BC government gives Pacific BioEnergy green light to log rare inland rainforest for wood pellets.
Matt Simmons is a Local Journalism Initiative Reporter
SEAN O’ROURKE WAS HIKING in BC’s globally rare inland rainforest this spring when pink flagging tape indicating a planned cutblock caught his eye. Finding flagging tape is nothing new, but when he looked closer, he realized the tape had the name of a nearby pellet company on it—Pacific BioEnergy.
The company operates a plant in Prince George where it turns waste wood products—sawdust from mills, tree bark, wood shavings and clippings—into pellets to be burned to produce heat or electricity, replacing coal and fossil fuels. More than 90 percent of Canadian wood pellets are shipped overseas to Europe and Asia, according to the Wood Pellet Association of Canada.
But the ancient cedars and hemlocks in the rainforest in Lheidli T’enneh First Nation territory, about 60 kilometres east of Prince George, are most certainly not waste wood.
Sean O’Rourke amongst old-growth Red Cedar in the Inland Rainforest north of Prince George (Photo by Conservation North)
O’Rourke, a field scout with Conservation North, a grassroots organization advocating for the protection of old-growth forests in northern BC, took photos of the flagging tape to show his colleagues. He later combed through the publicly available harvest data to confirm the Province had indeed issued permits to Pacific BioEnergy to log the old-growth forest.
While wood pellets are often touted as a renewable energy source, Conservation North director and ecologist Michelle Connolly challenges that claim.
“If the raw material for harvested wood products or pellets is coming from primary and old-growth forest, it is not clean or green or renewable in any way, shape or form,” she said in an interview.
“Destroying wildlife habitat to grind forest into pellets to ship them overseas to burn, to feed into an electricity plant so that people can watch Netflix or play video games really late at night—we can’t allow that to happen,” she added.
The planned cutblock is set to be logged this winter for pellets, but Conservation North is asking the BC government to provide legal protection to all primary forests—those that have never been logged—in the northern region.
Rare ecosystem home to massive trees, endangered caribou, vast carbon stores
After O’Rourke showed his colleagues his photos, they went to the rainforest together to explore the areas slated for logging. The group walked for almost two hours to get to the flagged boundary. The forest is surrounded by clearcuts and second-growth stands of lodgepole pine. Connolly described it as an oasis.
“There are low carpets of moss and beautiful fallen old trees,” Connolly said. “The stands that we’ve seen have really large western red cedars and western hemlock, and we occasionally came across massive Douglas firs that are really large for this area…it would take at least three people to wrap your arms around them.”
More than 500 kilometres from the coast, the inland rainforest is one of the rarest ecosystems in the world. Temperate rainforests far from the sea are only found in two other places on the planet: in Russia’s far east and southern Siberia.
The rainforest supports a variety of animals including moose and endangered caribou. The stands of old-growth trees have been absorbing carbon from the atmosphere for hundreds of years, and the soil also stores huge amounts of carbon.
The rich biodiversity of these old-growth forest ecosystems is threatened by logging, according to a report published in June.
As The Narwhal reported last year, much of what remains of the inland temperate rainforest is at risk of clearcutting. Connolly said there is “little to no social licence” to harvest these old-growth trees.
“We talked to a lot of people who hunt, who trap, who fish, who guide, and among those people, we’ve sensed a lot of dismay about what’s happening,” she said. “We’re kind of at the limits of tolerance up here.”
BC government ramps up support for pellet industry while plants run out of raw materials
The Province’s promotion of the pellet industry focuses on using wood that would otherwise be wasted or burned in the forest to reduce the risk of wildfires, but rarely mentions the use of whole trees.
“The pellet pushers [including the present NDP government] originally said they would use only logging and milling debris as the source of wood fibre for pellets,” Jim Pojar, a forest ecologist wrote in an email.
However, a recent investigation by Stand.earth found that pellets made of whole trees from primary forests in BC are being sent to Europe and Asia.
“No mature green trees should be cut down and whole logs ground up to produce wood pellets for export, especially if the trees are clear cut from globally rare and endangered temperate rainforest,” Pojar said.
Connolly said a lack of legal protection allows the provincial government to greenlight logging whole trees for pellets—and the government’s language around the industry hides the fact that old-growth is being cut down.
“My understanding is that this is allowed because these forests don’t have any other use,” she said, meaning that they aren’t suitable for making lumber.
“The BC government has some really interesting language around justifying pellet harvesting,” she said. “What they say is that they’re using inferior quality wood.
This isn’t the first time a pellet facility has logged trees to meet its production needs. As The Narwhal reported earlier this year, both Pacific BioEnergy and Pinnacle Renewable Energy, another large-scale pellet company, use whole trees to produce pellets.
Over the past few years, BC has been ramping up its support for the wood pellet industry, but as sawmills shut down across the province, pellet facilities are running out of raw material.
Recently, the Province handed out a number of grants to support projects that take trees that would otherwise be burned on the forest floor in massive slash piles and convert them to pellets. Pacific BioEnergy has received more than $3.2 million from the Province through the Forest Enhancement Society for projects related to its operations.
Connolly said the Province’s push to support the pellet industry is problematic. “We’re kind of rearranging the deck chairs, you know? They’re making little modifications of things they already do, instead of actually looking at the value of keeping the carbon in forests.”
The Ministry of Forests could not comment on this story because government communications are limited to health and public safety information during election periods.
Pacific BioEnergy was also not available to respond by publication time.
Ecologists say burning pellets is not carbon neutral
Wood pellets, sometimes referred to as biomass or bioenergy, are often touted as carbon neutral and sustainable, but critics claim that’s a dangerous misconception.
Burning wood to generate energy is less efficient than burning fossil fuels, which means more wood is needed to produce an equivalent amount of electricity, according to Pojar. More carbon dioxide is sent into the atmosphere from pellet-fuelled power plants than traditional coal or natural gas plants, he pointed out.
The pellet industry and its supporters argue that replanting trees will eventually sequester carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, which means burning pellets for heat or energy is carbon neutral. But even if that is true, it could take hundreds of years for those replanted trees to grow big enough to offset the emissions produced by harvesting, transporting, processing and burning the wood.
In a 2019 report entitled Forestry and Carbon in BC, Pojar outlined myths and misconceptions about emissions and the forestry industry. “The CO2 from the combustion of biofuel is released almost instantly, whereas the growth and regrowth of wood takes several decades at least (mostly more than 75 years in BC)”
Connolly, who was an editor of the report, said the green narrative around the pellet industry and industrial logging is misleading.
“It’s so ridiculous to claim that somehow logging is good for the climate,” she said. “What we’ve seen happen is that the BC government and industry have co-opted climate change to argue for more industrial logging. In this case, it’s for pellets, but they’ve been doing the same thing for harvested wood products for the last few years.”
As climate change, industrial logging and other resource extraction projects continue to impact forest ecosystems, maintaining intact primary and old-growth forests is essential, she said.
“BC claims to be exploring all emissions reductions opportunities, but they are not,” she said. “They’re ignoring basically the biggest, best and cheapest opportunity, which is protecting nature. If we’re going to meet our climate commitments, keeping primary forests intact is an important step and what all of us should be asking is, ‘Why are they totally ignoring this?’ ”
Matt Simmons is a writer and editor based in Smithers, BC, unceded Gidimt’en Clan territory, home of the Wet'suwet’en Nation. He is the author of The Outsider’s Guide to Prince Rupert. This story was originally published in The Narwhal under the Local Journalism Initiative.
Conservation North’s short video interview of trapper Don Wilkins on liquidating BC rainforests for electricity in other countries:
It goes against independent science and will endanger the survival of juvenile salmon, say ENGOs and First Nations.
By Rochelle Baker, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter
OPPONENTS OF OPEN-NET SALMON FARMS are disputing a recent finding by the Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) that farms in Discovery Islands waters pose little risk to wild salmon.
Environmentalist groups and conservationists claim DFO ignored crucial independent science to downplay the risks to imperilled Fraser River sockeye salmon in favour of the aquaculture industry.
Young wild salmon swim close to open-net fish farm in the Discovery Islands area (Photo by Tavish Campbell)
The DFO studied nine different farm fish diseases and concluded they pose minimal risk to wild sockeye. However, the federal agency failed to consider scientific findings about the harm arising from sea lice, which can concentrate in farms and potentially endanger the survival juvenile salmon transiting the region, said Stan Proboszcz, science advisor with Watershed Watch Salmon Society.
DFO boldly misled Canadians when finding Discovery Islands salmon farms—situated along a critical migration route for juvenile salmon—don’t threaten wild fish, said Proboszcz, a past DFO risk assessment steering committee member. “Their pro-salmon farming bias and disregard for BC’s wild salmon could not be more clear.”
“It’s a joke,” said Proboszcz, adding DFO also failed to do a synthesis assessment that would evaluate the combined risk all the pathogens and sea lice pose for wild fish.
DFO insists steps have already been taken to control sea lice problems. There’s already an extensive range of research available on sea lice which DFO relied on in February to update a sea lice management regime, said Andrew Thomson, DFO’s Pacific regional director of fisheries management.
There are measures fish farms can take to control sea lice problems, and once they are in place, the farms meet the minimum risk threshold, Thomson said.
This claim is misleading, said Proboszcz, adding DFO does require farms to manage one species of sea lice, Lepeophtheirus salmonis, which tends to infect wild pink and chum salmon. However, DFO doesn’t require them to mitigate Caligus clemensi, a species that unduly affect sockeye salmon.
As a result of DFO’s findings, Federal Fisheries Minister Bernadette Jordan decided Monday the 18 fish farms, which raise Atlantic salmon, will remain open pending discussion with area First Nations.
The farms were in danger of being shut September 30, a deadline set by the Cohen Commission report investigating the precipitous decline of Fraser River sockeye.
The 2012 report identified a number of factors threatening sockeye including climate change, over-fishing, and loss of habitat.
But it also focused on the potential danger fish farms might pose to migrating smelts and recommended the fisheries minister should remove open-net pen farms in the Discovery Islands unless DFO could prove they posed minimal risk to the health of migrating Fraser River sockeye.
Jordan’s decision takes place as Fraser River sockeye salmon returns—which used to number in the millions—are predicted to be 293,000 fish, the lowest number since records began in 1983.
DFO’s stance is contrary to independent scientist and peer-reviewed studies that indicate sea lice from fish farms threaten wild salmon, said Jay Ritchlin, David Suzuki Foundation director general for western Canada. “Science has established that fish farms can raise sea lice levels, and that these parasites can kill young salmon,” Ritchlin said. “If you want to protect struggling salmon populations, you should start by getting these fish farms out of the water.”
DFO’s determination of low risk to sockeye from the Discovery Islands fish farms is not based on absolute findings, Ritchlin added.
Seven of nine of the risk assessments admit some degree of uncertainty, with two reporting a high level of uncertainty, he said.
Ritchlin agreed with Proboszcz that examining each disease individually doesn’t give a full picture of the risk salmon face.
Given the precariousness of salmon runs, the fisheries minister should take a precautionary approach and pull the farms if the science is uncertain, Ritchlin said.
NDP DFO critic Gord Johns agreed DFO has minimized independent peer reviewed science, particularly around the threat of sea lice and Piscine Orthoreovirus (PRV), a type of virus prevalent in net pen salmon that could put migratory salmon at risk of various diseases and pointed out the agency is in a conflict.
“It’s abundantly clear that DFO cannot both be a promoter of salmon farming, and a protector of Pacific wild salmon,” said Johns, MP for Courtenay-Alberni.
The federal government should declare a salmon emergency and establish a plan to remediate the Fraser River, a vital watershed for so many communities and First Nations, he said.
“It’s extremely alarming to see a minister sit idle, when we’re watching a collapse of wild Pacific salmon happen right before our eyes,” Johns said.
The salmon farmers jumped to defend DFO’s findings. DFO’s peer-reviewed risk assessments clearly show ocean-based salmon farms pose minimal risks to wild salmon in the Discovery Islands, said Shawn Hall, spokesperson for the BC Salmon Farmers Association. “Sound science will support stability and shared values our industry is bringing to the coast today and into the future,” Hall said in a press release. Salmon farming is part of the economic fabric of the province, he added. And the industry is working closely and openly with Indigenous people to create a shared future of economic opportunity and environmental stewardship, Hall added.
Aquaculture operators are looking forward to participating fully in the upcoming consultations with area First Nations, he said.
Bob Chamberlin, a former chief of the Kwikwasut'inuxw Haxwa'mis First Nation, said he had little faith in the upcoming consultations between DFO and the seven First Nations in the Discovery Islands region. “For me to hear the government say that they will have an outcome from all this by December, really shows what a farce this is,” said Chamberlin. Plus, all First Nations impacted by the loss of sockeye salmon need to have a say on fish farms, he added.
A broad coalition of more than 100 BC First Nations, wilderness tourism operators, conservation organizations, and commercial and sport fishing groups all called on the federal government to cease open-net pen operations and move them on land last week, said Chamberlin, spokesperson for the group.
“My question is, ‘who the heck is the federal government listening to?’”, Chamberlin said. “Because it’s not British Columbians but three fish farm companies.
DFO isn’t operating in the interests of the environment or fulfilling its duty to protect wild salmon, he added. “And I think that’s something that Canadians really need to be upset about.”
Rochelle Baker is a Local Journalism Initiative/Canada reporter with the National Observer
Seven years on, Victoria area kitchen scraps are still taking a long, costly journey to compost facilities.
CHUCK THAT APPLE CORE into the kitchen container designated for organics, take the can outside and tip it into the green bin in time for garbage pickup, feeling satisfied knowing your household food waste is being turned into compost that will help grow more fruit and veggies.
The routine is familiar to most Greater Victoria residents who, after 2015 when the Capital Regional District banned kitchen scraps from Hartland Road Landfill, slowly came to see the benefits of separating organic waste.
However, in Greater Victoria, that apple core is starting a long, carbon-emissions-full journey. While efforts have been made to bring kitchen scrap processing closer to home, they appear to be years away from fruition.
The apple core will first travel to Hartland Road where it is tipped on to a loading station, then trucked up-Island to Fisher Road Recycling at Cobble Hill. While most kitchen scraps are composted on site, when the Fisher Road facility reaches capacity, the remainder is put on a barge to the mainland and trucked to a composting facility in Cache Creek in northern BC.
Russ Smith, CRD senior manager of environmental resource management, agrees it is not ideal to have Greater Victoria’s kitchen scraps travelling around the province, but it’s certainly preferable to scraps ending up in the landfill and more realistic than expecting all residents to do their own backyard composting.
“It’s the pragmatic middle ground that is better than landfilling, but not as good as the ideal of backyard composting with everyone doing their own—and, of course, you have a lot of multi-family condo dwellers where they don’t have those opportunities,” Smith said.
In 2013, there was an ill-fated attempt at local processing when the CRD contracted Foundation Organics to deal with kitchen scraps on a Central Saanich farm. It was forced to pull the operating licence in less than a year after neighbours complained about the smell. Since then progress has crawled along at a snail’s pace.
It seems to have taken five years to make the next move towards local processing. In 2018, the CRD invited expressions of interest from proponents wanting to establish a processing facility “within or in close proximity to the Capital Region.” A facility could be built either on two hectares of cleared space at Hartland or on other sites, says the request for initial bids
The current system of processing outside the region “requires extensive transportation and is inconsistent with the Region’s long-term objective of managing the kitchen scraps locally to the extent possible,” it says.
More than a dozen responses were received, but the shortlist has not yet been compiled. Meanwhile, a new request for proposals for hauling and processing kitchen scraps closes this month with the successful bidder holding the contract until March 2025.
That allows the successful bidder on the main contract time to construct a new facility, said Smith, who is expecting a staff report to go to the CRD board next spring. “Even if we get very clear direction in the spring of 2021, by the time the procurement finishes and construction starts you are certainly looking into 2023 and likely into 2024,” he said.
A stumbling block is that no decision has yet been made by the CRD board on whether to opt for composting or the more expensive choice of building a biogas plant at Hartland. Biogas is produced when organic matter biodegrades without oxygen. The gas can then be filtered and, if done on a large scale, can be used to generate electricity or refined and fed into the gas grid.
The cost of building a biogas plant at Hartland was estimated by CRD staff at between $25- and $40-million, compared to $2- to $8-million for composting. The capital cost could drop to zero if composting was done at a private site owned by one of the bidders.
In addition to deciding what kind of technology should be used for kitchen scraps, there’s also the problem of getting municipalities to commit to sending their scraps to a new facility as operators need to know they would receive sufficient material
Currently the CRD sends about 12,000 tonnes a year to Cobble Hill, but Victoria and Saanich have separate contracts with Fisher Road Recycling.
Victoria collected about 2,000 tonnes of food scraps through its green bin program in 2019 and is expecting to collect more this year because of 25 zero waste stations installed around the downtown core and in City parks.
City staff “continue to work closely with CRD staff on regional solid waste management initiatives,” said an emailed statement from the city.
Saanich is the only local municipality to accept yard trimmings in the organics cart and collects between 8,000 and 9,000 tonnes annually. About 30 percent of that is food waste and the mix with garden waste provides the ideal carbon and nitrogen mix to make top-grade compost, said Jason Adams, Saanich operations supervisor.
