2007 Legislative Session: Third Session, 38th Parliament
The following electronic version is for informational purposes
The printed version remains the official version.
TUESDAY, APRIL 24, 2007
Volume 18, Number 8
|Second Reading of Bills||7055|
|School (Student Achievement Enabling)
Amendment Act, 2007 (Bill 20) (continued)
| D. Chudnovsky
| Hon. R. Thorpe
| N. Macdonald
| I. Black
| C. Wyse
| M. Sather
|Proceedings in the Douglas Fir Room|
|Committee of Supply||7068|
|Estimates: Ministry of Energy, Mines
and Petroleum Resources
| Hon. R.
| J. Horgan
| G. Robertson
[ Page 7055 ]
TUESDAY, APRIL 24, 2007
The House met at 10:02 a.m.
[Mr. Speaker in the chair.]
Orders of the Day
Hon. G. Abbott: I call debate on Bill 20, and in the little House is estimates debate on Energy, Mines and Petroleum Resources.
Second Reading of Bills
SCHOOL (STUDENT ACHIEVEMENT
ENABLING) AMENDMENT ACT, 2007
D. Chudnovsky: I'm pleased to continue my comments on Bill 20. When we were so rudely interrupted by the seventh game victory of the Canucks yesterday, I was about to talk about….
D. Chudnovsky: It's good to know that somebody is listening. I was talking about the call in Bill 20 for an early learning program. I was saying that it strikes me as surprising and troubling that the bill lays out in its definition section the early learning program. It doesn't say: "Here's an example of an early learning program." It doesn't say: "Here's a good early learning program." It doesn't say: "Here's one of many early learning programs that we want to support."
It says, "early learning program," and then there's a definition which is extremely troubling. It says that the early learning program "requires a child participating in the program to be accompanied and supervised by the child's parent or other person designated in writing by the parent."
[S. Hammell in the chair.]
It's troubling because, of course, early learning programs are important. They're valuable for children and families.
It seems outrageous and discriminatory that the early learning program that's laid out in the bill requires an adult to attend together with the child. I don't know about you, Madam Chair, and I don't know about the members opposite, but in my constituency, where tens of thousands of people live, the requirement that an adult family member or designate attend the early learning program together with the child precludes most of the people who live in my constituency from even being able to take advantage of such a program.
So it may be that the early learning program, which has created so much enthusiasm in this minister and this government, is a good idea. I think it probably is. It probably does some good things, but it isn't the only early learning program. Early learning takes place for tens of thousands of kids in all kinds of preschools and day cares. They deserve the same kind of support as the early learning program that is mentioned and defined in this legislation, which discriminates against working people, poor people and single-parent families across this province and shouldn't.
I want to make a brief comment about the notion of provincial model schools. Again, to return to a theme that I talked about yesterday, I don't know who thinks up this stuff. It makes you wonder; it makes you scratch your head. There are so many elements of such a proposition that are problematic, not the least of which is the governance question, and not the least of which is the sense in which, once again, decision-making about public education is being taken away from locally elected school trustees — the only people in the province elected specifically to deal with education policy questions. It's being given over and centralized.
But there's another insidious and problematic piece of this provincial school business that I think we need to watch out for, and it's consistent with some of the other problems in this bill. It has to do with the potential segregation of students with special needs from the other students in the system.
I want to put to the government side with every bit of my being that if they have begun to move in that direction, they're making a terrible, terrible mistake. The minister refers often to the need for parents to have choice and flexibility in the system, and nobody agrees with that more than people who actually work in the system with children. Choice and flexibility are important. So are educational principles.
The educational principle that has been enunciated in this province over the last number of years that says that students, whatever their abilities and disabilities — and we all, every one of us, have abilities and disabilities — will live and work and learn together in integrated classrooms is a vital and important principle. Within that, there are of course choices to be made and flexibility to be provided.
But the principle that every child, with her abilities and disabilities, deserves to be in a classroom with the other children in their community is a principle for which tens of thousands of parents, teachers, school trustees and school administrators will struggle to the end in this province. I ask and implore the government that it move away from the notion of segregated….
We went through that when we went to school in the '50s. We went through a situation where those kids with specific disabilities were put somewhere else, and we're not going to do that again — certainly, if I have anything to do about it or if the thousands and thousands of parents of kids with special disabilities, abilities and disabilities, like we all have, have anything to do with it. We're not going to send those kids somewhere else and segregate them from the rest of the kids.
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The public education system is the most important institution in our communities. Rich and poor, urban and rural, those who were born in Canada and those who were born outside of Canada all come together, and we do the very best we can for each and every one of them. Those elements of this bill that take us away from that are to be resisted, and we will resist them.
Hon. R. Thorpe: It's a pleasure for me to rise in the House today to support Bill 20. You know, we hear a member on that side of the House, and I'm troubled. How can someone who supposedly cares about children and their education actually speak against the improvement of student achievement by working together with school boards to improve student results, providing students and parents with choice and increasing support to school districts? How can someone over there speak against that?
This legislation delivers on our government's throne speech commitments to introduce education reforms that focus on improving choice, quality and accountability in British Columbia's education system. It also supports something that, over the years, my wife and I have become increasingly aware of, as we have our grandson and my wife — a writer, a mentor of young students — learns and sees firsthand some of the challenges we have with literacy. This bill supports the new literacy plan, ReadNow B.C.
I have become increasingly concerned in recent years as we look at the results of our students. Secondary completion rates haven't changed for the past four years, and last year's completion rates for our aboriginal and ESL students have dropped. That is troubling. This bill supports work to improve those completion rates. I'm not so sure that the previous speaker has a concern for the 11,000 students that are not graduating each and every year from our schools. Today in our society, that is simply not acceptable.
It's also my understanding that more and more of our children are arriving at the doors of our kindergartens without the skills they need to be successful and achieve the potential that they have. That is fundamentally wrong. In fact, I understand that one in four students started kindergarten this year without the development skills needed to succeed. That is nearly 9,000 British Columbia children. In my opinion, that is not acceptable.
These facts make it clear that we cannot continue to do things the way we have always done them and expect different results. Let us put partisanship aside in this House and focus on the 11,000 students that aren't graduating and on the 9,000 students that aren't ready for kindergarten. Let's all commit to pursuing new ways to improve student achievement.
You know, we've heard in this House, over the past few weeks, members over there talk about accountability, but yet they're opposed to Bill 20, which asks for more school board accountability. You cannot, hon. Chair, speak out of both sides of your mouth over there.
One of the cornerstones of this legislation is increased accountability for student results. School boards in the province need to work together to improve how our students are doing in their schools. Bill 20 will focus on improving student achievement. To help boards do this, accountability contracts will be replaced with achievement contracts. That's good. Who can actually be opposed to striving to improve student achievement? Apparently, only members over there.
Boards will also be required to prepare achievement reports in which superintendents will look back on the previous year and report how their district did in reaching its achievement goals. That's what parents and students in my riding tell me they want.
The role of the district superintendent of schools will be clearly spelled out, and their responsibilities to school boards for student achievement in the district…. This will assist and reinforce the fact that student achievement is the superintendent's number one job. Now, who could possibly be opposed to that? Who could possibly be opposed to educators' and superintendents' number one job being student achievement?
Superintendents of achievement. Let me just talk about that for a second. While increasing school board accountability for student achievement, we're also increasing the support for school districts. They go hand in hand. The superintendents of achievement will inform, advise and work with school boards to help them develop school and district achievement contracts and find new ways to use existing evidence in order to evaluate student achievement. Only members on that side do not want to pursue new ways to improve student achievements.
It will identify best practices in school districts and encourage those school districts to share their successes with other districts, including those who are struggling to meet their achievement goals. It is truly about our students. It's time that everyone started to focus on the students.
The superintendents of achievement will also provide parents with a new avenue of appealing board decisions. Parents in my riding, Okanagan-Westside, want to have a larger voice in how the education system in B.C. is being delivered. They don't want less. They want more. They want to be involved. They want to help. They want to celebrate success. They want to see achievement by all students. They want to see children coming to school, starting kindergarten ready to learn.
Only last week I visited, once again, Peachland Elementary School. Peachland Elementary School is an unbelievable school with great leadership, with great teachers and fantastic students. We get to do a lot of things as elected officials. I can tell you that whether it's going to Mount Boucherie School on the west side, Peachland Elementary School in Peachland or Summerland Middle School with principal Katie Hicks — one of the most exciting and positive principals in all of British Columbia — or talking to Linda Beaven from Summerland Secondary School and her excitement about enriching the lives of our students or Mr. Bond, who is teaching
[ Page 7057 ]
young students the trades…. They're all so excited and so positive.
They want to share, but what are they all focused on? What are they all united about? Student development and student achievements. In each of those schools we have fantastic PAC organizations, fantastic groups of parents supporting not only their own children but the children of the community.
Let me just talk for a second about early learning. Early learning is important, and one way boards can improve student achievement is by making sure that children are developmentally ready when they start school. We know that when young children get a good start in school, they get a good start in life.
However, the reality today is that some 9,000 children are not as prepared as others. Madam Chair, that is wrong. That is why it's important for families with preschool children to get the tools they need to prepare their children for kindergarten.
For example, the LEAP program is designed to promote literacy in children up to age five by integrating reading and language skills with play. Ready, Set, Learn is a kindergarten readiness program for three-year-olds and their parents, and one that I can say my own grandson has participated in. Just this fall the province of British Columbia embarked on an ambitious program to open an additional 80 StrongStart centres in schools throughout all British Columbia, giving promise of opportunity to learn for our students in British Columbia.
How could you on that side of the House possibly be against that? These StrongStart centres help young children grow linguistically, physically and socially through age-appropriate activities like stories, music and art.
Madam Chair, if you'll just allow me to digress here for a second. Literacy — what a wonderful thing.
I am blessed to have a wife, Yasmin John-Thorpe, who has worked and works tirelessly on providing literacy and mentorship for students. In fact, she's a volunteer going into schools through the entire Okanagan to assist in writing skills for young people and having a writing competition for the Okanagan Valley, supported by people in the Okanagan like the Summerland Asset Development Initiative, the Central Okanagan regional district or the Okanagan-Similkameen district. They help fund this, giving recognition and honour to our young students, our young writers.
Literacy is the cornerstone of a student's education. It's a cornerstone of us having the society that we all want. It's important in having literacy and having those tools and developmental opportunities so that no child gets left behind.
This legislation requires boards to develop district literacy plans to improve reading skills within the school system by working with their communities. Now, how could anyone vote against that? We know that reading is a fundamental skill for every British Columbian to be successful, whether in school or in life. How could anybody over there actually vote against that?
We know that one in three British Columbian adults struggles to read something as basic as a restaurant menu or a bus schedule. That is shocking and alarming, and yet members on that side of the House will vote against that. It's essential that we work together to change that. We want to and need to improve literacy rates for all British Columbians so that they, too, can achieve their very best.
I just want to close by talking about and recognizing the contributions that school district 23 — the educators, the teachers' assistants — give to all of the students, and also school district 67, as I have two school districts that I work with — Peachland, Summerland, the Westside and Westside Road.
Our government is working to make British Columbia the best-educated, most literate jurisdiction on the continent. I ask for members on that side of the House to drop their partisanship, to stop worrying so much about what their big supporters, the BCTF, tell them to do and start focusing in on our students, moving forward, saying that 11,000 students not graduating is not acceptable and that 9,000 students not ready for kindergarten is not acceptable.
Let us work together to make sure that every student in British Columbia has the skills and the opportunity to graduate from grade 12 and move on to a job, to build, to go to a trade school or a university or a college. This is all about new ways to improve student results.
You know, we see some new approaches. We see the British Columbia home builders working in a way to educate in the schools, working with our great teachers. We see Junior Achievement now going into schools across British Columbia. It's all about providing tools and opportunities for our students.
These legislative amendments in Bill 20 give all of us the opportunity to put our students first. Please, put your politics aside. Put your politics aside and vote for students by supporting Bill 20.
N. Macdonald: First, it's always a pleasure to speak to bills that pertain to education. Just as my colleague from Vancouver, I have a passion for education. It's something that I have spent my life working in. I've been a teacher and a principal for over 20 years. I've spent six years teaching in Africa. It's something that I feel very strongly about.
Bill 20 has an interesting name. It talks about enabling students to achieve. Obviously, to enable students to achieve is something that's highly supportable, but this bill has a misnomer as a title because it does not in any way, in my view, take the education system forward. In fact, it takes the education system into a number of areas that should be of deep concern.
Teachers, trustees, people have raised these concerns, and many of these will be familiar to the minister. I'm sure they were put very clearly to her as issues that needed to be addressed. As I read through the bill, these are the areas that struck me immediately.
The first one that I came to was with the section 11 appeals. Section 11 appeals have traditionally ended
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with the locally elected school boards. In this bill you have that changed. Instead of section 11 appeals finishing with the locally elected board, they are going to go on to a ministry-appointed official. While that sounds like it's not a big deal, there are two fundamental problems with that.
First, there is the principle of local governance. There is the principle of electing locally centred school boards and having them be responsible for making decisions and having them as the final point in many, many issues, including section 11 appeals. That is of particular importance when you come from a rural area, an area that is well removed from the centre of power here. It is a difficult place to get to, a place that has unique needs and is different from other parts of the province. How we have always recognized that is through locally elected school boards — people from our community that we see in the grocery store, who understand the issues being talked about in section 11 appeals. So there is that principle that this bill undermines.
The second thing is the cost of introducing this sort of system. You are now putting in a quasi-judicial system. You add an extra layer of appeal. There is a cost that, hopefully, the ministry has thought through because there will be a cost to them. There is a cost that will be imposed upon the school boards. Neither of those, in my view, is a useful cost for the taxpayers to absorb. It will add a bureaucratic next step.
So you would assume that there is some compelling argument that has been made to explain why you would do this. But I have heard no compelling argument. What is happening in the system now that compels the government to add this step and to fundamentally undermine the principle of locally elected boards being responsible for education in their area? I've heard no argument, and there is no argument to be made, I would assume.
