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Give people more info: park report

The community needs more information before it can vote on whether a national park should be created on Bowen Island. That was the main message of the national park community advisory committee when it made its report to council on Monday night.

The community needs more information before it can vote on whether a national park should be created on Bowen Island.

That was the main message of the national park community advisory committee when it made its report to council on Monday night.

But there was an underlying message, too: if people don't feel they have that information, they're more likely to vote no. If delaying the community opinion vote gives people time to learn more about that concept, then that has to be an option for council to consider.

"Over and over in the community we heard people say, 'What's the rush,'" said Rob Cairns, the committee's chair. "I can't overemphasize how important it is to get information into the hands of voters....

"There's a perception that this will be the last opportunity they will have as a community to weigh in on this decision. In the absence of more details, people may choose not to authorize further negotiation."

Committee member Wolfgang Duntz said that while he's in favour of the national park, many of his friends are not. He's come up with a story to illustrate the dilemma most islanders are in.

"I compare Bowen Island to a young woman," he said. "She hasn't decided what to do with her life yet - university, raise a family, go into a career? She has wonderful potential, gorgeous potential, but she hasn't come to terms with it. All of a sudden a young man proposes. How will she give him an answer if she hasn't decided what to do with the rest of her life?

"Unless you find entrance into her heart, you won't convince her. She hasn't asked how much money do you have. She's comparing her undefined future with a need to decide her future.

"If [council] would allow the process more time - not more than a year and half - and get people involved, you may get a majority. Right now I'm concerned it may be turned down for entirely the wrong reasons. You can overcome it only on emotional level. It's not that people don't have enough information; they haven't had enough information to lose their fear."

One of those fears is a loss of local autonomy, Cairns said. One of the committee's 25 recommendations is that there would be a separate Bowen Island management board and separate complaints mechanism from the Gulf Islands National Park Reserve. As well, since Parks Canada has said it hasn't decided whether Bowen would be a separate national park or part of the existing Gulf Island reserve, it would be better if Bowen could be a separate entity.

"There is an underlying fear or distrust of having outside government impose rules, such as potentially having to pay fees or have your dog on a leash," Cairns said. "There are all kinds of fears but underneath them is a shared need for autonomy. More autonomy would be possible if Bowen Island was separate from Gulf Islands."

Colleen O'Neil, who headed the face-to-face meeting subcommittee, said people "were open and eager to learn. Even the most vociferously opposed group was wide open to discussion about what they didn't know. It healed some wounds I think. But still, there are a lot of people who don't know."

Committee co-chair Adam Taylor said, "as much as people are concerned about not having enough information, they're confused about the process. Are there stopping points along the way?"

However, although there is a segment of the island population that's fully engaged in the process, other members of the committee encountered people who had no idea what Parks Canada was proposing in its draft concept plan.

Stephen Foster and Claudia Schaefer set up an information table at the General Store. They thought they'd been talking to people about points in the concept plan, only to find out that no one had read it.

"They'd tell you whether they were pro park or anti park and what they'd heard," Foster said. "People said 'just give me the bottom line so I can get a quick idea of what's going on.'"

There's a big divide, he says, between people who are fully engaged in the process and those who aren't getting involved.

Schaefer said, "There's still a lot of misinformation out there." People would raise concerns about items that had already been struck off the list of possibilities.

"In the absence of facts, people have already formed opinions," Cairns said. "There's a sense it's not important how much you know because the information [about specific concept plans] just isn't there."

Part of the problem, Don Youngson said, is the process that's being followed on Bowen Island. A community opinion vote is slated for June 25 and Islanders want concrete information about what the park will look like before they vote. Parks Canada, however, says the process of coming up with those plans usually takes five years because there's constant negotiation with the community about what the community does and doesn't want in a park. Parks Canada can't come up with a plan until those negotiations take place, but the negotiations won't happen if the community says no on June 25 because voters are concerned there are no plans.

"Unless Parks Canada has a detailed conceptual design of significant scale, and what scope the amenities will be, and whether there's entry fees, where the campsites are going to be and off-leash areas people can't get their minds around it," Youngson said. "People who have entrenched themselves in the no response won't want to hear anything but if you could say 'this is where the theatre could go' and 'this is how people will come off the ferry,'" people will be more open to the park.

Councillor David Wrinch said, "Most people don't feel Parks Canada has given enough answers on some of the major things. Is there any mechanism, if people feel that once they say yes or no, that it's cast in stone. Is there any other step along the way people can stop it."

Cairns said, "There are other stopping points but it's not the people, it's council. As it stands, this is the last chance that individual community members will get."

"It's a slow moving process," said Mayor Bob Turner. "My take is that we just can't see that far, not this council."

Councillor Nerys Poole said that people do have a voice in municipal elections which will determine who will be negotiating with Parks Canada. If there is a yes vote in June, she has no doubt that how the island proceeds will be an election issue.

She understands, however, why Parks Canada wants an idea of the island's sentiment before committing to a long process. It doesn't want to invest five years of planning only to have the community say it doesn't want the park. (Parks Canada, by the way, has not yet determined whether a national park on Bowen is feasible from its perspective. It too can still say no.)

Cairns told councillors that "I personally trust your intention to represent the community but I don't think that trust is shared by everyone." Council needs to reassure the community that it will be listening to the community's wishes.

Turner said, "My expectation is there will be no negotiation with this council. We could be well into 2012 when Parks Canada finishes feasibility study."

That means the next council, the one that will be continuing negotiation with Parks Canada, will be elected based in part, he expects, on candidates' views about the park.

For the committee's full report, go to the municipality's website,