Opinion: Concerns About Islands Trust Consultation and Direction

On July 20 the Islands Trust Council shared a News Release announcing the release of a report which summarises the input received from engagement with people in the trust area. As you may know, this report titled “What we Heard” will be used to revise the Islands Trust Policy Statement, and determine the future direction - and priorities - of The Islands Trust.

It is a beautiful report, with icons, easy to follow and read.

But as I read this (extremely easy to read, accessible and informative summary) document I became increasingly alarmed by the content - on a number of levels.

Please note that consultation with the 28,000 Coast Salish Peoples will happen separately, so this letter refers to the non-Coast Salish Peoples of which I am a part.

Here are my 5 main issues I have with the report and why I was so upset:

1) Extensive engagement?

The Press Release says it was “an extensive public engagement process to inform planning and policy for the next 30 years.”

I was upset and dismayed when I read the report because I do not feel represented. And I’m not alone. 94% of the residents you serve are not represented in this report. And if you include the non-resident property owners this goes up to 95.5%.

I’m not sure what’s normally considered extensive, but numbers like “552 people attending open houses”, “132 people talked with us on ferries” and “789 people participated on Thought Exchange” are a very small percentage of the 26,000 people you serve.

But in addition to the small sample of people surveyed, whose views are represented here?

There is nothing at all to suggest that a broad selection of our residents have been engaged with. I find this particularly disturbing because this means that we have no ideas whose views you have collected.

Without an understanding of the demographics of the people engaged with, how can you know whose opinions you’re hearing?

For example, what were these people’s ages, income/financial situation, marital status, family size and education levels? Do they rent, own or have a second home among our islands?

In particular, do we know the priorities of young families? Vulnerable elders? Low paid workers? Independent business owners? Retirees? Single parents? And what has been done to engage with the young - our teenagers perhaps - who are approaching adulthood? These are the people who will live on the islands 30 years from now.

I do not feel represented by the views in this report.

Whilst I agree with some of the priorities and issues raised I am distressed that important topics like affordable housing and our local economies are not a top priority or concern.

Here are my three biggest concerns right now:

1) Community Resilience: including food and water security, ensuring we have a broad range of residents so that necessary jobs are performed, our local and unique cultures and ensuring we are prepared for natural disasters (whether climate change induced or not).

2) Affordable Housing: I actually prefer the term “Housing for all” as this would also cover our population who may not even be able to “afford” housing.

3) Our Local Economies: Always an issue, with a lot of dependence on tourism and now made worse by COVID. In particular I would love to see policies that encourage information technology workers, remote workers and people who work in the green technology space.

However, out of 17 concerns identified over the next 30 years, “Community Resilience” sits at number 7 on the list behind two ecosystem concerns (Ecosystem change and Ecosystem protection). Our Local “Economy and Employment” sits at 13 out of 17 concerns behind Woodsmoke and Climate Change Education. And as mentioned, affordable housing doesn’t even make it to the concerns list.

In fact of the 17 concerns for the future - and the comments used in the report to illustrate each concern - the environment and climate are mentioned in 16 of them. Which is great. Climate change and taking care of our environment is incredibly important for our future. But what about simply taking care of the people in our communities?

2) There is more to our islands than a changing climate

I was surprised that the key question about people’s concerns for the next 30 years was PRE-framed for people around climate change.

By asking the question, “In the context of a changing climate, what concerns do you have for the next 30 years?” and by placing the climate reference at the front of the question, this meant ALL responses had a climate focus.

And what this means is that you haven’t heard all of your constituents’ concerns, you’ve just heard the concerns that relate to climate change.

Specifically, “Affordable Housing” did not even make it ONTO the list of people’s concerns! This is shocking. The Islands Trust has already declared a climate emergency, and this is extremely important. But there are many other important issues on our islands beyond climate change.

“Preserving and Protecting” goes beyond just our “natural” environment...

The goal of the Islands Trust when it was established in 1974 was to “preserve and protect the trust area and its unique amenities and environment for the benefit of residents of the trust area and of the province generally…”

So, not just preserving the environment, but the unique amenities. Not just for the local residents, but for the visitors too (the province generally).

In the Policy Statement (consolidated 2003), Directive Policies 5.8.6 states that ”Local trust committees and island municipalities shall, in their official community plans and regulatory bylaws, address their community’s current and projected housing requirements and the long-term needs for educational, institutional, community and health-related facilities and services, as well as the cultural and recreational facilities and services.”

Currently, on Salt Spring Island, there is a dire housing shortage, especially for those who are not wealthy. This includes affordable homes to both buy and rent. If we want an island filled up with wealthy retirees and a lack of amenities because people can’t afford to live and work here, we are headed in the right direction.

