Keep eye on Trust Act, GIA tells Trust Council

Following is the full text of the Gulf Islands Alliance presentation to Island Trust Council on June 14, 2007. It was delivered by Alliance Chair Christine Torgrimson and concerns the Alliance’s legal opininon on the role of the Trust and Islands Trust Act.

legal opinion for Gulf Islands Alliance June 6, 2007 [PDF]

To the Islands Trust Council:

I am Christine Torgrimson, resident of Salt Spring Island and Chair of the Gulf Islands Alliance. I have come here today to tell you about an intriguing legal opinion that has far-reaching and positive implications for your Islands Trust work. The opinion was sought by the Gulf Islands Alliance, a grassroots citizens’ organization launched recently, with 150 members now from throughout the Trust area and a board of directors representing eleven Trust areas.

We are islanders actively dedicated to the protection of the BC Gulf Islands, their natural environments, rural nature, and unique cultures, for now and for future generations. We support the Islands Trust federation in achieving its legislated Object. Our primary aim is to work collaboratively with the Trust to keep our fragile island environments intact and our communities small and diverse. We also work to influence other levels of government and to educate and activate the citizens of the Trust area to further the Trust Object.

The Islands Trust Act provided the Trust with strong powers to protect the islands through land use planning and regulation. Those powers were upheld by the 1995 MacMillan Bloedel v. Galiano Island Trust Committee decision by the BC Court of Appeal, which ruled in favour of the Local Trust Committee to enact bylaws that preserve and protect the Trust area and its unique amenities and environment.

To confirm that the Gulf Islands Alliance is on solid ground with our mission as well as our view that the Trust can and must do what the Trust Act says it should do, we recently sought a legal opinion about the Trust Object from Tim Howard of Mandell Pinder Barristers & Solicitors, a highly respected Vancouver law firm. Mr. Howard has considerable experience in the field of environmental law. The question we posed to him was:

“Are a Local Trust Committee (“LTC”), the Trust Council and/or the Executive Committee (the “Trust Bodies”) created under the Islands Trust Act R.S.B.C. 1996, c. 239 as amended (the “Islands Trust Act”) required to exercise their powers consistent with the trust objects stated in s. 3 of the Islands Trust Act?”

The first paragraph of the six-page legal opinion provides a summary, which I quote in part:

“…the Islands Trust Act places a positive legal obligation on Trust Bodies to act in furtherance of the trust objects, namely the preservation and protection of the trust area. A decision by a Trust Body that was made for a purpose other than the statutory purpose stated in s. 3 would arguably fall outside the Trust Body’s statutory power….”

Our lawyer takes the position that the Trust Act created the Islands Trust and provided it with strong powers for the primary purpose of preserving and protecting these islands. Unlike other local governments such as municipalities, for example, that allow trade-offs between competing community values such as environment and an expanded tax base, this opinion states that the Trust is mandated to place the preservation and protection of the Trust area and its unique amenities and environment uppermost in its considerations.

When you have an opportunity to study the legal opinion, we hope you will draw the same comfort and encouragement from it as we do, because it fully supports your right and obligation to implement and enforce the Trust Object. We also hope it will inspire your further ideas about ways in which the Trust can effectively accomplish this.

In that regard, we have a specific suggestion today. We request that you amend the Trust Policy Manual to require all staff reports to analyze whether a proposed action by a Local Trust Committee or by Trust Council would further or hinder the Trust Object. We would like to see a thoughtful analysis in staff reports rather than the simple checklist currently recommended in the Trust Policy Manual. For example, if a new bylaw is suggested, the staff report would evaluate whether the bylaw provides effective protection for the Trust area and if not, would describe how it could do so.

Such a policy would have many benefits. It would create a more focussed and effective partnership between staff and trustees as you work together to implement the Trust Object and Policy Statement. Keeping the Object and Policy Statement foremost in the minds of Trust staff would strengthen the Trust’s corporate culture of dedication to protecting the islands. Staff reports that explain how each new bylaw or policy implements the Object would also remind the public about the Trust Policy Statement and how the Trust protects these islands. We believe that this will also strengthen public support for the Trust. Adoption of this policy will support implementation of all aspects of Trust Council’s strategic objectives, complement the current review of local planning services, and help assure that all Trust-approved projects are focussed on achieving the Trust Object.

The Islands Trust is a rare and precious model for an extraordinary place. You Trustees, and we island stewards of this Trust area, have a serious responsibility to see that this unique archipelago is indeed preserved and protected. As Islands Trust Chair Kim Benson reminded us in a recent editorial, the challenges and complexity of delivering the Trust mandate are “escalating dramatically.” The Trust area population is growing at twice the BC and Canada rate, and at about 10 times the rate of other rural areas in Canada. The pressures to cut down the trees, demand more of the fresh waters, cater to more tourists, and provide more housing are growing exponentially, even before we face the greater pressures likely engendered by the 2010 Olympics.

We must all work together to protect this national treasure we are entrusted with and fully utilize the powers of one of the most unique governments in the world—the Islands Trust. The Gulf Islands Alliance formed for exactly this reason. We are not unrealistically against all growth and development, but we are serious about promoting a strong Islands Trust that supports the “preserve and protect” Object every day in word and deed. We have sought and now present this legal opinion to help ensure the full implementation of the Trust Object. We hope you will implement our proposal for Trust Object analyses in staff reports; we look forward to working with you on other measures to preserve and protect the Trust area, and we will continue our efforts to build a strong base of islanders who support the Trust Object and act responsibly as stewards of this Trust area.