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Chilliwack provincial election candidates talk mental health, addictions and housing

Chilliwack Healthier Community all-candidates meeting touches on some of the hardest subjects

Few topics have garnered more media attention across the Lower Mainland in the last year than affordable housing and the opiate overdose crisis.

Add in the complicated and contentious issues of mental health and medical marijuana, and Chilliwack and Chilliwack-Kent provincial election candidates had their hands full at Tuesday’s all-candidates meeting hosted by Chilliwack Healthier Community (CHC).

Approximately 50 people were in attendance at the meeting focused most specifically on mental health and addictions.

On the topic of access to mental health care, Chilliwack-Kent NDP candidate Patti MacAhonic says there are gaps in the current system and her party plans to create a new Ministry of Mental Health and Addictions.

“We need this to be funded and we need to make sure these gaps are closed,” she said.

Chilliwack-Kent BC Liberal candidate Laurie Throness said February’s budget included $165 million in spending towards the issue, but he added there are other innovative ways to approach the topic. As Parliamentary Secretary for Corrections he said he visited the Vancouver Intensive Supervision Unit where workers have small caseloads of offenders who are shepherded through the system.

“I love this model, I have recommended more of this and the Ministry of Solicitor General is working on it,” he said.

On housing, the preamble to a question of what the candidates will do to increase access, it was stated that affordable housing is directly connected to mental health and substance use recovery.

Chilliwack BC Liberal candidate John Martin pointed to commitments of $855 million over the last year to ensure access to 5,300 units of new affordable housing. He pointed, too, to local announcements by he and Throness for the expansion at Ruth and Naomi’s Mission and the Urban Village project.

“We got the job done are we are working on more projects,” he said.

Throness pointed to rent supplements for seniors and other government programs that help with housing.

“Approximately 1,300 families in this area receive help on an ongoing basis,” he said.

MacAhonic said the number of people struggling to find shelter is “always higher than what is reported.” As executive director at the Ann Davis Transition Society in Chilliwack, she sees it first hand.

“[Last year] we turned down hundreds of people that had no place else to go,” she said, pointing to BC Liberal promises as too little too late.

“It’s too late to say you are going to do something when you have had 16 years to do so already,” MacAhonic said.

She said the NDP is committed to build 114,000 rental and co-op homes and provide renters with an annual home credit of $400.

Chilliwack Green Party candidate Wayne Froese said the topic of affordable housing is so critical it cannot be overstated.

“Life for the homeless becomes about survival,” he said, adding the Green Party has an affordable housing program in its platform with millions to build hundreds of new units per year.

The contentious topic of drug safe injection or consumption sites was asked, with Throness standing by his steadfast opposition, focusing instead on long-term treatment as a means to harm reduction.

“Long-term residential treatment leads to freedom from addiction and reduces harm to zero,” he said.

MacAhonic and Froese reiterated their parties support for safe consumption sites as part of the solution to the opiate crisis in B.C.

“We need to stop treating a public health issue like a criminal issue,” Froese said.

Martin’s stance is somewhat unclear, but certainly less outright opposed than Throness as he talked about a multi-faceted approach to the problem.

“There is no one approach,” he said.

Independent candidate Ryan McKinnon was the fifth and final candidate at the meeting. His policies are not entirely clear, but he repeatedly stated that more funding was needed for mental health and housing to help those falling through the cracks.

Chilliwack NDP candidate Tracey O’Hara and Chilliwack-Kent Green candidate Josie Bleuer were not in attendance, both for reasons related to employment.

After the formal questions asked by the CHC there was some time for questions from the audience.

The first came from Chilliwack District Seniors Resources Society executive director Coletta Holmes who suggested all the issues being discussed are usually looked at through a lens excluding seniors.

“In the recent homeless count the oldest person I’m aware of was 92,” she said, also pointing to expenses seniors have such as paying for services for “teeth, ears and eyes that aren’t part of the medical system.” asking the BC Liberal candidates about their plan for seniors.

Martin responded that his party has addressed the issue in a recent report, and that he is quite aware it will only continue.

“We are going to be challenged for some time,” he said. “People live longer in British Columbia, people want to retire in British Columbia. The enormous strain on the healthcare system is going to continue because we are going to have more people living longer.”

Recent medical school grad and practising doctor Darren Joneson asked what the BC Liberals are going to do for millenials, squeezed with rising house prices and growing student debt.

Throness responded with his mantra that economic development is the way to help the whole province, millennials included. He also took issue with the premise that millennials are having a hard time.

“The idea that the millennial generation is going to be poorer than the current generation I think is false,” he said, adding that the idea that government can stop the majority of house price gains is a myth.

“All we can do is tinker at the margins,” Throness said.

On his response regarding millenials, Joneson shot back: “You should check your facts,” a statement that received about the only applause of the day.

After that, the last question was asked by Linda TenPas, the mother of 15-year-old Nick Lang who died in government care in 2015. TenPas confronted the two BC Liberal candidates on why they did not reach out to her after the incident.

See separate story on this interaction, along with video of it, here.