It seems weird trying to summarize the B.C. political stories of 2020.
It was a year when politicians of all stripes were asked to tackle more challenges that ever before. Yet everything seems dwarfed by the personal impact the COVID-19 pandemic has had on many.
No political decision will ever be enough for those who have had loved ones die from COVID-19. No decision will ever be good enough for those who have lost their jobs due to the pandemic. Nothing will ever be able to compensate for the stress felt by health-care workers, grocery store clerks and teachers who faced unforeseen challenges just doing their jobs.
This list will give you a sense of the decisions made in 2020 and the events that unfolded. But in summarizing the year, it will never provide the true perspective of the anxiety and difficulty so many in this province felt.
COVID-19 Related Stories
The Virus Arrives
There were a few significant moments early on in B.C.’s battle against COVID-19. On Jan. 28, the province announced a man in his 40s who recently traveled to Wuhan, the Chinese city at the centre of the COVID-19 outbreak, had tested positive in B.C.
Then on Feb. 20, the province announced a positive test linked to travel in Iran, the first case in British Columbia not linked to China.
On March 6, the province unveiled a pandemic response plan. At the time there were 21 cases of COVID-19 in the province, one of which is believed to have been contracted through community contact.
The plan included expanding sites where COVID-19 tests could be done, expanding testing capacity, increasing the advice businesses received around protecting staff and ensuring resources were in place if health facilities were maxed out with positive cases.
The next day Provincial Health Officer Dr. Bonnie Henry cried during a briefing, signalling the growing toll the virus was taking on health officials. On March 17 the province declared a provincial state of emergency, one that remains in place.
Pacific Dental Conference
In itself the Pacific Dental Conference impacted only a small portion of those in the province who have tested positive for COVID-19. But it was the start, a realization to many in B.C. how quickly the virus could spread in certain settings.
North Vancouver dentist Dr. Denis Vincent died from COVID-19 after attending the conference.
The province has produced some figures showing how the conference led to hundreds of cases, spreading into other parts of the province and out of province as well. But beyond that, the event was so pivotal because it showed how quickly cases of the virus could spread from a single event into the community.
Lynn Valley Care Centre outbreak
The Lynn Valley Care Centre was the first of dozens of B.C. care homes where COVID-19 took lives. The long term care facility was the site of the province’s first death due to the virus. By the time the outbreak was contained in the home, 20 seniors lost their lives.
There have been calls from family members who have or had loved ones in the care centre for the province to launch a full investigation.
Single Site Policy
As pressure increased on the province’s long term care homes, the government announced a massive change on which care homes workers can work in. Before the change was made, many long-term care workers had jobs at multiple facilities. The province put in a policy increasing wages for workers and mandating they only work at one care home.
The policy is part of the larger struggle for those living in long term care and those with loved ones in long term care. Many have not been able to see loved ones face to face since the pandemic started.
In June the province announced a policy for visits to long term care homes. They include meetings booked in advance and anyone showing symptoms for COVID-19 will not be allowed in the care home.
Closing the U.S. border and quarantine
The surge in cases south of the border led to the Canadian federal government working with the United States to shut down the border between the two countries. But one of the problems flagged early on by B.C. was there were not enough resources to police the change.
British Columbia was the first jurisdiction to send employees to the border to enforce the Quarantine Act, ensuring people had a plan to isolate for 14 days and if they didn’t the province would put them up in a hotel. The federal government ultimately took over the enforcement.
The summer brought stories of Americans attempting to break the quarantine rules by saying they were driving straight through to Alaska. Eventually the federal government introduced clearer rules to ensure drivers do not stop for a vacation while cutting through Canada.
For months, Henry was asked why the province would not put in a mask mandate in indoor public spaces. The province’s top doctor insisted people where their masks, when they couldn’t distance, but legally requiring it wasn’t necessary. But in a big shift in policy, the Public Safety Ministry put in a law requiring masks.
There are exemptions, mainly for those who for physical or mental reasons cannot wear a mask. There is also no requirement to wear a mask in a B.C. classroom, something the BC Teachers Federation has been asking the province to change.
