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Leslie Campbell

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  1. Women Talking (Vintage Canada, 2019) is a mesmerizing, fast-moving, powerful little book. Yet it’s almost entirely based on conversation—eight women talking—in a barn’s hayloft, over the course of two clandestine meetings. Like many women’s conversations, this one meanders, often going off on tangents, but it all helps them understand their dilemma and what to do about it. That dilemma is whether to stay in or leave the small, ultra-conservative Mennonite settlement in Bolivia that they’ve lived in all their lives. Will they acquiesce in their complete domination by men who have failed to protect them and who want them to forgive eight men who have been arrested for raping many women in the colony? This aspect of the story is based on real events that occurred in the remote “Manitoba/Molotschna” colony in Bolivia from 2005 to 2009: eight men were arrested after over 100 women and their daughters (ages ranged from 3 to 65) were raped in a drug-induced sleep. Though the drug wiped out most of their memories of the events, the women knew something had happened. Some thought it was demons. Some were too afraid or ashamed to talk about it; those who did were initially dismissed as imagining things. Women Talking is an act of wild female imagination—the very thing the real women who complained of the rapes were initially accused of. For the women to leave Molotschna would be a truly revolutionary and courageous act. They would have to do it almost immediately, while most of the colony’s men are in the city trying to arrange bail for the arrestees. They would have to take their children, animals, wagons (no cars or electricity in Molotschna) and supplies. They have no map and cannot read; they cannot speak Spanish (or English). Yet a decision must be made. They talk through the realities of their position, each woman contributing her insights, logic, anger, and love for each other and their children. At first, I wondered if I’d be able to keep the eight women straight. But soon each came to life as individuals. Ona, the free spirit carrying the child of her rapist; Agata, her mom, who suffers from edema and impatiently reigns in tangential discussions; righteous Salome who chafes at authority at the best of times and whose anger is “Vesuvius” because her three-year-old daughter has been raped; chain-smoking, clear-thinking Mejal; Mariche whose husband beats her yet is still very wary of leaving; her mom Greta who is determined to take her two beloved old mares Cheryl and Ruth on the journey; and two teenage girls, who are excited by the chance of an adventure, resourceful, risk-taking, and inspired, for the most part, by their older sisters (though they can’t help rolling their eyes—or giggling—at certain points in the meetings). The women’s conversation is narrated by school teacher August Epp, the one man they trust right now. Epp left the colony at age 12 (his parents were banned) and returned as an adult trying to make sense of himself. The women have asked him to record their conversation, but not to interfere or interrupt. He is mostly able to do so, though adds helpful observations and background in his “minutes”—and commits his own acts of revolution by assisting them in more concrete ways over the two days of decision-making (for instance, he steals the colony’s safe to help them finance their sojourn). Despite the violence and betrayal the women have experienced, and the rage, fear and grief they feel, the story bursts with tenderness and humour—indeed sometimes gales of laughter at absurdities in their lives. Canadian author Miriam Toews is a master story-teller. I’ve read most of her other books and look forward to more. She is particularly adept at capturing women’s complicated lives and their journeys to liberation. Women Talking was a Governor General Award finalist.
  2. May 22, 2020 IN A RECENT Guardian column, Lucy Jones called being attentive to nature “a healthy form of escapism.” I couldn’t agree more. It’s the greatest gift we can get from lockdown, she notes; and the evidence that being in nature helps with healing, grieving, fear and loneliness is growing. (And that’s in addition to the vast ecosystem services nature provides, from water to carbon storage and well beyond.) My hope is that we try to “repay” nature for such gifts. The upheaval of life-as-we-knew-it does gives us an opportunity, not just to slow down and revel in near nature, but to save it as well. News sites and social media indicate more people the world over are taking notice and falling in love with nature right in their own backyards. Not just a glancing sort of notice but a deeper, longer, more contemplative type of awareness, one that leads to seeking out more knowledge about the plants and animals with which we share the Earth. The more we understand about our fellow creatures, the more we care about them—and the more we make connections between the health of those backyard biota and the need to protect the environment, including taking aggressive action against carbon emissions. One backyard creature I cannot help but notice right now is the Rufous hummingbird (Selasphorus rufus). We have swarms of these feisty little jewels at our feeders—I just upped my daily sugar-water production from six to eight cups to meet their demands. These tiny “notably pugnacious” birds arrive here from points far south, making journeys of over 3,200 kilometres. Wintering in Mexico, some nest here on the Island, others head further north, right up to Alaska—further north than any other type of hummingbird. Female Rufous hummingbird Their populations have been declining, and with the climate crisis and the decline of insect prey due to pesticides, they will be faced with existential challenges. These globe-trotting birds must hit many different habitats at just the right moment to meet their needs. An interactive map at Audubon.org shows that even at +1.5 degrees C scenario, most coastal areas of Vancouver Island will not be suitable habitat for them. (Unfortunately, the planet is already at about +1 degrees C above pre-industrial temperatures.) It’s terrifically sad to contemplate a world without these little jewel-like creatures. Yet such contemplation is a step towards saving them. Understanding how their survival depends on humans radically reducing their carbon emissions and pesticide use, helps motivate me on those fronts. It seems the least I can do to repay the many gifts nature provides. (I am pleased they appreciate my gift of sugar-water as well.) ON THAT OTHER CRISIS FRONT: In recent days, the BC government has reported fewer new cases of COVID-19. Ten yesterday; but other days, 8, 2, 15, 7, 9, 14. So we are flattening the curve. But we are still being admonished that we cannot go back to “normal” yet. Non-essential travel and large get-togethers are out. We’ve been officially urged by Canada’s Chief Public Health Officer, Dr Theresa Tam, to wear a mask in public. While many businesses re-opened starting May 19, they are operating with very non-normal restrictions in place—one at a time service, lots of extra cleaning, and the like. Business inspections are being made to ensure compliance. FOCUS clients tell me they are exhausted trying to keep their businesses alive. Late last week we learned that Dance Victoria, Pacific Opera Victoria and the Victoria Symphony have all cancelled their seasons through next spring. Over 8 million Canadians have applied for the Canada Emergency Response Benefit, millions more are on the wage subsidy, and large businesses are now eligible for $60 million-plus loans. Oh, and Worksafe BC, the lead agency on getting us re-opened safely, lost close to $3 billion in the stock market collapse. There’s abundant evidence that we are far from normal. I welcome your response, either as a comment below or privately through the “Contact Us” button at the bottom of this page. If you are taking photos of native plants and animals, you might be interested in our Mapping Nature project, here.
  3. There will be a virtual celebration of John Gould’s The End of Me this Sunday, May 24. THIS ZOOM LINK will take you to the launch of John Gould’s The End of Me: Sunday, May 24, 2020, 2 p.m. Pacific / 5 p.m. Eastern. THIS FACEBOOK LINK will take you to the event page, where, if you like, you can let us know if you’ll be able to join us. John will be joined by Kelsey Attard of Freehand Books, and by fellow authors Sara Cassidy and Julie Paul, who’ll pepper him with questions from the audience (via Zoom chat) and with questions of their own.
