Some people love cats, others, dogs. Kulwant Dulay loves the homing pigeons he has been breeding for about 15 years. The North Vancouver truck driver releases them in the morning and watches as they soar and then return to perch on top of his house, doing what pigeons do for six or seven hours before returning home to their coop. Mr. Dulay feels happy when he watches them fly, just like dog people enjoy watching their dogs romp in the backyard.
All of Mr. Dulay’s neighbours accepted his birds until he moved to a new house about three years ago. One neighbour took such a dislike to them, she launched a one-woman anti-pigeon campaign. Betty Forbes complained to district officials that the coop was an eyesore and rat-attractant that would lower her property value. She also claimed Mr. Dulay allowed the birds to perch unsupervised on her house. (Pigeons don’t poop when they fly, but when they perch, the inevitable happens.) Mr. Dulay concedes he initially had some older untrained birds that perched on Ms. Forbes’s roof, but he says after her complaints led to a visit from municipal bylaw staff, he got rid of the six offenders and trained his young birds to stick to his own home.
This all would have been brushed off as an unpleasant neighbourhood spat had Ms. Forbes not been elected a district councillor in 2018. Although an ordinary citizen when she started to complain, a freedom of information request filed by CBC reveals her lobbying efforts against Mr. Dulay’s birds continued after her victory party. The e-mail trail shows after she was elected but before she was sworn in, Ms. Forbes e-mailed the municipality’s chief permitting officer demanding more action be taken to get rid of Mr. Dulay’s pigeons. She also discussed her problem with another councillor, Lisa Muri, who introduced a motion to ban pigeons in the district. The motion passed – Ms. Forbes rightly abstained, making a vague reference to her neighbour keeping pigeons. She did not, however, disclose she was the sole complainant.
When it came to light that Ms. Forbes had been sending anti-pigeon messages behind the scenes, council was inundated with allegations that she had broken conflict-of-interest rules. Now, Mr. Dulay is appealing the pigeon ban, the mayor has ordered an independent investigation into conflict allegations and a group of citizens, including another neighbour on the block, has filed a court petition to have Ms. Forbes removed from office on the same grounds. Ms. Forbes declined to be interviewed, stating it would be inappropriate to comment while the review is under way.
It might be tempting to view this as a small indiscretion by a rookie councillor who thought it was enough to abstain from the bylaw vote. But whether or not her e-mails constitute a legal conflict-of-interest violation, the optics are horrible. As the residents who signed the removal petition point out, by expressing concerns about her property value, it is clear Ms. Forbes had among other things, her own pecuniary interests in mind. And that makes the alarm bells go off.
And although this seems a lot of fuss over a flock of pigeons, there is an important underlying principle at stake. We expect politicians to put their constituents’ interests ahead of their own. Ms. Forbes pursued her pigeon agenda with such zeal, it makes me wonder whether that’s the very reason she ran for office. Again, I couldn’t ask.
Wouldn’t it have been better if she’d welcomed Mr. Dulay to the block, met his birds and marvelled at these creatures that have been known to navigate distances of 1,700 kilometres to return home? It would have been neighbourly and good politics, too. After all, it’s hard to see how people will continue to vote for someone they wouldn’t want as a neighbour.
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