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Judith Lavoie

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  1. Posted July 2, 2020 Some Metchosin residents feel plagued by neighbours who use their properties as dumping grounds for construction waste—and a council that takes little action. Go to story
  2. Some rural residents feel plagued by neighbours who use their properties as dumping grounds for construction waste—and a council that takes little action. DAY AFTER DAY, for almost a decade, dump trucks have rolled onto a rural property in Metchosin to drop off piles of fill, changing the topography and driving copious complaints from neighbours exasperated by the industrial intrusion. Now, next door neighbour Jo-Anne Cote is hoping that, instead of trying to survive another summer of noise and dust, an order from the Agricultural Land Commission (ALR) to stop the fill dumping will offer respite. Cote said enjoyment of the acreage where she and her husband have lived for 34 years has been marred by activities at the neighbouring Sooke Road property—which she describes as “Mordor,” the volcanic plain from The Lord of the Rings. “It’s a dust bowl,” Cote said, describing how problems started when all the trees and shrubs were removed, ostensibly to build an airstrip to help with a farm operation about 10 years ago. Satellite image of the Cosburn property in Metchosin An application by owner Stan Cosburn then morphed into a plan for a turf farm. In 2011 the Agricultural Land Commission and District of Metchosin granted permits to dump fill on 2.7 hectares within the Agricultural Land Reserve and 3.6 hectares outside the ALR to improve farming capability. As construction in neighbouring Langford heated up, the trucks started arriving. But over the years, there has been no sign of a turf farm. “I finally came to the snapping point a year or so ago,” said Cote. “The noise was driving me insane all summer long…all you are hearing is heavy equipment and dump trucks and the beep-beep-beep of reversing vehicles and the squeaky bulldozer.” She was frustrated by the apparent lack of action despite numerous complaints. The 2011 turf farm notice-of-intent permit, which allowed the filling, expired July 2019 and, after Cosburn requested an extension and submitted a business plan, ALC staff visited the site in March. “There is no turf farm there now and they were still filling,” said Avtar Sundher, ALC director of operations. “The request for an extension was declined on April 9 this year and we told them to cease all fill activities on the ALR portion of the property and then to reclaim the site with a reclamation plan by a professional agrologist,” he said. The remediation plan must be submitted by July 31, and, if the plan is approved, work must be underway by October 31, said Sundher. Meanwhile, the municipality of Metchosin is looking at fitting the non-ALR portion of Cosburn’s property into the remediation plans so the entire area can be topped off with soil. Cosburn could not be contacted, but his application to the ALC describes the fill as “clean mineral soil and suitable organic matter” and, according to the municipality, he has abided by regulations. Since 2011 plans for the turf farm have been overseen by Madrone Environmental Services Ltd, a company hired by Cosburn. Soil deposit regulations have changed over the last two years as Metchosin, in common with other municipalities close to areas of rampant development, has tried to control amounts of fill—which usually consists of stumps, rocks and other material removed for building sites. “We are trying to tighten up our bylaws to negate some of the issues we have had in the past. We have had a lot of illegal dumping in general, but we have been trying to put the brakes on it,” said Councillor Sharie Epp. Construction waste, which can include material such as drywall, nails, asbestos or wiring is supposed to be taken to Hartland Landfill, but Metchosin residents fear it is sometimes ending up in unregulated dumps running under the radar. Adding to the suspicion that construction companies do not always follow the rules, piles of garbage bags of construction waste, which tested positive for asbestos, were dumped around the municipality earlier this year, leaving Metchosin on the hook for $5,000 in clean-up costs. Recently Metchosin changed the bylaw that used to allow each property owner to bring in 2,000 cubic metres of fill (soil, gravel, rock, sand), reducing it to a maximum of 250 cubic metres a year or 500 cubic metres on larger properties, and all requests for large deposits must go through council. Eighty cubic meters of fill can still be brought in without a permit if it’s not in the ALR or other sensitive areas. There are also fees attached. A deposit of 250 cubic metre of clean fill would cost $525. However, Metchosin is a small municipality with limited staff. Like other small municipalities, its bylaw services are complaint driven and contracted to the Capital Regional District. With many large properties hidden from view, getting a grip on dumping is a game of whack-a-mole and some Metchosin residents believe the District has become a convenient place to dispose of development debris cheaply. The ALC order is a small victory for neighbours of the Sooke Road property, but some say it represents only the tip of a fill-dumping iceberg. Friction between those who live in Metchosin because of the green, rural environment and “free-thinkers” who want to live in an area where they believe they can do whatever they want on their own property is at the root of much of the conflict that ends up on the desks of Metchosin councillors. Nicole Shukin, a member of metchosinH2O, an “adhoc, but very active, group of environmentally-minded citizens,” said council seems reluctant to act, even when faced with evidence of illegal activities. “Residents who’ve been submitting formal complaints about illegal dumping have seriously lost confidence in our district’s willingness or ability to enforce its bylaws in a manner that would deter, rather than enable, large-scale and ongoing violations,” she said. Shukin described a shadow industry forcing the rural community to deal with unauthorized clearcutting, trucks using roads not designed for industrial use, and fears that wells and aquifers are being contaminated by construction waste that has not been inspected to ensure it is clean fill. “Literally mountains are being blasted to bits in Langford and it needs to go somewhere and it seems to be filling up the gullies and lowlands in many areas of Metchosin,” Shukin said. Ken Farquharson, vice-president of the Association for the Protection of Rural Metchosin noted that one problem is that the dumping will sometimes go on for years before council acts and the changed landscape is then accepted as un fait accompli. Councillor Andy MacKinnon, a biologist and forest ecologist, said council is addressing complaints, “but not to the satisfaction of residents.” Much of the action is in camera, he explained, because the problems deal with specific individuals and property issues. “But I do share the frustration of a lot of the residents in terms of what can be done in some of these situations. Rewriting the bylaws was an attempt to make it simpler to monitor and prosecute, but most of the infractions that have raised people’s ire are with people who simply pay no heed to the bylaws whatsoever,” MacKinnon said. Prosecutions, he noted, apart from the cost, require an extremely high standard of proof. “You can write better bylaws and, if people follow them you will get better practice, but if people pay no heed, it doesn’t matter whether your bylaws are good or not; it becomes difficult and expensive and uncertain to enforce,” he said. Shukin is a resident of La Bonne Road where neighbours complained for eight years about dumping on a property on Ash Mountain that is now the subject of legal action by the District. Private property on La Bonne Road on which fill has been dumped The La Bonne Road Residents Group, in a synopsis of complaints lodged with council between 2012 and 2016, list problems from illegal tree-cutting and unauthorized construction of greenhouses, to the dumping of “an estimated 10,000 cubic metres of soil mixed with construction debris, garbage, drywall.” In 2018, after the dumping on the property was halted, the gully was covered with boulders, and the municipality conducted soil testing on the property because of concerns by nearby residents that the aquifer and wells had been contaminated. Due to legal proceedings, however, lawyers say the results cannot be released. Legally, if tests revealed environmental concerns or health threats to nearby residents, they would have to be informed, said a spokesperson. Accepting fill can be lucrative for landowners who want to fill in gullies or flatten hills, with prices to dump clean fill ranging from $5 to $7 per cubic yard. And if property owners are willing to accept under-the-table demolition material, the savings on dump fees are substantial. A 2019 study conducted for Vancity found a dump truck load of mixed construction waste can cost between $1,100 and $1,400 to dispose of legally, but that some property owners are accepting loads for a $200 payment “despite the threat of fines that can reach as high as $10,000.” Mayor John Ranns said the concerns of some vocal residents do not reflect the current reality and bylaw changes mean there are now fewer problems with soil dumping—both legal and illegal—than in previous years. “It’s very frustrating. We do have illegal dumping, but not much. We have made numerous revisions to the soil deposit bylaw and, at the moment, it’s pretty much being adhered to,” he said. “There isn’t anything contaminated. It all has to be checked and verified now by qualified professionals. It has to meet proper profiles and we have to see the weighbill,” he said. Also, some property owners have created good farmland because soil has been brought in to fill gullies and top off rough forestland, added Ranns. “It’s not that all soil deposits are bad, it is just that there have been one or two people that have taken advantage of it,” he said. The issue could surface again over a 50-hectare Sooke Road property where an application last year for a soil recycling facility for up to 15,000 cubic metres of soil brought opposing residents out in force. The application for a Temporary Use Permit has been dropped, but, if the idea is resurrected, Ranns anticipates that residents could be asked to consider amenities, such as potential parkland with a soil recycling plant, versus private 10-acre lots. The property had a history of illegal dumping and, in 2016, a large fire was set in an effort to clean up the mess. That means a lot of suspicion has been generated, Ranns admitted, but the proponent, Brian Baker of Tri-X Excavating, has pointed out that material now coming onto the property is clean fill and it would be a waste to landfill it. “He’s going to be applying for industrial zoning on this property. He wants to do things legally,” said Ranns. “You can run it through a screener and then resell it. To me soil recycling is something that is quite badly needed in this region,” he said. Which comes back to how developers deal with rubble and soil from building sites—a question the ALC frequently faces near high development areas like Langford. “When you look at all the development in the area, digging into the ground for basements, there is all that dirt,” Sundher of the ALC said; “Wherever there is construction, especially residential or high rise buildings, there’s a big hole that is excavated and all that soil needs to go somewhere.” Judith Lavoie is an award-winning journalist specializing in the environment, First Nations, and social issues. Twitter @LavoieJudith
