Ears and Hearts

One challenging part about this job is that you are always learning, at least if you are doing it right. Politics and policy making are complex things. Despite North American media’s lamentable fascination with covering them like they cover sports – scores kept and hot takes and winners and losers – the reality is that there are never clear winners or losers. Politics is never (and should never be) a zero-sum game, and the simpler your answer the more wrong it probably is.

For people doing the work of elected official, there is rarely time for self-reflection. Worse, if we continue the zero-sum sports analogy model of politics, there is nothing to be gained from reflection. Make a decision and move on, hunker down if challenged. But if you are in this to make change, to build a better community or a better world, some decisions stick with you, and cost you as much sleep after you make them as they did before. I’m not saying it’s healthy.

I’ve had a lot of time to reflect on the Begbie Statue since casting one of the minority votes against having the statue removed from a its eponymous square. I have also had numerous discussions and read a lot of correspondence on the topic. Since this story resulted more than a dozen TV news reports and the same number of newspaper stories across the province, I even received the benefit of kudos for “taking a stand” from people all over the country.

Problem was, not a single one of them actually knew why I voted the way I did, or even cared to find out. My process concerns and desire for better policy guidance was not noted, they just presumed I was on “their team” in this us vs. them zero-win battle and that my brave stand against the forces of political correctness (ugh) was appreciated. These were hard e-mails to read, and near impossible to reply to. I also talked to people who did not agree with the way I voted, and I have to say they were generally much more aware of my actual concerns, and most expressed appreciation for my attempt to have a fuller understanding of the issue. The difference between the two “camps” was stark.

In the last few months, I have had to read some lamentable commentary on the topic in the dead tree media. Recently, some blow-hard named Douglas Todd was quick to infer intentions in writing without ever taking the time to contact anyone on our Council of from the Tŝilhqot’in to discuss the issue. Not surprisingly, this self-proclaimed expert got the entire argument wrong. I also got to enjoy a recent gaslighting attempt by New Westminster’s own Minister of Absurd Apologetics. I have to admit that reading those commentaries provided real value to me, because they helped me to understand the issues a little better. By beating away at strawmen to provide Facebook clicks for their Postmedia Oberherren, they helped me to better frame my understanding of what my Council colleagues were striving for in the removal of the statue.

It would be wrong for me to overstate the influence these conservative white guys, comfortably shouting from their money-hemorrhaging big media platforms, had on me. Their expressed opinions may have convinced me I had to write this piece, but it wasn’t them that changed my mind. That happened weeks ago around the time that I attended the ceremony where members of the Tŝilhqot’in National Government came down to honour and remember the members of their family that were unjustly killed in New Westminster.

It was then that I started to understand that this is not about the person cast in bronze, and it is not about ancient history. This is about the place, and it is about the now.

Begbie square is a place where the current justice system manifests our continued unjust treatment of Indigenous people. The place where the statue stood overlooked that entrance in a way the statue of Lady Justice did not – not with a blindfold offering balance, but with a Stetson and a pipe, on a pedestal above and staring down on those who would enter. The statue also looked over the old court house yard across Carnarvon Street, figuratively Lording over the very place where the family of the Tŝilhqot’in were killed. You do not have to oppose the idea of there being statues of Judge Begbie displayed in New Westminster or elsewhere to agree that perhaps this one place is the single least appropriate for this symbol. To place it there perpetuates the affront for which our Federal and Provincial governments have already expressed remorse.

Through this lens, it doesn’t matter if Judge Begbie was a racist or he was an ahead-of-his-time defender of the rights of Indigenous peoples (this is where Douglas Todd goes so wrong). The statue that just happens to carry Begbie’s countenance is (as expressed by the plaque on the statue) a representation of a colonial justice system that “brought order” through injustice, standing over where a most egregious injustice took place, and at a place where the impacts of structural injustice still take place today. That could not stand, and should not stand. To claim we are “erasing history” is a silly distraction; removing it acknowledges history.

I expressed concern during our Council deliberations about whether we had really done the work to remove the statue. I did not feel we had consulted with the community, with the Tŝilhqot’in, with the Qayqayt and other nations about this act. As we were only beginning our community’s Truth and Reconciliation journey, I was concerned the outcome of an action seen by many as provocative was getting us off on the wrong foot, and would close ears and hearts before the conversation started.

Then the Tŝilhqot’in honoured us by sharing their commemoration with us, and were able to tell us their stories about what this injustice meant to them as a people, the pivotal impact the loss of those leaders had on their community, how their quest to know where the remains of their family are. The true story of this place was related to me in a way it had not before. These are not my stories to tell, but after hearing them and recognizing that this is not ancient history to them, but something that they still experience today, I was lead to reconsider the importance of the symbol of the statue and of the place.

I suppose I err too often in pondering over process and policy and not enough about the importance of action. Even when I was a “rabble rouser” about town, I was always trying to think of how we can creatively and cajolingly make change happen through system shift instead of just showing up at Council guns cocked demanding change. Sometimes it worked, but that is probably a reflection of my privilege more than any kind of superpower I may have. Reconciliation is going to be a different experience, and it will challenge all of us to think about our assumptions, our processes, and our privilege.

It is clear to me now that that removing the statue was the right thing to do, perhaps I just wasn’t brave enough to agree that the time was now. I was wrong, the time was overdue.

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.

Pipeline Project

There is a lot to grab your attention right now when it comes to local government. Budget deliberations, mobility pricing, the ongoing housing crisis, election 2018; it is hard to pick your battles sometimes.

However, the pending start of construction activity along the proposed Kinder Morgan TransMountain Pipeline Expansion is likely to spend some time in the news this spring and summer. Although directly-impacted local governments such as Coquitlam and Burnaby have taken very different approaches to the project, there have been people in New Westminster raising alarm about the potential impacts on the Brunette River watershed, along our eastern border.

What has not been discussed as much in our local government context, is what this project means to the First Nations along the route and to the indigenous people upon whose traditional lands this project will impose itself. As our own City approaches reconciliation, we need to start thinking more broadly about how we engage the indigenous community when we are evaluating our support or opposition to resource projects – even ones we have little jurisdiction over.

Next week, the Massey Theatre Society is partnering with Savage Society and Itsazoo Productions to present “The Pipeline Project”, a multi-media theatre event and conversation that explores these themes. As part of the Massey’s ongoing “Skookum Indigenous Arts Program

By all reviews, it is a serious, but at times humourous and disarming discussion of pipeline politics, and the sometimes unrecognized push-pull between “environmentalism” and the ongoing fight for indigenous rights. There are even a couple of matinee performances/discussions for those who can’t get out at night.

Here is a (slightly NSFW, but funny when it is) preview:

I think it is pretty timely with where New West, the province, and the nation are on this discussion. It’s gut check time when it comes to defining what kind of place we want Canada to be. This is a good chance to start listening. Get tickets here.

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.