The following interview with Powell River-Sunshine Coast MLA and BC minister of social development and poverty reduction Nicholas Simons was conducted on November 9, shortly after the latest legislative assembly session concluded.
Peak: This most recent legislative session was the first in a long time where most MLAs attended in person. What was that like?
Simons: What’s really nice is that I can meet my colleagues in person. We can have hallway chats, we can sort of drop in on each other, occasionally. And so we get a better ability to support one another in our jobs as MLAs, and some of the new MLAs just met for the first time since we’ve been in session.
Peak: Is the premier’s cancer diagnosis likely to impact your day-to-day work?
Simons: Obviously, there’s an aura of sadness around premier John Horgan having to go through treatment for throat cancer, but he’s strong. His voice sounded good when I heard him.
In terms of my day-to-day work, and my colleagues’ day-to-day work, we have our mandate letters, but I think premier Horgan’s got a good team around him, as well. But in terms of us getting the work done, he’s made clear that we need to continue doing what we need to do, and he’s feeling very confident and strong.
Peak: Some health regions in the province, like Northern Health, which has a relatively low vaccination rate, have been overwhelmed with new COVID-19 cases over the past two months. The province has taken some steps, like requiring health workers to be vaccinated, that other provinces, such as Ontario and Quebec, have not implemented. What are your thoughts on the steps being taken in BC? Do they go far enough?
Simons: I think the track record of our public health officials and our government demonstrate the strength of our response, and they’ve been based on scientific evidence, and the kind of deliberation that is needed when we’re talking about some significant changes to public access to public areas, and the ability to work in certain professions.
Our goals are being accomplished, despite the fact that in certain regions, extra pressures are having domino effects on other parts of the province. I know three people who died in the last two weeks, which is a lot, but that’s how fast the virus can cause problems.
I understand people whose positions are different on this, and there’s very little common ground with respect to that, except for, I think, a mutual desire for us to be past this pandemic. And if we want to talk about comparing historical eras, people are free to do that, but I find a lot of that has not been fully informed.
Peak: Are you alluding to the comparisons between the Holocaust and vaccination rules being made by anti-vaccination activists?
Simons: Yes, absolutely. I think about my nephew, the grandson of a Jewish lawyer born in Germany who had to flee in 1936 to Holland, and then in 1939 to Canada, and his grandson had the vaccination and suffered health consequences because of it, including myocarditis, but thinks the vaccination is a necessary step to ensure the rest of the population is protected.
So when people want to use the Holocaust as an example of a restriction on rights, it’s maddening, because not everybody has had the experience of family members being killed because of their religion, or their cultural status, versus people not being able to sit down in a restaurant.
Peak: Regarding the government’s decision to defer logging of 2.6 million hectares of old-growth forests, pending First Nations approval, some First Nations have said the 30-day window for deciding on the deferrals is far too short, and other groups have expressed concerns about the impact this deferral might have on jobs. What are your thoughts on this, and what have you heard from within the qathet community?
Simons: Well, primarily I’m hearing that people wanted us to fulfill our promise to enact the 14 recommendations in the [A New Future for Old Forests report]. One of those recommendations was to defer the ancient and environmentally at-risk ecosystems.
Many First Nations have been actively discussing their deferrals, so the 30-day window for most, I think, is not the fundamental issue. It may be an issue for some. My hope is that the ministry will be helpful in that process as much as possible.
The forest sector has undergone major changes, and it continues to, and there will be impacts. And if those impacts are going to be felt in our communities, my expectation is that the support and the building of resilience our government is trying to do at the same time will offset some of the negative impacts.
Peak: Can you say with confidence whether there will be any impact on jobs from this decision in the qathet region, and what support there will be if there is any impact?
Simons: I’m presuming there are impacts for people in [qathet]. How the impacts manifest themselves largely depends on what kind of deferrals occur in this area. There is expectation that Tla’amin and shíshálh [nations] will both be expressing their interest to the government, and that’s happening on a government-to-government basis.
Obviously, my hope is that people find themselves in a situation where they can be bridged to retirement. I think the government will be finding ways to address those impacts as they become evident.
Peak: Your government announced plans last month to end direct funding to families of children with autism by 2025, and to replace it with a centralized hub service model. Autism advocacy groups have expressed strong concerns that this system will not provide more support, and that they were not consulted about the change. What are your thoughts?
Simons: I don’t think there was a lack of consultation, but there may be continued disagreement on the choices the government is making, and I respect the disagreements over the program structure.
I point out that the transition to the new system is going to be done over four years, in large part to address concerns of those who may be the most impacted. But fundamentally, what the province is trying to do is to build a system that allows for children to receive the necessary interventions earlier, regardless of diagnosis, and in no way do we think that diagnosis shouldn’t also occur. But we shouldn’t wait until [diagnoses] happen in order to provide services.
Peak: The government is currently working on legislation that will significantly change how freedom of information requests work in the province. These changes have been heavily criticized from all sides for several reasons, including the indication that fees may be as high as $25 for filing general requests. How do you justify these changes?
Simons: My hope is that it doesn’t impede people’s access to important information. What the province has determined is that the system was badly overburdened and that by proactively disclosing considerably more information than previous governments, including all transition binders for new ministers, that will now not need to be specifically sought. So there’s that side of it as well.
Obviously I hear people’s concerns, and I do my best to ensure that those concerns are heard by decision-makers.