On November 23rd, The Throne Speech was read by Lieutenant Governor Janice Filmon. It was, for Premier Heather Stefanson, her first Throne Speech and was to set the tone for her government's action in the coming year. On Thursday November 25th, I had a chance to reply to the Speech from the Throne. My comments, from Hansard, are below:
Hon. Jon Gerrard (River Heights): Mr. Deputy Speaker, first I would like to congratulate the Premier (Mrs. Stefanson) on her election. It is an important step forward for Manitoba to have a woman as Premier.
Next, I thank my own constituents in River Heights. They've provided much support for me but, at the same time, I have done my best to serve them and to help those who have issues–whether it be personal concerns, a family concern, a business concern or a concern related to the policies of the current government. There have been a lot of the latter in the last two years, as we've been going through the COVID‑19 pandemic.
I'll now move on to comment on four of the major issues of today. The COVID pandemic continues and now is in the middle of the fourth wave. The projections from our chief public health officer, Dr. Brent Roussin, are that it will get worse.
Already, many surgical and diagnostic procedures are being postponed. Postponed is a government euphemism for cancelled, to be rescheduled at some unknown future date. It means the backlog of surgeries and diagnostic tests will grow.
It did not have to be this way. I have, for example, already written repeatedly to the Minister of Health to allow the use of two monoclonal antibodies, mAbs. These two are, specifically, casirivimab, and imdevimab, and their use early in the course of a COVID‑19 infection has been shown to reduce deaths and to reduce the number of individuals who need ICU care by up to 70 per cent.
The reduction in the need for ICU care would be sufficient that surgeries would not have needed to be cancelled in the way they were. It's really unfortunate that Manitoba has been so slow to approve the use of mAbs. Currently, these mAbs are being used widely in Ontario, in Alberta and BC. Indeed, it's shocking that these mAbs can be used in Sioux Lookout and Thunder Bay, but can't be used in Winnipeg.
Bob Dylan had a song, "when will they ever learn." One wonders whether the current government will ever learn.
Outside the doors of our Legislature today, as they have been for the last 23 days, are faculty and staff of the University of Manitoba. We have a university in chaos, a government which does not know what to do and highly educated professional faculty members who are, in desperation, walking the picket line instead of teaching students and carrying out world-leading research.
And while this is happening, increasingly, the world-leading researchers are feeling they have a government who doesn't support them and are considering their options and looking at moving elsewhere.
We have a globally competitive educational world. A strike at the University of Manitoba, but no strike at other universities is like having a Winnipeg Jets players' strike while the–all the other teams just continue playing away and scoring points. There's a better way.
Our university is losing its reputation. Our researchers are falling behind. International conferences which were to be held are being cancelled. Students are losing out. It's a disaster, and yet the government keeps on coming to work in the Legislature as if this was normal. It is not normal. It is a disaster for the University of Manitoba and for the province of Manitoba.
All we ask is that the government treat it for the crisis that it is. The University of Manitoba is our most prestigious post-secondary educational institution, and all the government can do is treat it as if it were just another manufacturing business. It isn't. Students are not widgets. Students and faculty should be treated seriously and should be supported, instead of being treated like widgets.
There's a refrain when it comes to this government: "when will they ever learn? When will they ever learn?"
Today, there is a global crisis. We have just watched the proceedings of COP26. Anyone who was paying attention knows that the surface of our planet is heating up. Global warming is giving rise to floods, droughts and forest fires, the likes of which we haven't seen before. It's said that the recent disastrous floods and landslides in BC may be one of the most costly disasters in the history of Canada. What will be next?
When it comes to greenhouse gases in Manitoba the majority of greenhouse gases come from transportation, agriculture, buildings which are heated by fossil fuels and from industry which uses fossil fuels. Very little comes from the generation of electricity, which is largely based on hydroelectric power.
Yet, the government, in its Throne Speech, focuses on an energy policy framework when we already have clean, green, hydroelectric energy. There's no mention of conversion of cars, trucks, buses, trains, planes and boats to increase our electric vehicle fleet or measures to achieve this. There's no mention of renovation of homes to reduce fossil fuel use. There's no mention of reducing methane and nitrous oxide from agricultural sources and landfills.
All I can say is, "when will they ever learn? When will they ever learn?"
