North Americans are becoming increasingly innumerate and vulnerable to disinformation.
IN VOTE COUNTING for the US presidential election, Hillary Clinton’s tally reached 65,844,610 by mid-December. Donald Trump was at 62,979,636. But Clinton’s definite popular vote victory—2,864,974 votes—had already been run through the Republican uncertainty-making machine with predictable results.
Soon after the election, Alex Jones’ Infowars website, on no evidence, claimed “Virtually all of the votes cast by 3 million illegal immigrants are likely to have been for Hillary Clinton.” President-elect Trump then tweeted: “In addition to winning the Electoral College in a landslide, I won the popular vote if you deduct the millions of people who voted illegally.”
Of the millions of people who voted illegally, the Washington Post could find only four who were facing charges of electoral fraud a month after the election. Who were they?
In Iowa, Terri Lynn Rote voted twice for Trump because, she said, “The polls are rigged.” She blamed Trump for her crime.
In Texas, Phillip Cook was arrested after voting twice. He told authorities he worked for the Trump campaign and was testing the security of the voting system.
Audrey Cook, an election judge in Illinois whose husband died before he was able to complete his mail-in ballot, finished it for him. So sweet. Mrs Cook was a Republican election judge.
The fourth case didn’t actually involve the presidential vote. Gladys Coego, an election worker who had access to completed absentee voter ballots in Florida, was caught putting marks beside a certain mayoral candidate’s name on ballots where the rightful voter had left the vote for mayor blank.
The Post also found a few cases of possible voter fraud where no charges had been laid.
After his claim of “millions” of illegal voters, Trump was challenged by a CNN journalist to provide evidence. The president-elect cranked up the uncertainty-making machine again and flipped truthfulness on its head with another tweet: “@jeffzeleny what PROOF do u have DonaldTrump did not suffer from millions of FRAUD votes? Journalist? Do your job!”
This is, of course, just one example of Trump’s refusal to admit that something he said before, during or after the election was provably wrong or unsupported by any evidence. The disinformation—intentionally false or misleading information spread in a calculated way to deceive target audiences—he and his campaign created has been unprecedented in a modern-era American presidential election.
America’s media had some difficulty knowing how to cover Trump as a candidate and then as president-elect. Wall Street Journal Editor-in-Chief Gerard Baker, speaking about how media ought to describe Trump’s distortions of reality, noted, “I’d be careful about using the word, ‘lie.’ ‘Lie’ implies much more than just saying something that’s false. It implies a deliberate intent to mislead.”
But, as Washington Post columnist Greg Sargent pointed out in a response to Baker, “…Trump barely even tried to make a fact-based case for his version of reality. Rather, he seemed to be trying to obliterate any possibility of shared agreement on what constitutes an authoritative source, and even on reality itself.”
Why were so many Americans taken in by Trump’s provably wrong versions of reality?
A month after the election, a poll of 1011 Americans, commissioned by the Post, found 52 percent of Republicans and 24 percent of independents believed Trump had won the popular vote. Even seven percent of Democrats thought the same thing. Overall, 29 percent of those polled believed Trump had won the popular vote.
On an important fact about which Americans could have been certain and ought to have agreed, they had, to a surprising degree, got it wrong. The biggest factor in being wrong seemed to be partisanship. But mixed in with that was the likelihood of significant innumeracy. The Post’s poll found a strong correlation between low educational achievement and belief that Trump had won the popular vote.
In a 2013 study by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development that measured the level of numeracy in 22 democracies, the US scored third from the bottom. Canada was a few notches up, but still below the average score. Finland and Japan scored highest. The historical trend in the US is to a lower level of numeracy.
To be numerate means much more than being able to add, subtract, multiply and divide numbers. It includes the ability to reason, which, according to Wikipedia, is “the capacity for consciously making sense of things, applying logic, establishing and verifying facts, and changing or justifying practices, institutions, and beliefs based on new or existing information.”
In other words, a person with a healthy level of numeracy would be able to figure out who won the popular vote in the 2016 US presidential election, would comprehend what that meant and would not fabricate falsehoods to discredit Clinton’s plurality of votes. She won the popular vote; he won the electoral college.
The deteriorating state of numeracy/reason in the US and Canada will make it much harder to resolve such pressing issues as climate change. If such a significant fraction of Americans can’t figure out who won the popular vote, or are willing to create a different outcome from non-existent facts (and then challenge journalists to disprove their non-existent facts) what hope is there for a coherent response to climate change? With a president who, as a candidate, said he thinks climate change is “a hoax,” not much.
In Canada, we are slowly extracting ourselves from a long state-sponsored disinformation campaign that supported development of Alberta’s oil sands far more than it heeded scientists’ warnings about climate change. Like Trump’s made-up claim about millions of illegal voters, the federal government under Stephen Harper manufactured uncertainty about climate change, on the one hand, and certainty about the wisdom of developing the oil sands on the other.
This will take some time to undo and will require, for one thing, Canadians to become numerate about climate change and emissions. Otherwise we will remain vulnerable to corporate and government disinformation. It will also require credible and much more stringent reporting on the level of emissions in Canada from Environment Canada.
This is particularly needed for the oil sands projects and for the proposed pipelines that would facilitate their expansion. Even a cursory examination of official emissions reporting suggests emissions may be much higher than Environment Canada, under Harper’s management, has acknowledged.
David Broadland is the publisher of FOCUS.
Any quarry can apply for a permit to accept contaminated waste, regardless of where it is located.
A DECISION IN NOVEMBER by the BC Court of Appeal appears to have opened the door for the province’s 2600 rock and gravel quarries to enter the lucrative contaminated soil disposal business.
Madam Justice Daphne Smith, overturning an earlier BC Supreme Court decision, ruled that the zoning powers of the Cowichan Valley Regional District could not prevent the operation of a controversial contaminated fill site in a gravel quarry near Shawnigan Lake. This decision was a setback for Shawnigan residents engaged in a long battle to protect their drinking water.
The bad news for drinking water may be an opportunity for quarry owners around the province, especially when combined with other features of BC’s lax regulatory regime.
BC has no site requirements for contaminated soil facilities in a quarry. Under BC’s Mines Act , any quarry can apply for a permit to accept contaminated waste, regardless of where it is located, and how close it is to a drinking water source. No independent environmental assessment is required. This can be a problem, as sand and gravel quarries are typically porous, and often a bad place to store soil which can contain a long list of contaminants, including hydrocarbons, dioxins, heavy metals and PCB’s.
In the Shawnigan case, the contaminated landfill site is in a quarry situated four kilometres uphill from the lake, in a provincially designated “Community Watershed” which provides drinking water for 12,000 people. The main feeder creek to the lake flows directly through the quarry property. In the words of one hydrogeologist, “It would be hard to imagine a worse place to locate a contaminated fill site.” However, the fact remains: the Province of BC has no location requirements.
While this is bad news for drinking water, it points to a new line of business for quarries, which are often located conveniently close to population centres with a need for disposal sites.
THE "PROFESSIONAL RELIANCE MODEL" used by the Province does not require the use of arms-length professionals to advise them on environmental impacts. In the case of mine or quarry applications, the professionals who submit a contaminated site proposal, which the government relies on to make its decision, can be paid with a share of the profits once the government approves the deal. Thus a quarry owner can avoid the considerable expense of hiring engineers or other professionals on a fee-for-service basis, and instead form a business venture with the engineers. The engineers get paid only if the project goes ahead.
This is contrary to common sense if you want objective engineering advice, but evidently the Province has no problem with it.
In the Shawnigan case, even the quarry owner, Cobble Hill Holdings, apparently believed that independent engineers were required. Quarry co-owner Martin Block, under oath to the BC Environmental Appeal Board, denied any partnership with Active Earth Engineering. A 50/50 partnership was later revealed by a whistleblower’s brown envelope. Cobble Hill Holdings and Active Earth initially tried to minimize this partnership, first claiming that the partnership never took effect, and then that it was “held in abeyance.”
Both the quarry owners and engineer appeared to be as surprised as everyone else when the government acknowledged that the partnership was fine with them—“independent” expertise isn’t a government requirement. (It should be noted that the Code of Ethics of the Association of Professional Engineers and Geoscientists of BC cautions against fees being paid on a contingency basis and have, as a result of citizen complaints against Active Earth, investigated; as yet, there’s no word on the investigation’s outcome.)
In summary, three aspects of BC’s regulatory regime—no local zoning concerns, no siting requirements, and no independence of experts—have set the stage for gravel quarries all over the province to jump into the lucrative contaminated fill disposal market.
The potential profits are enormous. To take just one example, the federal government is now spending over $780 million on the clean- up of contamination at the Esquimalt Graving Docks. Over $5.8 billion in contaminated site clean-up costs was slated as of 2015 by the federal government alone.
There is one insurmountable problem however: the significant ongoing threats to both drinking water and the environment.
Affected communities can be expected to protest, strongly. But the Shawnigan example shows just how wide the Province has opened the door for quarry owners who might be tempted to enter the lucrative contaminated soil business. And judging from Shawnigan’s experience, contaminated site owners can expect sustained government support as they attempt to ride out public opposition.
Tragically, the provincial government has abandoned its vital water protection role, putting both public health and the environment at risk. Premier Christy Clark and Environment Minister Mary Polak bear responsibility for this. They will ultimately be called to account by the public, and the regulations changed. Unfortunately, this may not be until after irreversible harm has been done to aquifers and surface water which provide drinking water in BC.
Blaise Salmon of Mill Bay is part of a research team which has been closely following the Shawnigan contaminated fill site for four years.
UPDATE: On January 5, 2017, the Cowichan Vallery Regional District announced that it had applied to the Supreme Court of Canada for a review of the BC Court of Appeal ruling.
Justin Trudeau linked approval of Trans Mountain to Alberta’s “100-megatonne cap” on oil sands emissions. Independent analyses suggest that cap has already been exceeded. Further expansion of oil sands exports could give Alberta a stranglehold on Canada's allowable emissions by 2028.
WHEN PRIME MINISTER TRUDEAU announced approval of the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion project, he linked that to Alberta’s goal of limiting emissions from oil sands production. “We could not have approved this project without the leadership of Premier Notley, and Alberta’s Climate Leadership Plan—a plan that commits to pricing carbon and capping oil sands emissions at 100 megatonnes per year,” Trudeau told Canadians.
The prime-ministerial logic here is challenging. Just ten days before, his Environment Minister Catherine McKenna had announced Canada’s emissions goal for 2050 would be 150 megatonnes—for the whole country. To accomplish that would require reducing national emissions by increments of 18 megatonnes every year from now until 2050. Yet Trudeau’s first action following McKenna’s announcement was to approve a project that would allow Canada’s annual emissions to grow by 18 megatonnes.
Even though they pull in opposite directions—one to higher emissions and the other to lower—Notley’s promise and McKenna’s goal amount to the same thing. They’re both paper-thin promises that can be broken at any time depending on who is governing Alberta and Canada. At the Trans Mountain announcement Trudeau said, “Climate change is real. It is here. And it cannot be wished or voted away.” On his assertion that climate change is real, a majority of British Columbians would probably agree. But both Trudeau and Notley can be voted away, and so can their legislation.
An expanded pipeline from Alberta to BC’s south coast, on the other hand, will create a permanent increase in risk to both the environment and southwest BC’s economy. Many Vancouverites and Victorians won’t let it happen without a fight—a physical one if it comes down to that.
But Trudeau’s linking of Trans Mountain with Notley’s pledge of “capping oil sands emissions at 100 megatonnes per year” creates a challenge for the prime minister. Where is the proof that limit hasn’t already been exceeded? If it can be shown that oil sands emissions are already over 100 megatonnes, would he rescind approval of the project? And on whom should the burden of proof fall?
Trudeau also said that Trans Mountain—by allowing oil sands production bound for export to grow substantially—would be good for Canada, economically. While that assertion might have been true in the economic paradigm in which continuous growth in fossil fuel emissions was assumed to be a sign of economic health, in the new paradigm in which Trudeau and McKenna hope to lead Canada— one where national emissions must shrink by another 18 megatonnes every year—does it make any sense at all?
Let’s start by examining the fundamental premise behind that “100-megatonne cap,” which is that it hasn’t already been exceeded.
WHERE DID JUSTIFICATION FOR a “100-megatonne” cap come from? Was the concept dreamed up by the Alberta Petroleum Marketing Commission? Consider why the number “100” might have been chosen. Who wouldn’t celebrate reaching 100? But is there any scientific evidence that supports that cap? None has been offered. Indeed, there are strong indications Alberta’s oil sands projects have long passed that symbolic mark.
Let’s begin with what Environment Canada claims. In 2014—the most recent year for which it has published figures (“Greenhouse Gas Emissions, April 2016”) describing oil sands-related emissions—they were put at 67.8 megatonnes. A “megatonne” is a million metric tonnes.
Environment Canada provides only three numbers in its inventory of greenhouse gas emissions to support that figure: one for “Oil sands—upgrading,” another for “Oil sands—in situ” and a third for “Oil sands—mining and extraction.” That’s it. That’s Environment Canada’s entire breakdown of emissions for an industry regularly described as the “fastest-growing source of emissions in Canada.” Again, those three numbers added up to 67.8 megatonnes in 2014.
The unavailability of information from the federal government around this highly controversial industry is startling. But because of the controversy—the oil sands have an international reputation as being a “dirty” source of energy—several independent analyses have been conducted to determine oil sands emissions intensity.
By “emissions intensity” we mean the amount of greenhouse gases released for each barrel of bitumen produced. Such analyses include carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide and other GHGs.
The independent analyses—which have had varying levels of independence from the Alberta government and the oil sands industry—were conducted to compare the emissions intensity of fuels derived from oil sands bitumen with fuels refined from other sources of crude oil. Most of the studies divide the entire life cycle of a fuel into stages and assign an emissions intensity value to each stage. The stages include extraction, upgrading, transportation by pipeline to a refinery, refining, delivery from refineries to distribution terminals, and so on through to combustion. The emissions that Environment Canada attributes to the oil sands industry in Alberta are limited to those from extraction, upgrading and pipeline transportation. Very little of Alberta’s bitumen is refined in Canada, and refining emissions are inventoried by Environment Canada in a separate category.
So when Trudeau approved Trans Mountain because Alberta promised to cap “oil sands emissions,” it’s only those first three steps—extraction, upgrading and pipeline transportation—that are included.
The independent studies have arrived at different values for the overall carbon intensity of those first three steps. Using an average of those values, along with the oil sands production records of Alberta Energy Regulator and the National Energy Board, we can determine a reasonably good estimate of emissions attributable to those first three steps.
What stands out in doing that arithmetic is that only by using a value for emissions intensity from the very bottom of the range produced by the independent studies could a value of “67.8 megatonnes” be obtained for oil sands emissions in 2014.
In our effort to confirm Environment Canada’s oil sands emissions, we used the average values for “Canadian Oil Sands” “extraction” and “crude transportation” determined by a 2014 study conducted by the US Congressional Research Service (US CRS). That office describes itself as “providing policy and legal analysis to committees and Members of both the House and Senate, regardless of party affiliation.”
Its report was a meta analysis of six previous studies that determined emissions from the oil sands. The US CRS determined an average emissions intensity of about 20 grams of carbon-dioxide-equivalent for each megajoule of bitumen produced, including extraction, upgrading and pipeline transportation.
That works out to 122 kilograms of carbon-dioxide-equivalent emissions per barrel of bitumen produced. To cover the additional energy required for upgrading, we used a standard 10 kilograms of carbon-dioxide-equivalent emissions per barrel. When those numbers are applied to the oil sands’ 2015 production volumes recorded by Alberta Energy Regulator, emissions from Alberta’s oil sands operations grow to about 116 megatonnes. That suggests oil sands emissions could already be significantly higher than Notley’s 100 megatonne cap.
To obtain Environment Canada’s much lower, official level of emissions for the oil sands projects, carbon intensity values about one-half of that determined by US CRS would need to be used (11 grams of carbon dioxide for each megajoule of bitumen produced). A study done by the Jacobs Consultancy in 2012 placed oil sands production emissions in that range. (This study was not included in the US CSR’s analysis.) But that study’s authors noted, “Jacobs Consultancy has not made an analysis, verified, or rendered an independent judgment of the validity of the information provided by others.”
The Jacobs study was commissioned by the Alberta Petroleum Marketing Commission. That Alberta government organization’s mandate includes responsibility “for exploring new opportunities for building new markets for oil and gas products within North America and abroad, and improving access to current and new markets for oil sands products…” Do I need to point out that APMC are trying really hard to sell more bitumen?
