South Island First Nation Chiefs: “Please don’t lose sight of the young ones that we are honouring”

Along with other mayors, MLAs and MPs across the region, on Friday moring I was invited to stand with the nine chiefs of the South Island First Nations as they released and signed a letter calling for an end to the vandalism that is further dividing our communities and preventing healing from taking place.

The chiefs unequivocally denounced the tearing down of the Captain Cook statue and the vandalism to churches. They said that this was not done in their names or in the names of their nations. They told us that since this vandalism had happened, their young people and their elders had been subject to greater racism and their own properties had been threatened.

They asked those of us in attendance to work with them to create understanding and loving, caring communities. They said that we will get further along the path of reconciliation and towards healing together, arm in arm rather than by tearing down each other’s cultural symbols. “Na’tsa’maht”, some of the chiefs said. This means, “We are one,” in lək̓ʷəŋiʔnəŋ (Lekwungen). With generosity, love, and through ceremony, they called us in, asked us to witness and to share what we learned.

All the words and stories shared were powerful and I listened with an open heart – a heart breaking open with both grief and opportunity. But the most powerful moment of Friday’s event for me went beyond just the words.

At the opening of the ceremony, us non-Indigneous leaders were invited by the chiefs to walk in together with them, shoulder to shoulder, in a procession behind the lək̓ʷəŋiʔnəŋ Traditional Dancers, singing, drumming and dancing the Paddle Welcome Song. Despite everything that has happened and that is happening in our region, province and country – so much divide, so much racism, so much anger and hurt – they invited us to walk with them. In that moment, we were one. I will carry with me that feeling of profound oneness from Friday’s event as we continue to walk the difficult but healing path ahead.

Here is the letter from the Chiefs. Please share it with everyone you know.

“Dear South Island Community Members and beyond,

“We are writing you in a united voice of Nations to share our perspective on the recent events in the South Island and beyond, and to spread hope that we can work together for change, and a safer community.

“These events have brought violence and vandalism to our region and communities, the damaging of property including statues and totem poles is unacceptable. We are all residents of this region, and we need to respect each other.

“We are leaders of the South Island Indigenous communities, and these are acts are not ours, we do not support them, and we do not believe in dividing communities.

“These acts are not medicine, they fuel hate and inhibit the healing that is so deeply needed right now. The disrespectful and damaging acts we have seen are not helping, they are perpetuating hurt, hate, and divide.

“These actions go against our teachings and are not reflective on how we have been taught to carry ourselves. As a collective we feel the need to step in before things continue on a destructive path.

“We are writing this letter because we need to work together towards the goals that strengthen our community and bonds with each other.

“We ask all residents of Southern Vancouver Island and beyond to join us on the road to healing. We need to walk together, support each other, and demonstrate humanity. We honour those that have stood with us, those who are our allies, and those who have listened and supported us.

“All vandalism must stop immediately. Let us lock arms, walk together, and look out for one another. Please do not lose sight of the young ones that we are honouring, and please listen to our Elders and survivors.

In Friendship,
Songhees Nation
Esquimalt Nation
Beecher Bay First Nation
T’Sou-ke Nation
Malahat First Nation
Tsawout First Nation
Tsartlip First Nation
Pauquachin First Nation
Tseycum First Nation”

Housing Supply in Victoria is Tipping in the Wrong Direction, and How Giving Away Council’s Power Can Help

These 22 town homes by Aryze, in Fairfield are currently under construction. They took close to three years to get through the approvals process and a total of five and half years from when the land was purchased to when the families will move in.

As she sanitized the knob of my office door, one of the City’s newest employees, who keeps our offices COVID clean said to me when we met recently, “Nice to meet you; thanks for building the city for the future.”

I was so struck by this because this is exactly what we’ve been doing for the last six and a half years. From the bike network, to the Climate Leadership Plan, to Zero Waste Victoria, to the Accessibility Framework, to Victoria 3.0, to the Witness Reconciliation Program and the Reconciliation Dialogues, and more. We’ve moved Victoria from 20th-century approaches to city building and oriented our city towards the 22nd century.

The one exception is housing and land use. There we’re still very much stuck in the 20th century. And we are very close to a tipping point, in the wrong direction. Unless the City and the Province make some bold moves soon, we will be responsible for creating a low-affordability future where the next generations of families and working people will be priced out of the city. We’ll lose artists, creatives, daycare workers, young professionals. We’ll lose our arts and culture scene. All of Victoria’s cherished strengths will be steadily eroded and undermined.

Whether you’re for or against townhouses being allowed in every neighbourhood, or for or against taller buildings downtown and in Harris Green, I imagine no one would willingly work create to this kind of future. So what can we do?

Single Family Dwellings: So few can afford them, so why are they so easy to build?
Currently, the City’s land use policies and procedures make it easier to build a single family home than any other type of dwelling, even though this is the most expensive form of housing that few people can afford.

Want to knock down a single family home and build a bigger one? No problem. This only needs staff – not Council – approval. And it doesn’t take too long to get the permits needed. Want to build a triplex, or houseplex or townhouses – what’s known as “missing middle housing” – on lots that are currently zoned for single family homes?

