Saturday, June 22, 2024
June 22, 2024

Policy Statement meeting diverted by ‘object’ consensus disagreements 

A first pass at considering amendments to a cornerstone Islands Trust document got off to a rocky start last week.

Islands Trust Council chair Peter Luckham kicked off the first-ever Committee of the Whole (COW) meeting for that body, and a nearly complete roster of trustees spent three hours on the Policy Statement amendment project — a meeting on fundamental values that was punctuated by fundamental disagreements.  

The online gathering Thursday, May 30 marked the start of the first significant revisiting of the Policy Statement in decades, in a structure — the COW — designed to be more informal. Technically, the plan was for the COW to receive a draft version of the amended document and “discuss the process by which it will be considered,” launching what Trust Area Services director Clare Frater that morning called “the beginning of a multi-year journey” to revise the Policy Statement and address emergent issues.

Those issues include the climate crisis, growing housing needs and the Trust’s commitment to reconciliation with local First Nations, she said. 

But after introductions and the matter of who would chair the meeting were sorted out, and after Frater briefed trustees on the background and outline for advancing the project — the meeting shifted. Disagreements arose, not surrounding the Policy Statement revisions themselves, but regarding the Islands Trust’s “object” — the Trust Act’s so-called “preserve and protect” Section 3 mandate — and whether trustees had truly come to consensus last year on how to interpret it, or whether that agreement was limited to some manner of legal interpretation.  

Section 3 states, “The object of the trust is to preserve and protect the trust area and its unique amenities and environment for the benefit of the residents of the trust area and of British Columbia generally, in cooperation with municipalities, regional districts, improvement districts, First Nations, other persons and organizations and the government of British Columbia.” 

Consensus on that section’s interpretation had reportedly been reached last year; in September 2023, trustees emerged from a closed-to-the-public session of Trust Council to report the group had “just had a lengthy discussion about the interpretation of Section 3 of the Islands Trust Act,” according to Luckham at the time, “and have come to a conclusion of how we wish to interpret that.”  

Luckham did not elaborate then on the discussion, but in October the Islands Trust released a draft “consensus statement” disclosing trustees had — reportedly through an examination of specific legal opinions — reached consensus on interpreting the object, notably in that the definition of “unique amenities” in that section may include “housing, livelihoods, infrastructure and tourism.” 

That consensus statement can be viewed at https://islandstrust.bc.ca/document/trust-council-statement-section-3-of-islands-trust-act/

Following lively public comment in response, the Islands Trust released another statement in January on the “scope and meaning” of the object clause, “to make public the results of our discussions and share with our constituents how the current Trust Council intends to interpret our mandate, which in turn will help inform our strategic planning.”  

That second statement can be viewed at https://islandstrust.bc.ca/islands-trust-council-statement-on-the-scope-and-meaning-of-section-3-of-the-islands-trust-act-object-clause/

But on Thursday, some trustees at the COW meeting disagreed with how that consensus was reflected in staff reports supporting the Policy Statement revision project — seemingly at odds with both the released statements and other trustees’ public comments.  

“The Trust Council did not come to consensus on the interpretation of the object,” said North Pender Island trustee Deb Morrison. “We came to consensus on the interpretation of the legal interpretation of the object. And that is a different thing.” 

Gabriola Island trustee Susan Yates echoed the sentiment, and trustees expressed a range of opinions throughout the meeting — some stating they believed consensus was not reached, some stating it was, and some opining it might not even matter.  

“My understanding was that in that [September 2023] meeting, we had reached a consensus as to what this Trust Council’s interpretation of that mandate was,” said South Pender Island trustee Kristina Evans. “If that’s not the case, we have to absolutely go back and get that done up front, because that is an integral basis for this work that we’re undertaking with the Policy Statement.” 

Morrison said her understanding was that the September 2023 in-camera discussion was for “examining legal decisions,” and that it would be the Policy Statement that would do the “unpacking” of the object. 

“We don’t need to get into the weeds about having a consensus vision of the object,” said Morrison, “because the Trust Policy Statement is our consensus vision of the object.” 

Bowen Island trustee Judith Gedye agreed, suggesting a fuller understanding of the object/mandate could be developed “in parallel” with the Policy Statement project. 

“I think the Section 3 mandate discussion that we have to have is important,” said Gedye, “but I think it’s not necessarily before we have any of this. I don’t want that to hold up this process.” 

Trustees have previously stressed that consensus among them on the Trust’s mandate was critical; in April 2023, as the Governance Committee put gaining that consensus at the top of its priorities, Gedye warned fellow committee members that if they didn’t have “some sort of discussion about Section 3, that’s going to hamper us in terms of getting into whenever we do all of the background and the details of the Policy Statement.” 

At the same meeting, Salt Spring trustee Laura Patrick said that “if there is any doubt” among trustees on Section 3, then it would be “undermining automatically what we’re trying to do to go forward.”  

“So there is a benefit,” said Patrick last year. “I think you have to make a decision, make it clear and move forward. Say ‘this is our interpretation’ as we’re moving forward on the conversation.” 

Indeed, last year Gambier Local Trust Area trustee Joe Bernardo called developing a “working definition of the Trust mandate that we can all get behind, that can be supported by everybody” an eventual “centrepiece” of the corporate planning process, and was among trustees advocating later that the consensus document be placed prominently on the Islands Trust’s website. 

At the COW meeting Thursday, Evans reiterated that beginning the process to amend the Policy Statement without consensus on the mandate was “not going to help us out here.” 

“Without that, we don’t have a position to start from, because we’re all coming from different positions,” said Evans, turning to staff. “Was that [document] a consensus by the trustees on the interpretation of the mandate, or was that just consensus by the trustees on the legal interpretation of the mandate?” 

“That was a decision of the council,” replied legislative services director David Marlor. “It may not be ‘consensus,’ but it is council’s decision. I’m not sure I understand the differentiation, so maybe that’s something we can discuss offline or with the Executive [Committee] outside this meeting?” 

Saturna Island trustee Mairead Boland called the return to the mandate discussion “destructive and erosive of our capabilities and resources.” 

“It’s quite depressing,” said Boland. “Every term there will be this debate, because the act is ambiguous, and it’s left to us to redefine over and over and over.” 

With the fundamentals unaddressed, Boland said, she worried it would be difficult to get through details. 

“I personally believe that if there was more evidence needed — which I think there isn’t — this is evidence that we need an intervention from the province.” 

A motion to schedule time to further consider the Policy Statement during the next Trust Council meeting — set for June 18-20 at the Harbour House Hotel on Salt Spring Island — failed; Luckham suggested the Executive Committee will be advancing recommendations for a schedule of future meetings. 

The currently proposed draft changes can be viewed online at https://islandstrust.bc.ca/document/trust-council-committee-of-the-whole-special-meeting-agenda/

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