A new committee with representatives from all three municipalities on the Saanich Peninsula promises to improve the day-to-day lives of individuals with varying abilities by building a more inclusive community.
Councils in Central Saanich, North Saanich and Sidney approved earlier this month the creation of Saanich Peninsula Accessibility Advisory Committee.
Coun. Terri O’Keeffe of Sidney, who has been heading the creation of the committee, along with fellow Sidney Coun. Barbara Fallot, North Saanich Coun. Heather Gartshore, Central Saanich Coun. Gordon Newton, along with community advocates, said it will benefit the region in a number of ways.
For one, it will raise awareness about some of the practical and attitudinal barriers that individuals with disabilities face in communities across the Saanich Peninsula, said O’Keeffe.
“Having a committee like this will bring together people, who have knowledge and experience in dealing with some of those barriers together with municipal councillors and staff, who have the ability to actually make changes, to make it easier for those people,” she said.
A tri-municipal committee also represents a more efficient use of resources, she added. “Instead of each municipality having to expend time and resources on a separate committee, having the three of us come together, there are some efficiencies there.” The tri-municipal approach also creates an opportunity to standardize practices and share best practices with each other, she added.
This regional approach in dealing with accessibility issues responds to the fact that residents of the Saanich Peninsula spend a lot of time in municipalities other than their own.
“People from Central Saanich and North Saanich come to Sidney to do their shopping and their banking and other sorts of services,” she said. “People from Sidney go to North Saanich to enjoy their trails and their open areas. They go to Central Saanich for the same reason. So there is a lot of back and forth.”
Demographically, the Saanich Peninsula is also among the oldest in Canada, meaning that accessibility issues will play an increasingly important role.
The involvement of O’Keeffe in the creation of the committee points to her broader advocacy on behalf of individuals with disabilities during council meetings.
So what accounts for this role? “I start by saying that I’m fortunate that I don’t have anybody in my immediate family, who has any significant disability issue, but I started to become more aware of the needs of persons with disabilities when I participated in some town hall sessions on the topic that the (provincial government) had in 2019.”
O’Keeffe also credited past discussions with long-time community advocates Charlene Froom of North Saanich and David Willows of Central Saanich for bringing these issues forward.
“So what I found from those discussions and meetings is that people with disabilities are expending a lot of energy every day just dealing with those barriers and it is hard for many of them to summon the energy to advocate for change,” she said. “They need allies and advocates to help.”
While the final membership of the committee is not yet set, it hopes to start work before the summer, said O’Keeffe. “We will be trying to make it diverse and as representative of that community as we can,” she said.
More broadly, O’Keeffe sees the committee as part and parcel of building a more inclusive community. Starting with the broader moral obligation to help individuals with disabilities, a more inclusive community stands to benefit everybody, starting with but not ending with economics.
“Here is a group of people, many of whom want to be involved and contribute, but often cannot because of the barriers in terms of either attitudes or systemic barriers,” she said.
The creation and existence of the committee also send a broader signal. “It’s a really good example of how our communities can work together.”
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