Bruce Williams is CEO of the Greater Victoria Chamber of Commerce
One of the most troubling and startling images in my memory from early in the COVID-19 pandemic is seeing empty rows of shelves and produce sections in grocery stores. All the years of conversations about food security on Vancouver Island came to mind: “We import most of our food, what happens if our food chain is interrupted?” “Why don’t we produce more of our own food?”
One year into the pandemic, our economy has forever changed. Agriculture and food production has been profoundly affected by border closures and uncertainty in our international supply chains. The sight of bare shelves at grocery stores was one of the first signs of the seriousness of our situation. The initial shortage of toilet paper was puzzling, but then other goods that had been readily available were suddenly hard to find. There’s nothing funny about panic buying when it affects our ability to eat well and live a healthy lifestyle.
Fortunately, the first wave crested before summer, when Island-grown produce was plentiful, and we were able to fill our pantries long enough for the wrinkles to get ironed out of the supply chains we rely on. But the warning bell was sounded, and we now have an opportunity to make sure we’re ready the next time a crisis shuts down the Island to outside food supplies. Think too of the carbon footprint caused by transporting food here, and the jobs being filled elsewhere that we could be supporting by producing food here.
We also have an opportunity to build off Vancouver Island’s growing strength as a tech hub and a desirable place to live, work and raise a family. Innovations such as vertical farms that allow for stacked gardens, the use of rooftops as agricultural plots, enhanced community gardens and new efficiencies that make small lawn or commercial farms viable. How about boulevard gardens, veggie plots on school grounds and churchyards or gardens on post-secondary campuses. All of these could or do benefit from sustainable practices that re-use water and compostable materials already being created in our communities.
Most municipalities in Greater Victoria are working on food security policies. The District of Saanich, which has long championed the Urban Containment Boundary, has developed seven themes that reflect public input and support urban food production. The City of Victoria’s Growing in the City program, which grew more than 81,500 edible plants to distribute to more than 44 community organizations. City gardens provide spring seedlings, including herbs, tomatoes, cucumbers, zucchini, broccoli and other edible plants. The program prioritizes distribution to populations having a harder time getting fresh food because they have been disproportionally affected by the pandemic. Among those, according to the city, are indigenous groups.
I think working on agricultural initiatives with First Nations is a tremendous opportunity. Indigenous people were able to sustain countless generations before colonization. It makes sense to engage with First Nations to preserve traditional techniques and produce food that connects to the land, supports our region’s cultural heritage and has proven to be sustainable.
The provincial government is also moving ahead to turn many urban farm concepts into reality. On March 30, as part of the Greater Victoria Chamber of Commerce’s Business restart Series, I’m hosting the Hon. Lana Popham, B.C.’s Minister of Agriculture, Food and Fisheries. We’ll be discussing new policies, programs and technology that will increase food security and support urban food production.
These are exciting developments and The Chamber looks forward to working with our members and partners to share the benefits of buying — and growing — local. It’s all about building resilience in our economy by ensuring we can sustain ourselves when the next crisis hits. Urban farm production will create good jobs, provide locally grown food and enhance the health of our communities.
This column was originally published in the March edition of the Business Examiner
Bruce Williams is CEO of the Greater Victoria Chamber of Commerce
As the days get longer and the light that signals the end of the pandemic gets closer, it’s time to make sure our house is in order so we can enjoy the better times ahead. Our ongoing economic recovery is clearly uneven. There are too many businesses unable to move forward because they rely on close human interaction — experiences that will be so important for us to get back to a sense of normalcy. These businesses will need more time to recover. Others will be back much faster because they embraced technology that allowed them to adapt to the times. We at The Chamber are calling the roadmap to a post-COVID economy the “Recovery Runway” and we are identifying “pivot pilots” as those organizations and leaders who have been nimble with pivoting the way they do business. They are a beacon for optimism as we begin to taxi down the recovery runway.
Before we can truly take off, our economy will require a shift in federal priorities. We will hear details of the next federal budget April 19 — the first full budget in two years. The Chamber is working closely with our national network to make sure government understands the priorities for business. The Canadian Chamber of Commerce has brought together a highly talented team of top executives from some of Canada’s most influential companies. The goal is to develop a business plan to win the fight against COVID-19, and ensure a private-sector led recovery that allows Canada to move away from a subsidized economy and invest in getting back to self-sufficient individuals and businesses.