Be kind, Be calm, Be safe
Dr. Bonnie Henry’s mantra has been a calling card for many British Columbians. It has been plastered on the side of buildings, on greeting cards and uttered by the province’s top doctor at every public briefing since the spring.
It has also come to symbolize Henry’s leadership. A message the power is in the hands of British Columbians to make decisions. Her style has been praised universally but also criticized at times at home by those both worried too many measures are in place and not enough measures are in place.
Surge in the Fraser Health/Regional Restrictions
As the B.C. election approached it’s final days, COVID-19 started to surge specially in Fraser Health. Henry calling a rare Saturday press conference to announce measures aimed only at Metro Vancouver and banning all social gatherings in the region.
“Provincial health orders are always a last resort, but right now these additional measures are needed,” Henry said at the time.
Henry was reluctant through most of the pandemic to put in specific policies for hard hit areas because of how easily the virus spreads.
The change came into effect after weeks of rising case numbers in the Lower Mainland, linked primarily to indoor social gatherings, and a corresponding “worrisome” increase in hospitalizations which exceeded 100 in November for the first time since April.
Province-wide ban on social gatherings
First it was Metro Vancouver, than a ban on social gatherings moved to province wide. With British Columbians breaking records in terms of deaths, hospitalizations and new cases of COVID-19, Henry decided to first impose a ban on social gatherings and then extend it through Christmas.
The ban on social gatherings included a restriction on visitors inside your own home and a ban on eating at a restaurant or bar with anyone outside your household.
“It is okay to go for a walk outside with a friend. It is okay for the grandparents to pick up the kids at school. It is okay to fix the furnace at your mother’s house. Those are not social events,” Henry said when announcing the measures.
“You can have your cleaning person come into your home. The goal of these measures is to reduce our social measures.”
British Columbia became the only province in the country to not just freeze rent increases and ban evictions, but to provide support to renters to cover rent costs. The program was designed to provide the money to landlords and the landlords would pass the savings on to renters.
The B.C. government offered renters up to $500 a month through the end of August to ensure British Columbians affected by the novel coronavirus crisis can keep paying for their home.
“We’re continuing to protect renters as we also ensure landlords are receiving some income during this time,” the Housing minister Selina Robinson said at the time.
Paid sick days
When health officials and politicians started asking British Columbians to stay home if they felt sick, the obvious next question was who would cover the costs. Millions of British Columbians were worried about either not having paid sick days or running out of paid sick days if they were required to stay home with the sniffles or forced to self-isolate because of a COVID exposure of test.
Horgan was the first premier in the country to call for the federal government to step in with more sick day supports. Ottawa ultimately created a program but it only supports those who are mandated to miss work due to a COVID test. The B.C. government has promised to bolster supports for the program if needed moving forward.
Scheduled surgeries cancelled
In an attempt to clear up hospital beds with COVID-19 cases surging, the B.C. government announced on March 16 all elective and scheduled surgeries were postponed. The decision ultimately delayed thousands of surgeries.
The province announced in May a plan to start re-booking surgeries and have invested millions of dollars to speed up the process. In November, the province conducted more surgeries in the month then they did in November 2019.
“British Columbians have stepped up to the challenge of COVID-19 by making sacrifices, including thousands of people who have waited for postponed elective surgeries. This has been very difficult for people and their families,” Premier John Horgan said when announcing surgeries were back on.
“But these sacrifices have helped flatten the curve in B.C., and now we can move forward, safely, getting people the surgeries they’ve been waiting for.”
With British Columbians desperate for some semblance of normalcy, the Vancouver Canucks entered as a possible saviour. The hockey club was seen as the front runner to play host to at least half of the games needed to complete the 2019-20 NHL season.
But with increasing concerns around testing and pressure on the health care system, British Columbia health officials pushed back at the league’s plan to resume games. Ultimately Toronto and Edmonton were chosen and the Canucks exceeded expectations by winning two series before losing to the Vegas Golden Knights.
