By Fran Yanor / Legislative Reporter
On June 22, the opening day of the B.C. government’s first legislative session since COVID-19 disrupted operations in March, Prince George-Valemount MLA Shirley Bond returned to Question Period with her usual unflinching line of inquiry.
Yet, this session was anything but typical. For Bond or her colleagues.
Of the 87 provincial representatives who usually sat in the legislative chamber, only about 20 were there in-person, as per public health protocols. The remaining
Members, like Bond, were Zoomed into proceedings via the internet and projected onto large screens for chamber attendees to see.
While all the politicians grappled with how best to do their job in the new pandemic-dictated landscape of physical-distancing and incessant teleconferencing,
Bond’s burden of adjustment was, and is, unquantifiably more onerous.
Barely two weeks before the session start, the long-time MLA lost her husband Bill after he suffered a massive, and ultimately fatal, stroke.
“I wake up every day and just try to face the next day, one day at a time,” said Bond after the first week in session. “It’s devastating. For me, and for my family.”
Yet, for the five-term provincial representative from Northern B.C., the lack of in-person interaction workwise was a double-edged sword that may have helped her be more effective. “It would have been much more difficult because of my personal circumstances,” Bond said. “To be there face-to-face with my colleagues.”
In the first day’s Question Period, Bond was last at bat for the Opposition, and the only questioner to participate remotely.
“I was told I was the first Zoom question, in question period, in BC history,” said Bond.
“It was hard to do, but I’m thankful, it’s something I will always remember and I think we’re making the best of it.”
Working from off-site alters the dynamic, she said. Whereas previous Question Periods could easily escalate into high-volume verbal disputes, raucous heckling or back-handed (and straight-forward) insults flung both directions across the floor, debate-via-Zoom significantly diffused group momentum.
“You don’t get the emotion, the sort of in-person passion that you get when you’re in the legislature,” said Bond, who has launched her own share of chamber volleys. “It’s a little less personal, you’re just looking at the screen. But you do get work done.”
During the first week back, Bond and her Opposition colleagues were back in typical form. One after another, they used their daily questions to hammer Premier John Horgan and Labour Minister Harry Bains on a single issue: allow B.C. businesses to delay paying severance to employees laid off during the pandemic. To the point where Horgan, clearly exasperated at the repetitive nature of the questions said, “I assumed that when we came back to the Legislature… we would bring up more than one piece of correspondence, albeit important, that I have acknowledged and said I will address before the week is out.”
The correspondence repeatedly referenced by the Opposition was a request by the BC Chamber of Commerce, the BC Hotel Association, the Vancouver Board of
Trade and several others to extend the payout deadline. A financial protection for workers who lose their jobs, the Employment Standards Act stipulates employers must pay severance to employees after they are laid off a certain period of time. Many employers forced to sideline employees under evolving COVID-19 health regulations were coming up on the severance deadline. The business organizations argued hefty one-time payouts would force many already fragile operators into bankruptcy.
On June 25, after three days of nearly unrelenting focus on the issue from the Opposition bench, and following a previously scheduled meeting Horgan had which included many of the letter’s signatories, the government extended the deadline until Aug. 30, 2020.
“I think our approach helped shift the opinion of government,” said Bond defending the Liberal strategy to stay singularly fixed on the severance extension throughout the week.
“I think people assumed when we went back to the legislature that there would be a different approach,” said Bond, who participated in a co-operative all-party committee during the pandemic. “But our job as opposition is to press government to be accountable, to deal with issues that are emerging.”
To onlookers, the Shirley Bond on-screen in Question Period presented with her usual fiery tenacity of purpose.
“I know that people think, ‘Oh, look on the screen and how she does question period and stuff,’” said Bond. “But I’ll tell you what, when the camera’s off and you’re in your house alone, the tears and the pain come in waves.”
It’s the little things that can trigger grief, she said. “Yesterday I mowed our little back lawn and it took me 15 minutes to figure out how to put the bag back on the thing,” she said. “It’s just something I hadn’t done before.”