An earlier study done by Jacobs for the Alberta Energy Research Institute in 2009 was included in the US CRS study. That study determined values much closer to 20 grams of carbon dioxide equivalent for each megajoule of bitumen produced.
A 2013 scientific study, “Historical trends in greenhouse gas emissions of the Alberta oil sands, (1970–2010)” by Jacob Englander et al, also provides data that challenges the Alberta/Environment Canada version of emissions. It considered data from each of the oil sands projects and put production emissions intensity at 20 to 22 grams of carbon dioxide equivalent for each megajoule of bitumen produced. It estimated emissions related to extraction, upgrading and pipeline transportation in 2010 were about “70 megatonnes.” Applying the large increase in daily production that has occurred since 2010 to Englander’s estimate, annual emission from the oil sands in 2015 would be approximately 117 megatonnes.
Additional scientific research published in 2015 by Sonia Yeh et al on the net emissions associated with land-use impacts resulting from oil sands production helps to illustrate the significant undercounting of emissions that is occurring. The authors note: “We found that land use and GHG disturbance of oil sands production, especially in-situ technology that will be the dominant technology of choice for future oil sands development, are greater than previously reported.”
Based on expected production levels out to 2030, the authors estimated emissions as high as 10 megatonnes per year just from land use impacts. The 2013 Englander study put land-use impact for in-situ production at zero, so even its finding of emissions intensity is likely an undercount of actual emissions (Englander contributed to the Yeh study). Yet Englander’s value for emissions intensity translates to overall oil sands emissions being nearly twice as high as Environment Canada admits.
The current scientific evidence and level of uncertainty, then, conflict with information created by industry and government marketing organizations. Yet that clash is invisible in Notley’s vaunted Climate Leadership Plan. In the 97-page “Report to Minister” that launched the plan, feel-good aspirations about possible reductions in oil sands emissions intensity abound, but there isn’t a single direct account of current oil sands emissions. There is an indirect reference—in a pie chart—that, if a reader does the arithmetic, suggests emissions might have been 58 megatonnes in 2013. But the avoidance of a rigorous accounting of current oil sands emissions in Notley’s plan is a flashing yellow light: What are current emissions and what does that include?
Focus requested a detailed inventory of all greenhouse gas emissions from Alberta’s Climate Change Office. The only data it could provide was collected under Alberta’s Greenhouse Gas Emissions Reporting Program. That information covered only half of Alberta’s acknowledged overall emissions and was limited to “facilities” that emitted 50,000 tonnes or more each year. The most recent report that’s available covers 2013 and doesn’t reflect significant increases in oil sands production since then. It put 2013 emissions at 58 megatonnes, just like the pie chart in Notley’s Climate Leadership Plan.
Since 2013, Alberta oil sands production has increased by about 629,000 barrels per day. That increase alone, at the US Congressional Research Service’s carbon intensity average of 20 grams of carbon-dioxide-equivalent for each megajoule of bitumen produced, would have added close to 30 megatonnes. Added to Environment Canada’s dubious 2013 account of oil sands emissions, Alberta would now be at 94 megatonnes.
Let me sow a little more doubt about Environment Canada’s account of emissions. In the same publication as it provides its brief three-number summary of oil sands emissions mentioned earlier, it also summarizes “fugitive emissions” for all of Canada’s oil and gas industry, including the oil sands. Fugitive emissions are the greenhouse gases that escape from tailings ponds, oil sands mine faces, oil and gas valves, pumps and pipelines, and so on.
Environment Canada claims 30.5 megatonnes of oil- and gas-related fugitive emissions for 2012 (see its Table A.4. above). Yet provincial breakdowns of emissions data from Canada's National Inventory Report of emissions filed with the UN for 2012 show that fugitive emission produced by the oil and gas industry were actually 61 megatonnes. In other words, there’s 30 megatonnes of fugitive emissions from Canada’s oil and gas industry that are missing from Environment Canada’s description of the industry’s emissions. The lion’s share of oil and gas fugitive emissions, by the way, are released by Alberta—35 megatonnes each year.
That missing 30 megatonnes largely makes up the difference between the public perception of where oil sands emissions are currently (68 megatonnes) and Notley’s Cap (100 megatonnes).
When questioned by Focus, Environment Canada was unable to explain why fugitive emissions from the oil and gas industry were not fully counted in its depiction of national oil and gas sector emissions. It noted that the missing emissions were included in Canada’s National Inventory Report as submitted to the UN.
Trudeau and McKenna know that Canada’s emissions reporting procedures need to be improved and have proposed legislation to accomplish that. Under Stephen Harper’s climate-change-skeptical government, the reporting threshold for an industrial emitter had been 100,000 tonnes per year but was lowered to 50,000 tonnes in 2010. Now Environment Canada is hoping to move that down to 10,000 tonnes.
But on the day Trudeau approved Trans Mountain, he expressed certainty that the facts and figures were on his side. “This is a decision based on rigorous debate, on science and on evidence,” Trudeau said. “We have not been and will not be swayed by political arguments—be they local, regional or national.”
Prime Minister Trudeau linked approval of Trans Mountain to oil sands emissions not exceeding 100 megatonnes. But the best analysis that’s been applied to measurement of those emissions suggests it could already be as high as 120 megatonnes. That’s not a political argument. It’s a serious question about the “evidence” Trudeau is using.
NOTLEY'S CAP, the promise to somehow hold oil sands emissions to no more than 100 megatonnes, presumes they’re currently either 58 (Alberta) or 68 (Environment Canada) megatonnes. Through the cap, Alberta is giving itself permission to ramp up oil sands production by about 50 percent above current levels. The Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers’ 2016 projection to 2030 show oil sands production climbing to around 3.5 million barrels a day by about 2028 and then beginning to accelerate.
At the same time, the Trudeau government is acting on its commitment to significantly reduce Canadian emissions by imposing an escalating price on carbon for any province that doesn’t follow its lead.
The contradiction of facilitating oil sands growth while discouraging the use of fossil fuels with a carbon tax or fees is jarring enough. But the bizarre, long-term consequences for the Canadian economy of these two initiatives, if they both play out as hoped for by Trudeau and Notley, seems to have been overlooked.
As national emissions decline, emissions caused by production of bitumen destined for export will come to dominate Canada’s carbon budget. If Alberta’s fossil-fuel exports have a stranglehold on allowable emissions, its oil and gas industry could choke off economic opportunity in the rest of Canada.
Oil and gas extraction have high emissions per dollar of economic value that they create. Other industries in the same boat, like electricity and heat utilities, construction, manufacturing, forestry and agriculture, will be required to pay the same level of carbon fees for their activities even though their products—electricity, heat, infrastructure, housing and food—are essential to the well being of Canadians. Are exports of fossil fuels to the US necessary for Canadians to have a good quality of life? Where is the proof of that?
How soon might the strangling of the Canadian economy begin? For the analysis below, we start with Environment Canada’s numbers.
Environment Canada reports that, in 2014, 192 megatonnes of emissions were attributable to the oil sands and conventional oil and gas industries. As noted earlier, however, Environment Canada had removed 30 megatonnes of fugitive emissions from that account. If we put them back in, emissions related to Canada’s oil and gas industries were 222 megatonnes. How much of that was attributable to exported fossil fuels?
That year, according to the National Energy Board, 77.5 percent of crude oil and 47.5 percent of natural gas was exported. If those percentages are applied to the appropriate components of Environment Canada’s 222 megatonnes, emissions related to net exports of natural gas and oil, including bitumen, total 146 megatonnes.
So, two years ago, using Environment Canada’s suspect numbers, just emissions resulting from production of fossil fuels destined for export were already pushing McKenna’s mid-century goal of 150 megatonnes for Canada’s entire emissions budget.
If oil sands production continues to grow at the rate projected by Alberta Energy Regulator, then emissions from producing fossil fuels for export will climb at about the same rate. You might ask: Won’t there be improvements in emissions intensity?
The previously-mentioned study by Englander et al indicates the industry has flat-lined on improvements in emissions intensity since about 2005 and the increase in the extent of in-situ extraction, which is more emissions intensive than surface mining, could cancel out any efficiency gains that might be possible through improvements in technology. In-situ extraction involves injecting steam into the ground deep below the surface and, in effect, melting the bitumen out of the sands that contain it. It’s a process that involves burning a lot of natural gas to heat up water for steam. That form of extraction is expected to account for 60 percent of all bitumen production by 2025.
By 2035, emissions from production of fossil fuels destined for export could eat up more than 50 percent of all allowable emissions as Canada reduces its national emissions towards McKenna’s goal of 150 megatonnes. By 2045, producing fossil fuels for export could consume all of Canada’s allowable emissions.
If oil sands emissions have been underestimated to the extent suggested by the US CRS emissions intensity finding and other studies, emissions related to fossil-fuel exports could consume half of Canada’s carbon budget by 2028—and all of it by 2040.
Not included in this analysis is the potential for a large increase in emissions that would result from an increase in export of natural gas from Alberta, not covered by Notley’s Cap. The province’s vast and largely untapped reservoir of shale gas—estimated by Alberta to be 110 times larger than its conventional gas reserve—could come under intense development pressure if natural gas production in the US begins to falter.
The inevitable consequence of allowing oil sands production to grow—rather than starting to cut it back now—will be that Canada’s allowable emissions will be dominated by production of low-value bitumen for export, mainly to the US. Canada would never be able to turn off our powerful neighbour’s supply. Our country’s economic role in the world would then be to serve as America’s pump jockey.
When Trudeau announced approval of Trans Mountain he told his audience: “I have said many times that there isn’t a country in the world that would find billions of barrels of oil and leave it in the ground while there is a market for it.” The prime minister is apparently stuck on that idea and is unable to see that it no longer fits with the more fundamental need to lower carbon emissions and prepare properly for the low-carbon economy that Canada needs to build. Meanwhile, as Alberta’s premier flails about in a sea of low-value hydrocarbons, her promises threaten to pull the rest of Canada under with her. Trudeau has thrown her a life-ring, but to what end?
David Broadland is the publisher of Focus Magazine. He invites readers to comment on the ideas included in this article.
Related stories by David Broadland
Did the BC government fake LNG numbers before last year's election? (March 2014)
Jobs, jobs, jobs—and other exaggerations (June 2013)
The Capital Region’s population is expected to grow to 442,000 in the next 20 years. Where are we going to put everyone?
ON NOVEMBER 23, 2016 a majority of the Capital Regional District directors agreed that it was time to accept the long-time-coming new Regional Growth Strategy. The Province requires regional districts to have one of these planning guides, but it also insists that it be unanimously endorsed by each of the affected municipalities and electoral districts involved.
So it’s not done yet, and in fact indications are that some municipalities—likely the Highlands and Victoria, and perhaps others—will reject it by the end-of-January deadline. If that happens, the legislation allows the Province to step in and order binding arbitration.
From the start, the task has been both incredibly important to get right, and incredibly difficult—some would say impossible given our region’s history, present shape, and contrasting visions for the future among its “fiefdoms.” Over the years, it has morphed from a Regional Sustainability Strategy back to a Regional Growth Strategy.
Compromise may be central to governance in a region such as ours, but some lines in the sand seem to have been drawn and were in evidence at the November 23 meeting, when a key clause about water services was being finalized.
Delivery of water services—in the form of piped water—is viewed in urban planning circles as a crucial tool for shaping growth patterns. Where infrastructure allows water to flow, development follows. And that of course engenders more traffic and increased demand for other expensive services, whose cost is born by taxpayers throughout the region and Province. Here’s what UVic’s Environmental Law Centre wrote in a submission on the Regional Growth Strategy: “The primary way to maintain effective growth management is to limit both sewer and water servicing. It is well proven that once servicing is extended into rural areas zoning follows and densification occurs on a case-by-case basis.
There is no justification for extending servicing within the context of a regional sustainability strategy that is focusing on decreasing GHGs, creating compact complete communities, and connecting the green infrastructure of the region, when plentiful opportunities exist to accommodate development in serviced areas.”
Mike Hicks, director for the vast Juan De Fuca Electoral District, doesn’t share that perspective. At the November meeting, he was focused on the rights of his Port Renfrew-area residents to water—and to development. The Port Renfrew area sits on rock, he said, so well water is unreliable. “Without water...there’s no development.”
Several members of Port Renfrew’s development and business community made presentations at the meeting citing their problems with water and how that made their investments risky and endangered jobs and growth of the community.
Victoria councillor and CRD Director Ben Isitt, a long-time opponent of urban sprawl, in explaining why he couldn’t vote for the clause extending water services, noted that “entire hillsides have been blasted away [in the Port Renfrew area]...it’s been anything but a light touch that’s appropriate in rural areas…The [development] model being pursued there needs to be reigned in.” Isitt noted “the Province, through the legislation, has recognized that there’s a regional interest in land use patterns, in protection for biological diversity and ecological systems, and that decisions around how infrastructure expands, how development occurs, should be made at the regional level.”
Hicks, obviously emotional about it, replied: “Director Isitt brings it on home for me. [His objections have] got nothing to do with water; it’s got to do with land use, and Regional Growth Strategies, and having a big whip from Victoria down to Port Renfrew. We’ve got a little town that’s trying to make it. People say it’ll be the next Tofino, and they struggle with these meetings and this water and big developers…I don’t know how we can embrace David Suzuki and talk about water for everyone and turn around and say we won’t give it to the people of Port Renfrew.”
He asked CRD directors to “Please recognize the right of Port Renfrew residents to control their destiny.” In the past Hicks has threatened to challenge the RGS in court if it refuses to allow for piped water to these communities.
Perhaps such threats influenced the framers of the new Regional Growth Strategy (RGS). While CRD staff gave a report in which they stated, “Ultimately, [extending water services] is a political decision,” they still made a recommendation allowing for significantly more access to water than the previous RGS, despite, they noted, the opposition made clear at a public hearing in October.
Saanich Councillor and CRD Director Vic Derman, another opponent of sprawl, described himself as “flummoxed by the staff recommendation,” when other compromises existed. He said it almost guarantees the RGS will have to go to arbitration.
Alice Finall, mayor of North Saanich, noted that some are already calling the RGS the “Rapid Growth Strategy.”
After some discussion, a slim majority of the CRD board voted to accept the RGS with the new provision for water services in the Juan de Fuca lands. As mentioned, the refusal of any one council in the region to endorse it could send it to arbitration.
AT THE NOVEMBER MEETING, Vic Derman condemned the RGS on climate change grounds: “This document and the supporting document of the proposed climate change plan for the region are very tepid and very mild…We have mortgaged future generations—we are making it impossible for them to meet their needs. We are putting them into a hideous situation. This document doesn’t recognize that. It doesn’t take us far enough fast enough. It doesn’t canvas the tough questions. This document doesn’t meet our needs...not even close.”
Derman, who recently authored a report on climate change for the CRD environment committee (which he chairs), met me for tea at a White Spot within walking distance of his Saanich home.
He feels there has been a lack of leadership in terms of letting the public know clearly the consequences of failing to act boldly enough on the region’s growth, especially in relation to climate change. The original RGS, adopted in 2004 after years of deliberation, set the course, he feels. It did attempt to limit growth to eight major centres—only one of which was in the West Shore. But in order to get it passed, compromises were made. The obvious example of such a compromise was agreeing to Langford’s demand to make its municipal boundaries its “urban containment boundary”—meaning all of its 42-square-kilometres of land was able to be developed and serviced. Recall that in 2002 Langford’s council was pursuing rezoning for Bear Mountain, allowing for up to 1500 housing units and necessitating a new connector from the Trans-Canada Highway up Skirt Mountain. It hasn’t ended there.
Mayor Stew Young, exercising power continuously since 1993, and his pro-development council have approved big box stores that draw traffic from all corners of the region. They’ve offered fee reductions and tax holidays for developers. The result? Langford’s previously forested and agricultural lands, along with the many ecosystem services they provided, have been extensively blasted apart and paved over.
Most recently Young announced a 10-year tax holiday for any provincial office or tech company that opens in Langford. “I’m going to push this so hard. We need to put businesses where the people are,” Young told the Times Colonist.
Allowing Langford its rampant growth strategy in 2004, “was the price to getting an agreement,” reflects Derman.
Perhaps in light of what happened in Langford, this time there seems less willingness to compromise.
