A commentary by the CEO of the Greater Victoria Chamber of Commerce.
Mental health is at the root of the front-facing issues we see manifested on our streets every day.
Drug and alcohol addiction, homelessness and crime related to both are the result of untreated mental health issues.
So, what can we do to ensure everyone feels safe in their homes, in their workplaces and in public spaces? How do we solve homelessness in our region, and the corresponding increase in property crimes, overdose deaths and anxiety? Manage the mental health crisis, that’s how. And do it now.
Chamber members tell me almost daily about experiences with vandalism, theft and aggressive behaviour directed at them or their customers. Our members are resilient, but the level of social discord we are experiencing is not sustainable.
At the recent Union of B.C. Municipalities convention, a group of 13 B.C. mayors including Victoria Mayor Lisa Helps called on whoever forms the next provincial government to act quickly and provide more help for people struggling with mental health or addictions.
I absolutely agree that this is the right approach. We know homelessness is a complex issue, and we might never completely solve the problem, but we need to do more.
By treating the variety of causes that result in many people ending up in homeless communities, we can make life better for everyone. We can help heal many of those whose lives are unhealthy and unsafe. Treating these challenges will mean less taxpayer money needed for the vast 911 resources currently being spent to triage this crisis.
For many years, the Chamber has listed Safe Communities as one our advocacy priorities. That means it has been identified by our members as one of the main concerns for businesses in Greater Victoria. Safe Communities includes five subcategories that form the foundation of what we need to feel safe in our homes, cities and workplaces.
Health care is one of these vital areas, and we continue to support investment and innovations that ensure people who need to see a doctor have options to do so. People asking for urgent help for mental health challenges must have access to treatment immediately.
Better regional services are also critical, so we can efficiently allocate resources where needed — we need a better governance model than we’re getting from 13 divided municipalities under the Capital Regional District.
Policing, which has been under heightened scrutiny across the continent this summer, must have the resources to respond in a timely manner throughout Greater Victoria — from downtown Victoria through to all the communities outside the core.
All of these priorities, however, are needed because we haven’t done enough to keep people from ending up homeless in the first place.
Two years ago, my predecessor wrote about a hopeful solution known as the therapeutic recovery community model. With decades of measurable results, from places such as Italy and Portugal, therapeutic recovery communities have helped people learn how to thrive without falling back on addictive behaviours that undermine their lives.
The process takes years and teaches individuals to take personal responsibility and develop healthier ways to cope with setbacks. It requires a true transformation of the self and can’t be rushed. We all want to see people contributing to society, and less time and expense spent shuttling people between emergencies.
In Greater Victoria, the therapeutic recovery community operated by Our Place Society has been up and running in View Royal for two years.
Known as New Roads, the facility holds plenty of promise. However, Canadian laws mean that people aren’t bound to follow through on the program. Many leave after achieving initial sobriety, but before they have all the tools needed to maintain their new lifestyle for the rest of their lives.
Perhaps it’s time to revisit the idea of secure facilities, where people can lawfully be required to stay connected as long as needed.
Nanaimo Mayor Leonard Krog has called for this, asking that we start the conversation about bringing back secure housing albeit with a modern mindset.
It’s been decades since we shuttered facilities that housed people who were unable to function outside of structured settings. Surely, we know much more now about the challenges of mental health and addictions. We can do things better today, with much more respect and compassion.
This is not a criticism of the great work done by many thousands of outreach workers. If anything, we need to acknowledge that it’s time to do more so these workers aren’t asked to do the impossible.
It’s time to move on from a system that isn’t working. It’s time to invest in a better way of caring for individuals with profound mental health and addiction challenges — people who have been left to the streets because we lack the political will to do what’s needed to truly help.
This column was published in the Times Colonist on Oct. 3, 2020
How will business restart successfully and help our economy return to the level we enjoyed before COVID-19? What does it mean to “build back better?”
Well, one answer is retraining our workforce to ensure we are more resilient for many years to come. Before the pandemic, Greater Victoria was booming. We were at or near what economists would consider capacity as our unemployment rate was among the lowest in Canada. Our fundamentals were strong then, and that will be key to helping us get back on our feet. But, as with all things, there is room for improvement.
Our region benefits from being the seat of British Columbia’s public sector. Downtown Victoria is home to thousands of provincial government workers whose paycheques are not directly affected by undulations in the market. We also have CFB Esquimalt, which, every day, sees thousands of military and civilian personnel go to work inside its gates.
These major employers create a stability that has allowed other business sectors to thrive. The unparalleled beauty of our landscape, and the aspirational lifestyle it allows, also make us a magnet for technology companies and tourism operators.
The pandemic has turned much of our world upside down. But, in doing so, it has shown us how resilient and innovative we are, and what we need to do to become even more so in the years ahead.
It starts with people. A promising hiring and retraining program was announced by the provincial government in early September. The $44.1 million Health Career Access Program will recruit 7,000 health-care workers for long-term care and assisted-living. About 3,000 applicants will be people who need to be retrained on the job, specifically workers who have had their jobs displaced during the pandemic. Many hospitality businesses have had to change their business models, focusing on takeout and delivery for example, and cutting back on staff. These workers know how to provide great service and are ideal candidates for new jobs that are being created in health care.
Of course, taking people out of one industry to help another is not a perfect solution. As the economy recovers, and those hospitality employers start to rehire, they’ll need staff. But we will all be better off as a community if the overall pool of workers in our region continues to grow in size and skill. Right now, we face a real risk of our workforce eroding as people leave for better opportunities elsewhere. Losing potential employees could be devastating to all industries that are not able to find and keep workers needed to grow their revenue. Fortunately, there are options for employers such as the BC Employer Training Grant Program. It provides funds to help staff adapt to changing job requirements and learn new skills and competencies.
Greater Victoria has all the fundamentals in place to get back to a thriving economy but it’s going to take many months to get there. Let’s use this time to develop those resources that will ensure our workforce has the skills and flexibility to meet the challenges that lie ahead.
Bruce Williams is the CEO of the Greater Victoria Chamber of Commerce
The signs of vibrancy are returning to Downtown Victoria. Every day, I’m seeing more people enjoying outdoor patios, bike lanes and trails, carrying bags from their resumed shopping habits. For the most part people are staying appropriately apart and masked as they move through the city, bringing it back to life. The same is being seen across the region as Amanda and I saw on a stroll down Beacon Ave in Sidney and on Oak Bay Avenue.
Of course, we need to be prudent about public health and be realistic that life won’t quickly return to how it was before the pandemic. However I’m optimistic about the future of our region.
When COVID-19 first forced the global economy into hibernation, economists speculated what our eventual recovery would look like. The most hopeful was that the sharp downturn would be mirrored by a sharp rise — the “V” shaped graph. Others suggested we were in for a slower “U” shaped recovery or even a rocky “W” shape. Some are suggesting it is looking like the Nike “swoosh” logo.
And that’s OK. It means we are steadily gaining ground as we hike our way back to the high-capacity economy we have all created in BC.
It also means we have a much greater sense of certainty about our future than we did a few weeks ago, and definitely more than our neighbours south of the border who are struggling with coming to terms with flattening the COVID curve.
Greater Victoria’s tourism sector, specifically, has a better sense of the journey needed before it can get back to the celebratory highs of recent years. With travel now being encouraged within British Columbia and across Canada, there is at least a target audience to focus on. In some ways, our experience of having few cases of COVID-19 and our appeal as a world-class destination, makes our region a gem for every Canadian looking for a safe place to travel.
At some point, we will see the return of travellers from select countries that have also flattened the curve on COVID. We need to prepare for this by continuing to do what we have done by managing our risks, creating healthy habits and teaching others what needs to be done to keep all of us safe.
Knowing that customers are coming back allows businesses to plan for their future and lets them determine what they need to achieve the margins needed to bounce forward. And that’s where The Chamber comes in. We continue to work with our members and industry partners on specific requests for government relief — interest-free loans, extension of the wage subsidy and temporary status of layoffs, and exemption from taxes such as the EHT.
This summer is a critical time — for our economy, for Canada’s place in the world and for the Greater Victoria Chamber of Commerce itself. We’ve adapted and thrived since 1863, and we are working hard to find a way forward for ourselves and our members in 2020.
Let’s keep working together and conquer the hill ahead through collaboration and determination.
Bruce Williams is CEO of the Greater Victoria Chamber of Commerce
This column originally appeared in the July 2020 edition of the Business Examiner
Since 1863, the Greater Victoria Chamber of Commerce has adapted to the times to serve the best interests of businesses in our region and on Vancouver Island.
We helped chart a path through world wars, global downturns and pandemics. And while we always emerged from difficult times, we have never known exactly what the future holds.
In these unprecedented times, we can’t tell you exactly when life will get back to normal or if things will ever be the same as they were before COVID-19. But we promise you we are working night and day to help businesses survive as we restart BC’s economy.
The Chamber was one of the first and loudest voices calling for the federal and provincial government to quickly support businesses forced to close or reduce operations to stop the spread of COVID-19. We made phone calls, wrote letters and spoke to the media about the need for relief.
Government listened and announced a wage subsidy, commercial rent relief, tax deferrals and other programs designed to help businesses survive until the economy recovers.
We will continue to be there during this transition. As the province moves through Phase 2 of the Restart BC plan, more people are getting back to work and back to supporting our retailers, restaurants and services.
British Columbia has been spared the worst. We dutifully followed the advice of Provincial Health Officer Dr. Bonnie Henry, and we are now among the best-positioned jurisdictions in North America for a successful restart.
The coming weeks and months will not be easy. We don’t know when international travel will return. Without visitors bringing money into our region, tourism-dependent businesses will need to change their operating model to cater to locals and Canadians from elsewhere in the country.
As we move from spring into summer, and what should be a time of prosperity, The Chamber will continue to call for support for this sector. But we will also be going through a time of change.
On June 15, we say thank you and good bye to Catherine Holt, who has served as CEO since 2016. Catherine’s leadership helped The Chamber become a more diverse and influential business organization that has a voice at the highest levels of government.
We’re lucky, in these uncertain times, to be able to seamlessly transition to our new CEO, Bruce Williams. Bruce’s high energy and impressive network of community connections will be key to engaging with business and government, so we can get back to a thriving economy.
Until mid-March, I had spent four years as CEO of the Greater Victoria Chamber of Commerce advocating for solutions to problems created by a booming economy. But in an instant, those concerns faded away.
