The demise of the Humboldt “Innovation Tree” leads a citizen to investigate the City’s decision-making.
WHEN I HEARD THAT SOMEONE had filed an FOI request with the City of Victoria around the January removal of the Humboldt “Innovation Tree,” I was curious. Not so much about the tree, as about her. I thought her action might be a great example of citizenry—of demanding transparency and holding power to account. And, as it turns out, I was right.
Over coffee in a James Bay café, Mariann Burka tells me that when she first heard about plans to remove the tree as part of the new cycling network improvements, she immediately contacted City of Victoria staff and council members to obtain more information and see if an alternative was possible. And she asked for a moratorium on its removal. She says, “I was provided with standard responses,” taking the form of reassurances that other options had been looked at to fix the intersection at Humboldt and Government, but “operational needs” necessitated its removal.
But something didn’t ring true for Burka. And that Humboldt Tree had special meaning for her. Though she’s now retired from the provincial government, where she worked in senior positions (including acting as assistant deputy minister a couple of times), her last years at work were spent in the Belmont building in an office that looked out on the tree. She also confides that after the tree was celebrated as the City’s Innovation Tree and bedecked with sound-triggered lights, she and her partner would stop on their walk home and clap hands or sing to make the lights change colour. “There were always other residents or tourists who would join us,” Burka tells me. It was a welcoming presence for all: “I remember those moments of communal delight and joy.”
As Burka witnessed the Humboldt tree being removed on January 28, someone said, “Well, that’s that.” But she thought, “No, I am not letting this go.” That same day, she filed her FOI with the City, asking for “all design options considered for changes to the intersection at Government and Humboldt; and what specific operational needs could not be met without removal of this specific tree and why.”
She received the City’s response on March 22 (yes, it often takes that long).
So what was in that 37-page file?
Not very much. As Burka notes, “The drawings in the FOI appear to still show the tree…they are hard to interpret…I saw no evidence of any serious attempt to explore alternatives or to identify or evaluate alternatives in any systematic way.”
The closest the records come to showing any design options are rough “scratch notes” supplied by Transportation Planning and Development Manager Sarah Webb, who explains: “The team meetings and notes from October and November 2017 (sent in the scan) indicate general comparisons of the two options, but the option of the full re-design of the intersection was preferred as an overall solution and was pursued through detailed design.” There’s also an agenda for an October 25, 2017 meeting which allots all of 10 minutes to cover 3 items, including “Government/Humboldt/Wharf—full intersection as preferred.”
The only record provided by the City to support its contention that it had “explored a number of alternative designs” were two pages of a staff member’s notebook.
In other words, the tree was bumped out of the picture in 2017 without, apparently, a lot of thought. Council approved the “60 percent design” at a meeting in May 2018—without making a peep about the missing tree. The general public seemed to be out of the loop entirely about the fate of the healthy 40-year-old birch until January 2019.
Once that 10-day tree removal notice went up, however, things got heated. There were media articles, letters-to-editors, and a petition to save the tree that garnered 1,200 signatures within a few days. The FOI response shows that Councillor Charlayne Thornton-Joe wrote to staff on January 18 of this year, stating: “I am not supportive of the removal of the tree on Government. Is there anything that can be done to save it?”
Director of Engineering and Public Works Fraser Work responded to her, copying other councillors, saying, “The design requires the removal of this tree…We tried very hard to keep the central intersection tree, but had to compromise in order to design a safe intersection, that is affordable, and effective at serving the vehicle and pedestrian volumes, with a new cycle track.”
When questioned, staff rely on boilerplate, non-explanatory statements that the tree had to go. As Burka put it in a draft report she shared, “The FOI material reveals that the City relies on undefined, vague and, at times, changing criteria of ‘operational requirements.’”
Sarah Webb, in responding to the FOI, lists constraints and considerations, but as Burka notes: “In none of the documents provided is there any explanation or description of these ‘constraints/factors,’ whether they represent operational requirements, how or why they might be essential to the project, or any exploration of how these factors could be achieved in different ways.”
And, she points out, there is no consideration of the value of a mature tree. Research shows they provide ecosystem services like water filtration, cooling shade, and carbon sequestration. They contribute to our health by absorbing such pollutants as nitrogen oxides, ammonia, sulfur dioxide and ozone; they even filter particulates out of the air. Recent research makes clear that the older a tree is, the better it absorbs carbon from the atmosphere.
The staff of the City’s Parks department oversee all the trees on City property. The FOI records suggest their involvement was limited, but that they were fully supportive of the Humboldt tree’s removal.
ANOTHER PROBLEM THAT HAD LEPT OUT at Burka in the FOI response, related to public consultation. The tree’s removal notice certainly seemed to surprise not just citizens, but some council members as well. According to Webb, “Both designs were shown to the public through consultation material in Fall 2017, with the preferred option articulated.” Those materials were not included in the FOI response, but Burka found reports about (and graphics used in) the engagement process on the City’s website.
She notes, “Despite the City’s public assurances of detailed consultations over the past two years, there is no evidence that explicit information about tree removal (and alternatives) formed a significant component of consultations concerning the intersection.” Early engagement activities were limited to nearby businesses, service providers, and residents (very few of the latter). “Preserving mature trees and maintaining the urban tree canopy is a matter of broad public interest for all of Victoria, not just those who live and work in an area where a specific tree is targeted for removal,” Burka points out. Besides advocating the City “make more effort to engage the broader public on issues of tree removal and retention,” she states, Victorians are “entitled to explicit and full disclosure about tree removals and [should] be allowed an opportunity for meaningful consultation.” (Not just at the 10-day notice period.)
Burka is not sure we’re going in that direction: “It’s especially troubling to me that in February budget discussions, the City agreed to accelerate implementation of the cycling network which includes ‘streamlining consultation.’”
Worse, she feels the City has “almost encouraged divisiveness” by presenting a false dichotomy—trees or bike lanes—when most citizens are in favour of both. “The City should be taking the lead to harmonize those goals,” she says. Instead, she says, some statements by City officials helped falsely suggest those who wanted to save the tree were against bike lanes or even addressing climate change.
The City’s recent vote to implement its 2013 Urban Forest Master Plan, with $1.26 million in funding—along with pressure from citizens—means more effort is already being made to retain the City’s mature trees. City staff assured me that plans for the Vancouver Street section of the cycling network retain all existing trees and allow for some new ones—proving it is possible to both encourage people to get out of their cars and maintain a robust urban forest.
In this era of media disruption and cutbacks, however, it will come to rest more and more on citizens to investigate, through FOI and other means, government decision-making and truth-telling. Let Focus know what you learn.
Leslie Campbell is the editor of Focus. Did you know that, last measured (2012), Victoria’s forest canopy was 18 percent, and that its Urban Forest Master Plan suggests 40-45 percent is more appropriate for a city such as ours?
Thank you for seeing through the smoke and mirrors, dispensing with red herrings, writing for truth and with great intensity, and supporting journalism of the highest quality. And for a magazine I read cover to cover because it’s so interesting, relevant, hard-hitting, beautiful and…funny in the right places!
Grandstanding? Or grand gesture?
While I found Judith Lavoie’s reporting very interesting, I am far from convinced that the proposed class-action suit, supported by Victoria’s mayor and council of ideologues led by Ben Isitt, is anything but grandstanding. Andrew Gage of West Coast Environmental Law is hardly unbiased in his assessment of the litigation’s eventual success. The question is: how many decades and how many billions? Looks like a win/win for the legal profession on both sides. This is political over-reach at it worst.
In the March/April Focus I was surprised to learn that a City of Victoria councillor sees carbon taxes and road-user charges as the “biggest and best tools” for climate-change action. This view is inconsistent with the landmark UN IPCC Special Report on Global Warming of 1.5°C (October 2018)—a report with over 6,000 references and 42,001 expert and government review comments.
Given the dire state of the climate crisis according to evidence-based science, and the need for policymakers at all levels to take responsibility, I think it’s incumbent on elected officials to have read the full IPCC report, especially those who make public statements on climate action.
The IPCC report clearly states that the emerging body of studies—that focus on the performance of various policy mixes—affirm that a range of measures and complementary mix of policies are required to generate a 1.5°C pathway to avert risks of environmental breakdown and catastrophic suffering. The report elucidates unequivocally that—according to evidence and theory—while relevant, carbon pricing alone cannot reach the incentive levels needed to hold temperature increase to the essential goal of no more than 1.5˚C.
The report highlights the need for accountability at all governance levels, including local, and describes at significant length the numerous ways cities play a key and essential role in climate mitigation and adaptation strategies. It emphasizes the requirement for rapid, far-reaching, and unprecedented changes, stressing that there’s no time to delay.
Reading the full IPCC Special Report would aid more informed and responsible councillor public comments. I’m grateful to the mayor and other councillors who—in accord with evidence-based science—are taking climate action seriously, understand the essential role that cities have in climate action strategies, and the urgency required.
Young people in rapidly growing climate movements around the world are demanding immediate and serious climate change action by policymakers, that they tell the truth about the climate crisis we are in, and that they follow the science.
I invite people to do their own research by reading the actual scientific documents—and not just rely on those professing their economic credentials nor just the analysis of mainstream media. One can then make their own informed decisions about responsible climate action.
Genevieve Eden, Ph.D
As the tipping point nears
In Ms Duivenvoorden Mitic’s article on the lack of a clear plan to combat climate change, she urges people to focus their despair and/or frustration on the positive glimmers of progress.
However, the people who “are getting pissed off over inaction,” are unaware of their involvement with the pollution of the Earth’s air with vast amounts of pollutants. Most consumer goods bought by North Americans are manufactured in China. One-third of the world’s pollution is produced with no environmental controls in place by Chinese industry, thus making North Americans complicit with China in polluting the air. Add to this scenario the shipment of coal to help heat the homes of hundreds of millions of people in China, and we’re left with the realization that no amount of effort will alter climate change.
The case for ending the herring fishery
In the mid 1990s I was involved in the herring spawn dive surveys, where every 1500 feet along the beach in spawning areas, a diver swam along a lead line starting at 30-foot depth into the beach with a quadrant. Dive records had been kept for 30 years and the DFO managers had some solid evidence to base their herring stock abundance estimates. Unfortunately that method of assessment was dropped for sonar surveys, with no overlap of methods so the new sonar methods could be calibrated.
The derby fishing by seine boats was madness, often leading to over-harvesting of allowable catch by 25-30 percent. Now, thankfully, the over-fishing has been replaced by boat quota shares in a slower fishery wherein the catch can be truthfully reported. Still, with prices paid for roe so low, we have to wonder if this is really a fish pellet production fishery for pet food and salmon farms.
Stephen Hume’s comments are factual and accurate. I have witnessed the decline of our fishery since my arrival on the West Coast in 1974. The most significant deterioration began in 1996 and continues to this day. Politicians fiddle while our precious fish and the natural environment burn. I have no doubt that our leadership-deficient Prime Minister Trudeau will claim that those decisions are made in the interest of preserving jobs. This near-sightedness will soon eliminate our salmon and the related fishery jobs, to be followed by both the sports-fishing and tourist economy. Should we be prepared to see government-sponsored commercials for contaminated, foreign, farm fish?
We need to make changes if we are to save our planet, our environment and our fish.
Noel Murphy, Squamish Streamkeeper
The major problem with commercial fisheries is the term “harvest.” Fishing is not in any way like farming. It is hunting. And all societies—except enlightened science-based ones—know that if you over-hunt something, it is gone forever.
The Care Index
I am jazzed about this techy way of outing those making sensational claims about how to reduce auto-dependency. Bike lanes alone won’t do it.
But the cameras are also a distraction. Five percent of greenhouse gases is a contribution that still has to end.
We know what has to happen to cars—just abolish them. E-cars too—most in the world are charged with a fossil fuel source. Their production and use are a fossil-fuel-subsidized privilege of the world’s 20 percent. They have no place in an equitable and carbon-free future.
For a rational, nature-respectful transit vision, watch on YouTube Taken for a Ride—The US History of the Assault on Public Transport in the Last Century.
It basically says that public transit must be free and accessible everywhere, and will need billions of dollars to make that happen. That’s one of the the Green New Deal’s key elements.
Ever been to Manhattan? Five out of six folks there don’t own a car. You can get everywhere on public transit. It’s skanky yes, but people aren’t kvetching to own cars.
The Uber infatuation is a consequence of the US and Canada spending grotesque amounts on militarism (nearly $2 billion per day in the US; $30 billion/year in Canada if the Liberals get their way) rather than on public transit.
China is spending billions for electric buses. What a farce that we’re more concerned about Huawei than doing the same thing here!
I appreciate the latest project of detailing the increase/decrease of assorted modes of transport at intersections across Victoria in order to discern if all the alternative transportation-encouraging measures are having an effect. It is certainly a head-scratcher (warning sign of endemic insanity?) when swathes of mature trees are being cut down for bike lanes. And putting the onus on us drudges to clean up our fossil fuel addiction when pater government is merrily guzzling away with their cronies is indeed maddening.
But I did find several slants in the article a bit disconcerting. Climate change has really brought to the forefront the burning question: is there actually any evidence for scientific evidence? The continuum of “scientists have said” runs the gamut from climate change is a hoax and lots of CO2 in the atmosphere is good for the planet, to projections of drastic, life-as-we-know-it-stopping changes occurring within 10 years.
Having read quite a few reports from several points along the climate-change spectrum, I do find David Broadland’s suggestion that “the time frame over which that full temperature increase (between 1.5 and 4.5˚C) would occur could take hundreds of years to play out—perhaps more than a thousand” to be overly generous in its outlook. As in “oh goodie…I don’t have to make any serious changes in how I live or relate to the world just yet.” Some have even called the recent IPCC report that gives us 12 years to make “rapid and unprecedented changes in all aspects of society” to be overly generous. And I’m not so sure that one can even tidily put the climate crises “in a nutshell” as Broadland has done. The Arctic, for example, has already had temperature increases considerably over 4.5˚C, resulting in serious melting of ice and potential release of methane pockets, both of which will impact weather for the rest of the planet. This is just one of many feedback loops that need to be somehow figured in to climate disruption projections. Add in our rapid destruction of life-supporting ecosystems such as forests, soil, air and water, and it becomes tricky to make nutshell explanations or credible predictions at all. A very good read on this topic is the recently released book End of Ice by another investigative journalist par excellence, Dahr Jamail.
I understand the impulse to point out all the hypocrisies and inconsistencies and downright why-bothers of the sudden municipal drive to force and cajole us, the public, into lowering our communal carbon footprints. But it seems to be so easy for us beleaguered humans to use someone else’s refusal to change their eco-destroying actions to justify carrying on with our own. This is totally understandable, which is perhaps why we need to avoid putting even one toe into enabling that propensity.
Instead, what this time in history, which many have called unprecedented in its scope, is blatantly pointing out to us Earth-dwellers is our requirement to come back to our original understanding of the sacredness of and respect for the ecosystem that supports us and our fellow creatures, and from which we have veered mind-bogglingly off course. We don’t need any prompting to look at our neighbours’ or at other parts of the world’s wrongheadednesses as an excuse to not bother. We need to bother. For our own spirits to not wither.
Editor’s note: Broadland accurately paraphrased information provided by US NOAA senior science writer Rebecca Lindsey in her article “How much will Earth warm if carbon dioxide doubles pre-industrial levels?” Broadland wrote:“The arithmetic suggests that by 2060 it will have reached 550 parts per million, double that of the pre-industrial era. At that point, scientists tell us, the planet will be committed to a temperature rise of between 1.5° and 4.5° Celsius. The time frame over which that full temperature increase would occur could take hundreds of years to play out—perhaps more than a thousand—according to scientists. But they also say that by the time CO2 has doubled, average temperature will have increased between 1° and 2.5° Celsius.”
I am writing to thank you for the recent “The CARE Index” article in Focus. Hopefully, local politicians will use it to shape their thinking and make evidence-based decisions.
David Broadland correctly points out that unintended consequences follow decisions that are not well-grounded. “For example, the City of Victoria’s well-intentioned ban on plastic bags appears to have created an unintended consequence. A survey of garbage bins in my neighbourhood shows that many households are simply replacing the no-longer-available thin plastic bags their groceries were packed in with heavier, brand-new plastic garbage bags. In trying to eliminate single-use bags, the City appears to have eliminated two-use bags and replaced them with heavier, single-use bags.”
The size of a typical plastic grocery shopping bag is 15 x 12 inches with the handles reaching an additional 6 inches. The smallest purchased garbage bag I could find was the Glad Kitchen Catcher, measuring 16.5 x 20 inches, which is more plastic per bag than the shopping bags. Many of the purchased bags are treated with an air freshener so more chemicals are being introduced into the landfill.
I predict that in a few years’ time we will see another unintended consequence as our non-recyclable re-usable shopping bags wear out and enter our landfill in large volumes. The handles will detach, holes will appear, and seams will rip. Repeated washings will weaken the fibres and hasten deterioration. Unlike plastic bags, the reusable ones are not recyclable so it will be interesting to see what happens as these bags are disposed of. I wonder if our local politicians have a plan in mind. I wonder if we will be seeing similar bans in the future for the reusable grocery bags that are now being lauded as “the answer.”
Charlotte Gorley, PhD, CEC, Qualitative Researcher
A recent California Air Resources Board climate report says California needs to reduce per capita car travel by 25 percent in just 11 years to meet their climate targets, even with a tenfold increase in electric car sales. We need to achieve at least as great a reduction, just to meet BC’s inadequate targets.
However, it is important to understand how the carbon footprint of transportation can be reduced in cities. Automobile traffic, and the resulting greenhouse gas pollution expands and contracts with the amount of available road capacity and parking. Therefore, projects like the McKenzie Interchange make congestion and the climate emergency worse. Conversely, anything that reduces road capacity for cars makes traffic disappear—and the climate pollution disappears with the traffic. This does not depend on generosity, just common-sense decisions by people.
Numerous experiences of disappearing traffic have been documented. As the Seattle Times reported, “The cars just disappeared” after Seattle’s Alaska Way elevated freeway, which carried 90,000 cars per day, was closed in January and the predicted traffic chaos didn’t happen.
Making Government Street a pedestrian priority zone would be an effective climate action, as would replacing parking with trees. Measures like bus lanes and protected bicycle lanes both make traffic disappear, and provide low-carbon mobility.
The carbon footprint of construction is also an important issue. Reducing the amount of concrete and steel used to build underground parking garages, by replacing parking minimums [for housing units] with parking maximums as Mexico City recently did, is one way our municipal governments can make a big difference.
Cities cooperate globally on climate action. If we stand out from the crowd (as Mexico City just did in parking policy) the power of Greater Victoria’s good example will be felt around the world.
Eric Doherty, Professional Planner
David Broadland replies: In reality, the traffic in Seattle didn’t disappear. The elevated Alaskan Way Viaduct was replaced with a $3.3-billion tunnel and, following demolition of the viaduct, a new 8-lane vehicle highway will be built on the surface above the tunnel.
Halifax regional government provides an interesting approach to transportation planning as well as insight into effective regional governance. Certain questions arise from this example relevant to mobility and growth in the Capital Regional District.
Yes, senior government plans to look at south Island mobility issues. That is good, especially given problems with the Malahat corridor and prospects for the E&N corridor.
