Ambrose Place: Love and Decolonizing Housing, Health and Wellness

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I had an incredible experience earlier this week that I’m really excited to share. I was in a situation where I was expecting one thing and something completely different happened. In the space between expectation and experience, there was inspiration, love and great deal of learning.

I was invited by Fran Hunt-Jinnochi, Executive Director of the Aboriginal Coalition to End Homelessness, to tour Ambrose Place in Edmonton. She invited a dozen of us from Vancouver Island to join her to learn about the Indigenous-informed, culturally supportive housing site which includes a managed alcohol program. She wants to start a similar program on Vancouver Island, hopefully in the capital region, and she invited us to learn and to witness.

I was expecting a conventional facility tour and a series of PowerPoint presentations with governance models and funding charts. Instead, we began on Monday evening in circle with a local elder. He shared his songs with us and spoke for three hours about the importance of connection to one’s own spirit. “Human and spirit,” he said over again in many different ways as the sage burned and the day faded to night.

Tuesday, we learned about love and how a decolonizing approach to “harm reduction” works. Carola Cunningham, the CEO and founder of Ambrose Place said about the residents, “We just keep loving them. We’re all related.” Her staff who were there to share their experiences, echoed this. A staff member shared a story of a resident who told her that he was almost 50 years old and no one had ever told him they loved him. So now every day, at the end of their one-on-one meeting she says, “I love you.”

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Another staff member recounted her experience working at a hospital before coming to Ambrose Place. “The thing I love about working here is that we love our residents. When I worked at the hospital you weren’t allowed to love your patients. Here we are allowed to love them.” Another staff member told us that when she started working at Ambrose Place she had to get used to residents hugging her.

This tenderness, this Indigenous-centred, love-based approach continues through to end-of-life care. Ambrose Place was not originally set up for palliative care. Early on, one of the residents very close to death had gone to the hospital. He wanted to come home to die but they weren’t prepared. After he passed, Carola was determined that people should be able to die at home. And – just like much else that happens at Ambrose place – Carola made it so. “Now we do palliative care,” she said. “And we love people through to the spirit world.”

“In the regular system, at the hospital,” one of the staff members said, “when there’s a death and you cry, you’re seen as weak. Here we’re told, ‘Cry, let it out, tears are medicine.’ We accept our residents where they’re at. As staff we’re also accepted where we’re at.”

The longer people stay at Ambrose place, the more opportunity they have for sobriety, the closer their trauma comes to the surface. The residents work through their trauma in ceremony, in circle, and with an “Elders Review” – a practice where they walk through their lives chronologically with an elder and decide which parts they are ready to work on. What’s truly moving is that the trauma work doesn’t stop with the residents. Carola has created a social enterprise catering service and she uses the money to reinvest in trauma support for her staff.

Ambrose Place is remarkable. And it’s working. As it turns out, love and a decolonizing approach are saving the Alberta government a lot of money. In the first two years they were open, they saved $7 million in health care costs. Their residents have reduced their hospital days by about 90%. There has been a significant decrease in mental health and addictions emergency room visits. And this takes only health care into consideration. There’s currently a study underway to quantify the savings in policing and the justice system.

Niginan Housing Ventures, which runs Ambrose Place, has big plans for what’s next. Ninety-three percent of kids in care in Alberta are Indigenous. So Niginan is going to create a building for kids and parents together. Instead of removing the kids from their parents, they’ll remove the parents – but only to another part of the building. They’ll have “kookums” (grandmothers) and elders around to care for and love the children as well. By keeping everyone under one roof, they’ll ensure that the kids stay connected to their parents until the parents are ready to move back into a suite with their children.

A disproportionate number of people experiencing homelessness in Victoria are Indigenous. A disproportionate number of Indigenous children are in care in this country. Conventional approaches are not working to address these issues and are likely just making them worse. My key takeaway ­– and my reflection to the group in our closing circle – is that the decolonizing practices and loving ways of Ambrose Place have the power to transform the whole health and housing system, if only we are open to new ways of knowing.

 

Cecelia Ravine Playground Grand Opening and How Parks Make Healthy Cities

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All photos provided by Derek Ford of Derek Ford Studios

Last Saturday I was so happy to stand with members of the Burnside Gorge neighbourhood and city staff as we officially opened the expanded park and new playground. It’s an amazing place and it’s been a long-time coming. A park is more than just a park – it’s critically important well-being infrastructure that helps to build a healthy city.

In 2009, the City of Victoria sold the Ellis Street Park in the Burnside Gorge neighbourhood to make way for the Rock Bay Shelter. At that point, Council made a commitment to use the funds from the sale to create a new park in the neighbourhood. In 2016, the City purchased the land where the new playground is now sited, with the funds held in reserve. The purchase of the property expanded the Cecelia Ravine Park to just over four hectares.

As soon as we bought the land, city staff began work with neighbourhood residents to design the park. I love that the park you see today was literally designed around the needs of the neighbourhood. One of the most important elements requested by the neighbourhood was an accessible connection from the Galloping Goose trail right up to the park. This allows access to the park from a highly used active transportation route.

In response to requests from neighbourhood residents and the creativity of our staff (while staying within the budget that Council allocated for the project) we now have:

  • A larger, more accessible, playground
  • Community gathering areas and open green space
  • Outdoor fitness equipment
  • Enhanced furnishings, including bike racks, shade structure, pathway lighting, and seating
  • A new public washroom
  • An accessible pathway connecting the park to the Galloping Goose Regional Trail
  • 21 new trees!