  1. Start by holding a Community Association Land Use Committee (CALUC) meeting.
  2. Incorporate the feedback you receive at the CALUC meeting into your plans.
  3. Submit your rezoning application and development permit application to the City.
  4. Staff will then review your application, including an interdepartmental review that usually involves both the Parks and Engineering departments.
  5. Then your application will be sent to a Committee of the Whole meeting for review by Council. If you’re lucky, Council accepts the staff recommendation to move the project forward. But Council always has the prerogative to refer the application back to staff to work with the applicant to make changes. If this happens, go back to step 3; if there are substantive changes, go back to step 1 for another CALUC meeting.
  6. If you get past Committee of the Whole, two weeks later the application is voted on at Council. It could get turned back or turned down here.
  7. If it passes at Council, months are usually needed to prepare all the legal agreements required before proceeding to a public hearing.
  8. Once all the legal agreements are prepared, one more trip to Council before heading to public hearing; that’s at a Council meeting where first and second reading of the bylaws are considered. Council could turn down or turn back the proposal at this point too.
  9. After first and second reading of the bylaws, a public hearing date is scheduled and advertised to the public in the newspaper, as is required by provincial legislation.
  10. At the public hearing, the public gets to share their thoughts and concerns about the project. And then, that night, Council makes a decision.

    This whole process can take often take a year, or more.

Unless there are efforts by the developer to rally support for the proposed new housing – which is often seen as suspect by Council and some members of the public – public hearings are usually mostly attended by people who live in single family dwellings nearby the proposed duplex, houseplex or townhouse who are opposed to the new housing. As the Canada-BC Expert Panel on the Future of Housing Supply and Affordability put it in their recently released report, “Rezoning can be difficult and amplifies the voices of a few rather than the needs of the community at large.”

Figure 10, Opening Doors: Unlocking housing supply for affordability, Expert Panel Report. Mean MLS price by dwelling type – annualized growth rate 2000-2020.

So we’re making it easiest to build the most expensive form of housing, and we’re pricing people out of our city.

Later this month, City staff will be bringing a report on missing middle housing to Council. They will recommend changes that make it much easier to build the kind of housing that people in Victoria need and can afford. I hope staff recommend taking away Council’s ability to vet these proposals, and delegating the entire process to staff. In short, I hope we start to treat duplexes, houseplexes and town houses just as we currently treat single family homes. I can’t think of a logical reason why we wouldn’t at least try this given that so few working people can afford a million dollar home.

Beyond Single Family Homes: What about housing supply in Victoria more generally?
While the Canada-BC Expert Panel was hard at work, so too were City staff. The recently released, “Victoria’s Housing Future,” report looks at current and future housing needs in our city. When staff presented their report to Council and the public a few weeks ago, one of the City’s housing staff and report authors reminded us that, “We’re planning for people, not just to accommodate growth.”

There is a narrative out there in the public that goes something like: “There’s so much construction and building already changing our city. Why should we welcome more people to Victoria and change our city so much that we don’t recognize it, just to accommodate people who don’t live here yet?”

Starkly, what “Victoria’s Housing Future” reveals is that as of 2016 (the most recent census data and five years out of date), we are between 4500 and 6300 homes short for the people who are already living here. Where are all these people now?

This estimated housing gap of between 4500 and 6300 homes for existing residents is based on these factors. It’s likely a conservative estimate of how much catching up is needed. According to “Victoria’s Housing Future”, “Even if 7000 units were added to the market today, we’d likely still feel some of the same pressures we’re already facing.”

To help out our residents who are already living here in overcrowded, or unaffordable housing, and to help employers who can’t keep workers because they can’t afford to live here, Council should not be allowed to turn down any proposal for new homes that fits within the City’s Official Community Plan (OCP), until we close the 7000 unit gap.

Here’s what the OCP says about Land Management and Development:

“Victoria’s Housing Future” also reveals that even if the OCP is built out to meet the housing need anticipated by 2041, we will still be 20-30% under the number of homes projected to be needed. What this means is that we need to revise the OCP to create more “urban residential” land and less “traditional residential.”

OCP Map 2 from Chapter 6 Land Management and Development.

Traditional residential means:

  • Ground-oriented buildings up to two storeys
  • Ground-oriented buildings up to two and one-half storeys may be considered for certain infill housing types
  • Multi-unit buildings up to three storeys, including attached residential and apartments on arterial and secondary arterial roads
  • Houses with front and rear yards oriented to face the street
  • Variable landscaping and street tree planting
  • Small apartments and local retail stores along arterial and secondary arterial roads and at intersections
  • On-street parking and individual driveways

Urban residential means:

  • Attached and detached buildings up to three storeys
  • Low-rise and mid-rise multi-unit buildings up to approximately six storeys
  • Primary doorways facing the street
  • Front yard landscaping, boulevard and street tree planting
  • On-street parking and collective driveway access to rear yard or underground parking

Shifting more of the city’s limited land base from traditional residential to urban residential doesn’t mean drastically changing the character of our neighbourhoods. It means doing more with our limited land base. And, it means doing this in order to meet not only our housing targets but also our climate goals. If we don’t make more room for housing in the city, what will happen is what is happening – more forests will be destroyed to build housing in the suburbs.

What can we do to make sure there is enough room in Victoria for artists, innovators, families, seniors, the next seven generations?
The Canada-BC Expert Panel on the Future of Housing Supply makes some good recommendations that the Province should implement immediately. Low hanging fruit includes mandating no public hearings for any buildings that fit within a City’s OCP. The panel also recommends that cities update zoning to match their OCPs and delegate development permits to staff. This means that there will be no political decisions and no public input for new housing on a development by development basis, as long as proposed new homes fit with what the OCP envisions.

While it may feel to some that these changes will cut the public out of the process, what they’re meant to do is a open up a more robust and vision-oriented public dialogue that happens as OCPs and design guidelines are developed and as City-initiated rezonings come forward. This kind of big-picture dialogue isn’t happening through the current public hearing process which pits existing neighbours against future neighbours against Council against developers.

Instead, we could ask questions that require us all to think bigger than whether we are for or against a certain proposal, questions like:

  • How might we enhance Victoria’s character and the neighbourhoods we all love at the same time as making room for current and future residents to have the housing they need at every phase and stage of their lives?
  • How might we protect existing older rental buildings and the affordability that comes with them, at the same time as making the most of the limited land base we have in the city?
  • How might we ensure that as our city grows and has more tall buildings as envisioned in the OCP, we also create more public spaces, green spaces, and enhance biodiversity?

