Although it’s been a difficult year in a lot of ways for Quesnel and her entire Cariboo North riding, MLA Coralee Oakes is looking to 2020 in a positive way.
And that’s because of the people she meets, works with and represents.
“I think one of the things I really love about this time of year is I really have the opportunity to travel throughout the riding and meet at a lot of community halls and fire halls and really just break bread and share, and I’m just absolutely overwhelmed by who incredible the people are in the Cariboo, and when faced with difficult times, they come together, and they volunteer, they look out for their neighbour, and they care,” said Oakes. “With all of that, I’m optimistic for 2020.”
This year, Oakes did something a little different to gather many of those people together in one room to connect and break bread, as she hosted her first MLA Thank You Lunch Wednesday, Dec. 18.
Oakes invited First Nations elected officials, elected officials from Quesnel and Wells, Cariboo Regional District (CRD) directors, RCMP members, staff from Northern Health, school district trustees and staff, staff from the University of British Columbia, as well as some individuals who are new to the community or new to their roles.
“I do a lot of one-on-one meetings with various organizations, and often it’s like ‘oh, I need to connect you with this First Nation,’ … so this is just going to be really an informal thank you lunch where we’ve taken and gathered that list of people that we want to connect to the community so that we ensure success, and to say thank you,” said Oakes.
Oakes was excited to host the lunch, which included a welcome from Lhtako Dené Lifetime Princess Destinee Boyd and food served by the Royal Canadian Legion Ladies Auxiliary.
“It can be very overwhelming often to be in some of these organizations, whether it is Northern Health or RCMP or the education facilities, and really, I wanted to bring everyone to the table to say that we’re not alone, and we can be optimistic about the future, especially if we all work collaboratively together,” said Oakes.
“As elected officials, this is also an opportunity to do a re-set because we do need to all work together for the benefit of our communities, and this is my attempt to try and reach out and work with all levels of government.”
Some of the topics Oakes was hoping to look at were supporting youth and addressing crime and public safety, as well as mental health and addictions.
“I think if all of us have a base foundation to make sure we’re supporting our young people, and I’ve had lots of individual meetings with organizations and community members about making sure we have services and supports in place for young people,” she said. “There are a lot of interesting things that are happening.
“We’re trying to get a youth Foundry in Quesnel. I toured the Reformation House Youth Lounge. There’s a great conference that is in the process of being organized to support ending domestic violence, and just, how we can also educate young people. There is a growing issue in this community around meth, as well as other substances and alcohol, and what can we do to educate and look at more the preventative levels — and to start younger, I think, is critically important, and to support young people in developing really strong communication skills. And how do we expand on programs that are incredibly successful now, so we do have programs in the high school — is there a way that we can access resources to get it into the middle school level? So those are some of the conversations I hope to have.”
Oakes feels it is important for all levels of government to look at what increased steps they need to take to ensure everyone feels safe.
“As all levels of government, we need to be doing a much better job of listening to and responding to the concerned citizens of Quesnel around community safety,” she said. “We need to be advocating for more services and more supports of existing services, otherwise, we will set the whole system up for failure. I’ve been very vocal in Victoria about what needs to happen, but leadership requires us all coming together. We can’t blame it all on the RCMP or the courts or elected officials. We all need to be coming to the table to find solutions.”
Oakes thinks finding solutions around mental health and addictions also needs to be a priority.
“Where are the gaps in the north, and how do we advocate for more support and more services?” she said. “Unless we all sit at the table, we will never truly understand what those gaps are.”
Looking ahead, Oakes says she is trying to make sure to continue to support community members who have been impacted by both the forestry crisis and by the wildfires and flooding.
“A considerable amount of our work in our office continues to be trying to find supports for individuals,” she said.
“This year, we’ve had a lot of flooding that has been a challenge and a lot of the agricultural sector were not able to get their hay off, so what programs and services do we need to continue to advocate for?”
Oakes says they are working closely with workers impacted by the closure of the Tolko mill, but we also need to be ensuring we have supports in place for logging contractors, subcontractors and small businesses.
“We met with logging contractors when [B.C. Liberal Party Leader] Andrew Wilkinson was here, and they put forward what if a percentage of stumpage actually went back to the community and went to help — maybe it’s helping some of these contractors work on some of these resource roads,” she said. “I just think when you have people who come together and come to the table and offer solutions, that’s what’s going to help us move forward.”
Some of the positives Oakes highlights from 2019 are the United Way Fire Mitigation Project, which was recently expanded in the Cariboo, the work that’s been done by the B.C. Wildfire Service Blackwater Crew around setting up fire wardens, and 4th Canadian Ranger Patrol Group B.C. Company standing up a new Ranger Patrol in Quesnel.
As well, she is happy to see all the improvements in CRD volunteer fire departments. Oakes was recently at the groundbreaking for the McLeese Lake Volunteer Fire Department’s land for its new hall, and she notes that Horsefly, Likely, Tyee Lake and Kersley and now McLeese Lake have all got new volunteer fire departments since 2013.
“We know these volunteer fire departments are not just about keeping the community safe but are really a hub for that community,” she said. “It brings people together. I think McLeese Lake at the groundbreaking said it best, say there’s an accident on Highway 97 near McLeese Lake, and it’s at your worst popular moment, and somebody will come and support you, and it’s somebody local and it’s somebody that you know.
“That’s why these organizations, they’re people in your community that care, and when they’re coming to support you at your worst possible time, it makes that more meaningful impact.”