GIA praises, criticizes, encourages trustees

In a presentation to Islands Trust Council on Thetis Island in March, 2013, GIA assessed the Trust’s performance and encouraged it to do even better. Here’s the full text:

GIA has kept an eye on you for seven years, criticizing and applauding. Our mission, in part, supports the goal of the Islands Trust Act, and relies, as you must, on the strength that flows from keeping the islands unified.

This presentation is a melding of diverse viewpoints of our board members. We noticed that common to many possible topics was that many of your challenges relate to the public’s lack of understanding about your role.  A recent survey blamed mostly poor communication for the fact that only 45 percent of informed Canadians trust government officials and agencies. Communicating what you do is almost as important as what you do. Great stories die if not told.

We expect that if every Trust Area resident came to fully appreciate …

One, that they live in a most beautiful, peaceful place

Two, that its governance system is specifically designed to sustain this beauty

And Three, that this system is still experimental and must constantly prove itself to keep a happy ending in sight …

Then public support for the Trust would fill to overflowing.

Before saying more about your communications, my GIA friends register two reservations.

One, governments blowing their own horn is a sore subject. Consider the federal sponsorship scandal. And party-in-power promotions disguised as tax-funded public-service commercials. But the Trust story is good enough without spin. And there’s little or no cost to tell it.  In this age all you need is imagination and some computer savvy. A small starter would be to make your website more friendly and visually reflect the resplendent place you represent.

Two, some of us think the Trust story needs some fixing first. The Trust Act was to be a bulwark against rampant development, and yet at times since its inception our population growth rate has been twice the BC and Canadian average. And we’re disappointed when less-than-robust responses are made to environmental threats that go with growth.  Committed to promoting ecological health over all incursions, we were pleased a few years ago when a legal opinion from a prominent environmental lawyer we commissioned said simply that the Trust Act’s primary purpose is to protect the islands’ natural environment. Citing court decisions, it explains profound differences between the Trust and municipal systems and between the roles of trustees and councillors. You could insist that no development proceed unless there’s a guarantee of no net environmental loss.

Here are other ways to enhance the Trust story:

While we’re sure you are being careful in response to the Salt Spring governance study, we think it’s critical to go full out to resolve or at least lighten issues there. GIA’s only action so far was to ask that the interests of the Trust and its islands be taken into account in the study. If it goes further, hopefully you will air the implications of incorporation on Salt Spring’s property taxes and the sustainability of the Trust itself.

Remove repetition and vagueness in the Policy Statement, and then, as the clear interpretation of the Trust Act, let it be your everyday guide. It’s tough defending certain policies when facing a contrary private proposal that doesn’t appear to trouble anyone, including the neighbours. But often overlooked in such cases is that local folks don’t have exclusive control, that the islands are also a treasure being preserved for all BC people, who by the way overwhelmingly don’t want them despoiled.  For this reason we asked that your oath of office acknowledge loyalty to the Act and that staff’s every action be consistent with the Act.

GIA has praised Sheila Malcolmson for speaking out on some big public issues. But you could take even bolder stands.  On the threat of seabed pollution near the Raven coal mine site and across Trust Area waters.  On marine oil spills. GIA was disappointed you rejected our idea to ask senior governments to estimate the cost of a spill. An estimate — the Gulf spill was $40 billion — would show taxpayers what they would pay for clean up and loss of property values and nature’s services. It was your chance to lead on a broad community sentiment against an unthinkable disaster. And there’s much more to say about climate change. Set aside any question about your legislated authority, there must be no jurisdictional prohibition on fighting for the planet’s survival. It’s everyone’s moral issue. The most inconvenient truth is that time is the scarcest of all the natural assets under siege from climate change.

Tony Law once told us his job is “a tough and lonely place between folks who complain we aren’t doing enough to carry out our mandate … and those who accuse us of being ‘eco-fascists’ for pursuing environmental objectives at the expense of community well-being.” GIA sympathizes, but we also say if you scratch most islanders you’ll uncover winners, people who, whether or not they credit the Trust Act, hold its values. The islands are a concentration of talented, progressive, caring, and community-minded people, here for the fresh air, clean water, stable neighbourhoods and a beauty, which like great art, is worth preserving for its own sake. There’s a pervasive enlightenment and enthusiasm to use the Trust as a research lab to shed old ways and test new ones, to leave the world a better place. The Trust Area can be a model for that. So, continue to welcome citizen ideas and participation. Keep them on your side. Make meetings convenient to attend and your positions on issues easy to grasp. Focus on beneficial outcomes more than Trust processes. Extol ‘preserve and protect’.  It’s everyone’s strong suit. The late Professor Elinor Ostrom in the U.S., a Nobel prize winner in economics, said engaging local folks is the best way to protect common ecological resources. She said, “We need to get people away from the notion that you have to have a fancy car and a huge house. We have to think through how to choose a meaningful life in which we help one another in ways that also help the earth.”

We’re not overstating your role here. Consider what the islands would be like if there had been no resistance to a 40-year urban wave. Land use control is a blunt instrument, one reason local governments affect our lives more than higher governments. Good land use fosters neighbourhood civility, not chaos. But, you know your wisest decisions can spark hostility from folks with public justice or private property rights hard-wired into their DNA. Like the story of second-hand smoke, there’s mounting awareness that certain land and resource uses can blow bad smoke, figuratively, far beyond their property lines. And we’re more empowered than ever to do something about it. Intransigent positions on economy versus environment, now deeply wounding Canadian society, are seen in microcosm on our islands. They can be reconciled, not by compromise so much as learning that what’s best for the environment is also often best for our economy.

As trustees you are privileged, representing a people and a purpose, to sort through complex options to take the best path.