On the other side of the world in Afghanistan, there's a crisis of a different kind. Large numbers of people in Afghanistan or who have escaped from Afghanistan and want to come to Canada–and many are very highly skilled–and many have relatives in Winnipeg who want their relatives to escape from the dangers of Afghanistan to come and work here. There are doctors, nurses, midwives, engineers, teachers and so many more people who are keen to work here and to contribute in Manitoba.
I applaud the government for its desire to increase immigration to address our skill needs, yet right now with the federal government focusing on Afghanistan, with about 2,000 people in the Afghan community in Winnipeg, we've an opportunity to act quickly to help those in danger in Afghanistan and in nearby countries, yet, there was no mention of Afghanistan and working with people in the Afghan community in Winnipeg in the Throne Speech.
"When will they ever learn? When will they ever learn?"
To be fair, the government, in one small recent action, did show it can learn, after a year in which Liberals have worked with people in southeast Manitoba to protect the Sandilands aquifer, a year of collecting and reading petitions in the Legislature calling for a Clean Environment Commission review of the proposed sand mine near Vivian, the government has finally answered the Liberals' call for a Clean Environment Commission hearing.
But it took 21 petitions read by the MLA for Tyndall Park and myself over the last year for the government to act. We thank the government for acting and ask the government to make sure there's some level of participant funding to ensure a high quality review.
I was also pleased there was a mention of individuals with disabilities in the Throne Speech. That action is needed. A hearing disability is one of the worst disabilities imaginable as a person ages. We've read many, many petitions for the government calling for the government to provide funding to ensure individuals with cochlear implants are able to afford the replacement processor for these implants when it's needed. Helping people to hear is vital to keeping our elders well. We need action; yet, support for those with cochlear implants was not mentioned in the Throne Speech.
And it's not just hearing. Sight is vital as well. It is unbelievable that there are now about 9,000 people waiting for eye surgery or cataract procedures which are critical to ensure people can see. It's unconscionable that the government has such long waiting times for such vital procedures. It shows the worst possible kind of planning. The extra costs of delayed surgeries are large in falls and injuries and lack of the ability to see, to work, and to live fully in the extra costs of more complicated procedures needed when the surgery is not done quickly. When the topic comes up, the government calls on the pandemic scapegoat rising like a spectre as an excuse for everything.
But the situation was bad before the pandemic started, and the costs to address this and bring the situation to a more reasonable and much shorter wait are considerable; perhaps, as high as $38 million in eye surgeries alone.
The government allocation of $50 million for all backlogs is a number drawn out of a hat, not a realistic number for what's needed. Numerous studies show getting quick eye surgery when needed saves money. The PC government knows how to cut, but it has not learned how to save money.
Vision disabilities need to be addressed, as well as hearing disabilities. The government should know that the government has operated for too long as if it had no vision. It needs some eye surgery itself, I suggest.
And our elders in long-term care facilities, many of them have disabilities of one sort or another. Yet, care for individuals in long-term care facilities has been exposed during the pandemic as falling far short of what we should accept to ensure the dignity and well-being of our elders. The government talks of addressing these issues, but has so far done nothing to correct the most critical shortcoming of all: the funding and staffing shortfall in the care of our elders. "When will they ever learn?"
There are others with disabilities in our communities. There are too many children in the care of Manitoba's Child and Family Services and too many of these children have physical, behavioural or learning disabilities. Reconciliation requires that the money stolen from children in CFS care be returned as a first step. This was not small change. It was $338 million stolen from children, many with disabilities. It was stolen by NDP and PC governments. It needs to be returned.
And talking of learning and behavioural disabilities, one of the significant causes of learning and behavioural disabilities is exposure to lead.
On October 12th, a little over a month ago, I asked the Minister of Health about the Intrinsik report concerning the potential for high lead levels in children in Winnipeg neighbourhoods. The minister said in response that the report confirms that "there is a low health risk for Manitobans when it comes to lead in soil."
This statement was a direct quote from the government's press release at the time of the report's release. It is what the press release said, but it is not what the report said. I caution the minister to rely on government press releases, for they are often, under this government, politicized and not accurate. In fact, the report said, and I quote, 10 neighbourhoods were identified as being of potential concern: Centennial, Daniel McIntyre, Glenelm/Chalmers, North Point Douglas, River/Osborne, Sargent Park, St. Boniface, West End, Weston and Wolseley/Minto.
