Horgan
Credit: Jeff Chan

Premier John Horgan chats with Val Litwin, president and CEO of the BC Chamber of Commerce

Pledging support for the ailing forest industry, the premier urged a non-partisan approach to challenges facing the province. Just don’t ask him about pipelines

John Horgan showed off his yellow Star Trek socks earlier this week, but what he really wanted to talk about was how he thinks British Columbians and their businesses can live long and prosper. Without a phaser to fall back on, the NDP premier and hard-core Trekkie also demonstrated his skill at disarming ideological opponents.

For his third annual appearance at the Premier & Cabinet Lunch hosted by the BC Chamber of Commerce, Horgan was introduced by Roger Dall’Antonia, president and CEO of sponsor FortisBC, who described him as “one of three people actually born in the province.” Horgan—joined by many of his cabinet ministers for this gathering at a downtown Vancouver hotel—warmed up the crowd by recalling his first meeting with Alberta Premier Jason Kenney.

During the Western Premiers Conference in Edmonton last year, Horgan agreed to a private dinner with United Conservative Party Leader Kenney and their respective chiefs of staff. “It was cold to start,” Horgan recalls. “We came from different political stripes, and both of us, I think, were a little apprehensive about how the evening would go.”

When Horgan said he was looking forward to visiting Government House in the provincial capital and meeting Lieutenant Governor Lois Mitchell, Kenney explained that she doesn’t live there. He also noted that back in the 1930s, when one of Mitchell’s predecessors refused to pass a bill, then–Socred premier Bill Aberhart turned off the electricity to Government House.

“This softball landed in my lap, and I looked across the table at Jason and said, ‘Is that just standard procedure for Alberta premiers?’” Horgan recounted, referring to Kenney’s threats to turn off the oil taps to B.C. “There was a pause, and then he threw his head back and had this huge laugh. And from that point on, things have been going pretty well.”

Horgan used this anecdote to make an appeal to what he called Canadians’ shared values. “That’s the power of our country, and that’s why it’s just such an honour to have this opportunity to be the leader of the Government of British Columbia at a time when cooler heads need to prevail,” he said, noting that the country now has four minority provincial governments and one in Ottawa. “I see that as an opportunity for us to put aside our left and our right and our centre and focus on the things that matter to people. And that’s what you do in your businesses every day, not just for yourselves and your employees but for the communities and the customers that you serve.”

Moving forestry from high volume to high value

Touting B.C.’s triple-A credit rating, balanced budgets and nation-leading unemployment rate and economic growth, Horgan also acknowledged the global downturn’s effect on the province’s commodities sectors and small businesses. “We need to transition from high-volume to high-value activity, and we’re seeing the signs of that happening right now,” he said of the struggling forest industry. For example, Okanagan Falls–based Structurlam is developing floors for a new Microsoft Corp. facility in San Jose, California.

“But we have challenges,” Horgan admitted, citing the three-year-old softwood lumber dispute with the U.S. “To those who are from rural B.C. who are feeling the pain of the downturn in forestry, we absolutely understand that. We’re working as hard as we can.”

Besides $69 million in provincial funding to help forestry workers in the Interior, innovation is part of the answer, Horgan said. “Because we cannot create more trees overnight, but we can create a new industry overnight.” Blaming his government for the crisis doesn’t wash, he argued. “These issues are deep-seated and they’re long-standing, and it will take cooperation and not a lot of finger-pointing to get through it,” Horgan said. “I’m very confident that people of good will can always come forward and find solutions, and that’s what we intend to do.”

If you don’t have people, you can’t do business

Horgan also pitched a non-partisan approach to fighting climate change, praising a previous BC Liberal government for introducing North America’s first carbon pricing regime. “Taking the ideas from the private sector, taking the ideas from the innovators in this room and across B.C., we can not only tackle climate change but benefit from it,” he said. “And being early adherents to carbon pricing, being early adherents to the challenges that we face has meant that large industry in B.C. has responded favourably.”

