It’s a good thing many retirees like to volunteer their skills and that Vancouver Island is home to an exceptional set of them with abundant knowledge. They knew this was a great place to retire whether they’d lived here all their lives or not. What they didn’t realize was the abundance of busy-work available for those keen to pitch in and make a difference in their community. You see, the Harper Conservatives have left the building on Northern Vancouver Island, and many of the programs and services that locals have come to expect have left with them. As volunteers step in to plug the holes, you might not be aware of the value of their work. Maybe it will inspire you to pitch in yourself – or at the very least, take a long hard look at your voting options this year.
No doubt you’ve heard by now our Marine Traffic Control Centre is shutting down and the Ucluelet base just closed. This is on top of last year’s Comox fisheries office closure. Veterans in this community have done a good job of highlighting the fact that this government has cut them adrift. Perhaps you’ve heard that beginning in 2017, $36 billion is scheduled to be cut from transfer payments at the same time that an aging population begins to maximize its use of the health care system. You would be forgiven for wondering whether we might be facing some potential problems in the future. Well, I’m here to tell you that the problems are real, and their impacts are now. One needn’t look any further than a sunny day just over a month ago when the absence of the Jericho Coast Guard station meant a spill in Vancouver’s English Bay that should have been contained in under 60 minutes actually took 12 hours. The government’s inability to protect our coast is proof that you can’t gut public services without consequences.
With the delivery of the federal budget, election campaigning has officially begun. Only as a result of the most dramatic abdication of services this country has ever seen can the government afford to offer what it believes the public really wants: business tax cuts, the ability for you to split your income and top up your TFSA. My question would be, do Islanders accept that these voided services are as superfluous as the government must believe? If not, who will step into the void, and what will that eventually cost you?
Some people have first hand experience with the benefits of a public service that is both integrated and responsive to the lives of Islanders: meet the Environment Committee members from the Courtenay and District Fish and Game club who are volunteering their habitat enhancement expertise so you and I stand a better chance of success when we go fishing. The simple truth is that habitat enhancement can mean the difference between a sustainable fishery contributing millions to the region’s economy and one that teeters on the brink of extinction. The problem? The Harper Conservatives’ fisheries agenda does not include wild salmon, which have almost obtained ‘nuisance species’ status under Minister Gail Shea – another East Coaster who couldn’t tell the difference between a limp farmed Atlantic and a knuckle-busting Spring.
It wasn’t so long ago, however, that the Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) played a critical restoration role – bringing salmon stocks on Vancouver Island back from the brink. Highly irresponsible logging practices followed by dangerously high harvest rates beat returns down to bare minimums. DFO’s habitat employees partnered with Forestry, Hydro, Highways and community associations to restore streams and fund and train community organizations to do the same. In the past few years the benefits of two decades of hard work seems to have paid off. For the first time in some peoples’ memory, Coho are there for the taking off our beaches again, and a day on the water yields a reward of fish you can actually keep. If I was in government, that’s a success story I would want to build on. Instead of building on that success, however, something strange happened. Following the collapse of the Fraser River sockeye, and the much vaunted but completely ignored Cohen commission, salmon somehow became a species that simply required too much work – and most importantly, too much protection. Oil export terminals – not fish processing plants – became the future. The fisheries act was all but removed, and habitat staff were phased out or terminated. A few of the community enhancement programs still run, and the hatcheries are hanging in, but the backbone is gone.
Which brings me back to our volunteers who discovered that smolts who found their way into ditches and culverts during high water on the Trent river system, were almost immediately stranded due to improper culvert design when water levels dropped.
Working a morning shift every three days at the side of the Island Highway, these guys have trapped and relocated over 2,000 Coho smolts back to the Trent. They do this despite obstacles both pedestrian (people who throw their garbage into the ditch as they roar by in their vehicles) and institutional (a couple of weeks prior, the highways contractor came by with a mower and leveled all the alder, maple and shrubs growing on the bank). That was excellent cover for these fish, and it probably put a lot of them in danger on sunny days when predators could see them. In the past, that just wouldn’t have happened. DFO communicated with these people, with Hydro, with logging companies – work was done outside of fish passage windows.
I don’t think many people are even aware that our recreational fishery around here is dependent on habitat like this. Imagine how much more could be conserved and enhanced with a little care and attention.
Care and attention was required on April 8th at 4:48 p.m. when a sailor called the Canadian Coast Guard over marine radio and notified them that oil was leaking from the MV Marathassa in Vancouver’s English Bay. It took five hours for the industry-funded Western Canada Marine Response Corporation (majority owned by Kinder Morgan) to arrive on the scene, and 12 hours for the first boom to be deployed. The incident command was a disaster, and with the Coast Guard’s own spill response vessel sitting up on blocks in a closed station, it was without doubt vindication of what anyone who has any common sense had been saying for the past two years: Coast Guard cuts are reckless and will cost us more in the long run.
The Harper Conservative government now has a real problem. Oil revenues have dried up and year-over-year employment growth in Canada has been below one per cent for 15 months in a row – the longest stretch ever recorded outside of recessions. The only reason the budget was balanced was because Ottawa raided the contingency fund and sold its share in General Motors. With no revenue to fix the problems created by their cuts and no good economic news to share, MP John Duncan is forced to spend your money promoting the government’s tax schemes that benefit the well off. Sure, they threw some bones to the search and rescue folks, and it’s great that the price of gas is low. Unless you are an oil company on the receiving end of record subsidies, you likely won’t even notice.
I am grateful, and you reading this at home should be proud, that there are retirees out every three days checking their smolt traps. I don’t know how any of them vote, but to me they are the symbol of true conservatives: the type of people who will step up and help mariners in distress, or veterans in food bank lineups. So, next time you are heading out on your boat, and you put 60 bucks in the tank, maybe think about sending $5 to the Comox Valley Fish and Game club in an envelope marked “For Conservation”. Without these people, the habitat they fight to hang on to – which Stephen Harper’s oil export dreams implicitly threaten – will decline. The Harper Conservatives have left the building in the Comox Valley. When you cast your ballot his fall, think about whether your MP can still call himself a conservative, think about how much you value this place and ask yourself if your tax break this year was worth it.