Statement on Homophobic Threats and Cancelling of Family-Friendly Drag Show

Raising the pride flag at City Hall.
Raising the pride flag with from left to right, Pride executive director Deidre Rowland, Pride president Britton Kohn, and city councillors Charlayne Thornton-Joe, Sarah Potts and Stephen Andrew.

In June, Canadians from coast to coast to coast come together to celebrate Pride month. Here in Victoria we do the same. After two years of not being able to gather in person for Pride events and the annual parade, Victorians are keen to come together again to celebrate. On Friday at City Hall we raised the Pride flag to mark the beginning of Pride week in the City of Victoria.

Over the past week, a local coffee shop with deep roots in the community that was to host a family-friendly drag show this weekend was targeted with hateful and homophobic phone calls and threats of violence to people planning to attend the event. The event was cancelled as a result.

On Friday as we gathered as a community to raise the pride flag, I dressed in drag as an act of solidarity to say, and to show, that all forms of love and all forms of gender expression are welcome in our community, and are celebrated.

These threats of violence have no place in our community. Pride month is about celebrating love and the right we all have in a free country like Canada for everyone to love whom they choose, to express their gender how they choose and to feel safe in all places and spaces to do so.

Pride month is about celebrating and honouring diversity, celebrating inclusion and making space in our community for love in all its forms. That is what makes us strong as a community. In these uncertain times, we need to come together as a community and hold each other up, not tear each other apart.

To all 2SLGBTQ+ members of Victoria’s community, and all our allies, know that you are loved, and that that love will always prevail over fear and hate and anger. Happy Pride.

To find out more about this year’s pride events check out the Pride Society website.

Reconciliation Contribution Program – Opportunity for Victorians to Recognize Lekwungen Lands, Contribute to Nations

Eugene Sam of the Lekwungen Dancers performs at a ceremony in Centennial Square on March 11th.
Photo Credit: Kellie Hart.

Over the past few months, in partnership with the Songhees and Esquimalt Nations and guided by the insights and leadership of the Reciprocity Trusts, we’ve been working to create a very simple program for local property owners to make a voluntary reconciliation contribution to the Songhees and Esquimalt Nations. Last Thursday, a strong majority of Council endorsed this idea and will likely vote to ratify it on April 7th.

One of the criticisms of this policy innovation that we’ve heard from some members of the public – as well as one of our colleagues – is that local governments don’t have a responsibility or the jurisdiction for reconciliation and should leave reconciliation to the federal and provincial governments.

Municipal Responsibility and Jurisdiction

In 2015, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) released its report, including 94 Calls to Action. Five of these calls to action were directed to local governments. In 2017, when Victoria began our Witness Reconciliation Program, we adopted these five municipal calls to action and committed to working towards them.

Specifically, TRC call #47: “We call upon federal, provincial, territorial and municipal governments to repudiate concepts used to justify European sovereignty over Indigenous peoples and lands, such as the Doctrine of Discovery and terra nullius, and to reform those laws, government policies, and litigation strategies that continue to rely on such concepts.”

For cities, reconciliation must include recognizing both the impacts of urban growth and the increasing economic value of Indigenous lands, which Indigenous people don’t benefit from because of declarations of European sovereignty and displacement from their own homelands.

As part of the 2022 budget, Council is introducing a five-year pilot project with a $200,000 Reconciliation Grant to the Songhees and Esquimalt Nations. Council made this decision as a small gesture to recognize that the wealth generated by the City in the form of property taxes comes from Lekwungen lands, and that reconciliation and decolonization must involve more than words.

Reconciliation Contribution Program

The reconciliation contribution program proposed last week is in addition to the grant the City has already committed; it is an opportunity for Victorians to participate directly.

Over the past few years, many Victoria residents have participated in reconciliation initiatives – from attending the Victoria Reconciliation Dialogues, to participating in the Victoria Orange Shirt Day event on September 30th (now the National Day for Truth and Reconciliation), to learning about Lekwungen culture through their neighbourhood associations.

Last summer, many non-Indigenous Victorians came face to face with the history of the residential school system – some for the first time – as the first 215 unmarked graves were discovered outside the Kamloops Residential School. Many people have asked at these events and in this context, what more they can do as individuals to participate in meaningful reconciliation.

The reconciliation contribution program really is as simple as it sounds. Beginning in 2022 and each year thereafter, when property tax notices are mailed out, a separate form will be included that explains the City’s reconciliation work and the principle of reciprocity. This form will present an opportunity for property owners to decide whether or not they would like to make a voluntary contribution, over and above their property taxes. Property owners will be invited to voluntarily contribute an amount for example equal to 5% or 10% of their property taxes, or another amount of their choosing.

The City will collect this money and will send it to the Songhees and Esquimalt Nations alongside the City’s Reconciliation Grant. The money will be used by the nations to achieve objectives that they have set out for themselves likely including things like economic development, language revitalization, housing, education, and more.

This same process will be followed each year, giving property owners an opportunity to opt in each year. Just because a property owner makes a contribution one year does not mean they are obligated to do so the following year.

Reciprocity Trusts

For the past year, Reciprocity Trusts, a Victoria based non-profit initiative, has been working with south island Indigenous nations, municipalities and residents to create a new way to recognize Indigenous lands. They have been building support across the south island region for members of our communities to voluntarily contribute an amount based on their property taxes to south island nations, including the Songhees and Esquimalt Nations. This a way of recognizing where they live and work and the wealth generated from these lands.  

Reciprocity Trusts is in the process of setting up a Regional Trust for Southern Vancouver Island that would facilitate a voluntary transfer of wealth from renters, homeowners and business owners to First Nations in the region who choose to participate and receive Reciprocity payments. Once the trust is set up, the recommended Reciprocity payment will be based on an amount equivalent to 12% of a resident or businesses annual property taxes, and wold be eligible for a tax-deductible receipt.

