Without his stewardship, it’s unlikely Victoria would have the nearby forests it has. And at 96, he’s not finished yet.
Bob McMinn at Mary Lake Nature Sanctuary (Photo by Koi Neah)
“I’M A FIRM BELIEVER IN FOREST BATHING,” Bob McMinn tells me as we sit in the house that hangs over the green and pristine edges of Mary Lake in the District of the Highlands. The lake stretches out from the windows, framing the November colours of the far shore’s forest. “Two reasons I have lived to 96,” he tells me, “is my mother’s genes and I’ve lived in the woods all my life.”
I’m in quarantine so that I can care for my 84-year-old father, so McMinn agrees it’s safe to meet me in person, albeit at a 6-foot distance. No worries there—I have to race to keep up with his long stride as we walk around Caleb Pike Heritage Park. I race again when I follow his car from Caleb Pike to Mary Lake. I feel a little decrepit beside him, a bit COVID-weary: too much teaching from the couch. At age 96, he demurs, he can’t walk as easily through a pathless wood without thinking about his balance. I feel my feet grow roots.
McMinn has been a resident of the Highlands since 1953, when he and his wife Nancy first bought an old stone-faced log house on Millstream Road, but it burned down thanks to a chimney fire. The next year, they moved to 360 acres surrounding First Lake, or Mitchell Lake, which they purchased for $20,000. With a doctorate in ecology from UBC, McMinn went to work for the federal government, a researcher in forest ecology in the Kootenays first and then the white spruce forests in the Prince George Forest District. But part of his heart stayed in the forested area just north of Victoria, where one can still, even today, get lost in the woods.
At urging from his wife, who realized that as Victoria grew, so would pressure to develop the Highlands, McMinn started the Highland Ratepayers Association in 1967, which transitioned to the Highlands District Community Association a few years later. Working with local community he built up interest in greenspace protection and a regional trails system with the CRD and the provincial government. He was a founding member of the Greater Victoria Greenbelt Society (GVGS) in 1979. “I was reading about the city forests of Europe and thought they were an excellent idea.” City forests are woods within easy distance of urban areas which can be used for timber needs, though now mostly serve recreational needs.
As more of Vancouver Island was logged (his doctoral dissertation focused on the Nanaimo River Valley, the giant trees of which were cut a few years after his research was completed), McMinn realized the need for conservation. In the 1980s, Langford and Highlands were both part of the Langford Electoral Area, similar to the current Juan de Fuca Electoral Area. In 1986, McMinn had left the federal government; he retired from contract work in 1992. His second career saving the Highlands began in earnest.
As development pressures grew in the early 1990s, incorporation separate from Langford seemed the best way forward. McMinn assisted with an incorporation study and supported a referendum, which voted 70 percent for incorporation and 80 percent to incorporate as a separate municipality from Langford. It was an amazingly prescient decision.
In 1993, the year the two areas parted ways, McMinn became Mayor of the Highlands. Construction and bulldozing of natural areas in Langford hasn’t stopped since, while Highlands has maintained large tracts of older second-growth forest and has increased its protected areas from 6 to 40 percent parkland. Today, the two municipalities could not look or feel more dissimilar.
McMinn became first chair of the Highland Heritage Park Society when he formed it in 1983, 10 years before Highlands incorporated. Restoration of the first dwelling in the West Highlands, the Caleb Pike House, and its heritage orchard, provided Highlands with a community centre even before incorporation. McMinn has provided over $400,000 in land and cash, as well as secured grants towards restoratiing and developing the Pike House property. He also served as Chair of the CRD’s Parks Advisory Committee, and as a director of the Christmas Hill Association and the Thetis Lake Sanctuary Association (as well as other boards too numerous to name here).
Over the years, he has carved off pieces of his property for donation to the Land Conservancy of BC (which was later transferred to the Nature Conservancy of Canada). He was instrumental in beginning the work to create Gowlland Tod Provincial Park.
It was his work with Mary Lake which inspired me in 2010 to donate to a conservation project even though I was a student. The Greater Victoria Greenbelt Society, chaired by McMinn, was trying to acquire a large property in the south-west Highlands with rare wetland and riparian habitats in the Millstream Creek watershed. McMinn, though in his 80s, set up an online fundraising initiative that saw people from around the globe “buy” square metre parcels of the Mary Lake property as a contribution to the land’s purchase price. I remember clicking on my three metres, right on the edge of the lake. McMinn donated $100,000 to support the challenge. Later, he provided $300,000 more to secure a mortgage with Vancity to purchase the land. The mortgage was recently paid off by the sale of some of the land to the CRD for a trail corridor connecting Thetis Lake and Gowlland Tod Parks, and by a grant from the Province. “My family is very good natured about it. They understand that the money they might have inherited is no longer there,” McMinn tells me.
McMinn closes his eyes as he remembers dates and places. He takes me through his childhood in England, after his birth in Toronto and a brief spell in Vancouver. His time in Somerset, in WWII in India and Palestine. His studies at UBC and Washington State University. The whole story has the charmed feeling of the generation born in the 1920s and 1930s. Despite the terror of a world war, its aftermath brought his generation opportunities never seen before (or since): education, jobs, low land prices, and the chance at a new life in a land that still held remnants of the beauty and diversity First Nations stewarded here on Southern Vancouver Island for millennia. In short, he was lucky beyond belief.
At 96, McMinn looks a spry 70. But he says he no longer has the vigour to do the conservation work he used to do. I ask if he plans to donate his own acreage. “That’s up in the air,” he demurs. In the meantime, he is saturating the property with protective covenants so that “it will be worthless, with no building allowed.”
As we talk, I feel my feet root into a municipality that, through a stroke of luck and foresight, managed to free itself from Langford’s clutches. “You’ve seen West Hills?” he asks me. “The whole of the Highlands would have been a West Hills if we hadn’t incorporated.” There is the sense, despite his protests, that he isn’t quite finished his work.
McMinn closes his eyes again, “Politics is the art of the possible. My feeling is that although parks can disappear, at least if there’s a significant area of park, the Highlands can remain predominantly green.” His ambition is to see the percentage of parkland in the municipality continue to climb—to 50 percent, like the City Forest of Hannover. And to get a letter of congratulations from the Queen on reaching 100 in four years.
Donations to the Mary Lake Nature Sanctuary can be made at: https://www.marylakeconnections.ca/donate/
Maleea Acker is the author of Gardens Aflame: Garry Oak Meadows of BC’s South Coast, which just entered its second printing. She is still a PhD student. She’s also a lecturer in Geography, Canadian Studies, and Literature, at UVic and Camosun.