In Conversation with Catherine Holt

Why Catherine Holt doesn’t just focus on one piece of the pie.

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Catherine Holt vividly recalls walking downtown along Johnson Street this past spring and coming across a young man lying on the ground, apparently dead from an overdose. As she stood there, another man flew out of one of the buildings and began “working on him” until police and fire trucks pulled up. “It was shocking,” she says, “but I felt I had to stick around to really understand what was happening in our community from another perspective.”

This willingness to see the world through an array of lenses is one of Holt’s hallmark traits, and although her mandate as CEO of the Greater Victoria Chamber of Commerce is certainly business-centric, she says “the fundamental truth is that what works for our community works for business.”

So along with trying to persuade the B.C. government of the negative impact of the Employer Health Tax and grappling with the hiring crisis, Holt is very vocal about community issues, like the desperate need for attainable housing and the equally desperate need for affordable childcare.

Holt is a self-described big-picture thinker whose interest in community and social issues was nurtured while growing up in Coquitlam. Her grandmother, Gladys Holt, was an impassioned political activist. “Every Sunday there was a very political discussion around our dinner table,” she recalls. “That had a huge impact on me — it made me think about how the services government provides are critical and people’s lives depend on them — how you can improve people’s lives through public policy.”

After high school, she attended UBC then took a job as legislative intern at the ministry of finance. She was set for a secure bureaucratic career, but she was restless. “I looked at my future and it was law school or journalism. I asked myself, ‘What scares me more?’ and it was journalism. So that’s what I went for.”

She pursued a Master of Arts degree in journalism at the University of Western Ontario, eventually working at CBC as a producer. But she found found journalism “an inch deep and a mile wide. It was difficult just to be crunching it out, even at CBC where they are known for being more in depth,” she recalls.

Wanting to make a difference, she returned to the public sector and in the intervening years, Holt was part of some landmark shifts in public policy. As a communications cabinet advisor with the Yukon government in the late 80s and early 90s, she played a key communications role leading up to a historic land-claim settlement, a recognition of the role, leadership and rights of the First Nations.

She returned to B.C. in 1992 as assistant deputy minister in the premier’s office during the NDP administration, which was undergoing a sea change in the philosophy of welfare and work. There, she played a key role negotiating the performance-based contracts between the B.C. government and the private-sector firms set to deliver the new welfare-to-work programs. 

In 1998 she founded Sage Group Management Consultants with Doug Allen. Together they handled major clients from IBM to SNC-Lavalin to Translink, with Holt heading up the company for seven years on her own as Allen went on to C-suite roles at Translink and later ICBC where he is now CEO.

“I think the most important dynamic to establish is to remove that ‘us and them’ concept and realize everybody wants the same thing — a safe community” — Catherine Holt. Photograph by Darryl Lecorre.

Tell it like it is

Two years and two months after Holt became CEO of the Victoria Chamber, and almost 10 months after becoming chair of BC Transit, she sat down for a Douglas interview in the boardroom of the Chamber’s Fort Street office. The interview went overtime; Holt doesn’t talk in soundbites. Her answers are complete, reflecting a big-picture view, augmented by an ability to zero in on the smallest details.

Two weeks after our interview, she would host federal Finance Minister Bill Morneau and 15 Island business stakeholders in the same boardroom. How did that go? Her answer is quintessential Holt — honest, human and tinged with humour.

“Bill Morneau is Toronto-smooth,” she says. “I lived in Toronto, and there’s this type of Toronto professional and Bill is it: sophisticated, educated, orderly and a little
on the bland side.”

But, she says, Morneau turned out to be a good listener who was keen to hear what local businesses were dealing with — and that’s something that occupies Catherine Holt’s time and mind every day as Chamber CEO.

What is the biggest issue Chamber members are grappling with right now?

Attracting and retaining employees is the toughest thing they face. So then you have to break that down and ask why, and that’s where you get into what it is about Victoria we have to improve — and what do we risk if we don’t make the changes.   

