It’s time to be proactive when it comes to saving urban wetlands and natural areas.
EMILY THIESSEN AND I meet for coffee at Little June, the cafe on the corner of Gladstone and Fernwood, to talk about the path of Bowker Creek, and an adjacent seasonal wetland in the Shelbourne Valley that was once ringed with black cottonwood trees near her parents’ house. “They’re cutting [the trees] down today,” says Thiessen, an artist and activist, and tears spring from her eyes. She continues to weep intermittently for the next hour, as we sift through the contentious story of a Saanich-approved rezoning and development permit at 1554 Christmas Avenue, as well as her work as a muralist and printer, and her desire to see people mobilize in advance of future developments on land with ecological potential.
1554 Christmas Avenue, showing removal of black cottonwood trees to make way for development. (Photo by Maleea Acker)
The Christmas Avenue development and rezoning permit was approved by Saanich Council in August 2021, despite strenuous objections from local residents, groups including the Mount Tolmie Community Association and the Friends of Bowker Creek Society (FOBC), and Councillor Nathalie Chambers. Councillors Judy Brownoff and Ned Taylor opposed the rezoning and development in the Council vote (Chambers was absent). Thiessen’s tears aren’t just for the loss of a parcel of land that provided habitat; “I should have done more,” she says.
Under the soil of 1554 Christmas Ave runs a culverted portion of Bowker Creek, an urban stream I wrote about for this magazine when FOBC volunteers were working towards reintroduction of Chum salmon into the lower portion of the urban creek.
Bowker Creek runs from its headwaters at the University of Victoria down through the Shelbourne Valley, crossing the municipalities of Saanich, Victoria and Oak Bay before exiting into Oak Bay proper. In Fall 2021, FOBC volunteers placed 28,000 chum salmon eggs into the creek’s gravel; they have since hatched and the fry successfully entered the sea. It is hoped they will return in 2024 for the first successful salmon spawning event in Bowker in over 100 years.
Bowker Creek passes just east of the cut poplar trees at 1554 Christmas Avenue, at the edge of the property, which makes the rest of the property an important buffer area for the creek. The bulk of the property was what Thiessen and many residents identified as a seasonal wetland, where ducks would overwinter and into which the yellowing leaves of the black poplars would fall each autumn.
In Saanich’s 2012 “Shelbourne Valley Land Use and Urban Design Study” report, consultants recommended that three areas in the Shelbourne Valley, including 1554 Christmas Ave, be included as future park space in a growing neighbourhood. The parcel was included in the draft Shelbourne Valley plan, until 2017, when the “intended park space” label was quietly removed. Thiessen remembers that her parents (and many others, including Mei Ang of Louise Place) questioned the planners, who assured them that a commitment remained to acquire the property as parkland. But a year later, it was sold and the new developer owner proposed a 25-unit condominium, with no designated affordable units.
When Saanich approved the rezoning and development, on August 17, 2021, it was under advice from a biologist who stated that the property did not meet the definition of a wetland, and lacked any wetland species. The cottonwood trees (which some might define as a wetland species themselves) were deemed an unsuitable species in an urban context and slated for removal.
“My parents went to the council meetings,” says Thiessen, and her parents’ words are recorded in the Sooke News Mirror on August 12, 2021, arguing that Saanich, in approving the development, would be failing to consider “the need for green space.”
Until the Christmas Avenue development proposal, Thiessen’s work had been more focused on global social justice issues. During her undergrad, she joined Divest UVic (a group striving for divestment of UVic’s investments from fossil fuel and other climate damaging companies), then Rise and Resist, ending up on the RCMP’s Community-Industry Response Group watchlist. In 2019, Thiessen helped found Climate Justice Victoria, and was involved in the Wet’suwet’en and Global Climate Strike protests. She painted murals and designed posters for the protests during her Anthropology degree, first as a volunteer, then as a paid artist, illustrating reports for non-profits and screenprinting banners for marches.
Mural by Emily Thiessen at corner of Gladstone and Stanley in Fernwood area. (Photo by Maleea Acker)
“It can’t all be depressing.” she says, “You have to inspire people, too.” She quotes Toni Cade Bambara’s famous dictim: “the role of the artist is to make revolution irresistible,” and smiles.
In the last few years, Thiessen has begun completing commissions for murals around the Capital Region. She painted one for the Victoria Event Centre, another for the Oaklands community, focusing on endangered Garry oak meadow ecosystems. This summer, she’s working on a mural of Rock Bay Creek, at the corner of Stanley and Gladstone. Rock Bay Creek is a buried but not forgotten stream that winds its way from Fernwood into Rock Bay. She has also worked with First Nations W̱SÁNEĆ artist Sarah Jim through the Victoria Art Gallery. Art, says Thiessen, helps her communicate, “it defines things. It brings people together. It builds movements in a more joyful way.”
AS THE POPLARS FALL on 1554 Christmas Avenue, it seems to Thiessen that Bowker Creek gets no closer to being truly respected—as a waterway that needs more space, with more wetlands and shaded corridors through which to meander. Thiessen wants people to learn from her experience. For others who live near an ecologically promising parcel, she advises, “before the development happens, get the neighbours together and start doing restoration. You need people who are actively interested, starting to build a community, who can not only write letters but talk to media, even do guerrilla planting.”
She wishes her community had taken note of the Christmas Avenue property earlier and started restoring it on their own, adding species that could have contributed to its status as a remnant wetland. “We should start mapping other areas of the creek,” she muses, “telling neighbours to pick up garbage, have a block party.” Essentially, she wants people to gather and care for a place before it gets noticed by developers, even if it’s on what’s currently called private property.
Recently, Thiessen relocated to the Comox Valley, where she’s begun an apprenticeship as an art printer. She’s noticed that the Comox Valley still has functioning creeks, that even in residential areas, wild areas seem to co-exist with development. “If we could have more of that here [in Greater Victoria], that would be good,” she muses. Thiessen is also changing her activism to include not just larger political work but also local ecosystems. “If you’re just doing the bigger things, you miss the small ecosystems.” The lesson of trying and failing to save the Christmas Avenue property isn’t lost on her, “When I was involved in trying to save it, [the work] was all new to me. If I had been working small the whole time, I might have had more influence.”
Maleea Acker’s post-doctoral fellowship focuses on Nature-Based Solutions for water and climate. She is currently working with several local communities and Nations to encourage private landowners to protect and steward ecosystems. Her new book of poems, Hesitating Once to Feel Glory, is available at Munro’s Books.