Author Archives: David Steen

Put ferries on same footing as highways

Chagrined by contemptible ferry fare increases, the Gulf Islands Alliance says islanders want ferries put back on the same footing as highways, a part of BC’s integrated public transportation infrastructure and marine highway.

Part of GIA’s quest is “to keep our rural communities economically vibrant, resident-based, diverse and affordable.”

GIA believes ferries ownership/management must be a public policy function of elected provincial representatives, not a business run by a poorly-understood semi-public corporation. Many islanders reject the criticism that they chose to live on the islands as if they knowingly ‘gambled their futures’ on an unreliable ferry system.

The government must be committed long term to maintaining ferries with affordable fares and adequate service.

Many ideas to improve efficiencies and return the government to total accountability have been offered by ferry users in a recent round of public consultation.  Variously criticized as a public relations exercise, manipulative, and a complete waste of time and tax dollars ($700,000), the consultation increased cynicism among some islanders. It’s telling that the consultants didn’t list an increase in provincial ferry contributions as an option for public consideration. Further, lack of information about economic and other impacts of possible service and fare adjustments, and suggested options such bridge construction, particularly for Gabriola Island, and financing ferries with property and fuel taxes have been a distraction from the central question: How and when will the provincial government, as a matter of public policy, undertake sole responsibility for the secure management and sustainability of ferries?

This objective would officially commit the province to recognize ferries as the lifeline carrying almost 9 million vehicles and 20 million passengers annually to communities along BC’s 27,000 kilometres of coastline. Recognizing that a gold-plated transportation service can over-stimulate growth and tourism, with attendant impacts on fragile island environments, GIA is looking only for long-term security and fairness in ferry service. It’s a service now strained by declining ridership and prepaid fare rates that have more than doubled in the last nine years and are set to rise another 12 percent in the next two years. Public ferries must be treated as infrastructure and not continue to be unfairly associated with ‘significant losses’, ‘subsidies’ and ‘shortfalls.’ To soothe its critics, it should be widely announced that ferries receive 85 percent of operating revenues from fares, compared to public transit that gets only 35 per cent from users, the rest coming from government.

The ferries’ decade-long move towards a user-pay model is largely responsible for the unconscionable fare increases that have wrought economic distress and reduced populations on some islands. Real estate values have dropped by up to 33 percent in the last five years. While GIA supports a closer look at near-empty ferry runs and eliminating other inefficiencies, user-pay must be scrapped. GIA agrees with Ferry Advisory Committee recommendations to roll back fares by 25 per cent on smaller routes and peg future fare increases to inflation.

Can climate change be conquered?

The Public Trust Doctrine is a principle of governance that all citizens and their leaders must embrace to save the planet and its people from looming catastrophe. Its goal is simple — to see that every person has unrestricted access to the essential gifts of nature, such as fresh air and clean water, necessary for sustaining life. Since the fall of 2013, the Gulf Islands Alliance has been pressing — so far, without success — Islands Trust Council to adopt the Public Trust Doctrine into the Trust Policy Statement, its legislative bulwark. Following are GIA’s presentations to Council:

June 2014

The Gulf Islands Alliance (GIA) believes that, long term, the greatest threat to the islands and achieving the Islands Trust mandate is climate change.
In a deputation to you last December GIA requested Trust Council to incorporate the Public Trust Doctrine into your Policy Statement to guide your climate change decisions. Chair Sheila Malcolmson replied, “Trust Council did not pass a motion in response… and we look forward to hearing more from you.” This is GIA’s answer to that invitation:
Every day there is more evidence that climate change is an unfolding tragedy on a scale unprecedented in human history. GIA believes the simple but comprehensive Public Trust Doctrine — it enshrines a most fundamental human right — provides the framework and motivation to seek and apply the best solutions to climate change. By adopting the doctrine Trust Council would acknowledge that
— climate change represents a growing and significant threat to the Islands Trust mandate to preserve and protect our precious natural environment
— all people have a right to clean air and water. They are essential to life and not commodities to be sold, used and abused by the highest bidders
— all governments and individual legislators are trustees with a duty to protect and/or restore these life-sustaining necessities when they are damaged.
By embracing the Public Trust Doctrine, Islands Trust would put a pure democratic and inspired face on its climate-change action and advocacy work and advance its stature as a model of leadership and hope for all governments.
Since our first presentation to you when GIA outlined the court actions on behalf of children and future generations initiated in several US states, a new suit has been launched against six federal agencies with powers to regulate greenhouse gas emissions. It is before the US Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit. Proponents argue that continuing access to clean air and water is a basic human right, not subject to political discretion. Specific to the suit is the alleged failure of government to attempt to restore atmospheric carbon dioxide pollution to 350 parts per million, a recognized threshold to avoid catastrophe. This failure, particularly in resource-rich Canada, ironically speeds us faster to more severe encounters with climate consequences.
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change this spring released the third of its three new reports that confirmed climate change is man-made; it already damages crops, spreads disease, acidifies the oceans; it will one day cause wars and mass migrations; and the average amount of emissions is increasing 2.2 percent annually worldwide instead of decelerating by a needed pace of 6 percent.
Last month even the Toronto Dominion Bank, who owes much of its fortune to fossil fuel industry business, noted the accelerating incidence of climate-change-related events such as floods (in Calgary and Toronto), droughts, storm surges, wildfires, landslides, and wide temperature extremes. The bank “strongly advised government leaders and corporate decision-makers … to start thinking of the long-term implications of inaction.”
GIA urges you to adopt the Public Trust Doctrine as policy. Each of us, trustees and private citizens, must do everything we can to conquer and/or cope with the consequences of climate change. To give in to notions that the problem will never visit our islands, that it’s too big, that it must be tackled only by others or that it doesn’t require immediate action equal to its global importance is morally indefensible. In his brilliant new book, Windfall, about investors already profiting from climate change (such as by buying vast tracts of farmland to profit from expected climate-based food shortages and famine), McKenzie Funk says: “Climate change is often framed as a scientific or economic or environmental issue, not often enough as an issue of human justice.”