In the future, as work between Reciprocity Trusts and the Songhees and Esquimalt Nations unfolds, Council can consider working with the nations and the Trust to hand over administration of the program to them.

Why the Link to Property Taxes?

As Councillor Potts pointed out on Thursday during the Committee of the Whole discussion, the reconciliation contribution program is part of the ongoing government to government relationship the City has been building with the Songhees and Esquimalt Nations. Government to government relationships are key to reconciliation and decolonization.

The Songhees and Esquimalt Nations are not a charity or a cause. They are sovereign nations, which, through the process of colonization have been displaced and removed from the heart of their territory as we occupied it to build the City of Victoria. The principle of reciprocity means recognition of the fact that residents, businesses and the City itself generates wealth from living on Indigenous lands; with this wealth comes responsibility.

Councillor Alto put it most eloquently, “The reason to tie the reconciliation contribution to the land is that people who have a benefit from the land have an opportunity to share the benefit of that land with the original stewards and owners of the land.”

In Closing

During Committee of the Whole, we discussed whether people who rent and don’t own property or people who live on Lekwungen lands outside of the City of Victoria may also wish to make a contribution. When the proposal comes forward to Council on April 7th, we will hopefully amend it to make this possible.

Even for those who aren’t able to contribute this year, I hope that when people receive the new form in their property tax envelope, it will be an opportunity to think about the Lekwungen lands from which our wealth is generated. And I hope it might inspire each of us to ask how we might participate in meaningful reconciliation and decolonization with the Songhees and Esquimalt Nations.

New Year’s Message: Co-Existence Key to Healthy Democracy, Community in 2022

The apple and the aspen, two very different trees happily co-exist side by side in our backyard.

At the beginning of 2021, we were in a pandemic. We were living with significant restrictions in terms of how and where we could spend our time and who we could spend it with. In the summer, restrictions eased up a bit – we even stopped wearing masks inside for a few weeks.

Our small businesses, which were hit so hard in the first year of the pandemic, started to see signs of light. The City released data in December that painted a promising picture. We saw a 27.7% increase in downtown pedestrian counts between February and October 2021 over the same months in 2020. There was an increase in building permits between August and October 2021, to a number even greater than pre-pandemic levels. And, some businesses in downtown Victoria are reporting their best Decembers ever.

Yet now, at the end of the year, with Omicron upon us, it seems that we are back to where we started.

Except that we’re not. We know more about COVID-19 than we did at the beginning of the year. The Island Health region has some of the highest vaccination rates in the world. The global scientific community is working on a COVID-19 anti-viral. Booster shots are rolling out more quickly than planned.  

When this pandemic ends, we’ll celebrate that we made it through. What’s important for 2022 is how we make it through and how we live well together, despite the challenges we face and the differences among us.

My word for 2022 is “co-exist”. It’s easy when people disagree with us, to paint them into a corner, paint ourselves into another corner, and end the conversation. Or name call. Or worse. We’ve seen this in the past year, locally and around the world.

The City has many key projects in 2022. From Missing Middle Housing, to rezoning for affordable housing, to finishing phase one of the bike network, work on equity, diversity, inclusion and reconciliation, planning the Arts and Innovation District, piloting the alternative response to mental health calls, and much more.

These topics will generate public attention and feedback. Some of them will generate controversy. And it’s an election year, which may make some of these issues feel like they’re in a pressure cooker.

What’s really important in 2022 – as challenging issues face us and differences arise – is that we have those difficult conversations. We listen to each other. This doesn’t necessarily mean that we change our minds, but at the very least, we come to understand another person’s point of view more deeply.

After spending an hour in conversation with someone with whom I disagree – just listening to them, without trying to change their mind – I go away a little bit richer if only because my own perspective is broadened.

It makes me realize that co-existence is not only possible but also necessary among people who disagree – especially if we are going to continue to nurture the community and the democracy that we need as we head into our third year living with the pandemic and with change afoot in the city and at City Hall.

This piece was originally published in the VicNews here.

Part 1. The Racist and Exclusionary History of Single Family Zoning

The majority of the light yellow areas – which comprise a large portion of the city’s limited land base – are zoned exclusively for single family homes.

NB I have updated this post after receiving feedback from Gordon Price through his blog post in response to mine. He and I come to different conclusions about the history of single family zoning and the current need to replace it with more inclusive zoning.

The City is currently undertaking consultation on a proposal to implement Missing Middle Housing in all neighbourhoods and allow for more inclusive housing forms “as of right”, which means without needing to go through a rezoning process. The Missing Middle Housing initiative is focused on creating more townhouses and houseplexes (including duplexes, triplexes, fourplexes, etc.) to help diversify housing choices. It’s aimed at people who will never be able to afford a single family home in Victoria.

Fundamentally, Missing Middle Housing is about changing the way we regulate land use. Currently, if an owner of a single family home, or a duplex, or triplex wants to demolish that building and build a new single family home, all that is required is to apply for a building permit. Yet if a homeowner wants to demolish their single family home and build a houseplex, it takes a couple of years to go through a political process, with no guarantee of success.

This past week, the average price of a single family home in Greater Victoria rose to over $1.3 million. Missing middles homes – family homes in houseplexes or town houses – sell for a lot less than a single family home.