It’s a beautiful park and playground as you can see in the photographs. But it’s much more than this. In her groundbreaking 2017 report, “Designing Healthy Living,” Dr. Theresa Tam, Canada’s Chief Public Health Officer writes that, “We do not yet know how to quantify the extent to which the built environment affects healthy living, but we know enough to say with confidence that neighbourhoods that are built with health in mind are important for making healthy choices the easiest choices.” She also points to emerging research that makes a connection between the built environment and mental health and wellness.

Burnside Gorge is one of the most diverse and lowest income neighbourhoods in the city. The new park provides fitness equipment for adults who may not have extra money for a gym membership. There’s the gorgeous playground and lots of space for kids to run and play. It’s connected to a bike path so you can get there safely without the expense of a car. And it’s got an accessible picnic area and play equipment so people using wheelchairs can also have easy access. There’s also lots of green space to gather, dwell, and connect. And when those 21 trees grow up there will be lots of shady spaces to take refuge on hot days.

Parents I spoke with at the opening said they were proud to have the best playground in the city in their neighbourhood. I was moved close to tears during my opening remarks by the overwhelming joy and the deep gratitude of the parents and kids in attendance. I am proud to be mayor of a city that is helping to create health, well-being and inclusivity as we continue to build the city.

More photos from the park opening.

Climate Action, Active Healthy Transportation, and the Heidelberg Challenge

I’ve recently returned from a trip to Heidelberg where I attended ICCA 2019, an international conference on Collaborative Climate Action. The conference focused on the role of cities in the lead up to UN Secretary-General António Guterres’ Climate Action Summit in New York this September. It was an honour to have been invited to Heidelberg to help shape the global conversation on cities and collaborative climate action.

Over 700 people from 90 countries attended the conference. It was heartening to learn that from Kenya to Sweden, from China to California, cities are taking climate action. Cities are ready to be strong partners to provincial and federal governments and can help federal governments meet their Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) under the Paris Agreement. But, in order to do so, cities need more resources and more delegated authority from national and provincial governments. This is the key message from the conference that will be forwarded to the UN Climate Action Summit in September.

Another theme from the conference is the need for creative transportation solutions to decrease emissions in cities. Mauro Petrcionne, European Director General for Climate Action, was asked to sum up what he heard at the Mayors breakfast meeting, at which I was a panelist. He said that many people see individual cars as linked to individual rights. “Will we abolish this perception,” he asked. “No, but we can adjust it. In order to do so, we need to rethink the way our cities are organized.”

Petrcionne observed that if people are asked to choose what matters most, the end of the world or the end of the month, they will choose the end of the month ­– their own interests and survival – believing that someone else will take care of the end of the world. The advice he gave us was to avoid putting people in the position of making that choice; create climate solutions that also benefit people’s pocketbooks and their health and well-being.

Heidelberg is one city we can learn from when it comes to matching individual interests and quality of life with addressing the climate crisis. And they’ve done this by focussing on how people move around.

Heidelberg is currently where Victoria needs to be by 2030. Victoria’s Climate Leadership Plan aims, by 2030, to have 55% of trips made by walking and cycling (we are currently at 39%) and 25% of trips by transit (currently at 12%). This means that by 2030 only 20% of people will get around using a car. Sound impossible? Today in Heidelberg, only 22% of trips are made by car. Fully 38% are made on foot, 26% by bicycle and 14% by public transit.

They’ve achieved this by organizing the city around active and healthy modes of transportation. Almost every main street has as much space dedicated to transit, walking and cycling as it does to private vehicles. Walking and cycling are privileged. There are many pedestrian-only zones. And cyclists are allowed to ride both ways down one-way streets making them de facto bike streets; cars have to go slowly and yield to bikes going in both directions.

Side streets are narrow and have a maximum speed limit of 30km/h. I visited a brand new passive house neighbourhood (where all buildings are zero emissions) and the new streets there are as narrow as the streets in the 800-year-old city centre.

“Why did they make these new streets so narrow,” I asked former mayor of Heidelberg, Beate Weber-Schuerholz, who was kind enough to show me around. She replied, seemingly surprised by my question, “To limit cars so that children can walk safely to school of course.”

In Heidelberg it’s not bikes versus cars versus buses. It’s about the freedom for kids to get to school safely on foot, and for seniors to stay connected to their communities. The city is organized for better health outcomes, more money in people’s pockets and a stronger local economy. Heidelberg is alive, prosperous and thriving and their streets are for sharing.

Can we join them? This is the Heidelberg Challenge. Let’s step up our ambition as a community and work to overtake Heidelberg long before 2030. Will you join me? It doesn’t mean necessarily ditching your car (although car sharing is cheaper and gives more options) – it just means thinking differently about what it’s for and when you use it. And it means continuing to build a city that puts people first.

This piece was originally printed in the Times Colonist here.

The Future of Government Street and Other People Places

IMG_4979.jpgPhoto taken standing on the edge of the Hauptstrauss (highstreet) in the centre of town, Heidelberg Germany. 5:15pm on a Thursday evening.

I’ve recently returned from trip to Heidelberg where I attended ICCA 2019, an international conference on Collaborative Climate Action. The conference focused on the role of cities and was a key step in the lead up to the UN Secretary General’s Climate Action Summit in New York this September. It was an honour to have been invited to help shape the global conversation on cities and collaborative climate action. I learned a lot and will spend the next few blog posts sharing.

