2011 Legislative Session: Fourth Session, 39th Parliament
The following electronic version is for informational purposes only.
The printed version remains the official version.
official report of
Debates of the Legislative Assembly
Thursday, May 3, 2012
Volume 36, Number 6
ISSN 0709-1281 (Print)
ISSN 1499-2175 (Online)
Introductions by Members
Introduction and First Reading of Bills
Bill 43 — FNCIDA Implementation Act
Hon. M. Polak
Orders of the Day
Second Reading of Bills
Bill 39 — Emergency Intervention Disclosure Act (continued)
S. Chandra Herbert
Hon. M. MacDiarmid
Bill 14 — Workers Compensation Amendment Act, 2011
Hon. M. MacDiarmid
Hon. M. MacDiarmid
Proceedings in the Douglas Fir Room
Committee of Supply
Estimates: Ministry of Education
Hon. G. Abbott
THURSDAY, MAY 3, 2012
The House met at 10:02 a.m.
[Mr. Speaker in the chair.]
Introductions by Members
Hon. M. Polak: I am pleased to introduce in the House today some very special guests who are here to witness the introduction of a bill that I will have the honour of introducing momentarily.
Joining us today from Squamish First Nation is Chief Ian Campbell, along with Harold Calla, who is Squamish Nation's senior negotiator and surveyor of taxes. Joining us from the district of West Vancouver is Coun. Mary-Ann Booth, who also serves on the Metro Vancouver aboriginal relations committee. Also in the gallery is Godfrey Archbold, president and CEO of the Land Title and Survey Authority. Would the House please make them very welcome.
First Reading of Bills
BILL 43 — FNCIDA
Hon. M. Polak presented a message from His Honour the Lieutenant-Governor: a bill intituled FNCIDA Implementation Act.
Hon. M. Polak: I move that the bill be introduced and read a first time now.
Hon. M. Polak: Mr. Speaker, I am honoured today to introduce Bill 43, the First Nations Commercial and Industrial Development Act Implementation Act.
The act will allow provincial laws and regulations to apply to commercial and industrial projects on federal Indian reserve land for the very first time. This legislation supports the federal government's First Nations Commercial and Industrial Development Act, otherwise known as FNCIDA, by enabling agreements with First Nations that will allow applicable provincial statutes and regulations, such as environmental laws, to apply to commercial and industrial projects developed on certain Indian reserves.
Currently any First Nation can proceed with project developments on reserve, without being subject to provincial land related law and regulations that apply to off-reserve developments.
The FNCIDA Implementation Act will help close regulatory gaps and enable clear application of law to specify development projects on reserves. The act will enable the province to sign agreements with Canada and two First Nations for two proposed projects — a proposed liquefied natural gas facility on a Haisla Nation reserve near Kitimat and a proposed commercial-residential development on the Squamish Nation's reserve lands in the Lower Mainland.
For the Squamish project, FNCIDA-related agreements will ensure that the First Nation makes contributions to the cost of transportation, school and other local services. Today's provincial legislation supports the requests of the Squamish Nation and the Haisla Nation to develop their reserves in a way that is consistent with provincial standards and increases investor certainty.
I am honoured to be bringing this legislation to the chamber, and I move that the bill be placed on the orders of day for second reading at the next sitting of the House after today.
Bill 43, FNCIDA Implementation Act, introduced, read a first time and ordered to be placed on orders of the day for second reading at the next sitting of the House after today.
Orders of the Day
Hon. J. Yap: In this House I call continued second reading of Bill 39, intituled Emergency Intervention Disclosure Act, and in the little House, the continued estimates for the Ministry of Education.
Second Reading of Bills
BILL 39 — EMERGENCY INTERVENTION
S. Chandra Herbert: I'm going to follow up my comments last night on Bill 39, the Emergency Intervention Disclosure Act. Last night I was referring to some current concerns the provincial health officer had with the legislation. I think it's important that I read them into the record just so we have that perspective on this legislation.
[D. Black in the chair.]
He writes — and he has written to all MLAs:
"As noted previously, there are only three infectious diseases of concern — hepatitis B and C and HIV — to which an individual might be exposed and for which notification protocols through public health might not be applicable, in that the disease status of the source person might not be known in time to initiate prophylaxis.
"All first responders should have received hepatitis B vaccine as a protective measure, and any blood exposure should be followed by administration of immunoglobulin and vaccine if indicated, which virtually guarantees 100 percent protection from recent and future exposures.
"Significant HIV exposures carry a 1-in-300 risk of infection
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without appropriate intervention. Post-exposure prophylaxis is highly effective — and, with newer medications, well tolerated — should be started within two hours and is recommended to continue for 28 days. Waiting for test results from a source person could result in a preventable HIV infection occurring, and even a negative test result of a high-risk source does not guarantee that the source is not infected due to the possibility of false negative tests.
"Significant hepatitis C exposures carry a 1-in-30 to 1-in-50 risk of infection. At present there is no available vaccine nor any recommended prophylaxis. Post-exposure management recommends follow-up to ascertain whether infection has occurred and to institute antiviral therapy if so confirmed. Early appropriate treatment can eliminate infection in greater than 85 percent of cases at this point in time.
"Clearly, no exposed individual should be waiting to initiate appropriate post-exposure prophylaxis where that is available and indicated — i.e., for HIV and HBV exposures. Waiting to know the infectious status of the blood to which one is exposed before initiating prophylaxis is contraindicated for HIV and HBV, and it would significantly increase risk."
I read that into the record just because I believe my concerns are similar to the provincial health officer's concerns — that people could be given a false sense of security, a false sense of peace of mind with this legislation unless the appropriate education is done. As I mentioned yesterday, some have indicated on the Internet — not the most reliable source — that they believe that with this legislation, they will no longer have to do the prophylaxis.
Now, why would people not want to do the prophylaxis? Well, it's pretty hard on the system. It's pretty hard on the body. People will make personal health choices, whether or not they should do this. My concern is that they may believe they shouldn't have to do this, because they could do a test on somebody, and it may come back negative, although it may be testing falsely.
I'll be interested to see how this legislation rolls out over the next while. I'll certainly be monitoring it closely to see when instances of its use occur. I believe we should test to see if it's actually doing the job that the government says it's doing.
Now, I needed to place myself in the shoes of the first responders to understand fully why they would want this legislation, given the concerns which come from the provincial health officer. Thinking about their families, thinking about their own health, I can understand why they would want to know. It's scary, not knowing if you have been exposed to a communicable disease after exposure to blood or bodily fluids.
While we know scientifically that a small exposure may not lead to instant disease and may in fact have a small percentage of risk, that risk is still there. I can understand why families and our first responders would have this anguish, why they would want to know. But we approach this with great risk if we believe this legislation will give people that full 100 percent knowledge, because we don't have that ability in science to do that.
I was speaking with the minister about this earlier and about the need for a great education campaign, for the understanding with the workplace, for the understanding with our society. I'm hoping she will respond about how this is going to take place.
I have spoken with a number of our first responders and shared my concerns, but I also hear their concerns and why they want to have another tool, another option to try to help their families and help their understanding of this issue.
I think we've come a long way in terms of phobias about AIDS, phobias about HIV, phobias around communicable diseases. But there's still a long way to go. I'm concerned that unless we do the appropriate education, people will continue to have these phobias. Certainly, the Health Ministry, I think, could do a better job of explaining what exposure is, what the risks are and what the testing periods can be.
I look forward to hearing from the minister what she has to say on this and if she could share what conversations or what assurances she can provide the provincial health officer, what assurances she can provide Dr. Julio Montaner, who has also raised concerns about this, about why this is the best path to do this, why this is the only path to do this.
I go back to our first responders who do so much for us, who risk their lives, whose families have to deal with them putting themselves in harm's way day in, day out. I get it. I get why they want this legislation. Certainly, I understand what they hope this legislation could allow them to do.
But it's not 100 percent, and that is, I think, the most important thing we should take from this debate. It's not 100 percent peace of mind. No matter what may come out in press releases, what people may say in the heat of the moment in debate, this is not a perfect bill — far from it.
Ideally, people would know their status and would tell their status, and we would never need a piece of legislation like this. However, in a case of somebody in a coma, somebody unable to tell, I can understand how this legislation would provide that peace of mind of a sort. Again, I say "of a sort," because we don't know. You won't know until you have gone through the prophylaxis, until you have gone through the tests.
You've got to do the tests, and you've got to take care of your family and act like you may have been infected and act like you may have been exposed because, without that, the risk could be passed on to family members, could be passed on to co-workers — all because people have been given a peace of mind which is not absolute.
I look forward to continuing to work with the first responders, continuing to do what I can to make their jobs easier, continuing to work with them to ensure their families do have a greater peace of mind. They deserve it.
M. Mungall: I rise in support of this bill, and I'm quite happy to support it. I have regular conversations with the
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firefighters in my community — the city of Nelson, a city of 10,000. We went up by 1,000 residents between the last two censuses, or censi. So 10,000 residents live in Nelson, and every single one of us is protected by the incredible work that is done by the Nelson fire department.
I have the great pleasure of meeting with them quite regularly in the historic fire department that's located on the corner of Latimer and Stanley. Sorry, it's Latimer and Ward streets. I should know the name of that street. I live on the corner of Ward Street, just a few blocks up the hill from our beautiful, historic fire hall. There's a wonderful museum there, so I fully encourage anybody visiting Nelson to take the time to tour that museum and get to know our incredible firefighters, who do such a tremendous job for the city of Nelson.
One good example of the job that they do for our city…. I remember a couple of summers ago. I live up the hill. Smoke rises up, and the city was full of smoke. Straight downhill, about ten blocks from my house down the mountain to our beautiful Baker Street, the Redfish Grill went up in flames. Anybody who's been to Nelson and knows Baker Street knows that each building is right next to each other. The Redfish Grill goes up in flames.
Our firefighters fought that fire well into the early hours of the morning. I believe they fought that fire for a full seven hours, and I apologize if it was actually nine hours. They fought that fire, and they were there continuously. Because they did that, the building next door on the right-hand side and the building on the left-hand side did not go up in flames. They experienced some water damage, but they did not burn down. That was because of the work of the Nelson fire department.
We also have a wonderful team of paramedics in Nelson. I get the opportunity to meet with them. Their building is located down by the Big Orange Bridge — we like to call it BOB — in Nelson. They do a tremendous job.
Same with the paramedics in Creston. I've had the opportunity to meet with them as well. Their location is right next to CIDO radio, for anybody who wants to pop in and maybe get an opportunity to know their paramedics better.
Not only does Nelson have a professional fire department, but we also have our very own police department as well. We don't have the RCMP in Nelson. We have our own police department. The members of the Nelson police department — again, I can't say enough good things about the work they do in their community policing and the services they provide to the city of Nelson. I have tremendous respect for all of these workers. I've had the wonderful opportunity, as I've said, to get to know all of them over the years.
When I sat down with our local firefighters, they specifically brought this issue forward to my attention — about the need to do everything they possibly can to mitigate risk when they've been exposed to blood and bodily fluids. They are our front-line responders, and anything can happen in any given moment. It's completely unpredictable.
When they are exposed, they face the risk of being exposed to pathogens that are blood-borne, and they have to contend with what that will mean. Here in this situation particularly, we're dealing with some very debilitating illnesses, and for some, there is no cure — hepatitis B, hepatitis C and HIV/AIDS.