In a speech to the Sidney Rotary Club this month, Canadian Chamber CEO Perrin Beatty said the government has to “differentiate between the must-haves and the nice-to-haves: if a program was unaffordable at this time last year, before we added hundreds of billions of dollars of public debt, it’s most assuredly unaffordable now.”
This national Chamber council is working with the federal government ahead of the 2021 budget to articulate what the private sector needs to create jobs, and what investments will lead to more businesses starting up and re-opening. As Beatty noted, experience has shown this won’t happen through austerity alone. We can’t cut our way to prosperity. However, we also can’t continue the levels of public-sector spending that have seen our federal government rack up almost 20 percent of our GDP on pandemic relief, the highest among G-20 countries. At the last fiscal update in November, the government was forecasting a deficit of $400 billion. That’s clearly unsustainable and will eventually lead to turbulence that can be avoided with a better flight path. The same holds true for all levels of government, with BC set to unveil its own budget April 20.
The challenge for the provincial and federal governments will be to show Canadians a plan that businesses can get behind. We know there’s no going back to how life was before the pandemic. We need to embrace the momentum of our rising economy and lift all Canadians. If there has been a benefit to the past year, it’s how creatively we have embraced technology and reexamined standard practices. I hear amazing stories from Chamber members about innovations and new ideas for doing businesses. There are opportunities now to invest in retraining so that we have the workforce needed for a more resilient economy. The idea of micro-credentials, championed by The Chamber, is being embraced by post-secondary institutions in Greater Victoria. We need to provide opportunities for skills upgrading and invest in the infrastructure that will allow our workforce to adapt to ongoing transitions in the economy.
Our region’s economy remains fundamentally sound. We are lucky to have the stability of a large public sector and a geography that is the envy of the world. Our tech sector will continue to bloom and attract new talent, and, eventually, our tourism industry will recover and reach even greater heights.
It’s time to get ready for take-off, and with the help of our members and our board as well as, our national network and our Chamber Champion initiative, we’re working to make sure all of us have a smooth flight. So buckle up, this will be a once in a lifetime ride.
This column was originally published at DouglasMagazine.com
Bruce Williams, CEO of the Greater Victoria Chamber of Commerce
In early January, when our staff were getting back to their routines after a break for the holidays, I sent an email to remind them of the need to keep moving forward. The subject line was one word: “Surgite!”
Let me explain to those of you might not be history nerds like me. Surgite — Latin for “push on” or “onward — is said to be the final word spoken by General Isaac Brock before he succumbed to injuries at the Battle of Queenston Heights during the War of 1812. “Surgite!” is the motto of Brock University, where I went to school and the reason why I know this.
These are not easy times, and the events of 2020 will be taught in history classes for generations to come. Even as we carry on into a new year, we know there are challenging times ahead. But, onward we must go with optimism and renewed energy drawn from lessons learned and perspective gathered. By now, all of us are experienced at managing COVID. We know what must be done to keep this virus away from our most vulnerable, and protect ourselves and the people around us.
All of us are anxious for the pandemic to end. Uncertainty is the only thing that has been a constant in our lives since the outbreak began a year ago. When we think we know the best course of action, or what will come in the weeks or months ahead, something unforeseen happens. We now have variants of the virus that are causing concern, along with delays to an immunization plan that was a source of so much hope only a few weeks ago. The vaccines will get here, and they will end this pandemic, though not as quickly as any of us want.
Still, we push on and we innovate. We adapt. Some days, I’m truly awestruck by how our local businesses and our community are supporting each other. Ideas that wouldn’t have gotten off the ground in 2019, are proving to be the path forward. We are rethinking how we can use this time to better address climate change, as well as how we can ensure our communities remains vibrant and affordable for everyone.
I am also encouraged by a renewed interest in working with indigenous people to shape a more resilient future. First Nations have lived on these lands for centuries and we can only benefit by listening to their ideas and learning from their knowledge. Life after the pandemic will be a time of renewal, and a chance to make real progress toward reconciliation.
It’s important to keep our eye on better days, even as we struggle with restrictions and numbers that don’t always seem to make sense. Dr. Bonnie Henry has been clear that decisions are based on data, but the data changes every week — if not daily. A lot of us would love this to be more transparent, more concise. We want to know that if we can get numbers to X, then we can remove Y restrictions. But that’s not reality.
We need to continue to trust the science and the experts. I really don’t have time for people who claim conspiracies or choose to risk the lives of others by refusing to wear masks when asked. At the same time, I’m also frustrated by people who are quick to judge others when they don’t know someone’s circumstance. The provincial health officer has emphasized kindness, and that is the best approach right now. Some people have medical reasons for not wearing a mask, or might have a larger household than others. This is less about numbers than doing the right thing.
