Good morning. Wendy Cox in Vancouver today.
“An election?” my colleague asked in astonishment over e-mail. And then he invoked a religious epithet to express his shock at what he regarded – along with many others – as the utter madness of calling an election in British Columbia a full year before the province is officially supposed to go to the polls.
It’s not a certainty that Premier John Horgan will call it, although on Thursday, he at least confirmed the rampant speculation that his government was considering it. “I’ve not made a decision on an election,” he said Thursday as he and his finance minister, Carole James, released their economic recovery plan that looked strikingly like an election platform.
But as Gary Mason writes this weekend, there is strategic sense in triggering the call.
Mr. Horgan is enjoying the highest approval ratings of any premier in the country, according to an Angus Reid survey. His government’s performance through the pandemic has been lauded by pundits, along with his willingness, and that of Health Minister Adrian Dix, to let respected health officials such as Dr. Bonnie Henry do most of the talking. In the early going, British Columbia fared fare better in coronavirus cases and deaths than did Ontario and Quebec. And the province took decisive, unique action to curtail the spread of the disease, including setting up a system whereby the province picked up the cost of quarantining arriving temporary foreign workers when they landed in an effort to ensure any positive cases could not spread. B.C. was also at the forefront of a push to require airlines to divulge better passenger data to facilitate contact tracing.
Meantime, the government was not subject to the kinds of partisan sniping that has been on display in Ottawa: despite presiding over a delicately thin minority government, Mr. Horgan managed to secure the co-operation of all parties in March to approve the $1.5-billion recovery plan that formed the heart of Thursday’s campaign-style announcement. “Partisanship has left the building,” Mr. Horgan said in March.
While the NDP has made a series of high-profile candidate announcements recently – former MPs Nathan Cullen, Fin Donnelly and Murray Rankin have all announced they will run for the party – the Liberals and the Greens have enjoyed far less free publicity for their teams. Green MLA Sonia Furstenau gave her first news conference as Green leader on Monday, but given the constraints placed on campaigning by the virus, her run toward the leadership generated next to nothing in the way of exposure.
“John Horgan should not be calling an unnecessary election in the midst of a global pandemic,” Ms. Furstenau said at a news conference after her second-ballot victory in the Green leadership contest.
Aside from the benefits of calling an early vote, Mr. Horgan must be contemplating the risks of not calling one. Another year will give the worm time to turn for voters if the case counts continue to rise, if British Columbia ends up in another devastating economic lockdown, if businesses start to close after federal support payments expire.
Still, going to the polls without a good answer to the question of why is always risky. Mr. Horgan will have to gamble that voters will overlook his decision to tear up the agreement he reached with the Green Party in 2017 that has allowed him to govern, an agreement that explicitly states: “The Leader of the New Democrats will not request a dissolution of the legislature during the term of this agreement, except following the defeat of a motion of confidence.” (Mr. Horgan has said he does not feel bound by that agreement now: “Nowhere in that document will you see the word ‘pandemic.’ So the world we live in today is not the world of 2017.”)
And he will have to gamble that the rising virus case counts don’t get completely out of hand, prompting questions about whether it makes sense to have the premier and the health minister on the campaign trail during a crisis.
The current legislature is made up of 41 New Democrats, 41 Liberals, two Greens and two Independents, with a by-election pending to fill one vacancy.
This is the weekly Western Canada newsletter written by B.C. Editor Wendy Cox and Alberta Bureau Chief James Keller. If you’re reading this on the web, or it was forwarded to you from someone else, you can sign up for it and all Globe newsletters here. This is a new project and we’ll be experimenting as we go, so let us know what you think.
AROUND THE WEST
PREMIERS: Canada’s premiers have put forward a list of demands – including tens of billions of dollars for health-care and aid for resource-based economies such as Alberta’s – ahead of next week’s federal Throne Speech. The premiers of Alberta, Manitoba, Ontario and Quebec, who said they were representing their counterparts across the country, said health care costs have escalated because of the COVID-19 pandemic and they need help now. As well, Alberta Premier Jason Kenney repeated his push for billions from the fiscal-stabilization program, which helps provinces that experience a sudden loss in revenues, and he increased what he says the province is owed to more than $6-billion.
TESTING: The possibility for a fall surge in COVID-19 cases has provinces beefing up their testing systems, with either new methods or by changing who is eligible to get tested for the disease. In Alberta, which was the first province to allow anyone who wanted a test to get one, is stopping indiscriminate testing of people without symptoms, instead focusing on high-risk groups such as long-term-care residents and staff, health care workers and teachers. B.C. has approved a saliva test that will allow children to be tested without the deep-nasal swab.
MANITOBA LOOSENS RESTRICTIONS: The Manitoba government is easing special COVID-19 restrictions in a large section of the western part of the province, where COVID-19 case numbers have dropped after a summer surge. People in the Prairie Mountain health region were no longer required to wear masks in indoor public places and at outdoor gatherings starting this past Friday. Public gatherings in the region will no longer be limited to 10 people, but will be in line with the rest of the province with caps at 50 people indoors and 100 outside. The province’s Chief Public Health Officer said active case numbers in the region have dropped sharply from 240 in the summer to fewer than 40.