With the world gripped by a pandemic, our region was forced to stop doing business as usual. It has not been easy, but my great hope is we embrace changes that arrived uninvited but could hold the key to solving fundamental challenges facing Greater Victoria.
In condensed form, here are the issues the chamber was concerned about, up to three months ago:
• Our region had one of the lowest unemployment rates in the country for years — our employers needed more workers. To get them here, our cost of living had to be more affordable. And the best way to do that was to make sure we had housing that our workforce could afford. Another way was to ensure working families had access to quality affordable child-care.
• The chamber was outspoken about the need for mobility planning and less traffic on our streets to allow for efficient movement of goods and people and lower emissions.
• Our community needed to invest in public safety — we want people to continue visiting, living and working in our safe, clean and beautiful region.
• And we urged government to support business innovation to provide desperately needed solutions to climate change.
Those were our concerns then. What are they now? And by now — I don’t mean this year or quarter or even this month. I mean right now, because what is true today might not be next week.
We have one of the highest unemployment rates in the country, with most of our lost jobs in retail, accommodation and food services. The loss of tourists and reduced business operations forced the hands of employers, who were required to shut down and lay off staff.
And now those hospitality and retail jobs face a new threat. With so many residents staying home, our downtown is missing those office workers who provide the reliable lunch crowd our restaurants need and the steady flow of shoppers our retailers require.
Our region has had a drastic reduction in commuters, both on our roads and using transit, as people work from home or find themselves unemployed. This has eliminated traffic congestion and also our child-care shortage — as parents and kids are at home, driving each other crazy.
There is also more housing available as owners put units on the market for long-term rental rather than short-term tourist accommodation or student housing. Increased supply could eventually drive down rent and make housing more affordable.
And the province has purchased hotels for the street population because they need to be socially distant, hopefully keeping them healthier and safer and improving the overall safety of our city.
And finally, reduced vehicles, flights, ferries and production and transportation of goods has led to a global reduction in greenhouse gases. The Olympic Mountains can be seen in stark relief, our air is even fresher than it was and we can hear birds singing downtown. People are out riding their bikes everywhere. It’s not a permanent climate-change solution, but it is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to see what the world is like with lower emissions.
The thing with change is that there is no way to go back. We can only go forward. I hope this shock to our world will do two things.
First, we’ll remember how quickly our booming economy and socially active community can be brought to its knees. And, second, as activity ramps up, we will keep those things that have changed us for the better.
So, if you love this city and this island, here’s the challenge:
Think about what and how you buy. You might not find everything you want on Vancouver Island, but I guarantee you can find everything you need. Think hard about what you need. Because I’m hoping you’ll include local businesses on that list. Buy local.
Think about how you get around. Transit is safe and will continue to be so. Dedicated bus lanes will be finished soon, and we will have a new fleet of electric buses. Bikes, including e-bikes, are fun and fabulous. We’ve now seen Victoria with no congestion and lots of parking. Don’t go back to your car — travel differently.
Think about who’s carrying the burden. Child care is an economic issue. Women are bearing a disproportionate burden while everyone is working from home. Women are the majority of hospitality and retail workers, so their jobs have disappeared at a higher rate than men’s. Recovery means giving everyone a fair chance at getting back to economic security. Support government’s multi-year, society-changing investment in child care.
Think about what keeps you safe. Public safety is not only about the police. Yes, they are essential, but we are the public and we need to keep each other safe. Our streets need to be occupied by customers, visitors, business owners, office workers and residents. Get out of your house.
Think about where you plan to travel or vacation. Take advantage of living on an island with no cases of COVID-19. If New Zealand can do it, so can we. Again, get out of your house and see this amazing place. Don’t stay home — stay local. Support Island tourism.
And finally, think about how critical it has been to have accurate information over the past few months. The Times Colonist, CHEK and CFAX and local branches of the CBC, CTV and Global, as well as local niche publishers such as The Narwhal and the chamber, provide reliable information. Journalism matters. Support local media.
In January, I announced my decision to leave my position as CEO of the Greater Victoria Chamber of Commerce. The time has now come. It has been a privilege — not just over the past four economic boom years, but, especially, over the past few scary months. I had the chance to do what I could when business owners, community leaders, our staff, our members, our media and our political leaders came together to communicate, invent, and try really, really hard to help each other.
At this moment, we have a damaged economy and a more tightly knit community. Both of those changes will have a profound impact in ways we can’t foresee.
We’ve pushed the reset button. Let’s make what comes next matter.
This column was published in the Times Colonist on June 13, 2020
Thank you to everyone on Vancouver Island who has helped us get where we are.
Thank you to the front-line workers in our health care system, and a special standing ovation for all the front-line workers who have been there to stock our shelves, handle our payments and deliver our goods. Your professionalism has kept COVID-19 from overwhelming our hospitals, as it has in many other places.
In the days and weeks ahead, all of us will need to live up to your dedication.
We also, of course, are thankful for the clear and calm leadership of Provincial Health Officer Dr. Bonnie Henry. Her words are memorable and provide the right direction for British Columbians to take responsibility for their actions. Her advice to “be calm, be kind, be safe” resonated deeply, and we heeded her urgent request to “Flatten the curve” and to “stay home.”
These words became mantras that helped us ensure the safety of ourselves and each other. Reminders to “stay home” have even become public service announcements and personal declarations on social media. So we stayed home, cocooning alone or with immediate family, long enough for our province to get a handle on COVID-19.
The process was unnerving. We couldn’t visit friends and relatives, and simple tasks like doing a grocery run were fraught with anxiety for many people. But we did it. We are doing it. We avoided the worst case scenarios and deserve to remember our effort with pride as we move on to the work ahead.
However, we also forced many businesses into hibernation. Many, many of the services, restaurants, hotels and shops that have helped define our region are in serious trouble. We’re thankful for what government relief we’ve had, but the months ahead will be nerve racking for businesses, non-profits and other organizations that serve us, provide jobs and create healthy communities. They need us now.
Thankfully, the province has unveiled a multi-phase plan for restarting BC. By mid-May, with full consideration of the risks that exist, we can expand our social circles slowly and with purpose.
We will have to live with physical distancing until a vaccine or sufficient treatment become widely available. This is a challenge that will take ingenuity on the part of business owners and patience on the part of customers. We’re already seeing sectors working on new ways to do businesses. Restaurants presented provincial authorities with a playbook to reopen safely and create entirely new experiences to enjoy. We’re seeing similar initiatives from retailers and others.
Let’s keep the virus in check by staying local, and showing love to local businesses — especially those in the hospitality sector who may be facing up to a year without international tourists. We can be there for them. We need to take these next steps together.
Doing business in the 21st century after 9/11 and the Great Recession has required all of us to continuously adapt and evolve. Once again, we are facing a new normal — though the economic disruption caused by the coronavirus pandemic is unlike anything we’ve seen in our lifetime.
The Chamber, like all of you, has had to profoundly restructure the way we do business in order to carry on. We’ve been using every channel available to connect with decision makers at all levels of government, and our team has worked diligently to get accurate information about relief programs out to our members.
We’re also continuing to host our highly regarded fireside chats with subject experts. But instead of shaking hands in elegant settings with dozens of business leaders as guests, we’re now using the tools available. Facebook Live, Zoom and Skype and other technological solutions have helped us continue to give our members a chance to hear directly from the federal Minister of Middle Class Prosperity and Associate Minister of Finance, Mona Fortier, and BC Finance Minister Carole James. Members have also been able to ask their own questions directly, and this has proven a very effective way to help both business and government better understand what is needed to get through this crisis together.
And that is really what everything is all about right now. We need to survive and we need to be ready to thrive when restrictions affecting our economy can be safely lifted.
To help prepare for the inevitable shift to the yet another new normal, we hosted a fireside chat on April 15 with Jamie Sawchuk, BC Government and Public Service Leader at Deloitte.
Jamie and his team are working with government to help get us to better days ahead. Deloitte has developed a dashboard titled “Predicting the post-pandemic rebound – A live look at Canada’s economy to prepare businesses for recovery.”
The dashboard is public — you can find it at VictoriaChamber.ca/covid-19 under Helpful Links.
Because of the scale of the economic impact caused by COVID-19, there is no precedent we can use to plan for recovery. The Deloitte dashboard gets around this by providing real-time data that illustrates emerging trends, such as traffic patterns. We can use this data to see what has happened to other jurisdictions ahead of us on the curve.
When restrictions on going shopping are lifted, will people return to buying goods and services in person? Or will they first rush out of their homes to enjoy being outside but continue buying what they need online. Metrics from other regions can help Greater Victoria retailers understand what to expect when restrictions are lifted here.
Government is also looking at this information as they try to provide the right stimulus to re-start a thriving economy. Is there a tool, such as a coupon, that can be used to spur people to go back to patronizing local shopkeepers? How can we stagger the recovery to mitigate the next wave of the virus?
Does this mean that young people who are lower risks will have more freedom to move around than seniors who are more susceptible to serious illness?
As we continue to flatten the curve, we will get a better sense of what kind of world we will emerge into. Jamie, a self-proclaimed optimist, wonders if the exceptional cooperation we’re seeing between BC and Alberta and between governments and business will result in a better quality of life for everyone in the future.
Until then, we all need to do our part to stay safe and healthy. Physical distancing is proving to be effective medicine and, as Jamie said, we all need to keep taking our medicine.
By Greater Victoria Chamber of Commerce CEO Catherine Holt
Things are changing daily in these unprecedented times. We know we’ll get back to normal at the end of this pandemic and one critical factor will be how much governments have stepped up to financially support businesses to allow them to recover quickly and make up for lost revenue.
To support businesses during these difficult times, The Chamber, Destination Greater Victoria and the Downtown Victoria Business Association sent a joint letter to the Prime Minister, Premier and their two finance ministers on March 16. We asked for all levels of government to provide immediate relief for businesses suffering economic consequences due to the public health measures instituted by government to combat COVID 19.
Specifically, we asked all governments to not charge late-filing penalties and instalment interest on balances owing to government from today until COVID-19 is under control. Additionally, we requested that Canada provide immediate access to interest-free loans to business through the Business Development Bank of Canada.
The loans are a key part of the federal government’s plan to help businesses get through financial shortfalls. Details are still being ironed out, including what, if any, interest will be charged.
