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  1. May 12, 2020 Photo: Homeless advocate Chrissy Brett Is COVID-19 the catalyst for bold changes around homelessness? Go to story
  2. May 12, 2020 Or will pandemic-induced debt just make it worse? AS OUTREACH WORKERS tick names off lists of campers at Topaz Park and Pandora Avenue, trying to bring order to the hurried plan to move homeless people into hotels, others are drifting in to the area, hoping to be included in the relocation. Although Topaz and Pandora, with about 360 people, are the outward face of homelessness in Victoria, tents can be found scattered around Beacon Hill Park, along side-streets, and outside Rock Bay Landing shelter. The shifting numbers are among the complications faced by the Coalition to End Homelessness and its partners as they conduct assessments before moving people into hotels, where they can practice physical distancing and self-isolation, in an effort to stop COVID-19 from gaining a toehold in the homeless population. A spokeswoman for the Ministry of Municipal Affairs and Housing said in an emailed statement that efforts are being made to reach as many people as possible. “We’re working across government and with all partners to implement extraordinary measures to protect everyone in BC from the risks of two public health emergencies—the fentanyl poisoning crisis and the COVID-19 pandemic. We’re working on an accelerated timeline to keep people safe and connected to the care they need through these crises and beyond,” she said. It is uncertain how many people in Greater Victoria are in need of homes. Some are newly homeless and others, who were previously living under the radar, are finding it difficult to make a living from binning, bottle collecting, the sex trade or panhandling in today’s era of closed shops and restaurants. “The numbers are crushing,” said Reverend Al Tysick of the Dandelion Society, one of the partners in the relocation effort. “It is going to be difficult for the Coalition to End Homelessness to house everyone. They’re going to do their best, but to do it in this short time is extremely difficult,” he said. Reverend Al Tysick of the Dandelion Society The last homeless count found 1,500 people in Victoria without stable housing, but, over the last year, Tysick has seen a spike. “Rents have gone up, people have been kicked out and they haven’t been able to find a place. [Rents are] well over what we’re paying on welfare and disability,” he noted. Numbers then bumped up again this spring after shelters were forced to reduce capacity when they could not maintain the prescribed pandemic distancing. The Province, under the Emergency Program Act, has leased 324 rooms in five hotels in Victoria and set up a 45-bed emergency response centre at Save-On-Foods Memorial Centre. On May 10 the ministry website showed 106 people from Topaz and Pandora had moved to new accommodation. However, it has been difficult finding experienced staff to provide wrap-around supports and sufficient spaces in Victoria. Shane Simpson, Minister of Social Development and Poverty Reduction has extended the deadline for moving people from Topaz and Pandora from May 9 to May 20. “While we have been working with the hotel sector and service delivery partners towards the May 9 target in Victoria, it is now clear that more time is needed to ensure each person leaving Topaz Park and Pandora Avenue is moved into the accommodation that best meets their needs,” Simpson said in a news release. “No one will be asked to leave these encampments without being offered a suitable temporary housing option,” he said. Simpson also acknowledged that there are people outside Topaz and Pandora who need housing help. “We are not ignoring them. This discussion will continue,” he said, In total there are more than 2,750 spaces across the Province for people without homes, according to BC Housing. Apart from the immediate problems of finding space for the fluctuating number of homeless people, the major question is how they will all be housed once the pandemic is over. The Province and City of Victoria have pledged that, after the three-month contract with hotel owners is up, no one will be forced back into homelessness. There is speculation that the Province could buy some of the hotels, which were almost empty after tourism ground to a halt. Advocates are also pushing for construction of modular housing, spread through southern Vancouver Island communities, while the provincial emphasis is on the goal of building 4,900 new supportive homes in BC over the next decade. “That work will happen in the weeks and months ahead, but the priority now is on the immediate health and safety of people experiencing homelessness in these public health emergencies,” said an emailed statement from a Ministry of Municipal Affairs and Housing spokeswoman. In Oppenheimer Park in Vancouver, where 261 people had moved by May 10, activist Chrissy Brett, a veteran of Victoria’s 2015/2016 courthouse lawn camp, was fielding numerous questions about potential housing from camp residents. Like other advocates, she believes that, provided adequate supports are in place, the plan to move people into hotels or community centres will help. But she worries about those left out or those dealing with past trauma and addictions who are unable to adjust to life in a hotel where there are rules to be followed. Activist Chrissy Brett A possible model would be a type of refugee-style camp run by organizations such as the Red Cross, Brett suggested. “It’s not that I’m advocating that tent cities are where it is at, but, if you look at San Diego or San Francisco or Seattle, they are now creating these sort of camps,” she said. “They are made to live in with showers and bathrooms and everything people need to live properly. Why are we not looking at those as short-term measures?” Brett would also like to see housing for Indigenous people, seniors and those not battling addictions made available at sites such as Woodwynn Farm, the Central Saanich property bought by the Province in 2018 for use as a therapeutic recovery/training centre (it does not offer housing on site). Tysick would love to believe that, after decades of neglect, the homelessness problem is about to be solved. But realism kicks in. “I am waiting to see this magic wand,” said Tysick, pointing out that, for decades, the problem has been ignored or, at best, chipped at around the edges. “Let’s be really clear the only reason this is being done is COVID-19. Period. End of story,” he said. But, when this crisis is over, will attitudes and political will have changed? Tim Richter, president and founder of the Canadian Alliance to End Homelessness, said modern-day homelessness was created by federal government policies in the late 1980s and 1990s. “It wasn’t on purpose obviously, but it’s a product of the policy choices that were made when the federal government withdrew from affordable housing investments almost completely and cut social transfers (to the Provinces) that funded welfare and health care,” Richter said. Tim Richter, president and founder of the Canadian Alliance to End Homelessness Now, organizations working to fix the problem need the support of the provincial and federal governments and a more ambitious, more aggressive investment in housing than Canada has seen in recent decades, he said. Change will come if the public demands it, Richter believes. “We are in a really unique window of time right now where the public is feeling what many people experiencing homelessness feel. They feel isolated and they understand that housing is healthcare, so they are much more empathetic to the plight of people experiencing homelessness,” he said. “In a crisis like this, things that, on a policy basis, may have seemed a little crazy a month ago, aren’t crazy any more. I think big, bold changes in social policy are possible,” he said. This is the time for people to speak out, Richter said. “Canadians need to say we are not prepared to accept homelessness of any of our neighbours as inevitable and we’re not prepared that people should be at this sort of risk from a pandemic for no other reason than they don’t have a place to live,” he said. However, there is a possible flip side to government attitudes post-pandemic, said Tysick, who wonders what will happen when bills for the Canada-wide pandemic financial aid start to roll in. “Look at the amount of money the government is putting out for COVID across the country, not only for homelessness, but for unemployment and business and other initiatives,” Tysick said. “I am proud of our governments for doing it, but, once it’s over, will they say ‘yes, let’s build two or three buildings for 400 people.’ I don’t think so. I think we are going to be hearing about the debt and how difficult it’s going to be to pay off that debt for the next 10 years,” he said. Judith Lavoie is an award-winning journalist specializing in the environment, First Nations, and social issues. Twitter @LavoieJudith
  3. July 2018 Indigenous communities in the path of the oil sands and its pipelines have been left with no good options. IN NORTHERN ALBERTA AND BC, anger at environmental damage and fears that traditional cultures are disappearing are competing with economic pragmatism as Indigenous leaders struggle to decide where the future lies. Is it more beneficial to fight, or take a place at the negotiating table in hopes of mitigating damage? It’s a complicated and sometimes soul-crushing balancing act. First Nations have little faith that their objections will have any effect on development decisions, given the history of approvals. In Alberta, out of more than 170 oil sands projects, almost none have been turned down, despite First Nations investing years of research and spending millions of dollars on court cases. “There has been 50 years of mining and there is still no protection of our rights. Governments don’t seem to care,” said Lisa Tssessaze, Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation lands and resource management director. Around Fort Chipewyan, a hamlet on the banks of Lake Athabasca, the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation and Mikisew Cree are preparing to fight the massive Teck Frontier project. The Teck Frontier mine is a $20-billion development, which the company says would provide 7,000 construction jobs and 2,500 permanent jobs. Buffalo in northern Alberta (Photo by Louis Bockner) It would sit 110 kilometres north of Fort McMurray and 30 kilometres south of Wood Buffalo National Park, a World Heritage Site which a UNESCO report says is already under threat from rampant oil sands development and other pressures. If approved after joint federal-provincial review panel hearings this fall, Teck Frontier would rip up 292 square kilometres, with much of the development on land where the buffalo roam. Not just any buffalo, emphasized elder Roy Ladouceur, who, for more than half a century, has lived off the land at the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation’s Poplar Point reserve, which is 16 kilometres from the Teck site. The area, explained Ladouceur, includes calving grounds for the Ronald Lake Bison Herd, the only disease-free, genetically-pure wood bison herd in the area. The herd is already in trouble because of proximity to the oil sands and poaching. He believes that, if Teck goes ahead, it will be the end of the Ronald Lake Bison Herd. Roy Ladouceur (Photo by Louis Bockner) “They say they can find ways and means of preserving the habitat and I just can’t see it happening, no way, no how,” said Ladouceur. Ideas of relocating the buffalo and caribou make no sense and are likely to result in the animals contracting diseases, he said. “You can’t do that to any animal. You are breaking Nature’s law and Nature has its own way. It’s not their home,” Ladouceur said. Freddie Marcel, another Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation elder, concurs with this judgement. He talks with sad resignation about the future of the land where generations of his family have hunted, trapped and fished. “That Teck Frontier development is going to happen regardless of what we say and whether we fight. The buffalo are there and the caribou are there, but that’s right where the mine is going to be,” shrugged Marcel. THE AREA HAS BEEN EXPERIENCING the environmental impacts of industrial development for decades now. Around Wood Buffalo National Park and the Peace-Athabasca Delta, pollution and dropping water levels are evident and problematic. Much of the pollution is traceable to oil sands development. The dropping water levels are largely attributable to dams on the Peace River, climate change, and industry withdrawing water from the Athabasca River. Together they have changed centuries-old lifestyles that relied on the land and water for food, medicines, clothing and shelter. Simultaneous with the environmental damage, however, has come a steady flow of oil money into communities, which is altering attitudes and forcing First Nations communities to examine priorities. Indigenous communities in both provinces are increasingly looking at benefit agreements with companies in hopes of having their voices heard and bringing injections of cash and jobs to their bands. Fort Chipewyan Metis Local 125, for instance, has already signed a participatory agreement with Teck Frontier in return for economic benefits and opportunities to negotiate traditional land use and environmental stewardship. Teck Frontier spokesman Chris Stannell said the company has signed similar agreements with 11 Indigenous groups. “These agreements identify economic and social benefits and opportunities—such as employment, contracting and training—and include environmental stewardship planning,” Stannell said in an emailed response to questions. Even Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation, though offically opposed, is involved in talks with the company on topics such as buffer zones and protection for wildlife. Matt Hulse, the Nation’s regulatory affairs coordinator, admits the question of how to deal with projects such as Teck Frontier is complicated. He said, “There’s a lot of grey. Everyone realizes the jobs are down there [in the oil sands] and that’s where the money comes from. People don’t want the [Teck Frontier] mine to go ahead, but, because we have so little confidence in the regulatory process, Indigenous communities are forced to find ways to benefit from the project to offset the impacts. There isn’t any good option.” THAT AMBIVALENCE IS UNDERLINED by a surprise announcement last month that Athabasca Tribal Council—made up of five First Nations, including Athabasca Chipewyan and Mikisew Cree—is considering buying a stake in the Trans Mountain pipeline in an effort to obtain Indigenous control and ensure the environment is safeguarded. The controversial pipeline, opposed by many British Columbians, was purchased by the federal government from Kinder Morgan for $4.5 billion to ensure a planned expansion goes ahead. The Athabasca Tribal Council move caught pipeline critics and some community members off guard, particularly as Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation Chief Allan Adam, who is also president of the Tribal Council, has been known for campaigning against the pace of oil sands development alongside such celebrities as Jane Fonda, Leonardo DiCaprio and Neil Young. Athabasca Chipewyan elder Alice Rigney, who has lived off the land all her life, blames the oil industry for destroying the delta and the lifestyle that has sustained her family for generations, and she wants no part of a pipeline. “I could not believe that my community wants to be part of this pipeline. They have forced us into a corner where we have nowhere else to turn,” Rigney said sadly. “Just think 100 years from now what this planet will look like. They are destroying the land.” Ironically, the Trans Mountain pipeline is likely to transport oil from the Teck Frontier development, although Stannell said that, if the project is approved, the first oil is not expected to flow until 2026, so shipping plans have not yet been determined. So why would First Nations, who are continuing to fight oil sands projects, want to buy a piece of pipeline? Winds of change are blowing through First Nations communities, said Mikisew Cree Chief Archie Waquan. In Fort Chipewyan, where many young people take fly-in-fly-out shifts in the oil sands, a new affluence is taking hold and traditional activities, such as a moose-hide tanning workshop, are failing to appeal to the new generation. Waquan, who describes himself as a former tree-hugger, believes he must lead efforts to modernize the economy for the sake of the younger generation. “Do we remain the same and be anti or get on the boat and deal with industry and be able to be part of what is happening there? I look at what is happening south of us in the tarpits and the oil sands and, if we don’t partake in it, we will be left behind and I will be to blame,” he said. Chief Archie Waquan (Photo by Louis Bockner) If the pipeline purchase plan goes ahead, it will be the second foray into the industry for Mikisew Cree, who, last year, together with Fort McKay First Nation, bought a 49 percent interest in a Suncor Energy storage facility. A pipeline share is a logical next step, said Waquan, acknowledging that there are continuing concerns, but insisting that participation will help mitigate problems. “I have to look to the future, beyond my time on Earth. Times have changed and we have to realize that. We need to go to a modern lifestyle—which I think my First Nation wants—and that means we have to deal with industry. We have to keep them in check,” he said. Waquan believes that, despite the scars left by oil and gas extraction, the land is resilient enough to recover. “You can’t reverse it now, but in time, when all the development is gone from this territory, our land will always come back to where it used to be,” he said. Others see it differently and say Indigenous communities are being coerced into deals. Eriel Deranger, Indigenous Climate Action executive director, believes that economic benefit agreements, with companies promising to transfer millions of dollars to communities, amount to bribes. “I have watched government and industry work very diligently to wear down the leadership—the way we are allowing this to happen is absurd,” she said. “Our communities are not making decisions freely, free of intimidation and free of coercion and free of bribery. Let’s be real, these impact benefit agreements are bribes,” she said. Projects are approved despite admissions of irreversible and adverse impacts on the people and the land, and that can destroy the spirit of the people, Deranger said. “They are saying, in order for you to survive in the economic system we have imposed on you, you have to join us. There’s no choice any more. The rights of industry and corporations have taken precedence over Indigenous rights,” she said. Judith Sayers, Nuu-chah-nulth Tribal Council president, said the same story plays out in BC, and companies regularly try to coerce First Nations into signing agreements by telling them that they will get nothing if they don’t sign on. “So you sign on to make sure you get money and jobs and benefits for your community,” she said. But communities should realize that they do not have to sign agreements, especially given the adoption of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) by the federal and BC governments, and recent emphasis on the need for free, prior and informed consent, Sayers said. “Losing your right to fish and hunt as opposed to having a job is no contest. There are other ways of making money and having meaningful economic development without selling your soul,” she said. When Kinder Morgan owned the pipeline, the company signed 43 mutual benefit agreements with Indigenous groups in BC and Alberta, but some chiefs have since said that they do not support the pipeline expansion project and felt signing the agreement was the only way to either get benefits or ensure there was funding to clean up spills. “It’s not really support. If we opposed it, we would have no way of addressing spills because we would be disqualified from funding from Trans Mountain,” Ditidaht Chief Robert Joseph told the Times Colonist in 2016. Chief Bob Chamberlin, Union of BC Indian Chiefs vice-president, said the history of Canada is that government makes the final decision over lands Indigenous people have never given up. That, he said, has resulted in a sense of resignation that, whatever you do, someone else is going to make the decision. “As much as we object, as much as we point at case law and the constitution, Canada’s long history of disregarding all that is still alive and well,” Chamberlin said. “We are waiting for free, prior and informed consent to become real, but, until it’s real, First Nations are still faced with ‘the government’s going to do what it’s going to do. We might as well get what we can.’” Now, with the underpinning of UNDRIP, it is up to Indigenous communities to shed those feelings of resignation, and for other Canadians to educate themselves on those rights, Chamberlin said. “We are talking about human rights and that’s a big evolution for Canadians to understand,” he said. Judith Lavoie spent eight days in June in the communities of Fort Smith and Fort Chipewyan reporting for The Narwhal on how Alberta oil sands projects and the Site C dam are affecting the Peace-Athabasca Delta and Wood Buffalo National Park. An overflight of the delta was funded by Sierra Club BC.
