Honourable Peter Bevan-Baker, MLA New Haven-Rocky Point
Leader of the Official Opposition
*CHECK AGAINST DELIVERY
The central defining characteristic of our country is the constant tension between the unique and somewhat independent provinces that are also part of a grand singular collective called Canada.
As Canada’s smallest province, Prince Edward Island has all of the jurisdictional privileges of the other provinces with all of the unique benefits that come with being able to craft our own path suited to our particular situation.
The last year has very clearly shown us the benefits of this relative independence. We were, at least from a public health perspective, able to navigate the pandemic arguably better than any other place on Earth. This is in large part as a result of our ability to make our own choices, and because of our “Islandness.”
That doesn’t mean we weren’t susceptible to the economic and social disruption that accompanied the pandemic. This is a pivotal moment in history, and presents our province with a rich opportunity to respond to that disruption and to set our sights on a future that will best meet the needs of all Islanders. Our Island’s greatest strength is our collective sense of responsibility and well-being. This social cohesion is responsible for the strong community resilience which helped guide us through the pandemic, and it is the same force that will craft our prosperous future together.
The Official Opposition envisages a future that works to repair the damage of the pre-COVID economy and creates a regenerative Island economy built on the fact that everyone is equal and deserves to be treated as such, and that we are all part of the Earth. The well-being of all people and the planet will flow from the work we will do together, recognising that caring for each other and the Earth is the most important work of all. Here on Prince Edward Island, we have the opportunity to create our own future, sweeping away the systemic structures of an unjust and unsustainable world, and replacing that with a society that instills balance and provides dignity and security for all.
Government will play a central role in achieving this vision, and while it may seem that everything has changed since the great disruption last March, many of the issues the Official Opposition raised about the Throne Speech in 2019 are still present today, and still in desperate need of attention.
A Throne Speech is the time for government to express its biggest dreams and to tether those dreams to practical and attainable policy. Making good choices now, in all these areas, will set Prince Edward Island up for a future that is both fair and sustainable.
COVID has presented challenges, but also opportunities. It presents us with an opening to imagine a different kind of future. Politics when practiced skillfully will choose policies that pave the way to a better future: politicians are, in one sense, succession planners, and when we do our job well, our children, and their children, and their children benefit from our work.
I am constantly reminding myself of the privilege we have by virtue of our place in this House, of being able to introduce ideas, debate them, and pass them into law. Only the 27 of us who sit in these seats are able to do that, and it is both a heady prospect and heavy responsibility. This chamber can be both inspiring and exasperating. It is at its best when we bring forward big ideas and debate them with open minds and good hearts. It is at its worst when the chamber is overtaken, as it all too often is, by small-minded pettiness and partisanship.
The gift of jurisdiction we have as a small province gives us broad responsibilities on some of the issues that most profoundly impact Islanders’ daily lives. We can, to a far greater extent than most comparably sized places, chart our own course. We can be bold, we can be innovative, we can be unique. I call on us – those who sit here, at this time, in this place – to be just that: courageous and imaginative in our deliberations and decisions.
There is much wrong in the world, and we have a chance to face up to it: the injustice, the exploitation, the damage being done to individuals, communities, and the natural world. Perhaps we can’t change the whole world from here, but we surely can change this little corner of it that we are blessed to call home; Prince Edward Island.
Mr. Speaker, I sense a deep unrest in our community. I’m sure many of you feel it too. There was a time when citizens had confidence that their governments could look out for the common good; that they had the power to shape things. I speak to a lot of people who fear that this is no longer the case—that things are quite literally out of control. And by that I mean out of the control of the democratic institutions in which we have placed our trust and faith for hundreds of years, or in the case of the Indigenous people of this land, who have their own sophisticated democratic systems, for hundreds of generations and tens of thousands of years.
The power of influence has shifted from democratically elected governments to institutions much bigger, more powerful, and richer than most national governments: corporations. Where once governments could control boundaries and set national policies that reflected the will of its citizens, now our economy is increasingly dominated by businesses beyond the control of governments. The ability—or more accurately, the political will— to raise sufficient taxes to provide high quality essential services, like health care, education, transportation, and elder care, has been eroded to the point where we see private enterprises stepping into all these areas, often with negative impacts. The closure of regional transportation hubs and routes, for example, the unequal access to post-secondary education, and most recently and devastatingly, deaths in overcrowded and understaffed seniors’ homes — though thankfully we’ve avoided that here. This is often the result of these very corporations lobbying and pressuring government for lower tax rates, perks, and incentives. These may be a boon for the corporations, but they are a liability for government. These corporate perks lower government’s fiscal capacity while those corporations benefit greatly.
We have transitioned from a market economy to a market society, where increasingly everything is for sale, and it is difficult to distinguish citizens from consumers. We have conceded the paving of the road ahead to entities that are more concerned about next quarter profits than they are about the next generation. And quite predictably, this has led to a society where young people enter the workforce — if there is even employment available — to precarious, low-paying jobs without benefits or protections, unable to afford housing, and for those who attend post-secondary education, crippled by debt, and all of them, by stresses that are impacting their mental health. It is no wonder that our province chronically struggles to retain our best and brightest young people.
