23 June 2017

Wilderness Committee mourns the passing of Gwen Barlee



For Immediate Release - June 23 2017 


VANCOUVER – The Wilderness Committee is deeply saddened by the passing of Gwen Barlee, one of Canada’s leading environmental advocates. Barlee worked as the Wilderness Committee National Policy Director since 2001. She was an invaluable member of the organization’s executive leadership from early on, guiding the organization through many hard-fought environmental campaigns.

Gwen was a strong leader, and a tireless activist for social change. Over the past 16 years, Gwen distinguished herself as an extraordinarily talented and determined defender of Canadian wild nature – especially in her home province of BC. She showed a passion beyond compare for the defence of the land and the species that call it home. She was a YWCA Women of Distinction nominee in 2016.

“Gwen was a hero and a mentor. She was one of the most compassionate people you’ll ever meet – when it came to wildlife, animals, creatures of all kind,” said Joe Foy, Campaign Director for the Wilderness Committee.

She was a fierce defender of species at risk. Gwen laboured for years to push the case for standalone endangered species legislation for British Columbia. She was instrumental in convincing the BC government to set aside tens of thousands of hectares of land for the protection of the northern spotted owl – one of Canada’s most endangered species. She continued to call for an even greater amount of protected forest habitat, not just for the spotted owl but for other species at risk including BC’s southern mountain caribou, marbled murrelet and goshawk.

“Gwen was a fearless defender of the public good and that was reflected in the environmental policies she advocated for,” said Foy.

Gwen fought for the establishment and protection of provincial and national parks. She helped stop government plans to put large private resorts in provincial parks. She was a ferocious defender of wild rivers since the mid-2000s against the government's policy of giving them away for private power projects. She helped mobilize thousands of BC residents to protect the Upper Pitt Watershed, Bute Inlet rivers and Glacier and Howser Creeks from industrial power projects.

What distinguished Gwen as an environmental advocate was her research ability and her commitment to enhancing government accountability, upholding the right for British Columbians to scrutinize government activities and promoting transparent, fair and inclusive decision-making through filing freedom of information (FOI) requests.

She worked hard to create unique alliances of people and facilitate a common vision for coming together on an environmental issues – whether working with union leaders, park rangers, First Nations communities, beekeepers or kayakers, she was committed to working with people who loved BC’s spectacular wilderness and wildlife.

“Gwen shaped the place that we live in today. She was born and raised here, surrounded by nature in the South Okanagan-Similkameen, her father was an NDP MLA so she was raised around politics,” said Foy. “She believed we as British Columbians had the right – and the responsibility – to stand up for this place and say what was needed. And she did just that.”

The Wilderness Committee will announce a celebration of Gwen’s life and achievements soon.
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Contact:

Joe Foy | National Campaign Director, Wilderness Committee
604-880-2580, joe@wildernesscommittee.org

18 June 2017

Opinion: VSB trustees accountable for toxic work environment

by Janet Fraser
Published on: June 15, 2017 Vancouver Sun

With the recent resignation of the Vancouver school board (VSB) superintendent I’ve been asked, “What was really going on at the VSB? I don’t know what to believe.”

Looking back at the trustees’ behaviour I witnessed and reading the two investigation reports, I believe VSB staff were bullied and harassed. As a newly elected trustee, I stepped into a pre-existing board dynamic that I found overly partisan and very challenging to work in, and didn’t fully realize the impact of trustees’ behaviour on staff.

Trustees have the right to ask hard questions, and should do so to better serve the district’s students, but along with that right is the responsibility to ensure that all employees have a safe and respectful work environment.

The WorkSafe B.C. report gives four specific examples of inappropriate conduct or comments that a trustee reasonably ought to have known would cause staff to be humiliated or intimidated, and were seen as bullying and harassment. The Goldner report accepts that relentless and aggressive questioning created a culture of fear in which staff dreaded their attendance at meetings, where they would be expected to report to the board, particularly if they knew that their recommendations wouldn’t be well-received.

Some former trustees have minimized the reports’ findings. However, I see that the actions of the board and trustees that I observed were accurately reported (with one exception, the WorkSafe B.C. report says a motion requesting revisions to the school-closure reports was passed when it was referred), I have no reason to doubt that investigators accurately reported witness statements, and the conclusions that VSB staff were bullied and harassed are clearly laid out.

Trustees are elected by the public and should be held publicly accountable for their actions. For both investigation reports I asked that any reference to me be made public and I’m mentioned once in each report as part of the sequence of events. I’m never named as a trustee with inappropriate behaviour.
However, as one of the board’s nine trustees I do accept a degree of responsibility for the overall VSB work environment and with hindsight I regret that I didn’t try to curb other trustees’ disrespectful behaviour, especially in public meetings. I continue to suggest that all former trustees agree to have their information made public in both investigation reports, so we can all be held accountable for our actions.

The probes found that the school-closure process was a key issue. In May 2016, trustees voted unanimously to direct staff to prepare a list of schools for possible closure. I voted to consider school closures not because I wanted to close schools, but because our district was facing a financial crisis; $22 million in cuts to balance the next year’s budget and an anticipated $15 million in cuts the year after. In September, trustees voted unanimously for 11 of the 12 listed schools to move forward to the closure-consultation process before the process was suspended in October.
 
The school-closure process was carried out at the direction of the board. There is no justification for a trustee to say to staff at the well-attended September board meeting, “See what you guys have created here. Look at this, you guys created all of this.”

Since the school-closure process was suspended, implementation of the Supreme Court of Canada ruling has required additional funding, as well as more classrooms in many schools, but the financial crisis remains — this year’s balanced budget has $2 million in cuts, and, over the next four years, a deficit of $27.5 million is anticipated.

