In their 2022 Throne Speech, this government presented a picture of our reality that is inconsistent with the experiences of most British Columbians. I argue that to build and maintain trust, we must be committed to complete honesty, including – and perhaps especially – when it is not politically convenient. This is the only way that we can work together to solve the problems facing our province today.
S. Furstenau: I just want to say thank you to the member for Fraser-Nicola for her very powerful words, and also her compassion and care for her communities, which is so evident in how she brings that into the work in this House.
“Brighter years are ahead.” I heard that yesterday in the Speech from the Throne, and I thought about how in January my trusted friend and colleague had sent me an article about the Stockdale paradox, as a way for me to think about leadership in a time of overlapping crises.
Adm. James Stockdale was a prisoner of war in Vietnam for 7½ years. While many others in the same situation did not survive, he was able to endure the terrible conditions and the uncertainty. He wasn’t an optimist; he was a realist. His advice: “You must never confuse faith that you will prevail in the end — which you can never afford to lose — with the discipline to confront the most brutal facts of your current reality, whatever they might be.”
Stockdale was interviewed by Jim Collins, who wrote the book Good to Great, which introduced the Stockdale paradox. Stockdale focused on the end of the story of being a prisoner of war:
“I never lost faith in the end of the story. I never doubted, not only that I would get out, but also that I would prevail in the end and turn the experience into the defining event of my life, which, in retrospect, I would not trade.”
But his faith should not be confused with optimism. Stockdale explained:
“I lived on a day-to-day basis…. Most guys thought it was really better for everybody to be an optimist. I wasn’t naturally that way; I knew too much about the politics of Asia when I got shot down. I think there was a lot of damage done by optimists; other writers from other wars share that opinion. The problem is some people believe what professional optimists are passing out and come unglued when their predictions don’t work out.
“The optimists. Oh, they were the ones who said: ‘We’re going to be out by Christmas.’ And Christmas would come, and Christmas would go. Then they’d say: ‘We’re going to be out by Easter.’ And Easter would come, and Easter would go. And then Thanksgiving, and then it would be Christmas again. And they died of a broken heart…. This is a very important lesson.
“You must never confuse faith that you will prevail in the end — which you can never afford to lose — with the discipline to confront the most brutal facts of your current reality, whatever they might be.”
The article about the Stockdale paradox, in a Harvard Business School publication, was published in August 2020. It turns out that the authors, Boris Groysberg and Robin Abrahams, were quite prescient about COVID. At the very least, they were not succumbing to the predictions that the optimists were passing out. They wrote:
“Your state, industry, organization or unconscious mind may be pinning hopes on some other event or date after which some version of rescue will come: a vaccine, a cure, a reliable and cheap test, the acquisition of herd immunity. But to review the brutal facts, none of these developments are likely in the foreseeable short term. The possibility remains that there may never be a fully effective vaccine or cure. This virus may be something that we live with and manage for years to come. Doing so will mean changing elements of our social interaction in unprecedented ways that may well lead to irrevocable social changes.”
I think about the stories that we have been told for the last two years. Of course we wanted to be optimistic. Of course we wanted to think that this would be over by June of 2020. Or it would be over when the vaccines come. Or it would be over in July of 2021. Or it would be over by Christmas of 2021. Or it will be over by Family Day 2022. It will not be over.
We are being told it’s time to live with COVID. But what does that mean? Right now, we have the highest number of hospitalizations. We have a still climbing rate of death in this province. We don’t know how many people have COVID anymore, because we’ve essentially stopped even trying to trace. We’ve stopped making testing available. We’re operating pretty much in the dark.
What has astonished me for the last two years is how little we’ve been engaged on the issue of long COVID. There are people who got sick in January or February or March of 2020, and their lives have not returned. They suffer from extraordinary numbers of health issues and problems.
Studies in places where they are trying to map out how much long COVID is consider it to be 10 to 20 percent of people who get COVID who will have long-lasting symptoms, including children — brain fog, fatigue, heart problems, vascular problems. How are we expected to live with COVID without the proper knowledge and tools to do that?
I don’t want to be sick with COVID. I don’t want to die with COVID. I want to have the tools to be able to manage this. That would include clear information about the transmission, access to N95 masks — Hon. Speaker, I see that you’re wearing one yourself — and access to testing so that we can make informed decisions about our own health, our family’s health and our community’s health.
And a government that is committed to not throwing its hands up in the air and saying, “We give up,” but recognizing that this is and will remain a public health crisis for some time. We don’t know how long. But the least we can do is to put the effort into ensuring that people have the tools they need to live through this health crisis.
Just over a hundred years ago — and I’m a historian, so this is fascinating to me — the flu pandemic rapidly spread around the world. It is estimated that about 500 million people, or one-third of the world’s population, became infected with the virus. The number of deaths was estimated to be at least 50 million worldwide.
