Curtis Road residents threaten legal action over sewage commission failure on odour issues

Curtis Road residents threaten legal action over sewage commission failure on odour issues

Decafnation archive photo of the Courtenay-Comox sewage treatment plant  |  George Le Masurier photo

Curtis Road residents threaten legal action over sewage commission failure on odour issues

By George Le Masurier

This article was updated Nov. 6 to add further information from CAO Russell Dyson about financial planning for large expenses.

The Courtenay-Comox Sewage Commission has a sure-fire $8.5 million solution to the raw sewage odours that have plagued the Curtis Road neighborhood for 34 years, but it decided this week to spend another five months looking for a less expensive option.

That didn’t please the Curtis Road Residents Association who want a definitive decision from the commission by Nov. 15 to finally resolve the odour problem or they may pursue a legal recourse.

“While we appreciate that financing can take time, we have not heard, to date, any solid commitment from the commission that they intend to resolve the problem,” wrote Jenny Steel, spokesperson for the residents, in an email exchange after the meeting.

READ MORE: Previous stories on this issue

“That does not give (residents) a warm and fuzzy that you’re particularly committed to resolving the stink.”

Steel told the commission the CRRA plans “to take our campaign to the next level,” which includes lodging formal bylaw complaints and preparing for a new legal action against the Comox Valley Regional District.

Since the commission opened its sewage treatment plant in 1985 on property that borders Curtis Road, residents have suffered noxious odours that at times make their homes uninhabitable. Pleas for relief, including a previous successful lawsuit against the regional district, have made little difference, they say.

In 2018, the commission spent $2 million on a solution to “upgrade existing scrubbers and covering primary clarifiers.” But that did not solve the problem.

The commission now plans to spend $20,000 taking more odour measurements and studying what other BC governments have done to minimize the negative impacts of noxious odours on nearby homeowners.

Liquid Waste and Water Manager Kris LaRose told the commission this week that he’s “not disputing that odours from the plant are unacceptably high.”

And he believes two consultants’ reports are reliable that said covering the sewage plant’s three bioreactors would reduce odours in the Curtis Road area to a level below human detection.

But several factors prevent the commission from deciding to move ahead now.

One of those factors appears to be financial planning. CVRD’s Chief Administrative Officer Russell Dyson said the commission could not make a commitment to spend $8.5 million without an amendment to the regional district’s financial plan, and he said that could not be done before the CRRA’s Nov. 15 deadline.

“The alternative is for it to be considered as part of the 2020 budget which will be approved in March,” Dyson told Decafnation. “Given this level of expenditure, my advice was to follow the staff recommendation to do additional analysis and then consider (it) as part of the 2020 budget. The alternative would be to push through three readings by year’s end for a large expenditure that will have a lasting impact on the service.”

Dyson said the commission needs to find a way to improve the impacts of odour in a manner that respects the capacity of the ratepayers and the many financial challenges the service is facing, which include a new sewer conveyance system and treatment plant upgrades.  

That led several commission directors to conclude that whether or not they voted to approve the $8.5 million expenditure now, it couldn’t be formally approved until spring, so that doing further studies would not delay the solution.

Jenny Steel, the spokesperson for the CRRA, said the regional district spends similar amounts with less analysis.

“To put this in perspective,” she told the commission in a prepared presentation, “you just spent $7.6 million to expand the composting facility, you approved $7.1 for the EQ Basin and (the) CVRD provided $9 million for the Cumberland Host Community Benefit.”

Cumberland’s host agreement is with the Comox-Strahcona Solid Waste service.

Steel said spending $8.5 million to finally resolve the sewage commission ongoing odour problem is a 45-year investment that will cost Courtenay and Comox taxpayers less than $5 per year.

“That’s less than two cans of Febreze,” she said.

Another factor is a disagreement over how low odour levels need to go.

Residents want odour levels reduced to one odour unit (OU) at the plant’s property line boundaries under normal operations but will accept five OU (a design limit) only when there are problems at the plant, such as a power outage or mechanical failure.

One OU is the standard used by the province of Ontario. BC has no province-wide odour standards.

The problem, according to LaRose, is that covering the three bioreactors at a cost of $8.5 million might be unnecessary. His data shows the move would reduce odour measurements down to 0.5 OU at sensitive receptors, which he called a “big step.”

“Is there something in the middle? That’s what we want to study further,” he said.

The Curtis Road residents are also disputing CVRD staff reports that claim the 2018 upgrades made a significant reduction in odour from measurements taken 2016.

A CVRD newsletter about the issue claims odour levels declined by 80 percent. But the residents say the CVRD’s own data shows the reduction was only 47 percent.

When Steel asked for the newsletter to be recalled, Dyson said the CVRD stands by the newsletter’s claims

“Interesting — CVRD senior management are content to push demonstrably erroneous and misleading information to the public,” Steel emailed back. “Absent any commitment in writing … you leave us no choice but to pursue other avenues to resolve this issue.”

Comox Commissioner Russ Arnott said he didn’t “take kindly” to be given a mid-November deadline.

“If we’re going to be ostracized in the press, let it happen,” he said. “I will vote in favor of the $8.5 million, but I won’t be scared into making a decision.”




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VIHA’S pathology plan: What’s at stake for patient care, lab technologists and assistants

VIHA’S pathology plan: What’s at stake for patient care, lab technologists and assistants

VIHA’S pathology plan: What’s at stake for patient care, lab technologists and assistants

By George Le Masurier
As goes your pathology, so goes your medicine
— Dr. William Osler, Canadian physician and co-founder of Johns Hopkins Hospital


The second in a series of articles examining the state of pathology services on the North Island

Imagine you are the Campbell River parent of a four-year-old boy who has been feeling tired for the past few days. Suddenly, in the morning, you notice he has a stiff neck and a high fever.