The new document (already about six years in the making) doesn’t fully recognize the urgency of climate change, says Derman. “Pretty much all the scientists agree we have already put enough carbon in the atmosphere to cause a 1.6 degree increase”—meaning we need to suck carbon out of the atmosphere in order to meet the Paris Agreement target. Moreover, notes Derman, at one degree of warming, you start to get feedback loops, like the melting of the permafrost which jacks up the temperature more. He tells me of a new study in Nature showing how soil will release more stored carbon as global temperature increases—another feedback loop. New data on the West Antarctica ice shelves, reviewed by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in the US, indicate that sea level could rise by three metres by 2050—spelling catastrophe for many cities around the world, not to mention inland cities as they try to cope with an influx of sea-rise refugees.
Over tea, Derman reiterates what he told fellow CRD directors at the November meeting: “The only thing that could possibly be more urgent to act on would be if a large asteroid was hurtling toward us.”
While cities don’t have as much authority as upper levels of government, they can set policies that will reduce automobile traffic, which in the CRD’s case is the source of 55 percent (and growing) of its greenhouse gas emissions. Under the business-as-usual scenario, the CRD’s Regional Transportation Plan (2014), a companion to its RGS, projects 100,000 new auto trips in peak periods. “[C]urrent travel patterns are not sustainable and current trends are not encouraging,” it states. Automobile use was found to be increasing, particularly between the West Shore and Core. In the West Shore, “87 percent of peak-hour trips are currently made by car.”
Yet such auto-dependent patterns seem assured by the RGS’s own population projections. It forecasts that the West Shore’s share of regional population will grow from 20 percent in 2011 to 26.7 percent by 2038, while the Core communities shrink from 69 percent to 62.6 percent. (The Saanich Peninsula holds steady at 11 percent.)
Derman feels the Regional Growth Strategy “fails to ask important questions—and probably the biggest one is where should we put people in the future? I don’t think the answer is in the Western Communities.”
I ask Derman about Mayor Young’s determination to bring jobs to Langford. “That just won’t work…The worst growth pattern is obviously sprawl,” he says, “but the second worst is nodes of density that are dispersed, because everybody doesn’t live where they work…as soon as you have dispersed nodes that are quite far apart, all you do is have a lot more travel between them. So it becomes much more expensive, it becomes more energy intensive, it’s bad for climate change, and it’s also bad for the second real big problem, congestion.” Derman says the congestion problem is a direct result of the land use pattern we chose. “Doubling down on it—by allowing more growth in more dispersed areas—is not a particularly good idea.”
Indeed, given that the CRD’s core communities—Oak Bay, Victoria, Saanich, Esquimalt and View Royal—have a population of 240,600, odds are very good that any ministry or larger business has far more employees among them than in Langford (population 35,000) or even Langford/Colwood (population 54,000 total).
The risk of “solving” the congestion to the West Shore, says Derman, is that it may encourage more people to drive. “The highway was supposed to last 30 years,” recalls Derman, “but it filled up in 11.” And it, along with the infrastructure services for residences, are all subsidized by all the Province’s taxpayers.”
If you really want to address both climate change and local quality of life, including congestion, he argues, the aim has to be a truly regional compact form of community.
He knows it works—on a number of levels—and can be done. He spent part of September in Amsterdam, a city of close to a million. “It’s three or four times the population size of our region. I was staying on the Western edge of the more developed area, and for me it was 8 minutes of rather easy cycling to the centre of town…They have a much, much more compact form.” He never saw a traffic jam either.
In his report to the CRD’s environment committee, Derman got specific about where development should be directed: “In our region, the Shelbourne Valley, the Douglas Corridor, the Fort Street Corridor and corridors between the City of Victoria and Esquimalt offer excellent opportunities to develop expanded complete communities in close proximity to the Downtown core.” Derman wishes the $85-million devoted to the Mackenzie interchange had been been used instead to help finance some sort of LRT or modern streetcar on the Douglas Corridor. Over our tea, we discuss a bigger public transit idea, a circular core route that hits UVic, Downtown and Uptown. This is where the vast majority of people in the CRD already are. Helping them manage comfortably and affordably without a vehicle seems more logical than an LRT to Langford.
Derman says he might support an LRT to Langford, but only in return for guarantees of serious restrictions on development. “If we spent the better part of a billion on LRT and it caused a huge new expansion of roads, and only lasted 10 years, what a disastrous waste,” he says.
WHILE THE REDUCTION OF GREENHOUSE GAS EMISSIONS is a huge benefit of compact, complete communities, it certainly is not the only one. To more fully grasp some of the others, I met with Todd Litman. Fittingly, I can walk to his home office. We both live in the central core—he in Fernwood and I in Rockland. It’s a pleasant 15-minute walk on a sunny, crisp day.
Though he lives in Victoria, Litman works all over the world as a transportation and smart growth consultant. The author of numerous research papers, he has focused on analyzing the many socio-economic benefits of compact communities. His latest report, “Selling Smart Growth,” lists improvements to fitness and health, personal finances, real estate industry profits, local economic development and property tax revenues among them.
As we sip jasmine tea, he tells me, “People who live in compact neighbourhoods, besides spending a whole lot less on transportation, have much lower traffic fatality rates. Since traffic fatalities are the main cause of death of people in the prime of life—that is between 5 and 50 years of age—there really is a huge public health and safety benefit if people are able to live in a more compact, walkable community.”
Unfortunately, our policies contradict our aims to be more sustainable and liveable.
In particular, governments at all levels tend to do a poor job of charging people the full costs of living in rural areas, says Litman. “It costs far more to get services to rural areas. And people who move out there…complain they are not getting their fair share when in fact they are getting more than their fair share.”
Changing expectations have a lot to do with it. In the past, Litman points out, “people knew that if they moved out to the countryside, they wouldn’t have quick emergency response times, and they’d have to drive their kids to school, and the local school wasn’t going to have as many services. And a lot of the roads would be gravel roads—and you’d accept that.” People now tend to expect urban-type services throughout the region—and complain about it when that doesn’t happen.
He gives the example of someone commuting from Sooke to a job in the core and expecting the government to spend millions to add capacity so he or she can avoid the Colwood Crawl. “They complain because the roads are congested and the funny thing is they don’t recognize that they are the cause of that congestion.”
Creating and maintaining more distant roads, sewers, water, community centres, and libraries, providing fire protection, policing, and public transit costs all taxpayers significantly more per rural household than delivering them to core residents. “In practice,” says Litman, “we usually split the difference—providing somewhat inferior services but spending more on them.” In a recent study, Litman enumerated the costs: “sprawl increases annualized infrastructure costs from $502 per capita in the smartest growth quintile cities up to $750 in the most sprawled quintile cities. This analysis indicates that sprawl’s incremental costs average approximately $4556 annually per capita, of which $2568 is internal (borne directly by sprawl location residents) and $1988 is external (borne by other people).”
Another set of policies that “contradict” the aims of growing in a smart way, and which Litman has done a lot of research around, is parking regulations. While we have no laws requiring a home for every person, we do have laws requiring one for every vehicle—in fact, between two and six spaces per vehicle when you factor in what businesses are forced to provide.
Typically, parking accounts for about 10 percent of the cost of a house, says Litman, while each parking space in the community costs $500-$1500 per year for surface parking, and twice that in underground or structured lots. “Many cars are worth less that the space they are provided,” he says.
And it’s worse out in the suburbs. In one of his reports, Litman writes: “In high density urban areas each automobile requires about 80 square metres of land for roads and off-street parking facilities. In lower-density, sprawled areas each automobile requires about 240 square meters of land for roads and parking, which significantly exceeds the amount of land devoted to most urban houses.”
“Zoning codes, in effect, assume we’re all drivers and this creates a self-fulfilling prophecy,” he tells me. The highest amount of parking per square metre is generally demanded of restaurants and bars. “On the one hand,” says Litman, “we have all these programs to discourage drunk driving…On the other hand, virtually all municipal governments assume that most people who are going to a bar will drive there.” The parking requirements force pub developers to move further out to the fringe where land is less costly—thereby further encouraging car travel.
“The very thing we want,” Litman laments—“that is, more compact, infill development—becomes economically infeasible due to the parking requirements.”
Downtown Victoria is the exception. Its commercial buildings aren’t required to provide parking. And this very lack, claims Litman, helps make the Downtown “the most valuable, attractive, walkable...vibrant” area of the region. When I mention the grumbles about parking Downtown, he insists, “People can find parking—they just can’t find free parking.”
He’s also encouraged that Downtown’s residential developments are averaging only .4 parking spaces per unit (very low by North American standards). By contrast, in suburban areas, he notes, each single-family dwelling is averaging 2 or 3 parking spaces (even multi-family apartments and condos in these areas average 1.5 per unit).
We need a mind-shift, he says, that it’s not OK to subsidize parking. “If we were rational, we would manage parking space more efficiently, and free it up for affordable housing.”
Litman feels that another mental shift we need to make is to recognize that the ideal family home is not necessarily a single family house. Families can live well in apartments. It’s only in the past 50 years or so that compact housing types became stigmatized.
This rings true for me. As a teenager in 1970s Winnipeg, I had friends who lived with their families in big, old, inner-city apartments. I thought it was cool.
Our new RGS includes “improving housing affordability” as a goal. But municipal development policies tend to deny families affordable housing in urban environments—we force them to “drive until they qualify” and then spend hours and dollars commuting on roads we all have to subsidize, says Litman. The majority of the land available for development is zoned only for single-family housing, he says, adding, “Neighbourhood associations work very hard to exclude compact, affordable housing types, including townhouses and especially apartments.”
The most cost-effective housing (taking into account land, construction and operating costs), says Litman, tends to be wood-frame, mid-rise multi-family buildings, without elevators. “If we wanted affordable housing for families, we would make it really easy for developers to build these. Instead, zoning codes make it virtually impossible in most neighbourhoods.” We sometimes allow high-rises, which certainly add density but these are more costly per square foot due to concrete use and elevators, so generally cannot provide the larger, affordable suites needed for families. Townhouses, low and mid-rises (up to 6 stories) and garden suites are the best bets in his view. He’s in favour of secondary suites as well, though given the amount of housing needed, they are not going to make a big dent. “We’re talking about a shortage of tens of thousands of housing units. If you already own a home, you are OK. It’s the young people who are just trying to get started—especially families with children that we do a terrible job of welcoming,” says Litman, adding that it’s also difficult for university students, artists, seniors living on a pension, or anyone without a lot of money. “Unfortunately we’re just not adding to the stock.” He says the type of infill development needed has become almost impossible due to the success of the neighbourhood associations that oppose that kind of development.
He believes the majority of new housing should be in the core, and that all housing should be developed in accordance with smart growth principles—“which means that the vast majority of houses are within walking distance of services and schools and parks and there’s good sidewalks…and good transit services.”
Like Derman, Litman likes the idea of a more efficient core transit system, whether LRT or more bus lanes. “The big benefit of buses [or LRT] is they can save families from owning a second car,” he says, which not only saves them a lot of money, but saves all those car-related expenses that taxpayers absorb. “Anything we can do to create a community where the typical household doesn’t need two cars…makes it better for everyone in the whole region,” he stresses.
IN SOME WAYS THE NEW REGIONAL GROWTH STRATEGY appears to acknowledge both Derman’s and Litman’s concerns. After noting projected growth of the CRD by 94,900 people to 441,800 in 2038, it states: “It continues to be clear, however, that even modest population growth would undermine the regional vision if it were accommodated as it has been since the 1950s, through further urban expansion into farms, forests and countryside. Further, an expanded regional footprint would significantly contribute to increased greenhouse gas emissions.”
It’s in the lack of details and specific implementation measures that it fails. At the October public hearing, Vicky Husband, a long-time resident of the Highlands who accepts the limitations of living in a rural setting, characterized the RGS as “weak and unenforceable.” She said, “It must include clearer targets and criteria for CRD board and municipal decisions to realize the vision it describes.”
Vic Derman agrees, saying it reminds him of New Year’s Resolutions: “I should lose weight; pass the chocolate pie. There’s all these motherhood statements.”
To transform away from a car-centric region, certainly what’s needed are bold new measures, rather than motherhood statements.
Yet even the RGS’s population growth projections express a willingness to let growth blossom in the West Shore. Combined with the provision of piped water to the Juan de Fuca district, critics like Husband say the RGS is boldly heading in the wrong direction. As mentioned at the outset, one of the main tools available to control growth is limiting water (and other services) to outlying areas. Appeals to fairness and “water as a human right,” however, have led to “more permissive” water servicing allowances.
I asked Todd Litman about this “human right” rationale. He said, “That’s actually an insult to anyone who deals with true human rights…what we’re talking about is the difference between having a pipe of water coming into their house or a truck. It’s not like they’re going to be dying of dehydration. They are relying on wells; they moved out there and knew that at some times of the year, their well is insufficient and so they need to get a truck to come in...There are people in the world who really have a shortage of water and for people of Juan de Fuca to claim that that’s a violation of their human rights is really kind of silly.”
After the 2004 RGS, it was Langford that, by getting its way, ended up taking the region for a rapid and dispersed growth ride. Derman told me some have suggested that because of that “the horse is already out of the barn.” So why not let Juan de Fuca have it’s piped water? Derman put it this way: “So you had 25 horses in the barn. You left the door open and 10 escaped. Does that mean we should let the other 15 escape as well?”
Leslie Campbell can’t help noticing all the possible sites for infill development in her long walks around Victoria. She welcomes your comments and input on this story and the issues it raises.
The road to election success in BC is paved with pipeline pitfalls.
AS THE PROVINCIAL ELECTION CAMPAIGN revs into high gear, parties are attempting to cement their own positions on the Trans Mountain pipeline, while searching for cracks and signs of ambilvalence in those of their opponents.
When the mix includes heavy oil, coastline protection, First Nations’ rights, jobs, firmly entrenched opinions, and provincial (and inter-provincial and federal) politics, however, getting to a clear position seems not perfectly straighforward. Just ask former NDP leader Adrian Dix about the consequences of unexpected pipeline pronouncements.
Dix, who announced his opposition to the pipeline expansion mid-campaign in 2013, shouldered much of the blame for the NDP defeat and particularly the loss of seats in the interior of the province where pipeline construction was expected to generate jobs. Clark’s Liberals, on the other hand, managed to appear to keep an open mind while sowing doubt about the NDP’s ability to deliver a healthy economic future for the province.
As 2017 party platforms take shape, however, some question whether the NDP lost votes because of opposition to the pipeline or because Dix was seen to have flip-flopped.
The only certainties are that the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion will be an election issue and that all parties will be attempting to emphasize consistency as the campaign gets underway.
“I don’t know how many people were annoyed with Adrian Dix because of Kinder Morgan in its own right and how many were annoyed that he was inconsistent,” said Jamie Lawson, University of Victoria political scientist. Today, Lawson added, there is a different economic backdrop and few full-time jobs are at stake, which could affect how people vote. The project, which will triple the amount of diluted bitumen pumped from Alberta’s oil sands to Burnaby, is expected to result in only 50 full-time jobs once construction is completed.
The score is Greens and NDP opposed and Liberals almost certainly in favour, with Premier Christy Clark announcing at a news conference, the day after Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced federal approval for the $6.8-billion project, that most of her five conditions have been substantially addressed.
The conditions include world-leading marine and land oil spill response and prevention, First Nations participation and benefits, a fair share of economic benefits, and successful environmental reviews. Clark said her government is still working with Ottawa on spill response and more assurances on jobs and economic benefits for BC.
Clark’s optimism that all conditions will be met was tempered last month by a letter to the federal government from Environment Minister Mary Polak listing 10 gaps in marine spill response.
And for British Columbians on the Lower Mainland and Vancouver Island, that marine spill response and prevention condition is the pivotal issue as concern is centred on the prospect of a seven-fold increase in the number of tankers plying the Strait of Georgia and Juan de Fuca Strait, increasing tanker traffic from five to 34 vessels a month.
That concern translates into a potential loss of Lower Mainland and Vancouver Island seats for the Liberals. As Professor Lawson explained, “For the Liberals the worry would be suburban Vancouver and Lower Mainland. The Kinder Morgan pipeline runs straight through rich Liberal territory.”
For the NDP, visceral worries about a spill are likely to work in their favour and the party will be helped by leader John Horgan’s understanding of tourism and fishing interests in rural and semi-rural areas, Lawson said. “These are people who are annoyed and worried about more tanker traffic. These are real economic concerns of real people who live outside the latté zone of Vancouver and Victoria,” he said.
The NDP is emphasizing that their opposition has been consistent since 2013, but the party is already under attack by the Liberals and Greens for lack of consistency, and a video tweeted on the Liberal caucus website attempts to resurrect the flip-flop accusations.
