2004 Legislative Session: 5th Session, 37th Parliament
The following electronic version is for informational purposes
The printed version remains the official version.
WEDNESDAY, MARCH 10, 2004
Volume 21, Number 12
|Introductions by Members||9329|
|Hon. G. Bruce|
|Rules for questions in question period|
|Introduction and First Reading of Bills||9330|
|Environmental Management Amendment Act, 2004 (Bill 13)|
|Hon. B. Barisoff|
|Statements (Standing Order 25B)||9330|
|Coalmining in B.C.|
|Traffic circle at north end of Lions Gate Bridge|
|Alderson Elementary School|
|Suspension of Liberal MLAs and membership in government caucus committees|
|Hon. C. Clark|
|Management of Point Ellice House|
|Hon. M. Coell|
|Services for aboriginal youth in Vancouver|
|Hon. C. Clark|
|Policy for volunteers at Mount St. Joseph Hospital|
|Hon. C. Clark|
|Committee of Supply||9334|
|Estimates: Ministry of Health Services (continued)|
|Hon. C. Hansen|
Proceedings in the Douglas Fir Room
|Committee of Supply||9373|
|Estimates: Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Fisheries|
|Hon. J. van Dongen|
[ Page 9329 ]
WEDNESDAY, MARCH 10, 2004
The House met at 2:01 p.m.
Clerk of the House: Pursuant to standing orders, the House is advised of the unavoidable absence of Mr. Speaker.
[J. Weisbeck in the chair.]
Introductions by Members
H. Long: Today in the galleries I have three friends and constituents from the Sunshine Coast. I want to introduce in the House today Mr. Cam Reid, the mayor of Sechelt; Ray Parfitt, the city planner for Sechelt; and another friend, Kevin Davie, who is the chair of the Sunshine Coast Forest Coalition. I'd like this House to make them very, very welcome.
Hon. C. Clark: We are joined in the gallery today by Delphine Charmley. Delphine is a dedicated foster parent in Nanaimo. She is among the thousands of people in British Columbia who have adopted special needs kids into their homes. She is one of the reasons our ministry has been so successful in making sure there are more loving, permanent homes for adoptive children across British Columbia.
G. Trumper: Today in the House we have three representatives from Scotiabank who, I might add, I think paid about $500 to have lunch with me. Jack McKinty is the district vice-president of Vancouver Island. Purdy McDonald is the branch manager of the main branch in Victoria. Also with them is the manager of the bank in Port Alberni, Dewayne Parfitt, who was the president of the very successful B.C. Winter Games just a week ago. Would you please make them very welcome.
R. Masi: It's my pleasure today to introduce four outstanding young people whom I had the pleasure of having lunch with today, along with the member for North Vancouver–Seymour. These people are: from North Delta, Miss Tina Shaw, Miss B.C. International; accompanied by her friend Sarah Iman; and from Abbotsford, Miss Nicole Cichanovich, Miss Fraser Valley; and from South Surrey–White Rock, Mr. Canada, Darren Storsley. Darren will be representing Canada at the Mr. World contest to be held in Shanghai in May. Will the House please make all these young people welcome.
Hon. J. van Dongen: I am pleased to introduce to the House today four visitors: Dr. Elmer Stobbe and his wife, Wilma, and also their friends Steve Humar and Millie Humar. I might just mention that Dr. Stobbe is an agrologist. He taught my ministerial assistant Blake Lyall all about weed control at the University of Manitoba in 1974. I ask the House to please make them all welcome.
Hon. G. Bruce: Today I rise on a sad note. The Cowichan Valley and indeed the province lost a leader this weekend with the passing of Dennis Alphonse. Dennis had led the Cowichan tribes as chief for many years. He was credited with building bridges between the Cowichan tribes and the rest of our community. He actually helped catapult the Cowichan tribes onto the provincial and federal political map by co-founding the Union of B.C. Indian Chiefs in 1969 and the Assembly of First Nations in 1980. I would ask that the House join with me in offering our thoughts and prayers to the Alphonse family and the Cowichan tribes and everyone whose lives have been touched by this quiet, gentle leader.
RULES FOR QUESTIONS
IN QUESTION PERIOD
Deputy Speaker: Hon. members, I have a brief note to read on behalf of the Speaker.
"I have reviewed the Blues relating to yesterday's oral question period, and several matters arise which require comment by the Chair. The broad principle applicable to question period is that for questions to be in order, the questions must fall within the administrative responsibility of one or more ministers of the Crown. Superimposed upon that basic principle is that one minister may answer for another, or indeed no minister is obligated to answer at any time.
"As questions related to internal caucus proceedings clearly do not fall within the administrative responsibility of any minister of the Crown, such questions are out of order. When, however, caucus procedure impacts upon the spending of public funds, we have a different set of guidelines. Caucuses have a funding formula which can be affected by the numbers in any particular caucus. At the same time, it must be pointed out that those funds are payable under and by virtue of vote 1, for which no minister of the Crown has a designated responsibility.
"Indeed, vote 1 falls squarely under the jurisdiction of the Speaker of the House, subject to motions of or directions of the Legislative Assembly Management Committee, which is chaired by Mr. Speaker.
"Under the longstanding practice of the British Columbia House, the Speaker is not able to answer questions during question period, nor does he speak in Committee of the Whole when vote 1 comes before the committee for scrutiny. Detailed questions in relation to the financial provisions of vote 1 have traditionally been thoroughly examined by the Legislative Assembly Management Committee — or its predecessor, the Board of Internal Economy — in that committee. It should be noted that the Leader of the Opposition is a member of that committee and that the minutes of that committee are filed in the House on an annual basis.
[ Page 9330 ]
"Any member of the committee may ask the Speaker to convene a meeting for the purposes of inquiring into matters relating to vote 1. The Speaker does his very best to accommodate any such requests. The net result is that during question period, questions relating to internal caucus matters are not in order, as they do not fall within the administrative responsibility of any minister of the Crown.
"Questions such as the Leader of the Opposition's second question yesterday relating to financial implications to vote 1 arising from caucus actions are in order, and while in theory should be directed to the Speaker — who, for the reasons stated, cannot answer in the House — could be answered with the minister's consent, taken on notice or directed to the Legislative Assembly Management Committee."
First Reading of Bills
AMENDMENT ACT, 2004
Hon. B. Barisoff presented a message from Her Honour the Lieutenant-Governor: a bill intituled Environmental Management Amendment Act, 2004.
Hon. B. Barisoff: I move the bill be introduced and read for a first time now.
Hon. B. Barisoff: This bill is the second phase of a multi-phase Environmental Management Act review that started with the enactment of the Environmental Management Act in the fall of 2003. The interim phase addresses two parts of the act, part 2, "Prohibitions and Authorizations," and part 4, "Contaminated Site Remediation." Cleaning up contaminated sites means returning them to productive use in the communities that need them.
Amendments to part 4 will accelerate the redevelopment of contaminated sites, returning them to productive use and restoring opportunities in communities that need them. They build on the province's expert advisory panel on contaminated sites by reducing needless overlap and establishing best practices.
Finally, these amendments lay the foundation to address other issues such as liability, dispute resolution, appeals, cost-benefit analysis and phase 3, which the ministry plans to implement in future legislative sessions.
Amendments to part 2, "Prohibitions and Authorizations," deal specifically with the code of practice. Codes of practice were introduced as part of the Environmental Management Act to allow government to focus more effectively on activities that pose the most significant risk to the environment. These amendments ensure that the codes operate as intended.
Hon. Speaker, I move that the bill be placed on the orders of the day for second reading at the next sitting of the House after today.
Bill 13 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.
(Standing Order 25b)
COALMINING IN B.C.
W. McMahon: I rise today to talk about the importance of mining, particularly coalmining, in British Columbia. Mining is one of the longest-standing resource industries in B.C., once the backbone of economic development in the early days of this province. This is particularly true in the Kootenays.
Unfortunately, some groups, including the party to which the members opposite belong, don't want to see this industry revitalized. In particular, they don't want to see coal used as an energy source, claiming it's a dirty energy. In fact, these groups would prefer that we say no to coal and, in turn, say no to jobs, no to families and no to renewed opportunity in this province.
Last week, on a day marking B.C.'s victory in the Sumas 2 energy plan, the NDP issued a news release suggesting that the government's energy plan will lead to increased greenhouse gas emissions and that coal is a poor energy choice.
We're looking at innovative opportunities of extracting coalbed methane, and we're supporting 16 green energy projects throughout the province. One of those projects is taking place in my constituency, the South Cranberry Creek power project in Revelstoke.
I would like to set the record straight on coal burning and the coal industry. Coal energy is affordable and increasingly clean with the advancements in clean-burning coal technologies. The coal industry has taken a leading role in funding research that will help decrease emissions, recognizing that a healthy environment will benefit business in the long run. New research is showing that it may soon be both possible and economical to use coal as a clean energy source that will actually produce fewer emissions than burning many clean fuels.
The coal industry has been the largest segment of the mining industry, employing thousands of British Columbians. Despite what some would like us to do, we cannot turn our backs on a resource that has the potential to create jobs and fill our energy needs.
TRAFFIC CIRCLE AT NORTH END
OF LIONS GATE BRIDGE
R. Sultan: My constituency of West Vancouver–Capilano is gateway to the Sea to Sky corridor and the magnificent mountains of the 2010 Olympic Games. Olympic Games visitors will leave beautiful downtown
[ Page 9331 ]
Vancouver, glide past the manicured rose gardens of Stanley Park, across the beautifully renovated Lions Gate Bridge and hit the wild-west thicket of tumbling tumbleweed at the north-end traffic circle. The unkempt, uncut, dandelion-infested traffic circle at the north end of the Lions Gate Bridge reminds one of that neighbour who spends more time looking after his grow op than his front lawn. Good grief. Is this the proud face of North and West Vancouver?
Rotary to the rescue. After enduring this horticultural scandal for too many months, president Kevin Conway of the West Vancouver Rotary Club and president William Randall Fowle of the North Vancouver Rotary Club proposed that their organization join forces to improve, beautify and maintain the traffic circle. The Minister of Transportation quickly agreed. Installing a small Rotary sign will be a modest price indeed.
Rotary clubs are famous for global philanthropy, for vaccinating hundreds of thousands of children in Third World countries, for building homes for the dispossessed and for uplifting civic life everywhere. These folks take their organization seriously. Don't show up for three meetings, and you're in big trouble.
Thank you, Rotarians. It is wonderful that you've taken time from your humanitarian efforts around the world to devote a little bit of time to restoring beauty to our communities right here at home.
ALDERSON ELEMENTARY SCHOOL
H. Bloy: I rise today to talk about great news coming from a new school in my riding. Alderson Elementary School recently held its grand reopening. This new school was built on the site of the original French immersion program in British Columbia.
This new school was built for a cost of $3.7 million and opened to 167 students. The school was built to house 240 students. At the ceremony that evening that I attended, I advised all the parents there that our Minister of Education was doing his bit to fill up schools, having just given birth to their third child. I did challenge the parents. I challenged all British Columbians to keep our educational system full.
What a great evening we had. The community gathered in the gym. Students were there with specially designed T-shirts, along with their parents. Teachers, past and present, and neighbourhood residents came for the reopening of this new school. The festivities were started with four students acting as emcees for the evening: Dylan Wasney, Joey Smith, Diana Negrabee and Jeremy Lohier. The whole student body provided entertainment for the evening, and they gave tours of the school. Their principal, Ms. Louise Wunderlich…. You could just see the smiles on the children's faces and the excitement in their eyes and the dedication to her teaching and directing the school. It was a great evening. Melissa Hyndes, who is chairman of the school district, and I unveiled the plaque to open this new school. Education is alive and well in this province.
SUSPENSION OF LIBERAL MLAS
AND MEMBERSHIP IN
GOVERNMENT CAUCUS COMMITTEES
J. MacPhail: I want to put the Premier's new-era election promise of openness and accountability to the test. Government MLAs not only sit in caucus, but they also sit on government caucus committees, which the Premier has said over and over again are a key part of government policy-making. The Premier makes the appointments to these committees. We know from estimates debate that the committees are staffed by public servants, and the expenses — other than the chair — are paid out of the consolidated revenue fund.
In fact, the Premier's own website highlights the participation of MLAs on these committees. Presumably, any government MLA suspended from caucus would also be suspended from any government caucus committee he or she sits on.
Has the member for Burnaby-Willingdon ever been suspended from his caucus and the Government Caucus Committee on Education? If so, what was he suspended for? To the Deputy Premier.
Hon. C. Clark: The member is trying to get at questions about matters that occur in caucus. If she had a caucus, I'm sure she wouldn't want to share information that goes on there either. It isn't appropriate for the floor of the House. As you said earlier, Mr. Speaker, if she has questions about the financing of caucus, she is entirely at liberty to use her right as a member of the Legislative Assembly Management Committee to call a meeting of that committee and raise some of the questions she has raised here.
Deputy Speaker: Leader of the Opposition with a supplemental question.
J. MacPhail: While government caucus committees were controversial in that the chair was paid out of vote 1, the government caucus committees are paid out of ministers' budgets, and they're staffed by public servants. The Deputy Premier is pretty much out of touch. British Columbians have a right to an answer. The opposition has been told that the member for Burnaby-Willingdon was suspended for financial improprieties related to an overseas trip. I am simply asking the Deputy Premier if this is true. I'm not asking the Deputy Premier to divulge confidential caucus discussions. I simply want a straightforward answer to a legitimate question.
Again, is it true that the member for Burnaby-Willingdon was suspended from caucus and from the government caucus committee on which he sits?
Hon. C. Clark: Mr. Speaker, this member is very clearly trying to raise a matter which she knows is a confidential matter of caucus. She's trying to raise it on
[ Page 9332 ]
the floor of this House, despite your earlier ruling. I think what she is trying to do is raise something she very clearly should know — if she doesn't know — is out of order.
Deputy Speaker: Leader of the Opposition with a further supplemental.
J. MacPhail: It was the government Whip that opened this can of worms the other day when he confirmed that other Liberal MLAs have been suspended from caucus with no public notification or explanation. The Deputy Premier may not want to answer the questions. She may want to hide behind the ridiculously secretive rules her government caucus operates on, unlike any other caucus. But by stonewalling the public, she is seriously undermining the credibility…
Deputy Speaker: Order, members. Let's hear the question.
J. MacPhail: …of this government with the public. We're not asking her to reveal the content of internal caucus discussions. Caucus has a right to assume that those debates are kept private. We are simply asking her: if caucus members have been suspended from having a role in caucus and in the development of government policy through government caucus committees, what charges were they dismissed on? Why won't the Deputy Premier live up to the campaign promise of her government and give British Columbians the answer?
Hon. C. Clark: Mr. Speaker, she says she isn't asking me to divulge things that have gone on in caucus that are subjects of confidentiality, but that is exactly what she is attempting to ask me to do. She does have other avenues to seek that information. As you pointed out, she is a member of the Legislative Assembly Management Committee. As a member of that, she has a right to be able to call those meetings and have those discussions in that venue if that's what she chooses to do.
J. Kwan: The Premier has said over and over again how important the role of the government caucus is in developing government policy. The government, the Premier, had extended that by creating these government caucus committees. The government caucus committees are funded by taxpayers. They are staffed by ministry staff.
The Deputy Premier can't have it both ways. British Columbians have a right to know if the behaviour of their MLA meets the test of the public's confidence. Obviously, the Deputy Premier believes that constituents who elect a B.C. Liberal MLA don't have the right to know if they are being represented by a B.C. Liberal MLA. Why is the Deputy Premier denying British Columbians their democratic right to know who sits in government caucus committees — who is part of the government caucus and who is not, and who has been suspended from government caucus committees?
Hon. C. Clark: Since our government took office, we have done a number of things that I think made British Columbia a leader in transparency. We now have fixed election dates. We are the first jurisdiction in the country to do that. We also have a system of free votes where members are allowed to express their views on any number of issues.
We also, I think most importantly, have created the Citizens' Assembly — the first of its kind in this country — where a group of citizens who are randomly selected like a jury will be able to go out and talk about what kind of electoral process they would like to see operate in British Columbia. It is the first time any government in our country has stepped forward and said that although we recognize the system works for some of us, it may not work for everyone. We want to make sure that citizens of British Columbia have a real say in reshaping democracy and that British Columbia leads the world.
Deputy Speaker: The member for Vancouver–Mount Pleasant with a supplemental.
J. Kwan: The government promised openness and accountability. It's the first time that this Premier, that this government….
Deputy Speaker: Order, please. Let's hear the question.
J. Kwan: It's the first time that government created government caucus committees, funded out of ministry budgets and staffed by ministry public servants. Sooner or later the truth has a way of being reviewed, so I'll give the Deputy Premier another chance to come clean before — and not after — we discover who it is that has been suspended from caucus.
Can the Deputy Premier tell British Columbians what Liberal MLAs have been secretly suspended from government caucus committees and from the government's caucus, and what they were suspended for? Why is the Deputy Premier trying to hide this information?
Hon. C. Clark: Mr. Speaker, I've attempted to answer that question a number of times, the exact same question that has been asked. You made a ruling at the beginning of this question period that the kinds of questions she is looking for answers to are not in order in this House, but having said that, I will reiterate this.
This government has everything to be proud of in our record in openness and transparency. We have everything to be proud of in inviting citizens to be part of reforming our democratic process. We have every-
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thing to be proud of when we say members who are elected, whether they're on the government side of the House or the opposition side of the House, have a right to air their views. They have a right to represent their constituents. They have a right to vote freely.
We have everything to be proud of when we made those changes. We have everything to be proud of when we have changed our government from the bad old days — from the decade of the NDP, where we saw a government reeling from fast ferries and scandal after scandal, a government that was reduced to two seats in parliament — but nonetheless, a government that's prepared to say we want to change our electoral process to make it one that is absolutely reflective of the wills and wishes of the citizens of our province….
MANAGEMENT OF POINT ELLICE HOUSE
S. Orr: In my riding of Victoria-Hillside we have very few heritage properties, so what we have are precious to us. One such property is Point Ellice House. Last spring this heritage site went through an RFP process to find a partner to handle the day-to-day management but failed to reach an agreement with a proponent. Almost a year has gone by, and many of my constituents are worried, as am I, that this heritage home will no longer be open to the public. That would be a travesty. Can the minister please tell me what is being done to guarantee the continued operation of Point Ellice House?
Hon. M. Coell: As the member knows, Point Ellice House is the final capital region heritage site to go through the devolution process to a community-based organization. It has been a lengthy period of time. We actually, in the last few days, have found a partner that we're very proud of.
The Capital Mental Health Association, which the member may be associated with or know of, is going to be the community-based partner for Point Ellice House, and they're going to have a unique operation. They're going to hire professional staff. They're going to have qualified contractors to do the day-to-day operations. But added to that, their clients are going to become part of the day-to-day operations, so they'll see some on-the-job training. It's really a win-win for Point Ellice House, for the government, for the devolution process and also for people with mental illness in the capital region, who have another opportunity for volunteerism and for job training and placement.
SERVICES FOR ABORIGINAL
YOUTH IN VANCOUVER
R. Nijjar: My question is to the Minister of Children and Family Development. Children who are victims of physical and sexual abuse and exploitation need a safe place to go to be kids. The Urban Native Youth Association claims that it provides the only facility to shelter sexually exploited youth under the age of 16 and that they are being forced to close. What is the ministry doing to protect and provide refuge to children who need a place to go?
Hon. C. Clark: First of all, the accusation that the member repeated isn't true. There are lots of safe beds for kids in Vancouver, and there will continue to be. We want to make sure those are available for them. What we're talking about here is a lot of kids between the ages of 12 and 14, and some as old as 16. There are emergency shelter beds that are available for those kids that are in families, where those children will be safe and supported.
We want to make sure that families are preserved as much as we possibly can, but when kids aren't able to stay safely in their families, what we want to do is try and find safe places in families for them in their communities. In Vancouver what we did is that we went through a discussion-consultation project with the community…
Deputy Speaker: Order, please.
Hon. C. Clark: …and with the first nations and aboriginal communities as well. We agreed with the focus on family preservation, and we're actually adding $400,000 to the budget for servicing the needs of aboriginal kids in Vancouver as a result of that consultation.
POLICY FOR VOLUNTEERS AT
MOUNT ST. JOSEPH HOSPITAL
J. Kwan: The Premier has fired the former minister of state for multiculturalism. There's been no new appointment to date. I think that is a statement about how this government values multiculturalism.
Mount St. Joseph Hospital is a hospital designed to serve the multicultural community. The volunteer policy at Mount St. Joseph Hospital has been changed under this government's leadership. The new policy dictates that if you do not speak English, you are not allowed to volunteer there. Formerly, volunteers who did not speak English volunteered by reading to the seniors and just generally helping seniors keep active. To the Deputy Premier: how does this new policy help promote multiculturalism, and how does that serve seniors in British Columbia?
Hon. C. Clark: Our government is committed to making sure that the needs of seniors…
Deputy Speaker: Order, please.
Deputy Speaker: Order, please. Let's hear the answer.
[ Page 9334 ]
Hon. C. Clark: …and the needs of multicultural communities in British Columbia are respected and met. Our government represents a broad breadth of people from across British Columbia…
Deputy Speaker: Order, please.
Hon. C. Clark: …from backgrounds around the world and from different languages and different cultures. Our caucus is, I think, one of the most broadly representative caucuses that British Columbia has ever elected to its Legislature, and we have everything to be proud of in that.
I'm delighted to be able to represent a community where a large number of people come from places outside of Canada. I think that's true of many people in this House, and our government is going to continue to make sure British Columbia benefits from all of the enrichment that people from beyond our shores bring to this province and this country.
[End of question period.]
Orders of the Day
Hon. G. Plant: I call Committee of Supply. For the information of members, we'll be debating the Ministry of Health Services estimates in this House and, in the other House, the estimates of the Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Fisheries.
Committee of Supply
The House in Committee of Supply B; H. Long in the chair.
The committee met at 2:38 p.m.
ESTIMATES: MINISTRY OF
On vote 25: ministry operations, $10,404,260,000 (continued).
J. Reid: My question is with regard to chelation therapy. I know that the minister and I have had some discussions around this. The concern is partly with the cost savings that potentially could be realized through alternate forms of medicine.
I think we have an understanding that at this point in time, in trying to manage the costs of the health care system, this isn't a good time to try and introduce more treatments. At the same time, we recognize that alternative forms of treatment can be beneficial not only for savings to the health care system but also for the health benefits of people who are interested in using alternative forms of therapy.
I personally believe there are savings possible to accrue in that way, but I understand from the doctors who are practising chelation therapy that they still feel a certain threat to their ability to practise without being imperilled in some way. In believing there is a savings, since I believe there is a savings to the system, my question is whether those doctors indeed have some ability to be protected against any repercussions by practising chelation therapy, and in what way. If so, should we be encouraging the use of alternative therapies to save dollars within the medical system?
Hon. C. Hansen: As the member will recall, there was legislation we passed in this chamber — I believe it was in 2001 — that made it very explicit that the College of Physicians and Surgeons could not undertake an investigation of the practices of a physician solely because they were practising some form of alternative therapy. I think that does give the physicians who are looking at practising alternative therapies the protection they need. Certainly, it is an initiative that was supported by the college as well. I think it does provide the kind of protection that many of these physicians are looking for.
G. Hogg: There has been some discussion with respect to scopes of practice regarding opticians and optometrists. I know there is a process in place that is leading us to some type of resolution with that. There was some discussion within the field regarding some type of spectrograph that does the analysis of sight and then some issues where prescriptions were being sent out of province to be filled.
Can the minister tell us what process we have outlined in terms of bringing those issues to resolution regarding the refractory machines and the issues around that? What process have we put in place with respect to consultation and coming to some type of resolution?
Hon. C. Hansen: This has been a very interesting file because it involves brand-new technology that has been developed. Our role as a ministry is to look after the interests of the patient and to put patient safety as the top priority. There are obviously all kinds of new technologies that get introduced to the health care system, and we have to make sure that there are at least processes in place to ensure that patient safety is put at the top of the agenda.
With regard to this particular technology the member refers to, there have been extensive consultations involving opticians, optometrists and ophthalmologists. There have been volumes and volumes of inputs that we have received. We still have not come to any conclusions as a result of those consultations, but we are reviewing that. We hope it will lead to appropriate definitions of scope of practice and procedures that should be followed by these various health care professionals with regard to this new technology.
[ Page 9335 ]
J. Kwan: I'd like to pick up from where my colleague the member for Vancouver-Hastings, the House Leader for the opposition, left off with the Health estimates. The area I'm going to start canvassing with the minister is around dental services — cuts particularly.
I have before me a newsletter dated October 2003 from the Association of Dental Surgeons of British Columbia. Let me just put a couple of the quotes from this document on the record. Then we'll begin questions with the minister in this area. The newsletter reads:
"Waits to Significantly Increase for Dental Surgery at Children's Hospital.
"With wait-lists currently at four to six months for dental surgery, B.C.'s Children's Hospital has announced plans to cut one of two operating room dental chairs in November, increasing wait times to over a year."
It goes on to read:
"More than 2,500 families affected by the chair closures sent letters of concern to the Minister of Health and BCCH in the spring. Following this, BCCH agreed to meet with the ADSBC — the Association of Dental Surgeons of British Columbia — to develop criteria for admission to the hospital for treatment under general anaesthesia, in addition to discussing access to care alternatives for children no longer meeting their criteria."
Then the article goes on to advise that "dentists donate $250,000 worth of free treatment. Participating dentists around the province provide more than $250,000 worth of free dental treatment during Community Dental Day on April 29."
Let me just stop there and ask the minister the questions in terms of the cuts impacting dental services to children. Could the minister respond to the association's newsletter, particularly with respect to the increase and its impact on children's dental services?
Hon. C. Hansen: This initiative has been designed to identify what the most appropriate venue is for a particular procedure to take place. I think in the discussions we had with the member for Vancouver-Hastings yesterday or perhaps the day before, we talked about the move generally across the health care system to make sure that our operating rooms are used in the most appropriate way.
In other words, procedures that need to be done in an operating room should be done in the operating room. If procedures can be done in other clinical settings, then our goal is to try to find the most appropriate clinical settings. What they were able to determine after extensive evaluation is that the number of procedures that were being done in operating rooms on children for dental surgery…. We did not need to do the number of surgeries in the operating rooms that were being done, and many of them could be more appropriately done in other clinical environments.
Part of this initiative is to make sure that these dental surgery procedures are being done in the most appropriate environment. In some cases that means that instead of the operating room, it's being done in other independent facilities.
J. Kwan: If that were the case, then in theory the wait-lists should not go up. However, as identified by the Association of Dental Surgeons of British Columbia, wait-lists are going up, and the wait times are increasing to as long as a year. If the theory the minister puts forward rings true, then wait times and wait-lists should not be going up, but they are. What that means is there is demand for this service, and the government is cutting the service in any event. This is at Children's Hospital.
I know of another situation, in fact. My community office is on 1st and Commercial Drive. It so happens that right upstairs is a health clinic. I've never actually known the real name of that clinic. It's just right upstairs. I think it's called the north health clinic. Right upstairs, the dental services for children, their staffing has been reduced as well. I spoke with the staff upstairs in terms of their concern, particularly in our community, where a lot of the children don't have access to other dental services. They talked about wait-lists as well.
The minister's answer actually can't ring true in terms of the reality here and what the experts in the field are saying.
Hon. C. Hansen: I'll read out a portion from this briefing note, which may help the member. In June of 2003 there was a task force established. It was jointly established with the Association of Dental Surgeons of B.C., Children's Hospital and the Ministry of Health Services. The task force has agreed upon admission criteria for the dental surgery services at Children's Hospital. What this means is that children aged four and under, who have other health problems that might complicate the procedure or anaesthetic, will continue to receive dental surgery at Children's Hospital. This is in keeping with Children's Hospital's role as a hospital providing tertiary and specialized care for the children of B.C.
[J. Weisbeck in the chair.]
J. Kwan: The minister has just put on record the changed criteria for who is eligible to access dental surgery through Children's Hospital. With that knowledge in mind, the Association of Dental Surgeons of British Columbia put out this press release, which reads: "B.C.'s Children's Hospital Cuts Care for Dental Surgery. Over one-year delay for treatment; care denied for others."
"A decision by B.C.'s Children's Hospital to close one of two dental operating chairs November 1 will translate into hospital waits over one year for children suffering from oral pain and infection, according to the Association of Dental Surgeons of British Columbia. The association also warns that children who do not meet new criteria may find themselves without alternatives for care.
"Approximately 1,800 children are currently seen each year at Children's Hospital for dental treatment
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under general anaesthesia, with wait times of between four and six months. The ADSBC says that one dental OR chair must now serve an estimated 1,100 to 1,300 children who meet newly established criteria" — which, by the by, are the criteria the minister just put on record. "These are children with weight and age considerations, identified co-morbidities or who are eligible for MSP-covered dental treatment."
Then it goes on to say that while private facilities may be able to accommodate some of these children, the facility fees — ranging from $400 to $600 — make this option unviable for low-income families — the population segment most likely to suffer from poor dental health. The dental association is advocating for a public-private partnership where the Health ministry pays the facility fee for the displaced children in private clinics.
I can accept to a certain extent that some of the children who may be on this wait-list could go elsewhere, but I would not accept that all the children on this wait-list could go somewhere else. Nor do I accept the answer that the minister had given — that the new criteria changed and therefore, in theory, the logic follows that the reduction in dental chairs is necessitated because the demand is not there.
If that were the case, then the number of kids and the wait times for kids waiting for dental surgery would also reduce. If it were the case that other options were available — private institutions or whatever the case may be — the wait times would also reduce the situation. The wait-lists would also be reduced. That is not reality. The minister's answers do not address the concerns that have been raised by the Association of Dental Surgeons of British Columbia.
I would ask the minister to offer another answer that actually addresses the concern or, alternatively, offer to look into the budgeting situation there — I presume it is an issue around budgets, because oftentimes that's what drives the issues — and actually commit to ensuring that there is adequate budget to meet this great demand.
I can tell you, as well, that I'm lucky, actually. I'm very lucky, because I have relatively good teeth. They're relatively straight, although my husband every now and again tells me the bottom one is kind of crooked. He starts to blame me when…. Our daughter's little teeth are starting to sprout out, and they're a little bit like this. He says: "That's you, not me. That's you." But, you know, that's my husband.
I can tell you that the importance of teeth affects a person's confidence very much so. In fact, in the long term for people in terms of job opportunities…. In the downtown east side community I know there are a lot of people trying to get basic, entry-level jobs. They oftentimes meet all of the requirements until they smile. Their teeth are less than perfect or less than adequate, I suppose, in some ways in terms of the presentation that the employer would like. That's caused problems for people's employability. A study has been done on that front as well, especially in the tourism trade, where those kinds of skill sets, if you will, and health-related matters are very important.
If the minister can't adequately address the reasons why the dental chairs are being reduced because there's lack of demand for it, then I would ask that he commit to ensuring that there is enough funding to accommodate the demands. We need to address this issue early on in age, as it has a lifelong effect for people in the future.
Hon. C. Hansen: I think the comments that the member just made sort of reinforce the comments I made earlier around the appropriate use of operating rooms. There are certain dental procedures that are covered under the Canada Health Act, which are considered medically necessary and require surgery to be done in an operating room under a general anaesthetic. Part of this change that is taking place is making sure our operating rooms are being used for dental surgery that is medically necessary under the Canada Health Act and does require an operating room environment.
I appreciate very much the comments the member is making about the challenges low-income families have to get access to dental care so they can have straight teeth and a smile they're proud of, but those are issues that I think go far beyond the issues specific to the Ministry of Health Services.
Obviously, the Ministry of Human Resources has programs to provide assistance for dental services, and there may be other ministries that are involved as well. When we talk about the obligations of the Ministry of Health Services when it comes to dental programs, we are talking about services that are required under the Canada Health Act. Those surgeries would have to take place in an operating room or in a hospital environment and would be considered medically necessary according to the Canada Health Act.
J. Kwan: In fact, the Ministry of Human Resources, for adults particularly…. I'm not talking about children. The process for a person to get dental service is unbelievable. You literally have to be dying from tooth decay or infection or some horrible thing, and even then you might not be able to get the dental service you require. I cannot underscore how difficult the process is for people to get dental service.
That's from direct experience in my former life as an advocate and in my current life as an MLA with constituents who continuously have these problems. I'm not raising that matter with this minister at this point. I'm raising the matter related to children and the notion of dental surgery.
The minister suggests that because of new guidelines and criteria that have been set, only people who actually need those surgeries should then be referred to the hospital for these procedures. As I said, the logic would follow that if a substantive number of people don't need the surgery, then the wait times as well as the wait-lists…. The numbers and the people should go down, but they're not. What the Association of Dental Surgeons of British Columbia is saying is that the wait
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times have gone up — in fact, gone up by double, to over a year from six months.
It doesn't make sense, in my view, to reduce the dental surgeon services at Children's Hospital. If the demand is down, then in theory one would be able to process and deal with these surgeries more quickly, but that is not so.
Having set that aside, while I appreciate the notion that only the people who require dental surgery should go to the hospital to get dental surgery, I don't believe that all of the people who are being denied under these new criteria are people who don't need it. It has been highlighted by the Association of Dental Surgeons that because of the facility fees, which are as much as $400 to $600, for the people who are referred elsewhere…. This also would make it not viable for low-income families, because they can't afford it.
They're asking the government to engage in a partnership with them to pay for the facility fees for these displaced children — for the people who no longer qualify to go to Children's Hospital for their dental surgery. Will the minister commit to looking into this issue and engaging in a discussion with the Association of Dental Surgeons of British Columbia about that?
Hon. C. Hansen: The task force I referred to earlier that was struck in June of last year, it's my understanding, completed its work around the standards and the access policy just within the last few months. I haven't got exactly the date they completed their work. It may have been after that letter she read. But now that we have had a few months of experience under this new access policy, I think the member's suggestion is a very good one. I will undertake to make sure officials in my ministry follow up with the association and with Children's Hospital to make sure those access standards are appropriate. If not, we'll look at changing them.
J. Kwan: Thank you to the minister for that commitment. I very much appreciate it.
Okay, then. Let's move on to the next issue. The Canadian Society of Intestinal Research sent me a letter. It's dated October 2003. As the minister can appreciate, some of these letters are a little bit old because people have sent the letters in anticipation that we would be in the House in the spring. These are the issues they have raised with me. The letter reads:
"'The B.C. Pharmacare Cutting Patients First': a provocative headline, a provocative new health policy. The effort to save money is a necessary one. No one disagrees. However, simply cutting patients off their medications 'to save money' is both cruel and dangerous. It is called therapeutic substitution. It is about forcing patients to switch to cheaper medications or pay the entire cost of treatment themselves. Patients are being harmed. The evidence is seen daily in doctors' offices in the form of diarrhea, vomiting, persistent coughing and gastric bleeding. These are the insidious side effects that are happening when patients are forced to switch from medication that had stabilized their health condition to a cheaper version."
It goes on to say how people are paying a higher price for cutting costs, etc.
I want to turn to the document they sent to me with the letter. It's a document entitled The Inside Tract, a bimonthly newsletter published by the Canadian Society of Intestinal Research. There is an article in it, and some of the highlighted areas I want to put on the record and canvass with the minister. It reads:
"Instead of improving the chances for sick people to conquer illness, B.C. Pharmacare is making it more difficult for them to get the medications they need. It's called therapeutic substitution, and 50,000 British Columbians covered by Pharmacare who suffer severe stomach ailments are learning firsthand just how hard-nosed the government can be when it comes to cutting costs.
"One highly effective class of medications is called proton pump inhibitors, PPIs. Until recently doctors could choose for their patients any of the five drugs in the PPI class, and Pharmacare covered the costs. That all changed on January 15. Now Pharmacare will only pay for the cheapest one. Patients on any one of these other four in the class now have to pay the entire costs of those medications themselves. To make matters worse, the costs they incur are not deductible under Fair Pharmacare."
I'd like the minister to address this issue. I understand the whole thrust of trying to use the cheapest medication where it does not have side effects, where it does not negatively impact the patient. I certainly support that. But in the case where it does have negative impacts — and it's for the doctors to decide what those impacts are — the doctor should be able to choose for their patient the medication that does not have the impacts. If they choose the medication that happens to not be the cheapest one or if they deem that medication is needed for their patient, then that medication should be covered. As the situation is now, they're not covered. I would like the minister's response on that.
Hon. C. Hansen: The member does leave me a little bit confused, because my understanding is that she is a very big supporter of the reference drug program that we have. The whole principle around therapeutic substitution still leaves more latitude to physicians than the reference drug program does. I am a little bit confused in terms of where the member is coming from — from a philosophical perspective or a broader policy perspective.
Having said that, let me address the issue around the proton pump inhibitors. The most common drug used in this class is one that is over 20 years old. Often when we have new medications that come out, they're usually newer but are also more expensive. What happened in this case is that a new product called Pariet came out, and that new drug is actually less expensive than some of the other medications that have been around for a longer period of time.
I guess the one thing that's important to underscore is that there is absolutely no evidence that shows that Pariet is less effective than any of the other proton pump inhibitors that are available on the market. What
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we said to physicians in the province is that they can prescribe whatever they want. You know, as long as a medication is approved by Health Canada, they can prescribe it, and their patients can buy it at pharmacies in British Columbia. The question comes back to: what is it that the Pharmacare program should pay for?
What we have said is that because the evidence shows that Pariet is no less effective than any of these other medications but is about 40 percent less expensive, we will put that as a first line. Patients need to be able, first of all, to try other procedures — H2 antagonists, as I think they are referred to. Then if they cannot manage their GERD, gastroesophageal reflux, if they're not able to manage that condition with the H2 antagonist, they can prescribe one of the PPIs.
What we have said is that the PPI that should be tried first by the physician, if they want Pharmacare to pay for it, should be Pariet, and if that doesn't work for any reason…. Like, we know there is a very small percentage of patients that do have reactions to the chemical makeup of any one of the five proton pump inhibitors. Doctors will often try one and, if the patient has any kind of intolerance to that, then will try a different one. The patient may have a better success on a different one.
If for any reason a patient is one of that small minority that may have an intolerance to Pariet, then yes, the physician can then prescribe any one of the remaining four more expensive PPIs available. In addition to that, we also gave the authority to the gastroenterologists in the province that if they had a patient who had been stabilized on one of the older medications, they could authorize that patient to stay on that older medication and not have to try Pariet if they had the possibility of any kind of complications from just shifting from one to another.
This has been, I think, a very good approach. We've been able to provide a newer medication to British Columbians. We have been able to cover that under Pharmacare, and we've been able to do it in a way that reduces the cost to the Pharmacare budget and, therefore, frees up that budget for other cost pressures. At the same time, if there is any particular need that can be demonstrated that a patient needs one of the other four products, then the physician is free to prescribe those once they've been able to demonstrate that Pariet is not effective for any particular patient.
J. Kwan: The minister's answer differs slightly from the information contained here, which is the issue. I want to be very clear and be on the record that I do support the reference-based drug policy. It was started under the previous NDP government, and I do support it very much. But the former policy…. Well, maybe it still is the policy. It sounds like it might well be still the policy. That is that where patients are impacted negatively with a cheaper drug and that is a determination made by the doctor, the doctor can…. And I have helped, previously, constituents go to Pharmacare and get, through Pharmacare processes, the other drug authorized, paid for and covered under Pharmacare under the previous administration.
So you're not stuck. You know, you are not just made to take the cheaper form, even though it is negative for you. Even though it has negative consequences for you and the doctor says no, this shouldn't be and you should use some other drug, that's covered. But from the way it sounds, it sounded to me like the situation here is that a drug is not covered under the Fair Pharmacare.
If that's not the case, then it is important to note that if the doctor deems for the particular patient negative consequences on the reference-based drug — in this instance around proton pump inhibitors — then the doctor can write another prescription for another drug to negate the negative impact, and that would be covered by Pharmacare. If that's the case, then great, because the other information that goes on in the document here reads that the policy is unique in Canada. No other province in the country forces patients who are stabilized on one medication to switch to a cheaper medication regardless of serious health consequences that can result.
What I think I just heard the minister say is that no — and particularly for patients that have been a long time on a particular drug — you would not force them to switch to another medication if the doctor, through the doctor's evaluation, says that by doing that it would cause this person negative health consequences. If I understand, that is the government's policy, and that is how it is being applied, and when there is a switch it is paid for by Pharmacare. Then I'm satisfied with this. So let me just get that clarification.
