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  1. Anger is often directed at the leaders of tent cities, but they seem to get results. A HEAVY TURQUOISE NECKLACE complements the dress that Chrissy Brett is pulling on as she changes out of sweat pants and heavy boots that have warded off the chilly morning air at the temporary homeless encampment on West Saanich Road. Brett is dressing for a meeting with Saanich Police Department representatives and, given the prickly history between homeless campers and Saanich police—including Brett’s arrest after she blew an air horn at a firefighter—she is not sure how it will go. Chrissy Brett It’s another day of negotiation, media interviews and searching for the next likely camping spot for Brett, a compelling and polarizing figure who first came to the attention of Vancouver Island residents when the 2015/2016 tent city sprang up beside Victoria’s courthouse. Since then, as the homeless camp has moved around Greater Victoria, Brett has acted as spokeswoman and advocate, inevitably becoming a lightning rod for the criticism and abuse that comes with the emotionally fraught issue. Called Mama Bear by campers, Brett, 43, sees her role more as a buffer than a leader. Decisions are shared, rules are enforced and a degree of protection is offered the most vulnerable, she explained. Campers agreed that consensus guides the camp. “But, it’s very helpful to have Chrissy as a spokesperson—and it’s time we let a woman lead,” said one man as he helped distribute juice made from donated fruit and fresh vegetables. While some taxpayers, renters and homeowners complain bitterly about crime, discarded needles, and safety concerns when tent cities move into the area, Brett contends that most of the problems come from hangers-on and “weekend warriors.” “I think this has worked really well,” she said, looking around at the scattered tents. “Well, maybe not from the public’s point of view, but, look at the no-violence agreement that we have. It’s created and enforced by people here, so there’s that buy-in,” she said, while patting Loyalty, an overweight, mixed-breed dog. That view is not shared by RCMP and Saanich police who say that trespassing, open drug use and theft is rampant in the vicinity of encampments. While the camps certainly draw attention to homelessness, the hostility they provoke can be destructive and divisive, and anger is often directed at leaders, who are accused of exacerbating the problem. A recent letter to the Times Colonist accused activists of turning the homeless into political pawns. A Saanich petition—calling for illegal tent cities to be shut down—pointed the finger of blame at political activists. Social media includes references to Chrissy and her crusaders, while a Facebook page, opposing tent cities and temporary modular housing, is crammed with bitter comments accusing homeless campers of trying to get something for nothing at the expense of law-abiding taxpayers. Kathy Stinson, executive director of Victoria Cool Aid Society, which operates 472 units of housing in the city (with 166 more in development), said tent cities are polarizing because they make homelessness visible. “People don’t always want to be confronted with these issues in our community. People on the margins are saying ‘hey I am here, recognize me,’” she said. Many of the campers have disabilities, mental health problems or addictions, and both supporters and critics agree that a certain amount of organization and leadership is needed for such a disparate group. Reverend Al Tysick of the Dandelion Society said the homeless are a “hellish group to organize,” and, during the courthouse tent city, there was major conflict between Brett and some campers. “It certainly needs leadership in respect of pulling together as much as you can and [Brett] did that,” Tysick said. There were complaints about Brett coming in as an outsider telling them what to do, and she is often criticized for her showmanship and unwillingness to listen to the other side, said Tysick, but, against the backdrop of broken government promises, he understands why radical tactics are necessary. However, Brett’s voice is weakened by a lack of support from community, church or First Nations leaders, Tysick said. “You need people who have got some credibility in the community, not just the shit-disturbers,” he said. Also, Brett’s group of followers, despite consuming much of the oxygen, is dwindling in size, while unofficial camps proliferate around downtown Victoria, said Tysick, whose organization deals with some of the most needy. Brett believes she does listen to critics and emphasizes she is willing to work with anyone interested in bettering life for the homeless population. Her work is based on integrated case management and experience gained from years of working as an advocate, combined with the teachings of elders from the Nuxalk and other First Nations, she said. “Some authorities are totally willing to work with me and there are others, like Saanich PD and the RCMP, that see absolutely no value in community policing, which, in this day and age I think is pretty dangerous. They’re the old-school, military type,” said Brett, quickly pointing out that not all Saanich cops are hostile and that the Victoria police department sets an example of more enlightened policing. She also dismisses a frequently-repeated story that she is not really homeless. The story, however, has its roots in truth, for when she first felt compelled to light a sacred fire at the courthouse, she did have a home up-Island. But in July last year, the landlord took back the house and, because she was spending increasing amounts of time at the tent city, Brett decided to move her two youngest children to Victoria. “I found a place and then in October I was cut off social assistance for investigation of fraud, so, for four months, I had no income and I lost the place. Then they decided there was no basis for the fraud investigations, but they decided the kids were not with me for 50 percent of the time, so they pay me as a single person on welfare—I get $382 a month,” Brett said. She gets no shelter allowance (an additional $375). “So I am homeless.” Paul Christopher, founder of Better Choices Outreach, a group that provides comforts such as cigarettes and toothbrushes to homeless people, has watched Brett in action since the courthouse tent city. “I had some very good teachers at that tent city and one of them was Chrissy,” he said. “I applaud what she is doing…She has great leadership skills. She’s very good at dealing with the police, fire department and media and she is passionate about what she does.” Brett has the ability and personality to hold things together when dealing with a difficult group of people, Christopher said, echoing others who refer to Brett’s charisma. In Nanaimo, where DisconTent city swelled to 300 and local hostility is palpable, campers were being guided by Surrey-based Alliance Against Displacement. Organizer Amber McGrath, who is not homeless, said the group helps educate the homeless community about their rights, rather than act as leaders. “Just because they are homeless doesn’t mean that they don’t have a voice and that they can’t politically make changes. We are trying to empower people to take control of their own autonomy, their own lives,” she said. Initial local government promises fell through and that is when the Alliance offered its experience and advice, McGrath said. That relationship has been extremely beneficial, “although I know a lot of people are angry with them right now,” she said, adding that people have spat at her, thrown bottles and yelled obscenities. But it has been worth it, she said. “[The Alliance] helped empower these people and showed what could be done through protest. I saw people’s confidence grow and I saw people get some sense of stability,” she said. There is no doubt that tent cities have played a major part in forcing government to act on the homelessness crisis. Since the disbandment of the courthouse camp in Victoria, 292 units of supportive housing have been created at 844 Johnson Street, Mount Edwards Court on Vancouver Street, the former Super 8 Hotel on Douglas Street and the former Tally Ho Hotel on Douglas Street, plus additional shelter beds. In addition, Our Place Society is on the verge of opening a new therapeutic recovery community for 50 men in the former youth detention facility in View Royal. The Province has promised 2,000 units of modular housing, with a mix of temporary and permanent units, to be distributed around BC. So far, in the Capital Regional District, only 21 units for homeless Indigenous women are slated for Victoria because of difficulty in identifying suitable plots of land. In Nanaimo, 170 temporary modular housing units are on order to be placed on city-owned land and on another lot purchased by the Province for $2 million. In all, $3.6 million is being invested by the Province. Pacifica Housing will operate the supportive housing. This is a testament to the efficacy of tent cities, said McGrath. “I am so proud of them that they have done this. It’s really empowering to say ‘look at what you people did. You got housing,’” she said. “It’s not enough for the people that we have here, but it’s a darn good start.” Tysick agrees that tent cities have raised awareness and brought benefits, even though they take away from public sympathy, especially when campsites are left in disarray. “Without them, you wouldn’t be doing this story. It’s a constant topic around the council table. I think it’s doing a lot of good and it’s causing some money [for housing] to come to the city,” he said. Stinson agrees the tactics have forced governments into action.“Keeping it front and centre has been very effective. It has certainly been constantly in the news,” she noted. The bottom line, however, is that although the new units have made a dent, the idea of permanent homes for all that need them remains a distant dream. Brett appreciates the improvements that have been made, but, repeating her homes-not-shelters mantra, she said there is still a long road ahead. “Unfortunately, I think tent cities are necessary until government creates enough affordable options for people,” she said. Judith Lavoie is an award-winning journalist specializing in the environment, First Nations, and social issues. Twitter @LavoieJudith.
  2. The battle of the Broughton continues with surveillance on the seas. AFTER MORE THAN THREE DECADES of running a whale-watching business out of Port McNeill, Bill Mackay knows the importance of understanding what is happening in the water off northern Vancouver Island and he does not take kindly to boats with blacked-out windows or people telling him he’s not allowed to ask about it. “On the ocean, with limited visibility and a high-speed vessel I want to know who the hell is coming at me. I don’t want to be looking at blacked-out windows,” said Mackay after a group of men on a dock in Port McNeill refused to tell him what they were doing. “One guy stood in my face and puffed his chest right out and hollered at the other fellow that he was not allowed to talk to me,” Mackay said. “That got me wondering what the heck is going on. There are at least three of these vessels with blacked-out windows. I asked if they were running drugs or doing illegal things, but they wouldn’t answer,” he said. Part of the answer was revealed when one man opened his jacket, showing a Marine Harvest tee-shirt, but Mackay felt the incident was sufficiently strange that he wrote out a full report for Port McNeill RCMP. “I know a thug when I see one,” he said. “I know Marine Harvest is paying the bills, but who are these guys on board?” he asked. Blacked-out windows and GoPro camera employed by the "Coastal Logger" to monitor fish farm opponents. The ongoing battle over 20 salmon farms in the Broughton Archipelago has taken on a new twist with Marine Harvest Canada leasing vessels and hiring crews to follow independent biologist and wild salmon advocate Alexandra Morton. First Nations and activists such as Morton are strenuously opposed to salmon farms in the Broughton, claiming the farms are responsible for killing wild salmon runs. Over the last year, Indigenous protesters occupied two farms in the area for 290 days. Amid growing tensions, BC Supreme Court last month granted Marine Harvest an interim injunction to block activists from boarding its farms or docks and established a buffer zone around the farms. However, an exception was made for Morton, who is allowed to enter the buffer zone to collect samples, provided she is in a boat of no more than 2.6 metres. Morton, who is currently travelling on the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society’s research vessel Martin Sheen, is collecting samples of feces and fish tissue close to the fish farms. The samples will later be tested for piscine reovirus (PRV), a pathogen that is central to two lawsuits against Marine Harvest. The Namgis First Nation is suing Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO) and Marine Harvest to stop the transfer of PRV-infected farm fish into their territory. Morton is suing DFO and Marine Harvest for failing to screen farm salmon for PRV before they are transferred into ocean pens. Both cases will be heard together in a case starting September 10. Morton has studied transfer of PRV to wild fish and links to heart and skeletal muscle inflammation, which can be fatal in wild salmon populations. This spring, Strategic Salmon Health Initiative, in research led by DFO scientist Kristi Miller-Saunders, found PRV causes red blood cells in chinook salmon to rupture. (The research is a joint effort between Fisheries and Oceans Canada, Genome BC and the Pacific Salmon Foundation.) However, nothing is simple when it comes to salmon farming disputes, and that research has been challenged by a BC Centre for Aquatic Health Sciences study which concluded the virus “acts in a benign fashion in BC.” Adding to the legal wrangles, the Dzawada’enuxw First Nation has filed a title case against DFO, Cermaq and Marine Harvest—the latter two being Canadian branches of Norwegian companies—for operating in their territory without permission. Meanwhile, nation-to-nation talks between First Nations and the provincial government are continuing while the Broughton leases are being renewed on a month-to-month basis after expiring June 20. In addition, throughout BC, new rules requiring all fish farms to have an agreement with First Nations in whose territory they operate, will click into place in four years. Morton believes Marine Harvest is feeling threatened by the upcoming court cases, in addition to uncertainty about whether licences in the Broughton will be renewed, and that is why she is being followed. The constant shadowing has provoked her to complain to the RCMP that she is being stalked. “They follow us everywhere. They sat there when we were visiting people along the way, and one of the days I went out in my boat to do the sampling, and I tried to do a little fishing on the way home and they were following me there,” she said. “I turned around and went right up to their boat and they closed all their windows and doors and they took off, so I followed them and I circled them a couple of times asking why they were following me,” she said. Morton, who has been told that the company has extensive equipment, is concerned that the surveillance will extend to her home and she fears recent computer problems were caused by cyber-hacking. It is difficult to know where the company will draw the line, Morton said. “In my opinion, this stalking behaviour in territories where First Nations are trying to evict them suggests that Marine Harvest is more aggressive than smart,” she said. “If this was happening on the road and you had a car with blacked-out windows following you, you would definitely call the police,” said Morton, who added that the surveillance will not stop her taking samples. Adding to the spy-thriller scenario, the company hired to do the surveillance is Safety Net Security, affiliated with Corrado Ventures Incorporated (CVI). Director Peter Corrado was given a Campbell River business licence in June for Black Cube Strategies and Consulting Ltd. That put up alarm signals for Morton and others, as Black Cube is known internationally as a group of former Israeli intelligence specialists, with offices in Tel Aviv, Paris and London, who, according to their website, “specialise in tailored solutions to complex business and litigation challenges.” (The firm was hired, for example, by Harvey Weinstein, to deter his accusers.) Corrado, Black Cube and CVI spokesmen did not return calls, but Shawn Hall, spokesman for BC Salmon Farmers Association, said there is absolutely no relationship between the Israeli-based company and the Vancouver Island firm. Member companies hired a local health and safety firm to ensure the safety of employees on the farms following the lengthy occupation of two Marine Harvest farms by First Nations protesters, he said. “There were some boardings last year that created an unsafe work environment, and companies want to ensure the health and safety of employees in a peaceful and appropriate manner,” Hall said. Employees felt threatened by the boardings, and companies are now ensuring that comprehensive services are available to support them, he said. “We are Canadian, so we support the right to peaceful protest for anyone, but our members have a responsibility to protect employees,” Hall said. It’s unclear why Morton would be viewed as so physically threatening to employees of Marine Harvest that she is being surveilled. Hall dismissed claims that blacked-out windows, sunglasses, long camera lenses and men ducking into the cabin when challenged present an image of a covert operation. Morton’s lawyer Greg McDade said he finds the surveillance concerning, and it appears to show that Marine Harvest is getting desperate. “I think the fact that Marine Harvest is hiring this quite scary security firm is problematic in and of itself. This is a foreign company that wants to do business in BC waters, and then it goes and hires security people to try and deal with a respected biologist who has been doing research for 20 years in these waters,” he said. It is troubling that the company would try and harass Morton, but it is uncertain whether it’s illegal, as no one owns the ocean, and people have the right to go where they wish, McDade said. “But, this is just not what we do in Canada. It seems completely out of proportion and out of whack to what they are trying to do, so you can only conclude they are trying to scare Alex off, and it won’t happen,” he said. “It just seems very nefarious and un-Canadian. It should be troubling to most Canadians.” Meanwhile, Bill Mackay has come up with his own way of showing displeasure at the blacked-out boats. Recently, with a full load of whale watchers on board the Naiad Explorer, Mackay saw the long camera lenses pointing from behind the windows. “So I asked my passengers politely if they would please give them a round of applause, which they did, and then [the men in the boat] all went and hid behind their blacked-out windows,” Mackay said. “Now, when we encounter them, I ask all my passengers, who come from all over the globe, to get out even bigger lenses, and we point those at them as they go by and they all disappear. I can tell you they don’t want their pictures taken, but we are firing away like crazy,” he said. Judith Lavoie is an award-winning journalist specializing in the environment, First Nations, and social issues. Twitter @LavoieJudith
  3. Indigenous communities in the path of the oil sands and its pipelines have been left with no good options. IN NORTHERN ALBERTA AND BC, anger at environmental damage and fears that traditional cultures are disappearing are competing with economic pragmatism as Indigenous leaders struggle to decide where the future lies. Is it more beneficial to fight, or take a place at the negotiating table in hopes of mitigating damage? It’s a complicated and sometimes soul-crushing balancing act. First Nations have little faith that their objections will have any effect on development decisions, given the history of approvals. In Alberta, out of more than 170 oil sands projects, almost none have been turned down, despite First Nations investing years of research and spending millions of dollars on court cases. “There has been 50 years of mining and there is still no protection of our rights. Governments don’t seem to care,” said Lisa Tssessaze, Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation lands and resource management director. Around Fort Chipewyan, a hamlet on the banks of Lake Athabasca, the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation and Mikisew Cree are preparing to fight the massive Teck Frontier project. The Teck Frontier mine is a $20-billion development, which the company says would provide 7,000 construction jobs and 2,500 permanent jobs. Buffalo in northern Alberta (Photo by Louis Bockner) It would sit 110 kilometres north of Fort McMurray and 30 kilometres south of Wood Buffalo National Park, a World Heritage Site which a UNESCO report says is already under threat from rampant oil sands development and other pressures. If approved after joint federal-provincial review panel hearings this fall, Teck Frontier would rip up 292 square kilometres, with much of the development on land where the buffalo roam. Not just any buffalo, emphasized elder Roy Ladouceur, who, for more than half a century, has lived off the land at the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation’s Poplar Point reserve, which is 16 kilometres from the Teck site. The area, explained Ladouceur, includes calving grounds for the Ronald Lake Bison Herd, the only disease-free, genetically-pure wood bison herd in the area. The herd is already in trouble because of proximity to the oil sands and poaching. He believes that, if Teck goes ahead, it will be the end of the Ronald Lake Bison Herd. Roy Ladouceur (Photo by Louis Bockner) “They say they can find ways and means of preserving the habitat and I just can’t see it happening, no way, no how,” said Ladouceur. Ideas of relocating the buffalo and caribou make no sense and are likely to result in the animals contracting diseases, he said. “You can’t do that to any animal. You are breaking Nature’s law and Nature has its own way. It’s not their home,” Ladouceur said. Freddie Marcel, another Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation elder, concurs with this judgement. He talks with sad resignation about the future of the land where generations of his family have hunted, trapped and fished. “That Teck Frontier development is going to happen regardless of what we say and whether we fight. The buffalo are there and the caribou are there, but that’s right where the mine is going to be,” shrugged Marcel. THE AREA HAS BEEN EXPERIENCING the environmental impacts of industrial development for decades now. Around Wood Buffalo National Park and the Peace-Athabasca Delta, pollution and dropping water levels are evident and problematic. Much of the pollution is traceable to oil sands development. The dropping water levels are largely attributable to dams on the Peace River, climate change, and industry withdrawing water from the Athabasca River. Together they have changed centuries-old lifestyles that relied on the land and water for food, medicines, clothing and shelter. Simultaneous with the environmental damage, however, has come a steady flow of oil money into communities, which is altering attitudes and forcing First Nations communities to examine priorities. Indigenous communities in both provinces are increasingly looking at benefit agreements with companies in hopes of having their voices heard and bringing injections of cash and jobs to their bands. Fort Chipewyan Metis Local 125, for instance, has already signed a participatory agreement with Teck Frontier in return for economic benefits and opportunities to negotiate traditional land use and environmental stewardship. Teck Frontier spokesman Chris Stannell said the company has signed similar agreements with 11 Indigenous groups. “These agreements identify economic and social benefits and opportunities—such as employment, contracting and training—and include environmental stewardship planning,” Stannell said in an emailed response to questions. Even Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation, though offically opposed, is involved in talks with the company on topics such as buffer zones and protection for wildlife. Matt Hulse, the Nation’s regulatory affairs coordinator, admits the question of how to deal with projects such as Teck Frontier is complicated. He said, “There’s a lot of grey. Everyone realizes the jobs are down there [in the oil sands] and that’s where the money comes from. People don’t want the [Teck Frontier] mine to go ahead, but, because we have so little confidence in the regulatory process, Indigenous communities are forced to find ways to benefit from the project to offset the impacts. There isn’t any good option.” THAT AMBIVALENCE IS UNDERLINED by a surprise announcement last month that Athabasca Tribal Council—made up of five First Nations, including Athabasca Chipewyan and Mikisew Cree—is considering buying a stake in the Trans Mountain pipeline in an effort to obtain Indigenous control and ensure the environment is safeguarded. The controversial pipeline, opposed by many British Columbians, was purchased by the federal government from Kinder Morgan for $4.5 billion to ensure a planned expansion goes ahead. The Athabasca Tribal Council move caught pipeline critics and some community members off guard, particularly as Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation Chief Allan Adam, who is also president of the Tribal Council, has been known for campaigning against the pace of oil sands development alongside such celebrities as Jane Fonda, Leonardo DiCaprio and Neil Young. Athabasca Chipewyan elder Alice Rigney, who has lived off the land all her life, blames the oil industry for destroying the delta and the lifestyle that has sustained her family for generations, and she wants no part of a pipeline. “I could not believe that my community wants to be part of this pipeline. They have forced us into a corner where we have nowhere else to turn,” Rigney said sadly. “Just think 100 years from now what this planet will look like. They are destroying the land.” Ironically, the Trans Mountain pipeline is likely to transport oil from the Teck Frontier development, although Stannell said that, if the project is approved, the first oil is not expected to flow until 2026, so shipping plans have not yet been determined. So why would First Nations, who are continuing to fight oil sands projects, want to buy a piece of pipeline? Winds of change are blowing through First Nations communities, said Mikisew Cree Chief Archie Waquan. In Fort Chipewyan, where many young people take fly-in-fly-out shifts in the oil sands, a new affluence is taking hold and traditional activities, such as a moose-hide tanning workshop, are failing to appeal to the new generation. Waquan, who describes himself as a former tree-hugger, believes he must lead efforts to modernize the economy for the sake of the younger generation. “Do we remain the same and be anti or get on the boat and deal with industry and be able to be part of what is happening there? I look at what is happening south of us in the tarpits and the oil sands and, if we don’t partake in it, we will be left behind and I will be to blame,” he said. Chief Archie Waquan (Photo by Louis Bockner) If the pipeline purchase plan goes ahead, it will be the second foray into the industry for Mikisew Cree, who, last year, together with Fort McKay First Nation, bought a 49 percent interest in a Suncor Energy storage facility. A pipeline share is a logical next step, said Waquan, acknowledging that there are continuing concerns, but insisting that participation will help mitigate problems. “I have to look to the future, beyond my time on Earth. Times have changed and we have to realize that. We need to go to a modern lifestyle—which I think my First Nation wants—and that means we have to deal with industry. We have to keep them in check,” he said. Waquan believes that, despite the scars left by oil and gas extraction, the land is resilient enough to recover. “You can’t reverse it now, but in time, when all the development is gone from this territory, our land will always come back to where it used to be,” he said. Others see it differently and say Indigenous communities are being coerced into deals. Eriel Deranger, Indigenous Climate Action executive director, believes that economic benefit agreements, with companies promising to transfer millions of dollars to communities, amount to bribes. “I have watched government and industry work very diligently to wear down the leadership—the way we are allowing this to happen is absurd,” she said. “Our communities are not making decisions freely, free of intimidation and free of coercion and free of bribery. Let’s be real, these impact benefit agreements are bribes,” she said. Projects are approved despite admissions of irreversible and adverse impacts on the people and the land, and that can destroy the spirit of the people, Deranger said. “They are saying, in order for you to survive in the economic system we have imposed on you, you have to join us. There’s no choice any more. The rights of industry and corporations have taken precedence over Indigenous rights,” she said. Judith Sayers, Nuu-chah-nulth Tribal Council president, said the same story plays out in BC, and companies regularly try to coerce First Nations into signing agreements by telling them that they will get nothing if they don’t sign on. “So you sign on to make sure you get money and jobs and benefits for your community,” she said. But communities should realize that they do not have to sign agreements, especially given the adoption of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) by the federal and BC governments, and recent emphasis on the need for free, prior and informed consent, Sayers said. “Losing your right to fish and hunt as opposed to having a job is no contest. There are other ways of making money and having meaningful economic development without selling your soul,” she said. When Kinder Morgan owned the pipeline, the company signed 43 mutual benefit agreements with Indigenous groups in BC and Alberta, but some chiefs have since said that they do not support the pipeline expansion project and felt signing the agreement was the only way to either get benefits or ensure there was funding to clean up spills. “It’s not really support. If we opposed it, we would have no way of addressing spills because we would be disqualified from funding from Trans Mountain,” Ditidaht Chief Robert Joseph told the Times Colonist in 2016. Chief Bob Chamberlin, Union of BC Indian Chiefs vice-president, said the history of Canada is that government makes the final decision over lands Indigenous people have never given up. That, he said, has resulted in a sense of resignation that, whatever you do, someone else is going to make the decision. “As much as we object, as much as we point at case law and the constitution, Canada’s long history of disregarding all that is still alive and well,” Chamberlin said. “We are waiting for free, prior and informed consent to become real, but, until it’s real, First Nations are still faced with ‘the government’s going to do what it’s going to do. We might as well get what we can.’” Now, with the underpinning of UNDRIP, it is up to Indigenous communities to shed those feelings of resignation, and for other Canadians to educate themselves on those rights, Chamberlin said. “We are talking about human rights and that’s a big evolution for Canadians to understand,” he said. Judith Lavoie spent eight days in June in the communities of Fort Smith and Fort Chipewyan reporting for The Narwhal on how Alberta oil sands projects and the Site C dam are affecting the Peace-Athabasca Delta and Wood Buffalo National Park. An overflight of the delta was funded by Sierra Club BC.
