Excerpt from the Official Report of
DEBATES OF THE LEGISLATIVE ASSEMBLY

(Hansard)


October 6, 2011

Remarks on the Throne Speech

S. Simpson: I'm pleased to have the opportunity to stand in my place — it's been a while since we've been here — to come back and be able to respond to a throne speech. It has been quite a while. We've talked a little bit earlier. We saw some news reports about how infrequently we make it to this place. It's always good to get back, even if it is only for a few weeks.

Before I make my comments related directly to the throne speech and the situation in the province today, I do want to acknowledge again my constituency of Vancouver-Hastings. Having been elected in 2005 and re-elected in 2009, it's a great privilege for me, as I know it is for every member for the constituencies they represent. It's a great privilege to represent the people of British Columbia and, more specifically, the people of Vancouver-Hastings.

As certainly all members know, it's sometimes challenging for families, so I very much appreciate the support I get from my family — from my partner, Cate, and my daughter, Shayla, who just turned 20 and moved out for the first time. Who knows how many more times, but for the first time she's moved out, so we're having that empty-nester experience for the first time. The house is cleaner. I'll give it that. But it's great, and she's doing very well. I'm looking forward to and excited about her having the opportunity to start experiencing another aspect of being an adult.

I want to thank my staff, particularly my staff here — Susan Vasilev and Erich, who work for me here — and in my constituency: Brenda Tombs and Rachel Garrick, who are my constituency assistants. It's a very exciting time there. Rachel is going to be taking a leave from us to go and have a baby here in a couple of weeks. She'll be gone for a year, and I'll miss her terribly. She's so great, but we have a young man, Jarrett Hagglund, coming in to fill her shoes for a year. I'm sure he'll do a great job.

I really want to thank them for all the work that they do and for the support that they provide me and for the support that I know Jarrett will provide me over the coming year as Rachel's replacement.

They have a very tough job in Vancouver-Hastings. It's a challenging constituency. It's a complex constituency. It's probably close to about the second-poorest constituency in the province in terms of income, yet it has some very expensive neighbourhoods as well. About 40 percent of the constituency is Chinese-speaking, so we're always looking for innovative ways to provide services to those people where there are language challenges. It's hard sometimes. We're trying to get at that. We have our little victories and some not so good victories, but we're working on that.

It has a very large urban aboriginal population. I'll speak to that a little bit in a bit as it relates to references in the throne speech. That's a community where I know there's an awful lot of work being done with the friendship centre and Urban Native Youth to try to find ways to meet the needs of that community and, most particularly, the needs of some of the young aboriginal community.

We have some real challenges there and levels of gang activity that I know are very concerning for the families and the community itself, issues in relation to drugs and other things. I know they're trying to deal with that. It's very challenging. It really is often about a group of young people who are feeling alienated from opportunity, alienated from the chance to find their way and find their place, and the reaction to that is this activity and involvement in gang activity and some of the negative aspects of that.

I know that there's a lot of hard work being done. We need to, here in this place, provide greater amounts of support, whether it's through the friendship centres or through other kinds of supports in terms of an urban aboriginal strategy that provides the assistance so that that population — it's almost 70 percent of the aboriginal population in the province that lives largely off reserve and largely in our urban areas — has the opportunity to succeed and to find its place.

We have many challenges that we talk about in the place. Many of them reflect as well, I know, on areas that I work in around my critic responsibilities, which are Housing and Social Development. I want to talk a little bit about those areas and about some of the challenges that I see — challenges, sadly, that I didn't see much about in the throne speech; challenges that I didn't see much substantive in the throne speech, if even references, as to how we begin to deal with these issues.

First is housing. Housing is a very difficult situation in this province. As members here from both sides, of course, will know, for many, and especially for families, the cost of housing is prohibitive — the cost of home purchases.

For those of us who live in urban areas, in Vancouver and Victoria, in parts of the Fraser Valley, in Kelowna, housing ownership is very, very challenging. Million-dollar homes are not that rare anymore. There was a day when nobody would have imagined that. Now a million dollars for a house in Vancouver…. You get shaking your head on how on earth that's worth a million dollars, but the market will bear that, and that means they're just not available to people.

