The B.C. Election and the Crises of Capitalism

Tim Kennelly

Oct. 20, 2020

British Columbia is at the confluence of several crises: the COVID-19 pandemic and resulting economic downturn; the ongoing housing, homelessness, and drug overdose crises; the climate and ecological crises; and the crisis of colonialism for indigenous peoples, which has been ongoing since the beginnings of settler society.


British Columbia is also in the throes of an election campaign. The election pits the BC NDP led by Premier John Horgan, against the BC Liberals led by Andrew Wilkinson, and the BC Green Party led by Sonia Furstenau.


Election day is October 24. The main party campaigns have devoted little attention to the major crises facing our province and planet. The election promises to solve none of these.




The BC NDP have been in power under Premier John Horgan since July 2017, with a minority government backed by the BC Green Party. Prior to this, the BC Liberals were in office under Premiers Gordon Campbell (in office 2001-2011), and Christy Clark (in office 2011-2017).


The BC Liberals 16 years in office were marked by skyrocketing inequality, soaring housing prices and rents, huge increases in homelessness, a worsening opioid overdose epidemic; and despite the implementation of a carbon tax in 2007, a lackadaisical attitude to ever increasing deforestation, species collapse, and greenhouse gas emissions.


The BC Liberals presided over massive cuts to taxes and government services, drastic and sometimes catastrophic deregulation of the economy, massive increases in post-secondary tuition and other user fees, significant privatization of government assets, and a turn to Public Private Partnerships (P3s) for government infrastructure projects.

The BC NDP, BC's traditional party of the left, has governed under Premier John Horgan in a nominally social democratic manner. They have made modest improvements in many areas of government, and have taken first steps to address the housing and drug overdose crises.


And yet because the BC NDP have in recent decades come to view themselves as the progressive wing of the establishment, they have come nowhere near to undoing the damage done by the BC Liberals. The BC NDP has also sided with resource extraction industries at the expense of the environment and climate, and indigenous land rights.


COVID-19 Pandemic and economic downturn


Like most of the rest of the world, BC is now in the eighth month of the COVID-19 Pandemic. In order to prevent hospitals from being overwhelmed, BC responded to the pandemic with a partial shutdown of the economy from mid-March to late May, and large gatherings remain banned.


As of writing, 251 people have died of COVID in BC. A large majority of these have been in long-term care homes. The BC NDP took the steps of taking over employment in long-term care homes, moving to full-time hours for employees in long-term care homes, and ending the practice of employees working in multiple care-homes. With these measures, BC saw significantly fewer deaths in long-term care than other provinces such as Quebec and Ontario.


Despite this, the profit motive remains intact in BC long-term care. The BC Green Party is campaigning on moving to a non-profit model for long-term care, and BC premier John Horgan has pledged to move in this direction over the long term.


COVID-19 and the resulting partial economic shutdown sent BC into a sharp economic downturn. Though the economy started to grow again in June, many small businesses have closed permanently, and unemployment has increased. As in other parts of the world, women and young people have been hardest hit. The Business Council of BC estimated in June that BC's economy would shrink by 7.8% for the whole of 2020. One in four BC businesses is at risk of closing in the next 12 months.


Pandemic economic aid has largely been left to the federal government. This consisted of $2,000 a month cheques to those out of work due to the pandemic, and rent relief for businesses. These programs have been criticized as inadequate since too many Canadians and businesses have not been able to qualify.


The BC NDP government provided a one-time payment of $1,000 to families who lost work due to COVID-19. If re-elected they are promising further one-time payments of $1,000 to families and $500 to individuals to help with the economic recovery. They are also promising $1.5 billion in aid to businesses on top of what the federal government is offering.


The BC NDP are promising to tie increases in the minimum wage to inflation, and have made a vague promise to improve employment standards. The BC Liberal Party and BC Green Party have not included a clear commitment to workers rights in their platforms. It should be noted that in the last legislature, he BC Green Party blocked the BC NDP from improving worker rights and from making it easier unionize workplaces.


The BC NDP government has not directly implemented austerity themselves; however, they have allowed some agencies that they fund, such as TransLink (provider of Metro Vancouver transit) to cut bus service, and are still requiring municipal governments to produce balanced budgets, despite a significant decrease in municipal revenues, which has led to municipal austerity.


