Experimental farm land deal kept under wraps before announcement, documents show
Documents obtained under access to information laws reveal plan to limit early consultation
Key stakeholders in a controversial decision in 2014 to lease land from the Central Experimental Farm (CEF) to The Ottawa Hospital were kept in the dark in advance of the official announcement, according to recently released documents.
Among those left out of the loop in the Agriculture and Agri-Food documents were the CEF Advisory Council, mandated to advise on the future of the farm, as well as scientists doing research on the land offered up for lease.
It's our workplace and I guess that didn't count for very much.- Harvey Voldeng, scientist
Harvey Voldeng, one of the scientists working at the farm, confirmed he and his colleagues were taken by surprise by the announcement.
"We feel we are the farm," said Voldeng in an interview this week. "It's our workplace and I guess that didn't count for very much."
On Nov. 3, 2014, then federal cabinet minister John Baird announced 24 hectares of prime research land from the farm would be leased to The Ottawa Hospital Civic campus across the street, allowing the hospital to build a new state-of-the-art facility.
The land deal prompted a public outcry by heritage advocates and scientists.
That lack of consultation appears to have been part of a strategic plan, according to documents obtained through Freedom of Information legislation from The Ottawa Hospital (TOH) as well as access to information from the Ministry of Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada.
The documents were first obtained by Queen's university PhD candidate Peter Anderson, and verified by CBC News.
Communications plan opts to consult after announcement
One document, an email from a representative of the ministry, outlines its "stakeholder engagement plan."
Though the email was sent Nov. 4 — the day after the announcement — it outlines a communication strategy in advance of the signing of the agreement.
The document discusses which groups would be notified or consulted about the land lease both before and after the announcement.
Among the almost 20 government and community stakeholders, only Parks Canada was chosen to receive "possible" contact in advance.
Scientists left out of the loop
Also left in the dark before the announcement were scientists with the agriculture ministry, Environment Canada and National Research Council Canada, community stakeholders such as the Friends of the Farm, and the Agriculture Museum, Heritage Ottawa, the local community association and the Algonquin First Nation.
Only the Algonquin First Nation would be afforded a formal consultation process after the transfer, the documents state, "as there is a legal duty."
We were hesitant to go to public consultation when we didn't know the location and the provincial government had not given approval on the plan.- Dr. Jack Kitts, Ottawa Hospital CEO
The engagement plan suggests "the general public, health care organizations, local businesses and universities would be favourable to the project."
But it cautions that "surrounding communities, green space activists, stakeholders involved in other [agriculture ministry] disposal activities and various heritage groups may raise concerns."
Scientists deride land deal as 'inconceivable'
Following the announcement, a group of some 20 scientists with the Eastern Cereal and Oilseed Research Centre (ECORC) — a group responsible for research on the experimental farm land — signed a petition protesting the decision to turn over the land, according to a document obtained through Access to Information and Privacy legislation.
"It seems inconceivable that we would even consider building a hospital on a national historically designated site," they wrote in a petition that circulated in the weeks following the announcement.
Researchers described the section being transferred as internationally significant.
Like their colleagues at Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada, the ECORC scientists found out about the plan only after the announcement, according to the communication rollout.
Harvey Voldeng, one of the petitioners, said the response to the petition was muted.
"It was along the lines of, 'Don't worry, it won't be built for 10 years, everything will be OK,'" he said.
Hospital against early public consultation
The decision to limit public consultations continued after the 2014 announcement, according to another document that includes the minutes of the hospital's master plan review meeting in April 2015.
While discussing consultations on the project during the meeting, the minutes show that while "the NCC and [agriculture ministry] recommend early public consultations to foster good will with the community," the hospital "voiced concern on the public consultation process occurring prior to the signing of the agreement to transfer."
Cameron Love, the hospital's chief operating officer, was the senior representative of the hospital at that meeting.
This week, Dr. Jack Kitts, the hospital's chief executive and president, defended that position, saying it wouldn't have been prudent to hold public consultations.
"We were hesitant to go to public consultation when we didn't know the location and the provincial government had not given approval on the plan, so we felt that without that, ... it would be misleading," he said.
Kitts said the new public information meetings planned for March are going ahead because provincial approval is now in place.
Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada did not respond to a request for comment at the time of publication.
Government, hospital now reviewing deal
The vocal opposition to the land deal appears to have found a more sympathetic audience since the 2014 announcement.
A coalition of close to 50 heritage advocates and agriculture and climate change scientists sent a letter to several federal cabinet ministers, including Ottawa Centre MP Catherine McKenna, after the Liberals won a majority government last fall.
Last month McKenna said she would review the consultation process that led to the decision to green light the project.
The Ottawa Hospital also says it will review whether the farm lands are the best site for its new facility.