Damien Gillis discusses the resistance to the Enbridge pipeline, the recent “Keepers of the Water” conference in Fort Nelson, BC, and the increasing impacts on water, human and animal health from natural gas hydraulic fracking with CJSF’s Sylvia Richardson. The pair also touch on Damien’s documentary film project Fractured Land, currently in production, which examines these issues and the concept of “Canada’s Carbon Corridor” – an interconnected web of fossil fuel and mining projects throughout northern Alberta and BC, designed to open up new markets in Asia – told through the eyes of a young First Nations law student. (Oct. 6 – 20 min)
The Tsilhqot’in First Nations and their supporters have been at the BC Supreme Court this week, fighting for an injunction to keep Taseko Mines from commencing work on the controversial proposed Prosperity Mine – amid Tsilhqot’in traditional territory, southwest of Williams Lake. While the Harper Government recently agreed to examine a new version of the mine it already rejected last year, the BC Government has pushed ahead, granting the company permits to begin work. The result is an accelerating stand-off between First Nations, Taseko and the Clark Government – highlighted at this rally outside the courthouse on Monday.
Two items came across my desk yesterday that, taken together, illustrate just how embarrassingly backward our BC Liberal government is when it comes to matters of the environment.
One was a transcript from the BC Legislature, wherein NDP Fisheries Critic Michael Sather’s concerns about the discovery of a deadly European strain of Infectious Salmon Anemia virus (ISAv) in wild BC sockeye are egregiously downplayed by his Liberal counterpart, Agriculture Minister Don MacRae. The other was a story in the Seattle Times, documenting the calls for emergency action from 3 high profile US Senators in neighbouring Alaska and Washington State over the very same issue.
Here’s what Washington’s Democratic Senator Maria Cantwell had to say: “We need to act now to protect the Pacific Northwest’s coastal economy and jobs. Infectious salmon anemia could pose a serious threat to Pacific Northwest wild salmon and the thousands of Washington state jobs that rely on them. We have to get a coordinated game plan in place to protect our salmon and stop the spread of this deadly virus.”
Now here’s a transcript of what transpired in the BC Legislature on the same day US lawmakers were sounding the alarm – I’m including a significant chunk of this exchange because it so perfectly illustrates how out of touch this BC Liberal Government continues to be on the salmon farming issue, among many others:
M. Sather (NDP Fisheries Critic): The infectious salmon anemia virus has been discovered in wild salmon in Rivers Inlet. This is a potentially devastating disease that hasn’t been reported before in the North Pacific. The Chilean farming industry was devastated by this same virus: $2 billion in losses, production cut by half and 26,000 people laid off.
We have a lot more to be concerned about here in British Columbia as well. We have our world-renowned sport-fishing industry, our commercial industry and our First Nations food fishery.
Now, Dr. James Winton, who leads the fish health research group at the Western Fisheries Research Center in Seattle, called this outbreak a “disease emergency.” My question to the Minister of Agriculture is: does he agree with the assessment of Dr. Winton?
Hon. D. McRae (BC Liberal Agriculture Minister): Well, we’ve got another example of spinning media headlines and fearmongering from the opposition.
The reality is this. The lab results were sent to PEI. They were not following protocol when, instead of actually contacting CFIA, they went directly to SFU, which in turn went to the media.
When CFIA then, in turn, said, “We’d like to do our test samples,” and said, “We’d like to test the fish,” well, unfortunately, I’m advised that the tested-positive results at the PEI lab were destroyed, and therefore, not available to CFIA….
….M. Sather: Well, in my time in this House that has got to be one of the worst answers I have ever heard. The minister is really making a mistake in going this route.
Those fish were tested by the World Organisation for Animal Health. Now, if the minister wants to quibble with the worldwide body that’s responsible for fish health, go ahead — fill your boots — but you’re making a big mistake. And you’re making a big mistake about not taking what’s happening to our fish, our wild fish, our salmon farm fish in this province…You’re not taking it seriously, Minister, and you ought to be ashamed and apologize right now.
