Budget Debate 2018, Transcript — Hon. Katrine Conroy

Third Session, 41st Parliament (2018)



Thursday, February 22, 2018

Morning Sitting

Issue No. 84


Hon. K. Conroy: Before I begin, I’d like to acknowledge the territories of the Lekwungen-speaking people, the Songhees and Esquimalt First Nations, on whose land we do our work.

I’m also very pleased to respond in support of Budget 2018, which can truly be described as the people’s budget. As we can see from the details outlined by the Finance Minister, Budget 2018 is about investing in people to make life better for B.C. families, to increase opportunities and to pave the way for success for all.

Before I speak more about the budget, I want to take this opportunity to thank the constituents of Kootenay West for giving me the honour of being their MLA. It is truly an honour to not only represent such an incredibly beautiful area geographically but also one with such amazing people. I don’t get home as much as I used to, but when I do, it’s always such a pleasure to connect with you all. I will continue to work hard to make sure I represent your issues in the Legislature.

I also want to take a minute to thank the incredible people who work in my office in Castlegar, my constituency assistants Elaine Whitehead and Angelika Brunner. You provide excellent service to our constituents, and I’m incredibly grateful for the work you do.

I also want to acknowledge the hard-working people who support me in my ministry office — Paula Gunn, Serena Talbot, Edena Brown, Emily White and Kaitlin Morton. These past seven months have made me realize how multitalented you all are. Thank you to all of you amazing women who work with me here in Victoria and in Castlegar.

I also want to thank our family, who have always been so supportive of me in the work that I do — our kids, grandkids, brothers and sisters, our in-laws and nieces and nephews. We all know how everyone who works here works many long hours, often away from home. I think of our family, who not only supported my husband, Ed, in this role for ten years but have continued to support me since 2005.

I also want to make a special recognition to one of my biggest supporters, my dad. Dad will be 90 this year, still lives in the house we grew up in, curls, golfs, is incredibly active and is a great role model for our entire family. His team won the seniors bonspiel last weekend, and I know he just got home from the rink to watch me speak. Love you, Dad.

I feel I’m an incredibly fortunate person. Not only am I the minister of a very dynamic ministry with incredible opportunities for the future, Children and Family Development; I’m excited to also be the minister responsible for, as we like to say, all things Columbia — the Columbia River treaty, the Columbia Basin Trust and the Columbia Power Corporation.

As someone raised in the Kootenays, who raised our kids there and now gets to watch our grandkids growing up there, I know what a remarkable area we live in. I also understand the effects of the original creation of the Columbia River treaty and the construction of the dams on our river in the ’60s. To have them watch the creation of the trust and the CPC, to see that grow to become what they are today and to now be the minister responsible is, as I said, extremely exciting.

It is good to see the cooperation and collaboration between the trust and our government on a number of projects. The opportunities created have benefited and will benefit all citizens in the basin and will continue to benefit generations to come.

What we all know, though, with the treaty is that this time, as we enter into discussions with our U.S. neighbours, things will be different. This time our discussions won’t just focus on power generation and flood control but will include discussions about the ecosystem of the basin, the effects on tourism, trade, the environment, our economy, the people. We all agree that we don’t want to cancel the treaty, but we also agree that there need to be some changes.

I also want to thank the people who work on the treaty here in Victoria, as well as the many people who work for the trust and the CPC. Your commitment to the basin is greatly appreciated.

I’d like to start by sharing a story about a couple of children in rural B.C. Staff at their school called the Ministry of Children and Families because they thought the children were being neglected. When the social worker arrived at their house, she realized the family’s water system had broken down and they couldn’t afford to replace it. Clearly, the family was struggling.

The social worker was able to see that at the root of this family’s trouble was not neglect but poverty. Rather than separate the children from their parents, the social worker committed to helping the family. The ministry paid for a new water system, and the family got the help that they needed to get back on their feet.

This is an approach that puts people at the heart of decision-making, right at the ground level. It’s an approach that our government embraces and that I as minister want to accelerate and broaden in the work we do every day with children and families.

[11:30 a.m.]

