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Is Brampton, Ont. finally getting a medical school to call its own?


Prior to 2007, York University, which had emerged as one of Canada's leading post-secondary institutions in the area of health sciences, desperately wanted the jewel of medical education.

For any university to reach the pinnacle of status in the sciences, a medical school is the key.

Long held as the epitome of scientific education, medical schools around the world are revered. They attract students and families that dream of a medical degree, an MD, "Doctor of Medicine''.

The high-tech, cutting edge places of learning where these future doctors train, are magnets for public and private investment. They attract secondary and tertiary spin-offs such as research clinics, labs, a range of medical practices and innovative technology companies. Medical schools often catalyze other surrounding industries such as pharmaceuticals and biomedical manufacturing.

Hospitals are even built next door, as the perfect partnership between education and application.

Scientists and other professionals across vast fields such as genetics, epidemiology and cancer research eventually become part of these buzzing medical hubs.

Entire quarters of major cities such as Boston and Toronto are built around the medical sciences, and medical schools are often at the heart of these massive healthcare investments.

Fifteen years ago, Mamdouh Shoukri couldn't understand why the Greater Toronto Area, bursting at the seams, with one of the world's most well respected healthcare clusters in the centre of the sprawling region, had only one medical school.

The president of York University, in 2008, said, "We are the largest metropolis across North America that has only one medical school. Yet, we're also the fastest growing region of Canada.''

The growth has since accelerated. But plans for a second medical school have not.

For more than two decades, decision makers, pushed by the public, have been calling for more medical schools.

In the fall of 1999, the former Mayor of Kingston and long-time Liberal MPP, John Gerretsen rose inside the provincial legislature and addressed a chronic problem: "Well, my question is to the Minister of Health. Minister, we're all aware of the severe shortage of doctors in Ontario. As a matter of fact, in my own riding, the Kingston Academy of Medicine and individual doctors' offices, as well as my own constituency office, get up to 50 to 70 calls per day from people looking for a family physician.''

Fifteen years later, when he retired from politics, the problem was much worse.

The Liberals in opposition, led by Dalton McGuinty, had begun to hammer away at the lack of medical schools in the province.

"On budget day, Minister, you will know that, notwithstanding the fact that revenue is pouring into this province, there will be no new medical school spaces and not a single new dollar to increase the number of our medical students,'' he said inside Queen's Park during budget season in 2000.

A push for a second medical school in the GTA began and York became the focus.

Shoukri eventually led the charge.

It was widely believed that, with the Liberals in power, it wouldn't be difficult to get the plan off the ground quickly and have a new medical school soon.

York had become one of the country's leading health sciences universities and had developed its internal fundraising and strategic planning operations. Key partnerships with the public and private sectors had been established and York seemed destined to take advantage of its status as a booming university that served a rapidly growing GTA population.

But almost 15 years after a wide coalition of health sector partners, municipalities including Toronto, Vaughan and York Region and other stakeholders joined York's efforts, little has happened.

In May, York issued a press release "signalling positive momentum and growing support'' toward a new medical school after a memorandum of understanding was agreed to in 2019 between the university and Mackenzie Health, the region's hospital manager.

In two decades, very little has been achieved.

Now, Brampton Mayor Patrick Brown, the former leader of the opposition PCs at Queen's Park who knows that for decades York, one of the country's largest universities, has been trying to get a new medical school, is making claims that a Brampton plan has already been finalized.

Without any evidence to back these claims, and no funding, Brown is telling the public that Brampton is getting its own medical school.

It doesn't even have its own stand-alone university campus, and its post-secondary footprint is primarily formed by the Sheridan College campus, but that isn't stopping Brown from campaigning ahead of next year's election season, telling the public a future medical school in the city has been secured.

In February 2020, after Ryerson University pulled out of a planned downtown Brampton satellite campus because the Doug Ford PC government cancelled $90-million in funding promised by the previous Liberal government, the presidents of Ryerson, Sheridan and Algoma University presented an idea to the City of Brampton.

Brown and three of his loyal councillors, Rowena Santos, Paul Vicente and Harkirat Singh, had been pushing an independent "Brampton University'' plan shortly after the Ryerson satellite fell through, despite no provincial approval and zero funding dollars.

It was widely seen as nothing more than a publicity stunt to counter the bad news, after residents had demanded a full, stand-alone campus in the city for decades (Brampton is the largest municipality in Canada without its own stand-alone university campus).

The three post-secondary institutions with pre-existing footprints in the city proposed plans for post-secondary expansion, including a medical school that Ryerson's president and vice-chancellor Mohamed Lachemi said could help solve Brampton's ongoing healthcare crisis.

