With three-and-a-half years as BC’s premier under his belt, NDP Leader John Horgan knows there’s still much more work to be done.
“The challenges we face are not short-term, and I believe that the people of BC have to make the choice about where they want to go and who they want to lead them,” he said.
In an interview with Daily Hive via Zoom, Horgan reflected on what his party has done so far and spoke about what he hopes to accomplish if re-elected.
Homelessness and housing
On homelessness and housing, Horgan said there are “profound” challenges, and while a “magic wand”won’t solve the problem, his government has taken steps to address and tackle the issue.
“Our housing plan is progressive; it’s focused on making sure that we’re looking at the continuum of housing,” he said.
“The pandemic has made it worse because temporary shelter beds which were available… are not capable of taking on people with physical distancing challenges.”
He spoke about tent cities in public areas like Beacon Hill in Victoria and Strathcona Park in Vancouver. “The encampments are here and we need to make sure they are safe for people that are in them and they are safe for the people that live around them,” he said.
And while Horgan believes “no shortage of compassion and empathy and community” for those in vulnerable situations, he expressed concern about people that are preying on that vulnerability – particularly in homeless camps.
“The challenges are those bad actors within the vulnerable populations [who] give everyone a bad name,” he said. “It’s those that are preying on those vulnerable people that we need to address.”
In the past year, his government has bought hotels to house the homeless, and while a homeless camp at Vancouver’s Oppenheimer Park numbering almost 300 tents is now gone, the tent city at Strathcona now numbers around 500 tents.
And when asked about the subject of recurring homeless camps, and ultimately what his end game is on the issue, Horgan said it’s “to do the best we can to lift people one at a time if need be, but collectively we’re all in this together.”
He took issue with Liberal Leader Andrew Wilkinson’s claim that the NDP is simply “warehousing” people to get them off the street.
“We’re not warehousing,” said Horgan “We’re taking people, giving them a roof over their head, and trying to connect them with the mental health and additions services that they need.”
The issue, he added, “didn’t arrive yesterday and won’t be gone tomorrow.”
Horgan said his focus remains on “individuals who demonstrate that the group can be better if we all focus on helping people one at a time. I am meeting individuals who have had their lives transformed. They’re getting back on track. There is a mountain of compassion and empathy and that gives me hope.”
Still, “tolerance is also a thin edge [and] you can’t legislate empathy,” he said. “I think that government has to be respectful of people who have different points of view. I am always encouraging people to consider themselves and their families being the ones needing help. But that doesn’t work with everybody… and we just have to manage through that.”
When it comes to tackling the overdose crisis, which BC declared a public health emergency in 2016, and which has seen record numbers of calls and fatalities this year, Horgan said “we need treatment, we need harm reduction, we need law enforcement, and we also need to make sure, more importantly, that the drug supply remains safe.”
He admitted his government hasn’t “made enough progress” on the issue but said he remains committed to moving in this direction. “We’ve been sidetracked not just by the two crises, but also climate change. These are three massive situations that none of us thought we’d find ourselves in, but we have to manage them concurrently.”
And with the realities of the pandemic, managing becomes the overdose crisis becomes a trickier task.
“Because of physical distancing, we’re finding more people using by themselves,” he said. “With the borders closed, that means the supply is diminishing. That means poisons are being added with a greater frequency, and that’s leading to the deaths we’re seeing.”
He stressed he’s not making excuses, but rather these are “the complicating factors that we have to deal with.”
When his party was first elected in 2017, “we wrote to law enforcement and said we are not interested in prosecuting simple possession, and that a ‘compassionate approach’ is what’s needed to tackle the issue,” he said.
“Addictions require treatment. Treatment requires compassion, and law enforcement is a key part of getting to those who are profiting from killing people and putting what they know to be a poisonous drug supply into our communities,” he said. “We need to prosecute those people, but we need to make patients out of those that were criminalized before.”
BC’s pandemic response
As BC continues to grapple with higher coronavirus case numbers compared to earlier this year, Horgan spoke about his government’s response thus far and his plan to tackle it moving forward. He largely credited Provincial Health Officer Dr. Bonnie Henry and Health Minister Adrian Dix for their handling of the situation.
“Dr. Henry is the envy of Canada,” he said. “Her competency, her compassion, and her ability to communicate with people in a way that gives them comfort that they are being cared for.” He called Dix an “encyclopedia of information” and said that Dix and Henry have “done a spectacular job” of leading BC’s response.
