Three cheers for democracy

By Leslie Campbell, May 2014

April provided some inspiring examples of effective citizen engagement.

I’ve been privileged over the years to witness how ordinary citizens, working in varied and splendoured ways to set things on a better course, become more empowered and hopeful. Sometimes they even beat the odds, becoming effective change-makers in the process.

Faced with billion-dollar infrastructure projects everywhere we turn, not to mention hearing dire warnings about climate change, it’s a time when we could use some good news. April has proved helpful in that regard—serving up some positive stories of how citizen oversight and engagement led to a more democratic outcome.

This being a municipal election year, paying attention to the lessons such stories offer could result in a sea change in our region, washing away those politicians clinging to old ideas like barnacles on a rock, instead of representing the will of the people.

Events on April 16—the day our provincial government did a 180-degree turnaround on environmental assessments for gas plants—showed with crystalline clarity how citizens can make a difference by making their voices heard; and how empowering and inspiring it is to rise up and speak out when government missteps. 

A few days earlier, on April 11, the BC Liberals had quietly passed an Order in Council exempting natural gas processing plants (as well as new ski resorts) from automatic Provincial environmental reviews. They did this without any consultation with First Nations or the public—unless you count the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers and other donors. They did this, in fact, sneakily, while talking with First Nations about working together on developing the LNG industry in ways that respected them and their lands.

When news of the Order in Council leaked out during a meeting of First Nations leaders, government bureaucrats and gas industry reps at a BC First Nations LNG Summit in Fort Nelson, home of the largest gas deposit in the province, 33-year-old Chief Sharleen Gale made a dramatic and powerful statement: “The word from my elders is you treat people kind. You treat them with respect even when they’re stabbing you in the back…so I respectfully ask government to remove themselves from the room.” 

The video of the event is moving, showing dozens of government negotiators filing out of the room as Dene drummers beat drums and chant and the chief holds her eagle feather high above her head.

All BC First Nations leaders came out with blistering condemnations of the government’s lack of good faith. Grand Chief Stewart Phillip, president of the Union of BC Indian Chiefs, called it a “stunningly stupid move,” jeopardizing all LNG discussions in the province. BC Assembly of First Nations Regional Chief Jody Wilson-Raybould stated, “Opportunities for relationship building are lost when the BC Government on the one hand participates in open dialogue with First Nations on topics like LNG, but on the other makes no effort to consult with First Nations on major environmental deregulation in the same day.” 

The government quickly apologized and rescinded the decision. But Premier Clark’s whole LNG strategy may have been irreparably damaged by the contemptuous move. In a later interview with the Vancouver Observer, Chief Gale stated, “I’m new at this, right? But I know what’s right, and I know what’s wrong. I don’t think the way the government is pushing this through is going to work for anybody… So I think that [the BC government] is facing a major legal and political destabilization to its LNG strategy.” Coastal First Nations director Art Sterritt warned, “This is the end of the love-in on LNG.”

 

APRIL ALSO SAW plucky little Esquimalt acknowledge the will of the people and say “No” to devoting a prime parcel of harbour waterfront to a centralized sewage treatment plant for the region. Local citizens are to be congratulated for turning out in droves to public hearings on rezoning hosted by Esquimalt, as well as to a town hall debate on the CRD’s sewage treatment plans hosted by the Downtown Residents Association (note such public hearings are not being hosted by CRD itself). Citizens are making their voices heard and it is making a difference, though the CRD is proving ideologically stubborn about staying the course despite its main site having evaporated. As Esquimalt Mayor Barb Desjardins asked in a recent TC op-ed, “Why would the CRD continue to push on full steam ahead when it does not have a clear plan?” Good question.

Members of the Sewage Treatment Action Group (STAG), the group proposing the RITE Plan’s distributed tertiary model, took it upon themselves to implement another tool of democracy: They, via Victoria-based polling company Popular Change, paid for an automated telephone survey to gauge public support for an independent review. Over 2300 people were polled, with 76 percent saying they are “concerned” about the sewage project. Of those, 23 percent “think there should be an independent review”; 15 percent chose “Take the time to develop an innovative plan”; 16 percent admitted they’d lost confidence in the CRD’s ability to manage our region’s waste. Most impressively, 47 percent chose “All of the above.” To get the full flavour of these results you have to add 47 to each of those earlier percentages (e.g. 70 percent are in favour of an independent review).

