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Residents of smaller and rural Ontario communities are vigorously fighting back to protect local hospitals and health services as pre-election activity heats up.

Two town hall meetings organized by the Ontario Health Coalition and local counterparts last week attracted over 1000 people in Uxbridge and Midland. 

Two communities, two different situations, one common problem:  a provincial government that is not doing enough to ensure the robustness of health services in Ontario’s rural and smaller communities.

Uxbridge residents have been facing the loss of their emergency physicians for months now, with the Liberal government extending the required funding on a piecemeal basis.  The funding is now set to expire the end of October, just past the provincial election on October 10.

But this isn’t good enough for community residents, who fear that the loss of their ER services could lead further services being cut or relocated to nearby Markham-Stouffeville hospital.  This concern prompted over 500 to attend a standing-room-only meeting at a local rec centre on July 18 led by Uxbridge nurse Lori Davis. 

I’m here to press for a long-term solution that only the provincial government can deliver,” Davis said.  “With the election on the horizon, the province will be listening very closely to us.  Let’s make sure the province hears us.”

As Uxbridge desperately tries to recruit doctors to their community, the province dithers on establishing the right long-term solution:  a commitment to keep rural hospitals vibrant, not rationalized and restructured out of existence, and the funding to do the job.  Residents will be bringing this message to Health Minister George Smitherman, who so far has remained silent. 

Midland residents face the controversial and deeply unpopular merger of the publicly run Huronia District Hospital with the nearby Penetanguishene General Hospital, run by the Catholic Health Corporation of Ontario. 

Fearful of losing a full range of health services, particularly reproductive health services – including abortion, vasectomies and tubal ligation – over 500 community members packed a meeting hall on July 19 to forcefully defy the proposal and urge Minister Smitherman to veto the merger if it actually proceeds. 

If there’s anything that unites all the communities around Midland, it’s the hospital,” said Elizabeth O’Connor, of Citizens for a secular hospital.  “Our first wails happen there, our last breaths happen there.  As citizens, we can still be part of this decision.”

Organizers took pains to clearly state that their concern was not with the church but with the threatened loss of a public institution.  The Huronia board kept the decision secret until 4 members quit in protest in June. 

Both communities are vowing to step up pressure as the October 10 provincial election draws closer, with Health Minister Smitherman poised to receive an earful.

Smaller and rural communities are not about to let go of their local health services without a noisy fight.  Local organizing continues, with residents conducting petition drives, rallies and other activities. 

As Natalie Mehra, coordinator of the Ontario Health Coalition, told both crowds:  “It’s not just the force of the argument, it’s the force behind the argument – and that’s you!”