Going forward, Horgan said he is “absolutely prepared” to take further actions “”if the evidence demonstrates” the need to do so. “We did that with nightclubs,” he said.
And decisions around how to move forward on the pandemic response is also a large part of why BC is currently in an election season.
“I believe that the people of BC have to make the choice about where they want to go and who they want to lead them,” said Horgan. “I believe a stable government is imperative, and government needs to be able to move quickly.”
When asked if he believes his economic response plan announced in September came too late, Horgan said no, calling criticism on the timing of the announcement “politics.”
Prior to the pandemic, “the economy was humming,” he said. “When COVID arrived, our economy ground to a halt, public safety became paramount, and people took direction and we were able to save lives.”
Then, “through the summer I consulted with labour, large businesses, small businesses, [and] not-for-profits that have been decimated by this as well,” said Horgan. “And with respect to making sure Indigenous populations were included – very critical. You talk pandemic in Indigenous communities where they have thousands of years of oral history that got abruptly jolted with the arrival of Europeans – this is serious business and we had to make sure that we were working very carefully [and] collaboratively with Indigenous peoples. We have done that work.”
Horgan said the money BC was was able to get in September from Ottawa for things like transit and BC Ferries –as well as for communities – “made it a massive infusion of cash,” he said. “Tax breaks for businesses, dollars for individuals, and of course money for communities. So I am quite comfortable that we are on the right track [and] I believe the monies we approved in September were appropriate and timely.”
Working with other parties
While the confidence and supply agreement between the NDP and Green Party that helped form government in 2017 ultimately ended heading into this year’s election, Horgan said he’d be willing to form a similar deal should a similar scenario play out.
“We had an ambitious plan and we did it in a minority situation, and that’s why I’m so grateful to the Green group, because we did it together,” he said. “We disagreed on a lot of stuff along the way, and I was frustrated by many of the delays, but that’s not important. What’s important is results for people, and we were able to accomplish lots.”
Horgan said BC’s “climate action plan is the best in the continent because we collaborated and we took advantage of Dr. Weaver’s expertise. And I will work with Sonia again. The values she brings to play are the same as mine. I have zero problem working with her. But that’s not the point. It’s not about us, it’s about the people of BC, and that’s why I felt we needed to renew either our mandate or the mandate of somebody else.”
At the end of the day, “I think our collaboration with the Green caucus produced great results for British Columbians,” he said. “I’m proud of that, and I know Sonia and her team are as well.”
Adopting an anti-racist framework
Speaking to Daily Hive after the televised leaders debate in which Horgan – when asked how he has reckoned with white privilege – said he “doesn’t see colour,” Horgan explained how he is actively adopting an anti-racist framework in his own life.
“Rather than focusing on the fact I am 6’2”, 250 lb, white, and the premier – I personify privilege – I duffed it,” he said of his debate response. “I was grateful to have the opportunity to come back and say I worked as hard as I can to make this group of candidates the most diverse in BC history, and it’s pretty darn close to it in terms of the distribution of … LGBTQ candidates, people with disabilities, people of colour, and five Indigenous candidates.”
Horgan said he’s been “actively working in my time in public life to make sure the diversity and community is reflected in the legislature.”
However, he said, “we need to do more than that. We appointed Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond to look into systemic racism within our healthcare sector when we heard allegations of emergency room personnel betting on alcohol levels of Indigenous peoples. Absolutely grotesque, and you need to call that out when it happens and take action. We’re committed to have anti-racism legislation put in place.”
Horgan also recalled when the coronavirus first hit and “we saw images on our television screens of… Asian women walking down the street being pushed down. That’s not assault, it’s a hate crime and there need to be prosecutions,” he said. “So we want to make sure that by reviewing the Police Act, which was underway before the election was called, will continue after, that we look at the antiquated laws that govern these issues, and make sure that there are consequences for racist behaviour for hate.”
As well, said Horgan, “we need to be more inclusive, I have to work at that every day. I had a valuable lesson to be focused all the time on my white privilege. And I surround myself with people like Ravi Kahlon and a diverse group of candidates who remind me every day that as much as I’m doing my best to stamp out racism, I can always do more.”
Still, in the wake of his debate gaffe, Horgan said he “can always learn, and that was the teachable moment for me. I am humbled by the support that I’ve had since then. But it’s not about me; it’s about how I, as a white person, do my best to make sure that society is more inclusive, and I’m committed to that every day.”
This is the third and final instalment of Daily Hive’s series of interviews with the leaders of BC’s provincial parties.