We have an opportunity to reimagine our future; to decide that quality of life is more important than money. We can reflect in our path forward for Prince Edward Island the reality that we are one human family on a shared planet. We can decide that 500 years of colonialism is enough. We can reject and dismantle the systemic racism and discrimination that has plagued our society for centuries. We can challenge the unjust power structures where the voices of the privileged few speak for the majority. We can decide that centuries of growing, expanding corporate power is enough. We can decide that centuries of burning fossil fuels is enough. We can, and must, confront and move on from all these things that have come to dominate our society and which cause us so much distress and dissatisfaction.
Prince Edward Island is uniquely placed to move on to a better place and to secure for our citizens, both present and future, the autonomy, dignity, democracy, freedom, safety, equity, and opportunity to seek meaning that is our birthright.
As we emerge from the pandemic, there will be many important choices to make about how we collectively recover and rebuild, choices that will affect Islanders for decades to come. We may never be able to return all aspects of Island life to pre-pandemic conditions — and in some respects, that is probably ok. In this moment, right now, we are presented with the opportunity to rebuild our economy and our province and our society in a way that is fairer, cleaner, and more inclusive for all.
This post-pandemic recovery will take a great deal of work. While all Islanders and businesses will be involved in this work, it is government that must take the lead on planning the recovery so that no Islanders are left behind.
Yesterday we heard the Speech from the Throne. It represented what is meant to be government’s vision for the province. And what a trite, timid, and tepid vision for our Island it was. At a time of such great opportunity, why show so much political restraint: so little willingness to be bold and audacious? From what we heard yesterday, it seems the Premier is happy with maintaining the status quo. He is content with the state of our mental health and addictions services. He is fine with the housing crisis we face. He is okay to see so many Islanders without a family doctor. In fact, he went as far as to say it is unrealistic for Islanders to expect to have a physician dedicated to their health. It seems the Premier is giving up on the issues that are so very critical to the health and wellbeing of Islanders.
So why did his government need a reset? I’m really not sure why the Premier felt a reset for his government agenda was needed when what we heard yesterday simply commits to largely continuing to do what it was already doing. This government is choosing to step back from a future that is beckoning us – begging us – to think big and to be daring. If ever there was a time when governments have been called not to step back, but to step up, it is now. This is why I have called this Throne Speech timid, trite, and tepid.
That alone is disappointing, if not shocking. But I cannot fathom how the Premier feels the work his government has been doing is anywhere near satisfactory in addressing the wicked problems Islanders are facing. These problems existed long before the pandemic and, if no definitive action is taken, will continue to persist long after COVID is a thing of the past.
This is a critical time in Island history, and demands a historic and bold response from government — this Speech from the Throne was not that.
Government is not prepared to be the leader Islanders need at this time of upheaval and uncertainty. When you hear words like ‘our approach will be evolutionary and not revolutionary’, you know government has checked out.
Evolution is a term we used to describe change over generations. Truthfully, I should not be surprised—slow change over generations has been a hallmark of the Liberal and Conservative governments that have led this province. Unfortunately, Mr. Speaker, the change our Province desperately needs today cannot happen over generations. It is needed now.
I recall sitting in this House just a few years ago, and hearing the Conservatives chastise the “tired Liberal government”. Ironically, the Premier and his Conservative government have been in power for just two years and already they appear tired, unwilling, and incapable of presenting a decisive vision for a post-COVID PEI.
It also seems to be a pattern of the Premier, to woo Islanders with wonderful promises and stories. Admittedly, this is the Premier practicing his skillset of good story-telling. But it’s not stories that make meaningful improvements to the health and success of our province and its people—rather, it’s good policy. Islanders have been very clear and vocal on their dissatisfaction with the response of the Premier and his cabinet on the critical issues that are impacting families, youth, seniors, and Island businesses.
By our count, government announced 8 new funds and 6 new agencies yesterday — yet no long-term economic recovery plan for our province. Throwing money at a new fund or agency sounds well and good, but it is not enough, especially when it will only increase bureaucratic red tape and do nothing to help Islanders right now. We may simply end up spending more money to create more bureaucracy and more confusion.
Is the Premier using the success of the public health response to COVID to mask his inability to create a long-term post-COVID recovery for PEI? Given how less severe COVID has been on PEI than elsewhere, this government has had all the more time to prepare and plan our recovery. Why did it squander this opportunity?
Health and wellbeing for every Islander
Healthcare services, including mental health and addictions services, are essential for the physical and mental health and well-being of all Islanders, as well as for active participation in the labour market and our economy.
The Premier claims that mental health is one of his government’s priorities going forward, yet we saw hardly any mention or update on the new mental health hospital, and certainly no reassurances that government will be expediting construction — something our caucus included in our submission to government for the Throne Speech.
In fact, Mr. Speaker, this government’s urgent commitment to mental health services went from “shovels in the ground on day one” to a phone number — “please hold, your call is important to us.”
