Sep 30, 2020

For better or worse, it’s election time—let’s get on to the issues that matter

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Since the provincial election was called last week, the focus of debate so far has been the timing. But like it or not, we’re headed to the polls in less than a month—and it’s time to shift gears to focus on the many urgent issues at stake.

Top of that list of course is the pandemic itself. Regardless of when a vaccine becomes widely available, the impacts of this public health and economic crisis will reverberate for years to come. There is no single “recovery” plan that will see us through—governments at all levels will need to adapt and test strategies as the terrain continues to shift and needs change. Doing so means following the best available public health evidence, prioritizing those most impacted and least resourced and avoiding misguided panic over government debt.

Indeed, failing to make ambitious investments in the health and well-being of BC residents now and through the coming years would be profoundly shortsighted. Such public investments are key to backstopping our economy through what will continue to be rocky times—and are precisely what kept Canada and BC afloat during the initial phase of the pandemic. Even with the additional provincial spending announced so far (totaling about $8 billion including tax reductions) BC’s debt compared to the size of our economy is entirely manageable, especially at a time when interest rates are at historic lows.

Failing to make ambitious investments in the health and well-being of BC residents now and through the coming years would be profoundly shortsighted.

Bold action is also needed to address the emergencies that we already faced before this pandemic, many of which have only been worsened by it. The pandemic has laid bare what we already knew: there are huge equity gaps among BC residents and talking about a recovery that consigns many of our friends, family and neighbours to the pre-pandemic status quo is really no recovery at all.

The opioid crisis and the increasingly toxic drug supply have killed many more BC residents since March than COVID-19. The province has taken some steps towards creating a safe supply but much more is needed, alongside decriminalization, significant investment in harm reduction programming and increased resourcing of community-led wrap-around services.

BC’s first-ever poverty reduction plan was brought in a year before the pandemic hit and contained a host of important measures (perhaps most notably a new BC child opportunity benefit that kicks in October 1). But the targets for reducing poverty were not ambitious and income assistance rates were left far below the poverty line. Since April, rates have been boosted by a desperately needed $300 per month but so far this measure is temporary. The province needs to substantially increase rates on a permanent basis. Such a move would be popular: a public opinion poll commissioned early in the summer by the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives found that 67% of BC residents support bringing social assistance rates up over the poverty line.

Housing is another area where important actions have been taken in recent years—but we can’t afford to stop now. An accelerated build-out of non-market rental housing is key to both poverty reduction and getting around sky-high housing costs (in Metro Vancouver and beyond) that make life so stressful for both lower- and middle-income people. The next government must also invest in targetted housing that meets the needs of people who face significant barriers to accessing the housing market including transgender people, sex trade workers, women who use drugs and families in need of supportive housing.

The pandemic has laid bare what we already knew: there are huge equity gaps among BC residents.   

Also on the affordability front, BC needs to build on initial major steps by moving more quickly towards a quality, affordable child care system. The federal government’s throne speech announcement last week that it will partner with provinces towards a national child care program should make the job easier. Now is the time to build that publicly funded system.

Fast-tracking child care investments is a critical part of a feminist economic recovery. Mothers, especially those with young children, were hard-hit by pandemic-induced job losses. Women-dominated sectors like grocery retail and seniors care are also newly understood as essential yet continue to be under-valued when it comes to wages, making access to affordable child care all the more urgent.

Jobs in sectors like retail and seniors care are not only dominated by women, they also tend to be filled by racialized and/or immigrant workers with precarious working conditions. Ensuring decent working conditions and a livable income are steps the province can take to address racial injustice in our province.

Tackling racial injustice also means focusing on alternatives to policing and the criminal justice system, like community mental health supports, gender-based violence services, and supports for sex workers. It also requires action on systemic problems like poverty that disproportionately impact Indigenous and racialized people and lead to criminalization.

The province made a historic step towards reconciliation when it enshrined the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) into law. But implementation has only just begun, and the next government must commit to the full implementation of UNDRIP including the realization of the right of Indigenous peoples to give free, prior and informed consent before any decisions are made that impact their land and resources.

Implementation has only just begun and the next government must commit to the full implementation of UNDRIP.

Just over a year ago the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls found that the violence experienced by Indigenous women, girls, Two Spirit, trans and gender-diverse people amounts to a genocide. Yet the Inquiry’s 231 recommendations remain largely unfulfilled and survivors and families continue to await both a provincial and federal implementation plan. In the meantime, rates of gender-based violence have increased by 20% to 30% during the pandemic. The recent $10 million investment in community-based emergency sexual assault services is a good first step but not nearly enough to support a strong service base for survivors across BC to access.

And we haven’t even mentioned the climate emergency, which as the recent wildfires and choking smoke reminded us does not slow down for a pandemic. Turning the tide on climate change means shifting focus from ever-changing (and never-met) emissions reduction targets to the source of the problem: extracting and burning fossil fuels. That means getting serious about moving away from both consumption and production of oil, gas and coal over the next two decades instead of doubling down on LNG and fracking. Instead of ramping up subsidies to these industries, we should ramp up investments in green jobs (including in areas like child care and seniors care) and supporting regions and workers outside the province’s southwest region through the transition.

These problems are interconnected and can feel overwhelming, but they are not. In every case, there are a multitude of solutions at hand. The investments needed to tackle them—from housing to child care to climate action—are also key to creating good jobs that can help us weather the pandemic and come out the other side with a strong economy and social fabric.

And while they won’t be solved overnight, if the early days of the pandemic showed us anything, it is that British Columbians are capable of extraordinary solidarity and that governments are capable of moving with remarkable speed when the situation demands it.

This is the terrain we need our political leaders to fight for.

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