Excerpt from Until the End – by Adelle Larmour (The Story of John Gagnon-Health and Safety Union Activist)

Adelle Larmour is a journalist at Northern Ontario Business and Sudbury Mining Solutions Journal. Contact her at  untiltheend.larmour@gmail.com  to order a copy of Until the End.

Chapter 48 – The History of the Northeastern Regional Cancer Treatment Centre in Sudbury, Ontario

The idea of building a Northeastern Regional Cancer Treatment Centre gained strength in the early ’80s, when Sudbury citizens began lobbying for this centre of excellence despite the difficult economic conditions. Maureen Lacroix, a proactive personality who has either chaired or sat as an executive member on more than 20 organizations involving housing, job creation, and healthcare, played a lead role in the effort to establish this full-service Centre in the city.

As charge nurse in the emergency unit, and later, assistant director of nursing services at St. Joseph’s Hospital between 1958 and 1965, Lacroix immediately recognized a gap in the system during monthly cancer clinics hosted by the hospital and later by Laurentian Hospital (1974).   

It all took place in two little examining rooms in the emergency department at St. Joe’s. As many as 200 people could have been seen in the course of a day and a half. These were people who waited a long time to see a physician for life-and-death type of news.1

Although Sudbury could provide surgeries and some chemotherapy for cancer patients, advanced chemotherapy, immunotherapy, and radiotherapy2 were only available at Princess Margaret Hospital in Toronto. Lacroix also realized that when the patients returned home, hospital personnel lacked the expertise to administer cancer-specific medicines.

Also, there were those people who would return from Toronto after having their surgeries and chemo- or radiotherapy that had residual chemotherapy drugs to be given. There really weren’t people who knew the protocol about these drugs or how they should be administered.Consequently, you had a whole group of people who were truncated from what the cancer system put forward as their ideal form of treatment: surgery, chemotherapy, or radiotherapy.3

During the 1970s, Lacroix also performed the role of service-to-patient chairperson for the Canadian Cancer Society – a service that allocated funds to assist people who needed to go to Toronto for cancer treatment. This created an awareness of the hardships involved for those who travelled from the north and spent time at Princess Margaret Hospital, away from their family and home.

In 1981, Lacroix sat as chair of the Laurentian Hospital. During a planning retreat with board members and other hospital officials, she, along with radiologist Dr. John Demarais and chief executive officer Gaston Levac, highlighted the need for a northeastern regional cancer treatment centre in order to fill the gap that existed. In a May 28 interview with the retired former CEO, he explained the process that took place.

When we agreed it would be priority number one for Laurentian Hospital for the ’80s, we then took measures by establishing a task force, a planning group and a lobby group.4 

While Levac collected the necessary demographic statistics to prove that a cancer treatment centre in the north was needed, Lacroix continued to raise awareness about their mission to local and provincial politicians. One politician in particular on whom she made an impression was Jim Gordon, who at that time was running to be Sudbury’s Conservative Member of Provincial Parliament. After Gordon won the election and more cancer centre information meetings occurred, he too came on board and lobbied fellow colleagues like Health Minister Dennis Timbrell, but to no avail.

While Sudbury was still viewed as a mining town far removed from southern Ontario (as some people still view it today), Toronto remained the hotbed for cancer care. It was also home to the Ontario Cancer Treatment and Research Foundation and the Ontario Cancer Institute. The prevailing thought was that cancer was a very complex disease and the only way to effectively treat and combat it was through a strict centralized system that had developed specific methodologies and treatment protocols.5 Another factor that made the northern centre a tougher sell was that Toronto’s Sunnybrook Hospital had just expanded its facilities to accommodate the overflow of northern cancer patients.

