Local government’s response to reducing transportation emissions may be wishful thinking. Or foolish.
IS THE CITY OF VICTORIA’S STRATEGY to create protected bike lanes in the Downtown core a well-thought-out strategy to make bicycling safer, relieve vehicle congestion and move Victoria in the direction of a low-carbon future? Or is it another case—like the Johnson Street Bridge Replacement Project—of the City unintentionally displaying its proven tendency toward decision-based evidence-making?
The first component of the strategy—a $3.5-million, 1.2-kilometre-long corridor on Pandora between Cook and Store—became operational in May. By mid-June the City’s PR team announced “the number of cyclists using the new bike lanes is very encouraging” with “nearly 40,000 bicycle trips” made along the corridor in its first month of operation. That timeframe, and the numbers, included Victoria’s Bike to Work Week, an annual outpouring of temporary enthusiasm.
A second protected bicycle corridor—1.2 kilometres of Fort from Cook to Wharf—was approved by City of Victoria councillors on June 8. Construction is scheduled to begin in September.
The City plans to expand these corridors to Wharf, Humboldt and Cook. At the cost per kilometre of the Pandora corridor, the 5.3-kilometre-long Phase 1 would cost about $16 million—and depends almost entirely on the availability of grants from the Gas Tax Fund.
The rationale behind the protected lanes—as opposed to cyclists sharing the existing infrastructure with automobiles—is to increase the safety of cyclists. But creating protected lanes has resulted in removal of auto parking space, already in short supply in the Downtown core much of each day. The Pandora corridor removed 43 auto parking stalls; another 30 will be removed on Fort Street. At that rate of parking space removal, Phase 1 would see about 175 spaces disappear. Before construction of the protected corridors began, the City had less than 2000 on-street parking spaces Downtown. So Phase 1, originally planned to be complete by the end of 2018, will see the loss of nearly 10 percent of on-street parking in the Downtown core. The City’s aim appears to be to quickly replace a significant fraction of motorized individual transport with unmotorized individual transport.
For people who drive a car, truck or van Downtown and don’t see themselves as likely to ever switch to a bicycle, the new situation feels like an attempt to force them to make a change they can’t or don’t want to make, and carries a whiff of social engineering. Some Downtown businesses have expressed concern that making vehicle parking Downtown less available will discourage potential clients and impact their businesses. But Victoria Mayor Lisa Helps has argued that protected bicycle corridors will make auto parking more available, not less. Her theory is that by making biking around Downtown safer, people who in the past would only travel there by auto will now be encouraged to come by bicycle. Victoria’s 40-ish mayor is an avid cycle commuter and she now has a protected corridor that runs most of the 1.4 kilometres from her home in Fernwood to her place of work at City Hall.
Implicit in the City’s decision to proceed along this course is the belief that the number of cyclists, especially those commuting to work, needs to be encouraged and allowed to grow far beyond current levels. Why are they doing that? Here’s the City’s official position on “why”: “Encouraging cycling, along with walking and transit use, is an important strategy to manage expected population growth and support community health, affordability, economic development, air quality and climate action objectives. As the City grows in population, we will need to shift some of our trips to transit, cycling and walking because these are much more efficient modes of transportation than single occupancy vehicles.”
The City supports its position with data that it attributes to the 2011 Census that indicated 10.6 percent of people living within the City of Victoria cycle to work. That’s Canada’s highest per capita incidence of commuting by bicycle. It’s hard to argue with federal census data that counts (almost) every single person in the country and has a margin of error close to zero. The City is hoping to build on that encouraging number and calls its plan “Biketoria.”
While the City’s vision sounds progressive and smart, the best available data about transportation in Victoria calls into question the City’s emphasis on cycling and walking—and perhaps transit, too.
Let’s start with Victoria’s claim to fame, that 10.6 percent of Victorians who cycle to work. It turns out that number wasn’t obtained directly from the 2011 Census. Instead, the “10.6 percent” figure comes from the 2011 National Household Survey, which was voluntary and produced data with a margin of error much higher than zero. Since good transportation planning requires good transportation data, it’s important to understand why one of the fundamental numbers supporting the City’s Biketoria initiative is probably flawed.
The National Household Survey asked participants only one question about transportation: How did the person filling out the survey “usually get to work.” There were 11 modes of transportation listed (auto driver, auto passenger, transit, walking, bicycle, etc...) and the respondent could choose only one. How did multi-modal commuters decide how to respond? We don’t know, but it’s well-known that commuter cycling ebbs in the darker, colder, wetter half of the year, so it’s reasonable to assume that some cyclists must be using other forms of transportation to get to work at least part of the year: walking, transit, some might even drive an auto. But the National Household Survey didn’t allow for such complexity. Nor did it attempt to gauge the distance people had to travel to work. As a guide for transportation planners, then, the National Housing Survey doesn’t really qualify as a reliable tool for making multi-million-dollar transportation decisions. Yet it is attributed as one of the primary sources upon which the City based its case for building protected bicycle corridors.
The other source the City cites is the 2011 CRD Origin-Destination Household Travel Survey. But a careful read of the data in that survey, especially when compared with the data the survey produced in 2006, raises questions about the City’s direction.
According to the CRD’s 2011 survey, only 3.8 percent of trips within, into and out of the City of Victoria over a 24-hour period were made by bicycle. When the average distance of trips made by different modes of transportation are factored in, bicycles accounted for less than 2.5 percent of the total distance travelled using all modes. Moreover, the Origin-Destination survey didn’t capture trips that were made to move goods or to provide services—like taxi drivers, social workers, delivery services, healthcare providers, transit drivers—it’s a long list and almost none of it is done by bicycle.
If bicycles currently account for only a tiny fraction of the total distance travelled each day in the City of Victoria, how realistic is it that large numbers of Victorians will soon become cyclists?
While Copenhagen’s large contingent of cyclists is held up as a model for Victoria to aspire to, the average age of a person living in Copenhagen is 35.9 years and has been falling for many years. In the City of Victoria, the average is 44.5 and is projected to rise for many years. As people get older, they generally spend a lot less time on bicycles, especially in hilly places like Victoria. Perhaps that’s one reason why the Origin-Destination surveys for 2006 and 2011 show that, for the whole CRD, the daily mode share for bicycles dropped slightly over those five years, from 3.2 percent to 2.8 percent. Yet the official goal in the CRD is to raise that to 25 percent in urban areas by 2038.
Is this realistic?
The answer to that becomes clearer when we consider the cumulative distance travelled each day by residents of the Capital Regional District (see table below). According to data in the 2011 Origin-Destination survey, about 6.6 million kilometres are travelled within the CRD each and every weekday (note that’s each day, not week). Of that travel, 72.7 percent was as the driver of an auto and 15.6 percent as a passenger in an auto. That means that about 88 percent of all travel within the CRD relies on autos.
Share, by transportation mode, of total distance travelled within the CRD on a weekday
Source: 2011 CRD Origin-Destination Household Travel Survey, conducted by Malatest and Associates Ltd. The survey did not capture commercial traffic or traffic originating outside of the CRD. The 2011 survey is the most recent data available.
Only 1.5 percent of the distance travelled is by bicycle. As noted above, the survey does not capture commercial trips made to move goods or to provide services. If commercial traffic was included, bicycles would likely drop to little more than one percent.
So bicycles currently account for a tiny fraction of the actual distance people cover in getting from point A to point B in the CRD. Again, is it realistic to think that bicycles—currently providing about 1 percent of transportation needs—will supply 25 percent in 20 years?
Without improving the cycling network, City and CRD transportation planners won't know whether their long-term goal is achievable. Unfortunately, though, as they experiment, the protected lanes may unintentionally increase emissions by delaying vehicles making right-hand turns of Pandora, resulting in hours of additional engine idling each day (see the short video below). Unless use of the corridor increases dramatically, it could be argued it's doing more harm than good most of the day.
The Pandora Avenue protected bicycle corridor includes new traffic signals that delay right-hand turns off Pandora by 25 seconds at each of six intersections. As is shown in this video, this will increase emissions from autos even though there are few cyclists using the lane.
You might be wondering why I am quoting a study done in 2011. The Origin-Destination surveys are done every five years, but the 2016 survey has been delayed. John Hicks, senior transportation planner at the CRD, told Focus the 2016 version, which would normally have been released about now, was pushed back a year so that 2016 federal census data could be used more directly in determining required sample sizes.
A call for credentials was issued by the CRD in April and the survey will be conducted during the same months as the 2011 survey. It should be released in March 2018. So, for now, we are dependent on the 2011 data, and that shows bicycles only provide a tiny fraction of the travel needs of people throughout the CRD.
Regardless of whether the loss of nearly 10 percent of the Downtown core’s on-street parking is or isn’t a reasonable trade-off for a greater level of safety for bicyclists, the claim that these corridors will play a significant role in reducing carbon emissions seems like a refusal to accept the obvious: Most people prefer to use four-wheeled motorized personal transport. So at least some of the CRD’s and the municipalities’ efforts in transportation planning ought to include how that strong preference can be incorporated in a transportation system that evolves toward a low-carbon future. For example, why not incorporate charging stations for electric cars into the protected bicycle corridor infrastructure? Providing electricity for free would create an incentive for electric vehicles Downtown. Even so, such ideas would be little more than civic acknowledgment of the need to reduce emissions since the vast majority of motorized vehicles depend on fossil fuels and likely will for many years to come, according to auto industry experts.
To produce a significant reduction in CRD transportation emissions, a more sophisticated approach than painting bicycle lanes on roads will be needed. That will, at least to begin with, require helping auto drivers and auto passengers reduce their use of fossil-fueled vehicles, while accepting their choice for how to get around. How can that use be downsized? The data the CRD has collected, if it’s accurate, contains some interesting possibilities. Comparing the 2006 and 2011 surveys, it appears two shifts in the use of autos were underway. One was good news, the other bad.
First the bad news. According to the CRD’s Origin-Destination surveys, between 2006 and 2011, about 78,000 fewer trips were taken as auto passengers each day. Where did the passengers go? It appears that many of them might have become drivers. In 2006, drivers accounted for 59 percent of non-commercial trips. But by 2011 that had climbed to 64 percent. If nothing else had changed, this would have meant more vehicles travelling each day—and higher emissions.
But—and this is the good news—regional transportation emissions per person may have declined in spite of the trend of passengers becoming drivers. That’s because the average number of daily trips per person in the CRD decreased after 2006 by 4.8 percent. That translates to CRD residents driving about 43,000 fewer kilometres each weekday than in 2006.
These two factors—the incidence of single-occupancy vehicles and the average number of daily trips taken by CRD auto users—suggest possibilities for emissions reduction that don’t involve converting car drivers to cyclists. (Again, this is only true to the extent that the data collected for the Origin-Destination surveys for 2006 and 2011 is accurate.) The CRD needs to gather more data that provides decision-makers, elected officials and media answers to basic questions, such as: Why did CRD residents reduce the number of their trips between 2006 and 2011? Is there some way to incentivize that shift in behaviour? If the City of Victoria can spend $16 million on safer bicycling for a few thousand bicyclists—using money collected from auto drivers through the Gas Tax Fund—why can’t the CRD refund a few million a year back to auto drivers who can prove a significant reduction in the miles they travel each year or switched to an EV? And what were the factors that turned auto passengers into auto drivers? What would it take to reverse that trend? Can local government, especially the CRD, play a role in facilitating that reversal? With the huge growth in the use of cell phones, ipads and apps, why does the CRD not have its own high-profile regional rideshare system in place that can connect car drivers who are about to make a similar trip?
The absence of timely, deep, reliable data on transportation in the CRD will make it difficult for the community to make sensible decisions based on evidence. One example of how badly politicians can steer the public interest—when they make a decision and then look for evidence that supports it—is the CRD’s controversial LRT initiative. That began in 2009 as the provincial NDP’s response to the then-Campbell government’s transit initiatives in Vancouver. Local NDP MLA Maureen Karaganis stated back then: “The Campbell government’s transit plan focuses almost entirely on projects in the lower mainland while the rest of BC, including Victoria, has been ignored. The Capital Region seeks to avoid sprawl by building an innovative, high quality public transit system with LRT between Downtown and the western communities.”
By 2012, that we-want-one-too logic had ballooned into a live, billion-dollar proposal to build an LRT between “Downtown and the western communities.” Note that the western terminus of such a system wouldn’t have been the “western communities,” but rather Langford.
When politicians start pounding the drum for some large infrastructure project, which they hope will distinguish themselves from their political competitors, the only thing that might prevent them from making a big, expensive mistake is credible, accurate, up-to-date information. With the LRT proposal, if a billion was going to be spent anywhere, should it really be used to connect Downtown with Langford?
The 2011 Origin-Destination survey included a graphic of the “Desire Lines” in the CRD (see graphic below). These represent the most heavily-travelled routes people take in moving around the CRD each day. In the illustration, you can see that, by far, the strongest flows are between Downtown and south Victoria, from Downtown to Uptown, and from all three of those areas out to the University of Victoria. Notice the feeble desire line out to Langford.
Desire Lines in the CRD, from the 2011 Origin Destination survey.
The illustration excludes trips that originate outside of the CRD. For example, trips from anywhere north of Langford, which contribute much of the traffic on the at-times congested Trans Canada Highway. The LRT the NDP was proposing would likely not be used by such travellers.
The most prominent desire lines show where an LRT should be located if the goal was to reduce emissions and create a more compact community. A 19-kilometre-long loop that connected Downtown, Oak Bay, the Shelbourne Valley, UVic and Uptown would follow arterial roads that already pass within a kilometre or so of tens of thousands of existing homes. Over time, the presence of a transit line would encourage even greater population density in those already-developed areas.
According to the desire lines, a 15-kilometre (one way) route from Downtown to Langford wouldn’t make sense. Yet the Regional Transportation Plan’s rationale for LRT sees that route “as a possible means to significantly curb pressure on auto infrastructure in high growth areas.” By “high growth area” the CRD means Langford, which has the highest relative population growth rate in the CRD. But in terms of absolute growth—which includes growth in population, commercial and institutional development and employment—the area of Victoria and Saanich already heavily criss-crossed by desire lines is experiencing more than twice the growth of Langford.
With the NDP about to become government, will an LRT to Langford be resurrected? Quick! Using Google Earth, someone needs to count all the dwellings and places of employment within walking distance of the above two routes. Why isn’t that information already available?
Choosing the wrong first route for LRT would have a devastating effect on the long-term prospects of reducing emissions in the CRD. What the CRD really needs, before spending countless millions on pet transportation projects that address a tiny fraction of the CRD’s emissions problem, is credible and comprehensive information about what it would take to get people who live here (as opposed to Danish twenty-year-olds) to change their travel behaviour. Obtaining that information would cost money, of course. One way to fund such data gathering would be to use the Gas Tax Fund.
Unfortunately, that huge chunk of cash—which is taken from drivers of vehicles that run on fossil fuels—is used almost exclusively for cycling infrastructure or non-transportation-related projects in the CRD: an agricultural strategy here, a tennis court there, water system upgrades all over the place, even a fire hydrant in Shirley. The tax isn’t being used, however, for any initiative that might one day seriously lower carbon emissions. Perhaps that’s because actually reducing the use of fossil-fuelled vehicles would diminish the flow of money to the Gas Tax Fund, and that, in turn, would start to dry up funding for local politicians’ pet projects. It’s an interesting dynamic, one addiction feeding another. How do we get free of it? Please let me know what you would do.
David Broadland is the publisher of Focus Magazine.
Affordable housing—for low- and moderate-income people working Downtown—should be a City of Victoria priority.
VICTORIA'S CURRENT HOUSING SCENE is now recognized in official circles as in “severe crisis”—both in terms of affordability and availability. The Capital Region Analysis & Data Book shows 50 percent of households can only afford 13.7 percent of the region’s homes.
The City of Victoria has responded to the crisis in numerous ways. It has removed the necessity of rezoning for garden suites. It has given preliminary approval to a moratorium on granting demolition permits for rental housing, as developers salivate over replacing those three-story 1970s-era apartment blocks that form the bulk of the City’s affordable housing. It is considering special taxes on vacant and derelict properties. It is fast-tracking applications for rental developments and encouraging developers to include some non- market “affordable” units in their buildings.
And, upon learning that at least 300 Downtown housing units had been diverted from their intended purpose of housing to money-making tourist accommodation, it started debating ways to restrict that practice— those developments, after all, got building permits on the basis of supplying housing, not hotels.