It's not just the cost of home ownership, but it's the lack of affordable rental housing for those folks, for families who are looking to rent, and we have a very big challenge here. We have a growing number of people who are in that area. I'm not talking about people who are at the very low end, but when you look at families in the $30,000, $40,000, $50,000 range, for them to find a home…. We hear from CMHC that roughly about a third of your income should be the amount that you should pay for housing in terms of affordability. Well, that starts looking like $1,200 or $1,300 a month for a place.

You try to find a three-bedroom place in Vancouver or in Surrey or, I know, in the Speaker's community in Richmond. If you try to find a reasonable three-bedroom place for $1,200 a month, you're not going to find it to rent. It's pretty hard to find.

We're not getting at how to support that community. Those are people who, among other things, certainly would no longer qualify for the rental assistance program that the government does have in place. They would have an income that would be too high for that. We need to start talking about that and about innovation and about what government does, probably working in partnership with the private sector, to begin to get at that. But there was no conversation about that, no discussion of that in the throne speech.

I'd acknowledge that the government has done some things as it relates to homelessness and as it relates to frail seniors. But once you get past that group, it becomes very challenging for families and very challenging for youth. When you look at the homelessness figures that have come out, one of the areas where we see exceptional growth in homelessness is with youth. That's concerning.

I know that when I talk to youth workers, when I talk to people working on the street in Vancouver trying to connect with young people who are living on the street or who are in Vancouver and who may be at some risk, they almost without exception will say that if we can find a way to stabilize a young person's housing, then we can open the door to creating opportunities for them to get back and to integrate them back into society, if they've started to drift, and we need to do that.

Yet this is an area where we simply have not done the work that we need to do to get at that area. Again, as I said, it's an area where we didn't see support in the throne speech for that.

Another area is — and this is a broader question that certainly integrates housing into it — the whole broader question of poverty generally. We know in British Columbia, and we've certainly had the debate in this House many times, about the fact that we have consistently had the highest rates of child poverty. We have the highest rates of overall poverty of all the jurisdictions in this country.

We have about a half a million people in this province, depending on whose standards you want to use, who are there in poverty, and almost a quarter of those folks are kids. They're kids. We all know, and everybody in this place would agree, that children don't get poor by themselves. Poor kids is poor families. That's the reality of the situation.

The other thing is…. We'll talk a little bit about income assistance in a minute, but one of the most troubling things here is that over half of those families, over half of those people who are living in poverty, have an income. They have a full-time income coming into the household. It's not a question of income assistance. They're earning money.

We know that for about ten years we didn't see any increase in the minimum wage, and I'd acknowledge that the Premier increased the minimum wage. But even as that increase plays itself out to get to the $10.25 an hour, we know that that helps, but it doesn't get people to where they need to be.

We know that if you were going to get to the low-income cutoff, you'd probably have to get another dollar and a bit on that. But so be it. It does help some, and I would acknowledge that. But we have not addressed the challenge, and we have not addressed the bigger challenge here, which is not just throwing money at poverty.

When you do that, you ultimately will end up back in the same place at some point if you simply look at it as a question of money, though the money is important. You need to determine how you break that cycle and break it for kids and for families. It's a very challenging thing.

I reflect on my own experience. I grew up in the Downtown Eastside. I grew up in a public housing project with my mother and my sister — on assistance and then my mom on a minimum-wage job. My friends there….

I spent all my teenage years there in Raymur housing project. When I first was nominated and was knocking on doors in 2005 in my constituency, in one of the public housing projects, I ran into four people in the Wall Street project — about 70, 80 units — who were my peers from Raymur and who now are taking care of their grandkids or whatever, their kids and their grandkids.

These are smart people. They weren't bad people. They didn't do things terribly wrong. They just could not break that cycle. They could not break that cycle, and their kids didn't break it. Sadly, it may be that their grandkids won't break it either.

We need to figure out how we get at that, because that's our responsibility — to give them tools, to create opportunities and tools to break that cycle. They need to have the initiative. They need to have the drive. They need to be prepared to do the work, but we need to create the tools and opportunities because they're not here today.

It is getting tougher and tougher, and the problem we see is that inequality is growing in this province. We know that. What the statistics are telling us is that the inequality between the top and bottom continues to grow. It's spreading, and that's a big problem.

The member for Westside-Kelowna talked about population growth, but as we saw — and I saw a news report about this the other day — for the first time, in the last year or year and a half, in fact population has declined in British Columbia. We have lost people. When they talk to people who are moving — young families, largely — they're moving away, and they're moving away because of the cost of living in British Columbia.

