Skip to content

‘Glacial pace’ for new hospital frustrates Tofino-Ucluelet region

Optimism remains that united clamouring will bear fruit with Island Health
The West Coast is hoping to secure a new hospital to better serve the region. (Westerly file photo)

The West Coast continues its collective push for a new hospital and while patience has long-since been replaced with frustration for many, optimism remains that united clamouring will bear fruit.

The only hospital serving the region was built in 1954 and served a population of around 400 residents back then.

“It was small and quiet. We had two stores. We had a post office. There wasn’t a lot of people in the community,” Tofino resident Arlene McGinnis told the Westerly News. “There was a gravel road through the village. It was very quiet and we felt very safe.”

McGinnis was born in 1944 and moved to Tofino from Duncan when she was three years old. She recalled the efforts that went into building the current hospital after the region’s original hospital, built in 1936, was destroyed in a fire in 1952.

“I stood on the corner of Campbell and First Street and watched it burn. I was just a little girl,” she said. “It was devastating.”

She said the West Coast communities came together quickly to get a new hospital underway.

“The community support and cooperation was exceptional,” she said. “They all came together and they were just amazing. They were just amazing at getting a new hospital built.”

She remembered the area’s loggers, fishers and First Nations communities all contributing funds to the cause, suggesting the facility’s price tag came in around $177,000 and local efforts initially came up about $20,000 short at the deadline.

“At this zero-hour, the bank manager from Port Alberni arrived in Tofino and accepted signatures for notes totalling $23,500. Local residents secured these notes using their homes and fishing boats as collateral,” she said.

She said construction began on April 18, 1953, and on August 12, 1954, the new hospital officially opened.

“This could not have happened so readily if it wasn’t for the exceptional goodwill and sacrifices that so many folks made. First Nations, locals and RCAF (Royal Canadian Air Force) all had a part in this,” she said.

Now, 70 years later, McGinnis finds herself leading the charge for another new hospital. McGinnis has served as chair of the Tofino General Hospital Foundation for about 12 years and expressed frustration over what she perceives to be too much red tape holding up the process.

“It doesn’t matter if it’s to build a new house or get a commercial development done, there’s so much red tape by all levels of government, federal, provincial and municipal. All these levels of government don’t like to admit that red tape is holding things up big time,” she said.

“We’ve just finally gotten tired of it. We need a new hospital. There’s many things wrong with this hospital. It’s old…The foundation isn’t good, the plumbing isn’t good, there’s so many different things that are wrong with it, plus the waiting room is just too small…The emergency room is too small. There’s many things that need doing.”

In an emailed response to the Westerly, an Island Health spokesperson assured that the process to replace the region’s only hospital is underway.

“Island Health recognizes the need to address the ageing infrastructure at Tofino General Hospital (TGH) and a renewal of TGH has been noted among our priority projects,” the spokesperson wrote. “Island Health is working on concept planning for a proposed TGH project. This is an important step that takes place prior to final approval from the Ministry of Health…We will continue to ensure the hospital is maintained to a standard that enables us to deliver the best care possible.”

That concept plan is the first of five phases the proposed facility will need to navigate through before being realized.

The spokesperson explained the concept plan must establish that there’s a need before the process can graduate to a business plan, which will determine how the new facility will be built, then a procurement stage to sort out who will build it and how, followed by design and construction and finally an operations phase to transfer the building to the health authority.

McGinnis acknowledged the concept plan is underway, but added that promises of progress towards a new hospital have become repetitive and she fears the process won’t be as swift as the communities that depend on the facility need it to be.

“How long is that going to take them? How long do they drag it out? That might be blunt, but it’s true,” she said. “We just try and keep them aware that we’re here and we want them to hear us. We just keep on pushing and pushing…There’s always an excuse. I think people have to realize that it is true and if you want to get things done, you’ve got to cut the red tape. It’s simple.”

She stressed that the hospital serves the entire region, including Tofino, Ucluelet and surrounding First Nations communities.

“When I believe in something, I’ll speak about it and I believe that we need a new hospital. It’s for everybody. We can’t forget that. This hospital is for all of us on the West Coast,” she said. “I think we needed a new hospital 10 years ago, or 20 years ago. It’s long past time to get a new hospital.”

Tofino Coun. Tom Stere said the Tofino Hospital Foundation sparked a push to create a subcommittee that included representation from then mayor and now Mid Island-Pacific Rim MLA Josie Osborne and local chambers of commerce around 2017.

“There’s always going to be a level of frustration. We know that the processes of governance from federal on down to municipal moves at what we often refer to as a glacial pace. Without question, the general public has frustrations with the process and generally about the length of time,” he said.

He pointed to a new hospital underway in Cowichan, noting it carries a $1.5 billion cost and began its process towards development with a concept plan in 2013. He said Cowichan’s business plan was approved in 2020 and construction started in 2023 with an estimated opening for patients is 2027.

“This is all hospitals in the province that have to go through this. It is bureaucratic, there is a lot of red tape, there’s a lot of planning,” he said. “Everyone, I think, would be frustrated because we want things to happen tomorrow. Unfortunately, that’s not the case when we’re building large public health infrastructure.”

He suggested the West Coast’s hospital process is moving relatively less glacially in comparison and he expects the concept phase to be completed in May. But he declined to put a ballpark timeline on when the region will break ground.

“You know that’s a fool’s game,” he said. “What I will say is that I’m optimistic that a new healthcare facility will be coming to the Coast…I’m very cautiously optimistic that we will have a new healthcare facility in the region within my lifetime.”

READ MORE: Ucluelet questions housing and parking as new medical centre announced

READ MORE: Tofino’s diagnosis: this community needs a new hospital

READ MORE: Retired nurse injects $100K donation into Tofino Hospital Foundation

Andrew Bailey

About the Author: Andrew Bailey

I arrived at the Westerly News as a reporter and photographer in January 2012.
Read more