Federal government needs to do its part to fund mental health care programs

Mental health care funding

The federal government needs to do more to provide better mental health supports.

That sentence really could have ended in so many different ways. Last month, I wrote about how, after 30 years of abandoning housing investments, the feds need to get back into the housing game. Before that, it was childcare, and before that how we need a national wildfire fighting force.

Despite record investments by the Province of B.C. across many social portfolios, the multiple crises we’re facing rely so heavily on the federal government waking up to the needs of everyday Canadians.

Mental health care is health care. But I consistently hear concerns that there needs to be better mental health care in Canada. Indeed, if Canadians could easily and affordably access better mental health supports, it would not only be life-changing for so many, but the benefits would be seen throughout struggling sectors such as health care, education, addiction and our criminal justice system.

In B.C., it is estimated that one in five interactions with police involve someone with a mental health disorder.

Suffering from mental health or addiction struggles is not a crime and should not be treated as such. For me, that is what is at the heart of the Car 40 Program, announced for Penticton this past summer. The program, more formally known as the Mobile Integrated Crisis Response, is an innovative provincial program where specialized crisis-response teams pair a police officer with a health-care professional to better respond to mental-health calls made to the police. Teams provide on-site emotional and mental-health assessments, crisis intervention and referrals to appropriate services in the community.

In Penticton, the program is built on partnerships including city hall, the local RCMP detachment and Interior Health. The teams help free up police resources to focus on crime, while at the same time ensure vulnerable people in crisis because of mental health challenges are met with compassion and appropriate care.

The program has had very good feedback in several large cities in B.C. and was expanded to include Penticton, Vernon, and seven other smaller centres this summer. In total, the province will add $3 million to its Safer Communities Action Plan to support the program.

So where is the federal government on doing its part, as promised?

Along with my colleague Gord Johns, the NDP mental health and harm reduction critic, we have been urging the government to keep its promises about the Canada Mental Health Transfer. Still, there is no funding in sight and no specific or measurable funds have been provided for community mental health and substance use treatment.

People's lives are on the line and they shouldn’t have to rely on our overcrowded emergency rooms or first responders as a primary resource for help. With 35 per cent of Canadians experiencing severe mental health issues it’s unconscionable to hold back on health funding.

Again, mental health care is health care. No one should have to decide between filling their fridge or getting the quality health care they need. But unfortunately, Canadians have to make tough choices. That’s why people were expecting (Prime Minister) Justin Trudeau to include real mental health supports in his government’s new health care agreement with the provinces and territories. But Canadians have, yet again, been disappointed.

The government needs to do everything possible to reduce barriers people face when they reach out for help. New Democrats are urging the government to stop delaying and increase mental health spending to expand access to care, reduce strain on emergency rooms and policing, reduce the high costs of services for patients, and put supports in place to fight Canada’s toxic drug crisis.

I commend the provincial and local governments who have rallied together for programs such as Car 40. We will keep fighting to make sure people suffering from mental health issues and substance use disorders also get the help they were promised from our federal government.

Richard Cannings is the NDP MP for South Okanagan – West Kootenay.

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


Federal government needs to get back into housing again says MP

Return to federal housing

Last Monday was Labour Day, a time to reflect on the contributions of workers and celebrate the advances that organized labour has achieved to make our lives truly livable—the weekend, the eight-hour work day, workers’ compensation, sick leave, maternity and paternity leave and more.

My party, the NDP, has always fought alongside workers for respect, fair wages and safe workplaces. In the past, the NDP voted against Conservative bills put forward by the government of former prime minister Stephen Harper that made it more difficult to unionize and more difficult for unions to operate, bills that were fortunately repealed in the next parliament.

The NDP tabled legislation that would protect workers’ pensions after company bankruptcy. And in this parliament, the NDP finally managed to force the (current) government to protect the right of workers to withdraw their labour in strikes by making it illegal for companies to use replacement workers.

But now the biggest problem in making workers lives more livable is outside the realm of wages and workplaces—it’s the housing crisis that has made it very difficult for most people to find rental accommodation, let alone dream of one day owning a home. And that crisis also affects companies that struggle to attract workers in order to expand or even maintain their business.

This crisis has its roots in the 1990s when the Liberal government of the day abandoned supports for affordable housing. Previously, federal governments put considerable effort and funding into building affordable housing, through the construction of rental housing units, co-ops and modest single-family homes. Post-war housing projects made it possible for veterans and their families to settle down to create the boom economies of the 1950s and 1960s. I grew up in one of those houses on a Veterans Land Act subdivision just outside Penticton.

