Cities Need Housing for Economic Recovery

This piece was co-written by myself, Mayor Rebecca Alty, Yellowknife, Councillor Cindy Gilroy, Winnipeg, Mayor Berry Vrbanovic, Kitchener and was originally published here in National Newswatch. We are members of the Right to Home Municipal Working Group, which brings together elected officials and city staff from across Canada committed to securing the right to housing. It is convened by The Shift and the Canadian Urban Institute.

In cities across the country, we’ve witnessed the devastating effects of housing insecurity during the COVID-19 pandemic unfold on our streets and in our parks.  In the early days last March, shelters closed or cut their numbers, and many people were forced into doorways or tents.  Others lost their jobs and couldn’t pay rent, and – even with all the government supports available – fell into homelessness.

Many low-income people have managed to hold onto their housing but are paying even more of their monthly income for shelter than they were pre-pandemic; this leaves less money for other necessities like food, childcare, and transportation costs.  Indigenous people, Black people, and people of colour have been disproportionately impacted by housing insecurity, housing loss, and by COVID-19 cases and deaths, often as a direct result of living in inadequate or crowded housing.

Next week’s federal budget is an opportunity for the government to write Canada’s future story and uphold its human rights commitments.  We understand that there are many pressures on the public purse; we feel these every day locally, as we also have to make difficult choices.

But we can’t state strongly enough that unless Budget 2021 makes significant and immediate investments in housing that reach those in need, economic recovery will be slow and uneven. Cities across the country – which are the engines of innovation in an increasingly knowledge-based economy – will have to spend continued time, energy, and resources dealing with the issue of homelessness, rather than on broader recovery efforts, and residents will not benefit from a recovery plan if they do not have decent housing that is affordable to them.

By adopting a human rights-based approach to housing through the National Housing Strategy Act of 2019, the Federal government has committed to addressing homelessness on an urgent and priority basis.  The $1 billion federal Rapid Housing Initiative that rolled out in September 2020 was a good start.  This program will see the immediate creation of 4700 supportive housing units across the country, 1700 of which are due directly to the investment and contribution of provinces and cities.  With over 200,000 Canadians sleeping outside each night, and 27,000 chronically homeless who have lived on our streets for years, there is more to do.

A report by Carleton Professor Steve Pomeroy commissioned by the Canadian Alliance to End Homelessness shows that over the next 10 years, Canadian taxpayers will spend $70 billion to continue to manage homelessness.  Ending it would cost just $52 billion – a savings of $18 billion. The $52 billion plan would prevent an additional 300,000 Canadians from falling into homelessness, and it would create 500,000 well-paying jobs in the construction sector.  Not only does ending homelessness ensure compliance with the federal government’s human rights commitments, it makes good fiscal sense.

And, it’s the kind of bold, ambitious action that our cities and our most vulnerable residents require.  As a start, in Budget 2021 we’d like to see a $7 billion expansion of the Rapid Housing Initiative.  This will create at least 21,000 additional units of housing within a year for people facing homelessness.  If the federal funds are leveraged further with investment from provinces and land from cities, even more housing will be built.

We know that building new housing isn’t enough.  Between 2011 and 2016, the number of private rental units affordable to households earning less than $30,000 per year (rents below $750) declined by 322,600 units.  This trend is continuing as older rental stock is purchased by Real Estate Investment Trusts (REITs) that significantly drive up rent levels and drive out tenants.  The current National Housing Strategy proposes to build only 15,000 units per year over ten years. This means we’re currently losing far more affordable housing than we’re building.

Budget 2021 should create a significant fund for non-profit housing providers to acquire older market rental housing, renovate it as units turnover, and keep it affordable in perpetuity.  This will protect the seniors in our communities who live on fixed incomes, students who pay high tuition costs, women-led single-parent families, and people working in low-income jobs who can’t afford to pay market rents in any city in this country.  Budget 2021 should also include immediate rent relief measures for renters.

We are not alone in our call for a housing focus in Budget 2021.  A poll conducted by Nanos Research in August 2020 shows that 84% of Canadians support or somewhat support affordable housing investment as part of pandemic recovery economic stimulus.  And our residents in cities from coast to coast to coast call and email us every day asking us to do something about the housing crisis.

As cities, our roles and resources are limited.  But we’re here as partners nonetheless.  We pledge to work together with the federal, provincial, and territorial governments to create a future story for our country where every person has their right to housing met.  Doing so makes common sense, fiscal sense, and will help ensure a speedy, inclusive, and lasting recovery.