It’s true that this new single point of access phone line is a sign that the Premier is finally starting to realize just how significant of a crisis Mental Health is in PEI, however, I am not sure this is going far enough to reach those in crisis, or if it will actually help people in the midst of a mental health emergency.
First of all, how will this work? Is it like 211 and only directs to other services? Will people actually be referred and have appointments made through this line? Will the navigators of this service be Island-based staff with some amount of mental health training?
We currently have a Mental Health and Addictions phone line that is answered by trained mental health and addiction staff between 8 am and 4 pm on weekdays. Is this simply expanding this service to 24/7?
For this to truly work as a single point of access, we need trained, PEI-based staff answering the calls, the ability to directly refer callers to services like detox, Hillsborough hospital, counseling services, and other supports, trauma informed training, and the ability to communicate with EMS to dispatch emergency help, if necessary. This new phone line cannot simply be a clearing house for Islanders in mental distress. It must be connected to a warehouse of supports and services that are immediately available to be dispatched when those calls come. Just this week I received an email from a constituent whose granddaughter has been waiting over a year for a psychiatric consultation only to find out yesterday, yet again, that the appointment has been cancelled – for the fourth time.
We have to acknowledge that it’s far more than simply getting information about services—information is unhelpful when Islanders continue to face long wait times to access services, and barriers to accessing those services in a timely manner — when Islanders need help most. Referring people in crisis into a void is going to do more damage to those same Islanders who have already suffered because of this government and its choices.
Mr. Speaker, let me remind you that this government, under the leadership of the Premier, chose to close almost all mental health and addiction services during the pandemic, while many other health services, that were deemed necessary, were kept open. Unit 9, the transition unit, in-person counseling, were all closed almost immediately. When push came to shove, and difficult choices had to be made, this Premier showed just how much he does not prioritize mental health. This government owes Islanders not only increased services, but an apology to those affected and their loved ones.
It is critical that government take meaningful, immediate action on this growing crisis that is impacting Island families every day. A phone line is not enough to help Islanders who are in crisis.
Islanders also expect government to work to ensure they are able to get the care they need in their own communities. I do appreciate the words in the Throne Speech about establishing community based, multidisciplinary health care centres, and truly hope that this is one of those times when the actions of government will actually match the promises on the page. The recruitment and retention of frontline healthcare staff is a key component to building a comprehensive and successful healthcare system from tip to tip.
Government seems to think throwing dollars at recruitment and retention is sufficient. History proves this is not true. There is no thought given to the holistic experience of living on PEI. Things like the availability of housing, the lack of high-speed rural internet, and the lack of transportation alternatives impact retention efforts. Government must work with the new chief physician recruiter to not only attract healthcare workers to the Island, but keep them here.
Mr. Speaker, there is no recruitment without retention. We need trained healthcare workers working in the field to even adequately attract more workers. The Throne Speech described recruitment as happening in a competitive market place, which is absolutely true. How about rather than trying to compete to lure health professionals with big bucks only, we use our enormous competitive advantage of being a fabulous place to live? Discerning people recognise that quality of life is more important than money. If we focus on what the Island provides so effortlessly and naturally — the safety, purity, peacefulness, and community that epitomise our province — I believe we will attract the health providers we need, and would truly make inroads in the patient registry to finally provide those local primary health care services that all Islanders deserve.
But to do that, we also must address and fix those things that make the Island a more difficult place to live.
Mr. Speaker, we know that not everyone has access to the same quality care in our society and we need to do more to close the gaps in our healthcare system.
As part of our caucus’ Speech from the Throne submission, we asked that government increase funding for the PEI pharmacare formulary, implement a protocol to enable funding for treatments available on the formulary for rare diseases, while also being more transparent and thoughtful in its response process for formulary requests.
Our office receives emails and calls regularly from Islanders with serious diseases that, if only they had access to the right medicine they could prolong their lives and increase their quality of life. Every contact I have received I have forwarded to the Minister of Health and asked that they consider increasing the funding for the formulary. It pains me to tell these Islanders that I do not have the power to give them access to life saving drugs, but that the people who do, will not listen to our pleas. I sincerely hope that a substantial increase to the formulary, at the very least enough to get us on par with the other Maritime provinces, will be announced in the coming budget. I am disappointed not to see it discussed as a priority in the Throne Speech.
We also requested that government extend dental care coverage to seniors and low-income Islanders with no private dental insurance coverage. This was something that was actually promised in the previous budget, but never materialized. And we requested government provide more support for Islanders living with diabetes by eliminating age discrimination in the provincial Insulin Pump Program and providing off-loading devices to all Islanders in need. Still nothing.
For years, Islanders have called for more autonomy and choice when it comes to planning their pregnancy, including having the option of a midwife as part of their birth plan. Government must finally fulfill its promise and implement midwifery on the Island. We also expect government to introduce the long-promised Women’s Health Strategy to focus on women’s health and well-being across the healthcare system. You cannot continue to say that you support and prioritize women’s health without actually implementing any measures to benefit them.
