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.