Karla Bernard's response to the Throne Speech (2021)

This transcript of Karla Bernard's response to the Speech from the Throne is copied from the official Hansard record of the Legislature. 

I have to start out by saying how difficult it was for me to pull my thoughts together on this throne speech. I feared it would appear tone deaf, given what’s going on in the province right now.

It had a lot of initial thoughts jotted down in point form in front of me on the computer screen and had all sorts of things to say on each point. Then, the weekend happened and our COVID numbers started to grow, and there was so much uncertainty. I would find myself starting a task and then drifting back to scrolling through social media. It is a scary, high-anxiety time. We are all human and when our bodies spend this much time in a fight or flight response, it is hard to focus. It is energy sucking and not very productive.

I know I’m not alone in this, as I have spoken to so many people who are feeling the same way. So I just wanted to take a moment to acknowledge that.

As has been said before, we’re all in this together. We’re all in the same storm but we are in very different boats. While this pandemic did not reveal anything new, as we have said before, it has certainly highlighted, on an exponential level, the realities that many Islanders have been facing for quite some time at deteriorating levels.

It is as I considered this that I realized, regardless of what is happening in this province, we have some huge systemiclevel, wicked problems that do not simply go away because there is a worldwide pandemic. And so here I stand.

We have so many problems that have been continually kicked down the road by governments to the point that they have grown into wicked problems: an affordable housing crisis, poverty, food insecurity, mental health crisis, child care issues, livable wage issues, outdated education systems, lack of job security with no opportunity, the importance of life skills in our economy, truly understanding and practicing what it means to support women in roles traditionally held by men, just to name a few.

We must consider everything contributing to these wicked problems. Without understanding how much, all of these things contribute to our economy. If we continue down this path, at some point, the economy will only serve a select few because most of the others will be completely left behind.

As we sit here in this room, the black mould continues to grow around the leak on the ceiling that has been there since a young single mom and her children moved into their place three years ago but they hear rumours of renoviction and so they keep their mouths shut.

There is a couple who is living in a hotel because they had to vacate their home at the last moment. How long will they be there? One night, two weeks, a year? Who knows. They stay there because there is no other place to go; a place they can afford. Never mind if it’s clean, safe, healthy, accessible.

I may eat my words, and I hope I do, when it comes to the budget. I really hope I do. I’ll be the first one to jump up and pat our government on the back if we see them taking tangible steps towards this housing crisis. We have not seen it yet and I’m not going to hold my breath.

Throughout this last year, there have been many conversations literally that ended with me on the phone or in person with someone, saying: I’m sorry. I’ve done all that I can for you and I want you to know that I see you falling through the cracks. I’m standing on the edge of that crack waving goodbye to you as I mouth: I’m sorry.

I also follow that up by telling them to please know that I am going to do everything I can and work the hardest I can to make these systemic-level changes, or as the Premier called them in the throne speech, cultural changes. I will work towards getting to the root of the problems so that families and individuals who come after you will not have the same experience.

I would really love to stand here and support our government because that would mean that things were getting better for Islanders, but this government does not instill a whole lot of faith in me that they know the hows in all of this. I get nervous when we talk about new programs being added when we do not have a handle on programs that were announced.

For example, the First 1,000 Days Initiative: it was in the government’s platform and has been referred to a number of times in this House, but here I sit without any idea what that actually means and what it means to parents, babies, and toddlers in their first 1,000 days.

Midwifery, an initiative that I was so excited to hear that the government was prioritizing, has had two start dates pass by.

And the third option: just this summer I was assured by the Minister of Justice and Public Safety that this incredibly important option for women who had been sexually assaulted was almost ready to go. He even said he was excited.

Not only have none of these initiatives hit the ground, but they have not even been mentioned in the throne speech. You say you understand that women have been disproportionately affected by the pandemic and that you want to help, yet here are three examples of programs that are crucial in supporting women and you continually kick them down the road, even though you already announced them.

Island women are waiting for these services: pregnant women wanting some say in their birthing plan, the young mother who wants the best for her tiny baby, the women who have just been raped and are too broken to even consider the difficult and traumatizing road of the justice system. These women can’t afford to wait. They deserve a government who cares enough about them and their children to not wait any longer.

There were a few mentions of school counsellors and autism consultants, and while it is great that government seems to have heeded my calls in this, autism consultants is not what – we need feet on the ground and autism consultants, while their support is invaluable, we need people working with our educators in the education system so that these children are supported on the level that they need to.

Speaking of people who can’t wait for our government to finally take some action, children living with autism. Every year, a child with autism who doesn’t receive the appropriate supports that they need can regress socially and academically. This is not unique to children with autism. Children across the education system are falling through the cracks. Our systems, our teachers, do not have the supports they need to help individual children who need an extra hand. And every year that a child doesn’t get that extra help, they fall further and further behind.

This leads to young adults graduating with low literacy skills and lifelong challenges, and yet, in the throne speech, I was given the information that there were initial talks on a new literacy strategy – hasn’t been updated in 24 years. No mention of that here and I hope it’s in the budget.

We can no longer wait. We can no longer accept flowery stories from this government of amazing innovative programs that never seem to come.

I’m being a bit harsh here. There has been at least one notable initiative that has been implemented in our schools over the last couple of years that I’m thrilled to hear about. The government has taken our advice on establishing a non-profit for school food, which is the best direction that the official opposition believed we could take as a province. Thank you for that.