It's easy to let anger get the better of us. Take a deep breath, count to 10 and let reason and perspective kick in. Find that kindness within yourself
That said, part of our job at The Chamber will be to continue to respectfully question government policies, especially when there’s concern specific rules are bad for business. Our organization has played a key role in the health of our region’s economy for 158 years. We are deeply connected to the business community in a way that government can never be. This is not something I take lightly — when we need to speak up we will make sure our voice is heard.
The last year has not been easy, but all of us have grown in ways we might never have imagined before the pandemic. I’ve been CEO of The Chamber for 10 months, and it has been the ride of a lifetime. I’m thankful for all our members who are taking this ride with us, and for the dedicated Chamber team that has kept the lights on and done whatever it takes to serve our region.
The roller coaster ride isn’t over, but when it ends we’ll all look back at this experience as something we shared together. Until then, take a deep breath and count to 10. Surgite!
This column was originally published in the Times Colonist on Feb. 27, 2021.
Bruce Williams is CEO of the Greater Victoria Chamber of Commerce
As we continue to adapt to new ways of doing business, we are starting to get a much clearer idea of what lies ahead. This is good news for businesses that have been forced to leap into the future sooner than planned. Knowing where we’re going can help an organization ensure it has the capacity and resources to fulfil its potential.
RBC recently published an excellent article titled “Eight ways COVID-19 will transform the economy and disrupt every business.” Written by John Stackhouse, former Globe and Mail editor and current Senior VP at RBC, the piece highlights a few ways we might eventually be better off despite the unprecedented pace of change.
For example, the pandemic has accelerated technological adaptation, forcing us into the future much sooner than any of us expected. The way we work has changed forever, Stackhouse says. Three-quarters of Canadians are hoping to continue working from home in some way after restrictions ease. That’s going to require new ideas for managing employees, and new challenges to ensure the networks we use to communicate are secure.
We’ve also experienced a profound shift in how we shop. The great news is Canadians have overwhelmingly embraced calls to “buy local.” Online shopping, for many years, has been a nebulous threat for brick-and-mortar businesses. But with 78% of Canadians choosing Canadian brands, the pandemic has shown that people are more than willing to support local businesses if doing so is convenient. To add a dimension of engagement to shopping local we have a social media campaign underway titled #ChamberLocalVicBC. Chamber members define how they are local by completing the sentence “We are local because…” This is a means to help followers better understand what local really means.
Travel has also refocused on local experiences, with people staying close to home. There is no question Greater Victoria’s tourism sector is suffering, but Stackhouse’s forecast offers a few reasons for optimism. He’s predicting higher demand for wilderness tourism experiences, as well as high-end destinations within driving distance of major population centres. Time will tell what that means for the South Island, though, the loss of another cruise ship season will hurt. We need all levels of government to make sure our larger hotels and private transportation providers have an opportunity to survive and get back to contributing to our economy.
The pandemic has also caused disruptions to the way we trade, how we learn, how we share and how we heal. To this last point, at The Chamber we’ve noticed an increase in interest in our Teladoc benefit which allows Chamber members 24/7 access to doctors and mental health professionals virtually.
Many of Stackhouse’s points are echoed in another excellent article put out by MNP, about the top risk management trends for 2021. MNP calls the shift to working online a “cyber tsunami” that creates an opportunity for tech services, as companies update their culture and strategy to align with remote working. “Now that team members understand remote options are viable, it’s likely they will expect greater autonomy, flexibility, and trust from employers,” MNP’s article says. “At the same time, employers need to re-evaluate how they create cultural alignment and support employee engagement.”
I should mention that RBC and MNP are Chamber Champions, a new echelon of membership we introduced this year. In addition to the leadership both companies are exhibiting nationally, this demonstrates their local leadership. Champions help provide stability for The Chamber, and offer support and guidance to our organization. It’s one way we’ve adapted to the new reality facing businesses now, and for years to come.
Bruce Williams is the CEO of the Greater Victoria Chamber of Commerce
VICTORIA, BC – What will 2021 mean for businesses in Greater Victoria? If 2020 has taught us anything, it’s that we can expect the unexpected.