These are all necessary, but wholly insufficient steps to turning the tide on the affordable housing crisis.
But promises of help are coming from both the feds and the NDP-led, Green Party-supported provincial government. The NDP promised to build 114,000 affordable rental, non-profit and co-op housing units over 10 years, and to provide social housing to middle-class workers who have been priced out of BC cities. The Greens were willing to spend $750 million per year building and renovating social housing, to construct about 4000 affordable housing units per year. And the feds’ new $180-billion infrastructure funds are geared, in part, to affordable housing projects (some of it in the form of federal land to build on).
It’s timely and crucial for local communities to make concrete plans for projects in the region that will attract federal and provincial funding. It’s clear that the private sphere will not, and likely cannot, build the homes that are truly needed.
Centennial Square Parkade. A seismically-vulnerable and low-value use of Downtown space?
ONE POPULATION THAT IS ESPECIALLY ill-served by the housing market is Downtown workers of modest income—the folks who cook and serve us in cafés and restaurants, who clean hotel rooms, who are the helpful receptionists in offices we visit, and who help us find the perfect shirt or gift in Downtown’s stores. There are over 24,000 people working Downtown, about half of them in the hospitality (4183), restaurant (3834), and retail (3225) sectors (2013 figures).
Despite the building boom throughout the city, but especially in or near Downtown (see the slide show at www.focusonvictoria.ca), none of the newer and under-construction buildings, with one notable exception, offer “affordable” rents for those making the low-to-modest living that many thousands of Downtown workers earn.
Downtown employers are paying competitive wages, but tell me they have trouble finding and keeping good employees simply because of the difficulty and expense of parking and travel from their far-flung homes—in Shawnigan or Langford or Sooke. Transit and cycling are both often highly inconvenient for someone who is forced to work two jobs, as many do. But owning a car—and parking it Downtown—is prohibitively expensive for these workers. (My 1-hour-40-minute visit to the dentist the other day resulted in a $7 parkade charge. Double ouch!)
A minimum-wage job currently pays $10.85/hour. If the BC NDP government keeps its promise around minimum wage, this will rise incrementally to $15 per hour by 2021. Many Downtown employers already pay above minimum wage, so let’s take the example of a worker currently making $15/hour. At 40 hours/week, he or she makes about $2500/month before taxes and deductions. That means their affordable rent would be $750/month. (The accepted definition of “affordable housing” is housing that costs no more than 30 percent of household income before tax.)
What can one find now in that $750/month range?
When I looked at online ads for apartments in or close to Downtown, I did find one “$750 Downtown loft apartment.” On further inspection, however, it turned out to be a 10-foot-square room within a loft apartment. And when I stumbled on a fully-furnished “large one-bedroom” in Esquimalt for $650, and emailed to ask if it was just the bedroom (I thought I was getting wise to the scene), I was soon contacted by Used Victoria to let me know it might well be a scam. It was: I was sent photos of the lovely interior, saying I should drive by 1194 Esquimalt but wouldn’t be able to see inside since they were out of town. Verbatim: “If you are interested. I want you to remember that I’m in (Portland, Oregon.). and the keys and documents are here with me, so you will not be able to see inside the apartment, you can only view from the outside. I will send the keys and documents to you via FedEx and you will receive it within 48hrs…” Of course, with the application, I was to send $950. Besides the too-good-to-be-true price, the brackets every time they mentioned “Portland, Oregon” gave it away.
But I digress.
There were actually quite a few of the second-bedroom-for-rent type ads. In Esquimalt that might cost you $600; closer to Downtown (e.g. on Pembroke) it’s more likely to cost $750. (And these were not “short-term vacation rentals”—those are about twice as much.)
There are a lot of folks advertising themselves as great tenants in the “apartments for rent” section—everything from “professional couples” willing to pay $1400 to $2400/month, to a “sober nerdy vegan” who can afford $475-$625/month. Craigslist has a whole department devoted to “rooms & shares.”
If you really want your own, albeit tiny, apartment Downtown, expect to pay a lot more. For example, a 452-square-foot studio (with a 50-square-foot balcony) at Hudson Walk One on Caledonia is asking $1510 per month—certainly not affordable for the Downtown worker making $15/hour, or even $20/hour. That price tag is also about 50 percent more than rents at Hudson Walk One were when it launched a year ago.
The Janion has an even smaller pad—350 square feet—for $1280. Again, unaffordable for a full-time worker at $15/hour. In fact, at the 30 percent definition of affordable, one would have to make $4300/month—about $26/hour—to rent 350 square feet. If you are determined to have your own space for just shy of $800 then you might find one at the Dominion Rocket—but it might be only 179 square feet.
While the City sometimes demands developers include some non-market units in new buildings, they are usually only just a small handful per complex.
The Greater Victoria Rental Development Society’s Azzurro project across Blanshard from the arena
One non-profit thankfully stepped up recently to help more workers of modest means. The Greater Victoria Rental Development Society, paired with Realhomes Development Corp to develop the 7-storey, 65-unit Azzurro right across Blanshard from the arena. Forty-three of its units are non-market: $925 for a one-bedroom and $860 for a studio. Despite the low rents, Alanna Holroyd, the executive director of GVRDS, says she can make it work financially. It helps that she was able to do much of the work herself, and that the $5 million in development costs were waived. She has assembled a great team, including locally-based builders Knappett Projects. She also credits BC Housing financing—100 percent financing [of 14.8 million] through construction at 1.6 percent, interest only—as making housing lower- income people a feasible business model. Holroyd notes, “The lower two levels of commercial also played a significant role in getting financing from BC Housing. After the sale of the commercial spaces, a further $2.5 million will be raised.” While grants of $495,000 from the CRD and $544,000 from the City helped make Azzurro happen, Holroyd believes she can do such developments without any grants in the future.
If we want a liveable, vibrant Downtown, we need more such creative, bold moves. By supplying affordable housing in the core for the the core’s workforce, they will also reduce greenhouse gas emissions—and help make the heart of our city more truly liveable.
AMONG THE RECOMMENDATIONS of the City of Victoria’s Housing Affordability Task Force last year was one urging the contribution of City-owned land at no cost or at reduced market value for the development of affordable housing projects. The Task Force report noted that “Under current law, the City can donate land or enter into long-term lease agreements with organizations that commit to providing affordable housing. The City can also enter into land swaps with other public institutions or the private sector and use those properties for affordable housing purposes.”
The most visible form of City-owned property Downtown, besides City Hall, are parkades. Could we develop a plan to transform one or more of them into affordable rental apartments—a Downtown workers’ paradise?
The City of Victoria owns five parkades. We can rule out the one below the Central Library, so that leaves four, all above ground. Most were built in the 1960s when seismic standards were much lower. From past research via FOIs, we know that City-owned parkades have not been seismically evaluated. It’s highly likely that once they are assessed for seismic vulnerability, they’ll have to be replaced, otherwise the City would be faced with a huge liability issue if an earthquake did strike.
In that case, do we simply put up replacement parkades? That seems crazy in light of land values, needs for housing, and climate change.
Why not consider replacing them with affordable homes for Downtown’s service workers? Start with the one which has the fewest parking spaces—it just so happens that’s the one adjacent to Centennial Square. You could retain some or all of its 188 spaces by putting them underground. They can be designed with smaller parking spaces to match the smaller cars we’ll be driving, as well as outfitted to provide charging for the electric vehicles we’re expected to drive. The main floor would have space for retailers paying market-based rents. Above, build a high-rise of varying-sized suites, all rented on an affordable basis to those who are eligible: people who work at jobs Downtown and have incomes in the target range suggested by the City’s Housing Affordability Task Force: $18,000-$57,000/year.
Oh, but what about losing precious parking spaces, you ask? It’s surprising how many parking spots might be available underground. Under the Central Library, for instance, there are 544 parking spots. (It’s worth noting that there are also 11 privately-owned parkades and 40 parking lots Downtown.) There might even be a net gain in parking spaces if Downtown workers no longer need to drive a car to work.
This means there’s an important added benefit: a reduction in greenhouse gas emissions. (In BC, transportation accounts for 37 percent of our total annual emissions.)
Another possible objection: That particular parkade, and the attached one-storey part of the building on Douglas, were designed in 1963 by renowned architect John Di Castri. It’s a heritage building. Yet that same pedigree belongs to the Crystal Pool, which Victoria council seems determined to replace (see story, page 22). In the case of the Centennial Square parkade, the seismic issue alone will mean its eventual demise. Let’s make sure what we build there is beautifully designed (perhaps incorporating or echoing Di Castri’s work), durable, and aimed at a higher purpose like affordable housing. Think how such a transformation would enliven Victoria’s central plaza, especially if families with children are housed there.
The Centennial Square side of the John Di Castri-designed parkade
But why stop at one parkade? There are three other above-ground City-owned parkades, each seismically questionable: at Bastion Square, View Street, and Johnson Street. The City should be planning now for how to deal with them over the next decade, in ways that will best align with our future needs—around housing, transportation, and climate change.
Most likely, the City would and should involve one of the local non-profits involved in building low-income housing—the Greater Victoria Rental Development Society and the Greater Victoria Housing Society, for instance, have each built quality apartment buildings throughout the city in which units rent at non-market rates. Those in the social-housing industry can figure out the details, including eligibility criteria and precise rental rates, but all of the apartments should be geared to Downtown workers of modest means. The buildings will ideally house 300 or more residents per building.
Our theoretical full-time worker, with a $2500/month income, could get a decent studio or small one-bedroom for $750. A couple, perhaps with a child, working Downtown with a monthly income of close to $5000, could get a larger suite for up to $1500. Incomes would be reviewed annually and rents reassessed. Sure there’s nitty-gritty details like “what happens if a person leaves their Downtown employ for a job somewhere else?” But surely we can dream up some fair-minded policies to deal with such situations. Perhaps they are given six month’s notice.
I like this parkade-to-housing concept simply for the compassion it shows to those who enliven Downtown through their work, not to mention how it places value on homes over cars. But other benefits would also flow. Besides the already-mentioned reduction of green house gas emissions, it would help local businesses retain employees, a crucial ingredient of stability and success. And that would help the City’s economy, as those businesses would be far less likely to pull up stakes for the suburbs. It might even cool the housing market a tad, a good thing, as one glance at real estate ads will attest.
Since the City owns the land, that cuts out a huge cost of development. According to GVRDS’s Holroyd, “if the site has a Certificate of Compliance [from the Ministry of Environment[, it could be worth $250 per square foot and up depending on what density is allowed after rezoning.” But, she warns, “the variables are massive.” Regardless, “it could easily be half the cost of construction…without a development fee of course.” Holroyd agreed that having land donated makes a lot more things possible.
So the City supplies the land, perhaps waiving some fees, and other levels of government provide funding, and non-profits take care of the rest.
Unless we are willing to have our governments step up and provide non-market housing, we’ll face a city bleached of its diversity and vitality, and we’ll witness more lives, especially young ones, stunted by unbearable costs.
Remember Portland, once held up as a shining example of how to deal with homelessness? It now has 4000 homeless, including many families living in shelters, and is currently working on a pilot program to supply government-constructed “pods” of 200 square feet, placed in the backyards of willing homeowners. And they are not cheap; the pods cost about $75,000 each (but here too the land is free). Victoria has the opportunity to avoid such drastic measures by moving more aggressively to actually initiate development and put up the land.
If this community is willing to tear down a di Castri-designed swimming pool and spend $70 million to replace it (even though it could be fixed for far less), I think we have a moral obligation to affordably house the people who work to make the Downtown experience so fine.
Leslie Campbell invites other dreamers to send us your ideas on how to create a liveable, green, compassionate city.
A perfect storm for Victoria renters Clearly the government has been negligent in not making any kind of decent effort to build social housing for the past number of years. The result is money being spent on mopping up the mess of lives that become broken and dysfunctional.
But I don’t like to see landlords being targeted as the root of the problem. One of the biggest costs to a landlord, after the initial mortgage on the property, is taxes. There is something unsustainable when it costs almost $500 a month just for property taxes. People who own their own homes are struggling to hang on and so end up adding one more room to an existing suite in order to make it a two bedroom. Sometimes people are moved to take a serious look at the idea of an Airbnb because the income is so much higher—anything that will help with the crushing taxes.
Our house taxes went up 10 percent this year. The money has to come from somewhere. It’s hard not to increase the rent allowed by the BC rental rules [for 2017, 3.7 percent] every year when your taxes go up by 10 percent. So it is no wonder that there is a rental problem in Victoria.
My point is that taxes are suffocating people who own any kind of property. It’s not about greed. It’s about families trying to make ends meet.
Cash-for-access flourishes in BC politics Houston oil dude Richard Kinder is one of the most loaded guys around, meaning really loaded. Net worth what? Nine billion or something. Friends call him Rich, and the joke is that Rich should be his middle name and Very his first. Kinder Morgan co-founder Bill Morgan isn’t picking up cans and bottles for extra spending money either.
So these guys need more money? Your article “Cash-for-access flourishes in BC politics” shows how money poisons the palace of mirrors in this province. As you point out, Justin Trudeau is trying to kiss the oil biz’s lardy ass and paint himself as a climate warrior at the same time. You’re in or you’re out, Mr 10,000-Selfies-and-Counting.
Alan Cassels’ article about the Health Ministry firings shows a criminally-warped ministry treating hard-working public servants with contempt. Good on Cassels and Ombudsperson Jay Chalke and his staff for exposing a disgraceful episode.
An Orwellian path to fraud in BC forests Now that the BC Green Party has established a foothold in the BC Legislature, and holds the balance of power assuming that it votes as a block on legislation, we’ll see if Briony Penn’s exposure of the plunder of BC resources abetted by “professional reliance” is addressed in any substantial way. I am not holding my breath.
It seems when the professionals are hobbled and threatened by their superiors and not able to voice their concerns and be a professional for the greater public good, there is no fairness. Shame on the federal and provincial governments for strong-arming these public servants who have a greater awareness of the public interest. The upper management and upper government seem to prefer the public blind and ignorant.
We grow up and try to instill fair and just traits in our children, and the governments train those under them to be conniving and withholding of the truth. The norm is going out the window.
Biketoria woes The mayor has been an avid if not fanatical bicyclist since childhood and still is. Waywardly, unconcerned by adult objections from merchants on our principal east-west arteries, she is determined to turn our once graceful city into a child’s playground she rejoices in calling Biketoria. Could there possibly be an uglier name? Such ludicrous transformation defies all mature opinion and all logic.
Lower Fort Street, like Pandora, in no way will benefit from bicycle traffic swishing past its many shops and businesses. The mayor seems complacently ignorant of the fact that for many, many years Victoria has had the largest percentage of elderly in all of Canada. With a compliant City council, Helps is determined to push through with this scheme by September. Already she is threatening Cook Street. Indeed there is no end to her profligacy.
Last year Helps “felt like crying when people say she doesn’t care about seniors or people with disabilities,” but the evidence is there before our eyes. These bike lanes cost us millions of dollars, money which could well help feed our many destitute and house some of our many homeless.
Time for Metro Victoria Metro Victoria is now a reality. A mid-size city region of some 350,000 souls. Some, like Gene Miller, and no doubt others in the Eastern Communities, yearn to hang onto the Victorian past. Others are on to the future—as evidenced by recent manifestos from the Chamber of Commerce and the Grumpy Taxpayers.
While their concerns arise from tax and commerce issues, their critique of the political/cultural status quo—dare I say nostalgiaville—point to the dismal effects of not recognizing that the region is now a large metropolis and needs to be governed accordingly.
The dark effects of an absence of regional government are manifest, not the least in the pages of Focus. All should hope that the provincial panel looking at this issue will set the metropolis on a path to progress through effective governance.
Gene Miller responds:
It’s very important to respect readers’ feelings, so I want to acknowledge that the writer, John Olson, a director of Amalgamation Now, feels that governance within and among the region’s individual municipalities is retrogressive, out of step and not effective. This, in spite of endless studies by objective analysts that have determined that local rather than regional or metropolitan governance delivers more and better service at a lower cost. (My, how counter-intuitive!)
What does it matter if Greater Victoria has a metropolitan population of 350,000, or 2,500,000, like the Vancouver Region? Oh, right, the Vancouver Region which, in fact, consists of the politically and administratively autonomous cities of Vancouver, West Vancouver, North Vancouver, Port Moody, Richmond, Burnaby, New Westminster, Surrey, Delta, White Rock, Langley, Coquitlam, Port Coquitlam, Pitt Meadows, Abbotsford, Mission and Chilliwack.