  4. July 2017 The project faces stiff opposition from a new government and legal challenges by First Nations and others. KINDER MORGAN CANADA’S President Ian Anderson seems confident his company will soon break ground on the Trans Mountain pipeline running from Alberta’s oil sands to a coastal terminal in Burnaby. The federal government approved the pipeline following a National Energy Board recommendation. And Alberta Premier Rachel Notley is acting as if the pipeline’s a done deal and dismissing BC’s right to control its coasts. But is it a done deal? Many BC citizens are adamantly opposed, with First Nations leading the resistance. And on May 9 the ground shifted beneath the $7.4-billion project when the BC Liberals lost their majority in the provincial election. In one of their first post-election statements, leaders of the NDP/Green partnership announced they would “immediately employ every tool available to the new government to stop the expansion.” It was a far cry from former Premier Christy Clark’s agreement that, subject to conditions and a 20-year revenue-sharing deal, worth up to $1-billion, construction of the 1150-kilometre pipeline could go ahead. But even under a Clark government, there were growing doubts about the viability of the plan to triple the capacity of the pipeline to 890,000 barrels of diluted bitumen a day, with the number of tankers in the Salish Sea increasing seven-fold to about 400 a year. Now, with a new provincial government, an aroused public, and perhaps most important, strong First Nations opposition, the battle lines are being drawn. AT LAST COUNT there were 19 legal challenges to Kinder Morgan’s Trans Mountain pipeline expansion project wending their way through the courts. These court cases will test the power of First Nations to demand meaningful consultation, along with the extent of Federal powers. They will also assess claims by First Nations and others that Canada’s environmental assessment process is fatally flawed. “It’s not going to happen,” said BC Green Party leader Andrew Weaver. He suggests pipeline supporters such as Alberta Premier Rachel Notley and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau look at Section 35 of the Canadian Constitution which protects aboriginal and treaty rights, including those of “meaningful consultation,” and is increasingly used as a legal tool by First Nations arguing that they have not been adequately consulted. As an example of consultation-gone-wrong, Weaver pointed to the case filed by the Coldwater Indian Band, whose territories are in BC’s southern Interior region, challenging the National Energy Board’s approval of the pipeline. “It’s an incredibly compelling case. The proposed pipeline sits right at the top of the aquifer which is their only supply of water and it is not as if there was not an alternate route. It was discussed and deemed to be more expensive,” Weaver said. Prime Minister Trudeau also has to figure out how pushing through the pipeline over First Nations objections could possibly square with his commitment to the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. That declaration requires consent for such developments, Weaver noted. Previous governments resisted signing the declaration because of fears it would effectively give First Nations veto power over major projects. But Eugene Kung of West Coast Environmental Law legal counsel said there is a difference between consent and veto and, with the shift in aboriginal law in Canada, the distinction needs to be publicly clarified. “Think about another place where we use that term ‘consent’—in the context of sexual assault and harassment,” he said. “No one would ever say in that context that, by a victim denying consent, that it would be vetoing the perpetrator’s decision, because the perpetrator doesn’t have rights over the victim’s body. You need mutual consent for advancement.” Sixteen judicial review cases, which include challenges by seven First Nations, the City of Vancouver, City of Burnaby, Raincoast Conservation Society, Living Oceans Society, and Democracy Watch, have been consolidated and will be heard by the Federal Court of Appeal, likely this fall. If there are appeals, the issue could be heading for the Supreme Court. Another challenge has come from two Washington State tribes over the effect that vastly-increased tanker traffic will have on endangered southern resident killer whales. Even though the judicial review cases have been consolidated, each First Nation challenge is based on unique facts, according to Kung. “Each First Nation has an independent right to be consulted and accommodated in projects that affect their territories…Success on any one of the First Nations legal challenges could delay or stop the project,” he said. Enough delays, and Kinder Morgan could find it all too expensive to proceed. Kinder Morgan says it has agreements, amounting in total to over $300 million, with 40 First Nations, though it will not identify them. It’s presumed many of these are at the Alberta end of the pipeline. At the crucial and densely-populated Lower Mainland part of the pipeline, opposition is strong. Most of the First Nations there are involved in the court cases (e.g Tsleil-Waututh, Musqueam, Squamish, Sto:Lo, Kwantlen). On Vancouver Island, some First Nations, like the Ditidaht, Pacheedaht, and Pauquachin, have signed agreements with Kinder Morgan in order to be eligible for spill response funding. In all, though, at least 13 First Nations in BC are formally opposing the project. The legal climate around aboriginal rights and title has undergone profound changes since the 2014 Tsilhqot’in decision that, for the first time, recognized aboriginal title. Combined with other recent court decisions that have favoured First Nations, including the scuttling of Enbridge’s Northern Gateway pipeline, the game has changed. In the Enbridge case, the Federal Court of Appeal overturned the Harper government’s approval of the project, after finding the Canadian government failed to properly consult the First Nations affected by the pipeline. As Kung noted, “I think the provincial and federal governments have been slow to respond meaningfully to the direction the Supreme Court of Canada and the courts have set, and the companies have really underestimated the importance of these cases.” While the Province of BC under Christy Clark formally approved the Trans Mountain expansion, it is contingent on 37 conditions being met, in addition to 157 from the federal approval. Any of these may provide First Nations and the Province with more ammunition in their resistance to the Trans Mountain project. John Horgan, NDP leader and premier-designate of BC, has indicated he’s prepared to go to court over the pipeline expansion project, and will likely join one of the legal challenges. The Alberta government has already been granted intervener status in the judicial review—advanced by municipalities, First Nations and environmental groups—challenging the National Energy Board’s recommendation as well as the federal Order in Council approving expansion. Reflecting a growing confidence in the power to win in the courts, Grand Chief Stewart Phillip, Union of BC Indian Chiefs president, sent a strong message to Premier Notley, who, in a much-quoted statement had said: “Mark my words, that pipeline will be built, the decisions have been made.” Phillip immediately responded: “Mark my words, Kinder Morgan’s Trans Mountain expansion project will never see the light of day.” He continued: “We do not accept the unscrupulous liability of dirty oil coming through any pipeline system to benefit some Texans or multinational interests at the expense of our inherent responsibilities to our grandchildren’s grandchildren.” CHIEF PHILLIP, however, is not relying solely on the courts. He believes it may well be financial pressures that finally put visions of a pipeline expansion to rest. Noting that the price differential between selling to Asia and selling to the US has shrunk, he said, “When this project was first being developed a number of years ago, oil was $100 a barrel and we all know oil is never going to go back to those prices again…A lot of underlying assumptions have been debunked.” Phillip continued, stating that investors must be concerned about the court cases, especially in light of the Rio Tinto ruling last year that gave aboriginal communities the right to sue for compensation if their rights are infringed. Investors, he noted, will also be concerned about the likelihood of protests. Phillip feels that there is no doubt that, if the pipeline proceeds, there will be civil disobedience. “I think, in many ways, Burnaby Mountain was a warm-up that demonstrated that, when push comes to shove, there will be strategies on the ground to prevent the project from moving forward,” he emphasized. “I think what needs to be understood is, when those activities begin to take shape, it will not just be aboriginal, First Nations and indigenous people on the front line. The vast majority of the [126] people arrested on Burnaby Mountain were not indigenous.” Weaver, too, believes that if the company starts building the expansion despite the pending lawsuits, it will head into trouble when construction reaches the Lower Mainland. (The company’s construction schedule anticipates that tunnel-boring through Burnaby Mountain will start in March 2018.) “It does not have a social licence and it will never have one in British Columbia,” said Weaver. “I would suggest that if they start drilling under Burnaby Mountain…this will create a crisis like this country has never seen before,” he predicted. Some in the resistance movement are saying it will rival Clayoquot protests or those at Standing Rock. Weaver is carefully watching Kinder Morgan’s finances in the wake of the initial public offering, noting that stock prices have dropped from the initial price of $17. Financial questions are also being raised by a coalition of more than 20 indigenous and environmental groups. Their coalition is warning 28 major banks—including 14 that underwrote the initial public offering for Kinder Morgan Canada—to stay away from funding the pipeline. The open letter says that the organizations involved will use their influence to urge local and foreign governments to divest from banks that fund the pipeline. Lindsey Allen, Rainforest Action Network executive director, stated in a news release, “Any bank that decides to participate in this project will be implicated in indigenous rights violations and will knowingly feed fuel to the fire of climate chaos. They won’t be able to claim that they didn’t have all the relevant information.” Kinder Morgan, in its prospectus released to raise $1.75-billion for the project, acknowledges that court actions could delay or even halt the project. Yet the company also says all financing is now in place and it is starting to move ahead with contracts and benefit agreements with the aim of starting construction in September. In a statement emailed to Focus, Kinder Morgan’s media spokesman said the final investment decision has been made and the company is “seeking and receiving permits from the necessary regulatory agencies…Trans Mountain has followed every process and met every test put before us…Taking into account all the scientific and technical studies, input from communities and a variety of opinions, we were given approval from the National Energy Board and the Government of Canada, as well as our environmental certificate from the BC Environmental Assessment Office.” EVEN THOUGH the Province of BC cannot block a federally-approved project, there are a number actions that can be taken by BC, according to environmental lawyers. A legal toolkit for provincial action released by West Coast Environmental Law suggests that BC could impose more conditions and/or prohibit any new provincial approvals or permits, and suspend existing approvals until new conditions have been met. It points out the constitutional obligation of the Province to protect First Nations’ rights. “And there may be injunctions filed. I am sure that the First Nations involved have considered that option,” Kung said. Jessica Clogg, West Coast Environmental Law executive director, suggested that the Province could also require that Kinder Morgan demonstrate that all indigenous people affected by the project have provided their “free, prior and informed consent”—as required under the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. That free and informed consent would certainly not be coming from the Tsartlip First Nation whose territory lies along the east coast of Vancouver Island, and from which Tsartlip residents would be able to watch tankers carrying diluted bitumen through the Salish Sea. The Tsartlip, like other First Nations on southern Vancouver Island, had a “middle depth of consultation” according to the federal government. Tsartlip Chief Don Tom said, “We are fundamentally opposed to any increases in tanker traffic that would affect our rights out in the Salish Sea.” The Douglas Treaties, he noted, protect their right to hunt and fish as they did before European settlement. A particular concern, Tom added, is the health of the resident killer whales, which are considered relatives by his people. “There’s no chance this is going to happen. Based on today’s political landscape, it’s dead in the water,” he said. Judith Lavoie is an award-winning journalist specializing in the environment, First Nations, and social issues. Twitter @LavoieJudith.
