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Municipal Politics

No Contest in Tofino, This Mayor's a Winner

Acclaimed in several ways, Josie Osborne softens Tuff City with leadership 'in spades.'

Ian Gill 12 Nov

Ian Gill's Tyee column, The Poor Mouth, appears every two weeks or so. Gill lives and writes in Vancouver and works on social innovation initiatives. Find his previous pieces in The Tyee here, and find him on Twitter @gillwave.

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'I'd love to have Josie Osborne join me in Parliament,' said Green leader Elizabeth May of the coastal town's acclaimed mayor.

Canada's municipal election season is winding down, with only the hamlets of Nunavut and the Northwest Territories and the burghs of British Columbia yet to count their votes.

Looking east, the fact that Doug Ford spat his brother's dummy in Toronto was much less a surprise than it was a relief. Mississauga's Hazel McCallion finally let go the mace she'd gripped for 36 years, handing it to Bonnie Crombie, her chosen successor. In Winnipeg, Brian Bowman, a Métis, became the first Indigenous mayor of the most Indigenous city in the country.

Now, it's British Columbia's turn. Compared to Toronto, of course, our municipal politics seem dull as ditchwater, and it's been hard to compete with Jian Gone Messy for space on the front pages lately.

But the races in B.C. aren't without their intrigues. Penticton's mayoral election includes a candidate with a criminal record for sexual assault and drug trafficking. In Kamloops, the race features a candidate who is running because he's unemployed. "I'm bored," said 30-year-old Ben James. "I've got nothing else to do and Kamloops needs a new mayor."

That's a helluva platform, and it's not dissimilar to Kirk LaPointe's chimerical bid in Vancouver. It's hard to discern what LaPointe stands for, or what he's made of (cardboard is my guess), let alone any evidence that he has the right experience to do the job. Certainly running a bad newspaper is no qualification for running a great city.

Does Vancouver even need a new mayor? Probably not, although whatever organic glaze Gregor Robertson coated himself with as an alternative to Teflon at the start of his worshipping on our behalf has definitely begun to flake. On the east side, where I live, diehard BANANAs (build absolutely nothing anywhere near anything) obviously decry Vision Vancouver's condomania, but there aren't enough of them to decisively punish Vision at the polls. The real concern for Vision is that two terms of smug, tone-deaf self-regard have curdled in the minds of their core supporters, some of whom are now in a mood to at least pull them down a notch, if not send them packing.

The best outcome for Vancouver? Robertson returned as mayor, but with a weakened caucus clique that allows more independent voices to be heard at City Hall, and forces Vision out of its aerie and back down to where real people live their lives.

Outside Vancouver, meantime, all eyes presumably will be on the race to replace Dianne Watts in Surrey. The Surrey mayoralty, like Vancouver's and indeed most polls across the province, is hotly contested. Many of the races are needlessly expensive, inanely divisive, and, like federal and provincial races, have a signal-to-noise ratio that makes them utterly unedifying when it comes to presenting the electorate with choices that matter. No wonder people stay away in droves.

By contrast, there are actually some races in B.C. that aren't races at all. In Smithers, they've had the good sense to acclaim their terrific young mayor, Taylor Bachrach. From the tiny Kootenay nugget of Silverton to the unruffled refines of West Vancouver, mayors are being acclaimed all over the place, and often to good effect.

Take Tofino, where the effervescent Pippi Longstocking of Canadian politics, Josie Osborne, tweeted her acclamation as mayor just after 4 p.m. on Oct. 10. Being ridiculously popular in a village of barely 2,000 souls might not seem like a great achievement, but actually, since first being acclaimed to the role in Jan. 2013 (the incumbent quit to take a job in Vancouver), Osborne has managed to make an historical bit part in B.C. politics into something bordering on a leading role. (Objectivity alert -- Osborne and I are friends.)

"She is such a star," says Green Party MP Elizabeth May tells me over the phone. "I'd love to have Josie Osborne join me in Parliament."

