2000 Legislative Session: 4th Session, 36th Parliament
The following electronic version is for informational purposes only.
The printed version remains the official version.
MONDAY, MAY 15, 2000
Volume 19, Number 16
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The House met at 2:06 p.m.
Hon. U. Dosanjh: One of the most prominent and tireless advocates for educating young people about the dangers of tobacco is here today. Dr. Jeffrey Wigand is a former chief scientist and senior executive for the tobacco industry and the inspiration for the movie The Insider. He has formed a non-profit foundation called Smoke-Free Kids. On behalf of this organization, he travels the world sharing his inside knowledge of the tobacco industry with young people in the hope that this information will encourage them not to smoke. Will the House please join me in welcoming Dr. Wigand.
Hon. Speaker, I have one more introduction. I am very pleased to introduce one of the members of B.C.'s Teen Tobacco Team, Mitch Matthews, a grade 10 student from Port Alberni. Accompanying him is Kelly Dowling, the regional tobacco reduction coordinator for the Central Vancouver Island health region. The eight members of the volunteer Teen Tobacco Team and the 20 coordinators who work for the local health authorities advise the Ministry of Health on protecting kids from tobacco and support our tobacco strategy in B.C.'s schools and communities. They do a wonderful job. Please join me in welcoming Mitch Matthews and Kelly Dowling.
C. Clark: In the official opposition we are blessed with the services of Marc Coward, who's one of our legislative interns. He is from Burnaby, my hometown. His mother and aunts are joining us today, and I'd like to introduce them: Korlene Coward, his mom; Issy Tompkins, his aunt; and Lil Petrowich, another aunt. On behalf of myself and the official opposition, I'd like to tell all three "Happy Mother's Day."
Hon. G. Mann Brewin: It is with pleasure that I have two introductions to make today. The first one, in the gallery just opposite, is Bev Horsman, who is a trustee from school district 61, which is the Victoria school board. With her are members and attendants of the Victoria READ Society. The READ Society teaches English and other academic skills. Right now we have a group of English-as-a-second-language students here today. We welcome all of you. Thank you very much for coming.
The second introduction I have is for two visitors from the beautiful and historic constituency of Oak Bay-Gordon Head, who are watching the proceeding with some care. One of them is Alex Dutton. She is currently studying political science at Queen's University in Ontario. She is accompanied by her mother, Jane Dutton. I ask the House to please extend a warm welcome to these two visitors.
I. Chong: I am also pleased to welcome 16 students from grade 11 at Lambrick Park Secondary School in the riding of Oak Bay-Gordon Head. They're accompanied by two adults and their teacher, Mr. Barber. I would ask the House to please make them all very welcome.
R. Neufeld: I have in the precincts today two residents of Fort St. John: Connie Surerus and Glen Kirkpatrick. Both are very hard workers in their community, specifically with the child development centre. They're here this afternoon to meet with the minister. Would the House please make them welcome.
E. Walsh: Though the Kootenay Ice are not here in the Legislature today, I know that they're here in spirit. This hockey team has worked hard and played very hard to be representing the Western Hockey League in Halifax on May 20 of this year at the Memorial Cup. I would ask that the House congratulate the Kootenay Ice with me. I'd like to add, too, that they're from Cranbrook. Did I mention that they're from Cranbrook? I'd like to ask all members in this House to please join me in congratulating the Kootenay Ice and to cheer them on at the Memorial Cup in Halifax, Nova Scotia, this year -- to encourage them and help them along in bringing the Memorial Cup home.
D. Streifel: Touring the precincts today, my wife Linda is back -- and, yes, Judith, she does have Mildred with her this time.
D. Streifel: Yeah. He saw my cat; the member saw my cat.
With her is her cousin Donna Noseworthy from Halifax through Newfoundland. She's a dietician-nutritionist, who was out here at a conference last week and has stayed over to spread some of that incredible Newfoundland economy in British Columbia. I bid the House to make them welcome.
Introduction of Bills
TOBACCO DAMAGES AND HEALTH
CARE COSTS RECOVERY ACT
Hon. M. Farnworth presented a message from His Honour the Lieutenant-Governor: a bill intituled Tobacco Damages and Health Care Costs Recovery Act.
Hon. M. Farnworth: I don't view tobacco addiction as a laughing matter.
Hon. Speaker, I move that Bill 15, to re-enact the Tobacco Damages and Health Care Costs Recovery Act, be introduced and read a first time now.
Hon. M. Farnworth: This act is the enabling legislation which allows the province to sue tobacco companies to recovery health care costs, a right which was upheld by the Supreme Court of British Columbia's decision on the tobacco industry's constitutional challenge to the legislation. Contrary to the industry's claim, the court found that the underlying principles of B.C.'s legislation were constitutionally sound, with the exception of the provisions that sought to impose liability based upon corporate relationships. The judge found this one aspect to be beyond the jurisdiction of the province. On the basis of that one finding, the judge struck down the entire act.
Because of the Supreme Court's decision, the province is repealing the original Tobacco Damages and Health Care
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Costs Recovery Act and re-enacting the legislation with some modifications to address the court's concerns. In addition, the wording of several of the act's provisions has been changed to provide greater clarity.
Our government remains firm in its resolve to seek accountability from the tobacco industry. The province of Newfoundland has decided to follow B.C.'s lead and has announced its intent to launch its own lawsuit using B.C.'s legislation as the model. B.C. and Newfoundland will be working closely together in pursuing health care cost recovery litigation, and we hope other provincial and territorial governments will join us.
This new act will allow the province to continue without delay its legal action to hold the tobacco industry accountable. I am pleased to be able to table this legislation today, and I move that this bill be placed on orders of the day for second reading at the next sitting of the House after today.
Bill 15 introduced, read a first time and ordered to be placed on orders of the day for second reading at the next sitting of the House after today.
SECURE CARE FOR
AT-RISK CHILDREN AND YOUTH
G. Campbell: In 1998 the Ministry for Children and Families released a report recommending holding children and youth who are in situations of extreme danger for up to 72 hours. Judge Gove supports secure care for our children; the B.C. Civil Liberties Association supports secure care; even the former Minister for Children and Families supported secure care. Yet we found this weekend that the current Minister for Children and Families says that secure care for our children is too controversial. My question to the minister is simply this: will the Minister for Children and Families tell us who is opposed to secure care for children and youth at risk in British Columbia?
Hon. G. Mann Brewin: As a matter of fact, there are some people who are opposed to it. I heard from a gentleman on the weekend about that. He has worked in such facilities, and he was not happy about what it might be. However, that having been said, I want to assure everyone that we have to provide a stable and secure environment for our young people, and we have to recognize that they get caught in abuse and difficult prostitution situations in some parts of our province. We must be working at all levels to respond to that. We continue to do that in this ministry and in this government. We continue to work on that.
The Speaker: The hon. Leader of the Official Opposition with a supplemental question.
G. Campbell: This is a problem that has been identified for years in this province. Yet incredibly, hon. Speaker, just this weekend the minister said she really didn't have any opinion or view on this one way or the other.
This weekend the Lower Mainland Municipal Association called for immediate action by this government to provide for secure care for our children. We know that there are countless families in the province of British Columbia who understand the urgency and the necessity for providing secure care for our children and youth in this province. Again my question to the minister is: what is the holdup? Why is the minister stalling on this matter, which has been so clearly identified as a matter of true risk to the children in the province of British Columbia?
Hon. G. Mann Brewin: I very much appreciate the question, and I appreciate the support that is in the community for such action. I take that very seriously, and I want to work on that and work with that to move forward in the direction of protecting children and keeping children safe. I'm going to be meeting with a number of people in the next couple of days and hope that we can move this forward very soon.
C. Clark: It's very nice to hear the minister read, from her prepared notes, comments about how it's difficult for kids being in situations where they're being preyed upon by pimps and predators. But the question we're asking today is: what's she going to do about it? That's the question we're asking. The secure care working group reported two years ago. Children are being lost to the streets every single day. In the Tri-Cities alone, there are 600 children who are addicted to crack cocaine and to heroin. Why should anyone in this House have any faith in her commitment to address this problem, when as early as yesterday she said she hadn't even formed an opinion about it?
Hon. U. Dosanjh: During the last four years we have made several improvements in this area. Firstly, we put together a prostitution team of Crown counsel and police officers that trained police officers right across the province, and Crown prosecutors, to make sure that johns and pimps of children are apprehended and punished. Whereas in the previous eight years there were only eight charges against johns and pimps of children, in the last four years there have been 150 charges against johns and pimps of children in British Columbia. We also made changes to the legislation dealing with the protection of children just last year.
G. Campbell: What about secure care?
Hon. U. Dosanjh: I'm coming to the secure care, hon. Leader of the Opposition. You'll have an answer.
Secure care in Alberta is still being monitored. We want to move in that direction, but we don't want to take a knee-jerk reaction. What I have heard is that they have picked up several dozen children. They have picked them up twice. I haven't seen any evidence to suggest that those children aren't back on the streets. They picked up one child 17 times. We want to move to deal with secure care, but not in a knee-jerk reaction -- "Because Alberta is doing it, we should do it."
C. Clark: It was two years ago that the government identified the problem and then identified the solution. They commissioned and got the report of the secure care working group which recommended moving to secure care. They sent the member for Vancouver-Burrard to Alberta to look at the program. The previous minister decided that she wanted to move to the program. Now the Premier is telling us that he wants to think about it a little more. My question to the Minister for Children and Families is: when is she going to do something about it? And where does she stand on the issue?
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Hon. G. Mann Brewin: We are moving actively on this, and the answer is: soon. There are some details to be worked out. We need to have some kind of a plan, and I'm sure the members of the opposition can't disagree with that. We need to have a plan on this.
In response to the second part of the question, my experience in municipal government in the city of Victoria alerted me very early on to some of these issues. I'm very familiar with the issues, and I want to see that what we put in place will work. I want to know that it will work. That's a really important part of it.
ADDICTION PREVENTION AND TREATMENT
SERVICES FOR CHILDREN
L. Stephens: Today the Kaiser Youth Foundation released a report calling for an independent substance abuse prevention and addictions commission. That report says that close to 90 percent of children and families in crisis are invisible to the Ministry for Children and Families when it comes to addiction prevention and treatment services, that there is a lack of focus and leadership, that minuscule prevention efforts
Hon. G. Mann Brewin: I was very interested in the Kaiser Foundation's report, and I want to spend more time
Already the government has spent over $50 million on prevention and treatment services for addictions, and we want to just be absolutely clear where we're going with this before we move to the next step.
The Speaker: The hon. member for Langley has a supplemental question.
L. Stephens: Well, the whole province knows, and all the service providers in this province know, what's required. This Kaiser report also says that there is no clear provincial strategy, that there is inconsistent and unreliable funding. Furthermore, British Columbia leads Canada in the highest mortality rate for alcohol-related disorders, the highest rate of HIV per capita and the highest number of deaths per capita due to illicit drug use.
So will the minister tell us why, after four years since the creation of her ministry, services are getting worse for people with addictions instead of getting better?
Hon. G. Mann Brewin: Mr. Speaker, it's very important, I think -- as in some other areas -- that we all work together on some of these issues. I'm pointing out some of the complications of it
What we need to be doing is focusing on the programs we have, and we have a considerable number of programs in place. We spent over $50 million. We're going to have a closer look at how that's all happening, and we will be responding, as we have, with a comprehensive response in the near future.
B.C. FERRIES SERVICE
E. Gillespie: Last week in this chamber we heard a lot of debate about B.C. Ferries. B.C. Ferries is an issue that is extremely important to people in my constituency, the Comox Valley.
The official opposition does not appear to appreciate the value of ferries to all British Columbians, not just those living on the coast. Opposition members have said that they want B.C. Ferries to be put on a sound financial footing. But on Tuesday the member for Kamloops-North Thompson objected to having such a dedicated revenue stream for ferries because it would, in his words, "suck money out of my constituents."
Hon. Speaker, my constituents don't object to the $65 million spent on highways in the member's riding over the past four years.
The Speaker: Order, members. Members, I cannot hear the question. Would the member please state her question.
E. Gillespie: The ferry service for my constituents is their highway. Liberals can't have it both ways. Can the minister confirm now that this government will continue to work to provide a stable, dedicated, long-term revenue stream to support ferry service to coastal communities?
Hon. J. MacPhail: It is interesting to note the nervousness with which this question is greeted by the Liberal opposition. On the one hand, they mock us when we declare that this corporation needs to be put on a sound financial footing and that we dedicate revenues to it. For the very first time in the history of this corporation, which began in the early sixties, this government has dedicated revenue sources from the fuel tax -- for the very first time.
And what does the Liberal opposition say? They mock us. Yet on the other side the member for Kamloops-North Thompson stands up and says that we're sucking money out of his constituents. Let me tell you: this side will continue to treat the B.C. Ferry Corporation as an extension of the highway system with the dedicated revenue.
And by the same token, we will continue to fund the member for Kamloops-North Thompson: the Bingo Ranch Road, $683,000; Monte Creek, $20 million; Badger Creek passing lanes, $1.5 million; Clearwater hub, $500,000; Kamloops highways, $20 million -- over $100 million into that member's riding. We will continue to show the non-partisan approach, and I hope they do as well.
GOVERNMENT HANDLING OF
M. de Jong: Today the government brought to town Mr. Jeffrey Wigand, who has received well-deserved applause for his role as a whistle-blower in exposing the tobacco industry's cover-up of the truth. It's interesting, however. The NDP and this Premier some to react far differently when they're confronted by whistle-blowers of their own.
We understand that the government has now settled the grievances of guards at Fraser Regional Correctional Centre.
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They were fired for revealing wrongdoing. Will the Attorney General confirm for the House and tell us how much it cost B.C. taxpayers to go through the grievance process and settle with our own whistle-blowers?
Hon. A. Petter: I'll be happy to take the question on notice and get the information for the member. Or he could come to estimates, and we could discuss it there.
The Speaker: The member for Matsqui has a new question.
M. de Jong: Yeah, a new question, Mr. Speaker. One individual, a gentleman by the name of Wayne Pasieka, got so frustrated with what was going on in his arm of government that he appeared on the television program "Fifth Estate" -- kind of the way Mr. Wigand must have felt before he went on "60 Minutes." Can the Premier explain the double standard whereby the NDP celebrates the accomplishments of one man who dared to stand up for the truth but castigates its own employees whose sense of decency and honesty compel them to do the very same thing?
Hon. A. Petter: I think the member understands that when you take a question on notice, there's not supposed to be a subsequent question. But if that was a subsequent question, I'll take it on notice as well, hon. Speaker.
M. de Jong: New question. The Ministry for Children and Families, where employees within the government have dared to stand up, dared to reveal the facts that give rise to the untold number of stories about how children in this province are being let down by this government on a day-to-day-to-day basis. My question is for the Premier, who today lauds the approval and the attendant story of Mr. Wigand. How on earth can he, on the one hand, presume to applaud the work of that very brave individual and, on the other hand, have the double standard to defend the tactics of a government that attacks its very own employees when they want to do the right thing?
The Speaker: Members, the light is on to end question period. I will ask the Premier to give a brief answer.
Hon. U. Dosanjh: Hon. Speaker, I would challenge the hon. member to provide me with the particulars of the particular complaint about the Ministry for Children and Families, and I would be absolutely happy to provide him with a response.
The Speaker: The bell ends question period.
Orders of the Day
Hon. D. Lovick: I call Committee of Supply. In this chamber, we shall be debating the estimates of the Ministry of Health. In the small House, we shall be debating the estimates of the Attorney General.
The House in Committee of Supply B; T. Stevenson in the chair.
ESTIMATES: MINISTRY OF HEALTH AND
MINISTRY RESPONSIBLE FOR SENIORS
On vote 36: ministry operations, $8,125,203,000 (continued).
K. Krueger: The official opposition critic has given me the privilege of being able to ask the minister some questions related to my own constituency. I'd like to start off by asking the minister if he would update my constituency as to the status of the Clearwater multilevel health care facility. This is a facility that was promised to Clearwater by the previous MLA, a member of the government caucus, eight months before the last election.
It wasn't a premier-of-the-day vote-buying promise or a political promise; it was a business decision. The facility is sorely needed in Clearwater. People who ought to be in continuing-care beds in their own community instead find themselves in the Fraser Canyon, four hours away from their loved ones and friends -- when the roads are good. People very often languish and die early as a result. I've heard of people being yo-yoed back and forth, in and out of Clearwater, because sometimes the acute care beds are available for them there, and at others they have to be off in some distant place.
I'd very much appreciate confirmation from the minister that this hospital will be built and that we will very soon actually see construction commence.
Hon. M. Farnworth: I can tell the hon. member that the project has been approved as part of the province's consolidated capital plan and that it is proceeding as per schedule. Construction should start in the fall of this year.
K. Krueger: That's good to hear. According to the Electoral Boundaries Commission redistribution recommendations, the community of Chase will be in the Kamloops-North Thompson constituency after the next election. My colleague the member for Shuswap has raised the issue of a multilevel health care facility for Chase on a number of occasions. The fact is that even back in 1996, 29 percent of the population of Chase was aged 55 or older. Our communities tend to house a large percentage of people in their retirement years, and it's a crying need in Chase that this issue be dealt with as well. Could the minister give us an expression of the intentions of the Ministry of Health with regard to the facility in Chase?
Hon. M. Farnworth: We recognize a need for long term care beds in your particular region of the province -- in the Thompson, but also right across the province. One of the things we're trying to do is work with the authorities to identify what their key projects are, and then we can move forward on a plan to meet the needs in terms of developing those particular projects. Right now that's what we're trying to do -- find out which are the key priorities -- and then we can move forward on them.
K. Krueger: I understand that to mean that there are no firm dates in mind with regard to a facility in Chase.
Hon. M. Farnworth: No, there are no firm dates at this particular point in time. What we have to do is identify which
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are the key priority projects. That means working with the local health authorities. If the THR, for example, feels that is a number one priority, I would be very delighted to hear that. Then that makes my job, in terms of which projects go ahead and which ones we can do the fastest to receive approval the quickest
K. Krueger: I've heard the minister's answer with regard to Chase, and it sounded to me like a firm commitment for the facility in Clearwater to actually have construction commence this fall. Has Treasury Board approved the funding for the Clearwater project?
Hon. M. Farnworth: Yes, they have.
K. Krueger: The minister is right that continuing care is an issue throughout my constituency and certainly the Kamloops constituency as well. I've raised this issue in the House repeatedly, and it's one that generates more work in my constituency office than any other.
Recently the health board reported to me that they had 363 people on their wait-list for continuing care beds. The two major facilities in Kamloops, although they're quite large by provincial standards, barely house that many people -- a little bit more. But we have pretty well as many people on the wait-list as we actually have in facilities.
On top of that problem with placement, we have people occupying beds in the acute care hospital, Royal Inland Hospital, who really ought to be in the continuing care facilities. As a result, we frequently have a hospital that is plugged, and the surgery wait-lists rise as a result. Again, recently the health board reported to me that the wait-list was over 2,700 people.
The health board, which this government appointed when it ended the elected board process in Kamloops and region, set about firing administrators of the large facilities. Mr. Paul Chapin, who managed Royal Inland Hospital, was fired, and the resulting judgment in court for a severance package was half a million dollars.
Mr. George Cheyne, who was an exemplary person managing Ponderosa Lodge extended care facility and did many things that people point to as a model for how to get additional housing for seniors attached to continuing-care facilities and so on -- a really innovative, inventive man -- was also squeezed out, terminated, by the appointed health board and replaced by someone they chose.
A woman who had been appointed to manage Overlander Extended Care Hospital in a competition over another person, Claire-Anne Brodie, found herself abruptly fired and walked out of the building. Ms. Brodie was appointed in charge of continuing care at both facilities after. Ms. Brodie has appointed a woman named Louise Johnson, who had done consultations for our continuing care facilities about switching to a new mode of treatment which she calls gentle care, where purportedly the residents will be able to make more of the decisions about their own environment and what will happen to them each day. Having apparently convinced the health region to proceed in that manner, she was then hired to run the programs.
I have had a deluge of complaints from staff, from residents and from the families of residents who are desperately unhappy with the changes at Overlander. The staff are union people who are terribly aggrieved by what's gone on there. They say the quality of care has gone way down.
The same administrators who tell me that it's a good thing to try and move in this direction also tell me that the degree of functionality of new residents is far worse than it used to be; they have much more advanced stages of dementia. They're telling me that they're receiving people who aren't nearly as capable of making decisions for themselves as they used to be, when people could literally walk in and say: "I'm tired of mowing my lawn, and I'd like to come to this facility." Of course, it'll never be that way again in British Columbia.
So they have these much sicker people coming in, they have this huge backlog, and they have this dramatic change in management style. The effects have been awful, frankly. I have met with the health board and conveyed these concerns. They didn't seem to have any means of staff and residents actually funnelling these concerns to them without retribution being a prospect, at least in the staff's minds. I think they have now agreed that they should have an independent process for input.
[J. Cashore in the chair.]
The situation is just spiralling into chaos, it seems to me. Overlander Extended Care facility had been planned to be a much larger facility than it is. There was a plan for the addition of wings as the population made it necessary. One of those wings was actually built and shelled in, but it's never been finished. Now the administrators tell me that before they can finish it, they have to gut it, because the ministry standards have changed. They have to have many single-occupancy rooms in the facility rather than the ward concept, which would have provided for 28 beds there. To local people this just seems like folly, because we have 363 on the wait-list. How can we possibly move backwards when we have this shelled-in wing for 28 beds?
I was told -- and it apparently is true -- that when the Overlander facility was built, a huge boiler was put in to service all the new wings as they'd be added. Before the boiler ever got used, the new administration decreed that it should go, and crewmen came in and cut it to pieces with torches and hauled it away, which is considered a reprehensible waste by the staff.