Mr. Sather is right. Dr. Fred Kibenge, who did the testing, is a man of peerless credibility on this matter. Out of the Atlantic Veterinary College at the University of PEI, he runs one of only two labs in the world approved by the OIE (the world animal health organization) to report ISAv. It is his lab that diagnosed and reported the Chilean outrbreak of ISAv several years ago. Mr. Sather is correct to suggest that questioning Dr. Kibenge’s credentials is a dead end for those who are foolish enough to pursue it.
As to Mr. MacRae’s other insinuations, I interviewed salmon biologist Alexandra Morton – who has been working with Professor Rick Routledge of SFU, who collected and forwarded the samples – by phone this morning and here’s what she told me about the testing procedure:
This past Spring, Prof. Routledge, concerned about low numbers of out-migrating smolts in the area of Rivers Inlet, collected 199 smolt samples to be tested at a later date. He had no idea at the time some of these fish would come back positive for ISAv.
The fish were stored in a freezer through the summer. In October the hearts of 48 of these fish were removed by Prof. Routledge’s assistant and sent directly to Dr. Kibenge’s lab (each test costs upwards of $40 and this is an operation with little to no funds, so only a quarter of the fish were tested). Under these circumstances, the heart was the most reliable piece of tissue on which to perform the testing.
Now, these are very small fish with very small hearts, so Dr. Kibenge used up all the tissue in the testing process. This contradicts what the BC Liberal Agriculture Minister alleged yesterday – that the samples were “destroyed”, which implies a cover-up of some nature. That’s simply not the case. As soon as the test results were confirmed, Dr. Kibenge alerted the CFIA (Canadian Food Inspection Agency), as per his legal responsibility.
Furthermore, earlier this week, officials from the CFIA showed up at Prof. Routledge’s SFU lab and confiscated the remaining 151 untested fish from the lab’s freezer. We can only assume they now have these fish in their possession, hearts and all.
All Prof. Routledge appears to have done is collected fish samples, where neither senior level of government would, and forwarded them to the top expert in North America for testing – which, in turn, revealed the devastating fact that a European strain of the deadly ISAv in now infecting BC’s wild sockeye.
Those are the facts.
Here are some more facts that shed light on the Province’s defensiveness. It is the BC Government that has been responsible for auditing fish health on salmon farms, up until the transfer of aquaculture jurisdiction to the federal government in January of this year. Incidentally, there is no evidence of any auditing process by any government body since April 2010 – when the fish farmers told the Province they no longer “required” its services (i.e., “Go away.”) And because fish health auditing is not a licensing requirement for the farms, they got away with it.
One man, Dr. Gary Marty, was responsible for the autopsies of fish from the farms in BC. The only person he ever showed his results to was Dr. Mark Sheppard, formerly of the Province as well. It was Sheppard who acted as the buffer between the raw data and what other government bodies and the public got to see.
The point is that much of what we’re discussing here is on the BC Government’s watch – which, like I say, may help explain their appalling defensiveness on the ISAv matter.
One other note, the person responsible for testing wild fish health in BC, Dr. Christine MacWilliams, asserted recently at the Cohen Commission on collapsing Fraser River sockeye, that if ISAv ever did show up in BC, it would be coming from fish farms – not from the wild. The fact that this is most definitely a European strain of ISAv should remove all doubt that this disease now hitting BC’s wild salmon comes from the fish farm industry.
What is gauling in the BC Agriculture Minister’s response to this crisis is his government’s utter disregard for the Precautionary Principle. US lawmakers are correct in their response – it’s time to go into emergency mode, not to bicker about testing protocols and worry about butt-covering.
Alexandra Morton is now calling for Dr. Kibenge to be provided the resources to come out to BC and set up an emergency lab on Vancouver Island to begin testing all species of wild and farmed salmon, as well as herring.
