Adam Olsen, MLA for Saanich North and the Islands since 2017, is a previous two-term Central Saanich Councilor, and small business owner, Adam has a wealth of experience and strong ties to his community. He was born and raised in Tsartlip First Nation in Brentwood Bay and is a member of the Tsartlip First Nation. More recently, Olsen was named interim leader of the Green Party, and has spoken passionately on both environmental and local community issues.
Olsen has lived his entire life on the Saanich Peninsula and still lives in the area with his wife, Emily, and their two children, Silas, and Ella. He joined Cascadia Report for a lively discussion on his background, his passion for serving the people of Saanich North and the Islands, getting back to work, and what can be done to help both society and business get back on track after a particularly trying 2020.
With the BC legislature back in session in early July, but restrictions on the number of MLAs able to attend in person, we were curious to find out what the experience had been like for Olsen.
“It's nice to be back in the building. There's this important balance between the two aspects of constituency and legislative work. Both are equally exhausting, but in different ways. I really appreciate the different aspects of the job. One of the reasons why I enjoy this work so much is because of those multiple dimensions of it, and when it becomes too much of one thing, then it really becomes challenging.”
While engaging with his constituents has proven difficult during the pandemic, Olsen says that he values the opportunity to “be fully engaged with every piece of legislation” which has enabled him to fully understand exactly what he is voting on when he goes to vote. He concedes that it is ‘impossible’ to create legislation that is perfect for everybody but is keen to make the best-informed decisions he can for his constituents. As the Green Party interim leader, he is eager to point out that he is acutely aware of the responsibility of their position, saying “it actually really matters if we're paying attention”.
Outside of politics, Olsen has a long history in the hospitality and public service industry. He was introduced to the work of work by his father at six years old - ‘pushing a lawnmower’ - and says he quickly developed an awareness of what made good business.
“From a very young age, I was buying Coast Salish sweaters from knitters who would come nearly at all hours of the day. My parents taught me how to scope out a sweater to see if it was worth the money that we were paying for them. I was seven, eight years old writing cheques for the family businesses.
My first non-family business job was in McDonald's working the front window and then in the back. That sent my career really on a track of customer service - front-facing, interacting with the public. I spent the next 15 or 16 years working in customer service jobs and primarily for the most of that time I was a waiter. I do this job, especially the constituency side of it with the same attention to detail, the ability to balance several things at once in the restaurant industry, when you're on the front end, or actually in the kitchen, that's referred to as being in the weeds.”
This concept of being ‘in the weeds’ is something that Olsen refers to in fond terms, even talking about how he still sees himself as a waiter in an article on his website. There is a clear impression that he enjoyed his time in customer service and hospitality and is keen to apply what he learned from those experiences to his political career - from serving people in a restaurant to serving a constituency.
“Those times really taught me to put my head down and push through. That is probably the most transferable skill from my time in the private sector. Another one I think that is key to success in politics is the ability to read people and the ability to read body language to understand what it means. It has really allowed me to understand people as they're coming through the door, where they ask. Do they need someone who is robust and verbose and smiling and happy and excited, or do they need someone who is reserved and serious and contemplative? And it really is the foundation of a relationship, being able to do that well.”
Being able to appreciate and apply soft skills when engaging with voters is a valuable skill for any politician. Olsen is easy to talk to and generous with relevant stories and anecdotes as they come to mind. He recalls a time when he was going from door-to-door on the campaign trail representing the Green Party, and how he approached someone who may not be in their typical demographic. It was soon clear that the household were not Green voters, but Olsen took the time to engage a gentleman in a lengthy conversation about the hockey season. It’s a story that reflects Olsen’s genuine compassion for his constituency, and the will to work toward improving their lives - whether they are supporters or not.
The connection between Olsen and his constituency runs deep, and when I asked him about it, it was clear that he has a very special feeling for both the place and the people on the island. From his childhood working in the family business, to his time as MLA for Saanich North and the islands, this connection has not left him.
