How I’m voting on how we vote

Finishing up my own electoral stuff, it is time to move on to the referendum. It seems just yesterday that I was stumping for a Yes vote on a referendum plebiscite from my City Council bully pulpit – how did that one work out?

Nonetheless, I was asked about the Electoral System Referendum a few times during the election and I told people I didn’t want to get distracted while involved in my own campaign, but I would write something about it when the ballots come out. A ballot package is currently sitting on my counter, so here we go.

I am voting for proportional representation (PR) over first past the post (FPTP). The reasons for this are plentiful, and I have done a significant amount of research on this over the last few years, including during the aborted Trudeau campaign to change the federal electoral system. To keep this from expanding into a book-length blog, I am going to simplify a bit on a few key points.

The primary pro-FPTP argument that PR will bring extremists into power is a heaping pile of logical fallacy. In recent FPTP elections we have seen Doug Ford given 100% of the power to invoke the notwithstanding clause to punish his former City Council political enemies with only 40% of the vote. He says he was elected to cut taxes and slash public services when 60% of Ontario Voters voted for the exact opposite. Shortly after, the CAQ were given 100% of the power in Quebec to invoke the notwithstanding clause to pursue their anti-immigration and anti-free-expression campaign after garnering 38% of the vote. These are extremist views for Canada. A PR system may allow these voices into legislatures, but there is significantly less chance they would earn enough votes to achieve the power needed to shift policy towards those views.

Despite FPTP-supporter arguments, you will always have a locally-accountable MLA under any of the PR systems. Every system has you voting for a direct MLA representative as you do now, the difference is that all systems will give you at least one more second MLA who is also representing you. It is also likely this second MLA will be from a different party than your first MLA. Remember how during the Teacher’s Strike, all of those BC Liberal MLAs locked their office doors and refused to meet their constituents? Too often in an artificial FPTP majority, the job of that MLA is to represent the party’s interest to the community, not vice versa. When a government policy impacts your life negatively, it is important that you have someone in your community who can assure that your concern is carried to the legislature. PR provides this much better than FPTP.

Jurisdictions that use PR are more successful by almost any measure of good governance. There is a significant body of evidence from around the world about the results of different systems. Among OCED democracies, those that use some form of PR have consistently higher Human Development Index scores, have less income inequality, have stronger environmental regulation and are leading the world on addressing greenhouse gas reduction. The quality of life for their residents is higher and their electoral participation levels are higher. It is almost as if these two things go hand-in hand. This is why the PR argument is so much about “making your vote count” – it results in governments adopting policies that appeal to a broader range of voters. Who could possibly be against that?

These arguments aside, I was caused to step back and look at this situation in a different way a few months ago when I was chatting with MLA Bowinn Ma on a SkyTrain trip. Memory being what it is and she being much more nuanced and eloquent than I, we can call this a paraphrase. She pointed out that every argument for FPTP was about who would take power after the election, while every argument for PR was about how we can make more votes count. This is a simple but profound difference in vision for what we are trying to achieve through democracy. I believe the latter is a better, more hopeful vision, which is probably why I find their arguments more compelling. I hope this referendum will give us an opportunity to reach for that better vision.

The second question asks which of the three proposed PR systems I would prefer. Here is where it gets tougher. I am going to list in order of my preference, but recognize that no one system is perfect (but none are as imperfect as the current FPTP system).

Mixed Member Proportional – This is the most tried-and-true proportional representation system. In BC, it would mean our ridings would grow a little in size, and every riding would have an MLA elected by FPTP like they are today. However, ridings would be clumped together into small regions of several ridings that would have regional MLAs. You would be able to vote on that regional representatives, but the persons serving that role would not be elected by straight FPTP, but allocated to make party representation across the province match that of the overall vote. The ballot can be simple, the change in our ridings is minor, and PR is achieved. This wins in the balancing simple and easy to understand while also giving you an opportunity to vote for a great local candidate who may not be with the party of the Premier you want to see elected.

Dual Member Proportional– This is a system modified for Canada, where most ridings are merged into two ridings, with on MLA elected on the current FPTP system, and a second appointed based on electoral results in order to balance party representation across the province. This seems to be intended to simplify the ballot (you only vote once), but otherwise has no advantages I can find over MMP. You lose the ability to vote for Party A but an outstanding local candidate for Party B like you get from MMP – in other words, this forces you to choose a great local rep OR a party affiliation, but not necessarily both.

Rural-Urban Proportional– This hybrid system mixes Single Transferable Vote for the “urban” parts of BC, expanding ridings to 4-7 MLAs and a ranked ballot to allow you to vote for as many or as few as you might like, and a Mixed Member Proportional system (top) for rural ridings. I can see where this idea appears – it provides sophisticated urban political nerds like me an appealing ranked ballot, but also assures the rural ridings of the province won’t feel like they are losing their disproportional representation in Victoria. I dislike it for both of those reasons, and it being the most complicated system, I don’t think it will really be embraced by the voting public.