As you heard in the details laid out by the Finance Minister, our government is making significant investments in people and in making life more affordable. The largest investment in affordable housing, the largest investment in child care, the first cross-government poverty reduction strategy. These are the kinds of investments that show how this government is putting people first.

This is a government that believes all British Columbians should share in our province’s prosperity, in progress, where everyone is doing better, not just a few.

Our government’s intentions and actions were made very clear just a few months into our term. Starting January 1, 2018, we cut MSP premiums by half and put money back into the pockets of families. By January 1, 2020, all MSP premiums will be eliminated. That means families will save $1,800 per year and individuals will save $900 per year.

We removed fees for adult basic education and English language learning, giving people opportunity and removing the roadblocks to the education and skills people need to improve their lives. We reduced student loans by 2.5 percent and reduced the burden students would face soon after graduating as they build their lives and join the workforce.

One of the actions that I’m particularly proud of involves youth leaving government care. Only a few months after forming government, we announced free tuition at all 25 of B.C.’s public post-secondary institutions for young people leaving foster care. We know this was the right thing to do, and the proof is in the numbers.

Between September last year and January this year, 229 former youth in government care signed up at B.C. colleges and universities, compared to 189 in the entire school year last year. That is a 20 percent jump in four months. These youth now have opportunities they did not have before. Some of these youths will go on to become the leaders of tomorrow.

I’ve met a number of former youth in care and have been so impressed by their passion, leadership and commitment to making things better for children in care now. This is proof that investing in people is not only sound public policy, but it is good for the economy. However, for youth who have been in government care, getting into post-secondary is only one of the challenges they face. Over the past few months, we have heard from former youth in care about what other supports they need to be successful, contributing members of our province.

At 19, most young people are supported and guided by their parents and families and not left to fend for themselves. As parents to youth in care, our government feels the same responsibility to make sure these young adults have every opportunity to successfully transition to adulthood and independence. We take this responsibility seriously.

Our Budget 2018 investments to expand and enhance the agreements with young adults program exemplify that commitment. The program gives youth the financial support and services they need to finish secondary school, learn job and life skills, get a trade, attend college or university or complete a rehabilitative program.

Over the next three years, the Ministry of Children and Family Development will invest $30 million to enhance and expand the agreements with young adults program. This will allow us to meet growing demand as more young people become eligible to participate in the program.

This year the ministry will invest $7.7 million to raise the eligibility to their 27th birthday, to align with the provincial tuition waiver program, and also to increase the maximum monthly support rate from $1,000 to $1,250 and to make supports available for the full calendar year for students enrolled in a multi-year educational or vocational program. All these changes will take effect on April 1, 2018 — in just a few months.

At the same time, we’ve hired more youth workers. We’ve improved practice, and we need to continue making improvements so that young people know about and can access the supports they need to thrive. While this is good news for youth, we know we can do more. We will continue to do all we can to set the children and youth in government care on a path to success.

As I travel through the province and speak to people, I am struck by just how many are struggling daily to pay the bills. Many people I speak to are understandably frustrated from years of being neglected and unheard. Parents in particular have been facing so many challenges, be it finding a decent home to raise their children in or finding quality child care so they can get to work. They have been feeling the pain of sustained cuts in the social programs that are meant to support hard-working British Columbians.

A government’s job is not to ignore the people it was elected to serve. It is the job of the government to listen to the people, understand their needs and make changes that let people know they have been heard.

[11:35 a.m.]

As a former early childhood educator and now as the Minister of Children and Family Development, I have heard from people across the province about the daily difficulties they face getting affordable, reliable services they can count on. Parents often have to make the tough choice not to work because they can’t afford child care. When the cost of child care is almost the same as your monthly rent — or even more, if you have more than one child in child care — you know there’s a problem. We’ve heard loud and clear from B.C. parents that there’s an urgent need for more licensed care throughout the province.

We have heard from businesses and employers, including the Vancouver Board of Trade and the Surrey Board of Trade, that the lack of affordable child care in our province has been making it difficult to recruit and keep skilled workers. That is why I’m especially proud of our government’s action to deliver a comprehensive child care program for B.C. families.

