Island Voices: Global woes affect local municipalities

Based on the letters to the editor in recent months , it seems there is a new sport in town — “piling on to council.”

There are, of course, the Grumpy Taxpayer$ — note their dollar sign — whom I might respect if they positioned themselves as citizens rather than taxpayers (a narrow and purely economic view of oneself), and as contributing rather than complaining.

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Then there are others who call for councils to “stay in their lane,” stay out of climate change, energy policy, transportation, biking, plastic-bag, homelessness, mental health, social justice and other issues they are addressing.

This is based on a very narrow view of muncipalities’ role as fixing the potholes (a common reference point) and not much else.

But one letter writer (“Victoria council should think local,” Feb. 1) perhaps inadvertently put her finger on the real scope of municipal government’s role. In an attempt to prove her point, she urges council to examine B.C.’s Community Charter, which states, she notes, that every council member has a responsibility “to consider the well-being and interests of the municipality and its community.”

Interestingly, well-being is not defined in the act, although it does state: “The purposes of a municipality include … fostering the economic, social and environmental well-being of its community.”

Please note, Grumpy Taxpayer$ and others, that this is not just about economics, but includes social and environmental well-being. One would hardly call it municipal well-being if the municipal government and the economy was doing well while inequality increased, its environment deteriorated and its citizens sickened and died.

In fact, a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being is the World Health Organization’s definition of health.

So in the absence of a definition in the act, we should understand the purpose of a municipality is to foster the health of its residents, including their economic and environmental well-being.

This is, of course, precisely why I have spent much of the past 35 years promoting the concept of healthy communities, and linking it to the concept of sustainable communities.

All this raises the interesting question of what determines the well-being of the people of the municipality — all the people, not just the taxpayers. Some of the key determinants of health for which local governments have been responsible for decades, if not centuries, are clean water, sewers and drainage, waste management, safe and healthy housing, fire safety, safe streets and neighbourhoods, parks and clean air and generally, good urban and community planning.

But in recent decades, we have developed a much better understanding of the determinants of health. In my past two columns, I reviewed a recent report from a WHO/UNICEF/Lancet Commission on the future well-being of children.

They identified three major factors that adversely affect the health of children, now and in the future: Poverty and inequality, climate change (and I would add, more broadly, global ecological change) and commercial pressures to adopt unhealthy ways of living. These are as important or more important than health care in determining the health of the population.

So it seems clear to me that the municipal government (and indeed every councillor) needs to — in fact, is obliged to — address these issues. Failure to do so would be a breach of the act.

There is another thread in the criticism, implied in the exhortation to “think local,” that is also unfounded. It never was the case that municipalities existed separately from their national and global context, but today, while we need to act locally, we really do need to think globally.

Global problems affect local municipalities, from higher temperatures to rising sea levels and severe weather, from depletion of resources needed for food to international trade agreements, and from unemployment and poverty to the emerging challenges of artificial intelligence and robotics.

Moreover, and importantly, higher orders of government, although more powerful, are not necessarily smarter or wiser. In fact, municipal governments are closer to the community and more nimble.

Time and again — from smoking to climate change, from AIDS to recycling — they have done a better job of looking after the well-being of the municipality, as the Community Charter requires them to do.

Dr. Trevor Hancock is a retired professor and senior scholar at the University of Victoria’s School of Public Health and Social Policy.


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