Theresa and Kenny Michell at the B.C. legislature March 7 to describe their experience since Kenny was severely burned in January 2012 sawmill explosion.

Forget the issues, pass the muffins

The scandalous new MLA lounge with "free muffins" is part of a strikingly expensive refit to improve legislature wheelchair access

VICTORIA – Proceedings here at the B.C. legislature were briefly thrust into the spotlight last week, firing up the radio talk shows and twitter feeds.

No, it wasn’t the B.C. Liberal government forcing through legislation to allow industrial “research” for things like pipeline routes in provincial parks, or the debate on sanctioned wolf and grizzly kills. It wasn’t the teacher strike vote, as the scripted motions of that ritual combat are well known to weary parents.

It was muffins. More specifically, “free” muffins in a newly relocated and equipped MLA lounge, and a rack installed to hold the said muffins at a cost of $733.

This was portrayed as part of a spending spree by Richmond East MLA Linda Reid, elected Speaker last summer. In fact it’s just the latest phase of a strikingly expensive refit to provide wheelchair access, which Reid has championed.

The new MLA lounge replaces a seldom-used one at the top of steep stairs high in the 1898 stone structure. The new lounge is served by a ramp near the chamber exit to another under-used room in the library, and equipped with big-screen TVs to follow proceedings, similar to those installed in the legislature chamber last year.

Everything done here is expensive, from matching ornate woodwork to upgrading ancient plumbing and wiring. But the public, conditioned by media to expect corruption and scandal, would rather be outraged about free muffins.

Prior to this, MLAs had to troop down to the basement dining room to put muffins and coffee on their expense accounts, or have an assistant fetch them. The outraged talk shows didn’t mention that. There are access issues in the dining room too, a fact more difficult to ignore with Children and Family Development Minister Stephanie Cadieux, Paralympian Michelle Stilwell and former Vancouver mayor Sam Sullivan now elected to serve using their wheelchairs.

A costly new outside access ramp assisted Kenny Michell, who visited last week to tell his harrowing story of the Burns Lake sawmill explosion that nearly burned him to death in 2012 and left him in a wheelchair.

The NDP brought a delegation of survivors and family members of the dead from sawdust explosions in Burns Lake and Prince George. They supported the opposition’s demand for an independent inquiry, although their own demands ranged from counselling for long-suffering wives to seeing someone punished for alleged negligence.

The scandal pushed in this tragic story is that some evidence was not protected by WorkSafeBC and wouldn’t have been admissible in court. Prosecutors also said they had enough evidence for charges, but the companies or executives would be able to show “due diligence” that would likely result in acquittal.

What that means in English is that the explosion risk of extra-dry dust and air wasn’t fully grasped by either mill operators or WorkSafeBC. All B.C. mills are now subject to more scrutiny, and a coroner’s inquest will be calling witnesses this fall to see what lessons can be learned.

Back to pipelines through parks. This may seem like a scandal to urban B.C. residents who already fret about the possibility of the 60-year-old Trans Mountain pipeline, or one of several proposed gas pipelines, intruding on a park.

It’s not as well known that Trans Mountain completed a major twinning and upgrading project on the Alberta side in 2008. It crosses Mount Robson Provincial Park and Jasper National Park, without incident or scandal to date.

But back to muffingate, as it’s become known around here. I don’t know why people are so cynical and uninterested in serious issues. I wish I did.

Tom Fletcher is legislature reporter and columnist for Black Press. Follow me on Twitter: @tomfletcherbc

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