The provincial government is cranking out free air conditioners for vulnerable British Columbians, but it will take some time before all of them come online.
Others, meanwhile, are questioning whether the provincial government is doing enough to protect vulnerable populations from the potentially deadly effects of heat extremes.
Health Minister Adrian Dix announced Tuesday (June 27) that B.C. will spend $10 million through BC Hydro for about 8,000 free air-conditioning units for vulnerable individuals. Half of the units will go toward apartments or multi-unit dwellings, the rest toward single-family homes.
Dix made the announcement with Chris O’Riley, president and chief executive officer of BC Hydro, which will administer the application process for the units.
“It’s a major step forward and we’ll build off other programs to help British Columbia access cooling devices,” O’Riley said.
BC Hydro is well-equipped to handle the application process for the units and will be able to work through issues, Dix added. But the process will take three years, which he conceded is some time.
“We are looking to proceed right away and that is the goal over the next three years,” he said. “It’s not to do it all in the first month, but we have a system in place.”
“We still have to purchase…and install air conditioners and that can take some time.”
Income and other factors, such as age and health, will come into play, Dix said.
Counting existing programs, the government will distribute about 10,000 air-conditioning units. While Dix could not give a precise number of people who would benefit, he called today’s announcement a significant investment that responds to one of the recommendations from the BC Coroners Service. Its review of the 2021 heat dome that killed 619 people between June 25 and July 1 found the vast majority who died were found without air conditioning (93 per cent) or fans (76 per cent).
Reaction to the announcement has been mixed. BC Greens Leader Sonia Furstenau said she is relieved to see the government move ahead with this necessary step, which she predicted “will protect some people from increasingly frequent heat events.”
But it ultimately falls short of what is needed, she added.
“Hundreds of thousands of British Columbians live in poverty and that number is growing,” Furstenau said. “Hundreds of thousands of British Columbians are seniors and hundreds of thousands are disabled. These people all need cooling units and air filtration and 8,000 air conditioners over three years will not be enough.”
British Columbia has almost 867,000 single-detached homes and more than 221,000 apartments, according to the 2021 census.
Meanwhile, Shirley Bond, BC United’s Shadow Minister for Health, questioned the pace of the action.
“It took two years for Minister Dix to finally announce a three-year plan to provide vital air conditioning units to vulnerable British Columbians,” Bond said. “With such a long timeline, after an unacceptably long delay, people have no confidence the NDP will actually deliver on this promise or ever address the additional steps necessary to prevent this level of tragedy from happening again. Once again, it is too little, too late.”
Dix defended his government’s record, pointing to $52 million provided to long-term care facilities to install or upgrade existing heating, ventilation, and air-conditioning systems, the distribution of emergency inventory of cooling and clean air items to non-profit operators, and investments in BC Emergency Health Services.
He also pointed to the introduction of the BC Heat Alert and Response System and the introduction of broadcast-intrusive emergency alerts during extreme heat emergencies.
“It may be that demands (for air conditioners) exceeds it and we will have to do more,” he said. “But it is an extremely strong statement and start in terms of focusing on vulnerable people.”