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  1. Last election, the Green vote was strangled by wide-spread fear that Stephen Harper might be reelected. Are voters thinking differently this election? MISGIVINGS ABOUT THE FEDERAL LIBERALS reached the point of no return for David Merner in May last year with the announcement that the government was buying the Kinder Morgan pipeline. Merner had previously tried to overcome his disappointment at Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s failure to follow through on electoral reform, despite the promise that 2015 would be the last election with first-past-the-post rules, but the pipeline purchase was too much to swallow. “I thought it was such a terrible mistake, obviously environmentally, but also economically, and I haven’t looked back since. That was the culminating point of a long slide…There was just a series of broken promises that led me to believe I could not stay with the Liberal Party,” said Merner, who volunteered for the Liberals for 34 years, served on the national executive, and ran as a Liberal candidate in 2015. The day the pipeline became the property of Canadian taxpayers, Merner joined the Green Party. He is now standing as the Green candidate in Esquimalt-Saanich-Sooke, the riding held by New Democrat Randall Garrison, where four years ago, Merner ran as a Liberal. Merner’s a great catch for the Greens. He’s a lawyer, with degrees from Harvard and the Universities of Alberta, Oxford and Toronto. He advised ministers at the Department of Justice and Privy Council Office in Ottawa for 15 years before moving back to BC in 2006 to transform the province’s justice system. It was an easy transition to a new political home, said Merner, who discovered the Green Party is made up of people with similar concerns about traditional-style politics, who switched allegiances from all shades of the political spectrum. “It’s gaining its strength from all these other folks like me, who have spent their time in other parties and are saying, ‘We just have to do politics differently. We can’t have the same-old, same-old type of politics.’” Merner finds the Green message of civility and collaboration appeals to confrontation-weary voters. “I have been knocking on doors since December, and the number-one message I have been hearing on the doorstep is people are tired and cynical and disappointed,” said Merner, who is predicting the October federal election will see the upset of long-time political allegiances, giving the Greens a chance to increase their numbers and, possibly, to wield influence in a minority government. Crises such as climate change, soaring housing prices, and the opioid epidemic have shaken BC communities, and the Greens offer an alternative to the lack of solutions, said Merner, who will be running against Garrison, Liberal Jamie Hammond, Conservative Randall Pewarchuk, and candidates for the People’s Party of Canada and Libertarian Party of Canada. In 2015, Garrison won with 23,836 votes. Merner—as a Liberal—received 18,622 votes, and the Green candidate ran third with 13,575 votes. The NDP’s Garrison, being the incumbent, will be Merner’s main competitor. The two have platforms that seem to overlap. Garrison was first elected in 2011. He’s been an environmental activist since his student days and, in 2008, as an Esquimalt councillor, was the first elected official in Canada to move a motion against the Kinder Morgan pipeline. Garrison was not available for an interview but said in a written statement that he has been one of the most active MPs on the environment and climate change. “I have continued to oppose the Trans Mountain pipeline, to call for an immediate end to all fossil fuel subsidies for the oil and gas industry and to ban all single-use plastics and non-recyclable packaging,” he wrote. “As an MP I have also worked hard to build support for a rapid de-carbonization of our economy, but through a transition that leaves no one behind. We can create thousands of new jobs in renewable energy and energy retrofits.” Garrison said he is aware that there have recently been some false statements about his commitment to fighting for the environment and against climate change. “No, I have never supported fish farms, the Site C dam, fracking or building and subsidizing LNG,” said Garrison, adding that his personal life reflects a commitment to reducing his carbon footprint and includes living in an energy-efficient home and buying carbon offsets for all his flights.“We must all do what we can, but the challenge is so great that only collective action will get us where we must go. Our very survival depends on it,” he wrote. IN THE 2015 ELECTION many voters headed to the polls with single-minded determination to vote for the party with the best chance of throwing out the Stephen Harper Conservatives. Without that type of strategic voting, this election could re-draw the map. Both the NDP and Greens have dreams of holding the balance of power in a minority government, and Vancouver Island is promising to be a major battleground in the fight for the progressive vote. Michael Prince, University of Victoria political scientist and Lansdowne Professor of Social Policy, said, “This is very different from 2015. That was a different type of campaign, and the Greens got pushed aside as the third or fourth party…Now it’s interesting times for the Greens.” In BC, the coastal narrative plays well for the Greens, explained Prince. “It’s very much about the natural environment, the pipeline, shipping, the whales, and coastal protection, and that’s [Green Party of Canada leader] Elizabeth May’s strength. The more that narrative is on the minds of voters here, the more they will be inclined to vote in numbers we haven’t seen in the past,” he said. Across Canada, there is growing evidence that Greens are no longer regarded as fringe candidates, with the Green Party of PEI forming the official opposition, three Green MLAs elected in New Brunswick, and one Green MPP in Ontario. In BC, the three-member Green caucus, in an alliance with the NDP government, has seen pet policies and Green input included in legislation, showing British Columbians that power does not necessarily rest solely with the number of seats; the balance of representation is important as well. Merner feels “BC is the model. We have done it in BC, and we can do it nationally. We want to hold the big parties’ feet to the fire and make sure that, this time, they follow through on their election promises.” POLLS IN JULY AND AUGUST showed a minority Liberal or Conservative federal government is the likely outcome of the October federal election, with the CBC poll tracker projecting the Liberals with five seats more than the Conservatives. According to the mid-August poll tracker analysis, “The Liberals are favoured over the Conservatives to win the most seats, but it’s a toss-up whether or not any party can win a majority. The New Democrats are stuck in third and on track to lose potentially more than half of its caucus, while Green support has levelled off after reaching new highs across the country.” The poll tracker shows 13.7 percent of the vote going to the NDP, with the Green vote climbing slowly but steadily to 11 percent. Fundraising tells a similar story, and Elections Canada’s website shows that between April and June the Green Party raised $1,437,722, narrowly beating the NDP’s $1,433,476. Both parties remain far behind the Conservatives, who raised about $8.5 million, and the Liberals, who brought in more than $5 million in the same quarter. Currently, the tiny Green caucus, known for punching above its weight, consists of Elizabeth May, who has represented Saanich-Gulf Islands since 2011, and Paul Manly, who won the formerly NDP riding of Nanaimo-Ladysmith in a by-election earlier this year. May is optimistic that this election is going to see a breakthrough, and that instead of having second thoughts in the voting booth, as has happened in the past, the Green vote will carry through. “The ground has absolutely shifted. This is going to be quite different…We have real strength in ridings across the country,” said May. She agrees that a minority parliament is likely. “This is going to be a very interesting election where we are much more likely, ironically, to have a Parliament that looks as though we have proportional representation—even though Trudeau broke his promise—where many parties have to work together, and that is very exciting for us,” she said. “In this election, anything is possible and, for me, it’s much less about the seat count and more about it being a minority and holding what [BC MLA] Adam Olsen so brilliantly calls ‘the balance of responsibility,’” said May. She also noted that she is delighted that in most media stories there is now a recognition of four main parties. May won her riding in 2015 with over 54 percent of the vote. This time she’ll be running against New Democrat Sabina Singh, Conservative David Busch, Liberal Ryan Windsor (mayor of Central Saanich), and Ronald Broda for the People’s Party of Canada. Across the country, candidates of all stripes are finding that climate change is a real and present worry among voters who have faced floods, windstorms, and wildfires. May noted, “To make the changes needed to hold on to human civilization, which is my goal, it’s pretty essential that this election be about preserving human life on Earth. We don’t have anything like years; we have 18 months.” Still, she noted that the Greens are not a one-issue party, pointing to a platform that envisions democratic reforms and a sustainable jobs plan—and collaboration, rather than confrontation. Daniel Westlake, a post-doctoral fellow in political studies at Queens University, said an increasing interest in environmental issues, compared to other concerns, bodes well for the Greens and, in some Vancouver Island ridings, they appear more competitive than the Liberals and Conservatives. “There are issues that don’t fit nicely along the left/right spectrum—the more traditional divides in Canada—and that’s creating opportunities for some of these smaller parties, and particularly the Greens,” Westlake said. However, he cautioned, “We shouldn’t overstate this. They are still only polling around 10 or 15 percent, but it is enough to make them more competitive than they have been in the past.” New Green voters are likely to come from the NDP and Liberals, Westlake predicted. “It will not just be the NDP; there are a lot of pro-environmental Liberal voters, particularly in Quebec,” he said. Westlake also noted that “the Greens are not a traditional left-wing party in the same vein as the NDP, which has a lot of support among low-income and working-class voters.” The usual NDP mix can create a divide, he said, as it is difficult to please both the environmental and blue-collar wings. “They are never going to be able to take a position that doesn’t alienate some voters, and the Green Party doesn’t have to worry about that because they are a pro-environmental party,” he said. A challenge for the NDP across Canada is that more than one-quarter of NDP incumbents are not running again—including Murray Rankin in Victoria—meaning New Democrats lose the incumbent advantage of name recognition. New Democrats in BC, where the NDP holds 13 of their 41 federal seats, are looking over their shoulders at the Greens, but emphasize that any surge in Green strength will not necessarily come from NDP ranks. All parties will likely be looking to attract votes from Liberals since many who may have voted Liberal in the past are disappointed (or furious) over their about-face on ending the first-past-the-post electoral system, as well as their embrace of the Trans Mountain pipeline, and the evident misbehaviour of the PM’s Office involving SNC-Lavalin and former Attorney General (and West Coaster with a new book on the way) Jody Wilson-Raybould. But those votes could be divided up amongst all of the other parties. IN VICTORIA, NDP candidate Laurel Collins does have name recognition from her short time on Victoria City Council, and is hoping her municipal record will help win the seat. It’s not a clear advantage though, as some Victorians have expressed discontent with her declaring federally so soon after getting elected to council. The fact that the seat has been solidly NDP since 2006 should work in Collins’ favour, though both the Liberals and Green Party are putting forth strong candidates. In late August, the Liberals nominated Nikki Macdonald, former executive director of government relations at the University of Victoria. She had previously worked for an international pharmaceutical company and before that served in a number of senior roles in the federal government, including as appointments director for former Prime Minister Jean Chretien. Macdonald has deep roots in the federal Liberal Party and is the daughter of long time Liberal politician Donald Macdonald, a cabinet minister under former Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau. Though the Liberal vote dropped to 8,489 compared to 30,397 for New Democrat Murray Rankin in 2015, the Liberals have held the riding in the not-too-distant past: From 1993 to 2006, it was held by former Liberal cabinet minister David Anderson. In 2015, the Green Party, with candidate Jo-Ann Roberts, was second with 23,666 votes. But Roberts has moved east. Still, Collins acknowledges that her main competition is likely to come from new Green candidate Racelle Kooy who was nominated in February. Collins feels that disillusionment with the current Liberal government does not extend to the NDP, which is offering a platform of solutions. The housing crisis, climate change, the opiate crisis and inadequate access to health care are among issues that voters want the government to tackle, and the NDP offers an integrated plan, Collins said. Voters in Victoria care about climate change and the environment—and both concerns are reflected in the NDP platform, she said. “Environmental protection is really the reason I got involved in politics.” Collins also noted that one major difference between the Greens and the NDP is that the NDP’s New Deal for the Climate acknowledges that there must be interconnected policy responses that leave no one behind. That means rapidly transforming to a low-carbon economy while also looking at inequalities of the current economy. “Environmental justice and social justice go hand-in-hand,” she said. The Green’s Kooy is also finding climate change at the top of the list of concerns, but affordability, housing, homelessness, mental health and addictions follow close behind. “For many people, it’s not about themselves. It’s about their children,” she said. Kooy will enjoy less name recognition than Collins. Born in North Vancouver, she grew up in the Lower Mainland and has worked for organizations and First Nations across Canada, including a stint as the bilingual co-chair of the Assembly of First Nations. She moved to Victoria from the Xat’sull First Nation in the Cariboo. “It was the wildfires of 2017 that prompted my move to Victoria,” said Kooy. “I have enjoyed the city in the past…and I knew that I could continue my other work from Victoria.” When asked if she could be regarded as a parachute candidate, Kooy laughed and asked how many candidates could genuinely claim to be from Victoria. “Prior to my nomination, I did go to Songhees and Esquimalt (First Nations) and asked permission to run in their homeland,” she said. Both Kooy and Collins will likely be campaigning against the Liberal Party’s record on proportional representation, the Trans Mountain Pipeline Extension, and the SNC-Lavalin affair, with the recent scathing Ethics Commissioner’s report on the subject. Liberal candidate Macdonald, only nominated at the end of August, as Focus went to press, will have to defend her party’s role on those fronts. Conservative Richard Caron, and Alyson Culbert for the People’s Party of Canada are also running in the Victoria riding. ALISTAIR MacGREGOR, NDP incumbent in the sprawling Cowichan-Malahat-Langford riding, agrees that the NDP strength is marrying environmental and social issues, and he believes NDP numbers will improve once people get into election mode and take a serious look at the platform. “Our party has always been in the vanguard of social change, pushing against the status quo and trying to fight for disadvantaged Canadians, and I think that is still our strength today,” MacGregor said, pointing out that the NDP was pushing the envelope on climate change before the Green Party elected any MPs. “When you are talking about climate change, you have to have a serious plan for workers, and show that there is going to be opportunity in the transition, especially for people in businesses that depend on fossil fuels or who are working in the fossil-fuel industry. You have to have a concrete plan that shows there are reliable jobs in the clean economy of the future and that we have a transition plan,” he said. MacGregor, first elected in 2015, has served as the NDP’s agricultural critic. He has lived in the Cowichan Valley for 25 years, working for former MP Jean Crowder for many of them. In the 2015 election MacGregor received 22,200 votes, followed by Liberal and Conservative candidates in the 14-15,000 range, and the Green Party at 10,462. MacGregor is unsure whether his main challenge will come from the Greens or Conservatives. “My riding has always had a very strong Conservative base,” he said. The Greens have nominated the former chief of the Cowichan Tribes, Lydia Hwitsum, a highly credentialled lawyer and human rights advocate. MacGregor’s Conservative opponent is former Calgary MLA Alana DeLong, who is emphasizing her experience during 14 years in the Alberta Legislature. “I am running because the current federal Liberal government is doing irreparable damage to our country and our children’s future,” DeLong says on her website. Delong was born in Nelson and now lives on Thetis Island. Others running in the riding are Rhonda Chen for the People’s Party of Canada and Liberal Blair Herbert, who was nominated August 22. WITH THREE OF THE FOUR AREA RIDINGS held by the NDP, and the other by the Green Party, the election battle in this region will be very different than many other ridings across Canada where Liberals and Conservatives are the main contenders. Green Party deputy leader Jo-Ann Roberts, who ran for the Greens in Victoria in 2015 and is running in Halifax where she now lives, is watching with interest. She thinks that fear of Stephen Harper’s Conservatives led the voting in 2015. This time, while people may be upset with the Liberals, there is not the visceral need to get rid of the Harper government. She told Focus, “What I heard on the doorstep last time was, ‘I would love to vote for you, but maybe next time.’ They felt the NDP was the safest way to defeat the Conservatives. Now, if you look at the numbers in Victoria and Vancouver Island, we are 15 percent ahead of the NDP. I would have loved to have seen those numbers.” There is no guarantee, however, that people won’t get cold feet about casting a ballot for a non-traditional party once they get into the voting booth. “The Greens can’t take anything for granted,” Roberts admitted. “We know we have to get people to the polls, and we have limited resources compared to other parties, so we are going to have to pick ridings where we think we can do well.” Daniel Westlake agrees that Victoria and Esquimalt-Saanich-Sooke might well qualify as some of those ridings. They appear to be more competitive than the Liberals or Conservatives in these ridings, said Westlake. “So I don’t think, at least on Vancouver Island, that it is going to be strategic voting that hurts the Greens,” he said. That does not mean there won’t be swings in public opinion before election day, he said. “It could be a last-minute event that makes voters think about different issues or persuades them to move to another party,” he said. “We have to be careful looking at polls. So much can happen between now and October,” warned Westlake. Judith Lavoie is an award-winning journalist specializing in the environment, First Nations and social issues. Twitter @LavoieJudith
  2. Why is BC Timber Sales, a government agency, at the centre of so many contentious Vancouver Island logging disputes? THE NAKED RAWNESS OF A NEW CLEARCUT in an old-growth forest is often jarring, but for Chief Rande Cook, the expanse of stumps around Schmidt Creek, above Robson Bight, was also personal. “It’s our territory. It was an eye-opener. It was devastating to see first hand what has been done. I have never seen so many yellow cedar logs, and there were some culturally-modified trees that were cut down,” said Cook, known as Makwala, who heads the Ma’amtagila First Nation. Cook, who is talking to experts about lodging a complaint with the Province, said removing culturally-modified trees, which mark the historical presence of Indigenous people, is like erasing the DNA of the First Nations. He's likely to face an uphill battle, however. BC Timber Sales (BCTS), which auctioned the timber in the valley south of Port McNeill, said an archaeological assessment, conducted with assistance from another First Nation, found no culturally-modified trees or areas with archaeological potential. Clearcut logging of old-growth forest near Schmidt Creek authorized by BC Timber Sales (Photo by Mark Worthing) Schmidt Creek is in Tlowitsis-Ma’amtagila territory. Cook is not surprised that BCTS is claiming Indigenous input; selective consultation, he says, is common. “These people only want to consult with the First Nations they know they can get a pro-business outcome with,” he said. In areas earmarked for cutting by BC Timber Sales, there are questions about the weight given to experts, lack of climate change consideration, and impacts on communities. Overarching questions are why a stand-alone government agency is at the centre of so many contentious logging disputes, and why remaining patches of old growth—especially on Vancouver Island—seem to be in the crosshairs. In addition to the Schmidt Creek logging, other recent controversies involving BC Timber Sales include its plans to log 109 hectares of old growth adjacent to Juan de Fuca Provincial Park, a proposal that provoked a public outcry and is now on hold to allow consultations with the operator of a nearby eco-lodge; clearcut logging in the Skagit Doughnut Hole, beside Manning Park, a decision that brought protests from the US and accusations that BC was breaking an international treaty; and clearcut logging in the Nahmint Valley, west of Port Alberni, where one of the biggest Douglas firs in Canada was felled, despite objections from conservation groups. Growing public discomfort is evident at demonstrations asking the BC government to halt old-growth logging. Jens Wieting, Sierra Club BC’s forest and climate campaigner, believes that people now understand more about the climate emergency because of floods, droughts and fires—and realize that destroying the forests will make the situation worse. A petition, signed by 20,000 people, asking for a halt to old-growth logging, has been delivered to Forests Minister Doug Donaldson; and a letter last year from 223 international scientists urged the Province to take immediate action to protect BC’s temperate rain forests. The BC Green Party wants a moratorium on old-growth logging on Vancouver Island, with development of sustainable forestry practices. Sonia Furstenau, Green Party House Leader, finds it disappointing that old-growth logging is continuing at the same rate as under the previous Liberal government. “While there seems to be an acknowledgement that the world and conditions have changed very quickly, the practices aren’t [changing],” she said. T.J. Watt, co-founder of the Ancient Forest Alliance, said there is virtually no difference in the logging taking place under the BC NDP than under the Liberals. “People are tired and fed up. We know things need to be done better and there are sustainable second-growth alternatives out there,” Watt said. Wieting noted two key issues behind the growing logging controversies: first, many remaining patches of old growth are close to communities or recreation areas, increasing the notice of what’s going on, along with the likelihood of conflict; and second, there have been few changes in the Forests Ministry bureaucracy since the former government was in power. “They are running out of places to find timber where they can log without conflict, so they end up pursuing what I call ‘extreme old-growth logging,’” he said. Furstenau agrees that there has been little change within the ministry. “It’s very hard to change course in a radical or transformative way when you are still getting advice from the same people,” she said. Some of that advice is simply incorrect, according to Watt. “I think the NDP is being given the same information around the incorrect idea that old growth forests aren’t endangered and there’s nothing to worry about…when, in fact, we know that is not the case,” he said. Logging companies are anxious to bid for increasingly scarce old-growth timber, and BCTS, which manages 20 percent of the Province’s annual allowable cut—making it the biggest tenure holder in BC—is planning to auction off about 600 hectares more of old growth on Vancouver Island this year and another 8,800 hectares in future years. “The BC government has put them in a straitjacket—auction 20 percent of BC volume, no matter what. So, instead of using BC Timber Sales to develop and implement best practices in the midst of climate and species emergencies, they behave like a machine designed with a single purpose—find the fibre,” Wieting said. Jobs and money are at the heart of many of the decisions. An emailed statement from BCTS claimed, “Approximately 8,000 people are directly and another 10,000 people are indirectly employed, as a result of BCTS’ auction of timber, as well, the net revenue generated from these auctions are returned to the government so as to support many of the programs the government offers the citizens of BC. Curtailing BCTS operations would have significant impacts on all British Columbians.” (What is not noted is how forestry revenues and employment, through mechanization and over-logging, have declined over the decades. By 2016, forestry provided only 3.3 percent of BC’s GDP. There are far more tourism jobs than forestry jobs in BC—133,100 versus 59,000 in 2016.) There is also the question of the effect on communities. Schmidt Creek has been a textbook case of BCTS ignoring local input, according to conservation organizations. The steep slopes of the Schmidt Creek valley are above the orca rubbing beaches at Robson Bight, leading to fears that the world-famous beaches will be degraded by sedimentation or landslides. BCTS said in an email that the beaches were examined and experts concluded that carefully planned harvesting in Schmidt Creek was unlikely to affect the rubbing beaches, which are being eroded by sea-level rise and severe storms, but show no sign of sedimentation. “Harvesting activities are occurring inland in a side valley on slopes that are not directly above the beaches,” BCTS said. Prominent killer-whale researcher Paul Spong of OrcaLab, a whale research station on nearby Hanson Island, believes ongoing deterioration of the rubbing beaches is likely to be exacerbated by this logging. The rubbing beaches are used by northern resident killer whales as a massage parlour, explained Spong. He fears the cultural activity, passed down through generations of whales, could be disrupted. “It’s shocking. Schmidt Creek is right next door to the rubbing beaches,” said Spong, adding, “I totally expected an NDP government to do things differently and, with respect to forestry and logging old growth, they are not doing things differently. It’s business as usual.” Mark Worthing, Sierra Club BC climate and conservation campaigner, visits Schmidt Creek regularly and dives in the water around the rubbing beaches. His June visit was devastating, he said. “It was like a punch in the gut. They are just hammering this poor little valley. This is the sound of the last of the ancient rainforest,” he said. Worthing believes the beaches will inevitably be affected by soil erosion, either from a major rainfall event, a quick strong landslide, or cumulative erosion. “When you take that much wood and soil off any hillside, the soil finds its way down, that’s a physical certainty,” he said. The Province is looking for input on sustainable management of BC’s forests “to inform changes to the Forest and Range Practices Act and regulations” (public input will be accepted until July 15). But critics say the government is a long way from its 2017 election promise to use the ecosystem-based management of the Great Bear Rainforest as a model. Forests Ministry estimates of the amount of old growth protected on Vancouver Island differ wildly from figures given by conservation groups who say that, combined with other logging on Vancouver Island, more than 30 soccer fields of old growth is being clearcut every day. Minister Donaldson has said that 50 percent of old growth on Vancouver Island—or more than 520,000 hectares—is protected. But Wieting countered that Donaldson is referring to half the remaining old growth—therefore, in a bizarre twist, the more old growth that is logged, the higher the percentage of protected forest. “Almost 80 percent of the original productive old-growth forest and over 90 percent of the low-elevation, high-productivity stands, where the largest trees grow, has already been logged,” said Watt. Provincial figures, he noted, include low-productivity forests that grow at high elevation or in bogs; in reality only about eight percent of Vancouver Island’s original productive old-growth forests are protected in parks and old-growth management areas. Furstenau wants to see decisions made on more than just financial outcomes. Community forests should form the basis of future forest policy, allowing decisions to be made with input from residents and First Nations, so the community is not undermined by decisions made in Victoria, she said. She also argued that as Vancouver Island faces drought conditions, climate change has to be factored into all decision-making. “We can’t just continue with business as usual and then see what happens. We know what’s going to happen.” Judith Lavoie is an award-winning journalist specializing in the environment, First Nations and social issues. Twitter @LavoieJudith
  3. Changes are happening, but renters and their advocates are demanding further protection. THE FIRST SIGN OF TROUBLE was neglect of the property; needed repairs were ignored by the new owner of the Burnside-Gorge house. Then, when the tenants showed no sign of moving, the landlord escalated efforts to drive them out with aggressive threats of eviction or a 10 percent rent increase. “There was never anything in writing, but he’d call me and say things like, ‘We’re going to turn your suite back into a carport, so I’m going to have to evict you,’ but then that eviction notice would never come,” said Gavin Torvik, who found the continual stress and insecurity affected all aspects of his life. For a time Torvik, 30, a homecare worker who spends about 45 percent of his income on rent, contemplated living in a van because he knew that with Greater Victoria’s rental vacancy rate hovering around one percent (following a few years of sub-zero vacancy rates) and average rents that jumped 7.5 percent in the past year, the chance of finding affordable accommodation was slim. “It was a whole stew of things, not just for me, but for my neighbours, and there were no mechanisms to deal with the pressures we were facing…I was having midnight panic attacks for a while,” he said. The landlord, having failed to shift the renters, which would have allowed him to raise rents beyond the provincially mandated rate for existing tenants, decided to sell the house, continuing the uncertainty. The provincial government has reduced the amount that landlords can raise rents from inflation plus two percent, to the straight inflation rate—about 2.5 percent this year. As well, in an effort to kick-start more rental construction, the Province has given local governments the power to bring in rental-only zoning, said Municipal Affairs Minister Selina Robinson. But tenants and social action groups want the Province to also control the amount landlords can raise the rent after tenants move out. In Victoria’s ultra-tight housing market, rent hikes on vacant apartments helped increase the median price for advertised one-bedroom suites by 15.8 percent in 2018. The vacancy loophole on rent control creates an incentive to kick out long-term tenants, said Cameron Welch, a member of Victoria Tenants Action Group (VTAG). However, vacancy control is opposed by those in the real estate industry, who argue it would slow down rental construction. Even Minister Robinson emphasized that the Province’s priority is increasing the supply of rental housing, not all-out rent controls. The Province has pledged a record $7 billion to build 114,000 affordable homes over the next decade, and part of that funding is going to 1,100 new affordable rental homes in the Capital Regional District, Robinson said. “At the end of the day what we need to work towards is creating a vacancy rate that is healthier and that will reduce those behaviours. That’s the answer to all of this. When you get to a three or four percent vacancy rate, you are not going to see those behaviours from landlords,” Robinson said. ACROSS CANADA, it is estimated 1.6-million households are in “core housing need,” meaning those families are living in homes that are either unsuitable or too expensive given their income. Faced with the escalating need, housing is on the to-do list for every level of government. Victoria council has prioritized housing, said Mayor Lisa Helps. It has boosted its housing reserve fund to more than $1 million this year (from $250,000), and initiated a Victoria Housing Strategy to create a roadmap for improving housing affordability. However, among the controversial issues is the amount of “inclusionary” housing—units that are affordable for people with low to moderate incomes—that should be required in new developments when increased density is sought. City staff and a community working group recently recommended a policy requiring 10 percent of units in most strata projects (of more than 60 units), and cash in lieu for smaller projects, be devoted to such purposes. But Councillor Ben Isitt, at an April Committee of the Whole meeting, argued that this was a “watered down” solution, and urged council to have staff look at requiring 30 percent of units in new strata projects be affordable to those with low to moderate incomes when developers want increased density. The motion passed with only Helps opposed. A staff report is due May 16. Critics, including the City’s consultant from Coriolis, say a requirement for 30 percent would make most projects