This transcript of Peter Bevan-Baker's response to the Speech from the Throne is copied from the official Hansard record of the Legislature.
It’s my honour to rise today and to respond to the Speech From the Throne and to be the Leader of the Opposition in Prince Edward Island and to be the representative of the citizens of District 17 New Haven-Rocky Point. It is a privilege to sit in this House and I never forget that – always try and remind myself how lucky we are to be here.
The central defining characteristic of our country is the constant tension between the unique and largely 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, which is suited to our unique, individual, particular situation.
The last year has shown very clearly 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, and that was in large part because of our ability to make our own choices and because of our islandness.
That doesn’t mean that we weren’t susceptible to the economic and social disruption that accompanied the pandemic across this entire planet. This is a pivotal moment in history and it 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 lies in our collective sense of responsibility and of wellbeing and that’s been talked about here today. This social cohesion is responsible for the strong community resilience, which helped guide us through this pandemic to date, and it’s the same force that will craft our prosperous future together.
The official opposition envisages a future that works to repair the damage of the preCOVID economy and create a regenerative Island economy, built on the fact that every single Islander is equal and deserves to be treated as such and that we are all part of this earth.
The wellbeing of all people and the planet will flow from the work that we do together, recognizing that caring for each other and for the earth is the most important work of all. Here on Prince Edward Island, we have the opportunity to create our own distinct future, sweeping away the systemic structures of an unjust and unsustainable world and replacing that with a society that instills and creates balance, and provides dignity and security for all.
Government will play a critical 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 Speech From the Throne in 2019 are still very present today and still in desperate need of attention.
A Speech From the Throne is the time for government to express its big dreams and to tether those dreams to practical and attainable policy. Making good choices now in all of these areas will set Prince Edward Island up for a future that is both fair and sustainable. COVID has, indeed, presented challenges, enormous challenges, but it has also created opportunities. It presents us with an opening to imagine a different kind of future.
Politics, when it is practiced skillfully, will choose policies that pave the way to a better future. Politicians are, in one sense, succession planners. When we do our job well, our children and their children and their children benefit from our work.
I’m constantly reminding myself of the privilege that we have by virtue of our place in this House, of being able to introduce ideas, to debate them and to pass them into law. Only 27 Islanders sit in these seats and we are the only ones able to do that. That is both a heavy prospect and a 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 that we have, as a small province, gives us broad responsibilities on some of the issues that most profoundly impact Islanders’ lives every day. 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 distinct and unique, and I call on us, all of us who sit here in this time, in this place, to be just that: to be courageous, to be imaginative in our deliberations and in our decisions.
There is much wrong with the world and we have a chance to face up to it; the injustice, the exploitation, the damage being done to individuals, to communities and to 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.
I sense a deep unrest in our community. I’m sure that many of you feel that 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, to carve our future. I speak to a lot of people who fear that this is no longer the case, that things are quite literally out of control. By that, I mean out of the control of the democratic institutions in which we have placed our trust and our faith for hundreds of years, or in the case of the Indigenous people of this land who have their own very sophisticated democratic systems for hundreds of generations and for tens of thousands of years.
The power of influence has shifted from democratically elected governments to institutions that are, in many ways, much bigger and more powerful and richer than most national governments. I’m talking, of course, of corporations. Where once, governments could control boundaries and set national policies that reflected the will of the citizens, now our economy is increasingly dominated by businesses beyond the control of governments, acting outside the will of the citizens.
The ability, or perhaps more accurately, the political will to raise sufficient taxes to provide high-quality essential services like health care and education and transportation and elder care has been eroded to the point where we see private enterprises stepping into all of these areas, often with very negative impacts: the closure of regional transportation hubs and routes, for example, and that’s something that we all can identify with here on Prince Edward Island; the unequal access to post-secondary education; and, most recently and devastatingly, deaths in overcrowded and understaffed seniors homes – though thankfully, of course, we avoided that situation here on Prince Edward Island.
This is often the result of those very corporations lobbying and pressuring government for lower tax rates, for perks, for incentives, for tax holidays. These may be, of course, a boon for the corporations but they become, very quickly, a liability for governments. These corporate perks floor governments’ fiscal capacity while those corporations greatly benefit.
We’ve transitioned from a market economy, which I would absolutely support when well-regulated, to a market society where, increasingly, everything is for sale and it’s difficult sometimes 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.
Quite predictably, this has led to a society where young people enter the workforce, if even there is employment for them, to precarious, low-paying jobs without benefits or protections, unable to afford housing in their community, and for those who attend post-secondary education, crippled with debt, and all of them by stresses that are impacting their mental health. It’s no wonder that our province chronically struggles to retain our best and our 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 on 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 a 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 so often 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 of these things that have come to dominate our society and which cause us so much distress and so much 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, the dignity, the democracy, the freedom, safety, equity and the opportunity to seek meaning in our lives that is the birthright of all.
