Victoria and Saanich meet with B.C. government to discuss amalgamation process

There are 162 municipalities in British Columbia, but that number could go down by one in a matter of months.

It comes while Duncan and North Cowichan prepare for referendum on subject

11 of the 13 municipalities in Victoria's Capital Regional District (Sidney and North Saanich not pictured) (Capital Regional District)

Amalgamation in B.C.'s capital region — where 13 municipalities oversee 380,000 people — is a topic that often gets brought up, but rarely gets resolved in any concrete way.

But this week, the leaders of the region's two biggest municipalities — Victoria and Saanich — met with the provincial government to discuss how a process might play out. 

"It was good. It was basically an information gathering meeting," said Victoria Mayor Lisa Helps, describing a meeting between herself, Saanich Mayor Richard Atwell and Municipal Affairs Minister Selina Robinson.

"Now we'll go back to our council and discuss what next steps could look like," Helps said.

Helps and Atwell said the biggest issue highlighted by the provincial government  — which would have to approve an amalgamation referendum and subsequent changes if successful — is the level of community engagement needed in all steps of the process. 

"In order to get there, if that`s where we end up, we need a fulsome process that gets down to the nuts and bolts of things, involves all stakeholders, and walks a careful path, that is bulletproof in a way," said Atwell.

"So when we get to that decision, there's no doubt that's the decision to make."

Robinson said the preliminary conversation was a good starting point, but cautioned that any formal process would be lengthy. 

"If you want to make it happen in a right way, you need to make sure your process is really good and solid, and that does take some time."

Referendum in Duncan and North Cowichan

In the 2014 municipal elections, there were non-binding referendum questions in eight municipalities, with seven of them voting in favour of either amalgamation in the region, or to direct their municipalities to look at greater efficiencies.

However, little action has taken place since then. 

 "It was a ballot question that only some communities did and everyone asked a different question. We're trying to be coordinated and be on the same page," said Atwell.

In contrast, the neighbouring Vancouver Island communities of Duncan (population 5,000, two square kilometres in size) and neighbouring North Cowichan (30,000 people, 195 square kilometres in size) asked similar questions about amalgamation in 2014. They followed through with a citizens assembly that eventually recommended a referendum to merge the two municipalities. 

That referendum was approved by the provincial government and will take place June 23. Helps says it's a useful marker of how Victoria and Saanich might approach the issue. It's also an incentive for having the conversation between just two municipalities to begin with. 

"Arguably, there's been citizen engagement for years, because we're all talking about it. But yes, I think the fact we're starting with two as a question mark is easier than 13, or even four or five," she said. 

"You have to start somewhere. It's not meant to be exclusive. If others are interested in joining in. But there needs to be a starting point."

Discussion on North Shore?

While there are 21 municipalities in Metro Vancouver, amalgamation debates have tended to be smaller than in Greater Victoria. 

But on Monday, the District of North Vancouver will vote on whether to "determine public support for examining the costs and benefits of reunification" with the City of North Vancouver.

"We're convinced that, for instance, with one North Vancouver, we could more effectively plan and manage east-west transportation," reads a draft letter they would put in newspapers if the motion passes. 

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