Print Edition: June 17, 2015
It’s hard to ignore the irony of Abbotsford’s recent public forum concerning the commercial development of land that was tentatively slated for U-District planning.
The May 25 forum was advertised as a public consultation on whether or not a shopping centre featuring a Cabela’s outdoor supply store should be built on a property on McCallum Road. Those in favour of the centre argued that it would raise property value, and attract shoppers from outside Abbotsford.
But others claim the commercial development would just be another project that threatens to alienate young Abbotsfordians — and would also complicate the City’s and UFV’s plans for a U-District.
The irony was that by the time the forum was held, bulldozers had been on the property for weeks, preparing the land for a massive 639-space parking lot. The bulldozers may as well have said, “This is happening, no matter what you say here.”
Then, on June 15, Abbotsford City Council officially, unanimously decided to approve the development.
If Council’s decision was made unanimously despite the concerns brought by a large number of concerned citizens and students, then how effective is public forum as a way to influence City decisions?
It’s a question that can be asked in relation to UFV, as well, which has had its own share of what looks like the paving over of public opposition.
Last Friday, June 19, UFV’s Board of Governors discussed in-camera two recommendations from the Academic Planning and Priorities Committee (APPC)’s report on the Academic Success Centre (ASC), which is replacing the Writing Centre in the fall.
One of the recommendations made by the APPC is that “Senate and Board develop mechanisms and criteria to determine jurisdiction of, and processes for, review of academic support services and units.” This recommendation is intended to prevent a decision — like closing the Writing Centre — from happening again without due process.
UFV held fast to its decision to close the Writing Centre despite a protest, a petition that collected over 800 signatures, and an injunction request (which was dropped before going to court). Regardless of all the noise, the construction crew remained hard at work.
Even in APPC meetings, there were questions of whether discussions about the Writing Centre changed anything. In the May 13 APPC meeting, geography professor Michelle Rhodes expressed how the committee’s findings were unable, at that point, to affect any decision in the Writing Centre’s replacement.
“We are stuck in a position right now where the old Writing Centre has been disbanded, and the ASC, they’ve already started hiring tutors,” she said. “The process of review has unfortunately not been connected to the process of actual change on the ground.”
If the APPC’s recommendation is accepted by the Board of Governors, it will hopefully mean that decisions that affect student services will need to be subject to more scrutiny than what we’ve seen with the Writing Centre.
But even this provision seems to neglect public forum as a place where meaningful consultation can happen. Instead of public discussion, the Board of Governors is given a certain set of rules to follow. And regardless of any good intentions of the Board or the APPC, and no matter how well-written a set of rules might be, the people on the ground will still be alienated if they feel that their concerns aren’t taken into consideration.
And the fact that the Board made their decision to accept, accept with changes, or reject the APPC’s recommendations in-camera only maintains a distance between administration and students. That’s what makes the exercise of public consultation feel useless: the concerned public get their moment to speak, but the decision-making happens somewhere else, where those concerns are more easily pushed aside.
UFV student Dylan Thiessen was one of those speaking out against the commercial development of the McCallum property at the public hearing. The irony of the bulldozers’ presence at the forum was not lost on him.
“It makes this exercise almost feel useless, like this is just one more hurdle City Council has to jump over before it finally gets to build its development,” he said.
The APPC’s recommendation may add another hurdle to UFV’s decision-making, but looking at the university’s persistence to continue with the ACS despite all the outcry, it seems UFV can jump hurdles pretty well.