Cape Bretoners protest health care
Health minister says work is underway to improve health care delivery in the region
The wind was cutting. Halfway across the Canso Causeway, the snow came in heavy flurries. But the wintry weather did not deter the pugnacious spirit of the group of Cape Breton residents who say they are frustrated with the Nova Scotia government’s approach to health services.
The protestors, who shut down the causeway for an hour Nov. 16, had a message, and they were going to share it, whatever the weather; the standard of healthcare in Cape Breton is not enough and the provincial government has to do better.
Shortly after 11 a.m. Friday, a parade of members of Capers 4 Healthcare, an advocacy group fighting for a better standard of healthcare in the area, as well as their supporters, gathered at the Cape Breton side of the causeway.
More than 150 people marched and drove across the causeway chanting to express their discontent, accompanied by the sound of a single droning bagpipe as they made their way across the Strait of Canso.
Before and after the procession, passersby honked to show support. Originally, the plan for the rally was to bring the conversation to the doorstep of the Department of Heath, taking the rally to Antigonish, and the office of Randy Delorey, MLA and Health Minister.
However, the weather, which took a turn for the worse with more blowing snow, prevented that from happening. Participants in the march headed home after crossing the causeway instead of making the trek to Antigonish.
Ronald Crowther, chair of Capers 4 Healthcare, said he was very proud of the people who marched through Friday morning’s ugly conditions.
"A lot of this is due to a lack of communication with the premier," Crowther said of the protest. "We weren’t given a fame of time [for the hospital closures.] People are in limbo. That’s why we held our first town hall, and [the government] didn’t come – so we went to them."
Although conditions were hardly ideal for a march, Crowther reminded the Casket, "we’re all Cape Bretoners, and we deal with weather like that on a daily basis."
There was also a significant union presence among the marchers, with members of unions such as the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE) and Nova Scotia Government and General Employees Union (NSGEU), present and waving their flags.
Once the procession reached the other end of the causeway, several Cape Breton residents shared their perspectives on how a lack of access to healthcare has affected their lives.
"We need to fix this," Becky Anthony, a Cape Breton resident, paramedic of 20 years and marcher in Friday’s rally, said, speaking to fellow marchers on the Auld’s Cove side of the causeway.
Anthony shared an account of how her son, who needed urgent medical treatment, but was unable to get it, facing "wall-to-wall people" in an overcrowded Cape Breton Regional Hospital waiting room. There was no room at the hospital to accommodate him for proper treatment – and on top of that, she and her son faced a six-hour wait before an ambulance was available to bring them to the IWK in Halifax.
"I don’t blame the healthcare workers for this, I blame the system. There were so many people in the waiting room that day. It’s very unfortunate, because very soon, someone’s going to slip through the cracks," Anthony said. "Some people don’t have the means to put a child in their car to get into Halifax. That can’t happen anymore."
Anthony blamed a lack of long-term care beds in Cape Breton as part of the reason for the massive backlog in the provision of services at Cape Breton hospitals.
"The concerns in Cape Breton are shared with many Nova Scotians," Antigonish MLA and Health Minister Randy Delorey said, in a call with the Casket.
"We know the status quo for healthcare in Nova Scotia is not working for Cape Bretoners," Delorey said, referring to the
Cape Breton Regional Municipality Healthcare Redevelopment Project. He noted the project aims to improve delivery of healthcare, by expanding two emergency departments at Cape Breton Regional and Glace Bay hospitals, doubling the size of the cancer centre and introducing a community-based paramedicine program.
"We’re creating two new community health centres in New Waterford and North Sydney, offering many of the same services offered [at hospitals in those locations] today," Delorey said.
In addition, Delorey noted the government is working on creating more long-term care beds in Cape Breton communities, and planning more specifics, in cooperation with healthcare authorities.
A pivotal issue in Cape Breton that inspired Friday’s protest is a lack of physicians in the Cape Breton Regional Municipality.
Delorey said the government has been working to recruit and retain doctors, with seven new family physicians and several specialists hired since April.
"We have made changes to our incentive and compensation programs based on feedback from Nova Scotian doctors," Delorey noted, adding that work is underway to implement suggestions on how to improve psychiatric services in Cape Breton as well, consulting psychiatric professionals.
This is not the last the government will hear from Capers 4 Healthcare. Crowther said the group plans to meet again in the coming weeks, to plan something for the future.
"Maybe next time it will be a straight shot to Antigonish, or one of the MLA offices in Cape Breton," Crowther said. "Hopefully, with the attention today’s event draws, we’ll get a request from the premier or minister to talk – or a community event where we can invite members."
The announcement of the plan to close two hospitals in Cape Breton – one in New Waterford and the other in North Sydney – was one of the main motivators for the rally at the causeway. Crowther said a shortage of physicians practicing in Cape Breton leading to healthcare being spread thin, specifically for rural residents, was another motivator.
"The hospital in New Waterford sees about 10,000 people annually. To close that hospital and send those people 30, 40, sometimes 50 minutes away, depending on where they live – people aren’t accepting that," Crowther said.
"Everyone on those buses today had individual reasons for getting on the buses and taking part. This physician shortage has left a lot of people without family doctors, and seniors without cars are looking at having to take a taxi, $35 each way, to [Cape Breton Regional Hospital], when they were, before, able to take the cab for $7 to the North Side General Hospital. That’s a big problem."
Some of the many protestors associated with Capers 4 Healthcare who marched across the Canso Causeway on Friday morning, to call attention to the problems with healthcare in Cape Breton.