Commentary By Chris Ortenburger
This week The Guardian and CBC will feature friendly year-end interviews with Premier Robert Ghiz. This makes it a good time to remember some “awkward truths” about this government, especially as it’s been exactly two years since the Plan B highway project was announced.
The asphalt is down, the guard rails up — it’s not just a “done deal”, as Transportation Minister Robert Vessey said at the onset, but it looks done. Not quite. There are still many steep bare hillsides underneath snow and a bit of mulched hay, which will bear watching when winter rains and the spring melt occur; it is likely to overwhelm the mitigations and allow sediment to enter the West River, as has happened numerous times in the past year.
“It is valuable to continue to bear witness to the environmental impact of Plan B,” said Island ecologist Gary Schneider in November of 2012, after Plan B construction started. Nobody is living in a teepee by the project this winter, but people are watching for the rains, and the long-term health of the remaining trees next to the road.
Why did people get so involved in Plan B? What made us literally wake up and venture from our comfortable homes to stand on the roadside with signs or camp in the woods, be criticized and ridiculed by some government and media people and sever the previously carefree relationships with our elected officials?
Like a majority of Islanders, we were disturbed that government decided to run a highway we can’t afford through land and homes we can’t replace and over people’s rights to be consulted with and desire to be listened to. Plan B was such an egregious example of a bad decision not being recanted that many of us got involved.
The government repeated two justifications for Plan B, which were both proved blatantly false:
1) “It’s all about safety,” as the segment was described as the most dangerous stretch of road, due to design — but only after the Atlantic Gateway money was announced. Hence the expensive over-reaction realignment, against countless letters imploring and illustrating cheaper and more effective solutions.
The real causes of accidents — when the data were finally released in Fall 2012 — were slippery roads and driving too fast for conditions, factors Plan B is not going to solve. The Guardian from October 2012 on causes:
http://www.theguardian.pe.ca/News/Local/2012-10-22/article-3104496/Slippery-roads%2C-speed-are-factors-in-accidents/1 and a CBC Radio story about intersections counted more than once which increased the rates, and government’s ignoring of another stretch of road with more collisions (September 2012):
2) “Islanders told us to go north” in feedback for the original plan to go through Strathgartney Park, which the TIR insisted counted as consultation for a completely new Plan B. In fact, out of over 300 submissions in Fall of 2011, not one suggested the route be changed to cut into the untouched hillside north of the CBC tower on western end and Fairyland on the eastern side.
The Robert Ghiz government ignored or denigrated a petition, rallies, a citizen-initiated plebiscite, countless letters, over 200 Environmental Impact Assessment submissions, and finally people at the site, by calling in the national police force to pull out a couple of women keeping vigil by the ill-fated hemlock forest in the pouring rain.
(Premier Ghiz) apparently remains unmoved by the spectacle of RCMP officers hoisting and hustling citizens off their own land, and unconscious of the harm he is doing to the RCMP, his own government and the very essence of democracy itself. — columnist Jack MacAndrew, October 2012.
This part has been hard to explain to kids.
Plan B is not an extreme example, but one of the worst of many poor decisions. For instance, the implementation of the HST has been hailed by Mr. Ghiz as one of his greatest achievements of 2013. He said it’s not great policy — he is right, as it is merely a tax grab - but it is neither great policy nor politics to run for office without mentioning something as important as implementing the HST.
A new “wilderness” park isn’t going to erase Plan B — though no wilderness by far, it’s still a lovely area — but if the Ghiz government had actually wanted to protect environmentally sensitive land (a term set out by Environment Minister Sherry in her conditional approval of Plan B), they would not have bulldozed right through the Bonshaw Hills to make this road in the first place.
Will Plan B opponents ever let it go? For the most part, we are a pretty positive bunch. We’ve channeled some of the energy into the fledgling Citizens’ Alliance of P.E.I., a non-partisan voice for Islanders to bring forth those “awkward truths”, especially concerning environmental and democratic issues.
Plan B has reinforced that we — all Islanders — need to take care of our Island, both our land and our democracy. Keeping both healthy will encourage our young people to be here making a living and dropping the cynicism that their participation isn’t necessary. And that should be Plan A.
Chris Ortenburger lives in Bonshaw and is a member of the Citizens’ Alliance of P.E.I.