Budget Estimates 2021: Citizens Services

May 20, 2021 | 42-1, Blog, Estimates, Governance, Legislature | 0 comments

With 30 minutes available to the BC Green Caucus for Budget Estimates in Citizens Services I had a limited opportunity to canvass a couple of important topics.

In this session I asked Minister Lisa Beare about supporting Indigenous business owners ability to name their businesses using traditional names, genuine progress indicators, broadband connectivity and funding programs to support “last mile” projects to connect residents and businesses the fibre optic backbone network.


Transcript


A. Olsen: Thank you, Madam Chair, and thank you for this opportunity to join the minister and ask some questions around Citizens’ Services.

My first question is around Indigenous language revitalization. I was talking to the Minister of Indigenous Relations about this and raised the issue of Cheyenne Cunningham, who’s a Hul’qumi’num language-keeper. She and her husband tried to establish a business using a traditional Hul’qumi’num name, a Hul’qumi’num word, through B.C. registry services.

As you may know, article 13 of UNDRIP states that Indigenous Peoples have the right to revitalize, use, develop and transmit to future generations their languages, and states shall take effective measures to ensure that this right is protected.

My question to the minister is: what has the minister done to advocate for language revitalization more broadly? Are their any plans, specifically, in order to facilitate the use of Hul’qumi’num names — as well, there are, I think, 30-something Indigenous linguistic groups in the province — and to accommodate Indigenous people to be able to use their words for business names?

[4:45 p.m.]
Hon. L. Beare: To the member: I want to thank you so much for the question, because this situation is a perfect example of the systemic racism and barriers that do exist in our institutions and that our Indigenous people face every day. So thank you. I knew you were going to come with this question. I almost expected it in the House, actually, because I know how important it is.

We’ve been on record, and we’re going to continue to say that reconciliation with Indigenous Peoples is a key priority of all ministries, including mine, in this government. We need to ensure that business names do reflect the culture and the language of business owners. It’s an important way to reflect the diversity of our province: through language, through those names.

There are a number of pieces that have been done. B.C. registries worked in collaboration with the business owner, Ms. Cunningham, as you referred, to develop an agreement. That involved a commitment to review changes that could be made to be more inclusive of languages in the registration of business names. Also, importantly, it made reference to the agreement, a cross-government reconciliation plan — really, an ADMs table on reconciliation — and posing this question, because it’s going to take a number of pieces and a number of areas that we have to work on.

Now, this is complex work, and I’m not saying that in any deflective kind of way, because we are committed to updating our systems — which is legitimately complex. The way B.C. registries is integrated with federal, provincial and municipal systems, changes are going to be needed, Canada-wide, to ensure that you have that continued integration. For example, if B.C. made changes alone, that would mean that her business wouldn’t be able to get federal business numbers, for taxes, with the CRA if the languages don’t match up between the two systems which talk. So work is underway to develop that plan across several government initiatives.

In the meantime, what we’ve done already, because we know how important this is, is that we did create a digital font that allows inclusion of Indigenous languages. We are using it on our government website, and we’re planning expansion of that use. We did that work with the First Peoples Cultural Council, as well as linguistic experts, to ensure that it was appropriate and that it was meeting the needs.

Now, this is hard work. We are going to continue to do it. We are committed to doing it. It is going to take time to change legacy systems that exist in government, the systemic side of it, but we are committed to the work. We’re going to continue to work with applicants like Ms. Cunningham, and we have another applicant recently as well, that the member may or may not know about, who has come with another language. We’re working with that applicant as well, and we believe we have found a solution there as well. But it shouldn’t have to be one-off work. We’re committed to doing the broad work.

Thank you for asking the question. We are committed to making it happen.

A. Olsen: Thank you to the minister for the response. It’s heartening to hear that it would be easy to change some things and not change the whole thing. It’s more difficult to change the system. I’m encouraged by the fact that accommodations were made in the short term, but this is something that is actually a change to the systemic aspect of it, which I think we can all celebrate.