  5. May 3, 2020 ANXIETY IS RIPPLING THROUGH Victoria’s Burnside-Gorge neighbourhood as residents hear through the unofficial grapevine that about 80 percent of the more than 350 of those living in tents in Topaz Park and Pandora Avenue will be coming to hotels in their community. The area, which is home to many families with children, already has two shelters and several supportive housing complexes. Residents have, as a result, experienced fallout from mental health and addiction problems in the past. Recent incidents around Topaz Park, where crime spiked after the camp was set up, have added to their concerns. It’s a delicate balance for both residents and those who have been living in tents since shelter space was reduced because of COVID-19. While there is widespread support for dismantling the camps, providing adequate housing, and helping those struggling with mental health and addictions, questions are being raised about what help is available to the receiving community. Rock Bay Landing, located in the Burnside-Gorge neighbourhood Residents in the Burnside-Gorge area neighbourhood recently discovered that four out of five sites for hotel relocations are in their area—although, according to Michelle Peterson, no one has reached out to the community to offer specific information or security help. Peterson, a long-time Burnside-Gorge resident, told Focus, “Every single one of the people I have talked to, no question, agree that these people need to be housed. That is not an issue. It is more the impact and the lack of support for the communities.” At a virtual meeting that included Island Health representatives, Peterson was told that many of the campers are feeling anxious and uncertain about the move, so will be helped by psychiatrists and mental health experts. “I told them I am hearing very similar feelings from residents in my community and there’s no supports for them. What are they going to do to support the neighbours?” she asked. Island Health has agreed to take the concerns to their executive, Peterson said. “This is a crisis and I think everyone understands that, but what people are worried about is what is the plan to help mitigate any negative impact, because we know that there is a percentage of that population who can be quite dangerous. They’re the ones who have active, significant mental health issues or active substance abuse issues or they’re violent to themselves or others,” she said. Given the crime spike in the Topaz neighbourhood, residents are asking for increased security, possibly additional policing, and assurances that 24/7 supervision will amount to more than someone sitting at a reception desk, Peterson said. BC Housing is not confirming which hotels in Victoria are providing the 324 rooms, but emphasized that people will be assessed and then connected to wrap-around care including doctors, outreach workers and psychosocial supports. Harm reduction supplies will be provided to people with substance use disorders. “BC Housing is engaged in active and ongoing conversations with neighbourhood and community associations in Victoria to raise awareness and provide information about our response to the pandemic and how we are assisting those who are vulnerable,” said a Ministry of Municipal Affairs and Housing spokeswoman in an emailed response to questions from Focus. “While we typically connect with neighbours and the public prior to new services opening in the community for those who are vulnerable, we recognize the need to act quickly in the current context. The hotels are temporary and will be vital to mitigating the spread of this virus, protecting those who are vulnerable and the broader community.” Peterson said a BC Housing representative is planning to meet with residents, but, so far, no one has come up with a mitigation plan and the lack of information is creating suspicion and polarization. “I understand why they don’t want to disclose the location, but, when they don’t provide information to the community and they stay silent and don’t reach out, it creates a significant lack of trust,” she said. “Then what happens is it creates more of a divide, more hostility, more conflict between the neighbourhood and the homeless population which is not what we want,” she said. By April 30, 51 people had been moved out of camps and into hotel rooms, with the Province paying the tab. The final cost will depend on the length of time the hotels are used, according to the ministry. The contracts with hotels are below the market rental rate, but are providing income for hotel owners at a time when COVID-19 has brought the tourism industry to a grinding halt. “We have not forced hotels to accept people. To date, all hotel spaces that BC Housing has secured have been freely negotiated with hotel owners without the use of orders,” wrote the spokeswoman. “These contracts are producing positive outcomes for everyone, including hotel owners, who are getting a fair deal, and their employees, some of whom are being contracted to help operate hotels.” BC Housing has committed to “professional and rigorous cleaning” of all the buildings once the contracts end and will cover the cost of any damages. However, for Peterson and other Burnside-Gorge residents, the remaining question is how much help the neighbourhood will be receiving. “There needs to be a plan on how to mitigate the impact in the short term, because we know there are going to be impacts,” she said. Judith Lavoie is an award-winning journalist specializing in the environment, First Nations, and social issues. Twitter @LavoieJudith
  6. April 25, 2020 New pandemic guidelines giving medical professionals and pharmacists flexibility to prescribe and distribute drugs to those suffering from addiction need to be put into practice more quickly in order to keep everyone safe, say advocates. THE ALREADY-TOXIC STREET DRUG SUPPLY in BC is becoming increasingly poisonous and expensive as borders close and supplies from China and the US shrink. But, for most people suffering from addiction, quitting is not an immediate option and, although a growing amount of basement concoctions are being sold on the street, the urge to avoid withdrawal overrides all else. “You will have to go out, no matter what, and do what you have to do to get that substance,” said Guy Felicella, who spent decades as a heroin addict living in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside and is now clean, an advocate for a safe drug supply and a peer clinical adviser for BC Centre on Substance Use. Guy Felicella, right, an advocate for a safe drug supply (Photo courtesy guyfelicella.com) As COVID-19 physical distancing rules clear the streets, it is more difficult to make money from panhandling, bottle collecting or the sex trade. Advocates worry that people with addictions are struggling to find alternate ways to finance their habits. There is also concern that those searching for drugs are at risk of both contracting and spreading COVID-19. So it is to everyone’s advantage that new guidelines will give prescribers and pharmacists flexibility to prescribe and distribute drugs such as hydromorphone, stimulants, benzodiazepines, and substances to manage alcohol and nicotine withdrawal, according to Felicella and other advocates. Federal relaxation of the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act was followed last month by innovative provincial guidelines designed to address two overlapping public health emergencies—the opioid crisis, fuelled by fentanyl, which has killed more than 5,000 British Columbians since January 2016 and, now, COVID-19. The new rules allow physicians and nurse practitioners to prescribe the drugs to people at risk of contracting COVID-19, those with a history of ongoing substance use, people at high risk of withdrawal or overdose and youth under the age of 19 who provide informed consent, provided there is additional education. Costs are covered by provincial PharmaCare. Rapid access addiction clinics can also provide assessments, and phone visits to prescribers and pharmacists are encouraged. The guidelines allow home delivery by pharmacy employees, pharmacists can extend, renew and transfer prescriptions and, in some cases, people will be allowed up to three weeks supply instead of having to go to the pharmacy daily. “We want people not to have to go into pharmacies every day, which puts themselves and other people at risk when they should be self-isolating,” said Judy Darcy, Minister of Mental health and Addiction. “We are trying to flatten the curve at the same time as stopping overdoses and these really unprecedented measures are meant to do both of those things,” she said. The guidelines were put in place as fast as possible and a massive effort is now underway to get the word out to all health professionals, Darcy said. However, implementation is slow as some physicians and pharmacists are not yet fully informed about the changes. It is frustrating, said Leslie McBain, co-founder of Moms Stop The Harm. “What you had was rollout of a good policy that I hope will continue to progress and evolve, but the infrastructure was not out there,” McBain said. She added, “If I was a person searching for safe drugs because I didn’t want to go out and buy them on the street, there was no way to figure out that pathway.” Bernie Pauly, University of Victoria School of Nursing professor and a scientist with the Canadian Institute for Substance Use research, said it is essential prescribers familiarize themselves with the changes. “[They] need to not only know and understand the guidelines, they need to do it really quickly because people’s lives are at stake,” she said. Pauly and other advocates are anxious to ensure the changes stay in place after federal exemptions reach their sunset clause at the end of September. “I would hope we are able to show the benefits of this,” said Pauly, who also wants to see decriminalization of personal possession—something recommended last year by provincial health officer Dr Bonnie Henry. Felicella wants to see a further step with pharmaceutical grade heroin, fentanyl and cocaine made available without prescription. “What we have today is a medical version and it’s a great start and will help many people, but it is not where we want to stay,” he said. Judith Lavoie is an award-winning journalist specializing in the environment, First Nations, and social issues. Twitter @LavoieJudith
  7. April 3, 2020 With an estimated 1,500 homeless people in Victoria, increasingly worried officials are trying to find enough facilities to house them in a way that allows physical distancing. THERE IS INCREASING URGENCY to move the jumble of tents on Pandora Avenue into the safer environments of Topaz Park and Royal Athletic Park, as health professionals and advocates watch anxiously for signs of COVID-19 spreading to Victoria’s homeless population. So far, no members of the group, many of whom have compromised immune systems, have tested positive, but the risk is obvious. With parks regarded as a temporary solution, the overriding question is whether the virus will hold off long enough to allow indoor accommodation—where greater physical distancing is possible—to be found for hundreds of people. Tents sprung up along the 900-block of Pandora Avenue, outside Our Place, after drop-ins closed and shelter spaces were reduced because of the need for physical distancing. Tents on Pandora Avenue. (Photo by Ross Crockford) Many of those camping on Pandora are using Our Place services such as washrooms, paramedic services, and meals—which are handed out at the gate in disposable containers. The City, BC Housing, Island Health, Greater Victoria Coalition to End Homelessness and the Dandelion Society are working together to move people initially into the specified parks, which have washrooms and running water and will allow for physical distancing. The plan to use parks as temporary campsites has brought objections from some neighbours who worry about drug use and increased crime. But the possibility of infection in the current crowded environments should concern everyone, not just the unhoused population, said Reverend Al Tysick, founder of the Victoria Dandelion Society. “This doesn’t just affect [this group]…We are all in this together. This epidemic does not distinguish between the rich and the poor, the drug addict and the woman in the nursing home,” Tysick said. “Once it hits our [homeless] community it’s going to spread like wildfire. People are already sick when they move into the community. This is serious stuff. Much more serious than we have ever seen before,” he said. It has not been possible to persuade Pandora campers of the importance of staying at a safe distance from each other, said Our Place communications director Grant McKenzie. It is difficult to explain social distancing to a group living in precarious circumstances, who are already dealing with losses from the opioid crisis, McKenzie said. “Many people here are suffering from addiction or using opioids, so they are really just looking at their day-to-day survival. Where is my next meal coming from? Where am I sleeping tonight? They don’t have the luxury of worrying about COVID-19, which is why social distancing is very difficult,” he said. Royal Athletic Park [see update in Comments] will be set up for 80 people with addictions or mental health problems, who are likely to need a higher level of service, but one delay is finding available front-line staff. “We are working as hard and as fast as we can,” said Mayor Lisa Helps at one of her daily briefings. “In a public health emergency, no one should be living outside. Period,” she said. “COVID-19 will hit the unsheltered population at some time,” Helps said, echoing the concerns of Chief Medical Officer Richard Stanwick who has emphasized that homeless people must have the opportunity to meet social distancing requirements and that, if they are displaying symptoms, they must be able to isolate themselves. A federal grant of more than $1.3-million will be added to programs to address homelessness; and a search is on to find indoor alternatives to parks. As of April 3, 102 homeless, who are healthy and do not require a high level of support, had been moved into motel rooms. Others, who were previously camping in Topaz Park, will remain there until indoor accommodation can be found. Ideally, that search should include premises in neighbouring municipalities as the downtown core attracts people from all over the region and several of Victoria’s facilities have already been rejected as unsuitable, said Helps. She acknowledged that 80 spaces at Royal Athletic Park will not be sufficient to meet the needs. Meanwhile, there seem to be more tents on Pandora than ever. And the numbers of facilities in motels and parks so far arranged do not add up to anywhere near the 1,525 homeless people found in the 2018 count in Greater Victoria. Judith Lavoie is an award-winning journalist specializing in the environment, First Nations, and social issues. Twitter @LavoieJudith
  8. March 5, 2020 Innovative programs are being put in place to help farmers address the high cost of farmland—but are they enough? IT’S AN EASY EQUATION IN MOST HOUSEHOLDS—if more people turn up for dinner, it means producing more food. But in the Capital Regional District, where the population is expected to increase 27 percent by 2038, only half of the region’s 16,000 hectares of Agricultural Land Reserve (ALR) is growing food. In other words, as climate change makes food security and buying local increasingly important, much of southern Vancouver Island’s rich agricultural land is being developed for non-agricultural uses or simply under-utilized. Farmland being farmed, a relatively rare sight in the Victoria area ALR land represents seven percent of the CRD, with additional rural land not included in the ALR. Farm Credit Canada’s 2018/2019 report says that out of more than 700 farms in the capital region, less than half are growing food. Another report, the Foodlands Access Program feasibility study, produced by Upland Agricultural Consulting Ltd for the regional district, states: “The underutilization of farmland, both now and in the future, is a lost regional opportunity. With over 50 percent of the region’s farmers retiring in the next 10 years, there is concern that new farmers will not be able to afford to enter the sector to replace them.” The study noted, “The high cost of land is a barrier, not only to new farmers, but also to those wishing to expand their business. This is due, in part, to agricultural lands being purchased by non-farmers and held with low risk for speculative purposes.” As the southern Vancouver Island population grows, farmland is appealing to those who want to put down roots in a rural setting and are willing to pay between $100,000 and $200,000 an acre. While the cost of farmland across BC increased by 6.7 percent in 2018, on Vancouver Island it jumped by 21.7 percent, the highest regional increase in the country, according to Farm Credit Canada’s Farmland Values Report. Saanich Councillor Nathalie Chambers, who farms Madrona Farm in the Blenkinsop Valley with her husband David, has fought against development and dumping of fill in the soil-rich Blenkinsop Valley. Chambers believes the price of farmland and non-permitted activities, which degrade the soil and pollute watersheds, are the largest obstacles to saving farmland. And, she adds, “Mega-mansion carbuncles are totally contagious.” Linda Geggie, executive director of the Capital Region Food and Initiatives Roundtable (CRFAIR), agrees mega-homes are a problem. “A lot of people say that on most of the land on the Peninsula, the biggest crop is large estate homes,” said Geggie, who believes urban containment zones are a valuable weapon against development on rural land, especially when combined with stricter enforcement of zoning restrictions. “We need to contain sprawl, but the challenge is that there’s so much competition for that land, and there’s a lot of non-farm use now for those farmlands because we have a low stock of industrial land and we are in a housing crisis,” explained Geddie. Linda Geggie Surprisingly, given the breakneck pace of development in areas such as West Shore, only 45.6 (of 16,000) hectares of ALR land in the region has been removed during the last decade. However, that does not mean the remaining land is being farmed. And even if it is farmed, the extent of the crop is often only enough to graze the limits of the farm credit, giving a significant tax break to owners. A few fields of hay or a couple of pigs can reach the $2,500 production figure that gains a farm tax credit on smaller properties. A November 2016 Globe & Mail investigation into farmland in the lower mainland noted, “Effectively, wealthy investors and speculators are receiving millions in tax breaks not meant for them.” Yet upping the sales limit for farm status could have unforeseen consequences, say advocates such as Geggie. “It really depends what you’re producing, because if you’re producing carrots, that’s a heck of a lot of carrots…You also have some farms that are just starting out—developmental farms—and it’s hard in your first couple of years to make a lot of income,” Geggie said. Still, she believes there could be more nuanced categories in the farm tax credit regime. The Province has struggled to control mega-mansions on ALR land. Agriculture Minister Lana Popham told Focus that, after tweaking an initial proposal, she believes proposed new rules that would allow secondary homes of 1,000 square feet and restrict primary residences to 5,400 square feet provide the correct balance. But if land is in the ALR, why are the owners not required to farm it? Not possible, responded Popham. “There are quite strict rules about what is allowable activity and what isn’t, but actually forcing people to farm is not something we can legislate,” she said. “What we can do is make farming more viable so that it’s an option they will choose,” she said. Agriculture Minister Lana Popham A series of initiatives to encourage farming, at provincial and regional levels, are making a difference, Popham said. “It’s like turning a giant cruise ship around. You’ve got to connect all the dots and get everything in place and then as soon as it starts to move, it really starts to move, and I really feel that is starting to happen,” she said. Part of that dot-connecting is a series of food-processing hubs around the province that make it possible for farmers to create value-added goods—such as baked goods, beverages, condiments, and broth. Three are already in operation, and more are planned. “They are really going to be places where people who wanted to start an entrepreneur business were stuck in a small space or home kitchen. Now they can move to a commercial area where all the boxes are ticked off…so they can get those products out,” Popham said. Creating markets for farmers is one of the keys, said Popham, and a recent game-changer has been getting BC products into the health care system. Health authorities spend vast portions of their budgets on food, and the Province is encouraging them to buy BC-grown food, such as berries, eggs, vegetables and frozen meals, Popham said. “It’s really working. There are all these new business opportunities that are popping up,” she said. THE AVERAGE AGE OF FARMERS in the capital region is 57, with more than half planning to retire over the next decade. Many members of the next generation are not interested in taking over the family farm, so protecting the land base and persuading others to farm the land are key challenges in the quest for regional food security. The regional district is working on an agricultural land use inventory. It is also in the final throes of creating a foodlands trust, which will see participating municipalities put municipally-owned land into the trust, to be protected as agricultural land. (And perhaps down the road, purchase farmland for that purpose.) The aim is for the regional district to then work with a non-profit land manager, such as CRFAIR, to lease the lands to farmers or community organizations. Community farms already exist in the region, including Haliburton Farm, Newman Farm, Lohbrunner Farm, Burgoyne Farm, and the Sandown Racetrack lands, Geggie pointed out. “There’s an interest, and the foodlands trust is a framework for moving that forward,” she said. “It’s a pretty exciting thing, because people really do value local food now…It’s such an important thing for sustainability in our region,” she said. The idea of a foodlands trust has been controversial because of fears it would give some farmers an unfair advantage. But Geddie noted the land would be leased at market rates, and tenant farmers would have long term leases, giving them security to make investments such as irrigation systems or greenhouses. It is one way to address the exorbitant value placed on any land in a hot real-estate market. “It’s not going to solve the whole problem, but it is a strategy—a tool,” said Geggie, who wants to see the amount of locally-produced food consumed in the area grow from less than 10 percent to 25 percent by 2025. (So far, eight of the region’s municipalities have indicated their support, though Esquimalt, Langford, Colwood and Oak Bay do not support it.) Along with protecting the land, there is a need to look at the types of food that can be grown in the era of climate change, Geggie said. “The diet that we are eating now is not the diet we will be eating in 10 years,” she said. Some of the more innovative crops are coming through the Young Agrarians land matching program, supported by the provincial government, which matches young farmers to landowners who no longer want to farm their land, or who want to lease part of their land. Young Agrarians in BC now have almost 290 hectares in production through 65 matches. In addition to the land matches, the organization provides education and support for new farmers, said Darcy Smith, Young Agrarians BC land program manager. “We have worked with everything from small-scale market gardens, to mushroom production to goats to a buffalo dairy,” Smith said. “People are turning back to farming as a career and lifestyle choice. They love working with the soil and looking after animals,” she said. Programs such as Young Agrarians and a foodlands trust are positive, but there is no magic solution to the local food production problem, especially when land costs are so high. Smith feels the first step is for people to be aware of where their food originates, and the importance of farming. Then, positive incentives, rather than new rules and regulations, are the best way to encourage people to continue farming or to consider it as a career, she said. “We all have to understand that this farmland is something that we, as a community, need to value,” Smith said. Judith Lavoie is an award-winning journalist specializing in the environment, First Nations, and social issues. Twitter @LavoieJudith