Hon. C. Hansen: I'm glad for the opportunity to clarify this. What we are saying is that the gastroenterologists who are caring for those patients who have the most complex conditions in terms of gastroesophageal reflux — GERD — have the ability to grandfather those patients that have been stabilized under one of the other medications.
If a patient is on a proton pump inhibitor as a result of a GP's prescription, then they would have to…. They could continue on whatever they were on, but it would not be covered by Pharmacare unless they try this new proton pump inhibitor called Pariet. If the patient shows any kind of intolerance to Pariet, then the physician can get a special authorization for that patient to be put on any one of the other four.
Some people, for example, will be familiar with a medication called Nexium, and Nexium we were able to approve at the same time, but it was never listed until we made this change. Now it is listed not as a first-line proton pump inhibitor, but as a second-line. So if a patient shows any kind of intolerance to the Pariet, then yes, the doctor can apply for a special authority to put their patient on any one of the other four proton pump inhibitors, and it would be covered by Pharmacare.
J. Kwan: Okay. That's good clarification, because I think it is important that if the doctor deems a particu-
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lar medication has ill effects on their patient, they should be able to prescribe another, and that should be covered by Pharmacare. I'm glad to hear that.
Okay, let me move to another issue. This is an issue related to…. Oh, actually, sorry. Let me just ask this issue. I almost forgot.
I just got this faxed to me from my constituency office, and it is from a constituent. I had written a letter, by the way, to the minister on March 5 regarding this situation. This is regarding somebody by the name of Penelope Antonio Estaccio, who is appealing the MSP plan. Here is the situation with this particular person. The minister might not have read my letter, actually, that I wrote to him because it was rather recent. Let me put the situation with this person on the record.
The letter reads as follows:
"I'm Penelope Estaccio, a live-in caregiver from the Philippines. I arrived in Canada on July 6, 2003. Within a week of my arrival I enrolled in the Medical Services Plan of B.C. The benefits coverage started on October 1, 2003. I was diagnosed with colon cancer on September 26, 2003, and underwent surgery on the same day. I was admitted to Vancouver General Hospital. I'm presently undergoing chemotherapy treatment at the B.C. Cancer Agency.
"The bill for the surgery and other expenses from September 26 to 30, 2003, amounted to $8,764.13. Much as I desire to pay this bill, I'm unable to do so. I'm out of work, in pain, suffering from my illness and uncertain about my future.
"Through donations from my church and the Filipino community, I was able to gradually pay part of my bill, and the balance is now at $7,003.16. I have no way of paying for this enormous bill. It is for this reason that I contacted West Coast Domestic Workers Association. I understand that they are appealing for my benefits coverage to start on September 26, 2003, so that the balance of my hospital bill would be paid for by MSP of B.C.
"It will be a tremendous relief for me when my hospital bill will be resolved. I can then concentrate on getting my strength back to fight this illness.
"I came to Canada with the hope that I can provide financial assistance to my parents through my income as a nanny. Instead, I'm now worrying how to pay my enormous hospital bill and struggling to cope with my illness. "I do not have any relatives in Canada to care for me, so my mother had to come here under a special permit from Citizenship and Immigration Canada. Fortunately, she was able to ensure donations to pay for her fare. "Despite the generous help we have been receiving, my family continues to be burdened with this unexpected strain on our limited financial resources. I'm humbly appealing for your benevolent support. With great hope, I am relying on your favour to grant this appeal.
"May God richly bless you."
This was a letter written to the appeals department of MSP. My information is that this woman actually just missed the qualification for MSP by one week.
I understand that there are rules and things established, but in this situation I would ask the minister to please intervene with the appeal situation — this woman only missed the qualification by one week in terms of the time period required — and given her grave situation at the moment, for the government to consider forgiving her hospital costs of $7,003.16.
Hon. C. Hansen: I have not had a chance to see the letter yet that the member has sent to me. Certainly, I can empathize with what this lady is going through. We certainly have some of the best cancer outcomes anywhere in North America, and I am sure she is getting excellent first-class care for her cancer.
I am not able to go into the details of her particular situation. I will follow up on it with the ministry. I know there are cases — they are very unusual — when we are able to waive the wait period for MSP coverage. I will certainly follow up with my staff to see if this is one of those cases, and I will report back to the member as soon as I can get an answer on that. It won't be during the estimates, but I'll try to get back to her as soon as I can in the coming days.
J. Kwan: In fact, I was mistaken. It is a less than a week by which she missed the time period. She was approved for coverage effective October 1. She was admitted to the hospital for emergency surgery on September 26. Her days in the hospital were from September 26 to 30. She would have gotten coverage on October 1. So it's less than a week; it's within four days.
I certainly hope to hear good news on behalf of this individual from the minister. I understand the minister only just…. Actually, I know how the processing of letters goes sometimes. It probably is not on the minister's desk yet, so I appreciate that. I will await the minister's response.
Let me then turn to issues around the first nations health area. I should just advise the minister that this section I'm canvassing with the minister is on a whole bunch of case-by-case, constituency-like issues. They're sort of all over the map in terms of what area they fall on, so my apologies for that.
This was a letter written to the Premier on January 23, 2004. It is a letter from the First Nations Summit Chiefs Health Committee, and it is signed by Chief Doug Kelly. The letter reads as follows:
"The First Nations Summit represents those first nations participating in the treaty negotiations process in B.C. In addition to treaty initiatives, the summit also appoints chiefs' committees to address important social and economic issues. Recently, summit leaders renewed the mandate of the Chiefs Health Committee. The primary role of the Chiefs Health Committee, also known as CHC, is advocacy to ensure that first nations health issues are addressed with appropriate policies and services from Canada and B.C.
"Earlier this month the CHC decided to develop and carry out a comprehensive advocacy strategy that includes lobbying, media relations and direct action. We are concerned about your government's effort to reduce the provincial deficit on the backs of the poor. The provincial health officer's annual report 2001 states: 'If you are an aboriginal person living in British Columbia, your standard of living is likely to be 20 percent below the provincial average, based on measures such as income,
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employment, educational attainment and housing adequacy.'
"On September 17, 2003, we witnessed your apology to First Nations Summit chiefs. We heard you commit your government to reconciliation with first nations. We hope that our commitment is honourable and that your cabinet ministers will seek opportunities to put your lofty promise into action.
"We remind you that your provincial health officer also recommended that your government 'establish provincial and regional targets for achieving comparable health status between the aboriginal population and other British Columbians or specific aboriginal targets, where appropriate. Hold ministries and health authorities accountable for progress towards these targets and for coordination with agencies that serve the same populations.'
"We seek the assistance of your good offices to bring together key cabinet ministers from your government to consider and plan your action on your provincial health officer's recommendations from his report of 2001. We look forward to a prompt response to begin taking action to address the health status of first nations and aboriginal peoples in B.C."
On the basis of this letter I would ask if the minister would commit to meeting with the CHC, the Chiefs Health Committee, to listen to their concerns and to work with them to develop a strategy in addressing aboriginal health outcomes.
Hon. C. Hansen: The short answer is yes. In fact, that meeting is already scheduled. I will be meeting with Chief Kelly this Friday.
I certainly have had a very good and constructive relationship with his predecessors and the first nations health committee generally. Also my colleague the former Minister of Health Planning, who had responsibility for the aboriginal health file, had meetings on a fairly regular basis with first nations leaders around aboriginal health.
In addition to that, the leadership council — that's the council made up of the CEOs of the health authorities with senior staff from the ministry — have met with first nations leaders on health issues. There was a health forum we had that had a whole component to it around aboriginal health. In addition to that, there have been annual meetings chaired by the Premier for the First Nations Summit — the forum with First Nations Summit and the cabinet, the joint meeting between the chiefs and cabinet ministers. That has happened annually and also has a health component to it.
I'm not sure if I mentioned this earlier in the debates, but I was in Toronto about six weeks ago now in my capacity as chair of the provincial-territorial Health ministers this year and co-chair of the federal-provincial Health ministers, along with the federal Health minister. We met with the five major national aboriginal organizations, and at that time we got the agreement of all of those aboriginal organizations around a framework for developing a comprehensive health policy for aboriginal communities. It was truly a historic meeting, because as I understand it, it was the first time all of those national aboriginal organizations had come together to agree on a way to move forward with respective provincial, federal and territorial governments.
Finally, I should mention the provincial health officer's report that the member referred to. It came out in 2001. We are following through on the recommendations in that report. I found that report was both good news and bad news. The bad news was that the difference between health outcomes in aboriginal communities and non-aboriginal communities was far too wide. The good news in the report Dr. Kendall produced was that the gap has been narrowing, so we are making progress. In terms of infant mortality rates, for example, if you go back to the time frame at the start of his report, there was a huge difference in infant mortality rates between aboriginal and non-aboriginal populations. Now that has been narrowed to the point where they actually think those two rates will meet very soon in terms of the decline. It has come down very significantly in aboriginal populations as a result of some of the very focused programs that have been put in place.
There is a lot of work to be done, and I very much am looking forward to my meeting on Friday with Chief Kelly. Hopefully, we can find ways to continue the progress that is being made.
J. Kwan: Thank you for that update. The information we've received is that as of February 26, no meetings were set. There was no response from the Premier's office or from any of the cabinet members, so I'm glad the minister has now set up a meeting with Chief Kelly and will work on those issues with his committee.
Let me ask about another issue with the minister. This is relating to transsexual women and men in the province needing corrective surgeries and basic health care coverage. Issues have been raised both in my office and in my colleague's office, the member for Vancouver-Hastings, around MSP coverage in regard to transsexual women and men in need of corrective surgeries and basic health coverage. The issue has also been raised that the government closed down the gender clinic two years ago and has done nothing to replace it to help those in need.
As well, the individual who wrote advises that many British Columbians have been waiting for two years for any word and that there is a comprehensive report with recommendations before the minister responsible on this matter. I would like the minister to address this issue on behalf of this individual who has written to the opposition.
Hon. C. Hansen: I gather there have been waiting lists for these procedures for some time. What has happened, I guess recently, that has caused some people to become anxious about this is that the Vancouver coastal health authority has gone through a process of re-evaluating how these services are provided. Whenever you go in to take a new look at a particular
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process, it does raise all kinds of questions as to why it is being re-evaluated. Basically, what the Vancouver coastal health authority is trying to do is find ways of making sure that procedures can be offered in a way that meets the needs of the individuals involved.
There has been a fair amount of consultation, I understand, with the transgendered community in Vancouver. There have been presentations that I understand they have made to the Medical Services Commission. The objective is to develop the kind of protocols that would ensure those who should get access to these procedures can get access, thereby ensuring it is as timely as possible.
I do have some more information that is apparently being sent in to me. It may take some time. I may be able to come back to this once I have the rest of the briefing notes on this. That's the extent of what I have available to me at this time, but I would be pleased to come back to it later.
J. Kwan: What's the status on the gender clinic that was closed two years ago? Are there plans to open a clinic somewhere else? The community is waiting to hear. Aside from the issue on the wait for corrective surgery, does the minister have information on the clinic?
Hon. C. Hansen: I expect to have a briefing note on this that I will be able to refer to in order to try to answer those questions. I haven't got the specific answers the member is looking for.
J. Kwan: When the minister gets the information, he could provide that.
Let me move on to issues around HIV/AIDS. I wrote a letter on October 29 to the then Minister of Health Planning regarding the report on priorities for action in managing the epidemics HIV/AIDS in British Columbia, 2003 to 2007. The then Minister of Health Planning wrote back to me on December 17, 2003.
I raised with her concerns about the lack of action with respect to the recommendations contained in that report. I have received several letters from people in the community around this area particularly. As an example, one letter I received was from the B.C. Persons with AIDS Society in which they advised that they're very concerned with the lack of action in this matter. They feel that after reviewing the document, the BCPWA prepared a response called Shifting Priorities to address the concerns with serious and pertinent issues not adequately addressed in the provincial draft. Their response was submitted to Warren O'Briain as the point of contact for the ministry.
Since then, I have written to the minister asking about the status of this situation, particularly with respect to the response from BCPWA. I don't know. The minister probably doesn't have this document, Shifting Priorities, from BCPWA, so let me just put on the record what they have highlighted as some issues.
In the document, they have highlighted that additional funds are required. It reads:
"One of the major concerns the B.C. Persons with AIDS Society has with the workshop draft of Priorities for Action in Managing the Epidemics: HIV/AIDS 2003-2007 is its implicit assumption that all of its commendable goals can be achieved without a significant infusion of new dollars into the effort.
"BCPWA believes this assumption to be misguided at best. Given the ongoing incidence of new infections — which, even if reduced by 50 percent, will still number in excess of 200 annually — the higher cost of new treatments, including new forms of antiretroviral medications and new treatments for hepatitis C, and the increased costs inescapably associated with most of the 'key strategies' proposals advanced in the key document, status quo funding will guarantee failure.
"Substantial new funding in addition to that already in place must be made available by the provincial health ministries if the goals set out in Priorities are to be accorded any chance of attainment."
Then it goes on to read:
"'The Assumption of Status Quo Funding.' One of the most remarkable things about Priorities is its somewhat coy but nonetheless thorough refusal to discuss money. It does include heartening and, if anything, understated assessments of the costs to be avoided through effectively addressing the HIV/AIDS epidemic, but it is close to silent on the question of how that effective work is to be financed.
"The assumption of status quo funding is nowhere baldly stated in Priorities. It is, however, clearly implied."
Let me stop there. There are some other passages I would like to put on the record. What is the minister's response to this?
Hon. C. Hansen: To address the specific point the member is making around the funding for HIV/AIDS programs, I know that across the whole spectrum of health there are all kinds of pressures, obviously, that call out for more funding in particular areas. I know that if we were to double the budget we have before us for the ministry from the $10 billion to $20 billion, we could spend it all and still have, I'm sure, ideas of opportunities where people would think more money needs to be spent. I certainly recognize that programs for HIV and AIDS are very important and need to be resourced.
In shifting the funding from the ministry centrally, which used to be to the health authorities, one of the things we did was make sure the funding level got protected. So while we were not seeing increases, at least we were also ensuring that there were no overall reductions in those funding levels at all.
I can report to the member that in January of this year, what was then the Ministry of Health Planning provided a $250,000 one-time grant to the B.C. Centre for Disease Control for a revamped HIV/AIDS prevention campaign specifically aimed at gay men. I think there has been that new money made available in addition to the funding that had been there previously, which is being maintained.
J. Kwan: Yes, I understand there are pressures everywhere for more dollars to be spent. I do understand
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that. We won't get into that debate about spending priorities with government, because we won't get anywhere on that.
I do want to focus here, because I believe this was actually on World AIDS Day when the Premier made a comment. I don't have the exact day on the document here, but I do believe it was on World AIDS Day when the Premier made a comment that acknowledged the concerns about not having enough resources for AIDS prevention programs in the province. There was such a comment made by the Premier in response to the B.C. Centre for Excellence in HIV/AIDS when they raised this matter.
Of course, BCPWA has raised the issue because in the document it does not allow for the opportunity to talk about funding. If we're to realistically address the issue — and I think BCPWA is dead-on — then you have to talk about resources. The document itself is a good one in that people look at it with hope. BCPWA says this about the document itself:
"Priorities contains much of great value. Its analysis of the development and trajectory of HIV/AIDS epidemic in B.C. and of the devices that have emerged to combat it is thorough and accurate. Its stated goals, if achieved, would substantially alter the epidemic and would improve the lives of many thousands of British Columbians, while saving many thousands — perhaps tens of thousands — more from a life mired in personal battles against this still incurable and ultimately fatal disease. The key strategies it advances, if implemented, will all but certainly secure those goals."
So I would ask the minister: why wouldn't the document allow for discussion of resources and funding? I understand the need for competing demands, but if you don't even allow for that discussion…. If the status quo is the way to go here, well, then we're setting it up so the goals set out in that document would not be achieved. We're setting it up for failure right from the start.
That would seem to me to make no sense. Government has invested energy into producing this report. The community has invested their energies into this area. I think there needs to be a discussion to allow for funding and the resources that are required in order to achieve these goals. I acknowledge that the minister says there was a one-time funding of $250,000, but that's another matter. It does not fall into the issues around the report and, I might add, is not nearly enough to really try and achieve the goals — if the government is, in fact, sincere about trying to achieve the goals.
Hon. C. Hansen: I would just give the member a bit of information I have that may be useful. The provincial health officer estimates that we spend over $100 million a year on programs related to HIV/AIDS prevention and treatment in the province. About $12 million of that is for contracted community-based HIV/AIDS services, including AIDS organizations, consumer groups and needle-exchange supplies.
I know the aspect that the member is referring to is the actual community-based organizations like BCPWA. I know the excellent work they do. That is an important dimension of it, and clearly, as we can find resources for additional spending in the health area in the years to come, certainly that aspect of community-based services and community-based education programs would have to be one of the priorities we try to cope with in the future.
I wish I could say to the member that we had a whole bunch more money that we could pour into it in addition to the $12 million that's already going into those community-based programs, but we're certainly anxious to make sure those are maintained and that we try to get the best value we can for those dollars that are available.
J. Kwan: Maybe I can offer this for the minister. Perhaps the minister will agree to meet with BCPWA to talk about their concern with respect to resources in this matter and perhaps work with them to try and see how government can develop a strategy, a long-term plan, in coming up with the resources — I know there have been many long-term plans on this issue over time — to work with them to see how a strategy could be developed in terms of resourcing the recommendations in the document the government had put forward — priorities to achieve that goal. Perhaps that might be a starting point to get towards addressing HIV/AIDS.
I think in the minimum, for the government to show that they're sincere, you can't put out a bunch of recommendations and say: "Oh well, oops, we don't have the money to fund it, and so status quo." The document actually asks for additional…. Well, no, the document does not ask for additional resources, but it asks for additional actions. Without resources, those actions obviously cannot materialize.
Hon. C. Hansen: This is a file I've had just for the last six weeks now. To the best of my knowledge, BCPWA has not requested a meeting, but I would certainly be prepared to meet with them. I have met with them in the past, as has my colleague the former Minister of Health Planning. The short answer is yes, I would be pleased to meet with them.
When we start talking about resources, I think we also have to look at where the opportunities may be. I think the fact that the Canadian strategy, the funding that comes from the federal government, is up for renewal is one of those opportunities. We've certainly been trying to work with Health Canada with regard to the renewal of that HIV/AIDS strategy, and it's something that we will continue to do to see if the federal government is able to put more resources specifically into this area as well.
J. Kwan: They didn't ask for a meeting. However, they wrote to the former Minister of Health Planning, as I did, and to be frank, the response I got back is certainly less than satisfactory in terms of the concerns that were raised. As well, to just conclude this discussion, here is what I want to put on record from BCPWA
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— hence, I think, the importance of actually doing something about this on the resource side. It reads in the concluding paragraph:
In a nutshell, the provincial Health ministries must act. It is not enough for them to adopt priorities and pledge implementation. Those ministries must, as well, produce the substantial additional funds essential to do that implementation. To do otherwise would be to expose the pledge embodied in the document's adoption as a contemptible deception. Indeed, in the absence of substantial new funding from the provincial Health ministries directed to fight against HIV/AIDS, the status quo itself may collapse.
I certainly can appreciate their concern in this area as dedicated people trying to fight against HIV/AIDS.
Let me move, then, to another area with the minister relating to Bill 92. The minister will recall that when the bill, Medicare Protection Amendment Act, 2003, was tabled, the minister stated:
"The changes will help protect patients' access to publicly funded health care by providing greater clarity to patients, physicians and private clinic operators about charges that are not permissible under the Medicare Protection Act, as well as auditing procedures and penalties for violations. These changes will clarify when it is inappropriate to bill patients or unauthorized third parties, such as friends or relatives, for medically necessary medical procedures, including diagnostic services."
These are the minister's own words during second reading debate.
As we know, the Premier now says this bill will never be enacted, yet the bill was introduced by the minister, and the minister was certain in his statements that the bill would be enacted. Now we have a flip-flop from the government on this issue, so I just want to canvass this a little bit with the minister. After the bill was introduced, we read in the paper that the minister had played down the significance of the bill and that the minister had stated the changes we're making today are not a policy shift by the government but that the bill contained only relatively minor changes aimed at protecting patients from inadvertent billing errors.
The text of the bill, of course, told a different story. The bill limited patients' choice by banning the common practice whereby people obtain care at private clinics by having friends, relatives or others pay. Plus, it threatened the clinics themselves with fines of up to $20,000 and intrusive auditing procedures. The government had formerly supported the private clinics, and I think that in this situation, the minister really dug himself into a hole with the government's direction. The Premier then came forward and effectively yanked the bill. I would like the minister's comment on this flip-flop, please.
Hon. C. Hansen: First of all, just to correct something the member said. What the Premier said is that this bill would not be proclaimed until we were able to get clarity around interpretations of the Canada Health Act. Just to back up a little bit on this, we brought in this legislation because the provinces have the responsibility to essentially provide the policing function for the Canada Health Act.
The Canada Health Act is federal legislation, and it should be the responsibility of the federal government to determine what is or is not a contravention of that act. In reality, there has been very little direction from Ottawa around what is or is not considered medically necessary, which is one of the terms used in the Canada Health Act that is not defined. There are two terms that are key, which are in the Canada Health Act and not defined. One is "medically necessary," and the other is "medically required" — both of which appear in the act.
We brought in Bill 92, and as the member indicated, I did not think it was a substantive change in terms of what was being proposed. What came back after we had brought the legislation in and put it through the House was feedback from some of the doctors involved. They said that until governments, federal in particular, can tell them what the definition is around what is medically necessary or medically required, it makes them extremely vulnerable. With the changes proposed in Bill 92, what we were saying to them was that if they undertook a procedure that was considered to be a violation of the Canada Health Act, then they would be almost guilty until proven innocent in that they would be subject to very large fines potentially.
Their argument to us was that we needed to give them some certainty around what was appropriate and what wasn't appropriate. We agreed that we would not proclaim that until such time as the federal government was able to provide them with those definitions and that reassurance.
J. Kwan: This is interesting, because what the minister just said is different from what the Premier has said on record. Here's a direct quote from the Premier: "It has not been proclaimed, and it is not our intention to proclaim it." That's what the Premier has said. It was said on tape on BCTV news — on Global.
There were no caveats associated with what the Premier has said. Now the minister has just added caveats to that. It's another flip in the flopping that is going on with this issue of Bill 92, I might add.
The Premier actually then went on to say, "I think it may well turn out that we don't need it at all," which leads one to consider or think that, by implication, what the Premier is saying is that the whole bill is going to be scrapped altogether. What the Premier said is — a direct quote from the Premier: "It has not been proclaimed, and it is not our intention to proclaim it" — period. From the Premier.
What the minister has said in this House is that they would not proclaim it until they get clarification from the federal government on the Canada Health Act. That is substantively different from what the Premier has said. I would want to note that if it's the case.
Presumably, aside from the changing stories here, when the minister tables the bill and debates the matter in the House, the minister actually should know what
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the ramifications are and the issues related to the federal government and to the Canada Health Act.
In fact, I think the minister did know what those ramifications were, because according to a news report dated January 15, 2004…. The article was "Liberals Look Bad as Premier Forced to Fix Clinic Foul-up." It was an article by Vaughn Palmer. The minister is cited. "The Health minister dug himself in deeper in support of the bill. He pushed it through the House in early December and told reporters enforcement would begin early in the new year."
When he introduced the bill, the minister knew then what the ramifications are on the federal side and what the issues are. One has to assume that he has to know, given his responsibility as the minister. Even then, he introduced the bill, and he said it would be enforced beginning early in the new year.
Is there new information on the federal side that the minister was not aware of when he introduced this bill and passed it in this House?
[H. Long in the chair.]
Hon. C. Hansen: As I mentioned earlier, I did see this particular piece of legislation as a relatively minor change. As the member knows, there are protocols involving legislation and who can see the legislation before it is tabled in the House. In respecting the privileges of the House, no, I did not go out with the legislation and show it to those that may be directly affected by it.
As a result, when the legislation was finally brought in, it was the first time a lot of the doctors affected had the opportunity to see it. It was only after that that they were able to point out some of the ramifications of it that I was not aware of at the time the legislation was introduced. We've been trying to work with the physicians to make sure we can get clarity on the issues around the Canada Health Act. In the meantime, as the Premier indicated, we are not proclaiming this piece of legislation. We're not bringing it into force in the meantime.
J. Kwan: The minister had just said earlier that they would not bring the bill into force until they have clarification from the government on the federal side. The Premier has said they would not proclaim the bill and it is not the intention of this government to proclaim the bill — period. That's what the Premier said — nothing about clarification on the federal government side.
It's interesting how strong this lobby is from the private clinics, because what Bill 92 does, effectively, is that…. It was an attempt to prevent queue-jumping, as required by the Canada Health Act. The bill would actually empower patients to request an audit of private clinics that they believe have inappropriately billed them for needed medical services. That to me, especially with respect to that aspect of the bill, has nothing to do with the Canada Health Act — in terms of asking for an audit by members of the public. The government is backing down because of the fierce campaign that was launched shortly after the bill was introduced. I think the bill really, basically, lived for three weeks before the Premier said publicly, on record, that the bill would not be proclaimed and that it is not the intention of the government to proclaim the bill. So that's another flip-flop.
Let me ask the minister this question. He says that until the Canada Health Act is further clarified…. When does the minister expect the Canada Health Act to be clarified?
Hon. C. Hansen: That time line is not up to me. As the member knows, the Premiers and first ministers have had conversations about the future of health care with the federal government, and it is my hope that that will lead to some feedback on those subjects. But I'm not aware of a particular time line that I can expect in terms of feedback from the federal government in this area.
J. Kwan: Has the minister written to the federal government for their feedback on Bill 92 now that it is tabled — it's public information — and asked whether or not it contravenes the Canada Health Act?
Hon. C. Hansen: That's not the question that is before us. It's not a question as to whether Bill 92 contravenes the Canada Health Act or not. The question is around the definitions that are associated with the Canada Health Act itself, which is federal legislation. This is a matter that has been part of discussions involving Premiers and first ministers.
J. Kwan: Sorry, my apologies. I actually didn't mean whether or not Bill 92 contravenes the Canada Health Act. Bill 92 is trying to prevent situations that are occurring in British Columbia that may contravene the Canada Health Act. My apologies. I misstated that myself. I'm interested in whether or not…. The minister says he is awaiting Ottawa to take action on this issue. Has the minister written to the federal government asking them to take action on this issue so that we can, in fact, enact Bill 92?
Hon. C. Hansen: The short answer to the member's question is no, I have not. As I mentioned earlier, this has been a topic of discussions between Premiers and first ministers.
J. Kwan: Well, then the minister's statement about awaiting the federal government's response on the issues around the Canada Health Act rings a bit hollow, I must say. Maybe, after all is said and done, it is the intention of this minister to hope that there will never be clarification from the federal government so that the Premier's promise of never proclaiming this and the Premier's intention of not proclaiming it would be upheld and so the minister can say: "Oh well, we're waiting for a response from the federal government." The
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minister is not asking the federal government for a response with respect to this issue, so effectively, I think it's fair enough to say Bill 92 is dead. It may as well be dead, because I don't foresee it being enforced anytime soon, and neither does the minister. From the way it sounds, neither does the minister care. He's not really pursuing it with the federal government for that clarification that he claims is needed.
Let me move on to another area here with the minister: nurse shortages. I know the minister has actually done some good work around this, but there are still some issues associated. Let me just put some facts on the table to share with the minister. The information I have indicates that there's a deficiency in nurses not just in British Columbia but in the country.
There are issues particularly with respect to British Columbia — that is, only about 40 percent of registered nurses have regular full-time jobs. In spite of that shortage, I should note that only 40 percent of registered nurses have regular full-time jobs. That figure is actually down from 52 percent in 1997. Almost 2,500 casual nurses are working at three or more different work sites in B.C. today. I think this is an issue.
Actually, when I was in the hospital delivering my daughter, I spoke with some of the nurses there, and they actually told me…. I went through three shifts of doctors and nurses when I was in labour, and two of the nurses told me, to my recollection, that they're not full-time. In fact, they're working at multiple sites in order to get a full income, basically. Yet we have a major shortage situation in terms of nurses. I wonder, first of all, if I could ask the minister to respond to that situation.
Hon. C. Hansen: The member may have…. I'm not sure where she's getting her statistics from on this, but in 2002, 51.8 percent of registered nurses worked in full-time positions, 32.1 percent worked in part-time positions, and 16.1 percent were working in casual positions. This compares to 2001 data, where there were 50.7 percent full-time, so we saw an increase of in excess of one percentage point. The part-time was 31.2 percent, so we've seen a slight increase in the number of part-timers. The number of casuals actually dropped from 18.1 percent in 2001 to 16.1 percent in 2002.
J. Kwan: The minister compared 2001 and today. The data I put on record was compared to 1997. Maybe the minister could look back a few years. The data I have actually shows that it's down from 1997. In 2001 there already was a shortage. Yes, as I mentioned, the minister is trying to do some work around this. The comparison I'm using was back in 1997.
Hon. C. Hansen: I don't have data that would go back to 1997 on that specific perspective that the member has, but I do have a comparison that came from the Registered Nurses Association, where they did a survey of nurses graduating from B.C. post-secondary institutions. It compared 1997 and then repeated this in 2001. In 1997 only 38 percent of the graduates were able to find permanent positions. In other words, 62 percent were only able to find casual positions in 1997. By 2001, 78 percent of all the nursing graduates were able to find permanent jobs, and only 22 percent were faced with casual employment at the end of that.
J. Kwan: The information that I have actually is from the Ontario nursing leader. A release was sent out on February 3, 2004. The issue that was raised was that in Ontario the deficiency…. This is across many jurisdictions, but certainly she cites that in British Columbia our key deficiency facing patients today is the deficiency about our nursing situation.
Let me just put on record what the release says:
"Ontario nursing leader to target key deficiency in B.C.'s health system. Veteran of SARS crisis will criticize overreliance on casual nurses working multiple work sites. She wants a dramatic increase in full-time RN employment to improve patient care.
"One of Canada's most outspoken nursing leaders will deliver a warning Wednesday" — that was February 4 — "about one of the key deficiencies facing patients in B.C. It's a deficiency that almost crippled Ontario's ability to deal with last year's SARS crisis and posed serious problems for any future infectious disease outbreak in this province. Doris Grinspun, executive director of the Registered Nurses Association of Ontario, will speak about the growing dependency of the health care system on nurses who work on a casual basis without regular jobs. As a result, many nurses are forced to work at three or four different work sites, a phenomenon that facilitated the spread of SARS in Ontario."
Then it skips on. It gives the address and location where she's speaking, and then it goes on to say:
"She'll be addressing the fact that in B.C. only about 40 percent of nurses have regular full-time jobs. That's down from 52 percent in 1997. Almost 2,500 casual nurses are working at three or more different work sites in B.C. today. Grinspun believes health care managers should work toward a goal of 70 percent full-time employment for RNs."
Then she talks about how that is vital in our health care system.
With that, let me just canvass with the minister some questions around displacements of nurses in the British Columbia system and amongst the hospitals. In the Children's Hospital, in the pediatric clinic, according to the information I have, we have two nurses displaced there. That's a net of 0.6 FTEs. In the Trail home support community their number of nurses….
I can sort of go through the list, but I won't. I'll just skip right through to the total numbers. The number of nurses that are displaced totals 100, and the total number of FTEs is 53.6, with all these different communities — Children's Hospital, Delta Hospital, G.F. Strong, George Derby Centre, Howe Sound Home Support, Langley, North Shore, Queen Alexandra, Royal Jubilee, Simon Fraser community health, Vancouver Hospital, Women's Hospital, etc. Then there's a cumulative total of displacements accounted for since the start of 2002 to date — a total of 909 nurses displaced and 472.18
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FTEs. This is as of January 20, 2004, so it's rather recent information.
It seems to me this level of displacement is concerning, and it is high, relatively speaking, given that we already have a pre-existing challenge. I'd like the minister to comment about the displacement issue.
Hon. C. Hansen: I think it's important to note that we still have nurse vacancies in British Columbia. When we formed government, there were about 1,000 nurse vacancies, difficult-to-fill positions, and we've been able to get that down significantly over this last two and a half years. There are still opportunities for nurses in B.C.
It's interesting to note that studies will show B.C. has been the largest net recipient of nurses from other parts of Canada compared to any other province, so B.C. is certainly an attractive place for nurses to come to practise nursing. It is important to note that the number of full-time nurses in B.C. is up. The total number of hours for nurses in British Columbia is up.
When the member talks about displacement, what that is…. When we have the change in terms of the use of facilities, which is an important part of our whole redesign of health care, we have to abide by the terms of the collective agreement that govern how a nurse can be relocated from one facility to another. Under the terms of the collective agreement, in many cases that means we have to, first of all, lay the nurse off or provide termination notice before we can then rehire them at a new location.
Just tallying up the number of displacements in the system is not an indication of nurses that are not employed. It's simply an indication of the fact that we are redesigning where services can be offered to British Columbians and making sure we have the appropriate number of nurses working in the appropriate facilities. We're doing that within the parameters of the collective agreement.
J. Kwan: The BCNU made a submission to the Select Standing Committee on Health on November 9, 2001, and their recommendations are as follows. I'll just read the headings of each of the recommendations. There are six of them:
"(1) provide the resources required to ensure that British Columbia has enough registered nurses to provide the health care services British Columbians need and deserve;
"(2) provide patients with one-stop shopping for health care through a network of community health centres. Group nurses, doctors, social workers, physiotherapists, etc., under one roof as part of one salaried team, and let the people served by these centres decide how they'll work;
"(3) use registered nurses and nurse practitioners more effectively to advise patients on diet, exercise, health care prevention and treatment of minor illnesses and injuries;
"(4) increase the role of RN nursing supervisors in deciding when patients are ready to be discharged from hospital and what support they need when leaving so that they make a good recovery and do not return to the emergency department;
"(5) appoint an RN to sit on every health authority; and
"(6) ensure overall quality of care by preserving medicare as a public system, rather than lowering standards through increased privatization in long-term care or surgeries."
The document was presented to the Health Committee. I don't believe the NU has actually received any comments from government on their recommendations in this regard. I would like to canvass the minister's comments on their six recommendations.
Hon. C. Hansen: First of all, with regard to training, we have increased the number of training spaces for nurses in British Columbia. Every time I talk about nurse training, I think of a conversation I had with the president of the B.C. Nurses Union; she prefers to use "education." The education programs for nurses in the province increased by in excess of 1,800 additional seats in our universities and colleges.
In terms of the one-stop shopping that she talked about in the second one, we are developing new primary care models, and I think we went through some of those earlier in the estimates process. We are making some progress in that regard.
Using nurses and nurse practitioners more effectively. This is an area where there have been changes that I know not all of the registered nurses in the province like, but I can recall an ad campaign that the BCNU put out several years back talking about nurses doing non-nursing duties. We have actually tried to put more resources to freeing up nurses so that they could not only focus in on nursing duties but that registered nurses could focus in on what was their unique scope of practice. We have also brought in licensed practical nurses to assist with nursing duties that are within the LPN's scope of practice, freeing up the RNs to do activities that are purely in their unique scope.
We've also expanded the nurse practitioner program. There is now a program that just started at UBC and UVic to educate nurse practitioners in B.C. That is a program that is being expanded. I know I've had great feedback from individual nurses who are quite excited about that new program.
With regard to discharge planning, today nurses are very much a part of discharge planning. Certainly, they play a very important role and continue to do so. With regard to a registered nurse on every health authority board, the boards are the governance boards that are there to provide oversight for the activities of the health authority. I think virtually every single health profession has commented to me that they think their particular profession should be represented on those boards. If we followed through on that, we would have unwieldy governance boards.
What is more important, I believe, for nurses in the province is to have a nursing officer in the health authority. Every one of the health authorities now has a
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chief nursing officer. I think that's an important innovation.
Then, with regard to the protection of public medicare, that is a priority for us as a government — to make sure we continue to have and protect a publicly funded health care system. Part of what we are doing around a redesign of the health care system is to make sure that proud public health care system we have is, in fact, sustainable into the long term so that it's not only there for us next year but there ten or 20 years down the road.
J. Kwan: Just to counter the minister's comments on that last point particularly. The government is actually privatizing health care in a big way, and the services within health care are being privatized as we speak. Privatized hospitals are being opened and are under construction, and we just dealt with Bill 92, which would actually halt some of the issues around queue-jumping, that is now forever sitting on a shelf, never to see daylight — certainly according to the Premier's comments. The actions of the government, quite frankly, are contrary to what the Premier is saying, in my view, on that basis.
The other issue I would like to raise with the minister is this. The minister said that the nurses had — I think he said — some sort of ad campaign to the effect that they were saying nurses will not engage in non-nursing duties. There was some sort of ad campaign, I think the minister said. In any event, there was a dispute around that issue. Because the government is privatizing segments of our hospitals, the services within it…. Those, I would say, are a continuum of services within the hospital realm, whether you be a security person, a person who serves and prepares the food or a person who cleans the hospital. There's a continuum of health services. Those health services these other individuals provide, in my view, very much need to remain as part of the public care realm, because there's a continuum of services within the hospital, within an institution.
When we talk about doing nursing duties, what this document refers to is allowing for nurses to take on more responsibilities that would actually alleviate the pressures on doctors, which I think both serves (a) to reduce costs for our health care system and (b) also to utilize the skill set more effectively and efficiently with those who do have the skill set in the health care profession. I think that's what these points, relating to taking on more responsibility in the area of nursing, refer to.
I just want to set that aside. I know there's been much debate on this issue, but I do want to table this because, as far as I understand, the six points that have been raised have not been responded to by anybody from government since the Health Committee has sat.
The last issue I want to canvass with the minister around the nursing situation is around foreign nurses in terms of foreign nurse recruitment. I know there are different points of view out there around this issue, and this is my own personal point of view. I do think that it is important to recruit Canadians to fill the positions required in British Columbia, and I also think there's an opportunity with respect to foreign nurses. It's a forever age-old difficulty, particularly impacting the Filipino nurses and — I should say, actually — live-in care workers, many of whom are nurses with the credential to do the work required of them. But because of various regulations federally, in particular, they are not able to do so. I just wonder: on that front, what work is the minister doing to try to advance this issue actually for both doctors and nurses?
Hon. C. Hansen: I just want to be clear that I'm answering the right question here for the member. If what she's referring to is the requirement that an individual who comes to Canada on a working visa and then wants to change the nature of that working visa, then that's not an issue that affects the provincial government, because it's the federal government that…. I know the Filipino Nurses Support Group has been advocating in that regard, but that's not something that we have authority over. It is, in fact, the federal government that has to address that issue.
We have been very supportive of foreign-trained nurses coming to British Columbia. You know, our first priority is to make sure that we provide education opportunities for our own young British Columbians to get into nursing, because they are truly excellent careers. That's why I'm very proud of the fact that we've been able to expand the number of seats at our post-secondary institutions.
We also recognize that we do have an ongoing challenge in terms of the nursing shortage, and we do look to internationally trained nurses to help fill that gap there. Since March of 2001, there have been 158 internationally educated RNs and RPNs that have been nominated under the provincial nominee program we have in place. In 2001-02 there were 189 internationally educated nurses who received support from the Return to Nursing fund. About half of those were educated in the Philippines. In 2002-03 there were 92 internationally educated nurses who received support from the Return to Nursing fund, and 24 of those had been educated in the Philippines. In 2003-04 — this year that we're in now, which obviously still hasn't ended — we are projecting that 70 internationally educated nurses would be funded from that fund, 27 of which were educated in the Philippines. That's as of January 2004.
J. Kwan: I may add this. Yes, the live-in care workers' situation is very much a federal government jurisdiction issue. However, I also think that the provincial government can play a role to facilitate in assisting it by requesting and advocating with the federal government for immigration policy changes. If we're recruiting overseas for nurses from the Philippines or elsewhere — and we do need to…. I absolutely agree that we need to make use and maximize the talents from our own communities, from British Columbia and Canada. I agree with that, but on the flip side of that, in
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light of the shortage and in trying to address the health care needs of our communities, from time to time we do need to look elsewhere. So given that we are recruiting from overseas, it would make a lot of sense that those who are live-in care workers, who are already here, who have the skill set could actually be facilitated to become nurses and provide those services.
