2017-06-07

McNeil’s back, so what’s next?

by Brittany Wentzell And Michael Lee

  • <p>MICHAEL LEE PHOTO</p><p>Liberal leader Stephen McNeil greets party supporters at a campaign stop in Liverpool on May 3.</p>

As the excitement of election night fades, reporters at LighthouseNOW decided to focus on some of the promises made by Stephen McNeil over the past few weeks and how stakeholders feel about a second Liberal majority.

Health care

The state of the health care system - be it the doctor shortage, mental health and addiction, or seniors care - was top of mind for voters.

The Liberals promised $1 million to combat the opioid crisis in the short term, providing Naloxone and safe needle exchanges.

More vague, however, is the promise to create a long term plan to "better treat and prevent abuse."

Dr. David Martell, a doctor in Lunenburg and a member of the South Shore Opioid Committee, takes issue with that language.

He said those suffering from substance-use disorder are not drug abusers and that government and the public need to look at the issue as a chronic disease.

While Martell is pleased the government plans on addressing the issue, he wants to see more details.

"The ideal is that we put a lot of time and effort into preventing this from ever happening in the first place."

Martell said all three parties seemed to take the issue of opioid addiction and mental health seriously.

He believes wellness clinics are one of the best solutions to mental health issues and the province could use more of those.

"Here in Lunenburg we have a wellness clinic where the door is always open, there isn't a number to call, you can walk in and talk to people, anybody on any day can walk in and start the process for getting help with their mental health problem or addiction."

Region of Queens councillor and chair of the seniors' advocacy group Queens Care Society, Gil Johnson, said with the Liberals back in government, he hopes the SHIFT plan released this year, which aims to address the province's aging demographic, will continue to be on their radar.

The Department of Seniors is leading the plan and includes goals to promote healthy living and keep seniors in their communities.

Johnson is looking for the government to put "action" to its words, whether it's attracting doctors or the promise to bring in a continuing care strategy.

"And the fact that they're back in, we need to hold them accountable."

Forestry

Prior to the election, the government promised an independent review of current forestry practices in its final budget.

McNeil said the review will be headed up by one person completely independent of government.

The move comes after months of criticism from private woodlot owners, biologists and concerned citizens.

Forest biologists say the percentage of clear cuts on crown land has shot up to 90 per cent of all cuts - a far cry from previous commitments to bring clear cuts down to 50 per cent.

WestFor Management Inc., a consortium of 13 mills, has access to over 500,000 hectares of crown land, most of which was formerly owned by the Bowater Mersey Paper Company.

Some private woodlot owners say they are unable to move their wood to the market due to a flood of fibre coming from crown land, pointing the finger at WestFor.

The Municipality of the County of Annapolis asked the province in March to not allow harvesting on crown land in the county for one year so council can review the agreement with WestFor.

The province has suspended the approval of any new long term fibre agreements. A 10-year Forest Utilization Licence Agreement was set to be signed with WestFor but the interim licence was extended to September 2017. That licence is based on allocations drawn up in 2014.

That's a decision Raymond Plourde, wilderness coordinator at the Ecology Action Centre, said is actually advantageous to WestFor because the company can keep its fibre allocation levels until a decision is made.

Plourde said a single-person review "is very worrisome." He pointed to the government's 10-year natural resources strategy, The Path We Share, which is supposed to carry into 2020. The document was created through several years of panels, consultations and research.

"It really depends on who they choose, what the scope is," said Plourde. "This is really just saying we're throwing all of that out the window and we're going to do this much more narrow thing.

"My question to the premier is how does one independent - presumably - consultant overrule nearly 3,000 Nova Scotians and a dozen expert panelists and a table full of peer-reviewed science?"

McNeil told LighthouseNOW that he would strike a balance between industry and environment. The assessment is set to be completed this fall.

Education

The Liberals were frequently challenged on the handling of the labour dispute with the Nova Scotia Teachers Union.

Despite the public's attention in response to Bill 75, which imposed a contract on teachers earlier this year, the Liberals won another majority mandate.

"From a union member standpoint ... there was obviously a hope for change in the government," said Ian Kent, a teacher at the adult high school in Liverpool and the Lunenburg-Queens member for the union's provincial executive.

Kent said he hopes the union will find inroads when it comes to negotiating future agreements with the province.

McNeil directed his attention towards school boards, criticizing them for accepting pay raises and promising a full review of board administration, along with a temporary pause of all school reviews not involving "facility replacement." School boards have been reviewed in the past.

The increase to board member stipends was recommended in a provincially-mandated report from 2016.

It suggested that board member pay increase to $13,000 from $10,500; up to $15,800 from $12,800 for vice-chairs; and up to $21,300 from $17,300 for chairs. Government asked boards not to accept the pay increase.

No South Shore schools are under review currently and McNeil's promise will likely not affect the scheduled closures of Pentz and Petite Riviere schools for next year.

"If decisions have already been made then they're going to go forward," said Elliott Payzant, chair of the South Shore Regional School Board.

However, the Greater Petite Area Community Association is taking the board to court to prevent the schools from closing.

"With the campaign period over, we are hopeful the Premier will now be able to address our concerns directly," said the association's chair Stacey Godsoe by email.

"We recognize Minister [Mark] Furey's deep engagement on this issue over the years as well as priorities expressed by other parties that helped to push this issue further and expect a rapid solution."

Mark Furey, MLA-elect for Lunenburg West, said at a candidates debate in Bridgewater that he is hoping to show the province evidence that the schools were closed under a "flawed process."

Leitha Haysom, a parent from Crousetown, said she is "cautiously optimistic" about Petite's future, noting the work done on their behalf by Furey.

"On a personal level, as a parent ... I think it's encouraging that hopefully there will be some continuity in all of our efforts to date," said Haysom, who has a one-and-a-half year old daughter eligible to attend Petite Riviere school in 2020.

Haysom was encouraged to hear the Liberals talk about a pre-primary program and said Petite, with the growing number of toddlers in the community, would "be a perfect fit for a program like that."

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