Air conditioning breakdown shows desperate need for renovations at Women’s Health Clinic, director says

A lack of air conditioning for almost two weeks has forced the Women’s Health Clinic in Winnipeg to send staff home and reduce its in-person offerings to only medical care for patients — an issue that points to a need for significant investment in the clinic’s aging facility, its executive director says.

“It’s definitely sweaty,” Kemlin Nembhard said inside an office in the clinic, as she recalled the indoor temperature hitting 30 C after the air conditioning unit broke two weekends ago. 

Since then, the community health clinic has scrambled to cool its downtown Winnipeg building by opening windows, purchasing new fans and installing a portable air conditioner. Some staff were sent home, to avoid generating more heat in the enclosed space.

It might be another week, or longer, until mechanics find and replace parts for the air conditioning, Nembhard said.

The clinic has rescheduled some appointments to be conducted virtually or by phone, while ensuring medical care appointments are happening in the office, she said.

“Many of those things need to happen in person, and many of those things are time-sensitive.”

The Women’s Health Clinic supports more than 35,000 people every year with a range of services, including reproductive and sexual health, primary care, abortion services, midwifery and counselling.

The broken air conditioning unit is another sign the clinic’s 419 Graham Ave. base is aging. 

A stain is seen on a ceiling tile, while the above are exposed.
The Women’s Health Clinic building at 419 Graham Ave. is increasingly showing its age. (Jaison Empson/CBC)

The 60-year-old building isn’t accessible. The elevator doesn’t line up with the floor, the stairs are narrow and steep. A stretcher cannot manoeuvre the hallways, while some bigger wheelchairs won’t fit into the bathrooms. It’s taken a year to fix water damage, due to concerns about disturbing the asbestos the building is rife with, Nembhard said.

There’s also a worry the building will keep deteriorating.

“Our elevator is the original elevator; the boiler is the original boiler,” she said.

“We’re very aware that if one of those systems went down, it would jeopardize care for thousands of people.”

NDP promised funding

During last year’s election campaign, the NDP committed in a social media video to providing “full capital funding” to retrofit the building. 

After forming government, Premier Wab Kinew directed Health Minister Uzoma Asagwara in an October mandate letter to fund “critical renovations” at the clinic.

At this point, the province hasn’t provided any funding. Asagwara said help will be coming, but didn’t provide a timeline.

“We’re going to continue to listen to them, to meet with them and work with them so that whatever they decide to do moving forward, they know they have the support of our government,” they said.

Nembhard said she’s hoping for more concrete details in the coming weeks, pointing to the air conditioning breakdown as a “perfect example” why renovations are needed. 

The clinic has worked for a number of years to develop a capital campaign to solicit donations, which it has yet to launch.

“We’re actually working with the provincial government right now, because ultimately, they need to come to the table to support that,” said Nembhard.

She estimates it’ll cost around $20 million to remodel the building. The plan is to expand to five floors, from the existing three, and add more examination rooms.

“The only thing that’s going to be left are the floors and the walls.”

Nembhard stresses that’s the best option available, rather than a relocation. 

Several inches of the bottom of an elevator floor is peaking above the floor of the building.
The elevator at the Women’s Health Clinic doesn’t line up with the floor, creating a tripping hazard and making it inaccessible to some. (Jaison Empson/CBC)

“One of the questions I’ve had people ask is: Why this space? Why don’t we just move?” she said.

“We own the space, which I think is of paramount importance for us as we are the … largest abortion provider in the province.”

She doesn’t want her clinic’s services, including abortion access — a politically volatile issue — to be dictated by governments or landlords.

“Ultimately, we don’t want to be at the whim of those sort of changing climates,” and owning the space ensures that care isn’t interrupted, Nembhard said.

That means the health-care tower True North Real Estate Development wants to build where Portage Place mall sits — in which the province intends to lease space — isn’t an option for the clinic.

Some patients aren’t comfortable going into unfamiliar hospitals or institutions, she said.

“I shudder to think about our clients having to navigate a [health-care] tower looking for abortion care, for instance — or after having, let’s say, experienced sexual assault having to navigate finding a place in a tower.”

Asagwara said the clinic should determine its location based on the best interests of its patients. 

“Ultimately, the decision to stay in that building or not stay in that building falls with the Women’s Health Clinic,” the health minister said.

The clinic was initially a tenant at 419 Graham Ave., before the property was donated to it around 20 years ago.

Earlier this year, Bear Clan Patrol started to use part of the building for its headquarters.

Women’s Health Clinic in Winnipeg showing its age as air conditioner breaks down

14 minutes ago

Duration 1:56

The head of a community health clinic in downtown Winnipeg says a broken air conditioner is a ‘perfect example’ as to why the clinic’s facility needs major renovations.