She shed a few tears in the backyard, she said. “Then you just say, ‘Okay, next time I’ll be better at it.’”
Some people questioned her return to work so soon, Bond said. “First of all, I know Billy would want me to do my job and do it well. And, what (else) am I going to do? Sit here all day long? I have a wonderful family, but their job isn’t to babysit their grandma or their mom.”
While it’s excruciatingly painful to be without her best friend and husband, Bond said, “I also have so much to be grateful for.” She wants to remember and celebrate the joy too.
“Married 41 years. Kids. Grandkids,” said Valemount Mayor Owen Torgerson. “I really can’t imagine her loss.”
Over the years, Bond has been a staunch supporter of Robson Valley interests, said Torgerson, who has known and worked with the MLA for nearly a decade.
“She took the time to jump in the car with her senior staff and make sure that she met with us,” he said, adding, Bond was a frequent visitor to the area, attending community events, and meetings with council and other leaders.
“Every time I saw Shirley, Billy was with her for the most part,” Torgerson said. “He went everywhere with her.”
They were a team, said Todd Corrigall, CEO of the Prince George Chamber of Commerce.
“They really acted as this truly perfect counterbalance to one another’s personalities.”
Given the 24-hour, every-day-of-the-year nature of a job in politics, being married to a politician can challenge any relationship, Corrigall said. “To have a partner in life, and professionally, that supports that and is willing to be there for the numerous terms that Shirley’s been elected,” he said. “That takes a lot.”
Bill Bond personified the spirit of the region, said Torgerson. “Strength, perseverance, support, love.”
What amazed Torgerson was the onslaught of support Bond got from hundreds of Twitter followers and the time she took to answer each note. “Every single condolence that was shared to her on Twitter, Shirley made the effort to respond to it,” said Torgerson. “The strength that she had a do that and just to keep doing it long after… was absolutely amazing.”
Bond says, she is still forging her way through the hundreds of cards and letters she and her family have received. “It’s been overwhelming,” she said, adding how grateful she was for the many people who reached out from her constituency.
Nothing takes the grief away, she said, “but it helps to ease the pain to have felt the kind of community support that I did.” Bond misses her visits to the Robson Valley. “I absolutely love my riding,” she said, “and I love being out and about in it.”
In-person meetings make a difference in Victoria too, said Bond, but it looks like, for the summer session, she’ll continue doing her job remotely on ‘Team Zoom’ as she called it. “Whether I’m looking at a screen or whether I’m standing in the legislature, my number one concern is to stand up for the people who elected me.”
On the job front and the Opposition strategy going forward, her priorities are clear.
“We know that the government is managing the pandemic, and we’ve been a part of how that’s been shaped,” she said. “At the same time, we now need to start thinking about a potential economic crisis.”
With an unemployment rate that almost tripled in three months, the Opposition needs to keep on government to sort out how we’re going to reboot the economy, said Bond, who held a ream of Cabinet posts herself in previous governments, including Finance, Health, Education, Labour, and Attorney General, among others. The Liberals are looking forward to mid-July, she said, when Finance Minister Carole James will present a detailed report of the government’s financials and how the COVID-19 emergency relief funds have been spent so far.
“Not ignoring the health care issues, we are very thoughtful and mindful of those,” said Bond. “But now we also need to start thinking about the economy, and how on earth is British Columbia going to emerge in the weeks and months ahead.”
Meanwhile, grief is a process that Bond will continue to navigate her way through, she said. “For me, work is part of that solution for now.”
While sitting alone in her house, staring at a screen all day, every day, is isolating and far from ideal, she said, “we need to get work done; we need to serve the people we represent.”
The summer session is six weeks long. “That’s manageable,” said Bond. “And, frankly, it’s my job.”
Fran Yanor / Local Journalism Initiative / Rocky Mountain Goat / [email protected]