MLA questions putting B.C. Lions before homeless

An Opposition MLA is questioning the B.C. Liberal government’s refusal to hold an emergency debate on homelessness shortly after halting the normal proceedings of the legislature to honour the B.C. Lions’ Grey Cup win.

Coquitlam-Maillardville MLA Diane Thorne, the Opposition housing critic, told the Georgia Straight that the Liberals’ priorities are wrong.

“It’s shocking that sports takes precedence over homeless people,” Thorne said, speaking in an interview outside the chamber. Thorne added that she watched the game and was thrilled by the Lions’ victory.

Last week, on the first sitting day of the legislature since May 18, MLAs spent about 10 minutes honouring the B.C. Lions, whose November 19 win over the Montreal Alouettes earned the team the Grey Cup.

Shortly after the November 22 sitting got under way, Speaker Bill Barisoff announced that the legislature had some “very special guests” who would be given the rare honour of ?being presented at the Bar of the house. Government house leader Mike de Jong launched into a tribute to the team, saying that “we are tremendously proud of them.”

NDP house leader Mike Farnworth also joined in, though with a much shorter speech.

Next, the rear doors of the legislature opened and sergeant-at-ams Tony Humphreys escorted Lions head coach Wally Buono and players Brent Johnson, Geroy Simon, and Mark Washington to the Bar, a brass stick that is placed symbolically across the entrance to the legislative chambers. The Bar is not supposed to be crossed by anyone other than an MLA. The players then passed the Grey Cup across the Bar to Barisoff, de Jong, and Farnworth.

In all, the tribute lasted about 10 minutes. Meanwhile, question period and the other proceedings of the house had to wait.

Granted, the NDP’s questions that day dealt with such trivial matters as child deaths, greenhouse gases from coal-fired power plants, and the handing out of questionable degrees from an institution owned by a friend of the government’s.

Following question period, Opposition economic-development critic Jenny Kwan stood up and asked leave to move a motion to adjourn the normal business of the house in order to debate “a definite matter of urgent public importance: the need to increase the shelter portion for welfare recipients to address the growing homeless crisis in British Columbia”.

Under Standing Order 35, any MLA can move a motion to adjourn the house in order to discuss such a matter. The Speaker considers it and eventually makes a ruling. Had the Liberals granted Kwan’s request, there would have been no need for Barisoff to rule on it.

Although the urgency of homelessness is obvious—one doesn’t have to venture far in Vancouver to see the extent and seriousness of the problem—de Jong rejected Kwan’s request.

The Liberals recalled the house last week for one reason, de Jong told the legislature: to appoint the new children-and-youth representative.

In asking for an emergency debate on homelessness, Kwan was implying that homelessness was more important than appointing Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond as B.C.’s new children and youth commissioner, de Jong suggested.

De Jong didn’t mention that the appointment wouldn’t have been necessary if his government hadn’t abolished a similar position.

The next morning, Barisoff rejected Kwan’s request, after having “carefully considered it”.

“The ongoing nature of the matter raised by the hon. member has an effect of excluding the matter from the scope of Standing Order 35,” Barisoff said. “The words ”˜urgent’ and ”˜public importance’, as stated in Standing Order 35, suggest a sudden, unexpected occurrence—i.e., an essential element of suddenness. The emergence of new information—namely, the release this week of a survey on homelessness and street disorder—is not in itself a matter of urgency.”

Barisoff added that he was satisfied that MLAs have “availed themselves of the numerous parliamentary opportunities during this session for raising and debating the matter.”

This is from the same Barisoff who played a significant role in delaying the usual business of the legislature in order to honour a professional football team. As the NDP’s Thorne pointed out, there will be another Grey Cup game next year.

“But some of the homeless people will not be here next year to see the game,” Thorne told the Straight.