Eric Booth’s family has lived on British Columbia’s Salt Spring Island since his grandparents moved there in 1948. He grew up on the island, a bucolic refuge off Vancouver Island that’s just a 35-minute ferry ride from Vancouver, and carved out a career there as a property manager and real estate broker, raising two kids along the way. Now 70, the community-minded Booth served three years in the early 2000s on the Islands Trust Council, the unique governing body in charge of planning and land use throughout B.C.’s Gulf Islands. But today Booth is worried for the future of his island, and for his daughter, son-in-law and two granddaughters who also make it their home. A draconian set of new regulations proposed by the Trust Council stands to make life on the islands far more difficult and expensive.
Last July the Trust unveiled an updated Policy Statement, a kind of official plan meant to drive decisions around how the islands operate and evolve. The 37-page document covers everything from waste disposal to how farmers can work their land. If officially passed, it will gain the force of bylaw throughout the southern Gulf Islands. It stresses environmental protection above all and appears to be driven by a sense of, if not exactly panic over climate change, then a burning and comprehensive concern. The Council two years earlier had adopted a Climate Emergency Declaration “committing to urgent and equitable climate action across the region,” as the most recent document notes. It went on to say, “In order to effectively preserve and protect the unique amenities and environment of the Trust Area in this context, it will be critical to identify, monitor, mitigate, and adapt to the ripple effects of climate change on both ecosystems and communities.”
Combine the messianic zeal of saving the planet with the open-ended arrogation of authority in the Trust’s 2019 Declaration, and it’s perhaps little surprise that the Policy Statement prescribes a raft of new restrictions on life in the Gulf Islands. Among them: an effective ban on new private docks and shoreline protection, severe restrictions on tree-cutting on private property, and even a prohibition on new desalination facilities.
The new plan triggered a rebellion from area residents, Booth included, who say it will not only choke off economic development but make it next to impossible to live, and make a living, on the islands. Several groups were organized, typically based on one island or group of islands, and soon claimed a combined membership of about 2,500 households. Members say the new Policy Statement is the product of a governing body with a radical agenda that has evolved into a Medusa-like monster, going beyond its mandate and ignoring the area residents it is supposed to represent. The Trust “is like the kid that has been running wild with the credit card,” says Booth, an example of what can happen when a government lets utopian environmental zeal usurp the people it is supposed to represent.
The Gulf Islands are undeniably a unique and spectacular place, with the kind of lush forests and craggy coastlines B.C. is famous for. The Islands Trust watches over about 450 islands in all – some populated and developed, others tiny and uninhabited – that sit in the southern Strait of Georgia and Howe Sound, between the mainland and Vancouver Island, in what’s referred to as the Salish Sea. Of the 13 major islands, Salt Spring is the biggest, with nearly 11,000 of the area’s 26,000 residents.
With their bohemian atmosphere and access to the surrounding waters’ many marine delights, the islands have built a vibrant arts scene as well as a thriving boutique-style tourism sector. There’s small-scale farming on some islands, but a once-prosperous logging industry is all but gone and some residents commute to jobs in Vancouver or on Vancouver Island. Coast Salish Indigenous people have lived on the islands for thousands of years. The area has gained its share of famous residents, like wildlife painter Robert Bateman and rock n’ roll legend Randy Bachman. Mainlanders and Americans looking for homes and vacation properties have driven up real estate values.
But this verdant near-paradise never grew crammed with housing tracts, condo buildings, big-box retail clusters or massive resort complexes, and that is at least partly thanks to the Islands Trust. It was established in 1974 by the province’s NDP government in response to residents’ opposition to the growth of dense residential subdivisions, and was given a broad mandate to “preserve and protect the Trust Area and its unique amenities and environment for the benefit of the residents of the Trust Area and of British Columbia generally.”
Each of the 13 major islands elects two trustees to the 26-member Islands Trust Council, which meets quarterly. Decisions specific to each island are handled by a Local Trust Council, composed of its two elected trustees plus one member of the full Council’s executive committee. Meanwhile, the nuts-and-bolts tasks of island government – maintaining roads, inspecting buildings and businesses, operating schools, collecting property taxes and so on – are handled by the seven regional districts (a British Columbia designation that’s akin to rural counties) within which various groups of islands fall.
