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Tough to shrug off: Furstenau, Greens look back at 2021

Maclean Kay: For BC Green leader Sonia Furstenau, 2021 was about standing tall in the face of angry mobs, and an arrogant government.
Green leader Sonia Furstenau (Courtesy BC Green Caucus)

For BC Green leader Sonia Furstenau, 2021 ended on a sour note.

On the morning of December 1st, she took a call from her constituency assistant in Duncan.

“There had been kind of a concerning interaction,” recalls Furstenau.

Not wanting anyone to feel unsafe, she sent her staff home for the day – but unfortunately, that was just the beginning.

The building, in downtown Duncan, also houses several healthcare providers, and uses a shared receptionist – who called Furstenau later that day, saying a group of people had come in.

They were very loud, very unmasked, and very opposed to public health orders – and insisted on seeing Furstenau and her staff.

After being told the office was empty, someone lobbed in a package. Luckily, an even uglier scene was averted by their absence, but a line was crossed – and Furstenau made the decision to give notice, and move her constituency office somewhere else.

“I just could not put this burden on other people anymore,” says Furstenau.

“Not just the front desk person, but the other service providers, pregnant women coming in for their checkups, people coming in for a counseling appointment. I can't have that disruption placed on a whole bunch of other people.”

Unfortunately, in facing harassment in her community, Furstenau has lots of company. MLAs Trevor Halford, Mike Bernier, Susie Chant, Brittny Anderson, and others – this is just a partial list, there are several more, and probably still others I’m not aware of – all reported incidents in December. That doesn’t even include Forestry Minister Katrine Conroy, who was knocked down and injured outside the legislature in Victoria.

Asked about these incidents, Furstenau recalled a CBC interview:

“I was asked, ‘Will this deter women and younger people?’ And I'm like, I don't want it to. But if I was looking at this from the outside, and looking at that protest the other day, I would be thinking…maybe there's other ways that I can help serve in my community.”

As leader of one of BC’s two opposition parties, Furstenau’s political year was spent trying to hold the NDP government to account – which, for the first time since Furstenau was elected, had a majority and wasn’t shy about using it. Furstenau was particularly disappointed to see the NDP ram through several contentious pieces of legislation, despite widespread outcries.

“In this first year of the majority government of the NDP, I think a lot of MLAs weren't particularly comfortable standing up and voting for some of the things they voted for,” says Furstenau, pointing specifically to the NDP’s FOI bill.

“Freedom of information and that approach to governance and transparency is fundamental to healthy functioning democracy because the thing that holds the people and the government together is trust. When that trust falters too much or among too many people, that equation starts to break down.”

“When you do put a cost on accessing information…you are eroding that fundamental piece of trust. And to see a government in the first year of its majority choose that against universal pushback…” says Furstenau, letting her sentence end with palpable disappointment in her former minority government colleagues.

“They had no champions for what they were doing.”

Furstenau believes that with an unimpeachable majority government, the NDP is not only crafting worse legislation than before, but thumbing its nose at the process.

“To have this first full year marked with time allocation on four bills, three of which were very significant pieces of legislation, and a kind of shrugging off of the importance of legislative processing,” says Furstenau.

“Not only did we not have the thorough debate at committee stage on those bills, but even when we did, we were asking very legitimate, very straightforward questions and getting talking points over, and over, and over again.”

It’s not just because it’s a majority government and that’s what majorities do; Furstenau points to the success the NDP had working across party lines in the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, and laments that BC’s other deadly public health emergency, the opioid overdose epidemic, isn’t treated with anything like the same urgency, or cooperation.

It's not for a lack of trying. In May and again in December, Furstenau and BC Liberal leader Shirley Bond publicly urged the government to convene an emergency all party committee on the drug poisoning crisis.

These aren’t gestures, but a real expression of something more fundamental, says Furstenau:

“We are basically saying, ‘we will have your back.’”

“You are being offered, from the two opposition parties, the backing to take big steps on this because too many people are dying and they're dying unnecessarily. We have to put aside partisanship and the kind of nonsense of not working together when it's this level of an emergency.”

If the year’s low point was harassment at her constituency office, the high point came at a perhaps-ironic time – a disaster drill.

2021’s annual legislature earthquake drill took place in the fall session, when the building is full of MLAs and staff. Standing outside with her then-team of five staffers and one fellow MLA in Adam Olsen, Furstenau was struck by just how outnumbered they were.

“I said to my staff, look around. Our tiny little team is holding this government to account on a number of files,” mentioning forestry, mental health, and housing, in particular.

With three more years of life staring down a majority government unashamed to push and shove to get its way, they’ll have to keep punching above their weight.

Maclean Kay is Editor-in-Chief of The Orca