Jim Gilmore, the association’s first director of communications, brought a raft of sweeping changes and innovations to the association—many of which are still in place today—over his 20-year career.
Doctors of BC, and the BCMA before it, has been blessed with many special people who have contributed to the success of the organization over the last century.
Presidents, Board members, ordinary members, and staff have made it a great organization that represents the practising doctors of the province and protects the health of the people of BC. One such person is Mr Jim Gilmore, the association’s first director of communications, serving from 1973 to 1993.
Until Jim joined the association, communications and public relations were handled by the executive director, Dr E.C. (Tim) McCoy and Mr Dorwin Baird. Two factors convinced Drs McCoy, David Bachop (president) and Don Rix (chair of the Communications Committee) that the BCMA needed a full-time communications expert.
First, on 1 September 1965, Premier W.A.C. Bennett introduced the BC Medical Plan, British Columbia’s first medicare program. This was rolled into the federal government’s national plan in 1968, resulting in medicare as we know it now. The BCMA signed a 5-year master agreement with the government that brought its members into the BC Medical Plan. Because the agreement included an escalator clause that provided for automatic increases in payments based on the consumer price and industrial wage indices, doctors initially did very well under medicare. However, by 1971 the relationship between the government and the BCMA deteriorated and Premier Bennett attacked the profession by publishing what has become known as the Blue Book, listing only the gross income figures paid to doctors through medicare. He also put a temporary cap of $100 000 on income for individual doctors from (what had become) the Medical Services Plan of BC.
Second, the association was involved with an increasingly virulent discourse with the new reform-minded group of physicians. Dr McCoy decided that having a full-time professional communications expert would help him deal with attacks from the premier and assist in fending off attacks from the reformers. These events led to the BCMA looking for its first director of communications.
Jim Gilmore was born and grew up in Vancouver. After graduating from high school, he went to work at the Vancouver Sun, the Province, and the Vancouver News Herald. He was a sports reporter and then became a columnist, working alongside the legendary Jack Wasserman. He continued on to write an entertainment column, interviewing Frank Sinatra and George Burns among others, and became an on-air personality at CHAN TV (now Global TV).
Jim decided to leave the news business and was hired by the BC optometrists to lobby for the right of that group to be covered in any new federal health plan, as all indications were that optometric services would not be covered in the proposed legislation. Having caught the attention of the national optometry association, Jim was lured east to work as the executive director of the Canadian Association of Optometrists and quickly became recognized as one of Canada’s most effective lobbyists.
The then-leader of the opposition, John Diefenbaker, once asked Jim about the provision of eye care in Prince Albert, Saskatchewan, only to be told that there were “nine eye doctors and only one of them was an MD!” Jim knew every restaurant that cabinet members ate at and he made sure there was always an optometrist sitting at the next table when one of them came to dine. Politicians were heard to comment, “That’s Jim trying to get into medicare.” Legislation was changed to include optometrists, and, as a result, Jim was named one of Canada’s top 10 lobbyists.
Jim next worked as chief of staff for Ron Basford, a cabinet minister in Pierre Trudeau’s government. He left that position to become the first public relations manager for the Royal Bank in BC. Around this time, Dr McCoy had started his search for a director of communications and public relations and Jim was headhunted for this position in 1973.
Jim rapidly went about setting up an effective communications structure to relay the association’s messaging to the press, public, and government.
In the early 1970s, the press in Vancouver often asked the BCMA for comments about issues but got little response from organized medicine. Media leaders such as Jack Webster complained about the inability to even get a quote, let alone an in-depth interview. Jim, who felt that “fighting with the media is like kicking a skunk,” quickly went about changing this, recognizing that access to public opinion through the Jack Websters of the world was essential in order for the BCMA to win confrontations with government. Interviews were scheduled, backgrounders were given, and tables were bought at all the fundraising dinners for political parties and media events.
Jim built an extensive and efficient communications structure throughout the province, asking each local medical society to appoint a communications officer. The communications officers went to Vancouver for training on a regular basis, with outside consultants such as Jack Webster leading the discussions. One of Jim’s favorite memories is Webster and Rafe Mair walking between tables teaching the doctors how to deal with the media. Soon, every local paper and radio station in the province had a contact they could talk to about medical issues.
While building a successful communications outreach program, Jim developed sessions on media training for the president and executive members taught by members of the media and supplemented by outside experts in public relations. In particular, the presidents and presidents-elect were trained at great length on how to stay on point when delivering a message and answer a question without making mistakes.
