Masset had a full house at the candidates forum on Thursday, and housing was a top issue.
Dozens of voters packed the library at Gudangaay Tlaats’gaa Naay to hear from the two candidates for mayor — Margo Hearne and Barry Pages — and the five candidates running in a bit of musical-chairs for four councillor seats.
The forum covered a range of issues, from daycare spaces to tsunami plans and pot shops, but several questions were about what the village can do to get social housing built, especially for local men who struggle with alcoholism.
“It’s a sad situation,” said Bret Johnston, who is running for councillor.
“With the size of our town, the fact that we know all these folks, it makes it closer.”
Mayor candidates talk housing, tsunami plans, and development
Margo Hearne is running for mayor after living in Masset for 44 years. Hearne served on the former healthcare society board, the Haida Gwaii Tourism Association, was a village councillor in the 1980s, and started the Masset thrift shop. She also published The Masset Star newsletter in 2002 and 2003, and now runs the Nature Centre at Delkatla.
Besides holding a community debriefing on tsunami evacuations and also feeling that the community just needs a change and more people involved, Hearne said social housing is a top priority and it should go downtown.
“People like to be where people are,” Hearne said.
“Let’s put something in there for the people who like to be there, in the gathering places downtown.”
Barry Pages, a former mayor, councillor, and North Coast Regional District chair, has served over 25 years on council and lived on Haida Gwaii most of his life. As a business accounts manager for Northern Savings Credit Union, Pages said he gets to work regularly with people across the islands.
Pages said the last village council asked BC Housing how to get on the list for the kind of social housing that Queen Charlotte is building now, and was told they need to do a needs assessment that will act as a kind of business plan for the provincial agency. About $20,000 in grants is available for the study, he said.
“It’s something that I think council needs to get on with right away,” Pages said, noting that it was an active housing society that got things rolling in Queen Charlotte.
Pages said the lack of housing has been an issue in Masset for many years, and praised the volunteers who started a soup kitchen in a building that was donated by the village.
“It helped bring them in, get a little bit of food in their stomach and hopefully some counselling or discussion,” he said. “But it’s a tough topic.”
Another issue that will take co-ordinating with the province and also Old Massett and Tow Hill residents is upgrading the tsunami evacuation site south of town.
“We’ve been working with the province to get some resources to put a building there, with some basic rations and supplies,” Pages said, adding that he’s not sure the former gravel pit set aside by the Ministry of Transportation is quite large enough. Old Massett is also securing funding for the site, he said.
“At the end of the day, everybody’s going to the same site,” he said. “We need to partner and come up with something.”
Hearne said the village should have held a debriefing after the January tsunami evacuation, and workshops to help people sign up for the new ePACT notifications.
“We also have to recognize the fact that the tides are rising, and climate change is occurring,” Hearne said.
“All you have to do is look at Rose Spit and Entry Point to see just how much it is changed — that’s something we need to consider into the future.”
On developing the village, Hearne thanked the previous council for leading the creation of a new community plan, one that marks the former base grounds as a future site for recreation, arts, and culture.
Hearne also noted that people at the forum raised many priorities the village could put the MIEDS grant writer to work on.
Pages said the MIEDS grant writer has been an asset, along with the $20,000 in storefront-improvement grants made available through NDIT.
But Pages cautioned that Masset has to pick its priorities carefully.
“The Village of Masset has got 400 houses paying residential taxes, we’ve got no industrial tax base, we’ve got very little commercial,” Pages said.
“We’d love to tackle a whole bunch of issues, but we’ve got limited resources and we need to prioritize and do our best with what we have.”
Councillor candidates address housing, daycare needs
For the first time, Masset nearly came up short on candidates for its four councillor seats. Only Evelyn von Almassy and Bret Johnston put their names forward during the regular nomination period. But Terry Carty, Regina Williams and Robert Morton all stepped up after the deadline was extended, so Masset voters will have choices to make for both mayor and council after all.
Terry Carty has lived on Haida Gwaii since 1970, and served as a Masset councillor from 1990 to 1993 and mayor from 1993 to 1996 — a time when the village underwent huge change as Canadian Forces Station Masset stood down.
“I’m a team player, and I like to keep a positive attitude,” Carty said. “I’ll happily work with everybody that’s here.”
During the Q&A session at the forum, Carty said he would support an all-islands bylaw officer, so long as it’s affordable and the bylaws are made so they stand up in court. If the village gets tied up in a lot of litigation over its bylaws, it could cost Masset resources it really needs for other areas, he said.
On the issue of affordable housing, Carty suggested taking a look at whether the village could donate some of the former GMDC lands for social housing. Carty also agreed that the lack of a daycare is a key issue for Masset.
Bret Johnston just finished his second term as a Masset councillor and is also the Gwaii Trust’s director for Graham Island North as well as vice-president of the Haida Gwaii Co-op.
Johnston said he’s learned that politics take persistence — if re-elected, one of his goals is to finish overseeing the conversion of Masset’s old curling rink into a weight room and recreation space.
“There are partition walls and some electrical work that has to be done, but it’s moving along,” he said. Johnston said another priority is to get the whole islands to “make a racket on ferries,” noting that after slight gains on winter sailings, the islands have lost sailings due to a shortened summer schedule.