There Is A Rape Culture in Victoria, and Everywhere

You can donate to the Victoria Sexual Assault Centre here.

Trigger warning: This post contains discussions of rape, sexual assault, and violence against women.

For those who haven’t been following social media over the past week in Victoria, this post will come as a bit of a surprise and maybe a shock. In the past few months on an Instagram account @survivorstoriesproject, women working in the restaurant industry have been reporting sexual assaults. More recently, on the same account, women reported sexual violence by a number of Victoria real estate agents.

In response, on social media last Saturday, Victoria Councillor Stephen Andrew posted the following tweet:

He has since apologized, acknowledged the existence of rape culture, and made a motion for Victoria Council to create a task force to address sexual abuse. More on the motion below.*

Some may wonder how anyone could claim that rape culture doesn’t exist. There’s an easy answer: It’s the very misogynistic and patriarchal organization of western society that perpetuates rape culture, that makes it possible to claim that rape culture doesn’t exist. In other words, it is male privilege to be able to be blind to the existence of rape culture.

Rape Culture Rape culture is defined as “an environment in which rape is prevalent and in which sexual violence against women is normalized and excused in the media and popular culture. Rape culture is perpetuated through the use of misogynistic language, the objectification of women’s bodies, and the glamorization of sexual violence, thereby creating a society that disregards women’s rights and safety.”

So many women have written to me this past week outraged, thoughtful and courageous. They’ve outlined, once again, how patriarchy and misogyny work. Many put it so eloquently. Here is what one woman wrote:

“We are fearful walking home after dark, we go for runs without headphones, we avoid booking male massage therapists and other practitioners that place us in a vulnerable position without prior recommendation and vetting from friends, we are uneasy taking public transportation in certain areas or times of day, we can’t leave our drinks unattended, we smile and we laugh in uncomfortable situations until we can politely escape for fear of making the situation worse. The list goes on, and on, and on, and on, and on. I have done all of these things. I know hundreds of women who do these things daily. I would say that this is representative of a culture and society that demands women make unreasonable sacrifices to avoid sexual assault, wouldn’t you?”

In this culture, women, transgender and non-binary people face sexual violence. Over the last 10 years, sexual assault is the only violent crime on the increase in British Columbia and across Canada. Statistics Canada states that less than 5% of victims of sexual violence report to police. This number is likely lower because when these studies are done, rarely do teens and young adults – those at greatest risk of being sexually assaulted – answer the phone and respond to surveys. Of the less than 5% who report, few ever result in charges and only 1.8% (of the 5%) result in convictions. We need to collectively work to change these conditions and make it easier and safer for survivors to speak out and to receive justice.

As noted above, rape culture is also perpetuated through the use of misogynistic language. Brace yourselves for the text I received yesterday afternoon:

“Notice the bottle neck you created on the Tillicum bridge. More traffic congestion more pollution. Well done you dumb CUNT! Article 16 on your blog post on Clover Point you point out what cities like Oakland are doing if that’s what you want do what the majority of Victorians want you to do, fuck off and go there before you do anymore damage to our city. You dumb CUNT!”

I felt sick to my stomach. And shamed. I’m not sure if it’s the capitalization of the word that’s most upsetting, or the fact that the writer needed to say it twice, or the fact that the “Tillicum bridge” isn’t even in Victoria and it’s just easy and convenient to use violent language to blame me – a female politician. It turns out the writer is referring to a wonderful pedestrian improvement project spearheaded jointly by Esquimalt Council and Saanich Council on the Gorge Road Bridge.

I just finished reading a compelling book by Indigenous author Alicia Elliott, A Mind Spread Out on the Ground. Last weekend, as the social media firestorm was unfolding, I happened to be reading the chapter called “On Forbidden Rooms and Intentional Forgetting,” where she talks about her experience of being raped.

She writes, “Arguing that a woman deserves to police the boundaries of her own body – boundaries that are continually, sometimes violently broken by men who have been taught to disregard women’s active, informed consent – is a task similar to Sisyphus rolling a boulder up hill, waiting for it to roll back down and crush him. It’s contrary to all that we’ve been taught about women and men. It questions the very legitimacy of Western misogyny, and thus, Western society. In other words, it’s blasphemy.”

Her words are so strong and powerful, just like all of the survivors who have the courage to speak up. And all the wonderful staff at the Victoria Sexual Assault Centre and the @survivorstoriesproject followers who support them. Keep raising your voices. The world needs to hear us. For men who want to help, thank you. Please donate to the Victoria Sexual Assault Centre here. Examine your privilege, work to address it, don’t be complicit. We need you.