It’s clear that a respectful relationship between an elected board and VSB staff must be established and this should be top of mind for anyone thinking of becoming a candidate in the next election. There are many difficult decisions ahead for our district, including balancing budgets, use of space in schools and achieving seismic upgrades, and Vancouver’s students need to have effective trustee leadership to best support their learning.

Janet Fraser was elected as a Green trustee in the 2014 Vancouver school board election and ran for MLA as the B.C. Green candidate in Vancouver-Langara.

11 June 2017

Opinion: Cetaceans do not belong in aquariums

Catherine Evans
Vancouver Sun June 10, 2017


It is perfectly legitimate to debate the ongoing relevance of established democratic institutions, and I — as an elected Vancouver park board commissioner — welcome constructive criticism of our deliberations and decisions.

To suggest, however, as The Vancouver Sun has done in a recent editorial, that the park board be abolished because of its recent vote to expand the ban on displaying cetaceans in Stanley Park is to ignore mounting public, scientific and ethical considerations.

For the past several decades, the park board has provided a public forum for Vancouver’s residents to debate the captivity and display of whales, dolphins, and porpoises. Elected commissioners representing Vancouverites from across the political spectrum have sought opinions from citizens, the scientific community, and the Vancouver Aquarium on many, many occasions.

The most recent and decisive debate, however, was a surprise. Given what was assumed about the makeup of the current park board, I for one, did not expect to see the issue on the agenda. But that was before the deaths of the belugas Aurora and Qila at the end of 2016 and the death of Jack the harbour porpoise in August 2016. With these deaths, the ethical issues surrounding the aquarium’s practice of holding cetaceans in captivity came roaring back.

In March, the park board held two open public meetings. There was passion and science on both sides — as there usually is in major moral debates. We heard presentations from over 60 speakers. Many brought or referenced research papers. At the end of those meetings, the park board voted unanimously to develop a bylaw to expand the 2001 orca ban to include all cetaceans.

This bylaw was drafted and then debated on May 15. Board members agreed that it should exempt the cetaceans housed in Stanley Park from the ban. The bylaw passed by a vote of 6-1.

The timing of the bylaw is significant. The Vancouver Aquarium was planning to start a major expansion of its tanks to house some or all of the five or six belugas it has loaned out to aquariums in the United States, largely for breeding purposes. Passing the bylaw now allows the aquarium to rethink its expansion and move in a direction that is more sustainable over the long term.

There is a mistaken assumption in some quarters that the park board became captive to a small group of activists. This does not bear scrutiny. We are far from homogeneous with three political parties and one independent around the table. And it is not a small group that believes the time of cetacean captivity is over. There are some passionate activists to be sure, but we also received correspondence from nearly 15,000 individuals in support of the bylaw.
 
We have also had letters opposed to our decision and I have read them carefully. Most are worried about the ability of the aquarium to continue its work in the rescue and rehabilitation of sea mammals. While some writers express a personal unease about the display of captive cetaceans, they believe that the ban on displaying cetaceans in Stanley Park is a serious threat to future rescue efforts. Nothing could be further from the truth.

The Aquarium’s Rescue and Rehabilitation Centre is not in Stanley Park. The aquarium is free to bring whatever animals it wants into its Rescue and Rehabilitation Centre. Historically, this has been around 99 per cent harbour seals, almost all of which are released.

The fact is that there have been only six cetaceans brought into the rescue centre since 2011. Five were harbour porpoises, one a false killer whale. Of the five porpoises, three died, one was treated and released (the only cetacean to ever be released from the rescue centre) and one, Jack, was brought into the aquarium in 2011 as an infant. He died there in 2016.

The false killer whale, Chester, was brought into the aquarium as an infant in 2014.  He lives there with Daisy, a harbour porpoise rescued as an infant in 2008, and Hana, a Pacific white-sided dolphin, caught in fishing nets and transferred from an aquarium in Japan.
   
The aquarium knows from its own public opinion polling that their rescue and rehabilitation program is widely supported. They also know that support for the display of captive cetaceans has dropped significantly and is now well below the 50 per cent mark. Blurring the lines between the two has been the goal of the public relations campaign they have been engaged in for the past month.

No one is questioning the opinion of Fisheries and Oceans Canada that the cetaceans currently held by the aquarium should not be released. But I am surprised more people do not see the conflict of interest in the aquarium’s position. After the aquarium agreed to stop importing wild caught cetaceans in 1996, their only real source of cetaceans for use in their shows has been through rescue and breeding. The latter has largely failed, and the former, while it saved three wild infant cetaceans from imminent death, condemned them to a lifetime (a short lifetime in Jack’s case) of unnatural social interactions in an artificial and confined environment.

Nobody likes being told what to do. The aquarium may feel like this is what has happened. But, they won’t change of their own volition. Like other zoos and aquariums that have changed the way they deal with animals, the Vancouver Aquarium has always been backed into making changes. It is public opinion that is driving this change, expressed in this instance by the decision of a publicly-elected body with legislative authority over what animals may be brought into Vancouver parks.

It would have been better for the aquarium to have got ahead of the park board on this decision as it did with the wild caught ban in 1996. They then could boast as do many other very successful and popular aquariums that they do not hold captive cetaceans. And they could create a terrific educational program explaining why it is wrong to keep these complex, social, far-ranging and deep-diving wild animals in small enclosures.

I hope they come around to this understanding and do not waste money on litigation. They could use the money they may spend fighting the cetacean ban in court so much better. For example, they could collaborate with Vancouver’s digital community to wow their visitors with a technological experience of the majesty of cetaceans in the wild.
 
It’s time for the Vancouver Aquarium to move on and once again be applauded around the world, without reservation, for its leadership in understanding and caring for oceanic animals.

• Catherine Evans is a Vision Vancouver commissioner elected to the Vancouver Board of Parks and Recreation.