You take him to the Campbell River Hospital emergency room. Cerebrospinal fluid (CSF) is drawn by the ER physician or the pediatrician. The specimen is sent to the lab, but because microbiology was removed from the CR lab, the technologist hasn’t done a gram stain on a CSF for more than a year. She knows what’s at stake; this is a very serious situation.

The clock is ticking and minutes can make the difference between life and death.

Now, how would you prefer this scenario continues to play out:

Option A: The lab technologist sees Haemophilus bacteria and she brings the slide to the office of the general pathologist who is working onsite, and they discuss the findings. A few minutes later the pathologist and pediatrician, who know each other and work together regularly, discuss the next steps and antibiotic choices.

You will likely be with your child on a helicopter in short order. And you didn’t even think to bring your toothbrush when you left home this morning.

Option B: The lab technologist changes microscopes to the one that has the camera mounted on it. After logging in and opening up numerous computer programs, some photos of the sample are taken.

Then the technologist phones the Royal Jubilee laboratory to find another technologist to help her. Policies dictate that since she hasn’t done a CSF in a year, she can’t report the result on her own. She sends the photos to her colleague in Victoria. That colleague phones or emails back to agree with her findings.

Then she emails the photos to four specialized microbiology pathologists. One of those four is on call and that specialist pathologist is looking after the entire Vancouver Island that day, not just your son.

The specialist has no responsibility to inform the technologist that the photos were received and whether they are being acted on. When time permits, the specialist will call the ER physician to discuss the case.

Later in her shift, the technologist hears the helicopter landing on the pad. She hopes the Victoria-based pathologist acted on the email and that the helicopter is there for your little boy and not some other patient.

The onsite pathologist might notice the helicopter, too, but will have no idea why it is there because the technologist was prohibited from discussing your son’s case with him. He could have contributed to the timely care of your son, but VIHA’s policies took him out of the loop.



For most people, the period of uncertainty before definitively knowing their diagnosis is the most worrisome, perhaps even the most traumatic. Psychology studies show that once a person knows the facts of their condition, they are on their way to acceptance and better physical and mental health.

So the quicker people can get results from their blood tests or biopsies, the sooner they can start dealing with their medical condition and get on the road to recovery.

But the Vancouver Island Health Authority, which has the greatest influence over the health care experiences of Island residents, is on a path to limit patient’s choice to Option, B by centralizing all clinical pathologist’s services in Victoria.

VIHA has forbid general pathologists in Campbell River from doing any clinical pathology work, such as diagnosing blood-related diseases (hematopathology), providing oversight of body fluid levels of substances such as cholesterol and hormones (chemistry), and the identification of infectious organisms (microbiology).

That change has caused long delays in reporting diagnoses, frustrated doctors and unnecessarily extended periods of worry for patients.

Comox Valley general pathologist Dr. Chris Bellamy

​And while it is true that “samples have been and will continue to be collected and analyzed at both North Island Hospital campuses,” according to a VIHA response to Decafnation, that doesn’t mean onsite general pathologists will be authorized to make diagnoses.

Clinical pathology specimens (blood, urine, stools) will continue to be collected locally, and, apart from microbiology specimens (which are all sent to Victoria) they will, for the most part and for now, continue to be analysed locally.

But based on changes made at the Campbell River Hospital laboratory and planned for the Comox Valley next year, these specimens are not and will not be reviewed by a local pathologist.

“I will absolutely guarantee that this shift will result in the further erosion of technologists locally and will be bad for patient care in this area,” Dr. Chris Bellamy, a 30-year Comox Valley general pathologist, told Decafnation.



Big changes have been looming over North Island laboratories for a while, but when VIHA abruptly shut down all clinical pathologists’ services in Campbell River on April 1, with just four days notice, no one’s daily life was more disrupted than the workforce of medical laboratory technologists and assistants.

Ask any respected pathologist, and they will tell you that technologists and assistants are the heart and soul of a pathology laboratory.

Assistants greet patients, draw blood, prepare specimens for technologists and perform the shipping and receiving of samples at North Island laboratories.

Technologists spend the majority of their time analyzing and reporting the sample results on blood, urine and body fluids. They prepare specimens for pathologists through a process called histology, the means of getting samples from surgery into slides a pathologist can read through a microscope and make diagnoses. In small labs, such as Port Hardy, they also perform assistant duties.

Before April 1, 2019, these Campbell River laboratory workers had a tremendous resource available to them that lightened the burden of their day-to-day responsibilities: access to onsite general pathologists.

When VHIA stopped Dr. Aref Tabarsi and Dr. Leia from practicing clinical pathology, they were also prohibited from discussing clinical cases with the technologists.

“Community doctors and technologists highly value having a pathologist onsite. Everyday, techs bring problems to a pathologist to solve, to give them the answers they require,” Bellamy said. “The alternative VIHA model is to have techls call Victoria, leave voicemails, communicate via email and chase down the clinical pathologists in Victoria to get their answers.

“The technologists are already stretched to the limit with workload and simply do not have the time for this convoluted and time-consuming chain of communication.”

In a letter sent to VHIA protesting the closure of onsite clinical pathologist services in Campbell River, 11 technologists said the health authority was asking them to do more with less when their workload was already at its breaking point.

“We used to be able to walk down the hall and ask for help. (We) have on many occasions brought slides to Dr. Tabarsi and Dr. Leia and they have always taken the time to go through it with us. This is valuable education that all staff will lose. When we send a slide off site, we lose the feedback and knowledge of the patient’s clinical situation. This information is valuable to the education of staff and we are feeling a huge loss,” the letter states.