*Re: Councillor Andrew’s motion cited above: Council postponed consideration of the motion on Thursday until we receive a report from staff on work already underway based on an earlier motion made by Councillors Potts and Loveday to address sexual harassment in the restaurant industry. The staff report will outline what jurisdiction, if any, the City has to directly address sexual violence. We won’t set up a task force that gives hope to survivors, only to have the system fail them once again if there’s nothing the City within its jurisdiction can do. Of course we will continue to advocate. And, the City has been funding the Victoria Sexual Assault Centre Clinic – the first of it’s kind in British Columbia – since it opened.

Provincial support, community care tent, $100,000 grant, housing update – Mayor’s Sunday Email – November 22 2020

This mobile shower unit was opened in Edmonton in late October by a community organization, Boyle Street Community Services. More details here at CTV Edmonton.

Hello everyone,

Thanks so much to everyone who has written to me this past week. In order to answer your emails in a timely way – and to make sure that everyone has the same information – I’m writing back to all of you at once. As always, I’ll use headings so you can just skip down to the topic of interest. If you’ve got a bit of time, I’d love if you would read the whole thing. If you’d like to stay in touch and receive these emails each week, you can sign up here on my website.

Provincial Support
This week I was copied on 91 form letters addressed to the Premier and Ministers Robinson, Fleming and Simpson, Grace Lore MLA for Victoria-Beacon Hill and Andrew Wilkinson. The form letter called on the Province to take control of the situation in Victoria and end 24/7 camping in parks immediately.

We haven’t stopped working with the provincial government since May when the Province rented motels, provided health supports and moved over 400 people inside in a matter of a few weeks. We meet weekly with BC Housing and Island Health and we are grateful for the ongoing spirit of partnership with which both agencies are undertaking the work of addressing homelessness, mental health and substance use.

We can’t end 24/7 camping immediately as there aren’t enough indoor spaces for everyone living outside in our parks and public spaces, especially with the recent fire at Capital City Centre, which I’ll say more about below.

We want to make Dr. Henry happy by following her advice and not displacing anyone from encampments in the middle of a global health pandemic until there are indoor options available. We want to make the Premier and many of our housed residents happy by ending 24/7 sheltering. And we want to work to provide the vulnerable people living outside with housing and the supports they need. We want them to have the safety that those of us who live in houses enjoy – a door to lock behind us each night. Council has set a goal of March 31st to achieve this, and we are going to need the Province’s help and support; we’re grateful that they’re working alongside us.

Community Care Tent, Showers and Water at Central Park
Some of you have written to us upset or angry about the removal of the Community Care Tent and showers at Meegan/Beacon Hill Park on Friday morning. This was a very difficult situation for everyone involved.

For what it’s worth – hopefully at least worth a read – I’d like to try to fix the game of broken telephone that social media has become and to share a few facts. As I’ve said in my blog posts over the past two Sundays, the tent and the showers were in violation of the Beacon Hill Trust and could not be allowed to remain. Instead of immediately removing the tent when it was set up on October 20th, staff posted a notice that the tent was in violation of the Parks Bylaws (which also reflects the Beacon Hill Trust) and asked that it be removed. See my blog post from last week to learn more.

Over the next few weeks staff and Councillor Potts worked hard with the volunteers who had set up the tent and the showers to find a new location for the them adjacent to the park – so the much needed services could be provided. Staff noted that the tent and the showers could both be relocated to an area adjacent to the park and provided information as to how the City could help to make this happen and what the volunteers needed to do as well. All of this can still happen and indeed the City has created a $100,000 grant program to help. More on that below.

But in the meantime, the showers were discharging grey water directly into the City’s storm drain system. And the care tent had a number of generators, gas cans, and other dangerous combustible materials. As the government, we need to balance safety needs with other needs. And we need to balance the immediate needs of those in Beacon Hill Park with the responsibility of the City to ensure that the park is available to all residents of Victoria for all uses for the long term. If the City is found by the courts to be in violation of the Trust, the risk is that we could lose the park altogether. This wouldn’t be good for anyone neither those currently sheltering nor the rest of the general public.

Some of you have said that the Beacon Hill Trust is a tool of colonization and that we should just ignore it for that reason. I agree that it is a colonial tool. And the City of Victoria is a colonial government. But for the reasons outlined above and last week, we can’t simply ignore the Trust, we have to uphold our responsibility under it.

