John Douglas, special projects co-ordinator for the Port Alberni Shelter Society and a former mayor and councillor for the city. [PNG Merlin Archive] Submitted: John Douglas / PNG
The former mayor of Port Alberni has released a report in which he supports calls for drug decriminalization in order to protect British Columbians from overdoses and other related harm, and help them find appropriate treatment.
John Douglas, who was a paramedic for 23 years, wrote “Working Towards a Solution: Resolving the Case between Crime and Addiction” following an information-gathering trip to Portugal, and recently released it to the media.
Douglas, now special projects co-ordinator for the Port Alberni Shelter Society, explained Thursday that the paper is not a scientific analysis, but rather a “from-my-gut” exploration of what he has learned while working in the fields of social housing, mental health, poverty and addiction.
He calls for the province to engage doctors, lawyers and police, as well as the public, to make addiction and possession of addictive substances solely a health issue, under healthy ministry jurisdiction. He wants the government to develop a supply model for addictive drugs to eliminate health problems associated with contaminated street drugs.
More than 4,300 people have died of an illicit-drug overdose in B.C. since the provincial government declared a public health emergency in April, 2016. Fentanyl was detected in most cases.
Douglas recommends the development of long-term, affordable and flexible treatment communities and “health teams” to provide services. He asks the province to tell the federal government “politely and firmly” that it intends to move forward with a pilot program which is open to federal participation.
“I’ve been a politician myself — no higher than a municipal level — but I find political people, as well-meaning as they are, tend to lag behind movements, sometimes, in society,” Douglas said. “I’ve talked to so many people in the health, enforcement and legal fields that all agree (addiction) should be treated as a health issue, but the political end is lagging behind because they’re afraid of losing votes or saying the wrong thing and offending somebody.”
Douglas entered politics in 2008 as a councillor in Port Alberni and served as mayor from 2011 to 2014. After the fentanyl-related overdose crisis emerged, he helped bring a sobering centre and overdose prevention and inhalation sites to the city.
His decades of experience in health care and helping people who have addictions helped him come to the conclusion that people with addictions should be in health care, not the criminal justice system.
“With the shelter, we’re working toward researching models of therapeutic communities that could work for treatment, if and when we can get the government to start moving in the direction of decriminalization and the direction of adequate treatment for people with addictions, instead of these pathetic 30- to 60-day treatment programs that are commonplace over here,” Douglas said.
Decriminalization would apply to all drugs — even heroin and methamphetamine — but falls short of legalization, which removes prohibitions but also develops regulations for the production, sale and use of a substance (Canada’s approach to cannabis is an example).
In a special report released last April, Provincial Health Officer Dr. Bonnie Henry urged the B.C. government to implement decriminalization for simple possession for personal use.
Henry said B.C. could use its powers under the Police Act to allow the Ministry of Public Safety and Solicitor-General to set broad provincial priorities with respect to people who use drugs. Or it could enact a regulation under the act to prevent police from using resources to enforce against simple possession offences under the federal Controlled Drugs and Substances Act.
Solicitor-General Mike Farnworth shot down Henry’s proposal, saying laws around the possession of controlled substances remain federal and “no provincial action can change that.”
Douglas sides with Henry on the issue.
“I wanted to be an additional voice to echo those findings,” he said. “I agree wholeheartedly with her. We don’t have to wait for the federal government to do this.”
B.C. Addictions Minister Judy Darcy has no illusions about the current state of British Columbia’s recovery houses and the risk that the bad ones pose to anyone seeking safe, quality care.
Nor is she alone when she calls it “the wild, wild West.”
Anyone able to build a website and rent a house can operate a so-called recovery house. Like a game of whack-a-mole, even when inspectors try to shut down the worst ones, they spring up somewhere else.
That said, the regulations they’re supposed to enforce are so vaguely worded that it’s easier for bylaw inspectors to shut places down for garbage infractions than for failure to provide the most basic of services like food and a clean bed to people desperate for help.
Even the most deplorable ones have never been taken to court by the province, let alone fined or convicted which makes the penalties of up to $10,000 moot.
It’s taken two years, but this week Darcy — along with Health Minister Adrian Dix and Social Development Minister Shane Simpson — took the first steps toward bringing some order to the chaos and overturning years of neglect.
In two separate announcements, what they’re offering is both the stick of tighter regulations and enforcement as well as the carrot of more money for operations and training staff.
The carrots announced Friday include $4,000 grants available immediately to registered and licensed recovery home operators to offset the costs of training for staff before tougher regulations come into force on Dec. 1.
On Oct. 1, the per-diem rate paid for the treatment of people on social assistance will be raised after more than a decade without an increase. Recovery houses on the provincial registry will get a 17-per-cent increase to $35.90, while recovery houses licensed by the regional health authorities will jump to $45 from $40.