There are rallying cries of support for Missing Middle Housing, some rallying cries against, and lots of people with really good questions, concerns and ideas. In a three part blog series, I’ll address these topics:

  1. The Racist and Exclusionary History of Missing Middle Housing (Dec. 5)
  2. Missing Middle Housing, the Displacement of Renters and How Missing Middle Upzoning Alone Won’t Solve the Affordability Crisis (Dec. 19)
  3. Missing Middle Housing, Design Guidelines and the Protection of Neighbourhood Character (Jan. 9)
  4. Missing Middle Housing and More Inclusive, Climate-Friendly Cities for the Future (Feb. 13)

The Racist and Exclusionary History of Single Family Zoning

There are currently many civil society organizations, government agencies, and all levels of government committed to tackling systemic racism and fighting for inclusion. This momentum stems largely from the resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement following George Floyd’s death, more concerted efforts at reconciliation after the uncovering of the children’s bodies at residential school sites, and strong reactions against the anti-Asian racism at the beginning of COVID.

The racist and exclusionary origins of single family zoning in North America has been well documented, yet that history doesn’t seem to be well known, and it’s not yet part of the conversation we’re having about Missing Middle Housing and the elimination of single family zoning that the City is proposing. It’s important to understand that the early 20th century artifact of single family zoning – still the main residential zone in all cities in North American, including Victoria – has racist, exclusionary roots. Dismantling single family zoning is yet another way we can address systemic racism.

In 1916, the City of Berkeley, California implemented North America’s first single family zoning in the Elmwood neighbourhood. Although the language of the zoning itself was written without reference to race, the explicit purpose of the bylaw was to keep the neighbourhood white and to exclude Blacks and Asians.

Gordon Price, editor of Vancouver Viewpoint cites Matthew Fleischer, the San Francisco Chronicle’s editorial page editor who writes about single family zoning in the Bay Area: “Its intentions were nakedly segregationist. The idea was conceived largely as a tool for white homeowners to eject Asian laundries from an otherwise segregated neighborhood, and to stop a ‘negro dance hall’ from setting up shop on ‘a prominent corner’.”

Other cities in the United States did use racialized langauge in their land use policies, including prohibiting “coloured” people from moving into certain neighbourhoods. This was challenged in a 1917, US Supreme Court case, where the court ruled that racially based zoning was unconstitutional. However, because Berkeley’s single use zone was about the type of housing – one house per lot – rather than explicitly about racial exclusion, cities across the United States began to use single family zoning as a work around.

This article from the Bay Area Sierra Club sums it up well:

“At the time, a half-dozen Mid-Atlantic states had experimented with explicit racial zoning, but were facing legal challenges based on the 14th Amendment. A city, using its regulatory authority, was not supposed to discriminate based on race. 

“Zoning experts helping the City of Berkeley were aware of the challenges, and suggested single-family zoning as a clever work around. It assured that only people who could afford a mortgage would live in the neighborhood. In 1916, that effectively excluded almost all people of color.

“When the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 1917 that explicit apartheid was unconstitutional, Berkeley’s ordinance became the legal alternative rapidly embraced by the rest of the nation. In 1928, then Commerce Secretary Herbert Hoover published a “Zoning Primer” that claimed everyone in America wanted to live in a Berkeley-style single-family zone and chastised cities that were not getting fully with the program.”

The the first municipality to develop a single family zoning bylaw in Canada was the Town of Point Grey (previously a standalone municipality adjacent to Vancouver), in 1922. It appears that the purpose of single family zoning in Canada was similar to the United States: to reserve certain areas of the city for certain people, and to exclude others.

In his article, “What Motivated Vancouver’s First Zoning Codes,” Reilly Wood cites the Town of Point Grey’s Planning Commission Chair who noted, “Such by-laws as these served, in no uncertain way, to implement the ideals held by the residents that their municipality was to be one in which the best type of home could not only be built, but also adequately safeguarded from the encroachments of undesirable types of development … At the present time over ninety per cent, of the municipality is zoned for one-family dwelling districts. Point Grey has no slum district.”

In 1930, when Town of Point Grey, the District of South Vancouver, and the City of Vancouver amalgamated, the same planning principles with the same exclusionary rationale, were used to keep Vancouver as a city of single family homes. From this unfolded single family zoning as the norm in all cities across Canada, where the majority of a city’s land mass is made up of single family zoning. In Victoria, fully 68% of residential land is zoned as single family.

This exclusionary form of zoning remained uncontested for a hundred years until, in 2019, Minneapolis became the first city in North America to dismantle single family zoning. This doesn’t mean that single family homes can’t be built, or that existing single family homes must be demolished. It means that it’s now just as easy to build more inclusive and accessible forms of housing, like houseplexes on previously single family lots.

In February of 2021 Berkeley City Council followed Minneapolis, voting 9-0 to remove single family zoning and right the wrongs of the the past.

In Minneapolis, “Advocates of affordable housing, civil rights, and the environment joined forces with labor unions, tenant activists, the young, and the old, to bring down the invisible but durable wall of government-mandated, single-family zoning.” My great hope is that in Victoria, we can build a similar broad-based coalition to undo the exclusionary legacy our city was built on, and to build a more inclusive city for the future.

NB Please take the time to read this article on Minneapolis process of eliminating single family zoning. The City of Victoria already has in place an Inclusionary Housing Policy, and significant investments in affordable housing through the $120 million Regional Housing First Program. These are two of the programs that Minneapolis brought in in conjunction with the elimination of exclusive single family zoning. In addition, Victoria is alreayd using city-owned land for the purposes of building affordable housing.

Privacy, Loneliness, and Climate Adaptation

Our backyard adjacent to our neighbours.

At just about every land use public hearing I’ve sat through for the last seven years, the issue of privacy comes up. Often neighbours are opposed to new developments because they feel like their privacy will be compromised. Applicants building the housing go to great lengths to stress the “privacy screens” they’ve incorporated into their developments: six foot fences, tall hedges, fast growing trees, frosted glass.