Let's talk, then, about the change in name to boards of education. There's absolutely nothing wrong with that. But with that change comes a change in scope — a change in what is expected of these boards. There is a certain logic at a very fundamental level about having early childhood literacy and community literacy coordinated through a board of education. But if boards of education are going to do that, they are going to need substantial resources, and that is the question that needs to be answered by this minister. Are the resources going to be there to allow this to be a success? If they are not, then there is something poorly thought through about this initiative. There will need to be substantial resources to make it work.
[H. Bloy in the chair.]
There needs to be recognition as well that there are literacy programs already going on. In my area you have the Columbia Basin Alliance for Literacy. They're doing tremendous work. The reason they are doing tremendous work is because they provide a basic framework to allow literacy groups to organize themselves, and they allow each community to organize in a different way. So they provide the resources, the framework, to allow this to happen. Then they allow the flexibility of a localized system so that the needs of a local community are met. Whenever the ministry tries with a top-down approach and tells communities what they should be doing, they end up with a half-thought-through program. That's my experience.
If the board of education is going to be responsible for all of these programs, they need to recognize that with literacy, there are existing programs that it has to mesh with. They need to respect the local knowledge that is there — the local ability to make programs work for individuals within the community. If they don't do that — if they try to do it from here in Victoria — it is not going to work.
With literacy for children there are some good programs that exist. There are some principles with literacy for children in making sure that children have the opportunities that they need to succeed.
There needs to be a broader understanding of the support that we give to families as a whole, and that raises…. You need to think about welfare. You need to think about the income assistance programs. You need to think about a host of issues. What the minister is proposing is a fairly limited program. It recognizes a need to come in and assist children before they come into kindergarten, but it is limited. There are other programs.
We need to get child care right. We do not have that figured out here in the province. What almost everyone in the communities I represent will tell you is that it's something we need to get sorted. That is an important part of making sure we have children that are ready to step into the school system. That has not been sorted. That's something that needs to be thought through as we expand the scope of these boards and make them boards of education.
Next we come to the achievement contracts. All of the language used here is language that is politically tested. It's carefully crafted in that way. But the problem I have had with the achievement agenda of this government from day one is that it's not really an achievement agenda. It is a justification agenda. It is based upon the fact that they do not essentially trust what is going on in schools, and they want to check up on it. There is a cost to that. There is a need to really think through exactly what you're doing.
With this achievement agenda and these achievement contracts…. If school districts do not meet these achievement contracts, they can be replaced at the whim of the minister. Now the problem with that is this that they are based on data. If you're going to base your achievement contracts on data, then you'd better be very, very clear in understanding what that data is and how pertinent it is. That has been the consistent problem that I've had with the achievement agenda of this government — that, in fact, the data they are using is often misinterpreted.
I'll give you one example with the foundation skills assessment. Foundation skills assessment, in my view,
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is what it is. It is a very narrow testing of certain grades of students. The tests are very narrow. That is fine as long as everyone understands that it is a narrow testing and it is a testing of a particular skill. The difficulty comes when ministry staff — ministry staff are less likely to do it than politicians — or politicians then extrapolate from it and say: "This particular result means something."
I'll give you an example in my school. We were doing the…. When I was principal at a beautiful school in the East Kootenay, Nicholson Elementary — I'm very proud of that school — one of the tasks that I had was to put together a document that included a great deal of data. Some of the data would have been very useful — the testing that we did. Some of it was useful but needed to be interpreted in a certain way. The FSA results were part of that data that really needed to be explained, because you would have different-sized classes.
I'll give you an example. I would have one class that would have 20 students, and the grade 4s would do testing. Let's use the example of math. They would do testing in math. Now these math questions are word problems. They are not a wide range of math questions; they are word problems. Every year it is the same thing. So in that particular skill it makes sense to measure, perhaps, and see how you're doing.
The following year I had eight students. I knew that two of them were very, very weak. The assumption with the achievement contract was that I was going to improve each year and would work to make sure that staff had training and would try to improve. But I had two weak students, and so I knew that likely, even if I did a good job, I was going to go down in terms of percentages of students that were passing or exceeding expectations. I knew that.
But when you put it together, the question immediately became: "Well, aren't you going to try to improve this year?" Well, yeah, I'm trying to improve, but the reality is that with eight students coming through, this is what I project to be the likely thing. If you want me to try to improve and then explain later why I didn't, then what are the statistics for? What is the data for?
So you get into this place of where you have data, but it doesn't necessarily mean anything. I'll tell you that one day I was on the way to school…. I was driving out to Nicholson and Christy Clark was on the radio. She was talking about grade 4 literacy results. In the same sentence she said: "This is just a snapshot. It doesn't really mean anything" — okay; yeah, that's true — "but because we're down four or five percentage points, we're going to introduce this program." I thought, is this madness? Is this crazy? Because you just said what is true — that data didn't necessarily mean anything — and right away it triggers an action. With data, you really need to know what you have.
We also have a tendency to take things that are subjective, put a number on it and then it looks like it's objective — like we have real, objective data. That is the problem. It's not necessarily how it's used or what you're doing with the tests. It's often exactly how you're going to use it. With data, you can twist it to push your particular agenda.
Intangibles cannot be measured. When you have this achievement contract, there are so many things that happen in a school that are important, which are in fact critical to a child's development, that you will never be able to measure. It's those intangibles.
If you've ever talked to a student ten years after they've graduated about what was really meaningful about the education experience, very often they are talking about things that you would never measure with data. They're talking about a relationship they had with their friends and peers. They're talking about advice they received from a teacher. They're talking about a band trip they went on or the confidence they had in participating in a play. All of those things are intangibles that are crucial to a school, but they will never show up in these sorts of documents.
There is a cost to these achievement contracts. There is a cost in terms of time; there is a cost in terms of real money to make this happen. The idea that you would have these contracts and that it could lead to a firing of boards — that's something that the minister has heard from trustees. She has heard that they have tremendous problems with that, and that is something that really needs to be thought about and worked through.
My experience with data-driven education systems includes overseas. I worked with the IGCSE, which is essentially the British system, and with the International Baccalaureate. These systems do produce data that schools look at, but the data is predictable. To produce that data is expensive, and it takes time to get proper data. With experience you learn how not to misinterpret it.
But even with that, within Britain you have different views on how well they use that data. You have systems there that are criticized for the misuse of information.
I think the example that most teaching professionals and in fact anybody knowledgable about the education system, about the misuse of data, would point to is the Fraser Institute. Their ranking of schools is the most ridiculous use of data that I can imagine.
What's destructive about things like that is that if I was a principal of a secondary school and wanted to rise up that ranking, I could very quickly do things that have nothing to do with good education but could quickly push me up that ranking.
I think the minister even knows that the deputy minister would tell her that that is an extremely poor use of data, but it's one that we need to be concerned about. So that's a second concern.
A third one has to do with fees. I understand around band programs and around hockey programs there's a general acceptance of fees. I know that parents would have spoken to the minister about this. I've heard the same concerns about making sure that the band programs continue, and I know how they have traditionally worked. It's part of an issue that needs to be dealt with.
The idea that school planning councils would have a big say in this — there's a concern around that.
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School planning councils are a useful element of a school, but they are not elected. They are parents within the school. The idea that they would have more power and that you would take power away from school boards, or boards of education, is problematic.
School boards represent the public. The public is paying for the school system. It is a public school system. Decisions should be sitting with that board. That makes complete sense. School planning councils tend to rotate through members. They do not have the same clarity about their goals and how they choose members as you would have with a school board.
The idea of fees — I just want to talk about it for a second. We have to be really careful with this. When I was in Tanzania, the International Monetary Fund insisted that Tanzania put in a system of school fees. We need always to remember the principle of a free public education system and the importance of a free public education system. I would say that you need to live in a country where the population does not have access to free education to see the difficulties that it can create.
There is a principle that we need to be mindful of here in Canada as well — that every child should be given the opportunities that we would want for our own children. We really need to push that as far as we can. With fees, while I understand the limitations within this bill and I understand historically what we've done with band programs and that, we need to be mindful with the exclusion that comes when you introduce fees and watch that carefully.
The idea of provincial schools. I understand the minister was talking with Christy Clark about a school that would limit the principle of integration. I want to say this and again draw upon the experience in Africa. The first school I taught at was a boys' Catholic school where all the students were Basutu. They were all Basutu, so their experience was confined to that group. When they interacted with their peers who were female, the interaction was very unnatural. When you looked at it, you would see that it is not the way we would interact. They were 17 and 18 and often acting in a way that you would expect from grade 4s and grade 5s. Their interaction with other races was strained and unnatural. Their interaction with other religions was strained and unnatural.
In the second experience I had in Africa, we were at an international school; 30 percent were Muslim, the rest Christian, 40 different nationalities. Just watching my children in that setting, the interaction with everyone was completely natural. You're exposed and you get used to a wide range of how people work, how people see the world through their religion. All of that was very natural and worked well.
I can tell you that there are challenges with integration. There are challenges that we have to meet, because the way we do it now is definitely the way we should be doing it. It is flexible enough so that we can meet the children's need if they need, for certain portions of the time, to be in a different setting, but we always strive to bring them into the classroom. To do that, you need the educators to know how to provide support for these children, you need the resources of special education assistants, and you need people in the district that bring the knowledge that they have to share with teachers. If you do all of that, it works well.
It works for the children that are in the class, the children that learn to accept what the reality is for other people. I mean, this is fundamentally important. I've taught children with a variety of different challenges, and each one of them the class learns how to adjust to, the teacher learns how to adjust to, and the student learns how to adjust to us. So it works.
It works within society, and it works within a classroom, but you have to have the supports to make it work. If there was going to be a focus for this minister, it would be to make sure that those supports are there. Certainly, the idea of provincial schools is really problematic and troubling, and if there's any move to set up schools that take away from that principle of integration, it would be a negative thing to do.
Cost. Let's talk about the cost of some of these things. The filter that I put this through is the filter of a school where I'm the principal and responsible for the money that we have to spend on that school. Every time I see a dollar in education that I think is misspent, I always look at my school and see how it could be spent better. What irritates me about having an Education Ministry that spends money on communications, on newspaper ads…. It just bothers me because I think that I could have spent that money better.
We went through the first term in particular with substantial cutbacks in education, and no matter how it's phrased on the ground, we were cut back deeply. I'll give you some examples.
At Nicholson Elementary I needed new water fountains. I had to wait a year to get the water fountains fixed. Now it seems like, okay, that's not a big deal. You can't get the water fountains fixed, but there was a cost issue. I could not get that through to get water fountains fixed. I had the carpets that were cleaned twice a year that should have been out of there, but that took time. They should have been cleaned twice a year. They were being cleaned once a year.
As the principal I taught halftime, but part of my job too was that if a kid gets sick, I go clean it up. We would have lunch in the same room. I knew that the carpet needed to be cleaned, but there were financial limitations on what we had, so it would be cleaned once a year. Now that seems like…. Okay, that's a little thing, but it points to…. For me, that was a more important thing than a lot of what we're talking about here. For the children in that class it was a more important thing.
If we're going to spend money…. I could go through a long list about needing to get the grass cut at the school, having to pay to…. I had to raise the money with parents to get the play area repaved. There was a whole list of areas where money should have been spent, but it wasn't there.
When I look and see that we're going to put another layer of superintendents, that we're going to set up some
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quasi-judicial process, I see money wasted, money wasted. Instead, what we should always be trying to do with the education system is putting it where children are going to have their educational needs met. It should be put in the classroom as close to the children as you can get. That doesn't mean that you don't need professional development; you do. But our focus should be there.
Maybe that brings us to the next thing to talk about, which is the superintendents of achievement. There are four of them that are proposed. There could be more. The superintendents of achievement are put forward as professionals who would support school boards.
Now, first off, that professional support is already there. In my school district we had a superintendent that was committed to school improvement. Bendina Miller was committed. She put resources towards making sure that principals received professional development, that there was a solid plan for educators, whether they were special ed assistants or teachers. Teachers participated in that, and principals participated. We had that support.
We had somebody that was provincially recognized, Pat Dooley, who would come in and make sure that we understood what was happening provincially. Our superintendent did that too. She regularly attended meetings here.
That flow of information, that plan, is in place now. It was in place when I was a principal. So to add a superintendent of achievement…. Are they really going to add something that is needed?
The second part of their job is basically to be an inspector of schools. Why does the minister think there needs to be an inspector of schools — an inspector that is going to come in and go into classes and check their records? First off, how effective is that going to be? What is the cost? Is that actually where you want to be spending your money?
There are all sorts of existing checks, and if all you're putting in place is a system for justification, you need to think that through. Is that what you want your staff to be doing — to be filling in forms, to be working with data that might not actually mean anything? Is that useful? Is that a wise use of money? I would suggest to the minister that that needs to be thought through.
What I see with this bill in particular is a series of half-thought-through measures, where language can be put around it so that it sounds like we're working towards something noble: achievement. Everyone wants achievement, but in this bill…. We need to ask ourselves: "Are we actually going to make a difference in children's lives?" I put it to this House that, with my experience, there are a great number of questions about that.
I know that the minister has had questions raised from the teachers and the organization that represents them. They have difficulties with it. She has probably heard from the trustees over the past weekend. They have difficulties with it. There is a tremendous amount to be rethought in this bill.
It is my hope that the critic will be putting forward amendments to improve this bill, and I would invite members to think this through and to make sure that this critical part of what a provincial government does — to make sure that we are educating our children for the future — we get right. If we waste money, we do everyone a disservice. I would argue that a great deal of this is half-thought-through and a waste.
With that, I thank you, as always, for the opportunity to speak here. It's a pleasure. As I've said, this is something that is a passion of mine. I think that we all have different experiences, but all of us share that passion. If you ask people what are the most important things in their lives, they talk about their kids and their grandchildren. I know that there's a sincere effort to do what's best, but I'm telling you, with Bill 20 there's a tremendous amount that needs to be reworked and rethought.
I. Black: I am very pleased this morning to stand up on behalf of the constituents that I represent — the parents and students of my community — and talk about Bill 20. This bill is about choice for students, it is about preparing students, and it is about the achievement of students. This bill is about the accountability within our school system, and it is about achievement-driven outcomes.