  3. January 2015 Residents are concerned about possible bias and the sacrifice of green space as Langford continues housing push. “ONE DAY A FOREST, the next day a clearcut,” shrugged a Costco shopper, staring at a denuded patch that seemed to have appeared overnight above Langford’s big-box stores. The 20-hectare patch, slated for a mixed commercial and residential development, went through the usual processes at Langford City Council—including a public hearing—but for many it is hard to keep up with the breakneck pace of development in one of BC’s fastest-growing cities. New housing has transformed landscapes, from sprawling rural to small-lot urban, in areas such as Happy Valley and Latoria Roads. There is no sign of a slowdown, despite growing discomfort that the unremitting push to build housing means the loss of natural landscapes. Those concerns are exacerbated by suspicions that developers are controlling the agenda to the detriment of those pleading for larger lots and retention of contiguous green space. A new development in south Langford Langford’s Official Community Plan calls for 40 percent open space on previously undeveloped land. But wiggle room allows open space to drop to 25 percent if there is a significant community benefit, such as affordable housing or a school site. Critics say those requirements are often waived, or green space is divided into fragments, with playing fields or recreation facilities making up much of the mix, as opposed to more natural parkland. “They [council] often don’t follow their own requirements. They constantly make exceptions for…the benefit of the developer, not for the natural resource,” said South Langford resident Mike Turner. The “clearcut-blast-build” formula, followed by promises to plant saplings, cannot replace the loss of critical and endangered habitats, said a member of Citizens of South Langford for Sustainable Development, one of the recently formed groups asking for a more environmentally and socially sustainable approach to development. “Langford development requirements do not need to undermine the integrity of our natural ecosystem; instead, they should complement each other,” said Tim Allan, a member of the group. “The community has made it clear that preserving natural parkland is important…Council and developers need to hoist in that message, keep the lines of communication open with the community, and more deliberately integrate natural parkland into their planning,” he said. Langford incorporated in 1992 and the City’s aggressive push to provide housing has taken the population from 18,000 in 1996 to more than 40,000 today. Mayor Stew Young, who has been in charge since 1993, proudly proclaims Langford’s come-hither approach to developers, saying reducing red tape and delivering fast approvals remains one of council’s highest priorities. Langford is renowned for completing rezoning applications in six months, minimizing the time that developers are left in limbo holding expensive land, which helps them keep housing costs more affordable. According to Langford staff, the pushback from a few residents is weighed against the needs of a broad cross-section of citizens who need homes, along with the need to increase the tax base—which provides amenities ranging from sidewalks to arenas. Langford planning director Matthew Baldwin said there is some friction in South Langford because it is transitioning from the haphazard pattern of development pre-incorporation to a more organized, urban form of development. That means small-lot or condominium development in areas with more spacious homes or surrounded by green space which is used by the community. But it is impossible to roll back the clock 40 years to a time when there was no development pressure or housing crisis, Baldwin said. “You can’t do it that way any more because the fundamental economic underpinnings of land value and construction costs would make that home prohibitively expensive.” Speedy approvals of developments in Langford have come in for criticism (and will likely increase given the removal of the new 11-storey Danbrook One’s occupancy permit, forcing 86 households to move just before Christmas). Much of the approval work is done behind the scenes as municipal staff work with developers to fine-tune applications before they go to council. “Quite often we have robust discussions at planning and zoning and resolve a lot of the issues,” Baldwin said, noting, “By the time things get to a formal public hearing, there are often no more issues, as people feel their issues have been addressed. Members of the public who had concerns are aware that those concerns have been addressed, and then they may decide not to attend the public hearing.” He pointed out that no one turned up when there was a public hearing for 3,000 residential units on Bear Mountain. Councillor Denise Blackwell, who chairs the Planning, Zoning and Affordable Housing Committee, said background work by staff aims to bring unambiguous proposals to council. “By the time an application gets to the committee stage, it is usually just a matter of tweaking the proposal, adding certain conditions that suit the particular circumstances or address unforeseen concerns raised by neighbours,” she said, adding that, since incorporation, the total area of protected green space has increased from 8 percent to more than 20 percent. “Council has also worked to acquire strategic park lands, develop active recreation for all, and continues to support efforts of the region as a whole to protect green spaces through the CRD’s Regional Green/Blue Spaces Strategy,” she said. However, the City’s friendliness towards developers troubles some residents, dealing with what they see as a council that does not prioritize the environment. A group in the Latoria Road area was surprised when told by council that they had to deal with Draycor Construction Ltd to address concerns about a proposed development. Council was dismissive when the group first turned up at a council meeting, said Laurie Anderson. “We don’t agree with the lot sizes that are being proposed, and there are a lot of environmental concerns…They just dismissed us and said we had to speak with the developer,” she said. There is increasing concern that developers, many with long-term ties to the community and council, hold undue sway. The Planning, Zoning and Affordable Housing Committee, which provides advice to council, but does not have decision-making authority, is made up of two councillors and five appointed citizens including Kent Sheldrake, co-owner of Draycor Construction Ltd.; Art Creuzot, owner of Luxbury Homes; and Malcolm Hall, owner of Lifestyle Ventures development company and Solo Suites airbnb hotel. The six-member Board of Variance, which operates at arm’s length from council and deals with matters such as relaxation of zoning regulations or tree-protection requirements, includes Cliff Curtis owner of TBJ Properties; Jim Hartshorne, owner of Keycorp Developments Ltd and Westhills Land Corp; land development consultant Rachael Sansom; and Ron Coutre, owner of SouthPoint Partners Ltd and president of Westshore Developers Association. A spokeswoman for the Ministry of Municipal Affairs and Housing said no complaints have been received about the makeup of Langford committees. But some residents are alarmed by the perception of bias. A presentation on behalf of developers of the property behind Costco was made by Hartshorne, chair of the Board of Variance; a controversial rezoning application for 734 Latoria Road, made by Kevin Parker, co-owner of Draycor Construction, whose partner Sheldrake is a member of the planning and zoning committee, was approved with 17.5 percent green space, despite public opposition. The selection criteria used by mayor and council is unclear, Allan said. “Given its current membership, the Planning, Zoning and Affordable Housing Committee appears to be overwhelmingly weighted to favour development. With such an apparent bias, it is difficult for it to reflect the broad views from the citizens of Langford,” he said. Some members have served several consecutive terms and will continue to the end of 2022, Allan noted. “The [committee] needs to have a cross-section of representation from not only the developer community, but also public housing representatives, seniors, business, Chamber of Commerce, environmental groups, just to name a few,” said Allan. Turner pointed out that committees are usually balanced between interests such as citizens, First Nations, government, and environmental groups. “I would say that any committee making recommendations to government needs to be balanced between all the special interests that have a stake in whatever they are discussing. So to have it dominated by one group that has a clear, vested interest more than any other group is not appropriate,” he said. J.Ocean Dennie, founder of the Friends of the T’Sou-ke Hills Wilderness, is worried that plans to punch an alternate route to the Malahat will result in a sprawl of development, and he has little faith that Langford will protect wilderness values. “What it comes down to is who is sitting at the table, who is making the decisions and who is pushing the agenda. As concerned citizens, a lot of the time we just don’t have that information. We don’t have time to keep up with the backroom deals,” he said. Lawyer Matthew Nefstead, who was hired by West Coast Environmental Law to help those fighting for more Latoria Road green space, wrote in his analysis, “The fact that most, or all of the non-elected members are property developers who have dealings with the Committee and the City and who do not appear to declare conflicts of interest, presents—in my opinion—a reasonable apprehension of bias.” But Blackwell said some members of the committee are semi-retired and, as chair of the committee, she asks individuals to recuse themselves if there is a perception of conflict of interest. The argument heard from Langford staff is that council wants the expertise provided by developers and, for environmental input, relies on registered professional biologists or professional foresters. “I don’t think it would serve anyone on the committee or council or the public at large to have one qualified professional questioning another qualified professional’s opinion,” said a staff member. With controversy over the makeup of committees, there is a push for more transparency from Langford council—one of the only municipalities in the Capital Regional District that does not webcast meetings. “Why are there no cameras recording the meetings?” asked Terrie Wilcox, who mobilized a group of neighbours worried about overdevelopment in the Goldstream Avenue area, where plans call for redevelopment of St Anthony’s Clinic, including a 15-storey condominium building. Wilcox worries that development is racing ahead of infrastructure, and most of the input heard by council is from tradespeople and developers. “I agree with development due to the housing shortage, [but] Langford is moving far too fast with very little change, if any, to infrastructure,” she said, pointing to road dust on her patio table from incessant traffic. Like many Langford residents, Sarah Forbes agrees that housing development is needed, but the “pitchy-patchy approach” of separate developers is resulting in isolated communities connected by commuter corridors. “With the large-scale development, we could have some really world-class communities if we had a more sustainable approach to development. It’s a huge opportunity that is being missed,” said Forbes. “I do support development. We need to grow as a community, but we can do better…We have this great opportunity to grow this whole city, and we could develop it more sustainably with real sustainable practices in mind,” she said. Judith Lavoie is an award-winning journalist specializing in the environment, First Nations, and social issues. Twitter @LavoieJudith This story has been edited to reflect the correct name of Danbrook One, the development in Langford which had its occupancy permit revoked. An earlier version had referred to the development as Donwood One.