So put me down for Yes and MMP. I honestly would be happier with any of the three options than I am with FPTP, so the second question is really rather…uh… secondary. But please fill it out, because it is fun to fill our ranked ballots, and because I want to do everything I can to support the government having the political will to make this change.

#NWELXN18 – a wrap

I have gone through the numbers of the recent election in a couple of posts, (here, here, and here) but I did so recognizing that I was perpetuating a trope that plagues democracy in North America (and perhaps the world?) – looking at politics like it is just another a sport. Line scores and a zero-sum-game of winners and losers are the easiest and laziest way to report on elections. It leaves little room for the more important discussions we should be having during an election: the debate of ideas and values and visions for the future.

I need to say that this has been a difficult blog post to write. There are a couple of 1,500-word drafts that have been deleted, because they all fell into the mode of being an us-vs-them analysis, and were more critical than helpful. I spent most of the last three months biting my (digital) tongue and not reacting to the messages of those who would have rather they be elected than me, because I wanted to avoid being drawn into a useless spat everyone would regret. It would serve no purpose (other than a little personal catharsis) to go there now.

**That said, I feel the need to stick one of my regular caveats here where I say all of this is my opinion, not the opinion of my council or election colleagues, City Council, the City, or any rational person or organization. If you disagree with me, let me know!**

This slipped once during the campaign when I made a reference to Daniel Fontaine, in reaction to a pretty ham-fisted attempt on his part to demean me on his blog, using what I think was an appropriate amount of dismissive humour, but then following to point out how disingenuous the hit piece was:

Trust me, the hardest part for me this election was not reacting to opponents on-line. There were many drafted-then-deleted tweets. Maybe I’m growing up.

But what was this election about? Other cities had clear narratives (Surrey wanted someone to deal with crime, Burnaby was about the need for housing, Port Moody about slowing the pace of development), but what was the New Westminster election theme?

After the fact and looking at the numbers, it is easiest for me to take the message that voters are generally happy with the way the City is being run, and were not as interested in change as in some of our surrounding communities. This reflected what I heard on the doorstep during three months of doorknocking, and what I heard in a thousand small conversations I had during the election. Things are not perfect, there are definitely things we could do better, but for the most part, things are headed in the right direction, and few are interested in a big shift in direction.

In the end, our main opponents must have heard that as well, and were challenged with messaging “things are mostly OK” along with the “time for a change” idea. In the end, they fell back on the familiar and tired narrative that New Westminster is run by organized labour in a poorly-defined but somehow nefarious way. This is the same narrative that James Crosty used to no success in New West for several elections, and the old Voice New West relied upon. Like running against bike lanes in Vancouver, this campaign message is exciting to a group of people in the City and gets amplified every election by the local media, but has never been one to motivate voters to come out and create a change. New Westminster happily votes for Labour-affiliated and NDP-affiliated candidates enough to elect them, and have done so in increasing numbers in every election for the last decade or two. This is why orange signs were a cynically good idea.

To the credit of my colleagues and voters, the winning candidates never stopped talking about the important issues to New Westminster – housing, transportation, inclusion and accessibility in schools, and livability of our community. They also worked hard to knock on doors and meet people. When I look at the new names at the top of the polls – Nakagawa, Ansari, Beattie, Dhaliwal – these are the candidates I saw out there every day earning votes with shoeleather and ideas. On election-period effort alone they earned every vote they got.

There was one big difference between this election and the previous one – the remarkable shrinking of the media space. Last election there were four (4!) local newspapers a week in New Westminster, now there is one. At the risk of poking those who buy ink by the barrel, there was not a tonne of coverage in the last few weeks of the election in the lone paper standing.

Since Labour Day (when the public starts properly paying attention to the campaign), there were a few news stories that announced the new candidates as they trickled out, a couple of pieces covering NWP messaging around how unfair the entire election process was, and not a lot else. The two substantial pieces were an October 4th quote-mining review of two All-Candidates Meetings (which strangely emphasized May Day as the biggest issue), and a really excellent 2-page spread on October 11th on diversity. However, through the entire election period there were no printed candidate profiles, not a single article discussing housing policy, infrastructure needs, transportation challenges, or any of the other top issues that might have informed voters about contrasts between what different candidates were offering. The final edition before the election (October 18th) had a single opinion piece admonishing people to vote, but no other coverage of the election or issues at hand. I don’t remember being asked a single election-related question by a single reporter between Labour Day and the close of the polls.