In a similar letter, 28 of Campbell River’s lab assistants said they feel that “adding additional duties like querying complicated testing requirements, contacting south Island on-call pathologists and the constant follow-up with patients and physicians not only is incredibly time consuming, but also an inappropriate duty for our scope of practice. Lab assistants are constantly being pushed into roles out of their pay grade and scope of practice due to technician shortages.”

The assistants also said that some blood samples require patients from more remote places like Sayward, Kyuquot, Cormorant Island and other outreach communities to travel to Campbell River to have blood collected.

“Having Dr. Tabarsi and Dr. Leia upstairs to approve or not approve tests in a timely manner, while the patient is here waiting, was such an asset to the lab staff, patients and physicians.”



It’s a fact that the entire province of BC suffers from a shortage of lab technologists and assistants, but the situation is worse under the Vancouver Island Health Authority.

“The reorganization of microbiology and now onsite clinical pathologists’ services has destabilized the workforce,” Dr. Chris Bellamy, one of three general pathologists at the Comox Valley Hospital, told Decafnation.

After the St. Joseph’s laboratory team moved to the new Comox Valley Hospital, eight of the 10 lab microbiology technologists quit because of the new working environment. Both hospitals run consistently with multiple open tech positions. Campbell River usually has four to five unfilled shifts every day, a third or more of the total staffing level.

The shortage is so acute in Campbell River that the lab is close to not being able to operate 24/7.

Campbell River general pathologist Dr. Aref Tabarsi

Dr. Aref Tabarsi, one of two general pathologists onsite in Campbell River, said at the end of an 8.5 hour shift, technologists and assistants frequently cannot leave until a casual qualified technologist is found to replace them. This usually resorts in long hours, somewhat unexpectedly.

And it’s been made worse, say technologists, because seven years ago VIHA centralized the staffing of vacant shifts to an office in Victoria.

Bellamy and Tabarsi have seen some good technologists quit their ‘regular’ jobs to work as ‘casuals’ so they can take more control over their work hours and workplace environment.

VIHA could address the tech shortage and retain experienced technologists and assistants, Bellamy says, by creating more full-time jobs, and fewer part-time ones.

And, he says, VIHA should put to rest the threat of a Section 54 implementation.

According to sources working within VIHA who did not want to be named, the health authority is likely to institute a “Section 54,” or some other job disruption as part of its march toward centralization of services in Victoria.

Section 54 of the BC Labour Relations Code allows VIHA employees to be laid off and then rehired by way of a line-picking system. The rumoured threat of Section 54 has been rampant among VIHA laboratory workers for two years, according to Decafnation’s sources.

North Island hospitals have also lost one of their most effective recruiting devices.

The former St. Joseph’s General Hospital laboratories hosted lab technologist practicum positions from BCIT from 2006 until the new hospital opened in 2017. The labs often hired their students after graduation.

But BCIT discontinued the program when VIHA decided to move microbiology out of North Island laboratories and centralize it in Victoria. BCIT has a rule that students must be able to complete their 38-week practicum without having to relocate, which they would have had to do to get microbiology training at Royal Jubilee Hospital in Victoria.

The Comox Valley lab has recently resumed taking practicum students from the College of New Caledonia and Southern Alberta Institute of Technology.



Pathologists don’t just oversee the measurement of your cholesterol level or conduct an autopsy to determine how a person died. They play an active role in modern medicine that prevents diseases from worsening and that help keep people alive.

According to the Mayo Clinic, “It is estimated 60 to 70 percent of all decisions regarding a patient’s diagnosis, treatment, hospital admission, and discharge are based on the results of the tests medical laboratory scientists perform.”

But despite what VIHA says publicly, its actions have significantly overloaded lab technologists and reduced the availability of onsite clinical pathologist’s services on the North Island.

How has VIHA’s disruption of Vancouver Island laboratories affected patients? Here are a few case examples.

Two weeks ago on a Friday afternoon this scenario occurred in the Comox Valley Hospital: A bone marrow examination had to be done extremely urgently, and it was possibly a life saving necessity. This is a surgical procedure — boring into the patient’s pelvis for a sample — that only general pathologists provide at CVH.

Fortunately there was a general pathologist onsite, who dropped less urgent work, did the procedure and gave a diagnosis that helped the patient’s internal medicine doctor to target medical treatment within a few hours.

Sources told Decafnation that if the diagnosis had waited any longer, say until Monday, it’s likely the patient would have died.

Jim Abrams, the Discovery Islands-Mainland Inlets director on the regional hospital board has experienced the need for onsite general pathologists first-hand.

Before Campbell River lost the authority to do clinical pathology onsite, he had surgery during which the surgeon needed to know immediately if a piece of tissue was malignant. Fortunately, Campbell River lab had an onsite general pathologist that day who could still do an urgent diagnosis.

And how are the Victoria labs coping with all the work they have centralized to themselves so far?

Decafnation has learned that a high-profile person recently complained to the Provincial Lab Agency that he had been waiting six weeks for a skin biopsy. And it recently took 25 days to get a final report on a woman’s breast biopsy collected up-Island.

In their letter to VIHA, the Campbell River laboratory assistants related an example of how the transfer of clinical pathology work to Victoria has created long delays in turn around time, even for sensitive tests.

“One example to clarify the issue is that a few weeks ago there was a patient with a requisition full of tests that were not in the Test Information Guide. The assistant Googled them and found they were querying Leukemia and Scleroderma. She was very busy in the outpatient area and had no tools at her disposal to know how to enter the tests. The assistant called the on-call pathologist in Victoria to ask for advice on what to order and if they needed approval. The on-call pathologist told the assistant to email the requisition and they would look into it.

