by Izzy Tolhurst
It’s a far cry from the iconic phrase spoken by founder of the Australian Democrats Don Chipp in 1977, but keeping the politicians in check and the people engaged in civic process is exactly what Australian Tracey Saxby is doing. Since 2001 Saxby has lived in British Colombia’s (BC) Squamish area on Canada’s west coast, about an hour north of Vancouver.
Saxby is a marine scientist, visual science communication consultant, and co-founder of My Sea to Sky (MS2S), where she holds the role of volunteer executive director.
Saxby started the organisation in 2014 when she heard about the Woodfibre LNG project, a proposed natural gas liquefaction and export facility, and expansion of the existing FortisBC gas pipeline. It was at a time when industry and jobs in the area were waning.
“Many people had lost their employment. They had to move away,” says Saxby. “So when I first heard about the project I thought it could be a good idea.”
Her interest in the LNG project was further piqued when Woodfibre LNG started their community consultation process. “They held it over the Christmas period, when nobody was paying attention. That was the first red flag for me.”
“In early 2014 I attended Open Houses that Woodfibre LNG were hosting. I asked many questions that Woodfibre LNG weren’t able to answer to my satisfaction. The more I learned, the more I realised this wasn’t a good project for Squamish. I realised if we don’t protect our backyard, no one else is going to.”
Saxby engaged members of the Squamish community by documenting the Open Houses and publishing them online and on MS2S’s social media channels. “I would write up and publish my notes in a very neutral way. We got a lot of people mobilised through that,” she says.
Social media has been one of the key platforms for MS2S to disseminate information through, and allows the organisation to talk about the issues they care about “in our voice. It’s incredibly powerful,” says Saxby.
The mainstream media have provided little support to the work of MS2S and have, if anything, tended to obfuscate the issue, “driven by a need for conflict” says Saxby.
“If you look at news clippings from the 1970s or the 80s, the media would have been the one holding these companies accountable. But they don’t do that anymore. Instead what they do is take corporate press releases and repeat them. The burden is falling more and more on ordinary citizens.”
But Saxby discovered that civic engagement, and lodging a formal opposition to the project, was more complex than she’d first thought. The process and point of entry needed to be simplified.
Her work as a visual science communication consultant helped her transform the complicated process into something easy to understand and access.
“I created visuals to explain it in a very clear, simple way to the general public. We also set up a concerned residents committee to go through all the relevant documents. There were 12,972 pages we had to read in six weeks. No one can read that many pages in such a short time.
“We had engineers, chemists, business people, economists and biologists contributing. We compiled our concerns into a list and sent reminders to our community, offering them a step-by-step on how to get involved. We tried to make it as simple as possible for people to engage,” she says.
But the complicated nature of civic engagement raises questions about how realistic and likely it is for people to participate in the democratic process. Thousands of pages of verbose, technical documents, an impenetrable website, and public hearings scheduled over the holiday period doesn’t exactly scream straightforward. And if it’s not straightforward, then how many people will actually participate?
“It’s in government’s best interest to stop people participating,” Saxby says.
In addition to a convoluted community engagement process, there are no limits on political donations in BC, meaning lobby groups can have a significant influence on decision-makers. As such, BC is known as the “wild west” of fundraising. One rule that does inform the process, however, is that political donations in BC must be direct. This law attempts to stop lobby groups or companies discreetly syphoning money to political parties via staff, individuals or consultants.
Articles by The Globe and Mail revealed that Woodfibre LNG’s country manager for corporate affairs Byng Giraud and manager Marian Ngo collectively donated more than $70,000CAD to the BC Liberal Party since 2013, all of which Woodfibre LNG returned to them. However, these illegal donations are only a fraction of the more than $335,000 given to BC Liberals by Woodfibre LNG and FortisBC in the same four-year period.
With Woodfibre LNG receiving their environmental assessment certificates from both the provincial and federal governments, Saxby asks: “Did Woodfibre LNG buy a rubber-stamp approval from the BC Liberals? This calls into question the integrity of BC's environmental assessment process,” she says.
But it’s definitely not over yet. Woodfibre LNG still need to secure other permits before the project gets the green light. For Saxby and her team, the focus is now on “stopping the permits and getting rid of the electricity subsidies they receive”.
On Saturday 26 August in Squamish, MS2S launched a new campaign to Protect Howe Sound with a flotilla of kayaks, canoes, and paddleboards. It was proof that grass roots action and community engagement is alive in Squamish. The people are engaged with the messages of the campaign. They’re mobilised.
“To pull off an action of that scale was huge. It was incredible to come together as a community with a vision for the future we want.” says Saxby.
“I am constantly blown away by what people are willing to give voluntarily to protect Howe Sound. This year alone we’ve clocked more than 4000 volunteer hours from 260 volunteers. That’s amazing.”
Despite ongoing capacity and funding challenges for MS2S, Saxby exhibits immense optimism and perseverance. It’s these qualities that help Saxby volunteer anywhere between “40 and 240 hours a month”, take extended periods off work and keep a determined eye on her vision for the future.
“We don’t want to keep fighting these projects one by one. We need to start actively creating the future we want, together,” she concludes.