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Government help may be on the way for farmers and ranchers hard hit by wildfires that have charred more than 8,450 square kilometres of timber, range and farmland in British Columbia.
Federal Agriculture Minister Lawrence MacAulay and B.C. counterpart Lana Popham have met in Victoria.
A news release says they are working quickly to assess the extraordinary costs incurred by B.C.’s food producers. Additional assistance is also being considered to help farmers and ranchers return to full production.
The extra help could cover everything from costs related to feeding, sheltering, transporting and ensuring the health of livestock to the expenses of re-establishing crops and pastures wiped out by the fires.
MacAulay says the goal is to get B.C.’s food producers back in business as quickly as possible, and Popham says the AgriRecovery disaster framework can help with that.
Kevin boon, general manager for the BC Cattlemen’s Association, is pleased the federal and provincial governments are working together to help producers.
“These fires have caused unprecedented impacts for not only the cattle industry but for all of the rural communities. We urge the governments to do everything possible in their assessment, including looking at the parameters of the program, to get as much financial support as possible into these businesses,” he says.
Boon says money would be spent within fire-ravaged communities, making the funds as important to rural B.C. economies as they are to the farmers and ranchers trying to rebuild.
The lowest paid workers on the province are getting a raise.
Only a few weeks after taking power, the provincial NDP are giving minimum wage workers a pay hike as they inch toward an eventual $15 minimum wage.
Workers will be receiving a 50-cent increase in September..
Premier John Horgan said moving toward a $15 minimum wage is long overdue in making life more affordable for British Columbians.
“British Columbia’s lowest-paid workers need a raise,” Horgan said. “The action we’re taking will make life better for working parents, seniors, new Canadians, students and more – these are people struggling to get by.”
As of Sept. 15, the minimum wage will jump from $10.85 per hour to $11.35 per hour, giving B.C. the third-highest minimum wage in Canada – up from seventh.
“Today’s increase and our commitment to the $15 minimum wage will benefit almost 100,000 British Columbians who have been getting by on one of the lowest minimum wages in the country,” said Horgan, adding that 62 per cent of minimum-wage earners are women.
Labour Minister Harry Bains said details around a fair wages commission’s composition and terms of reference will be announced in the coming weeks.
The commission will submit its first report within 90 days of its first meeting.
“We’ve listened to business owners, who have told us gradual, predictable increases are the way to go to minimize the impact on their businesses,” Bains said. “And they recognize that the move to a $15 minimum wage is good for retention for their businesses, and good for the B.C. economy.”
Liquor servers’ wage are also rising by 50 cents to $10.10 per hour.
Other minimum-wage provisions in the employment standards regulation will receive increases in line with the general minimum-wage increase of 4.6 per cent, including the daily rate for live-in home support workers and live-in camp leaders, as well as the monthly rates for resident caretakers and the minimum farm worker piece rates for harvesters of certain fruits and vegetables.
British Columbia’s once-celebrated public auto insurer has become a financial train wreck, its critics say as studies into the beleaguered Crown corporation call for dramatic rate hikes and drastic structural changes to save it from ruin.
But while everyone appears to agree the system is broken, there is disagreement over how the Insurance Corporation of British Columbia went off the rails in the first place and what must be done to fix it.
The crisis at ICBC is shaping up to be the first major financial hurdle for B.C.’s new NDP government.
Attorney General David Eby, who is also the minister responsible for ICBC, blames the previous Liberal government for problems at the corporation.
“ICBC, as described to me by senior bureaucrats, is on the path to insolvency,” Eby said. “It’s very unfortunate that it’s been left for so long, because I think there was really an opportunity to address this much earlier.”
Eby and other ICBC supporters single out the actions of former Liberal premier Gordon Campbell as marking the beginning of the corporation’s troubles.
Campbell required ICBC to keep much higher amounts of backup capital. The resulting stockpile proved irresistible to politicians in 2010 following the global financial meltdown, critics say, when the government began siphoning hundreds of millions of dollars of “excess capital” almost every year.
In all, the Liberals withdrew $1.2 billion from the lucrative optional side of ICBC’s business, and also transferred $1.4 billion to offset deficits on the compulsory side providing basic coverage beginning in 2012.
“The reason we’re in a bind right now is that there’s no more money left in the optional piggy bank,” said retired civil servant Rick McCandless, who has written extensively on ICBC.
“The music has stopped. You can’t play the game anymore. Somebody has to make some hard decisions. And that somebody is government.”