Since the start of the pandemic, we have seen just how important it is for politicians to listen to the experts. PEI has weathered COVID in large part because health experts like Dr. Heather Morrison and Chief Nurse Marion Dowling are steering the ship. Government must reduce political interference and return decision-making power to the experts by putting the Health PEI board in charge of making decisions for Health PEI. The best way to begin the long and difficult journey of improving healthcare on PEI is to rely on our experts.
None of these requests to improve our healthcare system were included in yesterday’s Speech from the Throne. I am at a loss to understand how any government could exclude these important initiatives from its vision for the province.
The Premier has said that this Throne Speech represents a “reset”, and that it repositions his government to prepare for the post-COVID recovery that we are slowly but surely entering. It is true that the choices we make now will have a profound impact on the future of the province. This pandemic has been historic in the devastation that it has caused to the Island economy. We will indeed have much rebuilding to do in the coming years, and I’m glad to see that this government is committed to being an active part of that recovery. But the Island economy that COVID devastated was not without its flaws. I have often argued in this House, before the pandemic, that our economy was in need of a major transition, whether because of climate change, regional disparities, or the glaring fact that our economy keeps about 40% of Islanders in poverty.
Everyone acknowledges that we need to rebuild the economy, but what kind of economy we build is a choice. We can choose to rebuild the same economy that we had pre-pandemic, or we can choose to build an Island economy that is clean and prosperous for all Islanders.
While I see some potential in the efforts outlined to build a clean technology sector on PEI, this Throne Speech is utterly lacking in its vision for the future of the rest of the Island economy. For instance, the Speech includes some supports to help the tourism sector stay afloat through the next few months, but there is nothing beyond that. We know that cruise ships likely will not ever return to their pre-pandemic heights.
The challenge is not only how do we help our businesses stay afloat through COVID, but how do we help the industry adapt to the post-COVID world, not the pre-COVID world. This government is showing no vision whatsoever for the future of tourism, or economic development more broadly.
And it’s not like we haven’t had time to develop a vision for economic development. As I have already stated, and as we all well know, PEI has been very fortunate to have avoided the worst of COVID. I would have thought that our good management would have allowed this government to divert some focus away from the immediate pandemic response and toward the development of a policy response for economic recovery. At least based on what is in the public domain, it appears that this has not happened.
A big part of the economic development plan, if one could call it that, seems to be getting people off of CERB and into jobs. It is truly a remarkable statement, for a number of reasons.
When the Premier made a similar remark in the earlier days of the pandemic, Islanders were rightfully upset. CERB has been an essential life support for many Islanders and Canadians, and we are grateful that the federal government stepped up to deliver that program. The results achieved by CERB were, and are, remarkable. Some people were making more than they were in their previous employment, increasing their standard of living and their ability to stimulate their local economies. We saw decreases in the number of Canadians declaring bankruptcy over typical years.
The Premier rightfully backed off from that statement and has been walking it back ever since. Unfortunately, he appears to be flip-flopping on it again.
It is worth asking why Islanders are reluctant to return to their former jobs. It is worth asking why a federal government program that was designed to provide a roughly minimum amount of financial assistance to survive has actually led to better economic outcomes for some people. In honesty, I think this government is neither ready, nor equipped, for the difficult conversations regarding our economy.
Government has spent so much time and energy framing the discussion of our economic challenges as labourforce issues—workers aren’t skilled enough, Islanders don’t want to work, and so forth. Rarely does government ask what our industries and employers are doing for Island workers.
PEI governments have been very gracious toward corporate interests: grants, loans, wage subsidies, tax cuts, tax credits, training programs, you name it. None of the millions of dollars these programs represent raise an eyebrow.
Conversely, you give a working-age Islander some CERB money—a little bit of money to ensure they can meet their basic needs and survive—and government loses its mind. It’s pathetic, it’s shameful, and it’s beneath a government that says “It’s about People.”
It’s no surprise then that government drags its feet when it is asked to better support vulnerable workers by raising the minimum wage. These are some of the very people at the greatest risk of contracting COVID, yet face insufficient wages, precarious job security, little to no paid sick leave, and inconsistent hours. In fact, many of the COVID outbreaks we’ve seen on PEI have been related to businesses where employees likely would be earning the minimum wage or thereabouts.
To reward these workers for their efforts to keep Islanders fed and cared for, what did government do? It gave them a 15 cent raise to the minimum wage, one of the smallest increases in modern PEI history. Although government loves to talk about making PEI a competitive place for business, it is clear it has little to no interest in making it a competitive place for everyday workers.
We care about wages, Mr. Speaker, because they fuel our economy. They are what Islanders use to buy local goods and services. They are, in part, what gives Islanders a sense of financial security or insecurity. They are what Islanders use to feed and clothe themselves. They determine whether Islanders will be able to buy a home or start a family.
I can go on and on about the Islanders falling behind under this government, so I think I will.
