Interviewed by Katie Stobbart.
Since many students will be voting for the first time, what would you describe as the role of municipal politics? What can city councillors actually do?
I love that question, because whenever people think about voting, they get interested maybe in [federal] or provincial politics, but they kind of ignore local; they think, “What does that have to do with me?” But actually local government is the closest to the people. It’s the most accessible, accountable, and efficient level of government there is. When you think about it, the decisions we make every day affect the water you drink; the air you breathe; whether you can flush your toilet or not, and what happens to that; whether your street gets cleaned; and what you’re actually allowed to do and not to do on your own property. So I think, you know, if more people realized how personally connected they are to local government, I think they might get more involved.
So, I guess our role is essentially: we set policy, and we govern. We hopefully hire really good staff who carry all that out through different plans and policies that guide how our community is supposed to look, and be built. Of course, a lot of that is through public input. We get the comment all the time, “Why don’t you run more like a business?” Well, a business is accountable only to themselves, and maybe their shareholders. We are accountable to the whole community, so we have a requirement for public consultation. That slows things down a little bit but that’s also democracy. We can’t just do things like a business does (bam, bam, bam); we have a process to follow. But I like that. Otherwise you’re a dictatorship.
I make the best decisions when I actually go out and talk to people, and like the P3 water debate — I was a little frustrated because I just [felt] something was wrong with this, but it wasn’t public yet and I wasn’t sure where to go, but finally when it went public and I was able to talk to the public and they gave me their perspective and told me where to go to research here or research there, I thought, “Holy cow… this thing is not the way it’s been presented.” I was the only councillor who backed out of it, actually.
But I make the best decisions when I talk to the people, so I wish they would consult us more. Even when they do sometimes, people will be apologetic about it, like they start the conversation with, “I’m sorry to bother you…” But no, this is my job! And I really appreciate people calling me and telling me whether they think I’m on the right track or what have I missed, what’s important to them, because we’re supposed to be servants of the people. That is the definition of our job: servants of the people. We’re just guessing unless people are telling us what they want and think, and people are saying all the time, “We don’t feel connected to politicians, and they don’t understand us.” Well, we’d love to hear from you more often so we do know how you feel, but if you want somebody more representative of you and your ideals and goals and how you think, then find the candidates who share those views. It takes some time; it really does. But really the election is only once every four years. So once every four years, spend just a little bit of time researching the candidates and find out who best reflects your goals.
Who do you view as your constituents?
What do I see as my demographic? Everybody. We don’t have a ward system, we don’t have a party system — thank God — I think the slates and parties, they just kind of muddy the waters of democracy, like a step removed from democracy. I’m a fierce, fierce defender of democracy in its truest form. When you’re accountable to a party or slate or one special interest group or area, you’re not doing what you were elected to do. You were elected, especially in local government, to represent the whole community.
Because I do speak out about the environment a lot, some people assume that my demographic is environmental, but I’m actually very much in favour of sustainability, which means in all decision-making you equally balance the impacts on the environment, the economy, and social needs. The problem is, I keep talking about environment so much because it tends to be left out of the equation, or social issues are as well, so I just try to make sure that’s always a part of the conversation. All three are really important to me; I don’t feel I have any particular demographic. They’re all equally important. Otherwise it defies the definition of the term sustainability, right?
How will you receive the views of the entire population instead of just those most active around City Hall?
