Author Pauline Le Bel’s personal journey of losses, learning, and hope for Howe Sound.
OUTSIDE PAULINE LE BEL'S FRONT WINDOW on Kwilákm/Bowen Island, the Coast Mountains become something new. In what maps call Mount Strachan, Le Bel sees the head of a Sleeping Woman whose pregnant belly carries much more than the mundane name of Saint Mark’s Peak. Sometimes blanketed in snow, sometimes clothed in cloud, the reclined giant faces the sky and silently tells a new story—one about seeing differently, seeing what could be, seeing with love.
Written under that view, Le Bel’s new book, Whale in the Door: A Community Unites to Protect BC’s Howe Sound (Caitlin Press), is all about making space for a new story to shape the way we see and approach the land.
A spectacular fjord reaching inward from the Strait of Georgia, with Gibsons on one side and West Van on the other, Atl’kitsem/Howe Sound stretches 42 kilometres up to Squamish. Historically home to the Skwxwú7mesh Úxwumixw/Squamish Nation, Captain Vancouver named this area after Admiral Earl Howe, someone who Le Bel notes never laid foot or eye on its beauty. From mountains she calls “custodians” of the forests, to the deep regions of the ancient glass sponge reefs, Howe Sound is and has been many things to many people, and Le Bel chronicles ways in which use of the Sound has divided people. More importantly, she has now begun to unite those who dare to see it differently—to see, as Le Bel writes, with “eyes that have learned to see source, and not just resource.”
Pauline Le Bel (Photo by Virginia Penny)
Whale in the Door is partly a chronicle of Le Bel’s own learning. From First Nations history to modern industrial despoilment to current ecological and cultural renewal, Le Bel digs into what has shaped this sharp stretch of land and water. Though full of information even locals will likely not know, it’s not at all academic. While her previous book, Becoming Initimate with the Earth, took its energy from sadness and loss, this one, she tells me, is born out of gratitude and love.
As in any love story, it’s all about relationship. Le Bel came to the area 19 years ago, at first falling for the green winters of Vancouver during an eye-opening work trip from Edmonton, and eventually settling on Bowen. A professional artist who’s made a living in theatre, music and writing—and won an Emmy nomination for her feature-length drama The Song Spinner (also an award-winning novel)—she says the Muses descended upon her with extra force the week after she arrived on Bowen. She was inspired, breathed into. For a curious, bold, and energetic doer like Le Bel, that also meant learning and being changed.
One of her core beliefs, she tells me by phone, is that we are born not just into a place, but into the stories of that place. Which means when we move or exchange places, we can therefore seek out and meet the stories of a new place. That is precisely what Le Bel has poured herself into, and what she shares here.
As a result, Whale in the Door is more personal than history or journalism. With her, the reader learns things they’d never know unless, like Le Bel, they went salmon counting or looking for forage fish embryos on the beach with a marine biologist or interviewed industry executives or humbly listened to First Nations Elders over bowls of soup.
Yes, we learn shocking stories about Howe Sound becoming one of the most polluted places in North America, thanks to pulp mills, mining, chemical plants and other industrial use. But remember, this is a book about relationship. Losses and damage on the land and in the water mean great losses and damage first and foremost to the First Nations whose lives have for centuries been tied to that land and water.
Le Bel’s care, not just as a writer but as a person, is what leads us into the book’s heart, and hers. Her desire to connect means we get introduced to individuals living the story of Howe Sound, like Randall Lewis, environmental advisor for the Squamish Nation and president of the Squamish River Watershed Society. He remembers football practice in 1973 when a chemical plant explosion sent up orange-green clouds, and Elders warned not to eat the berries and plants. He recalls how a 2005 CN derailment sent fish jumping out of the Cheakamus River to escape the burning caustic soda. And when in the late ’80s DFO shut down the crab and shrimp fishing in Howe Sound because of dioxin and furan levels, Elders continued eating the seafood because, as Lewis explained, “there was no other choice and that’s all they knew.”
But the Howe Sound story is also one of activism and hope, for we see many sectors of the community pulling together to create a new narrative, one of environmental and cultural renewal. Whether it’s large-scale industry change, elementary school Squamish language classes, or eelgrass, estuary, and food restoration projects, we see the growing commitment among Indigenous and non-Indigenous communities to work together to change the story—a story where people and place are inseparable. We become more aware of the need to recognize relationship. As Randall Lewis told Le Bel: “If you want to fix things, fix the land. We need to make the spirit of the land strong again. If the land is strong, it will make our spirit strong. And future generations will receive the blessings of the land.” That goes for all of us here.
With a foreword by federal Green Party leader Elizabeth May, the book celebrates successes, but begs for caution with regard to future plans. The resilient but still recovering area faces pipelines, a gravel mine, resorts, commercial and residential developments, an estuary-impacting connector road and, looming largest, the proposed Woodfibre LNG plant which is again dividing communities. “Of course we need industry,” Le Bel tells me. “It’s how we do it.” And how we do it depends on the story underneath it. What we need to ask, she says, is: “What story will help us live well?”
Le Bel sees the artist’s role as “reclaim, reframe and rename—without shame.” She hopes the book will inspire people in other communities to realize that the kind of renewal going on in Howe Sound is achievable elsewhere. “It’s a good book for any community wanting to take charge and get that connection,” she says. “It’s possible.”
It’s possible to look differently at what’s outside your window. Most people look at the mountains we call the Lions, but don’t know the story of Chíchiyuy, the Twins or the Sisters, and their example of how conflict can be resolved with dignity, respect, and peace. People climb what they call the Chief but don’t know the story of Siyam Smanit. We can learn. We should learn. Imaginatively giving the area itself a say by writing in the voice of Howe Sound, a voice inspired by her Sleeping Woman, Le Bel says: “In this place, you may come to understand the meaning of your own life.” Heading into a new year is the perfect time to ask: What role can I play?
Part of Whale in the Door’s proceeds will be donated to Squamish Nation youth programs.
Having grown up with a glass sponge expert father, writer and editor Amy Reiswig always gets excited when someone else, like Le Bel, knows what they are!