Meanwhile there is the CRD itself, and its mobility and growth issues needing a regional response, as in the case of Halifax. But does governance in the CRD have the powers such as Halifax has to act? If not, and that appears to be the case, where will plans for action and action itself—such as those we see in the Halifax region—come from in this region? Is there reason to be concerned that, as things stand, they may not, or not adequately, or not in a timely fashion? A region of some 500,000 people is in view. How well will it function?
BC Ferries should build ships at home
In March, BC Ferries’ CEO told media that in order to keep ferry fares low he has to contract foreign ship builders to build new BC ferries. In other words, he wants BC tax money and ferry profits to go to support the economies of political systems of other countries—a policy promulgated by a former premier of BC who decimated the province.
The neo-liberal globalization ideology, espoused by the BC Ferries CEO, is being discredited all over the world. It is now recognized by many that it is the cause behind the economic crashes and recessions, the dislocation of millions from their ruined economies, and the rise of right-wing populism and violence.
Under this ideology, our tax dollars and profits from most, if not all of our purchases, go to support the economies of other countries (and the off-shore tax-haven bank coffers of the super-rich) whose political, social, and economic systems and ideologies are ones we would not want to emulate. They offer cheap manufacturing, low taxes, and minimal, if any, social services and labour protection because their people live desperate lives. Back in the days when Canada was discussing globalization, it was argued that the corporation- driven form of globalization proposed would lead to only one thing: a race to the bottom. Since many of our taxes and profits are “repatriated” to off-shore coffers, that money is not recycled into our own economies and communities. So funds from and for this community are slashed, and taxes and profits left over go to ensure the infrastructure needed by huge international corporations are provided to them for free (’cause they don’t want to pay taxes!).
The rich and powerful know darn well what they’re doing, and why, and its effects. Governments have been made their lackeys. They are doing all they can to increase unemployment, destroy job benefits, and eliminate workers’ rights so that corporations can become “competitive” with other nations’ corporations. And then the added benefit is that they can point at the underclass they’ve created—the unemployed, the under-employed, and the working poor here in BC and Canada—and say “Look at those slackers! Do you want your tax money going to support them? No! Canadians want lower taxes and lower prices and they want those lazy bums to go get jobs! See where your taxes are going?? So we’re gonna cut them. Yay, us!”
We need some new thinking. We can start simply by abiding by the UN Charter of Human Rights and Freedoms—and perhaps, just perhaps, others will see our success and emulate us. And if they don’t, at least we’ll have lived our lives uprightly and honourably.
Heaven? Press 35.
Gene Miller’s concern, and mine, is that we—civic leaders, developers, and citizens—have placed too little emphasis on those things that truly define this place—naturally, culturally, and emotionally—and have instead embraced rather more modest objectives for our built environment.
This is an instrumental approach, one that meets (barely) the essential needs, but misses entirely the opportunity to inspire, to evoke a positive and uplifting emotional experience of place in our citizens.
Miller rightly notes that healthy “urban culture must be authored and constantly renewed. And land use, urban form and urban design—what goes where, and why, and with what consequences—is central to that process.” For inspiration in this regard, and a compelling point of comparison with so may of the recent land-use decisions Downtown, one need look no further afield than the City of Calgary and its extraordinary new public library.
Modelled on the Chinook clouds that are native to the Alberta foothills, built using local materials, and celebrating “education is the new buffalo” as both an homage to the city’s past and a harbinger of its future, this is so much more than a building; it is a point of civic pride. And a physical and cultural landmark that is authoritatively rooted in a sense of place. This is the mysterious “why” to which Miller refers, “the secret sauce” that becomes a story in itself, a story that can unite a people or divide them. What is the equivalent here?
Toward the end of his column, Miller wonders if Victoria can “remain or re-become an identifiable and coherent urban community, not simply a crowd of people to whom the future happens?” He doesn’t answer his query directly, yet surely knows that his call is about worldviews, institutions, and technologies, and the way in which they are discussed, designed, and used here.
Worldviews are the mental networks of concepts, beliefs, and values—often emotionally charged—that allow people to interpret things around them and plan their actions. Institutions are a community’s rules that include the subtle and unwritten social norms in a culture about what behaviour is appropriate at specific times and places. And technologies are problem-solving tools that are used to define a place at a moment in time.
I would respectfully submit that it is past time for Victoria to be explicit about the way in which worldviews, institutions and technologies are used to shape this place we call home. Failure to do so will result in the slow, and not-so-slow, erosion of all that makes this place sacred. Time to set aside the merely instrumental and reach for something greater; time to reach for Heaven in our Downtown.
If a BC Supreme Court finding is correct, Victorians need to demand assurances from the City of Victoria about the safety of its water.
Do you know if there’s lead in your home’s water supply? A 2017 BC Supreme Court judgment about the quality of water in the Shoal Point condominium complex provides an intriguing window into the difficulty of obtaining a reliable answer to that question.
The judgment followed a trial in which a Shoal Point owner, Donald Shields, sued his strata council over the poor quality of water in his home and the council’s failure to rectify the problem over a period of nine years.
The Shoal Point condominium complex on Victoria Harbour
According to court records, Shields’ water had two things wrong with it. First, the liquid coming out of hot water taps was grossly discoloured. Secondly, both the incoming water to the building and the water supplied to Shields’ unit had repeatedly been tested and were shown to have unacceptably high levels of metals, including lead.
Some of the expert testimony relied on by Justice Anthony Saunders in making his determination of responsibility for the discolouration and contamination seems clearly at odds with what CRD and City of Victoria officials say about Victoria’s water supply. If Saunders’ decision was based on misinformation, he probably came to the wrong conclusion about what entity is responsible for Shields’ water problems. But if he’s correct, then all Victorians ought to be concerned about their water and demand an explanation from the City of Victoria and the CRD.
Shields, a retired engineer and professor of civil engineering, bought the condo at Shoal Point in 2006, just three years after the first phase of the project was completed. Potable water is distributed to each Phase-One unit through a system that contains ductile iron pipe. To prevent internal corrosion, this type of pipe has a quarter-inch thick “concrete” lining (Justice Saunders’ description). Shields found that when he returned from being away from his luxury home for a period of time, the hot water from his taps was a “disgusting” brown colour.
According to Saunders’ 38-page written judgment, Shields “first noticed dirty brown water coming out of the hot water taps in the bathrooms, and sometimes the kitchen hot water as well, around 2007. He complained to the maintenance manager, who said he would flush the water supply lines.”
Saunders then provided an extensive account of Shields’ repeated appeals for help, recommendations from experts, and actions taken by the building’s strata council or its appointees.
In 2013, six years after his initial complaint about discoloured water, the strata council’s building committee ordered testing for metals in Shields’ water and the water in a suite on the floor above, whose owner was also complaining about discoloured water.
The tests showed the level of lead in Shields’ suite was nearly two times higher than the maximum allowed by federal guidelines (the Guidelines). Justice Saunders noted that, in spite of that reading, “the excessive level of lead in Mr Shields’ suite was not disclosed or discussed” outside of the building committee. That is, neither Shields nor the other suite’s owner were informed.
In response to further complaints from the suite on the floor above Shields, additional testing for contaminants was undertaken about four months later, in April 2014. That suite’s water tested high for lead again, this time about 1.5 times higher than the maximum allowable under the Guidelines. However, one sample taken in the mechanical room from the water supply line into the building showed highly elevated levels of lead, aluminum, manganese, copper and iron. The lead level in that sample, for example, was 22 times higher than the maximum allowed by the Guidelines. A second sample, taken after flushing about five gallons through the sampling outlet, showed acceptable levels of metals.
The expert who took these samples recommended “that independent testing for lead be conducted by the City and the CRD.”
The expert concluded that both the discolouration of the water and the elevated metals content was coming from the City of Victoria’s water supply. He recommended that Shoal Point install a large filter on the water supply line.
The City of Victoria’s engineering department disagreed. Justice Saunders noted, “the City’s Engineering Department was of the view that the drop-off in concentrations between the two mechanical room samples strongly indicated that the elevated concentrations were due to the building’s piping, not the water supply. (I note that evidence, of course, not for the truth of its content, but as going to the information that the defendant reasonably would have relied upon.)”
The City did agree to flush the mains leading to Shoal Point, and a subsequent set of samples showed a reduction in the level of metals. This seems to suggest that the City’s supply was at least part of the source of the elevated metals in Shields’ and others’ suites. Otherwise, flushing the City mains would have made no difference. But Shoal Point did not act on the initial recommendation to install a large filter on the building’s water supply line until a second expert had made a similar recommendation in 2015. A new filtration system was installed and other changes were made in 2015, but did not become fully operational until August 2016.
Those changes didn’t appear to have much effect. Returning to his home after being away, Shields found the water was still discoloured. He took his own samples that August and sent them off to a lab for analysis. They showed lead levels as high as 26 times the maximum allowable under the Guidelines. One sample contained 50 times as much iron as the Guidelines specify. This sampling was included in Saunders’ judgment.
A set of samples taken a few months later, in November 2016, were even more shocking. Maxxam Analytics found the level of lead in Shields’ hot water lines was up to 41 times higher than the Guidelines allow. Other metals were higher than the Guidelines, too: Iron was 128 times higher, copper 34 times higher, aluminum 23 times higher and manganese 77 times higher. Although this sampling was provided as evidence at the trial, it was not mentioned in Saunders’ written judgment.
With Shoal Point’s strata council apparently unwilling to make changes that would provide Shields with water of acceptable quality, he launched legal action. He and his wife Arlette Baker were represented by his son John Shields.
In his judgment, Justice Saunders found that a strata council is “responsible for the repair and maintenance of common property,” and that this obligation extends to “making good plumbing that causes discolouration” and “making good plumbing that is causing elevated heavy metal concentrations in water, relative to the Guidelines.”
Saunders’ decision seemed to rely heavily on the expert testimony of Martin P. Vogel, a senior chemical engineer practicing in environmental engineering with Golder Associates in Vancouver, who provided expert opinion on behalf of Shoal Point at the trial. In his judgment, Saunders wrote, “With respect to the contamination issue, I accept Mr Vogel’s conclusion that contamination of the hot water through elevated concentrations of aluminum, copper, and lead is most likely due to the corrosive effect on the building’s plumbing system of the naturally acidic water supplied to the building from the municipal water system.”
Vogel appears to be the only expert who provided an opinion that the City of Victoria’s water supply is “naturally acidic.”
Information from the CRD and the City of Victoria in the CRD’s Greater Victoria Drinking Water Quality Annual Report for each of the last several years puts the pH of City of Victoria water at around 7.0—essentially neutral. It’s not “naturally acidic” as described by Justice Saunders, who apparently got that idea from Vogel. Saunders’ judgment makes no reference to CRD-City of Victoria water quality reports. Neither the CRD nor the City of Victoria were called to testify at the trial.
A year before the trial, Ted Robbins, general manager of the CRD’s integrated water service, told the Times Colonist, in an article about the potential for lead to be a problem for Victoria’s drinking water, that “Greater Victoria has neutral water with low alkalinity.”
By “neutral water,” Robbins meant the pH was around 7—neither acid nor base. “Alkalinity” is a measure of water’s ability to buffer acidity. If alkalinity is too low, water that starts at a water treatment plant with “neutral” pH can have a somewhat different pH by the time it reaches an end user like Shoal Point or your home. But Justice Saunders’ judgment shows no indication that such a factor was considered. His acceptance of Vogel’s opinion that Victoria’s water is “naturally acidic,” and that high metal concentrations in Shields hot water were a consequence of acid leaching of Shoal Point’s plumbing system, is inconsistent with what the CRD and City of Victoria have reported about the water they provide to Victorians.
Either the City of Victoria and the CRD didn’t know the pH of the water they supplied, or Vogel didn’t.
What about the discolouration of the water in Shields’ and other suites? Here, again, Saunders’ written decision shows that he relied heavily on Vogel’s expert opinion: “Mr. Vogel has opined that the discolouration of the hot water in the unit is likely predominantly a result of oxidized and precipitated iron and manganese from the water supply due to low flow conditions in the hot water piping serving the plaintiff’s unit. I accept Mr. Vogel’s opinion.”
The “low flow conditions” Saunders alludes to were the result of Shields and Baker being absent from their home for months at a time.
Again, in Saunders’ judgment, it’s the City’s “water supply” that’s to blame: it has such large quantities of iron and manganese dissolved in it, according to Vogel’s theory, that if the water is left to sit in the supply pipe leading to Shields’ suite for weeks or months, these two metals precipitate out, creating the disgusting brown solution that comes out of his hot water taps.
This, too, seems suspect. A previously mentioned sample of City of Victoria water going into Shoal Point was found to have 5.9 micrograms of manganese and 137 micrograms of iron, per litre. Yet one sample from Shields’ hot water supply was analyzed by Maxxam Analytics and found to have 3,860 micrograms of manganese and 38,300 micrograms of iron, per litre. How these metals could become concentrated to that extent, in the small volume of standing water in the short length of pipe exclusive to Shields’ suite, was unexplained by either Vogel or Justice Saunders.
Shields and Baker testified that the discolouration diminished if the water was flushed for several minutes, but the discolouration returned after a short period—a week would do it.
Having accepted Vogel’s contention that Shields’ water quality problems were the result of the acidity of the City’s water, and metal contaminants in it, Saunders found that Shields and Baker were “entitled to damages for the loss of enjoyment of their unit, and the inconvenience of having to conduct flushes of the hot water lines.” They were awarded $15,000.
Saunders’ August 2017 decision noted: “Serious efforts towards mitigating water quality issues through upgrading the building’s plumbing are underway.” But in April 2019, Shields informed Shoal Point that he is still experiencing discoloured water. There’s no reason to believe the suite’s hot water isn’t still contaminated with metals.
One plausible alternative explanation for the poor quality of Shields’ hot water is that a section of the ductile iron pipe serving his suite with hot water has a damaged internal concrete liner and is corroding. Indeed, Saunders’ decision shows that he was provided evidence that a section of ductile iron pipe in Shoal Point’s parking area that had been easily accessible had been removed and the liner had been found to have “completely deteriorated.” Two experts had advised Shoal Point that failure of the pipe’s liner was the source of at least some of the water quality problems in Shields’ and others’ suites.
Yet Saunders’ written judgment shows that he gave more credence to an expert who appears to have provided the court with information that’s at odds with the CRD’s and City of Victoria’s characterization of regional and municipal water quality. Shields has recently informed Shoal Point that he does “not rule out commencing further litigation…”
David Broadland is the publisher of Focus Magazine.
Is recycling enough, or should we ban some plastics completely?
YOU DON’T HAVE TO LOOK HARD, but you do have to look. To the dog walkers and strolling families, Willows Beach appears pristine. Start hunting for garbage, though, and you’ll find lots of it in a few minutes. Drink-box straws, candy wrappers, globs of styrofoam, cling wrap, bits of broken toys, zip ties — all plastic, tangled in the wood and seaweed left at high tide.
“For many people, plastic is just a matter of convenience,” Anastasia Castro tells me, gathering bits from the sand. “They don’t see the real impact it has.”
Teen anti-plastic activists Charlotte Brady and Anastasia Castro (Photo by Ross Crockford)
Castro, a Grade 11 student at Glenlyon Norfolk School, is angry about the trashed state of the planet. So she’s been doing something about it. With her classmate Charlotte Brady, she spent two years speaking with City of Victoria staff and Downtown businesses, urging them to accept a ban on plastic checkout bags, which finally became enshrined in the City’s newsmaking 2018 bylaw. (Speaking to Victoria’s Council, she said: “It is not your world you are ruining, it is ours — the generations of the future who have to live in the mess you left behind.”) Last December, Courtenay-Alberni MP Gord Johns credited Castro in the House of Commons for driving his private member’s motion M-151, calling for a national strategy against plastic pollution, which passed unanimously. “Due to the hard work of incredibly dedicated Canadians like Anastasia,” Johns told MPs, “the crisis of marine plastic pollution has reached the national stage.”
That crisis certainly has become more apparent. The photo of the Costa Rica sea turtle with a straw stuck in its nose. The reports of whales found dead in Indonesia and Italy with kilos of plastic in their guts. The horrifying statistics, that we humans spill eight million metric tonnes of plastic into the seas every year, and at that rate, by 2050 there’ll be more plastic in the oceans than fish.
But as Castro and Brady point out, the problem isn’t only on the other side of the world.
The largest accumulation of plastic debris on the planet, the Great Pacific Garbage Patch — the subject of a new exhibit at the Maritime Museum of BC — consisting of some three trillion pieces of trash, swirls off our coast, halfway between California and Hawaii. In one day last October, volunteers led by the local chapter of the Surfrider Foundation removed more than 300 kilos of garbage from 10 Victoria beaches.
Even more debris in our waters consists of invisible microplastics, less than 5 mm in size, the product of household laundry and storm-drain runoff. Last year, Vancouver Aquarium scientists found 1,258 particles of plastic in one cubic metre of seawater taken from Burrard Inlet. Some of the same scientists have also found that plastic fibres are being ingested by zooplankton in the northeast Pacific — meaning they are likely being eaten by shellfish, crustaceans, salmon, and ultimately by ourselves, along with any toxic compounds that have bonded to the plastic.
Governments are starting to act. The European Union has declared that single-use plastic cutlery, plates, straws and containers will be outlawed in all member states by 2021. Vancouver is scheduled to ban styrofoam cups and takeout containers, along with straws and plastic cutlery, starting in 2020. Prince Edward Island’s province-wide ban on plastic bags, the first in Canada, goes into effect on July 1. In other words, Victoria’s bag bylaw, likely soon to be replicated in other capital-region municipalities including Saanich, Esquimalt, Colwood and Sooke, is just the beginning.
“We can’t let everyone believe that recycling is the be-all and end-all, and that if we ban plastic bags, we’ve done enough,” Charlotte Brady tells me. “Instead the conversation should be, ‘OK, we’ve taken this great first step. Now we need to go farther.’”
AFTER YOU PUT AND EMPTY YOGURT TUB IN A BLUE BOX, it gets picked up by a private waste-removal company and delivered to Cascades Recovery’s busy facility in Rock Bay. Trucks arrive from across the region, dumping glass, paper, cardboard, metals and plastics at different bays of the Cascades warehouse. Workers separate plastics from metals, Bobcat loaders push the plastics onto a conveyor belt, and they drop into a machine that packs them into freezer-sized bales, wrapped with wire. Then semi-trailer trucks take the materials off-Island. The facility handles 4,000 metric tonnes of material a month this way.
Your household plastics, baled at Cascades Recovery (Photo by Ross Crockford)
The Capital Regional District started its blue-box program in 1989. The Cascades facility is older; for many decades it produced corrugated cardboard for Crown Packaging. Doug Stevens, the plant manager, recalls that it once had a machine that turned scrap paper into felt backing for shingles made at the Sidney Roofing plant on the Songhees lands. “Recycling’s been around a long time,” he notes.
It keeps changing, though. Cascades takes materials from businesses, but those volumes have been declining, while residential is increasing: Victorians are buying more stuff, and it comes with more packaging. A few years ago Cascades added an oven that melts and condenses styrofoam (collected from recycling depots) to a tenth its original size, for reuse in crown mouldings and picture frames. Lately there’s been greater concern about “contamination,” which is why you should wash your containers (leftover food attracts rats), and have to separate glass (broken glass is hard to remove from other materials). Victorians are good about this: contamination rates are only three percent in the CRD, versus 26 percent in Toronto. Materials have to be clean and dry to resell, says Stevens. “It’s not garbage, it’s recycling. If you want it to be recycled, you have to treat it differently.”