Liberal member of the legislature John Yap said the New Democrats are playing politics in trying to lay blame for the problems at ICBC, which he largely attributed to the increasing number of collisions and claims year-over-year along with rising repair costs.
The Liberals’ priority was to keep rates low and stable while improving the operations and finances of the corporation through a number of measures, including foregoing the dividends from the optional side of the business as of last year and rolling in a new information technology system that would save the corporation millions, he said.
“Government did take action,” Yap said.
A recent report from Ernst & Young painted a dire picture at the Crown corporation, concluding that rates must increase by 30 per cent by 2019 to cover costs. A separate forecast released last November by ICBC indicated rates would need to increase by 42 per cent over the next five years to make up for expenses.
Small businesses affected by devastating wildfires in British Columbia will be getting some financial relief from the provincial government.
Forests Minister Doug Donaldson says small businesses, First Nations whose livelihoods are based on cultural practices and not-for-profit organizations that have been under evacuation orders or alerts are eligible for a $1,500 emergency grant.
The funding also applies to small businesses operating in areas affected by closures along Highways 20, 97, 26 and the eastern Cariboo Regional District, an area hard hit by fires.
The money will be distributed by the Canadian Red Cross, which received $100 million from the province when a state of emergency was declared in early July.
Donaldson says small businesses are the lifeblood of rural communities and the government will be provide the necessary programs to support their recovery.
Executive director Claudia Blair of the Williams Lake Visitor Centre says businesses have already lost thousands of dollars after the area was evacuated last month, and the recent closure of the backcountry is expected to create more economic hardship.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau lost the harshest critic of his plan to impose a carbon tax with Brad Wall’s surprise announcement Thursday that he’s retiring as Saskatchewan’s premier.
But just as Trudeau pulled that persistent thorn from his right side, he was stabbed in the left side by another thorn as British Columbia’s fledgling NDP government unveiled plans to block construction of the proposed Trans Mountain pipeline.
The twin announcements underscored the political teeter-totter Trudeau has been riding as he attempts to prove it’s possible — indeed necessary, in his opinion — to simultaneously combat climate change and build new pipeline capacity to get western Canada’s fossil fuels to tidewater.
Wall has threatened to go to court to prevent the federal government from imposing a carbon tax of $10 per tonne — rising to $50 in 2022 — on provinces that don’t implement a carbon pricing regime of their own by next year.
Saskatchewan is the only province that has flat-out refused to even consider carbon pricing, which Wall maintains would devastate the province’s already struggling oil and gas industry.
While his successor will doubtless carry on the crusade, along with federal Conservatives led by fellow Saskatchewanian Andrew Scheer, Wall has been the most articulate and highest-profile opponent of the scheme with a knack for simplifying the complicated issue. For instance, he’s summed up the federal carbon tax plan as “a ransom note.”
“He was a fierce defender of Saskatchewan and western Canada on this critical issue so it is a loss in that sense,” Conservative Sen. Denise Batters, a long-time friend and supporter, said in an interview.
Just how much relief Wall’s departure will give the Trudeau government on the carbon pricing front remains to be seen.
“Whenever a person who has cut such a large figure, certainly in Saskatchewan politics but also on the national scene, when a person of that longevity and strength decides to make a break and go do something else, it’s obviously a major change,” Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale, who holds the Liberals’ only seat in Saskatchewan, said in an interview.
“What will result from that, who the successor will be, how it will effect the policy debate about various issues from time to time remains to be seen.”
Goodale praised Wall’s unquestioned “passion” for Saskatchewan and pointed out that, apart from the climate change file, he has worked co-operatively with the federal Liberals on a host of other issues: health care, child care, infrastructure, softwood lumber and the upcoming renegotiation of the North American Free Trade Agreement.
Wall briefly stoked renewed speculation Thursday that he may jump to the federal political arena when he said he’s leaving politics in Saskatchewan. “I should have said anywhere,” he clarified later.
Goodale said the federal carbon pricing plan is “an absolute linchpin” for getting approval of any pipelines.
“With carbon pricing in place, we can not only argue the economic gains that come from pipelines … but also the environmental integrity of the process because it is rooted in that fundamental principle of carbon pricing,” he said.
Yet, just as Wall’s departure will silence the leading critic of Trudeau’s carbon tax plan, the government has to contend with a newly minted NDP government. It reasserted Thursday its campaign vow to use “every tool available” to block Kinder Morgan’s proposed Trans Mountain pipeline expansion, which the Trudeau government has approved.