It’s in answering these questions together that we’re going to build a more inclusive, resilient city, a city for everyone, and for the future.

Cautious Optimism for Victoria’s Economic Recovery: Building Back Victoria, by the Numbers

This past week, we turned a corner on COVID-19 as a province. As Dr. Henry laid out our new freedoms in Step 2 of the re-opening plan, she said we may need to go slow moving forward. But she also said – that with more than three-quarters of B.C.’s adult population vaccinated with one dose – we likely won’t have to go backwards.

I felt a huge collective sigh of relief from our small business owners and tourism operators. While everyone has public health and the greater good top of mind, the “circuit breaker”, while necessary, felt like a big step backwards. It was emotionally hard to get through. The past 16 months as a whole have tested the resilience of Victoria’s small businesses. The pandemic has also been hard on our downtown – and downtowns across the country – from the turn towards online shopping, to the challenges of people living outside with untreated mental health and substance use issues.

So how is Victoria’s economy and downtown after more than a year of a global health pandemic? Undoubtedly challenges persist, but based on the numbers, better than you may think.

Working with the Downtown Victoria Business Association (DVBA) and other business leaders, we’ve taken a snapshot of February, March and April 2019, 2020 and 2021 so we understand where we were pre-pandemic and can measure our recovery. While there’s still more work to do implementing Victoria 3.0 – our plan for recovery, reinvention and resilience for the long term – there are encouraging signs of downtown’s resurgence beginning to emerge right now.

Let’s start with people driving. In February, March and April 2019, just over a million people parked at on-street meters and in city parkades. In the same months of 2020, that number went down to around 630,000. This year – even with substantial public health restrictions still in place – we were back to around 731,000. Last year’s summer data tells an even better story, and we’ll look forward to seeing the positive trend continue this summer.

The bike data into downtown from the counter at Harbour Road shows a strong year-over-year increase. February to April 2019 saw around 138,000 bikes. This was up to just over 147,000 in 2020. And in the same period in 2021, just over 154,000 bikes were counted. During the pandemic, people have been taking advantage of the safe cycling infrastructure the City has built and making healthy transportation choices to come downtown.

The DVBA’s pedestrian counters tell the most interesting story of all. Not surprisingly with so many people working from home, there are far fewer people walking in the downtown. But still, there is optimism to be gleaned from the data. In April 2021, even with the circuit breaker in place, we saw over 575,000 people counted by the DVBA pedestrian counters throughout the downtown, as compared to close to 445,000 in April 2020.

This is a far cry from the 1.7 million people counted in April 2019. We know where our north star is and that there’s still a lot of work to do to welcome people back to the office, to welcome tourists back to the city and – in addition to the decrease in commercial taxes this year and the Build Back Victoria program – to find ways to continue to support our small businesses through recovery.

Finally, a good measure of the economic health of a city is investor and builder confidence. This is where the numbers show a bright future for Victoria. Pre-pandemic, the building permit values for the months of February to April 2019 totaled just over $53 million. In 2020, amidst all the pandemic uncertainty, we saw a drop to around $47 million. This year from February to April, the value of building permits topped $130 million, more than double pre-pandemic values. Our city planners are run off their feet as we continue to see new applications for both residential and commercial buildings in downtown Victoria.  

After 16 months of pandemic, there’s a pent-up demand for real life. People want to get out, have a meal, gather with friends and family, not leave the pub at 10 p.m., all while staying safe and respecting the health guidelines.

We can now travel within the province, and the City has been working alongside Destination Greater Victoria getting ready to welcome visitors. We’ve done this by adding new public plazas and spaces to gather, new pedestrian-only areas, and cycling infrastructure, for the benefit of locals and visitors alike.

We’ve helped to lay the groundwork for a healthy city and healthy economy. And we’ll continue to work hard in the next months and years to support our small businesses and our community, and to keep the numbers going in the right direction.  

This piece was originally published in the Times Colonist here.

Canada Day, 2021, Victoria BC: When Our Neighbours are Suffering It’s Not the Time To Celebrate

Children’s shoes, stuffed toys, and 215 orange children’s shirts on the steps of the BC Legislature. The shirts were laid after a ceremony hosted for island nations by the Songhees Nation Tuesday June 8th.

This past week Council voted unanimously to move a planned Canada Day broadcast from July 1st to a broadcast that will air later this summer. It will be guided by the Lekwungen people and feature local artists and musicians and will explore what it means to be Canadian, in light of recent events.

While there has been strong local support for this decision, there has also been some backlash from across the country. The backlash tells me that we have a lot more work to do as a country to understand what reconciliation actually means. Reconciliation is about relationships. And it is place-based.

Victoria City Council didn’t #CancelCanadaDay. We weren’t responding to social media campaigns. And no one actually asked us to rethink what we had planned for July 1st.

Each year the City organizes a Canada Day celebration to bring the community together for a diverse, multicultural celebration of our country. Last year because of COVID-19, an online one-hour televised celebration replaced an in-person community gathering. This year, we were planning a similar event – a diverse, multicultural celebration of Canada in the form of a one-hour TV broadcast which features local musicians and artists.

Staff recently met with long-standing Lekwungen participants in the Canada Day celebrations in preparation for this year’s event. They told staff that they wouldn’t take part in Canada Day celebrations this year, in light of the 215 children’s bodies at the Kamloops Indian Residential School discovered so close to July 1st, and the pain and trauma this is causing.

Here is what Lyla Dick, a lead singer in the Lekwungen Traditional Dancers told the Times Colonist:

“The group withdrew from the planned broadcast out of respect for her mother, a residential school survivor and the ‘backbone’ of the dance group, and all those who attended the schools. Dick said her uncle, who attended the Kamloops Indian Residential School, has been hit particularly hard by the discovery.