“The patient returned two times that day, obviously worried about her health and anxious to hear back from us. The lab staff recommended the patient go home and a staff member would call her when we hear back. This was over three weeks ago now, and still no response. We are now left with an incredibly unsatisifed and scared patient, an upset family physician, a lab and its staff looking incompetent, all the while, there is a pathologist right upstairs wanting to support our community.”

Even Campbell River City Council members have experienced a slow down in getting test results.

At a July 22 council meeting, Councillor Michele Babchuk said she was currently waiting for pathology results. Her family doctor told her to expect that the results would take two to three weeks, “which is an anxious time for some of us. This is something that did not happen in the past.”

And Campbell River Mayor Andy Adams said he had waited nine days for a biopsy result from Victoria that VIHA admitted should take only three to four days. “So something is not working,” he said.

Campbell River general pathologist Tabarsi says the turnaround time for urgent cases has slowed dramatically since VIHA took away onsite clinical pathologist’s services.

“It isn’t safe or good service now,” he said. “If it’s a test for iron deficiency, the longer wait times are not a significant issue. If it’s a test for breast cancer or cerebrospinal fluid infection, it is critical.”

Next: What are the potential solutions and what are Comox Valley and Campbell River elected officials doing to alleviate the problem.














VIHA is the acronym for the Vancouver Island Health Authority, sometimes also referred to as Island Health

Anatomical pathology deals with tissue biopsies, such as biopsies from breast, colon, skin and liver.

Clinical pathology deals with body fluid such as blood, urine and spinal fluid, and includes three areas of specialization:

Hematopathology assesses the blood for diseases related directly to blood, such as anemia, blood transfusion issues and leukemia.

Chemistry deals with measuring and interpreting levels of particles and substances such as hormones, cholesterol, sugar and electrolytes in the body fluid.

Microbiology deals with the identification of the infectious organisms.

General pathologists are medical specialists who study an additional five years in all areas of pathology.

Clinical pathologists are medical specialists who study the same additional five years but in only one of the areas of specialization.

Medical Laboratory Assistants (MLA’s) are employees who greet patients, draw blood, prepare specimens for technologists, and perform the shipping and receiving of samples

Medical Laboratory Technologists (MLT’s) are employees who spend the majority of their time analyzing and reporting the sample results on blood, urine, swabs, body fluids etc. They also prepare specimens for pathologists. At very small sites, they also perform MLA duties as part of their job




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Patients, lab staff suffer from reduced pathology services at North Island hospitals

Patients, lab staff suffer from reduced pathology services at North Island hospitals

Patients, lab staff suffer from reduced pathology services at North Island hospitals

By George Le Masurier
As goes your pathology, so goes your medicine” — Dr. William Osler, Canadian physician and co-founder of Johns Hopkins University


First in a series about medical laboratory services available on the North Island

If Island Health executives get their way, the new Comox Valley Hospital could lose all of its onsite clinical pathologist services sometime next year, a move that area doctors and elected officials believe will further diminish patient care on the North Island.

The Vancouver Island Health Authority has already sanctioned the transfer of clinical pathologist services from the Campbell River Hospital (CRH) laboratory to specialists at Royal Jubilee and Victoria General hospitals.

This has created longer wait times in Campbell River for results from urgent and emergent blood tests and cancer diagnoses, and it has added hours of extra work onto overburdened lab technologists and assistants, who were already stressed due to constant multiple staff vacancies.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Reading the definitions in the right-hand sidebar will enable a better understanding of some technical aspects of this story.

According to the community group Citizens for Quality Health Care, the change has made the relationship between pathologists and lab techs “estranged and awkward.”

“Both pathologists and technologists are demoralized and traumatized in this demeaning situation created by VIHA, which has also made our lab unsustainable into the future with an ever-increasing population,” the group said in a presentation to the Campbell River City Council.

The transfer of work has also absorbed funding that could have been used to hire a third general pathologist in Campbell River, a position that Dr. Aref Tabarsi, one of the two current Campbell River general pathologists, believes is essential to the continued safe operation of the laboratory.

The experienced general pathologist team from the former St. Joseph’s General Hospital, now located at the new VIHA-managed hospital on Lerwick Road, have so far been immune to these changes. But when their contract expires next March, Bellamy fears that the Comox Valley Hospital will also lose its onsite clinical pathologist work to Victoria.

Dr. David Robertson, VIHA’s executive medical director for laboratory services, told the Campbell River City Council in July that these changes are part of the health authority’s long-term strategy to hire pathology specialists, rather than general pathologists, and centralize them in Victoria.



None of this has pleased the North Island medical community or local elected officials who expected fully functional laboratories when they committed taxpayers to fund about $267 million of the two hospital’s construction costs.

Multiple North Island organizations, groups and individuals have recently spoken in opposition to Island Health’s reorganization of the two hospital’s laboratories. Among them: the Comox Strathcona Regional Hospital District board, Campbell River City Council, 75 local doctors and dozens of lab technologists and lab assistants.

And they all agree on the need for a third pathologist in Campbell River.

After fighting for years with Island Health over a long list of issues — flawed planning, pay parking, a poorly designed helicopter pad, public-private partnerships, overcapacity issues and losing microbiology lab services before the new hospitals even opened in 2014 — some hospital board directors have had enough.

“We’re all getting sick and tired of fighting VIHA every step of the way,” Discovery Islands-Mainland Inlets director Jim Abram told Decafnation this week. “Why do citizens have to keep fighting a superfluous government agency?”