Many businesses are struggling to survive the profound loss of revenue caused by requirements for social isolation and restrictions placed on travel.
Governments can also help businesses facing financial uncertainty and severe cash-flow reduction by being flexible regarding the timing of, and consequences for, payment of taxes.
For the federal government, this includes payroll instalments, GST and corporate income taxes. Payroll being the most onerous of these.
For British Columbia, this includes Employer Health Tax, PST and WCB premiums. We also ask the province to remove the requirement for BC municipalities to charge 10 percent on the late payment of property taxes.
The world is facing an extreme situation, and businesses are being asked to carry the economic burden. I encourage everyone to proactively help by continuing to support businesses in your community — order locally – not through Amazon -and purchase gift certificates that provide cash flow now, while it’s critically needed.
We will get through this and I have no doubt our economy will fully recover. But it will take time and we’re still waiting to see what course COVID 19 will take in this country.
Until we know, please heed the direction of our health officers. Protect your mental health by going outside, getting physical exercise and avoiding the misinformation and hysteria cluttering the facts. Stay safe and let’s all do our part to protect the most vulnerable among us.
By Catherine Holt, CEO of the Greater Victoria Chamber of Commerce
If you follow Bill Gates and Warren Buffett — those icons of American capitalism — you might have been startled recently, as I was, by their adamant view that they, and other members of the one per cent, need to pay way more taxes.
This goes against what has been considered gospel — that the private sector does not support handing over hard-earned money to government.
We want our politicians to enable the private sector so it can thrive and create jobs and a strong economy. But when it comes to the public sector, there is often an attitude that government is wasteful and a financial burden that needs to get out of the way.
In the United States and the United Kingdom, countries that too often set the tone for Canadian attitudes, there is a serious clash going on between the private and public sectors. Their national governments are led by private-sector champions on a mission to dismantle the institutions they were elected to lead.
But in this clash, Gates and Buffett are unexpectedly at the forefront as defenders of the public sector. They talk about government keeping a society and economy healthy by providing services that enable people, especially workers, to stay healthy, educated, safe and mobile.
Gates and Buffett are driven by the appalling information that life expectancy in the U.S. has been on a decline since 2014. The same is happening in the U.K. Lower life expectancy is typically an indicator of an “undeveloped” country, where public services are inadequate to elevate a country’s population to a higher standard of health and education and therefore income and longevity.
Thankfully, there is less dramatic news in countries with a mutually beneficial relationship between government and business, such as those in Northern Europe as well as Switzerland, New Zealand, Germany, France — and Canada. Life expectancy is stable or continues to creep upward. People report high levels of happiness, financial stability, education and health.
I recently read a good case study of this in a fascinating piece in the New York Times about a young couple who moved from New York to Helsinki, Finland. The couple was pleasantly shocked to find, not just a better standard of living for themselves, but what they see as a capitalist paradise.
Companies can thrive and better compete globally because their workers are healthy and financially stable. Unlike the U.S., employers and workers in Finland don’t have to create and pay for their own expensive corporate or personal solutions for parental leave, child care, housing, education, health care or transportation.
This takes me back to the Greater Victoria Chamber of Commerce and our advocacy priorities for 2020. Each year, our very active public policy and advocacy committee decides what areas we want to see government improve to make our region a better place to do business.
The dominant concern I continue to hear from Chamber members is that, in our current low unemployment economy, we have too many jobs going unfilled. We need more workers. And that means we need government help with things that attract workers — affordable and available housing, childcare, transportation and better access to health care.
If we took the Finnish approach — or maybe we should call it the Buffett/Gates approach — we might say that there is a virtuous circle created when businesses pay taxes for government to run public services. Run well, these services form a strong social fabric needed to support workers so they can function at home and work. We can take it a step further and see this partnership as a way to become a destination of choice for those who want to build a career and raise a family.
Everyone wants the best and the brightest — what are we offering to make them come here?
We already have the landscape, the weather and the jobs. How about upping our game in other ways? What if we had housing that didn’t require you to mortgage your children’s future, or if child care was available at a reasonable cost rather than relying on your worn-out parents or your neighbour?
What if you didn’t need a car because the bus goes by your stop every eight minutes, as do the new rapid-bus routes in Vancouver and in many cities in Europe and Asia? What if health care didn’t require taking hours off work to sit in a germ-ridden clinic to have five minutes with an over-worked GP you’ve never laid eyes on before? Or what if university tuition was only $250 per year — as in France?
Tthe Chamber will continue to speak up when businesses are hit by unexpected taxes such as the Employer’s Health Tax, which transfers all the burden to private sector employers, or when governments waste money on poorly run infrastructure projects. It’s important to call out policies that manipulate markets, such as the speculation tax, or unfairly ask businesses to pay property taxes that are multiple times the rate charged to residential properties.
Holding government accountable is critical for democracy. There’s always room for improvement.
But we can still recognize the powerful benefits that come from a strong partnership between government and business. It’s what can put us among the very best places to live — and we might even live a little longer, too.
This column originally appeared in the Feb. 2 edition of the Times Colonist.
By Greater Victoria Chamber of Commerce CEO Catherine Holt
It’s a new year, which means new leadership for the Greater Victoria Chamber of Commerce.
John Wilson, a prominent business person and community supporter, takes on the role of Board Chair in 2020. He’s the latest in a long line of Chamber leaders that goes back all the way to 1863.
It’s a huge job, but we’re tremendously fortunate to have John guiding the ship. As owner and CEO of Wilson’s Group of Companies, John’s businesses help create the fabric of our community.
If you’ve taken a shuttle to the airport, a bus to the ferry or attended a HarbourCats, Peninsula Panthers or Victoria Grizzlies game, you’ve experienced one of John’s companies.
Everything John does is devoted to his community. It’s reflected in his approach to business. He’s always quick to remind us that “family is life, and work is income.” It’s an approach that works because it resonates with his staff, his customers and everyone he comes in contact with. To have someone like that serving as chair of The Chamber’s Board of Directors is a blessing for our organization and for the 1,400 members we represent.
Joining John as the board’s executive members are: Vice-Chair Kris Wirk, Partner, Dusanj and Wirk; Past Chair Dan Dagg, President and CEO of Hothouse Marketing; Secretary Christina Clarke, CEO, Songhees Development Corp; and Treasurer Moira Hauk, Regional Manager South Island, Coastal Community Credit Union.
Other changes to our Board for 2020 include the addition of Judith Ethier, Chief Administrative Officer, Greater Victoria Harbour Authority; Tom Plumb, President and CEO, Kinetic Construction; and Rose Arsenault, Branch Manager, Agilus Work Solutions
And returning to the board are directors Ian Batey, Owner and Principal, IPB Consulting; Carmen Charette, Vice President External Relations, University of Victoria; Pedro Marquez, Vice President of Global Advancement and Business Development, Royal Roads University; Capt. (N) Sam Sader, Base Commander, CFB Esquimalt; and Paul van Koll, Senior Manager, KPMG.
Brianna Green, Marketing Specialist with Wilson’s Group, gets a seat at the table as a non-voting member as she is the new chair of the Prodigy Group, a Chamber committee.
As CEO of The Chamber, I also am part of the Board of Directors.
We have an ambitious plan for 2020, and with the experience and expertise on our board, I’m excited about taking on the many challenges facing our community. Finding and keeping workers continues to be the No. 1 priority for employers, and The Chamber has called for accessible housing, transportation and child care that will allow more workers to afford to live in our region. We also will continue to advocate for safe communities. We need adequately resourced policing and enforcement of rules that maintain social cohesion, because we must feel safe at home and at work.
You can learn more about the Chamber’s 2020 advocacy priorities at victorichamber.ca. And make sure to join us at one of our many mixers, mingles and business leaders luncheons, where we tackle the big issues facing our region.
By Catherine Holt , CEO of the Greater Victoria Chamber of Commerce
Early in my tenure at The Chamber I had a meeting with a couple of consultants who were doing work on the issue of homelessness for the Capital Regional District. They went through a long wish-list from social services providers looking for more funding and resources for their organizations (not for the homeless themselves).
“These service providers want to know what the Business Community is willing to contribute to the problem of homelessness?” the consultants asked, revealing the purpose of their visit to The Chamber.
Wow! I have many answers to this question, which I will get to. But I am reminded of this meeting every time someone asks me to speak on behalf of, or represent, the “Business Community.”
As the region’s Chamber of Commerce, I get why we’re characterized as a proxy for “Business Community,” but here’s the thing, it’s not real. The idea of a business community brings to mind — my mind anyway — a separate, well-defined group that is absorbed in its own self-interest, often characterized as making money.
The terminology sets up an unhealthy us-versus-them dynamic by suggesting those not in the Business Community need to defend their interests against, or make their case to, those who are. It’s a simplistic and damaging fiction.
Having spent many years working for government as a consultant and a public servant, I see the concept of a business community as a creation of government, which has a penchant for defining “stakeholder groups” that it can then “consult” on any given issue. Some of the regulars on the stakeholder list are: the business community, high tech, ENGOs (environmental non-governmental organizations), the arts community, rural and remote communities, First Nations, immigrants and refugees, persons living with disabilities, youth, seniors, and my personal favorite, women (but never men).
The danger is that it drives people who wear many hats, or no hat, to see themselves as having a viewpoint that’s separate from others. It requires assessing who is in a group and who is out. Who is with them and who is against them. This is fuel for political diatribes but not good communities.
It’s tough enough trying to speak for The Chamber. I know I can’t hope to capture every view held by our enormous range of members.
Yes, the majority are small- to medium-sized private sector companies doing everything from A — making Abeego Inc. food wraps, to Z — running Hotel Zed. But examples of some of the largest and most active members might surprise you: University of Victoria, Camosun College, BC Ferries, BC Transit, Songhees Nation, CFB Esquimalt, Greater Victoria School District, Victoria Police Department, City of Victoria, District of Saanich, City of Langford, CRD and BC Investment.
We also have many not-for-profits such as the Sierra Club, Victoria Foundation, Victoria Native Friendship Centre, Our Place, Mustard Seed, Intercultural Association, United Way, Salvation Army, Pacifica Housing, Greater Victoria Housing Society and Women in Need.
Then there are our members in the arts: Pacific Opera, Art Gallery of Greater Victoria, Victoria Conservancy of Music, Victoria Symphony, Royal and MacPherson Theatre.
