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Homeless take centre stage in B.C. Throne Speech

From Tuesday's Globe and Mail

VICTORIA — Programs designed to house the province's most entrenched homeless population will be expanded this year, Premier Gordon Campbell promised Monday.

With less than a year before the 2010 Winter Olympics bring the international spotlight to Vancouver, the government set out a new commitment in the Speech from the Throne to combat poverty, drug addiction and mental-health issues in the country's most impoverished neighbourhood, the Downtown Eastside.

The speech, read by Lieutenant-Governor Steven Point, promised a new integrated, personalized homelessness intervention strategy and a new community safety strategy – initiatives that will be combined with expanded social housing.

Asked later for details, Mr. Campbell said the plan is not exactly new but will expand on existing programs like Victoria's Assertive Community Treatment teams that help find housing for the hardest-to-house.

Since the Victoria ACT teams started work a year ago, they have offered services to 152 clients – hardcore street people with repeated conflicts with the law – and today 131 people are still successfully housed.

The Premier said his government has marked progress in Vancouver's Downtown Eastside, but added: “We have to keep on this problem.”

The Throne Speech focused on the economy and job creation, as expected, warning that B.C. must brace for a recession.

It acknowledged that the global economic crisis has brought a “tornado of change” to B.C. that will shape the provincial budget to be introduced Tuesday.

“It will be marked by significant fiscal restraint, discipline and new economic stimulus that is affordable, timely and cost effective,” Mr. Point stated.

Billions of dollars in infrastructure spending on roads, schools and power transmission lines will aim to create jobs in the next three months – roughly as much time as the wait for the May 12 election. As well, the government promised investments in research into green energy and health care.

The Throne Speech also carried a strong social-policy note. “Governments have an important and vital role in shaping economic change and guiding social development,” Mr. Point read.

Spending on health care and education will increase, while social housing will be expanded.

As well, the government announced plans for a Recognition and Reconciliation Act, which is expected be written and passed into law in the next two months.

Since November, the province and aboriginal leaders have been quietly working toward a law to reverse a 150-year-old policy of denying the legal rights and recognition of B.C.'s aboriginal people.

A draft paper is now being circulated among the province's top native leaders with a political commitment to make it law by mid-April, when the legislature stands down for the election campaign.

The law would codify a commitment made four years ago to a “New Era” of reconciliation with the province's native communities, and it would change the legal landscape for land claims in B.C.

“It will recognize constitutionally established aboriginal rights and title, and will facilitate partnerships and prosperity through shared decision making and revenue sharing,” Mr. Point read. “If we get it right, it will be a significant provincial accomplishment for our times.”

Shawn Atleo, a regional chief with the Assembly of First Nations, said it would have national implications if B.C. is willing to put into law what the federal government has refused to acknowledge.

“I think the intention is to move from a lack of dignity, to a place of dignity,” he said in an interview.

“If we get this right now, before the election is held, this will impact the entire country. We would have a partner in the provincial government. We could turn to the federal government and strongly suggest we need equal measures from Canada.”

The Recognition and Reconciliation Act would acknowledge that the province's aboriginal populations have long lived in B.C. It's a point that seems obvious given the historical record, but the fact has been resisted by government both in the courtroom and at the negotiations table.

Carole James, the New Democratic Party Leader, said she was struck mostly by what was missing in the speech: There was no mention of the gang warfare that has consumed Metro Vancouver in recent weeks.

She said Mr. Campbell showed he has run out of ideas.

“He used a large portion of his Throne Speech to talk about conferences, meetings, studies, things he was going to look at, at a time when families are concerned about losing their jobs … [and] about being shot in the street.”

Dennis Pilon, a political scientist from the University of Victoria, said he was struck by the strong appeal in the speech to resource communities – measures designed to protect jobs in forestry, mining and energy.

“Everyone's gut feeling is that Carole James and her team are not marching to victory in the election, but this suggests the Campbell Liberals are a little worried,” Dr. Pilon said. “There are targeted messages to swing ridings.”

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