Kamloops-North Thompson candidates travelled to Blue River to take part in an in-person forum. (Stephanie Hagenaars photo)

Tiny House Warriors, high-speed internet service top concerns at all-candidate forum

Questions about the pipeline protest, economic development, education and health care were asked during the two-hour event

All five candidates for Kamloops-North Thompson met in Blue River Wednesday night for an in-person forum at the local community hall.

A modest audience was in attendance, and the area’s TNRD director, Stephen Quinn, moderated the event.

BC Liberal candidate Peter Milobar, BC Conservative candidate Dennis Giesbrecht, Independent candidate Brandon Russell, BC NDP candidate Sadie Hunter and BC Green candidate Thomas Martin were all in attendance.

Questions were not pre-determined and were asked by the audience over the two-hour gathering. They included inquiries about internet and cell service, attracting industry and jobs in rural communities, education and rural health care.

Many of those in attendance, however, wanted to know something right out of the gate: What about the Tiny House Warriors protest group?

How will each candidate proceed with the concern of the Tiny House Warriors?

The group of Indigenous pipeline opponents set up camp near the Blue River campground about two years ago and have been occupying the area ever since. According to their site, they are “facing legal challenges because we are occupying our land.”

Concerns from Blue River residents, however, speak about verbal abuse and violent acts from the THW group to anyone who goes near. They said they are fed up and the next government must do more.

Each candidate spoke on the topic, many of them struggling to provide a clear, specific answer, as it has been a hard topic to tackle. The candidates agreed that the right to assembly and Indigenous right to land and title, as enshrined in the constitution, and good faith consultation with Indigenous peoples, as stated in the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, are important and should continue to be respected.

But most also stated in some form that the way the protest is being conducted is unlawful and abusive, and the provincial government should acknowledge resident concerns, and a conversation be started with the THW.

Hunter said she did visit the THW camp the week prior. While she appreciates the right to protest, she understands why the residents of Blue River are frustrated and concerned.

“There’s definitely a need for government discussion and that would be the next step,” she said, adding having a representative that is part of the government is important as they can push for these conversations and work with the local chiefs to find a resolution.

“This is not acceptable for a town to continue to experience what’s been experienced here.”

During his time to speak, Milobar addressed Hunter’s statements about the importance to “have a representative that’s part of the local government at the table.”

“In the NDP’s view of the world, unless you have a government MLA you don’t deserve any services from government, you don’t deserve infrastructure and you don’t deserve law and order,” he said. “That’s simply reprehensible and wrong.”

He then suggested the room visit his Facebook page to view the “multitude of times” he asked various members of parliament, such as the premier, solicitor general and attorney general, “why the government will not put any resources to Blue River.”

He said the BC Liberal platform promises more funding for policing and the court system, so “people can be dealt with legally and lawfully, with the rights they have under our constitution” and “you also have your rights in a community to actually live peacefully and without fear.”

When all candidates were finished, Quinn took a moment to make a comment on the topic, and stated the people of Blue River don’t have an issue with the act of protesting. Rather, it is their behaviour that is “beyond the pale” and “uncivilized.”

Encouraging industry in rural communities

The next question posed to candidates asked about how they plan to bring in and encourage industry development in rural areas.

A few candidates mentioned the lack of services, like high-speed internet and cell service, as well as quality education that need to be addressed when attracting new business and spurring economic development.

While the days of a brand new, 300-employee sawmill are over, said Milobar, small towns can diversify and establish industry based on where the town is headed, such as tourism.

An example he gave was ensuring $1 million from a BC Liberal government to repair the Clearwater River Road, which washed out in July, effectively putting an end to the rafting season.

Giesbrecht, however, didn’t agree.

“I believe we can get proper investment in this province with the right incentives, with the right policies, with the right tax structure, we can bring those jobs back,” he said, adding people aren’t using less pulp or minerals.

New technologies, such as methane capture (absorbing methane from the atmosphere and burning it for energy use) and bioenergy, are examples, said Giesbrecht, of ways to use our environment to boost industry in rural communities.

The other candidates also said using improvements in technology can establish jobs and security, such as electric engines and innovative ways to use the area’s natural resources.

Russell, Martin and Hunter all mentioned investments in people and the community is the way to strengthen rural economic development.

More community forests, tenure reform, and revenue splitting for communities were examples given.

Establishing better internet and cell service in the North Thompson

Building off of the candidate’s mention of the lack of broadband in the North Thompson, the Times asked the candidates how they will improve services in the area.

