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Bowen Island Health Centre building under way

The long-awaited centre is scheduled for completion in the first half of 2023

Short minutes after health centre champions grasped the ends of the glitzy but functionally useless faux-gold six-handled shovel Tuesday morning, the construction company project superintendent inconspicuously handed Tim Rhodes a contract. 

After years of reports and planning, millions in fundraising and on the coattails of hundreds upon hundreds of volunteer hours, it’s time to build the Bowen Island Health Centre. 

The rains held off so as to not soak the gathered crowd of officials, donors, board members and community members gathered for the Bowen Island Health Centre Foundation (BIHCF) land blessing and ground breaking ceremony Sept. 28. (And good thing too – the health centre is not yet built to care for their colds.) 

The 10,000 square-foot centre on Miller Road – to house primary care, visiting specialists, allied health services, dental services and more – is scheduled for completion in the first half of 2023. 

Bob Baker (S7aplek) and the Eagle Song Dancers of the Squamish Nation did the land blessing, using cedar boughs to collect any negativity – “to make sure that all of us are going to be on the same page when we move forward,” S7aplek told the crowd. 

Rhodes, president of the foundation, acted as master of ceremonies to the jubilant affair. “During the last five years, the board could double as a training point for Olympic hurdles,” he told the crowd, going on to thank the donors, citizens, businesses and community organizations for their support. 

B.C. Minister of Health Adrian Dix had been tentatively scheduled to attend and announce the province contributed $1 million to the foundation’s fundraising effort. Dix had to send his regrets but made the announcement in a press release. “People living on Bowen Island deserve to access the health care they need when they need it close to home,” said Dix in the release. “The centre will give residents better access to team-based and comprehensive health care where they live.”  (This is not a new $1 million, the foundation announced last year it had received the funding from an anonymous donor – the press release unveiled the anonymous donor.) 

But Tuesday’s ceremony was far from a mere photo-op.  

Diane Marshall, sitting in a front-row seat, wiped away tears. “My heart is so full of what this means for the island,” said Marshall. “It goes back a long time, a dream that I would say Colleen [O’Neil] and I between us developed.”  The former member of the Caring Circle board was part of a crew of six Bowen Islanders who visited Gabriola Island’s health centre in 2012, the other island’s centre providing proof-of-concept for a Bowen iteration. Pre-centre, two-thirds of Gabriola residents went off-island for primary care. Post-centre, 87 per cent of residents were receiving primary care on-island.  

The Marshalls have since moved off-island but returned for the reunion of health centre conspirators. 

Conspirators like Colleen O’Neil, vice president of the foundation, program director of the Caring Circle, and – importantly – member of BIHCF’s two-person fundraising committee (along with Bill Brown). “Every donor we’ve talked to over the years has had a story of frustration and anxiety around getting the health care they need in a timely fashion,” she told the crowd. 

O’Neil pulled a couple of donors to the stage to explain their reasons for donating. Kathy Bellringer spoke of the comfort factor of her young grandchildren having ready access to health care and the economic benefits of the island having a health centre. Navroz Bandali said that Bowen is a special place and spoke of the necessity of the island having a robust health services for the community’s well-being. 

When O’Neil, the woman who helped raise $5 million, thinks of the health centre, she doesn’t think of the emergencies like heart attacks, strokes, but of people like the visitor with a wickedly sore throat who had to spend hours at Lions Gate for a simple strep throat swab. “It’s those kinds of urgent health care things that wreck people’s weekends,” said O’Neil after the ceremony. “Because they’re in town all day for something that just requires somebody looking in your throat doing the swab.

“Or you’re sick at home, you feel terrible, and you don’t want to get in the car, so you don’t. And then your health gets worse.”

Mayor Gary Ander told the crowd of the mother who called him up with the common frustration of why there is no COVID-19 testing on Bowen. “[Her] young daughter was in school, and she sneezed a couple of times and so there was a phone call home, ‘You’ve got to come and pick up your daughter and she’s got to be tested for COVID before she can return.’” Mother and daughter would have to do the hours-consuming trip to the mainland for the tests as there’s no testing capacity on Bowen. 

“[The health centre] will be a huge part of the complete healthy community matrix and give Bowen Island more independence,” said Ander, “and take us one step further from being the dreaded bedroom community of the big smoke next door.”

“It’s been a long time coming,” said Sheree Johnson, another long-time BIHCF board member. “I know all of us that have been working on it are extraordinarily proud.”

The ceremony brought relief to an emotional Johnson, “To work so hard and not know whether it’s going to come or not…”

“How much work the board has put into this will never ever be seen, like truly seen,” community member Kathryn Thomson added (she’s not on the board). 

Dan Parke of Salal Architecture (and Thomson’s husband) had the task of designing the health centre. Shying from the mic after the ceremony, Parke said to wait until the centre gets built – “You’ll walk through it and it’ll be a great building,” he said. “That’s not because I designed it, it’s because everybody designed it.”