financially unattractive for developers, so the end result would be no additional units, affordable or otherwise. Helps argues that inclusionary housing is not the magic bullet that some people imagine it to be. She feels the best route to more affordable housing is through bold moves identified in the draft Housing Strategy, including buying land, pursuing partnerships, allowing movable tiny homes in back yards, and streamlining applications for multi-family units in single family zoning, provided some units are affordable. “We need to get out the big nails and big hammers…Inclusionary housing is about 10 percent of the problem. This is not the tool to tackle the problem in the biggest, boldest way,” she said. While governments are struggling to find solutions, renters in the City of Victoria, who make up 60 percent of its households, feel they are continuing to fight the same old battles. And in recent times, problems have been exacerbated as older, lower-priced buildings are demolished to make way for pricey condominiums. Nicole Chaland, former director of Simon Fraser University’s community economic development programs and a member of the City’s Inclusionary Housing Working Group, said it should be non-negotiable that there is no net loss of affordable housing. Council should be asking what is incentivizing people to demolish older buildings. Chaland also asks, “Is it socially acceptable to be building condos that only the wealthiest 10 percent can afford?” Rejecting the “trickle--down” theory, she said, “We’ve just seen the largest boom in real estate construction since the 1970s, yet all the indicators for affordable housing are going in the wrong direction…Home prices are further disconnected from local wages.” Citing research from Andy Yan in Vancouver, Chaland noted that densification and community planning can actually lead to higher land prices. “What the plans communicated to developers is this is where we are going to direct new housing growth,” Chaland said. Council needs to consider speculation pressures from outside the community and look at the City’s role in price escalation, she added. BACK AT GROUND-ZERO of the housing crisis, Torvik rapidly discovered his rental experiences were not unique and, as he searched for help, he connected with the Victoria Tenants Action Group which, with the Community Social Planning Council, has compiled a report looking at housing instability among Greater Victoria renters. “One of the main reassurances for me was realizing how almost universal my experience was, especially for people in my income bracket, earning less than $30,000 a year,” Torvik said. The team who conducted the study Can’t Stay and Can’t Go asked almost 500 renters about their experiences and found that most feel uncertain and powerless because of lack of affordability, along with threats of “renovictions” and “demovictions.” Although 77 percent of those interviewed consider Victoria their home, 76 percent fear that affordability problems will push them out of the region, and a startling 95 percent identified cost as a barrier to renting suitable accommodation. “Being a renter feels like a vulnerable, disempowering and unprotected position,” states the report. “Renters often make sacrifices in their lives—tolerating subpar housing, mistreatment and more—for the sake of attempting to maintain a sense of housing stability; 47 percent report that they have not asked for repairs or maintenance because they were concerned this would impact their tenancy.” Competition for units is fierce, and those with small children or pets can find themselves relegated to the bottom of the list, said Cameron Welch, one of the report’s authors. “It is not super-aggressive discrimination, but there is a certain vision of a 29-year-old, white, government worker as the ideal candidate. It is enabled by the market,” Welch said. Renter Suzanne Nievaart said she often faced discrimination when she moved to Victoria six years ago. “They assumed that, as a single parent, I couldn’t afford to pay the rent.” Then, once she was accepted for a unit in a not-for-profit building, she found she could not afford to move, despite a black mould problem. “There were a lot of health concerns, so I kept looking around for places, but the prices kept going up,” Nievaart said. Her break came with a better-paying job, but, even armed with references and financial statements, it was not easy to find a new home, and Nievaart worries about those wanting to escape spousal abuse, those on fixed incomes or with disabilities. “The amount of stress they are under is appalling,” she said. Welch noted that that kind of disempowerment leads to tenants not trusting the system that is supposed to enforce current laws, such as the Residential Tenancy Branch. The Can’t Stay and Can’t Go report bears this out, finding that only a small proportion of renters who felt their rights had been violated had filed for dispute resolution with the Residential Tenancy Branch. Reasons given for not complaining included the time commitment and lack of confidence in the process. Minister Robinson said it was clear the Residential Tenancy Branch was previously underfunded, and recent changes should help ensure renters and landlords are playing by the rules. A compliance unit is now in place, and additional staff mean there has been a dramatic reduction in wait times, she said. “You used to wait 46 minutes [on hold] to get your call answered, and now we are down to six [minutes]…People are getting information faster and they are getting more service,” Robinson said. But there is no magic pill that is going to solve the housing crisis overnight, Robinson warned; “It’s going to take a concerted effort, and it’s going to take time.” Judith Lavoie is an award-winning journalist specializing in the environment, First Nations, and social issues. Twitter @LavoieJudith
  4. Victoria takes it up a notch with the push for a class action lawsuit against oil and gas companies. Cue the eye rolls, accusations of grandstanding, and pointed suggestions that City of Victoria council should stick to fixing streets rather than becoming embroiled in a potentially costly lawsuit against the world’s oil and gas production giants. Not a surprising reaction in Victoria, where there are regular rumbles of dissatisfaction about council involving itself in global or provincial issues instead of limiting itself to sewage and sidewalks. “Taxpayers didn’t elect council to get embroiled in a class-action lawsuit, with unknown costs and ramifications, at the other end of the world. Taxpayers hired them to pave the potholes in front of your residence and to revive Downtown business,” said Stan Bartlett, chair of the Grumpy Taxpayer$ of Greater Victoria. “The council has the tendency to try and appear to do everything for everyone all of the time. It would do well to focus on its core mandate of running the city and providing better quality services at a reasonable cost to fatigued taxpayers.” Absolutely, council should restrict itself to dealing with sidewalks, streets, waterfront, parks and trees, agreed Mayor Lisa Helps. “And all of those things are being impacted already by climate change and that’s the part of the argument that people don’t really understand,” she said. Escalating costs of dealing with climate change are pushing local governments to look for financial help from the root source because municipal budgets would buckle if they had to pay the whole shot. Municipal revenue-raising across Canada has not changed since Confederation, meaning your local government gets eight cents of every tax dollar, noted Helps. “And we are faced with things like climate change, flooding, more public works staff, more trees needing attention because of drought and so on and so on and so on,” Helps said. “Eight cents of every tax dollar is not going to be enough.” AN INSURANCE BUREAU OF CANADA REPORT estimates that, last year, insured damage for severe weather events across Canada reached $1.9 billion and, for every dollar paid out for homes and business, Canadian governments paid out $3.00 to recover public infrastructure damaged by severe weather—in all, a staggering $5.7 billion. In the same vein, a 2017 Capital Regional District report estimates that storm surges and sea level rise—predicted to be at least one metre by 2100—could result in business losses of $415,557 a day. Armed with such figures, Victoria’s council has asked staff to crunch numbers on Victoria’s climate change costs and then investigate, through the Association of Vancouver Island and Coastal Communities and the Union of BC Municipalities, whether other local governments are willing to work with Victoria on a class-action lawsuit. The litigation—which would be the first such lawsuit in Canada—would target major carbon producers in an attempt to partially recoup costs such as rebuilding seawalls to deal with sea level rise and strengthening storm sewers to cope with torrential downpours or flash floods that are likely to be among the extreme weather events of the future. Councillor Ben Isitt categorically dismisses charges that such litigation would be largely symbolic. “It’s definitely not that. It’s not hollow chest beating. The City council is exercising its responsibility to safeguard our municipal resources,” he said. Victoria, whose ambitious Climate Leadership Plan envisions reaching an 80 percent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions from 2007 levels and transitioning to 100 percent renewable energy by 2050, is doing its due diligence before forging ahead, Isitt said. “First we will really dig into the details in terms of what the potential financial implications and benefits to the City could be,” Isitt said. Simultaneously, City staff will track potential climate change costs, with a report due in June, in conjunction with a progress report on the Climate Leadership Plan. “I think it will probably be more than tens of millions of dollars, and I wouldn’t be surprised if it exceeds a hundred million dollars depending on how long they project out,” Isitt said. Once the figures are in, Victoria can decide how hard to push for a class-action suit. “I think the only way this scenario would go forward,” said Isitt, “would be if other municipalities were to work with us and share the cost. ” Helps agrees that Victoria would not go it alone. “Let’s not be naïve. The City of Victoria alone is not going to take on big oil. That would be ridiculous,” she said. In the meantime, expenses are already accumulating, with capital projects underway that are directly related to climate change, ranging from rebuilding and strengthening sections of the sea wall along Dallas Road to working with BC Transit to improve public transportation, Isitt pointed out. However, that rings hollow to Bartlett, who believes Greater Victoria municipalities have lagged in taking necessary actions to address climate change. “For goodness sake, why isn’t there a regional transportation plan for 400,000 people on the South Island? Why weren’t dedicated bus lanes in place 20 years ago? Why hasn’t the City led the charge for an LRT system or alternatives years ago?” he asked. “Dysfunction-by-the-sea itself—with its 13 municipalities, three electoral districts and one CRD—is a very carbon-intensive governance construct. If we were serious about climate change, consolidating five or 10 jurisdictions would make the greatest difference,” he said. A CASUAL GLANCE AROUND any Victoria neighbourhood shows vehicles powered by gasoline, products that have been brought to Vancouver Island by air or ferry, fuel-guzzling cruise ships, and homes heated with oil or natural gas, all spewing greenhouse gases. So, why go after global corporations rather than the end user of fossil fuels? It is a question that Councillor Geoff Young—the only member of council to vote against pursuing a class action lawsuit—has been mulling over. Usually, if someone sues for damages, the aim is to not only get compensation for damage they have done, but also to get the other person to stop doing that damage. It could get extremely awkward if oil companies stopped shipping fuel to Vancouver Island, Young said. “We would be put in quite a pickle,” he said. “If I was an oil company shipping oil to Vancouver Island and I was being sued by people on Vancouver Island because of damage being done by my product, the first thing I would say is I had better turn off the tap.” Young emphasizes that climate change action is needed, but, as an economist, he believes carbon taxes and road user charges—both provincial responsibilities—are the best ways to reduce emissions. “Those are the biggest and best tools and they are out of our hands,” said Young. Helps acknowledges that the responsibility for climate action extends well beyond oil and gas producers and said she would feel hypocritical about a potential lawsuit if the City hadn’t such an ambitious program to wean itself off oil by 2050. And that date could be even earlier. On February 13, the Capital Regional District board voted unanimously in favour of declaring a climate emergency, and working towards carbon neutrality by 2030. (Vancouver and Halifax have passed similar resolutions.) With a growing body of information about the effect of fossil fuels on climate change—such as a 2017 report by the Carbon Majors Database showing that, since 1988, more than half of global industrial greenhouse gas emissions can be traced to just 25 corporate and state producers—there are also indications that multinational companies are taking threats of lawsuits seriously. In the US, climate liability suits by New York City, San Francisco and Oakland were dismissed by federal judges because of jurisdiction, but the cases are being appealed and other communities are filing suits in state courts. Andrew Gage, West Coast Environmental Law staff lawyer, who has advocated for municipalities to launch class-action lawsuits, is hoping other regions will join Victoria, and he believes the major oil and gas companies are keeping a nervous eye on such campaigns. The cost of launching a lawsuit might be significant, but it is dwarfed by the cost of dealing with climate change, he said. “I think this type of litigation is inevitable because you can’t have these types of massive costs that communities are facing. At some point there has to be a conversation about whether taxpayers can afford to pay 100 percent of that or whether companies who have made hundreds of millions of dollars profit should pay some of it,” he said. “It’s an active discussion, not only in BC, but increasingly around the world.” Gage believes that climate change litigation will evolve in a similar way to lawsuits against big tobacco, which were spearheaded by BC in 1998. Every province has now followed suit, with claims amounting to about $120 billion, and the first cost-recovery hearing due in New Brunswick this fall. Tobacco litigation gained steam with increasing evidence that tobacco companies were well aware of health problems caused by smoking and, in the US, tobacco manufacturers rapidly signed out-of-court settlements to pay back more than $200 billion to public health insurance companies. The similarity between tobacco and climate change lawsuits is underlined by a 1998 internal Royal Dutch Shell memo predicting that, as the impacts of climate change get worse, fossil fuel companies might face class- action lawsuits. Then, a 1988 Shell report, unearthed by a reporter at the Dutch news website De Correspondent, showed the company was aware of the threats of climate change and its own role in creating conditions for a warming world. “By the time global warming becomes detectable, it could be too late to take effective countermeasures to reduce the effects or even stabilize the situation,” the Shell report warned. At that time, Shell estimated that it contributed four percent of global carbon dioxide emissions through its products. “Fossil fuel companies know they are causing this sort of impact—it’s not a surprise—and they are expecting this type of action,” Helps said. Osler Law, a business law firm with offices in Victoria, Toronto and Calgary, in a February update to clients, referred to the Victoria case and warned that companies should be prepared for such lawsuits. “Climate litigation has arrived in Canada. Oil and gas producers may soon be faced with climate litigation. Further, the pressure created by litigation, regardless of its success or failure, may also affect the regulatory and operating environment for Canadian companies,” says the briefing note. The Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers (CAPP), in an emailed response to questions from Focus, said the organization does not usually comment on legal matters, but the Canadian industry can play an important role in reducing global greenhouse gas emissions by displacing less responsible sources of supply. “Climate change is a complex global issue that cannot be solved through lawsuits, but should be addressed through collaborative action by every citizen, business and city,” says the statement. For Gage, there is little doubt that, at some point, the litigation will be successful, but the big question is whether settlements will come in time to help with the expensive and alarming realities of climate change. He feels the Victoria stance is less about grandstanding and more about taking a lead to help address a serious crisis. Judith Lavoie is an award-winning journalist specializing in the environment, First Nations, and social issues. Twitter @LavoieJudith.