I’ve also received emails (and I’m know this is also circulating on social media) about the police dismantling the tent and throwing everything inside into the garbage. The police were there to ensure that the bylaw officers and the contractors the City hired to help could do their work, so that neither members of the public or the workers would get injured. All of the items in the tent were carefully labelled and organized and are being stored and are available to be picked up from City bylaw. Nothing was thrown out. We recognize the hard work of the volunteers who want to help and those who brought donations.

One more update: I got an email asking why the drinking water had been turned off at Central Park this week. When people started to move to Central Park, City staff set up a water station so there would be access to potable water. Recently as it’s gotten colder out, the station – which was designed as a temporary measure – began to freeze. Staff turned it off for a short period so they could fix it and get it ready for winter. As of Friday the water was running again.

$100,000 Grant Program to Address Immediate Needs
We are 10 months into a global heath pandemic and people have been living outside during this time with a hodge podge of health and hygiene services provided by the City, service providers and volunteers. There’s still a gap.

On November 5th the City learned that it would receive $6.5 million in federal-provincial “restart” money to help address budget shortfalls and other needs as a result of COVID-19. On November 19th, Council created a $100,000 grant program with some of this money in order to help meet the still unmet needs of people living outdoors, including mobile hygiene/shower services and some of the other services that were offered by the care tent in Meegan/Beacon Hill Park.

The grant applications are due this Wednesday, November 25th. Council will evaluate them November 26th and the funds will be dispersed as soon as possible after that so that these necessary services can be provided. We’re looking for creative, innovative ideas. The application form can be found here.

Housing Update
For those of you who are looking for updates on the number of people being housed, on Friday the Community Wellness Alliance Decampment Working Group which is made up of BC Housing, Island Health, the Greater Victoria Coalition to End Homelessness, the Aboriginal Coalition to End Homelessness and Our Place, decided that BC Housing, Island Health and the Aboriginal Coalition would provide monthly updates on the movement of people from supportive housing into market housing and from parks to supportive housing. I’ll share the progress updates on my blog. Of course we will respect everyone’s privacy and only numbers of people will be shared, not names or locations.

And speaking of progress, we’ve run into a few hurdles to our goal of moving 200 people inside by the end of the year. We look forward to the new provincial government getting sworn in and helping us further to sort through some of these challenges.

The first hurdle was the fire at the Capital City Centre that displaced 84 people. Everyone had to move out. The motel is being repaired and people will be moving back in when it is ready. But not all the rooms will be available and we don’t know how many – if any – will be available before the end of the year. That means that some of the units we were counting on to move people into – the 60 new Regional Housing First Units in Langford and View Royal that are opening this month and next, and the 110 rent supplement units – will be needed by people displaced from Capital City Centre.

Additionally, we’ve been bending our brains for the past few weeks with Island Health, BC Housing, the United Way of Greater Victoria and Devon Properties to figure out how to creatively fill the gap between the $825 total rent available with a rent supplement and the monthly market rents in the region that range from $1200-$1500 per month. Please email me mayor@victoria.ca if you have any ideas! Others have been working on a program to support landlords who are considering renting to people who are ready to move out of supportive housing and into the private market.

So of course we’re not giving up because we believe that housing is a human right and winter is here and no one should be outside. But we’re going to need some more help to meet the year-end goal.

About Everything Else
A few of you have written and said that I am overly concerned with people who are homeless and don’t care about anyone or anything else. It’s true that this is a really pressing issue for all of us right now. And it’s true that Council, the City’s senior leadership team, and especially our front line staff across many departments are working hard on this issue right now, both to manage it and to help develop solutions. It’s the issue that fills up my email inbox the most. And it’s the issue that tends to fill the papers and newscasts, in addition, of course to news and information about COVID-19.

But I do want you all to know that while I’m spending a lot of time, energy and convening power on addressing homelessness, we’re working hard on everything else too. Our staff are out there every day providing over 200 services directly to residents and businesses. Garbage is being picked up, clean water is coming out of our taps, potholes are being filled, etc.

As for me, I considered putting a screen shot of my calendar from last week here so you could see all the other things I’m working on, but it looked way too crammed and kind of impossible to read. Then I thought I might make a long list of all the projects that we’re working on to help small businesses recover from COVID-19, to diversify our economy for the future, to address climate change and so on.