CRIME IN STRATHCONA PARK: Vancouver police have reported a surge in the number of break-ins and calls about weapons and threatening behaviour in Strathcona, a city neighbourhood that is the site of a large homeless encampment in Strathcona Park. Calls about weapons in Strathcona increased by 50 per cent in the first seven months of 2020 compared to the same period last year, break-ins jumped by 68 per cent and calls about threatening behaviour rose by 14 per cent, the Vancouver Police Department said on Thursday. Encampments in Vancouver and Victoria have highlighted the number of homeless people in both cities. They have also resulted in calls for all levels of government – city, province and federal – to do more to provide housing and other help to people who need it and to address crime and disorder in multiple neighbourhoods, including Vancouver’s downtown and Yaletown.
Vancouver City Council on Monday passed a motion to have staff look at three options – buying or leasing hotels or other buildings, setting up a temporary relief encampment on public or private land, or temporarily converting city-owned buildings into emergency housing or shelter space – to provide emergency housing for people who are homeless. That report is due by Oct. 2. At Strathcona Park on Thursday afternoon, camp spokeswoman Chrissy Brett said the city’s proposed solutions don’t fully address the varied needs of people living in the camp, including drug treatment and recovery options, or spaces that could accommodate families or people trying to stay away from drugs and alcohol.
SASKATOON COVID-19 FINE: The host of a private event at a house in Saskatoon that resulted in 21 people becoming infected with COVID-19 has been fined $2,000. Few details about the gathering have been released, but health officials said 47 people attended. It’s the first time someone in Saskatchewan has been fined for a private get-together.
B.C.'S RECOVERY PLAN: British Columbia will invest more than $2-billion in an economic-recovery plan that aims to avert additional job losses owing to the pandemic, B.C. Premier John Horgan said Thursday. The plan, unveiled with the catchphrase “Stronger B.C. for Everyone,” was delivered amid fevered speculation that Mr. Horgan is preparing for a snap election this fall. The stimulus package includes $1.5-billion in spending, as well as an additional $660-million in tax relief for business. Seven months after the first case of COVID-19 was identified in the province, the B.C. economy has partly rebounded, but there are still 150,000 fewer jobs. The recovery plan promises to protect 200,000 existing jobs in the private sector and would create 1,500 jobs in community works, including wildfire protection and wetland restoration. It would also open 5,800 additional positions in health care.
SAFE SUPPLY: Provincial Health Officer Bonnie Henry issued a public-health order on Wednesday that, coupled with forthcoming policy changes, will allow registered nurses and registered psychiatric nurses to prescribe, make more medications available, and expand eligibility to people who are at risk of overdose, including those who may not necessarily be diagnosed with a substance-use disorder. Other provinces have been less willing to embrace harm-reduction measures despite surges in overdose deaths. Alberta, which recently closed one of the country’s busiest supervised-consumption sites, emphasizes detox and recovery. Saskatchewan’s Health Minister said his government’s role is to “provide counselling and addiction treatment and addictions treatment beds as opposed to free drugs,” the Saskatoon StarPhoenix reported. B.C.'s new measures constitute the province’s most significant effort to date to directly address a contaminated illicit drug supply responsible for the majority of about 6,000 overdose deaths since 2016, the year a public-health emergency was declared.
WINTER PATIOS: Patios have kept many restaurants alive during the COVID-19 pandemic. Customers have grown accustomed to viewing outside dining as inherently safer, and cities across Canada have let patio spaces grow as a way to boost capacity and keep people physically distant. But winter will change that. Calgary’s mayor has pushed restaurants to keep patios open as long as possible even as the city is blanketed by snow, and some say they are experimenting with how to do that. Even in Vancouver’s more temperate climate, patios are not feasible for many restaurants in a cold, rainy winter.
Kelly Cryderman on Erin O’Toole and Alberta: “Mr. O’Toole has long sold himself as a strong proponent of the [oil and gas] sector. But there are early signs of how difficult it will be to balance the expectations in a massive country in which energy and environmental policies often collide, where Conservative support is concentrated on the Prairies, but the most votes are to be found in Central Canada.”
Gary Mason on Jason Kenney’s unpopularity: “The growing quagmire that is the province’s financial picture will not improve in the near term. Mr. Kenney, who is as conservative as they come, was relentless in his criticism of Ms. Notley’s NDP for allowing Alberta’s debt levels to rise to what he deemed were alarming levels. Well, they’re going up even more, under him.”
Charlotte Gill on the sale of outdoor co-op MEC: “To me, and to legions of devoted fans, the sale of MEC to an American investment company isn’t just another sign of the retail apocalypse. It’s something like a betrayal.”
Stewart Muir on why Canada still needs the oil sands: “Without refineries, pipelines, terminals, road and rail transport, control rooms and centres, drilling, extraction, onshore and offshore production, processing, gas stations, truck stops and chemical manufacturing – to name just some of the activities singled out as essential – life as we live it today would simply not be possible. It wouldn’t have just been Canadians' daily lives that would be disrupted; energy and utilities are how Canada makes a living.”