So who is Josie Osborne?

Making of a mayor

Aged 42, which is the median age of British Columbians as a whole, Osborne could just about pass for the median age of the population of Tofino which, at 34, makes it the youngest town in the province. It might be the fittest, too -- all that surfing and kayaking -- and while she doesn't surf, Osborne personifies the outgoing, clean and green nature of the place.

For starters she's a vegan, albeher not a "perfect" one, in that she eats seafood, has cream in her coffee and wears leather shoes. She doesn't smoke crack or deal drugs, however, and claims that her only "Rob Ford" moment was when she cycled into town one day without a helmet and failed to stop at a four-way stop. She was cautioned by the cops, went to rehab, and hasn't re-offended.

Osborne grew up on Vancouver Island, and having "geeked out on math" as early as Grade 1, took marine biology at the University of British Columbia and did a master's in resource management at Simon Fraser University before heading to Tofino 16 years ago to work on fisheries issues for the Nuu-chah-Nulth Tribal Council. Twelve years ago she married George Patterson and, among other things, helped him establish the Ecolodge at his Tofino Botanical Gardens, one of the few places in town that pays more than lip service to Clayoquot Sound's rare designation as a UNESCO Man and the Biosphere Reserve.

Osborne did a stint on the board and then on staff at the Raincoast Education Society, a local non-profit where, as a woman scientist, she saw it as her responsibility to inspire young girls to consider science as a career. She was thus inspired herself at age nine when a visitor to her parents' small coastal resort had showed her how to dig clams and make chowder. "I thought it would be good to have a job where you could eat the things you studied."

At the gardens, Patterson and Osborne became and remain enthusiastic promoters of the shift from a resource economy to a knowledge economy. The gardens back onto the Tofino mudflats, second only to the Fraser River Delta as a critical stopover site for migrating Western Sandpipers, and afford wonderful views of Meares Island. About four years ago, kayaking near Meares, Osborne was asked by a friend what one thing she would change about Tofino. Ever the geek, she recalls saying she'd make the local government "a more positive place." Two years ago, she got her chance.

In her inaugural speech in 2013, Osborne declared she was "going to have fun" as the mayor and soon enough she was getting soaked in a dunk tank, duct taped to a wall, photographed in a firefighter's get up, pretty much anything and everything to inject some life into the role and keep Tofino in the news in a good way -- she's an inveterate Facebook, Twitter and Instagram user, and "a good sport."

Osborne, ever the student, took the actual work work of being mayor very seriously -- and quickly found that, as creatures of the province, municipalities have little real clout. She wanted to keep chain stores out of the town and legislate against the use of plastic bags, for instance, but found both actions were beyond her village's legislative remit. Still, the chains are as yet nowhere to be seen, and a natural green ethos is evident in the operations of just about every business in town. Main Street recently had a makeover -- new curbs, new signage and seating, bike lanes, better parking.

582px version of Tofino mayor Josie Osborne
The Tuff mayor at home on Chesterman Beach.

In election season (for six council seats, if not the mayor's chair), the town is notable for there being no election signage -- the third such municipal vote in Tofino to not feature the visual pollution of roadside electioneering.

Although not as buoyant as a decade ago, the local economy seems healthily diverse, and new ventures continue to spring up -- one of them, The Wolf in the Fog, recently was named the best new restaurant in Canada, something the mayor was quick to tweet to her 1,600 followers.

An affable environmentalist

Tofino is not without its challenges. Osborne lists affordable housing as the #1 concern -- "affordability in general" -- followed by childcare, and basic infrastructure like water and sewage (there's only so much a village with a $4-million-a-year budget can pay for.)

As for Tofino's assets, they are mostly natural. "The beach, the forest, the near-shore marine environment and their relative intactness -- I don't like the word 'pristine' because it doesn't recognize the culture, and all sorts of degradation you find all around the world, including here."