I understand that it's not a provincial government decision, but I do think that the provincial government can have a role to play in advocating for change with the federal government. That certainly was the role that we played when we were in government, and I was a very strong advocate for change in that area. I know that we couldn't change the immigration policy laws — it does rest with the federal government — so I'm asking the minister to commit to be an advocate with the federal government on that front with the live-in care workers.
Hon. C. Hansen: Certainly, we have advocated with the federal government with regard to flexibility around the provincial nominee program, which we've had some success at in recent years, using that vehicle to facilitate more foreign-trained nurses. Also, when it comes to an individual who is a landed immigrant in Canada, we can help them. We can provide them with support to get education upgrades, to get their licensing, so they can become part of the nursing workforce in B.C.
Where we do have some difficulties is around recruiting health care professionals from Second and Third World countries. There is a growing international concern about the countries recruiting from those countries when those countries themselves have a shortage of health care professionals, and that's a subject that has been discussed by health ministers nationally at the FPT discussions. We do have some tools that can help facilitate foreign-trained nurses, but we have to be careful not to be recruiting nurses away from countries that are also experiencing shortages themselves.
J. Kwan: Agreed, and I'm not disputing that point with the minister. The point I want to raise with the minister is this. With the domestic care workers, particularly from the Philippines, which we are recruiting from, many of them are here on the basis that they are to be care workers in the home of somebody — to be nannies, to be frank. Many of them have qualifications to be nurses in their hometowns, but they are not able to practise there for whatever reason, or they're looking for other economic opportunities to improve their lives and the lives of their families.
When they are here on the live-in care worker visa approval from the federal government, they're not able to do anything else. They can work only as nannies, essentially. What I'm suggesting is for the minister to advocate with the federal government to change that policy to allow access for live-in care workers into the health care profession as nurses. They're here already.
If we're recruiting from the Philippines or elsewhere, for that matter, we're recruiting from outside and still looking; yet we have individuals from those countries who are already here with those skill sets. We can actually truncate the process in some ways by taking advantage of the individuals who are already here and who actually desire to move into the health care profession with the skill sets they have from their previous training. That's all I'm asking.
Hon. C. Hansen: The thing that's important to note in this discussion is that these workers are coming on temporary visas. They would be in Canada on a temporary work visa so that they could provide a specific service, for which they have been granted a visa by the federal government to work in Canada for a specific period of time. Then they would return to their home country, where presumably they would resume their professions perhaps as nurses or other caregivers in their home countries.
Again, it sort of falls back into that issue: to what extent is it appropriate for a country like Canada to be trying to recruit health care professionals from countries that may need those health care professionals themselves?
I certainly empathize with those individuals that would like to advance their economic situation and would like to become landed immigrants in Canada, but I think the federal government, first of all, has responsibility for that process. They do have a process that would not preclude anyone who is a caregiver in Canada on a temporary work visa from then applying to come to Canada at a later date to become a nurse in Canada. I think there is a process they can follow. I think we have to be sensitive to some of the international issues in this area as well.
J. Kwan: The point I'd like to make with the minister is this. These individuals have left their country already, and they are here. Because of a lack of opportunities for them to improve their lives and those of their families, they have left their home country to do work that does not meet their skill set. Their skill set, in fact, is far superior to that of the work they are now doing.
Under the conditions they are required to accept for the working visa, as domestic live-in workers they are not allowed to look for other opportunities in terms of employment, which is hugely restrictive for them in trying to secure better opportunities.
It's true that it does not preclude them from applying at a later date for landed status. However, the point I'm making is that they are here already, and they desire to actually engage in their profession, but they are not able to do so because of the parameters of the federal government.
Oftentimes the other reality is this. Even if the government does allow them to look for work elsewhere, the employer, of course, would not allow them. Therefore, in fact, a lot of the domestic workers are living in
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a situation where they experience a lot of stress and in some instances abuse. They have nowhere to turn.
My hope is that the minister considers advocating for change from the federal government's side with this group of people so that we can maximize the skill set that is already here in British Columbia and also, in that process, assist those individuals in creating better lives for themselves.
I recognize that this debate here may not allow for the full level of information to be exchanged around the live-in care worker program — the ramifications on the federal government side — and around what role I think the provincial government can play as an advocate on this front. I fully recognize this.
What I think I'll offer is this. I actually have a whole stack of files of information on this issue in my constituency office that I didn't bring with me for debate today. I would like to send this information to the minister for him to peruse at his leisure so that he can understand fully what I'm talking about and, hopefully, respond at a later date to me with confirmation that he would be able to play an advocacy role in this area.
On that basis, Mr. Chair, I'll move on to another area with the Health minister. Let me talk with the minister about water quality and health. The drinking water issues fall, I believe, in the Health ministry because the health officers are very involved in this.
There's a particular case I want to bring to the minister's attention. I'd like to canvass the minister about this. This is a letter from the Anglemont Ratepayers Association. They wrote to the chief medical health officer on September 20, 2003. I won't read the entire document, because it's quite lengthy. I'll just read some of highlighted parts of it.
"Our community of Anglemont is situated on the north shore of Shuswap Lake, 50 kilometres from the village of Chase. Anglemont's water supply is from Hudson Creek. Mr. Terry Speed owns and operates Anglemont Utilities Ltd. Water is provided to 333 families and 33 commercial establishments in Anglemont.
"On August 1, 2003, Rob Fleming," — not the councillor from Victoria but the drinking water officer Rob Fleming — "interior health authority from Kamloops, gave Mr. Speed a boil-water order" — which he has enclosed in this documentation. "Mr. Speed did not post the order or comply with any instructions in the order, such as immediately notifying all users of the water system. The boil-water order was never posted by Mr. Speed but was, in fact, posted by Rob Fleming, interior health, on August 29, 2003 — some 28 days later.
"On September 15, Anglemont Ratepayers Association received drinking-water bacteriological reports from interior health, covering July 1, 2003, to September 2003. The tests were performed in homes at four locations in Anglemont. Our residents were shocked to find that they had been drinking contaminated water with counts, in one case, as high as 130 total coliform and seven fecal coliform for the 28 days during which the boil-water was not posted by Mr. Speed."
It goes on to talk about that situation. Then skipping over, it states:
"Bearing in mind the outcome of the Walkerton and North Battleford tragedies, a slap on the wrist for Mr. Speed is not appropriate. A 'he's doing the best with what he has,' or a talking-to and, certainly, a promise to do better is not enough. Not issuing a boil-water order is a serious offence. Mr. Speed has put 333 Anglemont families at risk."
Then it skips over to ask the chief medical officer of British Columbia to "advise the powers that be of the severity of our situation so that they will carry out the consequences to Mr. Speed for not following the boil-water order as clearly set out in the British Columbia clean Water Protection Act before we end up in the Walkerton-type situation. A prompt reply is expected."
I'm asking the powers that be to look into this situation. Perhaps the minister can advise what kind of penalties would apply for a situation like this, where a boil-water order was issued, was not posted and, potentially, people's health was put at risk.
Hon. C. Hansen: I won't pretend I remember all of the details at this point, but I remember I was extremely troubled by this particular case, because clearly the actions of the purveyor were totally inappropriate. I believe he was not following through on his responsibilities. What it led to, as we reviewed…. I guess the first thing we did was as soon as we found out this notice had not been properly posted and the residents had not been advised, we immediately took action to make sure that not only was it posted but that every resident was, in fact, appropriately notified.
What that also led to was a review of what actions had been taken and what should be taken. That led to a directive I issued that every water officer in the province had to make sure that not only were purveyors advised of the need for boil-water advisories but that, in fact, they had to do appropriate follow-up to make sure those instructions had been followed through on, so something like this would not happen again.
Hon. C. Hansen: Actually, I can…. I'll read a short note here from the briefing document.
"There were subsequent meetings with Mr. Speed with regard to complying with the Drinking Water Protection Act and the repercussions of not doing so. He has also placed terms and conditions on the operating permit for the Anglemont utility to clearly outline expectations and has implemented an enhanced water-monitoring audit process to validate the Anglemont utility monitoring program.
"Testing requirements have been enhanced, with the number of bacteriological sampling sites increased and testing occurring weekly. In addition, chlorination levels are checked daily."
Then on Friday, October 10 the provincial medical health officer issued a directive to area medical health officers, ordering them to follow through on drinking water advisories. That directive had gone out from the provincial medical health officer. That was an example of a situation that potentially could have been quite
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serious, and we have taken the actions to make sure that a similar incident could not happen again.
Also, the member asked specifically about penalties. Penalties under the Drinking Water Protection Act are, in the case of an offence that is not a continuing offence, a fine of not more than $200,000 or imprisonment of not longer than 12 months, or both. In the case of a continuing offence, it's a fine of not more than $200,000 for each day the offence is continued or imprisonment for not longer than 12 months, or both.
In the act itself there are certainly some very tough penalties. In this case, I think we were able to make sure that the problem was addressed and that it would not be repeated. Certainly, we do have the teeth in the act to follow up, should any other case occur that would not be resolved otherwise.
J. Kwan: Just a quick question with this. The follow-up now required by the area health officers or inspectors — what is the turnaround in terms of the follow-up? There was follow-up in this instance, albeit 28 days later. What is the expectation now? Is there some policy in place that says the follow-up should be within — I don't know — whatever time period?
[J. Weisbeck in the chair.]
Hon. C. Hansen: This particular case that happened at Anglemont was in the height of the wildfires we had in the interior. The health inspectors and the water protection officers were extremely stretched at that point, but that is not an excuse. Even under the most difficult of unforeseen situations in the province, we still have to make sure that drinking water is safe and protected, and that's the reason for the directive.
The directive states that not only do they have to notify their purveyor, but they have to follow up to make sure the notices were, in fact, posted. That has to happen within a matter of hours or the following day. It certainly is not something that can be left for a number of days or weeks.
J. Kwan: Still on the water issue but from another source. This is from the UVic biologists community. The article is long, and again I'll just pick out some highlighted areas. It cites a recently released report from the Sierra Legal Defence Fund calling on the provincial government to adopt vigorous water protection measures. It indicates that in British Columbia we have a bigger problem than any other province. "While there aren't problems with our water quality in the capital region, it's a different story in many smaller communities across British Columbia." I think we just cited one example. "Instead of establishing a second barrier and ensuring watersheds in small towns are properly managed, the issue has been raised that the government is actually more interested in intensifying disinfection treatments for water."
The article goes on to talk about how the Ministry of Health Planning has sent out a press release indicating that the province is in the process of hiring more inspectors to ensure that water throughout the province is safe to drink.
A couple of questions arising from that. What's happening with respect to the inspectors situation in terms of increasing the number of inspectors to ensure that the water in British Columbia is safe to drink? How many inspectors do we have now, and by how many has that increased from previously?
The second question is with respect to the notion of intensifying disinfection treatment for water. Is it the policy of government to deal with unsafe drinking water, or are there some other measures?
Hon. C. Hansen: What we did last year was allocate $2 million per year of funding to the health authorities that was specifically dedicated for the hiring of drinking water officers and making sure these positions were filled. I don't have the exact number, but: "$2 million per year allocated to health regions to create new positions to fill the job of drinking water officers. Most positions now filled. Hiring underway for remaining positions. Hiring taking place in the overall context of reorganization of public health programs associated with amalgamation and streamlining of health authorities."
This is one of these areas where one-size-fits-all doesn't work. Clearly, the challenges for a drinking water officer in the Vancouver coastal health authority will be quite different from a drinking water officer in the interior health authority. We have not tried to impose on the health authorities one particular model, but they do have to have designated drinking water officers in place, and in some cases that can also be an environmental health officer or the medical health officer if that's appropriate. Those positions are being put in place.
The second question the member asked was around disinfection. I remember that particular article that was in the paper. As I read through it, I felt that a lot of their information was out of date, that the new drinking water action plan that we put in place and the Drinking Water Protection Act in fact addressed many of the concerns that were raised.
We are not, for example, relying on disinfection as the primary means of protecting drinking water. We are putting in place what they refer to as the multi-barrier approach, which means, first of all, that we want to make sure watersheds are protected. We want to make sure distribution systems are safe. I'm trying to think of what all the elements of it are now.
Ultimately, we also want to make sure water is properly treated at the tap. We are looking right from the source to the tap and making sure that we have appropriate measures in place throughout that whole system to make sure that drinking water is safe. Disinfection is only one of those elements.
J. Kwan: I noted that the minister gave the dollars for the area in terms of increasing inspectors to ensure
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that there's safe drinking water, but he didn't give the number of inspectors that have increased. Maybe the minister doesn't have that information, and that's okay if he doesn't. He can send it along later on so that we can respond to the people who raised the matter with us so that they know what the status is.
If the minister is agreeable to that, I'll move on to the next issue with the minister on the questions around the privatization of the MSP plan. The government plans to turn over the MSP to either IBM or Maximum, both American multinational corporations, by the end of August. There have been issues raised around this privatization and particularly the issue around privacy.
Accordingly, there's an issue around the notion that the information contained under the USA Patriot Act could be used in violation, in my view, of privacy for Canadians — and British Columbians more particularly. This includes information in terms of health treatment, pharmacy, income tax, mental health and criminal records, as well as records from the Ministries of Children and Family Development and of Human Resources.
I wonder: what is the situation with respect to this? The minister was on record to say that one need not worry about this. The Premier was in the media saying that one need not worry about this. However, the privacy commissioner is concerned enough that, I think, he's going to look into this matter. I certainly hope that our personal information through this privatization scheme would not be released and utilized under the USA Patriot Act.
Hon. C. Hansen: I share that concern with the member. We will put privacy as a top priority as we go through this process. When we put together the proposal documents that we went out with, we did vet those with the privacy commissioner at the time, and he had some very constructive suggestions that we incorporated at that time.
We are now getting legal advice from the Attorney General's ministry with regard to the implications of the Patriot Act, and I know that the privacy commissioner has also indicated that he's trying to get more information in that regard as well — as is, I gather, the federal privacy commissioner, which I've heard only from media reports. We certainly want to take that advice, when we get it, around how we can make sure that privacy is not compromised in any way.
We are proceeding with the expectation that that legal advice will allow us to design the business relationship with this private sector partner and the contracts that will flow between government and that private sector partner in a way that will make sure that privacy is not compromised as a result of this new arrangement.
J. Kwan: In the event that legal counsel comes back to advise that there may be issues, or if the privacy commissioner is not satisfied with whatever provision that could be in place to protect British Columbians on the matter of privacy, would the minister agree that he would halt this plan and actually not proceed with it?
Hon. C. Hansen: Well, as I say, privacy is a top priority, and we will not compromise on the privacy of individual health records of individual British Columbians. As I say, my expectation is that the legal advice will help us to design that business arrangement and that contractual arrangement.
I think it's also important to note that this obviously has some implications for our MSP partnership arrangement that we're developing, but it has huge implications for all aspects of government and their relationship with companies that are suppliers, consultants or, basically, assist government. That's not just a B.C. issue; it's right across Canada. I think the publicity around the Patriot Act in the last little while has encouraged many governments to look at these issues in a broad sense. We are one of the players, obviously, from health, but my job is to make sure that patient confidentiality is protected and that it will not be compromised.
J. Kwan: I take it from the minister's answer that if legal counsel comes back to indicate that patients' personal privacy would be compromised, then the government would not proceed with this plan. The minister's explicit statement is that he will ensure that personal information relating to patients in British Columbia would not be compromised in any way, shape or form, so I would just assume this. I see the minister nodding, so he's confirming that.
I would also ask the minister if he would commit on record, then, to make the information he receives from legal counsel public, so that British Columbians can judge for themselves as to the level of security and satisfaction that their privacy would not be compromised and, with the feedback he receives from the privacy commissioner, that he would make that information public, as well, so that British Columbians can judge for themselves that they have full protection there.
Hon. C. Hansen: That is work that would be done by the Attorney General's ministry, and I would certainly take guidance from them in that issue. I should also note that when this issue was raised — and I believe it was by the BCGEU — they indicated they had a legal opinion of theirs. I would also note they have not made that public. It would be helpful to all the organizations that are looking at this issue, I think, if they were able to share that legal opinion with the public and with the privacy commissioner. I'm sure the privacy commissioner, in particular, would find that legal advice quite helpful on this file.
J. Kwan: Although I can't speak for BCGEU, let me just read a statement released from them, which states: "'The expert opinion will provide,' the court says, 'that this means the FBI could have access to the MSP re-
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cords under the so-called U.S. Patriot Act, and that this information includes…." From the way it sounds, because they're going to present the matter in court, it certainly sounds like they're going to make the information public.
We will canvass this question further with the Attorney General, Mr. Chair, given that he is also active on this file. Let me move on to some other areas. I'm also conscious of time, so let me just move ahead here.
I just got a note from my colleague the member for Vancouver-Hastings, who is in the small House canvassing questions with the Minister of Agriculture, Food and Fisheries. These questions were asked of him. However, the minister has referred them to the Health minister and says they're under his purview. Let me ask the Health minister these questions.
Can the minister please advise how these products…? Sorry, I just got this note, and I just need to…. Okay, let me ask this second question. I have to read through it more carefully to find out what "these products" refer to, seeing as I'm not following the debate on the other side. Let me ask the second question.
Can the minister tell us how often provincial inspectors would visit a farm where animals are slaughtered and how they assure customers of proper care in sanitation?
Hon. C. Hansen: The structure in place currently is that any meat products shipped outside of the province must be inspected under a federal meat inspection program. The CFIA, the Canadian Food Inspection Agency, has inspectors who will then oversee the slaughter of animals in those slaughterhouses. In the case of meat products that are marketed into…. This is based on local government getting decision-making powers here to determine whether or not meat can be sold in those areas and whether or not it must be inspected provincially.
In the case of the lower mainland or greater Vancouver, lower Vancouver Island — and I think there are two other communities that have opted into this program; that's Vernon and Dawson Creek, if my memory serves me right — in those communities you can only market meat commercially if it has been inspected under the provincial auspices. What we do, as a province, is contract with the Canadian Food Inspection Agency for the federal inspectors to provide that oversight for the slaughter of animals that would be marketed into those jurisdictions.
The challenge we have is that in the rest of the province there is not a requirement that there be an inspector present when animals are being slaughtered. As a result of the changes we made to our Meat Inspection Act, we want to bring in a standardized regime for the whole province. Particularly in the aftermath of the BSE challenges, I think we have an obligation to make sure our food is safe. That is exactly what we are moving to put in place.
We now have draft regulations that have been circulated among the agriculture community in the province. There's been a lot of feedback. I know I have received literally hundreds of e-mails on this subject. I've tried to emphasize to people I've talked to that this is simply draft, and yes, we want to get input and feedback. We have to balance the issues of food safety with the issues of flexibility to allow some of the small agriculture producers and small farms to be economically viable. That is the dynamic taking place now. I know that officials from my ministry have gone out and had meetings in various communities that have expressed concerns to get their feedback and their suggestions. Now we're trying to incorporate as many of those suggestions as we can into the regulations, which are still being developed.
J. Kwan: How often do provincial inspectors go and visit farms where animals are slaughtered?
Hon. C. Hansen: In terms of those parts of B.C. that require meat to be inspected before it can be marketed in those communities, when that meat is slaughtered, an inspector has to be there on site while the slaughter is taking place.
J. Kwan: How many inspectors are there in British Columbia to do this work?
Hon. C. Hansen: We don't actually employ meat inspectors provincially. What we do is contract with the Canadian Food Inspection Agency, and it is those inspectors, who are working under the auspices of the federal government, that we use for inspection when animals are being slaughtered under the provincial regime. I don't have a number with me as to how many federal meat inspection officers there are in B.C., but it's in the dozens.
J. Kwan: I would appreciate if the minister can get the number for us in this House in terms of how many inspectors there are. I'm interested to know if there are more inspectors now in the field than in the past or fewer inspectors, in light of the most recent events in terms of concerns about our food products.
Hon. C. Hansen: There certainly has not been any reduction in the number of meat inspectors that we are aware of. It's driven by the number of animals that are being slaughtered in the slaughterhouses. As we move towards the new regulations that will require meat inspection for the whole province, there will obviously be a greater demand for meat inspectors and the number of hours they would have to be on the job to do that. Part of the whole review process is looking at who is able to become a meat inspector in that case and what the credentialing should be. Those are all issues that are part of the review that's underway now.
J. Kwan: The minister says every time an animal is slaughtered, someone has to be there. An inspector has to be there on site with that. Given that that's the case,
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how could it be that…? Based on the advisory bulletin that was sent out by the provincial health officer issuing an alert for people with frozen pork meat products from the Port Coquitlam farm of Robert Pickton to turn these products in to the police…. Presumably, if an inspector is on site, there could be no possibility for the food product to be contaminated and for…. God, this is really quite gross. Potentially, human remains could have gotten into the product itself. If that's the case and there's an inspector at every slaughtering of animals at the farms, then why is there a need for this release?
Hon. C. Hansen: I think the subject area the member has just brought up is before the courts. I'm sure she appreciates the sensitivities around this. I think the information that would be provided really has to come through the police. I know our provincial health officer is working with them.
J. Kwan: No, actually, this really doesn't have to do with a court case insofar as that. Here's the provincial health officer's release. Let me just read it into the record — issued March 10, 2004, today:
"Following new information from the RCMP, B.C. provincial health officer Dr. Perry Kendall is calling on anyone who may still possess frozen pork meat products from the Port Coquitlam farm of Robert Pickton to return those products to police.
"Dr. Kendall says the RCMP approached the B.C. Centre for Disease Control to inquire about potential health risks for individuals who may have consumed pork meat processed or slaughtered at the farm, given the conditions they discovered at the site.
"On Friday, March 5 the provincial health officer, in close cooperation with the BCCDC and senior officials at Health Canada and the Canadian Food Inspection Agency, launched a formal assessment of the risk to any individuals who have been exposed to food-borne or other illness through the consumption of the products.
"While a more detailed risk assessment continues, health officials have stressed there is no evidence of any disease transmission related to products from the farm. BCCDC officials have added the risk to human health for those who have consumed the products is extremely remote, based on the fact that most pork products are typically well cooked, which is known to effectively destroy most infectious agents. However, Dr. Kendall says under the circumstances he has an obligation to the public under the Health Act to ensure that those products are not consumed.
"The RCMP have evidence that some products were handed out by Mr. Pickton to friends and acquaintances in and around the lower mainland prior to his arrest in February 2002. The alert is focused on those individuals.
"Anyone who may still have frozen products from the Pickton farm is asked to contact the missing women's task force at 1-877-687-3377. Those individuals who may have consumed products in the past and who have health questions or concerns are urged to contact either their family physician or the B.C. NurseLine at 1-866-215-4000.
"Dr. Kendall will be available to talk to the media at 4:30 today at the press gallery."
The issue here that I'm asking about is the food safety; it's not about the investigation. If there's an inspector on site where an animal is being slaughtered, then I would assume that contamination would be prevented and that the inspector would have noted if there were issues. It would have attracted the inspector's attention. Contamination would have been detected and prevented.
How could it be, if that's the case — if an inspector is at every site when an animal is slaughtered — that potentially there's a risk of contamination for which the provincial health officer has to issue an alert to ask people with frozen pork products from this farm to return the materials to the police?
Hon. C. Hansen: I can only say that Dr. Kendall's statement that the member read speaks for itself.
J. Kwan: I'm sorry. Maybe I'm missing something here. Is it the case, then, that the slaughtering of an animal was unauthorized? How could it be, if the inspector is on site and is required to be on site when the slaughter of an animal for commercial purposes is done, that there are risks of contamination? I'm sorry; I'm not following.
Hon. C. Hansen: Mr. Chair, this is a matter that is the subject of a very complex police investigation. I think Dr. Kendall's statement, his information bulletin, speaks for itself. I am not able to add anything more.
J. Kwan: I have some difficulties with the minister's answer, for I do not believe that my question impacts the investigation. The minister is saying that it does. Maybe the minister can advise me how.
I'm talking about food safety here; I'm not talking about anything else. The minister previously gave information about inspectors on site where an animal is slaughtered, and the frequency of inspectors on these farms is as frequently as required when animals are slaughtered. And by understanding that procedure, consumer protection and proper care and sanitation, and so on, are taken care of. One assumes that. That's why inspectors are there. If that's the situation, then how could it be that the medical health officer deems it necessary to issue an alert with regard to frozen pork meat products from this farm?
Mr. Chair, the minister is saying he won't answer any more questions in that regard. Then it actually raises concerns with respect to the confidence the minister had put on record about the inspectors being on site and ensuring that the food product is safe and sanitary for consumption. It puts that entire premise into question, for inspection. Would the minister not agree with that?
Hon. C. Hansen: Dr. Perry Kendall, who is our provincial health officer, is an outstanding public servant. He is very carefully independent. I think he is
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driven by only one interest, and that's making sure he puts the public interest first and foremost.
He has issued this alert today which, as I indicated, speaks for itself. I think any further comment on that subject should properly come from the RCMP, the Solicitor General or Dr. Perry Kendall himself.
J. Kwan: I agree that Dr. Perry Kendall is outstanding in his role as the public health officer. I don't dispute that for one moment. I know of Dr. Kendall. I had the opportunity to work with him when I was in government and certainly continue to work with him even as an opposition member. I don't dispute that for one moment.
Maybe there's something else that I'm missing here, that I'm not getting. The minister is saying: "Ask that question around the health inspection issue to the Solicitor General. The Solicitor General's estimates will come up." So we'll put that question to the Solicitor General as well.
Setting that aside, then can the minister confirm for the public the safety of meat products from farms where animals are slaughtered, where inspections take place on site as this is happening? Can the minister confirm and assure British Columbians and consumers that proper care and sanitation, etc., are undertaken when animals are slaughtered at farms?
Hon. C. Hansen: Just to reiterate the structure that is in place, this is for those communities that have opted into the provincial inspection program that we outlined earlier. In the case of those slaughterhouses, a federal meat inspector must be present when animals are being slaughtered.
What we are looking at through the changes is strengthening that program to make sure we have a program that applies across the whole province, not just to those communities that opt in to it. We also want to make sure we work with the individual farmers to make sure we get the right balance. Certainly, food safety is the number one priority, and that is what has led to the new regulations that are being developed at this time.
J. Kwan: I will canvass that particular question with the Solicitor General. Having said that, I'd like to just make this comment, as well, around the matter regarding the missing women and the investigation. Many of the women actually come from my community in the downtown east side. I'd just like to take this moment, given that this issue has come up in Health estimates, to express my greatest sympathy for the friends and families of the missing women and for our community, which is still hurting very much with this situation and with the ongoing violence that women in our community are faced with — my greatest and deepest sympathy for our community members and for their families and friends.
I certainly hope the matter will be resolved very quickly so that the individuals in our community can have some peace of mind just knowing the outcome of the situation. I certainly do not want to ask questions in any way, shape or form that might jeopardize the investigation. That is exactly not my intent. It's too important a matter to put at risk. I just want to put that on record.
I'd like to now move on to another issue, if I may, with the minister. It's about the patients' bill of rights. I'm sure the minister has heard about this concept — the patients' bill of rights. There are a number of points with this. Let me just put on the record what they are. I'd like to canvass with the minister these points and get his opinion on them.
The patients' bill of rights includes, for residents of urban and rural communities, the right to access an emergency department within a maximum of one half hour's travel time; for patients accessing an emergency ward, the right to be assessed, triaged, immediately; treated immediately if needing resuscitation, within 15 minutes for emergent cases and within 30 minutes for urgent cases; and the right to be discharged, transferred to another hospital or admitted to a hospital bed within six hours.
Maximum wait times for diagnostic, therapeutic, surgical and rehabilitative treatment established through a public process that includes input from the public and health care providers. The right to subsidized travel for patients who cannot get emergent hospital treatment in their own community. The right of hospital patients to a plan for continuing nursing or rehabilitation care prior to discharge.
The right of palliative patients to a choice whether they want to die at home, in a hospice or in a hospital palliative care bed. Fully funded comprehensive health screening and education for children in schools. The right of addicted patients to detox and addiction treatment within 48 hours of deciding to detox. Speedy care for patients requiring mental health care in the community. Supports for seniors to remain in their own homes or to access supportive housing or residential care when needed. Patients' right to information about their own care and about the standards and performance of health care systems.
Hon. C. Hansen: I received a copy of this proposed patients' bill of rights from the B.C. Nurses Union. I think there were 32 recommendations altogether. I think those are the broad categories that the member read out.
On some of those areas, we're actually starting to make some good progress. You know, one of the things flagged in the throne speech was the travel assistance fund, for example, to assist families who need financial assistance to travel to access medical care if that's required. Also, around palliative choices, if the member is familiar with the draft document we have on the end-of-life strategy, it is exactly that — aimed at giving more choices to families in palliative care situations. The other thing that we have actually expanded is the drug plan for individuals going through palliative care so that they can get access to medications and medical
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equipment they may need should they choose to go through palliative care in a home environment.
I thought it was a thoughtful document, and I think there are certainly some good ideas. In many cases, you would have to look at them as a goal which we would try to get to. Clearly, to implement every one of them overnight would be extremely expensive. We simply wouldn't have the financial resources to do all of them, but I think in most cases they are, in fact, noble goals.
J. Kwan: So the minister would commit. What I heard the minister say, then, is that he agrees with the patients' bill of rights and with the end goals. The minister is right: it is a very lengthy document with many points. I've only just put on the record some of the bullets associated with the bill of rights that I thought were pertinent. Well, actually, they all are, and I just highlighted a few of them for the record.
I assume, from the minister's answer, that he agrees with all of these end goals, that the government is working on a long-term strategy to arrive at these goals and that they are, indeed, targets for the government to achieve. After all, it is the minister and this government who promised health care when you need it and where you need it. As we have illustrated and demonstrated in this House and elsewhere, and as was pointed out by community members, the government has not met that test — health care when you need it and where you need it. I think that the patients' bill of rights actually identifies, specifically, some of the targeted goals of defining what is health care when you need it and where you need it.
Hon. C. Hansen: As I said, I believe it's a noble document. Certainly, there are some ideas in there that many people would find attractive. One of the challenges that I certainly have as the Minister of Health Services is to recognize that we have limited financial resources, that even though we've increased the health budget by $2 billion over the last three years, there still is never enough money in the health care system to do everything that everybody would like to. So one of the questions, I think, that one has to ask is: if you were to implement any one of those particular recommendations, what would it cost and where would that money come from?
We have to make sure that we choose the right priorities so that we can meet the needs of British Columbians. Of all of the long list of recommendations in that document, there are some which I have to say I don't agree with. There are some around long-term care that I think are impractical. For example, they talk about a senior only being moved when there is agreement from the senior and the family. Well, that sounds like a very noble recommendation, but the reality is that there are situations where it is desirable to move a senior, but the family cannot come to agreement in terms of what is appropriate. At the end of the day, we have to make a decision that's in the best interests of the resident. So that's one example of one that seems like a noble idea but that, in fact, we may have difficulties with if we were to try to implement it as it's literally written.
When the member talks about the health care you need when you need it, where you live, I can give her lots of examples of that. As we have tried to consolidate care around centres of excellence in places like Cranbrook, it means more patients can get care in that region rather than having to travel out of the region to get access to certain specialists. The other example I would point to is around telehealth, where individuals in the province can get access to the top specialist advice via telehealth links, rather than those patients having to fly to Vancouver, perhaps, to get access to that advice. I think there are lots of examples around this province that I can certainly point to where patients, increasingly, are getting the care they need, when they need it, where they live.
J. Kwan: Well, let me just say this. In a newspaper article of February 14, 2002, where it talks about the patients — "Patients Have Rights to Come out of Closets" — it actually states: "Vancouver General Hospital emergency nurse Rosa Shieh says it is not unusual for patients requiring a hospital bed to wait 12 to 24 hours on a stretcher in the hallway. 'No one should be forced to wait on a hard stretcher in the hallway. There's no privacy, no dignity, no bathroom facility. They're forced to use a bedpan.'"
Just one example of health care when you need it, where you need it. I don't think when the minister himself promised that to British Columbians, it meant this kind of health care. I don't think that when the minister promised health care when you need it and where you need it, the people who use St. Mary's Hospital had that notion in their mind, where St. Mary's is being closed. A coalition of people to save St. Mary's have put out this information, where they say that closing St. Mary's Hospital is a bad government decision.
"The Health minister is closing St. Mary's to save money, but the Fraser health authority CEO Bob Smith says there will be very little savings in closing St. Mary's. The Health Services minister says that St. Mary's is being closed to protect patients, yet St. Mary's is one of the most respected acute care hospitals in B.C., with one of the highest patient satisfaction ratings. The former provincial auditor George Morfitt reported that St. Mary's business plan was viable over the long term, but the Health ministry ignored this fact.
Fraser health CEO Bob Smith says that St. Mary's 35,000 annual patients, including 11,000 surgical cases, will be handled elsewhere in a system already unable to cope with existing volume. Their plan isn't working. Thousands of patients are having their operations cancelled. The Premier told a radio audience recently that St. Mary's was one of the most expensive hospitals to operate in B.C., despite the fact that St. Mary's has a budget of less than $30 million, and St. Mary's is one of the few hospitals in British Columbia that has balanced its budget year after year."
These are the facts that are put out by the Save St. Mary's Coalition, and in fact, city councils in New
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West, Burnaby, Coquitlam and Port Coquitlam have passed motions requesting that the government restore funding to St. Mary's and keep it open. These are just some of the facts put forward by the St. Mary's Coalition, who are trying to fight to save St. Mary's.
So, health care where you need it and when you need it? I don't think the people who utilized St. Mary's at the time that the government campaigned on that promise of health care where you need it and when you need it envisioned the closure of St. Mary's.
Hon. C. Hansen: The member might want to write this particular statistic down, because I think it's directly relevant to the point she's trying to make. Only 17 percent of the patients who were cared for at St. Mary's were from New Westminster. So 83 percent of the patients who got care at St. Mary's came from other communities. If you start looking at the areas in Port Coquitlam, for example, the areas around Eagle Ridge Hospital, where you've had significant population growth…. That's where the population is growing, and yet what we had in New Westminster was not one but two hospitals. We had Royal Columbian Hospital, which is one of the top tertiary hospitals in the entire province, which was only a few blocks away from St. Mary's. St. Mary's, for example, has not even had an emergency room for many years. I believe it goes back about 25 years ago. You'd have to go back about 25 years to find a time when St. Mary's had an emergency room. They were only doing elective surgeries and elective procedures in that particular facility.
What we are doing is building the capacity in other hospitals that are actually closer to where people live. So yes, this is an initiative that results in the care that people need when they need it, where they live, instead of having to drive to New Westminster to get it when it was previously provided at St. Mary's Hospital. The change has actually allowed us to open not one but two additional operating rooms at Eagle Ridge Hospital. We've been able to strengthen the programs at Surrey Memorial Hospital; we've been able to strengthen programs at Royal Columbian Hospital. As a result, patients are getting the care they need, and as I pointed out, in many cases it is actually closer to where they live than in the past, where they would have had to drive to New Westminster.
J. Kwan: As the minister is standing up to advocate for the closure of St. Mary's Hospital whereby hospital services are being transferred to other hospitals, in fact, information is coming forward from other hospitals that says: "Hey, you know what? This is a shock to us." Here is a letter for the minister's consideration. This was written on February 18, 2004, and is from a number of doctors who are health care professionals — experts, if you will — in the field. It was written to Robert Smith and the Fraser health authority. It reads as follows:
"Recently we learned of your decision to move the cardiac services and interior segment work of the ophthalmology department from St. Mary's Hospital to Ridge Meadows Hospital. This comes as a shock to our department members, who met on February 17, 2004, to discuss the implications of this announcement.
"Ridge Meadows Hospital is too far away from the majority of the patients we serve. Most of our patients are very elderly. Transportation to the site of their surgery is not a minor issue. It will cost the patient $50 one way by cab from New West to Ridge Meadows Hospital, and travel by public transit to Maple Ridge from the other cities is very difficult.
"In addition, since Ridge Meadows Hospital is 30 kilometres from New West and the attending surgeons, this poses a serious concern for emergency and urgent care. It is unsafe to have the in-patient services in a location that makes it impossible for the surgeons to provide proper oversight to their in-patients. Also, any patient needing emergency attention at Royal Columbian Hospital would be at a great disadvantage if the ophthalmology services for the region were so far removed geographically.
"The site of Ridge Meadows Hospital on the edge of the region means that some emergency surgery will likely need to be done at other institutions. In order to obtain optimal results for patients with severe eye injuries and serious infections, it is imperative that emergency surgeries be performed in an operating room and with an OR team with which the surgeons are intimately familiar. This arrangement makes this extremely problematic.
"Furthermore, no provision has been made for the patients who need other forms of acute care, such as YAG laser or argon laser treatments. The decision to not fund retinal call is most ill-advised. For retinal patients, timely care is of the essence in their recovery. The lack of immediate access to retinal services support is another grave concern when considering their use of Ridge Meadows Hospital as a primary site for large volumes of cataract surgery. The closest retinal backup would be in Surrey. It is beyond our local standard of care to do emergency eye surgery at Ridge Meadows without the possibility of obtaining consultation and assistance from a retinal consult in-house.
"In December we were informed by Dr. Hill that minor surgeries, such as lid cancers, would be done in Burnaby Hospital. When a member of our department called Burnaby Hospital to book an appointment for a patient with an aggressive lid tumour, he was informed by the Burnaby Hospital administration that they knew nothing of this and had no funding for such surgeries. What plan does the region have for these surgeries?
"In your public announcements you promise to maintain the current level of services that are present at St. Mary's Hospital. We have endeavoured to assist you in finding ways to honour this commitment. It is noteworthy that prior to the severe budget cuts at St. Mary's in 2003, the number of cataract surgeries performed was 2,400 per year. To reduce the number to a hard cap of 1,600 per year will make it impossible for us to provide reasonable access to cataract surgery for our patients. It is completely unacceptable that our patients, our department and our region alone have been singled out for this severe cut and restriction when no other area has faced such a reduction and hard cap.
"Although we have repeatedly raised the issue of lengthy wait times, this appears not to be of any importance to those making these decisions. To our patients, however, it is of vital importance, and we must not re-
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main silent in the face of extreme reduction in services, which will dramatically lengthen these waiting times.
"As a group, we find the proposed relocation of all our services to Ridge Meadows Hospital unacceptable and ask that a better alternative and better service levels be secured immediately. We would be happy to remain at St. Mary's Hospital or go to either Burnaby or Surrey. Your preferred proposal from our last meeting, the idea of contracting out service to a private provider in the region, may also be acceptable as long as some cases could still be done in a hospital setting.
"It is imperative that all the surgeons taking emergency surgery calls for ophthalmology have some regular time in the OR where these emergencies are going to be treated. Certainly, some of our elective cases can be done at Ridge Meadows Hospital but not all of the elective cases and none of the emergency surgery.
"Since St. Mary's is closing as of March 1, 2004, we shall be unable to provide any elective or emergency surgical services from that day forward until an acceptable location for the delivery of these services has been established. We shall continue to take calls for the present time and care for the patients of the region. As we shall have no facilities for emergency surgical services, patients with surgical emergencies will need to be referred out of our region until a reasonable solution is found."
It's signed by six different doctors from Ridge Meadows Hospital.
This letter, I think, highlights the point that the government is not delivering on their promise of health care when you need it, where you need it. It's not the opposition who's saying it. Doctors in nearby hospitals are saying that this situation is untenable and that the government diverting these cases to them without the proper funding, without consideration for the impact on the patients, is unacceptable. That's what this letter says.
I'm not making it up. The minister can say all he wants that he's delivering health care when you need it and where you need it. The reality is not the case. The patients are saying that, the community is saying that, and doctors are saying that.
I don't know if the minister wants to respond. We have a few more minutes on this.
Hon. C. Hansen: I just want to underscore what I said earlier. St. Mary's Hospital did not have an emergency room. When we talk about emergency care or emergency backup, that can better be provided at one of the other full acute care hospitals that we have. St. Mary's was not providing emergency care. They may have provided some urgent surgeries.
They certainly did lots of elective surgeries in that facility. Those services have now been relocated to other centres. We actually have seen expanded eye programs at a number of hospitals. Surrey Memorial Hospital, for example, has seen an ophthalmology retinal surgery program expanded. Ridge Meadows, which the member mentioned, has cataract surgery expansion. Also, Burnaby Hospital is going to see an increase in the number of eye surgeries. It's a not a case of these procedures disappearing. We are, in fact, making sure that the needs of patients still get met. They're being relocated to other facilities in the area.
