COLDSTREAM - Eric Foster hasn’t gone to the movies since Forrest Gump hit the big screen some 20 years ago.
“Tom Hanks looked young then,” Foster says. “I probably did too.”
The random factoid is the incumbent MLA’s answer to the question: Tell me something people don’t know about you. It stumps him, momentarily at least.
“My life’s been a pretty open book for the last 30 years,” he says.
Foster has indeed been a public figure for nearly half his life, and made headlines during his two terms as Vernon-Monashee MLA for everything from hospital expansions to an investigation by B.C.'s auditor general.
His evenings and weekends are filled with meetings, ribbon-cuttings and various charity events — places that give him a chance to connect with constituents, he says.
“It’s absolutely not a job. Jobs are what you do Monday to Friday, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. This is a lifestyle, and you have to have a passion for it,” he says.
Politics has been part of the 67-year-old’s life for a long time. It’s how he met the fellow who runs the bed and breakfast where this interview takes place. They were both on the campaign for former Vernon-Monashee MLA Tom Christensen and became good friends. The bed and breakfast, located on Middleton Mountain overlooking Kalamalka Lake, is what Foster suggested when asked if we could get out of the campaign office for the interview.
But Foster’s political life started long before his predecessor’s election campaign. It was 1985 when his neighbour came over to his Lumby home to tell him she wasn’t seeking re-election on council.
“I said ‘that’s too bad,’ and she said, ‘we think we should get some new younger people in. So we’ve decided we’re going to run you.’ They had all the paperwork already done,” Foster says.
He was 35 at the time, a volunteer firefighter and working in the forestry industry. He went on to serve as mayor in Lumby before running successfully for MLA in 2009. He was re-elected in 2013 with 46 per cent of the vote — roughly nine per cent more than he had in 2009.
“The single most important thing that’s happened in the last eight years, the thing we (the B.C. Liberal Party) has done that’s had the biggest impact on peoples’ lives is the Single Parent Employment Initiative,” Foster says.
The program allows single parents on income and disability assistance to continue receiving assistance benefits during training while also having tuition, childcare and transportation costs covered.
“I talked to one lady who took an insurance course, she said the biggest part of it is her daughter now thinks it’s normal for people to go to work. Right there, you break the cycle,” Foster says.
Locally, one of the things he’s most proud of is the completion of the top two floors of Vernon Jubilee Hospital.
“I lobbied extremely hard,” Foster says. “I parked on the Minister of Health’s desk until he said yes. The premier referred to me as a pit bull with a bone.”
He says it took about six months of daily lobbying to “push the project across the finish line.”
But he doesn’t always have good news for constituents. There are 85 ridings in B.C., and they are all lobbying for money for schools and hospitals and highway improvements.
“I never promise anything except that I’ll do my best to get it for you and that’s all I can do,” he says.
He also maintains that his decisions aren’t swayed by what might garner him votes. Take, for example, the Stickle Road controversy, which made headlines numerous times over the past few years in Vernon. While many residents wanted a traffic light, Foster supported a different plan for a road extension behind Rona.
“A traffic light will reduce the probability of accidents by five per cent. The route behind Walmart will reduce it by 20 per cent,” Foster says. “There will be people that don’t vote for me because of Stickle Road and there’s nothing I can do about that. I am not risking peoples’ lives for votes.”
He also says he can’t be bought. Political donations are a hot topic this election after The Globe and Mail, The New York Times and others, dubbed B.C. the ‘wild west’ of fundraising. Foster defends the Liberals’ fundraising practices.
“The opposition has made a big deal about this because we’ve had some pretty sizeable donations but, and this is public knowledge, the BCGEU gave the NDP $117,400 and that’s because they believe that the NDP will be more supportive of unions and a different form of government*. They’re not buying anything, they’re supporting what they believe is a different philosophy, and that’s fair,” Foster says. “To come out and say we’re only supporting our rich friends and so on because they give us money, and he’s doing the same thing with his supporters, that’s okay, but it works both ways.”
Records for previous election campaigns are publicly available, and a quick search shows that in the 2013 election, Foster received $22,652 in campaign donations from more than 20 individuals and corporations, among them Sleeman Brewing, Kalview Enterprises Ltd., and other companies (bolstered by more than $70,000 from the B.C. Liberal Party.)
But Foster insists he doesn’t take money if it comes with a catch. For instance, during the 2013 campaign, he says he received a fairly large donation, but gave it back.
“There’s two kinds of people who donate. Ninety-nine per cent donate because they believe in the direction you’re going…. There’s that other 0.1 per cent that are giving money because they want something back. You have to weed them out and not take the money. That’s how I do it.”
He says the most rewarding part of his job is helping people on a daily basis. He gives the example of riding public transit with local advocates from a special needs group to better understand their concerns and how they could be addressed.
“We make a difference in peoples’ lives every single day. It doesn’t get in the newspapers, doesn’t get a ribbon cutting,” Foster says.
Looking ahead, he sees housing as the biggest issues facing the Vernon-Monashee riding and, if re-elected, would focus on incentives for the private sector to develop more housing opportunities and ensuring both tenants and landlords are protected.
Asked for his response to the opioid overdose crisis claiming lives across B.C., Foster says the Liberals have put a lot of funding towards the challenging issue.
“We’ve spent a tremendous amount of effort and resources on this here in B.C. — more than anyone else in the country — and it’s working, I guess, because we’d have a lot more fatalities than we do, and the chief medical officer said that. The numbers of fatalities are staggering, but they’d be double that if we weren’t making the efforts we’re making.**”
Foster is one of four candidates running for MLA in the Vernon-Monashee riding. He’ll face off against Barry Dorval, of the NDP, Keli Westgate of the B.C. Green Party, and Don Jefcoat of the B.C. Libertarians.
For his part, Foster is hoping voters will endorse him for another term.
“I’m not done yet. We’ve got some things we need to do here,” he says.
*An online search did not immediately turn up a record of the $167,000 donation. iNFOnews.ca has contacted the B.C. NDP as part of our fact-checking process and will update this story if needed. UPDATE: Eric Foster has contacted iNFOnews.ca to clarify his remarks about the BCGEU donation to the NDP. He says it was $117,400 last year, not $167,000. We have determined that is correct.
**While the chief coroner has praised government for its attention to the issue in the past, iNFOnews.ca is not aware of any direct references about how many deaths the Liberals' may have prevented through their efforts. Former B.C. Health Minister Terry Lake, on the other hand, was quoted in a January 2017 article stating: “The evidence suggests many, many more lives would have been lost had we not done what we have done.”
Chief medical officer Perry Kendall said in a February 2017 article that B.C.'s approach to addiction is like "a series of disconnected silos” that may increase the likelihood of someone overdosing.
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