Friday, 29 January 2016

Revisit the Experimental Farm Severance

First written 20 January 2016, last updated 29 January 2016.

Earlier this month the Ottawa Hospital launched pre-consultations on the design of its future Civic Campus. PACE Consulting, an Ottawa-based public relations firm, has approached a number of stakeholders to determine potential issues TOH may face going forward. The most important outstanding issue is the location of the new hospital. Consultations on the design of a new hospital are premature before light is shed on how TOH got its sweetheart deal to lease 60 acres of nationally and internationally significant research land for a dollar a year.

At its public board meeting, the National Capital Commission voted to rescind its approval to have a monument to the victims of communism located beside the Supreme Court of Canada. This sets an important precedent for the Liberals to investigate other shady deals in the national capital region. It is time for the NCC’s board and the Liberal government to revisit the severance of 60 acres from the Central Experimental Farm.

Councillors Riley Brockington and Jeff Leiper have been fighting for consultations for a year. Earlier this month, after meeting with Environment and Climate Change Minister and local MP Catherine McKenna, Brockington expressed frustration at the lack of information provided by TOH, NCC, and Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada. On Thursday, McKenna echoed his concerns and called the lack of documentation on the transfer “worrying.”

Although TOH selected its preferred site from a set of 12 publicly owned locations, it has avoided justifying its decision for the 60 acres across from the current Civic Hospital. Indeed, in emails during the secret 2014 negotiations, NCC and AAFC staff working on the severance expressed misgivings about TOH’s case for the land. I have obtained a copy of TOH’s “Land Transfer Matrix” through a freedom of information request. This document was prepared in 2007 and was not updated before being used to justify their site selection in 2014, despite TOH’s preferred site being rejected by the Conservative government in 2008.

Two criteria stand out: “Agriculture Canada Impact” and “Future Expansion.” The first sought to measure the impact the acquisition of any land parcel would have on AAFC’s research program. The current site was rated as only having some impact—despite the fact that it is the most scientifically significant section of the entire Experimental Farm. Worse: the covering documents state that this rating had to be confirmed by NCC and AAFC. AAFC’s Science and Technology Branch was not consulted until the day of the announcement, and then only to comment on communications documents.

Under “Future Expansion” TOH made it clear that they were seeking a site where they could expand beyond current plans—that is the threatened 60 acres are only the first bite.

To date there has been no consultation on the land deal itself. Consultation plans from spring and fall 2014 state that the NCC and AAFC would hold consultations on the land transfer. This has not happened. Indeed, TOH has continually frustrated every attempt by local politicians—including Brockington and Leiper—to hold public information sessions. Despite TOH Chief of Staff Jeff Turnbull's statement that they "understand the need for public consultation and engaging our community," the pre-consultation currently underway only touches the design of a future campus.  If TOH has its way, the land grab will not be subject to public scrutiny.

The Central Experimental Farm is a National Historic Site of Canada and has a long-term management plan overseen by the Central Experimental Farm Advisory Council. Both the plan and the CEFAC have been ignored in the rush to give away important federal research land.

No one is arguing against rebuilding the Civic Hospital. A win-win solution, where the Farm remains a viable and intact research station and TOH gets the facilities it needs, is possible. This can only happen with a rigorous, fully open and evidence based process. It is time to hit the reset button on the severance and ensure that we, as a city and a nation, plan properly for the future.

Sunday, 24 January 2016

The Central Experimental Farm and Public Health

For the last fifteen months I’ve been investigating the events around the severance of 60 acres of the Central Experimental Farm. Since John Baird and Jack Kitts announced the deal on November 3rd 2014, numerous issues have arose including: 
  • The utter lack of consultations on the land transfer (and the decision to not consult on this portion whatsoever);  
  • Keeping Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada officials out of the loop until the National Capital Commission and Ottawa Hospital had a sixth draft Memorandum of Understanding for discussion;  
  • Worse, not consulting AAFC’s Science and Technology Branch—which operates the research fields of the Farm—until the day of the announcement and then only on the text of media documents;  
  • The fact that the planned campus will destroy long term research projects on the impact of climate on agriculture, part of an international project with sites around the world; and, 
  • Relying on a 7 year old, previously rejected, unweighted land decision matrix to choose the site.
Recently the Ottawa Hospital’s Planning and Facilities department has been at the centre of a number of scandals from corruption allegations now being investigated by the police to allegedly breaking provincial rules on sole source contracts. While The Hospital’s lead on the Farm file—Cameron Love—has been cleared of wrong doing in an audit, a construction lawyer interviewed by the CBC suggests his use of hospital contractors for personal projects points to further conflicts of interest.

These very serious allegations aside, one aspect of the deal that I have only recently began thinking about is the relationship between the Experimental Farm’s scientific mandate and public health. One defense of the land transfer is that the federal and provincial governments must balance public goods and that while 60 acres of experimental land may be important, it is less valuable than a new hospital campus. To date neither the proponents nor the opponents of the land deal seem to have thoroughly examined this line of argument.

With that in mind, I want to present three public health related points in defence of keeping the Central Experimental Farm intact.

1.     The 60 acres in question are one of, if not the, most scientifically important parts of the entire Central Experimental Farm. One overseas partner has argued that the land is not of national significance—rather it is of overwhelming international significance. The research on the 60 acres is part of an international program studying the effects of climate change on agriculture and agriculture on climate change. The data obtained through these experiments are key to understanding the public health impacts of climate change especially in regards to food security.
2.     Further, this research examines the efficacy of till and no-till practices on soil health and composition. Over-tilling of land has recently been pointed to as a cause of severe flooding in the United Kingdom. Long term research on the ability of different agricultural techniques to adapt to changing environmental conditions is essential to preventing public health emergencies that severe floods can cause by increasing the ability of soil to retain rain water and reduce the chance of dangerous run off from entering the domestic water supply—which can lead to outbreaks of e.coli and other deadly diseases.
3.     The location of a hospital is an important decision. There has been no public debate on the location of a new campus and the Land Transfer Matrix employed by TOH to pick the 60 acres in question was 7 years old in 2014, was previously rejected by the Conservative government in 2008, and contains a number of weaknesses. These range from minor (frequent spelling mistakes, misallocation of who actually owns the various parcels) to serious (lack of a nuanced ranking system, unweighted criteria, untested and unexplored assumptions regarding the impact on AAFC). It is in the interest of public health to make sure the decision on where a hospital is located is made in a rigorous manner.

I argue that these points combine to expose serious problems with the decision to allocate 60 acres experimental fields for construction. The disregard of the Farm’s long term management plan and the lengths the Ottawa Hospital continues to go to avoid talking about its land choice (let alone how the Federal government put up no challenge to it’s choice, despite the NCC’s legislative responsibility to protect federal lands, especially heritage sites, in the national capital region) point to a rotten deal made with little oversight.

The public health angle just emphasizes that the Hospital has not made its case. 

For those interested in the 60 acres, you can see an incomplete list of my previous articles here and here. Also see the Greenspace Alliance's site for more information. Heritage Ottawa, a registered charity, has taken the lead in fighting the transfer, and you can make a donation to support their efforts through their website by including "CEF"  in the Commemorative Donation Details field when you make your donation.