But I don’t think you want snapshots of calendars, or lists. I think you just want to know that I’m listening and that I hear you. Since late August I’ve been reading hundreds of emails weekly and responding in what I hope is a heartfelt, direct and honest way. I’m listening. And I hear you. I hear you in all your diversity of opinion: those of you who think we’re not doing enough to support people who are living without homes and those who think we are doing too much; those of you who think the city is going downhill and those of you who are happy about all the changes you’re seeing as we prepare for the future.

I hear your anger, your frustration, your fear. I hear your gratitude and your generosity. I hear how difficult a time this is for some people, for so many reasons. None of us have lived through a global health pandemic, and I certainly didn’t expect to be the mayor leading through one! I hear you when you say it is a really difficult time. And I hope you hear me when I say that we will get through this, together.

With gratitude,
Lisa / Mayor Helps

City Vows to Find Another Way to Eliminate Single-use Plastic Bags as Appeal Court Rules in Favour of Plastic Bag Industry

You don’t need regulations to do the right thing! Even though the court of appeal ruled in favour of the plastics industry today, these kids are on the right track as they remind us to bring our reusable bags! Let’s continue to heed their advice. 

Date: Thursday, July 11, 2019
For Immediate Release

VICTORIA, BC — Today, the B.C. Court of Appeal overturned the BC Supreme Court decision and has struck down the City’s Checkout Bag Regulation Bylaw.

In their reasons for judgment, the Court of Appeal found that the bylaw’s dominant purpose was to protect the natural environment rather than business regulation. Therefore, in accordance with the requirements of the Community Charter, provincial approval for the bylaw was required, and since the City did not obtain such approval, the bylaw is not valid. Writing for the unanimous Court, Madam Justice Newbury stated: “While the City’s intentions in passing the Bylaw were no doubt reasonable, we must give effect to the clear instructions of s. 9(3) [of the Community Charter] requiring the Minister’s approval.”

“We will review the decision and will consider all our options. We believe it is fundamentally within the jurisdiction of cities to regulate unsustainable business practices,” said Mayor Lisa Helps. “The Court decision doesn’t undermine the soundness of the bylaw itself, it only deals with the process required for its adoption.”

The bylaw, which has been in effect since July 1, 2018, banned the use of single-use plastic checkout bags and set a minimum price on paper and reusable checkout bags. It was developed with extensive input from local businesses and the community over a two-year period.

“Victorians care deeply about this issue and they told us that single-use plastic bags do not align with their values. Businesses and residents have embraced the transition to reusable bags. It’s been a tremendous success. We will continue our efforts to phase out single-use items,” said Mayor Helps.

Victoria has made sustainable habits and removing single-use checkout bags the new normal. Since the bylaw’s introduction, more than 17 million plastic bags have been eliminated from the community, village centres, parks and beaches – bags that otherwise would end up as litter or choke the landfill for hundreds of years.

“The City is committed to continuing our work to eliminate unnecessary waste. There is no question that the continued use of single-use plastic checkout bags is an unsustainable practice and the historic volume of plastic bag waste and litter negatively impacts our community and the environment,” said Mayor Helps. “I would encourage businesses and shoppers to stay-the-course on reusable checkout bags.”

Hundreds of B.C., Canadian and international jurisdictions are already introducing programs and regulations to eliminate single-use plastic bags.

“We are inspired by other municipalities’ efforts to phase out single-use checkout bags and plastic waste, and we must work together to take this issue forward to provincial and national leaders to develop common, high and shared standards,” said Mayor Helps. “This issue affects us all locally, regionally and globally. This is time for action and leadership. There is no turning back.”

– 30 –

Inclusionary Housing: We’re All in this Together

834 Johnson .jpegThis condo building at 834 Johnson Street, built by Chard Developments, is an example of inclusionary housing as it contains affordable housing units run by Beacon Community Services.

Housing is a key issue in Victoria for both social and economic reasons. Council is working hard to take action on affordable housing including developing an updated Victoria Housing Strategy which was released on Friday.

Council’s recent policy decision on Inclusionary Housing requesting that 20% of units in new condo buildings be affordable rental units is one piece of the puzzle. I didn’t support the policy Council adopted. I won’t go over the reasons; they have been well-documented. However, my job as mayor is to take the policies adopted by Council, become their champion and make them work.

To this end, I contacted the Chair of the Urban Development Institute (UDI) right after the policy was adopted. Their members are the people who build homes in our region. I asked him how we could move forward from here, together. An invitation arrived very soon after that for myself along with Councillors Potts and Loveday to be on a panel hosted by UDI to explain the new policy – including its flexibility and room for creativity and innovation. We have accepted.

