Last Friday, a total of 37 Salt Springers gathered at the United Church Meadow on a practically-perfect summer Friday to welcome our MLA, Adam Olsen. While some did stand just outside the circumference of the circle (too close to one another for my comfort), everyone who wanted to participate was able to join the gathering. While many stayed the entire time, some did come and go, so that total numbers at any time were in the high twenties.
As Salt Springers initially seemed uncharacteristically-shy, Adam began with a recap of some of his legislative load - heavier than expected with several bills that have taken a great deal of work:
Bill 22 (Mental Health Amendment Act) includes the involuntary detention of youth who are experiencing drug poisoning. Both the Chief Coroner as well as children and youth advocates raised concerns about this clause. Adam cited work that still needs to be done, including engagement with indigenous leaders, before the bill moves forward. If there is a fall legislative session, Bill 22 may be addressed then.
Bill 17 (Clean Energy Amendment Act) Adam had concerns with some aspects of this bill. In addition to his belief that indigenous consultation had not been done properly, he is advocating for definition of clean energy and clean resources to be included in the bill so that any changes would require a legislative process rather than simply a policy change through regulation.
Bill 18 (Economic Stabilization - COVID-19 - Act) This bill gives the government the ability to extend special powers - such as spending - after an emergency without additional approval. Adam believes that these special spending powers should not be allowed to extend after the emergency.
While certain provisions, such as support for renters, should not automatically stop as soon as the state of emergency has been rescinded, governmental spending controls should be reinstated. If the government were allowed to extend unchecked spending powers long after the emergency, there were fears that the legislature may not have to be called into session to approve spending for many months all but abandoning transparency and accountability.
When asked why the government that declared the emergency could not simply continue the state of emergency after the crisis, Adam replied that being in a state of emergency is very hard on a government.
Despite his concerns about some aspects of pending bills, Adam was pleased that this debate about them illustrates the benefits of all parties participating rather than a majority government simply pushing bills into law. He takes satisfaction that an active minority government has increased checks and balances, giving all legislators ample opportunity to ask questions.
He spoke with passion about the suggested deletion of the “self sufficiency” clause of pending energy policy. With this clause, BC Hydro was required to keep a certain amount of water in reservoirs to provide electricity. Based on this promise, a number of very expensive independent power projects were initiated, many of which were on First Nations’ land. If this requirement were removed, many of these independent power projects would no longer be financially-feasible. Despite a great deal of pressure on the Green Party to support this energy policy change, they were unwilling to do so, and the bill was not called for debate.
Switching to local issues, the first question was about getting support for our laundromat. (Approximately $100,000 is needed.) Citing no action from any level of government to support this clear health need on Salt Spring, Adam was asked if he knew of any funds that could help. He asked that the information be sent to his office, promising that his staff would look into options.
Next, Adam was asked about the practicality of building affordable housing on Drake Road given the narrow and poorly-maintained character of this country lane. Even without completion of the affordable housing projects in the planning stages, Drake Road is already at capacity. We were told by a participant that, although there is a school on Drake Road, the school bus cannot transport children there because it is too narrow and impossible for the bus to turn around. It is also very dangerous to turn off Drake Road onto Fulford-Ganges Road. If we want an additional 30-60 affordable housing residences to be completed, the issue of Drake Road must be addressed.
Adam was well-aware of this issue and had already spoken of his concern with the Minister of Transportation and Infrastructure. He asked whether upgrades to Drake Road could be included in the upcoming Ganges Hill project, due to be completed next summer.
As with too many of our Salt Spring roads, the issue is made even more complicated by the fact that there is no right-of-ways in some areas, with the narrow road having been built right up the property line. In other cases, structures have been built on the right of way. The fact that these complicated (and potentially very expensive private property/road issues) were not settled decades ago make too many needed improvements practically impossible to accomplish.