“‘Because what’s happening with our survivors right now is the years of suppressing all those memories, it’s like the wounds have opened back up … In our communities, we’ve known all along that there was losses throughout the years. I remember my grandpa hearing of his sister being pushed out the window … I remember stories of my mom’s brother, his punishment in Kuper Island. And mum today just told me about the punishments my dad received when he was in [residential school]. So it’s been known all these years, but not really openly talked about’.”

I had been discussing with staff how to incorporate recognition of the 215 children into this year’s Canada Day event somehow. But until I heard from staff that the Lekwungen people were too grief stricken to participate, I hadn’t considered recommending to Council that we rethink Canada Day this year. I’m not sure how I thought that somehow we could proceed with business as usual, even as the history of our country’s genocidal relationship with First Nations had been once again revealed in a way that is painful for the Lekwungen people, for First Nations across the country, and for many non-Indigenous Canadians.

The more I reflected, the more I understood that holding the usual Canada Day celebrations would be damaging to the City’s and the community’s reconciliation efforts. For the last four years, through the City Family, the Witness Reconciliation Program and the Reconciliation Dialogues, we’ve been building close, heart-based and healing relationships between the City and the Songhees and Esquimalt Nations. How could we have a celebration when our neighbours – on whose homelands the City was built – were suffering? And how could we hold a Canada Day celebration without the Lekwungen people who have been part of the event for the last decade?

As First Nations mourn, and in light of the challenging moment we are in as a Canadian nation following the discovery of the remains of 215 children, Council decided to take the time to explore new possibilities this year. In our decision, we noted that everyone will mark Canada Day in their own way this year, with some choosing to celebrate; that is the freedom that a country like Canada provides. But for Council, now is a time where the City can take leadership and provide an opportunity for thoughtful reflection and examination of what it means to be Canadian in light of recent events and what we already know about our past.

For a broader perspective, here’s an interview I did with CBC’s Carol Off on As It Happens Friday evening. (Interview starts at 1:47)

Statement on the Targeted Act of Violence Against a Muslim Family in London, Ontario

The horrific hate-motivated violence against a Muslim family in a Canadian city makes our own work to make Victoria a more welcoming city even more urgent. Whether people are welcomed or not can literally be a matter of life and death. To learn more about Victoria’s’ Welcoming City Strategy development and to get involved, please head here.

In support of Victoria’s Muslim Community, today I released the following statement against Islamophobia and hate:

In light of the horrific events in London, Ontario – a targeted act of violence against a Muslim family out for a Sunday evening walk – this is a call to all Victorians to stand together with our Muslim community members who are once again scared and grieving because of a hate crime perpetuated against Muslims in Canada. 

I have spoken with Imam Ishmail this afternoon to offer the City’s love, support, solidarity and anything else that is needed to help our Muslim brothers and sisters get through this painful and difficult time.

To all Victorians, we must continue to stand against hate and hate-motivated violence wherever we see it. And in particular over the next few days and weeks, let’s find all of the ways we can – each of us, in our daily lives – to demonstrate to Muslims in Victoria that they are welcome here, that they are loved, and that they are our community.

‘Functional Zero’ – Ending Chronic Homelessness in Victoria

These buildings are samples of the types of homes under construction that will provide transitional and permanent housing for those currently experiencing homelessness or living in supportive housing, freeing up space for people experiencing homelessness to move in. There are thousands of units under construction in our region, including at least 500 with rents of $375 per month.

As I write this, there are approximately four structures remaining in City Parks 24/7, down from over 260 last fall. This is the lowest number of people living in City parks that we’ve seen in many years. And while this doesn’t account for everyone living outside, we are also seeing the lowest number of people sheltering outdoors over night than we’ve seen in years. It’s a real shame that it’s taken us a pandemic to secure the housing and health supports we have this past year. But the efforts are working. And we can’t let up now.

We can end chronic homelessness in Victoria. It’s going to take the same focused effort that so many have put in over the past year. If close to 600 people can move inside in one year, in the middle of a global health pandemic when everyone is already stretched and stressed, surely we can focus on the people remaining outside and set our sights as a community on what’s known as “functional zero”.

According to a working paper produced by the Homeless Hub, “Functional Zero is achieved when there are enough services, housing and shelter beds for everyone who needs it. In this approach, emergency shelters are meant to be temporary and the goal is permanent housing. While the focus on supports is to prevent homelessness to begin with, this may not always be possible and in such cases, a system that is responsive and acts quickly is essential. A key aim of homeless-serving systems is to provide immediate access to shelter and crisis services, without barriers to entry, while permanent stable housing and appropriate supports are being secured.”

When we achieve functional zero, we will have brought and end to the humanitarian crisis of people sheltering in parks and public spaces when they lose their homes.

Achieving “functional zero” requires the creation of what’s know as a “By-Name List” or BNL. The Canadian Alliance to End Homelessness defines a BNL as “a real-time, person-specific list of all people known to be experiencing homelessness in your community. It includes a robust set of data points that support Coordinated Access and prioritization at a household level and an understanding of homelessness inflow and outflow at a systems level.” The development of a BNL is underway in our region as a key 2021-2022 action item in the Community’s 2019-2024 Plan to end chronic homelessness.

We’re closer than we ever have been before to ending homelessness in Victoria.

We have been operating for many years – and in particular during the pandemic – within a reality where homelessness in Victoria has become normalized. In recognition of this reality, we have accepted the need for people to shelter in City parks even as we worked toward permanent solutions to homelessness. But we haven’t been able to collectively envision a city without homelessness. This has to change. We need to re-envision. This past year has shown us what is possible.