Things seem to be chaotic, with regard to the current administration of the facilities, the way staff issues are handled, the plans to redevelop rather than add to the facilities and even the upgrading of equipment. Staff are being hurt because they have to handle patients, where even in industry in British Columbia employers have long since gone to lifts and mechanical devices to keep that from happening to staff. Our average nurse's age in the province is 47, and people can't handle this physical workload. We should be doing everything we can to take that stress off their bodies by providing them with modern equipment.
So I'd like to ask if the minister has been briefed on the problems I've just outlined with regard to continuing care in Kamloops and the Thompson regional health region and what he's going to do about it.
Hon. M. Farnworth: I am aware of the issues that the member has raised, and I would like to thank him for raising them in the House during the estimates debate.
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The issue around continuing care is an important one. It's one that the ministry takes very seriously, and we are working on a strategy at this time to look at continuing care right across the province. I don't think it's any secret that continuing care will be one of the biggest challenges facing us as a province in terms of health care delivery, not just here in B.C. but right across the country, over the next coming decades as the baby-boom population works its way through the system -- and particularly in terms of the delivery of appropriate care for people when they need it. Long-term care, continuing care and home care are going to play very important roles in the system.
So I am aware of the issues the member has raised. I expect the Thompson health region to do its job to the best of its ability and the board to ensure that its obligations are met. I expect them to be doing that. We will have a strategy, and at the time it's released, I'll be happy to hear the member's comments.
K. Krueger: I would like the minister to commit to watch the staffing situation in Kamloops. The staff describe a climate of extreme fear in the extended care facilities. They say they are punished when they actually try to be participative in the way the facilities are being managed. They have given me evidence of that. The Health critic came up to Kamloops. I had offered to meet with them. I passed out an invitation by hand, gave it to people to pass out in the facilities and booked a room. I thought I might get a dozen people and was set for 40; 96 people came out to that meeting. There was pretty much unanimity in the room as to the issues that were being presented to me. It was like something out of a sweatshop in some old country, not the way you would expect health care facilities to be run in British Columbia in the year 2000.
Certainly the regional health board and the administrators of those facilities know that I am watching that problem. I am continuing to receive input from people. I think it would be helpful to the staff and to the residents and their families if they felt that the minister also had a particular interest in that. Certainly this is a government that means to be, and needs to be, friendly to the workers. Health care workers need to be shown that they are valued and esteemed. We know that they are; we know how essential they are to the well-being of British Columbians.
I wonder if I could have a commitment from the minister that he will ensure that the ministry keeps tabs on how those facilities are being managed and how the staff are being treated.
Hon. M. Farnworth: The ministry always
I don't think anyone working in a facility in British Columbia should be concerned about their ability to raise issues. If they want to, they should feel free to. There are a number of processes in place; they have their union that they can raise issues with, grievance procedures and those sorts of things.
There should be -- if there are not, there should be -- all kinds of union-management committees that they can have input into. Failing that, the good offices of their MLA, I'm quite sure, would be more than willing to raise complaints or deal with particular problems. As I said, our ministry is in contact with the health authorities, and we keep in contact with facilities as well.
K. Krueger: The staff had described to me what they referred to as a "gag order" that they were issued. When I asked them to produce a copy, they did. It was written on pink paper. They said: "That's no accident; it's the same colour as a pink slip, and a number of people who've tried to provide input have received pink slips."
I objected to this to both administration and the health board. Subsequently the staff described a three-page document -- also a gag order, in their words, but much more detailed -- that was circulated apparently to discourage the staff from speaking to me further. They often send their input to me anonymously and eventually end up identifying themselves to me. As I said, 96 people came out to that meeting, believing there was some safety in numbers. It's a serious concern. It's not the style of management that the minister or any of the senior people would expect to see in a facility of the province.
I will continue to raise these concerns to the ministry, and I'm counting on a response from the ministry, because it just shouldn't continue. I had e-mails and telephone calls just in the past two weeks while preparing for these Health estimates, confirming that even though I've been working on this situation for months -- and very publicly -- the problems have not gone away.
Does the ministry have an overall plan to deal with this issue of equipment being outdated and people not having the modern lifting equipment, and so on, that they ought to have to protect their fragile human nature as they try to cope with this as an aging working population?
Hon. M. Farnworth: There are a number of initiatives. The occupational health and safety agency within the ministry, is looking at that, and we are providing some concrete action in that regard. In my discussions with the other provinces and the federal government about ways in which we can meet some of the challenges facing health care in British Columbia and indeed right across the country, one of the important things that I am advancing as part of British Columbia's approach is to try to see the development of a hospital relief fund infrastructure program that can look at issues around equipment and technology -- to take advantage of the advances in technology but also to look at equipment as a way of ensuring that we can deal with some of the issues that the hon. member has raised.
K. Krueger: I appreciate those points, and I don't want to belabour these issues, although my constituents would like to see me talk about them for days. It's that serious an issue up there. But there are, of course, 75 MLAs in this building, and other people need a chance to raise constituency issues also, so I'll move on.
I'd like the minister's comment on the shelled-in wing at Overlander Extended Care Hospital that I mentioned. It's capable of housing 28 residents. It's already there; it's heated. I've gone and toured through it. It's used for storage of wheelchairs and things like that. But it could actually be finished, and we could take some of the stress off Royal Inland Hospi-
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tal. To its credit, the ministry -- although it took years to convince -- is working on opening an interim facility at Royal Inland to move some of the continuing-care people out of the acute care beds.
Still, we have this asset -- this wing -- that's substantially completed except for actually finishing it inside. If we finish it the way it was designed, we could have 28 people off the wait-list. I'd like the minister's commitment to try to advance and accelerate that project.
Hon. M. Farnworth: I understand the member's concern around the particular project. I give him my commitment to look into it and see if there are ways in which we can speed things along.
K. Krueger: University College of the Cariboo has a very active nursing program -- tremendous success in that. I was delighted to see that the government has come up with the funding to increase the spaces they will be able to provide to 80, including 16 at Williams Lake. That's great. That's what they were hoping for and what I intended to lobby for during this session.
One of the issues for the nurses -- who not only are a very aggressive lobby group but also, as part of their program, are trained to lobby people like me and come out regularly to visit me and talk to me about issues in the office -- is that while they're working through this program, which is a four-year bachelor's program now, they have to support themselves often at minimum-wage jobs being servers in restaurants and so on. It's frustrating to them, because they know that they could help take the workload off the staff in the hospitals.
As I mentioned, the average nurse's age is now 47 in British Columbia. A lot of nurses are so stressed out that they end up booking off sick, and that adds other pressure to the remaining people. The nurses certainly feel there's been a process which they describe as a casualization of their workforce, where health regions have gone to refusing to call them full-time people and just calling them in as needed. They sometimes end up asking them to work 12-hour shifts back to back -- preposterous things that just can't be good for anybody concerned. So all of that's going on to the regular workforce.
At the same time, we have these student nurses, especially when they're up to their third and fourth year of education, who could relieve a lot of the pressure on the existing nursing workforce. It's one of the few areas where people are educated at UCC where there isn't some sort of co-op program. I would really like to see the ministry explore using those student nurses in the hospitals, both for their own development and to take pressure off the existing staff, and paying them -- it certainly wouldn't be full nursing salaries, but certainly they're worth a whole lot more than the minimum wage they're earning in the service industry establishments -- and thereby solve a whole bunch of problems at the same time. I'd like the minister's view on that.
Hon. M. Farnworth: The member raises a good point. It's one that we are looking at in terms of what the options are for dealing with the nursing situation here in British Columbia. We are working with the nurses to identify opportunities and how we can do that, including mentorships and receptorships and those sorts of things -- getting them into institutions earlier. So certainly, hon. member, I will take your comments and your suggestion under advisement, and we can put that into the mix as well.
K. Krueger: Just finishing up, then, with two points I'd like the minister to comment on. I mentioned this whole issue of standards in the facilities providing for fewer patients than the old standards did. It seems to me that if we move in that direction in British Columbia, where we have these wait-list problems everywhere and this huge population bulge, it's like a general stopping in the middle of his war to order redesigned tanks. It just doesn't make sense to change your facilities where they will house fewer people in continuing care, when in fact you have far more people on the wait-list than you can accommodate.
The other issue has to do with management performance when problems occur such as I described in Kamloops, when an appointed board fires managers and then appoints its choices, and they begin delivering disastrous results such as the ones I've described. I wonder if the minister has or intends to have a system to review the performance of such managers and deal with them and the boards that appoint them.
Hon. M. Farnworth: I take it the member is, in part, referring to some of these comments around multilevel facilities and the problems that he sees or that he's concerned about. I think there's a number of points I need to make, and one of them clearly
I also think there's another point which needs to be made -- that is, the critical issue in terms of the construction of the facilities and ensuring that we have in place the facilities necessary to meet the bulges coming through the population from the baby-boomers and the fact that people are living longer and the fact that people don't die from stroke the way they used to and don't die from heart attacks the way they used to. We're able to deal with illnesses much more effectively than we used to, and instead people are aging. What is happening is that we are seeing the rise of a lot of age-related diseases and illnesses such as dementia, which the member mentioned a few moments ago. Those types of things place particular pressures on facilities in a way that we didn't see in the past. So those are the types of things we need to be focusing on in terms of long-term strategies.
That again comes back to one of the issues that I'm trying to advance in partnership with the federal government. An infrastructure program can provide more facilities, but in terms of the type of pharmaceuticals, those types of things all have to be brought to bear. It's not a question of: do this, and you'll solve the problem. I think it's a question of recognizing that there are short-term decisions that need to be made. We need to be looking at the administration and management of the facilities that we do have and also be looking at a long-term strategy recognizing that this is a big problem and that there's going to have to be some key decisions made. That's
[ Page 15606 ]
where I want the province to be -- in a position to make those with the resources so that we can put in place proper solutions.
G. Abbott: I want to follow up on a question about the Chase multilevel-care facility that my colleague from Kamloops-North Thompson raised. I want to ask a couple of questions around changes to the hospital facility in the city of Enderby. As well, I have a couple of questions on the proposals for multilevel care in the North Okanagan-Shuswap.
Let me begin by expressing my disappointment with respect to the minister's response to the question about a multilevel-care facility for Chase. The core of my disappointment is that when I've raised this with previous Ministers of Health, the answers have been rather more encouraging than the answer that my colleague received today. I know there was a delegation that met recently with the minister's immediate predecessor as Minister of Health, and there was a press release issued which was, it seemed to me, of quite an encouraging nature. So I'm surprised, in the absence of something further coming out of the briefing book here, that we are back to the stage of simply identifying what the priorities are.
I'll remind the minister that Chase has been putting forward this proposal since 1993. They made a proposal to the then Minister of Health in 1993, which was of a detailed character. It was endorsed by the local governments, by the first nations bands in the area and by the union board of health of the day. They were quite encouraged by what the then Minister of Health had to say in regard to it.
Another reason why I am very much disappointed in the minister's previous response is that the level of retired people in that Chase-Shuswap community is very substantial, although the village of Chase will be part of the Kamloops-North Thompson riding in the next provincial election. The North Shuswap area remains a part of the Shuswap constituency. I can tell the minister that in the North Shuswap, which hopefully will be accessing a new facility in Chase at some point, some 40 percent of the population is 55 and older. The minister acknowledged, moments ago, the demographic bulge that's going to be making its way through. In very popular retirement areas like the Shuswap, that problem is going to be particularly pronounced.
I'll invite the minister at this point to advise me whether in fact there is something of a more encouraging nature that can be said about that facility. If there isn't, why was there a press release of that character earlier on this year?
Hon. M. Farnworth: In terms of the response that the member is looking for, as I said to the previous member, we need to know where it ranks in terms of the priorities, so that when decisions are made, the ones that are ranked the highest are the ones that should be getting the funding. That needs to take place.
Secondly, we recognize that there is a strong need for more continuing care in the province of B.C., and we're working to try and deal with it as expeditiously as possible. It means that not every project is being funded this year. We want to ensure that we can do them as quickly as possible. But part of that means working with the Thompson health region, in this particular case, and I need to get from them exactly where it is on their priority list.
G. Abbott: As I understand it, the Thompson health region and its predecessor organizations have endorsed this project. I'm not sure what more is required from them, but I'll leave that, for the moment at least, and move on to the issues around the Enderby hospital.
The minister can perhaps inform me a little bit more fully about what is contemplated for Enderby. My understanding is that the emergency section of the hospital will be closed, that acute care beds will be closed and that they will be replaced by more multilevel-care beds in the facility -- the Enderby and District Memorial Hospital. Can the minister advise whether that summary is correct?
Hon. M. Farnworth: Your summary is basically correct.
G. Abbott: The city of Enderby has, I think, been quite responsible in terms of how they have managed what is often a very difficult and controversial issue in a community -- the closure of some aspects of the hospital. One of the reasons that they have been able to keep things together there, essentially, is the promise for more multilevel-care facilities. Can the minister put on the record here what the commitment on the part of the government is? What is the promise that is being made by the government, either on their own or through the health region, with respect to what's going to occur in Enderby hospital?
Hon. M. Farnworth: We're waiting for their long-term plan to be finalized, and then it comes to us. Because they're doing the renovation, though, that does allow the potential for some extra capacity. But when that's complete, that will have to be ranked with the other areas around the province and in the region, in terms of how that capacity can be filled.
G. Abbott: Again, I don't think I take the comfort from that response that I would like to take from it. If the city of Enderby and district are going to be losing aspects of their hospital facility that they have enjoyed for, I think, close to 100 years -- if, for example, they're losing their emergency and the acute care beds -- am I to understand from the minister's response that there is no firm commitment being made on the part of government in recognition of that?
Hon. M. Farnworth: We want to work with them to ensure that they continue to provide services. The question is that in order to do that, we need the long-term plan for the future of how they see things in that particular area -- right? So we need to get that, and then we can start to move things forward.
I know there's going to be the demand growing in that area. You're going to need the long-term care -- those types of facilities and those types of beds. So I know that the demand's there. We just need the plan that says: "Okay, here's when we want things to start to come on stream." Once that's done, that can get into the hopper, and we can start to move things along. I fully understand the member's points that he raises about his area of the province, the Shuswap, becoming an increasingly attractive place for people to retire to. It's more affordable than the Okanagan, for example, and more affordable than the lower mainland. That is going to reflect itself in the needs that government has to meet in his particular area. It needs to be done on the basis of a good long-term plan. Once that's in, then we can start to work on it.
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G. Abbott: That long-term plan, I'm assuming, is one that the ministry is looking for from the North Okanagan health region. Is that correct?
Hon. M. Farnworth: That is correct.
G. Abbott: One of the issues that is again causing some concern in the community around the change in the character of the Enderby hospital is what's going to happen with ambulance service. Is the level of service going to expand or contract? Obviously we're going to be moving people not to Enderby anymore but either to Vernon or to Salmon Arm. Is the minister conversant with that issue of ambulance service and what changes, if any, will be required as a result of the changes to Enderby hospital?
If you're waiting for the right staff, I can go on to another question, and we can come back to that.
Hon. M. Farnworth: There are no changes planned in the ambulance service in his area.
I would ask at this time if we could take a two-minute recess.
The Chair: The House will have a short recess.
The House recessed from 3:17 p.m. to 3:19 p.m.
[J. Cashore in the chair.]
G. Abbott: There's a couple of other aspects about the changes in the status of Enderby hospital that I want to clarify, at least to the best ability of the minister here today.
Among the physicians who are now in Enderby or are associated with the Enderby hospital
Hon. M. Farnworth: Yes.
G. Abbott: I am pleased to hear that. While we're on a roll, is it correct that rehabilitation services will also continue to be offered at Enderby and District Memorial Hospital?
Hon. M. Farnworth: I will look into the issue for the member, and I will get back to him with a definitive answer.
G. Abbott: I'll look forward to receiving a response on that issue. I do hope that the city of Enderby receives the satisfaction, which I think they really deserve, around the change and the nature of the health facility that's served them for a long time and served them very well. I do hope that we see some satisfactory answers to that.
I have just a couple of questions with respect to multilevel care in the North Okanagan health region, which of course includes the Shuswap. I think this is a huge issue for my constituency. As we've discussed previously, the number of retired that exist there is quite remarkable. Just looking at the current number of people in the North Okanagan health region who are over age 75, it's 8,722, which is, to me, a remarkable figure. The health region projects that for 2005, 10,712 will be over the age of 75. We are, again, just seeing the beginning of that great demographic bulge which is going to pose a huge challenge to the health care system in British Columbia in the years ahead.
One of the reasons why, obviously, this is a very big issue in my constituency and more broadly in the North Okanagan health region is that currently, even under our current circumstances, where we're probably perhaps 150 to 200 beds in deficit on multilevel care
I know; I had some personal experience with this. My father had a stroke a couple of years ago, I guess. He was stuck in an acute care bed for a time, very unhappy there -- not the right situation for him. He was lucky, as a veteran of World War II, that he was able to get a multilevel-care facility bed in a relatively short time. But I know that there are hundreds of people who have not been as fortunate and who are stuck in this very unfortunate situation of occupying an acute care bed when that's not the appropriate place for them.
I guess there are a number of questions which the minister could address pursuant to the problem. I hope the minister agrees with me about the character of the problem in the Shuswap and the North Okanagan. There's a high percentage of retired folks; the number's not going to go down; it's going to get bigger. We are already substantially in deficit in terms of multilevel-care beds. That is likely to continue. I guess the big question is: what are we going to do about it? How are we going to begin addressing that?
One of the areas that I hope the minister will address is the issue of public-private partnerships. Apparently, according to my friends in local government in the Shuswap area, there are a number of possible projects there of a public-private partnership nature that have not been able to proceed, because there appears to be either some discomfort or no finalization of the ministry's position around those kinds of partnerships.
The minister can perhaps inform me on this. I know that years ago we had a long debate about public-private partnerships in Municipal Affairs. I know that the minister was a keen proponent of public-private partnerships at that time. I don't know whether the same holds now that he's Minister of Health. But I do invite the minister to comment (a) on the problem, (b) on the solution, and (c) on the potential role of public-private partnerships in that solution.
Hon. M. Farnworth: I understand the member's interest in the issue and the fact that it will impact on his particular region of the province, as it will impact on a number of regions of the province. In my particular area, for example, in the community that I represent, only 6 percent of the population is over 65, and 25 percent is under the age of 14. It has a different set of needs.
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Clearly, in terms of the issue of the demographic boom and where people are retiring in the province, certain parts of the province will be impacted to a greater degree than will others. I think that it's a question of being innovative and identifying a number of solutions, not one specific one, because the problem requires different approaches for a variety of reasons.
First off is the level of care that the particular individual requires or may require. That means that in some cases acute beds are required; in other cases long term care beds are required. In other cases it may be something as simple as home care, having someone be able to stay at home and receive, two, three or maybe even five days a week, a visit from someone who can do the services that are required. That can ensure that an individual, a senior, can stay at their residence or at their home until such time as they require a higher level of care.
That's what we have to get to: a system based on that, which recognizes different levels of need, different levels of care. We have to be able to respond with that. If we take that approach of being innovative, then we will find that there's a range of solutions that are going to have to be put in place over the next few years to reach that goal.
Public-private partnerships, for example, in the provision of care facilities may very well be part of that equation. Those types of things are where we have to focus. One of the key areas is around innovation, in terms of making sure that (1) we get better use of our existing facilities, and (2) we are looking at a full range of ways of delivering the type of service that individuals require.
G. Abbott: I don't disagree with what the minister has said in terms of developing an appropriate recipe or an appropriate response to the different kinds of care that are needed in different instances. He's right. If we can provide care in the home, that works well in some cases. In other cases we may need more of an institutional character.
But going back to my own experience, my father had a stroke; he was incapacitated. It was clear that he was going to require long-term care. My mother certainly wasn't going to provide that; she couldn't. There was no way. Out there, there are hundreds, thousands or tens of thousands of stories like that across the province. Clearly we have to develop some way of dealing with the issue of multilevel-care provision.
The answer that I heard from the minister in terms of the public-private partnerships was that that might be one of the things that are being considered on a broader menu. Perhaps that's fair enough, too. But before I yield to other members who have equally important constituency questions, I just want to be clear. Has the ministry resolved in principle that public-private partnerships are an appropriate way to proceed towards the resolution of the multilevel-care gap in British Columbia?
Hon. M. Farnworth: They are an appropriate way of dealing with some of the problems we face within the province; they are not the only way. They are one of a number of things that could be used to alleviate some of the pressures that we face.
I think some of the key ones are around making sure that we're innovative in terms of how we use the existing facilities. The second is ensuring that there are levels of care out there to meet the needs of people in their homes and then to ensure that we can build the facilities for people who require that higher level of care.
These are issues that I have been raising with my colleagues in other provinces and with the federal government in terms of long-term care, home care, home support; those things are key.
As I said, the member raised the issue around public-private partnerships. They will also have a role to play, and the ministry will evaluate projects that come into the ministry on that basis. It's not just one solution; it's one piece of a much larger continuum.
P. Nettleton: I have a number of questions of a regional and a local nature with respect to health care delivery in the Prince George region. For a number of months Prince George Regional Hospital's intensive care unit has been on alert, meaning smaller facilities in surrounding communities haven't always been able to transfer patients to PGRH. In that respect, health care officials in Prince George have suggested, particularly in recent months, that PGRH is not fulfilling its role as a regional trauma centre.
I would like to start by asking the minister for a comment on that point. What responsibility does the government have in ensuring the largest hospital in northern British Columbia is able to meet its role as a regional centre? Do you feel your government is meeting that responsibility?