HIV/AIDS is the illness that I am most familiar with in my work in Africa. I lived and worked in Zambia, where there is a 30 percent prevalence of HIV/AIDS. I spent my days working at the YWCA, which is located right across the street from the country's largest morgue and its largest hospital. There's a sign right in front of the driveway to the morgue there, saying "Cheap coffins." There were some people who sold flowers.
Every day I went to work, I would pass them in the morning, and all their buckets would be full of flowers. Every day I went home after work, all the buckets would be empty. I would watch funerals go constantly all day long out of that morgue — trucks with the backs loaded with people all day long.
Then one day I got even a stronger realization for how HIV/AIDS was impacting Zambia. That was when one of my colleagues passed away. Before she passed away, I went into the hospital to visit her. It was an awakening call for me to greatly appreciate what it is to have universal medicare. On the day of her funeral we went to the largest cemetery in Lusaka, the capital of Zambia — the largest cemetery in Zambia. I had never seen anything like that, where as far as I could see, it was all fresh mounds of dirt.
Here in Canada when we bury people, often there is a couple of feet of space between one plot and another plot. That was not the case there. As we were putting her into the ground, there was nowhere else for me to stand but on the fresh mound right next to her plot.
Knowing this, having had this very profound and powerful experience and knowing how devastating HIV/AIDS can be and here in Canada having known several friends who have also passed away from the disease or who live very long lives, fortunately, now…. But it's a very difficult life.
Knowing all of this, I wanted to make sure that those fine people, our first responders, have every tool in their toolbox to be better informed about how their life might change if they should be exposed to blood while they are on the job — have blood-to-blood contact. I wanted to make sure they had every tool in their toolbox to be better informed.
I'm very pleased that this has finally come forward in this House. I know it's going to be another tool, another option, for our first responders to make choices — very difficult choices — about what may happen in their lives
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and where their lives may go after that type of exposure. There are definite concerns, and I've heard some of the members speak before me. I've also read the letter from Dr. Kendall, who's the provincial health officer, about his concerns. I appreciate that.
There needs to be public education — absolutely. There needs to be sufficient information to all of our first responders so that they don't develop a false sense of security as a result of this bill. I don't think they will. I think they know exactly what this bill will do. It's another option for them to deal with a very serious issue, a very serious matter, that will no doubt have the potential to impact the rest of their lives.
I am very confident that the associations that are involved — the firefighters associations, the police associations, the paramedics union, all of them — will do a tremendous job in educating their members, because their members have every right to know what they are up against. This piece of legislation gives them a little bit more in that endeavour.
I think I've praised my local fire departments and, of course, include the volunteer fire departments. We have several in my area. These are amazing people who are putting themselves on the line on a voluntary basis.
We also have the RCMP officers who work throughout my region, as well, and throughout British Columbia. We also have many other people who are in first-responder positions. My understanding is that they might not be considered in this bill, so that's a potential for improvement later on as we work through these issues throughout our province.
Every single one of these people just does amazing work for every citizen in British Columbia. I'm very happy that today this Legislature is able to speak to this bill and start moving it forward so that we can better support the tremendous work that they all do.
B. Routley: I'm happy to rise and support Bill 39, the Emergency Intervention Disclosure Act.
I know a number of paramedics. In fact, I've talked before in this House about my friends who are involved in the paramedic field and the great issues that they are confronted with. We have no idea, unless we actually walk a mile in their shoes, what it would be like to have a first response put on your plate, so to speak.
If you can imagine, hon. Speaker, what it would be like to suddenly have a call. You've got to rush off, turn on the sirens and race to the scene. I know, in Vancouver, when my friend Mike was over there, he had many occasions where people literally spat on him. There were people that were bleeding; that blood couldn't help but get all over him.
I know the impact that had, emotionally, and the concerns for medical impact down the road. While it's somewhat gory to recall an event that happened, I think it is worthwhile in the context of this debate, in understanding how important it is to the paramedics, police, RCMP, firefighters — anyone who can come into contact with bodily fluids — and for their own personal safety, for their families.
First responders have actually said that they've had family issues. There is divorce related to these kinds of issues, because people are suddenly concerned. Well, what could that mean for the whole family when you are bringing home something that could be communicable and could create basically death and destruction within your own family?
So you have to give it to them. Every day they are our heroes here in British Columbia, stepping up to the plate and going out and saving lives, but also risking their own health and safety and maybe even that of their families.
What they are asking for…. I know they have been asking for this for a long time. They've talked about the need to have court-ordered testing for communicable diseases. When you think about it, the very notion that someone could expose you to their bodily fluids and then act in an irresponsible way, refuse to give the authorization to test so you and your family can rest assured more quickly….
In any case, it's clear that this is only a small step. But it's a step in the right direction. To give some aid and comfort to our first responders is the least we can do here in this Legislature in the province of British Columbia — the very least we can do for the very important people that carry out those acts.
I want to think back to an afternoon shift. I had been working on the booms in the veneer plant. It was a Friday night, and I knew it was graduation night. I thought, even going home that night: "Boy, I hope the kids are…." I knew they were up the beach. You could see their fires from where I was working on the boom. You could see the fires, and all of these grads were out there. I thought: "Well, I hope somebody is taking care of it. At least, it's good that they are staying in tents. They'll be out there and, hopefully, have an enjoyable time, and nobody is going to do anything foolish."
But on the drive home I rounded the corner on Meade Creek Road. I'll never forget it as long as I live. There is this beautiful old-growth timber on that road. It's a beautiful, winding road on the way to Marble Bay where I used to live, near Lake Cowichan, right on the water there.
As I rounded the corner, as I did many other nights, there in the middle of the street was a motorcycle with a young man's crumpled body lying there and an RCMP down on his hands and knees giving mouth-to-mouth resuscitation. That RCMP officer was covered in blood.
Fortunately, at the same time as I arrived, the first-aid attendant, who also lived right nearby me, from the mill came along, and both of us rushed there. She knew a lot more what to do than I did. I was not a first-aid person. I
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could see that the RCMP clearly had the matter in hand and was trying.
It was obvious to both of us, the first-aid attendant and I, that it was too late. There were literally fluids all over the road, including some brain matter. It was clear that it was brain matter on the road. It was really heartbreaking to see that situation and see the tears that came from the first-aid attendant. I was just in total shock at what I was witnessing.
I thought about that RCMP officer and what he must have gone through with that. Now, you'd have less reason to be concerned, maybe, if you are an RCMP officer in a situation like that, even though you're covered in blood. You may think: "Well, there's still a risk, still a chance." I read here from the doctor that they say it's fewer than 1 percent of health care workers who are exposed that actually contact a communicable disease or a life-threatening disease.
But when you think about it, if you were that person…. It's almost like playing some kind of Russian roulette that at the end of the day, you've got to go home and say: "Well, am I going to be okay or not?" Those are extremely brave individuals that put their life on the line for the rest of us, for the community.
Again, I never forgot how brave that policeman was, at least trying to do something. Even though it seemed all was lost, he was trying to do something, and he was getting those body fluids all over him.
There are so many times where people in health care are even dealing with the garbage, and they get stuck with a needle. There are all kinds of situations like that.
Again, I think this bill is clearly a step in the right direction, and it's, as I understand it, unanimously supported by the police, firefighters and ambulance paramedics. So it is indeed something that all of us should support. In dealing with folks' health and safety, the doctor makes the point — and with that point, I want to agree — that we shouldn't wait, always, for the testing.
You don't want to have this bill have an outcome. He suggests that one of his fears or concerns is that if some health care worker or ambulance paramedic or firefighter or police was to wait for the testing and not take proactive action immediately, it could result in a response that is not what we would want to have happen. Indeed, we hope this bill will save lives and help in some way.
I want to finish up on that note and encourage those that are involved in all of those activities to take their health and safety, as I know they do, very seriously and to take proactive steps whenever one of those occasions comes up. I think this is at least a tool in the toolkit to allow the province of British Columbia to assist those first responders, who I know we all in this House respect and are very, very proud of.
With that, I will conclude my remarks. I do want to say that I will be standing in support of Bill 39. I think it's a right move at a good time.
J. Brar: I also join other members in this House and would like to contribute to the debate regarding Bill 39, Emergency Intervention Disclosure Act. This bill allows first responders — generally police, firefighters and ambulance paramedics — to apply for court-ordered testing for communicable disease in situations where the responder has been exposed to bodily fluids and the source individual refuses to provide a sample voluntarily. That's what this bill basically stands for.
Before I make the comments specifically about the bill, I would like to say, first of all, thanks from the bottom of my heart to all first responders for the extraordinary, difficult and many times dangerous work they perform every day for the people of British Columbia.
You know, I come from the city of Surrey. I have been elected by the people of Surrey. As a Member of the Legislative Assembly representing the city of Surrey, I want to convey my special thanks to the firefighters, police and ambulance paramedics of the city of Surrey for their exemplary services to the people of Surrey.
A few months ago I met with the Surrey firefighters in my office. It was in that meeting that they brought this very important issue to my attention. I listened to them very carefully, to the reasoning they presented to me about having this piece of legislation for their safety and for the safety of the people of British Columbia. After listening to them and doing my research, I stand in this House to support this bill. I would like to do that based on the following facts which I found in support of this piece of legislation.
The first one is that five other provinces in this country — which include Alberta, Saskatchewan, Ontario, Quebec and Nova Scotia — already have similar legislation to basically allow first responders the right which we're asking under this piece of legislation. There must be something right in this legislation only because of that — that other provinces chose to pass the legislation in the Legislature, in respective provinces' assemblies.
The second thing is that this bill has unanimous support from the Canadian Police Association and the Vancouver Police Union. As the president stated: "This bill will provide assistance to maintaining the safety of not only police officers but all front-line officers. It is important to identify that this bill also protects the general public's right to privacy."
Similarly, this bill has unanimous support from the Ambulance Paramedics of B.C. Their president, Ms. Barter, states: "Our paramedics and partners in police and fire are exposed to needle-stick injuries or blood splashes routinely, and not being able to find out in a timely manner whether or not you have been exposed to a blood-borne illness can cause a great deal of stress. We have the right to know. We appreciate the work the entire House has done on this issue. It is an example of truly putting workers' safety first."
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Thirdly, there is also unanimous support from the B.C. Professional Fire Fighters Association. Their president, Michael Hurley, states: "This act is designed to protect the emergency responders who, without hesitation and on a daily basis, will put themselves in harm's way to protect every citizen in the province. This lets responders in B.C. be protected with the same rights as other Canadian provinces."
This bill has the support from all concerned stakeholders, particularly the people, the first responders. Unanimous support from all of the different parties, including…. This kind of bill has already been passed in five other provinces. Therefore, I stand in this House to support this bill, to provide the level of comfort to the first responders so that they can go out every day and perform that difficult task they perform for the people of British Columbia.
Madam Speaker, I can share my experience with you as to how the fear of being exposed to HIV or hepatitis C or hepatitis B can cause a lot of stress to the individual and the family.
Last January I went on welfare for one month. During that time, I stayed in the Downtown Eastside. I saw police or ambulance working almost 24 hours, busy. Every half an hour I heard the police car or ambulance passing by, going to situations which are very difficult situations.
I can say from my experience that those are the situations where many of us would not like to go. But these people not only go in those buildings, where people with severe mental health problems and addictions reside — they don't only go into those buildings — they actually attend to those people in very difficult situations, without looking into whether people are bleeding or whatever the situation. They attend to them and try to provide the best services they can to make sure they are safe and they can survive. Those are very difficult situations to be in, but the first responders go there, and they do the best job we can ever imagine, or ever dream, to assist those people.
