Construction on the long-awaited parkade/clinical building at Royal Inland Hospital has begun and it hasn’t taken long for excavators to chew through the hill between the hospital and Columbia Street.
While the hill has come down, the question has come up (again) of why the trees out front of the hospital were removed three weeks before the spring B.C. election, rather than leaving them until the digging was ready to begin.
Cynical observers would suggest the tree removal was the B.C. Liberals’ way of reassuring Kamloops residents that they would be proceeding on the project and, hey, don’t forget to vote.
After all, Columbia Street is a major artery and the traffic going past means the hospital — and its barren, treeless front lawn — is visible to large numbers of people.
On top of that, the hospital is — despite some complaints — still as sacred as Mom and apple pie. It’s also where the cancer clinic that the NDP promised decades ago was supposed to be located.
What a great place to score political points with voters.
The trees came down around April 26, three weeks before the May 14 provincial election.
The man who cut them down, Larry Kwak of Pine Valley Tree Service, said the timing was such that the trees were not in full leaf, which made them lighter to remove.
Photos and video footage from the time show some, not all, leaves were already out and green on the branches.
Alan Mott, a certified arborist with Arborscapes, said Wednesday tree removal can be done at any time of year. There’s no timing issue, although if the leaves are on the branches there could be more to clean up, he said.
To find out what kind of background discussion there was about the tree removal, The Daily News filed a Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy request to Interior Health asking for correspondence, memos and emails from June 2012 to June 2013 concerning the removal of the trees.
Here’s some of what the 80 pages of FOI response contained.
Only one email exchange outside of April 2013 was included: a November 2012 note between RIH chief of staff Dr. David Sanden and Martin Deheer, project manager for the clinical building.
Deheer indicated May or June were target dates for the tree removal, depending on approvals.
On April 15, the Ministry of Health gave RIH official approval to proceed with the clinical services building.
Two days later, emails indicate the trees would be coming down within a week. IHA staff contacted some tree services.
On April 23, the winning bid was chosen from three submissions, with the lowest bidder, Pine Valley Tree Service, to take down 21 to 23 trees at a cost of $22,290 plus tax.
Work to take out the trees began immediately. On that same day, IHA staff were already moving to advise media of the tree removal work.
By April 24, Interior Health had had at least one media call and an email was sent between communications officer Erin Toews and RIH health service director Kris Kristjanson. It suggested the media be given key messages around being excited to see the clinical services building preliminary work being started, that access to the hospital wouldn’t be impacted, the memorial trees planted for loved ones would be moved later, and that the woodworks and school district would be putting the old trees to use.
Also on that day, the fact that the province was in the middle of an election campaign arose in the internal correspondence.
It was the only reference in all 80 pages to the fact there were politicians seeking votes at the same time the trees were being removed.
IHA public affairs manager Darshan Lindsay raised the election issue on April 24, two days before branches began to fall.
She emailed Toews: “I’ll be interested in what you hear from Elections BC. I am uncomfortable with information related to the RFP (request for proposals for the tree removal) as we would not normally be issuing a news release during this time. This primarily is about informing people about activity at the site and related impact on access.”
Toews responded: “We are all clear from Elections B.C.”
By Thursday, April 25, the contractor had the permits in place and was getting to work on the trees. A press conference was planned for Friday morning.
There were also plans in case protesters showed up at the press conference to object to the trees’ removal.
Protesters off site were not an issue. But in case anyone raised a fuss on the hospital property, a security officer was advised to politely ask him or her to leave, especially if work was underway.
Security was also to call RIH administration, who would contact communications and advise Sheila Corneillie.
Corneillie, by the way, was also involved in several of the 80 pages of exchanges. She is the RIH project co-ordinator and, according to her Twitter feed, she follows several B.C. media outlets, Terry Lake and Today’s B.C. Liberals. The day after the election she tweeted: “Well it seems the wise people came out!!”
On the afternoon of Friday, April 26, after a morning press conference on the RIH lawn where media got pictures and footage of the trees falling, emails were sent to hospital managers with links to media stories.
“Here is the TV story from Thursday. Sorry just getting to this now — it is fairly positive,” Toews wrote in one email to managers with a link to a CFJC piece.
Within a few days, the old trees were gone.
But the question remains: why was there such a push to remove them so soon after first approvals for the clinical services building were given?