PENDER ISLAND – Agriculture in the Gulf Islands will no longer be recognized as a traditional or valuable activity if Islands Trust approves a new policy statement, set for first reading in July.
The proposal is informed by input from the local community and more than 20 First Nations who have treaty and territorial rights and title within the Islands Trust area gathered as part of the Islands 2050 consultation, launched in September 2019. The current policy statement has been in place, largely unchanged, since 1994.
“Words such as ‘traditional’ have been removed from the draft of the new Policy Statement to ensure that [it] is aligned with the Truth and Reconciliation Commission calls to action,” says Islands Trust communications specialist Vicki Swan.
The proposed changes are driven by a need to acknowledge First Nations and the council’s commitment to reconciliation, and to address climate concerns, housing affordability, population growth, water supply constraints and expanding development pressures, adds Swan.
“Islands Trust wants to ensure that impacts to land are minimized to ensure that cultural heritage and traditional cultivation areas and harvesting areas are not impacted,” she says.
Surprised by changes
The changes are a big surprise to the Pender Island Farmers’ Institute (PIFI), which saw a first draft of the proposed changes in the second week of June. The draft didn’t come via their local trustees, raising concerns about the transparency of the process.
“One of the farmers gave us the heads up and suggested that we take a look at it,” says PIFI president Barbara Johnstone Grimmer, who also chairs the North Pender Island Agricultural Advisory Commission (NPIAAC). “They were alarmed that the trust is pushing this to first reading without community consultation.”
At the crux of the matter is a lack of involvement in the changes affecting agriculture and the speed at which the process is moving ahead. In presentations to the communities made during Islands 2050, there was no indication that sweeping changes to agriculture policy were on the table, and prior to finalizing the draft for first reading, the trust did not specifically ask any members of the local farming community or any of the organizations representing farmers for their feedback on the proposed changes. That will come in the next phase of engagement, following first reading.
NPIAAC members, some of whom are also PIFI members, were unaware of the proposed changes. The group was shocked that agriculture as a traditional and valuable activity in the trust area was to be removed from the trust policy statement.
“It appears to be throwing agriculture under the bus,” declares Johnstone Grimmer. “It has not been shared with our communities by our local trust committee yet, and next month [July] it will get first reading.”
Once finalized, all 20 official community plans and land use bylaws for the 13 local trust areas must be consistent with this document.
If passed, the trust will no longer endorse applications for inclusion of land into the Agricultural Land Reserve (ALR). The trust expects applications would go directly to the Agricultural Land Commission for a decision and not via local trust committees.
Other changes include a precautionary approach to the stewardship of agricultural lands and the preference for small-scale, sustainable regenerative agriculture that is supportive of local climate action and food security, respectful of Indigenous harvesting areas, and protective of the environmental integrity of the trust area. There is a focus on advocating for the provincial government to establish incentives and guidelines to support local farmers. Wording around low-carbon agriculture as a means to reduce climate vulnerability has also been added.
According to the trust, the draft of the new policy statement defines a general approach to all aspects of land use that is consistent with the Islands Trust mandate, and that “prioritizes the safeguarding of protected area networks, freshwater sustainability, a healthy marine environment, and Indigenous cultural heritage.”
Other industries impacted
It isn’t just the farming community that is concerned. This approach is being applied to all activities the statement covers, including forestry, housing and transportation. The proposal places an outright ban on all docks except for property that is only accessible by boat. Local posts by concerned residents started appearing on islands-based Facebook groups days before Islands Trust announced the draft policy statement was going for first reading.
Behind the scenes, the policy statement barely made it onto the July 8 council meeting agenda. A program committee meeting in mid-June saw trustees, who were starting to hear concerns from constituents, equally divided on rushing the draft through. A tie vote on deferring first reading meant first reading would proceed.
An ad hoc group from several islands is distributing a flyer throughout the region encouraging people to voice their concerns to the premier and demand that trustees halt this process now. The current timeline for first reading has a lot of detractors and a petition is circulating to request a deferral until community consultations can take place.
“The Trust Policy Statement is an overarching document that guides our official community plans and land use bylaws,” says Johnstone Grimmer. “We have concerns that agriculture will be significantly, and negatively, impacted by this rushed and flawed process.”
PIFI met on June 23 to approve a letter to the premier and agriculture minister. Meanwhile, others, including some past trustees, have already written.
Former long-term Saturna Island trustee John Money was worried about the process and the proposed changes. His letter condemns the unseemly haste at which the draft is being hammered through with little or no input from the communities affected by the statement. He’s also concerned that “good agriculture” will be determined by the Islands Trust and notes that Gulf Island farmers have been very successful growing food and fruit for the last 100 years.
Another former trustee, Jane Perch of South Pender Island, expressed concern in her letter about the challenges of making any substantive changes to the wording once first reading is approved. She wants the process stopped now.
On the evening before first reading on July 8, trust council will hold a two-hour virtual meeting to encourage public input. Each person will be allowed to speak for two minutes. Perch’s letter called this a sham.
Concerns have also been raised that the proposed policy statement will apply a one size fits all blanket over the whole region, centralizing control and reducing the unique character of each trust area.
Tensions have simmered for years between those focused on the trust’s preserve and protect mandate and those who argue that the Islands Trust Act give local trustees some leeway for establishing policies to tackle issues like housing affordability and needs specific to local areas. It appears to be coming to a head. But the Islands Trust will continue to advocate on behalf of farmers, says chair Peter Luckham.
“Through the 18-month consultation, we learned that agriculture is clearly important to residents of the trust area, and it’s reflected in the draft of the new policy statement,” says Luckham. “Read the document cover to cover to get a holistic perspective, and discover how Islands Trust proposes advocating for farmers with the provincial government.”
Luckham encourages residents to register for updates and participate in the three-month consultation process that will follow first reading on July 8.
The trust would like to see the new policy statement approved by the province next summer, before the next municipal elections.
Money told Country Life in BC that the trust has noone with an agricultural background within its payroll.
“The policy used to say farming was part of what the communities are all about,” says Money. “Now the Islands Trust has removed that statement and they say that they should dictate what is good farming.”
The BC Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Fisheries is taking a hands-off approach for now. It provided a statement to Country Life in BC that it understands the proposed changes are more about broader efforts to increase food sufficiency in the Gulf Islands and pursuing farming that considers regenerative, agro-ecology, greenhouse and other techniques.
The trust was established in 1974 and is under the jurisdiction of the BC Ministry of Municipal Affairs. The trust’s mandate is to preserve and protect the islands and surrounding waters in the southern Strait of Georgia and Howe Sound, often referred to as the Salish Sea. The area is home to 26,000 residents, 10,000 non-resident property owners and 28,000 Coast Salish.
The current and proposed new policy statements, along with a series of FAQs published since islanders started raising questions, are available on the trust’s website.