One of those infected was my grandmother, Dorothy Richardson. At the time, she was Dorothy Payne. She was a teenager when she became so ill that she had to have an extended stay in the hospital. In her diary, she writes about coming home to Saturna Island too weak to walk up from the beach to her home and needing to be pushed in a cart by her siblings.
Jay Alexander Navarro, a historian of medicine, describes the patterns at the time. I quote from his University of Michigan health publication “People Gave Up on Flu Pandemic Measures a Century Ago When They Tired of Them — and Paid a Price.” The public responded with widespread compliance at first, mixed with more than a hint of grumbling, push-back and even outright defiance.
” As the days turned into weeks turned into months, the strictures became harder to tolerate. Theatre and dance hall owners complained about their financial losses. Clergy bemoaned church closures, while offices, factories and, in some cases, even saloons were allowed to remain open. Officials argued whether children were safer in classrooms or at home. Many citizens refused to don face masks while in public, some complaining that they were uncomfortable and others arguing that the government had no right to infringe on their civil liberties.”
There were rounds of closure orders that corresponded with the rise and fall of cases, but eventually, the social distancing orders, which worked to reduce cases and deaths, became harder to maintain.
“By the late autumn of 1918, just weeks after the social distancing orders went into effect, the pandemic seemed to be coming to an end as the number of new infections declined. People clamoured to return to their normal lives. Businesses pressed officials to be allowed to reopen.
“Believing the pandemic was over, state and local authorities began rescinding public health edicts. The nation turned its efforts to addressing the devastation influenza had wrought. For the friends, families and co-workers of the hundreds of thousands of Americans who had died, post-pandemic life was filled with sadness and grief. Many of those still recovering from their bouts with the malady required support and care as they recuperated.
“Taking their cues from officials who had somewhat prematurely declared an end to the pandemic, Americans overwhelmingly hurried to return to their pre-pandemic routines, packed into movie theatres and dance halls, crowded in stores and shops and gathered with friends and families. Officials had warned the nation that cases and deaths would likely continue for some months to come. The burden of public health, however, now rested not on policy but rather on individual responsibility.
“Predictably, the pandemic wore on, stretching into a third deadly wave that lasted through the spring of 1919, with a fourth deadly wave hitting in the winter of 1920.”
I recently proposed and made a call for there being an independent science table in British Columbia. I think, in a time of crisis, as I’ve said, sharing the weight and burden of leadership can only be a good thing.
In addition to scientists and medical experts on that table, I think we need a historian, a psychologist and a sociologist. The pandemic affects every aspect of our lives. From the government’s perspective, it should be seen as important to understand comprehensively both the impact and the proper approach, understanding we’ve been through this before.
It’s trite to say that history repeats itself, but we can see that we could have learned a lot of lessons from the pandemic 100 years ago.
I have spoken a lot inside and outside of this House about my concern that our current approach to politics, to governance and governing, and to our public institutions is making it very difficult, if not impossible, for us to meet the staggering challenges and overlapping crises that we face today. If we consider the Stockdale paradox, that optimism in a time of crisis actually undermines our ability to approach the crisis in an appropriate way, then we can begin to understand the failures that have gotten us here today.
Politicians are, let’s be honest, peddlers of optimism. It’s our currency. Vote for me, and I promise things will be better for you. That’s the foundational premise of politics. What’s concerning, however, is when politics, and especially the politics of optimism, interfere too much with the practice of governing. In an election campaign, politicians can and largely should focus on solutions, ideas, a vision for the future that holds promise for the people that they are asking to represent.
In government, our elected representatives have a duty and a responsibility to be brutally honest, tell the truth about where we are, tell the truth about the challenges we face and be open and accountable about the efforts it will take to solve them and how success is measured. We cannot wish our way to better outcomes. More importantly, we cannot spin a narrative to make reality into something it is not. Until we confront the most brutal facts of our current reality, we cannot know how we will bring about these brighter years ahead.
Two thousand two hundred twenty-four British Columbians were killed by a toxic drug supply in 2021; 2,707, as of yesterday, have died of COVID in the last two years in British Columbia. Nearly 700 people died from a climate change-driven heat dome. As we heard from the member for Fraser-Nicola, towns and communities have been lost. People have been dislocated from their homes, uncertain what their future holds or whether they will ever go back to where or how they lived before.
Life expectancy, which has been tracked in Canada since 1921, which has been tracked since the end of the last pandemic, has been on an upward trend for the last 100 years. But here in B.C., life expectancy for men has been decreasing, widely recognized to be because of the rise of deaths from the toxic drug supply.
Inequality makes this worse. In Vancouver, living in the Downtown Eastside or in Haney in Maple Ridge means that life expectancy in your neighbourhood is ten years lower than for Vancouver residents who live in West Vancouver, West Point Grey, northwest Richmond and parts of South Surrey and Coquitlam.
I think we can agree, as representatives of 87 different electoral districts in this House, that what we would want for the citizens of British Columbia is equal access to the services, to the care, to the institutions that will ensure that where you live in this province does not have that kind of impact on your life expectancy. A government that responds by saying, “We’ve invested $500 million into mental health and addictions,” is a government that is measuring inputs, not outcomes.