Echoing those sentiments, Oyster Bay Director Brenda Leigh believes North Island taxpayers have been short-changed.

Dr. Chris Bellamy

“It is very disturbing that Island Health is continuing to try to downsize the services we were promised when we put forward our 40 percent investment for the NI Hospitals,” she told Decafnation.

​But so far, that opposition has not persuaded Island Health to restore clinical pathology services to the North Island or to abandon its vision of consolidating clinical pathology into the purview of a group of specialists in Victoria.

How and why VIHA got to the point of eliminating such critical laboratory services in Campbell River and soon in the Comox Valley is complicated, but the net result is easy to understand, according to 30-year Comox Valley general pathologist Dr. Chris Bellamy.

“The public should recognize how integral a laboratory is to a hospital,” he told Decafnation. “If you don’t have a functional lab, you don’t have a proper acute care hospital.”



Island Health plans to consolidate clinical pathologist services so that each sub-area of the field — microbiology, chemistry and hematology — will be handled by a group of Victoria pathologists who have specialized in one of those areas. VIHA considers this as a better model than the current one, which relies on general pathologists in smaller community hospitals.

While all pathologists spend five years in training, general pathology specialists receive competency in all areas of the field. Clinical pathology specialists go deeper into a single area of the field, but do not achieve competency in the other areas.

That is why most hospitals in communities outside of the province’s metropolitan cities employ general pathologists, and have them working at their full scope of practice.

In a recent presentation to the regional hospital board, Robertson indicated that VIHA was headed toward a specialist-based model for clinical pathology on Vancouver Island that it claims will be more efficient and get better results.

General pathologists disagree.

“You don’t need a Phd in math to teach high school algebra,” Bellamy said.

He and Tabarsi say most of the work at community hospitals does not require a specialist. But they always have and will continue to consult with specialists in Victoria, Vancouver and elsewhere when they encounter difficult or rare cases.

“Why not build on what works and is already in place,” Bellamy said. “General pathologists are still viable in the Comox Valley and Campbell River. We’re not denying doctors or patients access to specialized care. I highly respect the professional opinions of the anatomical and clinical pathologists in Victoria. I’ll always reach out when it’s needed, but not always to the Victoria specialist. Sometimes to specialists at Vancouver General, the BC Cancer Agency or Children’s Hospital, whoever is the best qualified for the case.

“Why restrict pathologists from providing the best care available?”



In the early 2000s, a specialist microbiology pathologist from Alberta — who had been through a health care disaster in 1996 after 40 percent of the province’s clinical pathologists were laid off along with nearly 60 percent of lab technologists — came to VIHA with the idea that all microbiology on the Island could be handled in Victoria on a 24/7 basis.

In order to handle such a huge additional volume of specimens, the microbiologist proposed an expensive, automated robotic system located in Victoria. It was claimed the system would save money on staffing and that it could be operated remotely by microbiology technologists in hospitals outside Victoria, thereby retaining local microbiology expertise, infrastructure and jobs in hospitals outside Victoria.

The VIHA executive and Board of Directors bought into the concept and the technology — despite some misgivings from the microbiologists — but it never delivered as promised.

“The automated system and its promised benefits was a pipe dream. In fact, it had the reverse effect,” Bellamy said.

But the idea of consolidating areas of clinical pathology took root in Victoria.

VIHA eventually moved ahead with plans to consolidate all Vancouver Island medical microbiology services in Victoria, and it did so despite cautionary notes in a 2011 independent review of its proposal.



In 2006, Dr. Aref Tabarsi took a telephone call from a Victoria pathologist who demanded that some Campbell River work be sent to Victoria.

“I was told to send my bone marrow work (hematology) to Victoria or Victoria would demand to review all of my work,” Tabarsi told Decafnation. “So, what could I do? I ‘gave’ the work to Victoria.”

Soon after the transfer, Victoria hired an additional hematopathologist.

Dr. Aref Tabarsi

Later that same year, while Tabarsi was on vacation, a Victoria department head demanded the Campbell River laboratory send all of its outpatient blood work to Victoria. But Tabarsi was called, returned to the hospital and stepped in front of the courier truck and made the driver unload CR samples from the truck.

For nine years prior to 2013, Tabarsi oversaw the quality of Campbell River’s laboratory. In terms of physical work, oversight consisted of reviewing the technologist’s documentation that includes graphs showing the machines had been calibrated accurately and that test results coincided with the calibrations.

But in 2013, the division heads of clinical pathology in Victoria, who later incorporated themselves with a group called the Vancouver Island Clinical Pathology Consulting Corporation, assumed Tabarsi’s laboratory oversight responsibilities. They did it, he says, without any prior notice or consultation, and without giving him any recourse.

In practical terms that meant the Campbell River technologist’s quality control documents were sent to Victoria once a month for review and signatures.

“At the time, I wondered why — since all pathologists were on a fixed salary — Victoria wanted to take on this extra work,” Tabarsi said.

Some months later, VIHA negotiated new contracts for all of its pathologists based on a workload model. Under the new contracts, the more work a pathologist performed, the more they were paid.

“The mystery was solved,” Tabarsi said.

As a result, the funding of 0.4 full-time-equivalent work assigned to the oversight function of the total 0.7 FTE allocated for all clinical pathology work performed in the Campbell River lab was lost. That proved critical to preventing Campbell River from hiring a third pathologist, which Tabarsi says is necessary for the safe operation of the lab, Tabarsi said,

Pathologists get seven weeks of vacation a year, plus two weeks for professional education. That means more than a third of every year (18 weeks) there is only a single onsite pathologist on duty.

