HALIFAX — Tim Houston, one of Canada's newest premiers, says the job is much more than it appears to be from the outside.
After eight years on the opposition benches — including three years as party leader — Houston is now four months into his tenure as premier of Nova Scotia, after leading the Progressive Conservatives to a decisive majority win in last summer's election. In a recent end-of-year interview, he reflected on his new role and on the big challenges he'll have to tackle in 2022.
"It's really hard to prepare yourself for the number of issues that exist in the province at any one time," Houston said. "There's just a lot going on."
Like other leaders across Canada, the most pressing concern for Houston is managing the COVID-19 pandemic, including the recent sharp rise in cases driven by the Omicron variant of the novel coronavirus. But there is a series of other issues on Houston's mind: the environment, the controversial clear-cutting of the province's forests, the shortage of affordable housing, and the Tories' campaign promise to transform the health-care system.
The Tories came to power mainly because of their campaign's singular focus of fixing the problems in health care, including the lack of long-term care beds for seniors, the delays resulting from overcrowded hospital emergency rooms, and the shortage of health-care professionals, such as nurses.
Houston said Nova Scotians should begin to see some progress in 2022 regarding access to primary care. The government will link more patients to virtual care providers and recruit and retain more family doctors, he said. As of Dec. 1, more than 82,000 Nova Scotians were on a wait list for a family doctor.
The premier, however, was noncommittal when asked about specific targeted goals for health care in the new year. "I think you'll see the needle move at least marginally on a lot of these things, but Nova Scotians should know that the focus is there."
On the COVID-19 front, Nova Scotia recently tightened its restrictions on such things as masking, gathering limits and restaurant closing hours in the face of a significant outbreak fuelled by the rapidly spreading Omicron mutation. The restrictions are in effect until at least Jan. 12.
Still, Houston said he sees some hope, noting that doctors and scientists know more about the virus than they did at the start of the pandemic. "The variants always create new wrinkles, but we've worked quickly to understand more about them, and vaccination rates are high in Nova Scotia."
And the days of fully shutting down the economy with tight lockdowns have likely passed, he said.
"There will be time like right now when we need to take steps to slow the spread of this new variant, but there's no discussion that I've been aware of that's talking anything along the lines of stopping things as we have had to do in the past."
On another prominent issue — climate change — Houston said the government will introduce a new plan in 2022, which will outline how it plans to meet specific targets that were set into legislation last fall. The targets include commitments to phase out coal-fired electricity generation by 2030, to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to at least 53 per cent below 2005 levels by 2030, and to achieve net-zero emissions by 2050.
Houston is also keeping a keen eye on another environmental file, which has ramifications for his own Pictou County riding. The environmental assessment process is underway for Northern Pulp's estimated $350-million plan to reopen its idled kraft pulp mill near the town of Pictou.
Among other things, the company is proposing to discharge treated effluent into the Pictou harbour estuary from the mill's location in Abercrombie Point, something a number of people, including Pictou Mayor Jim Ryan, have said there's "very little tolerance for."
Houston said he has personal concerns about that aspect of the plan, adding that the onus is on the company to prove that what it wants to do is "OK."
"Anyone who advances any type of plan that could possibly have an impact on our water, and beaches, and way of life, has a lot of work to do to satisfy Nova Scotians that there won't be any impact."
As the new year approaches, Houston, who isn't shy about touting himself and his government as being "progressive," maintains Nova Scotians will see that things are getting done.
"It's my hope that they are surprised at how we are actually executing on what we said we would do," he said, "because they are not used to that from governments."
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Dec. 30, 2021.
Keith Doucette, The Canadian Press