The sticks are new regulations that for the first time require things like qualified staff, which common sense should have dictated years ago as essential. Recovery houses will have to provide detailed information about what programs and services they offer. Again, this seems a no-brainer, as does requiring operators to develop personal service plans for each resident and support them as they transition out of residential care.
As for enforcement, the “incremental, remedial approach” to complaints has been scrapped and replaced with the power to take immediate action rather than waiting for a month and giving written notice to the operators.
Darcy is also among the first to admit that much, much more needs to be done to rein in bad operators whose purported treatment houses are flophouses and to provide addicts and their families with the resources they need to discern the good from the bad.
More than most, the minister knows the toll that poor funding and lack of regulation is taking both on addicts who seek help and on their loved ones. She’s haunted by meetings she’s had with the loved ones of those who have died in care and those who couldn’t get the services they needed.
“It’s the most difficult thing that I have to do and, of course, it moves me to my core,” she said in an interview following the announcement. “People say, ‘Do you ever get used to it?’ Of course I don’t. If you ever get used to it, you’re doing the wrong job.
“But I try and take that to drive me and to drive our government to do more and to move quickly and act on all fronts and having said that, there’s a lot to do. There’s really, really a lot to do.”
Among those she’s met are the two mothers of men who died within days of each other in December under deplorable conditions in two provincially registered recovery houses run by Step By Step.
It was four to six hours before 22-year-old Zach Plett’s body was found after he overdosed and died. On Christmas Eve, a 35-year-old man died at a different Step by Step house. It was two days before his body was found by other residents.
Two years before those men died, the provincial registrar had received dozens of complaints and issued dozens of non-compliances orders. Both houses remained on the registry until this summer when owner/operator Debbie Johnson voluntarily closed them.
After years of relentless advocacy Susan Sanderson, executive director of Realistic Recovery Society, was happy to host the ministers’ Friday announcement at one of its houses. She wants to believe Darcy that these are just first steps since the per-diem rate is still short of the $40 she and others lobbied for and remains a small fraction of what people who aren’t on welfare are charged — charges that can run up to $350 a day.
Having taken these long overdue and much-needed initial steps, maybe Darcy and her colleagues can take another logical next step to support working people getting access recovery who — without access to employee benefit plans — can’t afford the cost of treatment.
They shouldn’t have to wait until they’re destitute to get care, any more than someone on welfare should be deprived of help.
As of today, Karly has been clean and sober for 30 days after four years of battling addiction.
Addiction made the 17-year-old from Chiliwack vulnerable to exploitation and bullying. It disrupted her schooling, left her psychotic, suicidal, near death and unable to care for her year-old baby.
“In addiction, I never thought I could be this happy without drugs,” she said earlier this week.
“There’s obviously times when I’m feeling like I don’t want to live any more. But I realize a lot of people do care for me, and it would hurt a lot of people if I did leave.”
Up until now, Karly didn’t worry that fentanyl laced in the cocaine, crystal meth and other street drugs she’s used might kill her, as it has more than 4,000 other British Columbians in the past four years.
“Honestly, I just thought I wasn’t going to get that wrong batch. I thought I could trust my dealers. Now, I’m starting to realize the risk. I was using alone. It’s pretty scary now that I think about it.
“I could have overdosed, my poor son he would have had no mom.”
But Karly’s recovery is at risk because the B.C. government is refusing to pay for her treatment. The question of why was bounced from the Ministry of Mental Health and Addictions to the Ministry of Children and Family Development, back to addictions, then back to MCFD, and finally to Fraser Health over two days.
Friday afternoon, MCFD responded that due to privacy concerns it could not discuss the specifics of the case.
The spokesperson did confirm that the government pays for youth residential treatment. Funds are allocated by the health ministry to regional health authorities. MCFD social workers are supposed to refer youth and families to the health authority, which is supposed to do the assessments and placements.
Reached late Friday afternoon, Fraser Health said that it does not have provincial funding for youth beds at Westminster House, where Karly is getting treatment, only adult beds.
Postmedia editors and I are also concerned about Karly’s privacy and vulnerability. For that reason, we are not using her real name, or that of her mother.
On July 10, her mother Krista found Karly white-faced and barely breathing on the floor. It was a moment she had been bracing for since 2015.
Krista, who is a nurse, didn’t need the naloxone kit that she keeps at the ready. She shook Karly awake and got her into the car to take her to Surrey Creekside Withdrawal Management Centre.
En route, Karly flailed about, kicking in the glove box, banging her head against the window and screaming.
“She was in psychosis. She was not my child,” Krista said. “It took six nurses and two doctors to get her inside.”