December, 2013

The Gulf Islands Alliance asks you bring the Public Trust Doctrine into your program to fight climate change.
The Doctrine is a simple, compelling notion of justice, survival and leaving this world a livable place for our children and future generations.
It says that vital natural services, particularly clean air and water, that keep us alive also belong to us. And that governments, as trustees, have a moral and legal duty to safeguard these priceless assets.
Invoking the Doctrine — it inspired Roman Law and even the Magna Carta — has never been more important than now as we fight to reclaim our atmosphere from pollutants that will otherwise cause more and more destruction and death. Nature’s law shows no mercy; if we don’t abide by it, we will suffer its consequences. Human and environmental health march in lockstep.
Islands Trust’s unique governance system is ideally suited to embrace the Doctrine to help you preserve and protect against our greatest threat, climate change. In a recent strategic plan, you featured “the objective of minimizing the impact of climate change upon the islands (which) are particularly vulnerable to the effects of climate change.” Among threats you identified were an increased strain on social and economic systems; rising sea levels and storm surges causing saltwater intrusion of aquifers; infrastructure damage; and loss of biodiversity and habitat, cultural and historic sites. Many observers would call these just the start of the climate horrors to come. The long term cost of coping with climate change will make present fossil fuel profits — promoted in Ottawa and Victoria and elsewhere — look like pocket change by comparison.    We’re disappointed that when time itself is the most precious resource being squandered the Trust sometimes pushes aside its climate policy work.
We asked the UVic Environmental Law Clinic how trust law principles may apply to Islands Trust duties and powers and bolster environmental protection of the trust area. The Trust Act seemed largely consistent with the Public Trust Doctrine. The Act employs trust language. You are all trustees. Common law dictates the “standard of care and diligence required of a trustee in administering a trust is that of a man of ordinary prudence in managing his own affairs.” You oversee a trust area. You claim to be entrusted as “the only government in Canada and, perhaps, the world, with a legislated mandate to preserve and protect a special area”. The Clinic reported to us that, although it’s unclear whether Islands Trust simply appropriates trust language or it actually adopts trust law into new areas, the Act clearly imposes a duty on trustees to act in accordance with its mandate. And this may give the Trust substantive powers beyond those of other local governments. While trusts generally are for the benefit of a person, they can serve public interest purposes. The Clinic noted that “Courts are increasingly imposing liability on trustees for environmental degradation of trust property… The general public may also be considered the beneficiary, where the government is deemed to occupy the role of trustee.”
While these facts would appear to tie Islands Trust to the Public Trust Doctrine, making a legal case for it would be long and complicated. Our case is not legal or complicated; it’s about doing what’s moral. The Doctrine says government officials are trustees there solely to protect the public’s common property and restore it if and when it’s damaged. It’s everyone’s right, not a privilege that waits on legislators to grant or not. It trumps any contrary discretion claimed by a crown or state. In a groundbreaking decision last year, a Texas judge ruled the sky belongs to everyone. It’s a public trust.
Islands Trust can’t save the world against climate change. Such a catastrophic threat can only be subdued by a response of equal or greater strength. Our point is that you can’t even save the Trust Area if climate change isn’t defeated. Adopting the Doctrine, first as a refreshing, hopeful attitude — and then, say, by incorporating it in your Policy Statement or declaring your jurisdiction a ‘public trust’ area — will advance the stature and influence of Islands Trust as a model and advocate of public trust on our islands and beyond. Time has run out on old, failed solutions.
This presentation is too brief to represent the rich history and promise of the Public Trust Doctrine, one we plan to share with islanders in coming months.

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.