Reasons for optimism in northern B.C. economy, Horgan says

Premier John Horgan and a handful of ministers met with area mayors Tuesday to tackle topics ranging from mental health and addictions to housing to the struggles in the forestry sector.

By doing so, they had ventured into Opposition territory, Horgan acknowledged as he addressed local media following the meeting at city hall.

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"In no way do I want to diminish the hard work of those members of the legislature, but quite frankly we don't hear from them about the positive initiatives that are happening in the community, we don't hear from them about how we can work constructively to realize change," Horgan said.

"That's no slight on the Opposition members. It's just easier and better to have face-to-face, direct conversations with local leaders so we can do a better job as government on delivering on the services that people need in the region."

Horgan said the conversation during the morning centred on the challenges Central Interior communities have had dealing with homelessness combined with drug addiction and mental health and "how we can work together with local leaders to build stronger, more resilient communities."

Northern Health CEO Cathy Ulrich gave a presentation on how that agency has been approaching the issue, Horgan noted.

"We're working cooperatively, talking about best practices, we're looking for a way forward. Not every community deals with the challenges in the same way," Horgan said.

Making sure a sufficient supply of housing for aging communities and how to make "more strategic investments over the short term" on that item was also raised, Horgan said.

In the afternoon, the discussion turned to the challenges the forest industry is facing, particularly in Quesnel and Mackenzie. Horgan said he also heard from Prince George Mayor Lyn Hall about how, as the hub for the region, the city needs investment in infrastructure "not just to service the people of this town but the people of the region."

Asked what his message is for displaced forestry workers, Horgan pointed to activity on the liquified natural gas, mining and technology fronts as reason for optimism in the regional economy.

On the forest sector specifically, Horgan said the focus will have to be on maximizing the value of the logs harvested "rather than just shooting to get as much volume as we possibly can out of the forests into the mills or onto freighters and somewhere else."

"There are challenges in the forests, we acknowledge that. They are not new, they have resulted over decades of a drive to liquidate rather than to build a roadmap to a future that's sustainable for communities and sustainable for our forests," Horgan said.

Hall generally echoed Horgan's comments, saying he "summed up quite well," the topics discussed at the meeting. Hall also said he stressed bringing "more focussed service to the north" along with a need for the federal government to come to the table.

For Horgan, the meeting ended a multi-day tour of the region that began in Kitimat and Terrace and went as far south as Quesnel and with stops in Vanderhoof, Mackenzie and Fort St. James along the way. Indeed, Horgan said an invitation to attend a doubleheader of midget hockey on the outdoor ice in Fort St. James over the weekend sparked the tour.

Horgan will be back in Prince George next Wed., Jan. 29, to speak at the B.C. Natural Resources Forum.

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