We’ve heard strong support so far for the City’s Missing Middle Housing project – which will replace single family zoning throughout the city with zoning for houseplexes and townhouses. But one argument we’ve heard against is the need to maintain privacy. Some people don’t want new neighbours in two and a half storey townhouses looking into their backyards.

And, one proposed rental apartment building at 1475 Fort Street has been sent back to staff three times because the neighbours nearby don’t want to lose their privacy. The new building would be approximately 30 feet away from their homes.

We are obsessed with the privacy.

Yet we are also so lonely.

An article in the Capital Daily in August, “Isolated in Victoria: Forging Friendships in a City Renowned for Its Chilliness,” shared stories of Victorians struggling with loneliness during the pandemic.

But the phenomena of loneliness predates the pandemic and is a chronic condition of modern western societies. In their 2018 article, “The Growing Problem of Loneliness,” in The Lancet, John T. Cacioppo and Stephanie Cacioppo write, “Imagine a condition that makes a person irritable, depressed, and self-centred, and is associated with a 26% increase in the risk of premature mortality. Imagine too that in industrialised countries around a third of people are affected by this condition, with one person in 12 affected severely, and that these proportions are increasing. Income, education, sex, and ethnicity are not protective, and the condition is contagious. The effects of the condition are not attributable to some peculiarity of the character of a subset of individuals, they are a result of the condition affecting ordinary people. Such a condition exists—loneliness.”

The constant demands for the protection of privacy when new buildings are proposed has me wondering why we are so fiercely protecting our privacy even when we are so lonely.

When our new neighbours moved in a few years ago, we brought cookies over as a welcome. It was the first and last time we used their front door. Our backyards are adjacent; there are no privacy screens. We watched Whitney go from crawling to walking, Zoey get really good at ball hockey. We can hear when bedtimes are difficult. They can see right into our kitchen at night.

We built stairs from the slope of their yard down into ours so the kids can get here easily. We’ll be out in the garden working in the summer and then all of a sudden all four of them are over here, kids crawling all over us, adults talking up a storm. Summer dinners at the big picnic table in their yard. During COVID, they became our bubble.

They aren’t exactly our friends. Not really our family. They are our neighbours. And it has become a sacred bond.

Last week Naomi had surgery. At 3am the morning she was supposed to go to the hospital, Zoey woke up throwing up. The chaos unfolded from there. Between sick kids and surgery complications that saw her back in the Emergency Room later that night, our four-person text stream became logistics central. We concluded that with four adults and only two kids, we could work everything out. And we did. Hospital pick ups were arranged. Cookies were baked. Prescriptions were delivered. And when she needed to go back to the ER later that night, she didn’t have to go alone.

We are already together. We were already connected. Dealing with an emergency felt easy.

It seems that even when people aren’t connected, in emergencies, privacy becomes less important. With the recent catastrophic floods in BC, when 1100 people were stuck in Hope, residents opened up their homes and took in perfect strangers to stay the night. The media accounts of these heartfelt stories didn’t talk about people worrying about their privacy, or strangers seeing into their homes. The stories were about generosity, the triumph of the human spirit. They demonstrated our instincts as humans to care for each other.

Why does it take an emergency to throw our privacy out the door? Maybe because it’s only short term and we can bear it for the time being. But I wonder if those full houses in Hope had a sense of connection and belonging, a sense of deeper purpose, that would be missed when the stranded residents left. And I wonder what our communities would be like if we lived every day with the same sense of responsibility and connection as when stranded strangers show up on our doorsteps.

Doing so isn’t only important because it makes us feel less lonely and more connected. It’s also the only way our communities will be resilient in the face of the climate catastrophe that is coming. One of my wise mentors recently said that the most successful climate adaptation will take place in living rooms across the city. With forest fires, heat domes and atmospheric rivers here to stay, it’s probably a good time to take down those privacy screens and invite our neighbours in.

The World Is Coming Apart at the Seams and Why We Should Embrace It

A few weeks ago, the City of Victoria, the Victoria Foundation and the Canadian Urban Institute came together to host an “urban intensive” called CUIxVictoria – Vital Conversations for Our Shared Future. It was a very powerful three-day series of discussion and dialogue. If you missed it, you can catch all the sessions on the CUIxVictoria website, some of which I’ll highlight in this post.

As event organizers, we deliberately profiled and foregrounded voices and experiences that are often left in the margins: Black, Indigenous and people of colour. The event was powerful because their voices and experiences are powerful. But it was also powerful in that it gave me hope that even though the world is coming apart at the seams as I wrote in a previous blog post, a new world is possible. Indeed, it is already emerging.

The CUIxVictoria sessions gave me greater motivation to work at helping to create that world. I also feel a keen sense of responsibility – a big one – as a white middle class settler woman to de-centre myself, to get out of the way, to provide support and resources where necessary, and to stop that “trickle of whiteness” as Charity Williams so eloquently called it in the video featured at the top of the post, “Hope Meets Action: Echoes Through the Black Continuum.”

The “trickle of whiteness” that seeps into processes led by and for Black, Indigenous and people of colour is the product of unconscious bias and the systemic racism that infects so many of our processes and institutions. In “Hope Meets Action” – which is also the name of an exhibit at the Royal BC Museum (RBCM) – we heard about what is possible when institutions like the RBCM hand over power, authority and resources to the Black community.

The museum exhibit, and the process to create it, centres the lives and stories – past and present – of Black British Columbians. The process of deciding what stories to tell and how to tell the stories was in the hands of Black community members, not in the hands of the museum curators. “Hope Meets Action” is a remarkable story. I highly recommend watching the panel discussion above if you work in an institution or setting that is decolonizing and working to address systemic racism.

