The Valley seems healthy, but …

Our poverty and homelessness remain hidden

By Mary Lee

Is the Comox Valley a healthy community?

About 150 people gathered last week at the Native Sons Hall and tried to answer that question. They participated in a day-long workshop designed to start a conversation around what a healthy community looks like and how to create and sustain it.

And to decide whether the Valley needs an umbrella organization, such as a Community Health Network (CHN) that focuses attention and action on myriad social problems.

Because on the surface, the Comox Valley looks healthy. We’re abundant in recreation and resources, and we draw new residents weekly from other parts of Canada, many of whom bring significant wealth and social status, and invest in organizations and events that increase our community’s well-being.

Current health data indicates the Comox Valley is healthier than many other island communities.

And that may be the reason we are one of the last communities to form a CHN.

“I question that (the data), because it is lumped all together, so wealth in some of the local areas wipes out some of poverty areas. Things like homelessness and poverty are hidden in this community,” said Betty Tate, Comox Valley Community Health Network planning committee lead and member of the Coalition to End Homelessness.

At the end of the day, the 150 participants representing education, health, housing, drug addiction, the environment and other sectors of society that often work in isolation decided to form a Comox Valley Community Health Network.

What is a CHN?

Most other communities on Vancouver Island have already formed Community Health Networks, some as early as 2006.

Under the guise of a Community Health Network, organizations such as service clubs, social service providers and everyday citizens can pool their collective intelligence, respective mandates and efforts to build a better understanding of the barriers and the opportunities to achieve a healthier, more vibrant community.

The concept of a health network for the Valley began nearly five years ago initiated by the Association of Registered Nurses in BC (ARNBC) that recognized housing, homelessness and seniors’ healthcare were issues increasingly in need of attention and action.

“In that process we discovered community health networks on the Island Health website,” Tate said. “So, we asked Island Health and the answer was, ‘no one in the community has asked for one.’”

Island Health views health networks as community development and, as such, has adopted an approach to wait for a community to come to them.

Initiated by the ARNBC and later supported by United Way, the planning committee composed of community members and agency representatives mapped out how to organize and execute Comox Valley’s first forum from which it could determine if the community even wants a network and, if so, how to establish one.  

The first forum was structured around the social determinants of health – 12 key factors that drive community health outcomes with income, early child development and social status being the biggest indicators.

How it will be funded

“This (the decision to form a CHN) now means that Island Health will seriously look at funding us, as they have funded the other networks, Tate said.

The exploratory forum was funded through the financial support from the ARNBC, the Comox Valley Healthcare Foundation and by a private donor. Start-up funds have been provided by Island Health but are limited to operating costs and are not to be used for any contractor or employee position.

Most other networks hire a part-time coordinator after receiving provincial grant money through Island Health, but, as Tate explained, that will have to be decided once the governance structure is in place. Then the Comox Valley CHN can apply for grant money available from Island Health in April 2018.

“By then it will be over a year since we started this process on volunteer labour,” added Tate. “We do need some coordination time. It’s not a lot, 10 to 15 hours a week, but it does make a huge difference in terms of keeping it together and providing that valuable resource.”

Rob Hutchins, co-chair of the Cowichan Community Health Network, said regional districts play an important role. They are “the keeper of your money,” he said, and added that it’s important to have all levels of government involved.

Most elected officials absent

Given the importance of the tropic, it was disappointing that so few elected officials attended the forum. Only Cumberland mayor Leslie Baird, Councillors Roger Kishi (Cumberland) and Hugh Mackinnon (Comox) attended.

Courtenay city councilor David Frisch said he supported a CHN in a statement sent to the planning committee prior to the forum. But Courtenay City Council’s support seemed to have waned by the lack of representation at the forum.

Tate said that while the government commitment at the first forum was disappointing, the planning committee will quickly develop a governance model.

“There’s a lot of leverage from this meeting to now go back and say that we are putting together a governance structure and we need one person from ever council to be on this,” Tate said.

Tate is enthusiastic that with provincial and federal monies committed to housing, the community can begin to grapple with a problem that so deeply connects and affects the social determinants of health.  

“We now need municipalities to be shovel-ready,” Tate emphasized. “And Cumberland is leading the way and making some zoning changes to support (housing) it.”

Forum participants support concept

“Local governments need to act,” McKinnon said in a video interview with the Comox Valley Coalition to End Homelessness. “Partnerships are key. We all have a role to play and I think that by discussing the issues we all can learn how to take advantage of opportunities or overcome obstacles.”

“The only way we are going to solve challenges to our community is to work together in common unity to plan and implement new approaches which have the full support of all our citizens,” Jack Stevens, a retired teacher, former principal and pioneer of the community school movement, stated in a press release issued by  Comox Valley CHN. “A community health network offers us the best option for the road ahead.”

“We can change the world, we just have to be strong,” shared K’omoks Elder Evelyn Voyageur in her closing remarks and prayer at the forum.

But in today’s political landscape, how quickly citizens can drive change depends on governments willingness to open its purse strings.

What’s next

The next step will be the creation of a governance structure and a subsequent forum as early as January 2018.

Mary Lee is a citizen journalist with the Comox Valley Civic Journalism Project. You can contact her at