Madam Speaker, I will be splitting my time with the fabulous MP for Vancouver East.
Today, we are in debate on the reply to the Speech from the Throne. It is a throne speech that the government said was necessary, because the pandemic has transformed our economy and way of life in six short months. Whether a five-week prorogation, a complete shutdown of Parliament, was necessary to write this speech is another question entirely, and to which the answer is almost surely no. However, COVID has indeed impacted every riding across the country, and I would like to spend most of my time on experiences in my riding.
South Okanagan—West Kootenay, as everyone here knows, is one of the most beautiful ridings in the country with mountains, forests, sparkling lakes, sandy beaches, mighty rivers, bountiful orchards and the best wine in Canada. It is a wonderful place to live and a great place to visit. It is no wonder that tourism is one of the major drivers of the economy.
When COVID-19 hit in March, tourism was hit immediately. People stopped travelling. Within weeks, Air Canada stopped flying into Penticton and Castlegar. Pacific Coastal stopped flying into Trail. WestJet cut back most of its flights. While a few of these flights have returned, my constituents remain very concerned about the continuation of air service into regional airports. A recent announcement by NavCan about possibly closing towers across the country brings extra concern.
As travel stopped, motels and hotels emptied, restaurants closed and up until June. Things looked very bleak for tourism in the South Okanagan—West Kootenay, but after travel guidelines were relaxed in June, tourism was surprisingly busy. Many restaurants did well. Hotels and motels along the beaches in the South Okanagan were packed. Private campgrounds, public campgrounds, rough campgrounds back in the woods were filled beyond capacity. Boat and RV dealers were busy, and bike dealers sold stock as fast as they could get it.
Every year, I ride my bicycle around the riding in the last week of August. Before I left this year, I dropped into one of the local bike shops to get a spare tire just in case something untoward happened along the trails. The dealer said that he would lend me one, but made me promise that I would bring it back if I did not use it. He was happy that I already had extra tubes, because he said that he had not had any normal tubes in months. People wanted to get out and enjoy the South Okanagan—West Kootenay. They came from all over B.C., Alberta and the rest of Canada. I cycled over 400 kilometres of trails and roads while going around the riding, and those trails were very busy. One of the common complaints I heard in the Slocan Valley was that there were so many tourists, they were taking up all the secret campgrounds that used to be used only by locals.
I do not see this changing significantly after the pandemic subsides. People have really discovered the joys of getting out into the woods, hiking mountain trails, and boating on the lakes of Canada. It is clear that we need to invest more in trail and other outdoor infrastructure to provide proper camping, hiking and biking experiences for the future.
I also want to mention the performing arts, which is a sector that does so much to make our lives worth living, and COVID has brought that sector to its knees. Any facility based on a live audience and live performance has been hit hard all spring and summer, whether it is the big South Okanagan Events Centre in Penticton, the small but mighty Dream Cafe, the Venables Theatre in Oliver, Gold Fever Follies in Rossland, the Bailey Theatre in Trail or any event held in any of the community halls across my riding. These theatres and the workers, musicians and actors who work in them have seen their professional lives comes to a halt. Most of these workers are gig workers, living precariously from job to job. They, like millions of other Canadian workers, generally do not qualify for EI. They would have literally been out on the street with no support if the NDP had not pressed for broader benefits that resulted in the creation of CERB.
I spoke with representatives from a coalition of performing arts workers from B.C. last week, and while they were very grateful for those supports, they were concerned about what lay ahead and how we would rebuild our social safety nets that COVID has exposed as entirely inadequate.
The agriculture sector was hit by delays and difficulties getting foreign workers in to work in the orchards and vineyards. I want to thank the BC Fruit Growers' Association, the Government of B.C., and the Regional District of Okanagan-Similkameen for their hard work in coming up with protocols and funding supports, so that at least some of these workers could quarantine and work in conditions that were safe for them, as well as safe for the broader community.
The forestry sector was already hurting from low prices and illegal tariffs when COVID-19 hit. There were some shifts cut back in some mills, but fortunately lumber prices rebounded through the summer. I want to give a big shout-out to Kalesnikoff Lumber. In the middle of the pandemic, it finished building a new mass timber facility in South Slocan that is now producing engineered wood products for projects in Victoria, Vancouver and Toronto. Along with Structurlam in Penticton, I now have two of the top mass timber facilities in North America in my riding. They are part of a trend that is changing how we build large buildings that are safe, beautiful and good for the environment.
I want to talk now about some of the health impacts of COVID. I have to say that my riding was relatively untouched by the virus, thanks in large parts to the steady guidance of Dr. Bonnie Henry and the Government of British Columbia, and it will hopefully remain so.
We all saw the horrific news from long-term care facilities across the country, especially in Ontario and Quebec. I have been concerned about long-term care centres for years. Even before COVID, it was clear that funding and staffing at these sites was often completely inadequate. We need to bring long-term care centres into our national health care system, with national standards and adequate funding. We need to pay care workers, and all the other workers on the front line of COVID, fair wages, so that they will know that we value them as the heroes they truly are.
I was shocked to find out, when I first talked to care workers pre-COVID, that many of them who had worked for over 20 years at the same facility were now making less money than when they had first been hired.
Once COVID is behind us, we must once again focus on the real crisis facing the world, and that is global warming. We must focus on renewable energy, electrification and energy efficiency. For the past five years, I have pressed the Liberal government to seriously invest in building retrofits. It passed that responsibility on to the provinces in the pan-Canadian framework and then on to the municipalities in the last budget.
The government needs to take direct action now so that all Canadians can access funds to make their homes and businesses more energy efficient, and so that workers can find good jobs across this country.
If the infrastructure minister is looking for shovel-ready projects that need federal investments, there is an irrigation canal in Oliver that has been seeking that support for the last four years. I am happy to see that irrigation has finally been added to the list of qualifying projects for the latest program.
The NDP has been completely focused for the past six months on finding solutions that will make life better for Canadians. We pointed out that the initial COVID benefits would have let many workers and businesses fall through the cracks, and we presented positive solutions to improve those benefits.
When the government said it was going to reduce CERB by $400 in the new CRB, we forced it to keep the payments the same, so that Canadians who still have no jobs to go back to could continue to live in dignity. We forced the government to put forward a meaningful paid sick leave program, so that workers will not go to work with COVID.
We will continue that focus as we face the second wave of COVID, and as we build for a better Canada.
Does the Speech from the Throne give us confidence in that future? It is the actions that flow from the speech that will count. The speech mentions pharmacare, something the Liberals promised back in 1997. It mentions child care, something the Liberals have been promising since 2005. It mentions pay equity, something the NDP forced the Liberals to act on in 2015. They are still talking about it.
We look forward to real action. The NDP has been and always will be a party that strives for a fairer, greener and more prosperous Canada for all Canadians.