In “Belonging in Victoria: Muslim Voices for Change,” (video below), we heard directly about experiences of Islamophobia and racism that Muslim women face in Victoria. Aisha exclaimed in disbelief, “How is Islamaphobia worse now than it was when I was in high school?” Zara noted that racism is rooted in colonization and that colonization is dehumanizing. We have an idea in Canada that we are not racist, she said, that we think, “This isn’t who we are in Canada.” If racism is rooted in colonization and Canada was created by way of colonization, then there is racism in Canada, and in Victoria. These Muslim women face it every day.

Yet also, they shared stories of resilience: their recommendations presented at the end of the panel for how to make Victoria more inclusive, less Islamophobic; their very presence and courage to organize a plenary session for CUIxVictoria and to speak so vulnerably, so openly, and with such generosity; and Chrystal’s moving spoken word poem where she asserts, “I deserve to be held with love, dignity and awe.” Please take the time to listen to the conversation as part of helping to usher in the new world we need. Addressing Islamophobia is work for all of us.

The CUIxVictoria sessions left me thinking about what concrete actions I can take in my last year as mayor and in whatever I do next, to support decolonization, dismantle systemic racism, create more inclusive economies and low-carbon prosperity. Those of us with white privilege, class privilege, settler privilege have to work hard to help create this new world, this new way of living together.

How do we do this? In the “Inclusive Economies” session profiled below, one of the panelists quoted Lilla Watson, a Murri visual artist, activist and academic working on women’s issues and Aboriginal epistemology in Australia: “If you have come here to help me you are wasting your time, but if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.”

Working together involves those of us with power and privilege handing over power, resources, time, centre stage, and more, to those whom patriarchal-colonial-extractivist capitalism has left out and left behind. What I learned from CUIxVictoria is that the view from the margins holds the wisdom for our shared future.

There was one additional and simple piece of advice that came through from the Black, Indigenous and people of colour participants on many of the panels, and was especially highlighted by members of the Welcoming City Strategy session profiled below: build new relationships. Members of the City’s Welcoming City Task Force suggested that if you are Caucasian, ask yourself if most people in your social circle are also Caucasian. Work to change this. When you meet someone who is different from you at work, picking up your kids at school, in your neighbourhood, invite them for a cup of coffee. The work of welcoming belongs to all of us.

With so much hopelessness around climate change – which we heard a lot about in the youth session – and hopelessness about the opioid crisis, the housing crisis, mental health challenges, experiences of racism, discrimination, the ongoing impacts of colonization, CUIxVictoria was a peek into the world that is possible and a sense of what it will take to get there.

Welcoming Victoria: An Inclusive, Anti-Racist City

To learn more about the process of developing the Welcoming City Strategy and to meet some members of the Welcoming City Task Force, join online this Wednesday October 20th from 5:00-6:30pm for a virtual panel discussion as part of CUIxVictoria – Vital Conversations for Our Shared Future. You can register for the Welcoming City session here.

For the past year I’ve been honoured to participate in the City’s Welcoming City Task Force and to work alongside newcomers, people of colour, Black and Indigenous people, agencies that work with and serve them, and with Councillor Dubow as task force co-chair. The task force began in November of 2020 by asking, “What makes Victoria unwelcome?” And we worked together over the next many months to develop a Welcoming City Strategy and Action Plan, which are coming to Council for consideration this Thursday.

Racism makes Victoria unwelcoming to people who are – in increasing numbers – moving here from around the world, and to Indigenous, Black and people of colour who have been here for longer. A survey conducted by the Intercultural Association (ICA) confirms the experiences of the Welcoming City Task Force members and others engaged in the consultation process to develop the Welcoming City Strategy.

The ICA survey found that 71% of who identify as Indigenous, Black, Asian or a person of colour personally experienced racism in the past five years in Greater Victoria, either daily, weekly or monthly. And 70% of people who identify as Indigenous, Black, Asian or a person of colour feel undervalued, isolated and unsafe in Greater Victoria because of their race or ethnicity.

What can also make Victoria feel unwelcoming is a lack of readily available information on services for newcomers, discrimination when seeking employment or housing, lack of access to and understanding of the legal system, inability to access City services in their first language, fear of calling the police for help, worry about their kids attending school without teachers and other parents having cultural awareness and anti-racism training, lack of access to affordable, culturally appropriate food. And more.

What I experienced as a white settler woman engaged in the Welcoming City Task Force was the extreme warmth and generosity of the task force members and others we engaged over the past year. These are folks who experience systemic discrimination, who are hurt and frustrated by systemic racism. Yet they showed up, shared their painful experiences, trusted us, and trusted the process even though in so many instances trust has been broken and processes have failed them.

To wrap up the engagement process as task force co-chairs, Councillor Dubow and I held a virtual town hall meeting, an open forum to catch any thoughts or ideas that may have been missed in the more structured “Welcoming Standard” workshops (more on that below). Right after the town hall meeting, we had a quick debrief with City staff who were involved in the task force process and attended the town hall meeting.

One veteran staff member who has attended many town halls, public forums and engagement opportunities in their time, remarked on the gratitude and generosity of the participants. The staff member was struck, as was I, that many of the people in attendance who spoke, began their remarks with comments like, “Thank you Councillor Dubow and Mayor Helps for this opportunity.”

Despite the fact that almost all the participants were Black, Indigenous and people of colour, accustomed to experiencing discrimination and racism, generosity and gratitude prevailed. What struck us was the contrast between the Welcoming City Town Hall and others Council has held in the past, where people with race or class privilege attending take for granted that the forum is there for them and sometimes rudely or harshly address council.

