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This article was published 22/9/2011 (3604 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
FLIN FLON -- Health care has forever been identified as a top concern among Canadian voters, but has the issue ever actually cost a candidate an election?
The provincial Liberals are hoping it will in their long-shot bid to wrestle away one of the four NDP strongholds of northern Manitoba in the Oct. 4 election.
The New Democrats have owned the vast Flin Flon riding, covering about a fifth of the provincial land mass, since 1969. During that time, a trio of MLAs -- Thomas Barrow, Jerry Storie and Gerard Jennissen -- have held the fort with impressive margins of victory.
The strong presence of organized labour, largely from the mining industry in the riding's namesake community, and First Nations voters have coalesced to make Flin Flon an orange bastion. If only, the other parties must wonder, there were a controversy capable of turning the tide.
Enter Tom Heine. A regional geologist with the provincial government, Heine has launched a spirited campaign for the one-seat Liberals, concentrating largely on health care.
Why health care and not, say, mining cutbacks, crumbling infrastructure or any of the other dozen issues impacting Flin Flon? Because health care is near and dear to people's hearts. And a lot of locals have come to believe it is seriously screwed up.
For many years now, a frequent grievance among them has been their inability to access a family physician in a timely manner, if at all. That this is an all-too-common problem shared by millions of other Canadians, particularly in remote regions, is of little solace.
With this frustration brewing below the surface, a full-blown, three-pronged controversy erupted last year.
It began when it was revealed the NOR-MAN Regional Health Authority, which provides health care to much of the riding, had been employing an unqualified (though cunning) con man, Lloyd Carr, to counsel troubled children.
In the health-care system's relationship with the public it serves, trust is everything. The Carr fiasco was the most severe breach of this trust conceivable. If someone with zero credentials and a criminal record is hired to help vulnerable kids, patients wondered, who else around here is a phoney?
The situation escalated when the NRHA made a pair of contentious decisions.
The first was to open its own medical clinic within the Flin Flon General Hospital, replacing a long-established privately owned clinic just across the street.
The second was to respond to a series of complaints against a long-serving physician by suspending his hospital privileges, which were later restored in a court battle.
Through it all, Heine played an active role in attempting to hold the NRHA to account.
He moderated a public forum attended by several hundred rather angry Flin Flon residents, many of whom bombarded the NRHA with allegations of misdiagnoses, cronyism and number-fudging.
Numerous letters to the editor followed in the Flin Flon newspaper, The Reminder. Some were penned by Heine, who by now had found time to chair a committee of citizens deeply concerned with the NRHA and its services.
Under such a barrage, the NDP-led provincial government agreed to have an external panel conduct a review of the NRHA.
The resulting report, released last spring, slammed the organization on everything from dysfunctional workplaces to below-average patient loads for doctors. It also made 44 recommendations for change that the province promptly accepted.
Despite all of this, it is difficult to know just how big of a worry health care is in Flin Flon. Critics have made their voices heard, and much of what they say is serious business. But others wonder whether the NRHA has become just another target for the sort of griping that greases the wheels of small-town life.
Equally uncertain is how many Flin Flon voters see this particular provincial government as the problem. To what extent do they blame politicians in Winnipeg for decisions made by bureaucrats and RHA board members more than 700 kilometres away? To what extent do they see other political parties as better-equipped to handle things?
Waiting to find out is Clarence Pettersen. Well known and well liked, the retired-teacher-turned-MLA-candidate is looking to continue the long Flin Flon tradition of New Democratic representation.
During the campaign, Pettersen has not shied away from the health-care file, admitting there was/is a need for improvement and arguing the NDP government faced the NRHA concerns head on.
But Heine and his supporters continue to cry foul, claiming, rightly or wrongly, that very little has changed. The Progressive Conservatives, who are pinning their hopes in the riding on Darcy Linklater of Nelson House, have also tried to make hay of the hullabaloo.
Both opposition parties face monumental odds. But if enough Flin Flon voters are sufficiently incensed with the NRHA, and if enough of them see the provincial government as the villainous puppet master, the race could get interesting.
Jonathon Naylor is a freelance writer, editor of The Reminder newspaper in Flin Flon and a University of Winnipeg graduate. Reach him at email@example.com