Protecting agricultural land

Apr 13, 2019 | 41-4, Bills, Governance, Video

Food security is increasingly important in a world impacted by climate change.

For the second time in as many sessions the BC NDP government is amending the Agricultural Land Commission Act to increase protection of food producing land for agriculture.

This is vitally important. But, it is also important that government recognizes the other natural values of land such as wetlands and watersheds.

Admittedly this is not my cleanest attempt at second reading, frankly it was a bit of a circus in the Chamber. Nonetheless, I support the commitment to protecting food producing land and hope to work with government to strengthen the protection of other natural values as well.


I am trying to gather myself. I thought that it might go for much, much longer than it did. I’d just like to acknowledge the experience of the previous speaker and the ability to capture the moment, or the 90 moments or however long it was that he spoke to this bill. He did a very thorough job at that.

I don’t know that the member is going to be necessarily surprised that I don’t follow the arguments that he has made. Well, I follow them, but I don’t agree with them. As somebody who grew up in politics, I guess, over the last ten years at the local government level, in a municipality that has a tremendous amount of agricultural land in the agricultural land reserve….

In fact, Central Saanich is the municipality that I got my start in. The first election that I won was back in 2008, more than a decade ago. The first issue that I dealt with was around stormwater management and the relationship that that had with agricultural land.

I rise today to speak to Bill 15, the Agricultural Land Commission Amendment Act, to discuss, I think, some of the aspects of this bill and to discuss some of the aspects of the industry as I’ve seen it and watched it. I’m not a farmer. I don’t own agricultural land. I think that’s important to be acknowledged. But I certainly do have experience at the governance tables dealing with issues around the Agricultural Land Commission.

I think it’s important to frame this conversation we’re having with respect to agricultural land in the context that I don’t know that there is anything we could do more urgently right now than to ensure that we have the appropriate levels of protection around quality food-producing land.

We got a tour of history, going all the way back to, I believe, the Magna Carta by the previous speaker. I’m not going to go quite so far back, but go back to the 1970s and the desperation of that government at the time to protect food-producing land that was being developed very aggressively.

Indeed, that happened in Central Saanich. Many of the lands in Central Saanich that we live in now, the neighbourhoods that we live in now, the neighbourhoods that I used to bike around as a kid, before that, were strawberry fields and before that, were agricultural lands. I think of Tanner Ridge.

Many members, as they’re coming through here, will drive by and drive through, past Martindale Valley on the left and Tanner Ridge up on the right. There are many challenges that exist there now because of highway construction, neighbourhood construction. The low-lying agricultural lands are being inundated with water because of poor drainage. I’m just thinking that the neighbourhoods that we live in now are there being built right on top of agricultural land.

That government back in the 1970s, as the previous member spoke to, were in somewhat of a desperate state to protect land. I remember hearing some of the stories about it. No need to go into any detail on this, but in that desperate state, they did draw big, thick, black lines on maps. And it is true that having the flexibility there to be able to make sure that those lines are correct, having the land use decision-making capacity to be able to ensure that lands that are not necessarily of high production quality can be used appropriately….

I think it’s important, as well, that many of the operations on agricultural land…. Soil quality is an important aspect of it, for sure, if you’re going to be planting things in the ground. But there are lots of other agricultural operations that don’t require direct planting in the ground.

One of the aspects of the challenges that we face in Central Saanich, of course, was the cost of agricultural land, the prohibitive costs of ALR land and agricultural land to the next generation. Coming forward in time to now, I look at it and think: “How is it that we’re going to be able to make sure that the business of farming is viable?” That is, in fact, part of the work. It’s not just land. It’s business. And it is, as was mentioned previously, about people.

One of the aspects of this legislation and the relationship…. There was some criticism of the fact that this bill is talking about increasing enforcement. One of the biggest frustrations that I had as a municipal councillor was noting that, especially in a kind of rurban area that we’re in here, a rural-urban area, Central Saanich became the dump zone for all the development fill that was going on in the more urban areas.

When we were looking to the Agricultural Land Commission for enforcement capacity there, unfortunately, during my early days — and I recognize this is going back before my time here in this place, when there was a different government in place — it was incredibly difficult for the Agricultural Land Commission, with their lack of enforcement capacity.

So when I do hear the member kind of wax eloquently about the policing or the enforcement of the agricultural land reserve, I have to think of the prime agricultural land that was covered, completely unnecessarily, because of a total lack of enforcement and an unwillingness to fund the Agricultural Land Commission to the point that it needed, to be able to actually enforce the rules that were already there. Never mind taking a look at the rules to ensure that they were strengthened.

In addition to that, I think of all of the agricultural land that’s been left completely exposed to other interests, like oil and gas, for example. I think of the agricultural land that has high-quality production capacity in this province that now has gas wells drilled into the middle of it, making it completely useless for food production. And I think of the land that was removed from the agricultural land reserve in order to make way for Site C.

It comes with some great difficulty to hear members of the official opposition wax so eloquently about agricultural land, noting that, as a municipal councillor, many of the decisions that were made and that impacted our lives at the local government level, at the planning level, at the community planning level, really, really were not helpful.

