the challenge that Oak Bay Watch poses to citizens

On Tuesday evening, September 12th I attended the kind of community meeting familiar to many of us, a meeting hosted by Oak Bay Watch. Oak Bay Watch is an ad hoc group: the make-up of the group is unknown.

The attendance at the meeting was good – probably 160+ people as the meeting began. People were interested and appreciative although, as is often the case, the audience began to shrink after the first hour.

As someone who believes in grassroots democracy, the motivation, process, participants, and outcomes of all civic engagement fascinates me. This gathering fascinated me.

I commend Oak Bay Watch for their initiative. At the same time, the meeting challenges all of us, as citizens of our community, and Oak Bay Watch is challenged most of all.

The hook that was used to draw in the audience was fear, not hope.

“Do you have concerns about local government…
“Are you afraid of tax increases…
“Upset that our character, tree canopy and green space are threatened”

The focus was on maintaining the status quo (the past) rather than moving into the future.

The perspective was resistance to change rather than imagination of what could be.

In order to develop the resilience that will be the essential foundation for Oak Bay’s continued well-being, citizens must choose hope rather than fear, the future rather than the past, and imagination rather than resistance. They must choose transparency rather than accept obscurantism.

Oak Bay Watch itself was not transparent. Advocating open communication and transparency, they invited and introduced only one Councillor and called on only one Councillor, even though another Councillor was present and could have provided useful information as well. The invited Councillor was advertised as being a resource by virtue of being a Councillor, then introduced to the gathering as being there only as a citizen, and then called upon to comment, as a Councillor. The evening was probably a ‘send up’ of a mayoralty campaign. Effective citizen-led engagement would be more transparent than this evening was.

That said, important reality is that, like urban communities across the province, throughout the country and around the world, Oak Bay faces three sets of issues (challenges, problems).

Some of our issues are of our own creation.

(1) The current Council has been almost willfully ineffective. (Great players can have a terrible season if they don’t jell as a team and if they aren’t clear about the game plan.)

Oak Bay has major challenges (and associated costs) dealing with deteriorating infra-structure (aged water and sewage lines), infra-structure shortfalls (i.e. sidewalks), the prospect of new infra-structure demands (i.e. sewage treatment), and responding to recognized social needs (i.e. low income housing).

The Official Community Plan is mediocre. The District has quickly realized that the OCP does not have the strength to last the race, so the OCP is being marginalized one decision at a time, which is one of the reasons that decisions are made as “one off” decisions, rather than as comprehensive decisions.

The Council works inside a wrong understanding of governance. The District of Oak Bay is not a corporation. (Although provincial legislation describes it as such, it has none of the vital characteristics of a corporation. The province’s characterization is misleading.) The District of Oak Bay is a political self-governing jurisdiction, and the role of the Councillors is more nearly like the role of trustees of a trust rather than the Board of Directors of a corporation. Because the Council misunderstands the model, it misunderstands its relationship with electors, citizens, residents of Oak Bay. The most obvious expression of the misunderstanding is in the wrong approach to civic engagement. Civic engagement is not discretionary and it is not an act of beneficence: it is essential, justified by democracy, and wise.

A considerable number of civic organizations, both formal and informal, should be one important measure of the well-being of the community, not the bane of the existence of Councillors.

(2) Some of our issues are being imposed on us by external social, political, and economic realities.
The population of Greater Victoria is increasing and Oak Bay cannot resist the pressure of accepting some of that increase. We should remember that King Canute could stand at the water’s edge and command the tide not to come in: the command was futile.

Densification is coming to Oak Bay because we are in a location and climate that cannot be replicated, even if some provincial or federal government were prepared to create a greenfield community of 20,000. Densification will either occur as infill, like grains of salt scattered throughout the community (and poisoning the land in a figurative way), or it will come according to a plan, it will be concentrated and the concentration will help preserve other communities in Oak Bay.

The mix (bell-curve/normal distribution) of housing, and therefore the population mix, is disappearing. Many of the types (by income) of families that could find a home in Oak Bay 50 years ago cannot find a home today. A thoughtless insistence on remaining as we are will determine that we can never again be as diverse and resilient as we were in the past.

Not only is densification inevitable: it is desirable.

As a resident of Oak Bay I fully expect my taxes, insurance, and utilities to increase by about 40% (in constant dollars) over the next 4 – 6 years. There are only four options open to us and our Council. (1) We can reduce expenditures and see the further, dramatic, erosion of our infra-structure and our commonwealth. (2) We can sell assets, which would also result in the further, dramatic, erosion of our infra-structure and our commonwealth. (3) We can increase the taxes on the current mix of property. (4) We can change the tax mix, by increasing the number of residential and commercial properties.