  4. Judith Lavoie

    The LNG pipe dream, part 2

    Will methane asphyxiate Green support for the minority NDP government? THERE IS AN ALICE IN WONDERLAND QUALITY surrounding BC’s prickly debate over liquefied natural gas (LNG) development. The story starts with a fantasy, characters shift roles, and the outcome is based on unknowns. However, decisions made on the future of the LNG industry are likely to profoundly affect the province. The former Liberal government’s rose-coloured vision of a prosperous LNG-fuelled future, with 20 terminals and 10,000 jobs, faltered and died as the reality of LNG economics, with low prices and oversupply, sent investors running for the hills. It was a rout applauded by the NDP, who had doggedly criticized the Liberals’ generous giveaways to the industry, and by the BC Greens, who warned that one major LNG terminal and the associated increase in fracking would send the province’s greenhouse gas emissions soaring to levels that would require all other sectors of the economy to cut emissions by 95 percent by 2050. But, wait. Fast-forward to March, when Premier John Horgan announced financial incentives for LNG investors, including temporary relief from provincial sales taxes and rebates for carbon tax increases if the facility meets “best-in-the-world” standards. In the words of Lewis Carroll in Alice in Wonderland, “curiouser and curiouser.” Green leader Andrew Weaver and BC Premier John Horgan Under the New Democrats, LNG projects that meet the standards will pay a carbon tax of $30 per tonne in 2021, instead of $50 per tonne. And, instead of plants paying a higher rate for electricity, as was set under the Liberal legislation, LNG producers will pay the standard industrial rate. The concessions are aimed at persuading the multi-national consortium LNG Canada to proceed with a planned $40-billion project, with a natural gas export terminal in Kitimat linked to massive natural gas reserves in northeast BC by a 670-kilometre pipeline. The incentives offer a framework for the industry and are substantially different from the package offered by the Liberals, Horgan insisted at a news conference. “What I believe is different from the approach of the previous government and the approach we are taking is that, if there is a benefit to British Columbians, we want to make it transparent and obvious to everyone and we are not going to sign a blank cheque for LNG Canada or any other proponent that may come forward,” he said. Concessions would not click in until a company makes a final investment decision, said Horgan. “The previous Liberal government brought forward a whole host of legislation that locked the Province in without ever getting a final investment decision to take place,” he said. It will not be an easy decision, the premier admitted. “Potential opportunity is extraordinary. Potential risks are significant,” said Horgan, who is also acutely aware of the political risks to his government, which is supported by the three-member Green Party caucus. The exemptions will cost about $6 billion over 40 years, but government is hoping the LNG Canada project will generate $22 billion over 40 years from natural gas royalties and income tax, plus 10,000 construction jobs and 950 permanent jobs once construction is completed. The prospect of encouraging an LNG export industry sent BC Green leader Andrew Weaver, a climate scientist, into tirades as he threatened to bring down the government, claiming the NDP had sweetened the pot beyond the industry’s wildest dreams. “We will not support legislative changes that literally continue a generational sell-off of a resource to offshore interests,” Weaver said. LNG Canada would blow the Province’s climate targets right out of the water, he said, noting, “You cannot add ten megatonnes of emissions and somehow think we are going to reduce by 80 percent by 2050. There is simply no possible path to do that. It’s impossible.” Calculations of carbon dioxide emissions from the LNG Canada plant range from government estimates of four megatonnes annually to Pembina Institute’s estimate of 8.6 megatonnes annually in 2030, if all phases of the project are built out, and 9.6 megatonnes in 2050. The core of the controversy is that although Horgan says any LNG development must fit within the Province’s climate targets, Weaver believes that is impossible. But Weaver stopped short of immediately withdrawing support for the NDP, saying he will wait and see what the climate action plan sets out. “We are giving them a chance to develop that plan and show us they can do it,” Weaver said. “If we don’t see a climate plan that meets the targets, our support for the NDP will vapourize.” Environmental groups were also taken aback by Horgan’s announcement, even though the NDP election platform had made it clear that LNG development would be considered, provided it offered a fair return for the resource, guaranteed jobs for British Columbians, included partnerships with First Nations that helped lead to true reconciliation, and met the Province’s climate commitments. Jens Wieting, Sierra Club BC forest and climate campaigner, said the concessions are a form of climate change denial that would spell disaster. “By sweetening the pot for fracked gas export, the government is laying out a red carpet for investors to help destroy our climate,” he said. Similar messages came from the David Suzuki Foundation, which criticized the government for ignoring the industry’s carbon footprint and pointed out that underreported fugitive methane emissions produced by fracking are among Canada’s most serious greenhouse gas problems. Fracking involves pumping large amounts of mud, water and chemicals into the ground, creating enough pressure to crack open rocks and release the natural gas. The gas is turned into a liquid by cooling it to -160 degrees C. Now, all sides are looking warily towards the next steps. The deciding factors will be the shape of the government’s climate action plan and final investment decisions later this year by LNG Canada and the much smaller, $1.4-billion Woodfibre LNG project in Squamish. Those investment decisions will be influenced by a federal government ruling on whether to exempt large LNG modules from a 45.8 percent anti-dumping duty, placed last year on fabricated steel products from China and South Korea. LNG Canada is planning to import modules from China. Much will also depend on market conditions, but, after years of over-supply and slumping prices for natural gas, analysts are cautiously optimistic. Dulles Wang, Wood Mackenzie analyst, speaking at a webinar in April, said the oversupply situation is unlikely to continue and the global market could be looking for a new supply as early as 2022. “The challenge, though, is that there are just a lot of projects out there targeting the window of opportunity…So there’s a sense of urgency for the Canadian projects if they want to be into that timeframe,” he said. But, with no final investment decisions, no climate action plan, and no legislation setting out Provincial concessions to the industry, there are few definitive answers. “Right now we are in the hypothetical stage,” said Weaver. Legislation is likely to be introduced this fall, and one of many unanswered questions is—even if the Greens withdraw support—where the votes would fall. Some New Democrats remain upset with the LNG plan, and some Liberals could vote in favour of what is seen as a business-friendly move. Sonia Furstenau, Green Party MLA for Cowichan Valley, said the Greens have been hearing from disaffected New Democrats. “We have seen quite a significant number reach out to us about that disappointment. Lots of emails and phone calls and contacts. I think [the NDP] have to think very hard about what they want their legacy to be and who they are representing. I would expect that, within their own caucus, there is division and disappointment over this,” Furstenau said. Weaver has come in for criticism for not immediately withdrawing his support for the NDP, but Furstenau said most Green party members want to see a thoughtful and measured response, and the three Green MLAs are aware of their responsibility to work for all British Columbians. One certainty is that, for the Greens, any vote will be rooted firmly in the contents of the climate action plan. “It comes down to a responsibility to future generations,” said Furstenau. Judith Lavoie is an award-winning journalist specializing in the environment, First Nations, and social issues. Twitter @LavoieJudith.
  5. Marijuana greenhouses, wineries and monster houses are eroding BC’s already limited capacity to feed itself. AS NATHALIE CHAMBERS DESCRIBES the onslaught of non-farming uses chewing away at BC’s agricultural land, from cannabis production to industrial parking lots, she points to her particular bugbear—huge houses, surrounded by acres of formerly productive farmland. “They are like smallpox. Carbuncles on farmland. We need requirements on house sizes right away,” she said, singling out one home, now surrounded by fill, built on previously fertile Blenkinsop Valley farmland. Soaring costs of farmland—sparked by interest from wealthy mansion-builders or consortiums hoping to cash in on the legalization of recreational marijuana coming in August—means genuine farmers are being priced out of the market, say groups that are asking the Province to step in to protect the Agricultural Land Reserve which encompasses about five percent of the land in BC. “We are the most food insecure province in Canada and we are denying farmers access to the land,” said Chambers, operator of Madrona Farm and co-chair of the Farmland Protection Coalition. Lower Mainland areas, such as Richmond, are scrambling to control monster homes of more than 10,000 square feet, built on ALR land, but the problem on Southern Vancouver Island is often big houses, built on two-hectare (five-acre) lots, which are then lost to food production. Sometimes, by growing a token amount, owners take advantage of lower property taxes on farmland. Martin Collins, Agricultural Land Commission director of policy and planning, said people who want to build mansions gravitate towards the ALR. “Scale matters, but, now, proliferation is more of a problem—the numbers of them. Our regulation has been too permissive, I think,” he said. Also, Collins pointed out, it is local councils which decide whether a second dwelling for farm help can be built on ALR properties. “Local governments have had a very elastic perspective about that and if the landowner says they need a building for farm help, they give it to them even when they are doing a minimal amount of farming on the property,” he said. Agriculture Minister Lana Popham said she has been hearing about ALR problems since taking over the portfolio, which is why she has appointed an advisory committee that will travel the province looking for ideas on how to better protect the ALR. The committee, which will look at pressures for non-agricultural use, ALR resilience, and the two-zone system brought in by the former Liberal government, will make interim recommendations to Popham this spring. “Creating the ALR was an amazing decision made in the 1970s to protect BC’s farmland, but we couldn’t have foreseen some of the current pressures, like mega mansions and cannabis production as examples, that would shape and influence the land in the ALR today,” Popham said in an emailed response to questions from Focus. “We have been clear in our belief that land in the ALR should be used for farming and we are committed to food security for our province.” THE FORCES LINED UP AGAINST SUCH GOALS are impressive, and complications abound. Farmers, for instance, are finding it difficult to turn down purchase offers financially far beyond what they would have once expected to receive for agricultural land. By last September, Delta alone had received 35 applications from companies looking to grow marijuana in the ALR, and other municipalities are also reporting interest from companies wanting to convert greenhouses from tomatoes and cucumbers to marijuana. In Central Saanich, Evergreen Medicinal Supply is hoping to build marijuana greenhouses on the 40-acre Stanhope Dairy Farm, while in Saanich a former horse boarding facility on Oldfield Road has been bought by a company which is converting the barn and has applied for a building permit for greenhouses. When it was announced recently that the high-profile Woodwynn Farm on West Saanich Road was going on the market, there were rumoured inquiries from people interested in cannabis cultivation. “Any piece of land in the district now is fair game,” said Central Saanich Mayor Ryan Windsor, whose council is asking the provincial government for a six-month moratorium on the use of agricultural land for the production of cannabis, to allow for consultations with municipalities, farmers and the industry. Currently, municipal hands are tied by a 2015 decision by the former Liberal government that licensed marijuana grow operations should be allowed on ALR land and that municipalities should not be allowed to pass bylaws prohibiting cannabis farms. “The decision rests entirely with the Province and we would like them to go back and look at it,” said Windsor, who believes there was inadequate consultation before the rule was brought in. “If someone puts in a building permit application and it meets all the requirements for greenhouses, we pretty well have to issue it,” Windsor said. Communities such as Central Saanich, with large swathes of ALR land, are particularly attractive to cannabis growers. Following federal rule changes earlier this year, the crop no longer has to be grown in a bunker with plants stored in a high-security vault. Instead, marijuana can now be grown in greenhouses, provided there is heavy security. Many believe industrial, not agricultural land, should be used for marijuana cultivation, and, on the Saanich Peninsula, the newly-formed Citizens Protecting Agricultural Land (CPAL) has collected more than 1000 signatures on a petition asking the Province to reverse the 2015 legislation allowing ALR land to be used for grow-ops. “Marijuana grow-ops should not be permitted on land in the ALR because they destroy the agricultural value of the land and its potential to produce food,” says the petition. CPAL spokesman Ken Marriette said the group wants to tackle the gold-rush attitude and stop factory-like marijuana production facilities, with concrete-floored greenhouses, from destroying farmland. “It’s just awful. Put it on non-farmland,” Marriette said. “We don’t want the next generations of British Columbians to have to rely on other countries for our food crops.” JoAnne Nelson, one of the petition organizers, said the concept is alarming. “People have finally found a way to monetize agricultural land and it’s going to blow away the other uses. You are talking consortiums of investors…It’s a movement that is threatening the entire rural community,” she said. ON THE LOWER MAINLAND, another threat comes in the shape of wineries, with a token vineyard and buildings catering to weddings and meetings, a trend ALR director Collins describes as Disneyfication. “There’s a huge demand for these spaces, so you get it flowing into the ALR and turning these beautiful fields into parking lots,” he said. The winery situation is not so critical on Vancouver Island, where producers can grow wine-producing grapes, but regulations tying production and retailing need to be tightened, Collins said. The regulations are too permissive and have been eroded over the decades, he said. “This isn’t real agriculture. It’s capital finding a place to land. We need to find a way to prevent this loose money from landing in the ALR,” said Collins, who is cautiously optimistic the NDP government will make changes. “Maybe they will be as innovative as they were in 1972, but, like all politicians, they will smell the wind,” he said. Kent Mullinix, director of the Institute for Sustainable Food Systems at Kwantlen Polytechnic University, said government must acknowledge that agricultural land is a precious, non-renewable resource that all mankind relies upon. Climate change means arable land is already being lost at an extraordinary rate, but agriculture has been economically marginalized and farmers can’t compete with interests such as development and marijuana, Mullinix said. That means the Province needs to decommodify agricultural land through policy and regulation, he said. “A good place to start is to review the tax structure that gives breaks to people who own ALR land and really don’t farm it. The speculative value, the value from developing agricultural land and taking it out of agriculture, needs to be taxed away,” he said, suggesting an agricultural land bank could also be considered. Mullinix, whose department is about to release a white paper on revitalizing the ALR, believes ALR land should be used only for food production, and he would like to see government restrict farmland ownership to trained farmers—likely resulting in the price of farmland plummeting. “That would mean big money would go somewhere else,” he said. “We have got to get real. We can no longer allow a bunch of capitalist cowboys to run roughshod over the natural resources and the ecosystems that all our lives, livelihoods and—literally—happiness rely upon,” he said. People need to understand that the importance of the issue transcends food and agriculture, Mullinix said. “This is really about how we are going to move through the rest of the 21st century with all the sustainability challenges the next generation will face and generations after that. We will either set things up now so they will stand a chance or we won’t.” The BC government has posted a discussion paper and an online survey at https://engage.gov.bc.ca/agriculturallandreserve. Judith Lavoie is an award-winning journalist specializing in the environment, First Nations, and social issues. Twitter @LavoieJudith.
