The first legislative session of 2021 began this week amid a grueling pandemic and an unrelenting overdose crisis, and the BC Green caucus intends to advocate for ramped up mental health supports and more government transparency.
“I don't think anybody out there is like, ‘No, I'm good. Everything's perfectly fine,’” said BC Green Party Leader Sonia Furstenau in an interview on Feb. 24. “The priority going into this session really is about mental health and what government can do to better support people's mental health. We want to see some pretty significant steps taken on that front.”
The legislative session began Mar. 1 and will run, with breaks, until June 17.
Furstenau has repeatedly argued for the inclusion of psychologists in primary healthcare teams, and for psychological counselling to be covered by public healthcare.
Thus far, the Province has declined to include counselling under the Medical Services Plan. When pressed by Furstenau during Question Period on Dec. 9, Mental Health and Addictions Minister Sheila Malcolmson suggested British Columbians experiencing immediate mental health distress should call the 811 COVID-19 call-in helpline for assistance.
“We have to be able to recognize mental healthcare and healthcare are the same thing,” Furstenau said in February. People should be able to access it as part of their primary healthcare without a cost barrier, she said.
“Counselling is very expensive,” said Mackenzie Kerr, co-chair of the BC Greens youth council, and former 2020 Green party candidate for Prince George-Valemount. “Including mental health in our provincial health care would be absolutely huge right now, crucial.”
Having someone to talk to for a professional opinion is important, said Kerr. “If you're just stuck in the same loop every day staying home, it can become very lonely, and you can talk yourself in circles in your head.”
The year-long (and counting) pandemic has also exacerbated the province’s opioid health emergency, making 2020 the deadliest year yet for illicit drug overdoses. Of the 8,530 people who died from illicit drug overdoses in B.C. the past decade, 20 per cent lost their lives last year. In 2020 alone, paramedics attended more than 17,000 overdose events, including 1,250 in the north, which had the highest rate of deaths in the province last year.
The cost of waiting until people are in crisis and needing emergency healthcare system is far more expensive than providing proactive mental health supports when people seek them, said Furstenau.
Other issues for the Greens this session relate to trust and transparency, Furstenau said.
Since last September, the legislature has been in session eight days. In previous years over the same period, fall legislative sessions ranged from 20 days in 2019 to 41 days in 2017.
“During a time when people are feeling increasingly concerned about how government is making decisions,” said Furstenau, “we've had very limited and very restricted opportunity to be able to ask the questions of government that it is our job as elected representatives to ask.”
Now, more than ever, governments need to ensure they have the trust of their citizens, she said. Crisis situations require collective action, and the public must trust the people asking them to make sacrifices for the common good.
Mistrust of experts was the number one determinant of vaccine hesitancy, according to a study entitled Understanding Vaccine Hesitancy in Canada, by McGill University and University of Toronto researchers. Mistrust of key figures and institutions is now driving online conversations and skepticism about vaccines as much as safety concerns, revealed First Draft, an international research coalition of journalists and academics.
“People want to understand; people want to have an explanation,” Furstenau said. “If it's not forthcoming from government, they will look elsewhere for those explanations. And it's dangerous.”
The government’s handling of the now $16 billion Site C dam project in the province’s northeast also raises serious concerns around trust, transparency and accountability, Furstenau said. “Government has not been forthcoming with information reports, terms of reference, and even quarterly reports from BC Hydro have not been released publicly for a year now.”
Another significant 2021 priority for the Greens will be holding government to its commitment to implement recommendations from last year’s old growth review panel, A New Future for Old Forests. A key recommendation called for immediate protection of old forests in ‘high and near-term risk of irreversible biodiversity loss.’
“Yet, we keep hearing and seeing evidence of ongoing logging of old growth,” said Furstenau. “The reality is, this is not a sustainable activity.”
Communities need help from governments to transition from old growth logging into sustainable economic activities, Furstenau said.
Turning away from old growth logging is a tough sell in Northern BC, but communities would do it if there were alternatives, said Kerr, a University of Northern BC forestry student.
“If they were given more options of renewable projects,” Kerr said, “we know that they will be choosing those instead.”
Conservation financing would help communities break free of dependence on boom or bust resource development projects that only deplete resources, Furstenau said, pointing to land-based aquaculture, landscape restoration, ecotourism, and sustainable agriculture and agritech as possible alternatives.
“We're sort of trapped in an eternal present in our politics, when what we have to recognize is every decision we make shapes the future,” said Furstenau. “What should future generations and communities expect from us in our decision-making right now?”
Fran@thegoatnews.ca / @FranYanor
Fran Yanor, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Rocky Mountain Goat