The BC Liberals pandemic recovery plan is centred around eliminating the Provincial Sales Tax (PST) for one year and then keeping it at a reduced level of 3% (down from the regular 7%) for the duration of the pandemic. They also plan to return to a balanced budget within 5 years. This is a recipe for another round of devastating austerity as pursued by the party in the early 2000s.


The BC Green Party's pandemic recovery plan is centred around funding to stimulate the creation of green jobs. A large part of this is centred around providing money to businesses to promote green capitalism.


Housing and Homelessness Crises


British Columbia is in the midst of a chronic housing crisis. Metro Vancouver has one of the least affordable housing markets on the planet, with home prices and rents that are entirely out of proportion to the local economy, despite the BC NDP having increased the minimum wage from $10.65 to $14.60. Increasing numbers of people are being priced out of Vancouver and it's inner suburbs, being forced to move ever further into Metro Vancouver's exurbs in search of more affordable housing. Housing costs have also risen considerably in other BC municipalities in recent years, notably Victoria and Nanaimo.


As housing cost soar, more and more British Columbians are being pushed out of the bottom of the rental housing market and into homelessness.


Key factors underpinning the crises include a lack of vacancy control (rent control tied to the unit rather than the person), which allows landlords to evict tenants in order to get around the annual cap on rent increases; and the withdrawal of the federal government from financing new social housing construction in 1993.


In 2018, the BC NDP implemented a speculation and Vacancy tax that covers all homes left vacant in Metro Vancouver, Metro Victoria, and Nanaimo. This led to a moderate decrease in housing prices, though home ownership remains far out of reach for many ordinary British Columbians without a property inheritance.


The BC NDP have overseen the construction of over a thousand units of temporary modular housing, and a smaller number of “supportive” housing units for people with disabilities, mental health issues, and addictions, and have begun to build a small number of regular social housing units that rent at 30% of income. They have also begun buying up SRO hotels in Vancouver's Downtown Eastside in order to keep residents from being renovicted. These plans will continue if the BC NDP are re-elected. These measures have helped to reduce the number of homeless in BC.


Annual allowable rent increases under the BC NDP have been lower than under the BC Liberals. The BC NDP are also campaigning on a rent freeze until 2022, on account of the pandemic, and because of the advocacy of groups such as the Vancouver Tenants Union and the BC Government Employees Union (BCGEU).


The BC NDP government implemented an evictions ban at the beginning of the pandemic in March. Unfortunately, the ban was rescinded in September, and the 15% of BC renters who were behind on rent due to the pandemic were given until July 2021 to pay their back rent, meaning that these British Columbians will be getting a de facto rent increase for the coming year even if the BC NDP are re-elected.


BC Liberal leader Andrew Wilkinson has engaged in vile poor bashing over the course of the election campaign. He has verbally attacked residents of homeless tent camps in municipal parks, and has vowed to ban the practice. He has also attacked the NDP for “warehousing” homeless people in government-run SRO hotels, a sign that he is not committed to this type of housing.


The BC Liberals are also pushing for a massive expansion of private market housing, a strategy that was an utter failure during their time in government.


The BC Green Party has a strong commitment to public and social housing in their platform, including co-ops. They also aim to encourage more housing options for middle income families and individuals.


None of the parties have committed to vacancy control and a ban on renovictions and demovictions, measures without which renters will continue to fall out of the bottom of the housing market into homelessness. There is also no discussion of significant nationalization of purpose built rental buildings beyond DTES SROs, a move that would help address the increasing numbers of people being priced out of increasing proportions of the housing supply.


Drug overdose Crisis


British Columbia has a longstanding significant level of opioid (heroin) use, centred on Vancouver's DTES though by no means confined there. Opioid use has become increasingly visible in recent decades due to an increase in visible homelessness.


In the last decade, deaths from opioid overdoses spiralled upwards, due to a drug supply increasingly poisoned by a highly toxic substance known as Fentanyl, a process which has been mirrored worldwide. The BC government declared a public health emergency in 2016.


