Tidings of Hope

The holidays are here, and I am enjoying the deep contentment that I feel when we have all our children home at the same time.

I am looking forward to the days ahead which will bring much cooking and feasting, laughter and story-telling, and (hopefully) some precious quiet moments for rest and reflection.

We have two sons’ birthdays to celebrate in these busy December weeks, and so last night was a family birthday outing to the new Star Wars movie, Rogue One.

I have been going to Star Wars movies since I was seven years old, and while I lament the path they took in the initial reprisal of the series, I confess that I have enjoyed Episode 8 and this latest backstory.

Something resonates for me – particularly given the last few years we’ve had in Shawnigan – in the story of a small group of feisty rebels standing up against a heartless empire that is more concerned with power than governance.

Tonight, one line in particular stood out for me: “Rebellion is built on hope.”

Hope has been the one thing that I have refused to abandon.  Not for one moment have I given up hope in the outcome that we have been fighting for so hard in Shawnigan.  My hope is deeply entwined with my belief that every effort that each of us make leads us toward the inevitable conclusion of this story: that the permit will be revoked.

Last year at this time, we were mounting our own rebellion as a community – a rebellion against what has felt like a heartless government more concerned with a company’s good fortune than a community’s future.

The final outcome of our rebellion has not yet been achieved (although it will be, eventually), but other outcomes, many of which we could not have predicted, have been.

Two stories out of Shawnigan caught my attention this week.

The first story started out on social media, on the Shawnigan Lake Events, News, Links, Community Forum facebook page.

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Within three days, a family that was facing a Christmas with very little instead is now able to enjoy a tree, a feast, gifts, and provisions.

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This captures so completely the spirit of this season – generosity, kindness, compassion, community.

And the second story from Shawnigan also embodies all of these, but extends much further.  CBC National News featured an account of a Shawnigan resident, Jennifer Gwilliam, who is using social media to help families in Canada’s north.  Her facebook page, Helping our Northern Neighbours, connects families here with those in communities up north who face incredibly high costs for food and necessities.  Jennifer acknowledges that long-term solutions are being worked on, but that in the meantime, families in the north need support and help right now.  Her story is both moving and motivating, and it shows that one person can make an enormous difference in the lives of many.

It almost makes me think there must be something very special in the water in Shawnigan.

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Photo credit: Laura Colpitts

Over the last few months, I have been contacted by people across the country who have told me that they would like to move here, partly because of the beauty, location, and climate, but also because of what they have seen of our community.  Others who have stopped in or spent a little time in Shawnigan have told me that they come away longing to be part of this place.  One resident of Victoria had stopped in at Shawnigan House and ordered a coffee, then realized that she’d forgotten her wallet in her car.  In the minute or two it took for her to get back to the counter, somebody in the café had paid for her drink.  “I want to live in Shawnigan,” she told me.  “I want to live in a place with that kind of community.”

At one point this last year, after we’d received bad news on the watershed front, a friend said to me, “hope is like putting your heart in a lion’s mouth.”

Her words struck me deeply at the time, as I did feel pain in my heart as we navigated through yet another disappointment.  But even through the pain, my hope has been – and will remain – relentless.

We were hoping for news from Justice Sewell, and we were hoping for a swift response from the Ministry of Environment.  We have not yet received either, but we have learned that our hope must be not only anchored in belief, but also wrapped in patience.

My hope for all this season is some peace, some joy, some rest.  I know that it can be a difficult time for many, but I also see so much compassion, generosity, and kindness – and for this, I am grateful.

Thank you to the people who step up and find ways to make things better, who light a single candle rather than curse the darkness.

You give me hope.

 

 

Reflections on a Busy Week

Some weeks, my calendar tells a story in a snapshot.  This has been one of those weeks.

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The week began with two very different approaches to bringing about change.  I spent much of Monday at the Forest Hydrology Workshop, which was put on by the Cowichan Watershed Board.  We heard from experts on climate, hydrology, and forestry practices, and engaged in an abundance of solution-oriented discussion around how to ensure a balance between forestry and long-term protection of watersheds.

From there, I went to Victoria to attend a vigil against the proposed Kinder Morgan expansion.  Hundreds of citizens came together to peacefully convey the message that the conditions we face in the world today necessitate a transition away from fossil fuels, and that the expansion of the Kinder Morgan pipeline is a step in the wrong direction. Expanding Kinder Morgan not only poses a serious risk to the coast and the coastal wildlife populations, it contributes to an increase in greenhouse gas emissions at a time when we need to be investing in renewable energy alternatives and dramatically reducing our fossil fuel emissions.

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While it is daunting to realize that we are facing extraordinary challenges, I am filled with hope and optimism to see the willingness of so many people to tackle these issues in a variety of ways, whether through informing ourselves of the most recent science on watersheds or sending a message to our government – what’s clear is that people are invested in having a say in the future of our province and our planet.