  5. BC’s new Environmental Assessment Act needs teeth and scientific certainty to avoid disasters of the past. REBUILDING PUBLIC TRUST in environmental assessments is a tough sell, given BC’s recent history. Environment Minister George Heyman, who has shepherded the new Environmental Assessment Act into law, is doubling down on efforts to convince British Columbians that it represents a new era of science-based decisions. The new rules are being intensely scrutinized by scientists, environmental groups and Indigenous communities looking for assurances that science will truly be the priority and that decisions will be made transparently and without bias. The Mount Polley tailings pond collapse in August 2014 While there is general agreement that the new legislation is a vast improvement over the old rules, written by the former Liberal government in 2002, there are gaps that critics say will continue to give undue weight to the findings of experts paid by industries with deep pockets, exacerbated by the lack of mandated peer reviews, and the possibility that government could approve projects without Indigenous consent. Environmental assessments of major resource and development projects over the years have been marked by accusations of shaky science, First Nations anger, and glaring omissions of vital local information, all of which have fed suspicions that decisions are influenced by industry-paid experts whose self-interest lies with ensuring projects are approved, rather than protecting the environment. Those suspicions are justified, according to University of British Columbia researchers who studied 10 recent assessments of major projects in BC and found that thresholds for environmental damage were exceeded or skirted, but projects were still given a green light. “For us, and I think for a lot of people, the biggest implication of our work is showing the bias and unscientific practice used in the environmental impact process,” said Gerald Gurinder Singh, UBC senior research fellow of the Institute for the Oceans and Fisheries. “The process ostensibly uses science as a mean to evaluate impacts to make informed recommendations, and what we show is that the science is incredibly flawed,” said Singh, one of the authors of two studies looking at environmental impact assessments. He noted that one of the biggest problems is the conflict of interest involved in having proponents hire consultants. Such findings will come as no surprise to many British Columbians, who have witnessed the systemic dysfunction. Think back to the Mount Polley tailings dam collapse, which sent 24 million cubic metres of sludge and mine tailings into nearby waterways and lakes—something an expert panel later concluded was due to a flawed dam design. Or recall the Shawnigan Lake contaminated soil dump that was approved after expert engineering advice from a company that was later found to have a profit-sharing deal with the proponent. Or the Prosperity Mine proposal, which was twice rejected by the federal government, but approved by BC despite First Nations objections to a highly controversial plan to drain a lake to store waste rock, engendering well-documented adverse environmental effects. Then there was the claim by experts hired by Pacific Northwest LNG that there were no salmon in the eelgrass beds at Flora Bank, despite clear evidence the area was used as a nursery for juvenile salmon. Heyman is emphasizing that the new measures will bring about a strong and transparent environmental assessment process, based on science. Experts and professionals who provide advice on a project will be more carefully regulated than in the past, and Indigenous communities will be involved from the early stages of a proposal, allowing potential hurdles to be identified before full hearings get underway. “The general public and Indigenous communities will be able to participate meaningfully and companies will be able to get good projects reviewed and ready more quickly,” Heyman said in a statement. BC Environment Minister George Heyman The First Nations Leadership Council acknowledges that the new rules set the stage for a different relationship, but also notes the proposed Act needs to go further to meet standards of the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples as it still allows projects to proceed if consent is withheld by Indigenous Nations. “[But] it represents an important step and, if properly implemented, will lead to fewer legal conflicts and better developed projects by fully including First Nations at all stages of development,” said Robert Phillips, a member of the First Nations Summit’s political executive. The legislation, which passed in November, will come into effect in the fall of 2019 and is now awaiting regulations, meaning changes and tweaks can still be made within the basic framework. Critics want the regulations to strengthen scientific independence and tighten loose language that says government must “consider” elements such as community input and greenhouse gas emissions, but allows wriggle room to ignore that information. “One concern we voiced right at the beginning is the lack of requirement for scientific rigour,” said Simon Fraser scientist Michael Price. Price was one of a group of 180 university academics and science professionals who wrote to Heyman in November recommending that information used to assess environmental risk should be collected by qualified, independent professionals—not those with a vested interest in the project—and then reviewed by scientists. All information and data leading to a decision should then be made public, the letter recommends. The letter says the scientists are encouraged by the changes, but “the continued lack of scientific independence, peer review and transparency in the evaluation of a given project’s risk to the environment will serve only to further undermine public confidence.” “If you read the bill, when it comes to the input of science, it is always an option,” said Price. “That will continue to undermine public trust and put the environment at risk, which boggles my mind a little,” continued Price, who fears that, if decisions are not based on transparent, sound, independent science, disasters of the past, such as Mount Polley, could re-occur. Stronger language would have gone a long way to building public trust, Price said. “I’m not sure we are going to get there when things remain options rather than requirements.” That ambivalence is echoed by Gavin Smith, West Coast Environmental Law staff lawyer, who notes positive changes, such as First Nations involvement, but believes the lack of requirements is a red flag. Greenhouse gas emissions must be considered, for instance, but, Smith pointed out, ministers can then decide to ignore the evidence, and there is no approval test or binding criteria for ministers to approve or reject a project, so decisions can appear arbitrary, politicized and unjust. A ministry spokesman said it will be mandatory to consider the impact of projects on climate targets, and ministers will be required to provide reasons for their decisions. Another area involving concern around options rather than requirements is the need for studies of cumulative impacts, as opposed to looking at a single project in isolation—something vital in areas where mining and other resource development has turned the landscape into a patchwork of roads and industrial development. Calvin Sandborn, legal director of the University of Victoria’s Environmental Law Centre, agrees the new rules are an improvement, but he too sees a series of flaws. He’s especially concerned that proponents could provide the bulk of the evidence. “He who pays the piper calls the tune…I think the lynchpin of this thing is the lack of assurance that the body of evidence is going to be objective,” he said. “You can’t have a body of evidence that is solely paid for by the company and expect to get an objective analysis.” Under the new system, Sandborn noted, proponents will produce their experts and the information will then go to a technical advisory committee, but that will be made up largely of government scientists who are unlikely to have the specific expertise of the company experts. He predicts, “these company experts will be able to dance around the technical experts.” A ministry spokesman said the technical advisory committee could be made up of government and non-government experts. A truly objective process—although one that is unlikely to gain political support—would see the government fund critics of a project to the same extent that the company is funding their experts, Sandborn suggested. “It is absolutely wrong to have multi-national companies spending multi-millions on experts, and then have that expertise vetted by experts that are hired on the basis of cupcake sales,” he said. The bill requires a community advisory committee to be formed for each project. Sandborn said those committees need to be able to name experts who are sensitive to community issues to the technical advisory committee. Gerald Singh of the Institute for the Oceans and Fisheries suggested one solution would be for industry to pay into a central fund, administered by government, which is then used to hire experts to review projects. “I think in terms of first steps, that would be good. There needs to be more oversight on the quality of the research being done, and an independent body of experts is one way,” he said. As criticism and cautious optimism solidify, all eyes will be on the regulations and how many tweaks government is willing to make to address the concerns. The devil will truly be in those details, said environmental lawyer Smith. Judith Lavoie is an award-winning journalist specializing in the environment, First Nations, and social issues. Twitter @LavoieJudith
  6. Anger is often directed at the leaders of tent cities, but they seem to get results. A HEAVY TURQUOISE NECKLACE complements the dress that Chrissy Brett is pulling on as she changes out of sweat pants and heavy boots that have warded off the chilly morning air at the temporary homeless encampment on West Saanich Road. Brett is dressing for a meeting with Saanich Police Department representatives and, given the prickly history between homeless campers and Saanich police—including Brett’s arrest after she blew an air horn at a firefighter—she is not sure how it will go. Chrissy Brett It’s another day of negotiation, media interviews and searching for the next likely camping spot for Brett, a compelling and polarizing figure who first came to the attention of Vancouver Island residents when the 2015/2016 tent city sprang up beside Victoria’s courthouse. Since then, as the homeless camp has moved around Greater Victoria, Brett has acted as spokeswoman and advocate, inevitably becoming a lightning rod for the criticism and abuse that comes with the emotionally fraught issue. Called Mama Bear by campers, Brett, 43, sees her role more as a buffer than a leader. Decisions are shared, rules are enforced and a degree of protection is offered the most vulnerable, she explained. Campers agreed that consensus guides the camp. “But, it’s very helpful to have Chrissy as a spokesperson—and it’s time we let a woman lead,” said one man as he helped distribute juice made from donated fruit and fresh vegetables. While some taxpayers, renters and homeowners complain bitterly about crime, discarded needles, and safety concerns when tent cities move into the area, Brett contends that most of the problems come from hangers-on and “weekend warriors.” “I think this has worked really well,” she said, looking around at the scattered tents. “Well, maybe not from the public’s point of view, but, look at the no-violence agreement that we have. It’s created and enforced by people here, so there’s that buy-in,” she said, while patting Loyalty, an overweight, mixed-breed dog. That view is not shared by RCMP and Saanich police who say that trespassing, open drug use and theft is rampant in the vicinity of encampments. While the camps certainly draw attention to homelessness, the hostility they provoke can be destructive and divisive, and anger is often directed at leaders, who are accused of exacerbating the problem. A recent letter to the Times Colonist accused activists of turning the homeless into political pawns. A Saanich petition—calling for illegal tent cities to be shut down—pointed the finger of blame at political activists. Social media includes references to Chrissy and her crusaders, while a Facebook page, opposing tent cities and temporary modular housing, is crammed with bitter comments accusing homeless campers of trying to get something for nothing at the expense of law-abiding taxpayers. Kathy Stinson, executive director of Victoria Cool Aid Society, which operates 472 units of housing in the city (with 166 more in development), said tent cities are polarizing because they make homelessness visible. “People don’t always want to be confronted with these issues in our community. People on the margins are saying ‘hey I am here, recognize me,’” she said. Many of the campers have disabilities, mental health problems or addictions, and both supporters and critics agree that a certain amount of organization and leadership is needed for such a disparate group. Reverend Al Tysick of the Dandelion Society said the homeless are a “hellish group to organize,” and, during the courthouse tent city, there was major conflict between Brett and some campers. “It certainly needs leadership in respect of pulling together as much as you can and [Brett] did that,” Tysick said. There were complaints about Brett coming in as an outsider telling them what to do, and she is often criticized for her showmanship and unwillingness to listen to the other side, said Tysick, but, against the backdrop of broken government promises, he understands why radical tactics are necessary. However, Brett’s voice is weakened by a lack of support from community, church or First Nations leaders, Tysick said. “You need people who have got some credibility in the community, not just the shit-disturbers,” he said. Also, Brett’s group of followers, despite consuming much of the oxygen, is dwindling in size, while unofficial camps proliferate around downtown Victoria, said Tysick, whose organization deals with some of the most needy. Brett believes she does listen to critics and emphasizes she is willing to work with anyone interested in bettering life for the homeless population. Her work is based on integrated case management and experience gained from years of working as an advocate, combined with the teachings of elders from the Nuxalk and other First Nations, she said. “Some authorities are totally willing to work with me and there are others, like Saanich PD and the RCMP, that see absolutely no value in community policing, which, in this day and age I think is pretty dangerous. They’re the old-school, military type,” said Brett, quickly pointing out that not all Saanich cops are hostile and that the Victoria police department sets an example of more enlightened policing. She also dismisses a frequently-repeated story that she is not really homeless. The story, however, has its roots in truth, for when she first felt compelled to light a sacred fire at the courthouse, she did have a home up-Island. But in July last year, the landlord took back the house and, because she was spending increasing amounts of time at the tent city, Brett decided to move her two youngest children to Victoria. “I found a place and then in October I was cut off social assistance for investigation of fraud, so, for four months, I had no income and I lost the place. Then they decided there was no basis for the fraud investigations, but they decided the kids were not with me for 50 percent of the time, so they pay me as a single person on welfare—I get $382 a month,” Brett said. She gets no shelter allowance (an additional $375). “So I am homeless.” Paul Christopher, founder of Better Choices Outreach, a group that provides comforts such as cigarettes and toothbrushes to homeless people, has watched Brett in action since the courthouse tent city. “I had some very good teachers at that tent city and one of them was Chrissy,” he said. “I applaud what she is doing…She has great leadership skills. She’s very good at dealing with the police, fire department and media and she is passionate about what she does.” Brett has the ability and personality to hold things together when dealing with a difficult group of people, Christopher said, echoing others who refer to Brett’s charisma. In Nanaimo, where DisconTent city swelled to 300 and local hostility is palpable, campers were being guided by Surrey-based Alliance Against Displacement. Organizer Amber McGrath, who is not homeless, said the group helps educate the homeless community about their rights, rather than act as leaders. “Just because they are homeless doesn’t mean that they don’t have a voice and that they can’t politically make changes. We are trying to empower people to take control of their own autonomy, their own lives,” she said. Initial local government promises fell through and that is when the Alliance offered its experience and advice, McGrath said. That relationship has been extremely beneficial, “although I know a lot of people are angry with them right now,” she said, adding that people have spat at her, thrown bottles and yelled obscenities. But it has been worth it, she said. “[The Alliance] helped empower these people and showed what could be done through protest. I saw people’s confidence grow and I saw people get some sense of stability,” she said. There is no doubt that tent cities have played a major part in forcing government to act on the homelessness crisis. Since the disbandment of the courthouse camp in Victoria, 292 units of supportive housing have been created at 844 Johnson Street, Mount Edwards Court on Vancouver Street, the former Super 8 Hotel on Douglas Street and the former Tally Ho Hotel on Douglas Street, plus additional shelter beds. In addition, Our Place Society is on the verge of opening a new therapeutic recovery community for 50 men in the former youth detention facility in View Royal. The Province has promised 2,000 units of modular housing, with a mix of temporary and permanent units, to be distributed around BC. So far, in the Capital Regional District, only 21 units for homeless Indigenous women are slated for Victoria because of difficulty in identifying suitable plots of land. In Nanaimo, 170 temporary modular housing units are on order to be placed on city-owned land and on another lot purchased by the Province for $2 million. In all, $3.6 million is being invested by the Province. Pacifica Housing will operate the supportive housing. This is a testament to the efficacy of tent cities, said McGrath. “I am so proud of them that they have done this. It’s really empowering to say ‘look at what you people did. You got housing,’” she said. “It’s not enough for the people that we have here, but it’s a darn good start.” Tysick agrees that tent cities have raised awareness and brought benefits, even though they take away from public sympathy, especially when campsites are left in disarray. “Without them, you wouldn’t be doing this story. It’s a constant topic around the council table. I think it’s doing a lot of good and it’s causing some money [for housing] to come to the city,” he said. Stinson agrees the tactics have forced governments into action.“Keeping it front and centre has been very effective. It has certainly been constantly in the news,” she noted. The bottom line, however, is that although the new units have made a dent, the idea of permanent homes for all that need them remains a distant dream. Brett appreciates the improvements that have been made, but, repeating her homes-not-shelters mantra, she said there is still a long road ahead. “Unfortunately, I think tent cities are necessary until government creates enough affordable options for people,” she said. Judith Lavoie is an award-winning journalist specializing in the environment, First Nations, and social issues. Twitter @LavoieJudith.