Understanding the policy is key to making it work and keeping the home building boom happening. We need to keep that boom going for some of the reasons pointed out in the Times Colonist editorial Tuesday. First is climate change. Over 50% of greenhouse gas emissions in the region come from transportation. Building compact communities where people can walk or bike to work is a key climate mitigation strategy. We must continue the housing boom in Victoria to reduce the GHG emissions in the region.

Second, and related, population projections recently released by the CRD show 16,200 more people living in the City of Victoria by 2038 and 11,900 more jobs. To house all these people and to have them working close to where they live, we need the home builders to continue building homes.

So how will the City’s new Inclusionary Housing policy work?

All rental housing is exempted. Right now – and likely for the first time since the 1970s – we have more rental housing being built in the city than condos. In 2018 we had over 400 rental units started, compared to around 200 condos. In addition, there are also over 500 units of affordable housing in the development process, including units that rent for $375 per month. Rental housing is important; it’s expensive to buy a home and people are spending a longer time in the rental market. Council is aware of this and its new Inclusionary Housing policy supports the creation of new purpose-built rental housing.

The other thing the policy does is builds in flexibility. In order to encourage new projects under Council’s policy and to address the need for family-sized units and to meet the City’s climate goals, Council will consider less than 20%  for projects that a.) would be financially non-viable if required to provide 20% affordable rental units, or b.) are primarily comprised of family sized units, or c.) are built and operated to energy efficiency above the City’s current requirements. Council will also consider less than 20% for affordable home ownership units. This may result in more housing built that is needed for families and for the future.

The other measure of flexibility – which I strongly support – is to consider proposals with heights and densities greater than those in the City’s Official Community Plan (OCP). Council would consider this where the project delivers community amenities such as affordable housing, family-sized units, accessible units for people with disabilities, daycare facilities, enhanced greenspace, energy efficiency or other provisions deemed appropriate by council. The reason that inclusionary housing policies work in other places is because councils are willing to be flexible with the OCP limits in exchange for amenities. We’ve signalled with Council’s vote last week that we are willing to do this too.

With this flexibility in place, and with a continued commitment to improving our development processes and cutting red tape as we did last term (look at all the cranes in the air as proof) we don’t need to “go all Langford on new development” as the Times Colonist editorial concludes.

The projections show that demand for housing in Victoria will continue to grow. The units currently under construction are being snapped up. And downtown Victoria is becoming a lively and vibrant neighbourhood. People who want to live close to where they work, enjoy a high quality of life and spend less time commuting will continue to choose Victoria. And they will need homes. It’s up to all of us, the city and the private sector, to work together to make it happen.

This piece was originally published here in the Times Colonist.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Provincial Budget Puts People and Strong Economy First, Tackles Reconciliation and Climate Change

Blog post families picture.jpg

Yesterday the Province released its budget which puts people and a strong economy first, and makes significant investments in climate action and reconciliation. Affordability, economic prosperity and inclusion, and bold action on climate change and reconciliation are key priorities for Victorians. I’m grateful that the Province’s budget reflects our values as a community.

The investments announced will help to make life more affordable for families in Victoria. And they are also key investments to help keep Victoria’s economy sustainable and make it more inclusive. Affordability is a critical issue for our residents and business community, particularly the most vulnerable and working families who are struggling to make ends meet.

The new BC Child Opportunity Benefit will provide important and unrestricted funding for families with children until the age of 18. This will help to strengthen the social fabric of our communities. Parents won’t have to make hard choices between sports equipment, or ballet lessons and putting food on the table; children will have opportunities for more enriching experiences.

New funding for people living in poverty and for mental health and addictions will ensure that our most vulnerable residents finally get the help they need. And the elimination of interest from all BC student loans will set young people on a more affordable life path.

The Province’s historic $902 million investment in the CleanBC plan will help British Columbians to take serious climate action and reduce carbon pollution. In order to reduce carbon pollution in Victoria by 16%, we need to retrofit buildings at a rate of 2% per year. Whether the $41 million energy retrofit incentives in the budget will be enough to push people to action or whether bolder action still required is yet to be seen. But the budget offers a good first step.

Reconciliation is also a key element in the Province’s budget in two important ways. The most obvious is a new revenue sharing agreement between the government and BC First Nations which will see $3 billion in gaming revenue transferred to First Nations over the next 25 years, including $300 million in the next three years. This will create more autonomy for First Nations communities to invest in their communities as they see fit. There is still more work to do to have true economic reconciliation, but this gesture in the budget is a good next step.

