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The McGill University Health Centre (MUHC) offices are shown in Montreal, Tuesday, September 18, 2012, where members of Quebec's anti-corruption squad conducted a raid at the premises. (GRAHAM HUGHES/THE CANADIAN PRESS)
The McGill University Health Centre (MUHC) offices are shown in Montreal, Tuesday, September 18, 2012, where members of Quebec's anti-corruption squad conducted a raid at the premises. (GRAHAM HUGHES/THE CANADIAN PRESS)

How plans for a blue-chip Canadian firm to build a Montreal hospital became a scandal Add to ...

The hospital rising over Montreal’s west end is supposed to become one of the world’s leading medical institutions, a hub of ground-breaking research and top-level care. SNC-Lavalin, a jewel of corporate Canada building the $1.3-billion project, was running the project like clockwork – at first. Little wonder Prime Minister Stephen Harper and Philippe Couillard, Quebec’s former health minister and current Quebec Liberal leadership candidate, were among the luminaries who flocked to be associated with Arthur Porter, the magnetic personality presiding over the McGill University Health Centre. Today, the dream behind the hospital is overshadowed by multimillion-dollar corruption charges against the men in charge. Dr. Porter is a wanted man. Former SNC-Lavalin CEO Pierre Duhaime awaits a court date. The politicians who once scrambled to share the glow at the conjunction of public and private prestige now duck for cover.

The project

For a period in the mid-2000s, the plan to build an English-language hospital complex in Montreal was the envy of the francophone half of the city, which watched helplessly as their own mega-hospital was delayed again and again.

While the French project languished on the drawing board amid recriminations and disputes over location, the English project hummed along, a veritable model of competent organization, efficient fundraising and community strength. Arthur Porter, who was to have a street near the site named for him, was not shy about crediting his own organizational acumen as the reason construction ever started.

The only thing holding the project back, for years, was the drawn-out wait for a political green light from the province. Successive PQ and Liberal governments had no interest in allowing an English hospital to rise from the vacant Glen Yards site while francophones scrapped over whether to build in Outremont, the affluent francophone bastion, or the downtrodden east-side core.

A prominent separatist group and some Quebec nationalists complained that there shouldn’t be a separate English hospital at all.

The idea of building new super-hospitals to replace several decrepit hospitals, some dating to the Victorian era, first surfaced in 1991. In the late 1990s, eight of the city’s hospitals were merged into two networks – the McGill University Health Centre and the Centre hospitalier de l’Université de Montréal. In 1999, the province announced it would turn the two networks into prestigious and gigantic bricks-and-mortar institutions.

After a decade of bickering over language, location, specialties, and which of the old hospitals would be bulldozed, construction finally began three years ago. The English hospital complex is expected to be completed in 2015. The French hospital should have a first phase open in 2016 but won’t be entirely ready before 2019.



The institutions

McGill University Health Centre

When the McGill University Health Centre was introduced in 1994, the promise was that it would become one of the 10 best medical institutions in the world, a magnet for research and innovation. “The status quo is not an option,” said the MUHC chairman, Alex Patterson, 21 years before the new hospital would be complete.

The genesis of the health centre dates back to the early 1990s, when provinces were making big health-care budget cuts. One of the most popular approaches was to consolidate the administration of various hospitals. Most of Montreal’s English-language health-care institutions are teaching hospitals affiliated with Canada’s oldest and most prestigious medical school at McGill University, so it was a natural unifying force. There was a recognition, however, that most of these facilities were old and rundown, and merely removing a layer of bureaucracy was not going to solve that fundamental problem. The idea of a “super-hospital” quickly evolved from being a “virtual” facility to a new, bricks-and-mortar one.

But, along the way, the initial idea of replacing several old facilities with a new one succumbed to political pressure and the MUHC took shape as a new institution that would exist in addition to many of the old ones.

SNC-Lavalin Group Inc.

One measure of how important Lavalin Inc. was to Quebec in 1991 was how the provincial government forced smaller SNC Group Inc. to take over its giant, debt-ridden rival. The province literally declared Lavalin “too big to fail.”

The combined SNC-Lavalin Group Inc. has grown exponentially from there. From Vancouver’s rapid transit system to the Alberta oil sands to Ontario’s Highway 407, SNC-Lavalin has had its stamp on many of Canada’s biggest infrastructure projects. At $1.3-billion, SNC’s contract to build Montreal’s hospital complex is dwarfed by some of its national and international projects. But it should have been a prestigious hometown jewel for the Montreal-based company rather than just another piece of Quebec’s growing construction and engineering corruption scandal.

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