In the House

Doug Donaldson Budget Response 2017

 

 I first want to acknowledge we're on the Songhees and Esquimalt traditional territories of the Lekwungen-speaking peoples.

I'm so happy to be able to speak to this budget — so happy because this budget puts people first. I've been in the Legislature for quite a few years now, and it's the first time that I can say that it truly puts people first.

In the past, there have been budget philosophies displayed by the B.C. Liberals. Fair enough. They have a different way of approaching the budget. Their budgets cater to an elite few. This was their philosophy and that that will better for everyone. That philosophy, that approach, hasn't worked well in rural areas like the area I represent in Stikine.

Across the north and across rural areas, with that budget philosophy that we've seen displayed in the last 16 years, It has resulted in higher unemployment than we've seen in the rest of the province and fewer services over the last 16 years.

This budget recognizes people at the heart of the economy. It's really hard to overstate, in rural areas, how strong communities make for strong economies. The basis of strong communities are affordable communities and services in those communities that make life better for people. If you don't have those kinds of infrastructure put in place, then it's very hard to have a strong economy, and we know that the remainder of the province really depends on a strong rural economy.

That is why this budget that was presented by our Finance Minister just a couple days ago was such a refreshing approach, and I'm really looking forward to the impact it's going to have on creating stronger communities and, therefore, a stronger rural economy.

I want to give a couple examples that are specific to Stikine, which were included in this budget update, that are really going to help in that aspect. Then I'll get on to some of the specifics in the budget that relate to the ministry that I'm now the minister for.

The whole approach to facing mental health and addictions that's included in this budget…. I want people to know that the impacts of the opioid crisis, the fentanyl crisis — although many of the deaths from that crisis are in more major urban centres — are felt throughout B.C.

I know personally of a young woman from our area, who I taught at one point in the community college system, who was a victim of the fentanyl crisis in Kamloops, for instance. That impact goes back into the rural communities, and it really does have a ripple effect. So one of the things that I was really pleased to see in the budget was a new Ministry of Mental Health and Addictions.

I feel that I had a little bit of a role to play in that — and members on the opposite side as well — through the Select Standing Committee on Children and Youth. Through that committee, we undertook an examination of the youth mental health system in B.C. The member for North Vancouver–Seymour was on that committee. The member for Cariboo-Chilcotin was on that committee, and the member for Peace River South, the member for Chilliwack. The Speaker that we have now, the member for Abbotsford South, was on that committee. Dr. Moira Stilwell, whom I can name now, now that she's not an MLA, was a very, very strong advocate on that committee. The member for North Coast, one of the now government MLAs; the Finance Minister, from Victoria–Beacon Hill; as well as Maurine Karagianis were on that committee.

The very first recommendation that came out of that investigation that we did was that people needed a single entry point into the health and addictions services and system within the province. I must say that we advocated for a ministry, and Dr. Stilwell was one of the strongest proponents of that from the B.C. Liberal side at that point. But everybody on the committee voted for that recommendation of the single entry point.

What we heard from numerous families who were involved with young people, and from organizations that have faced mental health and addictions issues, was that — with a myriad of services and, sometimes, no services, the gaps — it was important to have a single entry point, someone who was responsible, somebody within government that people in the public could point to and say: "That ministry is responsible." This is something that's going to help lives across the province, and in rural areas as well.

I note in the budget that there's a $322 million lift, over the next three years, to address not just the fentanyl crisis but also to assist in creating the new ministry. It means actual new services on the ground, in many areas, around the fentanyl crisis. As I say, the impacts, the social costs, are incredible. When a person succumbs to an addiction, those ripple effects within a community, within extended family members — just in the emotional toll and the toll it takes to recover from that — have economic impacts as well. This is where a budget that is about people is linked to creating a strong economy. I'm so pleased to see that new Mental Health and Addictions Ministry.

Another area in the budget that's going to have a large impact in Stikine and on rural areas, again, with that linkage between the social-policy side and the economic-policy side, is in education. We have had a cohort of children going through the K-to-12 public education system that didn't have the resources that they should have had, going through, and the Supreme Court of Canada found that the B.C. Liberal government engaged in an illegal action when it tore up contracts. The restoring of $681 million, over the next three years, is a phenomenal boost to the K-to-12 public education system.

The reason I say it's even more important for rural areas is that the public education system is the great equalizer. There's sometimes a lack of opportunities in rural areas when it comes to the kind of recreational infrastructure we have, or some of the organizations that are based in more urban centres, but the school has a really important role, socially, in a small rural community.

It is the centre of where people interact, mostly in a positive way. Those relationships that get built throughout the times that parents interact while their children are in the school system lead to relationships that can withstand when more challenging issues face rural communities, more challenging issues around industrial development, for instance, or other issues. The school system has been so important in that in rural areas. Anybody who's lived in a small rural community, like I do, knows that the high school or the public school is where everything gets discussed, not just education.

The funding there will be a great equalizer. It'll put people from rural communities…. In many of the rural communities I represent, the socioeconomic indicators are not as good as the rest of the province. So having a public education system that's wholesome, that's fulsome, is going to ensure that a future generation of leaders and of people who can contribute to society is in place.

Finally, before I get to the specifics of my ministry, I want to touch a little bit on adults returning to improve their educational attainment. In this budget, we've seen $19 million for the restoration of free adult basic education and English language learning. Especially on the adult basic education, the restoration of that being free…. Returning to get a GED or a high school equivalent is a first step for many people in the rural areas before moving on to more advanced training, whether it's in the trades or health sciences or other areas. In order to bridge that gap, the ABE, adult basic education, being free is going to be a huge and significant step.

At one point, I taught in a college prep, I guess you'd say. It was people who hadn't been able to get the GED or the courses they needed in high school because it was at a different point in their lives, especially in the sciences. These people wanted to move on into licensed practical nursing or those kinds of health-related careers. At that point, ABE was free, and having that opportunity was incredible. Really, it was a lot of…. We're talking about grades 11 and 12 biology, which are prerequisites for moving on.

A lot of the students I taught were single mothers or women whose husbands weren't able to work anymore in the forest industry, and they were going back to advance themselves. If it hadn't been free, it would have made it a huge challenge and a huge barrier. Then, under the B.C. Liberals, there was a charge for ABE, and that was an impediment.

Now we've restored that funding, and it's going to make a huge difference for people. It also makes a huge difference for the colleges. Now they have more people getting the credentials they need to get into the college programs that the colleges offer. We've already seen that have an impact up north in Northwest Community College, for example.

Again, investing in people creates more opportunities for local people to gain employment locally. It relieves companies who are looking for people to work for them. It relieves their burden. These are local people who want to stay in rural communities, and now they're getting the chance to get the training to do so. It's making a huge difference already.

The increase of $100 per month for income and disability assistance and a $200 increase to earning exemptions will make a big difference in rural communities as well. It'll mean that people who have faced challenges and are facing challenges will be able to find ways to continue employment that supplements their income assistance more, with the $200.

Also, it means more money in their pockets to spend locally in retail and other sectors locally.

We know small business is the backbone and the foundation of rural communities. So anytime there's more money in people's pockets, more disposable income — and in the case of the $200 increase to earning exemptions, it's money people have been able to acquire through work activities — it's better for retail businesses and local businesses as well.

The specifics to my ministry I want to talk about a bit. I've covered a few things in rural areas where the social infrastructure is essential to the economic infrastructure. Focusing just on one or the other just doesn't cut it.

The focus in this budget is on people, and people are the basis of an economy. There is no economy without the people. I think that has to be re-emphasized, because the word, the lens, of economy, economy, economy…. Some people forget that there's a human element to it. That is what is important, especially in the northern rural areas.

Specific to my ministry…. I want to emphasize that much of my ministry is about jobs in the rural areas — Forests, Lands and Natural Resource Operations and now Rural Development. It's a huge ministry that touches on all aspects of what happens on the land base in the province.

Forestry. You know, you hear a lot of things about forestry, but it remains at the foundation of rural communities and rural economies. It's had its ups and downs, and under the previous government, it didn't get the focus that it needed. As a result, the media didn't focus as much on forestry.

But if you go to any chamber of commerce meeting in rural communities, and you talk to the people, especially the people who are in the banks in rural communities, they'll tell you forestry is still the basis of many communities in rural areas.