The video features Horgan as a weathervane, switching from a 2013 quote that it was appropriate for Kinder Morgan to go ahead, to current statements that Kinder Morgan cannot go forward.
However, the weathervane symbol might also be appropriate for Clark, suggested Lawson. “She has said here are our five conditions and frankly they are five conditions that sound good as slogans, but also work beautifully as weathervane policies. What is a world-class spill protection program? What does that actually look like and what are some of the other elements in that set of conditions? What do they really come down to?” asked Lawson.
“It comes down to, it is what the cabinet says it is, which allows them to look very consistent so long as they don’t have to make a decision…The terminology in those five conditions is such that they can approve it or not approve it and say they were consistent with their policy.”
George Heyman, NDP environment spokesman, scoffed at the weathervane video and pointed to Horgan’s letter to the National Energy Board listing reasons why Kinder Morgan should not proceed, and his own presentation to the Senate Transport and Communications Committee in September.
The New Democrat position on Kinder Morgan has been clear since the last election, he said. “The risk to the environment and the economy is too great and we will use every means available to us, if and when we are elected, to find a way to stop this project,” he said.
The Liberals are misleading people about their position by saying there are five hard- and-fast conditions when, in fact, they turned down the chance to do a made-in-BC environmental assessment and agreed to accept the results of the Harper-era assessment, Heyman said. “That was the best tool that BC had and Christy Clark gave that up,” he said.
The courts have subsequently ruled that BC must do an assessment and results are expected shortly.
Heyman doubts that the NDP will lose votes over its Kinder Morgan opposition, as he believes that most British Columbians understand the economic catastrophe that would follow a diluted bitumen spill on the coast, and he is confident that most party members support the position. There was discussion in caucus about the party’s decision, but there is no division, he said.
However, former NDP premier and cabinet minister Dan Miller is among New Democrats who believe the party should be supporting the project. “I am 72 this month and I try to think of my country once in a while,” he said, criticizing people who “set their hair on fire” when any development is proposed. “If the oilsands were in BC, wouldn’t we be looking to export that?” he asked, pointing out that revenues are needed to address pressing issues such as child poverty.
While the two major parties hold their ground on opposite sides of the issue, Green Party leader Andrew Weaver is emphasizing that only the Greens have consistently said that heavy oil tankers should be banned from the BC coast because there is no way to clean up a spill of diluted bitumen. It comes down to a matter of trust, and that is what BC voters will be looking for in May, he said.
“The NDP have been all over the place on this, and the Liberals have these loosey-goosey five conditions which are a wonderful political calculation, but in terms of them being met, what are the criteria? They have never been outlined,” Weaver said.
“I can say unequivocally that the BC Greens are opposed to diluted bitumen in our waters, because you simply cannot clean it up,” said Weaver, who would support going a step further and doing an assessment on diluted bitumen being moved through the existing pipeline.
Weaver believes that there are clear signs that the NDP is looking for a way to support the project, possibly by having Kinder Morgan move the terminus from Burnaby to Roberts Bank or to Cherry Point in the US, and pointed to an opinion piece in the Vancouver Sun by former NDP premier Mike Harcourt suggesting exactly that.
“Mr Horgan has said at least three times in the past that he supports this project and I think he is seeing how to get to yes, and at the same time alleviate the concerns of the people in Vancouver,” Weaver speculated.
Look carefully at words being used, said Weaver, pointing to a statement by Horgan that the terminus of the existing pipe in Burnaby may have made sense in 1950, but it does not make sense in 2017 to have a superport in the heart of Vancouver. “Where he’s going with this, is he thinks this is a big compromise that he thinks he can get a win on,” Weaver said.
While the parties scramble for position, however, the final decision may eventually rest with the courts, not politicians, as seven lawsuits challenging the National Energy Board’s report have already been filed and more are expected.
Chris Tollefson, University of Victoria law professor and founding executive director of UVic’s Environmental Law Centre, said it is increasingly clear that the process was so flawed that Cabinet did not have the best available science in front of them when they made the decision.
“I can predict that we will still be talking about this in two years,” he said. “This is the kind of case that ultimately could well be heard in the Supreme Court of Canada.”
Judith Lavoie is an award-winning journalist specializing in the environment, First Nations, and social issues.
British Columbians gear up with court challenges, protest plans, and voting campaigns to prevent the pipeline.
WITH PRIME MINISTER TRUDEAU'S DECISION to allow Kinder Morgan’s Trans Mountain Expansion Project to go ahead, the consensus expressed by a wide swath of British Columbians amounted to: Over our dead bodies. Citizens across Canada, including Victoria, immediately took to the streets in protest. Green Party leader and Saanich-Gulf Islands MP Elizabeth May promised to go to jail before allowing the pipeline, which would nearly triple the capacity of the existing line, to reach BC’s coast. “This is not an issue where you compromise,” May said, echoing what many citizens are feeling. The pipeline is becoming the proverbial line in the sand, one that even Conservative Party Interim Leader Rona Ambrose recognizes. She has predicted that it will never be built due to protests in BC.
Those in opposition, however, who see themselves as protectors more than protesters, are not going to make any such assumptions.
The growing chorus of opposition from mayors, First Nations and ordinary citizens publicly stating a willingness to lay down in front of bulldozers has given rise to concern from Alberta business leaders. Federal Natural Resources Minister Jim Carr tried to reassure them recently by saying: “If people choose for their own reasons not to be peaceful, then the government of Canada, through its defence forces, through its police forces, will ensure that people will be kept safe.”
In response to Carr’s remark, Stewart Phillip, grand chief of the Union of British Columbia Indian Chiefs, told CTV’s Evan Soloman: “I think it was an incredibly stupid and clumsy statement to make in an already volatile situation, [on] a deeply emotional issue here in British Columbia. And it’s just absolutely senseless, counter-productive and unhelpful.”
Chief Phillip is also a spokesperson for the Treaty Alliance Against Tar Sands Expansion. At time of press, 112 First Nations from across Canada and the US had signed onto the declaration. Phillip told Focus that the declaration “is evidence that this is a global movement and not just a fight against another dirty pipeline by Enbridge. This is not simply an indigenous issue; climate change and the catastrophic impacts that we have witnessed to date and the potential impacts that will manifest in the future, are a matter of grave concern of all people around the world.”
First Nations have clearly provided guidance over the last seven years building the treaty alliance from Burnaby to Quebec and Standing Rock to Lelu Island, tackling the transcontintental downstream climate change issues at their upstream tar sand source.
First Nations—Tsleil-Waututh, Squamish, Cheam, Chawathil and Kwantlen—have filed no less than seven Judicial Reviews of the National Energy Board decision on Trans Mountain.
RAVEN (www.raventrust.com), with partners like Sierra Club, are supporting these indigenous legal challenges with a campaign patterned after the highly successful Pull Together which helped seven nations kill the Northern Gateway in court.
But Grand Chief Stewart Phillip warns that people “shouldn’t become too focused on the indigenous dimension of the issue and the court battles. It creates a false sense of security amongst the general population that ‘we don’t have to be overly concerned because the indigenous people will take the lead and save the day.’” To this end, the UBCIC have set up the “Coast Protectors Pledge” (coastprotectors.ca) to provide a means that “friends and allies can support indigenous efforts” with their presence in direct actions.
I think the Chief will be pleasantly surprised by the vast and determined resistance to this pipeline. In my 25 years of reporting, I don’t recall such a concerted and increasingly coordinated effort from such a range of groups—local to international, and social to ecological justice—opposing what so many regard as the great line in the sand.
Last March, an EKOS poll showed 57 percent of British Columbians opposed to Kinder Morgan’s plans. By November, an Insights West poll commissioned by Dogwood Initiative found British Columbians were opposed to oil tanker expansion two-to-one. Trudeau may say his decision is based in science, but British Columbians are not convinced. They know the challenges of cleaning up any oil spill in coastal waters, let alone one of sinking bitumen.
It’s crystal clear to any seasoned campaigner—and increasingly embraced by British Columbians—that now is the time to transition off fossil fuels, not expand its infrastructure.
IF YOU FALL INTO the “opposed” or “want to find out more” category on the Trans Mountain pipeline, you will no doubt have received a deluge of requests to sign petitions or support varying activities against Kinder Morgan. These aren’t just coming from more established organizations like Sierra Club of BC, Greenpeace, STAND (previously ForestEthics), Dogwood Initiative, Georgia Strait Alliance, Western Canada Wilderness Committee, Living Oceans Society, Raincoast Conservation Foundation and Council of Canadians. There is a proliferation of small grassroots groups with catchy acronyms like SOS (Save our Shores) on Galiano to BROKE (Burnaby Residents Opposing Kinder-Morgan Expansion) and my all-time favourite, NOPE (North and West Vancouverites Opposed to Pipeline Expansion). My own island of Salt Spring has the Save the Salish Sea, (with a southern chapter that creates quite an alliterative mouthful). Even Sooke, slower historically to embrace environmental issues, was the first municipality to bring forward the resolution to oppose tanker expansion at the Union of BC Municipalities through its own Transition Sooke.
Petitions are also coming thick and fast from online organizations including leadnow.ca, AVAAZ, the youth-led Climate101, and 350.org. The latter is leading the charge on divestment from tar sands by our nation’s institutions and shifting investment to renewables. The divestment movement has doubled since 2015. According to 350.org, “worldwide 688 institutions in 76 countries, representing more than $5 trillion dollars worth of assets, have committed to divest.”
First Nations aren’t the only ones turning to the courts, either. Ecojustice lawyers, representing Raincoast Conservation Foundation and Living Oceans Society, filed for Judicial Reviews this summer to challenge the National Energy Board’s narrow interpretation of the law protecting Southern Resident orcas and their critical habitat. That legal action is still before the courts and they are filing a second legal challenge. West Coast Environment Law is continuing its critical analysis of the Trudeau handling—some would call mishandling—of the Trans Mountain environmental impact assessment review.
With a provincial election in May, the Dogwood Initiative is creating BC’s largest network of organized voters with canvassers getting the word and vote out. The Dogwood’s Charles Campbell notes that “if we end up with a government that supports tankers, we are actively preparing a Citizens’ Initiative to block bitumen transport to the West Coast.”
Faith groups are also getting involved, including the United Church of Canada’s national campaign against Kinder Morgan, Christians for Climate Justice, and smaller faith groups like the Vancouver Quakers Standing Against the Kinder Morgan Pipeline.
Unions, arts groups, universities and their faculty associations have all stepped forward to support resistance to the project. A short investigation into what to expect revealed more oil-oriented theatrical performances, poetry slam readings, art exhibits, and even country songwriters.
The range of involvement is amazing when you start probing. These are the “blessed unrest,” as Paul Hawken first described the largest unnamed social movement in the world in his 2007 bestseller of that name. Naomi Klein termed the growing resistance of ordinary folks to high-risk fossil fuel extraction “Blockadia.”
People can participate in a wide variety of ways, from donating funds, to volunteering, to risking arrest at a blockade. Chief Phillip says, “The point here is that this is a campaign with lots of activities. People have to be ready to drop what they are doing, get on a ferry and go to rallies or hold rallies in solidarity in their own home areas.” The UBCIC will be conducting training sessions where people can come together and then take what they learn back home to share with others.
Opposition to the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion and the seven-fold increase of oil-carrying Aframax tankers it will result in, Chief Phillip says, must emphasize action: “We don’t have the luxury of time to be sitting around for the next three months.”
Briony Penn doesn’t live at “tidewater.” She lives in a real place called the Salish Sea. Her most recent book “The Real Thing: The Natural History of Ian McTaggart Cowan,” won the Roderick Haig-Brown Regional Prize and the inaugural Mack Laing Literary Prize.
Policies friendly to the manufacturers of prescription drugs bear a lot of responsibility for the current opioid crisis.
I WITNESSED THE EFFECTS OF THE OPIOID CRISIS first hand in November. It was a Sunday afternoon and my brother and I were driving from East Vancouver into Downtown. In the space of about five blocks along Hastings Street we saw no less than three clusters of fire engines and ambulances, their lights flashing while swarms of first responders scurried to administer to those overdosing in broad daylight. As we wove our way through the melee my brother and I looked at each other and said: Is this what the opioid crisis looks like in BC?
Surely this is the most visible face of the crisis, but it’s also unfolding in middle-class homes as young people experiment and others manage chronic pain with some of the most powerful drugs on the planet. Back in April, as the Provincial Health Officer was declaring a public health emergency in BC, people were dying from overdoses at astonishing rates. They still are. As of the end of November, BC Coroner’s service reported 755 illicit overdose deaths for 2016 in BC. A Canadian Research Initiative report noted that “the number of pharmaceutical opioid-related deaths exceeds the number of deaths from motor vehicle accidents involving alcohol in BC.”
The question we need to answer, especially given that these deaths often involve legally-obtainable, provincially-covered painkillers, is this: Who is responsible and how can we stop the mounting death toll?
It’s worth thinking of the parable of the bridge. You know the old story where babies are spotted floating down a river, and a village is mobilized to jump in and save them one by one. The villagers become very busy saving babies from drowning, but it isn’t until someone asks, “How are those babies ending up in the river?” that a search party is sent upstream only to discover someone flinging them off a bridge. It’s pretty clear British Columbians are mobilizing to save those babies, yet some would argue we haven’t a clue how to mount an effective search party.
Let’s be clear: Death by overdose is a very small but very noticeable part of a very large problem that is threatening entire communities. Some say political attention is happening now because it’s not just marginalized Canadians who are dying, but also young people from middle-class families who are consuming and dying from weapons-grade opioids.
Andrew Weaver, the Green Party MLA from Oak Bay-Gordon Head, wants to know what is happening. “Why is it people are getting addicted? That’s a key thing.” But he also reports, “I’ve had constituents who have died—kids who come from decent homes. Those who are recreational drug users.”
While there is certainly a criminal element linked to the current spate of fentanyl deaths, many researchers are focusing some blame at prescribing policies, as well as political leaders who, the researchers say, have been asleep at the switch.
A November 2015 report from the BC Node of the Canadian Research Initiative on Substance Misuse states that “ultimately, prescribers are largely responsible for the burgeoning illicit market in pharmaceutical opioids that has developed on the streets of BC. In fact, the entry of organized crime groups into the manufacturing of counterfeit pharmaceutical opioids (which often contain fentanyl) to fuel the street market for illicit or diverted opioids is arguably a direct result of longstanding unsafe physician prescribing practices.”
Dr David Juurlink, an opioid expert at the University of Toronto, told the Evidence Network that “with the benefit of 20 years of hindsight we have seen we’ve harmed patients and we have introduced into circulation millions upon millions of opioid tablets that have fallen into the wrong hands and it’s a direct result of our prescribing.”
He also noted that “many of the companies who made these drugs have a role in the genesis of the problem—they have to face up to it.” He added that the drug companies “continue to advocate for the continued use of these drugs and, in some instances, have obstructed efforts to attenuate this crisis.”
Many of the addicts turning to street-level drugs probably had their first taste of opioid from a doctor, a fact even the BC College of Physicians and Surgeons recognizes. A news release from June this year had Registrar and CEO Dr Heidi Oetter cut to the chase, writing that “physicians also play a role by over-prescribing opioids, sedatives and stimulants.”
Tom Evans, a New Brunswick doctor told CBC News that “most people who try fentanyl have already tried many other prescription drugs.” He also said: “You don’t get to fentanyl without passing through codeine, OxyContin, MS Contin, Tramacet—you don’t get there without being exposed to the narcotics first—you have to have the gateway drug.”
There’s clear evidence that when scripts for legal opioids run out, people turn to other places. Research in Canada and the US has found that most new heroin addicts turned to heroin after their supply of an opioid (maybe morphine or oxycontin) ran out. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, “Nearly half of young people who inject heroin surveyed in three recent studies reported abusing prescription opioids before starting to use heroin.”
Yet the focus in BC doesn’t come close to tackling problems related to the behaviour of the pharmaceutical industry or the prescribing by doctors. Why is that? Perhaps one has to follow the money.
IT DOESN'T TAKE A ROCKET SURGEON to see how close the BC Liberals are to the pharmaceutical industry. For example, in late November, a news release entitled “Transforming drug research and development in BC” announced that the BC Liberals tossed another $13 million to UBC’s Centre for Drug Research and Development (CDRD), which was on top of the previous $29 million they gave them in 2012 in order to support the centre’s goal of “bringing new drug therapies to the market.” This centre’s purpose, of commercializing drug discoveries, is basically to help industry make drugs that make money.