The prevalence of racism in Victoria, and the generosity we experienced throughout the Welcoming City process, make me resolute in my commitment to implement the Welcoming City Action Plan and to make Victoria more inclusive, less racist and to achieve Victoria’s Welcoming City vision: a city where newcomers are warmly welcomed and well supported. I anticipate that when the Strategy and Action plan come to Council on Thursday, Council will share this commitment.

Victoria’s Welcoming City work was identified as a priority in Council’s 2019-2022 Strategic Plan and was also key action in Victoria 3.0 Recovery, Reinvention, Resilience 2020-2041, the City’s economic action plan. Diversity, inclusion and belonging are key to creating a strong economy for the future.

To develop our Welcoming City approach, we built on the work done by the non-profit Welcoming America, which developed the “Welcoming Standard” in 2009. Since that time, several countries including Australia, New Zealand, Germany, and the United Kingdom joined as members of Welcoming International. The Government of Canada, through the Department of Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship joined the network in 2020. The City of Victoria is the first city in Canada to develop a Welcoming City Strategy. The Welcoming Standard is organized according to the following seven categories:

  1. Government Leadership – In welcoming places, local governments implement
    systems, programs, and comprehensive equity, diversity, and anti-racism policies
    that strengthen community efforts and embed inclusion within government
  2. Civic Engagement – Welcoming communities actively ensure that residents,
    including newcomers, fully participate in civic life by increasing access to
    leadership and democratic spaces.
  3. Equitable Access – Welcoming places work to ensure community services and
    opportunities are available to all residents, including newcomers.
  4. Education – Welcoming communities strive for an educational system that
    ensures all students have the support they need to succeed in school and the
    education they need to succeed in the workforce.
  5. Connected Communities – Welcoming communities build connections between
    newcomers and long-term residents by strengthening relationships and
    communicating shared values.
  6. Economic Development – Welcoming communities harness the full potential of
    all residents. Newcomers have the skills and assets to thrive, and economic
    development systems are prepared to leverage new and existing talent.
  7. Safe Communities – Welcoming communities foster trust and build relationships
    between residents, including newcomers, and local law enforcement and safety

Welcoming Standards are community specific roadmaps that provide a guide with community-determined benchmarks to develop stronger, more inclusive communities and bridge the gaps between newcomers and long-time residents. A ‘newcomer’ is defined as a recent immigrant (up to five years in Victoria), refugees, international students, temporary foreign workers, and recent immigrant Canadians relocating to the city. Welcoming cities recognize that communities are healthier, happier, and more productive when newcomers are welcomed and can participate fully in society and the local economy.

Please read the Strategy and Action Plan and share them with others. The work of making Victoria welcoming is work for all of us. And, those of us with race, class and other privilege have a key role to play and key actions to take in making Victoria an inclusive, anti-racist city for everyone and for the future.

Can you invite a newcomer for tea? Can you advocate for anti-racist training in your workplace? Can you ensure your kid’s classroom is welcoming and inclusive of everyone? How can you create time, space and opportunity with and for those who are often marginalized and privilege and centre their voices and experiences? How can you get out of the way when necessary?

To learn more about the process of developing the Welcoming City Strategy and to meet some members of the Welcoming City Task Force, join online this Wednesday October 20th from 5:00-6:30pm for a virtual panel discussion as part of CUIxVictoria – Vital Conversations for Our Shared Future. You can register for the Welcoming City session here.

Grandmothers For Africa, and Fourth Wave Fatigue

Victoria Grandmothers for Africa gather at Mile Zero to celebrate their fundraising ride for 2021. Photo credit: Jane Player.

Victoria Grandmothers for Africa
Last Sunday, I was invited to ride with the Victoria Grandmothers for Africa on the final leg of their 15th annual cycle tour. We met at Central Park and biked along the Vancouver Street bike corridor to Mile 0 where they had started four weeks ago.

Over a four week period, 65 women from greater Victoria as well as Campbell River, Duncan, Galiano Island, Ladysmith and Merville cycled a total of 28,144 km and raised $104,180 (and climbing) for the Grandmothers to Grandmothers Campaign of the Stephen Lewis Foundation. The women range in age from 58 to 86 with a median age of 70. Individually they completed distances over the four weeks ranging from 143 km to 1133 km.

At the first international Grandmothers Gathering (held in Toronto in 2006), 200 Canadian grandmothers made a commitment to 100 African grandmothers and to the world: “We will not rest until they can rest.” Fifteen years later, thousands of grandmothers are more committed than ever to three shared goals: raise awareness, build solidarity, and raise funds for the local, community-based organizations that support African grandmothers and the children in their care. There are over 15 million orphans in Africa – children who have lost one or both parents to HIV & AIDS – and most are being raised by grandmothers.

According to the organizers, “the Victoria Grandmothers for Africa Cycle Tour … embodies solidarity. Cycling requires strength, endurance, confidence, balance, optimism and perseverance. African Grandmothers need all of these and more in order to carry out their work. The tour has raised over a million dollars for the Steven Lewis Foundation over 15 years.”

During the pandemic, the Victoria Grandmothers weren’t deterred and found creative ways to continue the cycle tour and continue to raise money, which is a good thing because support for the grandmothers in Africa is needed now more than ever. In African countries, there is limited access to vaccines and the goal of having enough doses available for 10% of the population by the end of September is unlikely to be met. This leaves African grandmothers and their grandchildren at risk and even more in need of help, support and love sent from their counterparts in Victoria.

