by Gloria Welton
Premier Dennis King was the keynote speaker at an event hosted by the Greater Summerside Chamber of Commerce (GSCC) during Small Business Week in October.
Although his term has seen many unexpected challenges and crisis over the three and a half years since he was elected, he says he is a prisoner of hope. He says he chooses to remain hopeful despite the many challenging circumstances that all residents of PEI have been facing.
“It’s always a great honor for the GSCC to host the Breakfast with the Premier,” says Kaley O’Brien, Executive Director. “At this event, the Premier received honest and challenging questions from our membership.
“Questions spanned from the state of the economy to the ever-challenging healthcare system, questions which Premier King did not shy away from. I want to extend a huge THANK YOU to the Premier and to CBDC and Standard Aero for sponsoring this amazing event and thank you to all who attended.”
“We saw history take place with the last devasting hurricane that tore through our province destroying much in its path and shutting down power for the longest periods of time ever recorded,” says Premier King. “COVID-19 has had an enormous impact on such areas as physical health and mental health and how we do business.
“Through all these challenges I have seen all levels of government, opposition members, and communities pulling together to accomplish what needs to be done. As a whole, I think the province is doing well. We have great resilience and community spirit.
“I am proud to say we have implemented more good ideas from the opposition parties than ever before. Why would a government say no to good ideas just because they come from a different political party? I have a team of hard-working Islanders who believe in working together.”
He says he is particularly proud of the PEI School Food program which helps students and families access a hot meal every day. “As a result of COVID-19 shutting down the schools in 2021 we were able to fast track this program, which remains operational today.” In July 2022, the PEI School Food Program had its one-year anniversary as a non-profit organization and delivered 469,933 meals to Island students in the 2021-2022 school year.
“We need to be nimble and try to do things a little differently to get better results. It is hard to do things in government. I compare it to steering a big ship – we can try to steer in one direction but sometimes the rudder does not make that turn fast. Certainly, the last few years have challenged us to think differently and work in a more collaborative way.
“With hurricane Fiona, we want to help as many people as we can as quick as we can. We have tried to tailor our programs to give money where it is needed as fast as we can. There has been frustration for some Islanders who are falling through the cracks because of the criteria of governments funding available.
“We are still working hard with the federal government to determine where and when the federal dollars will flow and to get it out as quickly as we can, especially with winter coming.”
Also further financial help in January 2023, click here.
The economy here and across the country
“We are trying to help people and businesses endure the challenges we are facing. Despite what many might say, the economy on PEI and across Canada is doing reasonably well. We are seeing some surplus here and across the country. Personal income tax revenues and corporate tax revenues are up. We are doing a bit better than people expected. For more information, click here.
“However, we are not insulated from the world economy. I have concerns around issues such as the record high cost of home heating fuel, and we still have too many PEI residents using oil as their primary heat source. Many of those are on the lower income scale so we want to address home efficiency more.
“Every product imported to PEI comes by truck, so the price of diesel and fuel in general gets passed on to the consumer. Our job is to help as many people as we can with what we have. The hardest part of this job is when we can’t get everyone what they need. There are limitations even though we try at every level we can. Around the globe, we are in for a volatile next few years and PEI will not be an exception.”
With the steady increase in the minimum wage, businesses are looking at how that will work for them in the next year or two. “We have been asked to stagger minimum wage increases to give businesses more time to deal with the increased cost. I think we have been way too long getting to these increases. In the past, we should not have been trying to attract business startups by selling our Island as the lowest-wage province.
“All of us recognize that labour is our prize commodity, and you can’t have business without labour. We have to look at the holistic view – when you put money into people’s pockets, they spend money, and it shows up in our economy. Our government wants to be a good honest broker with the business community, and I think we have been, but we have to be realistic. Wages must increase and hopefully staggering the process will make it a little more palatable.
“We have reduced small business taxes to the lowest rate in Canada. When COVID-19 hit we tried to address the business community’s needs and when Fiona hit, we tried to provide for businesses initially through a wage subsidy program.”
It is not just about labour shortage; a bigger view is required
“We now have 170,000 people living on PEI, up by about 5,000 people from last year. Access to labour is a North American issue. I suspect that issue will persist, and even though we have labour shortages, a record number of tourists stayed on PEI this summer.
“We certainly need to attract more people to live on PEI, but it is also about taking care of our people. We must pay staff a reasonable wage, give them an opportunity to have work/life balance, and be willing to adapt work hours and where the work takes place.”
Premier King says when we bring newcomers to PEI, it is not just about filling a job, it is about providing a place to live and raise their family.