  7. The battle of the Broughton continues with surveillance on the seas. AFTER MORE THAN THREE DECADES of running a whale-watching business out of Port McNeill, Bill Mackay knows the importance of understanding what is happening in the water off northern Vancouver Island and he does not take kindly to boats with blacked-out windows or people telling him he’s not allowed to ask about it. “On the ocean, with limited visibility and a high-speed vessel I want to know who the hell is coming at me. I don’t want to be looking at blacked-out windows,” said Mackay after a group of men on a dock in Port McNeill refused to tell him what they were doing. “One guy stood in my face and puffed his chest right out and hollered at the other fellow that he was not allowed to talk to me,” Mackay said. “That got me wondering what the heck is going on. There are at least three of these vessels with blacked-out windows. I asked if they were running drugs or doing illegal things, but they wouldn’t answer,” he said. Part of the answer was revealed when one man opened his jacket, showing a Marine Harvest tee-shirt, but Mackay felt the incident was sufficiently strange that he wrote out a full report for Port McNeill RCMP. “I know a thug when I see one,” he said. “I know Marine Harvest is paying the bills, but who are these guys on board?” he asked. Blacked-out windows and GoPro camera employed by the "Coastal Logger" to monitor fish farm opponents. The ongoing battle over 20 salmon farms in the Broughton Archipelago has taken on a new twist with Marine Harvest Canada leasing vessels and hiring crews to follow independent biologist and wild salmon advocate Alexandra Morton. First Nations and activists such as Morton are strenuously opposed to salmon farms in the Broughton, claiming the farms are responsible for killing wild salmon runs. Over the last year, Indigenous protesters occupied two farms in the area for 290 days. Amid growing tensions, BC Supreme Court last month granted Marine Harvest an interim injunction to block activists from boarding its farms or docks and established a buffer zone around the farms. However, an exception was made for Morton, who is allowed to enter the buffer zone to collect samples, provided she is in a boat of no more than 2.6 metres. Morton, who is currently travelling on the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society’s research vessel Martin Sheen, is collecting samples of feces and fish tissue close to the fish farms. The samples will later be tested for piscine reovirus (PRV), a pathogen that is central to two lawsuits against Marine Harvest. The Namgis First Nation is suing Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO) and Marine Harvest to stop the transfer of PRV-infected farm fish into their territory. Morton is suing DFO and Marine Harvest for failing to screen farm salmon for PRV before they are transferred into ocean pens. Both cases will be heard together in a case starting September 10. Morton has studied transfer of PRV to wild fish and links to heart and skeletal muscle inflammation, which can be fatal in wild salmon populations. This spring, Strategic Salmon Health Initiative, in research led by DFO scientist Kristi Miller-Saunders, found PRV causes red blood cells in chinook salmon to rupture. (The research is a joint effort between Fisheries and Oceans Canada, Genome BC and the Pacific Salmon Foundation.) However, nothing is simple when it comes to salmon farming disputes, and that research has been challenged by a BC Centre for Aquatic Health Sciences study which concluded the virus “acts in a benign fashion in BC.” Adding to the legal wrangles, the Dzawada’enuxw First Nation has filed a title case against DFO, Cermaq and Marine Harvest—the latter two being Canadian branches of Norwegian companies—for operating in their territory without permission. Meanwhile, nation-to-nation talks between First Nations and the provincial government are continuing while the Broughton leases are being renewed on a month-to-month basis after expiring June 20. In addition, throughout BC, new rules requiring all fish farms to have an agreement with First Nations in whose territory they operate, will click into place in four years. Morton believes Marine Harvest is feeling threatened by the upcoming court cases, in addition to uncertainty about whether licences in the Broughton will be renewed, and that is why she is being followed. The constant shadowing has provoked her to complain to the RCMP that she is being stalked. “They follow us everywhere. They sat there when we were visiting people along the way, and one of the days I went out in my boat to do the sampling, and I tried to do a little fishing on the way home and they were following me there,” she said. “I turned around and went right up to their boat and they closed all their windows and doors and they took off, so I followed them and I circled them a couple of times asking why they were following me,” she said. Morton, who has been told that the company has extensive equipment, is concerned that the surveillance will extend to her home and she fears recent computer problems were caused by cyber-hacking. It is difficult to know where the company will draw the line, Morton said. “In my opinion, this stalking behaviour in territories where First Nations are trying to evict them suggests that Marine Harvest is more aggressive than smart,” she said. “If this was happening on the road and you had a car with blacked-out windows following you, you would definitely call the police,” said Morton, who added that the surveillance will not stop her taking samples. Adding to the spy-thriller scenario, the company hired to do the surveillance is Safety Net Security, affiliated with Corrado Ventures Incorporated (CVI). Director Peter Corrado was given a Campbell River business licence in June for Black Cube Strategies and Consulting Ltd. That put up alarm signals for Morton and others, as Black Cube is known internationally as a group of former Israeli intelligence specialists, with offices in Tel Aviv, Paris and London, who, according to their website, “specialise in tailored solutions to complex business and litigation challenges.” (The firm was hired, for example, by Harvey Weinstein, to deter his accusers.) Corrado, Black Cube and CVI spokesmen did not return calls, but Shawn Hall, spokesman for BC Salmon Farmers Association, said there is absolutely no relationship between the Israeli-based company and the Vancouver Island firm. Member companies hired a local health and safety firm to ensure the safety of employees on the farms following the lengthy occupation of two Marine Harvest farms by First Nations protesters, he said. “There were some boardings last year that created an unsafe work environment, and companies want to ensure the health and safety of employees in a peaceful and appropriate manner,” Hall said. Employees felt threatened by the boardings, and companies are now ensuring that comprehensive services are available to support them, he said. “We are Canadian, so we support the right to peaceful protest for anyone, but our members have a responsibility to protect employees,” Hall said. It’s unclear why Morton would be viewed as so physically threatening to employees of Marine Harvest that she is being surveilled. Hall dismissed claims that blacked-out windows, sunglasses, long camera lenses and men ducking into the cabin when challenged present an image of a covert operation. Morton’s lawyer Greg McDade said he finds the surveillance concerning, and it appears to show that Marine Harvest is getting desperate. “I think the fact that Marine Harvest is hiring this quite scary security firm is problematic in and of itself. This is a foreign company that wants to do business in BC waters, and then it goes and hires security people to try and deal with a respected biologist who has been doing research for 20 years in these waters,” he said. It is troubling that the company would try and harass Morton, but it is uncertain whether it’s illegal, as no one owns the ocean, and people have the right to go where they wish, McDade said. “But, this is just not what we do in Canada. It seems completely out of proportion and out of whack to what they are trying to do, so you can only conclude they are trying to scare Alex off, and it won’t happen,” he said. “It just seems very nefarious and un-Canadian. It should be troubling to most Canadians.” Meanwhile, Bill Mackay has come up with his own way of showing displeasure at the blacked-out boats. Recently, with a full load of whale watchers on board the Naiad Explorer, Mackay saw the long camera lenses pointing from behind the windows. “So I asked my passengers politely if they would please give them a round of applause, which they did, and then [the men in the boat] all went and hid behind their blacked-out windows,” Mackay said. “Now, when we encounter them, I ask all my passengers, who come from all over the globe, to get out even bigger lenses, and we point those at them as they go by and they all disappear. I can tell you they don’t want their pictures taken, but we are firing away like crazy,” he said. Judith Lavoie is an award-winning journalist specializing in the environment, First Nations, and social issues. Twitter @LavoieJudith
  8. 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. Will methane asphyxiate Green support for the minority NDP government? THERE IS AN ALICE IN WONDERLAND QUALITY surrounding BC’s prickly debate over liquefied natural gas (LNG) development. The story starts with a fantasy, characters shift roles, and the outcome is based on unknowns. However, decisions made on the future of the LNG industry are likely to profoundly affect the province. The former Liberal government’s rose-coloured vision of a prosperous LNG-fuelled future, with 20 terminals and 10,000 jobs, faltered and died as the reality of LNG economics, with low prices and oversupply, sent investors running for the hills. It was a rout applauded by the NDP, who had doggedly criticized the Liberals’ generous giveaways to the industry, and by the BC Greens, who warned that one major LNG terminal and the associated increase in fracking would send the province’s greenhouse gas emissions soaring to levels that would require all other sectors of the economy to cut emissions by 95 percent by 2050. But, wait. Fast-forward to March, when Premier John Horgan announced financial incentives for LNG investors, including temporary relief from provincial sales taxes and rebates for carbon tax increases if the facility meets “best-in-the-world” standards. In the words of Lewis Carroll in Alice in Wonderland, “curiouser and curiouser.” Green leader Andrew Weaver and BC Premier John Horgan Under the New Democrats, LNG projects that meet the standards will pay a carbon tax of $30 per tonne in 2021, instead of $50 per tonne. And, instead of plants paying a higher rate for electricity, as was set under the Liberal legislation, LNG producers will pay the standard industrial rate. The concessions are aimed at persuading the multi-national consortium LNG Canada to proceed with a planned $40-billion project, with a natural gas export terminal in Kitimat linked to massive natural gas reserves in northeast BC by a 670-kilometre pipeline. The incentives offer a framework for the industry and are substantially different from the package offered by the Liberals, Horgan insisted at a news conference. “What I believe is different from the approach of the previous government and the approach we are taking is that, if there is a benefit to British Columbians, we want to make it transparent and obvious to everyone and we are not going to sign a blank cheque for LNG Canada or any other proponent that may come forward,” he said. Concessions would not click in until a company makes a final investment decision, said Horgan. “The previous Liberal government brought forward a whole host of legislation that locked the Province in without ever getting a final investment decision to take place,” he said. It will not be an easy decision, the premier admitted. “Potential opportunity is extraordinary. Potential risks are significant,” said Horgan, who is also acutely aware of the political risks to his government, which is supported by the three-member Green Party caucus. The exemptions will cost about $6 billion over 40 years, but government is hoping the LNG Canada project will generate $22 billion over 40 years from natural gas royalties and income tax, plus 10,000 construction jobs and 950 permanent jobs once construction is completed. The prospect of encouraging an LNG export industry sent BC Green leader Andrew Weaver, a climate scientist, into tirades as he threatened to bring down the government, claiming the NDP had sweetened the pot beyond the industry’s wildest dreams. “We will not support legislative changes that literally continue a generational sell-off of a resource to offshore interests,” Weaver said. LNG Canada would blow the Province’s climate targets right out of the water, he said, noting, “You cannot add ten megatonnes of emissions and somehow think we are going to reduce by 80 percent by 2050. There is simply no possible path to do that. It’s impossible.” Calculations of carbon dioxide emissions from the LNG Canada plant range from government estimates of four megatonnes annually to Pembina Institute’s estimate of 8.6 megatonnes annually in 2030, if all phases of the project are built out, and 9.6 megatonnes in 2050. The core of the controversy is that although Horgan says any LNG development must fit within the Province’s climate targets, Weaver believes that is impossible. But Weaver stopped short of immediately withdrawing support for the NDP, saying he will wait and see what the climate action plan sets out. “We are giving them a chance to develop that plan and show us they can do it,” Weaver said. “If we don’t see a climate plan that meets the targets, our support for the NDP will vapourize.” Environmental groups were also taken aback by Horgan’s announcement, even though the NDP election platform had made it clear that LNG development would be considered, provided it offered a fair return for the resource, guaranteed jobs for British Columbians, included partnerships with First Nations that helped lead to true reconciliation, and met the Province’s climate commitments. Jens Wieting, Sierra Club BC forest and climate campaigner, said the concessions are a form of climate change denial that would spell disaster. “By sweetening the pot for fracked gas export, the government is laying out a red carpet for investors to help destroy our climate,” he said. Similar messages came from the David Suzuki Foundation, which criticized the government for ignoring the industry’s carbon footprint and pointed out that underreported fugitive methane emissions produced by fracking are among Canada’s most serious greenhouse gas problems. Fracking involves pumping large amounts of mud, water and chemicals into the ground, creating enough pressure to crack open rocks and release the natural gas. The gas is turned into a liquid by cooling it to -160 degrees C. Now, all sides are looking warily towards the next steps. The deciding factors will be the shape of the government’s climate action plan and final investment decisions later this year by LNG Canada and the much smaller, $1.4-billion Woodfibre LNG project in Squamish. Those investment decisions will be influenced by a federal government ruling on whether to exempt large LNG modules from a 45.8 percent anti-dumping duty, placed last year on fabricated steel products from China and South Korea. LNG Canada is planning to import modules from China. Much will also depend on market conditions, but, after years of over-supply and slumping prices for natural gas, analysts are cautiously optimistic. Dulles Wang, Wood Mackenzie analyst, speaking at a webinar in April, said the oversupply situation is unlikely to continue and the global market could be looking for a new supply as early as 2022. “The challenge, though, is that there are just a lot of projects out there targeting the window of opportunity…So there’s a sense of urgency for the Canadian projects if they want to be into that timeframe,” he said. But, with no final investment decisions, no climate action plan, and no legislation setting out Provincial concessions to the industry, there are few definitive answers. “Right now we are in the hypothetical stage,” said Weaver. Legislation is likely to be introduced this fall, and one of many unanswered questions is—even if the Greens withdraw support—where the votes would fall. Some New Democrats remain upset with the LNG plan, and some Liberals could vote in favour of what is seen as a business-friendly move. Sonia Furstenau, Green Party MLA for Cowichan Valley, said the Greens have been hearing from disaffected New Democrats. “We have seen quite a significant number reach out to us about that disappointment. Lots of emails and phone calls and contacts. I think [the NDP] have to think very hard about what they want their legacy to be and who they are representing. I would expect that, within their own caucus, there is division and disappointment over this,” Furstenau said. Weaver has come in for criticism for not immediately withdrawing his support for the NDP, but Furstenau said most Green party members want to see a thoughtful and measured response, and the three Green MLAs are aware of their responsibility to work for all British Columbians. One certainty is that, for the Greens, any vote will be rooted firmly in the contents of the climate action plan. “It comes down to a responsibility to future generations,” said Furstenau. Judith Lavoie is an award-winning journalist specializing in the environment, First Nations, and social issues. Twitter @LavoieJudith.
