EMBRUN - For Ontario Health and Long-Term Care Minister George Smitherman, a lifelong self-confessed "city boy," the opportunity to visit one of the worldís top commercial dairy farms was too good to pass up on a recent trip to Russell County.
The day after playing in Prescott-Russell MPP Jean-Marc Lalondeís fundraising golf tournament, Smitherman toured Ferme Gillette in Embrun on July 12, along with a staff member, Lalonde and Russell Mayor Michael McHugh.
While at the large 330-head Holstein farm, which is owned and operated by Gilles Patenaude and his sons, Smitherman, who spends his days at Queenís Park dealing with difficult issues related to human health, had a hand in a miracle of animal health when he helped with the birth of a calf.
"Itís so beautiful," he said as he helped deliver the calf. "This is amazing."
Smitherman has some familiarity with life on the farm because his mother has a farm in Grey County, although it is not active, and he used to drive a tractor to plow snow.
"Iím the son of a truck driver, so Iím a little rough and ready...but I never drove a nice tractor before," he laughed.
That changed when Smitherman got to drive a Case International 7220 160-horsepower tractor after viewing some of the Patenaudesí prize-winning Holsteins.
Attentive and enthusiastic, Smitherman enjoyed his visit and was always interested in what he saw and what the Patenaudes do.
"Iím a city boy, but I adopt the theme of Curious George," he said. "I just love to experience new things, and today itís fair to say that I had a chance to do that."
While witnessing animal health, Smitherman took some time to speak about human health and some of the issues that concern rural residents in Prescott-Russell.
Smitherman says the provincial government has many strategies in place to deal with the problem of attracting new family physicians to rural areas, mainly producing more physicians and finding new models of practice.
In order to produce more physicians, Smitherman says theyíve begun to increase the size of medical schools and provide more opportunities to train in more rural settings within the schools.
"In the last year, we have increased the size of family practice within medical schools by 30 per cent," he said. "And because we have worked so much to improve compensations for doctors in a family setting, many doctors are taking this up again. We have worked to try and restore the vitality of the comprehensive family practitioner. We pay them more, we give them more support, and we make more opportunities in the medical schools for them to get that training and to be able to experience rural communities in that training."
The Liberal government has also worked to develop models of family health teams, which take advantage of the doctors that are available by bringing nurses, nurse practitioners and pharmacists with the doctors, so together they can care for more people.
Smitherman also emphasized his governmentís focus on prevention.
"You see in the cabinet shuffle two weeks ago, the premier appoints a new minister of health promotion, former mayor of Ottawa Jim Watson, to focus exactly on (prevention) because my job is hard because we have so many more people becoming sick, and so much of it is preventable," he said. "Our government is going to focus even more energy on this, but already weíve done many things on health promotion. We agree that the focus of a government must be more on what we can do to keep people healthy in the first place."
For example, mercury can be traced back to coal fire generating stations, and Ontario is getting out of coal fire generating stations, an example Smitherman calls a "huge commitment on the part of our government to increase the quality of the natural environment to sustain it."
But the visit was also a chance to get away from the office and explore something new, and Smitherman was grateful to get the opportunity.
"Iíll remember that (helping with the birth) and Iíll remember the very friendly people I met," he said.
Gilles Patenaude was happy to show the health minister around Ferme Gillette.
"To us it was a pleasurable experience to be able to make a minister aware of farming, and when heís in caucus heíll be more sympathetic to the things we might be bringing up in the caucus as far as farming is concerned," he said. "Although heís the health minister, heís a very important part of the caucus. But we like to do it just as a person to be helpful to our local politicians; they have to have our support."
Smitherman went away from his tour thrilled with the things he experienced.
"Of course driving a beautiful tractor, because Iím the son of a trucker, was great, but the chance to see new life occurring, that was pretty extraordinary and not something that Iím soon going to forget," he said. "One thing that Iím always struck by when I visit an environment like this is that the sophistication of our agricultural operations in Ontario is amazing. Here you have a world leader in dairy cattle, and I think this is just exceptional. Iíve enjoyed it very much."