Nova Scotia

Health care tops candidate concerns in Cape Breton byelection

The state of Nova Scotia health care is a common concern for candidates in the Sydney River-Mira-Louisbourg byelection, candidates said during a live roundtable discussion on CBC Radio's Information Morning Cape Breton.

Sydney River-Mira-Louisbourg one of three byelections called for Sept. 3 after PC MLAs quit to run federally

There will be three provincial byelections in Nova Scotia on Sept. 3. (CBC)

Health care in Cape Breton is the most pressing matter for candidates in the Sydney River-Mira-Louisbourg byelection.

All five candidates were live on CBC Radio's Information Morning Cape Breton on Monday.

The Sept. 3 byelection was called after Progressive Conservative MLA Alfie MacLeod resigned to run in the fall federal election.

Brian Comer, the Sydney River-Mira-Louisbourg PC candidate and a registered nurse from Westmount, said health care is his No. 1 issue.

As a nurse, Comer said he has worked in mental health and addictions for the last five years.

"I've seen first hand how health care has changed continually in Cape Breton," he said.

"I wouldn't say it's for the better. I'd say right now we're probably at a crisis point in Cape Breton."

Comer, who doesn't live in the riding but has family ties to the area, said the island is plagued by significant poverty and chronic substance abuse.

The five candidates running in the Sydney River-Mira-Louisbourg byelection are clockwise, starting on the top left: Liberal Marc Botte, Independent Russ Green, Green Bill Matheson, PC Brian Comer and NDP Mary Beth MacDonald. (Submitted)

There is no easy fix, he said, but PC Leader Tim Houston has promised to name a minister for mental health and addictions.

"I believe that is sorely needed, especially in Cape Breton," said Comer.

It is important to recruit and retain doctors, especially psychiatrists, he said, but the Liberals' plan to replace community hospitals in New Waterford and North Sydney with collaborative care centres means those communities will not have emergency rooms or operating rooms.

"I think new infrastructure projects are fantastic, but the problem right now in Cape Breton is a people problem," said Comer.

The New Democratic Party's Mary Beth MacDonald, a home-care worker from Glace Bay, said the health-care system is in crisis.

Wait times

She said it hit home with her when a family member needed mental health services.

"Once we did get the services, everything was great, but it's the wait times," said MacDonald, who does not live in the riding.

She also questioned whether Liberal Premier Stephen McNeil has visited the regional hospital and talked to staff or patients in hallways.

"I'd just like to know if he realizes just what kind of a crisis situation this island is actually in," said MacDonald.

Input from health-care workers

Liberal candidate Marc Botte, who is managing partner at a marketing firm and lives in Marion Bridge, said the government's health-care redevelopment plan was designed with input from frontline staff.

He said young doctors say they want to work in newer facilities, especially collaborative care centres.

"One of the most important things we can do is to build new infrastructure to attract new doctors," said Botte.

People need to realize that Cape Breton is well above average for primary-care personnel, he said.

"I know if doesn't feel that way, because we like to talk about crisis and we like to talk about being afraid and things being negative," said Botte.

"We do have real challenges to face, but I think we really need an honest assessment of where we are."

Equalization funding

Independent candidate Russ Green, a continuing-care assistant who lives in Howie Centre, said Cape Breton needs to get its fair share of equalization funding from the province.

He said that would help lower taxes and make the area more affordable — and therefore more attractive — to doctors.

"I'm more interested in fighting for fairness and equality on Cape Breton Island," said Green, who is a member of Nova Scotians for Equalization Fairness and is backed by the Cape Breton United Association.

The immediate problem in health care is doctors, not buildings, he said.

"That's a human resources issue."

Green said most of Cape Breton's health-care problems started after the provincial government eliminated district health authorities and centralized administration in Halifax.

Regional representation lost

The Green Party's candidate, Bill Matheson, is a Green Party worker from West Dover, on Nova Scotia's mainland.

He does not live in the riding, but said he has historical family ties to Cape Breton coal mining.

Matheson said the loss of regional health and school boards is a problem.

However, he said, he is running to get the Green Party name on the ballot.

"Right now, I just want to give an option to people who believe in fighting climate change, in a universal basic income, in democratic reform and in an MLA free to make independent decisions, because Green Party MLAs are not whipped by the party leader to vote as the party demands," Matheson said.

A former president of the provincial NDP and a candidate for that party in Sydney River-Mira-Louisbourg in the 2017 general election, Matheson said he left the party over issues with internal democratic processes.

Jobs also an issue

MacDonald said other issues in the election include jobs for young people.

She said she has a teenage son who is talking about leaving the island to find work.

"I wish there were more jobs here for him, more opportunities," MacDonald said.

The region also needs more equalization funding from the province, she said.

Green said the Nova Scotia Federation of Municipalities is calling for a six per cent increase in municipal operating grants.

That will help, but it's not enough, he said.

Botte said out-migration is an issue that can be alleviated by creating a community where young people want to stay and work.

Building proper infrastructure will help, he said.

Byelections are also being held Sept. 3 in Northside-Westmount and Argyle-Barrington after PC candidates in those ridings resigned to run federally.



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