  6. The BC government has killed the grizzly hunt. But will Conservation Officers enforce the ban? AFTER YEARS OF LETTER WRITING, strategy sessions and protests, opponents of BC’s grizzly bear trophy hunt were euphoric when the NDP government killed the hunt in December. “Can you believe it? I have just had a weep,” said Valerie Murray, founding member of Justice for BC Grizzlies, as Environment Minister George Heyman and Forests, Lands and Natural Resource Operations Minister Doug Donaldson announced that all grizzly hunting in BC would end immediately. Grizzly sow and cubs (Photograph by Mike Hoekendijk) Earlier, in August 2016, the government had said that grizzly hunting would stop in the Great Bear Rainforest and trophy hunting would be banned in the rest of the province, but there was a loophole large enough for a pickup truck to drive through. It took the shape of allowing a food hunt, provided meat was packed out, and perceived trophies, such as the head, hide, paws and penis bone, were either left in the woods or turned over to the government. Fears that the meat hunt would be a thin disguise for business-as-usual were exacerbated by advertisements on the Guide Outfitters Association of BC website promoting the 2018 hunt. After the initial announcement, government allowed time for further consultation and the reaction was fast and furious. Out of 4,180 emails received by government, almost 80 percent wanted a total ban on grizzly hunting. “British Columbians told us in no uncertain terms, very clearly, how strongly they feel about protecting grizzly bears and grizzly bear habitat,” Heyman said. The only exception will be First Nations, who will be allowed to harvest grizzlies for food, social or ceremonial purposes or treaty rights. But that impact is expected to be minimal. Scrapping the “sustenance hunt” surprised both sides of the polarized controversy, with many expressing amazement that the government had listened to the opinions of British Columbians. “We can bearly believe it,” quipped Joy Foy of the Wilderness Committee. On the other side, opposition Liberals and grizzly hunters claimed the ban was an effort to divert the attention of environmentalists from the NDP government’s earlier decision to go ahead with the Site C dam. Members of the Guide Outfitters Association of BC predict some businesses will fail as a result of the ban, but a 2014 study found that bear viewing in the Great Bear Rainforest generated 12 times more in visitor spending and 11 times more in government revenue than hunting. Also, First Nations are likely to benefit from increases in bear viewing and aboriginal tourism, said Vernon Brown, a councillor with Kitasoo Xai/xais Nation, which runs a successful tourist lodge and bear watching operation in Klemtu. Liberals John Rustad and Peter Milobar accused the NDP of abandoning “scientific-based decision making in favour of political calculus designed to appease US-based environmental groups.” But, science is largely on the side of a hunting ban. Government figures put the BC grizzly population at 15,000, but some scientists believe the number is much lower. Although DNA testing is used to assess populations in some parts of the province, computer models are used to calculate populations in other areas and there are concerns those figures could be inaccurate. BC is one of the last areas in North America where grizzly bears live in their natural habitat, but nine of the province’s bear sub-populations are in trouble, and three in southwest BC have been assessed as critically endangered by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature. Groups such as the Coast to Cascades Grizzly Bear Initiative are pushing to have those populations listed as a species of special concern under the federal Species at Risk Act. While sub-populations are increasing in some areas, studies show other areas have been heavily over-hunted. A 2013 Simon Fraser University and University of Victoria study found that in half the population groups where hunting is allowed, more grizzlies have been killed than government targets allow. The Province has long claimed a harvest rate of 250 to 300 bears a year is sustainable, but studies point to slow reproduction rates and show that about 34 percent of bears killed are female—a figure generally accepted as too high. Poaching, accidents and bears shot by conservation officers all increase the death rate. A David Suzuki Foundation study, using government figures, found that between 1975 and 2016, humans have killed 13,804 grizzlies in BC. In 2016, 87 percent of all human-caused killing was attributable to trophy hunters. In neighbouring Alberta, the hunt was suspended in 2006 and the species was declared as threatened in 2010. The difference between Alberta and BC came into sharp relief in September when Bear 148, who had been radio-collared and relocated in Alberta, was shot by a hunter when she wandered into BC. ADDING TO THE PUBLIC DISCOMFORT WITH THE HUNT is a highly critical report by Auditor General Carol Bellringer, released last fall. It found a tangle of unimplemented plans, lack of organized monitoring, spotty oversight and unclear accountability. It also made clear that protecting the bears will take more than a hunting ban. Besides pointing to habitat loss as a major threat, it cited 600,000 kilometres of resource roads with 10,000 more kilometres added each year. The road network means humans have more access into wilderness areas, resulting in the illegal killing of bears and more human-bear conflicts—which usually end with a dead bear. Heyman, who is promising to implement all recommendations from Bellringer’s report, says the government will be looking at Species at Risk legislation, a grizzly bear management strategy, and a wildlife management strategy. Excessive access to grizzly habitat is one problem to be addressed, as is understaffing of the Conservation Officer Service (COS), Heyman said. A Green Party spokeswoman agreed that environmental enforcement capacity has been crippled by budget and staff cuts. She noted that between 2001 and 2012, while the Liberals were in power, COS staffing levels fell by one-third, meaning a 32 percent decline in boots on the ground at a time when resource activity was increasing. Simultaneously, the number of tickets for environmental violations fell by more than half, and convictions plummeted. But dissatisfaction with the COS goes deeper than funding cuts, and some are calling for a complete overhaul of the mandate and makeup of the service. In 2016, 27 grizzlies were killed by conservation officers after encounters with humans, resulting in accusations that gun-happy officers don’t look at other options. Over the past four years, according to ministry figures, conservation officers killed 72 grizzlies and 1,872 black bears. “The public doesn’t trust the Conservation Officer Service any more. I couldn’t count on my fingers and toes how many times I have heard people say there is no way they would phone a conservation officer because the animal will end up dead,” said wildlife photographer Trish Boyum, operator of an eco-charter boat. Bryce Casavant, a conservation officer, who in 2015 was suspended and then transferred into another ministry after he refused to kill two bear cubs, is blunt about the inherent conflict of interest he sees among conservation officers. “Until there is the political will to change the behaviour of the Conservation Officer Service, there is no hope for BC wildlife,” said Casavant, a researcher with Royal Roads University and a former officer with the Canadian Forces Military Police who ran for the NDP in the last election. The heart of the problem, said Casavant, is that the COS is an armed police service, basically functioning as a private army for the environment ministry. But unlike other police services, there is no independent oversight board, and complaints are investigated internally. There is also no oversight of hiring. Casavant said the vast majority of conservation officers are hunters or trophy hunters, and many are members of the BC Wildlife Federation (which is supportive of hunting, at least under certain circmstances). In fact, recruitment is aimed at those sectors rather than at people with a science or conservation background. “So, it doesn’t matter what regulation you put forward. If they want to kill bears, they are going to kill bears,” he said. In some cases, a CO has posed for pictures with a tranquillized bear cub, only to shoot it in the head once he is out of the public eye, Casavant charged. In December, BC Supreme Court ruled against the Association for the Protection of Fur-Bearing Animals and Dawson Creek resident Tiana Jackson who claimed a conservation officer had exceeded his authority by killing a black bear cub even though a wildlife centre had agreed to take the cub. However, the court did confirm that conservation officers had to follow government policy. Before taking on new battles around habitat conservation and COS practices, environmentalists are celebrating the Christmas present for grizzly bears. “We are very grateful that the government has finally stepped up to do what the people have asked for, which is an end to this barbaric, bloody sport hunt,” Foy said. Judith Lavoie is an award-winning journalist specializing in the environment, First Nations, and social issues. Twitter @LavoieJudith.