What’s the matter with those Lower Mainland people? Uncourageously hanging on to the past? Nostalgiaville? Failure to embrace the future? How do they survive?
Olson uses the word future as if he and his gang owned it. This is a moral and intellectual hat trick—to claim to speak for the future, or progress, while suggesting that those who have a different perspective are hopelessly stuck in the past. Invoking the complaints of the Grumpy Taxpayers and the Chamber of Commerce, pronouncement-prone Olson notes that “the dark effects of an absence of regional government [here] are manifest.”
Can anyone tell me what CRD stands for? Couldn’t possibly be Capital Regional District—the regional structure here that provides all necessary extra-municipal administrative services.
Christie Point Development impacts bird sanctuary I am writing Focus in an attempt to find someone who can help prevent an environmental disaster from occurring here in the CRD, specifically in View Royal.
Recently the Times Colonist ran a front page story about Realstar, a Toronto developer wanting to replace 161 rental units from the 1960s with 473 units comprised of eight six-story apartment blocks on a peninsula, known as Christie Point, inside the Migratory Bird Sanctuary in Portage Inlet.
The proposed project is three times taller than the existing RM 1 zoning allows and, despite the developer saying the buildings will be put on the same footprints of 8700 square metres, the proposal is for 18,000 square metres.
The proposal does not say many things clearly and View Royal’s report, at 254 pages, is misleading and lacking the full disclosure to allow a reasonable person to make a proper decision about the future of the neighbourhood or the environment.
An example of this is when View Royal’s planners asked Realstar if fill would be brought to the site. Realstar answered that fill would be used from the site itself. The conclusion one might come to is that not much fill will be needed for the project.
But, in fact, the developer will be changing the grade up to 50 percent on the 15.8-acre site by breaking rock and crushing it on-site to build up the peninsula by 1-1.5 metres.
The area may require retaining walls hundreds of feet long along the shores of the tidal waterway that is a salmon spawning route that also contains endangered clams. The quantity of crushed rock may approach 150 tandem dump-truck loads, which would be a row of trucks nearly 2 kilometres long.
Further issues are: The present height for the RM 1 zone is 7.5 metres and the proposal is 26 metres plus. Also, some buildings will be built on existing footprints that are outside the building envelope and inside the riparian 15-metre setback on the shore adjacent to midden and archeological areas on the site map.
There are so many things wrong with this plan I can’t even tell you how much this is contrary to what the people want, but View Royal is getting around everything by creating a special Development Permit Zone called CD-22.
Most people want new buildings. We would even be happy with four-story buildings, but it needs to conform and avoid destructive cutting and filling. The planned 473 units will put over 1000 people in a very ecosensitive area. It can’t end well for our delicate waterway.
On a recent Tuesday evening, View Royal council pushed through first and second reading even after Mayor Screech scolded people saying something along the lines of, “I know most people do not want or like this proposal.” He has also discounted Saanich residents because “it’s none of their business.”
The Official Community Plan says rental units are needed in View Royal and we are in a rental crisis. But these high-end waterfront buildings will not be affordable.
The Province and the federal government says it’s View Royal’s jurisdiction. This municipality is not paying attention. If the project size is reduced by two stories, the permit and associated fees might be reduced (i.e. 30 percent property taxes reduced to 17 percent). If the developer built to a higher quality, those figures would reduce further and rental rates would be higher, so its returns would balance despite the reduction in units.
Unfortunately, the developer claims it is not financially feasible at a smaller scale. But why should its wish for an 11-year return mean our loss of our wildlife and environment?
We need as many people as possible to write Mayor Screech and View Royal council about the negative environmental impact.
Why are we in thrall to Seattle on sewage? What with the announcement in the Times Colonist on May 6 of the “retirement” of Mr Floatie, I find it strange that this announcement had to be made at the Canadian Consulate in Seattle.
Mayor Lisa Helps is doubtless aware of the existence of Focus Magazine. The article by David Broadland, entitled “Washington’s phony sewage war with Victoria” in May 2016 definitively put the pollution of Puget Sound in Washington State’s court.
I again find it strange that virtually every bit of information presented by Mr Broadland has been completely ignored by not only Mayor Helps, but by all of the municipalities impacted by the sewage plant, as well as by the Province which, in my estimation, could care less if the sewage system chosen actually works.
Why are we in thrall to Seattle over this? Are we that gutless? I refuse to believe the impact of a boycott on tourism is so monumental that we must crawl on our knees as supplicants, grateful for any wee morsels thrown our way.
In a conversation I had with the late and lamented Saanich Councillor Vic Derman a year ago, he mentioned then that he was seriously thinking of not running in the next municipal election because, in his words, “nothing gets done.” The retirement of Mr Floatie speaks volumes to that conclusion.
Provincial Health Officer on HPV vaccine We are writing in response to the article and subsequent responses by Alan Cassels in which he urges readers to be cautious about the Human Papilloma Virus (HPV) vaccine. He focuses his concerns and his arguments about the efficacy and safety of this vaccine on two issues. Neither position stands up to critical analysis and unfortunately he omits some very important evidence from his arguments.
Firstly, he states categorically that the manufacturer’s claims that this vaccine will prevent cervical cancer are unproven. This is technically true as the vaccine has not been in use long enough for any statistically measurable reduction in cervical cancers to appear. However, there are a number of important considerations that Alan Cassels has not communicated.
The natural history of cervical cancer is very well established. Pre-cancerous lesions precede all cervical cancers. As such, the vaccine manufacturers appropriately used pre-cancerous lesions as their clinical trial endpoints, as it would have been highly unethical to let women progress to cervical cancer as part of a study.
What Alan Cassels fails to mention are the numerous, published, peer-reviewed articles (including from BC) that demonstrate significant reductions in pre-cancerous lesions of the cervix (Cervical Intraepithelial Neoplasia or CIN) in women who have received this vaccine prior to the onset of sexual activity. In summary, they demonstrate that the vaccine results in 90 percent reductions in infections with HPV 6/11/16/18 (which are responsible for the majority of cancers and genital warts), a 45 percent reduction in low grade cytologic cervical abnormalities and an 85 percent reduction in high grade cervical dysplasia.
In BC alone this has resulted in thousands of women not undergoing colposcopy (a surgical procedure) to check for and treat pre-cancerous lesions. Is it too much of a stretch to conclude that preventing pre-cancerous lesions will prevent cancers? While it remains a possibility that the gap left by preventing these four strains of HPV may be filled by other strains, there is, as yet, no evidence that this is happening, or will happen.
His second argument is that administration of the HPV vaccine has resulted in thousands of reported adverse reactions and hundreds of deaths. He does note that these reports are anecdotal and not proof of causation. However, many, perhaps most readers will take away from this that the vaccine is unsafe and dangerous.
We think it shows a definite bias in that he omits to note that there are published, peer-reviewed studies comparing the frequency of these reported adverse reactions in vaccinated populations against their frequency in unvaccinated populations. These studies include a 2009 Journal of the American Medical Association analysis of adverse events reports, showing the HPV vaccine is as safe as any other vaccine and that the most common adverse event related to the HPV vaccine is fainting.
A more recent British Medical Journal study, involving about a million girls in Denmark and Sweden, found there was no association between the vaccine and a range of harms, including autoimmune, neurological and venous thromboembolic adverse events.
While there is much to critique about big pharma, and we need to be skeptical about many of the claims originating from that source, Alan Cassels does a great disservice to the readership of this magazine by presenting such a biased, one-sided view of a vaccine that is helping whole generations of women (and men) avoid preventable morbidity and mortality.
Perry Kendall, BC Provincial Health Officer
& Professor Gina Ogilvie, UBC
Alan Cassels responds Thank you Drs Kendall and Ogilvie for your letter. You have made me look closer at this issue and I have consulted with peers and spent more time looking at the literature—at least the unbiased literature, which doesn’t cherry pick the good stuff and ignore the uncomfortable which, may I humbly suggest, is the approach that often describes those who feel that vaccines need to be defended at all costs.
I direct readers to my original article in Focus’ March/April edition. While I mentioned some of the adverse reports associated with girls receiving the vaccine, the article was really questioning the wisdom of vaccinating all boys in Grade 6 in BC. I accepted that all girls are already being vaccinated and as I noted in the article, boys with “increased risk” are already eligible for free vaccination.
I also noted that the Centres for Disease Control (CDC) recognizes over 40 distinct types of HPV infection which can infect the genital tract, and “about 90 percent of infections are asymptomatic and resolve spontaneously within two years.”
Further, I wrote: “In the marketing of the two HPV vaccines which target a few strains of the virus believed to lead to some forms of cancer, they often downplay one simple fact: The vast majority of us will get HPV in our lives and clear it like the common cold virus.” Is it possible that the drug manufacturers, with the help of public health officials, have reconfigured a small risk factor into a deadly disease?
I believe Drs Kendall and Ogilvie have missed the mark widely on the HPV vaccine. While glossing over the very real dangers of the vaccine that have been experienced by many girls around the world, they also fail to address the many flaws surrounding how the vaccine was studied. Dr Tom Jefferson at the Cochrane Collaboration, for example, is an unbiased scientist who has looked closely at the registration of trials of the HPV and wondered to me, in an email, “why they compared HPV vaccines with their adjuvants, hence testing only the antigenic part of the vaccine?” What this means is there was not a true placebo used in the HPV trials. Hence if it is the adjuvant that is damaging to the young girls being vaccinated, the rates of adverse effects would appear equally in the intervention and the control group, thus “appearing to show” the vaccine is as safe as its controls. The use of the vaccine in the “real world” cannot be ignored.
There is no evidence (yet) on the effect of the vaccine on cancer. Instead we have noted the vaccine may alter the appearance of surrogate markers, things which may or may not lead to cancer. In other words the defenders of the vaccine misleadingly overstate the potential of the vaccine to prevent cancer. I believe parents who are being asked to vaccinate their children, whether girls or boys, need to know this uncomfortable fact.
There are a number of scholars outside the orbit of public health or the pharmaceutical industry around the world who have studied the Gardasil vaccine and believe it to be an utter scandal. Should parents also be aware of the controversies surrounding the research around the vaccine, the many unanswered questions, and the growing numbers of girls around the world who appear to be harmed by it? I think so, even as I see Drs Kendall and Ogilvie would beg to differ.
The project faces stiff opposition from a new government and legal challenges by First Nations and others.
KINDER MORGAN CANADA’S President Ian Anderson seems confident his company will soon break ground on the Trans Mountain pipeline running from Alberta’s oil sands to a coastal terminal in Burnaby. The federal government approved the pipeline following a National Energy Board recommendation. And Alberta Premier Rachel Notley is acting as if the pipeline’s a done deal and dismissing BC’s right to control its coasts.
But is it a done deal? Many BC citizens are adamantly opposed, with First Nations leading the resistance. And on May 9 the ground shifted beneath the $7.4-billion project when the BC Liberals lost their majority in the provincial election. In one of their first post-election statements, leaders of the NDP/Green partnership announced they would “immediately employ every tool available to the new government to stop the expansion.”
It was a far cry from former Premier Christy Clark’s agreement that, subject to conditions and a 20-year revenue-sharing deal, worth up to $1-billion, construction of the 1150-kilometre pipeline could go ahead. But even under a Clark government, there were growing doubts about the viability of the plan to triple the capacity of the pipeline to 890,000 barrels of diluted bitumen a day, with the number of tankers in the Salish Sea increasing seven-fold to about 400 a year.
Now, with a new provincial government, an aroused public, and perhaps most important, strong First Nations opposition, the battle lines are being drawn.
AT LAST COUNT there were 19 legal challenges to Kinder Morgan’s Trans Mountain pipeline expansion project wending their way through the courts. These court cases will test the power of First Nations to demand meaningful consultation, along with the extent of Federal powers. They will also assess claims by First Nations and others that Canada’s environmental assessment process is fatally flawed.
“It’s not going to happen,” said BC Green Party leader Andrew Weaver. He suggests pipeline supporters such as Alberta Premier Rachel Notley and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau look at Section 35 of the Canadian Constitution which protects aboriginal and treaty rights, including those of “meaningful consultation,” and is increasingly used as a legal tool by First Nations arguing that they have not been adequately consulted.
As an example of consultation-gone-wrong, Weaver pointed to the case filed by the Coldwater Indian Band, whose territories are in BC’s southern Interior region, challenging the National Energy Board’s approval of the pipeline.
“It’s an incredibly compelling case. The proposed pipeline sits right at the top of the aquifer which is their only supply of water and it is not as if there was not an alternate route. It was discussed and deemed to be more expensive,” Weaver said.
Prime Minister Trudeau also has to figure out how pushing through the pipeline over First Nations objections could possibly square with his commitment to the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. That declaration requires consent for such developments, Weaver noted.
Previous governments resisted signing the declaration because of fears it would effectively give First Nations veto power over major projects. But Eugene Kung of West Coast Environmental Law legal counsel said there is a difference between consent and veto and, with the shift in aboriginal law in Canada, the distinction needs to be publicly clarified.
“Think about another place where we use that term ‘consent’—in the context of sexual assault and harassment,” he said. “No one would ever say in that context that, by a victim denying consent, that it would be vetoing the perpetrator’s decision, because the perpetrator doesn’t have rights over the victim’s body. You need mutual consent for advancement.”
Sixteen judicial review cases, which include challenges by seven First Nations, the City of Vancouver, City of Burnaby, Raincoast Conservation Society, Living Oceans Society, and Democracy Watch, have been consolidated and will be heard by the Federal Court of Appeal, likely this fall. If there are appeals, the issue could be heading for the Supreme Court.
Another challenge has come from two Washington State tribes over the effect that vastly-increased tanker traffic will have on endangered southern resident killer whales.
Even though the judicial review cases have been consolidated, each First Nation challenge is based on unique facts, according to Kung. “Each First Nation has an independent right to be consulted and accommodated in projects that affect their territories…Success on any one of the First Nations legal challenges could delay or stop the project,” he said. Enough delays, and Kinder Morgan could find it all too expensive to proceed.
Kinder Morgan says it has agreements, amounting in total to over $300 million, with 40 First Nations, though it will not identify them. It’s presumed many of these are at the Alberta end of the pipeline. At the crucial and densely-populated Lower Mainland part of the pipeline, opposition is strong. Most of the First Nations there are involved in the court cases (e.g Tsleil-Waututh, Musqueam, Squamish, Sto:Lo, Kwantlen).
On Vancouver Island, some First Nations, like the Ditidaht, Pacheedaht, and Pauquachin, have signed agreements with Kinder Morgan in order to be eligible for spill response funding.
In all, though, at least 13 First Nations in BC are formally opposing the project.
The legal climate around aboriginal rights and title has undergone profound changes since the 2014 Tsilhqot’in decision that, for the first time, recognized aboriginal title. Combined with other recent court decisions that have favoured First Nations, including the scuttling of Enbridge’s Northern Gateway pipeline, the game has changed. In the Enbridge case, the Federal Court of Appeal overturned the Harper government’s approval of the project, after finding the Canadian government failed to properly consult the First Nations affected by the pipeline.
As Kung noted, “I think the provincial and federal governments have been slow to respond meaningfully to the direction the Supreme Court of Canada and the courts have set, and the companies have really underestimated the importance of these cases.”
While the Province of BC under Christy Clark formally approved the Trans Mountain expansion, it is contingent on 37 conditions being met, in addition to 157 from the federal approval. Any of these may provide First Nations and the Province with more ammunition in their resistance to the Trans Mountain project.
John Horgan, NDP leader and premier-designate of BC, has indicated he’s prepared to go to court over the pipeline expansion project, and will likely join one of the legal challenges. The Alberta government has already been granted intervener status in the judicial review—advanced by municipalities, First Nations and environmental groups—challenging the National Energy Board’s recommendation as well as the federal Order in Council approving expansion.
Reflecting a growing confidence in the power to win in the courts, Grand Chief Stewart Phillip, Union of BC Indian Chiefs president, sent a strong message to Premier Notley, who, in a much-quoted statement had said: “Mark my words, that pipeline will be built, the decisions have been made.”
Phillip immediately responded: “Mark my words, Kinder Morgan’s Trans Mountain expansion project will never see the light of day.” He continued: “We do not accept the unscrupulous liability of dirty oil coming through any pipeline system to benefit some Texans or multinational interests at the expense of our inherent responsibilities to our grandchildren’s grandchildren.”