But the Islands Trust and its elected governing Council are considered the real regional power. Through its control of land use and planning, the Trust determines how the local economy will develop and what the islands will be like in the future. It is supported, and some say heavily influenced, by a bureaucracy of 60 full- and part-time staff with offices in Victoria, Gabriola Island and Salt Spring Island. Over the years, critics say, a selective hiring process has brought in staff members who share a belief in aggressive environmental measures. It was Trust staff, in fact, who pushed for review of the islands’ current policy statement and wrote the draft new Policy Statement containing the intrusive proposed regulations, triggering the extended ruckus.
Paul Brent, a Saturna Island Trustee since 2012, says the Trust did good work during its early years, with a small staff working to throttle back development in accordance with residents’ wishes. But, says the 67-year-old former CP rail employee, “In the past 20 years, they’ve lost their way.”
Unlike other municipal planning committees, the Islands Trust sees its mandate as going beyond dispassionately refereeing politically neutral processes. It regards advocacy as a big part of its job. “Islands Trust must be an educator, coordinator, collaborator, and initiator, guiding individuals, communities, organizations, and other government agencies to uphold and support the Islands Trust Object,” the new Policy Statement reads.
“Where they started going off the rails was when they became way more interested in advocacy,” says John Money, who was a trustee for 21 years and sat on the Trust’s executive committee for six. Money and his wife lived on Saturna Island for decades and still own hundreds of acres there. They moved to Vancouver Island a few years ago for better access to health care.
Brent and Money both say moderates on the Trust’s Council have fallen into the minority and that, like the bureaucracy, the elected body has grown dominated by radical environmentalists. Because the job of councillor has become so time-consuming, with agendas running into hundreds of pages, they say many fully employed people don’t have the time required to serve. “You’re getting kind of the bottom of the gene pool [on the Trust Council],” Brent declares bluntly. “Who wants to be an islands trustee?” Many trustees have little experience or understanding of business, he charges: “They get people mainly who are passionate about the environment, but who don’t understand organizations.” (In fact, some trustees have business and academic backgrounds.)
Examining the draft Policy Statement in detail – such as its list of prohibitions, its language implying kinship with Indigenous priorities, and its obvious overreach in demanding policy changes far outside its jurisdiction – does suggest a certain detachment from practical realities, a certain lack of humility that is frequently encountered amidst missionary zeal. It would prohibit, for example, construction of any new private dock, except where the property in question is boat-access only, as well as the construction of seawalls and other hard shoreline armouring. The stated goal is to preserve the ecology of island shorelines. But affected residents counter that boat access to their properties is a basic necessity of island life, including where there may be some road access.
New desalination facilities would also be prohibited, an even stranger and more punitive policy given the scant fresh water supplies on parts of many islands. According to the draft plan, this is “due to their high energy demands and adverse impacts to coastal and marine ecosystems.” The Trust offers no specifics on those alleged adverse effects, and lacks any jurisdiction or mandate to regulate island residents’ energy consumption. Critics of such a ban say desalination is often necessary because access to fresh water is severely limited, and point out that modern desalination systems – such as those that use reverse osmosis – dramatically reduce energy consumption. The net effect of the proposed restrictions would be to severely crimp any new building or business development.
The Policy Statement further says that all farming should be “small-scale,” without defining what that means, and should be “sustainable, regenerative, supportive of local climate action and food security, respectful of Indigenous harvesting areas, and protective of the environmental integrity of the Trust Area.” The at-once ideologically loaded and vague nature of these terms would seem to guarantee never-ending bureaucratic intrusions into everyday activities and conflict between Trust councillors and residents.
The draft document also amends forest stewardship policies, requiring permits for any tree cutting, even of a single tree on a private property. Patrick O’Donnell, an 88-year-old Indigenous resident of Salt Spring Island, said the new restrictions threaten a way of life his family has practised for generations. “My family and my progeny have been foresters for 180 years,” he wrote in an August 2021 letter to the Islands Trust Council. “The proposed policy threatens my livelihood and the future of my children to prosper in harvesting the forest.”