Adams, who has an extensive background in recycling, wants to see the CRD get on with a decision. “They just need to build it and get on with it and the tonnage will follow,” said Adams, who would like to see a model based on economics, rather than subsidies, and is hoping the CRD avoids an “over-engineered” system.
One advantage of the many delays has been that the technology of composting has evolved over recent years, Adams said.
Technology is a cause close to the heart of Peter Brown, a member of Malahat Organics, a consortium which made a bid to the CRD in 2018 proposing a rotary composter, meaning the material is contained inside a large drum—a method that controls odours and dust.
“You put the kitchen scraps in one end and this thing very, very slowly rotates and it comes out the other end about seven days later and you have got beautiful compost. We’ve got an absolutely crackerjack proposal for the CRD and it would cost them nothing,” said Brown, who is puzzled by the delays.
Example of a large rotary composter used to create compost from kitchen scraps
The proposal envisages the facility being set up on Malahat Nation land, which is zoned light industrial.
The CRD would pay a tipping price, which would be less than they are currently paying and the operators would require a guaranteed amount of tonnage each year. At the end of the contract, the facility would be transferred to the region at no cost.
Hartland currently accepts kitchen scraps at $120 per tonne, but it costs the CRD about $145 a tonne for the composting.
It is frustrating that it has taken so long to consider the proposals and, in the meantime, between the discrepancy in costs and trucking some of the scraps off-Island it is costing the region money, Brown said.
“Isn’t it crazy?…It’s our money that’s going out into the wind and, in the last few years since we submitted our proposal, you could have had the plant operating right here,” he said.
Brown fears that CRD staff are slanting recommendations towards biogas rather than composting even though a biogas plant is expensive and will take up a large chunk of land at Hartland.
“Compost is a wonderful thing if it’s done properly like with these rotary composters that give you the very best quality compost. It’s valuable, not something to be sent away,” he said.
Highland councillors Gord and Ann Baird also fear that there is a tilt towards biogas in staff reports and last year, in separate presentations to a CRD committee, both questioned why the Hartland site is apparently already being prepared for biogas.
“The pathway towards more biogas production goes contrary to eliminating hydrocarbons as a fuel source as laid out in IPCC reports and the Climate Emergency declarations,” said Gord Baird, who is running for the BC Green Party in Langford-Juan de Fuca.
There is no social licence for the old methods of composting, with all its shortcomings, but there is a social licence for new methods with no odour, no dust and no access to vermin, said Baird, who calculated that the value of finished compost, sold at $50 a tonne, would far exceed the value of biogas produced by anaerobic digestion.
Jutta Gutberlet, University of Victoria professor in the Department of Geography, agrees that compost is a valuable resource and believes the ideal solution would be decentralized composting centres, which would eliminate the problem of greenhouse gas emissions from transportation.
“This could relatively easily be done with community gardens,” said Gutberlet, a director of the Community-based Research Laboratory.More space is being provided around Victoria for community gardens and the compost could be used on site, Gutberlet said.
“They would not just produce organic composts, but they could become centres where people meet—centres of community, which is something we also need in our neighbourhoods,” she said.
Judith Lavoie is an award-winning journalist specializing in the environment, First Nations, and social issues. Twitter @LavoieJudith
Despite the homelessness and opioid crises, BC Housing has failed to employ Woodwynn Farm during its 2 years of ownership.
THE ROLLING MEADOWS and picturesque barns of Woodwynn Farm on West Saanich Road remain in a serene time-warp. There’s no outward sign of activity despite a two-year-old pledge by the provincial government to establish a therapeutic recovery community on the 193-acre site.
While the acrimonious Central Saanich controversy that divided the community and occupied countless hours of council time has faded to a whisper, simultaneously, the opioid crisis has tightened its grip on the province. In July a near record-breaking 175 deaths occurred with calls for more treatment beds and options beyond detox for those struggling to remove themselves from an increasingly toxic supply of street drugs. In the past 6 months, overdose deaths have numbered 750, while those from COVID-19 hover just over 200.
So, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic, with reduced treatment options and escalating homelessness problems, what has happened to the promise to turn the historic Woodwynn property into a therapeutic recovery community?
Richard Leblanc, founder of the Creating Homefulness Society, at Woodwynn Farm in 2017.
Selina Robinson, Minister of Municipal Affairs and Housing, said, at the time of the purchase in July 2018, that the farm would provide a therapeutic environment for people experiencing mental health challenges and substance-use issues. “The purchase of Woodwynn Farm means we can provide more services for people living in supportive housing who will benefit from access to extended therapeutic care,” she said.
Fast-forward to 2020 and a ministry spokesperson told Focus that planning for the site is on hold until discussions are held with Tsartlip First Nation and Ministry of Indigenous Relations. “The Tsartlip First Nation expressed interest in being part of the discussions around the use of the land and the Province recognizes the importance of Woodwynn Farms to the Nation,” the spokesperson wrote in an emailed statement.
Tsartlip Chief Don Tom did not return calls from Focus.
In the meantime, BC Housing has completed $160,000 of renovations, including new roofs and demolition of the pig barn, according to the ministry. The Province budgeted $6.9 million to buy the farm, with $5.8-million going to the purchase price and $1.1-million for renovations, fees and consulting costs.
The Province bought the 78-hectare property from the Creating Homefulness Society, which was mired in debt after trying in vain to persuade Central Saanich Council and BC’s Agricultural Land Commission (ALC) to allow on-site housing for 40 residents who would work as temporary farm hands while receiving addiction treatment.
The society’s original plans called for 98 people to be housed at the farm, but, between neighbourhood and council opposition and ALR regulations that stipulate any housing must be necessary for farm use, the idea foundered.
The Province skirted the housing problem by saying there would be no housing on site, but BC Housing would be working with Central Saanich and regional housing providers “to make this opportunity available to supportive housing tenants” (i.e. people living elsewhere).
At that time, Our Place expressed interest in helping operate a therapeutic recovery community, but has received no recent information about provincial plans, said Grant McKenzie, Our Place communications director.
McKenzie expressed skepticism about the project’s success. “Unless you are allowed to build some housing on that property to house people in therapeutic recovery and farming the land, not much is going to happen with it,” predicted McKenzie. The property would be useful, but busing people in would not be successful, he said. “I would say it’s probably a non-starter because [council and the ALC] would oppose it…The neighbours don’t want to see homelessness existing,” he said.
Richard Leblanc, founder of the Creating Homefulness Society, no longer has any input into the future of Woodwynn, but, as the overdose death toll rises, he believes a properly run therapeutic recovery centre could be saving lives.
The power and strength of a therapeutic community program at Woodwynn should be helping those who are struggling, he said. “It should be helping people deal with the root causes, rather than shuffling people around,” Leblanc added.
However, there is no obvious solution to the remaining impasse over housing. Echoing McKenzie, Leblanc believes people should be living on site for an extended length of time and it is not realistic to bus people in. “The odds of a person showing up the second or third day in a row are almost zero,” he said, adding that people need to see rehabilitation successes among their peers to give them a sense of hope and the impetus to make changes.
It is a wasted opportunity on so many levels, Leblanc said sadly.
Judith Lavoie is an award-winning journalist specializing in the environment, First Nations, and social issues. Twitter @LavoieJudith
Contest appears to be Andrew vs. Hardman, as other prominent candidates bow out.
THE CITY OF VICTORIA’S by-election for a seat on Council, likely to occur this autumn, will look quite different from how it appeared in March, before it was cancelled due to COVID-19.
Two prominent candidates in the spring by-election campaign won’t be running this fall.
Rachael Montgomery, a registered nurse who had suspended her campaign to rejoin her colleagues at Island Health, told FOCUS that she plans to continue working in health care. “At this point, I’m not making any plans to run,” said Montgomery in an email. “I am excited with the work we are doing within healthcare and I’m committed to supporting our people and communities from within the healthcare system.”
Jeremy Caradonna, who works in the province’s Climate Change Secretariat and teaches environmental studies at UVic, is entering provincial politics instead. His electjeremy.ca website has been retooled for a campaign to become “the next MLA for Victoria-Beacon Hill,” and a sign-up page instructs readers to join the B.C. Green Party, so they can vote for Caradonna in the riding’s nomination race. In an August 14 email to supporters, Caradonna wrote: “I hope to retain your support as a candidate for provincial office. When I began my campaign for city councillor, I never imagined I would be running provincially in the same year. But a lot has changed in 2020.”
Consequently, the contest for a Council seat is shaping up as one mainly between former broadcaster Stephen Andrew, who has already revived his campaign online, and community researcher Stefanie Hardman, under the banner of the Together Victoria elector organization. Hardman confirmed to FOCUS in an email that she will be running again, but said that “out of resepect for an appropriate electoral process, I have not been actively campaigning during this interim time.”
The narrowed field of prominent candidates — and recent events — will surely change the dynamic of the campaign described by FOCUS back in March. Montgomery, a former secretary of the local chapter of the Surfrider Foundation, and Caradonna both had backing from environmentally focused voters, and it’s hard to predict who those voters will support instead. The Black Lives Matter demonstrations and concerns about policing might draw some voters to Together, which successfully lobbied City Council this summer to eliminate police street checks, and to hire fulltime staff for a new Office of Equity, Diversity and Inclusion. Stephen Andrew, on the other hand, has been conducting online forums and surveys registering neighbourhood concerns about homeless camps in City parks, and a recent surge in violent crime. He says 80 people have signed up to volunteer on his campaign in the past two weeks.
The City of Victoria is required to hold a by-election to fill the Council seat formerly held by Laurel Collins. COVID-19 protocols will push the cost to more than $400,000
On July 29, the provincial government released new guidelines for by-elections under COVID-19, requiring each municipality to come up with a plan that considers the health and safety recommendations of the Provincial Health Officer and WorkSafeBC. These could include physical distancing and/or plexiglass barriers to take sworn declarations from candidates or voters, expanded mail-in voting and advance polls, curbside voting, and sanitizing voting booths and ballot-counting machines after every use.
Door-knocking campaigns and in-person candidate forums typical of past elections will also be nearly impossible.
City of Victoria staff will present a report to Council in September describing how this might work, and identifying possible dates for the by-election. Given the time City staff will need to prepare for the vote, it likely won’t occur until November at the earliest.
The socially-distanced by-election will also come with a hefty price tag. The City earlier budgeted $170,000 for the vote, but City finance director Susanne Thompson told councillors on August 6 that she expects it to cost $250,000 more than that.
The City is required to hold the by-election according to Section 54 of the Local Government Act, which allows a municipality to defer a vote only if an elected official resigns less than a year before a general civic election. Laurel Collins officially resigned last November, and the next civic election isn’t until October 2022.
According to Victoria’s City Clerk, candidates who were part of the cancelled spring by-election will have to file new nomination papers for the fall contest, and new candidates will be able to join the race.
“In terms of the by-election, the Ministerial Order that was passed in March cancelled the entire election process, including the rescinding of my appointment as Chief Election Officer,” Chris Coates said in an email. “What this means then is that the entire process starts from the beginning and is a brand new process. Any candidates must start from the beginning as well, so that means it is not limited only to candidates that filed during the cancelled election.”
This summer, candidates in the cancelled spring by-election filed campaign finance disclosure statements with Elections BC. Together Victoria spent $39,873 on its spring campaign, and got $35,971 in donations, including $2,099 from former councillor (now MP) Laurel Collins. Montgomery spent $28,010 and got $22,269 in donations, including $1,200 from downtown businessmen Gerald Hartwig and Rob Reid, and environmentalists Carolyn Whittaker and Naomi Devine. Andrew spent $8,578 and got $11,468, including $1,000 from lawyer Kevin McCullough and realtor Scott Piercy. Caradonna spent $9,151 and took in $7,816, mainly from smaller donors.
Elections BC told FOCUS in an email that campaigns in the fall by-election “will be re-starting from zero in terms of spending, fundraising and disclosure.” Candidates will be permitted to re-use their signs from the spring campaign, but “any materials from a previous election used in a new election must be disclosed at their fair market value.”
FOCUS asked all nine candidates who ran in the spring if they will try again this autumn. Neighbourhood advocate Riga Godron says she will run, focusing more this time on “how the by-laws around daytime park camping are being enforced, (or rather not being enforced)” and “fully funding the Victoria police to perform the important duty that they are responsible for, most notably public safety.” According to statements she filed with Elections BC, Godron spent $13,323 on her spring campaign, and received donations of $2,424.60 from her husband and each of her three young children.
Military veteran Keith Rosenberg says recent events have “doubled [his] resolve to run for and change the city council,” and that “a lot of people are ashamed of what our current city council has let our city become.” UVic lab instructor Alexander Schmid also says he will run again, expanding the focus of his campaign from transportation, public trust, and the role of neighbourhood associations to include “rational health measures and support for public safety.” Rosenberg spent nothing on his spring campaign, and Schmid spent $709.
Previous candidates Peter Forbes and Gordon Mackinnon did not reply to emails. Forbes spent $217 on his spring campaign, and Mackinnon spent nothing.
Online pundits have also wondered if political consultant Mike Geoghegan, who ran in Victoria’s 2018 mayoral election, might take a crack at Council this time. Geoghegan, currently working on contract for the Tŝilhqot'in National Government in Williams Lake, told FOCUS in an email: “I am still very interested in politics and hope to be making an announcement with regards to that within the next few months. But it will not be at the municipal level. So no I will not be seeking any municipal office in either Victoria or Saanich in the foreseeable future.”
Ross Crockford is a Victoria journalist and former lawyer.
Pipeline opponents continue the battle from treetops and in insurance company boardrooms.
LEGAL CHALLENGES to the Trans Mountain pipeline are at a standstill, following the July Supreme Court of Canada dismissal of an appeal by several First Nations. However, opponents vow the battle is not over and are mustering supporters to continue fighting as construction nears some of the most controversial portions of the route.
Years of protests and legal skirmishes were instrumental in Kinder Morgan developing cold feet and pulling out of the project in 2018. The Trudeau government then stepped in and bought the pipeline, which, when the expansion is completed, will almost triple the amount of diluted bitumen that can be carried from Alberta’s oilsands to a marine terminal in Burnaby.
Costs of twinning the existing pipeline are escalating and are now estimated at $12.6 billion, on top of the $4.5 billion purchase price paid by the federal government.
As budgets dive deeply into the red while governments struggle to pay for COVID-19 relief, some groups are pushing for the government to abandon Trans Mountain.
“Canadians don’t want to see their hard-earned tax dollars wasted on a white elephant. It’s time to change course while we still can and invest those billions in clean, sustainable economic recovery projects,” according to Dogwood, which is running a letter writing campaign aimed at federal politicians.
Pipe installation began in Alberta last year and Trans Mountain officials have said they expect construction to be underway along every section of the route by the end of this year.
That is a plan that opponents are determined to derail.
Tim Takaro, 63, a former Vancouver doctor and health sciences and environmental health professor at Simon Fraser University, is staging a treetop camp-in on an aerial sleeping platform in the cottonwood trees close to the Brunette River on the Burnaby/New Westminster border.
Tim Takaro’s treetop sleeping platform
Activists say the project calls for the trees to be felled before September 15. Takaro, with the help of supporters on the ground who provide supplies and who, if necessary, will take over the sit-in, says he will do anything necessary to delay the construction because he is convinced the pipeline must not be built.
“We are in a climate emergency. This emergency is even more dire, in fact, than the COVID-19 pandemic that we have been so responsive to,” 63-year-old Takaro said in a video. “We need renewable energy and an energy supply that is not planet-destroying as our current fossil energy supply is,” he said.
Reports detailing the climate-killing effects of the pipeline have not been addressed by the National Energy Board, Takaro added. “So, I now find myself in a tree, 25 metres off the ground, blocking construction.”
Will George, a member of the Tseil-Waututh Nation and the group Protect the Inlet, is among Takaro’s supporters.
“We, at Protect the Inlet, will support anyone willing to do direct action, as our window gets smaller and smaller to stop the construction of the pipeline that, if completed, will increase tanker traffic through our waters by 700 percent,” he said.
Tanker traffic increases in sensitive areas of the Salish Sea and its effect on endangered resident killer whales have been among the most visceral objections to the pipeline by British Columbians.
Sven Biggs, Stand.earth Canadian oil and gas programs director, in an appeal for donations, said a construction delay could halt the work for an entire season because crews have only a few weeks to drill close to the Brunette River before salmon spawning season. The river supports chum and coho salmon and the endangered Nooksack dace.
“The Department of Fisheries and Oceans has ruled that Trans Mountain must complete this work in what is known as a ‘window of least risk to fish’ which runs between August 1 and September 7,” Biggs said in an email.
“A whole host of strategies could delay construction past the September 7 deadline,” he said.
Meanwhile, a coalition of groups is calling on companies to stop insuring the pipeline because of Indigenous rights violations and its contribution to climate change.
It is a tactic that is already having some success. Zurich, one of the pipeline’s main insurers, is dropping out and several other companies have signalled that they are having second thoughts about backing major fossil fuel projects.
A letter signed by 140 organizations was sent this month to major insurers such as Lloyds, Liberty Mutual, Chubb and AIG, calling on them to drop their coverage of Trans Mountain. “Trans Mountain puts Indigenous communities, drinking water and our shared climate at grave risk. We urge you to rule out insuring Trans Mountain and exit the tar sands entirely,” the letter says.