The crisis of marine plastic has emerged alongside a crisis in the recycling industry. Until recently, 70 percent of US scrap plastic went to China. But reportedly after Xi Jinping saw the documentary Plastic China, about the poisoned living conditions of scrap recyclers, China implemented its “National Sword” policy in 2018, refusing any materials with more than 0.5 percent contamination. With few local facilities to recycle their scrap, some US cites have resorted to landfilling plastics, or burning them.
We’re in a better position. In 1994, BC introduced its first Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) program, under which producers and consumers paid extra eco-fees for the collection and safe disposal of leftover paint. Today BC has 22 such programs, for everything from appliances to tires. (In comparison, 16 US states have no EPR programs at all.) The EPR for paper and packaging is overseen by the non-profit agency RecycleBC, which collects per-weight fees from the 1,100 BC companies producing or importing such materials. RecycleBC then pays municipalities, regions, or waste companies to collect the scrap, sorters like Cascades bale it, and RecycleBC sells the scrap to processors. RecycleBC’s 2017 annual report says BC companies generated 234,847 tonnes of paper and packaging and paid $86 million in fees; those fees were then paid to recycling programs (like the CRD’s) that collected 174,942 tonnes, for an overall “recovery rate” of 75 percent.
RecycleBC says the glass in your blue box gets melted into new jars and bottles in Abbotsford, or turned into sandblasting grit in Quesnel. Metal containers are sold to various North American processors and turned into road signs and window frames. Mixed paper becomes boxes and egg cartons in South Korea. But all of our blue-boxed plastic goes to one company, Merlin Plastics, and its two 180,000-square-foot recycling facilities, in Delta and New Westminster.
“We’ve been around for 30 years, and every year, we’re expanding,” Merlin GM Kevin Andrews tells me. Merlin’s currently adding a mixed-plastics sorting line that will boost its annual capacity by 14,000 tonnes, to help handle the increasing volumes it’s getting from panicked recycling programs in Washington State and Oregon. Last year, when China’s restrictions came into effect, Canada became the second-biggest importer of US scrap plastic, after Malaysia. Since then, Malaysia, Thailand, Vietnam and India have announced limits on scrap-plastic imports, due to complaints about pollution at recycling facilities, and Canada — thanks partly to Merlin — looks set to take first place.
Merlin sorts various types of consumer plastics — polyethylene terephthalate (#1 or PET) used in pop bottles, high-density polyethylene (#2 or HDPE) in shampoo bottles, low-density polyethylene (#4 or LDPE) in plastic bags, or polypropylene (#5 or PP) in yogurt tubs — and processes them into pellets or “nurdles” that it sells worldwide, to be melted into new products. Andrews won’t say how much Merlin processes annually, but he assures us the company does its best to see the plastic is reused for similar purposes, instead of “downcycled” into lower-grade products. “To put a bottle to a bottle is not always easy, because you have to meet many different requirements. But you can put it into packaging that is maybe not a food item,” he says. “If it’s being reused in something that would’ve been made with virgin [plastic], there’s no downcycling.”
RecycleBC has also started taking various soft plastics (cling wrap, mesh bags) and “laminates” (standup pouches, chip bags), collected from depots like those at Hartland and London Drugs. This is for a research project, to see if Merlin can recycle such flexible packaging; if it can’t, the plastic will be converted into “engineered fuel.” (Plastic can be melted and vaporized into gases that are condensed into synthetic crude oil.) RecycleBC reported that 4,647 tonnes of material was turned into fuel in 2017, but Andrews won’t say if Merlin’s conducting that work: “I can’t tell you whether we are or whether we aren’t.”
BC DOES HAVE ENVIABLE EPR AND RECYCLING SYSTEMS, but they still suffer a lot of leakage, judging by what’s showing up on our beaches. RecycleBC posted a 75 percent “recovery rate” for paper and packaging in 2017, but dig deep into its proposed five-year plan and it turns out the rate varied greatly depending on the material: 87 percent of paper was collected and accounted for, but only 50 percent of rigid plastic and just 20 percent of flexible plastic.
We have similar challenges keeping track of plastic bottles. Encorp Pacific, the agency that manages our beverage-container recycling, reports that BC residents bought 1,349,149,437 beverage containers in 2017, and collected 1,023,306,039. That amounts to a recovery rate of 75.8 percent — but means 325 million containers went missing that year in BC alone, despite the deposits paid on them. Some went into recycling, some into landfills, and some into the environment. In the 2017 Great Canadian Shoreline Cleanup, run by the World Wildlife Fund and Ocean Wise, the third-most common item collected by volunteers from Canadian beaches, after miscellaneous bits of plastic and cigarette butts, was plastic bottles, more than 50,000 of them. Plastic bags, 22,724 of them, came seventh.
The solution for bottles seems simple: increase the deposits. Encorp asks for only five cents for small non-alcoholic beverage containers, a rate that hasn’t changed for decades. Alberta increased the deposit to 10 cents and now has a return rate of 86 percent; Oregon did the same and gets 90 percent returned. During recent public consultations, environmentalists asked Encorp for higher deposits, but the agency replied: “We do not feel such a drastic action is warranted.”
Deposits work best for durable items like bottles that are relatively easy to count and collect, though. Creating a similar system would be nearly impossible for other varieties of packaging and single-use plastics.
Plastics are miraculous compounds. Modern medical technology, aircraft, automobiles, and sporting goods would be impossible without them, the plastics industry points out, and even lowly plastic packaging reduces food waste, maintains hygiene, and saves energy in shipping. The American Chemistry Council estimates that the environmental costs would be five times greater if soft drinks, for example, were shipped in glass or metal instead of plastic. But the industry knows we have a problem.
Last June, the Canadian Plastics Industry Association, which represents some 2,600 companies, announced that its members have pledged to meet a new “aspirational goal” to have 100 percent of plastic packaging re-used, recycled or recovered by 2040. Achieving this “will require significant investment” in new infrastructure and packaging design, the CPIA said — and “success will also require widespread public participation in recycling and recovery programs along with changes to littering behaviour.” In other words, the industry says, we need better packaging, better waste management by governments, and better citizens.
(The industry has its own “littering behaviour,” it turns out. On beaches around the world, people have been finding the lentil-sized nurdles used by plastic fabricators. UVic librarians David Boudinot and Daniel Brendle-Moczuk have found and mapped nurdles at 68 sites along the Strait of Georgia, including Willows Beach, possibly spilled by one of the two-dozen companies using nurdles on the Lower Mainland. “We’re hot on the trail of the source,” Boudinot says.)
High-tide trash on Willows Beach, including lentil-sized nurdles, the raw ingredient of many plastic products (Photo by David Boudinot)
The industry says the search for better packaging is already underway. Multinationals such as Danone, PepsiCo and Unilever have joined The New Plastics Economy, an initiative led by the UK-based Ellen MacArthur Foundation, calling for global packaging standards and funding for “moon shot” innovations, such as the development of “bio-benign” plastics and “reversible adhesives based on biomimicry” to make laminated plastics easier to recycle. Some of the same companies are also including their products in tests of the new Loop packaging system, in which consumers pay deposits on durable containers (for, say, Häagen-Dazs ice cream) and return them via a door-to-door delivery network; Loop is scheduled to roll out any day now in New York and Paris, and later this year in Toronto.
A skeptic can’t help wondering, though, if many companies are signing on to such initiatives simply to buy time. Natural gas, the feedstock for many plastics, is still abundant and cheap, and virgin plastic is often less expensive than recycled. Deposit systems like Loop seem too inconvenient for most people, compared to the buy-and-dispose (or -recycle) economy in place. And the consumer-products and packaging industries are so vast and varied that they’re impossible to effectively self-regulate — as proven by the current wave of so-called “biodegradable” plastics that can be neither composted nor recycled.
“There is a strong drive for business as usual, with small tweaks,” says Susan Maxwell, a recycling consultant and former Whistler councillor who’s developed several of BC’s EPR programs. As she notes, disposable plastics are a product of inexpensive oil and gas, and the incentives our economy gives to use more of them; we need to rejig the economy so that it’s not supporting industries that largely rely on taxpayers to clean up the aftereffects of their business.
That means stronger laws. As Maxwell points out, BC’s Recycling Regulation, the law that governs EPR schemes like RecycleBC and Encorp, only mandates that the agencies post a minimum 75 percent “recovery” or collection rate — there is no requirement for them to achieve a target for reuse or recycling of their products. I asked RecycleBC several times what percentage of “recovered” plastic actually gets recycled, and they didn’t respond. The federal ministry of environment says that only about 11 percent of all plastic in Canada gets recycled.
Maxwell thinks the laws need to be stronger upstream, with greater oversight of what kinds of plastics get produced in the first place, and outright bans on those that are too difficult to recycle or likely to leak into the environment. “We shouldn’t be putting things out in the world, and then trying to figure out afterwards what we’re going to do with them,” she says. “We really need to turn off the tap. We can’t be trying to sieve the ocean for plastics.”
ONE QUESTION ANASTASIA CASTRO got asked while campaigning against plastic bags is the same one Canadian libertarians ask about climate change: Why do we have to do anything about it? A 2017 study estimated that 90 percent of the plastic in the oceans comes from 10 rivers in Asia and Africa; banning plastic bags in Victoria, the libertarians argue, or even across Canada, won’t have any effect at all.
Castro answers with a question of her own: “How can we ask these countries to change if we’re not willing to make the simplest changes ourselves?” After all, North America created disposable culture, and we’re exporting it — literally, in some cases, along with our waste. As she points out, 103 shipping containers filled with Canadian garbage marked as recyclables have been sitting in The Philippines since 2014, and Greenpeace reported in January that Canadian plastic has turned up in unregulated recycling sites in Malaysia.
Besides, other nations are doing something. So far, 63 countries have banned plastic bags outright, including China, India, and Kenya, which imposes penalties of up to four years’ imprisonment and $40,000 in fines for producing or distributing bags. (The bans work: San Jose, California, reported 89 percent fewer bags in its storm-drain system a year after it instituted a ban, and marine scientists recorded a 30 to 40 percent reduction in plastic bags in the North Sea after bans came into effect in countries along its shores.) The EU’s forthcoming ban on single-use straws, cutlery, and dishware is already being duplicated in several countries dependent on beach tourism, such as Barbados and Jamaica.
We may have to wait a long time to see similar nationwide measures in Canada, though. Gord Johns’ unanimously-approved motion for a national strategy against plastic pollution now has to go through parliamentary committees; fellow NDP MP Nathan Cullen has introduced his own bill, prohibiting any packaging that can’t be composted or recycled, but it’s unlikely to pass before October’s federal election. Federal environment minister Catherine McKenna recently told the CBC that a national plastics strategy is coming in June — but stopped short of committing to any bans. “It’s not just about banning,” she said. “I think we need to focus more on the circular economy” — in other words, better package design and recycling, in line with the direction of Canada’s $24.3-billion plastics industry.
That’s nothing new. Last September, McKenna got most G7 countries — plus Dow, Unilever, Walmart and other multinationals — to sign an Ocean Plastics Charter, pledging to “recover 100 percent of all plastics by 2040.” (Sound familiar?) McKenna and provincial environment ministers also signed a similar Strategy on Zero Plastic Waste in November — both voluntary declarations, with distant timelines and no budgets or plans for enforcement. “Minister McKenna has been silent on the important role that bans play in tackling plastic waste reduction across Canada,” Greenpeace Canada said in a statement. “We need real leadership from Canada like we’re seeing in other parts of the world, such as Europe, and this isn’t it.”
OUR PROVINCIAL GOVERNMENT hasn’t shown much leadership either. At last September’s conference of the Union of BC Municipalities, members endorsed two resolutions calling for uniform regulations on plastic packaging, and a province-wide strategy to reduce single-use plastics. The ministry of environment responded, in both cases, by citing its pride in the province’s 22 EPR programs, and said it was focused on improving and expanding them instead. “The ministry commends the actions taken by local governments to develop single-use item strategies and other related initiatives to reduce plastic in the environment.”
FOCUS also asked BC’s ministry of environment several direct questions about plastic pollution. The ministry told us it is “considering” increasing the deposits on beverage containers to increase the numbers of them that get recycled, but is not planning to mandate recycled content in new plastic containers, like California does, or introduce a province-wide ban on plastic bags, like the one coming in PEI. (Our questions and the ministry’s complete responses are posted HERE.)
Consequently, any tough measures have been left up to municipalities themselves. July 1 marks the first year since the City of Victoria’s checkout bag bylaw came into effect, and Fraser Work, the City’s director of engineering, says it’s achieved nearly 100 percent compliance. “We’ve resoundingly heard a lot of positive feedback,” he says, crediting the City’s careful, two-year consultation with retailers. (Obviously, the ban doesn’t have friends at the Canadian Plastic Bag Assocation. The industry group lost its case in BC Supreme Court, claiming the bylaw is an environmental regulation and thus a matter of provincial jurisdiction, but its appeal will be heard in Vancouver on May 15.)
Now the Victoria is preparing a ban on single-use cups and containers, as identified by the City Council in its latest strategic plan. Work admits crafting this bylaw will be more challenging, because getting customers to bring their own reusable containers also has to fit with the province’s FoodSafe guidelines. (The ministry of health told me that “Under the Food Safety Act, restaurants and supermarkets are responsible for ensuring that their food is safe for consumers and they must not sell any item that is contaminated. At this time, it is up to operators determine if they will allow customers to use personal containers, weighing that decision with their responsibility of ensuring the food is safe for consumption from the restaurant/store to the customer’s home.”) But some retailers are already on board, judging by the numbers of customers one sees with refillable mugs in independent coffee shops, and the popularity of downtown’s Zero Waste Emporium, where you can fill your own containers with everything from milk to shampoo. Last month, the Quebec-based supermarket chain Metro said it will let customers use their own reusable containers for meat, seafood, and pastries in 131 of its stores, so the trend may be even bigger than we think.
All these changes are part of the larger movement toward “zero waste,” placing a higher priority on reducing or reusing plastic packaging, instead of recycling or landfilling it. More discussion about it is coming soon: the CRD is currently developing a new solid-waste management plan, which includes the blue-box program, and will be putting it out for public consultation this autumn. The debates about what the plan should (and should not) include will be interesting to watch.
But we shouldn’t be afraid of changing it. As Charlotte Brady reminds me, back on Willows Beach: “We’re a coastal city. We see the effects before others. We have to do something about plastic pollution when our people, our culture and our economy rely so heavily upon the ocean.”
Ross Crockford recently bought a Guppyfriend™ laundry bag, in the hope it will capture microfibres from his many fleece jackets.
Changes are happening, but renters and their advocates are demanding further protection.
THE FIRST SIGN OF TROUBLE was neglect of the property; needed repairs were ignored by the new owner of the Burnside-Gorge house. Then, when the tenants showed no sign of moving, the landlord escalated efforts to drive them out with aggressive threats of eviction or a 10 percent rent increase.
“There was never anything in writing, but he’d call me and say things like, ‘We’re going to turn your suite back into a carport, so I’m going to have to evict you,’ but then that eviction notice would never come,” said Gavin Torvik, who found the continual stress and insecurity affected all aspects of his life.
For a time Torvik, 30, a homecare worker who spends about 45 percent of his income on rent, contemplated living in a van because he knew that with Greater Victoria’s rental vacancy rate hovering around one percent (following a few years of sub-zero vacancy rates) and average rents that jumped 7.5 percent in the past year, the chance of finding affordable accommodation was slim.
“It was a whole stew of things, not just for me, but for my neighbours, and there were no mechanisms to deal with the pressures we were facing…I was having midnight panic attacks for a while,” he said.
The landlord, having failed to shift the renters, which would have allowed him to raise rents beyond the provincially mandated rate for existing tenants, decided to sell the house, continuing the uncertainty.
The provincial government has reduced the amount that landlords can raise rents from inflation plus two percent, to the straight inflation rate—about 2.5 percent this year. As well, in an effort to kick-start more rental construction, the Province has given local governments the power to bring in rental-only zoning, said Municipal Affairs Minister Selina Robinson.
But tenants and social action groups want the Province to also control the amount landlords can raise the rent after tenants move out. In Victoria’s ultra-tight housing market, rent hikes on vacant apartments helped increase the median price for advertised one-bedroom suites by 15.8 percent in 2018.
The vacancy loophole on rent control creates an incentive to kick out long-term tenants, said Cameron Welch, a member of Victoria Tenants Action Group (VTAG).
However, vacancy control is opposed by those in the real estate industry, who argue it would slow down rental construction. Even Minister Robinson emphasized that the Province’s priority is increasing the supply of rental housing, not all-out rent controls.
The Province has pledged a record $7 billion to build 114,000 affordable homes over the next decade, and part of that funding is going to 1,100 new affordable rental homes in the Capital Regional District, Robinson said.
“At the end of the day what we need to work towards is creating a vacancy rate that is healthier and that will reduce those behaviours. That’s the answer to all of this. When you get to a three or four percent vacancy rate, you are not going to see those behaviours from landlords,” Robinson said.
ACROSS CANADA, it is estimated 1.6-million households are in “core housing need,” meaning those families are living in homes that are either unsuitable or too expensive given their income. Faced with the escalating need, housing is on the to-do list for every level of government.
Victoria council has prioritized housing, said Mayor Lisa Helps. It has boosted its housing reserve fund to more than $1 million this year (from $250,000), and initiated a Victoria Housing Strategy to create a roadmap for improving housing affordability.
However, among the controversial issues is the amount of “inclusionary” housing—units that are affordable for people with low to moderate incomes—that should be required in new developments when increased density is sought. City staff and a community working group recently recommended a policy requiring 10 percent of units in most strata projects (of more than 60 units), and cash in lieu for smaller projects, be devoted to such purposes. But Councillor Ben Isitt, at an April Committee of the Whole meeting, argued that this was a “watered down” solution, and urged council to have staff look at requiring 30 percent of units in new strata projects be affordable to those with low to moderate incomes when developers want increased density. The motion passed with only Helps opposed. A staff report is due May 16.
Critics, including the City’s consultant from Coriolis, say a requirement for 30 percent would make most projects financially unattractive for developers, so the end result would be no additional units, affordable or otherwise.
Helps argues that inclusionary housing is not the magic bullet that some people imagine it to be. She feels the best route to more affordable housing is through bold moves identified in the draft Housing Strategy, including buying land, pursuing partnerships, allowing movable tiny homes in back yards, and streamlining applications for multi-family units in single family zoning, provided some units are affordable.
“We need to get out the big nails and big hammers…Inclusionary housing is about 10 percent of the problem. This is not the tool to tackle the problem in the biggest, boldest way,” she said.
While governments are struggling to find solutions, renters in the City of Victoria, who make up 60 percent of its households, feel they are continuing to fight the same old battles. And in recent times, problems have been exacerbated as older, lower-priced buildings are demolished to make way for pricey condominiums.
Nicole Chaland, former director of Simon Fraser University’s community economic development programs and a member of the City’s Inclusionary Housing Working Group, said it should be non-negotiable that there is no net loss of affordable housing. Council should be asking what is incentivizing people to demolish older buildings.
Chaland also asks, “Is it socially acceptable to be building condos that only the wealthiest 10 percent can afford?” Rejecting the “trickle--down” theory, she said, “We’ve just seen the largest boom in real estate construction since the 1970s, yet all the indicators for affordable housing are going in the wrong direction…Home prices are further disconnected from local wages.”