Aid package from the province, $5 billion
In March, the B.C. government introduced a $5-billion aid package to support British Columbians and businesses that are suffering because of the pandemic. The plan included $2.8 billion in support for individuals and services, and $2.2 billion for businesses.
“This is stressful. People need help now. Businesses need help now,” Horgan said at the time.
“Our action plan focuses on services to protect people’s health and safety, gives immediate relief to people and businesses, and plans for B.C.’s economic recovery over the long-term.”
School cancelled in spring/June return
As health officials grappled with the arrival of the virus in February and March, those in the school system were quickly trying to grapple what impact COVID-19 could have on the school system. The decision was made to suspend a return to in class instruction following spring break, except for the children of essential workers and those that desperately needed to be in a school. The rest of the students started learning from home.
As the at-home learning continued through April and into May, the B.C. government and health officials decided on a partial return in June. The partial return included around a third of students learning in the classroom and the rest participating from home virtually.
With more time to plan and the spread of the virus slowing down, the province decided to open schools back up to all students in the province. Henry supported and mostly designed a cohort system where students would have minimal interaction with those outside of their classroom and in most cases one other classroom.
The plan drew immediate concerns from the B.C. Teachers Federation over a lack of physical distancing in the classroom and an inconsistent mask policy. The province ultimately decided to push back of the school year to address some of the concerns and required masks in commons areas but not classrooms.
Restaurants and bars closed
One of the hardest-hit sectors from the pandemic has been the hospitality sector. With the virus spreading quickly in March, the province ordered the closure of bars and nightclubs.
Restaurants were closed for a while to in-person dining and shifted to delivery or pickup options. The province introduced rules allowing for bars, clubs and restaurants to re-open under strict COVID-19 safety plans including physical distancing and barriers. But for clubs it was short lived, shut down after cases of the virus spread and it was becoming clear enforcing guidelines in those situations was impossible.
“It is the time for all of us to cut back on our social interactions,” Henry said on Sept. 8.
“It means having fewer contacts with other people, particularly people we don’t know.”
When in trouble, ask a celebrity to help.
As cases started to rise in the summer connected to 20- and 30-year-olds in the province, Horgan made the pitch for actors Ryan Reynolds and Seth Rogan to help.
Both answered the call. Reynolds posted a voicemail to Horgan on social media, saying, “I hope young people in B.C. don’t kill my mom.” Rogan sent Horgan a message through social media, advising he was available to help the premier whenever needed.
B.C. Election Stories
In the midst of a pandemic, British Columbians went to the polls. It was a snap election call by Horgan and led to a majority he desperately craved.
Horgan call snap election
Just the notion of calling an election was newsworthy.
Horgan decided to rip up the Confidence and Supply Agreement signed with the BC Greens and called an early election on Sept. 21. The B.C. premier had faced weeks of questions about whether he was willing to trigger an election during a pandemic.
“We are not at the end of COVID-19, we are at the beginning,” Horgan said Monday. “This pandemic will be with us for a year or more and that’s why I think we need to have an election now.”
Horgan wins a massive majority
It was the election result Horgan and the NDP wanted. After a nearly five-week campaign, the NDP captured 57 seats. It was the largest seat count in the party’s history and the second highest in the province’s history.
The NDP picked up seats in Richmond, Abbotsford, Chilliwack and Langley, all areas that have traditionally been BC Liberal governmental territory. The party was not able to break through outside of Metro Vancouver but it made little difference in the overall result, with the party ultimately winning 38 out of the 48 seats in greater Metro Vancouver.
By mail voting
For the first time in British Columbia’s history, more people voted before election day than actually on election day.
The biggest surge was in mail-in ballots — once all the votes were counted, 596,287 votes were cast by mail. These votes were counted two weeks after election day and ultimately did not have a significant impact on the final result. But with so many people voting by mail it will likely be a trend continuing past the the pandemic.
There was also significant interested in advance voting where an additional voting day was added and 681,055 cast a ballot.