At 9 p.m, Karly called her mom to say that if they didn’t let her out, she was going to escape, prostitute myself and get enough money to kill herself.
“I felt in my heart that she was really going to do it.”
Panicked, Krista called Susan Hogarth, Westminster House’s executive director, and begged for help. Westminster House is a residential treatment centre for women, with four designated youth beds in New Westminster.
Even though it was past midnight, Hogarth agreed to take Karly.
“We can’t not put a child somewhere,” Hogarth said this week.
The cost for treatment at Westminster House is $9,000 a month, meaning Krista needs $27,000 to pay for the three months of treatment that counsellors say Karly needs to be stabilized enough to go into second-stage care.
The crucial first month of treatment was covered using donations from individuals, and Hockey for the Homeless.
Now there are bills to be paid.
Krista’s only contact with the government has been through MCFD. A social worker helped Karly get mental health services, pre- and post-natal care and helped Krista gain guardianship of her year-old grandson last month.
It’s the social worker who told the family that the government would pay for a 10-week, co-ed live-in treatment program at Vancouver’s Peak House, but not Westminster House.
But Krista and Westminster House’s director believe a co-ed program that has no trauma counselling is not a good fit for Karly.
The only other option suggested was outpatient treatment. But Karly’s already tried and failed at that. Besides, her dealer lives two blocks from their home.
If Karly was an adult on welfare, the Ministry of Social Development and Poverty Reduction would pay $30.90 a day for her room and board in residential care.
Bizarrely, Krista said the social worker suggested maybe Karly could just wait a year and then her treatment would be fully covered.
“This is f–ing BS. I can’t wait until she’s older. She’ll be dead,” said Krista, who has had her own problems with addiction. An alumni of Westminster House, she is four years into recovery.
Concerns about how to pay for Karly’s treatment in addition to caring for Karly’s baby and Karly’s younger sister are wearing heavily on Krista. She’s had to take a medical leave from her job, and is worried about how she will pay her rent.
She’s already spent four years in a constant state of readiness in case Karly overdoses. There’s naloxone in the house. The razors are hidden because “Karly cuts, cuts.” Every time Karly took a bath, Krista stood apprehensively by the door because her daughter had threatened to drown herself.
“She is doing amazing,” Krista said. “The first time I saw her was 15 to 16 days in, and she had colour in her cheeks and they were my kid’s eyes, beautiful brown . . .
“When I brought her son to see her, her smile so genuine. I had not seen it in so many years. The smile was what I remember of her as a kid.”
Hogarth wonders why the government can’t look at the bigger picture of what Karly’s untreated addiction might cost — from more overdoses to her mother’s fragile state to the fate of her son.
Everybody, Hogarth said, deserves a chance at recovery and not just harm reduction interventions.
“Karly is not the easiest client in the world,” she said with a laugh. “But she’s worth it because we want her to go home to her son and to be able to raise him.”
For now, the non-profit Westminster House is covering Karly’s costs with donations augmented by a GoFundMe campaign organized by Krista’s friends.
But it can’t do that forever, or without more donations.
As for Karly, for the first time in years she’s thinking about a future. She won’t be ready to start school in September, but plans to go back as soon as she can for Grade 12 and then go on to study so that she can work in health care.
The HandyDART service made 1.3 million trips last year. RICHARD LAM / PNG
Public transit could receive a boost in the next B.C. budget, if the provincial government heeds the advice of an all-party finance committee.
The select standing committee on finance and government, which conducted public consultations across B.C., released a report this week with more than 100 recommendations for the 2020 budget, including six for transit and transportation.
In the interest of making transit more accessible for people with disabilities, the committee said the province should increase funding to expand HandyDART, a door-to-door shared ride service.
“(The committee) acknowledged the importance of HandyDART for increasing accessibility and supporting inclusion,” the report said.
Beth McKellar, co-chair of the HandyDART Riders’ Alliance, said the recommendation is important because the service is in high demand and desperately needs more funding, despite Metro Vancouver’s regional transit authority having added more service.
HandyDART’s ridership has been on the rise for the past five years, and delivered 1.3 million trips in 2018.
“We’re just a wee tiny blip on the radar, but I’m pleased this all came out and I’m hoping that they do the right thing. I always have that little bit of hope,” McKellar said.
The committee made a similar recommendation for the 2019 budget, calling for “increased and sustained” funding for HandyDART services.
Although funding was allocated in the last budget to B.C. Transit to expand bus and HandyDART services in four communities over three years, Metro Vancouver was left out, to the dismay of advocates and the region’s mayors.
“It was good that the Island got it, that B.C. Transit got it, but we need it a lot more over here,” said McKellar.