I recognize there are limited resources and limited column inches in one edition a week, and there was more material available on-line, but even that discussion was dominated by discussing the process of the election, with paltry discussion of policy issues. The emphasis on click-baity open-question headlines on Twitter and Facebook probably just worsened partisan bickering between supporters instead of actually inform on any issue. Indeed, here is where I missed the old Tomkinson-era Tenth to the Fraser that provided a really strong and well-curated online discussion. I suspect print is still more important to a significant number of voters than on-line content, and I can’t help but feel that the Burnaby Now side of the local Black Press Glacier Media office got a lot more attention, and their election got more column inches. Perhaps their election was more exciting.

So what now? The things I tried to talk about during the election are still my priorities after the election. We need to continue to improve how the City communicates and engages the public, and I want to have a serious talk with the provincial government on reforming the Public Hearing process. We are already leading the region in affordable housing policy, but have no intention of taking our foot off the gas, and will work to get new funding and new policy levers provided by the province (such as Rental Zoning) working for us locally. On transportation, I want to push a conversation forward about changing the culture in our roads. I want us to prioritize making vulnerable road users feel safe at all times. It is time for us to grow up and talk honestly about the goals of our transportation plan, which is not the destructive (and ultimately self-defeating) goal of “getting traffic moving”. 

Of course, I am just one of 7 on Council, and finding consensus on strategic plans for the next 4 years will be the main conversation for the next couple of months. Stay tuned!

Renovictions

There was a meeting this week hosted by the Vancouver Tenants Union in my Brow of the Hill neighbourhood. It was to address the culminating “renoviction” crisis in this area, and to hear from people who may be facing renoviction. As I said in my previous post, this is the hardest question for me to address as a City Councillor, and this meeting was at times heartbreaking (see a good summary in the Record here). These are my neighbours (quite literally in one case), they are scared, and we heard a lot from them at this meeting.

The background to the meeting is the work that the Vancouver Tenants Union are doing around the region to provide support to people who are facing renoviction. They are one resource that can assist people in appealing eviction notices, in making sure tenants’ rights are protected to the letter of the law. They have been working mostly in Vancouver, but have also done some work in other areas in the Lower Mainland, and see New Westminster as a current “hot spot” for renovictions.

Whenever this issue of renoviction comes up, there is a common refrain that we need to give landlords the ability to maintain and renovate these lower-cost buildings, or they will quickly degrade into slums. We hear that many of these buildings are approaching end-of-life, and the increase in rent is necessary to fund the renovations to keep them standing. The VTU are presenting data that this is largely a red herring, and I am going to dig deep into one example they use. So grab a tea and comfy seat, this may go on a bit:

If you prefer TL;dnr versions: The current renoviction surge in New Westminster is mostly the result of investors extracting healthier returns for their portfolios by throwing low-income people out on the street. This is not an unfortunate result of unavoidable events – this is driven by greed for profits. And they aren’t even subtle about it.

The building-systems-reaching-end-of-life situation does occur. We get applications every couple of years for a building that fits this description. However, we are now seeing a huge increase in numbers, and dozens of buildings in New Westminster are now facing some form of renoviction, most owned by the same small group of land-flipping corporate entities. There is significant evidence that this is a profit-driven activity.

As a single case in point, the VTU provided me a copy of a sales brochure for a commercial property in New Westminster. I have done what I can to remove the actual address from this to protect the privacy of the current residents, but suffice it to say this is a ~40 year old three-story walk-up typical of New Westminster’s ample affordable rental stock. The real estate agent is offering this “renovators dream” for sale for $3.5 Million, which is $500k over assessed value. Here is a redacted image of page 2 of the brochure:

I would love to go through this pamphlet and pick out the numerous flaws in fact in here, (“The area has gone through a major resurgence with the redevelopment of St. Mary’s Hospital into condominiums” – The St. Mary’s site is currently an elementary school and public park), and speculative fiction about potential increases in suites, but making fun of sales-fluff seems seems pedantic, so I will concentrate on what we can glean from the prospectus. (highlights are mine:)

This shows 13 rental suites (one illegal, or “unauthorized” in the parlance of sales), with three of them vacant to “to help streamline the improvement program”. The other 10 are single-bedroom and renting for between $735 and $850 a month. This includes free parking and cable, and some landlord subsidy of the electrical (likely for common areas, heating, etc.). The building is netting $67,278 a year, which is a Cap Rate of 1.9% per year based on the $3.5M sale price. For some reason they are not renting out two legal suites in a market where rental vacancy is under 1%, but add that revenue, even if it meant a concurrent 20% increase in expenses and you can turn in an extra $16K, bringing the Cap Rate up to 2.3%. This is less than the expected return for a serious real estate investor, but in no way is this building losing money. As a bonus, the Residential Tenancy Act allows annual rent increases greater than inflation – these numbers will only get better over time.