“It’s not safe,” Tabarsi said. “One pathologist doesn’t have a colleague to consult with, every malignant case has to be signed by two pathologists, and just the sheer volume of work can’t be done by one person in a clinically acceptable time frame. In addition, the chances of mistakes are higher.”



VIHA told Decafnation that it works within the network of laboratories across Vancouver Island that form the Island-wide Department of Pathology and Laboratory Medicine.

“Our network of laboratories includes 13 acute laboratory testing sites each with a collection station and 25 standalone collection stations. We also contract with a number of publicly funded laboratory physicians groups, including the pathologists at both North Island Hospital campuses, on a contracted basis to create an integrated model of service delivery.

“Like other trends in health care, changing technology, increasing complexity, and recruitment challenges all impact the delivery of care. Island Health is closely following these trends, including taking advantage of technological improvements to provide equitable access to specialized pathology care for all of our communities, including those on the North Island,” the VIHA statement said.



After stripping the Campbell River lab of its clinical pathologist’s work this year, VIHA still appears uncertain about how to move forward.

Some history:

In 2017, the three Comox Valley general pathologists, Dr. Chris Bellamy, Dr. Wayne Donn and Dr. S. Giobbie, started echoing Tabarsi’s concerns, and it appeared that VIHA was listening. Because on Feb. 26, 2018, the health authority issued a memo that under new two-year contracts all clinical pathology work would go back to Campbell River and the Comox Valley.

“I relaxed. VIHA was saying Comox Valley and Campbell River would have a larger voice. The new Island Health CEO (Kathy MacNeill) was doing things right,” Tabarsi said.

However, less than a year later, on Jan. 3, 2019, VIHA extended the current pathologists’ contracts for an additional year, into 2020. That meant Vancouver Island Clinical Pathology Consulting Corporation’s contract for North Island clinical pathology work could not be terminated, and nothing would change.

Then, on March 27 of this year, Robertson notified Campbell River pathologists to stop doing all clinical pathology on April 1. He said that work would now be done by the doctors in the Vancouver Island Clinical Pathologists Consulting Corporation located in Victoria.

Yet, just this week, the Island Health media relations department sent a statement to Decafnation that said, in part, “Island Health has made no decision on the future of clinical pathology consultation services for communities in Campbell River or the Comox Valley.”

Next: How centralization of clinical pathology has exacerbated staffing shortages and increased workloads, and what’s at stake for patients.











VIHA is the acronym for the Vancouver Island Health Authority, sometimes also referred to as Island Health

Anatomical pathology deals with tissue biopsies, such as biopsies from breast, colon, skin and liver.

Clinical pathology deals with body fluid such as blood, urine and spinal fluid, and includes three areas of specialization:

Hematopathology assesses the blood for diseases related directly to blood, such as anemia, blood transfusion issues and leukemia.

Chemistry deals with measuring and interpreting levels of particles and substances such as hormones, cholesterol, sugar and electrolytes in the body fluid.

Microbiology deals with the identification of the infectious organisms.

General pathologists are medical specialists who study an additional five years in all areas of pathology.

Clinical pathologists are medical specialists who study the same additional five years but in only one of the areas of specialization.

Medical Laboratory Assistants (MLA’s) are employees who greet patients, draw blood, prepare specimens for technologists, and perform the shipping and receiving of samples

Medical Laboratory Technologists (MLT’s) are employees who spend the majority of their time analyzing and reporting the sample results on blood, urine, swabs, body fluids etc. They also prepare specimens for pathologists. At very small sites, they also perform MLA duties as part of their job



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Maude Barlow: leading Canadian activist for the public’s right to water

Maude Barlow: leading Canadian activist for the public’s right to water

Maude Barlow  |  George Le Masurier photos

Maude Barlow: leading Canadian activist for the public’s right to water

By George Le Masurier

Maude Barlow’s presentation today at the K’omoks Band Hall is not just another stop on the tour to promote her new book, Whose Water Is It, Anyway? The co-founder of the Council of Canadians and the Blue Planet Project is on a mission to sound the alarm about a global water crisis.

Water crisis? That’s hard to believe on the soggy west coast, but it’s true.

Barlow has devoted the last decade, and most of her 19 books, to dispelling the Canadian myth that we have an abundance of water. And she has worked worldwide to convince governments and the public to recognize the human right to clean water, to keep drinking water and wastewater systems under public control and to stop using bottled water.

“We think it will always be here,” she said. “We are blessed with water in Canada, but that doesn’t mean we can be careless with it.”

“The water crisis is a few years behind the climate crisis in people’s minds,” she told Decafnation in an interview at the Union Bay home of Alice de Wolff, a member of the Council of Canadians board.

But it is real. Consider that a United Nations science panel estimates that by 2030 the global demand for water will exceed supply by 40 percent. They predict water crises will affect seven billion people by 2050, when world population hits 10 billion.

Maude Barlow and Alice de Wolff in Union Bay

Many African countries already have a water crisis. River systems are polluted beyond human use in India. Adequate water supply is rare in the Middle East. Droughts are now common in Brazil, which has never had them until recently, and more frequent in California and on Vancouver Island.

Canada may have 6.5 percent of the world’s available fresh water, but we’re treating it poorly.

“We don’t have good legislation for groundwater protection,” she said. “We pollute it with chemicals from stormwater and factory agricultural runoff, we divert it, over-extract it and we don’t have strong national standards for drinking water or wastewater treatment.”


Keeping water public

Barlow’s message is particularly relevant in the Comox Valley after public protests defeated an application to extract groundwater for a water bottling operation in Merville.