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’s probably okay, but in this moment right now, here, we are presented with the opportunity to rebuild our economy and our province and our society in a way that is fairer, that is cleaner, and that is inclusive for all.
This post-pandemic recovery is going to 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 the planning and 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. We have T3 Transit. We now have a T3 Speech From the Throne. At a time of such great opportunity, why show so much political restraint, so little willingness to be bold and to be audacious?
From what we heard yesterday, it seems that the Premier is happy with the status quo. He’s content with the state of our mental health and addictions services. He is fine with the housing crisis that continues. He is okay to see so many Islanders without a family doctor. In fact, he went as far to say it’s unrealistic for Islanders to expect to have that, although I take that he did say access to primary medical services in a collaborative situation is fine. But it seems that in many respects, this Premier is giving up, to a certain extent, on some of the issues that are absolutely critical to the health and the wellbeing of all Islanders.
So why? Why, I ask, did this government need a reset? I’m not really sure why the Premier felt that a reset for this government agenda was needed when what we heard yesterday simply commits to largely continuing to do what is already being done. This government is choosing to step back from a future that is beckoning us – no, that is begging us to think big and to be daring. If ever there was a time when governments are being called not to step back but to step up, it is now. This is why I have called this Speech From the Throne timid and trite and tepid.
That alone is disappointing, if not shocking, but I can’t fathom how the Premier feels that the work his government has been doing is anywhere near satisfactory in addressing the wicked problems that Islanders are facing. These problems, of course, existed long before the pandemic, and if definitive and decisive action is not taken, they will continue to persist long after COVID is gone.
This is a critical time in Island and it demands a historic and bold response from government and this Speech From the Throne certainly was not that.
Government is not prepared to be the leader Islanders so desperately need at this time of upheaval and uncertainty. When you hear words like – and I quote – our approach will be evolutionary and not revolutionary, you know that government, to a certain extent, has checked out. Evolution is a term that we use to describe change over generations. Truthfully, I probably should not be surprised. Slow change over generations has been a hallmark of Liberal and Conservative governments that have led this province for decades. Unfortunately, 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 who sat in these seats chastise what they referred to repeatedly as a tired Liberal government. Ironically, the Premier and his Conservative government have been in power just two years and it seems to me that, already, they appear to be tired, unwilling, and incapable of presenting a decisive vision for a post-COVID PEI.
It also seems to be a pattern of this Premier to woo Islanders with wonderful promises and stories. Admittedly, this is the Premier practicing his very fine skills of good storytelling, but it’s not stories that make meaningful improvements to the health and wellbeing of Islanders and this province; it’s good policy.
Islanders have been very clear and vocal in 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 in the Speech From the Throne introduced eight new funds and six new agencies yesterday, yet no long-term economic recovery plan for our province. Throwing money at a new fund or agency all sounds well and good but it’s not enough, especially when it will only likely increase bureaucratic red tape and it will do nothing to help Islanders right now. We may simply end up spending more money to create more bureaucracy and more confusion.
I wonder: Is the Premier using the success of our health response to COVID to mask his inability to create a long-term post-COVID recovery for our Island? Given how less severe COVID has been here on PEI than anywhere else, this government has such an opportunity – had all the more time to prepare a plan for this recovery. Why did it squander that opportunity?
Health care services, including mental health and addictions services, are essential for the physical and mental wellbeing of all Islanders, as well as the active participation of those Islanders 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 a mention or update on the new mental health hospital or campus, and certainly no reassurances that government will be expediting construction of this hospital, something our caucus included in our submission to government for the Speech From the Throne.
In fact, this government’s apparent urgent commitment to mental health services went from shovels in the ground on day one to: Here’s a phone number. Please hold. Your call is important to us. Please hold the shovel for two years. This 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 understand and realize just how significant a crisis mental health is here on Prince Edward Island. However, I’m not sure that this is going far enough to reach those who are 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 special training and some who might have mental health expertise?
We currently have a mental health and addictions phone line that is indeed answered by trained health and addictions staff between 8:00 a.m. and 4:00 p.m. on weekdays. So, is this simply an expanding of that service to be 24/7? So many questions, so little information.
For this to truly work as a single point of access, we need: trained PEI-based staff answering the call; the ability to directly refer callers to services like detox, like the Hillsborough Hospital; counselling services and other supports; trauma-informed training; and the ability to communicate with EMS, if that’s necessary in a particular case.
This new phone line cannot simply be a clearinghouse for Islanders in mental distress. It must be connected to a warehouse – a warehouse full 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 for over a year for a psychiatric consultation, only to find out just yesterday that yet again, the appointment has been cancelled for the fourth time.
We have to acknowledge that it’s far more than simply getting information about services. Indeed, information may actually be unhelpful when Islanders continue to face long wait times to access services and barriers to accessing those services in a timely manner, when Islanders actually need the help right there and then.
Referring people in crisis into a void is going to do, perhaps, more damage to those same Islanders who have already suffered because of this government and its choices. We must have the services, they must be properly funded. This cannot simply be a clearing house.
