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Boy Mayor on a Roll

How Smithers' Taylor Bachrach skidded into politics and ran straight into one huge pipeline controversy.

By Robyn Smith 20 Aug 2012 | TheTyee.ca

Robyn Smith is a senior editor at The Tyee.

Down the main strip, past the outfitter shops and the Alpenhorn pub, the boy mayor of Smithers whips by on his bicycle.

Inside the pub, a 21-year-old nail technician says she doesn't know much about civic politics, but it's normal to see Mayor Taylor Bachrach coasting by. It makes him late for everything, a server chimes in, because he's always braking to chat with folks, like the girls at the Bugwood Bean coffee bar or a councillor from the next town over.

Residents call him the new mayor or the young mayor, but it was Bachrach who introduced himself as "The Boy Mayor of Smithers" at a conference earlier this spring. At 34, he's fresh-faced and fit, with the kind of outdoorsy youthfulness B.C. seems to breed. "When you ride your bike around, you can interact with people," he says. "It's a social form of transport."

Making it easier to bike around this northern town of 6,000 is just one agenda item for Bachrach, who was elected last November. Smithereens have been waiting years for action on a second hockey arena, and they're still hungry for it. Winter's been hard on the roads, and many require heavy repaving. And then there's the endless drama: to Walmart or not to Walmart?

These are debates that play out in the streets, inside the municipal hall, and also on Bachrach's Facebook page. A key part of election campaign, the page is now a cheery mix of the mayor's ruminations on life and resident requests ("Taylor, would you fix the pothole at Second and Main?" a typical post reads). For Bachrach, rubbing elbows with constituents, virtually or otherwise, is one of the perks of being mayor in a small town.

"It's such an intimate level of politics. That's the most enjoyable part of it, is that you really can know people and you really can talk about individual potholes," he says.

Fixing roads is the bread and butter of any government. But recently the mayor and council have faced a different sort of challenge. Along with other northern B.C. towns over the past few years, Smithers has found itself thrown under the looming shadow of a very large, very politicized pipeline.

Enbridge Inc.'s proposed $6 billion, 1,172 km Northern Gateway twin pipeline project, which would pump crude and condensate between Alberta's oil sands to coastal Kitimat, is certainly one of the BC Liberal government's biggest dilemmas. Premier Christy Clark's spiky yes-for-a-price position sparked a public dispute with Alberta Premier Alison Redford, which didn't help much in the polls. The federal government has maintained the pipeline project is a national imperative, though Prime Minister Stephen Harper recently tempered his forthright support, saying the project should be scientifically evaluated on an independent basis.

For many residents in the north, and for First Nations who've never ceded rights to the land, the pipeline issue has quickly become a unifying fight to protect their quality of life. And though municipal governments possess no jurisdiction over the matter -- Ottawa has the final say -- some councils have moved to stake a position and register their opposition on behalf of residents. In February, Smithers council voted to oppose Northern Gateway, joining Terrace, Prince Rupert and Skeena-Queen Charlotte Regional District that had already done so.

"More and more, people are looking to local government to represent them on all kinds of issues, because I really believe there's a higher degree of social trust at the municipal level. Because it's more personal. Because you live together," says Bachrach, whose town is an 1,100 km drive from Vancouver to the southeast.

What does it mean for a government to opine? Some experts suggest municipalities flex political muscle as a reaction to the growing inaccessibility of senior levels of government, or the feeling that the lowest democratic rung goes increasingly unheard. And they say we've yet to see the full extent of municipal brawn, as local powers in B.C. continue to press for a bigger share of public revenues.

A town like Smithers could stick to its knitting -- it does boast a bustling yarn store -- but the spirit in the north is changing, Bachrach says.

"There's a regional identity that's emerging. People are recognizing that what we have here in the northwest is pretty special, it's pretty unique," he says. "There's a growing sense that our communities are connected."

'We don't have a word for oil spill'

Borrowing from a quote he'd heard, the folk singer Valdy once described Smithers as a "difference of opinion surrounded by mountains." Residents, known as Smithereens, would tend to agree. It's a blend of ages and occupations: second and third generation European settlers, miners, farmers, seniors, First Nations, draft dodgers and young families.