Apologies to those I have not mentioned. If I had room, I’d love to list all 1,400 so you could see our diversity!
There’s a reason our mission states that “we work together to build good business and great community.”
Whether for profit, for social outcomes or for public benefit, our members belong to The Chamber because they want to run a good business that belongs to and contributes to our community. Not a business community. Our community, period.
Christina Clarke, now the CEO of the Songhees Development Corp, and a member of The Chamber executive, said it best: “There are business leaders in the community – not a business community.”
But I didn’t say any of that to the consultants.
What I did say is, if you are referring to private-sector business owners specifically, they are not a separate community in any way. They are the community. They create the region’s downtown and its many commercial centres. They employ people, support other businesses and pay taxes that fund budgets for social service agencies, such as those on your list, and public services. They volunteer, donate, govern, coach, buy tickets, attend events — mostly without complaining.
But sometimes they do want a say about the things that matter to them. Things that are the advocacy priorities of The Chamber and that may sound a lot like concerns every citizen has: ensuring we have enough workers to keep our economy healthy, ensuring those workers have an affordable home and access to public transportation and child care to cope with our high cost of living, keeping taxes affordable and regulations fair, caring how safe our streets are for everyone, figuring out how to contribute to climate solutions, and trying to make government more efficient and effective.
So, The Chamber tries to speak for them.
But we can never speak for the business community, because, despite what you may have been led to believe, it does not exist.
This column was originally published in the Times Colonist on Nov. 24, 2019.
CATHERINE HOLT – CEO, Greater Victoria Chamber of Commerce
It’s the year 2030, the start of the fourth decade of the 21st century, and businesses on Vancouver Island are thriving. A shopkeeper takes out the compost before disconnecting from the solar grid and activating the online security service for the night. Orders from her global and local customers have been shipped and will arrive in the morning.
It’s late, but the street is alive with young families enjoying their neighbourhood and dozens of workers making their way home. Electric buses flow by quietly and quickly, whisking their riders across town, out to Metro Victoria’s West Shore or over the Malahat.
Mindful pedestrians read the rhythms of the road and synchronize their paths with the last few daily delivery trucks and the cyclists riding with purpose in their designated lanes.
The shopkeeper’s staff smile and say good night twice. Once in their native language and again in English as they head home to their downtown micro-suites or conveniently connected suburbs. Enhanced immigration policies have been a boon to the Island’s economy. Workers from around the world have been able to move to Canada, eagerly taking on the jobs that businesses had struggled to fill.
On her way home, the shopkeeper takes a slight detour to check on the camp where she had met a young person living on the street. The youth, beset by mental illness and addiction, wanted help, so the shopkeeper connected them with a well-funded agency that always has openings for anyone seeking treatment.
It felt good to see the rough camp empty, the shopkeeper thought, as she pedaled her electric-assist bike along the softly lit and well-policed path.
Of course, it’s 2019 and we are just imagining what our region will become in 10 years. If we manage to achieve the ideal presented above, it would mean we have solved the biggest problems facing our economy today. And it would mean the advocacy efforts of the Greater Victoria Chamber of Commerce have been accomplished.
The Chamber’s role is to call on governments to help us achieve our mission, which is to work together to build good business and great community.
Right now, we are focused on the following priorities:
finding climate change solutions
attracting and retaining workers
advocating for effective local governance and services
ensuring safe communities
and supporting fair regulation.
We think those broad categories capture most of the concerns we hear from the people directly involved in shaping our economy now.
In 2030, what will The Chamber ask of government to ensure a strong economy?
That will depend on which path we choose.
Finding climate change solutions
People pay more attention to environmental issues when the economy is good. In doing so, we have been treating a healthy environment as a luxury item. But that’s changing.
The new economy is being built on climate-first considerations and that will continue to gather momentum over the next 10 years.
Climate change needs to have a global impact, but change will be made locally. Governments need to create serious incentives for business to help save our planet through new technologies, products and services.
And we need to move fast. If we don’t, our economy will be driven by the chaos caused by unpredictable extreme weather events and rising sea levels — everything else will be irrelevant. Human ingenuity is our best bet to save us now. Let’s hope it works. Everything else on this list depends on it.
Over the next 10 years, one area where the imperative to shift to a climate-first economy will play out is in transportation — one of the biggest contributors to the problem. We’re already seeing an acceleration of the transition to electric cars, buses, trucks, ferries and planes. This will create a new problem — how do we generate enough electricity to adequately run all these vehicles?
One answer is fewer vehicles. As an example of a local solution, we are building dedicated bus lanes and need to follow through on plans to extend these to the West Shore and even to Nanaimo. We need practical transit connections to ferry terminals and the airport.
Getting more people to choose transit or commute by bike will lower emissions and make our roads quieter and our air cleaner and maybe leave fewer of us fighting for a parking spot downtown.
Another pivotal change unfolding over the next decade is society’s move away from single-use plastics. The public demand for solutions to plastic pollution will lead to innovations in the way we measure and reduce microplastics — as we do now with other pollutants.
Attracting and retaining workers
It’s hard to imagine this issue going away.
WorkBC anticipates 150,000 job openings on Vancouver Island over the next 10 years. And the Conference Board of Canada forecasts that, by 2034, immigration will account for 100 per cent of population growth in Canada. Put those two facts together, and you can see the need to attract more immigrants to Vancouver Island if we have any hope of having an adequate labour force in 10 years’ time.
Right now, the Canadian economy is in a period of slow growth but with strong job gains and a very tight labour market. In Greater Victoria, the cost of living continues to increase, creating problems for employers — their costs keep going up as do those of their staff.
But economies are cyclical – we’ve been in an unprecedented upswing for almost 10 years. A downturn seems inevitable. Will that leave us with new problems in 2030?
There are a number of other things that will continue to affect our ability to attract and retain workers:
Quality child care:
Our geography and history will continue to make our region an attractive place for young families to settle and enjoy a healthy lifestyle. Unless we become too expensive. If that happens, will we be home to fewer children? Or will there be a new baby boom as the largest generation in history reaches the traditional age for starting a family.
British Columbia could become a destination province for young families, or we can be a place where young people struggle to justify the expense of having children.
Quality child care is difficult to secure in 2019, often forcing parents to scale back how much they are able to work outside their home. Maybe the decision to have kids will depend on whether child care is made an essential service, like education, health and transportation.
And will child care workers finally be seen as the important educators and care givers they are and be paid enough to keep them in their jobs?
Housing keeps getting less affordable, cutting into budgets and making it tougher for workers to stay here.
Will we embrace non-market housing for working families to ensure we have an adequate working population? Or will we continue to build predominantly high-end housing for international buyers? Will private-sector wages climb to levels that enable workers to live here and provide services, despite extreme housing costs? Will the high cost of living mean we have more highly paid public- and tech-sector workers and fewer lower-wage tourism and hospitality jobs?
As the population ages, the lack of workers and the rising cost of health care will become exponentially more expensive. The cost of current services will overwhelm all other government spending.
By 2030, we will need radical new approaches. Maybe we will finally move to a system that puts significant resources into keeping people healthy and diverting them from medical interventions, rather than the disease-treatment system we have now.
Effective local governance and services
The Chamber has served southern Vancouver Island since 1863. For almost as long, our region has debated the pros and cons of being governed by multiple municipalities.
Will we still have 13 municipalities all trying to do what’s best for their residents, regardless of what that means to their neighbours? Or will we think regionally, with planning that looks at the best strategies for Greater Victoria as a single city? At the behest of their residents, Saanich and Victoria are taking the first step in the right direction. The region’s two largest municipalities are working through a Citizens’ Assembly process to look at the pros and cons of amalgamation. Whether that turns out to be a full merger, or better integration of services, the fact this dialogue is happening is reason for optimism.
Other mergers of Canadian municipalities have taken years to work out the kinks and deliver benefits. All the more reason to start now in order to see results by 2030.
Ensuring safe communities
One outcome of the Citizens’ Assembly might be a merger of the Victoria and Saanich police departments. This would go a long way to ensuring our region has the resources needed to deal with the heavy caseload facing officers serving our downtown core.
The foundation of a productive, vibrant community requires that all of us feel safe. From the moment we get out of bed, to our commute to work, throughout the day on the job and in our neighbourhoods at night.
And we need solutions for the opioid crisis that has ravaged families and cast shadows over our storefronts. Homeless people on our sidewalks and in our parks struggle with addictions and mental health challenges. Hopefully, we’ll be better able to address these by 2030.
Will the need for long term therapeutic communities be embraced and funded, providing people with a way out of their addictions, or will we continue to put them through the spin cycle, driving up policing and health-care costs?
Supporting fair regulation
The last decade has been characterized by disruptive technologies vs. established businesses, and we can expect this to continue.
In 2010, Uber, Airbnb and mobile payments were in their infancy and most people had never heard of these services. Who would have thought they would have the impact they have had on business in 2019? Add to that the legalization of cannabis and the world today is a much different environment. Disruption forces policy makers to reactively update rules and regulations to ensure a fair outcome for new and established business models.
In the years ahead, where will traditional banks be if Facebook throws its weight at our financial services? How will our mobility change if cars are autonomous? Will restaurants be staffed by robots, or will it become the norm for all our meals to be delivered to our door? Will all retail shopping require self-service check-out, be online, be paid through mobile apps? Will everything we do or say — everything we need — require a mobile device? All of these are disruptions that are already underway. What about those that we can’t even imagine?
In Greater Victoria, our economy has traditionally been stabilized by our reliance on a large public sector. Will that remain, or will those jobs be downsized and automated too?
Finally, will an institution that has served our region for more than 150 years still be here? The Greater Victoria Chamber of Chamber was founded in 1863 and has seen its share of change. One thing that hasn’t changed is the need for human contact.
As we come to rely more and more on autonomous cars, robotic services and online socializing, our collective sense of isolation will also increase.
Thankfully, The Chamber knows about building real relationships. Our mixers and mingles will be even more popular for people looking to maintain their sanity, sense of humanity and to grow their business.
Or maybe The Chamber will be run by robots too.
Catherine Holt has been CEO of the Greater Victoria Chamber of Commerce since June 2016 and Chair of BC Transit since December 2017. She brings to these roles a wealth of experience, including 17 years as a consultant for public, private and non-profit organizations. She has worked on many transformational projects in Canada and internationally to improve public transit, employment programs, First Nation governance, land title registration, justice system administration, and information technology services. Holt has taught at Royal Roads University, was a producer for CBC National Radio and TV, and served on the boards of the Victoria Police and Vancouver Island School of Art.
