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Wildfires, opioids, homes on agenda at gathering of B.C.’s local leaders

Union of B.C. Municipalities convention begins Monday

The triple threats of wildfires, opioids and housing needs facing British Columbia are the focus of a weeklong gathering of elected municipal and provincial leaders in Vancouver at the annual Union of B.C. Municipalities convention.

A record attendance of more than 2,000 delegates is expected at the convention, which starts Monday and concludes Friday with a speech by Premier David Eby.

UBCM president Jen Ford said in an interview that it’s a very challenging time to be in local government.

“There’s a lot of really hard topics and we’re not afraid to face them together.”

Many communities in B.C. have been dealing with some kind of climate-change related emergency, either wildfires, floods, landslides or drought, she said. Adding to those troubles are the overlapping crises of affordability, homelessness and mental health and addiction issues.

On Monday, delegates will hear from Provincial Health Officer Dr. Bonnie Henry, who is expected to discuss B.C.’s drug decriminalization program and public use of illegal substances, while Housing Minister Ravi Kahlon will lead a forum on housing and building communities.

“Metro Vancouver is anticipating one million new residents by 2050 and we know that climate change is completely changing the rules for infrastructure needed by communities,” said Ford, a member of Whistler council and the Squamish-Lillooet Regional District chair.

“We need to build sustainable communities and we need to know that the province is committed to developing a robust infrastructure plan: hospitals, schools, daycares, roadways,” she said. “All of these items need to be in place so that all of the housing we want to come on line is supported and not on the backs of existing taxpayers.”

The New Democrat government is expected to introduce housing-focused legislation this fall that streamlines provincial approval processes, said Ford, adding the new legislation follows recent laws aimed at increasing the supply of homes and rental properties.

Henry’s participation in a forum on decriminalization and public drug use comes less than a week after the federal government approved changes to B.C.’s drug decriminalization policy to prohibit people possessing illegal substances near playgrounds and parks.

READ ALSO: B.C. excludes playgrounds, rec areas from drug decriminalization trial

The new changes mean illegal drug possession within 15 metres of playgrounds, waterparks and skate parks will be prohibited starting Monday, although possession was already prohibited at school grounds, hospitals, airports and child-care facilities.

The federal government gave B.C. an exemption from the law to allow for the removal of criminal penalties for people caught with a small amount of illicit drugs for personal use.

Ford, who said the UBCM executive is considering introducing a special decriminalization resolution at the convention, said the new prohibitions are a step forward, but municipalities are looking for further bans to include parks and sports fields.

“They haven’t touched that one yet,” she said. “We’ve been hearing from residents that the current rules, which allow consumption in parks and sports fields, are not working.”

The UBCM has passed previous motions endorsing decriminalization, “but what really needs to happen is we need adequate housing and treatment supports to support the work of decriminalization,” said Ford.

The BC Coroners Service reported last month at least 1,455 deaths in the province attributed to toxic drugs so far this year, with 12,739 overdose drug deaths since April 2016 when the province first declared a public health emergency.

It was a record wildfire season in the province, with almost 24,000 square kilometres of area burned and more than 400 structures, mostly homes, destroyed.

Ford said wildfires will also be discussed by delegates in sessions on future plans, safer communities and health impacts.

“There’s a lot of interest from our members on what went right and what could be improved upon for the future,” she said.

“We are hearing from our members that the process for accessing funding to support fire smarting our communities can be too onerous for such a critical issue,” Ford said.

The province ended its state of emergency on Thursday, saying cooling temperatures had reduced the wildfire risks.

During the peak of the fires, about 70,000 people were either on evacuation order or alert as wildfires threatened several communities.

READ ALSO: B.C. launches task force to deal with climate emergencies

Dirk Meissner, The Canadian Press