Grand Chief Stewart Phillip, Union of B.C. Indian Chiefs president, said in a news release that companies insuring Trans Mountain are accelerating climate change and violating Indigenous rights. “Now is not the time to finance a huge expansion of some of the world’s dirtiest oil. The pipeline does not have the Free, Prior and Informed Consent of all Indigenous communities across whose land this pipeline passes,” he said.
A Trans Mountain spokesman said the decision by Zurich not to renew was anticipated and changes in insurance companies are a common occurrence. “There remains adequate capacity in the market to meet Trans Mountain’s insurance needs and our renewal,” she said.
However, as the world slowly transitions away from fossil fuels and awareness of Indigenous rights takes root, opposition to the pipeline may be enough to send shivers of doubt through the boardrooms of major insurance companies.
Judith Lavoie is an award-winning journalist specializing in the environment, First Nations, and social issues. Twitter @LavoieJudith
Local residents are outraged by the disruption of wildlife and peace, and fear the introduction of COVID-19 from the revellers.
RETIRED HOUSEHOLDERS, some of whom have lived on the Cowichan River for half a century, say intoxicated recreational tubers who don’t practice social-distancing are turning their quiet, rural gardens into a rowdy carnival midway from hell.
“They seem to think the river is a roller coaster ride on which they can get drunk because it doesn’t hurt to fall off,” says Joe Saysell, a retired logger and fishing guide. “It’s getting really out of hand. They are getting more and more brazen all the time.”
Rosemary Danaher calls it “the Booze Cruise.”
She says up to 3,000 people, many with tubes rafted together, boom boxes blaring music and riders consuming large quantities of alcohol, will drift past her deck on a sunny weekend day.
“The traffic is so heavy I can’t even swim—I wouldn’t want to, so many of them are drunk and wee-ing in the river. They’ve really got to do something about the complete lack of toilets.”
Last Sunday, she said, one large group of tubers came ashore on her neighbour’s property and treated the householders to the spectacle of young women squatting, pulling aside their bikini bottoms and urinating on their lawn. Other residents complain of finding human feces in their shrubbery.
Mavis Smith, who lives near Little Beach where tubers pull out after drifting about two-and-a-half hours downstream from Cowichan Lake, just says: “ARRRGHH!!!”
She says neighbours are plagued by people leaving garbage and cutting through their yards to get back to the narrow stretch of Greendale Road where they’ve parked their cars.
Chris Morley, a retired biologist who moved to what he thought was blissful rural solitude 30 years ago, says the parking so congests the narrow, winding road that it’s often blocked to emergency vehicles. “Last week an ambulance was called and it couldn’t get through. One of my neighbours was blocked and they couldn’t get into or out of their home. About 5 pm on Sunday [July 26] I walked to a neighbour’s place a little less than half a kilometre up Greendale Road. It was jammed with cars parked on both sides. It was to the point where no vehicles could get through at all.”
Aaron Frisby, who rents out tubes at Cowichan Lake, runs a shuttle bus service so that people who want to drift the river don’t have to park near the pull-out point. He concurs that parking along Greendale Road is “absolutely a problem.”
Frisby says his tube rental company has provided a shuttle service for tubers, even those who don’t rent from him, but the congestion is even restricting his company’s ability to responsibly operate its minibuses. “In the past we have had a shuttle-only service for people bringing their own tubes and due to COVID-19 we have had to heavily restrict that because of shuttle capacity. What this has caused is people to find their own transport and park at Little Beach. It’s affecting our service too as we are struggling to get our buses in and out.”
Frisby says his tube rentals are limited to a maximum of 20 leaving every half hour in order to maintain proper social distancing but householders downstream complain that once on the river, tubers raft-up to drink and party as they float downstream.
“Social distancing is not occurring,” Danaher complains. “They get on the water [at Cowichan Lake] and start roping tubes together to make rafts of 15, 20, 25 people, then they start drinking as they float down the river.” So far this year, she says the biggest raft observed consisted of 53 tubes tied together.
She says the on-river congestion scares off wildlife like the blue herons and kingfishers which vanish from her stretch of river during tubing season. Saysell and Morley concur.
They point out that the Cowichan is one of only three rivers in BC designated a Canadian Heritage River of national historic and environmental significance, is a BC Heritage River and is the core of Cowichan River Provincial Park.
For more than a century it’s been a destination revered by anglers who came from around the world to fly fish for prized brown trout and steelhead. Daily catches on the river were once posted in the major newspapers in New York and London.
“There’s now virtually no wildlife from my place to Cowichan Lake, it’s all been driven off,” says Saysell. “And cans that litter the river bottom are death traps for crayfish which are crucial for the large trout.”
Morley says he’s observed tubers taking buckets of crayfish from the river and says the noise and congestion are stressing the larger game fish, which are already stressed by warm water conditions and seek refuge in the cold water in a few deep pools on the tubing route.
“We are still seeing wildlife and fish right up to the weir [at the river’s mouth in Cowichan Lake]. Lots of activity up at our dock and morning runs see lots of wildlife on the way down,” counters Frisby of the tube rental firm.
Of equal concern for householders, though, is fear that the heavy tourist traffic and what they perceive as inadequate attention to social distancing protocols will bring the COVID-19 pandemic into the heart of their rural community of mostly vulnerable seniors. “I believe there is a high probability that tourism locations like ours will be the root cause of the second wave of COVID this summer,” Danaher says.
In late July, provincial public health authorities confirmed that a cluster of COVID-19 cases linked to parties in Kelowna led to broad community transmission of the virus and that there are now 130 new cases linked to the partying, half of all active cases in the province as of the BC Day long weekend. “We now know the situation has shifted to a more broad community transmission beyond these initial cases in downtown Kelowna,” an official from Interior Health confirmed to media on July 29.
Danaher says she has a right to enjoy the tranquility, privacy and safety of her property but that it’s being compromised by the economics of tourism and that there seems to be a double standard for urban and rural residents. “If I were to descend en masse [into town] with a group of irate river homeowners and we were to trespass, urinate on people’s lawns and flash genitals in the process; if females were to take off their bathing suit tops, scream at the slightest opportunity, throw beer cans and garbage around and use the F-Bomb after every third word, we would no doubt be faced with a series of fines for unacceptable public behaviour and hauled off to jail. However, our ever-increasing Booze Cruise visitors seem to think this sort of gross behaviour is perfectly fine in the country.”
Morley says he noticed a big change this year. “Until this year it was mostly families, very quiet, very little alcohol. This year it seems to be mostly young people, late teens to early 30s, and lots of alcohol. The yelling and screaming is just unbelievable.”
Danaher points out that it’s a small, rural community and many of the householders are retired people who fall into high risk groups. “We really don’t need hordes of young people bringing the virus into a high risk area just because they think it won’t affect them. We simply do not know where these folk have been, who they’ve been with and what they’ve been doing, so the chance of COVID-19 being introduced into our high seniors population is real and alarming,” Danaher says.
Morley agrees. “Social distancing? Totally out the window,” he says. “I can see big implications going forward with COVID-19.”
That’s a correlation that makes Frisby wince. “My concern is that some are going to attack this issue as a COVID-19 issue. There are absolutely issues with idiots on the river but this is not a social distancing problem.
“Tubers are outside and keeping away from each other, he says. “There aren’t many activities you can do during a pandemic, but tubing is a safe one, which is why it is so popular. We just have to find a way to get everyone to respect the river and residents.”
But the social distancing issue for outdoor recreation is clearly a concern for public health officials as well as worried residents. Sharp upticks in reports of new daily infections appears to be related to outdoor partying in BC, Alberta and Ontario.
BC’s Provincial Public Health Officer Dr Bonnie Henry confirmed in her official briefing that most of BC’s current surge originated in Canada Day events at Kelowna. And elsewhere, from Hong Kong and Australia to Europe, infections appear to be increasing again where social distancing was relaxed after new cases had almost vanished, a reminder that the risk is far from over.
Meanwhile in Lake Cowichan, in what looks a bit like barring the barn door after the horses have bolted, at least as far as complaining residents are concerned, Acting Mayor Tim McGonigle issued a warning in a media release July 27:
“The town is working with the local RCMP to get a handle on the inappropriate activities of a few unruly visitors who are ruining the enjoyment of many visitors and residents,” he said. “If you are looking to come here and rowdily let off steam, so to speak, don’t bother.”
He urged visitors to not gather in large groups and expressed concern for the safety of citizens. “Their lives should not be put at risk simply because of your desire to have fun with little regard for following required COVID-19 protocols.”
Frisby agrees that a stronger police presence would help curb a lot of the behaviour associated with alcohol consumption on the river. “Ten years ago, there was this exact same issue on the river, where there was a party culture to tubing,” he says. “The RCMP did a great job curbing this by ticketing those with open alcohol and even going to the lengths of having a human chain on the river confiscating alcohol from tubers.”
Which raises a question: If the activity on the river that concerns residents has been a subject of vigorous community discussion and provincial, regional and municipal authorities have a well-established kit of tools for managing the problem, why weren’t the alcohol, parking, littering, trespassing and crowds in a vulnerable residential district dealt with weeks ago at the beginning of the season rather than in the middle of it?
Stephen Hume has spent half a century as a journalist writing about Western Canada, the Far North, BC and the Island.
David Gooderham describes a hearing on July 7 at the BC Court of Appeal that was likely the first time in Canada that detailed evidence of the gravity of the unfolding climate peril has been presented in a courtroom.
JENNIFER NATHAN, a science educator, and I, a retired lawyer, were convicted a year ago of criminal contempt of court for acting to halt the construction of the Trans Mountain Pipeline expansion. Before the start of our trial, we applied at a two-day hearing on December 3-4, 2018 in the Supreme Court of British Columbia for leave to raise the common law defence of necessity, and for permission to call expert evidence at our trial about climate change and the emissions implications of continuing to expand Canada’s oil sands industry. The presiding judge, Justice Affleck, dismissed our application. Six weeks after the hearing, the judge’s written decision was released. We were convicted at a further hearing on March 11, 2019, and launched our appeal to the Court of Appeal for British Columbia the same day.
The hearing of our appeal was held on Tuesday, July 7, 2020 in the BC Court of Appeal, in Vancouver. The three-judge panel was Chief Justice Robert Bauman, Justice David Harris, and Justice Joyce DeWitt-Van Oosten. Due to the coronavirus pandemic, the hearing was conducted by Zoom conference, with public access by video link.
At the one-day hearing, between 10 am and 12:30 pm, I made the oral submission by video link to the Court on behalf of Jennifer Nathan and myself. In the afternoon, Crown Counsel Leslie Ruzicka argued the case for the Prosecution.
I think George Rammell’s remarkable drawing, shown above, conveys some of the unfathomable character of the occasion of our hearing. Compared to many appeal hearings, there was very little questioning from the judges; there were no exchanges of the usual kind. Of course, from the courts’ perspective, for other good reasons, it was not an occasion for any engagement or lightness of touch. Jennifer and I were there convicted of criminal contempt of court. It was very quiet, the three judges listening—in Georges’s drawing the judge on the top left listening intently, the other two justices harder to see because of the lighting and relatively low definition of the Zoom video.
At the conclusion, the Court reserved judgment. As is usually the case after an appeal hearing, the Court will take some time to consider its decision and then issue a written judgment. We anticipate that the Court’s Reasons for Judgment will be released within approximately the next two to six weeks, although the timing is uncertain and it could be at an earlier date or later. As soon as the Court’s written decision is released, we will make it available on our website. (https://dagooderham.com/legalaction/)
There were two main issues addressed during the hearing:
One, I think the main issue, is whether the trial judge, Affleck J., made an error when he made his key finding that climate change is not an “imminent peril” in the legal sense. He found there is a “contingency” that governments and businesses may adopt what he described as ”societal measures” that will avoid any “dire outcome” (I am borrowing the language used by Affleck J. in his judgment in paragraph 55). Because he made a finding that such societal measures may be adopted in future, he concluded that a very grave outcome is not a “virtual certainty” but is just in the realm of what is “foreseeable or likely.” He took the view that unless we can prove that a dire climate outcome is “virtually certain,” the common law defence of necessity cannot succeed.
Our case is that the trial judge’s finding about the existence of such a contingency was not based on any evidence contained in the record. In short, he drew an inference—about both the intentions of governments and businesses to act and also about the economic and technological viability of unidentified future “societal measures” that he envisioned might solve the problem within the very short and unforgiving timeline remaining - an inference that we say has no foundation in any of the evidence that was presented to him at the trial.
In consequence, the appeal hearing (in terms of our approach to the hearing) required that we undertake a very detailed review of the actual evidence, the evidence contained in the record that we presented to Affleck J. We had to demonstrate, in effect, that there is nothing in the record that could have provided a reasoned basis for Affleck’s finding.
The record of evidence in this case consists of the detailed written summary of the proposed evidence that we sought to call at a full trial. It is found in the Appellants’ Outline of Proposed Evidence (a link to that 119-page document is on our website). The adjudicative record also includes affidavits sworn by Jennifer Nathan and myself.
At the hearing, our oral submission to the Court of Appeal, which took about two hours, was heavily focused on reviewing the details of the evidence in the Outline that we had originally presented to the trial judge in December 2018, including on matters of climate science (i.e., the atmospheric carbon concentration level and its current rate of increase); baseline projections of global emissions to 2030 (all of which unfortunately show global emissions are going to continue going up to 2030 and beyond); and a summary of the results of a series of other reports from the IPCC and other sources (including, in particular, the UN Emissions Gap Report 2017) all showing unequivocally that global emissions must in absolute terms go down 25 to 50 percent by 2030 (those figures represent the reductions required from all countries on average by 2030) to have any realistic chance of staying within the 1.5 degrees C or even within the 2 degrees C warming limit. We also referred to other evidence showing that, in many of the poorer countries like India, emissions are going to continue increasing at least to 2030—because those countries do not have the means to quickly reverse the trend of their rapidly increasing emissions.
We pointed to evidence in the record showing that any prospect of achieving the enormous reductions needed by 2030 would have to depend on even deeper cuts by a relatively small number of rich advanced economies, like Canada, which do have the capital and technological capacity to achieve much deeper emissions reductions in the short term, but have chosen not to do so.
On that point, our submission addressed the sorry record of Canada’s emissions, and we cited multiple reports showing how rising emissions from expanding oil sands production since 2005 are driving our national emissions far above even Canada’s existing modest reduction target. It is a very dark story.
This was probably the first time in Canada that a detailed presentation of evidence showing the gravity of the unfolding climate peril has been presented in a courtroom, and certainly the first time at the appeal court level. (The National Energy Board inquiry during the Trans Mountain Pipeline approval process simply refused to accept any evidence about climate science or emissions). The terrible subject has been largely kept out of the judicial system. Of course, the Carbon Pricing Reference cases over the past two years in the Courts of Appeal of Alberta, Saskatchewan, and Ontario did address climate change obliquely, but they were really cases about which jurisdictions (Federal or provincial) have the constitutional power to impose carbon taxes. And none of the Carbon Pricing decisions came anywhere close to touching the questions about how bad it is, or whether Canada’s efforts are remotely on track to make any contribution to avoiding a grave outcome. (On this point, our Reply Factum addresses the very limited scope of what the Saskatchewan Court of Appeal’s judgment had to say about climate change and the nature of the threat, in its Carbon Pricing Reference decision.)
For more detail on our science and emissions evidence, a useful summary of that is found in our main Factum (Appellants’ Factum) filed November 18, 2019, at paragraphs 9 to 55 (pages 2-14). Our oral submission on July 7 followed the sequence of the sections (I - VI) laid out in those 12 pages.
The second major issue on the appeal concerns the question of whether Jennifer Nathan’s conduct and my conduct in disobeying the court injunction was “involuntary conduct” within the special meaning of that term in the earlier cases. I will not expand on that issue here. However, that question is fully addressed in our Reply (Appellants’ Reply Factum), at paragraphs 6 to 16 (pages 3-6), under the heading "“Voluntary” conduct and moral choice.”
Lastly, in advance of our hearing we filed the Appellants’ Supplementary Factum that addresses two foreign law decisions. The most important is Urgenda v. The State of the Netherlands. The judgment released by the Supreme Court of the Netherlands in January 2020 is the first ruling by a senior level court in the EU or US concluding that climate change is an “imminent peril.” It affirmed an earlier ruling by the Hague Court of Appeal in 2018. The original trial in that case was in 2015. The Court of Appeal decision is only about 20 pages and is very readable. It provides a good analysis of the climate science evidence, from the perspective of the legal process. Our website has a link to an essay I prepared a few months ago about the Urgenda case, and how closely the Dutch courts were guided by the science in arriving at their decision. Links to the judgments in that case are given in List of Authorities, on the back page of our Supplementary Factum.
