CHUM site needs a debate


December 3, 2004 Friday
Though it's Quebec's most expensive project in years, Premier Jean Charest's government refuses to hold a full public debate on the choice of the site of the French-language superhospital in Montreal.
Instead, the secrecy continues. In 2003, the site approved by the previous government in Rosemont at 6000 St. Denis St., was discarded without debate. A committee headed by Brian Mulroney and Daniel Johnson then advised it be moved to Hopital St. Luc.
This summer, a powerful lobby sidelined the board of the Centre hospitalier de l'Universite de Montreal and pressured Jean Charest to move the site to Outremont, near the U de M in a former CP rail yard.
This lobby is headed by U de M rector Robert Lacroix. It includes federal Outremont MP Jean Lapierre and such influential businessmen as drugstore giant Jean Coutu and Power Corp. president Andre Desmarais.
Their project is to build a health-care ''technopolis'' that would lead to a major expansion of the U de M and would be surrounded by an array of ritzy private clinics and private research and pharmaceutical facilities.
These backroom manoeuvres were recently unveiled in Le Devoir. As details unfolded, opposition mounted. Marc Laviolette, former CSN president and CHUM board member representing citizens, denounced the ''Mirabelesque'' Lacroix plan, his ''occult'' business lobby and the private interests near the Outremont site that would profit from the presence of the superhospital.
In an interview, Laviolette described them as ''vultures circling around this project.'' He also questioned why the hospital should be built in an area that's already well served by the Jewish General, St. Mary's, Ste. Justine and the Montreal Children's.
''What's really insulting,'' he said, ''is that neither the CHUM board nor the government ever mandated Desmarais to negotiate with CP to move their rail yard. Where's the transparency?'' Lacroix can promote his project, Laviolette said, ''the problem is that he created a lobby that doesn't respect the responsibilities of the CHUM board.''
He concludes this project ''answers the U de M's vision of grandeur more than it does the needs of the patients or the capability we have to pay for it.''
Architect Jean Claude Marsan and the Partenariat du quartier des spectacles, made up of such prominent Montrealers as Lise Bisonnette, also came out against it. The government's own Montreal Health Agency pointed out the CHUM's current francophone clientele would be penalized by a move to an area that must serve a highly anglophone population.
A study ordered by the city of Montreal's executive committee concluded Outremont would be too expensive and inefficient. Stephane Arbour, Outremont borough mayor and Montreal executive-committee member, said it would contravene the city's development plan, which favours St. Luc.
The Montreal Transport Agency deemed unacceptable the required axing of the Blainville-Montreal train used daily by 10,000 passengers. Jean-Marie Dumesnil, president of the CHUM patient and users' committee, summarized it this way: ''We feel like David against Goliath battling the financial establishment.''
Lacroix's grandiose project could cost over $1.5 billion, whereas the government demands its cost be kept under $1 billion - the same as for the MUHC. Hence, the question Laviolette asks: ''Does this mean that the MUHC would also get more money, and how would Quebecers pay for it all?''
In their vision of health care as an industry and lucrative research hotbed, the Lacroix-Desmarais project leaves care of an aging population in an actual hospital setting far behind. Equally troubling are their backroom tactics that are a throwback to pre-Quiet Revolution days when governance was mostly done by nonelected elites.
Fortunately, this is 2004 when opposition can be voiced. There's so much of it that La Presse publishes multiple editorials and columns to defend both the Lacroix plan and the involvement of Desmarais, whose family controls the paper. Surely, a coincidence.
Editorialist Andre Pratte qualified these criticisms as ''gossip.''
But it was columnist Lysiane Gagnon who took the cake. Opinions that favour the St. Luc or Rosemont site, she wrote, ''reek of the old French-Canadian atavism. It's all there: withdrawal to the east, the traditional distrust of old Catholics toward money and private enterprise and, finally, the tendency to be satisfied with little.''
Lise Bisonnette and other prominent citizens, some of whom are neither ''French-Canadian'' or ''Catholic,'' surely won't revel at being portrayed as atavistic. Would Gagnon say that of the medical faculty of the U de M who supported both the Rosemont and St. Luc sites because they're accessible and efficient, with 700 beds and all medical specialties united in one site?
It can be expected strong opposition to the Lacroix plan will also be voiced at a CHUM board public meeting Monday at 6 p.m. at Hotel-Dieu hospital.
Still, as the saga of the CHUM continues nine years after its first announcement, the saddest, most dramatic and expensive part, as many experts and doctors would agree, is that the first Rosemont site was perhaps the best one to begin with.

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