Nanaimo MLA Sheila Malcolmson speaking in a near-empty legislative chamber Monday in Victoria. (Legislative Assembly of B.C. image)

Nanaimo MLA part of historic near-empty legislative sitting that passed COVID-19 measures

A dozen MLAs alter Employment Standards Act, approve $5-billion spending package

Nanaimo’s MLA was one of only a dozen to be part of an extraordinary sitting of the legislature earlier this week in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Sheila Malcolmson was one of 12 MLAs who were in the B.C. Legislature building in Victoria on Monday to pass measures to help the province through known and unknown impacts of COVID-19 on the economy and the health and well-being of British Columbians.

“It was a unique window into the seriousness of the emergency that B.C. and the world are in,” Malcolmson said. “That was reflected in the exceptional legislative sitting … [Monday] really was a remarkable day, both in the tone, but also in the extent of the support for people and the extent of the inter-party support. It’s never been seen before.”

There were two B.C. Liberals, two Green members and the balance were New Democrats, and there were 10 MLAs in the chambers at all times, with two alternates close by. With the speaker, deputy speaker and assistant deputy speaker all self-isolating, NDP MLA Spencer Chandra-Herbert presided. MLAs didn’t sit in their regular seats, instead staying at least two seats away from their peers to observe social distancing.

“To see our colleagues that we haven’t seen for several weeks, to be working at a distance with such intensity with each other – and we’ve got such a bond with each other – for us not to be able to greet them in a regular way just felt unreal,” Malcolmson said.

She said she would have loved to have been able to stand up and express thanks to “the incredible essential service workers pulling hard in Nanaimo,” and would have done so, under normal circumstances. On Monday, though, MLAs stayed on task and Malcolmson said none of the debate from opposition members was argumentative.

“They asked questions and made comments for the purpose of the public audience getting greater clarity about what was offered,” she said.

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Malcolmson said the MLAs that day moved a “fundamental change to the Employment Standards Act” through the legislature, as well as an “exceptional” $5-billion spending package. The funding will cover a one-time $1,000 benefit to British Columbians on EI or otherwise unable to work, renters’ aid, $1.7 billion for additional health-care spending and $1.5 billion in economic recovery. Measures to freeze student loan payments and allow deferral of employer health tax payments were also agreed upon.

Finance Minister Carole James pointed out that the government was designing a package for a problem that isn’t yet fully understood, and so there is built-in flexibility, Malcolmson said.

She said she believes that Monday’s efforts puts the government in position to be able to do necessary follow-up work through cabinet or order-in-council.

“Our legislature will not have to return in order for our government to have full support on both the health and safety front and on the economic front at a time that we don’t yet know exactly the economic calamity that we are grappling with,” Malcolmson said.

READ ALSO B.C. COVID-19 cases rise 92 to 884, one more death, 81 in care

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