Today’s local and regional governments are dealing with diverse issues and challenges that are more complex than ever before, often rousing the interests and passions of residents.
Local government is now much less about managing “sewers, sidewalks and streetlights,” and much more about addressing the social, economic and environmental health of its residents and communities. As a result of higher levels of government stepping away and devolving greater responsibility to local governments, there is also need for greater community engagement, outreach and participation that complements the increasing workloads of locally elected representatives.
One of the more common and growing forms of community involvement is the community association movement, a movement that inspires responsible citizenship, professional support and effective leadership at the grass roots level. These associations can be resident or neighbourhood-based and can help focus public dialogue on issues and topics that matter to members and community, such as land use planning, public health, environmental protection, heritage, recreation and arts and culture, to name just a few.
There is a belief that “when citizens get mad, they don’t get even, they get organized.” While this may be true in some cases, it would be a disservice to citizen-based associations to assume that they evolve from frustration alone. A single issue can prompt local residents to get together “to fight city hall” but most often, they organize to ensure that their members and residents have a consistent voice in local decision-making. Formal association provides a legitimate avenue for residents, as stakeholders and partners, to have community input into local issues and priorities — as members of a recognized association, residents have key opportunities to influence local decision-making that is often closest to them and has the greatest impact on their daily lives.
What makes these associations strong? Why it’s membership of course, strength in numbers, that critical mass that can make a difference. There are scores of examples throughout the Capital Region, where neighbourhood and community associations work to improve the quality of life for their members and their community, representing their interests and supporting special projects and initiatives. In addition to providing a community a greater local voice in government decision-making, community-based associations can be valuable political “incubators,” preparing members to serve on local municipal councils or in other levels of government.
When we moved to North Saanich 1992, I joined the North Saanich Residents’ Association (NSRA) and from that experience, became interested in North Saanich Council and local government. The NSRA is still active and engaged in local issues and remains instrumental in fielding municipal candidates. Take the 2014 municipal election — two successful Council candidates were elected from the NSRA and, as a result, are well positioned to tackle community affairs from their Council seats.
I first “earned my political stripes” as a member of a local residents’ association, starting in 1987, when I joined the the Maple Bay Ratepayers. We were a young family living in Maple Bay and joining the Ratepayers was the best way for us to get engaged in local affairs. We joined other members in voicing our concerns about over-development in the largely rural seaside community that is still known for its beauty and tranquility. When we moved to Oak Bay in 2010, one of the first things I did was join the Community Association of Oak Bay (CAOB) and found membership a valuable way to learn more about our new community. I renewed my membership this year and appreciate how much CAOB does, not only for its members but for Oak Bay residents at large.
As we know, the strength of any citizen-based organization depends on the strength of its membership so if you are looking for ways to get more involved in your community, find a local association that makes a difference to where you live and please consider joining. You won’t regret the experience and unique community service opportunities and most important, your community will reap the benefits of your contribution.