We know that 30,000 jobs were lost, direct jobs in the forest industry, under the last 16 years with the B.C. Liberals, but there are still 60,000 direct jobs from forestry-related activities in the province. And $7.4 billion in 2016 was generated in the provincial GDP from forestry activities. So it's still a major, major growing concern.

The provincial government revenue from '16-'17 was $900 million from forestry activities. That's not as high as it's been in the past, but it's still an important aspect.

I'm saying all this because the first bullet point on my mandate letter deals with softwood lumber. This softwood lumber disagreement now with the United States is having a major impact and will have a major impact unless it gets the focus it needs.

The U.S. market remains the most important market for B.C. lumber exports. Almost 66 percent of B.C. lumber exports go to the United States. We're also a major player when it comes Canada. Over 50 percent of U.S. softwood imports are coming from B.C. Not only is the U.S. market the biggest market for B.C., but the B.C. export is the largest source for U.S. softwood imports.

The last softwood lumber agreement ran out in 2016, over a year ago. Of course, there was a year before that where there was the ability to start negotiating. So over two years, we haven't had enough attention paid to this file by the B.C. Liberal government, especially in the form of the Premier taking the lead on the file. That didn't happen.

Canada is the lead negotiator. There's no uncertainty about that. But with B.C. being the source of 50 percent of the U.S. softwood imports, we have a major role to play in determining Canada's approach, influencing Canada's approach and making connections within the United States.

So I was very happy to see and witness the commitment that the now Premier said, that within 30 days of becoming government, he would make a trip to Ottawa and Washington on the softwood lumber file, and he did. That was the specific trip to Ottawa to meet with the Prime Minister to lay out B.C.'s interests.

The previous Premier didn't go to Washington. Premier Clark, Christy Clark, didn't make that trip, but within 30 days, our now Premier did. It was quite extraordinary. He was able to get a meeting with Wilbur Ross, the Commerce Secretary. Wilbur Ross has got a history with the President of the United States, a business history.

So it was very productive that our Premier was able to meet with the Commerce Secretary and lay out B.C.'s interests firsthand. Wilbur Ross has been tagged by the President of the United States as the Commerce Secretary to lead on this file. Now, Robert Lighthizer, the trade secretary, is starting to exert a little bit of influence, you might say, with the NAFTA negotiations, but at this point, Wilbur Ross is still the main contact.

The message that the Premier brought to Ottawa and Washington is that it's not "any deal is better than no deal." That seemed to be the previous approach. We are ensuring that B.C.'s interests be first and foremost at the table and that we will not accept just any deal as far as our input to the federal government goes.

That was made clear. I had a call with Minister Carr, Natural Resource Canada Minister — who will be responsible for the allocation if it does comes to a quota system — just to make sure that he knew that B.C. must be at the forefront before any deal is signed and that when any allocation does occur within Canada afterwards, if, in fact, a quota is part of what is agreed on, our interests are protected there.

The budget document took a few pages to go over the softwood lumber negotiations because they are so important. We know that there have been countervailing duties and anti-dumping duties already enacted by the government of the United States to a 27 percent average rate. That has an impact. It's a hardship on large and small companies, especially small companies, when cash flow comes into it. Paying these duties makes it very difficult.

I don't know if it was because of the intervention of the Premier or just that we're certainly more vocal on this issue now, but at least the International Trade Commission has delayed their decision till November 13 on the issue of duties. That's a good thing. Any time we can get a little bit longer to put our arguments in front of the people in Ottawa and then Washington is a good thing.

I hope that as housing demand increases in the United States, that will put the pressure on, because a shortage of timber for those houses is going to increase housing costs. There will be an impact on the consumer, so we hope for consumer pressure on the lobby groups who are against us in the United States. There are also going to be job impacts on Americans if they can't get the lumber they need to build those houses. We're hoping that those two things will have an impact on the lobbyists down there.

We're doing our part, keeping the federal government up to speed on our interests, working with industry and with labour organizations and ensuring that U.S. decision-makers know what our interests are. That's an important part of the rural economy, ensuring that jobs are there in forestry. The uncertainty has an impact.

The other thing in the budget that I was happy to see, because I've heard from industries who consume a lot of electricity, is the PST that previously was charged on those electrical rates…. Eliminating it on electricity purchases is part of the budget the Finance Minister presented. That's going to make a big difference.

