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Get to know: Columbia Institute

The Columbia Institute is an independent public policy think tank based in British Columbia. Their mission is to foster and support leadership for inclusive, equitable and sustainable communities across Canada. They believe that communities who value social justice, the environment and strong local economies are healthier and happier places to live. In December, engagement coordinator Jessie Golem sat down with Kevin Millsip and Isabella Johnson to discuss the Columbia Institute’s community conversation for local electeds in BC.

The Columbia Institute’s community conversation took place on December 8. This interview was conducted prior to the conversation.

Jessie Golem (JG): What interested you about the Green Resilience Project, and what made you want to get involved?

Kevin Millsip (KM):  Climate inequality and in particular, income inequality are issues that have been pressing for a long time. But these days, they are more urgent than ever before. It seemed like a really good opportunity—in fact, we were getting ready to put together the last of a three-part webinar series that was going to have a connection to climate and we hadn’t yet figured out the final piece in our series, but this topic just makes sense. All of the pieces just fit together. 

JG: Tell me more about the Columbia Institute and the work you do.

KM: The Institute has been around for 15-20 years. I’ve been involved for a long time on one of the advisory committees. I first got involved with the Institute when I was a school board trustee in Vancouver. I then worked for local government on sustainability and climate and my engagement with Columbia increased during that time. A lot of people on the advisory committee come from different backgrounds, such as former mayors or city councillors in BC. The focus for the Institute has always been trying to bring together locally elected officials to talk about the challenges they’re facing in their local governments. We build a network of people in local government who are trying to advance progressive agendas, so they can be there to support one another, share ideas and so on. The Institute itself does research on municipal government from a progressive standpoint. Over the last four years the seminal linchpin of our work has been an annual conference called High Ground, which brings together locally elected officials, mostly from BC, so they can strategize, share challenges, hopes and inspiration. High Ground also looks at what different municipalities are doing in different areas and [gives participants the opportunity to] learn from what people are doing. Our ambition is to support locally elected officials to implement  agendas that help to tackle the climate crisis and poverty and more at a local level. 

We don’t endorse candidates or run campaigns for people. We’re a network, and a community.

Isabella Johnson (IJ): I’ve been with the Institute for just over a year. We’re focused on trying to be a space where we can talk about those bold ideas. Ideas like social justice, education, the environment and all of the connections between those, which is why we really thought that your community conversation could be a great fit for us. We want people to come together and also feel free to ask questions. A lot of local elected officials don’t have training on these issues, so we want to make sure that we’re providing them with the information that they need to pass progressive policy.

JG: So it’s a support and resource for local politicians, but mostly municipal politicians. 

KM: We specifically target people at the local level. Certainly there is some provincial engagement, but at the municipal level, most city councillors may not have the kind of staff or resource support someone working in federal or provincial government may have. The bureaucracies are just different, and as Isabella said, most folks who go into office don’t have this kind of training. And sometimes when one is doing this kind of advocacy work in a political arena, they may find themselves as a lone voice. So we provide that network for people to plug into, where they can connect with others trying to do the same thing and provide moral support. 

JG: [How would you describe] the balance between progressive minded politicians or people sharing similar views versus the opposite end of the spectrum [in BC]?

KM: The lower mainland of BC is quite unique in that a lot of municipalities have political parties at the local level. There’s a long history of that here—for instance, there are currently four (or more) municipal political parties in Vancouver. The major cities have local parties, but that’s not indicative of the whole of BC. People will run because they’re concerned about local issues, but also people [are] advocating and voting for what they value. Your vote signals a desire for what you want your community to look like. Because this is all local and directly impacting one’s neighbourhood, you see those values play out in a profound way. The decisions that local governments make can have an immediate impact on people. From access to housing, public transportation, public education, in so many ways.

JG: Things affect people most directly and immediately at the local level. 

KM: Where do you live?

JG: I live in Hamilton, Ontario.

KM: Isn’t Hamilton talking about putting a safe injection site in place?

JG: There’s a lot of debate about it. But it is happening. And it’s happening in my ward, which I’m very happy about.

IJ: That’s an interesting example of how a local government can really have a lot of power over things, and how that can impact environmental issues. Looking at the Greenbelt around Toronto and the interest in development, [for instance], those decisions are made by city councillors and can have permanent ramifications on the environment. It seems small, but it can be tremendous. 

JG: I’m hearing a lot in the news about British Columbia facing some very terrifying environmental disasters right now, such as flooding, landslides and fires. I imagine a lot of work to help those affected is happening at the municipal level. What are some of those major issues that you’re seeing when it comes to climate change, income security or community resilience?