  7. Science and First Nations are stepping up the pressure to remove fish farms from BC coastal waters. CHANGES TO THE RULES GOVERNING OPEN-NET SALMON FARMS are in the wind as calls intensify for the federal and provincial governments to step in and stop the game of Russian roulette being played with BC’s wild salmon stocks. What makes this debate different from preceding decades of polarized arguments is implacable opposition to fish farms from the majority of BC’s First Nations—underlined by the occupation of two farms off north-east Vancouver Island—along with a growing body of evidence showing that wild fish can be harmed by viruses and sea lice spread from captive fish. Add in dismally low 2017 Fraser River sockeye returns and the much-publicized escape of 300,000 Atlantic salmon from a collapsed Washington State fish farm, and the climate appears ripe for change. Young wild salmon swim close to open-net fish farm. (Photo by Tavish Campbell) Perhaps the biggest switch can be seen in the attitude of the provincial government. While the new NDP-led government recognizes the economic benefits provided by a $1.5-billion aquaculture industry, employing 3,000 people, it is juggling those benefits with increasing concerns about that industry’s effect on wild salmon, and the push to move the farms to closed-containment pens on land. “The BC government is making sounds I have never heard before,” said independent biologist Alexandra Morton, a fierce opponent of open-net salmon farms. Though the federal government has prime responsibility for fish farms (including their promotion), the Province does have some power—it has responsibility for issuing and renewing the tenure licences of fish farms in BC waters. At the provincial level, the change from the previous Liberal government was apparent when Premier John Horgan met this fall with First Nations leaders in Alert Bay, followed by his statement that fish farm tenures will be reviewed to ensure wild salmon do not face obstacles on their migratory routes. Hopes of fish farm opponents are also pinned on an election campaign statement by Claire Trevena, now BC’s Transportation Minister, who told an Alert Bay audience that if the NDP formed government, the party would “make sure that these territories and the North Island are clear of fish farms.” Also this fall, new BC Agriculture Minister Lana Popham, in a letter to Marine Harvest, criticized the company’s decision to restock farms in the Broughton Archipelago; those licences expire in June but the fish will not be ready for harvest for two years. “The decision to restock occurs as we are entering sensitive discussions with some of the First Nations in the Broughton Archipelago who remain opposed to open-net pen salmon farming in their territories,” Popham wrote, reminding the company there is no guarantee tenures will be renewed. “The Province retains all of its rights under the current tenure agreements, including potentially the requirement that you return possession of tenured sites at the end of the current terms,” she warned. All but two tenures in the Broughton Archipelago expire in June, but the company said it must restock, as it has growing animals that need the space. Marine Harvest spokesman Ian Roberts said he hopes discussions happen quickly, as salmon farmers need assurances they can continue to operate. AT THE HEART OF THE DEBATE around salmon aquaculture is the fear that diseases can spread from farms to wild fish. Although few scientists would claim that salmon farms are single-handedly killing BC’s wild salmon runs, there is incontrovertible evidence that a deadly disease—heart and skeletal muscle inflammation (HSMI)—infected fish on a farm in the Discovery Islands. More alarmingly, researchers have found that HSMI is caused by piscine reovirus, a virus that affects about 80 percent of farm fish in BC, but which the industry previously claimed was harmless. In Norway—where major firms operating in BC have headquarters—HSMI is known to kill farmed fish, and Norwegian scientists have now cemented the link between piscine reovirus and HSMI. As well, a study by a team of scientists from Fisheries and Oceans Canada, Pacific Salmon Foundation and Genome BC came up with proof that HSMI is present in BC. “They debunked the myth that piscine reovirus was harmless because they found that HSMI was present in BC,” Morton said in an interview. Adding fuel to the flames is a recent video, taken by aboriginal leaders, showing sick and deformed fish in the net pens. “The fish were showing classic symptoms of HSMI. They were emaciated and floating with their heads against the net,” Morton said. John Reynolds, professor of aquatic ecology and conservation at Simon Fraser University, emphasized that it is not possible to pin responsibility for annual fluctuations in salmon runs on fish farms, as there are many issues with ocean survival. “But there’s a lot of evidence that salmon farms are contributing to the problems that wild salmon face,” he said. Even without proof of a major viral outbreak, damage caused by disease transfer may be ticking away in the background, explained Reynolds. “There’s a lot of research which confirms negative effects of salmon farming on the juvenile wild salmon. It is published in many of the world’s top peer-reviewed journals,” he said. “There’s no dispute about that except, perhaps, by people who have something to gain by questioning it. The science on the matter is quite clear,” he added. All of which makes Chief Bob Chamberlin of the Kwikwasut’inuxw Haxwas’mis First Nation wonder when the federal and provincial governments will take decisive action. “How can they not listen to the clear messages that we do not give any consent to having these farms in our territory” asked Chamberlin, chairman of the First Nations Wild Salmon Alliance. The salmon farming industry has agreements with some First Nations to operate in their territories, but Chamberlin said that about 90 percent of First Nations communities are demanding an end to open-net fish farming. “There’s the risk of disease and sea lice and the broad infringement of First Nations rights,” he said, reminding government leaders of their support for the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, which entitles indigenous people to giving “free, prior and informed consent on any project affecting their lands or territories and other resources.” If the provincial government is worried about job loss, Chamberlin suggested it put research and development money into developing a viable closed-containment industry. He also predicted more tourism jobs would come to remote communities if wild salmon runs were restored, improving the health of bears and the surrounding ecosystem. Chamberlin wants to see the federal government genuinely implement all the recommendations from the 2012 Cohen Commission of Inquiry, including the recommendation that the responsibility for promoting salmon farming be removed from the mandate of Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO) as it is working at cross purposes with DFO’s duty to protect wild salmon. That is not going to happen, according to an emailed statement from a DFO spokesman, who wrote that “no further action is required on this recommendation as responsibility for production and export is split between several different departments.” However, the federal government is drafting a five-year Wild Salmon Policy implementation plan and putting $40 million annually, for five years, into research, science and monitoring of Pacific salmon, which gives ground for optimism that wild salmon are moving up the priority ladder. After more than three decades of fighting open-net pen salmon farms, opponents know the road to change is unlikely to be smooth, but Morton believes the tide is turning. Look at the occupations of the fish farms, she suggested. “The First Nations are immovable. They are endlessly creative and extremely brave.” Judith Lavoie is an award-winning journalist specializing in the environment, First Nations, and social issues. Twitter @LavoieJudith.
  8. Expect hotter summers and winter deluges. Retaining trees could reduce the worst impacts, including the cost of mitigation. AS SUMMER FADES, along with memories of warm, sunny days, three recent reports help us turn a thought to the future and what Greater Victoria’s weather will look like three decades from now: Start stocking up on triple-strength sunscreen and waterproof storm gear. By the 2050s, with an average annual warming of about 3°C in the Capital Region, the number of scorching hot days will triple; fall and winter will see more extreme weather events, with deluges replacing Greater Victoria’s trademark showers, says a report prepared for the Capital Regional District. Climate Projections for the Capital Region, written by Trevor Murdock and Stephen Sobie from Pacific Climate Impacts Consortium and Gillian Aubie Vines from Pinna Sustainability, looks at how climate change will unfold over the coming decades—and the future is hot. “Monthly high and low temperatures show that the new normal for the region may be very unlike the past,” says the report, which is based on the assumption that global greenhouse gas emissions will continue at their current rate. “Rising temperatures will lead to hotter summer days and nights, milder winters with the near loss of frost days and snowpack in all but the highest elevation locations.” Overall, it predicts a 69 percent decrease in the number of frost days and a 90 percent decrease in snowpack depth in the mountains by the 2080s. That translates into the number of summer days with a temperature above 25 degrees Celsius rising to 36 days a year, from an average of 12 days a year from 1971 to 2000. The temperature for the 1-in-20-year hottest day will soar to a scorching 36 degrees from the current 32 degrees, with an increase to 38 degrees by the 2080s. By that time, Greater Victoria will also be experiencing an average of four “tropical nights,” meaning the overnight low temperature is higher than 20 degrees. “This measure is important as a series of hot nights can cause heat stress in vulnerable populations (e.g. those with compromised immune systems) and will have an impact on energy used for cooling buildings during warm spells,” says the report. There will be less rain in summer, with a 20 percent reduction in precipitation, but fall and winter will have more extreme wet weather events and could see 68 percent more rain falling during very wet days. Overall, there is likely to be a five percent increase in precipitation by the 2050s and 12 percent by the 2080s. The changes will affect all aspects of life in the Capital Region, from health to food supplies. A longer summer tourism season could be a bonus, but might be offset by a decline in winter tourism, and long periods of hot, dry weather could put pressure on lakes, beaches and coastal waters used for recreation, according to the report. “With the potential of increased nutrients deposited in freshwater lakes, we can expect to see more algal blooms become a challenge for ecosystems and recreational water users,” it says. “When hot, dry summers are combined with extreme storms in the wet season, we can expect shoreline access, water quality, wildlife habitat and recreational infrastructure to require ongoing maintenance.” Although there will be a longer season for growing food, migrating pests and water availability are likely to become problems for farmers and “in some cases, land including agricultural areas, could suffer from saltwater intrusion from rising sea levels, or need to be restored as wetlands to manage storm water across the region.” The aim of the report is to allow local politicians, organizations and the public to plan and adapt to the coming changes, said the authors. Lead author Gillian Aubie Vines tells Focus, “I think it’s really time for greater awareness of what we are projecting. It’s a great opportunity for public policy-makers, scientists and engineers.” The report will help map out changes in engineering designs and urban planning, says Aubie Vines, who has helped prepare similar reports for the Cowichan Valley and Metro Vancouver. “It gets our minds around what we can do—like cooling stations and insulating buildings so they are efficient.” The wider implications include agricultural plans that can deal with heat, pests and flash floods, and the possibility of an increasing number of people moving to Vancouver Island because of its comparatively mild climate. “As California becomes hotter, Vancouver Island is going to look nicer and nicer,” predicts Aubie Vines, and she believes both mitigation and adaptation are required. “We need to stop emitting and we need to adapt to what is happening.” Many political leaders at the CRD understand the urgency, but surprisingly, climate change deniers—or those who believe it is a problem best ignored—still have a voice, and that is why the report, setting out scenarios in plain language, is so important, according to Aubie Vines. “After a process like this, after people are forced to think about it more deeply, it’s impossible to deny,” she said. AS BC’s CLIMATE HEATS UP and becomes more unpredictable, the province’s forests can help mitigate problems. Climate researchers with the Forest Carbon Management Project have concluded that relatively minor changes to forest management could meet more than one-third of the province’s 2050 carbon-emissions reduction target. Better forest management, removing slash from the forest and using it for bioenergy—rather than burning it on site—is one measure that will assist in carbon dioxide management. The research also shows that promoting the use of wood products, instead of concrete and steel, and converting a small percentage of fibre destined for pulp and paper into longer-lasting wood panels are other measures needed to increase the role of forests in carbon dioxide management. The multi-year project, led by the Pacific Institute for Climate Solutions and based at the University of Victoria, includes scientists from Natural Resources Canada and UBC. Small changes to forest management, including reducing the harvest by two percent between now and 2050, could have a major impact, delivering 18.2 megatonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent, project leader Werner Kurz explained at a recent public presentation in Vancouver. “By 2050, 35 percent of BC’s emission reduction target can be contributed by the forest sector at less than $100 a tonne of carbon dioxide equivalent.” Although $100 a tonne may sound expensive, other methods, such as carbon capture and storage, come in at between $200 and $300 a tonne, explains Kurz, a senior research scientist with Natural Resources Canada. The measures, he says, would also provide socio-economic benefits by creating 2000 new full-time jobs, as more intensive forest management would be required. He points out that the changes would also mean healthier forests, and emphasizes that the project needs investment now so that the science can inform policy decisions. BC has a legislated greenhouse gas emission reduction target of 80 percent below 2007 levels by 2050. To meet those targets, Kurz says, it is necessary to not only reduce the burning of fossil fuels, but to find ways to remove more carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. While 44 percent of greenhouse gas emissions remain in the atmosphere, the remainder is taken up by forests and oceans, Kurz told his audience in Vancouver. “That leads to ocean acidification, so it is not desirable, and there is also a question of how long forests will continue to be carbon sinks,” he said. The province’s 55 million hectares of forest lands are already being affected by climate change, according to UBC researchers working on the project. Wetter areas are benefitting from warmer conditions and increased carbon dioxide levels, while drier areas are struggling with slower growth and increased tree mortality. The provincial government (under the Liberals) announced in February that it would spend $150 million to rehabilitate forests damaged by fire and disease and to increase BC’s carbon sink. The new NDP provincial government has pledged to renew BC’s forests by (among other things) expanding investments in reforestation. It has also created a ministry of the environment and climate change strategy with George Heyman as minister. A THIRD STUDY, also involving trees and the weather, provides evidence that streets without trees are uncomfortably windy, and that buildings around which trees have been removed use more energy. The paper from UBC scholars was published in July in Advances in Water Resources. It found that losing even one tree increases wind pressure and drives up heating costs in nearby buildings. Lead author Marco Giometto, a postdoctoral fellow in civil engineering, says that a single tree can help keep pedestrians comfortable. “We found that removing all trees can increase wind speed by a factor of two, which would make a noticeable difference to someone walking down the street,” he said in a news release. “For example, a 15-km-per-hour wind speed is pleasant, whereas walking in 30-km-per-hour wind is more challenging.” Researchers, who used laser technology to create a model of a typical Vancouver neighbourhood, found that removing all trees around buildings drove up energy consumption by 10 percent in winter and 15 percent in summer. Even winter trees, with bare branches, can moderate airflow and wind pressure, which makes for a more comfortable environment, the study found. The information could be used to improve weather forecasts and predict the effect of storms on buildings, or on pedestrians walking along certain sidewalks, says co-author and UBC geography professor Andreas Christen. “It could also help city planners in designing buildings, streets and city blocks to maximize people’s comfort and limit wind speed to reduce energy loss.” Judith Lavoie is an award-winning journalist specializing in the environment, First Nations, and social issues. Twitter @LavoieJudith.