Mr. Speaker, while I’m happy to see some health initiatives geared toward seniors, I am gravely concerned about the lack of economic support to lift seniors out of poverty and allow them to live with security and dignity.
The government loves to talk about collaboration in the House. Admittedly, this is often a one-way street with this government. We are frequently asked to provide input or suggestions into various government initiatives, but often see no reflection of that input. However, when government uses our ideas, it will gladly unveil them as their own and take all the credit for them. But we don’t advance our ideas for credit; we advance them because we think they will lead to meaningful improvements to the lives of Islanders.
With that said, you could only imagine my dread to see a lacking vision for seniors. Our pre-budget submission included expansive tax relief for seniors—there is no vision for such relief here. Our seniors have worked and volunteered so much time and effort over the years to make this province what is; there is no excuse for not doing more for them.
A prosperous economy is one in which all Islanders thrive. Government innovation and entrepreneurship programs should be broadened to include sectors such as tourism, arts, and culture, and the traditional emphasis on export-focused businesses should also be reviewed, especially in the context of decarbonizing our economy. Diversity and inclusion targets to support under-represented groups must be incorporated into all economic development programs.
Mr. Speaker, a prosperous Island economy is also one in which all Island communities thrive. Rural and urban communities are interdependent, so we must ensure that both are doing well. Which is why I am alarmed by the total lack of any mention of rural PEI and a vision for it. This is made even more mind-boggling because most of cabinet represents rural areas. Does government have such a poor and anemic grasp of its own constituencies that it cannot develop a long-term plan for them? The economic road map for rural PEI cannot be a literal road map; we need to do more than just pave rural roads. Government needs to ensure that all Islanders have reliable access to critical services such as broadband internet, health care, education, and transportation in their communities.
Given our aging population, which is particularly acute in rural areas, one of the key drivers of rural vitality, both socially and economically, will be immigration. Increasingly, we’re realizing that one of the keys to successfully integrating newcomers is the involvement of local communities. The federal government has recognized this and is creating a “Municipal Nominee Program”. With much of rural PEI remaining unincorporated, will this government simply let our rural communities miss out on this opportunity? Rural vitality will need strong local governance. The province needs to work with local communities and stakeholders towards building that strong local governance across the Island.
Mr Speaker, creating a prosperous and sustainable agricultural sector is fundamental to the well-being of farmers and the financial and environmental sustainability of rural PEI. I’m glad to see in the Throne Speech that this government intends to work with farmers on a variety of measures to improve environmental sustainability. I hope these programs will also contribute to the economic sustainability of agriculture, because the two are inextricably linked.
Mr. Speaker, the well-being of rural PEI has always been tied to the land. The Throne Speech notes that: “Land has always been one of the most precious resources that we have in our province.” I agree with this statement. However, the dissonance between this statement and this government’s handling of the issue leaves me deeply concerned. Current conflicts around land use and land ownership are not only hurting farmers but also tearing at the social fabric of rural communities. For something with such importance to Islanders, such cultural and historical significance, this government, to my surprise and dismay, has been utterly impotent.
In the last Speech from the Throne, this government was resolute in its commitment to champion and uphold the spirit and intent of the Lands Protection Act. Since that time, it has done nothing but hide behind “privacy” concerns and delay action. Government is perpetually saying amendments to the Lands Protection Act and the Planning Act will be ready for the next sitting of this House, and every sitting we get nothing. In this new Throne Speech, the commitment, only a couple of lines snuck in towards the end, is somewhat muted: we will have an interim report and amendments, predictably, next sitting. Islanders have been calling for changes for years; for better enforcement and greater transparency; none of which this government seems willing to provide.
We’ve been talking about bringing in a provincial land use policy since the 1973 Royal Commission on Land Ownership and Land Use; nearly 50 years. The reason we don’t have change is not that we need more time, it’s that governments have chosen not to act, and evidently we are seeing the same old story with this current government.
Mr. Speaker, the protection of our water has been a critical debate not only in this House but in our Island communities for years. After years of delay, by both the last government and the current one, we recently got the news that the Water Act will finally come into effect in June.
While this is indeed good news, I’m puzzled that there was no mention of how this government intends to continue to develop water protections in the future. Government seems to think that it’s work is done with the proclamation of the Water Act, but really real work of implementing the robust water protection regime that we need is only now beginning. There are big decisions that need to be made on things like holding ponds, irrigation and high-capacity wells, and controlling excessive water withdrawals from municipalities. This government continues to allow water withdrawals in violation of its own policies. We saw this last year on the Dunk River, when withdrawals were permitted when the river was below the maintenance level set by the province. And Charlottetown continues to extract more water from the Winter River than its permit from the province allows. But the province does nothing to enforce these rules which are already in place. How does this government expect us to believe that it will enforce the Water Act? Proclaiming the Act is only the first step; a decisive shift is still needed. Judging by this Throne Speech, we can expect this government to continue to punt these decisions down the road for another government to make.