Now shift over to the “Potential Rent” column. It shows an increase in rents ranging from 100% to 135%, renting the illegal suite, charging for parking, all of the electricity and cable, and all of the sudden your Cap Rate is a very attractive 6.6%. Note that nothing in this prospectus mentions the cost of significant renovation, and the sales pitch seem to suggest the building is in good shape, with recent heating and electrical upgrades. So the proposal is to more than double the rent and not increase costs at all. I guess I am mostly shocked that they have no shame just putting that right out there in the middle of a housing crisis.

The VTU have found a number of buildings in New Westminster in similar situations, and have been tracing the ownership of the corporate entities who are – and there is no finer point to make than this – making a healthy investment strategy out of throwing low-income and vulnerable people out on the street in the tightest real estate market in the country.

Arguably, there is nothing illegal going on here. People are allowed to buy buildings and make money renting them out. If this building needs significant upgrades (or, if the landlord just wants to do upgrades such that they require the suites to be vacant), they are totally within their rights to throw those people out, provided they give appropriate notice. It becomes legally grey if they just do superficial upgrades as an excuse to evict residents. However, there is currently nothing the City or the Province can do to prevent this activity from taking place, and when the decision is to turn a small profit into a bigger profit by making vulnerable people homeless, then we are into a question of morality, not law.

The City is working hard to identify these properties, as are the VTU. At this point, all we can do is try to contact the residents and assure they understand their rights under the Residential Tenancy Act and what supports exist for them if they are insecure in housing. The VTU is working to get people in these buildings organized, and help guide them through the appeal process that exists under the RTA if they feel they were unfairly evicted, but need all of the information and support they can get. The City has no power to refuse building permits in these cases, if the landlord even bothers to apply for a permit.

Ultimately, we need to change the regulations to protect these vulnerable people from predatory rent increases. This is most likely to come from the Provincial government. At UBCM last year, the City of New Westminster put forward a resolution (endorsed by the membership) that read:

be it resolved that UBCM urge the provincial government to undertake a broad review of the Residential Tenancy Act including, but not limited to, amending the Residential Tenancy Act to allow renters the right of first refusal to return to their units at a rent that is no more than what the landlord could lawfully have charged, including allowable annual increases, if there had been no interruption in the tenancy;

Although some changes in the RTA were made in May to give renovicted tenants more notice and compensation, we are still short of where we need to be, and renovictions are an emergent crisis in New Westminster. I wish there was something we could do, because being in a meeting with 50 people feeling the stress and recognizing some of them may become homeless, after all of the work this City has done and investments this City has made to protect and enhance our affordable housing stock, only because of a lucrative investment opportunity being sold here, is enraging

The Booth

People who follow my exploits (Hi Mom!) know I have been running this webpage for several years, and not too long after I first got elected as a City Councillor, I added an “Ask Pat” button to it. Through this, people can send me questions about the City, and I try my best to answer them. Recognizing that not everyone reads my Blog, I decided to take Ask Pat analogue a little while ago; hence the Lucy Booth.

(Credit where credit is due: Hayley Sinclair is convinced this was her idea, but I am pretty sure the original inspiration was JJ Lee’s “Sartorial Advice” booth from a few years ago, it just took me a long time to put this into action).

Having set this up in various places around town over the last few months, the response is pretty fun. However, last weekend’s Pride Street Fest was the most active booth location yet, with more than 100 questions being asked, most of them answerable, some even by me. Examples? (shortened in both question and answer for the sake of brevity)

Q: What is the long-term plan for the QtoQ Ferry?
A: We will see how the ridership on this year’s Pilot goes, and will work with senior partners to help close a funding gap. I hope we can continue to run it, because it is an important transportation link!

Q: Is the rental building at *00 block of *th street turning into Condos?
A: No. We do not permit the conversion of residential rental to condo in the City, and we would hear about it if that was happening.

Q: What is the smallest thing?
A: The Planck Length (*turns out I was only kinda right here, as is to be expected whenever anyone involves quantum physics).

Q: Is the City developing Glenbrook Ravine?
A: No. The Ravine is one of the few natural areas left in the city, and is an important park and habitat asset. A large part of it was preserved permanently as part of the Victoria Hill agreement. No-one has proposed buildings in the ravine to Council, and I cannot imagine Council ever agreeing to do this.

Q: (from a ~9 year old girl) Why does my big brother always bug me?
A: Probably because he is jealous of you! That’s why I bugged my big sister! But don’t worry, I grew out of it.

Q: Do you agree with a 10-lane pool?
A: Yes, and we are working on a grants to help pay for it and the increased deck space and other additions to the base plan for the CGP replacement that Hyack Swim Club asked for – Contact your MLA and MP to put in a good word for the pool, and help us secure those grants!

Q: What is going to happen with Marijuana Dispensaries in October?
A: The City will permit cannabis retail in a limited way as soon as the federal laws are in place, I suspect it will be limited to a few locations in the short term, and probably won’t arrive until Christmas at the earliest, mostly because of the complicated process we need to go through with Zoning and Business License regulations. It’s coming, and we are going to be ready.