Despite the challenges, Adam committed to re-open conversations about Drake Road with the Minister. When Adam cited concern that expropriating and paying market value for sections of Drake Road could set an expensive precedent, one participant reminded him that Drake Road is unique due to its many affordable housing projects. Adam agreed and assured us that he and the Minister are well aware that Drake Road improvements are essential.
When asked it there may be another pot of money for Drake Road so that the Ganges Hill project does not run the risk of being reduced to pay for Drake Road, Adam replied that this funding is unlikely to come from BC Housing, already spending a great deal and causing the Treasury Board to groan.
While BC Housing may not be an option, the widespread support of the Salish Sea project (bike lanes from Fulford to Vesuvius) could be a potential solution: Adam has hopes of accessing green recovery funding for this important active transportation initiative. While discussions about this money should be starting within the month, and the cabinet has already received requests, he was not sure whether these discussions will be high level or will identify specific projects. He surprised many - and got a round of applause - when he said that the Salish Sea Trail project is his top pick, besting all other projects in his riding, for this funding!
If green recovery funding could be made for needed improvements to Fulford-Ganges and Vesuvius Bay Roads, it is possible that Ministry of Transportation and Infrastructure money that is already allocated for Fulford-Ganges could be used to upgrade Drake Road.
While advocating strongly for improvements to both Drake Road and the long-awaited completion of the Salish Sea Trail, Adam brought us back to the importance of affordable housing on Salt Spring. He told us of a conversation with the owners of a coffee shop on Salt Spring just before coming to ASK Salt Spring: They could not hire employees, and those that they could hire had to come from very long distances due to the unavailability of affordable housing in our community.
Citing two articles in the Times Colonist this week about our housing and environmental concerns, Adam was asked how we could help him to do his job. Similar to Elizabeth May last week, he told us of the importance of writing letters to our local and regional newspapers. He assured us that they are read. . . and that they help inform decisions and set priorities in the Legislature. He also asked us to continue raising the issues with him and sending him emails. Not only essential in informing him of the issues, they also provide leverage for him as he seeks solutions.
While he appreciated the confidence that he could address our issues, he reminded us that Salt Spring has a strong collection of individuals in positions to solve problems, and he recognized that it is not always clear who is best situated to address a particular problem. He acknowledged that all of the elected officials of the Gulf Islands met regularly during COVID to address issues. This collective effort to seek solutions is something that Adam is determined to continue even after our emergency has passed.
A picture of a barge loaded with old growth trees was passed around so that all could see this sad illustration of enormous amounts of old growth trees still being cut. Adam told us that, with the exception of the related protection of salmon runs, protecting old growth has been the subject of the majority of his addresses to the Legislature. A report on this old growth is sitting on the minister’s desk, expected to be released by the middle of August. Of all of his challenges in the past three years, this issue has been the most frustrating and discouraging for him. One frustration is the definition of “old growth;” currently, tiny, minimally-valuable trees sitting in swamps are categorized as old grown to inflate the amounts of old growth still standing. He spoke with sadness when he relayed that many old growth stands were lost just this spring. Given this trend, an experienced logger told him that the industry will be dead in less than a decade.
While the Liberals listened to the corporate lobby of the big five logging companies that have consolidated all the smaller companies, the NDP are listening to the lobby of labour pushing for the continuation of old growth harvesting. Neither of these governments have been honest about how little old growth is left, especially on Vancouver Island. While most believe that the Great Bear Rainforest is protected, even portions of this reserve are being actively logged. Repeatedly, the B.C. Green Caucus has called for a halt to logging old growth however the BC NDP government has been unwilling to do so. (Adam shared that he had received over 30,000 emails on this issue alone.)
When asked why he did not challenge the government on this, he gave us some hard truths: 84 MLA’s support logging, and three are advocating for moratoriums. Greens have struggled with this issue, debating the best route to success long into the night on many occasions. Despite this commitment and passion, the majority government still supports logging old growth. (He faced the same discouraging issue with Site C.) When asked why he did not bring down the government over this issue, he responded that he did not support destroying it, believing, instead, that it is this balance of government that makes our democracy stronger. He reminded us that all MLAs share the responsibility for protecting our old growth and that some are simply not using their power.