I can say to you, Madam Speaker, that I was there for 15 days. I did go back to my doctor after the end of this, and what my doctor told me was: "I cannot tell you whether you have been exposed to any disease like HIV or hepatitis C or hepatitis B until six months, because it takes six months, actually, when it will show up in your blood sample. It may not show up even after six months."
Can you imagine the stress on you as an individual or the family in that situation, which is a very, very high level of stress?
Therefore, I think it makes sense. It is logical, and it is responsible to give these people the right in a situation where they can actually go to court and ask the individual to provide the samples to make sure that they feel comfortable in that situation.
I also understand that our provincial health officer, Dr. Perry Kendall, has sent a letter to all the MLAs. He raised some serious questions and concerns about this. I think we should debate those concerns at committee stage and try to find the answers and debate those very important issues at committee stage as well.
One of the points I would like to actually quote from his letter, which I think is very important and which makes sense for us to accept. That is: "The exposed individuals have access to universal pre-exposure precautions, timely and appropriate post-exposure assessment and counselling and, most importantly, have access to timely PCR testing of their blood to assess the outcome of any exposure."
I think this recommendation makes sense. This recommendation will also provide some comfort to the people, the first responders. I support this recommendation, and I think many members of this House will support this recommendation as well, because it makes sense as the science is not perfect. It will never be perfect in my opinion, so we still have limitations to give somebody a 100 percent guarantee that you are not exposed or are exposed to communicable disease.
It makes sense in that situation to take precautions, as suggested by our very experienced provincial health officer, Dr. Perry Kendall. Having said that, I would like to probably conclude by saying that I feel proud here, standing in the House, to support this bill, which is for the safety of the first responders and also the safety of the people of British Columbia. At the same time, we need to look at and question and debate the concerns raised by Dr. Perry Kendall in his letter to us.
Having said that, Madam Speaker, thanks for the opportunity. I support this bill.
R. Fleming: I am pleased to rise and say a few comments at second reading stage of this bill, Bill 39, the Emergency Intervention Disclosure Act, because this is something that has been the subject of discussion amongst legislators on both sides of the House for a number of years.
It is something that is a feature of law in other provinces. A previous colleague mentioned bills that exist in Alberta, Saskatchewan, Ontario, Quebec and Nova Scotia. I'm most familiar with the Manitoba legislation, the most recent legislation, and maybe would like to say a few comments about the features of the law in right-to-know legislation in Manitoba and how, with passage of this bill, it will align with the proposed bill here in British Columbia.
Our knowledge, I think, as legislators comes from our work in our constituencies and our appreciation as MLAs for the work that first responders do, whether they are police officers or professional firefighters or ambulance paramedics. Of course, those are the organizations who have been talking to MLAs for a number of years and making their position known.
For me, it is the Victoria police department here in the
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capital city, who have made their views known to me on a number of occasions. The ambulance paramedics as well — the provincial leaders, B.J. Chute and Bronwyn Barter and the members of CUPE 873. But in particular, the organization that I have held discussions with on the subject of this legislation most extensively is the Victoria Fire Fighters Union.
The International Association of Fire Fighters has been a critical component of developing laws that they believe protect the health and well-being of their members in the other provinces that I mentioned. They have certainly been of assistance in persuading me that the legislation that is before us is a good idea, as long as it's drafted right and there are protections in place — the concerns about both enforcement and the use of court orders — and, I think, the assurance that this is legislation that is likely to be incredibly rarely used in British Columbia.
I think that most incidents where there is risk to a first responder of a communicable disease in the line of their duty, on the job, are covered by voluntary disclosures today. But there are the very, very rare incidents where there may be a refusal. That is why there needs to be a law that is able to resolve what happens in those instances.
I mean, that is a point that the 120 members of the Victoria Fire Fighters Union — their representatives — stressed with me. They don't expect that this would ever be required, and they certainly hope it never will be in Victoria, but the fact of the matter is they're doing more and more first responder work in our city. The risk is actually growing that perhaps this gap in legislation that is being addressed here in this bill…. It will be something that their members could use and will give them and their families peace of mind to know, in fact, whether the exposure in an incident that has occurred poses a real risk to them.
That's really what the bill is about. That's the most important thing that I think MLAs have expressed at this stage in debating the bill — their understanding that firefighters, for example, in most municipalities are the ones that address acute medical emergencies. They're the ones that attend to motor vehicle incidents, alongside police officers. They're the ones that extricate crash victims out of vehicles.
They are, as a matter of course in their duties of fulfilling what society asks of them, exposed to communicable disease that could absolutely change the course of their life and their ability to continue in their line of work, in fact.
I think it is the right thing to do to allow the law to address the situation that has existed in British Columbia, where really, when there is a disputed situation where a first responder — a professional firefighter or a paramedic — wants to determine whether the exposure has definitively been made to them, there is the ability to pursue testing.
There is a potential roadblock there, where they are not able to secure testing results and determine whether there has been exposure. Living with that in your daily life amongst your family and friends and going to work and having that uncertainty hanging over you, I think, is a terrible state for us to contemplate for any professional — to go on doing their job and risk further exposure after a critical incident or distressing situation.
We just can't really imagine. We're trying to put ourselves in the shoes of these professionals who do this as a matter of course in their daily jobs. I think that is what is most persuasive about the bill.
We can well imagine these situations. People who represent their communities as members here are familiar with incidents and individuals who were involved in difficult situations where there are, for example, shootings or horrific accidents or fires. Those are the types of situations that these professionals work in, train for and respond to on our behalf.
[L. Reid in the chair.]
The legislation in Manitoba is, I believe, the most recent to pass a provincial legislature and join that other group of provinces that have a bill like the one we're discussing this morning. The legislation has covered very well the exposure concern and how, when an exposure occurs from the source…. If there is a concern and a demonstrable risk that, for example, hepatitis C or hepatitis B or the transmission of HIV could occur, in the province of Manitoba there is an application where that first responder can make an actual determination as to whether that risk was real and whether there has in fact been transmission to that person.
I think the issues that have been discussed by other members here around the involvement of physicians and having a regime in place that will ensure the right amount of discretion and confidentiality as well as, where required, a compulsion to complete the application — if necessary, there are provisions for court orders — are about as well thought out as possible in terms of the ability to reduce conflict and address some of the valid concerns people have raised that would prevent this law being used abusively and too frequently.
Those are concerns that others raised. I think they're valid and legitimate. This law will bring into alignment the right to know that British Columbians have in other situations — for example, if they're a victim of a crime — and will extend that to those professionals, first responders in British Columbia, who are at risk of exposure in the course of their working lives. It will align the legislation that exists for others in the health care system.
There have been concerns raised that I don't think are persuasive about laws like this taking the onus off of job prevention strategies that we have to reduce risk. I don't
[ Page 11474 ]
buy that argument. I don't think having right-to-know legislation is going to slacken the professional work that is done to minimize contact, create a culture of safety and safe practices, and provide the right equipment in municipal fire departments, in the ambulance paramedic service and in policing. I just don't.
I understand that is a point that has been raised outside of this chamber by way of public discussion on this bill. But I don't think the culture of precaution that first responders have developed over many decades and the equipment and technologies that are in place to prevent exposure to infection in the first place are going to be diminished because of the achievement of right-to-know legislation. That's not an argument against the bill that I think is a legitimate one.
I have talked with first responders about that very fact, and they suggest that in fact the opposite occurs. This is a final-resort law. But in other provinces that have this legislation, first responders continue to improve upon and develop infection risk-control procedures and policies and practices, and that just is a fact.
Madam Speaker, I think I will conclude my remarks and thank you for the opportunity to address Bill 39 here this morning. I look forward to committee stage debate because I think there are some points that will be answered by the government side, where there are some outstanding questions, including ones that have been raised by British Columbia's public health officer.
At this stage of debate, I think this legislation is going to be a good thing. I congratulate the organizations that have worked with MLAs and briefed legislators over a number of years to see us get to the stage where we're having official debate on a piece of legislation here today. I know many individuals have worked very hard to do that, and I think British Columbia is also having a debate that other provinces had a number of years ago. We're looking at joining that league of provinces that believes that right-to-know legislation is the right thing to do, the fair thing to do for first responders who go out every day and work on our behalf to keep British Columbians safe.
M. Farnworth: It's my pleasure to take my part in the debate on Bill 39, the Emergency Intervention Disclosure Act, a piece of legislation that first responders in this province have been pushing for, for quite some time, a number of years.
I know that my own local fire department in the city of Port Coquitlam, on an annual basis…. When they come over here to raise issues of concern to them and other firefighters and first responders, this has been one of their top issues that they would like government to address and deal with. I'm glad to see this particular piece of legislation before us here today, where we are now debating second reading, which I and my colleagues will certainly be supporting.
It's an important issue that's been addressed in other provinces, as previous colleagues have said. British Columbia now is joining other provinces — Alberta, Saskatchewan, Ontario, Quebec and Nova Scotia, as well as Manitoba — with a bill like this.
This is a bill that will allow…. Some people have used the term "peace of mind," and other members have used different terminology. But the bottom line is this. It will help to protect and give a sense of confidence to our first responders in our province when dealing with a situation, which they very often find themselves in, where they come into contact with bodily fluids that may potentially contain or have a communicable disease.
I think it's important to stress, as my colleague from Victoria–Swan Lake did, that this bill in no way replaces or will take away from the precautions, the training, the education that's already in place around what happens when you come into contact with bodily fluids. In fact, as my local firefighters in Port Coquitlam like to say, this is one more tool, part of their training that they have before them.
First and foremost, of course, is always going to be education and training. First and foremost is always going to be precautionary measures. Those things are going to be crucial. But at the same time, it's important to know — and I think this is where the peace of mind part comes in — that there's also a legislative tool. There is a legislative backup to their training and their practices that will help to ensure that they know whether or not they have been exposed to a communicable disease through their role as first responders.
One of the questions I do have about this particular legislation that I would like to explore at committee stage is…. The act allows first responders, which are generally police, firefighters and ambulance paramedics, to apply for court-ordered testing for communicable diseases in situations where the responder has been exposed to bodily fluids. I hope that scope is not just limited to firefighters and ambulance paramedics but recognizes that first responders can often be nurses. They can often be transit workers. They can be HEU members. They can be many people in the health care professions.
I know that the government has mentioned Good Samaritans, but I'd like us to recognize that those are individuals who often can be first on the scene or can be in a workplace environment where they could be jabbed by a needle. It's important that they also have the ability to know. So I'd like to see some clarification in committee stage around that issue at this particular segment of the legislation.
It's important to recognize why this particular bill is here before us. I've said firefighters have been lobbying for it, as have paramedics. That is in the nature of the work they do. They are first responders in many cases. In the case of firefighters, it's not just fires. It could be com-
[ Page 11475 ]
ing across a terrible accident, as an example that's often used, where the Jaws of Life are used and there's a lot of blood at the scene.
It could be assisting someone who may have collapsed — potentially an overdose, for example, or a massive cardiac arrest — where the medical status of the individual is not known. In the course of providing life-saving treatments or life-saving procedures, a first responder comes in contact with blood or bodily fluid.
There are practices and procedures in place now, but as I've said, this is an added protection. What it requires is voluntarily disclosure, and most people do that. That's one of the key things about this particular piece of legislation.
There's no expectation by anybody that it's going to be used on a day-to-day basis in every situation, but rather, it's for those rare occasions. And they are rare, because the experience in other provinces is just that. It's that it tends to be used sparingly, but it's in particular situations and circumstances where someone is refusing to disclose whether or not they have a communicable disease, and there has been contact through a needle prick, for example, or contact with blood or saliva or some other bodily fluid, as to whether there's a question that there has been the transmission of a communicable disease.