On both of those issues, Lacroix strongly believed cancer treatment expertise could be located elsewhere within the province. She also believed that when people were surrounded by friends and family receiving support, their chances of healing increased. Lastly, expanding a facility in one region to accommodate people from another perpetuated the assumption that Toronto would remain the principal centre in Ontario to service cancer patients. This was not conducive to every cancer patient’s wishes, particularly those who chose not to travel the 400 kilometre distance for treatment.6 

Once the “campaigning” began in earnest, it was clear the centre had to be a regional one, available to people across northeastern Ontario. Thus, the inclusion and gain of support from other communities such as Timmins, North Bay, and Sault Ste. Marie aided in marketing the need for the centre in northern Ontario.

We talked up the issue of the cancer treatment centre and planning for one in the north. We had to speak to people along the lines that although it is not in your community, we knew the expertise and support that forms around the centre spreads out into the area and region. It is not only contained in Sudbury.7

Lacroix and the small planning group, which later became known as the Laurentian Hospital Northeastern Regional Cancer Centre Planning Committee, travelled to the various communities throughout northeastern Ontario, where they met with and educated hospital and municipal representatives about the benefits of a regional cancer centre. As a founding member of the Sudbury District Health Council, Lacroix’s familiarity and insight with the various northern health councils aided in this process.  Over time, the committee obtained region-wide support.

The Greater City of Sudbury also supported the notion of a cancer treatment centre, despite the coinciding shutdown of Inco and Falconbridge mines. Health care became one of several task forces set up by regional chair Tom Davies in an attempt to help boost and diversify Sudbury’s economy. Thus, from the city council’s perspective, the mandate to provide a regional cancer centre became one of the major priorities for Sudbury.8

Consequently, it was supported by all other hospitals, the community, and the Tom Davies’ process, so when the provincial government received a visit by the six people at the time, it also had a lobby directly from the regional municipality of Sudbury.9

While the committee drummed up support within the region, Lacroix discovered the 1973 Woods Gordon & Co. provincial study that suggested there should be a cancer treatment facility in northeastern Ontario, possibly Sudbury. Seeing the recommendation in black and white, Lacroix pursued whether there had been any follow-up with the report. She learned that the recommendations were accepted but left dormant due to lack of funds. This report was a pivotal piece of information because it backed the argument that “cancer expertise” could certainly be located elsewhere, and magnified the cracks in the notion of one centralized cancer treatment system. Out of this, the committee hired English cancer expert Alan Backley as a consultant to gather evidence and statistics around cancer incidence in the north.

It was important to prove to the Cancer Treatment and Research Foundation that there was a large enough population base and incidence to warrant a full-service cancer treatment centre.10

It is essential to remember here that during the early ’80s the economy was in a recession and many municipalities were strategizing to ease the effects of unemployment and high interest rates. As mentioned earlier, Tom Davies appointed several task forces to create solutions to diversify Sudbury’s economy. Consequently, the idea of building a science centre in Sudbury to boost tourism became a silent contender with the mission for a cancer centre for provincial funds.
In the political realm, Larry Grossman was appointed Minister of Health in Bill Davis’ cabinet on February 13, 1982. Coincidentally, Jim Gordon became parliamentary assistant to Grossman. From a serendipitous perspective, this positive relationship led to a political decision that would eventually pave the way for the construction of a full-service Cancer Treatment Centre. In a May 30, 2008 interview Jim Gordon explained what transpired.

 When Bill Davis decided to step down, and Larry Grossman announced he would run for the position of premier, I decided to throw my support to him. A few days later I told him: “I’m going to support you. My brother is a conservative organizer as well, and we’re prepared to organize and move the north in your favour.”

Larry was grateful, but I said there is one thing I will ask: “I want a Cancer Treatment Centre in the north.”

“You’ve got it,” Grossman said.

That was how we secured the deal.11

Gordon describes it as a political deal, calling himself the tip of the spear. “Someone had to be at the right place at the right time.”12

Gordon said that without the lobbying efforts of people like Maureen Lacroix, Gaston Levac, John Demarais, and John Gagnon it would not have happened. “They were the spear.” 

