Maude Barlow: leading Canadian activist for the public’s right to water

Maude Barlow: leading Canadian activist for the public’s right to water

Maude Barlow  |  George Le Masurier photos

Maude Barlow: leading Canadian activist for the public’s right to water

By George Le Masurier

Maude Barlow’s presentation today at the K’omoks Band Hall is not just another stop on the tour to promote her new book, Whose Water Is It, Anyway? The co-founder of the Council of Canadians and the Blue Planet Project is on a mission to sound the alarm about a global water crisis.

Water crisis? That’s hard to believe on the soggy west coast, but it’s true.

Barlow has devoted the last decade, and most of her 19 books, to dispelling the Canadian myth that we have an abundance of water. And she has worked worldwide to convince governments and the public to recognize the human right to clean water, to keep drinking water and wastewater systems under public control and to stop using bottled water.

“We think it will always be here,” she said. “We are blessed with water in Canada, but that doesn’t mean we can be careless with it.”

“The water crisis is a few years behind the climate crisis in people’s minds,” she told Decafnation in an interview at the Union Bay home of Alice de Wolff, a member of the Council of Canadians board.

But it is real. Consider that a United Nations science panel estimates that by 2030 the global demand for water will exceed supply by 40 percent. They predict water crises will affect seven billion people by 2050, when world population hits 10 billion.

Maude Barlow and Alice de Wolff in Union Bay

Many African countries already have a water crisis. River systems are polluted beyond human use in India. Adequate water supply is rare in the Middle East. Droughts are now common in Brazil, which has never had them until recently, and more frequent in California and on Vancouver Island.

Canada may have 6.5 percent of the world’s available fresh water, but we’re treating it poorly.

“We don’t have good legislation for groundwater protection,” she said. “We pollute it with chemicals from stormwater and factory agricultural runoff, we divert it, over-extract it and we don’t have strong national standards for drinking water or wastewater treatment.”

 

Keeping water public

Barlow’s message is particularly relevant in the Comox Valley after public protests defeated an application to extract groundwater for a water bottling operation in Merville.

The Merville Water Guardians, led by Bruce Gibbons, has now taken that fight to Victoria, pressing the BC government to stop licensing groundwater extraction for commercial water bottling or water exports from provincial aquifers. Last month, the Union of BC Municipalities passed the Water Guardians resolution.

Barlow predicts the battle for British Columbia’s will get more intense as water supplies diminish.

“In a world running out of water, you bet there’s going to be corporate interest,” she said.

Over the last 10 years, 83 percent of all Canadian bottled water exports came from BC, driven primarily by the Nestle company’s extraction operation near Hope that draws 255 million litres per year. There has recently been a 1,500 percent increase in exports to the US.

Two years ago, Agriculture Canada started promoting a water crisis in China as an opportunity for the Canadian bottled water industry. A fact Barlow thinks is curious given the Trudeau government’s promise to ban plastics by 2021.

Whistler Water in Burnaby extracts groundwater to produce 43,000 bottles per hour. The company was sold in 2016 to new Chinese investors who have expanded production to serve growing markets in China and California.

And new applications for groundwater extraction have recently been filed with the BC government for operations in Golden and Canal Flats.

Although many municipalities — including the Comox Valley — have passed bylaws prohibiting groundwater extraction for bottling, Barlow worries about which jurisdiction will have ultimate control if the province persists.

A significant Canadian water bottling expansion would add billions more plastic into the world, most of which will not be recycled, adding to the million bottles of water sold every minute around the world.

 

What are Blue communities?

Barlow initiated the Blue Communities Program in 2009 through the Council of Canadians and the Canadian Union of Public Employees to protect water and promote it as a public trust.

On July 28, 2010, Barlow earliest efforts achieved a major victory to have water recognize water as a human right by the United Nations.

It was a bittersweet victory, however, because Canada abstained from the vote. Prime Minister Stephen Harper had led the fight against it the UN resolution, because he was promoting public-private partnerships as the owners of water and wastewater systems. Harper was also encouraged private groundwater extraction.

Barlow believes water protection cannot be left to the federal government. She has focused her efforts on more local levels.

“We have a strong obligation to keep water in democractic hands,” she said.

To become a Blue Community requires that a city or town pledge to uphold three principles:

First, to recognize water and sanitation as human rights. Second, to ban or phase out the sale of bottled water in municipal facilities and at municipal events. And, third, to promote publicly financed, owned and operated water and wastewater services.

She imagined program as a Canadian initiative and never dreamed it would go global.

But when she was in Bern, Switzerland to protest Nestle’s abuse of water around the world, she had the opportunity to speak with the city’s mayor. Bern soon became the first Blue city outside of Canada, followed by the University of Bern, and the Reform Church.

Now Berlin, Barcelona, Munich, Madrid and Paris are also Blue cities. Brussels and Amsterdam will join soon.

And the program is not just for cities. The World Council of Churches recently took the Blue pledge. McGill is the first university in Canada to go Blue. A high school in Quebec and an elementary school (where her granddaughters go) have also taken the pledge.

In the Comox Valley, both Cumberland and Comox signed on to the program in 2012.

Burnaby was the first city in Canada to join, and Montreal is the largest.

 

Barlow’s new book

Whose Water Is It, Anyway? Is Barlow’s latest book about water. And it takes a different approach than her earlier works that focused on defining the global water problem. In it, she moves from misuse of water around the world, to the success stories of the Blue Communities program.

It’s more of a handbook to show people what they can do as groups or individuals to lessen the coming water crisis. It includes templates of letters to send to governments and corporations.