  9. The project faces stiff opposition from a new government and legal challenges by First Nations and others. KINDER MORGAN CANADA’S President Ian Anderson seems confident his company will soon break ground on the Trans Mountain pipeline running from Alberta’s oil sands to a coastal terminal in Burnaby. The federal government approved the pipeline following a National Energy Board recommendation. And Alberta Premier Rachel Notley is acting as if the pipeline’s a done deal and dismissing BC’s right to control its coasts. But is it a done deal? Many BC citizens are adamantly opposed, with First Nations leading the resistance. And on May 9 the ground shifted beneath the $7.4-billion project when the BC Liberals lost their majority in the provincial election. In one of their first post-election statements, leaders of the NDP/Green partnership announced they would “immediately employ every tool available to the new government to stop the expansion.” It was a far cry from former Premier Christy Clark’s agreement that, subject to conditions and a 20-year revenue-sharing deal, worth up to $1-billion, construction of the 1150-kilometre pipeline could go ahead. But even under a Clark government, there were growing doubts about the viability of the plan to triple the capacity of the pipeline to 890,000 barrels of diluted bitumen a day, with the number of tankers in the Salish Sea increasing seven-fold to about 400 a year. Now, with a new provincial government, an aroused public, and perhaps most important, strong First Nations opposition, the battle lines are being drawn. AT LAST COUNT there were 19 legal challenges to Kinder Morgan’s Trans Mountain pipeline expansion project wending their way through the courts. These court cases will test the power of First Nations to demand meaningful consultation, along with the extent of Federal powers. They will also assess claims by First Nations and others that Canada’s environmental assessment process is fatally flawed. “It’s not going to happen,” said BC Green Party leader Andrew Weaver. He suggests pipeline supporters such as Alberta Premier Rachel Notley and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau look at Section 35 of the Canadian Constitution which protects aboriginal and treaty rights, including those of “meaningful consultation,” and is increasingly used as a legal tool by First Nations arguing that they have not been adequately consulted. As an example of consultation-gone-wrong, Weaver pointed to the case filed by the Coldwater Indian Band, whose territories are in BC’s southern Interior region, challenging the National Energy Board’s approval of the pipeline. “It’s an incredibly compelling case. The proposed pipeline sits right at the top of the aquifer which is their only supply of water and it is not as if there was not an alternate route. It was discussed and deemed to be more expensive,” Weaver said. Prime Minister Trudeau also has to figure out how pushing through the pipeline over First Nations objections could possibly square with his commitment to the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. That declaration requires consent for such developments, Weaver noted. Previous governments resisted signing the declaration because of fears it would effectively give First Nations veto power over major projects. But Eugene Kung of West Coast Environmental Law legal counsel said there is a difference between consent and veto and, with the shift in aboriginal law in Canada, the distinction needs to be publicly clarified. “Think about another place where we use that term ‘consent’—in the context of sexual assault and harassment,” he said. “No one would ever say in that context that, by a victim denying consent, that it would be vetoing the perpetrator’s decision, because the perpetrator doesn’t have rights over the victim’s body. You need mutual consent for advancement.” Sixteen judicial review cases, which include challenges by seven First Nations, the City of Vancouver, City of Burnaby, Raincoast Conservation Society, Living Oceans Society, and Democracy Watch, have been consolidated and will be heard by the Federal Court of Appeal, likely this fall. If there are appeals, the issue could be heading for the Supreme Court. Another challenge has come from two Washington State tribes over the effect that vastly-increased tanker traffic will have on endangered southern resident killer whales. Even though the judicial review cases have been consolidated, each First Nation challenge is based on unique facts, according to Kung. “Each First Nation has an independent right to be consulted and accommodated in projects that affect their territories…Success on any one of the First Nations legal challenges could delay or stop the project,” he said. Enough delays, and Kinder Morgan could find it all too expensive to proceed. Kinder Morgan says it has agreements, amounting in total to over $300 million, with 40 First Nations, though it will not identify them. It’s presumed many of these are at the Alberta end of the pipeline. At the crucial and densely-populated Lower Mainland part of the pipeline, opposition is strong. Most of the First Nations there are involved in the court cases (e.g Tsleil-Waututh, Musqueam, Squamish, Sto:Lo, Kwantlen). On Vancouver Island, some First Nations, like the Ditidaht, Pacheedaht, and Pauquachin, have signed agreements with Kinder Morgan in order to be eligible for spill response funding. In all, though, at least 13 First Nations in BC are formally opposing the project. The legal climate around aboriginal rights and title has undergone profound changes since the 2014 Tsilhqot’in decision that, for the first time, recognized aboriginal title. Combined with other recent court decisions that have favoured First Nations, including the scuttling of Enbridge’s Northern Gateway pipeline, the game has changed. In the Enbridge case, the Federal Court of Appeal overturned the Harper government’s approval of the project, after finding the Canadian government failed to properly consult the First Nations affected by the pipeline. As Kung noted, “I think the provincial and federal governments have been slow to respond meaningfully to the direction the Supreme Court of Canada and the courts have set, and the companies have really underestimated the importance of these cases.” While the Province of BC under Christy Clark formally approved the Trans Mountain expansion, it is contingent on 37 conditions being met, in addition to 157 from the federal approval. Any of these may provide First Nations and the Province with more ammunition in their resistance to the Trans Mountain project. John Horgan, NDP leader and premier-designate of BC, has indicated he’s prepared to go to court over the pipeline expansion project, and will likely join one of the legal challenges. The Alberta government has already been granted intervener status in the judicial review—advanced by municipalities, First Nations and environmental groups—challenging the National Energy Board’s recommendation as well as the federal Order in Council approving expansion. Reflecting a growing confidence in the power to win in the courts, Grand Chief Stewart Phillip, Union of BC Indian Chiefs president, sent a strong message to Premier Notley, who, in a much-quoted statement had said: “Mark my words, that pipeline will be built, the decisions have been made.” Phillip immediately responded: “Mark my words, Kinder Morgan’s Trans Mountain expansion project will never see the light of day.” He continued: “We do not accept the unscrupulous liability of dirty oil coming through any pipeline system to benefit some Texans or multinational interests at the expense of our inherent responsibilities to our grandchildren’s grandchildren.” CHIEF PHILLIP, however, is not relying solely on the courts. He believes it may well be financial pressures that finally put visions of a pipeline expansion to rest. Noting that the price differential between selling to Asia and selling to the US has shrunk, he said, “When this project was first being developed a number of years ago, oil was $100 a barrel and we all know oil is never going to go back to those prices again…A lot of underlying assumptions have been debunked.” Phillip continued, stating that investors must be concerned about the court cases, especially in light of the Rio Tinto ruling last year that gave aboriginal communities the right to sue for compensation if their rights are infringed. Investors, he noted, will also be concerned about the likelihood of protests. Phillip feels that there is no doubt that, if the pipeline proceeds, there will be civil disobedience. “I think, in many ways, Burnaby Mountain was a warm-up that demonstrated that, when push comes to shove, there will be strategies on the ground to prevent the project from moving forward,” he emphasized. “I think what needs to be understood is, when those activities begin to take shape, it will not just be aboriginal, First Nations and indigenous people on the front line. The vast majority of the [126] people arrested on Burnaby Mountain were not indigenous.” Weaver, too, believes that if the company starts building the expansion despite the pending lawsuits, it will head into trouble when construction reaches the Lower Mainland. (The company’s construction schedule anticipates that tunnel-boring through Burnaby Mountain will start in March 2018.) “It does not have a social licence and it will never have one in British Columbia,” said Weaver. “I would suggest that if they start drilling under Burnaby Mountain…this will create a crisis like this country has never seen before,” he predicted. Some in the resistance movement are saying it will rival Clayoquot protests or those at Standing Rock. Weaver is carefully watching Kinder Morgan’s finances in the wake of the initial public offering, noting that stock prices have dropped from the initial price of $17. Financial questions are also being raised by a coalition of more than 20 indigenous and environmental groups. Their coalition is warning 28 major banks—including 14 that underwrote the initial public offering for Kinder Morgan Canada—to stay away from funding the pipeline. The open letter says that the organizations involved will use their influence to urge local and foreign governments to divest from banks that fund the pipeline. Lindsey Allen, Rainforest Action Network executive director, stated in a news release, “Any bank that decides to participate in this project will be implicated in indigenous rights violations and will knowingly feed fuel to the fire of climate chaos. They won’t be able to claim that they didn’t have all the relevant information.” Kinder Morgan, in its prospectus released to raise $1.75-billion for the project, acknowledges that court actions could delay or even halt the project. Yet the company also says all financing is now in place and it is starting to move ahead with contracts and benefit agreements with the aim of starting construction in September. In a statement emailed to Focus, Kinder Morgan’s media spokesman said the final investment decision has been made and the company is “seeking and receiving permits from the necessary regulatory agencies…Trans Mountain has followed every process and met every test put before us…Taking into account all the scientific and technical studies, input from communities and a variety of opinions, we were given approval from the National Energy Board and the Government of Canada, as well as our environmental certificate from the BC Environmental Assessment Office.” EVEN THOUGH the Province of BC cannot block a federally-approved project, there are a number actions that can be taken by BC, according to environmental lawyers. A legal toolkit for provincial action released by West Coast Environmental Law suggests that BC could impose more conditions and/or prohibit any new provincial approvals or permits, and suspend existing approvals until new conditions have been met. It points out the constitutional obligation of the Province to protect First Nations’ rights. “And there may be injunctions filed. I am sure that the First Nations involved have considered that option,” Kung said. Jessica Clogg, West Coast Environmental Law executive director, suggested that the Province could also require that Kinder Morgan demonstrate that all indigenous people affected by the project have provided their “free, prior and informed consent”—as required under the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. That free and informed consent would certainly not be coming from the Tsartlip First Nation whose territory lies along the east coast of Vancouver Island, and from which Tsartlip residents would be able to watch tankers carrying diluted bitumen through the Salish Sea. The Tsartlip, like other First Nations on southern Vancouver Island, had a “middle depth of consultation” according to the federal government. Tsartlip Chief Don Tom said, “We are fundamentally opposed to any increases in tanker traffic that would affect our rights out in the Salish Sea.” The Douglas Treaties, he noted, protect their right to hunt and fish as they did before European settlement. A particular concern, Tom added, is the health of the resident killer whales, which are considered relatives by his people. “There’s no chance this is going to happen. Based on today’s political landscape, it’s dead in the water,” he said. Judith Lavoie is an award-winning journalist specializing in the environment, First Nations, and social issues. Twitter @LavoieJudith.
