It is not very often that premier Christy Clark comes to town. In fact, her visit on Tuesday, January 24, was the first time she had been in Powell River since becoming premier in March of 2011.
At a Powell River Chamber of Commerce meet and greet event, Clark made no major funding announcement, such as the one she made earlier in the day in Campbell River ($13.5 million for trades at its North Island College campus). Instead, Clark spent time speaking in general terms about her platform for the upcoming provincial election.
Before her public appearance at the chamber event, the premier’s office offered the Peak 20 minutes of the premier’s time to ask whatever we wanted. Naturally, we focused on issues that directly affect Powell River.
The last time you visited Powell River was early 2011, right before you took office as premier. Why did it take so long to come back?
Well, this community is an important one and we’ve been paying attention to it, as you know. We have a brand new, LNG-powered ferry coming on, including some other investments that we have made. The timing for [visiting] now is that an election is coming up.
A lot of people didn’t want you to come to Powell River at all. They said things like, “Don’t let her off the plane,” and nasty things like that.
Oh, a lot of people? Come on.
Well, people on our social media, on our website, comments that we’ve heard, so, yes, a lot of people in Powell River. How do you respond to that kind of criticism in a small town you are showing up in, and where there is definitely a lot of push-back on you coming?
There are people who want to oppose the government all the time, any time, no matter what, and part of being involved is having a thick skin. I understand a few people feel really deeply partisan, but most people, they just want jobs. They just want to feed their kids and make sure their voice is heard by a strong MLA in Victoria. That’s not that complicated and I think it’s the way most people live their lives, and most of them probably don’t send letters to the newspaper and go on social media. There will always be those people and it’s part of politics, but I try and focus on the majority of people, rather than the few people who are on either end of the fringe.
Transportation is a huge issue for people in Powell River. It’s the one thing that always comes up, especially with the ferries. What can the province do to make it easier to travel in and out of this place?
Well, we have the new ferry coming, which will be great. The decrepit old ferry with all of the maintenance issues, it was terrible. So we’re having that replaced and you will be getting delivery of the new ferry in March, which will be fantastic and much less polluting. With the new docks on each side, that’s a big help. But you know we are in the middle of this fixed-link study, which I know is way more popular in Powell River than maybe down in Gibsons and the communities farther south. We don’t know if it will go ahead or not, but we’re making a sincere effort to work on it, because if it can work it would be good for the communities; it would be fantastic for Powell River.
Which of the fixed-link options do you support?
I haven’t injected myself into that debate. It should be community-driven and it shouldn’t be driven by politicians. It should be driven by planners, obviously, because it has to be the right technical option, but in terms of all the other options that are there, that should be driven by the communities.
The ferry service became so bad last year that our mayor suggested we run our own ferry system.
The idea went away and didn’t come up again, but in the summer we had more problems with replacement vessels. What can we do to fix it? Other than the new ferry, what can we do with scheduling and all the other things people are complaining about?
We need to continue to grow BC Ferries ridership. Tourism is up by 18 per cent in the province, BC Ferries ridership is up by over 10 per cent; that’s huge money for BC Ferries and that is money we reinvest back into more ferries, routes and services. When more people use the ferries, it’s better for everyone who uses them. I use the ferries a lot myself and I see the cafeteria is full. On a Tuesday you can’t run a bowling ball down the walkway. It’s really changed and tourism has been a big part of that for us. Powell River has a huge opportunity ahead of it and transportation connectivity is going to be really important for that.
One of the barriers to tourism, especially with the Sunshine Coast Trail and the beautiful backcountry we have, is the logging activity. How do we balance tourism with logging?
We need to find a way to do that and there is always a way to do both. Sometimes we find the balance in terms of projects like the Great Bear Rainforest, which took 10 years to negotiate. Logging is happening in other places and we have found that balance; it’s important we remember that both need to happen. This still is a forest-dependent community and we need to support those workers and those jobs, but at the same time we have to do it carefully and well so we can also preserve those opportunities for tourism. But, more importantly, to make sure the beautiful environment is there for our kids. I have never been a believer that we have to say no to all resource development in order to protect our environment. I think you can do both.
Has your focus on LNG taken away from other industries in this province, especially in smaller, rural areas such as Powell River?
No. Our jobs plan has eight sectors in it and we’ve seen growth in almost all eight. In forestry, we’ve seen really healthy balance sheets and we’ve been very focused trying to get a softwood deal. Our mining industry has struggled over the years with low commodity prices, but we’ve kept that going, and that’s been a lot of really purposeful effort. Agriculture and aquaculture is growing as well. For the critics who say that, my response would be this: we don’t even have an LNG plant up and running yet and we have the fastest growing economy in the country, three times faster than the rest of the country combined. That tells you we have been focused on all the sectors of the economy. The one we are still getting moving is LNG, but all of the other sectors, like international education, this community has really benefited from foreign students coming here; that’s been a big investment that we’ve made in marketing overseas, and tourism is also a growing industry. So we have eight sectors and we’ve focused on all of them. We don’t get to number one in the country in growth by only focusing on one thing. Our new jobs plan has as its first goal to have the most diversified economy in the country. We’re almost there.