Construction of truly affordable homes continued until the government of former prime minister Jean Chretien stopped that funding. The subsequent Harper government continued to neglect the housing crisis, creating a shortage of more than a 500,000 affordable housing units today.

On top of this growing deficit in affordable housing construction, the real estate market has changed considerably in the last 20 years. More and more homes are now being bought by real estate investment trusts—in other words they are not being purchased by homeowners, but by corporations looking for profit. This trend has been responsible for a lot of the dramatic increases in house prices we’ve seen in recent years. Prices are so high now, first-time buyers are being shut out of the market as they must compete with wealthy investors and companies with deep pockets. It shouldn’t be that way.

So, what can we do to fix this? We must urgently renew federally funded programs that will actually build homes Canadians can truly afford.

Just getting out of the way of developers and letting them build these homes wherever and however they want—as the Conservatives suggest—will do very little to help.

The federal government has the land, the money and the power. It needs to get back in the game of building housing, not selling off federal land as (Conservative Leader Pierre) Poilievre has proposed.

I recently talked to a city planner in the Okanagan who said, “We are building more housing units every day than we ever have done, and every day we have fewer affordable houses.”

One of the government’s new programs helped fund rental housing projects that provided a portion of the buildings for affordable units. Unfortunately, it only demanded 20 percent of those projects be affordable, and its definition of affordable was rents of $2,000 per month in our local markets.

Under (the terms of) our confidence and supply agreement with the Liberals, the NDP has managed to change this so projects getting this federal funding would be 40 percent affordable and that means rents averaging $1,100 per month. That will really make a difference.

The NDP is also calling for the creation of an affordable housing acquisition fund that would support community housing providers in acquiring rental buildings that go on the market, to preserve and improve affordability permanently.

The NDP has also proposed removing the federal portion of GST and HST on the development of new affordable homes and setting aside federal land to build rental housing or homes for first-time homebuyers.

We need a housing market that works for workers, for families, for seniors, for students and for people living with disabilities. What we do not need is more polices that only work for ultra-rich investors.

Richard Cannings is the NDP MP for South Okanagan – West Kootenay.

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

It's time for national wildfire firefighting force says MP

Federal wildfire firefighters

This summer has been the worst wildfire season in Canada, and it reached that landmark not in August, or even July, but on June 25.

The British Columbia situation is similar. By June 18, the Donnie Creek fire officially became the largest fire in provincial history. Fires all over the southern Interior followed—in Osoyoos, Kamloops, Adams Lake, West Kelowna, Keremeos, Twin Lakes, the Fraser Canyon and more.

The human and environmental toll has been enormous. More than 1,800 fires have burned more than 1.6 million hectares of forest, many homes have been lost, thousands have been forced to leave their homes and five people have lost their lives, including four firefighters killed in the line of duty.

I attended a memorial service in Penticton for Zak Muise, a young firefighter who died while working on the Donnie Creek fire. It was a moving experience to see firefighters from all over the province—and several (crews and) trucks from the United States—gather to pay their respects.

I want to acknowledge the tremendous efforts of all the firefighting crews, on land and in the air, working in very difficult conditions, extremely hot weather and steep terrain, doing their best to keep us all safe.

I toured the Osoyoos neighbourhoods with Osoyoos fire personnel and Harjit Sajjan, the new federal emergency preparedness minister, to see how close the Eagle Bluff fire came to homes in one large neighbourhood. Many homes were within a couple of metres of blackened brush, and it was remarkable that every home in a large neighbourhood was saved from a fast-moving fire.

This fire season has overwhelmed crews, emergency planners and governments from coast to coast in Canada. While it’s tempting to think of it as a once-in-a-lifetime year of catastrophic fires, the experts tell us this hot year may well be one of the coolest in the coming decades.

We must adapt to this and change how we fight fires, how we prepare for them and how we repair communities that have been impacted.

One idea I’ve been trying to promote is that of a national wildfire fighting force. Fighting forest fires is a provincial responsibility, it’s clear that most provinces get quickly overwhelmed when periods of dry, hot weather produce ideal conditions for combustion and any point of ignition quickly grows into an unmanageable conflagration.

A well-trained national force could be deployed into regions where large fires are likely, and be in place so they can rapidly attack any fire that pops up, putting it out before it gets out of hand. This force could work all year-round, thinning forests around communities at the interface with forests, reducing the chance of catastrophic fires in coming years.

Even in a well-prepared province like B.C., with a large, well-trained force in the BC Wildfire Service, we have to bring in crews from all over the world in summers like 2023. A national force of 400 to 500 members would be able to respond more quickly and efficiently.

