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Thursday, January 24, 2013

Public Interest: a statement to the Joint Review Panel

Statement to the Joint Review Panel: Kim Wright, January 16th, 2013 in Vancouver B.C.

My name is Kim Wright. I was born in Prince Rupert and I live and work in Vancouver. I have spent my whole life on the coast. I am an environmental and social scientists, educated and employed in the field of environmental conflict analysis and management.

Tonight I wish to speak to you about what is in the public interest and how one might approach making that determination

My personal perspective is informed by many years of working with Canadians who come together to make decisions about the natural resources they share. I have witnessed the positive benefits of collaboration and stakeholder engagement in marine and land use planning. There are many examples from across Canada where sustainable resource use that is compatible with the needs and values of local communities and the environment has resulted from such processes. They are critical for establishing the public interest for current and future generations of Canadians.

I have also been witness to changes in British Columbia's coastal communities over the last forty years; the industrialization of the fishing fleet, boom and bust local economies, declining opportunities for employment and the movement of youth away from their families and home towns into the cities for education and work. I am sympathetic to the need for economic opportunities for all Canadians including those in smaller coastal communities. My friends and colleagues in these communities will all agree that stronger more diverse economic opportunities that are embedded in healthy ecosystems are the long term solution. They believe and I agree that these are their interests.

The National Energy Board defines the public interest as:
inclusive of all Canadians and refers to a balance of economic, environmental and social considerations that changes as society's values and preferences evolve over time. 
The real problem is in how, what is in the “public interest”, is established. How are the values and preferences of those who live and work in Coastal British Columbia weighed against Canadians at large? When speaking of “Canadians at large” or even “coastal residents”, defining “society's values” is a challenge.

For the past four years I have been working as the representative of the conservation sector at the Pacific North Coast Integrated Management Area process (otherwise know by its acronym “PNCIMA”). All levels of government including regional districts and First Nations along with business sectors that operate on the coast met to discuss how to create an integrated plan for Haida Gwaii and the North and Central coasts of BC. This process was designed to allow those who live and work in the region to have a say in how it would be managed. We did not agree on many things at the start, but we were working together to find a path forward and the process of building understanding between us to define common interests was slowly unfolding. What we were doing was jointly identifying ways that we could work together with a spatial plan and ecosystem based management so all our interests could be met, be they conservation, alternative energy, the livelihoods of coastal communities, fishing, recreation or shipping. There would be some compromise on all of our parts, but we were becoming more hopeful that solutions would be found as the process progressed.

In my experience when working at multi-stakeholder tables with a diversity of perspectives and world views represented with people from different cultures, educational levels, and life experiences, nothing can be assumed. Every individual is unique with unique needs, desires and interests. The importance of processes like this Joint Review Panel, for example, that allow individuals to express their values is imperative. In a truly democratic society, there is a level playing field, with the views and needs of common citizens considered side by side with those of the rich or powerful. Every voice and vote is counted. The public interest must be established through a mandatory democratic, collaborative process that includes stakeholder engagement otherwise the possibility that it will be dictated by the few and powerful to meet their own needs is real and true. I experienced this within the PNCIMA process first hand.

In 2011 one of the sectors within the PNICMA advisory committee did not follow the rules of engagement, sidestepped the process, and PNCIMA was truncated prior to completing its work. Those of us who remain committed to collaborative planning must now attempt to find ways to articulate our common interests through processes that are not holistic or integrated across all sectors that utilize the oceans. Establishing the public interests on a case by case basis as each sector puts individual projects forward is not an effective approach. This eliminates the opportunity for all activities proposed or existing in an area to be weighed according to jointly established criteria allowing for decision to be made by all stakeholders with all the possibilities and information on the table and allowing for assessments of cumulative impacts. What is needed is more collaborative and integrated process to identify the common public interests for the Canadians living in British Columbia.

Another consideration that can be paradoxical when identifying the public interest is the one of temporal scale. The evolution of society's values over time will include future generations of Canadians in our definition of the “Public”. The long term impacts of our decisions need to be considered alongside those of the shorter term.

Coastal British Columbian wealth and the wellbeing of the individuals who live there are dependent on the marine environment and the ecosystem services it provides. The economic value of these services is often obvious, such as the provision of food, energy or protection from storms. But the oceans of British Columbia also regulate the climate, provide oxygen, and will be of value for future generations. In decisions such as this one, (regarding whether the Enbridge Pipeline and shipping of bitumen in tankers to China is in the public interest), the need for a healthy environment that will provide for the public's interests in terms of economic, environmental and social value must be considered for current residents, Canadians at large and future generations.

In my estimation, this pipeline and the resulting tanker traffic will not be in the public interest, as what has been heard at these review panels is that the risk of environmental impacts, and the resulting social and economic damage that such impacts would inflict on the neighboring communities, and future generations of Canadians are too high. We have heard the collective voice of Canadians speaking out for their interests, be they Economic, environmental or social, and what we hear is that the costs are far more significant and the benefits few or none for these coastal residents of BC. I believe the numbers of people who have come to these hearings to speak out against this development is evidence in itself of the public interest as represented by those Canadians who stand to lose the most.

Thank you

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