Thankfully, The Chamber can count on the experience of our expert Board of Directors. On Jan. 1, our new board took on the role of providing guidance for our 157-year-old organization. We continue to be led by Chair John Wilson, CEO of Wilson’s Group of Companies, and one of the strongest voices for government relief for the tourism sector. It’s become clear that as our economy recovers from the pandemic, not all industries are faring the same. This is a real concern and goes against the spirit of resilience all of us shared at the beginning of the crisis. If we are truly all in it together, we need to make sure all businesses have a chance to recover. With immunization efforts in full swing and the promise of summer prosperity in sight, we need to hang on to our most vulnerable industries — especially ones as capital intensive as transportation operators whose fleets have been grounded through no fault of their own. If these businesses are allowed to fail, our entire economic recovery will be affected.
Helping steer our board this year will be two newly elected directors: Ann Squires Ferguson, CEO of Western Interior Design Group, and Richard Michaels, President of Maccrim Solutions. Also new is Raul Caballero, owner of Oui Jewelry, who will serve as a non-voting board member in his role as chair of the Prodigy Group, a Chamber committee. Returning to the Board in 2021 are: Vice-Chair Kris Wirk, Partner at Dusanj and Wirk; Past Chair Dan Dagg, President and CEO of H2; Secretary Christina Clarke, CEO of Songhees Development Corp; Treasurer Moira Hauk, Regional Manager South Island for Coastal Community Credit Union; Rose Arsenault, Branch Manager at Agilus Work Solutions; Ian Batey, Owner and Principal of IPB Consulting; Pedro Marquez, Vice President of Global Advancement and Business Development at Royal Roads University; Tom Plumb, President and CEO of Kinetic Construction; and Capt. (N) Sam Sader, Base Commander of CFB Esquimalt.
As CEO of the Greater Victoria Chamber of Commerce, I’m thankful for the direction provided by all of our board. We know better days are ahead, but, as the riot in Washington DC reminded us, there remains plenty of uncertainty about how we will be affected by events south of the border. With the inauguration of Joe Biden on Jan. 20, the world begins a new era of relations with the United States.
Business Restart Series:
A few hours after the inauguration, The Chamber hosts Perrin Beatty, the CEO of the Canadian Chamber of Commerce and formerly Canada’s Secretary of State for External Affairs. This promises to be a great opportunity to gain expert insight into what’s in store for the special relationship between Canada and the US. If you’re interested in being part of this historic event, you will need to register at victoriachamber.ca. I know I’m looking forward to speaking with Perrin and asking about what it will take to re-open our borders and what needs to happen before we can welcome U.S. travellers back to our city. I hope you’ll join us.
Nominations for the 2021 Business Awards are open until Jan. 25. Don’t forget to nominate a business, including your own, that went above and beyond in 2020. This year’s event promises to be exceptionally inspiring!
This column originally appeared in the Business Examiner on Jan. 25, 2021
A commentary by Bruce Williams, CEO of the Greater Victoria Chamber of Commerce.
I’ve covered my share of elections over the years but I don’t know if any of them have been quite like the by-election being held in Victoria on Dec. 12. The city needs to fill a seat on council that has been vacant since the writ dropped on the last federal election. That was back in September 2019.
That’s when rookie Coun. Laurel Collins took leave to run for the federal NDP after serving less than one year on council. Collins won, succeeding longtime MP Murray Rankin, and is now in Ottawa representing the Victoria riding. Since then, we’ve had a provincial election, which saw Rankin return to politics and win a seat for the BC NDP in Oak Bay-Gordon Head. We’ve also had more than 12 months of city council operating with a short bench. That normally would be a huge concern, but, nine months into a global pandemic, there have been plenty of other priorities that needed the public’s attention.
The business community’s biggest priority right now is surviving the dramatic disruption in revenue and the profound uncertainty we all share. I’m part of a group of committees that meet regularly with Victoria Mayor Lisa Helps and municipal staff to offer advice and direction on public safety and wellness, as well as support for small business. We discuss and plan strategies to get through this crisis together. During an emergency, it’s good to know so many people truly have the best interests of the city at heart. It’s been a long road for everyone, but there is reason for optimism. Vaccines have started to roll out and businesses finally have a sense of certainty around federal relief programs. I’m optimistic that spring will be a time of renewal and summer will be phenomenal.
It’s time to fill that vacant seat on Victoria council. Other municipalities in B.C. have safely held their own by-elections, and, of course, we’ve been through high-profile elections in BC and south of the border. Victoria isn’t the largest municipality in our region, but it is the hub of business and commerce, and for that reason the city is at the centre of much media and public scrutiny. That’s what makes this outcome important and impacting.
Over the last few years, we’ve heard from many Chamber members who are concerned about some of the decision-making that was coming out of council. We have a diverse business community made up of many sectors of the economy, but the questions were often similar — is this council interested in representing people who own and operate businesses in the city?