  10. Marijuana greenhouses, wineries and monster houses are eroding BC’s already limited capacity to feed itself. AS NATHALIE CHAMBERS DESCRIBES the onslaught of non-farming uses chewing away at BC’s agricultural land, from cannabis production to industrial parking lots, she points to her particular bugbear—huge houses, surrounded by acres of formerly productive farmland. “They are like smallpox. Carbuncles on farmland. We need requirements on house sizes right away,” she said, singling out one home, now surrounded by fill, built on previously fertile Blenkinsop Valley farmland. Soaring costs of farmland—sparked by interest from wealthy mansion-builders or consortiums hoping to cash in on the legalization of recreational marijuana coming in August—means genuine farmers are being priced out of the market, say groups that are asking the Province to step in to protect the Agricultural Land Reserve which encompasses about five percent of the land in BC. “We are the most food insecure province in Canada and we are denying farmers access to the land,” said Chambers, operator of Madrona Farm and co-chair of the Farmland Protection Coalition. Lower Mainland areas, such as Richmond, are scrambling to control monster homes of more than 10,000 square feet, built on ALR land, but the problem on Southern Vancouver Island is often big houses, built on two-hectare (five-acre) lots, which are then lost to food production. Sometimes, by growing a token amount, owners take advantage of lower property taxes on farmland. Martin Collins, Agricultural Land Commission director of policy and planning, said people who want to build mansions gravitate towards the ALR. “Scale matters, but, now, proliferation is more of a problem—the numbers of them. Our regulation has been too permissive, I think,” he said. Also, Collins pointed out, it is local councils which decide whether a second dwelling for farm help can be built on ALR properties. “Local governments have had a very elastic perspective about that and if the landowner says they need a building for farm help, they give it to them even when they are doing a minimal amount of farming on the property,” he said. Agriculture Minister Lana Popham said she has been hearing about ALR problems since taking over the portfolio, which is why she has appointed an advisory committee that will travel the province looking for ideas on how to better protect the ALR. The committee, which will look at pressures for non-agricultural use, ALR resilience, and the two-zone system brought in by the former Liberal government, will make interim recommendations to Popham this spring. “Creating the ALR was an amazing decision made in the 1970s to protect BC’s farmland, but we couldn’t have foreseen some of the current pressures, like mega mansions and cannabis production as examples, that would shape and influence the land in the ALR today,” Popham said in an emailed response to questions from Focus. “We have been clear in our belief that land in the ALR should be used for farming and we are committed to food security for our province.” THE FORCES LINED UP AGAINST SUCH GOALS are impressive, and complications abound. Farmers, for instance, are finding it difficult to turn down purchase offers financially far beyond what they would have once expected to receive for agricultural land. By last September, Delta alone had received 35 applications from companies looking to grow marijuana in the ALR, and other municipalities are also reporting interest from companies wanting to convert greenhouses from tomatoes and cucumbers to marijuana. In Central Saanich, Evergreen Medicinal Supply is hoping to build marijuana greenhouses on the 40-acre Stanhope Dairy Farm, while in Saanich a former horse boarding facility on Oldfield Road has been bought by a company which is converting the barn and has applied for a building permit for greenhouses. When it was announced recently that the high-profile Woodwynn Farm on West Saanich Road was going on the market, there were rumoured inquiries from people interested in cannabis cultivation. “Any piece of land in the district now is fair game,” said Central Saanich Mayor Ryan Windsor, whose council is asking the provincial government for a six-month moratorium on the use of agricultural land for the production of cannabis, to allow for consultations with municipalities, farmers and the industry. Currently, municipal hands are tied by a 2015 decision by the former Liberal government that licensed marijuana grow operations should be allowed on ALR land and that municipalities should not be allowed to pass bylaws prohibiting cannabis farms. “The decision rests entirely with the Province and we would like them to go back and look at it,” said Windsor, who believes there was inadequate consultation before the rule was brought in. “If someone puts in a building permit application and it meets all the requirements for greenhouses, we pretty well have to issue it,” Windsor said. Communities such as Central Saanich, with large swathes of ALR land, are particularly attractive to cannabis growers. Following federal rule changes earlier this year, the crop no longer has to be grown in a bunker with plants stored in a high-security vault. Instead, marijuana can now be grown in greenhouses, provided there is heavy security. Many believe industrial, not agricultural land, should be used for marijuana cultivation, and, on the Saanich Peninsula, the newly-formed Citizens Protecting Agricultural Land (CPAL) has collected more than 1000 signatures on a petition asking the Province to reverse the 2015 legislation allowing ALR land to be used for grow-ops. “Marijuana grow-ops should not be permitted on land in the ALR because they destroy the agricultural value of the land and its potential to produce food,” says the petition. CPAL spokesman Ken Marriette said the group wants to tackle the gold-rush attitude and stop factory-like marijuana production facilities, with concrete-floored greenhouses, from destroying farmland. “It’s just awful. Put it on non-farmland,” Marriette said. “We don’t want the next generations of British Columbians to have to rely on other countries for our food crops.” JoAnne Nelson, one of the petition organizers, said the concept is alarming. “People have finally found a way to monetize agricultural land and it’s going to blow away the other uses. You are talking consortiums of investors…It’s a movement that is threatening the entire rural community,” she said. ON THE LOWER MAINLAND, another threat comes in the shape of wineries, with a token vineyard and buildings catering to weddings and meetings, a trend ALR director Collins describes as Disneyfication. “There’s a huge demand for these spaces, so you get it flowing into the ALR and turning these beautiful fields into parking lots,” he said. The winery situation is not so critical on Vancouver Island, where producers can grow wine-producing grapes, but regulations tying production and retailing need to be tightened, Collins said. The regulations are too permissive and have been eroded over the decades, he said. “This isn’t real agriculture. It’s capital finding a place to land. We need to find a way to prevent this loose money from landing in the ALR,” said Collins, who is cautiously optimistic the NDP government will make changes. “Maybe they will be as innovative as they were in 1972, but, like all politicians, they will smell the wind,” he said. Kent Mullinix, director of the Institute for Sustainable Food Systems at Kwantlen Polytechnic University, said government must acknowledge that agricultural land is a precious, non-renewable resource that all mankind relies upon. Climate change means arable land is already being lost at an extraordinary rate, but agriculture has been economically marginalized and farmers can’t compete with interests such as development and marijuana, Mullinix said. That means the Province needs to decommodify agricultural land through policy and regulation, he said. “A good place to start is to review the tax structure that gives breaks to people who own ALR land and really don’t farm it. The speculative value, the value from developing agricultural land and taking it out of agriculture, needs to be taxed away,” he said, suggesting an agricultural land bank could also be considered. Mullinix, whose department is about to release a white paper on revitalizing the ALR, believes ALR land should be used only for food production, and he would like to see government restrict farmland ownership to trained farmers—likely resulting in the price of farmland plummeting. “That would mean big money would go somewhere else,” he said. “We have got to get real. We can no longer allow a bunch of capitalist cowboys to run roughshod over the natural resources and the ecosystems that all our lives, livelihoods and—literally—happiness rely upon,” he said. People need to understand that the importance of the issue transcends food and agriculture, Mullinix said. “This is really about how we are going to move through the rest of the 21st century with all the sustainability challenges the next generation will face and generations after that. We will either set things up now so they will stand a chance or we won’t.” The BC government has posted a discussion paper and an online survey at https://engage.gov.bc.ca/agriculturallandreserve. Judith Lavoie is an award-winning journalist specializing in the environment, First Nations, and social issues. Twitter @LavoieJudith.
  11. The BC government has killed the grizzly hunt. But will Conservation Officers enforce the ban? AFTER YEARS OF LETTER WRITING, strategy sessions and protests, opponents of BC’s grizzly bear trophy hunt were euphoric when the NDP government killed the hunt in December. “Can you believe it? I have just had a weep,” said Valerie Murray, founding member of Justice for BC Grizzlies, as Environment Minister George Heyman and Forests, Lands and Natural Resource Operations Minister Doug Donaldson announced that all grizzly hunting in BC would end immediately. Grizzly sow and cubs (Photograph by Mike Hoekendijk) Earlier, in August 2016, the government had said that grizzly hunting would stop in the Great Bear Rainforest and trophy hunting would be banned in the rest of the province, but there was a loophole large enough for a pickup truck to drive through. It took the shape of allowing a food hunt, provided meat was packed out, and perceived trophies, such as the head, hide, paws and penis bone, were either left in the woods or turned over to the government. Fears that the meat hunt would be a thin disguise for business-as-usual were exacerbated by advertisements on the Guide Outfitters Association of BC website promoting the 2018 hunt. After the initial announcement, government allowed time for further consultation and the reaction was fast and furious. Out of 4,180 emails received by government, almost 80 percent wanted a total ban on grizzly hunting. “British Columbians told us in no uncertain terms, very clearly, how strongly they feel about protecting grizzly bears and grizzly bear habitat,” Heyman said. The only exception will be First Nations, who will be allowed to harvest grizzlies for food, social or ceremonial purposes or treaty rights. But that impact is expected to be minimal. Scrapping the “sustenance hunt” surprised both sides of the polarized controversy, with many expressing amazement that the government had listened to the opinions of British Columbians. “We can bearly believe it,” quipped Joy Foy of the Wilderness Committee. On the other side, opposition Liberals and grizzly hunters claimed the ban was an effort to divert the attention of environmentalists from the NDP government’s earlier decision to go ahead with the Site C dam. Members of the Guide Outfitters Association of BC predict some businesses will fail as a result of the ban, but a 2014 study found that bear viewing in the Great Bear Rainforest generated 12 times more in visitor spending and 11 times more in government revenue than hunting. Also, First Nations are likely to benefit from increases in bear viewing and aboriginal tourism, said Vernon Brown, a councillor with Kitasoo Xai/xais Nation, which runs a successful tourist lodge and bear watching operation in Klemtu. Liberals John Rustad and Peter Milobar accused the NDP of abandoning “scientific-based decision making in favour of political calculus designed to appease US-based environmental groups.” But, science is largely on the side of a hunting ban. Government figures put the BC grizzly population at 15,000, but some scientists believe the number is much lower. Although DNA testing is used to assess populations in some parts of the province, computer models are used to calculate populations in other areas and there are concerns those figures could be inaccurate. BC is one of the last areas in North America where grizzly bears live in their natural habitat, but nine of the province’s bear sub-populations are in trouble, and three in southwest BC have been assessed as critically endangered by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature. Groups such as the Coast to Cascades Grizzly Bear Initiative are pushing to have those populations listed as a species of special concern under the federal Species at Risk Act. While sub-populations are increasing in some areas, studies show other areas have been heavily over-hunted. A 2013 Simon Fraser University and University of Victoria study found that in half the population groups where hunting is allowed, more grizzlies have been killed than government targets allow. The Province has long claimed a harvest rate of 250 to 300 bears a year is sustainable, but studies point to slow reproduction rates and show that about 34 percent of bears killed are female—a figure generally accepted as too high. Poaching, accidents and bears shot by conservation officers all increase the death rate. A David Suzuki Foundation study, using government figures, found that between 1975 and 2016, humans have killed 13,804 grizzlies in BC. In 2016, 87 percent of all human-caused killing was attributable to trophy hunters. In neighbouring Alberta, the hunt was suspended in 2006 and the species was declared as threatened in 2010. The difference between Alberta and BC came into sharp relief in September when Bear 148, who had been radio-collared and relocated in Alberta, was shot by a hunter when she wandered into BC. ADDING TO THE PUBLIC DISCOMFORT WITH THE HUNT is a highly critical report by Auditor General Carol Bellringer, released last fall. It found a tangle of unimplemented plans, lack of organized monitoring, spotty oversight and unclear accountability. It also made clear that protecting the bears will take more than a hunting ban. Besides pointing to habitat loss as a major threat, it cited 600,000 kilometres of resource roads with 10,000 more kilometres added each year. The road network means humans have more access into wilderness areas, resulting in the illegal killing of bears and more human-bear conflicts—which usually end with a dead bear. Heyman, who is promising to implement all recommendations from Bellringer’s report, says the government will be looking at Species at Risk legislation, a grizzly bear management strategy, and a wildlife management strategy. Excessive access to grizzly habitat is one problem to be addressed, as is understaffing of the Conservation Officer Service (COS), Heyman said. A Green Party spokeswoman agreed that environmental enforcement capacity has been crippled by budget and staff cuts. She noted that between 2001 and 2012, while the Liberals were in power, COS staffing levels fell by one-third, meaning a 32 percent decline in boots on the ground at a time when resource activity was increasing. Simultaneously, the number of tickets for environmental violations fell by more than half, and convictions plummeted. But dissatisfaction with the COS goes deeper than funding cuts, and some are calling for a complete overhaul of the mandate and makeup of the service. In 2016, 27 grizzlies were killed by conservation officers after encounters with humans, resulting in accusations that gun-happy officers don’t look at other options. Over the past four years, according to ministry figures, conservation officers killed 72 grizzlies and 1,872 black bears. “The public doesn’t trust the Conservation Officer Service any more. I couldn’t count on my fingers and toes how many times I have heard people say there is no way they would phone a conservation officer because the animal will end up dead,” said wildlife photographer Trish Boyum, operator of an eco-charter boat. Bryce Casavant, a conservation officer, who in 2015 was suspended and then transferred into another ministry after he refused to kill two bear cubs, is blunt about the inherent conflict of interest he sees among conservation officers. “Until there is the political will to change the behaviour of the Conservation Officer Service, there is no hope for BC wildlife,” said Casavant, a researcher with Royal Roads University and a former officer with the Canadian Forces Military Police who ran for the NDP in the last election. The heart of the problem, said Casavant, is that the COS is an armed police service, basically functioning as a private army for the environment ministry. But unlike other police services, there is no independent oversight board, and complaints are investigated internally. There is also no oversight of hiring. Casavant said the vast majority of conservation officers are hunters or trophy hunters, and many are members of the BC Wildlife Federation (which is supportive of hunting, at least under certain circmstances). In fact, recruitment is aimed at those sectors rather than at people with a science or conservation background. “So, it doesn’t matter what regulation you put forward. If they want to kill bears, they are going to kill bears,” he said. In some cases, a CO has posed for pictures with a tranquillized bear cub, only to shoot it in the head once he is out of the public eye, Casavant charged. In December, BC Supreme Court ruled against the Association for the Protection of Fur-Bearing Animals and Dawson Creek resident Tiana Jackson who claimed a conservation officer had exceeded his authority by killing a black bear cub even though a wildlife centre had agreed to take the cub. However, the court did confirm that conservation officers had to follow government policy. Before taking on new battles around habitat conservation and COS practices, environmentalists are celebrating the Christmas present for grizzly bears. “We are very grateful that the government has finally stepped up to do what the people have asked for, which is an end to this barbaric, bloody sport hunt,” Foy said. Judith Lavoie is an award-winning journalist specializing in the environment, First Nations, and social issues. Twitter @LavoieJudith.