Smithers is also a regional hub, a "cosmopolitan" service town in its own way. Locals take pride in their main street, a mix of boutique stores, coffee joints, the odd sushi spot. While churches of many stripes dot the intersections, it's not a hard place to find an exuberant electronic dance party. Loved by sportive types, it offers top-notch skiing, mountain biking, and above all fishing. From across the globe, anglers arrive eager to catch steelhead in the Bulkley, Morice and Skeena rivers, and leave breathless with the area's beauty.

There's an environmental sensibility about the town. From fish farms to coalbed methane, Smithereens reliably oppose what threatens their natural wealth. It's also a town built on industry with a vital natural resource sector, and there's a balancing act between economies somewhat at odds: resources and tourism, the latter relying on the responsible management of the former to thrive. As Bachrach says, Smithers often grapples with the question of how much of that natural wealth to sacrifice in order to "put food on the table."

With that mentality, it makes sense that residents have closely scrutinized Northern Gateway ever since its scale and scope became clear.

They watched diluted bitumen spill into Michigan's Kalamazoo River after an Enbridge pipeline ruptured in 2010, costing approximately $800 million to clean up. The U.S. National Transportation Safety Board's final report on the spill summarized the company's "organizational deficiencies," including a poor safety culture, inadequate training and monitoring, and an ineffective response to the spill.

They read reports like that of Dave Bustard and Mike Miles, examining the impacts of a pipeline rupture or spill on Reach 2 of the Morice River. The pipeline would run adjacent to this productive stretch of salmon spawning and rearing habitat, as well as cross 500 fish-bearing streams in B.C. Bustard and Miles not only write frankly about the biological richness at risk, but reveal in detail how the high velocity of the river combined with poor access and the complex of side channels and debris along much of the river floodplain would make it impractical to contain or recover spilled oil once it has reached the river, or to effectively fix damage to critical fish habitats without causing more damage in the process.

And they took cues from the Wet'suwet'en First Nation, whose territory would be cut horizontally in half by the pipeline, and who were vehemently opposed to the project early on.

"This pipeline goes through, and we know it would break," says John Ridsdale, Chief Na'Mox of the Wet'suwet'en. He says the Wet'suwet'en word "Wetzin Kwa" used to describe the blue green water of the Morice River would no longer apply after a spill.

"We'd have to rename everything. Thousands and thousands of years, these names have been here. Like that, we'd have to change it. We don't have a word for computer or telephone. We don't have a word for oil spill, pipeline. We sure don't have words for 'What used to be Wetzin Kwa.'"

Enbridge has estimated that about 5,500 person-years of on-site employment will be created during the construction phase of Gateway in B.C. and Alberta. In addition, the company states about 1,150 long-term jobs will be created to operate the pipelines and marine terminal.

"Total local, provincial and federal government tax revenues during 30 years of operations will be approximately $2.6 billion; this includes about $36 million per year estimated to be paid by Northern Gateway as local property taxes," the project's FAQ site reads.

Enbridge was not reachable for comment on how the project could specifically benefit Smithers. Though there is a contingent of supporters in the north -- a recent Angus Reid poll found one in nine northern residents "completely support" Gateway -- wandering the town, it's difficult to find one.

"There's a lot of issues where it's more murky. Where it's more challenging to define what the community's sentiment is," Bachrach says.

Jumping into politics

In the lead up to the November election, Bachrach and wife Michelle were settling their young family closer to Bachrach's communications business in Smithers, after moving from nearby Telkwa where he'd previously served as a councillor. Bachrach was preparing to launch a bid for a Smithers council seat.

Then Jim Davidson came along.

A dairy farmer who served as mayor in the mid-2000s, Davidson describes himself as "learning how to retire." In his heyday he battled mining giants and CN Rail to keep out projects he felt unworthy of Smithers. Northern Gateway was just a faint idea during his term, but Davidson was wary early on. Simply put, anything that risked the fish was a bad deal for the town.

