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Paramedics strike decision linked to Olympics, memo suggests

A strongly worded VANOC memo could be behind the provincial government’s decision to force striking paramedics back to work, a union leader representing the workers said today.

“We always suspected that [the Olympics] had something to do with it,” CUPE BC President Barry O’Neill told the Tyee.

Health Minister Kevin Falcon introduced legislation Monday that ended the seven month strike. The decision outraged striking paramedics, who were in the middle of voting on the government’s latest offer.

The province was worried about labour shortages in the face of an H1N1 pandemic, Falcon said. He denied the Olympics played a role.

“VANOC Medical Services (and thus the IOC) requires definitive confirmation by Oct 1, 2009 that all required ambulance services will be provided as planned,” reads the memo cited by O’Neill.

It was sent from Vancouver Games medical director Dr. Mike Wilkinson to Ambulance Service CEO Lee Doney in September. The document calls for a guarantee there will be no disruptions or reductions in service during the Games.

"If we are unable to obtain that guarantee (through either settlement of the strike or legislated "detente" for the Games), then VANOC will be required to initiate alternative contingency plans to avoid cancellation of the Games," it reads.

O’Neill said the document itself doesn’t prove the province bowed to the wishes of Games organizers. But with less than four months until the Olympics, VANOC wields a lot of power, he said.

“People have to draw their own conclusion about the kind of extreme language in here,” O’Neill said. “It doesn’t get much heavier than that.”

Falcon acknowledged the memo today, but denied it was central to the government's decision.

"I don't think there's anything new there at all," he told reporters in Victoria. "That memo was sent back in September and all VANOC is saying is they want to make sure there's paramedical coverage at their events."

He said there's been over 300 cases of H1N1 since April. And the pandemic is getting more serious all the time.

"I won't deny that the Olympics isn't important in this whole calculation, but the H1N1 pandemic is clearly the priority," Falcon said.

Readers may be puzzled why ambulance services were still operating, though the union representing paramedics was on strike. That's because of a strict Essential Services Order that forced employees to stay on the job.

Union officials did advise paramedics to withhold small tasks such as scanning patient care records.

The provincial health ministry argued the strike has strained ambulance services, despite the essential services ruling.

"We will continue to defer comment to the Province of British Columbia on this matter," reads an emailed response from VANOC.

Geoff Dembicki reports for the Tyee. With files from the Tyee's Legislative Bureau Chief Andrew MacLeod.

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