Monday, December 31, 2012

Year's end and obtuse thanks

The calendar year is ending.  This space has been neglected for a while, wondering why that is?

This blog has shifted and morphed over the past ten years, has largely been about the natural world of Bowen Island, which is the most amazing thing to me.  The forests, mountains, lakes, creeks and oceans of this island never bore me.  And for years I have made the same walk from my house to Sung Cove, to sit in The Snug and work and write and read and catch up with neighbours, and that never tires me either.  The sense of community, among musicians, among those who share a common love of soccer, of those who practice experience of the sacred or among those who love the natural world and the among the eclectic and diverse humans that make up this island's population continue to impress and amaze me.

And so this post is a purge of a psychological burden that has begun to turn me uncharacteristically cynical.

Over this past year,  I've been saddened a little by the way some of those humans have been carrying on.  The thing that drives me most crazy is the narcissistic nature of small town community conflict, and part of my project over this past year has been to fall in love with Bowen again despite some of the crazy and petty antics of a few people who wield some disproportionate influence about the kind of place this is.

This shows up in the political realm most visibly.  There is an ancient bun fight on Bowen Island basically between those who favour the preservation of public lands on Bowen and those that favour creating a positive climate for private property development.  This is the basic bun fight that consumes all small Canadian municipalities largely because municipal governments have very little power and influence and money, and can mostly make themselves useful by creating planning guidelines and approving buildings.  Local governments aspire to greater things, but they have limited influence or power all of which is subject to provincial legislation, largely penned to support the free flow of development capital across local jurisdictions. So you get a lot of steam and bluster about what should be happening and very little actual ability to make it happen.

Last year, our community's political life was dominated by proposal to create a National Park on Bowen Island.  I ended up being very much in favour of this idea, seeing it as an ideal way of creating a permanent legacy of our remaining public landscape in a way that would allow us to access resources from another level of government and encourage all sorts of interesting activity.  Small towns in Canada don't get much of a chance to create a vision for themselves, by which I mean a lofty aspirational ideal that we can actually work towards.  Usually you get trite things like "liveable!" or "interesting to visit" accompanied by a few flower pots hanging on lamp posts.  For me, the National Park idea was our once in a life time chance to live a little larger.  But we chose against it, with a libertarian flavoured "no" campaign that was based on ideas of more traffic, the threat of the big bad federal government and unforgivably outright lies, like Lonnie Hindle's audio musings in which he discussed Parks Canada's (non-existent) ability to expropriate private property.  (These are time worn strategies in the fight agains the public interests, by the way).

I was surprised by the amount of derision that proposal attracted.  And not just derision, but downright libellous hatred spewed against the Council that was trying to host a rational consideration of the proposal.  In the lead up to the referendum on the park idea which coincided with a municipal election the man that became our mayor referred to members of the sitting Council as "The Gang of Four."  I was appalled by this characterization, and it revealed to me a depth of outright hatred that some people of influence on our island hold for others.

So this fight is not a new one, but this was the first time in a long long time that it became so visible.  You could see it in posting to the Bowen Island Online forum, where personal character attacks are commonplace despite appeals and rules to the contrary.  You can see it in the blog of a Councillor called Tim Rhodes, who uses his blog to attack people who disagree with the current Council under the guise of correcting facts, which he often does by slinging an implication of conspiracy around.  In fact Tim Rhodes kind of started this whole thing a few years ago when he took on the previous Council by creating a newspaper called BITE that was funded in part by the owners who were developing Cape Roger Curtis.  He arrived on the island a few years ago as a little known internet marketer and quickly became the offensive voice of the pro-development faction of Council, as represented by Bowen Island Properties.  He has spent the past year as a member of Council largely deriding the previous Council's efforts and laying a whole number of sins of omission and commission at their feet.

The level of vitriol that appeared in the public conversation - which included a public bullying of a Council candidate on the ferry one morning by a man called Andrew P which I witnessed - was an alarm bell for me.  Something is going on.  The principle of "the man doth protest too much" is evidently at play.  The current Council has almost run through half of it's term and people like Tim Rhodes continue to attack the previous Council. meanwhile, they have done nothing of substance for the municipality except govern, like everyone else has.  They are trumpeting their basic governance as something special, but they are just doing what they have to do under the provincial legislation to which they are bound.  (Municipalities are so beholden to the province, that they practically run themselves.).  Their supporters defeated the National Park proposal, achieved their goal of electing a slate of development and private property advocates, and installed a previously little known person as mayor who began his public campaign by comparing four councillors to a gang of Maoist extremists.

