North Cariboo MLA Coralee Oakes hopes that when the provincial government says it will stand up for communities, it will stand up for rural communities too.
Responding to the Speech from the Throne, which was delivered by Lt.-Gov. Janet Austin Feb. 12 to open the fourth session of the 41st Parliament of the Province of B.C., Oakes was concerned rural communities were being left out.
“The throne speech is an important piece because it sets out the roadmap for government, and it sets the tone for what we should be looking for in the budget,” Oakes said Wednesday, phoning from Victoria. “So, for me, it was an incredibly important piece to see what that means for Cariboo North and for rural communities. I am concerned the roadmap they’ve laid out is really void of support for rural communities; it was very urban-centric in their themes, in what they highlighted.”
The provincial throne speech highlighted affordability, mentioning eliminating MSP premiums, taking steps to improve rental housing, setting the foundation for the full implementation of B.C.’s affordable child care program and action to review cellphone billing transparency, among other measures.
Oakes is concerned the throne speech talked about forest-based economies “and how they are the power that drives our communities,” but it didn’t recognize how forest-based communities like Quesnel and other communities in the Cariboo are “struggling through transition.”
“There was no discussion of the premier or the government standing up on softwood lumber, no discussion of how support will be in communities that are being decimated by beetle infestations, whether it’s the mountain pine beetle, whether it’s Douglas fir or it’s the spruce beetle,” she said. “What is the plan to address some of these challenges? What is the plan to address fibre shortages? What is the plan as a government to stand up for workers? Where is the increased investment for communities like Quesnel with skills and trades training”
Oakes also asks where is the increased funding to ensure there is support for communities in the Interior that are facing challenges such as wildfires and floods.
“On the ground, when you look at communities like Nazko, and I could list all of our smaller, unincorporated communities that have been putting in applications to the government, who have been putting in applications to Red Cross for simple things such as water pumps, hoses, generators so that these communities can be resilient, which is what the government is asking them to be, but to actually have the tools in place to be resilient,” she said. “These communities keep getting denied support, and I didn’t see any increase or discussion of that in the throne speech.”
Oakes says there was some discussion of how they’re looking at wildfire interface for municipalities, like the larger urban settings in our area, such as Quesnel and Williams Lake, which she calls “fantastic.”
“I appreciate that investment, but we have so many rural unincorporated communities that need to have the same access to funds that other levels of local government are being able to access,” she said. “And on the Red Cross side, we need to look at how Red Cross provides support to communities.”
Oakes did not see any increases as far as supporting the BC Wildfire Service Branch, whose staff, she says, “do incredible work, but with incredibly limited resources.”
“We have to look at ways of providing local residents, local communities, the ability to be resilient,” she said. “It’s not just about doing reports and studies. At some point, investments need to be made on the ground, in communities, in supporting people.”
Oakes thinks, in many respects, the Interior has become “ground zero” for the impacts of climate change, such as the pine beetle, Douglas fir or spruce beetle epidemics, wildfires or flooding.
“Ask families who’ve been absolutely devastated by the loss of West Fraser Road and travelling on the Forest Service Road, ask how the floods have impacted their lives,” she said. “We’re heading into another spring freshet, and we know from the ministry that huge investments need to be made on upgrading culverts. Our watersheds have been dramatically impacted because of the wildfires, and without any new resources or investments made, climate change ground zero is in our backyard.”
The throne speech talked about the need for industrial electrification, and Oakes is hoping that means an investment in three-phase power for communities like Wells and Nazko.
“Three-phase power out in these communities would be a great way right now to be looking at not only supporting communities, supporting jobs, but reducing our climate footprint. So I’m hoping investment happens outside an urban setting; I’m hoping this means they are going to look at investing in some of our rural communities.”
Oakes was happy to see the throne speech talked about food security and supporting the agricultural sector and access to new markets.
She was also pleased to see the throne speech talk about trying to reduce the cost of cellphone bills, although she adds a caveat that this is federal jurisdiction, but if the provincial and federal governments can work together on the issue, “that’s great.”
“I would say for our area, it would also be nice to make sure our area had cellphone coverage,” she said. “You think about what happened during the wildfires in 2017 and 2018, as well as the floods, boy does it highlight how critically important communication is and how important things such as cell service in our communities are.”
The B.C. budget will be delivered Feb. 19, and Oakes says she will be looking for investments into and support for rural communities next week.
“We pay taxes just like folks in the Lower Mainland, and so I’m hoping in the budget that we’ll see those kinds of investments,” she said.