This piece of legislation allows for a court order to get that decision, to get that remedied. Again, that's not something that's done lightly. It's not something that's done on a day-to-day basis, but it is there for particular, unique situations.
I think that's important. I know that in my discussions with firefighters when they have been here over the last number of years, they recognize that too. They recognize the importance of that, and they also, as I said, recognize the importance of continuing to put in place the need for education and the need for precautionary practices. So I think the legislation is something that, as I said, will be a tool that can be used, and it's an important one.
There are questions that have been raised by the provincial health officer, Dr. Perry Kendall, for example. I think it's important that we do address some of the issues he has raised in committee stage of the bill. But I think, on balance, this is a bill that strikes just that — the right balance between the needs of our first responders in this province and the issues around privacy. I think this bill does achieve that balance, and that's why I'm pleased to support it. That's why I look forward to the committee stage debate, where we can address some of the issues that have been raised by Dr. Kendall.
On the whole, I think this is a bill that sends a strong message to first responders in the province of British Columbia that members of this House have been listening to their concerns and have put forward a piece of legislation that I think meets those needs. At the end of the day, that should be what governing is about.
With that, I know there are others who want to participate in this particular debate, and I look forward to hearing their comments. I will take my seat, but I know that in the city of Port Coquitlam, the Port Coquitlam firefighters and the ambulance paramedics that I've had conversations with are supportive of this particular piece of legislation. I am pleased to be supporting it on their behalf.
B. Ralston: I rise to speak briefly to Bill 39. I suppose I should begin by acknowledging the role and the effective effort of the international firefighters union in bringing this issue to the attention of members of the Legislature, on both sides, over a number of years.
I know that in my city of Surrey, Mike McNamara, who's the president of the Surrey Fire Fighters, has spoken with me about this, as in the past have previous presidents Larry Thomas and, before him, Lorne West. This is an issue which has been raised regularly by firefighters and their representatives. They have made a very effective and convincing presentation on a number of occasions about this issue.
Also, it's very clear, given the ambit of the legislation, that it's intended to apply to other first responders. The president of the Ambulance Paramedics, Bronwyn Barter, has also expressed her support for the legislation, as has Tom Stamatakis, who's now the president of the national organization of the Canadian Police Association but also the president of the Vancouver Police Union. Clearly, those people who represent the people who do the work, who are the front-line responders, regard this as a valuable step forward.
The legislation is crafted in a way…. The notice is that it will apply initially through regulation to three blood-borne pathogens — hepatitis B, hepatitis C and HIV. But the legislation in, I believe, section 14(2)(d) gives the authority to expand the number of blood-borne pathogens that it might apply to.
Additionally, in subsection 3(1) it sets out which first responders it applies to. It applies to those "providing emergency health services; (b) while performing his or her duties as a firefighter, an emergency medical assistant or a peace officer."
Then in 3(1)(c) it says: "while being involved in a prescribed circumstance or while carrying out a prescribed activity." That is then reflected in the regulations, where that rather broad language, speaking of prescribed circumstances and activities…. Section 14 gives power to create regulations which could expand the number of occupations or professions or indeed activities that would be touched by this legislation.
The legislation is forward-looking in the sense that it has left open the possibility of adding other occupations to the enumerated ones in section 3. It also, by regulation, has the potential to add other blood-borne pathogens or
[ Page 11476 ]
other diseases that it is thought appropriate to include in this legislation. I support that forward-looking provision in the legislation.
As members will know, it's often difficult to get on the legislative calendar. This means that by using access to regulation, although one would not want to overstate this in every case, it does give the opportunity for government to respond quickly and without the necessity of bringing amendments to the legislation in the House. That sometimes can be a lengthy and cumbersome process, as we've seen with some of the more extensive bills such as the Insurance Act, which took some six years to get through the House. There were others. Complex legislation requires an immense amount of time to consult, draft, put forward and ultimately pass. Those provisions in this act make that helpful.
Many have spoken about the fact that this legislation is designed to augment or add another layer of certainty to quell the uncertainty that might arise if one suspects one is infected by any of the diseases that are mentioned. As others have said, it will not replace the necessity to train, to take protection upon contact or suspected contact, to take the necessary regime of prophylactics. My colleague from Vancouver–West End has spoken about that. I support that.
I view this legislation as an important step, another weapon in the arsenal to make our first responders feel more secure and get to the bottom of what may have happened in any incident in which they are involved. One can well imagine the intense and overwhelming anxiety that anyone who felt that they had been infected would experience, and this gives one further avenue to deal with that.
As the minister has said, it's unlikely that the resort to the courts, in the way that is prescribed here, will take place very often. I believe the example given was that in the province of Alberta, there have been two applications in five years. The fact that the legislation exists there will, obviously, in many cases convince the person who may be suspected of carrying the disease, if that's brought to their attention, that a resort to the courts is not necessary. It may make their cooperation with the first responder concerned much more effective and speedy.
This is legislation that's widely supported, which comes as a culmination of a number of years of work, of persuasion by first responders and their union representatives. I'm pleased to record my support for the legislation here today. With those brief comments, I will cede the floor to the next speaker.
D. Black: I'm pleased to have an opportunity to speak in the House today on Bill 39, the Emergency Intervention Disclosure Act. Some of us call it the right-to-know legislation that professional firefighters in British Columbia and in fact across the country have been lobbying for, for many years.
I want to acknowledge the work that Mike Hurley and the B.C. firefighters have done on this issue. I'd also like to acknowledge the work that the member for Kelowna–Lake Country has done to bring this issue forward as a private member's bill and thank the government for incorporating it into a government bill in the Legislature now.
We've seen some of the issues that have been raised by the provincial health officer around this bill. I've read his submission carefully, and I've also looked at the submission by the B.C. Civil Liberties Association around Bill 39.
But overall, what we need to do as legislators is balance rights today. It is sometimes a difficult balance to achieve, but I believe this bill does achieve that delicate balance of rights between the rights of emergency first responders — their rights to know if they have been exposed to a life-threatening disease — and the rights of the individual to refuse to disclose. I think this legislation does achieve that balance.
The members before me have spoken about how it's not often that someone refuses to disclose or to submit blood for testing, but it does happen. The speaker before me said that in Alberta they've only gone to court twice to ensure that disclosure would happen. I don't know what the numbers are in Manitoba. That legislation came into effect, I think, just a couple of years ago in 2009. Our government has modeled this legislation on the Manitoba model, but I don't know the numbers for Manitoba.
I think British Columbia is a little different than the other provinces. We have a larger urban centre in Vancouver with a higher number of challenges in society — for instance, in the Downtown Eastside of Vancouver where our emergency workers are more often exposed to this danger.
Some of you in the House may know that two of my sons are police officers. Both of them have worked the Downtown Eastside for a number of years — one for ten years walking the beat down there — and have come into contact with the potential for this kind of worry or drama, or however you want to phrase it, more than once.
In fact, one son's former police partner was stuck at a time when they had just had their first baby. For a course of six months he had to undergo this treatment, and that treatment has its own side effects and problems. It has a toxicity level that we're all well aware of, or most of us are well aware of.
Aside from the medical side effects that may or may not result because of the treatment, there are also the psychological and social aspects around it. For six months he wasn't able to have any intimate relationships with his wife. For six months he had to be extremely careful about how he handled his infant daughter and how cuddling and affectionate he could be with his daughter. I know that imposed a great deal of stress and anxiety on the family — not only stress and anxiety but a lost oppor-
[ Page 11477 ]
tunity in those early days of your child's life to express your love in the way that you wanted to in a closer way.
I want people to understand that when legislatures look at this kind of legislation that might at some point infringe upon what's perceived to be the civil liberties of a person, there are also the rights of the person who has been potentially exposed to hepatitis B, hepatitis C or HIV/AIDS and that there are incredible stresses around that too.
Finally, I just want to echo what everyone who's spoken from each side of the House has basically said — how much we owe to first responders, firefighters, paramedics and police officers in our society. Without people who will take on these very challenging, dangerous but — from what I understand from my sons — also quite rewarding kinds of work, our society would be a much less safe, happy and secure place.
With that, I again say that I believe this legislation achieves the balance of rights that all of us are elected here to do, and I give my support to the bill that's before us.
Deputy Speaker: Seeing no further speakers, the minister closes debate.
Hon. M. MacDiarmid: First responders put their health and safety and, indeed, their lives on the line every day in British Columbia. We've heard about that from members on both sides of the House. In the course of doing their jobs, these men and women deal with emergencies and situations where things are sometimes very clearly not under control, and yet they go ahead and do their jobs.
A number of first responders from across the province were here in the Legislature when we introduced this legislation. They spoke before and after about how important this bill is for them and for their families.
One of those who joined us that day was Bronwyn Barter, who is the president of the Ambulance Paramedics of B.C. When she was talking about the need for this bill, she said: "This is nothing against our patients. We love our patients, and we love our work." But Bronwyn spoke of the importance that first responders attach to the right to know if they have been exposed to a serious communicable disease and how important it was not only for the first responders but for their families as well.
With this bill, we support the health and well-being of our first responders while ensuring private information is protected.
[Mr. Speaker in the chair.]
There have been a lot of thank-yous in the House over the last few hours of debate. I certainly want to thank the Premier of British Columbia, whose strong support of this bill has led to it being in the House today. I'd also like to thank the MLA for Kelowna–Lake Country, who did a tremendous amount of work championing this cause through his private member's bill.
I'd really like to thank all of the first responders who told their highly personal stories about themselves and their colleagues and their families, and, of course, for their really amazing work that they do and the dedication and compassion that they exhibit and bring to that work every day here in the province.
I appreciate the comments of support from members on both sides of the House, and I look forward to further discussion of this bill at committee stage. With that, I move second reading of Bill 39.
Hon. M. MacDiarmid: I move that Bill 39 be referred to a Committee of the Whole for consideration at the next sitting of the House after today.
Bill 39, Emergency Intervention Disclosure Act, read a second time and referred to a Committee of the Whole House for consideration at the next sitting of the House after today.
Hon. T. Lake: I now call second reading of Bill 14, intituled the Workers Compensation Amendment Act, 2011.
BILL 14 — WORKERS COMPENSATION
AMENDMENT ACT, 2011
Hon. M. MacDiarmid: I move that Bill 14 now be read a second time.
Bill 14 makes three changes affecting workers compensation benefits under the Workers Compensation Act. These changes relate to expanding compensation for work-related mental disorders, compensation for apprentices and learners, and confirmation of dollar amounts for compensation and penalties.
[L. Reid in the chair.]
Our government is committed to putting families first by protecting and creating jobs for British Columbians. These amendments show our continuing commitment to ensuring that B.C.'s workers compensation system remains responsive to the needs of both workers and employers.
Before I discuss the proposed changes, I'd like to give you some background on the workers compensation system as it stands today, as well as the rationale for making these changes.
Over the past number of years there has been ever-increasing awareness about mental health issues, due in no small part to the bravery and willingness of individ-
[ Page 11478 ]
uals such as Olympian Clara Hughes, Roméo Dallaire and Margaret Trudeau. Their willingness to talk about their experiences has helped to decrease the stigma that has too often surrounded mental illness.
The impacts of mental health issues are not isolated to individuals and their families. We know that work-related mental disorders can have a significant effect on workers. They can also affect the health and productivity of the workplace in a number of ways — reduced efficiency, frequent absences and poor decision-making that can result in accidents and injury.
