MLA Jennifer Rice

MLA Jennifer Rice on the political year ahead

North Coast MLA Jennifer Rice says four years in opposition was good survival training, but life is better on the government side of the legislature.

“I know this sounds very cliché, but I wake up every day and go, ‘How can I make life better for other people?’” said Rice, speaking from her Prince Rupert constituency office last week.

“And now I have a lot more tools.”

Before the new year and a new B.C. budget in February, the Observer spoke with Rice about some of the upcoming issues facing the North Coast.

You’ve spoken about the need to adopt long-term plans for reducing the risk of natural disasters. What do we need to do that we’re not already doing on Haida Gwaii and the North Coast?

“Some of the most resilient people are my very own constituents here, whether that’s Prince Rupert, Haida Gwaii, or the Central Coast,” Rice said. “I think it’s in our genetics, our lifestyle.”

Rice noted that the province supports the National Disaster Mitigation Fund — a federal program — and recently began offering 90 and 100 per cent funding for infrastructure projects in towns of fewer than 15,000 or 5,000 people. Both funding programs can be used to support climate-change adaptation projects.

The B.C. government has made big commitments on poverty reduction and is building more affordable housing, including projects in Prince Rupert, Skidegate, and Queen Charlotte.

Is there a new expected opening date for the 30 modular housing units in Prince Rupert? What more will the province do to help North Coast residents with lower incomes?

“It’s no secret that Prince Rupert’s geography is really difficult for builders to work with,” Rice said. “Of course there were delays… but the modular units are being lifted into place right now, as we speak.”

Rice said there will be more social housing projects announced in the new year, and Old Massett is among the communities that have applied.

“We’ve already done quite a bit, not just on housing, but raising the income assistance rates, raising the disability rates in the past year,” she said, adding that people receiving assistance can also earn more from part-time work than before.

“Hopefully in the new year, we’ll be able to actually see, in a more measurable way, the difference that’s made in people’s lives.”

B.C.’s finance and government services committee recommended expanding service for the Haida Gwaii and Kwuna ferry routes. Besides the Northern Seawolf finally getting underway, what service changes can North Coast ferry users expect in 2019?

“All I can say is I have certainly heard loud and clear what the challenges are, particularly for those flying into Sandspit or who live in Sandspit, but not just there,” Rice said, speaking of the ferry situation on Haida Gwaii.

“I understand the island-wide impacts.”

Rice said the much-anticipated Redlin report — a review of BC Ferries that recommends changes — will be made public before the February budget.

“I’m optimistic that we’ll see some improvements in the new year.”

BC Bus North started this summer with a year of funding. If no private carrier steps in next year, will the province continue to fund a northern bus service?

“There are no takers yet for Highway 16, the Prince Rupert to Prince George route, but there have been quite a few companies interested in the other parts of B.C.,” Rice said.

“The hope is we will eventually find a private carrier that is willing to take on the Greyhound route, or a route that is very similar.”

Rice added that ridership is climbing for short-haul BC Transit routes west of Witset, while for long-haul trips between the Princes, the Northern Health Connections Bus now serves all seniors regardless of their reason for travel, all people with mobility challenges, and companions supporting immediate family members travelling for healthcare reasons.

“Of course there’s always room for improvement, but I think the provincial government has done quite a bit to support the rural transportation needs along the Highway of Tears.”

You’re now a member of the reconciliation cabinet committee. What are some key changes you’ve seen this year in relations between the province and First Nations?

“We just started convening in the last couple months, looking at broader policy,” Rice said.

“The first thing that’s come out of that is that we are going to share the gaming grant funding with Indigenous communities, which is a pretty significant announcement.”

Rice added that she is far more optimistic about reconciliation under the current B.C. government than the last one.

“The first real exciting example would be the government-to-government decision-making that happened with the Broughton Archipelago fish farms,” Rice said, referring to a plan announced Dec. 14 that will phase out open-net fish farms opposed by local First Nations.

“It’s no secret that I’ve not been a fan of open-net fish farms being situated at important juvenile salmon-rearing areas, or their migration routes.”

“But the thing that was really exciting about that recent announcement was really how we came to that point, which was really collaborative, and less transactional.”

Anything else you would like to add?

“Let’s not forget Connected Coast,” Rice said, referring to plans for a subsea fibre-optic cable that will securely link Haida Gwaii, Vancouver Island, and Sunshine Coast communities with the mainland B.C. internet.

“That project touches every aspect of the North Coast riding. Haida Gwaii and the Central Coast in particular, which are under-serviced areas, but CityWest, the Prince Rupert-owned telecommunications company is one of the key partners.”

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