From left to right: Aaron Stone, Ladysmith Mayor and CVRD Chair; Doug Routley, Nanaimo-North Cowichan MLA; Paul Manly, Nanaimo-Ladysmith MP (Black Press file photo)

Politics of a pandemic: local leaders speak on managing the COVID-19 crisis

Stone, Routley and Manly speak on their experience with the COVID-19 pandemic

The COVID-19 pandemic has presented one of the greatest political challenges in decades. It has resulted in sickness and death, loss of employment, economic hardship, and sweeping changes to everyday life.

As of August 19, 2020, B.C. has 743 active cases of COVID-19 – the highest number since the COVID-19 pandemic began. Nationwide, there are 4,752 active cases.

The Chronicle conducted interviews with Ladysmith mayor, and CVRD board chair, Aaron Stone; Nanaimo-North Cowichan MLA, Doug Routley; and Nanaimo-Ladysmith MP, Paul Manly; to get a deeper understanding of how all levels of government have handled the pandemic so far.

Aaron Stone – Mayor of Ladysmith, and Board Chair of the CVRD

Aaron Stone was thrown into crisis management mode with a 6:00 am phone call on February 1.

Widespread flooding in the Cowichan Valley had cut off key transportation corridors and forced the evacuation of homes over night between January 31 and February 1.

In response to the flooding, the CVRD declared a state of emergency, and activated a Level 2 emergency operations centre as well as an emergency reception centre for evacuees in response to the intense localized flooding in various spots in the region.

RELATED: Flooding closes Highway 1, Cowichan Valley declares state of emergency

After the flooding subsided, the CVRD met with families and businesses who were impacted by flooding. They also coordinated their response with local First Nations.

“We went through that process for a number of weeks,” Stone said. “We wanted to meet with the families, and talk to them about where we were at. We also connected them with a number of funding opportunities, supports, and resources.”

“Just as it started to feel like we had made all those connections, it was mid-March, then COVID hit.”

Both the CVRD and the Town of Ladysmith had to respond to the challenge of scaling back operations while still providing services.

“For the first two months there was this great sense of concern, but also partnership and collaboration,” Stone said. “It didn’t matter what people’s political stripes were, or what disagreements people had. We really came together around responding, and supporting our communities.”

When asked to contrast the response within the Town of Ladysmith, and the CVRD, Stone said that one of the key differences was that the CVRD’s emergency response represented efforts across multiple municipalities, and nine electoral areas.

“Those 12 different areas within the region are distinct communities with different issues and challenges. Because there’s such a difference between the areas, there’s a challenge of managing different expectations, and trying to find some sameness, and broad agreement in the measures that get put in place.”

Action was taken across the CVRD to reduce the spread of COVID-19. Parks, playgrounds, and regional government offices were closed. The same actions were taken by the Town of Ladysmith.

Within the Town of Ladysmith, Stone said it was easier to find commonalities among leadership – as they all represent the same community. In response to COVID-19 the Town amended the 2020 Budget to make up for revenue lost due to COVID-19. Residents were given until the end of September to pay their property tax bills before penalties were issued.

RELATED: Town of Ladysmith adopts 1.92 percent tax increase for 2020

On the note of economics, Stone said that sharing the same land base made it easier to develop economic recovery strategies within Ladysmith. The Town, the Ladysmith Downtown Business Association, and the Ladysmith Chamber of Commerce developed strategies to revitalize business within the municipality.

RELATED: Town of Ladysmith updates plans to help businesses recover from COVID-19

Stone noted that both the CVRD and the Town of Ladysmith benefited from collaborative response from a strong team.

“When we look at silver linings – that’s one of them,” Stone said.

“With COVID, we’ve come together around common purpose. And now, rightly so, we’re challenging each other a bit on what the best next steps are. I think that’s all a positive, and I think what we’ve learned is that people with different perspectives can sit down with the same information, and come to some pretty similar responses.”

Overall, Stone said that the pandemic has been one of the most challenging periods of his political career so far – but not in a negative way.

“For me as a leader, I think I’m in a better place now than I was four years ago… Challenges like this help me grow as a human, and it motivates me to keep going.”

Doug Routley – MLA for Nanaimo-North Cowichan

Doug Routley has served as an MLA since 2005, and has never seen anything like the COVID-19 pandemic.

RELATED: Doug Routley reflects on 2019, and his career in government

“At the beginning it was so uncertain for everyone. We were watching new information every day change the picture. No one really knew how rapidly the pandemic might develop,” Routley said.

One of the first actions the provincial government took was a rapid emptying of provincial hospitals to make space for a possible influx of COVID-19 patients.

Routley said B.C. benefited from a later spring break, and advice from Provincial Health Officer, Dr. Bonnie Henry that kept COVID-19 cases relatively low compared to other jurisdictions.

The provincial government rolled out a slate of support programs to help prop up people who were impacted by COVID-19 through the B.C. Emergency Benefit for Workers; a $300 monthly supplement to disability assistance, income assistance, the B.C. comforts allowance, and the B.C. Senior’s Supplement; the B.C. Climate Action Tax Credit; ICBC payment deferrals; and the BC Hydro payment relief to name a few.

Now in August, the government is grappling with challenges on multiple fronts – children are due to return to school on September 10, and the province is keen to restart the economy, all while COVID-19 cases are on the rise.