On Tuesday, Blaise attended the climate change discussion at CVRD while I prepared for an interview with Global TV about the recent changes the Ministry of Environment has made to the Contaminated Sites Regulations – changes that have included some decreases in allowable levels of contaminants, but also some extraordinary increases in other levels.  These changes have raised concerns not only among local governments, particularly in rural areas, but also among scientists and environmental advocates.

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Photo by Laura Colpitts

While my interview didn’t make it to the 2-minute news clip, I was most pleased that our local scientist Bernhard Juurlink was a part of the piece.  Bernie has broken down some of the increases that have been brought in with the new regulations.

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I have called on the Ministry of Environment to provide independent, peer-reviewed science that justifies these increases in allowable levels.  At a time when we know that toxins have infiltrated our ecosystems and are showing up in our bodies, it seems hard to understand why a government would want to raise levels of contaminants, and it begs the question of whether or not we are seeing a similar situation to the one in the US where industry lobbying has resulted in increased allowable limits of chromium-6. A recent report from Environmental Working Group revealed that over 200 million Americans have unsafe levels of chromium-6 in their drinking water.

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Ultimately, we need government to recognize that it has a duty to ensure the long-term protection of the citizens of BC and the ecosystems that we rely on for our survival.

Wednesday was a series of back-to-back meetings at the CVRD – ranging from conversations with MoTI about plans for Shawnigan’s roads in 2017 to meeting with stakeholders to discuss the potential of tourist accommodation in Shawnigan (I will share more on this possibility in the coming weeks), to learning about the next proposed steps for a South Sector Liquid Waste Management Plan.  We also had three CVRD meetings – Special Board meeting, Regional Engineering Services, and Regional Services – during which we discussed matters that included invasive species, solid waste disposal, economic development, airshed protection, and the Trans-Canada Trail.

Thursday and Friday were set aside for CVRD budget meetings.  We’re back in budget season at CVRD (the year’s second – the first budget season is in late summer), which means that the Directors need to approve each one of the budgets for CVRD’s 176 service functions.  Some of these functions are relatively straightforward, while others – solid waste, for example – are large and complex budgets that encompass a variety of activities.

It is one of the most challenging parts of the job, to try to find a balance between the vision of the Board, the recommendations of the staff, the desires of our communities, and the very real need to ensure that citizens are not subject to overly burdensome tax increases.  One of the factors exacerbating this challenge is the ‘downloading’ from higher levels of government.  Tax cuts at provincial and federal levels can often translate to local governments being put into a position of trying to fill in the gaps created when cuts are made to services that impact the lives of people in our communities.  Local governments are also increasingly bearing the economic brunt of climate change.  In the Cowichan, we’re having to deal with flooding as well as drought, and we’re also taking very seriously the need to assess our water supplies and the potential threats they face.  In Vancouver, the city is planning a long-term strategy for mitigating impacts from climate change, and recognizing that the costs will be significant – one recent news story outlines some of these challenges.

We have four full days set aside for budget discussions, and we have agreed to add another to review the overall impact and look for ways to try to reduce the requisition while ensuring that we are maintaining important services.

Thursday and Friday evenings brought opportunities to embrace the festive season.  We attended the very rainy Ladysmith Light Up on Thursday evening, and then the much less damp festivities in Duncan on Friday evening.  Both events were incredibly well attended and very enjoyable.

I am very much looking forward to the Shawnigan Village light up on Sunday December 4th from 3:30 – 6:30.

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In amongst all the meetings and festivities last week, there were dozens of phone calls dealing with everything from the Elsie Miles revitalization to Ministry of Transportation plans and issues.  There are also hundreds of emails, many of which need follow-up; everything from ongoing concerns with what is happening at the contaminated landfill to appointing a new commission member.  I also needed to write an article for a local publication, do a live interview on CFAX on Thrusday and a recorded interview with Juice FM on Friday about the changes to Contaminated Sites Regulations, making the case that the province needs to create a proper plan for the contaminated soil that protects the water and soil of all communities, rather than creating unnecessary risks, particularly in rural areas.

On Saturday, it was lovely to attend the Shawnigan Lake Craft Fair and to see the incredible array of local businesses offering extraordinary and exceptional items.  We are truly an entrepreneurial community, and I am always amazed at the talent and innovation we have right here in our own neighbourhood.

 

So what are my reflections at the end of this busy week?

I am grateful to have the support of my husband, and I am also grateful for my Alternate Director Sierra Acton, who helps out in many ways and took on the task of organizing the annual CVRD Volunteer Appreciation Dinner.  I am also incredibly grateful for the support and kindness of so many in the community who help out in many, many ways (particularly the good fairy of coffee, who keeps me appropriately caffeinated, and the many good food fairies who are helping enormously).  My friends keep me laughing and feeling cared for, and my kids bring me joy.

