Long-form podcast: BC Greens leader Sonia Furstenau on B.C. COVID-19 management, old-growth management, and mountain caribou recovery

In our latest podcast, Aaron Orlando of revelstokemountaineer.com speaks with BC Greens leader Sonia Furstenau for a long-form interview covering the topics of B.C.'s COVID-19 response, old-growth logging deferrals and long-term forests policy, and the ongoing recovery process for mountain caribou.

BC Greens leader and MLA for Cowichan Valley, Sonia Furstenau, joined us for a long-form interview on the Revelstoke Mountaineer podcast on Jan. 27, 2022. Photo: Janis Jean/BC Greens

Sonia Furstenau, BC Greens leader and MLA for Cowichan Valley, was first elected to the B.C. legislature in 2017. Following the close election, the BC Greens entered into a confidence and supply agreement with the BC NDP, which lasted until 2020, when the BC NDP was elected with a majority.

Early in the week in a media release, the BC Greens called for changes to B.C.’s pandemic management, including recognizing and clearly communicating that COVID-19 is airborne, stressing the importance of using N95 masks for mitigation, making rapid tests widely available, and re-establishing testing for all B.C.ers. The Greens called on the B.C. government to provide funding for all hospitals and schools to establish proper ventilation, HEPA filters, for schools to obtain N95s and rapid tests, and to allow the use of N95s in hospital and health care settings. To minimize disruption to society, the Greens are calling on government to reduce barriers to financial support for businesses forced to close due to public health orders, and expand compensation limits, and to provide grant funding for small-businesses to update ventilation and filtration systems.

We reached out to the BC Greens, and on Jan. 27, 2022, we sat down with Furstenau for a long-form interview touching on three provincial topics with local and regional interest: B.C. government management of the COVID-19 pandemic, the ongoing old-growth planning process, and mountain caribou recovery process.

Over the 53-minute interview we went in depth into the topics; we invite you to have a listen. Here’s some key points and quotes from the interview:


On COVID-19 policy

A COVID-19 vaccination clinic sign at the Revelstoke Community Centre in early January, 2022. Photo: Aaron Orlando/Revelstoke Mountaineer Magazine

In the interview, Furstenau called on the government to adopt science-based approaches to pandemic management, saying that while vaccines are one good tool to manage the pandemic, the government hasn’t taken advantage of other tools to help mitigate airborne spread, such as working to ensure proper ventilation in schools, use of N95 masks in appropriate settings, and carbon dioxide measurements in public spaces like schools, for example.

“It’s not the only tool. We should be using every tool and we should be recognizing that approaching COVID with everything we’ve got is going to minimize in the short, medium and long-term the disruption we’ve been seeing,” she said.

She called for a science and “reality-based” approach, criticizing the government for withholding data and not making the reasons for its decisions clear.

“We can minimize disruption by starting from a place of evidence-driven recognition of what tools are most effective to combat this airborne virus,” she said.

Furstenau also called for an independent science table to guide government decisions on the COVID-19 pandemic and other topics.

“When we make policy informed by good evidence and data, and we are really transparent about what that policy is informed by but also what we’re trying to achieve and how we’re going to measure those achievements, then we build trust, we bring the public along,” she said. “We shouldn’t be disputing basic facts and data.”

On old-growth policy

Old-growth logging protesters block the Trans-Canada Highway on Jan. 14, 2022. Photo: Aaron Orlando/Revelstoke Mountaineer Magazine

The old-growth deferrals process has led to significant stress in the community, as forest workers worry about the future of their industry, and protests, some of them leading to heated confrontations with potential for injury, continue in the community.

Furstenau said the cause is rooted in short-term thinking driven by the election cycle.

“We are now paying the price for a kind of forestry management that has not really looked at what is a long-term sustainable model of forestry that ensures that communities like Revelstoke, communities in the Interior can have a sense of stability and security around what the employment looks like,” Furstenau said. “What are we trying to achieve with the public resource that is forest in British Columbia?”

In discussion over forest policy and its relation to the local economy, Furstenau says policy needs to be realigned to serve the needs of rural communities.

“Is that public resource resulting in the best outcomes for people and communities, or has the … profits for large forestry companies really been a driving force in our forestry management, and I would argue it’s largely been the second?” Furstenau asked, adding that government has a duty to ensure the benefit of these resources are staying in the community, including managing the ecosystem and the economy for the people in rural communities.

“We really want to start at where we want to get to and that is communities that can count on long-term stability, economic activity from forestry lands, and that those forestry lands are ecologically healthy,” Furstenau said. “I think we can achieve it, but I think we need to be honest about where we are starting.”

She feels longer-term solutions won’t be found if we “tinker around the edges” of forests policy.

In late 2021, the B.C. government announced a deferrals process and gave First Nations just 30 days to comment on its deferral plans, receiving significant criticism for the move.

“That doesn’t indicate to me any kind of paradigm shift and it certainly doesn’t indicate to me that the spirit much less the essence of the essence of the Declaration of Rights of Indigenous Peoples Act is really being followed.”

The starting point is basing decision-making in science and setting measurable goals, she said.

“We have to be clear about how we are going to measure success in achieving those goals,” Furstenau said. “And this comes back again to data, to transparency, to what is being used to make decisions.

“Are we trying to keep doing the same thing but paint a different picture of it? And that is not going to be sustainable and it’s going to erode the trust that we so desperately need.”

Mountain caribou recovery

File photo: Parks Canada staff apply a satellite linked radio collar to track movements after their release from the caribou maternity pen located on the west shore of Lake Revelstoke. Photo: Revelstoke Caribou Rearing in the Wild

The mountain caribou recovery process hasn’t been in the forefront in the past several months, but that’s likely to change in the coming months. B.C. officials have announced they will be doing more consultation on the southern herds in the area, including working on herd-level plans. Those planning processes affect local values including forestry, backcountry recreation and more.

Furstenau called for a change in approach, saying a holistic, science-based approach is needed to break from planning rooted in short-term election cycles.

“What isn’t going to work is thinking that we can just make a few adjustments around the edges and somehow get to different outcomes to what we’re seeing. This comes back to the paradigm shift, it comes back to asking ourselves the question of what do we owe the future, what do we owe future generations, and what is our duty and responsibility to put in place actions and polices now that will get us to that debt that we owe?”

Again, Furstenau said the issue is rooted in governments not taking a long-term view of the issue. “In governments because of the short electoral framework that we work under, getting long-term thinking and long-term planning in place can be a real challenge because it’s typically not the flashy electoral win that a lot of governments and parties are going to be looking at,” she said.

Predator management, which includes killing wolves and cougars in an effort to help conserve caribou, generates significant controversy, including a 2021 petition by Pacific Wild that gathered about half a million signatures in opposition to the program.

“Any one tool used in isolation from a long-term goal is not an effective way,” said Furstenau, adding that relying heavily on the one tool won’t work if it isn’t combined with effective long-term habitat management, among other policy options.

On mountain caribou, she called for a collaborative effort and an evidence-based approach.

“We need a different approach to governance that recognizes that the challenges we face now are so significant and so long-term that we have to move away from short-term thinking in government,” Furstenau said. “The caribou are a really great symbol of generation over generation of governments making short-term decisions.”

Aaron Orlando is a Revelstoke-based journalist who serves as creative director of revelstokemountaineer.com and Revelstoke Mountaineer Magazine. He's been on the news beat in Revelstoke for the past 14 years, serving in senior editorial roles. If you have aaron@revelstokemountaineer.com or call/text him at 250-814-8710.