Yeah, that’s not the easy part. When people aren’t eager to come to you, it is a lot harder to reach out, so I try to put questions out there, say on Facebook or Twitter, maybe — maybe not as often as I should, and that’s a good reminder that I should do it more often — saying, “what do you think about this folks,” or “here’s the issue today and how do you feel about it,” trying to get people engaged. I’ve come to do presentations at the university several times. Actually, any invitation that I get to talk to any community group (university, learning plus, wherever) I’m in. I was here talking about pipelines a week or two ago, because I guess that’s kind of my way of engaging: if you ask me, I’m there, and even if you don’t, sometimes I will sort of invite myself when I’m on a cause, like fighting the garbage incinerators. I’m absolutely shamelessly unapologetic and I will knock on anybody’s door and talk about it, because it’s a huge threat — those garbage incinerators [produce] the most toxic, complex pollution you can possibly get. It’s horrible, horrible stuff; it’s not well-regulated, it’s not well-understood. So, I feel it’s sort of what people expect of me: to take those issues on. If I take them on, that takes a lot of time and research and lobbying, putting presentations together, going around and talking to groups. So, yes, I want to know what is important to people, but I feel it’s also my obligation to let people know when there’s a threat they may not be aware of, and let them know, “Look, heads up, folks: this is coming, and we need you.”
That power plant that we stopped (SE2): the only reason we stopped that is because thousands and thousands of people stepped, up, got engaged, and they had signs in windows, emails, thousands showing up at rallies. That’s what stopped it. Public engagement: that’s what did it. People think, when there is a threat from a big corporation that’s powerful and has a lot of money, sometimes they have a defeatist attitude and say, “Oh, you know… we can’t possibly win against that. Why bother?” Yes, you can. The reason they don’t win is because these corporations count on your silence. They count on your defeatist attitude. They count on you giving up and just going away. They have the money and the time to wait you out. So, persistence is another thing that kills these things. Guess how long I’ve been fighting these incinerators? Twelve years. You don’t give up. Then you can win. I think we may have one this one with the province killing Bill 280.
Are you doing anything to address the lack of student interest in municipal politics?
I’m talking to people like you. I try to find unique ideas that are a little bit outside the box of what people are normally used to, to kind of get them excited and engaged.
There’s not a lot of young people in politics, and I can’t help but wonder if that’s because their own age demographic isn’t really getting out there and supporting them and voting for them. We’ve got some really good young candidates this time.
Have you seen Rick Mercer’s vote mob movement? He kind of accidentally started this movement because he thought, you know, he says, “I don’t think young people have any idea the power they have.” If they got out and voted, they have no idea the power… maybe a lot of the older generation, some of them — not all of them — might not be all that excited to entice the younger vote because they may not share their perspective and ideals. I’m not afraid of it because I believe in a lot of ways I do share them; I fight for the environment and social issues, I want green jobs, the new economy jobs. So I think if they realized how much power they have, and this is what Rick Mercer was saying. He kind of stumbled on it by accident. I think he made some kind of joke on air, and a university took him seriously and started this mob. So what they do is they Twitter and Facebook and say, “Vote mob at the university, 3:00 today,” so everybody wore Canadian colours (red and white) and they came with signs [stating] why they think it’s important to vote, what they’re voting for, and just this mob to get people excited. It was so awesome, and started this movement at universities across Canada, and I haven’t heard of any lately, but I’d love to see the university start a vote mob and just get young people excited and say, “Look at the power you have.” You can change the face of politics by getting involved.
How did what you were doing at city council change over the past three years compared to what your initial goals were during the last campaign?
One of the biggest disappointments, I’d have to say, was our Integrated Community Sustainability Plan. It had multi-facets to it. It had how we manage our energy, how we manage our economy, what we’re going to do to become a sustainable community in every single aspect, and I worked on that for two years and was so excited about it. I was so disappointed when it kind of got shot down by council. It was reconsidered, but the language was weakened so that it wasn’t very committal on the City’s part, and it wasn’t strong enough. The disappointing thing is that some people hear the word “sustainability” and they think that it’s all about the environment when that would actually defy the definition of the term. The biggest winner, ironically, in this whole plan, was going to be the economy. There was a big plan to create this green economy hub, and to be leaders in the province if not the country in that, and I was so excited about that because we have such potential to create green jobs and hire an economic development officer that would aggressively go after that. The direction from the majority of council was just to sort of weaken the language and back off and leave it to business, leave it to industry. Well, how can you expect them to take a strong initiative there if we’re not leading the way, if we’re not encouraging them in every way we can to help them in the system… so I guess that’s probably my biggest disappointment. So I’m hoping in the next term that maybe that will be revisited and strengthened, and this council will provide strong direction for our new economic development officer to really go after this green economy.