With the many busy days in a row, I found myself truly enjoying and being present for quiet moments with family, hearing about the kids’ days at school or enjoying a meal together.  And while it can at times seems like there are a lot of balls in the air – and a lot of items on my to-do list – I feel fortunate and grateful to be doing work that serves the community and provides me with a true sense of purpose.

The Beloved Community

It’s late at night on Easter Monday. It has been remarkable these last few days to see white blossoms on the plum trees, fat pink buds on the grape vines, and to bring in bright yellow daffodils from the garden. Life is bursting forth everywhere, which of course makes it the ideal time to reflect on the themes of renewal and rebirth.

Consider this: in the long, hard saga that our community has been through, three times pivotal moments have occurred right around Easter.

The week before Easter 2013: Ministry of Environment released SIA/CHH’s draft permit.

Two weeks before Easter 2015: Environmental Appeal Board (EAB) released its decision to uphold SIA/CHH’s permit.

The week before Easter 2016: BC Supreme Court ruled that CHH’s landfill is not a permitted use on the Stebbings Rd property.

(Not to read too much into the Easter theme, isn’t it interesting that on the third year, the Shawnigan community has experienced its own rebirth and renewal?)

For so many of us in Shawnigan, this last year has been one of the hardest years of our lives. Last spring, with the decision of the EAB to uphold SIA/CHH’s permit to dump 100,000 tonnes of contaminated soil each year for 50 years in our watershed, felt like a kind of death for our community.

Hopes, visions, and dreams, which had been steadily building in Shawnigan, were set aside as the community galvanized itself around a single, unwavering goal: to have the permit overturned and to have our watershed protected from the risk posed by 5 million tonnes of contaminated soil left in it for perpetuity.

Three avenues of effort were embarked on simultaneously.

Firstly, the CVRD moved forward with its zoning bylaw case, which was filed in BC Supreme Court shortly after SIA/CHH announced that it was “open for business and accepting contaminated soil” – as this meant that the company was indeed in contravention of the CVRD’s zoning bylaw.

Secondly, the legal team representing the Shawnigan Residents Association moved forward with filing an application for a Judicial Review of the EAB decision. The application filed in May presented evidence to support the SRA’s argument that the EAB decision was “substantively unreasonable.” Bolstering SRA’s argument was the document that emerged in July 2015 that appears to show a 50-50 profit sharing agreement between SIA/CHH and their qualified professionals, Active Earth Engineering.

Thirdly, and in my opinion, most importantly, the people of Shawnigan came together and galvanized into a highly determined, effective, committed, capable, and passionate community. Have no doubt – the tireless work of the Shawnigan community has been incredibly valuable on so many levels. The people of Shawnigan have demonstrated what needs to be done in the face of a failure of democracy, a failure of process, a failure of a government agency to look effectively at science, facts, and authentic concerns. The people of Shawnigan have demonstrated the importance of active engagement in standing up for a future that we want to create, rather than accepting a future forced on our community by one company.

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And the people of Shawnigan have shown that some issues transcend all political boundaries. Shawnigan has invited and worked with an incredible number of allies. In a province that has its share of political divides, consider this: people of all political stripes have joined and supported Shawnigan’s efforts.

During the 2013 provincial election campaign, the four Cowichan candidates – Steve Housser, Kerry Davis, Bill Routley, and Damir Wallener all agreed on one thing: that Shawnigan’s watershed is no place for a contaminated soil landfill. Over the past year, NDP MLA Bill Routley has stood shoulder to shoulder with Green Party MLA Andrew Weaver, and been joined by MLAs Doug Routley, Gary Holman and NDP leader John Horgan on Stebbings Rd, all standing in solidarity with the people of Shawnigan Lake.

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Bill Routley has given 25 (!) speeches in the Legislature on Shawnigan’s fight to protect our water; and both John Horgan and Andrew Weaver have asked several questions during Question Period over the last year, and repeatedly raised the issue in the media.

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Federal Green Party leader Elizabeth May, and both past and current MPs, Jean Crowder and Alistair MacGregor, have stood as allies with the people of Shawnigan Lake. During the federal election campaign, Green candidates Fran Hunt-Jinnouchi and Paul Manley, Liberal candidate Maria Manna, and NDP candidate Alistair all showed support and stood in solidarity with the Shawnigan community.  Alistair has recently taken his support right to the House of Commons, where he has introduced a private member’s bill that would protect Shawnigan Lake.

 

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(Elected officials and candidates in this photo include: Doug Routley, Elizabeth May, Fran Hunt-Jinnouchi, Paul Manley, Steve Housser, Sonia Furstenau, Kerry Davis, & Gary Holman – and there may be more that I can’t spot!)

