Thursday, April 30, 2020

Lingering Disappointment and Bitterness marks Council's comments over quashed Local State of Emergency

Premier Horgan doesn't appear to
be a popular fellow with
Prince Rupert city Council these days
It's been over a month now since Premier John Horgan and Solicitor General Mike Farnworth suspended a number of Local State of Emergencies across BC, including one in Prince Rupert.

The Prince Rupert version which was unanimously passed on March 23rd had a lengthy number of measures in mind after consultation with local physicians, many of them described by some of those physicians as to be somewhat draconian in nature.

As things evolved, only two of the proposed measures made it into effect before the Province in effect said cease and desist.

And if Monday night's Council session is an indication, that decision still rankles Mayor Lee Brain and a number of local Councillors, with that provincial order making for a significant period of their talking point time at the Monday meeting.

The Provincial decision was announced  on March 26th as the Province of British Columbia introduced a province wide state of Emergency (extended until mid May by the Premier yesterday) with the Premier noting that a coordinated response was required at that period of the COVID-19 response.

"First of all we didn't want to see a patchwork emerging across British Columbia, one of the earlier questions was about how do we ensure continuity of information, reduce confusion to the greatest extent possible. 

And if you have different jurisdictions in different parts of the province invoking different powers that are inconsistent with their neighbours, that leads to first of all a leap frogging effect. 

An expectation in Community A, that if Community B has done something, then I have to as well.  

We want to reduce anxiety, we want to increase public confidence and the best way to do that is too have a uniform approach" -- Premier John Horgan, March 26th

The Province's move was not well received by the Mayor, who followed up with his own statement following the Provincial order, suggesting that residents follow the city's own directives regardless.

"In their role, it is unfortunately difficult to understand the many localized and specific issues that their team just does not have the time to see or address. These issues have been brought forward to us by our physicians and we believed as communities with limited resources that we needed to act now before it was too late ...  So here's what we are going to do: on top of promoting all provincial orders, we are going to make 'recommended' local orders anyway. Yes, we have no way to enforce them, and we have no way to ask you to do anything legally speaking.

But, I believe the people are with us. I believe you understand why we are doing what we are doing. We need your support now more than ever. We are taking our direction from our physicians on the ground and I believe we just need to do what we need to do. Period.

The only way it happens is all organizations, unions, industry, businesses and residents believe that we should enact localized provisions together and make it the law of the land ANYWAY. -- Mayor Lee Brain, March 26

At the time the Mayor also indicated that at that point of the evolving situation, the City would in effect be stepping back from a fair amount of engagement with the province on a number of issues of local concern.

Unfortunately any community issues moving forward regarding housing, childcare, homelessness, etc are to be sent to Jennifer Rice's office as her and her team are now in control. You can forward your concerns to Jennifer Rice by calling 250-624-7734 or e-mailing

Time it appears has not made for any second thoughts, or for that matter any further measured responses, with frustration and in some cases anger continuing to make for the civic narrative over a month later.

The parade of commentary on the suspended Local orders began as part of a presentation to Council from City Manager Robert Long, who made note of the essential service operations that the city has put in place during the COVID-19 pandemic and offered a few words on the province's decision.

"These are difficult and chaotic times, local governments are the closest to the people and therefore I think we've had a pretty good perspective on what a city should do in an emergency. And in that case we focused first on delivering essential services, safely and then working to understand the rapidly changing circumstance and what was our best strategy moving forward. You know some of it was a little difficult, in that we declared an Emergency and the Province cancelled our State of Emergency, and they focused on dealing with the emergency while we went back to sort of controlling what our essential services were and working towards our business continuity." -- City Manager Robert Long

Mr. Long also made note of how all Council members and staff have remained united in their focus since the pandemic period first began.

"But I think it's important that we as an organization and as a team, all see ourselves in heading in the same direction and I think that's what's been happening"

The more partisan political themes did not get introduced until later, during the period at the end of the April 27th Council session where the Council membership can offer up their own topics for discussion.

And for the most part they did seem to follow the City Manager's narrative of a Council membership of all members remaining on the same page.