Etc., etc.

Both serious and funny questions aside, there was one theme I heard a few times that was, frankly, the hardest question to answer:

Q: What are you doing about housing?
It is hard because I know any truthful answer I provide is not going to help. I can talk about the City investing in several affordable housing projects (it isn’t enough), about us working to bring in more purpose built rental (it is increasingly unaffordable), about our protecting the affordable rental we have by preventing demovictions (but are hand-tied somewhat when it comes to renovictions). I can say, honestly, we are doing all we can, and are doing arguably more than any other municipality in BC; but it is still not enough to fix the problem. We are advocating to senior governments for help, and it is starting to trickle in, but after 15+ years of inaction, it isn’t fast enough. This answer is hard, because I know the people asking me are scared and feel helpless, and I know my answers will not help them feel more secure. Empathy feels hollow when people are suffering, because it isn’t enough.

I’m working on a blog post right now that digs a little deeper into this topic.

Have questions? You can send them to Ask Pat, but recognize I am really busy these days with Campaign stuff, and it may take a while before you get an answer. It will be more immediate if you see a little red booth set up, and come and talk. If you ask a question, you may also get a button:

MC Podcast!

A couple of years ago, a few new City Councillors from “the suburbs” of Metro Vancouver were invited to take part in a City Conversation at SFU, a program that brings people together over a brown-bag lunch at SFU Downtown to talk Urbanism. It was fun, and got us all speculating over a beer about how we can find an excuse to do this again. Then someone (I think it was Mathew Bond) said “Podcast”.

Two years later, almost to the date, we have a Podcast! It’s called Metro Conversations, and you can listen to the first 6 episodes at iTunes and GooglePlay. But first a little context.

Our initial idea was to repeat the City Conversations model: 1-hour conversations with a small panel of subject matter experts with an intimate audience, facilitated by the Council of Four (myself, Mathew Bond, Kiersten Duncan, and Nathan Pachal). We record these conversations, and put them out as Podcasts.

We also thought we could fill the space by also sitting down occasionally for a “Metro Chat”, where just the four of us discuss an Urbanism topic. The idea here is that we are elected people who are not subject matter experts, but can provide a bit of a bridge between experts and people interested in what goes into making a more livable city. We also bring context from our local parts of the region, as Urbanism too often emphasizes the urban centre and that is where it is more easily embraced. As we will explore, it is around the edges that the benefits and impacts of modern city-making are really felt.

As will be readily apparent to listeners, we are not professional broadcasters, but we are passionate about our communities, and love to talk about Urbanist topics and how they impact our communities.

We have a half-dozen episodes up and running, and a couple in the can that we are working on as far as making them audible. This is our first try (we could even call it “Season 1”?) and are hoping to hear form people about what they like, what we need to do better, or what topics you want us to tackle if and when a Season 2 is organized. So please tune in, and let us know what you think by going to our Facebook Page and providing us feedback.

There are People to Thank:

SFU Public Square for the grant and their (paid!) interns for doing a bunch of the busy work and coordination that we simply would never have completed if you left it to four City Councilors who live all over the place and have full time jobs and long lists of commitments that make our working together on anything difficult. This was only possible through the Public Square.

Michael Alexander from the City Program at SFU for pulling us together and giving us the inspiration to try something different.

Random #NewWest peeps Wes Kinna (for masterfully helping with sound at live events), Stephen O’Shea (for creating a cool distinctive sound for intro/outro), and Christa MacArthur (for lending us her distinctively non-distinctive accent).

The Network Hub in New West, the District of North Vancouver, City of Langley, City of Port Coquitlam, and City of New Westminster for hosting spaces for us to hold conversations.

And all of our guests and audience members who made the live conversations work.

Pipelined

I wanted to comment a bit on this story. Kinder Morgan is apparently using an industrial lot in the Braid Industrial Area of New Westminster for staging and equipment storage as part of the Trans Mountain Pipeline Extension Project. That has caused some people to send me correspondence around why the City is allowing this, people asking me why I am not opposing the pipeline. I replied to a Facebook Post, but I think this issue is important enough for me to expand a bit on it here on my blog.

The site within New West being used by Kinder Morgan is on Port of Vancouver land, not land where the City has any jurisdiction. Council members were very recently made aware this was happening, but we do not have any regulatory authority around land use on Port lands, as only the Federal Government can issue or withhold those permits. We were not involved in the planning for this, and we have not had any formal correspondence on the issue from the proponent or the Port.

This City and this Council have been involved in the NEB review of the Kinder Morgan pipeline from the onset. The City acted as an intervenor in the NEB review, raised a number of significant concerns during the process, and continues to emphasize these concerns since. Not the least of these concerns is the potential for impacts on the Brunette River and its riparian areas.

