FORT ST. JOHN, B.C. — Mayors and other local elected officials across rural B.C. — including Fort St. John’s mayor Lori Ackerman—are joining together to demand action from the province on crumbling health services in their communities.
Healthcare issues in the Peace region are not new, according to Ackerman.
“We’ve been dealing with healthcare issues here in our region for many years, and we’ve been trying to fight this. We’re just not getting any traction.”
These problems also plague communities spread throughout the province, and what Ackerman calls “the cracks in the system” are now too visible to ignore.
Conversations between the leaders of several municipalities in the province on these similar, long-term systemic issues within their different communities led to the realization that the problems were bigger than within a single town or single health authority.
This led a group of mayors and, later, councillors and regional board chairs, to seek solutions and methods of influence with higher levels of government.
“We were chatting about ‘what the heck do we do?’ And we know that preserving the status quo is not an option,” Ackerman explained.
The group is a “very grassroots” organization made up of elected officials from cities, districts, and towns across the province. It began with five mayors, Ackerman said, and has ballooned since one of the mayors involved, Merlin Blackwell of Clearwater, tweeted about the group on Tuesday morning.
Realizing these issues and banding together in order to confront them is one thing; doing so is another. When it comes to making demands of the provincial government, municipalities can withhold one thing: money.
“Local governments only have one tool in their toolbox,” Fort St. John’s mayor explained. “We provide, through our property tax dollars at the regional district level…40 per cent of all capital funding.”
Refusing that funding was one of the options the group of elected officials discussed. Acting collectively to do so would not go unnoticed by the province.
“Maybe what we need to do is withhold that money until we get the attention of the ministries to finally do something about this,” Ackerman continued.
The endgame, for Ackerman, is an audit of the entire healthcare system. She has called for an audit of Northern Health before on numerous occasions. Now, in the face of a system that is failing communities across the country, the audit cannot be limited to the health authority that serves the upper half of the province.
It also must not be limited simply to the Ministry of Health and its system. Healthcare and the systems that provide it are interdisciplinary and intricately connected with other systems.
“This is not just about the healthcare that is provided at the hospital and in the doctor’s office,” Ackerman explained.
Emergency services (also provided by the ministry of health) would have to be a part of this audit—as would the Ministry of Advanced Education responsible for training healthcare professionals. The Ministry of Mental Health and Addictions and the Ministry of Child and Family Development, she explains, also need to be a part of this check-up for their roles in ensuring adequate care is available and keeping people from falling through the cracks and into hospital beds in the first place.
The systems that need solutions are also larger than the provincial government, the group agrees.
“[This group] also acknowledges that this is not just the province. The federal government and the provincial government need to quit pointing fingers at each other and get it fixed.”
While constitutionally healthcare is under the purview of provincial governments across the country, it is largely funded by the federal government.
Ackerman, though in the midst of her final few months as mayor, says this will not be the end of her advocacy in this area for her community—and she knows the next mayor and council elected this October will have to continue this work.
“Foundational to community is good healthcare, good education, and good public safety. And if you don’t have those three, you cannot build up,” she said. “The next council is going to have to put on their warrior outfits and go to town.”