Mr. Speaker, climate change is a crisis that was overshadowed by the pandemic, but as we emerge from the pandemic the urgency of reducing emissions and adapting to climate change must once again be front of mind for our government. From the Throne Speech it would seem that the core of government’s plan is to grow the clean tech sector and fund research. Don’t get me wrong, these are worthy efforts, which could help develop some of the innovations that future governments will have available to them. But climate change is not only a problem of the future; it is unquestionably a problem of the present, requiring immediate and decisive action. A good portion of the technologies and solutions needed to tackle climate change already exist, and we need to rapidly adopt these proven and available solutions. I’m glad to see a further expansion of energy efficiency initiatives, and especially the focus on low-income Islanders. This is good, but it is only the lowest of the low-hanging fruit.
Mr. Speaker, as we all know, transportation is the largest source of greenhouse gas emissions in our province. Government’s plan to clean transportation seems to be a vague promise to implement an Island-wide transit system, something we’ve heard talk about before but little actual follow-through. That, and to “encourage” greater use of electric vehicles. “Encourage” is not the language of a government intent on delivering transformative change. A legislated shift to 100% of vehicle sales being zero-emission vehicles by 2030 would be the more decisive and ambitious goal I’d expect from a government serious on tackling climate change.
Furthermore, it is somewhat baffling that there is no mention in this Throne Speech of further investments in renewable electricity generation. The electricity system cannot be converted overnight. It takes years to build infrastructure. How does this government expect to reach net-zero by 2030 if it is not committed to the immediate expansion of renewables?
Thank you, Mr. Speaker
It’s been a far too eventful few days since I began speaking in response to this Throne Speech.
Over the weekend, we’ve seen just how fast things can change when it comes to COVID. The events of the past few days have shown how delicate the relative safety we’ve built here can be.
I spoke during my opening remarks today about the debt of gratitude that I, my caucus, and indeed all members of this House have towards the essential workers who continue to do the necessary work to keep us safe and provide the basics that all Islanders need to continue with life, even if it’s not so normal these days. Further, I want to reiterate my sincere thanks to all islanders, especially young islanders, for stepping up magnificently and doing their part to keep us safe.
Despite these immediate pressing COVID-related issues, we also need to recognize the way that issues like housing, climate change, poverty and building an equitable society cannot be ignored, even in a pandemic, ESPECIALLY in a pandemic.
When I last adjourned debate on the Throne Speech, I was discussing how we need to see immediate and decisive action on climate change, and this Throne Speech is not sufficient in this regard.
One of the key policies that will help get us to carbon neutrality, and improve the quality and livability of Island homes, is the adoption of a net-zero building code. We also need a plan to change out all the oil burning furnaces in Islanders’ homes. These changes will take several years, I get that; and I’m not expecting the details of how to do it in the Throne Speech; but it’s such a critical part of what we need to do in addressing climate change. I was at least expecting a mention, and preferably a commitment, to these goals.
Where we need immediate and decisive action on climate, this Throne Speech offers at best a mediocre approach that kicks the real decisions further down the ever-shortening road. This government tells a nice story about wanting to be the first province to reach carbon neutrality, but so far I’ve seen little indication that they are serious about making that a reality.
I can’t talk about climate change here without at least mentioning carbon pricing. I must say that I’m astounded by this government’s constantly shifting position on carbon pricing over the last two years. I vividly recall the Premier during the election debates, with great hyperbole, fear-mongering over how a carbon tax would be the ruin of the driver from Tignish. Then things changed. It seemed that government might finally have recognized that carbon pricing is indeed the most cost-effective and fairest way to reduce emissions, with the most minimal impact on the economy. However, the statement in the Throne Speech on carbon pricing, and indeed the Premier’s response to questions last week, are somewhat ambiguous about what exactly the plan is for carbon pricing, and how those tax revenues will be spent. So I will take this opportunity to urge government to adopt a fee-and-dividend model. Giving 100% of carbon tax revenues to Islanders as unconditional payments, not through programs and services that are not universally accessible, would more fairly redistribute the revenues from carbon pricing to all Islanders. We could think of it as a mini basic income pilot; and given the tepid commitment to basic income in this Throne Speech, it might be the closest we get to it under this government.
An equitable and inclusive society is one in which, at the minimum, no Islander is left behind. However, a better way to envision this is that every Islander should be provided the opportunity to reach their full and unique potential. In order to achieve this, all Islanders must first have their basic needs met: a safe place to live and a guaranteed income with which to provide the basic needs for themselves and their families. These are not luxuries; they are necessities without which people cannot survive, let alone thrive.
Now I will say something that should be easy to say, but that the Premier and his Ministers seem either unable or unwilling to state: Housing is a basic human right.
Despite this inherent truth, we saw hardly a mention of the housing crisis that is impacting so many Islanders. There was no acknowledgement that housing is a basic human right. No mention of tenants at all.
At this point in history, after the lessons the pandemic has taught us, in light of all the evidence that demonstrates housing is a critical component to the well-being of a society and its economy, this is shocking.
We simply cannot say we are doing well as a province when so many Islanders cannot find a safe and affordable place to live.