  4. Posted January 2019 Photo: The ironically-named Bellewood Park development will see the removal of 29 trees, including Garry oaks and the two giant sequoias in the background. Residents are mobilizing to protect one of the city’s greatest natural charms, increasingly threatened by development. Go to story
  5. Posted May 2019 Photo: The only record provided by the City to support its contention that it had “explored a number of alternative designs” were two pages of a staff member’s notebook. The demise of the Humboldt “Innovation Tree” leads a citizen to investigate the City’s decision-making. Go to story
  6. March 2020 A growing budget, a lack of transparency, and a boundary-challenged City Council all merit voters’ attention. IN THIS EDITION OF FOCUS, Ross Crockford interviews candidates running in the April 4 City of Victoria by-election. Who voters choose will provide the current council with some feedback on its direction thus far, so it’s a good time to reflect on recent governance issues and talk to candidates about them. One area of concern is the growth of the City budget and residents’ tax burden. This is central, especially in the face of a climate crisis. Keeping spending in check is both highly practical and a matter of planetary survival. Growth costs us in earthly resources and climate stability. Reducing our collective footprint is the best way to ensure future generations have a place to live. Victoria City Council, sans Laurel Collins The City can’t be a climate leader without figuring out how to make government more efficient and less demanding of more and more resources, in the form of tax dollars or otherwise. Ultimately, it’s nature that pays for it all. The City’s budget for 2020 will be finalized at the end of April after property assessments are finalized. Land values have gone up in recent years due, at least in part, to City policies around development. The City’s new budget, with its proposed $265 million for operating expenses and $43 million for capital expenses, will require an approximate hike in property taxes and utilities of 3.32 percent. The mayor has boasted about adding new programs and services, while keeping tax increases to the rate of inflation plus one percent. For an average residential home ($805,000 assessment), the proposed total municipal property taxes and utility user fees will be approximately $3,605, an increase of $116 over 2019 (on top of a similar increase last year). Property taxes ($140 million) and utilities (about $40 million) comprise the lion’s share of the revenue side of the budget, with parking fees, grants and other revenue providing the rest. In 2019, the “New Property Tax Revenue from New Development” provided an extra $3.7 million and was used to fund such things as more mayor’s office support ($114k), the urban forest management plan ($858k), an Indigenous artist in residence ($72k), a disability coordinator ($128.5k), a climate outreach specialist ($106k), and a climate grant writer ($117k). The draft 2020 budget notes that it is only in recent years—since 2015—that council has used this revenue to fund services. It used to be used solely to reduce taxes and help fund reserves. In a survey about the budget, residents were asked how the City should allocate new tax revenues from development: 55 percent of the 5,100 respondents said “reduce the tax increase.” Half of respondents also said “save for future infrastructure investment.” Only 16 percent responded “invest in new initiatives,” yet that appears to be what the City has done since Mayor Helps was elected in 2014. That same survey showed over half of respondents wanted service levels cut in order to maintain or reduce taxes. An exception in terms of increasing the budget was made for VicPD, where 67 percent judged current spending too low. Council has resisted the Police Board’s requests for additional funds in the past, forcing the Province to step in and order increased funding. This year, it looks like VicPD will get its requested four extra officers. Every new initiative has costs—even if you get a grant from the Feds or Province, and especially if it’s from new development which increases the need for—and maintenance of—all sorts of public infrastructure, from libraries and schools to roads, parks and sewage treatment, as well as services like policing. The new revenue from development is a pittance when considered against all the costs. Reducing our footprint cannot be achieved with continual growth in spending, whether on an individual consumer level, or by government. Climate leadership, then, involves showing how we can do more with less. And sometimes do without. TRANSPARENCY IS AN ESSENTIAL INGREDIENT of an accountable government, and another issue worthy of consideration on voting day. The City of Victoria likes to think of itself as transparent and communicative, but a recent example shows it needs to do some work. In looking into the City’s climate action plan last December, and finding that its greenhouse gas inventory had been done by Stantec, we wondered how much that had cost. The City’s Statement of Financial Information (SOFI) for 2017 and 2018 noted Stantec had been paid $249,629.95 and $211,874.53, respectively. Municipal governments are required by the Province to produce a SOFI annually. It’s supposed to provide a basic level of accountability. Our inquiry was about one line on a long list of outside suppliers who, in 2018, charged the City a total of $110 million. That amounted to 42 percent of the City’s operating budget. The SOFI names the vendors and puts a dollar figure beside each name. But how can the public know how its money is being spent without a little more detail? Could we find out what work Stantec did for the City that cost taxpayers nearly a quarter of a million a year? Focus asked the City’s “engagement” office what services Stantec provided for those sums. It seemed a simple request to the office that responds to simple requests for information from media. But our simple request for information was directed to the City’s information access and privacy analyst. In a number of lengthy, confusing emails, the analyst noted the “complications” in answering Focus’ question: Two days of work would be required due to, among other things, the accounting system, the multiple departments that might have used Stantec, the 7 different vendor record types for Stantec (with 37 invoices, for example, for just one); and the fact that 2017 records were stored offsite. The official concluded with: “Therefore, under section 6 (Duty to Assist) the City is not required to provide the information you are seeking as it would ‘unreasonably interfere with the operations’ of the City.” We persisted, and eventually we asked a question simple enough that the City could answer. In February, we received a one-page record (see link at end of story) from the City’s FOI office showing City ledger entries for Stantec in 2017 and 2018. Among other things, it showed a 2017 charge for over $83,000 for climate action consulting, and another $924 in 2018. (Which was interesting because we had been told earlier that Stantec was paid $17,587 for the emissions inventory —which, as shown in Focus’ last edition, the City manipulated in such a way as to be unrecognizable.) We found the Kafkaesque response to our simple inquiry revealing. No one at City Hall could easily tell us where nearly $500,000 was spent. The City is meeting its legal requirement to produce an annual Statement of Financial Information. But its ability to provide even a slightly deeper level of detail is very limited. There’s no true transparency. Supplier payments, by the way, have increased a whopping 40 percent since 2015 when Mayor Helps took office. It wouldn’t be so bad if, say, staff costs had gone down, but they have increased 10 percent over her mayoralty, with more coming. In 2020, the number of employees will rise another 20-plus to 882. A THIRD, CENTRAL QUESTION TO CONSIDER on by-election day is: What is the role of City Council, anyway? This has become important to answer because Victoria councillors have pushed the boundaries about what a councillor should spend time on—from the removal of Sir John A’s statue through proclamations on subjects that civic governments have no authority over. Is council wasting precious time and resources? It has been argued that council’s amorphous mandate is not just wasteful, but is causing unnecessary divides in our community as councillors move from overseeing City operations to more ideological stands. Questions about council’s role peaked when Councillor Ben Isitt lobbied for a 50 percent raise for council members to a base salary of over $70,000. In the survey of 5,100 mentioned above, 86 percent said, in effect, fugget about it! Some councillors—Isitt included—already make close to $70k with CRD board and committee activities (Mayor Helps about double that). They also get full dental and extended health benefits, and their pay is indexed to the cost of living. They do have to prepare for and attend a lot of meetings. Maybe a $45-70k salary is not enough, but in what kind of fantasyland does one imagine a 50 percent raise? Should it be viewed as a full-time professional-level job? Or modestly-compensated community service, representing City residents on policies? I am looking forward to hearing the views of by-election candidates on such matters. One thing the City Council and those 5,000 citizens agreed on was that priority number one is “Good Governance.” And surely that includes being careful, frugal even, with resources. On the eve of both the by-election and the 50th anniversary of Earth Day, Leslie Campbell reminds readers that a healthy, climate-stable environment needs citizens who don’t forget to vote. She also gives thanks to the candidates for sticking their necks out. FOI release of records from City of Victoria: Payments to Stantec in 2017 and 2018 VIC-2019-121 Responsive record.pdf353.51 kB · 20 downloads
  7. January 2020 The biodiversity and climate crises are a reflection of our culture’s emphasis on economic growth. WHILE I WON’T BE ALIVE when the worst effects of the climate and biodiversity crises play out, children born today will be; and I think we owe it to them to be clear-eyed and fierce in our efforts to leave them a healthy planet. This edition of Focus, our entry into a pivotal new year and decade, provides thought-provoking reporting and analysis about the challenges of growth in the region, and what we are and are not doing to maintain the natural world on which we depend. Like Focus’ writers, Greta Thunberg is a refreshing witness to our current situation because she doesn’t skirt around the truth. At last September’s UN Climate Action Summit, she famously told world leaders, “We are in the beginning of a mass extinction and all you can talk about is money and fairytales of eternal economic growth. How dare you!” The dark side of planet Earth (Photo by NASA) It seems apparent that “business as usual”—especially eternal economic growth—is a recipe for the end of much that we cherish on this planet. Many species are going extinct with predictions of more to come as climate change wreaks its havoc. Our own species may have difficulty feeding itself, and many parts of the Earth will simply become too hot and dry for habitation. As Stephen Hume writes in this edition, sea level rise and flooding will progressively render coastal areas unliveable. Climate refugees are already searching for new homes and will grow in numbers, challenging the rest of us to make them welcome. As disasters unfold, however, our GDP (Gross Domestic Product), as a measure of economic activity, will go up. This shows the inadequacy of the GDP as a yardstick of well-being or progress, and certainly of sustainability. Even the economist who developed it in 1934 warned it couldn’t be considered an indicator of well-being. Through the decades, its ups and downs have been reliably in synch with ecological destruction. It has always been easy to notice that rising GDP or economic growth comes with noise, waste and pollution, and that it is perfectly compatible with worsening poverty. But the reality that economic growth also ripped up the Earth and its ecosystems—and warmed the atmosphere—was somewhat hidden behind the scenes. Science and the environmental movement have removed our blinders. We now know (or should) that infinite growth on a finite planet is beyond unsustainable, it’s disastrously destructive. Many advocate replacing the GDP with other yardsticks as a truer reflection of the well-being of a population—from Bhutan with its Gross National Happiness, to University of Waterloo’s Canadian Index of Wellness. The Green New Deal seems to have a more holistic approach, as does the “triple bottom line.” And there’s a growing chorus in support of a “steady state economy” or “degrowth.” Proponents include the likes of E.O. Wilson, Jane Goodall, and David Suzuki. According to the Center for the Advancement of the Steady State Economy, “In a steady state economy, people consume enough to meet their needs and lead meaningful, joyful lives without undermining the life-support systems of the planet. They choose to consume energy and materials responsibly, conserving, economizing, and recycling where appropriate…Personal and societal decisions about how much to consume take into account sustainability principles and the needs of future generations.” Technological progress still exists in such a vision, but is driven by the need for better goods and services, as opposed to quantity. A UK scholar, Joe Herbert, takes it a step further, writing: “degrowth argues for establishing more localized economies, which reduce the reliance on high-emission international trade flows. By strengthening the role of co-operatives, solidarity and sharing economies, production processes could be democratically organized around social and ecological well-being, rather than the resource-insatiable profit motive…degrowth not only provides a practical route out of climate breakdown but also offers the prospect of simpler, more fulfilling ways of living, where more time can be dedicated to community, relationships and creative pursuits. To reframe [Robert] Kennedy’s words, degrowth truly has the power to prioritize the things which make life worthwhile.” On the other hand, a system which relies on continual growth will continue to exploit the planet’s natural resources, destroying ecosystems and the atmosphere that supports us all. As David Broadland shows in this edition, we are trashing our coastal forests, a natural gift, centuries in the making. The BC government and industry brag that such forestry—much of it in the form of raw logs shipped to Asia—is our largest export and a valued contributor to our GDP. But as David’s numbers illustrate, given an accounting of the carbon emissions