Johnny Strilaeff was familiar with the Columbia Basin Trust before he ever started working there.
Born and raised in Castlegar, Strilaeff graduated from Stanley Humphries Secondary School before beginning his post-secondary education at Selkirk College. He then transferred to the University of Calgary, “at a time when people from here didn’t move to Calgary, they moved to Vancouver,” where he completed a bachelor of commerce degree. After graduating Strilaeff began a career in finance services, and moved back to Castlegar in 1999.
The Columbia Basin Trust (CBT) was one of his clients, so when he started there in 2005, he already had an in-depth knowledge of the organization. His original roll with the trust was managing its investments, and most recently, he was the CBT’s chief operating officer and vice-president, before being appointed as the new president and CEO after the sudden passing of Neil Muth.
The Castlegar News caught up with Strilaeff to find out about his new role, what the CBT is up to, and what the new president’s hopes are for the future of the trust.
Castlegar News: What are some of the biggest changes you’ve seen at the trust over the past 11 years?
Johnny Strilaeff: When I first joined the trust it was relatively small in terms of staffing and the resources that the organization had available for communities.
What’s happened most significantly over that period of time that I’ve been here now — so we’re going on 11 years — is we’ve been [able], in partnership with Columbia Power Corporation, … to successfully develop, construct and put into operation three hydroelectric plants in this region. The third of those ones that we built is in partnership with Fortis as well.
These are incredible projects, and what it’s done is significantly increased the financial resources we have available. That’s allowed us now to explore all sorts of new areas of community priorities, where in the past, because the dollars were relatively limited, we weren’t able to do as much as we would have liked to support work that was happening in the region. Now, with significantly more resources, we’re able to very much broaden that scope of support and that’s exciting for us. That for me is the most significant change.
CN: How, if at all, has your perspective changed now that you’re president and CEO?
JS: I was very close with Neil Muth — we started the same week — and worked very, very closely together, so I was very much involved at a strategic level, and so I benefited from that. So I had active engagement; … I’ve already participated in a lot of the same discussions that I’m having today.
What has changed is the need for me to spend a little less time focusing on the urgency of issues today, much more of my time focusing on what are going to be needs, what are our priorities tomorrow, the day after, ten years down the road. So [I] certainly have to be alive to the operational demands of day-to-day work, but spend more time than I would have in the past thinking about the future and how it is the trust is going to need to respond or evolve in the future.
CN: What is the trust currently working on that you’re excited about?
JS: We worked through … about a year and a half process in the region. We went literally to every community, and had community open forums and said, “What’s important to you? What are your priorities?” … We had a long-term strategic plan, but we’ve renewed it now, and it reflects what we heard as community priorities, and there are 13 focus areas that came out of that. And none of those were necessarily a surprise — which is good. It said to us that we were generally aware of what residents felt were the most important issues, but now we had a direct mandate, because not only did they say, “Here’s the areas that we believe you should be focusing resources, [but] here’s how we believe you should be focusing resources.” So now we’ve got the framework for a plan. We’ve now shifted from understanding what residents would like to see us do, consolidating that into a plan, and we’re now in the action phase, which is the exciting part to me. Now it is developing specific programming or support in those 13 areas.
So for example, in the area of economic development …, the board has dedicated $23 million over three years to new work in the area of economic development, and we’re now transitioning to using those dollars in a way that really is going to create or enhance jobs, increase wealth, support entrepreneurs. So once you get to that stage, and you’re actually on the ground working, it’s really quite exciting. And that’s a similar theme across all of those 13 areas. … We’ve got a [fiber optic] broadband network [in the region] that’s over 800 kilometers now … and we continue to expand it. I think it’s over 14,000 homes now that either have or have enhanced broadband access as a result of the work in that area that we’re doing. So real, on-the-ground, impactful work is where our energies are focused now, and that is exciting. Planning is good, it’s necessary — action is what is really impactful.
CN: Part of the initiative also includes investments, does it not?
JS: Absolutely. So I mentioned earlier the hydroelectric projects — those are investments of ours, but their not our only investments. We have a group that works direct with Basin businesses, enters into investment relationships — usually loans — with businesses in the region, and we do that for purposes of generating a financial return. So not only are we supporting the business, but we generate a financial return that we can then use for some of the other things I just described, and maybe it’s affordable housing. Those returns allow us to do some of this other community work.
The investment portfolio is our power project — by far the largest portion. We also have business loans and investments. We have a real estate portfolio that we own properties across the region. … Castlewood seniors’ facility here in Castlegar, we’re 50 per cent owner of that, and seven other seniors’ communities across the region, as well as some commercial and industrial property. We do all of that so that we can generate the money to support work in affordable housing, not-for-profit sector, and some of the other examples I’ve given.
CN: What challenges will the trust face in the near future?
JS: Developing impactful programming in each of those 13 areas. Some of the areas, we have some experience. So affordable housing is one, we’ve done work in that space before, and we have a new commitment to do additional work. It’s easier for us to see in that case how it is we could really make a difference in the region. It’s not quite as simple though in some other areas.
So for example, agriculture was a priority or focus area. We haven’t really had a direct role in agriculture in the past. We’ve supported projects from time to time that are in the sector, but we’ve never actually taken a pro-active approach to try to enhance. That takes some work and some understanding. It’s an incredibly complex sector that you only realize when you start getting into it. So that’s a challenge to get through that, because there is no playbook, there is no model. You have to get through some planning work and development work, and the challenge is translating that into something that actually makes a difference in the sector. Agriculture’s an example of that space where we’ve got some work to do. Alternative energy is another space that it is a little less clear what role that we could play that will really make a difference in that sector. So there’s a few of those that we’ve got our work cut out for us.
CN: How are you moving forward with those areas where you haven’t previously had a role?
JS: Of those 13 focus areas I’ve spoken to, each of those has a dedicated staff person. … In some cases, we’re already in implementation, so they’re actually delivering programs. In some cases, it is research. So in the area of agriculture for example, we have a very senior individual with the trust who’s responsible for it. He has brought together a group of experts from the field, we’ve developed some areas we think we could focus our energies, and now [we’re asking] this group of individuals — producers in the sector, as well as folks from Ministry of Agriculture for example, academic experts — “Ok folks, could you tell us what you think we should be doing now with these goals that we could actually action?” So that’s how we’re moving it along is we’re doing the research, learning as we go, but never forgetting that at the end of the day, we want to actually have action at the end. We’re calling the ball as the play unfolds in some of those areas.
CN: The possibility that the Columbia River Treaty (CRT) could be renegotiated in the near future, is that a concern?
JS: I think it’s a concern to us in the same way it should be a concern to any Basin resident — and concern may overstate it to a degree, but I think it is very important for all residents to understand the impact of the treaty on this region, and what future impacts could be under a renegotiation.
But it’s very important though to understand that the trust has no role in the Columbia River Treaty process. We were created as a result of the impacts of the treaty, but we have no role in the treaty implementation or potential renegotiation process. That’s the responsibility of senior levels of government. What we have done though is tried to provide information to residents so they’re up to date on the treaty: the historical context, as well as where it is today. And in the future if there is a renegotiation, we may be ab