Leaving the grosvenor street rally behind, I approach the front door, trying to look as uninterested in health care as possible, not really expecting to get as close as I'd like for a story on the Ontario Health Coalition's occupation of the Health Ministry lobby. Nine times out of 10 you get there too late and the police have already locked everything.
This must be the 10th time. Protestors are here to stop an agreement that would see public-private-partnership (P3) hospitals in Ontario built and partially operated by British consortium Carillion. Says demonstrator Pat McNamara, "The Liberals ran an election against P3 hospitals. They said they would stop them, and they've gone ahead. We want to tell people they're losing their public health care.'
And I have to do it with them. Literally. The police have finally locked the doors.
As I'm warming up for some hardcore milling around, OPP Sergeant Jim Dawson approaches two of the organizers, Natalie Mehra and Steve Watson. "What is it you're asking for?' he inquires amiably. "Do you want someone to come and speak to you?'
"No,' responds Mehra. "We're asking the minister to stop P3 hospitals.'
Dawson shrugs; what else can he do? Meanwhile, Watson, ear to cellphone, has made contact with a ministry office somewhere in the murky heights above. "OK,' he says, "we got through to the issues manager.' I wonder if they just made up that title.
As I circumnavigate the lobby with remarkable purpose, the poor sergeant continues to listen blithely but attentively to treatises on public health care, responding with the occasional "sure' and "uh-huh' at appropriate pauses. It reminds me of a computer program I once saw on a field trip as a kid. It would display some text and then you would type in some text, and for the first couple of minutes you would be quite sure the computer was actually talking to you. Eventually, you'd realize it was running according to its own program.
"But if you start screaming and shouting,' Dawson is saying as I float nearby, "there'll be the old proverbial line drawn in the sand, and that's the last thing we want.'
I talk with Danielle Larmand, a registered nurse at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health. "We all know that P3 isn't bigger, better and cheaper,' she says. "Our fear is that it will decrease beds, decrease access to care and decrease staffing levels.'
I ask how long they're willing to stay. To the point of a confrontation with police? For a period of days? Their sights, it turns out, are set on an even more distant future. "Well, we're kind of hoping the minister actually comes down and speaks to us.'
At long last, Dawson brings word that two people will be permitted to go up and speak to one of the minister's lackeys, Charles Beer. As if to further illustrate the inherent lackeydom of the meeting, Beer is on the sixth floor. George Smitherman, the minister of health, is on the 10th. Apparently, the hierarchy is important enough to become a visual metaphor.
The activists decide that Mehra will go up accompanied by a resident of Brampton, where the first P3 hospital will be built. The latter gives me more background on Carillion. The company was involved in privatized rail service in Britain, which has since reverted to public ownership because of exorbitant costs, workers being killed and a rise in train accidents.
As we wait, those with cellphones talk to friends on the other side of the windows, as if in a prison visitation room. The atmosphere intensifies when one occupier starts singing a golden-throated rendition of Bob Marley's Redemption Song that echoes off marble pillars, which I'd like to think haven't felt quite the same since.
The most surreal element, however, is the genuinely friendly police officers. "Hopefully, we'll make some progress,' smiles an OPP lieutenant. "You've got a good group here.'
Quite a few songs later, the negotiators return. The ministry won't axe the deals but will disclose documentation and commit to public consultation. After a huddle to weigh everyone's reaction, the protestors gather around the receptionist's desk to draft a manifesto to the ministry on a piece of notebook paper. Dawson cheerily takes the letter to deliver to the ministry.
The following Monday, I call Mehra. She's just returned from the promised disclosure. They had one hour to review the documents in a hospital administration building that she describes as being like Fort Knox. "A bunch of the documents are owned by one of the companies that [Carillion] has formed, which is refusing to release them. The government argues these are publicly controlled deals, but even the ministry can't force the company to tell the public what it's doing.'
Repeated calls to the Ministry of Health glean nothing, leaving one to wonder if the tone is being set for the promised public consultation.