What we know is that we have the highest cost of living in the country, largely driven by housing costs, and we have some of the lowest average family incomes in the country. So that's creating pressures, and young families are looking elsewhere.

Stories about a family that's…. The husband and wife and a very young child are going to Newfoundland because he's able to find a job there, and while they don't want to leave, they can afford to buy a house there, and they can afford to live.

We have to find ways for those young families to have opportunities, and we have to find ways to break that cycle of poverty for those who are living in poverty.

We've spoke in here before. We know the challenges around people who are living on disabilities. We have a responsibility here.

I believe that everybody in this place would agree that those people who are particularly vulnerable — whether it be people with developmental disabilities or significant physical disabilities or other health issues…. We have a responsibility to make sure our most vulnerable citizens, like our children, are protected and have opportunity.

We're not getting that job done. We've seen recent research done out of the University of Calgary. It was remarkable research, as they measured incomes in British Columbia and Alberta and Ontario for people on disability. Interestingly, they used a number of measurements, but the base, the lowest measurement they used, was one from the Fraser Institute.

I'm hardly ever one to quote the Fraser Institute. But the measurement they used on what was the subsistence, the base level of support that they believed a person on disability required to meet their needs….

If you looked at that and measured that particular rate versus a number of other rates done by other groups and organizations, like the National Council on Welfare and others, the Fraser Institute rate was considerably lower than a number of the other rates. Yet British Columbia did not meet the Fraser Institute rate — 94 percent of it. Both Alberta and Ontario were significantly above the rate. British Columbia couldn't meet the rate.

We have to be concerned about that. You can be assured the Fraser Institute rate was the subsistence rate, if there was one, yet we couldn't figure out how to meet that standard. We have to ask ourselves questions about that.

We had the conversation earlier today in question period, and we will have this conversation more in the weeks to come, about the situation for people with developmental disabilities and about the state of Community Living B.C. and about whether those people's needs are being met.

At the end of the day, we know, and many of us will know…. I'm sure all of us have met people and have had them come to visit us, to look for our help, or we may have personal relationships with people with developmental disabilities and their families. People who have significant disabilities — you know that almost without exception I've seen their families are working hard to support them, to love them, to make their lives as good as they can be.

Sometimes, though, whether it's that their parents or their loved ones are aging and it's just getting to the point where they no longer can provide the direct support in the same way, or whether the complexity of the disability is such that they can't manage it anymore,  they need to know that that support is there.

We're hearing time and time again that in fact the levels of support that are there just aren't sufficient. They aren't adequate. The question we have to ask ourselves in this place is: is that acceptable for us in British Columbia? Is it acceptable for us to not do enough for people with disabilities? I say it's not. I say that we need to meet those needs, and we need to move forward.

In the throne speech we heard it for the second time. After the first time we kind of incorporated…. The jobs plan of the Premier was reiterated again, but it didn't deal with a number of issues, I think, that need to be dealt with. The reality, of course, about economies is this. I heard, again, the member from Westside-Kelowna talking about the economy. We would all know that largely, our economy in the province….

Provincial governments probably have a limited amount of ability to control the economy, good or bad. We can take the edges off. We can help to support. We can help to stimulate. But the reality is that global markets and the value of the dollar and interest rates probably have a whole lot more to do with how our economy works in British Columbia, positive or negative, than things we actually do in the province itself. That is just the reality.

What we can do is decide how we support people in dealing with that. The plan that we saw put forward by the Premier looked a lot like…. When I looked at the plan and looked at the pieces, mostly what I saw there is….

I was thinking back through the days of Premier Campbell. It seemed to me that most everything that I saw in that plan probably was a not-quite-fulfilled commitment of the previous Premier that had been put together in a cut-and-paste package to create the jobs plan — a very nice booklet but a cut-and-paste package for the jobs plan. That was the reality of what it was.

What we didn't see in there, I believe, was we didn't see enough emphasis on the key pieces that I think actually would deliver the support that we need in British Columbia. There are the things we can do.

First and foremost, probably, is the question of education and providing the best-educated and prepared workforce — young people and folks we're transitioning into new opportunities with the skill sets for new opportunities.

That education piece is probably one of the biggest things that we can do, to provide that. The problem of course, and we hear this time and time again, is the cost of that education is getting increasingly prohibitive. We continue to hear from students about how prohibitive it is.