  4. Posted June 9, 2020 Photo: First responders attend to a drug overdose. Victoria still has no residential treatment beds for those coming out of short-term detox—yet the new therapeutic recovery program is undersubscribed. Go to story
  5. Victoria still has no residential treatment beds for those coming out of short-term detox—yet the new therapeutic recovery program is undersubscribed. AS VICTORIA RESIDENTS ARE FACED WITH DAILY EVIDENCE of the ravages of addiction, especially when combined with homelessness or mental health problems, there are calls for more treatment beds in the community. Victoria’s grim tally of overdose deaths, combined with neighbourhood crime and confrontations as people move from the Pandora Avenue and Topaz Park camps into hotels, is forcing addiction and mental health problems into the spotlight. In the first four months of the year, more than 60 people in the Island Health region died of overdoses, including 28 in Victoria. Last month, a public health overdose advisory was issued by Island Health as the number of fatal and non-fatal overdoses grew because of increasing toxicity of the street drug supply. Niki Ottosen, who hands out sandwiches to people living in Beacon Hill Park and runs the Backpack Project, which delivers backpacks filled with necessities to people in need, believes the missing piece in the program to move people into hotel rooms, in an effort to stop COVID-19 spreading through the street population, is new detox beds. No new detox or treatment beds have been announced, she noted. Nikki Ottonsen, founder of the Backpack Project in Victoria (Photo: Backpack Project) “I’ve had to bring people to detox. It’s seven days and then they go into 30-day stabilization, but sometimes they get out of detox, after seven days withdrawing, [and] they don’t have space for you to go to 30-day detox, so then you have to go back out to wherever you were and hope you don’t have a relapse before they have a space for you,” Ottosen said. “That is the huge missing piece. We are setting people up to fail if we think we are just going to put them up in hotel rooms, or maybe get them into modular housing later, without extra supports in our community,” she said. Kelly Reid, Island Health director of mental health and addiction services agrees more services are needed. The goal of Island Health is to provide a continuum of care for people with addictions, but, according to Reid, the answer is not as simple as supplying more treatment beds. “It sounds like a reasonably simple question and then you dig into it and it is so complicated,” Reid said. People with addictions and mental health problems need different supports to create a readiness to go into treatment, he explained, and having basic needs met—whether housing, food or access to a doctor—can lead to more interest in recovery. “It’s not easy and when you are living on the street and having to work so hard to even find food and the basics of life, it is particularly hard to go through a treatment process,” he said. Reid believes that while replacement drug therapies and the slow move to a safe supply of drugs should help set the stage for the next step, providing a safe place to live is vital in getting people to a place where they are willing to make changes to their lives. “I really believe that when people have housing and they have nutrition and they have hope and they have social connections that they can imagine a different path forward,” he said. Usually people who make the decision to go drug-free can get into a detox bed within four or five days, Reid said, but, if you are not seen as high urgency, the wait can be one or two weeks. From there, some people go to one of the three “supportive recovery homes” in the community, including two for women and the 22-bed Douglas Street Community 90-day supportive recovery program run by the Portland Hotel Society. Such facilities offer “low to moderate supports” to newly detoxed substance-abusers as opposed to the intensive therapies offered in residential treatment programs, which are not available in Victoria. Financial help is sometimes available for people to access ones on the mainland. Some of those seeking recovery need to go to a fully-staffed stabilization unit for a month. Others, following their 7-day detox, simply go home and are linked to counsellors. Reid admits there can be a gap between programs, which is why increasing capacity is part of the goal. “We want to be able to provide treatment as soon as somebody is ready to accept it, and we are not there yet. There are still waits in some parts of the system and sometimes the opportunity passes,” he said. “In the ideal world I guess if we had a residential treatment facility in Victoria it would add to our continuum. It’s one that would be very welcome,” Reid said. But even available beds do not guarantee that people will be willing to complete a tough recovery program. New Roads, a therapeutic recovery centre in View Royal run by Our Place, offers spaces to people who have experienced homelessness, those who are leaving prison, or people who are willing to enter the two-year program as an alternative to jail. The 50-bed centre opened in late 2018, but currently has only about 20 residents, partially because of COVID-19 complications, but also because people are sometimes reluctant to make such a long-term commitment. Grant McKenzie, Our Place communications director, said persuading people to make the leap from detox into therapeutic recovery is more difficult than initially imagined. “We are dealing with a very damaged population and it can take a long time to get them to the point where they are ready to go into therapeutic recovery,” he said. Even those who enter the program, do not necessarily see it through. The centre accepts people who would have been sentenced to three months or more in jail, but often, after three months of getting food, exercise and sufficient sleep, they believe they have recovered and leave. “Within 24 hours they are back using. There’s a challenge there that we are working on, but it’s not as simple as saying ‘here’s a recovery bed and off you go,’” McKenzie said. “You are dealing with a lot of trauma and abuse and you’re trying to dig down and get people to look inward and grow,” McKenzie said. If people stay for two years, the chance of success is about 70 percent, but, if they stay for only three months, success rates plummet. Mackenzie said that in addition to services now available in Greater Victoria, there is a great need to put more resources into mental health. “We really need mental health supports where people are assessed and the medications they are on are assessed. There are a lot of people out there with undiagnosed schizophrenia or undiagnosed bipolar and they are self-medicating with street drugs,” he said. In addition, a growing problem is the number of people who have brain damage after overdosing and being brought back by Naloxone. While some people do well in a home where medications can be monitored, others would thrive in a locked institution with 24/7 supervision, said McKenzie, adding that, because of past abuses in mental health institutions, it is a difficult concept to accept. “It probably wouldn’t be [someone’s] choice to go in there, which is what makes it so controversial, but I really think you could save lives,” he said. For a list of the types of assistance the BC government provides substance users, see this site. For withdrawal and detox services at Island Health, start here. Judith Lavoie is an award-winning journalist specializing in the environment, First Nations, and social issues. Twitter @LavoieJudith
  6. May 12, 2020 Photo: Homeless advocate Chrissy Brett Is COVID-19 the catalyst for bold changes around homelessness? Go to story
  7. May 12, 2020 Or will pandemic-induced debt just make it worse? AS OUTREACH WORKERS tick names off lists of campers at Topaz Park and Pandora Avenue, trying to bring order to the hurried plan to move homeless people into hotels, others are drifting in to the area, hoping to be included in the relocation. Although Topaz and Pandora, with about 360 people, are the outward face of homelessness in Victoria, tents can be found scattered around Beacon Hill Park, along side-streets, and outside Rock Bay Landing shelter. The shifting numbers are among the complications faced by the Coalition to End Homelessness and its partners as they conduct assessments before moving people into hotels, where they can practice physical distancing and self-isolation, in an effort to stop COVID-19 from gaining a toehold in the homeless population. A spokeswoman for the Ministry of Municipal Affairs and Housing said in an emailed statement that efforts are being made to reach as many people as possible. “We’re working across government and with all partners to implement extraordinary measures to protect everyone in BC from the risks of two public health emergencies—the fentanyl poisoning crisis and the COVID-19 pandemic. We’re working on an accelerated timeline to keep people safe and connected to the care they need through these crises and beyond,” she said. It is uncertain how many people in Greater Victoria are in need of homes. Some are newly homeless and others, who were previously living under the radar, are finding it difficult to make a living from binning, bottle collecting, the sex trade or panhandling in today’s era of closed shops and restaurants. “The numbers are crushing,” said Reverend Al Tysick of the Dandelion Society, one of the partners in the relocation effort. “It is going to be difficult for the Coalition to End Homelessness to house everyone. They’re going to do their best, but to do it in this short time is extremely difficult,” he said. Reverend Al Tysick of the Dandelion Society The last homeless count found 1,500 people in Victoria without stable housing, but, over the last year, Tysick has seen a spike. “Rents have gone up, people have been kicked out and they haven’t been able to find a place. [Rents are] well over what we’re paying on welfare and disability,” he noted. Numbers then bumped up again this spring after shelters were forced to reduce capacity when they could not maintain the prescribed pandemic distancing. The Province, under the Emergency Program Act, has leased 324 rooms in five hotels in Victoria and set up a 45-bed emergency response centre at Save-On-Foods Memorial Centre. On May 10 the ministry website showed 106 people from Topaz and Pandora had moved to new accommodation. However, it has been difficult finding experienced staff to provide wrap-around supports and sufficient spaces in Victoria. Shane Simpson, Minister of Social Development and Poverty Reduction has extended the deadline for moving people from Topaz and Pandora from May 9 