Citing research from Andy Yan in Vancouver, Chaland noted that densification and community planning can actually lead to higher land prices. “What the plans communicated to developers is this is where we are going to direct new housing growth,” Chaland said. Council needs to consider speculation pressures from outside the community and look at the City’s role in price escalation, she added.
BACK AT GROUND-ZERO of the housing crisis, Torvik rapidly discovered his rental experiences were not unique and, as he searched for help, he connected with the Victoria Tenants Action Group which, with the Community Social Planning Council, has compiled a report looking at housing instability among Greater Victoria renters.
“One of the main reassurances for me was realizing how almost universal my experience was, especially for people in my income bracket, earning less than $30,000 a year,” Torvik said.
The team who conducted the study Can’t Stay and Can’t Go asked almost 500 renters about their experiences and found that most feel uncertain and powerless because of lack of affordability, along with threats of “renovictions” and “demovictions.”
Although 77 percent of those interviewed consider Victoria their home, 76 percent fear that affordability problems will push them out of the region, and a startling 95 percent identified cost as a barrier to renting suitable accommodation. “Being a renter feels like a vulnerable, disempowering and unprotected position,” states the report. “Renters often make sacrifices in their lives—tolerating subpar housing, mistreatment and more—for the sake of attempting to maintain a sense of housing stability; 47 percent report that they have not asked for repairs or maintenance because they were concerned this would impact their tenancy.”
Competition for units is fierce, and those with small children or pets can find themselves relegated to the bottom of the list, said Cameron Welch, one of the report’s authors.
“It is not super-aggressive discrimination, but there is a certain vision of a 29-year-old, white, government worker as the ideal candidate. It is enabled by the market,” Welch said.
Renter Suzanne Nievaart said she often faced discrimination when she moved to Victoria six years ago. “They assumed that, as a single parent, I couldn’t afford to pay the rent.”
Then, once she was accepted for a unit in a not-for-profit building, she found she could not afford to move, despite a black mould problem. “There were a lot of health concerns, so I kept looking around for places, but the prices kept going up,” Nievaart said.
Her break came with a better-paying job, but, even armed with references and financial statements, it was not easy to find a new home, and Nievaart worries about those wanting to escape spousal abuse, those on fixed incomes or with disabilities. “The amount of stress they are under is appalling,” she said.
Welch noted that that kind of disempowerment leads to tenants not trusting the system that is supposed to enforce current laws, such as the Residential Tenancy Branch. The Can’t Stay and Can’t Go report bears this out, finding that only a small proportion of renters who felt their rights had been violated had filed for dispute resolution with the Residential Tenancy Branch. Reasons given for not complaining included the time commitment and lack of confidence in the process.
Minister Robinson said it was clear the Residential Tenancy Branch was previously underfunded, and recent changes should help ensure renters and landlords are playing by the rules. A compliance unit is now in place, and additional staff mean there has been a dramatic reduction in wait times, she said. “You used to wait 46 minutes [on hold] to get your call answered, and now we are down to six [minutes]…People are getting information faster and they are getting more service,” Robinson said.
But there is no magic pill that is going to solve the housing crisis overnight, Robinson warned; “It’s going to take a concerted effort, and it’s going to take time.”
Judith Lavoie is an award-winning journalist specializing in the environment, First Nations, and social issues. Twitter @LavoieJudith
ONE BILLION DOLLARS A YEAR. Not many departing employees can boast of bringing in that much for their employer. In an April 9 statement, Andy Calitz reported that his six years as CEO of LNG Canada had been “extremely rewarding.”
No kidding. Just five days earlier, on April 4, BC NDP and Liberal MLAs consummated a temporary fling by passing Bill 10, the Income Tax Amendment Act. The bill finalized a $6 billion giveaway of taxpayers’ money to a gaggle of large, wealthy foreign carbon-spewing companies for a liquefied natural gas (LNG) project in Kitimat. Only the three Green MLAs—Andrew Weaver, Sonia Furstenau and Adam Olsen—stood against this generous handout. South African-born Calitz ends his CEO position July 1 this year, when he returns to Royal Dutch Shell, which is joining PETRONAS, PetroChina, Mitsubishi and Korea Gas in the LNG Canada partnership to build the $40-billion Kitimat plant.
How did this unprecedented payout happen? Whatever else one thinks of Premier John Horgan, Environment Minister George Heyman, and other cabinet ministers, they are far from stupid. So why on Earth is the NDP still vigorously pushing LNG in the face of recent, truly terrifying updates to the looming climate catastrophe? Has the premier already forgotten that just a few months before his giveaway bill won royal assent, in November 2018, the Camp Fire in Northern California killed 85 people and destroyed a town—in what used to be called the rainy season? That wildfires have started incinerating suburbia? Does Horgan believe that Kitsilano, Oak Bay and the legislative precinct are somehow immune from what David Wallace-Wells—the author of the recently-published The Uninhabitable Earth—called the “cascading chaos” of climate change? Wrote Wallace-Wells: “[Climate change] can upend and turn violently against us everything we have ever thought to be stable.” And did Horgan miss the April 1 warning from those wild-eyed, radical scientists at Environment and Climate Change Canada that the country is warming twice as fast as the rest of the world? That Yukon and the rest of northern Canada are heating up approximately three times as fast?
Green leader Weaver attributes BC’s pro-LNG decision in part to lobbying by the industry. Sure enough, the BC lobbyists registry appears to bear out Weaver’s suspicions. Within three months of the July 18, 2017 swearing in of the NDP government, LNG Canada CEO Andy Calitz registered to lobby Premier John Horgan, and Energy, Mines and Petroleum Resources Minister Michelle Mungall, as well as staff of the Finance Ministry and the BC Oil and Gas Commission. Joining Calitz in this quest were five more LNG Canada staff. The lobbying topic: the “LNG fiscal framework and LNG-related carbon management issues.” Translation: Let’s see how much a bunch of wealthy foreigners can extract from BC taxpayers to help wreck what’s left of the planet.
LNG Canada CEO Andy Calitz
On top of the $6 billion in tax and reduced hydro rates are what a whistle-blowing retired government analyst called “an ongoing, eye-watering transfer of the provincial tax burden from natural gas producers to the BC taxpayer.” In his letter to Premier Horgan, read in the Legislature by Weaver, the analyst explained that BC has lost approximately $6 billion in existing and future gas royalties, due to a government program (created by the former Liberal government in 2003 and supported by the New Democrats) that applies to nearly all new wells. According to the whistleblower, each year the government issues more royalty/tax credits than the Crown receives in revenue—handing out $2 in royalty rebates for every $1 it receives in royalties. Of course, this $6 billion goes to every BC gas producer rather than to a single consortium.
LNG Canada’s lobbying continues. On December 13, 2018, Calitz—along with other LNG Canada staff—re-registered to lobby Horgan and Mungall, as well as government staff.
The lobbying extends beyond the provincial border. As recently as January 28, 2019, Calitz lobbied senior officials of Innovation, Science and Economic Development Canada. Calitz and other LNG Canada staff also repeatedly lobbied Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, Finance Minister Bill Morneau, Natural Resources Minister Jim Carr, and Fisheries and Oceans Minister Jonathan Wilkinson, among many others.
In all, LNG Canada participated in 149 written and oral communications with federal officials. All that interaction means the foreign-owned consortium was able to bend the ears and develop influential relationships with Canada’s politicians and bureaucrats.
The Ottawa lobbying paid off big time: The federal government agreed to waive $1 billion in tariffs on the steel LNG modules, which, like nearly everything about the facility, is imported.
Just how much will the LNG Canada project add to BC’s emissions? A government technical briefing released October 2, 2018, claimed that two trains (production units) at the LNG Canada plant will result in an increase in BC’s GHGs of 3.45 Mt/year. So the expected four trains mean 7.69 Mt/year in increased emissions, if you accept the government numbers.
I do not. Taking into account the GHGs emitted during extraction of the gas, fugitive emissions, pipeline losses, and the liquefaction process, each tonne of LNG produced results in 0.94 tonnes of total emissions. Consequently, the 28 Mt/year of LNG from the LNG Canada plant would add 0.94 x 28 = 26.32 Mt/year of additional GHGs in BC. That’s nearly four times the 7.69 Mt annual amount that the BC government is telling us. To put that level of emissions in perspective: It is 39 percent more than the 18.9 Mt/year that last December’s much-ballyhooed CleanBC is expected to save in emissions by 2030, compared with 2007 levels. So without LNG, the government could have scrapped CleanBC and still left the province well ahead. Better yet, it could have kept CleanBC while kiboshing LNG. (And none of this includes downstream emissions, including those from shipping, re-gasification, and ultimately burning. While the government claims LNG will replace coal, there is no guarantee of that. It might well just add to coal emissions, perhaps even replacing or delaying the introduction of renewable energy.)
Can anything stop BC’s LNG madness? Is this huge contribution to global warming now a done deal?
The Coastal GasLink pipeline, intended to ship the mostly fracked gas 670 km from Dawson Creek to Kitimat, remains an obvious weak point. In late April and early May (after the Focus deadline), the National Energy Board (NEB) was due to begin hearings in Calgary to deal with a challenge to the pipeline by Smithers environmentalist Mike Sawyer. Though the Province has granted environmental approval, Sawyer argues that the pipeline requires NEB vetting, since it will be connected to an Alberta pipeline. Even if the NEB decides against Sawyer, he has promised to appeal the ruling to the Federal Court of Appeal. In an April 9 update, Coastal GasLink said construction activities are continuing across northern BC, clearing rights-of-way and preparing housing sites for workers. The statement added that pipeline construction was expected to begin in 2020.
Not if the Unist’ot’en can help it. The Unist’ot’en are affiliated with Dark House, one of 13 hereditary house groups in the Wet’suwet’en First Nation. Last January, members of Unist’ot’en and their supporters blockaded access to a portion of the pipeline route, resulting in 14 arrests. Charges against the 14 included civil contempt. However, on April 15, the Crown announced that there was insufficient evidence for contempt convictions. Coastal GasLink also said it would not proceed. Wet’suwet’en hereditary Chief Madeek told CBC News on April 15 that the fight against the pipeline will continue. “We’re still protecting our territories,” Chief Madeek said. “This isn’t over by a long shot.” On May 12, the Unist’oten will begin its sixth annual construction camp on its territory, building a number of cabins. According to a statement on the camp website: “Following the invasion of our territories by RCMP and industry, we are continuing to reoccupy our lands—helping our people reconnect with, reclaim, and protect our homelands.”
Despite the assured tone in Coastal GasLink’s April statement, there is no question that owner TransCanada is worried. For one thing, the company is lobbying Indigenous Relations and Reconciliation Minister Scott Fraser. As recently as March 12, several TransCanada lobbyists registered to lobby Fraser and other BC cabinet ministers to discuss the Coastal GasLink pipeline. I’d be surprised if the Unist’ot’en blockades were not the main topic of conversation.
Another indication as to the company’s state of mind: TransCanada is currently trying to unload a 75 percent share in the pipeline, having hired RBC Dominion Securities to manage the sale, according to the April 9 Report on Business. In my experience, companies do not sell off majority interests in low-risk, surefire money-making ventures—which most pipelines used to be.
Sierra Club BC senior forest and climate campaigner Jens Wieting said in an interview that the October 2018 report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change plainly showed that it’s impossible to avert catastrophic climate change while continuing to expand fossil fuel production. “I don’t have a good answer as to why the BC government thinks it’s OK to go ahead with the LNG Canada project,” said Wieting. “It appears that the Province believes that it’s possible to take climate action and build new fossil fuel plants at the same time. The question is whether British Columbians will step up to the plate and face this unprecedented global threat.”
The provincial and federal governments seem incapable of grasping that we are on an accelerating path towards a hothouse Earth. But many citizens are aware and beginning to feel desperate enough to take action. Witness the Extinction Rebellion Movement taking off in Europe through blockades and now active in Canada. In general, young people are a lot more clued in to the gravity of the situation. On March 15, hundreds of Greater Victoria students left classes to march at the Legislature, calling for much stronger action on climate change. In more than 100 countries, other students held their own rallies.
Let’s hope they take over the planet before there’s nothing left to take over.
Not all is well with Fluor Corporation, the Texas-based multinational company leading the US$14 billion project to build the Kitimat plant for LNG Canada. Bloomberg writer Brad Olesen called May 2 Fluor’s “disaster day,” since on that day shares fell 24 percent to US$29.60 on the NASDAQ stock exchange—Fluor’s biggest-ever decline. (On August 3, 2018, Fluor shares closed at US$50.65.)
Fluor announced a net loss of US$58 million for the three months ending March 31, 2019, compared with a net loss of US$18 million for the same period last year. Also on May 2, Fluor said CEO and chairman David Seaton—who boasted to investors in August 2018 that the LNG Canada project was a “big win” for the company—was stepping down immediately.
In its 2018 annual report, also released May 2, Fluor said the LNG Canada project marked the company’s “momentous entry” into the LNG field. Translation: The Kitimat plant is its first such project. Fluor leads the joint venture construction project with JGC, a Japan-based corporation.
In a May 2 call with investors, interim CEO Carlos Hernandez said that LNG Canada is “on schedule.” On the same call, Hernandez said “we're showing very good [sic] about that project at this point.” Site preparation has been finished, and the project’s Calgary-based managers were working on detailed engineering.
Also on May 2, shareholder rights law firm Johnson Fistel announced it was investigating potential claims against Fluor for federal securities violations. (US federal securities law prohibits company officers and directors from making false and misleading statements about company finances.)
Russ Francis is a third-generation vegetarian, becoming a vegan decades before the environmental havoc inflicted by the animal industry was widely recognized.
A forestry conference invited Forests Minister Doug Donaldson to give a keynote address. He talked but didn't listen.
THE GOVERNMENT'S DECISION on the future of our last ancient forests has been made. Doug Donaldson, Minister of Forest, Lands, Natural Resource Operations (and now) Rural Development, pronounced in the Legislature on March 28, 2019: “There will be no moratorium on old-growth logging.”
As proof of this policy failure, BC Timber Sales is poised to clearcut 1,300 hectares of old growth on Vancouver Island.
BC’s 54 million hectares of public forests represent 95 percent of the province’s landbase, but if you are hoping for a broader vision for those forests than just a supply of timber, don’t hold your breath.
Disappearing carbon sink: in this view of logging on the BC coast, areas clearcut over the past 30 years cover 80 to 90 percent of the land base.
Two weeks after his sentencing on old growth, Donaldson was invited to a gathering of 65 of BC’s top forest policy advisors, including ecologists, First Nation leaders, climate change specialists, northern community mayors, union reps, academics, and environmental groups. They were attending a dialogue hosted by the Northwest Institute, a research non-profit of coastal First Nations, environmental leaders and scientists that aims to “promote cooperation among communities and initiate model projects—all towards the goals of environmental conservation and sustainable use of natural resources.”
The major forest industry companies and unions didn’t attend. The hope was that at least Minister Donaldson would bear witness to the ideas in the room. Instead, he talked for 30 minutes and then left.
Donaldson missed presentations from those with thousands of years of collective wisdom—about the issues, values and future of forests. People like Joel Starlund, Gitanyow manager from the Skeena and Nass River, who was speaking for Chief Glen Williams. Williams guided the mapping of thousands of years of knowledge of wildlife corridors, breeding and overwintering habitat and culturally important areas that are now interlaced with 73,000 hectares of industrial clearcuts. These clearcuts generated $110 million in stumpage for government over 60 years, with only .0025 percent of that coming back to the community.
Donaldson also missed hearing from Jim Pojar, down from Smithers, the chief forest ecologist for the ministry before the great purge 16 years ago when all forest policy staff and the forest research branch were axed by BC’s Liberal government. Pojar is an expert in synthesizing and interpreting the nuanced impacts of climate change on forest ecosystems, wildlife and carbon sequestration. This is the person you really need to listen to when anticipating the future of our forests, the impacts of increasing fire, drought and storm events and what all that will mean for water, air quality and the biological web of life which we all rely on.
John Innes was also present. As dean of UBC’s Faculty of Forestry, Innes has brought a European lens—wherein communities create more value with less fibre—to one of the most wasteful, carbon-polluting corporate forest industries in the world.
Quesnel mayor and forester Bob Simpson spoke. As he stood in the smoking remnants of a half-million hectares of charred Chilcotin Plateau firescape—the largest in BC’s history and which only narrowly missed the town itself—he started to forge his own community’s plan for ecological and economic restoration, bypassing the status quo industrial clearcuts and monoculture that would just repeat the tragedy in future years.
Chris Cole of the Truck Loggers Association attended as well. He described the relationship between the large forest license holders and the contractors who actually do the forestry work as unbalanced. “The large license holders consistently abuse the power imbalance in this relationship and benefit from an imbalanced distribution of wealth from harvesting trees on public and private forest lands,” he said, noting, “The majority of funds generated from our forests are distributed to company shareholders and pension funds rather than local communities and workers living near the forests being harvested.”
Minister Donaldson also missed hearing from Jennifer Houghton from Grand Forks, who was galvanized into action when floodwaters flowed through her kitchen after the logging of her watershed. Houghton and her community, like many others, have joined the BC Coalition for Forestry Reform, which advocates for a shared decision-making process with local communities and full recognition of our forests’ non-timber values including water, wildlife habitat, biodiversity, tourism, and recreation.
Another member of the Coalition, the West Kootenay Glade Watershed Protection Society, was represented at the dialogue by Herb Hammond, a veteran forester, who monitored the overcut and over-roaded Glade logging plans, and shared the David and Goliath story going on in our public forests over drinking water. Glade residents lost their bid for an injunction in February, so logging there—and destruction of watersheds—continues.
Al Martin, of the BC Wildlife Federation, a broad rural constituency of hunters, anglers, trappers and guides, has dealt with BC wildlife issues for 30 years. His recommendation was to fund long-term rural jobs, financed through the carbon tax, to steward and restore the ecosystems that sequester carbon and support our biodiversity. Martin pointed to the government’s CleanBC initiative and noted that “environment” isn’t even mentioned.
With climate change, there are two imperatives: reduce emissions, and protect and restore carbon sinks. BC is apparently ignoring both: forest industry emissions continue to exceed every other sector.
Bob Bourgeois, who coordinated the wide-ranging, non-partisan “Healthy Forests Healthy Communities” conversations around BC between 2011 and 2013, was at the conference with his latest report card on the poor progress government had made on their recommendations. Ross Campbell, representing wilderness tourism operators, could have reminded Minister Donaldson that BC’s job-rich ecotourism industry outstrips the forest industry in GDP. Old growth brings tourists; clearcuts repel them.
There were more speakers the Minister should have heard: 65 of the best minds in BC on the complex and nuanced issues of forest ecology and policy—people who recognize the complicated and diverse ecosystems coming from diverse cultures and governance systems.
Chief amongst the recommendations was that planning around forests should be locally based, and incorporate long-term cultural knowledge with scientific data. The science would provide long-term projections of the landscape—as ecosystems die, change, or shift north and upwards with warming temperatures. The IPCC has told us we have 10 years to halt the destruction of carbon sinks.
Minister Donaldson, personally, is no stranger to these ideas and issues, and knows many of the people in the room. During the heady, pre-2003 period of collaborative resource planning work in rural areas, he was trail-building in Yoho National Park, reporting on forestry issues for a northern newspaper, writing the old pre-harvest silvicultural prescriptions for cutblocks, and working on the Land Use and Resource Management Plan in Chief William’s territory.