“Our population growth is record breaking. We have the highest labor force participation rate and the lowest unemployment rate we ever had on PEI since they started keeping statistics. However, every sector across the board is short on employees.
“There are people needing and looking for suitable work and employers needing workers, so we must take a deeper dive – how can we help job seekers move into satisfying careers? Will we respect job seekers enough and be nimble enough to honour their requests to work certain hours and be paid within a range that is acceptable to both? With changing times, we have to look at this issue with a new lens, knowing that it is not going to go away.”
The process of getting newcomers to PEI is no quick path. “The processing time is too long, and I don’t see that changing in the short-term. Each time the Atlantic Council of Premiers meets this is the number one issue we discuss.”
In October, the Honourable Sean Fraser, Minister of Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship, announced the temporary lifting of the 20-hour-per-week cap on the number of hours that eligible post-secondary students are allowed to work off-campus during the school year.
“For the last six months governments have been looking ways to encourage these students to stay on PEI to work and raise their families,” says Premier King.
For more about the new criteria, click here.
Premier’s satellite office & Regional Development Corporation coming to Summerside
“Summerside is on a growth trajectory,” says GSCC President Blake Doyle. “What can the City of Summerside expect as further partnership with the provincial government?”
Premier King says he wishes he could harness the energy of this city and area. “You have always been seen as the can-do location.
“We are working to better operate and communicate. After I was elected, I met with city council and discussed establishing a satellite premier’s office, since Summerside is the second-largest city in the province. We need it to be a place where someone can be there every day having the conversations that need to be had. I think it is needed and I am committed to do this.
“I also think we lost the springboard entity to get hard projects done when we lost the Regional Development Corporation. It is time to reestablish the RDC and I think it needs a bit of a different look with a leadership role outside government. If we can have more regular collaboration that should serve well in the long run.”
When it comes to a strong enough labour force to meet the demand, Premier King says no sector is more difficult and competitive around the world than healthcare.
“Growing up in the area I now represent, Dr. Kent Ellis had about 10,000 patients. Now most family physicians have 1,200 to 1,500 people on their caseload. Doctors now, not unfairly, want to have more of a work/life balance and raise their families. But as the population grows the demand for services grows as well.
“I think our healthcare system is as good as anywhere, but access is the difficultly. I have heard many stories of Islanders being very thankful with the care they are getting, so when you get in, the care is good.
“This year, Minister Hudson and I brought together every healthcare representative we could think of. Each one has been to the government to discuss the challenges they face so we are aware of the issues. We now need to know how we can better utilize each healthcare worker. How can we broaden their scope to make it a little bit easier for people across the province to get into a system that is so hard to penetrate?
“We have to do the best we can every day to make life easier for those who need care and can’t get it. We can’t fill all the positions that are needed. So how do we look at utilizing services better? One untapped service identified was Pharmacy.”
Previously, Pharmacists could make appointments and do assessments with people who couldn’t get care from a doctor but had to charge a fee to each patient. Recently, the province announced a program called Pharmacy Plus PEI.
Island Pharmacists can now assess and prescribe for an extensive list of common ailments at no charge to the public. “This policy should have been implemented many years ago, and we hope it will help a lot more people.”
Premier King admits that many other access points must be created to help people get into the system. “I can’t promise that there will be a doctor for every Islander because this has proven that this cannot be delivered. But we are trying to give Islanders access to healthcare that is as close to home and as efficient as possible. This can be done by utilizing the scope of practice of the health professionals who are in the system now.
Another initiative was recently announced: the province is expanding care for people who don’t have a primary care provider by opening two clinics for patients who cannot see a healthcare provider through virtual care because they require an in-person appointment. For more information, click here.
In addition, four new dedicated ambulance transfer units will hit the road this fall to alleviate pressure on our ground ambulance system by providing non-urgent transfers, leaving more ambulances on the road to respond to emergency situations. For more information, click here
“Change is hard, but we must try things that haven’t been done before and be honest and patient with each other. Certainly, the system we have now is not working. We can keep trying to prop up a system that is broken or we can try to reinvent and use the professionals we have so the public has a way into the system which is workable.
“We have spent a lot of time and money recruiting professionals, but we have not done a great job retaining them.” Recently the province announced over $8 million in financial incentives to encourage healthcare providers to continue to work in the healthcare system, in addition to filling key vacancies. For more information, click here.
“This program is just one more way to keep people in the system. We will be providing more professionals with an incentive. This was a start, and we have to do a better job. If we have to put a little more attention and money into the system so that people will stay and feel appreciated and have a healthy workplace every day, I think our system will be stronger and better.
“Just maybe PEI could be the forerunner in all of this. Someday people may ask why they can’t we do what PEI is doing.”