The Conversation: BC Green Party leader Sonia ­Furstenau weighs in on the way we work

Furstenau shares her ideas for business, including ending NDAs and instituting a four-day workweek

Some people might not be aware of your business background, but you essentially started your career as an entrepreneur, right?

In my early 20s, I was married to a bike shop owner. I took a bookkeeping course and ended up doing the books there and stepped in to help run the business. When I became a single parent a few years later, I took that skillset and used it as a way to provide myself with some income while I was going to school. I did books for small businesses on a contract basis and worked for a music store in Downtown Victoria. Eventually, I became the national administrator for Results Canada, a non-profit charity trying to end global poverty. So, in a 10-year stretch, I went from helping very small businesses to working in a large organization and having that insider’s view of administration and finances in both.

Do you miss working with small businesses?

Yeah, I really liked working for small business. What I learned through those years is that the last person to get paid in a small business is the owner. There’s constant tension and pressure in a small business. That’s one of the reasons why I make it a priority to hear from small businesses and meet with them, and that’s why we made the call on raising the threshold on the EHT [Employer Health Tax]. Especially in the last few years, businesses have been struggling more than ever. This is the time when government needs to turn its attention to recognizing the important role small businesses need to play. My son and daughter both work in local small businesses.

You mentioned the Employer Health Tax—your party proposed increasing the exemption threshold from $500,000 to $1.5 million for businesses paying the EHT, something the BC Chamber of Commerce supported. What other things can be done to help small businesses?

The EHT threshold is really putting that downward pressure on businesses to not hire. Another one I’ve been doing some reading around is the proposed $3-billion subsidy to LNG Canada that the B.C. government is lobbying the federal government for subsidizing the transmission lines. We’re talking billions of dollars going to subsidies for massive multinational companies like Shell and PetroChina. And yet, in B.C., small businesses pay a higher BC Hydro rate—the commercial rate is higher than the residential rate. That’s a way to relieve the pressure from small business—recognize that businesses under a certain threshold get a break on their hydro. As opposed to businesses in the billion-dollar profit range that are getting breaks on hydro rates. It’s an upside-down world.

You’ve also championed the four-day workweek and getting rid of NDAs, both of which would affect the business community quite a bit. What’s happening with those issues?

The NDA bill is still sitting on the order table. We don’t expect the government to adopt our bill, but I am hoping that they bring their own legislation on this. It would be great to see them do that, because this is an issue that shouldn’t be seen as political so much as a human rights issue.

It’s not about hindering businesses from protecting trade secrets, but curbing their use in silencing victims of harassment and discrimination. It’s intended to ensure victims can speak openly about their experiences. Legislation targeting the misuse of NDAs in these contexts does not undermine the protection of intellectual property, but would prevent the covering up of wrongful conduct, creating safer and more equitable work environments.

And what about the four-day workweek? That seems like it might be controversial in nature?

It is. However, we are the party of evidence. When you look at the pilots around the globe that are happening, what’s interesting is that there’s a consistency in the results. We’re consistently seeing that revenues from businesses that adopt a four-day workweek either stay the same or go up. In the last report from the North American pilot, revenues went up and so did employee retention and satisfaction. In a lot of cases, costs can go down. The biggest hurdle to recognizing that we can reshape the workweek is really our imagination. I think that with these consistent results coming back from four-day workweek pilots, we’re continuing to push for the B.C. government to put in place incentives to businesses that want to embark on a pilot here in B.C. What we proposed back in the spring was a tax-break incentive to businesses willing to put this in place. And in exchange for the tax break, they’d provide the data on specific aspects of the pilot. It’ll be part of our 2024 platform.

Speaking of which, what would a positive outcome from this year’s election look like for your party? What do you hope for?

There was a recent piece in the Globe and Mail about how Green voters across Canada should be disappointed by the fact that they’re so underrepresented. Eighteen percent of the vote in B.C. only results in three or four of the seats in the legislature. A positive result would be that we have a representation in the legislature that more closely matches the percent of support we have in B.C. And I think a lot of people in B.C. recognize that there were benefits during the three-and-a-half years we had in a minority government. For the times we’re in and the challenges we’re facing, we need governments to be much more focused on a collaborative and consensus-building approach to governing. We could have, for example, regional caucuses in the B.C. legislature, made up of people from different parties. You look at the wildfire situation—if you had the MLAs from the Interior, regardless of what party they’re in, working together with ministry staff, they would bring an understanding of their communities and areas that would benefit the decision-making that’s happening in the legislature, right? We’re not stuck in this long-standing view of B.C. politics, which has largely been a two-party system with an adversarial approach. When you actually orient your work in the legislature toward more cooperation and more cross-party work, you get better results for the people we are there to serve.

How’s recruiting Green candidates going at the moment?

Well, we’re miles ahead of where we were in the last election, which was a kind of excitement I don’t want to repeat [laughs]. Our intention is to have candidates running in every riding in B.C. and to be presenting an alternative to BCers that is rooted in recognizing the reality we’re in and focused on solutions that solve more than one crisis at a time. We have to be connecting the dots between crises. We can’t just look at the housing crisis in isolation from our economic conditions, the health-care crisis isolated from climate change. Or the drug-poisoning crisis in isolation from the lack of access to mental health supports and counselling. All of these crises are interconnected. We need to have an approach to government that is looking at those connections and solving more than one thing at a time.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

Quick Hits

Pet peeve: Mayonnaise.

Hobby: Knitting.

Recent podcast/TV binge: Philosophize This podcast and The Morning Show.

Most memorable concert: Corey Hart at age 17 and 48—both times, baby.

If I had a superpower, it would be: I’m a historian, so time travel.

Favourite place in B.C.: Home.

Last book I read: Currently reading Astra Taylor’s Age of Insecurity—reflections on the moment we are in and how we can respond to it.