involved, it is utterly nonsensical, resulting in a “carbon bomb” surpassing even that of the oilsands. Moreover, we are blowing the opportunity for an incredible carbon capture and storage system. Our forests, if re-imagined, could transform BC and Canada’s carbon footprint and the well-being of future generations. THE HIGH LEVEL OF CONSUMPTION we in the developed nations engage in results in high levels of global CO2 emissions. Even our purchases of electric vehicles and solar panels have both emissions and other environmental costs associated with them, as they involve resource extraction, manufacturing, and shipping. Every time the Earth is forced to cough up more resources, biodiversity is impacted. The luxury condos we’ve gained throughout Greater Victoria add to the biodiversity and climate crises. Often marketed to wealthy people from away, often as second homes which they will fly to and from regularly, they strain our infrastructure and have immense environmental costs. The planet and our communities would be better off densifying existing housing stock by encouraging single-family homeowners to host secondary suites and garden suites through innovative programs. Could the CRD or BC Housing help launch local industries to make modular or tiny-home garden suites that could be rented or purchased by homeowners willing to rent to others at an affordable (but not money-losing) rate? Right now it’s simply too costly for most homeowners to finance such homes themselves. While there’s a growing call for a stable or steady-state economy that works for everyone, you won’t find many politicians advocating anything but continual economic growth. In fact, any proposal that might cause just the rate of growth to decline, risks condemnation. This helps explain why, for instance, at the municipal level, virtually all development is welcomed with open arms by city councils (see stories by Judith Lavoie, Briony Penn, and Ross Crockford). Most of them appear to believe growth is always good—so it’s up to us to educate them, or vote them out of office. At the provincial and federal levels, the growth-is-good philosophy plays out in the abuse of forests and the continuing subsidies to the oil and gas industry (see Russ Francis in this edition). Canada’s GDP largely parallels our greenhouse gas emissions which, on a per capita basis, are more than double that of the average of G20 nations. Relevant to coverage in this edition, the Climate Transparency organization highlighted this observation: “In order to stay within the 1.5°C limit, Canada needs to make the land use and forest sector a net sink of emissions, e.g. by halting the expansion of residential areas and by creating new forests.” And it’s critical to start making such changes in 2020, says the research body. But it will be far from easy, and perhaps that’s why, once people get elected to office, they do things like buy an oil pipeline or encourage a bigger tax base through carbon-intensive development. Such government decisions mean our role as citizens, actively encouraging wise, far-sighted policy change, is our most important role. While there are other things we can do at a personal level—from eating a plant-based diet to foregoing fossil-fuel-powered travel and home heating—the larger part of our per-capita footprint comes from our collective economy and the reality that 76 percent of the energy that supports it is from fossil fuels. Taken together, Canadian industries, institutions, the jobs they create and the taxes they and their employees pay, provide public health care, education, transportation infrastructure, waste management, care homes, pensions, social assistance, and on and on. We all benefit from Canada’s collective, carbon-intensive economy. Transforming it will not be easy or comfortable. I think it’s safe to predict the 2020s will be a decade of transformation for us all, on many levels. A well-informed public is crucial to make that transformation happen, so Focus will continue to work on that front—aided by our readers. As our “Readers’ Views” section makes clear, you have a lot to contribute to the discussion. Editor Leslie Campbell wishes Focus readers all the best in 2020, mindful that the best things in life are free, including a sense of community, peaceful times in nature and with friends, meaningful work, watching kittens play…
  8. September 2019 The “duty to document” may sound like boring bureaucratese, but it’s crucial to a functioning democracy. SOMETIMES A MEDIA STORY TAKES SO LONG TO UNFOLD that readers might well wonder why it’s still being told. I imagine that’s the case with the story of former Chief of Police Frank Elsner’s fall from grace. Court battles kept most players—including the Office of Police Complaint Commissioner (OPCC)—quiet for years. But policy-wise, we can lay a lot of the blame for dragging out such stories to highly imperfect access-to-information laws. Information that government relies on to make critical decisions is often just not available to journalists or citizens. Unless the public, often via journalists, has access to all the records behind such decisions, it’s impossible to shine a light on how and where costly mistakes were made, or poor judgement was exercised, and thereby hold public officials accountable—essential ingredients for a healthy democracy. The Elsner case implicates both the City of Victoria and Mayor Helps, as well as the provincial government, for denying the public’s right to know. That denial was made possible, in particular, through a lack of legislation around what’s called “duty to document.” In October 2018, Focus’ David Broadland filed an FOI request with the City (shortly after the OPCC issued its investigation report) for communications between Mayor Helps and Mayor Desjardins during their three-month internal investigation of Elsner. The City transferred that request to the Victoria and Esquimalt Police Board. In the Board’s response, there were virtually no communications between Helps and Desjardins about the drama unfolding around them during September, October and November 2015. When Broadland asked about this, he was told Mayor Help’s emails had been deleted due to “email retention schedules.” But when he asked to see those schedules, the Police Board admitted there were none. Moreover, the Police Board did not have custody and control of Mayor Helps’ emails. The City of Victoria did. In January, Broadland submitted a formal complaint to BC’s Office of the Information and Privacy Commissioner (OIPC) that the City of Victoria had failed to provide complete records. As he pointed out in his January/February Focus report, the City of Victoria has a policy requiring that both electronic and paper records created to “document the operations of the mayor” must be “retained for 10 years overall, and then transferred to Archives for selective retention.” The email record in question was only three years in the past. Finally, in July, we received a response from OIPC Senior Investigator Trevor Presley. He wrote, “Subsequent to your complaint, Rob Gordon [the City’s Information Access and Privacy Analyst] did a second search with a relatively new eDiscovery tool, which did a much more thorough and comprehensive search, including searching for deleted emails. After doing this, he found an additional 271 emails plus 152 pages of attachments which he believed were responsive.” Those emails were released to Focus and, though highly redacted, they did allow some details to be filled in, including around both mayors’ knowledge of sexual harassment and bullying charges against Chief Elsner in the fall of 2015. This is all covered in Broadland’s July/August feature report. Broadland then asked OIPC for an inquiry because he questions some of the redactions. The inquiry has been granted and a date set for October 2020. But right now I want to draw your attention to the way Investigator Presley summed things up: “The main problem here seems to be the deleted emails. I would note there is nothing in FIPPA [Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act] which would require either the City of Victoria or the VEPB [Victoria and Esquimalt Police Board] to retain these emails, nor can the OIPC enforce record retention schedules set by public bodies.” Therein lies a big problem for a functioning democracy. The BC Freedom of Information and Privacy Association (FIPA) and other like-minded groups have been advocating for years that FIPPA legislation must include the duty to document, which “would compel government to document their decision making process so that citizens can exercise their information rights.” As the non-profit organization notes on its website: “The original lawmakers who drafted the FIPPA did not anticipate that government would hold meetings in person and over the phone without writing anything down (a phenomenon known as ‘oral government’), use personal email addresses to conduct government business, and maliciously delete records in order to circumnavigate freedom of information laws (a practice known as ‘triple-delete’). But unfortunately that is now the reality in which we are living.” The NDP promised two years ago to amend the almost-30-year-old FIPPA to include a duty to document. When the Liberal government was caught in 2015 purposely “triple deleting” communications about the Highway of Tears, the NDP had a lot to say. And well they should. It involved willful destruction of publicly owned, government records—records essential for transparency and accountability. (In the end, one government employee got fined $2,500—not for destroying the records, as there are no rules or penalties for that, but for lying about it under oath during Information and Privacy Commissioner Elizabeth Denham’s investigation.) Current and former Information and Privacy Commissioners have urged the provincial government to amend FIPPA to include a duty to document. Denham’s cogent and strongly worded Access Denied report describes it as necessary to restore public confidence and make clear that the government does not endorse an “oral culture” devised to avoid accountability. BC’s current Attorney General David Eby, as part of an all-party special legislative committee on the subject in 2016, made a specific recommendation to include a duty to document within FIPPA. Among the many risks of poor record retention cited in that all-party report was this one from David Loukidelis, QC (a former Information and Privacy Commissioner): “Loss of public confidence in government over time due to the perception that the absence of documentation reflects a deliberate tactic to hide, among other things, wrongdoing (including corruption or favouritism).” During the 2017 election campaign, the NDP unequivocally committed to updating FIPPA and including a duty to document. Unfortunately, since they’ve been in power, nothing has been done. In fact, they muddied the waters last spring when they passed changes to another act, the Information Management Act, bragging about them as a Canadian first. Vincent Gogolek, FIPA’s executive director, called the changes “a pathetic excuse for a response to massive pressure for action on this issue. A legal duty uses the words ‘must’ or ‘shall,’ not the word ‘may.’” BC’s current Information and Privacy Commissioner Michael McEvoy condemned the NDP’s legislation as ineffective and cynical: “As it now stands, the Information Management Act designates the Minister herself as primarily responsible for ensuring her Ministry’s compliance with the duty to document decisions. Citizens would find it very surprising that, on its face, the current law makes a Minister responsible for investigating her own conduct.” And it gets worse: guess who, within a couple of months of the bill passing, was found to be using her personal email address to conduct government business in order to circumvent Freedom of Information laws—laws which she oversees? Minister of Citizens’ Services Jinny Sims—who had a year earlier already been caught doing the same thing. Seriously. Perhaps the capper is that the Information Management Act applies to only 41 public bodies, not the 2,900 that come under FIPPA legislation, where duty to document really needs to be enshrined—as mandatory (the City’s non-mandatory records retention policy illustrating why). And it has to have significant penalties to be meaningful. Finally, implementation and enforcement of proper documentation must come under the jurisdiction of the independent Information and Privacy Commissioner. Unfortunately, it seems once a party is in power, at any level of government, the public’s right to know how decisions have been made sinks way down the priority list. Looking at the federal situation, a duty to document was never part of Bill C-58, the long-overdue federal attempt to update information access legislation dating back to 1983. In 2016, federal, provincial and territorial commissioners issued a joint resolution calling for—the third time, they noted—a legislated duty to document accompanied by effective oversight and enforcement provisions. Passed in June 2019, the new federal regulations were largely panned by those on the side of transparency for, among other things, excluding prime ministers’ and cabinet ministers’ records from access coverage, and for not including a duty to document. In my research, I was surprised to come across an example used by the federal Information Commissioner to illustrate the importance of duty to document. It related to Transport Canada’s behaviour in relation to the Victoria harbour airport, the focus of my feature report last month. The investigation of Transport Canada, the commissioner’s report stated, “revealed that the institution had taken no notes or minutes at some of the regular meetings officials had held with the City of Victoria, especially meetings related to the expansion of the harbour in 2010.” At the commissioner’s urging, Transport Canada eventually came up with 10 pages. I could give more examples of how journalists and citizens alike have been frustrated—perhaps disgusted is a more apt description—at the seeming disregard of public officials, all paid by taxpayers, to maintain proper records of how they arrived at their decisions. Given the paucity of records, it sometimes seems decisions are made in a cavalier fashion. A recent Victoria example of this, shown through a citizen’s FOI, was the removal of the Innovation Tree at Humboldt and Government Streets. And there’s always the worry that some sort of corruption or influence from improper quarters is being applied. How can we know—unless it’s all fully documented and accessible under the law? Did you know September 28 is Right to Know Day? Editor Leslie Campbell recommends the BC Freedom of Information and Privacy Association’s website fipa.bc.ca. Empower yourself through one of their free FOI workshops.
