Elizabeth May will fight tooth and nail to stop the closure of the Centre for Plant Health.
“I’m not accepting we’re losing this battle,” the Green Party leader said this afternoon (May 10).
The MP for Saanich Gulf Islands says she’s spoken to her counterparts in the Okanagan and the Minister of Agriculture determined to stop the closure of the Centre for Plan Health.
“It’s a bad idea.”
In a time when it should be celebrating its centennial, the Canadian Food Inspection Agency research centre on East Saanich Road is instead slated to close. Although the plant health centre has been there where it is now since 1912, in 1960 it became the national quarantine centre.
“One of the reasons they selected Vancouver Island as a quarantine centre [is]… if there should ever be a mistake and a slip up and a [virus] were to slip through you could wipe out an industry. … If you’re in the Okanagan that’s devastating,” May said. “I’ve had to dig pretty deep but I found some scientists that were part of the decision back in the ’60s.”
The research centre has a collection of rare plants that require protection and staff study viruses and pests.
“Tree fruit and grapevine health are an important component of our wine industry in particular,” May said. “The concern is that the testing of viruses and imported plants at this facility had the benefit of the Salish Sea preventing any accidentally released virus from reaching the mainland.”
As well, she said, about 35 jobs will be lost – not the 12 reported by the government, once you add contractors and other civilians who work on the site.
“They’re not going to save a whole lot of money by closing the plant health centre and it could cost a whole lot more,” May said. “I’m hoping that cooler heads will prevail. We’ve got science and logic on our side.”
If May loses the battle, there is some solace that the land is within the Agricultural Land Reserve.
“This is a piece of land that has to stay in agriculture, by law. So I think that’s a relief for people that live nearby,” she said.
Coun. Celia Stock sits on North Saanich council and hopes to find a way to have input in the process.
“They’re calling it phasing it out and it has been here for 100 years,” she said. “There’s 63 buildings, there’s an enormous amount of property and then there’s the work that the laboratories do. … They conduct really important work, on plant pathology, diseases, research into plant pests and ensuring that imported new vines or fruit trees or plants are kept in quarantine to be sure that they’re virus free. It’s part of the underpinning for Canada’s agricultural and agrifood process.”
For her, at least a portion of that expertise should remain at the Vancouver Island site.
“It’s not just the jobs,” Stock said. “This area, the Peninsula and Victoria, we have a cluster of scientific and green and high tech jobs.”
From the aeronautics work on airport lands and the Institute of Ocean Sciences to Royal Roads University and the University of Victoria the south Island is teeming with qualified scientists, she pointed out.
“I see the plant health centre as part of that. … Why not encourage a cluster of economic development that’s based on these skilled scientists and researchers.
“How are they going to phase it out? What will happen with all those labs and the greenhouses?” she asked. “You can’t just abandon infrastructure, it would be better if we could work with the Canadian Food Inspection Agency, our council and our MP Elizabeth May… and figure out what they’re going to do to phase it out.”
North Saanich plans to send a letter to the Minister of Finance, Minister of Agriculture and the Canadian Food Inspection Agency in hopes of getting involved in the process.
“[The letter is] to say how important the plant health and quarantine centre is for North Saanich,” Stock said. “What can we do as the council of North Saanich to assist in at least having some of the services with the plant health centre remain here in North Saanich?”
The government says 19,200 jobs will be eliminated in the next three years as it cuts $5.2 billion in spending. Those include Parks Canada where 638 of the nearly 3,000 Parks Canada workers will be cut including some environmental monitoring and ecological restoration in the Gulf Islands National Park.
“That’s really, really concerning,” May said.
There are also concerns jobs could be cut at the Institute of Ocean Sciences in North Saanich.
– with files from Sean McIntyre, Gulf Islands Driftwood