In a way, it’s the story of Barlow’s evolution to understanding water.

“I’m a practical activist. I have a big dream, but I’m rooted in a practical way to get there,” she said. “Plus, I offer hope. The book is not apocalyptic. I don’t want people to feel helpless.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

BLUE COMMUNITIES GROWING GLOBALLY

There is nothing more important than clean water. We need it for drinking, sanitation and household uses. Communities need water for economic, social, cultural and spiritual purposes.

Yet water services and water resources are under growing pressure. Communities everywhere – including in Canada – are experiencing extreme weather, including record levels of drought, intense rain and flooding. At the same time, privatization, the bottling of water, and industrial projects are threatening our water services and sources. The former Harper government’s gutting of environmental legislation has left a legacy of unprotected water sources. Provincial water laws often promote “business as usual” and do not go far enough to protect communities’ drinking water.

It is now more important than ever for all of us to take steps to protect water sources and services. By making your community a Blue Community, you can do your part to ensure clean, safe water sources and reliable public services for generations to come.

A growing global movement is taking action to protect water as a commons and a public trust. A commons is a cultural and natural resource – like air or water – that is vital to our survival and must be accessible to all members of a community. These resources are not owned privately, but are held collectively to be shared, carefully managed and enjoyed by all. They are a public trust. Recognizing water as a public trust will require governments to protect water for a community’s reasonable use, and for future generations. Under the Public Trust Doctrine, community rights and the public interest take priority over private water use. Water could not be controlled or owned by private interests for private gain.

— From the Blue Communities page on the Council of Canadians website

 

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Was there corruption in the Courtenay-Alberni Green Party nomination process?

Selfie taken by Green Party of Canada Leader Elizabeth May, left, and Mandolyn Jonasson having fun at a women’s conference in Vancouver

Was there corruption in the Courtenay-Alberni Green Party nomination process?

By George Le Masurier

Questions of impropriety at the Green Party of Canada’s nomination meeting in June erupted this week when one of the candidates went public with allegations that the vote was corrupted.

In a post to the Comox Valley Politics Facebook page, Mandolyn Jonasson, who had sought the party’s nomination, said the Greens’ nomination process was tainted and because of that party Leader Elizabeth May personally recommended a re-vote.

Jonasson, a Qualicum Beach business owner who was solicited by the party to seek the nomination told Decafnation on Saturday that at least two confirmed party members received double ballots in their voting envelopes at the nomination meeting, which was held during the Courtenay-Alberni riding’s annual general meeting on June 15.

She says organizers did not announce an exact vote count in contravention of party procedures nor did they keep any record of results. That has made it impossible to verify that the number of counted ballots equalled the number of members at the party’s Annual General Meeting, or the margin of victory.

The ballot box wasn’t continually monitored throughout the voting process, nor did candidates have representatives present during the count, according to Jonasson.

Jonasson was told she lost the nomination to Wood by just four votes.

But it wasn’t the mistakes made during the nomination voting that concern Jonasson the most.

“Mistakes can happen. It’s how you rectify and handle them afterwards,” she told Decafnation. “It’s the fact that they (GPC officials) were complicit in acknowledging the mistakes and then suppressing it and trying to suppress me or anyone else in the party.”

When Jonasson tried to appeal the nomination results, she and others were advised by officials of the party’s electoral district association (EDA) to direct her appeal to Liberty Bradshaw, local EDA president.

But she later received notice from the GPC national office saying the EDA officials were confused about the appeal protocol and that she would have to appeal through the Green Party’s own ombudsperson, which she did.

The Green Party’s national Executive Director Emily McMillan told Decafnation that Jonasson’s appeal was rejected because “it was not brought to our attention within the time frame (72 hours) or to the right people (Green Party ombuds).”

“These were inexperienced volunteers (at the EDA nomination meeting), McMillan told Decafnation in a telephone interview. “Doing the best they could.”

In a follow-up email, McMillan said the party determined that minor errors in the conduct of the meeting did not invalidate or have any conclusive impact on the outcome of the vote, and that Sean Wood is the properly nominated GPC candidate for Courtenay—Alberni.

“Ms. Jonasson was provided with a detailed report to this effect. This was done despite the fact that Ms. Jonasson’s complaint itself was technically invalid as it was submitted six weeks following the nomination meeting — well outside of the 72 hour window allowed for appeals. Ms. Jonasson was unable to justify this delay,” McMillan said.

But the party did an investigation anyway. A report of that investigation from Federal Green Party President Jean-Luc Cooke has not been released to the public. Jonasson has a copy but is bound by a non-disclosure agreement to maintain its confidentiality.

GPC official Rosie Emery initially told Decafnation that Jonasson had no non-disclosure agreement. But Christina Winter, campaign advisor for Wood, indicated there was an NDA.

Jonasson maintains that Elizabeth May told her in person during an Equal Voice conference in Vancouver that she recommended a revote in the Courtenay-Alberni riding and that Wood should step down. But the party leader also said she couldn’t interfere because the GPC is a bottom-up, not a top-down organization.

Wood has not responded to several attempts for comment on this story.

An email sent by Kate Storey on July 25 to all members of the party’s electoral district association, including Don Munroe who resigned over the nomination irregularities, and Sean Wood, urged the candidate to step down.

“I can’t tell the EDA what to do … but, in my opinion, if the candidate wants to improve his public image and get the support of the whole EDA behind him, then he might want to step down and ask for a new nomination meeting. It would clear away the uncertainty and would help his campaign,” Storey said.