Now, most of us are fortunate, and we will never suffer from a mental disorder. But we do know that one in five Canadians will have a mental health problem, a significant problem, sometime in their life. For those who do, we do have a responsibility to support their recovery. Our government recognizes that we need to treat mental disorders that arise from the workplace in the same way as we treat physical disabilities, and that's why we're making these amendments.
Currently workers compensation is provided for mental stress that is an acute reaction to a sudden and traumatic event arising out of a worker's employment, so basically we're talking about post-traumatic stress disorder. But we know that mental disorders arising in the workplace can sometimes build over a period of time. That's why we're expanding the compensation provisions so that work-related mental disabilities are recognized on a broader basis to include a mental disorder that results from one or more traumatic events or a mental disorder predominantly caused by a significant work-related stressor or a cumulative series of significant work-related stressors, including bullying or harassment.
Let me pause for a moment to highlight that last point. This government's position is that bullying or harassment in the workplace is completely unacceptable, whether it is physical or psychological. I know that the employer community has already committed to working on preventing bullying in the workplace, and I applaud them for taking the initiative.
At the same time, we're also working to address the fact that bullying behaviours can start early in life. That's why our government will soon be announcing a comprehensive anti-bullying strategy which will help create safer, more inclusive schools for B.C.'s kids. By teaching children the meaning of respect, tolerance and acceptance while they're in school, we will be raising a new generation of workers who will bring those skills into their workplace.
I want to stress that there are measures currently in place to protect the safety of all workers. Every employer in this province is expected to ensure the health and safety of employees, and they must remedy any hazardous conditions in the work environment.
But in order to fully protect workers, we need to ensure that our workplace health and safety regulations are strong, clear and specific when it comes to bullying and harassment. That's why WorkSafe B.C. will develop a policy on bullying and harassment, which will be added to the existing regulation that addresses violence in the workplace, and stakeholders will be consulted in this important work. This policy will expand the definition of violence and require employers to have formal prevention plans. As well, with the help of the employer community and all stakeholders, WorkSafe B.C. will develop a prevention toolkit for employers to use.
In relation to bullying, harassment and other significant work-related stressors, we will require a diagnosis to demonstrate that a significant work-related stressor is the predominant cause of the disorder. This is to ensure that compensation is provided only for legitimate work-related mental disorders. As well, claims for mental disorders that arise out of an employment decision, such as discipline, termination or other decisions related to the worker's employment, will be excluded.
To be clear, this amendment will not open up workers compensation coverage for stress that a worker is experiencing as a result of the normal course of business at work or at home. This is a very important bill for workers and employers, and it's critical that we make sure that we have it right and that its intentions are clear.
Since first introducing Bill 14, a number of stakeholders stepped forward with recommendations and their thoughts. We've listened to that feedback, and we believe it's important to make some amendments to Bill 14 to provide clarity for both employers and workers. That's why I have tabled four amendments to this legislation.
They include a reference to harassment and bullying as significant work-related stressors; a predominant cause test for significant work-related stressors, including harassment and bullying; a change in terminology from "mental stress" to "mental disorder"; and a revised requirement for a diagnosis of a recognized mental disorder by a psychiatrist and a psychologist, rather than from a physician. These amendments strengthen the bill and help ensure that the legislation achieves its intended objectives, while protecting the financial integrity of the workers compensation system.
One final note. In the coming weeks WorkSafe B.C. will be developing policies to support the legislation, including what is a "traumatic event" and what constitutes a "significant work-related stressor" eligible for compensation. Stakeholders will be consulted before that policy is finalized.
This is an important change that will support British Columbia workers. Expanding workers compensation coverage for recognized mental disorders arising in the workplace also supports British Columbia families because of the significant impact that these kind of disorders can have on a worker's family. Perhaps most
[ Page 11479 ]
importantly, this change will encourage workplace practices that promote the mental well-being of all workers in British Columbia.
Under the amendment I have tabled, these new provisions for claims for mental disorders will apply to all decisions made by WorkSafe B.C. and by the Workers Compensation Appeal Tribunal on or after July 1, 2012.
Bill 14 will also change the compensation provided to injured apprentices and learners. Currently apprentices and learners receive benefits based on their current wage for the first ten weeks of their temporary disability. After ten weeks, compensation rises to a level based on the starting rate of a qualified person in the trade.
We've heard from employers that this higher level of compensation could act as a disincentive to return to work. This amendment will see apprentices and learners receive compensation that is more fairly based on their loss of earnings due to their injury. We're proposing that after ten weeks, compensation benefits for a temporary disability will be based on the wage rate they earned at the time of injury or their gross earnings in the previous 12 months, whichever is greater. Compensation for permanent disabilities will continue to be based on the starting rate of a qualified person in the trade.
This amendment supports two of the key principles of the Workers Compensation Act: to compensate injured workers for the loss of earnings resulting from their impairment and to promote the return to work for injured workers when they are ready. Our government feels these changes strike a fair balance for workers and employers.
Under the amendment I have tabled, the new compensation provision for apprentices and learners will apply to injuries that occur on or after July 1, 2012. This short delay in implementation will provide WorkSafe B.C. with time to develop the necessary policies and system adjustments to implement this change.
Lastly, Bill 14 also updates the compensation and penalty dollar amounts referred to in the act to reflect the latest approved amounts. These dollar amounts are adjusted each year with the consumer price index in order to keep up with inflation and the cost of living. This part of Bill 14, along with the amendment I have tabled, simply confirms the most recent adjustments to these dollar amounts in the act. This is a legal housekeeping amendment that has no impact on workers or employers.
One final thing to note is that I've tabled an amendment to delete the change in Bill 14 related to common-law spouses. That change, to change the eligibility period for survivor benefits for common-law spouses, was also included as a consequential amendment in Bill 16, the Family Law Act. That bill received royal assent on November 24, 2011, and the change related to workers compensation benefits has already come into effect on March 1 of this year.
Before concluding, I'd like to reinforce one point. The amendments contained in Bill 14, particularly the expanded coverage for work-related mental disorders, encourage employers to take a leading role in providing environments that promote the mental well-being of workers. They help us to continue our commitment to ensuring that our workers compensation system remains responsive to the needs of both workers and employers.
I look forward to hearing the contributions to the debate from the other hon. members on both sides of the House.
R. Chouhan: I'm a little bit surprised at the speed of these Bill 14 amendments that have been brought to the House for second reading. Yesterday, when I met with the ministry staff, I was left with the understanding that these amendments in Bill 14 would not be up for second reading debate until next week. Given that we didn't have any time to do any background checks and do proper research on some of the issues, my comments are going to be somewhat limited.
The minister has said how our compensation system remains responsive to the needs of the working people, but the opposite is true.
If you look at the history of Workers Compensation Act amendments that we have seen since 2002, amendment after amendment that we have seen since then has made sure that for the workers to claim any compensation, it has become so much more difficult. Unlike before the 2002 amendments, workers, when they were injured, had a great deal of respect shown by the Workers Compensation Board. Now what they have to do is go through lots of hoops. It's not easy for them to get the compensation when they need it.
In 2002 when the B.C. Liberals brought the changes to the Workers Compensation Act, that was the time when significant changes were made to the compensation act which made it almost impossible for police officers or any other emergency workers to access stress-related compensation. When those changes were made, there was lots of opposition expressed by the peace officers, firefighters and first responders about that issue.
However, we saw that as usual, many of the B.C. Liberal members in the House at that time expressed a great deal of satisfaction. As we have seen over and over, the member for Kamloops–South Thompson was very happy when he said, on May 27, 2002: "In this matter of stress claims, once again, I think the government has taken a very careful, very measured, very deliberate approach: stress claims being accepted if they flow directly from an injury on the job. If you open the door wide to anyone who feels stress in his or her job…."
With those kinds of comments, the Liberals were simply trying to tell the peace officers and first responders: "No, no, no. There is no stress with your job. If you are stressed out, if you are experiencing those kinds of difficulties at work, there's no compensation for you."
[ Page 11480 ]
Now, after so many years of lobbying by the peace officers and first responders in general, the government has finally agreed to do something about it. When Bill 14 was tabled in the last session in the fall of last year, I had a mixed feeling. I thought Bill 14 was moving in the right direction when we were talking about mental stress, at least in that part. However, if you look at the changes that have been brought forward, it seems like the threshold has been raised so much higher now. It's not going to be easy for people to claim compensation if they have a stress-related injury.
Other information that I have found out. Let me see. Here it is. The amendments that the Minister of Labour has proposed…. If you look at section 5.1(1)(a)(ii), it has now added the words: is predominantly caused by "a significant work-related stressor." When you add those kinds of conditions to the language, obviously, it's not going to be that easy or helpful for someone to file claims.
Then in the previous bill that was tabled last fall, Bill 14, when people were asking for compensation, they could have just simply gone to their physician. The physician could have recommended or agreed that the stress was caused by the work-related situation and that they were eligible for compensation.
Now what we have seen in the amendments is that that is taken out. The requirement to go to a physician is no longer there. Now we have added a psychiatrist and a psychologist. Those are the kinds of higher thresholds that, when you put it in, are not much help for the workers when they go through such stress. I don't know what to expect from this government, which says one thing and does another.
I was very hopeful when that bill was introduced that finally the first responders, the police officers or anybody who may have had that kind of stress-related disability could go and seek compensation. Now, with these amendments, I don't think it is going to be that easy.
Then I'm really concerned about section 33, the changes that have been introduced about apprentice compensation. What's happening currently is that any apprentice receives benefits based on their current wage for the first ten weeks of their temporary disability. After ten weeks, the rate jumps to the starting rate of a qualified person in their trade.
This amendment will change the compensation provided to apprentices and learners so that after ten weeks, benefits for a temporary disability will be based on the wage rate that they earned on the day they were injured or on their average earnings in the previous 12 months, whichever is greater.
Now, that is going to put them in a very difficult situation, especially in the construction industry, when we are experiencing so much shortage of skilled workers. This kind of act is not going to encourage people to join that industry.
We should be taking steps to make sure that workers — the young workers mainly — come to the industry and be part of that. Then they should be feeling very confident that in case something happens, they would be taken care of. Now, with this change that we have in Bill 14 in front of us, it's not going to be easy for them. All of that is just going against the common wisdom of attracting young workers to the construction industry. This is not going to be very helpful.
If you look at the changes proposed in Bill 14…. Let me just summarize some of these under section 33.2. In all imaginable cases where 33.2 is applied, the injured worker will receive lower compensation after the changes than they receive presently. The changes do not appear to take into account the substantial impacts that may result to the vocational rehab benefits.
The changes do not appear to take into account the possible motivation factor for injured workers to accept the conclusion of wage loss when their wage rate will increase substantially if they're entitled to vocational rehab.
The changes result in inconsistencies in how apprentices and learners are treated versus students and young workers. All in all, what we see here is that we have created barrier after barrier for young workers to enter into the construction industry. Then when they're injured, they would not be treated the same as they used to be.
It's unclear on how this will affect vocational rehab benefits. The vocational rehab wage loss equivalency benefits are usually based on the long-term wage rate paid during the claim. So I have several questions. I hope the minister will take note of that and will answer some of these questions during the next stage.
Will vocational rehab benefits now be based on the higher-qualified-worker wage rate? Which rate will be used by the vocational rehab to determine their appropriate plan? How will the vocational rehab arrange any early interventions prior to the worker's injury being deemed permanent if they don't know what this long-term wage rate will be?