David Gooderham practiced in civil litigation in Vancouver for 35 years, retiring in 2012. For more information, including background and eventual outcome of the appeal, please see https://dagooderham.com/legalaction/
Next BC general election is a “high public heath risk” event
SO FAR THIS YEAR, by-elections in Victoria, Lytton and Rossland, as well as a Kamloops referendum on a new arts centre have all been cancelled because of public health concerns around the COVID-19 pandemic. New Brunswick postponed its municipal elections—scheduled for last May 11—till 2021. And Saskatchewan Premier Scott Moe was expected to announce a general election last spring, but has since said it will be held in October, 2020 because of COVID-19.
Few medical experts presently forecast the end of the pandemic by October 16 of 2021, when BC is due to head to the polls. BC chief electoral officer Anton Boegman also appears doubtful that things will be back to normal by then. At the June 11 tele-meeting of the elections advisory committee, Boegman said it is “highly likely” that the next by-election or election in BC will occur during the pandemic.
BC chief electoral officer Anton Boegman
“It goes without saying that the best approach, when public health risk is highest, is likely to defer or postpone an election,” said Boegman, according to meeting minutes. “When the public health risk is lower, however, it is possible to hold an election in a safe and accessible manner, and one in which voters do not have to choose between exercising their democratic franchise and protecting their health.”
“As an election is an event in which millions of British Columbians participate, it is a high-risk event from a public health perspective,” Boegman told the meeting. “Many election processes will necessarily need to be adapted in order to keep voters and election workers safe, as well as to maintain the necessary accessibility to the ballot box and the overall integrity of the electoral process.”
Consequently, Elections BC is actively preparing, in case the election occurs as scheduled on October 16 next year. It is now tracking down sources for protective equipment, and for large quantities of vote-by-mail packages. Based on recent US experience, as many as 40 percent of votes could be cast via mail. Elections BC is also considering providing a face mask to every voter—not an easy thing to do in these days of short supply. Voters may each be handed their own pens, to take home, rather than have staff wipe down each pen after use. And to reduce election-day numbers, it expects to add more in-person early voting days.
“Which adaptations are essential will to some extent depend on the state of the pandemic in our province at the time of the electoral event, and on the public health guidance of the Provincial Health Officer [Dr Bonnie Henry],” said Boegman.
One traditional facet of campaigning will almost certainly be absent: Door knocking. But without trooping round the neighbourhood, how is a candidate supposed to get the signatures required to be even nominated? Asked an unnamed meeting participant: “Could this be done online?” Answered Boegman: “We have flagged this as an issue already, and we have no solution as yet.”
Under the Election Act, the cabinet decides when to hold an election. However, once it has been called, Boegman can delay it because of special circumstances, said Elections BC communications director Andrew Watson in an email to Focus.
For those still wanting to vote in person, Elections BC is ordering two-metre distancing, a 50-person limit in voting places, a preferred 5 square metres of open space per person, a maximum group size of 6, the provision of hand sanitizers, and increased cleaning of voting stations.
The spacing requirements means that preferred voting places will be large—like school gymnasiums—and will have separate entrances and exits. Current distancing requirements are sure to be in effect during voting, said Boegman. “The population will likely not have sufficient immunity by next fall to rescind the distancing directive.”
Russ Francis is convinced that Alberta’s recent decision to permit open-pit coal mines in the Foothills is based on the same implied, perverted logic used to justify BC’s $6 billion handout to LNG Canada: To boost jobs, we must wreck the planet
Some rural residents feel plagued by neighbours who use their properties as dumping grounds for construction waste—and a council that takes little action.
DAY AFTER DAY, for almost a decade, dump trucks have rolled onto a rural property in Metchosin to drop off piles of fill, changing the topography and driving copious complaints from neighbours exasperated by the industrial intrusion.
Now, next door neighbour Jo-Anne Cote is hoping that, instead of trying to survive another summer of noise and dust, an order from the Agricultural Land Commission (ALR) to stop the fill dumping will offer respite.
Cote said enjoyment of the acreage where she and her husband have lived for 34 years has been marred by activities at the neighbouring Sooke Road property—which she describes as “Mordor,” the volcanic plain from The Lord of the Rings.
“It’s a dust bowl,” Cote said, describing how problems started when all the trees and shrubs were removed, ostensibly to build an airstrip to help with a farm operation about 10 years ago.
Satellite image of the Cosburn property in Metchosin
An application by owner Stan Cosburn then morphed into a plan for a turf farm. In 2011 the Agricultural Land Commission and District of Metchosin granted permits to dump fill on 2.7 hectares within the Agricultural Land Reserve and 3.6 hectares outside the ALR to improve farming capability.
As construction in neighbouring Langford heated up, the trucks started arriving. But over the years, there has been no sign of a turf farm.
“I finally came to the snapping point a year or so ago,” said Cote. “The noise was driving me insane all summer long…all you are hearing is heavy equipment and dump trucks and the beep-beep-beep of reversing vehicles and the squeaky bulldozer.” She was frustrated by the apparent lack of action despite numerous complaints.
The 2011 turf farm notice-of-intent permit, which allowed the filling, expired July 2019 and, after Cosburn requested an extension and submitted a business plan, ALC staff visited the site in March.
“There is no turf farm there now and they were still filling,” said Avtar Sundher, ALC director of operations. “The request for an extension was declined on April 9 this year and we told them to cease all fill activities on the ALR portion of the property and then to reclaim the site with a reclamation plan by a professional agrologist,” he said.
The remediation plan must be submitted by July 31, and, if the plan is approved, work must be underway by October 31, said Sundher.
Meanwhile, the municipality of Metchosin is looking at fitting the non-ALR portion of Cosburn’s property into the remediation plans so the entire area can be topped off with soil.
Cosburn could not be contacted, but his application to the ALC describes the fill as “clean mineral soil and suitable organic matter” and, according to the municipality, he has abided by regulations. Since 2011 plans for the turf farm have been overseen by Madrone Environmental Services Ltd, a company hired by Cosburn.
Soil deposit regulations have changed over the last two years as Metchosin, in common with other municipalities close to areas of rampant development, has tried to control amounts of fill—which usually consists of stumps, rocks and other material removed for building sites.
“We are trying to tighten up our bylaws to negate some of the issues we have had in the past. We have had a lot of illegal dumping in general, but we have been trying to put the brakes on it,” said Councillor Sharie Epp.
Construction waste, which can include material such as drywall, nails, asbestos or wiring is supposed to be taken to Hartland Landfill, but Metchosin residents fear it is sometimes ending up in unregulated dumps running under the radar.
Adding to the suspicion that construction companies do not always follow the rules, piles of garbage bags of construction waste, which tested positive for asbestos, were dumped around the municipality earlier this year, leaving Metchosin on the hook for $5,000 in clean-up costs.
Recently Metchosin changed the bylaw that used to allow each property owner to bring in 2,000 cubic metres of fill (soil, gravel, rock, sand), reducing it to a maximum of 250 cubic metres a year or 500 cubic metres on larger properties, and all requests for large deposits must go through council. Eighty cubic meters of fill can still be brought in without a permit if it’s not in the ALR or other sensitive areas. There are also fees attached. A deposit of 250 cubic metre of clean fill would cost $525.
However, Metchosin is a small municipality with limited staff. Like other small municipalities, its bylaw services are complaint driven and contracted to the Capital Regional District. With many large properties hidden from view, getting a grip on dumping is a game of whack-a-mole and some Metchosin residents believe the District has become a convenient place to dispose of development debris cheaply.
The ALC order is a small victory for neighbours of the Sooke Road property, but some say it represents only the tip of a fill-dumping iceberg.
Friction between those who live in Metchosin because of the green, rural environment and “free-thinkers” who want to live in an area where they believe they can do whatever they want on their own property is at the root of much of the conflict that ends up on the desks of Metchosin councillors.
Nicole Shukin, a member of metchosinH2O, an “adhoc, but very active, group of environmentally-minded citizens,” said council seems reluctant to act, even when faced with evidence of illegal activities.
“Residents who’ve been submitting formal complaints about illegal dumping have seriously lost confidence in our district’s willingness or ability to enforce its bylaws in a manner that would deter, rather than enable, large-scale and ongoing violations,” she said.
Shukin described a shadow industry forcing the rural community to deal with unauthorized clearcutting, trucks using roads not designed for industrial use, and fears that wells and aquifers are being contaminated by construction waste that has not been inspected to ensure it is clean fill.
“Literally mountains are being blasted to bits in Langford and it needs to go somewhere and it seems to be filling up the gullies and lowlands in many areas of Metchosin,” Shukin said.
Ken Farquharson, vice-president of the Association for the Protection of Rural Metchosin noted that one problem is that the dumping will sometimes go on for years before council acts and the changed landscape is then accepted as un fait accompli.
Councillor Andy MacKinnon, a biologist and forest ecologist, said council is addressing complaints, “but not to the satisfaction of residents.” Much of the action is in camera, he explained, because the problems deal with specific individuals and property issues. “But I do share the frustration of a lot of the residents in terms of what can be done in some of these situations. Rewriting the bylaws was an attempt to make it simpler to monitor and prosecute, but most of the infractions that have raised people’s ire are with people who simply pay no heed to the bylaws whatsoever,” MacKinnon said. Prosecutions, he noted, apart from the cost, require an extremely high standard of proof. “You can write better bylaws and, if people follow them you will get better practice, but if people pay no heed, it doesn’t matter whether your bylaws are good or not; it becomes difficult and expensive and uncertain to enforce,” he said.
Shukin is a resident of La Bonne Road where neighbours complained for eight years about dumping on a property on Ash Mountain that is now the subject of legal action by the District.
Private property on La Bonne Road on which fill has been dumped
The La Bonne Road Residents Group, in a synopsis of complaints lodged with council between 2012 and 2016, list problems from illegal tree-cutting and unauthorized construction of greenhouses, to the dumping of “an estimated 10,000 cubic metres of soil mixed with construction debris, garbage, drywall.”
In 2018, after the dumping on the property was halted, the gully was covered with boulders, and the municipality conducted soil testing on the property because of concerns by nearby residents that the aquifer and wells had been contaminated.
Due to legal proceedings, however, lawyers say the results cannot be released. Legally, if tests revealed environmental concerns or health threats to nearby residents, they would have to be informed, said a spokesperson.
Accepting fill can be lucrative for landowners who want to fill in gullies or flatten hills, with prices to dump clean fill ranging from $5 to $7 per cubic yard. And if property owners are willing to accept under-the-table demolition material, the savings on dump fees are substantial. A 2019 study conducted for Vancity found a dump truck load of mixed construction waste can cost between $1,100 and $1,400 to dispose of legally, but that some property owners are accepting loads for a $200 payment “despite the threat of fines that can reach as high as $10,000.”
Mayor John Ranns said the concerns of some vocal residents do not reflect the current reality and bylaw changes mean there are now fewer problems with soil dumping—both legal and illegal—than in previous years.
“It’s very frustrating. We do have illegal dumping, but not much. We have made numerous revisions to the soil deposit bylaw and, at the moment, it’s pretty much being adhered to,” he said. “There isn’t anything contaminated. It all has to be checked and verified now by qualified professionals. It has to meet proper profiles and we have to see the weighbill,” he said.
Also, some property owners have created good farmland because soil has been brought in to fill gullies and top off rough forestland, added Ranns. “It’s not that all soil deposits are bad, it is just that there have been one or two people that have taken advantage of it,” he said.
The issue could surface again over a 50-hectare Sooke Road property where an application last year for a soil recycling facility for up to 15,000 cubic metres of soil brought opposing residents out in force. The application for a Temporary Use Permit has been dropped, but, if the idea is resurrected, Ranns anticipates that residents could be asked to consider amenities, such as potential parkland with a soil recycling plant, versus private 10-acre lots.
The property had a history of illegal dumping and, in 2016, a large fire was set in an effort to clean up the mess. That means a lot of suspicion has been generated, Ranns admitted, but the proponent, Brian Baker of Tri-X Excavating, has pointed out that material now coming onto the property is clean fill and it would be a waste to landfill it. “He’s going to be applying for industrial zoning on this property. He wants to do things legally,” said Ranns. “You can run it through a screener and then resell it. To me soil recycling is something that is quite badly needed in this region,” he said.
Which comes back to how developers deal with rubble and soil from building sites—a question the ALC frequently faces near high development areas like Langford. “When you look at all the development in the area, digging into the ground for basements, there is all that dirt,” Sundher of the ALC said; “Wherever there is construction, especially residential or high rise buildings, there’s a big hole that is excavated and all that soil needs to go somewhere.”
Judith Lavoie is an award-winning journalist specializing in the environment, First Nations, and social issues. Twitter @LavoieJudith
Victoria still has no residential treatment beds for those coming out of short-term detox—yet the new therapeutic recovery program is undersubscribed.
AS VICTORIA RESIDENTS ARE FACED WITH DAILY EVIDENCE of the ravages of addiction, especially when combined with homelessness or mental health problems, there are calls for more treatment beds in the community.
Victoria’s grim tally of overdose deaths, combined with neighbourhood crime and confrontations as people move from the Pandora Avenue and Topaz Park camps into hotels, is forcing addiction and mental health problems into the spotlight.
In the first four months of the year, more than 60 people in the Island Health region died of overdoses, including 28 in Victoria. Last month, a public health overdose advisory was issued by Island Health as the number of fatal and non-fatal overdoses grew because of increasing toxicity of the street drug supply.
Niki Ottosen, who hands out sandwiches to people living in Beacon Hill Park and runs the Backpack Project, which delivers backpacks filled with necessities to people in need, believes the missing piece in the program to move people into hotel rooms, in an effort to stop COVID-19 spreading through the street population, is new detox beds. No new detox or treatment beds have been announced, she noted.
Nikki Ottonsen, founder of the Backpack Project in Victoria (Photo: Backpack Project)
“I’ve had to bring people to detox. It’s seven days and then they go into 30-day stabilization, but sometimes they get out of detox, after seven days withdrawing, [and] they don’t have space for you to go to 30-day detox, so then you have to go back out to wherever you were and hope you don’t have a relapse before they have a space for you,” Ottosen said. “That is the huge missing piece. We are setting people up to fail if we think we are just going to put them up in hotel rooms, or maybe get them into modular housing later, without extra supports in our community,” she said.
Kelly Reid, Island Health director of mental health and addiction services agrees more services are needed. The goal of Island Health is to provide a continuum of care for people with addictions, but, according to Reid, the answer is not as simple as supplying more treatment beds. “It sounds like a reasonably simple question and then you dig into it and it is so complicated,” Reid said.
People with addictions and mental health problems need different supports to create a readiness to go into treatment, he explained, and having basic needs met—whether housing, food or access to a doctor—can lead to more interest in recovery. “It’s not easy and when you are living on the street and having to work so hard to even find food and the basics of life, it is particularly hard to go through a treatment process,” he said.
Reid believes that while replacement drug therapies and the slow move to a safe supply of drugs should help set the stage for the next step, providing a safe place to live is vital in getting people to a place where they are willing to make changes to their lives. “I really believe that when people have housing and they have nutrition and they have hope and they have social connections that they can imagine a different path forward,” he said.
Usually people who make the decision to go drug-free can get into a detox bed within four or five days, Reid said, but, if you are not seen as high urgency, the wait can be one or two weeks.
From there, some people go to one of the three “supportive recovery homes” in the community, including two for women and the 22-bed Douglas Street Community 90-day supportive recovery program run by the Portland Hotel Society. Such facilities offer “low to moderate supports” to newly detoxed substance-abusers as opposed to the intensive therapies offered in residential treatment programs, which are not available in Victoria. Financial help is sometimes available for people to access ones on the mainland.
Some of those seeking recovery need to go to a fully-staffed stabilization unit for a month. Others, following their 7-day detox, simply go home and are linked to counsellors.
Reid admits there can be a gap between programs, which is why increasing capacity is part of the goal. “We want to be able to provide treatment as soon as somebody is ready to accept it, and we are not there yet. There are still waits in some parts of the system and sometimes the opportunity passes,” he said. “In the ideal world I guess if we had a residential treatment facility in Victoria it would add to our continuum. It’s one that would be very welcome,” Reid said.
But even available beds do not guarantee that people will be willing to complete a tough recovery program.
New Roads, a therapeutic recovery centre in View Royal run by Our Place, offers spaces to people who have experienced homelessness, those who are leaving prison, or people who are willing to enter the two-year program as an alternative to jail.
The 50-bed centre opened in late 2018, but currently has only about 20 residents, partially because of COVID-19 complications, but also because people are sometimes reluctant to make such a long-term commitment.
Grant McKenzie, Our Place communications director, said persuading people to make the leap from detox into therapeutic recovery is more difficult than initially imagined. “We are dealing with a very damaged population and it can take a long time to get them to the point where they are ready to go into therapeutic recovery,” he said. Even those who enter the program, do not necessarily see it through.
The centre accepts people who would have been sentenced to three months or more in jail, but often, after three months of getting food, exercise and sufficient sleep, they believe they have recovered and leave.
“Within 24 hours they are back using. There’s a challenge there that we are working on, but it’s not as simple as saying ‘here’s a recovery bed and off you go,’” McKenzie said. “You are dealing with a lot of trauma and abuse and you’re trying to dig down and get people to look inward and grow,” McKenzie said.
If people stay for two years, the chance of success is about 70 percent, but, if they stay for only three months, success rates plummet.