Our government is embarking on an exciting made-in-B.C. child care plan that will reduce child care fees for thousands of families, increase the number of licensed child care spaces, train the early childhood educators B.C. needs to provide affordable quality child care for every family that needs it, help thousands of children and families get a better start and grow our economy to benefit all British Columbians.

Earlier my colleague the Minister of State for Child Care provided details of our $1 billion investment over the next three years to provide accessible, affordable and high-quality child care in B.C. This will give immediate relief for parents with children under five. By investing $630 million, we will make child care more affordable for up to 86,000 families.

And $237 million will go towards creating more than 22,000 new licensed child care spaces right across the province. We’ll commit $136 million to deliver supports for new and existing early childhood educators to ensure that child cares are not only safe places for children to spend the day but benefit from the early learning to make the most of this important time.

Our government’s investment in child care is also getting a boost from the federal government. To address immediate service gaps, we have allocated $10 million per year of our early learning and child care agreement with the federal government to invest funds into supported child care and Aboriginal supported child care development to address wait-lists. We also will enhance Aboriginal Head Start programs on and off reserve.

We acknowledge that this will not meet all of the early learning and child care needs of Indigenous children. We know that further investments will be needed, guided by our partnership with Indigenous leadership. Making life more affordable for British Columbians is a key commitment for our government. Improving the child care system is a major step in making our commitment to B.C. families a reality.

There are a number of changes that make me feel confident our government is on the right path to making life affordable and improving services people can count on. By increasing income and disability assistance rates, our government is making life better for some of the most vulnerable among us. By taking action to end speculation and tax fraud in B.C.’s real estate market, our government is giving relief to many families struggling to find safe and affordable housing. In fact, by making the largest investment in housing in B.C. history, our government is giving housing security to people, including students, seniors, Indigenous peoples and middle-income families. By taking steps to increase minimum wage to $15 an hour by 2021, our government is helping B.C.’s lowest-paid workers get ahead.

These are just a few examples of how our government is investing in people to make a real difference. Our government believes that people are the foundation of a healthy, robust and sustainable economy. A strong economy is one where everyone is doing better. Our government will make sure every region benefits from the jobs and opportunity our province creates. In fact, it’s great to be at the helm of a ministry where we can see the positive results of this new approach.

There may not be any area of public policy where a new approach is more desperately needed than in Indigenous child welfare. Our government is committed to moving beyond talk and into action when it comes to reconciliation with the Indigenous peoples on whose lands we are privileged and honoured to work, live and play. The throne speech recommitted that our government will work in partnership with First Nations, Métis and Indigenous people to achieve meaningful reconciliation. This is a cross-government priority.

Our government committed to implement the UN declaration on the rights of Indigenous peoples and the call to action of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and the Tsilhqot’in decision. Moving beyond words, our ministerial mandate letters direct us to review our policies, programs and legislation to bring the principles of the declaration into action.

[11:40 a.m.]

Budget 2018 invests in housing, child care and skills training, with more than $200 million dedicated to Indigenous priorities over the fiscal plan. That includes funding to expand culturally based Indigenous child care. It includes 1,750 new units of supported housing for Indigenous people developed in partnership with Indigenous housing societies and First Nations. It includes additional funding for Aboriginal friendship centres that do incredible outreach work and serve all Indigenous peoples, whether they are status, non-status, Métis or Inuit.

Both the calls to action and the UN declaration on the rights of Indigenous peoples emphasize the need to preserve and revitalize Indigenous languages. That’s why our government is immediately committing $50 million to support the preservation and revitalization of Indigenous languages in B.C.

For my ministry, the importance of reconciliation means reducing the disproportionate number of Indigenous children in government care and working collaboratively and respectfully with Indigenous communities to make a difference for families. We all know the system has failed Indigenous people, and we all know it needs to change. This change needs to happen at a systemic level within my ministry, across different levels of governments, with our partners who deliver services to families and within communities.

This is another area where our government is changing its approach to focus on prevention. We are actively implementing the recommendations from Grand Chief Ed John’s report. We are shifting the focus to keeping Indigenous children at home, in communities and out of care wherever possible.