  9. January 5, 2020 Residents are concerned about possible bias and the sacrifice of green space as Langford continues housing push. “ONE DAY A FOREST, the next day a clearcut,” shrugged a Costco shopper, staring at a denuded patch that seemed to have appeared overnight above Langford’s big-box stores. The 20-hectare patch, slated for a mixed commercial and residential development, went through the usual processes at Langford City Council—including a public hearing—but for many it is hard to keep up with the breakneck pace of development in one of BC’s fastest-growing cities. New housing has transformed landscapes, from sprawling rural to small-lot urban, in areas such as Happy Valley and Latoria Roads. There is no sign of a slowdown, despite growing discomfort that the unremitting push to build housing means the loss of natural landscapes. Those concerns are exacerbated by suspicions that developers are controlling the agenda to the detriment of those pleading for larger lots and retention of contiguous green space. A new development in south Langford Langford’s Official Community Plan calls for 40 percent open space on previously undeveloped land. But wiggle room allows open space to drop to 25 percent if there is a significant community benefit, such as affordable housing or a school site. Critics say those requirements are often waived, or green space is divided into fragments, with playing fields or recreation facilities making up much of the mix, as opposed to more natural parkland. “They [council] often don’t follow their own requirements. They constantly make exceptions for…the benefit of the developer, not for the natural resource,” said South Langford resident Mike Turner. The “clearcut-blast-build” formula, followed by promises to plant saplings, cannot replace the loss of critical and endangered habitats, said a member of Citizens of South Langford for Sustainable Development, one of the recently formed groups asking for a more environmentally and socially sustainable approach to development. “Langford development requirements do not need to undermine the integrity of our natural ecosystem; instead, they should complement each other,” said Tim Allan, a member of the group. “The community has made it clear that preserving natural parkland is important…Council and developers need to hoist in that message, keep the lines of communication open with the community, and more deliberately integrate natural parkland into their planning,” he said. Langford incorporated in 1992 and the City’s aggressive push to provide housing has taken the population from 18,000 in 1996 to more than 40,000 today. Mayor Stew Young, who has been in charge since 1993, proudly proclaims Langford’s come-hither approach to developers, saying reducing red tape and delivering fast approvals remains one of council’s highest priorities. Langford is renowned for completing rezoning applications in six months, minimizing the time that developers are left in limbo holding expensive land, which helps them keep housing costs more affordable. According to Langford staff, the pushback from a few residents is weighed against the needs of a broad cross-section of citizens who need homes, along with the need to increase the tax base—which provides amenities ranging from sidewalks to arenas. Langford planning director Matthew Baldwin said there is some friction in South Langford because it is transitioning from the haphazard pattern of development pre-incorporation to a more organized, urban form of development. That means small-lot or condominium development in areas with more spacious homes or surrounded by green space which is used by the community. But it is impossible to roll back the clock 40 years to a time when there was no development pressure or housing crisis, Baldwin said. “You can’t do it that way any more because the fundamental economic underpinnings of land value and construction costs would make that home prohibitively expensive.” Speedy approvals of developments in Langford have come in for criticism (and will likely increase given the removal of the new 11-storey Danbrook One’s occupancy permit, forcing 86 households to move just before Christmas). Much of the approval work is done behind the scenes as municipal staff work with developers to fine-tune applications before they go to council. “Quite often we have robust discussions at planning and zoning and resolve a lot of the issues,” Baldwin said, noting, “By the time things get to a formal public hearing, there are often no more issues, as people feel their issues have been addressed. Members of the public who had concerns are aware that those concerns have been addressed, and then they may decide not to attend the public hearing.” He pointed out that no one turned up when there was a public hearing for 3,000 residential units on Bear Mountain. Councillor Denise Blackwell, who chairs the Planning, Zoning and Affordable Housing Committee, said background work by staff aims to bring unambiguous proposals to council. “By the time an application gets to the committee stage, it is usually just a matter of tweaking the proposal, adding certain conditions that suit the particular circumstances or address unforeseen concerns raised by neighbours,” she said, adding that, since incorporation, the total area of protected green space has increased from 8 percent to more than 20 percent. “Council has also worked to acquire strategic park lands, develop active recreation for all, and continues to support efforts of the region as a whole to protect green spaces through the CRD’s Regional Green/Blue Spaces Strategy,” she said. However, the City’s friendliness towards developers troubles some residents, dealing with what they see as a council that does not prioritize the environment. A group in the Latoria Road area was surprised when told by council that they had to deal with Draycor Construction Ltd to address concerns about a proposed development. Council was dismissive when the group first turned up at a council meeting, said Laurie Anderson. “We don’t agree with the lot sizes that are being proposed, and there are a lot of environmental concerns…They just dismissed us and said we had to speak with the developer,” she said. There is increasing concern that developers, many with long-term ties to the community and council, hold undue sway. The Planning, Zoning and Affordable Housing Committee, which provides advice to council, but does not have decision-making authority, is made up of two councillors and five appointed citizens including Kent Sheldrake, co-owner of Draycor Construction Ltd.; Art Creuzot, owner of Luxbury Homes; and Malcolm Hall, owner of Lifestyle Ventures development company and Solo Suites airbnb hotel. The six-member Board of Variance, which operates at arm’s length from council and deals with matters such as relaxation of zoning regulations or tree-protection requirements, includes Cliff Curtis owner of TBJ Properties; Jim Hartshorne, owner of Keycorp Developments Ltd and Westhills Land Corp; land development consultant Rachael Sansom; and Ron Coutre, owner of SouthPoint Partners Ltd and president of Westshore Developers Association. A spokeswoman for the Ministry of Municipal Affairs and Housing said no complaints have been received about the makeup of Langford committees. But some residents are alarmed by the perception of bias. A presentation on behalf of developers of the property behind Costco was made by Hartshorne, chair of the Board of Variance; a controversial rezoning application for 734 Latoria Road, made by Kevin Parker, co-owner of Draycor Construction, whose partner Sheldrake is a member of the planning and zoning committee, was approved with 17.5 percent green space, despite public opposition. The selection criteria used by mayor and council is unclear, Allan said. “Given its current membership, the Planning, Zoning and Affordable Housing Committee appears to be overwhelmingly weighted to favour development. With such an apparent bias, it is difficult for it to reflect the broad views from the citizens of Langford,” he said. Some members have served several consecutive terms and will continue to the end of 2022, Allan noted. “The [committee] needs to have a cross-section of representation from not only the developer community, but also public housing representatives, seniors, business, Chamber of Commerce, environmental groups, just to name a few,” said Allan. Turner pointed out that committees are usually balanced between interests such as citizens, First Nations, government, and environmental groups. “I would say that any committee making recommendations to government needs to be balanced between all the special interests that have a stake in whatever they are discussing. So to have it dominated by one group that has a clear, vested interest more than any other group is not appropriate,” he said. J.Ocean Dennie, founder of the Friends of the T’Sou-ke Hills Wilderness, is worried that plans to punch an alternate route to the Malahat will result in a sprawl of development, and he has little faith that Langford will protect wilderness values. “What it comes down to is who is sitting at the table, who is making the decisions and who is pushing the agenda. As concerned citizens, a lot of the time we just don’t have that information. We don’t have time to keep up with the backroom deals,” he said. Lawyer Matthew Nefstead, who was hired by West Coast Environmental Law to help those fighting for more Latoria Road green space, wrote in his analysis, “The fact that most, or all of the non-elected members are property developers who have dealings with the Committee and the City and who do not appear to declare conflicts of interest, presents—in my opinion—a reasonable apprehension of bias.” But Blackwell said some members of the committee are semi-retired and, as chair of the committee, she asks individuals to recuse themselves if there is a perception of conflict of interest. The argument heard from Langford staff is that council wants the expertise provided by developers and, for environmental input, relies on registered professional biologists or professional foresters. “I don’t think it would serve anyone on the committee or council or the public at large to have one qualified professional questioning another qualified professional’s opinion,” said a staff member. With controversy over the makeup of committees, there is a push for more transparency from Langford council—one of the only municipalities in the Capital Regional District that does not webcast meetings. “Why are there no cameras recording the meetings?” asked Terrie Wilcox, who mobilized a group of neighbours worried about overdevelopment in the Goldstream Avenue area, where plans call for redevelopment of St Anthony’s Clinic, including a 15-storey condominium building. Wilcox worries that development is racing ahead of infrastructure, and most of the input heard by council is from tradespeople and developers. “I agree with development due to the housing shortage, [but] Langford is moving far too fast with very little change, if any, to infrastructure,” she said, pointing to road dust on her patio table from incessant traffic. Like many Langford residents, Sarah Forbes agrees that housing development is needed, but the “pitchy-patchy approach” of separate developers is resulting in isolated communities connected by commuter corridors. “With the large-scale development, we could have some really world-class communities if we had a more sustainable approach to development. It’s a huge opportunity that is being missed,” said Forbes. “I do support development. We need to grow as a community, but we can do better…We have this great opportunity to grow this whole city, and we could develop it more sustainably with real sustainable practices in mind,” she said. Judith Lavoie is an award-winning journalist specializing in the environment, First Nations, and social issues. Twitter @LavoieJudith This story has been edited to reflect the correct name of Danbrook One, the development in Langford which had its occupancy permit revoked. An earlier version had referred to the development as Donwood One.
  10. November 2016 While most citizens oppose the bear trophy hunt, BC’s politicians seem reluctant to offend hunters. IT'S AN INCREASINGLY POPULAR CAUSE that, in BC’s politically sensitive, pre-election months, should have the two major political parties tripping over each other in an effort to adopt it as their own. Instead, provincial Liberals are literally sticking to their guns in support of the controversial grizzly bear trophy hunt while the NDP has not yet settled on a position. Polls have consistently shown that British Columbians dislike trophy hunting, a blood sport that sees foreign hunters paying upwards of $16,000 for the chance to shoot a grizzly bear for the sake of a head on the wall or a furry rug on the floor. An October 2015 Insights West poll found that 91 percent of British Columbians and 84 percent of Albertans oppose hunting animals for sport. The margin of error for BC is plus or minus 3.1 percent. But, so far, with the exception of the BC Green Party, those numbers are not enough to spark political support. Instead, a proliferation of diverse non-profit groups are taking up the challenge to protect the grizzly, which has been listed as a species of special concern by the federal Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada. Organizations such as Raincoast Conservation Foundation and Pacific Wild have approached the hunt from a scientific perspective for decades, while the newly-formed Justice for BC Grizzlies is appealing to would-be politicians to look at the ethics of killing for sport. Nine area First Nations, who comprise the Coastal First Nations, want to end the commercial grizzly hunt in their traditional territories and, together with Raincoast, have been buying up hunting tenures in the Great Bear Rainforest to reduce the threat to the bears. Another unusual approach is being taken by the fledgling Grizzly Bear Foundation, headed by philanthropist Michael Audain. The Foundation has launched a board of inquiry, holding meetings around the province, looking at threats such as habitat loss, food supply and climate change as well as hunting. The panel will submit a report to government by February. For those who are uncertain how to get involved, the University of Victoria’s Environmental Law Centre, on behalf of the David Suzuki Foundation, has prepared a legal toolkit “Facilitating Public Participation in Grizzly Bear Hunt Management in BC.” The toolkit first addresses the question: Why are grizzly bears important? Grizzly bears, it asserts, “are a vital ecological, cultural and economic resource in BC. They are apex predators that interact with other plant and animal species in their habitats and their population health is therefore a key indicator of the overall ecosystem’s health.” Lush Fresh Handmade Cosmetics is the latest business organization to become involved and will be launching a campaign this November at its 240 stores around North America. Lush is also producing a 30-minute documentary on the hunt. “I think people will be appalled that, in BC, trophy hunting of grizzly bears is still happening,” said Carleen Pickard, Lush ethical campaigns specialist. Meanwhile, Auditor General Carol Bellringer is looking at whether the government is “meeting its objective of ensuring healthy grizzly bear populations throughout BC.” Bellringer’s report is due this spring, but it is not known whether it will be released before the May election. While the Liberal government is showing no sign of changing course, the NDP is having internal discussions. “A couple of caucus meetings are coming up. Stay tuned…We know this is important and it’s on our radar,” said NDP Environment spokesman George Heyman. Back in the dying days of the last NDP government, in 2001, a three-year moratorium was imposed on the grizzly bear hunt. Immediately after the election, however, it was almost immediately rescinded by Gordon Campbell’s Liberals when they swept to power. Martyn Brown, Campbell’s chief of staff in 2001, said he believes the moratorium was probably lifted by ministerial order, rather than after any in-depth discussion or cabinet debate, and was likely the result of pressure from rural MLAs, many of whom were ardent pro-hunters. “It certainly wasn’t something that was a broad discussion that I can recall,” said Brown, who suspects the issue got lost in the many policy decisions and budget cuts made immediately after the Liberals came to power. Brown believes the grizzly hunt should no longer be ignored and he wants to see trophy hunting banned throughout the province, for grizzly bears and all other species. “It’s [because of] uncertainty about the management of the population and principally the ethical concerns,” he said. “Precious animals and wildlife are being taken for nothing but a trophy. They are not being taken for food or ceremonial purposes, they are simply for people’s self-aggrandizement and whatever twisted, distorted satisfaction they get from killing an animal,” he said. Brown is surprised the NDP are silent as he believes they have little to lose by coming out against the hunt. “If they really thought about it I think they would realize there’s a very small percentage of seats that might be at risk, if any,” he said. “The risks are so minimal and the rewards would be so much greater if they would just stand up and say and do the right thing and say this is a barbaric, out-dated hunt that needs to be stopped,” Brown said. Premier Christy Clark would also have little to lose by restoring the moratorium, Brown said. “But I don’t think the BC Liberals are even slightly interested in revisiting their position because of the likes of [Energy and Mines Minister] Bill Bennett particularly and others from rural BC who are defenders of the trophy hunt ostensibly for its economic value and its importance to rural lifestyle,” he said. Another factor is that the Guide Outfitters Association of BC (GOABC) is a generous contributor to the Liberals, with records showing that between 2011 and May 2015 GOABC contributed almost $37,000 to the Liberals compared to $6,000 to the NDP. The government position is that there is no need to halt the hunt as the grizzly population is healthy, with an estimated 15,000 bears, and the hunt puts money into the economy. “A Scientific Review of Grizzly Bear Harvest Management System,” commissioned by the Province and written by three biologists, concluded that, despite difficulties in monitoring and a lack of sufficient funds, BC’s procedures “have attained a high level of rigor, with a solid scientific underpinning.” The review, released October 18, recommended that there should be more opportunities for public consultation, increased cooperation with adjacent jurisdictions, and that BC should investigate whether conflicts exist between bear hunting and viewing. The Province should regularly be looking at elements such as habitat conditions and food availability and should provide additional funding, according to the review. “The future of grizzly bears in the coming decades will be challenged as the human population in the province increases. Rigorous planning, habitat monitoring, conservative harvest levels and a predictable level of research, monitoring and data research is essential for the continued conservation of this species,” says the report. Steve Thomson, Forests, Lands and Natural Resource Operations Minister, said the recommendations “will further improve grizzly bear management decisions in BC.” The notion that the province makes its decisions based on the best available science is challenged by critics who question both the Province’s population estimates and the economics of the hunt. Estimates of the number of bears in BC’s 57 individual grizzly bear population units usually rely on models, using known population densities from other areas, or the number of bears expected to survive in that particular habitat. The methods inevitably lead to uncertainty and some researchers believe numbers could be as low as 6,000, with kills much higher than the approximately 300 grizzlies killed by licenced trophy hunters each year that the Province reports. In addition to such hunting, a toll is taken by poaching, road kills, destruction of “nuisance” bears, and loss of habitat. A study by Raincoast, Simon Fraser University, the University of Victoria and Hakai Institute found kill limits are regularly exceeded and several sub-populations of grizzlies are on the verge of disappearing. On the financial front, research shows that bear viewing is far more profitable than bear hunting. A study by the Center for Responsible Travel, in conjunction with Stanford University, found that, in 2012, bear viewing groups in the Great Bear Rainforest generated “more than 12 times more in visitor spending than bear hunting.” The same researchers found that bear watching sent $7.3-million to government coffers, compared to $660,500 from hunters, and created 510 jobs, compared to 11 jobs created by guide outfitters. Retired university professor Craig Smith said such facts make the government’s stance completely inexplicable; bear viewing and hunting industries cannot co-exist. Smith recently threw his support behind Justice for BC Grizzlies. “Every bear you shoot is one you can’t view, so they’re killing the viewing industry,” he said. The Province maintains that BC has 100,000 resident hunters—and that hunters and guide outfitters combined put $350 million into the economy each year, a figure involving multipliers questioned by critics—and likely far lower than any comparable number for wildlife viewing. (Minister Thomson admitted in a 2014 legislative committee examining budget estimates that direct revenues from the grizzly trophy hunt amounted to $414,000.) Most hunters are not trophy hunters, of course. “I am a hunter, but I have never shot a bear,” said David Lawrie, a retired Provincial forests engineer and member of Justice for BC Grizzlies. Even the pro-hunting BC Wildlife Federation, with 50,000 members, is against trophy hunting. The Federation supported a bill, introduced last year by Green Party of BC leader Andrew Weaver, requiring all hunters to pack out edible meat from grizzlies and all other animals—which, in a round-about way, would ensure few grizzlies were hunted. “I suspect many a trophy hunter would find it difficult, if not impossible, to pack out several hundred pounds of trichinosis-laden grizzly bear meat across international borders,” he has written. Weaver’s bill died when the session ended and he has since clarified that he is against trophy hunting—making him one of the few MLAs clearly opposing the hunt. Trophy hunting is a “cruel, selfish and barbaric practice that is packaged and sold as sport,” he wrote, explaining that his bill—which was not supported by the guide outfitting industry—aimed to protect the rights of First Nations and resident hunters. Alan Martin, BC Wildlife Federation director of strategic initiatives, would like to see a similar bill reintroduced. “The BCWF only supports hunts that are sustainable and, when the animals are harvested, that the edible parts are taken out. If they don’t do that then it’s not appropriate to hunt grizzly bears or any other animal,” Martin said. “If you are going to utilize fish or wildlife then it should be consumed appropriately and not done just for sport,” he said. Martin also feels there needs to be more work in areas where there is uncertainty about populations and a close look at the effect of non-hunting mortality and changes in habitat, such as in the aftermath of the mountain pine beetle infestation. “If you don’t vary the harvest rates and manage accordingly, it will catch up to you as it has done in the south-east part of our province,” he said. Although grizzly bear meat is often thought to be inedible, as it sometimes carries the parasite that causes trichinosis, BCWF spokesman Jesse Zeman finds it tasty and healthy. The meat has to be cooked to a high temperature, which is why it is best in sausage, pepperoni or burgers, said Zeman, who lives almost entirely off wild fish and game. However, Zeman admitted, there are questions that need to be answered about the sustainability of the grizzly bear population. “That’s the big concern. That’s what keeps people up at night now,” he said. Chris Genovali, Raincoast executive director, however, is not in favour of Weaver’s type of pack-the-meat-out bill, calling it “daft.” “It is simply an endorsement of killing grizzly bears as long as we turn them into sausage or soufflé,” he said. “That’s nothing but a way to hoodwink the public into believing the trophy hunt is a food hunt…That would be worse than doing nothing,” he said. Genovali feels that the growing proliferation of organizations opposing the hunt, including business and tourism groups, shows that it is an issue that resonates with the public and crosses political lines. He finds it disheartening that, towards May 2017’s provincial election, neither the Liberals nor NDP are opposing the hunt. Unless political parties, or individual candidates, come out strongly and loudly against the hunt, there will be limited opportunities for voters to get their views on the subject across on election day. Judith Lavoie is an award-winning journalist specializing in the environment, First Nations, and social issues. Twitter @LavoieJudith.