As far as I can tell, the only new therapy that is being brought to market in BC (though not by the CDRD) in any enthusiastic way is naloxone, the antidote to help prevent death by opioid overdose. While naloxone saves lives, one cannot miss the massive dose of cynicism around the fact that some of the same companies selling fentanyl are also selling the antidote. How’s that for double dipping? While everyone welcomes any efforts to stop overdosers from dying, one might legitimately ask: “Where is the action to prevent the babies being tossed off the bridge in the first place?”
To their credit, besides increased access to naloxone, the BC government has injected $10 million into an addiction treatment research and training centre, as well as set up a Joint Task Force on Overdose Prevention. In announcing this task force, the Premier said that they want to work with the feds to expedite safe injection sites, restrict the sale of pill presses, and limit access to the constituent ingredients of black-market fentanyl. All decent actions to deal with the supply, but what about the demand?
And there’s still little help for those wanting off the drugs. MLA Judy Darcy, the BC NDP Health Critic, told me she attended a City of Vancouver forum on the fentanyl crisis. “We heard loud and clear that treatment and recovery has fallen off the table,” she said, adding, “We have no funded treatment programs in British Columbia.” Darcy said that treatment in BC is really only for those who can afford the immense cost (often $30,000 or more), and even then, many addicts need several expensive tries at rehab before they get to sobriety. The Liberals’ 2013 election promise of 500 treatment beds has failed to materialize, though they are now aiming to have them in place by March.
Andrew Weaver characterized the BC Liberals’ mode of action as “all reactive, not proactive.” That could be, he surmised, due to the Liberals’ own addiction—to money. From his perspective, “the BC Liberals are beholden to their donors and they only listen to their lobbyists.”
A quick search of the lobbying registry in BC finds that more than 20 percent of the lobbying in BC happens around healthcare; pharmaceutical companies are among the most active lobbyists in that sector. There are dozens of registered drug lobbyists in BC, many representing drug giants like Pfizer, Eli Lilly and Novartis, which make opioid painkillers.
Since the late 1990s, drug manufacturers in Canada have underwritten the writing of pain guidelines, and paid “key opinion leaders” in the physician community to downplay the dangers of opioids. This helps explain why, globally, Canada is second only to the US in per capita prescription opioid consumption.
In November 2016, six officials connected to Subsys, the company that makes prescription fentanyl in the US, were indicted on a range of charges, including conspiring to bribe physicians and offering kickbacks for getting them to prescribe their fentanyl-based pain drug. The extent to which this kind of thing is happening in BC is impossible to determine, because the BC Ministry of Health has no program in place that tracks physician payments by pharmaceutical companies.
Three years ago the Vancouver Sun reported that drug companies and pharmacies donated $582,549 to the BC Liberals between 2005 and 2012, an amount that is 14 times what those organizations gave to the NDP. (During those same years, opioid prescriptions rose by around 30 percent.) Astonishingly, the BC Liberal convention this fall was underwritten by at least two drug companies and a chain drug store!
Does all this drug money and influence work? According to Andrew Weaver, “There is no question that the BC Liberals are influenced by those with the deepest pockets.”
The result is pro-pharma policies that have fuelled the opioid epidemic in BC. Since the mid-1990s, for instance, liberal prescribing of opioids can be linked to the message-crafting activities of the pharmaceutical industry that helped shape both patient perceptions of pain and influenced how doctors thought about the safety of these drugs.
Here in Victoria, we’ve seen ongoing efforts to destroy independent research and evaluation, most spectacularly through the ongoing saga of the 2012 Ministry of Health firing scandal, including the suicide of one of the researchers. The estimated $100-million price tag for that fiasco, and the death of a culture of drug safety evaluations, has not yet ended as the government has punted this embarrassing problem to Ombudsman Jay Chalke.
Programs that we had in place to monitor prescribing and to educate physicians have been scrapped by this government. The torpedoed research and evaluation branch of BC Pharmacare has never been resuscitated. Independent evaluators, like those at the Therapeutics Initiative at UBC, could be used to help document and evaluate opioid prescribing in BC, but they have been pushed to the sidelines.
The College of Physicians and Surgeons new guidelines are attempting to crack the whip on opioid prescribing, but they may just end up driving even more people to the street to find the pain relievers they’ve become addicted to.
Ultimately, we have the capacity to mount a search party and find out who is flinging those babies off the bridge. But with an election looming, don’t expect any serious attempts to stop the flow of opioids or to stand up to the culture of pharmaceutical industry largesse that continues to percolate through the Ministry of Health’s decision making.
Alan Cassels is a Victoria author and pharmaceutical policy researcher. He has written four books on the medical screening and pharmaceutical industry including the latest, The Cochrane Collaboration: Medicine’s Best Kept Secret.
Our correspondent was in Wellington, New Zealand when a M7.8 earthquake struck in November. Her experience illustrates what could be in store for Victoria. Last year geoscientists confirmed a major, active fault within a few kilometres of our own Downtown.
I WAS WOKEN BY THE FIRST HEAVY JOLT at 12:02am. The bed started swaying madly, like a hammock in a windstorm. Dishes rattled noisily in the kitchen. The walls creaked and groaned, and I heard the thud of a picture falling in the living-room. The noise outside was terrifying: a berserk, non-stop roaring sound that was almost impossible to comprehend. My mind still dazed with sleep, clutching the side of the bed, I simply lay there, appalled, frozen. It didn’t even occur to me to try and get up or run to a doorway, let alone to drop, cover and hold.
Both noise and motion ended as suddenly as they had begun, at 12:04am. Somewhere on the hill below the apartment I could hear gushing water pouring out of broken water pipes. Lights were coming on in houses all over the neighbourhood. From Downtown I could hear sirens start up.
I leapt out of bed, and straight onto the internet. The news reports were that a 15-kilometre deep 7.8 magnitude earthquake had just occurred 60 kilometres from Kaikoura, a small coastal South Island town 150 kilometres south of Wellington, where I live. The extent of any damage was unknown.
Astoundingly, nothing was broken in the apartment. I peered outside, but apart from the sound of running water down the hill, the neighbourhood was quiet. It didn’t look as though the earthquake had much impact in our area, but it was too dark to really judge. Downtown Wellington was lit up like a Christmas tree, but there was next to no information about the city on the internet yet. Eventually, despite frayed nerves but with little other option, I went back to bed.
There was no more sleep for thousands of other people in the city that night, however. A friend in Lyall Bay—a low-lying beachside neighbourhood similar to Oak Bay—was also jolted awake at 12:02. A few moments later, tsunami warning sirens started to blare. Leaping out of bed, Trina threw a coat over her pyjamas, grabbed her emergency kit, her dog, and her 93-year-old mother, and bundled them all into her car to join a panicked stream of traffic snaking its painfully slow way to higher ground.
As she drove, she tried to remember how long you have to get away from a tsunami. Half-an-hour? Fifteen minutes? She and her mother spent the rest of the sleepless hours until dawn in her car, parked on a suburban street as high up as she could get. Even when the sirens stopped, Trina was too scared to return home in the dark.
In Wellington’s central business district, hundreds of frightened shift-workers, apartment dwellers, hotel guests, and late-night revellers poured into the streets, dodging broken glass and fallen concrete. They were shepherded into cramped shelters hastily arranged by emergency workers. United in their fear and uncertainty, university students, partiers and tourists huddled shoulder-to-shoulder with exhausted business travellers and office cleaners, sharing blankets, water bottles, and nervous jokes. At dawn, they were finally given the all-clear to head home or back to their hotels.
Dramatic as the night had been for Wellingtonians, it quickly became clear the next morning that it was Kaikoura that had borne the brunt of the M7.8 quake. A small whale-watching tourist centre on the arid and steep east coast of the South Island, Kaikoura (population 3740) is famous for its crayfishery (“Kaikoura” literally means “place to eat crayfish”). It’s also the mid-point on the South Island’s only major south-north route, State Highway One between Christchurch, 150 kilometres to the south, and Wellington, 150 kilometres north over Cook Strait via the interisland ferry system. Like the portion of the Island Highway between Campbell River and Port Hardy on Vancouver Island, there are only a handful of tiny settlements in between.
Scientists believe at least ten large faults ruptured around Kaikoura, a phenomenon that manifested itself with staggering brutality. In just 90 hellish seconds, the north-east tip of the South Island moved more than two meters. Kaikoura moved a metre north.
As many as 100,000 landslides were triggered, destroying roads and damming rivers. Several of the biggest obliterated large sections of the state highway were on either side of Kaikoura, each covering areas up to 500,000 square metres in size—the equivalent of two-thirds of Victoria’s Beacon Hill Park being covered in rubble dozens of metres thick, several times over. All road access to the town was completely blocked.
Inland, massive new ravines up to ten metres deep and running for hundreds of metres in length were created. New lakes formed overnight. On the coast, huge stretches of foreshore tilted sideways, exposing massive beds of highly prized paua (abalone) to dehydrate and die in the open air. Commercial fishing boats and whale-watching launches were stranded at their wharves, their keels suddenly mired in a seabed that had risen two metres in height since they had docked the previous evening.
Power and phone lines were wiped out. Multiple bridges were destroyed. Water supply and sewerage pipes and infrastructure were severely damaged. Dozens of houses were also badly damaged, their contents smashed and strewn across floors. Astoundingly, only one person died, when a century-old farmhouse collapsed. By comparison, Wellington appeared to have escaped lightly. At least, so it seemed at first.
WELLINGTON, NEW ZEALAND'S CAPITAL, and Victoria share many similarities. Wellington’s small harbour is ringed by government offices, museums, hotels, theatres, apartment buildings, and shopping streets. The university is located in a pleasant residential suburb not far from downtown. The greater Wellington regional district, population 500,000, encompasses several municipalities and electoral areas with bedroom communities, parks, shopping malls, light commercial industry, and small farms. On sunny days, the Wellington waterfront is typically full of runners, tourists, and office workers taking their lunch break.
Both Wellington and Victoria are also in earthquake/tsunami zones.
On the morning after the earthquake, however, with news reports urging people to stay home until the extent of any damage could be properly assessed, the central business district was a ghost town. From the news images, things didn’t seem too bad. No tsunami had eventuated. The roads were fine, except for a few small rockfalls. The impact on buildings appeared superficial, limited to broken windows and small amounts of fallen rubble on a couple of streets.
But as the hours and then days went by, it became clear that the severity of the damage was considerably worse than initially thought. Waterfront paving at the industrial port had been torn into gaping holes, leaving heavy machinery stranded. Stacks of shipping containers teetered precariously like imbalanced domino tiles. Some of them had toppled over altogether, crushing whatever was beneath them. Piles of raw logs awaiting shipment to China had fallen and scattered like matchsticks.
Out in the harbour, five inter-island ferries floated at anchor, unable to dock. Twenty-four hours later, with the passenger bridge at the downtown terminal seriously damaged, they were still waiting. On the other side of the Strait, the passenger waiting lounge at Picton had dropped by a metre. It took another day for the ferries to be able to dock, and a week before full service between the islands could be restored.
Three days after residents of downtown apartment buildings returned to their homes, thinking the worst was over, hundreds of them were ordered out again with no warning. Following closer inspection, several buildings had been deemed too dangerous to permit continued occupancy. Residents were given just minutes to leave. People who had already left for the day were not allowed back inside. It may be several months before they can return.
More than 30 other government buildings, commercial high-rises, schools, and parking buildings were closed for structural assessment and clean up. Three buildings were immediately red-stickered for demolition. More than 100 small businesses adjacent to the condemned buildings were cordoned off, deemed too close for comfort if an aftershock should occur before demolition can take place. Most of them are still closed, weeks later. Many will not survive an economic disaster of this scale, especially during what should have been the lucrative Christmas retail season.
Several key government buildings, including those that house the Treasury and the Departments of Defence, Environment, Statistics, and Conservation, remain closed with extensive structural damage. Government officials are trying frantically to carry on business from makeshift premises elsewhere, limited by a lack of access to paper files and central computer servers. It too is a situation that may carry on for months.
Down in Kaikoura, temporary water pipes have been set up pending proper repairs, which could take months. A boil-water advisory is in place indefinitely. The sewerage system is operating, but also requires extensive repairs. Anyone who doesn’t need to be there has been encouraged to leave to reduce pressure on the systems.
The government has just announced a $2-billion remediation package for State Highway One. Bulldozers are already working on clearing the highway, but it won’t be open again before Christmas.
Even then, I won’t be driving on it. The slips may have been cleared away for now, but much of the highway remains in the shadow of ominously steep and unstable cliffs. Some experts believe the road realistically cannot be safely remediated and that a new route needs to be built further inland.
State Highway 70, notionally an alternative inland route to Kaikoura from Christchurch, is currently little more than a country lane. It was also badly damaged in the quake. Even army trucks were initially not permitted to attempt traversing it. A month later repairs are still under way, and it remains closed to any traffic other than essential supply runs into Kaikoura. Heavy rainfall or another landslip could take it out again in a heartbeat.
With their season’s profits wiped out, local fishermen and businesses that rely on tourism are contemplating a lean year ahead. Unsurprisingly, few tourists have come to town since the quake. Even if road access was available, fear of aftershocks is keeping them away. Friends of ours from Gabriola visiting the South Island cut the rest of their holiday short, booking the first flight out of the country they could get. It’s hard to blame them.
DESPITE THE EXTENT OF THE DEVASTATION, both physical and economic, I can’t help thinking that it could have been a lot worse. It could have happened in the middle of the day. If it had, it’s beyond doubt there would have been many more fatalities.
The landslides would almost certainly have killed drivers in the typical daytime nose-to-tail traffic on State Highway One. The passenger lounge at the Picton ferry terminal might have collapsed completely under the weight of a full sailing load of people waiting to board. People in Wellington office buildings where structural beams gave way, filing shelves crushed desks, indoor plants flew across rooms and whiteboards embedded themselves in walls—as they did in an office where I frequently have meetings—would surely have died.
Such speculation inhabits my thoughts these days. My state of mind has changed. I fill empty wine bottles with water and store them in the pantry, silently thanking the New Zealand wine industry for using screw tops these days instead of corks. I repeatedly make lists of emergency supplies. I avoid going downtown if I don’t have to. I take my phone with me everywhere I go, even to the bathroom. What if it happens while I’m in the shower?
The fatal 2011 Christchurch earthquake was preceded six months earlier, in September 2010, by a shake eerily similar in impact to the November 14 event. I wonder if that’s what’s coming next for us. I question whether we should move away from Wellington. Ironically, at the same time I contemplate cancelling our holiday plans. What if it happens in our absence and we lose everything? Should we take all our important papers with us just in case?
Even though it has been more than a month now since it happened, I still flinch when a heavy truck on the road below makes the windows rattle or a gust of wind makes the apartment shake. I follow @GeoNet on Twitter obsessively. On December 12, the seismic hazard monitoring agency reported that the total number of aftershocks since November 14 was standing at 8735, a staggering average of more than 310 a day.
Most of them have been too weak to be noticeable. But dozens of them have still been strong enough to make the walls of the apartment creak and my office chair rock from side to side. The gaps between the shakes are getting longer, but every time I think things might finally have settled down, another short jolt reminds me not to relax just yet. The latest one was yesterday.
I’m sure it won’t be the last.
The Canadian Club of Victoria is presenting “A Guide to Earthquake and Tsunami Preparedness: Learning from Christchurch NZ” at their January 17 luncheon at Harbour Towers Hotel, 345 Quebec St, 11:45am. Rajpreet Sall and Tanya Patterson from the City of Victoria’s Emergency Management Division will review the types of earthquakes we might expect, provide some tsunami modelling, outline recovery procedures, and provide information about emergency kits and supplies. Members $28, non-members $33. Reserve at www.eventbrite.ca or 250-370-1837.
Katherine Palmer Gordon is an author and land claims negotiator. She is currently dividing her time between her two homes on Gabriola Island, BC, and Aotearoa/New Zealand. She invites readers to share their own experiences with earthquakes at www.focusonvictoria.ca.
Also see Katherine Palmer Gordon’s “Is Victoria ready for the Big One”
and David Broadland’s “Devil’s Mountain Fault: the frightening implications for Victoria”
Karel Doruyter’s forest landscapes contemplate the monumental presence that can be found in places of isolation.
IN 1953, KAREL DORUYTER'S family emigrated from Rotterdam in the Netherlands, a city of roughly 500,000 people, to China Lake, a tiny hamlet southeast of Quesnel. He was 11 years old. “There was a one-room schoolhouse that went up to grade six, and maybe a population of 30,” the artist laughs. “I remember my sister and I banging with two-by-fours and a big drum, making sure the bears didn’t come too close.” Though they didn’t know the language—and in retrospect, he appreciates how difficult it must have been for his parents—the youngsters “found it all very exciting.” This new way of life was utterly different, and the total shift from urban centre to the isolation of the BC interior left its impression on Doruyter.