You mentioned international students. We had an Agricultural Land Reserve exclusion denied and it was a fairly small parcel for the Sino Bright School. Meanwhile, there is this huge exclusion for the Site C Dam. How can you help people here understand that a small exclusion we applied for is denied, yet you had a huge exclusion for Site C?
I would say Site C is absolutely unique. It is the last major dam that will be built in Canada. It’s going to give a generation of British Columbians green, clean, low-cost power. The Agricultural Land Commission (ALC) makes its own decisions about these kinds of projects and we need to keep them independent of politicians. Those decisions don’t always go the way politicians want them to either, but we have an obligation not to interfere. The principle is if politicians start interfering in those decisions, and the decisions are being made on sound science and judgement, then we’d really just be chipping away at the heart of the ALC all over the province. In communities that are industrializing and urbanizing, like this one, there is huge pressure to develop in productive agricultural land, so it’s finding that balance.
I’m confused, because it was your cabinet that overturned the ALC’s decision on Site C. So how is that not interfering with the process?
On rare occasions, exclusions are given for projects deemed to be in the provincial interest, which is what was done regarding Site C. But what government does not do is interfere in the day-to-day operations of the ALC and the decisions it makes.
We have a province-wide housing crisis. Smaller communities like Powell River are struggling as well, and I know it’s a problem that is very focused on urban centres such as Vancouver and Victoria, but what kind of progress can we see in smaller communities for affordable housing in the coming year?
We have the biggest budget for affordable housing in the country for one year; it’s $855 million. We want to make sure we see some of that come to Powell River for affordable housing. In addition to that, I know an emergency shelter has been a real issue because of the cold weather, so I just found out that BC Housing has begun its work on an emergency shelter for Powell River and will have more details about where it will be and what it will look like starting in February.
We do not have enough health-care services to support our population, especially our seniors, who are really suffering in this community as far as access to services and specialists is concerned. What is the solution to that?
We need to be focused as a province on more community and home-based care. We need to be focused on supporting senior citizens to be able to stay in their communities and homes much longer. It’s a way better quality of life and people live longer when you do that. So that means investment in a different way. We have been focused for a long time on investing in really big hospitals; there’s been $7 billion spent on hospitals and that’s been a good investment. Now is the time to shift gears, especially because smaller communities don’t have bigger hospitals in them; it’s to focus more on community-based care. It can be equally good in an urban community, but the model works especially well in smaller communities. And that’s not just building community care, but building a group-care model, where you have a doctor, a nurse practitioner, a nutritionist, you have rehab, and a whole team of people there to support people in the community, rather than having to leave to get care. I think that’s the future for health care in Powell River.
We talked earlier about industry and the plans the government has. How can you create new industry in places like smaller, remote communities such as Powell River?
Powell River is still a resource-based community. We want to support you in diversifying; that means more tech businesses, more tourism opportunities, like that brewery that’s going gangbusters. It’s good beer; I should stop there before I leave. We do want to continue to support you in developing tourism and ferry service and roads are part of that. We also need to support Catalyst Paper Corporation. We need to support the Texada mine, and I certainly hope that gets resolved quickly. We want those workers back to work because they spend their money in this community. Those are examples of very highly paid jobs and the benefits those workers get radiate right through the community; all of that money is spent here. So, we need to make sure we are all focusing on getting to “yes” for resource development. Getting back to your earlier question, there are always people who will complain loudly about any change, but I believe in jobs. I believe in good jobs for working people.
What do you think of mayor Dave Formosa?
I think he has been a remarkable mayor. You see the diversification in this community. He’s an example of how leadership makes a difference, how creative thinkers who are determined to get something done can really change a community. And he loves this community. He is one of the best mayors in British Columbia.
What does the future hold for Powell River?
People here have a vision of a diversified economy; one where kids can grow up here and receive an education that they can use here for a job. Because who wants to leave? Look at you, right, you came back as fast as you could. That’s the kind of community Powell River is, that’s what people want it to be, and it’s been a long time since you could have your kids here and be certain they would be able to have a local job. So the future for that is to say we want to support the resources industries that are here, maybe attract some new opportunities and resources, but also diversify the economy in tech, in tourism, and attract some new businesses and opportunities, because it’s diversity that creates certainty for jobs.