The less obvious but equally important focus on reconciliation in the budget is that for the first time ever, relatives who are caring for children will receive the same funding as foster parents. This will help to keep Indigenous children with their families where they belong, and out of foster care.

For those interested in the details, you can read the full budget here. This chart is a good summary of  how the Provincial government raises revenue and how it spends it.

graphic-b-c-budget-revenues-and-expenses.jpg

And for those wanting a deeper analysis, Wednesday’s printed version of the Times Colonist has great and detailed coverage of the budget. Some of their online coverage can be found here and here.

 

Please Vote in the PR Referendum – The Future Is In Our Hands

We’re in a really exciting month in British Columbia’s history. We get to chose our future! How we vote in this referendum will determine how representative our government will be of the diversity of British Columbians.

Today I filled out my ballot. In this video I walk you through the process – and I show you how I voted.  Please join me in voting, whichever way you lean. And mail in your ballot before the end of November. Let’s use democracy to choose democracy! For a very helpful video that explains the three different proportional representation systems, watch the video below mine.

 

 

Please Vote Yes for A Citizen’s Assembly on Amalgamation

Learn all about Citizens Assemblies by watching this video! Peter McLeod facilitator of the Duncan North-Cowichan Citizens Assembly outlines the process.

In November 2014, the City of Victoria, along with many others in the region, put a question on the ballot asking residents about amalgamation. Victoria’s question was “Are you in favour of reducing the number of municipalities in Greater Victoria through amalgamation?” The overwhelming response was, “Yes”.

After the election we waited for the Provincial government to take some kind of action. The action was a long time coming; it resulted in a study and report that looked at the current state of regional services. Nothing on amalgamation.

Interestingly, it was the District of Saanich’s citizen-led governance review that has moved us a little bit closer towards an actual exploration of the topic, at least for Saanich and Victoria. Saanich’s citizen panel recommended that Saanich invite all willing municipalities to participate in a provincially-funded citizens assembly on amalgamation. So far, only Victoria has expressed an interest.

A citizens assembly is where a randomly selected group of people are brought together in a process facilitated by a neutral “process expert” to explore a difficult topic. Duncan and North-Cowichan recently convened one to explore the costs and benefits of amalgamation. A citizens assembly process in Victoria and Saanich is a good way to address the advantages and disadvantages of amalgamation.

Citizens assemblies are a good way to work together in a deep and meaningful way. Peter McLeod, the consultant who led the Duncan North Cowichan process said, “The problem isn’t that we ask too much of people, it’s that we ask too little.” A citizens assembly that explores the costs, advantages and disadvantages of the amalgamation of Victoria and Saanich will create a genuine opportunity to harness the intelligence, energy and goodwill of the community.

But it will do more than this. The larger benefit of a citizens assembly is that while it will contribute to settling the amalgamation question – at least between Saanich and Victoria – it will also give us a new tool for citizens and governments to work together to solve complex problems in an efficient and effective way; these processes never last more than a year at the very most.

Finally, a citizens assembly is an chance to practice more civil public dialogue when discussing heated issues. It’s a true opportunity for deliberation. It requires listening to other points of view, putting ourselves in each other’s shoes. A citizens assembly is an opportunity to remind ourselves as a community that compromise does not mean capitulation and that changing one’s mind after listening to another perspective is not a sign of weakness.

The next step in the process is for Saanich and Victoria to meet together and determine a clear ballot question that will be asked by both on October 20th. My hope is that we’ll get an overwhelming “Yes” and that the citizens of our two communities can begin a rich, deliberative, thoughtful process and make some recommendations on the topic of the amalgamation of Victoria and Saanich, one way or another.

Originally published in the Victoria News.

Inspiring Town Hall – Citizens Assembly on Amalgamation

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.

Tsunami Warning – Reflections and FAQs

Screenshot 2018-01-24 11.51.23

In the early morning of January 23rd some Victorians woke up to their cell phone or landline ringing with a VicAlert call, some received a text, some got calls from relatives or friends. And others slept through the whole thing and awoke wondering what they’d missed. I think what all of us felt was a little vulnerable and a little scared, with pictures in our minds of big waves engulfing entire cities.

I awoke from a very early morning phone call from our Acting City Manager letting me know that she had followed the City’s emergency management protocol and set up an Emergency Operations Centre (EOC) at Fire Hall #1. I hopped out of bed, got dressed and walked the three blocks to the fire hall to join the City’s senior leadership team in the EOC.