In addition to attending the conference, I had an opportunity to study the city while I was there. I made a particular study of the town square and the streets surrounding it. I did this both during early morning runs and in the late afternoon sunshine – between the conference ending and dinner meetings. And, if I squinted hard, I could see the future of Government Street and maybe the rest of old town too.

Cars aren’t banned from the area. It’s just that they aren’t the priority – people are. It was remarkable to see people in cars, people riding bikes, people walking, people drinking beer, all sharing the same space so gracefully. Jane Jacobs calls this kind of urban activity a “sidewalk ballet.” But amazingly in Heidelberg this ballet takes place in the middle of the streets. I sat and watched for a while and here’s what I saw:

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A young child walking her bicycle.

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Two young boys kicking a soccer ball. I didn’t get my camera out until they were a bit far away but they literally walked right past my table, there in the street passing the ball between them.

IMG_4983.jpgA catering truck delivering food to City Hall (building on the left).

IMG_4992.jpgA woman, child and dog standing in the middle of the street.

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A bike and a car sharing the road where only moments before the woman, child and dog had stood.

IMG_4989.jpg A server carrying a tray of beer across the road where only moments before a car had driven.

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And look, she made it without incident!

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I even spotted the mayor! Before our evening event, taking a break in the sunshine.

Remarkably, when I returned to this space one more time to see how it would be used at 9am on a sunny Saturday morning, I was in for a surprise. I expected to find tables full of people drinking their morning coffee. What I saw instead, where the night before had been a crowded street and square full of Friday evening revelers, were parked cars! The town square and streets surrounding it could even function as a surface parking lot if needed.

Businesses are flourishing. People are everywhere. The city centre feels alive! Heidelberg isn’t even a large city – the population is approximately 150,000. Their regional population is larger than ours at around a million people, but they get less tourists per year than we do. So what are we waiting for?

We don’t just need to “close Government street to traffic”, which is a 2020-2021 Action in Council’s Strategic Plan, we need to rethink the whole purpose of Government Street and maybe other streets too. Streets are for people. They are for kids kicking soccer balls and grandmothers bending down tenderly to their grandchildren without any thought of being run down by a car. Streets are for commerce – for the exchange of goods and services, for afternoon coffee, evening beer, for sharing a meal. Streets are for connection and joy.

The most remarkable and moving thing of all – considering the climate crisis we are in – is that running down the Hauptstrauss in the mornings, there were so few traffic noises that I could hear the birds singing, right there in the city centre. Streets can also be for nature.

 

 

Vélo Canada Bikes: The Case for a National Cycling Strategy

Kid and dad on bike

I was in Ottawa recently as a representative of the South Island Prosperity Partnership which had been shortlisted for an Infrastructure Canada Smart Cities Challenge prize. Coincidentally, and luckily, one day earlier, also in Ottawa, was the third annual National Bike Summit. I’m so glad I was able to attend. Even as an already strong proponent of cycling there’s always more to learn.

Every year in Ottawa, Vélo Canada Bikes convenes municipal leaders, cycling advocates, policy makers, academics and industry. The purpose is to keep cycling on the national agenda and to keep the pressure on the federal government (and all federal parties in an election year) to develop a National Cycling Strategy.

Vélo Canada Bikes is asking the federal government to work with provincial and territorial governments, the Federation of Canadian Municipalities, the Assembly of First Nations and additional stakeholders to develop a coordinated, evidence-based action plan tailored to maximizing current and future investments in cycling by all levels of government.

Elements of a National Cycling Strategy would include a national level forum to consult, share and develop best practices, a dedicated federal infrastructure fund, setting evidence-based and achievable five- and 10-year transportation mode share targets, and having Statistics Canada collect data on cycling prevalence and cycling safety.

Why is cycling capturing national attention and why now?

Dr. Theresa Tam, Canada’s Chief Public Health Officer, provided the opening address and made strong connections between walking and cycling and positive health outcomes. She noted that only 3% of children who live within five minutes of school cycle to school. She talked about the importance of starting with kids and education in schools to create positive health outcomes and life-long bike riders.

From Health Canada to the Canadian Institute for Health Research, to health researchers interested in implementation science, to doctors themselves, Tam noted that the health benefits of active transportation are becoming more widely recognized, especially in light of the rise of anxiety, depression and screen-addiction in young people and social isolation for seniors.

Another reason to push for a National Cycling Strategy is because there are more people biking in Canada now than there were two decades ago. Yvonne Vanderlin from the Centre for Active Transportation in Toronto presented data from the 1996 through to the 2016 census. She showed that in some places across the country, even in places with tough winters like Montréal, cycling had almost doubled in that period. In Victoria, our increase has been 34%. (The neighbourhood of Fairfield in Victoria is Canada’s second highest “cycling neighbourhood” in Canada with just over 18% of people cycling to work.) With more people riding bikes across the country there’s a need for more education, more dedicated cycling infrastructure and a national strategy to guide this.

There’s also a strong climate argument for a National Cycling Strategy. While riding a bike is an obvious way to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, bikes aren’t getting as much attention as electric cars when it comes to transportation emissions reductions. Anders Swanson the Chair of Vélo Canada Bikes made the poignant point that Zero Emissions Vehicle strategies are entirely focused on cars. He pointed out the obvious – that bikes are also zero emissions vehicles. The federal government (and the BC government too) are offering $6000 incentives to people trading in their gas-powered cars for electric cars but there is no financial incentive for those who might be ready to ditch a car altogether if they could switch to an electric bike.