The COVID-19 pandemic has led to Fentanyl almost entirely replacing regular opioids in the drug supply, as the supply of regular opioids has become highly restricted. 1,068 drug users have died of an opioid overdose through the end of August in 2020, a little over four times the number of COVID deaths.


In 2003, a safe injection site called Insite opened in the Downtown Eastside, as a partnership between the federal, provincial and Vancouver municipal governments. Insite led to a reduction in disease as more drug users were able to use clean instead of unclean needles to inject their drugs.


In 2012, as opioid deaths began to rise due to the addition of Fentanyl into the drug supply, the BC government began handing out free Naloxone kits, since Naloxone is a medicine that can reverse overdose deaths. The BC NDP significantly expanded the Naloxone program. The program has proven a smashing success, with an estimated 50,000 opioid overdoses reversed over the life of the program.


The BC NDP government has begun allowing doctors to prescribe prescription opioids to drug users deemed to be a high risk for overdose and death. In March, this was expanded to drug users at high risk of contracting COVID.


There has also been a push to expand the number of safe injection sites. A recent proposal for a safe injection site in Yaletown – some formerly homeless drug users have been recently housed in hotels close to the neighbourhood – has been opposed by Sam Sullivan, the incumbent BC Liberal candidate in the riding. BC Liberal Leader Andrew Wilkinson has been silent on the matter.


Advocates for drug users are pushing for the decriminalization of all drugs, in response to the opioid poisoning crisis. The BC NDP have supported the call, which would require federal government action to officially implement. They have resisted taking measures that would put it into effective practise in BC without the need to change the law at the federal level.


The BC Green Party is calling for a major expansion of prescription opioids, and safe supply in the form of clean heroin. They have also pledged to aggressively pursue decriminalization of drugs with federal government.


The BC Liberals are calling for an expansion of drug-treatment programs, but are short on specifics, and their plan to balance the budget in five years leaves little room for maneuver.


Climate Crisis and Ecological Collapse


Planet earth is in the early stages of a climate crisis. Greenhouse gas emissions from the burning of fossil fuels and other sources have raised the earth's temperature by 1.2 Degrees over pre-industrial levels. The 2018 report of the UN's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) gave governments until 2030 to reduce Greenhouse Gas emissions by 55% in order to have any chance of keeping to 1.5 degrees of global warming.


Failure to reduce Greenhouse Gasses by 55% by 2030 would virtually guarantee that climate feedback loops would send the earth into a hothouse state that would threaten to destroy life on earth. An many climate reports since 2018 have pointed to the conclusion theat the IPCC report is hopelessly optimistic, and that the actual situation is far more dire. We have already seen the effects of global warming on our climate, with massive sea ice and permafrost melt, longer droughts, more intense storms; and longer and more intense wildfires, including record-setting wildfire seasons in BC in 2017 and 2018.


In 2017, the BC NDP pledged to oppose the Trans-Mountain pipeline expansion, which would export Alberta tar sands bitumen, among the most polluting fossil fuels on the planet. They promised to review the Site C dam project in northern BC, increase the carbon tax, and develop a plan to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.


During their 3 years in government, the BC NDP made an unsuccessful attempt to convince the courts to allow them to regulate the flow of diluted bitumen through the Trans-Mountain pipeline, after which they largely dropped their opposition to the project. They conducted a review into the Site C dam project, after which they decided to proceed with the project, against the recommendation of the BC Utilities Commission.


The BC NDP failed to rein in polluting and resource extractive industries. They presided over a significant expansion LNG production in northern BC, which accounts for virtually all of BC's increase in greenhouse gasses over the life of the BC NDP government. They allowed new mining projects and continued to approve clear-cut logging, including in BC's last remaining old-growth forests.


In September 2019, about 100,000 British Columbians marched in Vancouver as part of the Global Climate Strike action to call on governments to take real action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.


This election, the BC NDP has committed to making BC carbon neutral by 2050. The BC Green Party is promising to reach carbon-neutrality by 2045. The BC Liberals have not committed to any specific emissions reduction targets. Each party has committed to a host of measures that they believe will reduce BC's greenhouse gas emissions. The BC Liberals are also campaigning on a $4 billion highways expansion plan that would add more cars and greenhouse gasses to the atmosphere.