CHIEF PHILLIP, however, is not relying solely on the courts. He believes it may well be financial pressures that finally put visions of a pipeline expansion to rest. Noting that the price differential between selling to Asia and selling to the US has shrunk, he said, “When this project was first being developed a number of years ago, oil was $100 a barrel and we all know oil is never going to go back to those prices again…A lot of underlying assumptions have been debunked.”
Phillip continued, stating that investors must be concerned about the court cases, especially in light of the Rio Tinto ruling last year that gave aboriginal communities the right to sue for compensation if their rights are infringed. Investors, he noted, will also be concerned about the likelihood of protests.
Phillip feels that there is no doubt that, if the pipeline proceeds, there will be civil disobedience. “I think, in many ways, Burnaby Mountain was a warm-up that demonstrated that, when push comes to shove, there will be strategies on the ground to prevent the project from moving forward,” he emphasized. “I think what needs to be understood is, when those activities begin to take shape, it will not just be aboriginal, First Nations and indigenous people on the front line. The vast majority of the  people arrested on Burnaby Mountain were not indigenous.”
Weaver, too, believes that if the company starts building the expansion despite the pending lawsuits, it will head into trouble when construction reaches the Lower Mainland. (The company’s construction schedule anticipates that tunnel-boring through Burnaby Mountain will start in March 2018.)
“It does not have a social licence and it will never have one in British Columbia,” said Weaver. “I would suggest that if they start drilling under Burnaby Mountain…this will create a crisis like this country has never seen before,” he predicted. Some in the resistance movement are saying it will rival Clayoquot protests or those at Standing Rock.
Weaver is carefully watching Kinder Morgan’s finances in the wake of the initial public offering, noting that stock prices have dropped from the initial price of $17. Financial questions are also being raised by a coalition of more than 20 indigenous and environmental groups. Their coalition is warning 28 major banks—including 14 that underwrote the initial public offering for Kinder Morgan Canada—to stay away from funding the pipeline. The open letter says that the organizations involved will use their influence to urge local and foreign governments to divest from banks that fund the pipeline. Lindsey Allen, Rainforest Action Network executive director, stated in a news release, “Any bank that decides to participate in this project will be implicated in indigenous rights violations and will knowingly feed fuel to the fire of climate chaos. They won’t be able to claim that they didn’t have all the relevant information.”
Kinder Morgan, in its prospectus released to raise $1.75-billion for the project, acknowledges that court actions could delay or even halt the project. Yet the company also says all financing is now in place and it is starting to move ahead with contracts and benefit agreements with the aim of starting construction in September.
In a statement emailed to Focus, Kinder Morgan’s media spokesman said the final investment decision has been made and the company is “seeking and receiving permits from the necessary regulatory agencies…Trans Mountain has followed every process and met every test put before us…Taking into account all the scientific and technical studies, input from communities and a variety of opinions, we were given approval from the National Energy Board and the Government of Canada, as well as our environmental certificate from the BC Environmental Assessment Office.”
EVEN THOUGH the Province of BC cannot block a federally-approved project, there are a number actions that can be taken by BC, according to environmental lawyers.
A legal toolkit for provincial action released by West Coast Environmental Law suggests that BC could impose more conditions and/or prohibit any new provincial approvals or permits, and suspend existing approvals until new conditions have been met. It points out the constitutional obligation of the Province to protect First Nations’ rights.
“And there may be injunctions filed. I am sure that the First Nations involved have considered that option,” Kung said.
Jessica Clogg, West Coast Environmental Law executive director, suggested that the Province could also require that Kinder Morgan demonstrate that all indigenous people affected by the project have provided their “free, prior and informed consent”—as required under the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.
That free and informed consent would certainly not be coming from the Tsartlip First Nation whose territory lies along the east coast of Vancouver Island, and from which Tsartlip residents would be able to watch tankers carrying diluted bitumen through the Salish Sea.
The Tsartlip, like other First Nations on southern Vancouver Island, had a “middle depth of consultation” according to the federal government. Tsartlip Chief Don Tom said, “We are fundamentally opposed to any increases in tanker traffic that would affect our rights out in the Salish Sea.” The Douglas Treaties, he noted, protect their right to hunt and fish as they did before European settlement.
A particular concern, Tom added, is the health of the resident killer whales, which are considered relatives by his people.
“There’s no chance this is going to happen. Based on today’s political landscape, it’s dead in the water,” he said.
Judith Lavoie is an award-winning journalist specializing in the environment, First Nations, and social issues. Twitter @LavoieJudith.
Victoria’s council still needs to learn lessons for its next big project.
THIS HAS BEEN A MIRACULOUS YEAR for the City of Victoria. Lowest unemployment in Canada. Cranes on every block Downtown. Record levels of tourism. So perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised that our civic government has engaged in a bit of magical thinking.
This is what occurred to me when I read a headline in the June 23 Times Colonist: “Victoria might not need to borrow for Crystal Pool.”
The day before, City parks director Tom Soulliere delivered an update to Victoria councillors on the municipality’s next big infrastructure project, the $69-million replacement of Crystal Pool. Soulliere reported that the City will ask for a big chunk of the cost from the federal government’s $180-billion Investing in Canada infrastructure plan, which distributes its next round of grants in April. Consequently, he said, the City might not need to borrow money for the project, which would require voters’ approval in a referendum: “While external borrowing remains a potential part of the overall funding strategy, it may be possible to eliminate or significantly reduce the amount of external borrowing required, should applications for grant programs prove successful.”
Sometimes buying a new car is a good idea. A new Ford Pinto, not so much.
The councillors surely sighed with relief. The week before, they’d heard the new Johnson Street Bridge was still rusting in pieces in China, and won’t open until next March at the earliest. Relieved they wouldn’t have to face a referendum this autumn, or perhaps at all, councillors started debating the name of the new pool instead (now it’s “Crystal Pool and Wellness Centre”) and enthused about how it could transform the city.
Getting a new pool almost entirely paid for by other governments certainly would be miraculous. If the feds and province kick in two-thirds of the cost, it would comprise the biggest-ever gift to the City, greater than the $37.5-million in total federal contributions to the bridge. (The City would have to contribute to the pool as well, but since it’s already allocated $10 million from reserves, it would only need to come up with another $10 million or so, a sum voters would likely approve.)
But is such a huge grant likely? The City hopes to draw the money from the “social infrastructure” component of the federal plan, which covers a vast range of needs, including “investments in Indigenous communities, early learning and childcare, affordable housing, home care, and cultural and recreational infrastructure.” Since 2002, the largest federal grant for a pool was $12.9 million for a new aquatic centre in Yellowknife. Surrey, Richmond, and UBC had to build their new 50-metre pools with no federal money at all.
Instead, it seems the pool is tracing the early trajectory of the bridge project—even though on June 15, Project Director Jonathan Huggett gave councillors a list of “lessons learned” from the bridge.
Lest we forget, when council approved replacing the bridge in April 2009, the discussed cost was $40 million; when the budget jumped to $63 million a month later, nobody on council opposed it because they assumed most of the cost would be covered by federal-provincial stimulus money. The City then raced to make the project look “shovel-ready” to impress Ottawa (including holding the infamous “Pick One!” design contest). When John Baird showed up with $21 million a few months later, council abandoned any thought of fixing the old bridge (then-estimated cost: $25 million), and focused on getting voters’ approval to borrow the rest, instead of asking questions about the unique machine it was building.
Now similar things are happening with the pool—which Stantec said in 2014 could be refurbished for $6.2 million—suggesting that early lessons from the bridge haven’t been learned. Staff prefer new assets to fixing old ones. Federal approval doesn’t mean your plan is flawless. And even a fraction of external funding tends to give projects a momentum that is impossible to stop.
“IF I COULD REDUCE MY EXPERIENCE with projects to a one-liner, a successful project is about identifying risks and managing those risks,” Huggett told councillors in his “lessons learned” report. The City’s engineers had produced extensive “risk registries” listing potential problems with the bridge, but key risks had been missed—in particular, that the “innovative and largely untested” open-wheel mechanism required extensive redesign, and that fabricating the lift span in China involved translators, negotiations across distant time zones, and confusion about welding standards.
Such problems won’t crop up for a standard 50-metre pool built locally, Huggett noted, but it faces its own risks (unknown geotechnical conditions, groundwater), which can be countered by having adequate contingency funds, certainly larger than the four percent in the bridge construction contract. The pool currently has $23.6 million of its budget (34 percent) for cost escalation and contingencies, although that will be eaten up quickly, if local construction prices keep increasing at the current rate of six to eight percent per year—another risk.
Countless articles have been written about how to generate “lessons learned,” a standard task in project management. But the literature says it’s not as simple as writing a report on the failures of a project, and then buying a bigger insurance policy for the next one—which is like compensating for a bad golf swing by aiming further to the left. Instead, leaders need to establish a culture where problems are identified, analyzed, and resolved.
Amy Edmondson, a professor at the Harvard Business School, cites these practices:
Frame the work accurately. The cost of the bridge has steadily escalated mainly because numerous costs (design, permitting, insurance) were lowballed or missing from early estimates, and the construction contract had tiny cash allowances for big items (fendering, likely to cost another $5 million or more...?)—the result of trying to make the bridge appear “on budget” and within its advertised “affordability ceiling.” Huggett said the City needs to ensure it has prepared “a full scope of work” for the pool, but it’s too early to tell if that’s been done.
Embrace messengers. “Those who come forward with bad news, questions, concerns, or mistakes should be rewarded rather than shot,” Edmondson says. As Geoff Young noted at the “lessons learned” meeting, everyone at City Hall had to “get behind” the decision to replace the bridge, forcing even the fire chief to endorse the project. Has the City learned otherwise? At the February 23 council meeting, Ben Isitt questioned why UBC was able to build a pool for $40 million all-in, and demanded staff bring down the project costs, which only spurred a rebuke from Mayor Helps: “We need to show confidence in this project as a council. We need to make comments in public, in meetings that show confidence in the estimates that our staff have produced, because no funder is going to give us money if we’re not confident in the project.”
Acknowledge your limits. The City’s staff and consultants had little experience with the specialized engineering of movable bridges, and were unaware of (or unwilling to disclose) the risks of an unusual design. This time, council needs to ask: How many pools have you built? Did they come in on time and budget?
Invite participation. This certainly didn’t happen with the bridge project: Early warnings from the finance department and costly issues with other facilities (fire hall) had to be directed to City management, which “preferred” to sit on bad news for months.
Set boundaries and hold people accountable. All of the staff associated with the early years of the bridge are now gone, although none of them were publicly disciplined for their conduct relating to the project. MMM—the consultants who proposed the troublesome “open-wheel” design, asserted it could be built for $63 million, and recommended the City sign the low-contingency construction contract—are still on the City’s payroll.
The City will apparently generate a complete “lessons learned” when the bridge project is finished. In the meantime, it’s not hard to think of a few more lessons that need to be on the list:
Scrutinize all claims of “emergency.” Esquimalt and Oak Bay have pools of similar age that they successfully refurbished. If we’re told that Crystal Pool’s systems will fail at any moment, why can’t they be repaired?
Question your presumptions. Mayor Helps said of the pool on February 16, “I think it is very fiscally imprudent and irresponsible to keep putting money into a facility we know we’re going to tear down.” How does she “know” that, when Stantec said it could be fixed?
And create a Plan B. The City might only get a couple of million from the feds. Will it reconsider repair, or push replacement regardless? After all, if council’s magical thinking doesn’t pan out, it will have to go to a borrowing referendum—and then voters will judge whether our elected officials have actually learned their lessons, or not.
Award-winning journalist and author Ross Crockford is a former editor of Monday Magazine and a director of johnsonstreetbridge.org.
Confusion around chicken pox and shingles could be costly to Victoria consumers.
I WAS HALFWAY THROUGH writing my Focus article about the way prescribing guidelines have been hopelessly infected by pharmaceutical industry funding, when two strong wind gusts changed my tack. The first pushed me toward a sandwich board in front of Shoppers Drug Mart on Douglas Street, urging passers-by to come in and get a shingles vaccine. The second was a June 20 report in the Globe and Mail that pretty much sucked the wind from my sails on the issue of corrupted prescribing guidelines. Some of us have been writing about this problem for decades, so I’m happy to see that the scribes at Canada’s national paper have discovered that maybe drug-company corruption of prescribing is actually a major problem.
Sandwich board in front of Shoppers Drug Mart on Douglas Street
But that sandwich board’s bold message of the link between chicken pox and shingles rang like a symphony of bells at Christchurch Cathedral. I’m attuned to a deep ringing chorus of mistruths, but the sorry gap between the medical science and the marketing in this case was begging for a comeuppance. It’s especially urgent given that this case involves someone coming at you with a hypodermic needle.
For starters, the link between varicella zoster (also known as chicken pox) and herpes zoster (also called shingles) is anything but certain. In 1888, Bokai, a Budapest physician, may have been the first to hypothesize the link, but many others have since suggested the same thing. Today the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says point-blank that “shingles is caused by the reactivation of the varicella zoster virus (VZV), the same virus that causes varicella (chickenpox).”
According to current medical thinking on the issue, it is believed that once a person has had chicken pox (which is usually mild and happens in early childhood), the virus is thought to remain dormant in the dorsal root ganglia, which are nerve cells. The virus can sometimes erupt (usually in people older than 65) to cause a painful rash, known as shingles.
If you’ve seen ads for Zostavax, Merck’s vaccine against shingles, you’ve an idea of how nasty the condition can be. Rows of red, painful, itchy welts can wrap around your torso, and even infect your neck, face or eyes. While the disease can be particularly bad, and the desire to avoid the torture suggested by fiery strings of barbed wire wrapping around you understandable, the main question we need to ask is: For most of us who had chicken pox as a child, how likely are we to get shingles?
The quick answer is not very. For starters, the research says shingles is simply not that common. One report, examining 21 studies in Europe, found that for kids and young adults it’s rare—somewhere between one to two cases per thousand people per year. That increases to about four per thousand up to age 50, and seven to eight per thousand for people over 50. About one percent of people over 80 are at risk every year for contracting shingles.
Despite the rarity of the disease, fear-mongering and vaccine shilling abounds. Medical journal articles, the Shopper’s pamphlet, and Merck’s ads all tout the “one-in-three odds of getting shingles in your lifetime!” This is the same category of misleading information that says all women have a “one-in-eight lifetime chance of getting breast cancer,” ignoring the fact that this only applies to women who live to be 85.
You can, however, get shingles at any age, and those with immune-deficient conditions, such as HIV, leukemia or lymphoma, have to be very careful. Many otherwise healthy people who get shingles might have a few weeks of troublesome symptoms as the disease goes away on its own. Only about a quarter of shingles cases will result in complications, such as severe rash and pain.
As for the causal link between having chicken pox when you’re younger and developing shingles when you’re older, the jury is still definitely out. One researcher, Dr Chris Shaw, who studies vaccine safety, told me from his office at UBC that in his mind there “is no strong link between chicken pox and shingles,” even though he acknowledges that the official story says the opposite.
I found one study which said that exposure to chicken pox increases your risk of developing shingles later in life, but also showed that adults who live with children are naturally exposed to a lot of chicken pox. The result? This exposure can be “highly protective” against developing shingles later in life.
This is echoed by Dr Eva Vanamee, an adjunct assistant professor at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in New York, who told me by email: “If you are exposed to chicken pox from time to time then your chances of getting shingles is much lower.” What she says next is compelling, and reminds me of the power of immunity: “Pediatricians used to have the lowest incidence [of shingles] due to their constant exposure. So the virus hides out and can cause shingles but the boosting provides protection, which is now pretty much lost with the vaccine.”
So, what does all this mean? Should we allow our kids to naturally get chicken pox, or try to vaccinate against it?
WHEN MY KIDS WERE IN PRESCHOOL, now more than a decade ago, I remember a notice coming home alerting parents that chicken pox was in the school. How did we react? Like most Fairfield parents, we sent our kids off to the pox-infected school anyway. After all, getting exposed to “the real thing” will make you develop the immunity you need, right? We were told that a person seriously doesn’t want to get chicken pox as an adult, so better to expose the little ones now. The funny thing I remember is that a few of the kids who did get the pox had already been vaccinated.
