The day before Premier John Horgan called the election, a cabinet order was quietly signed that gives part of his riding an advantage in applying for government grants.
But communities in another riding held by the B.C. Greens seeking the same deal were left out, despite the fact that they have all been lobbying together for years for the same change.
Green MLA Adam Olsen (Saanich North and the Islands) said Friday: “Taking it at face value, the premier’s riding gets a benefit and others didn’t. I can’t explain how this would be an oversight. I have to believe it was deliberate.”
The order-in-council was signed by Attorney General David Eby and former minister Michelle Mungall on Sept. 20, a Sunday. Horgan called the election the next day.
It effectively designates the Juan de Fuca electoral area within the Capital Regional District as a rural area.
Juan de Fuca is one of three electoral areas that are obviously rural, but classified as urban simply because they are within the mostly urban CRD. Southern Gulf Islands and Salt Spring Island are the other two.
They get some rural-specific funding, but are limited in applying for grants from various other lucrative provincial and federal programs.
Officials from the three areas have been lobbying for years to win the change in status and always presented a united argument that all three areas should be considered rural.
Mike Hicks, director for the Juan de Fuca area, said that united front was maintained throughout. But the Sept. 20 cabinet order applies only to his area.
He said he had “no idea” why his area was singled out for the beneficial change while the others weren’t. “All I know is, I’m a lucky man.”
He gave an example of what the change means. Several years ago, a tax benefit was extended to rural areas and people on one side of the San Juan River got it because they were in the (rural) Cowichan Valley regional district. Residents on the (urban) Juan de Fuca side didn’t.
The change was posted on a government website but was not announced publicly.
Olsen said he’s been hearing from irate Gulf Islands local officials as word of the change became known. He raised the issue in question period this week, saying there was an enormous amount of advocacy for the change.
“Wouldn’t you know it, on Sunday on the eve of the snap election … the NDP made only a change to the premier’s riding. Juan de Fuca was added while the Gulf Islands were left out.”
He asked Ravi Kahlon, the new minister of jobs, economic recovery and innovation, when the islands would be included.
Kahlon noted that Olsen first raised the issue with him by letter “30 minutes after I was sworn in.”
That was Nov. 26, but he had no ready answer on Thursday.
“I’m happy to continue this conversation after this chamber rises. It’s certainly something we are reviewing right now. I’ve asked staff to get me a full briefing on that, and it’s scheduled for next week.”
Olsen said it’s absurd to keep talking about the change because the islands are obviously rural. Leaving them designated as urban limits access to some pandemic recovery funding for hard-hit tourism-based communities.
“What’s really crazy about this is that there was an act. There were words on paper. All they did was exclude the communities from my riding.”
It has implications for funding broadband internet access as well as money for mental health/addictions treatment, he said.
“My preference is that the minister put through the order to complement the premier’s advantage that his communities got.”
After the NDP took power in 2017, the CRD renewed the push to change the status of Juan de Fuca and the Gulf Islands. Numerous letters were exchanged between the CRD and the province and Horgan was copied on some of it.
Then-municipal affairs minister Selina Robinson wrote in June 2018 to agree they all have rural characteristics and suggested the designation would be changed.
When it finally came, it applied only to that part of Horgan’s riding. The premier’s office said Friday the change addressed regional concerns and Olsen’s request is being reviewed.
A premier has some prerogative when it comes to looking after his or her riding. But that shouldn’t extend to short-changing others.