We need to keep going to build a robust housing and transitional shelter ecosystem.

We need to continue to work with the Province on complex care housing – for the people who currently don’t fit into any of the existing housing options because of their complex needs. We need to ensure that those currently left behind get the kinds of supports and care they need in order to be successful in housing, and to not be evicted back to the streets and parks. The BC Urban Mayors’ Caucus is taking an active role with the provincial Ministries of Housing and Mental Health and Addictions to develop a framework for complex care housing and options for investment in complex care housing services or sites in the near term.

And we need to continue to support initiatives like the Regional Rent Bank and the Community Centre Housing Outreach Coordinator program, to prevent people from falling into homelessness.

Think reaching functional zero is impossible? It’s not. Medicine Hat Alberta reached that target in 2019 after ten years of effort. This blog post details how they got there. We’re following the same steps they took. We’re coordinating assessment and access. We’re working with people with lived experiences of homelessness. We’re prioritizing Indigenous people and working to support the Aboriginal Coalition to End Homelessness in providing culturally supportive housing and a dual model of care, blending both Indigenous and Western medicines.

Everybody is already mobilized in our community and working towards the goal of functional zero. And the federal government and the provincial government are mobilized too. In the almost-decade that I’ve been at the Council table, there has never been so much money pouring into housing and health supports.

The current Community Plan to End Homelessness says we will hit functional zero in 2024. That’s way too far away. COVID-19 has taught us that we can move quickly in a crisis. COVID-19 also revealed the chasms in the health and housing ecosystem in the province, leaving those already vulnerable even more so when the pandemic hit. At the same time, it’s been an unprecedented period of investment in housing and health supports. It has also been a time of lasting relationship building and deep collaboration among the City, BC Housing, Island Health, the Greater Victoria Coalition to End Homelessness, the Aboriginal Coalition to End Homelessness, the CRD, housing and social service providers, peers and people with lived experience of homelessness, and many others.

Nearing the end of the pandemic, and with the hard work of everyone involved, we are closer to ending chronic homelessness in Victoria than we’ve ever been before. We have fewer people living outside than we’ve seen in years. This is a moment to keep focused on the goal of achieving functional zero. This means that when people lose their homes, there is a robust social system – and a community – in place to catch them.

Statement on the Discovery of the Remains of 215 Children in a Mass Grave at the Kamloops Indian Residential School

Eddy Charlie speaking at Xe Xe SmunEem (Sacred Children)-Victoria Orange Shirt Day on September 30 2019, with Kristin Spray. Eddy and Kristin are founders of Xe Xe SmunEem-Victoria Orange Shirt Day which honours residential school survivors and those, like the 215 children whose bodies were discovered this week, who never came home.

On Monday, the City of Victoria is lowering the Xe xe Smun eem-Victoria Orange Shirt Day flag and the Canadian flag to half-mast to honour the 215 children who died at the Kamloops Indian Residential School, and whose bodies were recently found in an unmarked grave. We acknowledge the deep grief of families from the Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc Nation and families from the other Nations whose children attended the school and who never returned home. 

The flags will remain lowered from May 31 to June 8 for a total of 215 hours, one hour for each of the children who died. Council will also observe a moment of silence at the beginning of our meeting on Thursday. 

The discovery of the children’s bodies is a reminder to non-Indigenous Canadians that the grief and trauma of colonization is anything but in the past. These children’s bodies surfaced in the present and are a painful reminder to all residential school survivors and intergenerational survivors of their own pain, trauma, and need for healing. 

Taking meaningful action to address the ongoing, harmful legacy of colonialism requires more than symbolic gestures like the lowering of flags. It requires all non-Indigenous people and all levels of government to take action to recognize and honour Indigenous sovereignty, Indigenous laws, and Indigenous ways of knowing. The discovery of the children’s bodies should move us all to redouble our reconciliation efforts in real and meaningful ways.

To close with the words of Eddy Charlie, residential school survivor and founder of Xe Xe SmunEem-Orange Shirt Day in Victoria in a text to me today, “We all have work. Our old ones used to say, never think a path is perfect. The challenge is to stay standing together on that path. That goodness is all we need.”

City Staff Propose Bold Approach to Expediting Affordable Housing

Cool’s Aid Crosstown Project at 3020 Douglas Street and 584 Burnside Road. You can head to their website to learn more about this exciting development. Photo from Cool Aid website.

For the past few years, Council has been hearing from many residents about the impact of the housing affordability crisis in Victoria. Seniors who live on fixed incomes have a hard time affording housing; students who pay high tuition costs and then high student loan payments are in a similar boat. And many women-led single-parent families and people working in low-income jobs can’t afford to pay current market rents in this city. All of these groups are vulnerable if they lose their current housing.

Last June, in response to the evidence that the COVID-19 pandemic was deepening an already dire housing crisis, Council directed staff to report back with ideas to expedite affordable housing. We already fast track affordable housing projects and move them to the front of the line, but it still takes too long.

Let’s take Cool Aid’s Crosstown Project, pictured above, as an example. This is how it is described on their website:

“The project combines affordable rental units for working families, seniors and singles with a mix of incomes – a range of rental housing supply our city desperately needs – with other uses, including daycare services, office space, and retail space (including a café). The development is close to shopping, transit and other services, and is just a couple of kilometres from the downtown core, making it an ideal location for singles and families.”

This is exactly what the City’s Official Community Plan wants for this site. And it’s what the community desperately needs. So why does it currently take well over two years to get such a project to construction?

Here’s some background: Victoria’s Official Community Plan (OCP) lays out the land use plan for the city, to accommodate the anticipated population growth between 2012 (when the plan was adopted) out to 2041. The OCP was developed through a two-and-a-half year public consultation process. Over 6000 people gave their input to shape the vision for the city’s future and the land use plan that will help bring this vision to life.

