MLA touts her party's mental health plan

Mental health and addiction

“Come with me,” the mother on the other end of the phone cried. “Come with me to find my son. To the shelter, to the hospital, to the tents. Come with me to find him!”

What she couldn’t see were the tears that filled my eyes. Her desperate cries piercing through my helplessness. I am an MLA, shouldn’t I be able to help?

When the six complex care beds opened in Kelowna, my constituency assistant reached out immediately to find a bed for this mom’s son, but sadly they were filled before they even opened.

My journey trying to help the homeless crisis began 15 years ago as a builder, working with the City of Kelowna on its “Four Pillars” plan. The strategy was to create more affordable housing throughout the city, along with subsidized housing for those with greater need.

My work continued on the Interior Health Authority board, where I chaired the Special Priorities Committee that oversees mental health and substance use issues. During that time, I worked with our current mayor, Tom Dyas, on a downtown initiative to try to help with the overdose crisis.

It was then that I began to investigate the Portugal model of care, known as SICAD, and read about Dr. Joao Goulao’s work as the architect of that system of treatment.

I travelled to Portugal twice, in 2018 and last fall, to continue that investigation and try to understand more fully how its success in treatment, rehabilitation and care for the mentally ill was achieved.

As we are all aware, mental health and substance use are critical issues that affect individuals and families throughout British Columbia including here in Kelowna.

In 2022, nearly 2,300 people lost their lives in B.C. to their addictions, 87 people in Kelowna alone. Clearly, what the provincial government is doing is not working and the recent decriminalization of drugs without treatment is going to be disastrous.

Look no further than to Oregon to see how that has played out. After decriminalization, its (number of) overdose deaths rose.

In fairness, Portugal’s SICAD model includes decriminalization and safe supply, but that is not the focus.

In 2018, SICAD’s Goulao, spoke with the Vancouver Sun about the importance of treating drug use as a public health issue. He noted decriminalization is not enough, and comprehensive care and support must be in place to help individuals overcome their challenges and live healthy, productive lives.

That is why I am so excited about the announcement last week about how a Kevin Falcon-led B.C. Liberal government would resource mental health care and supports— more residential care, more treatment beds, more complex care and wrap-around services.

As someone who has long advocated for wrap-around supports, I know that this system of care is long overdue. Wrap-around supports are crucial for individuals with mental health challenges as they provide comprehensive care and services that address their unique needs. That includes access to health care, psychiatry, counselling, occupational and physical therapy, rehabilitation, housing, employment, and education, among other things.

It's not enough to simply decriminalize drug use, set up safe injection sites and ”wet” housing and hope for the best. We need to make sure that individuals have access to these additional supports they need to succeed and lead fulfilling lives.

We need a program that takes those experiencing homelessness to wholeness, and gives them community.

The Better is Possible plan announced by Falcon is the first plan I have seen that does that.

My question to you this week is this:

Do you support Kevin Falcon’s plan to address our mental health & addictions crisis?

I love hearing from you each week, and I read every email. You can email me at [email protected] or call my office at 250-712-3620.

This article is written by or on behalf of an outsourced columnist and does not necessarily reflect the views of Castanet.

MLA questions need for premier's new advisors

Premier's costly advice

Premier David Eby recently announced the appointment of three new special advisors to help tackle the pressing issues of his government.

These new advisors will focus on healthcare, Indigenous reconciliation and housing. The move was met with both praise and criticism, with some questioning the need for these positions in a government that already has ministers in charge of those areas. The appointed advisors will report directly to the premier and some wonder about centralizing of power in the premier’s office.

A premier could need special advisors for several reasons.

Firstly, they can provide the premier with specialized knowledge and expertise in specific areas. That knowledge is essential in making informed decisions and they may be able to come up with creative solutions.

Secondly, special advisors can act as direct links between the premier and various stakeholders, such as business leaders, community organizations and interest groups. That connection allows for the premier to receive direct feedback on the issues that matter most to people, and to make decisions based on that feedback.