Mr. Speaker, let me remind you that this government, under the leadership of this Premier, chose – they chose – to close almost all mental health and addictions services during the early days of the pandemic, while many other health services – they, of course, were deemed necessary too – were kept open. Unit 9, the transition unit, in-person counselling, almost all of those were closed immediately, and 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’s critical that government take meaningful immediate action on this growing crisis that is impacting so many Island families every day. A phone line is just not enough for Islanders who are in crisis.
Islanders also expect government to work to ensure that they are able to get the care they need in their own communities and I do appreciate the words in the Speech From the Throne about establishing community-based, multidisciplinary health care centres. I truly hope that this is one of those times when the actions of government will actually meet the promises that are written on the page.
The recruitment and retention of frontline health care staff is, of course, a key component to building a comprehensive and successful health care system from tip to tip on Prince Edward Island. Government seems to think that throwing dollars at recruitment and retention is all it takes, that that’s going to be sufficient, but history has proven that that is not true.
There is no thought given to the holistic experience of living on Prince Edward Island, things like the availability of housing, the lack of high-speed rural internet, the lack of transportation possibilities and alternatives. All of these things impact retention efforts and having people on the ground to support these new families who are arriving here at difficult times in their lives. They need really strong supports in their communities for not just the health care professional that’s coming, but for her husband, his wife, their children.
All of the family needs have to be met in order for that true support to retain these health care professionals when they come here at a difficult time in their lives when they are often overworked and given new responsibilities in a strange place. We are not providing the supports they need and retention is a critical part of making sure that all Islanders have access to primary health care services when they need them and where they need them.
We need trained health care workers working in the field to even adequately attract more workers. The Speech From the Throne described recruitment as happening in a competitive marketplace, which is absolutely true, an enormously competitive marketplace. 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 recognize that quality of life is more important than money. If we focus on what the Island provides so effortlessly and so naturally – the safety, the purity, the peacefulness, the community that epitomizes our province – I believe then we will attract the health professionals that we need and would truly make inroads into the patient registry to finally provide those local primary health care services that all Islanders, wherever you live, deserve.
To do that, we must also address and fix the things that make the Island a difficult place to live. We know that not everybody has access to the same quality care in our society and we need to do more to close those gaps and to decrease the inequality everywhere but particularly in our health care system.
As part of our caucus’s Speech from the Throne submission, we asked that government increase funding for the PEI Pharmacare Formulary; to 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 processes for formulary requests.
Our office, and I’m sure other offices represented in this Legislature, receive emails and calls regularly from Islanders with serious diseases that, if only they had access to the right medications, 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 the Islanders that reach out to me that I don’t have the power to give them access to these life-saving drugs but that the people who do, thus far, have not listened to our pleas to increase funding for the formulary. I sincerely hope that a substantial increase in the formulary, at the very least to get us on par with the other Atlantic provinces, will be announced in the coming budget. I am so disappointed not to see it discussed as a priority in this Speech From the Throne.
We also, of course, requested that government extend dental care coverage to seniors and low-income Islanders with no private dental coverage. This was actually something that was promised in the last budget but, as far as I’m aware, has yet to materialize.
We requested that government provide more supports for Islanders living with diabetes by eliminating age discrimination in the provincial Insulin Pump Program and providing offloading devices to all Islanders in need. Still nothing.
We also asked that the shingles vaccine be made available to all seniors. 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 wellbeing across the health care system. You cannot continue to say that you support and prioritize women’s health without actually implementing any measures that benefit them.
Since the start of this pandemic, we have seen just how important it is for politicians to listen to the experts. PEI has weathered COVID so successfully in large part because health experts like Dr. Heather Morrison and chief nurse Marion Dowling are steering the ship. Government must reduce the potential for political interference and return decision-making in Health PEI to the experts. The best way to begin the long and difficult journey of improving health care on PEI is to return that decision-making to the experts by putting the Health PEI board back in charge of making decisions.
Some Hon. Members: Hear, hear!
Peter Bevan-Baker: Thank you, Premier, for that.
Premier King: (Indistinct)
Peter Bevan-Baker: I look forward to your support on the bill that we will be bringing forward to accomplish just that legislatively.
Premier King: If it makes sense, I’ll certainly do it.
Peter Bevan-Baker: Thank you.
None of these requests to improve our health care system were included in yesterday’s Speech from the Throne. I’m at a loss as to understand how any government could exclude such fundamental and important initiatives for its vision for this province.
The Premier has said that this Speech From the Throne represents a reset and that it repositions his government to prepare for the post-COVID recovery that we are all slowly but surely entering. It’s true that the choices we make now will have a profound impact on the future of our province and this pandemic, of course, has been historic in the devastation that it has caused to our Island economy and communities. 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 and I’ve often argued in this House before that, before the pandemic, our economy was in need of a major transition, whether because of climate change or regional disparities or the glaring fact that our provincial economy here on Prince Edward Island keeps about 40% of Islanders living in poverty.
