Bruce Williams is CEO of the Greater Victoria Chamber of Commerce
One of the most troubling and startling images in my memory from early in the COVID-19 pandemic is seeing empty rows of shelves and produce sections in grocery stores. All the years of conversations about food security on Vancouver Island came to mind: “We import most of our food, what happens if our food chain is interrupted?” “Why don’t we produce more of our own food?”
One year into the pandemic, our economy has forever changed. Agriculture and food production has been profoundly affected by border closures and uncertainty in our international supply chains. The sight of bare shelves at grocery stores was one of the first signs of the seriousness of our situation. The initial shortage of toilet paper was puzzling, but then other goods that had been readily available were suddenly hard to find. There’s nothing funny about panic buying when it affects our ability to eat well and live a healthy lifestyle.
Fortunately, the first wave crested before summer, when Island-grown produce was plentiful, and we were able to fill our pantries long enough for the wrinkles to get ironed out of the supply chains we rely on. But the warning bell was sounded, and we now have an opportunity to make sure we’re ready the next time a crisis shuts down the Island to outside food supplies. Think too of the carbon footprint caused by transporting food here, and the jobs being filled elsewhere that we could be supporting by producing food here.
We also have an opportunity to build off Vancouver Island’s growing strength as a tech hub and a desirable place to live, work and raise a family. Innovations such as vertical farms that allow for stacked gardens, the use of rooftops as agricultural plots, enhanced community gardens and new efficiencies that make small lawn or commercial farms viable. How about boulevard gardens, veggie plots on school grounds and churchyards or gardens on post-secondary campuses. All of these could or do benefit from sustainable practices that re-use water and compostable materials already being created in our communities.
Most municipalities in Greater Victoria are working on food security policies. The District of Saanich, which has long championed the Urban Containment Boundary, has developed seven themes that reflect public input and support urban food production. The City of Victoria’s Growing in the City program, which grew more than 81,500 edible plants to distribute to more than 44 community organizations. City gardens provide spring seedlings, including herbs, tomatoes, cucumbers, zucchini, broccoli and other edible plants. The program prioritizes distribution to populations having a harder time getting fresh food because they have been disproportionally affected by the pandemic. Among those, according to the city, are indigenous groups.
I think working on agricultural initiatives with First Nations is a tremendous opportunity. Indigenous people were able to sustain countless generations before colonization. It makes sense to engage with First Nations to preserve traditional techniques and produce food that connects to the land, supports our region’s cultural heritage and has proven to be sustainable.
The provincial government is also moving ahead to turn many urban farm concepts into reality. On March 30, as part of the Greater Victoria Chamber of Commerce’s Business restart Series, I’m hosting the Hon. Lana Popham, B.C.’s Minister of Agriculture, Food and Fisheries. We’ll be discussing new policies, programs and technology that will increase food security and support urban food production.
These are exciting developments and The Chamber looks forward to working with our members and partners to share the benefits of buying — and growing — local. It’s all about building resilience in our economy by ensuring we can sustain ourselves when the next crisis hits. Urban farm production will create good jobs, provide locally grown food and enhance the health of our communities.
This column was originally published in the March edition of the Business Examiner
Bruce Williams is CEO of the Greater Victoria Chamber of Commerce
As the days get longer and the light that signals the end of the pandemic gets closer, it’s time to make sure our house is in order so we can enjoy the better times ahead. Our ongoing economic recovery is clearly uneven. There are too many businesses unable to move forward because they rely on close human interaction — experiences that will be so important for us to get back to a sense of normalcy. These businesses will need more time to recover. Others will be back much faster because they embraced technology that allowed them to adapt to the times. We at The Chamber are calling the roadmap to a post-COVID economy the “Recovery Runway” and we are identifying “pivot pilots” as those organizations and leaders who have been nimble with pivoting the way they do business. They are a beacon for optimism as we begin to taxi down the recovery runway.
Before we can truly take off, our economy will require a shift in federal priorities. We will hear details of the next federal budget April 19 — the first full budget in two years. The Chamber is working closely with our national network to make sure government understands the priorities for business. The Canadian Chamber of Commerce has brought together a highly talented team of top executives from some of Canada’s most influential companies. The goal is to develop a business plan to win the fight against COVID-19, and ensure a private-sector led recovery that allows Canada to move away from a subsidized economy and invest in getting back to self-sufficient individuals and businesses.
In a speech to the Sidney Rotary Club this month, Canadian Chamber CEO Perrin Beatty said the government has to “differentiate between the must-haves and the nice-to-haves: if a program was unaffordable at this time last year, before we added hundreds of billions of dollars of public debt, it’s most assuredly unaffordable now.”
This national Chamber council is working with the federal government ahead of the 2021 budget to articulate what the private sector needs to create jobs, and what investments will lead to more businesses starting up and re-opening. As Beatty noted, experience has shown this won’t happen through austerity alone. We can’t cut our way to prosperity. However, we also can’t continue the levels of public-sector spending that have seen our federal government rack up almost 20 percent of our GDP on pandemic relief, the highest among G-20 countries. At the last fiscal update in November, the government was forecasting a deficit of $400 billion. That’s clearly unsustainable and will eventually lead to turbulence that can be avoided with a better flight path. The same holds true for all levels of government, with BC set to unveil its own budget April 20.
The challenge for the provincial and federal governments will be to show Canadians a plan that businesses can get behind. We know there’s no going back to how life was before the pandemic. We need to embrace the momentum of our rising economy and lift all Canadians. If there has been a benefit to the past year, it’s how creatively we have embraced technology and reexamined standard practices. I hear amazing stories from Chamber members about innovations and new ideas for doing businesses. There are opportunities now to invest in retraining so that we have the workforce needed for a more resilient economy. The idea of micro-credentials, championed by The Chamber, is being embraced by post-secondary institutions in Greater Victoria. We need to provide opportunities for skills upgrading and invest in the infrastructure that will allow our workforce to adapt to ongoing transitions in the economy.
Our region’s economy remains fundamentally sound. We are lucky to have the stability of a large public sector and a geography that is the envy of the world. Our tech sector will continue to bloom and attract new talent, and, eventually, our tourism industry will recover and reach even greater heights.
It’s time to get ready for take-off, and with the help of our members and our board as well as, our national network and our Chamber Champion initiative, we’re working to make sure all of us have a smooth flight. So buckle up, this will be a once in a lifetime ride.
This column was originally published at DouglasMagazine.com