It's about preserving non-core courses that have been threatened recently by the scaling back or cancellation due to recent court rulings. It's about giving parents a greater transparency and a greater voice as how the educational system they fund is being delivered. This bill is also about consistency of board performance and the board approach across British Columbia, while still giving the latitude to address local issues.
Whenever we find ourselves at a crossroads of changing governance models within the education system, there's spirited debate and discussion, as there should be. We have seen examples of that in the debate we've had thus far on Bill 20.
This bill includes elements such as the achievement contracts and the creation of superintendents of achievement. From the various stakeholders and partners in the education system, there has been support in some parts and concern raised about others. I would specifically think of the B.C. School Trustees Association, who have come out in writing and said they're very supportive of various elements of Bill 20. They have voiced some of the concerns, many of which have been shared by my friends opposite. The problem that I have — and it echoes a little bit, or perhaps better phrased, is another example of the concern raised by the Minister of Small Business — is that there's a lot of contradiction, if you will, inherent within the arguments that have been presented so far.
It's a bit of a two-prong message that rings a little hollow for me. In one case, there has been a call for less quantitative measurements to be put in place when we speak of things like achievement contracts and trying to get some consistency within the school system. The problem is that there are no suggestions given as to what those might be. On the one hand, you're being asked for less quantitative measurements being put in place with respect to performance of school districts
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and the students within them, but the questions that need to be asked are: "Well, such as what?" and "What are they designed to achieve if they are to be less quantitative?" and "If they are less quantitative, how will you know that you've achieved them?"
The second part of the argument comes across that there are funding requests for leadership skills and development of the leaders within the school system that will enhance student achievement. Well, the problem that I see on that one is…. This is not to say that the training is a bad thing; I always believe in that. But in the context of the argument as it is presented, the contradiction, phrased as follows, is: what skills would those be that you'd like taught if you are not willing to define achievement and you've got no desire to measure it?
As was mentioned, actually, by the previous speaker and a few before him, there has also been the call for more funding within the educational system despite the fact that it is at a historical high but also in the same sentence asking for no accountability that goes along with that additional funding.
I think the previous speaker, whose thoughts I always enjoy hearing because he has a great deal of experience and firsthand knowledge of the school system through many, many years as a dedicated teacher and principal…. Even within his own remarks, you heard some of that as well — talking about how money could be better spent, if that, say, was there, and if there was somebody checking up to make sure money was being put in the right place. Well, that is in many ways what Bill 20 is also designed to achieve — some of that consistency in making sure that the standards are provincewide.
Whenever you think of chasing goals and objectives of any kind, whether it's in the educational system or whether it's in a private sector context or whether it's in a non-profit organization, there's one truism that stands the test of time, which is that if you can't measure it, you can't manage it. So the notion of moving away from quantitative measurements because it makes people uncomfortable is not something I'd support, because we do have a reality that we're dealing with in our school system, which is that the achievement of our students, while it is at a historical high level, has been slipping, if not stalled, in certain places and that we still have an enormous gap in the area of aboriginal graduation rates.
The government's service plan for the Ministry of Education has some specific performance measurements within it. They include things like this: the province has set performance measures for achievement, such as 85 percent overall school completion by 2015; 85 percent aboriginal school completion by 2015; first in Canada on the PISA test for 15-year-olds by 2015; 85 percent of students transitioning to post-secondary education by 2015; 10,000 students in SSA and ACE IT programs by 2015; and 87 percent of our school districts improving on goals and their accountability contracts and achievement plans by 2008-2009.
Now, without a degree of continuity and consistency between the various levels of educational governance, these stated goals — and they're goals that are the right and the responsibility of the provincial government to establish — will not be reached.
One of the tools for achieving them is the creation of the proposed superintendents of achievement. It's a way to reach the goals of consistency and continuity.
There was an irony in the comments of the member for Vancouver-Kensington yesterday. He went on at some length and with an expected amount of drama with respect to the experience he had in certain schools in the Surrey school district. He was speaking specifically of the school fees issue, which I'll come to in a moment. He was going on at length about the fact that the hardship policies were not working in the schools — he went on to list the schools — and that hardship policies weren't working in this school, and hardship policies weren't working in that school and throwing into question the importance of some of these programs indirectly.
It struck me as ironic that that's precisely the kind of thing that a superintendent of achievement might want to have a look at to make sure that hardship policies, which are standard in every school district in this province, are consistently implemented to make sure that no student is left behind. That's precisely the type of thing that a superintendent of achievement won't go on to have a look at, and it concerns me a little bit that that irony is lost on the member opposite.
I want to turn briefly to the area of school fees. On this front, the B.C. School Trustees Association is very much in agreement with the government. I should point out that my own school district — school district 43 — trustees are also in agreement with this. In fact, they asked me specifically to take the message to the Minister of Education with respect to including band instruments within the contemplation of this legislation. The minister will no doubt back me on the notion that we had many long conversations on it, as I impressed upon her the importance of this to my constituents and to the school trustees in school district 43 and to me personally.
Now, I have to tell you, when surfing the channels on the TV the other night, I happened to come across a movie that I hadn't seen for years. It was one of my favourite ones. It was Mr. Holland's Opus. I have to admit, I've got a soft spot for this. It's a film — for those of you who haven't taken it in — about a band teacher that had a remarkable impact over 30 years at a given school. It was a fantastic performance by Richard Dreyfuss.
I've got a soft spot for this movie. I've got a soft spot for this film for a couple of reasons. First, I had a profound impact in my own life with respect to music programs at junior and senior high school. I had a Mr. Holland of my own that had an enormous impact in my world as a young man.
I've seen some of the same experiences and some of the same magic in some of the music programs in my area. I think specifically of, although it's not limited to, the Port Moody Secondary band, who I've heard many times at community events. The performance of some of these young adults is truly amazing. That does not happen
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without inspired leadership. I know we have many Mr. Hollands, if you will, throughout the school system.
There's a great line in this film. It's when the music program is being threatened. In the words of the principal, who was cast as kind of the bad guy in this particular film, it's being threatened because of the interests of teaching reading and writing. There's a stinging comeback that went back to that principal, where Mr. Holland turned to the principal and said: "If you have your way, I've got bad news for you. Those students won't have anything to read or write about." I thought that was a wonderful testament to the importance of arts and culture within our school system.
A similar threat exists to many of those programs — and I'm thinking specifically of music and band — by not passing this bill. The court ruling with respect to band instrument rentals put many music programs in jeopardy. The way I see it, you can debate the context of school fees — and particularly, of band instruments, I suppose — in three ways.
You can debate it with respect to the practicality and the pragmatics of it. You can debate it with respect to the philosophy, which truly is what drove the court challenges, in my opinion. You can debate this matter within the context of democracy itself.
Let me touch on it from a pragmatic standpoint. As mentioned, there are hardship policies within every school district. I received the assurances of my own school board that the hardship policies in school district 43 were such that this would not be a concern. School fees in these areas would not be a concern.
The second element of the pragmatics is with respect to a bit of balance that exists. If you take the scenario where the school was to provide a complete orchestra's worth of instruments for all of the students throughout the entire province, it's not pragmatic to do that for a few reasons, not least of which is that there are hygiene issues with respect to sharing wind instruments. But it's also almost impossible to have the right inventory for the right mix of students and the blend of instruments they want to play.
There is a limited inventory in every school. Those serve a very important purpose. I just want to touch on that, because I think it's part of making the argument for why this is such a right step to take.
The limited inventory of instruments within a school band program serves a very specific but limited purpose. It allows students, especially at the earlier ages when they're getting into the band program, to try an instrument they hadn't tried before, to try to figure out which one they may wish to play. It's also in the very early stages of the band experience. It allows the students and the teacher to assess whether the student wishes to continue or not, if they have that fire and interest in music — a fire in their belly or interest in music that wants them to continue.
It's also handy for those students who play multiple instruments, because it allows them to change without having to have an inventory of their own, if you will. There's also the reality that schools typically have to have things like larger percussion instruments and the piano.
You can look at this from a democracy standpoint as well. I think it's a context that begins to move away from the kind of bias I have in this area to kind of the broader issue, and that is with respect to parental input.
I spoke earlier about the desire for parents to become more engaged and have a stronger voice in the school system that affects their children. The DPAC in school district 43 actually has produced a survey that has now been taken by almost 600 parents in my community. It's a very long survey. I'm not going to go through all the questions on it. There are dozens and dozens of questions. It's a very detailed survey, and they're to be commended for the effort.
The survey was across the entire district. For the benefit of members and for those watching, school district 43 encompasses the communities of Port Coquitlam, Port Moody and Coquitlam, in which there are four MLAs. It goes across four ridings of this government. It has a reasonable distribution across the grades — just for those interested — from kindergarten right through to grade 12. It reflects the engagement, if not the pride and ownership, of many parents with respect to the school system in which their children are currently developing.
Of the many, many questions, I'm going to touch on a couple here. One of the questions with respect to school fees asked: "As a parent, I am willing to pay for some enhancements to my children's public education experience." The answers are from strongly agree to strongly disagree, and 80 percent were in favour, in the strongly agree or agree category.
The next question was: "It's appropriate to collect school fees for extracurricular activities that are not core education–related." The response came back that 78 percent strongly agreed or agreed. In each of those, by the way, there were 6 percent or 8 percent on top of that who had no firm opinion.
Another question worth reading into the record was in the area of the survey that dealt with equity and opportunity. The question was, "A prohibition on school fees may result in the loss of some valuable program options or choices in our schools," and 76 percent agreed or strongly agreed with that statement. Only 8 percent said no.
Similarly, the next question was: "While I agree that school fees should be eliminated wherever possible, there may be some programs in the curriculum where fees are appropriate." Again, only 8 percent said no, and 85 percent were in favour of this. And the one that kind of brings it home: "If a prohibition on school fees would result in the loss of a school program, those fees should be allowed to protect student choices." Here you had 75 percent strongly agreed or agreed and only 7 percent in disagreement.
The member for Vancouver-Kensington made a very emphatic point and asked the question rhetorically several times: "Who comes up with this stuff?" And he asked the question again: "Who comes up with this stuff?" Well, in many respects, the contents of Bill 20…. Who comes up with this stuff? The people who elected us.
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The Minister of Education and the ministry at large have been doing a lot of listening to parents through the various vehicles available to that ministry, and that has formed a lot of the input on this bill. I think it's important that we're mindful, for all the debate we have within the sometimes vacuum nature of this House, that there is a community out there of parents who have a very, very large say in how the education system should work, and their views in large part are being reflected in this bill.
Let me conclude my remarks in the following fashion. When it came to the issue of school fees, the courts ruled as to interpreting existing legislation when it was pushed to do so. Most of that ruling came back as the status quo. It didn't really tell us anything new that we didn't already know, but where it differed, it created what I'll refer to as thankfully short-term confusion and placed in jeopardy for cancellation non-core courses for thousands of students and teachers across this province.
This bill in its entirety is a welcome opportunity for teachers and for parents and, most importantly, for students to provide that consistency, clarity and certainty and to put student achievement at its core, which is precisely where it should be.
C. Wyse: I do wish to acknowledge all of the comments that have been brought forward to the House around Bill 20.
It's an omnibus bill. An omnibus bill, as we have discovered previously in this session, may have some good in it; it may have some bad in it, when it's examined. The same applies here to Bill 20, clearly, in my view. As a matter of fact, when I go through this particular bill, I find a very large number of concerns that come to mind.
To begin with, there is an underlying principle about education being free and available and that that education be provided in a public education system funded by the province. That particular principle is one that is proposed by the United Nations, that left-wing think tank. That's where one particular organization brings forward that principle.
Today in my discussion as I go through the bill, I want to start off with the possibility that one view here is that the government simply is circumventing a decision by the Supreme Court. I don't have difficulty in accepting an argument that the Legislature is where laws are to be made and that the courts are where the laws are to be tried and tested. That is our system.
However, when we reflect upon the large amount of resources that are required to continually defend a basic principle, those resources equally could have been applied to a variety of other services that the province of British Columbia and its residents equally could use, rather than simply supporting the court system. Government in Bill 20 has thrown down that challenge again. In my opinion, almost assuredly, someone or some organization will pick up that challenge and take that basic principle back to court. But so be it. That happens to be outside of the decisions that remain directly within our control here as legislators.
Given my role as a local government critic, I've chosen an approach on Bill 20 of having a look at particular legislation — how that legislation affects the locally elected people and their responsibilities assigned by this Legislature, and the effect of how this legislation compromises the ability of the locally elected people to do a variety of different things.
Now Bill 20, if it remains in this form, is going to pass on the responsibility of being appealed not to the locally elected body but the appeal will go here to Victoria. There is a centralizing theme of power and authority contained in sections of this bill that I would like to examine with this House.
I wish to begin my discussion by looking at the proposed aspect of Bill 20 dealing with fees. Specifically, it allows a board to charge fees for specialty academics and sports, for costs beyond those of providing the standard educational program. It allows fees for purchase or rental of a musical instrument. It allows fees for purchase or rental of tools for trades-training or apprenticeship programs.
As I've mentioned, we know where the need for this particular amendment has come from. But let's examine how the legislation intends to implement those fees. There are concerns. Rural districts have a different aspect of concerns in meeting the rules contained within Bill 20. In order to put fees into place, they are required to have approval from the school planning council, and those fees are to be approved annually. Where I live, there are programs that are offered over more than one school. Therefore, it requires more than one school planning council to be in agreement.
In addition to that aspect of it, school planning councils don't exist in many of the schools where I happen to represent, and I represent three school districts. It raises in my mind: what happens to a program — a fee, if you like — if a school planning council doesn't exist, and also, what happens if there isn't unanimity amongst all the school planning councils that are involved in a program?
This bill takes away one of the fundamental aspects of what the board of trustees provided. They looked after the districtwide programs. In looking after those districtwide programs, the program then was able to be implemented across the district regardless of where the actual program itself was being offered. We lose that, as it now stands, in Bill 20. In doing such, it sets up the situation in which we will have programs that may or may not be able to be offered in a district simply because of a functioning aspect of Bill 20 — surely, something that was not planned when this legislation was put together.
