VICTORIA — On the morning after Vancouver city council voted to seek provincial government approval in getting rid of the elected park board, Premier David Eby arrived for a news conference on the future of St. Paul’s hospital.
He started with a joke: “Obviously, we’re here to talk about the issue that is front of mind for British Columbians around the province — what everyone is talking about, namely what’s going to happen to the Vancouver park board.”
“Just kidding, I hope.”
But, as Eby expected, the first question he faced from the news media was about the fate of the park board, not the hospital.
What was the province going to do about the request from the city? asked a reporter.
“The city council of Vancouver last night voted to dissolve the elected park board and that happened at about 10 o’clock, ” Eby began.
To dissolve the board, Mayor Ken Sim and his ABC council majority need an amendment to the Vancouver Charter, which is provincial legislation.
The request put the ball in the province’s court. Eby promptly lobbed it right back.
“We expect that the city will be putting together a transition plan so that we can understand how they anticipate dealing with the Indigenous engagement issues, the future of the staff, the future of the facilities,” Eby told reporters.
Lest there be any doubt about the importance of the first item on the list, Eby expanded: “There are significant First Nations engagement requirements any time you’re talking about governance transitions like this in our province and so we’ll be looking to the city of Vancouver for their detailed transition plan, how they plan to address the First Nations engagement.”
The premier was likely aware of how council had handled — or, rather, sidelined — a motion regarding engagement with First Nations at the previous night’s meeting.
Coun. Christine Boyle of One City had introduced a motion that would have obliged the city, when contemplating any future changes in the park board, to first consult with the Musqueam, Squamish and Tsleil-Waututh First Nations.
The motion was squelched, with one member of the ABC majority discounting it as “frivolous” and “out of order.”
Eby was putting the mayor and his ABC councillors on notice that there was nothing frivolous about the need to engage First Nations.
It is a fundamental obligation, now that the province has adopted the principles of the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.
The premier also reiterated the need for council to deliver a plan that addresses the fate of park board facilities and “the future of the staff who work for the park board.”
Translation: No way would an NDP government endorse any plan that does not protect park facilities and unionized, public sector jobs.
Sim and his council majority are not the only politicians with a political stake in Vancouver. The New Democrats hold nine of the 11 provincial seats in the city, one of them Eby’s, and there’s a provincial election next year.
The premier discounted any chance that the New Democrats could get embroiled in another standoff like the one plaguing them over policing services in Surrey.
“I think it’ll be intuitive to most British Columbians that there’s a significant difference between how public safety is delivered when you call 911, who answers your call in a time of crisis, and how parks are governed in Vancouver,” Eby ventured.
But that could also be taken as another warning to Sim and his team to make sure every possible loophole is addressed in the transition plan before it is submitted to Victoria.
Hence the situation as Eby saw it Thursday: “They took the first step yesterday, but there are many steps yet to go and we’ll be looking to them for that transition plan.”
Some observers thought they glimpsed a more conciliatory tone in the statement from Municipal Affairs Minister Anne Kang, released following Eby’s news conference.
“We respect the decision of Vancouver city council on the future of the park board,” she said. “The Ministry of Municipal Affairs will begin work with the city to move forward on this significant change to governance in Vancouver.”
But she gave the city much the same to-do list as Eby in terms of the items that must first be addressed in a transition plan: “Land ownership and the future of the workers at the park board, and we need to make sure First Nations are consulted.”
Like the premier, the minister made no commitment to a timetable for legislative change.
Privately, the New Democrats are cautioning that the city should not necessarily expect the legislative change to be enacted in the coming year.
The house sits Feb. 20 for a shortened spring session that will be top heavy with government legislation. There won’t be a fall session because of the election.
So, Sim shouldn’t get his hopes up. Even if he delivers a transition plan that meets NDP expectations, he may have to wait until after the election for the change in the city charter.
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