In recent years, TransLink’s Mayors’ Council has argued that the province should help pay for HandyDART because the majority of trips are related to health services, such as dialysis, and said there should be a long-term, sustainable funding model for the service.
The committee also recommended that the province work with local governments and transit authorities “to explore new pricing mechanisms to help make public transit more accessible for youth and low-income families.”
“We think this is an excellent recommendation and we urge the government to follow through on it,” said Viveca Ellis, a community organizer for #AllOnBoard.
#AllOnBoard has advocated for free transit for all children and youth up to and including 18 years old, and a sliding-scale monthly pass system based on income for all transit systems in B.C.
“We know that affordability is an important part of our current government’s mandate, and as communities and many, many community members have brought forward to us transit is not affordable for many British Columbians,”
The Mayors’ Council has also discussed free transit for youths, but believes the province needs to be involved on the funding side to offset fare revenue losses. Victoria will offer free transit to all youths who live in the city in a pilot project starting in September.
On the transit side the committee also recommended working with public and private operators to address gaps in regional transportation services — particularly in rural and remote areas — and prioritizing faster deployment of electric buses in cities, including expensive charging infrastructure.
In the area of active transportation, the committee said the province should invest in walking and biking infrastructure, education and promotion, as well as eliminate provincial sales tax on electric bicycles.
In a statement the Ministry of Finance said it is “in the process of reviewing the report in detail and considers all proposals, including recommendations brought forward by this committee, during the yearly budget process.”
After three years of operating two registered recovery houses, in January 2016 Cole Izsak found what he believed — and still believes — is the perfect place.
But before taking possession, the owner and executive-director of Back on Track Recovery applied to the provincial health ministry to essentially grandfather his operation and transfer the registration of one of his houses to the new site.
Because Back on Track has never had any substantiated complaints, he didn’t expect any problems and, a month later, shut the registered house and opened a four-plex now called The Fortress.
The next month, Izsak closed one of the two houses that were registered by the provincial government and moved to the new compound with internal, off-street parking at 9889-140th Street in Surrey.
He still wasn’t concerned when in May, the ministry said it was putting a hold on his application while both the province and Surrey were formulating new regulations.
Since then, it is rare that any of the 40 beds — two per bedroom in each of the five-bedroom houses — are empty.
While Back on Track continues to operate the one registered house, The Fortress remains unregistered, with only two of four business licenses that it needs.
For the last 2½ years, Surrey’s bylaw inspectors have been telling Izsak that unless all four houses at The Fortress get their provincial registry, the city can’t license the houses until the registration from the health ministry comes through, certifying that services offered meet its standards of care.
In mid-May, Back on Track and its residents were told that the licenses were being revoked and the four houses would have to close at the end of July. It has since been given a reprieve, pending a decision from the provincial registrar.
“If Mr. Izsak’s registration comes through, we’ll be prepared to do our own inspections for renewal or issuance of the licenses,” bylaw services manager Kim Marosevich said this week.
In late May, after Maggie Plett first spoke publicly about her son Zachary’s death at another Surrey recovery house called Step by Step, Addictions Minister Judy Darcy told News 1130, “We’re trying to make up for lost time over the past many, many years since the scandal started to break.
“But I would expect that we will have new, stronger regulations and enforcement in place by the end of the year.”
Throughout all of this, the government has paid Back on Track the $30.90 per diem that covers the cost of room, board and recovery services for each welfare recipient living there — a rate that has remained unchanged for 16 years.
Izsak doesn’t know why the ministry has yet to make a decision on his application. The mental health and addictions ministry has not yet responded to my questions about it.
On Tuesday, Izsak gave me a tour of the four neatly kept houses. He showed me the well-supplied pantry where residents are free to take whatever food they want and as much as they want. There is also an open-air gym and smoking lounge. Every room has a naloxone kit in case of an opioid overdose, and every few weeks, residents are given training on how to use them.
The half-dozen residents that I spoke to privately — including one who said he had been in at least 20 such facilities — said The Fortress is the best. They talked about feeling safe, well-cared for, and even loved.
Izsak makes no apology for not having more set programming in the houses.
“People who are coming off the street or out of prison are not going to surrender to eight hours of programs per day,” he said. “But what they will surrender to is coming to a place like this where they are fed well, have a clean bed, a TV, and programming from 9 a.m. until noon.”
He acknowledged that there are no certified counsellors or therapists working there. He devised a recovery program called MECCA based on his own experiences in recovery that is delivered by others who are in recovery.
Izsak also said he cannot afford to hire certified addictions counsellors and specialized therapists, as they do at recovery houses where monthly rates are anywhere from $3,000 to $9,000 a month.
Right now, registered facilities don’t require that, according to the registry’s website.
What’s required is that all staff and volunteers “must have the necessary knowledge, skills, abilities and training to perform their tasks and meet the health and safety of residents.”