Everybody acknowledges that we need to rebuild the economy but what kind of economy we build is our choice. We can choose to rebuild the same economy that we had in the pre-pandemic or we can choose to build an Island economy that is clean and is prosperous for all Islanders. While I absolutely see some potential in the efforts outlined to build a clean tech economy sector here on Prince Edward Island, the Speech From the Throne 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 to stay afloat through the next few months, which is absolutely critical, of course, but there’s nothing beyond that and we know that cruise ships, for example, will, perhaps, never likely return to their pre-pandemic heights.
The challenge is not only how do we keep our businesses afloat through COVID but how do we help the industry adapt to the post-COVID world – not to the pre-COVID world, but to the post-COVID world. This government is showing no vision whatsoever for the future of tourism or economic development, more broadly.
Again, it’s not like we haven’t had an opportunity, we haven’t had time to develop that vision. As I’ve already stated and as we all know, Prince Edward Island has been extremely 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 needs of the pandemic response towards the development of a policy response for economic recovery. At least what I’ve seen in the public domain, it appears to me that this has not happened.
A big part of the economic development plan, if one can call it that, seems to be getting people off of CERB and into jobs. Worth speaking a little bit about this. When the Premier made a similar remark in the early days of the pandemic, Islanders were rightfully upset.
CERB has been an essential life support for so many Islanders and Canadians and, of course, we’re grateful that the federal government was there and they stepped up to deliver that necessary program. The results achieved by CERB were and are absolutely remarkable. The problem is that some people were making more money than their in their previous employment, increasing their standard of living and their ability to stimulate their local economies, and we saw decreases in the number of Canadians declaring bankruptcy over typical years.
The Premier, I think rightfully, backed away from his statement in those early days and he’s been walking it back ever since but it’s worth asking why Islanders are reluctant to return to some of those former jobs. It’s worth asking why a federal government program that was designed to provide roughly minimum amount of financial assistance for people to actually survive has led to better economic outcomes for some people. Honestly, I think this government is neither ready, nor equipped, nor understands the difficulties and is ready to make those difficult choices and have that difficult conversation regarding how our economy needs to be transformed.
Government has spent so much time and energy framing the discussion of our economic challenges as labour force issues, and it’s not that those are not there, but they’ve spent so much time saying the 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 towards large corporate interests here: grants, loans, wage subsidies, tax cuts, tax credits, training programs, you name it. None of the millions of dollars these programs represent raises even an eyebrow. Conversely, you give a working-age Islander some CERB money, a little bit of money, a tiny bit of money to ensure that they can just meet their basic needs and survive and government loses its mind. It’s shameful and it’s beneath a government that says that it is 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 who are at greatest risk of contracting COVID and yet they face insufficient wages, precarious job security, little or no paid sick leave and inconsistent hours.
In fact, many of the COVID outbreaks that we’ve seen on Prince Edward Island and beyond have been related to businesses where employees likely would be earning the minimum wage or thereabouts. Sadly, it seems that the case of the recent cluster in Summerside may indeed be another example of this.
To reward these workers for their efforts, to keep Islanders fed and cared for, to provide these essential services, 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 businesses, it is clear that it has little to no interest in making it a competitive place for everyday workers.
We care about wages because that’s what fuels 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 could go on and on about the Islanders falling behind under this government, so I think I will.
While I’m happy to see some health initiatives geared towards seniors, I’m 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 this House and, admittedly sometimes, that, at least recently, has felt like a one-way street. We are frequently asked to provide input or suggestions into various government initiatives and we don’t always see a reflection of that input. That’s fair, I don’t expect you to take all of our ideas, but sometimes when government does use our ideas, it will gladly unveil them as their own and take all of the credit.
We do not present these ideas to take credit for them, to answer your question, minister. We advance them because we think they will lead to meaningful improvements in 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 and there is no such a vision for relief here. Our seniors have worked and volunteered so much time and effort over the years to make this province what it 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 that export-focused businesses have always had here on Prince Edward Island. They should also be reviewed, especially in the context of decarbonizing our economy.
Diversity and inclusion targets to support underrepresented groups must be incorporated into all of our 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’m alarmed by the total lack of any mention of rural and a vision for it.
I want equitable access to good transportation systems across this province for every Islander and we have not seen that with the spending of this government.
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 traditional emphasis – I’ve already said that. I’m going to carry on, Mr. Speaker.
Given our aging population, which is particularly acute in some rural areas, one of the key drivers of rural vitality, both socially and economically, is going to 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, of course, being unincorporated, will this government simply let so much of our rural areas and so many rural communities miss out on this opportunity? Rural vitality will need strong local governance and this province needs to work with local communities and stakeholders towards building that strong local governance across the Island so that we can properly access this federal program.
Creating a prosperous and sustainable agricultural sector is fundamental to the wellbeing of farmers and the financial and environmental of rural Prince Edward Island.
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 of course, those two things are inextricably linked. The wellbeing of rural Prince Edward Island has always been tied to the land. The throne speech notes that – and I quote: Land has always been one of the most precious resources that we have in our province.
