Stikine provincial candidates weigh in on COVID response and recovery

Most agree resource development key, but differ on how it should be approached

The COVID-19 pandemic has impacted people in B.C. more than anything else this year, resulting in more than 200 deaths, double-digit unemployment, and a ballooning provincial deficit.

In a Sept. 23 address to the nation, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau told Canadians that the country was in a second wave of the pandemic and that it “won’t be gathering for Thanksgiving.” He said it would take hard work to even be able to gather together for Christmas.

B.C. has seen new infections reach over 100 per day several times in September, dwarfing those at the previous height of the pandemic in March and April. New cases are expected to climb further as a result of sending children back to school and people spending more time indoors to escape colder weather.

Job losses and an economic shutdown prompted the provincial government to spend big to soften the blow to citizens and businesses. Former Finance Minister Carole James released the province’s first-quarter financial report Sept. 10, projecting a $12.8 billion deficit for the fiscal year that ends in March 2021.

Since July, the province has experienced better than expected employment gains, consumer spending and housing activity, but rising cases — many of them in younger people — and the possibility of new restrictions threaten to derail economic recovery.

The outcome of this month’s B.C. election will shape the future provincial response to the crisis.

Both NDP candidate Nathan Cullen and Liberal candidate Gordon Sebastian are satisfied with provincial action on the health aspect of the pandemic thus-far. Both emphasized the importance of public health authorities such as provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry, as well as, citizens working together to combat the virus.

“I think, and rightly so, people have given the NDP a lot of credit for the way they’ve handled it to this point,” said Cullen.

“We were the first jurisdiction in Canada to have to face this pandemic and Bonnie Henry’s leadership along with Premier Horgan and Adrian Dix did us all proud.”

Sebastian said that he is happy to see people in the Hazelton area wearing masks and generally abiding by the health authorities’ guidelines.

“Personally, I feel like we really need to work together to stem the increase of the virus in people,” he said.

“We really don’t know what we’re facing, we have suggestions from Dr. Henry and like every other scientist, they all rely on studies and research and in this case they really have not had time to do those. Basically, we’re all dealing with this in the dark, so when you’re in the dark, we have to work together and try to be as safe as we can.”

Cullen said that the government has a role in containing the virus, but that citizens still have a crucial role to play.

“It’s a balance between what government can do and what we as all individuals can do and I think Dr. Bonnie Henry’s right in saying we all bear that responsibility to each other to keep each other safe and to talk to our friends, our neighbours, our kids about how to do that,” Cullen said.

Rural BC Party candidate Darcy Repen said he defers to the health authorities when it comes to the pandemic response and does not want it to be a political issue.

“My approach is definitely that we have Northern Health and we have the provincial BCCDC (Centre for Disease Control) and I believe that they’re the ones on the front lines most directly impacted by the coronavirus and any surges and so I think we should let it be a medical issue and follow the guidance of our medical experts rather than make it a political issue,” he said.

Rod Taylor of the Christian Heritage Party of BC (CHP BC) was more critical of the government’s response to the crisis. He said that he thinks restrictions and lockdowns go too far, and that the government should explore other ways to minimize the effects of COVID-19.

“We think that right now the response is going overboard,” he said. “We hear a lot about the increased cases and the testing and we know there are some false positives and false negatives in the testing, but until the government starts to promote actual remedies like hydroxychloroquine, which it should be doing… their lockdown doesn’t seem appropriate to the situation.”

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration granted hydroxychloroquine an emergency authorization in March before suspending it months later after several trials showed the drug didn’t work against COVID-19 and raised the risk of heart, kidney, liver and other problems.

Taylor said that the focus should be on protecting the vulnerable populations like the elderly rather than younger generations, who generally experience milder symptoms. According to the Government of Canada, on Sept. 27, only 11 people under 30-years-old have been killed by COVID-19 in Canada, while nearly 90 per cent of Canada’s 9,247 deaths were people over 70-years-old.

“It’s evident now the very elderly are at the greatest risk, so we need to protect them,” he said. “Suicides are up; deaths due to failure to be treated for other conditions; failures to have surgeries that otherwise would have been done, there’s deaths due to that; closures of businesses; I think a lot of people are dying of other causes besides COVID.”

The effects of the COVID-19 pandemic have reverberated throughout B.C.’s economy, plunging the province into a projected $12.8 billion — the largest in B.C.’s history.

Taylor criticized the federal government’s use of tax revenue to extend COVID-19 benefits like transitioning the Canada Emergency Response Benefit (CERB) into a revamped Employment Insurance.

“Right now the federal government is especially at fault, and Trudeau has extended [benefits] into next summer,” he said.