Many Indigenous communities are served by delegated Aboriginal agencies. We have increased funding to those agencies. This will allow them to hire experienced and qualified staff, carry smaller caseloads and provide culturally appropriate services to the children and families they serve.

In September, we launched a new $6.4 million program to support 203 First Nations communities and seven Métis-serving agencies to keep Indigenous families together. So far, nearly 160 have successfully applied for the $30,000 grant for programs that keep the family unit strong. In November, we took a big step forward on reconciliation with a new delegated Métis agency, the Lii Michif Otipemisiwak Family and Community Services. Lii Michif now has our government support to take over full responsibility for 50 Métis children currently in government care in the Kamloops area.

Our government believes that Indigenous people know best what their communities need, so they should be the ones helping us plan any strategy on reducing the number of Indigenous children in care and connecting them with permanent homes. Our government is doing just that. For example, this spring we are reaching out to Indigenous communities to better understand and support custom adoption practices.

Custom adoption is a cultural practice that Indigenous people have been practising for centuries. Children who cannot be with their birth parents are raised by extended family or a member of the child’s Indigenous community according to their traditions and values. It truly embodies the spirit of a village raising a child. With custom adoption, we look forward to being able to better support communities. Families and children find permanent homes connecting to their families and their culture.

We recognize that for meaningful change to happen, government policies, programs and services across the board must change to better reflect Indigenous beliefs and practices. A fundamental shift like this will take time and require ongoing, intentional effort on our part.

The Aboriginal policy and practice framework helps our ministry make sure our policies and programs are culturally safe and trauma-informed, and support and honour Indigenous peoples’ cultural systems of sharing and caring for their children and families. We are hiring more Indigenous employees and training all ministry staff to improve their cultural awareness and sensitivity to help them provide culturally safe services to Indigenous children, their families and communities.

We are on the right track. This was confirmed for me when I joined Indigenous leaders and my colleague the Minister of Indigenous Relations and Reconciliation at the emergency meeting on Indigenous child welfare hosted by the federal minister in Ottawa. We were all encouraged by the overreaching desire to honour and respect Indigenous peoples’ rights to care for their children, and we are hopeful, knowing that B.C. is making significant progress in a number of areas.

Last year the Wet’suwet’en Nation and the province of B.C. signed a landmark agreement for the nation to reclaim jurisdiction for child welfare services according to its traditional laws and governance systems. Our province is only one of three in Canada to have taken this step, Ontario and Quebec being the other two.

[11:45 a.m.]

I was honoured to attend a potlatch organized by the Wet’suwet’en here in Victoria in December to celebrate this commitment.

We were also active in discussions with the Wet’suwet’en, Splatsin and Lake Babine Nations and the Métis Nation of B.C. to explore jurisdiction and different models of child welfare led by Indigenous communities.

Through the tripartite First Nations children and families working group, we have been working with the federal government and First Nations leaders to explore fundamental and systemic changes to B.C.’s child welfare system, including Indigenous jurisdiction. With the recent federal government commitment to action and their decision to address the historic underfunding of delegated Aboriginal agencies, we can now move faster on making the changes to improve Indigenous child welfare.

There is much work to do, but our ministry has the added benefit of dedicated staff working throughout the entire province. I’m inspired by the women and men I have met, by their longtime service to the ministry, their excitement about the changes we are implementing together, and their commitment to make things better for the children and families that they provide services to.

The Minister of State and I visited the child care branch the day after the budget to thank them for all the work they have done on our new child care program and the work they will be doing to ensure it is implemented. The big banner saying “Welcome to universal child care,” the many staff gathered and the excitement in the room was contagious. We left knowing our government is heading in the right direction, and we have an amazing team to work with.

I know we are fortunate to live in a beautiful province that is rich in people, resources and wealth. However, for many years, only a select few have enjoyed those riches, while many have gone without.

It is no surprise that we are facing some of the worst crises in areas of affordability, equality and poverty. While we inherited some of them — the problems at ICBC and B.C. Hydro, to name a few — our government is doing its best to reverse some of that damage done.

With the largest investments in housing and child care in B.C., we’re taking steps to make life more affordable. By making different choices that put people first, our government hopes to transform lives and create a better future for everyone.