  9. March 2019 Holes in the new local elections financing act give an advantage to incumbents. That’s not necessarily in the public interest. SOON AFTER the BC NDP formed the government in 2017, they delivered on some promises around election financing for both provincial and municipal elections. On the announcement regarding local elections, everyone seemed happy. News reports from that fall quote multiple politicians and organizations like the Union of BC Municipalities, not to mention Minister of Municipal Affairs Selina Robinson, saying it’s about time to get money out of politics, to end the Wild West reputation we’d earned, and level the playing field. Chief among the new rules were, first, a ban on donations from corporations and unions, donations that in the past often fuelled many campaigns; and, second, a cap of $1,200 per year for individual donations. I assumed such regulations would rein in the campaigns of higher-spending candidates and level out the playing field somewhat. I was wrong. And it appears the government knows that more needs to be done. Even before last October’s civic elections, when it became clear there were some big holes that money could still flow through, Minister Robinson was already promising to review the rules. All candidates had to submit their disclosure reports on their campaign donations and expenditures by January 18. They were posted at Elections BC soon thereafter. Somewhat surprisingly, there has been no analysis in local media, at least that I could find. I suppose the new regulations have helped, but seasoned political operatives have, by the looks of it, found ways to play by the new rules while still drumming up lots of money to promote their candidates. Let’s look at Mayor Helps’ disclosure statement as an example of what can be done within the rules. The new formula upon which campaign expense limits are based resulted in Helps being limited to $54,121.50. (The formula is $1 for each resident in the municipality up to 15,000 and then $.55 for each additional person.) Helps spent $52,611 during the campaign period, so was within the limit. Lisa Helps (right) outspent Stephen Hammond (left) 4 to 1 in winning the Victoria mayoralty contest in October 2018 However, the “campaign period” only covers the month before voting day. During the “election period,” which runs from January 1 to “the 29th day prior to voting day” (nine months), she spent an additional $51,359. Or $103,970 in total—quite a bit more than the $88,564 she spent in the 2014 election. There is no limit on how much a candidate can spend during the “election period.” Elections BC Communications Coordinator Melanie Hull told Focus, “The expense limits apply to campaign period expenses only.” Candidates had to record their donations starting January 1 of the election year, but spending limits didn’t take effect until the official campaign period began on September 22. This timing loophole favours incumbents who know they will run in the next election. Hypothetically, the new rules would allow unlimited lobbying for donations during the period an incumbent was still in office and making decisions. That incumbency could attract potential donors. Money raised early on could be spent, for example, on staff dedicated to fundraising and/or on a long-term social media campaign. Based on the description of Helps’ heavy spending during the “election period” in her disclosure form, she could have had a fundraiser and robust social media campaign well ahead of the campaign period. These days, that’s a big advantage. As it turned out, Helps’ spent a surprising amount of money for each vote she received. Her nearest competitor, for instance, was Stephen Hammond. He got 8,717 votes, compared to Helps’ 12,642 votes. So Helps spent $8.22 per vote, while Hammond spent $2.20 (he spent a total of $19,143, including $3,716 for his own campaign and $15,427 from newcouncil.ca, an electoral organization). On a per-vote basis, Helps spent about four times what Hammond did. Other mayoral candidates in Victoria also spent far less than Helps. In a weird sort of way, it’s reassuring that even with all the funds at her disposal, all her experience and name recognition, she still earned only 44 percent of the votes for mayor. While the money strengthens a campaign, and definitely makes for an uneven playing field, spending a lot more money may have diminishing returns. It’s also interesting to look at other municipalities of roughly the same size to see what their per-mayoralty-vote expenditures are. Maple Ridge, whose politics I know nothing about, has a population close to that of the City of Victoria. As a result, the campaign period spending limit for mayoralty candidates was similar: $54,992. The successful candidate, also an incumbent, spent a total of $43,604, far less than Helps. Michael Mordon received 11,287 votes, which works out to $3.86 per vote. Again, much lower than Helps. Closer to home, Fred Haynes in Saanich spent $70,436 and harvested 15,312 votes, at a cost of $4.60 per vote. In Kelowna, incumbent Colin Basran won the mayoral race at a cost of $4.22 per vote. Even in the City of Vancouver, where campaigns had been raising and spending millions in previous elections, the new Mayor Kennedy Stewart spent only $6.23 per vote for the 50,000 votes he received. (His total expenses were $310,337 over the two periods.) It’s actually pretty hard to find any mayoral candidate in BC who spent more per vote than Mayor Helps. But persistence with the two relevant websites pays off: a close race in North Van saw Linda Buchanan win with 3,800 votes, at $17.47 per vote due to her $66,408 expenditure. And in neighbouring Oak Bay, incumbent Nils Jensen spent $9.95 per vote, only to lose to Kevin Murdoch, who handily won while spending only $3.76 per vote received. Jensen’s costly votes seem more a reflection of his dramatic trouncing than of relative campaign expenses. (Murdoch got 5,042 votes to Jensen’s 2,138.) Incumbents may be favoured, there are no guarantees. ANOTHER LOOPHOLE THAT I HOPE Minister Robinson looks at is around corporate and union donations. While corporations cannot donate, their owners, employees, and associates certainly can. And unions have other ways of helping candidates they prefer. An astute reader emailed me right after the posting of the disclosure statements to show me how nine people who worked in some capacity with Abstract Developments had given donations totalling $23,400 to various Oak Bay, Saanich, and Victoria candidates. All perfectly legal. Helps’ campaign got a total of seven $1,200 donations from Abstract employees and associates, so $8,400. She also received donations, usually of $1,200, from others in the real estate and development field, including Jon Stovell (Reliance), Fraser McColl (Mosaic Properties), Leonard Cole (Urban Core Ventures), Steven Cox (Rize Alliance Properties), Ken Mariash (Bayview), and Mohan Jawl (Atrium, etc). A conservative estimate—without googling every single name on Helps’ lengthy donors list—of donations from developers and their teams amounted to $23,000, thereby fuelling over 22 percent of her campaign’s total expenses (i.e. from January through October 20). In some ways, the ban on corporate donations just hides them. Sarah Henderson gave $1,200 to each of five candidates’ campaigns; in all, $6,000. She is Abstract’s sales manager. As an individual donor, her civic generosity is totally legit. But I bet the candidates she donated to in Victoria, Saanich and Oak Bay know she works for Abstract. I am not sure how the Minister could address this particular issue. Maybe some readers have suggestions? AND THEN THERE’S “third party advertising.” In Victoria, so-called third parties could spend $2,706 on advertising directly endorsing candidates for mayor and council during the campaign period (such bodies can also spend up to $150,000 advertising about issues in the campaign period). There is no cap on contributions to these groups. There is also a transparency issue as they don’t need to identify themselves or where the money comes from in advance of the campaign period. A good example of how this can play out in unintended ways is probably the businessman in Vancouver who ponied up $85,000 to plaster billboards with ads for a mayoral candidate prior to the official one-month-long campaign period. Another area the Minister will likely review relates to “elector organizations,” for which there are no expense limits other than the $1,200 per individual donor per year. So we see situations like the Burnaby Citizens Association spending over $500,000 on its slate of nine candidates, seven of whom got elected. In Victoria, the relatively new group Together Victoria, which endorsed three new candidates, all of whom got elected, shows how effective such organizations can be. It raised over $45,000, though it spent only about $25,000 divided amongst the three candidates, all of whom also raised additional small amounts on their own. On the other hand, newcouncil.ca raised a total of $62,000, most of which it split between five candidates, none of whom got elected. These groups are in their infancy in Victoria, but over time could become like political parties in our civic arena. If money is allowed to sway the citizenry through high-priced promotional campaigns, many of us grow more cynical and less trusting of our government and its processes. We need people to feel the system is fair, and that if they decide to run for council, money will not be the deciding factor. The new limits get us only partway there. Leslie Campbell’s eyes took a beating exploring many candidate disclosure statements and voting results; perhaps the Minister can figure out a streamlined way to report the numbers. P.S. Many readers will miss Briony Penn in this edition; she will be back in Focus come May.