The commentary on the disappointment of Council began with the Mayor's response to a question from Councillor Gurvinder Randhawa.

Mr. Randhawa recounted some concerns he has heard related to reports of out of town and out of country visitors said to be in the Prince Rupert area, though to this point the city hasn't offered up much more than anecdotal notes to that theme through the last six weeks.

"When it comes to the non-essential travel, once again as our City Manager has said we are not able to stop people from coming here; we have one By-law officer that technically is not able to enforce, they can report to the Health officer any issues, but ultimately they don't really have any mechanism to make enforcement ... It's very difficult to see who is here for essential reasons, who is not here for essential reasons.

It's one of the things that all of the people in this area and region, all of us are united on is that we feel that there should be stronger mechanisms to limit non-essential travel.  

But at this time, there's not much that the city can do because that effort is being  managed through Provincial Health Orders ...

So at this juncture, there is not much power the city has to limit, or stop these from happening and as we have seen on Haida Gwaii and the Nuxalk Nation down on the Central Coast these folks are setting up their own check points and doing their own measures, due to the fact that there isn't really any strict non-essential travel restrictions in place.

So at this point in time, you know that is as far as we can take it, and we wanted to do that a month and a half ago now; to put those limits in and put those restrictions in to at least get us through.  But we're hoping that people are just following the rules anyways."

Among those to speak following the Mayor were Councillors Adey and Cunningham who took somewhat different approaches to the same theme of disappointment.

Mr. Adey made note of the need for local government to make independent decisions in more of a diplomatic tone, with a reminder of the need of cooperation, something that wasn't really the vibe created for City Council following the Mayor's comments back on March 26th.

"I do think there needs to be attention to the discretionary ability of the local governments to make independent decisions which reflect the local knowledge that every community has about their unique circumstances. We're not in the same circumstances as urban municipalities and  larger cities ... and I think we need to maintain an awareness of that.  But I think that cooperation between levels of government is really important and I think that there are really good people at all three levels." -- Councillor Nick Adey

Mr. Cunningham on the other hand was more of a bare knuckles brawler on the topic, weighing in with a stern rebuke of both levels of senior governments and their representative.

"With that said about all three levels of government, that's fine and dandy but Prince Rupert, Haida Gwaii and our villages are really unique communities and I don't think the Senior levels of government have taken that into consideration, I'm sorry, we've got to cooperate, but at the same time cooperation is listening to your local governments, and sometimes I don't think we're being listened to" -- Councillor Barry Cunningham

Councillor Mirau spoke to the theme of how Council had to move fast and to not have any regrets.

"The philosophy of Emergency management at this point is really to just be fast, to adapt as quickly as you can and to really have no regrets. And I think that, I hope we can all in good conscience say that we've done that here. To say that we can look at the actions that we're taking, we're responding as we can and we're not leaving anything necessarily on the table and trying to make decisions in real time" -- Councillor Blair Mirau

For his contribution to the topic, Councillor Skelton-Morven, who was not in attendance by phone at the Monday council session, issued his own statement on recent events through his social media page.

Lost among all the political bombast was any nod towards the measures that they had wished to put in place, which never really received a full debate or explanation on March 23rd.

With none of the Council membership on Monday explaining how they believed it was necessary in effect to over-ride the Canadian Charter of Rights, in particular the section related to mobility rights; an option of suspension of Canadian rights that doesn't seem to be within the reach of civic officials to begin with.

At the March 23rd session, each Council member at the time spoke in a general fashion to the list of measures that the Doctors had recommended, though none spoke to those measures after the mayor had read out the lengthy list of measures that he had hoped to put in place as the situation may evolve.

One month later, while still in lock step it seems with that original decision, none chose to address the draconian moves that they would have put in place to put the community into lockdown.

A current of conversation which Premier Horgan himself addressed on Wednesday, as he extended the provincial order until Mid-May.

The Premier covering many of the themes that appear to be of concern to Prince Rupert council members, while noting how British Columbia had chosen a different path when it came to suspending mobility rights.

