How old Cortes Made Decisions

How Community Decisions Were Made

The process behind a revision of Cortes Island’s Community Plan has been cited as an extreme example of how community decisions were made. According to the most recent (2012) version, “During the winter of 1983 and the spring of 1984, the APC (Advisory Planning Commission) and other community volunteers proceeded to assess the current community feelings concerning zoning regulations through an extensive questionnaire, including the tabulation and reporting of the results to the community, conducting seven question and answer evenings in homes throughout the island …”

The 1984 Community Plan

Bruce Ellingsen explains, “It’s desirable to not put up artificial deadlines when attempting to arrive at a consensus. When we were dealing with revising our community in the 1980s, we had seven meetings on sequential Sundays. We started out with about 125 people who, for the first two and some of the third meeting, were there to say what they didn’t want changed. You might say they were there to get the s___ off their chests about the government plan. After that, it wound its way to about 75 people who, having sat through the previous meetings, were willing to stick around and figure out what we did want to have and how to format that into a legal document for the regional board. When we went to the public hearing, after all that work on the island, we still had 120 people show up to the public meeting and it took five hours for everyone who wanted to have their voice. Five Representatives from the Regional District had to sit through all of that.”

By way of comparison, he added, “Around the same time, the Comox Valley had a community plan revision going on. That was all done in house, by the planners in the Comox-Strathcona Regional District (1967-2008). When they had their public meeting, fifteen people showed up from an area that had a population of about 30,000. It was over in 45 minutes.”   

Cortes Island’s Democratic Tradition

Cortes Island’s democratic tradition stretches back to the years when Mike Manson sat in the provincial legislature (1909-16; 1924-32), but is especially identified with the Cortes Island Ratepayers Association. Those were simpler times and meetings were called when needed, rather than on a regular basis. 

“There weren’t that many issues; there would be transportation on the steamer,” said Bruce Ellingsen.

To which his brother, Andy Ellingsen, added, “The union steamship service was pretty firmly established up until the late 1950s, it was around 1960 when that fell apart.”   

“The Ratepayers executive would call townhall meetings when it became apparent there was a need. Anybody who was interested would show up. There was certainly no issue that I’m aware of, around who could speak to any issue. If it came to a serious vote about something, then someone might say ‘well you’re not a property owner,’ but their voice would still be heard in the course of the discussion,” said Bruce. 

”I can remember a few hot exchanges between people in the meetings, but everyone would be heard and then a decision would be made. The ratepayer’s executive would convey that to the provincial government.” 

How Old Cortes Made Decisions
Top photo credit: Whaletown General Store as “Petrie’s Trading Post,” 1945 CIMAS Album – Photographs and Stories, Whaletown 1931–1949. Courtesy Cortes Island Museum & Archives

Regional Districts Come In

The Regional District system was brought in by Dan Campbell, who local historian Jeanette Taylor refers to as “the second Cortes Islander” to sit in the provincial legislature. In 1965, Cortes Island became “the smallest regional area in the province, with teacher George Griffin as regional Director.” (TIDAL PASSAGES, p 139). The big issues of that era were:

  • the BC Ferries (which brought more people to the island)
  • electricity (which called for poles being set up across the island)
  • the arrival of the mail three times a week by airplane (instead of once a week by steamship).

“My dad (Elmer Ellingsen) and Wilf Freemen were regularly in the [rate payer’s] executive, either as the President or Vice President. They were looked upon as leaders in the community. I wouldn’t say they were loved by everyone or anything like that, but they were respected people in the ratepayers association and dealing with [Minister of Municipal Affairs] Dan Campbell … ,” Bruce explained.

How The Ratepayers Association Fell Apart

The Cortes Ratepayer’s Association faded away as a result of a provincial government order in council that allowed the Raven Lumber Development to ignore the island’s community development plan. Bruce Ellingsen and Velma Bergman were in the Association’s executive at the time.

Bruce explained, “The Regional District supported Raven Lumber in the court challenge that we mounted and, of course, we had to raise a whole lot of volunteer effort and money to fight this court challenge – which we won. We got a sympathetic judge … who agreed that the large undeveloped portion of this property should have been kept as common land … Raven Lumber appealed it the following year, in 1981 or 82, and we won again in the court of appeal in Vancouver. Then, ten days after we received that positive judgement in our favour, we realized that the provincial cabinet passed an order in council …. saying they did not have to comply with community plans, they only had to comply with subdivision control bylaws …”

Andy added, “We had the impression that we were transmitting the conclusions of discussion on the island to government and it was going to make some difference. What we realized, when things fell apart in the Raven Lumber situation, was that … our opinions did not matter.”

Current Situation With The SRD

He has a message for the Strathcona Regional District that follows a similar vein, “The failure of the Regional District to operate in a manner that suits my sense of how they should be operating, is they are paying too much attention to individuals who are in opposition to the directions Noba has chosen to take and they are not recognizing that Noba, herself, has the support of a substantial majority of the people on Cortes Island. What the Regional District did, in terms of stripping her of the right to sit on committees – through their motion of censure – is to strip us of our legitimate representation.”

Advice For Cortes’ Democratic Movement

Andy and Bruce have some advice for people wanting to bring a more democratic local government back to Cortes Island:

  1. If we are to have any credibility outside our immediate circle, we need to stand apart from our Regional Director and elect an independent executive to organize things.
  2. If this body is advisory to the Regional Director, it can also advise any other level of government, government agency, or government committee, when it seems appropriate.
  3. While the Regional Director may be called upon to share his/her insight, their power needs to be limited to one vote – like everyone else.
  4. No grant in aids should be sponsored by our Regional Director, they should all come from a community based open forum discussion.
  5. The topics to be discussed at meetings should be advertised in advance.
  6. Everyone who wants to participate in open forum discussions should be allowed to do so.
  7. A good way to control the input at meetings, during the open discussion phase, may be to limit each person’s discussion time to five minutes . Then, after everyone has had a turn, let people speak a second time.
  8. Anyone who shows up to participate in the discussion (speaking or listening) should be allowed to vote
  9. No absentee ballots: People need to be engaged in the community conversation in order to vote. However, you can make a written submission for consideration.
  10. (a possibility) a six month residency on the island requirement before you can vote.
  11. No age limits: Any young person who is interested enough to participate at a meeting can legitimately say they should be part of the decision making process.
  12. (a possibility) record the meetings so people can listen to them.

Top photo credit: The union steamship S. S. Cardena off Prospect Point in Stanley Park, Vancouver, BC, in 1925 – Cyril R. Littlebury (presumed) via wikipedia (public domain.)

4 thoughts on “How Community Decisions Were Made”

  1. I’d add another couple of recommendations: Members of the Board or Council or whatever the executive is, should be elected by the public present at a town meeting, not appointed or self-selected. Their terms should be short (1 year, for example) so that they can be dismissed by dissatisfied residents if they don’t live up to their responsibility. And their decisions should be subject to challenge by any person who can get N signatures (maybe 50 or 100?) on a petition to reconsider an issue in public meeting.

    Thanks Andy and Bruce for these insights and historical context! really interesting reading.

    1. If we use the Vermont town meeting model, a petition from the electorate requires 5% of the resident’s signatures. Given our current political situation, I think this would be easy for either side to obtain this and so the number of petitions on a given issue should probably be limited (one per term?) so that we are not constantly having to deal with these situations.

      1. We also need formulas for making decisions at meetings. I think there are too many of us to think in terms of consensus: so are we talking about majority votes? Or something steeper that requires more of a consensus? Do we want to set the bar even steeper when reversing a previous decision?

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