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

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the effect Naomi Klein described in Shock Doctrine–it becomes hard to think clearly with the repeated body blows of repealed laws, omnibus bills and lost programmes and facilities—radical agenda can be imposed as civil society is shell-shocked.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

Originally printed in the Island Tides.