The manufacturer of the Varivax (chicken pox) vaccine admits this possibility on its label: Protection isn’t guaranteed, nor is the duration of protection really understood. Funnily, it adds that the vaccine’s effects on preventing (or getting) shingles downstream are unknown.
Some experts are decidedly wary of the value of the chicken pox vaccine. According to the Vaccine Information Center in the US, “Mass use of chickenpox vaccine by children in the US has removed natural boosting of immunity in the population, which was protective against shingles, and now adults are experiencing a shingles epidemic.” I’d say the prevalence to date I’ve seen hardly suggests an “epidemic,” but it is clear the number of annual cases of shingles have been rising for at least a decade.
So, even if it may not be true, as Shoppers Drug Mart tells us, that chicken pox puts us “at risk” of developing shingles, should we get the vaccine anyway? Based on my reading of the evidence, the shingles vaccine “works,” but I would add one qualifier: “barely.”
A 2005 trial studying the effectiveness of the shingles vaccine published in the New England Journal of Medicine enrolled more than 38,000 people over 60. Over three years, Zostavax reduced “the occurrence of herpes zoster by 51.3 percent.” Here’s the kicker though: The vaccine is measured in “1000-person years” where the effects are noted among 1000 people for one year. The study found that the vaccine dropped the rates of shingles per 1000 person-years from 11.12 (those on placebo) to 5.42 (those given the vaccine). The difference is only 5.7 people per thousand per year (11.12 minus 5.42 equals 5.7). Since 5.42 is “51 percent” less than 11.12, that’s where you get the “51 percent reduction” number.
Let’s be clear: The shingles vaccine won’t make your risk go from 100 percent down to 50 percent—which is what most people think when they see “a 50 percent reduction.” Actually it helps about five people per thousand per year. With those sorts of numbers, the NNV (Numbers Needed to Vaccinate) is 233—the pharmacy would have to vaccinate 233 customers to avoid one person getting shingles. At $230 per dose (current price at Shoppers Drug Mart, including the $20 injection fee), it would cost more than $50,000 to prevent one case of the shingles. Like those odds? How about the fact that in August 2014, the vaccine’s label was updated, telling us that Zostavax might actually cause shingles. What a strange world this is.
THE GOOD NEWS, for me, is that the BC government won’t pay for it. Why? They won’t say, but Lori Cascaden at the BC Ministry of Health told me by email, “the Ministry continues to consider it alongside other vaccines for British Columbia’s publicly funded immunization schedule.”
I have to say, I have a good feeling about pharmacists. The Douglas Street Shoppers pharmacist I chatted with was a very nice guy, and it was clear to me that he went to pharmacy school to help people. I’m sure many pharmacists will have mixed feelings about the business they’re in, working in tandem with corporations flogging vitamins and other supplements, pharmaceuticals that have little effect, or vaccines that are marketed with scare tactics on sandwich boards. I feel for them, and I’d like to see them more as allies in distributing good information about diseases and vaccines, rather than propaganda produced by manufacturers.
Alan Cassels is a Victoria writer and health researcher. His most recent of four books is The Cochrane Collaboration: Medicine’s Best Kept Secret.
To not be misled by experts into making bad decisions, elected officials need to ask hard questions. Voters need to elect prosecutors, not patsies.
IN MID-JUNE, City of Victoria councillors were given another update on the Johnson Street Bridge Replacement Project by Project Director Jonathan Huggett. They learned the project was experiencing new technical problems and were given yet another date at which completion might occur. Yes, that sounds just like the last update, the one before that and the one before that. But the real purpose of Huggett’s report was to show the City was including “lessons learned” from the bridge project into its next foray into fiasco avoidance. He delivered to councillors a report on fumbles made during that project which, hopefully, could be avoided if council’s decision to replace the Crystal Pool at a cost of $70 million goes forward.
I’m going to focus on a single lesson learned that Huggett unintentionally highlighted: the tendency of some current councillors, in their meetings with costly experts like Huggett, to ask questions or make observations that have little or no meaning or value, thus inviting meaningless advice from those experts—like Huggett.
Why do Victoria councillors ask so many dumb questions of experts? Who really knows? But the impact of not being up to sniffing out inaccuracy, underestimation, and overselling inevitably leads to millions of extra dollars of cost—and some hidden liabilities that one day may thrust themselves into the faces of local taxpayers.
Aftermath of the 1995 Kobe earthquake. At a critical moment in this project, did elected officials ask dumb questions instead of grilling engineers?
Following Huggett’s report, in which he laid the responsibility for everything that had gone wrong with the project on unnamed persons who were no longer sitting in the room, councillors spoke. Councillor Pam Madoff, who has been sitting in the room from the very beginning, expressed her view that she had done her due diligence on the project and, repeatedly, asked “how far” councillors had to go in their public oversight role in such projects.
Here’s an excerpt of what she said: “I remember very specifically having this conversation [with the bridge’s designers and engineers] about the mechanics, you know, the—in simplistic terms—the cogs, the wheels, how it was going to lift. I remember at the time saying, ‘Is this basically just a larger version of the Meccano sets that we played with as kids, in terms of its actual mechanical operation?’ And, again, that was the assurance. To me it comes down to: how far does one have to go? We felt like we asked the right questions at the time. It turns out they may not have been the right answers.”
If an elected official asks a professional engineer if a bridge is like a Meccano set, what should happen? Does the engineer say something along the lines of: “Well, you know, Councillor Madoff, a bridge is nothing like the Meccano sets you played with as a child. I’m worried about your question because it seems to indicate you have little understanding about what we’re considering doing here. I think we ought to postpone the rest of this meeting while you—and perhaps some of the other councillors—go back to your rooms and think harder about what your responsibilities are in this situation, and what questions you should be asking. People’s lives, scant public resources, the City’s reputation—all these could be put in serious jeopardy if you fail to provide adequate oversight of the public interest on this project. Is a bridge like a Meccano set? Well that’s the dumbest question I’ve ever been asked.”
Huggett, of course, didn’t respond so impolitely. Instead, he said: “There is no question that you were not given good advice.”
In much the same manner that previous experts had politely given City councillors bad advice, Huggett had just done the same thing. When you are collecting $20,000 a month for writing report after report about why the new bridge is still stuck in China—as Huggett has been doing since 2015—you obviously don’t bite the hands of those who are nervously signing your cheques. But Madoff’s unanswerable question about whether this bridge was like a Meccano set allowed Huggett to pile bad advice on top of older bad advice and yet appear to be sympathetic and sage.
Later, Councillor Ben Isitt—who I hasten to point out does not ask dumb questions—provided the meeting with his own list of lessons learned. One of those was about the “lack of public oversight by council.” He recalled an attempt by the City “to quash investigative journalism into this project.” Isitt reminded his fellow councillors that “in the autumn of 2012, just as we got reports that there were three bidders, only one of which was within the City’s affordability ceiling, the City attempted to quash attempts by Focus Magazine to file FOIs on this project.” (The City was supported in that effort by current councillors Madoff, Charlayne Thornton-Joe, Chris Coleman and Marianne Alto.) Isitt told the meeting the incident showed “the need for public oversight of council and the City administration.”
Councillor Jeremy Lovejoy picked up on Isitt’s point and asked Huggett, “Do you see lessons learned in terms of public communications on the project?”
Perhaps feeling uncomfortable by Isitt’s promotion of the virtues of Focus’ reporting on the project (Huggett has refused to answer any questions from this magazine over a 3-year period), Huggett responded to Loveday’s vague question by referring to “a long, semi-public debate about seismic design. It becomes extremely difficult to have a meaningful debate in the public arena about something as complex as the seismic design of a bascule bridge. I understand that it is legitimate…freedom of the press to raise these issues. But it’s a very difficult issue to debate. It’s highly specialized and, you know, I don’t think you would appreciate it if I told you I’d spent last week debating with a journalist about seismic design.”
Huggett didn’t actually answer Loveday’s question. The question’s vagueness allowed Huggett to provide, instead, excuses for why he never provided City council and the public with an explanation of why there is a rider in the bridge’s construction contract that will limit the liability of those involved in the project if the bridge fails to perform to expectations. To explain that rider would have been “extremely difficult,” “complex,” and would have taken a week of “debating with a journalist,” which, at the rate he is billing City taxpayers, would have meant a cost of $5000.
This could have been Loveday’s moment to shine a light on a critical issue of public safety and the City’s legal liability.
Focus first raised questions about the contract rider back in March 2015 after obtaining the document—Johnson Street Bridge Seismic Design Criteria—through an FOI. The document was secretly introduced into the project’s procurement proceedings in August 2012. The document stipulated much lower levels of expected seismic performance than had been recommended to the City by engineers. The City had earlier agreed to pay an extra $10 million for the recommended level of protection. Attached to the construction contract, the document would provide proof that the City had accepted this low level of seismic performance if the situation ever arose that the bridge was badly damaged, or people were killed on it, as the result of a large earthquake. The rider put all the risk back on the City’s plate.
In case there’s anything too “complex” about this issue for the reader, let me make a comparison between seismic performance and paint performance. Suppose the City had been advised to paint the new bridge with a type of paint that would last for twenty years, and suppose the City had agreed to pay the extra cost for paint that would last 20 years instead of, say, five years. Now suppose that after that agreement had been signed, Focus found out that there was a secret rider in the City’s construction contract that stated that the City accepted that the paint might only last five years, even though it was still paying for paint that would last 20 years.
Is that issue too “complex” for you to understand?
Of course, poorly performing paint wouldn’t jeopardize public safety, and a new paint job is a relatively straight forward procedure. With seismic performance, though, it’s baked into the bridge and can’t be changed without very expensive material changes to the structure. With seismic performance, people’s lives and huge financial liabilities to City ratepayers are at stake. In the last two years, geoscientists have confirmed that two active faults, capable of producing an earthquake more energetic than that which toppled the elevated highway in Kobe, Japan in 1995, lie beneath Victoria. The Devil’s Mountain Fault, which surfaces a few kilometres south of Downtown, actually dips below the City itself. Victoria has the highest seismic hazard of any Canadian city. This is a real issue that, if Victoria’s elected officials ignore or ask dumb questions about, will have a profound impact on whether people live or die when a big earthquake here finally happens.
So, before I get back to Councillor Loveday’s response to Huggett’s answer, let me pose a question to you, the reader. Would it be your expectation that City councillors should ask for an explanation of why that rider was inserted into the construction contract?
If your answer is “Yes,” you’re thinking like Councillor Isitt. When Focus raised this issue back in 2015, Isitt point-blank asked Huggett to come back to council with an explanation of the document.
Over the course of the following two months, Huggett did everything but what Isitt had requested: Provide an explanation of what the document was. In multiple reports to City of Victoria council and a media briefing, he provided an elaborate non-denial denial. Except for one brief reference to the document as a “memo,” his reports didn’t acknowledge its existence, let alone provide any explanation for how it might impact future liability for the City.
After it became clear that Huggett was scrupulously avoiding providing councillors with an explanation of the contract rider, Focus filed an FOI for his communications with the other parties involved in designing and building the bridge. The documents released to us by the City showed two things: First, that Huggett never asked the creator of the rider, MMM Group, for an explanation of why the document had been created. At least, not in writing. Secondly, we found that none of the communications between the engineers denied that any of the provisions of the rider were, in fact, in play. Indeed, the former City employee who signed off on the rider document, Dwayne Kalynchuk, confirmed in writing to Focus that the provisions in the rider had been incorporated into the bridge’s design and construction.
It should have been obvious to all of the councillors that Huggett had never provided them with an explanation of what the rider was.
So when Huggett went back to the issue in his response to Loveday and told him the issue was too complex, would require debating in public with a journalist, and would use up a week of his expensive still-delayed-in-China-reports time, Loveday had his big moment to act in the public interest.
To perform that service, he would have had to respond to Huggett something like this: “Hey, wait a minute, you never provided us with an explanation of what that contract rider is. Why was it created and how does it impact the City’s legal position in the case of a catastrophic event in which people are killed on the bridge or it can’t be used by emergency vehicles?”
Instead, all Loveday could muster was, “I agree that’s not how we’d like you to spend your time.”
David Broadland is the publisher of Focus Magazine. He’s been filing regular reports on the bridge project for eight years.
Painterly techniques and lived experience imbue her marine landscapes with a sense of place, time and abundance.
NAOMI CAIRNS’ oil-on-canvas landscapes offer many sensory experiences in one picture plane. A lingering visit with “Teakerne Arm Shoreline,” for instance, evokes the particular magic of the Northern Gulf Islands on an early, still morning. Its turquoise and mauve-grey shadows tell the time, while quick-gestured highlights—lime-green on the trees, ivory on the rocks—bring the touch of a warm sun to your left cheek. As the eye travels to foreground, one can practically smell the cool brine of Lewis Channel.
"Teakerne Arm Shoreline" by Naomi Cairns, 36 x 84 inches, oil on canvas
It is a rich, brimming scene that draws the viewer in, theoretically and physically. As you come closer to the painting, individual brushstrokes and fields of colour come forward. The work becomes about process. That turquoise dash temporarily relinquishes its role as shadow to become pigment on a surface, a mark, one component of the sum of parts. But then, step back and everything reassembles to place the viewer squarely back upon the still waters.
This sensation underscores the realization of Cairns’ impressionist goals. The process requires much backing-and-forthing. “I love that I can be up close doing more gestural, looser painting, then I walk 50 feet away from [it] and I can see what I’m doing again,” she explains. The walking is figurative, she clarifies with a laugh: “I had to put a bunch of mirrors up so I can get far enough away, because my studio just fits my paintings; I can’t get back very far.”
Naomi Cairns with "Boy in Boat"
Cairns favours a large canvas—often four feet by eight—that allows for a grand sweep of forest and shoreline or the perfect framing of a rocky island. “The size is very important for me to give me the freedom to play with the different looser techniques of painting but still get the effect that I want from afar,” she explains. “I like how it looks more abstract from up close, and as you get further, the depth takes over and it feels to me like I am in that place.”
“I am trying to figure out what makes a painting successful for me,” she continues, finding that an economy of information is essential. “It needs to still have quite a bit of detail that is undescribed for me to feel like it’s got life,” she says. “It needs to have details for the viewer to fill in on their own.”
Rather than beginning the process in her snug studio, Cairns always starts with floating on the water. Often it will be in a skin-on-frame kayak or dinghy of her own making. “They are light enough that, if someone is with me to take care of the kids [she has a one-year-old daughter and four-year-old son], I can just grab my camera and go for a paddle and take photos and do sketches. Then I go back to my studio to do the painting on canvas. My subject matter might change, but for the last three years, [views] have all been from the water.”
"Gorge Harbour Entrance" 48 x 60 inches, oil on canvas
Considering her lifelong relationship with said water, this is not surprising. In 1984, Cairns was born in a “cute little cabin” in French Creek, after her mother made the trip from Lasqueti Island about a month before in anticipation of the birth. “All my earliest memories are of time near the water,” she says. Her mother originally came from Montreal, and spent the week alone with Cairns and her sister while her father worked in the forest industry. Home on weekends, he worked his oyster and clam lease while the girls played with crabs on the beach. “I [also] remember going rowing with my mom a lot in this cute little red sailing dinghy,” Cairns recalls.
Her family moved to Vancouver Island, and she attended schools in the Parksville area until grade 12. As a teen, she preferred painting to hanging out and socializing. She won awards in the local Brant Festival poster competition, then in the Royal Canadian Legion National poster competition two years in a row. That process enabled her to spend time with Robert Bateman, Adrienne Clarkson and John Ralston Saul, time she found inspiring and affirming.
Cairns went on to study art at Malaspina University College, then at Emily Carr University, often working as a tree planter to support herself. For a semester, she did an exchange at the L’Ecole National des Beaux Arts de Lyon, France. While appreciating the way Europeans valued artists, Cairns was struck by “how different it is here as far as wilderness goes, things that are untouched.”
"Mansons Lagoon IV" 48 x 60 inches, oil on canvas
She met her husband Erik at Emily Carr, and after graduation they engaged in various projects and learned many skills, including the building of the skin-on-frame kayaks and dinghies she now uses to follow her muse. At first she continued to paint and show her work, but the desire to feel more “well-rounded” compelled her to stop her art practice for six years. She worked as a gardener, and she and Erik bought and restored a 40-foot sailboat. They sailed the Gulf Islands, and loved Cortes Island so much, they stayed.