I met with the B.C. Pulp and Paper Coalition recently. They outlined how…. That's a major industrial user of electricity, and the fact that B.C. was previously the only jurisdiction to levy a sales tax on electricity purchased by energy-intensive manufacturers like those in forestry and mining was, obviously, a competitive disadvantage.

It is going to be a $164 million hit. I recognize and understand that, but the pulp and paper sector alone, for instance, in B.C. employs 8,500 people directly. So there are a lot of jobs that can be not only protected by ensuring a competitive atmosphere, but also, we hope to see investment because of that increase in competitiveness and eliminating the PST in a two-year process.

This announcement that we had in the budget, on that tax measure we supported, was supported by many of the communities who know how important the pulp and paper industry is, including Vernon, Quesnel, Port Alberni and Port Alice. They've all written in support of this — North Cowichan, and up in the northeast, Mackenzie and Taylor. Those are jobs in those communities that this measure in the budget will be helping to protect.

On the budget issue, as far as taxes…. The small business tax — reducing that from 2.5 percent to 2 percent…. Again, in forestry, many of the towns have small businesses that are dependent on forestry. Those are the indirect jobs. We talked about 60,000 direct jobs, but I know that in the town I live in, there are at least two or three retail businesses directly dependent on forestry, let alone the consulting businesses and other businesses. That's just in Hazelton–New Hazelton.

In Smithers and towns in the northeast, throughout the Interior and the southeast, the reduction from 2.5 percent to 2 percent is a recognition that small businesses are the backbone of rural communities and that keeping them whole is important as well.

Of course, it's an unprecedented — that's the word that's being used a lot — season so far for wildfires, and we know it's not over. More than 4,000 firefighters have been fighting the fires in B.C., not just from the B.C. Wildfire Service but from other provinces and countries and private contractors. There have been 1,255 fires started since April 1. We've still got 156 fires burning — nine new ones. As recently as last night, a new one in the Elk Valley, in Elkford, that we're keeping an eye on for sure.

People might think this is over now, but there are still over 3,000 people on evacuation orders — out of their homes — and almost 10,000 on alert. So the situation is not over, although in this budget, we see an increase of over half a billion dollars in the wildfire-fighting budget. That's how much it's costing to ensure that public safety is covered, first and foremost, and that after that, structural damage is limited as much as it can be.

I just want to thank not only the people who've been fighting the fires on the front lines, the people who support them in the different operation centres that I visited and the volunteers in communities, but members of this Legislature, too, who've been impacted by the wildfire situation. I think of the member for Fraser-Nicola, who made a two-minute statement today, and it was obvious how much she has been impacted by the difficulties her communities have gone through. I just want to say thank you to the MLAs in the Legislature for working hard on behalf of their communities who've been impacted.

The fires aren't over, and the size is mind-boggling. Four times the size of Metro Vancouver has been consumed. Two times the size of the province of P.E.I. has been consumed. That's huge, and it's going to have some pretty significant, lasting impacts. We know that approximately 53 million cubic metres of merchantable timber, annual allowable cut timber, have been consumed by the fires.

Now, we don't know how much of that is recoverable. We've already been issuing cutting permits for companies in the Interior to go in and start cutting some of the fire-damaged timber. You want to get to it before it gets too dry and cracked to be merchantable. But we want to look at other ways of using that fire-damaged timber as well.

I've visited Prince George two times, Kamloops four times, Cache Creek, Ashcroft and Williams Lake, and the resilience of the people has been phenomenal. I want to just give a shout-out to the people in the communities who have weathered this storm and are still weathering it.

There is so little time to talk about all the good things in the budget, especially when it comes to my ministry: the $15 million we're putting towards capital cost to upgrade firefighting infrastructure that the province has, $140 million that's going to be focused on risk reduction and reforestation over the next three years. The rural development aspect is extremely important, going from recovery into the rural development stage, and that's what we're going to be focused on.

I just want to finish off with one area of the budget. I just can't get over how much joy it brings me. It's that the United Nations declaration on the rights of Indigenous people gets a bold headline and a paragraph in the budget. That's something we've never seen before, and it's going deliver a firm message to First Nations that we want to have a government-to- government relationship with, and that what is good for First Nations is good for everybody in B.C. and we're going to take the road together.