That’s a sound recommendation which both federal and provincial governments would do well to adopt post haste.
This is no longer a matter to leave to our backward, incompetent, self-interested BC Liberal Government. This is an international issue of grave import, as our neighbours to the south and north are reminding us. We have a duty to work with them to address this matter with the utmost sense of urgency.
As Michael Sather said, unlike the devastation of Chile by ISAv – which I personally documented in 2009 in my film “Farrmed Salmon Exposed” (Chile chapter begins at 2 min mark) – we have much more than the destruction of the aquaculture industry to worry about. This is about our wild salmon, which my colleague Rafe Mair aptly refers to as “the soul of our province.”
On the eve of municipal elections, Delta Council has unanimously voted to begin amending its Official Community Plan, paving the way for a highly controversial housing development by Century Group atop the Southlands (aka Spetifore Farm). The October 17 decision could override a recent lengthy public consultation process that rejected changes to the Tsawwassen Area Plan (one of three communities that constitute Delta) to rezone the property for development.
“Given the two years and hundreds of thousands of taxpayers’ dollars spent on updating the Tsawwassen Area Plan, I am extremely disappointed that Mayor and Council are proceeding with this application,” said Dana Maslovat of Southlands the Facts, a community group fighting to save the farmland.
“The public has clearly indicated their wishes to keep this land agricultural and it makes me wonder why all that time and money was spent to update our Area Plan if it is to be changed almost immediately. Furthermore, they are proceeding with a change to the Official Community Plan without a specific development proposal which is basically akin to giving the developer a blank cheque.”
The 500-plus acre parcel of land in Tsawwassen’s Boundary Bay was removed from the ALR by a 1981 order in council – at the urging of several ruling Scored MLAs who were interested in developing the property at the time. The order overruled the Agricultural Land Commission, which opposed the property’s development, based on its high soil quality – yet the Southlands has remained protected by its municipal agricultural zoning.
Despite numerous polls and meetings over the past several decades that have consistently demonstrated the community’s overwhelming opposition to rezoning the Southlans for development, Delta Council is now poised to override the Tsawwassen Area Plan and push ahead with the unpopular proposal from Century Group that could see between 1,000 and 2,000 homes on the property.
There will be some form of public consultation before the amendment to the Delta OCP is ratified, which sets the stage for yet another round of heated criticism of the plan. According to Maslovat, “A proposed timeline would involve public information meetings early in 2012 with a possible Public Hearing in the spring. The OCP designation change application was submitted without a specific development plan application, which would involve a separate process and Public Hearing.”
It remains to be seen what political fallout will arise from the decision, which comes just one month prior to municipal elections.
Watch this recent documentary by Damien Gillis on the battle over the Southlands
I attended a fair amount of the recent aquaculture and diseases hearings at the Cohen Commission into disappearing Fraser River sockeye – and like most of the Inquiry’s observers and participants I spoke to, I had a mixed reaction to what I saw.
I shared the consternation of many in attendance at the continued obfuscation from the scientists and managers of DFO, the Province and the aquaculture industry on the stand. Yet, I also believe the Cohen Commission will prove, in the fullness of time, a worthy exercise. Not necessarily because of whatever official recommendations eventually come forth from Justice Cohen, but because of the Inquiry’s many ancillary benefits.
There was a palpable undercurrent of frustration that ran through the Commission gallery during the two and a half weeks that diseases and aquaculture were under the microscope. Whatever sense I had personally had from documenting the salmon farming industry and its close-knit relationship with government regulators over the past several years, the reality revealed at the Inquiry was worse than I’d ever imagined.
There was the revolving door between the industry and government – on full display. Scientists changing their stories on years of published research, seemingly wherever it might have helped the work of Dr. Kristi Miller on a mysterious virus that may well be the “smoking gun” for our collapsing sockeye stocks. There was of course the “muzzling” of Miller (who was accompanied at all times throughout her appearance at the Inquiry by government bodyguards) from the highest echelon of government.