They lived on that boat for three years. “It was amazing to live on the water. You’d look through the portholes and you’d see a loon, right there, diving down. Our portholes were about a foot from the water, so when we were standing down below in the galley it was like lying on the water. You could see the little islands in the distance and all the ducks on the surface. Sometimes there were river otters that would come up and look right in the portholes.”
Once her son started walking, it became clear that a move to land was necessary. They built a house on Cortes Island, where they remain. She is pleased that her own children get to experience an untamed life on the water as she did. “We are very much on the edge of wilderness,” enthuses Cairns. They hear the wolves howling, and they keep a watchful eye on their pet Chihuahua, lest he get snatched by an eagle. Her husband, now an oyster farmer, organizes weekly sail-abouts with local families. “We are lucky to be here,” she states simply.
"Ring Island" 42 x 52.5 inches, oil on canvas
It has only been three years since Cairns returned to painting, and her rapid success has removed any doubts she had about her path. Paintings can sell before they even make it up onto gallery walls. With Erik’s flexible schedule and her mother and father-in-law close by, she is able to combine her art practice with caring for a young family. Surrounded by magnificent land and seascapes, she never lacks for inspiration or the motivation to distil—and thereby capture—the essence of her surroundings. Clearly, she belongs on the water.
Naomi Cairns’ paintings can be seen in Victoria at West End Gallery, 1203 Broad Street, 250-388-0009, www.westendgalleryltd.com. Find Naomi Cairns online at www.naomicairns.com.
For so many reasons, Aaren Madden echoes Naomi Cairns’ sentiments: we are lucky to be here. She hopes that, in so many ways, we all work together to protect what we have.
Suzanne Snizek wields her flute as a weapon against bigotry and suppression.
WE'VE ALL SURELY LEARNED the history lesson: Professionals in the arts and sciences, the “intellectuals” and “creatives,” get suppressed—or eradicated—by authoritarian regimes and despotic leaders. Those people who can extrapolate, interpret, question and rebut are seen as a tremendous threat to the lockstep, unthinking allegiance the fascist government requires. Needless to say, whatever the “subversives” are producing—books, paintings, plays, musical compositions—must be buried or destroyed.
Add in a centuries-old ethnic bias, and those creators and intellectuals are conveniently cast as “enemies.” So it was with the learned and artistic Jews in Germany, Austria and Eastern Europe during the era of the Third Reich. Many talented and accomplished refugees fled to “friendly” countries like Canada, the US, and Britain. They were not necessarily welcomed with open arms, but grudgingly accepted, and only after “extreme vetting.” Even if they were permitted to resettle, they were still suspect, subject to discrimination, and, at times, segregated and interned without warning.
It’s precisely this type of bigotry, and the suffering and mayhem it causes in innocent people’s lives, that awakens award-winning flautist and UVic faculty member Suzanne Snizek’s passion for social justice. A longtime activist, she has built community around and raised her voice against the unjust detentions and horrific torture meted out in the name of “national security.” And she has found a way to combine that passion with her accomplished musicianship.
Suzanne Snizek (Photograph by UVic Photo Services)
Snizek has performed on flute with such diverse notables as the National Orchestra of Taiwan, the Moody Blues and Roger Daltrey. She also served as co-principal flute of the Bel Canto Opera Company of Philadelphia. Now, as a professor, Snizek augments her teaching of flute performance with academic research and musical recordings that unearth and resurrect the “forgotten” works of composers who were suppressed in the first half of the 20th Century.
It was during doctoral studies at UBC that she first figured out to combine her passions. Most doctoral flute candidates choose something fairly tame and flute-related for their thesis, but the petite, soft-spoken Snizek didn’t fit that mould, and initially felt somewhat adrift. “Some people know what they want to do; I did not. My first year of study, I had no idea what I would do. I wanted to choose a topic that had larger ethical questions,” she says. “I didn’t think I could sustain interest in a research area that was just narrowly about the flute. I love to play the flute, I love to teach the flute—but I don’t love to talk about the flute, necessarily,” she says with a laugh.
Snizek says she stumbled upon her research topic “by accident, like most things,” coming across the work of a composer who’d been in a British internment camp. “In 2006, I started looking at this. I was so ignorant about this; I didn’t know there were British internment camps,” she explains. “In 1940, [the British government] decided to intern all ‘foreign national aliens,’ including Germans and Austrians. Overnight, they went from ‘protected refugees’ to being arrested and interned indefinitely.”
“They were seen as suspicious because they were from those ‘enemy’ countries,” Snizek continues. The British back then, like the US today, perhaps, “didn’t quite seem to understand the nature of the war they were fighting: ideology, not national boundaries.” So 70,000 people were interned, about 90 percent of them Jewish refugees. “The intention of the camps was not to exterminate people, but it was a place where they would be held because they were ‘under suspicion.’ It was a huge blow psychologically to people who had lost everything, and had just gotten their footing again. You can imagine how devastating that would have been.”
Snizek says her research into the impact of the internment on the musical landscape was breaking new ground, and it generated a lot of excitement. “In 2008, musicians hadn’t really looked at the British internment at all. There were historians who’d looked at it in a general view; lots of work had been done on that, but no one looked at the music and musicians specifically. That was my doctorate. Because it was unusual, and no one had looked at that aspect, I was invited to Cambridge in 2010 to give a paper.”
This past May, Snizek received a REACH Award at UVic. These awards “celebrate the extraordinary teachers and researchers at UVic who are making an impact in the classroom and beyond,” according to a University press release. Most of what Snizek teaches at UVic is performance, “which means I’m responsible for teaching all the flute lessons,” she says. She also teaches the integrated performance seminar, and coaches chamber music.
Part of Snizek’s mission is to perform and record the suppressed music she unearths. “The problem [for composers is that] it’s almost as if you have one window of opportunity to get your work out,” she says. “If you miss that window, it becomes difficult, if not impossible, to get it disseminated and performed.”
To help remedy this situation for at least a few composers, Snizek recorded five works last summer, all formerly suppressed. “One of them is by Weinberg, a trio, a great piece. It’s only been recorded a couple of times. There’s a lag between what scholars are looking at and what the average flute player is playing. Recording helps…nudge that process along a little bit.” Snizek says the recording was the product of 12 musicians from both within and outside the University, as well as several UVic colleagues who donated their time and talents as performers and producers, including recording engineer Kirk McNally. Funding was provided by the Jewish Federation of Victoria and Vancouver Island, and a University of Victoria Internal Research and Creative Project Grant.
There will be an opportunity to experience the intersection of Snizek’s academic research and flute performance on Saturday, July 15 at 2:45 at the University of Victoria School of Music (Phillip T. Young Recital Hall). Snizek and UVic theorist and pianist Harald Krebs will present three works, one of which is a solo flute piece by Günter Raphael, a composer identified as a “half-Jew” by the Nazi regime. As a result, Raphael lost his position at the Leipzig Conservatory, and his work was banned by the Third Reich. Snizek and Krebs recently performed together in Germany. This presentation at UVic will be by donation.
Writer Mollie Kaye sings with The Millies, a Victoria-based trio.
“All the world’s a stage,” especially in the summer months.
VICTORIA HAS HAD a summer Shakespeare Festival for 26 years now, an impressive legacy of success. Let’s begin with a little bit of historic context. Theatre Inconnu’s founder and artistic director Clayton Jevne began presenting Shakespeare plays in the summer of 1991 in collaboration with actor/directors Ian Case and Tariq Leslie. The first Shakespeare Festival took place in Inconnu’s small space in Market Square, then moved to a tent in the Inner Harbour. It was there, in the late 1990s, that I first saw Jevne perform, in the title role of King Lear.
A few years later, Jevne chose to move away from producing the festival and in 2003 actor/director Michael Glover took over. He established the Greater Victoria Shakespeare Festival (GVSF) as a non-profit society and created a board of directors. The newly-constituted festival staged The Taming of the Shrew in Centennial Square, and in subsequent years, performed in the theatre and on the grounds of St Anne’s Academy.
Glover now works at Camosun College, so in 2005 he brought the GVSF to that location, where the Festival has been held outdoors on the campus ever since. Glover has appeared in a number of productions over the years, but stepped down as artistic director in 2014. Karen Lee Pickett, local playwright and actor, was hired as Festival producer in 2012, and she was selected by the GVSF board to take on the artistic direction as well.
Pickett’s strategic plans over time have been to continue to professionalize the festival through increased sponsorship and funding. This enhanced budget has allowed her to attract more professional actors to the Festival, and to have them mentor young actors-in-training. These young actors are often theatre students at the University of Victoria or the Canadian College of Performing Arts.
Her focus has been on capacity building, the creation of a repertory season in which an ensemble of actors play in both shows, and a collaborative Shakespeare education program for students carried out last fall with staff at Craigdarroch Castle. Pickett sees lots of room to grow more educational programs over time, especially given the strong positive response to this pilot project from the teachers and students who participated in it.
I sat down over coffee with Pickett and this season’s directors, Kate Rubin (Macbeth co-directed with Pickett) and Janet Munsil (Love’s Labour’s Lost). Rubin directed Merry Wives of Windsor in 2013 and Munsil directed Twelfth Night last year. I asked them about their approaches to this season’s pairing of plays.
From left: Kate Rubin, Karen Lee Pickett and Janet Munsil (Photograph by Monica Prendergast)
“We’re describing this season as moving from the nitty-gritty to the pretty,” jokes Pickett. The dark and nightmarish world of ancient Scotland in Macbeth, with its clan wars, opens up to the light and romantic world of courtly love of Love’s Labour Lost. Quite a contrast for the actors in both plays, never mind the night-to-night shift in design from the bleak Scottish moors to the rich palaces of Navarre (a small kingdom between France and Spain, the setting for Shakespeare’s comedy).
Pickett and Rubin shared their collaborative approach to co-directing “the Scottish play” Macbeth: “We are finding our way in rehearsals,” says Rubin. “My work is relational and character-driven; I use movement exercises to unpack the scene, while Karen Lee’s expertise is in the language. One of the ways we differ is she will look at the lines to determine what is happening, and I will look at character dynamics and how to crack that open.”
The production is set in a non-specific but “pre-kilt” warrior era of ancient Scotland—still tribal, pagan, and adhering to matrilineal lineage. In this world, women were warriors too, so the production features a female King Duncan and sons, although Pickett has decided to keep the play’s original pronouns. “There is so much in this play that is masculine, so our choice was to keep pronouns male, even with women actors. We’re not hiding the fact that they’re women, just as they are not ancient Scots. We can get into a weird space when we try to play another gender, so these are clearly women in these traditionally male roles.” This production of Macbeth will also feature live drumming and a vocal chorus to support the military and supernatural elements of the tragedy.
I then asked Munsil to tell me about her vision for Love’s Labour’s Lost. “This is a world that is super-saturated with romance,” says Munsil, adding, “The production has a Regency feel to it, inspired by artist Maxfield Parrish. We have pastel lanterns, big urns of flowers. The princess and her posse are in beautiful flowing gowns. I’m thinking of them as ballerinas, versus the men, who are Romantic poets.”
Munsil notes that the play is “in the mood for love but does not end happily,” and is constructed as a kind of pastiche “whose plot is revealed in the first 150 lines, then the rest of the play is made up of frivolous displays of romantic love, interrupted by death.” She views these courtly young people as typical adolescents who are “mostly absorbed in their own story, but into the mix is thrown some brilliant linguistic gymnastics, such as the love poetry the boys write.”
Designer Carole Klemm has the challenge of creating simple and adaptable sets that will work for both plays. Rubin tells me that for Macbeth the look will be natural and organic, playing off the trees and rocks that surround the outdoor stage at Camosun. Klemm is creating a large triangular pagan symbol that will anchor the play visually, woven from branches. This will contrast with the brighter and more colourful look for the comedy.
Pickett reflects that for her, one of the main changes that has moved the Festival forward artistically has been adopting the repertory company model. Doing both shows asks a lot of actors who have day jobs, but she sees the company forming close relationships: “The trust level is so high that they can take risks.” Alongside the post-secondary theatre students, this year’s ensemble has a couple of teenage actors playing smaller roles in Macbeth.
Audiences will see experienced actors such as Trevor Hinton, playing the title role of Macbeth, working alongside talented emerging actors. The audience also has the pleasure of seeing these same actors tackling very different roles in each play.
I finish up our engaging conversation by asking how these 400-year-old plays might connect with 21st century theatregoers. Rubin and Pickett talk about how Macbeth makes a strong commentary on the dangers of tyranny that (unfortunately) has contemporary resonance given these troubled political times. And Munsil acknowledges the power of a Shakespeare comedy to lift an audience out of their lives and into the very real pleasures of watching the pitfalls and frivolities of young romance.
The Festival previews on July 6 and runs until July 29. A new joint initiative with the Esquimalt Township Community Arts Council, Bard Across the Bridge, will host additional performances of Macbeth August 3 to 5 at Saxe Point.
Take a look at the GVSF website at www.vicshakespeare.com or buy your tickets at www.ticketrocket.co. Bring a blanket and some mosquito repellent and get your dose of summer Shakespeare.
Monica saw Susie Mullen perform in her final GVSF show as Sir Toby Belch in Twelfth Night last summer. That production, directed by Janet Munsil, received the Victoria Critics’ Choice Award for Best Ensemble. Susie Mullen died this January at the age of 66. She was a powerhouse of an actor, and was a great pleasure to work with and to see on stage. She is much missed.
Her paintings put female nudes in the “power position.”
MY FIRST ENCOUNTER with artist Nicole Sleeth was in January. “About Face,” a group show at the Art Gallery of Greater Victoria (AGGV), featured two of her paintings, including “Valerie II,” a life-size reclining female nude. It stopped me in my tracks.
Sleeth’s deft, Sargent-esque handling of the paint and crystalline rendering of the gaze of the model—so arresting, alive, confident, and challenging—froze me to the spot. I locked eyes with her for several minutes, she naked and I clothed, in a room churning with people and conversation. I felt humbled by the strength and defiance in Valerie’s expression. Here was her skin and flesh, uncovered, to behold. Yet even in her vulnerability, she was clearly in control, dictating the terms.
That, Sleeth says, is precisely the desired effect. In her series “Gaze,” nude women are the subject, but not the object. Every aspect of these images is about shifting power and agency back to the model, beginning with the vantage point: We, as viewers, are slightly below them, looking up. Sleeth’s unapologetic rendering of the flesh, in all its detail—and the gaze, in its stunning revelation of the spirit—quietly but definitively puts these naked women in charge, even as we stare at them.
Nicole Sleeth (Photograph by Tony Bounsall)
Sleeth herself has a matter-of-fact air; when she took the dais at the AGGV to speak about her work, she was concise and articulate. A calm, steady, business-like gamine in black, she is still willing to reveal herself—judiciously.
Intrigued by her work and impressed by the way she so clearly explains it, I was delighted to see her and her paintings again as part of the Chinatown “Hidden Spaces” artist studio tour in April. We subsequently arranged to meet for an interview.
WHEN I ARRIVE AT HER FISGARD STREET STUDIO, it is populated by several women from the “Gaze” series, and I take them all in. Some I’d seen on the studio tour, some are new to me. Giving each one brief but full consideration seems an imperative. I can’t ignore any of these women—and not just because they are mostly larger-than-life size.
"Jade" 60 x 44 inches, oil on linen
"Marcela" 61 x 32 inches, oil on linen
"Venessa" 65 x 28 inches, oil on linen
I learn a bit about Sleeth’s background, how she came to Vancouver from Ottawa, leaving behind her business career to teach and create art, and subsequently relocating to do the same in Victoria from a spacious studio in Chinatown.
She did not attend “art school,” but studied with Bob Grant at his atelier in Ottawa for eight years. “My work previously was more narrative; I was painting the figure, but putting the focus on the story and the background…I hadn’t given myself permission to focus on the figure itself.”
The watershed moment, she says, came in March 2014 at a workshop at the New York Academy of Art, where she honed her vision under the guidance of Alyssa Monks. “Alyssa is an amazing teacher and painter; it’s hard to find people who are both. Alyssa gave me focus with my work. I just wanted to paint the figure; I didn’t need any justification. It allowed me to give myself permission to do that, and I haven’t really looked back,” says Sleeth.
“The workshop was about painting from a photo reference, and how to do that well, what pitfalls to avoid. I brought some photos of a model I’d worked with in Vancouver, without knowing much about photography.” Sleeth says she takes about 4000 photos of a model for each painting. “I can see little changes, an intake of breath—it’s like a flip book. I find not just a photo to work from, but a point at the arc in their motion…though I’m working from a static photo, I have their motion in my head.”
