Thursday, September 29, 2011


Trade PEI spuds for Cuban MDs, candidate says

Richard FootSpecial to the Star
How many Cuban doctors would a shipload of potatoes buy?
That’s a question Prince Edward Island voters are being asked to consider in the final week of their provincial election campaign.
Jason MacGregor, a candidate for the fledgling Island Party of P.E.I., says the province could solve its chronic doctor shortage by trading its famous potatoes for Cuban physicians.
P.E.I. has long been plagued by doctor shortages, particularly in rural areas such as Souris-Elmira, where MacGregor lives.
“We used to have an emergency room, but that’s closed,” MacGregor said in an interview Wednesday. “We now have a clinic only open two to three days a week.”
In his district of 3,200 people, there are only two doctors, he said.
Cuba’s communist government has for years dispatched thousands of doctors and medics abroad in return for hard currency, or oil. MacGregor, a recent university graduate who majored in international development, says a similar deal could be negotiated with P.E.I. spuds.
“Potatoes offer a nutrient they don’t grow in their own country, and on P.E.I. a lot of our farmers have excess potatoes each year, and a lot of these are plowed back into the fields.
“So instead of all those potatoes going to waste, we could export them in return for doctors.”
A call to the Cuban embassy in Ottawa wasn’t answered Wednesday, but MacGregor says if a trade deal like this could be worked out with P.E.I., there’s no reason other provinces couldn’t trade their own goods for Cuban medical expertise.
The doctor shortage has been a hot political potato on the island for years, and helped vault Liberal Premier Robert Ghiz into power in 2007.
Four years ago the province had the lowest ratio of doctors in the country — 150 for every 100,000 people. Ghiz vowed at the time to bring in enough doctors to provide a family physician for every Islander.
“Write that one down, because I expect to be held accountable for that commitment,” he said, before winning the 2007 election.
Four years later the shortage remains, with more than 6,000 Islanders on a provincial waiting list for a family physician. In 2009, the most recent year for which data are available, P.E.I. had 165 doctors for every 100,000 people, still the lowest number in Canada.
Despite his unfilled promise, Ghiz — the son of former Trudeau-era premier Joe Ghiz — is widely expected to be re-elected on Monday. His government held 24 of 27 seats in the legislature before the campaign.
An opinion poll on Sept. 6 showed the Ghiz Liberals with 59 per cent support among decided voters, compared to 31 per cent for the Progressive Conservatives, led by Olive Crane.
The Ghiz government, however, has been buffeted during the campaign by accusations of corruption surrounding a federal-provincial immigration scheme, in which provinces sponsored wealthy immigrants to Canada in return for the immigrants investing money in local businesses.
The program has long been accused of mismanagement, and the Charlottetown government has never explained where roughly $400 million — paid by thousands of mostly Hong Kong immigrants — ended up between 2008 and 2009.
Last week the campaign was rocked by allegations made by three former provincial civil servants, that Canadian public officials had received cash bribes under the program.
An earlier investigation by P.E.I.’s auditor general found that companies with Liberal government connections had received some of the investor money. The RCMP is now reviewing whether to formally investigate the bribery allegations.
Ghiz, accused by Crane of having his family members benefit from the program, has denied any wrongdoing and dismissed the accusations as “dirty politics.”