Yet even with this overarching document, most land use changes (development proposals) still need to go through a public consultation and rezoning process – even if they fit with the OCP guidelines. This week, City staff are putting forward a bold proposal to change this when it comes to affordable housing.

The proposed changes will create certainty so that if non-profit housing providers or the Capital Regional Housing Corporation (CRHC) buy a piece of property and plan to use it in the way the OCP envisions, they will be able to do so without going through a political process. This will make it easier for non-profit housing developers and the CRHC to secure funding for projects from the provincial and federal governments, which like to fund less risky projects. The proposed changes will also shave significant time off the approvals process, bringing affordable housing to completion more quickly. This is important given the substantially increasing construction costs.

Specifically, what staff are proposing is that Council:

  • Delegate the authority to the Director of Sustainable Planning and Community Development to issue all Development Permits, with or without variances, offering affordable non-market housing secured by legal agreement.
  • Allow the maximum density contemplated in the Official Community Plan to be the maximum density permitted for a specific site, where an affordable non-market housing development is proposed and affordable dwelling units are secured with a legal agreement.

This amounts to waving a regulatory magic wand to make affordable housing possible on any site in the city, as long as the proposal fits with the OCP and the design guidelines for the neighbourhood. This means that there would be no public or political process for affordable housing developments.

I know there are some people who may be unhappy with this approach, as it cuts out public consultation on a site by site basis. We got significant public input on land use during the development of the OCP. And from a housing affordability point of view, we got lots of input through the development of the Victoria Housing Strategy, the Housing Summit, and the thousands of emails Council has received over the years from working people who can’t afford to live in our city, asking us to take bold action.

The housing affordability crisis is also regional. The Capital Regional District Housing Affordability Strategy identifies that over the next 17 years as a region , we need at a minimum 17,107 units for people from very low to moderate incomes. The regulatory change that Victoria city staff are proposing is just as possible for all other local governments in the region. My hope is that our colleagues across the CRD will also embrace this approach, making our whole region affordable for a range of people and families at every phase and stage of life.

And finally, while this is a good step for the City to take with respect to affordable housing, as I noted in my “Three Big Ideas” blog post, we need the Province to step in with big, bold action too. If we want to comprehensively address the housing crisis – including the lack of missing middle housing for families – we need a change to provincial legislation so that any project that fits within a community’s OCP and respective design guidelines does not require a political process. As part of this, the Province needs to ensure that local governments are still able to receive public amenities in exchange for extra density, and secure statutory rights of way for widening sidewalks or adding bike lanes. Right now these are only possible to secure through a rezoning process.

To read the staff report, “Options to Support Rapid Deployment of Affordable Housing through Regulatory and Process Changes,” head here (item G2). To read the Times Colonist coverage from Saturday head here.

Is Victoria A Welcoming City?

This booklet outlines the Welcoming Standard against which Victoria will be measuring itself and the goals we are aiming to achieve. It’s very short! Please take the time to read it and share it with everyone you know who might be interested in learning more about Victoria becoming a Welcoming City, or participating in the process.

The first year anniversary of George Floyd’s death is coming up at the end of this month. His murder at the hands of a Minneapolis police officer sparked international outrage. It brought the Black Lives Matter movement and the existence of systemic racism – everywhere, not only in policing – squarely into the mainstream as an issue that could no longer be ignored.

Creating a Welcoming City Strategy to address systemic inequities and make Victoria more welcoming is an action in both Council’s 2019-2022 Strategic Plan and the City’s economic action plan, Victoria 3.0. When the pandemic hit last spring – like much else that wasn’t part of core operations – Council put this project on hold. After George’s Floyd’s death and the response to it in Victoria and around the world, we felt the need to take urgent action.

For background and context, here is an excerpt from the June 9 2020 Committee of the Whole Report from Councillor Dubow and I:

“At the Council meeting on April 9, 2020, Council decided to put on hold a range of initiatives due to budget constraints from COVID-19 and revisit these on August 6th. The Welcoming City Task Force was one of these initiatives.

“Given the recent events in the United States and Canada as well as the well-organized and thoughtful responses of Victorians against racism in all forms and the desire to create a welcoming city for everyone, it is recommended that we proceed immediately with the Welcoming City Task Force. This will enable Council to harness the energy, creativity, passion and commitment currently evident in our community to make Victoria a welcoming and safe city for everyone. 

“The original proposed funding amount for this initiative was $50,000. This included engaging a consultant, in person meeting costs and stipends for Indigenous members of the Task Force as per the City’s protocol and compensation policy. Given that the meetings will all be held online, it is possible to reduce the budget.

“There is approximately $42,800 remaining in the Mayor and Council travel budget for this year, most of which will not be used given travel restrictions and lack of in person conferences. It is recommended that $40,000 be re-allocated to the Welcoming City Initiative.”

Council accepted our recommendation unanimously and a task force was struck.

The Welcoming City Task Force is co-chaired by myself and Councillor Dubow and is made up of people who reflect Victoria’s increasing diverse population. The members have been working hard with consultants and city staff for many months in preparation to launch an extensive public engagement process, which begins this week.

What is a Welcoming City?
The Welcoming Cities program began in the United States in 2009 as a deliberate way to create relationships between long-established residents and newcomers and to help develop a sense of belonging, connection, and community cohesion. Since then, it has grown into a global movement with the founding of Welcoming International and the development of the Welcoming Standard (pictured above). The Standard lays out the keys areas of civic life that need concerted attention and action in order to create inclusive communities:

  • Government Leadership
  • Equitable Access
  • Civic Engagement
  • Connected Communities
  • Education
  • Economic Development
  • Safe Communities

Not all the categories in the Welcoming Standard are within the jurisdiction of local governments. This is why Victoria’s Welcoming City Task Force includes representatives from other organizations like the Greater Victoria Public Library, newcomer serving agencies and Parent Advisory Council reps. The idea is to co-develop and co-deliver the Welcoming City Strategy together with the community.