Now, Mr. Speaker, the example that I've just discussed with my colleagues here in the Legislature shows a situation contained in this bill in which the authority of the locally elected school trustees is weakened. It applies a decision-making aspect to a non-elected group of individuals that are not accountable across the area which they have been assigned to represent — something that is contradictory, in my opinion, for a government
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that says that they support open and transparent ways of doing business.
Now, you might say that I'm making a situation where it doesn't have significance. Let's take the situation of a music program, a band program. Where I'm from, a band program may require the involvement of more than one school, whether it be elementary or secondary. This is not an outlandish situation, from my experience.
I should mention that I bring to this discussion 35 years of experience in a classroom here within British Columbia's public school system, so I bring some experience myself of the actual implementation difficulties that will exist around Bill 20 as it is presently listed. I'm also aware of the difficulties that it will cause in districts that are of a more rural nature, including the districts that I represent.
The next point that I would like to address in my discussion here with my colleagues is the hardship policy. The hardship policy provides the opportunity for an individual to claim the inability to afford a fee — a noble set of circumstances, for sure. However, there is no indication here in the legislation of what the province means for a provincial hardship policy. Therefore, in all likelihood there will be variations from district to district. The lack of direction here from Victoria creates an unequal opportunity for education and certain programs where the fees apply.
Further confusion also comes about here. In elementary schools music is mandatory. It is mandatory. Will musical instruments be free of charge? If they are not going to be free of charge in all school districts in all elementary schools, then there becomes a division of opportunity to a particular program. Mr. Speaker, you could take the same discussion to other areas — for example, the trades program. The issue is one of open accessibility to the education system.
We are now beginning to discover, when we look through this omnibus bill of amendments, that it has built into it some aspects that will cause further and greater inaccessibility to certain programs here within British Columbia. A hardship policy also needs to be examined in the context of actually being an individual in that situation that has to step forward and make a request for the use of that particular policy. There are concerns around that part of it. There is an argument to be made that it is better to have in place a policy that allows a program to be available and, at the same time in allowing it to be available, that it requires a direction from the province so that it becomes available throughout all of British Columbia.
Having spoken about an example or two of where the authority of the local government has been weakened, I now want to move to the other side and to show that, in actual fact, Bill 20 puts increased responsibility on the local board of trustees at the same time, with equally serious reservations being applied to them. When you look at Bill 20, it contains in it the added responsibility for both early learning and community literacy being assigned to the local board of education, formerly the board of trustees. For clarity in the discussion I will likely continue to use the expression "board of trustees" simply because, at this moment in time, people in the province will be a little bit more familiar with it.
These boards have voiced the concern about the inadequate funding, the funding levels that have already stretched the ability to provide for the service for grades K-to-12 throughout British Columbia. We do know that the resources have been stretched to the limit throughout the various school districts. To put into place additional responsibilities on those school boards without increasing the funding in order to enact them puts the local board in a very awkward situation, to say the least.
In addition with the early learning, those programs must be approved by the minister. The authority remains centred here in Victoria, yet Victoria is not indicating that the funding will be available for implementing the programs that may be brought forward.
[S. Hammell in the chair.]
Likewise, when we look at the aspect of community literacy being passed on to the board of trustees, there are many groups that are already responsible for community literacy, including adult literacy. Now, the board of trustees is left in a situation of being part of a multiplicity of organizations that have that responsibility. Trustees, as I have mentioned, have additional stretching being put upon their responsibility.
A third aspect that this bill contains are aspects that actually undermine, in my judgment, the locally elected school board. There are a couple of areas of my concerns that I would like to draw to this House's attention. The bill itself sets up superintendents of achievement. Having set up those superintendents of achievement, it would make sense that there be some tasks, some responsibilities that would be assigned to these particular individuals to undertake.
One of the tasks assigned to them is to deal with achievement contracts. Many of my colleagues on both sides of the House have spent a fair bit of time talking about this aspect of Bill 20. One point that I want to remind the House of is that when you centre your attention upon statistical, numerical analyses for educational goals, it is impossible to measure all the goals numerically and empirically in a school system. There is research that shows it time and time again.
Now we are going to have a local school board that will be responsible for what happens in a school district. If the district misses the targets that have been established for that school district, it may lead to the dismissal of that board. Remember, the only direct link that exists for the local people to deal with anyone in charge of education is this board of trustees.
Now, given that set of circumstances, the board has been made responsible for issues beyond their control. One thing that research has shown is that achievement in any education system is directly tied to the wealth that is available within the family situation, time in and time out. There are districts throughout British Columbia
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that vary greatly in the wealth found in their area. That having been set aside, within districts there is also a wide range in the wealth that is available to support an individual in the education system.
I would like to quote some concerns that have been raised by the trustees in correspondence with the minister. The trustees say:
"We would argue that real advances in achievement will be gained by improvements to capacity — such as increased training and resources for classroom teachers, increased specialist staffing to provide direct support for challenged students, and increased opportunities for collaboration among educators to build capacity across the district. While some of these are within the control of boards, their full implementation requires resources beyond what current district budgets often allow."
There have been colleagues in the House that have also raised…. It's as though the concern that I brought forward on behalf of the trustees might be listed very narrowly to only one group within the province of British Columbia.
I would also like to put on record a very broad coalition of organizations here in British Columbia, which have concerns that parallel what the trustees have brought forward. That group includes the B.C. Coalition of People with Disabilities, B.C. Paraplegic Association, B.C. Teachers Federation, Lower Mainland Down Syndrome Society, Moms on the Move, Parent Advisory Committee on Inclusive Education, STEPS Forward Inclusive Post-secondary Education Society, Vancouver Autism Parent Group, Vancouver District Parents Advisory Council and Vancouver Parents for Successful Inclusion..
It's a very broad collection of people that likewise bring forward similar concerns with Bill 20 that I've already put on the record on behalf of another group. They point out:
"Students should have as much integration as benefits the individual child. It does mean that every child has a right to have his or her educational needs met in their community. It means that when a classroom setting isn't working for a student, an appropriate learning environment is available. Inclusive education provides for as much integration as benefits the student throughout her or his schooling.
"Public schools provide a continuum of well-supported services to meet a wide range of learning needs. Settings that are specifically designed to meet particular needs should be an available option. These placements must be child-centred and include the necessary supports to meet students' intellectual, social, physical, emotional and career development needs. Public schools are for all children, regardless of their learning needs. Successful inclusion requires commitment, training and adequate support to work."
That is also the point that I just made earlier.
"We are concerned years of school district funding shortfalls have amounted to a decimation of support for students with special needs and those who try to teach them."
Leaving that part of my discussion aside, I wish to move on to another aspect of Bill 20 that in my judgment undermines the authority of the local government — the administrative directive. This directive will centralize power in the hands of the minister and the superintendent of achievement. In these directives is the vehicle underneath the superintendent of achievement by which the achievement records will be policed, if you like.
When we look at that concern from the trustees' point of view…. This is a concern that they raise, and I'm sure the minister has heard this.
"Boards have a distinctive democratic responsibility, and the imposition of administrative directives changes the fundamental principle of local accountability. Any unpopular decision of a board that is overridden by an administrative direction would destabilize local decision-making and have no direct accountability back to the local community. Furthermore, there could be undue pressure exerted on MLAs and the minister to intervene in invariably controversial decisions such as school closures."
I am long enough in the tooth that I remember the bad old days in which a school closure required the permission and authority of the Minister of Education. Therefore, if the locally elected people did not agree with the decision of the board of trustees, they appealed to the Minister of Education.
One of the very first things this government did upon being elected was to remove that, remove the inconvenience of being lobbied and petitioned by local people, and put it fully in the hands of the local trustees. We are now returning to the same form of providing education and undermining local accountability. The minister already has the authority to intervene in a district if the board is failing to fulfil its responsibilities under the act. Therefore, once more, local government and local accountability are being undermined here.
Finally, Madam Speaker, not knowing how much time I have left, the third point that I want to talk about, in how this bill undermines the authority of local government, is parent and student appeals.
I just gave one example where this government conveniently set aside something that they found politically embarrassing — school closures. Now they are taking the parent and student appeals. That erodes the local authority for dealing with issues that the local government has made.
When difficult decisions are made by district staff or boards, some are invariably not going to be well received by either individual students or individual parents. It is the local board that must be able to adjudicate those challenges. The existing provision of judicial review already provides an adequate safety net to ensure procedural fairness. Adding another layer of appeal takes away from the authority of local boards and, consequently, their credibility as being locally accountable.
I wish to close by describing how I see Bill 20 has turned the local board of trustees into the meat in the sandwich. The local board has now had school planning councils assigned their responsibility for determining whether fees are set. That has an effect upon programs that run across the entire district, weakening the elected board.
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The other aspect. This bill also assigns responsibility to the Minister of Education and the superintendent of achievement, reducing the effect of local government by centralizing power here in Victoria underneath achievement contracts, administrative directives, and parent and student appeals.
Having spoken, Madam Speaker, as brilliantly as I know I have spoken, I am sure that the minister will have taken all of this under advisement and will be introducing the amendments that will make this bill have some type of saliency across all of British Columbia and, in particular, will be looking after the people of rural British Columbia where there are different types of problems that result from here.
I thank all my colleagues for listening to me.
M. Sather: While I have a few minutes before the break, I wanted to get started on my comments on Bill 20, which is really, really concerning. This bill is of great concern to me and, I think, to many British Columbians who, over this past number of years since this government was elected in 2001, have watched the direction of this government with some concern. That direction is reflected once again in this bill, which is primarily about privatization of the public school system.
It's about the denigration of the public school system. It's once again showing that this government does not support public education in any meaningful way in this province and that it is always looking for ways to denigrate the system, the people that oversee the system and, in fact, the students in that system, because they're the ones that are supported by public education.
The minister, in her opening remarks, talked about the wonderful public education system that we have, and I agree with her on that. But despite those remarks and despite the language about supporting school boards, about supporting educators and about supporting students, we see just the opposite. We see a continual move by this government into the area of more control of the system from Victoria, less dependence on the locally elected and on what everybody thinks are the democratically responsible group of people for the administration of education at the local level.
This is not new in terms of how this government operates. We've seen the same thing in the health care system, where the Premier along with the Minister of Health announced last year that the health care system was in complete disarray — that they were on the rocks and that they had to have a conversation with the people of British Columbia to determine how we are going to fix this "broke" system.
We've seen the same thing in long-term care in terms of this government and how they operate. The government is always looking for a modus operandi — that the system is broken and we've got to fix it. We're seeing that theme again here in this bill, notwithstanding the opening remarks of the minister.
In long-term care — and I've seen it happen in my community — the government says: "Oh, all these long-term care facilities are antiquated. They're no good, so we've got to come in and fix it." The way that they come in to fix it is by privatization. That's what happened in my community, that's what's happening throughout the province, and that's what's happening here again with this bill.
We have a lot of concerns about this bill, and people in British Columbia have a lot of concerns about the direction of this government with regard to education. The government is bringing in provincial schools now — or model schools. Call them what you will. These are schools that will not be responsible in the normal way, in the normal chain of events, to the locally elected school board but will be responsible to some other body — a body that's under more direct control of the minister.
Part of the way that privatization works so well for this government is that it allows them a lot more control. We see that in the contracts that they let out, where the public can't find out anything about what's going on under these private contracts.
Here again the minister is exerting more control over the system so that the system has to answer to the minister entirely through her agents and not to the people that are elected in the school districts to listen to the local people, to listen to the concerns they have and to do the good job of adjudication that they've been doing all these many years. That's being undermined by this legislation.
Now we have new terminology. New schools, provincial schools, model schools — call them what you will, Madam Speaker. We have very similar types of schools in other parts of the world, particularly in the United States with charter schools. They have something in common, certainly, and that is their lack of accountability to the elected officials, their lack of regulations that control other schools. That's all out the window.
They get a new set of Wild West kinds of operations, where they can then do not so much what they want but whatever the minister wants them to do and what this government wants them to do. There's a lot of concern about where the government is going in that direction.
It's not democratic; it's anti-democratic. We see this over and over again. The minister talks about it like it's almost a minor thing. You have to wonder: what's the problem here?
That's the other thing. Like I said before, the government sets up these straw horses, and then they seek to destroy them. The minister says that the education system is doing well; our targets are as well. We compare well with other jurisdictions. Yet at the same time they want to make these massive changes to the system.
The government, of course, is not going to come in and say: "We want to increase privatization in the school system." They don't say that about health either, but that's what they're doing. I think most people are not fooled by the agenda of this government, and we're certainly not on this side of the House. Let's call it what it is. It's a privatization — unaccountable.
We heard in this House — yesterday, I believe it was — how open and transparent this government is.
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That's another thing that completely amazes me about this government. Whatever they're doing, they say the exact opposite. They say that they're the most open and transparent government. In fact, they're the most closed and opaque government that I think we've ever seen in British Columbia. That's what we're facing — a lot of talk that doesn't match the reality.
The minister has come in with Bill 20. This government has come in with Bill 20, and we see a lot of problems in it — answerable to the minister, not accountable to school boards.
These provincial schools, of course, will be paid for by the public. There again, the public gets to pay the freight, but they don't get to know in any clear and real transparent way what's going on with their tax dollars. The minister finds it's more to the liking of this government, I'm sure, to work in an underhanded way, quite frankly, which isn't fair to the people of this province.
I know the member for Saanich South addressed some needs for the minister to really look at this legislation from a number of perspectives, even notwithstanding their support for it. There are some real problems for it.
I mentioned the Wild West nature of the way the government is construing things — no rules, or not the rules that other schools have to follow, anyway. I guess they're rules that the minister will arbitrarily impose.
Non-union is another phrase that comes up often with these new schools. The minister had a big discussion, apparently, with some stakeholders about this issue. That was one of the things that apparently was rather front and centre — that these schools can get around those nasty unions. We know particularly what this government feels about unions like the B.C. Teachers Federation.
[Mr. Speaker in the chair.]
I'm sure the government finds that handy, not having to deal with those nasty unions. It's another part of the privatization agenda that we see here and in other jurisdictions in North America — non-union, unregulated and at the whim of the minister, the government or the stakeholders that support them and that they support. There are a lot of issues that will be discussed as we go along with this.