Hon. M. Farnworth: We take the issue the member raises very seriously and particularly the ones around trauma. We have a provincial trauma plan designating that we have regional trauma centres in the province, and Prince George is one of those centres. We are also working very closely with the health board of the Prince George area to ensure that we can meet the needs of the hospital and the facilities in Prince George. It is something that we are actively pursuing.
P. Nettleton: I'm glad the minister mentioned the health board because Dave Richardson, the CEO of the Northern Interior regional health board, has said that the situation at Prince George Regional Hospital is "the most serious it's ever been." Those are his words.
The problems are serious: emergency room overcrowding, longer waiting lists and a shortage of nurses, doctors and specialists, to name but a few. A number of doctors came forward last week, in fact, to say that the city's health care system is in a state of emergency. Dr. Gault Wilson said: "Prince George is weeks away from a disaster." Other doctors say a typical surgeon can expect to spend about half of one day in surgery and the other four and a half days explaining to patients that there aren't enough staff for the operations they need and that they have a long wait ahead of them. Dr. Bert Kelly says he has about 4,500 active charts in his office and turns away about six new patients every day.
The present situation has been one that's been a long time coming. The warnings were there. My question to the minister is this: Why did you choose to ignore the warnings?
Hon. M. Farnworth: I didn't choose to ignore anything, hon. member. In fact, I met recently with the board and physicians from the community of Prince George and am
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working very closely with them to deal with the issues that they have been raising. The issue around physician retention and training in Prince George and in northern communities is a serious one, as is the training and retention of nurses in northern communities. It calls for a concerted approach by government in terms of dealing with it. It is a situation that is not unique to this province but in fact occurs in rural areas right across this country and in the territories.
We have a significant role to play in dealing with that, and we are doing that through a number of efforts: (1) by working directly with the people, the physicians in the Prince George area and the regional health board; (2) by working with the BCMA, for example, in negotiating rural and northern agreements that can allow us the flexibility to deal with issues around physician retention in rural communities; (3) by working in terms of a nursing strategy that can increase the number of nurses that we are educating here in British Columbia and ensuring that there are places for them around the province, because that is an integral component; and (4) by working with the federal government to ensure that we have a strategy in place that recognizes that provinces can't deal with this particular issue in isolation.
There needs to be a concerted effort of provinces working together to address the three areas that I've just talked about: physician shortages, nursing shortages and also transportation. There is a role there for the federal government to play not only with assistance in terms of training but also in terms of immigration, assisting people who want to come and practice in British Columbia or in rural areas to get recognition for their qualifications and their ability, and to gain access into Canada. There's a considerable amount of effort being put into doing this, and it is something that we are focusing a great deal of time on.
P. Nettleton: The Health ministry has agreed to provide locums to keep operating rooms running in Prince George this summer. This is at best a short-term solution, but the people of Prince George and other northern communities need a long-term plan.
Prince George physicians have provided the Health minister with a nine-point plan to address the crisis. The six doctors who submitted the plan have a combined residency in the north of 130 years, so it's important to note that they are speaking as concerned citizens of the north. They suggest that, without action, we will soon be airlifting large numbers of acutely ill and injured to other centres and running up even bigger waiting lists for urgent and elective surgeries.
The ball is now in the government's court. Will the minister explain what immediate actions he plans on taking to address these concerns?
Hon. M. Farnworth: The member is right. There are short-term solutions around the issues of locums. I think the member would be ill-advised to dismiss that out of hand, as that is something that will ease some of the pressure. But it is a short-term solution. However, that is often as important as developing a long-term plan, to recognize that there is a particular issue that needs to be resolved. How can we do that and take the immediate pressure off that? Locums are one way.
The second is to ensure that we have a long-term plan and strategy in place. I just outlined for the member that we are actively working on that on a number of fronts: first, with physicians and the health care community in Prince George; second, with organizations such as the BCMA, in terms of looking at a provincewide application; and third, by my efforts, on behalf of the federal government to address this on a national perspective.
We also need to recognize that, as I said, we have met with the physicians and the health care community in Prince George and identified what is one of the key issues in terms of dealing with a crisis that everyone recognizes, and that is around the supply of an anaesthesiologist. We are working in partnership with Prince George, the health authorities there, to identify a suitable candidate, and we are working to do that as quickly as possible.
P. Nettleton: In the recent provincial budget this government announced more student spaces at post-secondary facilities. We have seen press releases indicating that a given amount of spaces will be created in each of the university colleges in the interior. However, in some cases no new spaces or a minimal amount of new spaces will actually be added. In other cases some of those so-called new spaces already existed. How many nursing seats will exist at UNBC in Prince George next fall, and how many of those will in fact be new seats?
Hon. M. Farnworth: Part of the member's question is an overlap into the Ministry of Advanced Education and Training, in terms of the specific number of seats in each particular institution. But what I can tell the member is that there is funding in place for 400 new seats to be in place by this fall.
The impact of that is that we will be able to train actually more than 400 individuals, because some of the seats in fact are refresher courses, and so you get two for the price of one, if you like. So if there are 75 refresher seats, that allows nurses who are currently qualified to take the course, and they can then go back into the nursing profession. And you can do another one in the same calendar year. So in essence, if you have 75 of those seats, you in fact manage to put through the system 150 nurses, which will allow you to have more than 400 at the end of the day. So at the minimum there are 400 seats, but that hopefully will result in significantly more than 400 individuals.
P. Nettleton: On another topic, the minister met with the delegation from the Nechako Valley in early April, trying to get the minister to address the need for a multilevel-care facility in Vanderhoof, which in fact would have serviced the entire region. Will the minister provide an update?
Hon. M. Farnworth: I'm pleased to inform the member that I met with the mayor and representatives of Vanderhoof and the former MLA -- his predecessor, in fact. They will be submitting a proposal to me, and I will be evaluating it. I gave them every encouragement that if there's a way we can find to do this particular project, I would certainly like to do that.
P. Nettleton: Well, I'm not sure why it is that they would have to submit another proposal, because the current proposal was rejected some months ago by the minister's predecessor. In any event, the people of Vanderhoof and the Nechako region have been lobbying for a multilevel-care facility for
[ Page 15610 ]
some 20 years. This capital project is the number one priority of the Northern Interior regional health board, but for some reason this proposal gets passed over, year after year, by the provincial government.
I would ask the minister: what answers do you have for the people who have been waiting for two decades for a multilevel-care facility, with respect to the proposal that has been placed not only before the Northern Interior regional health board but before the current government and the present minister?
Hon. M. Farnworth: I can tell the member that I had a very constructive meeting with the mayor of Vanderhoof and representatives of Vanderhoof, who are wanting to get this project up and moving. The scope of the project has changed since it was first being proposed, which is more than a decade ago. But I have told them: "Look, you know, I'm very interested in the project." I've told the mayor of Vanderhoof that I'd like to work with him to move it along, so that's what we're trying to do. They're working with the ministry. You know, I have to say that I was very impressed by not only their commitment but the preparation that they have done. There's lots of questions that we can answer, that will able to be answered. But there does need to be some work done, and that's what is taking place, and that's what we want to see happen. As I told them: "Let's try and get this project moving."
L. Boone: I listened with great interest as my colleague was questioning the minister with regards to PGRH, which of course is my hospital as well. I'm aware that a couple of years ago, I think it was, the Minister of Finance and myself lobbied very heavily with the Ministry of Health to obtain regional funding for the hospital. I'm wondering if the minister can just advise the House again what that funding was, because I've forgotten. We did bring extra dollars to the ministry, to the hospital. We gained assurance from the very doctors that the member talked about as saying that they were concerned about the hospital. At that time they were very jubilant and said that this would guarantee it -- that it would become a regional facility. Could the minister please advise us what that money was and what changes were expected with the hospital?
Hon. M. Farnworth: The project is on schedule. Construction is now scheduled to begin earlier than planned -- August of this year as opposed to June of 2001. There was about $6.12 million in the budget for it this year.
L. Boone: That was with regards to the construction, which of course has been on our mind for a long time. But I'd also like to ask, going back to what the member for Prince George-Omineca asked about with regards to the proposal put forth by the doctors
Hon. M. Farnworth: When I met with the physicians from Prince George, they left a proposal with the ministry in which they have outlined a number of ways in which they see the issue around physician shortages could be addressed in Prince George. It's done in a two-fold manner. One is to deal specifically with the issue in Prince George and how one could retain physicians in Prince George. Then it has also been costed out into how the program could be expanded across to northern British Columbia.
My ministry is doing the work on the exact costing, because we want to ensure that if we were to look at a proposal like this and expand it across B.C., we have an accurate assessment of the costs. I don't think that we would want to be looking at doing something in Prince George when it's maybe a model to take right across the province.
The second point that I would like to raise in regard to this particular issue is that along with this proposal that has been tabled by the physicians and the health community from Prince George, we are negotiating a master agreement with the BCMA which has an opportunity to address some of these particular issues.
The third point is that it may be possible, for example, to look at the northern and rural health care agreements that cover areas to the north and outside of Prince George that aren't covered at the current time. It may be possible to extend them to Prince George and deal with some of the concerns that the physicians raise in their particular proposal. We are examining the costs for the different services in the agreement, and that is part of the discussions that we are having with the health care community in Prince George.
L. Boone: I understand that the proposal they've brought forth also contains some suggestions for increases in their per-visit costs. I think we just signed an agreement with the BCMA, and I guess the question that I have is: did the BCMA at that time raise the issue with regards to difficulties some of the other communities have in attracting physicians and suggest a fee differentiation between them?
Hon. M. Farnworth: A physician resource plan is part of the framework agreement which has been negotiated. One of the key issues we have to keep in mind in terms of dealing with the situation in Prince George is that other communities in British Columbia face the same challenges in terms of attracting and retaining physicians to their communities. What we want to do is make sure that (1) we are dealing with the situation in Prince George but that (2) the solutions we put in place can be applied to different parts of the province and recognize that there are significant issues and challenges to attracting physicians to northern and rural communities in this province and ensuring, in particular, that northern communities such as Prince George, which are major referral centres and trauma centres, have the critical mass required to support the service base of the regional area in which they are intended to serve. That's one of the areas in which we are working very closely with the BCMA.
L. Boone: I guess one of the concerns I have is that when I talk to my physicians in my area, they frequently say that the BCMA does not represent the north. Anybody that comes from the north knows that this is not an uncommon problem we have, in having any organization recognizes the difficulties from the north. My colleagues, I'm sure, understand that.
I guess my concern is: is there a process within the BCMA for them to negotiate regional differences? We are hearing that they're not representing their concerns. If they aren't representing their concerns, then there needs to be put in a process
[ Page 15611 ]
so that we're not constantly renegotiating side deals with
Hon. M. Farnworth: I'm not in a position to comment on the internal workings around the BCMA. What I can tell you is that there is flexibility there, I think, so that we can within the ministry work with the physicians in Prince George, the health community and the health authority in Prince George to deal with the issues that are facing that particular region of the province. Second, we can work with the BCMA in terms of identifying some of the key areas around rural and northern health care issues and trying to attach importance to the resolution of those particular problems.
The fact of the matter is that we do have a rural agreement which they have signed on to. That is an indication, I think, that not only does the province recognize the issues around northern health care but that there is also a greater recognition within the BCMA around that. The agreements still have to be ratified, but think they're a good sound base.
The second is that we have to recognize that it is going to take a concerted effort of partnership between the province and the health communities in northern and rural areas of the province to solve these particular issues. That means local government, local health boards and community health councils. It means nurses working in these particular areas. It means the health authorities; it means the BCMA. It means a recognition of a sensitivity that the health needs of rural and northern British Columbia and the challenges facing them are not the same as those here in the lower mainland.
That's why it also means that we have to recognize and look at what's happening in other provinces in terms of rural areas and northern areas, that we have to recognize there is a role for the federal government and that there has to be a comprehensive strategy and plan in terms of dealing with issues in northern and rural B.C.
C. Hansen: My concern with what the minister has said on this issue surrounding the Northern Interior regional health board is that we've heard this all before. This government has now been in office for nine years, and we've had six Ministers of Health during that period of time. What we find is that each year there may be a different minister in the chair, but we hear the same kinds of stories over and over and the same kinds of response from the minister of the week. In this case, he's talking about what a nice meeting he had with the mayor.
Well, the mayors are angry, and I think people in this health region are angry. He's talking about how he's interested in the proposal and how he's impressed with the proposal. We've heard that from his predecessors time and time again. Over the nine years that the NDP have been in power, we have seen the delivery of health care in the northern interior deteriorate year after year. We are not seeing improvements.
I've got the update that came from the northern interior regional health board just last month. This is the government's appointed chair of that health board. I'll just read you an excerpt from this update:
This isn't a crisis that has started just since the minister was appointed to this responsibility. This is a crisis that has been growing for the last nine years. What we have seen is a failure of this minister and his predecessors in dealing with that kind of a problem.
"Regional health board chair Lorraine Grant says there are still more patients than we have spaces for, the ICU continues to be on diversion, and our staff and physicians are getting burned out from working in a state of constant pressure. 'Our staff and physicians are doing an incredible job of continuing to provide quality care to those in need, but the longer this continues, the more we are burning them out. There is only so long you can continue to manage in a situation like this.' "
What is important, I think, is not the studies, and it's not the cordial meetings with the mayors. What's important is outcomes in that region. As my colleague from Prince George-Omineca outlined earlier, the CEO of that health region, Dave Richardson, has had some pretty strong things to say recently. He's talking about how that region ranks from one to 20, where one is the best and 20 is the worst. It says: "Of the health regions in B.C., the northern interior region ranks highest" -- like 20 -- "in cancer, diabetes and all causes of disease. It ranks eighteenth in pneumonia and influenza, motor vehicle accidents and chronic lung disease."
Yet what we're facing today -- which is not a new problem, not a new crisis; it is a crisis that has grown over the years -- is that they are now in need of recruiting 25 specialists, ten family physicians and 75 nurses.
What we have seen is a growing legacy of nine years of the inability of this government to deal with the very real human problems that we have in the northern interior health region. We have seen study after study. We've seen little announcements here and little announcements there, but as my colleague from Prince George-Omineca points out, what we have seen is a failure for a long-term strategy that's actually going to produce real, tangible results.
Hon. Speaker, in view of this government's track record on delivering health care services in the northern interior, I would like to move, seconded by my colleague from Prince George-Omineca: be it resolved that the motion before the House to approve the expenditures of the Ministry of Health be amended by reducing the amount by $1.
[T. Stevenson in the chair.]
The Chair: The amendment reads: Be it resolved that the motion before the House to approve the expenditures of the Ministry of Health be amended by reducing the amount by $1.
G. Clark: Just a brief clarification. I think you said that his salary would be reduced by $1. Or is it reduced to $1? It may make a difference on the vote.
The Chair: By $1.
[ Page 15612 ]
Motion negatived on the following division:
|YEAS -- 35|
|NAYS -- 35|
The Chair: Members, we have a tie vote, and I vote in opposition, in favour of continuing the debate that we have -- and of course, to maintain the status quo. The motion is defeated.
R. Neufeld: I'll maybe wait a few minutes until some of the minister's staff arrive.
For the minister's information, I'm going to ask a few questions -- not a lot of them -- around Fort St. John General Hospital and multi-year funding and how they provide services in the Fort St. John hospital compared to some other hospitals. Mammography services is the second item in the north. I want to deal a little bit with mental health as it relates to my constituency. I want to deal with ambulance service in my constituency, air ambulance out of the northeast, and touch briefly on Hope Air, previously Mission Air.
I'll start with the multi-year funding for the Fort St. John hospital. I'm sure the minister is aware that we have received some money for Fort St. John hospital for capital expenditures this year. But one of the problems that has constantly been brought forward in the Fort St. John hospital funding is the need for some kind of multi-year planning.
At the present time what's happening -- and the minister can help me a bit with this -- is that the CEO tells me that the funding is on a yearly basis, and they have to get architects for a yearly basis and smaller projects. Those projects don't fit into the next ones, because we don't know whether the next year we're going to get the extension to that first project. So what they have to do is build in smaller units, and the efficiency and the actual end product is not conducive to what you want in the first place. It leads to, I think, a lot of extra cost -- a lot of extra building cost, extra architectural cost and engineer cost -- when we could actually change that a bit. If we went into maybe even a three- or a four-year cycle in planning for capital expenditures it would actually, at the end of the day, cost the taxpayers of the province less and serve the people of the area much better.
I just wonder if the minister could maybe go through that a little bit and tell me the reasons why we can't do that and why we wouldn't do those kind of things.
Hon. M. Farnworth: I can tell the hon. member that we are in fact moving to a multi-year funding capital plan for a four-year period, and that operating funding will be tied to that as well.
R. Neufeld: Has that just happened, then?
I'm going to go back a couple of years to the ambulance facility that was built in Fort St. John, and I know there were some different circumstances surrounding the ambulance garage. But had that ambulance facility been built in a multi-year planning cycle, it probably wouldn't have ended up exactly where it's at on the property. It would have been more wisely attached to the hospital, rather than being a facility unto itself, and facilitated other things such as a helicopter landing pad, which we used to enjoy in Fort St. John. We actually used it quite often, because of the kind of work that goes on in Fort St. John, in the region -- in the oil and gas industry and the forest industry, where men and women are working miles and miles away from Fort St. John.
Many times ambulance services are provided by helicopter. We used to have a landing pad right at the hospital site. We no longer have that because of what took place with the ambulance service garage and those kind of things.
I don't want to go back and sort a whole bunch of that stuff out. But I just want to talk a little bit about why it would be better in that instance, which is a proven instance -- had we had multi-year funding, we could have done some of those things.
Could the minister tell me if that just took place, now that we're going to start the four-year multi-year funding?
Hon. M. Farnworth: I have to correct my answer to the previous question. In terms of moving to the long-term, multi-year funding for capital projects, that is in fact taking place, but annual operating funding is not yet tied to that taking place. That's still done on an annual basis and would require a change to the Financial Administration Act for that to happen.
R. Neufeld: When can we expect that change will take place?
Hon. M. Farnworth: That would be an issue that you would have to take up with the Ministry of Finance.
[S. Hawkins in the chair.]
R. Neufeld: I appreciate that. We'll carry on some discussions about that later, and I will write the minister for confirmation on when we can look forward to that.
[ Page 15613 ]
Talking about operating budgets brings me to the second part of the Fort St. John hospital, and that is the economy of scale that the Fort St. John hospital offers. I think the minister's staff is aware of a presentation made by Mr. Andrew Neuner to the staff about operating budgets and capital budgets not that long ago. He brought forward some quite startling statistics and gave them to me. One that surprised me
I'm sure the minister is aware that the northeast economy in the oil and gas industry is booming. It's doing quite well. The population of Fort St. John is growing steadily, as is the region around Fort St. John. In fact, if we compare the region to Peace River South and Dawson Creek, the city proper has 10,000 people. In Fort St. John the city proper has 17,000 people, with probably another 8,000 within a 15-to-20-mile radius of Fort St. John. It's growing by leaps and bounds and, I believe, needs some more funding to operate. The CEO told me that because of staff shortages, they may have to close some beds.
Some of the statistics he gave me were in comparison to the Prince Rupert hospital. The Prince Rupert Regional Hospital -- and I'm going to read this -- "operates on an almost identical budget, despite the fact that the Fort St. John hospital serves a greater number of patients." The dollar figure is about the same; in fact, I think it's hardly different at all. But the figures from the Ministry of Health said that in 1998-99, Prince Rupert hospital had a total number of 15,656 emergency room visits. Fort St. John's emergency ward had 27,000 -- a huge difference. The number of births in Prince Rupert totalled 268 during the same time period, while Fort St. John had 476. Fort St. John's births are way higher than Dawson Creek, and in fact, it services, like I said, a larger area.
I wonder: is there room within the ministry where we can start adjusting some of those numbers? I don't know the particulars around either hospital, to be perfectly honest, but I do know that when I go by these statistics, it demonstrates to me that something's got to be wrong somewhere. If you take 27,000 emergency room visits to 17,000, that's 10,000 more -- that's almost double -- yet the money they get is the same. I don't know if it's because there are really good practices in Fort St. John and maybe some poor practices in some of the other hospitals, but if you go to other hospitals of the same demographic area and about the same population anywhere in the province, Fort St. John comes out on top. Yet Fort St. John is thwarted all the time in trying to get some more funding to provide the service it has to, to a growing community -- a growing, young community, I might add. It's not just to the hospital; it's long term care; it's every facet of it; it's mental health. However you want to go through it, it seems as though that region has held constant and steady and cannot grow. Maybe the minister can shed some light on why we're at that point in an area that's fast-growing, providing lots of money to the economy of the province and needs the services.
Hon. M. Farnworth: The member raises, some key points that I'll try and address -- some specifically and others in a general way -- because I think the issues are applicable right across the province and reflect part of the challenge that we face.
I met with the administrator from the hospital, Mr. Neuner, and members of the board a few weeks back, and they raised those very concerns with me. I have had the issue around hospital funding, in terms of population-based funding formulas, raised with me. Can we change it? I guess the short answer is: yes, we can change it. The longer answer is: what do you change it to? There are innumerable ways of coming up with a formula that takes into account all different types of things, such as demographics, location, distance and services provided. It's not a simple issue, because you change the formula to benefit one area, and that has consequences in another area.
Having said that, what I would like to see happen is that we get a good handle in terms of our ability to refine the funding formula model, because it may in fact have to change over time and take into account changes that are happening in different parts of the province. I think one of the ways that we have to do this -- and I've raised this with health care administrators from the Peace River country and also with health care administrators from different parts of the province -- is get much better information technology into our institutions and health care system than we currently have, so that we can start to compare, on an apples-to-apples basis, exactly the issues that the member is raising. We can compare what's happening in this facility in this part of the province and that facility in that part of the province.