Now there are students whose families have the ability to support them. That's a good thing, and we should do that. I know my daughter and school, and I have the ability to provide support. That's a good thing, and I should do that. I'm proud to do that for my daughter, but there are young people whose parents don't have that ability. We need to figure out how we provide that support.

We of course, on this side, have called for a grant program that would support those families and those young people so that they can move ahead, they can work hard in school, they can realize their dreams because they have the education. We need to provide that support.

I didn't see that support in the jobs plan that we saw released earlier. I just didn't see it there.

I didn't see the attention to apprenticeships that we need to see. We know the construction industry, and we spoke about that the other day, is in a pretty tough time now — particularly residential construction and renovations in a bit of a tough time now because of the uncertainty over the next 18 months as they wait for the HST to play itself out. New-home ownership will hopefully become appealing to people again, and renovations will be done that are being put on hold.

When all that is said and done, whether it's residential or it's commercial and industrial construction, we know that's a sector that's aging. The workers, the journeymen, the carpenters, the electricians, the plumbers — the people working with the skilled people with trades in that sector are aging. We're not finding and moving people through the apprenticeship streams to be able to put them in place to replace those workers. We need to do a better job of that.

I didn't see in that plan the level of attention to apprenticeships that we need to provide in order to move that forward and to have some success there. That's unfortunate, because construction plays a very large role. It is an important role, and those are very good jobs. Those are family-supporting jobs. They're important jobs. They help run this province, and we're starting to see a gap there that I worry that we're not filling.

We need to do more in terms of working with that sector and working to ensure that there's opportunity there and that we're in fact encouraging that opportunity by providing some incentive.

As we look at the plan, we look at what's not in the throne speech. We don't see the level of support for vulnerable British Columbians that I believe has to be there. It's simply not there.

We don't see the education component there that will create probably the biggest single thing that we can do to support the economy of British Columbia, which is to have the best skilled workforce possible. That means paying more attention to our education system to improve that skill set there.

We're not seeing the reduction in levels of inequality in this province. We're not seeing strategies to reduce the inequality in the province that will take the pressures off in terms of cost of living that we're now seeing leading to younger people, young families starting out, looking to leave the province and go elsewhere because the pressures of cost of living are such here that they're not able to find the opportunities or afford the opportunities in British Columbia.

All of these are challenges that we need to pay more attention to. All of these are challenges that as government we need to focus on and pay attention to. They are all challenges that the throne speech did not address. They are all challenges that the throne speech was largely silent on. Because of that, you have a level of concern about whether this government is seriously looking at the issues that face British Columbia.

We've seen that commentary starting to grow. I think it was reflected…. We saw it in a Province editorial today that talked about whether the Premier was being serious enough about the important issues in this province. It's not just the Premier. I think that's a fair comment on the cabinet and the government generally — whether there are new ideas or whether this government has run out of gas. That's the question that's now in front of British Columbians.

Increasingly, when they look at the initiatives, and they look at the throne speech that's supposed to be the plan for the future, they're not seeing the pieces that build confidence, I believe, for people in this province. Without that confidence we will begin to see that growing discrepancy. We'll see more people leaving the province. We'll see more concern about what the future holds for people's families. All of that is where we're going. All of that is the reality of what we're going to see.

Over the next few weeks we'll get to debate this in more detail. We'll look forward to see what kind of legislation the government brings forward to try to put some flesh on the throne speech. Some of it was vague enough that it's hard to know, so we'll look to see what kind of flesh gets put on that in terms of legislative initiatives that come forward, whether they are initiatives that actually advance the cause of British Columbia or they're more of the gimmickry kinds of things that we've seen so far from the government. Time will tell. We'll see what that looks like, and then we'll move forward from there.

I look forward to the next few weeks. It's always great to be here. It's great to be in this place. It's great to be doing the job here that my constituents expect me to do as a Member of the Legislature, to be in here debating the issues that are important to the people of British Columbia and important to the people of Vancouver-Hastings.

I look forward to that, and I look forward to the opportunity to engage this debate with members of the government and to be able to do this in a way that, hopefully, allows the people of British Columbia to continue to make their determination about who best represents the future of British Columbia.

I'm confident about what that decision is. I'm confident and look forward to an election in 2013, when that determination will be made by the people of British Columbia and when we'll have the opportunity to bring forward real progressive government in British Columbia for the first time in over a decade — government that is meaningful and puts British Columbians first. It'll be a great day. I look forward to May 2013.

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