Presentation to the Symposium on The Changing Face of the Lower Fraser River Estuary, New Westminster, B.C. April 18, 2002.


Setting the Context: The Fraser River Estuary: Past, Present and Future

(Message to self: It's the governance system, stupid!)


Tony Dorcey

School of Community and Regional Planning &

Institute for Resources and Environment

The University of British Columbia


It was 30 years ago last September that I arrived at UBC to establish the Westwater Research Centre with Irving Fox and began a career that has endeavoured in various ways to foster sustainability of the Fraser. Unfortunately, being a slow learner, it has taken me until now to fully appreciate that sustaining the Fraser is fundamentally and foremost an issue of governance. This is the first of two messages I want to leave with you in setting the context for this workshop.

Secondly I want to convey to you the urgent need and potentials for renewed innovation in the governance system if sustainability goals are to be achieved in the Fraser. Over the last 30 years we have seen major governance innovations through the introduction and development of FREMP, the GVRD's Livable Region Program and the Fraser Basin Management Board, now Council. Each of these innovations has attracted attention and emulation around the world. Each has evolved with experience and the ups and downs of the governments' and the publics' enthusiasm for innovation and support. In my view we stand today at a critical decision point in the evolution of the Fraser governance systems; either we summon the courage for a second generation of bold innovations or we squander unique opportunities to show the world how to make sustainability a reality. This is my second message.

In the remarks that follow I suggest lessons from our experience to date in addressing the challenges of sustainability governance. I relate these to points that will be made by the panelists that follow me and I suggest questions that need to be addressed in crafting the second generation innovations in Fraser governance.

Uncertainty in Science and Values

A major challenge to governance of the Fraser is the uncertainty that pervades the science and values in making decisions. We have known this for at least 25 years. My first book on managing the Fraser, published in 1976, was entitled "The Uncertain Future of the Lower Fraser" to stress this dominant characteristic. While bio-physical and socio-economic studies since then have filled some gaps in our knowledge of the state and functioning of the ecological, economic and social systems, they have simultaneously reconfirmed the pervasive uncertainties. The abstracts for other presentations re-echo this.

The infant art and science of indicator measurement and interpretation give us only partial glimpses of where the Fraser has come from, is now and might be going. Spin doctors for each of the stakeholder interests can take the "facts" and only too easily paint pictures that span the spectrum from glowing optimism to bleak despair. While some would show us the transformed waterfronts with their new housing and parks amidst a thriving port and new industries, others would show us pipes spewing effluent, idled fishing fleets and birds on the Pacific flyway dodging aircraft amidst the murk of an inversion over the metropolis sprawling up the valley. Continuing uncertainty in science and values make it hugely challenging for stakeholders in the governance system to agree on where we have come to let alone make decisions on the actions necessary to sustain the Fraser.

Emergent Understanding of Sustainability

More than a decade of experience worldwide has generated a broadly accepted recognition of the concept and principles of sustainability and an increasing appreciation of the need to consider its interdependent ecological, economic and social dimensions. The Vision statement in the most recent Estuary Management Plan is reflective of the three part concept: "To improve environmental quality in the Fraser River estuary while providing economic development opportunities and sustaining the quality of life in and around the estuary."

Experience has also shown that putting sustainability principles into practice is not easy because they require us to confront and cope with the uncertainties in science and values in ways and degrees that are more demanding than ever before. They necessitate extending our understanding and ability to predict the state and behaviour of not just selected sub-component systems but the integrated ecological, economic and social systems and their interdependencies. In doing this we need to consider their behaviour across spatial boundaries from the local through the regional to the global, and temporal boundaries that extend into future generations. All of this presents challenges to stakeholders and governance systems as never before.

Transformation of Governance

From this perspective transformation of governance systems has to be seen as fundamental to the pursuit of sustainability. In contrast with the past they need superior capabilities in fostering stakeholder understanding of the necessity to plan and act in the face of irreducible uncertainties in science and values. Recognition of this has led to experimentation with governance innovations around the world. Central to almost all of them in the liberal democracies are innovations in multistakeholder processes, bringing with them reduced and reformed roles for the state and expanded and changed roles for business and civil society. Particular attention has focussed on the ways in which these processes can be more effective in resolving conflicts and building consensus. Also associated with them are new policies formulated and implemented through processes that are both top-down and bottom-up while emphasizing subsidiarity principles and novel exploitation of economic mechanism to both create appropriate incentives and generate the revenues to support services.

Innovation in the Fraser

In the past Canada and B.C. in particular has been on the cutting edge of such governance innovations but in recent years we have sadly fallen off the international pace. FREMP, the GVRD and the Fraser Basin Council have each been part of this history. Each of these governance organizations has the potential to play a vital role in sustaining the Fraser but only if we have the courage to experiment with significant innovations building on their strengths and remedying their weaknesses.

The need for innovation is urgent because choices to be made in the near future will determine whether or not the Fraser becomes an example of sustainability or squandered opportunity. Up until now the governance system has had it relatively easy because the Fraser is big and remarkably forgiving but the intensifying and diversifying demands that are in prospect threaten to exceed its remarkable resilience and will test the governance system as never before.

In my view sustainability depends on revitalizing democracy in the governance of the Fraser. We have to find ways to catalyse and facilitate much greater and better informed engagement of the stakeholders in assessing and making the choices and acting on them. All it would take to get this started would be for the four hosts of this symposium to begin working together on democratization drawing on the accumulated experience with innovations to date.

To be more specific I would suggest the following three strategic questions be addressed:

  1. How can the Fraser Basin Council provide leadership, facilitation and coordination in engaging the multiplicity of stakeholders in the governance of the Fraser, in particular the processes of the GVRD and FREMP? The Council is a unique institution involving both governmental and non-governmental stakeholders and with a broad mandate for environmental, economic and social sustainability throughout the watersheds of the Fraser. It has the potential to be the critical catalyst for innovation but to do this it will need to commit to this leadership role and obtain sufficient resources to do the job.

  2. How can the GVRD provide leadership, facilitation and coordination in engaging the multiplicity of stakeholders in the governance of the region, in particular the municipalities? The GVRD has embarked on a review of its Livable Region Strategy with the idea of revising it to meet goals of a sustainable region. This provides an excellent opportunity to engage stakeholders in considering broader environmental, economic and social goals for the region including in particular its heart blood, the Fraser. In considering the requirements of a sustainability strategy it will be essential to ask whether the time has not come for the GVRD Board to be constituted of at least some directly elected members who are held accountable for the regional sustainability platforms that they campaign on.

  3. How can the FREMP provide leadership, facilitation and coordination in engaging the multiplicity of stakeholders in the governance of the estuary, in particular the non-governmental stakeholders? FREMP has evolved a unique model for engaging governmental stakeholders in the management of the Estuary but has not engaged the diversity of the non-governmental stakeholders to anywhere near the same extent. The update of the Estuary Management Plan provides the opportunity to re-design the governance processes to incorporate these unexploited potentials and to do so in ways that integrate them with innovations by the Fraser Basin Council and GVRD.