Losing Our Farmland


This article is particularly timely given the recent release of Ontario’s Auditor General’s report on the Ford’s government land swap that appears to have been unduly influenced by developers.

Having served on Council in North Saanich for two terms, I am reminded of the ongoing historical tension between those who want to develop the area and those who believe more development threatens the future of North Saanich’s agricultural and rural lands. But I will share what a Council colleague said to me after a particularly fractious Council meeting in 2010. The late Dr. Ruby Commandeur turned to me and quietly said, “Cairine, one day we will learn, in the worst possible way, when it’s far too late, that we can’t eat houses.” Ruby’s warning was more than a fervent belief or ideology; she had the chops to better understand the importance of growing our own food — she and her husband raised organic blueberries on their North Saanich acreage, known as Ruby Red Farms. Their product was marketed broadly and their commitment to local food production was widely known and unconditional.

Some may wonder what fuels the ongoing community struggle in North Saanich, an area that still values farming and agriculture as significant to the well-being of North Saanich and the surrounding region. The question of development and its potential impacts on one of the last municipalities to contain large tracts of ALR and smaller working farms, is at the core of challenging local politics.

This is unfortunate because in the early 2000’s, the CRD and its member municipalities created the Regional Urban Containment Boundary, known then as the Regional Growth Strategy (RGS). The Strategy was conceived and implemented to contain urban sprawl and protect the agricultural land base and rural lands in key areas such as the Saanich Peninsula. A 2018 CRD review refined this approach and added the Urban Containment Policy Area, outside of which North Saanich is situated. The RGS was designed “to ensure that they remain strongly rooted in the agricultural… land base…allowing the rural countryside and natural landscape to remain as a durable fact of life in the Capital Region.”

At the time I served on North Saanich Council, we learned that if there was a catastrophe that cut off all transportation links to Vancouver Island, most Island communities had only about 6 days of available food. In 2021, that number was cut in half, to just 3 days. A 2016 Census of Agriculture revealed that 762 hectares of land on Vancouver Island were designated for vegetable crops, which totalled only 2% of all BC’s farms.

The Capital Region Food and Agriculture Initiatives Roundtable (CR-FAIR) cited that in the 1950’s, Vancouver Island produced about 85% of its own food but, by 2004, that was drastically reduced to just 5% to 10%. Today, it’s estimated that Vancouver Island is importing 90% of its food supply.

It’s unfortunate that the struggle over development has tended to pit neighbours against neighbours and groups against groups. And the struggle is not limited to rural communities such as North Saanich; concerns among urban dwellers, about development and its impacts on natural environments and green spaces in their neighbourhoods, is equally divisive.

As we witness this summer’s devastating impacts of climate change around the world and how it threatens people, land and communities, Ruby’s words are ringing loudly in my ears.