  12. Science and First Nations are stepping up the pressure to remove fish farms from BC coastal waters. CHANGES TO THE RULES GOVERNING OPEN-NET SALMON FARMS are in the wind as calls intensify for the federal and provincial governments to step in and stop the game of Russian roulette being played with BC’s wild salmon stocks. What makes this debate different from preceding decades of polarized arguments is implacable opposition to fish farms from the majority of BC’s First Nations—underlined by the occupation of two farms off north-east Vancouver Island—along with a growing body of evidence showing that wild fish can be harmed by viruses and sea lice spread from captive fish. Add in dismally low 2017 Fraser River sockeye returns and the much-publicized escape of 300,000 Atlantic salmon from a collapsed Washington State fish farm, and the climate appears ripe for change. Young wild salmon swim close to open-net fish farm. (Photo by Tavish Campbell) Perhaps the biggest switch can be seen in the attitude of the provincial government. While the new NDP-led government recognizes the economic benefits provided by a $1.5-billion aquaculture industry, employing 3,000 people, it is juggling those benefits with increasing concerns about that industry’s effect on wild salmon, and the push to move the farms to closed-containment pens on land. “The BC government is making sounds I have never heard before,” said independent biologist Alexandra Morton, a fierce opponent of open-net salmon farms. Though the federal government has prime responsibility for fish farms (including their promotion), the Province does have some power—it has responsibility for issuing and renewing the tenure licences of fish farms in BC waters. At the provincial level, the change from the previous Liberal government was apparent when Premier John Horgan met this fall with First Nations leaders in Alert Bay, followed by his statement that fish farm tenures will be reviewed to ensure wild salmon do not face obstacles on their migratory routes. Hopes of fish farm opponents are also pinned on an election campaign statement by Claire Trevena, now BC’s Transportation Minister, who told an Alert Bay audience that if the NDP formed government, the party would “make sure that these territories and the North Island are clear of fish farms.” Also this fall, new BC Agriculture Minister Lana Popham, in a letter to Marine Harvest, criticized the company’s decision to restock farms in the Broughton Archipelago; those licences expire in June but the fish will not be ready for harvest for two years. “The decision to restock occurs as we are entering sensitive discussions with some of the First Nations in the Broughton Archipelago who remain opposed to open-net pen salmon farming in their territories,” Popham wrote, reminding the company there is no guarantee tenures will be renewed. “The Province retains all of its rights under the current tenure agreements, including potentially the requirement that you return possession of tenured sites at the end of the current terms,” she warned. All but two tenures in the Broughton Archipelago expire in June, but the company said it must restock, as it has growing animals that need the space. Marine Harvest spokesman Ian Roberts said he hopes discussions happen quickly, as salmon farmers need assurances they can continue to operate. AT THE HEART OF THE DEBATE around salmon aquaculture is the fear that diseases can spread from farms to wild fish. Although few scientists would claim that salmon farms are single-handedly killing BC’s wild salmon runs, there is incontrovertible evidence that a deadly disease—heart and skeletal muscle inflammation (HSMI)—infected fish on a farm in the Discovery Islands. More alarmingly, researchers have found that HSMI is caused by piscine reovirus, a virus that affects about 80 percent of farm fish in BC, but which the industry previously claimed was harmless. In Norway—where major firms operating in BC have headquarters—HSMI is known to kill farmed fish, and Norwegian scientists have now cemented the link between piscine reovirus and HSMI. As well, a study by a team of scientists from Fisheries and Oceans Canada, Pacific Salmon Foundation and Genome BC came up with proof that HSMI is present in BC. “They debunked the myth that piscine reovirus was harmless because they found that HSMI was present in BC,” Morton said in an interview. Adding fuel to the flames is a recent video, taken by aboriginal leaders, showing sick and deformed fish in the net pens. “The fish were showing classic symptoms of HSMI. They were emaciated and floating with their heads against the net,” Morton said. John Reynolds, professor of aquatic ecology and conservation at Simon Fraser University, emphasized that it is not possible to pin responsibility for annual fluctuations in salmon runs on fish farms, as there are many issues with ocean survival. “But there’s a lot of evidence that salmon farms are contributing to the problems that wild salmon face,” he said. Even without proof of a major viral outbreak, damage caused by disease transfer may be ticking away in the background, explained Reynolds. “There’s a lot of research which confirms negative effects of salmon farming on the juvenile wild salmon. It is published in many of the world’s top peer-reviewed journals,” he said. “There’s no dispute about that except, perhaps, by people who have something to gain by questioning it. The science on the matter is quite clear,” he added. All of which makes Chief Bob Chamberlin of the Kwikwasut’inuxw Haxwas’mis First Nation wonder when the federal and provincial governments will take decisive action. “How can they not listen to the clear messages that we do not give any consent to having these farms in our territory” asked Chamberlin, chairman of the First Nations Wild Salmon Alliance. The salmon farming industry has agreements with some First Nations to operate in their territories, but Chamberlin said that about 90 percent of First Nations communities are demanding an end to open-net fish farming. “There’s the risk of disease and sea lice and the broad infringement of First Nations rights,” he said, reminding government leaders of their support for the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, which entitles indigenous people to giving “free, prior and informed consent on any project affecting their lands or territories and other resources.” If the provincial government is worried about job loss, Chamberlin suggested it put research and development money into developing a viable closed-containment industry. He also predicted more tourism jobs would come to remote communities if wild salmon runs were restored, improving the health of bears and the surrounding ecosystem. Chamberlin wants to see the federal government genuinely implement all the recommendations from the 2012 Cohen Commission of Inquiry, including the recommendation that the responsibility for promoting salmon farming be removed from the mandate of Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO) as it is working at cross purposes with DFO’s duty to protect wild salmon. That is not going to happen, according to an emailed statement from a DFO spokesman, who wrote that “no further action is required on this recommendation as responsibility for production and export is split between several different departments.” However, the federal government is drafting a five-year Wild Salmon Policy implementation plan and putting $40 million annually, for five years, into research, science and monitoring of Pacific salmon, which gives ground for optimism that wild salmon are moving up the priority ladder. After more than three decades of fighting open-net pen salmon farms, opponents know the road to change is unlikely to be smooth, but Morton believes the tide is turning. Look at the occupations of the fish farms, she suggested. “The First Nations are immovable. They are endlessly creative and extremely brave.” Judith Lavoie is an award-winning journalist specializing in the environment, First Nations, and social issues. Twitter @LavoieJudith.
  13. Expect hotter summers and winter deluges. Retaining trees could reduce the worst impacts, including the cost of mitigation. AS SUMMER FADES, along with memories of warm, sunny days, three recent reports help us turn a thought to the future and what Greater Victoria’s weather will look like three decades from now: Start stocking up on triple-strength sunscreen and waterproof storm gear. By the 2050s, with an average annual warming of about 3°C in the Capital Region, the number of scorching hot days will triple; fall and winter will see more extreme weather events, with deluges replacing Greater Victoria’s trademark showers, says a report prepared for the Capital Regional District. Climate Projections for the Capital Region, written by Trevor Murdock and Stephen Sobie from Pacific Climate Impacts Consortium and Gillian Aubie Vines from Pinna Sustainability, looks at how climate change will unfold over the coming decades—and the future is hot. “Monthly high and low temperatures show that the new normal for the region may be very unlike the past,” says the report, which is based on the assumption that global greenhouse gas emissions will continue at their current rate. “Rising temperatures will lead to hotter summer days and nights, milder winters with the near loss of frost days and snowpack in all but the highest elevation locations.” Overall, it predicts a 69 percent decrease in the number of frost days and a 90 percent decrease in snowpack depth in the mountains by the 2080s. That translates into the number of summer days with a temperature above 25 degrees Celsius rising to 36 days a year, from an average of 12 days a year from 1971 to 2000. The temperature for the 1-in-20-year hottest day will soar to a scorching 36 degrees from the current 32 degrees, with an increase to 38 degrees by the 2080s. By that time, Greater Victoria will also be experiencing an average of four “tropical nights,” meaning the overnight low temperature is higher than 20 degrees. “This measure is important as a series of hot nights can cause heat stress in vulnerable populations (e.g. those with compromised immune systems) and will have an impact on energy used for cooling buildings during warm spells,” says the report. There will be less rain in summer, with a 20 percent reduction in precipitation, but fall and winter will have more extreme wet weather events and could see 68 percent more rain falling during very wet days. Overall, there is likely to be a five percent increase in precipitation by the 2050s and 12 percent by the 2080s. The changes will affect all aspects of life in the Capital Region, from health to food supplies. A longer summer tourism season could be a bonus, but might be offset by a decline in winter tourism, and long periods of hot, dry weather could put pressure on lakes, beaches and coastal waters used for recreation, according to the report. “With the potential of increased nutrients deposited in freshwater lakes, we can expect to see more algal blooms become a challenge for ecosystems and recreational water users,” it says. “When hot, dry summers are combined with extreme storms in the wet season, we can expect shoreline access, water quality, wildlife habitat and recreational infrastructure to require ongoing maintenance.” Although there will be a longer season for growing food, migrating pests and water availability are likely to become problems for farmers and “in some cases, land including agricultural areas, could suffer from saltwater intrusion from rising sea levels, or need to be restored as wetlands to manage storm water across the region.” The aim of the report is to allow local politicians, organizations and the public to plan and adapt to the coming changes, said the authors. Lead author Gillian Aubie Vines tells Focus, “I think it’s really time for greater awareness of what we are projecting. It’s a great opportunity for public policy-makers, scientists and engineers.” The report will help map out changes in engineering designs and urban planning, says Aubie Vines, who has helped prepare similar reports for the Cowichan Valley and Metro Vancouver. “It gets our minds around what we can do—like cooling stations and insulating buildings so they are efficient.” The wider implications include agricultural plans that can deal with heat, pests and flash floods, and the possibility of an increasing number of people moving to Vancouver Island because of its comparatively mild climate. “As California becomes hotter, Vancouver Island is going to look nicer and nicer,” predicts Aubie Vines, and she believes both mitigation and adaptation are required. “We need to stop emitting and we need to adapt to what is happening.” Many political leaders at the CRD understand the urgency, but surprisingly, climate change deniers—or those who believe it is a problem best ignored—still have a voice, and that is why the report, setting out scenarios in plain language, is so important, according to Aubie Vines. “After a process like this, after people are forced to think about it more deeply, it’s impossible to deny,” she said. AS BC’s CLIMATE HEATS UP and becomes more unpredictable, the province’s forests can help mitigate problems. Climate researchers with the Forest Carbon Management Project have concluded that relatively minor changes to forest management could meet more than one-third of the province’s 2050 carbon-emissions reduction target. Better forest management, removing slash from the forest and using it for bioenergy—rather than burning it on site—is one measure that will assist in carbon dioxide management. The research also shows that promoting the use of wood products, instead of concrete and steel, and converting a small percentage of fibre destined for pulp and paper into longer-lasting wood panels are other measures needed to increase the role of forests in carbon dioxide management. The multi-year project, led by the Pacific Institute for Climate Solutions and based at the University of Victoria, includes scientists from Natural Resources Canada and UBC. Small changes to forest management, including reducing the harvest by two percent between now and 2050, could have a major impact, delivering 18.2 megatonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent, project leader Werner Kurz explained at a recent public presentation in Vancouver. “By 2050, 35 percent of BC’s emission reduction target can be contributed by the forest sector at less than $100 a tonne of carbon dioxide equivalent.” Although $100 a tonne may sound expensive, other methods, such as carbon capture and storage, come in at between $200 and $300 a tonne, explains Kurz, a senior research scientist with Natural Resources Canada. The measures, he says, would also provide socio-economic benefits by creating 2000 new full-time jobs, as more intensive forest management would be required. He points out that the changes would also mean healthier forests, and emphasizes that the project needs investment now so that the science can inform policy decisions. BC has a legislated greenhouse gas emission reduction target of 80 percent below 2007 levels by 2050. To meet those targets, Kurz says, it is necessary to not only reduce the burning of fossil fuels, but to find ways to remove more carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. While 44 percent of greenhouse gas emissions remain in the atmosphere, the remainder is taken up by forests and oceans, Kurz told his audience in Vancouver. “That leads to ocean acidification, so it is not desirable, and there is also a question of how long forests will continue to be carbon sinks,” he said. The province’s 55 million hectares of forest lands are already being affected by climate change, according to UBC researchers working on the project. Wetter areas are benefitting from warmer conditions and increased carbon dioxide levels, while drier areas are struggling with slower growth and increased tree mortality. The provincial government (under the Liberals) announced in February that it would spend $150 million to rehabilitate forests damaged by fire and disease and to increase BC’s carbon sink. The new NDP provincial government has pledged to renew BC’s forests by (among other things) expanding investments in reforestation. It has also created a ministry of the environment and climate change strategy with George Heyman as minister. A THIRD STUDY, also involving trees and the weather, provides evidence that streets without trees are uncomfortably windy, and that buildings around which trees have been removed use more energy. The paper from UBC scholars was published in July in Advances in Water Resources. It found that losing even one tree increases wind pressure and drives up heating costs in nearby buildings. Lead author Marco Giometto, a postdoctoral fellow in civil engineering, says that a single tree can help keep pedestrians comfortable. “We found that removing all trees can increase wind speed by a factor of two, which would make a noticeable difference to someone walking down the street,” he said in a news release. “For example, a 15-km-per-hour wind speed is pleasant, whereas walking in 30-km-per-hour wind is more challenging.” Researchers, who used laser technology to create a model of a typical Vancouver neighbourhood, found that removing all trees around buildings drove up energy consumption by 10 percent in winter and 15 percent in summer. Even winter trees, with bare branches, can moderate airflow and wind pressure, which makes for a more comfortable environment, the study found. The information could be used to improve weather forecasts and predict the effect of storms on buildings, or on pedestrians walking along certain sidewalks, says co-author and UBC geography professor Andreas Christen. “It could also help city planners in designing buildings, streets and city blocks to maximize people’s comfort and limit wind speed to reduce energy loss.” Judith Lavoie is an award-winning journalist specializing in the environment, First Nations, and social issues. Twitter @LavoieJudith.