Sleeth gives a lot of credit to her models, particularly her first “Gaze” subject: “She brought such presence and confidence, and the photo I used had such attitude. It was refreshing for me…to see a painting of a woman who was challenging the viewer. That’s where the underlying theme came through. The model I was painting was staring right back at me; I felt like I was getting to know her…I already did know her, but now it was in a way that was very active, and had a back-and-forth. I was doing work on the painting, and the painting was doing work on me.”
While it’s true that the individual paintings in Sleeth’s “Gaze” series don’t each have an overt “story,” there is a powerful sense of narrative—and dialogue—when viewing these works. “I didn’t want to objectify anybody I was painting,” explains Sleeth. “In our culture, it’s particularly easy to objectify women. I wanted to find a way of painting nude women…that was powerful, and not objectifying.”
By placing herself and her camera on the floor when photographing her subject, Sleeth automatically puts the model in the “power position,” and says, “I realized while I was painting, the eye contact was doing a lot of the work.” That first model telegraphed her personality, and “the way she posed was very confident. Not sexualized, and not hiding. Not taking the viewer’s approval into consideration.”
“Take-me-exactly-as-I-am-or-don’t-take-me” image-making of and by women is happening across disciplines right now, from dance to film to burlesque shows. I want to know if Sleeth considers herself part of this “movement,” and if she’s purposely avoiding depicting models whose bodies conform more readily to culturally-dictated beauty ideals.
“I think there’s a lot of power in seeing people, and women in particular…as they really are, because we’re so often shown such a narrow segment of body types and appearances,” Sleeth explains. “So yes, I hope to be part of that movement in a way, but I also want my work to be…more timeless than that? That happens to be a trend right now, and it’s a great one—and things change, too. I don’t want to be specifically influenced by that.”
Sleeth says she gets a lot of feedback about her work, much of it from women who like what they see. “It’s so amazing when someone comes up to me and says, ’You paint real women, this is what women actually look like.’ They say, ‘I look like that,’ or ‘I used to look like that,’ or ‘my mother looks like that.’ Just seeing women represented in an honest way without seeking approval for it, and without seeking judgement—good or bad—is, I think, a very refreshing thing for people. I know it is for me.”
There’s blowback, too. Sleeth insists “even if people are having a negative reaction, I want to hear about it…I’ve been told I should be ashamed of myself for painting women so explicitly, not covered up…I’ve had people say, ‘I don’t know who would allow themselves to be painted like this.’ [Or ask if] I have a problem with men? [Or suggest] that some models are too heavy, too fat to paint. It always tells me more about the viewer than the painting. I welcome critique of the work, but not critique of the models, because they’ve done a great service to me in posing, and it’s a very brave thing to do.”
Ultimately, Sleeth says, she is simply following her own inspiration and instincts as an artist. Any social commentary about women’s empowerment in her work is, she says, in the eye of the beholder, but her process with her models is often intimate, transformative, and “entirely on their terms; I don’t have any preconceived ideas about how I want somebody to pose…I think that [modeling for this series] can be really empowering for people. It’s their body being seen, but it’s not just their body. I very rarely paint somebody without their face. I think that’s a large part of keeping their individuality present, so their humanity is there, still, and their agency.”
Nicole Sleeth will be exhibiting at both the Sooke Fine Art Show and the Moss Street Paint-in this summer.
Writer, editor, puppeteer and singer Mollie Kaye performs with The Millies.
An out-of-the-box thinker, writer, editor and translator believes in daring to be different for the social good.
paulo da costa’s new book, The Midwife of Torment & Other Stories, is with Guernica Editions, an Ontario publisher specializing in world literature. Their motto, “No Borders No Limits,” is an apt summation of da costa’s work. He brings an international, multicultural background and vision to a genre that pushes readers into strange and sometimes uncomfortable territory. Through his lens, we can expand our ideas about ourselves and our place in the larger, magical connectivity of the world.
Even the way he lowercases his name is meant to expand our thinking. He is, he explains, disrupting “naming patterns” which reflect human self-importance in an effort to promote the equality of creation.
da costa comes from a culture of storytelling. Born in Angola, he spent the first five years of his life in a country that, at the time, didn’t have television. Those early years focused on play—either with others or within his imagination—meant he became, at a young age, accustomed to creating his own universe.
paulo da costa (Photograph by Tony Bounsall)
After his family moved back to Portugal, he grew up in Vale de Cambra, a small village where the family home went back several centuries, and everyone knew them. While valuing tradition and the role of strong roots, da costa also quickly learned the limitations of understanding the world from a single perspective. “Reading became my raft,” he tells me, sitting in the sun among the fruit trees of his Fernwood garden—his home the brightly-coloured anomaly in a row of neutrals. As a child, he says, his world was opened up by books like Marco Polo, and “I realized my tiny village was a mote in the universe, and that the possibilities of being were so much vaster.”
Those myriad “possibilities of being” are precisely what The Midwife of Torment is all about. In a series of 60 very short stories—most under 1000 words, one as short as a two-line sentence—da costa offers a literary potluck of flavours and styles: from the whimsical to the tragic; the contemporary and domestic to the speculative and tech-oriented. Some are beautiful, simple stories that pull us out of our own busy time into small villages. Others invite us into the voice and consciousness of other creatures: cougars, fish—even trees.
While the tone and style shifts, sometimes jarringly, from story to story, it’s not inconsistency or lack of coherence. Rather, that diversity is the point and strength of the book, and of da costa’s worldview. “My approach requires a certain courage from readers,” he says.
Often, the stories contain a surprise: What we initially think is happening isn’t so at all, and the plot takes sudden left turns. For instance, a seeming stalker turns out to have quite unexpected intentions; characters in a painting decide they no longer want to please the viewer; and a tree tells us, “As I sat idle, the entire Forest arrived.”
In this book of brief, imaginative leaps—which da costa describes as a combination of “zen simplicity and rich dessert”—relationships between people, other creatures, and events stand out in ways we have not seen before.
To da costa, reading is very like travelling, and you won’t grow if you simply see your own universe repeated. To expand our experience, one of da costa’s goals is to make us think philosophically. “My stories are often questions,” he says, recalling that the most important people in his life were the ones who opened the window of “what if?”
As a parent of young children (aged two and five) and as a writer, da costa hopes to do the same. Every story is a quick push of the reset button of what we know. He makes us aware of the invisible forces and webs that shape us, within and without, with stories as potent as a lightning strike or as gentle as the silvery shake of olive leaves.
Written over approximately 20 years, this series of short pieces is also a way of capturing da costa’s prolific creativity, which he sees as both an extension of who he is in the world, and a challenge to all of us. “I don’t separate creativity, in a professional aspect, from living,” he says. “Every moment I live and breathe, I’m making connections.” Ultimately, he sees that sense of connectivity as integral to how we take care of each other and the land. “When you’re not connected,” he notes passionately, “your caretaking is not the same.”
In that sense, the book has not just a philosophical but a political aspect, as it proposes other ways of seeing, being, and organizing. Energetic and optimistic, he says: “We have to have dialogue and friction in order to keep things moving,” whether in literature or in politics. “We can overcome with our imagination, with stories.”
da costa’s work is therefore very much connected to hope, although in this book he stretches himself into some darker corners than his previous collections. These include The Scent of a Lie, which won the 2003 Commonwealth First Book Prize for the Canada-Caribbean Region and the W.O. Mitchell City of Calgary Book Prize; and The Green and Purple Skin of the World. In The Midwife of Torment he consciously wanted to feel the minds of people in different kinds of pain as a means of gaining entry into greater empathy—another kind of connectivity he hopes to promote.
da costa’s shifts and twists don’t feel gimmicky. Rather, he disrupts and forces you to confront the expectations and assumptions you’ve silently generated as you went along. They put me in mind of the by turns meditative and turn-you-upside-down short works of Kafka, Victoria’s own John Gould, and Yasunari Kawabata (collected in the perfectly-titled Palm-of-the-Hand Stories).
The narrator in his story “The God of Shadows” says, “What you feel as you read my words will say everything about what you did not know about yourself.” That is the starting point for opening up to seeing and understanding that which is beyond borders, daring to live creatively and connected in a way that is perhaps beyond conventional limits. And so da costa’s story sends the reader off with good advice: “So long, and be brave.”
Writer and editor Amy Reiswig felt instantly connected to the book’s message, as its epigraph—”Those who don't believe in magic will never find it”—was read at her vaudevillian wedding last year.
Visiting seniors in their homes, Dr Rosenberg and his team focus on their quality of life.
MEET TED ROSENBERG, a doctor who focuses on the elderly and only does house calls. His medical model is a geriatric game-changer for many in the Capital Region.
Rosenberg does not even have an office, at least not one open to the public. His frail and elderly patients don’t have to struggle with cars and buses, medical buildings and waiting rooms because he and his team only see patients in their own homes. “You get a better assessment of people in their homes,” he explains.
Dr Rosenberg measures Minnie Currie’s blood pressure in her home
Rosenberg’s vision puts patients first with a focus on keeping them in their homes as long as possible, even offering patients the option to die in their own homes, when and if possible. “Fifty to sixty percent of our patients die at home,” says Rosenberg.
On one hand, he has moved the needle back in time to when doctors routinely saw patients in their own environment. On the other hand, he fully leverages the digital age and is even ahead of his time. He always visits patients with his laptop to update files for his team members. He also frequently arranges for medical tests in patients’ homes, tests usually only available in hospitals, such as an EKG, a spirometry, a bladder scan, and an ultrasound to measure circulation in people’s legs.
Rosenberg’s rationale for home-centred care is that people are more relaxed in their homes and reveal a more accurate picture of their health than in a doctor’s office. “You see how much they smoke, you see if they have rotting food in the fridge, you see them move about, you see their needs and you see how they are as a whole person,” he says.
His company, Home Team Medical, is an integrated home care approach to health care that focuses on the continuity of care for senior citizens. Rosenberg’s team consists of two part-time doctors, two registered nurses, a physiotherapist and a rehabilitation aide, with referral resources of dieticians and occupational therapists, all with the sole purpose of improving a person’s quality of care and quality of life.
The continuity of care is critical to his model of geriatric care. The Home Team’s nurses and doctors normally see patients every four to eight weeks. For those who are acutely ill or facing unstable chronic conditions, the appointments will be as frequent as required until they are better. It’s a model of constant care that helps keep people out of hospital and in their homes.
A study conducted by Rosenberg and his team, published in the Journal of the American Geriatric Society, concluded that “Primary Integrated Interdisciplinary Elder Care at Home (PIECH) may reduce acute hospital admissions and facilitate home deaths. There was a 39.7 percent reduction in hospital admissions, a 37.6 percent reduction in hospital days, and a 20 percent reduction in emergency department admissions.” Most experts would agree that this is likely saving the health care system money.
With such impressive statistics, one might presume a grand welcome for Rosenberg’s approach, but the doctor says it’s been a long and difficult journey building the practice into what it is today.
His initial inspiration stems back to the 1980s and his early days as a doctor in northern Manitoba, flying into remote villages and making house calls on the back of snowmobiles. Later he worked as director of a geriatric day hospital in Winnipeg. In 1997, he moved to Victoria to work as a consultant physician in a regional community geriatric medical program.
Home Team Medical was born in 2003 when Rosenberg ventured out from the security of a position with the local health authority to create the practice with his wife Liza Zacharias and Vikki Hay, a registered nurse who was the director of care at Oak Bay Lodge. “I was very interested and excited as I could see that this practice would fill a gap in service to seniors living in the community,” says Hay, who also took a risk by leaving a stable job.
Rosenberg and Zacharias re-mortgaged their house and struggled in the face of stiff opposition. “After a year we almost threw in the towel. The [government] fee levels didn’t support it and the government didn’t like us making house calls,” says Rosenberg. “We didn’t have enough patients.” But an article in the newspaper helped turn things around with new patients seeking his services.
Besides the company not having an office, which was viewed as inefficient, the economics of the enterprise raised eyebrows. The model is part private and part public medicine. Patients pay a modest monthly fee that covers everything. That has been a tough pill to swallow for many in the medical profession. “I was like the devil undermining the system,” says Rosenberg. But it’s that formula, he argues, which gives him the autonomy to make responsive, patient-centred business decisions, such as buying medical equipment or hiring compatible people, without having to go to a committee for approval.
Another key piece of the practice is treating caregivers as part of the package. Not only are trips to the doctor’s office eliminated, family members can also stay in touch with the team digitally. “We get dozens of emails a day from family members with various concerns and Ted replies to each and every one,” says Zacharias, who heads up coordination and administration duties.
In the interest of full disclosure, here is where I come clean. A few years back, my elderly mother went through several months of falls and repeated hospital stays. She needed more care and I needed more help. After she became Rosenberg’s patient, her health improved and her pain was better managed, resulting in a better quality of life for her. And for me, being able to communicate by email directly with the doctor gave me a peace of mind I had been missing.
Today, Home Team Medical has about 300 patients and as it has grown, so too has its waiting list. But exceptions are made, if a person is suffering from severe health issues. And that compassion guides the team in other ways, too. “We have people who are on very fixed incomes and we do waive fees because they can’t afford it,” says Rosenberg.
As Rosenberg looks forward to the future, his eyes light up when he talks about what’s next. The team is piloting an expanded health assessment that will measure a range of issues from pain, anxiety and depression, to memory, mood, sleep, grip strength and gait speed. “For example, we have known for a long time that gait speed is an extremely good determinant of risk; the slower the gait the greater the risk. We are also going to measure their quality of life, which is perhaps the most important goal and health outcome for elderly people. No one is routinely doing that,” he says.
Another cutting-edge measure that Rosenberg is exploring is genome technology and how it can help guide medication management. “I want to test everyone’s genome and then look at the drugs they are taking in the hope of eliminating unnecessary drugs and medications that may put people at risk,” says Rosenberg. “Adverse drug reactions are one of the biggest causes of morbidity and mortality in older people in the Western world.”
He hopes that one day there will be more teams using his model and that the service could be provided 24/7, as so many seniors lack home care options. But that may be an uphill battle, as the field of geriatric medicine is struggling to attract new doctors—a worrisome issue as Canada’s greying population is growing at an accelerating rate. Recent census numbers from Statistics Canada show seniors now outnumber children for the first time in the survey’s history.
Rosenberg is doing his bit to help shape the next generation by teaching at the University of British Columbia. “A lot of what I do is teaching, and I take on residents and medical students,” says Rosenberg. “We want to see the next generation value looking after old people in their homes and see how interesting and rewarding it is.”
There is no doubt that Rosenberg is a pioneer in a very conservative landscape. With a little nervous laugh, he resists the moniker, preferring instead to be seen as “tilling the ground”—as he heads out the door to make his rounds.
Writer and journalist Bill Currie’s career spans more than 30 years, mostly with CBC TV National News. He now writes about people, places and politics at curriesnotebook.weebly.com.
Providing homes to those in need can be viewed as revolution insurance.
ON AN OVERCAST SPRING MORNING, around six, driving down Pandora to make a left on Quadra, headed to Beacon Hill Park, I hear screaming and see a contorted figure in the parking lot in front of Cumberbirch Insurance on the northwest corner of Quadra and Pandora. Pants down around his knees, he’s shouting incomprehensibly, ritually crazy-bobbing like a drunken boxer, and punching his naked thighs in a mad tattoo. Bad drugs? Bad brains? Bad luck? Who knows?
Still-closed store entrances all over Downtown are sheltering the homeless under plastic tarps, sleeping bags or layers of clothing. Beacon Hill Park is dotted with an ever-growing number of semi-permanent tents and improv cardboard mattresses under park structures and trees.
Tent City beside Victoria Courthouse, 2015-2016
This is a condition that affects Victoria’s entire social ecology. It sickens the spirit and consciousness, and no one, however geographically or experientially removed, is untouched. The semi-official, my-eyes-are-closed-I-can’t-see-you default strategy of locational containment on “misery street” around Our Place on Pandora is merely notional, a limited “success” as demonstrated by Downtown-and-shoulder-area-wide visibility and impacts.
It’s a flawed reading of priorities that the City of Victoria is presently effervescing about a $70-million Crystal Pool replacement, instead of a homeless response (i.e. housing), especially while almost all the other municipalities are doing their famous imitation of someone whistling past the graveyard.
