The future of an economic development fund responsible for more than $300 million worth of investment into Vancouver Island and the Sunshine Coast remains foggy despite a vote of confidence this week from the B.C. minister responsible.
The Island Coastal Economic Trust, which serves about half a million people including many First Nations communities on B.C.’s south coast outside of the Lower Mainland and Greater Victoria, enters what advocates fear is its final year of existence April 1 with less than $1 million in its coffers and no commitment from the province for more.
Minister of Jobs, Economic Development and Innovation Brenda Bailey said Monday (March 27) that her ministry is currently reviewing a funding proposal from ICET, and she will have news about its future within a month.
“We have a proposal in front of us that we have been doing due diligence on,” Bailey said. “ICET is really important. I really value the work that they have done over the years and it would be terrible to see them go away.”
But one Vancouver Island MLA would like to see government support the fund with money from its budgetary surplus before March 31, when surplus funds must go toward the provincial debt, by law.
Saanich North and the Islands MLA Adam Olsen of the BC Greens said Monday he remains concerned about ICET’s future after hearing Bailey’s comments.
“As the minister says, she agrees that this is an important community-led investment vehicle for these communities,” Olsen said. “The minister and this government need to show it … we have spent billions of dollars over the last couple of weeks. The fact that they haven’t been able to come up with $150 million indicates their priorities.”
Olsen said it is “fine” that government might give an answer in a month’s time, but it has also had “ample” of time to address this situation.
Launched in 2006, ICET supports economic diversification and growth on Vancouver Island (minus Greater Victoria communities but some parts of the Capital Regional District) and coastal regions opposite eastern Vancouver Island (minus Lower Mainland). According to its 2021-22 annual report, communities have directly attracted more than $300 million in new investment by leveraging $55 million in ICET funding since its inception.
Brodie Guy, ICET’s chief executive officer, said locally elected leaders need an answer this week and no later than mid-April.
“The fact is that without imminent investment, (ICET) will have no further funds to commit to community-led projects,” Guy said. “This has been discussed for many years. The (trust) provided its business plan for a financially sustainable organization in Sept. 2022 to the ministry for consideration.”
Without additional support, the fund would have to start its dissolution process, Guy added. Assuming the worst case scenario, ICET could hold its last board meeting in the summer of 2025.
“As it stands, in the coming months the doors will be closed and the lights will be off,” Olsen wrote in his weekly MLA column dated March 22. “It is inexplicable. All but two of the ridings in the region are represented by an MLA in the BC NDP majority government.”
They are Olsen’s riding, as well Cowichan Valley held by Green Party Leader Sonia Furstenau.
“My (NDP) colleagues assure me that they advocating,” Olsen said. “We will see the success of their advocacy when they refund this. But so far, I’m the only one talking about it.”
Guy said the loss of ICET would not only hurt economic development on Vancouver Island, but also undermine the government’s own plan for reconciliation with First Nations.
“If there is no investment by government in spring 2023, coastal communities, through the Trust, will not be able to realize their vision for transformation of the Trust into a co-governed regional economic development organization that is led by First Nations and local governments in equal partnership along with the (province),” he said.
He added that B.C.’s plan to implement the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples calls for the inclusion of First Nations in the trust’s governance.
“(That) commitment will not be realized without investment in the trust in spring 2023,” he said.