It’s also troubling that we seem to be moving away from how municipal councils traditionally function in B.C. Unlike the provincial and federal party systems, which elect many dozens of representatives, municipal councillors are traditionally non-partisan. With only a handful of people on a council representing an entire community, there is value in having a mayor and councillors who vote as individuals. That has changed in Victoria and created confusion and alarm among many people. With four of eight members of council connected to the political organization Together Victoria, we have a situation where one ideological point of view can effectively speak over the voice of individual councillors and even the mayor. To put it bluntly, the candidate who wins Dec. 12 will decide if the majority of council is made up of independents or is affiliated with a single political organization.
So, for everyone who has said they want business to have more of a voice on Victoria council, now is your time. If you live within the City of Victoria or own property, you can vote. And because there are no other civic elections happening at the same time in our region, this is a rare opportunity for businesspeople who own property in the city but live outside its borders. There are no long lists of school trustee candidates, no high-profile mayoral races and no rosters of council hopefuls to pore over. There is one vote, one seat and the winner could potentially set the tone for Victoria for the next two years. This is how democracy works.
As a non-partisan organization that truly believes good business is vital for a great community, we reached out with questions to the 11 candidates hoping to fill the vacant seat on council. Not all of them responded. You can find out which ones did, and where they stand on issues our members have identified as important, at victoriachamber.ca/vicbyelection. We also held a virtual discussion with five candidates who have experience as entrepreneurs or work extensively with businesses. You can check the video out on our Facebook page or our website.
This column originally appeared in the Times Colonist on Dec. 9, 2020.
Bruce Williams is the CEO of the Greater Victoria Chamber of Commerce
With so much misinformation making the rounds these days, businesses need well-sourced facts from reputable sources. The Chamber is a strong supporter of local media outlets, such as the Business Examiner, who have served Greater Victoria and Vancouver Island for generations.
We also produce our own content with a very specific focus on events and issues of interest to our members. We have well-read weekly newsletters that target business and community leaders. And we host dozens of events every year that provide our members with opportunities to question high-level subject experts and CEOs — including many top decision makers from industry and government.
In November, we launched a new initiative we’re calling Chamber Chats. You can watch this series of vodcasts on our website or through our social media channels. They offer fascinating insight into our economy and the path out of the pandemic. As we all know, we are generally shifting our information intake onto video platforms, and I do have some experience in interviewing people! Conversations like these offer genuine and engaging communication when you hear someone not just read their words.
So far, I’ve spoken with experts from the Victoria Real Estate Board, including president Sandi-Jo Ayers, president-elect David Langlois and executive officer David Corey. We discussed the fundamentals behind why real estate sales continue to set records in Greater Victoria. Our region saw 990 property sales in October — almost 60% more than October 2019.
And I spoke with a world-renowned expert on vaccine research who is an associate professor in the Faculty of Medicine at the University of BC. Dr. Srinivas Murthy is also the co-chair of the WHO clinical research committee on COVID-19, and a critical care and infectious diseases physician at the BC Children’s Hospital. When will a viable vaccine arrive and will it allow us to go back to where we were before the pandemic? The short answer is vaccines will be a major milestone but we’re going to need to continue adapting our operations to stay safe for many months to come. I hope you take a few minutes to check out our conversation and hear directly from an expert on a topic we’re all curious about.
And that’s really the goal of Chamber Chats. We want to provide our members and the business community with trustworthy, locally sourced information on topics that will help you be successful.
All of the subjects we are exploring will help our members get a better perspective on how we’ll get through this pandemic together. We’ll look at what’s happening to help fill commercial offices and co-working spaces, as well as how you can enhance your home office.
We know there will be investment opportunities in emerging sectors. How important is the film industry to the Island’s economy? How are retailers adapting. What about financial services or our supply chain?
Of course, we want to hear from you as well. What topics do you think are important for the business community? Send your suggestions to firstname.lastname@example.org.
And go to victoriachamber.ca/events for the latest opportunities to connect with The Chamber network.
This column originally appeared in the November 2020 edition of the Business Examiner
Bruce Williams is the CEO of the Greater Victoria Chamber of Commerce
With election day set for Oct. 24 in BC, the Greater Victoria Chamber of Commerce has a wish list for whoever forms the next provincial government.