One of my biggest disappointments, too, was not getting the Abbotsford Community Services low-barrier housing facility approved. I’m still hopeful we’ll get it built, and I am encouraged by the work of our homeless task force: really good stuff there, awesome recommendations — I’m really excited about those, and how [they’re] going to change lives, change our community. Of course, one of our biggest recommendations was housing first: get a roof over people’s heads, and then assess, because every person is different … so find out what’s going to work for them and help them through that process.
Do you have a specific project you want to prioritize or bylaw you want to change?
I guess that would be the community sustainability plan. It’s already there, but I would want to see it strengthened and more committal, and I want to see more definite action on the City’s part. That was the other thing: there’s talk around that table that, “Okay, we’ll pass it, but we don’t really want the City to commit real money to this.” You have to. You can’t achieve anything without putting a little money into it but there’s payback. It’s an investment in our future. It’s not like there won’t be some payback; we’re not throwing money away. It’s an investment in our economy, our future, our health. So, I guess that’s one of my priorities, to bring that back.
I would like to see our tree protection bylaw strengthened; it’s one of the weakest in the Lower Mainland. Yet, here’s the thing: a tree protection bylaw doesn’t just protect trees. It protects all the biodiversity and ecosystems that surround it. So it’s not just about trees. A lot of people don’t know this, but of all the biodiversity species in all of Canada, about 70 per cent of those species are in BC. Sumas Mountain is a well-recognized hotspot for biodiversity in all of BC. So you connect the dots, and we have a rich amount of biodiversity, of rare and endangered species, right in Abbotsford on Sumas Mountain, that need protection. Yet that area has been exempted from the tree protection bylaw.
I totally understand that people who live up there are saying, “Well, it’s a little different here. We’re not like the city; we have different needs.” I totally get that, so what I wanted to do was compromise, to sit down and talk to them [and say], “Okay, how can we still have a tree protection bylaw and address your needs?” So come to some kind of compromise. We didn’t get that. It was just exempt.
So the risk there is that there are some more unethical people who will — see, if a developer wants to go through the legitimate and the ethical route and buy a piece of property and send in a development proposal … and then they will have to do their studies … and are required to replant trees, etcetera — if someone is unethical, they can go in and clearcut, let it sit for a couple years, then come to the City and say, “I want to develop this.” Meanwhile all the trees are gone, all the biodiversity is gone because there’s no tree system to support it, the streams are probably destroyed, so you don’t have to do stream conservation and all that. If you don’t have a tree protection bylaw, there’s nothing to prevent that — there are no fines, no tools.
The rules aren’t for the ethical behaviours; they’re not for people who do things right. The rules are for more unethical people who want to get around that. So you have to have those kinds of rules and regulations. Some people say, “Oh, let us do whatever we want on our own property.” Nobody gets to do that anywhere, in any city, in any jurisdiction. There are rules you have to live by so you don’t destroy your whole community by your actions, so you don’t ruin your neighbours’ quality of life.
In regards to the community sustainability plan, which you said was weakened or shot down by council — let’s say hypothetically the same council gets in, as that’s essentially what happened last time — what’s the strategy for implementing that and changing the course of the river on that issue?
That’s where the public comes in. If you don’t like what you see, say something. I think people have no idea of the power their voice has. There’s a rule of thumb with politicians and industry that one email, one letter, one phone call likely represents the thoughts of about 500 people. So, one person saying something in our minds isn’t just one person. It’s an alert that there are other people out there who may think like that, and maybe I’d better pay attention to this. If you take five minutes to write an email … it does have an effect.
I’ve spoken about a lot of things over the years. I’ve lost some fights and I’ve won some, but I’m always glad I said something, because even when you lose, you raise awareness about issues that are really important to you and probably important to other people as well. That’s never a waste of time.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.