We could also increase our inventory of specialized water bombers. Canada still makes water bombers—the DHC-515 is the latest in a line of successful models. Unfortunately, the long list of orders for it all come from overseas. Building a squadron of these planes for use here in Canada would not just help our fire-fighting capabilities but also boost our aerospace industry.

It is heartening to see how our communities are stepping up to help one another. Many people have contacted my offices asking how they can help evacuees and other people affected by fires in our area.

One route is through the United Way’s B.C. Wildfire Recovery Fund, where you can donate and find information on volunteer opportunities. Canadian Red Cross has also set up a British Columbia Fires Appeal to help those in need.

Those wanting to help can also contact local food banks, as well as Salvation Army and B.C. SPCA offices. CanadaHelps.org has compiled a list of organizations that are verified safe places to donate.

Of course, one of the easiest ways to help is to be extremely careful in the woods. About one-quarter of the wildfires in B.C. this summer were caused by people, whether through campfires, cigarettes, or just sparking brakes. One careless move could destroy forests, homes and livelihoods.

Please follow directions and stay informed with information from your local government authority and First Nation.

Let’s all stay safe and continue to help one another.

Richard Cannings is the NDP MP for South Okanagan-West Kootenay.

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

Federal riding redistribution splits some communities and unites others

Federal riding redistribution

In late July, the federal Electoral Boundaries Commission for British Columbia submitted its final report outlining the new boundaries of federal electoral districts in this province.

I covered earlier draft reports of this commission in a previous column, but I felt it would be good to go over the final outcome as there are substantial changes to the electoral map of B.C.

Every 10 years, Elections Canada takes the data from the most recent census and undertakes a process to assign new seats to provinces that have grown in population, and redraws the boundaries of electoral districts (commonly known as ridings) to ensure there is fair representation from across the country in the House of Commons.

This time, Elections Canada assigned one new riding for British Columbia, and appointed a three-member non-partisan commission to take on the difficult task of deciding where to put that riding and to redraw the boundaries of existing ridings to accommodate the changing population of the province.

It decided to place the new riding around Vernon and came out with its first draft of new boundaries about a year ago. A lengthy public consultation process followed, including town halls around the province, to allow citizens to comment on the boundaries of the ridings. That first draft changed the riding of South Okanagan-West Kootenay by carving off the west half of Penticton and adding the east half of the Similkameen Valley.

There was considerable opposition to this plan from residents of Penticton, the Similkameen and members of Penticton Indian Band, with all groups obviously concerned that their areas should not be divided.

Earlier this year the commission tabled its second draft, which contained drastic changes from the first. Penticton was made whole again and the entire Similkameen added to the riding, successfully dealing with the concerns heard in the public meetings and the written briefs.

But to accommodate this addition of population, several areas in the eastern half of the riding were removed and added to neighbouring ridings. The eastern Arrow Lakes, including Nakusp, and the entire Slocan Valley were added to the new Vernon-Monashee riding, while suburbs of Castlegar and the Beaver Valley, part of greater Trail, were added to the East Kootenay riding.

That caused a great deal of concern in the West Kootenay, as that area—a distinct part of the province—was now going to be in three separate ridings. Unfortunately there was no public process at that stage, so I had to take those concerns to the commission through a House of Commons committee.

I feel elected representatives shouldn’t play such a direct role in the establishment of electoral boundaries, so I would rather the process be changed to provide a public process at this stage and eliminate MP involvement. But I also felt it was important that the thousands of residents who sent me their concerns should have their voices heard.

So what was the final outcome? The commission decided to retain the changes made in the second draft, but did agree to return the northern suburbs of Castlegar (Pass Creek, Brilliant, Thrums, etc.) so that they would be in the same riding as Castlegar. In answer to the demands of local residents to keep Trail together with the Beaver Valley (including Montrose and Fruitvale), the commission decided to move Trail into the East Kootenay riding with the Beaver Valley.

In doing so, it separated Trail from its western neighbours, Warfield and Rossland, which have just as close ties to Trail as the Beaver Valley. The new riding will be called “Similkameen-South Okanagan-West Kootenay”, while the riding to the east will be Columbia-Kootenay-Southern Rockies.

As I said at the start, the commission has a very difficult job trying to balance the integrity of communities with ridings that have populations as close to the provincial average as possible. I’ve already heard considerable disappointment from residents in the West Kootenay that their arguably unique voice has been split into three ridings.

But I also know when these new boundaries come into effect in the next federal election, the MPs elected to represent them will do their best to make sure that voice is heard.

Richard Cannings is the NDP MP for South Okanagan–West Kootenay.

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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