We have in some places in the lower mainland, for example, within health authorities, hospitals operating on different information technology systems, and they can't talk to each other. They are in the same health authority. That's just unacceptable. One of the areas we're focusing on in terms of dealing with the issue that the member has raised is trying to make information technology a priority so that we can get a provincewide system. Then we can start looking at what are the inputs in Fort St. John, what are the inputs in Dawson Creek and what are the inputs into hospitals in Prince Rupert, Vancouver and looking at who's doing what well and who's not doing what well. Then you can really start pinpointing and focusing. That's one of the key problems. Technology is such that I think you're going to start to see that.
One of the things -- and again I come back to this theme that I have raised in estimates -- is that other provinces are facing the same issues, and there's a recognition that the provinces have to work together on providing good information technology. The member talks about the efficiencies and the economies of scale that can come about through having, in this case, good information. The same thing is going to apply to the provinces as well.
The member's points are well taken, and it's something that we are trying to focus on. It is an area that I'm particularly interested in dealing with, because I'm convinced that in terms of the next, if you like
R. Neufeld: When can we expect that those kinds of things are going to start taking place and in what fashion? Can we actually see how the rubber hits the road, so that I don't have to come back here next year and ask the minister the same question? What plans are in place -- A, B, C and D -- and how are we going to accomplish those?
[ Page 15614 ]
Hon. M. Farnworth: There are some what you could call immediate, practical projects that we're working on. TeleCare -- self-care TeleCare -- is one way, in terms of introducing information technology. There are some health authorities that have some very good systems in place.
The second is that we're working on a proposal to look on a provincewide basis, at cost-sharing with the federal government. They have expressed considerable interest in terms of looking at how we might fund something like that not just here in B.C. but right across the country. They are in agreement with us that in terms of how we move things forward and how we identify where some of the key financial challenges, in terms of money going into the health care system
So I would suggest that probably by the fall, you'll see a strong development of a plan on how we've going to achieve this.
R. Neufeld: So I can look in the fall of this year for some plans and some kind of criteria and some idea of when we're going to get some of this stuff into place.
I would also like to ask the minister
I've done a lot of work in trying to alleviate some of those problems, and if we don't run into it with doctors, we're running into some problems with psychiatrists in the northeast and those kinds of things. Maybe you could just let me know what you've done there.
Hon. M. Farnworth: We'll be happy to let the member know what in fact has taken place, but I just want to clarify one particular point. The issue around immigration is not the answer, in the long term, to our physician and nursing shortage in B.C. or indeed the country. I think the answer to those problems rests here in B.C., and it rests here in Canada. There is a worldwide shortage of nurses; there is the same shortage in terms of physicians.
In terms of immigration, there are countries with doctors who want to come here. But to be quite frank -- and I have said this -- I have ethical and moral problems in terms of taking physicians from other parts of the world where they're just as badly needed -- in many cases, more so. What we need to be doing is having a long-term strategy in place which results in the training of physicians here in British Columbia and the training of physicians right across the country and recognizing what the key specialties are that we're going to have shortages in, what the key areas of practice are that we're going to have shortages in -- and training them.
One of the ideas that I think we could be doing -- and I'm trying to advance it -- is looking at what the key areas are in the discussion we're having around the Peace River country, northern and regional areas. We should be looking at developing a significant component, for the sake of discussion, of rural and northern health care. Training physicians, GPs, whose
That's one way of looking at it. The other is that, provinces have to stop poaching from each other. I think the provinces have to start to get together and start developing some interprovincial strategies in terms of how we're going to train and produce the physicians, the nurses and the health care workers that we're going to need in the country. If one is out doing it and training a whole slew of people, and the others are saying: "Oh well, good. B.C. is doing it, so what we'll do is get them into our province or vice versa." That's not going to help anybody.
There needs to be, a much better coordinated approach to this than has been done in the past. That's one of the things that B.C. is taking leadership on right now -- is the human resource issue in the current negotiations in health care with the provinces. We're looking at the cost drivers as they impact on the health care system, and this is one of the areas that British Columbia has responsibility for.
R. Neufeld: I appreciate that response. I don't disagree with the fact that we have to start training people within British Columbia and training them to deal with rural health care -- and specifically where I come from, the north or whatever you want to call it.
But in the interim, many of those doctors that we receive in the north -- from South Africa -- come from regions much the same, just a different country, and actually provide excellent service. Thank goodness that we have South African doctors, or we wouldn't have any -- regardless of what we've tried to date. That's a reflection not just on this government but through time. So it has been an issue and something that we have to deal with. I'll leave that issue.
I want to talk about mammography services in the north. Again, it happened last year, and the previous minister was able to get a mobile mammography unit to Fort Nelson to deal with issues there. I have, again, another petition signed by about 460 women in Fort Nelson, requesting, again, that we provide the mobile mammography unit to go to Fort Nelson. The practice has been, last year and again now, to ask people to come to Fort St. John, Dawson Creek or those places to have that service provided. The minister, I think, knows that it's about a 500-mile round trip just from Fort Nelson.
Those aren't just the issues. There are people that live along the Alaska Highway, further north, who don't access
Those people that live in those areas deserve to have some kind of service. I would hope that by now
[ Page 15615 ]
after last year -- and we didn't get all the ladies through the process last year, because there wasn't enough time
The letters I've received and the letter from the people at the screening mammography program of British Columbia to the ladies in Fort Nelson are telling them, again, to come to Dawson Creek or Fort St. John.
Can the minister tell me what we're doing so we can alleviate this problem and start providing this much-needed and basic service to these people?
Hon. M. Farnworth: The member raises, some important issues and, I think, important concerns. There were some problems with a particular unit last year. We are looking at replacing it, so that we can get the program up and running again. Hon. member, if you keep in touch with me, I'll let you know when in fact that is taking place.
I also think that the point should not go unremarked
On the specific issue that the member raised, we're working on trying to get a program and the equipment to be able to meet the needs that the member has spoken about. If there's a way that we can get up to Fort Nelson, I certainly would like to see that happen.
R. Neufeld: I appreciate those responses. I am a bit surprised that we haven't done something about it before now, to be honest. I'm not trying to be critical or to point fingers or anything, but this is an issue that we dealt with last year with the previous minister. It doesn't take a rocket scientist to figure out that it's going to happen again the next year and that things have to be done. To be just starting to look at something now
I don't think you can buy this equipment or secure this kind of equipment by going to some other place; I'm not sure. I'm not sure about the kind of equipment that's needed for that service, but it is something that's important to northern women. It is darn important to 450-some that have signed a petition and have sent it to me and said: "Why are we still asking and begging for this basic service that you can get in Vancouver or Victoria or Kelowna or Kamloops on a constant basis?"
I just think that somehow we should be looking at it. I agree with a regional approach; I don't have a problem with that at all. There's Fort Liard in the Northwest Territories. There's Watson Lake -- although it's in the Yukon, that's probably a community that those ladies don't have access to either and have a long way to go to get that service.
But for goodness' sake, let's start. Let's start a process that isn't just a band-aid from year to year. So I'll leave that. The minister can respond to that if he wants. It's something that is a bit close to my heart because of some of the things that have happened in my family. I would like to see us actually starting on something. I know the hospital boards in the Peace are working together to try and alleviate this problem, but it is something that the province has to get involved in too.
I'm going to run out of time here. I think my critic is going to give me, as they call it, the hook before long. So I want to go on to mental health just briefly.
To the minister: I have a report here done by
Maybe the minister can just respond briefly to that and tell me what plan is in place to take care of this inequity in funding and this unfairness that's happening and has happened over a long period of time.
"The Peace-Liard health region presently receives $1,019,479 for community mental health services, which represents 0.64 percent of the total provincial budget. This is the lowest budget allocation among the 18 health regions. Based on demographic allocation, the region only receives 41.2 percent of its fair share.
"The region lacks many of the core services defined in the 'Best Practices' document for people with a severe and persistent mental illness. For example, this region is the only region without any residential care and family care home services.
"Throughout the consultation process it was reported consistently that the region has been undermanaged for many years, including lack of management and ongoing support from the macro-regional office in Prince George responsible for the management and development of mental health services in this region until March 31, 1997. It was reported that this region has often missed out on many opportunities."
Hon. M. Farnworth: The member is correct. That particular region has been historically underfunded. That's one of the issues that the mental health plan is intended to address. In fact, some work has already started in terms of ensuring that that takes place in the member's area. There will be the framework of implementation that will be released later, in a month, which will further show what next steps are going to happen in terms of dealing with a particular issue.
My understanding is that there has been funding, I think, to allow five new beds into the hospitals in the area. We recognize that the northeast has been underfunded, and we are trying to take steps to address that.
R. Neufeld: I'll be looking forward to those things happening. Just for the minister's information, that same document says -- and it breaks it out in the northeast -- "for services." And it's not just Fort St. John; I'm talking about Fort Nelson. It's left with nothing to speak of, other than a basic
[ Page 15616 ]
regional service. Someone trying to get a professional to go in there on a
But if you look at the community of Dawson Creek, which has 10,000 people, it gets almost $293,000. Fort St. John, a community of 17,000, gets $35,497. And Fort Nelson is in there with much less than that. So there is some inequity in the whole province and within the region that has to be addressed.
I would like to talk a bit about the Ambulance Service in Fort St. John again. We've had some incidents, some mixups, with the Ambulance Service. I don't know whether the minister is aware or not, but I'm going to say again that we have two full-time staff in Fort St. John for the Ambulance Service, for a region, like I said, with a city of 17,000 and about 8,000 around it. In comparison, Dawson Creek -- 10,000 and probably about the same amount of people living around it -- has six or eight full-time ambulance staff.
We do have some problems in training, because we use part-time, and they're called on a part-time basis. I don't think a lot of them are terribly familiar with the community as a whole. We've had some instances where the response time has not been all that good. I just wonder if the minister would care to tell me if there is some program in place where we're going to start training people in the Fort St. John area or even look at maybe getting some more full-time people, because the area is growing so fast, so that we can provide good services to those people that require them.
Hon. M. Farnworth: I can tell the member that we are in fact, at this particular moment in time, looking at the situation in Fort St. John and the call volumes that are taking place and seeing what impact it's having, how to deal with it and what it's going to require in terms of resources to do that.
R. Neufeld: As the minister talked before about hospitals and I did about receiving funding call volumes aren't the total answer, sometimes, to what is taking place in the two regions. The area of Pouce and Dawson Creek has a lot more seniors homes that ambulance services are provided to on quite a regular basis, so they have a high call volume. Fort St. John doesn't have that many seniors homes, but they have a fairly high call volume for the region as a whole because of the activity that takes place.
I think we want to be careful on how we deal with the call volume in saying
Hon. M. Farnworth: That comes exactly back to what we were talking about earlier in terms of utilization and why it's important that we get good information technology that allows you to look at data input and analysis. I couldn't agree with the member more.
R. Neufeld: I have one last issue, and that is dealing with air ambulance service in the northeast. Before I say anything, I want to tell the minister that I think the air ambulance service provided in the northeast and to the whole province is great. I'm not taking it apart or anything. I think it's a service that's obviously greatly needed, and they do a good job. But there are some issues there that I think we can start looking at.
I requested some statistics, and it's interesting to see that although we talk about Alberta's health care system being so terrible, it seems as though that's where we fly all our people from the northeast. From Dawson Creek, Fort Nelson and Fort St. John the majority of people that are flown out for services by air ambulance go to either Grande Prairie, Edmonton or Calgary to receive their services in most cases, because Prince George is in the state as the member for Prince George-Omineca talked about earlier or Vancouver is too overbooked to be able to take care of the people.
But one of the problems that we have is the stationing of aircraft services within the province. At the present time, I believe and I'm told, we have advanced life support based in Prince George on a 12-hour shift per day. That's for all of northern B.C. That takes care of right over to Rupert and over on the other side to Tête Jaune and all of my area. They're on standby only 12 hours a day, and it's out of Prince George.
What happens is that we don't have the capability of handling the calls, so what we do is go out of province to get emergency aircraft from Alberta -- again, the place that has just destroyed medicare. Yet in Alberta
I would like to ask the minister if we couldn't look at maybe supporting
Let's remember that in these communities in northern Alberta -- I know where those communities are, and I think the minister knows quite well where they're at -- they have about a 30-minute response time. It's not always that way in British Columbia. It's not because we don't have the best service that we can; it's because when it comes out of Prince George, and that plane happens to be busy in Prince Rupert, you've got to go to Edmonton or Calgary in the next province to try to find one that's available. Those companies don't pay taxes in British Columbia. They just come in, pick the people up, take them back out and bill the medical service for it. I'd like to know if the minister would look seriously at starting to provide a better coverage in northeastern British Columbia.
The minister is aware, as I am, that the northeast is growing in the oil and gas industry. There are lots of people. It is an industry where people unfortunately get injured and have to be flown out -- very remote. I would like to see, along with the Ministry of Energy and Mines, which is promoting
[ Page 15617 ]
growth in the northeast, that we look seriously at providing a better air ambulance service to people in the northeast and actually utilizing British Columbia companies. There are some in Fort St. John that have been doing this flying for 40-some years and have been trying to be able to access this kind of service. Would the minister look favourably at revisiting how we provide air ambulance service in the north and maybe provide a better service to the people in the province and not cost us any more?
Hon. M. Farnworth: As I preface my remarks, I am just going to say
The member raises some important issues that certainly are worthy of looking at, in terms of how the transportation of patients to and from the hospitals takes place in the north. What we've got to recognize is that we need to be looking at two things: one, what the physician deems to be in the best interests of the patient, clearly; and second, I'd like to see us be able to provide more service here in B.C. But we have to look at how we're doing it and what some of the crucial factors are that we need to be taking into account.
Alberta has some unique advantages that we don't have in terms of the provision of air services. They have a significant northern population centred around Edmonton, which is something that we don't have in B.C. That provides a critical mass in terms of their servicing a number of their northern communities. I think that one of the things we need to do is to look at what services are required, and if we can service them from within British Columbia, we should be doing that.
The second point that I would like to deal with, and something we need to look at, is this issue of northern transportation and air ambulance in northern and rural areas of the province. It is again something where I think we need to look at
Certainly I'm always open to looking at how we can make services better and whether there's a way we can deliver them cost-effectively and meet the needs of the people of the member's area. At the end of the day, it is a very distinct geographical region from the rest of the province that has some natural links to Alberta, just geographically speaking. At the same time, it's a growing region that's getting more and more of a critical mass that's going to give it the ability to support a greater array of services than it has in the past.
R. Neufeld: I could go on with this for quite a while, but I think I'm going to wrap up and offer my services to the ministry in working on these kinds of issues. I can bring some players to the table that I think we should be looking at seriously. I don't know what the outcome will be, but if we don't try, I guess none of us will ever know. And we can stand here and talk about it next year, and it'll never happen. So I'll leave that. I appreciate the minister's response.
I want to do just two more things. One that I'm sure the member for Peace River South is going to deal with -- or maybe he already has, and I'm just not aware of it -- is the issue about having to have travel insurance when you go out of the province of British Columbia. I have a lot of people who live in Fort Nelson and Fort St. John who work on a pretty steady basis in the Northwest Territories and the Yukon in the oil and gas industry, which is all serviced out of British Columbia. I think, for their comfort, they should know whether they have to access some kind of extra insurance to be flown to health care services, if that's what's required at some point in their working career.
The letter from the B.C. Ambulance Service is pretty discouraging to anyone who lives in a region that depends on this service, like my region does. Last year there were about 400 air ambulance flights from Fort St. John, Fort Nelson and Dawson Creek.
I would hope that the minister has rectified that. If not, he could maybe tell me: do people have to start looking at extra insurance just to travel or to work within the province or in Canada?
The second question is about the mammography unit or services -- if the minister could tell me whether or not they're in the capital plan for this year, and if so, where. Can you direct me to that information so that I can tell the people in Fort Nelson that they're actually going to receive the services and that what we've talked about here -- mobile mammography -- is actually going to take place?
I'd appreciate a response to both of those questions. That's all the questions I have.
Hon. M. Farnworth: I think one of the important things
R. Neufeld: The mobile mammography issues that we talked about
Hon. M. Farnworth: I know you didn't write this particular question. It's a non-capital item, so it won't be a capital line in the budget. It is in fact an operating item, so it's an operating funding issue.
R. Neufeld: In an operating budget issue
[ Page 15618 ]
and say: "Yes, the minister has budgeted for this service. Here is the proof that it's in the budget." They can look at it and have some comfort in that.
Hon. M. Farnworth: I will send you a letter outlining how it's going to be funded and what's happening, so you'll be able to give a full and complete time line on those types of things to your constituents.
R. Neufeld: Thank you.
B. Barisoff: I have a number of issues I want to touch on: the multicare facilities at Midway and Keremeos, the D and T centre in Keremeos, ambulance services throughout the riding, small hospitals, long-term care and assisted living.
What I would like to start with is the multilevel-care facility in Keremeos. The original concept of that was to be a
I'm wondering whether the minister would look at, when things like that happen, whether the facility could be enhanced. In all fairness, that's the people's residence of Keremeos; they'll probably stay there for a long time. But they kept chopping things off and, in short, lost out on some items. Yet the bid came in substantially under $7 million. Are there any comments?
Hon. M. Farnworth: The member raises two good points. The first is that the facility is going ahead; the moneys for it are in the budget. It's going to be built, and that's as it should be.
I guess the second point is a really interesting one, because the question is: if bids come in under budget, should you allocate the money to improve that particular facility? Or should you take that money and perhaps use it to build facilities in other area -- to fund another project that might not otherwise have been funded? I think that's a balancing act. There's often the ability to improve things a bit, maybe to provide some extra amenities or equipment -- those types of things. But I also think it's important that in terms of trying to get the best value for the dollar, we also recognize that sometimes when that happens -- when bids come in under budget -- it allows us to do other projects that we might not have otherwise been able to do in a particular fiscal year.
B. Barisoff: Under normal circumstances, hon. minister, I would agree with that. But in this case, I know that the residents of Keremeos, the project manager and whoever else worked on it
In cases like that
The other thing that is of some concern is that originally the facility was scheduled to be a 50-bed facility, and it turned out to be a 25-bed facility. There's a definite need for another 25 beds. I know that from everybody I talk to -- the efficiency side of that. There's a much greater efficiency at 50 beds. I'm wondering whether the minister or the ministry have looked at any future plans for that. The site is there; there's lots of room for the additional 25 beds. I'm just wondering whether we've looked at something enhancing that to make it more viable and more efficient.
Hon. M. Farnworth: No, the ministry hasn't. But what should happen is that the regional health board has the responsibility for determining what their needs are. If they come forward with a plan in the future that involves that site, that would certainly be considered. Or they may want to look at
B. Barisoff: Further on multicare facilities, could the minister give to me what the status is in Midway? I know that they're looking at a multicare facility there. What stage are they at?
Hon. M. Farnworth: It's not in this year's capital plan, but we are starting to work on next year's capital plan. My understanding is that there's a good possibility of it being part of that review for the following fiscal year.
B. Barisoff: Going on to small hospitals, last year I stood up in the House and asked the Minister of Health about small hospitals, in particular in the Okanagan-Boundary, where we have two small hospitals: one in Oliver and one in Grand Forks. I'm glad to see that the former minister is in the House at the present moment, because she indicated to me on record that services in small hospitals would not be lessened in any way, shape or form.
Yet what has happened in Oliver, where the obstetrics have been taken away from the Oliver hospital? I'm wondering whether the minister would comment on that fact. I don't want the pat answer of saying: "Well, that's part of the regional health board's decision."
The reason I brought it here to the House last year was that I had a definite concern about what would happen in these small hospitals. With the commitment of the minister last year, I felt very confident in going back to the communities and saying I had the assurance of the minister that these things wouldn't happen. Yet here we are, probably less than a year or at max a year later, where something as vital as obstetrics in the South Okanagan -- in particular, in Oliver -- has been taken away. Could the minister make a comment?
Hon. M. Farnworth: I understand the member's concern around this issue, and I understand the importance of services to small communities. But one of the things that we also have to take into account in the provision of particular services is the level of service that is being supplied. There are a number of services that require a certain level of them to take place each year, and if they're not taking place, then that starts to raise safety concerns.
[ Page 15619 ]
There's also the issue around the practitioners. Are they getting enough ability to practice what they are trained to do that they maintain their skill level? If that's not taking place, then that causes issues which have to be addressed. Sometimes that can result in, for example, the removal of a service from a hospital in a small community.
B. Barisoff: Somehow I expected to receive that answer. The practitioner that did most of them, Dr. David Shaw, was in the process of hiring a partner in his practice. He actually brought somebody in who also had expertise in that field. My concern is that when he brought somebody else to help him do exactly this
I know where you're coming from. But I think that in all fairness, with what the minister indicated to me last year, there seems to be some concern. This concern extends farther out. In the community of Osoyoos that's 13 miles south, the people there are certainly looking at some kind of D and T centre, something that would be on an emergency basis or whatever else that could take place. I know they had a meeting where, I think, they had somewhere around 400 people at the meeting. In a small community the size of Osoyoos, that's a substantial number of people coming out. I guess the concern, of course, is cost. Could the minister indicate to me whether there are any possibilities of anything happening in that area, in the Osoyoos area?
Hon. M. Farnworth: We're not aware of anything within the ministry, and we're not expecting anything. I know the member said before, "I don't want to hear the pat answer," but one of the responsibilities of the health authority is to deal with issues such as this. They have a sense of what's going on in the community and how resources should best be allocated. I understand the member's concern, and I understand the points that he is raising. But they do have to manage, and they do have to make their decisions. But we're not aware of anything that's impending.
