Last week, I lost one of my most prolific First Nations teachers of 30 years, Mickey Cook. He taught me, and thousands of others, “to thine own self be true”. I would not be living up to that personal standard if I did not speak out at this time.
Mickey used to say “when you walk outside and the wind blows in your face that is the Creator talking to you”. The wind has blown in my face too many days without putting pen to paper.
There are many people living in the District of Saanich who greatly value the unique ecosystem we are fortunate to live in, and rightfully so! Saanich is a biodiversity hotspot, located in the imperiled Coastal Douglas-fir biogeoclimatic zone. It is graced with the most temperate climate in the country and hosts rare ecosystems like Garry oak meadows.
However, since 2018 when environmental development permit areas (EDPAs) were rescinded in Saanich, sensitive ecosystems once afforded special oversight, have been left without protection. This was due to a small, but vocally persistent minority. The most recent vote on Saanich’s People, Pets, and Parks Strategy, which resulted in a softening of proposed bylaws to keep dogs leashed in certain ecologically sensitive parks demonstrates the same lack of political courage from current council members. It seems that environmental health is trumped by the mental health of dogs.
Although Council made a Climate Emergency Declaration in 2019, signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) with the W̱SÁNEĆ Leadership Council (WLC) in 2021, and committed to uphold global biodiversity targets in 2022, their actions speak louder than these words. At present there are poor (if they even exist) sensitive ecosystem or site specific protections and riparian setbacks. There are few (if any) strong and enforceable environmentally-focused bylaws.
Further, Saanich’s Environmental Services Department has been gutted and absorbed into Parks, Recreation, and Community Services; the Biodiversity Conservation Strategy is incomplete; and the Urban Forest Strategy has yet to be implemented. Together, these shortcomings demonstrate that elected leaders are not being led by law, science, reconciliation, or best practices but something else. Something with the power to sway us.
Saanich Council’s most recent vote is just another signal of their divestment from environmental responsibility.
In 2023, development is at the top of the local agenda, forced along by provincial housing targets without transparency, public participation, or consent. This is especially concerning when, to my knowledge, no free, prior and informed consent has been granted from local First Nations, despite our MOU with the WLC and a legal requirement to align with the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples Act. Our municipal democracy is in freefall.
Helping to push it off the edge are narratives from Homes for Living, (Homes for Living is a registered third-party sponsor with Elections BC in the 2022 election and a registered non-profit) that chose and funded a slate of candidates based on surveys with carefully crafted questions that in my opinion, presupposed votes, narratives and outcomes in local elections. Representatives from this group now hold a majority on Saanich Council. One of their goals is not to supply affordable, but rather “attainable” housing. That this supply will create more affordable housing is a myth that can be debunked by simply looking across the Salish Sea to Vancouver, one of the most expensive places to live in the country despite a strong commitment to increasing housing supply.
Housing has become the province’s raison d’etre, eclipsing healthcare and emergency response, infrastructure renewal, climate change action and a biodiversity crisis. Local systems are not sufficiently equipped to support this influx. When regular people cannot find a doctor, emergency rooms are filled to the brim and mental health treatment centres are at capacity, how can we welcome more people into the District?
This is just one example of the limited capacity of our human-built systems, to say nothing of the carrying capacity of the natural world. Scientific and legal compliance are not NIMBYism.
This is not to say housing is not needed. A safe, secure place to live is every person’s right. But there are speculators and developers who have been taking advantage of the current situation, shamelessly profiteering and hijacking the greater community good on these unceded lands. Homes for Living and its new Homes for People action plan will create increased density by upzoning and blanket zoning. Without any adequate environmental protection policies or plans in place and absent public participation, this new trajectory for Saanich has left me uneasy as a municipal councillor.