By Issac Phan Nay

While Chris White was in front of his camera on Zoom one frigid January afternoon, his mind was outdoors in the greenery of Ottawa’s Arboretum.

White is a mainstay of the Ottawa folk scene, as a musician, long-time college radio host at  CKCU FM, and co-founder of the Ottawa Folkfest.  On January 23, he was hosting Tree Songs, a virtual showcase of tree-themed art in protest of Ottawa’s plan to build a hospital, parking lot, and condominium over hundreds of trees and more than 50 acres of greenspace — including Queen Juliana Park and a part of the Experimental Farm. Around 40 Canadian artists tuned in to five different Zoom calls to perform songs, read poetry, and show off photographs as the third iteration of the protest.

Credit: Issac Phan Nay

“I don’t think we need a mega-hospital in the middle of a congested area of town that requires destroying acres of parkland,” White told The Leveller. “This is just so obviously incorrect. It’s a mistake. It’s wrong.”

The Ottawa Hospital is scheduled to begin construction this year on a new 2.5 million square foot campus on Carling Avenue, just west of Dow’s Lake and around one kilometer away from the old Civic Campus, according to the City of Ottawa’s “master plan” for the project. Construction on a parking garage for the hospital is set to be completed by 2023. 

Illustration for Tree Songs 3 by Brenda Dunn (artinjest.com)

More than half of the 1558 trees on the site of the hospital will be removed, including the site’s only butternut and willow oak trees, according to the tree inventory completed as a part of the site’s master plan. (The inventory was posted by Friends of the Farm, a non-profit organization dedicated to upkeep of the Central Experimental Farm.) Some of the trees set to be removed are more than 130 years old. 

A historical interpolation from your friendly neighbourhood Leveller editor:
The site selection process for the project has been rather tortured. Under the federal Conservative government of Stephen Harper — and infrastructure minister John Baird, a then-prominent Ottawa MP — a different part of the Experimental Farm was selected for the new hospital in 2014. This plan ran into significant public resistance and a change of government. 

Under Trudeau’s Liberals, the NCC then did a study of federally-owned properties that could serve as a new hospital site. After significant consultation with the public and  stakeholders, the NCC recommended Tunney’s Pasture. This aging complex of federal government buildings was slated for redevelopment and next to the western terminus of the light-rail system.

A week after the NCC’s recommendation, a grinning group of hospital executives, municipal politicians, and federal MPs were delighted to announce that the new hospital would be built… on the Experimental Farm.

The location of the hospital will not change, according to city councilor Riley Brockington. 

“There’s no location that’s perfect. People are going to be opposed. But this one had a lot of pluses,” Brockington said. 

The Hospital’s new location at Dow’s Lake is close to Ottawa’s light rail transit system and Carling Avenue. Besides serving Ottawa, a website for the development states this 641-bed campus will feature state-of-the art trauma treatment facilities and be the main referral centre for Eastern Ontario and Nunavut. Plus, Brockington noted Ottawa needed more medical infrastructure.

“Hospital needs are consistent if not growing in the city, because of our growing population and older population,” Brockington said. “The current Civic Hospital is over 100 years old and not a modern hospital in any respect.”

Brockington added the hospital will be developed on federal land, in an agreement between the federal government and developer Parsons Inc. That didn’t sit well with White.

“I’m doing everything I can to draw attention to it,” White said. “Since I’m into music, that was one of the avenues I pursued.”

Two Ottawa teens singing about Ottawa’s plan to pave over century-old trees and put up a parking lot. (Music by Caroline Landry and Grace Pezoulas, video by Reimagine Ottawa.)

Alongside musicians Christopher Elie and Greg Kelly, White began organizing musical protests last fall. The first Tree Songs event saw Ottawa songwriting group Writer’s Block perform tree-themed songs on October 17, 2021, underneath a sycamore tree that will be removed. The second Tree Songs was held virtually on November 21and featured around 60 artists from across Canada.  White said the third iteration of the concert even featured participants from British Columbia and Newfoundland. 

“What I didn’t realize is that the topic [of trees] is unbelievably powerful. That one topic is more powerful than any other topic I’ve ever run into,” White said. 

Kelly added that writing music invigorated some Tree Songs musicians to defend their greenspaces. He spoke about writing a song for the second tree songs event.

“I wasn’t all that keen on protesting. I’m not a protester by any means. But as I was writing the song I got angrier — angrier and angrier, and it came out in the words and that ended up being a protest song,” Kelly said. 

A site plan for the hospital’s parking garage will be discussed at a city planning committee meeting on February 10.

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