On April 22, the CRD dismissed this poll as containing “loaded questions” (e.g. “…we were calling to ask your opinion on your concerns about the CRD’s sewage project that will continue to flush toxic chemicals and pharmaceuticals into the ocean, even after secondary treatment.”) Still, you have to give STAG credit for trying to get a reading directly from citizens—something the CRD has scrupulously avoided. (A Freedom of Information request confirmed the CRD did no third-party surveys or polls of the public on the sewage treatment issue from July 2012 through February 2014.) The CRD has itself used “loaded” phraseology in selling the public on its plan, employing a pricey PR firm to help in that regard. 

Ideally, the STAG poll will prod the CRD to conduct a truly independent review and referendum on the question of sewage treatment. The public deserves more of a say in this billion-dollar project. Most citizens understand federal regulations require we treat our sewage to a higher level. They just don’t have any confidence in the CRD’s plan, and for good reason. The CRD could and should hold a referendum or plebiscite on sewage treatment methods in the fall elections if not sooner.

 

KITIMAT'S CITY COUNCIL provides a role model in that regard. As the proposed terminus of the Enbridge pipeline, where 225 tankers a year would be loaded with bitumen to head down the Douglas Channel enroute to Asian markets, holding a plebiscite on the question was a great exercise in democracy. Despite the full page ads and corporate canvassers backing Enbridge—and their promise of needed jobs—58.4 percent of those who voted said no to the pipeline (there was a 62 percent turn-out). On April 22 Kitimat’s council voted to formally oppose the pipeline.

As Desmog Blog commentator Emma Gilchrist wrote: “if Enbridge can’t earn support in Kitimat—a blue-collar city planned and built by the Aluminum Company of Canada in the 1950s—then it’s hard to see how the company, or the federal government for that matter, can even pretend to have social licence for this project in British Columbia.”

We don’t often hear of plebiscites; elected officials seem to avoid them like the plague. Yet it’s such a simple and clear way to find out what the majority of people want. Polls give us a clue, but they aren’t an actual vote. 

In that regard, Victoria-based Dogwood Initiative is urging citizens to sign a petition to give us the right to vote on plans to expand oil pipelines and tanker traffic on our coast. The Dogwood’s Kai Nagata points out that BC’s unique direct democracy laws give us the power to put this to a vote, along the lines of the HST campaign. Says Nagata: “Maybe you think this pipeline is a good idea. That’s okay. In a democracy it’s healthy to hear from people with a variety of perspectives. We debate. We campaign. And then we vote.”

He continues: “Three appointed panelists travelling around pretending to listen to people? That’s not democracy. Prime Minister Harper pointing at a map and saying ‘put it there’? That’s not democracy either. Northern Gateway cannot and will not be built without permission from First Nations and voters in British Columbia. That goes beyond a plebiscite in Kitimat. We have a right to make this decision as a province.” You can register your support at www.letbcvote.ca. 

Finally, another example of citizens keeping government on its best behaviour comes from Focus writer Rob Wipond. His reporting in the past year on the uncertain status of two BC police chief associations was instrumental in moving Information and Privacy Commissioner Elizabeth Denham in April to recommend legislative change that will make the two associations more transparent and accountable to the public. These two associations use public resources and advise government on vital issues, yet have managed to avoid official designation as either lobby groups or public bodies. That means they have been opaque to public scrutiny and virtually unaccountable. Thanks to Rob’s extraordinary patience and persistence, this is going to change. See his article on page 10.

Leslie Campbell is the editor of Focus. She will be speaking on a panel on the subject of “How to Safeguard Transparency, Openness and Accountability in Municipal & Regional Governments” on May 13; see www.openvictoria.ca.