B. Barisoff: The reason that I have such great concerns about the small hospital is because they -- the small hospital in Oliver and the small hospital in Grand Forks
I guess I could ask the minister the same question that I asked the minister last year, hoping to get the same answer but hoping that there would be a stronger commitment on his behalf to maintain the services in a small hospital, in light of the fact that we can't simply build other facilities in all the small communities. Would the minister indicate to me whether the services, in particular in Oliver, would be maintained and possibly enhanced in the future to make sure that the surrounding communities aren't left out in the cold, so to say?
Hon. M. Farnworth: The point I want to make is that the regional health authority does have to make the plan, and they do have to look at the delivery of services within their particular region. They're the ones who are responsible for that particular geographic area and the communities in it. So one of the things one would hope is that they recognize which services are required in different communities and that there is a way to maintain them.
So I can't give the member firm guarantees for a particular hospital. I want to know what's happening in that particular health authority. What I can tell the member is that one of the things that I'm trying to do is to find ways of dealing with issues in rural and northern B.C. and to recognize that there are unique situations, that health care in those areas is different from the lower mainland. It is even different in those communities than it is in Kelowna, for example. There are issues that we need to try and work around and resolve, and that I'm quite happy to try and do that.
B. Barisoff: I'm pleased to hear the minister say that there is going to be some consideration to rural small hospitals, because I think that's the key to the whole direction of the line of questioning. And where I was going to is the fact that we have to recognize that in smaller communities we have smaller hospitals. There are fantastic facilities there, and I think we must utilize them. I know that in my particular area, the south Okanagan, we have great doctors, bar none, who can provide a lot of the services that are needed -- as long as they have the recognition of the fact that they are rural. We can look at these things.
The other thing that I'd also like to ask the minister is about the access to staff. I know about that firsthand from my wife, who works there and who has a hard time accessing staff for the hospital. I'm just wondering whether the minister has not only looked at the broader picture of somehow making sure that
Hon. M. Farnworth: That comes back to the comments I made earlier and statements that I've also said publicly: we need to address issues around staffing and training. That's why you're seeing, for example, the 400 nursing spots. That's why one of the things I want us to do is to find ways of encouraging young people from those communities to enrol in those programs. That's why it's important that there's a good regional distribution around them.
If someone grows up in a community -- let's say, Oliver -- and they want to stay there
[ Page 15620 ]
Again, it comes back to
B. Barisoff: Moving on to an issue that I brought up in the briefing session with your staff, and in letters I had hand-delivered to you directly, is the long term care issue in the South Okanagan -- in particular, the fact that a lot of the acute care beds are being utilized by long term care patients, particularly in the South Okanagan. The last figure, I think, was that we're 500 or 600 beds short, and it's probably growing on a daily basis.
That is a fact: when you live in the best part of the province, seniors want to move there and retire there. We are certainly feeling the pinch in the Okanagan simply because of the geographical area that we live in. It is by far the best part of the province, but we are feeling lots of pressure.
Now, I mentioned to the minister the assisted living in those letters
I just got a news release from the Okanagan-Similkameen health region, and it says: "Assisted living: a new approach to housing and care for seniors. The Okanagan-Similkameen health region, in partnership with the Good Samaritan Society, B.C. Housing and FWS" -- that's a private developer -- "is offering, subject to final signing, a contract -- a new housing complex which is an innovative way to help seniors stay independent for as long as possible. It's called assisted living."
I guess my concern to the minister is that here we have a media release today or yesterday, and we have a facility in the South Okanagan. Yes, it's in a smaller community, but I'm looking to the minister, because I know that the acute care beds are being used. It's something that we stall and we delay on, but I know that in the briefing, your staff indicated to me that there was something in the books; there was a program that they were looking at.
I guess what I'm saying right now is: here we're looking at doing something to build a new facility -- big news release -- and yet we have a facility. All we have to do is simply make the decision, because I know that the owners of Heritage House have contacted B.C. Housing, and they're more than willing to partake in it. All we need to do is have the Health ministry kick in their share, and we can probably make the lives of a lot of our seniors substantially better.
I've had the opportunity to visit the facility, and it's fantastic. If I was a number of years older, I might be booking a place there myself. But I tell you, it's the kind of facility that would take a lot of pressure off the South Okanagan for long term care beds. It would take a lot of pressure off South Okanagan General Hospital and probably the Penticton Regional Hospital for acute care beds. I know that both those hospitals are using those beds for long term care.
I'm just wondering whether the minister can speed up the process. Rather than looking at this as something that, yes, we've got a plan in place for, and we're going to do this
An Hon. Member: Make it happen.
Hon. M. Farnworth: I guess I could go into a fairly lengthy speech on the issue right now. I'll resist the temptation to do that. But what I
Hon. M. Farnworth: Be careful what you wish for, hon. member.
But what I can tell the member is that we've had some discussion on this today, and I agree with what the member's talking about. I think all of us do. On this specific case I received the letters, and I've looked at them. The member has raised it with me. I can tell you that they want to meet. The proponents have asked for a joint meeting with my ministry and B.C. Housing, and we will be more than happy to sit down with them and see if there's a way that we can move things forward.
B. Barisoff: I appreciate the minister's comment. I think that the sooner that we can do this, the sooner it would help a lot of senior citizens in the South Okanagan to have a better way of life. When I talked to you in the hallway, I indicated to you that it would be quite a money-saving. It actually saves money, as we hear from that side of the House: "You're always asking for money." Well, I put together a proposal here that will actually save the government money instead of spending $900 a day on acute care beds. So I would hope that the minister will make that announcement sooner rather than later.
One of the last issues that I want to talk about -- still along the lines of the small hospital -- is the ambulance services that are in the rural areas. I know that my colleagues have dealt with that. But with the concerns that they are having, particularly in the Osoyoos area and most likely in the Midway and Greenwood areas, where they are a little bit -- 10, 15, 20 minutes away from an acute care hospital
The level of training should be high all over, but I'm just thinking, on the long-term basis -- and I'll use Osoyoos as an example, where they are 15 or 20 minutes away from an acute
[ Page 15621 ]
care hospital -- that the ambulance drivers would be trained to the maximum level that they could be and that we would have that staffed on a basis where we would have those top-notch people there all the time. I think that presently they're working toward that, but I wonder if there is any kind of direction the ministry is taking in making sure that this happens in all small communities. I guess the example I want to use right now is Osoyoos.
Hon. M. Farnworth: The member raises an important issue, and I can tell you that we are implementing the training that the member has talked about -- trying to get it done as quickly as possible. We're rolling out a program. Particularly for those individuals who are volunteers, we are now training to a new standard -- the CMA standard, which is a higher standard than the basic EMA1 standard. We are rolling it out as quickly as we can.
B. Barisoff: I appreciate that fact, because I'm sure that it doesn't matter which side
Hon. M. Farnworth: I want to make one quick clarification: that's part-time staff, as opposed to volunteers. We don't have volunteers.
B. Barisoff: I know that a lot of these communities are genuinely concerned, particularly when you have that huge senior component of people who are concerned. I had a document here where they said
The example they use is quite unique. I remember saying to the minister in the hallway that I think the people are probably between 75 and 90 years old. Here's the example they use in this press release:
I guess I don't know how to stress any stronger the fact that it's such an important item for the residents of the South Okanagan to have that ability to be able to live on their own. I know that it will alleviate a lot of problems and make a lot of things happen.
"Bertha Johnstone is one such person. She is 96 years old and lives on her own. She is on a limited income. She is just beginning to need access to personal care 24 hours a day to help her, but she doesn't need full-time nursing care. She would rather stay as independent as she can, but so far her only option has been institutional care. Now she will be able to choose another level of housing which offers her independence and around-the-clock personal assistance."
With that, I thank the minister for his time and his comments. I'm sure he will be making an announcement sooner rather than later on what he would do with Heritage House and assisted living and making sure that we can give 25 or 30 more residents -- senior citizens -- the kind of care they deserve in British Columbia. If the minister has the opportunity to be in the South Okanagan in the Oliver area, I would gladly take him through the facility. I'm sure he'd be amazed at not only the quality of the building but the quality of the care that would be given. They have a full-time chef, who is there all the time. The quality of everything that's done there is something that would be extremely important.
R. Thorpe: I've got a few quick questions, but I'll go over the list so your staff can be ready: ambulance service, contingency funds, orthopedic wait-lists, Operation ID, regional funding, long-term care, brain and head injury, nurse shortage and future cooperation.
With respect to ambulance service, I would like the minister to explain this to me, but more importantly to my constituents, a growing number of whom are raising this issue. As the facilities go through some kind of rationalization and consolidation, there seems to be more of this
Hon. M. Farnworth: It's done on the basis that if you are treated at another facility, let's say, in your particular area, you're viewed as though it's part of one and the same facility.
R. Thorpe: I'm wondering why there is a 24-hour time limit on it.
Hon. M. Farnworth: A patient isn't normally admitted. They're basically there for treatment, and they leave. You're not having the overnight stay, and in essence, you're not having to do a duplication of being in two hospitals. It's viewed as a service of being treated and brought back, and you're still in the same facility.
R. Thorpe: I guess, based on that answer, the minister would agree that if a person is in fact kept in a hospital where they've had to go for some diagnostic work for longer than 24 hours, then it would be logical that they would not have to pay for the ambulance service. Would the minister agree with that?
Hon. M. Farnworth: I know that we'll be continuing this discussion, so I'll give the member a brief answer. Basically this is a policy that has been in place for at least 15 years, and there are issues around it. You and I can talk about it.
With that, I move the committee rise, report progress and ask leave to sit again.
The House resumed; the Speaker in the chair.
Committee of Supply B, having reported progress, was granted leave to sit again.
Committee of Supply A, having reported progress, was granted leave to sit again.
Hon. M. Farnworth moved adjournment of the House.
The House adjourned at 5:37 p.m.
[ Page 15622 ]
PROCEEDINGS IN THE
DOUGLAS FIR ROOM
The House in Committee of Supply A; P. Calendino in the chair.
The committee met at 2:43 p.m.
ESTIMATES: MINISTRY OF
ATTORNEY GENERAL AND MINISTRY
RESPONSIBLE FOR HUMAN RIGHTS
On vote 19: ministry operations, $828,499,000 (continued).
G. Plant: There was one matter that we pursued over the course of the last day or so, where I was hoping to hear from the minister. That was with respect to the cost of the Pacific Salmon Treaty litigation, which the minister very kindly agreed he would attempt to determine. I am wondering if he has got that number yet. He's shaking his head as though the answer is no. But I'll leave it with him for a moment.
Hon. A. Petter: No, I don't have it with me. I think my expectation was that we would put some of those outstanding questions, which dealt with parts of the debate that we have passed, into a written form for the member. But if the member wants me to try to get that particular piece of information sooner rather than later, I can try to do so.
[D. Streifel in the chair.]
G. Plant: Another matter we did touch on briefly was the cost of the two commissions of inquiry into aspects of the leaky-condo problem. The minister was kind enough to provide me with the global figures for the costs of those two inquiries.
Over the weekend, there was, I think, a radio report concerning the amount of the fees paid to the commissioner in respect of his role as commissioner in those two inquiries. One aspect of that media report was the indication that Mr. Barrett had incurred $37,000 in expenses in relation to his role as commissioner. That seems like a fairly big number for a commission that I think did most of its business in the lower mainland. Is the minister in a position now -- or if not, might he be in a position at some point -- to provide a bit of breakdown so we can see how that expense figure reached $37,000? I mean, there may be a perfectly good accounting for the reason. But at first glance, it seems like an awfully big number.
Hon. A. Petter: Yes, I think I heard the same media report as the member. The information didn't pass through my hands. I assume it was given directly through my ministry or perhaps through the ministry directly responsible for the issues in the commission. In either event, I'll be happy to try and get that breakdown and, again, provide it to the member as soon as I can get it either in this debate or in a follow-up written response.
G. Plant: We were talking about the family maintenance enforcement program. I want to pursue one aspect of that in a moment.
One of my colleagues, however, does have a question about emergency services on the Island Highway. I don't think we particularly identified that issue earlier. I'm not exactly certain where it will follow. I'm kind of in the minister's hands in terms of staff at this point. I don't think it's a provincial emergency program question. It's a question on the other kinds of emergency services. So it may be that we should raise it when we get to police and public safety. If there is still a staffing issue at that point, we will get the question on the record and see where we go from there.
The last question I had asked at the end of the debate on Thursday afternoon was about tendering a new contract to the private sector contractor who performed services for the government in administering and delivering the family maintenance enforcement program. The minister gave a fairly general answer indicating, as I recall, that the work to get something put out to tender is moving along. That they're hoping to do something sooner rather than later is the gist of the minister's answer. I don't think he expressed any particular time line. I'm wondering if he has information that would permit him to tie these commitments to a time line so that the public will know when this tendering process will finish and when it will end, so that the public will know when and if there will be a new contract or contractor to administer the FMEP.
Hon. A. Petter: I think what I indicated last day was that having reviewed the time required for a tendering process and the transition that might be required should the tender result in a new service provider, the decision had been made to extend the current contract by just two years. That is sufficient for that orderly transition to take place should a new contractor be awarded the contract.
Within that two-year time frame
Obviously, if the current contractor succeeds, then that transition isn't necessary. But in that event, the second year of the contract is simply maintaining the status quo that the competitive process would. Should there be a new contractor, then that year allowing for a transition seems responsible in order to ensure that there's no disruption in service -- a service, I might add, that has been extremely successful, with a 75 percent collection rate.
G. Plant: That family maintenance enforcement program generates a fair amount of business in my constituency office. I suspect it generates business in the constituency offices of MLAs on both sides of the House.
One issue I want to pursue is the issue of interprovincial maintenance enforcement and collection. I don't have any particular numbers to use as the basis for my expression of a question around the province's actions in terms of moving together with other provinces to a more efficient reciprocal enforcement program. I do, however, hear from what seems to me to be a probably disproportionately high number of peo-
[ Page 15623 ]
ple who are in post-marital situations that have become interprovincial, if I can put it that way. I wonder if the minister or his staff are engaged in any ongoing dialogue with their counterparts in other jurisdictions to try to make the system of interprovincial maintenance enforcement work better and if there are any specific initiatives in this area which the ministry has underway or is participating in.
Hon. A. Petter: I think the member is probably aware that over the past number of years there has been movement to try to beef up interprovincial enforcement. We do have reciprocal arrangements and attempts to bring legislation into parallel with other jurisdictions to assist in that reciprocal enforcement. I'm told that there is a federal-provincial committee which meets quarterly to review those efforts and to try to improve enforcement on an interprovincial basis. It's always a challenge in a federal state to make sure that people's ability to collect -- to collect maintenance in this case -- is not impeded by different jurisdictions. I'm told that the work that's gone on through legislative reform and the work of this committee have made some progress in that regard. But if the member wants something more specific, I think I would encourage him to either give me a question that I could follow up with a written response or indeed provide a question in writing for further research and answer -- if that would suit him.
G. Plant: I guess the question is really not much more specific than: what specifically is going on right now? I mean, are there meetings that happen on a regular basis between the minister's staff and their colleagues in similar positions in other jurisdictions? Is there a working group that examines this, so that it's a file that is in active use as opposed to being a file that's stuck underneath a pile of neglected documents in the minister's office?
Hon. A. Petter: The short answer, I guess, is that there are quarterly meetings. Whether one calls it a working group or not, it's a group of federal and provincial officials that does work on a regular basis and reviews the protocols and tries to improve enforceability. So I think the short answer to the member's question is yes, there is ongoing and active work done by ministry staff with those from other provinces and the federal government.
G. Plant: Another aspect of the work of the family maintenance enforcement program that I want to ask about is this. As the minister knows, some recent changes in the law -- some of these changes are not that recent -- have placed stepfathers and stepmothers in a position where there is perhaps increased likelihood that in certain circumstances, defined by statute to include circumstances where there has been a history of child support, the stepmother or the stepfather might be liable for an order requiring child support on an ongoing basis.
I am just now beginning to get some expression of concern from people out there in the community about the impact this may be having on individual families. I don't want to overstate the extent of the communication, but it's really something that's just beginning.
I'm wondering if the minister knows if the FMEP tracks payers by category, if you will, in terms of whether there's any tracking made of those who are step-parents and, if not, whether the minister has any ideas in mind for monitoring the impact of these legislative changes on the profile of child support payers across British Columbia.
Hon. A. Petter: The short answer is that staff advise me that the information is not tracked or broken down on that basis. The first suggestion I've heard of this is today, and I think it's an issue that perhaps should be given some consideration. I'd be happy to ask staff to advise me on that.
G. Plant: I'm not sure if the time is right or not. But there will be a moment when I think it will be important for the community justice branch to get a sense of how these provisions are working -- probably equally important in the context of the developing case law around what the courts are doing in terms of applying the various tests that are in the statute as well as in terms of seeing what their impact is on the incidence of actual payers of maintenance.
I don't know; I can't say from my own exposure to the issue whether we're dealing with something that is very small and likely to stay that way or something that is perhaps a growing phenomenon. But I gather I have the minister's assurance that he's going to speak to his staff about at least beginning to pay attention to the way in which these changes in the law are going to affect the broader society. Who knows? Maybe a year from now we'll come back and see if there's more information on the subject in terms of whether we've uncovered something that is a good thing or a bad thing or somewhere in the middle.
I want to pursue one other issue around family maintenance enforcement. One of my colleagues, who is not here right now, also wants to pursue this topic. I think it is really the only other issue that is on my list for community justice. I'm wondering if we could impose on the minister's staff to hang around for a bit longer. I know my colleague will be here momentarily, and we'll come back to that issue.
I'm ready to move into public safety and regulatory issues now, with this one caveat. I have misplaced the list the minister's staff gave me that indicates the order in which the ministry would prefer to go here -- recognizing that, as I understand it, the assistant deputy minister is not around today, so we're dealing with some program directors. Does the minister have that list in front of him as to which is the preferred area to pursue first?
Hon. A. Petter: I anticipate that I'll be joined shortly by the director of police services, Kevin Begg. If we could start with police services, we'll get the list while we're dealing with police services, so the member can then proceed in order.
G. Plant: This may be as good a time as any for this question.
J. Reid: There is a situation that has arisen along the new Island Highway, and I have been searching for an answer. It seems to be a bit of a puzzle. There is a situation where the Island Highway is not covered off by fire protection in
J. Reid: Considering the confusion that I've had in trying to solve this riddle, I'm glad to wait for the minister's attention on this one.
[ Page 15624 ]
The new Island Highway goes through a lot of area that isn't covered by fire protection districts. These rural areas have been serviced in the past by volunteer groups that operate Jaws of Life -- volunteer fire departments. Often the Jaws of Life is separate from the fire protection equipment. That was the old Island Highway. These fire trucks cannot go up onto the new Island Highway because it's outside their fire protection district and isn't covered off by fire protection.
When there is an accident, the volunteers who operate the Jaws of Life have been told that in order to safely respond to an accident, they have to be covered off by fire protection equipment which is not allowed to leave their district. We have these areas of the highway where there are resources available that are not allowed to leave the district without fire protection coverage.
Because of the very nature of the new highway not being under the fire protection districts, there is a gap in services. Some of these community groups who provide these services would be quite willing to cover off the new Island Highway if they had access to some funding for supplementary fire equipment, such as foam, so the Jaws of Life could respond to accidents. Could the minister give some directive as to where and how this problem could be resolved?
Hon. A. Petter: I'm struggling to find out under which rubric to deal with the member's question. There seem to be a number of different aspects. One may have to do with municipalities and their role under Municipal Affairs, rather, for provision of health and safety services. I see that the member has been down many of these roads before I have.
What's clear to me is that I probably won't be able to get close to an answer from a police services angle. It may be when we're dealing with the provincial emergency program, which I think is probably coming up shortly if you want it to. That may be the one area where some aspect of my ministry would have a window on how to integrate these services. I know the provincial emergency program does, in its own activities, enlist the support of volunteer fire services and others. Perhaps if the member could indulge us in waiting until we have
A Voice: We weren't going to do PEP.
Hon. A. Petter: We weren't going to do PEP. Well, why don't we
G. Plant: I had not planned at this point to pursue any particular issues around the provincial emergency program. If there was a way in which the ministry's staff could see if they could find some answer to that issue, that would be helpful.
Let's start here: SkyTrain police. Under the former minister's watch, there was an audit review done of law enforcement services provided on SkyTrain and SeaBus. The report was issued in late November. It included a recommendation for developing an interim cross-jurisdictional task force to deal with current drug-related crime along SkyTrain routes and, over the next 12 to 18 months, establishing a separate police unit to handle all policing functions and, as a third recommendation, developing a coordinated approach between security patrols and police. Could I get a progress report from the minister on the implementation of some of these recommendations?
Hon. A. Petter: As I understand it, there was a review, and the recommended option in that review was to establish a designated police unit under section 4.1 of the Police Act. Based upon that recommendation, there was support in some quarters and concern in some quarters, particularly amongst the current security staff at SkyTrain. A further round of consultation has been taking place, and I think we're in a position where shortly the results of that consultation will be coming back to me, and hopefully a final decision can be made. I'm clearly aware and have been briefed, particularly on the progress of this issue. I think it's in everyone's interest that we do come up with a form of security for SkyTrain that works. At the same time, we've got to make sure that it's a form that is supported by the community and by TransLink itself, as well as by the police, and that it's a form that minimizes disruption to workers and achieves support from workers. The process is continuing. Hopefully the final results of the consultation will be back on my desk shortly, and a final decision can then be made.
G. Plant: Would the minister be in a position to put just a little bit more concreteness around the timetables in relation to the matters he just talked about?