We cannot expect Islanders to stay safe in the midst of this current outbreak if they don’t have anywhere to go.
I am further troubled that the government seems to think a vacancy rate change from less than one percent to almost three percent represents a “reprieve” for the province in the area of our housing crisis.
Mr Speaker, let me be clear. There is no reprieve for those who have nowhere to sleep tonight, on this cold winter night. There is no reprieve for the renter who can’t find any apartment to rent – let alone one they can actually afford. There is no reprieve for the family who can’t buy a home because all of them are priced out of their budget. There is no reprieve for the senior relying on rental supplements to stay housed and can barely buy their groceries for the week.
Government must take immediate steps to address the housing crisis that has gripped the province for the last several years. It is completely unacceptable that this government underspent its housing budget last year; and it is equally appalling we saw so little mention of it in the Throne Speech.
Government must make The Residential Tenancy Act a legislative priority, with a fair and transparent consultation process and a rental registry.
Islanders are crying out for government to step in and do something, anything about this crisis. Our Island is becoming a place where only the wealthy can afford a home. What will it take for the Premier to finally take action?
Building an equitable and inclusive society
The throne speech noted that the Premier’s Council for Recovery and Growth found that one of the chief concerns raised by Islanders was the desire to mitigate poverty.
Despite the government’s own admission that this is a priority for Islanders, we saw hardly a mention of how government plans to eliminate poverty.
And let’s be specific here, Mr. Speaker. When we talk about poverty, the goal should be elimination. Not mitigation. Because one Islander living in poverty is still one too many.
That’s why we implore government to develop a comprehensive strategy for the elimination of poverty in our province, one that includes establishing concrete steps toward the adoption of a basic income guarantee in the province, with or without the support of the federal government.
But a basic income guarantee is only one tool in the toolbox to eliminate poverty. Islanders cannot stand by for years while this government waits for the federal government to make a decision. They need action on poverty now.
And that looks like liveable wages, that looks like affordable housing, that looks like food security, that looks like eliminating student debt.
Mr. Speaker, we are a small enough province to do great, important things. Being small also means that each of us know the names and faces of Islanders living in poverty. When we talk about poverty it’s not some nebulous concept. It’s the person we pass on the street every day, it’s the child who sits next to your child in class, it’s the grocery store clerk, it’s your next door neighbour. It’s the lived experience of some of us in this very House.
It’s not good enough to say we’re waiting on the federal government to cough up the money. It’s not good enough to dedicate two short paragraphs in a Throne Speech to an issue that’s impacting Islanders in every corner of our province.
Islanders expect more, and they deserve more.
Another important way that government must help all Islanders reach their full potential is in the provision of early childhood education. Early intervention to address the unique needs of every child, before they reach school age, is one of the best ways to set children up for a successful and fulfilling life.
Unfortunately, government gave no commitment or mention of universal childcare. It’s true that 300 additional spaces will help some, but it does not really help those lower income workers whose critical and essential role in our society was made evident during the pandemic.
In the Official Opposition’s submission to government, we asked that the Throne Speech include a commitment to expanding early learning programs and supports, including universal pre-kindergarten. What we got was another empty and eerily familiar promise that this will be addressed further down the road.
Additionally, expanded access to childcare would not only support Island children, but would also be a significant way to recognize the unpaid work that women still provide in society, as well as help address the disproportionate impact that the COVID-19 pandemic has had on women. Expanded childcare will not be possible without Early Childhood Educators. Government needs to do more to make childcare a priority and to ensure those taking care of, and educating, our children are paid a living wage.
Mr. Speaker, another topic that was missing from the Premier’s speech was our schools. Our teachers, staff and students have been amazing and resilient during this past year. An unprecedented shutdown of schools forced teachers and students into an unknown world of online learning. And yet they persevered.
This fall brought an anxious and exciting return to in-class learning for many, something that I hope we can return to safely soon. Despite the fears of teachers and staff, they prioritized the wellbeing and education of the students and they returned to their classrooms. Students faced so many new rules and changes in their schools. Masks are worn, some friends are not in the same cohort, and staying 6 feet apart is the new norm. Despite these challenges, students have taken this all in stride and, frankly from what I and my caucus have witnessed, have faced this new reality much better than most of us adults.
Our students and teachers have shown us grace, acceptance, and compliance. And what does our government show them in return? A promise to make them “more prepared for employment.” Mr Speaker, many of our youth don’t just want to be more prepared to enter low-paying jobs. Our students want to revolutionise our economy, our Island, and our world. We owe them the opportunity and flexibility to do so. Our current inflexible school system does not give students or teachers the creative space to drive forward the innovation that our Island so desperately needs and wants.
COVID has presented unprecedented challenges to our school system and everyone in it. But, it also presented us with an opportunity to carve a new path. Returning to the same old system leaves teachers in a culture of silence and control, and students in a system that let many fall through the cracks and did not allow the majority of them to reach their full potential. I am disappointed that this government was not brave enough to take this opportunity to implement bold changes that would better meet the unique needs, and improve the lives, of every one of our children and youth.