There was the revelation that government managers and industry lobbyists routinely use tax dollars to perform PR damage control with US retailers who’ve recently been visited by conservationists concerned about fish farms.
We saw industry and government lawyers doing everything they could to keep important data from the public. Then we witnessed them submit Alexandra Morton to hours of ad hominem attacks in a failed effort to smear her character and professional conduct on the stand…All of these tactics were fully evident to the public in attendance and elicited a fair share of well-warranted eye-rolling, grumbling, and even the occasional raucous moment (as raucous as you get in a generally tedious federal judicial inquiry where as much time seemed to be spent on procedure as the questioning of key witnesses).
So yes, it was a frustrating and at times disappointing process for those hoping to see the swift hand of justice at work (and efficient use of $25 million in tax dollars).
Moreover, doubters question what Justice Cohen will actually do with all he’s seen throughout the year-long Inquiry. Many observers and participants I’ve spoken to don’t have high hopes for a list of decisive measures that would adequately deal with the aquaculture industry and put our Fraser sockeye on a reliable path to recovery.
For instance, Justice Cohen won’t likely recommend the removal of all salmon farms from wild salmon migration routes. Nor would I envision any seismic regulatory changes at DFO.
However, there are some important recommendations the Commissioner could foreseeably make, points that were emphasized throughout much of the testimony he heard.
Before I list these, I want to be clear that there is much more to saving our wild salmon than dealing with fish farms. The lengthy Inquiry spent just two and a half weeks on diseases and aquaculture – short shrift for an area of such high public interest (the only days the Commission was literally packed with people). But an awful lot of data and other revealing information came forth in that short period and it was the only session that produced a suggestion of a “smoking gun” – one major possible cause of the Fraser sockeye’s startling decline. (see our previous reports on the Cohen Commission for a detailed discussion of these revelations).
The Commissioner will likely and should indeed make broad recommendations about DFO and government policy; he should also address issues like forestry practices, mining, hydroelectric projects, agricultural run-off and industrial pollution, transportation infrastructure and construction over critical habitat, the growing threat of impacts from oil and gas, climate change, ocean and river temperatures, feed and other ocean conditions, and, of course, harvest.
Clearly, as the Commission often heard, the health of wild salmon likely depends on a complex balance of all of these factors. But I concur with Commission panelist Catherine Stewart from Living Oceans Society, who said that her concern is for the factors we can control – the things we can do something about now.
So my interest here is what recommendations, broad and specific, can and should be made concerning aquaculture and diseases in the Inquiry’s Final Report. Here, then, are a few conclusions Justice Cohen may draw – each of which would be enormously helpful in terms of better managing our salmon fisheries into the future:
1. Ensure the Precautionary Principle is firmly entrenched in DFO’s mandate and is respected and observed throughout all of DFO’s work (including and especially aquaculture)
2. Remove from DFO its mandate to promote aquaculture, which is in direct conflict to its constitutional obligation to protect wild fish
3. Ensure that DFO scientist Dr. Kristi Miller’s research is fully funded and free from political interference – up until and beyond its completion
4. Require independent, random, transparent disease testing of all BC salmon farms – this data should be fully and immediately available to the public through an easily accessible database.
5. Selectively remove salmon farms along critical sockeye migration routes (even as few as 5 farms in the “Wild Salmon Narrows”, amid the Discovery Islands near Campbell River, would be a big step in the right direction)
Will Justice Cohen make all the above recommendations in his final report? Not likely (particularly the last item). But it is not beyond conceivable that he will make some of them – and that would be very positive for our Fraser River sockeye and all of BC’s wild fish.
But regardless of the Final Report, the Cohen Commission has proved valuable on many other levels.
First of all, the public and media got a clear glimpse of how closely the industry and governments work together. Never again will we accord even a modicum of credibility to any of their claims of independence. They have been thoroughly outed on this front.