And I agree with that statement. In fact, probably I’d go further and to say: it is the most precious resource that we have in our province. However, the dissonance between this statement and government’s handling of the issue of land ownership leaves me deeply concerned. Current conflicts around land use and land ownership are not only hurting farmers, but they are also tearing at the social fabric of rural communities. For something with such importance to Islanders, such cultural and historical significance, this government, I have to say to my great surprise and dismay, has been utterly impotent.
In the last Speech From the Throne – the last one – not this one, the last one – this government was resolute in its commitment to champion and uphold the spirit and intent of the Lands Protection Act, P.E.I. Since that time, it has done nothing. It has done nothing but hide behind privacy concerns and its delayed action. Government is perpetually saying amendments to the Lands Protection Act, P.E.I. and the Planning Act will be ready for the next sitting of this House and every single sitting, we get nothing.
In this new throne speech, the commitment – only a couple of lines were snuck in towards the very end and it’s very muted: We will have an interim report on amendments, predictably, in the next sitting.
Islanders have been calling for changes for years for better enforcement and greater transparency, none of which this current government seems willing to provide. We’ve been talking about bringing in a provincial land use policy since 1973, when the Royal Commission on Land Ownership and Land Use was struck. That’s almost 50 years ago. The reason we don’t have change is not that we need more time – for goodness sake, we don’t need more time – it’s that governments have chosen not to act, and evidently, we’re seeing the same old story from this current government.
The protection of our water is a critical debate, not only in this House, but in our Island communities. After years and years and years of delay by both the last government and the current one, we finally got the news that the Water Act will finally come into effect this June. And 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 into the future.
Government seems to think that its work is done with the proclamation of the Water Act, but really, the work of implementing the robust water protection regime that we need is only just beginning. There are big decisions that need to be made on things like holding ponds, on irrigation, and on high capacity wells, and controlling excessive water withdrawals from municipalities.
This government continues to allow water withdrawals in violation of its own policies. We just saw this last year in the Dunk River, when withdrawals were permitted when the river was below the maintenance level set by this government. 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 the government expect us to believe that it will enforce the Water Act? Proclaiming the act is only the very first step. A decisive shift is still needed, and judging by this throne speech, we can expect this government to continue to punt these difficult decisions down the road for yet another government to take care of.
Climate change is a crisis that was overshadowed by the pandemic, but as we emerge from COVID-19, the urgency of reducing emissions and adapting to climate change must once again be front of mind for our government and this province. From the throne speech, it would seem that the core of government’s plan is to grow the clean tech sector and to fund research. Now, don’t get me wrong; those are really worthy efforts and I applaud them and they could help to develop some of the innovations for future governments. But climate change is not only a problem of the future; it is unquestionably a problem that demands action today. It is a problem of the present. It requires immediate and decisive action.
A good portion of the technologies and solutions needed to tackle climate change, of course, already exist and we need to rapidly adopt those proven and available solutions. I’m glad to see a further expansion of energy efficiency initiatives, of course, and especially the focus for low-income Islanders. I applaud government for that. Thank you. It is indeed good, but let’s remember that it’s really the lowest of the low-hanging fruit.
As we all know, transportation is the largest single 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, of course, before, but with very little actual followthrough. Now, I look forward to seeing that. It’s something which, as I mentioned earlier in my speech, is a critical part of creating that equality and that ability for Islanders to live anywhere in this province and have equal access to services and for their quality of life to be equitable.
So, we need that, but we also need other things. We need more than just words on a page when it comes to creating an Islandwide transit system. We need more than that. We also, on the page, read that it’s going to encourage greater use of electric vehicles. Now, that sounds all well and fine, but encourage is not the language of a government that’s intent on delivering transformative change. A legislated shift to 100% of vehicle sales being zero-emission vehicles by 2030 is the sort of decisive and ambitious goal that I would expect from a government that is actually serious on tackling climate change.
Furthermore, it’s somewhat baffling that there is no mention in this throne speech of further investments in renewable energy and renewable electricity generation. The electricity system, of course, cannot be converted overnight. It takes years and years to build and adapt infrastructure. So, how does this government expect to reach net zero by 2030 – less than 10 years from now – if it is not committed to the immediate expansion of renewables across this Island?
At this point is where Peter Bevan-Baker needed to pause his speech as time ran out for day's sitting.
Resumption on March 2, 2021:
Of course, I commenced my remarks last week and, early in my response, I said something to the effect – I don’t have the page in front of me, but – that this Chamber can be both inspiring and exasperating and that it’s at its best when we are debating the big ideas of the day and the large questions that face Islanders and we’re doing that with open minds and good hearts and it is at its worst when it descends into small-minded pettiness, I think was the phrase that I used, and partisanship.
It has been sad for me in the last 24 hours to see an example of exactly that small-minded pettiness and partisanship, which is really – it does this House no credit and it is of no benefit to Islanders, particularly at a time when we are faced with some real challenges here in our community.
