Culture jamming the Northumberland Hills Hospital AGM

Taking a page from Naomi Klein’s book, No Logo, it was amazing to watch a public Open Forum on the Future of Northumberland Hills Hospital, which ran simultaneously with the annual general meeting on June 17.

It was an excellent example of the use of technology to thwart the controlling nature of traditional institutions.

One pattern emerging during the past few months is the “boot-on-the-throat” approach of the hospital’s board of directors and the administration towards the public, especially the Citizens for Alternative Solutions. The public watched the administration run amok, while board members sat in dead silence.

What should have been handled simply by CEO Robert Biron and board chair John Hudson was turned into a protracted, bitter, divisive debate that was completely unnecessary. Had the board granted a request to help it find fiscal savings and generate new ideas for revenue generation, the matter would have ended right away. All Biron needed to was created an ad hoc committee and let them go. The recommendations would come to the board and been dealt with easily: rejected or accepted. The board would not lose. It would enhance the perception of the hospital as a open, community-sensitive institution.

Instead, egos and external pressures from the LHIN/Queen’s Park (either direct or de facto), meant citizens in Northumberland County witnessed a blatant disregard for transparency and openness, along with democratic principles. The annual general meeting was little more than a staged performance held to demonstrate the powerlessness of the hospital members, along with the taxpayers and donors who fund the operation.

The most arrogant moment occurred when Hudson told one speaker from the floor he would personally mail him a refund of his $10 membership to the hospital association. Nothing excuses this kind of grotesque abuse and disrespect.

Yet, this seems to be the hallmark of the hospital administration and its board.

But there is an explanation.

Northumberland Hills Hospital is no longer a public institution; it is a corporation. It is funded by the government and the local community. But any semblance of accountability is gone, along with its credibility as a community-based service. It is merely a branch plant for medical treatment or a health services franchise. As such, it is run with the heartless, cold, dispassionate manner in which all corporations are run, exercising complete disregard for human values. One only needs to read several documents posted at the CAS website on unruly AGMS and corporate governance to realize this fact.

So, it is in this context, the notion of the live, online forum was born. It’s purpose was to provide openness in the face of control. It provided transparency when obfuscation was the order of the day. And, it gave the public an opportunity to participate, when the doors were shut.

As the technical consultant on the Citizens for Alternative Solutions website*, it was easy to build the interface. Using CoverItLive , the process was incredibly simple. The interface was supported offsite and worked flawlessly. Some participants experienced difficulties, but those were minor. A total of 425 visitors came to the event, but only 10 participated.

From a political point of view, the use of emerging new media disrupted the agenda. It used reports from people inside the event to inform participants. Ben Burd, a blogger at BurdReport, provided details for most of the meeting, supplemented by people Twittering, including two news websites: Northumberland News and Chris Pelletier, editor of NorthumberlandView, created a live stream of the event for those to watch.

Through crowdsourcing information and citizen journalism, the chains of the oppressive hospital board where removed and a truly public event was held despite its best efforts.

Sadly, the board’s agenda was passed. The citizen groups were thwarted. And, it was a dark day for local democracy. The old board members were acclaimed and no election was held. A series of bylaws was passed that will further enhance the powers of the board and lessen the public’s ability to influence decisions.

But, this small demonstration of the use of modern technology heralds an opportunity to fight back. It may be the tools for this battle need to be changed.


*For some, this may represent a conflict of interest in my duties as a local columnist in the newspaper. However, it should be clear, my job was technical. I never attended any strategy meetings, nor was I involved in any manner in the organization outside the construction and execution of the site. A student was hired to generate content, along with submissions from CAS members. I did some editing. I would also point out, I never was called on to provide objective reporting for the local media. As a columnist, I am only required to provide opinion and insight. Certainly, watching this process from the inside was quiet penetrating and most informative. There are many cases where columnists will crusade for a cause. In my writings for the column, I provided researched information and perspectives for consideration, as is the case all the time. And my editor was fully informed.

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