When asked about alternate jobs for loggers, he asked us to see his recent blog on the issue of retraining as a large component of our economic recovery.
Adam was told a bit about our soon-to-be-released Climate Action Plan (CAP). Many agree that, due to our dispersed government structure, implementation should be facilitated by a non-profit. This group would coordinate collaboration between governments, non-profits, private business, and community members. Adam was asked how other communities get the funding needed to power this collaboration. Adam said that the easy answer is municipalities, but that there is currently limited coordination between the three north peninsula municipalities in addressing cross border environmental issues.
While there are examples of effective multi-community collaborations, like Howe Sound Forum, there are also many examples of minimum or no coordination/collaboration. Adam would like to see something like the Howe Sound Forum in his riding, nurturing coordination between elected officials and community groups and joining to advocate together on shared interests. Adam assured us that he is looking forward to getting our CAP and watching and participating in the implementation process.
When asked how we can get more control on tree cutting on Salt Spring, Adam responded that next week he will have an opportunity to ask the minister questions on many subjects. He is planning to request that ministers work together to address a blind spot in the Islands Trust Act which does not currently give regional governments or Islands Trust powers under Section 7 of the Community Charter. He would like a revision to allow regional governments and Islands Trust to make more local decisions, like a tree cutting bylaw. While not all communities will enact such a law, Adam strongly supports the revision that would allow communities to make this decision.
When asked about racism, especially in hospitals and in our police forces, Adam thanked us for bringing up this important question. In response to whether he saw changes in attitudes in the Legislature aimed at ending racism, he cited some cause for optimism. The passage of UNDRIP was a huge success; the challenge now is to make sure that governmental actions are guided by this law. He commended Minister Dix for immediate action to get some answers about alleged racism in our health system. He also acknowledged a review of the police act.
Despite signing UNDRIP into law and quick response to specific allegations of racism, Adam reminded us that racism is still too-prevalent throughout our communities. Blind spots still exist in our communities and that systematic racism still pervades our government - including the eduction, family, and mental health acts.
In Adam’s opinion, we need a massive change in our government in addressing racism. We now have five indigenous persons in the legislature - actually a pretty good reflection of population. But, despite this good representation, the indigenous community is still too-often left out of the decision-making process. Government needs to address the needs of radicalized and marginalized citizens every day. Eliminating racism and reconciliation is an ongoing process, one that will only be solved by continuous awareness vigilance.
When asked why we are not addressing the harm alcohol is wrecking on our society, Adam responded that, in his experience, substance use is often a mask for deeper challenges. He cited a great deal of sadness throughout our communities. He also saw an increased awareness of the relationship between mental health and substance poisoning. In Adam’s opinion, we too often separate mental and physical health. He does not support criminalizing substance use, citing the tragedy when a single incident can lead to a multi-generational problem. From a health care perspective, he believes that safe supply is the only way to go.
And, too soon, it was 1:00, and Adam had to catch the ferry for an afternoon of meetings in Victoria. While all will agree that Salt Springers ask pointed, difficult questions, it was impossible to miss the widespread appreciation for Adam - his willingness to listen, his thoughtful responses, his courageous work to fight for his beliefs, and his energy in the face of often-daunting opposition. Some even left with a glimmer of confidence that, together with our elected officials, we can actually address at least some of the complex issues on our minds.
Interested in participating? Come to the next ASK Salt Spring gathering this coming Friday, August 14, from 11-1 in the United Church Meadow to welcome our CRD Director, Gary Holman. All are welcome to ask questions, listen to those of others, and participate in lively conversations.
Socially-distanced chairs and safely-made chocolate chip cookies provided; Bring your favourite beverage, curiosity, and a smile.
No time to sit in the Meadow? Any question, anytime: firstname.lastname@example.org
Photo courtesy of Curt Firestone.