Reducing food insecurity is not enough. In a small province that sees one in five children living in food insecurity, we should be using language of food insecurity eradication. We cannot afford to put the cart before the horse, something this government has done time and time again, announcing programs and services before they’re ready.

The creation of 300 spaces in 2021 is a big promise that I do not believe is a fair promise to make. That is roughly 65 new workers and we cannot find them now, nor is it fair to ask them, or anyone for that matter, to work for nothing, which is what they currently work for. I hope we do see them reach parity with the educational assistants in the school system because it’s what they deserve.

We say time and time again we value them. We need to consider the crucial importance of early intervention and prevention work of special needs assistants and intensive behavioural intervention and specialists. We need to understand the unique challenges of rural child care in not only recruitment but retention. This involves Island-wide public transit, supports in the community, language-testing barriers, et cetera.

In order to build capacity, we have some big issues to figure out. Otherwise, this will flop.

I feel bad saying this, but I have a really hard time celebrating our national success in our early years sector. While it’s truly phenomenal and we have dedicated and passionate professionals – obviously – they can’t even make a livable wage – we don’t value them. We say time and time again that children are so important, yet we do not care to expand our budget lines to reflect that.

It was mentioned in the throne speech that the efforts at improving early child care and a universal pre-K program will provide a seamless introduction to our children’s educational journey. What do you mean by this? Do you mean that we have looked at their health and their adverse life experiences that they have had to date? That we have provided the necessary supports and interventions to ensure we are nailing early intervention and prevention to ensure the absolute best chance at success for each individual student? Or are you talking about getting children ready for school? Because if it is the latter, you do not understand how children develop and you really should get a handle on that before we go any further.

Meaning cultural change was a part of the last throne speech and there was a very loud voice for youth throughout that throne speech. Looking back, my hon. colleague already mentioned one of the quotes that he found and I’ll mention the next on our youth: Younger generations are extolling us to take climate change more seriously than we have been. They have become our teachers and we must listen to their voices. Yet, they are missing from every table. It’s glaringly absent in this throne speech.

Earlier today, the Premier stated that he wasn’t sure when he last met with his youth council. A Premier who truly believed what he said in his last throne speech would be meeting regularly with the youth council that are supposed to be advising him.

I have little confidence that this government understands what it means and how to implement the meaningful cultural changes mentioned throughout this speech. This would have been a clear place to stand up for youth and extend them the vote, the ultimate way to have a voice at a decisionmaking table. Yet, we mention wanting them to start businesses. I guess that does make sure being a business owner seems to be an effective way of getting this government’s attention.

Teachers are thanked in the beginning of this speech and then, nothing. There has been no engagement at all with them and when they do speak up, government officials get upset. It is time we listen to the experiences of teachers and engage them in the process. There are a lot of big changes that need to happen as we consider all the major cultural changes you speak of that we will be making as a province. They have the most direct connection to our future and they do not get the respect that they deserve. Money is rarely the solution to the problems in education systems. It is efficiency.

I would really love to hear this government’s vision for education. Talk about a problem: I’ve heard from UPEI and Holland College and how they have to prepare and how they’ve changed their courses due to the unpreparedness of our high school graduates. We are doing something very wrong and we can make it right again. That’s the exciting part. I’m just not so sure we have the leadership.

And as I mentioned, there’s no mention of a literacy strategy. The PEI Literacy Alliance is not only a community organization – all of our community organizations that have been mentioned in the throne speech were very surprised to hear that government wanted their support because none of them had been asked. They’re thrilled. They want to step up. They assume they’re going to see funding backed by that, and as they should. I don’t even want to think where we would be without the contributions and the expertise of our community organizations, and the support, the incredible support. We need to support these organizations and consult them. They are the experts.

We must commit to reconciliation and work towards it at all times. We must apply a race and gender lens on all of our work. We must also include a child’s lens, a child rights impact assessment, on all of our work.

The one initiative that the throne speech did mention, with all due respect, may not be an appropriate initiative to address racism. I encourage this Premier to consult with the organizations that represent our Indigenous peoples and BIPOC communities. I am hopeful that we will see more tangible and systemic initiatives in the upcoming budget.

I keep seeing that we are working towards finding solutions for Islanders living in abusive situations. While government provides some funding to community organizations doing great work, there are some very clear actions missing from this throne speech that government could take on their own: livable income, access to emergency funds, Island-wide transit, and affordable, accessible housing, are actions government could take if they truly prioritized gender-based violence and family violence. One in five children being abused is a culture change that will never work itself out on its own. We need to step up.

In order for us to ensure a healthy and bright post-COVID economy and Island, we must not only understand and value early intervention and prevention, we need to put the money in the budgets to reflect it. We must understand the value of putting all of this money up front. It will save us exponentially in time at the other end. This is another cultural level change the Premier speaks of and it is something that deserves to be gotten to the root of in our province.

This document is, in the Premier’s words, evolutionary, not revolutionary. Our children and youth are revolutionary and they deserve to be asked, heard, reflected, respected, loved and valued.

While a throne speech is not full of all of the details and all of the plans, I look forward to hearing more and seeing some of these reflected in the budget.

Thank you, Mr. Speaker