to May 20. “While we have been working with the hotel sector and service delivery partners towards the May 9 target in Victoria, it is now clear that more time is needed to ensure each person leaving Topaz Park and Pandora Avenue is moved into the accommodation that best meets their needs,” Simpson said in a news release. “No one will be asked to leave these encampments without being offered a suitable temporary housing option,” he said. Simpson also acknowledged that there are people outside Topaz and Pandora who need housing help. “We are not ignoring them. This discussion will continue,” he said, In total there are more than 2,750 spaces across the Province for people without homes, according to BC Housing. Apart from the immediate problems of finding space for the fluctuating number of homeless people, the major question is how they will all be housed once the pandemic is over. The Province and City of Victoria have pledged that, after the three-month contract with hotel owners is up, no one will be forced back into homelessness. There is speculation that the Province could buy some of the hotels, which were almost empty after tourism ground to a halt. Advocates are also pushing for construction of modular housing, spread through southern Vancouver Island communities, while the provincial emphasis is on the goal of building 4,900 new supportive homes in BC over the next decade. “That work will happen in the weeks and months ahead, but the priority now is on the immediate health and safety of people experiencing homelessness in these public health emergencies,” said an emailed statement from a Ministry of Municipal Affairs and Housing spokeswoman. In Oppenheimer Park in Vancouver, where 261 people had moved by May 10, activist Chrissy Brett, a veteran of Victoria’s 2015/2016 courthouse lawn camp, was fielding numerous questions about potential housing from camp residents. Like other advocates, she believes that, provided adequate supports are in place, the plan to move people into hotels or community centres will help. But she worries about those left out or those dealing with past trauma and addictions who are unable to adjust to life in a hotel where there are rules to be followed. Activist Chrissy Brett A possible model would be a type of refugee-style camp run by organizations such as the Red Cross, Brett suggested. “It’s not that I’m advocating that tent cities are where it is at, but, if you look at San Diego or San Francisco or Seattle, they are now creating these sort of camps,” she said. “They are made to live in with showers and bathrooms and everything people need to live properly. Why are we not looking at those as short-term measures?” Brett would also like to see housing for Indigenous people, seniors and those not battling addictions made available at sites such as Woodwynn Farm, the Central Saanich property bought by the Province in 2018 for use as a therapeutic recovery/training centre (it does not offer housing on site). Tysick would love to believe that, after decades of neglect, the homelessness problem is about to be solved. But realism kicks in. “I am waiting to see this magic wand,” said Tysick, pointing out that, for decades, the problem has been ignored or, at best, chipped at around the edges. “Let’s be really clear the only reason this is being done is COVID-19. Period. End of story,” he said. But, when this crisis is over, will attitudes and political will have changed? Tim Richter, president and founder of the Canadian Alliance to End Homelessness, said modern-day homelessness was created by federal government policies in the late 1980s and 1990s. “It wasn’t on purpose obviously, but it’s a product of the policy choices that were made when the federal government withdrew from affordable housing investments almost completely and cut social transfers (to the Provinces) that funded welfare and health care,” Richter said. Tim Richter, president and founder of the Canadian Alliance to End Homelessness Now, organizations working to fix the problem need the support of the provincial and federal governments and a more ambitious, more aggressive investment in housing than Canada has seen in recent decades, he said. Change will come if the public demands it, Richter believes. “We are in a really unique window of time right now where the public is feeling what many people experiencing homelessness feel. They feel isolated and they understand that housing is healthcare, so they are much more empathetic to the plight of people experiencing homelessness,” he said. “In a crisis like this, things that, on a policy basis, may have seemed a little crazy a month ago, aren’t crazy any more. I think big, bold changes in social policy are possible,” he said. This is the time for people to speak out, Richter said. “Canadians need to say we are not prepared to accept homelessness of any of our neighbours as inevitable and we’re not prepared that people should be at this sort of risk from a pandemic for no other reason than they don’t have a place to live,” he said. However, there is a possible flip side to government attitudes post-pandemic, said Tysick, who wonders what will happen when bills for the Canada-wide pandemic financial aid start to roll in. “Look at the amount of money the government is putting out for COVID across the country, not only for homelessness, but for unemployment and business and other initiatives,” Tysick said. “I am proud of our governments for doing it, but, once it’s over, will they say ‘yes, let’s build two or three buildings for 400 people.’ I don’t think so. I think we are going to be hearing about the debt and how difficult it’s going to be to pay off that debt for the next 10 years,” he said. Judith Lavoie is an award-winning journalist specializing in the environment, First Nations, and social issues. Twitter @LavoieJudith
  8. July 2018 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.
  9. July 2017 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. May 3, 2020 ANXIETY IS RIPPLING THROUGH Victoria’s Burnside-Gorge neighbourhood as residents hear through the unofficial grapevine that about 80 percent of the more than 350 of those living in tents in Topaz Park and Pandora Avenue will be coming to hotels in their community. The area, which is home to many families with children, already has two shelters and several supportive housing complexes. Residents have, as a result, experienced fallout from mental health and addiction problems in the past. Recent incidents around Topaz Park, where crime spiked after the camp was set up, have added to their concerns. It’s a delicate balance for both residents and those who have been living in tents since shelter space was reduced because of COVID-19. While there is widespread support for dismantling the camps, providing adequate housing, and helping those struggling with mental health and addictions, questions are being raised about what help is available to the receiving community. Rock Bay Landing, located in the Burnside-Gorge neighbourhood Residents in the Burnside-Gorge area neighbourhood recently discovered that four out of five sites for hotel relocations are in their area—although, according to Michelle Peterson, no one has reached out to the community to offer specific information or security help. Peterson, a long-time Burnside-Gorge resident, told Focus, “Every single one of the people I have talked to, no question, agree that these people need to be housed. That is not an issue. It is more the impact and the lack of support for the communities.” At a virtual meeting that included Island Health representatives, Peterson was told that many of the campers are feeling anxious and uncertain about the move, so will be helped by psychiatrists and mental health experts. “I told them I am hearing very similar feelings from residents in my community and there’s no supports for them. What are they going to do to support the neighbours?” she asked. Island Health has agreed to take the concerns to their executive, Peterson said. “This is a crisis and I think everyone understands that, but what people are worried about is what is the plan to help mitigate any negative impact, because we know that there is a percentage of that population who can be quite dangerous. They’re the ones who have active, significant mental health issues or active substance abuse issues or they’re violent to themselves or others,” she said. Given the crime spike in the Topaz neighbourhood, residents are asking for increased security, possibly additional policing, and assurances that 24/7 supervision will amount to more than someone sitting at a reception desk, Peterson said. BC Housing is not confirming which hotels in Victoria are providing the 324 rooms, but emphasized that people will be assessed and then connected to wrap-around care including doctors, outreach workers and psychosocial supports. Harm reduction supplies will be provided to people with substance use disorders. “BC Housing is engaged in active and ongoing conversations with neighbourhood and community associations in Victoria to raise awareness and provide information about our response to the pandemic and how we are assisting those who are vulnerable,” said a Ministry of Municipal Affairs and Housing spokeswoman in an emailed response to questions from Focus. “While we typically connect with neighbours and the public prior to new services opening in the community for those who are vulnerable, we recognize the need to act quickly in the current context. The hotels are temporary and will be vital to mitigating the spread of this virus, protecting those who are vulnerable and the broader community.” Peterson said a BC Housing representative is planning to meet with residents, but, so far, no one has come up with a mitigation plan and the lack of information is creating suspicion and polarization. “I understand why they don’t want to disclose the location, but, when they don’t provide information to the community and they stay silent and don’t reach out, it creates a significant lack of trust,” she said. “Then what happens is it creates more of a divide, more hostility, more conflict between the neighbourhood and the homeless population which is not what we want,” she said. By April 30, 51 people had been moved out of camps and into hotel rooms, with the Province paying the tab. The final cost will depend on the length of time the hotels are used, according to the ministry. The contracts with hotels are below the market rental rate, but are providing income for hotel owners at a time when COVID-19 has brought the tourism industry to a grinding halt. “We have not forced hotels to accept people. To date, all hotel spaces that BC Housing has secured have been freely negotiated with hotel owners without the use of orders,” wrote the spokeswoman. “These contracts are producing positive outcomes for everyone, including hotel owners, who are getting a fair deal, and their employees, some of whom are being contracted to help operate hotels.” BC Housing has committed to “professional and rigorous cleaning” of all the buildings once the contracts end and will cover the cost of any damages. However, for Peterson and other Burnside-Gorge residents, the remaining question is how much help the neighbourhood will be receiving. “There needs to be a plan on how to mitigate the impact in the short term, because we know there are going to be impacts,” she said. Judith Lavoie is an award-winning journalist specializing in the environment, First Nations, and social issues. Twitter @LavoieJudith