This whole agenda — part of the concern that others have expressed in the public system about it is that it doesn't really address the needs of the kids that need help the most. Again, that's part of a whole range of issues. It relates to the degree of poverty that children face in this province — the highest level of poverty in the province, which is a shame.
It would be nice if the government would work with school trustees, school boards and administrators to address some of those issues in a real way — the issues that these children have in coming to school from homes where they're not supported. Instead, we're going to hear about programs, which the expanded mandate of school boards is supposed to implement, that won't really often target the needs of those families. I can say more about that later.
Noting the hour, Mr. Speaker, I would ask to continue my comments after the break and move adjournment of the debate.
M. Sather moved adjournment of debate.
Committee of Supply (Section A), having reported progress, was granted leave to sit again.
Hon. G. Abbott moved adjournment of the House.
Mr. Speaker: This House stands adjourned until 1:30 this afternoon.
The House adjourned at 11:54 a.m.
PROCEEDINGS IN THE
DOUGLAS FIR ROOM
Committee of Supply
ESTIMATES: MINISTRY OF ENERGY,
MINES AND PETROLEUM RESOURCES
The House in Committee of Supply (Section A); A. Horning in the chair.
The committee met at 10:07 a.m.
On Vote 27: ministry operations, $43,899,000.
Hon. R. Neufeld: I'm just going to give a few introductory remarks. The people with me, obviously, are Greg Reimer, deputy minister for the ministry; Doug Callbeck, ADM, management services, on my left; and Patrick O'Rourke, the ADM, titles and offshore division.
I'm proud and happy to be able to be the Minister of Energy, Mines and Petroleum Resources. I've been able to retain that position, although there's been lots of competition for this job since 2001. It's a great job to have. I get to work with a great cross-section of people in the ministry. I want to pay them tribute.
The ministry is small; there are 315 people. This year in the ministry, the total budget is $77,500,000. A lot of that is transfers. So to actually run the ministry, we have a budget of about $44 million.
For that, we're responsible for our biggest Crown, B.C. Hydro. We're responsible for British Columbia Transmission Corp. We're responsible for Columbia Power Corp. We're responsible for the Oil and Gas Commission, the Mediation and Arbitration Board and a couple of other, smaller boards. We have to actually
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administer and look after Oil and Gas especially, which is about a $4 billion to $5 billion investment on a yearly basis in British Columbia — a huge responsibility — and all of the investment that takes place at our large Crowns, which is also huge.
To those people that work in the ministry, I want to send them some kudos. Thank you very much from your minister for the hard work you do for the people of British Columbia. Each and every one of you does a great job. I enjoy working with you, and I look forward to working with you for a long time into the future. Who knows what's going to happen in the future? That's in someone else's hands. But it is a busy ministry. We have lots of things on the go.
I look forward to the estimates debate. This year we have a new critic, and I know that the critic and I have had a number of discussions. In fact, the critic is quite knowledgable about the ministry because of his past association through the last government that was here in the 1990s. So I look forward to the time that we can do this.
I have also with me the Minister of State for Mining, who is responsible for the mining part of the ministry. That is also a huge responsibility. Mining employs thousands of people in British Columbia, pays some of the highest wages in the province to employees and is very environmentally sound and sustainable. So I'm proud to have with me the Minister of State for Mining, who will actually be taking the questions for the mining division.
We have agreed to a rundown of how we will manage through the process. I have most people here today so that, depending on how the critic wants to do it, we're working together cooperatively.
As I understand, we'll start with the titles and offshore division. We'll then go to electricity and alternative energy division. We'll go to marketing. Then we'll go to marketing, aboriginal and community relations. Number 5 is oil and gas division. Number 6 is Oil and Gas Commission. Number 7 is B.C. Hydro. Number 8 is B.C. Transmission Corporation. Number 9 is Columbia Power Corporation. To wrap up will be mining and minerals division.
With those few short words, I think I'll leave it with the critic.
J. Horgan: I thank the minister for his brief opening remarks. I know my colleagues never associate me with brief, but I, too, will try and be so during my introductory remarks.
It is my first opportunity, as critic for Energy and Mines, to participate in the estimates process. As members would know, I was only elected for a first time in 2005.
Although I have a soft spot in my heart for this ministry and this sector of the economy, I was given other responsibilities initially, and I deliberately avoided paying any attention to what went on between 2005 and my appointment as critic. That's a bit of a leg up for the ministry and a bit of a challenge for me, so I'm doing some extra catch-up, but I'm confident with the minister, with his staff and the good people of the Ministry of Energy, Mines and Petroleum Resources.
It's interesting — I've said before, and I know the minister agrees, and in fact I suppose I would have been following him rather than him following me — that the wealth of British Columbia from this point forward is by and large under the ground. We have a long history of forestry, fisheries and agriculture as pillars of the economy, a resource-based economy.
But anyone who is paying any attention at all to public accounts and to revenues coming through the province could not deny that energy is the future of the province, and that creates a challenge. And that's where I will be focusing most of my remarks this morning and throughout the next couple of days.
Those present and those watching will be aware that in the throne speech the government laid out an ambitious plan to address climate change, and of course shortly after that a budget came forward that had little or no reference to that subject. Then the energy plan followed that a few weeks later with some daring initiatives that I gave the minister full credit for.
He is aware of that. I haven't heard it thrown back at me, and I appreciate that. I think as we go ahead as critic and minister over the next year or many years — at least until 2009, when we may well change places if things go well for me….
Hon. K. Krueger: Now you're dreaming.
J. Horgan: Now I'm dreaming — in Technicolor. I've been doing a lot of that, and I'm colour-blind, so that's hard to do.
But the challenge for the minister and the ministry, and in fact for government, is to try and square the circle, try and reconcile the challenge we have to generate revenues so that those in urban areas of British Columbia can continue to benefit from the social programs that we all enjoy and that we have built up over many, many generations, at the same time that we try to live in a carbon-constrained environment.
I know the minister takes this very seriously and his staff grapple with this every day. It is a challenge. It's one that's not lost on most people in the community, but contradictions exist in the world. That's why I'm in favour of reducing gas prices at the pump, which many people think is incongruent with addressing climate change. I don't believe that's the case.
I think that if we can manage down corporate windfall profits, it will provide more tax room so that we can fund the alternative energy sources and technologies that the minister announced just yesterday with a piece of legislation that I don't believe we can talk about today, but maybe around the edges as we go forward.
There are a number of issues where we do disagree, however, although the minister and I seem to be simpatico. Certainly, when we get to the mines section, I think that the member for Kamloops–North Thompson will find that beyond a few issues, there is very little that we will disagree on.
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Where we do disagree, it's significant. Also with the Minister of Energy and Mines, a number of those…. I'll just inventory them now so that the minister and his staff will have a better sense of where I'm going to be focusing my energies throughout the next two or three days. I have significant difficulty with the notion of self-sufficiency with respect to electricity generation. I will outline those arguments over the course of, I guess, two sections — both in the alternative energy portion as well as with B.C. Hydro.
Coalbed methane, or coalbed gas as it's being referred to by the minister and the ministry, appears to have hit a rock wall when it arrives in communities. I think it's important that we discuss that and the minister and his staff have an opportunity to explain to the public why they believe this source of energy — in communities that are not accustomed to that level of activity — can be justified and how, if at all, it will be able to proceed in places like Telkwa; certainly, on Vancouver Island; and in the Elk Valley, where there seems to be significant community opposition. I'm going to want to canvass with the minister on how he proposes to deal with that.
The other issue is, of course, water rentals. As we look at court rulings with respect to Alcan, other large users like Cominco and some IPPs who will become large users if contracts are fulfilled and IPPs are actually coming on stream, the notion of capturing some of that rent for the Crown when there's a huge discrepancy between costs of production as there is with Alcan and actual cost to B.C. Hydro or end-users…. So I think water rentals is an area that deserves some discussion. I think it will be a fun exercise — certainly, for me — and I know that the members of the staff will want, with the minister, to try and enlighten me and others as to how that's going to be in the best interests of British Columbians.
The other issue is separate and distinct, I suppose, but I read recently in…. I believe it was the Vancouver Sun. It might have been the Calgary Herald. I read a whole range of papers. They are all printed by the same people, but I don't know which one it was.
There is a discussion underway in Alberta with respect to the royalty regimes in place there. As we move, again, into a climate-change environment and a carbon-constrained economy, the cost of production in terms of emissions is significant. As we see declines in natural gas, potentially, and the notion of peak oil, I think that rent to the Crown is an important area of discussion.
Another area…. I know that the minister is proud, and rightly so, of some of the initiatives with respect to the new relationship with first nations in many areas of British Columbia. There are also some areas that have not been successful. I think it's important that we balance the discussion. I will encourage and I'm looking forward to the minister speaking of the successes. We can all rejoice in that, but there are some areas in the province and some bands in particular that are not as excited about the new relationship as the government would lead us to believe.
Climate change. The throne speech spoke of transition to a new economy in the minds of many. It depends on the listener, I suppose. "You hear what you want to hear and you see what you want to see," to quote the old Nilsson song. Many people heard that the world was going to be a different place with respect to fossil fuels based on the throne speech. Yet we still have a lot of enthusiasm on the government side for offshore oil and gas development.
I want to pose my first question to the minister as critic in the estimates process. I was wondering if he could outline for me the role and function of the oil and gas division, what its business plan is for the next 12 months and how it differs from its business plan prior to the announcements in the throne speech of the significant changes in the way we do business.
Hon. R. Neufeld: I assume that you're asking about the change in the offshore from last year until now. To that question, we've had an identified offshore branch in the ministry since, I think, 2003. What we have changed from last year to this year for the offshore branch is that we've amalgamated the offshore branch and titles.
It's mostly because what we're doing in offshore right now is working with communities along the coast, with groups and organizations. I regularly, other than election year, take a trip either to the Gulf of Mexico or to Alaska with people from along the coast — both first nations leaders and non–first nations leaders — to have them see firsthand what offshore is about in today's world.
Many times we hear how terrible it was a long time ago, but people need to understand that technology changes in developing offshore resources. There is huge new technology today compared to ten years ago in almost anything. All you have to do is look at the BlackBerrys or the cell phones that are around. Compared to ten years ago, it's a lot different.
We've amalgamated those two divisions. The offshore division is still working on the science that some of the reports asked them to get. There were a number of reports put forward over the years in regard to offshore, and the first one was in 1986. There was a federal-provincial report on offshore in 1998 under the last administration. AGRA Earth and Environmental Ltd. filed a report.
In 2001 we had Jacques Whitford actually take those previous reports and bring forward a report. In 2002 we had another report by Dr. David Strong. In 2004 the Royal Society of Canada put forward a report on their own in regard to offshore. Most of the reports other than the 1986 one, which asks for a number of things to be done, said there is some science to do. You need to identify some things along the west coast of British Columbia.
Unfortunately, with the moratorium in place, in some ways — not in all ways, but I think in some ways — it eliminated the ability to actually get some of that science years ago that we should have today. What we need to do is develop that along with the federal government. We continue to do that, and we work with our universities in the province and within the ministry.
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J. Horgan: On the transfer: was it just an administrative change to move the titles branch into the offshore division?
Hon. R. Neufeld: Yes, it was.
J. Horgan: I know there would have been some administrative savings from that. Was there a reduction in staff as a result? My understanding of the FTE count is that we're up 42 or 44 staff. Was there any administrative saving in terms of FTEs?
Hon. R. Neufeld: There was.
J. Horgan: Could the minister identify those savings for me?
Hon. R. Neufeld: Last year the count for the offshore division was 11; this year it's seven.
J. Horgan: Hon. Chair, I thank the minister for that.
In his articulation of the studies and reviews that have been underway, could the minister give the Legislature any indication on the status of discussions with the federal government with respect to the moratorium?
I know that public comment has been mixed from the federal minister. Obviously, they're in a minority situation. It's a delicate political issue certainly here on the west coast, and he is an Island member like me. So he's cautious, as ministers tend to be.
But caution is not a word I usually use for the minister here in the province, so I'm sure he'll be forthright in advising me of his views on the federal government's role to this point in time.
Hon. R. Neufeld: The member is right. Obviously, with a minority government in Ottawa, as was the case with the previous Liberal government, there's not a lot of appetite to actually say that yes, we would do it or no, we wouldn't do it.
We're saying that we would only do it if we can do it environmentally safe and scientifically sound. That's been our position since 2002 or 2001, when we achieved office.
The federal government has elected to say that right now, they've got other things on their mind, and I appreciate that. In the interim what we're doing is continuing to work internally within the ministry to do, as I said earlier, the science — to actually work with our universities to do some of the science that needs to be done.
If in fact at some point in time…. I'm certainly not here saying that it's going to be lifted. I think I would agree with the previous minister under the NDP, Dan Miller, a previous Premier of the province, who was very vocal about: "Yes, let's lift it. The time has come."
There's an estimated $100 billion worth of resources under the ocean that could be safely brought out, but we need to actually do it in a safe manner with the correct information and the correct regulatory regime.
If in fact it ever happened, we wouldn't want to be in the same position that they are on the east coast. It's interesting. We have offshore on the east coast. They drill in the Beaufort Sea regularly. Last year there was another well drilled in the Beaufort, and lots before that. They drill every year in the Great Lakes, but we can't drill on the west coast. They drill in the North Sea. They drill in the Gulf of Mexico.
A lot of people go on cruises. Obviously, a lot of them go through Vancouver, and they go up the coast to Alaska. That's great. But thousands of people on a yearly basis — many of them from British Columbia — travel to Florida, get on a cruise ship and go through the Gulf of Mexico. I don't know the exact number, but as I understand it, there are 4,000 platforms in the Gulf of Mexico. People cruise around them. That's where they want to go. I've never heard anybody come back and say: "That was terrible."
We need the resource. Natural gas is a resource that will be with us as a fuel for decades and decades to come. We will just use it differently. Right now I think we only produce about 11 million barrels of oil a year and consume somewhere in the neighbourhood of 75 million barrels of oil in the province. It would be nice if we could actually start producing some more of that oil in British Columbia. The oil that is available onshore in the northeast is a small amount. There's a possibility of some oil in the Nechako basin that we would actually like to get at.