So why is he doing so little now? He told his audience that most of his time is taken up with his mandate from Premier Horgan in the following order of priority: softwood lumber agreements, increasing rural jobs for domestic wood products, being a leader in engineered wood, modernizing land-use plans, and undertaking a new wildlife management plan, all through the lens of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.
“Yes, change has been slow,” Donaldson admitted to the group, but his ministry doesn’t have the staff, lost during the Liberal era, to deal with the increasing emergencies of fires, floods and storms, while trying to keep domestic production curves pointing upwards. “Any forest policy we do introduce might look slow to you, but looks fast and threatening to others,” he warned, pointing to the well-financed backlash against both the grizzly trophy-hunting moratorium and the draft caribou agreement that the Province is legally bound to carry out through the federal Species at Risk Act. Not surprisingly, the logging industry isn’t on board with the caribou agreement—why would it want change, when they have full control of our forests now?
The last time anyone in this ministry put these complex interests together to work out viable policy was in 2003, just before they were all fired. Judging by the minister’s failure to hire anyone back, it’s doubtful intelligent policies will arise. Green MLA Sonia Furstenau started the process in the fall to get feedback on the professional reliance system, which is based on the polite fiction that professionals hired by industry will look after the public interest. When Donaldson was offered a similar opportunity to hear from a range of interests by the Northwest Institute at this April gathering, he made no time for questions and answers with the excuse that he was too busy facing off with industry opposition to the caribou agreement.
The message at the conference from every corner of British Columbia was loud and clear: rural people aren’t going to wait around for the Province to do something. Mayor Simpson said his defining moment was standing on the moonscape of the Plateau fire and realizing that only local control of plans was going to make a difference. Control has different manifestations—it could be hereditary chiefs of Gitanyow using newly court-awarded jurisdiction, Simpson expanding local government tools, the people of Glade appealing court decisions, or Ladysmith watershed groups exploring provisions in the Water Sustainability Act to get local authority for the protection of water. Communities from Duncan to Invermere are realizing that they actually own the forests—and that their forests have values far beyond timber.
There are strong leaders all over this province communicating the urgency of climate change, and the need to change our practices to end the old economic model of huge tenures owned by clear-cutting corporations. My guess is that if the provincial government, regardless of its political stripe, doesn’t catch up, local communities will simply take over their watersheds and change the rules themselves.
Briony Penn is currently working with Xenaksiala elder Cecil Paul, Wa’xaid on Following the Good River, due out in 2019. She is also the author of (the prize-winning) The Real Thing: The Natural History of Ian McTaggart Cowan.
THERE HAS BEEN A DEVELOPMENT in Focus’ effort to determine why Victoria Mayor Lisa Helps and Esquimalt Mayor Barb Desjardins decided to support then-Chief Frank Elsner in the face of credible allegations of sexual harassment brought against him by employees of the Victoria Police Department.
Let me refresh your memory on what’s at issue: On December 4, 2015, the mayors were asked by reporters if Victoria Police Chief Frank Elsner was under investigation. Victoria Mayor Lisa Helps told the reporters, “No. The Board has full confidence in our chief. He’s the best thing to happen to this town and Esquimalt for a long time.”
Victoria Mayor Lisa Helps (l) and Esquimalt Mayor Barb Desjardins
Over the next two weeks, however, it emerged that Elsner had been the subject of an internal investigation conducted by the two mayors under their authority as co-chairs of the Victoria and Esquimalt Police Board. The allegations against Elsner were eventually investigated by members of the Vancouver Police Department and adjudicated by two retired judges. The entire process was carried out under the authority of Police Complaint Commissioner Stan Lowe, and led to Elsner receiving a lifetime dismissal from policing.
The details of that decision were contained in a report Lowe released just before the 2018 civic election. As well as detailing the particulars of why Elsner was banned from policing, Lowe excoriated the mayors for mishandling their investigation. Lowe reported that the mayors “had predetermined the outcome of the internal discipline process from the outset, and set about navigating a course to allow the former chief to remain in his post.”
In an interview with the Times Colonist’s Louise Dickson following release of Lowe’s report, Helps complained it “feels like character assassination…I’m going to have someone look at the report carefully and see if it’s defamatory. It feels defamatory.”
Perhaps the most serious of the allegations made by Lowe about the mayors—aside from the fact that they had lied to reporters and the public about whether an investigation had even taken place—was his assertion that the mayors had tried to hide from him additional allegations against Elsner of sexual harassment of Victoria Police Department employees.
Helps and Desjardins denied this. Why, though, would Lowe make such a claim unless he had a step-by-step record of how the mayors had come to their decision that Elsner was “the best thing to happen to this town and Esquimalt for a long time”? Helps had offered that assessment in spite of knowing that sexual harassment allegations against Elsner had not been investigated.
Focus decided to be the “someone” in Mayor Helps’ publicly expressed desire to “have someone look at the report carefully and see if it’s defamatory.”
Following Helps’ complaint, Focus filed an FOI for all of the two mayors’ communications with each other during the three-month period of their internal investigation.
The public has a right to know how elected officials make the decisions they do. This right is enshrined in access to information legislation, and public officials are expected to keep a comprehensive record of how they conduct themselves in the execution of their duties.
Of course, that’s in the dream world. In the real world, none of that is true.
In response to our FOI, the Victoria and Esquimalt Police Board released a set of records that was suspiciously incomplete. Without any prompting from us for an explanation, the Board’s FOI analyst Collette Thomson informed us, “A limited number of records were accessible due to email retention schedules.”
By that, she meant the emails between Helps and Desjardins had been deleted; Thomson later conceded that the Victoria Police Board, in fact, had no written “email retention schedules” at all.
What, then, had happened to the record of the two mayors’ communications as they had worked their way through the Elsner investigation? Had they really been deleted? If so, by whom, and why?
Naturally, we filed a second FOI. In the City’s response to our second FOI were several emails that had not been provided by the Police Board’s response to our first request. One was from Helps to Desjardins answering an email from Desjardins that had been released to us earlier.
In that earlier email from Desjardins, she had said, in effect, the new allegations of sexual harassment against Elsner required a new investigation. She suggested they could use the same investigator, Pat Gallivan. The new email showed Helps had responded to Desjardins: “I am happy to have Pat do this. I regret that we have to do this at all.” But “this”—an investigation—never happened.
Helps’ response to Desjardins made two things evident: First, the City did have emails relevant to the Elsner investigation that the Police Board had told us had been deleted. Secondly, it’s evident that what Helps has said publicly about the second set of allegations against Elsner—that the mayors didn’t pursue these because they did not have a mandate to do so—was not the mayors’ first position. How did it happen, then, that the mayors backed away from acceptance that the new allegations had to be investigated, to later trying to hide the allegations of sexual harassment from Lowe?
Armed with this email, Focus filed a complaint in early January this year with the Office of the Information and Privacy Commissioner: The Victoria and Esquimalt Police Board and the City of Victoria had either wrongly deleted emails, or had wrongly claimed that emails had been deleted. Our case was assigned to Trevor Presley, a senior investigator with OIPC. Presley took our complaint to the City. About two months later, Presley informed us: “After the City received your complaint, Mr Gordon [the City’s FOI analyst] conducted a second search, including searching for deleted emails. The long and short of it is that he found 271 emails plus 152 pages of attachments which he believes are responsive.”
Hopefully, in those 271 emails and 152 pages of attachments is the record of how the two mayors moved from accepting that a second investigation was necessary, to denying that any investigation had taken place at all.
As of the time of this writing, Presley could not say when these records would be released. “Due to the sensitive nature of the emails,” Presley informed us, the Victoria Police Board needed time to examine and redact them. “Although the delay is unfortunate, due to these records just being uncovered, we have to give them time to process them,” Presley informed Focus. “I’m sorry I cannot give you any firm timelines here.”
Keep in mind that Focus is trying to confirm whether or not Police Commissioner Lowe’s report on how the mayors handled their investigation was accurate or not, a question Helps raised in public. Some might deduce that if there was evidence that Lowe was wrong, it would have been produced by now. That we are now waiting for the Police Board to resurrect emails that had once been deleted might be all that needs to be understood about the truth of the matter.
David Broadland is the publisher of Focus.
How is a metals manufacturing plant in the midst of a fish-bearing estuary even possible?
WINTRY LIGHT SPLINTERED THE HORIZON above the Saanich Peninsula. A flooding tide announced itself. First a faint slurping over mud flats. Then an almost imperceptible jostling of driftwood, a stirring of the sedges and the occasional surge and splash of something off in the early morning twilight—maybe a dog otter hunting the tide line. Maybe that rarity now, a big fish.
I shrugged deeper into my sweater, watching the lights come on at Cowichan Bay through ghostly breath, warm splashes of buttery yellow along the dark south shore. It was a cold morning reminiscent of those more than half a century ago, when I’d tempt chunky sea-run cutthroat prowling the estuary shallows.
I never dreamed I’d one day contemplate those teenaged memories through the prism of existential risk. But that’s how I felt, talking last April to gob-smacked scientists about a plan to rezone the heart of the Cowichan estuary for development of a metals manufacturing facility on an old log sort they had naively assumed would be phased out during environmental rehabilitation.
An aerial view of the former lumber loading terminal in the Cowichan estuary for which an application for rezoning to permit metals manufacturing and fabrication is working its way through local government.
What was perturbing—and remains so whatever the outcome (a final decision was expected this spring)—was the process. A rezoning application was filed in 2017 after the Cowichan Valley Regional District (CVRD) noted that current use of the site was not in compliance with a land-use bylaw in force for 30 years. In 2018, the provincial government, without doing an environmental impact assessment, advised the CVRD that on the basis of “information provided” regarding the zoning change, the use would have no detrimental environmental impact. Since then, the proposed amendment has advanced through two readings by the CVRD on a tight 5-4 vote. That triggered requirement for a public hearing. One was held March 25. It was contentious. So many concerned citizens showed up that dozens couldn’t get in, which raises questions about the “public” aspect of the hearing.
How could something so significant for the Cowichan Valley take shape on such a narrow margin of approval by elected officials without authorities concluding right from the outset that an independent, fully objective environmental impact assessment was needed, wondered the scientists with whom I talked.
The optics—for regional governments; for the Province; for the NDP’s minister of environment; even for the Green Party—seemed remarkably adverse.
“It’s easy to assume there’s no environmental risk if they don’t look,” said Carol Hartwig, a biologist who lives on the bay. “The regional district defines this so narrowly that they don’t take any responsibility for the broader issue of the estuary. We have a national and provincial treasure that’s being held hostage by a local process.”
THE COWICHAN RIVER IS BRITISH COLUMBIA'S BLUE-RIBBON trout stream. Both a national and a provincial heritage river, it remains a premium experience for elite anglers. A hundred years ago, daily action on the Cowichan appeared in the New York Times. Catches were posted outside posh London clubs. And the river was as renowned for mighty chinook and muscular coho salmon as it was for trout.
Chinook returns to the Cowichan once numbered more than 25,000. Coho came back by 70,000 or more. Old-timers who had bucktailed for coho and trolled for chinook with spoons hammered from sardine tin lids trailed behind dugout canoes told me that when late summer runs came to the Cowichan, you could hear them. A silvery rustle of jumping, rolling, swirling salmon sliding down the coast, holding in the bay in such vast numbers that one couldn’t look to any point of the compass without seeing a fish in the air.
The watersheds that feed the Cowichan and its twin, the Koksilah, cover 1,200 square kilometres. The streams tumble seaward through a series of secluded canyons, waterfalls, punchbowls, rapids and the slow, shadowy pools beloved of anglers. Flanking the streams are 20 kilometres of trails. The two rivers have become marquee destinations for hikers, white-water kayakers, campers, picnickers and the tubers who gather by the thousands on sunny summer weekends to drift calm sections.
At Cowichan Bay, the two rivers meander through the most important estuary on Vancouver Island’s southeast coast. Ducks Unlimited ranks it as one of BC’s most important. The BC Nature Trust classes it as having international significance for migratory birds. Indeed, although estuaries like Cowichan Bay comprise only 2.3 percent of BC’s coastline, they sustain 80 percent of the province’s wildlife.
For thousands of years before European settlers arrived in 1862, the estuary—the name Cowichan is an anglicized attempt at the Halkomelem word which means land warmed by the sun—served as a feast bowl for the powerful tribes occupying seven traditional village sites.
But, like many of these critical habitats, the estuary has been abused, brutalized and heedlessly exploited since the first European settlers came to pillage it without regard for the people already living there. Indigenous resource rights were alienated as early as 1889 when fish weirs used for in-river selective harvesting were banned under a federal Fisheries Act amendment that effectively transferred the fishery to settlers.
The estuary has since been diked, ditched, the rivers used as sewers, the floodplain carved up into farm fields, paved over, built upon, the bay dredged, riddled with pilings coated in toxic creosote, its foreshore chewed up by log booms, the bottom littered with oxygen-sucking bark debris.
Upstream, householders stripped riparian cover to improve their views, and loggers cleared headwaters, accelerating freshets and increasing erosion and downstream flooding.
A pulp mill sucks 150 million litres a day from the river—its license permits it to draw down 240 million litres a day. Municipalities draw millions of cubic metres from the watershed for drinking, sewerage, commercial and agricultural use and, in return, generate nearly 50 million litres of wastewater a day. Up to now, treated effluent has been discharged into the river.
Even seemingly benign tourists pose a threat. Last summer, concerns arose over the impact upon the aquatic insects and micro-organisms on which juvenile trout and salmon rely of sunscreen slathered on by sun-safe tubers.
And yet, for all the ravaging, serious work has been done to remediate. An enlightened pulp mill cooperates with community watershed planners to sustain migrating fish. Fisheries specialists worked tirelessly to restore salmon runs. Guides used buckets to rescue salmon fry stranded in summer side pools. Plans are afoot for an outfall that will no longer discharge treated wastewater into the river, but into the deeps of Satellite Channel which separates Salt Spring and Vancouver Islands.
Then, in one of those mind-boggling disconnects by which politicians recite environmental platitudes while embracing policies that appear to say the opposite, the Cowichan Valley Regional District moved ahead this spring with plans to rezone the former log-loading dump in the middle of the beleaguered estuary for redevelopment as an industrial metals manufacturing and fabricating facility.
THE NEW PLAN WAS POPULAR WITH JOBS ENTHUSIASTS. Supporters for re-zoning the site showed up at a public hearing on March 12 flaunting fluorescent safety vests. Perhaps that was just tone-deaf solidarity but it’s difficult not to feel resonance with the Yellow Vests adopted by a resurgent populist right wing that takes a strident anti-environmental stance. In any event, industry supporters promptly stereotyped the opposition as NIMBY elitists.
Critics of the plan, some of whom have lived on Cowichan Bay for more than 40 years, found themselves characterized as whiney, job-killing newcomers who built houses and then complained about the working harbour in their view.
But others, particularly life scientists, were appalled, not so much by the proposal—anybody has a right to propose anything—as by the process. They complained that regional politicians appeared to be fast-tracking development without requiring an independent environmental assessment, something critics argued was both essential and required by the Province’s own policy.
The historic relationship between industry and the environment in BC’s estuaries has not been exemplary. The Georgia Strait Alliance, an environmental organization focused on the Salish Sea, estimates half the Cowichan estuary has already been lost. The BC government itself observes that all estuaries in the province remain highly vulnerable. “Every estuary wetland vegetation type in British Columbia is red-listed (endangered) or blue-listed (special concern),” the government says in its own backgrounder. “Naturally rare and subject to multiple threats in both urban and wilderness areas, these tiny jewels in British Columbia’s coastline will require both protection and stewardship if they are to last.”
Which raises a profound question. If this is true, why would the Province not insist from the outset that any proposal to change land use to allow expanded industrial development in an internationally significant estuary undergo a comprehensive environmental risk assessment?
Among those expressing dismay at official assumptions that developing a metals fabrication site in the middle of a sensitive estuary would have no significant environmental impact were iconic names from British Columbia’s fish and wildlife management.
Ray Demarchi, who retired as BC’s chief of wildlife after a stellar 28-year career, has lived on Cowichan Bay for more than 20 years. He suggested the process represented small-minded, small-town thinking, and an inability to conceptualize in the larger environmental picture.
“Incredibly,” Demarchi said, “the Cowichan Valley Regional District accepted the assumption that changing the zoning from one that permitted lumber storage and shipping to one that included heavy metal manufacturing and assembly was not a significant change in land use.” He noted, “The Cowichan Valley is deeply divided on this issue. Past environmental battles, including the contaminated soils site at Shawnigan and the proposed dismantling of the Hood Canal bridge in Cowichan Bay, have eroded the faith of the public in government, and particularly those charged with the stewardship of the estuary.”
Those were harsh words for an NDP government which, in opposition, railed against the then-Liberal government’s apparent ambivalence to complaints about the contentious Shawnigan landfill, and for the Green Party, whose Cowichan MLA Sonia Furstenau made zoning and environmental assessment key issues while campaigning against the landfill as a regional director with the CVRD.
The process shot fault lines through municipal government itself. The community of North Cowichan, one of more than 20 in the regional district, passed motions in early March demanding a fully independent environmental assessment of the rezoning proposal before any final decision.
Also calling for an assessment were a former president of the BC Wildlife Federation, the Cowichan Valley Naturalist’s Society, a retired BC assistant deputy minister of environment who just happened to be the Province’s former specialist in Pacific estuaries, and even David Anderson, the highly-esteemed former federal fisheries and environment minister.
Anderson’s signature topped those of 16 scientists who wrote to Premier John Horgan in early April with a warning: approving the rezoning without first doing a full environmental assessment basically trashed the Province’s vigorously-promoted support for salvaging chinook abundance, and the southern resident orcas that eat them.
“If we do not seize this opportunity to protect the estuary from increasing industrialization, then a critical moment for the future of chinook and orcas will be lost,” Anderson and the others warned. “And this could mean that the $228.5 million that the Canadian Federal Government has allocated for orcas and much of the $145 million now promised by the Province for salmon recovery will be wasted. In addition, it jeopardizes the $1.1 billion being targeted for orcas by Washington State. Large programs begin with difficult local choices.”
And the citizen experts went further: The government’s own rationale for going forward without a full formal environmental assessment was “so inadequate and contradictory that it is clearly meaningless and insufficient to provide any direction or to establish whether or not there are ‘detrimental impacts.’”
They told Horgan that contrary to how their opposition was characterized, they were not opposed to industrial metal manufacturing in the Cowichan Valley. They were opposed to the proposed location. And they argued two similar operations were already operating at a fully serviced site that was more compatible and secure for long-term industrial jobs. “Estuaries are irreplaceable,” they told Horgan. “Industrial jobs can be relocated. In short, the rezoning application must be disallowed.”
Geoffrey Chislett, a respected former BC fisheries habitat biologist, in a letter to environment minister George Heyman in early February, criticized government for sloughing off a nettlesome issue by declaring it a local concern. “A large effort is being made through the Wild Salmon Advisory Council to try to turn the past trajectory of provincial concern for salmon around,” Chislett said. “A metal fabrication and assembly plant in this estuary will not help this. A huge amount of work has gone into rehabilitating the Cowichan to the point where chinook returns are back to sustainable levels. Regardless of assurances, this operation will degrade the estuarine habitat over time.”