Cumberland Councillor Vicky Brown, who attended the meeting, recalls that after members voted, the ballot box was taken into a room, but that there was no call for scrutineers.

“I thought the vote was handled very loosely, not secure at all. There could have easily been several people with double (or more) ballots in their envelopes,” Brown told Decafnation. “Because there were no numbers given, and I don’t know if anyone counted the total voters in the room, it’s difficult to know whether the vote count was accurate.”

Brown was one of many who emailed the EDA afterward to ask these questions and received no response.

“Because of this, the nomination process was suspect to me and I was left with an uneasy feeling about the whole thing,” Brown said. “I’m disappointed that the riding association couldn’t find a way to resolve this in a transparent way.”

At one point, on July 20, Jonasson received notice from the Courtenay-Alberni EDA that there would be a revote and an official went so far as to ask if she’d be willing to run a second time. But that was never brought up again, Jonasson said.

Jonasson, who still supports Green Party policies, said her reason for going public now was not personal, but because she cares about democracy.

“I’m not going to be bullied,” she said. “I know I’m martyring myself, they’re going to try and discredit me. But there’s a lot of people who saw this and know about it but don’t want to put themselves on the line.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Did the Comox Town Council pay their CAO $350,000 just to go away? Why?

Did the Comox Town Council pay their CAO $350,000 just to go away? Why?

Winter is coming  |  George Le Masurier photo

Did the Comox Town Council pay their CAO $350,000 just to go away? Why?

By George Le Masurier

“Nothing makes me more nervous than people who say, ‘It can’t happen here.’ Anything can happen anywhere, given the right circumstances.”
— Author Margaret Atwood, quoted in The Daily Telegraph (U.K.)

 

The firing of Chief Administrative Officer Richard Kanigan is just one part of the turmoil surrounding the Town of Comox. And it might not even be the town’s most expensive headache.

Unhappy public works employees, false allegations carelessly publicized, two expensive Supreme Court lawsuits, a road project that won’t end and a fired CAO walking away with a pile of cash.

Comox Town Council must have been desperate to get rid of their long-time CAO. According to a reliable source within town hall, councillors gave him a whopping severance package totalling $350,000.

Council members aren’t talking about why or how much, and definitive confirmation of the amount won’t come until at least the town releases its 2019 financial statements. But our source is somebody who would know.

The provincial Public Sector Employers Act generously caps severance pay at 18 months after five years of service. That only applies to executives in health authorities, K-12 and post-secondary education institutions and Crown corporations. It doesn’t apply to municipalities. Small towns like Comox should be much further down the pay-out scale.

But even on that basis, Kanigan’s 2018 salary of $140,028, plus $8,056 in expenses, would have put his golden parachute around $210,000.

So what was the extra $140,000 for?

Did Kanigan have some good buddies in high places who approved a sweet deal in his contract? Did counmcil just want him gone in a hurry and they didn’t have a strong enough case to warrant or withstand a protracted wrongful dismissal suit? Did they pay him extra so some dirty laundry didn’t get hung out publicly? We don’t know.

One thing we do know is that Kanigan’s firing had nothing to do with the fake allegations that the town’s public works employees were harassing Highland High School students. That story should have never been splashed across the front page of the local newspaper. It was an anonymous letter and the paper did no investigation that corroborated any of the allegations.

It was probably written by someone with a motive to cast nefarious suspicions on public works employees, and it wasn’t worth the space or time spent on it.

That said, there have been personnel problems in the town’s public works department that may yet end in the courts. And the basic road reconstruction of Noel Avenue has taken way too long — so far, all summer and most of the fall. It continues to disrupt a private school and a residential neighborhood.

Somebody seriously miscalculated something.

Kanigan’s departure also creates some problems for the town. Foremost, it makes the town’s petition to the BC Supreme Court to alter Mack Laing’s trust agreement quite a bit more tenuous. The town wants to tear down Laing’s iconic home, called Shakesides, and spend the famous naturalist’s money on other things.

But only two people have submitted affidavits to the court defending the town against the mountain of evidence compiled by the Mack Laing Heritage Society: Richard Kanigan and former finance direct Don Jacquest. And guess what? Neither of them are still employed by the town.

That alone might not be fatal to the case. But what if the BC Attorney General’s office suddenly realized that among the hundreds of pages of documents submitted by the Mack Laing Society there was evidence of questionable handling of procedure and critical information? And what if that also happens to be something similar to the reasons council fired their CAO and paid him a king’s ransom to keep whatever it is a secret?

Last spring, the Attorney General requested a hiatus in the Mack Laing court case. That delay has now turned into five months and counting.

What makes that so odd was Comox Mayor Russ Arnott’s anxiousness to settle the matter. He railroaded a quasi public hearing last March to rubber-stamp the town’s plan, although he forgot to consult with the K’omoks First Nation. And then the mayor was in such a rush to get back into the courtroom that he didn’t even want to finish the 90-day abeyance agreed to by council.

Yet, here we are eight months later, going on nine, and no court dates are scheduled. No negotiations are taking place. Nothing. It’s dead air.

Except, of course, there’s the matter of the huge legal bill the town rang up trying — and failing — to keep the Mack Laing Heritage Society evidence out of the Supreme Court’s hands. That bill could be getting close to what Kanigan’s golden parachute should have been.

And then there’s the matter of the $250,000 lawsuit over the town polluting Golf Creek and failing to take corrective measures in how its deals with stormwater, despite repeated recommendations from more than one consulting firm.

So, who knows what’s really going on? But it has begun to look like a more deeply rooted problem.

 

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Survey shows Comox Valley’s economic development model the outlier on Vancouver Island

Survey shows Comox Valley’s economic development model the outlier on Vancouver Island

Other Vancouver Island communities separate economic development functions from destination marketing

Survey shows Comox Valley’s economic development model the outlier on Vancouver Island

By George Le Masurier

Among Vancouver Island communities, only the Comox Valley continues to use a 1980s model for delivering economic development and destination marketing; an organizational structure that other municipalities and regions have abandoned.

And that model may be at the root of local dissatisfaction with the Comox Valley Economic Development Society.

Businesses and organizations representing multiple sectors of the community have expressed a variety of concerns and skepticism about CVEDS. Those concerns appear to stem in part from the lack of accountability built into its structure, which a 2014 performance review suggested could incubate an operational philosophy that leads to low levels of trust and credibility.

This is not an uncommon problem for governments with arms-length organizations governed by boards that have no direct public accountability. It is one reason why, in recent years, Nanaimo and Campbell River have folded economic development commissions with models similar to CVEDS.

Voting in 2017 to disband Rivercorp, Campbell River’s equivalent to CVEDS, Councillor Charlie Cornfield said it was time “to turn the page.”

“As disappointed as I am to see the model that myself and council had supported and encouraged — it didn’t work the way we had intended,” Cornfield told a Campbell River newspaper at the time.

Other communities clearly agree. A Decafnation survey of Vancouver Island and nearby coastal regions found that only the Comox Valley still operates an arms-length economic development function.

Municipal staff handle economic development in Powell River, Campbell River, Parksville and Qualicum, Port Alberni, Nanaimo and Cumberland.

Even the Cowichan Valley Regional District handles economic development “in-house” for a large geographic area that includes several different jurisdictions, including Duncan, Chemanius, North Cowichan and Ladysmith.

The Comox Valley is also the only community to still combine economic development with visitor center management and destination marketing. Other municipalities have either contracted out tourism marketing or rely on community member-based organizations, such as Chambers of Commerce.

“Combining economic development and tourism? Nobody saw that as a good model,” Nanaimo Mayor Leonard Krog told Decafnation.

Symptomatic of CVEDS problems, the Village of Cumberland, Denman Island and Hornby Island have all withdrawn from the regional economic development function. And there is speculation that one or two electoral areas are considering the value of their continued participation in advance of next year’s first quarter contract negotiations.

CVEDS’ five-year contract with the Comox Valley Regional District expires on March 31, 2020.

“If people are dropping out of something that indicates poor leadership or a structure that isn’t going to succeed,” Krog said.

 

Case study: Nanaimo

Prior to 2011, the City of Nanaimo handled economic development in-house with designated municipal staff. Eight years ago, then mayor John Ruttan spearheaded formation of the Nanaimo Economic Development Corporation, an arms-length entity similar to CVEDS that also had tourism marketing responsibilities.

But just five years later, new mayor Bill McKay and council pulled destination marketing responsibilities from the NEDC. That triggered a public rant by then EDC executive John Hankins for which he was fired from his $130,000 a year job.

McKay and Nanaimo Council then decided in December 2016 to take economic development back in-house and fold the corporation.

Now, the city has taken the first steps toward creating a new hybrid model for economic development that new Mayor Leonard Krog believes will enhance Nanaimo’s prosperity through the ups and downs of the economic cycle.

“There’s no question our city in-house staff needs some capacity,” Krog told Decafnation. “”Nanaimo is in a unique position as a port city, with a university and a regional hospital, and our location — there’s more population north of the Malahat than south of it — so economic development warrants more investment.”

In August, Nanaimo City Council endorsed the recommendations of a report by Neilson Strategies to create a hybrid model with many of the organizational details being determined by a broad-based community task force.

If it’s ultimately adopted, the new Nanaimo structure would expand the existing in-house economic development department, with this initial scope of services:

  • develop the city’s economic development strategy
  •  produce related economic reports
  • assist businesses in navigating city departments and provide information
  • manage the city’s contract with Tourism Vancouver Island for destination marketing, and any other related contracts with external agencies
  • provide input to city departments to facilitate economic activity

The new plan would also create a new arms-length Nanaimo Prosperity Agency, whose initial scope would include:

  • implementation of the economic development strategy
  • coordinate with organizations with a stake in economic development
  • develop a Nanaimo brand and attract new businesses

The city is also creating a temporary Economic Development Task Force drawn from community leaders that will investigate and review ownership, funding, governance and staffing options for the Nanaimo Prosperity Agency and recommend a final operating model to the City Council.

The task force will also play a role with in-house staff in developing the economic development strategy, including hiring the consulting firm to complete the strategy and endorsing the final draft for council adoption.

The city has already signed a contract with Tourism Vancouver Island for destination marketing services valued at about $650,000 in the first year.

 

Case study: Campbell River

Prior to 2017, the City of Campbell River funded an arms-length corporation governed by an independent board of directors, called Rivercorp, to provide economic development services. Similar to the Comox Valley Economic Development Society, Rivercorp handled destination marketing and managed a visitor’s centre in addition to its economic activities.

But by April of 2011, Rivercorp was being widely criticized for a lack of measurable results. Public dissatisfaction had started to manifest itself at city council meetings, according to a report in a Campbell River newspaper.

Former councillor Ziggy Stewart said simply that Rivercorp wasn’t doing its job.

“I’ve been involved with Rivercorp for the last five budgets now, and just strictly from a business decision, the return on investment hasn’t been there,” Stewart said.

Former councillor Mary Storry said the community had lost faith in the organization.

“At this point we’re looking for performance and we haven’t seen the performance,” Storry said.

Then, at an all-candidates meeting during the 2014 municipal elections, both the outgoing mayor Walter Jakeway and Mayor-elect Andy Adams said Rivercorp wasn’t delivering enough economic growth. That sounded the death warrant for Rivercrop.

According to a news report, Jakeway called Rivercrop a “disaster” and said the “entire thing needed to be gotten rid of.”

Rose Klukas

So it wasn’t a surprise when Rivercorp’s chief executive, Vic Goodman, resigned after the 2014 elections. And it shocked no one in April of 2015 when Mayor Andy Adams and City Council announced their intention to fold Rivercrop and take economic development in-house.

“A thorough re-evaluation, in collaboration with the Rivercrop board, has helped us conclude that the best way forward is to bring the economic development role into city operations,” Adams said. “We are confident that combining the economic development function with community development work done in other city departments will result in a more efficient and coordinated effort.”

Campbell River hired Economic Development Officer Rose Klukas in May of 2016 to report directly to City Manager Deborah Sargent. Klukas previously held the same position in Kitimat.

Adams told Decafnation this week that Klukas’ office is next to his and Sargent’s as a visible indication of the importance placed on economic development.

“Prospective investors have access to the mayor and city manager,” he said. “Those connections create synergies and opportunities.”

Campbell River also separated out responsibilities for destination marketing and visitor centre management.

Campbell River Council hired the consulting firm, Chemistry Consulting, to study how other communities dealt with tourism and destination marketing. They found that Tourism Vancouver Island handles these roles for many Island communities.

But the city chose an unlikely company, Destination Think. It’s a global company with offices in places like Amsterdam and the Australian Gold Coast and works for big municipal Canadian clients like Banff Lake Louise, Calgary, Montreal and Stratford.

Destination Think also works with smaller BC communities such as Vernon, Langley and Richmond.

“We took a chance on them and it’s the best decision we ever made,” Adams said. “We’re tapped into their worldwide reach.”

The arrangement with Destination Think included the creation of Destination Campbell River to implement a five-year tourism plan, which was developed over six months with community consultation.

The city hired Kirsten Soder to head that effort with an assistant and seasonal staff to operate the Campbell River visitor’s centre. Soder was previously the executive director of Tourism Tofino.

An independent long-time organization, the Campbell River Tourism Promotion Society, agreed this year to wind down its operations and join forces with Destination Campbell River. Now all online enquiries get directed to a single website maintained by the city.

Campbell River contributes $250,000 annually from city coffers and the Destination CR group receives close to another $500,000 from the city’s hotel tax, officially known as the Municipal Regional and District tax. Destination Think leverages that up with provincial grants.

Mayor Adams told Decafnation that the city has finally aligned all its economic and tourism efforts and they’re pulling in the same direction. And there’s a financial bonus, too.

“The realignment is costing us less or at least the same as before,” he said. “And with the MRDT money we’re able to do even more.”

 

Case study: Cowichan Valley Regional District

Skeptics of taking Comox Valley economic development in-house have often cited the difficulty of satisfying all the staff and elected officials from three separate municipalities, a regional district and three electoral areas.

But the Cowichan Valley has done it for years.

The Cowichan Valley has always managed its economic development activities through an in-house regional district function, according to Barry O’Riordan, manager of Economic Development Cowichan.

And since 2016, the economic development office no longer handles any tourism or destination marketing responsibilities.

“In 2016, the Cowichan Valley Regional District contracted Tourism Cowichan Society to deliver the regional tourism services. The regional tourism requisition mandated by a CVRD bylaw is $120,000 and this is used to leverage additional support from Destination BC,” O’Riordan told Decafnation this week. “Additionally, Tourism Cowichan Society receives MRDT funds that flow through the CVRD and industry contributions in the form of membership dues to form their overall budget.”

Prior to 2016, regional tourism services were delivered through the EDC office, but that was found to be an inefficient model.

Cowichan regional visitor centres are now managed by the Chambers of Commerce in Duncan, Chemainus, Ladysmith and Lake Cowichan.

 

Case Study: Cumberland

As Decafnation has previously reported, the Village of Cumberland announced it would withdraw from Comox Valley Regional District’s economic development function during the summer of 2015.

Participation became an issue during the 2014 municipal elections when all candidates seeking Village Council positions supported a withdrawal.

The Village had taken part in the 2014 performance review of CVEDS by Urbanics Consultants and candidates said the resulting report and recommendations reinforced the community’s perspective that the service was unsatisfactory and was not serving the best interests of Cumberland.

Other Comox Valley elected officials opposed Cumberland’s withdrawal, and the village has been penalized for withdrawing after the CVRD awarded CVEDS with a five-year contract in March of 2015. It has paid about $40,000 per year to the service for the past three years to complete its financial obligation.

In 2018, the village hired Kaelin Chambers as its first economic development coordinator to implement a Cumberland-specific strategy. One of his top priorities is to attract new businesses to the Bevan Industrial Lands, which comprise roughly 84 percent of all available commercial property in the Comox Valley.

Because it currently has a small commercial base, the Village’s finances rely primarily on property taxes from the community’s 3,500 residents.

Chambers has already had success. He reported this month that Tree Island Yogurt plans to purchase 15 acres along Bevan Road from Comox Timber Limited to construct a 28,000-square-foot production facility. It will be about four times larger than the companies current facility in Royston.

 

What’s next

The CVEDS board must present its proposed five-year strategic plan to CVRD directors by Oct. 31. And a review of CVEDS contract fulfillment by consultants Explore Solutions is due by Dec. 31.

Nine of the 10 CVRD directors — Cumberland won’t have a vote — will then use those two documents to deliberate the future of economic development and tourism marketing in the Comox Valley. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

THE CVEDS CONTRACT RENEWAL PROCESS

The five-year agreement with CVEDS differs from other CVRD contracts for services. Because the regional district created the nonprofit society through Bylaw 345, the agreement for economic development services is not open to competitive bids. There is no Request for Proposal issued and the CVRD does not consider proposals from any other individuals or companies.

On June 1, the CVRD provided a letter to CVEDS that it would enter into negotiations for a potential five-year renewal of the contract after it receives the society’s new strategic plan on Oct. 31 and following an independent contract performance review due by Dec. 31.

However, the letter did not commit the CVRD to a new agreement, according to Scott Smith, the regional district’s general manager of planning and development services branch.

But Smith also confirmed that the CVRD has no Plan B. There is no parallel process underway to investigate alternate models of providing economic development services should negotiations with CVEDS not result in a renewed contract.

 

QUOTES FROM URBANIC CONSULTANTS 2014 REVIEW

“We feel that there will always be a certain level of scepticism surrounding the value of CVEDS activities unless it can produce the metrics that taxpayers want.”

“We feel that an organization such as CVEDS (or any economic development organization) does require a certain level of social license in order to effectively carry out its job  … the unique political landscape of Comox Valley warrants an effort to earn, build and maintain social license within the community.”

“The majority of the criticism we have obseved has centered on a lack of communication and transparency.”

 

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Relationship issues still plague Economic Development Society in some Comox Valley sectors

Relationship issues still plague Economic Development Society in some Comox Valley sectors

Grierson Stage at the Vancouver Island Music Festival  /  Photo by Brent Reid, 20-year VIMF volunteer photographer

Relationship issues still plague Economic Development Society in some Comox Valley sectors

By George Le Masurier

Fourth in a series about the Comox Valley Economic Development Society

In 2014, the regional district commissioned an extensive performance review of the Comox Valley Economic Development Society. Among its central findings: the society needed to improve how it communicates with governments and the public and that it must rebuild relationships within the community.

The reviewers, Urbanic Consultants, emphasized those points among a total of 30 recommendations for improvement and then underscored their importance and urgency.

“CVEDS must address these matters forthwith if it expects to remain entrusted with delivering the economic development service function in the long run,” they said. “Otherwise, if no changes are evident, the public may begin to demand more drastic actions, including pressuring government to not renew the service delivery agreement,” Urbanic Consultants wrote.

But a Decafnation investigation has revealed that many issues still exist five years later. If relationships have improved, sources told us, it’s because they are resigned to working with CVEDS. They control most of the community’s marketing money, and elected officials “don’t want to open that can of worms.”

Our investigation encountered a litany of complaints from multiple community sectors, organizations and businesses, including:

The society is often slow to pay its bills, at least once not paying at all. It doesn’t always engage local partners in a collaborative manner. It often goes out of town for services available locally. It ignores important community sectors. It has promoted unwanted developments, showing themselves out of touch with community values. It has a reputation for being difficult to work with.

Some of those interviewed, who have operated businesses in the CV for a long period of time, said the society has “a lot of baggage,” and that some relationships with CVEDS were irreparably fractured because “the animosity is ingrained now.”

Area B Director Arzeena Hamir, who has a background in economic development for the agriculture sector, believes success comes from creating relationships and connecting people.

“It’s about building on what’s already here and helping it grow or making it better,” she told Decafnation. “To do that requires trust and strong relationships. If there’s no trust, if you’ve burned bridges, how can you do economic development effectively?”

 

Slow to pay

Several business owners and managers have had trouble collecting payment from the Economic Development Society. One key Comox Valley nonprofit organization says it never got paid at all.

Ronald St. Pierre, owner and BC Hall of Fame chef of Locals Restaurant, had a slow pay problem with CVEDS, which he says has been cleared up now.

David Rooper, general manager of The Old House Hotel and Spa, had the same problem, but to a larger degree, and now will only book blocks of rooms for the society on credit cards.

“Until there is different financial accounting that allows a shorter time frame for reimbursement, we cannot offer credit for CVEDS,” Rooper told Decafnation.

CVEDS Executive Director John Watson told Decafnation that he wasn’t aware of any slow pay problems. He said the timing of payments is simply a factor of how funding flows from governments.

But Rooper and others believe the society could better manage its financials because government and grant funding is scheduled and predictable.

 

Where did the money go?

Although the CVEDS performance review recommended rebuilding relationships with complementary organizations, in 2015 the society burned the Comox Valley’s single largest tourism event: Vancouver Island Music Fest.

CVEDS contracted Music Fest to hire musicians who would perform at various locations around Courtenay for the first-ever Winterfest, an invention of CVEDS to boost tourism during the winter months. The first year was a success, but from Music Fest’s perspective, year two turned into a disaster.

Executive Producer and Artistic Director Doug Cox said he was getting nervous close to the event because communications with CVEDS had suddenly stopped. He says the CVEDS office wouldn’t answer his calls. He was repeatedly told that Executive Director John Watson wasn’t in the office and they didn’t know where he went.

Cox finally went to the CVEDS office with plans to stay there until someone talked to him. He was eventually told there was no money to pay the musicians.

But Cox says neither Watson or anyone from the board of directors has ever explained what happened to the musicians’ money.

Music Fest had to pay the musicians itself, about $40,000, which Cox said was a burden for his organization. Music Fest also paid some of the Sid Williams Theatre rental obligations where Winterfest musicians had been booked to perform.

And the rift goes deeper. Music Fest organizers say CVEDS does little to help market the festival.

“Music Fest is the biggest tourism event in the Valley. We have 10,000 people daily, 1,400 volunteers, 400 musicians and sell out the area’s 800 hotel beds, plus fill campgrounds and B&Bs.” he told Decafnation. “It’s just frustrating not to get any help from them. They only market their own events.”

When Decafnation asked Watson what happened to the musicians money, he said CVEDS was “moving on.”

“This was some time ago and we are focused on the future in regards to the festival, which will form part of the discussions that are occurring with the long-term tourism sector planning work underway within the strategy process this fall,” he told Decafnation in an email.

 

Collaborating with partners

Seven years ago, Courtenay hotels voluntarily agreed to support a City of Courtenay application that sought provincial approval to implement a two percent tax on room rates and use that money for destination marketing.

It’s widely assumed that all Comox Valley hotels and motels collect the tax, which is handed over to the Economic Development Society. But, in fact, it only applies to hotels, motels and some Bed and Breakfast businesses within the city.

The Port Augusta motel in Comox does not participate. Neither do any resorts outside Courtenay city limits, including Union Bay’s Kingfisher Inn, the single largest destination resort in the region.

Rick Browning owner of the Best Western Westerly Hotel “vehemently disagrees” about the structure of the hotel tax.

“If we’re serious about tourism, we should apply a consumption tax for the entire hospitality industry — including restaurants, boat charters, the ski resort and so on,” he told Decafnation. “Why are hotels the only people who have to increase the cost of their product?”

There are about 300 listings online for AirB&Bs and VRBOs in the Comox Valley. That’s the equivalent of four Bayview hotels (formerly called the Holiday Inn Express), Browning said.

“Where the (CVEDS) board fails miserably is they don’t engage hotels to discuss whether their model works or not. If would be more productive if they did and we would get the best solution — whether that’s CVEDS or not,” he said.

The Old House Hotel and Spa

Browning has tried to get on the CVEDS board several times but has been rebuffed. He believes they are reticent to have hospitality industry representation.

David Rooper at The Old House Hotel agrees that CVEDS could improve communications with Courtenay hotels. Some members of the Destination Marketing Advisory Committee — created by CVEDS after taking over the former Comox Valley Tourism organization  and includes B&Bs and the downtown Business Improvement District — say they don’t receive agendas in a timely fashion and the minutes don’t detail actual conversations.

“CVEDS could improve on relationships, meetings, communication,” he told Decafnation. “The organizational structure needs a review.”

Other members of the DMAC, who didn’t want to speak publicly, have told Decafnation that the committee appears to have little influence on how their hotel tax money is spent.

Rooper agrees. “I would like to see the DMAC act more like a steering committee and involve us in decisions,” he said.

During his career in hospitality, Rooper has seen other models for destination marketing organizations, and he thinks CVEDS should adopt some of their best practices.

He pointed out the City of Nanaimo as an example. They have contracted with Tourism Vancouver Island for all destination marketing activity, separating it from economic development.

“If we don’t move forward pretty quick, someone will eat our lunch,” he said.

 

Buy local? Not always

Even the Valley’s burgeoning technology sector is not immune to issues of communication and lack of  financial support from CVEDS.

Nik Szymanis, cofounder of Tickit, a successful Canada-wide online event ticketing company headquartered in Courtenay, says he parted ways with CVEDS this year due to different business philosophies.

Tickit, a 10-year-old company, had been the ticketing agency for CVEDS events for several years, working on projects that ranged from small conferences to the annual BC Seafood Festival.

But as a growing enterprise, Szymanis and his partner Alex Dunae, had trouble collecting payment for their services, sometimes waiting as long as eight months for a cheque. So two years ago they switched CVEDS from a credit account to an account requiring payment up front.

Then, this year, they discovered by accident through a print advertisement that CVEDS had hired one of their competitors, a ticketing agency in Alberta, for the 2019 BC Seafood Festival.

“There wasn’t any consultation, we just happened to see the ad,” Szymanis told Decafnation.

With 99 percent of their clients, Szymanis says Tickit has great open communications. With customers, they share ideas, insights and brainstorm how to improve their services.

“CVEDS didn’t have any desire to play that collaborative game,” Szymanis said, so he and Dunae decided to drop the society as a client and move on.

 

Public relations

Prior to the 2014 performance review, CVEDS had purchased an expensive full page advertisement in the Victoria Times-Colonist newspaper that among other things promoted the Raven Coal Mine, which local governments, K’omoks First Nation and the conservation community had opposed.

The ad also promoted the Sage Hills housing development south of Courtenay, whose principals had committed fraud and other violations according to the BC Securities Commission.

That caused Urbanic Consultants to write that “if CVEDS is unwilling to manage its message, then the dialog surrounding it will be shaped by external parties, which may ultimately diminish its ability to deliver on its mandate.”

Yet several years later, the CVEDS website featured Riverwood, the ill-fated 3L Developments proposal, as a regional development site during a period of widespread citizen protests and protracted wrangles with the regional district that included litigation over the Regional Growth Strategy.

That casued a storm of negative CVEDS comments and concerns on Facebook and other platforms.

Courtenay Councillor Wendy Morin commented at the time, “Where are other examples of ED boards promoting developments outside their RGSs that require a major amendment (that may or may not be approved), that are as contentious as this? What incredible disrespect of process this is.”

Former Comox mayor Paul Ives defended CVEDS, commenting on Facebook that the society had made “no error” and that there was “nothing shady at all.” He advised critics to “check out what CVEDS is doing for yourself rather than taking shots from the cheap seats.”

Immediately after the Riverwood issue blew up on social media, CVEDS took the reference to the 3L development off their website. The CVRD board eventually rejected the 3L application to amend the RGS and the developers later lost a subsequent lawsuit against the regional district.

 

Arts and culture ignored?

The Comox Valley is widely known as a community rich with resident artists and a vibrant culture of festivals, musical theatre and the nationally renowned Comox Valley Youth Music Center.

But the Economic Development Society does not recognize arts and culture as a key sector of the Comox Valley region, according to its website. In fact, the society has a stormy past with key players in the regional arts community.

Marty Douglas, a local real estate personality who has been heavily involved in Comox Valley musical theatre groups since the early 1980s, says CVEDS has done “zero cultural marketing, yet it’s a huge driver of regional tourism.”

Elevate the Arts event in Cumberland, from Facebook

Attendance figures at the Sid Williams Theatre, for example, have grown by more than five percent per year for decades, he said.

Meaghan Cursons, one of the driving forces behind the local event production company, Elevate, thinks CVEDS is missing a big part — arts and culture — of the Comox Valley narrative.

“They no longer have a mandate to deal with the whole picture,” she told Decafnation. “And that means the Comox Valley cultural story still isn’t being told.”

Because the Village of Cumberland pulled out of the economic development function, the society doesn’t collaborate with the village’s many festivals.

“Our character, our gifts, our colour, our relationships are all missing from the official Comox Valley narrative,” Coursons said. “Which is silly because the cultural community, producers and consumers, knows no boundaries. It’s like tearing pages out of a book. Their content makes no sense anymore and the marketing materials are losing relevance. But we’re thriving out here in spite of it.”

Cumberland’s new in-house economic development strategic plan now has a strong arts and culture focus.

In 2008, Denman and Hornby islands, the home for a large number of the region’s artists, also stopped participating with CVEDS.

Residents of the two islands individually formed the Hornby Island Community Economic Enhancement Corporation and Denman Works to address economic development from a more local perspective. Area A Director Daniel Arbour was the executive director of HICEEC from 2014 through 2018.

And, although CVEDS pursued and signed a Memorandum of Understanding with the Comox Valley Arts Council last December — as recommended in the 2014 performance review — their past relationship had been strained.

“Until last year, there wasn’t a lot of support,” Arts Council Executive Director Dallas Stevenson told Decafnation.

Stevenson, who’s been at the helm of the arts council for 13 years, recalls a “real struggle” in 2007 over an application for federal funding that required an arts and culture strategic plan .

However, since working out last year’s MOU, Stevenson says “the relationship has gotten better.”

 

Working with contractors

CVEDS initially hired Watermark Communications to produce this summer’s BC Seafood Festival. But after introducing the Whistler-based firm at several high-profile local gatherings, Watermark wasn’t heard from again. CVEDS has never explained what happened.

Sue Eckersley, president of Watermark, which produces the Whistler Cornucopia festival, told Decafnation she preferred not to comment on what happened.

When asked, Lara Greasly, the society’s marketing and communications manager, would not comment directly other than to say CVEDS decided to go a different direction with two separate contractors. They hired Impact Events, a Kelowna company, as the food and beverage director and local resident John Mang as the site and venue services director.

But another source close to the situation said there was a dispute because the working agreement shifted unexpectedly and Watermark decided to back out.

 

Local government

The 2014 economic development performance review recommended CVEDS improve its communications with local governments, as well as the general public.

The consultants who wrote the review suggested semi-annual presentations to local government in addition to semi-annual meetings with municipal chief administrative officers.

CVRD Chief Administrative Officer Russell Dyson told Decafnation the society had followed through on those recommendations and that the change had improved communications.

Courtenay Mayor Bob Wells agreed.

“I think they’re doing well on that,” Wells told Decafnation. He declined to comment further.

Next: What is ‘economic development,’ and how are other municipalities and regions doing it.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

HOW THIS ARTICLE
WAS REPORTED

Reporting on CVEDS relationships within the community evolved into a difficult assignment on two fronts.

First, some of those we contacted in various economic sectors would not speak on the record. As a group, they generally feared retribution from CVEDS, such as cutting off marketing or other support for events that benefit them.

“Because CVEDS controls all the money, local and provincially … I can’t say anything. I know that’s part of the problem, not making things better,” one source told Decafnation.

Secondly, we encountered an initial unwillingness by CVEDS staff to be interviewed. Decafnation started contacting Executive Director John Watson in May to arrange an interview. We received no response. We eventually asked Board of Directors Chair Deana Simpkin for an interview in lieu of speaking with staff.

But it wasn’t until after we solicited the help of several Comox Valley elected officials that Watson finally responded and agreed to meet on Sept. 3, nearly four months after our first request.

The inteview was arranged with Watson, Board Chair Simpkin and Vice Chair Bruce Turner. When we arrived, newly elected director Paul Ives was also in the room. Later we learned that other newly elected directors had not been asked to join the interview.

In the 2014 performance review of CVEDS written by Urbanic Consultants, they wrote that in some cases “attempts to contact CVEDS would go unanswered, which contributes to (a) fairly common perception that CVEDS ignores whom they ‘do not like’.”

 

 

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