So we need the product. We use it in our everyday lives — every day, each and every one of us, regardless of who we are or what we try to represent. It's in our lives, and we use it. Will we need to continue to use it 50 or 60 years from now? That's something that may happen.
That's where we're at, and I know the federal minister's response publicly. I appreciate that because of the position he's in.
J. Horgan: I thank the minister for that, and I agree. I think it's important. Not all British Columbians listening today will appreciate that we don't burn all of our oil. We use petroleum products for many, many other things — I would say in a climate-neutral way or a carbon-neutral way. That's quite often lost in this debate — not in the offshore debate specifically, but on the importance of petroleum products to our economy, not just to move our vehicles and power our industry but also in our daily lives.
I'd like to go back to the minister's comments about other jurisdictions. If in fact the science has been conclusive in those jurisdictions, what seems to be the challenge here on the west coast?
Again, this is a politically charged issue, so it's not a surprise that politics rears its head periodically. The minister referenced a former associate of mine, a former Premier, and his views on the matter, and I don't believe they've changed a whit. I can't imagine that they have. Again, caution wouldn't be a word I would use to describe that former member of this place either. But in British
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Columbia, certainly in some coastal communities, there is alarm and concern. I think if one was watching….
I'm not sure that I would take much stock in this, knowing government as I do — that divisions and branches change and shift depending on needs at the time. You try and put your expertise where it can be put to best use. But when you see the branch that was staffed up in 2003, it was a pretty high-powered group of folks, based on my personal experience with them. Certainly, their record in government was significant.
Now we see that the branch is down to seven people led by a very capable ADM. Would that be a signal, Minister, to the public that the government has lost interest in the file?
I don't mean that to be glib. I mean, you look at where the government was in 2003 — their view on the matter. There was a majority government in power in Ottawa at that time with a Minister of Environment from here in Victoria who was clearly opposed to offshore oil and gas.
We now have a Minister of Natural Resources in Ottawa and, I would think, also a Minister of Environment who is a Conservative who looks at these issues with a different set of glasses from the previous minister under the previous administration. So were it not for the minority situation, one would think that you're almost having a perfect storm on this file. Yet we see in B.C. the number of staff working on the issue being reduced.
Is that a result of a satisfaction that the work has been done, and it's just a matter of waiting for the political opportunity? Or is there in fact more work to do? If so, what would that science be that's missing on the west coast?
Hon. R. Neufeld: First off, no, the intent is still to continue with what we had laid out in our first term in office. It is to get the information together, to get the scientific information together and to continue to work with our federal counterparts. We can't do it in isolation. We need to do it with them.
It's the reality that the federal government is in a minority situation. It was during the last term of the Liberals, too, prior to the Conservatives being there. We need to continue to do that work. Because we've reduced to seven, it means that some of the work has been done.
We don't do all of the work in-house, because a lot of that science is done in our universities — those kinds of things. What we would do in-house is to continue to work on some basic regulations, taking into account knowledge from around the world of what takes place. So that the member understands, our commitment is still there, and the energy plan said that clearly — that offshore was still something that we wanted to do.
The member brings this up, and I want to answer that a little bit. Part of the problem when we talk about…. I'll qualify this with coalbed gas. I'm not trying to move to coalbed gas but…. Part of the problem — which actually, I think, was identified already — is that to try and get a new industry into an area that has never experienced it before is difficult.
It's difficult if you go in there and tell the people the truth. Where it gets more difficult is when people go in there with the intent — the sole intent — to confuse, to lay out things that actually don't happen, to make it sound as though it's terrible, to make it sound as though it's politically wrong to do it, all of those kinds of things. When you get people going into areas, saying things that aren't true about what the province does today, for instance, that's what actually scares people.
You know what? I can understand that. I'm used to it. I live in the northeast part of the province. I grew up with it, so I'm quite used to it. I can understand why people in Telkwa and people on the coast would be saying: "Whoa, just a minute." But I'll tell you, when we continue every year to take people to those areas that have lots of that activity happen, and in much tougher waters….
I mean, we've not been to the North Sea because you need special permits to get out to those well sites. But if you go out in the North Sea, they have much rougher weather than we've experienced on the west coast. Now, that's not because I've lived on the west coast and know it; that's because I'm listening to people who actually have lived in both those areas and say it's much tougher.
On the east coast of Canada, iceberg alley is what they call it. There are icebergs coming through there, some of them probably half as large or maybe as large as this building. They deal with those issues in a way that so far has worked well. When we go out there and start telling people what actually takes place, and you get another group coming in and telling them things that sound kind of nice to scare people and talking about things that happened maybe 20, 30 years ago in the industry, offshore or onshore, I understand why it would scare them. So we need to continually work with those people, and that's part of why I take these people to those areas — both the gulf and the Gulf of Alaska.
Now, Alaska, just north of us, has been doing offshore for 50 years. Great. Alaska has huge resources. Offshore is not all of it, but most of it, and it's certainly been a huge benefit to Alaska. They do it in a safe manner, and they do it with ice too. They do it with sheet ice — which is different than icebergs, but it's sheet ice — and have been able to do it successfully.
When I do take those first nations leaders and other leaders to both of those areas, wherever we go, they are amazed. They are amazed at what takes place offshore. They are amazed at how all the fishermen head for the offshore platforms to fish because that's where the fish are. It's kind of like we sink old military ships off the west coast of British Columbia to create some of that. That naturally happens with some of the platforms.
It's always good to actually have those community leaders in both aboriginal and non-aboriginal communities go and view for themselves first hand what takes place offshore. But it is difficult, Member, to actually get the realistic process out so that people understand what we're trying to do.
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J. Horgan: The budget for the branch has been declining year over year since 2004, and it spikes a bit this year. I'm assuming that's because of the transfer of titles. The minister made reference to university work and other work in terms of science and development, so I'm going to say "outsource," and I don't mean that in a pejorative way.
I'm just saying that there are dollars flowing from the ministry to various institutions. I'm wondering if the minister could outline for me and the Legislature how much money is being invested in the science and to what institutions.
Hon. R. Neufeld: I'm assuming you're meaning for last year. Would that…?
J. Horgan: That would be fine.
Hon. R. Neufeld: That would be fine. So $200,000 last year to UVic; $700,000 the year before. In fact, the total since 2003 — we'll give you those numbers right up. It's $1.86 million to UVic and $2 million to UNBC.
J. Horgan: I'm interested in UNBC — a new, fledgling university a distance from the coast. I'm wondering what work they were doing.
Hon. R. Neufeld: I'm sorry. I didn't qualify it. That would have been around 2003, so the report that they produced with those dollars is quite available from the university. It's all there.
J. Horgan: We have basins on the coast. There are tenures in place for those basins. Again, I know that this information is readily available. I know that it's not being hidden anywhere. But in general terms perhaps the minister could speak briefly, if he might, to those companies that are the large players and those that are actively involved with the branch, if at all, in terms of seeking information, providing information and assisting the public.
Hon. R. Neufeld: The deputy minister just handed me a note on UNBC, so maybe I'll just….
J. Horgan: Sure.
Hon. R. Neufeld: There are four reports that were produced. One was the state-of-knowledge review of high-valued marine and shoreline areas. And so the member doesn't have to…. We'll send it over to you. Second, the state-of-knowledge review of the condition of the health of the marine ecosystems for the Queen Charlotte basin. Third, the state-of-knowledge review of community and socioeconomic implications. Fourth was developing a strategy and approach for offshore oil and gas information knowledge and learning systems. There were seven other publications that came out. I'll pass this over to the member.
To the question now of who owns some of the tenure on the coast. Shell Canada, Petro-Canada, ExxonMobil, Chevron, Canadian Forest Oil Ltd. and ConocoPhillips. There are two others: Haida Resources Ltd., which goes back, as I understand, to the 1960s, and Offshore Oil and Gas Corporation Ltd.
J. Horgan: Haida Resources is an interesting one. It doesn't jump out at me as one of the ten largest profitable corporations in the world, which many of the others do. While we're on the Haida — not necessarily as a resource company but as a people and a place, the Haida Gwaii, the basin there — several years ago I can remember speaking with the leadership in that community about the notion of directional drilling and how the Haida may work with tenure holders and the government to access these basins without sticking their foot in the water.
Has the minister advanced that at all in the time since I had that discussion, which would have been in the late 1990s?
Hon. R. Neufeld: Again, some of the technology is getting better and better all the time so that you can do a lot of directional drilling, and they can actually directional drill a long ways with some of the large offshore rigs, which would be actually offshore.
That's a possibility if, in fact, the seismic could be garnered to identify more of where the resource is at. The seismic that identifies it now is relatively old seismic, and the way they do seismic today has obviously changed an awful lot. What we think would need to happen is that first you need to go out there and do the seismic to identify better — in today's world with today's technology — where that might be.
So, speaking with the Haida…. I mean, I've had numbers of discussions with the Haida leadership. They've never said no to me. They've always said that what we need to do is to continue to talk.
J. Horgan: While we're on the tenure holders, we might as well get this out and have a discussion about it. I'm sure the minister will embrace the opportunity. It's with respect to meetings in the United States in February of 2007.
We were provided with a freedom-of-information document that made reference to the minister's discussions with ExxonMobil. There are notations around discussions of offshore, and I'm wondering if the minister, rather than us doing a dance here, maybe could just stand up and tell me what you think. You met with ExxonMobil. They said: "How can we help?" It has been characterized as an opportunity to help influence public opinion, so maybe the minister could clear the air on that meeting and advise me just what happened and how long it took.
Hon. R. Neufeld: Yeah, it's been characterized by a lot of people in the way they want to characterize it. As minister responsible for the portfolio, I visit with people that invest in the province of British Columbia. The oil and gas industry, for example, will invest, on average, from $4 billion to $5 billion a year in British Columbia.
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I think it is incumbent on me to travel to Houston to talk to people about what's happening in British Columbia, that we have some resources we would like to develop.
I think it's entirely in line for me to go to Calgary. Some people think I spend a lot of time there, but if I were to think about how many times I was in Calgary last year, it wouldn't be that many. But I do go there to talk to those people that regularly invest in British Columbia. In Canada, Calgary is the headquarters for the oil and gas industry; in the United States and the world it's Houston, Texas.
I was there at a NAPE conference, one that the ministry has been attending for three years, I believe. This last year was the third year that they've been there. I've been able to attend part of it in the last two times, and this was one of them.
Just so everybody knows it wasn't secret, we actually put out a press release and had a discussion with the media — callback — here in Victoria. So they knew what was happening. I answered all their questions. In fact, the media came from all across British Columbia. It wasn't just Victoria. I mean, there were people on the radio from where I come from, asking questions from northeastern British Columbia. So we certainly didn't do anything secret. We let people know I was going there.
The ministry has always gone there. It's a good place to go, to NAPE, to show what British Columbia has to offer. The staff do a great job of that, not dissimilar to what they were doing when the NDP were in power, attending those conferences. I think that it's some of the things that we should do.
When I talked to ExxonMobil, I actually went there to talk to them about onshore. Right now they do very little investment. In fact, I think it's almost zero in the province. But Esso does a lot — an arm of Imperial Oil — and so I asked them if they had thought about some of our interior basins, such as the Nechako, where there is supposedly a lot of oil. I wanted to let them know about that.
Interestingly enough, we might think we know about it, but not a lot of people in the province know about it, and definitely Houston doesn't know about it. So it's incumbent on me to go talk to them about that. As I said earlier, we produce 11 million barrels of oil a year, and we consume about 75 million. There is a huge resource out there, especially onshore.
I think about the Bowser basin, and what's going to happen there in the near future with the beetle-kill. We need to keep those communities whole. What happens when all that beetle wood is gone — or not all of it but lots of it? Those communities are going to face some real hard times unless a government decides they want to do something to keep those communities as whole as we possibly can.
Our seismic data from the Canadian geological science branch says there are huge reserves in the Nechako basin and in the Bowser. That's one way to keep those resource communities that now depend totally on forestry up and going.
There is opportunity for mining. I'm sure the member is going to want to talk to the Minister of State for Mining, but I'm going to say here that geological formations in those areas demonstrate that there are huge opportunities for mining, and thus jobs and investment in those areas. That was my initial thrust.
One of the staffers that was with me wrote in their notes that Exxon had said that. I politely said: "No, thanks. This is an issue that we deal with in British Columbia between the people that live in the province and Ottawa." I've said that consistently to everyone.
It doesn't matter who holds tenure in that area, and Exxon is one of them. I've never been different. I've always said that this is an issue that we need to deal with as a province with the federal government, not the oil industry.
J. Horgan: I realize that these aren't the minister's notes. They're notes from a staff person. I should say, however, just so the minister is aware, that I do read his speeches. The writer's no Ludlum. I'm sure the delivery is much better, but as I'm trying to get to sleep at night, they've been helpful. Again, that's no slight to the writer, and I'm sure in person they'd be more riveting. But I did read the NAPE pieces that are on the website. That was useful for me to understand.
Obviously, I agree with the minister. I've been to Calgary as well. There were those who said: "Why in the world would you do that?" But it's pretty self-evident, again. If you look at the revenue to the Crown, it's a pretty important place for us to visit. Certainly, I appreciate the minister having to go about the world advancing the cause of British Columbia.
At no time would I say that that is inappropriate activity. But when I see the notes, the notion of shaping public opinion…. Now that, again, is a double barrel. I appreciate those are not the minister's comments, but perhaps the minister could advise me in terms of public opinion and whether characterized as organized environmental groups in this document…. Could the minister state for the record the discussion and what the conclusions of the province of B.C. were with respect to public opinion and organized environmental groups on the offshore oil question?
Hon. R. Neufeld: You're referring to the discussion I had with Exxon, I assume. Actually, I think I was clear with that. I mean, you're in a conversation. I can't control what that other person says. They're going to say what they're going to say. It's just like this back and forth right now. I can't control what you're going to say. You're going to say what you want to, and I have to say what I'm going to say.
