Minister of Rural Communities

As Premier, I’d take a more holistic, forward-looking approach, starting with a properly funded and mandated Ministry for Rural Communities.

Look, let’s be honest: the usual rural approach for BC Liberal leadership candidates is to play up whatever aspect of their own story makes them look less like a latte-sucking city slicker, make symbolic promises like a Premier’s Office in Prince George, and then rebrand some existing economic development initiatives under something like, say, a Northern Prosperity Agenda.

I’m going to predict this will be the third straight leadership contest where someone promises a Northern Premier’s Office. But I assure you, it won’t be me.

Yes, I worked to get the Trans Mountain Expansion Project approved. I’m the son of an engineer who worked on mines and dams. I grew up camping in rural BC and learned to respect firearms as a young army cadet. Yes, I like country music; Gunfighter Ballads and Trail Songs by Marty Robbins is one of my favourite albums of all time.

But no, I’m not going to pose on a farm in a borrowed cowboy hat or try to convince you I’ve been secretly into hunting and fishing this whole time.

I think we need to be more authentic than that, and rural BC deserves more than lip service and stale promises.

Even before COVID-19 hit, we needed economic development to create jobs and strengthen the tax base to meet the needs of rural communities. The resource sector is going to remain a cornerstone of our rural economy, and we need to get better at getting to yes on big projects, especially to rebuild after the pandemic. We need to get moving on mobile connectivity, broadband internet and healthcare accessibility (including across the Alberta border where that’s the most logical option). And we need to address growing conflicts over access to the land base in order to maintain both economic opportunities and quality of life.

But we need more than just big promises of restoring prosperity, or just big projects in rural BC paying for big spending in urban areas.

We also need to focus on human outcomes; on people and families in communities.

There’s no sense yearning for a past that isn’t coming back when we need to adjust and build a bright new future for rural communities that are changing.

We need to acknowledge and address high level trends that are playing out on the ground, in different ways in different communities. That includes deindustrialization and depopulation.
As local economies evolve, we need to help ease the impacts with common sense and compassion.

Some communities can’t get anyone to move there, which means nobody to take on jobs no matter how much they pay.

Others are absorbing the long-term implications of a COVID-induced loss of tourism, compounded by tensions over land access.

Some communities are seeing housing prices rise as young families flee the coast in search of affordability. That’s going to create a knock-on affordability issue for local first-time homebuyers who don’t have down payment equity from selling a million dollar shoebox in the sky in Vancouver. And it’s going to take away the affordability advantage that has been a historical strength.

We need to address the growing reality of automation and efficiency in the resource sector: that’s part of why we have tens of thousands less jobs in forestry, and there are less and less well-paying resource jobs for people without advanced credentials.

Less jobs means less hope.

With that comes the breakdown of families and an increase in mental health, homelessness, and substance abuse issues - both in communities like Prince George with massive overdose rates, and in places people leaving rural areas often relocate to, like my old neighbourhood in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside.

To address all these issues effectively, we need an integrated approach, with high level accountability and a proper seat at the cabinet table. And we need to integrate both economic and community considerations.

We all know that leadership and organizational structure matter. For certain topics, such as the needs of rural communities, to get the attention they deserve, we need focused leaders raising them consistently.

Think back to 2016-2017, when BC Liberal MLA Donna Barnett served as Minister of State for Rural Economic Development. That led to important initiatives like the Rural Advisory Council and the Rural Dividend, which supported local community groups.

But now John Horgan and the NDP have dismantled all that. They axed the Rural Advisory Council, reallocated the Rural Dividend, and downgraded the portfolio to a Parliamentary Secretary for Rural Development, buried within the wide-ranging Ministry for Forests, Lands, Natural Resource Operations and Rural Development. Our Lorne Doerkson serves as a focused Critic for Rural Development, and he does a great job holding the government to account.

As Premier, I’d take a more holistic, forward-looking approach, starting with a properly funded and mandated Ministry for Rural Communities.

We need a smart, savvy Minister at the cabinet table, whose full time job is to connect the dots to make things better for rural communities, and to make sure the unique experiences and perspectives of rural BC are reflected in policies and services across the board.

Think of the Ministry of Rural Communities as much as a think tank as a line ministry; a leader with a team of smart, experienced people with experience in small-town B.C. and the mandate to work hard for rural communities and economies.

People with the skills to identify what’s next, get ahead of the curve, and work collaboratively across government in order to make sure the pieces fit together to both enable rural development and address issues and opportunities in communities. People who will be on the ground, talking to local stakeholders, not sitting in Victoria.

Every community is different, so I want your advice; what do you think should be top priorities for a new Minister of Rural Communities? What else do I need to know?

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