Comment: North Cowichan forestry appointment makes sense

A commentary by the mayor of the District Municipality of North Cowichan.

Re: “Conflict of interest and North Cowichan trees,” comment, Aug. 8.

Larry Pynn’s commentary could leave a casual reader with some wrong impressions of the role played by Cedar Elliott, the operations manager for Khowutzun Forest Services (KFS) with respect to his membership on North Cowichan’s Forest Advisory Committee.

In spite of Pynn’s insistence that there is “no reason to think [Elliott] is not a good and honourable man and a qualified individual who means the best for his people and can fairly contribute to deliberations of the FAC,” the article certainly leaves the impression — echoed repeatedly on social media since the Times Colonist posted this op-ed piece online — that Elliott has been caught with his hand in the cookie jar. Nothing could be further from the truth.

First of all, as the article rightly identifies, KFS generated total revenues of around $5 million last year. Just under $13,000 of that came from their silviculture work in North Cowichan’s Municipal Forest Reserve. That’s about a quarter of one per cent of KFS’s total revenue. So in its proper perspective, the “cookie jar” is actually the size of a very small thimble.

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But there are some even more important principles at play here. In its newly-adopted strategic plan, North Cowichan council has identified “developing strong relationship with Indigenous peoples” as one of our key priorities.

Expanding the membership of our Forest Advisory Committee to include First Nations representation is part of the effect of that plan, and was widely lauded as a move to more inclusive leadership when the announcement was made this year.

But — if Pynn’s logic is followed to its ultimate conclusion — the fact that KFS is wholly owned by Cowichan Tribes would have precluded us from including any Cowichan Tribes members on the committee.

And it was Cowichan Tribes chief and council who were invited to appoint a representative to the Forest Advisory Committee; they appointed Cedar Elliott. Should we question their decision about who best represents their collective interests?

When we create select committees, we look for people with expertise in the field at hand; people who may have strong viewpoints on various sides of an issue. This creates balanced input, but getting people with expertise also includes the potential for intrinsic conflicts.

This is no less true of our Forest Advisory Committee. But this committee has no decision-making authority, and ultimately council makes its decisions knowing the inherent conflicts and reasonable compromises that may be part of the committee’s recommendations.

The Community Charter, (section 104), clearly spells out the principle that conflict of interest rules do not apply when the “interest” at play is held “in common” with the broader community. For example, my residency in Chemainus would not preclude me from voting in favour of improved infrastructure in that community, because while the improvements might be of a benefit to me, my “interest” is held “in common” with the rest of the community.

The same principle applies in relation to Elliott’s relationship to both KFS and Cowichan Tribes.

It’s also worth noting that North Cowichan’s policy of inviting tenders from KFS for work in our municipal forest is fully aligned with the intent of provincial procurement policy at B.C. Timber Sales, which allows up to a $50,000 direct award contract to a First Nation in their traditional territory for silviculture; in fact, it could be argued that North Cowichan is not doing enough in this area in terms of promoting economic development for our First Nations neighbours.

The article’s singling out of Elliott is also interesting from another perspective. For some reason, Pynn didn’t target any other committee members, including a biologist on the committee who has done periodic contract work for the municipality. Neither does he mention the involvement of the Cowichan Trail Stewards, who maintain some of the recreational trails in our forests and periodically get grant money from us for that work. Why is this?

North Cowichan council is fully committed to reviewing our forestry operations, and is about to embark on a major public consultation process to that end. We acknowledge there is always room for improvement in the way we do things.

But while Pynn may be, as described in the preamble to his op-ed, “a veteran environmental journalist and winner of eight Jack Webster journalism awards,” it’s clear that his contribution to this discussion is far from balanced.

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