In the midst of a municipal election, the question of whether there is a need for two new hospitals in Muskoka has raised its head again and it has been raised by a mayoral candidate in Huntsville.
This came about at the mayoral debate in the Algonquin Theatre last Thursday when the moderator asked the four candidates to outline their plan for funding the municipality’s share for the new hospital in Huntsville that has been committed to by the Government of Ontario.
When he announced his candidacy for mayor of Huntsville in early July, Councillor Tim Withey said this: “The recent announcement by the Premier to build two new hospitals (one in Huntsville and one in Bracebridge) was welcome news. However, the process ahead is far from straightforward.” He went on to say that he understands the planning cycle ahead and firmly believes that his depth of experience “is a necessary asset for Huntsville’s next mayor to have, if we are to succeed in the long run”
This statement of “welcome news” by Tim Withey was happily received by many people who recalled his vigorous opposition to two hospitals, particularly two new hospitals in Muskoka, during the two years of acrimonious debate and concern over the future of acute hospital care in the region.
In October of 2019, in referring to the final recommendation of the Muskoka Algonquin Healthcare Board’s proposal for two new hospitals in Muskoka, Tim Withey told council that the building of two new facilities in Huntsville would be cost prohibitive and doomed for failure when presented to the Ministry of Health for approval. At another time he said, “This plan is designed to fail.”
And so, it is no wonder that many of us felt some relief when Mr. Withey, in announcing his candidacy for mayor, indicated support for the provincial government’s commitment to a new hospital in Huntsville.
But sadly, it was not to be and at the mayoral debate on Thursday, Councillor Withey doubled down and threw cold water on any expectation that he would work wholeheartedly with the Province to achieve their commitment for a new or substantially new hospital in Huntsville.
He stated quite clearly that he was not convinced that the province would actually build a new hospital in Huntsville. “It’s a bit of a stretch this will ever happen, quite frankly,” he said. He repeated his belief that hospitals in Muskoka should be renovated but not rebuilt. He committed to “a bit of money,” if elected as Mayor to keep the ball rolling, but did not have a plan to provide the municipality’s share of funding for the new facility as required by the Province and did not commit to one. At best, Councillor Withey’s support for the Province’s commitment to hospital care in Huntsville was underwhelming.
I know that there are a number of important municipal issues in Huntsville that need to be addressed and a local election is a good time to do just that. But in my view, there is no more important issue in relation to the future sustainability of Huntsville, than ensuring a high quality of hospital care in our community. It is necessary for our well-being, and it is necessary for our economy.
For the past two or more years, there has been a lot of debate about how to achieve that. The final decision for two new hospitals was based, in part, on findings that renovations to bring the facilities up to modern and futuristic standards would cost very close to that of replacements. In Huntsville, it is quite possible that a part of the existing building could be utilized in a new facility, but renovation alone is not a viable option and would put Huntsville at a distinct disadvantage to a new facility that will inevitably be built in Bracebridge.
In its final decision, the Muskoka Algonquin Health Care Board recognized the importance of two equal hospital facilities to serve South and North Muskoka. It was a long road to get them there and after that, a challenge to convince the Province to commit to two new facilities. It is doubtful if this would have been achievable, were it not for the political leadership of Graydon Smith, then Mayor of Bracebridge and Scott Aitchison, then Mayor of Huntsville, and after his departure, Mayor Karin Terziano.
Between them, they tampered down the partisanship between the two municipalities, focused on solutions that benefited both, and worked closely with the Province to bring about a meaningful commitment to make it happen.
Now that a decision and an undertaking by the Province has been made, in my view, it is far more important to talk about how we can get this done than why we can’t. Of course, there will be challenges along the way, but real leadership is about overcoming those challenges and not succumbing to them.
We have experienced candidates running for mayor of Huntsville. It is important to know that whoever gets elected is prepared to fully support the commitment of two new hospitals in Muskoka and to work with the Province to bring it about.
We now, after years of deliberation, have a plan. It is approved by the Hospital Board. It is approved by the Town of Huntsville. It is approved by the Town of Bracebridge. It is approved by the District of Muskoka, and most importantly, it is approved by the Government of Ontario.
We don’t need to look backward. We don’t need to re-open a can of worms. We just need the political leadership to make it happen.
Hugh Mackenzie has held elected office as a trustee on the Muskoka Board of Education, a Huntsville councillor, a District councillor, and mayor of Huntsville. He has also served as chairman of the District of Muskoka and as chief of staff to former premier of Ontario, Frank Miller.
Hugh has also served on a number of provincial, federal and local boards, including chair of the Ontario Health Disciplines Board, vice-chair of the Ontario Family Health Network, vice-chair of the Ontario Election Finance Commission, and board member of Roy Thomson Hall, the National Theatre School of Canada, and the Anglican Church of Canada. Locally, he has served as president of the Huntsville Rotary Club, chair of Huntsville District Memorial Hospital, chair of the Huntsville Hospital Foundation, president of Huntsville Festival of the Arts, and board member of Community Living Huntsville.
In business, Hugh Mackenzie has a background in radio and newspaper publishing. He was also a founding partner and CEO of Enterprise Canada, a national public affairs and strategic communications firm established in 1986.
Currently, Hugh is president of C3 Digital Media Inc., the parent company of Doppler Online, and he enjoys writing commentary for Huntsville Doppler.