I feel Eby doesn’t trust his own ministers, and by extension the public service, which is interesting because he added additional ministers and parliamentary secretaries (when naming his cabinet), and B.C. has more than 100,000 public servants.

The talking point rationale is advisors can help quicken decisions through bureaucratic bloat.

NDP governments have traditionally been large, slow moving and grow with every year they are in power. Large, bloated governments often move slowly due to the sheer number of bureaucrats and decision-makers involved in any given decision. With more people involved, there are more opinions and perspectives to consider, leading to longer wait times for decisions to be made and executed.

In reality, adding more advisors could exacerbate those time frames and confuse the chains of command. In addition, advisors are not accountable to you in the same way that ministers are.

So how does this affect you?

First, these advisors will cost a significant amount of money, in addition to the current size of government. Eby’s new list of advisors will cost more than $575,000 per year, and that’s with two of them working only part-time. Secondly, British Columbia needs solutions in these areas and time is not on our side.

The housing advisor, Lisa Helps, is a former two-time mayor of Victoria. With a strong background in affordable housing and community development, she is seemingly well-equipped to advise the premier on housing and homelessness issues. But was she able to get her “missing middle” objectives through her city’s council for the three years that she tried? No. Sadly, it was only after she left that the initiative was finally passed.

As mayor, Helps commissioned a survey through MNP that showed 80% of respondents were dissatisfied with the City of Victoria’s governance and 73% didn’t believe public input is considered in council in its decision-making process.

In addition, a recent CMHC study showed Victoria to be the third most expensive city in Canada to rent a two-bedroom suite in a purpose-built rental building. This is who Eby choose to help advise him in how to address attainable housing?

One thing for sure, Eby has charted a course on a very different power path than the distributed and trusting model of Premier Horgan. The results will be known by the outcomes. Unfortunately, the taxpayer will have paid almost a million dollars for these results.

My question to you is this:

Do you think Eby’s advisors will result in better decisions and outcomes?

I love hearing from you, and I read every email. Email me at [email protected] or call me at 250-712-3620.

This article is written by or on behalf of an outsourced columnist and does not necessarily reflect the views of Castanet.

Helping farmers with the backlog in foreign worker approvals

Need for farm workers

If you have been to the grocery store lately, you know how expensive food has become.

Part of that, is outside of government’s control. But part is a result of legislation and bureaucracy.

My role as an MLA includes my participation on the Select Standing Committee on Finance and Government Services. That role requires a public consultation process on the budget around the province.

Last spring and summer, during those consultations, I was shocked by how many farmers and farming associations we heard from. Their costs are out of control. They're struggling under the weight of those costs, and rather than relief, they have been responded to with more bureaucratic process.

Their stories were emotional, multi-generational, and compelling. They need relief and help, rather than the layering effect of costs and complexity.

Last month, we saw another hit to farmers. Under legislation passed in 2018, the province requires employers hiring foreign workers to register with the province within 30 days of hiring workers. Registration became mandatory in December 2020.

With regulators now bureaucratically adding another layer to hiring protocols, farm employers in B.C. found themselves barred from filing applications to source workers from overseas last fall until they had valid certificates from the B.C. government.

Although this registration needs to be renewed regularly, there is no acknowledgement that the registration is expired, no report on why applications were being returned and the farmers trying to apply for their foreign workers panicked.

Without the certificate, employers couldn’t obtain federal approval to hire workers, let alone arrange travel for them. Since the fall, a flood of applications went into the B.C. Ministry of Labour and there is a backlog in processing.

Did the government know how many applications were going to come in? For sure. Why were they not properly staffed? I have no idea. On the surface, this slow bureaucratic process hurts farmers.

But ultimately, it hurts all of us. Farming is difficult work. Our farmers should be rewarded for the extraordinary contributions to our community and society, but instead, the government is making it more difficult to do their jobs.

Currently, the notice on the website says, “We are currently experiencing an increased volume of applications. Applications are processed in the order they are received and we are unable to expedite applications at this time.”