Andrew Wilkinson quits
It seemed so inevitable, but even after leading the BC Liberals to an historic poor election result it took Andrew Wilkinson works to officially step down as the party leader. Wilkinson was criticized leading up to and during the election campaign for being out of touch with British Columbians and was never able to dispel the criticism.
The Liberals have not released details for a leadership race and Shirley Bond was elected by the 28 person Liberal caucus as the party’s interim leader.
Jane Thornthwaite sexist comments
In the middle of the election campaign, a video of BC Liberal candidate Jane Thornthwaite making sexist jokes was leaked to This is Vancolour podcast host and CKNW contributor Mo Amir. The video, from a roast of former MLA Ralph Sultan, shows Thornthwaite commenting on how Ma would be ‘right next to him, cuddling, cuddling, a little bit of cleavage there, and Ralph would be enthralled with her’.
Thornthwaite apologized for the comments and ultimately lost her seat in the election.
Rob Fleming shuffled out of Education
In his first significant retooling of his cabinet, Horgan moved Rob Fleming out of education and into transportation after the election. The premier had seven cabinet openings due to pre-election retirements and used the opportunity to move Fleming out of a file with growing pressure.
Jennifer Whiteside was appointed to take over education and tasked with working on relationships within the education sector including with the B.C. Teachers Federation.
Laurie Throness quits BC Liberals
This was the sort of situation where a politician quit before he was fired.
In the midst of the B.C. election campaign, Laurie Throness compared the NDP’s free birth control plan to eugenics at an all-candidates debate. The comments were widely criticized and Throness told leader Andrew Wilkinson he would be stepping down as a BC Liberal.
“This is a party that tries to tolerate a range of views. There’s a party position that is my own position on things like discrimination and contraception, and Mr. Throness reached a point where his views are no longer compatible with mine or the party,” Wilkinson said at the time.
Throness is no stranger to controversy. Earlier in the year he went against Wilkinson’s wishes and publicly stated he would continue to by advertising in the Light, a magazine known for anti-LGBTQ2 articles. Throness lost his seat in the election, after vowing he would sit as an Independent if he won.
Sonia Furstenau becomes leader
After a three-month delay due to the pandemic, the B.C. Green party selected a new leader in September. MLA Sonia Furstenau, the perceived front-runner the entire race, won with 2,428 votes on the second ballot to defeat Cam Brewer. Brewer received 2,127 votes.
A week after winning the leadership Frustenau was thrust onto the campaign trail. She surprised many with her televised debate performance, impressing pundits with her responses on various issues including white privilege and leadership.
Nathan Cullen bumbles
It wasn’t the introduction to provincial politics Nathan Cullen was either expecting or hoping for.
The long-time federal MP announce plans in September to run provincially in his home riding of Stikine. But soon after an Indigenous advocate who served three terms as president of the Tahltan Central Government, Annita McPhee, submitted her paperwork to be the candidate for the NDP in the riding of Stikine.
Based on the NDP’s internal rules, an equity seeking candidate like McPhee would have priority over Cullen. But the party did not accept McPhee’s application due to a lack of signatures.
Then during the campaign Cullen apologized over insensitive comments he made about an Indigenous BC Liberal candidate in a neighbouring district. He was caught on a hot mic talking about North Coast candidate Roy Jones Jr.
Cullen won his seat and was put into Horgan’s cabinet as a Minister of State for lands and natural resource operations.
Non-COVID and Non-Election Stories
Wet’suwet’en blockades and protests
In January, five Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs sent an eviction notice to Coastal GasLink telling the company to stop constructing a pipeline through their property. The eviction notice led to increased attention for Wet’suwet’en supporters who had set up blockades allow the pipeline route.
The pressure increased when RCMP moved in and arrested protesters along the pipeline route. Protests grew across the country including blockades of rail lines and ports across the country.
The Wet’suwet’en ultimately signed a deal with the B.C. and federal government to set the stage for future negotiations on land rights and title of the First Nation but did not resolved the issue over pipeline opposition.