Fast-forward to a view of one of his current rainforest landscape compositions, and the wonder of such a place is as fresh as it would have been to his young eyes.
From a room’s distance, Doruyter’s acrylic paintings have the uncanny quality of a photograph, appearing almost hyper-realistic. For one thing, the point of view is eye level, exactly that of a person who would be standing amongst the trees. And then the green mosses and leaves seem lit from within by the rays of a persistent sun reaching over and around to land on that one chosen frond.
As the viewer nears the work, however, Doruyter shows how he has internalized these landscapes over years of experience: What appears from a distance to be a delicate branch swaying in a gentle breeze, its bark surely dappled with lichen and tiny creatures, is no more than a light stroke of ruddy brown applied with a sure hand. Like the forests themselves, these paintings convey volumes in their simplicity.
They need to be seen up close for full effect. They are mainly large works with images ranging from a single canvas to sweeping triptychs.
Over time, Doruyter has developed a technique for building up the surface of the picture plane with his own concoction of plaster and other additives to create a relief that brings more impact to the texture of a tree’s bark, the driftwood on a wooded shore, or the corroding carved arcs of a Haida mortuary pole being reclaimed by weather, as seen in the painting “Closure.”
Of his technique, Doruyter says, “I basically draw out on the canvas where things are going to go, then I apply [the material], sometimes in multiple layers, but I try to make it as exact as I had it in my mind. After it’s set up—I generally leave it overnight—I use a Dremel tool or a file to get the texture of the bark, although I try to build that in as I do it, because it’s far easier doing it then than after.” Once he is satisfied with the texture, he gessoes the works and commences painting.
He can conjure these textures from memory: They are surfaces, objects, places that Doruyter knows well.
While he has painted most of his adult life and studied Fine Art and Philosophy at the University of British Columbia, painting has not always been his main source of income.
After graduation, he finessed his way into a job as a surveyor with the Department of Transport and worked on the building of several airports in BC. He eventually became the chief design draughtsman at Vancouver Airport, then became the manpower training and planning officer for the region. A transfer to Ottawa and the prevalence of managerial politics was too much for the iconoclastic Doruyter, however. To the shock of many, he left the position, with all of its security and predictability, and found a path that, while it was admittedly peripatetic, ultimately led him to where he needed to be.
“From that point on, my while life changed,” he says. His first marriage broke up and he moved to Australia, working in mining in Tasmania for a couple of years. Most significantly at this time, he became interested in boat building. He explains, “I was fascinated by the idea of designing something you could live in, you could work in and you could move around in. And how you built the boat was how your life went. If you did a poor job building a boat, you might run into a problem. Your whole life depends on what you build.”
Doruyter eventually moved back to Canada and worked in a mine in Port Hardy, where he met an Englishman with whom he started a boat building company on Quadra Island. They made a go of it for five years, but material costs were prohibitive and they dissolved the company. That led Doruyter down yet another path. “By this time I had built my third boat and started to do charters up and down the coast and to Alaska,” he recalls. He also met a couple who were involved in major arctic and Antarctic expeditions and spent some time in Chile helping them redesign their vessel for said expeditions.
Another work opportunity led Doruyter to live in Haida Gwaii for a number of years. He continued to do charters and spend as much time in the rainforest as he could. “I think living there really shaped me as an artist, being in Haida Gwaii and going up and down the coast,” he reflects. “That’s why I paint the way I paint now; I mainly paint the West Coast rainforest. It’s fascinating. I don’t know how many times I have been up and down the BC coast; probably several hundred. Each trip up and down, no matter how short or how long, it’s different. You could spend several lifetimes just between Victoria and Hyder, Alaska,” he says. The common theme running through all of these ventures was the constant pull of geographical isolation.
While he used to live in Victoria, Doruyter now makes his home in Penticton. From there, he paints his forest scenes and manages Arctic expeditions for the same couple. From time to time, he will escape to some appealingly isolated place, like Tierra del Fuego, where he spent a month hiking a few years back. “It was so beautiful in a minimalistic way,” he enthuses. “Just the glaciers and the mountain; there is such a presence.”
It’s that feeling he seeks to evoke with paint and plaster on canvas: the monumentality of our natural world as it can only be understood in the places of isolation that so appeal to him. “I am basically drawn to the…emptiness,” he says, searching, although dissatisfied with the word. “Let’s put it this way: it’s empty of people,” he settles with a grin. “I am trying to get that feeling of ‘I have been here, on this spot, for 300, 400, 700 years. I was here when you were nothing.’”
Karel Doruyter’s work can be seen in Victoria at a January group show at Madrona Gallery, 606 View St, 250-380-4660, www.madronagallery.com.
As soon as she notices herself sighing and grumbling, Aaren Madden knows she is overdue for some regenerative time in the woods, where she will find the “everything and nothing” that she needs.
Douglas Street, once fully invested with life and social purpose, now seems diminished.
QUICK, THINK OF A WORD that rhymes with “colostomy.”
Good for you!
That profane stew of surveying and shoveling, blueprints, backhoes, migraine-coloured diversion tape, and hellfire-tinted traffic cones. Surfaces shattered, guts and filth exposed, society’s shitty undies pulled down, all niceties abandoned. Invasive urban surgery: mud, crud and blood. Eeeuuwww!
Watched a two-month-long project near my home recently: realignment of an innocent, unoffending T-intersection minding its own business and doing pretty much the job you want a T-intersection to do. Suddenly, barricades, signage, lights, flaggers, equipment, trucks, detours, trenches, Everests of excavated wet earth and gravel, new drainage pipes, new curbs, light poles and paving; tax dollars and resources enlisted to improve the good enough. Now, finally, post-surgical results: a new skin of raked, seeded topsoil and curing cement. The patient survived. So did I, thank you.
If infrastructure suggests all of this, the linguistic doorway to the apocalypse is crumbling infrastructure: a Doomer movie of decay, social collapse and the return of an ever-nesting, never-resting Dark Age (consider the Trump-era recrudescence of the American neo-Nazi White Right)—against which extraordinary public resources are directed to sustain the hope (some would say illusion) that the civic enterprise is still on the rails…that the human project continues.
By the way, Crumbling Infrastructure, if not quite as good as Dying Fetus or Deicide (both already taken), would be a terrific name for a death-metal band.
Writing about urban evolution reminds me that in many cases human settlements emerged as cities (the oldest a recent 5000 years ago) on a thought: “Oh, this hill has a good view.” “This slope is sunny.” “We can tie up our boat here.” “Lots of game and fresh water.” “We can defend this place.” The entire kit of contemporary urban parts is just decorative icing over elemental states like appetite, convenience, visions of triumph, plans for rest and safety, dreams of opportunity, or the point at which exhausted pack animals or slave porters gave up the ghost.
Admittedly, cities are also hopes for order. Listening, a moment ago, to violinist Itzhak Perlman and pianist Samuel Sanders perform Edward Elgar’s “La Capricieuse,” I was taken by how the structure of musical thought springs from an innate architecture in our heads, a sense of system and form, which we apply to music, storytelling, and city-building, too.
Local writer Janis Ringuette cites historian Richard Mackie and other sources to uncover the intentions upon which Victoria was founded:
“James Douglas was instructed [by the English] to organize the new Colony of Vancouver Island: ‘The object...should be...to transfer to the new country whatever is most valuable and most approved in the institutions of the old, so that Society may, as far as possible, consist of the same classes, united together by the same ties…Conditions for the...disposal of lands...will have the effect...of preventing the ingress of squatters, paupers and land Speculators.’”
That land Speculator ingress prevention thing worked out well, don’t you think?
Like entire cities, neighbourhoods, too, are ideas. Look at city property maps and note the proliferation of orderly double-rows of rectangles serviced by die-straight streets on all sides, as if the straight line and right angle themselves might be tools of successful governance. The impulse for social management started long before and endured long past the days of Douglas’ colonial governance, simply re-expressing itself in ever-smaller property increments. The dreaming, imperial finger of the explorer withered; the founder class subdivided its holdings; planning bureaucrats and bylaw-enforcers—the property cops—took over.
Almost every city, big or small, has a square reserved for ceremony and patriotic re-enactments, designed to mark the city’s connection to its founding or some other historical event. Such places, hyperbolically constructed to convey significance, elicit awed respect and reinforce the importance of memory. All feature statuary, plinths, obelisks, fountains, noble words and antediluvian dates in stone, cannons, and too much lawn; and they endure—serious and un-visited, grass ritually cut and edged—long after ceremony has hollowed out as a form of social expression and the energy of their founding story has waned. It’s hard to proclaim “We, The People!” when everybody’s off shopping the sales or glued to the next episode of “Game of Thrones.”
Hierarchy, nature’s system for arranging the meek and the mighty, is also built into urban ordering. Almost every city has a main street (often imaginatively called “Main Street”) traditionally dedicated to shopping, mercantile pursuits, and financial or professional services, and established in the pre-suburban heyday of business centrality, but now, in an era of social and economic dispersal and online shopping and services, threatened by disinvestment and in need of “re-purposing.” Such streets resemble museum dioramas portraying a life when social functions were more delineated, the public realm was more polite and convivial, banks were filled with actual cash, and majestic retailers, cornerstones of national identity, slugged it out across the street from each other.
Nostalgia really is ghostly.
Study the archival image of Douglas Street in the late 1940s below. Note the relaxed co-existence of pre-war cars, trolleys, well-dressed pedestrians. You can feel the street’s energy and social health, the coherence and common purpose. (And catch the red car making a right turn around the money temple up a two-way Yates Street.)
Like, what happened? Well, bookshelves of explanation abound, but in short and simple terms modernity took hold, a kind of atomization in which ‘we’ gave way to ‘me.’ I’ve heard it explained as diffusion and de-authorization—that is, an institutional, cultural, social and geographic deconstruction or reordering (take your pick)—allowing a more subjective, voluntary and perhaps authentic allegiance to social rules and norms. (Remember, it has also been a human rights revolution.) In no more than a two-generational eye blink, the idea that father knows best became preposterous, and the Heavenly Father, like the divine right of kings, was permanently re-assigned to the make-believe section. Vrooom!
Douglas Street, Chatham to Belleville, our ten-block stretch of yesterday, is unloved, energy-deficient, crappy-looking, edgy and slightly threatening. It is preparing now for the next stage in its economic and social devolution: from Main Street to Mean Street. A recent KPMG technology report claims that street-front banks will be gone in 20 years. Which means five. Douglas, home to the big, central branches of most of our financial institutions, has drawn another short straw in the game of urban change.
As the image makes clear, Douglas was once fully invested with life and social purpose. Now, civility seems diminished. Folks’ offshore limits feel wider, more defensive, and the public air has a more guarded tang. Douglas, a street of gradually evanescing purpose, is turning down-market.
Ironically, Douglas Street was the most expensive property in the 1982 version of Canadian Monopoly.
Let’s briefly journey from Douglas Street to the cosmos: According to the big bang theory—our best explanation for why space is expanding—everything exploded from nothing about 13.8 billion years ago. Cosmologists have been able to wind things back to within a tiny fraction of a second of this moment, but now they’re stuck. Acknowledging that science cannot explain the fact of everything from nothing, leave alone conjure a pre-nothing, Carlos Contaldi at Imperial College London suggests: “The rules we have simply don’t work in that regime.”
Mystery permeates every corner, and is the heart, of existence. I’m not being glib and I mean this quite seriously. To the cliché, “lost in space,” I would add “lost in time,” “lost in story,” “lost in purpose,” and, I suppose, “lost in Victoria.” Rule-making and rule-following reflect our understandable hunger for continuity, structure and order. But order is challenged at its essence because mystery—the chaotic and tumbling-dice unpredictability of flow—is baked into existence. Nothing comes with a guarantee, or a warranty. Where’d the Douglas Street of recent memory go? Really, where did it go? What happened?
Accepting the inevitability, inescapability and speed of flow, how do you re-purpose a main street? What plan or intention—and I don’t mean the synthetic promise of an architect’s gauzy, four-colour depiction—will pay off? Who leads? Commercial interests and the property-owning market? Shoppers and the public? The city government? A team of futurologists?
How and when does the city go about determining if some new civic narrative on Douglas Street is plausible to a significant majority of its citizens, and worth a major civic and private investment? What signs are required? Collapsing commercial rental rates, proliferating tents in darkened doorways, or when Burger King pulls up stakes ‘cause it can’t make a buck?
In the taut TV drama “Berlin Station” the CIA station chief, referencing some imminent ISIS-type terrorist threat, says to the head of German security: “Do you want to get ahead of it, or find out after it happens?”
In Douglas Street terms, do we take initiative in response to a clearly darkening tracery of worry lines (growing signs of “locational obsolescence,” in planner-ese), or wait for full implosion? Don’t give me an immediate answer. Take your time.
Founder of Open Space and co-founder of Monday Magazine, Gene Miller is currently promoting ASH, an affordable housing concept and, with partner Rob Abbott, has launched the website FUTURETENSE: Robotics, AI, and the Future of Work.
What do you really need on the long walk besides a humble, open mind and the courage to see?
THE WINTER'S PEACE, stillness and slowly returning longer light make it the perfect time for the self-questioning poetry of Jan Zwicky’s newest collection The Long Walk (University of Regina Press). In it, she invites readers into that quietness of mind where we can—and must—look with love, humility and painful honesty at the dark we find both around and within us.
It’s fitting that the opening poem is called “Courage,” for like a stark winter landscape, Zwicky’s book is of harsh beauty, bringing challenge rather than comfort. Equally a paean to and elegy for a threatened planet, The Long Walk begins with a sense of loss and of feeling lost:
And now you know that it won’t turn out as it should,
that what you did was not enough,
that ignorance, old evil, is enforced
and willed, and loved…
what will you do,
now that you sense the path unraveling
She answers with the call to “step closer to the edge, then./ You must look, heart. You must look.”
While Zwicky tells me the “you” is an address to herself—examining her own choices, actions, failures—the reader cannot help feel pulled along in that question to that same edge. We are, individually, like her, an “ordinary heart” with some important work to do.
What is it exactly that Zwicky is asking us to see? The devastated environment, yes—the impacts of “the charred sunlight we’ve bled/to feed our addictions, the seabed/we’ve guttered.” But also the culture and values that have allowed it to happen, that allow it to keep happening until, as she writes in the poem “Consummatum Est,” “It is finished.”
A philosopher and accomplished violinist as well as an essayist and poet, Zwicky has published over a dozen books—winning a Governor General’s Literary Award with Songs for Relinquishing the Earth and the Dorothy Livesay Prize for Robinson’s Crossing—often tackling environmental, political and existential issues. Here she is also wrestling, she tells me, with her own feelings of implication, of responsibility. “I think that where there is immense political damage,” she explains, “the first step is to understand what one’s part has been. ‘This happened. I did this. I was a part of this.’”
While Zwicky looks to the future end that may come for threatened species and the environment generally, her interest in self-examination and self-knowledge means there is also a lot of looking back, often to the Alberta farm of her childhood, where the roots of her love of the land—and thus her experience of the somewhat unsayable meaning inherent in connection with nature—first took hold.
While Zwicky went to school in Edmonton as a girl, she spent summers and weekends on the family farm. “That was where life happened,” she says. “I was a shy kid and sought solitude. I would disappear down to the river and feel at home. I felt loved by the land and of course loved it in return.”
After having lived and taught in Victoria, Zwicky now lives on Quadra Island where her property backs onto 140 acres of Crown land. “I feel there, too, tremendous generosity on the part of the land. It has walked forward to meet me, has extended its hand, its graciousness, all that it has to offer. But I notice that when I go back to the kind of land that I grew up on in Alberta, I feel addressed at a cellular level—smells, sounds, the quality of the light. I don’t think. It doesn’t come in words. I just know. It’s like a first tongue. Every year, I become more fluent in the tongue of the land where I now live, but I still have to think sometimes.”
This lifelong connection to the natural world means she experiences and shares a very personal grief at the ecological destruction she sees happening around the world. She writes: “Where will my soul go/…when the earth I have loved turns its back/and closes its eyes.”