This essay was originally published in the Victoria Foundations Vital Signs 2019 report
With the federal election on Oct. 21, campaign signs have sprung up everywhere and you can’t turn on the radio or television without hearing the latest promises from candidates.
We know what federal parties want from us — our votes — but what do people in Greater Victoria need from our elected representatives? To make sure our regional candidates know how they can best help our region, the Greater Victoria Chamber of Commerce teamed up with the City of Victoria, Destination Greater Victoria and the Downtown Victoria Business Association to host a Listening Session on Sept. 11.
The event was well attended by the public as well as candidates from every riding. Unlike typical all-candidates meetings, a listening session flips the script. Rather than an opportunity for candidates to repeat partisan promises, we told them, in very practical terms, what we want them to do if elected.
The idea is to cut through the rhetoric and get to real solutions that will help Greater Victoria overcome the hurdles that prevent our economy from reaching its potential.
Climate Change Solutions
It’s clear that we need to move fast before climate chaos grabs the steering wheel of the global economy. We need human ingenuity to develop the innovations needed to literally save our planet. We are asking the federal government to provide predictable funding to ensure local governments have climate action plans. We also want the federal government to match provincial incentives to help people choose low-carbon options.
We need many more workers, both foreign and domestic, in every sector. Having jobs go unfilled is the single largest factor constraining economic growth in our region. We are asking the federal government to increase the supply of available workers by setting relevant immigration targets and making the process more efficient. We also want the federal government to better connect the thousands of international students graduating in our region with local jobs.
Affordable Workforce Housing
The federal government can help make housing more affordable by expanding the National Housing Strategy to include more non-market housing through partnerships with local governments and non-profit housing providers.
Tax incentives encourage private investment in purpose-built rental housing. And the federal government can invest more in co-op housing, improving existing units and funding partnerships that create new housing opportunities for families.
Available, Affordable Child Care
Workers are reducing hours and modifying shifts to compensate for the lack of child care, adding to the shortage of labour at a time when we have the lowest unemployment rate in the country.
As well, a shortage of early childhood educators contributes to the lack of licensed spaces.
We want the federal government to match the provincial government’s investment in affordable, quality child care. Currently the federal government is last among OECD countries in its per capita spending on child care — spending only 10% as much as the provincial government in BC.
The federal government has committed to international emission reduction targets, and British Columbia has committed to transitioning to electric vehicles for private and commercial use.
We want the federal government to continue its cost-sharing programs to increase public transit in Greater Victoria, and provide incentives for the electrification of commercial fleets including ferries, buses, trucks and couriers.
The federal government can also promote a standard for electric charging technology, and expand the number of electric vehicle charging stations across our region.
Reconciliation with First Nations
The City of Victoria has embarked on a Witness Reconciliation Program with the Esquimalt and Songhees Nations, and all of our community partners are pursuing ways to include First Nations in all of our efforts. We want the federal government to remain committed to continue the healing process and forge a future of inclusiveness.
There will be an avalanche of issues discussed during the federal election. We want these local priorities to remain top of mind for local candidates. So, when a candidate knocks on your door, please ask for their position on these issues — and vote!
This column was originally published in the September 2019 edition of the Business Examiner
By Catherine Holt , CEO of the Greater Victoria Chamber of Commerce
There’s nothing like a summer night by the Inner Harbour to remind you our region’s focal point is downtown Victoria. On any weekend there are a remarkable number of locals and visitors taking in festivals, enjoying restaurants or having a stroll. All because it’s a beautiful and safe place to be.
We value a peaceful, functional community and we need good policing to manage the things that can disrupt or threaten our community standard.
As the region’s population grows — we had 386,000 citizens in 2016 and forecasts by the Capital Regional District call for about 450,000 by 2030 — the challenge to maintain a great little city will intensify.
As CEO of the Greater Victoria Chamber of Commerce, I’m all for efficiency and budgeting oversight. Policing costs must be controlled, especially as population grows. But does it make sense for the Victoria police chief to have the never-ending job of trying to wring enough money out of Victoria and Esquimalt councils to keep the department from imploding?
We have four municipal police services in the region: Oak Bay, Central Saanich, Saanich and Victoria. And RCMP detachments in Sooke, North Saanich/Sidney and the West Shore.
Victoria and Saanich are committed to a Citizens’ Assembly exploring the benefits and costs of amalgamation (and where are they with that, anyway?). An obvious top-of-the-list topic for the assembly is a combined police force.
I am going to boldly assert that Victoria and Saanich are the urban and suburban parts of a single community with an indistinguishable and inexplicable border dividing them. With this in mind, let’s look at a few facts.
The Police Services Division in the B.C. Ministry of Public Safety and Solicitor General publishes statistics on every police department in the province. Their latest numbers are from 2017-18. Plus every municipality publishes budget numbers.
I’m using the ones from 2018. This is not a perfect alignment but close enough to make informed comparisons. I’ve also included Esquimalt as it is served by, and pays for, the Victoria Police Department.
Saanich has about 116,000 people, compared with 86,000 in Victoria and 17,000 in Esquimalt.
Saanich has a larger municipal budget — $291.3 million compared with $241 million for Victoria and $42.4 million for Esquimalt.
But Saanich’s police budget is $42 million and accounts for 14.4 per cent of its total municipal budget. Victoria’s police budget is $53.9 million, which is 23.3 per cent of the city budget. Esquimalt contributes $7.9 million for policing, or about 18.6 per cent of its total budget.
And Saanich has fewer police officers with 161, compared with 245 serving Victoria and Esquimalt.
Saanich’s crime rate is about one-third of Victoria/Esquimalt (35 vs. 104 incidents per 1,000 residents), and it has a lower caseload per police officer (25 vs. 44).
Saanich also has a much lower cost per capita. Saanich citizens each pay about $362 for policing, compared with $626 per Victorian and $464 for each Esquimalt resident.
So Saanich has more people, more money and a bigger budget but lower policing costs, fewer officers and fewer cases per officer. To be clear, there is much more to the daily toil of police officers than working on “cases,” but it is one way to measure relative workload.
If Saanich’s police officers are fully employed with 25 cases each, what does it suggest when an average Victoria police officer has 44 cases?
The per capita cost is also a disturbing stat. As the regional hub, Victoria’s police officers are responsible for the safety of the many Saanich residents who commute downtown or spend their evenings in the city. Eighty per cent of the daily traffic arriving in Victoria is from Saanich.
So why do the citizens of Victoria pay almost twice as much for policing as the citizens of Saanich?
What happens when we combine forces and treat Victoria and Saanich as one municipality? The numbers suggest a more balanced distribution of police costs and responsibilities:
Or just a unit to reduce crime by tracking prolific repeat offenders, like the one the Victoria chief just disbanded to use those resources to try and keep up with an overwhelming number of 911 calls.
Greater Victoria’s numerous police departments have tried to achieve a more specialized level of policing by creating 40 joint committees to share information and resources on matters such as forensics, road safety, sexual predators and serious crime. But it’s voluntary and the sharing stops and starts as priorities change.
So, we continue to have four municipal police forces and three RCMP detachments with 40 committees, as well as plans for a new $24-million shared radio system so they can talk to each other. And, this year, a new $13-million South Island 911/Police Dispatch Centre in Saanich housing 70 staff transferred from three existing police dispatch services. It receives every 911 call in the region and dispatches the appropriate police service.
Wouldn’t one police service be easier than all this?
Let me put it another way. According to Chief Del Manak, on Tuesday, June 25, at 7 p.m., dispatchers at the new 911 centre had 46 calls on hold waiting for VicPD officers, who could not keep up with demand.
At that time, how many calls were on hold for Saanich police? Were there police officers in the suburbs with time on their hands?
For the sake of safety in our region, shouldn’t they be responding to those calls?
This column was originally published in the Times Colonist on July 14, 2019.
Catherine Holt is CEO of the Greater Victoria Chamber of Commerce
I would like to add to the growing concern in this community about the populist tactics of City of Victoria Councillor Ben Isitt (see “Isitt is playing a political game that we have seen before” by Alan Allnut) from the perspective of business and the Greater Victoria Chamber of Commerce.
Former UK Prime Minister Tony Blair recently provided an excellent description of the risk of populist politics while commenting on Brexit, a tragic waste, and growing threat to British parliamentary democracy. Brexit leaders are textbook populists who intentionally create confrontation to divide people into opposing camps. The job of each camp then becomes to discredit everyone in the other camp and to suggest their viewpoint and participation in public discourse is not valid and, ultimately, they should be excluded from participation in society and government. The aim is that only one camp, with one viewpoint – their’s – is left standing.
Whether led from the left or the right, that outcome is always dangerous. It’s an ego-driven approach to leadership — look for someone to blame and to defeat, rather than a solution.
Here’s the other trap when dealing with populists: most of us in life, politics and business, are looking for a way to get along with people and make things work — not to attack them. We value democracy, free speech and public participation. So when a populist comes along, we are in a tough spot. Do we take their bait and address their extreme views, or do we maintain a dignified silence and hope their provocative language and fringe views speak for themselves?
The risk of staying silent is that they get more strident with time and gain credibility because no one is opposing them.
The Chamber is explicitly non-partisan and we do our best to work with, and to critique, all parties and levels of government. We advocate for a strong economy and safe and healthy community. We seek real solutions for issues such as housing affordability, street drug overdoses and climate change. We try not to make it personal or single out individuals for their political tactics.
But when Ben Isitt chose to attack a legitimate and popular business for no gain other than his own, we decided it was time to end our dignified silence.
The last straw for us was Isitt’s targeting of the horse carriage industry.
In sharp contrast to Isitt, Councillor Charlayne Thornton-Joe has spent countless hours listening to public concerns and looking at evidence. For many years, she has worked with these businesses to get answers and make improvements as needed. Her pro-active approach has resulted in a horse carriage industry that is supported by horse experts and animal advocates, and can be a model for such operations around the world.
All of those efforts were disregarded and disrespected by Isitt when he brought forward his motion to ban the industry.
It was classic populism. A dramatic gesture that forced people to takes sides, and used emotion to trump reason.
