Sarah Cunningham presented the research she had compiled regarding social services delivery in the Omineca Region at the College of New Caledonia campus in Fort St. James on Jan. 31.

Sarah Cunningham presented the research she had compiled regarding social services delivery in the Omineca Region at the College of New Caledonia campus in Fort St. James on Jan. 31.

Shocker unveiled: Government not understanding rural realities

OBAC study reveals government disconnect and rural gap.

If you have ever sat waiting on hold for ages trying to access government services, or struggled for hours over government service forms, you are not alone.

But you already knew that.

The real news is now at least government may become more aware of these issues and more, at least if the Omineca Beetle Action Coalition has anything to say about it.

This was the message brought with the presentation of a study of the coordination of social services in the Omineca region.

The study was initiated by the Omineca Beetle Action Coalition (OBAC), which is an organization formed in 2005 to look at economic diversification and long-term sustainability in the region after the massive pine beetle epidemic which could potentially jeopardize many forestry-based communities.

One of the objectives set out when OBAC was formed was by 2025 to “be known as a model region for delivery of quality, equitable, coordinated, relevant and cost-effective services to small and rural communities.”

Sarah Cunningham, the consultant who did the study for OBAC, has been travelling throughout the region from Smithers to Valemount to present the study’s findings and potential strategies and actions going forward and was in Fort St. James on Jan. 31.

In a one-hour presentation at the College of New Caledonia last week, Cunningham breathlessly attempted to hit the highlights of the extensive study which summarized the findings she gathered through region-wide interviews on social service coordination.

Cunningham said the tour is an attempt to validate the findings of the research and get feedback to help improve the findings and further refine the draft plan.

However, Cunningham did admit so far there has been a lack of meaningful engagement with the First Nations in the region for the project, with the municipalities and regional districts being the primary sources of input, and not a lot from First Nations.

“That hasn’t really happened and that’s where the future is, for sure,” said Cunningham.

But so far, what has come out of the research is community service providers are not able to connect effectively to the public (ie. government) service providers, and overall coordination is inadequate, which can limit the effectiveness of the community services.

“Coordination is actually fundamental to service provision,” said Cunningham.

The study found evidence people experience limited or no access to a wide range of needed programs and services, online or call centre government services can be very difficult for people to access, and government funding programs are sometimes inaccessible, with often highly restrictive funding criteria, little local control over resources and the tendency for government to be focussed on their internal processes at the expense of supporting or working with contracted agencies.

Those internal processes can be very difficult to overcome in relation to rural communities, and there is little recognition within government of rural realities, including geography and infrastructure, according to the research.

Cunningham was looking for some validation of the study’s findings from those in attendance to give OBAC a mandate to take her findings to the government and lobby for potential changes to address these disconnects and others.

Those attending the Fort St. James session seemed focussed on resource sharing in resource-rich rural areas.

“We’re expected to maintain all of those things – but a fair share has to come back into the community,” said Councillor Joan Burdeniuk.

For more information on the details of the study or OBAC, go to: http://www.ominecacoalition.ca