  10. November 2018 It’s an understatement to say that a lot has changed in Focus’ 30 years, but there’s been at least one consistent thread. WHILE OCTOBER BROUGHT LOTS OF CHANGES to this region’s council tables, it also brought changes to Focus. For starters: we turned 30! Do you remember we (those of us of a certain age) used to say: “You can’t trust anyone over 30?” Well as it turns out, you can. And even the fellow who coined the phrase back in the mid ’60s knows it. Jack Weinberg, who was active in the Free Speech Movement at Berkley in the ’60s, explained in 2000: “I was being interviewed by a newspaper reporter and he kept asking me who was ‘really’ behind the actions of students, implying that we were being directed behind the scenes by the Communists or some other sinister group.” Of course the media—and other members of the counter culture—loved it because “it shook up the older generation,” and it spread like wildfire. Jack went on to work for Greenpeace, the Environmental Health Fund, and against nuclear power. He seems like a trustworthy guy, even post 30. Focus certainly intends to continue to earn readers’ trust now that were over 30. If I’ve learned anything from 30 years with Focus, it’s that trust is, without doubt, our most valuable asset. How that trust is gained is pretty simple—it comes from our editorial content being non-commercial, well-researched, fact-based, and fair-minded even when pointed. It respects our readers’ intelligence. It accepts our responsibility to communicate clearly and accurately—and to never dumb things down. It ensures we contribute to the community conversation in a meaningful, helpful way. All this means Focus writers are absolutely key to our success. Over our 30 years, so many things have changed, led largely by technology and its profound reshaping of the publishing industry. But throughout the decades, Focus has been blessed with wonderful long-term writers. A magazine’s editorial content is its heart and soul; its writers create its personality, its integrity and trustworthiness. Besides their literary talent, Focus writers care deeply about their subjects, their “beats,” whether in the arts or on hot social and political issues. Despite modest financial compensation, they take pains to get their facts straight and to craft them into stories that are a pleasure to read. Lately, the Focus writers’ table has seen some changes. Aaren Madden has written for Focus for 15 years. She covered community “players” initially, then moved into arts coverage. With a growing family and near full-time job at the library, something had to give. Fortunately, Kate Cino, who has been immersed in the arts in this community for decades, started to fill Aaren’s shoes a few editions ago. And Aaren has graciously agreed to return for the odd assignment. Watch for her in the next edition. Alan Cassels, who provided 6 years of critical reporting on BC health policy in these pages, has taken a new job as communications director at the UBC Therapeutics Initiative. This will limit his work for us, but he will occasionally pop up in these pages. This edition features Amy Reiswig’s final interview with a local book author—after a nine-year run. Amy works in the Victoria Legislature for Hansard. She recently moved to Mayne Island and with the commute, plus a yearning to indulge in some other creative projects, not to mention have some evenings with her husband, she needed to reclaim the time that Focus occupied. Read Mollie Kaye’s interview with Amy in this edition to learn about one of her other creative endeavours: Banquo Folk Ensemble. We haven’t determined who will fill Amy’s pages yet. Fortunately, Victoria is blessed with talented writers who will love the job of interviewing fellow writers, just as Amy did. Some other changes are strictly positive. Russ Francis joined us as of the last edition to focus mostly on provincial politics. Some of you may recall his investigative reporting back in Monday Magazine’s heyday. He worked there from 1994-2007. In his last column there he reminded readers that the job of reporters was “to afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted.” He went back to school after leaving Monday, then worked in policy development with the provincial government. Now “retired,” we’re thrilled he’s willing to apply his intellect and time to holding government accountable through Focus. This edition—and hopefully beyond—we have Stephen Hume aboard. Stephen has accomplishments and awards too many to list, but you likely read him in the Vancouver Sun where he worked for 27 years. He’s also the author of nine books, both poetry and non-fiction. Amy profiled him in 2011 regarding his book A Walk with the Rainy Sisters: In Praise of British Columbia’s Places, which was shortlisted for the Butler Prizes that year. In the interview, he told her that good journalism, while certainly being about the facts, goes beyond them: “If you can touch [readers’] spirits, you can better transfer the information.” His piece on orcas in this edition offers a fine illustration of his skills in this regard. To be a good editor, I’ve long realized, one just needs great writers. That includes, by the way, all those who contribute impressive letters-to-the editor: thank you, dear readers! The past decade has been hard on publishers and their writers, particularly at the local level. Print media have been massively disrupted by the growth of the internet, with roller-coaster-type plunges in advertising revenue. Being small and simply structured has allowed Focus to adapt as necessary, while always prioritizing fact- and place-based journalism. Yet the reality—that no successful model has evolved for paying for journalism in the new digital sphere—should worry us all. The world needs good, truth-seeking journalism at all levels. And that is not likely to happen when corporate profits or share prices are the priority. Craigslist billionaire Craig Newmark, who donated $50 million to media in the past year, makes a noteworthy observation about his investment: “A trustworthy press is the immune system of democracy.” Our fair city deserves a healthy immune system in the form of local media that digs for the truth, without fear or favour. In an era when journalists in less democratic places get murdered for telling the truth, it’s the least we can do. On behalf of Focus, Leslie Campbell thanks the community for its generous support over 30 fascinating years. Please keep reading, sending us your letters, buying ad space and subscriptions.
  11. July 2018 A lack of balance on a June housing forum provides food for thought as to where the community needs to look for answers. DID YOU KNOW THAT VICTORIA is the “hottest” ranking “luxury primary housing” market in the world? According to Christie’s International’s Luxury Defined 2018 report, we beat out Paris and Washington DC and every other city due to our strong year-on-year luxury sales volumes and high domestic demand during 2017. At first blush this might seem rather exciting, something to be proud of. But earning this distinction means a lot of local homes are being bought up by wealthy folks from outside BC; Christie’s mentions an upsurge in buyers from the US and China. The building boom, here and elsewhere in BC, is obviously fuelling the economy: real estate is now BC’s largest industry by GDP, and construction is #2. Together they are about one-quarter of the economy—larger than Alberta’s oil and gas sector. But such glories come with a price. Besides being in danger of the bubble deflating, neighbourhoods and citizens are feeling squeezed as lower-cost units are demolished and replaced with taller buildings offering condos that most in the neighbourhood could never afford. The building boom corresponds with (some argue, has caused) a rise in all housing prices, from rentals through condos, from one end of town to the other. Victoria is now one of the least affordable cities in Canada. So perhaps it shouldn’t be surprising that the provincial government, besides funding non-profit housing, has brought in measures to “cool” the hot luxury real estate market. These include taxes like the foreign buyers tax, a school tax on properties over $3 million, and the poorly-named “speculation tax.” Promontory, one of several luxury condos in the Mariashes' 20-acre Bayview Place development in Victoria West. How those in the development and real estate industry feel about these taxes, particularly the speculation tax, was on full display at a June 12 luncheon presented by Kenneth and Patricia Mariash, owners of Focus Equities and developers of Bayview Place. It was misleadingly entitled The 2018 Global Issues Dialogue: Exploring the BC Housing Crisis. Marketing materials listed Kathryn White, CEO of the UN Association of Canada, as a host, and promised to “identify practical and realistic solutions that address housing affordability.” As it turned out, it was mostly a venting of grievances against new taxes and regulations standing in the way of ever-greater development. Even former Saskatchewan Premier Brad Wall was there for some reason, telling us, “It’s the economy, stupid.” Enough people complained to the UN Association of Canada about its involvement in the event that it issued a series of clarifying tweets, one stating, “UNA-Canada did not sponsor the Kenneth W. and Patricia Mariash Global Issues Dialogue. Rather, we were the charity of choice.” THERE WERE ABOUT 300 IN THE AUDIENCE, which included many mayors, councillors and other big-wigs from the region. During the three hours we heard over and over again from the eight male speakers that the speculation tax was wrong-headed. Mariash said buyers were now “running scared” because of the Province’s new tax. BC now stands for “bring cash.” He also criticized the City of Victoria for years-long permitting processes, which he says can add $250,000 to a housing unit’s price. His most surprising remarks centred around how he first heard about Victoria many years ago in LA, and was told “Victoria is on the no-invest list” due to Councillor Pam Madoff. This was all before Mayor Helps gave a short “greeting” from the City of Victoria, assuring the audience that approval times are now down to 6-8 months in 90 percent of cases. One of the forum’s panelists, Jon Stovell, CEO of Reliance Properties (developer of the Janion and Northern Junk properties) and chair of the Urban Development Institute, rattled off all the taxes now faced by his industry: the transfer tax, vacant property tax, speculation tax, school tax, GST, along with the mortgage stress test, which itself is taking many out of the market, he claimed. Even with all these, he noted, we still haven’t done anything to fix the supply. One of the main speakers did at least mention what was needed to do that. Mike Harcourt argued that the lack of affordable housing is not a crisis so much as a permanent condition given global realities, including population growth and climate change. While he admitted city halls need to speed up approvals, and that the speculation tax “needed a second look,” Harcourt argued the solution is mostly about building affordable housing, and that the NDP government was on the right track with its commitment to build 114,000 