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One for the history books

MHA Andrew Parsons (Burgeo – La Poile) in December 2022. – via YouTube

By Rosalyn Roy Senior Staff Reporter

PORT AUX BASQUES — From COVID to Come Home Year, from infrastructure to a post-tropical depression, 2022 proved memorable for the Southwest coast region. MHA Andrew Parsons (Burgeo – LaPoile), Minister of Industry, Energy and Technology (IET), said last year was one for the books.

“We started off the year with Omicron, wondering where that was going to go. Then it was a very busy winter, super excited for Come Home Year, an awesome summer. Then as we are getting back into the school year and everything else, the night of the 23rd and the morning of the 24th (September) comes, and as much as I’ve dealt with a million other things since then, that one dominates everything,” said Parsons. “It’s been the most overwhelming, biggest issue I’ve probably had to deal with it in a decade.”

With so much happening, Parsons said it is hard to remember a time pre-Fiona.

“To me it was an event that was, in many ways, as cataclysmic as when COVID hit. I find it hard to remember anything pre-COVID. It changed so many things. It changed your concept of time, so when you look at this year it started off with Omicron. So things just started off on a weird note. It took a while to get back to normal, to get kids back to school, and to me, the next thing was getting really excited for Come Home Year,” said Parsons. “I have something Fiona related every single day of the week. There’s not a day that goes by where you’re not dealing with something Fiona related because, the reality is, whether it’s conference calls, or Facebook messages, or emails, or files coming back to your attention, people checking on things, or phone calls, it never goes away.”

Parsons added that there are two main steps he is still focused on so that the region can continue moving forward and recovering from Fiona.

“Right now it’s two-fold. The big one, I think, is that we, as a province, unveiled a very fair and generous financial package, and now it’s about getting the work done to allow people to figure out what this actually specifically means for them. You have an idea of the formula and can probably figure out a ballpark assessment, but right now we’re waiting for adjusters to do the work and report back to people. I do believe some people will get information this week, so that’s happening right now,” said Parsons. “Then the next step is the big issue of vulnerable housing, the vulnerable area, the flood zone, and then there’s the actual bricks and mortar. What does this rebuild actually look like?”

The search for those answers will continue well into this new year.

“I firmly believe that Fiona and the repercussions will still play a large role in 2023. Thankfully, the generosity of people has been something like I’ve never seen, but then it’s working with the Red Cross on the disposition of funds, and then for every issue you figure out, there is always an anomaly or unique situation that you have to figure out,” said Parsons. “This is not something anybody dreamed of, wished for, or thought would ever happen. I don’t think there is anybody that could say we were anticipating this outcome, but I’m proud of the way that things have gone since in the sense of towns working to help citizens, the media helping people through this difficult time. I think the province has shown up and done our part, the volunteers and the generosity of people that had no connection to the area, the musicians, the community organizers, the truck loads of gear coming into the Lions Club and the Salvation Army. There’s a lot to be thankful for in spite of one of the worst outcomes you could imagine.”

There is more to be done other than continuing to rebuild after Hurricane Fiona, including one issue that is frequently brought to Parsons’ attention.

“I would say by what I hear, in terms of the volume of emails, complaints, and conversations, it’s infrastructure. I mean roads. I mean T’Railway. I mean construction, development and capital works,” said Parsons. “We’ve gotten more money in this district in the last seven years than in many previous years combined, but getting the work done is often a challenge due to weather, just getting it out of the door, but I’m feeling really good about where next year is going to go. I’ve had commitments made on various pieces of work that are priorities to us, not including what we need to see done with Fiona. I feel good about it. Don’t get me wrong. We’ve got lots of challenges. Healthcare is a huge issue, but that’s not limited to us.”

The Town of Stephenville has seen success in 2022 to retain and recruit new physicians to their area thanks to a generous financial incentive program they were able to roll out, and that’s in addition to the incentive being offered by the province. But not all municipalities have the same deep pockets as the Town of Stephenville, which affects strategies to recruit more healthcare professionals, particularly to more rural areas.