First, we have to be open to immigration, because we’re not creating enough people. We’re a country of immigrants, and I think Canada does pretty well with that concept compared to some other countries down the road … One of our best sources of immigrants at the moment is foreign students … They get screened before they arrive, stay with families here, become accustomed to Canadian culture and English language skills, and then, ideally, they’re ready to enter the workforce. But we have an unfortunate situation where we don’t have a great transition [to the workforce] so it would be ideal if universities could extend co-op and work-placement programs, and if the government would fund universities to take another step …

There’s a lot of talk lately that people, even those with decent jobs, can’t afford to live and work here, and raise families here.

Let’s put three things together: affordable housing, transportation, and the cost of and access to childcare. Those three things are package for a young working family. So yeah, when we talk about housing, we aren’t just talking about housing for homeless people … we’re talking about the young working families,  all working families, period. If we could look at those three things, it would make a huge difference.

With the recent tent city in Saanich, businesses and the community continue to be concerned about homelessness and the apparent lack of solutions.

A major focus for us is safe communities. Everybody needs a safe community to function: businesses, families, tourists — and the homeless themselves are often the most vulnerable of all. I’ve heard from many of our members who are incredibly concerned about what they see on the streets of Victoria. There’s kind of a natural tendency to say we are one category and the problem is those people in that other category … I think the most important dynamic to establish is to remove that “us and them” concept and realize everybody wants the same thing — a safe community. There are very few degrees of separation between people who are in the business community and people on the streets.

We’ve been appallingly bad as a government and a community — with emphasis on government — on finding a way out. Decades ago, when government stopped provincial-level services for a lot of people with addictions and mental health issues, the idea was they would live in the community in a safe environment and be integrated, not institutionalized. That never happened. They landed on the streets and police have become the default service providers, and that’s now on the backs of the municipalities. [VICPD Chief Constable] Del Manak is very articulate that his job is not law enforcement but social order, because a whole lot of what the police deal with is trying to keep the streets functioning and the people with difficulties taken care of.

How is the Chamber helping to find solutions?

Every opportunity I get, I say, “Let’s help Don Evans and Our Place [Society]” … Don’s very direct about saying, “Let’s help people find a way out.” You know, if you haven’t got an exit ramp, all you have is a spin cycle. People can go into short-term recovery, jail or hospital or some type of program, but anyone — or their families — who has lived with an addiction knows that’s nothing but a 30-day Band-Aid. Without long-term recovery, we don’t have a solution …

I do take great encouragement from the BC Ministry of Mental Health and Addictions [created in 2017 by the NDP]. The shortcoming is they don’t “own” a bunch of major programs — they’re still with the Ministry of Health. But they are taking ownership of the gap I talked about — the lack of exit routes and recovery solutions. Maybe they can get traction and get some serious funding and support for the people who want to offer services.

I just read a report that the vast majority of street drugs in Vancouver have fentanyl in them. We have a major problem here too, as you witnessed.

We need serious work to stop fentanyl from coming into this country from China …. I don’t want to be overly simplistic, but the crisis [on our streets] is concurrent with fentanyl coming into our communities. There are a few countries that seem to be having an impact: Portugal is an astonishing success story … Step one seems to be figure out how to get rid of the stigmas, to acknowledge this problem is happening and gauge its impact on the community, and help people so they can step forward and say, “I have this problem.”

Then there’s a legal underpinning where you legalize drugs with a government-regulated way to control and distribute them. Then you put an enormous amount of money into these facilities to help people recover over a long period of time.

Has the Chamber taken a position on the legalization of these drugs.

No.

What are some of the other systemic issues we face?

We have the curse of the Capital Regional District, which lacks parity — so it’s often up to Victoria to do everything for the whole region. How can we possibly do all of that? We need provincial-level solutions … At the municipal level, there’s an enormous amount of good intentions and enormous amount of resources, but everyone’s got their small piece of the pie and that’s a problem.

Some people might be surprised to hear these issues discussed in such a way by a chamber of commerce CEO. This chamber seems to have shed many old narratives.

You can have two reactions to the Chamber’s 155 years. You can say, “It’s a really old and therefore tired institution” or you can say, “Nobody survives 155 years unless you’re looking to the future and continually reinventing yourself and remaining highly relevant.”

A word that often comes up when I’ve asked people about you is “collaboration.”

Collaboration isn’t just a word to me — it’s an absolute fundamental philosophy … it’s key to an organization like this to operate and have a bigger impact than just its reasonably modest size of staff and membership would otherwise allow it to have. 