Johnston said creating a position for an all-islands bylaw officer will take common bylaws, but it’s in the works. A related issue is having an all-islands building inspector.
“Since the passing of Brian O’Hara, we don’t have a building inspector,” he said. “If we have to pay an engineering firm to come over from Prince Rupert, it’s pretty expensive.”
Regarding affordable housing, Johnston said the village needs better numbers to know the extent of the problem, and noted that it was a non-profit housing society which led the charge for a BC Housing project in Queen Charlotte. Masset’s own Heritage Housing Society is already handling a lot of work, he said, and burnout.
“I just have to tell you, in this town, to get volunteers is sometimes difficult.”
As for a daycare, Johnston said it’s not something the village has funding to handle by itself, but it can lobby the province.
Robert Morton moved to Masset with his young family last year, and has served on town councils before. That’s where he learned that all promises made by council candidates “are just that — promises.”
Morton agreed that sharing the expense of an all-islands bylaw officer is the way to go. On affordable housing, he suggested getting Habitat for Humanity involved on Haida Gwaii.
“It’s growing by leaps and bounds on the mainland, and it’s a sweat-equity program, so you know those people are going to come back and help along the way,” he said.
Asked about what the village can do about rental housing in poor repair, he said local governments are largely restricted to asking homeowners to tidy their yards and home exteriors.
Regina Williams started working on Haida Gwaii in 1989, and when she moved to Masset in 1999 with her young family the former Masset recreation centre was a big draw.
A former secretary-treasurer on the Masset Eagle Swim Club, and Parent Advisory Council secretary, Williams also serves on the board of Jessie’s Garden and volunteers for the Dixon Entrance golf course.
Growing up, Williams said she didn’t get involved in politics — she was busy tying up her cleats and playing school sports.
“My passion is physical fitness, physical activity, and that’s top of my platform here in Masset,” she said, adding that she would work with Haida Gwaii Rec, the Haida Gwaii Fitness Association and council to see what recreation needs people want.
While Masset’s downtown core has been spruced up a bit in recent years, Williams said it still needs a bit more curbside appeal, and new signage.
Housing would be another of Williams’ top priorities. She expressed concern that the number of Airbnb-style rentals is crowding out longer-term rentals, and also that Masset needs better housing options for its growing seniors population.
Working at the post office, Williams said she sees firsthand the public drunkeness on Main Street and issues it can cause.
“I feel there is need for a shelter, but I also feel that people want to go where they want to go,” she said. “And a lot of people don’t stay at home because they’re lonely.”
Evelyn von Almassy taught school in Masset from 1990 to 2000, was president of the Haida Gwaii Teachers Association, and has worked for 18 years at Masset’s women’s shelter.
Von Almassy said she would be a good listener as councillor, and wants to work from the vision laid out in Masset’s new official community plan.
Von Almassy said any social housing in Masset should have staff support, and noted that the need for affordable housing has grown to the point that the Haida Gwaii Society for Community Peace has recently had people living in a basement.
“It’s a huge, huge issue,” she said, and suggested the village offer tax breaks to landlords who offer long-term rentals.
On the daycare issue, von Almassy said the former Little Doves Daycare run by the Haida Gwaii Society for Community Peace involved extensive renovations, but in the end, it wasn’t able to keep going financially.
“If somebody would like to start a business, I’m sure we would love to have them,” she said. “The funding wasn’t there for it, which is really sad.”
Candidates asked to step up on social media
During the forum, resident Dave Reynolds asked why the Village of Masset Facebook page is only used to make announcements, rather than respond to residents’ questions. Reynolds asked the mayoral and councillor candidates if they agree social media is an effective communications tool.
Margo Hearne said one of the reasons she is running for mayor is that it’s now so hard to find informatin on what’s going on in the village. Not everyone is on social media, she said, and there is very little in the Masset newsletter.
“Once upon a time we had the Observer,” Hearne said. “You knew everything, pretty much, that was going on. This presently, doesn’t have a lot of that stuff. We don’t have a local newspaper.”
“I would love to see a little two-pager even out every week, and if the village starts it, I would love that too.”
Barry Pages said the village Facebook page is only meant for announcements, and that should be more clear.
“If you’re expecting a reply and not getting it, that’s not good,” he said.
Pages said he’s never used Facebook or Twitter, and isn’t inclined to start.
“I see people spending way too much time on Facebook and quite frankly, I’ve never been excited to open an account.”
Regina Williams likewise said she’s never been on Facebook before, but village councillors should always answer residents’ questions, whatever form they take. Von Almassy agreed.
“That’s what you’re there for,” she said, suggesting councillors be available for regular office hours.
Robert Morton said local governments are still learning the do’s and don’ts of social media, and so far most prefer residents to contact the village office directly with questions, or speak at a council meeting, though that is changing.
“I’m in favour of using social media to the benefit of the village, not so much as a spewing centre,” he said. “Everyone has a bad day. That’s why there’s procedure.”
Bret Johnston said if anyone has a question for council, usually he hears it while shopping at the Co-op.
“I think the town is still small enough that if you have a question, I’m in the phone book. Come into the village office and one of us will get back to you,” he said. “I think we’re getting back to people.”
Masset’s outgoing mayor Andrew Merilees keeps a Twitter account, @MassetMayor, which he plans to pass to whoever is elected on Oct. 20.