Lachemi was back at Committee of Council in June to share details of the proposed "Brampton School of Medicine'' and asked the City to provide $1 million to help plan the project. This will match $1 million in funding Lachemi said the university provided and $1 million offered by the Province.

"Because of this vision to improve healthcare, the Provincial government chose to invest in our planning process,'' he told councillors.

The PC government first mentioned a related project idea briefly in its 2021 budget document. "In addition, the Province is providing financial support to Ryerson University in the planning for a proposal for a new institute of medical education in Brampton.'' No funding details were included in the budget.

PC MPPs Prabmeet Sarkaria (Brampton South) and Amarjot Sandhu (Brampton West) immediately shared the news on social media through carefully crafted videos and images that failed to provide specifics.

"We're also exploring options to work with Ryerson University to build a medical school right here in the City of Brampton,'' Sarkaria exclaimed in a video about budget announcements for Brampton. Sandhu followed suit in a similar style video.

These messages, along with Brown's usual PR tactics and the lack of detail around the complex, decades-long process to launch a new medical school have created confusion around the future plan. The budget did not say what the project is, whether it will be approved and if the Province will fund the costs, which at this time, have no estimates attached to the plan.

It's unclear where a campus would be built, how a new university would be funded, and how long it would take to create all the required educational infrastructure for a medical school.

York has spent more than two decades preparing for a medical school that hasn't even been approved by the Province, which would have to provide hundreds of millions in capital funding (possibly well over a billion) on top of tens of millions for annual operating costs.

"Long known for its interdisciplinary approach to research, teaching and learning, York University possesses significant depth and breadth of academic programming and research, providing a solid foundation for a modern medical school,'' the university stated in its May press release.

Its established "Faculty of Health'' has one of the country's largest Nursing programs, bachelor and graduate degrees in psychology, kinesiology and health sciences, global health, health studies, health policy and management, health informatics, critical disability studies and neuroscience.

Over decades, York has established research "in antimicrobial resistance, disease modelling, data visualization, advanced robotics, global health, healthy aging, and muscle health, among others. York's Centre for Vision Research is world-renowned and has an expansive network of global health partners. IP Osgoode provides thought leadership on the ownership, use and governance of data, including personal health data.''

Despite decades of foundational work, developing highly complex degree programs and partnerships with the public and private sector, one of Canada's biggest universities is barely at the proposal phase for a medical school.

Meanwhile, a group of Brampton politicians, led by the two PC MPPs and Brown, is claiming a new medical school in the city is a done deal.

"I want to thank the provincial government, particularly Premier Doug Ford and Health Minister Christine Elliott, for the great news that Ontario is getting a new medical school and it's going to be in downtown Brampton,'' Brown trumpeted in a video he released in the spring. "This is amazing news for our community.''

No such decision has been made and zero funding for anything other than the small grant to submit a proposal has been committed.

Brampton resident Chris Bejnar, co-founder of Citizens For a Better Brampton, says it isn't anything more than a political stunt.

"I see right through it,'' he told The Pointer. "Practically, it's an empty promise.'' He believes the tiny amount of grant funding to propose a plan was given by the PCs to please residents wanting a local medical school, making up for the woeful lack of action on healthcare in Brampton. The ploy is about nothing more than votes ahead of next year's elections, he said.

The Province's messaging shares an uncanny resemblance to their announcement to expand Peel Memorial into a full-service hospital, which was part of the original commitment more than a decade ago, when the Liberal government of the day recognized Brampton desperately needed two full-service hospitals. The 2021 budget stated the facility would get a new "inpatient'' wing and subsequent announcements noted 250 beds will be added, not the 850 the City had demanded, keeping Brampton at about half the provincial per capita average by the time Phase 2 is completed. But like the medical school, the news was paraded by politicians as the fulfillment of a promise for adequate hospital beds.

"This is years and years away. If that's the solution to our problem, I think that's pretty silly,'' Bejnar said.

Discussing the economic impact of a possible new medical school, Lachemi presented Rowan University's medical school, in Camden, New Jersey as a case study. He said the medical university south of the border attracted billions in investment and created thousands of jobs.

According to the United States Census Bureau, Camden had an estimated population of 73,562 in 2019. The Cooper Medical School at Rowan University became the third hospital partner in a city that has seen its population shrink four percent since 2010.

Brampton's population, in comparison, is continuing to sky rocket and already sits at more than 650,000 residents. By the time the second phase of Peel Memorial is complete (no details are available on when this will be but William Osler has told The Pointer it might not open before 2028) there will be 1.1 beds for every 1,000 residents (not accounting for population growth) which is about half the Ontario average. Estimates show Brampton's population will balloon to at least 900,000 by 2041.

There is no timeline for the proposed medical school, and it could take years for the post-secondary partners to put all the pieces together.