3) The wrong tool?

I don’t believe “Thought Exchange” is the right vehicle for population surveying at such a broad level. There are issues with bias, and my experience using Thought Exchange was that it was unstructured and confusing.

On bias: I looked around “Thought Exchange” and saw lots of comments and “likes” around climate and natural ecosystem protection, and very little on other topics that were important to me.

When you have a platform that asks people to “like” each other’s comments, just like Facebook, we create a self-reinforcing bubble which can be off-putting for people who think differently. As such, I did not feel comfortable contributing in that environment.

Finally, as mentioned earlier, there are no demographics here to inform us of whose opinions we have heard. I wonder why you did not use a survey format - that allows contributors to be anonymous, and allows collection of demographics so that you understand who you’re actually hearing from.

4) How valid is this report given the potential impacts of COVID?

As I read the press release, I was astonished that COVID-19 was not even given a passing mention.

Whilst I understand COVID was not a “thing” when this information was gathered - it sure is one now. COVID-19 has ravaged our local economies, population and businesses (both local and visitor serving businesses alike). It’s going to take a long time for our islands to recover, and we may find that we lose much of our island vitality in the process.

A post-COVID world is going to be challenging for many of our less financially resilient community members. Land use planning for affordable housing needs to be a priority now, more than ever. Our local economy similarly needs a lot of focus and support. And perhaps, in the light of COVID - and a changing climate - we need to think ahead to supporting our farmers and growers more to maximise our local food supply.

I wonder if the concerns - and priorities - in the report would change if people were polled for their views now?

5) Divisive and Confusing Categorisation of Results

I found the grouping of the various inputs received to be unstructured, confusing and also divisive.

Some examples: by lumping together “The Local Economy & Tourism” you have highlighted a lot of unhelpful polarised views about tourism, and lost thoughts on the economy overall. Because while tourism is an important component of many island economies, it is still a subset of our economy - and only one of several economic forces.

Also, did we really need Ecosystem Change and Ecosystem Protection as two separate categories? And it’s confusing to call a category Education when it’s really Climate Change Education. I was imagining something else entirely.

In Summary

The What We Heard Islands 2050: The Future of the Trust Area report summarises the public’s input and apparently “captures the ideas and thoughts of more than a thousand people from across the islands”.

This “extensive consultation” with just 6% of the islands’ population - performed with no understanding of their income/age/homeowner status, education, ethnicity and more - is simply no consultation at all.

And whilst preserving the natural environment is extremely important, why are we not also preserving and protecting our fellow humans too - in their myriad forms and circumstances?

We need to remember that we are a part of nature. As a species, we need to protect and get back in communion with nature and its bounties. And we also need to ensure our community is resilient, preserve our communities’ economies and ensure our young, our elders (and everyone in between) can afford housing.

Specifically, I fear that if the Islands Trust Council uses this What We Heard Islands 2050: The Future of the Trust Area report for input to the future direction of policy, affordable housing, our economies and our communities - and whatever other non climate-related concerns other people might have - will simply not be addressed.

I ask again, who are the public that was “extensively” engaged with? Whose opinions does this report represent? And I formally request that you go further with your consultation, and specifically include - and widely promote - a survey with demographics so that more people, from all walks of life, are represented.

Yours faithfully,

Emma-Louise Elsey

(Online business owner, avid naturalist, environmentalist and believer that the “Preserve and Protect” mandate should also apply to humans!)

August 14, 2020 9:10 AM

  • Avatar Brenda Guiled says:

    Our Coastal Douglas-Fir Garry Oak ecosystem is one of the rarest forest types in the world and the rarest in B.C. Plug that in, please, while checking out this time-lapse video of what humans are doing to it: https://saltspringexchange.com/2016/12/03/time-lapse-salt-spring-island-1984-to-2016/.

    It's great to call for accommodation, in every way, for all of the people who want to live, work, and visit here. We need specifics, however, about how we're going to keep what's precious about the island's ecology, while fitting in every human need and wish, including every islander's wish to be surveyed to their satisfaction.

    What kind of human population density can the Trust islands hold and keep the Doug-Fir Garry Oak habitat intact and thriving? How can we mitigate the climate distresses and invasive species (dare we say humans, too, or are we among the rare and imperiled?) that are killing the island's native landscapes? Where will we bunch the housing required for all who exercise their right to live here, or else how will we fit them in among the trees? How will we keep watercourses and aquifers functional for all life forms, especially the species who called this home long before modern humans showed up?

