Meet Dogwood’s new Energy & Democracy Director

My name is Kai Nagata and I’m proud to be joining Dogwood Initiative at their new headquarters in Victoria. I’m here because I share Dogwood’s core goal: for British Columbians to unlock their democratic power over decisions affecting our environment and economy. My job is to help tip the balance of power back to the people who vote in this province, starting with the question of oil tanker proposals.

More than 100 years ago the Nagata, Trice, Yoshida, and Priest families left Japan and England in the hopes of building a better life in British Columbia. It was the best choice they could have made. We’ve been here for four generations, and we intend to be here for at least another four.

My grandparents tell stories from a time not so long ago, when the trees were gargantuan and the boats laden to the gunwales with fish. “Dungeness crabs the size of dinner plates,” my grandma says. “More tomatoes, corn and potatoes than we could eat.” Thanks to good stewardship, many of those systems are beginning to rebound. B.C. remains a place of opportunity and abundance.

It’s also a place with some dark history; a colony carved out with the help of plague, fraud, and residential schools. Much of our prosperity came at the expense of vulnerable communities, and over the centuries First Nations were not the only targets. From the Asiatic Exclusion riots to the Japanese Internment, my family was on the front lines when democracy itself broke down.

At every family dinner since I can remember, my grandmother has reminded us about the “evacuation.” That’s the language the federal government used to seize homes, businesses, boats, tools and land belonging to Canadian-born citizens, then send them off to prison camps in the mountains. Politicians said it was in the national interest.

My grandfather’s written recollections describe a time of deep confusion and disorientation. It’s a stark illustration of just how easy it can be to have your rights, land, and livelihood taken away. Without good information and strong local organization, disastrous decisions can be rammed through, with consequences that span generations.

I went into journalism to do what I could to address the first half: the information gap. As citizens we have to know what our elected representatives are up to, in order to hold them to account.

Yet the more I learned about how power is truly won and wielded in this country, the more anticlimactic it felt to cast one lonely little ballot. The more I watch the news business being hollowed out – and the surviving reporters stifled – the harder it is to see information alone as the solution. We have more content at our disposal than ever, and yet we’re less engaged as citizens.

Journalism remains a crucial part of the puzzle, but I’m not the person best suited to the craft. Two years ago I began to roll up my sleeves, watching for windows in time and points of leverage where groups of citizens working together could bring some real accountability to their local political scene.

That’s how I stumbled across Dogwood Initiative, a scrappy little non-profit that believes democracy is a muscle you actually have to exercise. Voting is one thing, and I don’t know many nonpartisan groups that get out the vote like Dogwood. But here they believe what you do between elections is just as important.

Dogwood gives people in all 85 ridings across B.C. the training and tools they need to organize their neighbours toward an all-important goal: taking back our true decision-making power. Democracy, as they say, belongs to those who show up.

It’s an honour to join a team that not only shows up, but has punched far above its weight for the last many years. As luck would have it, my arrival coincides with a wave of considerable change at Dogwood. The time has come to scale up in a big way. Together with our partners, we’re getting ready to take on the most complex nonpartisan organizing challenge in the province’s history.

The big question

Right now First Nations and B.C. voters face a crucial decision: do we want oil sands pipelines across our province, and the hundreds of supertankers they would bring to our coast?

Some do. Many don’t. Each of us must reach our own conclusion, and respect those that take the opposing view.

I know that like most Canadians, I use oil every single day. I wear synthetic materials. I eat food grown with fertilizer, I fly in planes, I buy things made of plastic. And I use gas every time I drive to work, go on a road trip, or head out fishing or hunting. I’m grateful that our country is blessed with abundant reserves of oil.

But these pipelines are purely for export. Not a drop of that oil would be used in Canada. So our personal energy use is not part of this debate.

Like most Canadians, I believe our resources should be extracted in such a way that they provide the greatest benefit to the largest number of Canadians over the longest period of time. At the same time, I believe we should address our trade deficit with value-added exports that take advantage of Canadian innovation, and create jobs here in Canada.

But these tankers would take our crude oil to be refined overseas, where that diesel and gasoline would power other countries’ economies.

Like most Canadians, I love this country and I understand that it holds together in large part because all the provinces work in cooperation, for mutual benefit. We’re a nation that functions on fairness between different regions.

But these proposals leave 100 per cent of the oil royalties in Alberta, while handing 100 per cent of the risk of a marine oil spill to British Columbia.

Those risks may be reduced by technology, but they can never be eliminated. History demonstrates that no system can anticipate every possible permutation of natural hazard, mechanical failure, and human error.

Government scientists now confirm: bitumen is heavier than water. We know what we stand to lose. What do we stand to gain in exchange?

Let’s look at the benefits of the Kinder Morgan pipeline. As proposed, the finished system would move 890,000 barrels a day, mostly of heavy oil.

At current prices, that would amount to two billion dollars worth of product transiting our province every month. That’s billion with a “b.” Two thousand million dollars.

If the toll were $5 per barrel, Kinder Morgan would skim off a cool $134 million a month from the oil producers.

From that, the company estimates it would pay an average of $1.4 million in municipal taxes, spread between the communities that house its facilities along the route.

Kinder Morgan would also pay $822,000 a month in provincial taxes. Bear in mind it costs $370 million just to keep the province running for that length of time. Kinder Morgan’s contribution would amount to a fifth of one percent of our current budget.

Put another way, the monthly provincial tax revenue from the pipeline would average out to 18 cents per British Columbian.

Is that a fair deal? Seems like the kind of question we should put to a vote.

