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Message from the Mountain

December 2034: An Interview with the Mayor of Burnaby

Burnaby News, December 1st, 2034

Journalist: Mayor Julia Alexander, it is a privilege to be interviewing you here on the mountain on the 20th anniversary of the Burnaby Mountain arrests. As we all know, those days played an important part in subsequent events. Do you have any thoughts that you’d like to share?

Mayor: I was young at the time, and we’d been camping on the mountain for several months, often in very cold and wet conditions.  I remember feeling completely defeated when the drilling started, thinking it was all in vain. At the time, I didn’t understand quite how determined Canada’s climate activists were, or that we were just one pressure-point among thousands.

Journalist: Now that you are the Mayor of Burnaby, would you say that your actions on the mountain were an important factor in the changes that have happened since?

Mayor: They were probably a factor, but it’s not about taking credit. What inspires me is how so many went on to become engaged in the community. There’s a group of us who still meet regularly, so I know what they’re all up to.

Take Karen Mazumder, for instance. She started the Burnaby Cycling Alliance, whose members took the lead in promoting the Burnaby Complete Streets Plan. If I feel pride in the fact that most of Burnaby’s streets are now safe, secure spaces for pedestrians, cyclists and transit riders, as well as cars, it’s Karen and her fellow cyclists who made it possible.

All Burnaby Businesses to be Benefit Corporations by 2040

Then there’s Mai Tran, one of our city councilors. After the mountain she went on to convert her restaurant on Kingsway into a Benefit Corporation, giving it a legal duty to serve the community and the environment as well as to make a financial return. When she became a city councilor she sold the restaurant to its workers, who turned it into a workers’ coop, and now she is leading the drive to persuade all of Burnaby’s businesses to become Benefit Corporations by 2040. She was also instrumental in leading the drive for a $15 minimum wage, and establishing the Burnaby Cooperatives Network, which provides support and business services to the hundred or so coops we have in the city.

There’s also Jim Townsend, another city councilor. He came down off the mountain determined to do what he could to make Burnaby’s transportation operate without oil. It was hypocritical, he said, to be campaigning to stop an oil pipeline when almost everyone in Burnaby depended on oil to get around. He’s been our city’s climate conscience.

It was Jim who got people excited about making Burnaby a global leader in cycling, walking, transit, ridesharing and carsharing, as well as electric vehicles. He worked with Adam Bass, another mountain activist, to form the Burnaby Transit Riders Association, and he got himself appointed to the board of TransLink, where he led the drive to electrify every city bus, saving TransLink millions of dollars a year. Now it’s normal, of course, but Metro Vancouver was the first city in the world to have 100% electric transit.

Free parking for EVs anywhere in the city

And there’s Cheyenne Trinidad, who co-founded the Burnaby Electric Vehicles Association (BEVA). It was Cheyenne and her fellow EV owners who set the goal that every car and light truck in Burnaby should be electric by 2030, which Burnaby Council endorsed. Every weekend they invited Burnaby residents to try an EV for free, getting people comfortable with the change. It was BEVA which persuaded the city to allow free parking for EVs anywhere in the city for three years, as an incentive to make the shift.

Then there’s Kate George, who worked with the BC Sustainable Energy Association to make Metro Vancouver a 100% Renewable Energy Region, including the heat we use in our buildings as well as the energy we use for transportation and electricity.

The electricity was easy, since a year or so after we came down off the mountain BC Hydro announced that it would close BC’s few remaining gas-fired generation plants, expand BC’s wind power generation, support the solar revolution, make a major increase in their commitment to energy conservation and launch the BC Geothermal Partnership, providing shared funding for the expensive test drills that are needed to locate the best spots for geothermal energy. FortisBC followed suit, so now the entire province is generating 100% renewable electricity.

For every NO we needed twenty YESes

Journalist: So the events on the mountain did more than contribute to stopping the pipeline expansion…

Mayor: Absolutely. We developed a clear understanding that for every “NO” we needed twenty “YESes.” People want to feel confident, not defeated, and that meant being confident about a future without fossil fuels. We also wanted to bring climate justice home, to be sure that the changes would be socially just and equitable. We wanted to build a new kind of green, cooperative economy, although we didn’t know what all the pieces would be.

Journalist: How much have you been able to achieve towards building that new economy?

Mayor: That’s a big question—how long do you have? We have made good progress in supporting business start-ups and new coops, and persuading Burnaby’s businesses to become Benefit Corporations. The local food economy is booming, with loads of community gardens, and we followed Simon Fraser University’s lead in divesting all of our city funds from fossil fuels. We are currently pushing a big drive for Green Business Certification, following the model established by Vancouver Island Green Business Certification. The Burnaby Board of Trade has been very pro-active in championing an innovative, sustainable, socially responsible business community, and they have taken the lead on many things including the Burnaby Youth Enterprise Centre, the Burnaby Women’s Enterprise Centre, the initiative to develop the $15 minimum wage, recently increased to $22 to keep up with inflation, and the business support partnerships with the Squamish and Tsleil-Waututh First Nations.