    A good start would be to read Salt Spring's 2007 Official Community Plan, which provides guidelines and answers to these gnarly questions. Some parts of it need updating, especially in light of climate change and the pandemic shakedown, but, in general, it's still very much the plan we need : https://www.crd.bc.ca/docs/default-source/salt-spring-island-ea-pdf/cedc/ssbylbaseocp434vol1_reduced.pdf?sfvrsn=2.

  • Avatar Emma-Louise Elsey says:

    Hi Brenda, thank-you for your thoughtful comment.

    I agree with everything you say. And I'm suggesting we continue to do all of these things.

    I'm saying we ALSO need to be looking at community resilience, affordable housing and our economies.

    And specifically in my piece above I'm very upset about the way feedback was collected and reported because:

    1) The only question where people's concerns were requested was ONLY asked in the context of climate change. Which is directive, and meant that affordable housing got excluded (it's not a climate change issue!)
    2) We don't have a) enough feedback (6% of residents) to update the Policy document b) a broad range of feedback from enough people from enough walks of life.
    3) The way the feedback was collected (Thought Exchange) enabled bias and the whole "bubble" thing we see where people reinforce each other's views, and other voices are not seen, or don't feel comfortable expressing themselves.

    I hope that helps. I don't know if you saw, but after my name it also says: avid naturalist, environmentalist

    Thanks. Emma-Louise

  • Avatar Brenda Guiled says:

    Nice reply. Thank you. Yes, I understood everything you wrote and your environmental concerns.

    As for the climate-change lens, all island groups, from small to large, were charged by those creating the Climate Action Plan 2 (CAP-2) to figure out and state where they stand and operate within the climate-change context. Islands Trust has provided their response, either directly from this request, or indirectly. Pandemic concerns and considerations were added, obviously, once the public-engagement was under way.

    Regarding sample size, 6% of 26,000 is impressive, more than adequate statistically. A random survey to get that number of responses, to ensure the fairest results, would have meant printing and handing out/mailing out many times more survey forms than were needed back, because it's common for only 10% or so to be returned, with the rest of the paper being recycled or trashed and the costs just money lost.

    Further, those who reply are those who are motivated enough to do so, which means that the results are biased. Running random interviews or ticking boxes in person from a survey sheet, covering many 100s of randomly-chosen people, is prohibitively expensive. Public gatherings to get feedback are likewise costly, and only those who notice that they're happening and actually go will then have their opinions noted -- biased again.

    If you were in charge of the survey, within a climate-change/pandemic context and with a limited budget (you can be sure than the Trust's budget for this was limited), I wonder what you'd have done to get the outreach and breadth of responses you feel were required and would have given unbiased, readily analyzed, statistically significant results, without overspending or missing anyone.

  • Avatar rhonanmann says:

    Thank you Emma-Louise Elsey! I share your concerns! I know we can acheive a resilient, sustainable Island community with healthy intact ecosystems in a way that can be a model for the world....but to do this the Islands Trust needs to remember that they are the only planning department we have....and they can't forget about the people needed to sustain a healthy community....They need to be innovative and holistic leaders...
    The current direction is heading for Island full of wealthy estates carving up the natural ecosystem in rural sprawl...with few local services remaining....
    Far from the Unique Island culture the current policy claims to protect as well as the natural environment.

  • Avatar Emma-Louise Elsey says:

    Hi Brenda, understood.

    I should have been explicit. I was meaning an online survey - as opposed to the online "Thought Exchange".

    Thought Exchange was rife with "Confirmation Bias". While I was motivated to contribute, I found Thought Exchange unsettling - an uncomfortable place to share my views.

    And 6% might be statistically OK, if we had any idea who that 6% were demographically. I have big concerns that the sample is unrepresentative of our diverse population.

    Statistically, what could be considered adequate largely depends on the importance of the questions being asked. As this sets the future for the next 30 years of our island, I believe a larger, more diverse number of people is required before we use any information to inform policy.

    And as you raise COVID, I have concerns still about the validity of the feedback and priorities given that we live in a COVID-infused world, with many more people struggling to get by than before.

    To be clear, I agree that our island environment is precious, and should be preserved and protected.

    On an important side-note:

    I find it sad that so often on our island that views get so polarised. For or against the Islands Trust. For or against X, Y or Z. It creates a divisiveness - which seems to just pit people against each other, and people get more and more set in their positions.

    From your reply I infer that you are content with the feedback results.

    I'm curious, now that we've talked a little, whether you can see the validity of my concerns - especially about people less fortunate than we are?

    Because I would like to see an "and" culture. Where we listen and acknowledge and can hold differing points of view, yet work together for the good of all.