In 2016, the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission delcared internet a basic service, ordering the country’s internet providers to begin working towards boosting internet services for rural and isolated areas.

Four years later, many residents in much of rural Canada don’t have access to modern internet connection. In addition, much of rural B.C. can be problematic when it comes to establishing high-speed internet and cell service, due to its topography.

While he couldn’t provide specifics, Martin was blunt about his answer.

“I, frankly, don’t care how it happens, as long as it gets done,” he said, adding without high-speed internet he couldn’t do his job as a forestry project manager. “You can’t expect a town to survive an economy in 2020 without high-speed internet. Everything is connected these days.”

Russell said he would like to work with the big companies — Telus, Bell, Rogers, etc. — to provide more 5G, 4G and even 3G service to residents, as well as work with local companies to establish more fibre optik lines. Many in rural B.C., he added, are still on dial-up, something that urbanites left in their tracks over 15 years ago.

“For rural B.C., that is an everyday reality,” said Russell. “Rural B.C. needs internet, B.C. need internet. It is a basic human right.”

The candidates all agreed that rural B.C. is in need of improved internet, but provided different theories on how to get there.

Hunter said funding is currently going towards researching how to best provide high-speed internet to various customers, whether they be remote, or in a mountainous area. One example she gave is a mobile, or portable solution, for more remote areas. But she stressed this need is not a one-size-fits-all solution, but does require investment to help experts “come up with a solution that makes the most sense.”

Using current or new infrastructure, said Milobar, could also be useful, citing both the CN line and the Trans Mountain Pipeline as ways to provide connectivity to the valley.

“(The pipeline) is one of those pieces of major infrastructure that goes into previously unserviced rough terrain geogaphy in Canada that can be leveraged to provide extra supports to communities,” he said, adding the BC Liberals have committed $100 million over five years to expand internet services.

Giebrecht, on the other hand, said the major telecom companies have lost, as a new player just got approval into the Canadian market — Elon Musk.

SpaceX, Musk’s rocket and spacecraft company, is establishing a satellite internet system, called Starlink. The comapny will eventually send 12,000 satellites into space, at about 550 kilometres above the Earth (significantly closer than the 20,000 km of traditional telecommunication satellites).

The CRTC approved SpaceX’s application to provide satellite internet to rural Canadians, and rural B.C. is a target for early testing.

“The big three had their chance to bring you guys service and they failed and they’re going to pay the price going forward,” said Giesbrecht. “If we can bypass the big three telecoms, go straight to a wireless system…we could be on the cutting edge and that could be a huge advantage for us.”

Funding for distance learning and space for high school students

A Blue River resident asked the candidates about funding and accessibility of distance learning for high schoolers in the community. There currently isn’t a high school in Blue River, and the students have to travel three hours a day to attend school in Clearwater.

The BC Greens, said Martin, are unhappy with the current level of education funding and are looking at revisiting the funding model to reflects outcomes, as opposed to the current system that funds per student. In addition, having better access to remote and hybrid learning options means students wouldn’t have to travel three hours just to obtain a high school education.

But, better access to online learning requires better access to high-speed internet, a repeat concern for the riding. Still, the demand for distance education skyrocketed due to COVID-19 concerns, in many different areas.

Just as the pandemic was starting in mid-March, said Milobar, the education minister cut $12 million from the independent distributed learning budget, whose teachers are not part of the BC Teachers’ Federation. The BC Liberals, he added, will reinstate the funding and look to increase the capacity, “recognizing the times we’re in.”

The BC Conservatives, said Giesbrecht, will fund education based on a voucher system. Under this system, each child is worth about $1,500 and the funding “will follow you.”

“If you’re child decides to go to a specialized school, to a private school, to an online learning system out here, whatever it happens to be, that money will be available to you and you can use that to advance their education,” he said.

Incentivizing and funding rural doctors and nurses

The last question of the night touched on health care in the rural community. Blue River doesn’t have full-time doctors or nurses, nor does Valemount, said a concerned resident who wanted to know how the candidates would ensure rural communities have access to health care.

Some ideas from the candidates included incentivizing rural living, funding the education and training for more doctors and nurses and providing dual training for health care workers.

Russell mentioned cuts to health care by both the NDP and Liberal governments in the pas, adding if we want access to more doctors and nurses for various areas of health care, whether it be senior care, hospitals or rural centres, the province needs to invest in the universities and training facilities.

“There are people that want to do these jobs,” he said. “There is not university staff or the government support to train these people…The want is there. The need is there.”

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