Noting the time, I would suggest that we recess until 6:35.
The Chair: The committee will stand recessed until 6:40.
The committee recessed from 5:58 p.m. to 6:45 p.m.
[H. Long in the chair.]
On vote 25 (continued).
J. Kwan: Prior to the break we were dealing with issues around St. Mary's. I read a letter onto the record, and the minister actually gave a response in terms of some of the issues the community had raised with regard to the closure of St. Mary's.
I just want to put this on the record as well, particularly when services that were formerly performed at St. Mary's have been referred to other hospitals. Here is the lay of the land. The regular ophthalmologists being transferred out of Ridge Meadows — operating time is approximately 25 percent of what they were able to do at St. Mary's. The maximum Fraser health authority is offering when they get another room up and running in the future is 50 percent of what they were doing at St. Mary's. That's a 50 percent cut — temporarily, a 75 percent cut. We can expect an additional operating room to be available sometime in the next few months accordingly.
Some seniors only have public transport to get there, which of course makes it a major issue. Surgeons view cataract and retinal surgery being limited to 800, which represents almost a 50 percent cut in what they have been doing.
Vancouver General, which had the largest ophthalmology department…. St. Mary's is no longer accepting patients outside of Vancouver coastal health authority, apparently within the last week or two. Retinal surgeons, when they come in on an emergency basis to do a repair, have been formally told by the Fraser health authority that they will no longer be on call. If you have a disaster in the middle of the night, it means they're now holding to what they call the industry standard of 18 hours — some industry standards for the north and some other areas — so surgeons won't be available for a punctured eye, a wound or even a hemorrhage.
This is just some basic information in terms of the lay of the land relating to St. Mary's. While the minister might be comforted with the notion that the services St. Mary's contained have been transferred elsewhere into other hospitals, the reality also remains that there are going to be reductions in services. Wait-lists are going to be longer. St. Mary's has really quite a reputation, if you will, in the areas that I have highlighted, and they're known for their expertise in these areas.
In spite of what the minister says, the community is not convinced. It hasn't met what one might call the
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head-nod test of the minister saying: "Oh yeah. In fact, health care service delivery is better with the closure of St. Mary's." Surgeons, doctors are not convinced. It appears to me that the only people who are convinced happen to be the Liberal caucus.
Quite frankly, the situation with our health care system and its delivery and the situation with St. Mary's indicates and proves the point that the government is not meeting its new-era commitment of health care when you need it and where you need it.
Hon. C. Hansen: I know the other day I answered a question from a government member with regard to St. Mary's, where I outlined a bit of the history that led up to it, so I won't repeat all of that. But I will try to give the member sort of the quick capsulated version of that.
After the Fraser health authority had initially indicated that they felt those services could be better provided in other facilities around the Fraser Valley, there was a big push to try to find a niche for St. Mary's on an ongoing basis, and it was work that I encouraged. I encouraged everybody to take a second look at whether or not there was a future role for St. Mary's. As a result of that, they actually said, "Well, rather than the global funding that was going into St. Mary's, we could purchase certain services from St. Mary's," and work was done on that.
Again, I want to underscore that St. Mary's is not a hospital that is owned by government or by the health authority. It is a facility that is owned by the Sisters of Charity, and they in turn had a contract with the health authority. When that contract was up, the Fraser health authority chose first of all not to renew it, and then — only after they started looking at other services that could be provided there — they reconsidered and determined that there was about $13 million worth of services. The St. Mary's board themselves accepted that and said they felt they could be financially viable with that. When I got an indication in late August from the then chair of the St. Mary's board that they were facing extreme financial difficulties and may not be able to make their payroll as of January, that was the point at which I had an obligation to step in, because the needs of the patients would not be met come January if they could not meet their payroll.
That was when I asked George Morfitt to take a look at it. His report came back saying that the model they were working towards was not viable in the short term or the medium term, and he had questions as to whether it was viable in the long term. My obligation was to the patients, so we had to say: "If St. Mary's can't meet their payroll as of January, then we've got to find some other places where those services can be provided." We began working with them, and the Fraser health authority began work to find out where that could be relocated.
In the press conference where we announced the shift, Bob Smith, who's the CEO of Fraser health, indicated at that time they were doing everything they could to make sure there was capacity that would meet the needs of patients who had been on the St. Mary's wait-list. He indicated at that time that in the short term, that would be a challenge. In the longer term, he was quite sure those patients could be integrated into the operating room slates of the other facilities as that capacity was expanded.
This wasn't a case of us saying: "Well, let's plan this in a time line that suits our purposes." We were faced with a time line where St. Mary's wasn't going to be able to pay their staff, so we were obligated to move fairly quickly. Quite frankly, I think the Fraser health authority has done a first-class job of trying to relocate those services.
There has been good contact with the families. I know I appointed Tom Crump with patient liaison responsibilities to make sure the needs of the patients got met during this transition. I think everyone concerned has done a first-class job. I know there has been some inconvenience for individual patients as we go through the transition, but in the medium to long term I'm sure those needs will be met.
J. Kwan: As I say, the community doesn't agree with the minister. The coalition to save St. Mary's doesn't agree with the minister. In fact, the Denominational Health Association states that they're disappointed with the Health minister's prompt action to actually stop funding to St. Mary's. They disagree with the notion that Morfitt's recommendations indicate that the St. Mary's business plan is not viable. They don't agree with that concept at all.
The fact is that St. Mary's actually conducts the second-highest number of surgeries in the ophthalmology area than any other hospital in British Columbia. People go to this, it is known, and it has a huge reputation in the area of acute surgery.
The fact is that when the government closes St. Mary's — well, closure is happening with St. Mary's — the wait-lists will only go up. That is the reality of it. The minister can say things that he wants to say to comfort himself, but it doesn't change the reality.
Let me close the St. Mary's debate with this letter on the record. It was written to me not from my constituent but from somebody in Coquitlam. Here's what the individual has to say:
"Dear" — he uses my name.
"I'm writing to you about the closure of St. Mary's Hospital in New Westminster. Two years ago I fell and fractured my hip. I was sent to the Royal Columbian Hospital. When I got there, I was left sitting in the waiting room for an hour, and when I finally got into the ER, I was told that it would be at least five days before they could find a bed and operate.
"Fortunately, they found a bed at St. Mary's for me, and I was operated on the next day. Now they're closing St. Mary's, and it will no longer be there to take the overflow from the Royal Columbian. If I fell now, how many days would I be told to wait and be tying up a bed in the ER? Where will the 2,700 people on the waiting list go?
"Please" — and the individual uses my name again and says — "don't let this subject die. St. Mary's Hospital
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is an important hospital for all British Columbians, and we need to keep it open."
Then it's signed by the individual who sent me this e-mail.
I think that really highlights the importance of St. Mary's and how it has actually served the community in a positive way. These are patients, former patients, who may not have lived in the area — true enough — but the hospital served their needs, providing British Columbians with health care when they need it and where they need it. That is the bottom line, and that is the new-era commitment. Closing hospitals to increase wait-lists elsewhere, closing hospitals to push surgeries and demand onto other hospitals, where doctors from other hospitals are forced to write letters to say they're completely unaware or unable to meet and cope with those kinds of demands…. This indicates clearly, in my view, that health care when you need it and where you need it — that new-era commitment — is not being met by this minister. That is my view, that's the view of many community members, and that certainly is the view of the people who are trying to save St. Mary's out in our broader community.
I would like to ask the minister now to turn to this question around Mount St. Joseph Hospital. I'm sorry that we sort of skipped a little bit, you know, in terms of the order. After I had asked the questions around Mount St. Joseph, I was in the small House doing estimates for the Ministry of Community, Aboriginal and Women's Services, so my colleague then took over Health Services and continued on with the questions.
I really only have two pieces of information but one question for the minister. I spoke with the people from the Mount St. Joseph Hospital Foundation since we last had this debate. They had advised that on the court date scheduled on March 4, both sides had agreed they would try and negotiate to resolve the matter further, that a second court date has now been set for March 24 and that still no resolution has been achieved. The court date has been delayed in an attempt to achieve a resolution.
I advised the people that we had this debate in the Legislature, and I advised them that the minister is prepared to facilitate a process for resolution, should the matter not be resolved in the courts. The foundation folks were delighted — delighted — that the minister had made that commitment.
Anyway, there is another court date coming up on March 24, so let's see what happens there. If the matter is not resolved, then we can have the minister, hopefully, intervene by facilitating a process. That is a piece of information for the minister in terms of updating that.
My question to the minister around Mount St. Joseph is this. It was a question that I put to the Deputy Premier this afternoon during question period — that is, about the change in policy with respect to volunteers at Mount St. Joseph. The policy has been changed under this government's leadership. Individuals who don't speak English are not allowed to volunteer at Mount St. Joseph. This is really causing, I think, a disservice to the people at Mount St. Joseph and particularly the seniors.
As I stated earlier in question period today, formerly volunteers who didn't speak English…. Often they were immigrants. Many of them are referred to the hospital by SUCCESS, which is a great organization that I believe the minister was at, when they had their fundraising gala this last Saturday. They refer volunteers there. Many of them are new immigrants and don't speak English, but they go to the hospital to volunteer to do things like read the newspaper, read to the seniors and engage in activities that keep the seniors active.
Because of this policy change, the volunteer base at Mount St. Joseph has dramatically decreased. In fact, the services for the seniors particularly have dramatically decreased, to the point where I'm advised by people who work at the hospital that right now the volunteer base is primarily students — students who speak both English and whatever other language they offer. Oftentimes they're there to fill the hours that are required of them for their school project or assignment, and therefore this entire approach to volunteers with this new policy is a disservice to Mount St. Joseph. As a result, many of the seniors have now lost the volunteer support and activities that were provided by the volunteers at Mount St. Joseph.
I wonder if the minister will look into this matter and change that policy so that volunteers who may not speak English can still volunteer at Mount St. Joseph and bring back the former vibrancy in volunteer support at Mount St. Joseph when the policy allowed for people who didn't speak English to volunteer at Mount St. Joseph.
Hon. C. Hansen: I appreciate the member's concern on this. The first I was aware of it was when it was raised earlier today in the House. Mount St. Joseph Hospital, as the member knows, is run by Providence Health Care, which is actually also owned by a different group of sisters. It is a Catholic denominational facility. In turn, Providence Health Care has a contract with the coastal health authority to provide those services. At the hospital level they would be responsible for setting those types of policies.
I am a huge believer that we need to not diminish but, in fact, enhance the role of volunteers in our hospitals, because I think they provide so much value to the work in the hospitals. I know most of the health care professionals that work in the hospitals appreciate very much the work the volunteers do. So, yes, I will certainly follow up on that issue.
J. Kwan: I absolutely agree with the minister. Volunteer help in that instance is very valuable for the workers as well as the patients, and it really works both ways. It is useful and helpful, as well, for the volunteers, and particularly in this instance where we can help new immigrant community members to become more involved in the community. Because of language
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barriers, oftentimes they are excluded from full participation in their community. In this instance, it actually helps to facilitate new immigrants to become more involved in their community. That is beneficial for everyone.
The change in policy, in my view, simply makes no sense. I know that the folks who work there are concerned about it, and I know that the seniors who are there don't like the policy much either, because it doesn't help them. I would certainly appreciate the minister looking into this matter and trying to correct it and allow for volunteers to volunteer even though they may not have proficient English.
I trust that my colleague, in following up with the Mount St. Joseph issue…. I trust that the minister will provide, if he hasn't already provided, the documentation around the earlier questions that I put to the minister around the closures of various different wards, etc., and that the information is sent to the opposition office, caucus office, if it hasn't already been sent. With that, then I won't canvass Mount St. Joseph anymore. I'll trust that the work's been completed.
Hon. C. Hansen: Some of it is very detailed feedback for the member with regard to some of the questions she asked. I know that it is being formatted, and it'll be provided to the member as soon as it's ready. I've seen the basic information, and I hope it covers all of the issues that she had raised.
J. Kwan: I'll look forward to receiving the documentation from the minister. I must say, I apologize. I actually haven't had time to go back in Hansard to see what the minister's answers were to the follow-up questions from my colleague, because I've been in the other House engaging in debate with the other minister when I'm not in this House with Health estimates. I just simply haven't had time to go and look through that. I certainly will, and I expect that the documentation the minister will send me will fill in the gaps. If it doesn't, I'm sure I could write to the minister or ask the minister, not even in estimates debate, to provide further information if necessary.
With that, then I'd like to move on to my last area in terms of questions for the minister, and that's around the St. Paul's palliative care issues. There was a meeting held at the Roundhouse Community Centre dealing with palliative care at St. Paul's. There were a number of key points that were made there.
One of the key points I would like to highlight is this. The ministry has said, apparently, at this meeting that a 12-bed palliative care ward is not fiscally responsible. Yet Providence said that the closure was necessary and that the closure was not about saving moneys. The annual savings from closing respite care at St. Paul's is about $200,000, but there are no studies to back up this figure. With patients being diverted into ICU and ER care, the savings, of course, could well be zero. I wonder if the minister has information or documentation to back up the notion that the closure of respite care at St. Paul's is $200,000.
Hon. C. Hansen: This move was to basically free up resources that could be used elsewhere. First of all, I'll read parts of this — it might help: "…that Providence Health Care, which operates St. Paul's Hospital under contract to the Vancouver coastal health authority, close two respite beds and one palliative bed last year. The decision was based on an identified resource shortfall and anticipated redesign of palliative care. The palliative care ward retains 12 beds, but respite care is no longer provided in this ward as a result of the closure."
The resources were redirected to more community-based care options. I should point out that we have also opened the Dr. Peter Centre, which had significant provincial government funding from the Ministry of Health Services through the Vancouver coastal health authority and also through B.C. Housing. I'm not sure if the member has had a chance to visit that facility, but the Dr. Peter Centre is a much more homelike environment for individuals who are suffering from HIV/AIDS.
It has been a transition. Those resources haven't gone away; they've been redirected into other community-based care. I guess the last point to note is that there is growing evidence that patients making decisions about end-of-life care prefer home or community settings versus the acute setting, providing medical needs can be addressed.
J. Kwan: Yes, I'm well aware of the Dr. Peter Centre's opening. In fact, it was the previous government that had committed resources to the Dr. Peter Centre, which was continued by this government. I'm glad this government did not cancel that initiative, unlike many other housing initiatives and other initiatives that this government did cancel.
I'm well aware of the Dr. Peter Centre and the opening of the Dr. Peter Centre and the wonderful work that they do. However, the point here, of course, is that according to this meeting that took place at the Roundhouse regarding the palliative care issue, Providence had actually sent a representative. Providence had said that the closure was not about savings. Then it was the ministry, apparently, that said the 12-bed palliative care ward is not fiscally responsible.
The minister just said that the closure was driven from issues around cost savings, and the other…. I'd like clarification on these points. As well, is there any validity to the point that the 12 palliative care beds at St. Paul's are not fiscally responsible? Actually, the minister has just refuted Providence's notion that the closure was not about saving money.
The other point I'd like the minister to answer, of course, is the notion that the closing of the respite care at St. Paul's is about $200,000. Is it $200,000 for the closure of the respite care at St. Paul's?
Hon. C. Hansen: What I said, and I'll reiterate, is that the dollars were reallocated. So they have gone, as
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I mentioned, into other more community-based care. I've also mentioned that we are funding the new centre at the Dr. Peter Centre. I don't have exactly the number of beds at Dr. Peter Centre, but certainly it is a wonderful facility, as I mentioned.
I guess the other thing I should stress is that at Vancouver General Hospital, we recently opened a 14-bed palliative care ward in the Jimmy Pattison tower. I have been in that facility recently and met with staff in that, and it is also — even though it's in an acute-care setting — a wonderful homelike environment.
I think when you start looking at the needs, meeting the needs, of individuals who are going through end of life and their families, we have excellent capacity in the Vancouver coastal health authority. I believe that with this new mix of resources we are able to meet those needs in a manner that is preferable to the environment that was there before, because of the two wonderful new facilities that have opened within the last year.
J. Kwan: The minister actually didn't answer my questions, so let me just ask them one at a time. Apparently at this meeting — and I have the minutes before me — the ministry said that a 12-bed palliative care ward is not fiscally responsible. Is that correct?
Hon. C. Hansen: It is my understanding that the 12-bed palliative care ward at St. Paul's hospital continues.
J. Kwan: So it is not the case, then, that the 12-bed palliative care at St. Paul's is not fiscally responsible — that is to say that they are fiscally responsible and those beds will continue. I want to confirm that, because accordingly at this meeting at the Roundhouse, it was reported that the ministry representatives said that a 12-bed palliative care ward is not fiscally responsible, and Providence has said, about the closure of these beds…. It sounds to me like the closures of these beds was…. They say it's not about saving money.
The minister says it's not about saving money. The minister uses these words "free up resources to be used elsewhere." Then the minister cited two other locations, the Dr. Peter Centre and VGH. I want to be very clear, then. The 12-bed palliative care is physically responsible?
Hon. C. Hansen: First of all, the 12-bed palliative care facility at St. Paul's Hospital continues to operate. I'm certainly not aware, and the staff with me are not aware, of any plans to terminate that facility.
When you talk about a ward of a hospital not being physically responsible, I must confess I don't know what that means. I don't know if the member has any sense of what that may mean. I'm not sure who she's quoting. I'm not sure whether it's being quoted accurately. Quite frankly, I'm not sure how you look at the ward of any hospital in the province and question whether one is physically responsible or not. It's a strange kind of expression, so I'm not sure what it means.
J. Kwan: Well, I'm reading it from the minutes of this particular meeting, and that's what I have. I wasn't at the meeting, unfortunately, so I didn't hear firsthand what the language was exactly. But this is what is stated. Anyway, I'll take it to mean, though, that the 12-bed palliative care at St. Paul's is not in jeopardy and that they are not going to be closed.
Then let me turn to the respite care beds. There are two respite care beds at St. Paul's that were closed as of April 22, 2002. The closure of the respite care beds at St. Paul's that's reported again in these minutes is worth about $200,000. Is that the case?
Hon. C. Hansen: That's the kind of calculation that would be done internally by St. Paul's Hospital. We have a contract with them for the services they are to provide to the system, and they have to determine how best to resource those. My understanding is that for three beds in an acute care setting like that, that number is certainly reasonable. But I don't have a hard and fast number here to either verify it or correct it.
J. Kwan: It's reported in several sources about the $200,000 for these respite beds. In fact, in a newspaper article in the Courier it actually states that information from the senior management team from Providence, which oversees St. Paul's. Last spring, to see if the program could be restored…. They would be able to do that if they could raise the $200,000 annual operating cost or find a corporate sponsor. So I think the $200,000 is a valid number.
I know that the minister says they don't operate these beds directly, but they are publicly funded. Providence is publicly funded; St. Paul's is publicly funded. Therefore, even though the minister might not have the numbers, he should be able to get documentation to back up this figure. I assume this figure is correct. But there are members in the public who are questioning that, so could the minister get the documentation to back up this figure?
Hon. C. Hansen: We will see if we can get that number for her.
J. Kwan: The other question I have for the minister is this. The minister mentioned that the Dr. Peter Centre, which was opened, provides for palliative care and respite care. However, they only provide, as far as I understand, for patients who are coping with AIDS. Therefore if, let's say, you had cancer or other illnesses, you can't go to the Dr. Peter Centre. So the opening of those beds actually doesn't assist individuals with other illnesses. Am I not right in understanding that?
Hon. C. Hansen: As I understand it, a significant percentage of the palliative care that was provided at St. Paul's Hospital was in fact for AIDS patients. Those
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individuals can now access that service through the Dr. Peter Centre. We do have the palliative care ward at St. Paul's Hospital that continues to operate. It's certainly still there to provide care for not only individuals with AIDS but also those that may be going through end of life as a result of other illnesses as well.
J. Kwan: I'm talking about the respite care beds that are closed at St. Paul's. Where are they being diverted to — the people who need the respite care beds at St. Paul's that have been closed?
Hon. C. Hansen: There are a number of other facilities in the Vancouver coastal health authority that would provide respite care. What they determined when they looked at the opening of the Dr. Peter Centre, and the fact that that would then provide the respite care for individuals with AIDS, was that to have dedicated respite beds at St. Paul's would no longer make the best sense.
I have a list of facilities that provide palliative care and respite care. I'm not sure which ones specifically would provide the respite, but I am aware of the fact that there are other facilities in the area that would meet that need.
J. Kwan: Just so that I'm clear…. The minister said that the 12 palliative care beds at St. Paul's are not being closed and that the only beds that have closed at St. Paul's are the two respite care beds. I think that is the correct information that the minister had put on the record. Am I right? The palliative care beds at St. Paul's — none of them have been closed?
Hon. C. Hansen: I will read again from the briefing note that I have here. St. Paul's Hospital closed two respite beds and one palliative care bed in May. The decision was based on an identified resource shortfall and an anticipated redesign of palliative care. The palliative care ward retains 12 beds, but respite care is no longer provided at this ward as a result of the closure.
J. Kwan: That's a total of three beds that have been lost at St. Paul's: two respite care beds and one palliative care bed. I know the minister mentioned the Dr. Peter Centre. Yes, St. Paul's does serve a high number of people who have HIV/AIDS. I understand that. The issue I raised was that people who may not have HIV/AIDS also need respite care beds. In that instance, they would have lost that service in that area, because Dr. Peter — unless I'm wrong…. I don't think that Dr. Peter provides for respite care to people without HIV and AIDS — unless I'm wrong, unless that's changed. Maybe the minister can correct me if I'm wrong on understanding the service that Dr. Peter provides.
Hon. C. Hansen: What I said, and I'll repeat it, is that the 12-bed palliative care ward at St. Paul's continues to operate for palliative care, and there are other facilities in the area that provide respite services. When you look at the service that the Dr. Peter Centre would be offering, in terms of both respite and palliative care for AIDS patients, that reduced the demand on the palliative care ward and the respite services that had been offered at St. Paul's. The respite services are being provided in other facilities for non-AIDS patients, and I'm sure for AIDS patients, as well, that don't wind up going to Dr. Peter Centre. Those needs continue to be met.
J. Kwan: That's the minister's opinion, but let me put this article or at least part of the article on the record from advocates who are trying to address this issue in terms of the closure of the two respite care beds and the palliative care bed at St. Paul's. An article dated September 17, 2003, in the Vancouver Courier:
"'Advocates won't give up respite fight.' Almost six months after the respite and palliative care program was cancelled at St. Paul's Hospital, two West End residents are still fighting to have it restored. After two respite beds and a palliative care bed were closed in April, Blair Smith and his partner Daryl Carter started a letter-writing, e-mail and phone campaign."
Then it goes on to talk about some other activities they have been engaged in, in trying to fight this issue. The article goes on to read:
"The respite program, which operated for 14 years, includes two beds on floor 10-D used annually by about 105 terminally ill patients as a way to catch up on medical procedures and give their caretakers a break."
Then it goes on to say that Smith and his partner met with a senior management team from Providence Health Care last spring, which oversees St. Paul's, to see if the program could be restored if they could raise the $200,000 annual operating funds or find a corporate sponsor. They said: "It didn't fit their vision of the future of the hospital." And that's a quote. Smith and Carter have invited Providence and the Vancouver coastal health authority to take part in the forum which so far includes a patient, caregiver, nurse and health care provider and will be moderated by Rev. Jim Smith of the Central…. Sorry, my copy here is blacked out. Anyway, by the Rev. Jim Smith.
Providence's spokesperson Shaf Hussain said he can't say whether Providence will take part, because it doesn't yet have enough information. This is the forum I was talking about that took place at the Roundhouse. The last paragraph that I'd like to put on record here is: "Smith emphasized the new Dr. Peter Centre, which officially opens the same day as the forum, cannot take the place of the respite program at St. Paul's."
The closing comment from this individual is: "When we were down at Sunset Beach, we had at least 20 people come up to us and tell us about losing their wife or husband to cancer and how the palliative team was so important to them. Those people wouldn't be going to the Dr. Peter Centre."
This is the fight that these two individuals are engaging in, trying to save the beds. There are two respite care beds and one palliative care bed. They obviously have a different opinion in terms of the availability of
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these services in their community, contrary to what the minister is saying.
The Roundhouse meeting took place, and it appears that the information — according to the information that I have — doesn't necessarily match. It's not necessarily confirmed. Let me just put it that way. It remains, though, that there are three beds that have been lost in the St. Paul's area: two respite care beds and one palliative care bed. People who are from that community are saying they're not satisfied with that. They are concerned with respect to access to respite care beds and the palliative care services in that community.
Hon. C. Hansen: I would direct the member to the end-of-life strategy, the draft paper that we have on our website that we've been getting some good positive feedback on. Also, we have expanded our palliative care drug program, which not only provides medications for individuals going through palliative care outside of a hospital environment but also provides support for necessary medical equipment.
If you look at Vancouver coastal health authority generally, they've got, as I mentioned, the opening of a brand-new palliative care facility — 14 beds, a wonderful facility in the Jimmy Pattison tower. The Lions Gate Hospital has 12 acute palliative care beds. Richmond Hospital has an eight-bed palliative care ward. As I mentioned, St. Paul's has its 12-bed ward.
I think we certainly are expanding programs for those who are going through the end of life, and I believe that the Vancouver coastal health authority has an appropriate mix of services to make sure those needs get met.
J. Kwan: Well, let's just leave it at the place where…. Certainly, the members of the community that we have received correspondence from have a difference of opinion from this minister with respect to that issue. I recognize that from time to time — actually, oftentimes — we have a difference of opinion on matters, and so I'll simply leave it at that.
With that, I've completed the questions around health services for the minister. I understand that the government members have some questions for the minister, with which the government members will continue debate until we adjourn today. Tomorrow I assume that we'll be debating the estimates for the Minister of State for Mental Health and Addiction Services — or whenever that gets placed. I'm not sure, actually. We don't find out until 10 o'clock in the morning. I'm just assuming that maybe that will come up tomorrow.
J. Kwan: Okay. We'll have questions for the minister then, when those estimates are before us. Thank you.
P. Sahota: I have some questions for the minister around the Fraser health authority and the Burnaby Hospital. A few weeks ago I had the opportunity to see firsthand the new digital diagnostic imaging equipment that was installed at, I believe, the Royal Columbian Hospital. It's called a picture archiving and communications system. I wonder if the minister could advise if the doctors from that entire region will have access to this new system.
Hon. C. Hansen: It's called the picture archiving and communications system — PACS for short — and it is a wonderful innovation. It will allow physicians throughout the Fraser health authority to access information, whether it's X-rays or other diagnostic images. They will be able to access it from their own offices; they'll be able to access it from other hospitals.
We've had some wonderful examples where an individual who may have been first admitted into Chilliwack Hospital was then transferred to Royal Columbian for a higher level of care, and the doctors are able to access all of the X-rays that may have been done at Chilliwack. That just speeds up the whole process, instead of worrying about film-based X-rays being transported by couriers or transported in the ambulance with the patient.
The short answer to the member's question is yes. Once this is fully up and operational, doctors and others in our acute care hospitals will be able to access those kinds of digital images from anywhere within the health authority.
P. Sahota: My understanding is that Royal Columbian was the first to go live, and it will go live throughout the region in other hospitals. Does the minister have a time line for those other hospitals?
Hon. C. Hansen: No. I apologize. I don't have the specific dates for those other hospitals, but I know that the Fraser health authority is certainly excited about the rollout of PACS, and they'll be doing it as fast as possible.
P. Sahota: I'll wait for that information.
I wanted to move to the new…. Apparently there's going to be a new subacute unit that's being created at Burnaby Hospital, and I understand there will be a new model that's going to be used in terms of focusing on the type of care that people will be able to get at this new subacute unit. Can the minister elaborate on this new model?
Hon. C. Hansen: I think this is another "good news" part of the whole redesign. They've identified that when you have an acute care bed, first of all, it's a very expensive bed to operate and to staff. Secondly, it's not necessarily designed for the transition phase between someone who's had surgery and needs fairly intensive care…. I shouldn't say "intensive care" in the sense of an intensive care unit, but they need a higher level of care when they've first completed their surgery.
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Then as they start to heal, but prior to going home, they need a different kind of care. They need to be, for example, mobilized — where they can get up and perhaps walk around a bit more, where they can basically prepare themselves to go home. What we are trying to do in some facilities throughout the province is put in special-purpose wards that actually recognize this different level of care that is needed prior to someone being discharged.
P. Sahota: There's also going to be a new oncology clinic at Burnaby Hospital, which I understand is going to be relocated. Again, this oncology clinic will be offering different services. It will be offering enhancements in terms of traditional cancer care, etc. I was wondering if the minister is able to tell me: when is the new date for the relocation, and can he expand a little bit further on the traditional care model?
Hon. C. Hansen: I don't have a specific date for that, but I will endeavour to get that information for the member.
P. Sahota: I just have a few more questions on St. Mary's Hospital. I know the member for Vancouver–Mount Pleasant had a few questions on it and canvassed the minister on that issue.
My concern is in terms of the capacity. Does the Fraser health authority have the capacity to deliver subacute care, transitional care? In terms of the facilities, where in the region are the services moving to?
Hon. C. Hansen: Basically, there's a very long list. It would take me quite a while to read all of the detail into the record here.
The services are being moved to other hospitals in the area. Eagle Ridge Hospital, for example, has now opened a fifth operating room, and a sixth operating room opens this month. There are a whole bunch of different services that get moved to Eagle Ridge Hospital.
Queens Park centre will also be expanding their role, including a new hospice program, for example, and other geriatric services. Royal Columbian Hospital will receive programs such as breast health and bone densitometry. There is another whole series of programs that get moved to Royal Columbian. Ridge Meadows would have dental surgery, cardiac surgery and ambulatory care, eye procedures.
Burnaby Hospital. The member mentioned some of the changes there, but adult ENT expansion would also be occurring at Burnaby Hospital. At Surrey Memorial Hospital some aspects of eye surgery are also there. Also, pediatric ENT, head-and-neck ENT, urology and the audiology clinic would go to Surrey Memorial.
All of the services that had been provided previously at St. Mary's are, in fact, being reallocated into other facilities that either absorb those programs as new programs or expand on their existing programs to meet that need.
P. Sahota: My second question regarding St. Mary's is, of course, about the staff. The staff at St. Mary's — what will happen to them? Will the Fraser health authority be able to absorb them in other parts of the region?
Hon. C. Hansen: The first thing I want to acknowledge is the tremendous support we have had from the sisters themselves, who own St. Mary's Hospital. They certainly have been faced with the prospect of St. Mary's closing for several decades now. In fact, I believe the first time there was consideration of moving services from St. Mary's was back when Rafe Mair was the Health minister in this province in the 1970s.
The reason I mention the sisters is because when I first talked to Sister Mary Gordon about the removal of services from St. Mary's, I was so impressed with her primary concern. First of all, she indicated to me that they knew this was coming sooner or later, because it was inevitable. But she also said her first concern was for the patients. She wanted to make sure their needs got met, and I believe we're delivering on that. That transitioning has obviously had some challenges, but I believe those needs are being and will get met.
Her second big concern was staff. She wanted to make sure they were being properly cared for. If you look at the professional staff that worked in St. Mary's Hospital, those who were actually doing the direct clinical work, in most cases they have been offered other positions in the Fraser health authority. With the nursing staff, for example, I believe there are some that have chosen early retirement. But I believe they were all offered positions, and most of them accepted the offers. I understand the B.C. Nurses Union, for example, has been very helpful in that process.
With regard to the support staff, that's a bigger challenge. When you look at where we're moving services to, they already have their support infrastructure in place. So that's been a bit more difficult. Certainly, we're living up to our obligations when it comes to the severance payments that are required — payout of holiday pay, vacation entitlements and things like that, sick benefits that may need to be paid out. We are working with the now St. Mary's administration and making sure the individual employees of St. Mary's are treated fairly.
P. Sahota: That's good information, so I thank the minister for that.
My last question is on something that's been in the news media recently. It's regarding the MSP — Medical Services Plan — and the surrounding issue that it is being privatized to an American company. I was hoping the minister would be able to set the record straight on that and advise us where that is right now.
Hon. C. Hansen: I would like to be absolutely clear: we are not privatizing the Medical Services Plan. What we are faced with and what we inherited was a paper-based transaction system that goes back 30 years. There
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are probably very few offices of that nature that have not taken advantage of some modern computer technologies to give the public better service. We had wait times last year of 16 weeks for the turnaround on an MSP application. This new model will bring down the turnaround time to not more than four weeks, whether it's for premium assistance or an MSP application.
What we are doing is not privatizing MSP. What we're doing is partnering with a private sector company that can bring in the technology to help us with that faster processing of information. I think it's good news. I think virtually every constituency office in the province would tell me or does tell me that complaints from residents about the time it takes to get applications processed through MSP are one of the big issues. This initiative will help us provide better service, more timely service, to residents of the province.
K. Johnston: Recently in these debates, I was listening and heard the opposition reel off a list of facilities that they claim had been closed. One drew my attention, and that is one in Vancouver-Fraserview called Holy Family Hospital. My understanding is that the facility is operating very well and has, in fact, for close to 50 years, I believe. I'd like to ask if I can get a clarification on two things: (1) the current status of Holy Family Hospital and (2) what, basically, the long-term plans are for this facility.
Hon. C. Hansen: Holy Family is part of the Providence Health Care group of facilities in Vancouver. As we've talked about several times during these estimates debates, Providence Health Care is a not-for-profit organization that is responsible for the operations of several Catholic faith–based hospitals in Vancouver, and Holy Family is one of them.
I'll read this quick note here, because I think it will answer the member's question. "It has been announced that Holy Family Hospital would be renewed as part of the Providence Health Care legacy project. Media reports stated Holy Family and its elder rehabilitation services would close. This is not true. Holy Family, like all Providence Health Care facilities, will be renewed, but no planning has been finalized regarding this site. It's operating as it always has and will continue to do so for many years to come."
K. Johnston: Vancouver-Fraserview has the highest percentage of folks over 65 in all of Vancouver, with quite a few facilities. Of course, with the direction of home care and ensuring that people can stay in their homes as long as possible, I just have a general question, if I might, in terms of kind of a supply-and-demand thing. There's tremendous pressure for home care services in the area. I was just wondering: what is being done to monitor and to ensure there is adequate home care service available to the people that require it and need it — through Vancouver coastal health authority obviously?
I've had feedback, a little feedback, that it's hard to access this particular home care situation. Are we monitoring and ensuring that there is enough and an adequate supply of people to provide these services?
Hon. C. Hansen: I didn't know that about Vancouver-Fraserview having the highest percentage of those over the age of 65. That's the kind of data that comes from B.C. Stats, and the health authorities rely on that to do their forward planning. Throughout the whole province, they look at how many citizens are in certain age groups to determine what kind of services need to be provided, and they try to project that forward. So they're not just doing that planning for next year, but in fact they're trying to anticipate what the need might be ten or 15 years from now.
In the case of home care, we have, in fact…. Today there are more dollars going into home care than there were when we formed government, and there are more hours going into home care than when we formed government. The change that has taken place is that we have reallocated some of those hours from those seniors who have a low level of need to those seniors with a higher level of need. So, yes, there have certainly been some discussion and media reports about some individuals who may have seen their hours reduced, but the reason that happens is so those hours can actually be devoted to those with greater need.
As we go forward with our aging population, it's an area that governments will have to see strengthened. If you go onto the Vancouver coastal health authority's website, you will see their three-year strategic plan and how they plan to budget over the coming years. They actually, in there, have targeted an increase of about $25 million in the home and community care sector. There is a comparable reduction on the acute care side, because if you can build more community capacity, facilities and resources, then you can alleviate some of the pressure we have in our acute care system around the use of what we refer to as alternate level care beds — patients who should be in some other care setting but are stuck in acute care. So I think Vancouver coastal has taken a very good and forward-looking view of this.
K. Johnston: Thanks for that answer. I was wondering — again, another kind of general question…. Because of the nature and the number of seniors facilities in Vancouver-Fraserview, I often get approached by the providers, and they come up with very innovative ideas once in a while. I was wondering if we are willing and looking at thinking outside of the box.
I'll give you an example of a residential care facility that would like to provide meals to an adjacent assisted-living facility. There has been, if I can be blunt about it, some resistance to that in terms of delivery of services. I was just wondering if you have any advice on it — if that's something we could look at in the future for a bunch of reasons, including social and economic reasons.
Hon. C. Hansen: We certainly encourage that kind of innovation. I know I've talked to operators of not-
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for-profit facilities or private facilities around some of their frustrations, and some of this comes back to contract restrictions. They are facing some challenges on that, but I think wherever it makes sense, we certainly want to encourage it.
[J. Weisbeck in the chair.]
K. Johnston: I've just got a couple of quick questions here. Again, most of my questions refer to incidents or situations that are happening. We had a situation arise in terms of ambulances being backed up in a particular case I won't go into. My question has to do with this. If you look at the strategic plan, the three-year plan, we talk about a nine-minute response time for ambulances. I know there was work being done, I think at Vancouver coastal, in terms of understanding how the whole ambulance system works — how, when somebody goes there with a patient, they have to stay there.
I was wondering if I could get an update or a status report on how we were coming along on that. I understand there are better ways of delivering ambulance services at the hospitals.
Hon. C. Hansen: There has been a lot of work done under what we refer to as the emergency services review. Part of that is to make sure we get better integration between the ambulance service and the emergency room.
One of the challenges we have today is that the ambulance service is still run directly — well, not directly…. It's under the auspices of the Ministry of Health Services as opposed to the health authorities. To a certain extent the health authorities' responsibility starts once the responsibility for the patient has been transferred from the ambulance paramedics. What we are working toward is to try to get better integration at the point at which those patients are handed over to the staff in the emergency room.
We've made some progress on that front, but I think we still have a ways to go. We also have to make sure those emergency rooms are able to receive those patients in a timely fashion so that the ambulance attendants don't get backed up waiting to hand over their patients. People often look at that as a problem that needs to be fixed in the emergency room. In fact, it's further down the system. Sometimes the lack of community beds results in more patients, which are the ALC patients we talked about earlier, tying up beds in the acute care. They in turn tie up access for patients who should be coming through the emergency room and admitted to wards, and that in turn backs up the ambulance service.
It's not an easy fix, but we're working on it, and I think we're starting to make some progress in that regard.
I'll read this into the record. With regard to the Vancouver coastal health authority, they have completed phase 1 of the emergency services planning project. Recommendations regarding emergency department capacity and location and required systems for accessible, high-quality, appropriate, coordinated and cost-effective emergency services will be implemented in 2004.
K. Johnston: Thank you for that. That's good news, I think, that's put forward by the minister.
One last question. I'm going through service plans, and I've had some feedback on this too. In terms of waiting times for radiotherapy and chemotherapy, it's noted there is a target of 90 percent of folks being treated within four weeks. I wondered how far along the road we were on that. How does that compare with other jurisdictions, who I am sure are having the same challenges?
Hon. C. Hansen: I was trying to get the member the exact numbers of where we're at. What I can assure him is that we are exceeding those targets both for radiotherapy and chemotherapy.
Just to give the member some examples here. In the case of radiotherapy, at the Fraser Valley centre we are at a median wait time of 6.8 days; Vancouver centre, 6.8 days; Vancouver Island centre, 4.5 days; and the southern interior centre in Kelowna at 6.8 days. We are well ahead of our targets with regard to those particular areas.
K. Manhas: I know that the minister has been canvassed extensively about the St. Mary's Hospital closure. The real issue for me with St. Mary's was the extreme concentration of hospital beds in New Westminster, a city of 50,000 people, where my community, which is in the northeast sector of the lower mainland, is growing — over a quarter of a million people now — and continuing to grow at a rate that's over twice the rate of growth of the GVRD as a whole.
Although the city councils of Coquitlam and Port Coquitlam did put forward motions, my concern was really to access those supports in New Westminster. It's quite a long drive for people in Port Coquitlam and Burke Mountain to get over there. By the time they get through the traffic in the Tri-Cities, it's quite a difficult endeavour.
We do have a state-of-the-art facility in Eagle Ridge Hospital that has remained underused, and some areas of the hospital have not even been opened. I know from the Fraser health authority that they were looking to provide some more services at Eagle Ridge.
I'd like to ask the minister: what can people in my community, in Port Coquitlam, expect to see at Eagle Ridge Hospital? How will people be able to access some of those services in the Tri-Cities, and will some of those services that were provided at St. Mary's Hospital begin to be able to be moved into the Eagle Ridge Hospital, where people in my community can actually access them at home, close to where they live?