As a non-partisan organization, we don’t endorse specific candidates or policies. Rather, our role is to help voters — specifically the business community — understand the positions of major candidates in Greater Victoria ridings. To that end, we’re hosting five Virtual Election Panels ahead of the election. These online events are open to the public and are being archived at victoriachamber.ca.
Questions for candidates reflect issues specific to ridings as well as concerns affecting all businesses. And because Greater Victoria is so interconnected, even issues specific to a single municipality resonate with people in others.
For example, we recently heard from BC Ferries CEO Mark Collins as part of our virtual Business Restart Series. It was a great update on the work being done so ferries can keep communities connected and vital supply chains intact. Mark was also very optimistic about the feasibility of running a commuter ferry between Royal Bay in Colwood and downtown Victoria. Will candidates commit to championing this option if their party forms government?
What about mental health and addiction supports for people experiencing homelessness? The pandemic brought this issue into sharp relief with encampments and the accompanying concerns dominating conversations in many urban neighbourhoods. The Chamber is calling on government to address the root issues behind why vulnerable people are ending up on the street. What are the candidates offering as solutions? How do we address the opioid crisis as well as the pandemic?
Businesses also face a huge challenge simply getting their revenue streams back to pre-pandemic levels. How will government help? And will candidates commit to opposing measures that increase the cost of doing business? What about relief for tourism and hospitality — the sector hit hardest by the pandemic.
At some point, taxpayers are also facing a financial mess that has seen record deficits adding to our debt. How will the next government start the work on digging us out from this hole?
And as we repair and restart our economy, what opportunities do candidates see for our region? How will they commit to delivering the necessary retraining and incentives to build more resilience into our workforce? How can we lessen our impact on the environment and develop innovations that address climate change?
The questions themselves are almost as important as the answers.
In the last few elections, The Chamber has worked with our community partners to host what we call “listening sessions” for candidates. These gave us a unified voice about what our region needed the new government to focus on. They also offered solutions proposed by people who are in the frontlines of these issues.
Everything looks a little different this year, but our mission remains the same. We are finding a way to work together to build good business and great community.
The Chamber 2020 Election Panels
The Chamber’s 2020 Election Panels can be viewed on our Facebook Live channel from noon to 1 p.m. on the following dates:
Chamber AGM and Mayors Panel
This column originally appeared in the October 2020 edition of the Business Examiner
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
This column originally appeared in the September 2020 edition of the Business Examiner
It’s time for everyone who believes in the value of safe communities to put our differences aside and work together.
As we learn to live with COVID-19, we need to address the disruptions affecting the ability for all of us to feel safe in the places we work , live and enjoy. We are hearing from many Chamber members about the serious impact on businesses caused by temporary housing solutions. The pandemic forced the closure of shelters and required an emergency response to prevent the virus from spreading through our region’s homeless population and beyond. The City of Victoria stepped up by offering space in parks where tents could be set up with appropriate physical distancing. This moved people away from overcrowded encampments along Pandora Avenue and other areas. However, shuffling this population to different neighbourhoods forces those areas to deal with the accompanying concerns around crime, safety, mental health and addictions.
When BC Housing spent tens of millions to purchase Victoria hotels to provide homes, they thankfully included some support services. Clearly, more are needed.
We’ve heard many stories from people who live and work near these former hotels who were not given a chance to prepare for the change to their neighbourhood. They simply were not ready for the sudden increase in property crime, disturbances and medical emergencies that are hurting their efforts to restart their businesses — including some who are renowned for helping people in need.
Let’s work together on next steps in managing these challenges. It’s time for all levels of government to work together with businesses as well as residents to solve this problem before it gets worse.
First, we need to agree that, as a community, we can’t accept people living on our streets. Everyone deserves a home. We also need to agree that many people who are at risk of homelessness need more than housing. Their healthcare issues are often complex but we can’t ignore the fact that these individuals face specific challenges. They can be helped but we need the political will to acknowledge it will take time and resources. There are no quick or easy fixes but there are proven solutions that can work if we’re willing to invest in people over the long term.
And, of course, we also need to keep businesses and their property safe. We need to ensure police have the capacity to enforce the law, and to protect citizens — all citizens. Unfortunately, homeless populations are targeted by predators who try to capitalize on people with mental health issues or addictions.
I’ve had conversations with decision makers on all sides — from business owners to government, to social service agencies and the police. All of us want the same thing and we know we need to keep working together.
COVID-19 has created challenges, but we can do better when it comes to helping the homeless and vulnerable, and in protecting business to make sure all have a safe community in which to live and work.
This column was originally published in the August 2020 edition of Business Examiner.
Bruce Williams is 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