ANTIGONISH, N.S. - With the Nova Scotia Legislature wrapping up its fall session Oct. 11, Nova Scotia New Democratic Party (NDP) leader Gary Burrill decided to hit the road for a coast-to-coast tour the province. His travels had him landing in Antigonish on the morning of Oct. 16.
“To talk about some of the main issues which were raised [during the session],” Burrill said about the objective of his travels.
“Some of the things we brought forward which we think would be a better path for the province, and some of the things the government brought forward and where those could be improved. I was in Cape Breton yesterday, the northern mainland today, and I’ll spend the rest of the week in the south-western part of the province.”
The topic list includes the availability to, and quality of, long-term care facilities across the province. Burrill said it’s not an area where government should look to cut; it should be a priority.
“A combination of not opening any new nursing homes and cutting funds on the ones we do have has put the whole sector under major pressure,” Burrill said. “From our point of view, the NDP’s, this is not the place to squeeze. There are a lot of places in the world to squeeze but don’t squeeze the people who are living in nursing homes; we can surely do better than that.”
He said that point of view is sometimes challenged in regards to costs.
“I think we have to say, there are some things that, as a people, we recognize as a priority,” he said. “If we have to cut, we’re not going to cut here. This is something we’re going to do well, we’re going to be proud of how we do it and we’re not going to say, ‘well, we couldn’t do as well by the residents in nursing homes because we actually didn’t have the money.’ This is the kind of thing for which you find what is needed, because you put it on the top of the list … I think it’s a big thing.”
Burrill talked about the NDP introducing a bill called the Care and Dignity Act which stipulated a ratio be maintained between staff and residents in long term care facilities.
“It says there should be in law, not just in rules or guidelines, the percentage of continuing care assistants (CCAs), LPNs and RNs who are available at the ratio of those people in residence at every long-term care facility,” he said, noting, as an opposition party to a majority government, it’s not the expectation a bill is passed but, at least, “shapes a conversation.”
In talking about some of the rationale, Burrill noted changing trends for the facilities.
“People go into nursing homes now much older and more in need of help, than they used to,” he said, recalling that when he first started visiting nursing homes, as a United Church minister, there would be parking spaces for residents.
“There is no one in a nursing home I know today who has a parking space for their car, they’re in a different stage of life,” he said.
“This isn’t hard to understand; it’s partly because of homecare that people are able to stay in their homes longer, so they come into nursing homes later. And partly, too, because we’re living longer. But it means that we can’t have the ratio of staff to residents that we had 25 years ago. People who come into long-term care now, they need, on average, a much higher level of support than people needed 20 years ago.”
Increasing minimum wage
Seeing Nova Scotia’s minimum wage jump up to $15 an hour was another area Burrill went into detail about, while in Antigonish.
When asked about the difficulties small businesses may face with the number, Burrill said it’s actually the small and medium-sized businesses in the province which need the increase.
“What is the greatest challenge for small and medium sized businesses in Nova Scotia? They don’t have enough customers,” he said, answering his own question. “Why don’t they have enough customers? Because one third of the people who work for wages in Nova Scotia work for less than $15 an hour; that means they don’t have the money to buy things.
“There is no magic about this. In order for businesses to prosper, people have to have enough income to buy things, once in a while. People who work for $11 an hour don’t go to stores and buy things. To a great extent, they can’t even go to the store to buy their groceries.”
Burrill said $15 is a “benchmark” which has been reached by Alberta and B.C. is on the path towards.
“There has been a move towards $15 an hour across the country,” he said. “We need to remember too where we are in Nova Scotia. We’re not in the middle of the pack about this, we’re at the rock bottom; 10 provinces in the country, who is number 10 – Nova Scotia,” he said.
He also talked about Nova Scotians carrying a lot of credit card debt.
“How can you develop your GDP, economic growth, when your consumer purchasing power at this level is in the tank? So, from my point of view, small business needs the $15 an hour.”
Legalization of cannabis
Speaking a day before cannabis is legalized across the country, Burrill said, first and foremost, this wasn’t a “Nova Scotia deal.”
“This is an Ottawa deal; a deal out of our hands, passed to us and we have to deal with it,” he said.
“From my point of view, I think we would be in a better situation to enter into legalized cannabis if the government had made, and I’m hoping they’ll do this in the future, a wider number of places where it’s available.
“At the moment, we have 12 stores. What’s the objective here? The objective is to put the illegal market for cannabis out of business through a legal market. I can’t see how you can do that with 12 stores. Imagine if we only had 12 liquor stores in Nova Scotia, who would be making money – bootleggers. So if we want to put the cannabis bootleggers out of business, we have to have more than 12 stores to do it.”
Back to basics
When he took over the leadership and throughout last year’s election, Burrill talked about returning the NDP to their core values. He said their election platform represented that objective and he feels there is a “hunger” for what they prioritize.
“I think the platform we ran on in last year’s election was one that addressed the income crisis, income inequality, and the environmental crisis, in a way as bold, probably more bold, than the platform of any major party in Canada we’ve seen in the last 25 years,” he said.
“I think there is a real hunger in the present world, that we haven’t seen for years and years, to see these issues be addressed. And, in my view, it’s the mission and purpose of the NDP to stand for that hunger.”