But, you say, isn’t homeless housing and services a provincial or federal, not local, responsibility? Right. Memo to the homeless: “Housing and services are provincial concerns, so please be homeless in, uh, Sandspit, Fort St John, Williams Lake and other, uh, provincial places. Buses are standing by.”
Every time you drive by a tent in the park, or pass a shopping-cart-pusher or a street-corner panhandler, or spot a clutch of homeless in some alley or vacant lot, let it trigger this thought: providing homeless housing isn’t some lefty handwringer conceit, it’s revolution insurance.
I mean, can’t you feel the features and qualities of the near-future under construction now? Even leaving aside climate suicide, sure to trigger social collapse and vast, desperate human migrations, simply consider some likely economic judder that will loosen the grip of a sizable multitude that is just hanging on—or the accelerating theft of human work and purpose by technology, which is likely to significantly shred the tissue-thin membrane between the gainfully employed/socially purposeful and those who wake up with nothing to do, nothing to lose.
In a January 2017 Smithsonian Magazine piece about AI, robotics and human work, Clive Thompson writes that “…fully 47 percent of all US jobs will be automated in a decade or two…That’s because artificial intelligence and robotics are becoming so good that nearly any routine task could soon be automated. Robots and AI are already whisking products around Amazon’s huge shipping centers, diagnosing lung cancer more accurately than humans and writing sports stories for newspapers. They’re even replacing cabdrivers, and Uber’s ‘Otto’ program is installing AI in 16-wheeler trucks—a trend that could eventually replace most or all 1.7 million truck drivers, an enormous employment category. Those jobless truckers will be joined by millions more telemarketers, insurance underwriters, tax preparers and library technicians…”
Sobering information, given the generally unchallenged conceit that whole new employment categories will open up. You know, llama-grooming and such.
Pankaj Mishra, in an incendiary new book, Age of Anger, discusses “cosmopolitan liberalism” and the West’s undeliverable promises of universal and never-ending social improvability—a delusional social ideology, really, that we still live by. He goes on to name its counter-gesture: “the revolutionist who has severed every link with the social order and with the entire civilized world; with the laws, good manners, conventions, and morality of that world. He is its merciless enemy and continues to inhabit it with only one purpose—to destroy it.” The conditions of poverty and homelessness in Victoria are, if unwittingly, that revolutionist, however quiescent and manageable things seem at the moment.
“History” and “progress” are not synonymous, though it’s easy to conflate the two, raised, as we all are, on an unquestioned belief in personal and social improvability. Mishra writes, “Societies organized for the interplay of individual self-interest can collapse into manic tribalism, if not nihilistic violence.” That is, history’s arc can bend back upon itself in a second.
None of this is meant to ascribe violent intention to the homeless, but to highlight the inherent violence of opposites and the natural tension between them. You’re housed, and the homeless are your enemy, as poverty is the enemy of wealth, the helpless the enemy of the powerful, the incompetent the enemy of the skilled and successful.
New York Times columnist David Brooks writes: “For every one American man aged 25 to 55 looking for work, there are three who have dropped out of the labor force. 21st-century America has witnessed a dreadful collapse of work. That means there’s an army of Americans semi-attached to their communities, who struggle to contribute, to realize their capacities and find their dignity.”
Let’s acknowledge that security—the sweet pleasures of normalcy, the lovely ordinariness we currently enjoy—is illusory, never more than temporary and always vulnerable to change in a heartbeat. The reflex desire we all share to distance ourselves and our community from risk, to preserve social calm, should, in my view, be reason enough to house the homeless. It’s called precaution, and it offsets a ton of risk.
The noise of life makes it hard to sense the raw tide of feeling roiling beneath the everyday, but those currents are ever-present. We’re good at managing such contradictions. We yak about housing with friends, not as shelter but as real estate: rising property values, what the place up the street sold for, the pros and cons of putting in a basement revenue suite. Instead, you have to locate and give a voice to the more elemental human creature in you, to release to yourself the story about how you shelter, your roots and role in a community, your prospects for survival, tenure and well-being in a very risky and threatening world. That’s the “place” from which you respond to the homeless problem.
Mishra writes about North America’s hallucinatory “short post-World War II history of unrepeatable success” which “spreads unlimited optimism, denigrates the past, and encourages the triumphalist belief that history has resolved its contradictions and ended its struggles in the regime of free-market individualism.”
Resolved its contradictions? Ended its struggles? Who could miss the terror and anger and desperation underlying the outcome of the recent US presidential election? Do you think Trump was elected by happy people? In fact, things, systems, are degrading globally. The world, I predict with regret, appears ready to re-enter a more conflicted and violent phase, and Canada, in spite of its skills at camouflage and irrelevance, will not come out of it un-impacted.
Hopes and plans based on common purpose and cooperation have clearly hit their limit. We are in a time when community solidarities have broken down, leaving enormous masses of atomized individuals. Invoking the abstracting influences of today’s placeless electronic culture, Martin Segger, art historian, UVic academic and former Victoria city councillor, provocatively claims: “Physical citizenship is defunct, dead, finished.”
Nonetheless, Victoria endures, very much as a place of physical citizenship. Words like “charming,” or “cute,” or “a bit of England” simply disguise the real genius and deep tug of this place: Victoria is socially legible. You can read the visible code of its social intentions, its human dreams, in the love of landscape, the coherent built form, the localism of its neighbourhoods, the well-ordered, well-mannered public realm. This legibility is rare and precious, worth preserving at all costs. Providing shelter for the homeless should, perhaps, be considered as one of the “burdens of solidarity,” to borrow Bruno Latour’s phrase.
Last year’s tent city, on the lawn behind the courthouse, was just a local warning shot, a threatening and worrying taste of how social ruin looks. It put a dent in our psyche, and the Province grudgingly coughed up just enough go-away housing money to disperse the crowd.
Is Victoria to do nothing to prepare for any of this, its next wave or expression? Mightn’t it be good practice (leave aside good values) for us to stop pretending we can externalize our problems, and instead put our social capacities to the test by housing the homeless?
Let’s say there are an estimated 1500 homeless regionally. Other nose-counters may claim a different number, but if we’re not at or over fifteen hundred, we will be soon—guaranteed by spreading drug addiction, the rapid rise in the local costs of land and market housing, the accelerating loss of low-wage and other jobs to robotics and AI, and other novel, emergent forms of social threat.
The cost of housing such a number? A capital cost of around $150 million for land and construction plus, at a guess, health care, nutrition, social management, training, property management, and other services at $10,000 per person per year, or $15 million annually. Assuming various “gets” from the feds and the province, on both the capital and operating sides, the whole thing could be successfully managed within the financial means of the region and its member municipalities.
Yes, the homeless are often filthy, unlucky, skill-less and failed, physically and mentally ill, prone to violence, drug- or booze-addicted, uneducable, lacking in social utility. On it goes. So, let’s leave them on the streets. Let’s be close-fisted with shelter, services, care and social management. Just to teach ’em.
As history has repeatedly demonstrated, that always works out well.
Founder of Open Space and co-founder of Monday Magazine, Gene Miller is currently promoting ASH, an affordable housing concept, and, with partner Rob Abbott, has launched the website FUTURETENSE: Robotics, AI, and the Future of Work.
Monterey Middle School’s nature-focused program nurtures a sense of place and a caretaking ethic.
AUNALEIGH MACLUCAS AND SIDNEY HURST started taking sketching trips to Bowker Creek last fall with their middle school class. During each of several expeditions, they spent time drawing their surroundings from the point of view of one of the creek’s resident creatures—a dragonfly, a salmon, a raccoon. “It’s quite eye-opening, actually,” MacLucas tells me. “It makes you realize what a salmon might think of this area and what they would see.”
These two passionate 13-year-olds, however, may not have dreamed they’d soon share their knowledge with an international audience.
Aunaleigh MacLucas (l) and Sidney Hurst at Monterey Middle School
This summer, MacLucas and Hurst are taking their knowledge to the Royal BC Museum (RBCM), volunteering along with their class and grade-nine students from Oak Bay High School to create a temporary exhibit on Bowker Creek that will display through the summer months. Bowker, a creek that feeds into Oak Bay, represents an ideal example of a degraded watershed that has recently seen significant restoration efforts. Thanks to their collaboration with the museum, Monterey students who attend school near its banks will have a voice in raising awareness about a hidden place most visitors to Victoria don’t know exists.
MacLucas and Hurst are students in Monterey’s Grade Seven Ocean Studies program, an invention of Mark Brown, kayak-guide-turned-middle-school-teacher. “There was never any doubt that my meaning comes from the natural world,” Brown says. “I meet kids who don’t know how to be outside in nature. I want to give them a sense of place.”
Brown’s class offers an opportunity to spend the entire year dedicated to learning about marine and watershed environments. Brown tailors all curriculum (science, writing, math, language) to focus on life science. A colleague joins every week to teach a class focused on marine biology. Even the French curriculum is geared toward the natural world, with lessons on les animaux en danger. “Kids need authentic experiences,” stresses Brown. “School shouldn’t extract them from their environment. And it should give back to the community, not create a bubble inside it.”
Oak Bay High School students provided input to the CRD during the Bowker Creek restoration project, completed near the school in 2016. Thanks to them, an outdoor amphitheatre was constructed at the stream bank, offering an ideal location for outdoor education. Portions of the creek near Hillside Shopping Centre have also been restored with streamside native vegetation, removal of invasive species, and “daylighting.” The latter involves removing the culverts installed to contain the water’s flow.
The 2003 Watershed Management Plan for the creek will take a century to implement. Though salmon may not spawn anytime soon in the creek, daylighting still represents an ideal opportunity to steward other native species like dragonflies, trout, juncos and mink, to improve water quality and to reduce downstream flooding. Restoration also helps provide greenways between neighbourhoods—the creek spans three municipalities on its journey from the University of Victoria to Oak Bay. Perhaps most important, restoration connects communities to their natural environment.
RBCM Learning Program Developer Chris O’Connor connected with Monterey because of the school’s commitment to science and natural history education. Hurst is a long-time volunteer and mentor for the Museum’s summer camps. “It’s been an absolute pleasure to see Sidney [Hurst] not only put forward brilliant ideas, but to see her deepen into a ‘museum way of thinking’ more and more,” O’Connor tells me. “Aunaleigh and Sidney are both awesome,” Brown confirms. “They have a really good handle on the project.”
O’Connor stresses that the project honours the learning process, amplifying ideas that youth bring, while focusing on real-world learning and authentic engagement. “It is such a pleasure to see the development of a project from an inquiry or guided question, to an ideation stage…to the hard work of getting it developed, to the even harder work of getting it finished,” he says. During this summer’s exhibition, thousands of people will see their work.
Specialized learning classes aren’t new in the region. High-school students can participate in a variety of Programs of Choice, including soccer academy, arts specialties and environmental studies. But in the region’s middle schools, only Monterey students can enter a program like Brown’s, through a simple application form and a payment of $500 to cover the costs of renting kayaks and supplying an additional guide during trips.
“It saddens me that we seem to be Oak Bay’s best kept secret in environmental education,” says Brown, who argues that focused middle-school programs create a highly developed sense of environmental responsibility and connection to place. He started the program in part to reverse a decline in enrolment at the school. When enrolment goes down, schools lose librarian time and the number of Education Assistants. Enrolment is now starting to turn around, and another teacher in the school has started the MIT classroom (the Monterey Institute of Technology) to complement Brown’s outdoor studies.
Brown’s students also participate in six ocean kayak trips, including one overnight camping trip. For many, it is their first time on the water in a small craft. When I met with them at Oak Bay Marina, they had just returned from a paddle along the coast and out to a nearby archipelago of islets. The enthusiasm was palpable.
Brown would like to see funding from government to support Programs of Choice in middle schools, so that his offering could be expanded beyond a high-socioeconomic school like Monterey, and subsidization could be offered to families when needed. He’d also like to see more teachers trained in specialized education. “What happens if I get sick?” he points out. He argues that rather than a “tracking program,” as many specialized courses at the high-school level are billed, the Monterey program is more about living in place. It’s also been a saving grace for Brown, who does a job known for its high burnout rates. “It’s only since Ocean Studies that I’ve gotten a glimmer of possibility that this job is sustainable.”
This is year two of the Royal BC Museum’s Partner School Project, which engages students and teachers over the course of an entire school year. The museum engaged Monterey students specifically because of Brown’s program. “There’s a full science curriculum [in my class], but ocean ecology is a year-long theme,” he explains. “They make a diorama of tidal ecosystems. They show food webs. So by the time they started the [RBCM] exhibit project, they were ready.”
Aunaleigh MacLucas, Sidney Hurst and their cohorts are thrilled to be writing the exhibit text, as well as researching, taking and choosing photos and illustrations, and creating a narrative that will focus on their understanding of the creek. “We have a lot of power as humans,” MacLucas tells me. “We have a creek we can go visit whenever we want to. It’s hidden away. I want to try to make people aware. There are so many things that depend on this ecosystem.” This summer, she and the other students will contribute to that awareness.
Maleea Acker is the author of Gardens Aflame: Garry Oak Meadows of BC’s South Coast (New Star, 2012). She is currently completing a PhD in Human Geography, focusing on the intersections between the social sciences and poetry.
ON A RECENT MORNING I ambled past a property where a huge Douglas fir had just been taken down and sliced into giant disks that oozed resin around the ripped-bark edges. I inhaled deeply, funnelling in the sweet cleansing elixir of balsam. It smacked my brain with pure pleasure, instantly evoking the contented memories of long hikes in the woodland and sublime sleeps in a tent beneath the trees.
There are some things, like hanging out in nature, that you intrinsically know to be good for you. But just in case you also need to hear it from someone else, in case what your own body and senses are telling you isn’t ironclad enough, a recent data analysis by researchers at the Harvard School of Public Health concluded that women who spend time in or near green spaces tend to live longer than women who don’t.
For everyone wondering why the researchers focused only on women, here’s a quick aside. Their decision was purely pragmatic: The data already existed, in the vast databank of the famous and ongoing Nurses’ Health Study, which began in 1976 when more than 100,000 female nurses agreed to provide regular health and lifestyle related updates for the rest of their lives.
This data bonanza enabled the Harvard researchers to uncover that nurse participants who lived near or spent time in nature had a 12 percent lower mortality rate than their colleagues who didn’t. Furthermore, they were able to determine lower mortality rates for specific diseases, such as a 13 percent reduction in cancer mortality and a 35 percent reduction in respiratory-disease-related death for women in proximity with nature.
While I find this all very compelling, what I’m really itching to know is why these correlations are occurring. How do green spaces help to postpone death?
While correlation cannot determine cause, the detailed Harvard analysis did point to a complex interplay of many “protective factors” that seem to be supported and enhanced by time spent in nature. Each of these factors influences another in a positive way that exponentially increases the overall benefit. No one should be too surprised to learn that the protective factors identified include reduced levels of depression, increased physical activity, increased social engagement, and lower levels of pollution. You walk under the trees where the air is cleaner (vegetation being the natural filter that it is), you engage with friends or people you meet, you feel mentally uplifted by your surroundings and connections, and your body is grateful for the movement. To head to the woods, be it the neighbourhood park or distant hillside, is to start—or keep—the ball rolling on improved health and enhanced well-being.
It all makes abundant sense, and by no means only for women. Numerous studies have corroborated the health benefits of nature for people in general. These include experiments conducted in the forests of Japan whose results showed that forest environments are more effective than built environments for reducing stress as measured by cortisol level, pulse rate and blood pressure.
But really, we know all this already. We live it every time we step out and lose ourselves in nature. And we’re grateful to have so many beautiful parks and green spaces in the Capital Region. Thankfully they’re protected, but—oops—not fully immune to urban encroachment, at least not as long as highway interchanges that gobble up green space take precedence over unquantifiable benefits to human health and well-being.
Further out of town the situation is also concerning. Our pristine forests are continually under pressure to provide commodities for selling. Our perennially popular provincial parks—the jewels in our super natural crown—keep attracting the paying multitudes even as they wither from years of budget cuts (which is as untenable as both milking and starving your best cash cow.)
Times are changing, and one day we’ll see our green spaces as vital natural capital and then start rejigging their economic value accordingly. In the meantime, I’ll keep embracing what the essayist and naturalist John Burroughs wrote more than a century ago: “I go to nature to be soothed and healed, and to have my senses put in order.”
He didn’t need research to tell him that. There are times when the body just knows.
Trudy credits the woodland with getting her through the teenage years. Decades later it's still keeping her sane.