An absorbing encounter with Montreal’s medical history these past few days as I get down to brass tacks in the research on medicine and health at Expo 67.
The day of my arrival was a momentous one in Montreal’s — and Canada’s — history of healthcare: the Royal Victoria Hospital officially closed its doors to patients and transferred its operations to the new McGill University Health Centre (“the Glen”, as it’s been nick-named/branded for the old CN Rail yards it was built on).
I was born at the Royal Vic, along with most of my brothers and sisters and a huge proportion of English Montrealers. The closing of the hospital was moving for many in the city, but the significance went largely uncaptured and unacknowledged by media or officialdom who instead did a big PR spread based on a literal “moving day” theme that focused on the tricky logistics of moving patients and hospital operations from the old building to the new. True to its self-effacing Scottish roots, the institution closed with only the barest of ceremonies, the most dramatic — improvised at the last minute — involving a group of bagpipers to pipe the doors shut.
I was excited to find, however, that the new MUHC is developing an Art and Heritage Centre that will, among other things, promote the placement of historical artifacts from the pasts of its different parent hospitals as part of the healing environment of the superhospital. For more information:
The Royal Vic is surely the most prominent hospital in Canadian history in terms of philanthropy, patient care, and siting, and the most well known Canadian hospital in the world due to its history of medical research. A richly illustrated brief history of the Royal Vic can be found on the Heritage Montreal website: http://www.memorablemontreal.com/print/en/apropos.php
Its association with McGill University, which dates to its 1894 origins, saw the Royal Vic attract emerging and established titans in modern medical science, from Ernest Rutherford and Wilder Penfield to Norman Bethune and Brenda Milner. For a crisp overview of this association, see the brief history of McGill medicine written by one of the great deans of Montreal medical history, Richard L. Cruess: https://www.mcgill.ca/medicine/about/glance/history
Though developers are drooling at the site of the de-commissioned hospital on Mount Royal’s fashionable, miasma-free skirts, history would appear to be imposing other plans: the heirs to Donald Smith and George Stephens, the Scottish railway baron philanthropists who donated the hospital to the city, continue to have a say in the disposal of the Vic, and will most likely favour an expensive proposal by McGill University to incorporate a refashioned Royal Vic complex into its campus. Many I talked to backed this route, feeling it would be a blow to civic morale and public culture if the Vic were privatized and processed into real estate, overcome in the end by the dreaded condominia virus.
But well before it even opened its doors, some of the shine had come off the new MUHC superhospital built with$1.3 billion of public money. This was in large measure due to a bizarre and deeply disturbing corruption scandal involving, among other alleged kickbacks, $22.5 million paid by engineering behemoth SNC Lavalin to Dr. Arthur Porter while he was the McGill MUHC CEO with immense influence in awarding the design and building contract (which indeed went to SNC Lavalin after a selection process marked by irregularities).
Porter, who seems to have held at least four other passports besides his Canadian one, was once the apple of Stephen Harper’s eye. In 2008 the PM not only made him a member of the Privy Council, he appointed Porter to be Chair of the Security Intelligence Review Committee (the PMO-selected group of Canadian citizens of unimpeachable integrity who are supposedly able to protect us from police or government abuse of draconian powers extended under the new C-51 “anti-terrorism” legislation). The once high-rolling, now fallen doctor, originally from Sierra Leone and still the owner-operator of a cancer clinic in the Bahamas, is currently languishing in a Panamanian prison.
After all this, will the Quebec public be willing to foot the bill for a decent repurposing of the Vic?
Good-bye, Royal Victoria Hospital. Will we miss you?