RELATED: B.C. teacher’s union calls for remote learning option, stronger mask mandate

Amid the changing political landscape, Routley said that MLAs worked together across party lines to try and manage the COVID-19 pandemic response.

“It is remarkable to see, and this really brought out the best in people,” Routley said. “We are very fortunate to have some excellent people in our public service.”

While opposition parties have been working together, Routley said that the upcoming provincial election may inflame partisanship.

B.C.’s next provincial election is set to take place Saturday, October 16, 2021 – however premier John Horgan has said there is an opportunity to hold an election in fall 2020, spring 2021, or summer 2021, despite the pandemic.

“The election will be guided by the advice of public health officials, and it would primarily be Elections BC that would make those determinations,” Routley said.

Routley remarked that technology has played a pivotal role in the government’s response to COVID-19. Legislature has been meeting digitally during the pandemic to continue the business of governing. Although technology has allowed MLAs to continue working, Routley said the lack of meeting in person has impacted their work.

“It’s very difficult to be as effective as a politician. A lot of what we’re able to do in solving problems for people gets done on a one-to-one level. There’ll be a meeting, and outside that meeting in the hallway we’re able to impart the information from our constituency to somebody who needs to know it in a way they need to know it.”

“Those aspects are missing, and they’re really important in the medium to long term.”

Paul Manly – MP for Nanaimo-Ladysmith

Paul Manly’s first year in parliament has been anything but a normal one.

Manly was first elected as MP in May 2019 after the Nanaimo-Ladysmith by-election. He was then reelected in the October 2019 general election. That left Manly with roughly six months on the hill before COVID-19 hit.

RELATED: ‘Historic moment’ as Nanaimo-Ladysmith elects Green MP

Since COVID-19 gripped the country, Manly has been flying back and forth from Nanaimo to Ottawa – a trip that takes a total of 16 hours despite only six hours of flight time.

“There’s more flights available now, but during the lock down the choice was a 5:00 pm flight out of Nanaimo, then get in at 10:00 am in Ottawa,” he said.

Manly had some concern about exposure to COVID-19 while travelling, however he felt safe travelling due to the lack of other travellers.

“During the lock down there was nobody in the airport. There were announcements every 10 minutes telling you to stay away from other people, and there were signs anywhere, but I didn’t see anyone in the airport – it was surreal.”

While domestic travel has been ‘surreal’, the government been working to repatriate Canadians who traveled abroad, or have been unable to return home from overseas. Many Canadians have returned home, however there are thousands of Canadians who remain outside the country – including Nanaimo-Ladysmith constituents.

“All over the world there are still travel restrictions. That’s something that has taken a lot of staff time and energy – to help people get back home.”

In Ottawa, there’s an appetite to ‘get down to work’, Manly said. Parliament has been looking at a hybrid model – similar to the B.C. Legislature – that would enable fewer MPs to be physically present in the House of Commons, but still work. As it stands now, just over 50 MPs are allowed in the House at one time.

Summer sittings of the House of Commons are an irregular occurrence, however the COVID-19 crisis demanded that MPs work to manage the pandemic, albeit in a paired down version.

“What most people are seeing when we’re meeting is the Committee of the Whole. We get opportunities to ask the government questions, but the opposition don’t get opposition days, we’re not talking about any of the private members bills, we’re not dealing with the government’s legislative agenda. There’s a lot of bills on the docket that we haven’t talked about, haven’t gone to committee, and haven’t been debated.”

“In terms of how us MPs feel, we’re all feeling a crunch with this. We’re all dealing with people in crisis in our ridings. We’re trying to do the best we can for Canadians, and work together to ensure that people can get through the economic crisis this has created.”

Manly said that there was cooperation among MPs during the outset of the pandemic, however the WE Charity scandal has ignited fresh partisan divisions. The Liberal government caused controversy with a program that would have awarded $900 million to WE Charity to run volunteer programs for youth. Manly questions the efficiency of the program.

“Why didn’t they take that money and instead put it into Canada Summer Jobs? We have students and youth here that are unemployed, and non-profits that are suffering from a lack of donations, there are a lot of issues to deal with.”

Finance Minister Bill Morneau stepped down due to his entanglement with the WE Charity scandal. Chrystia Freeland has now assumed the role of Finance Minister, and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau prorogued parliament to prepare a reset of government.

With prorogation comes a shut down of all parliamentary committee work.

“Committees are all suspended. There are the obvious ones regarding finance and ethics to talk about the WE Charity scandal, but we’re also seeing the collapse of the sockeye salmon right now, and there’s important work being done in that committee,” Manly said.

“There will be no more witnesses for the committees, no more discussion, it’s all on hold. And that’s problematic.”

RELATED: B.C. Indigenous leaders call for closure of all Fraser River sockeye fisheries

Manly said that he understands the need to prorogue parliament as much has changed since the Liberals formed government in October.

“The government is in a state of crisis. I have faith that Chrystia Freeland will take a progressive approach to deal with the economic recovery,” Manly said. “… We’re in a difficult financial situation, and we need the government to extend financial programs like CERB, but do it in a way that makes sure all Canadians are covered through something like a guaranteed livable income. We need to make sure we that we don’t go into a depression.”

RELATED: COVID-19 pandemic sparks calls for progressive federal policies

“This is a crisis, but it’s an opportunity to really reset the way our economy works.”

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