“Some people are making more money now on these extended benefits than they were even before COVID hit and, of course, that money is coming out of tax dollars and future tax dollars. Our children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren will be paying for the wild spending going on today.”

Although Taylor said that he understands the high costs and reduction in revenue, the CHP BC’s long-term goal is mandatory balanced budgets. He said the levels of borrowing before the pandemic were too high, and continued borrowing on a large scale is a “trail to oblivion as far as economics goes.”

Repen also pointed to CERB, saying that government benefits have not been targeted enough and that the government needs to spend money wisely.

“While the government is handing out CERB cheques that’s a debt for the general population,” he said.

“I also believe that we need to make sure that the people that are most needing support are getting that support and one of the problems with the CERB and EI approach is that many of our poorest citizens are falling through the cracks of that program right now and I think that’s going to have a big impact both socially and on our health care system and certainly psychologically and economically. My emphasis would be to make sure we are spending money wisely if we are supporting people through the pandemic and that we emphasize the people at the bottom need to be kept afloat.”

Sebastian believes the usual process of taxing the population to increase revenue is not an option for at least five years, so the key to tackling the upcoming debt crisis lies in attracting global investment.

He cited the proposed pellet plant in Hazelton, which had Japanese investors lined up before they pulled out due to COVID. He wants to see the Province and federal government step up to attract replacement investors.

“Both federally and provincially they’re talking about shovel-ready projects to kick off the rebuilding of the economy, so we see that as one way to deal with the deficit,” he said.

BC NDP leader John Horgan said that the Oct. 24 election is necessary to provide stability, so the government can start dealing with problems like the deficit now, and continue to work over a period of years without the disruption of an election next fall. Cullen agrees.

“I think we have to be innovative, we have to build our economy back up and build it stronger and more diverse than it ever was and that means making sure we have more people working at solid wages in more and more innovative fields,” he said.

“So this is going to be the part of the reason for this election is to secure the mandate that will do that, that will allow the government to be able to plan for a few years not a few weeks and make those decisions together that will help everybody.”

COVID-19 has not only grown the provincial deficit, it has caused the overall economy to shrink. Central 1 Credit Union forecasts that B.C.’s economy will shrink by 6.1 per cent this year. According to WorkBC, the unemployment rate was 10.7 per cent in August, over double the five per cent unemployment rate in the same month last year.

Cullen said that there have been some positive signs since the start of the pandemic, but it will be important to support the resource sector and small businesses going forward.

“We’ve seen some rebound, we’ve seen some job creation that’s important, we’ve seen some sectors be able to be somewhat insulated, the mining sector for example is a pretty good example,” he said.

“Working with the private sector to make sure they have supports for all those small businesses, especially here in the northwest, that’s our lifeblood along with keeping the resource sector working strong and smart and doing better.”

Sebastian and Taylor also believe resource development is important to the economic recovery.

“The Stikine region is quite rich in forestry and minerals… I would say there’s a lot exploration that needs funding and they need to attract investors, we need to work together,” said Sebastian.

He said First Nations in the area are ready to work collaboratively to develop those resources throughout the region.

“We have a lot of resources here,” he said. “Smithers is doing quite well, there’s a lot work in Smithers, there’s a lot of government work, there’s a lot of exploration and a lot of resource development and Smithers is the home base for that. So, we’re going to have to start spreading that around to the Hazeltons and Kitwanga.”

Taylor goes even further on resource development. He said the government has done damage to the sector prior to the pandemic and should get out of the way of business. He also supports cuts to the government.

“Both federally and provincially, the resource sector, which now is in disarray for many reasons, was already suffering, especially oil and gas, before COVID hit and the federal government has been so arrogant about that and the B.C. government too has not done it’s part to make access for pipelines and so on,” he said.

“You start by opening resource development allowing businesses to do what they do best and that’s to create marketing pipelines as well as real pipelines.”

Repen believes the economy in Stikine specifically and rural areas in general have been neglected by Liberal and NDP B.C. governments alike.

“Interestingly, the Stikine’s economy has needed to be rebuilt for a long time, and again our rural regions have been an afterthought of our provincial and federal governments,” he said.

“We have many ingredients in the Stikine region to develop a sustainable and very stable economy and we need to take a collaborative approach with all of our stakeholders, business owners, First Nations, the labour force, and make sure we’re taking a proactive inventory of what we can do here. The future is bright for the Stikine, but we need political leadership to develop that economic base.”

B.C. Ecosocialist candidate, Edward Quinlan, did not return emails or phone calls for comment.


@BenBogstie
ben.bogstie@terracestandard.com

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-With files from Thom Barker

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