Finally, as Victoria’s own Todd Litman from the Victoria Transport Policy Institute told the national crowd, there are the economic benefits benefits of cycling, and these are often overlooked. He began with a Victoria example where we’ve spent approximately $6 million to build two kilometres of bike lanes (and to improve conditions for pedestrians). He noted all the criticism we’ve received for spending this money for such a short distance. But then look how many people that money is moving! He noted that for $6 million we move an average of 2000 commuters on a daily basis (combined daily average of Fort and Pandora lanes). He contrasted this with the Province’s recent announcement of a highway to Sooke, population 13,000. He pointed out that the Province is spending $85 million to move 13,000 people. If you look at dollars spent per commuter moved, dedicated cycling infrastructure makes strong fiscal sense.

Litman also pointed out the benefits to a family’s bottom line of moving to a car-free life. This doesn’t mean not driving a car (car shares like B.C.’s Modo are available when you need a car, or truck, or van) it just means not owning one. Since giving up their car years ago his family has saved approximately $5000 per year. They are paying for their children’s university education with the savings.

He also noted that cycling is good for local business. When you fill up a car, the profits from the gas purchase go elsewhere. With the money saved by not filling up a tank with gas, this is money in people’s pockets that will more likely be spent at local businesses where the money stays in the community. His overall point was that you don’t need to be an environmentalist or a cycling advocate to see the merits of his argument – cycling has a solid economic bottom line.

In just a short morning at the conference I was convinced once again that we need a National Cycling Strategy.  With a federal election coming up, I will be advocating to ensure that this makes its way into the platforms of all federal parties.

P.S. I was honoured at an evening reception with a national award for Canadian Cycling Advocate of the Year, 2019.

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Photo credit: Yvonne Bambrick/Vélo Canada Bikes

 

 

 

 

 

 

Oilsands Trip – A Tale of Two Paradigms

Last Friday I spent the day touring the oilsands, specifically Cenovus’ Foster Creek site. I was warmly received and treated with generosity and open-heartedness by Calgary City Councillor Jeff Davison, Canada Action representatives, and leaders at Cenovus Energy. I was truly moved by the people I met and what I saw and also by the fact that a day-long dialogue with perfect strangers can deepen understanding and strengthen human connection.

What I am left with from my visit, is that while there is only one earth, one climate, and one shared future for the planet, there are two different energy paradigms in Canada right now.

There is the paradigm I visited on Friday. In this paradigm, there is no end to oil and gas extraction in sight. I asked the VP of Cenovus point blank, “What are your plans to transition away from fossil fuels and to renewable energy?” He said, “We have no plans to do that; that is not the business we are in.” I appreciated the forthrightness and honesty of his answer.

In this paradigm, there is a spirit of continuous improvement in the process of oil and gas extraction. They told me that the industry is transitioning away from strip mines – which are a common perception of the oil sands: landscapes destroyed, water contaminated, large tailings ponds – to steam assisted gravity drainage (SAGD pictured above). They said this involves a much smaller footprint, less deforestation, and less energy consumption to produce oil.

The VP of Cenovus shared that their engineers and scientists are working to further reduce their steam to oil ratio, or SOR. Natural gas is used to produce steam which thins the oil and makes it pumpable. The less steam needed, the less natural gas needed, the less energy used to get the oil out. They showed me a commercial scale pilot project that they have underway to learn more.

They explained how that in developing the plant they had studied wildlife movements to learn where wildlife bridges need to be built and – where possible – they work around sensitive wildlife habitat. They said they have detailed restoration plans. They also showed me examples of how water is reused, methane is captured and reused, each camp building has its own sewage treatment system and all the water is reused. There are lots of closed-loop systems.

And, I live in a different paradigm. In this paradigm we are moving towards 100% renewable energy by 2050 at the latest, and we don’t see a long-term future for the use of fossil fuels. This is where I believe we need to get to. We’ve created a Climate Leadership Plan as a guide. We are working hard to reduce our reliance on fossil fuels through taking a sustainable, forward-looking approach to buildings, transportation and waste.

In this paradigm, we’ve declared a Climate Emergency both locally and regionally and have urged the Province to do so as well. The IPCC report  released last October has galvanized us to faster action for 2030 and we’re working with our residents and businesses to develop a Climate Champions program to support energy transformation in homes, schools and businesses.

We have accelerated implementation of the BC Step Code for buildings and we’re also proposing to remove the need for rezonings for passive house, net zero energy buildings.

We’ve put a significant price on carbon for corporate air travel and are working on carbon accounting for all municipal operations in order to make visible and reduce our carbon consumption. Our local airline, Harbour Air, is making investments to be 100% electric and aims to fly passengers between Victoria and Vancouver with electric engines beginning in 2021 or 2022.

We are proposing bold moves like making it free for everyone in the region to ride the bus and fully electrifying the transit fleet by 2030. We’re looking ahead 30 years and building a safe and connected bike network now, despite constant loud public backlash (but with lots of quiet support).

We’ve reduced the use of single-use plastic bags and we are working towards reducing other single use items. We generate electricity from our landfill waste and are developing plans to increase energy generation from waste. Our sewage treatment plant is under construction; we’ll be using energy generated from the treatment process to fuel the treatment process itself. And the dried biosolids produced will be used as a heat source to replace fossil fuels at cement kilns.

