The Shadow Government in Cowichan

Turnout for local government elections has chronically been low here in the Cowichan Valley – its rare that figure exceeds 35 per cent.

This means something less than 40 per cent of voters get to elect mayors and councillors.  If its a close race for mayor, it is likely then that the person elected may have the support of 20 per cent or less of registered voters.  This is strange but not unusual.

But, what about when a highly organized community group dominates an election and gets their supporters out to vote on election day?  What if it is all perfectly legal that this community group function in all ways just like a political party but doesn’t raise donations and spend money like a political party?  This means that they are not bound by election financing rules and therefore not registered as a political party.

We witnessed the effect of a highly organized group, operating under the umbrella of One Cowichan, electing a number of completely unknown people to North Cowichan and Duncan councils.  (Full disclosure – I ran and failed to be elected to council in North Cowichan.)

In North Cowichan the organized vote elected newcomers Christopher Justice, Debra Toporowski and Rosalie Sawrie.  In Duncan the organized vote backed and elected newcomers Jenni Capps and Stacy Middlemiss.

Ms. Sawrie was employed by One Cowichan at the time of taking out her nomination papers; Justice is an academic married to a medical doctor and Ms. Toporowski sits as an elected council member with Cowichan First Nation, with ties to the United Steelworkers.

In Duncan both Middlemiss and Capps developed their interest in politics through being part of youth council.

One Cowichan is an organizational wonder, a text book example of how to organize in a community and make a difference politically.  Most political organizers I know would give their eye teeth for their contact list of people prepared to take action on an issue; this list is reputed to be in the thousands.

When elections come around One Cowichan joins up with unions that are members of the Nanaimo and District Labour Council and together they assemble the list of candidates they are jointly willing to support.  Sadly, with my centre-right political reputation I was not on that list, but I did offer myself to councillor Rob Douglas at an all-candidates meeting in Maple Bay during the election.  Douglas has had labour support through his multiple successful runs for council.

Here is how they work: each of the unions, such as the BC Government Employees Union or the Office and Technical Employees Union, send notes to their members living in either Duncan or North Cowichan encouraging them to vote for the candidates on the list.  They are given reminders during advance voting days and then volunteers assemble in union offices on election day to make calls to union members to make sure they get out to vote.

Its masterful in its simplicity and its execution is something to be admired.

But, is it democracy?  Sixty per cent of registered voters don’t appear to give a damn and more than half of the remaining 40 per cent who do vote are making a choice recommended to them by their union and One Cowichan.  Are politicians elected in this manner truly representative of the community?