    “All of us share this world for but a brief moment in time. The question is whether we spend that time focused on what pushes us apart, or whether we commit ourselves to an effort — a sustained effort — to find common ground, to focus on the future we seek for our children, and to respect the dignity of all human beings.” Obama

    Yours curiously, Emma

  • Avatar Emma-Louise Elsey says:

    Hi Rhona,

    Lovely to hear from you. And I love that you, like me, want to both preserve and protect our precious and rare environment, and also protect the "homo sapiens" species that also lives here.

    As in my reply to Brenda above, I am hoping we can get to a place of "And", not "Or" when it comes to the direction of our islands.

    Warmly, Emma

  • Avatar Daniel Wood says:

    Thanks Rhonan,

    I could not agree more. Right now there seems to be a big divide between the community members who are especially worried about the ecology of our island and those that are especially worried about the housing shortage, and both groups perceive themselves as bitter enemies on polar opposites of a binary dispute.

    Meanwhile, we have the worst of both worlds. The population continues to grow, and houses are being built, but those new homes do more damage than ever to the environment, which is the reason we all chose to live here in the first place. They also, however, don't help at all with the social issues that those in the community who are concerned about housing actually want them to address.

    Actually, our goals as a community are much more compatible than we seem to think.

  • Avatar Mary Turcott says:

    Thank you for sharing, Emma! Lots of excellent points for us all to consider!

  • Avatar Emma-Louise Elsey says:

    Lovely comment Daniel. I've just sent a letter to the Driftwood - which asks that we can be more "And" - preserve and protect humans and the environment. That both are valid.

    I wish I'd thought to say something about being more compatible than we think - because I often think that! That we need to look at where we agree!

    Mostly, in my letter to the Trust Council I was upset that the survey process was deeply flawed. And the results mean there is a (further) de-prioritisation of what our more vulnerable humans need.

    Thank-you again for the reminder that we must focus on what we agree on - and that we're more compatible than at first appears 🙂

    Warmly, Emma

  • Avatar rhonanmann says:

    Thanks Daniel. I totally agree!

  • Avatar Brenda Guiled says:

    Thanks, Emma. I share your concerns about adequate housing for all.

    While I'd rather have the Trust than not, I haven't been active with their work, because I see the service-delivery part of our government, the SSI-CRD, as more in line with my concerns, hence focus my energies there. Both need attention, of course, just can't be active on all fronts.

    I strongly recommend that you get involved with the Trust, at whatever level you're able to offer your time and energies: http://www.islandstrust.bc.ca/trust-council/policies-and-procedures/4-local-trust-committees-and-advisory-groups/.

    Municipalities also have many volunteer committees, commissions, and working groups that advise the elected rep's and hired hands -- you can web-search Bowen Island's, for example -- which is to say that such advisory groups, and so many, aren't anomalous because of our unique form of governance.

    Alas, the Salt Spring residents who are able to volunteer some time addressing governance issues that they care about, which includes being turned to surveys and registering concerns before things are finalized, tend have more sway than those who comment after the work is done. It may not be fair, and the resulting decisions can be counter to the vision we have for the place, but it's a been a fact of community life long, long years, here and everywhere.

    I certainly agree about what I call "the grid on Turtle Island", people with a lot of money who move here to top-down their ideas of perfect living in huge homes and getaways, which they impose without understanding our rare ecosystems and deeper roots, then keep to their own income strata.

    Perhaps, since you've found the time to express your concerns about the Trusts' "We Heard You" report -- with thanks -- we'll hear more from you in the future, as plans are being made and implemented. Your voice and help will be most welcome.

  • Avatar Gaianna Sophia says:

    Brilliant. Thank you for sharing all of this, I completely agree these are VERY important topics that need to be considered for the longevity of our island's welfare. It would be really good to have someone who has a mind like yours on the Island's Trust. You have really spoken to some important issues that were marginalized through this collection of data. Thank you for taking the time to think this through and the love of our island to bring this to the light of day for the rest of us.

  • Avatar Dan Dickmeyer says:

    I was surprised at how brief this document was. I expected more than just charts and figures. I wanted some essence of a proposed direction. But I understand there is many more phases to go through but my skeptical self says nothing will ever change anyway. I believe a 30 year plan in these days is way too long. 15 would be more appropriate for all that is happening, i.e., pandemics, economic collapse. And no mention of course of entirely different government structures that should and might emerge like municipal governance , different partnerships between government entities, etc. Only the most oblique references were made in the survey results to creation of new and innovative "industries" and ways of making a living, education both academic and otherwise, cultural development and the arts which should be part of any future plans and creation of social networks outside of online and how to inspire cooperation and enthusiasm in our island society which to a great extent is not happy with the contribution up to now of the IT. So in short I agreed with Emma-Louise and hope that people appreciate the thought she has put into her letter.