How does the Let BC Vote campaign fit into federal election organizing and beyond?

Like many people, I joined Dogwood Initiative because of its unique citizens’ initiative strategy. As we approach the one-year anniversary of the Let BC Vote campaign launch, I find myself reflecting on where we were at the beginning of 2014, how far we’ve come since and of course what’s next.

Most of the people I talk to have their eye on the upcoming election and you’ll certainly be hearing a lot about federal politics from Dogwood this year. But that’s not the only thing going on.

Our teams are holding newly-elected municipal administrations to their campaign promises. We’re working with a broad group of allies to push for an independent provincial review of the Kinder Morgan pipeline and tanker proposal. We’re successfully holding back massive thermal coal exports. We’ve been asked to consider helping with a provincial recall campaign. And in the background, like a heartbeat, we continue to lay the groundwork for a possible citizens’ initiative.

With so much to do, we could easily fly off in all directions. But as our core narrative and shared sense of purpose becomes stronger, these different projects are beginning to come together. We’re learning that every new relationship makes us stronger overall as an organizing network. It all comes back to the promise we make to voters.

Where we were

December 2013 was a wild month. I was working on a writing project at the family cabin on Mayne Island when I got a call about a motion coming before Vancouver city council. The motion, tabled by Mayor Gregor Robertson, would direct city staff to apply for intervenor status in the National Energy Board’s (NEB) review of Kinder Morgan’s Trans Mountain pipeline expansion. Word from Vancouver was some councillors didn’t see the point. It was federal jurisdiction, they argued. Why should the city get involved?

I could see then that Kinder Morgan was about to become a major civic issue in the Lower Mainland – especially with municipal elections less than a year away. Standing there a few metres from the waters of Active Pass, I knew my own chances of being accepted to participate in the review were slight, but I wanted the city there representing my family and neighbours. So I went inside, sat at the kitchen table and emailed the best organizer I know: Celine Trojand at Dogwood Initiative.

Two days later, 35 residents showed up at city hall to speak before the vote, surprising staff. Another 742 had sent letters in support, each of which was forwarded to councillors. Spooked by the sudden show of public interest, the politicians voted unanimously to apply for intervenor status. I followed the proceedings on Twitter, from the cabin. It felt pretty good to watch that motion pass.

The next day, the NEB approved Enbridge’s Northern Gateway proposal.

It’s scary when you realize just how small you are in the face of something so big. Our federal government had joined forces with the richest, most powerful industry in the world to force this project through. It was finally happening and all I could muster in response was a couple of blog posts. It was a lonely month.

There was one thing brewing, though, that I had written about for the Vancouver Sun. Will Horter and the staff at Dogwood were talking about a crazy scheme to run a citizens’ initiative if Premier Clark bowed to pressure from Ottawa and approved pipeline permits. On paper it looked like a clunky and uncertain strategy, but the political reporter in me saw the potential to completely change the conversation around Northern Gateway. I couldn’t get the plan out of my head.

Slowly it dawned on me that the pipeline debate wasn’t just about oil spills, habitat loss and climate change. It was about all of those things, but at a more fundamental level it was about rights and democracy. The real question was not “are these projects good for us,” but “who gets to decide?”

First Nations have been very clear in asserting the fact that if proposals cross their territories, they have a say in whether the projects are built. But British Columbian voters didn’t have the same confidence in their right to participate in the decision. Polls showed the majority of us opposed the idea of diluted bitumen exports from the coast, but most people also believed the game was rigged: that regardless of their opinion, Northern Gateway would be built.

I joined Dogwood to rid myself of that feeling – the anger and cynicism and despair that comes from personally accepting the depth of the challenges we face, then watching our broken political system flail ineptly as the clock runs out. It’s the disenfranchisement that comes with watching our culture become less democratic and more polarized at the moment when we most need to pull together.

Unwanted pipelines are not the whole battle. They’re just the most egregious symptom in British Columbia right now of that disconnect between power and people.

How far we’ve come

Incredibly, one year later, that clinging sense of inevitability has evaporated. The wind has changed and we’re picking up momentum. A few weeks ago I was in Calgary, where energy executives and journalists talk openly about what has become accepted wisdom in the oil patch: Enbridge’s project is unlikely to proceed.