As we face some of the biggest challenges that we have now going forward, with climate change and with the fact that our weather patterns are changing, increasing levels of drought, I think that we have to be ever more cognizant of the fact that we can ill afford to lose more quality soils. We can ill afford to lose more quality land for agriculture.

I think it’s important, as well, at this point to point out that there are other values in this. I’ve mentioned them, and I’ve brought them up, as well, elsewhere, but this is part of, I think, understanding and having a relationship to the land that’s more than just one of massive resource extraction. I understand and recognize the fact that resources that we extract, if done prudently and if done in a sustainable manner with resilience in mind…. We certainly can benefit from that. But I also have to balance that with the understanding that if we do it in an unbalanced way, in fact, it hurts us and hurts the resilience in our societies and our communities.

One of the things that really was problematic with the agricultural land reserve in Central Saanich was that some very, very highly productive lands with other natural benefits to them, other natural values to them, were being drained and were being damaged.

One of the things that I’m hoping we can do here is not only recognize that these lands have really important, incredible values for the purpose of agriculture, but there are also other natural values that need to be protected and need to be nurtured.

One of the stories I’ve heard recently on this was a story that was a transcript of my late uncle PENÁĆ, David Elliott Sr. This is what he said:

“Take a look. It’s flat as far as you can see. It used to be a huge swamp, extending to the hill and as far as your school” — Stelly’s School, which is my high school — “flooded in the wintertime like a huge lake. I saw it that way when I was a young man.” This was in the 1920s.

“It was considered by non-Indians to be a wasteland, unproductive, good for nothing, too wet. To our people, it was not a wasteland. To us, it was a beautiful environment and very productive of so many things our people needed and used.

“The plants provided material for making mats and baskets and house linings, material for medicines, for making rope, twine, nets for SXOLE, our reef-net fishery.

“The list goes on, and I cannot mention them all. It came from this very area, which are now all farms. I say the way we used this land, this territory, we got more out of it, more good out of it than all these farms put together. We did not only take those things I already mentioned, but there was also wildlife.

“Picture this after it floods, which lasts for months until the summer. Then came the ducks, thousands upon thousands upon thousands of ducks. There were also geese and swans and other bird life, including grouse. This was a feeding ground for them all, and this was where we came to get them. Our people ate all these birds. Of course, the deer also came here.

“The Saanich Peninsula was a drought area in the summertime. This was the last place where there was moisture. As the land dried in the summer, then the animals came to feed to this beautiful area where the grass was still lush and green. Grouse also came to feed on the ripening berries. Our people also came here to harvest all those things that I mentioned — the food, the medicine and everything else.

“This was what this place was, beautiful and productive, with fertile soil, and everything grew so big and of good quality. Now the farmer here grows potatoes year after year after year. Why? Because it’s all peat soil. There’s no end to the fertility of that land. This is the swamp, and the farmers saw it as a wasteland, but to us it was beautiful and productive.

“You see this ditch? Further down is a huge, deep ditch, dug in my time, to drain the swamp. I remember when it happened. When they did it, my mother cried openly, unashamed, and said it will be no more good. She was right. It is no more good.

“Only a few people benefit now, whereas before, everybody benefitted, including the birds, the animals, the flowers, the trees and everything else. That was the way the Creator meant it. That is all I have to say right now.”

Those are the words of my late great-uncle PENÁĆ, Dave Elliott Sr.

I want to add a little bit of complexity to this. I want to acknowledge that the type of resource extraction that we have from agricultural production…. The definition of that needs to be inclusive of this type of production. We need to have spaces that we recognize for the storage of water and places for other plants and animals to live, for our medicines to grow.

Back in the 1970s, as former members of this place went around the province and drew big lines on the map, they weren’t perfect. So I do recognize what the member is saying about the need to be able to have that flexibility. Indeed, I’m asking for the minister to also exercise that flexibility.

When I look at the bill, I see that there is an opportunity for the minister to take a look at those aspects of the natural values that I was talking about, that I’ve been talking about, that my great-uncle was talking about. The definitions of farm use and non-farm use. I think we need to be taking a look at those to ensure that the other uses are able to be applied here.

I want to say that I have some strong feelings about our relationship to the land. I have some strong feelings about our relationship to the land use decisions that are being made around sustainable and resilient communities. In some cases, to be very frank, I have some strong feelings about what I think are very poor land use decisions that are being made, very short-term decisions, like this one, to drain a very productive and very important bog that was so productive of so many things, to build homes on top of fertile soil in places that we can grow food.

I have a tremendous amount of worry that we are undermining ourselves and our communities, that we are relying too heavily on transported foods from other regions on the Pacific coast here, that we are relying too heavily on areas that are so deeply impacted by climate change. The lack of water in the Hoover dam is an example.

The food that we rely on to fill our grocery stores. When we go there, we have this expectation and a demand in our mind that we should be able to get those foods that we expect to be there in the grocery store, because we don’t produce them here any longer.

The fact that so many of our farms have changed their crops and that we don’t have the diversity in our crops that we used to have in this province. I’m very concerned about that.