I’d also say that I think there was some probably connectivity with local government. I and my colleague here from the B.C. Liberal Party both come from local government, and they issue business licences, as an example, right? So making sure that the local governments can accommodate the same font — so that, then, that business licence can actually display the word in hən̓q̓əmin̓əm and not in some anglicized version in a font, like I do in my documents. In fact, I just got the font put on this government machine, so it’s a success. Thank you for the response.

[4:50 p.m.]
Shifting gears here a little bit to genuine progress indicators — work that we’ve been doing, as part of CASA, with the B.C. NDP. When I say “we,” it’s the B.C. Greens. I’m just wondering if there was some progress that was being made with the ministry on genuine progress indicators. We just usually just kind of quantify the success of government based on

I’m just wondering if there was some progress that was being made with the ministry on genuine progress indicators. We just usually quantify the success of government based on GDP, but we’ve been working to try to expand the number of indicators that we use to track the progress of the province. I’m just wondering if the minister can speak to any work that she’s done on that recently. Maybe the minister can provide just b.ca high level on progress that continues on GPIs in the province.

Hon. L. Beare: Following the last election, Citizens’ Services assumed responsibility for B.C. Stats. In doing so, the ministry is looking at what a modern stats agency can do — and should be doing, more importantly. Included in this is how we are measuring progress. This is especially important, as we want to reopen the economy and as we are following what has happened in the pandemic.

We want to make sure that economic recovery is felt equitably, so that women are reaching their pre-pandemic employment wages, for example. That we have jobs back in rural communities to ensure that they’ve come back. We’re using the work we did with the Green Party previously to ensure that we’re measuring progress in more modern ways.

That’s the general answer. If the member has some more specific areas he wants to delve into, happy to answer that. I think the member just wants to know that we generally are looking at ways we can modernize and tracking that progress that’s beyond the traditional economic numbers and looking at those broader impacts and those broader progress numbers that we can find — for example, impacts on women and things like that.

A. Olsen: I recognize that this is something that you are adding to your portfolio and is being added to the portfolio.

I would say that, rather than getting into the details in this form, I think there is probably a good opportunity for collaboration here between the minister and our caucus. I’m certain…. I know that my colleague from Cowichan Valley is very keen on GPIs. I think there’s an opportunity for us just to sit down in a meeting at some point and talk about that and how we can collaborate.

I think the more complete the data is that we have…. I think that, as we can hear across government, more data is being collected. How we evaluate the data that we are collecting is really important in terms of making those decisions. I’ll just leave it open-ended for now, and I just thought that I’d put a marker down here.

As the minister knows, my riding is one of those…. It was interesting, someone referred to it “rurban,” so it’s both rural and urban. It has both the urban…. When I’m talking about it in this context, I’m talking about it in the context of broadband, and the minister and I have had a lot of conversations about broadband over the years. I have parts of my riding that are incredibly well-connected, and parts that are not.

As we’ve seen the impact of COVID-19, more and more people are moving and making their permanent residence location on the southern Gulf Islands, if they had a foot in two communities. That has just added an incredible pressure on the services that are there already.

There is a program, the Connected Coast, that we’ve talked about, and I’m just wondering if maybe the minister can provide anymore specific information than the letters exchange that we’ve had.

With respect to the progress of the Connected Coast, I think my colleague is going to talk about it broadly, so I’ll focus it just in the southern Gulf Islands area, the area around the Capital Regional District, in terms of the timelines, and the inclusion of Mayne Island and Galiano.

I’ve asked several times, but I think this is a good opportunity to get it on the record, as to the inclusion of those two islands specifically, and to the broadband network.

Hon. L. Beare: For anyone who’s listening who might not know about the Connected Coast project, because I didn’t know about it before I became the minister. It is something that is extraordinarily cool.