We have supported court cases challenging this project and the process towards its approval. The NEB and the Federal Governments (past and present) have demonstrated no interest in our position, nor do I feel they have adequately addressed our concerns. It is actually worse than that, as there were recent hearings in Burnaby to review some of the still-unresolved questions about the routing of the new pipeline along New Westminster’s border (and within the Brunette River riparian zone) and the NEB didn’t even invite New Westminster to attend. I was refused entry to the hearings when I showed up. They were held behind closed doors, and as the routing was some 30m outside of our City, my being able to even listen to the conversation was not seen as relevant. At least the Harper Government invited us into the room to be ignored.

I cannot speak for all of Council, nor is this the “official position” of the City, but I have been involved in this process for several years now. I bring a significant amount of professional and technical experience to this, having provided expert evidence as an Environmental Scientist to several Environmental Assessments in my career. I am concerned about the pipeline, but I am much, much more angry about the unaccountable and unacceptable process that has taken us to this point. In the last Federal election we were promised that the industry-focused reviews brought in by the Harper Government would be replaced; that didn’t happen. We were told that community consultations would be opened up, and that consent from communities would be sought; that didn’t happen. We were told that a new era of reconciliation would be ushered in before we impose unsustainable and  damaging infrastructure projects to unceded lands; that didn’t happen. We were told that subsidies to sunset oil industrial development would end and a new energy vision would be offered; that didn’t happen.

We were lied to, and now we are ignored.

Trucks in the City

Douglas College has been running an interesting talk series this year under the banner of “Urban Challenges Forum”. The final episode of this semester occurred on Wednesday night, and deserved a better turnout than it received, considering the amount of social media bits and watercooler shatter we have in New Westminster around the topic: the livability impacts of truck routes and goods movement in our community.

Fortunately, they recorded video of the event, and will (hopefully?) be posting it on line. It is worth the time to see how the four panelists speak about trucks from different viewpoints: an urban systems geographer, a representative of the trucking industry, a representative of the Port Authority, and the CAO of New Westminster, a City that is (arguably) impacted most by the negative externalities of “goods movement” in the region.

I want to give a quick summary of my take-away points before raising the question I never got to raise at the event, partly because of the time constraints, partly because no-on needs to hear from a Politician when actual thinking people are speaking, and partially because I wasn’t sure how to phrase my question in the form of a question*.

Peter Hall (the geographer) reminded us that transportation, by its very nature, makes us selfish, and makes us act in shamefully selfish ways (speeding, tailgating, yelling at others). This is at least partly because it isn’t an ends, but a means, and its hassles are preventing us from meeting these ends. Add to this our general ignorance about freight, and we get a selfish ignorance about goods movement – we all want the benefits, none of us understand why we need to tolerate the costs. Trucking also has many benefits and externalities, and they are not evenly distributed. Altogether, this makes it a vicious political problem, not made easier by jurisdictional overlap.

Matthew May from BST Transport and Peter Xotta from the Port of Vancouver gave similar messages about their respective industries: they need to keep the goods moving in the National Interest. You ask for tomatoes in the store, you need to deal with trucks. You want a vibrant economy, you need trucks and ports. You live in a Gateway, and we will accommodate your community as best we can (even want to make you happy!), but the mandate is to drive the economy.

Lisa Spitale gave a concise summary of some of the interface issues New Westminster has dealt with over the last few decades. With rail and roads encircling the community and a Regional Growth Strategy mandate to be a dense Urban Centre supported by (and supporting) transit, we are a hot spot for the externalities of goods movement, by rail and truck.

If I had a point to make at this event (again, I could not put this in the form of a question), it is that we have *chosen* to accept the level of negative externalities that come with a large number of diesel trucks in our neighbourhoods.

To frame this point, we need to put aside the local-goods-delivery for a moment and talk about the larger getting-stuff-from-Port-to-hinterland-through-logistics-hubs part of this equation. This is what separates us as a “Gateway” city from most other regions, and is the foundation of both the Port’s arguments on this issue and the emphasis of the Gateway Council model that has commonly dominated our regional transportation conversation. But what kind of Gateway have we built?

Here in New Westminster, we host one end of a 114-year-old single-track swing bridge that is the only rail link crossing the Fraser River west of Mission. The City of New Westminster has something like 14km of river shoreline under Port of Vancouver jurisdiction, with about a third of that backed by industrial land, much of it under the Port’s direct control. Much of this land is used for logistics, cross-shipping, container storage, and other aspects of that all-important gateway-to-the-hinterland business. Yet over all of that space there are (2) conveyors moving aggregates and chips on/off barges, and one (1) pier occasionally used to move breakbulk lumber. These are the only location in New Westminster’s extensive port lands where anything is taken on or off of a boat.

The only contribution our Port lands make to the Gateway is providing space to move and store trucks, and facilitate the movement of goods in and out of trucks. Unfortunately, New Westminster is not alone in this.