"So what will the new normal look like? It will be guided of course by the science and the work of Public Health officials. And it will be a phased in approach as other provinces are doing but it will be different in British Columbia, because unlike other provinces we resisted the call for a full lockdown of our economy and instead adopted a different approach. The approach of British Columbia was to focus on how could we keep sectors operating safely, rather than shutting them down until we could operate them again"

"There's been discussion about tourism, the hotel sector is going to be critically injured over the next number of months, because people will not be coming to British Columbia. We'd like to see I hope in the not too distant future, people travelling around British Columbia.  But you've also seen, how communities have responded, rural and remote communities have responded to the prospect of people from away coming for a visit. 

All of those issues are going to have to be dealt with, Government doesn't have a magic formula there but kindness and compassion and a sense of confidence that there are processes and guidelines in place to protect public health, will allow us to open up completely, not just industry, not just businesses, but communities as well."

"I'm speaking specifically about the case of Haida Gwaii and Bella Bella and other places who have said we'd like to see you, but we don't want to see you now. The example that just shines in my mind is Tofino.  A tourism town, that still feels, rightly so that they are concerned that people from away could bring the pandemic to their territory and their community and they don't want to see that. We need to see as a society, to come to terms with how we can all interact together as we did before in the benefit of everyone"

And as the month has progressed and British Columbians, including those in the would be Republic of Prince Rupert, have shown; flattening the curve and following the instructions of the Public Health officer was indeed possible without infringing on the Charter rights of Canadians, or shutting the community off from the province and country.

When it comes to positive cases of COVID-19 the Northern Health region has so far, whether through good planning or good fortune, managed to avoid much of the misery visited on some other areas of the province and nation.

And all credit for that goes to those on the front lines of our medical system and for those that continue to follow the advice of the Provincial Health Officer Doctor Bonnie Henry.

Somewhat surprisingly, while the Premier indicates that we all may moving towards a lessening of regulations and towards more normalcy from very stressful times; it appears that the Prince Rupert Council members still long for the opportunity to enforce strict restrictions in the community and wistfully look at an opportunity denied.

You can review the full commentary on the state of Municipal/Provincial relations from the City's Video Archive, Mr. Long's commentary arrives at the 25 minute mark, followed by the council members contributions to the theme.

Monday night did offer up some hope for a more collegial exchange between Municipal and Federal officials moving forward though.

There was much talk of the city continuing to seek out provincial funding opportunities and indeed some of the Mayor's list of plans for Rupert Redesign, Vision 2030 and infrastructure projects will continue on, thanks mainly to funding from the provincial and federal governments.

As well, the much needed paving program for Prince Rupert will move forward, one that is funded largely through revenues generated from the Federal Gas Tax which was announced last year.

Considering the uncharted waters that we all find ourselves in as the COVID-19 situation continues to evolve, it probably will be a good thing to keep the phone plugged in and the channels of communication as collegial as possible moving forward.

Because like many communities across British Columbia, the future is very much an unknown and good relations with senior partners will be vital to ensure that we can navigate what is ahead.

For more notes on Monday's City Council session see our Council Timeline feature here.

A wider overview of City Council Discussion themes can be explored here.


  1. It is surprising the one thing the city does have jurisdiction over is the marina. Their website has no mention of Covin 19 nor request travellers reconsider trips to the north coast.

  2. Mr. Cunningham should not refer to First Nation communities as "our villages" as if they come under under the city council, which they don't.

    1. I'm not sure that Mr. Cunningham's remarks should be viewed in any kind of "paternalistic' view, reading somewhat between his lines I suspect it's more a nod to the collective approach that seems to be the goal that the City is chasing.

      But your point on terminology is well taken ...


  3. The mayor and council really need to catch up with the rest of the province rather than continuing to go on about their short-lived emergency declaration weeks ago.

  4. I trust the decisions that Dr. Henry makes over the local authorities. Alert Bay / Haida Gwaii has different considerations based on their jurisdiction (Indigenous policies through the feds, and the fact that Alert Bay shares the island with a Indigenous community). The confusion between jurisdictions in Ruperts case would just cause more problems.