new housing units over the next decade. No one on the panel offered any ideas on how to accomplish this beyond letting developers continue unfettered with what they do best. During the short Q&A, there was at least one dissenting voice. Nicole Chaland commented, “Many of us locals have noticed the intense building boom has corresponded to the greatest housing unaffordability…Increased supply doesn’t seem to be the most reliable way to meet the challenge.” Panelist Michael Ferreira of Urban Analytics attempted a response by pointing out the “compounding of demand” with people wanting to live in cities, investors wanting to get into the market, and people like him who want to jump in and buy another house to ensure their adult children have a place to reside. “Supply is part of the solution,” he concluded. But supply of what—more million-dollar condos? The developers’ own construction workers must find it difficult to afford decent housing here, not to mention the service workers in restaurants and shops. Even younger people with well-paying jobs fear getting permanently shut out of home ownership. NICOLE CHALAND WOULD HAVE ADDED BALANCE TO THE PANEL. The former director of sustainability at Simon Fraser (2007-2017) is so immersed in community activism right now, she’s put aside plans to start a business until after the civic elections in October. She sits on the Fairfield Neighbourhood Plan Working Group and on the steering committee of Cook Street Village Residents Network. I contacted her after the event and she sent me an op-ed she and Sheldon Kitzul penned in response to the forum and sent to the Times Colonist. In it they wrote, “This was not a genuine exploration of what possible policy solutions are available to solve the housing crisis. Far from it. This was a temper tantrum; a fist-bumping anti-tax political rally featuring an all-male panel of developers and former politicians. “At no point did any speaker give us the impression that they had actually read and understood how the speculation tax works. At no point did anyone explain that one could simply avoid paying the tax by renting out their second home for six months, by selling their expensive home and buying one that is less than $400,000, or by making BC their primary residence and paying income tax like the rest of us.” (Perhaps unsurprisingly, the T-C didn’t publish Chaland and Kitzul’s op-ed. The T-C’s before and after coverage of the Mariashes’ forum, along with three pages of puff pieces on the Mariashes last November, and a recent op-ed by Mariash, not to mention the big golf tournament the paper and Bayview jointly sponsor, all testify to the cozy relationship Mariash enjoys with the city’s daily.) Chaland does not believe there will be any leadership from the private sector in addressing the lack of affordable housing. She wants the Province to “stay the course” with the new taxes. She is also advocating that the City of Victoria demand more from developers in the way of “Community Amenity Contributions” in return for rezoning and density approvals. A draft report she’s written states: “From 2016-2017, Victoria’s approach to CAC’s generated $3,086,000. Some analyses suggest that, given our current building boom, we’re missing out on tens of millions of dollars. This would pay for affordable housing, new parks in the Downtown core and childcare—all amenities which are desperately needed in Victoria.” Chaland told me the City’s Director of Planning Jonathan Tinney seems overly cautious in his insistence that all such CACs must be voluntary. This is not the case in other cities, noted Chaland. IN OUR CONVERSATION, Chaland referred to research by John Rose, an instructor in the department of geography and environment at Kwantlen Polytechnic University. He would have been another great addition to Mariash’s panel of speakers. Rose’s research paper “The Housing Supply Myth” seems hard to refute. Rose reviewed the rate at which housing cost increased between 2001 and 2016, alongside how wages increased. He did this for 33 cities across Canada, using Statistics Canada data. He found that in most cities during those years, the rate at which housing costs increased was never more than double the rate of wage increases—a situation that would still degrade affordability. But Victoria’s housing increases were almost three times those of wages. In Vancouver they were six times more. More number-crunching around building volumes allowed Rose to conclude: “the expensive markets are providing not only enough units to satisfy growth in the number of households between 2001 and 2016, but to also provide (in absolute terms) surplus units to the market at rates comparable to (indeed, slightly higher than) less expensive markets.” He continued: “In all of the seven ‘severely unaffordable’ markets where housing affordability degraded most significantly between 2001 and 2016, the relative amount of surplus dwellings, as a percentage share of total dwellings, increased in number.” Or, as he put it in a Globe and Mail interview, “Here [in Vancouver] we’ve had more than enough supply and yet the housing costs have gone crazy.” The same is true of Victoria. Here, as Chaland told the luncheon audience, over the past 15 years, for every 100 new residents, 113 new units of housing have been added. Other researchers looking primarily at Vancouver’s luxury housing boom have argued that a good number of new buyers of luxury homes are foreign buyers, some of whom are merely “parking” or laundering money this way. It is this global trend that is leading the Province to implement taxes and a just-announced public registry of who owns real estate in BC. Said Finance Minister Carole James, “Right now in BC, real estate investors can hide behind numbered companies, offshore and domestic trusts, and corporations. Ending this type of hidden ownership in real estate will help us fight tax evasion, tax fraud and money laundering.” It could well be that such regulations and taxes will not lead towards more affordable housing. But as the research of Rose and others makes clear, neither will unfettered development. The market has proven that, at least given the current global scene, it cannot be relied on to provide what is most needed by BC citizens: affordable housing. THE CRD RECENTLY REPORTED that this region needs 6,200 affordable units. Since these are unlikely to come from the private sphere, Mariash would have served his audience better by including in his speaker lineup some of the knowledgeable people building non-profit housing: Kaye Melliship, for instance, the executive director of the Greater Victoria Housing Society, an organization that has quietly been building non-profit housing for low-wage workforce members, people with disabilities, and seniors for decades. In 2018 the organization earned the “Non-Profit of the Year” Award. Among its 16 properties is Pembroke Mews, an apartment building geared to low-to-moderate income workforce tenants. Built in 2012, it is on the fringe of Downtown and offers 25 apartments on 2 floors above commercial space. Rents are pre-set and tenants are selected with an income no higher than $33,000. Other agencies in the non-profit housing sector locally include Pacifica Housing with 36 buildings on the Island, Cool Aid, which runs 15 supportive housing buildings, and Greater Victoria Rental Development Society (which built the Azzuro on Blanshard and the Loreen on Gorge Road E.) It’s in finding land for organizations like these, easing their approvals through local governments, and donating funding, that affordable housing will primarily be realized. But private developers can get in on the action too. If Mariash had included David Chard or a speaker from BC Housing, we might have heard how private developers could build something like Chard Development’s Vivid on Yates Street. Chard partnered with BC Housing to make the 20-storey, 135-suite condominium project affordable for lower-income and mid-income buyers: they have to have a household income of less than $150,000 and commit to being the primary tenant of their home for a period of two years. Its below-market pricing—condos start at $289,800—was made possible through favourable lending terms backed by BC Housing. Only a dozen units remain unsold. Another source of knowledgeable panelists is the BC Non-Profit Housing Association (BCNPHA), an umbrella group that has produced an “Affordable Housing Plan” with a ten-year roadmap towards sufficient affordable housing across British Columbia. Its extensive research shows exactly what we need and how much it will cost. After dealing with the backlog of nearly 80,000 units in BC (2016), an additional 3,500 affordable units will be required annually on average. How much will that cost? An estimated $1.8 billion per year over the next ten years. It’s a lot, but according to the organization, the non-profit housing sector “can bring $461 million to the table annually through land contributions, leveraging equity from assets, private donations and financing. This requires the provincial and federal governments to each commit an average annual investment of $691 million over the next ten years.” It notes the governments’ portions are not dissimilar to what they already committed in both the 2016 and 2017. This sounds promising. But how is it working out as developers buy up more and more land for luxury housing and inflate land values? Are non-profits being priced out of the core area, thereby threatening the diversity that makes a city vibrant—and making it harder to solve long-term transportation and emissions challenges? Will Downtown be transformed into a resort town where more and more people are just passing through? BCNPHA’s Policy Director Marika Albert (formerly director of the Community Social Planning Council of Greater Victoria) would have been perfect on the panel to address some of these questions. Finally, another obvious choice for any discussion of affordable housing in BC would have been either Carole James or Minister of Housing Selina Robinson. Either could have discussed the government’s 30-Point Plan for Housing Affordability, which includes building 114,000 units over the next decade, along with various measures to dampen speculative-type investment. The ministers could have enlightened us about the new Building BC Community Housing Fund to which municipalities, non-profit groups and housing co-operatives can apply for funding of their affordable housing projects. Ken Mariash is obviously a man of many talents. It takes a visionary with much business acumen to take on a project as large, costly and complex as the 20-acre Bayview site. But his dream project—and the projects of other luxury resort builders—are having the effect of driving up land costs. And they are taking up too much of the City of Victoria’s time and attention. Our civic leaders’ and workers’ efforts needs to be directed toward assembling land—at 100 units per acre, 70 acres would be enough—in parts of the City where denser, far more affordable housing can be created. The CRD accepts that 6200 affordable homes are needed. Let’s focus on that. Focus editor Leslie Campbell has lived through a number of real estate boom-times in Victoria. This one feels different.