This is the fifth year I’ve joined the Victoria Grandmothers for Africa at the end of their cycle tour (last year virtually). Each year I do, I’m moved to tears by their deep and heartfelt commitment to grandmothers on the other side of the world. It is unwavering and it’s an inspiration for all of us. As big as the world might seem, we can make it smaller by creating direct links to others – in this case grandmother to grandmother. We know when we do this, that however far apart we are and however different we might seem from each other, we are inextricably connected.

You can learn more about the Victoria Grandmothers for Africa and their work here.

Fourth Wave Fatigue
It has been a difficult past few weeks in our city, province, and country. Notwithstanding the inspiring story above about the grandmother connections, we’re more divided than ever. In part it’s because everyone is beyond tired – fatigued – as we plow through yet another wave of COVID-19. This division is not necessary. And it’s not inevitable.

Doctors, nurses, those working on the front lines in motels and shelters in our community where vulnerable residents live and where COVID-19 has hit with a vengeance. Police and bylaw officers, paramedics, public works and parks staff. Small business owners who can’t find enough staff or who are experiencing break ins and damages. Those living outside because the existing sheltering and housing available doesn’t meet their needs. Those trying to care for them. All these people and many more are exhausted and stretched really thin, maybe to a breaking point.

Because of this, it’s the most difficult wave of the pandemic yet. But we’re not going to get through it divided. Remember back to the first wave when we were banging pots and pans to support health care workers. When we were bringing groceries to seniors who couldn’t go out. When we raised $6 million as a community in a very short time for the Rapid Relief Fund to help out those in need. When we found all sorts of ways to stay connected even while we stayed apart. When there was a general and overwhelming feeling of goodwill, generosity and a sense that we were all in this together.

For those of us who want that feeling back, we can create it. Indeed I think there’s an imperative for us to do so if we’re going to make it through the fourth wave intact as humans and as a community. Here are some things that I’m trying to do that might also be useful to you:

  • Get off and stay off social media
  • Instead of looking at your phone while in a line up, strike up a conversation with the person behind you
  • Give people with strong differences of opinion an opportunity to share their views without arguing back; give people the benefit of the doubt
  • Notice if you have privilege and find ways to address it. (Below is an amazing video to help figure out where you stand)
  • Find ways in daily life to do small, kind and unexpected things for others – both people you know and people you don’t
  • When in doubt, be generous

The World is Coming Apart at the Seams, and What We Can Do About It – A Dose of Inspiration

This might be a bit of a heavy read, and it’s a bit rambly about all the challenges we’re facing. But there is some practical inspiration and hope at the end of the post. Feel free to skip right to that section if you don’t want a re-hash of everything that is wrong with the world right now.

It feels as if the world came apart at the seams this summer. I read CBC news every day, both BC and national. I also scan the Globe and Mail and the New York Times. I read for information, but also for the metanarrative – what’s going on in the really big picture? How do all these headlines and stories fit together?

I wonder if others also see how bad things actually are and how all the problems we’re facing as a human society are interconnected, or at the very least related. The climate crisis. The housing crisis. The labour shortage. Worker burnout. Racism and colonialism. And more.

The pandemic and climate change are the most obvious. BC’s State of Emergency finally came to an end after 16 months and then, weeks later, BC was in another State of Emergency because of the wildfires. Is the new normal a State of Emergency? This is a real question.

In the interior, last summer’s tourist season was ravaged by COVID-19. This summer it’s COVID-19 and climate change. And nurses in the interior (and elsewhere) are quitting their jobs because of the stress and continuous state-of-emergency conditions. In Alberta, nurses are being forced to work overtime to deal with a rise in COVID-19 cases. Nurses and doctors are exhausted. Firefighters are exhausted. What if everyone just gets too tired? Who will take care of us then? Who will back fill?

Our population growth via immigration has stalled because of COVID-19, but even when we begin to welcome newcomers again, where will they live? Canada has one of the worst housing supply situations of any OECD country. So even if we let immigrants in by the thousands to fill the massive labour gap that we are facing in many industries and professions, there are no homes for them. There isn’t currently enough housing in the country, province or city for people who are already here.

In Victoria last summer, we also felt the negative effects of COVID-19. Those without homes and living in poverty experienced the giant gaps in the social safety net and ended up living in parks. And we also experienced a lack of tourist travel which had negative impacts on our local businesses.

This summer, tourists are flocking to Victoria rather than to other parts of the province that are too smokey. Our restaurant staff are so stressed as there aren’t enough workers to cover shifts; they’re often working shorthanded, or many are new and being trained all at once. Last year, restaurants had limited capacity because of COVID-19. This year some have limited capacity because of lack of staff; they have to close on certain days or cut hours. Everyone is hiring but no one can find enough workers. Why? Because the workers can’t find housing that is affordable, and, in many cases, they can’t find any housing at all, even if they make a really decent salary.

A friend told me over dinner recently that a few years ago, BC Assessment began to assesses the value of multi-unit residential rental properties differently and that rental buildings are now being valued at the income that they could be earning rather than the income that they are earning.

What this means is that even if a building owner is charging tenants rents that are below market, their buildings are now assessed / valued at how much they would be worth if they were charging market rents. For example, if a building owner has tenants that have lived in a building for a long time and are paying less than what they would if they moved in today, or if a building owner supports a single mom with kids by giving her a break on rent, their buildings are still valued at the maximum rents they are able to charge. They are penalized for providing below-market housing.

How is having a building that is “worth more” a penalty? Because as the assessed value of a building goes up, this means property taxes for that building go up and the below market rents can’t cover the property taxes. My friend tells me that some of his friends – long-time building owners – are putting their buildings on the market because they can’t afford to keep them more affordable.