I’m very concerned that we don’t value the land like we used to. In fact, if you take a look at where our major cities are, they’ve all been built on these very fertile deltas because our ancestors knew the inherent value of building their homes in places that they could produce food close by.

Our fishing locations in WSÁNEĆ — the SXOLE, as they were called, the reef net fishing locations. They had to have three basic conditions for it to be a good fishing location. It had to have a good supply of fish — that was the first — but it also had to have a good supply of water, and it had to have a good supply of deer. These were what was going to sustain life while we were out fishing. Without those things, without the ability to provide those things, that was not a good fishing location. It didn’t provide the support for our families.

I think we have become so reliant on food sources from elsewhere that we’re really undermining the resilience in our communities. I’m really quite worried about that. I’m quite worried about the fact that the thinking in here is very short term. It’s very, very short term.

I respect and understand the long-winded, very emotional response by the member who spoke before me. There’s absolutely nothing about the fact that we have communities that are exceptionally vulnerable because they do not have a sustainable food source close by to them. The watersheds that sustain them, the watersheds that I was talking about, the Graham Creek, or ḰENNES, as it’s known…. I was talking about it today in question period. The bog that my late great-uncle PENÁĆ was talking about was a little bit further up that watershed. It’s all the same watershed.

I think that the short-term decision-making that happens in this place, the short-term decision-making that happens at municipal council tables, that we need to chase deficits of property taxes with new development, creating only a deficit…. We just kick the can down the road. Those short-term decision-making processes have got us to a situation where, in fact, we are chasing one bad decision with another.

I think that when it comes to agricultural land and it comes to making sure that the processes that we have to protect agricultural land be strong, that we strengthen them and that we stand by the process to strengthen them.

In my experience as a municipal councillor, many, if not all, of those applications for exclusions came to us anyway. In fact, one of the things that I find really problematic about the tone of the debate or the tone of the arguments that have been made with respect to the proposed amendment to the exclusion process is that I remember some decisions that the municipal council decided: “We’re not going to burn any political capital on this. You know what we’re going to do with this? We’re just going to punt it to the Agricultural Land Commission with no recommendation.”

Everybody, elected officials…. The easiest thing for an elected official to do is hand off a tough decision to another different elected official or another decision-maker somewhere else. The most difficult thing for an elected official to do is to take responsibility for those decisions that are made. So we see these situations where those decisions just get punted off to somewhere else.

I think what’s happening here with this bill is that…. Basically, you’re saying: “Look. These are important decisions about land use. The decisions about land use that are made at the local government level…. They’re making all the decisions about land use. Let’s make sure that they’re making those decisions in a coordinated fashion as much as possible.”

The fact of the matter is that fragmentation has been so beneficial to this level of government. What did we have here? We had a conversation, here in this region, about local governments and about fragmented decision-making. What did the previous government do? That was a decision they punted too. “You know what? We’re just going to let this situation be the way it is. We’re not going to show leadership on that, because it’s beneficial for us that way, just to leave it that way.”

That’s not acceptable, as far as I’m concerned, in this place. Those are our responsibility, and we have to take responsibility for that. I think that when it comes to land use decision-making, we still have a long way to go on that to make sure that our communities have the decision-making at the local level and that the interest of the people…. The fact that communities can still produce food in their own areas and that those decisions are made at a local level I think is very, very valuable.

That’s why I think that what’s been going on here with the immediate…. Member after member jumping in front of the video camera to make the first video they can to cast aspersions on this is really problematic. The reality is that this needs to be a part of a land use decision-making process, and it hasn’t been.

I’ve seen it. Those who’ve been around the decision-making tables know this. They’ve seen it. Anybody who’s been at UBCM, anybody who’s been to the local associations, knows this. They know that it’s easy just to punt it. “Let’s just punt. Let’s just send it off to the ALC with no comments. We won’t even make a recommendation on this. No, we’ll just leave it up to somebody else to make the decision.”

I think that it’s important….


A. Olsen:

I’m sure you will.

Anyway, I just want to say that as we go forward here, I’m interested to hear the members of the official opposition follow through on their promises to talk forever about this bill. I’m sure it’s going to be amazing. I just want to say that I feel very strongly about the importance of protecting the integrity of food-producing lands.

I know that others, in the past, have done everything that they can to try to undermine that. They called it all sorts of things. They called it…. I can’t remember what it was. They were doing review after review, back in 2013, as a way to try to undermine the agricultural land reserve and the Agricultural Land Commission. They did everything but actually call it that.


A. Olsen:

I was very, very familiar with the process that was going on. Thank you to the member from Surrey for pointing that out.

I would just say that I watched the former member for Kootenay East, I think, undermine that, do everything they could to undermine it.

I think that it’s important to note that we have a responsibility to ensure our communities are resilient. We have a responsibility to ensure that there are food-producing lands available to our communities. That’s our job in this place. I fundamentally believe that it needs to be part of a coordinated land use planning process, and that’s where the local governments come in.

With this bill, I look forward to the committee stage. I thank the minister for bringing it forward, and I’ll take my place now.

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