When the Chief Operating Officer of Canada Action asked me on Friday how we bridge these two paradigms, I whipped out Leo Bascaglia’s book, Living, Loving and Learning  from my knapsack and said, “One bridge is love.” Or if not exactly love, the surprise and delight of connecting, human to human, with people who have very different points of view. That’s what I felt on Friday. And it was such a refreshing reprieve from how differences of opinion are expressed on social media.

There are two things that the two paradigms have in common. One is a barrel of oil – we use the oil that they produce. The other is human creativity and innovation.

Twenty percent of emissions from a barrel of oil come from producing it. Eighty percent come from combusting it. We all have work to do together. We need to reduce carbon pollution by reducing the combustion of fossil fuels. And as oil is in almost everything – cell phones, tires, pens, etc. – if we want to get off oil any time soon, we need unprecedented energy and materials innovation, everywhere, in all fields, at once. This will help to create viable energy and materials alternatives and it’s the pathway to low-carbon prosperity and to ensuring that no one is left behind in the transition.

This is where another of Canada’s amazing natural resources comes into play – our human capital. I saw it in the facility that I toured; there were bright creative workers who were innovating and striving for continuous improvement. And I see it in Victoria’s and British Columbia’s tech sector. And in our colleges and universities. And in the responses to Infrastructure Canada’s Smart Cities Challenge. I see it in individual homes and businesses. We need to continue to mine Canada’s human capital and put it to work to its full potential.

After the wonderful visit, I’m still firmly rooted in my paradigm. I need to stay here as there’s so much work to do in order to make systemic and transformational changes as a city and region. These changes will make it easier and more convenient for people to make a shift to low-carbon living.

And I also know for sure that standing at the edges of our paradigms throwing stones across the divide is not a good way forward. Genuine listening and an appreciation of other points of view are important to building understanding. That’s what I experienced in Alberta last week. I’m really happy I went.

P.S. They have bikes to go from building to building in the camp. I thought people would get a kick out of the fact that I was able to find the bicycles, even in the middle of the oil sands! This is me and Calgary Coucillor Jeff Davison.

oilsands bicycles

 

 

 

Youth Climate Strikers Launch Meatless Monday Campaign

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April 29 2019

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE

Victoria, B.C. – Youth striking for climate are launching a Meatless Monday Campaign this evening at 5:30pm at a Meatless Monday Potluck at the CRD community room. They are urging residents of the capital region to give up meat one day a week in order to help reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

“Like so many youth across the country, I am deeply concerned about my future, and what will happen if we don’t start to act more urgently on climate change,” said Emma-Jane Burian from Our Earth, Our Future. “I worry about the impact that not meeting our Paris targets will cause. For as we see from scientists, we have only 10 to 11 years to turn this ship around.”

Having a Meatless Monday every week for a year reduces an individual’s carbon footprint by 416 pounds. The youth have calculated that if our whole region (413,406 residents as of 2018) stopped eating meat on Mondays, we’d did reduce our carbon footprint by 171,976,896 pounds. That is equivalent to reducing 78,007 tonnes of CO2 emissions each year.

“Since most governments aren’t taking climate change seriously, we need to lower the carbon footprint one small step at a time,” said 12-year-old Rebecca Wolf Gage, one of the key leads in the region’s climate strikes.

Although big changes are required from all levels of government, individuals can do so much to help curb climate change. The inspiration for Meatless Mondays comes from helping to empower citizens to join the youth in creating the change they wish to see.

They hope that by showing that there are so many solutions that have great benefits more people will be motivated to take the action that is so desperately needed in our country and the world. They believe Meatless Monday is a great way for us all to make a relatively small change in our lives, that will make big positive ripples in our world.

– 30 –

Media Contacts
Emma-Jane Burian, Our Earth, Our Future, 778-967-4696
Lisa Helps, Victoria Mayor, 250-661-2708

 

Why 16-Year-Olds Should Be Able to Vote in Local Elections

At the recent Association of Vancouver Island and Coastal Communities convention, the City of Victoria brought forward a motion calling on the Provincial government to lower the voting age to 16 for local government elections. (See full text of motion below). The motion passed with a strong majority of delegates in support.

I’ll share what I said at the microphone urging delegates to vote yes. I’ll also share the story of one of the youth behind the #Vote16BC Campaign in her own words. Her story is just one reason why I support their cause.

Greta Thunberg, the 16-year-old Swedish girl who has inspired youth around the world, is a good person to start with. Greta is the ideal voter and politically engaged citizen. She understands the importance of using resources prudently and planning for the long term. She’s thoughtful and well-spoken. She has the courage to stand up for her convictions. And she’s able to mobilize people to action.

There are 16 and 17 year olds in all of our communities in British Columbia just like Greta. They are wise, thoughtful, and forward-thinking. Many of them have recently been moved to action, organizing, demonstrating and urging us adults to clean up our act on climate change. We have a responsibility to let them shape their own future by doing more than protesting in front of the legislature.

Influencing positive adult behaviour begins in youth. When blue boxes were first introduced, one of the key areas of focus for blue-box education was the classroom. Get kids recycling at a young age, the thinking went, and build a life-long habit of recycling. So too with transit. The City of Victoria will be providing free transit to youth 18 and under in order to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, but equally importantly, to nurture life-long transit use.

The same argument can be made for voting. Imagine if each fall in the year of a municipal election, grade 11 and 12 students reviewed and discussed the issues and wrote papers on a muncipal election topic. What if they organized all candidates debates – as happened at Vic High in 2014. And then imagine if on the Saturday of the election, they gathered as a class and went to cast their ballots. Maybe they’d bring their parents with them!