“From my mom's side, I'm very much connected to soil in the land. My grandfather was in horticulture. That's the one business that we inherited from my mom's side of the family, the garden maintenance moss hanging baskets, flowers, hands always in soil. As a kid hanging out with my grandpa, my dad worked for my grandpa for a lot of years and my cousins in the summertime, so there's this really strong connection to the soil, to the land, to the earth. And then coming from my father's side, there's this really strong connection to the ocean, to the water. I think that these two pieces come together and really root and ground me in this location. My dad's family has been here since time immemorial before we can remember. And there are some incredibly valuable teachings that come from that, that come from this place that have that have firmly situated me here. And when I'm not here, I'm feeling like I'm missing a piece of me. And so, I would just say that this area, the land and the ocean, are a part of my personality.”
“I'm really tightly connected to the land and water here and to the stories of this place of the relationship between the Saanich peninsula and the southern Gulf islands. There is a cyclical annual dance. It has been happening here for thousands of years and I'm a part of that. Part of what we're trying to figure out through Covid is how that survives. The indigenous economy of this place was very distant between winter villages on Saanich Peninsula and summer villages on the islands. If you take a look at the economy here now, it's much the same, although there's people that live year round on the islands now, they're flourishing in the summertime and they're very quiet in the wintertime.”
The ability to understand not only the people, but the broader context of what is happening in the economy on a wider scale informs Olsen’s perspective and allows him to make impactful decisions based on what he knows to be true of the lands. He says that “I'm very much a part of the decisions that are being made and not disconnected from it” - a viewpoint that it is often difficult to realise without such a strong connection to a community and place.
The impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic are an inescapable point of discussion for any leader right now. As with much of the world, the Cascadia region and Victoria in particular has been hit hard with the decline in travel. The tourism industry has been effectively shut down, and the impact is felt not only in the capital city but far beyond in rural communities where it is a vital part of the seasonal economy for these areas. Unfortunately, there is no easy answer to the problem, and if the problem worsens again it seems likely that measures restricting travel and tourism could be reintroduced.
We asked Olsen what opportunities he sees for recovery, and what the government could do to help businesses and their constituents.
“Tourism and hospitality is probably the sector that is going to have the longest recovery. I would say that it's been the hardest hit, but it's also the most vulnerable to be opened and shut again.
When we figure out how to travel again, I think there's that piece. I think we [as government] need to be paying very special attention to this, there are a lot of people that are working in this industry while going to school. There's a lot of women and new Canadians working in these industries, very vulnerable, and don’t have the ability to just go and get another job in another industry. So it was challenging. supporting those workers, not just with financial aid during this time that it's challenging, but if someone at this point wants to do something else, I think the government is likely currently missing an opportunity to be getting those people training opportunities. I think some of the challenges that I have right now are that the economic recovery piece has been long talked about and slowly delivered.”
It’s clear that there are no easy answers to a situation that is truly unprecedented and complex. Olsen does suggest that there could be practical solutions, however, and he is keen to point out the government’s summer jobs program, which was aligned with the proposal the B.C. Green Caucus submitted to government in April, and has seen 500 placed into jobs working on the land, planting trees etc. It is a great start, but Olsen would like to see more done.
“There's 150,000 people that are out of work largely from the tourism and hospitality sector. One of the really big challenges for operators is that in order for them to not disappear they need liquidity; they need to be supported financially through this. If we don't want the industry to be hollowed out and require people to start over again, we're going to need to find a way to support their businesses through this. That is a massive challenge for the government. I recognize that. But it's but it's also a massive challenge for people who have invested their livelihood in creating jobs for people and creating experiences for visitors.”
Looking closer to home, we asked Olsen which companies from Saanich North and the Islands he had seen grow in the past, and what green shoots of hope were coming from his own backyard. While the region may often be overlooked in conversations about tech and industry hubs on Vancouver Island, he is keen to point out that businesses in the Saanich peninsula generate over a billion dollars of revenue per year from just three business parks. One of the more high-profile success stories from Olsen’s constituency is Epicure, a meal-delivery service which started in a basement in Saanich.
