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Candidates discuss mental health, Indigenous relations during virtual forum

Virtual forum held by TRU students and the BC Association of Social Workers focused on mental health, poverty reduction and Indigenous relations
All five of Kamloops-North Thompson’s, as well as three of Kamloops-South Thompson’s, election candidates were part of a virtual forum hosted buy TRU’s social work and human services program. (Screenshot)

Students in the Social Work and Human Services program at Thompson Rivers University held a virtual forum for the Kamloops-area candidates in both the North and South Thompson ridings.

Students Megan Dalgeish and Rachel Knuttila teamed up with the BC Association of Social Workers to put on a two-hour forum where questions were asked about topics ranging from job security to B.C.’s overdose crisis. The event was moderated by TRU assistant teaching professor, Lorry-Ann Austin.

Both ridings have a candidate from each of the three major parties: incumbent BC Liberal, Peter Milobar in the north, and Todd Stone in the south; current Kamloops city councillor, Sadie Hunter, a BC NDP candidate and her counterpart, Anna Thomas in the south; and Thomas Martin, who is running for the BC Greens, in the north and Dan Hines in the south.

Kamloops-North Thompson has two additional candidates, Dennis Giesbrecht, running for the BC Conservatives, and Brandon Russell, who is just 19 years old, and is running as an independent.

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The first question given to the candidates was about the mental health program Car40, which pairs a mental health practitioner with an RCMP officer when responding to calls involving mental health situations.

Candidates asked about mental health supports

While candidates agreed that Car40 should be continued, and even extended, some had varying opinions on how to expand the program.

During his time to speak, Russell suggested the Car4o program be extended to other first responders as there currently isn’t a program for ambulance and fire. He also said the program should be expanded to smaller communities like Clearwater and Barriere.

Under the BC Green platform, said Martin, mental health would be added to B.C.’s Medical Services Plan. A lot of the concerns surrounding mental health issues, such as the Car40 program or overdoses, can further be tackled through prevention, not just purely reactive measures, such as through projects like affordable housing.

As a sitting city councillor for Kamloops, Hunter said she has seen how important the program is, and it is something that council has been advocating for as COVID-19 has highlighted the need for the Car40 service. But, she said, it’s a complex problem that can’t be solved with just funds.

“It’s not something you can definitively solve by just throwing money at it,” said Hunter. “It needs to be very thoughful for it to be the right solution and make sure that the gaps in service that exist are actually addressed.

“So, that does include after hours and weekend service, but making sure that the right people are attending the situations to really make sure the people are getting the help they need.”

While the COVID-19 pandemic continues, many have pointed out the lack of information and solutions when it comes to the province’s overdose and opioid crises. While the numbers were increasing before the pandemic, since April, overdose deaths have exceeded the deaths related to COVID-19. In July, the BC Coroners Service saw 179 deaths due to illicit drug overdoses, while the province recorded just 19 COVID-19 deaths.

Job losses, isolation and a lack of services are just some of the reasons for the increased drug fatalities.

Dalgeish asked the candidates how they plan to reduce these numbers.

Martin, BC Green candidate for Kamloops-North Thompson, said that the overdose crisis is “not a political issue, (it’s) a human issue” and we should instead listen to our health experts, like we have listened to Provincial Health Officer, Dr. Bonnie Henry, throughout the pandemic and that solutions should be “driven by data.”

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Decriminalization of illicit drugs for personal use was suggested by Hunter, BC NDP candidate, so the focus would be on the suppliers. The border closure has caused a rise in the toxic drug supply in Kamloops, as seen by various alerts put out by Interior Health over the last few months.

Overcoming poverty

The following question for the candidates asked how they would address families and children living in poverty. A study in 2017 showed that one out of five families lived in poverty. In 2020, the BC Child and Youth Advocacy Coalition noted in the BC Child Poverty Report, released in January, that not much has changed.

BC Conservative candidate, Geisbrecht, said the party would eliminate the carbon tax, established in 2008, stating it would save families $1,000 per year. Another policy is to open ICBC up to more competition and “release the monopoly.”

“For far too long, the acronym for B.C. has been ‘Bring Cash’ and we need to let people keep more of what they earn,” he said.

Both Milobar and Russell spoke about the province’s Poverty Reduction Plan, stating it took a few years for the plan to get started, and it is still unclear which programs will be released.

Milobar added that society and government both need to ensure those living in poverty have access to the programs and training they need to “get themselves ahead.”

The societal component is something Martin also addressed, adding that many of those living in poverty are doing so “because of circumstances out of their control”and can be mitigated by policies such as better wages, rental support and rent control, early childhood education and daycare, as well as flexibility for new parents to return to work.

As a single mother who has accessed low-income services, Hunter said she understands how important it is that programs and services are available, including child care and low-income housing.

“Living in poverty and not having access to income and having to choose between what bills to pay and how you’re going to shuffle things really does impact the family and the household,” she said. “Parents are stressed. That impacts a kid’s experience at home, but also their ability to participate in the activities that make up the social fabric of their childhood.”

Addressing truth and reconciliation

In November, 2019, B.C. became the first jurisdiction in Canada to formally enshrine the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples into legislation.

The final question for the candidates asked what actions they would bring foward regarding truth and reconciliation, and to provide examples of social and environmental issues.

Most of the candidates agreed there needs to be more cooperation and communication with the province’s Indigenous peoples, whether it’s about the pipeline, logging of old growth forests or the Site C dam.

Giesbrecht said the province needs to engage with First Nations groups and create partnerships in projects, much like some have done with the Trans Mountain Pipeline, and ensure they feel comfortable coming forward.

Milobar, however, noted that there hasn’t been enough consultation, adding many First Nations leaders are disappointed at how the legislation has been implemented.

He also cited Bills 22 (the Mental Health Amendment Act, focusing on youth care) and 17 (the Clean Energy Amendment Act targeting B.C.’s mandate to be electricity “self-sufficient”), both of which he said would directly affect First Nations.

Neither bill was supported and affected groups were not consulted, he added, and they were pulled.

“If you’re going to talk UNDRIP and you’re going to talk about proper consultation, you should be walking the walk, not forcing legislation through the legislature and triggering an uneccessary election,” said Milobar, before running out of time.

A televised leader’s debate is scheduled for Oct. 13 at 6:30 p.m. The province’s three major parties, BC Liberals, BC NDP and BC Greens’ leaders will take part in the live debate.

Parties have also begun to release their platforms and can be found on their respective websites.

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