Skip to content

Centralized Power is Failing BC

British Columbia started out highly decentralized. Prior to contact with Europeans, the Indigenous peoples of this part of the world lived in highly autonomous nations, each governing themselves according to their own laws and traditions. Though these indigenous nations never ceded their territory or signed treaties giving up their right to self-governance, over time, colonial governments consolidated resources and power in the provincial and national capitals.

The growth of the governments in Victoria and Ottawa has led to a vicious cycle; one that affects both the indigenous and settler populations: the more resources that go to higher levels of government, the fewer resources are left for families and communities to use to address local issues. This results in community leaders asking the provincial and federal governments to chip in more funding for local projects and programs, giving more control of them to people outside the community.

This vicious cycle has pushed individuals, families, and local communities to greater degrees of dependency on higher levels of government. The dependency isn’t just financial either; it is political and psychological. It is unhealthy, because at this scale, it becomes nearly impossible for regular people to get to know the elected officials who make decisions for them, much less the powerful bureaucrats whose names few even know. When Members of Parliament each have nearly 100,000 constituents often spread across several or dozens of communities, how can they have meaningful knowledge of their diverse needs? Even if they could, our parliamentary system of government (where the Prime Minister/Premier and Cabinet are supreme) does not allow the average MP much of a voice; they’re just expected to toe the party line.

There is nothing inevitable, however, about the centralization of power. From a citizen’s point of view, having resources gathered and decisions made in far-away capitals is no more effective or economical than doing so locally. And it is certainly less democratic.

The good news is that the balance of power has started to shift in recent years. BC’s First Nations are leading this change by negotiating modern treaties with the government that recognize their right to self-governance. Starting with the Nisga’a Treaty in 2000, several First Nations have used the treaty process to replace systems of governance imposed by the federal government (through the Indian Act), with ones designed by their own members, reflecting each nation’s unique culture and traditions. The treaties have also recognized aboriginal title to the traditional territory of the participating First Nations, and allowed choice in systems of land tenure. The treaties allow First Nations governments to raise revenue and fund projects and programs, without Dept of Indigenous Affairs involvement.

Modern treaties have been signed for 6 groups of First Nations in BC, and most of the remaining First Nations are somewhere in the treaty process. While treaties can take many years to complete, the cummulative effect will be massive, and will result in a shift in the balance of power, particularly as First Nations become more economically independent. No longer “wards of the state,” young indigenous people are increasingly seeing themselves as leaders in a period of cultural, political, and economic revival.

While First Nations are leading the charge on self-governance, the concept is applicable to non-aboriginal people as well. In fact, look at the history of any cultural group, and you’ll find institutions of local governance that pre-dated states and empires. Some of these traditional ways of governing may still exist, but in most cases, what is likely needed are new models appropriate for a digital century. For example, blockchain technology holds great promise for systems of decision-making that are secure, decentralized, and transparent. We will only discover which governance models work best for our diverse communities by experimenting with them.

The mission of Decentralize BC is to broaden the scope of experimentation with various models of governance. We see this happening at a variety of levels, as well as in different ways, such as greater provincial autonomy from the federal government, greater autonomy for municipalities and regional districts vis a vis the provincial government, and the introduction of neighbourhood councils in cities. We will advocate in every situation for decision-making to be made at a level closer to the individual citizen.

The beauty of such a system is that it is not monolithic. Higher levels of government will be scaled back, and the number of local governance bodies will grow. As they multiply, these councils, boards, elders’ circles, and steering committees will adopt a variety of approaches to decision-making, revenue generation, the provision of public services, and engagement with citizens. As is currently the case, some local goverments have higher tax rates, but provide more services. Others keep taxes low, and let civil society provide a larger share of the services. Over time, individuals and families will gravitate towards communities with models of governance that fit best with their values, desires, and means. Because citizens can “vote with their feet”, and getting handouts from higher up will be very difficult, local governments will have the incentive to provide good value for money to the citizens they serve…or risk losing them.

Instead of the current paradigm where heavy-handed “solutions” brought down from on high are the norm, a decentralized British Columbia will be one where best practices emerge organically from the bottom up. Instead of waiting for decrees from politicians and selected experts, local leaders will be able to look to what’s working and what isn’t in neighbouring communities to inform conversations with their own constituents on what the best path is. Instead of learning to kneel at the feet of those in positions of privilege and power, we’ll learn to stand on our own and with our peers.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *