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B.C. Liberals have not committed to UN declaration on Indigenous rights

BY ALYSE KOTYK| May 3, 2017


Photo by Rafal Gerszak for The Globe and Mail

Among British Columbia’s three parties vying to win next week’s election, only the BC Liberals have not committed  to the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

In March, Indigenous organizations in the province issued a questionnaire to the BC Liberals, the BC Greens and the BC NDP asking for their positions on a variety of subjects, including their stand on the UN declaration (UNDRIP).

The first question the survey asked the parties was how they will “transform the current relationship between First Nations” and “all levels of government in light of the adoption of UNDRIP by Canada.”

“The UN declaration is one of the priority areas given that it has been endorsed unequivocally by Canada,” said Cheryl Casimer, political executive with the First Nations Summit. “[UNDRIP] does provide a number of recommendations in terms of how states will interact with Indigenous peoples. It basically sets the tone for how we can move forward together in a new era, in a new British Columbia.”

Last month, after initially resisting an outright embrace of the declaration, Canada formally removed the objections lodged at the United Nations by the Stephen Harper Conservatives. The Tories said they were worried the wording of the 2014 document could be seen as allowing aboriginal groups to veto things such as major development projects.

In B.C., with billions of dollars worth of developments proposed on lands subject to aboriginal land claims, the BC Liberal government had warned that UNDRIP could put jobs and the economy at risk because of the declaration’s stated requirement that Indigenous people offer “their free, prior and informed consent before adopting and implementing legislative or administrative measures that may affect them.”

The BC NDP responded by saying they will adopt UNDRIP and that “it will be [their] election platform.” The BC Greens response stated they “would fully commit to all action required of provincial governments to adopt and implement” the declaration.

For Wet’suwet’en Chief Na’Moks, part of this process of moving forward with reconciliation will require Indigenous communities to participate in the voting process.

“Over the years, people have decided not to vote because they have no faith in the government and then they complain,” he said at Monday’s launch of the Anyone But Clark campaign.

“I’ll tell you if you don’t get out and vote, you have nothing to complain about. Our people get so frustrated that they step back. That can’t happen any more. Our youth, our elders, all British Columbians must get out and vote because this is how we change the future.”

The survey also asked questions about the parties’ perspectives on treaty rights, child welfare, education, the environment and natural-resource management.

For Grand Chief Stewart Phillip, president of the Union of British Columbia Indian Chiefs, the BC Liberals’ and the BC Greens’ responses to the questionnaire fell short.

“Disappointingly but not surprisingly, the BC Liberals’ responses were very status quo and more of the same,” he said. “The BC Greens’ responses revealed their lack of understanding of Indigenous interests, Indigenous rights and Indigenous issues.”

Mr. Phillip acknowledged that the Green Party showed a desire and willingness to learn, but that it was too little, too late.

“We don’t have time for that,” he said. “We need a party that is committed to hit the ground running.”

Mr. Phillip said he felt the BC New Democrats’ responses were “the most comprehensive” and “reflected a knowledge and understanding” of Indigenous issues and reconciliation.

Ms. Casimer said the survey responses could be a helpful tool for Indigenous communities, especially when considering candidates in their ridings.

“It’s something similar to what we did during the federal election,” she said. “The questions were not just crafted by the leadership council, the questions came to us by means of an engagement process with a number of our councils.”

Chilliwack residents seek changes to Trans Mountain pipeline route

BY ALYSE KOTYK| April 23, 2017

As Vancouver and Burnaby continue their court efforts to halt the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion, some Chilliwack residents are trying to limit the pipeline’s impact by arguing for a different route, away from an important aquifer.

Earlier this month, Chilliwack residents were given notice by the National Energy Board that they have 30 days to provide feedback on the pipeline’s route through their city. Similar notices have been issued to residents in Abbotsford and Hope.

The Chilliwack group, many of them members of the WaterWealth Project, maintain the current route poses a risk to local salmon-enhancement areas, two schoolyards, dense neighbourhoods, the Vedder Mountain fault and the Sardis-Vedder aquifer, which is a source of water for most of Chilliwack.

Ian Stephen has lived in Chilliwack since 2006 and is a campaign manager at the WaterWealth Project. He said the group wants the pipeline to travel further along the north side of the Trans Canada Highway and wants it to cross at a different spot, affecting fewer homeowners and avoiding those sensitive ecological areas.

“If this thing is going to go ahead, the proposed route here is absurd,” he said in an interview.

“If there was not already a pipe that went in in 1953 and this was a new route, I think it’s pretty safe to say that they would not try and argue that going across a city’s protected groundwater zone was the best route to go. … It makes no sense at all to stick a pipeline there when you can go around instead.”

WaterWealth’s approach to finding an alternative route for the pipeline, however, has resulted in backlash from both sides of the Trans Mountain debate. Mr. Stephen said many people simply remain committed to the larger fight over whether the pipeline should be expanded. The $6.8-billion project was approved by the National Energy Board almost a year ago and would double the capacity of the line running between Edmonton and Burnaby.

Earlier this month, the Alberta government applied for intervenor status with the Federal Court of Appeal, which is looking at a legal challenge brought by 16 groups – including the cities of Vancouver and Burnaby – arguing the pipeline was approved without a thorough look at its environmental impact.

Chilliwack Green Party candidate Wayne Froese also expressed concern for the project’s current route through the city.

“They still have to do original construction work to dig a trench,” he said. “Why in the world would we not move it off the aquifer to avoid any possibility, even 50 years from now, of a catastrophic spill?”

Chilliwack-Kent NDP candidate Patti MacAhonic, echoed the potential long-term risks the pipeline could have.

“This pipeline will really hurt us,” she said. “It’s absolutely beautiful here. Our water is our freshest resource and once these things are gone, they’re gone. I can’t even understand how putting a pipeline over an aquifer in our community would be a good idea.”

Ali Hounsell, spokeswoman for Trans Mountain, acknowledged the city’s concerns for its aquifer and the challenge that the city’s densification has added to the project’s route.

“Chilliwack is one of the most challenging communities in that it has developed quite a bit,” she said. “We’re very aware that the Chilliwack aquifer has important values to the residents of Chilliwack and we’ve been engaging with the community for the last five years. So we know we need to mitigate risk as much as we can.”

Ms. Hounsell said Trans Mountain sent a letter to the City of Chilliwack, explaining its views of the proposed Trans Canada Highway route. The letter stated that placing the pipeline further along the highway would restrict the road’s future expansion.

For the City of Vancouver, Green Party Councillor Adriane Carr said the point of the pipeline’s route is moot, as the city would primarily be affected by the oil’s export.

“No matter what the route is to get here … bitumen would be put into tankers and would pass through Vancouver,” she said.

Liberal candidates for Chilliwack and Chilliwack-Kent were not available for comment.

B.C. party leaders’ housing affordability promises pose dilemma for renters

BY ALYSE KOTYK| April 21, 2017


Photo by Ben Nelms For The Globe and Mail

B.C.’s provincial candidates have made it no easy task for Vancouver renters to decide who to vote for based on their party’s housing-affordability promises.

Renters listening to a News 1130 radio debate between the three party leaders on Thursday heard BC Liberal Leader Christy Clark continue to tout her government’s support for first-time home buyers – a position that leaves aside the city’s significant population of renters unable to scrape together a down payment for a home amid stratospheric real estate prices.

While the NDP has offered a $400 subsidy per rental household, NDP Leader John Horgan appeared to change course somewhat during the debate, suggesting the allowance wouldn’t be universal.

The issue of affordable housing has been a key concern leading up to the May 9 election.

Ms. Clark summarized the parties’ significant differences: “Really, it’s a difference in philosophy,” she said. “Our government has said we want to help people get into homes that they own.”

The BC Liberals have focused on increasing housing supply, expanding the home-renovation tax credit and increasing the threshold of its First Time Home Buyers’ Program.

“I think we all want our kids to own the home that they live in, rather than just be a renter for the rest of their lives,” Ms. Clark said.

That perspective treats renters as though they are “second-class citizens,” Mr. Horgan said.

“That’s so disrespectful to people that have spent their lives on rental housing because they can’t afford anything else,” he said in the debate. “Help is on the way for renters that are struggling right now.”

The “help” includes the NDP-proposed $400 rental subsidy, which would be given annually to rental households. However, while the party previously suggested this subsidy would apply to all renter households, regardless of location or rent, Mr. Horgan seemed to suggest the allowance was not meant to be universal after all.

“That was the interpretation,” he said when pressed on the impression left by the party’s platform announcement on the subsidy last week.

Mr. Horgan provided no further clarity about who would be eligible to receive the subsidy if the NDP is elected.

The latest data from the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corp. put the average rent in the City of Vancouver at almost $1,300 for a one-bedroom apartment and about $1,750 for a two-bedroom, meaning a $400 subsidy would make up just a small percentage of the average renters’ housing costs in the city. At the same time, vacancy rates in the city, and throughout the region, are less than 1 per cent.

The Green Party’s plan for affordable housing includes introducing a provincial housing plan for affordable rentals, protecting the rights of renters through changes in the Residential Tenancy Act and raising the foreign buyers’ tax to 30 per cent across the province.

“[Housing] has gotten out of hand here because the issue of affordability was ignored,” BC Green Party Leader Andrew Weaver said during the debate.