  10. Low supply, increasing demand, higher rents, and “renovictions”—is any relief in sight? DOREEN BEGORAY, 61, knows how quickly life can unravel when financial circumstances suddenly change. After 11 years as a sessional professor teaching sociology at the University of Victoria, Begoray got laid off. Unable to find another job, she opted to sell the house she owned to extract the equity from it. She planned to sustain herself by using that money to pay her way in the rental market. As the house proceeds got spent and rents increased, she could no longer find affordable accommodation that would allow her to keep her two dogs. “The dogs are the issue for me…so I moved into my car,” explains Begoray, who was by then living on a $320 monthly pension and $350 disability payment. “I just couldn’t find a place. It was ridiculous,” says Begoray, who spent more than eight months, from May to December, living in her Jeep Liberty, which she parked at night on Dallas Road by the off-leash dog park. “It’s actually quite cozy in my car, but I really missed bathrooms.” She showered at the Y and, during the day, would hang out at coffee shops where she could sit on the patio with her dogs. During that seven-month period, Begoray was not approached by police, despite sleeping directly under a sign prohibiting overnight camping. City of Victoria council is now looking at the possibility of taking down such signs and officially sanctioning the practice of sleeping in vehicles overnight. Victoria Mayor Lisa Helps This stop-gap measure to accommodate people facing the harshest realities of our near-zero vacancy rate is not, according to Mayor Lisa Helps, any sort of sustainable solution. “Sleeping in vehicles is not housing. I don’t want anyone sleeping in their vehicles…but, if they are sleeping in their vehicles, I think we should let them sleep,” Helps says. Although Begoray was on the lengthy BC Housing waiting list, only two subsidized buildings in Greater Victoria allow tenants to have two pets. Seeing her situation as increasingly hopeless, Begoray approached the staff at MLA Rob Fleming’s community office. With assistance from the office staff and a subsidy from Pacifica Housing, she found a studio apartment in Cook Street Village, but worries about others in similarly dire straits. “There was one person sleeping in the woods off Dallas Road who had mental health problems. It’s just barbaric that our society does not provide for people who need it,” Begoray laments. “Rental accommodation is just beyond expensive. The City and the Province and the country keep saying we are going to put all this money into housing, well let’s see some affordable housing…I want people to recognize this is a societal issue.” MLA Fleming also worries about the many others who are finding themselves in situations like these, and recently saw a garage listed as a two-bedroom apartment. The potential backlog of renovictions, he says, which would remove hundreds of units of housing stock, also looms darkly on the horizon. There’s no adequate safety net in place for those who would be displaced. “When we try to find housing in the affordable, non-profit portfolios, there’s a 2500-person waiting list,” he says. The supply-and-demand disparity also puts renters at the mercy of unscrupulous property owners. Stories abound of landlords being surreptitiously offered, and accepting, an instant lump payment to boost an applicant to the top of the list. Student Stephanie Cameron-Johnson, 23, describes how the owner of a house she rented tried to wring thousands of dollars from her and her roommates. After putting the house up for sale, her landlord insisted that, if they wanted to stay on as tenants, he would pocket both their $800 damage deposit and $800 pet deposit. He also asked them to pay for new floors and other renovations, and demanded additional compensation for utilities. “He wanted more than $7000 from us,” Cameron-Johnson says. While she’s grateful that a mediator appointed by the Residential Tenancy Branch advocated for them, the dispute left a bad taste and meant a long, unfruitful search for a new rental. She eventually gave up, and moved back in with family. THERE ARE THOUSANDS MORE CASUALTIES of the current affordability crisis, with some more visible than others. Greater Victoria “officially” has almost 1400 homeless, according to last year’s Point in Time Count. That number includes 175-plus “chronically homeless” individuals, another 353 in shelters on the night of the count, and 842 “provisionally accommodated,” meaning couch-surfing, in motels, or in other temporary housing. These numbers are always in flux, says Don Elliott, executive director of Greater Victoria Coalition to End Homelessness. As well, these numbers are only the most-obvious tip of a much more substantial iceberg, one that is amplifying in a self-perpetuating cycle of high rents, desperate demand, and meagre supply. “There’s a huge group of people who are employed and are not able to access affordable housing,” Elliott says; not surprising when the vacancy rate remains stuck at a stubborn 0.5 percent, and average rents in Greater Victoria keep rising (5.5 percent in 2016 alone). Social service providers on the front lines see exactly who is ending up in shelter beds—and why. They report an alarming and steady increase of people who have become unexpectedly homeless because they can no longer afford to pay their rent, have been renovicted (when a property owner legally terminates a lease to improve a rental unit, then re-rents it at a much higher rate or sells it), or just cannot manage to locate adequate housing in such a competitive market, where landlords often receive 30 or more applications for each available apartment. Don McTavish, director of residential services for the Cool Aid Society, concurs with Elliott, saying that between 15 and 20 percent of those using Victoria’s shelters are indeed employed. In an effort to keep them out of shelters and in their homes, Cool Aid administers a one-time subsidy program for people who are more or less making ends meet, but are about to lose their rental because of a missed utility or rent payment. The program is well-used, McTavish says, indicating the growing number of households teetering on the edge of homelessness. “Most of the time [those receiving this subsidy] are people we have not seen in the shelters before.” During the homeless count, 721 individuals agreed to be interviewed. While 20 percent said they were homeless because of addiction or substance abuse, 18.9 per cent gave job loss as the primary reason and 13.6 percent had been evicted because they were unable to pay the rent. When asked about the main barrier to finding a place to live, 60 percent said their income was too low and 56 percent that rents were too high. Statistics make it clear that many renters are stretched to the limit. The Canadian Rental Housing Index reports that 24 percent of all renters in the CRD spend more than half their gross, pre-tax income on shelter. The Community Social Planning Council has calculated that the Living Wage for Victoria is $20.02 an hour, yet BC’s minimum wage is only $10.85 an hour. The situation is worse, of course, for those on income assistance, where rates have remained frozen since 2007. A single person on basic income assistance receives $610 per month and a single parent with one child receives $946 a month. Average rents in the CRD are now at $785 for a batchelor suite and $912 for a one-bedroom. (CMHC) “So, there are two very significant economic drivers and that is what we are trying to focus on,” says Elliott, whose research shows that a minimum of 250 to 500 units of supportive housing and 1500 units of affordable housing are needed in Greater Victoria. A new report by Housing Central and the BC Rental Housing Coalition, which includes groups such as the BC Non-Profit Housing Association, LandLord BC and the BC Seniors Living Association, analyzes what it will take to get everyone adequately housed. It calculates that it will take $1.8 billion annually over the next decade to solve the province’s affordable housing crisis. In its 10-year road map, the group recommends the cost be shared among the federal and provincial governments and the non-profit sector (non-profit investment could come from leveraging land assets and using community land trusts to attract government and private-sector investment to construct rental housing). (See www.housingcentral.ca.) Their research indicates almost 70 percent of renters in the province are spending more than they can afford on housing. In the Capital Regional District, that translates into 3024 households with average incomes less than $22,378 in core housing need, and 12,164 in need of income support. In addition, the report notes, more than 3000 households with average incomes of $55,511 are living in inadequate housing because they cannot find suitable, affordable accommodation. Almost $177 million is needed annually to upgrade the rental housing supply in the Capital Region. The organization stresses that its estimates are “conservative.” ALTHOUGH THE FIGURES APPEAR DAUNTING, Mayor Lisa Helps believes the region is making progress. The missing piece of the complicated puzzle, she feels, is federal funding. “In 1989 the federal government spent $114 per Canadian on affordable housing and in 2014 the federal government spent $15 per Canadian on affordable housing. At the same time, the population of Canada grew by 30 percent, so that is the root of the problem,” she says. She notes that the new federal Liberal government has made significant commitments to housing, but says it’s a challenge to make up for the 30-year gap in federal funding. While there is abundant construction around the region—including new, market-price rental units being built for the first time in decades—it isn’t enough even for the newcomers arriving. Helps notes that between 2011 and 2016 a total of 5775 new residents moved to Victoria, but only 2802 new housing units were built. (Victoria averages 1.8 people per household, so the math shows a shortfall of over 700 units.) And the new units have not reduced rental rates on older units. “There is so much demand, landlords are charging almost the same for old stock as for new stock,” explains Elliott of the Coalition to End Homelessness. “So, yes, we are seeing a lot more construction, but no, it’s unlikely that homeless or low-income individuals will be able to take advantage of that increase in supply.” A 1970s one-bedroom rents for as high as $1100 or $1200 a month, he says, “and that is about a five-percent increase compared to last year.” Helps believes that all the construction, along with other steps being taken by the City, Region and Province will lead to some relief in the next couple of years. The BC government, for instance, in the wake of Victoria’s tent city, spent more than $25 million to buy and renovate properties, creating about 190 spaces. It also announced another $45 million for housing projects that will provide 510 units for those with low to moderate incomes. At the regional level, Helps points to the CRD’s Regional Housing First Program, with $30 million coming from taxpayers and $30 million from the Province. That program will see 880 new rental units built over the next five years with rents ranging from $375 a month to 85 percent of the market rate. She says the first two buildings have already been approved for funding, and will include 50 units to be rented at $375 a month. Helps also points to moves by the City: Council just voted to allow garden suites in single-family zones; applications for rental buildings are being fast-tracked; and developers are being encouraged to include affordable units when going to council with a project. “We are on the right track,” she says, adding, “We have got all the things we need in place except federal funding for housing, so hopefully that will flow.” Meanwhile, those working in the housing field are delighted to see the issue topping party priority lists during the provincial election campaign, and are keeping their fingers crossed that promises will translate into concrete action after the election. The Liberals are promising to build 5000 more units of affordable housing over three years, with $855 million for social housing; expand the existing home renovation tax credit to help homeowners add rental suites; and close loopholes landlords use to evade rent controls. The NDP is promising to use partnerships to build 114,000 rental, social, student residence and co-op homes over the next decade, and pledging to bring in a $400-a-year tax rebate for renters together with additional protections from landlords who use renovations as an excuse to sidestep rent increase rules. The BC Greens are promising $750 million a year to support construction of about 4000 new units of affordable housing annually, an investment of $100 million a year for retrofits of older units and more protection for renters through the Residential Tenancy Act. Kathy Stinson, Victoria Cool Aid Society CEO, is encouraged to see not-for-profit groups and different levels of government working together. “Even some of the private developers have committed to putting in five percent of the units as affordable housing,” she says. “I am more optimistic than I have been for some time.” But the question for those looking for somewhere to live, without handing over more than half their paycheque every month, is whether the various initiatives will be translated into bricks and mortar in time to prevent their slide into homelessness. This article has been updated. In the original version, we quoted Mayor Helps as stating that the federal government spent $15 per Canadian on affordable housing in 2014. Helps says the correct number is $58 per Canadian. Judith Lavoie is an award-winning journalist specializing in the environment, First Nations, and social issues. Twitter @LavoieJudith.
  11. We analyzed the climate action strategies of BC’s political parties in the lead-up to May’s election. ON A FRIDAY AFTERNOON LAST SUMMER, after a six-month delay, the BC Liberals released their climate plan. It was a time slot guaranteed to attract the least possible public attention. Still, with announcements that the carbon tax would remain frozen and the 2020 emissions target abandoned, the plan was predictably greeted by charges that Premier Christy Clark had abandoned any pretense of the climate leadership claimed under former premier Gordon Campbell. Thomas Pedersen, chair of the Canadian Climate Forum and founding executive director of the Pacific Institute for Climate Solutions, wrote in an email that the Liberal plan not only ensured that BC would miss the legislated 2020 target, but the Province would almost certainly miss the 2030 target, suggested by its own Climate Leadership Team. He also said it was likely to miss the 2050 target of 80 percent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions relative to 2007. “It would appear that Premier Clark has thrown in the towel with respect to taking any serious action on emissions reduction in BC,” said Pedersen, who hopes government inaction will be top of mind in the upcoming election. Indeed, as the May 2017 election looms, there’s an increasing appetite among voters to understand what measures are needed to address one of the primary social and economic problems facing the Province and the world at large. Marc Lee, senior economist with the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, said there is little that could be called leadership and not much of a plan in the Liberal Climate Leadership Plan. “It’s more a glossy public relations document. For the most part they have delivered an advertising campaign that promotes them as a climate leader when, in fact, there’s almost nothing in that plan,” he said. It’s a view vehemently denied by Environment Minister Mary Polak, who insists the Liberals have not abandoned climate change, but are being practical. BC is already “way out in front” when it comes to a carbon tax, Polak said in an interview. “The last time I checked, if you are in front, you are not following anyone, you are leading and we are leading by a lot,” Polak said. The Liberal plan calls for BC to wait until other provinces catch up to the $30 per tonne carbon tax before increasing the level to $50 by 2022, as mandated by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. Polak pointed out that BC already has some of the lowest per capita emissions in the country because of clean hydropower. According to Environment Canada figures, the 2013 emissions per capita for BC were 13.7 tonnes, compared to the Canadian average of 20.7 tonnes per capita and a whopping 66-plus tonnes per capita in Alberta and Saskatchewan. However, BC is slightly above per capita rates for Ontario and Quebec. The relatively good performance makes it difficult to shave off emissions, Polak said. “The kind of emissions reductions we are going to get in BC are a lot of work to find. It’s a little like watching one of those programs where people compete to lose weight. If you are the person who is quite large, the weight drops quite quickly. If you are trying to drop the last 10 pounds, it’s difficult,” she said. IN CONTRAST TO THE MIDSUMMER DOLDRUMS announcement from the Liberals, provincial New Democrats, with well-publicized support from several environmental organizations, announced details of their climate action plan in February. They promised to, among other things, unfreeze the carbon tax and set emissions targets for 2030 and 2050. “I am sure it will be an issue in the election and we were more than happy to put out our plan well in advance of the election. We