Will injured workers be pressured to accept and/or pushed to be found permanently disabled if this were to result in a substantial increase in benefits paid? Will this impact on their willingness to appeal the permanency decision? All of these questions are valid questions.
I hope that when we go to next stage, the minister will do some research and will try to clarify the impact of these changes on the workers on both ends, the mental stress as well as apprentices. This is my very quick review of the bill that we have in front of us. With these amendments, it doesn't look like it's very favourable, very supportive or very helpful to the workers in British Columbia.
Deputy Speaker: Seeing no further speakers, the minister closes debate.
[ Page 11481 ]
Hon. M. MacDiarmid: Thanks to the member opposite for his comments.
[Mr. Speaker in the chair.]
We'll have time. He's requested that I will answer his questions, and certainly, I will be happy to do that when we get to the next stage.
This is a very important bill. It's important that we spend the time talking about it. It's important to workers. I understand that the member opposite has some concerns, which we'll certainly take the time to address, but overall, I'm looking forward to the next stage.
With that, I move second reading of Bill 14.
Hon. M. MacDiarmid: I move that Bill 14 be referred to a Committee of the Whole for consideration at the next sitting of the House after today.
Bill 14, Workers Compensation Amendment Act, 2011, read a second time and referred to a Committee of the Whole House for consideration at the next sitting of the House after today.
Committee of Supply (Section A), having reported progress, was granted leave to sit again.
Hon. J. Yap moved adjournment of the House.
Mr. Speaker: This House stands adjourned until 1:30 this afternoon.
The House adjourned at 11:52 a.m.
PROCEEDINGS IN THE
DOUGLAS FIR ROOM
Committee of Supply
ESTIMATES: MINISTRY OF EDUCATION
The House in Committee of Supply (Section A); J. McIntyre in the chair.
The committee met at 10:10 a.m.
On Vote 18: ministry operations, $5,308,638,000.
The Chair: Good morning, everyone. We'll begin the consideration of the budget estimates for the Ministry of Education.
Minister, do you have any opening remarks?
Hon. G. Abbott: Immediately on my right is James Gorman, who is the deputy minister. Let's see. We have Keith…
A Voice: Miller.
Hon. G. Abbott: …Miller — I'm off to a really bad start here — and Rick Davis, also assistant deputy minister.
We're delighted to be here to talk about the wonderful things that are occurring in the Ministry of Education in the province of British Columbia. We have a number of initiatives underway. I know we've had the opportunity to debate, earlier in the House, both Bill 36 and Bill 22. I'm sure members of the opposition may have questions arising from that.
We have been working diligently on the B.C. education plan, which we're very excited about. British Columbia, as I think hopefully we all would acknowledge, has a good education system but certainly one capable of improvement. We're always looking at opportunities, based on good things that are happening in some places in British Columbia. Some school districts in British Columbia are looking at the great things that are occurring there, looking at the experience nationally and internationally, at what we might learn to move British Columbia's education system from overall good to very good.
These are exciting areas. I look forward to hearing the thoughtful and, undoubtedly, constructive questions from the opposition — and, I'm certain, members of the government side as well — in the hours ahead in these estimates. With that, I'd welcome any questions that members may have.
R. Austin: Thank you to the minister for his comments and to all the staff who are here, including a very special welcome to Mr. Miller.
I'd like to begin by asking a very general question. Can the minister tell us if any performance measures from the service plan have been dropped or added since last year? Which ones, and for what reason?
Hon. G. Abbott: Keith Miller has been displaced by Paige MacFarlane as a consequence of this being her area rather than Keith's. We hadn't appreciated this early interest in performance measures.
The answer to the question posed by the opposition critic is that there has been no change in the performance indicators. That having been said, there are a number of changes in terms of the strategic plan, which we're happy to walk the member through. But in terms of the things that we are tracking, that has not changed.
[ Page 11482 ]
R. Austin: Could the minister tell me if there have been any fee increases or new fees imposed — what those fees are, how much, and how does that compare to the old fees?
I don't need the minister to speak about the potential increases in IB fees, because that's part of a piece of legislation that's going through the House right now. I understand that. But in addition to that, what other fee increases have happened over the year throughout the ministry?
Hon. G. Abbott: Just note that Keith Miller has now displaced Paige McFarlane, this being more his area than hers.
Fees are set by the school districts, not by the ministry. We can, if the member wishes, try to ascertain whether any fees have changed at school districts — not that we'd be immediately aware of it here. Fees are generally the purview of the school districts, as opposed to the ministry telling them to raise fees or leave them the same.
R. Austin: I received interest from someone who has just signed up — on continuing education, this is — for a math 11 foundation. When he went to apply, overnight the fees had increased by 400 percent, and he was requested to now pay $500 to do the math 11 foundation math skill.
You know, the fees, if you want to do a three-credit course at UBC, are $470.04. If you want to do a three-credit course at SFU, it's $491.80. Even if you go to Douglas College and do a three-credit course, it's $339.
My question to the minister is: does he think it is appropriate — especially for someone who is, obviously, trying to upgrade in a world where we're trying to encourage people to continue their education right throughout their lifetime — for there to be a fee of $500 for someone doing something like math 11, when you consider that all they received, essentially, for this $500 was four sheets of paper and an access code to go on line to be able to do this? What does the minister think of those kinds of fees?
Hon. G. Abbott: The components in the critic's question are not adding up for us terribly well here. Could the member advise, first of all, what school district his respondent is from, whether we're talking of a graduate adult student, whether this is a distance learning program, that kind of thing? Again, we're struggling with understanding how this might work in this instance.
R. Austin: Yes, it is an adult student. It is continuing education. He is from the Lower Mainland, Coquitlam area. I hope that helps.
Hon. G. Abbott: Are we to presume that this was the Coquitlam school district, or is this an adult individual who was registering for an on-line course potentially with an organization other than the Coquitlam school district?
R. Austin: No. It is an adult on-line course with the school district.
Hon. G. Abbott: We'll follow up and try to get some further response to the member in respect to that question. Again, we'd need to follow up and get a little bit more information on it before we can comment.
R. Austin: I'll ask another very general question. Can the minister inform us if there has been an increase to the specific budget for the minister's office, and if there has, what is that money being used for, being spent on?
Hon. G. Abbott: The budget is stable for executive support services, which is the area in which the minister's office budget resides.
R. Austin: Sorry. I must be a little bit at odds here. I thought there was an increase in the minister's budget of $773,000. Am I incorrect in that?
The Chair: Minister, a reminder about the use of electronic devices while you're on your feet, while you have the floor.
Hon. G. Abbott: Oh, sorry. I'll just have to lean over, then, and peek. The important information came in on an electronic device. That's part of the magic of contemporary government and politics, apparently.
The $773,000 which the member references is for publication and advertising. It's not the minister's office.
R. Austin: So $773,000 for publication and advertising. Could the minister let us know what all of this advertising is for, what it is to accomplish and why it's such a huge amount of money at a time when a lot of school districts are struggling to balance their books and put in a budget that is balanced?
Hon. G. Abbott: The publication and advertising is in relation to the B.C. ed plan.
R. Austin: Could the minister tell us what the total value of these contracts is? Presumably, it's $773,000. Who received these contracts, and what future contracts are budgeted for the coming year?
Hon. G. Abbott: Those contracts are undertaken through GCPE, not through our ministry, and should be raised in their ministry estimates.
R. Austin: Just for my own knowledge, could the min-
[ Page 11483 ]
ister please let me know which ministry that falls under, so I know where to go after this?
Hon. G. Abbott: Labour and Citizens' Services.
R. Austin: Thank you. See how quickly these answers are coming. It's wonderful.
I'd like to now just move to another topic of interest, which is BCeSIS. I know this is something that we've canvassed a lot in the past. It's a bit of an ongoing saga. I know the minister is aware of the complex issue of databases and new technology, especially as he was formerly the Minister of Health and has had to deal with eHealth and other issues.
I'd like to begin on BCeSIS by asking, in relation to when it crashed in 2010…. Can the minister tell us who was responsible for testing the system prior to the purchase of BCeSIS, and did they perform tests of the system's ability to handle a high traffic load?
Hon. G. Abbott: Just to note that Keith Miller has again been displaced, this time by Assistant Deputy Minister Renate Butterfield, who is responsible for this area of government, public policy in the Ministry of Education. The answer to the member's question is Fujitsu.
R. Austin: Was British Columbia the first customer to use this system on such a large scale? If so, what led them to believe that the volume of users would not be an issue after the testing that Fujitsu did? Presumably, their testing suggested that this was a good system that could do everything that was asked of it by the minister or his team. I'd just like to know: was this the first time it was used?
Hon. G. Abbott: First, note that BCeSIS was, to our knowledge, the first pan-jurisdictional student on-line reporting system in North America. We're not aware of anyone else who had undertaken this kind of pan-jurisdictional reporting system prior to that. It's a ten-year-old system and, I guess, kind of like Windows 98, is from a little earlier era.
The member rightly pointed out the challenges of 2010. The challenges of 2010 produced some hardware and software changes which have resulted in system stability since that time. I would also note that the original provider was AAL. AAL has since changed ownership, as the member knows, but that was the original vendor.
R. Austin: Could the minister tell us what the specifics were of the service level guarantees in the agreement with Fujitsu, and did the outage in the fall of 2010 constitute a breach? If so, were financial penalties sought by the ministry?
Hon. G. Abbott: The issues that arose over approximately a two-week period in 2010 of course were of concern to the partners. But all of those partners in the provision of the service moved very quickly to resolve the issues that were raised. They were resolved over a period of a couple of weeks.
All of the costs — in terms of resolving the issues, the cost of repair — were borne by the vendor. They did stay within the terms of the contract, and no penalty clauses were initiated. While I think everyone shared the frustrations of the users, particularly over that two-week period, there was not an incremental cost to the ministry with respect to this system.
R. Austin: Surely, if Fujitsu had done the original testing…. Then they also held the service contract which would have a guaranteed up time. When the system crashed, as the minister has said, for two weeks — with them having done the testing and having held the contract to guarantee service delivery — surely the contract would have had some penalties for the fact that it wasn't in use for two weeks.
Hon. G. Abbott: Just to be clear, the system never crashed for two weeks. There was a period of about two weeks where the system was certainly slower than it should have been. It was unsatisfactory in its performance for that period. It did cause inconvenience to the users of the system during that two-week period.
I guess the happier side of the story is that all of those contractors, etc., who are partners in providing the system, worked very hard, 24-7 through that period, to resolve as quickly as possible the issues which had presented the problem of a slower system.
There wasn't, I think, ever any sense that the partners had failed in terms of trying to rectify the issues. As a consequence — if this is where the member is going — there was never an attempt to recover, legally, any additional funding. As I said in an earlier answer, there was no incremental cost to the ministry. The partners bore the cost of repairs.
R. Austin: Just so I understand this, the minister refers to partners. Aside from the company that originally designed the system, AAL — and Fujitsu, which had the contract to maintain it; I think I'm correct in saying that they took over — once Pearson bought the company, they announced publicly that they were not going to support the system. Then, presumably, Fujitsu assumed that contract to support the system. But the minister refers to partners. Who else is involved in supporting the BCeSIS system?
Hon. G. Abbott: School districts and Oracle, which became the vendor.
[ Page 11484 ]
R. Austin: The software bug, or whatever it was that was identified and fixed in the fall of 2010 — was that the cause of all the problems associated with the high load, or only the major factor of the slowing down of the system in 2010? Was it one single thing that took a long time to discover, or was it a series of things?