  12. May 2017 VISA faces eviction by School District. ARTS ORGANIZATIONS LIVE PRECARIOUSLY, often in need of funds. But now, with the city growing and real estate going crazy, it’s even harder. Just ask Wendy Welch, executive director of Vancouver Island School of Art (VISA). She is planning her fall semester without knowing whether the school will remain in its current venue. Since 2004, VISA has been renting the 1921 heritage school in Quadra Village from the Greater Victoria School District. VISA' home on Quadra Street Last year the School Board upped VISA’s rent by 40 percent (to over $4000/month), and also hinted that they might need the building in a year or so. At the beginning of 2018, though, it appeared from discussions that VISA’s 200 students would be able to enjoy its five classrooms and their great natural lighting for another 18 months—with perhaps some space shared with the School District. On April 2, however, Welch was told VISA had to leave by the end of this summer. The School District intends to do extensive renovations and, by fall 2019, house one of their own programs there. The School District’s Mark Walsh told Focus that fresh numbers indicate that an estimated 2000 new school spaces will be needed over the next 10 years. Right now, spaces that seem on offer (and affordable) to VISA are much smaller and primarily on the outskirts of the city, said Welch. VISA offers a wide selection of courses and workshops, an artist residency program, and hosts the Slide Room Gallery where student works are exhibited. In honour of its 10th birthday several years ago, it painted the exterior of its beloved home with a design inspired by the Razzle Dazzle ships from the early 20th century when the school was built. Welch just recently went public with the “renoviction” news. Since then, she said, there’s been an outpouring of support from her students and the wider community. Because of it, she said, “I have decided to fight the School District and try and get a five-year lease. I have come to the realization that they have several buildings that are newer, larger and in better shape than VISA (they just need seismic upgrading). It doesn’t make sense to evict a thriving arts organization in the heart of an urban centre when there are other alternatives.” She is asking people to write to the district’s MLA Rob Fleming, who is also BC’s Minister of Education, and Victoria City Hall. Welch said she has some great options long-term, including possible space in the new Crystal Pool building, with perhaps another branch at the planned Juan de Fuca Performing Arts Centre. “I am interested in both propositions (we could have two branches). However these are long-term plans not to be finished until around 2021. We need the School District to let us continue in the Quadra building until we can move to a more permanent place. It feels the right move to fight rather than to surrender, because the arts always get swept away to the background.” Leslie Campbell is the editor of Focus Magazine.
  13. March 2018 If we’re going to lower emissions, allowing Alberta to increase fossil-fuel-related exports will harm the economic prospects of the rest of Canada. WHEN PRIME MINISTER TRUDEAU said a year ago that the Alberta oil sands would be “phased out” over time, Albertans were furious. Wildrose Leader Brian Jean, who represents Fort McMurray, told CBC, “We certainly don’t need out-of-touch, federal politicians sounding like Jane Fonda on this topic.” Alberta Premier Rachel Notley was more circumspect. Still, if Albertans aren’t ready to embrace the end of the oil sands ever, then it’s not surprising some of us are fighting to keep bitumen in the ground. With politics being what it is, we are going about that task in a round-about way. The BC government is heading to court to get a ruling “to reinforce BC’s constitutional rights to defend against the risks of a bitumen spill.” In effect, this should allow BC the right to put limits on what goes into (and comes out of) pipelines that cross our province. If it’s judged that we don’t have that right, I am not sure what the government’s next move is, but many citizens seem ready and willing to block construction if that’s the only option. Meanwhile, BC First Nations are also in court with no less than 15 challenges to Kinder Morgan’s plans. They have been joined by other First Nations. “First Nations all across Canada are not going to let First Nations in BC stand alone in their fight against Kinder Morgan: now more than ever we have to stand up for the water, a livable climate, and a decent future for the next generation,” said Chief Arnold Gardner of Eagle Lake First Nation in Ontario. While the court cases play out, Trudeau and Notley continue to try to sell their scheme of building “a bridge to a cleaner economy” by expanding oil sands production and finding higher-paying overseas buyers. They argue this will be good for the rest of Canada’s economy—that it is in our national interest. But their math doesn’t work. Only if we’re not concerned about all the impacts of fossil-fuel emissions—sea level rise, ecosystem disruption, ocean acidification, desertification, drought, crop failures, and so on—would Trudeau and Notley’s insistence on getting Alberta bitumen to foreign markets make sense. But they say they are committed to capping emissions at a level that will keep us meeting our international commitments, which are aimed at a maximum 1.5 degrees Celsius of warming—necessary to reduce the intensity of all of the above impacts. Canada has agreed to lower annual national emissions to 150 megatonnes by 2050. In 2015 we emitted 722 megatonnes of carbon, so we’ve a long, long way to go. Alberta has agreed to cap oil sands production—currently at 67.8 megatonnes (at least)—at 100 megatonnes annually. Just on the face of it, this is going to pose problems as the “caps” pull in opposite directions. But it’s even more problematic as some number-crunching shows. Last year in Focus, David Broadland showed why it is more than likely that Alberta’s oil sands are already pumping out more than its annual cap of 100 megatonnes of carbon emissions. He pointed out that when applying the nonpartisan US Congressional Research Service figures for average emissions intensity—instead of less reliable Canadian figures—emissions from Alberta’s oil sands (from extraction, upgrading and pipeline transportation) are already at 116 megatonnes, and not at the 67.8 megatonnes that Environment Canada has them. David tried another, more conservative analysis, and got 94 megatonnes. Neither of these totals include “fugitive emissions”that escape from tailing ponds, oil sands mine faces, oil and gas valves, pumps and pipelines. Alberta already produces the lion’s share of those in Canada at 35 megatonnes each year (Canada’s total is 61 megatonnes). Because Alberta and Trudeau’s government only acknowledge 67.8 megatonnes, Alberta has permission to ramp up another 50 percent above current levels. “The contradiction of facilitating oil sands growth while discouraging the use of fossil fuels with a carbon tax or fees is jarring enough,” wrote David. “But the bizarre, long-term consequences for the Canadian economy of these two initiatives, if they both play out as hoped for by Trudeau and Notley, seems to have been overlooked.” Alberta would have a stranglehold on allowable emissions. Bitumen production for export will come to dominate Canada’s national carbon budget. Virtually all other industries will have less and less ability to emit, because the oil sands will be using up our national allowance. As shown in the accompanying graph, by 2045—or 5 years earlier if oil sands emissions have been underestimated—fossil-fuel-export-related emissions will have eaten up Canada’s entire carbon budget. This includes all of Canada’s fossil-fuel exports, not just Alberta’s bitumen. That leaves only 22 years to transform every household and every industry to operating totally carbon-free just so Canada can develop its low-value hydrocarbon export industry. Most of those emissions will be tied to Alberta’s export of low-value bitumen. How will Canada's many industries that have higher value per tonne of emissions than oil sands mining fare in a North American economy in which fossil-fuel exports to the US can't be reduced without that country's agreement? Federal emissions reduction targets (red line) plotted against expected increases in upstream emissions that would result from extraction of fossil fuels destined for export, mainly to the US. The light grey uses emissions intensities claimed by Alberta and Environment Canada. The yellow plot uses emissions intensities from the nonpartisan US Congressional Research Service. The National Observer’s Barry Saxifrage has arrived at similar conclusions. In a recent piece on oil sands domination of future emissions, he writes: “On the present course, almost everything else in Canada would have to shut down for the country to meet its climate change targets.” Saxifrage starts with the current acknowledged emissions claimed by Environment Canada. Still, by 2050, the oil sands will consume 78 percent of Canada’s allowable emissions. More actually, because, as he reminds us, “the Paris Accord requires all nations to set increasingly ambitious targets every five years.” Instead of being part of a climate solution for Canada, he points out, “Alberta’s ‘hard cap’ allows just one industry to consume our nation’s climate goals and obligations.” Saxifrage also does some interesting number-crunching on jobs, which shows the myth-making afoot when Notley and Trudeau say we need to develop the oil sands for our economy. Estimates from Stats Canada and Petroleum Labour Market Information (PetroLMI) show the oil sands provides a paltry 2.5 percent of Canada’s GDP, and only 0.5 percent of Canada’s jobs. It would be folly to think that’s going to get better. Recent data from PetroLMI, Saxifrage notes, show the oil sands industry is on track to reduce its workforce by 21 percent per barrel between 2010 and 2021. “All sectors of the industry—in situ, mining and upgrading—are significantly reducing workers per barrel,” he writes. “Demanning” or “zero manning” the oil sands is how one Cenovus Energy executive describes it to investors. Meanwhile, Suncor is replacing hundreds of its workers with driverless trucks. The math and logic are clear, and so is our moral responsibility to future generations. Canada’s per capita GHG emissions are the third highest in the world. Notley can’t be allowed to increase Albertans share of allowable national emissions for the purpose of increasing fossil fuel exports. To do so would damage the economic prospects of all other Canadians and prevent us from being a good global citizen. Leslie Campbell is Focus’ editor. For more on the numbers, see “Alberta’s Deathgrip on Canada” and check out Barry Saxifrage’s work at www.nationalobserver.com.
