With electoral reform off the table, here are seven ways to build people power in B.C.

What do you call a place where 17 per cent of the population votes in a government – whose decisions are directed by unseen lobbyists and bureaucrats? How about a province where citizens pay taxes, which our politicians then give to multinational oil and gas companies?

If British Columbia plans to keep calling itself a democracy, the people who live here have some serious work to do to regain control of our government. The climate emergency is just one example where the money and machinery of the state is currently being used to make the problem worse. We have to turn that around.

A democratic takeover is also necessary to reduce the harm our colonial institutions do to Indigenous nations, lands and people. The 1858 proclamation of the Crown Colony of British Columbia was based on a legal fiction. However, our government is real. Its power is real. Immigrants and descendants of settlers have a responsibility to rein it in – and hold our leaders accountable for the damage they have facilitated.

As easy as it is to feel frustrated, we have power too. We have Charter rights to free expression and assembly (subject to public health guidelines). We have resources, skills and time. We have points of leverage. And most importantly we have relationships with people, who can be organized toward collective action. With focus and determination, people power can still defeat corporate money.

Low turnout is what they want

Last fall barely half of registered voters in B.C. cast a ballot in John Horgan’s pandemic snap election. And registered voters are only 68 per cent of the population. That suits the corporations and wealthy families that run the province just fine. In the end 899,388 people voted for NDP candidates, out of a provincial population of more than 5.1 million.

That means just 17 per cent of people voted for the ruling party, even though all of us are affected by their decisions. In fact, you could argue that under our “First Past the Post” system, only voters who supported NDP candidates in ridings where they won actually contributed to the makeup of B.C.’s majority government. That would bring the number down to 13 per cent – including people who held their nose and voted “strategically”.

We did have a chance to change how we vote, to more fairly reflect people’s political choices. In 2018 the government’s two-part referendum ballot led to a clear rejection of electoral reform. That door is now closed for the foreseeable future. We will have to tackle the urgent crises we face using the system we have.

It’s tempting to be cynical about a legislature that doesn’t represent 87 per cent of the people they rule over. There’s a meme on the Internet, incorrectly attributed to Mark Twain, that says “if voting made any difference, they wouldn’t let us do it.” But this is contradicted by B.C.’s long history of systematically denying exploited populations the right to vote.

Voting is a collective mobilization that makes the most powerful people in society nervous. There’s a reason they don’t want us doing it. Even under a dysfunctional system, it’s important to break down barriers to engagement and get as many people voting as possible. That’s why Dogwood staff and volunteers make get-out-the-vote phone calls during elections.

Why it matters to expand voting rights

White women, whose unpaid labour allowed the colony of British Columbia to establish itself, didn’t win the right to vote until 1917. Chinese, South Asian, Japanese and Indigenous people – who made up the large majority of workers in the province’s early years – were barred from voting by racist laws until 1947 and 1949.

B.C. still allows hundreds of thousands of people to work and pay taxes here, while denying them any say in the laws that govern their lives. Permanent residents and other non-citizens quite literally keep the province’s economy functioning, but have no voice at the ballot box.

The same goes for teenagers, who have stocked grocery shelves throughout the pandemic, served food or operated cash registers while being screamed at by maskless customers. They can work at 15, drive a pickup truck or marry an adult at 16. But they are not allowed to touch a ballot until they turn 18.

This allows policymakers to ignore the most easily exploited workers in the province. It also helps keep voter turnout low. Although 18-24 year olds face many barriers to voting in Canada, jurisdictions that have lowered the voting age have seen a rise in overall turnout. Voting in high school seems to help demystify the process and turn more people into lifelong voters.

With electoral participation in B.C. at crisis levels, we need to try anything that can reverse that slide. That’s why Dogwood is proud to support the youth-led #Vote16BC campaign.

Hacking the political parties

One arena where youth and permanent residents can already vote in B.C. is in the internal democracy of political parties.

The BC NDP allows any B.C. resident 12 or older to buy a party membership and vote for local candidates in nomination and leadership races, as well as on policy resolutions. The BC Liberals charge $5 for anyone 14 to 25 to become a member, and the Greens offer free membership to anyone 14 to 25.