The book is not all darkness and dust. Fully embracing the label of a political poet, Zwicky claims the book’s core is the environmental section (section 2 of 4), but a number of subsequent poems describe experiences of hidden or unexpected beauty:
It’s love, in the end, that we learn, learning also
it isn’t ours. Inexplicably, unsummoned,
the world rises to fill its own emptiness. We feel it
reaching through us—a voice, a hand,
a greenness not our own—
and are buoyed up momentarily, amazed,
before we find our feet again,
Even if just momentarily, are we ever similarly buoyed, amazed? In our busy, noisy lives enmeshed in the pressures of social, economic and political systems, do we take the time to look and listen deeply, to make ourselves still enough for that kind of connection with meaning, with wonder?
The implicit challenge is to not just make time but shift our attitudes and beliefs about how we imagine the good life. What do you really need on the long walk? Not the TV or the furniture, but the kind of mind that is humble and open, that notices…
the shape of space that sings, the throat-strung vault
above the mountains, depth
and depthless, the starlit air above the stony bridge,
Its resonant blue. Here
language ceases. We glimpse, obliquely,
radiance: a kind of deathlessness
or death, whole and unbroken.
Indeed the book’s final poem describes a winter’s walk where your only burden is “what you carry underneath your coat,/and what you have folded in your arms,/what is cradled on your heart.”
And so we return to Zwicky’s initial question of “what will you do?” By the book’s end, we have looked, we have seen—or begun to. To what end? What is the purpose of this long walk?
“I think it’s time for us to get our souls in order,” Zwicky tells me, matter-of-factly. “I can’t imagine trying to die with any degree of dignity without acknowledging what I’ve done. It’s truth and reconciliation of the self with the planet.”
“We need to mourn,” she says. “We need to grieve. We also need to hope that our neighbours and our friends will assist us in honest recognition of where we are, our responsibility—that we may, as a community, be able to look one another in the eye and say, ‘Oh my God, I’m sorry for what we’ve done’ and have the person you’re looking at say: ‘Yes, and I am sorry.’ Part of hope is that our confession to one another will be met with compassion, with understanding rather than condemnation. By this I don’t mean people should say: ‘That’s okay.’ Of course it’s not. But: ‘I understand because I did the same thing. I was blind in the same ways. I caved at the same points. I really get how it happened to you, and I grieve with you.’”
The long walk is therefore not about arrival. Rather, every moment is a kind of setting out, a new beginning. “And there’s hope as well,” Zwicky insists. “The kind of hope that I’m interested in is a part of humility. It’s a part of saying ‘I do not know. I start this day with respect and acknowledgment of the past and look for a way forward.”
Full of grief and love, The Long Walk pushes us to have that courage to look at what’s painful to see, to find stillness in movement, movement in stillness. If you need a motto for the new year, solvitur ambulando—it is solved by walking.
Somewhat missing the East’s hushed snowy winterscapes, writer, editor and former Montrealer Amy Reiswig now finds similar peace walking along the grey sea- and sky-scapes of a foggy beach.
In honour of their 30th anniversary, the Lafayette String Quartet performs Shostakovich’s complete string quartet cycle.
NOW ENTERING THEIR FOURTH DECADE of performing together as the original members, the four musicians comprising the internationally-acclaimed Lafayette String Quartet are an impressive embodiment of the word “ensemble”—the Latin components of which mean “at the same time.” Noting an intake of breath, tensing of a lip or shifting of weight, these women can instantaneously “read” each other musically as they explore different avenues of interpretation of the repertoire, falling effortlessly into real-time synchronicity—in a fraction of a second—even during performance.
The story of how these women travelled through decades together to achieve such continuity, depth and success as worldwide performers and artists-in-residence at UVic is rife with mystical coincidences and convergences, just as any “coming together” should be.
It’s one thing to “come together,” and quite another to stay together, especially for 30 years. The initial heady rush of “Wow, isn’t this great? We get along so well!” can, over time, insidiously devolve into discord, with unspoken assumptions, seething resentments and unresolved conflicts—leading to nuclear explosions that make reassembly of the whole impossible. String quartets are no different really from rock bands, business partnerships, and marriages when it comes to the basic facts of human relationships, their limitations and vulnerabilities.
So what’s the secret of the Lafayette String Quartet (LSQ)? How did these women end up celebrating 30 years of playing together professionally as a quartet? Violinist and LSQ member Sharon Stanis credits a fortuitous connection to a cherished mentor when the four were graduate students studying music at Indiana University—a connection which created a foundation of meaning, structure and purpose for the group’s working relationship, making it more sustainable, perhaps, than those who have tried to rely on talent or chemistry alone. “I would not be having this conversation if we hadn’t met our mentor,” Stanis insists.
Stanis, for her part, didn’t dream of ending up in a string quartet. She grew up in Ohio, and held a vision from childhood of someday playing for the Cleveland Symphony. She had fits and starts of a career that might have gone that way, but in the end, fate seemed to dictate a different path, one she doesn’t regret, but didn’t envision. “Our mentor changed the course of my life,” she says.
Rostislav Dubinsky was first violinist and an original member of the USSR-based Borodin quartet. He was also a friend and professional associate of composer Dmitri Shostakovich (1906-1975). Recordings of Shostakovich’s string quartets by the Borodin are hailed as some of the greatest ever made.
Dubinsky and his pianist wife eventually immigrated to the US, and he ended up as a faculty member at Indiana University, where, in the early 1980s, he first noticed the potential of the young women as an ensemble and hounded them into forming a foursome. “He is the father of our quartet,” says Stanis. “We sat down with him when he was 60 years old, and played through the third and eighth Shostakovich string quartets. We got on a plane and performed at Sarah Lawrence College. When we graduated, he said, ‘Girls, whatever you do, keep the quartet, keep the quartet.’”
In the years after they left Indiana University, luck would have it that they all ended up in Detroit, not playing as a quartet, but all with gigs. Still, they couldn’t shake Dubinsky’s insistence that they heed his advice and accept their destiny of being a quartet.
In 1986, the Lafayette was formed, and the four women would drive from Detroit to Indiana to “drink from the well” and work with Dubinsky. After all these years, Stanis says, “It still is a high, that synergy, it’s like an out-of-body experience sometimes, where you feel like you’re flying, it’s just a great feeling. That feeling was definitely a draw in our younger years, because it wasn’t always perfect. But that feeling of being a part of a whole, contributing, emotionally engaged, there’s nothing like that.”
The string quartet repertoire, Stanis says, ended up being more inspiring than she ever expected, and the pull to continue to play it was another aspect of their bond. “We stayed together because of the music; [string quartets are] some of the most beautiful chamber music in the world, written to express the composer’s most intimate feelings. To have one [person on each] part, and have that responsibility within only a quartet of players is pretty special.”
Now at UVic, surrounded by music scholars, and having access to that kind of support and inspiration, with the time to delve more deeply into repertoire has been inspiring as well. “I have to also give credit to UVic,” Stanis continues. “In 1991, they hired us to be quartet-in-residence, which has been a very important thread” in the Lafayette’s sustainability. It’s what made it possible for them to be able to perform the complete Shostakovich cycle. “[UVic] has allowed us to take on these kinds of research-based projects—delving into 15 quartets of one composer is a great opportunity.”
The series of five concerts the Lafayette will perform in February at the intimate Philip T Young Recital Hall is a “journey,” Stanis explains. “Our scholars will be giving the context and educating the audience about what they are hearing” as each of the 15 string quartets Dmitri Shostakovich wrote over his lifetime—during the oppressive and restrictive Soviet era—are played in chronological order.
Shostakovich, Stanis says, “was such a clever guy. He was able to write music that was maybe thinly veiled or veiled enough that it seemed on the surface to be conforming to what the Soviets wanted, but in reality, there was a sense of expressing himself. There is a slow movement in the 6th quartet—there’s a certain place in the music—if you’re into it about a minute—it’s as if you’ve been mourning the death of someone, and then a ray of light comes through and your life is transformed.”
When I reference a quote from Shostakovich where he laments the limitations of Soviet party constriction, saying he “would have displayed more brilliance, used more sarcasm; I could have revealed my ideas openly instead of having to resort to camouflage,” Stanis replies, “What he did give is some of the most poignant, tender, spiritual and transcendent music—and he was able to rebel without being seen as a rebel. That’s a very powerful thing.”
Perhaps in humorous reference to his own experience of being “captive” both in the USSR and in a string quartet, Dubinsky wrote to his “girls” in 1996: “Dear Lafayettes, my sincere condolences on your first 10 years of hard labour in a string quartet. May Almighty God give you strength and wisdom to keep the Quartet as long as you live.” Dubinsky died in 1997. One can only imagine his delight if he could hear their ensemble now.
The Lafayette String Quartet (violinists Ann Elliott-Goldschmid and Sharon Stanis, violist Joanna Hood, and cellist Pamela Highbaugh Aloni) performs the complete Shostakovich Cycle of 15 String Quartets. February 3–9 at the Philip T Young Recital Hall, University of Victoria, with eminent scholars Michelle Assay, David Fanning, Judy Kuhn and Pat McCreless. Tickets at the email@example.com or 250-721-8480. $25 for each concert or $100 for a 5-concert pass.
Mollie Kaye gets her own experience of “ensemble” singing with The Millies, a Victoria-based vocal trio.
What role does theatre criticism play in a post-truth world?
A COUPLE OF MONTHS BACK I read two news items that added to my numerous gray hairs. No, these pieces were not about Donald Trump, although he will make an (unwelcome) appearance here.
First, in early October longtime Georgia Straight theatre reviewer Colin Thomas was abruptly let go from his freelance job, after 30 years, with no notice or much of an explanation. Then, shortly afterwards, theatre reviewer Stephen Hunt wrote an article in the Globe and Mail about his own departure from the Calgary Herald.
Cue the ominous music. The titles of these articles say clearly what was on my mind: “Theatre community deserves informed, honest critics” and “What is a country’s cultural landscape without critics?” The question in the latter title seems even more pressing in US President-elect Trump’s “post-truth” world. When posting an opinion, well-informed or not, is as easy as a tweet or troll-like comment, what is the effect on both professional arts criticism and on the culture at large?
I recently marked my tenth anniversary reviewing for CBC Victoria’s On the Island. My perspective has always been an intentionally quite generous one. This is indicative of my work as a theatre educator and professor at the University of Victoria. I always learn from theatregoing, even when the work is less than stellar. So my goal in reviewing has been to try to communicate what it is I valued in a show, rather than to dwell too much on what was lacking.
That said, I have had to cover a few stinkers along the way. The honesty required of a critic is a challenge in a small city such as ours. I never wish to call someone out too harshly for shoddy work, especially in what is a vital yet largely amateur theatre community. But if the show is professional, I do feel I can be a bit more pointed in my comments. Taking criticism is part of the job in the professional artworld.
Colin Thomas knows all about this. Thomas has a reputation in Vancouver for not holding back when he dislikes a production. He has been involved in more than one running battle with an angry director, actor or playwright who could not handle a negative review. Yet there is no doubt that Thomas’ reviews have been an essential part of the cultural conversation in Vancouver theatre. When he posted on Facebook that he had been fired, there was an amazing outpouring of support, much of which came from theatre artists. Many of them prefaced their comments by saying that they had received bad reviews from Thomas. Many also acknowledged that those reviews had actually woken them up and improved their subsequent work.
As Thomas himself says (in an email interview), “I’m very clear that, when I write a review, I’m responding to the work rather than to the individuals who are making the work. In my experience, most artists understand and respect that, although less seasoned artists sometimes have a little trouble drawing a distinction between their work and themselves.”
In a great blog post (he is continuing to review, for free, online), “On Criticism,” Thomas also reflects on how important it is for a good critic to be aware of his or her own biases and to see that, at some level, all criticism is a form of autobiography. We reveal ourselves through our opinions. Yet reviewers have the responsibility to be mindful that opinions carry additional weight when placed in a public space.
How to achieve this balance between personal background and taste and effective public criticism? For me, an informed opinion is key. Good critics do their homework and are able to put whatever is being reviewed into both historical and cultural contexts. A bad critic spends too much time or space laying out the plot, or in offering superficial platitudes, or overly negative (as in hurtful and unconstructive) critiques.
Adrian Chamberlain, now entering his 30th year reviewing for the Times-Colonist, has some thoughts on these matters. He tells me that, “The primary function of the critic is not to be a cheerleader or even an arts advocate. Reviewers who give everything a thumbs-up are not critics. The critic will provide a (hopefully) objective opinion that others (especially friends and family of the cast/creators) will not provide. If done well, this can be helpful, especially for audience members.
“Honesty is a big thing. A reviewer may think they’re being ‘nice’ by soft-pedalling weaknesses in shows. But they’re not being true to the craft of criticism, nor are they helping audiences, especially those who pay bucks to see a ‘great’ show that turns out to be mediocre. The critic is writing primarily for the reader, not the artists.”
My fellow CBC Radio reviewer David Lennam agrees with Chamberlain, telling me, “As a theatre critic, I’ve been savaged and criticized as much as the productions I’ve been less than kind with. That doesn’t matter. It’s all part of a conversation that’s essential. I am a supporter of live theatre so I want my criticism to reflect that I am a fan, but I want it to show that I am a fan who will not suffer through inferior work without telling it like it is. That’s fair.”
So here is the problem: When professional reviewers are taken out of the picture, who is there for the interested theatregoer to rely on? As Chamberlain points out, “Unfortunately for arts journalism, when the budget gets thin (talking about newspapers here) this is the section that is first in line for cuts. Arts are still regarded as a ‘frill’ by many, including some newspaper owners.”
Lennam echoes these thoughts: “The current state of theatre reviewing has dropped dramatically over the past few years, not just in Victoria, but across the country. There seems to be little appetite for good criticism from the media gate-holders. Newspapers, TV, radio…they’re not willing to pay professional critics or run critiques, maybe because they think it might hurt advertising.”
Chamberlain goes on to ask, “Is the void going to be filled by websites, blogs and so forth? Perhaps it is. It’s a very transitional time in journalism right now…Bottom line, if people want good arts criticism, it will somehow survive. And if they don’t, it will not.”
Well, giving the people what they want has landed our neighbours to the south in some dire straits (just my opinion!). In November, President-elect Trump took to his favourite critical outpost, Twitter, to express his anger at the cast of Hamilton: The Musical. This diverse cast—in one of the most popular shows in Broadway history—had the temerity to deliver a short speech at curtain call to an audience member, Vice-President-elect Mike Pence. Trump grumped that the address calling for unity and respect for all was “inappropriate” and “rude” and that the show itself was “overrated” (even though a tweet by his daughter Ivanka praised it as exceeding her high expectations).
What Trump provides me with here is a great example of bad criticism. No thought, no homework, no context, just negatively biased opinions aired without care or concern as to their effect.
We are entering some dangerous times in which good critical opinions may continue to come under attack, or even be silenced. I worry about the future of arts criticism in an online age. When lies are presented by so-called leaders as truth, we all need to become vigilant readers, viewers and listeners. It bothers me that a critic of Colin Thomas’ stature has to retreat to a blog. He deserves the public audience he has nurtured and educated, an audience of both theatre artists and theatregoers looking for an honest, informed voice in an ever-more ignorant world.
THERE IS NO SHORTAGE OF GOOD PLAYS in January and February. Expect some laughs, some music, and some serious commentary about women’s place in the world.
The Belfry has a new Joan MacLeod play, Gracie, about a 15-year-old girl born into a polygamous community (Jan 20-Feb 19), played by Lili Beaudoin. There’s also a bonus show, Taking Off in their studio space (Feb 21-Mar 12). Taking Off is written by Deborah Williams, one of the writer/performers of the popular Mom’s the Word. Both are worth a visit. (www.belfry.bc.ca)
The British comedy One Man, Two Guvnors (based on Goldoni’s classic Servant of Two Masters) plays at Langham Court and under Roger Carr’s direction I predict another big hit. It was, after all, nominated for no less than seven Tony Awards. (Jan 20-Feb 4, www.langhamtheatre.ca)
Glynis Leyshon directs Gilbert and Sullivan’s comic operetta Ruddigore for the Canadian College of Performing Arts in an unusual venue: Craigdarroch Castle. This one should be lots of fun. (Jan 25-Feb 5, www.ccpacanada.com)
I’m also looking forward to the next Phoenix show, Gut Girls by Sarah Daniels. This 1980s British play explores working class women’s lives in the wake of the Industrial Revolution. (Feb 9-18, www.finearts.uvic.ca/theatre/phoenix)
Theatre Inconnu presents Canadian playwright Linda Griffiths’ Age of Arousal in mid-February—another play about history and women, this time the Suffragettes. ( www.theatreinconnu.com, Feb 4-Mar 4)
Pacific Opera Victoria presents the ever-popular The Magic Flute by Mozart, a treat for music-lovers of all ages. (Feb 16-26, www.rmts.bc.ca)
Finally, Intrepid Theatre has a touring show in town for just two nights in February. Pajama Men: Pterodactyl Nights promises excellent sketch and improvised comedy from a seasoned pair of performers. (Metro Studio, Feb 24 & 25, http://intrepidtheatre.com)
Plenty to get out of the rain and into a theatre to catch. See the community calendar for more on these as well as other productions.
