Candidates shine light, cast shade on B.C. budget

With a new budget out and an election set for May, speaking with the two North Coast candidates feels like a day of Haida Gwaii weather.

With less than two months to go before B.C.'s May 9 election

With less than two months to go before B.C.'s May 9 election

With a new budget out and an election set for May, speaking with the two North Coast candidates feels like a day of Haida Gwaii weather.

Rain at one end, sun on the other.

“We think it’s a ‘forget everything’ budget,” said B.C. New Democrat Jennifer Rice, who is running for her second term as North Coast MLA against BC Liberal challenger Herb Pond.

After 16 years of neglecting issues such as child welfare and affordable housing, Rice said the BC Liberals’ latest budget is only now sprinkling cash all over in “random acts of funding.”

“I don’t think there’s a lot in it for Haida Gwaii,” she said.

Looking at the same budget B.C.’s fifth balanced budget in a row Pond sees a sunnier side.

For a start, he noted that B.C. is the only Canadian province with balanced books and a triple-A credit rating, making it easier to finance investments in healthcare and schools.

One example is the budget promise to halve MSP premiums next year for all households making up to $120,000 a year.

“I’m sure that’s going to make a big difference for many families on Haida Gwaii,” he said.

Likewise, the latest budget includes plans to cancel the provincial sales tax (PST) on non-residential electricity bills a big savings for local schools and hospitals, not to mention sawmills and independent power producers.

“Again, it can only be done because of the hard work British Columbians have done in balancing the budget and getting our financial house in order,” said Pond.

“It allows you to make choices.”

Rice said the PST cut is a good idea, but asked why there are no similar cuts for B.C. residents who have seen a steady rise in electricity bills, car insurance, and MSP fees.

Rice also welcomed the BC Liberal plan to spend $109 million more on child and family services next year, but asked why it didn’t come earlier.

“We have report after report demonstrating that this ministry needs so much attention, and it’s been ignored,” she said, noting that the non-partisan Representative for Children and Youth and others have raised alarms about the number of children killed or injured while in government care.

Rice said there is a related challenge for aboriginal agencies, such as Haida Gwaii Child and Family Services, which are given the same responsibilities as B.C.’s Ministry of Child and Family Development, but without equal funding.

“They’re not given the same resources as the non-aboriginal agency that would do that job,” she said.

“That’s the biggest, most glaring gap, I would say, for Haida Gwaii.”

A former mayor of Prince Rupert, band administer for Lax Kw’alaams, and community relations officer for Shell’s now discontinued Prince Rupert LNG, Pond said he looks forward to spending more time on Haida Gwaii to hear about local issues.

After leading Prince Rupert during a major sawmill closure and watching his own kids move away for work in the resulting downturn, Pond said he grew frustrated that the North Coast didn’t seem able to get to “yes” on any major project.

“I can tell you that in this area, around development projects, the province has been working very closely with First Nations leaders and working to find ways to help build economies on the ground,” he said.

“I’m very much looking forward to coming over and listening to what islands residents have to say about their dreams for their economy, and finding out ways we can tap into some of the existing resources to make that happen.”

A former Prince Rupert city councillor with a background in seniors’ care and work for the T. Buck Suzuki Environmental Foundation, Rice said she and her party are committed to reducing inequality in B.C. by offering $10 per day childcare, and raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour.

“Nobody should be working full-time and still need to depend on food banks,” she said, noting that the BC Liberals have not raised social assistance rates for 11 years.

Among all the budget issues, Rice and Pond did seem to see at least one in a similar light.

Both welcomed the new winter ferry sailings between Prince Rupert and Skidegate Landing, but agreed Haida Gwaii needs better ferry service.

“We need to do more, but it’s a great first step,” said Pond.

“I still get emails about the Kwuna,” said Rice.

“Sometimes I think someone makes a decision and thinks, ‘Well, people will just get used to it.’ But people are still frustrated with the lack of sailings on the Kwuna in particular.”