Building an equitable and inclusive society also requires the participation of a diversity of voices. However, our historical realities have left many in our society marginalized. Government must help amplify marginalized voices, but it must also help break down the systemic attitudes and behaviours that keep a diversity of voices from being heard.
Mr Speaker, throughout the throne speech we saw the government inappropriately apply a racial lens as simply a criminal justice issue. In actuality, this difficult but necessary work is about deconstructing systemic racism across all policy areas, all programs and services. It is not simply a criminal justice concern.
We need to see actions furthering reconciliation between all treaty peoples, both Indigenous and settler; we need anti-racism and diversity programs in our communities, in our schools, in our healthcare where the voices of the BIPOC community are centred and amplified; we need greater newcomer retention and integration activities; and we need efforts to engage other marginalized groups such as women, the LGBTQ2S+ community, and youth.
We should also improve our democracy and empower young people to use their voice and be part of the decisions impacting their generation by expanding the right to vote to 16 and 17 year-olds. Interestingly, I read in this government’s 2019 Speech from the Throne this line: “We also need, as a priority, to find ways that we can better engage our young people in the democratic process, as what we do today should be in their interest.” I can’t think of a better way to engage our young people in the democratic process than passing this piece of legislation. I look forward to this government supporting the Election Age Act which will be introduced today in the House, and in so doing, their clearly stated desire from 2019.
Support for Mi’kmaq fishers to pursue a moderate livelihood this spring
Supporting our Indigenous communities to uphold and exert their treaty rights is a fundamental step in reconciliation between Indigenous and settler peoples in Canada. Unfortunately, as we saw in Nova Scotia, there are elements within society that have mobilized against Indigenous peoples and tried to impede their legal treaty right to conduct a moderate livelihood fishery, a right which is guaranteed by our constitution and has been upheld by the Supreme Court of Canada.
Last fall, the Legislative Assembly unanimously passed a motion introduced by the Official Opposition in support of these rights which urged government to ensure Mi’kmaq fishers in PEI are able to exercise this legal right safely and without prejudice. Island Mi’kmaq leaders have indicated their intention to initiate their own moderate livelihood fishery this spring. However, we are aware of resistance emerging in our province similar to that seen in Nova Scotia.
Mr. Speaker, government must do everything in its power to protect the legal, treaty right of the Mi’kmaq to conduct this fishery free from violence, intimidation, threats, and prejudice.
The first step should be a strong and unambiguous statement of support, followed by decisive action in collaboration with Indigenous leaders. Unfortunately, we have seen no such meaningful commitment from government.
Role of Government in People’s Lives
Often in public discourse there is criticism of the role government plays in people’s lives. Some feel government should be smaller, less intrusive. But the pandemic has made it clear that government, when it is at its best, exists to do the things people cannot do themselves.
If not for the expertise and guidance of Dr. Morrison and the Public Health Office, we may find ourselves in an entirely, and far more devastating, situation than we do today.
Mr. Speaker, we seen clear, decisive action on the pandemic, so why is there an absence of decisive action from the Premier on so many other critical matters?
We have been so fortunate to live relatively COVID-free for the last year. And I am confident that if we continue to follow public health guidelines and Dr. Morrison’s steady advice, we will get back on track.
But at the same, we simply cannot ignore the wicked problems we were talking about this time last year – the same ones I’ve raised today.
In this House let us not be afraid to talk about big things: let us open our minds to the limitless possibilities that are available to us as individuals, and also collectively, as a distinct and self-governing community called Prince Edward Island. We should not feel compelled to follow conventional pathways if we can see clearly that those roads lead us to an unappealing destination.
For many decades now, the chosen path for virtually all politicians and jurisdictions has created a system that is concentrating wealth and power in fewer and fewer hands, it is crushing hope for far too many young people, all while destroying the planet. We can do better than that: our children demand that we do better than that.
Striking out on a road less travelled can be a scary prospect for some, but a new path, while it may be hard work to build, is the only sure way to get to a new and different destination.
The destination I want to see Prince Edward Island stride purposefully towards is a place where we value above all else our relationships to each other, the maintenance of our land, water and air, and the strength of our communities. Those aspirations are the guiding star that must light our way. As others scramble towards different, destructive, and hollow goals of competing with each other to grab the biggest piece we can of an ever-shrinking pie, let us choose the politics of belonging: of shared prosperity and a recognition of our connectedness to each other and to this beautiful Island.
There are a number of things that I think make PEI the right place at the right time to be a leader in this politics of belonging. As an Island, we know about limits, our boundaries are very clearly defined; we have a history of strong community; a connection to the land and sea; there is an intimacy to Island politics; we have the ability more than most other places to be self-sufficient; our character is shaped by frugality and hard work; we mostly aspire to modest levels of materialism; we have the gift of jurisdiction; we are not so big that government feels distant and unresponsive; we are not so small that we are unable to tackle the issues we face.
Let us tackle those issues with sharp and open minds, and a generosity of spirit worthy of the people we serve, and this special Island we call home.