The plan claims to reflect a “commitment to reconciliation and meaningful engagement with First Nations in the Trust Area” and promises that future decisions will be guided by “Indigenous ways of knowing.” While that too seems guaranteed to generate future conflict, O’Donnell and others deny claims by Islands Trust staff that Indigenous communities were even brought on board. “As Indigenous persons we have not been consulted on the proposed changes to the Islands Trust Policy Statement,” O’Donnell charged in his letter to the Trust Council.
South Pender Island resident Dennis Perch, a Metis, goes further, saying the Trust’s claims of consultations with Indigenous communities are a smokescreen to advance a radical agenda. This “disingenuous attempt to use ‘responsibility to Indigenous peoples’ [is] a way to force an unrelated wish list of new controls onto island inhabitants,” he wrote in a critique of the draft Policy Statement called Who Really Runs the Islands Trust? “Much of the new policy statement and its reference documents read more like an environmental activist handbook than possibly the thoughtful, respectful contributions from Indigenous participants,” Perch concluded.
Critics see obvious attempts at overreach in the policy as well. The draft statement proposes, for example, to eliminate commercial freighter anchorage sites and to ban the transit of oil tankers. While the language acknowledges such controls are not within its jurisdiction, it proposes to work with senior-level governments to achieve the ban. And where the Trust’s previous policy documents used advisory language, it is now directive. Instead of advising Local Trust Councils on what they “should” do, now the operative term is frequently “must.” This would remove any local discretion in decision-making, critics say.
Opponents see the fingerprints of an environmental group called the Raincoast Conservation Foundation all over the new plan. At least two senior staff at Raincoast live on North Pender Island, according to records, and critics of the Trust say they have noted a cozy relationship between staff from the two organizations. Perch undertook an analysis of the Policy Statement and identified numerous areas in which the ideas and even the language of the draft are similar to submissions from Raincoast. Among the examples: Raincoast called for more “explicit and directive” policy direction, for more power going to the Islands Trust Conservancy, which works with landowners and communities to protect places of natural or cultural significance, for greater emphasis on “nature’s interests” versus human interests, and for a shift in language from advisory (“should”) to compulsory (“must”).
Mary Beth Rondeau, a retired architect and North Pender Island resident, also feels Raincoast has had undue influence on the Trust Council’s policy-making. “There are a few super-greenies driving this,” she says. “Nobody likes Raincoast, except the super-greenies.” The Trust, Rondeau believes, has evolved into an authoritarian command-and-control entity: “They’re on a holy mission; everybody says that. These people, for a whole lot of reasons unrelated to the islands, they want to make the world pay for our environmental sins.”
And those who will pay most of all, says Salt Spring’s Eric Booth, are the Gulf Islands’ remaining middle-class residents. That is because the net effect of all that planet-saving environmental protection will be to ratchet up taxes and other costs, placing island life financially out of reach of more and more residents. Booth fears people will gradually give up trying to eke out a living on the islands and sell to wealthy investors who can afford to keep island places as summer homes. “The Islands Trust is preserving and protecting the islands for a bunch of rich people who have not even been born,” he says bitterly.
The grassroots rebellion has gotten the Trust’s attention. Opposition began in June as the draft policy began to circulate. By the time it was tabled in July, Council voted to postpone the first reading until further consultations with the public could be arranged. Those are to occur over this winter. Meanwhile, the opponents also created a website and Facebook page, engaged a consulting firm with a certified forester, mounted a letter-writing campaign and appealed to the provincial government to intervene. In late November, the Southern Gulf Island Business and Resident Coalition released a poll reporting that 85 percent of respondents want a decision on the new policy deferred until after the October 2022 municipal elections and 69.3 percent believe it should be scrapped altogether.
Peter Luckham, the chair of the Islands Trust Council, insists that serious efforts were made to consult with residents. The Trust created a website, conducted a survey, had several pop-up events and sent staff to ride the Gulf Island ferries for four days to talk to people. This effort left Saturna Island’s Brent and other residents incredulous, however. “They went to a Christmas market and rode the ferry a few times,” Brent snorts. “This isn’t a consultation; this is saying, ‘We need numbers.’ The policy statement is 37 pages long. How are you going to do a deep dive on that in a few days?” These complaints are “a good criticism,” Luckham now acknowledges. “I ask myself, how did we miss this? And why?”
