Sometimes we just need a little push before talk moves to action. Saturday’s town hall on how to use a Citizens Assembly to explore the question of amalgamation was that final push for me. I’m more motivated than ever for Sannich’s Mayor Atwell and I to meet with Minister Robinson and lay a path for a Citizens Assembly to explore the question of amalgamation. Both Councils have requested this; the time for action is now.

The event, hosted by Amalgamation Yes, featured North Cowichan Councillor Maeve Maguire and Mona Kaiser, a member of the Citizens Assembly which was convened to explore amalgamation between North Cowichan and Duncan. In her opening remarks Shellie Gudgeon of Amalgamation Yes encouraged us all not to think of “yes” or “no” but for now, Amalgamation Maybe. For those of you interested in the process, read on! For those wanting even more details, please take the time to watch the presentation and Q and A session in the video.

In 2015, North Cowichan and Duncan came together and requested that the Province fund a Citizens Assembly to explore the question of amalgamation. With the Province’s go ahead and funding confirmed they convened a small committee with two elected officials from each area. According to Macguire there was no agenda outside of a fair process.

They hired MASS LBP to assist them, and off they went. There were 10,000 invitations sent out; 277 people expressed interest in participating; 147 could attend all events – which was a prerequisite for participation; and 36 people were selected. There was even gender distribution, fair distribution among neighbourhoods and age distribution within neighbourhoods and a set number of First Nations participants. Both Councils agreed to the criteria and then after that, it was out of their hands.

Kaiser, one of 36 residents selected for the Citizens Assembly, said she learned about her neighbours and local history, how local government works, and about the shared values and differences across their region. It is so valuable to spend time with people who think differently than you, she said.

The Citizens Assembly had a four-month mandate to examine amalgamation between the two areas. Both Maguire and Kaiser spoke of the brilliance of the approach and how it could be used to solve other complex problems and increase citizen knowledge and engagement. Participants received technical advice, financial information and presentations from community and business groups to assist in their deliberations.

After months of work, the Citizens Assembly presented to both Councils and the public and recommended amalgamation of the two areas. Both Councils had to agree to the recommendation in order to move forward to a referendum. Next step is further First Nations consultation by the Province and then the Province will hold a binding referendum on amalgamation of the two areas.

Lessons learned? Make sure we get a clear road map from the Province on what the steps will be after the Citizens Assembly reports. And don’t interfere with the Citizens Assembly process; once it is set up, just let them do their work. As Kaiser said, “Having a whole bunch of people in the room [beyond the 36 appointed] is not the the most effective – the voices get louder not deeper.”

What next for our region? We’ll keep you posted as Mayor Atwell and I meet with Minister Robinson. I’d like to see a Citizens Assembly set to work before the summer. And I’d like to trust the wisdom of a randomly selected group of citizens to explore the question of amalgamation of Saanich and Victoria with no preconceived outcome, willing to listen, learn and explore the similarities and the differences between us, and willing to recommend a path forward one way or the other.

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