I spent a week in late January travelling across the South Okanagan-West Kootenay, listening to mayors, regional officials, economic development officers and other concerned citizens. It gave me an opportunity to find out what the top priorities are for communities as we start this New Year.
This week one issue dominated the conversation—housing, housing, housing.
Employment agencies tell me that people are looking for work and businesses are looking for workers, but too often workers can’t find affordable housing and so move on to look elsewhere. This region has one of the worst ratios of the cost of housing to average income in the world. Half of renters are paying more than a third of their income for housing. And with average house prices in the south Okanagan ranging around $475,000 or more, young families can’t even dream of buying their own home. The federal government abandoned the housing issue 25 years ago and now needs to create a half million units of non-market housing to catch up—and that work must begin now.
On a trip through the eastern parts of the riding I stopped off in Grand Forks to discuss flood recovery. The local flood recovery team has been working hard to get significant funding from the federal Disaster Mitigation and Adaptation Fund, and I’ve been putting pressure on the ministers to make sure they fully understand the seriousness of the problem.
The following day I met successively with the mayors for Trail, Montrose and Fruitvale, and while each had their own detailed priorities, these essentially came down to more funding support for wastewater treatment projects, and more housing. In Fruitvale the town has purchased an old school and plans to redevelop the property for housing, but they need at least a million dollars just to demolish the school, and that level of funding is hard to raise in a small town.
Housing, specifically seniors housing, is also a concern in the village of Montrose, but their main priority is getting full access to broadband internet services so that young families can move there and work from home. Broadband is a big issue in rural areas across the country, and I’ve already talked to the new Minister of Rural Economic Development about this concern in my riding and about Montrose specifically.
I met with the new mayor of Castlegar as well, and his priority is the same as the previous mayor—improving the air service into the Castlegar airport. The next step in this long saga is convincing Air Canada to replace their old Dash 8 fleet with newer Q400 planes so that modern Required Navigation Performance can be used to significantly increase the rate at which planes can land, especially in the winter. I met with Air Canada about this just before Christmas and was happy to hear that Castlegar is following this up with meetings of their own.
In Trail I had a good conversation with some members of the local RCMP detachment, discussing understaffing issues that face communities across the country. Legislation has created a collective bargaining process that could address these issues, but implementation has been very slow.
Other conversations with citizens, unions and businesses involved forestry, agriculture, immigration, cycling infrastructure and economic development. My meeting with a local helicopter company and emergency communications entrepreneur has already generated a further meeting with a federal minister to showcase their ideas for better disaster management in Canada.
I also managed to fit in some very enjoyable evening events that week, including the student production of the play “Argonautika” at Mount Sentinel Secondary in South Slocan and the Soundstage production of “Newsies” in Penticton. There is so much talent hidden in this region and its always a pleasure to see it on full display!