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All 87 members are now allowed to sit in the house as they take part in question period, the first time since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, while in the assembly at legislature in Victoria on Oct. 4.CHAD HIPOLITO/The Canadian Press

British Columbia’s legislative session resumed on Monday and in some respects, it was just like old times. Demonstrators occupied most of the entrances of the B.C. Legislature buildings to protest old-growth logging, while tour groups wandered the hallways inside.

For the first time since March, 2020, British Columbia’s 87 MLAs and their staff have been recalled to attend the legislature in person.

“We’re expecting a full house,” Mike Farnworth, the government House Leader, told reporters on Monday morning.

Amid surging COVID-19 cases across the province, the move for MLAs to return to the legislature is a display of faith that vaccinations work. Everyone working in the provincial legislature buildings must be fully vaccinated, and visitors must also show proof of vaccination to enter.

There are other signs that the pandemic has altered the workings of the legislature. Mask requirements and capacity limits are posted on every cabinet minister’s office door. But inside the marble-lined chamber of the House, there is no room for physical distancing between the MLAs and those staff required to attend in person.

Mr. Farnworth acknowledged some have expressed anxiety about being in such close quarters. His first order of business on Monday morning was to introduce an order that provides the option for MLAs to continue to attend the House through video conferencing, as they have since the start of the pandemic. Only a few MLAs were absent on Monday, however, and Mr. Farnsworth said those individuals were exempt owing to illness.

All three political parties represented in the legislature have indicated their members will attend in person this fall, assured that the Provincial Health Officer, Dr. Bonnie Henry, has given the seating plan her approval.

More than 80 per cent of eligible British Columbians have received at least two doses of a COVID-19 vaccine, but case counts are putting pressure on hospitals, especially in those regions where vaccine rates are lower. B.C.’s Northern Health authority has been cancelling surgeries and transferring patients to other districts because its intensive care units are swamped.

Health Minister Adrian Dix said Monday that Northern Health has just transferred 32 critical care patients to hospitals in other parts of the province, 26 of whom have COVID-19. He added that none of those 26 patients were fully vaccinated.

“We just have to continue this work to get people vaccinated. The vast majority of people in critical care with COVID-19 – the vast majority – are unvaccinated. And that presents challenges for the health care system.”

All of B.C.’s MLAs have been vaccinated and the parties have united to encourage vaccination. Many MLAs say they have faced pressure from anti-vaccine constituents. Mike Bernier, the Liberal MLA for Peace River South – the riding with the lowest vaccination rate in B.C. – says he has received death threats over his pro-vaccine advocacy. A recent NDP fundraising event in Chilliwack was also disrupted by a rowdy anti-vaccine protest.

Roly Russell, the New Democratic Party MLA for Boundary-Similkameen, spoke in the House on Monday about a constituent who sought to engage him about ivermectin, an animal dewormer, as an alternative to vaccines. Mr. Russell condemned COVID-19 misinformation that he said is “killing people in my communities.”

Another potential conflict over vaccines is looming later this month, when the province’s requirement for health care workers to be vaccinated as a condition of employment comes into force. The BC Nurses’ Union, the province’s second-largest health care union, opposes the vaccine mandate and has warned that thousands of nurses may be sidelined as a result, at a time when the health care system is already stretched thin.

The provincial government faces challenges beyond the pandemic, and in Question Period on Monday, the NDP government was grilled about its failure to make progress against the continuing overdose crisis – on average, six British Columbians are dying daily from toxic drug supplies.

As well, Monday’s protest at the legislature over old-growth logging also served as a reminder of the continued pressure on the government over its forestry policy.

MLAs and staff had access to only one legislature entrance on Monday because of the protesters on site. One entrance across from Premier John Horgan’s offices was blocked by a massive slab of an old-growth tree, nearly three metres high. The provincial government has promised progress this fall on its commitment to reform old-growth logging practices, but those changes are unlikely to end the continuing conflict.

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