Meeting with Larry Grossman May 20, 1982

*Note – although attempts were made in each interview to capture individual perspectives of the meeting with Larry Grossman, it was difficult to elicit details of an event 26 years ago. Therefore, the account of this meeting is based on John Gagnon’s journal entries and the personal recollections of those in attendance: Maureen Lacroix, Gaston Levac, John Gagnon, Jim Gordon, Paul Reid, and Frank Petkovich. John Demarais was on the committee, but was since deceased.

John watched the city come to life through his hotel window. The sun lit up the maze of streets and concrete office towers where thousands of people spent the majority of their time earning wages so they could afford homes in the outlying communities where urban sprawl ran rampant.

John glanced at the time and then over to his roommate, Bob, who made it quite clear he wanted to sleep a little longer. As a member of the bargaining team, John wanted to rally for his Sinter plant boys via the collective agreement. He felt it was the only way he could make progress with Inco. This was the fourth day the two sides had been “tossing the ball” back and forth. It truly felt like a competitive word game. They’d been in negotiations since February and now had a conciliator.

Today would be the toughest day, because they had to cut back considerably on their demands. It was difficult to simply eliminate pet projects that had been carefully fostered for months. He discovered that, over time, words took on human qualities and form, only to be eliminated with the stroke of a pen. The entire process was exhausting, and since deliberations began John had lost many a sound night’s sleep. In the end, would it be worth it? Only time would tell.

It took these last few months to restore the balance of comfort within Local 6500’s executive walls when in February John had considered running for president of the union. However, he came to the abrupt realization that although he was well-liked and respected, not everyone supported him in this endeavour. Consequently, he dropped out and ran for trustee again, well aware of the amount of work and struggles the Local’s current president Ron MacDonald dealt with on a daily basis. Playing the word game with Inco during these times was difficult enough; he couldn’t imagine adding other stressors to the mix. In hindsight, it was meant to be, as he knew it would distract his focus from his Sinter plant boys. 

He sidled over to the small kitchen area and prepared breakfast. Perhaps the smell of cooking food would wake up his roommate. While he cracked the eggs onto the hot sizzling frypan, his thoughts shifted to another important meeting scheduled later this afternoon with the Minister of Health, Larry Grossman. The Cancer Planning Committee had invited John to give a presentation about his Sinter plant boys alongside chairperson Maureen Lacroix, Laurentian Hospital’s CEO Gaston Levac, Dr. John Demarais, Chamber of Commerce president Paul Reid, and Falconbridge’s manager of mineral processing Frank Petkovich, all of whom were presenting their information too.

This was the day they had to convince the minister to support the funding and construction of a full-scale cancer treatment centre in Sudbury. John had acquired letters from his Sinter plant boys about the financial and emotional hardships endured in being treated so far from home. No matter how kind the doctors and staff at Princess Margaret may have been to northern patients, the stress of being terminally ill with cancer without the support of family and friends was significant and impacted the psyches of those living out their last days. No one should die alone, John thought, no one.

He flipped the eggs and placed two slices of whole wheat bread in the toaster. He noticed Bob was beginning to rouse. “Your breakfast is almost ready if you want it,” John said.
“Sure. I’ll be a minute,” Bob replied, closing the bathroom door.

John placed the eggs on a plate and cracked open two more. They sizzled and popped on the hot pan, turning a milky white around the yolk. John’s stomach growled, cuing his appetite. Soon Bob sat at the table enjoying his food, and John joined him a few minutes later. They talked about negotiations and before too long were quietly sitting on the bus waiting for their stop at the Royal York Hotel.

The rich stately décor of their surroundings didn’t change the sombre mood while they watched their list of demands diminish. What was left to bargain with? John thought. At noon, the team stopped for dinner at a local restaurant, an attempt to re-energize and wash away the bad taste of the morning’s negotiations.