These buildings are being snapped up by Real Estate Investment Trusts (REITs), the mandate of which is to deliver as high as possible rate of return to their investors. Some of the investors in REITs are public sector pension corps. We want teachers and nurses and city workers to have good pensions; but we also want them to be able to afford housing now.

We also want our small local businesses to survive and thrive coming out of the pandemic. And yet, Amazon is opening a distribution centre near the airport to distribute Amazon goods up and down Vancouver Island. When our small businesses are still struggling.

Housing shortage. Labour shortage. Exhausted workers on the front lines. Housing crisis. Pandemic that looks like it’s here to stay. And climate change wreaking havoc. Something’s going to give. Something is giving. The world is breaking apart at the seams.

What do we do? Do we become bystanders? No. What is my role? As a human? As mayor? It’s exhausting sometimes when every decision that is good for the climate crisis or for the housing crisis feels like a giant fight. Think the Richardson Street bike corridor. Think the proposed rental building at 1475 Fort Street, sent back to staff for a third time rather than moving forward to create new housing.

Is this a blog post or a journal entry?

I thought this morning that maybe it’s a culmination of feelings built up over a few days of summer holiday reflection. It’s the same way I felt sometimes as a teenager – despair that we humans were destroying the planet and no one was really doing anything about it. I rode my bike and took the bus to school and became a vegetarian for a time. I did my best, but it didn’t really matter, because look at how the adults were treating the planet.

Now I’m an adult with an eighteen-year-old in my life who feels much the same was as I did. What are we doing as adults?

We can’t house people. We can’t properly care for people with mental health and substance use challenges; the latter are dying in larger numbers than people are dying of COVID-19. We can’t provide our essential workers with any relief as we lurch from State of Emergency to State of Emergency. We can’t adequately or quickly enough address systemic racism, the ongoing impacts of colonialism and the grief of residential school survivors and the families of those who never came home. We want to save the old growth forests, but we still fly to Mexico for vacation.

All of this while the province literally burns down around us.

Despair. Fear. Disconnection.

But thankfully, this isn’t all.

I’ve spent the last few months reading Margaret Wheatley’s, Finding Our Way: Leadership for an Uncertain Time. Almost every page has a folded corner. It’s from 2005. I bet her 2017 book, Who Do We Choose to Be? Facing Reality, Claiming Leadership, Restoring Sanity, has more recent insight for the even more precarious and uncertain time we are in now.

But still, in Finding Our Way, she shares wisdom that I turn to in despair. Wisdom that offers a path forward through connection, love, and hope-through-shared-action.

There are three elements in the book that give me not only hope, but the ability to see more clearly and to act more deliberately, both as a human and as mayor.

Wheatley says that we need to become better systems thinkers, to “see a system and its web of connections.” How is climate change related to COVID-19 related to the housing crisis related to the worker shortage related to worker burnout related to racism and colonialism related to disconnection?

She suggests when we’re trying to make change, to start small, do something that makes a difference and see who notices. The point is to find the connections in the system that we don’t know are there. Wheately says that when we do something like that – take a small action in the direction we want the world (or our street or community or neighbourhood) to move, people show up, “We didn’t know there was any connection between us, but their response makes the connection clear” (207). We then understand those connections better and can use them to take the next action.

To be better systems thinkers we also need to expect that there will be unintended consequences to the actions we take. We need to be able to identify these quickly, reflect on them, and then to take a different action next time. Systems thinking also requires seeking out different interpretations. “The more interpretations we gather,” Wheatley says, “the easier it is to gain a sense of the whole” (208).

Second, Wheatley says that we need to find less aggressive ways to work through problems. She points out that even how we talk about problem solving is aggressive. We “attack a problem,” “tackle the issue,” “get on top of it,” “wrestle it to the ground,” “take a stab at it” (182).

What she recommends instead is this:

“To step aside from aggressive responses to problem solving requires a little used skill: humility. Humility is a brave act – we have to admit that we don’t have the answer. We need more information, more insight. This kind of humility is rare in competitive, embattled organizations and communities, but it is what we need to find real solutions. One wise educator put it this way: ‘Humility is admitting I don’t know the whole story. Compassion is recognizing that you don’t know it either'” (184).

I think about social media here, how it is a platform for sheer aggression. What would Facebook, Twitter etc be like if – instead of posting with such certainty and then defending positions – people shared what they were grappling with, or struggling to understand. What if social media became a platform for humility and compassion.

The third kernel of wisdom I’ve gleaned and would like to share is probably the most important, and indeed the two approaches above are not possible without it: listening.

Wheatley writes:

“Our natural state is to be together. In this time when we keep moving away from each other, we haven’t lost the need and longing to be in relationship. Everybody has a story. If no one listens we tell it to ourselves and we go mad. In the English language the word for health comes from the same root as the word for whole. We can’t be healthy if we’re not in relationship. And whole is from the same root as holy. Listening moves us closer; it helps us become more whole, more healthy, more holy” (219).

What she recommends is that we “all play our part in the great healing that needs to happen everywhere.” She asks us to, “think about who you might approach – someone you don’t know, don’t like, or whose manner of living is a mystery to you. What would it take to begin a conversation with that person? Would you be able to ask him or her for an opinion or explanation, and then sit quietly to listen to the answer? Could you keep yourself from arguing or defending or saying anything for a while? Could you encourage the person to just keep telling you his or her version of things, that one side of the story” (221)?

Thinking like a system, approaching problems less aggressively, and listening. There are no quick fixes or easy solutions to the complex issues we are facing right now. Yet in a time of despair and disconnection, in a summer where it feels like the world is coming apart at the seams, these are three tools that I can use – maybe tools that we can all use – to help stitch the world back together again, creating it anew at the same time. To become more whole, more healthy, more holy.

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”