The Merville Water Guardians, led by Bruce Gibbons, has now taken that fight to Victoria, pressing the BC government to stop licensing groundwater extraction for commercial water bottling or water exports from provincial aquifers. Last month, the Union of BC Municipalities passed the Water Guardians resolution.

Barlow predicts the battle for British Columbia’s will get more intense as water supplies diminish.

“In a world running out of water, you bet there’s going to be corporate interest,” she said.

Over the last 10 years, 83 percent of all Canadian bottled water exports came from BC, driven primarily by the Nestle company’s extraction operation near Hope that draws 255 million litres per year. There has recently been a 1,500 percent increase in exports to the US.

Two years ago, Agriculture Canada started promoting a water crisis in China as an opportunity for the Canadian bottled water industry. A fact Barlow thinks is curious given the Trudeau government’s promise to ban plastics by 2021.

Whistler Water in Burnaby extracts groundwater to produce 43,000 bottles per hour. The company was sold in 2016 to new Chinese investors who have expanded production to serve growing markets in China and California.

And new applications for groundwater extraction have recently been filed with the BC government for operations in Golden and Canal Flats.

Although many municipalities — including the Comox Valley — have passed bylaws prohibiting groundwater extraction for bottling, Barlow worries about which jurisdiction will have ultimate control if the province persists.

A significant Canadian water bottling expansion would add billions more plastic into the world, most of which will not be recycled, adding to the million bottles of water sold every minute around the world.


What are Blue communities?

Barlow initiated the Blue Communities Program in 2009 through the Council of Canadians and the Canadian Union of Public Employees to protect water and promote it as a public trust.

On July 28, 2010, Barlow earliest efforts achieved a major victory to have water recognize water as a human right by the United Nations.

It was a bittersweet victory, however, because Canada abstained from the vote. Prime Minister Stephen Harper had led the fight against it the UN resolution, because he was promoting public-private partnerships as the owners of water and wastewater systems. Harper was also encouraged private groundwater extraction.

Barlow believes water protection cannot be left to the federal government. She has focused her efforts on more local levels.

“We have a strong obligation to keep water in democractic hands,” she said.

To become a Blue Community requires that a city or town pledge to uphold three principles:

First, to recognize water and sanitation as human rights. Second, to ban or phase out the sale of bottled water in municipal facilities and at municipal events. And, third, to promote publicly financed, owned and operated water and wastewater services.

She imagined program as a Canadian initiative and never dreamed it would go global.

But when she was in Bern, Switzerland to protest Nestle’s abuse of water around the world, she had the opportunity to speak with the city’s mayor. Bern soon became the first Blue city outside of Canada, followed by the University of Bern, and the Reform Church.

Now Berlin, Barcelona, Munich, Madrid and Paris are also Blue cities. Brussels and Amsterdam will join soon.

And the program is not just for cities. The World Council of Churches recently took the Blue pledge. McGill is the first university in Canada to go Blue. A high school in Quebec and an elementary school (where her granddaughters go) have also taken the pledge.

In the Comox Valley, both Cumberland and Comox signed on to the program in 2012.

Burnaby was the first city in Canada to join, and Montreal is the largest.


Barlow’s new book

Whose Water Is It, Anyway? Is Barlow’s latest book about water. And it takes a different approach than her earlier works that focused on defining the global water problem. In it, she moves from misuse of water around the world, to the success stories of the Blue Communities program.

It’s more of a handbook to show people what they can do as groups or individuals to lessen the coming water crisis. It includes templates of letters to send to governments and corporations.

In a way, it’s the story of Barlow’s evolution to understanding water.

“I’m a practical activist. I have a big dream, but I’m rooted in a practical way to get there,” she said. “Plus, I offer hope. The book is not apocalyptic. I don’t want people to feel helpless.”









There is nothing more important than clean water. We need it for drinking, sanitation and household uses. Communities need water for economic, social, cultural and spiritual purposes.

Yet water services and water resources are under growing pressure. Communities everywhere – including in Canada – are experiencing extreme weather, including record levels of drought, intense rain and flooding. At the same time, privatization, the bottling of water, and industrial projects are threatening our water services and sources. The former Harper government’s gutting of environmental legislation has left a legacy of unprotected water sources. Provincial water laws often promote “business as usual” and do not go far enough to protect communities’ drinking water.

It is now more important than ever for all of us to take steps to protect water sources and services. By making your community a Blue Community, you can do your part to ensure clean, safe water sources and reliable public services for generations to come.

A growing global movement is taking action to protect water as a commons and a public trust. A commons is a cultural and natural resource – like air or water – that is vital to our survival and must be accessible to all members of a community. These resources are not owned privately, but are held collectively to be shared, carefully managed and enjoyed by all. They are a public trust. Recognizing water as a public trust will require governments to protect water for a community’s reasonable use, and for future generations. Under the Public Trust Doctrine, community rights and the public interest take priority over private water use. Water could not be controlled or owned by private interests for private gain.

— From the Blue Communities page on the Council of Canadians website



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More Environment | Latest Feature

CVRD trades water for hatchery, for treatment plant land

BY GEORGE LE MASURIER The Comox Valley Regional District issued this press release today.he Comox Valley Regional District (CVRD) and the Courtenay and District Fish & Game Protective Association (Fish & Game Association) have reached an...

Golf Creek: A case study in stormwater planning gone wrong

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Morrison Creek headwaters are unique on Vancouver Island

The Comox Valley Lands Trust is “this close” to conserving a small portion of the unique Morrison Creek headwaters, but has its sights on protecting the entire oasis of swamps, ponds and marshes. A conservation area the size of Stanley Park.