These political allies all agreed on one thing – that the protection of a community’s water source is essential, and far more important than politics. The Shawnigan effort to protect our water has not only transcended political lines and political boundaries, it has also been an example for how we can move beyond political divisions and recognize that we can indeed all work together for the greater good.

I am deeply grateful to all who have stood with us, and I hope that we will soon be coming back together for a momentous celebration.

There are so many who deserve to be acknowledged and appreciated for the efforts they have contributed.

Those who raised the alarm at the very beginning – who saw the danger coming and wanted to stop it in its tracks. SRA President Calvin Cook and the SRA Board members – who stepped up early as leaders and have led the community ever since. Former Area Director Bruce Fraser and the previous CVRD Board, which initiated the Supreme Court challenge and the EAB appeal. The incredibly hard-working lawyers, particularly Alyssa Bradley (CVRD) and Sean Hern (SRA) who have shown exceptional passion and commitment in their efforts. Cowichan Tribes First Nation, which has supported Shawnigan from the beginning, and Malahat First Nation, which came forward to support SRA’s application for a stay.  The administration, staff, and students of Shawnigan Lake School and Dwight School – both have been steadfast in their solidarity with the community.

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All the people who wrote letters and showed up to protests even before the permit was issued. The people who organized events, rallies, endless meetings, and fundraisers – and all the people who attended the events, rallies, endless meetings, and fundraisers. The small group of people – led by Shelagh – who monitored the increasing truck traffic through the summer and fall. The people who got up early through the dark, cold, wet weeks in November and December to stand on Stebbings Rd. The hundreds who attended protests, the thousands who signed petitions, and the many dozens who raised their hands to be on a “team”. The dozens who worked together night and day to bring together Helicopter Day on January 6th. The hundreds who have tirelessly raised the profile of our efforts on social media (including two amazing and prominent Canadians, Raffi and David Suzuki!).

Also deserving of recognition are the researchers, the photographers, the hikers, the video-makers, the song writers, the artists, and the people who knew just when to offer a warm drink, a nourishing snack, a kind word, or a loving embrace. There are countless heroes and heroines, and what has been remarkable is that each and every person has been willing to give themselves to something greater, and in doing so, has contributed to creating something miraculous.

It has been a long hard journey – and one that is not over yet. An important victory has been won, but the permit has not yet been revoked and the soil that has been deposited has not been ordered removed. We will be on this journey together until these outcomes have been achieved.

The company has also filed for an appeal of this decision, and for a stay of the injunction that prevents them from bringing contaminated soil onto the site. We hope and pray that the courts will not see fit to allow continued dumping, and we also await Justice Sewell’s decision on a second injunction, based on the evidence heard during the Judicial Review.

I expect that many feel – as I do – weary from having to fight so hard to try to protect our water, but nonetheless determined to stay the course, no matter what.

I also feel that it’s valuable to take some time to reflect, and to consider all that we have learned and accomplished on this four-year journey.

We have learned vigilance, determination, steadfastness, and cooperation – particularly when it comes to protecting the water that we need for our community to thrive.

We have learned how catastrophically a “process” can fail. One person – a “statutory decision maker” with no ties to our community, who never visited the site applying for the permit, who did not adhere to the guidelines of his position, and who may not have even had the authority to make the decision he did – was able nonetheless to make a decision that has impacted the lives of thousands of people. And the Minister of Environment has chosen to hide behind this person for three long years – often dismissing the serious uncertainties, concerns, and evidence of irregularities that have been steadily accumulating the entire time.

We have learned of the pitfalls embedded in the “Professional Reliance” model, introduced by the BC Liberal government as a result of now Minister of Energy and Mines Bill Bennett’s “core review”. It was this model that allowed for SIA hiring Active Earth Engineering to act as the “qualified professionals” throughout the permitting process.

We have learned how to come together, how to become highly organized, how to work together over and over again, how to never give up, no matter how tired, how exasperated, or how bullied we feel. We have supported each other, cared for each other, helped each other through difficult times, and continuously expressed the love we feel for our lake, our home, our community, and each other.

Recently, I read an interview with a long-time environmental activist Rebecca Stolnit, and her words resonated deeply:

“There’s this idea that political engagement is some sort of horrible, dutiful thing you do, like cleaning the toilet or taking out the garbage. But it can be the most fantastic thing you do. It can bring you into contact with hope, with joy, with a sense of deep connection, with what Martin Luther King called the “beloved community.” “

We have created a “beloved community” in Shawnigan.  It has made us strong, and as we continue to move through this journey, we must continue to nourish it, and to defend it from those who may want to damage it.  We must make it the one true legacy of this terrible situation that we have been forced to endure.

Let us remember, above all, to cherish and protect our beloved community.

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