Whatever your age or immigration status, being a member of a political party gives you disproportionate sway over who ends up on the ballot in elections and what policies are in their platform. Often local nomination races are decided by a few hundred, or even a few dozen party members.

31-year old U.S. congressional representative Alexandria Ocasio Cortez famously used a grassroots organizing strategy to win a primary election in 2018, defeating a powerful 10-term incumbent in a Democratic stronghold. B.C. doesn’t have primaries, but we do have “safe seats” where ugly battles are fought to select candidates when veteran MLAs step down.

Dogwood has encouraged supporters in the past to join the political party of their choosing. In the leadup to the 2024 provincial election, we hope to mobilize far more people to have a say in party policy, leadership races and local candidate nominations.

The importance of local elections

Local government elections (in municipalities, regional districts and First Nations bands) also provide opportunities for a relatively small number of motivated organizers to move the dial. While the provincial and federal governments have bigger budgets, local governments make decisions that have an immediate impact on people’s day-to-day lives.

The mayors, councillors and other local reps we choose in 2022 will have a frontline role in the battle for affordable housing, the toxic drug crisis, defunding the police and other life-and-death decisions. Building codes, fossil fuel regulations, bike lanes or waste management might seem mundane, but in a climate emergency these local tools are crucial.

Mayors, elected chiefs and councillors are also important voices in bigger debates, for example in the Enbridge Northern Gateway fight, or on fracking and gas pipelines (where a few pro-fossil fuel voices can give the impression that an entire region or population has spoken).

Win or lose, municipal candidates often use that political campaign experience to contest provincial or federal nomination races. This makes local elections an important “farm team” for political parties – and for voters who are looking for champions who might take on the establishment candidate in their provincial riding.

Expanding our definition of democracy

Elections are important, but they only happen every few years. Democracy – where people work together to shape the society they live in – happens every day. Campus and workplace organizing and collective bargaining are important parts of democracy. Civil disobedience, strikes and mutual aid are important forms of democratic expression too.

B.C. also has two tools of direct democracy, set out in the Recall and Initiative Act. Recall campaigns and initiative bills are administered by Elections BC but are triggered by citizens. Any voter can launch a campaign to recall their MLA, starting 18 months after an election. While the bar is high, Parksville-Qualicum MLA Paul Reitsma did resign after a successful recall campaign in 1999.

An Initiative is when a citizen writes a bill (a proposed law within provincial jurisdiction) and collects signatures in support. This is a huge undertaking, requiring signatures from 10 per cent of registered voters in each of the province’s 87 ridings. Only one has been successful in B.C. (the anti-HST campaign in 2010-11). But both Recall and Initiative are important tools in the democratic toolbox.

Both are politically disruptive and force the government or targeted MLA into defence mode. Both can provide a media soapbox for an important issue. And both require the creation of a grassroots canvassing army, which could be the backbone of future municipal or provincial election campaigns, or other organizing efforts.

Dogwood organizers have come close to launching an initiative campaign in the past, when Premier Christy Clark flip-flopped on the Kinder Morgan pipeline and approved a massive expansion of toxic diluted bitumen transport across B.C. watersheds. The opportunity evaporated when power transferred to the BC NDP, supported by the Green caucus, in summer 2017.

Once COVID-19 is under control, these tactics should be seriously considered for scenarios where the government is badly offside with the voting public.

Beyond European democracy

There are also Indigenous systems of government that have been operating in B.C. since long before the creation of the English Parliament in 1215. While elected band governments have jurisdiction on reserves under the Indian Act, traditional or hereditary systems are what govern Indigenous territories.

Those off-reserve territories are what we call “Crown land” – the vast tracts of forest, rivers, lakes and mountains that define the place we live, and house the natural resources sought after by corporations. Letting industry call the shots has been a disaster for both ecosystems and human communities. The good news is there are older, more successful systems for managing the relationships between people, other living beings and land.

The RELAW project is one example of settlers and Indigenous people working together to revitalize the laws that governed this place before the arrival of the British Empire. All over B.C. Indigenous nations are restoring their languages and structures of governance. Some Indigenous people choose to participate in these systems, some in B.C. democracy, and some do both.