I arrived at the chamber at a very interesting time, with a very dynamic mayor … I think one of [Lisa Helps’] secrets of success is that she works across a huge, diverse range of different interests in the city. She’s a natural collaborator; she has connected a whole bunch of dots. You know the saying that the tone is set from the top? That’s a great tone, so a bunch of us have found ourselves in an environment where it’s easy to collaborate. We work with Tourism Victoria, the Harbour Authority, the Downtown Victoria Business Association, other chambers. My philosophy is that there should be no competition among us. All of us are here to make Victoria a better place. If there’s competition, it’s Victoria versus Vancouver or Toronto or Calgary …

What would you like to see from the next mayor of Victoria, whoever that may be?

My greatest hope for the upcoming municipal election is that we get a “yes” vote to the question about a citizens assembly [on the amalgamation of Victoria and Saanich].

Amalgamation seems to be one of these issues that just goes on. Is there any hope?

One of the things I learned in management consulting is that without a crisis or a burning platform, human beings do not change — so what is the burning platform? We bubble along happily, we all just kind of function and it’s very frustrating for businesses who have to deal with all of these jurisdictions. Every one of our 13 municipalities is doing their best, but there’s still 13 of them telling you how they’re trying to make it easy for business in their own way, 13 different ways of trying to make it easier for the business — NOT easier for the business [laughs].

If we ever have a crisis, that will be our opportunity for a big move on governance. Failing that, we have the referendum and I think it has evolved in a beautiful way: two municipalities, the biggest municipalities, with incumbent mayors promoting it and up for election, and a very good vehicle — a citizens’ assembly, arms-length, citizens rather than politicians, spending time getting educated on options and then recommending to council what steps to take next. It’s very well positioned to get a “yes” vote. That’s what I’m hoping for.

transportation. What you are proposing is a bit radical, no?

I’ve done a lot of work for BC Transit and spent a fascinating year at Translink understanding their comprehensive powers to decide, invest and operate, so I have insight into what it takes to have an integrated transportation system … Right now, every municipality is responsible for its own roads and infrastructure. Crazy! And the CRD has no responsibility for transportation, the province has no responsibility for anything but provincial roads. It’s an absolute mish mash, with millions of good ideas on how to fix transportation but nobody has the power to make it happen.

What I am advocating is: we only have one regional transportation system that works — the bus. It’s worked for 20 years as an integrated system across our region, and that’s because it has good governance in Victoria Regional Transit Commission. It works so well nobody pays any attention to it! It was created by the Province as part of BC Transit, with seven municipal politicians appointed by the Province to represent the region. And the reason it works is because those seven have to act on behalf of everybody — they cannot act just on behalf of their own municipalities. Contrast that with the CRD where all 13 [municipal representatives] spend far too much time saying, “Is my 13th of the pie getting its fair share …” They’re not elected to govern regionally; they’re elected by their municipalities and they bring that to the table.

With the Victoria Regional Transit Commission, the commission decides what needs to be done to deliver the best service in the region and they inform each of the 13 municipalities what their share is in property tax to run the regional bus system. And they can’t opt out — they have to pay that, whereas CRD often opts out — in out, in out.

How do we get there?

What needs to happen is for the B.C. government to modify the BC Provincial Transit Act so that [the Victoria Regional Transit Commission] has additional powers and can be a transportation commission that can run a major road network, mandate better land-use planning to work with transit in OCPs and to own infrastructure. It could have owned the Johnson Street Bridge, for example, and run that as a regional critical piece of infrastructure instead of putting a whole load on one city.

Is there political will or do we need to inspire it?

We need to inspire political will. One thing that gives me hope is that the premier himself is caught in the Colwood crawl every day going back and forth to his home in Langford and his job at the Legislative buildings.

So what’s next for you?

I’ve always been appallingly bad at answering that question … What I’ve always said to my kids — and this is my philosophy in life — is “all you can ever do in life is pick the next best step when it presents itself.” I would just say the thing that has worked best for me is keeping my eye on the biggest horizon and being willing to say yes to any adventure that comes along — and that leads to an interesting life. 

This article is from the October/November 2018 issue of Douglas