I have no faith in this Council to accomplish anything of substance except to make the development guidelines on Bowen friendly to a few people. They may try to take us out of the Islands Trust which would loosen the environmental protection of our common lands.  They are hell bent on "making change" but so far have not really demonstrated the will or ability to do that.  I worry a little that they will choose unwise decisions just to appear to make change.

It has renewed my philosophy of never electing people to government that hate government.  What good can ever come of that?  They generally become poor stewards of the common good, instead using their power to make things happen for the personal and private gain, leaving the public purse and the public realm in tatters.  It happens in this country at every level and our current federal government is a prime example.  While this Council has yet to do that with finances or infrastructure (although their ferry marshalling proposal may just accomplish that yet), Tim Rhodes especially has shown no desire to quit poisoning the public well of discourse.  The effect of course is that citizens become cynical and disengaged from their local government.  That is not a good thing, no matter what flavour your Council is.

But I am not expecting anything from this Council, as I don't expect much from ANY Council.  It is a generally impotent level of government, especially in small towns.  Despite the storm and bluster, it is easy to bully around and get what you want.  One of the current Councillors even brought a legal action against the previous Council because a small process issue was "the straw that broke the camels back."  So local government in Canada is an arena for small and prudent stewardship of a few tax dollars, and not the grand arena of civic direction setting that people often make it out to be.  Not only can you fight city hall, it turns out that you don't even need to land a blow.  You can just show up with some heavy threats and have your way with it.

No, I don't believe municipal governance matters much in the grand scheme of things. Not when private interests can push it around. But I do feel like community matters.  A lot.  And where I do despair is how cavalier people are with civic discourse.    Social capital is a precious asset, and one which takes a tremendous amount of effort to create and which can be spent very quickly.  We have just come through a period of massive erosion of social capital.  I tried to do what I could to stem the bleeding by speaking up for decorum online and by hosting conversations in real life.  But I realized in the spring that I was losing my mind trying to do so. I was becoming another ego riddled participant in the public sphere, wanting to impose my own standards on the community, and thereby suffering from the very disease that I was fighting.  So I gave up on the Bowen Island forum, and recently I have been engaging with Tim Rhodes on his blog, by inviting him to a more reasoned critique of his fellow citizens and pointing him to resources to help with community planning that cares for the heart and soul of a place like ours, but he put up a post the other day that was yet another personal attack of a citizen and so I'm giving up there too.  Old dogs are just old dogs.  I'm an old dog as well.  Old dog fights are pathetic.

So I'm making this long essay my last substantive post on civic discourse for a while.  I'm writing out this thinking to address some of the egregious behaviour I have witnessed over the past year and as a way of explaining the depth of my sadness at what happens in our community.  I notice that I suffer the most when I engage in the narcissistic behaviour that characterizes so much small town difference.  The truth is that it is quaint, not important.  It is charming, not devastating.  This past year I have worked in places like the violence racked south suburbs of Chicago and viciously divided First Nations communities.  I have worked with people who are stopping gang violence in Minneapolis, who are caring for refugees in Fargo, who host dialogues between Israelis and Palestinians, who support freedom in Egypt and Syria and South Sudan, who provide safe shelter for women fleeing the threat of death, who are trying to affect a preservation of the very atmosphere that sustains life on this planet.  It has reminded me of what is important, and what is truly big and where the real fight is.

So if I have a new year's resolution, it is to practice gratitude.  I am grateful for the struggle between factions on Bowen Island, because it means I live in a privileged and peaceful place.  It means I don't actually have to "save" Bowen.  It is not one of the places in the world that needs saving, whether it is from developers or Councillors or vitriolic forum posters or real life bullies.  Our own narcissistic bunfights are the good news actually.

So this is a purge, a throwing off of an old shell, a burning in the fire.  I will be out and about as usual, in the forest, on my paddleboard, playing music, kicking a soccer ball around, sipping coffee at Artisan Eats and The Snug, participating in this community.  We have much to be thankful for, and I'm going to re-store writing on this blog as an archive of all the good, all the beauty and all the fortune that we have and experience.

So away with the old ways of being, and welcome to the challenge of rising above, seeing what we really have, and spending time in creative gratitude for beauty and blessings.