Far from bridling at more regulations, Izsak has a long list of his own that he would like the province to enact to weed out bad operators.
It includes random site inspections, manager-on-duty logbooks documenting what happens every two hours from 10 a.m. until 10 p.m., and a requirement that all operators provide their expense receipts.
After three recent deaths in recovery houses, Izsak is now a man on a mission.
“I want to close operations that are bad so that I’m not treated almost like a criminal because they acted unscrupulously.”
Don’t forget to reduce, reuse, recycle and reply with your feedback.
The B.C. government is asking the public to weigh in on how the province can cut down on plastics and improve recycling in an effort to protect B.C.’s waterways and environment.
Among the proposed actions the government is considering are bans on single-use packaging, requiring producers to shoulder more responsibility for plastic products, expanding the recycling refund program and reducing plastic waste across all product categories and industries.
Vancouver, BC: JUNE 08, 2019 –– Colunteers clean-up plastics and other refuse scraps from the shoreline at Second Beach in Vancouver, B.C.’s Stanley Park Saturday, June 8, 2019. Volunteers from the Vancouver Surfrider Foundation scoured local beaches Saturday as part of the Great Canadian Shoreline Cleanup initiative.
Jason Payne /
“The message from British Columbians is loud and clear — we need to take action to reduce plastic waste, especially single-use items like water bottles and plastic bags that often find their way into our waters, streets and environment,” said Environment Minister George Heyman in a statement.
“We have all seen the striking images of animals and fish being caught up in everyday plastic waste like grocery bags or beer can loops that ensnare these beautiful creatures and it cannot continue. I look forward to hearing from people about how we can all play a part in reducing plastic pollution and plastics use overall.”
Currently, B.C. has 22 recycling programs — more than any other North American jurisdiction — that cover 14 product categories of consumer products. Those include packaging, electronics, residual solvents, beverage containers, tires and hazardous wastes.
Those programs collect about 315,000 tonnes of plastics annually.
The feedback will help inform things like the reach of a single-use plastics ban, and determining any necessary exemptions for reasons of health, safety and accessibility; possible changes to B.C.’s current recycling program and changes to the deposit-refund fee structure; as well as the possibility of an electronic refund system for empty bottle refunds.
The public can read the proposals in detail and fill out the online survey at cleanbc.ca/plastics.
The B.C. Government’s defence in the landmark three-year-old Medicare constitutional trial in B. C. Supreme Court is ending not with a bang but a testy, two-day courtroom sparring match involving one of its experts.
Dr. Gordon Guyatt gave as good as he got, repulsing a prolonged assault on his objectivity and left the stand Thursday having provided some last-minute fireworks but seemingly little insight on the key issue — wait-lists and the effects of constraints on access to private care in the provincial Medicare Protection Act.
“My perception is that there’s been a fluctuation of concerns with waiting lists and that governments have, to an extent, addressed things,” he said.
“Things can always get better … you have tensions — constant tensions — in every health care system in the world, and problems will never be solved.”
A specialist in internal medicine and, for almost 35 years, a health researcher at McMaster University, the argumentative Guyatt was assailed as more of an ideological warrior than a disinterested expert.
Robert Grant, lawyer for the two clinics and handful of patients behind the legal challenge over barriers to access to private care, portrayed Guyatt as a virulent opponent of the private clinics and Dr. Brian Day, the driving force behind the decade-old litigation.
Noting he had a duty to be impartial, Guyatt bristled at the broadsides aimed at impeaching his credibility.
“Given my, given that commitment, I do not see personally as relevant further pursuit of my opinions about issues beyond the issues that I’ve been asked to comment on in my deposition,” he complained.
“Thank you for that,” Justice John Steeves said. “In the meantime, just answer his questions.”
Government lawyers vainly tried to halt the brutal cross-examination that battered Guyatt’s neutrality.
A self-described left winger who ran repeatedly as an NDP candidate, Guyatt has been a social activist for 40 years.
In 1979 he co-founded the Ontario-based Medical Reform Group, which disbanded in 2014 and was replaced by the Canadian Doctors for Medicare, which he joined.
He was also a director of the Ontario Health Coalition, an activist network, that along with its sister group the B.C. Health Coalition, is a member of the Canadian Health Coalition.
Doctors for Medicare and the B.C. coalition, under the banner of B.C. Friends of Medicare Society, have intervened in the challenge to support the government case.
Grant accused the groups of wrongly asserting Day seeks “U.S.-style health care for Canada, where people go bankrupt, lose their homes and life savings, or worse, because they can’t afford treatment when they need it.”
The B.C. coalition, he said, incorrectly claimed Day wanted a system where “international private insurance corporations run the show and patients foot the bill.”