It's also unclear how the Province will manage York's desire for a medical school with Brampton's. There has previously only been one new medical school approved in Ontario over the past three decades, the Northern Ontario School of Medicine, which opened in 2005 to provide more doctors in under-served communities across much of the province's most remote areas.

Algoma University tried for years to receive accreditation as a degree granting institution. The university's website states it originally started as an affiliate of Laurentian University in 1965 and made its first attempt for university accreditation in 1994. The attempt was rejected by the Ministry of Education and Training. Its second attempt in 2007 led to more positive results when Algoma was given independent status by the governing Liberals.

Jessica Leach, a communications specialist with Ryerson University said the medical school proposal "is still on track'' to be delivered to the Province in 18 to 24 months, a timeline set in March. Questions on how much the project will cost and how it will be funded were not answered. "While additional funding may be announced, the focus at this time continues to be on the development of a proposal,'' Leach said.

The previous Liberal government promised Brampton a university, and announced in spring 2018 $90 million would go toward a Ryerson satellite campus, in partnership with Sheridan College, to be built next to the downtown GO Station. Months later, after Doug Ford was elected as Premier, the funding was pulled as the PCs claimed it was too expensive.

It's unclear, especially after the huge costs associated with COVID, how anything has changed. Ontario's debt currently stands at about $410 billion, according to the Canadian Taxpayers Federation, the largest figure for any non-national government in the world. To put this into perspective, California, which has almost three times Ontario's population, has about half the debt.

Ryerson University and the City of Brampton continued with a partnership after the PCs cancelled the university funding, launching an Innovation Hub and Cybersecurity Catalyst program. This played off themes for the original plans for the satellite campus, which was to focus on cybersecurity, but is not part of a university curriculum.

Post-secondary institutions in Milton and Markham, which were also promised provincial funding, met the same fate.

That didn't stop Ford and some of his ministers from going to Milton in June to announce their support for Wilfrid Laurier University opening a new campus with Conestoga College, which Ford previously pulled the funding for.

The announcement did not reinstate any of the capital funding, only promising "operating expenses'' which will be tied to student enrolment numbers.

The Ministry of Colleges and Universities confirmed the same will go for the proposed school in Brampton. "If approved, the operating funding for Ryerson's proposed medical school in Brampton will be linked to student enrolment,'' Tanya Blazina, a spokesperson for the Ministry told The Pointer in an email. Questions on capital costs, and other operating calculations were not answered.

The building and necessary equipment costs could easily reach more than $500 million, but Brown has refused to put any money toward major future infrastructure in the city, as he continues to trumpet his tax freezes.

Committee of Council agreed to assist Ryerson with its financial ask through a motion put forward by Brown. Staff are tasked with bringing back a report detailing where the funds might come from, conditions of the funding, and options for where the school can be located on municipally owned property.

It's unlikely that Brown would allow any major new capital costs onto the 2022 budget, as he has made clear that he intends to keep pushing tax freezes. Like many realities in Brampton, future council members could be stuck having to find ways to pay for all of Brown's promises, while being caught behind the eight-ball because of his refusal to raise tax revenues. Brown has indicated through his aggressive work in federal politics while mayor that he does not intend to stay in Brampton for very long.

It's not clear how a motion presented by Regional Councillor Michael Palleschi could impact discussions. He called for signs with the Ryerson name be removed or covered, if the City moves forward with the university, to address the anti-Indigenous actions of the school's namesake.

Chief Administrative Officer David Barrick said funds for capital costs could possibly come from the already depleted Legacy Fund reserve, which is also funding Ryerson's Cybersecure Catalyst and Algoma University's already-approved downtown expansion. Another staff member said $43 million was currently in the account. The 2021 budget states the City will put $4.8 million toward Algoma's expansion between 2021 and 2022, and $2.7 million for the Cybersecure Catalyst.

All discussion so far has addressed the planning process alone and it will take years before the medical school or a proposed university comes to fruition, assuming the City can find the money.

It's unclear what is happening to the Brampton University plan Brown and some of the other council members trumpeted after the original Ryerson campus was cancelled.

The City paid hundreds of thousands of dollars for a consultant who does not appear to have experience in launching a standalone university and the web pages the City developed for the project are not updated.

The City claimed it was working around the pandemic to submit details including a business case to the Province in the spring of 2020, ahead of the Ontario budget presentation, but it does not appear that this was done.

There has been no indication by the Province that it's involved in any way with the Brampton University plan.

The Pointer has filed a series of freedom of information requests with the City of Brampton to find out how much has been spent on the BramptonU plan widely promoted by Brown, who was hired to do the consulting work, how they were hired and what work they produced.

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