This civic education is good for democracy. And with voter turnout in local elections at an all-time low and with democracy on shaky ground around the world, it could use a boost right now. Enabling willing 16 and 17 year olds to vote in local elections is one small step in strengthening democracy and building a life-long practice of civic participation.

I support the Vote 16 BC Campaign for these reasons. But I also support it because of Nahira’s story. And the stories of countless other 16 and 17 year olds from across British Columbia who are organizing the #Vote16BC Campaign. They are counting on elected officials to vote Yes at the Union of BC Municipalities conference in Vancouver this September. And they expect that if a yes vote happens, the Provincial government will act swiftly and give them the right to vote.

Follow them on Twitter. Join them on Facebook. Sign their Petition.

Nahira’s Story

There are many ways we can convince the government that young people should have a say in our society. One way is through storytelling. It’s not only powerful, but storytelling also connects us in ways that facts cannot. I would like to share my story with you and why I want to lower the voting age.

My name is Nahira Gerster-Sim and I was adopted from China. Because of the one child policy, my biological parents felt they were not able to raise me. My adoptive parents brought me to Canada when I was two years old.

As a young child, I was always puzzled by the notion that a government would force a rule upon a society that would inevitably leave thousands of children stranded, starving and separated from their families. Why were they allowed to make that kind of decision for us, when it really only affected us negatively?

As I continued to make my way through elementary and now high school, I’ve been continually shocked at the number of times adults have made decisions about my future and wellbeing without consultation. And often they aren’t even in my best interest. Many of my friends feel the same way.

For example, the Vancouver School Board makes all the decisions about our schooling. What schools to close, how to evaluate students, what to teach. Yet, they never ask us what kind of an education system we think would be most beneficial to us. There is only one student rep on the school board, and she doesn’t have a vote.

What’s more, the government is burning money and resources on pipelines and big corporations that are going to destroy our planet, instead of spending its money looking at renewable energy plans and sustainable actions. Ultimately, they don’t have to deal with the consequences of their actions on the earth – we do.

In the 21st century, teenagers are taking the world by storm. We are fighting for justice and equality on various issues including gun control, sustainability, racism, and so much more. But even so, adults and other authorities still see us as pushovers – unintelligent, just pawns in whatever society they want to create.

But I don’t see it that way and I hope you don’t either. I see young people as a voice for change, the future of a better world. At sixteen, we are able to drive, join the army and get married. Doesn’t that mean that we are also well enough informed and educated about local and national issues?

I want to lower the voting age so that I can be a part of evolving our system, hopefully shifting our society to a more progressive viewpoint. I don’t want a political system where children can’t get even get their basic needs met because the government didn’t bother to think about anyone under the age of 30. Canada should value the opinion of its youth.

This is not a democracy if it’s not inclusive in the most generous sense.

I want to inspire youth so we have a voice powerful enough to make a difference. At 16 years old, I want to be part of what we call democracy. Hopefully, all of us together, we can change the political system.

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The Inclusion Project – Canada’s Inclusive Future and Newcomer Engagement Part 2: Covenant, Side By Side, and the Stories We Tell

Here is the my full keynote address from The Inclusion Project. This post and the one from last week are the written version. Please feel free to share. 

How do we create inclusion in the 21st century? We need a new approach, led by civil society. In The Home We Build Together: Recreating Society the British Rabbi, Jonathan Sacks lays out an important framework.  

I argued with the book in the margins from time to time as I don’t agree with all of his premises. In my younger years I may have dismissed it as “from another paradigm / too different” and stopped reading; but I’ve since realized that difference is a good teacher. It’s a key book in understanding how we can create and ensure belonging, empowerment and opportunities for collaboration, together. 

This is especially important in the current age of division, the rise of populism, in an era where facts matter less and the dangerous echo-chamber of Facebook can shape reality. And it’s particularly important given an emerging trend of people’s minds being made up before they have actual information and a culture developing of both closed-mindedness and closed-heartedness. This leads to things like mosque attacks and other intolerable hate crimes.

I’ll outline the thrust of his book because there is detailed, compelling argument and a strong call to action.

The key question of The Home We Build Together is the same question we are grappling  with here today at The Inclusion Project: “How do you construct a society that respects cultural and religious diversity while at the same time promoting civic equality, social cohesion and a sense of the common good?” 1

The concept of the common good is important.

Sack says fundamentally the problem we are facing is not a problem with the state, it’s a problem with society, civil society, it’s a problem with belonging. He puts it really beautifully, when he says, “The real arena of collective grace lies with us, the us-together  we call … society.” 2

How do we achieve / embody this collective grace?

Neither the state nor the market have the capacity to deliver inclusion. As Paola said earlier this morning, “Inclusion is not something we can leave for others to do.”

Sacks says (through a detailed reading of the Hebrew Bible that I won’t go into here) that we need a new social covenant where all “parties agree to respect one another’s integrity as free agents.” In a covenant, “the parties bind themselves to one another in an open-ended bond of mutuality and loyalty. They agree to share a fate.” 3

This is critically important for The Inclusion Project. What fate do we all want to share? What do we want to create together with our differences as assets? What can we create as a whole that is greater than each of us?

What is the common good?

