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Federal government reversal means North Saanich plant facility stays open

Oct 31 2012

In a surprise move, the federal government has decided to keep open the Centre for Plant Health in North Saanich, which was scheduled to be axed as part of Ottawa's plan to trim billions in spending.

Green Party leader Elizabeth May, Saanich-Gulf Islands MP, who campaigned to keep the centre open, celebrated the victory Tuesday after being told of the reversal by Agriculture Minister Gerry Ritz.

"It's wonderful. I have been working on this nonstop," May said in an interview. "Yippee-ay-oh. Happy 100th birthday, Centre for Plant Health."

About 30 people would have lost their jobs if the Canadian Food Inspection Agency centre had been closed and its quarantine and research work moved to Agriculture Canada's facility in Summerland.

Now, six positions will move to Summerland, but 23 full-time jobs will be saved, May said.

"This is a victory for our community and for all those elsewhere who fought to protect the excellent science done here for 100 years," said May, who presented a petition in the House of Commons Monday calling for the centre to remain open.

The decision proves a group of determined and engaged citizens can have an impact, she said.

May said she fought the closure by investigating the science, which she then presented to Ritz.

The centre, which opened in 1912, became the national quarantine centre for plants in 1968. Vancouver Island was chosen as the location because, if any virus escapes, it is unlikely to spread throughout Canada.

Grapevines and fruit trees being imported to Canada are quarantined at the facility.

"Of course, we don't want any viruses getting out, but at least on Vancouver Island, the damage would be restricted," May said.

It would make no sense to quarantine those viruses in the Okanagan, in the middle of B.C.'s major orchards and vineyards, she said. May also discovered that there was no room at the Summerland centre, so greenhouses and other facilities would have to be expanded, eliminating cost savings.

Ritz had indicated he would take another look at the closing if there was evidence to warrant it, May said.

"So, every time I saw him, I would ask about it and asked him what other information I could get for him," she said. "He came up to me today with a smile on his face and I said, 'Plant Health Centre? You're keeping it open?' and he said, 'Yes, how did you know?' so I started jumping up and down and hugging him," she said.

Ritz could not be contacted Tuesday afternoon.

May said she believes it was the science and lack of savings that clinched this case. "I just decided this was a mistake that was fixable," she said. May hopes other programs, such as the marine contamination program, can be saved, too.

North Saanich Mayor Alice Finall said it is wonderful news that the centre will remain open.

"It's an important quarantine station and one of the oldest in Canada," she said. "This is good news for North Saanich."

One concern was that the municipality leases adjacent Dominion Brook Park from the federal government and it was not known how the closing would affect the park, she said.

Retired plant pathologist and virologist Richard Stace-Smith was one of those who worked to get Ritz to change his mind.

"You can't do that testing where there's a major industry," he said. "Saanich-ton is fairly safe, whereas, if it was done in Summerland, there's always a danger some [viruses] would get away, and that could be disastrous."

jlavoie@timescolonist.com

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