I grant that people have bigger things on their minds today – amid Japanese tsunamis and nuclear meltdowns – than a video about farmland in BC. Nevertheless, I feel it important to comment on a recent incident that raises real concerns for me as an environmental filmmaker about public processes and free speech in BC.
A couple of weeks ago I attended the opening evening of Delta Council’s hearings on updating the Tsawwassen Area Plan (Tsawwassen being one of three communities that make up the municipality of Delta) and a proposal to return the Southlands property to the Agricultural Land Reserve. The Southlands is a 500 acre parcel of farmland in Tsawwassen that has been the subject of intense debate for years. Over the past three decades, successive owners have pushed to build thousands of homes there against the will of the majority of the community, which would prefer to see it preserved for agricultural use and as habitat for the millions of migratory birds who pass through Delta every year on the Pacific Flyway.
I had just produced a short documentary (scroll down to see) with the support of a number of Tsawwassen citizens examining the Southlands issue in the context of our region’s mounting food security crisis (we produce less than half our own food in BC today and many readers will have seen recent headlines about dramatically rising food prices). We wanted to screen the film at the hearing and formally submit it to council along with other written submissions.
I arrived with several of these citizens hours before the event to speak to municipal staff about playing the film. We connected with the technical team and provided the film in a format that suited them – we tested it and it was all queued up to play during the hearing. Two of us also signed up to speak in succession early on in the hearing – our intention was to allocate our respective five minute slots to playing 10 minutes of the film. What ensued that evening and in the following days would have been comical if it didn’t raise some serious questions about our ability to plan a sustainable future for the region and province.
When my five minutes came about, I began to introduce the film – amidst considerable heckling from audience members supporting Southlands owner Century Group’s plans to build 1,900 homes on the property. Council then spent close to 10 minutes debating whether a 10 minute film could be played, eventually deciding to allow just the first five minutes.
The question of whether a video can be submitted in lieu of standard oral comments was a subject of heated debate amongst council. The municipality’s chief administrative officer George Harvie suggested it was unfair to those who supported the development as they didn’t have time to prepare their own video (we spent 6 months preparing ours – apparently the developer lacked our foresight). The idea that a developer who has clearly spent large sums of money promoting and lobbying for a billion dollar housing development could be outmatched by a citizen video is of course laughable. And council eventually backed down when a member of our group pointed out that the developer had been allowed at past hearings to make audio-visual presentations. So we played five minutes of the film – after which the world, remarkably, appeared to be turning as usual.
It was the following night, during round two of the hearing, that things got downright bizarre. In my absence, one of our group attempted to submit the second half of the film to the proceedings. Not only were they denied that request, but Delta Mayor Lois Jackson informed the audience the film would not be allowed even as a submission to be viewed by council outside of the public meetings. Having said the night before they would watch the full film on their own time, they had now changed their minds.
According to the Delta Optimist, “Jackson read a statement noting council had received legal advice from municipal solicitor Greg Vanstone, who said the remainder of the video should not be viewed by council ‘due to potentially defamatory or inaccurate statements.'” What were these statements? Council couldn’t know because, after all, they hadn’t seen them. We were directed to ask Mr. Vanstone just what these allegedly inaccurate and defamatory statements were – but he told us he couldn’t divulge specifics on account of attorney-client privilege.
So council impugned my name and work through spurious innuendo. But they went even further than that. Mayor Jackson added, “I would request that anyone who wishes to display another video immediately provide a copy to Mr. (George) Harvie so that it may be reviewed by our solicitor to ensure that it is appropriate for display.” So from now on, anyone who wants to present a video to council must gain prior approval from bureaucrats.
As a filmmaker concerned with environmental and public policy issues in BC, this incident raises a couple of important questions:
- Why should a video be treated any differently than a verbal or written submission? In this day and age, people increasingly turn to video to express themselves, mainly because it’s such an effective communication medium. I suggested this to Delta Council – that a lot of time, energy, and resources went into creating a film that clearly and concisely expressed the way a group of citizens and experts feel about this issue. We’re proud of what we created and hoped it could help inform council’s deliberations on this important matter.
- Does pre-screening a video not open the door to doing the same for other types of submissions? And why should any submissions or comments be vetted prior to a public hearing? The implication from council’s position is that they could somehow be liable for comments made in a public forum – which is pure hogwash. If someone stands up to the microphone and slanders a company or an individual, is council liable? Of course not. How is a video any different?
Public processes should be engineered with one main purpose in mind: maximizing citizens’ opportunity to express their concerns to governments and regulatory bodies. Everything should be oriented toward that goal – and creative expression and modern technology should be encouraged if they help further it. Instead, what we often find – whether it’s a rubber stamp environmental assessment meeting to do with a private power project or municipal hearings like this one in Delta – is an adversarial environment geared towards controlling, obstructing and restraining public expression at every turn.
At the end of the day, it’s simply foolish for council to attempt to hold back a film like this. Within days of the debacle at the hearing, we had it on youtube. And of course, the implied allegations made by council have proven to be a bunch of baloney. All we did is present an accurate assessment of BC’s food security challenges and a positive vision for the Southlands property within that context.
What worries me is that this is far from the first time this situation has arisen at a public hearing in BC. Filmmaker Susan Smitten’s film “Blue Gold” was met with fierce opposition from Taseko Mines at the federal review panel hearings on the proposed Prosperity Mine. After much wrangling, the film was finally played. And the controversy only heightened the focus on the film – just as happened recently with the Southlands hearing. Inasmuch as free speech is integral to good public policy, we can’t allow processes that limit this essential Charter right.
When they do, there’s always youtube.