  11. Posted May 4, 2020 Photo: Rock Bay Landing shelter in Burnside-Gorge neighbourhood Hotel rooms for homeless raise concerns in Burnside-Gorge neighbourhood. Go to story
  12. May 3, 2020 ANXIETY IS RIPPLING THROUGH Victoria’s Burnside-Gorge neighbourhood as residents hear through the unofficial grapevine that about 80 percent of the more than 350 of those living in tents in Topaz Park and Pandora Avenue will be coming to hotels in their community. The area, which is home to many families with children, already has two shelters and several supportive housing complexes. Residents have, as a result, experienced fallout from mental health and addiction problems in the past. Recent incidents around Topaz Park, where crime spiked after the camp was set up, have added to their concerns. Rock Bay Landing, located in the Burnside-Gorge neighbourhood It’s a delicate balance for both residents and those who have been living in tents since shelter space was reduced because of COVID-19. While there is widespread support for dismantling the camps, providing adequate housing, and helping those struggling with mental health and addictions, questions are being raised about what help is available to the receiving community. Residents in the Burnside-Gorge area neighbourhood recently discovered that four out of five sites for hotel relocations are in their area—although, according to Michelle Peterson, no one has reached out to the community to offer specific information or security help. Peterson, a long-time Burnside-Gorge resident, told Focus, “Every single one of the people I have talked to, no question, agree that these people need to be housed. That is not an issue. It is more the impact and the lack of support for the communities.” At a virtual meeting that included Island Health representatives, Peterson was told that many of the campers are feeling anxious and uncertain about the move, so will be helped by psychiatrists and mental health experts. “I told them I am hearing very similar feelings from residents in my community and there’s no supports for them. What are they going to do to support the neighbours?” she asked. Island Health has agreed to take the concerns to their executive, Peterson said. “This is a crisis and I think everyone understands that, but what people are worried about is what is the plan to help mitigate any negative impact, because we know that there is a percentage of that population who can be quite dangerous. They’re the ones who have active, significant mental health issues or active substance abuse issues or they’re violent to themselves or others,” she said. Given the crime spike in the Topaz neighbourhood, residents are asking for increased security, possibly additional policing, and assurances that 24/7 supervision will amount to more than someone sitting at a reception desk, Peterson said. BC Housing is not confirming which hotels in Victoria are providing the 324 rooms, but emphasized that people will be assessed and then connected to wrap-around care including doctors, outreach workers and psychosocial supports. Harm reduction supplies will be provided to people with substance use disorders. “BC Housing is engaged in active and ongoing conversations with neighbourhood and community associations in Victoria to raise awareness and provide information about our response to the pandemic and how we are assisting those who are vulnerable,” said a Ministry of Municipal Affairs and Housing spokeswoman in an emailed response to questions from Focus. “While we typically connect with neighbours and the public prior to new services opening in the community for those who are vulnerable, we recognize the need to act quickly in the current context. The hotels are temporary and will be vital to mitigating the spread of this virus, protecting those who are vulnerable and the broader community.” Peterson said a BC Housing representative is planning to meet with residents, but, so far, no one has come up with a mitigation plan and the lack of information is creating suspicion and polarization. “I understand why they don’t want to disclose the location, but, when they don’t provide information to the community and they stay silent and don’t reach out, it creates a significant lack of trust,” she said. “Then what happens is it creates more of a divide, more hostility, more conflict between the neighbourhood and the homeless population which is not what we want,” she said. By April 30, 51 people had been moved out of camps and into hotel rooms, with the Province paying the tab. The final cost will depend on the length of time the hotels are used, according to the ministry. The contracts with hotels are below the market rental rate, but are providing income for hotel owners at a time when COVID-19 has brought the tourism industry to a grinding halt. “We have not forced hotels to accept people. To date, all hotel spaces that BC Housing has secured have been freely negotiated with hotel owners without the use of orders,” wrote the spokeswoman. “These contracts are producing positive outcomes for everyone, including hotel owners, who are getting a fair deal, and their employees, some of whom are being contracted to help operate hotels.” BC Housing has committed to “professional and rigorous cleaning” of all the buildings once the contracts end and will cover the cost of any damages. However, for Peterson and other Burnside-Gorge residents, the remaining question is how much help the neighbourhood will be receiving. “There needs to be a plan on how to mitigate the impact in the short term, because we know there are going to be impacts,” she said. Judith Lavoie is an award-winning journalist specializing in the environment, First Nations, and social issues. Twitter @LavoieJudith
  13. October 2015 Rankin acted on behalf of an American mining corporation in its successful bid to sue Canada using NAFTA. A STARTLING RULING by a North American Free Trade Agreement tribunal last March could force the Canadian government to pay Delaware-based Bilcon more than $300 million because an environmental assessment review panel rejected a massive basalt quarry and ship-loading facility on the Bay of Fundy that scientists believed would threaten endangered right whales. At issue for Victorians in this case is the involvement of Murray Rankin, who acted as an expert witness for Bilcon at the NAFTA hearings. Rankin, currently Member of Parliament for Victoria, is an NDP candidate in the federal election. His 2012 report and 2013 testimony in the Bilcon case helped influence the tribunal’s decision to find against Canada, in what the dissenting tribunal member called “a remarkable step backwards in environmental protection.” Others too have expressed concern. Groups such as the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, Council of Canadians, and Sierra Club Canada Foundation argue that the implications of the NAFTA ruling on Bilcon go far beyond that one case and threaten the rights of Canadians to enforce their own environmental laws, whether it’s a quarry in Nova Scotia or a pipeline in BC. All Canadians should be concerned that taxpayers will be paying Bilcon, a US company, hundreds of millions of dollars because Canadian environmental rules were enforced, they say. “These international trade agreements are designed for corporate interests, with the collusion of government, to limit the authority of the state,” said John Bennett, Sierra Club Canada Foundation national spokesman. Investor-State Dispute Settlement (ISDS) provisions in NAFTA and other trade agreements—such as Canada-South Korea, Canada-China (Foreign Investment Promotion and Protection Agreement), Canada and European Union Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement (not yet ratified) and the pending Trans-Pacific Partnership—mean corporations can sue governments for compensation when they feel a policy or decision has interfered with their expected profits. “Someone who comes along and wants to do something is suddenly entitled to compensation if people don’t want it. Investors have more rights than the state,” Bennett said. Hadrian Mertins-Kirkwood, Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives researcher, agreed that independent tribunals, deciding the outcome of disputes, create a parallel quasi-legal system. “It is a threat to the democratic process in Canada and elsewhere. It puts corporations on the same level as the state,” he said. THE BILCON CASE goes back to 2004 when a Joint Review Panel (JRP) was appointed to review the company’s proposal for a 152-hectare quarry on the shores of the Bay of Fundy with a marine terminal that could host 225-metre-long ships to transport the mined rock. The JRP was to determine the potential effects on the environment and community before recommending whether the government should approve the project. After three years of extensive community consultation, hearings, and review of documentation, the JRP recommended against approval, which was followed by a similar decision by the Nova Scotia and federal governments. Green Party leader, MP and candidate for Saanich-Gulf Islands Elizabeth May, in her former role as Sierra Club executive director (1989-2006), fought against the plan because of environmental concerns and community opposition. “It was the first environmental assessment panel ever to say ‘this project is so bad, it simply cannot be mitigated,’” said May, pointing out that scientists believed that, among other adverse environmental effects, the quarry and marine terminal would threaten the highly endangered right whale population. There are less than 400 of these whales left in the Atlantic, with the Bay of Fundy serving as an important nursery for their calves. When both levels of government, as a result of the assessment, decided against the project in 2007, “It was a great victory for the whales and a great victory for communities and fishing organizations,” May said. However, Bilcon, instead of asking for a federal court review of the panel’s findings, chose, in 2008, to go to a NAFTA Investor-State Dispute Settlement tribunal. After seven years of legal claims, counter claims, reports and hearings, in March 2015 that three-person tribunal ruled two-to-one that the environmental assessment panel had violated Canadian law, at least in part, by using the criterion of “community core values.” Bilcon has claimed at least $300 million in damages; the final amount for damages will be ruled on in 2016. Rankin, an environmental lawyer and former president of West Coast Environmental Law, provided services as an administrative law expert witness on Bilcon’s behalf. The NAFTA suit was fought for Bilcon by Appleton & Associates. Appleton has served as lead counsel for investors in a large number of investor-state disputes under the NAFTA and Bilateral Investment Treaties. As an expert witness for Bilcon, Rankin wrote a 78-page report. It concluded: “In my view, the entire environmental assessment process of the Whites Point Quarry was a violation of Canadian administrative law. The JRP’s manifest disregard for its jurisdiction led it to a spiral of errors. By not confining itself to the parameters of its enabling legislation and Terms of Reference, the JRP abused its discretion. And the manner in which it conducted its hearing was a flagrant violation of Bilcon’s rights of natural justice and procedural fairness.” This meant the federal and provincial ministers’ decisions were also in error, Rankin argued. Later, he testified at the NAFTA tribunal along such lines. Though the NAFTA tribunal found in favour of Bilcon, a strong dissenting opinion came from one of its three members, University of Ottawa professor Donald McRae. He said the case should have gone before Canadian courts for a judicial review and that the decision was “a significant intrusion into domestic jurisdiction.” McRae disagreed with Rankin’s criticism of the JRP for not making recommendations about how the company could mitigate adverse environmental effects of the project. McRae termed the lack of mitigation measures a “principled position” on the part of the JRP that shouldn’t be dismissed as arbitrary. McRae wrote that the tribunal’s decision would cast a future chill on environmental review panels; members would be tempted to disregard socio-economic considerations in case there was a claim for damages. Rankin’s report to the tribunal horrified May, who is also a lawyer and counts him as a longtime friend. “It is such a shocker, I still have trouble talking about it. It’s such a horrific decision and it’s a damaging decision against Canada’s interest,” said May. But Rankin emphasized his report had nothing to do with the potential environmental impacts and everything to do with process. “I was called upon by a law firm in Ontario to do an expert report. I am an administrative lawyer who has done a lot of work on environmental assessment processes and I have an international reputation. I was asked to look at whether it was fair and I concluded it was not fair,” he said. “I didn’t do so as an advocate, it just happened to be part of the process,” he added. Rankin was paid by Bilcon’s law firm and charged his usual legal rates. Rankin signed his report shortly after becoming a Member of Parliament at the end of 2012. A year later, when the Bilcon case came before the NAFTA panel, he was called to testify so he could be cross-examined on his report. “I had no choice about the matter, I had to go,” he said. Rankin said that, since being elected, he has become concerned about Investor State Dispute Settlement tribunals, but finds it surprising that the Bilcon case has surfaced as a local election issue. “I am not going to talk about why this story has arisen,” he said. However, for May, the big issues of trade deals and Investor-State Dispute Settlements need to be front of mind for voters, with Bilcon serving as an example of what can happen to neuter Canadian environmental rules. “It’s a corrupt mechanism and the arbitrations are neither neutral nor fair,” she said unequivocally. Mertins-Kirkwood, CCPA’s researcher, warned there are likely to be more such cases as additional trade deals are ratified. Since NAFTA was ratified in 1993, Canada has been the target of 35 claims, mostly from US companies. So far, only three have been officially decided against Canada but another six have been settled out of court—meaning Canada effectively lost, according to CCPA research. “The state cannot win, the state can only not lose—it’s a very unbalanced system,” said Mertins-Kirkwood. Yet, he noted that the Canadian government appears to have embraced the idea of ISDS and Canadian companies have launched 55 cases of their own, mostly against developing countries that lack the capacity to mount much of a defence. The NDP, while expressing concerns about ISDS clauses, voted in favour of one of the latest Harper government trade deals that included such a clause—with South Korea. The Liberals have also voted in favour of such agreements. So far, taxpayers in Canada have shelled out only about $200 million to aggrieved corporations, but the possibility of billion-dollar cases is alarming, said Mertins-Kirkwood, who wonders what could happen if a company went after the federal government for compensation if First Nations blocked a project such as a pipeline. It is certainly a scenario BC voters should consider, said May, who is hoping Nova Scotia’s Bilcon project will focus voter attention on the ramifications of trade dispute settlements. “They are very pernicious, perverse agreements that are a threat to our sovereignty,” she said. All documents pertaining to Bilcon’s NAFTA case are at www.italaw.com/cases/1588 Judith Lavoie is an award-winning journalist specializing in the environment, First Nations, and social issues. Twitter @LavoieJudith
  14. May 2015 With legal costs already over $1 million, the traumatized community continues its fight against a contaminated soil dump. AS SHAWNIGAN LAKE RESIDENTS PREPARE TO FIGHT yet another battle over provincially-approved plans to dump and treat contaminated soil in a quarry above the lake that provides the area’s drinking water, there’s a community-wide sense of disillusionment and systemic betrayal. “I feel that what went wrong are the government processes and rules and regulations,” said Victoria Robson, Shawnigan Residents Association director. It’s a feeling echoed by most of those involved in the battle against South Island Aggregates/ Cobble Hill Holdings’ plans to bring in up to 100,000 tonnes of contaminated soil a year—much of it from Victoria. The company intends to treat the soil either through bioremediation, using bacteria, fungi and plants to alter contaminants, or through encapsulating the soil in cells with plastic liners. Initially the company planned to reclaim the active quarry with clean fill, but a more lucrative option evolved after a load of contaminated soil was inadvertently dumped at the quarry in 2010. South Island Aggregates (SIA) owners Marty Block and Mike Kelly saw a way of turning a problem into a business opportunity. Local opposition erupted immediately, crossing all political lines, but, despite rallies, petitions, publicity, and costly legal pursuits, in 2013 the Environment Ministry decided the plan could go ahead. A 50-year permit was granted. Then, this March, the Environmental Appeal Board backed the decision. One deciding factor was the amount of protection demanded by the permit conditions, pointed out lawyer John Alexander, who acted for SIA/Cobble Hill. “The permit started from the proposition that this site was in a watershed—a drinking watershed and a recreational watershed—so, if it was going to be considered, it would have to be backed by at least seven layers of protection,” he said. The protection is so complete that the operation could theoretically go anywhere without fears of contamination, he said. Robson, who wants to see regulations updated to provide more community protection from activities on private land, remains sceptical about both the protections and the process. The Residents Association tried to adhere to due process and do everything according to rules, she warned, but all efforts failed and other communities should take note that they could find themselves in the same situation. Calvin Cook, Residents Association president, struggling to contain his outrage, agrees other communities are at risk. “Here they have taken a pristine site in a designated community watershed. If they can put it here, my Lord, they can put it anywhere,” he said. “The irony is that I am fighting the Ministry of Environment to protect water. Shouldn’t this be the other way round?” After the SIA proposal received ministry approval, the Residents Association, Cowichan Valley Regional District and two local residents took the case to the Environmental Appeal Board, arguing that the site was too risky, that fractured bedrock would allow contaminants—including hydrocarbons and persistent and highly toxic chemicals such as dioxins and furans—to seep into the water table, threatening drinking water and fish habitat. They further argued that the design of the facility and permit requirements were not sufficient safeguards. Opponents say there are also questions about the process that have never been answered, such as why Active Earth Engineering Ltd, which drafted SIA’s permit application and was owed money by SIA, then served as an expert witness. Another question concerns the role of Malahat First Nation, which supported SIA, but which also runs a contaminated