In the late 1970s, the presidency passed from the establishment group to the reformers, with many in the latter group feeling that some senior staff at the BCMA had been working against their interests. Jim was number one on their hit list.
At the same time, the BCMA and government locked horns in long and bitter negotiations. After a decade of poor increases, the doctors of the province set out to achieve a large fee increase. Along with executive director Dr Norman Rigby, professional negotiator Mr Ben Trevino, and the Negotiating Committee, Jim helped orchestrate the communications strategy that supported negotiations that eventually dragged on for almost 2 years.
By 1981, Dr Alex Mandeville was president and the negotiations came to a head. Diligently coached by Jim, Dr Mandeville did a masterful job disseminating information through the press that helped the BCMA achieve a 40% increase in fees. In his valedictory speech, Dr Mandeville started by praising Jim’s work on behalf of the doctors of BC, emphasizing his professionalism and dedication.
Over the next 15 years, Jim worked with all the officers of the BCMA in the most professional manner. There were many challenges along the way, but Jim and the Communications Department staff helped steer the BCMA through the oft-troubled waters of government relations and public opinion.
Apart from medico-political matters, the Communication Department under Jim’s leadership was involved in a number of high-profile campaigns on improving public health (see “Public health campaigns in the vanguard”).
Jim Gilmore’s other passion was the British Columbia Medical Journal. In the early 1970s many felt the journal was staid and stuffy. He set out to make it a publication that members were itching to read. The style was changed and soon the BCMJ became a model for other provincial medical publications in Canada.
After Jim retired in 1993 he received many accolades, including being made an honorary member of the BCMA—one of the few non-doctors to be so recognized.
He also received the Pat Monk Award, the highest honor of the Public Relations Society of BC. In retirement, Jim became a member of the Archives Committee and has spent countless hours helping to organize the thousands of pictures taken in the last several decades.
Jim now lives in Victoria to be near his son and his family.
Public health campaigns in the vanguard
Mandatory use of seatbelts
The first public policy issue that the BC Medical Association tackled was the use of seatbelts. The BC government in the mid-1970s was against making the use of seatbelts mandatory. They believed such laws unnecessarily intruded into people’s lives. The BCMA organized a petition that was signed by thousands of British Columbians and, along with the lobbying efforts of local doctors through the MD/MLA program, successfully encouraged the government to change its policy and pass legislation making the use of seatbelts mandatory for everyone over the age of 16 in 1977.
Moratorium on uranium mining
In 1979, a subsidiary of Denison Mines applied for a licence to mine uranium near Clearwater. Local family physician Dr Bob Woollard brought the issue to the BCMA.
Due to the public outcry orchestrated through the efforts of the Communications Department, the government appointed a Royal Commission that recommended there be a moratorium on uranium mining in BC, which remains in place today.
Use of infant car seats and child car seat restraints
The 1977 seatbelt legislation did not cover infants, toddlers, and children. The government felt that imposing child restraints in vehicles would once again intrude into people’s lives.
Jim came up with the idea to highlight the benefits of using car seats—donating one to the first baby born each year in every hospital in the province. This resulted in media coverage of a local doctor along with the new parents and a baby in the car seat. This media campaign pressured the government to make use of child restraints mandatory, and encouraged parents to safely restrain their children before the law was even passed.
A petition with 104 000 signatures was left on the front steps of the legislature, but the government refused to take delivery—a misstep carefully documented by the press, who had been alerted by Jim. The government soon capitulated and made infant and child restraint use mandatory in 1985.
Ban on smoking in public places
Tobacco advertising was banned in BC in 1971, but smoking in public remained legal. Over the following 15 years, successive provincial governments refused to enact a ban. Jim came up with a multifaceted campaign during the mid-1980s. The association distributed decals to restaurants to advertise that they had nonsmoking sections and organized Cold Turkey Day to encourage people to quit smoking. Close to 100 000 people signed petitions that were presented to government, finally leading to BC forbidding the sale of tobacco products to minors and eventually banning smoking in all public places.
Bicycle helmet use
As bicycle use in BC continued to increase so did the number of cycling-related head injuries treated in the ERs and doctors’ offices. In the early 1990s the association mounted a campaign to push the government to legislate the need for helmets to be worn while riding a bicycle. Jim’s favorite and by far the most effective tool was an ad that showed a watermelon smashed on the pavement next to an intact watermelon in a helmet, with the caption “Protect Your Melon!” It did not take long for the public to get behind the campaign, and the government passed bicycle helmet legislation in 1995.
Top: Jim in the 1970s around the time he was hired as communications director.
Bottom: Jim in his favorite deerstalker hat.