It has been a couple of very eventful days since I began speaking in my response to 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 just how delicate the relative safety that we have worked so hard to build here over the last 12 months actually is.
I spoke during my opening remarks today about the debt of gratitude – as did the Premier and members of the Third Party – about the debt of gratitude that I and my caucus and, indeed, all members of this House have towards the essential workers on Prince Edward Island who continue to do that most necessary work to keep us safe and to provide us with the basics that all Islanders need to continue life, as if – it’s difficult to say the word normal, of course, but as if we were living in normal days.
Further, I want to reiterate my sincere thanks to all Islanders, especially young Islanders and, again, through some of our questions today and statements that we’ve made already on this day in the House, we have singled out that part of our community here who have stepped up magnificently when they were called to do and to keep us, as a larger community, safe. Thank you to them.
Despite these immediate pressing COVID-related issues, we also need to recognize the way that issues like housing and climate change and poverty and building an equitable society cannot be ignored, even in a pandemic, perhaps especially in a pandemic. When I last spoke in my response to the Speech from the Throne, the debate was adjourned and I was discussing the need to see immediate and decisive action on climate change. I think I said at the time that this throne speech – we were looking for decisive action and this throne speech was not it.
One of the key policies that will help us get to carbon neutrality and improve the quality and livability of Island homes is the adoption of a net-zero building code. One of my caucus members, of course, a former architect, is an expert in this area and has been promoting since his time in his seat in this House that we adopt net-zero building codes across this province.
In large part, thanks to his advocacy and hard work, we see that government is moving in that direction and I’m very glad to see that we have a school slated to be built to net-zero standards. It is our hope, and I know it’s the hope of the member who is the expert in this field, that all public buildings that are built from now on, on this Island, will be built to a net-zero standard. I thank him for his work on that.
Now, we’ll also need a plan to change out all of the – for example, all of the oil furnaces that still exist in many Islanders’ homes. I think the Premier mentioned, absolutely correctly, the statistic on that is that it’s disproportionately low-income Islanders who have that heat source in their homes.
Of course, that’s going to take time to do and if we are to do it in an equitable and a responsible and a caring manner, it’s going to take time and it’s going to take support from government. I get that. I don’t expect to see the details of how we are going to accomplish that in the throne speech, of course. That’s not what it’s for.
But it’s such a critical part of what we need to do here in addressing climate change that I was at least hoping for some sort of mention of it in the throne speech and preferably a commitment to those things. Again, there was nothing in the throne speech committing to net-zero, beyond what we’ve already discussed in this House, nor providing Islanders with options for cleaner heat in their homes and supports from government for doing that.
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 this ever-shortening road that we have in front of us before we hit a wall. This government tells a nice story about wanting to be the first province to reach carbon neutrality but so far I have seen little indication that they are actually serious about making that a reality.
I can’t talk about climate change here without at least mentioning carbon pricing. I must say I am astounded by this government’s constantly shifting position on carbon pricing over the last couple of years. I vividly recall in debates during the last election, the Premier, with great hyperbole, fretting about how a carbon tax would be the ruin of the driver from Tignish. Then, things changed. It seemed that government might finally recognize that carbon pricing is, indeed, the most cost-effective and the fairest and the most efficient 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 in this House remain somewhat ambiguous about what exactly the plan is for carbon pricing and how these tax revenues will be spent or redistributed to Islanders. Giving 100% of carbon tax revenues back to Islanders as unconditional payments, not through programs and services that are not universally accessible, would be a far more fair way to redistribute the revenues from carbon pricing to all Islanders.
Let’s remember that when we give rebates, for example, for air-to-air heat pumps in our homes, many low-income Islanders, firstly, don’t own their homes and can’t afford that upfront cost to do that.
So, even though this is a worthy program and I absolutely support those sorts of things that are currently running in efficiencyPEI, we need to remember that perhaps the most vulnerable people, the people who would benefit from them most of all, are unable to actually access those programs.
A far fairer and more effective way of redistributing that to the people who need it most would be through a fee and dividend model. I think that you could think of that fee and dividend model of returning all of the money to Islanders in a rebate payment – you can think of that, almost, as a mini basic income pilot in that we know the statistics tell us that high-income earners have a far larger carbon footprint than those with modest incomes. Therefore, when you’re paying a carbon tax, high-income earners pay a disproportionately large amount. They are the ones who will fly off to Germany for holidays, they are the ones who will buy boats, they are the ones who will make purchases like that.
Low-income Islanders do not do that and yet if we have a rebate program that is equitably distributed, more money will go to lowincome Islanders than high-income Islanders. Again, almost like a mini basic income pilot. Given the tepid commitment to a basic income in this throne speech, that might be the closest thing we actually get to a basic income under this government.
I’d like to talk a little bit about housing. An equitable and inclusive society is one in which, at the very minimum, no Islander gets 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, for example, and some sort of guaranteed minimum income which would provide for them the basic necessities, which we all need to live life in security and dignity for themselves and their families. Those are not luxuries. They are necessities, without which people cannot survive, let alone thrive.