Another extraordinarily significant development was the release of a decade’s worth of previously secret disease data from the Province and industry. This will naturally take time to unpack – but there are already some very interesting patterns emerging from the data to those who’ve been studying it inside the Commission’s cone of silence over the past year (more on that in subsequent columns).
The publication of all this disease data was a huge win for the Conservation Coalition, Alexandra Morton, and First Nations who’ve been fighting for this for years. So far, only Justice Bruce Cohen has had the power and gravitas to compel this information onto the public record, and that has been a leap forward for those battling fish farms on our coast.
Finally, more specifically, there’s the Kristi Miller story. We’ve discussed it a great deal in these pages of late – as has the mainstream media across the country and internationally. Dr. Miller became (this may be a stretch for some – but bear with me) the Valerie Plame of the Cohen Commission: a photogenic, eloquent, brilliant scientist whose story – as filled with intrigue and subterfuge as a Robert Ludlum novel – caused all kinds of problems for her government higher-ups and changed the tone of the Inquiry.
For one thing, Dr. Miller confirmed her “muzzling” by the Harper Privy Counsel Office from speaking publicly about her groundbreaking discovery. Emails and testimony from Dr. Miller also suggested her own senior-level colleagues have worked to prevent her from extending her research to farmed fish.
But most importantly, the woman tasked by DFO to use leading-edge genomic research to get to the bottom of the sockeye mystery showed she may actually be figuring it out. Virtually no one expected a “smoking gun” – even the possibility of one – from this Inquiry. Dr. Miller was the big surprise of the whole show.
And now she needs to be funded and free to finish her work. Alexandra Morton said it best to Justice Cohen while on the stand: “The only thing I want you to take from this is that Dr. Miller needs to be able to do her work – someone who is an expert in disease needs to be free to look at this.”
My ultimate judgement of the Commissioner may hang on how he deals with this very matter. And I’m optimistic he will do the right thing here. While his recommendations won’t be technically binding, they will carry enormous weight politically and in the arena of public opinion – which would go a long way to ensuring Dr. Miller’s work carries on as it must.
Could the Cohen Commission have proceeded differently – in a way that didn’t rush participants’ counsel through the questioning of key witnesses so briskly, that contained more independent scientists and less government-industry butt-covering, that made public access to information a top priority? Absolutely.
And yet, when someone asks me whether I think the Cohen Commission was a waste of time and taxpayers’ money, I say an emphatic, “No.”
Cohen was a pebble (maybe even a decent sized rock) tossed in the pond; its effects will ripple out for years to come. In the very least it has reinvigorated the aquaculture debate, drawn more media attention to the issue, and provided the public, conservation community and First Nations with sorely needed answers – as well as vital new questions – to propel their work forward.
Now they all need to keep up the pressure as we await the Commissioner’s Final Report next June – which, of course, will be far from the final chapter in the Cohen story.
A number of citizens and organizations – including the BC Public
Interest Advocacy Centre and the Clean Energy Foundation – gathered
recently in Vancouver at the headquarters of BC Hydro to speak out
against BC Liberal government’s Billion-dollar smart meter program.
Criticism of smart meters ranges from concerns over expense to taxpayers
and ratepayers to serious health threats from electromagnetic radiation.
Here are some highlights from the event. To learn more about what you can do, see Citizens for Safe Technology’s Smart Meter Action Kit.
A proposal from Mainstream Canada – the local subsidiary of Norwegian aquaculture giant Cermaq – for a new 56-hectare open net pen salmon farm in Clayoquot Sound threatens the UNESCO Biosphere Reserve’s already hard-hit wild salmon stocks. The Common Sense Canadian posted a short film last year (scroll down to watch) on the research being conducted in Clayoquot and the compelling links it is drawing between sea lice from the 20 or so farms in the region and dwindling wild Chinook and chum stocks.