soil facility on the reserve, which is used by SIA. Green Party MLA Andrew Weaver, who visited the site recently, points his finger at the “Professional Reliance model,” which has been used to assess permit applications since Liberal government civil service cutbacks left the Province without in-house expertise in many areas. Instead of using government experts, the ministry now relies on the judgement of qualified experts hired by a project proponent. During the Shawnigan Lake hearings, the CVRD and Shawnigan Residents Association brought in their own experts, whose evidence conflicted with the expert opinion provided as part of SIA’s permit application. “Herein lies the critical problem with the entire permitting process. The Professional Reliance model for project permitting in use in BC is inherently flawed,” Weaver wrote in his blog. He noted that in March 2014—almost a year after SIA’s permit was granted—the Office of the BC Ombudsperson released a scathing report criticizing the Professional Reliance model with respect to streamside protection and enhancement areas. (The Liberal government has agreed to accept 24 of its 25 recommendations.) According to Sonia Furstenau, Shawnigan representative on Cowichan Valley Regional District board (CVRD), the BC government has not even adhered to its own rules. “There’s a process in BC that is meant to be followed in choosing a site for a landfill and that process has not been followed. If it had, there’s no way in the world that this site could have been selected as a fill site—at the headwaters of the lake, on top of an aquifer,” said Furstenau, who believes that, because of the area’s geology, leakage into the aquifer could also put Victoria’s drinking water at risk. Assuming a contaminated soil treatment facility is needed in the area, she suggested, there should have been a widespread search for a suitable site. She says the CVRD offered to assist in that search, but to no avail. However, SIA lawyer Alexander said that, although there is nothing stopping the CVRD from looking for its own site and setting up in competition to SIA, it first needs to get its own house in order. “It’s the pot calling the kettle black,” he said, pointing out that the regional district has piles of contaminated ash from its former incinerator sitting beside a creek and that the CVRD has yet to deal with 4500 cubic metres of contaminated soil dumped on a Malahat property 12 years ago. Ironically, the SIA site could help deal with those problems and other illegal dumps in the area, Alexander said. Furstenau scoffed at what she sees as attempts to divert attention from the SIA site and said the more important question is the science behind the proposal. “Science has proved that contaminants will outlast engineered solutions,” the Residents Association’s Cook said, adding, “The liners are new technology and they haven’t worked in the past. We are taking [poisonous chemicals] and putting them in a rubber baggie.” Alexander disagrees, describing cell liners as a recognized technique in dealing with contaminated soil and one that is used by other local operations such as Tervita Corporation on Millstream Road. After 40 years of use there is no sign of them failing, noted Alexander. After a record-breaking 31 days of hearings, the Environmental Appeal Board issued a 147-page decision which emphasized that board members took residents’ concerns seriously and recognized the unquestionable need to protect water sources, human health and environmental values. But the board ruled that “on a balance of probabilities, the geology and hydrogeology of the site and the facility design, together with the permit conditions, will provide the required protections.” The board added additional requirements, such as prohibiting blasting at the adjacent quarry while cell liners are installed and constructing a permanent roof over the soil management area. A balance of probabilities is not good enough when it comes to protecting drinking water, wildlife and fish habitat, Cook said scornfully. “None of it passes the sniff test,” he said, reiterating that it is the wrong site for treating poisonous chemicals such as hydrocarbons and glycols. In addition to the fear of contaminated water, area residents are also concerned the controversy is affecting real-estate prices, Furstenau said. That is not the only financial worry. Among other unpleasant discoveries made by Shawnigan residents during the protracted dispute is that the system is designed to favour those with deep pockets. The Residents Association, with 476 members, has spent a staggering $629,000 on legal fees. The group has raised about $250,000 through bake sales, bottle drives and dances, while praying for community goodwill to make up the shortfall, Robson said. The CVRD has spent about $550,000 on Environmental Appeal Board (EAB) legal costs, said Furstenau. “We weren’t anticipating that they would be that much, but, because the hearings went on so long, the costs are mounting,” she said. The financial implications make the decision to now escalate the battle a leap of faith. The Residents Association is looking at requesting a judicial review of the decision and is hoping to introduce new evidence on the impact on the community, real estate values, and the history of the company, Cook said. “The EAB didn’t feel they wanted to consider ex-employees in regard to the conduct of SIA. We have signed affidavits (about on-site disposal and company behaviour) from a couple of former employees.” Concurrently, the CVRD is looking into the possibility of a BC Supreme Court challenge on land use and zoning grounds. “It hasn’t been decided yet. The CVRD board has to decide,” Furstenau said. “The CVRD is exploring all of its options.” In the meantime, South Island Aggregates is preparing to reactivate the site. Lawyer Alexander suggested that, if there is to be more legal wrangling, the parties think carefully before applying for an injunction. “One of the primary considerations is that someone would have to step forward and offer to pay the losses or damages caused by an injunction. That’s a pretty significant thing for the Residents Association. It could be a very big number,” he warned. Opponents did score a small victory in April when Furstenau and Cook, backed by community representatives such as the headmaster of Shawnigan Lake School, a local doctor, and a realtor, met Environment Minister Mary Polak and ministry staff, who agreed to expand their water sampling program and conduct an environmental assessment of the existing site. “We also established that the CVRD will be able to participate, which is good because we don’t have a whole lot of faith in the Ministry of Environment right now,” Furstenau said. It is an opinion shared by many of those living around Shawnigan Lake who feel their wellbeing is being threatened by a private company’s money-making scheme, without any benefit to them. Despite all the talk about a community rift, residents are remarkably united, Cook said. “There is no rift unless your name is Block or Kelly.” Judith Lavoie is an award-winning journalist specializing in the environment, First Nations, and social issues.
  15. Posted April 25, 2020 Photo: Guy Felicella advocates for a safe drug supply New pandemic guidelines giving medical professionals and pharmacists flexibility to prescribe and distribute drugs to those suffering from addiction need to be put into practice more quickly in order to keep everyone safe, say advocates. Go to story
  16. Guy Felicella, right, an advocate for a safe drug supply (Photo courtesy guyfelicella.com) THE ALREADY-TOXIC STREET DRUG SUPPLY in BC is becoming increasingly poisonous and expensive as borders close and supplies from China and the US shrink. But, for most people suffering from addiction, quitting is not an immediate option and, although a growing amount of basement concoctions are being sold on the street, the urge to avoid withdrawal overrides all else. “You will have to go out, no matter what, and do what you have to do to get that substance,” said Guy Felicella, who spent decades as a heroin addict living in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside and is now clean, an advocate for a safe drug supply and a peer clinical adviser for BC Centre on Substance Use. As COVID-19 physical distancing rules clear the streets, it is more difficult to make money from panhandling, bottle collecting or the sex trade. Advocates worry that people with addictions are struggling to find alternate ways to finance their habits. There is also concern that those searching for drugs are at risk of both contracting and spreading COVID-19. So it is to everyone’s advantage that new guidelines will give prescribers and pharmacists flexibility to prescribe and distribute drugs such as hydromorphone, stimulants, benzodiazepines, and substances to manage alcohol and nicotine withdrawal, according to Felicella and other advocates. Federal relaxation of the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act was followed last month by innovative provincial guidelines designed to address two overlapping public health emergencies—the opioid crisis, fuelled by fentanyl, which has killed more than 5,000 British Columbians since January 2016 and, now, COVID-19. The new rules allow physicians and nurse practitioners to prescribe the drugs to people at risk of contracting COVID-19, those with a history of ongoing substance use, people at high risk of withdrawal or overdose and youth under the age of 19 who provide informed consent, provided there is additional education. Costs are covered by provincial PharmaCare. Rapid access addiction clinics can also provide assessments, and phone visits to prescribers and pharmacists are encouraged. The guidelines allow home delivery by pharmacy employees, pharmacists can extend, renew and transfer prescriptions and, in some cases, people will be allowed up to three weeks supply instead of having to go to the pharmacy daily. “We want people not to have to go into pharmacies every day, which puts themselves and other people at risk when they should be self-isolating,” said Judy Darcy, Minister of Mental health and Addiction. “We are trying to flatten the curve at the same time as stopping overdoses and these really unprecedented measures are meant to do both of those things,” she said. The guidelines were put in place as fast as possible and a massive effort is now underway to get the word out to all health professionals, Darcy said. However, implementation is slow as some physicians and pharmacists are not yet fully informed about the changes. It is frustrating, said Leslie McBain, co-founder of Moms Stop The Harm. “What you had was rollout of a good policy that I hope will continue to progress and evolve, but the infrastructure was not out there,” McBain said. She added, “If I was a person searching for safe drugs because I didn’t want to go out and buy them on the street, there was no way to figure out that pathway.” Bernie Pauly, University of Victoria School of Nursing professor and a scientist with the Canadian Institute for Substance Use research, said it is essential prescribers familiarize themselves with the changes. “[They] need to not only know and understand the guidelines, they need to do it really quickly because people’s lives are at stake,” she said. Pauly and other advocates are anxious to ensure the changes stay in place after federal exemptions reach their sunset clause at the end of September. “I would hope we are able to show the benefits of this,” said Pauly, who also wants to see decriminalization of personal possession—something recommended last year by provincial health officer Dr Bonnie Henry. Felicella wants to see a further step with pharmaceutical grade heroin, fentanyl and cocaine made available without prescription. “What we have today is a medical version and it’s a great start and will help many people, but it is not where we want to stay,” he said. Judith Lavoie is an award-winning journalist specializing in the environment, First Nations, and social issues. Twitter @LavoieJudith
  17. Posted April 3, 2020 With an estimated 1,500 homeless people in Victoria, increasingly worried officials are trying to find enough facilities to house them in a way that allows physical distancing. Go to story
  18. With an estimated 1,500 homeless people in Victoria, increasingly worried officials are trying to find enough facilities to house them in a way that allows physical distancing. THERE IS INCREASING URGENCY to move the jumble of tents on Pandora Avenue into the safer environments of Topaz Park and Royal Athletic Park, as health professionals and advocates watch anxiously for signs of COVID-19 spreading to Victoria’s homeless population. So far, no members of the group, many of whom have compromised immune systems, have tested positive, but the risk is obvious. With parks regarded as a temporary solution, the overriding question is whether the virus will hold off long enough to allow indoor accommodation—where greater physical distancing is possible—to be found for hundreds of people. Tents sprung up along the 900-block of Pandora Avenue, outside Our Place, after drop-ins closed and shelter spaces were reduced because of the need for physical distancing. Tents on Pandora Avenue. (Photo by Ross Crockford) Many of those camping on Pandora are using Our Place services such as washrooms, paramedic services, and meals—which are handed out at the gate in disposable containers. The City, BC Housing, Island Health, Greater Victoria Coalition to End Homelessness and the Dandelion Society are working together to move people initially into the specified parks, which have washrooms and running water and will allow for physical distancing. The plan to use parks as temporary campsites has brought objections from some neighbours who worry about drug use and increased crime. But the possibility of infection in the current crowded environments should concern everyone, not just the unhoused population, said Reverend Al Tysick, founder of the Victoria Dandelion Society. “This doesn’t just affect [this group]…We are all in this together. This epidemic does not distinguish between the rich and the poor, the drug addict and the woman in the nursing home,” Tysick said. “Once it hits our [homeless] community it’s going to spread like wildfire. People are already sick when they move into the community. This is serious stuff. Much more serious than we have ever seen before,” he said. It has not been possible to persuade Pandora campers of the importance of staying at a safe distance from each other, said Our Place communications director Grant McKenzie. It is difficult to explain social distancing to a group living in precarious circumstances, who are already dealing with losses from the opioid crisis, McKenzie said. “Many people here are suffering from addiction or using opioids, so they are really just looking at their day-to-day survival. Where is my next meal coming from? Where am I sleeping tonight? They don’t have the luxury of worrying about COVID-19, which is why social distancing is very difficult,” he said. Tents on Pandora 720p.mov Tents along Pandora Avenue (20-second video by Ross Crockford) Royal Athletic Park [see update in Comments] will be set up for 80 people with addictions or mental health problems, who are likely to need a higher level of service, but one delay is finding available front-line staff. “We are working as hard and as fast as we can,” said Mayor Lisa Helps at one of her daily briefings. “In a public health emergency, no one should be living outside. Period,” she said. “COVID-19 will hit the unsheltered population at some time,” Helps said, echoing the concerns of Chief Medical Officer Richard Stanwick who has emphasized that homeless people must have the opportunity to meet social distancing requirements and that, if they are displaying symptoms, they must be able to isolate themselves. A federal grant of more than $1.3-million will be added to programs to address homelessness; and a search is on to find indoor alternatives to parks. As of April 3, 102 homeless, who are healthy and do not require a high level of support, had been moved into motel rooms. Others, who were previously camping in Topaz Park, will remain there until indoor accommodation can be found. Ideally, that search should include premises in neighbouring municipalities as the downtown core attracts people from all over the region and several of Victoria’s facilities have already been rejected as unsuitable, said Helps. She acknowledged that 80 spaces at Royal Athletic Park will not be sufficient to meet the needs. Meanwhile, there seem to be more tents on Pandora than ever. And the numbers of facilities in motels and parks so far arranged do not add up to anywhere near the 1,525 homeless people found in the 2018 count in Greater Victoria. Judith Lavoie is an award-winning journalist specializing in the environment, First Nations, and social issues. Twitter @LavoieJudith