“Epicure reached out to me and said ‘our business has been increasing during COVID and we need to hire people. We're looking for 70 people. right now.’ I started the championing local business tour, and it was basically a slow-moving version of what the Saanich Chamber of Commerce started when I was when I was a Central Saanich Councillor. That was a day long tour where they would take them to take their local politicians and community leaders to four or five businesses in a day and show the people that were generating property tax revenue from the commercial and industrial zones and, and remind us of the importance of the local economic engine.
“Mostly because the business owners and the entrepreneurs on the Saanich peninsula don't spend a lot of time talking about what they're doing, but spend a lot more time doing what they're doing. And that's part of the reason why I decided to do this championing local business because for the most part, if you're manufacturing a widget or a product, it's going to then be exported out and your customer base isn't the local community”.
While businesses in the city of Victoria may get more headlines there is also a growing tech presence in Saanich North and the islands, you can read the interview we did with Geoff Mullins at Salt Spring Island-based Indro Robotics here for an insight into how one local business has gone global. We also featured Julie Angus, CEO and co-founder of Open Ocean Robotics, a Saanich-based ocean technology startup. Applied Bionomics are another local company that Olsen has seen growing rapidly. As a market leader in biological pest control, their products ship around the world and are a vital part of reducing the harmful effects of pesticides on the natural environment.
The South Island prosperity project has played a key role in helping businesses on the island connecting with those in the Cascadia corridor and beyond, but Olsen says there is always more work to be done.
“I look at the South Island Prosperity Project. I think it is important that we give them a shout out because they've been bringing together the 13 municipalities, nearly a dozen First Nations. One of the drawbacks of that, of course, is that it's really hard to package a consistent story and sell it.
You've got a region of over 400,000, people with three different chambers of commerce, focused very much in three geographic regions. So, power and prosperity partnership has brought those organizations together in COVID. They have got a dozen tables looking at various slices of our economy and the future of our economy. And I think that it's a really exciting initiative that I've always supported.”
Looking at how these local businesses better integrate with the wider community in the Cascadia innovation corridor, Olsen is keen to point out the responsibilities that both the provincial and federal government has in facilitating those interactions.
One of the things that is really challenging is that we've got the federal and provincial government and the feds are ready and have to great extent stepped up as part of a federal program, for transportation and connected communities, If the province isn't willing to match the federal programs they will go to another region where the province has stepped up and said ‘we're behind this as well.’ I think that there are much greater connections that we can have through Cascadia. There's a lot of similarities in West Coast communities, and we're starting to explore those opportunities, but I think there's a lot more work to be done.”
The governance structure in Saanich North and the Islands is divided amongst 61 elected officials, a federal MP, a number of municipal councils, and four First Nations communities. Making sure that everyone’s voice is heard, and that legislation addresses all of those affected is a mammoth task, and it is one that Olsen says he recognized the scale of early on.
“One of the things that I've done is hold regular luncheons. And in fact, we have just started to schedule the latest with the three mayors and myself. I've been meeting regularly up until going back into the legislature with the 12 island trustees and here and two CRD directors. We are having regular zoom meetings. One of the important roles here is to keep those relationships. All of those - except for the First Nations who are directly connected to the federal government - are legislated through provincial legislation, whether it can be islands trust act or the community Local Government Act.
“We have lots of different political stripes, but for the interest of our communities, bringing us together and advocating together I think, is really important. And so, it's a work in progress. It's never been done before, but we've started it by just having regular meetings and just connecting regularly and just being available to answer questions and taking initiatives forward. So that's that, but I think it's part of the exciting work that remains to be done.”
The theme of connection to the community and the wide variety of people that live and work in the area continues to go through everything that we ask Olsen about. The social and economic aspects of making an area prosperous are inherently tied together, much as the local community relies upon their neighbours, as he says: “If there's a challenge that's being faced on Salt Spring, that's, that's also an issue for Central Saanich”.
There is much to learn about local politics on Vancouver Island in particular as the diversity presents both huge challenges and opportunities - along with the added layers of federal and provincial legislation, and the thriving trade with businesses along the Pacific West Coast. We asked Olsen what advice he had for young people looking to follow in his footsteps in serving people by pursuing a career in politics. As with much of the discussion, he responded generously with advice, words of warning, and more than a little insight into what drives him to serve people in his community.