  11. April 25, 2020 New pandemic guidelines giving medical professionals and pharmacists flexibility to prescribe and distribute drugs to those suffering from addiction need to be put into practice more quickly in order to keep everyone safe, say advocates. THE ALREADY-TOXIC STREET DRUG SUPPLY in BC is becoming increasingly poisonous and expensive as borders close and supplies from China and the US shrink. But, for most people suffering from addiction, quitting is not an immediate option and, although a growing amount of basement concoctions are being sold on the street, the urge to avoid withdrawal overrides all else. “You will have to go out, no matter what, and do what you have to do to get that substance,” said Guy Felicella, who spent decades as a heroin addict living in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside and is now clean, an advocate for a safe drug supply and a peer clinical adviser for BC Centre on Substance Use. Guy Felicella, right, an advocate for a safe drug supply (Photo courtesy guyfelicella.com) As COVID-19 physical distancing rules clear the streets, it is more difficult to make money from panhandling, bottle collecting or the sex trade. Advocates worry that people with addictions are struggling to find alternate ways to finance their habits. There is also concern that those searching for drugs are at risk of both contracting and spreading COVID-19. So it is to everyone’s advantage that new guidelines will give prescribers and pharmacists flexibility to prescribe and distribute drugs such as hydromorphone, stimulants, benzodiazepines, and substances to manage alcohol and nicotine withdrawal, according to Felicella and other advocates. Federal relaxation of the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act was followed last month by innovative provincial guidelines designed to address two overlapping public health emergencies—the opioid crisis, fuelled by fentanyl, which has killed more than 5,000 British Columbians since January 2016 and, now, COVID-19. The new rules allow physicians and nurse practitioners to prescribe the drugs to people at risk of contracting COVID-19, those with a history of ongoing substance use, people at high risk of withdrawal or overdose and youth under the age of 19 who provide informed consent, provided there is additional education. Costs are covered by provincial PharmaCare. Rapid access addiction clinics can also provide assessments, and phone visits to prescribers and pharmacists are encouraged. The guidelines allow home delivery by pharmacy employees, pharmacists can extend, renew and transfer prescriptions and, in some cases, people will be allowed up to three weeks supply instead of having to go to the pharmacy daily. “We want people not to have to go into pharmacies every day, which puts themselves and other people at risk when they should be self-isolating,” said Judy Darcy, Minister of Mental health and Addiction. “We are trying to flatten the curve at the same time as stopping overdoses and these really unprecedented measures are meant to do both of those things,” she said. The guidelines were put in place as fast as possible and a massive effort is now underway to get the word out to all health professionals, Darcy said. However, implementation is slow as some physicians and pharmacists are not yet fully informed about the changes. It is frustrating, said Leslie McBain, co-founder of Moms Stop The Harm. “What you had was rollout of a good policy that I hope will continue to progress and evolve, but the infrastructure was not out there,” McBain said. She added, “If I was a person searching for safe drugs because I didn’t want to go out and buy them on the street, there was no way to figure out that pathway.” Bernie Pauly, University of Victoria School of Nursing professor and a scientist with the Canadian Institute for Substance Use research, said it is essential prescribers familiarize themselves with the changes. “[They] need to not only know and understand the guidelines, they need to do it really quickly because people’s lives are at stake,” she said. Pauly and other advocates are anxious to ensure the changes stay in place after federal exemptions reach their sunset clause at the end of September. “I would hope we are able to show the benefits of this,” said Pauly, who also wants to see decriminalization of personal possession—something recommended last year by provincial health officer Dr Bonnie Henry. Felicella wants to see a further step with pharmaceutical grade heroin, fentanyl and cocaine made available without prescription. “What we have today is a medical version and it’s a great start and will help many people, but it is not where we want to stay,” he said. Judith Lavoie is an award-winning journalist specializing in the environment, First Nations, and social issues. Twitter @LavoieJudith
  12. April 3, 2020 With an estimated 1,500 homeless people in Victoria, increasingly worried officials are trying to find enough facilities to house them in a way that allows physical distancing. THERE IS INCREASING URGENCY to move the jumble of tents on Pandora Avenue into the safer environments of Topaz Park and Royal Athletic Park, as health professionals and advocates watch anxiously for signs of COVID-19 spreading to Victoria’s homeless population. So far, no members of the group, many of whom have compromised immune systems, have tested positive, but the risk is obvious. With parks regarded as a temporary solution, the overriding question is whether the virus will hold off long enough to allow indoor accommodation—where greater physical distancing is possible—to be found for hundreds of people. Tents sprung up along the 900-block of Pandora Avenue, outside Our Place, after drop-ins closed and shelter spaces were reduced because of the need for physical distancing. Tents on Pandora Avenue. (Photo by Ross Crockford) Many of those camping on Pandora are using Our Place services such as washrooms, paramedic services, and meals—which are handed out at the gate in disposable containers. The City, BC Housing, Island Health, Greater Victoria Coalition to End Homelessness and the Dandelion Society are working together to move people initially into the specified parks, which have washrooms and running water and will allow for physical distancing. The plan to use parks as temporary campsites has brought objections from some neighbours who worry about drug use and increased crime. But the possibility of infection in the current crowded environments should concern everyone, not just the unhoused population, said Reverend Al Tysick, founder of the Victoria Dandelion Society. “This doesn’t just affect [this group]…We are all in this together. This epidemic does not distinguish between the rich and the poor, the drug addict and the woman in the nursing home,” Tysick said. “Once it hits our [homeless] community it’s going to spread like wildfire. People are already sick when they move into the community. This is serious stuff. Much more serious than we have ever seen before,” he said. It has not been possible to persuade Pandora campers of the importance of staying at a safe distance from each other, said Our Place communications director Grant McKenzie. It is difficult to explain social distancing to a group living in precarious circumstances, who are already dealing with losses from the opioid crisis, McKenzie said. “Many people here are suffering from addiction or using opioids, so they are really just looking at their day-to-day survival. Where is my next meal coming from? Where am I sleeping tonight? They don’t have the luxury of worrying about COVID-19, which is why social distancing is very difficult,” he said. Royal Athletic Park [see update in Comments] will be set up for 80 people with addictions or mental health problems, who are likely to need a higher level of service, but one delay is finding available front-line staff. “We are working as hard and as fast as we can,” said Mayor Lisa Helps at one of her daily briefings. “In a public health emergency, no one should be living outside. Period,” she said. “COVID-19 will hit the unsheltered population at some time,” Helps said, echoing the concerns of Chief Medical Officer Richard Stanwick who has emphasized that homeless people must have the opportunity to meet social distancing requirements and that, if they are displaying symptoms, they must be able to isolate themselves. A federal grant of more than $1.3-million will be added to programs to address homelessness; and a search is on to find indoor alternatives to parks. As of April 3, 102 homeless, who are healthy and do not require a high level of support, had been moved into motel rooms. Others, who were previously camping in Topaz Park, will remain there until indoor accommodation can be found. Ideally, that search should include premises in neighbouring municipalities as the downtown core attracts people from all over the region and several of Victoria’s facilities have already been rejected as unsuitable, said Helps. She acknowledged that 80 spaces at Royal Athletic Park will not be sufficient to meet the needs. Meanwhile, there seem to be more tents on Pandora than ever. And the numbers of facilities in motels and parks so far arranged do not add up to anywhere near the 1,525 homeless people found in the 2018 count in Greater Victoria. Judith Lavoie is an award-winning journalist specializing in the environment, First Nations, and social issues. Twitter @LavoieJudith