A Thetis Islander for the past 35 years, Luckham left a career in IT consulting several years ago to focus full-time on the Trust. He says the Council’s ongoing discussions about updating the policy statement were made urgent by recent developments, including the findings of the federal Truth and Reconciliation Commission, climate change becoming a threat to local ecosystems, and the need for more affordable island housing. Here, however, the uncompromising toughness the Trust’s policy makers showed towards things like new docks or making fresh water melted away. Faced with the concrete issue of housing, they drafted vague recommendations to work with other levels of government and identify “appropriate locations where density increases could support safe, secure, and affordable housing.”
Luckham insists many of the draft Policy Statement’s ideas came from residents themselves, including the call for directive language that hobbles local discretion. “There is an interest in more robust language,” he says. “And not just from staff, but from islands residents.” And he stoutly defends the need for the intrusive new measures. “Everyone here aspires to live sustainably and equitably,” he says. The question was whether the Trust’s old ways were up to the task or, as Luckham puts it, “Is the kitchen knife sharp enough to cut that garlic?”
The Council chair appears to accept his role of archipelagic chef, willing to crack a few island eggs to create a planet-preserving land-use omelette. “There are those who don’t like the Islands Trust, I’ll be honest about that,” Luckham sighs. “But the islands wouldn’t be what they are today without it. This is a special place. In that special place are special requirements.”
In response to the public outcry, the Islands Trust has engaged an outside firm – ISL Engineering and Land Services – to hold new consultations, at an additional cost to taxpayers of $82,000. That is meant to happen over the winter and is to include polling and public forums. Brent, however, argues that further consultation is pointless. “You’re doing consultation on a flawed document,” he says. “It needs to be redone. It should have been redone from the get-go.” Another report – a Council-mandated review of the governance, management and operations of the Trust by the Great Northern Management consulting firm – is due in March.
Opponents have also tried to get B.C.’s government to intervene on their behalf. The Islands Trust is, after all, a creature of the province. They have had mixed success so far. The NDP government’s municipal affairs minister, Josie Osborne, has stayed out. She declined an interview with C2C Journal, but provided a written statement. “Local elected bodies like the Islands Trust are autonomous, responsible, and accountable for being transparent and inclusive of public input,” Osborne wrote. “When the Islands Trust council completes its formal process and submits the new [policy] statement to the ministry, my staff will ensure that the proper process has been followed, including fulsome public engagement.”
The province’s Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Fisheries, however, expressed direct concerns in a letter to the Trust last October. Signed by Reed Bailey, a provincial land use planner, and Doug Pepper, a regional agrologist, the letter cited the confusing and ambiguous language in the new Policy Statement. It also warned that a local government cannot prohibit a farmer from clearing land “if the work is required for Farm Use.” The letter noted sharply that the draft Policy Statement “appears to strive for a vision of agriculture that does not reflect the current realities of the agricultural sector in B.C.”
Still, Booth doubts that B.C.’s government is genuinely interested in the critics’ complaints. “The province is probably reticent because there’s a bunch of NDP voters [on the islands] and they wouldn’t want to piss them off,” he says. With that in mind, concerned Gulf Islands residents have focused on winning at the local level. Step one is to delay the Council’s vote on the Policy Statement until after municipal elections in October. This would provide an opportunity to democratically oust the more radical Trustees, then wipe the policy slate clean and start over. Booth and others are now at work actively recruiting common-sense residents to put their names forward. But it’s a tough sell, he says, because the Trustee job is so time-consuming.
Rondeau is also eager to see a more assertive Trust Council elected, one whose members would work to bring hired staff back into line. “They’re not stupid; they’re not evil,” says Rondeau. “They’ve just gone off in a different direction that ignores people. We just have to get them back on track.”
Doug Firby is an award-winning veteran journalist and newspaper manager based in Calgary, Alberta, who has worked in print and electronic media for more than 40 years.