Grant said the groups were fearmongering.
“It is an overstatement that this case could bring down single-tier Medicare,” Guyatt agreed, adding he also did not endorse the portrayal of Day and his supporters as “greedy, awful people.”
He maintained he was too busy to keep up with everything the groups did, and distanced himself from the inflammatory rhetoric.
“The way I would put it is that we were advocates for equitable high-quality health care accessible to people without financial obstacles,” he said.
“So, specifically, as I have said previously, I believe that it is more appropriate to base care on the need — the medical need than on ability to pay — and I would like to work, continue to work, in a system where the patients I treat are treated on the basis of need rather than ability to pay. ”
“I understand,” Grant replied.
“But the point (of the trial) isn’t about what you want to do in your own practice; it’s whether or not increased private health care, and specifically private-pay surgeries, will be permitted or not. And you are opposed to increased private-pay surgeries. Isn’t that right? ”
“Yes,” Guyatt confirmed.
Grant insisted Guyatt was a vocal opponent of Day within the Canadian Medical Association, seeing him as a “tragic choice” and “a complete disaster” as the organization’s president.
“I don’t recall active involvement in that matter,” Guyatt said, but again added such comments would be “hyperbolic.”
The Ontario specialist attacked the concept of using “benchmarks” to measure surgical waiting times — saying “not much” research has been conducted to establish what is acceptable and he suggested they were undependable tools set by “good old boys sitting around the table.”
But Guyatt has long minimized waiting lists and their ill effects — calling them “a problem that may be much smaller than we imagine” in 2004.
And he acknowledged he was not familiar with the circumstances in B.C.
“Certainly not in detail …. I do not know the details of the extent of waiting lists currently. I am sure that waiting lists remain a problem. … and that they’re not optimal … I do not know well enough to know whether it would be appropriate to characterize them as a serious problem or not. ”
The final witness John Frank, an expert on social determinants of health, took the stand later on July 18 and was to finish July 19 — day 179 of the proceedings.
“When this trial began I thought it would last up to 18 weeks (three times longer than the similar Chaoulli case in Que.),” said Day, founder of the private Cambie Surgery Centre.
“I am happy that — almost 3 years later — the witness phase is over. I am confident that the justice system will eventually grant all Canadians the same rights to protect their health that the Supreme Court of Canada granted to citizens of Que., and that the citizens of every other country in the world enjoy.”
Justice Steeves plans to hear final arguments this fall and begin deliberations in December.
Taxi cabs will keep their municipal boundaries even when ride-hailing is introduced in B.C. later this year. Gerry Kahrmann / PNG
VICTORIA — Existing boundaries for taxis in most of B.C. won’t change with the introduction of ride-hailing later this year, according to the independent tribunal charged with making the decision.
The Passenger Transportation Board, which will set boundaries and fares for ride-hailing and taxis by next month, is not considering any large-scale changes to current taxi areas that are often based on regional or municipal borders.
“As an administrative tribunal we’d have to discuss changes of boundaries and that would be very contentious and time-consuming and yet another delay in implementing ride-hailing,” board chair Catharine Reid said Tuesday. “And we don’t want a delay in implementing ride-hailing.
“The second reason is we don’t have good origin destination information. So if we try to change taxi boundaries, we don’t know if we’ll make things better or worse.”
Drivers must have a class four commercial licence, and companies will be required to pay a $5,000 fee as well as a 30-cent-per-trip levy to improve accessibility services, under the government rules.
But the exact details on fares and boundaries are to be set by the Passenger Transportation Board, which is an independent tribunal.
Reid and the board began public discussions on those issues with taxi companies in Prince Rupert on Tuesday. She said the rest of the taxi sector, as well as ride-hailing companies like Uber and Lyft will be consulted by the end of next week.
“The policy will be up sometime in August that will provide policy on boundaries, fleet size and rates,” she said.
Uber and Lyft have said they want to operate free of borders, to give their drivers flexibility on responding to demand for a ride anywhere.
The taxi sector is divided on the issue. Eliminating borders could solve problems like “deadheading” — where taxis from Vancouver, for example, take a passenger to Surrey but can’t pick up anyone on the return trip due to licensing restrictions. But removing borders could also devalue taxi licenses that hold value based on their scarcity in a certain area, causing significant financial losses for companies, drivers and those who’ve borrowed money to purchase or lease part shares in vehicle licenses.
The board has released two public discussion papers that lay out its options.
For the rest of the province outside of Metro Vancouver, it offers no options to change taxi boundaries. The report says ride-hailing companies could either follow the same borders, or be given larger regional or provincial areas in which to operate, depending on industry feedback.
In Metro Vancouver, three of the four options proposed would keep the existing municipal taxi boundaries for Vancouver, Surrey and elsewhere.