Chislett’s fears were echoed by Bob Hooton, a former provincial fisheries biologist with an international reputation as a steelhead specialist. “We have a proposal to rezone Cowichan terminal into a marine metal manufacturing centre in the middle of an estuary that can do nothing but harm to some of the most important salmon-bearing habitat we have in the only major chinook producer still on its feet,” Hooton said. “What sense does that make?”
To make things worse, Hooton observes, Cowichan River chinook are particularly important to southern resident orcas because, unlike chinook from other rivers, they tend to stay in the Salish Sea during their ocean life rather than migrating to the west coast of Vancouver Island or into the Gulf of Alaska. “They are a potentially important contributor to orcas’ conservation and recovery.”
Elders from the powerful Cowichan Tribes once told me that the tides “set the table” in Cowichan Bay and its estuary, providing an astonishing abundance of shellfish, crabs, herring, salmon, ducks, geese, wild fruit and edible plants.
Today, the shellfish are contaminated—although there’s been a local goal to restore harvests—and the once-teeming salmon runs are such a faint memory that when heroic efforts to reverse salmon declines saw 8,000 chinook return, there was practically dancing in the streets.
But it’s the shellfish and their potential contamination with metals that topped concerns for Hartwig, the retired biologist who lives on the bay. She worried that the proposed operation would create potential for metal contaminants to wash into the estuary.
“Metal manufacturing can involve toxic materials like solvents, paints and welding slag among the obvious metals such as lead, aluminum and zinc,” Hartwig said. In fact, research now shows that copper oxide particles so small that 100,000 would fit on a human hair are damaging to aquatic insects and immature trout.
She said runoff during more frequent extreme rainfall events, a predicted consequence of climate change, and flooding caused by more frequent storm surges during a period of sea level rise, another predicted consequence of global warming, are possible vectors for metal contaminants to enter the estuary. That alone, she said, would likely end the dream of a return to shellfish harvesting in Cowichan Bay by 2020. Federal standards governing metals contamination of shellfish are stringent and would mean any restoration plan would likely be dead before completion, she said. “As long as there is metal fabrication in the bay, we will never be able to harvest shellfish.”
Her worries find support in a 2013 study by James Meador of the US government’s National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in Seattle, which examined whether contaminants, including metals, affected juvenile chinook salmon. Meador found that the survival rate of juvenile chinook transiting contaminated estuaries was cut in half, compared with chinook moving through uncontaminated estuaries.
AS I CONTEMPLATED ALL THIS, I walked through the village of Cowichan Bay which, as resource industries declined, reinvented itself as a thriving tourist destination. Like an east-coast Tofino, it offers kayaking, bird-watching, whale-watching, angling, artisan shops, a nature centre dedicated to the estuary, art galleries, quirky diners and high-end restaurants, a wooden boat museum, waterfront accommodation overlooking slips and float houses, and easy access to nature.
I visited the Rock Cod Café, then took a croissant from True Grain Bread out on the Maritime Centre boardwalk and watched a wooden sailing dinghy extricate itself from a cramped moorage below.
Cowichan Bay is representative of how the regional district markets the Cowichan Valley to the 4.4 million tourists who spent $1.7 billion on Vancouver Island in 2014, a whopping 63 percent of whom ranked sightseeing, nature and wildlife viewing as their primary interest. Another 40 percent came to visit national and provincial parks. And 15 percent came to fish.
Statistics Canada found that marine manufacturing and service represented 2,500 jobs in the Pacific region in 2006. Tourism sustains 20,000 jobs on Vancouver Island, and has generated $135 billion in revenue since 2006.
The cranes and sheds that local jobs enthusiasts wanted to expand into a metal fabricating and manufacturing site sit precisely 650 metres off Cowichan Bay village.
How would that reconcile with the tourist pitch of “a place where people live in harmony with their natural environment” where “fish and wildlife thrive in a mosaic of natural habitat and breathtaking views are found around every corner?”
Breathtaking views, indeed. In someone’s imagination, perhaps, tourists might throng to Cowichan Bay to share coffee and a croissant at dockside while thrilling at the view of cranes and heavy industry. My bet is that the music of welders and the smell of paint wouldn’t be high on the “Let’s come back for more of that!” list.
Stephen Hume spent half a century as a journalist writing about Western Canada, the Far North, BC and the Island. His byline has appeared in most major Canadian newspapers. The author of nine books of poetry, natural history, history and literary essays, he lives on the Saanich Peninsula.
Are broken bones “hiding in plain sight” of heartburn meds?
LAST YEAR MORE THAN 30,000 people in Greater Victoria took a pill from a class of drugs called Proton Pump Inhibitors (PPIs). This class includes drugs like omeprazole (Losec), esomeprazole (Nexium), rabeprazole (Pariet) or pantoprazole (Pantaloc). They are effective weapons in the fight against the scourge of modern heartburn, or what doctors call Gastro-esophageal Reflux Disease (GERD). Among the most popular and highest-selling of any drug class in the history of the world, PPIs have been an enormous success story both for the companies that make them, and the tens of millions of people around the world who swallow them every day.
For many people, PPIs effectively suppress stomach acid in a way that makes the burning discomfort in your throat a long-forgotten memory. They work through blocking an enzyme in the wall of the stomach that produces acid. PPI is often a physician’s first choice of drug when a patient shows up complaining about heartburn.
And did I say they were popular? In BC, nearly half a million people filled a PPI prescription last year, and in some parts of Canada, up to a third of the over-65 population may be chronically—that is, daily—swallowing a PPI.
All of this comes with a hefty cost. At one point, British Columbians (through Pharmacare, extended health insurance and out-of-pocket payments) were spending $100 million every year on PPIs. That financial toll has dropped in recent years (down to about $60 million) due to PPIs coming off patent, allowing generic companies to sell cheaper versions of these drugs.
Clearly, the massive consumption of even an effective drug raises many questions, the first being: Is there really an epidemic of heartburn in Canada? Is it wise to jump straight to a pill when there are several non-drug ways to prevent heartburn? If you really do need a drug, why this one? And lastly, if these drugs effectively relieve short-term heartburn, are they also safe if taken for months or years on end? Remember, stomach acid plays a key role in digestion.
Because so many people take them, even if adverse effects are considered rare—occurring somewhere between one in 1,000 to one in 10,000 patients—the toll of injury could indeed be quite large. And many, many people will take them longer than the 4-8 weeks recommended for treating heartburn.
The first PPI came on the market 30 years ago, and now there are six different ones available. I was drawn to research on the newest drug in this class, a product called dexlansoprazole (Dexilant), because of a question of rare but potential serious adverse effects. On PPIs in general, the medical literature contains no shortage of warning signals, which tells me that long-term chemical alteration of human stomach acid may be wreaking havoc on other body systems, raising rates of C. difficile infections, pneumonia and even possibly gastric cancers.
There are numerous precautions listed in the Canadian dexlansoprazole product monograph, but I was drawn to the bottom of page four which read: “Several published observational studies suggest that PPI therapy may be associated with an increased risk for osteoporosis-related fractures of the hip, wrist, or spine. The risk of fracture was increased in patients who received high-dose, defined as multiple daily doses, and long-term PPI therapy (a year or longer). Patients should use the lowest dose and shortest duration of PPI therapy appropriate to the condition being treated.” (Italics added.)
Because patent-protected drugs are the newest and most widely promoted, I suspect that dexlansoprazole (still sold under patent) is the kind of drug that doctors in BC are currently stocking in their sample cupboards.
NOAH NATHAN worked for Takeda, a pharmaceutical company, when it launched dexlansoprazole in 2009, under the brand name Kapidex (which was changed to Dexilant a year later). He was among the first salespeople in America to promote it.
Speaking to me from his home in Ellicott City, just outside of Baltimore, Maryland, he told me he loved his job as a pharma sales rep. To keep the sales reps happy, he said, “the company treated us really well and spared no expense.” He had a company car and an expense account. During his 15-year career at Takeda, he was often among the top 10 percent in sales, and won awards including an all-expenses-paid trip to Australia.
Whistleblower Noah Nathan
His sales area was in Virginia, just outside of Washington, DC and his days would consist of driving around, making calls on doctors including gastroenterologists, ENTs (Ear, Nose Throat) specialists, and rheumatologists, pitching his company’s drugs, including Dexilant. In the course of his work, he fed a lot of physicians and their staff.
“I really went for the comfort food,” he said, “rotisserie chicken, meatloaf with potatoes and gravy, that sort of thing.” He explained that the food might win him a valuable minute or two to talk up his products. Getting that face-time was crucial: “There’s such a big difference in prescribing, between those [doctors] who see us sales reps and those who don’t.”
Yet over time, all of this delivery of food, samples, and information was starting to give Nathan indigestion. There was something about dexlansoprazole that didn’t exactly go down easy with him. He worried about the side effects and the dosages.
When dexlansoprazole came to the market, Nathan explained, it came in two dose sizes—30mg and 60mg. The company tried to get a 90mg dose approved, but it was turned down. As a sales rep, however, it was only the higher 60mg tablet being promoted. All the sales materials were built around the 60mg dose. In fact, Noah explained, the newer company reps often didn’t even know about the 30mg dose, and many doctors in the field didn’t either. Currently in North America, more than 90 percent of the prescriptions for dexlansoprazole are in the higher 60mg doses.
When dexlansoprazole was being reviewed by the US FDA to determine whether the drug should be allowed on the market, two FDA reviewers didn’t like the look of it. In their judgment, one of the reviewers wrote that not only was there no additional benefit of dexlansoprazole over the other five PPIs already on the US market, but that the evidence showed a higher incidence of fracture/injury-related adverse events with dexlansoprazole compared to other drugs.
To grant the company marketing approval, the FDA required the company to carry out a “post-marketing clinical trial.” Basically, the FDA allowed dexlansoprazole on the market as long as Takeda promised to produce additional safety data, which was due to the FDA in December 2011. Over seven years later, no results have been posted to the FDA website.
Nathan became an unexpected whistleblower and later an author. In his self-published book, Heartburn, Broken Bones, and the False Claims Act: Nathan v. Takeda Pharmaceuticals—Why You Should Care About the Case You Never Heard Of, he estimates that half a million Americans are taking 60mg doses of dexlansoprazole. The court case that he launched in 2009, and which ended in 2014, was premised on the issue that the company was likely promoting the drug “off label” for the higher dose, possibly putting patients at risk for fractures and other complications related to high dose PPIs. Promoting a drug for unapproved uses is illegal in the US, yet quite hard to prove, even if you’re someone like Noah Nathan with insider knowledge on how the company worked. After gathering further data (including wearing a wire to record company meetings) his case was rejected. His case probably wasn’t as solid as it needed to be to pass the court’s strict standards, but as he told me, had he been in a different state, things could have looked a lot differently. He said that “the courts ruled against me, while potentially putting American patients at risk.”
Over those five years, Nathan lost his marriage, his job, and the case that could have strengthened safety precautions for other patients. Admittedly he was outgunned, facing off against some of the biggest law firms money could buy.
I asked him if it was worth it, and he was quick to admit “being a whistleblower is hard,” but he’s more worried about the overall issues for public health. It’s possible that Nathan vs. Takeda might set a dangerous precedent, making it harder for other whistleblowers to succeed. Ultimately, he thinks that justice will eventually be done: “public opinion will eventually catch up,” he said, “when the lawsuits start piling up and people are suing for bone fractures related to the drug.” He adds, “for sure, there are broken bones out there, hiding in plain sight.”
The lesson here is a precautionary one—that effective drugs in the short term can often wreak havoc in the long term. Taking any new drug is often a gamble, and the statement in the product monograph to “use the lowest dose for the shortest period of time” is an axiom that stands the test of time not only for PPIs, but for almost all drugs.
Victoria resident Alan Cassels has spent 25 years researching and writing about pharmaceuticals. He currently works at UBC.
Information contained in a 2013 AECOM study suggests engineers have inadvertently designed a seismic vulnerability into Victoria's new $110 million bridge
ON APRIL 5, a City of Victoria email sent to residents promised: “Tsunami Preparedness 101–What You Need to Know.” What you need to know, according to the City, is based on a study commissioned by the CRD and carried out by the engineering firm AECOM. That study reported that when the “Big One” occurs off the west coast of Vancouver Island, it will create a tsunami. After the earthquake occurs, the wave will take about 76 minutes to reach Victoria Harbour and, depending on narrowings and widenings of the waterways leading to Portage Inlet, will vary from 2.5 to nearly 4 metres in height.
The City says you will be safe (from the tsunami) if you are 4 metres (about 12 feet) above sea level. That won’t be much help, though, if you’re buried in a collapsed building on the Songhees shoreline. Because disaster planning requires officials to consider the worst-case scenario, AECOM’s determination of the tsunami inundation zone made the assumption that the earthquake will occur at a high tide. However, they did not factor into their reckoning future sea-level rise attributable to global warming, nor did they factor in storm surge.
Victoria residents no doubt appreciate such helpful reminders from the City about the risks associated with living above the Cascadia Subduction Zone. But the City’s email should have been sent much earlier, and to the attention of Dwayne Kalynchuk. The AECOM-CRD tsunami study was completed in June 2013. Back then, in the right hands, it might have saved future Victorians a heap of trouble if the City’s own engineering department had considered what 2.5 to 4 metres of water might mean for a project whose design it was finalizing at the time.
At that moment the City’s head of engineering—Kalynchuk—was overseeing the Johnson Street Bridge Replacement Project. The design accepted by the City was being refined at various engineering offices around North America. A new bridge was needed, it was claimed, because the bridge it would replace had been built in an era when seismic considerations had not been part of the design of bridges. Now, though, engineers are aware that powerful earthquakes around magnitude 9.0 have occurred, on average, every 500 years off the west coast of North America. In fact, seismologists have shown that such earthquakes could occur as often as 300 years apart.
A potential 300-year return period means another “Big One” could happen at any time. So a bridge that had been designed without any understanding of the seismic forces it could be subjected to needed to be replaced with one designed by modern engineers armed with all the latest insights about seismic vulnerability.
One of those insights is that the Big One will cause a tsunami. The last one shook Vancouver Island in 1700, and caused a large tsunami. That wave was even observed and recorded in Tokyo’s harbour.
Apparently, Kalynchuk and other engineers never saw AECOM’s tsunami study. We have to assume that, because the design of the bascule pier the engineers were finalizing at that time had a fatal flaw in terms of tsunami vulnerability. The east side of the bascule pier has three large openings in it (see photo below) that are about two metres above current high tides. The CRD study predicted the height of a tsunami in Victoria’s middle and upper harbours would be about three metres (nine feet). Due to “variability” in the model AECOM used to predict that height, it put the potential maximum height of the tsunami at four metres. Even at three metres, all the electrical equipment and the two 200-horsepower electric motors used to lift and lower the bridge would be submerged and ruined. The bridge would be inoperable.
The new $110-million Johnson Street Bridge has three large openings about 2 metres (6 feet) above ordinary high tides (red line). The 2013 AECOM study determined that a tsunami would likely have a magnitude of 2.5 to 4 metres, which, if it occurred at high tide, would put the wave well above the bottom of the openings.
You might well ask, “Why does this matter? After all, what happens to the new bridge will be the least of Victoria’s problems.” Emergency preparedness, however, is a state that’s achieved one project at a time. The hope of emergency planners is that enough weak points in the city’s infrastructure can be strengthened over time so that when a large earthquake strikes our region, many injuries and deaths will be avoided. But if the community doesn’t have a strong process to ensure those weak points are actually being strengthened, public resources will have been wasted and more lives lost than if the city were more seismically prepared.
The strongest argument for scrapping the old bridge was not the avoidance of casualties caused by shaking of the bridge. The engineers’ actuarial study showed that death and injury on the bridge was a relatively small risk. Far more persuasive was the argument that following a big earthquake, an immediately operable bridge would be needed for emergency vehicles and personnel to access Victoria neighbourhoods on the west side of the bridge. An operable bridge would also be essential for what the City called “post-disaster recovery.” An unimpeded flow of tugs and barges under the bridge would be necessary for the removal of the hundreds of thousands of tonnes of debris a large earthquake would inevitably produce in the city. Those tugs and barges would also bring to Victoria materials needed for rebuilding the city and aiding its economic recovery.
Anyone who has watched the stunning YouTube videos of the 2011 Tohoku earthquake tsunami hitting Japan’s coast can imagine that as a tsunami enters Victoria Harbour and heads toward the Gorge, it could carry with it large boats, entire buildings, cars—anything that can float—all of which, travelling at three metres per second through the narrows spanned by the bridge (as predicted by the AECOM study), could damage vulnerable machinery and bridge parts inside and outside the bascule pier. The huge cavity inside the pier would likely be filled with debris.
As mentioned above, the CRD’s study predicts there will be 76 minutes between the time the earthquake occurs and the arrival of the tsunami at Victoria Harbour. That would give the City enough time to raise the bridge so that the superstructure could avoid direct hits from fast-moving floating objects. But since the electric motors would then be flooded and the pier filled with debris, the operator wouldn’t be able to lower the bridge. There would be no immediate access to Victoria West for emergency vehicles to put out fires, extract people from collapsed buildings and so forth—the very same circumstance that was used to condemn the old bridge.
Why did the engineers put giant openings in the bascule pier just above the current water level? In combing through documents obtained from the City through FOIs, including the one document that specified allowable damage to the bridge as a result of seismic shaking, there’s no evidence that the engineers ever considered how a tsunami would impact the bridge. With PCL suing the City for its bad design, no one will say. I’ll speculate, though, that the bridge’s “iconic” walkway through the rings may have been the underlying reason for those openings. They may have been deemed necessary to prevent a build-up of nitrous oxide from motor vehicles using the bridge. Nitrous oxide is heavier than air and would, over time, fill the huge cavity inside the pier up to the bottom of the lowest opening. So it’s possible the engineers made the pier as open as possible so as not to asphyxiate the occasional tourist that ventures onto the walkway through the rings.
Ironically, the old bridge didn’t have these vulnerabilities. All electrical equipment was located above the bridge deck, protected from a tsunami.
David Broadland is the publisher of Focus.
The artist, an immigrant from Iraq, proves the creative spirit can rise above the brutal ugliness of war.
Hashim Hannoon’s painting “Colourful Seaside” looks a lot like Victoria. But it could be elsewhere. Summer is in full swing in this impressionistic vista of a tourist town. Multicoloured umbrellas dot the causeway; sail boats bob in blue water. Cheerful flags flutter above a palatial hotel wrapped in misty colours of mauve and ochre. A bright red tour bus toots along the roadway. There is joy in the zingy palette of reds and yellows, and peaceful shelter in cool patches of emerald green. This idyllic painting is not unusual, but knowing the history of the artist, to me it appears miraculous.
Hashim Hannoon was born in a Basrah, Iraq, a shipping centre located on a river in southern Iraq, close to the Persian Gulf. In 1979 the artist was 22, a recent graduate from the Institute of Fine Arts in Baghdad. That year he received a Golden Sail Award for work shown in the Fourth Kuwait Biennial. The future looked bright. Basrah was a beautiful bustling city with a network of freshwater canals and walkways along the river.
One year later, in 1980, war erupted between Iran and Iraq. Basrah’s strategic position near shipping lanes caused it to come under missile fire and chemical warfare attacks.
Hashim Hanoon with his painting "City Colours" (48 x 48 inches, acrylic on canvas)
The emotional toll of Basrah’s bombardments on the artist’s psyche are seen in many of his earlier artworks. Explosions, fire and fragments rip across canvases; burlap and distressed surfaces form the grounds. The burlap fabric refers to the sandbags piled near roadsides and buildings to buffer attacks and shield civilians. Between 1980 and 1988 thousands of people on both sides lost their lives and the entire region destabilized. “I witnessed the war during my twenties,” says Hannoon, “therefore the impact of the conflict manifested in my paintings for a long time.”
