Kootenay Columbia MP David Wilks was in Invermere last week, speaking at the Chamber of Commerce luncheon on Thursday, February 20th, where he addressed the new federal budget, the Build Canada Fund, the controversy surrounding closure of Veterans Affairs offices and the Senate scandal.

The federal government announced changes to the Build Canada Fund on February 12th, the day after it unveiled the federal budget, and Mr. Wilks said these changes could benefit the Upper Columbia Valley. For-profit and not-for-profit entities can now apply to the fund, as well as local governments.

“We’ve expanded that and we’ve expanded the opportunities you can apply to it for,” said Mr. Wilks.

Previously local governments applying for money from the fund needed to have a specific “green component” to their applications, but the federal government has removed this, he said.

“Most local governments deal with mostly water, sewers and roads, none of which necessarily have a ‘green component’, so we took that out. The federal government has also broadened the scope of the fund to include local and regional airports, broadband, recreation, culture, tourism and sport,” said Mr. Wilks.

The majority of money from the Build Canada Fund destined for B.C. communities used to flow through the Union of B.C. Municipalities (or UBCM), but the federal government’s recent changes mean that 75 per cent of that money will now go directly to the communities and only the remaining 25 per cent will flow through the UBCM, he said.

Mr. Wilks also emphasized an allocation in the budget for improvements on the TransCanada highway through Glacier National Park, something he said he’s been lobbying for since he became an MP.

Although the highway does not go through the Upper Columbia Valley, many valley residents use it often when heading to the coast or to the Kamloops and Okanagan areas, trips that hopefully will soon become smoother and easier thanks to the improvements, said Mr. Wilks.

“In the budget they announced $391 million to go to Parks Canada with a significant portion of that dedicated to repaving and other repairs (to the TransCanada highway) in Glacier National Park,” he said. “I will lobby for that significant portion to be around $100 million.”

“They left it pretty vague in the budget, but in my opinion it has to be capital upgrades, not just operational (improvements),” said Mr. Wilks.

The budget contains an additional $5 million for the New Horizons project (which could be used for local seniors-friendly projects), a tax credit of up to $3,000 for volunteer search and rescue workers (of which the valley has more than a few) and an additional $10.8 million in funding for the Special Olympics program (of which Invermere has a very successful branch).

“The Special Olympic program has extremely low administration cost and is really great for the participants — the extra funding will help get them out skiing, bowling and swimming more,” said Mr. Wilks.

The MP also touted a move in the federal budget to introduce a new DNA database.

“I would like to take it one step further. I would like to see that if you are charged and convicted of an indictable offense, that you must provide a DNA sample. I truly believe we could solve a huge number of unsolved murders, maybe as many as 60 percent, with this. And if they (convicts) won’t give it (the DNA samples) willingly there are always ways of getting it,” said Mr. Wilks.

The MP also talked about the recent controversy surrounding the announced closure of nine Veterans Affairs offices across the country.

“In my opinion it (the announcement of closures) wasn’t done properly, but I am not the Minister of Veterans Affairs. It was disappointing,” said Mr. Wilks, adding his family background includes a lot of people in the military.  “It should not become a partisan issue and it did. All parties are to blame.”

Seven of the nine Veterans Affairs offices that were closed were simply moved to a Services Canada office in the same building or one extremely close by.

“All they were doing was moving the staff to eliminate a lease,” he said. “The messaging was terrible. It really was. It should have been done a lot better. But it wasn’t and now we deal with it.”

Mr. Wilks also touched on the Senate scandal, saying changing the senate, which many people tout as a solution, is more complicated than many people realize.

“It’s challenging because you are stuck with the constitution of 1867,” he said. “The only way to really change the Senate is to change the constitution and you just can’t do that. Nova Scotia, New Brunswick and Prince Edward Island are hesitant to open it (the idea of constitution change to reform the Senate) because they have the most to lose.”

Copper Point Resort general manager and B.C. Hotel Association board of directors member Amanda Robinson asked Mr. Wilks about his opinion on the temporary foreign workers’ program.

“Every time we try to change the foreign workers’ program, big business figures out a way around it. It’s challenging,” he said. “It’s a reality that we need temporary foreign workers.”

The existing temporary foreign workers’ program mostly works well, said Mr. Wilks, but large companies — such as mining companies based in northern B.C. — try to slip through existing loopholes, prompting the federal government to make changes.

Often those changes are necessarily blanket changes and small businesses, including those in places such as the Upper Columbia Valley, then get caught in the middle, he said.