I want a government that measures its success in ways that matter in people’s lives, that start with the social determinants of health. Let’s have our throne speeches every year tell us how we are collectively doing by measuring and reporting on these factors that have such a profound effect on us individually and collectively.
In January 2021, the B.C. government appears to have started work on establishing a standard for the social determinants of health, but this work also appears to have been stalled. Instead we hear in the throne speech: “The strongest economy in Canada.” We hear: “The best place to live and raise a family.” That is not the experience for people who are looking for housing in Cowichan or, indeed, almost anywhere in B.C.
Raising a family means having a home that you can afford. It means being able to live in the same community where you work. For too many people, that is becoming an impossibility. People who have worked their whole lives, who have never faced housing insecurity, are wondering where they will live if they are evicted or can’t afford their mortgage payments.
Small business owners who are facing bankruptcy and the loss of their life’s work and investments will not tell us that B.C. has the strongest economy. That economy is not serving the people. We are not measuring the right things. A speech from the throne delivered when our federal capital city is being occupied by people who are calling for the removal of a democratically elected government needs to include brutal honesty about the level of trust in our political systems, our government and our institutions.
The Edelman trust barometer just published its 22nd annual report, and they state: “We find a world ensnared in a vicious cycle of distrust, fuelled by a growing lack of faith in media and government. Through disinformation and division, these two institutions are feeding the cycle and exploiting it for commercial and political gain.” What they describe should be a deeply sobering wake-up call to every one of us.
The summary of their January ’22 report states: “The world is failing to meet the unprecedented challenges of our time because it is ensnared in a vicious cycle of distrust. Four interlocking forces drive this cycle, thwarting progress on climate change, the global pandemic management, racism and mounting tensions between China and the U.S. Left unchecked, the following four forces evident in the 2022 Edelman trust barometer will undermine institutions and further destabilize society.” Government-media distrust spiral, excessive reliance on business, mass class divide and failure of leadership.
How can this government…? What role can we play in this Legislature to restore trust and demonstrate the value and the need for democracy and healthy democratic institutions? We can put aside the hyper-partisanship between elections and instead focus on transparent, collaborative, accountable decision-making. Shine a light onto how decisions are made. Shine a light onto what is informing those decisions, what the intended outcomes are and be accountable by measuring those outcomes.
Parliamentary committees are one avenue to strengthen this. Answering questions from opposition members in a direct, clear, straightforward manner during debate on bills and during estimates debate is another, acknowledging when efforts are not working to achieve the outcomes that we are striving for and being open about when and why it is time to change course.
Ensure that actions match words. Do not say on the one hand that this is a government committed to tackling climate change while on the other hand continuing to give billions of dollars in subsidies of public money to the oil and gas industry.
Do not say that there is nothing more important than protecting the place we call home when we continue to allow clearcut logging of some of the last old growth in the province, when over 1,900 species in B.C. are at risk of extinction but this government has failed to bring in its promised species-at-risk legislation, when this government is going to go forward with flooding some of B.C.’s most valuable agricultural land and most biodiverse regions by plowing ahead with a dam they knew was a mistake from the beginning.
Do not tell British Columbians that they have better care, faster and closer to where they live, when over 800,000 people, including tens of thousands in the capital regional district who just found out that they are losing their primary physicians…. Do not tell them that they have better care, faster and closer to where they live, when they do not have access to a physician.
Saying that there are brighter days ahead is not enough. We need to know what those days will feel like. We need to know how that will be measured.
I’ve talked a lot about four objectives we should have for this province. One, people’s basic needs are met. We are a society that has enough wealth and resources to ensure that people have a place to live and food security. Two, the natural systems that we depend on for our health and our well-being — water, air, soil — are protected. Three, our communities are connected, safe, thriving. We have a sense of belonging. We protect culture. And four, our government, our political systems and our institutions are trustworthy.
That’s the vision that I have for British Columbia. Once we state a vision like that, then we can start to measure. Are these policies getting us there? Are more people’s needs being met? Are we protecting the natural systems we depend on? Have we proven to be more trustworthy? Do people believe in this mission, this fragile mission of democracy, more than they used to?
We need to talk about that end, that place we’re trying to go together, but as James Stockdale pointed out, we have to be truly honest about the brutal reality of today and how much hard work and determination it will take to get us to those brighter days.
I think we can meet this challenge. I think we can demonstrate to British Columbians that we can earn their trust, that we care about this institution, that we care about democracy, that we care about the needs of the people. We care about future generations, but we’re not going to do that by continuing to do things the same way that we always have. We have to be able to imagine that we can govern in a way that inspires the hope and the trust of the people, no matter what party they support, what part of this province they live in.
We all asked to be here. We all worked pretty hard to get here. I think we all take this very seriously. But I think we have to be brutally honest about where we are today, and we have to be utterly committed to getting to a better place.