Monica Prendergast believes there’s much to look forward to in 2017 as the arts provide hopefulness and collectivity in a fractured time. Thomas’ blog: www.colinthomas.ca/blog.
Dorothy Field explains her passion for Rock Bay Creek, which once flowed from Fernwood to the Inner Harbour.
STEPPING INSIDE DOROTHY FIELD'S HOUSE is like taking a voyage through a sunlit, tapestried, foreign country. Every object feels lovingly curated and the enormous kitchen skylights give way to backyard gardens, fir and oak trees. Fernwood has never seemed wilder, and if Field had her way, the whole neighbourhood would fit her aesthetic. “Even if it’s just a moment, anything that reminds people of the underlying land is really important,” she tells me. For Field, that underlying wildness is perfectly portrayed by the movement of water through each of the city’s neighbourhoods or watersheds.
Field’s latest project is to envision and steward the mapping, signage and eventual daylighting of Rock Bay Creek, the original watercourse that began its life at what used to be Harris Pond, where Vining and Stanley Streets meet. The creek—now contained within culverts and buried under streets, yards and parks—meanders north, crosses Bay Street at Fernwood and then heads west to the Inner Harbour. There it empties into Rock Bay at the remediation site of a former gasification plant, once the most contaminated land in Canada. Creeks and streams in urban areas, long the site of dumping and pollution, were historically buried to protect inhabitants against water-borne diseases such as cholera.
Field grew up in New York’s suburbs, went to Berkeley and settled as a farmer for 35 years in Cobble Hill before moving to Fernwood 12 years ago. She is the author of several books of poetry, a children’s book, an extended essay on handmade paper’s spiritual role in Asian culture (Paper and Threshold), and the co-author of Between Gardens. She is also an accomplished visual artist working with handmade paper.
After arriving in Victoria, she began working on the Fernwood Community Mapping project with help from Ken Josephson, cartographer at the University of Victoria. The map they produced in 2015 shows Fernwood then and now, with the ghost of buried Rock Bay Creek and Harris Pond sketched over the city grid. It was that sketch that drew Field’s interest toward her current project.
This year, Field received just under $5000 from the City of Victoria to create and install art and signage along Rock Bay Creek’s route and at the former location of Harris Pond. She sees this as the first step toward daylighting the creek—the deliberate uncovering of portions of a watercourse in order to reestablish some modicum of a natural ecosystem. “Living water changes people’s feelings about where they live,” she says. They feel more connected with the land, so are more careful about how they treat it.
The hills, valleys and watercourses of the south island, including several springs in Fernwood that once supplied drinking water to most of the city’s colonial inhabitants, have over time been erased by the city grid. Looking at the past, Field argues, shows us what we’ve lost, as well as what we may have the opportunity to regain.
The City of Victoria, however, is more circumspect; recently completed greenway projects would have to be redone in order to daylight the creek on public property. There will be, Fields tells me, a five to ten year wait before any shovels could hit the ground. But she remains positive, looking at Alexander Park, Blackwood Park and Wark Park as prime locations for a daylighting project, which could include rain gardens or other forms of environmental storm water management.
Creek daylighting projects have a long history in the CRD. Portions of Bowker and Craigflower Creek have been uncovered by the Gorge Waterway Initiative, the Bowker Creek Initiative, and local non-profits. Some argue that a partially uncovered creek will never regain its former vitality. Salmon and trout won’t migrate up a culvert and invasive species can end up clogging daylighted sections. Water often flows too fast to support fish or other aquatic species.
But for Field the importance is not just the fragile ecosystems that can be recreated—in Bowker Creek’s case, daylighted sections harbour dragonflies, songbirds, river otters and raccoons—but the learning that can take place alongside its banks. “Without water we won’t survive,” she says. Daylighting Rock Bay Creek would help to show the creek’s original path, pinpoint watershed boundaries, and even provide natural evidence of why certain streets suffer from basement flooding after heavy rains. Earlier this year, two UVic students made a short documentary about the creek. For Field, the increasing interest just proves she’s on the right track.
A daylighted stream can have positive impacts for a whole community, but many argue that it isn’t just humans that contribute toward these changes. “Convivial ecologies” are wild spaces created by human interaction and co-habitation with the insects, birds, plants, and animals in a space, all of whom contribute toward a larger sense of how to live in the world. Studied by Harriet Hawkins in the United Kingdom, convivial ecologies recognize other species’ abilities not just to enchant us but to be equal actors in the construction of a wild space. As an example, Hawkins cites an abandoned railway line in inner city Bristol. The forgotten land was gradually reinhabited by flora and fauna—including foxes, birds, trees and meadow flowers—until it began to resemble a park, thus creating a space in which many humans also found solace. When redevelopment of the area was proposed, residents rallied behind the species that had already chosen this spot as a green space and a nature preserve was eventually born.
What if the path of a long buried watercourse were another kind of convivial ecology? The watershed of Fernwood receives drainage from Oaklands and feeds through North Park before reaching Rock Bay. The seeps, springs and streams of Victoria’s urban areas may not be visible or even audible any longer, but their voice becomes apparent in the flooding that once happened at the intersection of View and Quadra, where a former wetland long trumped the city’s attempts to tame it, or in the spring-fed well of Fernwood’s Stevenson Park, the pump of which is ceremoniously unlocked every month so that residents can fill pails and take home the bounty of water that tastes of rocks and trees. The tomatoes grown using this water, Field tells me, are also rumoured to be the sweetest in the city.
Daylighting a stream, therefore, might not be the first step in rewilding an area, but a response to the region’s already present natural forces: water running over rock, gathering force from many communities, marking a long forgotten pond, demonstrating the lay of the land we otherwise only notice when we’re on foot or bicycle. The convivial ecologies of Fernwood are already afoot; we have only to listen to their call.
During our conversation, Field jokes about “pulling up the drawbridge” on Vancouver Island, preventing an already crowded region from becoming unlivable. But in the end, she is most interested in projects that both humanize the city and connect us to the land over which it lies.
On January 21, 2017, at 10am, she will host a walking tour to trace the second half of the path of Rock Bay Creek. The tour will begin at Blackwood Park, in Fernwood, and end at Rock Bay, downtown. The walk, which will last 2-3 hours, is open to all residents of the region.
Maleea Acker is the author of Gardens Aflame: Garry Oak Meadows of BC’s South Coast (New Star, 2012). She is currently completing a PhD in Human Geography, focusing on the intersections between the social sciences and poetry.
Musings on making the transition away from fossil fuels.
THERE ARE DAYS WHEN I GET TIRED OF BEING ME. In the morning I throw on a 35-year-old bathrobe (polyester is forever!) and scoop home-grown berries into my non-instant oatmeal. I check my emails and sign a half-dozen petitions supporting urgent local and global concerns. A signature is a pebble in the slingshot of these David-type campaigns, aimed at the temple of unscrupulous and predatory Goliaths. It’s not a fun way to start the day but once you know stuff, you can’t go back to the time when you didn’t.
I scour my news services for evidence that the Transition Plan towards Renewable Energy is finally receiving substance. You know the plan: Every post-truth politician keeps championing it while approving yet more fossil fuel capacity and expansion—which is like saying we need more cigarettes on the road to good health. If we’re really serious about transition, reallocating some of the massive federal oil subsidy to the renewable sector would be a good start.
I run what errands I can on foot, and when we absolutely have to start up the old Prius, I plot an itinerary that calls for more stops than your average school bus. At home we mostly use natural products, and sparingly, because they all end up where the fishes live and my conscience doesn’t handle that well. Besides, the recommended portion sizes for toothpaste, shampoo, laundry detergent—everything—are over the top anyway, suggested as they are by folks who really don’t care about the Earth’s burden and want nothing more than to sell you more.
We generally hang our laundry to dry, even on a rack indoors in winter. It’s a time-consuming task that invites raised eyebrows but the dryer is an energy hog that’ll stretch or shrink your favourite gear and masticate your underwear elastic. More importantly, operating it might give BC Hydro, by virtue of my usage graph, the impression that I need and support its wanton expansion. No siree, you won’t catch me being a corporate shill.
We grow some food and eat mostly vegetarian. We cycle our kitchen scraps back into the garden and produce little garbage. I even admit to being oddball enough to enjoy mending, repairing, repurposing and buying used. But it all takes time away from other activities—such as writing in my case—and sometimes at the end of the day I find myself wondering whether I’ve achieved anything worthwhile or shot myself in the foot.
Society doesn’t reward stewardship. Who cares if you’re treading lightly on the Earth? My little efforts plainly amount to zilch on the global continuum, and sometimes feel more like a quirky obsession. They’re also easily dismissed by the self-interested camp that calls you a hypocrite for driving your car to a pipeline rally and using electronics to voice your concerns. No wonder we’re bogged down to the axles in status quo.
And yet, we occasionally do manage to lumber our collective humanity a nano-measure closer to a better future. The signing of the Paris Accord was a pivotal step. So are the innovations and achievements springing up all over the world. China is moving away from coal. Texas, home of cheap oil, has one of the world’s largest wind farms. Qatar, home of cheap LNG, has one of the world’s largest solar projects.
Sweden is going to start paying people to repair rather than throw away their belongings. (Now, that’s trickle-down economics.) Every new and refurbished home in Europe must have a plug-in for charging electric vehicles (EVs) by 2019. Germany will put a million EVs on the road by 2020. Norway and the Netherlands will phase out diesel-powered vehicles by 2025.
Tesla, with more than 18,000 employees worldwide, has developed a solar roof tile that will revolutionize the way we do electricity. An Alberta company has found a way to convert spent oil wells—84,000 in that province alone—into geothermal wells.
And then there’s you and me. Make no mistake, humble individual efforts are crucial to our collective remediation. We ordinary citizens, through our votes, petitions and consumption practices, can move the world away from fossil fuels. Mark Reynolds of the Citizens Climate Lobby reminded us of this in the dark days of last November when he said, “You are still the world’s best hope for preserving a liveable planet.”
The encouragement helps to keep us resolved and moving forward, into 2017 and for as long as it will take.
Trudy Duivenvoorden Mitic wishes everyone much happiness, good health and personal empowerment in the New Year.
Former mayor of Victoria Peter Pollen died in early January. The four-term mayor played a significant role in shaping Victoria. In 2012 Leslie Campbell talked with "Mayor Peter" about—among other things—preserving public access to the waterfront.
PETER POLLEN HAS BEEN OFFICIALLY RETIRED from business and politics for many years now, but he still likes to talk about them. During our wide-ranging conversation in his gracious Uplands home, I had to work hard to keep the focus on his life—he often seemed to be trying to interview me.
The den we meet in looks out onto a Garry oak meadow, with feeders attracting many chattering birds. The room is full of art—including a large Herbert Siebner—and family photos and books. Pollen is an avid reader, especially of Shakespeare and history. Today he has The Collected Essays of George Orwell open.
His wife MaryAnn brings us tea, then joins the conversation and is especially good at recalling specific dates and names as we drill down through the decades.
Pollen grew up in Saskatchewan and Ontario. He credits his engagement in public service largely to his education at a small boarding school which preached social responsibility, along with teaching him table manners and ancient history.
He initially came to Victoria when he was 34 and an employee of the Ford Motor Company. It was supposed to be a two-week trip to help out the local dealer. But, in short order, the dealer convinced him to leave his job and take over running the dealership. It was a rather daring move for the young family, but Peter thrived at business and eventually owned both Ford and Honda dealerships.
It was a former mayor, R.B. Wilson, who came to Pollen one day and urged him to run for city council. For Pollen, who equates luck with “preparation and opportunity,” it was good timing.
After being an alderman for two years, he served four terms as mayor of the City of Victoria: 1971 to 1975 and 1981 to 1985.
“I liked it and I didn’t like it,” muses Pollen, adding, “It’s not where you make money, not where you get medals.” But it is, he acknowledges, an opportunity to make a difference to one’s community.
One theme of Pollen’s time as mayor—one that still runs in his veins—is his love of Victoria’s downtown and Inner Harbour. In recent years, that’s translated into his vocal opposition to the marina for mega-yachts.
Though the City was able to reduce its overall size, it’s still going ahead. He complains that the province has leased the water lot for only $40,000 per year (for 50 years), while the developer is selling the 26 individual slips for $800,000 apiece. Pollen and MaryAnn are active sailors and have no problem with a smaller-scale marina, but find the idea of “billionaires parking their boats there” distasteful. It’s Pollen’s view that the harbour and its walkways and vistas should be accessible by all citizens. He compares selling off that waterlot to the “filthy rich” to selling off our resources to China.
Pollen’s politics are hard to categorize. Though he once ran as a Conservative (unsuccessfully) in a provincial election, he tells me, “In a way I’m a bit of a socialist; one of my primary duties in life is to care for the people who need caring for.” He says he admired former premier W.A.C. Bennett because he didn’t have a political bias: “If something needed to be nationalized—like the ferry system—he nationalized it. If capitalism wasn’t delivering hydro power, he’d make damn sure somebody did and set up BC Hydro.”
Around heritage issues, too, he’s not a purist. He’s not opposed to highrises and he thinks the Northern Junk Building is, well, junk. But last year the Hallmark Society presented him with an Award of Honour “for long service to heritage in Victoria”—even amid a record building boom which he supported in other ways. The Society cited his engineering of the purchase of the Esso Service Station that now functions as the Visitor Information Centre, a ban on billboards, wrangling a free three-acre park at Laurel Point, saving the Malahat Building from demolition (he bought it and still owns it), a moratorium on building heights, the creation of the Lower Causeway, saving the Royal Theatre, and stopping “the Reid three-tower project,” a development proposal that involved three highrises—19-23 storeys high—on the waterfront near the foot of Bastion Square.
That’s quite a legacy. Regarding the causeway, Pollen says he had a vision—and drawings from Arthur Erickson’s firm—to make a beautiful, terraced walkway by the sea. Knowing the City couldn’t afford the $600,000 price tag, he called up then-Premier Dave Barrett and gave him a pitch. The next day Barrett called back, saying, “Build it; we’ll get you the money.”
Preserving the Royal Theatre was another favourite accomplishment. “We were confronted by the fact that Famous Players were going to sell the lot and tear down the theatre. So council said ‘to hell with that; we’re going to save it’—and we bought it for $265,000. And spent three times more fixing it up. It’s got lots of character; I love it!”
Pollen and his councils can also be credited with rejuvenating Government Street, broadening the sidewalks and planting trees, with the idea that it would become a pedestrian mall with no car traffic. But that was one battle he couldn’t win. The merchants then (as more recently) felt their business depended on cars being able to drive on Government.
Pollen’s philosophy of running the city was not unlike that for running a business: “Surround yourself with people who are smarter than you.” And remember the taxpayer who has to pay for everything. He worries about businesses in Victoria who pay 3.5 times the general tax rate. “You’re going to kill them if you’re not careful,” he warns.
In keeping with his focus on the Inner Harbour, heritage and taxes, Pollen is appalled at the decisions around the Johnson Street Bridge. He believes the replacement is too costly and unnecessary. He asks, “Why didn’t they service the bridge for six years?” and characterizes the lack of rail capacity on the new bridge as “absolute madness, outrageous.”
Pollen is the first to admit Victoria has been very good to him and his family—four children and 13 grandchildren all living within 10 blocks of him—and that’s one reason he went into politics in the first place. As mayor, he was able to make a difference and make many good friends. He and MaryAnn were able to go to China in 1982 when it was just opening up. Closer to home, but just as memorable, was a trip with his friend, naturalist Bristol Foster. They circumnavigated Haida Gwaii’s Moresby Island in “a tin boat, with a nine-horsepower motor” doing a pelagic bird survey (fuel was dropped off by plane).
These days he admits he’s slowed down some. “In your 70s,” he says “you might as well be 45, but when you hit your 80s, you…can’t fight any more dragons because the armour is too heavy.” If something moves or riles him, he jokes “I think about it and then I sit down!” But he can and does still write letters to the editor and lobby various authorities on his causes.
“The most important thing is to get the hell out of bed in the morning,” he concludes.
Leslie Campbell is the editor of Focus Magazine and will miss Mayor Peter.