Full round-up of finance committee meeting in Kitimat

People pitched their needs to the Select Standing Committee on Finance and Government Services when they were in Kitimat recently.

From the Haisla Nation to the Tamitik Status of Women, people pitched their needs to the Select Standing Committee on Finance and Government Services when they were here last week.

The bipartisan committee is on tour to gather public input to determine priorities for next year’s provincial budget.

With seven scheduled speakers at the Oct. 15 meeting, it would be impossible to go into length on each one in our space here, but we will include the highlights of each presentation below:

Northwest Community College, Cathay Sousa (Registrar) and Dr. Denise Henning (President)

The Northwest Community College had two main priorities for the committee: provide funding to upgrade their trades building on the Terrace campus and also to implement a funding formula that they say would be more suitable.

They compared their funding formula to that of the Nicola Valley Institute of Technology, a First Nations college-university which receives $14,100 per student, said Cathay Sousa, NWCC registrar.

The NWCC received about $10,400 per student. They say when applying the difference of funding for just their 41 per cent of the student body which is First Nations, the college is down $3,700 a student in comparison.

As for their Terrace building, Dr. Denise Henning, college president, said that they are looking to replace their building with a new one that is slightly bigger but, more importantly, up to code and able to provide modern training.

“We have a mice-infested, below-code facility that would require more than $5 million just to upgrade,” she told the committee.

The process of ‘futurizing’ the building would also allow them to install multi-million dollar simulators, equipment which simply cannot be installed in the current building.

When asked about what facilities the college has, in particular Kitimat, Henning said that their Kitimat campus is “under-utilized”, but does have three classrooms and a computer lab. The campus currently serves about 50 students.

Haisla Nation Council, Chief Elected Councillor Ellis Ross

The Haisla Nation is seeking a better way to engage with proposed industrial projects in the region as their resources are stretched to thin to make effective decisions on referrals of projects from the Crown.

The Haisla are given referrals on projects but Ross said that “We don’t have the in-house resources or expertise to evaluate these referrals and to determine if a particular case is one we have to be concerned about or not.”

He asked the committee to propose to the government a way to allow the Haisla to address referrals without drawing on their own resources, and as well approach referrals through regular meetings with senior government officials to outline each referral, allowing the Haisla to make a decision on which referrals need a full study.

He said that they currently have 17 referrals, all to do with the proposed Pacific Trails Pipeline, and 10 more are still coming.

“We’ve already agreed in general about some of the conditions in the environmental certificate, but now it’s coming down to the specific referrals that we’re having problems with, and there are just too many. It’s death by a thousand cuts to us,” he said.

Those suggestions aside, Ross was complimentary to government (in power and the opposition) for their position on economic activity in the area.

“Let me also thank the government and the opposition for their consistent support of the LNG export opportunity that we’re trying to take advantage of,” he said. “We’re pleased to see both parties working to agree on such an important issue.”

Kitimat Child Development Centre Margaret Warcup, executive director

Presenting on behalf of Smithers’ Kerri Klaus and other representatives of the BC Association for Child Development and Intervention, Margaret Warcup advocated that funding for children and youth with special needs “be deemed a core service.”

She said they want attention especially in the therapies, such as speech language pathology and family support.

“Our second recommendation is that we immediately address the funding and the policy direction, which you’ve already started, for the provision of school-age therapy services,” she said, adding there are massive gaps for children in schools for therapies they need.

She said she wants the government to address service gaps by funding and implementing policies for youth with special needs who are transitioning to adult services, and also for students to have adequate therapy services funded so they can be successful in schools.

One way to achieve this is for the Ministry of Child and Family Development to stop issuing single year contracts and return to a system of three-year contracts.

“This enables us to have security of funding, retain our professional staff and operate a viable business,” she later told the Sentinel.

Kitimat Health Advocacy Group, Rob Goffinet, Chair

In the Kitimat Health Advocacy Group’s continual effort to promote local health services, Goffinet promoted sustained capital funding for Northern Health in the coming fiscal years.

“It’s absolutely crucial that the health care facilities of the north in general be maintained and, where necessary, expanded.”

Referring to Kitimat specifically, he said that our “rapidly changing demographics have required the expansion of our emergency room facilities to the tune of almost $300,000.”

The expansion, he said, would improve efficiency at a hospital where up to 30 per cent of acute care beds are taken up by multi-level care patients.