Mackenzie said that in addition to services now available in Greater Victoria, there is a great need to put more resources into mental health. “We really need mental health supports where people are assessed and the medications they are on are assessed. There are a lot of people out there with undiagnosed schizophrenia or undiagnosed bipolar and they are self-medicating with street drugs,” he said.
In addition, a growing problem is the number of people who have brain damage after overdosing and being brought back by Naloxone.
While some people do well in a home where medications can be monitored, others would thrive in a locked institution with 24/7 supervision, said McKenzie, adding that, because of past abuses in mental health institutions, it is a difficult concept to accept.
“It probably wouldn’t be [someone’s] choice to go in there, which is what makes it so controversial, but I really think you could save lives,” he said.
For a list of the types of assistance the BC government provides substance users, see this site. For withdrawal and detox services at Island Health, start here.
Judith Lavoie is an award-winning journalist specializing in the environment, First Nations, and social issues. Twitter @LavoieJudith
May 12, 2020
Or will pandemic-induced debt just make it worse?
AS OUTREACH WORKERS tick names off lists of campers at Topaz Park and Pandora Avenue, trying to bring order to the hurried plan to move homeless people into hotels, others are drifting in to the area, hoping to be included in the relocation.
Although Topaz and Pandora, with about 360 people, are the outward face of homelessness in Victoria, tents can be found scattered around Beacon Hill Park, along side-streets, and outside Rock Bay Landing shelter.
The shifting numbers are among the complications faced by the Coalition to End Homelessness and its partners as they conduct assessments before moving people into hotels, where they can practice physical distancing and self-isolation, in an effort to stop COVID-19 from gaining a toehold in the homeless population.
A spokeswoman for the Ministry of Municipal Affairs and Housing said in an emailed statement that efforts are being made to reach as many people as possible.
“We’re working across government and with all partners to implement extraordinary measures to protect everyone in BC from the risks of two public health emergencies—the fentanyl poisoning crisis and the COVID-19 pandemic. We’re working on an accelerated timeline to keep people safe and connected to the care they need through these crises and beyond,” she said.
It is uncertain how many people in Greater Victoria are in need of homes. Some are newly homeless and others, who were previously living under the radar, are finding it difficult to make a living from binning, bottle collecting, the sex trade or panhandling in today’s era of closed shops and restaurants.
“The numbers are crushing,” said Reverend Al Tysick of the Dandelion Society, one of the partners in the relocation effort.
“It is going to be difficult for the Coalition to End Homelessness to house everyone. They’re going to do their best, but to do it in this short time is extremely difficult,” he said.
Reverend Al Tysick of the Dandelion Society
The last homeless count found 1,500 people in Victoria without stable housing, but, over the last year, Tysick has seen a spike.
“Rents have gone up, people have been kicked out and they haven’t been able to find a place. [Rents are] well over what we’re paying on welfare and disability,” he noted.
Numbers then bumped up again this spring after shelters were forced to reduce capacity when they could not maintain the prescribed pandemic distancing.
The Province, under the Emergency Program Act, has leased 324 rooms in five hotels in Victoria and set up a 45-bed emergency response centre at Save-On-Foods Memorial Centre. On May 10 the ministry website showed 106 people from Topaz and Pandora had moved to new accommodation.
However, it has been difficult finding experienced staff to provide wrap-around supports and sufficient spaces in Victoria. Shane Simpson, Minister of Social Development and Poverty Reduction has extended the deadline for moving people from Topaz and Pandora from May 9 to May 20.
“While we have been working with the hotel sector and service delivery partners towards the May 9 target in Victoria, it is now clear that more time is needed to ensure each person leaving Topaz Park and Pandora Avenue is moved into the accommodation that best meets their needs,” Simpson said in a news release.
“No one will be asked to leave these encampments without being offered a suitable temporary housing option,” he said.
Simpson also acknowledged that there are people outside Topaz and Pandora who need housing help. “We are not ignoring them. This discussion will continue,” he said,
In total there are more than 2,750 spaces across the Province for people without homes, according to BC Housing.
Apart from the immediate problems of finding space for the fluctuating number of homeless people, the major question is how they will all be housed once the pandemic is over.
The Province and City of Victoria have pledged that, after the three-month contract with hotel owners is up, no one will be forced back into homelessness.
There is speculation that the Province could buy some of the hotels, which were almost empty after tourism ground to a halt. Advocates are also pushing for construction of modular housing, spread through southern Vancouver Island communities, while the provincial emphasis is on the goal of building 4,900 new supportive homes in BC over the next decade.
“That work will happen in the weeks and months ahead, but the priority now is on the immediate health and safety of people experiencing homelessness in these public health emergencies,” said an emailed statement from a Ministry of Municipal Affairs and Housing spokeswoman.
In Oppenheimer Park in Vancouver, where 261 people had moved by May 10, activist Chrissy Brett, a veteran of Victoria’s 2015/2016 courthouse lawn camp, was fielding numerous questions about potential housing from camp residents.
Like other advocates, she believes that, provided adequate supports are in place, the plan to move people into hotels or community centres will help. But she worries about those left out or those dealing with past trauma and addictions who are unable to adjust to life in a hotel where there are rules to be followed.
Activist Chrissy Brett
A possible model would be a type of refugee-style camp run by organizations such as the Red Cross, Brett suggested. “It’s not that I’m advocating that tent cities are where it is at, but, if you look at San Diego or San Francisco or Seattle, they are now creating these sort of camps,” she said. “They are made to live in with showers and bathrooms and everything people need to live properly. Why are we not looking at those as short-term measures?”
Brett would also like to see housing for Indigenous people, seniors and those not battling addictions made available at sites such as Woodwynn Farm, the Central Saanich property bought by the Province in 2018 for use as a therapeutic recovery/training centre (it does not offer housing on site).
Tysick would love to believe that, after decades of neglect, the homelessness problem is about to be solved.
But realism kicks in.
“I am waiting to see this magic wand,” said Tysick, pointing out that, for decades, the problem has been ignored or, at best, chipped at around the edges.
“Let’s be really clear the only reason this is being done is COVID-19. Period. End of story,” he said.
But, when this crisis is over, will attitudes and political will have changed?
Tim Richter, president and founder of the Canadian Alliance to End Homelessness, said modern-day homelessness was created by federal government policies in the late 1980s and 1990s.
“It wasn’t on purpose obviously, but it’s a product of the policy choices that were made when the federal government withdrew from affordable housing investments almost completely and cut social transfers (to the Provinces) that funded welfare and health care,” Richter said.
Tim Richter, president and founder of the Canadian Alliance to End Homelessness
Now, organizations working to fix the problem need the support of the provincial and federal governments and a more ambitious, more aggressive investment in housing than Canada has seen in recent decades, he said.
Change will come if the public demands it, Richter believes. “We are in a really unique window of time right now where the public is feeling what many people experiencing homelessness feel. They feel isolated and they understand that housing is healthcare, so they are much more empathetic to the plight of people experiencing homelessness,” he said.
“In a crisis like this, things that, on a policy basis, may have seemed a little crazy a month ago, aren’t crazy any more. I think big, bold changes in social policy are possible,” he said. This is the time for people to speak out, Richter said.
“Canadians need to say we are not prepared to accept homelessness of any of our neighbours as inevitable and we’re not prepared that people should be at this sort of risk from a pandemic for no other reason than they don’t have a place to live,” he said.
However, there is a possible flip side to government attitudes post-pandemic, said Tysick, who wonders what will happen when bills for the Canada-wide pandemic financial aid start to roll in.
“Look at the amount of money the government is putting out for COVID across the country, not only for homelessness, but for unemployment and business and other initiatives,” Tysick said.
“I am proud of our governments for doing it, but, once it’s over, will they say ‘yes, let’s build two or three buildings for 400 people.’ I don’t think so. I think we are going to be hearing about the debt and how difficult it’s going to be to pay off that debt for the next 10 years,” he said.
Judith Lavoie is an award-winning journalist specializing in the environment, First Nations, and social issues. Twitter @LavoieJudith
May 6, 2020
Langford waives public hearings, a practice threatening to become common across the region
THE CITY OF LANGFORD is already famous around the capital region for its rapid-fire, debate-free Council meetings, but it seemed to set a new speed record on Monday night (May 4). In a half-hour, socially-distanced conference call, Langford’s Council approved a parks maintenance contract, a five-year financial plan, an alternate property-tax collection scheme — and gave final approval to several contentious developments, without holding a public hearing for any of them.
The biggest of those developments involved 50 acres of mostly forested land on either side of the Trans-Canada Highway and immediately east of the Leigh Road overpass, once belonging to the reclusive Victoria property owner Clara Kramer. Langford’s Council voted unanimously on Monday to rezone the Kramer lands as a “mixed-use employment” district, permitting anything from apartments and offices to car dealerships and liquor stores.
On May 4, Langford rezoned 50 acres containing Garry oaks, a wetland and a mobile-home park, to permit commercial development — but without a public hearing
Langford's official notice
Letters of opposition appeared in the agenda package for Langford councillors, however. TLC The Land Conservancy warned that the property included a wetland, and a significant stand of engangered Garry oaks. But the most troubling messages came from elderly residents of a trailer park south of the highway, afraid that the rezoning and development would force them to move, and upset that they couldn’t voice their concerns at a regular public hearing.
“Most of the residents have either vision or hearing problems or no computers so it makes it difficult to keep informed of what’s going on during the meeting,” one resident wrote. “I think it’s very unfair to go ahead with this meeting without giving all of us a chance to be involved.”
“50 percent of my neighbours are in their 80s and 90s and feel the same, the difficulty of moving represents a nightmare,” wrote another, asking the Council to only rezone the section north of the highway and defer rezoning the trailer park for several years. “Please consider my suggestion, and let us die in our own homes.”
Langford’s councillors approved nearly all the rezonings during their phone-in meeting without any comment, but Denise Blackwell, the chair of Langford’s planning and zoning committee, did say something about this one: “I’d just like to add that it’s too bad we couldn’t have this in public because of the circumstances. But based on our information from the province on how to conduct these, and the urgency with regard to some of the questions that people are asking, we need to go ahead at this time.”
(Langford Council doesn’t webcast its meetings, but you can hear how quickly it approves rezoning bylaws from a recording of part of the May 4 phone-in meeting linked here.)
Letters (above and below) from TriWay residents. “Let us die in our own homes,” wrote one, pleading with Langford to defer rezoning of the trailer park.
Public hearings are arguably one of the most important procedures conducted by municipal councils. As the province’s online guide to local government notes, land-use decisions by elected municipal officials affect entire communities as well as individual properties; consequently, “In order to balance their broad powers, elected officials are required to provide the opportunity for residents and other interested parties to share their views on [rezoning] bylaws through a statutory public hearing process.” Several B.C. court decisions have deemed public hearings a “quasi-judicial” function of local governments, requiring councils to be impartial and adhere to rules of procedural fairness.
But normal council meetings or public hearings are impossible under COVID-19. In March, after the province declared a state of emergency, public safety minister Mike Farnworth issued an order allowing councils to hold electronic or phone-in meetings. He failed to include public hearings, though, which drew some councils’ attention to a rarely-used provision of the Local Government Act:
464 (2) A local government may waive the holding of a public hearing on a proposed zoning bylaw if
(a) an official community plan is in effect for the area that is subject to the zoning bylaw, and
(b) the bylaw is consistent with the official community plan.
On April 4, the deputy minister of municipal affairs encouraged local governments “to consider whether it may be appropriate to waive public hearings,” and to “be creative in moving local government business forward.” Langford took that advice and ran with it: on April 6, it passed a sweeping motion directing staff “to waive all Public Hearings for any zoning bylaws which receive 1st reading on, or before, the World Health Organization rescinds the COVID-19 pandemic.”
Last Friday, May 1, Farnworth finally issued an order permitting electronic public hearings during the province’s state of emergency, currently slated to last until May 12 (a date likely far closer than the WHO rescinding in Langford’s motion). But it seems Langford will continue to waive hearings in most cases. “We have to be respectful of our needs to protect the public and Council and staff from unnecessary exposure,” said Matthew Baldwin, Langford’s director of planning. “But secondly,” he added, “there really is no material difference to not doing the public hearings.”
As Baldwin noted, under the Local Government Act, the municipality is required to post two notices of the waiver in a newspaper, as it would for a public hearing. (It does not, however, have to post a notice on the property itself, saving the developer several hundred dollars.) “The public is still aware that Council is considering the bylaws. They’re still aware that Council is going to talk about it on this particular night. And they can address Council in the public participation part of the Council meeting.” (Langford allowed public participation during its May 4 phone-in meeting, but no residents called in to speak to any of the rezonings on the agenda.)
Baldwin said that if a rezoning requires an amendment to Langford’s official community plan (OCP), it will hold a “delegated” public hearing under the Local Government Act, in which councillor Blackwell will meet personally with any concerned residents. But few such hearings will be necessary, because Langford’s generous OCP has anticipated dramatic growth.
Langford was able to waive a hearing for the Kramer lands because they were already designated “Mixed Use Employment Centre” in the OCP. Similarly, on May 4, Langford’s Council approved rezoning a lot on a cul-de-sac of single-family houses at 2681 Claude Road for a six-storey, 35-unit apartment building because that part of town is identified as “City Centre” on the OCP, defined as including “a wide range of high-density housing.” It also approved rezoning a “one- and two-family residential” lot at 595 Hansen Avenue to accommodate seven new townhouses — despite numerous letters and photos from neighbours showing current issues with parking, traffic and hazards for pedestrians — because Langford’s OCP said that area would support “a range of low and medium density housing.”
In the past, Blackwell and Baldwin have told FOCUS that few residents participate in Langford’s public hearings because the City has resolved most issues raised by neighbours earlier in the development process. The letters tell a different story.
Without a public hearing, Langford approved seven townhomes for this one-house lot, even though residents sent photos showing already crammed on-street parking and hazards for pedestrians (below)
So far, most other B.C. municipalities have been comparatively reluctant to waive public hearings. The City of Delta, for example, has directed its staff to “recommend” waiving hearings for rezonings consistent with its OCP — but only if they are “routine in nature and where Delta has not received a substantial volume of correspondence in opposition.”
On April 2, City of Victoria mayor Lisa Helps expressed interest in waiving public hearings for specific projects, especially those involving affordable housing, but City staff presented a report stating that “a decision to waive a public hearing must be made by Council for each application individually,” and merely recommended “exploring this potential option” in future reports.
Locally, the most vocal debate about waiving public hearings so far has been heard in Saanich, which held a phone-in council meeting of its own on May 4.
Saanich staff put two developments on the agenda, the first rezoning a single-family lot to permit four residences at 3281 Cedar Hill Road, the second rezoning to allow subdivision of a single-family lot at 4595 Cordova Bay Road. Staff suggested waiving hearings for both because the rezonings were consistent with goals in Saanich’s OCP to have “a range of housing types” in neighbourhoods, and “limited infill” housing.
Both rezonings provoked letters of opposition. But the proposed waivers also prompted several neighbourhood associations to write to Saanich Council, pointing out that whether a project is “consistent with” an OCP can be a subject of considerable debate. They warned that waiving public hearings for these rezonings could set a worrying precedent, one that would “circumvent basic principles of natural justice and procedural fairness,” and called on Saanich to postpone the hearings, or come up with ways to hold them electronically.
Saanich councillor Colin Plant, who said he was “shocked” to learn that it was even possible to waive public hearings, moved that both developments go to hearings, electronic if necessary. “It does fit the [official community] plan, and yet we have heard from the public they don’t feel that it necessarily does,” he said, regarding the first rezoning. “So as such, I want to hear from the public and have a fulsome discussion, even if it is in a new way of doing business.”
“For me the public need to have input into these projects, and in the past, we’ve seen how public input has created a better project,” said councillor Judy Brownoff. “True democracy, it’s hard and challenging, but we really need to hear and listen to our public before we make any final decisions.”
Councillor Karen Harper pushed back a bit, saying, “There’s a notion that the lack of a public hearing means a lack of public input, and I don’t agree with that notion. We receive input all the time and in all sorts of ways.” In the end, though, Saanich Council voted unanimously to send both rezonings to a public hearing, even though staff had not yet figured out how to conduct one electronically. Saanich CAO Paul Thorkelsson told councillors he would likely have a report on that next week.
Ross Crockford is a Victoria journalist and former lawyer.
UPDATE: On June 1, Langford’s council passed a motion rescinding their April 6 motion to waive public hearings, and henceforth will conduct electronic or phone-in hearings like most other municipalities. A staff report recommending rescinding the April measure said:
Although waiving a Public Hearing and holding electronic Council meetings affords the public additional opportunity to address Council on the topic of a Public Hearing, the practice of waiving Public Hearings is sufficiently novel to the Public that it is the cause for some concern. Recent press suggests that the public expects that they will have an opportunity to be heard at a specific Public Hearing. In this instance, it may be prudent to give the public this opportunity.
It’s unclear if “recent press” referred to the above article: the recommendation was approved without further comment from the staff or councillors.
ANXIETY IS RIPPLING THROUGH Victoria’s Burnside-Gorge neighbourhood as residents hear through the unofficial grapevine that about 80 percent of the more than 350 of those living in tents in Topaz Park and Pandora Avenue will be coming to hotels in their community.