Why Welcoming Victoria and How to Get Involved
Victoria is a culturally diverse place. According to the 2016 Census, close to 20 percent of Victoria’s population are newcomers, or people who are new immigrants or refugees to Canada who have settled in Victoria. They face significant social and economic barriers to integration into the local community and into Canadian society.  

Creating a Welcoming City Strategy means foregrounding the lived experiences of newcomers, people of colour, Black people and Indigeneous people to help inform the development of the strategy, so it reflects their needs and desires. We know that even on their own homelands, Victoria can be an unwelcoming place to Indigenous people. This needs to change. Important as well are the voices of long-established Victorians who have a role to play in helping to make Victoria welcoming, inclusive and resilient because of our diversity.

Phase one of the engagement begins this week with small workshops for people to share their experiences and needs in each of the Welcoming Standard areas cited above. At the same time, everyone is invited to share their stories between now and May 30th on the City’s Have Your Say platform. Do you feel a sense of welcome and belonging? What would help to make you feel like you belong and are able to flourish in Victoria? The Welcoming City engagement will be up Tuesday so if you go there as soon as you read this post on Sunday evening, you won’t see it yet – please check back later in the week!

The information gleaned in the workshops and on the story portal will be used to generate a community survey that will go live in early June. Whether you’re a newcomer or a long-time resident, please take the time to fill out the survey. You’ll also find it on the City’s Have Your Say platform in June.

The input from public engagement will help to inform the development of a Welcoming City Strategy that will be presented to Council in the fall. Once adopted, the implementation of the Welcoming City Strategy will be led by the City’s newly formed Office of Equity, Diversity and Inclusion.

The success of the strategy will be in the quality of the inputs we get during the public engagement period. For those who are new to Victoria and/or racialized minorities who don’t feel welcome here, who experience racism, who need us to do better as a community, thanks in advance for the courage to tell your stories and share your experiences. We can and must do better. For those of us who are non-people of colour, non-Black and non-Indigenous, we have work to do to unpack our privilege and examine our shared role in making Victoria more welcoming.

I thank the hard-working, courageous, and delightful task force for their work to date, and I look forward to the next steps in this important and necessary process.

City Budget 2021: Well-Being and Economic Recovery, and A Spot of Grace

As part of budget 2021, the City is continuing the transition to a zero emissions fleet like the zero emission ride on lawn mower featured here. We’re making these investments to meet the goals in our Climate Leadership Plan, with the added benefit of a more pleasurable work experience for staff and a better experience for the public with quieter, no emissions vehicles in parks and public spaces.

This Friday, I’m speaking on the opening plenary of a conference in Montreal (virtually of course!) called Policies for Better Lives. It’s an international conference of researchers focused on well being and policy development. Most of the conversations about measuring well-being are focused at the provincial and national level. It seems I’m being brought in as a local voice to remind the research community that their questions and research agendas also need to focus on cities.

Every year cities spend millions of dollars on programs and services; how do we know whether our spending is enhancing or detracting from residents well-being? How do we know whose lives are getting better by the investments we’re making? These are important questions to answer in our annual budgeting process, particularly coming out the other side of a global health pandemic where already vulnerable people have been made even more vulnerable and the pandemic revealed cracks in our social safety net. I’m honoured to help set this international research agenda, and in the coming years to see Victoria’s budget measured by how investments enhance well-being and equity in our community.

In the meantime, in the City’s recently adopted 2021 budget, Council has made an effort to focus investments on enhancing the well-being of Victoria residents and helping our beloved local businesses recover from the pandemic. I’ve pulled out some of the key highlights to share. Additional background information and the detailed five-year financial plan and background can be found here.

Infrastructure and Economic Recovery
Timely investments in the maintenance, repair and improvement of City infrastructure support community safety, avoid the need for more expensive costs for taxpayers in the future, and attract businesses and industry as they look for locations to invest. Infrastructure investments also create jobs. Some of the city’s key projects – like the bike network– are undertaken by private sector contractors which employ local people.

In 2021, the City will invest $24.5 million to improve city streets, fill potholes, upgrade crosswalks and sidewalks, and undertake traffic calming projects to make the city more walkable and safer for people walking and cycling. An investment of $33.7 million will continue the renewal of essential underground infrastructure including aging water mains, sanitary sewers and storm drains.

Economic recovery and resiliency are also key in this year’s budget. The Build Back Victoria initiative is a cornerstone of the City’s COVID-19 response and recovery plan to support businesses in every neighbourhood. Within weeks of launching last spring, dozens of patios and retail “flex spaces” had sprung up across the city, yoga and fitness studios had moved classes outside in parks. We know we’ll see even more creative use of public space this summer.

The City will also allocate more than $459,000 to support economic development and recovery to implement the Victoria 3.0 – Recovery Reinvention Resilience – 2020-2041 the City’s economic action plan. Key projects for 2021 include work with stakeholders to create an Oceans Future Hub, taking shape as the Centre for Ocean Applied Sustainable Technologies (COAST), and continuing to make it easier for new and existing businesses to do business in Victoria.

The South Island Prosperity Partnership will receive close to $220,000 to support their work collaborating with government, First Nations and private sector partners to accelerate recovery and build a resilient, diversified economy on the South Island.

For the first time in anyone’s memory, we’ve also lowered business taxes. For every $1 homeowners pay in property taxes, businesses contribute $3.32. Businesses – particularly local retailers, restaurants, arts and culture and tourism related businesses – continue to struggle with the fall out of the pandemic. If Council had adhered to its tax policy, this would have meant that this year businesses would pay and increased $3.59 for every $1 that residences pay. To support businesses during this unprecedented year, Council decreased business taxes.