“You’re going to see a lot more, I think, in terms of communities reaching within to find creative ways to help with retention. Not just Stephenville, but I’ve heard of things going on in Bonavista and other places, and that’s where we are, and that’s on a micro level. When we go up higher, provinces are competing. We do something, then Nova Scotia jumps on and does something, then Ontario does something, because we are all competing for the same resources anywhere,” said Parsons.

Recruiting and retention measures need creative solutions, including finding new and better ways to support overworked, overstressed staff who are currently struggling to cope with the healthcare system. Parsons says that government cannot do all of that without some help. Then there are logistics like housing for new staff, something that Port aux Basques is already struggling with thanks to Fiona.

“We have to find a way, not just to get more nurses, but we’ve got a lot of nurses there who are looking for support, looking for help and it’s not just a government issue. It’s going to require everybody working together and figuring it out, because there are a lot of different moving parts.”

Since the COVID pandemic restrictions have eased, and starting with a return to the school classrooms, a flu virus is working its way through communities. On social media, some Newfoundlanders and Labradorians are saying this flu is worse than when they had COVID.

“From my perspective, we’ve come off a couple of years of really heightened health restrictions to no restrictions and how that has affected our immunity, I think something like this was probably inevitable. That’s just my take,” said Parsons. “We’re not wearing masks. I know my hand washing-sanitizer efforts haven’t changed, but that’s probably not the case for everyone, and I’m sitting on planes where I don’t have to wear my mask. We are going back to some of the behaviours from pre-COVID, but we’ve spent two years not exchanging any germs.”

Regionalization was a hot-button topic for many smaller communities and it is an issue still on the table, but Parsons hasn’t received an update on what that might actually entail in recent months.

“It’s obviously still in the mix. It’s obviously something that I think needs to be seriously explored, but it’s a very complicated thing. I haven’t had an update on it recently. Maybe I should, but to me the thing

is it’s not a ‘one size fits all.’ Generally, most people agree with the tenants of regionalization, but when you look at it on a wide scale, then it gets into a bigger conversation that is sometimes polarized. We, in smaller areas, tend to look at, ‘well, what do we lose,’ and we need to start figuring out, ‘what do we gain,” said Parsons.

“It’s like anything. These things take time. They take communication, and it’s about what we get out of this. How do we make our lives and situation better? But it’s increasingly becoming a challenge for our areas because our census numbers are going down, our senior demographic is going down, our tax base is getting more difficult, but nobody is in a position where we can afford to pay in order to get town services with the continued rising costs. How do you meet that? Status quo is not going to work, but I’m not a fan of abrupt solutions.”

On the other side of the coin, Come Home Year saw many families returning to the province after years of being unable to travel with the pandemic in full swing.

“When you look at the traffic numbers, I tend to think of it as a success,” said Parsons. “As an individual who participated as a resident – I wasn’t part of the organizers and volunteers, but I am extremely thankful for them – how many people changed their travel plans? I don’t know if it was all COVID related. Some may have been financial, but there was a heck of a lot of people home. You couldn’t find a rental car. You had a hard time getting on the boat. A lot of people, tourism businesses, will tell you they had an amazing time returning to pre-2019 numbers. Overall, I was really happy with it. It was a really good feeling and I still look back on it really fondly.”

Business opportunities in the region are plentiful for entrepreneurs, and the minister is willing to work with tourism operators, industry leaders like mining and green energy companies, and anyone else who has a vision that might want to set up shop in the province.

“I’m excited about the opportunities that face the Southwest coast. Whether it comes to mining – you’ve got Matador that’s established a presence and is further expanding their horizons in terms of doing further exploration – there’s lithium possibilities when you look down in the Burgeo Road area. Wind is going to play a role in our area,” said Parsons.

“We have interest in the Southwest coast, and we’ve got the things to make it successful, which includes the wind resource, available crown land, a workforce, a deepwater port. All of these things are things you need to move toward export opportunities which is what this is.”

There will always remain issues moving into a new year, but Parsons believes the potential and the good stuff needs to be recognized and given equal consideration.

“I always say it’s easy to deal in doom and gloom. It’s not hard to look anywhere and find something to complain about, all of us, because there is a lot, but I do think there are a lot of bright things to try to work towards. That’s what keeps me going. We’ve got a lot of things to look forward to, I think, and we’ve come through a really tough time. The trick is for us to figure out how we build back better.”

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