The reason I ask this question is that we're focused on the particular periods in time when the BCeSIS system hasn't worked properly, but as the minister would well know, the system had bugs all the way through. I mean, I can remember working in the school system in 2003 and 2004 when there was a huge amount of frustration, even going that far back, among teachers at specific times of the year — obviously, report card time being one, and also the beginning of the school year when they were formulating all the classes — where the system proved really, really difficult to use. So there have been ongoing problems.
My question to the minister is basically: was it just one big thing that they finally found a solution to, or was it a series of problems over all these years?
Hon. G. Abbott: To the member's question, there was no single issue around…. There were multiple changes made to try to stabilize and improve the system in 2010. It has produced, actually, stability in the system since then. It is notable that we have just come through a very busy report card season at 60 school districts, and there has been, to our knowledge, no complaint with respect to the effectiveness of the system.
I guess the final point I would make, and make it again — I know I made this point in estimates last year — is that boldly or otherwise, the Ministry of Education in British Columbia was the first in the field in terms of building a pan-jurisdictional student reporting system. That was undertaken in 2002. It has, I'm sure, at moments been challenging for users. But I suspect that whether you're in the banking system or in airline travel or wherever you happen to be, there are periodic challenges with technology. Periodically those challenges require upgrades on both software and hardware.
The biggest change was in 2010, but we do have a stable system that has performed well since 2010. We continue to have the largest student reporting system in Canada. When you attempt to do something as bold as that, there will inevitably be some challenges with it. But we believe that the value of the data that's collected far outweighs any of these periodic challenges that one might have with a system of this magnitude.
R. Austin: The procurement process for the software application — was it conducted under procurement best practices? The reason I ask is that I want to know if there were other bidders, and what the time frame was for that bidding. Having read through a May 2007 report on the project by Shared Services…. It goes into great detail as to the best practices used to contract with Fujitsu, but in that very same report it kind of glosses over the process used to contract with AAL, the original people who designed the system. I'm just wondering under what circumstances those contracts were signed.
Hon. G. Abbott: The procurement process raised by the member was consistent with government procurement processes as of 2002. None of the officials with me were with the ministry at that time, but what we know is that it was a very rigorous and open procurement process. It involved Ministry of Education officials as well as school district officials. There was a formal request for proposals. AAL was the successful proponent, but there were other proponents in the field as well.
R. Austin: Given that the minister has already said on the public record that all the costs in upgrading or improving the system in 2010 were borne by the suppliers — whether it be Oracle or Fujitsu — we know now that test tools were installed after those problems in 2010. Could the minister tell us why these testing tools weren't put in place prior to that, before the system went provincewide, which might have stopped all of these problems and the frustration that was felt by administrators and teachers over the years?
Hon. G. Abbott: In terms of testing tools, this is not the world that I normally live in. The member may inhabit the world of high technology. I do not. Also, in forming an accurate answer for the member, it is necessary to reach back in time to 2002 and decisions that were made at that time. But we believe this to be accurate.
In looking at the question of testing tools, one can either test the system with, for example, 5,000 to 10,000 users, even though they know there will be more users on the system, versus testing with a larger number — i.e., 50,000. I gather that as of 2010, it went to a testing tool of 50,000.
The answer to, "Why not do that initially?" is that the service management council of the day looked at that. They assessed the cost and benefit of undertaking that broader testing tool. They came to the conclusion that testing to full load would be very costly in relation to the benefit it would provide, and they made that decision.
On the member's earlier question about the individual from Coquitlam and the suggestion that he would be charged…. I think the member mentioned it was $500 for the math 11 course. Yes, $500, math 11, graduate adult. The district of Coquitlam has been in contact with this individual to advise that there had been some confusion with respect to the cost of the course.
It should be noted that under the education guarantee for graduate adults, foundation skills are funded.
[ Page 11485 ]
All grade 11 and 12 courses are included. A district can charge a $250 refundable deposit, which is returned to the individual upon substantial completion of the course.
That is, they don't have to pass it, but they do have to be engaged in the course for a period of time to get their $250 deposit, as I understand it. So there are going to be some communications out to districts today to clarify this point. It is a $250 refundable deposit. It sounds as if there had been some miscommunication with this individual initially, which has now been sorted out.
R. Austin: Wow. Something solved so quickly as that. Who says that the government of British Columbia doesn't work?
Hon. G. Abbott: Estimates are a powerful thing.
R. Austin: They are a very powerful thing.
That's great to hear. Obviously, we want to encourage any adults in British Columbia who might be watching this to always consider continuing to upgrade their schooling because that is essential for them to have a better quality of life, and it's better for all of us. I'm glad that's been dealt with.
Going back to BCeSIS. Could the minister tell us: other than the cost of the Gartner review, which I think was around $380,000, have there been other unanticipated costs? For example, costs that are not included in the contracts and licensing agreements, which have been borne by the ministry with regards to BCeSIS…. If there are, what are these costs, and could the minister please let me know of a breakdown?
Hon. G. Abbott: No unanticipated costs other than the Gartner review. Also, just to further clarify an earlier answer. The answer is consistent and reinforces the answer I gave earlier about 2012 service plan measures. They're all the same as 2011 but with an added measure of grade-to-grade transitions — that is, transitions between grades 8, 9, 10 and 11.
R. Austin: I'd like to ask a question in a very general way around the thought process of first bringing in BCeSIS. Similar to the minister, on the continuum between a technophobe and a geek, I would be much closer to the technophobe end of the scale. I'm going to try and put this question in layperson's language.
The decision to be bold and create a system that had never before been designed anywhere in North America, in terms of having a provincewide system…. My question is: why was it decided that this had to be web-based?
Again speaking in layperson's language, I can understand, for example, that when someone wants to go on and book a flight — a seat on Air Canada — you would have to have a web-based system. Obviously, that seat, once it's sold, can't be resold. It is important, if you've got hundreds of people going in at the same time, that it be web-based and in real time. But I don't quite understand the logic or the rationale as to why this has to be web-based for BCeSIS.
If little Johnny is not in school today in Salmon Arm, it's important that we know that Johnny isn't in school in Salmon Arm. But is it important that we know right this second that he's not in school, or would it have been okay for us to know later that day or later that week, when all of this data could have been aggregated?
So my question is: what was the reason for deciding to go web-based? I just don't see why all this information needed to be instantaneously at the hands of Mr. Gorman and his colleagues. Maybe the minister could explain that. I think that a lot of the problems we've encountered over the years from BCeSIS do stem from that decision. I'll be interested to hear why that decision was made.
Hon. G. Abbott: Just a disclosure off the top. I would characterize myself as a technopeasant on the scale that the opposition critic mentioned earlier.
The answer to the question: why web-based? Part of the answer here will be…. Member, this may test your technophobia, because the answer to the question would be: if not web-based, what? The opportunity that is presented by a web-based system is that it allows the 42,000 or 40,000 teachers and another few thousand administrators to input into the system from across the web. The alternative to that would be that those 40-some-thousand users would be, in the alternative, mailing through snail mail or e-mail or by….
As Mr. Davis wisely pointed out…. And this reference is my early experience with computers, going into a computer room at the University of Victoria. The computer was about the size of this room. I was able to do a really thoughtful project by having a stack of computer cards about this tall that I could feed into the system. It would come back in all kinds of fascinating answers about things. That, like me, is a relic of the past, and happily, we have the technology to move on.
The short answer to the question is that web-based allowed for the diffuse, disparate users of the system in many locations in British Columbia to have direct input into the system versus some other alternative, which we're not really aware of, in terms of it being a viable alternative to web-based.
R. Austin: I hope I don't display my technophobia here. The minister says: if not this system, then what alternative? But this is the only jurisdiction that uses this system. All the other jurisdictions around North America use an alternative, and presumably, they all gather data. Presumably, the alternative would have been to have a program-based system where data would have
[ Page 11486 ]
been gathered, inputted by the school secretary or whoever. Then at some point that data would have been gathered centrally later, using the Internet just to transfer that information. That's how a lot of databases work.
It goes back to my original question, which is: why did this have to be web-based and in real time, when presumably there are plenty of programs? Ontario and other jurisdictions do this. What it suggests to me is that a little over ten years ago the government here decided to be very radical, very bold, and asked for something that had never been done before. We then spent quite a lot of money — tens of millions of dollars — and until recently it didn't work.
I would argue that even in those ten years, we still don't have an alternative to this web-based system, which suggests that…. Usually, in technology, if someone is first with something and it's very successful and there's a market for it…. Presumably, there's a huge market for this kind of software, because every jurisdiction in North America has school districts, and every jurisdiction in North America wants to have more data upon which to base their decisions.
Yet ten years later there hasn't been another web-based system created. Could the minister comment on that?
Hon. G. Abbott: I appreciate that the role of the opposition critic is to characterize things in a way that is unflattering invariably to the government. But it would be inaccurate, and entirely inaccurate, to say that the system didn't work except for the two-week period which we began this discussion around. The system has been quite stable and quite effective.
Have there been occasional challenges with it? Yes. I think if you look at any system, whether it's with an airline or a bank or any other institution that went to a web-based product as we did in 2002, one would have also found that over time they required attention and upgrades and those kinds of things.
Again, I'm certain that we are going to hear at some point a powerful renunciation of the public policy behind this, and I'll look forward to that. But I don't accept the critic's suggestion that it didn't work. It's not true.
Ten years later, our understanding is that in the U.S. there are a number of cities and states that have already gone to web-based reporting, and there are many others that are in the process of moving there if they're not already there. We believe that to be the case in other provinces as well, but we'll follow up on that work and report back to the member a little bit later when we can perhaps give a more comprehensive assessment of what's occurring elsewhere in Canada.
It's always tempting to say: "Let's go back ten years in history, and if we had done X instead of Y, the world as we know it would have been a much better place." That's always a fascinating thing to do, whether it's in Education estimates or in Health estimates, where one could look at the patient information system that's been developed there and say: "If you'd done X instead of Y, would it have been more successful?"
It does produce an interesting debate, which obviously as minister I'd be delighted to be engaged in. But we do things like health information systems or student information systems because it provides us with a body of data which can help us make informed public policy decisions. How one assembles that body of data…. One can always debate whether this system or that system would have been more effective.
I think it's fair to say that in the technology that is being embraced in these kinds of systems, it does provide for a far better and fuller data set than one could assemble otherwise. Again, if we went back ten years and said, "Well, the school districts and the Ministry of Education really should have done something different," it likely would have involved 60 school districts undertaking 60 different procurement processes and then those 60 different school districts each importing their data into a common system.
One could only speculate — and probably speculate recklessly — about the cost of doing that versus the cost of what occurred. Then the subsequent debate would be about having done that, whether the data set that was produced would have been in any way comparable to that provided by BCeSIS. These are without a doubt fascinating questions, which I feel remarkably ill-equipped to manage but glad to continue to provide the best answers I can on this.
R. Austin: I now realize that this exchange between a technopeasant and technophobe is critical, because I now realize that we're actually speaking about two different things. My question wasn't about whether it should be Internet-based. It's about whether there should have been a browser open — in other words, in real time.
Why could we not have had a system where the data was all collected by each school district, but not with a browser open, and then that information sent at a later date, as opposed to the complexity of having it done in real time with the web browser open, which of course created all the problems as multiple teachers all tried to get on at the same time?
If it had been Internet-based but not in real time, then that would still have enabled the ministry to get all the information it needs, which is what most school districts…. I mean, the minister just mentioned that a lot of the school districts in the States now have gone to Internet-based systems. Of course. But then none of them are in real time. I think that is what has brought a lot of the challenges to BCeSIS. So let's go back to that question and see the difference between what I've just spoken about.
