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North Van MPs discuss transportation, housing, immigration at chamber Q&A

MP Jonathan Wilkinson says he’ll push for a decision from the province on the replacement of the Ironworkers Memorial Second Narrows Crossing

Members of North Vancouver’s business community have questions, and the region’s two federally elected representatives had answers.

On Friday, North Vancouver Chamber of Commerce hosted a “conversation with MPs” event at the Holiday Inn in the Lynnmour neighbourhood. In a moderated, question-and-answer format, queries submitted beforehand were put to Liberal MP for North Vancouver Jonathan Wilkinson and Liberal MP for Burnaby North-Seymour Terry Beech. Both politicians are also members of the federal cabinet, as Minister of Energy and Natural Resources and Minister of Citizens’ Services, respectively.

During the one-and-a-half hour chat, the two representatives talked though issues including debt from federal COVID-19 loans, the Ironworkers Memorial Second Narrows Crossing, the federal government’s expanding role on housing, immigration and recent changes to electoral boundaries on the North Shore.

Near the top of the discussion, moderator and chamber CEO Patrick Stafford-Smith said North Vancouver is continuing to see good businesses move elsewhere due to high costs and the challenges of finding staff because they can’t easily commute.

He asked: “What are the federal priorities, and your priorities, when it comes to investing in infrastructure and rapid transit in B.C., and specifically on the North Shore?”

Wilkinson replied that short-term priorities are rapid buses and partial upgrades to the Upper Level Highway, but that the North Shore is going to need some form of dedicated rapid transit going forward. However, he noted the significant challenge posed by the replacement of the Ironworkers Memorial Bridge in the next 10 to 20 years.

“So the question is: should you try to accelerate the time that you’re actually going to replace the bridge and couple that with rapid transit? Or do you build some kind of a dedicated line that is irrespective of the bridge, which would be obviously less efficient, but pushes off the investment that would be required in terms of building a new bridge?” Wilkinson said.

It’s up to the province and municipalities to identify projects before they can receive federal funding, and massive projects like that are also up against others in the region that could have a higher priority, he said. To be considered at the federal level, a budget has to be determined first.

“At the end of the day, we are very willing to go to bat at the federal level to secure federal support for a project, but there has to be a project and the project has to have a dollar number against it,” Wilkinson said, adding that the conversation needs to be advanced by having Transportation Minister Rob Fleming and the province make a decision on the bridge.

“And that is something that I committed yesterday to [North Vancouver City] Mayor [Linda] Buchanan, to talk to Minister Fleming about this week,” he said.

'Not every building needs to be its own unique snowflake,' Beech says

Next, Stafford-Smith said he was happy to finally see all levels of government recognizing that housing is a high-priority issue. He highlighted federal levers such as the reduction of GST on rental development and the unused housing tax, as well as provincial housing targets and Metro Vancouver development charges.

“There’s this perception that everyone’s pulling in different directions, trying to do the same thing,” he said. “So how can … the higher-level, sober-second-thought federal government come in and help work with the provinces and municipalities to support attainable housing, and really ensure that all incentives fund what we want created, as quickly as possible?”

Data points to the fact that in order to keep up with housing demand in Canada – affordability aside – somewhere in the neighbourhood of $2 trillion in investment is needed to build three million new units, Beech said. In terms of 250-unit condo towers, that’s the equivalent of hundreds going up every day for the next 10 years.

“We really need to start thinking about the systems that we have in place in order to get housing built – we can’t just keep relying on the current systems that we have,” he said. “Not every building needs to be its own unique snowflake.

“That’s not to say that municipalities or regional governments should be sacrificing their design … but we need to think about ways that we can do it faster than we currently are,” Beech said.

Part of the reason why we’re facing these challenges is because the federal government has removed itself from the housing conversations for around 40 years, Wilkinson said.

“They essentially decided that housing was an area of provincial and municipal responsibility,” he said. “So we have aggregated a lot of pressure on the housing system that cannot be fully resolved in a very short period of time.”

With tools like the national housing strategy and housing accelerator fund, the federal government has gotten back into the housing game, but addressing the problem is going to take sustained federal investment for many years to come.

Federal government creating stream to attract tradespeople from abroad

In the latter half of the discussion, Stafford-Smith posed a question on immigration policy.

“We continue to see new Canadians in our community,” he said. I meet these people every day through Impact North Shore, who are underemployed doctors and engineers working, no offence, at London Drugs, and various other places completely available for the workforce. It’s a humiliating process,” he said.

Wilkinson highlighted the trades as an area that the federal government has been creating a dedicated stream to attract people to Canada.

“We will need to continue to identify those spaces where we are really proactive about the skill sets that we want,” he said.

Closing out the Q&A, Stafford-Smith commented on the changes to the federal electoral boundaries on the North Shore – which add a significant chunk of West Van to Wilkinson’s riding – saying how there’s consensus in the chamber that the more North Vancouver can be in one jurisdiction, the better.

Surrey is the fastest-growing region in the province, Beech said, with ridings to Surrey’s east being pushed further east and the opposite on the west side.

With the changes, Beech loses the Lougheed Highway area from his Burnaby-Seymour riding, while gaining much of Lynn Valley, West Lynn and Lynnmour.

Wilkinson agreed that North Van and West Van are distinct communities, but pointed out people in North Vancouver will now have more representation coming from a second MP.

“People in Lynn Valley actually get a great representative, in Terry Beech, and you end up having the ability to call on both of us in North Vancouver to actually do the work that needs to be done,” he said.

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