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Tofino considers building more “equitable” economy as part of COVID-19 recovery

Council holds town’s first-ever public meeting conducted entirely through online video app Zoom.
Tofino mayor Josie Osborne speaks to her council and constituents during the district’s first-ever Zoom meeting on April 14. (Andrew Bailey photo)

As Tofino hashes out how it will recover from the COVID-19 pandemic, the town’s council is preparing to steer through an economic shift the likes of which hasn’t been seen since 1994’s conclusion of the War in the Woods.

During council’s first-ever public meeting conducted entirely through online video app Zoom, Mayor Josie Osborne suggested difficult conversations are ahead around when and how to reopen Tofino’s tourism economy.

“We have to take quick action, especially in parts of our economic recovery, but not at the expense of the social side and the public health side. I have some very difficult discussions coming soon about when and how the region reopens to our predominant industry, tourism, in a way that is appropriate for the most vulnerable people in the region. I don’t know that there are going to be compatible goals here immediately and we’re going to have some tough times talking about that,” Osborne said.

READ MORE: Tourism Tofino says town’s visitation generates $240 million annually

Osborne’s words came as council reviewed a COVID-19 recovery plan report presented by Tofino’s manager of community sustainability Aaron Rodgers where council questioned what kind of town it wants to recover into.

“When I first read the report and saw the word recovery, my first thought was, ‘Do we want to recover to what we used to be, or do we want to recover to something possibly better?,” said Coun. Duncan McMaster.

Coun. Andrea McQuade said the recovery plan should include a longer term strategy linked to council’s strategic plan and suggested the problems born of the pandemic were already hurtling on a crash course towards Tofino regardless.

“If anything, this has accelerated and arrived us at a terminal point for a number of these problems altogether, which I think is actually a really amazing opportunity for council and for this community,” she said.

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She noted concerns around housing, business resiliency, the hospital, mental health, and inequity of tourism benefits were key themes during 2018’s municipal election campaign.

“Those were all topics of concern [before] this event, and they are definitely ways in which we are watching our community bend, break or strain now,” she said, adding Tofino now has a “unique opportunity” to build a “more equitable and resilient” community.

The rest of council supported McQuade’s sentiment and unanimously agreed to send Rodger’s recovery plan report back to the drawing board to sketch out a potentially freshly diversified economy.

“If ever there was an opportunity to have a wide discussion with our community around recovering to something that is, as Coun. McQuade put it, more equitable, this is an opportunity that we have to seize,” Osborne said.

She reiterated McQuade’s recollection around the community’s key 2018 election issues, suggesting concerns around “over-tourism and sustainable tourism” rang out loudly from residents at that time.

“The pandemic has given us this pause, this breathing space. Even in the most economically challenging times many of us have ever faced, people are getting back in touch with why they moved here in the first place and what it is that truly brought those of us from away here and I think there’s something very beautiful in that that needs to be allowed to flourish in this kind of process,” she said.

READ MORE: VIDEO: Tofino voters cite housing as key election issue

Coun. Dan Law commended district staff for the quick and thorough report, but agreed a revision was needed.

“We’re definitely ahead of the game and I, kind of, look at it as a really important opportunity to reimagine Tofino in some ways and broaden our vision for the future,” Law said.

Rodgers’ report had presented recommendations around recovery and resiliency and included putting a committee together to see the town through its recovery process.

“Recovery is an action that should start occurring during response actions and well before response is actually finished,” he said adding the work would help identify the community’s needs and available resources.

“I tripped over the word ‘plan’ a couple of times in writing this report and thinking about this. I feel that, as much of a plan, this is going to be planning and a process and a framework,” he said. “The action of actually creating the plan will in large part give us the benefit of it.”

Osborne agreed.

“I couldn’t agree with you more in saying that it’s the active verb part of it, the ‘ing.’ The planning and the process that we undertake will be just as important than any documentation that comes out the other end,” she said.

Rodgers suggested the size of the committee that will be struck remains up in the air, with his initial recommendation being to incorporate a broad range of community stakeholders.

“I get torn between forming a committee that’s so large that we can’t actually do the work we need to do and a committee that’s too small to give us the representation that we need,” he said.

Osborne suggested the district has seen ineffective “wheel-spinning” created by committees that were too large in the past and suggested the committee that oversees Tofino’s recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic should be small, flexible and action-oriented with room for other participants created through round-tables or sub-committees.

“We’d love to have everybody represented here, but it might not be possible to do in one committee,” she said.

Tofino’s Chief Administrative Officer Bob MacPherson agreed a smaller committee would be more effective.

“I think all of council has heard from me in the past that, if you want to get nothing done, get an 18 person committee,” he said.

Coun. Al Anderson noted that a quick response is needed.

“What the community really needs right now from the district is to have some sort of, not just hope, but action. So, I hope we can move on this in a timely way,” he said. “It’s really, really important to get it right and not just be spinning our wheels with a committee just to try and show that we’re doing something.”

READ MORE: COVID-19 has been impacting Canadian economy since January

Osborne suggested that both short-term and long-term strategies could be worked on in tandem and that immediate actions are needed to address uncertainty.

“The one thing going through my head over and over and over is recovery to what? We’re not going to define ‘what’ for months, but we need to have some basic certainties and basic needs met in order to be able to have those conversations,” she said.

“We immediately do need to begin convening certain parts of our community together to have some of these difficult conversations about how to best respond and what the very initial pivot parts are that we need to make so we can enable a quality of life and basic economic level of activity in a way that sustains the community and municipality…It’s a recovery plan that starts off as an initial response to the pandemic, but I think can lead into a much more deeper and very meaningful process for the community. It’s almost like a pressure valve that helps to relieve some of the tension that I think we’ve really felt in the last couple of years in our tourism industry.”

READ MORE: Pipeline protests spur memories of Clayoquot protests for Tofino and Ucluelet locals

She noted the community has proven its ability to adapt to transformational shifts before, harking back to the Clayoquot Logging Protests on Meares Island.

“I’m very much taken back to the 80’s and 90’s when this community and this region went through a hugely transformative process where, instead of thrusting something upon us that we had no control over, we really seized an opportunity to take control and shift the future direction of this community and made the choice to leave certain kinds of industries and engage in tourism,” she said.

“That gives me a lot of hope and I know that there are a lot of very creative people in this community who care very deeply about it and, while there are different people living here than there were 30 years ago, some of them are the same and they’ve been through this before, so there’s a lot of wisdom I think in our community that we can harvest, quite literally, and ask for their participation and guidance. I have a lot of faith actually that we’re going to be able to figure something out in a way of moving forward that keeps us in a place that we all want to be and live in and have a more equitable economy for the region’s residents.”

MacPherson noted the district is facing a “wicked problem.”

“In planning and policy, a wicked problem is a problem that is difficult or impossible to solve because of incomplete, contradictory and changing requirements that are often difficult to recognize,” he said.

“Where we’re headed over the next while is really trying to address what, I think, by definition is a wicked problem…This is going to be a very, very challenging one for all of us.”

He said the district’s management team would take what they had heard from council and “break this into some bite-size chunks” to revise the plan and bring back a revised version to council.

“I have to say, when I first started thinking about a recovery plan, this is very different than what I thought was going to be important and that’s cool,” he said.

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Andrew Bailey

About the Author: Andrew Bailey

I arrived at the Westerly News as a reporter and photographer in January 2012.
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