The result would not improve an industry that, by all accounts, is well-run. Rather, it would be — as Donna Friedlander the owner of Tally-Ho Carriage Tours put it — “equivalent to sentencing our companies and our horses to a long drawn-out, complex and heart-wrenching death.”
As we know, what did happen was a groundswell from organizations like ourselves and members of the public that chose to abandon their dignified silence and push back.
Before council could vote on the motion, there was a protest outside city hall. Many speakers addressed council late into the night. It was unnecessary confrontation leading to a necessary outcome.
The matter has now been delayed, and I choose to believe Victoria council will find a way to move past this non-issue and get on with the real priorities facing the city.
However, Councillor Isitt continues. Most recently he responded to criticism of his suggestion that Veterans Affairs and Department of Defence fund policing for Remembrance Day with a ludicrous characterization of this newspaper as being in cahoots with “neo-fascist ‘alt-right’ formations.” As Allnut said in his column, maligning the media whenever they don’t agree with your viewpoint is a tactic used by the grand-daddy of all populists, President Trump.
I like to think people eventually get fed up with leaders who stir up negative emotions and pull them into artificial camps to make false choices. We expect all local politicians to look beyond their echo chambers, listen to a diversity of voices, and make informed decisions in the best interest of our city and region.
We need less drama and more results.
This column was originally published in the Times Colonist on June 15, 2019.
Local governments make decisions that directly impact our daily lives. From maintaining sidewalks in front of our homes and businesses, to setting property tax rates and making rezoning decisions that can profoundly affect the character of our neighbourhoods.
It’s important work, though too often the tasks at hand don’t seem to be enough for some councillors.
Take the widely publicized decision by Victoria Council to champion a lawsuit against the oil and gas industry. The idea was to have industry pay for costs attributed to climate change. This was an outsized overstep that played well to the choir but prompted everything from eye rolls to outright anger outside the echo chamber.
At the Greater Victoria Chamber of Commerce, we expressed our concern with a letter to council asking them to rethink their decision.
First and foremost, launching a lawsuit against industry is not a good use of city taxpayers’ money.
Victoria council recently went through its first budget since last year’s civic elections. One third of council is brand new to the job, so we can understand their enthusiasm. But turning to legal action to try and fulfill your political mandate is not good leadership.
Lawyers are expensive, and going through the courts is a time-consuming process that will, barring a miracle, take longer than council’s current term. All that, and the outcome is far from certain — in other jurisdictions, similar attempts at litigation have been dismissed.
To her credit, Victoria Mayor Lisa Helps acknowledged as much even before the city’s resolution to consider litigation against fossil fuel companies was soundly struck down at the Association of Vancouver Island and Coastal Communities convention on April 14.
Secondly, our region’s economy benefits from being a welcoming destination for all Canadians, including those from Alberta whose livelihood depends on revenue generated from the oil patch. Having a major source market threaten to boycott our region should give the city a pause — especially as they don’t speak for the residents of the other 12 municipalities that make up Greater Victoria.
The thing is, Victoria has already identified a way forward.
In the City’s Climate Leadership Plan, Mayor Helps states that her vision for Victoria will see us driven by amazing entrepreneurs who “leapt at the challenge to innovate and invent the goods and technologies needed for a clean-energy future.”
The Chamber agrees that the answer lies in innovation led by business. We will continue to encourage all levels of government to focus on supporting the investments required to bring about the technological advances and societal uptake needed to become a low carbon society.
Business wants to be part of the solution, and the best thing all levels of government can do is create the conditions that enable innovation. When it comes to climate change, we are all in this together.
Catherine Holt is the CEO of the Greater Victoria Chamber of Commerce
This column was originally published in the April 2019 edition of the Business Examiner
What does it mean to be influential?
At The Chamber, we recently rewrote our vision statement to set a goal of being “the most diverse and influential business association in the region.”
For our board and staff, this means we are actively looking for members who reflect the diversity of our community — big and small businesses, established firms and start-ups, every industry and any sector. We want to connect with organizations led by people from many cultural backgrounds, any gender and all ages. If we’re diverse, we’re in a great position to be influential.
However, I had a lightbulb moment while moderating a panel at the Inclusion Project, a conference held at Royal Roads University on March 30. The event is the brainchild of Ruth Mojeed, a recent grad from RRU’s Masters of Arts in Intercultural and International Communication, who arrived in Victoria from Nigeria in 2015. The goal is to start a dialogue that will result in a greater diversity of people included in the success of Greater Victoria. The room was packed with 170 people from an impressive array of backgrounds. Gender, race and age were the themes of the day and we had a very heartfelt and energetic conversation about improving inclusion.
It struck me that, for many people, diversity does not translate into influence in the way we think of it at The Chamber.
If you’re a newcomer to the community, or your definition of gender is outside the mainstream, or you’re seen as “too young” or “too old” you will too often feel the opposite of influence, which is powerlessness.
To think of it another way, having influence is similar to having information. For some, that means holding it close so only you can wield it. You use information to have power over others.
We see this in fields where acronyms and jargon are only understood by an inner circle — the military, engineering, accounting, IT, medicine and science come to mind. Information as a tool of exclusion. You need to be inside the echo chamber to know what’s going on.
For others, information needs to be shared in order to have power over public opinion or political choices, or global trends, or just your friends and family and co-workers. Being seen as a source of beneficial information can be very powerful. It is the mindset of people, like me, who were trained as journalists. Information enables inclusion.
Influence is kind of the same. You can claim to be influential because you are part of a small group that only talks among itself, and only helps each other make connections to those with the power to make decisions.
Or you can be influential because you have a vast and varied network of connections. You always know someone who knows someone who knows whatever you need to find out or are trying to get to happen. And you can influence things through sheer numbers, volume of voices or impact of votes. The more people you know, and the more diverse those people are, the more influence you have.
It seems blatantly obvious that influence by inclusion is a more rational approach than influence by exclusion.
But that is not the lesson of history.
I realized with concern, when The Chamber says it wants to be the most influential business association in the region, many people attending the Inclusion Project might take this to mean we are an old-style echo chamber for insiders.
I was at the Inclusion Project to try to demonstrate the opposite. Our board and our membership is very clear that The Chamber works best when you walk into one of our events and feel a connection to like-minded people while also getting the sense you are about to expand your network and point of view by meeting someone different.
As our Director of Operations says, The Chamber didn’t get to be 156 years old without changing with the times. Inclusion is the change happening now.
By 2034, 100 per cent of population growth in Canada will be from immigration. Our top 10 source countries in Victoria in the last census period were the Philippines, China, U.S., U.K., India, South Korea, Mexico, Iran, Germany and South Africa. And we need them to fill the 150,000 job vacancies expected on Vancouver Island in the next 10 years — mostly due to retirements.
Canada has a history of absorbing waves of immigrants under one big tent. Being inclusive is not without its challenges, but it will be our global strength if we manage it well while other countries struggle to insulate their echo chambers.
The Chamber has a pretty diverse board and membership now. Of course, we can always do better. We want to be a big tent, too.
Tell your friends.
Catherine Holt is the CEO of the Greater Victoria Chamber of Commerce.
This column was originally published in the Times Colonist on April 21, 2019.
Mind the gap. That was the message the Greater Victoria Chamber of Commerce presented to Victoria City Council earlier this year.
Chamber Chair Dan Dagg and I went to the preliminary budget town hall to provide a voice for business. We wanted the newly elected councillors to know that businesses help create the vibrancy we love about Victoria. Businesses consist of people who provide employment and services and cannot be seen as an inexhaustible source of tax revenue.
In 2019, rising commercial property values have added another variable to the role municipal councils have in setting property tax rates. The Chamber advocates for tax fairness and has been working to shine a light on the higher property tax rates all 13 Greater Victoria municipalities charge businesses compared to residents.
Local governments set their annual budgets by determining how much they need to spend to deliver services to their citizens. After accounting for revenue from sources such as user fees, municipalities use property taxes to generate most of the cash needed to ensure they can balance their budgets.
The two largest classes of properties are residential and business (commercial). Councils must balance the need to keep taxes affordable for citizens with the need to encourage investment and commercial development by not overburdening businesses.
What The Chamber has noticed is a trend in recent years for municipalities to minimize increases to residents by offloading increasing costs to businesses. This was evident in rising tax multiples – for example, in 2016, Victoria charged businesses a tax rate that was 3.1 times the rate charged to residents. This multiple increased to 3.4 in 2017 and 3.5 in 2018. In Saanich, the multiple has climbed from 3.5 in 2016 to 3.9 in 2017 and 4.3 last year.
The impact of a rising multiple has been amplified in the last few years with residential property values soaring while business property values trailed behind.
This year, the opposite has occurred in a number of BC jurisdictions causing a backlash against BC Assessment, which determines the annual value of all properties in the province.
In Saanich, for example, residential properties have increased by an average of 10% while business properties have increased by an average of 20%.
This means that even though municipalities show a decrease to their multiple, the actual tax bill facing businesses could very well still go up.
Greater Victoria municipalities are in the midst of finalizing their budgets, and must adopt a final budget by May 15. The Chamber will continue to track tax rates and urges councils to consider the actual bill they will burden businesses with before setting their budgets.
Catherine Holt is the CEO of the Greater Victoria Chamber of Commerce
This column was originally published in the Business Examiner's April edition.
An event I was at shortly after International Women’s Day was exciting because of what did not happen. I have been waiting for this particular thing to not happen my whole adult life.
It was a very well organized and well attended reception hosted by Pearson College for senior representatives of United World Colleges International, in town for their biannual meeting.
The leaders giving speeches included Gov. Gen. Julie Payette, who is a UWC alumnus; Lt.-Gov. Janet Austin; and Pearson College president Desiree McGraw. Other leaders were acknowledged, including Pearson College chair and former deputy prime minister Anne McLellan, Victoria Mayor Lisa Helps and Esquimalt-Metchosin MLA Mitzi Dean.
You’ll notice that all of those leaders are women. That’s not what I found remarkable.
The remarkable thing was that no one commented on it. It didn’t come up.
I’m aware that my commentary on this lack of commentary might seem contradictory. But what I’m saying is: Maybe we’ve finally got to the point where those who make the decision to appoint, hire or recruit a woman can stop congratulating themselves for taking some kind of perceived risk when they give a woman an opportunity historically reserved for a man.
