Add up: Harrison Hot Springs and non-stop ideas and discussions! I spent Friday March 30, and Saturday March 31 at the Centre for Civic Governance conference, The Future is Local. The Harrison pools are lovely, and it was pleasant to swim and float in warm water with the moon above on a misty rainy night.But this isn’t about hot springs, really, it’s about the exciting thought-pool of ideas I was immersed in for two days.The convergence of progressive energy from across British Columbia and the lineup of speakers was remarkable, and inspiring. The many choices of workshops and presentations were attended by municipal officials and school trustees from all over BC.
One of the most powerful ideas I took away was Joel Bakan’s statement in his plenary speech (made in the context of municipalities rejecting the Enbridge pipeline) that there is a legislated mandate for local governments, and there is a democratic mandate which addresses bigger picture questions and decisions that affect us all locally. (I was inspired to finally watch The Corporation, the dvd version of Bakan’s book of the same name. If you’ve somehow escaped seeing it, as I had until this week, it’s powerful and essential viewing, or reading if you prefer a book. After finishing The Shock Doctrine, I had to take a break from dense reading for a while! Back on track now with Tony Judt’s Ill Fares The Land.) I will be drawing on this concept as the budget process goes forward in School District 61. The vote on the 2012-13 budget is set for April 16.
The other major concept that ran through all presentations is the power and importance of everything local. That means you.
The first event on Friday March 30 was a tour of some of the sacred and ancient places of major significance to the Chehalis First Nation. We heard engaging stories meant to make us think about moral choices and behaviour, and instilling respect for all beings, while travelling the lake on the comfortable Sasquatch Toursboat. Yes, the owl rock looks like an owl! But I could not see the bear in the rock, who was an important figure in the story. We were told a highway is going to run along the lake making a one hour trip to and from Whistler, and a development will come up over the hill and right down to the lake. As “progress” encroaches, the people of the Chehalis First Nation are defending their territory’s important and sacred places by making them known through these excellent tours.
I didn’t attend the evening screening of the movie version of Sherman Alexie’s (Sherman’s own website is sparse so here’s the wikipdia version) Smoke Signals as I saw it many years ago, but if you haven’t seen it, it’s a compelling stereotype buster. And funny. And heartbreaking.
During any one time frame over these two extraordinary days there was always a choice of workshops. After the lake tour, I attended former Saanich School District Secretary – Treasurer Joan Axford‘s clear presentation that explained how the Ministry of Education’s covert policies of strategic underfunding of public education and ad hoc, capricious funding announcements that don’t make up for cuts and losses work to undermine our public schools. (Meanwhile, public tax dollar subsidies for private schools increase.) The “public bad, private good” mindset is obvious. Ministry of Education “Factsheets” feature graphs presented in such a way that you’d think funding is through the roof. Looking at school district budgets, not the pretty graphs, you will see the real story: structural deficits in many districts, because of the Ministry of Education’s chronic underfunding. (School District 61 has carried a multimillion dollar structural deficit for several years in an effort to maintain services to children with special needs, and has reached the end of one-time cuts as a temporary offset.)
I attended Making Schools Safer for the second half of the afternoon, in the aptly chosen Rainbow Room. Why isn’t it enough to have a generic anti-discrimination policy? This presentation from Larry Hayes, Christopher Spencer, and Sarah Hoffman made the answer clear. Larry Hayes took us through the process of anti-homophobia policy development in Burnaby. A death threat to the Chair of the Board was part of the very intense process. Christopher Spencer’s first motion after his election to the Edmonton Public School Board was a motion to create an anti-homophobia policy, which is now in place. Greater Victoria benefits from the long-term work of former SD61 Trustee and Columbia Institute Executive Director Charley Beresford’s work on Safe Schools and the development of Policy 4303, Discrimination. Its title is not indicative of a specific anti-homophobia policy, but the associated Regulation has attached an extensive addendum of Recommendations in regard to addressing homophobia.
And later that afternoon, my first sort-of Pecha Kucha! I love this format! Gaetan Royer spoke with passion about parks and community; Alice Finall spoke about local agricultural initiatives in North Saanich (sadly, the Sandown initiative recently failed in a council vote) ; Lisa Helps (Victoria City Councillor) explained how microfinance can contribute to community connections; Sarah Blyth presented a very affecting review of the development of a Downtown East Side Women’s Homeless Soccer team and the community that developed.
Joel Bakan inspired us with his dinner plenary speech – Joel is the first speaker I’ve listened to who didn’t speak nearly as long as I wished he had. Others echoed that thought. Then a short time in the Harrison pools in a light rain, steamy fog rising from the pool, the moon above, and vital ideas and energy all around.
Saturday began with a breakfast plenary. Betty Baxter was an Olympic level athlete and coach who was fired in 1982 for her sexual orientation. Betty is now a Board of Education Trustee for the Sunshine Coast District 46. Her story links to the lives of those all around us who lived though those days, and for those of a new generation who still live with the effects of subtle or not so subtle bigotry. Betty wore her mother’s yellow spring jacket, and left me remembering the strength of that colour on her, her own personal strength, like warm light.
I attended the Participatory Budgeting presentation after the plenary. This workshop was targeted at municipal councillors and examined community group participation in specific sections of municipal council budgeting, with Guelph as an example of the 1200 cities worldwide that are attempting this. There are possible applications for increased citizen engagement in school district budgeting. In West Vancouver SD Vancouver SD45, students at Ridgeview Elementary participated in school level budgeting in 2005. This was Canada’s third experiment in participatory budgeting. I was somewhat disappointed as the huge amount of community work around participation seemed to me to be confined within very narrow parameters of budgeting, but it’s a start and the education and organization component is significant and complex. The phrase “the tyranny of the majority” came up; in decision making it is essential to have mechanisms to ensure minority views are not ignored or devalued. (If you’ve ever participated in consensus based decision making, you might have some strong reactions, as I do, about the tyranny of consensus, too. It can happen.) This is an exciting area and I have a lot to learn about it.
Later that morning (the schedule could be said to be brutal, but I’ll call it “exhilarating” really, it was ) an Emerging Issues Panel featured Amber Hockin (CLC) , George Heyman (Sierra Club) , David Fleming, and Taylor Bachrach, who introduced himself as “Boy Mayor of Smithers: The Same as a Mayor Only Younger”. Taylor stood out with his good humour and sharp political focus. Smithers council passed a motion to oppose the Enbridge pipeline, an example of Joel Bakan’s broader democratic mandate.
For the last part of the afternoon, I attended Case Studies in Trustee Advocacy. “Building from a well-established district culture of public engagement, some trustees have effectively stood their ground on budget needs despite pressure from the province. How do trustees nurture that culture and how does that culture nurture their advocacy?” MaryLynne Rimer, former Saanich Trustee, was an excellent facilitator and presenter, as was Trina Ayling I was left with the questions and concerns I had going in: What does a culture of public engagement look like, and do we have that in SD61? What does “effective” look like, in this context – getting a bit more of not enough? And what is considered “advocacy” in this context – another polite letter to a bureaucrat? I didn’t encounter as much boldness as I had hoped for.
The closing plenary brought together Seth Klein, Joel Bakan, Amy Robinson, and Tyee founder David Beers. The discussion touched again on the democratic mandate of local governance, one that goes beyond the local mandate.
There is a larger responsibility for all of us, a democratic mandate requiring courage, clarity and commitment, and these two intense days at Harrison inspired me to keep that precept close as School District 61 approaches this year’s vote on the 2012-13 budget, with the draconian Bill 22 in the background.