  13. March 5, 2020 Innovative programs are being put in place to help farmers address the high cost of farmland—but are they enough? IT’S AN EASY EQUATION IN MOST HOUSEHOLDS—if more people turn up for dinner, it means producing more food. But in the Capital Regional District, where the population is expected to increase 27 percent by 2038, only half of the region’s 16,000 hectares of Agricultural Land Reserve (ALR) is growing food. In other words, as climate change makes food security and buying local increasingly important, much of southern Vancouver Island’s rich agricultural land is being developed for non-agricultural uses or simply under-utilized. Farmland being farmed, a relatively rare sight in the Victoria area ALR land represents seven percent of the CRD, with additional rural land not included in the ALR. Farm Credit Canada’s 2018/2019 report says that out of more than 700 farms in the capital region, less than half are growing food. Another report, the Foodlands Access Program feasibility study, produced by Upland Agricultural Consulting Ltd for the regional district, states: “The underutilization of farmland, both now and in the future, is a lost regional opportunity. With over 50 percent of the region’s farmers retiring in the next 10 years, there is concern that new farmers will not be able to afford to enter the sector to replace them.” The study noted, “The high cost of land is a barrier, not only to new farmers, but also to those wishing to expand their business. This is due, in part, to agricultural lands being purchased by non-farmers and held with low risk for speculative purposes.” As the southern Vancouver Island population grows, farmland is appealing to those who want to put down roots in a rural setting and are willing to pay between $100,000 and $200,000 an acre. While the cost of farmland across BC increased by 6.7 percent in 2018, on Vancouver Island it jumped by 21.7 percent, the highest regional increase in the country, according to Farm Credit Canada’s Farmland Values Report. Saanich Councillor Nathalie Chambers, who farms Madrona Farm in the Blenkinsop Valley with her husband David, has fought against development and dumping of fill in the soil-rich Blenkinsop Valley. Chambers believes the price of farmland and non-permitted activities, which degrade the soil and pollute watersheds, are the largest obstacles to saving farmland. And, she adds, “Mega-mansion carbuncles are totally contagious.” Linda Geggie, executive director of the Capital Region Food and Initiatives Roundtable (CRFAIR), agrees mega-homes are a problem. “A lot of people say that on most of the land on the Peninsula, the biggest crop is large estate homes,” said Geggie, who believes urban containment zones are a valuable weapon against development on rural land, especially when combined with stricter enforcement of zoning restrictions. “We need to contain sprawl, but the challenge is that there’s so much competition for that land, and there’s a lot of non-farm use now for those farmlands because we have a low stock of industrial land and we are in a housing crisis,” explained Geddie. Linda Geggie Surprisingly, given the breakneck pace of development in areas such as West Shore, only 45.6 (of 16,000) hectares of ALR land in the region has been removed during the last decade. However, that does not mean the remaining land is being farmed. And even if it is farmed, the extent of the crop is often only enough to graze the limits of the farm credit, giving a significant tax break to owners. A few fields of hay or a couple of pigs can reach the $2,500 production figure that gains a farm tax credit on smaller properties. A November 2016 Globe & Mail investigation into farmland in the lower mainland noted, “Effectively, wealthy investors and speculators are receiving millions in tax breaks not meant for them.” Yet upping the sales limit for farm status could have unforeseen consequences, say advocates such as Geggie. “It really depends what you’re producing, because if you’re producing carrots, that’s a heck of a lot of carrots…You also have some farms that are just starting out—developmental farms—and it’s hard in your first couple of years to make a lot of income,” Geggie said. Still, she believes there could be more nuanced categories in the farm tax credit regime. The Province has struggled to control mega-mansions on ALR land. Agriculture Minister Lana Popham told Focus that, after tweaking an initial proposal, she believes proposed new rules that would allow secondary homes of 1,000 square feet and restrict primary residences to 5,400 square feet provide the correct balance. But if land is in the ALR, why are the owners not required to farm it? Not possible, responded Popham. “There are quite strict rules about what is allowable activity and what isn’t, but actually forcing people to farm is not something we can legislate,” she said. “What we can do is make farming more viable so that it’s an option they will choose,” she said. Agriculture Minister Lana Popham A series of initiatives to encourage farming, at provincial and regional levels, are making a difference, Popham said. “It’s like turning a giant cruise ship around. You’ve got to connect all the dots and get everything in place and then as soon as it starts to move, it really starts to move, and I really feel that is starting to happen,” she said. Part of that dot-connecting is a series of food-processing hubs around the province that make it possible for farmers to create value-added goods—such as baked goods, beverages, condiments, and broth. Three are already in operation, and more are planned. “They are really going to be places where people who wanted to start an entrepreneur business were stuck in a small space or home kitchen. Now they can move to a commercial area where all the boxes are ticked off…so they can get those products out,” Popham said. Creating markets for farmers is one of the keys, said Popham, and a recent game-changer has been getting BC products into the health care system. Health authorities spend vast portions of their budgets on food, and the Province is encouraging them to buy BC-grown food, such as berries, eggs, vegetables and frozen meals, Popham said. “It’s really working. There are all these new business opportunities that are popping up,” she said. THE AVERAGE AGE OF FARMERS in the capital region is 57, with more than half planning to retire over the next decade. Many members of the next generation are not interested in taking over the family farm, so protecting the land base and persuading others to farm the land are key challenges in the quest for regional food security. The regional district is working on an agricultural land use inventory. It is also in the final throes of creating a foodlands trust, which will see participating municipalities put municipally-owned land into the trust, to be protected as agricultural land. (And perhaps down the road, purchase farmland for that purpose.) The aim is for the regional district to then work with a non-profit land manager, such as CRFAIR, to lease the lands to farmers or community organizations. Community farms already exist in the region, including Haliburton Farm, Newman Farm, Lohbrunner Farm, Burgoyne Farm, and the Sandown Racetrack lands, Geggie pointed out. “There’s an interest, and the foodlands trust is a framework for moving that forward,” she said. “It’s a pretty exciting thing, because people really do value local food now…It’s such an important thing for sustainability in our region,” she said. The idea of a foodlands trust has been controversial because of fears it would give some farmers an unfair advantage. But Geddie noted the land would be leased at market rates, and tenant farmers would have long term leases, giving them security to make investments such as irrigation systems or greenhouses. It is one way to address the exorbitant value placed on any land in a hot real-estate market. “It’s not going to solve the whole problem, but it is a strategy—a tool,” said Geggie, who wants to see the amount of locally-produced food consumed in the area grow from less than 10 percent to 25 percent by 2025. (So far, eight of the region’s municipalities have indicated their support, though Esquimalt, Langford, Colwood and Oak Bay do not support it.) Along with protecting the land, there is a need to look at the types of food that can be grown in the era of climate change, Geggie said. “The diet that we are eating now is not the diet we will be eating in 10 years,” she said. Some of the more innovative crops are coming through the Young Agrarians land matching program, supported by the provincial government, which matches young farmers to landowners who no longer want to farm their land, or who want to lease part of their land. Young Agrarians in BC now have almost 290 hectares in production through 65 matches. In addition to the land matches, the organization provides education and support for new farmers, said Darcy Smith, Young Agrarians BC land program manager. “We have worked with everything from small-scale market gardens, to mushroom production to goats to a buffalo dairy,” Smith said. “People are turning back to farming as a career and lifestyle choice. They love working with the soil and looking after animals,” she said. Programs such as Young Agrarians and a foodlands trust are positive, but there is no magic solution to the local food production problem, especially when land costs are so high. Smith feels the first step is for people to be aware of where their food originates, and the importance of farming. Then, positive incentives, rather than new rules and regulations, are the best way to encourage people to continue farming or to consider it as a career, she said. “We all have to understand that this farmland is something that we, as a community, need to value,” Smith said. Judith Lavoie is an award-winning journalist specializing in the environment, First Nations, and social issues. Twitter @LavoieJudith