In spite of the war, Hannoon continued to produce art and attend various exhibitions in Baghdad, Turkey and Yemen. Medals and awards also continued for the talented artist throughout the 1980s and 1990s. In 1999, he completed a Bachelor of Sculpture at the College of Fine Arts in Baghdad. His rough-hewn expressive figural pieces are cast in bronze. In 2007, he produced a series of pen-and-ink drawings included in a major exhibition at the O. Gallery in Saudi Arabia.
I ask the artist how it was possible for him to continue to be so productive. “I managed to keep doing art because this is my profession and how I express my feelings,” he says. He declines further comment on the war because it brings back sad memories. In 1999, Hannoon and family moved to Jordan. In December 2008 they moved to Winnipeg, and two years later to Vancouver.
In June, Victoria’s Madrona Gallery will feature Hannoon’s “City Life” exhibit. “Colour is paramount in Hashim Hannoon’s artwork,” says gallery owner Michael Warren. “Shapes and patterns define the imaginative spaces he creates for viewers.” In 2016, Madrona Gallery featured Hannoon in a solo show. People were refreshed by his palette and technique, and sales were brisk. “The artist chooses to look at the good side of humanity,” says Warren, “in spite of past experiences.”
"August" 30 x 30 inches, acrylic on canvas
Landing in Winnipeg in the middle of winter proved a chilly welcome for the family. Hannoon records his experiences in the painting “Icy Roads.” A subdued palette of grey-brown predominates the canvas. The spidery trunks of leafless trees flank the white icy roadways. A textured background suggests drifts of snow and a windblown sky. Looking closely, there are glimmers of gold leaf in the sky, and silver leaf shines on the icy roadway. Welcome dashes of red, yellow, lime and cinnamon vitalize the canvas. “Adding colours adds depth to the artwork,” says Hannoon. “I often use gold and silver leaf to add light and beauty to my work.”
Over his long career, Hannoon has experimented with many materials and methods. He often uses mixed media to build a rough ground for his paintings. “Every surface and technique provides a different sensation and outcome,” he says.
Works completed for the show at Madrona Gallery include acrylic on canvas, paper, and board. “Wonderful World” is a 24-by-20-inch acrylic painting on paper. The placement of colour fields in a puzzle- like formation makes a lively abstraction. A rainbow of hues, arranged with skill and confidence, move our eyes around the composition. Hannoon deftly uses shape and colour to create emotional impact and narrative content. The artist explains his exceptional abilities with a few simple words: “When I add well-mixed shape and colour masses, this brings a sense of comfort and enjoyment, allowing me to access happy childhood memories. Colourful paintings also portray a hopeful future.”
"Wonderful World" 24.5 x 19.5 inches, acrylic on paper
A noted colourist, he uses tints of the same colour to enrich certain areas. As the tints lighten, the softer colours appear to recede, adding the illusion of depth. For example, the strong royal blue in one area gradually fades to a subtle pastel hue. This multi-tinted blue area was augmented with linework after the painting was completed. As the lines move closer together, a three-dimensional quality emerges.
The exhibition also includes a few 16-by-16-inch acrylic-on-board artworks. In “Blue Horizon” we see three children playing in a snowy landscape. The two larger figures are well defined by bright orange clothing. One figure shapes snow (defined by silver foil) and the middle figure throws a snowball. Humour and warmth give this scene a charming quality. While researching this article, I looked at many colour plates by Hannoon detailing his war experiences. The emotional impact of seeing the explosive chaos of bodies and buildings, blown apart by war, brought me to tears. That’s why I feel relieved and happy to see these intact figures, robust and full of life, enjoying a snowy day in Canada. “Yes,” agrees Hannoon. “Life experiences, whether happy or sad, can be portrayed in artworks. My thoughts and feelings are all within the paintings.” The horizon line in this painting appears to be pulled along by a perky blue bird.
Perhaps it is the mythical Bluebird of Happiness? For Hannoon and his family, that would be a welcome sight.
Hashim Hannoon's exhibit “City Life” runs June 8-28 at Madrona Gallery, 606 View Street, 250-380-4660, www.madronagallery.com. An opening reception with the artist is on Saturday, June 8, 1-4pm.
Kate Cino holds a History in Art degree from University of Victoria. Her writing about the arts can also be found at www.artopenings.ca.
The Bateman Foundation’s new vision comes into focus.
THROUGH ART, we can connect to the natural world. That’s the vision Robert Bateman has been creating his entire life. The 89-year-old artist, famous for his hyper-realistic portraits of wolves, bears, birds and iconic nature scenes, has been an outlier in the Canadian art world for decades. His work has always promoted the importance of nature more than it sought to further a specific style or school of art—he eschewed impressionist or modernist technique for exacting portraits that stay true to the plumage of a red-winged blackbird or the mists that crawl over a coastal bay. This year, the public charity he established in 2012 (and on which he serves as Honorary Chair Emeritus) has rebranded to more exactly attend to that vision.
The former Bateman Centre has renamed itself the Bateman Foundation Gallery of Nature.
Robert Bateman in his studio
The gallery, until now home to a large collection of Bateman’s art, will begin showcasing exhibitions by a wide variety of artists (including photographers, painters and sculptors) for whom the natural world is their focus. And the foundation has begun reaching out beyond the art world. Its goal is to bring more people—especially children—into closer contact with nature, fostering a deeper understanding and appreciation of its power, and getting people off their devices and into the woods.
When a stone is thrown into a pond, Tiffany McFadyen tells me when I visit the gallery, it makes a wave that ripples across the water. “Robert wants to be the stone.” McFadyen, the head of philanthropy and sponsorship for the foundation, confirms that Bateman is thrilled about the changes the Board is implementing, though “it’s been an interesting adjustment.” Many of Bateman’s works will move to other locations when the gallery begins hosting others’ exhibitions. But overall, she says he is pleased with the foundation’s wider reach.
“We’re now not just a gallery, but an organization that offers educational programs with a tangible impact,” explains McFadyen. A large part of the foundation’s new work is with children. “Nature deficit disorder” is now recognized as an acute problem for all ages, but children are especially vulnerable. Children spend up to 2,783 hours per year in front of a screen, but only 183 hours outdoors in unstructured play. That’s less than many federal prisoners. Most children can recognize more corporate logos than they can native species of plants and animals. Last year, uproar followed the Oxford Junior Dictionary’s decision to omit words such as acorn, heron and nectar from its new edition, replacing them with words like blog, celebrity and chatroom.
The Bateman Foundation’s Nature Sketch program reached 3,000 children across Canada in 2018. Fees for the program are a modest $150 a classroom, which see a naturalist and a sketch artist accompany children outside to learn about ecosystems and species, and practice translating their knowledge into drawings.
Adult Nature Sketch programs also run in spring and fall in Victoria (and Duncan), with outings to local favourites like Beacon Hill Park and Mount Tolmie.
If you connect people with art about the natural world, Bateman proposes, they’ll be more likely to go outside. The foundation is also working in Vancouver with the BC Children’s Hospital and Anxiety Canada, facilitating Nature Sketch programs with adolescents who suffer from severe anxiety, depression and suicidal tendencies. “The kids that weren’t showing up [to school] are now coming for art class every week,” says McFadyen.
Engagement with the natural world through the creation of art isn’t so much about product as process, as Thompson Rivers University botanist Lynn Baldwin has recently suggested. Many naturalists argue that we are facing an “extinction of experience” with nature, which compounds the threats facing our planet. “Drawing draws us into the world as we pay attention to easily missed details,” she explains. Drawing rekindles a close relationship with the natural world, encouraging care, and helping us to acknowledge the complex ties we have with Garry oak meadows, Douglas-fir forests and even the backyard birds at our feeders.
The Bateman Foundation Gallery of Nature is ideally located for visitors—its waterfront perch occupies the second floor of the Inner Harbour’s historic Steamship Terminal and sees 25,000 visitors annually. Executive Director Peter Ord and the Foundation’s Board hope that more diversity in the gallery’s exhibitions will attract more people, and keep more in tune with the foundation’s vision.
Until June, the Gallery of Nature will feature “Plumage: The Majestic Art of Birds,” which includes works by some of the world’s iconic wildlife artists—J.J. Audubon, Fenwick Lansdowne, and Bateman.
In June, “Into the Arctic” will open, with paintings and film by renowned Canadian artist and explorer Cory Trépanier, who traversed over 40,000 kilometres of the Arctic during his travels.
Cory Trépanier painting in the Arctic
Next fall, a short exhibition of Kim Michelle Toft’s hand-painted silk depictions of the Pacific ocean will precede “One Tree,” a biannual celebration of a single tree, which is salvaged and sections distributed to artists. This year’s tree is a 200-year-old bigleaf maple from the Cowichan Valley. Eighty participating artists are creating furniture, musical instruments, and sculptures from its wood.
Visit the Bateman Foundation Gallery of Nature at 470 Belleville Street or online at www.batemancentre.org.
Maleea Acker studies the intersections of art and science.
A Victoria vocalist brings his stylings to the spotlight at JazzFest.
ON THIS CHILLY SPRING EVENING in Fairfield, my interview subject and I are scanning for a spot to sit down in a busy coffee shop. There’s a table for two that’s free; I move to claim it. Aaron Scoones pauses and smiles wryly. He observes that my silver-cased MacBook, which I’m about to flip open, will be one of eight, all set on tables, white Apple icons glowing in chorus. I didn’t notice.
Makes me wonder what else I don’t notice about what’s going on around me. Scoones and I are both musicians, but clearly, we perceive our environment differently. Depending on how our brain works, we notice and prioritize different things. How does that affect what we do, say, and create? Scoones and I settle at our table, and this twinkly young Berklee-trained wunderkind is ready to reveal to me how he processes sound, and how it inspires him to create, engineer, and perform music. (Besides vocals, Scoones plays bass, keyboards, drums, and guitar.)
The boyish Scoones looks like he’s accumulated little more than half of his 38 years (“I’ll never get tired of hearing that,” he laughs), but his upbeat impishness is nicely balanced by a thoughtful, grounded vibe. For someone so knowledgeable, he never condescends, happily inviting me to hear through his ears like a pal who giddily gives over their headphones so you can geek out on what they’re listening to. He’s excited about his upcoming JazzFest gig at McPherson Theatre, opening for a headliner—but he’s super-duper-duper excited about hearing the headliner: the US R&B band The Suffers. “If I weren’t opening for the show, I’d buy a ticket and go see them anyway,” he enthuses. It’s a double-edged sword, he says, being inspired by—and utterly deflated by—those who make the music we wish we could make.
Spoiler alert: self-acceptance doesn’t always come easily to creative types, but this angst has utility—if harnessed properly. “You have to be a bit neurotic to be a musician and get better,” Scoones observes. “You practice the things that you’re the weakest at. If you’re doing that all the time, it can really get your self-confidence down, so you have to be your own best friend, too.” He credits local vocalist and multi-instrumentalist Brooke Maxwell for giving him a clearer perspective. “Brooke told me there’s always going to be a gap between your current skill level and your musical taste. That made a light bulb go off…so I could be a little bit easier on myself.”
From where I sit, there aren’t any discernible deficiencies in Scoones’ vocal performances; he’s won awards, apprenticed with Louise Rose, and the R&B styling he refined and mastered at Boston’s Berklee College of Music dovetails nicely with an easy stage presence. Entering his sonic world is clearly a pleasure for listeners. Still, he keeps his eye trained on his idols, including singers like Kurt Elling, Bobby McFerrin, Tony Bennett and Harry Connick Jr.
When I tell him I once lived in Bobby McFerrin’s Minneapolis neighbourhood, Scoones lights up. “Bobby McFerrin is a massive reason why I sing. His live concerts were available in the Berklee library; I thought I’d died and gone to heaven. I’d go sit in the library and put on these videos of him that aren’t available anywhere else, and absorb as much as I could.”
McFerrin once told me his daily life could be overwhelming sometimes; he couldn’t turn off the acute perceptiveness and sensitivity that made him such a deft and prolific musical force. It was a liability in everyday situations where there was too much stimuli, like big-box stores or parties, and most people couldn’t understand his social reticence. Scoones mentions a young bass phenom, MonoNeon, who creates music from what he hears in people’s speech. “He is famously a person of few words,” Scoones says. “I think it’s because he hears the melody in your voice; that’s what he’s processing, and there’s no stopping it. I relate to that, because there’s no way to turn off my brain from hearing a particular part of music.” I tell him I tend to hear meaning: lyrics and melodies. Scoones strictly hears sounds. “You can tell me what the song is about, and I’ll tell you what the song sounds like. We could be talking about the same song and not even know it.”
He’s involved in a lot of projects, often as a sound engineer, the other half of his studies at Berklee. “I love [the immediacy] of live sound engineering…it’s very different from the studio world, where you have to live with your decisions, and they can come back to haunt you.” The collaborative nature of the engineer’s relationship with live musicians means “you become the fifth member of the band, if you really click with their music.” It’s an invisible role, yet “you really feel actively involved in what the audience experiences, and what the band experiences. It’s super rewarding.”
Performing with local band The Timebenders, who specialize in a very theatrical approach to pop music from the 50s to the present, is also rewarding for Scoones. He’s definitely got the chops—and animation—that make him ideal for the gig. He says the band itself is like a family, and “it’s really rare that you’d be at a show where you don’t get to connect with the audience, and ride on other people’s songs while you do that.”
Riding on those familiar chestnuts is a delight for Scoones, yet he yearns to create original songs as well. His devotion to getting the sound just right in the studio—and having the lyrical meaning be profound instead of trite—makes the prospect a bit daunting for him. “I’ve produced and collaborated, but I’ve finished possibly three songs of my own…one of which I’d share. It makes me so nervous that I couldn’t back the song up in five years, that I’d be embarrassed by it…would I love to have an album that I wrote myself? More than anything. I’m not quite there.”
JazzFest organizer Darryl Mar has slated Scoones to “ride” some classic tunes with Adam Dobres on guitar and Thomas Kinzel on keyboards as a 30-minute R&B opener set for The Suffers. “It’s a really big stage that I’ve never played before,” Scoones says of the McPherson. “I’m a little bit terrified, but mostly just excited and thrilled.”
He says in addition to The Suffers, this year’s JazzFest will give people a chance to see English singer and multi-instrumentalist Jacob Collier again, whom Scoones effusively dubs “the greatest musician in the world right now.” Collier, who won a grammy for Best Vocal Jazz Performance, puts on a great show. “It’s an amazing experience. What he hears and can reproduce at the level that he does is just indescribable.”
The 36th TD Victoria International JazzFest runs June 21-30 at various venues. The Suffers, with opening act Aaron Scoones, perform June 23, 7:30pm, McPherson Playhouse. Other artists include Jacob Collier, Trio LSD, Davina & The Vagabonds, Gregory Porter, as well as many local musicians. See www.jazzvictoria.ca for complete lineup, schedule, and ticketing options.
Mollie Kaye is a vocalist, lyricist, and writer who definitely sees the gap between what she’s capable of and what her idols achieve; she keeps going anyway.
Hapax Theatre has ambitions for a long life in Victoria.
SEVENTEEN YEARS AGO, in the spring of 2002, one of my Belfry 101 audience education program students asked me where he could go and do more theatre after he graduated from Vic High. I sent him to Langham Court Theatre, where he has since volunteered on stage and off in over 40 productions. This former student of mine is now the youngest recipient of the Langham Honorary Lifetime Membership Award, and his youthful portrait can be seen hanging alongside elders in the theatre’s lounge. Chad Laidlaw is the student’s name, and he and his now wife, Heather Jarvie, met while working together at Langham.
Heather’s story also involves a commitment to the performing arts, but starting at an even younger age. She was performing professionally onstage as a dancer while still a child, and as a competitive highland dancer she won both national and international medals. Jarvie is also a pianist and trained with Robert Holliston at the Victoria Conservatory of Music. After training in theatre at Capilano College in Vancouver and at the Stella Adler Studio of Acting in New York, Jarvie realized her interests lay in that direction. Back in Victoria, she became one of the youngest directors ever to lead a show at Langham Court. She went on to be an artist-in-residence at Pacific Opera Victoria and at the Icelandic Opera in Reykjavík (while Laidlaw finished his M.A. in linguistics there).
Chad Laidlaw and Heather Jarvie
Following another contract as development officer at the POV, and as guest producer of the Fringe, she and her husband decided that what they really wanted to do was to start a theatre company.
Hapax Theatre launched last year, with Jarvie as artistic director and Laidlaw taking on technical challenges such as lighting and sound design. The word “hapax” (hah-pax) is a linguistic term meaning that a word only appears once within a given body of text. The company presented two shows in its first year: Canadian playwright Daniel MacIvor’s A Beautiful View and a hit one-man play at the Fringe Festival, The Boy in the Chrysalis. This year the company is producing three plays: MacIvor’s In On It (in April); Constellations by Nick Payne (July 5-12); and, in November, local playwright Janet Munsil’s Be Still, a fictional play inspired by the multiple-exposure work of Victorian photographer Hannah Maynard. A fourth Fringe production, a musical version of Edgar Allan Poe’s poem “The Raven,” is called Nevermore.
I met the couple for coffee to hear more about their plans for Hapax. They agreed that starting a theatre company is a foolhardy venture, but expressed their commitment to establishing the company, and to keeping it in Victoria. “This is the city that provided us with so many opportunities when we were starting out,” said Jarvie. Laidlaw agreed, adding, “We want to be a part of building the theatre community here, with good projects and with good people, and to operate our company ethically and professionally.”
“Staying and working in Victoria should feel like an option for young and emerging theatre artists,” Jarvie told me, “rather than having to move to Vancouver or Toronto.” And while the company has just gained its non-profit status, it will be another year before Hapax is eligible for grant funding. So up until now their shows have been self-funded, with the goal to break-even or to make a small profit to share with the actors. As with many Victoria artists, it is the day job that makes the theatre work possible, and Laidlaw’s job with Canada Pensions fits the bill. Fortunately, it is a job he enjoys, and it allows for the small budget productions to happen.
I asked them about the type of plays they are drawn to, and Laidlaw said, “We are careful not to reach beyond our grasp in choosing small cast plays that will work with minimal design requirements in a black- box space.” Jarvie added that she is always looking for plays that offer “interesting stories told in interesting ways.” They are also looking for good roles for emerging artists and for a majority of Canadian plays. Daniel MacIvor is a favourite, for example. When asked why, Jarvie replied, “You never get to the bottom of his plays. It was so rewarding doing table work with the cast of In On It. The more we looked at it, the more we didn’t know.” Jarvie’s directorial approach involves a lot of time spent at the table doing line by line, or even word by word, script analysis. “Words alone can make up the magical beauty of what we do,” she said, “so I put a lot of emphasis on table work and on attention to detail.”
I wondered out loud if her focus on interpreting the script with actors, before getting up and blocking it, was connected to her background as a piano student. She responded that although she had never made that connection herself, it made sense. When working with her piano teacher Robert Holliston, for example, they might spend an entire lesson on a couple of bars of music.