A decade or two ago, all of the women I mentioned would have been seen as groundbreaking — and there probably would have been no more than one woman on stage. Certainly, all these positions were held by men for a long time. Have you seen the wall of official photos of mayors of Victoria at city hall? Dozens and dozens of men, plus Gretchen Brewin from 1985 to 1990 and now Helps.
It’s hard to be the only one, the first one, the pioneer, the exception, the risk. That takes a brave person. Not just a competent, experienced, capable person, but someone who is willing to risk public scrutiny, criticism and humiliation.
After the first woman comes and goes, and then the second and the third, it is no longer news. Over the past 20 years, many of these positions have been held by women. It’s much more comfortable being one of a long line, one of many, the normal, the expected. And that’s what happened at this event.
Of course, we still have a long way to go. According to the recent report titled The Best and Worst Places in Canada to be a Woman in 2019, by the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, women in Victoria earn, on average, 75 per cent of what men earn. As well, 70 per cent of female workers have full-time jobs compared with 85 per cent of male workers. Only six per cent of women work in management roles. The lack of accessible and affordable child care continues to have a disproportionate financial impact on women.
Despite this, Victoria ranks as the third best city for women in Canada. That’s due to our high ranking when it comes to leadership. Women account for 43 per cent of local elected officials. The City of Victoria has five women out of nine positions on council.
The presence of so many women in leadership positions will surely help normalize it in those places that are lagging behind. Are we finally approaching a time in Canada where we recognize that all walks of life do best when the best are allowed to lead — in business, politics, science, education, trades, sports and arts?
In the face of so much bad news on International Women’s Day about the desperate situations for many women in this world, in many cultures and religions and countries that seem stuck in another millennium, I’m glad to have this sign of hope.
When the leadership of women is not remarkable but normal, that is true equality.
Catherine Holt is the CEO of the Greater Victoria Chamber of Commerce.
This column was originally published in the Times Colonist on March 24, 2019.
By Catherine Holt, CEO of the Greater Victoria Chamber of Commerce
The Greater Victoria Chamber of Commerce cares deeply about the safety of our community. It’s the foundation all citizens rely on to function. At the moment we’re not sure it’s headed in the right direction.
At the recent Victoria Budget Town Hall, the most controversial topic was the police budget. Some asked the City to reduce police officers, while others urged it to hire more. Both sides believe they want the right thing for the citizens of Victoria.
However, the result is we’re now into the second year the police budget is trapped between two municipal decision-makers and the police board. Last year, Esquimalt voted not to provide its share of the increase requested by the police board. And, this year, Victoria is sending the budget back to the board for a revision that the police chief says will actually reduce police resources once inflation, population growth and the EHT are accounted for.
That creates an impasse. When the mayors send the budget back to the police board, they are sending it back to themselves — because they are the co-chairs of the board and they approved it in the first place.
This has unnerving similarities to the regional sewage treatment project, which spent years suspended between municipalities that didn’t want to host sewage treatment facilities and the Capital Regional District, provincial and federal governments, which insisted it was required. At one point, we had the mayor of Esquimalt chairing the CRD when it approved its sewage treatment plan — and the same mayor voting against the CRD plan along with her municipal council.
That happened because a bad governance design by the Province plagues the regional district by allowing local government representatives to play conflicting roles. The impasse was only fixed by the Province stepping in with a separate project board with decision-making authority.
With police board governance, the culprit is Section 25 of the BC Police Act. It forces mayors to chair their municipal police force. No exceptions. Even if a mayor has been convicted of a crime, is married to the police chief or just doesn’t want to find themselves in conflict with their role as mayor, he or she is the chair of the police board. Period.
Civilian oversight of the police is a necessary principle. Obligating mayors to chair the police board is not necessary and leads to the ridiculous situation the police budget is now in.
I know because I was on the Victoria Police Board for a term many years ago and saw this conflicted governance situation firsthand.
If you want a high functioning board, there are a few essential qualities you need in an appointed chair: knowledge of what they will be governing, governance expertise and independence from the organization’s operations.
Mayors get elected to do good things for their community. Mayors Helps and Desjardin were both handily reelected in the fall, which is evidence they are doing their mayoral jobs well. But no mayoral candidate runs to be chair of the police board and they don’t meet the criteria. So why does the Province force them into it?
Section 25 also, inexplicably, prevents mayors from stepping aside if they can’t carry out their responsibility to the board. Normally, with other boards, the chair can be excused temporarily or permanently if they can’t fulfill their responsibilities. But the mayor is the police board chair come hell or high water.
This caused problems with the board’s disciplinary action regarding two previous police chiefs. To sum up those situations as simply as I can, there were concerns the mayors worked too closely with the police chiefs to be objective about their behavior. The public perception was the mayors avoided doing the right thing by not handing their responsibilities over to an uninvolved third party. The reality was, because of Section 25, they had no legal ability to do so.
The current police budget impasse further highlights the shortcomings of Section 25. How can the mayor credibly approve something in one forum and then reject it or criticize it in another? The police board should be free to submit the budget it thinks is credible and necessary, and the mayor and council should be free to critique it and approve it, or not, without having the objectivity of both processes compromised because they are led by the same individuals.
A solution is to have the Province fix Section 25 so that the police board chair is a highly qualified citizen appointed by the mayor and council — as is the case with Edmonton, Calgary and Toronto.
And keeping mayors at arm’s length from oversight of the police department will free them to fulfill their responsibilities to consult with the taxpayers and determine how much they are willing to pay for policing, and get on with it.
This column was originally published in the Times Colonist on Jan. 31, 2019.
By Greater Victoria Chamber of Commerce CEO Catherine Holt
A mission statement should capture the reason an organization exists, while its vision statement explains what it will become if it achieves its aspirations.
Summing up these concept in short, memorable phrases helps an organization focus its time and resources. If your organization is going through this process you might find it helpful to learn how The Chamber came up with our new statements.
Last fall, we worked with our board of directors ona mission and vision that will guide us for the next four years.
We decided our mission is that we are: Working together to build good business and great community.
This statement expresses a number of important things about The Chamber.
Members work together to help each other with business and community contributions, as well as personal challenges. As an organization, we work with other associations and community leaders who are taking an active role in ensuring our region prospers.
We also build good business. This phrase has two meanings that capture the spirit and intent of The Chamber. We want our members to prosper, to be doing “good business.” We also want to make the right kind of contributions to our community. Good business is positive and important.
Building great community means more than helping the “business community.” That’s a label I don’t agree with or understand. Business is an essential part of community and we shouldn’t separate the two.
Businesses contribute in ways that make our region a better place. They donate, sponsor, volunteer, mentor, advise, lead, invest, employ and pay taxes. All these contributions help make Greater Victoria a great community.
If we succeed at working together to build good business and great community, we will achieve our vision: The Chamber is the region’s most diverse and influential business association.
As with the mission, the vision should resonate with anyone who wants to understand who we are and what we hope to be.
There are a few important concepts embedded in our vision statement. First, we see ourselves as advocating for the whole region. That’s why our name is the Greater Victoria Chamber of Commerce.
To do that, we have to be diverse. We work on behalf of businesses from all 13 local municipalities and beyond. We include big organizations and small businesses. We need long-time members who provide stability, and new members who bring ideas that constantly rejuvenate us. We also want to represent every sector: retail and hospitality, tech, arts, sports, manufacturing, professional services, finance, education, public and not-for-profit.
And we need a diversity of faces at our events and around our board and committee tables. We want everyone who supports the mission of The Chamber to have the opportunity to work together, including new arrivals, indigenous people, young and old, men and women and everyone in between. We benefit from every additional point-of-view and personal contribution.
Diversity and inclusiveness create the pathway that enables us to be the influential business association we aspire to be.
This column was originally published in the January 2019 edition of the Business Examiner
By Catherine Holt,
CEO, Greater Victoria Chamber of Commerce
I read in the Times Colonist that home assessments in our region will be up five to 10 per cent this year. That’s good news because it’s lower than previous, more shocking, increases.
The median house price in the region in 2015 was $550,000. In 2018, it’s about $780,000 — a 42 per cent increase.
The median condo in 2015 was $270,000. In 2018, it’s $410,000 — a 52 per cent increase.
The median after-tax household income in 2015 (last census) was about $61,000. Wages have been going up at about the rate of inflation, around two per cent, so that would mean median household income in 2018 is about $66,000.
What those numbers say about our housing market is that the people earning the average income are no longer the people buying the average home.
The employers I talk to at The Chamber are challenged to find staff. It appears to be the single largest constraint on economic growth in our region. A major obstacle is the price of housing, which is why The Chamber advocates for affordable and available workforce housing.
This is a separate issue from “homelessness.” Homelessness is shorthand for the difficult set of issues that surround mental illness and addictions and the resulting inability to earn a living and find a home. It’s a very important social issue in our region, aggravated by the high cost and scarcity of housing, but it‘s not the same issue as affordable housing for the working population.
Having to reduce business hours, say no to a contract or put aside the idea of opening another location because potential employees can’t find suitable housing in Victoria is an economic issue.
Until the last decade, our region had housing prices that matched the ability of a two-income family to pay a 25-year mortgage using 25 to 30 per cent of their income. That is the long- standing Canadian model, and it is still the model for most of the country — housing is built and priced for the people who live and work in a community.
But our real estate market has become increasingly detached from our labour market. It’s becoming more of a national and international commodity than a local one. Given the size of the international demand for land in a safe haven, that is unlikely to change in the foreseeable future.
Governments can try to moderate real estate prices through measures like the province’s speculation tax, foreign-buyers’ tax or the long-standing property transfer tax. Those measures likely helped moderate the increase in assessed values this year, but they won’t bring the cost of real estate down to match local incomes.
Many in the real estate industry say we’re lacking supply. That suggests if you build more homes, prices will go down. Maybe. But so far there seems to be lots of building going on yet the prices are only going up. To use an extreme example, multi-million dollar condos do increase our housing supply but still leave local workers out in the cold. Land is expensive, building is expensive, neither of which is likely to change, but at the end of the day we need a supply of workforce housing that is not subject to the vagaries of the real estate market.
This is where the concept of non-market housing comes in. We have it now in many forms.
Student housing is non-market housing. The university builds housing and rents it at the appropriate price to ensure students can afford to attend the university.
Some residences for people on fixed income charge a percentage of income, or a stable, affordable amount, rather than the market rate.