  19. Innovative programs are being put in place to help farmers address the high cost of farmland—but are they enough? IT’S AN EASY EQUATION IN MOST HOUSEHOLDS—if more people turn up for dinner, it means producing more food. But in the Capital Regional District, where the population is expected to increase 27 percent by 2038, only half of the region’s 16,000 hectares of Agricultural Land Reserve (ALR) is growing food. In other words, as climate change makes food security and buying local increasingly important, much of southern Vancouver Island’s rich agricultural land is being developed for non-agricultural uses or simply under-utilized. Farmland being farmed, a relatively rare sight in the Victoria area ALR land represents seven percent of the CRD, with additional rural land not included in the ALR. Farm Credit Canada’s 2018/2019 report says that out of more than 700 farms in the capital region, less than half are growing food. Another report, the Foodlands Access Program feasibility study, produced by Upland Agricultural Consulting Ltd for the regional district, states: “The underutilization of farmland, both now and in the future, is a lost regional opportunity. With over 50 percent of the region’s farmers retiring in the next 10 years, there is concern that new farmers will not be able to afford to enter the sector to replace them.” The study noted, “The high cost of land is a barrier, not only to new farmers, but also to those wishing to expand their business. This is due, in part, to agricultural lands being purchased by non-farmers and held with low risk for speculative purposes.” As the southern Vancouver Island population grows, farmland is appealing to those who want to put down roots in a rural setting and are willing to pay between $100,000 and $200,000 an acre. While the cost of farmland across BC increased by 6.7 percent in 2018, on Vancouver Island it jumped by 21.7 percent, the highest regional increase in the country, according to Farm Credit Canada’s Farmland Values Report. Saanich Councillor Nathalie Chambers, who farms Madrona Farm in the Blenkinsop Valley with her husband David, has fought against development and dumping of fill in the soil-rich Blenkinsop Valley. Chambers believes the price of farmland and non-permitted activities, which degrade the soil and pollute watersheds, are the largest obstacles to saving farmland. And, she adds, “Mega-mansion carbuncles are totally contagious.” Linda Geggie, executive director of the Capital Region Food and Initiatives Roundtable (CRFAIR), agrees mega-homes are a problem. “A lot of people say that on most of the land on the Peninsula, the biggest crop is large estate homes,” said Geggie, who believes urban containment zones are a valuable weapon against development on rural land, especially when combined with stricter enforcement of zoning restrictions. “We need to contain sprawl, but the challenge is that there’s so much competition for that land, and there’s a lot of non-farm use now for those farmlands because we have a low stock of industrial land and we are in a housing crisis,” explained Geddie. Linda Geggie Surprisingly, given the breakneck pace of development in areas such as West Shore, only 45.6 (of 16,000) hectares of ALR land in the region has been removed during the last decade. However, that does not mean the remaining land is being farmed. And even if it is farmed, the extent of the crop is often only enough to graze the limits of the farm credit, giving a significant tax break to owners. A few fields of hay or a couple of pigs can reach the $2,500 production figure that gains a farm tax credit on smaller properties. A November 2016 Globe & Mail investigation into farmland in the lower mainland noted, “Effectively, wealthy investors and speculators are receiving millions in tax breaks not meant for them.” Yet upping the sales limit for farm status could have unforeseen consequences, say advocates such as Geggie. “It really depends what you’re producing, because if you’re producing carrots, that’s a heck of a lot of carrots…You also have some farms that are just starting out—developmental farms—and it’s hard in your first couple of years to make a lot of income,” Geggie said. Still, she believes there could be more nuanced categories in the farm tax credit regime. The Province has struggled to control mega-mansions on ALR land. Agriculture Minister Lana Popham told Focus that, after tweaking an initial proposal, she believes proposed new rules that would allow secondary homes of 1,000 square feet and restrict primary residences to 5,400 square feet provide the correct balance. But if land is in the ALR, why are the owners not required to farm it? Not possible, responded Popham. “There are quite strict rules about what is allowable activity and what isn’t, but actually forcing people to farm is not something we can legislate,” she said. “What we can do is make farming more viable so that it’s an option they will choose,” she said. Agriculture Minister Lana Popham A series of initiatives to encourage farming, at provincial and regional levels, are making a difference, Popham said. “It’s like turning a giant cruise ship around. You’ve got to connect all the dots and get everything in place and then as soon as it starts to move, it really starts to move, and I really feel that is starting to happen,” she said. Part of that dot-connecting is a series of food-processing hubs around the province that make it possible for farmers to create value-added goods—such as baked goods, beverages, condiments, and broth. Three are already in operation, and more are planned. “They are really going to be places where people who wanted to start an entrepreneur business were stuck in a small space or home kitchen. Now they can move to a commercial area where all the boxes are ticked off…so they can get those products out,” Popham said. Creating markets for farmers is one of the keys, said Popham, and a recent game-changer has been getting BC products into the health care system. Health authorities spend vast portions of their budgets on food, and the Province is encouraging them to buy BC-grown food, such as berries, eggs, vegetables and frozen meals, Popham said. “It’s really working. There are all these new business opportunities that are popping up,” she said. THE AVERAGE AGE OF FARMERS in the capital region is 57, with more than half planning to retire over the next decade. Many members of the next generation are not interested in taking over the family farm, so protecting the land base and persuading others to farm the land are key challenges in the quest for regional food security. The regional district is working on an agricultural land use inventory. It is also in the final throes of creating a foodlands trust, which will see participating municipalities put municipally-owned land into the trust, to be protected as agricultural land. (And perhaps down the road, purchase farmland for that purpose.) The aim is for the regional district to then work with a non-profit land manager, such as CRFAIR, to lease the lands to farmers or community organizations. Community farms already exist in the region, including Haliburton Farm, Newman Farm, Lohbrunner Farm, Burgoyne Farm, and the Sandown Racetrack lands, Geggie pointed out. “There’s an interest, and the foodlands trust is a framework for moving that forward,” she said. “It’s a pretty exciting thing, because people really do value local food now…It’s such an important thing for sustainability in our region,” she said. The idea of a foodlands trust has been controversial because of fears it would give some farmers an unfair advantage. But Geddie noted the land would be leased at market rates, and tenant farmers would have long term leases, giving them security to make investments such as irrigation systems or greenhouses. It is one way to address the exorbitant value placed on any land in a hot real-estate market. “It’s not going to solve the whole problem, but it is a strategy—a tool,” said Geggie, who wants to see the amount of locally-produced food consumed in the area grow from less than 10 percent to 25 percent by 2025. (So far, eight of the region’s municipalities have indicated their support, though Esquimalt, Langford, Colwood and Oak Bay do not support it.) Along with protecting the land, there is a need to look at the types of food that can be grown in the era of climate change, Geggie said. “The diet that we are eating now is not the diet we will be eating in 10 years,” she said. Some of the more innovative crops are coming through the Young Agrarians land matching program, supported by the provincial government, which matches young farmers to landowners who no longer want to farm their land, or who want to lease part of their land. Young Agrarians in BC now have almost 290 hectares in production through 65 matches. In addition to the land matches, the organization provides education and support for new farmers, said Darcy Smith, Young Agrarians BC land program manager. “We have worked with everything from small-scale market gardens, to mushroom production to goats to a buffalo dairy,” Smith said. “People are turning back to farming as a career and lifestyle choice. They love working with the soil and looking after animals,” she said. Programs such as Young Agrarians and a foodlands trust are positive, but there is no magic solution to the local food production problem, especially when land costs are so high. Smith feels the first step is for people to be aware of where their food originates, and the importance of farming. Then, positive incentives, rather than new rules and regulations, are the best way to encourage people to continue farming or to consider it as a career, she said. “We all have to understand that this farmland is something that we, as a community, need to value,” Smith said. Judith Lavoie is an award-winning journalist specializing in the environment, First Nations, and social issues. Twitter @LavoieJudith
  20. Residents are concerned about possible bias and the sacrifice of green space as Langford continues housing push. “ONE DAY A FOREST, the next day a clearcut,” shrugged a Costco shopper, staring at a denuded patch that seemed to have appeared overnight above Langford’s big-box stores. The 20-hectare patch, slated for a mixed commercial and residential development, went through the usual processes at Langford City Council—including a public hearing—but for many it is hard to keep up with the breakneck pace of development in one of BC’s fastest-growing cities. New housing has transformed landscapes, from sprawling rural to small-lot urban, in areas such as Happy Valley and Latoria Roads. There is no sign of a slowdown, despite growing discomfort that the unremitting push to build housing means the loss of natural landscapes. Those concerns are exacerbated by suspicions that developers are controlling the agenda to the detriment of those pleading for larger lots and retention of contiguous green space. A new development in south Langford Langford’s Official Community Plan calls for 40 percent open space on previously undeveloped land. But wiggle room allows open space to drop to 25 percent if there is a significant community benefit, such as affordable housing or a school site. Critics say those requirements are often waived, or green space is divided into fragments, with playing fields or recreation facilities making up much of the mix, as opposed to more natural parkland. “They [council] often don’t follow their own requirements. They constantly make exceptions for…the benefit of the developer, not for the natural resource,” said South Langford resident Mike Turner. The “clearcut-blast-build” formula, followed by promises to plant saplings, cannot replace the loss of critical and endangered habitats, said a member of Citizens of South Langford for Sustainable Development, one of the recently formed groups asking for a more environmentally and socially sustainable approach to development. “Langford development requirements do not need to undermine the integrity of our natural ecosystem; instead, they should complement each other,” said Tim Allan, a member of the group. “The community has made it clear that preserving natural parkland is important…Council and developers need to hoist in that message, keep the lines of communication open with the community, and more deliberately integrate natural parkland into their planning,” he said. Langford incorporated in 1992 and the City’s aggressive push to provide housing has taken the population from 18,000 in 1996 to more than 40,000 today. Mayor Stew Young, who has been in charge since 1993, proudly proclaims Langford’s come-hither approach to developers, saying reducing red tape and delivering fast approvals remains one of council’s highest priorities. Langford is renowned for completing rezoning applications in six months, minimizing the time that developers are left in limbo holding expensive land, which helps them keep housing costs more affordable. According to Langford staff, the pushback from a few residents is weighed against the needs of a broad cross-section of citizens who need homes, along with the need to increase the tax base—which provides amenities ranging from sidewalks to arenas. Langford planning director Matthew Baldwin said there is some friction in South Langford because it is transitioning from the haphazard pattern of development pre-incorporation to a more organized, urban form of development. That means small-lot or condominium development in areas with more spacious homes or surrounded by green space which is used by the community. But it is impossible to roll back the clock 40 years to a time when there was no development pressure or housing crisis, Baldwin said. “You can’t do it that way any more because the fundamental economic underpinnings of land value and construction costs would make that home prohibitively expensive.” Speedy approvals of developments in Langford have come in for criticism (and will likely increase given the removal of the new 11-storey Danbrook One’s occupancy permit, forcing 86 households to move just before Christmas). Much of the approval work is done behind the scenes as municipal staff work with developers to fine-tune applications before they go to council. “Quite often we have robust discussions at planning and zoning and resolve a lot of the issues,” Baldwin said, noting, “By the time things get to a formal public hearing, there are often no more issues, as people feel their issues have been addressed. Members of the public who had concerns are aware that those concerns have been addressed, and then they may decide not to attend the public hearing.” He pointed out that no one turned up when there was a public hearing for 3,000 residential units on Bear Mountain. Councillor Denise Blackwell, who chairs the Planning, Zoning and Affordable Housing Committee, said background work by staff aims to bring unambiguous proposals to council. “By the time an application gets to the committee stage, it is usually just a matter of tweaking the proposal, adding certain conditions that suit the particular circumstances or address unforeseen concerns raised by neighbours,” she said, adding that, since incorporation, the total area of protected green space has increased from 8 percent to more than 20 percent. “Council has also worked to acquire strategic park lands, develop active recreation for all, and continues to support efforts of the region as a whole to protect green spaces through the CRD’s Regional Green/Blue Spaces Strategy,” she said. However, the City’s friendliness towards developers troubles some residents, dealing with what they see as a council that does not prioritize the environment. A group in the Latoria Road area was surprised when told by council that they had to deal with Draycor Construction Ltd to address concerns about a proposed development. Council was dismissive when the group first turned up at a council meeting, said Laurie Anderson. “We don’t agree with the lot sizes that are being proposed, and there are a lot of environmental concerns…They just dismissed us and said we had to speak with the developer,” she said. There is increasing concern that developers, many with long-term ties to the community and council, hold undue sway. The Planning, Zoning and Affordable Housing Committee, which provides advice to council, but does not have decision-making authority, is made up of two councillors and five appointed citizens including Kent Sheldrake, co-owner of Draycor Construction Ltd.; Art Creuzot, owner of Luxbury Homes; and Malcolm Hall, owner of Lifestyle Ventures development company and Solo Suites airbnb hotel. The six-member Board of Variance, which operates at arm’s length from council and deals with matters such as relaxation of zoning regulations or tree-protection requirements, includes Cliff Curtis owner of TBJ Properties; Jim Hartshorne, owner of Keycorp Developments Ltd and Westhills Land Corp; land development consultant Rachael Sansom; and Ron Coutre, owner of SouthPoint Partners Ltd and president of Westshore Developers Association. A spokeswoman for the Ministry of Municipal Affairs and Housing said no complaints have been received about the makeup of Langford committees. But some residents are alarmed by the perception of bias. A presentation on behalf of developers of the property behind Costco was made by Hartshorne, chair of the Board of Variance; a controversial rezoning application for 734 Latoria Road, made by Kevin Parker, co-owner of Draycor Construction, whose partner Sheldrake is a member of the planning and zoning committee, was approved with 17.5 percent green space, despite public opposition. The selection criteria used by mayor and council is unclear, Allan said. “Given its current membership, the Planning, Zoning and Affordable Housing Committee appears to be overwhelmingly weighted to favour development. With such an apparent bias, it is difficult for it to reflect the broad views from the citizens of Langford,” he said. Some members have served several consecutive terms and will continue to the end of 2022, Allan noted. “The [committee] needs to have a cross-section of representation from not only the developer community, but also public housing representatives, seniors, business, Chamber of Commerce, environmental groups, just to name a few,” said Allan. Turner pointed out that committees are usually balanced between interests such as citizens, First Nations, government, and environmental groups. “I would say that any committee making recommendations to government needs to be balanced between all the special interests that have a stake in whatever they are discussing. So to have it dominated by one group that has a clear, vested interest more than any other group is not appropriate,” he said. J.Ocean Dennie, founder of the Friends of the T’Sou-ke Hills Wilderness, is worried that plans to punch an alternate route to the Malahat will result in a sprawl of development, and he has little faith that Langford will protect wilderness values. “What it comes down to is who is sitting at the table, who is making the decisions and who is pushing the agenda. As concerned citizens, a lot of the time we just don’t have that information. We don’t have time to keep up with the backroom deals,” he said. Lawyer Matthew Nefstead, who was hired by West Coast Environmental Law to help those fighting for more Latoria Road green space, wrote in his analysis, “The fact that most, or all of the non-elected members are property developers who have dealings with the Committee and the City and who do not appear to declare conflicts of interest, presents—in my opinion—a reasonable apprehension of bias.” But Blackwell said some members of the committee are semi-retired and, as chair of the committee, she asks individuals to recuse themselves if there is a perception of conflict of interest. The argument heard from Langford staff is that council wants the expertise provided by developers and, for environmental input, relies on registered professional biologists or professional foresters. “I don’t think it would serve anyone on the committee or council or the public at large to have one qualified professional questioning another qualified professional’s opinion,” said a staff member. With controversy over the makeup of committees, there is a push for more transparency from Langford council—one of the only municipalities in the Capital Regional District that does not webcast meetings. “Why are there no cameras recording the meetings?” asked Terrie Wilcox, who mobilized a group of neighbours worried about overdevelopment in the Goldstream Avenue area, where plans call for redevelopment of St Anthony’s Clinic, including a 15-storey condominium building. Wilcox worries that development is racing ahead of infrastructure, and most of the input heard by council is from tradespeople and developers. “I agree with development due to the housing shortage, [but] Langford is moving far too fast with very little change, if any, to infrastructure,” she said, pointing to road dust on her patio table from incessant traffic. Like many Langford residents, Sarah Forbes agrees that housing development is needed, but the “pitchy-patchy approach” of separate developers is resulting in isolated communities connected by commuter corridors. “With the large-scale development, we could have some really world-class communities if we had a more sustainable approach to development. It’s a huge opportunity that is being missed,” said Forbes. “I do support development. We need to grow as a community, but we can do better…We have this great opportunity to grow this whole city, and we could develop it more sustainably with real sustainable practices in mind,” she said. Judith Lavoie is an award-winning journalist specializing in the environment, First Nations, and social issues. Twitter @LavoieJudith This story has been edited to reflect the correct name of Danbrook One, the development in Langford which had its occupancy permit revoked. An earlier version had referred to the development as Donwood One.
