Incorporation: Irene Wright's Personal Take on the Referendum

I have lived on Salt Spring Island for exactly 50 years.

Arriving here was a big lesson in politics for me. Where I hadπ lived before, mainly in Calgary, politics was something that was “out there;” it was something that we read about or watched on the news and sometimes it was interesting, or scary, as in the Cuban crisis. I was not directly implicated and certainly had no sense of the ability of an “ordinary” individual to bring about change.

Moving to Salt Spring was an education for my late husband Tom and me. Here was a community of 2,300 people set to explode as developers saw great opportunities to make a lot of money. Salt Spring’s management was sketchy. Shortly before we arrived in 1967 a developer had planned a subdivision in the relatively small area around Howard Road next to us on St. Mary Lake with a plan for 75 city-sized lots each to have its own septic system. The Ministry of Health was the only regulatory group until 1966, the formation of the CRD, and happily the Health Ministry had shut down the project. Nine lots were allowed.

In 1968, a group of us –– the Hills, the Layards, the Goodmans and others — formed an NDP Club. The early ‘70s was a time of great change. The population grew quickly, and people felt a need for some rules. Development was happening at a rapid pace. Farming was disappearing. The 1972 election brought transformational change with the election of the first NDP government in B.C. The introduction of the Islands Trust and the Agricultural Land Reserve was highly significant. Developers working within the wild west mindset would have to face regulations. Agricultural land was to be saved, and the Gulf Islands were to be preserved and protected for all time for us, the residents, and for all Canadians, an important policy contribution by our then MP Tommy Douglas.

Shortly before the enactments, as president of the NDP Club I found myself chairing a meeting in the high school gym with a great many angry people. There to speak and answer questions was our Minister of Municipal Affairs. Newly arrived Americans, people who needed to separate themselves from the Vietnam war, people with high standards and big dreams, supported the proposed changes. Hank Schubart, an architect and community planner in the U.S., prepared a questionnaire for all Salt Spring residents old enough to read and to complete it. Everyone was amazed at the results. About 95 per cent of the respondents truly wanted our island to be preserved and protected. In the gym, some people who had thrown tomatoes and eggs at Hank and Maggie Schubart’s home shouted their anger. An example of the nature of the anger was the presumed right of parents to cut up their farm into individual lots to leave to their children.

Discussions of a municipal structure followed. In a private conversation I had with the minister he said that a municipal structure could perhaps work with a Salt Spring charter to preserve and protect the land under the Islands Trust, but roads, for example, could remain a provincial responsibility. Effectively and parenthetically, the three-way division of regulatory powers we now have (province, CRD, and Islands Trust) has achieved this, with locally elected officials to each, and the importance of preserve and protect maintained. The province still is responsible for roads.

The pressure for a municipal structure is obviously not new. At the very least, proponents felt that we should not be restricted by the Trust. Do you remember when there was a major effort to get rid of the Islands Trust? Was it under Bennett or Vander Zalm? We were on the phone to the other islands and the message was strong and clear. Residents from the islands in the Trust area went to Victoria. There were buses, hundreds of supporters, a goat or two, and other symbols of a rural life, as well as speakers on the steps of the Legislature. I was one. The shared effort worked.

A few years ago, many islanders will remember going through the campaign to create a municipality here. We will remember the cautionary tale told by the then mayor of Bowen Island. Our voters continued to prefer the preserve and protect structure we have. Bowen is apparently in chronic financial difficulty.

And here we are. What has changed? Some of us have died, some have retired, but I believe that the current effort to form a municipality will not succeed if we want to preserve and protect our island home. The people who will gain from a municipality are those who will make money directly or indirectly by development. Everyone else will pay. So too the environment. That was always the case. As far as this fall referendum is concerned nothing has really changed.

July 25, 2017 7:44 AM