How we move goods through the region is a choice we make, not a foregone conclusion. For these hinterland goods in containers, we have chosen to use trucks to move a large portion of them intra-regionally. A cynic would suggest that is because building waterfront infrastructure to make better use of short sea shipping and barges is expensive. Upgrading rail infrastructure so a single swing bridge isn’t the only vital link across a river that has seen 30 lanes of highway built across since that single track was installed, is expensive. Relying on roads and bridges is comparatively cheap from the view of the person who has to pay for the initial capital, because taxpayers will often pony up for “congestion reduction” investment, and the other costs (noise, pollution, public safety) are completely externalized, at least partially in the form of decreased livability of our communities.

I’ve made this rant before.

Since 1808 when Simon Fraser first tasted salt in the Sto:lo, there have been strains resulting from the needs of the Gateway to the Hinterland and the needs of the people living on the river’s shores. We can, however, find a better balance between these forces. It must include acknowledging that externalized costs of fueling the Gateway need to be accounted. Trucks are part of a functioning modern society, but their true role cannot be understood as long as we subsidize them over other options.

*I was once at a forum-type event where the request for “question from the floor” was prefaced by this proviso: Your first sentence must be in the form of a question; there should not be a second sentence. I thought that was brilliant.

Listening

I have already written a slightly-too-long blog post on the City’s burgeoning reconciliation process. If I could summarize the thesis, it is that the community needs to take intentional and careful steps in creating a space for communication. We need to hear each other’s stories.

I was both excited and apprehensive to see the Record name reconciliation as their News Item of the Year. It is great that our sole remaining local paper sees this as an important topic, as their participation in nurturing those conversations will be important. The problem being that their story once again focused attention on a statue – a potentially important issue point, but a relatively minor part of a much larger discussion that has to happen.

The story in the Record has, for good or bad, already started discussion in the letters section of the paper, and associated Social Media.

I disagree with some of what I read in those letters. However, I more strongly disagree with people jumping on Social Media to (with the best of intentions) correct things in that letter they deem as inaccurate or (with less clear intentions) accuse the letter writers of ignorance or ill intent.

One thing I have learned in my first forays into learning about the Truth and Reconciliation process is that we need people to tell their stories, to share their thoughts and experiences. This cannot happen if our default is to immediately question a person’s ideas or impressions. Conversation is different than debate, and on this topic we need much more of the former, much less of the latter. Even when what we hear is uncomfortable. We need to find a way to talk about how our understanding, our experience, may be different or come from a different place without engaging in debate or placing the letter writer in an “others” group.

I wrote last time about trying to understand how we can create spaces where people who lived the Indigenous experience can talk about their truths. I think this is an important early emphasis, if only because we have to get over the hurdles related to 150+ years of systematic efforts to silence those voices. However, we don’t get there by shouting down the voices of the members of our community for whom the entire idea of there being an “Indigenous Experience” is a challenge to their deeply held beliefs.

We all, all of us, have to learn how to listen. It’s only the first step, but it’s an important one. We can use this process to build a stronger, more just and compassionate community. And that is a way better goal than just having a well-debated statue.

ASK PAT: Potash

Shaji asks—

This proposal to put a potash storage and transportation facility on the Surrey-side banks of the Fraser river seems absurd!

I have recent made the New West and the Fraser river my home and come to realize how much of it is surrounded with beautiful marshlands and resident wild life – despite the Fraser being a working river. I see seals bobbing their heads out of the water everyday from my window.

Our efforts need to be to preserve and clean up this beautiful surrounding; not further pollute it with such harmful proposed projects.

What is the City’s stance and influence on the proposed project?

Thanks again

The first I heard of a plan to move potash through Fraser Surrey Docks was when a few residents of Queensborough started sending me e-mails. The general theme of these e-mails was “What is the Port trying to pull here!?” Hopefully I can explain, although I have not heard a peep from the Port (officially or informally) about this project, so most everything I know you can read yourself at the Port’s information website about the project.

It appears that one of the world’s largest mining companies, BHP Billiton, wants to build a facility in Surrey to move potash off of train cars and into bulk carrier ships for export. Much like the previous coal terminal facility proposed for Fraser Surrey Docks, this facility will be required to go through the Port’s own Environmental Review process, instead of a Federal Environmental Assessment. This procedure exists because of legislative changes made by Stephen Harper’s Conservative government that decimated the Canadian Environmental Assessment Act – changes Justin Trudeau’s Liberal Government seems in no rush to address despite significant election promises to the effect. But I digress.

Upon hearing about this proposal, my initial questions were around what it means for the Coal Terminal project. That project has already been approved by the Port, although that approval is still being challenged in court. My cursory look at the proposed coal terminal drawings:

…and the drawings for the proposed potash terminal:

…suggest to me that they do not share operational footprint, except for some rail loop infrastructure. So I am operating under the assumption that potash terminal approval would not mean coal terminal termination. We should be so lucky.