Things really started to unravel for Northern Gateway in April 2014 with a plebiscite in the town of Kitimat. It’s not that Enbridge didn’t understand the implications. Here was the community at the end of the pipeline – the place where most people stood to benefit from jobs at the tanker terminal. The vote wasn’t legally binding, but its PR value was enormous.

Enbridge poured untold resources into its “YES” campaign. It flew senior staff in from Alberta. It bought ads all over the north. But the beautiful thing about democracy is we still give each person one vote (except, in this case, the residents of the adjacent Haisla village, Kitamaat. That remains a scandal). In the end, there just weren’t as many Kitimat residents passionate about the oil project as there were people passionate enough to stop it. Money lost. Enbridge lost. People won.

In June the federal cabinet showed surprising weakness, running down the clock to the last minute on its Enbridge decision. It seems the internal debate over how to handle the approval carried on right to the deadline. In the end, Natural Resources Minister Greg Rickford (or rather, his communications team) put out a mealy-mouthed press release at the end of the day on a Friday, saying the federal government had accepted the NEB’s decision to approve the project pending the satisfaction of all 209 conditions.

They needn’t have bothered trying to blunt the impact. People poured into the street in downtown Vancouver, drumming and blocking traffic. The first lawsuits landed within hours. Our spokespeople did three days of non-stop media hits. Dogwood popped up in more than a thousand news articles worldwide. And 48 hours after the announcement, 48,000 new supporters had signed our Let BC Vote pledge.

That public outpouring of emotion gave the B.C. government all the political cover it needed to stick to its original position. Standing in Kitamaat, Premier Clark said “whatever decision the federal government announces today, our five conditions are not changing and none of the proposals have met those conditions, so we don’t support any of the projects as they stand.”

Up until that moment, our worst fear was that B.C. would work out a deal behind the scenes with Ottawa and the approvals would land at the same time. Instead B.C. held firm. To my great relief, we did not find ourselves facing the decision then and there of whether to launch a citizens’ initiative.

Could we have pulled it off? Yes, if there were truly no other option. But we are more ready now than we were. And the intervening months have been a blessing. Instead of being thrown immediately into a do-or-die, province-wide petition, our new volunteer-run teams have had the time to learn essential organizing skills, build alliances and win smaller skirmishes all over the map.

The municipal elections in November were a great example. Kinder Morgan was suddenly everywhere – a Texas-based oil giant seeking to build a pipeline even bigger than Enbridge’s, through to a tanker port in the heart of the Lower Mainland. Like Enbridge did in Kitimat, Kinder Morgan poured incredible amounts of money into advertising and voter contact during our municipal elections. And thanks to B.C.’s weak campaign finance laws, the company will never have to disclose what it spent.

Again, our people pushed back. Through a robust ‘get out the vote’ campaign in seven key coastal municipalities, we were able to boost turnout among our own supporters – and, it appears, the population at large.

In Vancouver, municipal records confirm 70 per cent of the registered voters on Dogwood’s mailing list got to the polls, compared to 43 per cent for the population at large. For those whom volunteers were able to contact by phone during the voting period, turnout climbed to 79 percent. An exit poll commissioned by Insights West found the number one ballot box issue for Vancouver voters on November 15 was transportation, at 33 per cent. Pipelines came in second, at 30 per cent.

Everywhere we worked (and in places like Powell River and Prince Rupert, where allies took point), voters elected local governments committed to stopping crude oil pipeline and tanker expansion. In the coastal town of Sooke, where you can watch Kinder Morgan’s tankers from the beach, voters rejected oil tanker expansion 70 to 30 per cent in a Kitimat-inspired plebiscite.

Immediately following the municipal elections, Kinder Morgan brought the hammer down. The company had secured a court injunction the day before the vote, allowing crews to drill core samples on Burnaby Mountain. Apparently the rigorously scientific National Energy Board review could not proceed without Kinder Morgan drilling in a public park. A few days later, police moved in and the arrests began.

In what will go down as one of the most spectacular bungles of the whole campaign, Kinder Morgan provided inaccurate GPS data to the local mounties charged with enforcing the perimeter. After a hundred people had been arrested for crossing the line, a judge found the line was in fact in the wrong place. The charges were thrown out. Kinder Morgan withdrew the multimillion-dollar lawsuit it had filed against five residents in order to secure the injunction.