In order to be better prepared as a community and to understand the risks that face us, here are some thoughts, reflections and lessons learned. It’s a bit wordy but packed with important details. Please read and please share with your family, friends and neighbours.

What does a Tsunami mean for Victoria?
A tsunami in Victoria is not a big wave. The City has done tsunami modelling and it shows for the City of Victoria it is a slow water level rise, of approximately 1.5 to 3.5 meters. The maximum water level rise is 3.5 metres with a water flow speed of one metre per second. This means that the people who would be affected are those living within a maximum of two blocks of the ocean in low-lying areas pictured on the map above.

In comparison, the 2011 Tohoku earthquake in Japan had a maximum water level of 40 metres with a water flow speed of 12 metres per second.

What did the City do in the early morning of January 23rd?
Residents were notified of the warning through a number of channels including an emergency takeover of our website, social media and the VicAlert notification system.

Emergency responders were deployed and had started door-to-door notifications in the potentially affected areas based on our tsunami modeling. Victoria Ready volunteers were setting up a reception centre at the Fairfield Community Centre when we received notice at 4:30am the EOC that the warning – of the tsunami that had been predicted to arrive in Victoria around 5:50am – had been cancelled.

As Connect Rocket, the provider of the City’s VicAlert program put it in a tweet the next day, “Always lessons to be learned but @CityofVictoria got it right opting for targeted notifications. No benefit to anyone if evacuation routes become clogged by unnecessary traffic. These are tough calls and their team nailed this one.”

What is VicAlert and How Does It Work?
VicAlert provides you with important emergency information, such as imminent threats (e.g. severe weather, power outages, tsunami), AMBER alerts, and local incidents that affect specific areas of Victoria. The service enables emergency notices to be disseminated City-wide or to targeted areas, which can be helpful for neighbourhood-specific emergencies such as a gas leak.

When you sign up for VicAlert, you receive emergency updates and helpful instructions where you are, when you need them. You have the option to receive notifications by cell phone, landline, and email. Because emergencies can happen at any time, it’s a good idea to include the phone notification – and list your landline and cell phone numbers. A phone call in the middle of the night may wake you, while a text may not.

During the January 23rd tsunami warning notifications through VicAlert were only sent out to potentially affected areas. If residents selected to be notified only for certain neighbourhoods and didn’t receive a message, they were not in an area notified for evacuation. You can easily change your profile to select all neighbourhoods and receive all alerts in the future.

We are encouraging all residents to sign up for VicAlert in the wake of this warning, and suggest using both mobile and landlines where possible to ensure multiple methods of notification in the event of an emergency. Subscription to this service has increased from 6500 people before the tsunami warning to close to 50,000 people since.

In April 2018 a Province-wide “push” alert system that will automatically get in touch with each cell phone will be put in place by the Province. Here is a CHEK news story about that program.

Where do I go in an emergency?
The City of Victoria has identified potential buildings throughout the City that may be used for reception and group lodging centres. We don’t advertise these, as the locations will vary depending on the situation and suitability.  For example, after an earthquake these buildings will have to undergo damage assessments prior to their use and we do not want residents going to buildings if they’re not safe.  VicAlert, the City’s website, Twitter and local media will broadcast the appropriate locations for people to go depending on the circumstances.

Get a Siren!
On the morning of January 23rd while people were still recovering from panic mode, we heard many cries for the City of Victoria to get a siren. The City of Victoria is not at risk like coastal communities on the open water are such as Tofino and Ucluelet where there are sirens in place.  We do not expect a large fast wave like we’ve seen in places like Thailand and Japan. As noted above, what the Tsunami modelling shows for the City of Victoria is a slow water level rise, of approximately 1.5 to 3.5 meters.

We have the resources in place to issue tsunami warnings without a siren due to the lower risk, the slow water level rise, and the length of warning time we will receive after an earthquake has occurred.  Our emergency responders have the capacity to go door-to-door and use loud speakers in the small areas within the City of Victoria that the tsunami modelling has shown the water level will rise to.

This approach has the benefit of notifying affected residents and businesses with personal instructions rather than a siren that would be heard by thousands of unaffected people and lead to confusion about what to do.

We’re all in this together!
The communities that do best in disasters are ones where people have a sense of connection, belonging and resilience. The false alarm on January 23rd is an invitation for all of us  to learn more about preparedness. It’s also a good opportunity for us to get to know our neighbours better and find out what their needs would be in an emergency. Where are the seniors who may need our help? The parents with young children? The people with limited mobility? Preparing for emergencies before they happen is a good opportunity to build stronger communities.