Hon. C. Hansen: As I mentioned earlier, only 17 percent of the patients that went to St. Mary's Hospital
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lived in New Westminster. I think the member's point is very relevant, because 83 percent were in fact from other communities, who had to travel to New Westminster to get access to care at St. Mary's.
As a result of the changes in programs at St. Mary's, Eagle Ridge Hospital is one of the big beneficiaries of that change. We have now opened a fifth operating room. That was opened in October. A sixth operating room is going to open this month. There is a monitored-care unit that opened in January. Orthopedic surgery, major joints, including rehabilitation services, will be located at Eagle Ridge — and general surgery in-patient services, general surgery day care, gynecology, plastics. Eagle Ridge Hospital is also expanding its ambulatory care, including minor operating room procedures, laser treatment services and endoscopies.
K. Manhas: That certainly is good new for the area. There have been several doctors who have mentioned to me, as well, that if Eagle Ridge does expand its services, they are starting to look at moving their offices into the Tri-Cities. Residents in my area know it has been very, very difficult to access specialist services in the Tri-Cities, because all the doctors have their offices in New Westminster because the hospitals are there. I hope we move quickly on that, and I thank the minister for his efforts on that and the Fraser health authority.
The second thing I'd like to canvass here is…. There is some concern around the future of Riverview, specifically right now with some actions that members in the community are saying the Fraser health authority is starting to…. There are some concerns that the Fraser health authority is starting to discharge patients from Riverview. The concern amongst mental health care providers is that there is nowhere for these people to go. We know that past governments have downsized Riverview and beds have been closed. People end up going outside and walking the streets and ending up homeless on the riverbanks of the Coquitlam River. Our community can't afford for that to continue happening.
I'd like to ask the minister: what is happening and what efforts will be made to ensure that if people are moved outside of Riverview, they don't end up on the streets of Coquitlam and Port Coquitlam?
Hon. C. Hansen: I think this is truly one of the areas that our Premier has every right to be very proud of, because he put mental health at the top of the agenda and made sure it was given the focus it deserves within this government. One of the commitments that was made, first of all, is that we were going to implement the $125 million mental health plan. We are actually now well ahead of reaching that target of $125 million over seven years to fund those community-based services identified in the mental health plan.
The other thing the Premier did was dedicate $138 million for capital dollars to provide for community-based facilities so that as individuals were transferred out of Riverview — because that's been an objective of government for many years to downsize Riverview…. What the previous government did was that they downsized Riverview without putting those community supports in place, and many of those individuals wound up on the street. What we have been very careful of is to make sure that the only time individuals get transferred out of Riverview is once we've put the community services in place. I think it is truly one of the success stories that increasingly will be recognized.
Just to focus specifically on what Fraser health is doing, part of their redesign plan focused on two initiatives. One was progress on the Riverview redevelopment project, which is 63 specialized residential beds, and expanding community and mental health services, including services for individuals with concurrent disorders and eating disorders, seniors, mental health, psychosocial rehabilitation, case management and early psychosis intervention. I know that our colleague the Minister of State for Mental Health and Addiction Services would probably be able to elaborate on those a lot more, but I do have responsibility for the health authorities, and I must say I'm very proud of the work being done on the mental health front.
K. Manhas: I'd like to ask the minister about the case of a particular individual, the case of Matthew Drake. Matthew is a 14-year-old young man from Port Coquitlam who was born with achondroplasia, a congenital bone disorder causing the limbs to grow short and irregular. As you know, minister, I've been in contact with your ministry on several occasions regarding this case, and with yourself. I know Matthew's mother, Pam, has been in contact with your ministry and MSP as well.
Matthew underwent the lengthening surgery in Maryland last year, and before the surgery the grade 9 Port Coquitlam student — sorry; grade 10 now — stood 3 feet 10 inches tall. He's grown several inches as a result of the surgery and subsequent physiotherapy. Matthew's had considerable trouble standing for long periods of time, and there are other associated medical issues such as nerve and spine issues.
My community has united behind Matthew, and numerous fundraisers have occurred to help pay for the operation. But the cost is still significant. He'll be going back for follow-up procedures again this year.
What I'd like to ask the minister is: is there any possibility of showing flexibility in interpreting the rules in this case to allow coverage for Matthew's operation, or is there any possibility of future coverage if the operation is shown to have specific positive medical benefits?
Hon. C. Hansen: First of all, I would just like to acknowledge the great work the member has done in advocating for Matthew Drake. Certainly, he's come to see me on a number of occasions, and I know he's talked to my staff and to officials in the ministry on this file. I've seen the TV coverage of the determination of Matthew's mom and also how courageous Matthew himself is in these challenges.
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This is being reviewed by the ministry. We do rely on experts in the ministry and others that we can consult with around the best clinical data in cases like this. I'll read into the record just these two notes, which I think may assist the member a little bit.
"MSP sought expert opinions from an orthopedic surgeon, neurologist and B.C. Children's Hospital regarding the Drake request. Responses were inconclusive but noted the surgery is not recommended for patients with spinal stenosis who are in a high-risk category. Limb lengthening has very high rates of complications in terms of tissue and joint damage, nerve injury, infections, paralysis, dislocated hips, osteoarthritis, fractures, unequal limb length and possible instability of lengthened limbs."
These are all things that our experts are looking at as they review this particular request. I apologize that I cannot give the member any particular reason for encouragement at this point other than to say we are reviewing this, and we'll try to provide the Drake family with a response as soon as possible.
K. Manhas: I look forward to working with the minister on that.
I have heard from several individuals and paramedics in my community about the need for a new ambulance station in Port Coquitlam at Ottawa and Lougheed, and I was wondering if the minister can update on the status of that.
Hon. C. Hansen: We are currently going through a review of the ambulance service in the province to make sure we can meet the needs as we go forward. I think the area the member represents is obviously one of those areas that has rapid population growth. We constantly try to evaluate the population growth but also look at call volumes to determine where ambulance stations should be located and where there may be a growing need. Certainly, Coquitlam is one of those areas that may, in the future, require a specific ambulance station. We're going to be driven by what those call volumes are and what the growth projections are as we go forward.
This is true around the province, so we want to get a coordinated approach to this and make sure we have faster dispatch times. For example, one of the benefits to residents in the Coquitlam area is the fact that we've now gone to a computer-aided dispatch system at the ambulance dispatch centre that serves all of the lower mainland. It allows them to better determine where cars should be located at any particular time of the day. A lot is determined not necessarily by where the ambulance station is located but by where the ambulances are and how quickly they can get to a scene to meet those needs.
Yes, we are reviewing those numbers. Given the growth rates and the call demands in Coquitlam, that may well be a candidate for a dedicated ambulance station at some point in the near future.
K. Manhas: I know time is running tight, so as a last question I'd like to ask the minister if he could update the House and myself on the status of the new intermediate and long-term care beds in the province and where we are in achieving the goal of 500 new beds in the province by 2006.
Specifically, I'd like to ask what we can expect to see in Port Coquitlam and Coquitlam and if the minister could describe what can be done in my own community to increase the number of beds in the area and how government can help provide support to see that done.
Hon. C. Hansen: We are relying on the work that's being done by the health authorities. Fraser health, I know, has had a very comprehensive planning exercise, again, to look at where the needs are. You know, they do focus in on the data they get. It's broken down by very small units, what they call local health areas, which are fairly small units defined by Census Canada. We also, with B.C. Stats, derive data to determine what percentage of the population is over a certain age and what that is projected to look like down the road. It's based on that kind of information that the health authorities will determine where they need beds.
We are very confident that we will be able to reach our goal of 5,000 new beds by the end of 2006, but that's going to be a mix of a whole bunch of providers. The health authorities have a role to play in that. B.C. Housing has a role to play in that, and the private sector and the not-for-profit sector have a role to play in meeting the needs of individual communities.
In addition to that, we're also looking at how home support should be provided. Where it's appropriate, seniors can maintain their family homes if they have proper support. It may be in an independent housing environment or in an assisted-living environment — again, if there's appropriate support that can be provided. In some cases it's the most complex care, where you've got 24-hour-a-day, seven-day-a-week nursing care if patients need that level of care. It's really a mix of options that we want to make sure is available.
I have every confidence in the Fraser health authority to make sure that the needs of the Coquitlam area are met as they go through this planning exercise.
D. Jarvis: Minister, the time is running short — I appreciate that — so I'll try to ask two or three questions rolled up in one, hoping that you'll maybe give me an answer like (a) and (b).
I appreciate the fact that the member for Port Coquitlam–Burke Mountain asked a similar question and the fact that you tried to palm off an answer to him that you thought I was going to ask on the same subject. But it's a little different situation, in the sense that…. I've talked to you about it before — the fact that we have a bridge that is creating gridlock twice a week now, sometimes three and four times. Our ambulance service is served by Burnaby to the Seymour area. They have to cross the bridge, and then they have to cross two rivers. You know, it's like the movie A River Runs
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Through It, and all into the same quadrant that's occurring….
[H. Long in the chair.]
Traffic is getting busier and busier as we're running up into the Olympics. We're going to put 400 to 600 buses across that bridge. We do not have any helipads or anything yet. We can't get to the Lions Gate Hospital. The hospital itself doesn't even have a helipad to compensate in the event that we had a major incident out there — heaven forbid — with regard to the fact that we've got two chemical plants out in that area. We could have chemical plants and gridlock and all the rest, and we cannot get to people.
We have had examples of the Burnaby people and the ambulances coming that are now taking about half an hour, depending on the time they run through. When we phone 911, the 911 people that respond are supposed to get first notice or assess the problem. I wonder sometimes how they can assess a problem when you have a hysterical person making a call over the telephone about an injury, and they say, "Well, no," and they send the firefighters or send an ambulance — whichever is available — when it becomes available. It now takes 20 minutes to half an hour. We've had several incidents like that.
I have a growing number of people out in my area that are starting to get very incensed about it, because they've had a problem. The firefighters say that they're not notified. In the last incident we had out there, the firefighters could have been notified, they contend, or at least…. Maybe I'll say that I contend the firefighters and the ambulances belong to different unions, and the 911 belongs to the same union as the ambulances. The firefighters say they do not get those calls all the time to be able to assess if they would be able to look after the problem.
My question really is: do we provide service based on the numbers of population or where we are, or do we base our service on the possibilities of the incident that occurs? My question is: is there really any difference? I mean, how are we going to discern from a telephone call which is a serious situation and which is not a serious situation? I take exception to the fact that someone on the telephone, when you call 911, is going to have to determine that.
What I'm saying is that we need an ambulance stationed in the Seymour area. There's room provided for it beside a fire hall there that has an extra bay in it that they could put an ambulance in, but it appears to me there's a turf war going on there, because one won't go in there. So we have a real problem.
The district of North Vancouver has put up land near the Kiwanis Lodge out there in Seymour, but nothing has ever happened on that. I was wondering if the minister could tell me, in a thousand words or less, how he could possibly solve this problem. It's not going to get better; it's going to get worse. The population is growing. There are approximately 1,100 to 1,200 new building lots coming on stream out there. The aboriginal band in Burrard is going to build two or three more apartment units thatare going to carry close to 500 occupants in them. So we are reaching a point of real concern.
Then, as I say, with the Olympics that are coming on and all the vehicles and traffic and construction, etc., going up there, we are going to reach a real problem. I'm going to throw it back at you and hope that you're going to come out with a real positive answer for a change, with regard to this situation.
Hon. C. Hansen: The information that I provided to the member from Coquitlam, I think, applies here as well, in terms of…. We make determinations as to where ambulance stations should be located based on call volumes and based on population growth and demographics. Currently, the North Shore is served by two ambulance stations. One is in West Vancouver, and the other is located at Lions Gate Hospital. As the member indicated, additional resources do get brought into the area from adjacent service areas during peak periods, and in many cases that comes in from Burnaby. So we are looking at call volumes.
I think one of the things that's really important, as I mentioned to the previous member, is that it's nice to have an ambulance station, and that may well be a possibility in the future. But what we need to look at is where ambulances should be located. Even more importantly, we need to look at response times. We've had a lot of work done looking at the ambulance service in terms of how we can improve that service. I think we have a first-class ambulance service in this province today, but clearly there's room for improvement around response times and making sure there is appropriate utilization.
There is a new chief executive officer for the Ambulance Service who has just started: David Morhart. One of his early priorities was a meeting he had with the fire chief in North Vancouver. My understanding is that it was a very positive meeting and that they would be very anxious to work with us to try to address the issue of first responder. I know that the issue of ambulance service in the Seymour area is being looked at, and while I don't have any specific information for the member tonight, I am confident that at the end of that process we'll make sure there are appropriate staffing levels and appropriate ambulance service provided to the residents of his constituency.
J. Bray: I've been following tonight's debate. I'm always amazed at the minister and his senior staff and how they are able to keep tabs on all these issues. I'm always amazed.
No doubt the minister is anticipating me going to some local issues that he's heard me speak of before. The first area that I'm going to canvass is regarding the Royal Jubilee Hospital, which is a major tertiary care centre for Vancouver Island.
Over the course of the last year there have been, on certainly more than one occasion, situations where the
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media had to report out that the emergency room at Royal Jubilee was actually at a place where they were having difficulty accepting any additional patients. They were making very strong suggestions as to where people might go to seek treatment if they were planning on coming to the emergency room. When these situations happen, of course, constituents call my constituency office and express concerns.
I'm wondering if the minister can provide me with some concrete explanations as to why, although it's not frequent, we have situations at a major tertiary hospital — at Royal Jubilee — where the emergency room actually gets beyond the point of capacity and the health authority is having to make those types of announcements.
Hon. C. Hansen: I know this is a subject that causes great frustration on the part of hospital administrators, because they only wish that the demands on emergency rooms were predictable When we wind up with spikes in the number of patients coming into an emergency room, they don't manifest themselves in a way that's predictable. It's not like saying that every time there is a full moon, suddenly there is a whole bunch more patients, or that it happens on Friday nights or things like this. They do try to staff as best they can for what they anticipate, but in addition, they wind up with times that more patients are coming in the door than they can handle. We do try to work with the ambulance service in terms of diverting patients to other facilities that may not be under the same pressures. That can be done for a temporary period of time.
There are other reasons why this can happen. We still are experiencing a shortage of emergency room nurses in the province. I know there are times when some emergency rooms wind up understaffed because they haven't got the flexibility to simply bring in some additional nurses if someone, for example, were to phone in sick for a particular shift. They do wind up with challenges on that front.
The other initiative underway is that we're working to strengthen primary care options for patients so that those with lower levels of need, those who do not need to be in an emergency room, can in fact find care at other types of facilities such as primary care centres. There has been some success on that. We have been able to get a reduction in the level of lower-level acuity patients presenting themselves at emergency rooms, and that is starting to make some difference.
The bottom line is that there is no quick solution to this. I think every health authority in B.C. is certainly working on that, and indeed I think every major hospital in Canada is facing that same challenge of how to deal with these unpredictable peaks in demands on their services.
J. Bray: To follow up on the minister's comments, I appreciate the fact that the cyclical nature of hospital room usage is not predictable in any way. On the primary care front, the minister is suggesting strategies to try to reduce the low-level acuity patients from choosing the emergency room as their first option. I know in the report of the Select Standing Committee on Health in 2001 there was some talk about whether or not there might be some way to look at having some of the clinics that are currently operated by comprehensive family physicians, the sort of walk-in clinics, operate nearby so that in fact it provides that option. When someone's saying, "I'm not feeling well; I'm going to go to the hospital," it has that ability to look at whether or not they will go to the walk-in clinic versus the emergency room. Is there any look at trying to find that partnership to provide that logical option for patients?
The second part of that was whether or not there's any ability for those at the front lines in the emergency rooms to make the suggestion to patients when they walk in the door that perhaps there is another alternative for them to pursue, other than getting in the lineup in the emergency room along with the people having heart attacks or strokes or various other things, to try to deal with that volume issue.
I'm wondering if the minister can comment on that and whether or not there is any look to trying to do a diversion program more directly than hoping people make a choice. I do think that is an issue in Victoria, where there is capacity, but I'm not sure that health consumers know to make that choice.
Hon. C. Hansen: There are several initiatives underway to help alleviate pressures in that regard. The first thing is that, yes, triage nurses do screen for patients who have a lower level of need, who could perhaps seek an alternative source of care to get their needs met.
One great initiative, which is actually one that was piloted right here in Victoria, is the B.C. NurseLine. That has had a significant impact on reducing pressures on operating rooms. Patients can talk to a nurse and can get information they need to allow them to make better decisions about where they should go to get access to the care they need. In many cases they actually avoid an emergency room visit as a result of that initiative.
The member mentioned walk-in clinics. The best model, in my view, is the walk-in clinic that is part of a more comprehensive primary care environment — a walk-in clinic that is part of a family practice clinic where doctors can provide, on one hand, the walk-in service, which patients need if they have an unforeseen event. But they also get plugged into the continuity of care that the full-service family practice can provide. One of the objectives around our primary care strategies is to try to encourage those kind of environments so that patients can get access to the care they need.
The other thing that is important to note and that I think the member is aware of is the new psychiatric emergency facility that is being developed here in Victoria and actually had a sod-turning on December 16. That again is going to alleviate some pressures on the emergency room once it's completed. In fact, I think the
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member was probably there for that sod-turning, so he knows about that big success story.
J. Bray: The NurseLine that the minister mentions. I'm glad to hear that's having an impact, because something we heard in our committee a few years ago was that there needed to be more promotion of that. I'm glad to hear that's being successful.
Shifting, then, from Royal Jubilee emergency to primary care. The minister has certainly seen me several times on the issue of the James Bay clinic, which was one of the original six primary care demonstration pilot projects around the province looking at changing the way in which clinics are structured and reimbursed for providing full-service, comprehensive care.
I also know that the minister was very helpful a year or so ago when there were some financial issues at the clinic in James Bay, and the Ministry of Health worked very closely and stepped up to the plate. I'm just wondering whether or not in the agreement between the James Bay Community Project and the health clinic and the Ministry of Health…. Can the minister provide me with an update as to how that relationship is going and how he's seeing progress in the James Bay community clinic?
Hon. C. Hansen: As the member indicated, he's come to see me many times on this file. I know that the ministry has bent over backwards to try to be helpful to find a model that is going to work and be sustainable. I particularly would like to recognize the work the member has done to try to get more residents of the James Bay part of Victoria to use the clinic, to sign up for those services, because the sustainability of the James Bay clinic is really dependent on the residents of James Bay committing themselves to using that clinic.
It is not simply a case of government saying: "Well, it's a great idea, so we're going to pour a bunch of money into it." It is actually a case of saying: "Yeah, if residents of James Bay are going to commit to using the services of the James Bay clinic, then the funding will flow proportional to the number of individuals who sign up for that service."
Thanks to the invitation from the member, I have had a chance to visit the James Bay clinic on a couple of occasions, and I certainly recognize the excellent services they provide. If there is anything we can do to work with the member to encourage more residents of James Bay to actually sign up and take advantage of those services, I would like to work with them and try to assist in any way I can. But the bottom line when it comes to the future sustainability of James Bay is that the residents of James Bay themselves are the ones that have to commit to using those services.
J. Bray: I would like, Mr. Chair, through you to the minister, to thank him very much for that commitment. Certainly, my commitment to the James Bay community in working with them to make sure the clinic survives and thrives is solid, but I really appreciate the fact that the minister has also offered his commitment to help make that happen.
I know there are some other members who have questions, so my final question is the same topic — two different locations. There are two extended care facilities in my riding, Sandringham Hospital and James Bay Lodge. My understanding is that they're going through a transition with respect to the type of care they're providing, capital renovations to their facilities and a current transition of residents from those two facilities into the Gorge Road Hospital, temporarily, and then on to other facilities.
I'm just wondering if the minister can provide me with what actually is happening to those two facilities and where the residents who are currently in Sandringham or James Bay will ultimately end up. Are they simply moving to Gorge Road Hospital for the renovations, or are they going to be placed in more appropriate care facilities to allow for the new residents, presumably that are being identified, to move in?
Hon. C. Hansen: This move is necessitated by the need for the upgrading of older facilities. Obviously, it is disruptive for the residents because they have to be relocated while those facilities are being renovated. I think at the end of the renovation they're going to be wonderful, rejuvenated facilities.
I know the operator of the two facilities has been working with the families and working with Vancouver Island health authority to make sure the needs of the residents are met. In most cases they will be transferred to the Gorge Road facility as a temporary location, but I know there are also specific plans being worked out to make sure that it is not too disruptive for the seniors involved. Great care is being taken to assess the individual needs of those residents. If they need any special attention or a specialized type of facility, the Vancouver Island health authority is working with them to try to make sure that wherever possible those needs can be met.
J. Bray: Just a follow-up question, if the minister could update me, as to whether Sandringham and James Bay are simply having renovations or whether there is a reconfiguration for a different type of resident that will be moving in post-renovation. I think that is an important note. I would like to know whether it is just a quid pro quo or whether we're actually going to be providing a different level of service in those two facilities after the renovations are complete.
Hon. C. Hansen: It is my understanding that most of the residents would in fact move back into the facility once it is renovated and rejuvenated. I do understand there are some patients going through two moves, one now to move into a new facility and then to move back again, and it may be difficult for them. I know they're trying to identify appropriate locations for those residents, so it would involve only one move.
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Generally speaking, my understanding is that most of those residents, in fact, will move back into the facility once the renovations are completed.
The company has decided to renovate James Bay Lodge into 110 complex care beds, and the renovation of Sandringham Hospital will be to accommodate 46 geriatric mental health patients. Some of those individuals may now be on the mainland and may in fact be able to come back to Victoria, once we have appropriate facilities designed for them.
R. Lee: I have a question about the cost of medication. We all know that medication costs have increased quite rapidly over the past few years. I wondered what steps are being taken to reduce the cost of medication. What kinds of criteria are used to put the medication on the Pharmacare list, and probably off the list? I would like to have some understanding on that kind of criteria.
For example, in one case my constituent called me, saying that this particular drug…. I won't mention it. He said that the drug is useful, and his doctor asked him to use that drug because he is allergic to other drugs. In that case, how do you help the patient if he is allergic to the other drugs but that particular drug is not covered under Pharmacare?
Hon. C. Hansen: The first stage of a new drug being introduced in Canada is to have what is referred to as notice of compliance by Health Canada. The federal government determines whether or not a new drug is safe, and only then can each of the provinces consider whether or not they will provide financial coverage for it. Once Health Canada says it is safe and it receives notice of compliance, doctors can prescribe it and pharmacists can dispense it, but it is not at that point eligible for financial assistance through the Pharmacare program. The manufacturer can then apply to the province to have that listed.
In the past every province did that independently. It is based on the science. It is based on how effective this particular medication is, compared to other medications that may be available. That's a review that in the past was done independently by every province. Today we're moving to what is referred to as a common drug review where all provinces, with the exception of Quebec, have agreed to participate in one review that would then be shared with all of the provinces. They would determine if, in fact, there is a significant benefit to the new medication compared to others already listed.
Once that is completed, if the common drug review says no, they don't think there is any significant benefit to a drug, then no provinces or territories will list it. If they in fact say there is a benefit, then it comes down to a decision by each province as to whether or not they can afford it. You know, that is a factor, because some of the new medications are extremely expensive. We have to make a decision whether or not we have the resources to provide the financial assistance under Fair Pharmacare to cover those particular medications. That, in a nutshell, is the process that leads to the approval of the medications.
R. Lee: He said a peer process…. If a patient is allergic to all other drugs and there's one drug which has not been tried yet, is there any process so that he or she can try this drug in the system?
Hon. C. Hansen: When the experts do their review of a new medication, they take into consideration patients that may benefit only from that particular drug. In some cases, if it is a drug that has very little benefit for most of the population but specific benefit for some, it may in fact be put in what we call a special authorization category, which means that physicians can put in a special authorization request for that patient to be provided with coverage for that particular medication.
Even when our experts determine that's not necessary, we also have exceptions that we will make in very unusual circumstances. Even though a drug is not listed as a benefit under Pharmacare, if there are unique circumstances, certainly the physicians can write to us, and in some cases we will make exceptions — in unusual cases.
G. Hogg: The Ministry of Health Planning in June 2002 had an update, an environmental scan on health human resources. In that, they listed ten health services professions that they saw shortages in. They had some strategies that they listed in terms of managing those shortages and talked about barriers in terms of clinical placements. I'm wondering if the minister can advise what strategies were put in place, as a result of that environmental scan, to look at the shortages in those ten professions and the barriers with respect to clinical placements and to assisting with the development of those professions.
Hon. C. Hansen: There is a lot of work that has been done by the previous Ministry of Health Planning around developing the health human resources strategy for the future. We are trying to look forward, not just a year or two but in fact a decade ahead, to anticipate what our needs are. There has been a lot of work done with the health authorities in developing this plan.
Also, we've put in place what's referred to as the Interprofessional Rural Program of B.C., which is providing clinical education for medical, nursing and allied health students in various non-urban sites around the province to make sure that rural needs get met as well.
We are developing more capacity. I've talked earlier in the debates about the increase in the number of seats in colleges and universities for nurses — in excess of 1,800 additional seats for nursing. We have also expanded or are expanding training seats for medical lab assistants, medical lab technologists, radiography technologists, medical transcriptionists, pharmacy assistants, dental assistants and midwives — to mention
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just a few. There are a couple of others I know of that aren't on that particular list.
In addition to that, we are working with other provinces, because this is a common challenge across Canada. It has been on the agenda for the federal-provincial Health ministers' conference to make sure we get a shared perspective on this, because it's not just about B.C. It's actually about making sure that those health human resources needs for all of Canada are met in the future.
G. Hogg: I assume the minister is referring to the Health Human Resources Advisory Committee as part of the process in terms of doing that. The ministry service plan for 2004 through 2007 outlines the allocation of $1.3 billion in federal funding increases to B.C. under the first ministers' accord. That accord funding allows money to be designated for a diagnostic and medical equipment fund, and one of the permitted uses in that is training to improve access to publicly funded diagnostic services. Is that the intent of using any of the federal funding for those types of purposes?
Hon. C. Hansen: As part of the health accord that was agreed to a year ago last month, there were $200 million allocated to B.C. over three years for equipment. One of the things that came out of that, which was a first for funding from the federal government for equipment, was that it did also include dollars for training. In other words, if we're putting in a new MRI machine, we can use the fund, as well, to make sure the technologists that have to operate the machine can be funded for the training they will require.
G. Hogg: Let me just, on behalf of my colleagues, express my gratitude to the minister and his staff for accommodating all of his many hours of work and for being so informative and helpful in the process.
Hon. C. Hansen: I would also like to echo the member's comments with regard to the staff from the Ministry of Health Services that have been a tremendous help to me. I know they still have to come back tomorrow as we move to the mental health issues, but that will be with my colleague the Minister of State for Mental Health and Addiction Services.
With that, noting the time, I move that we rise, report progress and ask leave to sit again.
The committee rose at 8:58 p.m.
The House resumed; J. Weisbeck 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. G. Plant moved adjournment of the House.
Deputy Speaker: The House stands adjourned until 10 o'clock tomorrow morning.
The House adjourned at 8:59 p.m.
PROCEEDINGS IN THE
DOUGLAS FIR ROOM
Committee of Supply
The House in Committee of Supply A; G. Trumper in the chair.
The committee met at 2:45 p.m.
ESTIMATES: MINISTRY OF
AGRICULTURE, FOOD AND FISHERIES
On vote 10: ministry operations, $44,682,000.
Hon. J. van Dongen: I'm very pleased to present the '04-05 budget estimates for the Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Fisheries. I'd like to introduce my staff: Deputy Minister Rory McAlpine; executive director of corporate services Jacquie Kendall; and behind me, director of seafood development Al Castledine. I do want to note the absence of our assistant deputy minister of resource development and sustainability, Bud Graham, who is carefully watching these proceedings from his sickbed, but we do miss him and hope he gets back soon.
A little more than two and a half years ago our government said we would balance the books, and we have. We have brought spending under control, and our balanced budget legislation ensures that all future budgets will also be in the black. The Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Fisheries has done its part while keeping our core agricultural and fisheries services in place.
It was a year in which both the ministry and our farming and fishing industries have met some unprecedented challenges. Through all that, we made progress and we're still on target. It's the advantage of planning in advance. We know where we're going, and then we make adjustments along the way as needed.
The changes we've made over the past two and a half years positioned us to work with industry in managing the BSE crisis and to cope effectively with the drought and a number of other crises that, as you know, Madam Chair, impacted our industries.
This year the Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Fisheries will continue to build on past successes and will continue to enhance the competitiveness of the
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agrifood sector. We will continue on the new directions that have been set through the national agricultural policy framework and the international trade environment. We will continue our efforts to ensure consumer protection and confidence in B.C.'s food system, and we will profile British Columbia's unique attributes regarding food production to the world, especially when the world comes to B.C. in 2010.
Our ministry budget has been stabilized for the next three years at $44.6 million and 326 full-time-equivalent staff. That means we have secure funding in place to share risk management with the industry through crop insurance and the new Canadian agricultural income stabilization program.
We're working with industry on collaborative approaches that build their sectors and provide them with the assistance they need when they need it. This was demonstrated this past year with the discovery of BSE in Alberta and again in Washington State in December.
Our ministry is increasingly working through partnerships such as with the B.C. Investment Agriculture Foundation, the B.C. Agriculture Council, the University of British Columbia and the B.C. 4-H program, to name a few. For instance, during the BSE crisis the ministry and I have worked very closely with industry leaders such as the B.C. Cattlemen's Association to provide the most beneficial programs for ranchers and farmers and to provide them with the information they need.
Now that B.C. has signed on to the national agricultural policy framework for a five-year agreement, we will focus on implementing its benefits and programs. The APF will help B.C.'s agriculture and seafood sectors to build on their natural attributes of resilience, quality and diversity through sound stewardship, science and innovation. Signing on to the APF means we are able to leverage our provincial dollars into an additional $250 million of federal funding over the next five years — funding to build a future for B.C. agriculture that is profitable, consumer-oriented and environmentally sound and that includes a safety net for crises like BSE.
It is because we have just gone through such an unusual year that the ministry requested supplementary estimates of $27.3 million for the '03-04 fiscal year. As we discussed earlier, these were in two parts: $10.5 million to help ranchers as quickly as possible and $16.8 million to cover B.C.'s portion of additional claims expected to come in under the CAIS program due to the BSE crisis.
This means that B.C.'s livestock industries have access to almost $70 million in federal and provincial programs to allow them time to make adjustments to the new realities of the marketplace. The Premier and I will continue to raise our number one priority with our federal and U.S. colleagues to get the borders open so that B.C. meat and live animals can move back into U.S. and other markets.
We've talked a lot lately about the cattle and beef industries, both here in this House and out in our communities. Agriculture, agrifood and seafood, however, are high-tech, high-value, knowledge-based sectors. Gate to plate, they are a key contributor to our economy — jobs for a total of about 273,000 British Columbians and GDP contributions of more than $20 billion a year overall.
Our agriculture and seafood sectors are growing every year from $1.17 billion in 1996 to $2.47 billion in 2002. They continue to grow. Customers the world over are interested in our products — from fruit to beef to ginseng to oysters — more than 200 agricultural and 80 marine food products in all. Looking to the future, our agriculture and fisheries sectors hold tremendous potential to produce a wide range of bio-based products — from protein supplements to biodegradable plastics to ethanol — all of which will benefit our health, our environment and our economy.
We continue to get the word out about the safety of our food supply in Canada and in British Columbia. The quality of our farm practices and our environmental sustainability are all becoming key factors for our agrifood and fish industries.
Our government strongly supports consumer-friendly agriculture and seafood development. My ministry is focused on four core business areas that relate directly: food safety and quality, environmental sustainability and resource development, risk management, and industry and industry competitiveness. These are important areas to work on with industry to meet and develop sustainable and consumer-friendly agriculture, seafood and agrifood.
It's also why our ministry strengthened our right-to-farm legislation — so farmers are protected from unreasonable local regulations that could threaten their livelihoods. That's why our government has introduced regulations that allow more farm-related, complementary and value-added activities in the agricultural land reserve.
Our approach, before and through the APF agreement, will help to keep the industry thriving and will expand markets and address changing consumer demand as well as maintain the well-deserved confidence of consumers in our agrifood industry.
The BSE problem has been a rude awakening. It has shown us the lack of connection most consumers have to their food system. I think there's a need and an opportunity, particularly after the BSE experience, for both consumers and farmers to develop a better connectivity between these two important groups in our economy. Consumers are often looking for that, and I know, now, that farmers and ranchers are looking for it as well.
When we talk food production in B.C., of course, we also talk about seafood. This past year, the province commissioned a strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats assessment of the seafood sectors — commercial fishing, processing, aquaculture and the tidal water sports fisheries. Madam Chair, we support — our government supports — a diversified, vital and active fishing sector.
A SWOT identifies the current situation and where the industry sits in that situation. The SWOT helps us
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to allocate responsibility — which of the follow-up actions should fall to government and which to industry. One of the themes in the report applies to our overall food system — the need for industry and the agrifood sector to continuously adapt the marketing of their products to consumers' unique and often changing demands.
Global seafood consumption is rising, and outdoor recreation has emerged as one of North America's fastest-growing tourism activities. Sustainability and traceability are becoming business requirements. The European Union will require full traceability by 2005. An aging workforce and the need for more sophisticated and technical knowledge in all our agriculture and seafood sectors and skills are on the rise. This is true of many industries. The seafood industry will have to compete with other industries for qualified employees and needs to develop appropriate retention strategies such as ongoing training.
B.C.'s diverse food and beverage production is among the finest anywhere. We want to get that message out. With the 2010 Winter Olympics coming to B.C. in six short years, we're going to be receiving unprecedented global attention. The Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Fisheries is working with Tourism B.C. and industry to tell the world about our unique opportunities in cuisine and culinary tourism, agritourism and garden tourism.
I would like to give two examples of specific programs that will help our industries meet the demands of an ever-increasing marketplace. The first is a national water supply extension program. Our government signed onto this program, which will see the federal government provide up to $5.6 million to enhance water supply in B.C. It will help to ensure that the agriculture sector has access to a secure, good-quality water supply to meet its growing needs and to reduce the risk of future water shortages through the planning and development of suitable and secure rural water supplies. This funding will help with on-farm water development projects, community and cooperative projects, and water-related studies and plans.
The second program is not new but has continued to expand. This is the award-winning Internet information portal called InfoBasket, which helps agrifood producers and processors find up-to-date information that applies specifically to their B.C. businesses. InfoBasket organizes thousands of articles and bulletins on all aspects of the agriculture industry, including production and processing, business management, finance, marketing and trade, regulations and legislation, directories and contacts, statistics and market data. InfoBasket started in 2001 with only two sectors and now hosts B.C.–relevant business information for 20 sectors. We will continue to add commodities to the site.
The agriculture, food processing and fisheries sectors all play a vital and important role in the B.C. economy. They touch every community, and they help sustain our communities. Our objective is a flourishing agriculture and seafood sector that will continue to contribute to prosperity for all British Columbians. I am confident that B.C. farmers and fishermen, producers and processors will not only survive the current challenges but will thrive into the future.
My ministry's job is to provide a good policy and regulatory framework so that the agriculture and seafood industries can thrive and grow in the future. We are a service ministry. We work with farmers, fishermen and food industry people to bring out the best in our B.C. agriculture, food, fisheries and seafood sectors; to set goals and objectives; and to implement them. Service quality is important to us. Responsiveness is important — to work with industry promptly, thoroughly and professionally.
Ministry staff are very important in delivering services to our client base. The past year has seen the retirement of a significant number of our professional staff, people who have dedicated their lives to the practice of agrology and the people in our industry. I would like to thank these dedicated individuals for their commitment and outstanding service to the people of British Columbia.
That concludes my opening comments. I'd be pleased to take questions on our budget.
P. Nettleton: Madam Chair, I thank you for this opportunity to ask some questions of the minister with respect to the Ministry of Agriculture. I will be focusing primarily on BSE.
I should say at the outset that I attempt from time to time to ask some tough questions of the minister, but it's no reflection on how I or the people I represent view the minister. The minister is someone I have known for a number of years. He's been in my home, in my riding and travelled extensively throughout the province working with producers. I know that they, for the most part, share my view of the minister as someone of integrity who works hard and works tirelessly on behalf of people within his industry. For that, I thank him, and I am grateful. As I say, any questions I may ask of the minister are no reflection in any way on the minister personally.
With that, I'll begin, if I may. My first questions, then, to the minister would be: what is the province's commitment to the cost-shared agriculture income stabilization and disaster program agreements, and what is the government's commitment beyond whole-farm trust funds when they run out, if in fact they haven't run out already?
Hon. J. van Dongen: In responding to the member's question, I'm not sure if he was looking for dollars and estimated potential support payouts under that program. What I will say is this. In August 2003 I wrote a letter to the president of the B.C. Cattlemen's Association and assured her that the province would fund all claims that were made for 2003 under that program. I'll ask my staff to come up with the estimated numbers if the member would like those numbers.
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P. Nettleton: That's helpful. I was trying to get some sense in terms of the limitations with respect to the government's financial commitment. Have those resources been depleted? Are they likely to have been depleted? What is the minister's sense of your resources with respect to those funds?
Hon. J. van Dongen: With respect to what I will call the ad hoc programs — the initial BSE recovery program that the federal-provincial government announced; the cull cow program that was announced federally and provincially in the fall, I think in November; and with respect to what we call the transition steer and heifer program, which is a provincial-only program — we expect to be within budget on all of those programs. We did, as the member knows, get Treasury Board approval and the supplementary estimates approval for $10.5 million for those programs, so we expect those funds to be sufficient for those programs. We expect that with the additional approximately $16.5 million dollars for the CAIS program, we will be on target on that program as well.
Those dollars under those various programs are in various stages of being paid out. The BSE recovery program ended on August 31. That was the original program. Those would be virtually all paid out, or close to it. Some of the other programs are in various stages. The cull cow program applications are open until March 13, I think it is. We are very close to the date there for applications, so those payouts have not all been made.
We also administer the federal payments under the cull cow program. The CAIS program support payments are based on five years of income tax returns, so those will be paid out over time.
P. Nettleton: Beyond the cost-shared income stabilization agreements and the province's 40 percent cost-sharing of the totally inadequate and meagre, in the view of producers, federal CAIS program with its further $25.2 million and despite the projected $16.8 million to which you've made reference and anticipated by the further extent and length of this crisis….
Perhaps the minister could tell me what the ministry's plans are to appropriate, elicit or otherwise render assistance and aid to B.C.'s producers that is not restricted to CAIS for the contained fallout of the BSE mad cow crisis.
Hon. J. van Dongen: I should say first off that we have continued to prioritize any and all activity that would lend any assistance in getting borders open or further partially opened. That has been our number one priority, as the member knows, and we continue to take every opportunity to do that. The most important thing that we can do is try and normalize markets, and we're doing that.
Secondly, the whole concept behind the five-year agriculture policy framework agreement — of which the risk management programs to which the member refers, both production insurance and the CAIS program — is intended to provide assistance where there are either market crises or natural crises that farmers and ranchers would have to deal with. I think it's important to remember the principle — that is, the principle of shared risk. The public policy argument there is that there is room for some assistance to deal with natural disasters and unforeseen or uncontrollable market disasters such as what happened in BSE or in a drought or that kind of thing. It's important to remember the principle of shared risk.
Certainly, it's important to recognize that there are impacts from the BSE situation — for example, where there has not been any public support — and that there are businesses that have been impacted, sometimes businesses that you would not normally connect to the beef industry — such as our hake plants on Vancouver Island, which used a beef product as a binder in their surimi product. There are impacts that happen across the economy. That's why I try and foster an understanding with ranchers of shared risk. That's the principle in these programs.
It's important to recognize that BSE has probably been the single biggest disaster to impact the Canadian cattle industry in its history, so there's certainly room for doing everything we can within the framework of good public policy and fiscal responsibility and fairness within the economy.
The third point, in answer to the member's question, is that we continue to work with other provinces across the country and with the federal minister on enhancements such as the negative margin enhancement. We now have six provinces which support the position of the four western provinces that the negative margin enhancement is something that the federal government should be supporting in the next two years.
The argument is twofold. Firstly, BSE is a federally reportable disease. And secondly, virtually all provinces have put additional dollars into assistance programs for farmers and ranchers to help them in the short term to deal with the BSE crisis. There's a very legitimate argument to be made that the federal government should fund negative margins. We support the policy, and we will continue to work with the federal minister to try and get that in place.