For those who don’t know, the connecting…. What it is, is laying fibre along the seabed floor. We’re talking starting from Vancouver, all along the coast of the Island, the coast of the Mainland, where there’s currently around over 150 landing sites that are planned. Then land-based projects are going to be able to tap into. So that’s pretty cool. There’s a ship in sometime this summer that’s going to launch with a ton of cable on it that it’s going to start laying on the seabed, which is, I think, very fascinating.

What’s currently happening with Connected Coast is that it’s currently in permitting and consultation for that final network stage of design. There’s the plan to begin construction, as I said, in the summer, and the provincial and federal governments have agreed to extend the project timeline of completion from March 31, 2021 to March 31, 2023, due to the complexity of the project. Nobody is underestimating what this is taking, laying it on the seabed, going all up and down the coast, weather, seasonal considerations. So we’re going to need multiple seasons to actually build everything that’s going to need to be built.

Now, the successful completion of the coast project remains a top priority, because we know how important it is to all British Columbians — and to a number of communities along the coast who either a) don’t have service yet and Connected Coast will be bringing it, or b) who have no redundancy. When you get a wildfire that knocks out transmission…. Or most recently, we had a beaver up in our north who chewed down some wood and chewed through a fibre cable. We don’t have redundancy either on this connectivity.

We’re continuing to receive applications into our connecting British Columbia program. There is community consultation happening along with that permitting, as we speak, for those final areas and those final projects.

As the member knows, specifically in his area…. He had written me a lovely letter talking about Mayne and Galiano in particular and the need to expand enhanced coverage to homes that weren’t getting it and were missed out in his area. We were happy to make that announcement a few weeks ago, and that announcement included Pender.

This is something that we’re all working towards here in the province. We’re working with the federal government, working with local governments. We’re providing funding here at the province, and then this is being driven really hard through City West and Strathcona regional district and those local ISPs who are actually working on the project along with Telus and Shaw as well.

I’m looking forward to a number of great announcements that are coming. Some have been made today. More are rolling out as applications are approved and as that due diligence is done and that community consultation is complete, but it is great news for a number of communities on the coast. This is going to change lives, really.

The Chair: Members, we’ll just take a very brief recess while we undertake a little bit of cleaning and safety protocols in preparation for a new committee chair.

The committee recessed from 5:03 p.m. to 5:06 p.m.

[B. Bailey in the chair.]

The Chair: Thank you, Members, for your patience. Continuing debate, I recognize the member for Saanich North and the Islands.

A. Olsen: Thank you, Madam Chair, and welcome to a fascinating discussion about connectivity in British Columbia.

Thank you, Minister, for your response. Certainly, I share your excitement for what this means, both from an innovation perspective and the ability to have communities connected as well, especially in the southern Gulf Islands. What’s really important for us is the economic imperative, as working from home and schooling from home and all of those aspects are greatly impacted when you don’t have reliable connectivity. I can’t tell you the number of times that I’ve started a Zoom meeting or started a Microsoft Teams meeting only for it to end abruptly because the bandwidth wasn’t great enough.

The Connected Coast project is landing fibre optic in these communities. The next stage of this is getting the fibre optic either to a location that people can plug into — so a central location — or to their home. I think probably the simplest part of this project is loading the fibre optic on the back of a big boat and landing it on the islands.

The more difficult aspect of it, if you’re been to the southern Gulf Islands and many rural communities across the province, is going to be the geography of getting those connections to — they call it the last mile — the home, so people can turn on Netflix in the evening or connect with their work.

I’m just wondering what provisions the ministry and the minister have put in place to fund and finance or to support local communities to be able to finance that last-mile component of it, along with the ISP, and the people that are benefiting from the service. How does that look from the ministry?

[5:10 p.m.]
Hon. L. Beare: Absolutely, last-mile projects are really what are needed in so many communities. It takes a lot to get to a last-mile project, as the member knows. You have those large transport projects that are like the Connected Coast, laying that fibre optic where it’s needed, and then projects for landing sites, and then projects to get that last mile from the landing site to the home or the business so people can actually enjoy it. We have a number of all these types of projects, whether it be the large transport or the last mile, all across the province.