Hon. A. Petter: I'm told that the report should be back to me as early as next week. My experience in these matters suggests that I should say within the next two weeks, just to be careful in terms of covering off scheduling and the like. Within the next two weeks I anticipate that I'll have a chance at least to receive the report, and then it's a matter of giving it due consideration and making a decision in communicating that. So I think the member can anticipate that a decision will be forthcoming fairly shortly. It's just whatever time it takes me to review the outcome of that report and to communicate a decision back.
G. Plant: It does seem to me that at the very least, there would be an enormous loss of opportunity if whatever arrangements were going to be made were not in hand in time for the new Millennium Line, which is probably a longer time line than I should really give the minister. Is he able to at least give us the assurance that when the new SkyTrain extension is up and running -- by that point -- whatever the new arrangement is going to be will be in place, so the public using the new line will be served under the new arrangement, along with those who use the existing SkyTrain?
Hon. A. Petter: I agree with the member. I think the timing here is such that it will be possible -- and indeed it's desired -- that the implementation of security arrangements, particularly if they involve a new set of arrangements, will be brought in tandem with the development of the new line so the new arrangements can be in place as the new line comes into operation.
G. Plant: With apologies to Mr. Begg, who has very kindly agreed to come in and sit down to deal with policing
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issues, we are now in a position to complete the community justice discussion by returning to the one subject that we had left undone on the family maintenance enforcement program. If we could do that, then I know there would be some sense of closure that would probably be worth something.
Let me raise the subject which has got little to do with the day-to-day implementation of the family maintenance enforcement program within its current mandate, and more to do with the public policy questions that arise around that mandate. Increasingly, it seems, there are people who are concerned about the fact that there is not an appropriate connection between the obligations of child support and the issue of access.
I for one am on the receiving end of lots of correspondence from individuals, as well as from groups who are actively working at trying to raise public awareness around the fact that, in many cases, there is vigorous enforcement of support obligations. Yet there is a sense that the legal system does not function very well when it comes to working hard to achieve some level of enforcement around custody and access issues.
I think that oftentimes there is a misapprehension that the family maintenance enforcement program administrators have some ability to do something about this. I don't think that it's within their current mandate to do that. However, it is within the mandate of the Attorney General and the community justice branch to be ever-vigilant in determining whether or not the policies they are implementing for programs like FMEP are in fact serving the public interest.
The minister will know, for example, that in the not very distant past there was a federal report done for the House of Commons and the Senate, which recommended a complete rethinking of traditional ideas of custody and access, and replacing them with, I think, concepts of shared parenting. I think these are important issues -- not necessarily easy ones to resolve, but important. I hope they would have the attention of the Attorney General. I'm wondering if he can comment in general on his approach to these issues and where he sees us going in the next months on this particular front.
Hon. A. Petter: I am mindful of some of these issues and some of the concerns that are raised regarding access. Let me answer in two ways.
First of all, the focus that we have been placing to date on this issue has been very much on the provision of programs and services to help families through supervised access, mandatory attendance at the parenting-after-separation program and assistance provided by family justice counsellors. Law is, of course, part of the equation and part of the framework, but I think the member would agree that legal answers in family matters are not always the best answers, and if we can provide the resources and support to groups to resolve their own issues in a way that best suits the needs of the children, that is the goal.
Having said that, there is also a process on custody and access reform underway involving federal, provincial and territorial governments. We will be reviewing the research this summer to develop a provincial position for discussion in that process. My understanding is that the plan is for there to be Canada-wide consultations with the federal government and other provinces and territories early in the year 2001. We intend to be an active participant in those consultations. That will give an opportunity for the government, I think, to work with groups in the community, concerned parents and others as to how we can improve both legal and non-legal answers to some of the concerns that have been raised around access. It will also give us a chance to monitor some of the initiatives in other provinces. I'm aware that Alberta, for example, has recently brought forward some legislation in respect of access. I think that we need to review those initiatives along with those of other provinces in this process.
K. Krueger: I listened closely to the minister's response. Certainly everyone is hopeful that governments will be advancing this issue and dealing with it much more expeditiously than they have in the past.
In Kamloops a group of people -- adults concerned about this, some of them custodial parents, many of them non-custodial parents and a lot of grandparents -- coalesced and formed a group they call Parents of Broken Families. Before they knew it, they had a membership of 1,000 people, including people from around British Columbia -- even some non-custodial parents who are working overseas with their expertise.
The themes that emerge are pretty consistent. One is that custodial parents often use the children to punish the non-custodial parents for things that have happened between them and deliberately cut off access. This sometimes goes on for years. In the meantime, the child is deprived of that relationship with one of his or her parents and also grandparents. It seems to me that it's a form of child abuse to involve a child in a dispute between adults and deprive them of the company of other people in their lives who love them.
People feel as though a government which has become so efficient at collecting money from those who are obliged to pay support -- and I applaud that collection by the way; I think it makes good sense to do that -- ought to be able to attach that in some way to ensuring that the visitations occur when the other parents and grandparents have a right to have access and to have visits. Whether it actually involved having the custodial parent bring the children to a family justice centre when FMEP was going to provide the monthly support, or some such arrangement, surely the government has the power to deal with this issue. British Columbia has been known in the past to provide leadership on many issues, and I wonder if the minister and his people have explored any such approaches.
Hon. A. Petter: I appreciate the member's question. These are obviously very tricky questions. I fully agree with the member's sentiments that where access is provided -- and particularly where it is provided through a decision of the court, for example, where it is provided on the basis of the best interests of the child -- it is in everyone's interests to try to ensure that the access takes place. However, there are a number of issues that inevitably come up with access. Unlike maintenance, where we are dealing with the provision of money, here we're dealing with the actual relationships with children. As the member says, you want to be careful that children don't become the sort of fodder for what are really parental disputes. For example, one problem -- just to put the larger context on this -- is parents who have access that choose not to exercise their rights of access. Children are denied the benefit of parenting by virtue of parents who may indeed have a right. Custodial parents may be prepared and
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indeed anxious to have the non-custodial parent exercise that right, but the parent chooses not to. That's one problem.
The other problem or challenge is: how do we provide for rights of access in a way that puts the children's interest at the very centre? I think some of the concerns in linking maintenance and custody is that you can hold the children hostage to parental decisions regarding maintenance, for example. If you say that a parent can't have access if they haven't provided maintenance, then you may in fact deny the child important access. These are tricky issues.
Having said that, I want to reassure the member that I agree that as much as providing maintenance is important, providing access is also important. We have to make sure that the mechanisms we use -- the incentives and disincentives that we employ, particularly if they're of the state -- are ones that improve and don't exacerbate the situation, particularly for the child. That's where the challenge is. The quick fix legal remedy can, if we are not careful, improve the semblance of access but in fact simply make things more difficult in terms of the rights of the children. That's where we have to be vigilant in trying to find better answers to improve access and rights of access. But we also have to be sensitive to the circumstances in which rights of access with respect to children are awarded.
K. Krueger: I appreciate the minister's answer. I think the issue is more making sure that those who do faithfully provide their support get access rather than the other way around, but I'm sure he understood that.
One of the things that happens to these so-called non-custodial parents where they are not being allowed access, of course, is that the children grow up. All of us who are parents understand how fast that happens. My baby is graduating in June; I can't believe it. Those years go by. People continue to be obliged to pay support payments if their children who are legally adults are in post-secondary education. If they have been cut off from those children from an early age, very often the custodial parent has pretty much poisoned the mind of the child toward the non-custodial parent, and who knows what they're told. Often the children no longer even want to speak with the non-custodial parent, who find themselves paying and paying and paying and not really being sure that the so-called child really is attending post-secondary education.
I have one file where the child was allegedly going to university in Hawaii. I have another one where the father learned three months before the marriage of his daughter that she had actually long since been finished her education and was teaching kindergarten, but nobody bothered to tell him. She was 23 years old, and he had been making his payments all of that time.
That is a particular concern. I think there should be an onus on government -- on FMEP, on everyone concerned -- to make very sure that anyone who has achieved the age of majority actually ought to be continuing to receive support from the non-custodial parent. I wonder if the minister would comment on that issue.
Hon. A. Petter: As I understand it, with respect to the issue the member raises of children in post-secondary institutions, for example, who receive support payments from non-custodial parents, in order for such support payments to be provided, there does have to be evidence provided that in fact the child in this case is engaged in the course of study and remains a dependent. If there's any suggestion that that is not the case, then the matter can be reviewed. So there is an enforcement mechanism; it isn't just a given that support is due. It has to be based upon some evidence of dependency based upon the child's continuation in a course of study.
On the larger question of the circumstances under which support should be available -- whether it should be available in respect of a child who has become an adult or remains a dependent
I think what the member here is really talking about is maintenance. In that case, there is a review planned of the child support guidelines, which will provide an opportunity for a review of these issues. That review, I think, is scheduled for May 2002, but certainly we should be looking at those issues in the period leading up to then as well.
K. Krueger: Another consistent theme is the slowness of the system to respond when the paying parent, the non-custodial parent, experiences a dramatic change of financial fortunes -- for example, unemployment. Many times the custodial parent has gone on to remarry, and there are actually three incomes in that household: the custodial parent, his or her new spouse and that which is being provided by the non-custodial parent. The non-custodial parent may well find themselves with no income at all, and many times, of course, they have a second family already at that point. This, of course, makes for a tremendous disturbance within the non-custodial parent's household and circumstances -- hardship for his or her second family. It is so ponderous to bring about any review or any change that I repeatedly hear of really desperate circumstances. I think the suicide in Prince George was one of the most high-profile incidents in past months. There was a second attempted suicide, where the fellow drank antifreeze and ended up going blind as a result.
I've had people call me, and they'll say: "I can't even get a phone in my name. I'm living with my mother." One guy said: "I'm going to have to quit my job, because I just don't get any of the money, and my life just doesn't make sense anymore." It takes an awfully long time to get their amount of responsibility for payments before the courts. Even then, the system's quite rigid. It's just a hopeless situation in many of these non-custodial parents' minds. They end up unemployed; they end up desperate; they end up not really having a life any longer and not having much to offer the children if they do get access to them. They can't even afford to take them to the Dairy Queen. I wonder if there are any initiatives to bring about speedier responses when people experience dramatic changes in their financial fortunes.
Hon. A. Petter: I think the very real concerns the member expresses are evidence of the difficulties in trying to resolve these relational matters in a legal context and the difficulty that creates. From the point of view of the family maintenance enforcement program, that program has to, of course, take its lead from the legal obligations, either ones that are entered
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into voluntarily through separation agreements or flow from provincial legislation or indeed flow under the Divorce Act from federal legislation. That then means that when changes are to be made in relationships, if the parties cannot make them consensually, the mechanism to make them often involves the courts.
Earlier in this debate we had a discussion about efforts that are being made to try to reduce some of the wait times and facilitate resolution of some of these issues, at least within the Provincial Court system, where the matters arise under provincial legislation. Those efforts include efforts to try to provide mediation and, by targeting resources, to reduce wait-lists to try to reduce wait times generally within the Provincial Court system. I know similar efforts have been made by superior courts to try to do the same.
At the end of the day the processes that are entailed in taking actions to court will necessarily be more time-consuming. That's why, as much as possible, the more we can do to facilitate a normalization of relations amongst parents and try to get these matters resolved consensually, the better off we all will be -- both for those parents and also in taking pressure off the system for those who aren't able to resolve these matters consensually, either on their own or through a facilitated, court-sponsored mediation, for example.
L. Stephens: I want to continue on a little bit in this subject. A friend of mine in Langley who practises family law calls it the divorce industry. He has some very strong views about what is happening in the court system as it relates to custody and access and family relations. I wonder if the minister could tell us what kind of initiatives he is going to bring forward as far as expediting some of these concerns that we've all expressed here.
One of the areas that I'm told is a huge issue is addressing the reports that the judges require to make informed decisions about custody and access. We've had a number of judges say to us that the backlogs are in some ways representative of their inability to get these reports in a timely way and certainly of the inability of the system to provide them. Other than the family court counsellors, is there any mechanism within the family court system to provide these kinds of reports that are timely and comprehensive to the judges?
Hon. A. Petter: As I referenced earlier, there is a federal, provincial and territorial initiative on custody and access reform with which we are going to be very much engaged. I understand the member has raised, for example, a California model that we might look at, which deals with some of the issues that she's raised. I want to give her the assurance that in response to her advocacy of that model, in fact the ministry has indeed been looking at that model. Part of the work that is going on will be to incorporate a review of that model into consideration of our work.
In addition, there have been efforts to try to target
In all those ways the concerns she's raising are being addressed at one level or another by the ministry.
L. Stephens: The concerns that we've all been expressing around this particular issue have been ongoing for quite some time. I hear the minister say that he's going to be looking at some of these issues, but my understanding is that the federal people, with their custody and access report, are not going to be making a decision for at least another two years. I think that most people would agree that there needs to be some action taken long before those three years.
I did reference the model that the state of California uses. The particular judge who is a big proponent of that model comes to British Columbia regularly. I'm not sure if I was able to get his name for the ministry, but if they don't have it, I will endeavour to get it for them. I think they have some very good ideas on how we can bring some resolution to this issue that's very serious for an awful lot of families in the province. With that, I would just like to encourage the minister to continue and, if possible, to keep myself and, I'm sure, the critic informed of the changes that you're making around custody and access matters.
G. Plant: I guess we have the minister's attention. My colleague is right. This is an issue that we've probably talked about every year, in the short time that I've been a member, and perhaps in the slightly longer time that my colleague has been a member. There are in fact some steps that have been taken -- program initiatives undertaken -- over the years that have been an attempted response to this. I think that the federal decision to defer acting on the, I guess, Cools report is
I had asked the question of policing earlier. I think that concludes the questioning around the family maintenance enforcement program and custody and access issues, specifically. So we can go back to policing. I wonder if the minister has staff in place to pursue some questions around the Firearms Act and the implementation of the firearms registration program? Is Mr. Begg the happy repository of that responsibility? I know that Peace River South has an interest in this issue.
I'd like to do Bill C-68, if we can.
Hon. A. Petter: While I'm waiting for staff who can assist me with the firearms question, I thought I'd just respond to the question that was raised by the member for Parksville-Qualicum. I think that probably the best answer to her concerns that I can provide -- because I don't have staff here right now that deal with the provincial emergency program, and that seems to be the best window into the concern -- is that, if she would be agreeable, I would be happy to arrange for a meeting with her and PEP staff and have members of my own staff attend, so we can get to the bottom of the concern -- find out where the answer lies, because I'm kind of curious myself -- and pursue it in that way. I don't think I'm going to be able to produce the answer in the context of, at least, this afternoon's session. So if that's agreeable to her, I'd be happy to arrange such a meeting and get to the bottom of the issue that way.
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J. Reid: That would be very agreeable, and I look forward to resolving this issue. Thank you.
Hon. A. Petter: I'm now joined by Tony Heemskerk, who is the chief firearms officer and can try to assist me -- I mean, he will assist me. Whether he succeeds in my answering questions satisfactorily is another question, but he will assist me in answering questions concerning firearms issues.
G. Plant: I wonder if the minister could deal with one particular issue. We're dealing here with a public policy issue that the minister well knows has excited much controversy. It's a federal bill, but the province has joined in the task of administering the registration program under Bill C-68. I think it may be one of the few provinces -- I thought perhaps the only province -- that in fact has taken federal money for the purpose of doing the administration of the registration program itself. As I understand it, the government says that its costs of administering its responsibilities are fully indemnified by the federal government.
One of the things that is of concern to me, among other things, is that with the deadline for registration looming, there is a concern that as we get to the end of that deadline, there will be a vast, huge backlog of unprocessed registrations that will hit the system perhaps later this year. As I understand it, by and large that backlog is going to be a problem for the federal firearms registry centre, not a problem for the province, because that part of the registry system is being run by the federal government. Perhaps the minister, though, could indicate whether my understanding is correct and what plans exist within the ministry to deal with this anticipated problem at the end of the current calendar year.
Hon. A. Petter: Very briefly, just to back up a little bit and provide a bit of context, the province has been providing assistance with respect to the licensing provisions, not the registration provisions. We're not involved in registration; we're involved in the licensing provisions. The decision was made to involve ourselves in licensing with the recognition that if the federal initiative was going to go ahead, it was in the province's interest and the interest of gun owners in the province that there be a licensing regime that was sensitive to some of the concerns. I think this province's concern and criticism of the federal initiative for being overly bureaucratic and costly are well known. We felt that we could provide at least an intermediary and some assistance to gun owners who are required to license under the federal regime.
The deadline for licensing is January 1, 2001. The deadline for registration is two years later. I think the member is referring to licensing. I want to make the distinction between those two.
With respect to licensing, efforts are being made to try to facilitate the licensing requirements in that time frame, but I think the member is correct: if that is not achieved, then it becomes a problem under the federal legislation. What we're doing is making our best efforts to ensure that we work with organizations that represent responsible gun owners and try to assist them in meeting the requirements of the federal legislation as best we can on the licensing side.
G. Plant: Does the ministry have any experience now of delays in respect of processing applications on the licensing side? What does it foresee happening on the licensing side as the year goes on?
Hon. A. Petter: Yes, I can confirm that there have been problems and concerns raised in the past and that we have been urging the federal government to make changes -- in terms of their computer systems, in terms of the simplification of forms -- to overcome some of those problems. That's how we are able to act as a bit of an intermediary to try to reduce the burden that would otherwise be placed on gun owners while assisting those gun owners to meet the requirements of the federal legislation.
G. Plant: I wish I could report to the minister that the law-abiding, gun-owning community has the warm, friendly sense that the provincial government has been there to help in this area, but that isn't the report I get. I'll wait and see what the outcome is, I suppose, of the attempts the province is apparently making to make the imposition of the federal law a little less onerous. I'm not sure how it can do that.
There is one other particular issue I want to canvass. I know there is probably a dispute as to what occurred, and I won't dwell on that. That is the imposition of rules on shooting ranges and gun clubs which has caused an enormous amount of distress on the part of some gun clubs in different parts of B.C. over the course of the last year, including Campbell River. I know that the minister will hasten to rise and say that his primary concern is the safety of the public. I've been trying, on a number of occasions, to have the minister translate that apprehension of concern into some actually acceptable objective indication that there is in fact a risk or was a risk to public safety that consists of something more than a few stray bullets found on otherwise vacant parcels of Crown land.
What I think has happened over the course of the last year, though, is that the two sides of this dialogue have realized that they probably are better off if they work together rather than at cross-purposes. At last report from the gun clubs that I've talked to, there was kind of a tentative optimism that the province was prepared to be reasonable in its imposition of rules. All sides, especially the gun clubs, are concerned about ensuring that they are able to operate in a way that does in fact enhance public safety.
Asking for this kind of a general assurance is probably not worth much, but I'm going to ask for it anyway. In the continued work that his ministry is doing to regulate the way in which gun clubs and shooting ranges operate, will the minister give us the assurance that he is going to use the powers available to him with a view to enhancing the ability of gun clubs and shooting ranges to do the thing they do, rather than, as has been experienced by them over the last year, from the perspective of seeming to operate more like the heavy hand of government trying to interfere with what they do? Will the minister commit, as he moves forward over the next months, that he will attempt to work with a thoroughly constructive, positive attitude around ensuring that this very important recreation activity for British Columbians is allowed to continue in the years ahead of us?
Hon. A. Petter: First of all, the member says he doesn't get a warm fuzzy feeling out there from gun owners, and I'm
[ Page 15629 ]
not surprised. Obviously there has been a lot of concern on the part of not just gun owners
Having said that, I was very gratified by the communication we recently received from the Responsible Firearms Owners Coalition of British Columbia, which the member probably has a copy of. I won't read the whole letter, but the last paragraph is instructive. "As we firmly believe firearms ownership and licensing are clearly provincial responsibilities, we applaud your government and the CFO's office for establishing a friendly working relationship with us and look forward to working with you in the future."
It is really to the credit to Mr. Heemskerk and his staff that, the government having inserted him into that position in a fairly inflammatory environment -- an environment where passions are high and concerns are great and there is good basis for some of those concerns -- he can get a letter from people who are legitimately concerned applauding his office and his staff for establishing a friendly working relationship. I think that is indicative of the approach that he and his staff have taken and hopefully of the direction they have been given by my predecessor and, certainly, by myself.
In respect to the range guidelines, again I think this is evidence of the kind of approach the province can take to improve the relations. I think there was a move in anticipation of the federal guidelines coming into effect on December 1, to move in and take some action to try to ensure compliance with those guidelines. I'm informed that staff acknowledge that perhaps they were initially too rigid in their approach. But because they have a good working relationship, that rigidity has given way to a new relationship on the range issue, as well, in which the parties are looking at a risk management model.
Our advocacy with the federal government has -- more with my predecessor here than myself -- resulted in the federal government moving the deadline for the guidelines back from 1999 to 2003, further evidence of how the province has been effective in its intermediary role. As a result, I understand that approvals are being given to ranges subject to their meeting the guidelines and that, particularly in respect to the use of non-restricted guns, the problems are on the way to resolution.
I appreciate their concerns out there. I think, though, that the situation is markedly improved, by virtue of the province's involvement, from what it would have been had the province not been involved.
J. Weisgerber: First of all, I'd like to make some comments around gun registration, which I understand the federal government is directly involved in, along with licensing.
To start, I'd like to commend the minister for making available Mr. Heemskerk and other staff members for a briefing that has answered a lot of the questions I had. However, let me say that I continue to feel passionately that registering long guns -- rifles and shotguns -- is a phenomenal waste of energy and taxpayers' dollars, which is reported at some levels to be approaching a billion dollars federally. I see absolutely no evidence to suggest that this exercise is going to improve public safety.