Sacks argues for covenant as a way of thinking about contemporary society. It’s important to explain what he means. He “distinguishes between social covenant and social contract. Social contract is an arrangement between self-interested individuals a “covenant is about creating a ‘we’ out of multiple ‘I’s’.” 4

I think that a new covenant is at the heart of The Inclusion Project that we’re here working on today. It’s the idea that “all of us must come together to ensure the dignity of each of us. Covenant is the politics of the common good.” 5 As George said earlier this morning, a covenant is not about including, about who includes who, rather it is a shared commitment to dignity in diversity.

A covenant is a shared commitment to a common good. And this shared commitment can only be undertaken – and must be undertaken – by civil society.

Sacks writes: “There are two ways of getting other people to do what we want. We can force them: That is the answer of power. Or we can pay them: That is the answer of the market. But neither involves treating other people with dignity and respect … Covenant is a third possibility. We create co-operation not by getting you to do what I want, but by joining together in a moral association that turns You and I into ‘We.’ I hope you help me, because there are things we care about together. Covenant is a binding commitment, entered into by two or more parties, to work an care for one another while respecting the freedom, integrity, and difference of each.” 6

I don’t ’t want to go on and on in this theoretical way. But I want to emphasize that we need a fresh approach to inclusion and a renewed commitment to a common good and covenant offer us one way of thinking.

How do we do this?

I will continue with Sacks for just a moment as I move to the third part of my talk and to where I think we can go from here.

Sacks sites the 1954 research of Muzafer Sherif and his famous Robbers’ Cave Experiment. (Please read the link for information or watch the video of my talk.) In a strong and moving revelation, Sacks asserts that the key to remaking civil society and a strong social fabric is not dialogue; it is doing or building things together. It “is a paradigm-shifting insight,” he says. “Side by side works better than face to face.” 7

We must do something together, build something together if we are going to have true inclusion, empathy, understanding and a shared vision of the common good that we can commit to. As Sudhir said this morning, we can’t just talk about diversity and inclusion, we must do it.

What do we need to do? What does this mean for us here today? For our communities?

We must work side by side to solve shared problems – and certainly we have enough of them. Racism and lack of inclusion, global migration and resettlement, which we’re focused on today, also climate change and affordability. A key take away from today’s dialogue is to create opportunities for working side by side.

Here are some that I know have already happened or are happening (Please watch the video of my talk for more detail and colour):

  • Members of the Victoria Police Department are going to hockey games with members of Indigenous street community
  • Members of the Victoria Police Department are playing soccer with members of the Muslim community
  • Victoria’s Sikh community organized a protective human chain around the mosque during Friday prayers
  • Ramadan dinner at City hall. Planning for this year, we talked about hiring staff to clean up but then remembered the experience of cleaning up together last year.
  • City of Victoria Youth Council, racialized minority and non-racialized-minority youth organizing Cultural Fair (12-4pm at City Hall May 25th).
  • Employment Opportunity Exchange
  • The South Island Prosperity Project and Indigenous Member Nations
  • Welcoming City Initiative

To wrap up. Ruth said in her introductory remarks that this gathering is about authentic stories and turning those stories, through listening, into action. I think that’s one of the themes that’s emerged for me this morning – the importance of story. One of the things that’s that really important, that’s come out here, is that the stories we each tell matter. The former Prime Minister of Canada, the Honourable Kim Campbell, came to speak in Victoria a few years ago as a fundraiser for Bridges for Women. And she said something that I have not forgotten, and it resonated here again today. She said, “Stories are the unit of human understanding.”

My opinion, my feeling and my experience here today is that really it is civil society and not the market or the state where inclusion is going to happen the most quickly and most wholeheartedly.

The questions that I want to leave all of us with are: What kind of covenant do we want to make with each other? My sense is that the covenant that we want to make with each other has something to do with honouring and holding up each other’s stories. As we honour and hold each other stories up, what kind of shared fate do we want to create together? And what is our collective definition of the common good where the dignity of each is recognized?

The Inclusion Project – Canada’s Inclusive Future and Newcomer Engagement Part 1: Why Now, and Reconciliation

Inclusion Project.jpeg

Last Saturday I was honoured to attend and also to provide the keynote address at an important community-led event called The Inclusion Project. Created by recent newcomer from Nigeria, Ruth Mojeed, with the support a small organizing committee, the event was an opportunity for participants to dialogue and grapple with the difficult questions of diversity, equity and inclusion. Follow up steps from the inaugural event include developing a charter on diversity, equity and inclusion for stakeholders across sectors. Stay tuned here. This blog post and next week’s as well, is a written version of my address. You can watch the full video of my talk here.

Why is The Inclusion Project important?

We pat ourselves on the back in Canada and in our region for being inclusive, tolerant and welcoming. Indeed compared to some places in the world this is the case. But it’s also the case that despite how progressive we think we are there is still racism and discrimination in this country and in this region. While this maybe be hard to hear, it’s important to say, and it’s important for me as a community leader to say.

I know there is still racism and discrimination in our region because of my experience during Ramadan last year. Each year we have Rabbi Kaplan come to City Hall and light the menorah for Hanukkah. We invite the media as well as councillors and senior staff and treat it like a formal protocol event. Since the Quebec mosque shooting, I have developed a closer relationship with the Imam and the Muslim community and it occurred to me that we might want to have a protocol event around Ramadan in the same way we had for Hanukkah.

Near the beginning of Ramadan last year we hosted the Imam, councillors and the media in my office. But we took it one step further. In order to build solidarity, empathy and mutual understanding, Council committed to fasting with the Muslim community during one day of Ramadan and we invited the community to fast with us. At the end of our day of fasting we co-hosted – with the Imam and members of the Muslim community – an iftar or fast-breaking dinner at City Hall so we could eat together and learn from each other.

