Opinion: How Our Bylaws Undermine Rural Life and Livelihoods

Our complaint-driven bylaw system, and many of the laws themselves, are undermining rural people’s lives and livelihoods here on Salt Spring Island. By prohibiting the traditional economic stepping stones and ways of life of homesteaders, artisans, and the rural working class, as well as increasingly curtailing the ways land holders may participate in the tourist economy, our LUB (Land Use Bylaw) exacerbates already economically and socially polarizing housing, real estate and construction industries. It favours affluent estate owners whose livelihoods are not dependent on being able to use their land.

The ‘preserve and protect’ mandate driving the Trust’s LUB ossifies select aspects of Salt Spring’s settler past. The present is shackled by it. Creativity is stifled. Forcing the non-elite into untenable moulds, the LUB effectively outlaws both “non- nuclear family structures” and the forms of social capital which homesteaders, artisans, and the rural working class rely on. A well-heeled family or an investor can hire a Salt Spring contractor to build them a beautiful single family dwelling which accords to all the bylaw strictures. For a homesteader living a life more traditional to Salt Spring’s settler roots, however, basic material existence is illegal. Sleeping, eating, bathing ourselves, working together, having visitors, and keeping our tools and building materials dry in a rainforest is effectively denied.

Socially appropriate and intelligent bylaws would enable homesteaders and farmers to live legally with dignity as we undertake the labours of love involved in more traditional ways of building and planting. Islands Trust’s bylaws, and the concurrent policing approach of its planning and bylaw staff, make basic living for the non-elite homesteader inordinately difficult, if not impossible. This is weakening local resilience in a time of climate emergencies and pandemics. Is this by design, or the result of bureaucratic myopia?

Most grievous is that the juncture of a land use bylaw document filled with untenable prohibitions and a complaint-driven enforcement system radically undermines political participation, and thus the fabric of democracy itself. The complaint-driven system also feeds enmity, distrust, and subterfuge in our neighbourhoods, spawns rashes of fence-building, contravenes sections 7 & 8 of the Canadian Charter, subjects residents to epistemic violence, invades privacy, and, ultimately, threatens public health and safety.

What we need is an open, transparent, intelligent and restorative approach at the outset—an approach aimed at repairing and cultivating good neighbourly relations and ecological stewardship among residents and property owners. Instead, we are subjected to officers drawing on snitch-line allegations to act as judge, jury, and executioner with seemingly no oversight or accountability. Residents are left with no way to defend ourselves from the slippery and ever-changing allegations officers choose to levy. Sociological studies tell us that when individuals are given the mandate and authority to bully others, the majority adopt that behaviour. As Trustees, you are overseeing a socially, morally, and ecologically destructive bylaw enforcement system.

Please change it.

A form of ‘ground-truthing’ would reveal that upscale kitchenettes and bars in the homes and outbuildings of the elite are rarely complained about. Should they be seen by officers, they are granted impunity. The same number of sinks and drink- making appliances on working and middle-class homesteads and farms are, however, cause for years of ‘violation files’...that is, years in which the home, the place sanctified in liberal capitalist democracies where we may freely reveal and nurture our inner selves, the place of our most intimate friendships and kinship relationships, and the piece of ground we steward, cultivate, and root ourselves in, are under the recurrent antagonistic scrutiny and interpretation of officers “doing the dirty work” of unjust laws.

Lastly, grave damage is done to the social acceptance of environmental protections when those protections are pre-emptively weaponized by bylaw officers to assert power. The weaponization of riparian areas and other environmental protections is just one symptom of the disrespect towards residents woven into Islands Trust staff culture. If we continue to be treated as scheming uninformed enemies of our own land, rather than as the intelligent and caring stewards that the vast majority of us are and aim to be, the Trust’s environmental regulations will continue to lose support and legitimacy.

There are a number of recommendations I’d like to make about how positive change can be effectuated.