The minister noted in his earlier response to the official critic that provinces get between the public and the federal government on these issues at their peril. I disagree. I think if you visit with citizens in Alberta, Saskatchewan, Manitoba, Ontario, Northwest Territories and the Yukon, you will find that in large measure they applaud their government for getting or attempting to get between the federal government and themselves on this issue of registration. They applaud their government for the role that they played in the challenge to the federal government with respect to the constitutional authorities under Bill C-68. I disagree entirely that it's at the province's peril. I think it is the province's reluctance to get in front of this issue that is at the core of the issue.
I would like the minister to tell me how he and his government perceive this issue of registration of long guns. It seems to me pretty evident that the complete failure, after 60-odd years of the registration of handguns, to in any way curb violent crime with handguns should be evidence to anybody that registration doesn't in fact play any role at all in reducing violence. Would the minister tell us why his government continues to support this notion of registration as a starting point?
Hon. A. Petter: The member refers to other provinces in which citizenry have applauded governments for getting involved in these issues. I go back to the letter that I read, which uses exactly those terms: "We applaud your government and the CFO's office for establishing a friendly working relationship
As I've said, B.C. is not involved in the registration provisions of the act. Certainly if people require some help and ask us to help with registration, I suppose staff would be prepared to do so. But we have not associated ourselves in any way, shape or form, even in an administrative way, with the registration provisions of the federal initiative. Rather it has been our view that the best we could do in the face of some serious concerns was to focus on the immediate concern regarding licensing and see if we could improve those requirements. That's what we have tried to do, and the evidence that I've already presented from the Responsible Firearms Owners Coalition and others suggests that we have been successful in that regard.
J. Weisgerber: We'll certainly get around to licensing, and I do wish to have some discussions with the minister with respect to licensing. But this government of British Columbia, both under the New Democrats and historically, has never been reluctant to criticize Ottawa when they think Ottawa is wrong. The lack of criticism with respect to the issue of long
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gun registration suggests to me that there is indeed the support originally indicated by Colin Gabelmann when he was Attorney General -- that that fundamental philosophy is still there. The current Attorney General and the previous one have managed to dance around the issue with a bit more finesse than Mr. Gabelmann was able to do, but fundamentally the province hasn't changed its position. Fundamentally the province still supports the expenditure of somewhere between $350 million and $1 billion in an exercise in gun registration that I believe is a phenomenal waste of taxpayers money.
If the minister disagrees with that, tell me so and I'll move on. If the minister agrees, tell me and I'll move on as well. But I detest this kind of dancing around, pretending we're against, pretending we're for, reading letters from somebody about a thing that has absolutely nothing to do with gun registration or support for it, in response to the criticism. I don't think that gets us anywhere.
Has the province changed its position? Have we moved on from Colin Gabelmann and the position of saying: "Not only register them but make damn sure those gun owners pay every nickel associated with the registration"? That would, at today's rates, be up to $5,000 per firearm, if one divides the amount of money expended by the number of firearms that have been registered in this country.
Hon. A. Petter: The member is simply wrong when he suggests that the province supports the expenditure of $350 million, or whatever it is, on this program. In fact, the province has been highly critical of the federal government in pursuing this initiative in the heavily bureaucratic and costly way that it has. The fact that the original estimate was, I think, some $85 million and now the actual expenditure seems to have grown to over $300 million
Certainly there is a legitimate concern that we must all share around ensuring public safety and ensuring that we do not go the route of the U.S., for example, in terms of ignoring the danger posed by firearms. But to suggest that that implies that we support this hugely expensive and top-heavy approach to dealing with the problem is simply wrong.
The questions is, though: how do you deal with that? Do you go and hold your breath until your face turns blue, or do you actually get down to the ground and try to improve it? We've chosen the latter, and I think we're showing that that approach is paying off for gun owners as well as for others.
The Chair: We have a division in Committee B. We will recess this committee until the conclusion of the division and then reconvene right after.
The committee recessed from 4:00 p.m. to 4:11 p.m.
[D. Streifel in the chair.]
J. Weisgerber: If I understand the minister correctly, he's unhappy about how much the federal government is spending on registration, but I didn't hear any criticism of the exercise itself. That troubles me again, because after 60 years of registering handguns in this country, which I happen to support, I don't see any evidence that that registration of handguns has made it difficult for people to obtain unlicensed guns.
Indeed, I did a walk-around in Vancouver on East Hastings a couple years ago with two officers who have that beat. As part of their pointing out the various drug dealers and their specialties along the street, they also pointed out the gun retailer who stands at the corner
Before I move on to licensing, simply as the minister was quite willing to criticize the cost of the registration program, does the minister see a benefit that would be worth the $85 million that Allan Rock originally promised? If the gun registration were delivered for $85 million, would the minister see that as money well spent?
Hon. A. Petter: As I understand it, the original $85 million was for both licensing and registration. The fact that we are already over $300 million and have only got this far is indicative to me that the whole federal approach is not well thought out and has been pursued in a very unwieldy way.
On the question of registration, I am mindful of the member's concerns. I will want to listen more to what other gun owners say. But I think the goal is this: how do we maintain public safety, on the one hand, without putting an unreasonable burden on gun owners on the other?
In respect of licensing, it has been our view that we can provide a facilitative role and assist gun owners in meeting the federal requirements in a less burdensome way. In respect of registration, which is a few years off in terms of its implementation, I would be very happy to sit down with the member and discuss with him his particular concerns, as I am starting to do with gun owners around the registration issue, to see whether in fact there is a way in which we can ensure safety in firearms is preserved that does not entail the need for registration -- or indeed the provisions
I have no hesitation in saying the approach that has been taken by the federal government on both these issues is clearly one that has not been well thought out and in which the costs are completely out of proportion with the goal being sought. Much as I support the goal of health and safety and public safety, I don't think the overexpenditure to date gives me a lot of confidence that the federal government is pursuing this initiative in a way that is acceptable.
J. Weisgerber: I honestly have trouble believing that anybody in Canada, having listened to the debate that has gone on for at least five years now around gun registration, hasn't made up their mind. I think there are people who support gun registration. I think there are people who are opposed to gun registration. But quite honestly, to suggest that there needs to be more debate on the issue is one that I find surprising, to say the least.
I would have thought that most people at this juncture would have decided that either they support gun registration
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suppose, encouraging to those at least who believe there is still an opportunity to persuade the minister that this is in fact a waste of time.
Mr. Chairman, I'm happy to move on to the issue of licensing. As I understand the situation, the registration part of this exercise is all done outside of British Columbia. But licensing is in fact being done by British Columbia officials, and the province is being compensated for those costs.
The briefing material that I was fortunate enough to receive indicated that in fact the police officers involved in the licensing represented a higher level of professionalism within that exercise. I'll quote from page 2 of this document; I think it's the fourth paragraph, at the bottom of that paragraph: "This public safety advantage is clearly demonstrated by the much higher number of firearm licence refusals and revocations that B.C. has posted in comparison to other jurisdictions that employ civilian AFOs."
I was a bit surprised by that, to be honest with you. I was surprised, quite honestly, that the success or the merits of the program would be measured in the number of people who are denied the privilege to own or possess a firearm. It would seem to me that there might be a number of objective measures on the success of a program. But can the minister tell me why he believes that the high number of rejections here in British Columbia is some demonstration of a more effective licensing mechanism?
Hon. A. Petter: First of all, I can't resist just responding to the last point the member made on registration -- that is, in respect to his comments about a waste of time and energy. It is my view that what is a waste of time and energy is trying to engage in a political posturing game on issues one cannot change -- that is, getting into areas of federal government policy and trying to draw the province in, which I know the member is trying to do.
What we have done is communicated to the federal government our very great concerns -- my predecessor has and I have -- about the registration program and the way in which it's being pursued, and tried to get the federal government to reconsider that. We will try to work with gun owners to ameliorate the impacts should the federal government continue on the course it's on. That seems to me a much better expenditure of time and energy than trying to politicize this issue and draw a sort of litmus test around, "Which side are you on?" as opposed to trying to improve the situation, given the federal government's initiative.
In respect to the member's second point, I think he makes a great point. I agree. I don't think the public safety advantage is clearly demonstrated by the much higher number of firearm licence refusals and revocations. I think that shows, perhaps, that we have an enforcement team out there that's doing its job, but I don't think it is indicative one way or the other. You have to know ahead of time whether in fact there is a greater or lesser problem in this province -- right? -- compared to others. So I think this point is very well taken. I'm not convinced that the public safety advantage is clearly demonstrated by the higher number of firearm licence refusals and revocations that B.C. has, and I wouldn't want that to be the measurement of success. To the extent that it's in this briefing note, I think we need to clarify that that should not be the measure of success.
J. Weisgerber: I'm pleased that the minister sees the point. I think that the fact that this licensing is being managed, as I understand it, in much of the country by the RCMP -- and to then focus on a provincial program that has a much higher rate of refusals and revocations -- makes a statement not only about the measure but about how the RCMP's performance in the rest of the country is being viewed. I don't think one can draw any other conclusion from that.
The next paragraph in the briefing note -- at the end of that next paragraph -- says: "A special telephone line is available for use by individuals that wish to register a concern upon notification that their spouse is seeking to obtain a licence to obtain a firearm." I can understand that a spouse might be concerned, although quite honestly, I would be far more concerned if a spouse were obtaining a firearm without applying for a licence. That would seem to be a far greater suggestion that there should be concern or alarm.
I wonder whether or not that courtesy of a special phone line is extended beyond spouses to perhaps ex-spouses, children, other members of the family, folks in the workplace -- that kind of thing. Is this line particularly dedicated to spouses, or is it basically simply a phone-in line?
Hon. A. Petter: As I understand it, the reference to "spouse" is an outcome of the federal requirements under which spouses are notified under the licensing procedure. Therefore this line is provided for a spouse to register a concern once they have been notified. However, again I think the member makes a good point. If an elderly parent or a niece or nephew or anyone living in a domestic situation were concerned, I think they should be able to use this line, and as I understand it, they would be able to use this line. It was set up as a spousal line simply because of the notification requirements that exist under the federal initiative of "spouses." But there's no reason, in my view, that it shouldn't be viewed more broadly as a opportunity for anyone who is concerned about a potential gun owner having, for example, a propensity to violence, or whatever, being able to register that concern.
J. Weisgerber: The other point -- and I don't know how prevalent it is and whether it's even a legitimate concern or not -- is that gun owners will claim that vindictive ex-partners can prevent them from obtaining a licence almost indefinitely. In cases where there has been no violent history, no indication that there is any propensity by the applicant to act inappropriately with a firearm, that licence may still be denied simply by the concerns raised by an ex-spouse without any kind of substantiating evidence around the concerns that they raise.
Hon. A. Petter: First of all, as I understand it, the line has not been used extensively to date. It's there to allow spouses to register their concern -- and the fact, as we're well aware, that it is in domestic situations that so many deaths occur as a result of weapons of one kind or another. The U.S. experience, I guess, is particularly instructive of that. I think it's appropriate that those in those situations be able to register their concern.
The short answer to the member's question, "Does that then determine the matter
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ence in these matters. They would have to satisfy themselves that the concern that had been registered by the spouse or by someone else in that domestic situation was well founded, in order to take the appropriate action.
I would much rather that those in domestic situations, particularly spouses, have the opportunity to register that concern and have an investigation than to deny them that opportunity, notwithstanding the potential for abuse that the member references. Hopefully the investigation that has to take place is a good guard against that abuse, however.
J. Weisgerber: I'd like to just move on, if I could, to the issue of licensing. I had what I thought was a good discussion with some of the officials and Mr. Heemskerk earlier today. That is, as we approach this deadline for licensing at the end of the calendar year, people are going to be obliged either to obtain a licence which authorizes them to possess firearms that they now own and to purchase ammunition
When I look at the profile of firearms owners in my own constituency, I'm concerned that a large number of them will be in the 50-plus age bracket. Many of them will be of very limited education and easily put off by complex examinations and even application forms.
My own FAC has expired. I've got to decide sometime in the current year whether I get a possession licence or I continue to hold the equivalent of a FAC. I've got to tell you that when I look at having to take a test, perhaps attend a course and pay an application fee, my first inclination is to say: "No, I won't bother. I'll simply get a licence that allows me to continue to possess the firearms that I have and buy ammunition for it, and I won't worry about ever exercising what I often thought was a privilege as a Canadian to buy and sell firearms if my hobby happens to dictate that."
But my concern is that if that is an intimidating process for me, then it will be intimidating for a large percentage of my constituents. I wonder what plans the minister has to make that process more approachable. What are we going to do to encourage my constituents who want to have a licence either to possess or to acquire and are put off by the process of an examination and perhaps a day-long course, when they've handled firearms all their lives?
Hon. A. Petter: I very much appreciate the member's question. The question illustrates the point I was trying to make earlier. If the province does involve itself, notwithstanding its misgivings about the federal initiative, it does enable the province to then at least play a role in trying to resolve some of these very legitimate concerns.
Let me just touch on two of them: the one related to cost and the two licensing arrangements -- the possession-only licence and the possession acquisition licence, which the member referred to. On the cost side of this, as I understand it, the current fee for the possession-only licence is $45. The province, though, has been advocating that that fee should be substantially reduced. I'm hopeful that we will be able to persuade the federal government to reduce that fee to something like $10 and if so, of course, give credits to those who are already licensed under that arrangement. We don't want to discourage people from licensing in the interim. That's one area in which we can reduce the burden and the cost, by trying to make the possession-only licence a much easier licence to obtain for those who currently own firearms.
In addition, the member refers to people who may have difficulty for one reason or another in terms of processing either form of licence. I share that concern, because there are a large number of individuals in this province -- far more than have been licensed to date -- who remain unlicensed to date. If we're going to assist those individuals to meet the federal requirements, we need to target some resources, particularly with those individuals who may have trouble with such forms. The plan, as I understand it, is to hire a number of students -- for example, 50 to 60 students -- to assist individuals and to do everything we can, particularly where people have difficulties filling out forms -- they may have literacy difficulties -- to make sure that we act as a good-faith intermediary and provide the services to help those people meet the federal requirements.
Again, I go back to the fundamental point that if the province weren't involved, we wouldn't be able to do that. Because we are involved, we are advocating on both these fronts -- to reduce the costs, to target resources and to get the federal government to pay us for those resources to make sure that citizens who might have difficulty meeting these requirements will in fact be given the help so that they can meet and satisfy the requirements.
J. Weisgerber: As an exercise and interest for myself, last week I called the national firearms office, told them my FAC had expired and asked them what I should do. They referred me back to British Columbia, which I gather is appropriate, and I called the British Columbia office. They were quite helpful; I won't be critical of that. They told me what the fees were, what the processes were, what my options were in terms of challenging the exam and finding someone near my home from whom I could take a course.
Again, if I had a criticism, it's not of the person and the answer that was given me, but I thought what should have been part of that response was the offer of an oral examination. From what little I know of people who have literacy problems, I don't think that they're inclined to say: "Oh gee, I can't do that because I can't read well enough to be able to study the material," or "I don't feel confident enough to be able to write a written exam."
These are people both in the aboriginal community and outside of it. I don't think particularly of the aboriginal community; I think of my own constituents, of people who routinely avoid filling out a form of any kind -- the most basic kind of form. Often these folks live a rural, agricultural or trapping lifestyle -- the very people who should be looking, if they're going to comply with the law, at getting these licences. I think that the province would do the citizens of this province a great service by becoming aggressive in advertising the fact that instruction is available and that examinations can be given verbally by either the person who puts on the examination or some designated people within the provincial firearms office. I don't want to see my constituents break the law because they've been intimidated by the process. I sincerely fear that will happen in large numbers this year unless we
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become aggressive about actually going out and advertising the fact that both written and oral examinations are available to people wishing both a possession licence and the more comprehensive licence.
Hon. A. Petter: Again, I think the member makes an excellent point. I understand he raised it with staff earlier today. I think we should look at providing oral testing so that people won't be placed in the very situation that he says. It's bad enough that this program has come in in the very costly and bureaucratic way that it has. We've done our best to try to reduce that. But we don't want people to be placed in the situation where, by virtue of their language skills, their lifestyle or what have you, they are in a sense forced to not live up to requirements that they no doubt would like to live up to because they are law-abiding citizens. If we can assist by moving to a form of oral testing, I think we should. We should take some action in that regard, and I think staff already took note of that this morning in the briefing. I've encouraged them to pursue that quickly and aggressively, so that we can try to deliver an oral form of testing that will work for those who would have difficulty doing it in a written form.
J. Weisgerber: I had every confidence that staff would in fact relay the information. However, I believe it's important enough to put it on the record, and I'm grateful for the opportunity to have done so.
G. Plant: There were two other issues that relate to the security programs division of the Ministry of Attorney General that I want to pursue briefly with the minister. The first is really, I guess, a progress report kind of question around issues that arose some time ago concerning regulations for security folks' uniform regulations -- not regulations that are uniform, but regulations about the uniforms which people who work in security services wear.
There was an initiative underway in the ministry, I think, to achieve some standardization of approach around rules that apply to people who operate private security businesses. There was, not surprisingly I guess, some initial apprehension on the part of some sectors within that growing industry about whether the approach being taken was going to be helpful or not. I know the minister is concerned to ensure that private security force people on the streets of the province are not easily confused with members of municipal or RCMP forces. At the same time, security companies are increasingly providing important services across the province, and like all businesses, the government has an obligation to maintain a relationship that ensures that its legitimate regulatory objectives are met in the least intrusive way possible. With that context, perhaps the minister could indicate where this project is at.
Hon. A. Petter: I apologize. This is an issue that I have not, up to this moment, been briefed on, so I'm getting up to speed on it.
As I understand it, there was a regulation proposed about a year and a half ago, the purpose of which, as the member suggests, was to regulate uniforms and security vehicles in order to make sure they were differentiated from police vehicles. Obviously there's a public interest in people being aware that the individual they're dealing with is not a police officer, because it may inform them of their rights and their conduct.
There was a good deal of concern, I'm told -- as the member is no doubt aware and alluded to -- around that potential regulation. As a result, a consultation process was entered into. I understand that the consultation process is near to complete now, based on some revisions to that regulation, and that there is now a proposed uniform regulation in the sense the member meant it, which has been agreed to by the Private Investigators and Security Agencies Board and the security agencies association.
I'm told that it is in some respects more flexible and user-friendly than perhaps the previous regulation would have been but does not compromise the public interest in ensuring that there is an opportunity to ensure that the design of the vehicle or the uniform does not confuse the public in any way, shape or form. So I anticipate that that regulation will be coming forward shortly and that it will be a regulation that will be supported by those who are being regulated and will be implemented on that basis.
G. Plant: Speaking of those who will be regulated, as the minister does, has the consultation been limited only to the association? Or has it taken place more broadly within the industry? I'm not sure that the association that he speaks about in fact represents the entire industry. At least, that was my experience when I was exposed to the issue about a year and a half ago. Perhaps I could just get some assurance that the consultation process in this case has touched as wide a group as possible within the industry that will be affected by the regulation.
Hon. A. Petter: I'm informed that the security association itself did a broader consultation and that the ministry also did a broader consultation, inviting input from all who might be affected by the regulation.
G. Plant: I appreciate the minister's answer. The other smaller -- or narrower, anyway -- issue that's been brought to my attention quite recently is with respect to the renewal fees for business licences under the security programs division. This is a very small question, I suppose, but conceivably an issue that could have some impact. I'm told that the business licence per category of security program is $275. I assume that's an annual licence for renewal or otherwise.
There is an expiry date, of course, in the annual licence, and I'm told that any renewal received after the expiry date in the initial category is $500, which looks to me like a $225 penalty for getting a renewal application filed -- a $225 penalty if you get your application form in too late. It's not clear to me whether that's $500 per category; I think it may just be $500 for the one category. The concern that's been brought to my attention is that that seems like an awfully steep jump for someone who may be a day or two late in getting their application in. I wonder if the minister is in a position, with the staff available to him, to comment on that issue.
Hon. A. Petter: Well, I think the member is correct in pointing to the differential, and presumably it's there to discourage people from filing late fees. I understand it's historic; it isn't something new. I can try to look into it and find out what the rationale for it was. But as an essay marker who used to be fairly tough on penalizing people who submitted essays
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late, I'm not sure it's a bad thing to encourage people to get their fees in on time. But if this is out of keeping with other late fee requirements, I'm certainly prepared to look at it.
G. Plant: Well, I can tell the minister that I'm also looking at that last issue. It does seem to me that if it's not unusual across government, then the concern is a different one than if it happens that this is a particularly unusual example of what happens when you hand your essay in a day or two late.
I want to move back to police services. I think those are the only questions I had that concern security programs and the gun licensing and registry business. Earlier the minister was talking about the importance of trying to find constructive solutions for some of the challenges presented by Bill C-68, as opposed to posturing. When it comes to the RCMP contract, that may be an issue where there has been equal measure of public posturing as well as some attempt to resolve the issue.
The particular focus that I want to begin with is the question of the shortfall in the complement of RCMP officers in British Columbia. That has been the subject of discussions between the federal and provincial governments. The former Attorney General certainly expressed himself pretty forcefully on this topic from time to time. A year or so ago the public discussion was around a shortfall in the RCMP complement in British Columbia in the order of 300 to 400 officers. Can the minister first of all say what, from his perspective, is the shortfall in the RCMP staff complement in British Columbia as of now?
Hon. A. Petter: This is an issue in fact which I wouldn't characterize as posturing, but I think good advocacy by the province has contributed to a positive response by the federal government in terms of targeting some resources that will now help as well.
Hon. A. Petter: I don't want to politicize the discussion by talking about bad advocacy, because it would draw me into talking about what happens on the other side of the room.