The area, which is home to many families with children, already has two shelters and several supportive housing complexes. Residents have, as a result, experienced fallout from mental health and addiction problems in the past. Recent incidents around Topaz Park, where crime spiked after the camp was set up, have added to their concerns.
It’s a delicate balance for both residents and those who have been living in tents since shelter space was reduced because of COVID-19.
While there is widespread support for dismantling the camps, providing adequate housing, and helping those struggling with mental health and addictions, questions are being raised about what help is available to the receiving community.
Rock Bay Landing, located in the Burnside-Gorge neighbourhood
Residents in the Burnside-Gorge area neighbourhood recently discovered that four out of five sites for hotel relocations are in their area—although, according to Michelle Peterson, no one has reached out to the community to offer specific information or security help.
Peterson, a long-time Burnside-Gorge resident, told Focus, “Every single one of the people I have talked to, no question, agree that these people need to be housed. That is not an issue. It is more the impact and the lack of support for the communities.”
At a virtual meeting that included Island Health representatives, Peterson was told that many of the campers are feeling anxious and uncertain about the move, so will be helped by psychiatrists and mental health experts.
“I told them I am hearing very similar feelings from residents in my community and there’s no supports for them. What are they going to do to support the neighbours?” she asked. Island Health has agreed to take the concerns to their executive, Peterson said.
“This is a crisis and I think everyone understands that, but what people are worried about is what is the plan to help mitigate any negative impact, because we know that there is a percentage of that population who can be quite dangerous. They’re the ones who have active, significant mental health issues or active substance abuse issues or they’re violent to themselves or others,” she said.
Given the crime spike in the Topaz neighbourhood, residents are asking for increased security, possibly additional policing, and assurances that 24/7 supervision will amount to more than someone sitting at a reception desk, Peterson said.
BC Housing is not confirming which hotels in Victoria are providing the 324 rooms, but emphasized that people will be assessed and then connected to wrap-around care including doctors, outreach workers and psychosocial supports. Harm reduction supplies will be provided to people with substance use disorders.
“BC Housing is engaged in active and ongoing conversations with neighbourhood and community associations in Victoria to raise awareness and provide information about our response to the pandemic and how we are assisting those who are vulnerable,” said a Ministry of Municipal Affairs and Housing spokeswoman in an emailed response to questions from Focus.
“While we typically connect with neighbours and the public prior to new services opening in the community for those who are vulnerable, we recognize the need to act quickly in the current context. The hotels are temporary and will be vital to mitigating the spread of this virus, protecting those who are vulnerable and the broader community.”
Peterson said a BC Housing representative is planning to meet with residents, but, so far, no one has come up with a mitigation plan and the lack of information is creating suspicion and polarization.
“I understand why they don’t want to disclose the location, but, when they don’t provide information to the community and they stay silent and don’t reach out, it creates a significant lack of trust,” she said. “Then what happens is it creates more of a divide, more hostility, more conflict between the neighbourhood and the homeless population which is not what we want,” she said.
By April 30, 51 people had been moved out of camps and into hotel rooms, with the Province paying the tab. The final cost will depend on the length of time the hotels are used, according to the ministry.
The contracts with hotels are below the market rental rate, but are providing income for hotel owners at a time when COVID-19 has brought the tourism industry to a grinding halt.
“We have not forced hotels to accept people. To date, all hotel spaces that BC Housing has secured have been freely negotiated with hotel owners without the use of orders,” wrote the spokeswoman. “These contracts are producing positive outcomes for everyone, including hotel owners, who are getting a fair deal, and their employees, some of whom are being contracted to help operate hotels.” BC Housing has committed to “professional and rigorous cleaning” of all the buildings once the contracts end and will cover the cost of any damages.
However, for Peterson and other Burnside-Gorge residents, the remaining question is how much help the neighbourhood will be receiving.
“There needs to be a plan on how to mitigate the impact in the short term, because we know there are going to be impacts,” she said.
Judith Lavoie is an award-winning journalist specializing in the environment, First Nations, and social issues. Twitter @LavoieJudith
April 25, 2020
New pandemic guidelines giving medical professionals and pharmacists flexibility to prescribe and distribute drugs to those suffering from addiction need to be put into practice more quickly in order to keep everyone safe, say advocates.
THE ALREADY-TOXIC STREET DRUG SUPPLY in BC is becoming increasingly poisonous and expensive as borders close and supplies from China and the US shrink.
But, for most people suffering from addiction, quitting is not an immediate option and, although a growing amount of basement concoctions are being sold on the street, the urge to avoid withdrawal overrides all else.
“You will have to go out, no matter what, and do what you have to do to get that substance,” said Guy Felicella, who spent decades as a heroin addict living in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside and is now clean, an advocate for a safe drug supply and a peer clinical adviser for BC Centre on Substance Use.
Guy Felicella, right, an advocate for a safe drug supply (Photo courtesy guyfelicella.com)
As COVID-19 physical distancing rules clear the streets, it is more difficult to make money from panhandling, bottle collecting or the sex trade. Advocates worry that people with addictions are struggling to find alternate ways to finance their habits.
There is also concern that those searching for drugs are at risk of both contracting and spreading COVID-19.
So it is to everyone’s advantage that new guidelines will give prescribers and pharmacists flexibility to prescribe and distribute drugs such as hydromorphone, stimulants, benzodiazepines, and substances to manage alcohol and nicotine withdrawal, according to Felicella and other advocates.
Federal relaxation of the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act was followed last month by innovative provincial guidelines designed to address two overlapping public health emergencies—the opioid crisis, fuelled by fentanyl, which has killed more than 5,000 British Columbians since January 2016 and, now, COVID-19.
The new rules allow physicians and nurse practitioners to prescribe the drugs to people at risk of contracting COVID-19, those with a history of ongoing substance use, people at high risk of withdrawal or overdose and youth under the age of 19 who provide informed consent, provided there is additional education. Costs are covered by provincial PharmaCare.
Rapid access addiction clinics can also provide assessments, and phone visits to prescribers and pharmacists are encouraged. The guidelines allow home delivery by pharmacy employees, pharmacists can extend, renew and transfer prescriptions and, in some cases, people will be allowed up to three weeks supply instead of having to go to the pharmacy daily.
“We want people not to have to go into pharmacies every day, which puts themselves and other people at risk when they should be self-isolating,” said Judy Darcy, Minister of Mental health and Addiction. “We are trying to flatten the curve at the same time as stopping overdoses and these really unprecedented measures are meant to do both of those things,” she said.
The guidelines were put in place as fast as possible and a massive effort is now underway to get the word out to all health professionals, Darcy said.
However, implementation is slow as some physicians and pharmacists are not yet fully informed about the changes.
It is frustrating, said Leslie McBain, co-founder of Moms Stop The Harm. “What you had was rollout of a good policy that I hope will continue to progress and evolve, but the infrastructure was not out there,” McBain said.
She added, “If I was a person searching for safe drugs because I didn’t want to go out and buy them on the street, there was no way to figure out that pathway.”
Bernie Pauly, University of Victoria School of Nursing professor and a scientist with the Canadian Institute for Substance Use research, said it is essential prescribers familiarize themselves with the changes. “[They] need to not only know and understand the guidelines, they need to do it really quickly because people’s lives are at stake,” she said.
Pauly and other advocates are anxious to ensure the changes stay in place after federal exemptions reach their sunset clause at the end of September.
“I would hope we are able to show the benefits of this,” said Pauly, who also wants to see decriminalization of personal possession—something recommended last year by provincial health officer Dr Bonnie Henry.
Felicella wants to see a further step with pharmaceutical grade heroin, fentanyl and cocaine made available without prescription.
“What we have today is a medical version and it’s a great start and will help many people, but it is not where we want to stay,” he said.
Judith Lavoie is an award-winning journalist specializing in the environment, First Nations, and social issues. Twitter @LavoieJudith
April 3, 2020
With an estimated 1,500 homeless people in Victoria, increasingly worried officials are trying to find enough facilities to house them in a way that allows physical distancing.
THERE IS INCREASING URGENCY to move the jumble of tents on Pandora Avenue into the safer environments of Topaz Park and Royal Athletic Park, as health professionals and advocates watch anxiously for signs of COVID-19 spreading to Victoria’s homeless population.
So far, no members of the group, many of whom have compromised immune systems, have tested positive, but the risk is obvious. With parks regarded as a temporary solution, the overriding question is whether the virus will hold off long enough to allow indoor accommodation—where greater physical distancing is possible—to be found for hundreds of people.
Tents sprung up along the 900-block of Pandora Avenue, outside Our Place, after drop-ins closed and shelter spaces were reduced because of the need for physical distancing.
Tents on Pandora Avenue. (Photo by Ross Crockford)
Many of those camping on Pandora are using Our Place services such as washrooms, paramedic services, and meals—which are handed out at the gate in disposable containers.
The City, BC Housing, Island Health, Greater Victoria Coalition to End Homelessness and the Dandelion Society are working together to move people initially into the specified parks, which have washrooms and running water and will allow for physical distancing.
The plan to use parks as temporary campsites has brought objections from some neighbours who worry about drug use and increased crime.
But the possibility of infection in the current crowded environments should concern everyone, not just the unhoused population, said Reverend Al Tysick, founder of the Victoria Dandelion Society. “This doesn’t just affect [this group]…We are all in this together. This epidemic does not distinguish between the rich and the poor, the drug addict and the woman in the nursing home,” Tysick said.
“Once it hits our [homeless] community it’s going to spread like wildfire. People are already sick when they move into the community. This is serious stuff. Much more serious than we have ever seen before,” he said.
It has not been possible to persuade Pandora campers of the importance of staying at a safe distance from each other, said Our Place communications director Grant McKenzie. It is difficult to explain social distancing to a group living in precarious circumstances, who are already dealing with losses from the opioid crisis, McKenzie said.
“Many people here are suffering from addiction or using opioids, so they are really just looking at their day-to-day survival. Where is my next meal coming from? Where am I sleeping tonight? They don’t have the luxury of worrying about COVID-19, which is why social distancing is very difficult,” he said.
Royal Athletic Park [see update in Comments] will be set up for 80 people with addictions or mental health problems, who are likely to need a higher level of service, but one delay is finding available front-line staff. “We are working as hard and as fast as we can,” said Mayor Lisa Helps at one of her daily briefings. “In a public health emergency, no one should be living outside. Period,” she said.
“COVID-19 will hit the unsheltered population at some time,” Helps said, echoing the concerns of Chief Medical Officer Richard Stanwick who has emphasized that homeless people must have the opportunity to meet social distancing requirements and that, if they are displaying symptoms, they must be able to isolate themselves.
A federal grant of more than $1.3-million will be added to programs to address homelessness; and a search is on to find indoor alternatives to parks.
As of April 3, 102 homeless, who are healthy and do not require a high level of support, had been moved into motel rooms. Others, who were previously camping in Topaz Park, will remain there until indoor accommodation can be found.
Ideally, that search should include premises in neighbouring municipalities as the downtown core attracts people from all over the region and several of Victoria’s facilities have already been rejected as unsuitable, said Helps. She acknowledged that 80 spaces at Royal Athletic Park will not be sufficient to meet the needs.
Meanwhile, there seem to be more tents on Pandora than ever. And the numbers of facilities in motels and parks so far arranged do not add up to anywhere near the 1,525 homeless people found in the 2018 count in Greater Victoria.
Judith Lavoie is an award-winning journalist specializing in the environment, First Nations, and social issues. Twitter @LavoieJudith
March 31, 2020
Some doctors say we must test widely to find all carriers of the coronavirus. British Columbia isn’t doing that.
ON MARCH 16, as many countries rapidly expanded their social-distancing measures to combat spread of the SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus and the associated disease COVID-19, the director-general of the World Health Organization told them that they needed to do more.
“The most effective way to prevent infections and save lives is breaking the chains of transmission. And to do that, you must test and isolate,” said Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus. “You cannot fight a fire blindfolded. And we cannot stop this pandemic if we don’t know who is infected. We have a simple message for all countries: test, test, test. Test every suspected case.”
Canada generally, and British Columbia in particular, claims to be following that advice. B.C. health minister Adrian Dix says the province conducts around 3,500 tests for COVID-19 every day. According to the B.C. Centre for Disease Control, by March 31 the province had conducted 43,229 tests — 8,458 per million residents, a testing rate better than the 8,152 per million conducted by South Korea, considered a model country for managing the crisis.
But some say that’s still not enough if we want accurate data about the prevalence of the virus, and hope to identify and isolate carriers who are only experiencing mild symptoms, or no symptoms at all.
A coronavirus testing laboratory in Leeds, UK (Credit: HM Treasury)
Estimates of the number of such asymptomatic carriers varies greatly. One study of the notorious Diamond Princess cruise ship found that half of its passengers who tested positive for COVID-19 showed no symptoms. A recent study of transmission of the virus in China said that 86% of the infections there went undocumented — meaning that for every one person who tested positive, another six carried the virus but weren’t identified. “This high proportion of undocumented infections, many of whom were likely not severely symptomatic, appears to have facilitated the rapid spread of the virus throughout China,” the researchers said.
Consequently, some argue that the only way to catch those asymptomatic carriers is to test healthy as well as sick people, like Iceland has done. As of April 1, Iceland had conducted 19,516 tests of its 364,000 citizens, or 5.3% of its population, the highest testing rate in the world. “The virus had a much, much wider spread in the community than we would have assumed, based on the screening of high-risk people,” said Kári Stefánsson, a neurologist and head of the Reykjavik-based biopharmaceutical company deCode genetics. Iceland has identified 63 positive cases for every 1,000 tests, a rate of 6.3%. British Columbia, on the other hand, has only turned up 23 positives for every 1,000 tests.
Dr. Bonnie Henry, B.C.’s provincial health officer, told FOCUS at a March 28 press conference that the province is testing some asymptomatic people — if it’s tracking the source of an outbreak, for example — but otherwise it’s concentrating tests on workers in the health-care system and long-term care homes, and people being admitted to hospital, to ensure that COVID-19 sufferers are separated from other patients. “A broad testing of well people in our community right now is not what we are going to be doing,” she said. “That is the strategy we will be looking at if and when we come to the downside of our curve, when we’re looking again at introductions coming into B.C. from other places. That’s part of the strategy that would be at that phase of the epidemic. But certainly not right now.”
What’s more troubling is the fact that B.C.’s testing regime is also bypassing people who areshowing symptoms of COVID-19. On March 23, the CBC reported that at least 11 attendees at a memorial service in Vancouver were experiencing symptoms, and though some were told by doctors that they likely had the virus, they still didn't qualify for testing.
On March 28, Dr. Sean Wormsbecker, an emergency-room physician at New Westminster’s Royal Columbia hospital, posted a video (embedded below) expressing his frustration that “based on our current resources, we are very much undertesting the population.” He said he saw several ill patients that day who likely had COVID-19, but because they displayed stable lung function, he followed the Ministry of Health’s protocol and sent them home without testing. “And that scares me,” Wormsbecker said, concerned that such patients wouldn’t self-isolate because they didn’t know that they had the virus. He also said failure to test those patients means B.C. is “low-balling” its numbers, and that we’re not copying the nations that have identified carriers to flatten their rates of infection. “We can’t use those countries like Singapore or [South] Korea as a benchmark for what we can expect to come.”
“I actually don’t agree with that,” Henry said on March 30, when asked about Wormsbecker’s comments. “Having been on the front lines with my colleagues in public health who are actually talking to these people, who are at home and who are self-isolating, most people are absolutely doing what we need them to do.” As she explained, the province’s testing strategyhas been to concentrate on the people most likely to have the disease, and those most likely to need hospital care. “And we are still maintaining the contact tracing, we’re talking with people who have this, who have mild enough illness that they’re able to stay at home. For the most part, that is working.”
Strategy aside, the province is also likely limiting tests to conserve its supplies for the peak of the crisis. (FOCUS asked the Ministry of Health what’s holding up wider-scale testing, but the Ministry hasn’t replied.) Governments around the world are in a rush — and sometimes bidding wars — for the nasal swabs and chemical reagents used in test kits, and for PPE (personal protective equipment) such as gowns and masks, which if used for testing would take them away from hospital wards. It’s true that some countries like South Korea and the United Arab Emirates have been able to conduct large-scale testing, but that’s because they’ve been stockpiling equipment and chemicals ever since the MERS coronavirus hit them in 2015.
Instead, it seems that locating those who actually have the virus in B.C. will be left up to a variety of ad-hoc projects. The City of Langford, for example, has created its own COVID-19 response team, asking all of its residents to take an online screening test, even if they don’t have symptoms, to “help us understand the COVID-19 health status of our community.” Langford mayor Stew Young told CFAX that the team has already sent doctors to the residences of 16 people for in-home testing, using a small number of test kits provided by the province. “What's going to win the war is test kits and home testing at the front line and keeping our hospitals for the severe cases,” Young said. “That is the way to do this.” (Dr. Henry doesn’t agree: when asked about Langford’s project on March 31, she said “it’s not a good use of resources to test people who are at low risk.”)