So long as there are non-Indigenous people living in B.C., we need our own laws and systems to govern our activities. But settler democracy will have to step back in many areas as Indigenous communities reassert their jurisdiction. That’s one reason Dogwood supports the B.C. Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples Act, and the important work of updating our laws to comply with UNDRIP. This, too, is part of reshaping our democracy.

Literal power

Just as Indigenous systems of government are challenging the Crown’s supremacy on public lands in B.C., we need to regain control of the energy that drives our economy and daily lives. When it comes to megadams or pipelines, power is not a metaphor. The people who control our energy control us – but that can change.

Site C is a $16 billion assault on our democracy. With no public oversight or accountability, corrupt construction firms like SNC Lavalin have written themselves a blank cheque to push dirt around. The biggest, most expensive public project in B.C. history is simply a way for private companies to siphon money out of a Crown corporation – which we pay for on our Hydro bills.

If completed, the dam would permanently destroy Indigenous hunting and fishing areas, spiritual sites and burial grounds – a clear violation of Treaty 8 and international human rights law. But the damage isn’t limited to the Peace River Valley. Because of its massive budget, Site C has also squeezed out other local renewable energy projects that require provincial funding.

The climate emergency requires us to find affordable, abundant, local renewable energy, so we can electrify buildings and vehicles and stop giving the oil and gas cartel money. If BC Hydro cannot be forced to act in the public interest, citizens, Indigenous communities and municipalities will have to generate our own electricity to avoid being trapped by Hydro’s monopoly.

Reducing demand and displacing fossil fuels can disrupt the financial assumptions of these companies. It also cuts into the money and political capital they have to blackmail politicians. Big Oil can’t threaten to “turn off the taps,” pull investment dollars or throw people out of work if we build distributed, decentralized energy systems that allow people to put down roots in the places they live. Once again, Indigenous communities are leading the way.

Decarbonize, Decolonize, Democratize

These three pillars provide three different ways to think about the challenges facing our province. They are interrelated and interdependent. Democratizing B.C. requires decolonizing and decarbonizing our province at the same time.

I started this blog series by talking about the urgent battle to decarbonize, and the emergency measures we need to burn less oil and gas. But the B.C. government has been hijacked by big polluters, which now suck $1 billion a year in subsidies out of us, the public. That’s twice what we spend on all climate policies and programs put together. So unsurprisingly, greenhouse gas emissions are still going up.

Reversing that trend means supporting Indigenous resistance to fossil fuel projects in the courts, on the land and on the streets. It also requires us to deploy grassroots organizing strategies anywhere in our democratic system that people power can defeat fossil fuel money and the inertia of the status quo.

Equally important is the work of decolonizing our province, which I started to explore in the second part of this series. The reason we’re in this mess is because the Crown falsely claims ownership of 95 per cent of the land in this province, and jurisdiction over all the timber, fresh water, wildlife, gold, coal, minerals, gas and oil. It leases that out to corporations, and protects them with police.

We have to disarm and dismantle this archaic colonial system. It’s driving the climate crisis, habitat destruction and species extinction. It’s also killing, exploiting and impoverishing human beings, criminalizing Indigenous people on their own land and probably doing all of us psychological harm.

We can’t opt out of colonialism, just like we can’t opt out of the climate emergency. It affects all of us, and settlers in particular have a responsibility to use our property and privileges to combat both. This requires vigorous engagement with our democratic institutions, even knowing the odds are stacked against us and we will lose more often than we win.

Dogwood considers anyone working peacefully in good faith on any aspect of this strategy to be an ally. We will continue to support campaigns where we see an opportunity to win ground and lock in change. And of course, we will make those choices knowing that our resources and capacity will always be finite.

In the next couple of weeks we’ll release a public version of Dogwood’s updated strategic framework, and launch a supporter survey to help shape our priorities in 2021. We’ll have some new members of our team to announce very soon, and some fresh campaigns as well. Thank you for your commitment to the future of B.C., and your interest in our work.