This case has been the case where in fact we are seeing some federal movement to target resources to make up for vacancies. The answer to the member's questions is that as of April 1, 2000, there were 575 vacancies in E Division out of a total of 5,258 provincial, municipal and federal RCMP positions in B.C. With an attrition rate of approximately 200 every year and an estimated 400 to 450 new recruits arriving in B.C. per year, it's the hope that we can close that gap with the new federal resources over a period of about two years.
G. Plant: The gap from the government's perspective as of April 1, 2000, is the 575 vacancies? I see the minister nodding.
I had actually at one point seen a document that was the minutes of a discussion in a management team meeting in one detachment of the RCMP, which suggested that there was a shortfall of something like 1,700 members. That may actually have been a national figure. It was never clear to me from the context. One of the things I find confusing here is keeping track of the secondments in and out; keeping track of people who are notionally on staff but are in fact on leave for a variety of reasons and are not really there providing front-line policing and keeping track of people who are in some category or other that is really a category other than doing front-line police work or being full-time employed by the E Division in British Columbia. Is the minister satisfied that the 575 vacancies is a real number in terms of the actual shortfall of RCMP staff complement, both provincial and municipal, here in British Columbia?
Hon. A. Petter: What I'll do is share with the member a table which I'm working off of, so we don't have to communicate a table back and forth orally.
Yes, I am satisfied. Some of those numbers are in respect to vacancies; some are in respect to leaves. But what they amount to in aggregate is a shortfall of 575. As the member will see, they break down into provincial, municipal and federal forces as well as some small numbers in first nations division administration and department administration. I hope that providing him with that table will assist him in trying to differentiate amongst the various categories and how the total that I gave him was arrived at.
G. Plant: The document is very helpful. There was one particular secondment that I want to ask about. That is the secondment of RCMP officers to the firearms program. There are, I guess, some 21 seconded police officers serving as provincial area firearms officers. Some of these are RCMP officers; some have come from municipal police forces. They would be people who arguably -- if they were taken from the regular complement of provincial, municipal and federal forces -- were creating a shortfall of some 21 police officers, in terms of front-line policing.
I know that the way the ministry has made use of federal resources in this area
Is any one of these 21 seconded officers -- only some of whom, I understand, come from the RCMP -- recorded on this document that I've just been given as part of the authorized strength in British Columbia, or are they just off the radar screen altogether?
Hon. A. Petter: As I understand it, as police officers from RCMP or other forces were moved over to deal with firearms, there was an effort to backfill and replace those. So in that sense, they would not be reflected here. But in a broader sense they would, in the sense that there's a shortage of getting qualified police officers into RCMP positions. Clearly anyone you target for any purpose is not available for the shortfall. That's when you get to the point that the member helpfully made during his question. The decision to allocate the 21 officers, some of whom may be seconded RCMP, to the firearms initiative was taken in the knowledge that that would in fact require less police resources than if it had been done in another way -- if the burden had fallen upon police forces generally by, for example, the province not participating and not using those targeted resources.
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I think one can notionally say: "No, there is no loss here, because as we move 21 over, we replace 21." But obviously when you have a shortfall of over 500, those 21 presumably could have gone into filling that shortfall. In that sense, yes, I would have to agree with the member that these numbers reflect that transfer. On the other hand, they have also meant that there is something well beyond 21-police-officers' worth of resources -- including RCMP -- now available that would not have been available if the firearms responsibility had fallen on their shoulders.
The final point I make is: yes, we therefore remain of the view that this 575 is a real shortfall that needs to be filled. We're hopeful that it can be filled, remembering that there is an attrition rate of, I think, some 200 or so every year. It's a matter of not only meeting the shortfall but at the same time replacing those officers who leave by reason of attrition.
G. Plant: Do the attrition statistics that the minister is using apply only to the RCMP? Are they not an aggregate of RCMP and municipal police forces in the province? The reason is that from time to time I have heard that at least in the municipal police force, there is maybe more of a demographic bulge in terms of a larger cohort of individuals coming up for retirement, which may put further stress on the system in the next half-dozen years.
Hon. A. Petter: I'm told that the 200 number refers just to the RCMP attrition rate.
G. Plant: The government is party to at least two agreements with the government of Canada with respect to the provision of policing services by the RCMP in British Columbia. One is an agreement that relates primarily to the RCMP as a provincial police force, and the other is an agreement that relates to the RCMP in its contract capacity supplying municipal police forces. The RCMP, or the government of Canada, as a party to that agreement, has certain obligations in terms of providing police services to British Columbia. These agreements, I think, are part of the context within which the minister's predecessor was taking a fairly strong position with the government of Canada on the staffing shortfalls. Two years ago now, I guess, is when it really began.
The minister indicates that there is a vacancy of something like 575 officers or members in the RCMP in B.C. as of April 1, 2000. That looks like an increase -- up from 411 over that year - because the figures for March 25, 1999, show a number, as I read it, under authorized leave and vacancies of something like 411. The broader question I want to know is: does the minister have a position with respect to whether or not the RCMP or the government of Canada is complying with its obligations to the province of British Columbia under these very, very important agreements?
Hon. A. Petter: Well, I think the position is quite simply that at the current time, they're clearly not complying, because we're underresourced relative to the number of positions that have been agreed to. But I do want to give credit where credit is due. In the last federal budget there was a substantial allocation to the RCMP for the purpose of overcoming the shortfall. It has to do not just with paying people; it has to do with training people for the positions as well. I have talked to the federal Solicitor General, and based upon those discussions and the budgetary allocations, I'm satisfied that steps are at last being taken to make up this shortfall. As I say, I hope that if that commitment is carried through on, we can start to see substantial progress this year and hopefully close the gap over the next two years.
G. Plant: We'll have the opportunity to monitor that situation.
One aspect of the way in which policing services are delivered in British Columbia to municipal governments, as well as to the province as a whole, has to do with cost-sharing. The minister may have already had brought to his attention questions that arise in particular communities across the province. As the minister knows, there's the 5,000 population threshold that affects when a town or municipality is required to assume responsibility for funding its police requirements. There are some towns and places -- I think Vernon is an example of one -- where there's a sense that the smaller rural communities outside Vernon, because they're underneath the 5,000 threshold, get the advantage of policing services delivered to them without any direct impact on their tax base. They don't have to pay, whereas the city of Vernon is a jurisdiction that does have to pay.
The municipalities of over 5,000 pay, of course, 70 percent of their assessed policing costs, and the federal government has a role with respect to the balance. These funding threshold formulae are established in the contracts that we just made reference to. It is my sense that in a growing number of communities across the province, these formulae aren't working very well. There's perceived unfairness in terms of the tax burden faced by citizens. If not unfairness, then it seems arbitrary. If you live in a town that has a population of 4,500 people, you get a police service provided without having to pay for it through your local municipal tax dollars, but if you live in a town that has a population of 5,500 people, then you're having to pay, I think, 70 percent of the freight. Does the minister have a position on these issues as they're emerging across British Columbia?
Hon. A. Petter: I had the pleasure recently to meet with the justice committee of the UBCM. This, of course, is one of a number of issues that came up. What I said at that time was that I'm certainly open to considering a different way of structuring the funding formula with respect to municipal police services -- for example, to look at a graduated formula so that there isn't this hard line. If you're on one side of it, you get funding; if you're on the other side, you don't. But it would have to be done on a cost-neutral basis. I'd be quite prepared to work with the UBCM or, indeed, have the UBCM do work and advise us on that.
Obviously there are difficulties. Whenever you have a formula in place and certain communities have interest in maintaining that formula and others have interest in changing it, that becomes a difficult problem. I appreciate that, and the UBCM obviously drew that to my attention. But if there is some appetite to work on that issue, I'm quite open to doing so. The Minister of Municipal Affairs, who was there, indicated to me that she was as well.
I understand that we could do that, if there was agreement, and work it within the federal funding formula to make adjustments without having to reopen the whole federal negotiations if it was done on a cost-neutral basis. I understand the
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concern. I understand why people would feel that they shouldn't be deprived of funding just because their number clicks over or below a certain number. It seems to me the solution would have to be worked on collaboratively. If there's an appetite to do that, I've indicated my willingness to participate in such a process.
G. Plant: I'm sure the UBCM folks were happy to hear that. One of the ways that some of the difficult transition issues the minister begins to identify can be dealt with is to phase in over time whatever the change is, as opposed to doing it at 4 o'clock some afternoon. I certainly know that there are two sides to each of these local issues -- the side of those who are getting the service without paying much for it, as well as the side of those who are having to pay for the service.
The next issue I want to move to briefly is the implementation of the Police Act. Let me say this: it's not going to take long to debate. I was given to understand over the course of the last couple of weeks that some of the concerns felt within the policing community about the implementation of the Police Act were possibly going to mature in the form of a lawsuit challenging some decisions the police complaint commissioner has made -- in particular, in relation to the investigation into the incident known as the "Riot at the Hyatt." I'd heard news reports late last week that such a proceeding is being commenced.
One of the challenges that faces us as legislators, given the current rules that exist with respect to the estimates process, is that there isn't a very efficient mechanism for us as legislators to examine the work of the police complaint commissioner, who is, after all, an independent officer of the Legislature and not a statutory delegate of the Attorney General.
The lawsuit that I talk about is one issue. I have also heard from a variety of sources of some concerns about the cost to the community of Abbotsford and the other participating bodies arising from the investigation into and the proceedings around the so-called birthday party incident. Perhaps I could, through the good offices of the minister and using the vehicle of the Hansard of this debate, make known that I'm beginning to have some concerns around these issues to do with the operation of the new Police Act. I wonder if the minister himself maintains a bit of a watching brief on these questions and if he has any perspective on whether or not the act as it's being implemented is working or is experiencing some of the typical transition problems of any new piece of legislation -- or what.
Hon. A. Petter: As I understand it, there is a review contemplated of part 9 of the Police Act under the aegis of the police complaint commissioner, who, it is expected, will draw together various stakeholders. Government will then be involved in making representations and participating in that review. I guess what I'd say, the member having registered some of his concerns, is that perhaps there'll be an opportunity in the context of that review for some of those who are concerned to raise those issues.
I have not yet had the privilege of meeting the police complaint commissioner. If the member wanted to communicate to me in writing, or I can just take it from what he said in Hansard, I'd be happy to raise those issues with the police complaint commissioner -- in a way, of course, that is consistent with his independent role -- and encourage him to address those issues in respect of his review, which will culminate in a report back to the Legislature.
G. Plant: It's helpful to know about that, to learn about that review. The issues of which I speak are probably quite effectively spoken about by those who are more directly concerned than I, and they will probably participate in this review that the minister is talking about. At least, I hope they'll be given an opportunity to do that. I think that as long as municipal police forces generally are invited to participate in this review, I'm sure the issues that I'm talking about will come to light.
There are other issues about the statute itself and whether the various streams of complaints that are created by the act actually work in the real world of discipline and complaints concerning the police. The minister may have been somewhat fortunate not to have been thoroughly immersed in the difficult and challenging task of giving life to the legislation. I hope he will have an opportunity in the next little while -- and it may come up during this review -- to consider whether the act itself is in fact maybe a part of the problem here. It's not just implementation and administration issues; it may also be structural issues that relate to the statute. One that I hear about all the time is this business of characterizing complaints according to whether they come from inside or outside the police force, as opposed to characterizing a complaint in a way that I think makes more sense -- which is according to the nature of the allegation itself.
These are issues that the minister has probably not had a chance to get briefed on yet, but I certainly hope he will turn his mind to them over the next little while. I'm sure he would share my concern that this is an act that has to work if public integrity in municipal policing in British Columbia is to be maintained. I hope that even though it was a big deal getting the act put into place, the issue doesn't fall off the table. I guess that in that regard, I'm glad to hear there's a review under way. Is the review broad enough to encompass issues around the structure of complaints in the actual legislation itself?
Hon. A. Petter: Yes, as I understand it, there is a requirement in the act itself that there be a review of part 9 of the act. Since part 9 deals with the complaints procedure, it will be broad enough to cover those matters.
G. Plant: I want to canvass briefly the subject of the RCMP auxiliary program. It's a subject that has occupied a fair amount of attention in the course of these estimates debates over the past two or three years, ever since the minister's predecessor made a decision to disarm the auxiliaries pending the completion of a review -- a decision which I understand was made in concert with the RCMP.
For a variety of reasons, the confidence in this program that used to exist among its participants seems to be eroding, at least as demonstrated by what I understand to be some pretty troubling figures around participation in the program. If you went back half a dozen years, you would find that there may have been as many as 1,500 or 1,600 people serving as auxiliaries across the province in the RCMP auxiliary program. As I recall, at the time the decision was made to disarm the auxiliaries during the course of the review, there were
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about 1,100 participants in the program across the province. When I last looked at the figures a couple of weeks or so ago, it seemed to me that the number of participants across the province was even below 500.
That seems to be the surest vote of non-confidence in the way a program is being run that I can imagine. That is, the people who have been contributors to it and participants in it -- in many cases, we're talking about people who have been contributors for ten, 20 or 30 years -- are leaving the program. That's certainly what I hear anecdotally when I talk to people who have left the program. They have lost confidence in both the government and the RCMP in relation to their management of the program. They have no sense that the government cares about a truly effective, volunteer-based policing program. That's also the sense I get when I talk to the people who are still in the program and sort of hanging on by their fingernails hoping that something may change over the next little while, because they've just about run out of patience. I know that I'm not the only one on my side of the House that hears concerns about this. My colleague the deputy critic, the member for Chilliwack, has taken a particular interest in this issue. It seems to me to be a real shame, at a time when there's a 575-member shortfall in the complement of RCMP in British Columbia, that this huge potential opportunity to assist in the provisional policing services by using properly trained and supervised volunteers is also not working.
I can say without exception that of the dozens and dozens of people I've talked to who are past and present members of this program, I haven't met a single wild-eyed cowboy. I have met people who are willing to work within an extraordinarily careful and well-thought-out set of rules that are designed to try to provide them with a meaningful role in front-line policing. They want to help their communities. They've been doing it for years and years and years, but they've been given no real indication that their service is any longer valued. I wonder what the minister's plans are for restoring this program to something like what it was two or three years ago.
Hon. A. Petter: I think we had a bit of a debate about this in the House during question period recently. Let me start with what I think is foundational, and that is that the contribution made by auxiliaries is very much appreciated by police forces, communities and the province. The people who put in this time on a volunteer basis are to be commended and encouraged.
I actually have some personal identification with police auxiliary members. When I attended law school, lo, those many years ago, there was what really amounted to an auxiliary program for law students in the summer, where we could be sworn in as uniformed peace officers and participate as full-fledged police officers but with the requirement that we not carry firearms. I was very much in the situation that auxiliaries are in today, albeit for a much shorter period of time, but it was a fairly intense period of time.
I want to caution the member that I think one can take a set of different facts and construct a story that is perhaps helpful in making a political point, but in fact it can undermine the very value the member's trying to advance here -- that is, the value of auxiliaries. I simply think it's incorrect to suggest the value of auxiliaries is somehow related to the ability of auxiliaries to carry firearms. I'm no authority on when people should carry firearms. I suspect the member isn't either, but the people who are, are the people in charge of operational decisions for the police. It's those people -- the commanding officer of RCMP E Division and the chief constables -- whose policy, in my view, ought to be abided by here and ought to be taken into account. It was indeed that policy and the view of those operational people, those people who are responsible for operational decisions, that resulted in the decision to remove firearms from auxiliaries -- a decision which simply brought this province into line with other provinces. As I understand it, every other province that has auxiliaries has auxiliary officers on the basis that those auxiliary officers do not carry firearms.
I want to caution the member that the rhetoric that somehow this is a sign we don't have faith in auxiliaries or that this is a sign that auxiliaries are not valued is simply not only incorrect but exceedingly unhelpful in reinforcing the very value the member and I share -- that we want to value our auxiliary officers. In other provinces they're valued. It's not seen as a lack of value that they don't carry firearms, particularly since these decisions have been made based upon the superior operational knowledge and authority of commanding officers who have the front-line responsibility of ensuring that safety is maintained.
Now we get to the question of the numbers. The member says: "Well, look. The numbers have all changed. We're down to 500 auxiliaries or 1,100. Here's a clear sign that auxiliaries are marching with their feet." I'm told that ain't necessarily so. I'm told that in fact part of the review of auxiliaries is related to the requirement that has been there for auxiliaries -- that in order to be an auxiliary police officer and continue as such, one is expected to contribute a minimum of 160 hours of volunteer time per year. In the review it was disclosed that of the 1,100 or so, only 500 in fact met that requirement. As police have been ensuring that that requirement is adhered to, there has been a reduction in the numbers of those auxiliaries who have not made the commitment that is required to continue in that role. I'm told the numbers now are 575 auxiliaries.
These things aren't necessarily related in quite the same story line the member would suggest they are. The bottom line is this: everyone in this House should, I think, send a strong message to those who volunteer their time as auxiliaries that their services are required, are needed and are valued. I don't think anyone in this House should presume to second-guess operational decisions of the RCMP or the police in saying that that value is somehow less because auxiliaries are not permitted to carry firearms, if that is the best operational decision.
Thirdly, we shouldn't assume the change in numbers is necessarily a function of the decision to remove firearms, particularly when there is another causal effect -- that is, the minimum requirement of contribution -- which apparently has resulted in some of the reduction that has occurred and the number of auxiliaries who are now continuing to provide extremely valuable service much appreciated within the communities that they serve.
G. Plant: That's a nice story line from the minister, but it's
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There were 1,600 people in this program willing to help and work on the terms that the government at the time said were acceptable. Now the government has changed the rules in a variety of ways, and the program is down to 575 people. The minister can talk all he wants about his support for what they do. But I can't think of any better evidence of the lack support within the community of people who want to service auxiliaries for their disbelief of his assurances than the fact that people are leaving.
I think it was not very long ago that virtually the entire detachment in Terrace left. I can't remember what the numbers were; I think nine of 11 left more or less in the fatigue of trying to sort their way through this business. I respect what the minister is saying in terms of operational decision-making being something that is within the hands of the RCMP. I also know that the minister is the chief law enforcement officer of the Crown. He has a tremendous public policy role in terms of establishing the way in which the RCMP go about their business. I think he underestimates his own influence on this particular issue -- partly because, I say with great respect, it is politically convenient for the government to do that.
The government was a very, very enthusiastic partner in the decision to disarm the auxiliaries back in 1998. As I recall, it was in fact the Attorney General's decision to do that. I have always been confused by the logic that says the Attorney General can disarm but apparently has absolutely no influence on whether or not, under appropriate circumstances, the RCMP could be required to ensure they administer a program for auxiliaries that might, in certain circumstances, result in auxiliaries assisting in front-line policing services under appropriate supervision when properly trained with all of the appropriate requirements and judgment and perhaps carrying firearms.
We are not going to have, I think, a detailed discussion of the details here -- partly because I can tell the minister, with great respect, that no matter how long he goes down his path, he will fail to convince me that he is doing anything other than that which he accuses me of doing, which is telling a story. Because it is that; it's a story. That's what we do in this business. He tells stories, I tell stories -- people in politics tell stories -- and the public will decide what it is it wants to believe.
What has the minister done about the letter that his ministry received on April 5, 2000, from the B.C. Civil Liberties Association saying that his ministry's policy -- I think it is his ministry's policy, although he'll probably try and blame it on the RCMP -- for the auxiliary reserve constable program threatens, in some important respects, free speech rights for the 575 people who are still hanging onto their participation in this program.
Hon. A. Petter: First of all, on a few points on the previous argument, the member suggests that my position, or that of my predecessor, is politically convenient. I can assure him that it's not politically convenient. It would be more politically convenient to say: "Let auxiliaries continue to carry firearms." That would be the politically convenient position. It is politically inconvenient, but it happens, in my view, to be an appropriate position to say that where commanding officers -- chief constables -- make operational determinations, those determinations should, except in the most extraordinary circumstances, be supported by the chief law enforcement officer of the province.
To say that somehow the Attorney General should second-guess those operating officers, thereby showing a lack of confidence in their judgment, seems to me to be quite extraordinary and puts political convenience ahead of what I think is a far more important value -- that is, respecting expertise and authority, except, as I say, in the most extraordinary circumstances. I don't intend to voice my lack of confidence in those commanding officers' roles when they tell me that safety concerns are paramount and that those safety concerns require we pursue a policy that does not require the arming of auxiliaries. That is consistent with other provinces.
I also have to correct a misstatement by the member, and that is that the policy was changed with respect to the number of hours required. That was
G. Plant: That was enforced. It was enforced retroactively.
Hon. A. Petter: The member says that was enforced. What I'm saying is that in the process of reviewing the auxiliary program, it was disclosed that in fact a large number of auxiliaries were not making that commitment. That seems to me a reasonable requirement of the program, given the amount of training and energy that goes into providing training to auxiliaries. That, again, is an operational matter. That policy continues, but its application, in respect of the facts, resulted in some decline in membership. I'm not saying the total decline. Some people, no doubt, did react negatively, perhaps spurred on by the opposition, and that's regrettable. I hope they come back and participate in this valuable program.
In respect of the letter, I understand that work has been done to provide me with a background for response to the letter. As I understand the letter, it suggested that there was some encroachment on freedom of speech. That's certainly not the intention, as I understand it, of any policy. Auxiliaries are quite free, and have been quite free, to express their opposition to this policy and have done so through the form of this letter. What the policy says is that they should not trade upon their status as auxiliary police officers and use that authority and that status to try to somehow strengthen the argument. That strikes me as reasonable. That's something that they're asked not to do. But I'll review the letter and the material in crafting my response.
Seeing the hour
The committee rose at 5:33 p.m.
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