  14. 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.
  15. Low supply, increasing demand, higher rents, and “renovictions”—is any relief in sight? DOREEN BEGORAY, 61, knows how quickly life can unravel when financial circumstances suddenly change. After 11 years as a sessional professor teaching sociology at the University of Victoria, Begoray got laid off. Unable to find another job, she opted to sell the house she owned to extract the equity from it. She planned to sustain herself by using that money to pay her way in the rental market. As the house proceeds got spent and rents increased, she could no longer find affordable accommodation that would allow her to keep her two dogs. “The dogs are the issue for me…so I moved into my car,” explains Begoray, who was by then living on a $320 monthly pension and $350 disability payment. “I just couldn’t find a place. It was ridiculous,” says Begoray, who spent more than eight months, from May to December, living in her Jeep Liberty, which she parked at night on Dallas Road by the off-leash dog park. “It’s actually quite cozy in my car, but I really missed bathrooms.” She showered at the Y and, during the day, would hang out at coffee shops where she could sit on the patio with her dogs. During that seven-month period, Begoray was not approached by police, despite sleeping directly under a sign prohibiting overnight camping. City of Victoria council is now looking at the possibility of taking down such signs and officially sanctioning the practice of sleeping in vehicles overnight. Victoria Mayor Lisa Helps This stop-gap measure to accommodate people facing the harshest realities of our near-zero vacancy rate is not, according to Mayor Lisa Helps, any sort of sustainable solution. “Sleeping in vehicles is not housing. I don’t want anyone sleeping in their vehicles…but, if they are sleeping in their vehicles, I think we should let them sleep,” Helps says. Although Begoray was on the lengthy BC Housing waiting list, only two subsidized buildings in Greater Victoria allow tenants to have two pets. Seeing her situation as increasingly hopeless, Begoray approached the staff at MLA Rob Fleming’s community office. With assistance from the office staff and a subsidy from Pacifica Housing, she found a studio apartment in Cook Street Village, but worries about others in similarly dire straits. “There was one person sleeping in the woods off Dallas Road who had mental health problems. It’s just barbaric that our society does not provide for people who need it,” Begoray laments. “Rental accommodation is just beyond expensive. The City and the Province and the country keep saying we are going to put all this money into housing, well let’s see some affordable housing…I want people to recognize this is a societal issue.” MLA Fleming also worries about the many others who are finding themselves in situations like these, and recently saw a garage listed as a two-bedroom apartment. The potential backlog of renovictions, he says, which would remove hundreds of units of housing stock, also looms darkly on the horizon. There’s no adequate safety net in place for those who would be displaced. “When we try to find housing in the affordable, non-profit portfolios, there’s a 2500-person waiting list,” he says. The supply-and-demand disparity also puts renters at the mercy of unscrupulous property owners. Stories abound of landlords being surreptitiously offered, and accepting, an instant lump payment to boost an applicant to the top of the list. Student Stephanie Cameron-Johnson, 23, describes how the owner of a house she rented tried to wring thousands of dollars from her and her roommates. After putting the house up for sale, her landlord insisted that, if they wanted to stay on as tenants, he would pocket both their $800 damage deposit and $800 pet deposit. He also asked them to pay for new floors and other renovations, and demanded additional compensation for utilities. “He wanted more than $7000 from us,” Cameron-Johnson says. While she’s grateful that a mediator appointed by the Residential Tenancy Branch advocated for them, the dispute left a bad taste and meant a long, unfruitful search for a new rental. She eventually gave up, and moved back in with family. THERE ARE THOUSANDS MORE CASUALTIES of the current affordability crisis, with some more visible than others. Greater Victoria “officially” has almost 1400 homeless, according to last year’s Point in Time Count. That number includes 175-plus “chronically homeless” individuals, another 353 in shelters on the night of the count, and 842 “provisionally accommodated,” meaning couch-surfing, in motels, or in other temporary housing. These numbers are always in flux, says Don Elliott, executive director of Greater Victoria Coalition to End Homelessness. As well, these numbers are only the most-obvious tip of a much more substantial iceberg, one that is amplifying in a self-perpetuating cycle of high rents, desperate demand, and meagre supply. “There’s a huge group of people who are employed and are not able to access affordable housing,” Elliott says; not surprising when the vacancy rate remains stuck at a stubborn 0.5 percent, and average rents in Greater Victoria keep rising (5.5 percent in 2016 alone). Social service providers on the front lines see exactly who is ending up in shelter beds—and why. They report an alarming and steady increase of people who have become unexpectedly homeless because they can no longer afford to pay their rent, have been renovicted (when a property owner legally terminates a lease to improve a rental unit, then re-rents it at a much higher rate or sells it), or just cannot manage to locate adequate housing in such a competitive market, where landlords often receive 30 or more applications for each available apartment. Don McTavish, director of residential services for the Cool Aid Society, concurs with Elliott, saying that between 15 and 20 percent of those using Victoria’s shelters are indeed employed. In an effort to keep them out of shelters and in their homes, Cool Aid administers a one-time subsidy program for people who are more or less making ends meet, but are about to lose their rental because of a missed utility or rent payment. The program is well-used, McTavish says, indicating the growing number of households teetering on the edge of homelessness. “Most of the time [those receiving this subsidy] are people we have not seen in the shelters before.” During the homeless count, 721 individuals agreed to be interviewed. While 20 percent said they were homeless because of addiction or substance abuse, 18.9 per cent gave job loss as the primary reason and 13.6 percent had been evicted because they were unable to pay the rent. When asked about the main barrier to finding a place to live, 60 percent said their income was too low and 56 percent that rents were too high. Statistics make it clear that many renters are stretched to the limit. The Canadian Rental Housing Index reports that 24 percent of all renters in the CRD spend more than half their gross, pre-tax income on shelter. The Community Social Planning Council has calculated that the Living Wage for Victoria is $20.02 an hour, yet BC’s minimum wage is only $10.85 an hour. The situation is worse, of course, for those on income assistance, where rates have remained frozen since 2007. A single person on basic income assistance receives $610 per month and a single parent with one child receives $946 a month. Average rents in the CRD are now at $785 for a batchelor suite and $912 for a one-bedroom. (CMHC) “So, there are two very significant economic drivers and that is what we are trying to focus on,” says Elliott, whose research shows that a minimum of 250 to 500 units of supportive housing and 1500 units of affordable housing are needed in Greater Victoria. A new report by Housing Central and the BC Rental Housing Coalition, which includes groups such as the BC Non-Profit Housing Association, LandLord BC and the BC Seniors Living Association, analyzes what it will take to get everyone adequately housed. It calculates that it will take $1.8 billion annually over the next decade to solve the province’s affordable housing crisis. In its 10-year road map, the group recommends the cost be shared among the federal and provincial governments and the non-profit sector (non-profit investment could come from leveraging land assets and using community land trusts to attract government and private-sector investment to construct rental housing). (See www.housingcentral.ca.) Their research indicates almost 70 percent of renters in the province are spending more than they can afford on housing. In the Capital Regional District, that translates into 3024 households with average incomes less than $22,378 in core housing need, and 12,164 in need of income support. In addition, the report notes, more than 3000 households with average incomes of $55,511 are living in inadequate housing because they cannot find suitable, affordable accommodation. Almost $177 million is needed annually to upgrade the rental housing supply in the Capital Region. The organization stresses that its estimates are “conservative.” ALTHOUGH THE FIGURES APPEAR DAUNTING, Mayor Lisa Helps believes the region is making progress. The missing piece of the complicated puzzle, she feels, is federal funding. “In 1989 the federal government spent $114 per Canadian on affordable housing and in 2014 the federal government spent $15 per Canadian on affordable housing. At the same time, the population of Canada grew by 30 percent, so that is the root of the problem,” she says. She notes that the new federal Liberal government has made significant commitments to housing, but says it’s a challenge to make up for the 30-year gap in federal funding. While there is abundant construction around the region—including new, market-price rental units being built for the first time in decades—it isn’t enough even for the newcomers arriving. Helps notes that between 2011 and 2016 a total of 5775 new residents moved to Victoria, but only 2802 new housing units were built. (Victoria averages 1.8 people per household, so the math shows a shortfall of over 700 units.) And the new units have not reduced rental rates on older units. “There is so much demand, landlords are charging almost the same for old stock as for new stock,” explains Elliott of the Coalition to End Homelessness. “So, yes, we are seeing a lot more construction, but no, it’s unlikely that homeless or low-income individuals will be able to take advantage of that increase in supply.” A 1970s one-bedroom rents for as high as $1100 or $1200 a month, he says, “and that is about a five-percent increase compared to last year.” Helps believes that all the construction, along with other steps being taken by the City, Region and Province will lead to some relief in the next couple of years. The BC government, for instance, in the wake of Victoria’s tent city, spent more than $25 million to buy and renovate properties, creating about 190 spaces. It also announced another $45 million for housing projects that will provide 510 units for those with low to moderate incomes. At the regional level, Helps points to the CRD’s Regional Housing First Program, with $30 million coming from taxpayers and $30 million from the Province. That program will see 880 new rental units built over the next five years with rents ranging from $375 a month to 85 percent of the market rate. She says the first two buildings have already been approved for funding, and will include 50 units to be rented at $375 a month. Helps also points to moves by the City: Council just voted to allow garden suites in single-family zones; applications for rental buildings are being fast-tracked; and developers are being encouraged to include affordable units when going to council with a project. “We are on the right track,” she says, adding, “We have got all the things we need in place except federal funding for housing, so hopefully that will flow.” Meanwhile, those working in the housing field are delighted to see the issue topping party priority lists during the provincial election campaign, and are keeping their fingers crossed that promises will translate into concrete action after the election. The Liberals are promising to build 5000 more units of affordable housing over three years, with $855 million for social housing; expand the existing home renovation tax credit to help homeowners add rental suites; and close loopholes landlords use to evade rent controls. The NDP is promising to use partnerships to build 114,000 rental, social, student residence and co-op homes over the next decade, and pledging to bring in a $400-a-year tax rebate for renters together with additional protections from landlords who use renovations as an excuse to sidestep rent increase rules. The BC Greens are promising $750 million a year to support construction of about 4000 new units of affordable housing annually, an investment of $100 million a year for retrofits of older units and more protection for renters through the Residential Tenancy Act. Kathy Stinson, Victoria Cool Aid Society CEO, is encouraged to see not-for-profit groups and different levels of government working together. “Even some of the private developers have committed to putting in five percent of the units as affordable housing,” she says. “I am more optimistic than I have been for some time.” But the question for those looking for somewhere to live, without handing over more than half their paycheque every month, is whether the various initiatives will be translated into bricks and mortar in time to prevent their slide into homelessness. This article has been updated. In the original version, we quoted Mayor Helps as stating that the federal government spent $15 per Canadian on affordable housing in 2014. Helps says the correct number is $58 per Canadian. Judith Lavoie is an award-winning journalist specializing in the environment, First Nations, and social issues. Twitter @LavoieJudith.
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