I won’t repeat here some of the racist backlash that occurred because I won’t use this platform to amplify hate speech even while condemning it. But there were some surprising and vitriolic emails that came my way as a result of this invitation and event. Because there is still racism in our country and in our region.

But there’s another reason that The Inclusion Project is important. And that’s because while there are still racist attitudes and hate crimes, people are also yearning for connection, belonging, and a way to show empathy and solidarity. After the Quebec Mosque shootings in 2017 we organized a vigil on the steps of City Hall. Despite very short notice, there were thousands of people in attendance – so many people that the street was spontaneously closed and the sound system was far too small for the gathering. No one had anticipated such a crowd.

The Inclusion Project is also important now because our region is changing. Between 2011 and 2016 there was a 38% increase in racialized minorities. This is a tremendous opportunity in many ways, including economically. Integration of newcomers to Canada into our community through economic inclusion not only enhances a sense of connection and belonging and makes us a more diverse and resilient community. But also, a report from the 2017 Victoria Forum notes that “though there are barriers to achieving these goals, it was found that a one per cent increase in ethno-cultural workplace diversity led to one per cent increase in productivity and 2.4 per cent increase in revenue.”[1]

There are lots of reasons for The Inclusion Project now.

***

In order to build Canada’s inclusive future and to move The Inclusion Project forward, we must begin with reconciliation. If we do not treat Indigenous people and their lands and nations with respect and if we don’t honour their fundamental rights, how can racialized people from around the world who make Canada their home believe that there is hope of true inclusivity? We cannot have inclusivity, belonging, and empowerment if we do not work towards reconciliation.

Reconciliation must be Indigenous-informed and respect Indigenous practices, world-views and ways of knowing. Reconciliation is not a goal, it is a process and a path that we walk together.

In 2017 the City of Victoria began a formal process of reconciliation with the Songhees and Esquimalt Nations, the Lekwungen speaking peoples on whose homeland the City was founded. When the City first approached the Nations, it was in a very colonial way, asking them to sit on a “reconciliation task force.” Through conversation we learned that a more Indigenous-focused approach would be a better way to proceed if we were sincere in wanting to pursue truth and reconciliation. In response, we formed a City Family and began a Witness Reconciliation Program.

As part of this process, decision making with regards to reconciliation (other than budgetary allocations) are made by the City Family with the Songhees and Esquimalt Chief and Councils as witnesses. Witnesses, in Lekwungen tradition, listen to the story of the family and give their input and guidance to find a good way forward.

After a year of discussion, deliberation, truth-sharing, and seeking counsel from the Songhees and Esquimalt Chiefs and Councils on multiple occasions, the family decided that the first important step in taking action on reconciliation was to remove the statue of Sir John A. Macdonald from the front doors of city hall so that the family members and other Indigenous people do not need to walk past this painful reminder of colonial violence each time they enter the doors of their municipal government.

Around the region and across the country one of the main reactions when we moved the statue was, “There was no consultation!” This reaction emphasizes the need for further work on understanding and reconciliation; it revealed the prevalence of colonial thinking, discrimination and the continued invisiblization of Indigeneous people in our region and country. A year of consultation with Indigenous people didn’t count as consultation.

Dr. Pamela D. Palmater is a Mi’kmaw citizen and a member of the Eel River Bar First Nation in northern New Brunswick and Chair in Indigenous Governance at Ryerson University said in a panel I attended recently, “If what you’re doing feels easy it is not reconciliation.”

Moving forward locally this year we will convene the Victoria Reconciliation Dialogues. In order to have an inclusive future we must grapple with what it means to literally inhabit someone else’s homelands.

At a national level the work of reconciliation is also important if we are serious as a country about creating an inclusive future. In February 2018 the Prime Minister said in the House of Commons:

“Instead of outright recognizing and affirming Indigenous rights – as we promised we would – Indigenous Peoples were forced to prove, time and time again, through costly and drawn-out court challenges, that their rights existed, must be recognized and implemented. Indigenous Peoples, like all Canadians, know this must change.”

The government is in the process of undertaking consultation that will result in legislation outlining the relationship between Canada and Indigenous Nations. In September 2018, the government published a preliminary draft report on work to date in and a proposed outline of legislation.

In a response paper, the Assembly of First Nations outlined its concerns with the government’s approach. The top two concerns are:

  1. The government is proposing that First Nations apply to the federal government for recognition as a nation and the government will decide whether to accept that application to then advance negotiations. Such an approach is not consistent with self-determination when one government sets the criteria for recognition and then makes the determination for another.
  2. Recognition is premised on Crown recognition rather than affirmation of Indigenous Peoples pre-existing, inherent legal rights.

The approach proposed by the government will not lead us on a path to an inclusive Canada. It also does not demonstrate to newcomers to our country that we take rights seriously, that we are truly a welcoming society.

Next week’s post: The Inclusion Project – Canada’s Inclusive Future and Newcomer Engagement Part 2: Covenant, and Side By Side.

 

[1] Bessma Momani, Mark Tschirgi and Adel Guitouni, “Diversity and Economic Prosperity,” in Canada@150: Promoting Diversity & Inclusion: Report of the Inaugural Victoria Forum, ed. Adel Guitouni, Saul Klein, Sébastien Beaulieu, (Victoria: University of Victoria, 2018), 24.