The COVID-19 pandemic has presented one of the greatest political challenges in decades. It has resulted in sickness and death, loss of employment, economic hardship, and sweeping changes to everyday life.
As of Aug. 19, B.C. has 743 active cases of COVID-19 – the highest number since the COVID-19 pandemic began. Nationwide, there are 4,752 active cases.
Black Pressconducted interviews with Doug Routley, Nanaimo-North Cowichan MLA, and Paul Manly, Nanaimo-Ladysmith MP, to get a deeper understanding of how various levels of government have handled the pandemic so far.
Doug Routley – MLA for Nanaimo-North Cowichan
Doug Routley has served as an MLA since 2005, and has never seen anything like the COVID-19 pandemic.
“At the beginning it was so uncertain for everyone. We were watching new information every day change the picture. No one really knew how rapidly the pandemic might develop,” Routley said.
One of the first actions the provincial government took was a rapid emptying of provincial hospitals to make space for a possible influx of COVID-19 patients.
Routley said B.C. benefited from a later spring break, and advice from Provincial Health Officer, Dr. Bonnie Henry that kept COVID-19 cases relatively low compared to other jurisdictions.
The provincial government rolled out a slate of support programs to help prop up people who were impacted by COVID-19 through the B.C. Emergency Benefit for Workers; a $300 monthly supplement to disability assistance, income assistance, the B.C. comforts allowance, and the B.C. Senior’s Supplement; the B.C. Climate Action Tax Credit; ICBC payment deferrals; and the BC Hydro payment relief to name a few.
Now in August, the government is grappling with challenges on multiple fronts – children are due to return to school on September 10, and the province is keen to restart the economy, all while COVID-19 cases are on the rise.
Amid the changing political landscape, Routley said that MLAs worked together across party lines to try and manage the COVID-19 pandemic response.
“It is remarkable to see, and this really brought out the best in people,” Routley said. “We are very fortunate to have some excellent people in our public service.”
While opposition parties have been working together, Routley said that the upcoming provincial election may inflame partisanship.
B.C.’s next provincial election is set to take place Saturday, October 16, 2021 – however premier John Horgan has said there is an opportunity to hold an election in fall 2020, spring 2021, or summer 2021, despite the pandemic.
“The election will be guided by the advice of public health officials, and it would primarily be Elections BC that would make those determinations,” Routley said.
Routley remarked that technology has played a pivotal role in the government’s response to COVID-19. Legislature has been meeting digitally during the pandemic to continue the business of governing. Although technology has allowed MLAs to continue working, Routley said the lack of meeting in person has impacted their work.
“It’s very difficult to be as effective as a politician. A lot of what we’re able to do in solving problems for people gets done on a one-to-one level. There’ll be a meeting, and outside that meeting in the hallway we’re able to impart the information from our constituency to somebody who needs to know it in a way they need to know it.”
“Those aspects are missing, and they’re really important in the medium to long term.”
Paul Manly – MP for Nanaimo-Ladysmith
Paul Manly’s first year in parliament has been anything but a normal one.
Manly was first elected as MP in May 2019 after the Nanaimo-Ladysmith by-election. He was then reelected in the October 2019 general election. That left Manly with roughly six months on the hill before COVID-19 hit.
Since COVID-19 gripped the country, Manly has been flying back and forth from Nanaimo to Ottawa – a trip that takes a total of 16 hours despite only six hours of flight time.
“There’s more flights available now, but during the lock down the choice was a 5:00 pm flight out of Nanaimo, then get in at 10:00 am in Ottawa,” he said.
Manly had some concern about exposure to COVID-19 while travelling, however he felt safe travelling due to the lack of other travellers.
“During the lock down there was nobody in the airport. There were announcements every 10 minutes telling you to stay away from other people, and there were signs anywhere, but I didn’t see anyone in the airport – it was surreal.”
While domestic travel has been ‘surreal’, the government been working to repatriate Canadians who traveled abroad, or have been unable to return home from overseas. Many Canadians have returned home, however there are thousands of Canadians who remain outside the country – including Nanaimo-Ladysmith constituents.
“All over the world there are still travel restrictions. That’s something that has taken a lot of staff time and energy – to help people get back home.”
In Ottawa, there’s an appetite to ‘get down to work’, Manly said. Parliament has been looking at a hybrid model – similar to the B.C. Legislature – that would enable fewer MPs to be physically present in the House of Commons, but still work. As it stands now, just over 50 MPs are allowed in the House at one time.
Summer sittings of the House of Commons are an irregular occurrence, however the COVID-19 crisis demanded that MPs work to manage the pandemic, albeit in a paired down version.
“What most people are seeing when we’re meeting is the Committee of the Whole. We get opportunities to ask the government questions, but the opposition don’t get opposition days, we’re not talking about any of the private members bills, we’re not dealing with the government’s legislative agenda. There’s a lot of bills on the docket that we haven’t talked about, haven’t gone to committee, and haven’t been debated.”
“In terms of how us MPs feel, we’re all feeling a crunch with this. We’re all dealing with people in crisis in our ridings. We’re trying to do the best we can for Canadians, and work together to ensure that people can get through the economic crisis this has created.”
Manly said that there was cooperation among MPs during the outset of the pandemic, however the WE Charity scandal has ignited fresh partisan divisions. The Liberal government caused controversy with a program that would have awarded $900 million to WE Charity to run volunteer programs for youth. Manly questions the efficiency of the program.
“Why didn’t they take that money and instead put it into Canada Summer Jobs? We have students and youth here that are unemployed, and non-profits that are suffering from a lack of donations, there are a lot of issues to deal with.”
Finance Minister Bill Morneau stepped down due to his entanglement with the WE Charity scandal. Chrystia Freeland has now assumed the role of Finance Minister, and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau prorogued parliament to prepare a reset of government.
With prorogation comes a shut down of all parliamentary committee work.
“Committees are all suspended. There are the obvious ones regarding finance and ethics to talk about the WE Charity scandal, but we’re also seeing the collapse of the sockeye salmon right now, and there’s important work being done in that committee,” Manly said.
“There will be no more witnesses for the committees, no more discussion, it’s all on hold. And that’s problematic.”
Manly said that he understands the need to prorogue parliament as much has changed since the Liberals formed government in October.
“The government is in a state of crisis. I have faith that Chrystia Freeland will take a progressive approach to deal with the economic recovery,” Manly said. “… We’re in a difficult financial situation, and we need the government to extend financial programs like CERB, but do it in a way that makes sure all Canadians are covered through something like a guaranteed livable income. We need to make sure we that we don’t go into a depression.”
“This is a crisis, but it’s an opportunity to really reset the way our economy works.”