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Government in action

Rob Shaw 2

Rob Shaw: John Horgan cited a stalled youth overdose bill as reason for forcing a snap election. But eight months later, his majority government is still just ‘developing a plan to start consultations.’

When Premier John Horgan called a snap election last fall, he specifically cited his frustration in being blocked from passing a youth overdose bill as part of his rationale for blowing up the NDP-Green partnership.

Eight months later, now firmly in control of a new majority government, you might have thought the premier would quietly be working away on redrafting Bill 22 with a goal to getting it passed.

But as Horgan himself revealed in legislature estimates this week, his government has done virtually nothing to advance the bill since the election.

“We have been engaged, informally, in discussions with stakeholders — those in favour and those opposed,” Horgan said during estimates on the budget of his office Thursday.

“Formal discussions will begin in earnest, I believe, in the next number of weeks.”

For those who don’t speak politician, “informal discussions” is a polite way of saying the government hasn’t done anything on the file in quite some time.

Over in the Ministry of Mental Health and Addictions, minister Sheila Malcolmson took a similar stab at saying something and nothing about the bill at the same time.

“Right now, or over the past while, the workplan has been being developed about how we will start consultations on youth stabilization care legislation,” she said earlier in the week.

Now that’s action in progress – developing a plan to start consultations. Who says government doesn’t move quickly?

One such group might be the parents of several teens who have overdosed in recent months, who have wondered publicly whether the government legislation that would have allowed doctors to confine their sons and daughters to hospital for up to a week to obtain treatment after previous overdoses, could have saved their lives.

The premier and his minister could see that criticism coming, though. For as soon as they let slip they had done nothing on Bill 22, they quickly pivoted to the many other things they had done elsewhere in the system.

“We are focusing on the voluntary treatment options that were raised at that time,” said Horgan.

“I know that the Leader of the Opposition will have had similar discussions to those that I’ve had with parents who have lost young ones to overdose deaths, and their concern that that not be in vain, and that something be done by government to address that.”

Malcomson tried gamely to portray Bill 22 as something that is for her to decide – despite, as previously noted, the fact she doesn’t control the mental health services budget or implementation of said services in B.C., nor does she have any real control over Bill 22 given its deep personal significance to the premier.

“I hear and understand very strongly the families that say they think that this would be a helpful tool,” she said.

“We are going to pursue it, but we’re doing it in a different priority order. That’s because despite the investments and the new supports that we have stood up over the last three and half years, there continues to be a life-threatening gap in the voluntary services that are available to young people and their families.”

That, at least, is true.

The Vancouver Sun’s Daphne Bramham has been writing recently about two 17-year-old girls whose addictions has highlighted gaps in treatment, the enormous cost required for parents to find private care to bridge those gaps, and the absurdity of the government not demanding single-gender treatment beds and allowing a hodge-podge system of co-ed treatment care for teens in individual health authorities.

You could spend dozens of column inches listing the many other gaps, problems, wait lists, costs and issues that plague the mental health and addictions system for B.C. youth.

The proposed youth hospitalization bill doesn’t solve them all. In some ways, it simply exposes the gaps even more by holding youth in hospital for addictions treatment that may be backlogged or non-existent in a local community.

It has led to questions that Malcolmson said she’s still wrestling to answer.

“In what hospitals will stabilization care first be implemented?” she asked.

“What are the frameworks surrounding the legislation that will give youth the rights and the treatment plan, the specifics that legislation cannot speak to?

“That work has been built out by our ministry staff team since last summer. At the point that we go to the public asking them the questions — again, about what form of legislation we should table in the Legislature — that will be informed also by a package of draft regulations and an implementation plan that I think will answer some of the questions that remained outstanding last summer.”

When it does land back at the legislature, Bill 22 is also going to be controversial to pass, given that the coroner, children’s representative, and civil liberties advocates have opposed the idea and warned it might dissuade youth from calling for help after an overdose for fear of being hospitalized against their will.

First Nations leaders have also opposed the bill, noting that it would predominantly affect Indigenous youth because they suffer the most in government care, the justice system and addictions.

Horgan said some of the “informal” consultation has been with that community.

“We have been engaged in discussions with the First Nations Health Council,” he said. “They have explicitly said they’re not yet ready to proceed. I think that it would be a surprise to no one that the events unfolding in Tk’emlúps and Secwépemc territory has focused attention in other directions in that community.”

The premier also tossed the issue back at the Opposition BC Liberals, who were busy hammering him on the subject during his estimates.

“I am very confident, and I can give the assurances today to the Leader of the Opposition, that a variation on Bill 22 will be back before this House for careful consideration,” he said.

“I’m confident, based on what I’m hearing from the leader, that her caucus will be united in supporting it.”

When that happens, the BC Liberals will be in their own jam.

Do they align with the critics and oppose a bill they’ve been haranguing government to introduce for months? That would give the Opposition cheap short-term political points. But it would be the wrong route to actually get something done.

A lot of discussion, controversy and headaches for a bill that is still officially stalled and has no signs of arriving any time soon.

Rob Shaw has spent more than 13 years covering BC politics, now reporting for CHEK News and writing for The Orca. He is the co-author of the national best-selling book A Matter of Confidence, and a regular guest on CBC Radio.