IJ: I feel like BC is just under a constant state of emergency at the moment. It’s been a very tough few years, with the pandemic, with the climate crisis, with the floods, with the fires. And it’s having a huge effect on everyone’s way of life. There are constant crises, there’s an opioid crisis that’s killed over 600 people this year. We’re trying to get support, but also recognizing that the crisis related to climate isn’t about mitigation anymore. We have to adapt to what’s happening everyday. We’re talking about the Fairy Creek protests while landslides are taking place that are only happening as a direct [result of] years and years of taking away resources in those areas, and failing to listen to and support Indigenous communities and their rights. 

JG: I’ve been following the Fairy Creek protesters and the horrific [response to the protests].

IJ: It just definitely feels like as soon as we stop talking about one emergency, or as soon as we move on, something else hits us. We are all trying to come to terms with how this may be a new normal—and we have to really look to the future, but not forget that these things are impacting people daily here.

JG: There’s not a lot of time for debates or discussion when people’s homes are being evacuated. Do you see any potential solutions to this, or has anything really happened?

KM: I hesitate to use the word positive, but a few things have happened. These disasters have inspired more discussion in regards to climate, which is good, if it also leads to pressure for more action at the local, provincial and federal levels. We see discussions about the direct impacts—infrastructure, how we respond, how we take care of each other. Each of these crises have highlighted fault lines around different communities that are already hard hit. What I see happening – and where there’s opportunity – is that a lot of those conversations are getting [attention] in a way they may not have been before. People knew the issues existed already, but it feels like it’s been a long time since we’ve looked at them directly. This is really an opportunity moment, where we have to be pushing for bigger and bolder measures. As we tackle the immediacy of one urgency, we’re also trying to tackle other things at the same time, such as combining climate and income inequality. So for me, that’s part of the opportunity. This is forcing us to reckon with conversations that we have let go unaddressed for a long time.

IJ: To add on to that, the people are now aware of what governments can do. I mean, just look at the response that we saw during the pandemic. We can move quickly and address these issues. And I think it’s now that people are realizing that we need to approach the climate crisis and the opioid crisis and all these other emergencies in the same way as the pandemic.

JG: I watched COP26 a couple of weeks ago and it honestly left me a little bit discouraged because it felt like these world leaders are expressing platitudes, but nothing’s happening. Eventually we’ll be forced to do something, or face destruction.

KM: I think that’s the phase we’re moving into.

JG: I wonder if it’s both a terrible, horrible and inevitably necessary thing. I am not sure. What does community resilience look like, for these communities?

KM: I think it’s different depending on the community. In the face of disaster there are communities coming together, there’s mutual aid. In a way, this highlights the gaps in government support—a lot of these conversations have been ignored for too long, until it’s now on our doorsteps. Experts have predicted these disasters, the issues were ignored, and now here we are. 

In terms of resilience the real key will be, what does rebuilding look like and how will it take place? Will government s provide the  funding needed to address the intersectionalities, or will it be a patchwork? Are we really taking these signals seriously, that we’re now in the era of climate disruption here? Other parts of the world are experiencing this already, and now so are we. This is the period we’re in where we have the opportunity to frame what that looks like.

JG: We’re in the place where we have to make these decisions and act very quickly, decisively, and boldly, because human lives are at stake. It sounds like the Columbia Institute encompasses many communities, so who will be participating in these conversations?

IJ: We’ve opened up the conversation across BC. It will include people who hold office or are planning to run for government next year, because we have our municipal elections coming up. So that could be mayors, school trustees, city councilors, we have some regional directors who are attending from the island. These people will be very aware of these issues, and up to date on the topics, and also looking towards the next steps, such as policies related to basic income or the climate crisis. It’s going to be interesting, because we do have people attending from areas that have been very hard hit in the last year due to climate change.

JG: It’ll be interesting to see what people who have been directly impacted by the climate disasters that BC has faced will have to say versus those who may not be directly affected. What are you hoping to learn from the community conversation?

IJ: I am definitely looking forward to hearing ideas about next steps. Because we really do need to focus on some action around these issues. I think that’s sometimes been lacking in conversations that we’ve had previously. So I’m really hoping that action does come from it. I’m also really looking forward to hearing from people about different initiatives or projects taking place in communities, and how we can support those people and amplify their work. 

JG: It sounds like it’ll be a good conversation just to be able to share resources, especially because it’s province-wide. That makes your conversation quite unique. Most conversations are centralized to a community. You’re also having this conversation with people who can advise and create policy and have the ability to make change, at least on a political level. Do you have any final thoughts?

KM: One of the things that I’m listening for in the conversation is for ideas that we can carry forward at the Institute. Are there particular things that these locally elected folks need, that we can possibly support through the Institute? Our next High Ground conference will take place at the end of March, 2022. We hope there’s a second part to the conversation that we can incorporate into our agenda.