P. Nettleton: Well, I enjoyed that dissertation by the minister in terms of providing me with something to respond to. With respect to shared risk, I understand the notion of shared risk, and I understand that there are industries impacted by the effects of BSE other than producers themselves.
However, I'm sure the minister would agree that, in fact, assistance that has been offered at any level is not intended for, nor has it had the effect of, enriching producers. It's been directed to producers to allow them to survive this crisis, because if they don't, the collateral damage to other businesses associated with the industry will be gone — period. The minister is nodding his
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head, and I know he understands that. I don't think anyone is suggesting for a moment that there aren't others that are suffering. Suffering, whether it's the producers or the businesses that are associated with them, is not a good thing, and we all want to alleviate that as much as possible.
The minister also pointed to the reopening of borders. Again, this is something that we'd all like to wave a magic wand at and see those borders open. But in the absence of a magic wand, we're forced to do what we can in terms of — well, from my perspective — making constructive comments and criticism and, from the perspective of the minister, as minister, move forward on a number of fronts to be tenacious, creative and all of those things. We wish him every success, for obvious reasons.
He made reference, as well, to negative margins and indicated that it's his view and the view of, I think he said, six other provinces that the feds should support negative margins. Does that mean it's the position of this province and of those six other provinces that they are looking solely to the federal government for relief with respect to negative margins? Is that the position not only of this minister and this ministry but of the other provinces?
Hon. J. van Dongen: Most provincial ministries have some budget pressures, some more serious than others. As I said, virtually all provincial ministries have funded programs over and above the federal-provincial agreement. We have also put forward the option of making some adjustments within the original funding agreements that provinces and the federal government made. We basically put forward two options for funding negative margins. The submission to the federal government is for the first two years. After that, the provinces would share in the funding of that enhancement.
As I said yesterday in the House, there are still seven provinces — based on my most current information — that have not signed amending agreement No. 3, which involves negative margins and one other item. I don't think it's a lack of commitment to the negative margin enhancement.
The other thing I could say is that we know the federal government has been working on the possibility of providing some additional funds. We are hopeful that (a) that will happen and (b) those funds will, at least in part, be directed toward funding the negative margin enhancement. We're hopeful that there will be those additional federal moneys at the table in one form or another.
P. Nettleton: We'll move away from negative margins for the moment.
We are facing a human disaster here, certainly — a human and a ranch industry disaster. I've used the term "disaster" because this assistance that has been provided is part of a disaster program agreement, and the situation is certainly at a point at which it should be officially declared a national disaster — in talking to producers from my region of the province.
I'm wondering: has the ministry determined how many needy B.C. producers fall outside of the parameters of the Canadian agricultural income stabilization program — the CAIS program? Those that do not qualify but are filling out the forms in vain…. Or perhaps some are not bothering to fill them out, realizing that they are not applicable. Have you made that assessment, and is this and the actual total need being assessed? Are these facts known to the ministry? If in fact the ministry has that information, can they release those figures so that we can move forward and develop a plan for further and properly directed assistance before it's too late for those producers?
Hon. J. van Dongen: In answer to the member's question, I do want to say that I appreciate the member's activity in support of his beef producers. Certainly, I think he's made some appropriate observations about impacts both in the beef industry and in other parts of the economy.
On the CAIS program. We have a very active program, starting last August, of meeting with farmers and ranchers. We had a series of eight meetings, all of which I and a number of staff attended. We followed that with many workshops and a 1-800 line. We've tried to get the information out. If there's any prospect, we've encouraged producers to apply.
The CAIS program application is much more simple to apply than the previous program that it replaced, which was the whole farm insurance program. The application form is fairly simple. We think that the possibility of a payout is more predictable under the current circumstance than it was with the old program. We have encouraged producers to use the interim program that was announced in about October, which gives producers an opportunity for some support much earlier than the previous programs did. We have a very active dialogue going with producers and our staff.
We do not have — and it's probably not possible to have — good statistics and current statistics as people fill in applications and send them in. Certainly, as they are received, they are logged in Winnipeg where the applications are processed. We don't have economic analyses to measure impacts; we don't have that data.
We have concentrated all of our staff. A lot of our staff have worked very hard on this issue on two major fronts, and I'm talking major fronts: getting the border open and getting producers assistance in the meantime to help them — as the member has said — survive this crisis so that they can move on to an active contribution in the economy and their families.
P. Nettleton: Yes, and I don't dispute that in fact, as the minister asserts, a great deal of effort has gone into getting information out, as he terms it, and the simplification of application forms and providing resources and support for those who are attempting to qualify under CAIS.
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It's unfortunate, however, that there aren't the resources necessary to dedicate to assessing even further the impacts with respect to BSE in terms of those who fall outside of the CAIS program. I think that would be most helpful in terms of assessing things like economic impacts and getting a better sense in terms of the real impact to the overall industry. In any event, it appears clear that those resources are not available.
If I may just move on, I've got a couple more comments and questions in an attempt to put a human face on this impending disaster with respect to families, children, future ranchers and a tremendous resource — B.C. heritage, a homegrown industry which is now endangered. I guess the question that needs to be asked is: when is a disaster indeed a disaster? I guess one response might be: when government declares it to be — but apparently not. To wait for that to happen would in fact be too late.
These families across the province lose their livelihood, and in some cases, they lose their homes. The province — well, the nation — loses a great foundational and irreplaceable resource simply because governments at various levels have undervalued and ignored the importance of these families in this industry.
Ms. Sharon Robertson, a producer and rancher who was a guest in the Legislature during the last fall sitting, is a resident of the member for Bulkley Valley–Stikine's riding. I know that he's very aware of the problems with respect to this industry and his constituents. In any event, she was a guest here in the Legislature, and she has stated that she has received approximately half of what is due her from the BSE recovery programs. The minister may recall, in fact, having met with her in his office. I'm sure he does. It was an interesting discussion, and I think it highlighted for him just what impacts it was having in very real, practical ways. She's been told, apparently, that she'll receive the second half after she's paid a deposit of $3,500 into the CAIS program. Ms. Robertson, along with other ranchers from this constituency, including my own constituency, are concerned that they have no money left to contribute to CAIS after paying down debt accumulated during the mad cow crisis.
The CAIS program does not work for all producers and ranchers stricken by this disaster, partly because they do not have the financial resources, as in the case of Ms. Robertson, to contribute to the program. I guess my question to the minister, then, is: how does this government — or any government, for that matter — expect ranchers and producers to benefit from this program if they cannot meet the guidelines of the program? Waiving the requirement of paying the deposit comes to mind as a very simple way, a very direct way, of moving in the right direction in terms of assisting these producers.
Hon. J. van Dongen: Certainly, the member has identified an aspect of the program that does create difficulty in this situation with the BSE crisis, and that is the need for a producer to put up a deposit. The deposit is, I think, an appropriate program design which fits in with the shared-risk principle, but certainly, in this circumstance it is creating hardship and difficulty.
We have worked actively with other provinces to persuade the federal government to look at options such as a letter of credit that would substitute for a cash deposit. We are also working closely with lending institutions who, as I understand it…. Certainly, lending institutions and the accounting profession have recognized the merit of the program and are willing to work with farmers and ranchers to ensure that they are able to tap into any part of the program they are entitled to.
We're working on that issue from a number of perspectives but are not in a position to report any concrete change at this point.
J. MacPhail: I certainly appreciate the questions from the member for Prince George–Omineca and the discussion from the minister. I think what I'll do is carry on with the same topic. It's not my order, but it makes sense for the minister.
The minister has referred several times to opening up the border. He and I had a bit of a discussion about that under the supplemental estimates debate a few weeks ago. What has happened since his trip to Washington to open up borders, which I think was the third week in February or maybe before that? No, I think it was around February 22 or 23. What's happening?
Hon. J. van Dongen: I think the member probably knows my calendar better than I do.
Hon. J. van Dongen: That's great.
As the member knows, we had very good meetings in Washington D.C. I won't go over all the details of those, but we had meetings with both U.S. elected people and, in particular, professional people within APHIS, the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service of the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Certainly, all indications out of those meetings were that the United States would be moving fairly expeditiously to reopen a comment period for the rule proposals that were put out early last November — I think November 4. That actually occurred on Thursday last week, as I recall. The USDA announced a reopening of the comment period for what was essentially the proposed rules that were tabled in November of 2003. The closing date for comments is April 7, and the one element that was added to the November 4 package of proposed rules…. They were inviting comment on the possible movement of meat products across the Canada–U.S. border — or any border, for that matter. I guess they use the term "movement from minimal risk countries" for meat products that came from animals over 30 months that had the specified risk materials removed.
As expected, the announcement that we were told would be coming did come. We see this as an interim
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stage. It's our understanding that the USDA is looking at it as an interim stage. When the comment period closes on April 7, we're hopeful that they will take a look at it — because this is the second comment period for this package — and will move forward fairly expeditiously to get that stage open.
That will be of some assistance. It will not solve all of the problems in the Canadian beef industry. We need to bear in mind that since the December 23 case in Washington State, there are now export markets that are closed to the United States, so that is providing additional supply in North America that the market will have to deal with.
J. MacPhail: Where is the federal government in all of this? Since the provincial minister's trip to Washington last month, what contact has he had with the federal government, if any?
Hon. J. van Dongen: I have not had any personal direct contact since that meeting with the federal government. Certainly, there is ongoing and active dialogue between our Canadian scientists and veterinarians and their counterparts in the United States. There is also an active dialogue between Minister Speller, the federal minister, and his counterpart, Secretary of Agriculture Ann Veneman, in the United States. I do know that on January 16 Minister Speller met with both Ms. Veneman and the minister for agriculture in Mexico, but I'm not personally aware of subsequent discussions since then.
The Chair: We'll just recess for two minutes.
B. Penner: Actually, Madam Chair, I was going to ask a question, if I may. I'll just take the opportunity of this break in the questioning.
I know that the minister has taken on a considerable amount of effort in terms of meeting with his counterparts not just in Canada but south of the border. I would like to just comment on that from the perspective of having been involved with the Pacific NorthWest Economic Region.
On a fairly regular basis I am in contact with our colleagues south of the border, and I have to commend the minister for his effort to build personal relationships with the various state directors of agriculture. I think it has helped influence the response south of the border in terms of BSE. I think their response has been more muted than it might have been, and it's all because of a personal relationship.
It's a matter of record that the last administration here in British Columbia did not have the same kind of understanding, interest or relationship with our colleagues south of the border — actually north of the border, too, in Alaska. There is no substitute for being there; there is no substitute for having personal contact or personal relationships. If we are ever to reach a new level of understanding and to resolve some of these contentious issues, like BSE and perhaps the avian flu, you can only do that when you have a level of trust.
You don't build trust by staying at home pretending that the rest of the world doesn't exist and that we can somehow operate in isolation. It does involve rolling up your sleeves and getting out and meeting with your counterparts. What's been interesting for me to learn is that people south of the border are very interested in hearing what we have to say. They do appreciate the direct contact and are actually very interested in learning from us.
I know that when the BSE case was discovered in Washington State, literally within minutes my phone was ringing from people who I know in Olympia, Washington asking: "How do we get in contact with people in Alberta and British Columbia, because we know that you've gone through this very same thing on BSE?" They would not know to make those phone calls — they would not even think about us in that kind of a positive, constructive way — if not for the efforts of the minister and other members of the government in terms of building those relationships.
It doesn't happen overnight, but we're well underway. I think there's more work to be done there. I'd just like to salute the minister for his efforts to date.
J. MacPhail: I didn't know whether that kind of action required a response or not — that physical kind of action. So that's good.
Just to carry on about opening the borders. Are the next steps up to the U.S. government? Are all the next steps in terms of opening the border up to the U.S. government?
Hon. J. van Dongen: Certainly, a big part of the decisions relate to decisions made in the United States, but Canada is clearly a partner in that. There are issues that our people are working with in terms of trying to harmonize rules with the United States and Mexico. The other important player is the OIE, which is the international standards–setting body that did a panel review of both investigations — the Alberta cow and the Washington cow. There are two separate panels. They are certainly important players in what is in fact the development of a new set of rules internationally on getting borders open when you have a country such as Canada — and now the United States — in what they call a minimal risk category.
Certainly there is some activity required and being engaged in very actively by Canada. Recently, for example, Dr. Brian Evans, the head veterinarian for the CFIA, was in Paris meeting with OIE people. There's a lot of activity going on behind the scenes on that.
I should also mention in response to the member on the previous question that there is a federal-provincial ministers' meeting scheduled for April 8 on this issue.
J. MacPhail: I have some questions here that, certainly, many have been asked by my colleague from Prince George–Omineca. It's a package of questions from the Central Interior Feeders Cooperative Association. He's covered a lot of that ground. I would just like
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to know when the last time was that the minister met with this organization.
Hon. J. van Dongen: Well, I certainly recall meeting with a number of members of that organization in Vanderhoof in late August when we did our meetings around the province. Further to that, I have certainly had a number of phone calls with members of that organization. I think I had one or two personal meetings with one or two members in the fall.
We have taken the approach that we have been as available as we possibly can be to all of the people in the beef industry. We make it an absolute priority to have phone calls returned by the appropriate people — whether it is ministry staff, myself or my ministerial assistant. I am not aware of any requests for a meeting from that organization that…. I'm not aware of any requests that weren't fulfilled.
J. MacPhail: No, neither am I. I just wanted to make sure that…. Perhaps the minister has resolved some of their concerns. That's all. That was the only point of my question.
It's an interesting point that the Central Interior Feeders Cooperative Association makes about reviewing the impact of the BSE crisis across Canada. In a round-table discussion between government and industry leaders, the Canadian perspective came to the conclusion that B.C. and Manitoba were the hardest hit by the BSE disaster, in part because of the feed shortage — the combination of BSE and drought.
They make, again, the point — which was ably made also by the member for Prince George–Omineca — that the CAIS program, the federal program, does nothing to compensate for the combination of drought and the BSE disaster. They make the point that has already been articulated — that it doesn't include negative margins, that producers have to increase their debt loads when their asset values have dropped significantly and that producers are required to make a contribution at a time when they're unable to meet their current debt obligations because of the historical drought that has happened as well.
Also, they make this point that I'm wondering whether the minister could respond to: "Expenses such as fence repairs, pasture rent and machine repairs are not included as allowable expenses." Is that the minister's understanding of CAIS as well?
Hon. J. van Dongen: There are three parts to the answer to the member's question, and the first part is this. Where there are additional costs triggered because of the drought, such as additional hay costs and that kind of thing, that has the effect of reducing the margin and, in fact, triggering a higher payment through CAIS.
Secondly, in the design of the…. This is a complex calculation that you and I are not going to resolve around this table, but just to simply say that where there are additional costs of eligible expenditures such as feed costs — that's certainly an eligible expenditure — that will trigger a higher payment. Also, British Columbia, because of the drought we were facing last fall, was able to negotiate with the federal government a factor in the interim payment program that was unique to British Columbia, which helped trigger a higher advance payment to producers. Again, it's a complex thing that I would need a technical person to explain, but it does trigger a higher payment. That was a factor negotiated specifically to reflect the drought situation.
Thirdly, on the question of whether or not certain types of expenditures, like fencing or other similar expenditures, are in or out of the program, it's important to know there's a parallel between what is an eligible expenditure in the reference years and what is an eligible expenditure in the current year. Basically, what the program does is compare through the average margin, with margin being a calculated figure, not the net profit or some other normal accounting figures that we use…. It compares the net margin in the reference years, the average of the five previous years, with the current year. To the degree that there has been a decline in that margin, the two governments pick up a portion of that decline.
That's how the program works. There's a parallel between eligible expenditures in the reference years and in the current year. So something like fencing was deemed to be something that wasn't a direct cost for various reasons and wasn't included in the program, but it's not included in either of the years. It's not included in the reference years or in the current year, so there's a parallel there.
J. MacPhail: Again, is the minister trying to give comfort to people by that answer? Or is he saying sorry; they're right — there is no calculation for expense? I'm sorry. I value the minister's attempt at explaining it to a layperson, but I didn't see where the comfort was in that answer. Perhaps he could just try to do that.
Hon. J. van Dongen: Certainly. I think it needs to be said that we certainly understand the impact on farmers and ranchers. There is a significant impact, as the member for Prince George–Omineca has said. We've talked about the shared risk. There's always going to be disappointment and concern about a program that does not fully cover the impact.
I'm trying to explain the way the program is designed, and I think it's fair to say there is legitimacy to the way the program is designed. There's a parallel inclusion of expenditures in the reference years and in the current year. It's a reasonable design to focus on the more direct expenditures for cattle operation, which is the issue here.
J. MacPhail: Okay. Well, I'm just the message carrier here. I'm sure we'll have some follow-up here from the public record.
The minister says the federal program was adjusted to take into account the effects of drought. Fair enough,
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but is it not true that other provinces have done provincial compensation for drought? I think Manitoba introduced a program that compensates for the drought. It's a provincial contribution. What has British Columbia done in that area?
Hon. J. van Dongen: The interim advance payment, the adjustment factor I talked about, reflects a federal and provincial contribution. I know that as you look across Canada, there have sometimes been various ad hoc programs that provincial governments have done. In fact, B.C. has done some of them, including the deferment of range fees and the steer and heifer transition program.
At the same time, I know the minister in Manitoba very well, and I know that she has committed to the overall national policy we're trying to put in place of having full federal-provincial participation in a national program. That is an ongoing program that is well designed to try and deal with every kind of disaster or market problem that could develop so that we get away from these ad hoc programs.
I think the experience is — and you can talk to, certainly, the ministers in western Canada — that ad hoc provincial programs have not been helpful. I think if you talk to producers in some of those provinces, they will also indicate that those ad hoc programs have not always been the solution, either, for them. We find that you get into all kinds of complexities and rivalries across borders that are not helpful to solving the problem. There's a strong overall commitment to a national program that applies as fairly as possible to all producers in Canada, with a federal-provincial cost-share to fund it.
J. MacPhail: I expect that's the point of view — that ad hoc programs aren't helpful — in the provinces where there aren't suitable ad hoc programs. I'm sure that's the complaint. I find it hard to believe that where the ad hoc programs do exist, such as in Saskatchewan and Manitoba and some in Alberta, those producers are complaining about those.
Let me ask the minister…. Last fall several other provinces extended the deadline for the BSE recovery program so that it would cover the inventory of cattle on feed as of May 20, '03. Did British Columbia do that as well?
Hon. J. van Dongen: What we call the steer and heifer market transition program is essentially an extension of the original BSE recovery program. We announced this program in late October, early November. It is intended to cover any feeder animals or animals that were ready to go to slaughter that were not covered under the BSE recovery program, which closed on August 31. We have paid out the equivalent of our provincial share on those cattle.
J. MacPhail: Okay. That clearly isn't an ad hoc program anymore, because it exists in Alberta, Manitoba, Ontario and Saskatchewan, and now in British Columbia. That would certainly be the lion's share. There are cattle ranches elsewhere east of Ontario but, certainly, a very tiny proportion compared to the provinces that are covered now.
There's an interesting debate taking place in Alberta that I probably would say is unique to Alberta, because Alberta has the only two remaining slaughterhouses — well, meat-packing plants — in Canada. I was very proud of the very tiny opposition there — the NDP opposition — raising the concern around where the proceeds of the federal and provincial programs are actually going. Are they going to the ranchers whose beef prices have plummeted? Or are they going to the meat-packers?
Of course, Mr. Klein, the Premier there, rejected any criticism based on that allegation but was forced through public outcry to have the matter examined at the auditor general's level in Alberta. He had to concede that point early this week, or maybe it was late last week, after there was a huge outcry. The meat-packing plants had increased their profits by 200 percent over the period of the CAIS program, and the beef prices to the producers had plummeted.
The reason I know of this is because when I was on the pre-budget consultation trip with some of my colleagues, we toured a cattle producer in the Comox Valley. I talked to a producer, and I said: "What's with my steak prices being exactly the same as they were before the BSE crisis? How is that affecting you?" She said: "Well, we're getting nothing. But the reason why you're not getting a benefit from that is because we send all our beef to be dressed" — I'm not sure what the right word is — "to the meat-packing plants in Alberta, both of which are multinational corporations run out of the United States." So she was on to that in October. She was well aware of that.
Is this Minister of Agriculture for reaching out to examine what's happening in Alberta around an investigation of meat-packer profits versus the effect of these support programs? Is he looking at that at all and seeing whether there are any lessons to be learned here?
Hon. J. van Dongen: Certainly, in the original BSE recovery program and the design of that program, because of the urgency to get cattle moving through the system in Canada, there was a concern that some of those dollars might have ended up in the hands of packers because the program was such that it was based on slaughter. But the intent of the program was to get animals slaughtered. Certainly, in subsequent programs, both provincially and federally, there were design amendments made to try and remove that possibility.
In analyzing the original program, it did accomplish what it needed to accomplish, and that is to move a lot of slaughter cattle which otherwise would have stayed in the feedlot and continued to pile up in the system.
The question of packer margins and other margins through the food chain, I think, is an absolutely legiti-
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mate question to ask. At the same time, it's an extremely difficult thing to get a good handle on. I do know that at the national level the legislative committee for agriculture is examining that question and is asking for representatives of the packing industry to respond to questions about that issue. I know that the minister in Alberta has asked her staff to do an analysis of the issue. Similarly, I have asked our staff to make their best effort to analyze the margin question.
As I said, it's something like trying to analyze gas prices and that market. While governments try and do the analysis and the studies, in the end, if you're committed to a free market, ultimately you sometimes live with short-term problems in that market.
The other factor that I think needs to be recognized is that there were also additional costs, particularly with waste removal, that need to be factored into the overall situation. There was significant revenue loss to the rendering industry and, in some cases, to the slaughter industry from markets they could no longer tap as a by-product market.
There are a number of complex factors. As I said, there are a number of studies going on. As a student of agricultural economics, I'm certainly interested in the outcome of that work, and we do have staff working on that issue ourselves.
J. MacPhail: Madam Chair, I note that we don't have quorum. I'm not one to use that tool at all, but…. Hello. No quorum. I'm just saying that it does seem to be a bit odd that with a 74-member caucus, they can't even keep quorum in estimates of this import. I'm not sure which way my vote would go if a vote were called right now. Just to note. If the government doesn't do something about it, then they're going to be in trouble.
Let me just say that this is not, in my view, in any way comparable to the oil price situation. When oil price–fixing has been investigated, the justification is that the price of crude oil is going up, and that's the explanation. In this particular case, the price of beef is going down to the producer.
Let me just read this example, and I hope I'm not repeating the example. This is from the Central Interior Feeders Cooperative Association. "A Feeder Association member sold his cattle and received $27,000 less than he purchased the cattle for. This means that he looked after these cattle all summer, paid for the pasture, fixed the fences, paid for salt, and at the end of the summer he owes $27,000 on cattle he no longer owns."
That's the price going down for cattle. The oil situation is entirely different to the extent that at least the producers of the commodity have a justification that commodity prices are going up. Here we have a situation where the producer is getting nothing for his or her beef and the meat-packers, the slaughterhouses, are increasing their profits by 200 percent.
I hope these business-friendly governments, whether they are at the provincial level or the federal level, are not somehow saying: "Oh, you know, we've been down this road before, and we're sure that there's an explanation for it." I don't see what the explanation could be, other than price gouging by the meat-packers.
Let me ask the minister this question: where do the producers in British Columbia send their cattle to be slaughtered and packed?
Hon. J. van Dongen: First of all, to respond to the member's comment about gas prices and meat prices. I was looking at that question of meat prices from the consumer perspective and all the factors that go into the consumer price at the retail store.
I suggest that the questions raised here are somewhat parallel to: what are the factors that go into the price of gas at the gas station? I was simply saying that to do the analysis of that whole chain is a difficult matter. The phenomenon we do find in agriculture quite often is that retail prices in the chain follow farm-gate prices up, but they don't necessarily always follow them down. I certainly acknowledge the concern expressed by the member on behalf of ranchers. It's a legitimate concern.
The cattle industry in British Columbia is primarily a cow-calf industry. That does distinguish our industry in this province from, particularly, the industry in Alberta, which is very much built around the finishing aspect of the business, where they have large feedlots that draw cattle from many parts of Alberta, Saskatchewan and British Columbia and finish them for slaughter. That is why the two largest slaughter plants in Canada are in Alberta, because that's where the feedlots are.
Our cow-calf producers last fall, if they were lucky enough to avoid two or three particularly bad days, in general did better than some of them expected. In other words, the price reduction was not necessarily as bad as it might have been. A number of people carry cattle over into the spring on a routine basis. Some of them bought additional cattle to carry over into the spring, with the expectation — I think legitimately, at the time — that the border would open. That hasn't happened, so they're carrying some additional inventory of animals.
Historically, our cattle have gone to Alberta and Washington State. For example, 90 percent of our cull cows went to Washington State, and some of our backgrounded animals went to Washington State for feeding. Our industry is somewhat unique, certainly from Alberta and Saskatchewan, and most other provinces.
J. MacPhail: Will the minister commit to carefully examining the recommendations from the federal committee investigating this issue and the Alberta auditor general's recommendation on this to see whether there is any application to British Columbia's producers?
[B. Belsey in the chair.]
Hon. J. van Dongen: I can certainly commit to the member that we will be doing that. In Alberta the two
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major plants reside…. I know how concerned she is about that issue, so we will be looking at those reports to see what we can learn and what implications we can apply to our industry here in British Columbia.
J. MacPhail: I'm going to move on to another topic. I'm sure other members will want to ask questions later on. It's entirely up to them.
I'm turning to the issue of the Third Annual Inspection Report on Marine Finfish Aquaculture Sites. It's the joint report of the Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Fisheries and the Ministry of Water, Land and Air Protection. It was published in August 2003. These reports are always about the previous year, so this would have been an examination of the matters arising throughout the year 2002.
This annual inspection report for fish farms from 2002 is the most recent one, though. As I said, the 2003 report will not be completed until the spring or summer. I do have some questions about the 2002 findings. This is the first opportunity I've had a chance to ask those.
In part 1, page 23, of the report, the Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Fisheries requirements are laid out. I'm going to go over some of the key points the report makes. The report states: "Every aquaculture facility must have an approved management plan in order to obtain an aquaculture licence. The holder of an aquaculture licence must comply with the approved plan. Failure to follow the plan is deemed non-compliant with licence conditions and is subject to enforcement action."
Furthermore, it goes on to say: "The management plan for each fish farm specifies design and operation criteria." Then it also goes on to say that the Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Fisheries inspectors reviewed "the number and size of the pens that are on site and their layout or site configuration."
Could the minister comment on the compliance rate with site configuration?
Hon. J. van Dongen: I thank the member for her question. I don't have a copy of the actual report with me. My understanding is that the compliance rate on site management plans is approximately 90 percent and that the non-compliance is of a relatively minor nature — that there aren't issues there that have environmental impacts, for example, in whatever non-compliance there is on the site management plans.
J. MacPhail: Would the minister like to get the report? My report shows that site configuration — it's at page 25 — compliance is 24 percent.
Hon. J. van Dongen: I've asked staff to get a copy of the report. I wonder if the member would mind repeating her question, because I didn't hear it. I was talking to staff.
J. MacPhail: Sure. My question referred to the number and size of pens that are on site and their layout, and that's called site configuration. The 2002 report shows that there was a compliance rate of 24 percent on the question of site configuration. The report does state: "The compliance level for most of the above aspects, except for biomass levels and site configuration, was 90 percent or greater. While an improvement was evident over the 2001 numbers for biomass levels, the same level of improvement for compliance with net cage configuration was not evident." It's still at 24 percent.
Let me ask. That's was the report says. I'm sure someone's getting the report now. What is the potential impact of non-compliance for site configuration on the environment?
Hon. J. van Dongen: The actual site configuration itself is considered to have a very minimal impact on the actual environmental performance of the site. Our government has put in place a results-based regulatory system under the Waste Management Act for environmental impacts on the site. That will be the basis for regulating the industry on environmental matters.
Our view as a ministry is that the actual site configuration, because it has such limited impact, is not an issue of non-compliance that has the same relevance, for example, as something that relates to the environment directly. That is being regulated, as I said, through our results-based system under the Waste Management Act.
J. MacPhail: All I can go with is the government's own documents. Here's what the report says:
"Non-compliance with the operational conditions of a plan may, in some cases, have the potential to result in negative effects to the marine environment as well as the environmental sustainability of the operation itself. This can result from having more than the approved maximum biomass or by altering the approved cage system configuration so that it no longer makes optimal use of the biophysical attributes of the site to avoid environmental impact."
Let's just reiterate. Site configuration is the way of describing the number and size of pens that are on site and their layout. The minister says that has nothing to do with the environmental impact. His report says otherwise. Again, I ask the minister: what are the specific impacts of non-compliance with site configuration?
Hon. J. van Dongen: In response to the member's question, in most cases the actual pen configuration has very little impact on the environmental situation on the site. What is relevant are the biomass levels. As I said, the results-based system for measuring performance on that site will integrate all of the impacts of both the pen configuration and the biomass levels in terms of our managing and regulating performance on that site.
J. MacPhail: Why is the minister using the future tense? Are these regulations in place or not?
Hon. J. van Dongen: The regulations are in place. Our government went through a comprehensive re-
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view of all of the regulations involving aquaculture, including the escape regulation, the waste management regulation, fish health policies and regulations. We reviewed all of those issues and implemented a regulatory system which we think is a significant improvement, one that is one of the strictest in the world. We have actually hired additional inspectors to enforce those regulations.
J. MacPhail: Okay. So I guess because we're moving to not an enforcement method but a results-based regulation system, then I assume the only way anyone will know whether the size and number of pens on site configuration is having an ill effect or not is on the approved maximum biomass. That's clearly the only result this government would possibly be interested in.
It does say here…. I don't know why the minister is dismissing this. He's clearly going against exactly what his own report says. Let me read it again. It says not being in compliance with the operational conditions of a plan can result in having more than the approved maximum biomass — or by altering the approved cage system configuration so that it no longer makes optimal use of the biophysical attributes of the site to avoid environmental impact.
There's 24 percent compliance to the proper number of cages and the configuration of those cages. The number and size of the pens that are on site and their layout, site configuration…. Only 24 percent are in compliance. That can affect the maximum biomass. It can affect the optimal use of the biophysical attributes. Is the minister saying those two issues aren't important?
Hon. J. van Dongen: My understanding is that the non-compliance the member speaks about and is referring to in the report relates to the pens themselves and the configuration of those pens. For example, this may involve whether or not there is a square pen or a round pen on that site. Based on the plans that have been filed, if the plan had a square pen and later on, through the changes due to improved technology or a different design of pen, they went to a round pen, they would be in non-compliance on that site based on the report and the investigation that is done by our staff. Those changes would be noted by our staff as non-compliance.
But as I said to the member earlier, when you look strictly at the pen configuration or the type of pen it is, that has very, very limited impact on the environmental performance on that site. There are many other factors on that site, including biomass, which will have a much more significant impact on the environmental performance on that site.
In terms of the specifics of the management plan, yes, if it's a round pen rather than a square pen, it's listed as non-compliance. As I said, the results-based regulatory system we have in place does pick up poor environmental performance. That is really the sum total of all the factors, including the management factors, the feeding regimes and just a whole range of factors on that site. The results-based code picks that up, and we regulate them accordingly.
[G. Trumper in the chair.]
V. Roddick: For probably the last ten years Delta South has been struggling with the establishment of agricultural bylaws that would work for the Delta Farmers Institute, the municipality of Delta and the province of British Columbia. Will the Minister of Agriculture continue to commit time and effort to resolve the issues that remain outstanding? Will the Minister of Agriculture work with all parties involved — the municipality of Delta; GVRD; Ministry of Water, Land and Air Protection; Delta Farmers Institute?
Hon. J. van Dongen: I appreciate the member's question and certainly the leadership and support that she has shown in her community for both agriculture and all of the other needs and all of the other citizens in her community and her constituency.
We have tried, since forming government, to foster a good working relationship with all local governments, including Delta. We have tried to balance the interests of agriculture, which are significant and which vary from one community to another. We have also worked to have a good relationship with local governments. We have worked to solve issues. We've tried to find compromises that worked for everybody.
I want to assure the member that it is my personal policy and my personal commitment to continue to work in a constructive way with all parties — with all stakeholders; with the mayor and her council; with the Delta staff; with the Delta Farmers Institute; with the other regulatory bodies such as Water, Land and Air Protection; with the GVRD, which has certain involvements in certain jurisdictions in Delta; and with citizens in Delta. I have tried to remain open to everyone's input and everyone's comments.
Certainly we have had staff who I think have worked very diligently and actively on the ground, both in Delta and in Victoria, to try and build a constructive relationship that met everyone's concerns.
There are one or two issues where certainly the provincial interest in agriculture is such that we have had to assert a position on things like siting and setbacks on greenhouses. Those positions didn't find favour in the community, but we have tried to not let that disagreement get in the way of constructive dialogue on the whole range of other issues.
I think we are making some progress in terms of the range of other issues in the community and in working with our ministry. I've tried to summarize what we've done in the past year. Certainly, the member has my commitment to an ongoing effort in Delta and in all other communities where we have farming interests and aquaculture interests.
R. Masi: I'm sure the minister is probably anticipating this question I'm about to raise. It's one that I've put
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forward almost on an annual basis over a series of years. It is the question of berry cannons, relative to the area of Delta North and, more specifically, to the Sunshine Hills area.
I wonder if the minister could give me an update on the progress — and I know there has been progress made — on alleviating the cannon sound, which is very difficult for the residents of Sunshine Hills specifically, in terms of noise, shift work, Sunday afternoons and things like that. I wonder if the minister could give us an update on that.
Hon. J. van Dongen: I thank the member for his diligence on this issue. It is a difficult issue but one that we have actively worked with and worked on in the past year. We have certainly tried to establish provincial standards and ministry standards for the use of bird-scare devices that reflected both the need of the producer to have options for controlling the bird damage on their crops and the needs of their neighbours to have as little intrusion from agriculture as possible.
This is an issue which is an ongoing work in progress. We have seen many situations where the bird-scare devices were not necessary or where there were good alternatives. We have also seen situations where bird-scare devices are the only viable option. We have certainly worked to a policy of encouraging farmers to use bird-scare devices judiciously, to use them sparingly, to only turn them on when there were birds in the area, to move them on a regular basis. There's a whole code of practice now for them to follow to use them.
We have worked with local governments to regulate their use in terms of the allowable hours of use. Certainly, when you look at the range of commodities we have, whether it's berries or grapes — and we have berries and grapes in the lower mainland; we have cherries and grapes in places like the Okanagan and in Creston — our ongoing belief is that we need to retain the option for producers, but we also at the same time need to work with local government to regulate effectively and to educate on their judicious use. That's the program we have followed.
I also want to acknowledge that the industry — particularly in the Fraser Valley and the Okanagan, but we're talking in Delta, the Fraser Valley — has worked closely with their growers. In the last three seasons now, they have had a very viable and active complaint process and an active education process. I can assure the member that I will be sitting down with the board of directors of the blueberry association, again, to re-emphasize the need to manage the use of propane cannons as fully as possible to provide freedom from intrusion for residents.
We have had varying degrees of cooperation with local governments, and I think that the council in Delta is coming forward and working on a bylaw that includes the ministerial standards. We appreciate their efforts in that regard. As I said, we will continue to work on this situation.
I should also mention that if there are citizens who feel that farmers are not managing these tools appropriately, they do have the option of the Farm Industry Review Board, which has the authority under the farm practices legislation to make a determination of whether that farmer is applying the ministerial guidelines appropriately in their situation. I certainly want to make citizens aware of that option and to encourage them to use it. They have the authority to look at individual situations and perhaps impose an interpretation on normal farm practice that goes beyond the ministerial guidelines.
That has happened in certain situations. In fact, it happened with propane cannons in the past season in the Okanagan. If farmers are abusing the privilege of using propane cannons, that is an option they could be facing. I would encourage residents, if they feel seriously aggrieved, to look at that option as well.
R. Masi: I realize, of course, that great progress has been made over the last two or three years. I also know that this is a problem throughout the Fraser Valley. However, I wonder if the minister could tell me if there has been any sort of technological advance in dealing with this problem, such as lasers or anything like that. Is there anything on the horizon that perhaps we could reassure the residents about?
Hon. J. van Dongen: There are always various ideas and technologies that are being explored. The blueberry association did have a pilot project going last year that involved a device called, I think, the Silent Sentinel. It met with varying degrees of success.
I am aware that there are technologies out there that involve lasers and other technical details. We work with the industry and our agricultural engineer in Abbotsford on any of these possibilities that come forward to put them through some kind of a study or test. To date, I am not aware of a device of the laser nature that would provide the silver bullet to help us solve this problem.
As a ministry, one of the initiatives we are pursuing is to look at trying to achieve some kind of a program under our federal-provincial program that would provide incentives for people to install netting. Netting is often held out as the panacea for this situation, and netting has its own set of problems, including birds getting trapped inside the net, the difficulties of running a harvester under the net and sometimes nets being caught by passers-by.
It is a very expensive approach and one that we have done a pretty significant analysis of this past year, to look at the economics of netting. It's certainly not a competitive option. It has high capital costs and high operating costs. The operating costs are really the critical aspect of netting.
We are trying to find ways to see if we can achieve some funding to provide an incentive for farmers to at least consider that in some situations.
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R. Masi: I'm a little bit confused on the authority line between the municipality and the provincial government. The minister mentioned there were some moves being contemplated by the municipality to alleviate this situation. I wonder if the minister could explain to me who has final authority here and just how much empowerment a municipality has in the case of passing bylaws to restrict the use of the berry cannons — just a clarification.
Hon. J. van Dongen: I appreciate the member's question, because it is a complex area. Basically, the provincial government delegates authority to local governments under the Local Government Act and the Community Charter. Local governments do have the authority and the responsibility to regulate noise. Overlay the Local Government Act, when the right-to-farm system was put in, in 1995, under the Farm Practices Protection Act. That act, with a few small amendments, is still in place today. It put in place the ability of the provincial government to prescribe limits on that local government authority.
Local governments can and do regulate noise. They have two options for doing it. They can do that under their regular bylaw authority, and they can do that under what we call a farm bylaw. In Delta, because Delta was brought under the Farm Practices Protection Act legislation by cabinet decision in June of 2001, they are bound by the provincial guidelines — in this case, for noise — by virtue of that decision. They would have to seek approval from the Minister of Agriculture, Food and Fisheries for their farm bylaw regulation to regulate noise.
My understanding is that Delta is coming forward with that proposal, and they are going to be following the recommended ministerial guidelines.
There have been certain circumstances where the provincial government and local government can negotiate some unique aspects to the situation in that particular municipality. As I said, the authority and the responsibility to actually regulate is at the local government level. That is, by design, under the Local Government Act. It is not something that the Minister of Agriculture imposes. The right-to-farm legislation, when it is applied by cabinet, does provide the authority for the provincial government to set some constraints on the full exercise of authority by local government.
This is not unique to agriculture. There are many examples where the authority granted to local governments is limited by some provincial statute or provincial ministry — issues around mining and policing. A number of other examples exist where that kind of framework exists that local governments work within.
J. MacPhail: I do appreciate my colleagues from the government caucus allowing the flexibility in the questions. I do appreciate that.
I'm back to the Third Annual Inspection Report on Marine Finfish Aquaculture Sites. I was asking the minister about the potential impact of non-compliance for site configuration.
I think the minister is downplaying — I guess it's a risk he's willing to take — either the maximum biomass effects or the effects on the biophysical attributes of the site that could have an impact on the environment. I guess he'll have to live with that. Maybe he already knows what the results of the '03 report are. A 24 percent compliance rate and the minister downplaying what effect that will have seems to me to be a bit cocky.
Let me ask this: why would a fish farm operator expand its site without approval? That is what non-compliance with the operational conditions of a plan means.
Hon. J. van Dongen: First of all, I am not minimizing the potential impact, environmentally, of biomass or biophysical aspects on a site. I want to be very clear about that.
What I was talking about and am talking about is the actual configuration, strictly speaking, of the net pens themselves. I used the example of a round pen and a square pen. You may have a site plan that involves a square pen, and you may have an actual situation — which our inspectors found — where there is now a round pen because of technology changes, the need for the industry to upgrade to stronger penning, and this kind of thing. I am only talking about the net pen configuration. I'm not talking about biomass, and I'm not talking about biophysical aspects. I want to be very clear about that.