“The first thing is to do your research and understand how the political systems and in our country work. That's a really important piece. Start local. There's a lot of focus on global initiatives and global issues, but ultimately every Monday night there's decisions being made in your local community or your local committee. And all the skills that I've learned, and that have helped me as a provincial politician, are just scaled versions of what I was doing as municipal councilor. A lot of my political philosophy was refined at that council table. Figuring out how to build relationships with 87 colleagues starts with learning how to build relationships with seven or six on the council table. Starting with the skate park or the baseball diamond or whatever the initiative is that you're passionate about. Those are important initiatives that help create better local communities. Ultimately, our role at the provincial level is to help make those local initiatives easier and understanding how those relationships federal, provincial, local, First Nations play out is a really important start.”
Looking more at the day-to-day of being an MLA and interim leader of a political party, we were keen to dive deeper into what Olsen’s regular day looks like. Working with a diverse group of colleagues serving a wide range of needs presents unique challenges for a leader on an almost daily basis. If you are considering a career in politics, it is worth noting that it takes a lot of time to engage with the legislation and all of the stakeholders involved in the process.
“I think of the 87 MLAs and there's a variety of different skills and backgrounds. Some are social workers, some are former police officers, some are lawyers. Some are community activists. Some are professors. Some are doctors, right? It’s important to have a good legal background or an understanding of a lot of what we do in legislation is very legal, technical work. However, to get there, you have to have very strong personal skills and interpersonal communication skills to become a more engaged individual in your community, a better community leader, but it also helps you in all the other aspects of your life. So making sure that you really focus on the ability to communicate and interact with people and feel comfortable with people. Feel comfortable asking. One of the things about a politician is that you have to be willing to ask someone for their support. That's a tough thing to do. You have to be confident, without being arrogant. You have to have humility in this job, and be passionate about the work that you do, because it takes a lot of effort and it takes hard work.”
Olsen’s enthusiasm for serving people shows through as he delivers one final word of warning for anyone thinking that a career in politics is somehow easy. And he has one more story to share with our readers from his own experience that illustrates a lesson he had to learn the hard way.
“I was told when I first got recruited to run that it's a 20-hour a week job. but I was putting a lot more hours than 20 hours a week. I think that it says more about the approach that I took to it. This is a piece of it that I haven't mentioned - you have to be able to take information about an area that you have no background in and get spun up on it very quickly. The ability to hold information, quickly recall information that you've learned about a subject matter that you have no clue about at the beginning but get briefed on. So, I think I think what's important is that we've got people here that are in the seats in our communities, elected to the seats that aren't there just for the ride. But they are there to do the work. And if I'm telling people that 20 hours a week, and they go in with that expectation, what I'm actually doing is selling my community short.
I want someone to take over when I'm done this job at some point when I decide or when the community decides that they no longer want me to be their representative or I decide that I need to do something else. I want that next person to come in with the expectation that it's a tough job and it requires you to do a lot of work because I believe that we can make a better world, a better future for tomorrow, but also for the many tomorrow's ahead. It really freed me in my job to recognize that when I'm not here, when the seat is not occupied by me it will be occupied by somebody else.”
My hope is that while that seat is occupied by me that I can do the absolute best for my community that, that, that I can and I leave a legacy for the person that comes behind me that like, like I want to leave big shoes to fill and to set an expectation that the MLA for Saanich North in the Islands is accessible, is transparent, is accountable, is passionate, has humility, loves their community and is a part of them. I think that is really important for people if they want to get this job to be honest, and then anybody that calls me and says, hey, I'm interested in this, I strip away any of the glossy facade of this job and I'm just straight up honest. It's not 20 hours a week, it's 200.”
If you think you could follow in Olsen’s footsteps, or would like to find out more about any of the issues discussed in this interview you can find out more about Adam Olsen, MLA here: https://adamolsenmla.ca/