The proposal from Mainstream – which already operates 14 farms in Clayoquot – is prompting calls for a salmon farm moratorium in BC. The Coastal Alliance for Aquaculture Reform (CARR) – a coalition of provincial conservation groups – has joined the Friends of Clayoquot Sound in opposing the new farm, the first proposal of its kind since the federal government reclaimed jurisdiction over aquaculture last year.
Mainstream needs to obtain a tenure from the Province to operate on crown land and subsequent approval from DFO to build the farm. The company hopes to start stocking its new farm in 2012 – but will likely face intense opposition from the public and local and provincial environmental groups.
From The Gulf Islands Driftwood – May 5, 2011
by David Denning
Special to the Driftwood
Alexandra Morton has been making a lot of headlines recently, and hopefully also, some headway.
Her message is simple: protect wild salmon stocks in British Columbia that are under threat from many problems, including the scourge of
diseases and parasites that have accompanied salmon farming in coastal
On Sunday, May 8, Morton and two high-profile friends
of common-sense environmental action, Rafe Mair and Damien Gillis, will
speak at Fulford Hall. The multi-media program called Salt Spring,
Salmon and Sanity begins at 7 p.m.
Morton has literally walked and paddled the
length of Vancouver Island to make politicians and citizens more aware
of our threatened wild salmon. She’s taken the provincial government to
court to challenge its management of salmon farming — and won. She’s
challenged every one of the current MP candidates in B.C. to get behind
land-based salmon farming that controls fish diseases, supports jobs for
both wild salmon fishers and land-based fish farmers, and is the only
sustainable approach to salmon farming. Candidates in all but one of the
four major parties are committed to her approach. You can probably
guess which party said “no.”
Mair is a well-known radio commentator, blogger,
political and environmental activist. A former Socred MLA in the 1980s,
Mair, who held several cabinet posts, including Minister of Environment,
is well-qualified to advocate for careful management of natural
resources in B.C. for the benefit of people, not big business. Mair has
spearheaded the challenge to private hydro development on public streams
Gillis is at the leading edge of communications
about B.C. environmental issues. Using video and the web, Gillis
provides valuable insights into multiple issues, including the Enron
Pipeline, which, by creating a coastal flow of giant oil tankers,
ultimately threatens the entire coast of B.C., including Salt Spring
Mair and Gillis have teamed up with their environmental reporting website, theCanadian.org.
This presentation by Morton, Mair and Gillis will
follow the federal election by only one week. No doubt the speakers
will provide us with a clearer view of the new currents we will face as
we swim upstream to protect wild salmon, our rivers, our coastal shores
and marine wildlife, and our democracy.
Tickets for the event are $15 at Salt Spring Books. Funds raised will support the work of Morton for wild salmon conservation.
The event is sponsored by the Salt Spring Island Conservancy.
Read original article
My colleague Rafe is fond of citing a line from Canadian-born Nobel Prize-winning economist John Kenneth Galbraith in response to the theory of trickle-down economics:
“If you feed the horse enough oats, some will pass through to the road for the sparrows.”
Galbraith clearly didn’t believe in trickle-down economics – and unless you are the horse in this metaphor, neither should you.
Yet, as voters prepare to cast their ballots in a federal election, and provincial campaigning revs up in BC, the time-worn myth of trickle-down economics is being roundly deployed by right wing parties at both the provincial and federal levels.
The orange wave washing unexpectedly over the federal political landscape has forced Stephen Harper to adjust his carefully planned and tightly scripted anti-Liberal-led coalition message. The Conservative campaign’s predictable reflex has been to question the economic qualifications of the NDP. Among the primary arrows in Harper’s quiver is the trickle-down theory. Jack Layton wants to roll back corporate taxes to 2008 levels of 19.5 %, as opposed to the 16.5% they’re at now. Compared with the 15% to which Harper wants to further drop the rate, that’s a difference of up to $9 Billion a year to our federal tax coffers (this while we rack up a $50 Billion deficit under the stewardship of our fiscally prudent Conservative governors). Layton plans to spend that money on hospitals, education, and job creation for the middle class – not what Bay Street had in mind.