want people to know we have a plan and that we care,” said George Heyman, NDP environment spokesman. “It’s not a question of the environment or the economy. It’s a question of a strong economy based on strong action on climate change.” Citing a study by Clean Energy Canada and Navius Research on the implications for jobs and the economy if BC met its 2050 climate target, the NDP plan states: “Climate leadership will create 900,000 new jobs between now and 2050 and provincial GDP is expected to nearly double to $425 billion a year by 2050.” New Democrats would increase the carbon tax from $30 a tonne to $50 a tonne by 2022—estimated to cost consumers an extra 4.4 cents per litre, meaning a total of about 11.4 cents a litre carbon tax—and would start phasing in the increase in 2020 instead of 2021 as required by the national carbon price. The NDP have made climate action a central plank of their platform. This contrasts to 2009 when they campaigned against a carbon tax. Leader John Horgan, while describing how the party views have changed since then, managed to accelerate the issue to the front burner with promises of a rebate cheque for 80 percent of households as the carbon tax increases, followed by direct investment of the tax proceeds in projects such as transit, infrastructure and clean technology. The NDP plan notes that right now “Less than 40 percent of BC families get a rebate from Christy Clark’s tax.” The bulk of the proceeds from the carbon tax—65 percent—go to corporate tax cuts. Adding drama to the climate action differences, BC Green Party leader Andrew Weaver, a noted climate scientist, is playing his cards close to his chest and holding back on releasing his plan. “We are not going to release the plan early because we have two parties that are out of ideas and, every time the BC Greens put something forward, they co-opt it as theirs. We will do it in due course,” Weaver said in an interview. When the BC Green’s roadmap to addressing climate change is released, it will certainly be better than anything that is currently on the table, he assured Focus. “The Liberals have no plan and the NDP plan is that we will do something in 2020…It’s clear they are just kicking the can down the road and they won’t be held accountable for anything because it’s 2020,” said Weaver, adding that there has to be new thinking to replace three decades of failing to meet targets. FOR THOSE WITHOUT A SCIENCE OR CLIMATOLOGY BACKGROUND, what are reasonable targets and how can the average voter assess the balance between economic interests and fighting climate change? It’s a question that Andrew Gage, West Coast Environmental Law Association staff counsel, has attempted to answer with a score card comparing the Liberal and NDP plans. Overall the NDP plan received a B and the Liberals received an F. “The BC NDP’s climate plan suffers from a lack of detail, which is understandable given the more limited resources of an opposition party. It is a promising start, which will need to be fleshed out further if the party wins the election in May,” he wrote. The BC Liberals, on the other hand, he stated, “seem to have dropped the mantle of climate action that their former leader, Gordon Campbell, had taken up.” In an interview, Gage explained that, provincially and nationally, governments have had a tradition of setting targets with no plans to get us there. Time is running out, he noted, yet the Liberal plan will not reduce emissions until after 2030. His scorecard shows that the Liberals, although they met the 2012 targets, failed to meet the 2016 target and will fail to meet the legislated 2020 target. “The government’s plan does affirm the 2050 target of an 80 percent reduction in emissions, but identifies no path to achieving it,” the score card notes. The NDP plan also aims to achieve the 2050 target but proposes a new 2030 target of 40 percent reduction. The NDP will also create new targets for different parts of the BC economy, such as transportation, industry and home building, the report card notes. On the job creation front, WCEL gives the NDP a B because it “recognizes the synergies between building a new type of economy and job creation” and its willingness to divert carbon tax revenue into transit, building retrofits and other measures to reduce carbon pollution. The Liberals earn only a D: “The Liberal plan assumes that job creation lies in conventional industries, and does not fully realize the job creation potential of moving towards a sustainable economy.” Gage noted that BC’s carbon emissions are on an upwards trajectory, and that the Liberal plan relies largely on forestry measures—ranging from tree-planting and fertilizing forests to increase the amount of carbon they can store, to using wood for building rather than pulp and paper. Polak, when asked about this, argued that the government’s aggressive actions on forestry will save about 11 megatonnes annually. The government is aiming to reduce annual emissions by 20 megatonnes by 2050. And, she insisted, emissions are not continuing to rise. “What we have seen is a slight uptick and then a slight downturn in the following years. The trend line is still down and we would like to see it going down more,” she said. Provincial figures show that in 2014—the latest year for which data is available—BC’s emissions had dropped by about 5.5 percent from the 66.3 megatonnes of emissions in the baseline year of 2007. However, there has been a 2.7 per cent increase since 2011. To Polak’s complaint that the NDP plan gives no details on how to achieve targets, Heyman told me the NDP plan lays out the framework and, if elected as government, one of its first steps will be to reconvene the Climate Leadership Team—adding labour representatives to the mix of environmentalists, academics, First Nations, community and industry representatives—to recommend how to cut emissions sector by sector. THE CLIMATE LEADERSHIP TEAM was put together by the Clark government in May 2015 with a mandate to provide recommendations on updating the Province’s climate action plan and advising government on policies needed to meet emissions targets while maintaining a strong economy. The members were a who’s-who of the academic, environmental, First Nations, business and community sectors, with members such as Pedersen, Matt Horne of the Pembina Institute, Merran Smith of Clean Energy Canada and David Keane of the BC LNG Alliance. Remarkably, in November 2015, the team released a blueprint for reducing carbon pollution and reached consensus on 32 recommendations, with only one key recommendation on increasing the carbon tax by $10 a year starting in 2018, having a dissenting opinion from one member. The recommendations included reaffirming the 2050 target of 80 percent reduction in emissions below the 2007 level; a 2030 target of 40 percent reduction, broken down through the transportation, industrial and building sectors; expanding coverage of the carbon tax to all emission sources; amending the Environmental Assessment Act to include the social cost of carbon; amending the Clean Energy Act to increase the target for clean energy to 100 percent by 2025; phasing out diesel generation in remote communities; reducing fugitive and vented methane emissions; and development of a low-carbon transportation strategy. The plan seems to have been removed from the web and Tzeporah Berman, a member of the team, said “Not a single recommendation was accepted as we designed it.” She also told Focus that the NDP has been consulting with team members and, although there is no plan to take up the team’s original recommendation of a $10 carbon tax increase by 2018, the plans appear positive. She feels it makes sense to harmonize carbon tax increases with federal pricing and simultaneously increase regulations to meet emissions reduction targets. Berman also noted that, “The evidence is showing regulations in California, like zero emission vehicles and tighter low carbon fuel standards are having a bigger impact than price, ” and that both are needed to meet targets. Polak disputed the claim that her government has ignored all the recommendations. “The plan we announced, which is only phase one and will get us 25 megatonnes, addresses 19 of their 32 recommendations,” she said. “Where the team was expressing their displeasure was with us not taking the aggressive pricing they wanted us to pursue in our carbon tax and there is good reason for that,” Polak said. Other provinces have to first come up to BC’s standard, she reiterated. THE STICKING POINT for many environmental groups doing comparisons of the climate plans is the Liberals’ inclusion of subsidies for the LNG industry. Provincial numbers show natural gas accounted for 18 percent of the Province’s 2014 emissions, and they will rise if the LNG industry takes off. Polak argues that using electricity instead of natural gas in the production of both oil and gas, reduces emissions while ensuring that jobs are saved. She said that, on the international stage, many jurisdictions are a couple of decades away from viable renewable energy, such as solar or wind, so offering natural gas from BC, which is “the cleanest LNG in the world,” means they are not using coal or diesel. “You have a chance to significantly reduce emissions worldwide,” she said. BC has an emissions cap on LNG facilities, but critics say that although LNG is cleaner than coal, emissions from extraction still make it impossible to count LNG as a clean industry. West Coast Environmental Law’s Andrew Gage said BC’s climate plan must be one of the only ones in the world that proposes to increase subsidies to fossil fuels in the name of climate action, through cheap electricity and infrastructure for LNG and other oil and gas operations. “Making sure the LNG industry has cheap electricity seems to be counter to the goals of a climate plan. When you make sure you have extra ways to extract fossil fuels, I don’t consider it to be a climate plan. It’s more a ‘let’s appear to be doing something’ plan,” he said. Economist Marc Lee described government support for LNG expansion and subsidies, which include a low royalty regime locked in for 25 years, as a massive contradiction. “All of that will completely swamp any benefits that are going to come from this very modest plan,” he said. As for the NDP, leader John Horgan has said LNG projects will be considered only if they are in the right location, First Nations concerns are resolved, and emissions fit within a carbon reduction plan. For Heyman the key is developing clean energy in BC and creating jobs based on a green economy. “If you look around the world, the clean energy sector is thriving…We can do that in BC if we have a carbon reduction plan throughout every sector that is mapped out for years to come,” he said. Weaver, who finds little substance in the NDP plan, does agree that clean energy and green jobs are the key to a prosperous future for BC. “We cannot talk about a climate plan in isolation from an economic plan. That will be our strategy. Our climate plan will actually be our economic plan,” he said. “The economic opportunity of dealing with emissions is the greatest economic revolution humanity will ever experience,” he said. Steve Kux, a climate change analyst with the David Suzuki Foundation, said BC has a long way to go in supporting a clean tech industry, even though it is apparent that those are the jobs that will become more valuable as the world moves away from fossil fuels. “There’s definitely an opportunity. The question is whether or not we are going to see it,” he said. As political parties present their conflicting views of the best way to fight emissions and deal with the changing climate, the Province’s Auditor General Carol Bellringer is looking at whether the Province is adequately managing risks presented by climate change. Unfortunately, her report will not be completed until after the election. So British Columbians will have to weigh the different visions before heading to the polls. Andrew Gage is hoping people will vote for the kind of future they want to see for our planet and communities. “Climate change has always been an issue that the more you understand about it, the more upsetting and scary it gets,” he said. Judith Lavoie is an award-winning journalist specializing in the environment, First Nations, and social issues. Twitter @LavoieJudith.
  12. Environment Minister Polak cancelled South Island Aggregates’ wastewater discharge permit, but will the bad taste left behind impact the provincial election? CHAMPAGNE FLOWED in Shawnigan Lake village in late February as elated residents celebrated Environment Minister Mary Polak’s decision to cancel the provincial permit for a controversial contaminated waste site upstream from the lake that supplies their drinking water. “We were celebrating with champagne and hugs and even a few tears. After an hour-and-a-half there were five empty bottles of champagne. This celebration has been a long time coming,” said Sonia Furstenau, Shawnigan’s director on the Cowichan Valley Regional District board and a Green Party candidate in Cowichan Valley. However, Polak’s decision, although a major victory, is not quite the end of the war that came to a head in 2013 when the Province issued a permit allowing Cobble Hill Holdings to store up to 100,000 tonnes of contaminated soil a year on the Stebbings Road property. Until the soil is removed, residents will be keeping a wary eye on the weather wondering if rain or snow will bring poison flowing into the adjacent stream and, over time, into Shawnigan Lake. “It’s not the end. We need to get the soil removed,” said Furstenau, who has been at the forefront of the community battle. Provincial tests showed that, late last year, nine metals exceeded drinking water guidelines, and concerned residents are adamant that Polak must ensure the site is completely cleaned. In January, BC Supreme Court Justice Robert Sewell referred the case back to the Environmental Appeal Board after he found Cobble Hill Holdings had given “false and misleading” evidence about the company’s relationship with Active Earth Engineering Ltd, which conducted the site’s technical assessment, but also had an ownership interest in the operation. That made it clear that the entire premise for choosing the site was flawed and unreliable, said Furstenau, who wants to work with the provincial and federal governments to clear the site. “It was the federal government who sent contaminated soil from CFB Esquimalt to this site, even though they knew there were significant problems” Furstenau said. “They need to come and get their soil and take it away.” Polak, who previously suspended the permit in January after the company failed to provide the ministry with sufficient information or security bonds, said Cobble Hill Holdings still has responsibility for the site and ministry technical staff will decide what actions are necessary. “All contaminated soil is not created equal, so the appropriate treatment of that soil will be determined in conjunction with the work that our staff will do,” Polak said. And if necessary, the Province will not hesitate to take legal action, she said. However, lawyer John Alexander, who acts for Cobble Hill Holdings, warned that people should not jump to conclusions. “I have not had a chance to review and understand the minister’s decision yet, but there should not be an assumption that there is any remediation required,” he said in an email. “This comes as a shock to the company after it worked hard to answer the ministry’s concerns within the time provided,” he added Meanwhile, the long battle over the dump will inevitably be an issue in the provincial election. Furstenau’s opponents include Liberal Steve Housser, who also fought the Province’s decision to allow the dump. He’ll likely face residual anger against the Liberals in Shawnigan for the government’s lengthy reluctance to step in. But Housser is hoping his personal credibility and willingness to speak out strongly against the project, combined with Polak’s recent decision, will outweigh that anger. “The government did not know at the time that they were dealing with people who would stoop to using flawed and misleading evidence. The permit was given without full knowledge of the characters they were dealing with,” he said. If elected as part of a Liberal government, Housser wants to ensure that no other community is forced to raise money through sock hops and bottle drives to defend itself against its own government in efforts to protect the drinking water supply. “There should be an understanding that a watershed that people depend on for drinking water should be off limits for contaminated material,” he said. It’s certainly a concept supported by Furstenau, who emphasizes that water safety should be a concern for communities all over BC and a priority for government. The Liberal government has failed to adequately protect water in the province, largely because of lack of enforcement and weak compliance regulations, she said. The Cowichan Valley seat has been held for the last eight years by New Democrat Bill Routley, who is retiring, and the recently-nominated NDP candidate is Lori Iannidinardo, a Cowichan Valley Regional District director. Iannidinardo said that, through the CVRD, she has been involved in the dump battle from the early days. “Government didn’t act appropriately at all—they shouldn’t have given them a permit. I am running to make sure this doesn’t happen again,” she said. “Our communities have paid one million dollars fighting against our own government.” Judith Lavoie is an award-winning journalist specializing in the environment, First Nations, and social issues. Twitter @LavoieJudith.