Health and Well-Being
Providing outdoor spaces for people to enjoy and stay active, but apart, has never been more important. Parks, recreation and facilities will see more than $24 million in 2021 to maintain and enhance the city’s 137 parks and open spaces, gardens, community centres and other facilities.

In addition to the $3.8 million funded last year to design and build a new bike and skate park in Topaz Park, the City is investing $4.5 million to replace the artificial turf field at Topaz Park this year. Further improvements include $600,000 to replace the playground equipment at Stadacona Park and $85,000 will fund preliminary design work to install new lighting at Vic West Skate Park. An investment of $2.8 million will substantially improve and expand the waterfront Songhees Park on the west side of the Johnson Street Bridge.

This year will also see the design for the new sč̓əmaθən Peter Pollen Waterfront Park, improvements to Pemberton Park, and expansion of the Banfield Park dock for public swimming this summer.

Victoria’s neighbourhood associations, community associations and seniors centres will receive $1.5 million in funding to deliver important services and programs to residents and help make the community healthier and age-friendly for seniors.

To make Victoria more accessible and inclusive, the City is investing up to $40,000 for the development of a Welcoming City Strategy, as well as allocating funding to establish a new Office of Equity, Diversity and Inclusion with three full-time staff. Having a staff position in both community planning and recreation services divisions will embed equity in policies, programs and services, advance the removal of systemic barriers and help to make City Hall, city services and the community as a whole more welcoming and inclusive for the increasing diversity of residents that call Victoria home.

Also, in line with Victoria’s Strategic Plan, the City will continue to seek deeper and more engagement with the Songhees and Esquimalt Nations, including with both hereditary and elected chiefs. The City Family will continue to guide the City’s reconciliation work. As part of this work, $37,500 has been allocated to scope out potential future positions to advance a new Indigenous Relations and Elders in Residence Function in 2022. The Victoria Reconciliation Dialogues series will continue once large-scale public events can be held again and the City will support and help with the organization of Orange Shirt Day this September.

Affordable Housing
As we’ve seen throughout the pandemic, there is much more work to be done on affordable housing. While cities aren’t responsible for housing, the City of Victoria does what it can as a junior partner to the federal and provincial governments to assist with housing creation. This year we are allocating $660,000 to the Housing Reserve Fund which helps to leverage investment in affordable housing from the provincial and federal governments.

We are also continuing to accelerate the implementation of the Victoria Housing Strategy to increase housing choice and affordability for families. This includes non-market housing, affordable rentals, market rental housing and affordable or entry-level home ownership.

In response to the housing crisis in Victoria, the City has created an expanded set of housing targets to meet growing demand and catch up to the already existing need. Supported in part by the Victoria Housing Reserve Fund of more than $3.9 million, the plan is to partner with senior government and non-profit housing providers to create approximately 1,450 new affordable non-market homes over the next six years, as part of a total of 3,900 new homes across all housing types. This is an ambitious goal and it’s going to take Council saying “yes” more often than “no” to housing of all sorts in all neighbourhoods.

Climate Leadership and Zero Waste
Having declared a climate emergency in 2019, the City of Victoria is committed to taking serious climate action to reduce carbon pollution by 80 per cent and transition to 100 per cent renewable energy by 2050.

Through its Climate Leadership Plan, the City will invest up to an additional $350,000 in 2021 to top up the CleanBC’s Better Homes and Home Renovation Rebate Program, encouraging homeowners to transition from oil and gas to electric heat pump. If you are heating your home with oil or natural gas and want a substantial rebate to convert to a heat pump, now is the time. Details are here.

Climate action will also include the continued transitioning of the City’s fleet to electric vehicles, in addition to $175,000 for public EV charging stations. If you are interested in swapping in your gas guzzler for an electric vehicle, it’s also a good time to do that with substantial provincial and federal rebates totaling up to $14,000 . More details here.

Last year saw the introduction of new zero waste stations across the city. This year we will invest an additional $95,000 to install more stations in high pedestrian traffic areas like the new Dallas Road Waterfront Walkway.

Unrelated to Budget: Dose of Inspiration / Spot of Grace
My Sunday blog posts get mixed reviews, particularly when I make attempts to call us together, recognize our common humanity, our shared purpose, etc. Some people write and say they’re moved to tears, others say that they don’t need all this philosophizing garbage from the mayor. This week, one of the latter asked me what my “Sunday sermon” was going to be about. I told her I was writing about the 2021 budget! But just before sitting down at my computer to work, I happened to re-read this from Rachel Naomi’ Remen’s Kitchen Table Wisdom: Stories that Heal. It moved me, so I thought it would share it with you:

“Each person is born with an unencumbered spot, free of expectation and regret, free of ambition and embarrassment, free of fear and worry, an umbilical spot of grace where we were each first touched by God. It is this spot of grace that issues peace. Psychologists call this spot the Psyche, Theologists call it the Soul, Jung calls it The Seat of the Unconscious, Hindu masters call it Atman, Buddhists call it the Dharma, Rilke calls it Inwardness, Sufis call it Qualb, and Jesus calls it The Centre of Our Love.

“To know this sport of inwardness is to know who we are, not by surface markers of identity, not by where we work or what we wear or how we like to be addressed but by feeling our place in relation to the Infinite and by inhabiting it. This is a hard lifelong task, for the nature of becoming is a constant filming over of where we begin while the nature of being is a constant erosion of what is not essential. We each live in the midst of this ongoing tension, growing tarnished or covered over only to be worn back to that incorruptible spot of grace at our core.”

Mark Nepo cited in Kitchen Table Wisdom