Of course, the Conservatives argue a 19.5% corporate tax rate would render Canada hopelessly uncompetitive in the global marketplace. Never mind the fact the United States’ corporate tax rates range as high as 35%, while Britain’s sits currently at 28%. Go figure. But Harper says taking that money away from corporations will mean less money infused into our economy. Which is where we come to the horses and sparrows.
The myth is that those extra profits will be recirculated into society through investment in plant and equipment, research and development, and expanded operations, yielding new jobs and pumping capital into the economy. But only if it doesn’t get gobbled up by increased dividends to largely foreign shareholders first. Which is mostly what really happens.
Take Exxon Mobil, for example – a major player in Canada’s Tar Sands and beneficiary of big federal and provincial subsidies. The company just posted a $10.7 BILLION QUARTERLY PROFIT – up 69% from last year. And they’re not alone – ginormous profits abound for the oil and gas industry, as for Canadian banks. And yet somehow they – ahead of every other demographic and sector in our country – deserve a tax break and other financial inducements, just to keep up the onerous burden of making billions of dollars in Canada.
As if they would pack up and go elsewhere were we to suddenly wise up and tweak the rules ever so slightly in the favour of the 99.99% of the public that doesn’t sit on the board of an oil company or earn half a million dollars a year on Bay Street. We have the oil, the gold, the copper, the electricity, the water, the trees they need to make these enormous profits. If we’re smart about how we manage our public resources, they’re not going anywhere. It’s called leverage. We have a lot of it – we just don’t use it because our corporate-aligned leaders don’t want us to.
The Trouble With Billionaires is a terrific recent book by Canadian authors Linda McQuaig and Neil Brooks – probably the best-constructed indictment of this way of thinking. In it they illustrate just how severe the gap between rich and poor has become in recent decades – levels of wealth concentration never before seen. It left me pondering whether it was even physically possible for, say, Larry Ellison, CEO of Oracle Software – worth an estimated $40 Billion personally – to spend his money faster than it accrued interest.
Imagine how many visits to Tiffany’s and the Rolls-Royce dealership, how much caviar and champagne it would take every day to spend even a fraction of that wealth. According to McQuaig and Brooks (adjusting upward for the extra $13 Billion Ellison has amassed since they published their book last year), he would need to spend about half a million dollars per hour just to get through the interest on his principal! And yet Mr. Ellison felt justified in suing several municipalities and school boards in Northern California where he owns a stately ranch, successfully recouping 3 million dollars in property taxes. How many teachers lost their jobs to pay for Mr. Ellison’s tax break? And how does one man owning and holding that much wealth help the economy – your and my economy?
Make no mistake, the same tricks will be used in BC against the NDP. Obscure the economic realities – like the fact the NDP delivered 3% job growth in BC over its decade in power through the 90’s compared to closer to 2% for the Liberals during their tenure. The Tyee’s Will McMartin has done a far better job than the NDP’s own PR people on comparing and contrasting the two parties’ real economic track records – countering the Liberal myth of their own economic superiority (trumpeted only too readily by the mainstream media in BC).
And of course, newly-minted NDP leader Adrian Dix is being framed as a hard-left “Stalinist” (the Province actually referred to him this way), especially as he talks of raising corporate taxes and getting tougher with environmental regulation.
But the bottom line is the right – and I mean the neo-liberal Milton Friedman/Fraser Institute Right to which the BC Liberals and to some extent the federal Conservatives belong – has done such a good job of inculcating this myth into the North American psyche that it can still prove an incredibly powerful tool. When honed to the extent the BC Liberals have been able to do in BC, it works without requiring a shred of supporting evidence. It’s accepted on faith – pure, unadulterated dogma.
And if it remains that way, both trickle-down economics and the parties who purvey this philosophy to the exclusive benefit of their corporate pals will keep filling their pockets – while we sparrows go hungry.
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.