Many years after the war, my grandfather went back and bought a piece of oceanfront property on Mayne Island, down the road from where he grew up. When he passed away he left it to our family. Kinder Morgan’s spill simulations show crude oil coating Milner’s Bay bay within hours of a tanker accident in the Georgia Strait.

That’s the first place I ever went fishing as a kid. And it’s still the best beach I’ve ever found for skipping stones. I plan to take my own kids there one day. Am I willing to trade that for 18 cents a month? I’ve given this question serious thought. I’ve studied the payoffs and the risks. The answer I’ve arrived at is “no, thank you.”

Your answer might be similar, or it might be the opposite. Both are legitimate. That’s the beauty of democracy.

Time to put this to a vote

Dogwood Initiative started from a question. Who makes the decisions over B.C.’s air, land and water? The answer is, the people who live here. Here’s what Premier Clark said about the Northern Gateway proposal back in October 2012:

“This project can only go ahead if it has the social licence to do so. It can only get the social licence from the citizens of British Columbia. And that’s what I’m representing as Premier.”

Premier Clark has pointed out that the B.C. government could withhold five dozen different permits, or simply refuse to hook up pumping stations to the province’s electrical grid.

“… if British Columbia doesn’t give its consent to this, there is no way the federal government or anyone else in the country is going to be able to force it through. It just won’t happen.”

I agree with Premier Clark, and so do a majority of British Columbians.

But politicians are known to change their minds. What we need right now is certainty, and that goes for everyone. Landowners and businesses along the pipeline routes, First Nations, municipalities, investors and project proponents, construction workers – we just want a clear decision from the province.

That means more than talking points on a press release. It means putting it in law.

Broadly speaking, there are three ways a provincial law governing oil tanker projects could come to life.

1. A member of the legislature could introduce a bill, which our MLAs would vote on.

2. The government could decide to call a referendum, which we would all vote on.

3. One of us could draft a proposal for a law, then gather support from other registered voters across the province. Under the Recall and Initiative Act, if you get enough signatures in all 85 ridings, you can submit your own draft bill to the legislature.

From there, politicians can either bring it to the floor for study – with hundreds of thousands of people watching them like hawks. Or again, they can put it to a province-wide vote.

British Columbia is the only province in the country equipped with this kind of “direct democracy” toolkit. The rules say if Elections BC approves your petition, you have 90 days to run around and collect signatures from 10 per cent of registered voters in each riding.

The process is called a citizens’ initiative, and it’s what was used to force a referendum on the Harmonized Sales Tax in 2011 – which the government lost.

It’s an arduous process, requiring months of preparation. It has succeeded only once before. But it’s a lawful, democratic avenue that no other province provides. That’s why I think we should at least lay the groundwork.

Organizing for a citizens’ initiative is a way to exercise our democratic muscles. We don’t have to wait for judges, panelists, or cabinet ministers to move the next chess piece. We can get to work now. Indeed, Dogwood has already started getting ready.

Some have characterized the citizens’ initiative as a gamble. If that’s the case, then all elections in free and democratic countries are a gamble. That’s no reason not to participate. I have faith in British Columbians to choose what’s best for our province.

The initiative is a chance to build the biggest nonpartisan grassroots alliance this province has ever seen. If we’re not confident as a group we have the numbers to win, we’ll just have to keep working. If we never have to push the launch button, great. If our elected representatives are inspired to find a solution within the legislature, we’ll have done our job as constituents.

Either way, getting to that point will mean building a shared communications network and training thousands of people across the province. For me, that goes right back to good information and strong local organization. It’s no exaggeration to say this could change democracy in B.C. forever. Whatever your political sympathies, more accountability and more citizen participation are good things.

So far 3,617 people across the province have offered to help collect signatures when the time comes. We’ll need at least twice that many to pull this off. Will you take the first step and sign our pledge? If you decide you want to become actively involved, I’ll happily put you in touch with the team closest to your neighbourhood.

I look forward to working together.

FAQs

What is Dogwood?

Dogwood Initiative is named after our provincial flower. We’re a nonpartisan, non-profit group dedicated to tilting the balance of power back to the citizens of British Columbia. We do that by giving people the training and tools they need to organize their neighbours and participate more fully in democracy.

How many people work there?

We have 10 full-time staff in our Victoria office, as well as two in Vancouver. Three more provincial organizers are joining us this month. So far we have 43 organizing teams in ridings across the province, and are working to expand to all 85. As of this week 3,617 volunteers are in line to receive training. Watch for workshops in your home community soon!

Where does the money come from?

We’re neither a charity nor a political party, which means we’re not allowed to issue tax receipts. We enjoy the freedom to wade into electoral politics, but it makes fundraising far more challenging.

We’re proud to say that the largest portion of our budget (46 per cent) comes from individual donors like you. Another 31 per cent is revenue we earn through contracts and consulting – for example, to advocacy groups looking for campaign expertise. The final 23 per cent comes from grant money we compete for from U.S. and Canadian foundations.

Dogwood has been accused of speaking for “foreign interests.” The reality is nearly all the outside money we do get comes from donors in Washington State. They share our coastline and support our work to prevent oil spills, but don’t have the right to vote on these projects like we do.

That said, we think it’s smart to reduce our reliance on large foundations of any kind. We need to be nimble, which means we’re turning more and more to individual small donors in British Columbia.

How can I get involved?

Right now we’re laying the groundwork for a provincial citizens’ initiative on the question of oil tankers. If you believe British Columbians deserve a chance to vote on these major crude export projects, please take the first step and sign the pledge by clicking on the red button below.

 

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