So what do we know about potash? It is mined from evaporate deposits under Saskatchewan; it is mostly potassium chloride with less than 5% sodium chloride and trace amounts of other minerals; it is primarily used for fertilizer, although it is also used in metals refining and other industrial processes. It is no more toxic that table salt, isn’t flammable, isn’t carcinogenic, and isn’t a particularly nasty environmental contaminant in soil or water. There are some well-understood and generally well mitigated environmental impacts from mining. After spending a few hours reading up on potash and its handling, finding science-based sources I consider reliable and relatively unbiased, there is little in my Environmental Geoscientist experience that causes me great concern about this material being handled in or moved through my neighbourhood.

There will be impacts, no doubt. Train traffic, noise, light, and potentially dust (though potash is usually handled though a pretty closed system due it its solubility). The Port review process (as sketchy as it is) should provide us some ability to provide input to the Port about how we want these potential issues mitigated. You can learn about the project and review process by attending an Open House at the Fraser River Discovery Centre on Thursday evening, you can read the project materials here, or you can go to the BHP project site here and provide some feedback directly. For further research, I might reach out to some council colleagues on the North Shore where potash has been handled for years to see what concerns it has caused in their communities.

That said, you asked a specific question, with pretty simple answers: Council has not been formally asked to opine on the project yet (any more than any other stakeholder), haven’t received any reports, and haven’t really discussed it, so the City doesn’t yet have a stance on the project. Our influence as a stakeholder is limited – as we learned from the coal terminal project where our firm opposition did not prevent the project from being approved. I am sure we will participate in the review process, but it would be premature for me to speak on behalf of all of Council on what the City’s position will be.

As an aside, this proposal is apparently to move potash from a new mine outside of Saskatoon, specifically one that BHP Billiton announced they were in no rush to open as recently as August. I have no idea what that means to this project, but the timing does seem strange.

Green City?

Long-time readers (Hi Mom!) will remember that I got involved in this entire blog thing through an environmental lens. When I moved my constant beaking off onto the internet back in 2010, I had been involved with groups in New West and regionally who were trying to promote sustainability and environmental protection, in my profession, in the community, and in politics.

At the time, New West Council was making significant shifts towards better environmental policy. A few of the newer members of Council, led by some young whippersnapper named Cote, were putting environmental issues on the agenda. The City was adopting environmental policies, hired an Environmental Coordinator, and was moving into developing a sustainability framework that would become Envision2032.

The City of New West considers itself a leader in environmental initiatives, however I have yet to see a local government that doesn’t consider itself a leader on this front. That may sound critical, but it is really more a reflection of the sometimes poorly-defined and always evolving concept of environmental sustainability. Local governments (like most organizations, and most people for that matter) emphasize the good things they are doing and progress they are making, but are commonly blind to the things they are not doing. When it comes to something like environmental sustainability, consistent re-evaluation of goals and metrics is the only way to avoid comfortable smugness.

Recognizing this, the City is inviting you to help us move forward on environmental policy. Council has asked staff to review what we are doing, and what we can do better – both a gap analysis and reality check. And we are asking you to help.

This week (October 25th!) there will be a Public Event called Royal City / Green City, where we are going to get people into a room to talk about where our environmental policies are, and where they need to be. We are bringing together some subject matter experts to provide inspiration, and perhaps to push us in uncomfortable directions. We will also be asking all attendees to react to what they hear, and push the City. It is completely free and open to everyone, whether you work, live, study or play in New West. We do ask that you register ahead of time so we can properly plan for the numbers who will arrive, because this will be an interactive event. You can register here:

Maybe to get the creative juices flowing, I want to challenge the three- (or increasingly four-) pillar idea model of sustainability. This has become the standard model of suggesting sustainability is a balance between three competing forces – protection of the environment, growth of the economy, and maintenance of societal standards. Diagrammatically, it usually looks like this (copied from Envision2032):

This has always caused me to itch, because I have never felt it accurately reflects the interdependence between the three pillars. Without a sustained environment, we cannot have an economy or a society. Take that one pillar away, the other two disappear. Similarly, our economy exists within, and is defined by, the structures of our society. It cannot exist without a societal structure, which is, in turn, defined by the environment in which we live. In my mind (and I’m not the only person to suggest this) the three pillars should be drawn like this:Actions, technologies, and organizations impact our economy, which in turn shape our society, which in turn impact the greater natural environment. When we shape policies, when we evaluate the worth of technology or price individual actions, we are using economic tools to adjust the shape of our society. If that re-shaping supports the protection of the natural environment in a way that doesn’t constrain future societies from access to natural resources, then we can call those actions “sustainable”.

Clearly, I’m not a philosopher, so come out on October 25th and tell me how I am wrong!