I can attest to the effectiveness of this painstaking approach. I saw the second night performance of In On It, a two-hander by MacIvor that traces the meta-theatrical development of a play that is also the metaphor for the tragic end of the playwright’s relationship with his lover. The actors’ precision with the text was visible to me, as was Jarvie’s focused direction and the effective use of light and sound provided by Laidlaw.
Hapax has been working in rental spaces for their productions, making use of the Theatre Inconnu space in Fernwood, for example, or Fringe spaces during the festival. We discussed the ongoing issue of a lack rehearsal and performance spaces in town. One of their long-term goals is to operate a small or medium sized performance space. Jarvie described their vision as “an arts hub available for companies to rehearse and perform. It would be ideal if we could create a space like this and open its doors for other companies.” Laidlaw agreed, but also worried out loud that, “The biggest threat to creating new spaces is the loss of spaces that could, with vision, become workable theatres.” They expressed their dismay at hearing that the former Victoria Truth Centre on upper Fort Street, which would have made a very viable performance space, was going to be torn down for yet another condo development.
Near the end of our engaging conversation, I pointed out that a number of plays the company has chosen were plays that Laidlaw saw at the Belfry during his time spent working with me as a Belfry 101 student. These plays include two of this season’s picks (In On It and Be Still) and a play the couple mounted in a restaurant space a few years back, The Weir by Conor McPherson. Laidlaw told me that the memory of these professional productions had stayed with him and led to his recommending them to Jarvie for Hapax to produce. For a theatre educator like me, hearing this from a former student, well, I have to tell you that it does not get much better than that.
You can read more about Hapax Theatre at www.hapaxtheatre.com.
Monica is delighted that the Belfry 101 program has continued long after her departure in 2006 and is now marking its 20th anniversary this year.
Do those of us who behave immodestly do so because we resent our mortality?
WHEREVER YOU STORE OLD LOVE LETTERS, pics of your exes, slowly fading family photos, those Broadway “Cats” ticket stubs—a cigar box, a binder, under the spare linens—please write four words, “The Death of Modesty” (with or without a question mark at the end—your call), on a sheet of paper, date it, then tuck it into your collection of treasures.
Apart from certain religions whose imperatives attempt to constrain the appetites and consumption behaviour of adherents, modesty would seem not to be broadly social or community-based—in other words, not a public value or practice. Yes, we say, “Waste not, want not,” but while we advise humanity not to waste, we don’t tell it not to want.
Instead, modesty comes off more as an individual practice, the result of a personal emotional and spiritual process, perhaps, a hard-won agreement between the mind and the heart about the management of appetite.
Modesty is about the self-management of craving: will over hunger in all its forms, you might say. But the fossil record (right to present times) suggests that under certain natural conditions modesty has its price and is subject to a rule: consume (or be very good at hiding) or be someone’s lunch.
In current times, a modest life, a turning away from the values and acts of acquisition and consumption, can seem heroic and almost saintly, which is to say, out of the ordinary if not a bit weird. Saying no to more may well involve a personal struggle—some conscious journey into values and choices—and others may find it hard to fathom the modestee’s reasons and motivations; it sets one apart and suggests “uncomfortable” moral intensity.
Of course, modesty, like other conditions calling for judgement, may be a matter not of principle, but of degree. Acquisition, consumption and never-ceasing need for more may form the core of social ideology. Still, we reserve a word for insatiable hunger for things, the failure or unwillingness to say no to too much, the seemingly pathological failure even to recognize or acknowledge the idea of too much, even in our culture of too much: greed.
Greed, also known as unchecked appetite, has a moral valence; it hints at bad mental wiring, moral deformity, obsession, a distortion of the self’s landscape and boundaries, a false and damaging view of the world. In our Grimm-Brothers-fairy-tales-imagination, we want people who are greedy to look greedy: grotesque gobblers, repulsive hoarders, people who appear to put their hungry arms around everything (or around themselves) in some fevered act of self-securitization, self-safety.
We have plenty of cultural messaging around wants and needs, and sufficient social radar so that when caught red-handed wanting something, we are quick to recast and justify it as a need. We regard greed as want taken too far, a moral disease akin to the difference between people who like to pet small animals and those who like to squeeze the life out of small animals.
But consider how, in an almost mystical act of cultural nuancing, we don’t call our business titans and zillionaires greedy. In fact, we lionize them. And in the corporate milieu we call greed “strategic acquisition and positioning.” You will have noticed, though, that we are entering a time when corporations, the über-wealthy and even the not-so-über are coming in for excoriation as wealth-gobblers, hoarders, have-ers of more than their share: if they have more, we have less. The era feels eruptive, existential, ready for a fight or a spasm. It wouldn’t be the first time that free-market social Darwinism had a comeuppance.
The dictionary claims greed is “an insatiable longing for material gain, be it food, money, status or power.” The inclusion of status and power is revealing. Greed, Webster’s continues, is “an inordinate desire to acquire or possess more than one needs.”
What’s the source or locus of that “insatiable longing?” What would an “ordinate desire” look like? How much does a person need?
The etymology of greed emphasizes this idea of voracious, incorporative, assimilative hunger. The German word for greed, habsüchtig, translates roughly as “having sickness.” In other words, greed renders appetite pathological. Still, we say: “Why rent when you can own?”
The Indian godhead Meher Baba believed that greed “is a state of restlessness of the heart, and it consists mainly of craving for power and possessions which are sought for the fulfillment of desires. Man is only partially satisfied in his attempt to fulfill his desires, and this partial satisfaction fans and increases the flame of craving instead of extinguishing it. Thus greed always finds an endless field of conquest and leaves the man endlessly dissatisfied.”
Meher Baba raises provocative questions: what is the fulfillment of desire, what is the locus, the taproot, of this “endless dissatisfaction”—an impulse distributed to every cell of our being, the same thing that makes a tree “want” to grow a new branch? The dictionary defines, but he explains greed, giving it the larger frame it clearly requires. My friend Denton speculates that greed might in part be some recapitulation in the form of sensibility and behaviour of the physical architecture of the nervous system, some principle of consolidation: the gathering of nerves within the spinal column and their urgent, expanding highway to the brain.
All explanations, though, even Meher Baba’s, overlook a natural fact: the sheer exhaustion of things. Everything tires, degenerates and re-arranges eventually, everything on Earth and, cosmic science explains, even the Earth itself.
The MiceTimes of Asia (yes, a real thing) provocatively suggests that the greedy forget one simple fact: “that life on this Earth is not eternal.” This assertion opens a line of thought that may have crossed your mind: that the condition of mortality hovers at the edge of any explanation of greed.
Which leads to the speculation that greed—that hunger for more—is a grab at eternity, the life impulse itself, the spark that fills us with a desire to live forever and makes us unable to imagine the world without us. This generates in the human imagination a profound resentment of Nature that has given life and will take it back. We say, “I don’t want to die!” and we really mean it. We don’t want to die because when the music stops playing, the dance is over. When consciousness ends, imagination collapses. Our “ownership” of everything we compass through our eyes and thoughts ends. We imagine we own and eventually, jarringly discover we were just borrowing. Tragic!
In this formulation, greed is, or is about, power: the power to live forever, to surround ourselves with stuff, to absorb both its literal and symbolic energy, its cushion-value as protection against finality.
Wanting to live forever (nothing stops you from wanting), is against the terms and principles of life, and we fight this impasse with the same anger and umbrage we feel toward the parental, non-negotiable “Why? Because I told you so.”
Nature is, in this sense, the ultimate parent, and in a bizarre act of self-destructive, anti-ecological spite, we attempt to appropriate nature’s secrets and powers, and try to kill the world. Ego set against eco.
In Age of Anger, Pankaj Mishra, reviewing 250 years of European history, references the gigantic intellectual project led by European and Russian intelligentsia in the early 1800s that produced “the view of God as only an idealized projection of human beings rather than a Creator.”
Think, in this macro-historical way, of current ecological collapse at our hands as a next and possibly last chapter in some weird, profound, evolutionary oedipal re-enactment.
Greed isn’t rational; it starts in a deeper, darker place and generates nothing but mystery and answerless questions regarding accumulation as an expression of securing a future. “More life, fucker” says bioengineered, Frankensteinian Roy Batty, with his inbuilt four-year life span, to his human maker in the movie Bladerunner. What are all of us if not bioengineered? Roy’s four, our eighty….
More life, fucker.
Returning through this set of speculations to our starting point, I’d like to propose a role for Victoria as consumption-driven global ecological damage intensifies and the danger-points quickly multiply beyond correction: “The Capital of Modesty.” That is, Victoria as social sanity and demonstration: living within means, a model of ecological truth, a place that practices and communicates a message to the hungry, greedy, crazy world about living modestly with and in nature; making a peace of it; greeting the newborn, burying the dead. Surviving. Continuing.
Victoria, named for a queen, flirts with, then, losing nerve, retreats from this exalted, leaderly and crucial role that history offers it—the role (a complicated, somewhat selfless and thankless but necessary task, really) well expressed by lines in Tennyson’s lengthy story-poem, The Princess, A Medley:
“She stretched her arms and called
Across the tumult and the tumult fell.”
Founder of Open Space and co-founder of Monday Magazine, Gene Miller is currently promoting ASH, an affordable housing concept.
A molting elephant seal on Gonzales Beach offered lessons in nature and an occasion for friendship.
FOR OAK BAY RESIDENTS Kerri Ward, Gina Lemieux and Stephanie Weinstein, April 2018 was an exhausting month that changed their lives. A female elephant seal arrived on Gonzales Bay beach to complete its annual spring molt. The three met on the beach, while trying to protect the seal. “I don’t think it was an accident,” Ward tells me, of the three women’s introduction to one another.
I meet them in Ward’s kitchen, her character house surrounded by red-winged blackbirds, Garry oaks and early spring buds. “I think it was a kindred connection.” But despite their new friendship, the seal’s arrival is not an event they’re eager to repeat.
Left to right: Stephanie Weinstein, Kerri Ward, Gina Lemieux
Lemieux and Weinstein are biologists; Ward’s background is in conservation, but she now works as a museum curator and as a long- time volunteer for Wild Animal Rescue Centre (Wild ARC). Ward discovered the seal; Lemieux and Weinstein encountered her trying to erect a caution-tape barrier around the animal. A friendship blossomed from their shared love of the natural world. “We are part of nature, not separate from it,” explains Lemieux. “It was amazing to see this seal go through this phenomenal life process.”
Ward’s ribbon barrier was a reaction to the frenzy that surrounded the seal’s arrival, which had quickly attracted attention from local residents and media. Even tour buses announced its presence during their travels through Oak Bay. Thanks to the media attention, crowds began visiting the beach, pressing closer and closer to the wild animal. “The behaviour of people was depressing and discouraging,” Ward says. “We’re invading their habitat!” And yet, she says, she encountered many people whose conception of nature was something closer to Disney—where wild animals can be approached for selfie shots or close inspection.
Elephant seals go through a “catastrophic molt” every year, during which they lose their fur and their topmost layer of skin. It’s a painful and taxing process. Normally, they don’t eat during their month-long molt, and often lose 25 percent of their body weight. Males normally top out at 4,500 pounds, with a length of 13 feet; females can reach 3,000 pounds. During their molt, they loll on the beach or dip into the water, using the salt and sand to keep cool and relieve pain. Their bodies conserve water during these periods, concentrating their urine so that they excrete less and can go long periods without drinking.
In the initial days after the seal’s arrival, Ward, Lemieux and Weinstein quickly formed a team, taking at least three shifts a day to ensure a barrier remained around the seal and helping educate the public. “For the most part, people were respectful,” says Lemieux, and Weinstein agrees, but those that weren’t led to a couple of frightening incidents for the women.
The media attention culminated in a confrontation with the public on the sand beside the seal. “I could see the seal, and they were surrounding it, and it was stressed,” Ward recounts. Afraid a confrontation might occur between seal and human (or dog), Ward raced across the beach to ask people to step back. “People started swearing at me, they threw driftwood, they screamed. One guy stood up for me and they turned on him. It was sheer insanity.”
Ward contacted Fisheries and Oceans to let them know what happened. The next day, there was a massive response by the Department of Fisheries and Oceans, the Marine Mammal Rescue (an initiative of the Vancouver Aquarium), and local Bylaw enforcement. Pylons and signs were erected. Enforcement officers patrolled.
The northern elephant seal’s range stretches from northern Alaska south to Mexico. Many molt at Race Rocks, off Metchosin. Mostly a solitary creature, they migrate as far south as Mexico, congregating to breed and feed. Once hunted for their blubber (like whales), they were nearly extinct by 1882. Less than 100 individuals found refuge on small Guadalupe Island, off the Baja Peninsula, where they were discovered in 1910. The island became a biological reserve in the 1920s, and since then the population has grown to more than 200,000 individuals, all descended from the Guadalupe population. This recovery from near-extinction makes the seals even more precious in Ward’s eyes. “They were here long before us. It’s not fair that we stress them out.”
All three women credit the natural world as a guiding force in their lives. Lemieux has worked extensively in Southeast Asia in marine biology and education. After a masters in tropical conservation and development, Weinstein began working in environmental education, and now provides schools all through the CRD with techniques to connect kids to nature. Ward has transported seals, squirrels and countless birds in her car, through her work with Wild ARC. “This is the best place in the world,” they tell me, of BC’s South Coast. They are spider rescuers, snake and jellyfish befrienders, entranced with all that gallops, shimmies and glides.
Weinstein and Lemieux qualify that Ward’s bad experience on the beach doesn’t represent the majority of their encounters with the public. Most were far less confrontational, though still lacking knowledge. “They thought the seal was sick or dead, so they went closer and were curious,” Weinstein explains. So she decided to set up an education table. She brought seal skulls, colouring books and information about the seals, gained from her work with the Habitat Trust Education Program and Wild BC. “One of the most positive experiences was talking to a bunch of teenagers, who all had their drinks,” she laughs. One interested girl kept asking questions, and then excitedly took the information back to her friends. It only served to confirm her optimism: how interested children can become in the natural world, and how much their behaviour can influence others.
Unlike the Pacific harbour seal and California sea lion, who often get blamed (inaccurately) by fishers for eating salmon, elephant seals feed primarily on squid. Diving down as deep as two kilometres, they can hold their breath for up to two hours while in search of squid, as well as small amounts of fish and crustaceans. The inflatable snout of the male elephant seal amplifies his snorts, bellows and grunts, which help to ward off rival males. The females have no proboscis.
After the seal left, the women breathed a sigh of relief. But it didn’t last long. A second seal arrived in May, staying for only a day. Another was seen in Gorge Inlet on May 30. And a third arrived at Gonzales Bay in June, staying for two weeks. The women’s daily patrols resumed. They were asked if media should be informed. “No!” they shouted. The seal left the Friday of the Canada Day long weekend. Weinstein smiles, “It was perfect timing!”
Lemieux, Weinstein and Ward don’t know why the seals chose Gonzales Bay to molt. Are they confused about their location? Is the changing climate altering their habits? Or is this just the result of a rebounding population that now needs more beaches on which to molt? They relate the story of California’s Drakes Beach, which was taken over by elephant seals during the recent US federal government shutdown. A lack of park rangers meant the seals easily colonized the beach, mating and rearing their pups in what is normally a busy destination for humans. The park stayed closed until the seals and their young departed.
Lemieux, despite the stress of monitoring and facing off with the public, looks at the seal’s arrival as a gift. “That’s been the silver lining, to connect with these two amazing women who I never otherwise would have met,” she says. “I’ve connected with local neighbours, seen beautiful spirits and hearts who have the same outlook on what we’re trying to do.” But that’s not to say they wish for another arrival on Gonzales, or any populated beach in the Capital Region.
If an elephant seal does arrive, their advice echoes that of Fisheries and Oceans and conservation organizations: stay clear, keep your dog and children away, and let the seal endure its natural process without disturbance, and particularly, without having to appear in a selfie.
Maleea Acker is the author of Gardens Aflame: Garry Oak Meadows of BC’s South Coast. She is currently completing a PhD in Human Geography, focusing on the intersections between the social sciences and poetry.
It is in our gardens that wisdom and humility are nurtured.
PATRICK LANE, one of our most loved and celebrated writers, died suddenly in early March, just as his garden was wakening anew. I did not know him personally but found myself thinking of him and contemplating his words as I began gearing up for spring chores in my own garden.
If I was to be banished to an island somewhere with only an hour’s notice, I’d be packing some seeds, a clutch of gardening tools and my well-worn copy of Patrick Lane’s 2004 memoir, There is a Season. In this one book I’d have a library’s worth of slow-release wisdom and perspective to nourish me through unlimited rereading. Central to the memoir is Lane’s lifelong love for gardening and for nature, which he juxtaposes so exquisitely with his own life’s story—the years and years of hardscrabble existence in isolated towns where the living was hard and misery ran rampant; the turning to alcohol and a small manual typewriter on which he hammered out late-night words against hopelessness and defeat.
Patrick Lane in 2004 (Photo by David Broadland)
The words bought him freedom but addiction plagued him for decades until his journey to sobriety took him back again to the foothills of his own garden, where he found himself standing “as a strangeling in this simple world.” Slowly and humbly he began rebuilding both his life and neglected garden, his ever-keen mind revelling in the miracle of a dewdrop, a chickadee, an emerging bloom, and the papery wall of a hornet’s nest.
Throughout the book, Lane deftly weaves between the past and the present, dredging up unreconciled pain from the one, and half-buried empty vodka bottles from the other. He faces both with unvarnished courage. He is ready to acquiesce to his garden—his teacher—and achieve with it a symbiotic stasis: Each can rehabilitate and heal the other.
Like Lane, I labour willingly “in the daily meditations of earth, air, stone, and water.” Caring for a piece of nature, even a contrived piece like the suburban back yard, is good for both body and soul. This is where thoughts often swirl like spring pollen, where I sometimes feel as if I am on the cusp of some new understanding or perspective. This is where I see that a hundred years of studying nature would not reveal everything there is to know about this evolving place, a fact I find oddly comforting.
In the garden you can take the memories of your regrets and compost them into something amenable enough to let you get on with life. You live in the present. You feel gladness for tasks that involve your hands in the warm soil, for the privilege of anointing emerging seeds with clean water burbling from the hose or watering can. You check in on your resident tree frogs, their tiny green bodies bizarrely incongruent to the weight and timbre of their call. (Of them, Lane adds this gem: “A green frog does not sit on a red leaf unless he’s gone a little mad.”)
In the garden you don’t need a politician to tell you about climate change and the damage we’ve done. You can see it in the thousands of tiny assaults on the ecology—the tree that drops a branch without warning, the butterflies and dragonflies mostly gone, the lizard you didn’t see until five years ago, the thermometer’s increasingly erratic dance across the calendar. You know it as you haul water to plants that were previously satisfied with the occasional summer rain.
Still, the garden is perhaps the most basic and precious thing we have, not so much as owners forever but as stewards for a time. A garden can help us through any transition, any season in life. It can lead the way. It always has.
“Every stone in my garden is a story, every tree a poem,” Lane wrote in his memoir. “I barely know myself in spite of the admonishments of wise men and women who tell me I must know my life in order to live it fully. What I know is that I live in this place where words are made. What we are is a garden. I believe that.”
I believe that too. I believe that by taking care of our land and the miracles of nature that happen upon it, we are taking care of ourselves and each other and the Earth that we all share. It is the purest and most joyous way to live a fleeting life.
Trudy encourages everyone to plant kale this year. It’s easy to grow and loaded with nutrition, the bees and butterflies love the flowers, and the greens can be picked throughout the winter.