This year will go down as the deadliest in the province’s history when it comes to illicit drug overdoses. Through November there were 1,548 deaths connected to drug overdoses and June was the deadliest month on record with 185 deaths.
The surge in overdose deaths has been linked to a more toxic supply of drugs due to border closures and more drug users using alone. Both these factors, directly linked to the pandemic, are the key factors in a sudden increase.
Health officials did put together pandemic-related provisions to provide a cleaner drug supply and the call for decriminalization of possession of small amounts of illicit drugs continues to grow.
Andrew Weaver quits the Greens
In January, the longest serving Green MLA in the province’s history left the party. Oak Bay-Gordon Head MLA Andrew Weaver stepped aside to sit as an independent.
Weaver, who stepped down as leader earlier in January, quit the caucus to reduce his workload and to be more present for a family member that was dealing with medical issues.
Ridesharing approved in BC
In January, after months of waiting and delay, the world’s two largest ridesharing companies were approved to operate on the Lower Mainland.
B.C.’s Passenger Transportation Board granted licences to Uber and Lyft to operate in the Lower Mainland and Whistler, the area known as “Region 1” under the province’s regulations.
The rollout of ridesharing was bumpy. Surrey mayor Doug McCallum told the companies they couldn’t operate in his city and supported by-law officers handing out tickets to drivers. The courts ultimately decided Surrey could not stop ridesharing.
The Metro Vancouver mayors eventually approved a region wide operating licence to allow the companies to work across the region.
In May, B.C. teachers ratified a new three-year deal approving general rate increases of two per cent each year. The contract was retroactive back until July 1, 2019, and will go until June 30, 2022.
The two sides reached a tentative agreement at the end of March. The deal was significant because it happened without any work stoppages from teachers.
It hit stratas hard in the wallet. B.C. condo insurance going up an average of around 40 per cent over the past year while deductibles have skyrocketed.
The sudden increase leading to an investigation from the B.C. Financial Services Authority, which regulates credit unions, insurance and trust companies, pensions and mortgage brokers.
The authority found price pressures will continue to go up and buildings considered to be higher risk are expected to face the most significant increases, as well as the possibility of not being able to obtain full, or in rare cases any, insurance coverage. The NDP put forward the idea of public strata insurance if the market does not correct itself in 2021.
Oppenheimer Park/Strathcona Park
In April, the B.C. government announced plans to move the homeless campers at Vancouver’s Oppenheimer Park into temporary housing, in a bid to prevent the spread of the coronavirus among an already at-risk group of people.
BC Housing has led the move people out of the controversial tent city in the Downtown Eastside.
But then soon after a new homeless camp emerged in Srathcona Park. There has been increasing tension between homeowners and residents of a homeless camp in the Strathcona neighbourhood.
Sidoo stripped of Order
In June, B.C. businessman David Sidoo became the first person to be stripped of an Order of B.C..
He pleaded guilty to conspiracy to commit mail and wire fraud in a U.S. federal court on March 13, 2020. He has now served his time in jail.
Craig James Charged
After more than two years of investigating, former B.C. legislature clerk Craig James was charged with four counts of breach of trust by a public officer and two counts of fraud in excess of $5000.
The charges stem from an explosive report released in 2018 by then-speaker Darryl Plecas, detailing allegations of misspending and misconduct at the legislature that ultimately led to a police investigation into then-clerk James and then-sergeant-at-arms Gary Lenz.
ICBC no fault
In the biggest change in ICBC’s history, the provincial government announced in February it was dramatically overhauling the public insurer in an effort to save drivers money and slash the amount lawyers receive.
The changes, which come into effect in Mat 2021, estimate a policy holder will save an average of $400 per driver. In 2020, ICBC’s average premium for basic and optional insurance is $1,900. The government is projecting these changes will drop the average to $1,500 a year.
The changes allow rate holders to sue in very specific circumstances while also boosting the standard benefits all drivers receive.
— with files from Amy Judd, Simon Little and Jon Azpiri