I can't speak to the member's question of why a fish-farm operator would do certain things. I don't know what might motivate them to make the day-to-day decisions they make.
J. MacPhail: The violations around site configuration involve, according to their own report, the number and size of the pens that are on site and their layout. Maybe the minister's saying that by size they're referring to a square pen versus a round pen. Boy, if that's what's causing a 24 percent compliance rate — or the reverse of that is a 76 percent non-compliance rate — I'll be pretty surprised. We know from other areas of this government activity that there was a lot of non-compliance and enforcement mechanisms that were then not put into place.
Let me ask again. If there are too many pens and too large pens on site, what are the environmental impacts of that?
Hon. J. van Dongen: I guess the best way to illustrate my point to the member is that the size of the pen has virtually no impact on the environment if there are no fish in that pen, which speaks to the issue of biomass. That's the point I'm making.
J. MacPhail: Okay. I want to say "duh," but I'm trying to be more polite these days, Madam Chair.
I doubt very much that the government's own report would have a fish farm in non-compliance because
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an empty pen is a different size. If the ministry bureaucrats under this government are doing that, then shame on them, but I suspect they don't have the time to make ridiculous reports of non-compliance on the basis of an empty pen that's round instead of square.
Let me ask this. Why does the minister think the industry is struggling so much with site configurations?
Hon. J. van Dongen: I think it's important to point out the very detailed nature of the inspections our people do. I want to point out to the member I am advised that some of the non-compliance of numbers of pens or sizes of pens she talks about involve situations where there are fewer pens on the site than are shown on the site management plan. In fact, if there is any variance from the site management plan, including one where there are fewer pens than are shown on the plan, that is recorded as non-compliance.
I think it's important to recognize that on the issue of the pens themselves, there can be a number of examples of non-compliance that have absolutely no impact on the environment. We have to take into account the detailed scope of the investigations and the recording of information that is done.
J. MacPhail: I'm sorry, but has the minister discussed this with the industry — the non-compliance around site configuration?
Hon. J. van Dongen: I have not personally been involved in those discussions, but I know that our inspections staff, led very capably by Jaclynn Hunter in Courtenay, have ongoing activity and discussions with the industry about non-compliance issues.
J. MacPhail: Maybe the minister can tell me when the '03 report will be out.
Hon. J. van Dongen: The '03 report is expected to be out in June 2004. I should mention to the member that the report she is working from is the first time we have amalgamated the annual reports of the Ministry of Water, Land and Air Protection and the Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Fisheries. That's why the report took a little longer than normal to get out.
I should also mention that we have a very good working relationship with Water, Land and Air Protection. We have a memorandum of understanding where the responsibilities are very clear for both ministries, and we have an established protocol for dealing with non-compliance issues.
J. MacPhail: That leads right into my next question. I do have that protocol. We talked about it in the last round of estimates. What is the ministry doing to improve compliance?
Hon. J. van Dongen: There is a variety of compliance activity that our inspectors are involved in, including tickets and court action if it is required and appropriate.
J. MacPhail: Those were in place before this report, where there is 24 percent compliance. I'm asking what's being done to improve compliance. Those aren't new tools.
Hon. J. van Dongen: On the issue of the number of pens and the size of pens, the appropriate action depends on the issue itself. If there is a situation, for example — and these situations do exist — where there are fewer pens than were shown on the site management plan, the appropriate action might be to amend the plan.
There are other situations where there are applications in process for an amendment to the plan and the process time is holding up the point in time when compliance will be achieved. But a lot of it will depend on the environmental impact. If there's no environmental impact — such as a technical non-compliance of not having exactly the same pens there, but they are within all other parameters — then that's a different situation than where there is an environmental impact.
I submit, again, on penning and the number of pens, that that in itself will have virtually no environmental impact. If there are issues of biomass, for example, there will be immediate action taken to reduce the biomass on that site to bring them into compliance on that aspect.
J. MacPhail: Is the minister, by keeping on repeating that, saying his own bureaucrats are harassing fish farmers about empty pens?
Hon. J. van Dongen: No, I'm not saying that at all. What I'm saying is that our inspection staff are diligent in reporting all of the evidence they gather on a site. That's what this annual report of compliance is. It records it all very carefully in terms of what the inspection showed on those sites, and it does provide a good tool to benchmark overall progress in the industry.
J. MacPhail: I guess we'll have to see. Let me ask the minister this, then: given the fact that he's underplaying this so much — that it's kind of like, "Oh, it's just a matter of empty pens; they're counting empty pens, and the empty pen was a square one as opposed to a round one and that's what led to the 24 percent compliance rate and the 76 percent non-compliance rate" — what reviews is the ministry undergoing to look at the situation more thoroughly?
Hon. J. van Dongen: We will be continuing to measure all aspects of performance by fish farms, but we will also be reviewing the appropriateness of regulations as required. The example I gave the member of what is in fact a technical non-compliance that has no relevance to environmental performance…. Those sorts
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of things we do review on an ongoing basis. We may well decide it's appropriate to take a different approach on an issue like that, where there is absolutely no environmental impact. There's no threat to the wild stock.
At the same time, we may choose to upgrade, strengthen and increase regulations, as we have done where we find that is appropriate. We have been very careful to base all our decisions on science, and we believe in an adaptive management approach. When issues present themselves that require more monitoring and surveillance and require tougher regulations, we put them in place. That's the process of adaptive management we follow.
J. MacPhail: Is there any correspondence with the industry about the importance of adherence — whether it be technical or, actually, not technical but environmental? If so, could I have copies of the correspondence?
Hon. J. van Dongen: Certainly, I have been very clear with the industry about the need for good environmental performance and about the fact that we as a government would regulate environmental performance. I've been clear on that, in terms of our policy, for as many years as I've been an MLA, and we continue that policy to this day. In fact, as I've said, we have upgraded our environmental standards considerably since we formed government.
I can't personally recollect correspondence with the industry about that. As I said to the member, I'm not involved in specific compliance issues, but I will do a search and see if there is any correspondence of the nature she has requested.
J. MacPhail: The minister has tangentially referred to this, but let me ask him a more detailed question. What kind of process is the streamlining process that may lead to proposed amendments to site configurations at fish farms? What does the minister hope to achieve? What's his goal in that?
Hon. J. van Dongen: We do not at the present time have a specific streamlining initiative. I want to make that clear. But when we review something like this environmental report, we are looking at the possibility and the probable need to have some flexibility in terms of how management plans are applied where there are no environmental impacts.
Where we have technical non-compliance of the nature the member has identified — if it is technical non-compliance, I will add — and where there's no environmental impact and no impact on the wild stock, then in order to give the industry the ability to adapt to new technology, new management regimes and new techniques, we're looking at how to give them some flexibility within the management plan to do that.
I want to restate what we've said as part of our regulatory framework: site management plans and the applications for a relocated site or a new site are very important parts of our regulatory framework. I think the kinds of issues we're speaking of, again, speak to the level of diligence with which we document and collect evidence with respect to our regulations.
In taking that approach, it's also important for us to assure ourselves that the regulatory framework — and the details of it that we have — is appropriate, that it's protecting the wild stock, that it's protecting the environment but at the same time is not, you know, a regulation that is really not fulfilling those goals.
J. MacPhail: The minister makes a big distinction between site configuration and biomass. Well, let me link the two. It's straight from his own report on page 23. It says: "Site configuration and biomass levels are interrelated factors and two of the components that are considered together when establishing an estimate of the biomass capability of a site. These numbers are determined through a modelling process and are established in anticipation of meeting performance-based standards for that particular site."
Let me ask the minister what process he undertakes when considering changes to the biomass and site configurations?
Hon. J. van Dongen: This is a very technical question, one that I am not knowledgable about and one that I'm not involved in personally. We rely on professional staff within the Ministry of Water, Land and Air Protection, within the Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Fisheries and in the Department of Fisheries and Oceans to make those evaluations.
J. MacPhail: Yes, but that doesn't make it a question he shouldn't seek an answer to. He was fine to stand up and say: "Oh, pen configuration may have nothing to do with biomass levels. Therefore, don't worry; be happy." Now when I actually ask him to link the two together, he's all of a sudden not an expert and, in fact, couldn't possibly answer the question.
I'm linking the two issues he said were at the base of, perhaps, the non-compliance rate being unimportant around site configuration. He said: "If it doesn't have anything to do with biomass levels, then we shouldn't worry." I'm asking him the basis on which he makes that statement. If it's all based on scientific modelling, what changes could possibly happen between the original determination and the time the site owners want to expand? What are the factors that are taken into consideration?
Hon. J. van Dongen: If the member would like to have a technical briefing to deal with those kinds of questions, I would be more than happy to get appropriate staff to provide it. I certainly am not qualified or capable of answering those kinds of technical questions.
J. MacPhail: Then, Madam Chair, why was the minister so willing and ready to leap to the conclusion that I shouldn't be worried about the non-compliance
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of site configuration because it's really biomass levels that are the issue? When I ask him to follow up on a quote from his own report linking the two, all of a sudden he can't answer questions on how the two are linked.
I'm going to leave this aside, but I will tell you something. I'm going to leave this for now, because I want to turn to another topic, but I will be coming back to it. I'm not going to allow the minister to somehow say that when it's to his convenience, he can answer technical questions by shooing away my concerns but that when it's not to his convenience, he can't answer technical questions.
I'm going to move to the issue of food safety. The reason why I'm going to do that is because of a report that was put out today by the provincial health officer. As you may know, the food safety inspection budget has been cut by $55,000. The minister assures us that doesn't have anything to do with the real work around food safety protection. Well, I want to test that theory.
Today the provincial health officer issued an alert. It's kind of troubling. It's disturbing. I'll just read it. I just received this. I'll read the news release.
"Following new information from the RCMP, B.C. provincial health officer Dr. Perry Kendall is calling on anyone who may still possess frozen pork meat products from the Port Coquitlam farm of Robert Pickton to return those products to police.
"Dr. Kendall says RCMP approached the B.C. Centre for Disease Control to inquire about potential health risks for individuals who may have consumed pork meat processed or slaughtered at the farm, given the conditions they discovered at the site." — I'm sorry, Madam Chair, this news release is dated today, March 10, 2004 — "On Friday, March 5 the provincial health officer, in close cooperation with the BCCDC and senior officials at Health Canada and the Canadian Food Inspection Agency launched a formal assessment of the risk to any individuals who have been exposed to food-borne or other illness through the consumption of the products.
"While a more-detailed risk assessment continues, health officials stressed there is no evidence of any disease transmission related to the products from the farm. BCCDC officials have added that the risk to human health for those who consumed the products is extremely remote, based on the fact most pork products are typically well cooked, which is known to effectively destroy most infectious agents. However, Dr. Kendall says, under the circumstances, he has an obligation to the public under the Health Act to ensure these products are not consumed.
"The RCMP have evidence that some products were handed out by Mr. Pickton to friends and acquaintances in and around the lower mainland, prior to his arrest of February 2002. The alert is focused on these individuals."
Then the individuals are asked to contact the women's task force.
Madam Chair, I'm very, very sorry to say the reason why this was issued is that it appears that some human remains got into the food products at the Pickton farm. Of course, the farm has not been active since February 2002. I want to make that clear. I'm not fearmongering here.
What I want to ask the minister are these questions. Can the minister please advise how these products might have gotten into the food chain without attracting the attention of inspectors?
Hon. J. van Dongen: In response to the member, this press release was issued by the Ministry of Health Services, and all of the issues identified in it are within the responsibility and authority of the Ministry of Health Services.
J. MacPhail: So none of this is related to the Ministry of Agriculture is what the minister is saying. Let me ask these questions, because I just want to…. Well, then, why is food inspection safety under his budget?
Hon. J. van Dongen: We are a partner with the federal government, the Canadian Food Inspection Agency, on plant and animal health issues and on-farm management of these issues. They can have an impact on human health, but we are not involved in any way in plant inspection. We have no regulatory authority in terms of any kind of processing plant inspection and that kind of thing.
J. MacPhail: Perhaps the minister can clarify this for me. This is a farm where animals were slaughtered. Is the minister saying there is no provincial inspection role required of visiting a farm where animals are slaughtered?
Hon. J. van Dongen: The Ministry of Health Services has the full jurisdiction and responsibility for slaughter of animal products, whether it's in a commercial plant or whether it's on-farm. They have the regulatory responsibility for that.
J. MacPhail: Just a couple more questions in this area, because I'll put these questions over to my colleague, who is debating the estimates of the Ministry of Health Services now. It's the Ministry of Health inspectors, regardless of the size of the farm or whether it's a legal slaughterhouse, who have responsibility for ensuring the safety of the food that results from that.
Hon. J. van Dongen: I can confirm for the member that the Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Fisheries has no authority and no regulatory responsibility on anything to do with slaughter, whether it's on-farm or in a commercial slaughter facility, including this situation.
J. MacPhail: Perhaps the minister, then, could tell me what his budget for food safety inspection is for — what services, and how he's going to manage the $55,000 cut to it.
Hon. J. van Dongen: I want to reconfirm for the member that the $55,000 reduction in budget had nothing to do with actual food safety programs. It was a
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result of changes in the amount of dollars going for amortization of equipment, changes in leases of vehicles and changes in the allocation of administrative staff. The $55,000 was the net result of four changes of the nature that I've mentioned and nothing to do with reduction in actual programs or services.
The key programs and services under our core business area of food safety and quality include animal, plant and fish health. A big part of that is our diagnostic lab in Abbotsford, which monitors disease in animals, fish and plants. It involves the work that we do on fish health management, auditing of on-farm fish health and surveillance programs.
It includes licensing and inspecting of dairy farms, tank milk receivers, tank milk trucks, game farms, fur farms, veterinary drug outlets, feed mills, apiaries, sale yard operations, livestock dealers, slaughterhouses, feed mills, poultry processors and others as required by legislation, pest and disease management — monitoring of insects and diseases — food quality and safety — implementing the food quality and safety chapter of our five-year federal-provincial agreement.
It involves the dissemination of technical information for farmers, and it involves research and demonstration projects. It involves a range of activities directed to the farm level, where we're mainly focusing on monitoring and surveillance. We're focusing on education and the imparting of information, and we're focusing on working with farmers in terms of their on-farm practice that would have a potential impact on food safety and on plant and animal health.
J. MacPhail: Having read that into the record, tell me again how the minister has no responsibility for what happened at the Pickton farm?
Hon. J. van Dongen: The legislative responsibility on slaughter, whether it's on farm or in a commercial plant, rests solely and fully with the Ministry of Health Services under the Meat Inspection Act or the Health Act.
J. MacPhail: Then why does it say…? Okay, so all of this stuff in the service plan that says: "The business area is based on prevention, early detection and rapid response to maintain consumer confidence and market assurance, and it strengthens these activities by — then it has — on-farm food safety and quality systems…monitor disease occurrences to support effective management of animal health risks." It goes on to talk about supporting the implementation of improved systems for food safety and quality and product tracking throughout the food system. Are those words just meaningless?
Hon. J. van Dongen: No, they're not meaningless. We work with the industry on all of those issues in the manner that I set out. All of it is subject to legislation. As I said, the matter the member raised by raising this press release issue today…. By legislation, the Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Fisheries has no authority and no responsibility in that area.
J. MacPhail: Then I sure hope the Minister of Health Services has some answers, because the Minister of Agriculture has just lobbed him a big one.
What's the budget for food safety and quality? I don't have my budget here, although I did do some notes on it that say that the cut is $55,000 for this fiscal year, and then there's a further cut of $26,000 in '05-06. Am I right in that?
Hon. J. van Dongen: The budget under our core business area of food safety and quality is $3.854 million. The reduction from the fiscal year 2004-05 to the following fiscal year is mainly due to a change in the amount of amortization. A very small amount is due to changes in the ag policy framework agreement and the food safety dollars under that agreement.
J. MacPhail: Amortization of what?
Hon. J. van Dongen: Primarily lab equipment.
J. MacPhail: Is this a new way of accounting? I'm not familiar with this. Perhaps the minister could expand on saying that the whole budget reduction is around amortization of lab equipment.
Hon. J. van Dongen: The accounting practice of applying amortization is simply to provide dollars to fund new capital purchases. It's a standard practice to amortize, say, some new lab equipment. If you buy a new analyzer for a lab for $100,000 and write it off over three years, that's a $33,000 amortization charge in each of those three years.
J. MacPhail: Let's work backward, then. In '06-07 the budget takes a huge leap. It goes from $3.828 million up to $6.282 million. What's happening there? What's so good about food inspection in '06-07 that isn't good in '05-06?
Hon. J. van Dongen: I want to start out answering the question for the member by stating what we are spending in each of the three successive fiscal years, starting with this fiscal year, which is the subject of these estimates, '04-05.
We are actually spending $6.328 million this fiscal year, '04-05. We are budgeting an actual expenditure of $6.322 million for '05-06. We are budgeting an actual expenditure that she has questioned of $6.282 million for '06-07. In the years '04-05 and '05-06 the difference between the figure I have given her and the figure in the statement, which is the net figure for food safety and quality, is the recovery of dollars from the federal agriculture policy framework program under the food
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safety chapter, which is in place for '03-04, '04-05 and '05-06 but is discontinued for '06-07.
What's important to establish is the actual dollar expenditures, which is roughly the same for these three years, but the difference the member has identified relates to recovery of some federal dollars to offset these expenditures.
J. MacPhail: Just to conclude, I found that explanation helpful. In '06-07 the same amount of funding will continue but will be all provincial dollars. Is that what the minister is saying?
Hon. J. van Dongen: Yes.
J. MacPhail: That's helpful.
I'm wondering whether I should start this. Let me ask this then: the budget figures for the ministry…. When the minister first introduced the three-year plan, the budget was at $66 million for the Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Fisheries. This year it is projected to be $49 million, according to their own plan. That's a cut of 26 percent. By '06-07 the plan is to be down to $45 million, for a total cut from when he first took office of 32 percent. Has the minister done an analysis? It's hard to tell from his service plan what impact these cuts have on the ministry's ability to handle all of the compliance issues it's faced with.
Hon. J. van Dongen: The member is correct that there have been significant reductions in the ministry over three years, but most of those reductions have been in the area of program reductions or eliminations. I'll just cite a few. The Okanagan Valley Tree Fruit Authority and the replant program, where there was already a sunset in place for that program, will be discontinued. The whole-farm insurance program is discontinued, and there were a significant number of regional offices that were closed, but I can say to the member that there has been no reduction in investment in resources for inspection and compliance activities. In fact, on the fish inspection side, we have hired two additional inspectors to augment the staff that were in place when we formed government.
J. MacPhail: I'll yield the floor to my colleagues and return after the break. Thank you very much.
V. Roddick: Probably the most contentious section of the Delta agricultural bylaws is the greenhouse issue. Will the minister continue to commit to work with the municipality of Delta in achieving a successful conclusion to this ongoing challenge?
Hon. J. van Dongen: Certainly. As I'd said earlier to the member, we will continue to work actively at many levels with the local government in Delta, and we have staff in dialogue with staff at Delta. As I had said earlier, I think there are one or two issues where there is simply a different point of view. The issue of site coverage for greenhouses is one where there is a significant difference in point of view. I don't know how we will reconcile that.
The ministry takes a position that greenhouses are a legitimate use in the agricultural land reserve. They're an allowable farm use. They're certainly a very, very significant exporter of high quality B.C.–grown products. They're the providers of a large number of jobs, about 2,000 at the farm level and the packing level, which are year-round jobs. They're very desirable jobs with good working conditions.
Our industry is one of the most competitive in the world in that the climate in Delta is absolutely ideal for greenhouse production. In fact, our industry exports all over the United States and is very competitive with both the field tomato industry and the greenhouse industry in the United States. It's clearly within the ministry's guidelines to allow up to 75 percent site coverage for greenhouses within the agricultural land reserve.
I should also mention that the productivity of these operations and the quality control is absolutely tremendous. If you compare growing tomatoes in a greenhouse in Delta to growing tomatoes under field conditions, you multiply the quantity of tomatoes by a factor of 40 to 45, and you have much more control and better quality.
It is an industry that is worth supporting. The industry generates about $150 million a year — a very active and growing industry. I'm hopeful that over time we will be able to reconcile that difference on policy with Delta. We will continue to dialogue with them, but we are holding firm on that particular issue in our ministry guidelines.
V. Roddick: Attached to this last question is air quality. Air quality is a growing issue in the area of Delta South. Will the Minister of Agriculture commit to working with the GVRD to monitor the greenhouse industry to ensure the stack emission technology — which is right up to snuff at the present moment — achieves what it's designed to achieve, as well as monitor the emissions resulting from marine, rail and road traffic?
Hon. J. van Dongen: We've certainly had staff in the field working actively with the farming industry, the greenhouse industry in Delta and with the GVRD on the issue of allowable fuels and emissions standards. We believe that growers should have an opportunity to look at options for fuels, but we believe we need to establish a solid set of emission standards and then give the industry the opportunity to meet those standards as opposed to an approach that says: "We're going to specify one particular fuel that you can use as input for your operation and not consider any alternative fuels or any alternative technologies."
There's certainly technology around now that can be used to burn fuels other than natural gas to some extremely low emissions levels. I think we need to be
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open to that in the interests of the competitiveness of our industry. We will continue to dialogue with the GVRD, Water, Land and Air Protection and the industry to try to find the right mix of policy and standards to achieve high-quality air standards and a competitive industry.
V. Roddick: Are the minister and the ministry already working with the Minister of State for Intergovernmental Relations to work with the Department of Fisheries and Oceans in recognizing the value of greater provincial influence over federal policy and management of the B.C. wild fishery to increase revenue and to protect jobs?
Hon. J. van Dongen: We have made it very much a part of our core business focus to support the commercial fishing industry in their discussions with the federal government. The member knows that the Department of Fisheries and Oceans manages the wild fishery. They have that authority. We consider it to be within our advocacy role to represent the interests of the commercial fishing sector. We get involved, for example, on behalf of coastal communities on the decisions around the hake fishery. We get involved on behalf of commercial fishermen on the Fraser River when we're talking about fishing plans and, particularly, in-season management.
We consider the whole commercial fishing sector an important part of the B.C. economy. We think that along with goals of conservation, which are obviously very important in terms of long-term sustainability of the wild fishery…. Within that context we have to follow a mandate of economic utilization of the resource that will provide livelihoods and good jobs not only for the fishing fleet but also for plant workers. There are an amazing number of plants throughout British Columbia that are dependent on the wild fishery in one way or another. We want to promote that as one of the parameters in all of the decision-making that DFO does.
V. Roddick: The first urban agreement-in-principle has been achieved by the Tsawwassen first nation. As the treaty negotiations proceed, will it be possible for the minister to work closely with the many, many federal, provincial, municipal and business sectors that will be involved in this complicated process?
The Agricultural Land Commission and the Delta Farmers Institute are just two of the major business sectors that will be involved in this. Could the minister comment on that, please?
Hon. J. van Dongen: We follow the treaty negotiations with interest, and we certainly have been actively involved with the Minister Responsible for Treaty Negotiations on the fisheries aspect of treaties. We're pleased that we were able to formulate a joint task group together with the federal government in respect of that. We also follow with interest on behalf of the agricultural community, the issues involved in the agricultural land reserve. Even though that is not in our ministry, certainly the concern is that we maintain a stable, predictable agricultural land base for British Columbia. Our government is certainly committed to that.
We will work in an advocacy role for the agricultural community and with the agricultural community in Delta. It is my understanding that the Delta Farmers Institute is active in those discussions, is active in those negotiations and certainly is there at the local level. The Tsawwassen first nation are their neighbours. I think it's fair to say that many members of the Delta Farmers Institute farm right alongside the Tsawwassen first nation. I'm hopeful that all of us can work collaboratively to maintain a strong agricultural sector but at the same time make progress on treaty negotiations.
That's certainly a mission of our government, and I think the minister responsible is making good progress. We want to try and help foster that progress to the ultimate conclusion of not only an agreement-in-principle but a full and final agreement with the first nations in Tsawwassen.
D. Jarvis: I wanted to know if I could possibly, if there is time left…. Is the minister in the position to answer some questions on fish farming and fish, or does he need some more staff to answer that question? Are you capable of doing that? I imagine you are.
Hon. J. van Dongen: Are you a fishing community?
D. Jarvis: Not a community, but I'm a coastal community. I'm born and bred on this coast here and have fished all over the coast, as you probably are aware, minister.
Madam Chair, I wanted to ask the minister…. I was quite surprised the other day when I picked up a book and saw that the Minister of Water, Land and Air Protection had put out an exotic alert. I guess it's being put out in many magazines in regard to the proliferation, supposedly, of Atlantic salmon in our lakes and streams and out in the salt water. I was rather surprised that an exotic alert was put out on the Atlantic salmon.
Is there a concern out there now? I can recall that some time ago — about a year or two ago — your ministry had done a study on it in which aboriginal gentlemen were involved, searching the different rivers. It was down to the point where, of the hundreds of thousands of fish, I think there were one or two or three fish that were Atlantics that were spotted in these surveys they were doing.
It was about that same time, I think, that one of those infamous radio announcers — I'm trying to think of his name; I've known him for about fifty years…. Rafe Mair, I think it was, wrote us all a letter concerning the situation. I responded back with what the minister had given me. I think that's the time he called you "two-fish" or something along that line. Also, he said to me that if all the Liberals were as stupid as Dan Jarvis, heaven help us.
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In actual fact, I'm wondering if this Atlantic salmon has proliferated any more than what it was or if you have information as to whether we are in danger of seeing Atlantic salmon spreading all over this coast, as has been suggested by that ilk of people out there who really are, I think, more misinformed than informed.
Hon. J. van Dongen: The exotic species alert that the member refers to is put out in a publication by the Ministry of Water, Land and Air Protection. I think he's referring to the fishing guide that they put out on an annual basis. They have a notification in that fishing guide that is intended to alert recreational fishermen to the possibility of finding Atlantic salmon in the course of their fishing activities.
This is simply part of an established program that we've had in the province, together with the federal government, called Atlantic Salmon Watch, which has been in place now, I think, for about 12 years. We've encouraged recreational fishermen, commercial fishermen, all parties and all members of the public, if they identify Atlantic salmon, to report to Atlantic Salmon Watch. In fact, fish-farming operations are under legal obligation to do so.
As part of an escape management regime and regulations that we have, it is intended to reduce what is already a low risk to an even lower level. In fact, performance with respect to escapes of Atlantic salmon has gradually and steadily improved. In terms of smolts, which are the tiny, little fish, there has been no identification of those Atlantic salmon for a number of years in B.C. streams. The escapes have been at a minimal level in all class sizes.
We feel that the program is working. As I've said, we've put in much stronger regulations than were ever in place before. We are pressing charges any time there is non-compliance with those regulations.
D. Jarvis: On that same premise, is there any evidence that we have…? What have the sightings been? Is it a negative, or is it maybe one or two salmon around, or is this just a…? I worry that this is causing irreparable harm to our fish-farm industry and all that. The scare has been put out there that they're going to breed with our wild stock. Is there any evidence of this at all coming forth? Are there not enough Atlantic salmon in those areas where fish are spawning to cause any concern?
Hon. J. van Dongen: Certainly, as I've explained to the member, we do have an active and, I think, effective regulatory regime in place. We use many avenues of monitoring and reporting. As I said, the overall numbers have continued to go down. If you look at all of the science around the potential establishment of Atlantic salmon in British Columbia, the risk, first of all, of colonization establishment is very low, and the risk of interbreeding with the Pacific salmon is zero.
We have tried to make all of our decisions on the basis of the best possible science and have taken into account these low or minimal risk levels. Our mission as a government, and what we have put out to industry, is that our objective is to make those risks even lower, so the numbers that we've seen in the last two or three years have been very, very minimal. The regulation is such that even if they have one fish escape when they're transferring fish, they have to report that. That's the law. We've been very actively monitoring that and reporting that, so it does over time improve performance.
The other factors are new pens; new technologies; upgraded nets; tests we have now for net strength; and monitoring requirements when they do high-risk operations — high risk in the sense of adding to the potential for escapes. If they do net changes, they have to do a dive afterwards to make sure that net is properly installed, properly weighted and properly anchored. There's a tremendous amount of monitoring and requirements that are in place now that didn't exist five or ten years ago. That is helping to improve performance.
We engaged earlier with the member for Vancouver-Hastings in a discussion about net pens. One of the difficulties we face in having a very prescriptive site management plan is that it creates possibly an impediment to improved net pens and net structures that we want to see implemented. When we have a technical non-compliance, it may be because the farm actually upgraded their facility with a stronger net cage system than they had before, and we regard that as an improvement to environmental sustainability and protection to wild stock.
Our regulatory systems need to adapt as we go. We need to have the ability to adapt them as people upgrade their facilities and apply new technologies.
D. Jarvis: Then is it safe to say there is no scientific evidence whatsoever of inbreeding of Atlantic salmon with Pacific salmon, wild salmon, and if there was such an incident, they don't live long after that or they die off right away — or if there was any evidence of the fact that they were inbreeding?
Hon. J. van Dongen: I can assure the member that there has been no evidence of interbreeding of Atlantic salmon with the wild Pacific salmon. There is no evidence of that. As I've said, the risk of colonization…. We have no evidence to indicate that there is any colonization taking place of wild Atlantic salmon — yeah, wild Atlantic salmon. That's simply not happening either in British Columbia.
D. Jarvis: Just one more question, and I don't know if the member has time to answer it in view of the present time. Maybe he could respond afterwards. It's in regard to what is happening to our fish farm industry. As I said, I'm a proponent of it, and I think it does great things for British Columbia, especially in our resource areas in the north.
I'm amazed when I pick up the paper every once in a while and I see these statements made. For example,
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the latest one is, I think, from Mr. Suzuki and friends, who come out and say there are PCBs not only in our farm fish but now they've spread into…. Our wild fish have PCBs and all the rest of it. I know that even among some of the circle of people I have dinner with occasionally, they're not eating wild fish and/or farm fish. Every time I go into a restaurant now, the waiter says: "I want you to know that we only serve wild fish." So I get into an argument, because as I say, I'm a proponent of farm fish, because I think it's good for British Columbia.
I just wondered — and I imagine, as the time is passing by — if you could tell us: is there any scientific evidence whatsoever that PCBs and other chemicals are in our wild stock and/or our present farm stock? Even if there are some levels of PCBs, etc., is it going to cause any problem to us humans to consume it?
Hon. J. van Dongen: In answer to the member's question, I think it's unfortunate when groups who claim to be science based engage in what are clearly misinformation campaigns — and sometimes fairly sophisticated misinformation campaigns. The study that the member refers to dealt with PCB levels in both farmed salmon and wild salmon. I think it's fair to say that there was correct science that had been done there but that the interpretation of that science and the way it was presented were not necessarily always valid.
The member can be assured that within farmed Atlantic salmon the PCB levels that were found in that study were 1/80 to 1/100 of the food safety standards that are put in place by the agencies, both in Canada and the United States, that are responsible for those matters. It is the Canadian Food Inspection Agency in Canada. The levels that were identified in wild salmon were even lower than that.
I think it's also important to acknowledge the contribution, as the member has, of the aquaculture industry, both shellfish and finfish, to our many rural and coastal communities. They are very significant contributors to employment for people in those communities.
I've toured processing plants that have 50 to 60 percent first nations people working in them, working at great year-round jobs — jobs that they enjoy and appreciate. I've spoken with first nations leaders, a number of them, who are strong supporters of the aquaculture industry because they know that that industry, properly regulated and managed — which is the only way we will have the industry in British Columbia — can provide jobs on fish farms, in processing facilities, in marketing and in ancillary activities like trucking, building net pens and a whole range of services to this industry. The value of a job in Port Hardy or Port McNeill or Prince Rupert or in many of these communities is a thousand times more to that community than it might be in Vancouver. Those are very valuable jobs for those communities.
Our government will continue to support an industry that is environmentally responsible and engages in proper management and will allow it to grow on a gradual basis. We also, I want to restate, support a diversified fishery. We support our commercial fishermen, and we support the recreational sector. Those are all very important sectors in our coastal communities.
With that I'll move….
The Chair: Thank you, minister. Noting the time, we will recess until 6:40 p.m. this evening.
The committee recessed from 5:59 p.m. to 6:43 p.m.
[G. Trumper in the chair.]
On vote 10 (continued).
J. MacPhail: Madam Chair, I left off with questioning the service plan. Can the minister define what is included in the risk management line of the resource summary of the service plan?
Hon. J. van Dongen: The activity included under the risk management line includes all of the agriculture policy framework agreement. The biggest component of that is crop insurance, which is now going to be known as production insurance. The net income stabilization agreement, which is being discontinued and will not be continued for the 2004 crop year, includes the Canadian agricultural income stabilization program — what we refer to as the CAIS program. It includes regulated marketing. Those are the boards and commissions and, in particular, the Farm Industry Review Board, which provides an appeal function for the marketing boards.
J. MacPhail: Looking at the risk management line, there's a funding cut from $23.15 million to $12.65 million from this year we're just completing now to '06-07. That's a cut of 45 percent. It doesn't appear that the BSE crisis is going to be allayed any time soon, and of course the CAIS program, the Canadian agricultural income stabilization program, is tied to this line. What happens if the BSE crisis continues and this funding is cut by 45 percent?
Hon. J. van Dongen: I would answer the question this way. We have done an estimate of all of the requirements in the agreement with the federal government and the expected payouts under that program. I should mention that we have some funds that we are carrying forward from previous years which will form part of the payouts over the next five years. We estimate that we'll be able to fund all the requirements of the program over those five years, when we include the arrangements we have in the agreement with the federal government plus the existing funds in place that are being carried forward. We negotiated an agreement that would allow us to carry those funds forward, as required, from one year to the next.
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J. MacPhail: What are those funds and the amount in those funds that the minister is carrying forward?
Hon. J. van Dongen: We're estimating the carry-forward funds in place in the fiscal year '03-04 to be $34.1 million.
J. MacPhail: And the source of the funds that are being carried over?
Hon. J. van Dongen: These funds are in an account that's currently called the whole-farm trust, but that account will be renamed the Canadian agricultural income stabilization trust.
J. MacPhail: Where is this booked in the provincial budget, please?
Hon. J. van Dongen: The account is held by the Ministry of Finance. Both the provincial ministry and the federal government put funds into the account, and the claims made by farmers under the Canadian income stabilization program come out of the account.
J. MacPhail: Okay. The minister and I had a discussion about funding, looking both backward and forward — our debate around the supplemental estimates. Maybe the minister could just say how much money they've got booked, set aside, to deal with the BSE crisis and support for producers. In the whole-farm trust there's $34-something million. I'd appreciate knowing the line and the page in the budget document where that's listed. How much out of this budget, the minister's agricultural budget, will also go to support for the BSE crisis?
Hon. J. van Dongen: In doing our budgets for the CAIS program, our best forecast before BSE approximated cash provincial commitments of approximately $30 million a year. I can give the member the numbers for the five years if she wishes, but I'm going to say approximately $30 million a year. That would have included a factor that included consideration of what would be a normal claim pattern for the beef industry, which is generally quite low because many beef producers didn't participate in these programs prior to this, but there was a small factor included in terms of the normal pattern.
If we augment that with the additional funds that were allocated through supplementary estimates, both the $10.5 million for the three BSE programs and the $16.8 million allocated for an additional draw on CAIS as a direct result of the BSE program, most of the money that the cattle industry will draw for the 2003 year is included in these two supplementary estimates. There was a factor in the CAIS forecast that involved commitments of approximately $30 million per year.
J. MacPhail: Okay. Well, I'm not going to pursue that any further, except to say this: there is no resolution to the BSE crisis. The government is clearly booking revenue as if the crisis will be over. I just wish them well. I wish the producers well. It doesn't seem to me that there's any plan in place to supplement the industry, the producers, the cattle ranchers in anticipation that the crisis may go on.
At page 13 of the service plan it says the business area is based on…. It's the food safety as a core business area. The plan states: "The business area is based on prevention, early detection and rapid response." What's the ministry currently doing in the wake of the BSE crisis to improve prevention and early detection?
Hon. J. van Dongen: The enhanced testing that is taking place in Canada as a result of the BSE incident is directed and governed by the Canadian Food Inspection Agency and will involve testing of a significantly increased number of animals that might possibly have BSE. They're in the higher risk categories. We, as a minimal risk country, want to be able to demonstrate a sufficient number of animals tested to satisfy the OIE that we have a satisfactory testing regime in place. Our Animal Health Centre may be involved in the initial screening of tests, but the actual test for BSE is done at the CFIA lab in Winnipeg or possibly Lethbridge. They have two labs in western Canada that can do these tests.
J. MacPhail: Are British Columbians subject to the direction or change of the federal government alone, or does this minister have any input into increased protection and prevention?
Hon. J. van Dongen: Our head veterinarian in British Columbia, Dr. Ron Lewis, does sit on an advisory committee with the Canadian Food Inspection Agency, but the decisions and the funding around increased testing all rest with the Canadian Food Inspection Agency.
J. MacPhail: Well, I certainly hope there's an aggressive approach taken by the federal government to deal with the BSE crisis. It was interesting to note that Paul Martin, the Prime Minister of Canada, in his throne speech last month failed to mention two issues of crucial importance to British Columbia: the BSE crisis and the softwood lumber dispute. I'm reluctant to have any hope that the federal government is going to assist cattle ranchers or loggers and the forest industry in British Columbia in any way.
Madam Chair, I'm trying to be very efficient in my approach to estimates. I'm turning to an issue we discussed briefly, before I left to yield the floor to my colleagues, around the issue of the relationship between — I'm talking about aquaculture now — the scientific modelling of biomass and site configuration. The minister said that he couldn't possibly link the two, that it's a technical discussion, and he offered me a briefing.
Well, he was a little more glib in answering a story that broke last month, I think it was, about the link
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between these two. It was a story that shows…. There were documents obtained by the Sierra Legal Defence Fund through freedom of information where the Sierra Legal Defence Fund discovered that the government made a decision to hand back fines levied against aquaculture companies for operating in violation of their tenures.
I asked the minister, before the supper break, how he could reassure us that non-compliance for site configuration didn't harm the environment or the product. He gave me reassurance. Then, when I asked him for details, he said it was too scientific for him to comment on.
In the February 5, 2004, CBC story the Premier of British Columbia says the fines were paid back because of long delays. The whole government went on to say that the reason why they were returning fines to fish farms that had been fined for non-compliance was basically to blame the previous government; that the previous government had, through huge backlog in granting licences and tenures, caused this; and that it wasn't the fault of the industry that they were in non-compliance. It was the previous government's fault. The long delays were created by them. That doesn't make any sense to me, considering everything we've just heard from the minister.
Biomass and site configuration are very important aspects of farm sustainability, and in fact, you can't separate the two. You can't. They're based on scientific modelling. The Premier's remarks do not change the fact that farms were in non-compliance in an area that the minister and his reports, which I've just quoted from, identify as problem areas. Can the minister explain how he can justify his government's actions when his own report from the year 2002, when his government was in full control, stresses the importance of improving compliance in the site configuration regulations? By the way, the same report says that there's a substantial amount of non-compliance in the biomass as well.
Hon. J. van Dongen: I want to confirm for the member that certainly my ministry is involved in the inspection of fish farms and certainly is involved with the Ministry of Water, Land and Air Protection in developing the compliance report that she has cited. The issue of forgiveness of certain penalties or rents to fish farms is not within my ministry and is not an issue that I have any knowledge of or have been involved in.
J. MacPhail: Let me just get this clear. The forgiveness of over a million dollars in fines and penalties, this minister says, had nothing to do with him. Yet he's responsible for ensuring the compliance of the aquaculture industry with the government's regulations.
I want to ask my questions, Madam Chair, because I'm sick and tired of ministers saying that they don't have any authority over this. Just prior to the supper break I asked this minister about his responsibility for inspecting farms with relationship to slaughter of animals. He said: "Oh, it's got nothing to do with me. It's the Minister of Health." Well, it so happens that the Minister of Health Services was in estimates. My colleague asked him the questions, and he said: "Oh, it's got nothing to do with me."
These are important issues, and this minister and this government can't pass the buck. They were more than willing to stand up when this story broke and say it was all the previous government's responsibility.
I'll ask my questions, and if the minister refuses to answer them, then they go to the Premier. That's who they'll go to, because the buck has to stop somewhere, and if it's the Premier….