Hon. G. Abbott: My puzzlement with respect to the browser option is widely shared by those who would advise me at this point in time. I'm certain the member must have been advised by someone who has swallowed a computer book at some point and has interesting questions in relation to that.
What we understand, just so we're clear on the point…. Ontario, as an example, is in the process of developing what they call OnSIS, which is the Ontario school information system, very much like British Columbia's. In fact, we understand it to be dead similar to what…. It'll be a web-based application which integrates and collects board, school, student, educator, course and class data. So it's a comprehensive system. New data will be stored in a consolidated database rather than in isolated systems as it currently is in Ontario. Our understanding is that they are very much moving to the model that we have.
In terms of where we go from here with BCeSIS, we've gone for a request for expressions of interests. It may be that vendors will come back with — Lord knows — even browser options, whatever the heck that means. For me, browsing is out foraging in the woods. Browsing I know means something very different in this context, but I know the member will struggle with my technopeasantry and pose the question in another way. Hopefully, we can try to get him the answer to the important question.
R. Austin: The difference between inputting the data within a browser means that it is in real time. Okay? As the person is putting the information in — say a secretary is putting in a school list showing who is in school that day that just came down from the teacher's classroom — Mr. Gorman or anybody else will know instantaneously whether little Johnny in Salmon Arm wasn't in school that morning.
If it's not in real time, if it's not within a browser, then that information is collated by the school secretary. She inputs the data, and when she presses the send button, it goes at a later point.
The difference between these two systems is, of course, that you don't have to have 50,000 people on that system simultaneously. They can all be putting it in and pressing the send buttons at a different time, and that information arrives later. That goes to my original question of why it had to be in real time.
I don't see why it has to be in real time, because unlike, for example, Air Canada, which would have a big problem if Mr. Davis was buying a seat on Air Canada while the Clerk here was also competing for that same seat, and they pressed the send button at the same time. Who would get that seat? That's not the case with data for school-based systems. That's why I was asking the question as to why it was decided to go to real time. I'm told that this was not necessary.
I'd still like you to comment or for the staff to assist you, because I think that decision has created a lot of the problems. I'm not trying to exaggerate them, but I'm sure that the minister in his travels…. Especially if he'd become the Minister of Education earlier than he did and had gone around to school districts, he'd have heard a lot of complaints over a period of seven or eight years about this system consistently not working properly. Had it not been in real time, I think a lot of those problems would have been taken away. Anyway, I'll let the minister comment on that.
My next question is on moving forward. The minister has mentioned the RFI. Can the minister tell us what money has been allocated with regard to procurement of a replacement for BCeSIS, and is there a budget for the annual costs of a new system going forward? Perhaps the minister would tell us, as the system is now stable and working, if indeed it's the government's decision now to stay with BCeSIS.
Hon. G. Abbott: The member asked a number of questions in his previous question. We'll start with the little Johnny question — little Johnny in Salmon Arm. I do appreciate the member bringing it home for me, so to speak. It's very good. Thank you.
The first point would be this. The data is going to have to be gathered one way or another. It can be gathered at multiple points, or it can be gathered at those points and then taken to another location and then input. But one way or another, it's going to be gathered.
I think the value, from the little Johnny perspective in Salmon Arm Elementary School, is that the input comes in. If the principal or vice-principal needs to make some decision, they have reference to that data that has been gathered.
Similarly, on a broader scale with the real-time input, the ability of decision-makers in the system…. Whether they happen to be the principal in Salmon Arm Elementary or an assistant deputy minister at the Ministry of Education or the superintendent of school district 83, they have that material assembled in, we believe, a more effective way than one would in a less elegant system where things were gathered and brought together at a central point and then input by a school secretary, as the member suggested.
I'm not sure I can give a better answer to that at this point. I do think, to the member's claim that we're the only ones in North America doing this, that it doesn't appear to be so. In fact, it appears that pretty much all of North America is moving precisely in this direction. Provided you can manage, in the system, all of those many users, it makes a lot of sense to do precisely that — to have the immediate opportunity to input the data, whether it's little Johnny's attendance or his marks or whatever it may happen to be.
That relates to, I think, the final question the member asked, which is: "Are you going to stay with BCeSIS?" The answer to that is no. BCeSIS is nearing its life's end, just like Windows 98, which I'm sure we all remember with enormous affection. I know I do, personally. When Windows 98 left, it was like an old dog dying. I felt very bad about that. I'm certain I'll feel the same way about BCeSIS when that occurs. Nevertheless, we know that it has its life end coming.
So maintaining it is not an option. Pearson have said that beyond 2014, this is not a product that they will maintain further. So we are working with all of our partners in the 60 school districts to try to identify what the right way to go is on what I happily and affectionately call Son of BCeSIS. I don't know whether that's the right term or not, but it brings a smile to the faces of all the public servants who have the remarkable experience of working with me. So I say Son of BCeSIS.
We've gone to a request for interest, RFI. It appears that out of that RFI, we will identify a series of venders who will have an interest in offering us up a product, a combination of hardware and software and service, that can provide for that replacement system to BCeSIS.
One of the happy things about technology — again, this comes from, I acknowledge, the mouth of a technopeasant — whether it happens to be computers or televisions or other things, is that the cost of technology generally has come down as the effectiveness of that technology has gone up.
I mentioned earlier in our discussion my experience with the computer at the University of Victoria around about probably 1976-77, going in and just being in a room with an absolutely massive computer, the cost of which, I'm sure, was a staggering figure and the power of which is probably less than Mr. Davis's BlackBerry today in terms of the things it could do and the ease with which it could do them.
So as we move to a contemporary system in, say, 2014, it is going to have, I'm sure, an amazing capacity and reach well beyond anything that could have been dreamed of with the original BCeSIS back in 2002.
The other happy part of it is that with the cost of these things coming down, we expect that for approximately the same cost that we have for technology today, which is around $10½ million, we will be able to enjoy better, more modern, etc., technology than we have today.
R. Austin: Again, I don't want to go on with this debate about whether it should be in real time or not. It is interesting to note. I'm told that on the website of the Ministry of Education in Ontario, they refer to this new system that they're creating, OnSIS. They say that OnSIS will integrate and collect data at the elemental level. "This data is subsequently stored, integrated and depersonalized in the elementary-secondary data warehouse."
What that suggests, with all due respect to the minister's defence of doing this all in real time, is that even Ontario is actually going to be creating a system which will collect all the information in the same way that BCeSIS does, but in fact it will not be in real time. That's what this suggests. I could be wrong. I'm getting a nod of disagreement here. Maybe I'm misinterpreting that.
We've probably discussed whether it should be real time or not long enough now. The minister has indicated that we're going to have a replacement for BCeSIS. With all due respect, I don't think that his suggested name is a good one. I think this is one of those opportunities where rebranding….
Sometimes when you rebrand a name of something that's in the toilet or doesn't have a great value…. There are certain instances where it's time to rebrand. I would suggest that here is one of those opportunities, where BCeSIS sometimes creates a bit of a shudder amongst teachers because of the experience they've gone through over the number of years. I'm sure that a brand-new name would give them greater confidence that this new system was going to be working perfectly.
Hon. G. Abbott: You should think about that for broader government.
R. Austin: Well, you know, that sometimes works. Not always, but it sometimes does.
I'd like to ask, in regards to the request for information…. This calls for the vender that will provide hosting services in addition to the application. Would this create a requirement for the ministry to terminate its contract with Fujitsu early? And if that were the case, would there be any cost to the ministry in terms of getting rid of the contract? I understand that contract was signed for five years.
Hon. G. Abbott: A few elements in the discussion. I know I share the member's, I think, happiness at moving on from a detailed discussion around browser versus non-browser options in computer systems. But a couple of things should be noted, and these are actually important.
In terms of OnSIS, what Ontario is developing, we do exactly the same thing in terms of gathering, storing, depersonalizing, etc. All of that is done. The argument which the member advanced — that that may mean they are using a non-browser versus browser option — is not necessarily so. But given the importance of this issue, we will attempt to find that out from the province of Ontario.
I do accept the member's suggestion that rebranding from something other than Son of BCeSIS might be appropriate. Again, this is why people are successful in politics. It's that kind of intuitive sense of when to move on from a name and not to move on. So I do appreciate the member's advice in that regard, and we'll take it very ser-
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iously. I think it's leading me to reconsider whether Son of BCeSIS is the perfect way to describe the new system. I think he's absolutely right on that point.
In terms of real time…. This may be the last, and in a way I'm sorry that I've saved this most-compelling argument for real time to this point in time, but I've just been reminded of it. We went through — as the member, I'm sure, would recall with the same clarity that I do — a major scare in the health care world around the H1N1 virus.
What we were able to do with the real-time data of all the little Johnnys and Sues coming to school during that H1N1 crisis…. We knew on a daily basis how many kids were at school and how many were absent for a reason of illness.
We were able to pass on that information on a daily basis to the provincial health officer. He was able to utilize that data in conjunction with the health authorities to make decisions around public policy in relation to H1N1. For example, a school closure might be prompted by a spike in the number of students who are away from school.
That, I think, is a real and pretty compelling example of where that real-time data was utilized for very good purpose. In terms of Fujitsu…. The work that is being done in respect of the RFI does contemplate a transition period, and it contemplates a period or a provision first for the integration or transition and then the handoff of the system. There is no incremental cost anticipated.
R. Austin: I think I'll ask one more question prior to the break, and then we'll come back afterwards.
Let's set aside the whole debate about whether it had to be in real time, and let's perhaps ask the question this way. In terms of the storage of all this data, could the minister tell us whether it would be better for there to be regional databases that allow the information that was pertinent to the student, the local administrator, the teacher and the parent to have access to in real time, and only the administrative details that are needed, essentially, by the ministry down here to make the broad decisions that have consequences for the whole education system?
Again, if there were regional databases, then presumably there wouldn't be the same stress on the system of everything being collected and coming into one central database where everyone is trying to get into. Would that have been helpful? As you put out the RFI to try and learn from some of the mistakes that have come about from BCeSIS, is that something that the minister or the ministry staff are looking at — splitting up the databases?
Hon. G. Abbott: We believe the debate around regional versus central databases is really a question that is no longer relevant. The challenge of managing large amounts of gathered data has been conquered. There is really no issue anymore in terms of management or storage — those issues.
A couple of examples in terms of the new technology versus the old technology. It's now possible for TicketMaster, when they announce there is going to be a U2 concert in Vancouver…. It may be that 200,000 people will come on line immediately, seeking those tickets. Generally, the hardware and software that's now assembled for that purpose can manage it.
Another example. I do know the member shares my absolute passion for Dancing with the Stars. I know that immediately after the performances every night he goes on line, as I do, to support our favourite stars on Dancing with the Stars.
When we do that, we join literally millions of other Americans and Canadians and maybe even an audience internationally. I don't know. But there will be many who will be joining us, in the immediate period after the brief summary of the dances that have been assembled that evening, to go on line and vote for our favourite. Again, that's technology at work — being able to manage literally millions of inputs at one time.
We believe, again, as we're looking at the new world, a new system that no longer has a name — formerly known as the Son of BCeSIS but no longer, having been persuaded that it is no longer a good branded name for us to utilize…. Whatever that new system is, it will be capable of managing that database.
With that, I move the committee rise, report progress and ask leave to sit again.
The committee rose at 11:48 a.m.
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