  14. January 2018 We’re all immigrants, but the newest amongst us make great sacrifices to keep our country strong. OVER THE PAST FOUR YEARS my family has been blessed to have Cristina Katigbak in our life. As the live-in caregiver for my mom Jade, Cristina made it possible for Mom to remain comfortably in her home, even as she nears 90 with a condition that robs her of her mobility. My sisters, who reside in Vancouver, and I have been able to rely heavily on Cristina, knowing she was fully capable, honest, kind and wise. Mom had gone through all sorts of health issues leading up to Cristina’s arrival—I have not-so-fond memories of at least three longish stays in the hospital with additional trips to Emergency. But in the four years with Cristina, there’s been a general calmness and stability for Mom, with not one hospital stay. Cristina Katigbak and Jade Campbell Trained as a nurse in the Philippines, Cristina and her family had emigrated originally to Ireland. But then the UK changed its immigration policy in a way that denied them any hope of citizenship, despite employers who were keen to keep them. After four years there, Cristina applied to come to Canada. Well over a year’s worth of bureaucratic processing ensued before she was accepted as a caregiver for my mom. Her husband and son, however, had to head back to Manila. Canadians are ever-so-fortunate that Cristina and many other Filipinos are willing to sacrifice so much to come here as caregivers for our elderly and people with disabilities. We are also lucky that they have usually stayed in Canada despite being parted from their own families for many years. Though they are able to apply after two years of approved, continuous employment, for permanent residency—which allows for family members to immigrate—the reality is, due to backlogs caused years ago, it’s often many more years before they can be reunited. It took “only” two additional years in Cristina’s case, but cases of six or more years are not uncommon, resulting in arduously long marital separations and children growing up without their moms. Frustratingly, there seems no way of knowing where one’s application for permanent residency is among the piles that must occupy officials’ desks. Thankfully, in December, Immigration Minister Ahmed Hussen promised to process 17,000 backlogged permanent residency applications from live-in caregivers in 2018—leaving another 19,000 for the two subsequent years. Despite such discouraging wait times and other obstacles, the Philippines—the source of so many caregivers—is Canada’s fastest growing subgroup of immigrants and top source of new permanent residents. In the last census, their population here stood at 837,130, which is about 2.4 percent of Canada’s population. Cristina supported her family financially through her work with us. Once she had her “open work permit” after two years with my mom, she took another job on the weekends. Like so many other Filipinos I’ve met over years of care for both my mom and father-in-law Bob Broadland, working hard seems part of her nature. Last summer, after what at the time seemed interminable delays, Cristina got her permanent residency, and after another two months her family was approved and in Victoria. Within a few weeks of arrival, both husband Joey and son C.J. had jobs—in construction and cleaning services respectively. I have no doubt they are valued by their employers for their conscientiousness and intelligence. Despite her family living here in an apartment, not to mention her ability to get a higher-paying job elsewhere, Cristina committed to staying with Mom till December 20th. There were tears all round on Cristina’s final day of work with us. We wish her and her family the very best, and plan to keep her in our lives if at all possible. She and Mom have developed a strong bond that will be impossible to replace. Cristina is a quiet, uncomplaining person, but over the years I was able to appreciate what an immense sacrifice she and her family had made. In the hopes of a better future, mostly for their son, they had agreed to live apart—for years. “Thank God for Skype,” she’d often say. And I’d think, thank God for Cristina—and for the immigration program that made it possible. CRISTINA CAME TO US under what was known as the “federal live-in care program.” The government, recognizing there were not enough Canadians willing to be full-time nannies or caregivers, allowed families like mine—after jumping through hoops that usually required help from an immigration consultant—to employ a foreign resident full-time, paying at least minimum wage. After two years of approved live-in work, they became eligible to apply for permanent residency and could work wherever they wanted. With our aging populations, seniors facilities and home support agencies were—and remain—happy to employ them. An in-home care “pathway” to residency is still available, but the rules have changed considerably in the past few years. Recall the 2014 eruption of indignation about McDonald’s hiring foreign workers over local Canadians. That led Stephen Harper’s Conservative government to make hasty changes which swamped the live-in program in its wake. Going forward, caregivers were lumped into a tightened-up Temporary Foreign Worker program. Wages are determined so differently now (so as not to undercut Canadian citizens) that the minimum one must pay a foreign caregiver in the Victoria area is $18.93 per hour. The wage is the median paid in this geographical area for “similar” work, all determined by a head-spinningly obscure process. On the Lower Mainland, the wage is $16 per hour. It was already a stretch for most families to employ someone full-time, so no doubt the new minimums are leading more frail seniors—my mom among them—to head to a publically-funded nursing home. Obviously, this will cost taxpayers more. DESPITE SUCH MADDENING IMPERFECTIONS in Canada’s immigration system, a scan of the headlines coming out of the US leaves me feeling somewhat smug about Canada’s approach and attitudes about immigration. The US’s xenophobic travel bans, wall-building fantasies, round-ups of “illegals” and its president’s utterances on the subject all seem designed to terrorize immigrants. When President Trump praised Canada’s merit-based system as worthy of emulation, he seemed to be confused, apparently believing that our system would help him reduceimmigration to the US. Yet our government and industry leaders understand that for Canada to thrive economically we absolutely require immigrants—and more of them, given declining birth rates and an aging population. Since the 1960s—when the federal government removed race, colour, and nationality as considerations—Canadian immigration policy has aimed at being responsive to the nation’s labour force needs. This is done through a point system in which work skills, education levels, language ability, and family connections are the main considerations in determining about 60 percent of Canada’s annual 300,000 immigrants. On November 1, 2017, the Canadian government announced its “multi-year immigration plan” that aims to bring 980,000 permanent residents in over the next three years. The economic (point-based) class will continue to account for the majority (58 percent) of all admissions; the family class will account for 28 percent; and 14 percent will be admitted under the humanitarian and refugee categories. Many would like to see even more immigrants welcomed here. A new report from the Conference Board of Canada states: “If Canada were to welcome 450,000 immigrants per year by 2025, real GDP would grow by an average of 2.05 percent annually between 2017-2040. This is 0.20 percentage points higher than the estimated 1.85 percent growth currently forecast.” But even at 300,000 immigrants per year, Canada “boasts one of the highest per-capita immigration rates in the world, about three times higher than the United States,” writes author Jonathan Tepperman in a recent New York Times article. Calling our approach “radically rational,” Tepperman notes: “Canada’s foreign-born population is more educated than that of any other country on Earth. Immigrants to Canada work harder, create more businesses and typically use fewer welfare dollars than do their native-born compatriots.” While there’s much more to ponder and debate on the subject of immigration policy, I am confident that, like Cristina and her family, the vast majority of immigrants enrich our communities and nation both economically and culturally—as workers, taxpayers, citizens, consumers, and entrepreneurs. My family feels proud to have played a role in Cristina’s journey towards Canadian citizenship—not so much because we helped Cristina. We actually helped make Canada great, period. Like all Canadians, with the exception of First Nations peoples, Leslie Campbell is only a generation or so away from ancestors who immigrated to Canada, in her case Scottish economic migrants.
  15. Resistance Women (2019, William Morrow) by Jennifer Chiaverini is set in Germany between 1929 and 1946. The three main characters, all friends, are women who work in various ways to thwart the rise of Nazism and Hitler’s horrific policies. One (non-fictional) character, Mildred Harnack, is an American professor, married to a German who works in the government’s economic ministry; together they try to get information out through the American embassy, and later other means. A German woman, again non-fictional, Greta Kuckhoff, works for a time translating Mein Kampf into English, convinced the unabridged edition will open the eyes of the British and others. (The Nazis realize its publication would be explosive and round up all copies and notes, though one is smuggled out.) A third character, a young Jewish doctoral student goes from being a star student, through expulsion to ghettoization and narrow escape for the crime of being Jewish. I have learned a lot of history reading this book, and some of its warning bells ring loudly when I hear how certain leaders like Trump in the US and Duterte in the Philippines have become popular and are allowed, one step at a time, to pervert justice so thoroughly it seems breathtaking in retrospect. In the earlier 1930s, the resistance women kept thinking “it can’t get much worse”—but it always did, especially for the Jews. Eventually they realized that Hitler and his cronies will stop at nothing and can never be trusted or believed. The women took great risks to let the rest of the world (which for a long time seems to be idly standing by, ignoring reality) know what was going on and to help Jews escape the genocide. Along the way, we watch these brave women cope not just with fascism, but fall in love, attend university, dream of careers, have babies and work as teachers, writers, editors, and translators. All against an ominous backdrop and facing personal hardships and growing fears for themselves and their loved ones. The fact that the characters are based in reality makes it that much more fascinating. An afterword by Chiaverini fills us in on what happened to Kuckhoff who survived, along with some of the other less central characters. I love historical fiction and this one has introduced me to a writer who has no less than a dozen such books to her credit. I’d love to hear from others who’ve read this book and what they thought about it.
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