The premier reminded the audience that his government landed the biggest private sector investment in the nation’s history—the $40-billion LNG Canada liquefied natural gas project now underway in northern B.C. Although environmentalists and other critics would disagree, given the fossil fuel undertaking’s huge carbon footprint, he framed LNG Canada as a response to climate change. “It will transform Kitimat, to be sure, but it will also transform the corridor between Fort St. John and the coast, creating opportunity and jobs for people, creating new businesses for Indigenous communities.”

Playing to the crowd as his party gears up for an election fight, Horgan said Finance Minister and Deputy Premier Carole James has told her colleagues in the room that it’s time to pull back on discretionary spending. “If we are going to be successful with the strong headwinds coming our way, fiscal prudence is required,” he explained. “We continue to manage every dollar as if it were your dollar, and we know you expect that of us. But we also have to make sure we’re making the investments in the infrastructure and the services that people need.”

Horgan remains committed to balanced budgets, he said. “But at the same time, I’m going to make the commitment on behalf of all of my colleagues that we will continue to provide the services and the infrastructure that you need so that you can do your business,” Horgan added.

“If we do not have adequate child care, you will not be able to attract young workers to our communities. If we do not do something about the runaway cost of housing in the Lower Mainland, you will not be able to attract the new workers that you need. If we do not invest in skills training and labour market issues, you will not have the trained workforce you need to meet your objectives. So all of these things go together, and it’s seamless, in my view, and I think it’s seamless in your view. If you don’t have people, you can’t do business. If you don’t have people that have dollars in their pocket, they won’t be buying the goods or services that you provide. We need to find that balance.”

I’m so tired of just talking about pipelines

After his remarks, Horgan sat down for a Q&A session with Val Litwin, president and CEO of the BC Chamber of Commerce. Before taking questions from the audience, Litwin asked one of his own. “We now need a deep economic strategy to take B.C. into the future, to maintain our competitiveness and make sure we’ve got an edge over those jurisdictions that are gaining ground on us,” he said. “Should we be expecting an economic update in the budget next year in February?”

Replying that the short answer is yes, Horgan highlighted B.C.’s economic diversity, from forestry and mining and film and digital arts. “I’m so tired of just talking about pipelines,” he said, referring to the federally owned Trans Mountain Expansion Project.

“TMX is one of dozens and dozens of activities that are going on in British Columbia right now, and I think we all benefit by putting aside those issues that divide us,” Horgan added. “TMX will be what it will be, LNG will be what it will be, Site C will be what it will be, but all of the other activity that you’re all so familiar with continues to go on, and it’s exciting and it’s an opportunity for us. That’s what an economic strategy needs to look at: the diversity of our economy and the opportunities in every part of the province.”

Litwin also asked Horgan about his government’s new legislation implementing the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) in B.C. “We’ve been caught up in the courts for 30-plus years,” he said of the province’s legal battles with First Nations. “We need a new approach, and now is the time. “But there is a lot of conversation in the business community around how are we going to address and move forward around this notion of free, prior and informed consent. Is that equivalent to veto?”

The word “veto” doesn’t appear in UNDRIP, Horgan responded, or in the Declaration Act, which the B.C. legislature passed unanimously. “We all agreed through decades of hands-on experience that the status quo—litigation, confrontation—was not working. The Indigenous communities that I visited over the past 14,15 years as a member of the legislature, and those that I visited before as a government employee and as a consultant, made it abundantly clear to me that people in Indigenous communities don’t want more than anyone else; they want what everyone else has.”

Thanks to mountains of case law, we know that Aboriginal rights and title exist, Horgan stressed. “However you characterize it—free, prior and informed consent, accommodation, consultation—all of it means at the end of the day, will you work with the people who own the land, who have title to the land, to meet your objectives? And the B.C. Business Council, the large employers, those who are involved in cut blocks, those who are involved in drilling rights, those who are involved in mining activity, understand and recognize that if they’re going to be successful, they need to talk to the title holders and move forward.”