The BC Liberals and BC NDP are both committed to supporting the LNG industry, which ensures that there will not be sufficient reductions in emissions under either party. Green Party leader Sonia Furstenau has committed to ending subsidies to the fossil fuel industry, but has not promised to ban fracking. None of the parties have outlined a clear plan to stop the Trans-Mountain pipeline project.


None of the parties are talking about the socialist transformation of the economy that would be necessary in order to get British Columbia off of fossil fuels entirely.


Crisis of Colonialism


Indigenous peoples in BC have faced a crisis of colonialism since Europeans first arrived here over 200 years ago. Robbed of their land, beset by diseases that decimated their populations, and subjected to a residential school system that tried unsuccessfully to eradicate their culture, indigenous peoples today make up only 5.9% of BC's population. The majority live in BC's urban areas, while a minority live on small reserves. Poverty and homelessness are much more prevalent among indigenous than non-indigenous British Columbians, and roughly 40% of homeless people in Vancouver's Downtown Eastside are indigenous.


Most of BC's indigenous peoples have not signed treaties with the BC and/or Canadian governments, and thus most of BC remains unceeded indigenous territory. The exceptions are some indigenous nations on southern Vancouver Island (the James Douglas treaties, 1850s), The Dene Nation in the northeastern corner of the province (Treaty 6 territory, 1876), and the territory of the Nisga'a people (Nisga'a Treaty, 2000).


In recent decades there has been an upswing in indigenous activism in BC, as indigenous peoples seek to reclaim their culture and fight for their land rights. The Wetsuwet'en and Tsilqot'in nations have launched successful court cases at the Supreme Court of Canada to gain recognition of their inherent land title rights. Getting these rights recognized in practise has been a different matter.


The BC NDP claim to support an indigenous rights framework. They passed the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) into law in 2019. This commits the BC government, at least in writing, to ensure that all of BC's laws comply with UNDRIP.


However, when it comes to putting UNDRIP into practice, the BC NDP's record is far less promising. Like the BC Liberals before them, the BC NDP views the band chiefs and councils that operate under the federal Indian Act as the legitimate representatives of indigenous nations, despite the fact they only have legal jurisdiction on their respective reserves, and not the entire traditional territories of their peoples. They also refuse to apply UNDRIP retroactively to previously approved resource projects.


Thus, when it comes to resource projects such as the Coastal Gaslink Pipeline, BC NDP Premier John Horgan has taken the support of the Indian Act band councils along the route as an indication of indigenous consent for the project. He has ignored the opposition of traditional elders of the Unistot'en clan of the Wetsuwet'en nation, whose traditional lands the project traverses.


When in February 2020 the RCMP raided the camp that the Unistot'en set up on their traditional territory to block the construction of the Coastal Gaslink Pipeline, Horgan sided with the pipeline company. The raid led to solidarity protests across the country under the banner of “Shut Down Canda” that lasted for the better part of a month. Horgan has continued to champion the pipeline and the LNG industry when questioned on the matter during the election campaign.


The BC NDP have also opposed indigenous opposition to projects such as the Site C dam on the Peace River, and the Trans-Mountain Pipeline. After several members of the Secwepemc nation were arrested in mid-October while attempting to block Trans-Mountain pipeline constrution in their territory, Horgan came out against the use of disruption tactics as a means of stopping the project.


The BC Liberals presided over a divisive referendum in 2002 on the issue of indigenous treaties that was boycotted by most indigenous peoples. Their 2020 platform makes no mention UNDRIP, and they remain committed to resource sector projects that lack indigenous consent.


The BC Green Party platform endorses UNDRIP, and outlines a host of partnerships that a Green Party government would undertake with indigenous nations. It stops short of recognizing indigenous land rights, and doesn't address the right of indigenous peoples to veto development projects on their ancestral territory.




The B.C. Election on October 24 will not resolves the crises facing our province and planet. In particular, the BC election will do nothing to help get us off of fossil fuels in order to deal with the climate emergency, not least because the transistion to a green economy cannot be accomplished alone in one Canadian province. Drastic action will be needed by workers around the world in the streets and in workplaces in order to change the balance of power in our economy in order to deal with the climate and other crises facing our province and planet before it is too late.