In brief, our LUB is in need of revision, and, if we are to hold out any hope of those revisions being adequate to the needs of our community in its full diversity, the Trust will have to undertake a fundamental shift in its approach. Instead of corseting residents into untenable laws that just can’t fit, start with the residents. Encourage Trust staff to work collaboratively with people to find good solutions, rather than simply throwing up endless roadblocks. Train your staff in community outreach. Have them go out to meet the tradespeople, the homesteaders, the accommodation-providers, and the hippies, not to find fault with us, but rather to gather feedback about how to revise the bylaws and permits in ways that actually fit and support real life, and that strengthen our island community.

Note: This is an edited version of a five minute delegation the author presented to the Local Trust Committee via Zoom.

January 6, 2021 8:53 AM

  • Avatar Juniper Salt says:

    I agree with you completely but I think it can be done while also safeguarding environmental concerns like riparian zones. A lot of have seen those "upscale kitchenettes and bars" in outbuildings and a lot of us have gotten blocked from building wood/boat shelters hilariously considered 'buildings'.

    This needs a wider discussion.


  • Avatar Juniper Salt says:

    To be clear, I don't want the "upscale kitchenettes and bars" to be inspected, I want (as it seems you do) for everyone to be allowed the same leeway.

    There is more to the Zoning maybe you've read. Because we are not considered 'rural' by government standards we are also losing out on funding, schools and covid response and more. John Horgan just changed the zoning in his neighbourhood read this


  • I would suggest moving towards a restorative justice approach to bylaw enforcement. No more anonymity and months of stress. Just sit everyone involved in the issue in a room and don't leave til it is sorted.

  • Avatar Brian Pack says:

    Mielle, did it occur to you that the Trust isn't interested in 'a fundamental shift in its approach'? They. don't. work. for. the. 'non-elite.' That's not their mandate. Never will be. Sad but true. Sorry...

    The incorporation referendum was like voting to rearrange the chairs on the Titanic. No matter how one voted, Islands Trust would remain in power. So much for the right to self-government.

    Does anybody else remember the bumper sticker that showed up a dozen years ago, 'Islands Trust: us or them'?

    Any thoughts regarding creative options?

  • Avatar Duncan Elsey says:

    Thank you for taking the time to present this impassioned and well l reasoned argument to the LTC - an activity that I know from experience can be time consuming and frustrating.

    I was just thinking one morning this week that:

    - given that if the whole world tried to live like we do in developed countries (in oversized energy and resource hungry single family dwellings) we would need any number of planet earths to support us (I mean that's been said some many times its become a cliché, but that doesn't make it any less true!)

    - and given that the Trust has declared a climate emergency

    - then isn't is bizarre that the LUB primarily supports a model of one single family dwelling, as large as you like, per lot

    In other words I can buy a lot and build a 10000 sq ft house with 10 bedrooms each with an ensuite with oversized soaker tub etc and that conforms...

    But if I tried to build a few compact resource efficient dwellings to share the land, that would be denied because ... well you know, density, or water or something...

    Time for change indeed.

  • Avatar Andy S says:

    Absolutely agreed. The current complaint driven system creates negative policy that is duplicated as precedent all over the country.

  • Avatar Colin Coe says:

    Your position is straightforward- you want us to relax or eliminate environmental protections so that you can live like a settler and live off the land. And this is justified because you are living an ethnically superior lifestyle to those "elites " who have a single family home. News flash - this is a very crowded nearing 8 billion people wprld in 2021 not 1861. Mowing down trees and polluting riparian areas so that you can live a low cost back to the land lifestyle is hardly environmentally sound. This new "environmentalism" which sees the natural world as only having value if it serves humans is becoming more common- it is called "instrumentalism" . This is in contrast to the traditional environmentalism which focuses on the intrinsic value of the natural world. I want to see our natural resources protected from destruction by both the "elites" and "non elites " not justified by arguments of moral superiority as a justification .

  • Avatar Andy S says:

    I'ts not only Saltspring...

  • Avatar forest_dweller says:

    We need more of this kind of writing and dialogue to further delegitimize the antisocial constructs in power.

  • Avatar forest_dweller says:

    Yes: we give them Goat Island and take back Salt Spring.

  • Avatar Justin Credible says:

    One of the best things I've read in awhile. I'd love to see the Zoom video.