For Thomas Davidoff, associate professor at the University of British Columbia’s Sauder School of Business, none of the parties focused enough on zoning or balancing low property taxes and high income taxes.

“The message we’re sending to the world, but for the foreign buyer tax, is you should come invest in real estate in British Columbia but we don’t really want you living and making a living here,” he said. “That’s a very valuable asset, a home in Vancouver. A lot of it is loaded to the future.”

Also on Thursday, Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne announced an expansion of private rental controls in her province and a 15-per-cent foreign buyers tax, similar to the one introduced by the BC Liberals last year.

But for Prof. Davidoff, the focus of housing affordability should ultimately not be based solely on home ownership.

“I think there are many people that can make a go of it renting here but will never have enough wealth to actually own an entire home outright,” he said. “I think, as a profession, economists don’t have a very happy opinion of encouraging home ownership as opposed to just making sure there’s a roof over everybody’s head as a first priority.”

B.C. student groups seek to raise turnout for provincial election

BY ALYSE KOTYK| April 19, 2017

Photo by Rafal Gerszak/The Globe and Mail

Campus groups are pushing their peers to make it to the polls for British Columbia’s May 9 election, warning that typically low turnout among young voters could make it easier for politicians to ignore them and the issues affecting their lives.

Voters younger than 35 tend to have the lowest turnout in Canadian elections and B.C.’s last election was no exception. Fewer than half of registered voters aged 18 to 24 participated in 2013, while fewer than 40 per cent of those aged 25 to 34 voted. And those numbers were worse than the two previous elections.

To address these low numbers, the Alliance of BC Students has launched a campaign to increase student voter turnout by providing on-campus information for how and when students can vote. In turn, the group hopes increasing youth turnout will pressure politicians to pay more attention to young voters.

“Political parties are probably failing the most in terms of reaching out to young people,” said Alex McGowan, Kwantlen Polytechnic University student and chair of the alliance. “When it comes down to it, I think [they] are just not putting in the real time and effort that they put into older generations.”

And the fewer young people vote, the less incentive political parties have to invest the time and resources into reaching them.

“It is a tricky chicken-egg situation where young people need to be inspired to turn out,” said David Moscrop, a political science researcher at UBC. “That requires them being engaged, but they’re not being engaged because there’s no real benefit to the parties to engage them.”

Mr. Moscrop added that many of the issues on which parties campaign might not be of interest to young voters, which itself could be an election strategy.

“Parties, rationally, put all their attention to groups that are more likely to vote,” he said. “So they target them and they know to their build their platforms carefully and accordingly.”

Arianna Murphy-Steed, whose group Young Climate Voters BC encourages students to vote with environmental issues in mind, said young people have barriers beyond a simple lack of interest.

“We’ve found that a lot of people don’t know that they are eligible to vote,” said Ms. Murphy-Steed, who is a student at the University of British Columbia. The group’s campaign is called Together for Tomorrow.

Ms. Murphy-Steed said that with university classes wrapping up before the May election, it could be difficult to provide students with the information they need to vote before they leave campus.

She also said many students don’t realize they are eligible to vote if they have lived in B.C. for six months.

“Many students may not have a fixed address,” she said. “I don’t know that there has been enough effort to ensure that young people are aware of when and how to vote. Part of the reason we are running this campaign is to help fill in those gaps.”

Elections BC said not having a fixed address also means young voters may not receive information from the agency.

“Youth tend to be more mobile. They’re moving more. They may not be on the voter’s list at their current address,” said Andrew Watson, communications manager for Elections BC. “In general, they’re harder to reach through the communications that we conduct to inform people how voting works.”

Noor Youssef, a political sciences student at UBC, moved to B.C. from Syria five years ago. Even with a Canadian passport and five years of residency in the province, she did not realize she could vote in the upcoming election.

“There isn’t much awareness on campus,” she said. “I just don’t have enough information on who’s running.”

Ms. Youssef acknowledged students such as her need to take initiative to understand the issues.

“It’s also my fault because I haven’t taken it upon myself to get informed,” she said. “I don’t know that much, even though I should. I’ve been living here for a while.”

For Simka Marshall, chair of the British Columbia Federation of Students, a province-wide organization that launched its Students Are Voting campaign last month to collect voting pledges, the perception of young voters needs to change.

“One thing I think is really powerful is to stop promoting the myth that young people are apathetic,” she said.

Ms. Marshall said youth voter turnout discussions should help youth feel empowered to participate politically.

“Being a young person myself, there’s nothing less inspiring than having people tell me that I don’t vote,” she said. “Being shamed into voting isn’t something that is going to mobilize me to get to the polling station on voting day.”