Specifically, the member was asking what we’re doing to support last mile. Since 2017, our government has invested $180 million in the connecting B.C. program, which is historic, a record investment in connectivity.

Now, the latest intake, the latest one-time grant of $90 million was in September, through Stronger B.C., the economic recovery intake. That was predominantly for last mile. So $75 million of it was earmarked for last mile for connectivity, and then $15 million was marked for cellular along highways. While those projects have also been happening over the years, there was just recently a very large investment made into last-mile projects.

We’ve been accepting applications. Applications are still rolling in. Announcements have started, are going to continue to roll out over the summer, with a lot of great news for communities for getting those last-mile projects to the door.

Now, I think it’s really important that when we talk about the funding stream and what communities have to do…. It’s recognizing that the province will fund up to 90 percent of a project, with ISPs predominantly picking up 10 percent or more. So unless the community chooses it, there is absolutely no burden on communities to put forth resources towards this.

Absolutely, there’s planning and regional planning and work that has to be done with the ISPs — community consultation and community approval in the application project for the ISP to actually submit it, the application, because as the member knows, it’s the ISPs who put in the application, not the community, not the province. That’s a great benefit to communities like the member is referring to. There is burden to them.

With the $75 million of the connecting British Columbia program, in this September intake alone, we were looking at expanding and connecting broadband to an additional 200 communities in just that one intake. So there are a lot of great announcements that have come out, and there are going to be a lot more announcements coming as those projects get approved and go through their last due diligence.

A. Olsen: I’ve got two more questions. I’m going to package them, and then I’m going to cede the floor back.

There are two aspects of this program that I think need some further clarification. The first is that the federal government has a universal broadband fund that is requiring contributions from local governments. The minister just, I think, partially provided a response — that the provincial government is aware of the potential lack of capacity in local governments. I’m not saying that all local governments have no capacity, just some may.

The first question. Is the province prepared to step in and assist communities that don’t have the capacity to be able to fully accommodate the federal government’s universal broadband fund?

[5:15 p.m.]
The second piece of this is…. It came up in the minister’s response. That is around making sure…. An ISP is a private company. So we’re putting public money into providing the technology for a private service provider to then provide a service on that highway — basically, is what we’re creating — a broadband pipeline.

From that perspective, is the minister confident that we’re being able to maintain the public interest in that? That it’s not going to then just be that the private internet service provider, who most of us have relationships with in our own private dealings…. That our citizens are not vulnerable, then, to ISPs monopolizing that infrastructure that the public has paid for and that citizens are then vulnerable to rate hikes that are unsustainable, etc.?

Hon. L. Beare: The UBF requirement states all other levels of government funding. So it’s not a specific requirement for local governments. In fact, that’s why the province has built our program…. It’s designed to meet the need of the UBF fund so that we can co-leverage the dollars in there. While a local government may work with an ISP to potentially submit to the UBF, it’s not a requirement, and we built our program to meet that need.

[5:20 p.m.]
Great flag for the member, but we addressed that concern for sure.

I love the question about using public dollars and making sure that it’s benefiting all public then. There are a couple pieces there. First, Internet service providers are federally regulated, which I know the member knows. So there are regulations and competition pieces in there. Not all ISPs are private companies, either. Some are municipally-owned or owned by First Nations. You know, they’re not-for-profits. We have a number that are mixed in there.

But the most important piece of this answer for that is that our projects that are built with B.C. provincial dollars in them…. It’s a contractual obligation of the ISPs. It’s what I’m calling an open-built, where the ISPs have to provide access to that infrastructure to other projects and other companies that may need it. They just simply have to request and apply and go through the process. It’s not solely for use for one ISP on the original bill.

We want our provincial dollars to go as far as we can, to benefit as many communities as we can. If more ISPs want to latch on to that passive infrastructure, well, let’s bring it on if we can get more coverage for it.

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