What I'm saying is what I've already said. I said to Exxon, "No, thanks" — no different than I've said to anybody else that does offshore and would want to be offshore. I said: "No, there are some issues that we have to deal with as a province, as a public, to deal with these kinds of issues. Thanks for the offer, but no thanks. I'm here to talk about onshore and the opportunities there."
To be perfectly frank, what they told me there was that Exxon, being as large a corporation as it is, actually
[ Page 7075 ]
goes to places where there are huge reserves. They led me to believe that for them to invest in British Columbia onshore was probably not possible — or probable, I should say — by them.
I want to make it clear, again, as I did before. I said no thanks, as I've said no thanks to others who asked that same question. We have some issues that we need to deal with in British Columbia amongst ourselves, along with the federal government.
J. Horgan: So let's then have a conversation. I'll say what I'll say, and you'll give me the answers. It's on the issue of organized environmental groups. The minister talked about this, and I don't disagree with his conclusions, that people will say what they say. Information, correct or incorrect, is often determined by those giving it or those receiving it.
There is certainly an organized opposition to this development — offshore oil and gas in British Columbia. Were it not there, I think we may well be in a different position today.
In terms of the government of British Columbia and interacting with organizations like Living Oceans, the Sierra Club and Greenpeace, does the minister have a particular view? Is there policy with respect to these groups, or would he agree with me that they're like any other British Columbians, and he takes their opinions and weighs them against others?
Hon. R. Neufeld: Yes, and I have met with those organizations. In fact when I became minister, I asked the staff to start having those conversations on a broader context with environmental organizations. They have done that and have had a number of meetings. I know that I've attended, I believe, one, where I talked to a whole cross-section of environmental groups. I listened to their input. I've met with Living Oceans a number of times, sometimes right in my office. I appreciate their opinion.
I also appreciate there are those people that want nothing to happen in the province regardless of where it's at. It doesn't matter whether it's offshore. It doesn't matter whether it's onshore. It doesn't matter whether it's highways. It doesn't matter whether it's transmission lines. It doesn't matter whether it's generation facilities, or small or large. They just don't want anything to happen on the land base, but they want to continue to have the good life that we have in British Columbia.
We accept that information. I will weigh that information, and so will the ministry. This is to say that they have some very good suggestions. That's why I asked the ministry to start a regular meeting with those groups, so we can actually listen to those good suggestions and incorporate them in our policies wherever possible.
J. Horgan: I'm pleased that there is a dialogue and that the door is open. I know that those groups, which may well feel that they're not able to access decision-makers, will avail themselves of the offer, as I interpret it, that we just heard that your door is open and their views are welcome. That's good news.
We had an issue last fall. I know the minister and I were duelling radio voices, the disembodied voices on CKNW, with respect to the comments by the Premier at the end of a trade mission. He was in Hong Kong, I believe, speaking to a business group there and left that group with the impression that the time was almost right for the moratorium.
The minister responded back here, of course, an ocean away and a couple of time zones, that the view was, as he has already articulated, that the moratorium is in place. There may well be an opportunity to have that lifted should science determine that the activity could take place in a way that was sensitive to our ecosystems — and also with the formulation of the next federal government, whether it be a minority or majority.
Coming back from that trip, the Premier started to reassess our energy plans with a view to climate change. I'm wondering if that might have happened over the Pacific on the way home. It seemed that he was fairly keen on offshore oil and gas in Hong Kong and now might have softened his view on that. I'm wondering if you could explain to me if that is in fact the case.
Hon. R. Neufeld: Again, we have said consistently in the throne speech that we would only move to offshore if it was environmentally safe and scientifically sound. I would suggest that the Premier's estimates aren't up yet. They will be, I think, as usual at the very end. If the member, the critic, actually wants to ask the Premier what he talked about…. I wasn't there. I don't think the member was there. I think what the member ought to do is actually go visit those estimates and ask the Premier what he said. I'd encourage him to do that.
To the last question — the staff provided me a note — it's quarterly meetings they have with environmental groups. In fact, as I usually find out, I'll be at the next quarterly meeting. That will be, I think, my second time since becoming minister that I will attend those meetings, so that people can talk to me and we have some interaction.
It's great. I understand that in many cases they have a different opinion than me. I think I've been very open with the public. I think we ought to have that conversation. We can disagree. That's no problem. But we ought to be able to sit down and talk about those issues, even if we disagree on some of them.
G. Robertson: I'd like to follow up on my colleague's line of questions — in terms of the contradiction between what the Premier has been saying to business audiences and then what the minister, in a previous question, stated as his words to people in Texas in the industry.
You have the Premier saying, "Yes, please," in China and you have the minister saying, "No, thanks," in Texas. Yet we've seen the opposite from both the Premier and the minister in terms of encouraging or discouraging offshore oil and gas.
Can the minister just clarify whether, at this point, he agrees with the Premier's keenness to pursue offshore oil and gas within the next two years?
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Hon. R. Neufeld: This is what happens when people try to say things that they assume happened. I don't think the member that just asked the question — I don't know what constituency he is from — was in China. But maybe he was. Maybe he was in that crowd, but I doubt it. I think he was here. Pure conjecture.
I'd say the same thing to you, Member. Go ask the Premier what he said in China, and paraphrase it in the same way. What you're saying to me in the previous question is: "Yes, I did say."
Anyhow, I've said from the beginning that what we have said to the offshore oil and gas industry is: "No, we don't need oil companies actually helping us move this file forward. We need to do it as British Columbians, in conjunction with the federal government." I think I've been very clear with about that, and I'll stick to that.
G. Robertson: So the minister's position is that we have work to do here in B.C. and that we don't require any help from outside to advance the development of oil and gas offshore.
[B. Lekstrom in the chair.]
I'm curious what the minister's position is, then, in terms of what is required to happen next here in B.C. in terms of seismic testing and what the status of seismic testing offshore is on the coast of B.C.
Hon. R. Neufeld: I would encourage the member to read the Blues. We've had a fair discussion about offshore — what we're doing and how we've invested in universities in British Columbia in regards to offshore. That discussion has already taken place. That's all on the public record.
G. Robertson: What I did not see earlier — as we've only been going here for less than an hour this morning — was any reference to environmental assessments and current work being done — actually doing seismic. Can the minister clarify, in terms of concrete deliverables, what is taking place right now in terms of seismic?
Hon. R. Neufeld: No seismic. No environmental assessment about seismic because there is no seismic happening along the coast. I believe the federal government was going to do some. I forget the program, what they called it earlier on, but I think that's been set aside for a while. But that's nothing to do with the province.
G. Robertson: Is the minister familiar with the Environmental Assessment of the Batholiths Marine Seismic Survey, Inland Waterways and Near-Offshore, Central Coast of B.C.?
Hon. R. Neufeld: I was wrong in saying it was the federal government that's doing it. The staff corrected me. It's universities that were doing it or intending to do it. They put that forward, and as I understand, it's been withdrawn.
G. Robertson: So in terms of any environmental assessment work, any work to pursue seismic testing offshore on the B.C. coast, all of that is mothballed for the time being, until adequate community process has been done?
Hon. R. Neufeld: It didn't start. There was an application. It's not the province that was doing it. I want to make sure the member understands that it was universities, not the province of British Columbia, that were doing it.
I erred earlier. I thought I made that clear. It's not the federal government. I'm told it was universities that wanted to do it for a whole host of reasons. And as I understand, that's been cancelled.
Maybe I'll just read one of them. The project is designed to study batholiths, large zones of molten rock that solidified deep in the earth's crust, which some scientists believe played a role in the formation of continents. The project was originally planned for the fall of 2007.
I can send over to the member a note that I have from the ministry in regards to it to maybe further enlighten him as to what the project was and who was doing it.
G. Robertson: In terms of the universities that are doing this work, is it safe to assume that this is UVic and UNBC using funding from the ministry, as identified by the minister earlier?
Hon. R. Neufeld: No.
G. Robertson: Is the ministry's provision of funding to those universities connected in any way to addressing the gaps in science related to seismic or offshore oil and gas development?
Hon. R. Neufeld: Yes.
G. Robertson: Will the minister identify how much is being allocated, and to what institutions, to do this work?
Hon. R. Neufeld: Again, I encourage him to look. The critic asked this question. I think it's $1.8 million to UVic so far since 2003 and $2 million to the University of Northern British Columbia since 2003.
G. Robertson: The minister and I seem to be going around in a circle here. The minister referred to funding being allocated to an institution to address the gaps in science around seismic testing, but I believe also stated that the funding that was provided to UNBC and UVic was not connected to that work. Can the minister just clarify that there are apples and oranges here.
Hon. R. Neufeld: Be glad to. The batholith seismic study that was planned along the west coast of British Columbia had nothing to do with the province — and I'll qualify that again; I think I said that — but with the
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federal government. It's a joint Canada-U.S. scientific research project sponsored by the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada and the National Science Foundation of the United States.
That had nothing to do with what we do with the universities that we've actually expended money to, which are UNBC and UVic, to carry out those processes. Those organizations would actually get their own money.
I'm surprised that the member is asking all these questions. I think it's actually good that we go out and get some of that information, to find out a lot more about what happens off the west coast of British Columbia — all of those things that they can find out.
NEPTUNE is another one. We have a huge investment in NEPTUNE on the west coast of Vancouver Island to find out all kinds of things about sea life. That's not something the ministry did. That's something the universities have done.
I think we should encourage universities to go out there and look at the science that we have in the province, not just onshore. We should look at offshore so we better understand what happens in those waters.
Will we always understand everything that happens? Probably not, but if universities get involved in doing some of that science work, I think it would be beneficial to the province to find out what we should do with a whole host of things that happen along the west coast of British Columbia.
The member may differ from me, and I'm sure he does, because this is one of the members that I know has clearly stated that he doesn't want offshore oil and gas to happen in British Columbia. But that shouldn't stop us from going out and getting the science that we should get, to actually even look at all the other things we do along the west coast of British Columbia.
G. Robertson: It's a little disconcerting that the minister says that I am not interested in pursuing the science on this. In fact, it's the opposite. I'm surprised that there have actually been projects related to seismic testing withdrawn, and this is where my concern is.
If one assumes that to pursue a course of development offshore there has to be the science done, then there has to be research to fill all of the gaps in knowledge, which are many and significant, as has been pointed out by many researchers.
In terms of the steps the minister envisions toward offshore oil and gas development, does the minister not see a necessity to carry on appropriate research prior to doing seismic testing, to understand what its potential impacts are and what gaps currently exist in the knowledge of the impacts of seismic testing on everything from invertebrates to marine mammals?
Hon. R. Neufeld: Yes. We're the government that's actually spending the public's money to do that through the ministry, and we're trying to gather that information. We've said that the only way we'd lift the moratorium is…. In fact, we can't do it alone. We have to do it with the federal government, but we'll do it environmentally safe and scientifically sound.
To do that, we need to get some information. We need to get some science put together. That's why, through my ministry, we have funded UVic and UNBC to do some of that work, and we'll continue to do that, because we need to get that science.
A report that came out in 1986 said that we needed to get some of that science. Then 1998 was an interesting time, where a report was commissioned by AGRA Earth and Environmental Ltd. That was during the NDP time.
That was one of those reports that was on…. It was filed away, to be perfectly honest. It never saw the light of day. It said that with a good regulatory system there would be no reason why you wouldn't move forward with offshore oil and gas.
The next report in 2001, when we became government, was from Jacques Whitford Environment. It said much the same thing. It said that there is some science to get.
In 2002 Dr. David Strong, a British Columbian that we asked to go out and review all of the previous reports and all of the knowledge that we had along the coast, said much the same thing — that there's no reason why you couldn't go ahead with a good regulatory system. Then the Royal Society of Canada put forward a report which said many of the same things.
As far as seismic goes, I totally agree with the member. We need to do some science before we can do the seismic. What the critic and I discussed earlier was that before any drilling would ever take place — I mean, everybody tries to talk about these drilling rigs that would be out there — first you need to do some seismic. First you would have to go through the whole process of an environmental review process to even do the science.
All of that's still way out there, because we haven't got to the point where you can even lift the moratorium to go out there and do it. The federal government, I guess, has gone out there and done some seismic all on their own — in the late '80s — with a moratorium in place
So I guess that could take place without lifting the moratorium or without doing the science. I don't think that's the right way to go, and that's why we've invested what we have with our universities — to try and get that information.
I'll just give you a number of examples of the past research. Acoustic modelling for seismic exploration in the Queen Charlotte basin was one thing we asked our universities to do. The environmental impact of seismic exploration on deep-water grass and sponge reefs was another thing. The economics of power generation and electricity on Vancouver Island was, interestingly, another one, which didn't have a lot to do with offshore.
G. Robertson: I'll just maybe close that chapter by stating how critical it is that all of the gaps be closed in terms of knowledge and research that at this point is totally inadequate on the impacts of seismic testing.
That's fairly well understood around the world, certainly on the east coast of Canada and elsewhere, where seismic testing has had significant impact on the
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marine ecosystems. There are real concerns, before that even starts, that the gaps in knowledge be closed. It sounds like the beginnings of that work, at least, are taking place here, which is encouraging. I'd like to see a lot more of that being done before anything proceeds.
I just want to return to some comments the minister made earlier about Alaska and Alaska's oil and gas industry, particularly offshore. The minister mentioned huge benefits — that Alaska has been operating offshore oil and gas for 50 years, and there have been huge benefits.
Does the minister feel that the economic benefits to Alaska vastly outweigh the environmental impacts of the oil and gas industry on the coast of Alaska?
Hon. R. Neufeld: I think what that member should do is ask someone from Alaska. I don't know that. I don't live in Alaska. I don't know all of the benefits that they have. But I would say I think one of the benefits they have that I can think of is they have no personal income tax. That's one.
Hon. K. Krueger: No sales tax.
Hon. R. Neufeld: Probably no sales tax. They get a royalty return to everyone in the state. But they have some absolutely humungous reserves.
It's not just offshore. It's Prudhoe Bay, where they pipeline the crude down to Valdez. They have about two to three ships on a daily basis plying the west coast of British Columbia with crude oil, just down onto the lower 48. Much of it is into Washington and into the refineries there and refining gasoline and diesel fuel for their population.