The Comox Valley has a wood stove problem

No wood stove would pass a basic vehicle emissions test, yet the Comox Valley allows them to burn day and night, for weeks and months, with almost no regulation, polluting our air and posing serious public health risks

BC ministry attempts to justify Sackville water license

Ministry officials explain and justify their Sackville Road groundwater extraction decision, saying no negative effects will result. But Merville residents question the ministry’s data and remain suspicious about negative effects on their wells

Was there corruption in the Courtenay-Alberni Green Party nomination process?

Was there corruption in the Courtenay-Alberni Green Party nomination process?

Selfie taken by Green Party of Canada Leader Elizabeth May, left, and Mandolyn Jonasson having fun at a women’s conference in Vancouver

Was there corruption in the Courtenay-Alberni Green Party nomination process?

By George Le Masurier

Questions of impropriety at the Green Party of Canada’s nomination meeting in June erupted this week when one of the candidates went public with allegations that the vote was corrupted.

In a post to the Comox Valley Politics Facebook page, Mandolyn Jonasson, who had sought the party’s nomination, said the Greens’ nomination process was tainted and because of that party Leader Elizabeth May personally recommended a re-vote.

Jonasson, a Qualicum Beach business owner who was solicited by the party to seek the nomination told Decafnation on Saturday that at least two confirmed party members received double ballots in their voting envelopes at the nomination meeting, which was held during the Courtenay-Alberni riding’s annual general meeting on June 15.

She says organizers did not announce an exact vote count in contravention of party procedures nor did they keep any record of results. That has made it impossible to verify that the number of counted ballots equalled the number of members at the party’s Annual General Meeting, or the margin of victory.

The ballot box wasn’t continually monitored throughout the voting process, nor did candidates have representatives present during the count, according to Jonasson.

Jonasson was told she lost the nomination to Wood by just four votes.

But it wasn’t the mistakes made during the nomination voting that concern Jonasson the most.

“Mistakes can happen. It’s how you rectify and handle them afterwards,” she told Decafnation. “It’s the fact that they (GPC officials) were complicit in acknowledging the mistakes and then suppressing it and trying to suppress me or anyone else in the party.”

When Jonasson tried to appeal the nomination results, she and others were advised by officials of the party’s electoral district association (EDA) to direct her appeal to Liberty Bradshaw, local EDA president.

But she later received notice from the GPC national office saying the EDA officials were confused about the appeal protocol and that she would have to appeal through the Green Party’s own ombudsperson, which she did.

The Green Party’s national Executive Director Emily McMillan told Decafnation that Jonasson’s appeal was rejected because “it was not brought to our attention within the time frame (72 hours) or to the right people (Green Party ombuds).”

“These were inexperienced volunteers (at the EDA nomination meeting), McMillan told Decafnation in a telephone interview. “Doing the best they could.”

In a follow-up email, McMillan said the party determined that minor errors in the conduct of the meeting did not invalidate or have any conclusive impact on the outcome of the vote, and that Sean Wood is the properly nominated GPC candidate for Courtenay—Alberni.

“Ms. Jonasson was provided with a detailed report to this effect. This was done despite the fact that Ms. Jonasson’s complaint itself was technically invalid as it was submitted six weeks following the nomination meeting — well outside of the 72 hour window allowed for appeals. Ms. Jonasson was unable to justify this delay,” McMillan said.

But the party did an investigation anyway. A report of that investigation from Federal Green Party President Jean-Luc Cooke has not been released to the public. Jonasson has a copy but is bound by a non-disclosure agreement to maintain its confidentiality.

GPC official Rosie Emery initially told Decafnation that Jonasson had no non-disclosure agreement. But Christina Winter, campaign advisor for Wood, indicated there was an NDA.

Jonasson maintains that Elizabeth May told her in person during an Equal Voice conference in Vancouver that she recommended a revote in the Courtenay-Alberni riding and that Wood should step down. But the party leader also said she couldn’t interfere because the GPC is a bottom-up, not a top-down organization.

Wood has not responded to several attempts for comment on this story.

An email sent by Kate Storey on July 25 to all members of the party’s electoral district association, including Don Munroe who resigned over the nomination irregularities, and Sean Wood, urged the candidate to step down.

“I can’t tell the EDA what to do … but, in my opinion, if the candidate wants to improve his public image and get the support of the whole EDA behind him, then he might want to step down and ask for a new nomination meeting. It would clear away the uncertainty and would help his campaign,” Storey said.

Cumberland Councillor Vicky Brown, who attended the meeting, recalls that after members voted, the ballot box was taken into a room, but that there was no call for scrutineers.

“I thought the vote was handled very loosely, not secure at all. There could have easily been several people with double (or more) ballots in their envelopes,” Brown told Decafnation. “Because there were no numbers given, and I don’t know if anyone counted the total voters in the room, it’s difficult to know whether the vote count was accurate.”

Brown was one of many who emailed the EDA afterward to ask these questions and received no response.

“Because of this, the nomination process was suspect to me and I was left with an uneasy feeling about the whole thing,” Brown said. “I’m disappointed that the riding association couldn’t find a way to resolve this in a transparent way.”

At one point, on July 20, Jonasson received notice from the Courtenay-Alberni EDA that there would be a revote and an official went so far as to ask if she’d be willing to run a second time. But that was never brought up again, Jonasson said.

Jonasson, who still supports Green Party policies, said her reason for going public now was not personal, but because she cares about democracy.

“I’m not going to be bullied,” she said. “I know I’m martyring myself, they’re going to try and discredit me. But there’s a lot of people who saw this and know about it but don’t want to put themselves on the line.”








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