I note that not one of these neighbourhoods were in Conservative-held constituencies. Is that why the government, in its press release, said the risk was low? Was the government only concerned about constituencies with Conservative MLAs? Inside the report are statements and data which show a different story. In table 5-4, the probability of exceeding the level of concern in a child's blood sample was 97 per cent in Point Douglas; was 70 per cent in Weston.
In North Point Douglas, the predicted blood level for children age one to two years was 6.1 micrograms per decilitre. This is a level at which numerous studies show a general decrease in IQ, an increase in ADHD, an increase in learning difficulties, an increase in behavioural problems, an increase in substance use and an increase in criminal activity.
The minister says the risk is low, but not for those 97 per cent of kids in Point Douglas. The facts and the report show otherwise than the minister said.
The minister says the government will make high blood levels reportable. The government said it was going to do this almost two years ago. It is inexcusable that this has not yet been done. The report also recommends biomonitoring. This is usually done by screening children between the ages of one and three and taking measures to reduce lead exposure and address behavioural and other issues.
This is what the government needs to do: to adopt the biomonitoring recommendation from the intrinsic report.
When will this government ever learn? "When will they ever learn?"
And continuing on lead, the government needs measures to make sure our houses are safe and to address issues of lead water pipes and lead paint. And while they're at it, they should address radon issues as well. None of these were mentioned in the Throne Speech.
When will they ever learn?
Adequately addressing addictions and substance use, one of the results of lead exposure, is also a shortcoming. But as I pointed out yesterday in my response to the minister's statement, the government's response and the response of the government before them was inadequate.
When will they ever learn?
Homelessness was mentioned in the Throne Speech. The government is going to put up some new housing; that is only a fraction of what is needed. The government is going to tinker with helping those who are homeless without ending it, as Medicine Hat has done.
"When will they ever learn? When will they ever learn?"
And now for the NDP. The NDP House leader raised an important concern in the last session. She raised concerns that there has been harassment and differential treatment of BIPOC individuals who are MLAs or staff in the Legislature.
Mr. Deputy Speaker, this needs to be taken seriously. It is not a question of blame but rather of improvement. There have been major security changes at the Legislature, and it is important that we have a secure Legislature and also very important that we have a place where all MLAs and staff feel safe and comfortable.
One option would be for the Speaker to put together a group of individuals with at least one representative from each caucus and representatives from those who are on the front lines of security to ensure our Legislature is safe and friendly to MLAs and staff. We can improve the situation for all.
But there is also an issue of ethics and fairness which the NDP also need to listen to. During Estimates this year, Liberal MLAs had three hours and 17 minutes of time to ask questions. This compares to the years when I was the sole MLA from 2010 to 2015, when I averaged six hours and 11 minutes, and the years where there were two Liberal MLAs, myself and Kevin Lamoureux from 2007 to 2009, when together we had an average of nine hours and five minutes to ask questions in Estimates.
In 2019, Liberal MLAs only had three hours and 20 minutes. This was a reduction of 38 per cent from the years when I was the sole Liberal MLA and a reduction of 58 per cent from the years when there were two Liberal MLAs. This year, the number was similar: three hours and 17 minutes, a 42 per cent reduction from when I was a sole MLA and a 58 per cent reduction from when there were previously two Liberal MLAs.
The facts are clear: when the NDP are in opposition, Liberal MLAs are not getting a fair amount of time to ask questions in Estimates. Estimates are not, as one MLA suggested, our opposition Estimates time. I suggest to all members that Estimates do not belong to MLAs; they belong to the people of Manitoba. MLAs are privileged to be able to bring forward questions from the people of Manitoba.
As the Liberal Party received about half the vote of the NDP party in the last provincial election, Liberals, in fact, represent overall about half the number of Manitobans as the NDP. We are not asking for half the Estimates time; indeed, we thank opposition critics who were generous in sharing their time. We only seek a fairer overall allocation of Estimates time in the future. Ethics and fairness are important. When will the NDP ever learn?
Madam Speaker, these are my comments on the Throne Speech: it was a Throne Speech which fell far short of what should have been. The government should be better at learning.
My final comment is this: "When will they ever learn."