Osborne doesn't hesitate to call herself an environmentalist. "Yeah, not a stand-up-and-get-arrested type of an environmentalist, but someone who tries to get along with people and influence them."

People like fish farmers? The differences between fish farmers and environmentalists in the town are entrenched, like the fight over old growth forests once was, and Osborne admits there's "no golden answer. Aquaculture is a necessary part of growing protein for human consumption, but I'm not convinced that growing salmon is an equitable way to produce food." Osborne is careful not to talk ill of an industry that is now firmly ensconced in her town, but she does say, "I'm not interested in seeing the industry expand."

Mining (as in Imperial Metals' bid to mine nearby Catface Mountain and Tranquil Valley)? "No mining. No cutting down old growth trees, either. There are some places where you shouldn't be destroying one-third of a mountain and Clayoquot Sound is one of those places."

Osborne's council punched above its weight at the Union of BC Municipalities convention in September last year and got overwhelming support for her call to reform the province's woefully outdated Mineral Tenure Act, having "learned first-hand how B.C.'s 'free entry' mining laws are a root cause of unnecessary conflicts around the province," as she said at the time.

As for First Nations, Osborne relishes the fact that "I'm mayor of the only municipality located in a tribal park across Canada, and I'm very proud of that." In April this year, the Tla-o-qui-aht First Nation's Ha'wiih (hereditary chiefs) declared that they now consider their entire traditional territory, which includes Tofino, to be a tribal park under their jurisdiction. "I view that as their assertion of rights and title in their territory," Osborne says, and she welcomes it, especially in light of the Tsilhqot'in land claim victory -- "a total game changer" for all levels of government, including hers.

Relations between the village and Clayoquot Sound's three First Nations are generally good, she says, but government-to-government dealings "need to be clarified" in the wake of the Tsilhqot'in decision.

Leadership 'in spades'

And what of her ambition to elevate the political discourse in Tofino, a town that used to be known in municipal circles as "a difficult place to work."

"We are a generation now away from the 1990s and the stresses of the forestry wars," Osborne says. The town "has accepted that it values and depends on tourism," and she claims that 95 per cent of what comes before mayor and council is handled unanimously through a "better quality of debate." That takes longer, she says, noting that council meetings that used to last barely one hour sometimes now stretch to four.

Osborne believes her own collaborative approach to leadership has helped change the civic mood for the better, inside council chambers and in the community as a whole.

"Absolutely!' says long-time councillor and current council candidate Dorothy Baert, when asked if Osborne deserves credit for that.

It's about leadership, Baert says, and "that's what Josie has in spades." She keeps conversations going, she poses tough questions, and "she does it in such a positive, uplifting way that she's really drawn a lot of people into the public discourse. There's just a sense now that the community's being well cared for, well tended, and she's just tireless at it."

Osborne says, "There's a real freedom in being an independent, working with a bunch of independents [Tofino's councillors]." Looking east across Canada's larger political landscape, she decries partisan politics -- "the party thing" -- that centralize and concentrate power and leave people, in her view, feeling disenfranchised.

Looking west across the political landscape from the east coast, where she speaks to me from her current book tour, Elizabeth May hopes Osborne will see the Green Party as a natural home in which she might find safe harbour for her talents when she's done four more years in Tuff City, as Tofino likes to call itself.

"It's so rare to have a community activist, a scientist, a woman, who puts herself forward for public office," May says, in part because the party system forces MPs to stifle their own voices and become "message tracks for their leaders," rather than for their constituents.

May has asked Osborne to run federally. "She'd be brilliant as a Green."

For now though, Tofino's small-g mayor is staying put, going to governance school every day, geeking out on policy and process, bubbling away in public, making a full-time job out of one that pays her half a salary, if that -- and having a lot of fun in the bargain.

Come the weekend, the race to be mayor of Tofino won't be one to watch. But long after the polls have closed, Her Worship, Josie Osborne, sure will be.  [Tyee]

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