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.