Online projects are also springing up to assess local COVID-19 risks, such as FLATTEN, which asks Canadians to answer an anonymous online survey about their symptoms and contacts with COVID-19 patients, generating a “heat map” of the country organized by postal code. By March 31, 281 people had answered surveys in the V8V postal code, which covers James Bay and Fairfield — and 24 of them exhibited enough symptoms and/or connections to be considered “potential cases,” suggesting the spread of the illness could be wider than officially declared, even in Victoria.
We won’t know without tests. New ones should be coming quickly: on March 27 the US government approved a new test that can provide results in minutes, unlike current tests which take days, and the manufacturer plans to start cranking out 50,000 of them daily.
In the meantime, British Columbia, like the rest of North America, is about to head into the mouth of the COVID-19 storm. Very soon, we will know whether or not the province’s testing strategy has worked.
Ross Crockford agrees with Dorothy: there's no place like home.
March 5, 2020
Innovative programs are being put in place to help farmers address the high cost of farmland—but are they enough?
IT’S AN EASY EQUATION IN MOST HOUSEHOLDS—if more people turn up for dinner, it means producing more food. But in the Capital Regional District, where the population is expected to increase 27 percent by 2038, only half of the region’s 16,000 hectares of Agricultural Land Reserve (ALR) is growing food.
In other words, as climate change makes food security and buying local increasingly important, much of southern Vancouver Island’s rich agricultural land is being developed for non-agricultural uses or simply under-utilized.
Farmland being farmed, a relatively rare sight in the Victoria area
ALR land represents seven percent of the CRD, with additional rural land not included in the ALR. Farm Credit Canada’s 2018/2019 report says that out of more than 700 farms in the capital region, less than half are growing food.
Another report, the Foodlands Access Program feasibility study, produced by Upland Agricultural Consulting Ltd for the regional district, states: “The underutilization of farmland, both now and in the future, is a lost regional opportunity. With over 50 percent of the region’s farmers retiring in the next 10 years, there is concern that new farmers will not be able to afford to enter the sector to replace them.” The study noted, “The high cost of land is a barrier, not only to new farmers, but also to those wishing to expand their business. This is due, in part, to agricultural lands being purchased by non-farmers and held with low risk for speculative purposes.”
As the southern Vancouver Island population grows, farmland is appealing to those who want to put down roots in a rural setting and are willing to pay between $100,000 and $200,000 an acre. While the cost of farmland across BC increased by 6.7 percent in 2018, on Vancouver Island it jumped by 21.7 percent, the highest regional increase in the country, according to Farm Credit Canada’s Farmland Values Report.
Saanich Councillor Nathalie Chambers, who farms Madrona Farm in the Blenkinsop Valley with her husband David, has fought against development and dumping of fill in the soil-rich Blenkinsop Valley. Chambers believes the price of farmland and non-permitted activities, which degrade the soil and pollute watersheds, are the largest obstacles to saving farmland. And, she adds, “Mega-mansion carbuncles are totally contagious.”
Linda Geggie, executive director of the Capital Region Food and Initiatives Roundtable (CRFAIR), agrees mega-homes are a problem. “A lot of people say that on most of the land on the Peninsula, the biggest crop is large estate homes,” said Geggie, who believes urban containment zones are a valuable weapon against development on rural land, especially when combined with stricter enforcement of zoning restrictions.
“We need to contain sprawl, but the challenge is that there’s so much competition for that land, and there’s a lot of non-farm use now for those farmlands because we have a low stock of industrial land and we are in a housing crisis,” explained Geddie.
Surprisingly, given the breakneck pace of development in areas such as West Shore, only 45.6 (of 16,000) hectares of ALR land in the region has been removed during the last decade. However, that does not mean the remaining land is being farmed. And even if it is farmed, the extent of the crop is often only enough to graze the limits of the farm credit, giving a significant tax break to owners. A few fields of hay or a couple of pigs can reach the $2,500 production figure that gains a farm tax credit on smaller properties. A November 2016 Globe & Mail investigation into farmland in the lower mainland noted, “Effectively, wealthy investors and speculators are receiving millions in tax breaks not meant for them.”
Yet upping the sales limit for farm status could have unforeseen consequences, say advocates such as Geggie. “It really depends what you’re producing, because if you’re producing carrots, that’s a heck of a lot of carrots…You also have some farms that are just starting out—developmental farms—and it’s hard in your first couple of years to make a lot of income,” Geggie said. Still, she believes there could be more nuanced categories in the farm tax credit regime.
The Province has struggled to control mega-mansions on ALR land. Agriculture Minister Lana Popham told Focus that, after tweaking an initial proposal, she believes proposed new rules that would allow secondary homes of 1,000 square feet and restrict primary residences to 5,400 square feet provide the correct balance.
But if land is in the ALR, why are the owners not required to farm it?
Not possible, responded Popham. “There are quite strict rules about what is allowable activity and what isn’t, but actually forcing people to farm is not something we can legislate,” she said. “What we can do is make farming more viable so that it’s an option they will choose,” she said.
Agriculture Minister Lana Popham
A series of initiatives to encourage farming, at provincial and regional levels, are making a difference, Popham said. “It’s like turning a giant cruise ship around. You’ve got to connect all the dots and get everything in place and then as soon as it starts to move, it really starts to move, and I really feel that is starting to happen,” she said.
Part of that dot-connecting is a series of food-processing hubs around the province that make it possible for farmers to create value-added goods—such as baked goods, beverages, condiments, and broth. Three are already in operation, and more are planned.
“They are really going to be places where people who wanted to start an entrepreneur business were stuck in a small space or home kitchen. Now they can move to a commercial area where all the boxes are ticked off…so they can get those products out,” Popham said.
Creating markets for farmers is one of the keys, said Popham, and a recent game-changer has been getting BC products into the health care system. Health authorities spend vast portions of their budgets on food, and the Province is encouraging them to buy BC-grown food, such as berries, eggs, vegetables and frozen meals, Popham said. “It’s really working. There are all these new business opportunities that are popping up,” she said.
THE AVERAGE AGE OF FARMERS in the capital region is 57, with more than half planning to retire over the next decade. Many members of the next generation are not interested in taking over the family farm, so protecting the land base and persuading others to farm the land are key challenges in the quest for regional food security.
The regional district is working on an agricultural land use inventory. It is also in the final throes of creating a foodlands trust, which will see participating municipalities put municipally-owned land into the trust, to be protected as agricultural land. (And perhaps down the road, purchase farmland for that purpose.)
The aim is for the regional district to then work with a non-profit land manager, such as CRFAIR, to lease the lands to farmers or community organizations.
Community farms already exist in the region, including Haliburton Farm, Newman Farm, Lohbrunner Farm, Burgoyne Farm, and the Sandown Racetrack lands, Geggie pointed out. “There’s an interest, and the foodlands trust is a framework for moving that forward,” she said. “It’s a pretty exciting thing, because people really do value local food now…It’s such an important thing for sustainability in our region,” she said.
The idea of a foodlands trust has been controversial because of fears it would give some farmers an unfair advantage. But Geddie noted the land would be leased at market rates, and tenant farmers would have long term leases, giving them security to make investments such as irrigation systems or greenhouses. It is one way to address the exorbitant value placed on any land in a hot real-estate market.
“It’s not going to solve the whole problem, but it is a strategy—a tool,” said Geggie, who wants to see the amount of locally-produced food consumed in the area grow from less than 10 percent to 25 percent by 2025. (So far, eight of the region’s municipalities have indicated their support, though Esquimalt, Langford, Colwood and Oak Bay do not support it.)
Along with protecting the land, there is a need to look at the types of food that can be grown in the era of climate change, Geggie said. “The diet that we are eating now is not the diet we will be eating in 10 years,” she said.
Some of the more innovative crops are coming through the Young Agrarians land matching program, supported by the provincial government, which matches young farmers to landowners who no longer want to farm their land, or who want to lease part of their land.
Young Agrarians in BC now have almost 290 hectares in production through 65 matches. In addition to the land matches, the organization provides education and support for new farmers, said Darcy Smith, Young Agrarians BC land program manager.
“We have worked with everything from small-scale market gardens, to mushroom production to goats to a buffalo dairy,” Smith said. “People are turning back to farming as a career and lifestyle choice. They love working with the soil and looking after animals,” she said.
Programs such as Young Agrarians and a foodlands trust are positive, but there is no magic solution to the local food production problem, especially when land costs are so high. Smith feels the first step is for people to be aware of where their food originates, and the importance of farming. Then, positive incentives, rather than new rules and regulations, are the best way to encourage people to continue farming or to consider it as a career, she said.
“We all have to understand that this farmland is something that we, as a community, need to value,” Smith said.
Judith Lavoie is an award-winning journalist specializing in the environment, First Nations, and social issues. Twitter @LavoieJudith
March 5, 2020
The clinic attracts Canada’s best aspiring public-interest environmental lawyers to work on cases for community groups.
SHOULD YOU WANT TO TRACK DOWN one of British Columbia’s most important shapers of public policy regarding environmental protection, better have your GPS handy.
There’s no glitzy storefront to brand the Environmental Law Centre at the University of Victoria. No swanky offices with plush carpet, oak panelling, and some elegantly-tailored watchdog receptionist. In keeping with its humble origins as a student initiative launched almost 25 years ago, it’s tucked away in a rabbit warren of austere cubicles, a Zen-like reminder that in the world of ideas, it’s the ideas, and not the trappings, that are the important currency.
And the ideas for statutory and regulatory reform that emerge from this small, scholarly clinic have profoundly altered the legal and political landscape for generations of British Columbians yet to come. That’s quite a legacy for undergraduate law students with only their passion, brains, diligence and the judicious guidance of a few wise mentors behind them. As such, UVic’s ELC offers a refreshing antidote for the next time some grumpy elder from my generation holds forth about the failings of young people.
On scales that range from the intensely local to the national arena, there’s no doubt that students who have passed through the ELC have worked critically important transfigurations in the administrative fabric of Canada’s environment. And they’ve gone on to work as federal litigators, to clerk with federal and provincial supreme courts, and to join leadingedge lawfirms working with environmental, civil rights, and First Nations’ issues.
To find this quiet epicentre of change, visitors must navigate through the hushed expanse of the university’s newly-renovated Diana M. Priestly law library, with its vast high-tech access to more than a hundred extensive legal databases, and past a series of glass-fronted study and seminar rooms. Then—an abrupt change in atmosphere—through unmarked, metal crash doors and up a nondescript back stairwell graced with handrails of utilitarian steel pipe. Beyond the library’s upstairs book stacks with their 180,000 volumes, past the students lounging in a pair of moulded designer chairs and taking an introspective break with their AirPods, and down a drab corridor adorned with hand-scrawled directions, is the beating heart of environmental law reform in the province.
Presiding over this unassuming heavyweight is a triumvirate.
ELC'S Calvin Sanborn, Deborah Curran and Holly Pattison
There is executive director Deborah Curran, a scarily well-informed expert in land and water law who is also an associate professor in both the law faculty and the university’s school of environmental studies. Curran does vital work in the centre’s background on governance, fundraising, liaison with the university, and program development.
But in the foreground, Curran is also one of the centre’s big hitters. She has earned a reputation for a steely analysis of how those with environmental concerns can use something as simple as their own municipal bylaws to trigger powerful and effective protection for local ecosystems, particularly in terms of employing already existing regulatory tools to modify development so that it sustains and conserves healthy watersheds and clean water. She supervised one ELC study of urban storm water management that’s credited with transforming policy regarding urban rainfall runoff in Greater Victoria.
Holly Pattison, a former UVic student herself, directs the ELC’s day-to-day operations and conducts financial oversight. But Pattison, who graduated from the university’s fine arts faculty, also multi-tasks as a writer, photographer and documentary filmmaker, and manages the communications that are so critical to any public policy agency in these days of spin, greenwashing and fake news.
And last, but far from least, there’s Calvin Sandborn, whose formidable legal intellect on subjects as diverse as drilling regulations, the ethical duties of mining engineers, and the obligations of politicians to close statutory loopholes exploited at the expense of the environment, combines with a genial, avuncular style. He’ll bring his guitar to a legal seminar and deliver a not-bad rendition of some 60s protest song, invites human rights and environmental activists into his classes, and has pizza delivered to workshops on dry subjects like corporate media.
Sandborn might be a poster-boy for effective environmental activism. He’s certainly a metaphor for the perils of environmental inaction. Born in Alaska, he moved to California as a young child and grew up at the centre of what became the 2018 wildfire inferno that erased whole towns—one of them the community of his childhood, Paradise, where 85 people died.
“My entire childhood, turned to ash,” he muses.
That which hadn’t already been drowned. He says his heightened awareness of the importance of environmental integrity coalesced around the fate of the Feather River, in whose canyons he spent one of those nostalgic Huckleberry Finn boyhoods. “I grew up swimming in the Feather River,” he recalls, “then they built the dam and flooded my swimming holes!” To make things worse, a politician came to town and scoffed there’d never been anything there before the damn dam anyway.
That memory was a motivator in the ELC’s work to stop plans to log watersheds in the upper Skagit River Valley. Protecting the Skagit had been a joint Canadian and American environmental mission for an earlier generation of environmentalists, but then it came back for his students, some of whom hadn’t been born for the first go round.
Student Caitlin Stockwell, he says, looked at the original agreement between BC and the City of Seattle. She found that BC, by approving logging in the “doughnut hole”—an unprotected patch of forest in the Upper Skagit set aside because of mineral claims and now surrounded by three state and provincial parks, a BC recreation area, and a US wilderness zone—was infringing upon Seattle’s rights under the 30-year-old international agreement protecting wilderness, wildlife habitat, and recreational resource values.“She finds that its provisions give the city of Seattle unilateral ability to take the BC government to court over the international treaty!”
In 2018, on the basis of the ELC report, the mayor of Seattle politely reminded Premier John Horgan of this fact. Last December, the Province abruptly banned further logging in the ecologically sensitive valley on the US border.
Sandborn, educated at a Jesuit university in San Francisco (“The Summer of Love was about to happen, and there I was in this place full of priests!”), cut his activist teeth on the civil-rights movement, anti-war protests, and efforts to organize California’s agricultural workers.
He came to Canada to join his brother Tom, who had come north after ripping up his draft card and mailing it to President Lyndon B. Johnson. On arrival, Calvin promptly rolled up his sleeves and got involved helping organize farm workers in the Fraser Valley and setting up the now-iconic Downtown Eastside Resident’s Association that has successfully worked to reconfigure cruel stereotypes about the Vancouver neighbourhood and its often marginalized, low-income citizens.
Curran, who was born in Kamloops and graduated from Trent University, had her environmental epiphany while working in Pacific Rim National Park when the Clayoquot Sound protests erupted. And Pattison, who came to Campbell River from Guelph as a teenager 43 years ago, was working in Victoria law offices when the flood of Clayoquot defences—the protest generated the largest mass trial in Canadian history—transfixed the legal community.
IF THESE THREE REPRESENT the official face of the Environmental Law Centre, they are quick to point out that the real engine of environmental change is the ever-changing team of law students—about 30 a year—that cycles through its clinics, gaining experience in researching, writing, and advocating for the law reforms that have lasting community effects upon how we live and interact with our environment.
For example, there was the work done by law student Neal Parker, who in the summer of 2017 investigated and reported on the growing problem of private landholders encroaching upon public access to publicly-owned waterfront lands on the Gorge waterway.
Parker, under the guidance of Sandborn, found 11 public access points colonized as parking pads, misidentified with intimidating signage, developed as private recreation sites, incorporated into gardens, used as dumps for garden waste and construction debris, and blocked by structures, hedges, walls, car ports and private docks.
Half a dozen of these effectively preempted public rights-of-way from members of the Songhees Nation a few blocks to the south, whose Douglas Treaty rights guaranteed them unfettered access to traditional hunting and fishing grounds on the Gorge in perpetuity.
In Greater Victoria, Parker pointed out in a 77-page brief to both Saanich and Esquimalt municipal governments, that projected population growth of an estimated 100,000 people by 2040 means the inevitable loss of existing green space, at a time when it’s becoming even more valuable and important for urban livability. It also represents an attack upon the core values in some of the most successful marketing strategies and economic revival plans of forward-thinking cities in the world. It’s clear from what’s happening in cities like Austin, Texas; Lyon, France and even Winnipeg, which is upending its dowdy grey image, that cities embracing public access to green space are more livable, and that cities deemed more livable will be the economic winners over the decades ahead. Cities that don’t proactively develop public green space will have to reestablish it at great expense, if they are to compete with the Seattles, Portlands and Vancouvers.
As a result of Parker’s work, those public access points have since been restored, Sandborn says.
THE NON-PROFIT ELC, which celebrates its 25th anniversary in the fall of 2021, started as a dream, took shape as a hope, and was realized when professor Chris Toleffson, a specialist in environmental law, agreed to work with half a dozen students who wanted to study in the field. He became the ELC’s first executive director.
“There was no funding,” Curran says. “It was run without funding until Calvin came on board as legal director [in 2004].”
Sandborn didn’t even have an office to start. He was working from the students’ computer lab. Then entrepreneur Eric Peterson, who had made his fortune developing and then selling medical imaging technology and whom, with his wife Christina Munck, had created the non-profit Tula Foundation, provided the ELC with $1.1 million over a five-year period.
“We had 10 years of angel funding with very few strings attached,” Sandborn says.
