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VANCOUVER—Lower mainland groups are opposing a massive expansion to local highways, which they say paves over farmland, encourages pollution and carbon emissions, and opens the gate to ramping up of resource extraction in British Columbia.
“Climate action now!” reads a new banner unveiled April 25 by Gateway Sucks and the Delta, BC, chapter of Council of Canadians. Both groups are opposed to a series of highway expansion projects from northern BC to Port Twassen proposed by the provincial government’s Gateway Program.
"The action took place at River Road and Centre Street in Delta," Tom Jaugelis of Gateway Sucks. "[The sign] is visible from the Alex Fraser Bridge. Activists also planted trees at the site today to highlight the area's potential as a riverfront park, not a riverfront freeway.”
This new banner comes on the heels of one removed by the province. A hand-built “Farms not Freeways” billboard stood on Loranda Farms off Highway 17 in Delta, BC. It was removed because it stood on land under lease to the province. Farm owner Michaela Robinson succumbed to financial pressures, six months ago, to lease part of the land to the Gateway Program for a year. Just behind the sign, government trucks paved over some of Canada’s most fertile soil.
“The very base of the road [construction crews are laying the foundation now] is taking just over an acre of our land. So we’re gonna have a really busy highway with tons of trucks right in our back pasture where our horses roam freely,” said Robinson.
Loranda Farms is part of the Agricultural Land Reserve (ALR). Richmond city councilor Harold Steves, a founder of the ALR in the 1970s, explained at the banner drop why the ALR was created.
The ALR was developed as a mechanism to stop huge companies like Western Reality and Wall & Ready Corp from developing agricultural land into more profitable housing developments, said Steves.
“[In 1972] the land was regarded as zoned land by Richmond, Delta and Surrey, but [developers] regarded it as unzoned,” he continued. Since there was no provincial legislation, developers paved over farmland. “The ALR stopped that [development], until today. It is same type of companies that want to develop this land today.”
Steves believes Delta could be transformed into Surrey-style sprawl. The best soils in BC will be covered with asphalt, just like Richmond, a suburb south of Vancouver known for having paved over top quality soil in favor of blacktopping the land for a corporate grocery store.
The prospect of losing more agricultural land has Ben West fuming. He’s a campaigner with the Wilderness Committee, which supports the direct action of Gateway Sucks and Council of Canadians. They are the educational and outreach arm of the movement to stop the Gateway Program.
“One of the most important archeological dig sites in North America, if not the world, has been paved over as a result of the Golden Ears Bridge, the Katzie First Nation site where they found evidence of pre-colonial agriculture,” said West.
The Golden Ears Bridge is part of the Gateway Program, which is about 10 per cent complete.
On the other side of the bridge another farm was lost. “The first colonial farm in British Columbia—the Hudson’s Bay Farm in Langley—it was actually a historical heritage site,” said West.
“A beautiful big blueberry farm that we tried to protect—an organic farm, family-owned—now has a road going right down the middle of it.” West also described a contemporary farm lost to the Gateway Program.
West sees Gateway as mostly causing destruction. But, the project has its supporters.
“Gateway Program is a series of transportation projects to complete the network of roads for the lower mainland that are necessary for the transport of goods and to assist with effective transit,” said Geoff Freer, Executive Director of the Gateway Program.
“The Gateway that’s being referred to is actually a gateway to the Asia-Pacific corridor... So this really isn’t about moving folks from Surrey to Vancouver. It’s about moving goods in and raw materials like our forests, raw logs, coal from mines in British Columbia—about 20 million tons of it a year—and whole bunch of oil through pipelines to Asia,” he said
However, Freer thinks there are ecological benefits to the Program.
“Environmentally, one of the main objectives of the Gateway Program is to reduce congestion-related idling, which contributes to reduced regional air quality. By getting big trucks off neighborhood roads we will reduce the amount of smog and we will see a reduction in noise for these communities,” he said.
The highway will act as both a shipping corridor and a transit route. According to Freer, citizens consistently rate transportation as the number one issue in the region. “As we go forward there is going to be a million more people in the lower mainland over the next few years,” he said.
Freer sees Gateway as an opportunity to promote public transit: “Port Mann Highway is going to be tolled. That tolling is designed to discourage traffic and encourage people to go into transit. I think everybody agrees today that building more and more roads is not the answer.”
A BC Treasury Board study found that the petroleum industry produces three jobs for every $1 million spent. The automotive industry creates seven jobs while public transit creates 21 jobs for every $1 million spent.
A loss of land base to the Gateway, however, results in loss of contingent benefits such as the migratory bird flyway. One thousand hectares will be directly affected by highway pollution. “Ninety-seven hectares of our best farmland in Delta is slated to be lost... [and] the expected loss of farmland could feed 100,000 people,” according to Steves.
West agrees, saying he is more concerned with the resulting sprawl than the highway itself. He thinks government can mandate a strong line around ALR and build vertically rather than horizontally.
Freer, too, worries about sprawl, but offered no immediate solution. “The land use plan for the lower mainland that’s been in place for twenty years and that’s currently under review is trying to reduce the tendency towards urban sprawl.”
West said another problem at the root of Gateway is that the program is not a local initiative, but one put together by private interest and government. In spite of these frustrations, West feels power in mobilizing against the Gateway Program.
“It really is something that you become addicted to when you realize the power you have as a citizen, just as a regular person. If people care about something, it doesn’t matter who’s in government—they’re going to stop and listen to what the people want.”
West sees the Save the UBC Farm campaign as an effective three-way conversation. Students stopped housing development plans that would have reduced the university farm to one third its size. They did this by talking with Wilderness Committee and other news outlets. Plans for keeping the Farm as a “future housing reserve” changed. An academic plan was presented to the UBC Board of Governors in January. Academic Provost David Farrar said, “From my perspective this is a huge win. It’s huge for the university but more for the students.”
For West, a similar strategy can be used by citizens engaging with media to prevent the undesirable development of land. He sees the UBC Farm campaign as a small local victory. The Gateway Program is the large-scale national battle. Both battles are aimed at mitigating climate change by supporting local agriculture.
Micheala of Loranda Farms is still under pressure to sell her farmland. The "Farms not Freeways" billboard is gone, but as of April 25 a new banner snags the attention of drivers on the Alexander Fraser Bridge. In spite of provincial efforts to silence resistance to the Gateway Program, more direct action events are planned. Wilderness Committee will continue to push for three-way conversations between the organizations, citizens and the province.
Final funding for the Gateway Program is not secure. “It’s important to highlight that Gateway is actually a 20-step plan,” said West. “It’s not a done deal. But, it’s basically a plan to ramp up the industrialization of the BC coastline.”
Writing from Vancouver, Ben Amundson is an undergrad in Human Ecology at UBC; this is an article for Digital Communications in Agriculture. Check back for an upcoming article on bike tours as a means of supporting food sovereignty.
The Dominion is a monthly paper published by an incipient network of independent journalists in Canada. It aims to provide accurate, critical coverage that is accountable to its readers and the subjects it tackles. Taking its name from Canada's official status as both a colony and a colonial force, the Dominion examines politics, culture and daily life with a view to understanding the exercise of power.