  14. January 5, 2020 Residents are concerned about possible bias and the sacrifice of green space as Langford continues housing push. “ONE DAY A FOREST, the next day a clearcut,” shrugged a Costco shopper, staring at a denuded patch that seemed to have appeared overnight above Langford’s big-box stores. The 20-hectare patch, slated for a mixed commercial and residential development, went through the usual processes at Langford City Council—including a public hearing—but for many it is hard to keep up with the breakneck pace of development in one of BC’s fastest-growing cities. New housing has transformed landscapes, from sprawling rural to small-lot urban, in areas such as Happy Valley and Latoria Roads. There is no sign of a slowdown, despite growing discomfort that the unremitting push to build housing means the loss of natural landscapes. Those concerns are exacerbated by suspicions that developers are controlling the agenda to the detriment of those pleading for larger lots and retention of contiguous green space. A new development in south Langford Langford’s Official Community Plan calls for 40 percent open space on previously undeveloped land. But wiggle room allows open space to drop to 25 percent if there is a significant community benefit, such as affordable housing or a school site. Critics say those requirements are often waived, or green space is divided into fragments, with playing fields or recreation facilities making up much of the mix, as opposed to more natural parkland. “They [council] often don’t follow their own requirements. They constantly make exceptions for…the benefit of the developer, not for the natural resource,” said South Langford resident Mike Turner. The “clearcut-blast-build” formula, followed by promises to plant saplings, cannot replace the loss of critical and endangered habitats, said a member of Citizens of South Langford for Sustainable Development, one of the recently formed groups asking for a more environmentally and socially sustainable approach to development. “Langford development requirements do not need to undermine the integrity of our natural ecosystem; instead, they should complement each other,” said Tim Allan, a member of the group. “The community has made it clear that preserving natural parkland is important…Council and developers need to hoist in that message, keep the lines of communication open with the community, and more deliberately integrate natural parkland into their planning,” he said. Langford incorporated in 1992 and the City’s aggressive push to provide housing has taken the population from 18,000 in 1996 to more than 40,000 today. Mayor Stew Young, who has been in charge since 1993, proudly proclaims Langford’s come-hither approach to developers, saying reducing red tape and delivering fast approvals remains one of council’s highest priorities. Langford is renowned for completing rezoning applications in six months, minimizing the time that developers are left in limbo holding expensive land, which helps them keep housing costs more affordable. According to Langford staff, the pushback from a few residents is weighed against the needs of a broad cross-section of citizens who need homes, along with the need to increase the tax base—which provides amenities ranging from sidewalks to arenas. Langford planning director Matthew Baldwin said there is some friction in South Langford because it is transitioning from the haphazard pattern of development pre-incorporation to a more organized, urban form of development. That means small-lot or condominium development in areas with more spacious homes or surrounded by green space which is used by the community. But it is impossible to roll back the clock 40 years to a time when there was no development pressure or housing crisis, Baldwin said. “You can’t do it that way any more because the fundamental economic underpinnings of land value and construction costs would make that home prohibitively expensive.” Speedy approvals of developments in Langford have come in for criticism (and will likely increase given the removal of the new 11-storey Danbrook One’s occupancy permit, forcing 86 households to move just before Christmas). Much of the approval work is done behind the scenes as municipal staff work with developers to fine-tune applications before they go to council. “Quite often we have robust discussions at planning and zoning and resolve a lot of the issues,” Baldwin said, noting, “By the time things get to a formal public hearing, there are often no more issues, as people feel their issues have been addressed. Members of the public who had concerns are aware that those concerns have been addressed, and then they may decide not to attend the public hearing.” He pointed out that no one turned up when there was a public hearing for 3,000 residential units on Bear Mountain. Councillor Denise Blackwell, who chairs the Planning, Zoning and Affordable Housing Committee, said background work by staff aims to bring unambiguous proposals to council. “By the time an application gets to the committee stage, it is usually just a matter of tweaking the proposal, adding certain conditions that suit the particular circumstances or address unforeseen concerns raised by neighbours,” she said, adding that, since incorporation, the total area of protected green space has increased from 8 percent to more than 20 percent. “Council has also worked to acquire strategic park lands, develop active recreation for all, and continues to support efforts of the region as a whole to protect green spaces through the CRD’s Regional Green/Blue Spaces Strategy,” she said. However, the City’s friendliness towards developers troubles some residents, dealing with what they see as a council that does not prioritize the environment. A group in the Latoria Road area was surprised when told by council that they had to deal with Draycor Construction Ltd to address concerns about a proposed development. Council was dismissive when the group first turned up at a council meeting, said Laurie Anderson. “We don’t agree with the lot sizes that are being proposed, and there are a lot of environmental concerns…They just dismissed us and said we had to speak with the developer,” she said. There is increasing concern that developers, many with long-term ties to the community and council, hold undue sway. The Planning, Zoning and Affordable Housing Committee, which provides advice to council, but does not have decision-making authority, is made up of two councillors and five appointed citizens including Kent Sheldrake, co-owner of Draycor Construction Ltd.; Art Creuzot, owner of Luxbury Homes; and Malcolm Hall, owner of Lifestyle Ventures development company and Solo Suites airbnb hotel. The six-member Board of Variance, which operates at arm’s length from council and deals with matters such as relaxation of zoning regulations or tree-protection requirements, includes Cliff Curtis owner of TBJ Properties; Jim Hartshorne, owner of Keycorp Developments Ltd and Westhills Land Corp; land development consultant Rachael Sansom; and Ron Coutre, owner of SouthPoint Partners Ltd and president of Westshore Developers Association. A spokeswoman for the Ministry of Municipal Affairs and Housing said no complaints have been received about the makeup of Langford committees. But some residents are alarmed by the perception of bias. A presentation on behalf of developers of the property behind Costco was made by Hartshorne, chair of the Board of Variance; a controversial rezoning application for 734 Latoria Road, made by Kevin Parker, co-owner of Draycor Construction, whose partner Sheldrake is a member of the planning and zoning committee, was approved with 17.5 percent green space, despite public opposition. The selection criteria used by mayor and council is unclear, Allan said. “Given its current membership, the Planning, Zoning and Affordable Housing Committee appears to be overwhelmingly weighted to favour development. With such an apparent bias, it is difficult for it to reflect the broad views from the citizens of Langford,” he said. Some members have served several consecutive terms and will continue to the end of 2022, Allan noted. “The [committee] needs to have a cross-section of representation from not only the developer community, but also public housing representatives, seniors, business, Chamber of Commerce, environmental groups, just to name a few,” said Allan. Turner pointed out that committees are usually balanced between interests such as citizens, First Nations, government, and environmental groups. “I would say that any committee making recommendations to government needs to be balanced between all the special interests that have a stake in whatever they are discussing. So to have it dominated by one group that has a clear, vested interest more than any other group is not appropriate,” he said. J.Ocean Dennie, founder of the Friends of the T’Sou-ke Hills Wilderness, is worried that plans to punch an alternate route to the Malahat will result in a sprawl of development, and he has little faith that Langford will protect wilderness values. “What it comes down to is who is sitting at the table, who is making the decisions and who is pushing the agenda. As concerned citizens, a lot of the time we just don’t have that information. We don’t have time to keep up with the backroom deals,” he said. Lawyer Matthew Nefstead, who was hired by West Coast Environmental Law to help those fighting for more Latoria Road green space, wrote in his analysis, “The fact that most, or all of the non-elected members are property developers who have dealings with the Committee and the City and who do not appear to declare conflicts of interest, presents—in my opinion—a reasonable apprehension of bias.” But Blackwell said some members of the committee are semi-retired and, as chair of the committee, she asks individuals to recuse themselves if there is a perception of conflict of interest. The argument heard from Langford staff is that council wants the expertise provided by developers and, for environmental input, relies on registered professional biologists or professional foresters. “I don’t think it would serve anyone on the committee or council or the public at large to have one qualified professional questioning another qualified professional’s opinion,” said a staff member. With controversy over the makeup of committees, there is a push for more transparency from Langford council—one of the only municipalities in the Capital Regional District that does not webcast meetings. “Why are there no cameras recording the meetings?” asked Terrie Wilcox, who mobilized a group of neighbours worried about overdevelopment in the Goldstream Avenue area, where plans call for redevelopment of St Anthony’s Clinic, including a 15-storey condominium building. Wilcox worries that development is racing ahead of infrastructure, and most of the input heard by council is from tradespeople and developers. “I agree with development due to the housing shortage, [but] Langford is moving far too fast with very little change, if any, to infrastructure,” she said, pointing to road dust on her patio table from incessant traffic. Like many Langford residents, Sarah Forbes agrees that housing development is needed, but the “pitchy-patchy approach” of separate developers is resulting in isolated communities connected by commuter corridors. “With the large-scale development, we could have some really world-class communities if we had a more sustainable approach to development. It’s a huge opportunity that is being missed,” said Forbes. “I do support development. We need to grow as a community, but we can do better…We have this great opportunity to grow this whole city, and we could develop it more sustainably with real sustainable practices in mind,” she said. Judith Lavoie is an award-winning journalist specializing in the environment, First Nations, and social issues. Twitter @LavoieJudith This story has been edited to reflect the correct name of Danbrook One, the development in Langford which had its occupancy permit revoked. An earlier version had referred to the development as Donwood One.