Now there’s stable funding from BC’s Law Foundation, which provides 48 percent of the centre’s annual revenues, and from other philanthropic organizations, including the Oasis Foundation, Tides Canada, the Sitka Foundation, and the Vancouver Foundation. Small individual donors make up the rest.
What the ELC does with this funding is provide students with a hands-on opportunity to learn environmental law, while simultaneously using it to empower individuals, small community organizations, First Nations, environmental and other groups. The students offer—at no charge—the statutory research and advice that enables the public to use existing legal frameworks to hold private, corporate, and administrative agencies accountable for ensuring that environmental regulatory requirements are met. Or, in other cases, to help press for reforms to environmental laws, and their enforcement, so that they serve the public, and not private, interest.
Among their notable achievements, ELC students conducted research into the proximity of sour gas wells to schools, residences and other public buildings on behalf of the Peace Environment and Safety Trustees Society.
Sour gas contains hydrogen sulphide, a compound so toxic that it paralyzes olfactory nerves at concentrations as low as 100 parts per million. Respiratory failure begins at 300 ppm, and at 800 ppm, 50 percent of those exposed will die within five minutes. The ELC students discovered that during one leak at Pouce Coupe in 2009, sour gas was released for 27 consecutive minutes before emergency shutoff valves cut off the flow.
In 2013, ELC law student Jacqui McMorran, lawyer Tim Thielman, and Sandborn gathered information from DataBC and plotted it using Google Earth to locate active, suspended and abandoned wells capable of leaking sour gas.
They reported that 1,900 children at 9 schools in 2 northeastern school districts were at risk from sour gas wells that, under provincial law, could be located a scant 100 metres from schools or hospitals. Worse, there were no minimum setbacks at all for pipelines carrying sour gas—although in 2010 the Province said it planned to establish safety zones of 2,000 metres.
In some cases, provincial emergency plans for gas leaks were so primitive, they consisted of supplying classroom teachers with rolls of duct tape and instructions to seal cracks around doors and windows.
After this inconvenient political bombshell, the provincial government announced it would increase the safety buffer for sour gas wells adjacent to schools and other public buildings from 100 to 1,000 metres.
“Government seemed quite content to renege on their 2010 promise to extend the legislated safety buffer around schools—until we exposed the fact that the safety buffer had not been expanded,” Sandborn said at the time.
“What about all the other issues that never get publicized? Day to day, who is looking after the public interest? Who is watchdogging the regulators to make sure that the Province doesn’t weaken regulations?” he asked.
Luckily for the public, the ELC has been doing a first-rate job of watch-dogging. Among its most high-profile accomplishments:
The ELC’s complaint to the federal government in 2013 regarding the muzzling of scientists on controversial issues like climate change. It triggered such a robust public response that government can no longer mute the voices of its own scientists just because their message is politically vexing.
More locally, a complaint about metals contamination leaching from an old copper mine on the Jordan River beyond Sooke—it hadn’t even been checked for 20 years—prompted clean up efforts and a full scale remediation plan for later this year.
But that’s just a start. In the aftermath of the Mount Polley mine disaster, in which the failure of a tailings dam dumped the equivalent of 10,000 Olympic-sized swimming pools of contaminated waste into one of the biggest salmon rivers in the Fraser River watershed, the ELC produced a report calling for comprehensive mining reform. It found that BC taxpayers are liable for more than $1 billion in mine clean up costs, and called for the Province to begin fully checking and cleaning up 1,100 mines like the one that killed the lower Jordan River.
ELC students and lawyers also assisted local residents in the Interior, whose drinking water was being contaminated by nitrates leaching into an aquifer from agricultural applications of manure to fertilize fields. That work led to a new provincial code for agricultural waste management but, perhaps more important, it also earned a ruling from the Province’s information and privacy commissioner that government must promptly and proactively release, without charge, all government records that are in the public interest.
Working with the World Wildlife Fund, ELC students supervised by Sandborn and Curran prepared a study last fall calling for remediation of beaches around the Salish Sea that were once critical spawning habitat for forage fish that serve as foundation species for the chinook, and other salmon, upon which threatened resident orcas depend.
The ELC recently called for regulation of single-use plastics, and recommendations for how to go about it. It follows a report two years ago outlining legal reforms necessary to address the growing problem of marine plastic pollution.
There isn’t room in a short article like this to list all the work done on the public’s behalf, or to name the students who have passed through the ELC’s clinics and left their enduring mark upon the laws that frame our collective relationship with the world in which we live.
There is room to observe that for something that began with a handful of students, one professor who saw their potential and another willing to work from a computer lab to help them realize that potential, the ELC’s 25th birthday party will represent an extraordinary milestone in the evolution of BC.
Stephen Hume spent half a century as a journalist writing about Western Canada, the Far North, BC and the Island.
March 5, 2020
The April 4 by-election puts the City of Victoria’s youthful electoral organization to the test.
LIKE MOST VICTORIANS, the residents of Avebury Avenue have issues. Bike lanes, poor transit service, affordability, property taxes, homelessness — I heard earfuls about all of them one recent Saturday afternoon, tagging along with Together Victoria candidate Stefanie Hardman as she knocked on doors in the Oaklands neighbourhood.
A middle-aged guy in wool-felt slippers told Hardman he had to put a down payment on the house he’s in because he was exhausted by the instability of renting in Victoria. “There’s a lot of wealth around here, and I’d like to see it squeezed to provide more services,” he said.
“Yes, yes!” Hardman replied. A cat stretched in the window, and the guy noted that many Victoria landlords prohibit pets, an exclusion that’s illegal in Ontario. Hardman gave him a brochure listing her campaign promises, including “End discrimination against renters with animals.” (A vote-getter, considering that six in 10 Canadians have pets, but a matter of provincial jurisdiction.)
The guy liked what he heard. A Together canvasser asked for his email address and phone number, and marked him down as a “2” out of five — a likely supporter, certain to receive follow-up inquiries making sure he casts a ballot for Hardman in the City of Victoria’s April 4 by-election.
Candidates in Victoria's April 4 by-election (as of the time Focus went to press): Stephen Andrew, Jeremy Caradonna, Stephanie Hardman, Rachel Montgomery
It’s likely “the most interesting by-election we’ll see this year,” said CBC Vancouver’s municipal affairs newsletter Metro Matters recently. For one thing, the winner could hold the balance of power on Victoria’s council. During 2019, Together’s three first-time councillors Laurel Collins, Sharmarke Dubow and Sarah Potts sided with incumbents Ben Isitt and Jeremy Loveday to pass several controversial measures — voting 5-3 in February to limit increases to the police budget, for example, and 5-4 in June to require big condo developments to include 20 percent affordable rentals, despite warnings that the requirement would “kill” those projects. Now with Collins serving as Victoria’s MP and her council seat up for grabs, the “Together+2” majority is in question.
Councillors in that majority have also famously annoyed the Province’s NDP government. As the CBC noted, Ben Isitt’s calls for free transit and regional police amalgamation, plus his public support for the February 11 anti-pipeline blockade of the legislature — which Stefanie Hardman endorsed online — have brought sharp rebukes from Premier John Horgan, indicating “an unease some on the centre-left have with the current incarnation of council.”
“Given all the controversy over the past year,” the CBC concluded, “if Hardman ends up facing no serious competition it’s a clear sign that Victoria voters are reasonably happy with a council that has a more expansive notion of its jurisdiction than local government normally does.”
IN PERSON, Hardman doesn’t seem like a threat to municipal-provincial relations: she’s clear-eyed and boundlessly cheerful. Raised in Toronto, where she studied urban planning, since 2014 she’s worked for various Victoria agencies as a community-based researcher, interviewing people affected by specific issues, and turning their concerns into reports designed to influence government.
“So I have that background in community engagement, and then listening with an ear to shaping those experiences into policy, things that could happen at the municipality to improve people’s lives,” she says. Asked for an example of changes her research brought about, she cites one job as a “school travel planner,” working with Victoria schools, City departments and parents to improve transportation options for kids, which resulted in a new signalled crosswalk, and a “walking school bus” of kids strolling together to classes.
The big issue for Hardman (and Together) is housing, which aligns with one of her recent jobs, preparing a report for the Community Social Planning Council on housing instability. Hardman says we need to dramatically increase the supply of low-income housing, and need to consider the elimination of residential, single-family zoning that may be coming in the City’s “missing middle” housing policy. “I can appreciate that these types of changes can be challenging, but I do think there are ways to engage with neighbourhoods, and come together to talk about how we can create the future of the city that we want to live in.”
A renter herself, like 61 percent of the City’s residents, Hardman also wants the City to increasingly apply its new legal powers, granted by the Province in 2018, to prezone properties and areas exclusively for rentals. “That could help us to increase the supply of affordable rental housing, and rein in rents. I’d like to see that used.” (The City is already phasing this in, starting with the oldest rental buildings most at risk of being torn down and replaced with condos.)
“I would like to look to strengthening the [City’s] tenant-assistance policy, and reducing renovictions and displacement,” she says. “I’d like to see stronger rent control, exploring the idea of rent control tied to the unit, rather than to tenancy agreements,” she continues — but admits that will require lobbying the Province to change the Residential Tenancy Act.
That might not be easy, given Victoria’s tendency to irritate the premier. But cities are seeing the worst effects of the housing crisis, she says, and they have to speak up. “I do think it is the responsibility of municipal government to let other levels of government know what those experiences are, what we’re feeling here in our city, and what we think could help.”
Together Victoria began to form after the 2014 municipal election, in which moderates Margaret Lucas and Chris Coleman won the last two Council positions, narrowly beating out NDP stalwarts Erik Kaye and John Luton, who ran independent campaigns. Various progressives in town figured that if they pooled their resources and volunteers and ran a limited slate of candidates, they would stand a better chance of tipping the Council in their favour. Then they held a series of open houses to crowdsource their platform of an “affordable, inclusive and thriving city,” to identify supporters, and to raise their profile. It worked spectacularly well: seemingly from nowhere, Together got all three of its candidates elected in 2018.
Now it stands as the dominant electoral organization in the City of Victoria. During Together’s recent nomination process, which Hardman won in January, its membership swelled from 200 to more than 800. (To witness its developments, I joined too.) And they’re young, compared to the members of most political parties: mainly in their 20s and 30s, they raise funds and network at coffeeshop trivia-contest nights, not $500-a-plate dinners.
Together has had challenges achieving the inclusivity it seeks, though. Its executive is almost entirely comprised of employees of the University of Victoria or various provincial ministries. Its membership doesn’t include many businesspeople, or seniors. And it’s only somewhat nonpartisan: former provincial Green candidate Kalen Harris is active in Together, for example, but the organization seems dominated by the youth wing of the BC NDP. One director has chaired the Victoria NDP’s federal riding association, others have worked for NDP members of parliament, and to arrange an interview with Hardman, I had to go through one of Laurel Collins’ constituency assistants. (Thanks to Together’s transparent financing, it’s already possible to report that Collins donated $1,199 to Hardman’s election campaign.)
Together’s recently enlarged membership is also fracturing. During the run-up to Together’s nomination meeting, a group of frustrated renters signed up new members in the hope of electing a champion for the types of rights that tenants have recently won elsewhere in BC. (In Burnaby and New Westminster, for example, renovicted tenants have the right to return to a renovated building at the same rent they paid before.) But after Hardman won, Darren Alexander, one of the renter activists, blasted her and several Together principals in a 10,000-word online diatribe as the courtly members of a “professional managerial class,” more concerned about maintaining their contacts and connections in nonprofit housing networks than in organizing renters to demand change. (Instead, Alexander says, members of those circles mobilized renters in 2018 mainly to get Together candidates elected — a story recently covered by the online news site The Capital.)
Karmen McNamara, a triathlete who ran unsuccessfully for the Together nomination, also says she’s “lost confidence” in the organization. “What we need at City Council right now is action and problem-solving, not more talking,” she tells me. McNamara says she signed up 219 new members for Together, but she doesn’t know who they’re voting for now. “Everybody needs to make their own decision.”
IN McNAMARA’S CASE, she’s now campaigning for Rachael Montgomery, a Registered Nurse, mom, and environmental activist with the Surfrider Foundation who says she’ll bring more collaboration to City Hall.
“When a patient comes in,” Montgomery says, “I don’t ask them what political leanings they have, I ask, ‘What do you need right now?’ And I work with a team of experts to solve that problem.”
Montgomery worked in the Royal Jubilee Hospital’s oncology ward, and eventually assumed management of the eighth floor of the hospital, supervising some 200 staff. Currently she’s on leave from the corporate department of Island Health for her election campaign — and applying her medical evaluation skills to the City’s issues.
To deal with the acute problem of housing, for example, she prescribes simplifying the process for homeowners to add suites or units to their properties, “so neighbourhoods can gently densify the way they want, rather than how they’re being told to.” She admits that won’t be enough to cure the problem, so she’s been meeting with developers, and withholds judgement on the council’s requirement to include 20 percent affordable rentals in big condo projects: “I want to make sure we’re actually seeing those outcomes,” she says.
During her campaign, Montgomery has also gone on a ridealong with VicPD, and spent time with Victoria’s Assertive Community Treatment teams, which are comprised of health-care workers and police officers to address mental-health emergencies. “If I come with any bias, it’s as a frontline worker,” says Montgomery, who is dismayed that some Victoria councillors hold an “ideological” opposition to the police. So would she simply give the police the budget increases they demand? “Of course not. I’m a manager, I know how to manage a budget.”
Montgomery started campaigning in December, and since then she’s spoken to hundreds of residents on the doorstep. No single issue dominates those conversations, she says. “What people want is some good, commonsense, practical decision-making that they feel a part of.”
Jeremy Caradonna, another independent candidate, has been at it even longer, campaigning since November. He’s had over 1,000 conversations with residents, and says many are telling him that local politics has become “too divisive” and that they’re opposed to municipal parties. “They see it as a slippery slope, into the hyperpartisan politics we see in Vancouver.”
Caradonna is an experienced communicator: he holds a PhD in history from Johns Hopkins, wrote Sustainability: A History (Oxford University Press, 2014), and quit a tenured professorship at the University of Alberta to get his hands dirty running Share Organics, a Victoria business with 12 employees. (“I know how to calculate operational costs, unlike many of the current councillors,” he says.) He currently works as a policy analyst in the Province’s Climate Action Secretariat, but still teaches a course at UVic on the local organics industry, and grows vegetables that he sells from a farm stand in front of his house in Fernwood.
Like other candidates, Caradonna says affordable housing is one of the big issues he will tackle on council. “We lack supply. Here we didn’t build housing for 30 years, and now that our population is growing, the problem is coming home to roost. So it’s about making it easier for people to have secondary suites, it’s about building the ‘missing middle’ — those three- to five-storey buildings close to urban villages. The overwhelming majority of Victorians don’t want skyscrapers, they want densification in scale with neighbourhoods.”
Caradonna, a father of two school-age girls, says his other main issue is climate action. He fully supports the construction of bike lanes, but says the City needs to thoroughly improve its bus service, and get on board with rail transit. Half of our greenhouse gases come from aging buildings, so he wants a City program helping residents switch from oil tanks and natural gas to heat pumps, cutting our emissions dramatically. “My vision for Victoria is that this is the leading progressive jurisdiction in the country, and that we push the envelope.”
Policy-wise, there might appear to be little daylight between him and Together — in fact, Caradonna says many people on his campaign team are also Together members, but they’re backing him instead. “I think it’s going to be a close race, and it all depends on who gets out their electorate.”
JUST BEFORE FOCUS WENT TO PRESS, a few more candidates announced themselves, including UVic lab instructor Alexander Schmid, building contractor Peter Forbes, and former broadcaster Stephen Andrew. “I’ll bring a balance, a certain level of professionalism that I don’t think exists in some members at the council table,” Andrew says. “We’ve been the laughing stock not just of the region, but the whole country. That’s simply unacceptable to me. We’re a compassionate city. We have tremendous opportunities. And that’s what we should be talking about.”
In the 2018 civic election, Andrew finished in ninth place, just shy of a Council seat, as part of the NewCouncil slate fronted by Stephen Hammond, who led the “Mad as Hell” opposition to Downtown’s 2016 tent city. Almost immediately after announcing his run this time, Andrew faced online attacks that he “hates” the homeless, a claim that saddens him.
“I’ve been homeless twice in my life. I’ve lived that experience. Anybody who criticizes me should walk a mile in my shoes before they do that.” As he points out, he’s won awards from Our Place and the BC Public Health Association for his reporting on homelessness. “My concern is that we build housing but do not staff it sufficiently, because many of these people need support.”
Andrew believes several current councillors “have no clue” about many issues they comment upon, whether that’s the difficulties of parking Downtown, the economics of condominium development, or the pressures faced by VicPD. “You have [councillors] who are standing in the middle of these protests, who are the same people saying we have to reduce the police budget,” Andrew says. “I’m not saying don’t protest, but they have no idea how much it costs.”
Andrew admits he’s starting later than others in the race, but promises he will run a significant campaign online — and he already enjoys greater name recognition than most of the other candidates. Victoria’s by-election will likely prove even more interesting than originally predicted.
Ross Crockford tips his hat to anyone who takes on the complex, difficult job of a municipal councillor.