However, one option does propose opening up the Metro Vancouver region as a single area in which both ride-hailing vehicles and the traditional taxi sector could operate equally.
“It is not clear that taxis would want this approach as they are free to launch their own (ride-hailing) service and could also maintain the advantages of taxis that each has within their current operating area,” read the board report.
An open metro region would give the public “faster and more reliable service, including at peak times,” reduce the numbers of trips refused and tackle the problem of deadheading, according to the report.
However, it would also result in “taxi service likely reduced for suburban areas,” wrote the board.
Taxi licenses would see a “large reduction” in value if ride-hailing was region-wide or provincewide, especially in the City of Vancouver, according to the report.
The B.C. Taxi Association, which attended consultations in Prince Rupert on Tuesday, said all boundaries should be removed for everyone.
“There’s no need for boundaries,” said president Mohan Kang. “If they have the ability to move around Metro Vancouver, so should we.”
The Vancouver Taxi Association, where taxi licenses hold the most value and its operators face the largest risk, could not be reached for comment.
The Passenger Transportation Board is also considering whether to limit the size of ride-hailing fleets, but its discussion papers note that no other governments do so and it would be impossible to set a defensible limit.
Fares are also up for consideration. The board notes no other governments impose maximum price limits on ride-hailing, despite concerns about surge pricing during peak demand. One option up for consideration is setting the minimum fare for an Uber or Lyft ride at the same rate as a taxi, or setting no minimum rate at all.
Uber and Lyft declined to comment. Both oppose B.C.’s class four commercial licence requirement and neither company so far has committed to opening in the province later this year.
VICTORIA — When B.C. Ferries’ newest ship, the Northern Sea Wolf, left the dock at Bella Coola for the first time Monday, there was little sign amid the bright new paint and spaciously redecorated interior that the public was sailing on one of the most problem-plagued renovation projects in the ferry corporation’s history.
But the 35-car, 150-passenger, vessel was a renovation nightmare for B.C. Ferries.
The Northern Sea Wolf was purchased used in 2017 from a Greek shipyard. It’s retrofit finished a year late and with a $76 million price tag that was more than 36 per cent over budget.
In short, the little Greek boat turned out to be a big fat Greek lemon for B.C. taxpayers.
“I think it’s fair to say that we were, at various times, shocked and surprised at the issues we were running in to,” B.C. Ferries CEO Mark Collins told Postmedia Tuesday.
“I liken it to a house reno. You survey a house and inspect it and all the rest. It looks pretty good for a reno, and then when you start taking off the drywall and you get a few surprises. That’s exactly what happened to us.”
B.C. Ferries had retained a broker and the ship was certified “in class” under marine standards by a third party independent group. There were only three or four ships in the world that met the size, ocean-readiness, and closed deck specifications B.C. Ferries wanted for the Port Hardy-Bella Coola route, and the Greek vessel was “not perfect, but as close as we are going to get,” said Collins.
B.C. Ferries sent staff to survey the ship — originally called the Aqua Spirit — in addition to the third-party inspection. “She needs work, but she’s good enough,” was the opinion at the time, Collins said.
But when the Aqua Spirit arrived in Victoria in December 2017, B.C. Ferries engineers were aghast. There was no fire protection insulation, a key safety measure. “We’d take off the panelling and find no insulation there, I mean literally just missing,” said Collins. “There’s no way a ship should have been approved with that missing.”
Under the ceiling tiles were sprinklers that didn’t work. “We found some of the sprinklers were not even connected,” he said.
The propeller shafts were “worn beyond allowable specifications.” Some metal was corroded below acceptable minimum steel thickness.
The heating, venting and air conditioning system didn’t work. The elevator didn’t meet code. And the stern door was a problem.
B.C. Ferries had budgeted to overhaul the main engines, install new generators, upgrade the navigational equipment and improve overall safety — but the scope of problems far exceeded the original plan.
“This is what started to put pressure on the budget,” said Collins. The original price tag of $55.7 million grew to $63.4 million in early 2018, and finally $76 million in 2019.
“We were very disappointed in some of the condition of the ship that shouldn’t have been there because a ship being in class should not have had these faults,” said Collins.
“We continue to make claims against the class society for compensation for the things that should not have been there but in fact were.”
B.C. Ferries also had a tight timeline. The direct Port Hardy-Bella Coola route had been cancelled by the Liberal government in 2013 due to financial losses at BC Ferries. Then Transportation Minister Todd Stone said the route was losing $7 million a year, with a taxpayer subsidy of $2,500 per vehicle.
B.C. Ferries sold the ship on the route, the Queen of Chilliwack, which had just undergone a $15 million upgrade. A former B.C. Ferries engineer in Fiji bought it for $2 million for his private ferry operation.