  15. November 2016 While most citizens oppose the bear trophy hunt, BC’s politicians seem reluctant to offend hunters. IT'S AN INCREASINGLY POPULAR CAUSE that, in BC’s politically sensitive, pre-election months, should have the two major political parties tripping over each other in an effort to adopt it as their own. Instead, provincial Liberals are literally sticking to their guns in support of the controversial grizzly bear trophy hunt while the NDP has not yet settled on a position. Polls have consistently shown that British Columbians dislike trophy hunting, a blood sport that sees foreign hunters paying upwards of $16,000 for the chance to shoot a grizzly bear for the sake of a head on the wall or a furry rug on the floor. An October 2015 Insights West poll found that 91 percent of British Columbians and 84 percent of Albertans oppose hunting animals for sport. The margin of error for BC is plus or minus 3.1 percent. But, so far, with the exception of the BC Green Party, those numbers are not enough to spark political support. Instead, a proliferation of diverse non-profit groups are taking up the challenge to protect the grizzly, which has been listed as a species of special concern by the federal Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada. Organizations such as Raincoast Conservation Foundation and Pacific Wild have approached the hunt from a scientific perspective for decades, while the newly-formed Justice for BC Grizzlies is appealing to would-be politicians to look at the ethics of killing for sport. Nine area First Nations, who comprise the Coastal First Nations, want to end the commercial grizzly hunt in their traditional territories and, together with Raincoast, have been buying up hunting tenures in the Great Bear Rainforest to reduce the threat to the bears. Another unusual approach is being taken by the fledgling Grizzly Bear Foundation, headed by philanthropist Michael Audain. The Foundation has launched a board of inquiry, holding meetings around the province, looking at threats such as habitat loss, food supply and climate change as well as hunting. The panel will submit a report to government by February. For those who are uncertain how to get involved, the University of Victoria’s Environmental Law Centre, on behalf of the David Suzuki Foundation, has prepared a legal toolkit “Facilitating Public Participation in Grizzly Bear Hunt Management in BC.” The toolkit first addresses the question: Why are grizzly bears important? Grizzly bears, it asserts, “are a vital ecological, cultural and economic resource in BC. They are apex predators that interact with other plant and animal species in their habitats and their population health is therefore a key indicator of the overall ecosystem’s health.” Lush Fresh Handmade Cosmetics is the latest business organization to become involved and will be launching a campaign this November at its 240 stores around North America. Lush is also producing a 30-minute documentary on the hunt. “I think people will be appalled that, in BC, trophy hunting of grizzly bears is still happening,” said Carleen Pickard, Lush ethical campaigns specialist. Meanwhile, Auditor General Carol Bellringer is looking at whether the government is “meeting its objective of ensuring healthy grizzly bear populations throughout BC.” Bellringer’s report is due this spring, but it is not known whether it will be released before the May election. While the Liberal government is showing no sign of changing course, the NDP is having internal discussions. “A couple of caucus meetings are coming up. Stay tuned…We know this is important and it’s on our radar,” said NDP Environment spokesman George Heyman. Back in the dying days of the last NDP government, in 2001, a three-year moratorium was imposed on the grizzly bear hunt. Immediately after the election, however, it was almost immediately rescinded by Gordon Campbell’s Liberals when they swept to power. Martyn Brown, Campbell’s chief of staff in 2001, said he believes the moratorium was probably lifted by ministerial order, rather than after any in-depth discussion or cabinet debate, and was likely the result of pressure from rural MLAs, many of whom were ardent pro-hunters. “It certainly wasn’t something that was a broad discussion that I can recall,” said Brown, who suspects the issue got lost in the many policy decisions and budget cuts made immediately after the Liberals came to power. Brown believes the grizzly hunt should no longer be ignored and he wants to see trophy hunting banned throughout the province, for grizzly bears and all other species. “It’s [because of] uncertainty about the management of the population and principally the ethical concerns,” he said. “Precious animals and wildlife are being taken for nothing but a trophy. They are not being taken for food or ceremonial purposes, they are simply for people’s self-aggrandizement and whatever twisted, distorted satisfaction they get from killing an animal,” he said. Brown is surprised the NDP are silent as he believes they have little to lose by coming out against the hunt. “If they really thought about it I think they would realize there’s a very small percentage of seats that might be at risk, if any,” he said. “The risks are so minimal and the rewards would be so much greater if they would just stand up and say and do the right thing and say this is a barbaric, out-dated hunt that needs to be stopped,” Brown said. Premier Christy Clark would also have little to lose by restoring the moratorium, Brown said. “But I don’t think the BC Liberals are even slightly interested in revisiting their position because of the likes of [Energy and Mines Minister] Bill Bennett particularly and others from rural BC who are defenders of the trophy hunt ostensibly for its economic value and its importance to rural lifestyle,” he said. Another factor is that the Guide Outfitters Association of BC (GOABC) is a generous contributor to the Liberals, with records showing that between 2011 and May 2015 GOABC contributed almost $37,000 to the Liberals compared to $6,000 to the NDP. The government position is that there is no need to halt the hunt as the grizzly population is healthy, with an estimated 15,000 bears, and the hunt puts money into the economy. “A Scientific Review of Grizzly Bear Harvest Management System,” commissioned by the Province and written by three biologists, concluded that, despite difficulties in monitoring and a lack of sufficient funds, BC’s procedures “have attained a high level of rigor, with a solid scientific underpinning.” The review, released October 18, recommended that there should be more opportunities for public consultation, increased cooperation with adjacent jurisdictions, and that BC should investigate whether conflicts exist between bear hunting and viewing. The Province should regularly be looking at elements such as habitat conditions and food availability and should provide additional funding, according to the review. “The future of grizzly bears in the coming decades will be challenged as the human population in the province increases. Rigorous planning, habitat monitoring, conservative harvest levels and a predictable level of research, monitoring and data research is essential for the continued conservation of this species,” says the report. Steve Thomson, Forests, Lands and Natural Resource Operations Minister, said the recommendations “will further improve grizzly bear management decisions in BC.” The notion that the province makes its decisions based on the best available science is challenged by critics who question both the Province’s population estimates and the economics of the hunt. Estimates of the number of bears in BC’s 57 individual grizzly bear population units usually rely on models, using known population densities from other areas, or the number of bears expected to survive in that particular habitat. The methods inevitably lead to uncertainty and some researchers believe numbers could be as low as 6,000, with kills much higher than the approximately 300 grizzlies killed by licenced trophy hunters each year that the Province reports. In addition to such hunting, a toll is taken by poaching, road kills, destruction of “nuisance” bears, and loss of habitat. A study by Raincoast, Simon Fraser University, the University of Victoria and Hakai Institute found kill limits are regularly exceeded and several sub-populations of grizzlies are on the verge of disappearing. On the financial front, research shows that bear viewing is far more profitable than bear hunting. A study by the Center for Responsible Travel, in conjunction with Stanford University, found that, in 2012, bear viewing groups in the Great Bear Rainforest generated “more than 12 times more in visitor spending than bear hunting.” The same researchers found that bear watching sent $7.3-million to government coffers, compared to $660,500 from hunters, and created 510 jobs, compared to 11 jobs created by guide outfitters. Retired university professor Craig Smith said such facts make the government’s stance completely inexplicable; bear viewing and hunting industries cannot co-exist. Smith recently threw his support behind Justice for BC Grizzlies. “Every bear you shoot is one you can’t view, so they’re killing the viewing industry,” he said. The Province maintains that BC has 100,000 resident hunters—and that hunters and guide outfitters combined put $350 million into the economy each year, a figure involving multipliers questioned by critics—and likely far lower than any comparable number for wildlife viewing. (Minister Thomson admitted in a 2014 legislative committee examining budget estimates that direct revenues from the grizzly trophy hunt amounted to $414,000.) Most hunters are not trophy hunters, of course. “I am a hunter, but I have never shot a bear,” said David Lawrie, a retired Provincial forests engineer and member of Justice for BC Grizzlies. Even the pro-hunting BC Wildlife Federation, with 50,000 members, is against trophy hunting. The Federation supported a bill, introduced last year by Green Party of BC leader Andrew Weaver, requiring all hunters to pack out edible meat from grizzlies and all other animals—which, in a round-about way, would ensure few grizzlies were hunted. “I suspect many a trophy hunter would find it difficult, if not impossible, to pack out several hundred pounds of trichinosis-laden grizzly bear meat across international borders,” he has written. Weaver’s bill died when the session ended and he has since clarified that he is against trophy hunting—making him one of the few MLAs clearly opposing the hunt. Trophy hunting is a “cruel, selfish and barbaric practice that is packaged and sold as sport,” he wrote, explaining that his bill—which was not supported by the guide outfitting industry—aimed to protect the rights of First Nations and resident hunters. Alan Martin, BC Wildlife Federation director of strategic initiatives, would like to see a similar bill reintroduced. “The BCWF only supports hunts that are sustainable and, when the animals are harvested, that the edible parts are taken out. If they don’t do that then it’s not appropriate to hunt grizzly bears or any other animal,” Martin said. “If you are going to utilize fish or wildlife then it should be consumed appropriately and not done just for sport,” he said. Martin also feels there needs to be more work in areas where there is uncertainty about populations and a close look at the effect of non-hunting mortality and changes in habitat, such as in the aftermath of the mountain pine beetle infestation. “If you don’t vary the harvest rates and manage accordingly, it will catch up to you as it has done in the south-east part of our province,” he said. Although grizzly bear meat is often thought to be inedible, as it sometimes carries the parasite that causes trichinosis, BCWF spokesman Jesse Zeman finds it tasty and healthy. The meat has to be cooked to a high temperature, which is why it is best in sausage, pepperoni or burgers, said Zeman, who lives almost entirely off wild fish and game. However, Zeman admitted, there are questions that need to be answered about the sustainability of the grizzly bear population. “That’s the big concern. That’s what keeps people up at night now,” he said. Chris Genovali, Raincoast executive director, however, is not in favour of Weaver’s type of pack-the-meat-out bill, calling it “daft.” “It is simply an endorsement of killing grizzly bears as long as we turn them into sausage or soufflé,” he said. “That’s nothing but a way to hoodwink the public into believing the trophy hunt is a food hunt…That would be worse than doing nothing,” he said. Genovali feels that the growing proliferation of organizations opposing the hunt, including business and tourism groups, shows that it is an issue that resonates with the public and crosses political lines. He finds it disheartening that, towards May 2017’s provincial election, neither the Liberals nor NDP are opposing the hunt. Unless political parties, or individual candidates, come out strongly and loudly against the hunt, there will be limited opportunities for voters to get their views on the subject across on election day. Judith Lavoie is an award-winning journalist specializing in the environment, First Nations, and social issues. Twitter @LavoieJudith.
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