J. MacPhail: Yeah, that minister refused to answer questions, too, about a B.C. Rail deal that we see is under police investigation — a B.C. Rail deal that he refused to answer whether he had any meetings on.
The Chair: Order, please. Member, order, please. Thank you.
J. MacPhail: Now it's been cancelled because it's rotten to the core, and that minister wouldn't answer any questions about whether he had any meetings with the proponents of the deal. That'll come back to haunt him, believe you me.
The Premier said there was an unacceptable backlog. What was the backlog?
Hon. J. van Dongen: The issue the member is referring to is dealing with the administration of tenures by the agency Land and Water British Columbia, and that is not within my responsibility as minister.
J. MacPhail: Well, the minister just answered all sorts of questions about compliance and reassured me that I shouldn't be concerned about the low compliance rate. He didn't have any hesitation to defend his government against the fact that I shouldn't be concerned about the 24 percent compliance rate. Now when I ask him about letting the industry off the hook about the fines and in fact returning a million dollars to the industry, he says: "Oh, it's got nothing to do with me." I guess when it's good news, he can give the good news. Well, I'm going to continue.
We currently see that the compliance rate is at 24 percent for site configuration. The ministry is working to improve that. The minister said that just before the supper break. Why would the government then go ahead and undermine its own efforts about compliance? It's this minister that's responsible for compliance.
Hon. J. van Dongen: I want to confirm for the member that our ministry, the Ministry of Agriculture,
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Food and Fisheries, does have inspection staff who have compliance responsibilities in the sense that they do inspections on farms under the Fisheries Act and under the Land Act. Our responsibility involves the inspections and the reporting and the documentation of evidence on farms. Decisions around tenures or penalties involving those tenures — those are the decisions of Land and Water British Columbia.
J. MacPhail: Well, then maybe the minister can tell me about how he knows that these fines were returned because they were tenure violations. That wasn't reported in the media. They were compliance and enforcement violations, for which the fines were returned.
Perhaps the minister can break down the information that lets him off the hook. I want to add some information for the Minister of Agriculture. He touted the service agreement he has with the Minister of Water, Land and Air Protection. He said: "We've got a service agreement." Well, here's what the service agreement says: "Point 7. Compliance and Enforcement — Roles and Responsibility. For the purpose of the service agreement, it is agreed that the Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Fisheries has the lead role in compliance."
Hon. J. van Dongen: I'd refer the member to page 3, right under the section that she just read about compliance, where it sets out the definition of compliance — defined as "conducting the following activities." It gives a list of activities, including awareness, education, promotion and a whole range of other activities — monitoring, inspections and audits; administrative remedies pertaining to the agency's licensing authority; early intervention to prevent non-compliance. The member can read it for herself.
The authority for the issues that she raises is not within this ministry. It is in the Ministry of Sustainable Resource Management, who has responsibility for Land and Water British Columbia.
J. MacPhail: Here we have a government giving back over a million dollars to the aquaculture industry, blaming it on the backlog of the previous government, and this minister won't stand up and defend his government's actions. Let me ask this: does the minister support his government's decision to return those fines and penalties, given his role in this industry?
Hon. J. van Dongen: The issue the member is questioning me about is not within the subject matter of these estimates. She should question the minister responsible for the Ministry of Sustainable Resource Management.
J. MacPhail: How embarrassing. Here's what this minister's role is. Believe you me, when the questions were all easy for him to answer, before supper, and he could show what great progress this government was making, he didn't have any problem talking about this issue — about how I wasn't supposed to worry my head about the non-compliance. He had all sorts of evidence where it was irrelevant to damage in the environment or damage to the product. Now, when I ask him about a very controversial item of his government returning over a million dollars to the industry, returning fines and penalties, he says it's got nothing to do with him. Well, let me read the service agreement. Let me read it. I'll read it in its entirety so that this minister….
J. MacPhail: Yeah, I wouldn't expect it's a very good day for any minister in this government — any minister. Unless you like cops floating around all the time, investigating your activities.
The Chair: Order. Order, member, please.
J. MacPhail: Yeah, I expect there will be lots of questions about the roles of individual ministers in a criminal activity where they had to cancel a B.C. Rail deal.
The Chair: Member, if we could focus on the essence, please.
J. MacPhail: Thank you. You're right. The Minister of Provincial Revenue's estimates are not up. You're absolutely right. I'm sorry I was referring to him — the Minister of Provincial Revenue.
Here's what the deal says: "Compliance and enforcement." This is the document that the Minister of Agriculture bragged about before supper. It's the Service Agreement on Coordination of Compliance and Enforcement Programs between the Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Fisheries; the Ministry of Water, Land and Air Protection; the Ministry of Sustainable Resource Management; and Land and Water British Columbia Inc. — all parties I'm talking about. The minister said: "Oh, I'm sure the member is aware that we have this agreement." I said that I was. Yes, I was.
Here is what compliance and enforcement says:
"For the purpose of this Service Agreement, it is agreed that the Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Fisheries has the lead role in compliance and that the Ministry of Water, Land and Air Protection has the lead role in enforcement. The Ministry of Water, Land and Air Protection will also assume the lead role in consultation with the Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Fisheries when environmental conditions at marine finfish facilities exceed the 'trigger' level established in the Aquaculture Waste Control Regulation."
Hmm. Seems that their advice might have been sought. If it wasn't, then it was in violation of this agreement. Compliance is defined as conducting the following activities. In case the minister's attention span is short, he's responsible for compliance. Here's what compliance is:
"…site-specific management plan development; awareness, education, promotion and training activities;
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partnership and practices activities; monitoring, inspections and audits; administrative remedies pertaining to agency's licensing authority; early intervention to prevent non-compliance; provision of data, samples; monitoring results, inspection reports and fish escapes reports to the lead enforcement agency based on a predetermined schedule" — and here's one — "support for enforcement actions including development of procedures and provision of information, technical support and expert witness support for investigation to ensure the ability of the Ministry of Water, Land and Air Protection to achieve successful prosecution."
What part of what I just read out allows the minister to stand up and say that the return of fines and penalties that were levied because of non-compliance has nothing to do with him?
Hon. J. van Dongen: The document is clear about the role of the Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Fisheries, and certainly in that respect it is a huge improvement over the past. There's nothing in what the minister just read out that speaks to the decision-making authority and the decisions made by Land and Water British Columbia. It speaks to providing support through the provision of expertise, reports and data that have been collected by our inspectors for the Ministry of Water, Land and Air Protection in the event that they are pursuing a prosecution.
J. MacPhail: Okay. Well, let's take it from this approach. The over $1 million of fines and penalties were levied based on enforcement of what was then, I guess, the Ministry of Environment. It was under the previous government. I assume — we don't know that information — that the previous government was actually enforcing environmental compliance regulations on fish farms. Then this government reversed those decisions. I assume that it would have been a discussion around prosecution — to reverse a prosecution, the levying of fines.
Let me ask this: what support for reversing enforcement actions, including provision of information, technical support and expert witness support for investigation to ensure the ability of the Ministry of Water, Land and Air Protection to achieve successful prosecution or to say that they shouldn't proceed on successful prosecution did this minister provide in returning those fines and levies? That's his job. He must have been consulted to say: "Hey, we were wrong on the prosecution. The evidence doesn't support continuing with the fines and penalties." He must have been consulted. If he wasn't consulted, this document is meaningless.
Hon. J. van Dongen: In the compliance section that the member read out, it certainly makes clear that our inspection staff are available and that their evidence is available to the Ministry of Water, Land and Air Protection. I am not aware that our staff were involved in any of the decisions of Land and Water British Columbia that the member refers to.
J. MacPhail: I should probably just sit down and say, "Oh boy, we've got a huge story here," because we do. Let me just confirm it, then. This Minister of Agriculture, Food and Fisheries, who is responsible for providing the information, technical support and expert witness support for prosecution, provided absolutely no data to Land and Water B.C. when they reversed their decision on the fines and the prosecution. Is that what he just said?
Hon. J. van Dongen: That is not what I said, Madam Chair. What I said was that our staff are available to the Ministry of Water, Land and Air Protection under the section that the member read out, and I am not aware that they were consulted by Land and Water British Columbia on the issues that she raises. I stress that I am not aware they were consulted. They could be available, but I'm not aware they were consulted. The section she read out deals with the Ministry of Water, Land and Air Protection.
J. MacPhail: Sorry. No, it doesn't. It deals with compliance and enforcement, roles and responsibilities. It talks about the connection between compliance, for which this minister is responsible, and enforcement. Let me ask a very straightforward question. When this government decided to return the fine and penalty money, totalling over $1 million, to the salmon farming industry at a time when the Premier blamed it on a backlog, this minister was not asked for any data to help Land and Water B.C. make their decision to return those fines and penalties. Is that correct? If I'm wrong, let the minister stand up and tell me what input he had to the reversal of this decision.
Hon. J. van Dongen: The decisions the member refers to — again, I repeat — are within the agency Land and Water British Columbia. To my knowledge, we were not consulted. I was certainly not consulted. My senior staff don't recall being consulted. The decisions are made by Land and Water British Columbia. The inspection staff are involved in doing inspections based on the memorandum of understanding that we have. They are involved in doing inspections. They're not involved in decisions in other ministries unless they are consulted.
J. MacPhail: Let me ask this question again. Does the minister support his government's decision to return those fines and penalties?
Hon. J. van Dongen: The member should raise that question with the minister responsible. As I said, I was not involved in the decision. I'm not aware of the decision parameters and what went into it.
J. MacPhail: Where was the decision made?
Hon. J. van Dongen: The member should ask that question of the minister responsible for the decision.
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J. MacPhail: Is the minister telling me that given this great service agreement he has, he's unaware of where the decision was made?
Hon. J. van Dongen: As I've repeatedly indicated to the member, the decisions she refers to were made within the agency Land and Water British Columbia. They are outside the scope of this service agreement.
J. MacPhail: I'm asking the minister where the decision was made. Was it made at cabinet?
Hon. J. van Dongen: My understanding is that the decisions the member refers to were made by Land and Water British Columbia. She should ask the minister responsible for that agency.
J. MacPhail: Does the minister sit on Treasury Board?
Hon. J. van Dongen: No.
J. MacPhail: Is the minister aware that there have to be decisions by cabinet if a financial transaction reaches a certain level? Is the minister aware of that?
The reason why I'm asking about whether this decision was made by him…. I mean, right now we've actually proven that he is completely ineffectual in the compliance, enforcement, regulation and monitoring of the aquaculture industry. God knows why he's the spokesperson defending his government on it. God knows why.
He had nothing to do with a decision that gave back over $1 million to the aquaculture industry. He doesn't know why it was done, when it was done and whether it was done properly. Yet he's the one that is put up to speak for them all the time.
Is he aware that cabinet has to decide when a financial transaction reaches a certain level — say, $100,000?
Hon. J. van Dongen: The member should direct her questions about this issue to the minister responsible for Land and Water British Columbia. That's where the decisions were made. We are involved in a compliance and enforcement agreement with the Ministry of Water, Land and Air Protection. Our role is limited by the scope of that agreement.
J. MacPhail: Let me ask this, then: is the minister, in his job, at all aware of any other examples where fines have been forgiven or given back for compliance issues?
Hon. J. van Dongen: The specific issues the member raises are the responsibility of the Ministry of Sustainable Resource Management. I am not aware of any similar forgiveness of penalties — that kind of thing.
J. MacPhail: Of course, the minister won't go on record on whether he supports his government's decision. He's completely silent. That's a brave move.
Let me ask this: did the minister have any discussions with Land and Water B.C. or the Minister of Sustainable Resource Management about the fines being given back?
Hon. J. van Dongen: I don't recall any discussions about that issue with the Minister of Sustainable Resource Management or Land and Water British Columbia.
J. MacPhail: Well, then let's go to the service agreement and just see the value of the service agreement. Based on those comments by the minister, it's a pathetic, useless agreement then. The service agreement on coordination of compliance and enforcement programs — between the Ministries of Agriculture, Food and Fisheries; Water, Land and Air Protection; and Sustainable Resource Management; and Land and Water B.C. — says under point 1 that the agreed-upon vision is "a sustainable aquaculture industry that meets high standards for environmental protection and has a high level of public confidence in the compliance and enforcement role of government."
Based on that, what part of the Minister of Agriculture's role would lead to completing that vision?
[B. Lekstrom in the chair.]
Hon. J. van Dongen: In answer to the member's question, the service agreement between the Ministry of Ag, Food and Fish and the Ministry of Water, Land and Air Protection was intended to clarify roles. It was intended to eliminate duplication. It sets out clearly the respective responsibilities of the ministries and how they interact. Certainly, the Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Fisheries has a compliance function. That means that our staff do all of the inspections, gather all of the evidence and make it available to other agencies. Other agencies will use that data and use that evidence as they see fit under their direction under their legislative responsibility. Our experience with the MOU is that it certainly has provided clarity for respective roles. It's been more efficient, and I think it has significantly strengthened our overall compliance and enforcement effort in regulating the aquaculture industry.
J. MacPhail: Well, no evidence of that so far tonight — none. Under point 3 the agreement states: "…to demonstrate a strong, integrated and accountable compliance and enforcement regime." Strong, integrated and accountable. How are under-the-table paybacks…? There's no other way of describing them — no other way. They didn't go to cabinet. This minister knew nothing about them. He had nothing to do with them. He can't explain why. How are under-the-table paybacks and undermining compliance efforts considered accountable?
Hon. J. van Dongen: Effective accountability can only be achieved when there is clarity of roles and re-
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sponsibility. That's what this agreement does. Further to that, the accountability for the decisions the member refers to is within the agency Land and Water British Columbia. That's who made those decisions. They're responsible for the decisions. The member should ask the minister responsible.
J. MacPhail: Oh, I'll ask the questions, but it's this minister who's undermining any confidence in the aquaculture industry by his lack of involvement in returning under-the-table payback of over a million dollars to the aquaculture industry, where there's been no decision point from cabinet, from him.
Let's look at point 4 of the service agreement. This is very interesting. Point 4 outlines the goals of the service agreement. "Development of this service agreement is based on the following common goals: efficient use of staff resources to minimize duplication; one-window approach to aquaculture development; high level of compliance; early intervention to avoid non-compliance; effective enforcement, successful prosecution and rehabilitation where required; public confidence; and transparency." It looks, to me anyway, like the payback highlights that the agencies don't at all have common goals.
Where did the minister help, given his responsibility under this service agreement, in the effective enforcement, successful prosecution and rehabilitation where required?
Hon. J. van Dongen: The contribution our ministry has made to this service agreement certainly involves a much-improved inspection regime. It involves further training of our inspection staff. It involves the kind of careful and diligent documentation of evidence and data that is reflected in our annual report that we put out together with the Ministry of Water, Land and Air Protection. Within 72 hours of non-compliance being identified in areas such as escapes or in areas involving the Waste Management Act, that information is turned over to the Ministry of Water, Land and Air Protection, and they use that data and that evidence to pursue prosecution if that's the appropriate action.
I think what's important to know about the agreement is the clarity of roles that it provides. It removes a lot of confusion as to who does what and when they do it. Our staff have worked, I think, very closely and very effectively with the Ministry of Water, Land and Air Protection to ensure that effective compliance and, if necessary, enforcement are required. It's a team effort, but it works much better because there is clarity of roles.
J. MacPhail: Well, I don't agree with that at all. The minister has a huge responsibility in compliance and enforcement, and he says he had nothing to do with it.
When was the minister first made aware that the government was returning about $1.5 million to the aquaculture industry in fines and penalties that they had paid?
Hon. J. van Dongen: I became aware of that issue through the media when everybody else in the public domain became aware of it.
J. MacPhail: So it didn't go to cabinet. It didn't go to cabinet, in violation of the Financial Administration Act. It didn't go to this minister, in violation of their service agreement. We have no idea, or this minister has no idea, why these fines were returned — absolutely none. What did the minister do when he found out these fines were being returned? What did he do?
Hon. J. van Dongen: As I've said to the member, this issue she's questioning me about is within the responsibility of the Minister of Sustainable Resource Management, and she should ask him those questions. We have many issues we are responsible for in this ministry, and we focus on looking after those issues that we are accountable for and responsible for.
J. MacPhail: No matter how hard the minister tries to say he's not accountable for this, he is. Is the minister saying that when it was found out not by the government releasing the information that they were giving back $1.5 million to the aquaculture industry but by the Sierra Legal Defence Fund — a group the backbenchers of the government caucus like to stand up every day in question period and in their statements berating, smearing, chastising, undermining…? It was only when the Sierra Legal Defence Fund released the information about the returns of these fines that it became public knowledge — clearly, to the cabinet as well. The minister is saying he didn't even ask why the fines were returned? He didn't even ask why. Is that what he's saying?
Hon. J. van Dongen: Again, the member should ask those questions of the minister responsible for that issue.
J. MacPhail: I understand that it's been a very bad day for government, and I think it just got worse. How can anyone have confidence in this government to live up to the letter of the law on anything?
Is the minister responsible for the sea lice strategy?
Hon. J. van Dongen: The Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Fisheries is involved in a sea lice strategy. We work together with the Department of Fisheries and Oceans to effect this strategy. The division of responsibility is that our ministry monitors the situation on farms and the Department of Fisheries and Oceans monitors the sea lice issue in terms of the wild stock.
J. MacPhail: Well, phew. The minister knows he's responsible for the sea lice strategy. I'm relieved, because he issued a news release on this on December 30, 2003, and it's his ministry.
It's an issue we've debated a few times over the years. Last year we discussed at length the Broughton
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Archipelago action plan. That was where the Minister of Agriculture, Food and Fisheries ordered some fallowing of farms to allow safe passage of migrating pink smolts. We discussed how the migration route was inadequate, so I'm not going to go over that again.
I want to explore the government's decision to expand the strategy. The reason why I know the strategy was expanded is because this minister issued a news release on December 30, 2003. It's entitled "Sea Lice Strategy Extended to Entire Coast for 2004." According to this news release dated December 30, 2003: "All salmon farms in B.C. will be monitored by the provincial government under the province's 2004 strategy for monitoring sea lice."
Now, the minister and his government colleagues cried foul every time someone warned them about sea lice. They even went as far as to try and question the credibility of people like Alexandra Morton. Can the minister explain what caused the sudden change in government policy and attitude?
Hon. J. van Dongen: The sea lice strategy was initiated in late 2002-03 after consultation by our ministry and the Department of Fisheries and Oceans with many experts — including local experts, including Alexandra Morton's work but also including a wide range of experts, both Canadian and international. The strategy was put in place in the Broughton Archipelago initially, and then in December we made a decision to expand the strategy to all farms all over British Columbia and increased their monitoring and reporting requirements on sea lice.
J. MacPhail: Why?
Hon. J. van Dongen: The decision to expand the requirements was based on a precautionary measure to ensure the protection of wild stock and appropriate management and monitoring of the sea lice issue.
J. MacPhail: Well, all sorts of people were asking him to take the precautionary approach before December 2003, and he refused. He explained how it wasn't necessary. Let me remind him of the actual recommendations of the Fraser report. Sorry — was the Fraser report used as part of the reason for expanding the strategy?
Hon. J. van Dongen: My recollection is that the Fraser report was part of the information base that was used. That report was completed approximately late 2002, early 2003. It would have formed part of the information base that was used by our two respective agencies in developing the initial sea lice strategy.
J. MacPhail: I'm just going to remind people of what the actual recommendations of the Fraser report were. The first recommendation made by the Fraser report was to fallow the entire Broughton Archipelago. That was the precautionary approach. That was made back in late 2002, as the minister says. The minister went with the approach that wouldn't alienate his government from their industry donors in the aquaculture industry. Can the minister explain why he has not continued the strategic fallowing in the Broughton?
Hon. J. van Dongen: To the first part of the member's question, the Fraser report set out more than one option. In considering the full range of information that our two agencies felt was appropriate, we chose an option that we thought met the need of the precautionary approach and protection of the wild stock and also the need to take a risk-based, science-based approach, which are the principles we try and follow.
With the issue of fallowing in the original strategy, the fallowing was determined in such a way that it enabled the two agencies — the Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Fisheries and the Department of Fisheries and Oceans — to attempt to measure a correlation between routes and sea lice levels. There was an attempt made to have one corridor completely fallowed and another corridor unfallowed. The Department of Fisheries and Oceans is still reviewing their data to determine if there is any correlation.
I think it's important to note at this point, first of all, that sea lice are parasites that are present in wild salmon on a naturally occurring basis. There has been no science to prove a link between fish farms and the presence of sea lice in the wild stock. Certainly, our two agencies are coordinating all of our information and trying to establish if such a correlation does exist.
J. MacPhail: I know that the minister tries to disparage the work of Alexandra Morton. But when he says there has been no scientific link, I have a report here, in a scientific journal, where it says the National Research Council, published this year. What's the date on it? It's this year. It's "Sea Lice Infection Rates on Juvenile Pink and Chum Salmon in the Nearshore Marine Environment of British Columbia." The people doing the study are Alexandra Morton, Richard Routledge, Corey Peet and Aleria Ladwig. It is published by the National Research Council Canada. It's a scientific journal.
Let me read the abstract.
"The study compared sea lice…infestation rates on juvenile pink…and chum…salmon in five nearshore areas of the British Columbia coast selected on the basis of proximity to salmon farms. A ten-week study in the Broughton Archipelago found sea lice were 8.8 times more abundant on wild fish near farms holding adult salmon and five times more abundant on wild fish near farms holding smolts than in areas distant from salmon farms. We found that 90 percent of juvenile pink and chum salmon sampled near salmon farms in the Broughton Archipelago were infected with more than 1.6 lice, a proposed lethal limit when lice reach mobile stages. Sea lice abundance was near zero in all areas without salmon farms."
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Call me crazy, but that seems to be a link published in a scientific research paper in a scientific journal. Call me crazy. Seems to do it for me, but the minister says he doesn't have any scientific evidence of the link. Well, there it is. Right there. He may not like it, but it's there and it's recent.
All indications so far point to continued low pink runs in the area. The strategic fallowing, although not as helpful as it could have been, was a key component of the Broughton plan. The government press release proclaims that it is expanding the Broughton plan, it's extending it, but there's no mention of fallowing. Why?
Hon. J. van Dongen: As I've said to the member, our decisions are all based on continuing study of all of the available science and all of the available work being done, including the people that the member has cited. I should point out that the press release put out by the National Research Council that accompanied the report she cites also indicated there were other opinions and scientific work that had been done about these matters. It cites in particular Dr. Scott McKinley, who is a professional marine biologist at the University of British Columbia. He is involved in aquaculture research and is certainly a credible individual.
As I've said, in all of our decisions we take a look at all of the science. We have professional biologists within our ministry who analyze that information and collaborate with their counterparts in the Department of Fisheries and Oceans to make the best possible, responsible, science-based decisions, and we consider all information, including the information the member has mentioned.
J. MacPhail: Sorry, what was the reference to the news release? Is the minister saying that somehow this report is discounted by the…. It was the Canadian journal of science that did it for the National Research Council. Is he saying that somehow the press release discounts the value of this scientific study, and therefore, he can ignore it? Is that his point?
Hon. J. van Dongen: What I indicated in my previous response is that there are different points of view on these issues. I'm aware that the press release put out by the National Research Council about this study indicated that there are different points of views and named the scientist who holds those views.
J. MacPhail: And? Is the minister, then, ignoring the scientific study I just quoted? Because he said there is no scientific evidence of the link. Is he ignoring the scientific study I just quoted?
Hon. J. van Dongen: I can assure the member that our staff is not ignoring that study. In fact, I reaffirmed that our biologists, our professional staff, review all studies, including the one the member mentioned. What I'm simply pointing out is that there is a range of scientific work taking place. There is ongoing research being done.
Through the research agency called AquaNet there is further study being done on the sea lice issue. I simply reaffirm that our professional people look at all of the studies, including the one she has mentioned. I'm simply saying that there is a range of views. There is a range of scientific work, and we review it all and use it all in our decision-making.
J. MacPhail: The study I just quoted from…. I'll correct the record. I said it was the Canadian journal of science. No, it's the Canadian Journal of Fisheries and Aquatic Science, funded by the National Research Council of Canada.
The Canadian Journal of Fisheries and Aquatic Science is the leading Canadian, peer-reviewed, scientific fisheries journal. The minister wouldn't even put that study into the record. He said there wasn't any scientific evidence of the link between sea lice and a decline in smolts. When I put it into the record, with all its scientific credentials, he kind of pooh-poohs it and says: "Oh, well." The news release referred to another study, and he wouldn't quote the study. He'll do anything to avoid the scientific evidence.
Why did his extended strategy not mention fallowing?
Hon. J. van Dongen: As I indicated to the member, the sea lice issue is one that is being fully researched and monitored on an ongoing basis. The decisions around fallowing this year were based on the fact that there was no evidence it was a valid strategy.
J. MacPhail: Is the minister suggesting that fallowing is not an important part of his precautionary approach?
[G. Trumper in the chair.]
Hon. J. van Dongen: The sea lice strategy includes active monitoring on farms, which increases in frequency when pink salmon are running. It includes an actionable level where treatments are required on farms and are administered on farms under the supervision of a veterinarian.
There was no evidence to justify fallowing, as had been the practice in the previous season. But we will continue to monitor all information and process all the information that is being gathered on an ongoing basis — and the research work that is done on sea lice. We will take appropriate measures, as required, in the future.
J. MacPhail: The precautionary principle, I'm sure I don't need to remind anybody, is part of the Rio declaration. Canada is a signatory to that. Therefore, it's legally binding on us. It defines the precautionary principle as: "Where there are threats of serious or irreversible damage, a lack of full scientific certainty shall not be used as a reason for postponing cost-effective measures to prevent environmental degradation." I
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would assume that the ministry could find a cost-effective way to continue to allow for safe migration routes in the Broughton. They did it last year in terms of fallowing. What's stopping the minister from doing it this year?
Hon. J. van Dongen: Two of the factors that went into the consideration of the strategy this year are the facts that there are fewer farms actively operating in the area and the average age of the fish is considerably younger than in the previous year. That has a correlation with lower sea lice levels as well.
J. MacPhail: Okay. I'd say that's a link — fewer farms and fewer fish. Yeah, I agree that's a link. How many fewer farms are there?
Hon. J. van Dongen: My understanding from staff is that there are 16 farms operating in the same area this spring that involved approximately 21 farms in operation last year. Those other sites are not in any particular pattern. They're just sites that are not operating at the present time.
J. MacPhail: Well, that begs the question: has the minister or ministry done any work into the possibility of adding migration routes to siting criteria? I know that's primarily the responsibility of the Minister of Sustainable Resource Management, but have there been any conversations either with MSRM or the federal level?
Hon. J. van Dongen: Biologists more knowledgable than I advise me that the whole coast is a migration route and that anywhere there is water, you'll find salmon. Our main strategy has been to monitor and manage sea lice levels effectively on farms and coordinate that strategy with active monitoring of the wild stock by the Department of Fisheries and Oceans.
J. MacPhail: I want to turn back to the December 30 news release from the Minister of Agriculture, Food and Fisheries. It states: "The strategy also includes a legal requirement to have approved plans for managing fish health, including mandatory monitoring for sea lice."
Was there no such legal requirement for fish health before?
Hon. J. van Dongen: Fish health management plans have been under development for some time, but they became a legal requirement in October of 2003 as part of a farm's overall management plan. There are certain standards now that these farms have to meet. They have to monitor and meet certain standards under these plans. They're part of the overall plan, but they will be updated as requirements change.
J. MacPhail: The press release from the Minister of Agriculture, Food and Fisheries goes on to say: "In 2003 the province monitored and audited fish farms in the Broughton Archipelago for sea lice." Where are those individual audits? Are they available on the website? We couldn't find them.
Hon. J. van Dongen: The fish health data is collected and put on our website. It is done on a basis of zones, various areas. The information is collected and then becomes a database for monitoring any changes in fish health levels.
J. MacPhail: I was curious, because the news release says the province monitored and audited fish farms. They must have been individual audits. Is the minister not releasing the individual audits? How many of the Broughton farms were audited?
Hon. J. van Dongen: Our inspection staff, based in Courtenay, audit farms for fish health issues on a random basis. They will go onto a farm and do an audit of the fish health status on that farm to compare that with the monitoring information that has been provided by the farm to our head veterinarian in Courtenay.
J. MacPhail: Yes, but is the government saying they're not publishing the individual audits? Why not? How many Broughton farms were audited?
Hon. J. van Dongen: The auditing is done on a quarterly basis. There are 30 farm sites audited for fish health matters every quarter. The fish health status, the data, is reported on a zone basis on our website. The fish health data is monitored and recorded on a zone basis to monitor the status in that area.
J. MacPhail: If the government is moving to a system of results-based regulation compliance, how does zone reporting help?
Hon. J. van Dongen: Each individual farm has reporting requirements they have to meet. Our inspectors audit those reports on a regular basis, as I've mentioned, and the data is collected on a zone basis in order to monitor trends on an area basis in those zones.
J. MacPhail: Okay. Let's, then, talk about compliance. I mean, if this is sort of the open and accountable system, and it's results-based, results-based means that each farm is responsible for its health. If it doesn't comply, then the government will come in and, I suppose, penalize them. I'm sure a fish farm in the Broughton Archipelago that's doing everything fine and maintaining fish health isn't going to want to be responsible for another farm not in compliance in the same zone.
You can't have it both ways. The government can't say, "Oh, we're leaving it up to the fish farms to comply" — that's what a results-based regulation system means — but then do an overview of the entire zone in
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terms of who's in compliance and who's not. Is there some problem with publishing individual results? That's one.
Secondly, given that this is a results-based regulation regime, does the minister know the individual farms who are in or out of compliance?
Hon. J. van Dongen: The legal requirement, first of all, that has been put in place and was never in place before is the requirement to report on a regular basis. That reporting is audited, as I said, on a routine basis — 30 farms a quarter. When you consider there are 80 to 85 farms operating, that is a high level of auditing. That information is monitored and gathered by our head veterinarian, our fish veterinarian in Courtenay. Depending on the disease that is identified, there are protocols the farm has to follow. For example, if the disease is something like IHN, then there is a particularly strict protocol that that farm has to follow and that will be monitored by our veterinary staff.
J. MacPhail: According to the press release, it also states: "The 2004 program also includes scientific research and development into sea lice, including sea lice research programs under the auspices of the B.C. Aquaculture Research and Development Committee; coordination and communication of sea lice information from wild and farmed salmon with the federal government and industry; and, third, education and training in sea lice identification." How much money has the minister got in his budget for scientific research and development into sea lice?
Hon. J. van Dongen: There's an aquaculture research fund of approximately $3.75 million that was put up by our ministry two years ago. There is an aquaculture research committee that decides on the priorities for that fund. There are currently three research projects ongoing involving sea lice, and the research committee has recently identified another $400,000 for further research work to be done on sea lice issues.
J. MacPhail: That's a reiteration of an old announcement. There's nothing new there.
Hon. J. van Dongen: The press release the minister cites confirms the research activity — in particular, the additional $400,000 that has been identified by the research committee and prioritized for projects researching issues around sea lice.
J. MacPhail: Well, what's happening in terms of coordination of sea lice information with the federal government?
Hon. J. van Dongen: We have a working committee, involving staff from my ministry and the Department of Fisheries and Oceans, who share research work, data and the results of the monitoring activities of both organizations. They then interface with other agencies and stakeholders in terms of exchanging data and trying to stay abreast of all the latest information and research that is being done.
J. MacPhail: Is there anything new there, or is that just a continuing program?
Hon. J. van Dongen: Generally speaking, it's a continuing program.
J. MacPhail: The third part of that section was a final commitment to education and training in sea lice identification. How much has the minister set aside for that commitment?
Hon. J. van Dongen: Our ministry organized and funded a workshop approximately three weeks ago where we brought a recognized sea lice expert, at a cost of $4,000, to run a two-day workshop for people on farms and in the industry to better learn the identification of sea lice.
J. MacPhail: Here's my dilemma with all of this, or where I'm curious. Page 10 of the service plan: from 2003-04 to '04-05 the budget for fisheries and aquaculture management is cut to $4.502 million from $5.146 million. That's a cut of $644,000. Similarly, the environmental sustainability budget is cut from $2.941 million to $2.546 million. That's a cut of 395,000 bucks from last year to this year. I'm trying to find out where the funds are to implement this coastalwide strategy that the minister proclaimed.
I'm also trying to figure out whether there's been any new staff hired to deal with the new workload that was brought on by this provincewide strategy. I mean, it does seem to be hard to understand how the minister can carry out an expansion to a provincewide strategy with these cuts to his ministry.
I'm curious to know where the money for the new staff is coming from, because at the same time this news release was issued at the end of December, there was an article in the Times Colonist that quoted Bud Graham, the ADM of the Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Fisheries, who said: "Additional staff have been hired to monitor farms." Where's the money coming from in light of the cuts, and could the minister clarify if new staff have been hired and from where?
Hon. J. van Dongen: The reduction in the fisheries and aquaculture budget came mainly in discretionary spending in the area of aquaculture development and a little bit of a reduction in travel. We did in fact hire two additional fish inspectors, or fish technicians, approximately five months ago. There's been no reduction in inspection, monitoring or surveillance activity.
J. MacPhail: Madam Chair, that concludes that portion of questions I have. I do have further questions, though, but I'll yield the floor to the member for Peace
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River South until the conclusion of today. I will be going at estimates for the Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Fisheries the next time it's scheduled.
B. Lekstrom: A number of questions. I'm going to change direction somewhat from where we've been the last little while. I want to focus on the issue of cattle and BSE and the budget issue.
I want to start by asking the minister…. When I look at our operating expenses on page 38 of our estimates book, I note under the national safety net programs a change from '03-04. At the same time, during the throne speech we talked about a $16.8 million injection to help, I believe, the cull program and possibly to help the BSE crisis. I'm just looking to the minister to see if he can explain where that revenue is reflected in our estimates and what that $16.8 million will be utilized for?
Hon. J. van Dongen: The $16.8 million that was the subject of the supplementary estimates was the additional dollars required to fund the ministry's anticipated commitments under the CAIS program for 2003. That was in addition to the $10.5 million that we anticipate is the additional funding required within the ministry to fund three BSE assistance programs that were developed both as federal-provincial programs and as a provincial program in the case of the steer and heifer transition program in the period from May 20 to whenever the programs expire, which for the cull cow program is March 13.
As I indicated earlier in these estimates, there was a relatively small amount of expenditure anticipated in the base budget for the CAIS program, but certainly the significance of the BSE event is such that we had to budget significant additional dollars to make our commitments, and we have committed to the B.C. cattlemen that we would fund every application under the CAIS program that was eligible and met the requirements of the program.
B. Lekstrom: I've had many questions from the ranching industry in my area. Just so I'm clear on this, the $16.8 million that we're talking about — and correct me if I'm wrong; I believe it was $16.8 million, if memory serves me — is not reflected in these estimates for the '04-05 budget year then.
Hon. J. van Dongen: I refer the member to page 38 which he cited. The approximately $27 million as subject to the supplementary estimates would be added to the $23.154 million as shown under '03-04 on page 38. Those are significant additional dollars that are anticipated to be required as a direct result of the BSE program payouts. That is, as I said, in addition to the $23 million that is part of the regular budget for the '03-04 fiscal year, which will end on March 31.
B. Lekstrom: Still focusing on the national safety net programs and knowing that it does deal with the whole farm insurance program, do we have an idea — because I believe that program is wrapping up in favour of the new CAIS program; correct me if I'm wrong again — how much of the $18.353 million would be put aside to deal with what's left under whole farm insurance?
Hon. J. van Dongen: The figure of $18.353 million that the member refers to is dollars that have been budgeted for the CAIS program and for crop insurance for '04-05. There will not be any whole farm program dollars coming out of the budgeted amount. The whole farm program is being discontinued and will not be operational in the coming fiscal year.
B. Lekstrom: Just so I'm clear on this, my understanding of the whole farm insurance program was that as it wrapped up, there were obligations by government funding to carry on. Is it, then, that under this revenue here none of that money goes to any future payouts under whole farm insurance — under WFIP?
Hon. J. van Dongen: I hope this will clarify it for the member. In our '03-04 budget — that's the year that we're in and we'll be finishing shortly — we are putting $3.2 million into the whole farm trust. That account will be used to fund any remaining obligations for the whole farm program. When all those remaining obligations have been met, whatever residual there is in the whole farm trust will be transferred as a source of funds for the CAIS program. Simply to restate, the estimates figure of $18.353 million on page 38 for '04-05 is all dollars allocated to the new program, including CAIS and production insurance.
B. Lekstrom: I thank the minister for that. I mean, trying to follow the safety net programs, I think, even for the producer is difficult at times.
I want to just ask the minister a couple of questions on the troubling times our cattle industry is in. It's significant for the families in my region and the ranching industry. Under the issue of TRQs and SRQs, which are quotas…. We have supplementary quotas. Can the minister tell me what's taken place with the supplementary quotas within our country? Are they still available? Are people utilizing SRQs? Have you, along with your colleagues across the country, convinced the federal counterparts, whom I believe have jurisdiction on this, to cancel all SRQs?
Hon. J. van Dongen: Certainly, the issue of supplementary import quotas for meat products is a critical issue for our Canadian industry. There have been no supplementary import permits issued since early July. All of the provincial ministers were very aggressive in pursuing this matter with, first of all, the federal Minister of Agriculture and the minister responsible for trade. It continues to be our position that there is no justification for any new supplementary import permits today. There certainly was a reopening of the
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quota that allows meat products to be imported under a WTO agreement, our WTO obligations, but it is our submission that there should be no supplementary import permits issued.
What is important, though, is that the industry, particularly the packing industry and the producers, to the degree that they have influence in this, needs to work with the further processors to make sure all the market requirements are met. Sometimes the requirements are fairly specific. I believe our industry has the ability to meet those needs, and we need to continue to do that, because the basis for a supplementary import permit is if it's not available in Canada. We think we have the capability of doing that. We need to continue to encourage our industry to make sure all the products that are required are brought forward.
B. Lekstrom: Again on the quota issue…. I thank the minister for the explanation on the supplementary quotas. It's encouraging to know that I believe our industry, as well, can meet all of those requirements.
I want to go to the TRQs, which are probably a little more entrenched, I believe, in trade negotiations and so on. You know, I have no shame in saying that I can't believe we have one ounce of beef coming into our country while at the same time our ranching industry is on its knees and our families are suffering that are part of that industry. Has there been any discussion with your colleagues across this country and with the federal government to challenge the issue of TRQs that are now allocated for outside beef coming into our country?
Hon. J. van Dongen: Our WTO obligations include allowing up to 76,000 tonnes of meat products into Canada. It has always been the position of the beef industry that they see it in their best interests to be in a free trade environment. The industry is clearly of the view that they want to see Canada meet their trade obligations. They don't want to invite retaliation that will involve closure of borders and be a further impediment to an open market. So while we want to encourage as much domestic utilization and consumption as we possibly can, we would certainly prefer to see no imports. The industry feels it is in their best interests to respect our WTO obligations and compete as aggressively as possibly with that product that might come into Canada.
The Chair: Member, noting the time, you might want to report progress and ask leave to meet again at this time.
B. Lekstrom: Madam Chair, I was noting the time, and that really does wrap up the questions I had. Just in closing, I want to thank the minister.
The WTO obligations. I fully understand those. Whether I agree or disagree with them is a whole other story. As I said before, I think we've made some progress. The ranching industry is, I guess, probably one of the strongest groups I know. Many of them are our family and our friends. But they're struggling. A lot of work has to be done for these people. Nobody asked for a handout, but I've said it many times: you can shut our lights off, you can take the natural gas away from us, but if you take the food off our tables, we're in big trouble as a society. I am all in favour of free trade if we can actually have free trade. I think that's a debatable point amongst the global environment right now.
I want to thank the minister for the work he's done, but I want to encourage people as well, in the last statement I'll make, to support the local industry. I'm appalled when I see people purchasing products that come from other countries, outside. We have people in British Columbia that do it here. We have businesses that do it. I can tell you that if everybody pitches in, we'll solve our problem, hopefully, together. We're going to have to rethink some of the things we do. I know that with the work you do, Mr. Minister, and the colleagues I have here, we'll do it.
I'll just leave that. The trade quota issue is one I don't agree with when we're on our knees in the beef industry. I'll never be convinced it's a good thing at this point.
Now noting the time, I would like to move that we rise, report progress and ask leave to sit again.
The committee rose at 8:47 p.m.
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