I’m going to say something that actually should be a very easy thing to say but that the Premier and his ministers seem either unable or unwilling to utter and it’s this: housing is a basic human right. We all deserve shelter. The issue that we have these days in the marketplace that we are experiencing, not just here in Prince Edward Island, but across the country, but specifically and perhaps more than anywhere else in Canada, here in PEI, is that that basic human right of housing is butting up against housing also being an opportunity for investment. Sadly, in that situation, money always wins.
Islanders are losing and those with more money than they need to invest in housing here, disrupting the market, taking it out of circulation for rent, jacking up the prices, are putting a number of Islanders in a severely vulnerable position.
Despite the inherent truth that housing is a basic human right, we hardly saw a mention of the housing crisis that is impacting so many Islanders in this throne speech.
There was no acknowledgement that housing is, indeed, a basic human right. There was no mention whatsoever of tenants, not one word of it in this throne speech. At this point in history, after the lessons that the pandemic has taught us, in light of all of the evidence that demonstrates that housing is a critical component to the wellbeing of not only individuals but of society and an economy, I find that quite shocking and really disappointing.
We simply cannot say that we are doing well as a province when so many Islanders still cannot find a safe and affordable place to live. We cannot expect Islanders to stay safe in the midst of this serious current outbreak if they don’t have anywhere to go to be safe.
I’m further troubled that the government seems to think that a vacancy rate change from less than 1% to almost 3% represents a reprieve for the province in the area of our housing crisis. I want to be clear on this: 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 cannot find an apartment to rent, let alone one that they can actually afford. There is no reprieve for the family who can’t buy a home because all of them are priced way out of their budget and there is no reprieve for the senior relying on rental supplements to stay housed who can barely afford their groceries for the week. There is no reprieve on Prince Edward Island in the current housing market.
Government has to take immediate steps to address the housing crisis that has gripped this province for the last several years. This is not a new problem. We could see this coming and successive administrations have done far less than they needed to, to address this critical problem. It’s completely unacceptable that this government underspent its housing budget last year substantially. They underspent their housing budget in a housing crisis. It is equally appalling that we saw so little mention of housing in this throne speech.
Government must make the Residential Tenancy Act a legislative priority, with a fair and transparent consultation process and something that includes the establishment of a rental registry.
We’ve seen, in the absence of government’s willingness to even do these basic steps that would give us the data that we need on housing in Prince Edward Island, community groups and individuals stepping forward to fill that gap. That’s not the way that society has to work. We need government to take the lead when we have a crisis. Government needs to be there to take the lead and to lead our province in a safer and a better direction and you’re not doing that.
Islanders are crying for government to step in and do something, anything, about this housing 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 on this file?
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 this government’s own admission that this is a priority for Islanders, we again saw hardly any mention of how government plans to eliminate poverty. And let’s be specific here. When we talk about poverty, the goal – and the Premier has said this himself on many occasions – should and has to be elimination, not mitigation, and I appreciate the fact that he has made that very distinct and deliberate distinction between the two, 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 towards 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 of the tools in the toolbox to eliminate poverty. Islanders cannot stand by for years while this government waits for the federal government to make a decision. The need for action on poverty is immediate and the need for action on poverty is now.
Let me tell you what I feel that looks like. That looks like livable wages. Action on poverty looks like affordable housing. Action on poverty looks like food security. Action on poverty looks like the elimination of student debt. That’s the kind of action we’re looking for from this government.
We are small enough a province to do great and important things. Being small also means that each of us knows the names and faces of Islanders living in poverty. This is not some nebulous thought to us. This is something that we see every day in our communities.
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 I talked about in Question Period this morning, who, despite the work conditions and the peril that they place themselves in every day, is there with a cheerful smile and a friendly word. It’s your next-door neighbour, and it’s also the lived experience of some of us who sit in this 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 this province. Islanders expect more and Islanders indeed deserve more.
Another important way that government must help all Islanders reach their full potential is 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. When we look at other places that do that – that place a very high degree of importance and resources on early learners, to intervene when problems are seen and detected early, and to provide the supports that they are able to give to these children who need extra help early on – it not only helps those individuals, but it’s an incredibly strengthening thing for a society and for an economy.
I would like us to have a much greater emphasis on those supports for individual young Islanders who are struggling, perhaps with literacy, perhaps with innumeracy, perhaps with behavioural issues, perhaps with psychological problems. We need to have sufficient resources in our schools to support each of those individual young Islanders and the unique ways that they require help.
Unfortunately, government gave no commitment or mention of universal child care. 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 even more evident, of course, during this pandemic and something we’ve talked about at length today in this House.
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 child care would not only support Island children, but it would also be a significant way to recognize the unpaid work that women still provide in society, as well as to help address the disproportionate impact that COVID-19 pandemic has had on women. Expanded child care will not be possible without early childhood educators. Government needs to do more to make child care a priority and to ensure those taking care of and educating our children are paid a living wage.