"The Wet'suwet'en have been here for years and years. They never starved to death. The only reason they never starved to death was fish. They always had food, nutritious food. We could learn something from that, don't you think?" he says, acknowledging they no longer rely on fish for sustenance.

Prior to the election he wrote to Smithers council, led by then mayor Cress Farrow, about the Enbridge proposal, warning the pipeline threatened the region's water and future. Council didn't respond, he says, and Farrow didn't seem interested in further discussion.

So when the election neared and it seemed no one would step up to challenge Farrow for the mayor's seat, Davidson vowed to find someone to run against him. He singled out Bachrach and persuaded him to run at the eleventh hour.

"We didn't have much time, and he said, 'Yeah, I'll run.' And he did it on the condition that I openly support him. That's only fair. If I'm pushing him off the dock, I should throw him a lifer too, eh?"

Over coffee at the local Louise's Kitchen, while Skeena-Bulkley Valley NDP MP Nathan Cullen floats from table to table topping up diner cups, Bachrach describes the decision to run for the part-time, $18,000 stipend job as "a bit of a Hail Mary." But for him, it wasn't really about Enbridge.

"It wasn't something that I really chose to make part of my platform. I believe this issue is going to come and go, and there are other issues we need to talk about as a community... the style of leadership and a more consultative, inclusive style of government was to me more important. In the end, the candidates don't really get to decide what the issues are," he says.

Bachrach says that became clear at an all-candidates debate, when he and Farrow were asked what they would do to improve the relationship between the town and the Wet'suwet'en.

"My answer to the question was, 'I feel the hereditary chiefs have taken a very courageous stand against a certain industrial development project that really holds no promise for our community. I can't think of a stronger way in building our relationship than to stand with them in solidarity and say no to the pipeline.' As soon as I said 'say no to the pipeline,' the roof came off the place."

Dan Mesec, municipal reporter for the Interior News who also ran for a council seat and opposes Gateway, remembers Farrow's performance that evening.

"Cress was way more reserved, a lot quieter and more technical. He's always talking about numbers. People didn't want to hear that, they wanted to hear vision."

(Reached by phone, Farrow's wife said the former mayor is out of town until September and unavailable to comment.)

Bachrach says he wanted to present the idea of "running local government differently" and show residents they could participate and influence civic policy. Engagement through social media was a big aspect of the campaign, and as Mesec says, support snowballed.

In the end, Bachrach won 896 votes in Smithers, beating Farrow's 635. The turnout was 41 per cent, besting the provincial average by 11 percentage points.

The big vote

Most people think of a municipality's job as simple, Bachrach says: water, sewer, roads.

That alone can be time consuming. At a recent meeting to consider a zoning amendment, council is dutifully deferent to process, though the conversation can run in circles, with rules forgotten and remembered minutes later.

The pipeline issue was no different, though it fell outside council's jurisdiction. Still, those who saw their beliefs aligned with Bachrach's wanted to do more. Others were more hesitant, and council talked about whether it was right to take a public stance on behalf of the town.

"The stakes (were) very high, and it's sort of outside people's comfort zone. Sometimes it's outside my comfort zone," Bachrach says.

The most vocal constituents were heard. As Bachrach says, those opposed were passionately opposed, while supporters were quieter. A recent Angus Reid poll released Aug. 1 shows that's still true today -- 11 per cent of northern B.C. residents "completely support" Gateway, while 46 per cent "completely oppose" it. Forty per cent swing either way, but say their minds could still be changed.

After a series of postponements, in February Smithers council voted five to one to oppose the pipeline, with one councillor absent. It wasn't without controversy. Councillor Charlie Northrup told Interior News he was "disappointed and surprised" that council would vote on the important issue without all present.

And not everyone believed resistance from local council would bear on the final outcome of Gateway. As local business owner Scott Groves put it, "For one body to try and form an opinion that is going to represent all of the constituents of that area on something like this is going to be difficult to do."

Bachrach says people had their reasons for wanting to postpone the vote.

"Some people wanted to wait until the Joint Review Panel was over," he says. "Some people felt they had enough evidence at that time, and some people said they didn't."

