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How to not sell an idea to the public

The Yukon Party's approach to picking a spot for Whitehorse's new continuing care centre is, typically enough, ass-backwards. First our cabinet ministers sat around a table and came to a decision.

The Yukon Party’s approach to picking a spot for Whitehorse’s new continuing care centre is, typically enough, ass-backwards.

First our cabinet ministers sat around a table and came to a decision. Now, only after it’s too late to change course, they contemplate the idea of asking people what they think.

If that strikes you as an apt summary of what’s wrong with Premier Darrell Pasloski’s approach to governing in general, you are not alone. Many of us take it for granted that the territory’s public consultations are largely empty gestures anyways, conducted only once the government has decided what it wants to do. But our ministers could at least try harder at pretending to care.

None of this is to say that plunking the new, 300-bed facility in Whistle Bend is necessarily the wrong move. But what information has been provided for public consumption certainly points in that direction. That makes the government’s reluctance to make its own case all the more infuriating.

Certainly, nobody in cabinet can claim that they hadn’t been warned about possible blowback over their decision to locate the facility in a sparsely occupied neighbourhood that looks like it will remain a work-in-progress for many years to come. “The optics of placing a care facility in an empty field is really a nightmare and will haunt the government for far longer than a bit of community opposition,” Cathy Morton-Bielz, assistant deputy minister of continuing care, warned in a 2014 email that came to light this week.

As we know, cabinet didn’t heed these warnings and pushed ahead. Again, this is not necessarily a bad thing. A controversial decision like this should be made by elected politicians, rather than behind-the-scenes civil servants. We expect our ministers to make up their own minds, rather than have opinions spoon-fed to them.

But how did our politicians reach their conclusion that Whistle Bend was the best option? The rationale was never clearly communicated in writing to staff, as far as the unearthed documents show. Instead, it looks like they were simply told that the rules had changed. Whereas the government originally considered it a requirement that the new facility be located in an established neighbourhood, that condition was later lifted, for reasons that never seem to be spelled out.

The rationale for this decision could have at least been explained during the public consultations that were supposed to be held this spring. But those meetings never happened.

And when criticism began to rain down on the government this week, Pasloski didn’t bother justifying his decision based on its merits when he issued a news release. Instead, he simply attacked the opposition for daring to criticize the project.

Only after Pasloski received some prodding in an interview yesterday did he say that cabinet worried that, had the government gone with an alternate site in Porter Creek, residents would have been too bothered by blasting needed to flatten the proposed area.

Well, at least that’s something. Perhaps some cabinet ministers still have vivid memories of how rocks rained down on Lobird Trailer Park back in 2008, thanks to a botched blasting job. Even if the work was conducted properly, there’s no doubt that a bunch of noisy blasting would stir complaints.

Or perhaps our ministers made a simple calculation: it’s not worth ticking off a large number of Porter Creek residents, when there are far fewer people to upset in Whistle Bend at the moment.

What that sort of calculation leaves out, of course, is the well-being of continuing care patients. For lack of a crystal ball, nobody knows for sure whether any of the gloomy predictions being made about the new facility will come to fruition. But it seems reasonable to worry about uprooting elderly residents and plopping them down in a further flung, unfinished neighbourhood.

Whitehorse resident Tamara Goeppel, who made the access-to-information request that set off this week’s uproar, had previously written movingly about speaking to in-care elders about the prospects of being moved to the new facility.

“Not one elder told me they wanted to go to Whistle Bend. They want to be downtown. And so do their families and friends. They spoke of their fear of being far away from the hospital. They spoke of feeling alone ‘out there’. They spoke of depression.

“They also spoke of the days when the White Pass train rolled in and out of town almost daily. They spoke of the time before the Whitehorse dam and the good times at the Whitehorse Inn. Many had over 60 years of memories of our town by the river. None had memories of Whistle Bend.”

Certainly, the appearance of Whistle Bend doesn’t help. Parts of the neighbourhood resemble a dustbowl devoid of vegetation, leading some wags to call the neighbourhood “Wasteland Bend.” In time, the neighbourhood will fill out and green up. If you’re a young family with a long time horizon looking for a new home, moving there may make sense.

But imagine you’re an 85-year-old resident at Macaulay Lodge. You know your current lodgings are set to be closed within five years, so it looks like you’ll be headed to Whistle Bend before long. And, if you’re patient and blessed with exceptional health, maybe you’ll see your new surroundings mature and begin to feel like a real community - by the time you are 100.

Even the NDP Opposition admits that a new continuing care facility is needed. Whether the government should build one that is so big is enough matter, involving its own difficult trade-offs. The current route is cheaper, but runs the risk of creating a more impersonal, institutional feel.

In short, faced with several options about how to care for the territory’s elderly, it looks like our government picked what looked like the cheap, politically expedient option, rather than the one best for elderly residents. Except, of course, this route turned out to not be politically expedient at all.

Given the ensuing uproar, it’s hard to imagine our ministers would have made the same choice if given a do-over. But this is not a crowd known for owning up to a mistake.