Another topic that was missing from the Premier’s speech was our schools. Our teachers, staff, and students have been amazing and they’ve been resilient during this past year, and of course, an unprecedented shutdown of schools – and we talked about that in the Legislature earlier today – forced teachers and students into this unknown world of online learning. Yet, they persevered and they succeeded.
This fall brought an anxious and exciting return to in-class learning for many, and 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 that were returning to their classrooms.
Students faced many new rules and changes in their schools; bewildering for a group of people so young. Masks were worn. Some close friends may not have been in the same cohort. Staying six feet apart from the people that you know and love must have been extraordinarily challenging. It’s been extraordinarily challenging for us, never mind young people who struggle to understand the context of the changes that have swept across society in the last year.
But despite these challenges, our students have taken this in stride and frankly, from what I and my caucus have witnessed, they have faced this new reality in many ways much better than we have as adults.
Our students and our teachers indeed, as well, have shown us grace and acceptance and compliance. They have inspired us. And what does our government show them in return? A promise to make them more prepared for employment. That’s what it says in the throne speech. Many of our youth don’t just want to be more prepared to enter what are for most of them going to be low-paying jobs. Our students want to revolutionize our economy. They want to revolutionize our Island and they want to be a part of making this a better world.
I believe we owe them the opportunity and the flexibility to do so, and that means meeting the needs of each individual student in their unique way where they are every day they come to school. And our current inflexible school system does not give students or teachers the creative space that they need to drive forward the innovation that our Island and our children so desperately need and want.
COVID has presented unprecedented challenges to our school system and everybody in it, but it has 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’m disappointed that this government was not brave enough to take this opportunity to implement bold changes; bold changes that are called for and bold changes that would better meet the unique needs and improve the lives of every single one of the children and youth in this province.
Building an equitable and inclusive society also requires the participation of a diversity of voices. However, our historical realities here on Prince Edward Island have left many in our society marginalized. Government has a responsibility to help amplify those marginalized voices, but it must also help break down the systemic attitudes and behaviours that keep a diversity of voices from being heard.
Throughout the throne speech, we saw the government inappropriately apply a racial lens as simply a criminal justice issue. In actuality, this incredibly difficult, important and necessary work is about deconstructing systemic racism across all policy areas, all programs and all 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 antiracism and diversity programs in our communities, in our schools, in our health care 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 our youth.
We also need to improve our democracy and to empower young people to use their voice and to be part of the decisions that impact their generation, by expanding the vote to include 16 and 17-year-old Islanders. Interestingly, I read in this government’s 2019 Speech from the Throne, not the current one, but the one shortly after this government was elected, this is what it said and I quote:
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.
That’s quite a statement and I can’t think of a better way to engage our young people in the democratic process than passing the piece of legislation that was before this House last sitting and will be reintroduced in this sitting. I look forward to this government supporting the Election Age Act, which will be reintroduced in this House shortly, and in so doing with your support, you will clearly state your desire to live up to the words that were present in the 2019 throne speech.
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 recently 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 that has been upheld by the Supreme Court of Canada.
Last fall, this Legislative Assembly unanimously passed a motion introduced by the official opposition in support of those treaty rights, which urged government to ensure that Mi’kmaq fishers in Prince Edward Island 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 very spring. However, we are aware of resistance that is already emerging in our province, similar to that that we saw in Nova Scotia.
Mr. Speaker, government must do everything in its power to protect the legal treaty rights of the Mi’kmaq to conduct this fishery, free from violence, free from intimidation, free from threats and free from prejudice.
The first step to this has to be a strong and unambiguous statement of support, followed by decisive action and collaboration with Indigenous leaders and, unfortunately, we have seen no such meaningful commitment from this government.
Often in public discourse, there is criticism of the role government plays in people’s lives. Some feel government should be smaller, that it should be less intrusive, but the pandemic has made it clear that government, when it is at its best, exists to do things that people cannot do for 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. We have seen clear, decisive action on the pandemic from this government, so why is there an absence of that same decisive, clear action from the Premier on so many other critical issues?
We have been so fortunate to live relatively COVID-free for the last year and I’m confident that if we continue to follow public health guidelines and Dr. Morrison’s steady advice, we will very soon get back on track. But all the same, we cannot simply ignore the wicked problems that we’re talking about this time last year, the same ones that 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 so clearly see 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 the while destroying our home, Planet Earth. 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 to build, is the only sure way that we can get to a new and different destination. The destination that 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, our water and our air and the strength of our communities. Those aspirations must be 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 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 Prince Edward Island the right place at the right time to be a leader in this politics of belonging. As an Island, we know about our limits; our boundaries are so very clearly defined. We have a history of strong community, a connection to the land and the sea. There is an intimacy to Island politics. We have the ability, more than almost any other place of our size, 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, yet we are not so small that we are unable to tackle the big 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 of this special Island that we call home.