Afterward, John, Ron and Norm walked over to the Eaton Centre. From there, John continued on to Sutton Place, where he met with Gaston Levac to rehearse for the meeting. Gaston’s friendly manner helped John relax and focus for what lay ahead. They proceeded to a room where Dr. Desmarais, Maureen Lacroix, Paul Reid (Weir Reid’s son, who was representing the Chamber of Commerce president), and Frank Petkovich had gathered.  

John happily shook everyone’s hands, full of good humour and eager to relax the situation. A current of anticipation and excitement permeated the air. This was an important meeting, and the collective hours spent working toward this moment accentuated the fact that it had to go off without a hitch.

Gaston glanced at his watch, and before too long, they walked over to a board room to meet with the minister. Jim Gordon met them at the doorway, where they entered and greeted Minister Larry Grossman. It was all very friendly and seemingly casual. Then everyone gathered around the long rectangular table, rehearsing their thoughts for a perfect execution. 

Minister Grossman cued the first speaker, who was Maureen Lacroix. As chairperson, she spoke about how a centre would benefit not only Sudbury, but all surrounding communities in northeastern Ontario. She made reference to the Woods study, stressing the fact that a need for this type of centre was acknowledged back in the mid-’70s. John was impressed with the way she presented the information: confidently and passionately. She was a knowledgeable woman with drive and dedication, a kindred spirit John admired.

Once Maureen finished, each person spoke and contributed their piece as to why Northern Ontario needed a full-scale Cancer Treatment Centre. Dr. John Demarais, Laurentian’s chief of staff, relayed first-hand the work they did at the hospital, but more importantly, the frustrations over work they could not perform due to lack of services. Gaston gave a thorough demographic perspective, backing it up with statistical information on the population that had to go to Toronto or Ottawa for cancer treatment. John was certainly convinced.

Paul Reid put in a plug to show how the community supported this initiative and would continue to do so once it was approved. Frank Petkovich relayed his personal story of what it was like to drive down to Toronto to visit his own father, who was receiving treatment at Princess Margaret Hospital. This paved the way for John. He reiterated several testimonials from former Sinter plant workers who struggled both financially and emotionally. He described the hardships for the family and the patient, as well as the despair and loneliness felt when lying helpless in a hospital bed away from family and loved ones, the only people who really matter when one is on death’s doorstep.

“So I say to you, like all of the people in this room, Minister Grossman, our need for a cancer treatment centre in Sudbury is great. Consider how your decision could change so many lives. Cancer victims will be able to spend their last hours with the ones they love and enter heaven’s gates with peace of mind. Thank you.”

Upon John’s finishing plea, the room remained silent. Then Mr.Grossman acknowledged every contributor and the detailed work that went into the presentation. After adjournment, John left quickly to return to the bargaining session at the Royal York, only to find the session was over. He commuted again to Rexdale, had supper, and spoke with Mrs. Nevins, who drove him to the Bloor Street subway. As he wrote his daily journal, he gave a silent prayer of thanks for the day’s events, and finally retired to bed at 1 a.m.

On August 24, 1982, Minister of Health Larry Grossman flew into Sudbury with several cancer specialists from Toronto to announce that Sudbury would be the recipient of a full-scale cancer treatment centre at Laurentian hospital, funded by the provincial government. He commended the Sudbury Cancer Planning Committee for its “genuine community effort” and “fine work in planning for this new development.”13

In developing the centre, the hospital and ministry would work closely with the Ontario Cancer Treatment and Research Foundation, the Ontario Cancer Institute, and Princess Margaret Hospital in Toronto, said Grossman in an August 24, 1982 Sudbury Star news report.14 Furthermore, Grossman said he made the decision to go ahead with the centre because it showed the Ontario government’s commitment to make Northern Ontario self-sufficient in health services and for the welfare of the patient.

In the same news report, Sudbury MPP Jim Gordon said that with the establishment of a centre there, patients would be closer to their families and more jobs would be created.

“The need for a centre here has immense support from every sector of our community. Each of us individually knows an acquaintance or someone more intimately who has suffered from this most unwanted disease.”14