the review was going. I have to say, on any issue on which I have ever approached Gerry Ritz, he has been accessible and fair. And on this wonderful reversal, I can only thank him for being willing to re-examine a flawed, hasty decision. I wish the same dynamics could work to get more money flowing back to our parks and to science. But, for now, a victory is very sweet.

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  • Barbara Burnside

    Wow! Way to go Elizabeth! I especially like your mother’s advice. Gratitude and appreciation to all the forces that contributed to this reversal of government position.

  • penderepi

    Excellent news for all Canadians and a true demonstration of evidence – based policy in action.

  • greg

    once again, thank you. i admire your knowledge and respect your determination. the struggle continues. in peace, greg

  • Lennor

    This was such great news. Recently I had the opportunity to speak to the Saanichton director of the Plant Health facility and at that time the employees were in a state of uncertainty. How wonderful that we some politicians actually pay attention and that not all scientists burried their heads when asked for an oppinion. Stay strong EM.

  • Joan

    Thank you, Elizabeth, for your tireless work on behalf of your constituents of all Canadians. Joan in Sidney.

  • Betty Gilgoff

    Nice to be getting some positive news in this Harper climate of ours. Thanks EM for all that you did towards this.

  • Rick Hudson

    I am so proud I voted Green this past election! Imagine if every MP was free to follow his/her conscience and do the work they truly believed was in their constituent’s best interest.

  • Allan

    Elizabeth, great job! Keep it up; I am very happy that you were elected.

  • Jane Brett

    I appreciate the way you use the amazing electronic communication tools. Other parties seem to find them useful primarily for weekly fundraising pitches and fighting words. You understand the power of an educated, activiated, and motivated electorate. Thank you for the frequent timely lessons, all of your positive examples and well-informed tactics, and for your non-stop hard work. Science –yes ! Reason –wow !

    • care4nature

      I heartily agree, I very much enjoy reading Elizabeth’s comments- educated, reasonable and well written! Thank you for following through with this.

  • John F. Dunbar

    You know how thankful I am for having you in Ottawa, this is a small part of the reasons why.

  • Annette Witteman

    You have again done the work and have reaped the results!Thank you for working so tirelessly for our Constituency Elizabeth May-and Green Team!!!

  • Sheila Scully

    Thank you so much Elizabeth for your tireless efforts and the wonderful example you present for the power of goodwill in negotiations. Bravo!

  • Sarbah

    Thank you Elizabeth, thank you Dr Stace-Smith and thank you Gerry Ritz for your efforts and accomplishments! This has restored some optimism.

  • louise bourassa

    I am very thankful for your open communication, we finally have some sense of what is going on, what are the main issues in parliament. I read your blog regularly to keep inform and I am quite happy that we did have this policy reverse, thanks for all the work you are doing..

  • Ahava Shira

    What wonderful news, EM. Thanks once again for your tireless efforts to take care of our country, and ALL its beings.

  • Colin Griffiths

    Well done Elizabeth, credit due or not!

  • Colin Miles

    Elizabeth May,
    Bravo ! for this success
    You are well-informed, hard-working, passionate effective and also modest.
    You restore our faith in elected officials.

  • mstothart

    Bravo, Elizabeth! You really know how to work the system to advantage! Your networking skills are firstrate. I’m glad you are my MP!

  • Mike Jensen


  • D. Ferguson

    Elizabeth – I soo much appreciate all your work! I can sleep better at night knowing you are working on issues that matter to me!

  • lorna hogg

    thanks for all that you do Elizabeth May

  • egicas

    Well done! I work for NRCan as a co-op student and after all the cuts I’ve seen and felt (I didn’t get a paycheque for 2 months because of pay centralization) it is very encouraging to hear that someone CAN actually make a change. Please don’t let this still-idealistic, Green-voting student down, EM!

  • Joan

    Kudos to anyone who can get the ‘Bureaucrats’ in Ottawa to change their minds, on bad decisions they make. Thanks for going the ‘extra mile’ Elizabeth.

  • Mary S.

    thank you for your hard work Elizabeth. I am thrilled to have you as my MP and appreciate you engaging in the cooperative dialogue “lets look for the best solution for Canada” approach that I think was meant to exist in Parliment.

  • Roz Anderson

    This must be one of the few times in poiltics when Brains baffles BS. Trust you to be the user of common sense and logic. And they say women are illogical! Thanks again EM.

  • Di

    Thank you Elizabeth for pursuing the critical details needed to fight so many of the ignorant decisions this government continues to make without consulting anyone who has the knowledge needed to make intelligent ones. Your persistence in taking Harper and the gang to task is admirable! Thank goodness you are there for US

  • Eve

    Wonderful news – thank you!

  • Myrna Pfeifer

    Elizabeth May is a-MAYzing!!!

  • Arnold Baker

    Elizabeth: You absolutely amaze me, how you can do so much. Don’t wear yourself out!

  • Mir

    Kudos Ms. May! Keep up the good work!

  • John Harrison

    You are awesome, Elizabeth. All the work you do for this country is beyond words and I know how much I feel eternally grateful for all you do advocating for Canadians.

  • emohr

    Thank you so much for your tireless advocacy, Elizabeth. Your persistence is incredibly inspiring, and it is a true delight to read of this most recent resolution.

  • D. Allen

    “I hand delivered the letter to Stephen Harper, as well as Agriculture
    Minister Gerry Ritz. I also put together more background details and
    gave packages to the five Okanagan MPs. Fortunately, through one thing
    or another, I was already friends with all of them.”

    The best part of this message. Can the rest of the tribes in Ottawa learn to use their intelligence and connections and make friends with the Harper clued-out bunch? We love to see meaningful connections work. Good to see Gerry Ritz has learned a lot, too. And, this is the problem. They have so much to learn! And, it appears there are so few to teach them. This one drop in the bucket is so welcome. I find it hard to believe there are other department ministers who are willing to see the error of their ways, too. Oh, for the enlightening of Vic Toews and Jimmy Flaherty and Tony Clement and, oh forget it the list is too long. As I said, it’s really good to see Mr. Ritz has learned something.

    Thanks Elizabeth, for keeping in touch and for the good news.

  • grammalo

    you inspire so much hope..thank you

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