Premier David Eby said his government is committed to helping rural British Columbia.
“I can think we can do a better job than previous governments have of delivering for rural communities and I look forward to proving that, because really just saying that isn’t sufficient,” he said Friday after addressing delegates at the Union of British Columbia Municipalities annual conference in Vancouver. “We actually need to show it.”
He pointed to two announcements made during his speech.
The first sees the province spend $4.75 million to help train volunteer firefighters. The second sees $20 million go toward the Canadian Cancer Society and Hope Air help people in rural and remote areas travel for cancer.
Eby promises came during a short speech that preceded an extensive period that saw him answer questions from the delegates’ floor with outgoing UBCM president Jen Ford moderating.
“I’m not going to pretend to be anything other than a guy who lives in Vancouver,” he said. “I grew up in a suburban area, I don’t know rural life like many people in this room. But what I do know and what I’ve heard from you many times and what every member of our caucus in from a rural community reinforces for me all the time, is that government needs to have a lens on programs to understand that programs and implementation (of programs) play out differently in rural communities.”
Eby’s speech also included a promise of $61 million to help accelerate housing.
Eby acknowledged that the province is asking much of municipalities to deliver more housing. He pointed to pending legislation next month allowing for more density, saying it will create more work for municipal staff. The money will help municipalities build the necessary capacity, he said.
Eby spoke shortly after federal energy minister Jonathan Wilkinson had promised delegates that the federal government would bring forward additional but unspecified housing measures in the fall.
Wilkinson acknowledged the need for more federal action, but also called on the province and the municipalities to create a more “conducive” regulatory environment with greater collaboration.
Eby didn’t dispute that, but also signalled it goes both ways.
“If you are looking for a home right now and you can’t afford it, the last thing you want to hear, is two levels of government bickering back and forth, about whose job it is,” Eby said.
“The Province of B.C. is not waiting for the federal government. We are taking action, we are working with local government, we are putting literally billions into housing, we are using public lands to build more affordable housing. What we’re trying to do is set an example. Here are opportunities for Ottawa to get involved.”
Eby also signalled B.C.’s growing satisfaction with Ottawa’s recent action in praising the federal government’s decision to eliminate the GST for new rental construction.
“The GST announcement is actually a very big deal in terms of getting some of those projects off the sidelines,” he said.
He also predicted additional progress in the federal housing accelerator fund to the infrastructure needs of local municipalities after acknowledging struggles.
Others question dealt with the related issues of public safety, the decriminalization of drugs and mental health and addictions.
Eby said his government will bring forward legislation in the fall that will go beyond recent changes announced by Health Canada as part of the temporary decriminalization of certain illicit drugs. The changes expanded the prohibited possession of illicit drugs from schools grounds to playgrounds, spray pools, wading pools and skate parks.
The decriminalization trial is part and parcel of a policy package to deal with the toxic drug crisis that has claimed the lives of more than 12,500 British Columbians since April 2016.
He said the legislation will set a minimum standard across B.C., adding that municipalities can go beyond it.
He also addressed concerns about the lack of resources for people dealing with mental health and addiction. The provincial government is working with communities across the province, he said.
“There are proposals across B.C. that are coming forward,” he said, pointing to discussions between the Canadian Mental Health Association and relevant ministries.
“I can tell you unequivocally, that one of our biggest challenges around this, is not a lack of willingness, or even funding. We have $1 billion in the budget around mental health and addictions treatment. Our biggest challenge is the personnel to be able to deliver that we want to be able to deliver.”