The power of local

Why bother voting on an issue outside of its jurisdiction? The political role of municipalities is a "fairly new" concept, says Joel Bakan, author of The Corporation and a constitutional law expert at the University of British Columbia.

Before the 1970s or so, cities generally "stuck to their knitting" and made decisions solely within their realm of legal responsibility. Since then, examples of cities exercising what Bakan calls a "democratic jurisdiction" became more common -- like when Vancouver declared itself a "nuclear weapons free zone." However symbolic the gesture, local governments are increasingly a key site for reactivating people's sense that citizenship matters, Bakan says. That's because it's the only level of government where the concept of "the people" is not an abstraction. In other words, it's personal.

"Increasingly as people feel more and more alienated from their governments, whether federally or provincially, I think we're going to see municipalities taking these kinds of extrajurisdictional positions as a matter of participating in the broader public debate, even while not being able to technically do anything about the issue," Bakan says. "What the mayor of Smithers is doing is a great example of a city playing that role."

While municipal governments are essentially creatures of the provinces and territories, Bachrach says he never feared backlash from senior levels of government or punishment by industry for taking the stance.

"Some people feel that saying no to projects send the wrong message to the investment community, and that you risk putting a damper on potential investment," he says. "I think that's a risky line of logic, because it suggests a lack of caring about how the future turns out, or that we want to not defend our interests as a community."

Today, B.C.'s municipalities aren't afraid to test their bargaining power either. Faced with the downloading of core service responsibilities from above, and with a meager eight per cent slice of the tax pie to pay for it, 80 mayors met in Penticton in May to discuss how to negotiate a new deal with the provincial government.

In a statement, the B.C. Mayors' Caucus call municipal governments "the innovators of this province" because as mandates expand, "we've proven that through the continued delivery of services despite the fiscal constraints that we face." Bachrach is on the caucus steering committee.

Wisdom and intelligence

At Moricetown Canyon, 20 minutes from downtown Smithers, fishers hover over a rocky precipice with poled nets in hand, aiming to catch a Chinook from the frothing river below. Farther downstream, a catch and release team makes notes on the species of fish swimming by. The water is high for early August, and some are worried about the catch this year.

It's a small fraction of Wet'suwet'en territory, but for Ridsdale the landscape provides a visceral example of what's at stake. The Wet'suwet'en continue to raise alarms, recently commemorating the annual return of the salmon by gathering locals for a photo-op on the canyon bridge, above a sign stating Enbridge Threatens Our Rivers.

582px version of Enbridge-Threatens-Our-Rivers.jpg
Wet'suwet'en and other local residents gather to celebrate the annual return of the salmon at Moricetown Canyon. Photo by Leah Macknak.

Bachrach says the Wet'suwet'en have shown "integrity" on Gateway, and he's learned from it.

"It's long term thinking, the difference between wisdom and intelligence," he says. "We put a lot of stock in science and technology. We just saw the Mars Rover land on Mars. We're an incredibly inventive, intelligent species. Sometimes we're not so wise."

The Gateway Joint Review Panel hearings swept through Smithers in April, and again at the end of July. For his oral statement, Bachrach donned a suit jacket and tie. Like other speakers, he painted a grim picture of gushing oil, tankers hitting the rocks. But in true boy mayor style, he couldn't help but see the bright side.

The pipeline, he told the panel, has brought people together in the northwest "like never before."

"In no instance is this more significant than the relationships and the bonds that have developed between First Nations and non-First Nations communities in our region," he told them. "We're in a critical period right now of beginning to reconcile our shared history and build the trust that will allow us to truly forge a shared future. It's happening, and our shared fight against this pipeline is actually playing an important role. So if Enbridge is responsible, albeit unintentionally for this, then perhaps in sort of a paradox -- paradoxical way, we owe them a debt of gratitude."

In that sense, Ridsdale is thankful too.

"I really thought about sending Enbridge a Christmas card and thanking them for uniting Canada, British Columbia, the way this has," he says. "A lot of the municipalities aren't along the pipeline route, but they understand what's at stake. Don't open that door."  [Tyee]

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