  21. Experts agree that bold moves are essential to reducing the deaths from opioid use. SOME MEMORIES make David Clarke feel ashamed, such as stealing from family and friends when he was addicted to crack cocaine. “I would do anything, anything to get it,” says the 35-year-old Vancouver Island resident who switched from crack to heroin in an attempt to modify his behaviour—a shift that meant he changed to stealing from stores or dealing drugs to feed his habit. “I felt I had gained some morals,” says Clarke. However, like many others struggling with addiction, the switch to heroin put Clarke at increased risk of inadvertently taking fentanyl, which is found in most illicit opioids sold in BC. Some also actively seek out fentanyl after finding it offers a more intense high. Four years ago, Clarke overdosed on fentanyl and was brought back by a naloxone injection. He was one of the lucky ones. The latest figures from the BC Coroners Service show that 690 people died in BC from illicit drug toxicity in the first eight months of 2019. There is growing pressure to replace a poisoned supply of street drugs with a safe supply. Advocates also want decriminalization of small amounts of drugs for personal use, a move that would reduce the stigma and persuade more people to seek help. Leslie McBain, co-founder of Moms Stop The Harm, a network of families who have lost members from drug use or have loved ones struggling with substance use, in common with institutions such as BC Coroners Office and BC Centre on Substance Use, believes that the urgent priority is to stop the deaths. Arguments that money should be put into enforcement and recovery, rather than a safe supply, ignore the realities of addiction, McBain says. Leslie McBain “A person who dies from a toxic drug supply will never go into recovery. People who don’t understand the concept of safe supply also don’t understand what addiction is and how people have to live their lives when they are addicted. People are forced to go to the toxic supply on the street. It’s Russian roulette,” she says. Safe supply and decriminalization, although politically controversial, are far from fringe concepts. The BC Centre on Substance Use (BCCSU) has issued a paper suggesting heroin compassion clubs be established, and Provincial Health Officer Dr Bonnie Henry has called for decriminalization, urging politicians to regard the overdose crisis as a public health issue, not a criminal justice matter. Safe supply and decriminalization would keep people out of the justice system; public benefits would include a reduction in criminal activity and wresting control of the drug trade—and resultant money-laundering activities—from organized crime. Coroners Service statistics show that fentanyl was detected in more than 85 percent of illicit drug toxicity deaths in 2018 and 2019. Carfentanil, an animal sedative many times more powerful than fentanyl, was found in more than 100 cases this year—an increase of 240 percent over the previous year. Andy Watson, spokesperson for BC Coroners Service, says, “Sadly, fentanyl continues to be the main issue, leading to the existence of a toxic drug supply across British Columbia. In fact, four in every five illicit drug toxicity deaths in BC have fentanyl detected in the post-mortem testing.” That’s why the Coroner is advocating for access to safe supply: “If you provide a safe drug supply for people who use substance, there is less risk,” says Watson. The 690 deaths actually represent a 33 percent decrease over the 1,037 deaths in the same eight months last year, but it is not necessarily an indication that the opioid crisis is easing, notes former Provincial Health Officer Dr Perry Kendall, now interim co-executive director at the BC Centre on Substance Use. “If you look at the actual number of overdoses that are being attended, we are not seeing a drop in overdoses and we are not seeing a drop in the severity of overdoses. What you are seeing is that we are getting pretty good at pulling people back from an overdose,” says Kendall. Kendall acknowledges that a safe supply of drugs is not a cure-all, and must be combined with new programs to build resilience against drugs, particularly among young people, and better intervention, treatment and recovery systems. “But, if we don’t stop people dying, there won’t be people able to go into recovery. It’s not one or the other,” he says. Watson also noted that harm reduction measures are partially responsible for the drop in the number of deaths. “If it was not for the treatment and harm reduction measures in place, we understand from our partners there would have been at least twice the number of deaths since 2016 when the public health emergency was declared,” he says. Among the most important of those harm reduction measures are supervised consumption and overdose prevention sites—there have been no deaths reported after more than 300,000 injections at such facilities. And more than 1,000 overdoses were reversed. Understandably, most advocates want to see such services expanded. Victoria has seen 35 deaths so far this year, compared to 98 for the same period in 2018, but the City remains in the top three drug death communities in BC. Northern Vancouver Island has seen an increase in the number of deaths. ADDICTION TO THE POWERFUL DRUGS is often fast and unanticipated. “Choice is only in the first few times. Addiction happens and then it’s often no longer a choice for a person,” says McBain. And there is no easy way out. Clarke has tried methadone and suboxone programs and spent time at Guthrie House Therapeutic Community at Nanaimo Correctional Centre and several other treatment and rehabilitation centres to try and quit his drug use—with no long-term success. Jail time, sometimes with involuntary periods of cold turkey, taught him how to commit crimes such as credit card fraud, and put him in touch with groups involved in the drug trade. “I found new, innovative ways to get my fix,” admits Clarke, whose drug use started after childhood abuse and family addiction problems. Few people are likely to kick their addiction while in jail or while they are homeless, so new approaches are needed, says McBain, who also advocates for more harm-reduction services and increased help in homing people and addressing poverty. Reverend Al Tysick of the Dandelion Society, who works with Victoria’s most vulnerable population, cautions that, although decriminalization and safe supply would help, long-term solutions must prioritize housing, better access to mental health care, well-regulated treatment centres, and giving people on welfare sufficient money to live on. “We’ve tried to tackle it piece by piece and it hasn’t solved the problem. We’ve never looked at it as a whole…It’s a vast puzzle, and one piece of the puzzle cannot solve the issues we are facing,” says Tysick, acknowledging that a multi-faceted approach would be extremely expensive. But, he adds, “I think we are wealthy enough to solve it.” Access to well-regulated, intense treatment centres is essential, says Martin (last name withheld), a 20-year-old who has been clean for 10 months after a downward spiral into drugs and crime that started in high school. After several failed attempts, Martin checked in to a privately-run recovery home, based on the 12-step program, that counselled and mentored him 24 hours a day over nine months—in contrast to some government-funded recovery homes where treatment can be minimal, with no daytime supervision. The only problem is cost, as most people cannot afford the treatment, says Martin, whose family has helped financially. One of Clarke’s biggest regrets is the effect on his family the night he overdosed on fentanyl, shortly after being released from jail, and was found on the floor of his family home by his niece. “I thought all the kids had gone to bed and I decided to do fentanyl. I knew people were dying all over the place, but I didn’t think anything of it. I went from sitting on a chair to being on the floor of the kitchen with all the kids surrounding me and crying. I could hear someone screaming,” says Clarke, who was given naloxone by ambulance attendants. Naloxone, which reverses the effect of overdoses from opioids such as heroin and fentanyl, has saved thousands of lives, and is another vital part of BC’s harm-reduction strategies, with take-home kits widely distributed around the province. For Clarke, that night proved that BC’s harm-reduction policies are working. “I probably wouldn’t be here today if it wasn’t for harm reduction,” he says. However, like many others in BC, treatment options for Clarke have failed, and his worries about being returned to jail are sometimes overwhelming. Yet, as a continuing drug user, he remains at risk from a tainted drug supply. In addition to the death toll, an increasing concern among first responders and medical professionals is the after-effects of naloxone, which can be followed by an overwhelming need to find another fix to avoid going into withdrawal. “It’s like, ‘I almost died that time, but I needed another fix right now,’” says Clarke, who is continuing to use crystal meth and fentanyl, obtained from a dealer who he believes is providing safe doses. He then treats his anxiety with Ativan and Xanax. ISLAND HEALTH CHIEF MEDICAL OFFICER Dr Richard Stanwick worries that, combined with an upsurge in the use of crystal meth, which also affects the brain, long-term care facilities are going to be needed for people who have survived overdoses. “Sometimes people are being brought back five times in a single day, which is not necessarily going to be good for your brain, because of episodes of oxygen starvation,” Stanwick says. “There are some really disturbing trends. It’s a very fluid drug scene.” Dr Richard Stanwick Island Health walks a tightrope when it comes to innovative measures, as there are no government policies promoting safe supply or decriminalization. “But, on a trial basis, and under the auspices of the state of emergency, it does appear we are going to continue to look at alternative ways of saving lives,” Stanwick says. More than 3,000 individuals on Vancouver Island are receiving methadone or suboxone. And, under tight control, a new injectable pharmaceutical-grade opioid treatment for chronic, severe opioid addiction is being offered to some residents of Johnson Street Community at 844 Johnson. The twice-daily injections are offered to those who have not benefitted from options such as methadone. It is likely another Vancouver Island centre will open shortly. Stanwick describes it as pushing the boundaries in an effort to save lives. “It is increasing our menu of options. It is life-saving because the risk out there is so severe, but…we’re not giving out free drugs to anyone. That’s the last thing anyone wants to do,” he says. Despite the success of supervised consumption sites, the latest statistics show that the majority of deaths occur in private residences, hotels or shelters, and that is a major concern, notes Stanwick. “Somehow, we are still not breaking that stigma barrier where people are dying alone. It’s so hard to figure out what to do,” he admits. Kendall points to the all-too-common attitude that people who abuse drugs are responsible for their own problems—and that it is a moral failing rather than a chronic health problem—lying at the root of the inadequate response to the situation. DESPITE MORE THAN 12,800 OPIOID-RELATED DEATHS across Canada between January 2016 and March 2019, the issue has gained remarkably little political traction, although provision of harm- reduction services has required municipal, provincial and federal governments to work together. At times, health authorities in BC have pushed the limits legally to provide safe injection sites, such as when faced with opposition from former Prime Minister Stephen Harper, who unsuccessfully tried to shut down Vancouver’s Insite. BC declared a public health emergency in 2016, but the federal government has not followed suit. Decriminalization technically falls under federal laws, although enforcement varies widely in different communities, with de facto decriminalization already being practiced in some communities. In Victoria, police rarely prosecute cases of minor drug possession. The provincial government has said it cannot change the law, but Dr Henry noted in her “Stopping The Harm” report that the Province could amend the Police Act to achieve the objective. “This could include declaring a public health and harm-reduction approach as a provincial priority to guide law enforcement in decriminalizing and de-stigmatizing people who use drugs,” says Henry’s report. Portugal, which adopted a decriminalization approach in 2001—switching simple drug possession from a criminal to an administrative offence—is held up as an example of how decriminalization can work, especially when linked to intensive treatment strategies and harm reduction. The strategy has resulted in more people seeking treatment, fewer deaths, and no increase in drug use. Kendall says he would favour a similar system. “We decriminalize, and we find people who are at risk, and they would get an assessment by a physician or a nurse,” Kendall suggests. “Then, if we had something similar to the Portuguese system, you could be offered a treatment program—whether for alcohol or stimulants or opioids or, if you were deemed to be at ongoing risk of death or brain damage from illegal drugs, you would be eligible to pick up a certain amount of pharmaceutical opioids,” says Kendall. In the hyper-heated political atmosphere of the recent federal election campaign, the Conservatives described decriminalization and adding more safe consumption sites as “terrible” ideas, while the Liberals promised more treatment services and an expansion of programs such as safe consumption sites, but avoided commitments to safe drug supply or decriminalization. The NDP supported decriminalization and expanded treatment options, while the Greens promised decriminalization and “access to a screened supply.” “It seems to be a political third rail for almost every party,” says Kendall, speculating that the issue is too hot to touch politically. McBain is exasperated that governments are failing to recognize the severity of the public health crisis. “The people in power, who hold the purse strings, have not got the will or courage to make the really hard decisions, some of which are decriminalization and implementing safe supply,” she says. “We are in the middle of a wildfire and we do have access to water…The solutions are right in front of us and we can’t access them,” says McBain, who lost her only child, 25-year-old Jordan Miller, to an accidental opioid overdose five years ago after he became addicted to pain killers prescribed for a back injury. The figures should speak for themselves when it comes to the need to stop the deaths, according to Kendall. Last year, 4,488 Canadians died from opioid overdoses—which translates into about one death every two hours. “A Boeing Max 737 carries about 220 people, and when two of those go down in the world, every Max 737 is grounded. Then look at the number of people that are dying in BC and Canada—it’s planeloads,” says Kendall, adding, “Stop the deaths, stop the brain damage. As a humanitarian, I think it has to come, unless we are content to continue to see this kind of damage happening. It’s not just legalization, it’s building an evidence-based accessible continuum of care that includes effective recovery as well as maintenance programs.” Judith Lavoie is an award-winning journalist specializing in the environment, First Nations, and social issues. Twitter @LavoieJudith
  22. 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
  23. 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
  24. 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
  25. 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.
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