N.B. passes motion to improve air quality in public buildings, reduce spread of airborne illnesses

New Brunswick currently has 54 schools without proper ventilation systems after 10 schools were upgraded last year. (Ivanoh Demers/Radio-Canada - image credit)
New Brunswick currently has 54 schools without proper ventilation systems after 10 schools were upgraded last year. (Ivanoh Demers/Radio-Canada - image credit)

A motion by the Official Opposition to update the New Brunswick Clean Air Act and improve air quality in public buildings to reduce the spread of airborne illnesses, such as COVID-19, has passed unanimously.

The government is not obligated to take action on Motion 36, noted Liberal health critic Jean-Claude D'Amours, who opened and closed the debate on the issue in the legislature this week.

"It's one thing to have support from the government, that's very good, yes." the MLA for Edmundston-Madawaska Centre asked in French.. "But now, what concrete actions will the government take to implement new legislation?"

"Without any actions, we will limit what we did today."

Still, D'Amours is hopeful the government will undertake an in-depth review of the act, which dates back to 1997; implement new, higher standards; and invest in equipment, such as ventilation systems to help protect the health of students, hospital patients, seniors in long-term care homes and other New Brunswickers.

It's the "right thing" to do, he said.

Motion 36, tabled in April by Liberal MLA Gilles LePage, the opposition critic on the environment, urges the government to "modernize New Brunswick's air quality laws and standards with a goal of bringing forward a strengthened Clean Air Act and modernized regulations."

In addition, it calls on the government to "bring forward a plan to monitor, report, and improve air quality systems in public buildings like hospitals, schools, and government buildings to mitigate the risks associated with the transfer of airborne illnesses, airborne contaminants, and other harmful agents."

The unanimous vote Thursday came just hours after Premier Blaine Higgs faced a rebellion by six ministers and two backbench MLAs over changes to Policy 713, which was designed to protect LGBTQ students, and said he was willing to call an election.

The legislature erupted into applause and someone shouted "woo hoo" when the Liberal motion was carried 44-0 — with one amendment.

Supply chain problems

Transportation and Infrastructure Minister Jeff Carr moved that the following clause be deleted: "Whereas, while other Maritime provinces like P.E.I. and Nova Scotia are making strategic investments in systems that improve air quality and ventilation through programs like the federal COVID-19 resilience fund, New Brunswick has not yet made these investments a priority."

Carr argued the government has a multi-year capital project program to either install new mechanical ventilation systems in schools that don't have one, or replace the schools themselves.

Ten schools received new ventilation systems last year through an $8 million investment, including seven of the 37 that had elevated carbon dioxide readings, data from the Department of Education shows.

Eleven more schools are scheduled to get new systems this year, at an estimated cost of $13.1 million.


But the government faces supply chain problems, said Carr. Many of the ventilation system components are difficult to obtain because they come from other continents, such as Asia, South America and Europe, and are on back order, he said. There is also a shortage of skilled labour to install the systems, said  Carr.

"So that puts us in a place where we have to continue to order, we have to continue to plan, but we may not always be able to catch-up all these schools in a timely manner like we'd like to."

Holt thanks citizens for advocacy

Liberal Leader Susan Holt said the "whereas" clause was included in the motion to reflect that while other provinces used the federal funding for clean-air infrastructure, New Brunswick opted instead to use it for projects such as the rehabilitation of a sand dome in Grand Manan and upgrades to maintenance depots that house equipment to repair snow removal assets.

But she supported the amendment to remove the clause "in the interest of recognizing the support that the government members have shown for this bill."

It became clear that this wasn't something that just a handful of parents or engineers or people passionate about the environment cared about. - Susan Holt, Liberal leader

"It's a good day when we can collaborate for something in the best interest of New Brusnwickers," she said.

Holt thanked the New Brunswickers who brought the issue to her party's attention — people who expressed concern, "did their homework," looked up standards, and developed expertise. It was their passion and activism that showed there was a "meaningful opportunity to improve the air in New Brunswick for all."

She noted a video posted on social media of LePage presenting the motion got "tens of thousands" of views and shares.

"It became clear that this wasn't something that just a handful of parents or engineers or people passionate about the environment cared about. This was something that thousands and thousands of New Brunswickers thought was important."

'Big step'

Ryan Murphy, a high school teacher in Saint John, who posted the video and advocated changes, said Friday he is pleased and proud.

He described hearing MLAs from all parties agree on the need  for improved indoor air quality as a mitigation for airborne contaminants as a "big step."

"We had not previously heard our provincial government — including Public Health — acknowledge, in particular, the airborne transmission of COVID," said Murphy.

"But it is only a step. Now that there is agreement, we must act."

Submitted by Ryan Murphy
Submitted by Ryan Murphy

Green Party Leader David Coon also called for urgent action with "considerable public engagement," particularly when it comes to schools, where children spend so much of their time, while their brains and bodies are still developing.

Children are at greater risk when exposed to same level of contaminants as adults, he said, and air quality also affects their ability to learn.

"We shouldn't be economizing on ventilation in our schools or other public buildings," Coon said.