Dear CBU…

Cape Breton University President and Vice-Chancellor David Dingwall has written to his “fellow Cape Bretoners” AGAIN. What are we? His pen-pals?

This time it’s a two-page advertisement (once again in the Saturday edition of the Cape Breton Post, not the cheapest medium) telling us why CBU should get a Medical School.

David Dingwall photo and signature

One line really jumped out at me, given what I’ve been researching this week:

…longstanding and complex healthcare issues within the healthcare system continue, despite ongoing efforts by the government and others to address them.

Dingwall, an MP from 1980 to 1997, served as a minister in Liberal governments that, in the name of deficit reduction, made “swift and savage cuts to social programs,” including steep cuts to provincial transfer payments for health and education. As Antonia Maioni explained in Policy Options:

As finance minister, Paul Martin introduced the Canadian Health and Social Transfer in the 1995 budget, which accelerated the provincial wave of cost-cutting that led to hospital closures and significant reductions in health human resources, as well as the corresponding erosion in timeliness of care and public confidence. In 2002, the Romanow commission sounded the alarm about money; the Kirby committee did the same about waiting times.

Martin, then Prime Minister, did re-inject funds into the system in 2004, but the damage that had been done haunts the system to this day (and was compounded by further cuts by Prime Minister Stephen Harper). In other words, the problems facing our healthcare system may be “longstanding” but to many critics, they are not  that “complex.”


Doctor shortage

I can see where a medical school would benefit CBU. There’s a certain amount of prestige in operating medical school—there are only 17 such schools in the entire country.

Moreover, med students, as you can see from the 2020 figures below, pay high tuition (and leave school with equally high debt) and I’m guessing when Dingwall says CBU will provide “accessible medical training” he doesn’t mean “affordable medical training.” (Québec is the only province that offers reduced tuition—to its own residents and to residents of New Brunswick studying at the Université de Sherbrooke.)


Medical School Tuition in Canada. (Source: The Association of Faculties of Medicine of Canada

Medical School Tuition in Canada. (Source: The Association of Faculties of Medicine of Canada, “Canadian Medical Education Statistics 2020”)




But would having a medical school at CBU actually help solve Cape Breton’s family doctor shortage? (And if it did, would that mean every underserved community in Canada should open its own Medical School?)

CBU’s ad cites Memorial University in Newfoundland, which has had a med school since 1967, stating that the school has “above-average production, recruitment and retention” of rural physicians.

But in January, the president of the Newfoundland and Labrador Medical Association (NLMA), Dr. Kris Lucombe, told the CBC:

Memorial University is a world class university. [It] trains some of the best physicians in Canada and in the world. And so we have to definitely ensure that we are making Newfoundland a desirable place for those trainees from Newfoundland to want to work. Newfoundland’s a great place to live. We’re having a major difficulty convincing people it’s a good place to work.

Cape Breton University Medical Campus Logo

Back in 2021, then NMLA president Dr. Susan MacDonald was even blunter:

We need to focus on our young colleagues that are coming out of medical school and residency here. We have the worst retention rate of any of the medical schools in Canada for keeping our own.

Newfoundland and Labrador, despite its medical school, faces an even worse family doctor shortage than we do—Luscombe said the NLMA’s most recent survey found that just over 136,000 Newfoundlanders, 26% of the population, had no family doctor. (Nova Scotia, as of January 1, had 130,000 people on the list or 13% of our population.)

Quebec, with four med schools and the lowest tuition rates in the country (for its residents, anyway) has a family doctor shortage. In fact, Quebec has one of the the worst doctor shortages in Canada with 19% of its citizens in want of a family physician.

I am open to persuasion on the subject of a local medical school, but CBU needs to make a better case for it than the one in this advertisement. (Frankly, all the university’s correspondence reads like it didn’t do the reading and dashed something off the night before.)

It doesn’t help that CBU is trying to make the case for a Medical School as the entire community is watching it struggle to manage the students it already has and fail in its efforts to negotiate a new contract with its faculty, who are poised to strike on Friday.

Where would it even find the time to solve the province’s healthcare  crisis?