United MLA fires back at NDP hecklers for ‘hallowed out’ rural BC

Written By Rob Shaw

“We continue to hear how great everything is, and what’s happening in our communities does not reflect what government is saying.”

–Coralee Oakes

Cariboo North MLA Coralee Oakes has always been one of the more quiet, respectful members of the B.C. legislature. Even when she was a cabinet minister in the previous BC Liberal government, she wasn’t known for participating in the cut-and-thrust verbal jousting on the floor of the house.

So when Oakes abruptly delivered the most emotional and impassioned speech of her political career recently, building to a literal shout in her address, more than a few people stopped to take notice.

“It’s been coming for awhile,” she said.

Oakes was mid-way through a speech about safety in Quesnel’s downtown core, telling the legislature about concerns she’d heard from the Quesnel Downtown Association.

“Look, they’ve been in government since 2017,” Oakes told the house.

“By any account, is any one of our communities safer? Does any one of our communities have better access to health care? Does any community have treatment?”

“We have been hallowed out by this government.”

Coralee Oakes

A few seats down the aisle, New Democrat Bob D’Eith started chirping up. He shouted that his riding of Maple Ridge-Mission had access to plenty of healthcare and treatment options, while other New Democrats joined in, intimating she was exaggerating her concerns or inventing her community’s problems.

It set Oakes off.

“You have treatment? Well, there you go,” she said, her voice rising to a shout.

“While rural British Columbia is abandoned by this government, I’ve got someone down there that has the audacity to brag about that they’ve got treatment. They’ve got housing. Well, then I say that there is inequity by this government. You had better start paying attention to what’s happening in rural British Columbia.

“We have been hollowed out by this government. Where do you think the resources come? Where do you think, Members, the resources come to pay for those things that you’re bragging about now? Where do you think that revenue comes from? It comes from our communities in rural British Columbia.”

Cariboo North MLA Coralee Oakes delivers a searing indictment of the lack of services in rural BC. [Image Hansard TV]

For Oakes, the rising frustration had been building for months. She’s dealt with being overlooked during last summer’s wildfire crisis, not getting enough aid for cattle during the feed shortage, mill closures, forestry curtailments, repeated shortfalls at Cariboo Memorial Hospital, a chronic shortage of doctors, and more.

“I felt impassioned to push back to send a clear message to government that we continue to hear how great everything is, and what’s happening in our communities does not reflect what government is saying,” she said in an interview.

Fiery speech ignites agreement from rural colleagues

The rural-focused speech, heckled by urban New Democrats, touched a nerve inside the BC United caucus.

“It’s exactly how I feel,” said Peace River South MLA Mike Bernier. “It’s like we are second cousins. It’s so much harder for us to get recognized in rural B.C. The present government, especially under David Eby, has become an urban-centric kind of party.”

Bernier pointed to Chetwynd hospital, where the emergency room has been closed five consecutive nights within the last week due staffing shortages, and where closures have persisted regularly for months.

Outages like that would never be tolerated in urban areas like the Lower Mainland, he said.

“The present government, especially under David Eby, has become an urban-centric kind of party.”

Mike Bernier

Then there’s road maintenance contracts, where the NDP cut extra money that had been allocated for capital or operational upgrades to rural roads.

“Basically our farming roads and back roads don’t even get graded anymore because we’re told there’s no money in the budget for it,” said Bernier.

“Little things like that just irk people.”

There’s also rampant crime concerns, which while not on the scale experienced in urban centres like the Lower Mainland, can still have a debilitating effect on a small community. Dawson Creek, which has been reeling by prolific repeat offenders, street disorder and organized crime, just saw a high-speed vehicle chase and shooting on its main street last week, which is unprecedented, said Bernier.

“A guy was leaning out of the passenger window of the SUV with a shotgun shooting at the car, and blew out the windows,” he said.

Problems not solved for rural BC

Cariboo-Chilcotin MLA Lorne Doerkson said his community is grappling with the highest rents it’s ever seen, low vacancy rates and a 51 per cent increase in homelessness in Williams Lake.

“I honestly sometimes think I’m living in a totally different world,” he said. “Constituents are very frustrated.”

“I honestly sometimes think I’m living in a totally different world.”

Lorne Doerkson

There are 34,000 people in his riding and an estimated 10,000 don’t have a doctor, said Doerkson. While the government claims it has hired hundreds of new physicians, it hasn’t made any difference in his area, he said.

“It’s appalling to hear week after week that we have solved these problems, because they are not solved in rural British Columbia, I can assure you of that,” he said.

Even small things, like road repairs, are lacking.

“There are roads completely blown out,” said Doerkson. “And if it was for a year, or six months, fair enough, we’re rugged folks in the north and we can wait. But when it goes on for two, three, five years, it really does come to the point of absurdity.

“That’s what I’m concerned about is just that lack of willingness to acknowledge some of the challenges we’re having and lack of willingness in a fulsome way to address some of these issues,” he said.

Constituents’ concerns dismissed

For Oakes, the hardest part is hearing stories from constituents and then being discounted when those stories are brought forward to the legislature.

She said she was unable to get a young woman newly-diagnosed with multiple sclerosis an appointment in Quesnel, so the husband of her constituency assistant had to drive the woman to Williams Lake and back because she was out of options.

So, the heckling from urban MLAs who enjoy several hospitals connected by transit hubs in and around their ridings, was too far.

“People have just said yeah this is our experience and that they feel that they wanted that message shared,” said Oakes.

“I was speaking the voices of the people I’ve heard. And maybe that’s why I felt so passionate about it.”