It’s been just over a year since I was sworn into the PEI legislature as MLA for Charlottetown-Parkdale, and in that time I have had so many opportunities to help people and make a real difference in provincial affairs. From working with the Ostomy Support Society to advocate for provincial coverage of ostomy supplies to introducing and passing an amendment to the Innovation PEI Act to include culture and green technology on our list of strategic sectors, I have relished advocating for progressive change and I have tried to live up to the trust my constituents have placed in me.
During that time, I have also become accustomed to the rough and tumble aspects of public office. For example, it now seems normal to receive talking points instead of answers when I pose questions to government; I am used to being the subject of partisan attacks; and I have learned that my words may be taken out of context and twisted to mean something else. In this age of hyper-partisanship and “truthiness” that’s just par for the course.
But every now and then, I am jolted by a comment that is so utterly disconnected from reality that I realize: No, this is not normal.
For me one such moment came last week when I was reading an article by Vice on PEI’s housing crisis. I recommend everyone read it, because it eloquently tells the story of so many Islanders who have been left behind by a 0.3% vacancy rate and an economy on a tear.
In the article, I am quoted numerous times, relating stories of Islanders who are homeless or in precarious housing, and I attributed the crisis to a failure of planning on many levels of government, citing federal budget cuts to social housing, an aggressive provincial population strategy, and the population shift from rural areas to urban centres.
What shocked me was a quote from PEI’s Executive Director of Public Affairs. According to Vice: “Government spokesperson Mary Moszynski said the province has a proud history of migration and accused Bell of suggesting ‘that we should close our borders,’ which she said in a statement was ‘disappointing and contrary to the values we believe Islanders and Canadians hold.’”
This comment was so jarring not only because it has no basis in fact, but because the source was a senior provincial employee whom one would expect to answer questions from the media with honesty and seriousness.
In Question Period this fall, I did suggest government put their population strategy on hold until they make progress addressing the housing shortage. It is only good planning to ensure that services keep pace with population growth, and at the moment our capacity to house everyone has fallen far behind our growth targets. It is also worth noting that immigration from outside Canada is just one aspect of government’s strategy which also strives to repatriate former Islanders and to retain young Islanders. To take my concerns over government’s failure to plan appropriately for population growth as a call to “close our borders” is an outright lie.
As a public servant, Ms Moszynski should be held to a high standard of trustworthiness. It is one thing for party operatives to spin “alternative facts” and publish them on their Facebook pages, but quite another for government’s most senior spokesperson to boldly state a lie to a national news outlet.
But mostly I find this outrageous because it completely fails to address the very real need that so many Islanders are facing. Since becoming an MLA, I have been directly contacted by at least 100 people who are homeless or living in precarious, unsafe or inappropriate housing.
In early September, my office released an Integrated Housing Framework that identifies three root causes for the current situation: decreased capacity, increased social need, and market distortions. It also describes their impacts and offers up innovative solutions. For example, we recommend bringing in regulations to better manage short-term rentals, establishing a homeless shelter for women in Charlottetown, encouraging multi-use zoning and flexible developments, creating legislation around inclusionary zoning, updating the Rental of Residential Properties Act, as well as reviewing and updating population strategies to ensure there are sufficient resources to support and sustain additional growth. These are just some of the ideas that government needs to consider.
I don’t want PEI to be a province where people live in their cars or sleep in bank vestibules; where victims of domestic violence are forced to stay with their abusers because they can’t afford to leave; or where senior citizens are expected to choose between accessible housing and euthanizing a beloved pet. When a senior provincial spokesperson glosses over the right of all Islanders to live in dignity and security by offering up a misleading talking point, it shows government is not interested in addressing this crisis with the seriousness it deserves.
So, I have a message for Ms. Moszynski and all the members of Executive Council who have allowed PEI’s housing crisis to unfold without taking timely or meaningful action: I find your indifference to the suffering of vulnerable Islanders “disappointing and contrary to the values we believe Islanders and Canadians hold.”
Hannah Bell is the MLA for District 11 Charlottetown-Parkdale.