Goffinet said that capital cutbacks of almost 90 per cent almost put an end to ER improvements, but the advanced state of the project have effectively kept the project alive.

And similar to that topic, he also asked the committee to recommend additional funding to construct and staff more multi-level care beds.

At the same time he hopes for continued support of initiatives such as age-friendly communities, home care services and healthy communities programs.

NWCC’s Students’ Union, Mikael Jensen

The tuition structure in B.C. is hypocritical and unethical, claims the head of Northwest Community College’s student union.

That is what the committee heard from Mikael Jensen. Jensen suggests that the percentage of the cost of education paid through tuition is much higher for today’s students than it was for students a generation earlier.

“Really, we’re just suggesting that students of today should be granted the same access as previous generations,” he said.

Fees are unethical because, he said, the system of student loans penalizes students who cannot pay for their education up front. Interest rates on student loans is a significant financial barrier.

“So this is saying that folks who actually have quite high financial barriers in the first place now need to in fact pay more for education than somebody who can already afford it,” he said.

He recognized that increased fees are tied to a decrease in core funding to the college’s campuses, which he said have doubled since 2001.

He shared essentially the same request as Dr. Denise Henning from earlier in the evening that the college needs higher per-student funding — specifically Jensen says to 2001 levels, and roll back tuition fees to 2001 levels as well.

Budget cuts at the college have also reduced the amount of services and elective courses available for students. He said the Kitimat campus has no adult education instructors and that means students wanting to finish high school will have to go to  Terrace. And that’s even if students get past the wait list for high school completion programs.

Residents Advocating for a Safe Inclusive Environment, Diana Penner

Diana Penner, representing seniors under the banner of Residents Advocating for a Safe Inclusive Environment (RASIE), urged the committee to see to it that life in the province remains affordable, while also asking the government to stop downloading so many burdens to the local government.

Snow clearing for communities such as Kitimat, she said, should receive sufficient funding for snow removal equipment. She said that it’s important for northwest communities which see up to five months of snow in the year.

Privatization of road clearing and maintenance has also led to a degradation in service, she said.

On the matter of health care, they say that a larger chunk of funding should go to health care versus what is committed to upper level management.

Talk of keeping eligible workers in the region rather than importing tradespersons was also a top subject of discussion.

Tamitik Status of Women Assocation, Cheryl Rumley

Cheryl Rumley had two main areas of priorities for the committee: one was housing and the other was domestic violence.

Housing availability in Kitimat is putting a lot of pressure on residents here and especially women in unsafe situations, she said. Tamitik Status has an outreach program to connect women leaving abusive relationships to affordable homes and that over 10 months the vacancy rate in town has fallen drastically.

She noted a colleague of hers who rented an apartment last year for $425, and place which now runs for $650.

“Even though our community has rallied together for Good Food Box and FoodShare and food bank programs, this is not enough, so we really need the help of the province to work together towards affordable and supportive housing,” she said.

On the topic of domestic violence, she cited a recent report from from the Representative for Children and Youth which included a number of recommendations. She inquired, but received no immediate answer, regarding how the numerous recommendations would be resourced.

Private citizen, Ernie Archer

Resident Ernie Archer took the opportunity at the public speaking portion of the committee meeting to again pursue action relating to food quality at the hospital.

Recalling instances of foul smelling food and even frozen or moldy food, he said nothing has been done to correct food handling at the hospital.

While he said he wasn’t sure the exact cost for providing food for patients, he is certain money could even be saved in a different system of providing food.

“When you think of the fact that some of these people in multi-level care are paying $7,000 and $8,000 a month to be there, that’s garbage they’re getting,” he said.

Archer noted that he had the option of moving to multi-level care but instead opted to remodel his home for over $100,000. “I hope I never have to go back to the hospital,” he said.

“You go in the hospital and ask somebody what their complaints are? The food,” Archer continued. “Ninety percent of what comes out of the kitchen goes back. It’s a waste of money.”

Archer took an opportunity to also find humour in the situation, saying that he has told the hospital administrator in Kitimat that “If he sees a Portuguese woman, hire her. You can live off her soups, I guarantee it.”

Turning serious again, he said he just hopes something changes soon.

“I just hope somebody here convinces people in this hospital or in Northern Health to get their act together and find us some way of getting the food cooked here,” he said. “I never got a quicker reaction in telling a dietitian in Prince George that I hoped the next time I meet her I’m not sitting across the table from her at an inquest for why somebody died of malnutrition in Kitimat General Hospital.”