Speaking of which, have you seen the new Centre for the Ancestors that the Tsleil-Waututh have built on the site of the old Chevron Burnaby Refinery? It’s amazing to get such a good understanding of the 15,000 years of First Nations settlement and culture before the arrival of the white people. Half the building is about the past, and half about the Ancestors of the Future. SFU and BCIT have both embraced the need to build a green, entrepreneurial, cooperative economy, as part of that future and they are working with the Tsleil-Waututh to link the green economy to training and degree programs. It’s very inspiring: you can walk into the Centre as a curious observer, and walk out with a concrete plan for your future in your hands.

Journalist: What would you say have been the most important factors behind your success here in Burnaby? You have just been elected to your second term as Mayor, and the Burnaby Citizens’ Association team has once again won all the seats on council, signaling strong support for your platform. 

Mayor: Well, I’ve got to credit my predecessors on council for showing what real leadership was like in their clear opposition to the Kinder Morgan pipeline, twenty years ago. They showed how one small municipality could roar like a lion. It was Mayor Corrigan and his fellow councilors who encouraged us to get involved in civic affairs, when we came down off the mountain.

It was one of the city councilors at the time who encouraged me to run for council, even though I was a single mother. So overall, I would say yes, it was the activists’ commitment to civic engagement that made the biggest difference. We had a really powerful weekend retreat at the Shadbolt Centre a month after we came down off the mountain, when we met to process what had happened, and plan for the future. That was when the Mayor spoke to us and suggested that we make a real commitment to civic engagement, to put our principles and ideals into practice right here in Burnaby to make a better world for our kids and grand-kids. I remember so vividly the moment when we stood in a circle joining hands and pledging to build a better world, wherever we lived.

Leaving 80% of the Fossil Fuels in the Ground

Journalist: You’ve spoken about transportation and electricity — can you tell our readers about the work you’ve been doing with Burnaby’s buildings?

Mayor: Yes. When we made the commitment to become a 100% renewable energy region it was with full awareness of how difficult it would be to phase out the use of gas and oil to heat our buildings. But both are fossil fuels, and if we were to leave 80% of the remaining fossil fuels in the ground, as the climate scientists and many others insisted was essential—including, I should add, Mark Carney, the Canadian Governor of the Bank of England—we needed to phase out natural gas as well as oil. The government of the day was obsessed with exporting liquefied natural gas, but they never talked about the environmental cost of all the fracking that would be involved, or the true climate impact of natural gas. It was not until a new government finally embraced the promise of a green economy, helped by the new publicly owned Bank of British Columbia, that the jobs began to flow.

Sorry—I got distracted there. You were asking about our progress with green buildings. Several of the Burnaby Mountain activists were either builders, or were attracted to becoming builders, so they worked with the Cascadia Green Building Council and the staff at BCIT’s School of Sustainable Construction Technology to form the Burnaby Green Building Team. Technically, the path to zero-carbon buildings involves a lot of insulation, heat pumps, heat recovery ventilators, triple-glazed windows and district heat systems fueled by a combination of waste heat, water-source heat from the Fraser, sewage-source heat, and ground-source heat from under Burnaby’s streets and car parks.

The challenge was to unlock the financial puzzle, so that homeowners, landlords, condo strata councils and commercial building owners could borrow the money for a retrofit with the cost being financed by the savings. I’m very proud of the Finance for the Future partnership we helped establish with Vancity, BC Hydro and the province, who agreed to guarantee all loans under the program.

So the process of upgrade is going very well. Almost every new building follows the Passive House standard these days. That reduces heating needs by 90%, and makes it easy to supply the rest with a small heat pump. And the Burnaby Solar Cooperative has played a major role in getting so many rooftop installations. It’s incredible how low the price of solar has fallen. These days, if you’ve installed a solar roof you can be saving up to $1,000 a year. Some commercial building owners are saving as much as $10,000 a year. Have you seen the new solar skin on the roof of BC Place, and the solar charging station at SFU?

A Zero Carbon World

Journalist: This has been fascinating. Do you have any words for the younger generation, who are experiencing it as normal to live in a zero carbon world?

Mayor: How I wish that were true! Here in Burnaby we are almost zero-carbon. We still have some buildings to retrofit, and there are still some trucking companies whose owners have not yet invested in the new long-distance electric trucks, with their 500-kilometre range and rapid recharge, but the world as a whole still has a long way to go.

So please, I would say, continue to be passionate activists for the world as a whole. If the rest of the world fails to achieve the phase-out of fossil fuels that we so badly need, our efforts here won’t make a baby’s diaper of a difference. To stretch the analogy, we’ve become potty-trained here in Burnaby. We no longer dump fossil fuel emissions, but we’re still being dumped on by the rest of the world. So train! Build yourself a successful career in changing the world and making it a better place. Turn your activism into your life’s dream and fulfillment. That’s what I did, and I can say from experience that it works.