However, the new reality is much more of the working population can’t afford market rates. If you’re a working family with an income of up to $104,000 you can now qualify for government-funded housing offered by not-for-profit housing organizations. That used to be more than enough income to ensure a family could buy a house listed through a real estate agent on MLS.
Non-market housing isn’t a free ride. In many models renters pay about 30 per cent of their gross monthly household income. What it does provide is reliable options for shelter for a reasonable proportion of income.
The good news is many agencies are getting involved. BC Housing, the CRD and local governments are providing funding, land, zoning, financing and other creative solutions. They are incentivizing developers to offer below-market rents and affordable units in their buildings. The University of Victoria is planning 600 additional student housing units that will free up lower-end rental units for workers. The Greater Victoria Housing Society says up to 80 per cent of the units in all its future projects will be workforce housing.
The purpose of non-market housing is to provide a good quality long-term home so that people can have successful careers and families. It’s not the housing solution we’re used to, but it is what we need, if we want to keep our regional economy functioning.
This column was originally published in the Times Colonist on Dec. 26, 2018.
It’s a familiar refrain at this time of year: shop local because it’s the right thing to do.
Of course, it’s also the smart thing to do (if you’re reading this column, it’s safe to assume you know that).
First of all, spending money at businesses in your community creates jobs. And not just frontline staff and employees. Entrepreneurs take on tremendous risk to set up shop. They work long hours to provide goods and services tailored to our community. The byproducts of those efforts are one-of-a-kind retail and dining experiences that make Greater Victoria such a desirable location to live, work and visit. And while tourism provides a big boost that helps our city punch above our weight, it’s the year-round patronage of local residents that allows small businesses to keep the lights on beyond summer.
Another consideration is that local business people support your quality of life in ways that ordering from eBay or Amazon never will. According to ThinkLocalVictoria.com, as much as “three times more money stays in the local economy when you buy from locally owned businesses.”
When the kids in your neighbourhood need someone to sponsor their sports team or band trip, it’s always local businesses that step up to help. They are also the biggest supporter of charities, non-profits, and all of the organizations we rely on to maintain a healthy and vibrant community.
The great news is there is an appetite for local goods and services. For example, the Island Good campaign, announced last year to help shoppers identify products from Vancouver Island, has exceeded expectations and led to an average 16.4 per cent increase in sales for branded items.
The Vancouver Island Economic Alliance commissioned the initial project, which was designed and led by Victoria’s Hot House Marketing. You might have noticed the new brand at participating grocery stores. The ultimate goal is to mark every product as “grown” or “made on Vancouver Island” so we can more easily find them and buy them.
People want to shop local, even as the way we shop is changing. More and more, consumers are using their smart phones to augment their shopping experience. They want to engage over social media but they also want to enjoy life experiences in their neighbourhoods. We need to embrace this as an opportunity and take advantage of modern methods to reach target markets.
Even the smallest businesses should have a web presence and a listing in The Chamber’s business directory — it really is one of the best ways to help raise your profile by ranking higher in search-engine results. The Chamber directory is also the best guide to local shopping you’ll find!
Enjoy your holiday shopping. Keep it local and help your friends and family. Supporting small businesses will ensure our regional economy continues to remain healthy and vibrant for years to come.
Catherine Holt is CEO of the Greater Victoria Chamber of Commerce.
This column was originally published in the December 2019 edition of the Business Examiner.
By Catherine Holt
CEO, Greater Victoria Chamber of Commerce
I attended an event that was filled with hope and celebration late last month on a topic that isn’t often associated with those words. It was the opening of the Therapeutic Recovery Community in View Royal, operated by Our Place Society and funded by the provincial government as well as many private donors.
It is a game changer for our region.
Not everyone on the street has an addiction and not every addict is on the street — but there is a large overlap. And those are the people who will experience the change.
You’d never know by the outcomes, but we actually have a huge web of services for those experiencing homelessness, mental health issues and addiction. The CRD mapped the services last year and the resulting list, and cost to run them, was astonishing. And yet, the problem of how to help those on our streets and keep our downtown safe for everyone seems more unsolvable than ever.
I hear it all the time. In the same month the new Therapeutic Recovery Community opened, I was on a panel, organized by Our Place during the municipal election, asking local government candidates what they planned to do regarding homelessness (answer: not much). I was also the moderator for a discussion about Safe Communities at the Vancouver Island Economic Alliance annual conference where the panel talked much more about the growth of this problem than about solutions. And I have had a wide variety of business owners, worried about the direction this is all going, asking what The Chamber can do about it.
The best answer I have is to support the Therapeutic Recovery Community.
Last spring, I watched as a young man died before my eyes on Johnson Street from a fentanyl overdose. He was brought back to life by paramedics who deal with that situation every single day. Seeing that changes the way you think about what we can do to keep our community safe.
It needs to be safe for that young man, and those who would have been devastated by his loss. It has to be safe for those who are not housed because they can’t afford rent in this outrageous housing market, and it needs to be safe for tourists, for families and shoppers, for business owners and employees – or we won’t have a downtown worth visiting or living in.
Right now, people on the streets suffering from mental health and addiction are managed by shuffling them between temporary housing, various encampments, jail, hospital, detox or short-term treatment. At the end of any of those interventions, there is nowhere to go but back on the street.
The only thing that seems to exist, anywhere in the world, that really helps people with these problems is the approach taken by long-term therapeutic recovery communities. The original community is San Patrignano, Italy – now 40 years old and continually expanding. It offers addicts a place to live where they are supported and held accountable by their peers. They have a safe home, good work and a healthy lifestyle – not just for days or weeks but for years. It is not-for-profit and it does not charge the participant. But its most important claim to fame is its success rate, as described on its website: “From the research, also validated by medical retroactive tests, show that over 70% of the residents of the Community that have completed the program, have fully reintegrated into society and no longer use any type of drug.”
That is unheard of with current addiction treatment. Most treatment on the Island is in for-profit centres that charge tens of thousands of dollars to desperate families for a few months of treatment. Most of these centres don’t publish information on their success rates, so you know it can’t be good.
Portugal is another role model. In an effort to respond to a crisis-level of drug addiction, it is engaged in a country-wide transformation involving the long-term therapeutic recovery community model, which is showing good results.
Victoria is an empathetic community. We have dedicated a lot of resources to our street population for a long time.
With the rate of fentanyl overdoses we are experiencing now, the Therapeutic Recovery Community is likely the only thing that has a hope of giving those addicted to drugs a route to a new life and – in the process – making our streets safer for everyone.
So let’s all do what we can to support Our Place Society and make this thing a success – for the future of our city and all of us who live here.
This column was originally published in the Times Colonist on Nov. 18, 2018.
Catherine Holt / Times Colonist
Local governments have more influence in our daily lives than any other level of government. They shape our homes, businesses, neighbourhoods and environment. And though municipal elections are notorious for low turnouts, it’s vital for all of us who care about our community to help choose who will represent us for the next four years.
The Greater Victoria Chamber of Commerce is doing its part to help you parse the mayoral candidates in your municipality.
We have sent a list of questions to everyone who might occupy the top spot on their local council. Here are the questions, and why we chose them.
Question 1: Will you narrow the gap between business and residential property taxes?
Businesses are burdened by property taxes that grow at a faster rate than residential taxes. They are now between three and six times higher, depending on the municipality. Only Langford, Victoria and Oak Bay try to control the gap.
As senior levels of government offload costs onto municipalities — the employer’s health tax being added to municipal payrolls, for example — councils squeeze more out of businesses by raising their property taxes.
The reason comes down to votes: Businesses don’t have them and residents do. Taxation without representation has led to revolutions in other places.
We don’t want that — we just want to help businesses survive by having them pay the same amount for the same service as residents.
Question 2: Do you support improving transportation through regional governance, funding, planning and delivery?
From commuting from the West Shore to downtown parking, transportation transcends local borders. All 13 municipalities stumble over each other trying to make our transportation work. The bus is the only functional transportation service we have because it’s run by its own regional commission. We need the same thing for all transportation management.
Without it, things are only going to get worse.
Question 3: Do you support a citizens’ assembly process that empowers the public to decide whether to reduce the number of municipalities in our region?
Saanich and Victoria have agreed to ask their voters this question, which is a tentative step toward creating a bigger and better municipality — a win-win outcome. If voters agree to the idea, a citizens’ assembly takes the process out of the hands of politicians and staff with a self-interest in maintaining the status quo. If the citizens’ assembly recommends a merger, voters would still have to formally approve.
There is more than enough evidence that combining Saanich and Victoria would create a great new municipality with more resources and a higher profile. We like to call it better governance through fewer governments.
The cost of the process is estimated to about the same as one latte per voter.
We think it’s worth it.
Question 4: Businesses in Greater Victoria are having trouble attracting and retaining employees due to the lack of affordable housing. What would you do to help solve this problem?
This is perhaps the biggest issue facing employers in our region and one of the greatest risks to our long-term economic health. Greater Victoria is a desirable place to live, work and visit. We have done well to attract the best and the brightest, and our tech sector continues to blossom. We are a world-class tourist mecca, and our public-service workers provide a bedrock for an economy that has helped turned real-estate investment into a primary industry.
However, there is a flip side to our success. The average salary no longer buys the average home. We need lots of creative non-market solutions that detach the idea of home from the idea of wealth creation.
Question 5: What would you do to improve the relationship between municipalities in our region and the provincial and federal governments?
Victoria is the seat of British Columbia’s government, which potentially gives local politicians tremendous access to the levers of provincial power. And few major infrastructure projects get off the ground without financial support from Ottawa. We need politicians who know how to work those levers to ensure the region gets its fair share of investment.
Question 6: Do you support secure and long-term funding for tourism marketing and sales through the Municipal and Regional District Tax system?
We’re asking the last question on behalf of our community partners at Destination Greater Victoria. The chamber has long recognized the value of the tourism sector to our region. In fact, the local tourism bureau started as a committee of the chamber. We want to know if candidates are committed to providing long-term support for tourism through the lucrative revenue provided by the Municipal and Regional District Tax paid by visitors to our region.
As the answers come in, we will post all of them on our fresh new website at victoriachamber.ca. Make sure to visit, read the answers and please vote on Oct. 20.
Catherine Holt is the CEO of the Greater Victoria Chamber of Commerce.
Her column was published in the Times Colonist on Oct. 5, 2018.