In the few weeks following the new government’s swearing-in last month, there was briefly some small hope among federal Liberals that Premier John Horgan might back off. Indeed, the pipeline wasn’t even mentioned when Horgan had a first, congenial meeting with Trudeau a couple of weeks ago, at which the two leaders chose instead to focus on issues upon which they agree.
That hope was dashed with Thursday’s announcement that B.C. is joining the legal fight against the pipeline. The Horgan government also warned Kinder Morgan, which had planned to start construction in September, that the province has rejected five of eight environmental management plans required to begin work on the project because of inadequate consultations with effected First Nations communities.
“Until that has been completed, Kinder Morgan, with the exception of some private land and some clearing of right-of-way, cannot put shovels in the ground,” said B.C.’s environment minister, George Heyman.
A spokesman for Natural Resources Minister Jim Carr said the federal government “will stand by” its decision to approve the Trans Mountain expansion, “based on facts and on evidence and what is in the national interest.”
“We have taken an approach to resource development that will grow our economy and protect the environment,” Alexandre Deslongchamps said. “Our government believes that these priorities go hand-in-hand.”
Goodale said the Trudeau government only approved the Trans Mountain project after thorough, comprehensive and inclusive consultations “where all points of view were heard and treated respectfully and taken into account.”
B.C.’s minority NDP government has unveiled its plan for opposing the Kinder Morgan pipeline expansion through the province.
In a press conference Thursday, Environment and Climate Change Strategy Minister George Heyman and Attorney General David Eby outlined legal and constitutional steps the government will take action on.
“Our government made it clear that a seven-fold increase in heavy oil tankers in the Vancouver harbour is not in B.C.’s best interests,” said Heyman.
“Not for our economy, our environment, or thousands of existing jobs. We will use all available tools to protect our coastal waters and our province’s future.”
The province has also secured the services of outside counsel Thomas Berger in relation to legal action pertaining to the pipeline.
“We are committed to fighting for B.C.’s interests and it is government’s desire to seek intervenor status in legal challenges to federal approval of the pipeline expansion and increased oil tanker traffic off B.C.’s coast,” said Eby.
“Mr. Berger will provide legal advice to government on the options for participation in legal challenges, and those hearings are scheduled to begin in federal court later this fall.”
The government also announced plans for what it calls “meaningful consultation” with Indigenous people concerning the pipeline expansion.
This includes potential impacts on Aboriginal rights and title, a responsibility identified in a number of court cases.
Green Party leader Andrew Weaver says he is pleased with Thursday’s announcement.
Weaver says using every tool available to stop the project is a key commitment in the agreement between the Green and NDP parties.
“In the B.C. Green caucus’ view the National Energy Board process that led to this project’s approval was profoundly flawed. Numerous questions remain unanswered or were simply dismissed,” said Weaver.
“To cite one example, the entire marine spill response was predicated on the existence of 20 hours of sunlight. There is no place south of Tuktoyaktuk that has that much sunlight on any day of the year.”
B.C. tourism officials are starting to assess the impact of devastating wildfires and have received mixed feedback on the toll so far on the travel sector.
Maya Lange of Destination BC says businesses outside the fire zone have complained of cancellations, while evacuation orders and restrictions to backcountry parks, particularly in the Interior, have limited some service providers’ ability to operate.
She says most evidence of a slowdown in the sector has been anecdotal, and data reflecting the financial implications won’t be ready for another two to three months.
But, monitoring of tourists coming into the province week-to-week has shown visitor numbers remain on track.
Lange says that may mean visitors are changing their plans of where to go in the province rather than cancelling their trips entirely.
Destination BC has been working to inform potential visitors about what areas of the province are affected by fires, and Lange says the message appears to be getting through that not all of B.C. is burning.
Angry B.C. ranchers have been promised help from the federal and provincial governments in response to the wildfires burning their way through grasslands, especially in the Cariboo.
The potential impact is severe as ranchers have an estimated 30,000 animals within the boundaries of wildfire-affected areas. The number of livestock injuries and losses is unknown as the emergency continues.
The B.C. government has promised once that information is available, officials will work quickly with industry stakeholders to develop “a fair and timely response,” said a Ministry of Agriculture press release.
Officials say the recognize that additional programs will likely be needed given the scope of the wildfires but ranchers and crop producers should also look at existing federal and provincial government insurance and income protection programs.
The government estimated more than 500 ranchers have already received support and information through the wildfire emergency response, including emergency livestock feed.
A total of $6 million is expected to be used for fence reconstruction efforts along highways and on Crown range once the crisis is at an end.