Apart from the financial benefits of densification, there are social and ecological benefits, in terms of social justice, reduced energy costs, respect for the ecology, etc..

Oak Bay cannot command the tide to stay out.

(3) Some of our issues are wild cards, like catastrophic weather events.

We need to introduce new (costly) measures to protect our exiting infra-structure and ensure resilience in the aftermath of catastrophic events. We need to invest in new types of infra-structure (seawalls?) that would have been unimaginable a decade ago.

Tuesday’s meeting gave Oak Bay Watch much to think about. It should also have given our Council and all of us much to think about. We can do better.

Choose hope, not fear. Choose the future, not the past. Choose to create, not simply oppose.


  1. David, as usual, you provide an incisive and accurate assessment of all things democratic and political, stressing the need for positive public and civic engagement. You underscore well what I have always tried to practice throughout my own political experience. Although I was unable to attend this meeting (out of town), I understand that the turn-out was strong. I have always believed that when citizens are angry, they don’t just get angry; they get organized. Regardless of the apparent challenges of hosting a citizen-led meeting, it’s clear that Oak Bay residents who attended are seeking solutions to what they see are major community issues. As you rightly suggest, I do want residents to choose hope over fear and optimism over despair and anger. Unfortunately, in the absence of factual information and transparency, out of fear and anger, speculation runs rampant and trust is a scarce commodity. Your observations about local government in Oak Bay are helpful and accurate; the Official Community Plan analysis is also accurate; it requires a future review to address its shortcomings. Having said that, it appears that the document has not been implemented fully, which leads to the unfortunate situation we have now, one of cherry-picking the OCP and diminishing its importance as a complete planning document. We know that in the absence of community planning that is collaborative and consultative, residents are left feeling confused and poorly informed. I hope that the 2018 municipal election will bring about the positive and hopeful change you so articulately describe in your article. Thank you David.

  2. Hello David;

    To begin, I could not agree more with what you have contributed to the debate about our community. Unlike you, I have no political experience but do take an active interest in municipal, regional, national and international politics, governance and our collective future. I was at the meeting and listened to you speak; if you were the man in the maroon shirt, and concur that Oak Bay Watch is to be commended for stepping up and organizing a town hall when our council does not promote participatory citizen based consultation. I also agree that Oak Bay Watch appears to have a limited view of our community’s future. The above being said, I am particularly appreciative of your view of our current council. In my view, they might not understand their role and mandate, lack experience and wisdom, or, simply may be overwhelmed by the task at hand. When there is little transparency, there can be no informed opinion and I think this has led to much of the fear, anger and frustration among some members of our community.

    Citizens such as yourself have a lot to offer up to the community but as things currently stand, with the way our council runs things, there are no venues, little time and only a uni-dimensional method for input. If our council was to take advantage of the wealth of experience and knowledge within our community, allow participation, locally crowd source solutions and actually listen and act for all, then I sincerely believe that things will change based on; as you say, “hope, not fear. Choose the future, not the past. Choose to create, not simply oppose.” This can’t happen without openness and opportunity for input.

    I will leave it at that for now but again, thank you so much for your intelligence and cogent commentary. It seems, leaving Alberta, you could have picked anywhere to relocate; thanks for choosing Oak Bay and I look forward to your future contributions.

    Curtis Hobson

  3. Fortunately there are many smart people in Oak Bay who won’t succumb to the fear-mongering. That said, I am concerned that Oak Bay Watch is negligently spreading misinformation about how planning, zoning and subdivision works. This causes unnecessary confusion and anxiety amongt lower-information citizens. Also, getting people riled up about loss of older homes, when not having a meaningful and realistic conversation about how heritage protection works under the legislation, does nothing but foment anger and division in the community.

  4. Thank you David

    Your sensible and optimistic approach to the future is what this community desperately needs if we are to retain what we love while adapting and changing.

    Your message of hope and optimism is one we all need to embrace rather then living with anger and fear and ill informed speculation about what may come. I appreciate the passion of our local residents who comprise Oak Bay Watch but am concerned that it will not help us to do the things we need to do.

    Jan Mears

  5. I salute you for going to the meeting to be curious, learn and engage. I find the fear-based, change-resistant premise of Oak Bay Watch, and a large number of Oak Bay residents, extremely frustrating. It is simply not a recipe for success and makes me feel like a complete alien. Change is inevitable and must be embraced in order to manage the transition to whatever lies ahead.

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