The farming community was not getting answers, it wasn’t able to have direct contact to the agency nor was it given any queue information. It was a nightmare for farmers. Emails from farmers starting coming into my office, and my team sprang into action.

We were able to contact the Labour Minister’s office, and echo what other offices were saying around the province. My colleagues across B.C. started to press the government for answers, and for it to be expeditious with approvals.

Liberal Agriculture critic Ian Paton started sounding the alarm publicly, and described the nightmare.

The great news is all this advocacy worked. The minster added staff to get through the backlog and admitted the approvals were taking too much time. The government also expressed openness to sending renewal reminders to employers to ensure a more even flow of applications in future.

Why the panic? Trees and fields wait for no-one. They grow and they need to be managed. Farmers need workers when the trees and fields need to be worked, not when government gets around to getting through its backlog in a system it created.

While our advocacy worked for now, it shouldn’t have to be this way. Our food security depends on government getting out of the way.

My question to you is:

How much should government be involved in regulating food production?

I love hearing from you and I read every email you send, and listen to every message. Please email me at [email protected] or call 250-712-3620.

This article is written by or on behalf of an outsourced columnist and does not necessarily reflect the views of Castanet.

Closure of children's development centre in Kelowna points to bigger problem

Provincial autism funding

Starbright Children’s Development Centre in Kelowna announced it was closing this past week, sending shock waves through the autism community.

This non-profit centre has operated since 1966, and has served thousands of families with children with autism.

Why is it closing? It’s funding agreement with the province was not renewed.

The provincial funding system is a mess. Last year, the province announced “family connection centres” as a hub model for all autism care. Then, after an outcry from families traumatized by the decision, Premier David Eby announced in the fall the government reversed the decision, and was going back to individualized funding for families.

Good news, right? Not so fast.

The province kept four hub model pilot projects, and one of those is in the Okanagan. So now we have Okanagan families once again going through the trauma of not knowing where their providers are going to come from.

We also have a non-profit organization, namely, Starbright, which no longer has a contract and may not be able to serve the thousands of families it currently serves.

So, which way is the government going? Is it going back to individualized funding with supports for organizations that offer care and treatment for those with autism? Or is the government trying shutter the current care providers and create a hub model, while promising not to?

If the government wants to run the pilot program, it should do so, while keeping all the other methodologies in place. That would allow a constant care model for those with current providers, while getting the other model up and running.

Alternatively, if the government is going back to individualized funding, there is no need for the pilot project, nor is there a need for the hub model in general.

Why are we paying $72 million for something that is unnecessary under the individualized funding model?

Needless to say, parents in the Okanagan feel heartbroken, confused and unsure of all of that this means. This is yet another example of how government programs need to be better managed. The people who rely on these systems of care and programming can’t be left stressed by disorganization and inefficiency.

Governments need to be clear, and communicate programs and policy in a way that people understand. Saying one thing and doing another does not increase trust in our democratic institutions. In this case, the government appears disingenuous.

Meanwhile, this inefficient and disorganized hub system pilot is going to cost the Okanagan one of its most utilized supports. Starbright, and all of the families that it served, deserved better.

My question to you is this:

Should there be a hub model in the Okanagan after Premier David Eby said we would be going back to individualized funding?

I love hearing from you and I read every email that comes in. Please email me at [email protected] or call my office at 250-712-3620.

This article is written by or on behalf of an outsourced columnist and does not necessarily reflect the views of Castanet.

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About the Author

Renee Merrifield is the BC Liberal MLA for Kelowna - Mission and the Opposition critic for the Environment and Climate Change, as well as Gender, Equity and Inclusion.  She currently serves on the Select Standing Committee for Finance as well.

A long-time resident of Kelowna, Renee started, and continues to lead, many businesses from construction and development to technology. Renee is a compassionate individual who cares about others in the community, believes in giving back and helping those in need through service.

She values your feedback and conversation, and can be reached at [email protected] or 250.712.3620

The views expressed are strictly those of the author and not necessarily those of Castanet. Castanet does not warrant the contents.

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