Dreams Die Hard

The Decline of British Columbia’s Gulf Islands

by Frants Attorp and Maxine Leichter

Dock at Vesuvius Bay on Salt Spring Island, BC, Canada

Anyone who has sailed with BC Ferries on its Vancouver-Victoria route will already have experienced some of the magic of the Gulf Islands. Active Pass, the narrow passage between Mayne Island and Galiano Island, epitomizes many of the area’s special qualities: the ever-changing sea with its abundance of marine life, forests of arbutus and coastal Douglas fir, a heritage lighthouse, steep rocky cliffs, and widely-spaced dwellings that blend in with the natural landscape.

The scenic splendour of the islands is indeed breathtaking, but that beauty is fading fast as human needs are given priority. Nature, meanwhile, with no voice of its own, has little defence against powerful anthropocentric forces.

Things were not supposed to turn out this way for the islands. In 1972, an all-party committee of the BC Legislature concluded that “pressures arising from the area’s proximity to major urban centres were damaging the very features that made it so attractive to residents and visitors.”

There was particular concern about the notorious Magic Lake Estates – a high-density subdivision covering 600 acres that was approved on Pender Island in the 1960s. At the time, the subdivision, complete with artificial lakes, was the largest in Canada. It was a shocking development for a small island with scarce resources and a fragile ecosystem.

“As the population of southwestern BC explodes and real estate values skyrocket, the islands continue to experience extreme pressure from population growth and tourism.”

In response to increasing development pressures on the Southern Gulf Islands the provincial government passed the Islands Trust Act in 1974. That legislation created a special regulatory agency called the Islands Trust whose goal it is to “preserve and protect the Trust Area and its unique amenities and environment for the residents of the Trust Area and of British Columbia.” With 26 Trustees from 13 Local Trust Areas, the Islands Trust is distinct from municipal governments in its mandate to protect a Public Trust, and remains a totally unique agency in Canada.

The Trust Area, which encompasses the waters and islands of the Salish Sea between southern Vancouver Island and the mainland, covers 5200 square kilometres and includes 13 major islands and 450 smaller islands. As the population of southwestern BC explodes and real estate values skyrocket, the islands continue to experience extreme pressure from population growth and tourism.

Despite the clear intent of the Act to put the brakes on development, locally elected politicians, called Trustees, have responded to relentless people pressure by eroding the Policy Statement, the key document that is supposed to implement the preserve and protect mandate. A weakened Policy Statement means weaker bylaws at the island level.

“With no set definitions, the interpretation of words like “unique,” “rural,” and “healthy” is left to the whims of individual politicians.”

The first major assault on environmental protections came in 1994 when the Islands Trust Council voted to interpret “unique amenities” as being inclusive of “healthy communities.” That fateful decision meant that pretty much any development could be justified in the name of providing “economic opportunities” and keeping communities “healthy.”

With no set definitions, the interpretation of words like “unique,” “rural,” and “healthy” is left to the whims of individual politicians who have various levels of commitment to environmental protection.

Last year, Trust Council expanded interpretation of the mandate even further to include “healthy and inclusive communities” and transportation. Trustees are now considering rezoning the entire island to allow for more accessory dwellings –despite strained water resources, limited ferry capacity, and a major environmental report calling for a moratorium on new development.

The implications of deregulation and densification on Salt Spring Island are significant for the entire Trust Area. Trustees can do some things to help provide accommodation for essential workers, but they must not lose sight of the urgent need to protect the environment for future generations, in their attempts to ease a regional housing crisis that has no end in sight.

Photo credit Jennifer Margison

The flexibility afforded Trustees in their decision making is being felt throughout the archipelago. On Gabriola Island, which has no community water or sewer, an affordable housing project was recently being considered (but was dropped due to lack of funding) –may soon be built within a crucial watershed that supplies a residential area already experiencing widespread water shortages. Trucks deliver water from off island as well levels drop year over year. The situation is exacerbated by summers that are becoming longer, hotter, and drier.

Back on Salt Spring, Trustees recently supported a septic variance for a destination resort in a sensitive estuary between two salmon-bearing streams, even though the site is expected to be subject to flooding due to climate change. [ed. Note – at time of publication the variance permit has been put on hold, following a major public outcry about the environmental impacts of the development.]

A 2019 “State of the Islands Report” examined land that has been converted for human use, and concluded that several islands are already at or near the accepted threshold for ecosystem health. Current levels of growth are clearly unsustainable.

Public engagement by the Islands Trust in 2019 showed that the vast majority of those interviewed want protection of the natural environment to be given top priority. This has been confirmed by the State of the Islands Report and surveys in a local newspaper. Yet many Trustees continue to prioritize development over environmental protection.

The Islands Trust is currently drafting a new Policy Statement, the wording of which will determine whether the Gulf Islands remain a unique and special place for all to enjoy, or will be developed like any other area.

Trust Council is now wrapping up the third phase of public engagement on the Policy Statement Amendments. A petition asking Trustees to put the environment first can be found here. Comments can be officially submitted to the Islands Trust by online survey, phone (250-405-5151), and/or email to islands2050@islandstrust.bc.ca. Alternatively or additionally, a message can be sent directly to Trust Council at execadmin@islandstrust.bc.ca. For more information on the process see islandstrust.bc.ca/programs/islands-2050


Frants Attorp and Maxine Leichter are both Salt Spring Island residents.

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