Protecting ecologically sensitive wetlands on Vancouver Island

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Image: Used with permission of the Qualicum Nature Preservation Society.

Ezra Morse is a software engineer and an engineering manager. Ray Woroniak has worked as a wilderness guide and an organic vegetable farmer, and currently is a stay-at-home parent. Both live in Qualicum Beach, a town of about 9,000 people on the east coast of Vancouver Island, and they are the president and vice-president, respectively, of the Qualicum Nature Preservation Society. Scott Neigh interviews them about their efforts to oppose the development of an ecologically sensitive wetland.

One way to think about a lot of different struggles happening right now is as life versus profit. So many struggles in relation to the COVID-19 pandemic, for example, and a pretty substantial chunk of the climate crisis can be understood through this lens. And along with those struggles between life and profit that are playing out at a global scale, it also shows up in much more local ways in workplaces and communities. Will a corporation give that big chunk of money to its shareholders, or will workers and communities push it to invest in better health and safety, new tech to reduce toxic emissions, and better wages for the lowest paid? Will a municipality take steps to protect a working-class neighbourhood for the benefit of people who already live there, say, or to preserve an ecologically sensitive area? Or instead will they allow a developer to come in, tear up the community or the greenspace, and make a few bucks?

Since at least the 1990s, Vancouver Island has seen lots of development pressure. There was a process back then that identified ecologically sensitive areas across the island, so local governments could make better decisions about protecting them. Qualicum Beach allowed a bit of development in such areas in the early 2000s, but has mostly been quite firm in rejecting proposals that would threaten them.

Back in February, Morse was walking through a piece of rich, green wetland -- wetland that as far as he understood was a protected area. But as he walked, he noticed signs of activity that suggested it maybe was not as protected as he'd thought.

The next day, he got in touch with local government staff and politicians to try to get to the bottom of what was going on. The basics are clear -- it is a development that will involve the construction of two large, luxury homes on part of the wetland. A lot of the details beyond that, however, remain hotly contested even months later.

As Morse and Woroniak explain in the interview, they feel that the town has not followed its own process. For instance, no permits have been formally issued, and as reported by The Narwhal, the town's official plan and by-laws do seem to require permits in this area. They also have concerns about what seems to be a lack of documentation related to the town's process, as well as inadqeuate communication between the town and residents, and answers by the town to key questions that they say have shifted over the course of the dispute.

Statements released in early April and again in early May indicate that the local government understands its actions around the development to be consistent with relevant bylaws. Moreover, in the one released in April, Mayor Brian Wiese said it was "most disappointing to see that there remains a small group of people who actively foster dissidence at a time when our community needs to pull together" and he described the group's rhetoric as being "heavy on emotion and extremely light on facts."

Notwithstanding such criticism, the group has been quite successful in raising the issue. They created an online petition opposing the development that quickly garnered thousands of signatures. Restrictions related to the pandemic have made it all more challenging, but they have managed to circulate flyers, get resolutions passed by other environmental groups on the island, and build support for their position among residents.

They have also been working with West Coast Environmental Law and are likely going to apply for a judicial review of the town's decision to allow the development, and they say there are other legal avenues open to them as well. And they don't plan on going away once this issue is settled -- they plan to keep an eye on development in the town for many years to come.

In this specific dispute, the outcome may well depend on whether certain rules were or were not followed. But it does also gesture to the larger questions of what rules, what practices, and indeed what kinds of grassroots interventions are needed to defend life in the face of the constant drive for profit.

Talking Radical Radio brings you grassroots voices from across Canada, giving you the chance to hear many different people that are facing many different struggles talk about what they do, why they do it, and how they do it, in the belief that such listening is a crucial step in strengthening all of our efforts to change the world. To learn more about the show check out the show's website here. You can also follow them on Facebook or Twitter, or contact [email protected] to join our weekly email update list.

Talking Radical Radio is brought to you by Scott Neigh, a writer, media producer, and activist based in Hamilton, Ontario, and the author of two books examining Canadian history through the stories of activists.

Image: Used with permission of the Qualicum Nature Preservation Society.

Theme music: "It Is the Hour (Get Up)" by Snowflake, via CCMixter

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