So there are, as I understand, lots of benefits — because of where I live and because of what we receive in the province of British Columbia — from onshore oil and gas. Some 8 percent of the province's gross revenue comes from oil and gas from the northeast part of British Columbia.
Guess what. That's significant. Guess what. That provides a lot of services. Other people, the member will know, coming from the Vancouver area receive benefits in an indirect way from all the activity that happens in northeastern British Columbia in oil and gas.
So I think the member can quite well recognize that it's a big part of what we are in British Columbia. I think the critic actually talked earlier about how our natural resources are the things that drive our economy. I couldn't agree more. In fact, he stated it as "under the ground." I can only assume that's minerals and oil and gas. It's a huge benefit to the province of British Columbia.
We need to do it environmentally soundly, which we do. That, in fact, takes place. But it's of a huge benefit to all British Columbia. There is said to be well over a hundred billion dollars of value locked up offshore. A hundred billion dollars is a lot of money — an awful lot of money.
With today's technology and the ability to do it — and the need, by the way…. The member wasn't here, I don't think, when I talked about the need to the critic. We produce about 11 million barrels of oil a year and consume about 75 million — us. It doesn't matter who we are, where we live or what our political viewpoint is. It's us. We collectively consume that much.
We need to look at those resources and the benefit that they provide to the general public, which is huge — jobs. And I'm sure the member would agree with me. The Chair presently, who comes from northeast B.C., would agree with me also that jobs are important.
Well-paying jobs, family-supporting jobs and year-round jobs are important. They are important to each and every one of us regardless of where we live in British Columbia, whether we live in Vancouver or northeastern British Columbia.
So the oil and gas industry is a huge benefit to the province. We're doing what we can to move that process forward onshore, and we would like to seriously look at offshore. That's why this government didn't just talk about offshore, as the previous Premier and Minister of Energy and Mines in the 1990s, who just said we should be lifting it. In fact, I have quotes where he said: "The time has come. It should be lifted tomorrow." That's what he said.
We're saying we need to get the science. We need to make sure we do it environmentally soundly. I'm sure the previous Premier and Minister of Energy and Mines under the NDP meant probably exactly the same thing, because there is a huge value there to all of us.
G. Robertson: I'll just return to the question I asked previously, which seemed to get lost in the shuffle through the minister's rhetoric. That was specifically about the environmental impact on the coast of Alaska and about an industry that has been operating, as the minister stated, for 50-odd years there.
Does the minister consider the environmental impact as such along the Alaska coast and the operation of that industry…? Does he consider that as acceptable, in terms of taking place in B.C., in order to generate the economic benefits that will flow from the development of offshore oil and gas in B.C.?
Hon. R. Neufeld: I don't think there was a lot of rhetoric, but maybe the member should have listened to the response because it was the start of what I just talked about. He should talk to Alaskans about whether they think it's beneficial in regards to the environment and the industry.
I'm not the minister responsible in Alaska; I actually am the minister responsible in British Columbia. So if the member wants to find that out…. I just listed a couple of things that I have heard that happen in Alaska — I live relatively close to Alaska — for his information. I'm sure that he already has that. But anyhow, that would be the thing you should do: take a trip up there and actually go talk to them.
G. Robertson: One would think that the Minister of Energy and Mines in B.C. — on a coast that's right next
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door to the Alaskan coast, which has operated offshore oil and gas development for 50 years — would be spending a considerable amount of time figuring out what has happened there, what lessons have been learned, before we dive into offshore oil and gas development here on the B.C. coast. It seems they've probably worked a lot out there.
My questions specifically were around the environmental impact. Obviously, it's of huge concern to residents of the coast and, I'm sure, to citizens across the province that whatever development is done here does not have significant adverse impact on the environment.
My question to the minister was: has the impact that has taken place in Alaska…? I had hoped or assumed that he would be familiar with it, given its proximity and some of the well-known stories in terms of impact — that he would have some opinion. I would hope that opinion was that we will not tolerate the kind of environmental impact that has taken place along the Alaska coast.
I will, for the minister's benefit, just make sure that he knows that since the '50s the oil and gas industry in Alaska has dumped billions of tons of toxic muds, cuttings and produced waters into Cook Inlet. The recent studies by the EPA in Alaska show that that pollution has entered the food chain. In the local subsistence fishery, the clams and mussels have the same toxins that are found in the drilling muds.
Exxon Valdez is writ large on the history of this coast, which is contiguous with the coast of Alaska, so my hope — and, really, my expectation — was that the minister would have a very good handle on what has taken place in Alaska and that there would be no room for acceptance in terms of that taking place in B.C. — economic benefits aside, short-term economic benefits in particular.
When it may only provide jobs for one generation but may irreparably damage ecosystems for dozens of generations, one has to wonder about the rationale of that development. Therefore, circling back to the minister's pledge to do the research and really invest in the education and a very, very cautious precautionary-principled approach to offshore oil and gas development….
My question now to the minister is more specific to the economic benefits which may flow from offshore oil and gas development. My concerns, really, are connecting to what has transpired off the Maritimes on the east coast and the amount of capital that has been invested in Hibernia relative the number of jobs that were created there and the economic benefits, specifically for Newfoundland and Labrador.
There obviously have been significant concerns from residents in the Maritimes as to the economic benefits, with over $1 billion in government grants, $190 million in tax exemptions and $2.6 billion in loans and loan guarantees in order for the industry to pursue development in Hibernia.
As a result, every million dollars that the government invested created one job for Newfoundlanders that lasted an average of 5.5 years. Is the minister concerned that that sort of situation might develop here — $1 million for 5.5 years of one job?
Hon. R. Neufeld: In response to the first part of the opposition member's remarks, I think we've been clear. We said that we would not lift the moratorium or entertain lifting the moratorium unless it was done environmentally safe and scientifically sound. That's why we're pursuing the science on offshore, to make sure that we don't miss anything.
I know the ministry staff have worked with people on the east coast, with people in the Gulf of Mexico and with people in Alaska in learning about what there is to learn about offshore oil and gas, how it's done today, and those kind of things.
Certainly, times have changed. When the member talks about cuttings going into the ocean, I don't know about Alaska, but I know the last time I was in the Gulf of Mexico, I remember being told that doesn't happen there. In fact, a lot of that doesn't even happen onshore anymore. The world has changed, in that process, completely from what we used to do 20 years ago. And guess what. Twenty years from now it will continue to change.
Will we always have all the knowledge? No. At least, I always think we get new knowledge every day. I always think we actually learn things on a constant basis. We'll continue to get all the knowledge that we possibly can.
As for the economic benefits in Newfoundland. The member asks whether the government is going to invest money. No, we've been clear. We said that the industry would have to invest the money in British Columbia. In fact, when there were discussions about a year ago about the federal government thinking…. I shouldn't say thinking, but there was a comment made that the federal government and the province should fund seismic studies.
We've been clear; we said no, that's not what we as government should do. That should be the industry actually funding those seismic studies, if and when they ever would take place. We would want the industry to invest the money that's needed, the same as we do onshore.
The economics in Newfoundland I'm not sure about, but the member has some statistics, and I'm happy about that. I actually want to stick with what happens in British Columbia in these estimates. I think it's important for British Columbians to know what's going on in British Columbia.
When I say that there is $100 billion of estimated value offshore in British Columbia and that we should be looking at that in a serious way to develop it for the benefit of British Columbians, I believe in that. That means that we have a lot of work to do. There are a lot of things that will have to happen before that could ever take place, if and when it ever does.
G. Robertson: The minister's statement that there's in the ballpark of a hundred billion dollars' worth, potentially, of oil and gas offshore…. It makes it intriguing, certainly, if we make that assumption off the top that there is a hundred billion dollars' worth of public resource sitting out there under the ocean bed.
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My point in raising the issue of Hibernia, of Newfoundland and Labrador and the very troubling economic case in terms of job creation and in terms of benefit to that province and its people…. One would think that before millions of dollars go into driving a so-called consultation process to try and get coastal communities and first nations in line, millions of dollars into research institutions to look at how we might do this in an environmentally benign fashion…. Millions of dollars within the ministry to administer, certainly, millions of dollars. Tens of millions of dollars have been spent by this government to drive the pace, in the quest for that hundred-billion-dollar resource to be unleashed.
One would think that before those tens of millions of dollars over the last six years had been allocated, a really clear, critical look at what has happened in other jurisdictions…. Has it made sense? Has it benefited the population? Has it had environmental impacts? But specifically, around the public resource, has it generated the kind of economic benefit that makes it worthwhile? In this province we have many commitments to date around not just looking at the economic benefits but ensuring that both social and environmental benefits are built into all these significant decisions with our public resources.
In the case of offshore oil and gas development, due to the North American Free Trade Agreement, considerable power is given to offshore or foreign-owned companies who are operating in our country. As part of this agreement it's extremely difficult, if not impossible, to legislate performance requirements in terms of ensuring local jobs, ensuring local economy benefits and ensuring that there are high environmental standards.
NAFTA doesn't do that. NAFTA, in fact, protects the foreign-owned companies and ensures that those factors — local economy, local jobs and environmental standards — are actually unable to affect the bottom line of the company, which is what NAFTA is all about.
Therefore, if you look at the so-called resource worth a hundred billion dollars sitting there, and you look at the constraints that are created by the North American Free Trade Agreement, and you look at the challenges with Hibernia and the amount of government revenue and taxpayer dollars that were pumped into exploiting that resource, the result is a million dollars in taxpayer dollars for one job that lasted five and a half years.
You look at what has happened on the coast of Alaska in terms of environmental impact, and you wonder: does this make sense in the big picture, to be spending tens of millions of dollars' worth in the short term to advance it? I understand the rationale in the northeast of B.C. with the onshore resources, which are a lot easier to get to in terms of environmental impacts and benefits to the community. The case can be made in a much clearer fashion than offshore, where there is a troubling history in terms of results, both for the local economy and for the environment.
My concern here is that the big picture again continues, despite the fact that we hear a throne speech that addresses an even bigger picture of the impact of these activities on our climate, destabilizing the atmosphere of this planet. But the big picture: will this benefit coastal communities and first nations directly with jobs? It doesn't look like it, based on the Maritimes.
Will there be an environmental impact that's acceptable? It doesn't look like it, based on Alaska. What does this do for climate change? Add that to the list. Where is the big-picture thinking in the minister's office? Or is it in the Premier's office? Is the minister looking at the big picture here and asking these tough questions?
Hon. R. Neufeld: I can tell you that we're looking at the big picture. You might be locked in a room that thinks that no activity happens. I'm safe, and I'm free, and everything is okay. I think that's where you're locked up. You've got to start thinking about the big picture and what benefits there are.
To say there are no benefits on the east coast, I think, is entirely incorrect. I don't know all of the economic indicators on the east coast, but Newfoundland and Nova Scotia…. I meet with those ministers. Let me tell you: they're pretty happy about what's happening in their provinces. Are they happy with the dialogue between them and the federal government? Likely not. But as far as job creation, investment and opportunities for the people that live in those provinces, if you compare it today to what it was ten, 15 years ago, it's hugely different.
One thing I should caution the member on is: when he starts talking about the northeast part of the province and that the investment in the oil and gas industry actually didn't create jobs, didn't create economic activity in northeastern British Columbia…. I would agree with the member, if you go back to the 1990s to when the NDP was there, because they didn't care. They didn't care. They watched as businesses left the province.
Hon. R. Neufeld: The member laughs about it. It's interesting that a member from Vancouver actually laughs about jobs leaving northeastern British Columbia, actually makes fun of jobs leaving northeastern British Columbia — absolutely amazing. Amazing to me that anyone would sit here and look at another part of the province….
Hon. R. Neufeld: We have another little chirper over here, who's chirping the same thing. He's smiling, and he doesn't care, and he says: "You know what? You guys should lose jobs." But I'll tell you what…. And he agreed. He just said yes.
I don't remember where the member is from, but it's interesting that he says yes. He agrees, and he laughs along and says that jobs should be lost in British Columbia — absolutely unacceptable. I think the Chair,
[ Page 7081 ]
who comes from northeastern British Columbia, would agree with me.
I live there. I've lived there just about all my life, as the Chair has. Let me tell you that in the 1990s, I can list businesses that moved their head offices to Grande Prairie, Alberta. Was that a loss of jobs? You're darn right it was. All that happened with the government down here in Victoria at that time… They didn't care about jobs and investment, as long as they got the royalties. As long as they got the royalties, that's all they cared about.
Let me tell you that with the programs we have put in place, we have seen huge economic growth up there. We've seen a huge amount of jobs in northeastern British Columbia created by the private sector — unlike the NDP, who actually think it's only government that creates jobs. That's false.
The private sector actually creates the jobs. I'll give you an example. Fort St. John last year had building permits of $128 million. That's for a community of 18,000 people. Not bad — eh? Is that jobs? You're darn right it's jobs. Is that jobs because people want to come and invest? You're darn right it is. Is that jobs because we put in programs to encourage year-round jobs in northeastern British Columbia, in the province as a whole? Yes, it is.
I remember a time, and I'm sure the Chair remembers a time, when people down here didn't care whether people could actually work in the oil patch, raise families, have a secure job and have a year-round job. That didn't happen. They had three months' work. Been there and done it, so you can't tell me any different. Three to four months' work, and in the springtime — bye, see you next fall.
That's what happened in the 1990s, because no one at that time in the NDP government even cared a whit about whether jobs were created with the oil and gas industry.
We've upped all kinds of environmental restraints that have to happen on the oil and gas industry. The new energy plan actually puts some more in. I'm sure the member would agree with me that reducing flaring by 50 percent in five years and eliminating flaring in ten years is a good move. I'm sure he would agree with me, but maybe I'm wrong. Maybe he doesn't agree with me.
All I know is if he wants to talk about NAFTA, he should go to the federal House. Maybe he ought to run federally. There's probably a federal election in the next while. You could go debate NAFTA there. We have NAFTA. We'll deal with it exactly the same as everybody else in the country deals with NAFTA.
Mr. Chair, noting the hour, I move that we rise, report progress and ask leave to sit again.
The committee rose at 11:41 a.m.
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