After Kinder Morgan’s crews left Burnaby Mountain, an Angus Reid survey of 1,504 Canadians found 57 per cent of people nation-wide supported the protestors. A subsequent Leger poll for Alberta Oil Magazine found Kinder Morgan now has less support than Enbridge in British Columbia.

I mentioned the 48,000 people that joined Dogwood over two days in June. Well, in addition to those online pledges, volunteer organizers have been out there in the real world, having conversations with friends and neighbours and collecting signatures in support of our campaigns.

When the Kinder Morgan motion came before Vancouver city council in December 2013, Dogwood had one staff organizer and two committed volunteers. Now we have more than a thousand people on teams all across the province with more being trained every month. Over the course of 2014, Dogwood canvassers collected 32,422 signatures face-to-face. That means overall, our organization grew by more than 100,000 supporters in one year.

What comes next

Perhaps it’s not so surprising that Enbridge has all but gone into hiding. Their employees will tell you they’re diligently working on meeting the NEB’s 209 conditions, but morale in the shop must be pretty bad. Janet Holder, the project leader, retired abruptly after Christmas. The axe is dangling over Northern Gateway. Only if the Conservatives win another majority will Enbridge have a glimmer of hope.

Kinder Morgan is similarly dependent on the outcome of the federal election. That’s because whatever the NEB decides at the end of the review in January 2016, it will be a new government handling the file. Greens are flat-out opposed to the Trans Mountain expansion, while the NDP and Liberals have expressed serious misgivings about the regulatory process. If any combination of those parties holds the balance of power, British Columbians will push hard for them to send Kinder Morgan packing.

As for Premier Christy Clark, she won’t face a decision on either pipeline until after the federal election. While her government is currently resisting calls for an independent provincial review of the Kinder Morgan expansion, B.C.’s five conditions for heavy oil transport – and its formal rejection of the Enbridge proposal – remain in place. That means we’re extremely unlikely to have to consider a citizens’ initiative in 2015.

Instead our goal in this election year is for B.C. to return as few pro-tanker, pro-coal MPs to Ottawa as possible. We’ll be focusing our efforts on the ground in a few key ridings, but no matter where you live in the province we’ll make sure to provide info on the riding and your four main candidates.

As in past elections we’re keeping the door open to local endorsements, but in 15 years Dogwood hasn’t taken that step and it’s unlikely we’ll start now. The municipal elections demonstrated once again that a nonpartisan, issue-focused campaign can embolden candidates, boost turnout, elect solid representatives and strengthen our teams – while avoiding the nasty internal divisions often created with endorsements.

Elections are very important moments, but they’re not the be-all and end-all of our campaigns. Parties exist to win elections. Dogwood’s role is different. We need to be able to represent British Columbians of all political stripes, and carry forward well beyond the next election cycle. Our decisions in how we work during elections are informed by that longer-term plan.

So here’s my promise: together with our allies, we’re going to reshape politics in B.C. Dogwood’s mission has always been to put real decision-making authority back in the hands of the people who live here. Doing that means standing up to big corporations. It means flipping the power relationship between constituents and their elected representatives. Most importantly, it means helping everyday people find reasons to believe in our democracy.

If you sign a Dogwood petition or vote pledge, we’ll update you on the campaigns you care about with information that is fair and factual. We’ll ask for your help when your action can make a measurable difference. We won’t waste your time or your money. And when you’re ready to take the next step, we’ll connect you with the tools and training you need to start making change in your community.

The campaigns we’re working on right now involve crude oil exports and U.S. thermal coal. These are fights we can’t afford lose. But let’s face it – they’re also industries that won’t be around forever. So we’re building not just to win on Enbridge, Kinder Morgan and Fraser Surrey Docks, but for the battles yet to come. You hear it from Dogwood organizers all the time: “I’m in this for the long haul.”

This year there’s a federal election and no matter what happens, we’re going to come out of that campaign stronger and wiser. But ultimately, we can’t control what happens in the rest of the country. If we’re faced with launching a citizens’ initiative next year, so be it. We’ll be ready when the time comes.

Just remember: voters are voters. Whether we find ourselves working in a plebiscite, initiative, recall, referendum, leadership race, by-election or election, the fundamentals of organizing remain the same. We are the majority in B.C. That means if we get organized, we will win. And every time we win, we’re one step closer to living in a province where we have a democratic say over what happens in our home.

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