Tourism operators on the coast, Cariboo Chilcotin and Interior were outraged at the lack of consultation and said they’d lose millions in business and international tourism.
Then Premier Christy Clark relented on the eve of the 2017 provincial election, announcing the route would be restored by spring 2018. B.C. Ferries was not consulted.
“We informed the government of the day that it was a very ambitious time frame and could only be met with a used vessel,” said Collins.
As problems mounted, B,C, Ferries missed the spring 2018 deadline, and then the fall window as well.
“It was very frustrating for the tourism industry,” said Amy Thacker, chief executive of the Cariboo Chilcotin Coast Tourism Association. “Our international visitors who very much enjoy that route are making plans and booking 12 to 18 months in advance.”
Collins apologized directly to the communities and businesses for the lack of communication.
The final version of the Northern Sea Wolf is basically a totally renovated ship, said Collins. There’s a new galley, dining area, lounge seating, outdoor viewing areas, paint, washrooms, chair lifts, elevators and First Nations art. It’s twice as fast as the Queen of Chilliwack.
It was money well spent, said Collins, even if it was far more than budgeted.
“Instead of being 30 per cent renovated for $55 million, we got a ship that’s 95 per cent renovated for $76 million. So, in that sense, the value is not lost.”
In the future, B.C. Ferries will demand a second independent inspection of ships, beyond whether the international maritime certification says a vessel is “in class,” said Collins. Had there been more time, B.C. Ferries would also have considered building new in B.C., but that likely would have cost as much as $110 to $140 million, he said.
The purchase of the Northern Sea Wolf in 2017 straddled the end of the Liberal government and beginning of the NDP.
Transportation Minister Claire Trevena blamed the Liberals for “making terrible financial decisions.”
“They backed B.C. Ferries into a corner with an incredibly tight timeline, leading to the purchase of a used ship which was well below Transport Canada safety standards,” she said. “The upgrades ran well over budget and cost people $76 million that shouldn’t have been spent in the first place.”
Former minister Stone said the cuts only occurred because B.C. Ferries was losing money and facing fare hikes.
“The cancellation was a very difficult decision,” he said. “It was always our intention to put back a direct link between Bella Coola and Port Hardy.”
Stone said “it’s a really good day” to see the link, though the cost overruns and delays are “very disappointing.”
Meanwhile, actual users appear pleased it’s all finally over.
“We’re just incredibly happy to actually have her out there and sailing,” said Thacker. “Now that service is here, I think there’s a lot of consumer confidence restored.”
2013: The B.C. Liberal government announces cutbacks to ferry routes, including direct service between Port Hardy to Bella Coola, due to B.C. Ferries financial losses. It says the route lost $7.35 million. Tourism operators are outraged at the lack of consultation.
2014: B.C. Ferries sells the Queen of Chilliwack (which had just undergone a $15 million retrofit) for a reported $1.8 million to a private Fiji ferry company.
2015: The new two-vessel journey from Port Hardy to Bella Bella to Bella Coola includes a nine-hour trip on the MV Nimpkish, a small 16-vehicle ferry with one washroom that government touts as having “potable water” and snacks. Tourist reviews are negative.
2016: Premier Christy Clark announces a plan to restore direct ferry service from Port Hardy to Bella Coola by the summer of 2018. B.C. Ferries is not consulted about the timeline, and scrambles.
2017: B.C. Ferries hires brokers to try to find a “rare” small ferry that can deal with ocean conditions, fit 35 cars and has a closed deck. Only three or four candidates exist. A Denmark ship looks promising by the buyer withdraws. The corporation pays $12.6 million for the 246-foot-long Aqua Spirit from Greek firm Seajet. It was built in 2000 and is certified by third-party maritime groups as being “in class” for sea use.
December 2017: The Aqua Spirit arrives in Victoria after a 10,097 nautical mile journey from Greece.
2018: B.C. Ferries starts stripping the ship down and discovers technical problems, sprinklers that do not work, missing insulation, corroded metal, elevator errors, heat and air conditioning that is non-functional, unusable propeller shafts, and more.
Spring 2018: B.C. Ferries misses its government deadline to be back in service. The budget rises from $55.7 million to $63.4 million.
Summer 2018: Technical problems continue to grow. The budget increases to $76 million.
September 2018: The Northern Sea Wolf, as it is now called, still isn’t ready. B.C. Ferries puts the Northern Adventure on the Port Hardy-Bella Coola run for one month.
May 2019: The ship starts trials. Operates the final two weeks of winter connector service.
June 3, 2019: The Northern Sea Wolf takes its first run from Bella Coola to Port Hardy. It is more than 36 per cent over budget and almost a year late.
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