On the weekend, ranchers in the Clinton area demanded compensation and an apology from the government after a controlled burn got out of control and added to the massive Elephant Hill wildfire putting more of their properties and livestock at risk.
The BC Wildfire Service defended the practice of fighting massive fires with fire.
U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer has an issue with getting U.S. wine into Canada.
“It’s an extraordinary problem for those people who are affected,” Lighthizer said June 22 when he appeared before the House of Representatives ways and means committee to talk about trade priorities. “And there is no justification for it.”
Two days before President Donald Trump entered the White House, the U.S. launched an aggressive trade challenge by asking the World Trade Organization to examine how the B.C. government was allowing only wine produced within the province to be sold in grocery stores.
Lighthizer told the committee in June that WTO consultations — the first stage of the process — had not resolved things, so the administration was thinking about whether to press ahead with a dispute settlement panel in Geneva.
Then he mentioned another, perhaps friendlier, way to go: the new NAFTA.
“In this case it would make more sense to negotiate and do it in a less hostile way,” he said.
A month later, Lighthizer published the list of goals the Trump administration has for a renegotiated trade deal with Canada and Mexico, in advance of the first round of talks on Aug. 16.
Canadian wine got a mention in the accompanying news release.
The move to allow only B.C. wines to be sold in B.C. grocery stores, which the U.S. argues is discriminatory, is not the only issue the Trump administration has with the way Canada imports and sells wine.
The U.S. government’s annual report on trade barriers highlights a complaint that would be shared by many Canadian consumers who have long chafed at limited access: in many parts of the country, province-run liquor control boards restrict the sale of wine, beer and spirits.
Restrictions on listings, cost-of-service mark-ups, maximum or minimum price points, distribution policies, labelling requirements and making suppliers discount their prices to meet sales targets were all mentioned as things getting in the way.
This year’s wildfire season has become British Columbia’s worst in six decades, and a provincial spokesman says the action is far from over.
Kevin Skrepnek of the BC Wildfire Service said Thursday that 4,910 square kilometres of forest, bush and grassland have been torched, making 2017 the second worst year in recorded history in terms of land destroyed.
“I think it’s important for everyone to remember we are only in early August at this point,” Skrepnek told reporters during a daily wildfire conference call.
August is usually one of the busiest months for fire, so this current situation could get worse, he added.
B.C.’s most devastating fire season on record was in 1958, when flames consumed about 8,560 square kilometres, though Skrepnek said it is too early to tell whether this year could surpass that level.
“I don’t want to speculate at this point, given that we do still have all of August ahead of us and there’s potential for activity out there,” he said.
The province began tracking fire statistics in 1950.
There were 126 fires burning across B.C. on Thursday, eight of them newly sparked on Wednesday.
The cost of firefighting efforts has topped $204 million, which Skrepnek said is relatively low compared with previous years because of the late start to the 2017 season.
The BC Wildfire Service is also reaching further afield for reinforcements, with details still being worked out to bring in firefighting crews from Australia and New Zealand, possibly as early as next week.
The Canadian Forces announced it would begin rotating out 200 soldiers who have been helping with firefighting efforts in the Interior.
Maj. Jeff Allen said residents should not be alarmed if they notice an increase in military equipment moving along highways near Williams Lake, where troops are stationed.
Skrepnek said a forecasted change in weather is expected to shift wind patterns and cut back the smoky haze that has settled over much of B.C.’s coast in recent days.
It’s been nearly three weeks since B.C. declared a provincewide state of emergency and tempers are beginning to flare among locals concerned for their homes and livelihoods.
Greg Nyman, 52, is a rancher who lives about 80 kilometres west of Kamloops, where an aggressive fire is resisting the efforts of hundreds of firefighters to bring it under control.
Nyman said he is frustrated with the wildfire service because another blaze started after a planned burn backfired, sending embers onto a nearby hillside.
“It was a bad call on their part,” Nyman said, expressing concern for his cattle.
Heather Rice, a fire information officer, said controlled burns are an important firefighting tool, though there is always a small chance of “an escape” happening.
“There’s always going to be some risk any time a control fire is started,” She said. “However, most of the time it’s a very successful way to control a fire, especially a fire of this size.”
Skrepnek said he understands people’s anxiety but insisted planned ignitions are necessary in a case like this.
“It’s not a fire that we can be fighting with water or removing fuel by hand. Using fire to fight fire is one of our only tactics to address a fire of this size,” he said.
“To be frank, this is an active fire that, if we hadn’t taken action, likely would have gotten into this area regardless.”