A lack of balance on a June housing forum provides food for thought as to where the community needs to look for answers.
DID YOU KNOW THAT VICTORIA is the “hottest” ranking “luxury primary housing” market in the world? According to Christie’s International’s Luxury Defined 2018 report, we beat out Paris and Washington DC and every other city due to our strong year-on-year luxury sales volumes and high domestic demand during 2017.
At first blush this might seem rather exciting, something to be proud of. But earning this distinction means a lot of local homes are being bought up by wealthy folks from outside BC; Christie’s mentions an upsurge in buyers from the US and China.
The building boom, here and elsewhere in BC, is obviously fuelling the economy: real estate is now BC’s largest industry by GDP, and construction is #2. Together they are about one-quarter of the economy—larger than Alberta’s oil and gas sector.
But such glories come with a price. Besides being in danger of the bubble deflating, neighbourhoods and citizens are feeling squeezed as lower-cost units are demolished and replaced with taller buildings offering condos that most in the neighbourhood could never afford. The building boom corresponds with (some argue, has caused) a rise in all housing prices, from rentals through condos, from one end of town to the other. Victoria is now one of the least affordable cities in Canada.
So perhaps it shouldn’t be surprising that the provincial government, besides funding non-profit housing, has brought in measures to “cool” the hot luxury real estate market. These include taxes like the foreign buyers tax, a school tax on properties over $3 million, and the poorly-named “speculation tax.”
Promontory, one of several luxury condos in the Mariashes' 20-acre Bayview Place development in Victoria West.
How those in the development and real estate industry feel about these taxes, particularly the speculation tax, was on full display at a June 12 luncheon presented by Kenneth and Patricia Mariash, owners of Focus Equities and developers of Bayview Place. It was misleadingly entitled The 2018 Global Issues Dialogue: Exploring the BC Housing Crisis. Marketing materials listed Kathryn White, CEO of the UN Association of Canada, as a host, and promised to “identify practical and realistic solutions that address housing affordability.” As it turned out, it was mostly a venting of grievances against new taxes and regulations standing in the way of ever-greater development. Even former Saskatchewan Premier Brad Wall was there for some reason, telling us, “It’s the economy, stupid.”
Enough people complained to the UN Association of Canada about its involvement in the event that it issued a series of clarifying tweets, one stating, “UNA-Canada did not sponsor the Kenneth W. and Patricia Mariash Global Issues Dialogue. Rather, we were the charity of choice.”
THERE WERE ABOUT 300 IN THE AUDIENCE, which included many mayors, councillors and other big-wigs from the region. During the three hours we heard over and over again from the eight male speakers that the speculation tax was wrong-headed. Mariash said buyers were now “running scared” because of the Province’s new tax. BC now stands for “bring cash.” He also criticized the City of Victoria for years-long permitting processes, which he says can add $250,000 to a housing unit’s price. His most surprising remarks centred around how he first heard about Victoria many years ago in LA, and was told “Victoria is on the no-invest list” due to Councillor Pam Madoff. This was all before Mayor Helps gave a short “greeting” from the City of Victoria, assuring the audience that approval times are now down to 6-8 months in 90 percent of cases.
One of the forum’s panelists, Jon Stovell, CEO of Reliance Properties (developer of the Janion and Northern Junk properties) and chair of the Urban Development Institute, rattled off all the taxes now faced by his industry: the transfer tax, vacant property tax, speculation tax, school tax, GST, along with the mortgage stress test, which itself is taking many out of the market, he claimed. Even with all these, he noted, we still haven’t done anything to fix the supply.
One of the main speakers did at least mention what was needed to do that. Mike Harcourt argued that the lack of affordable housing is not a crisis so much as a permanent condition given global realities, including population growth and climate change. While he admitted city halls need to speed up approvals, and that the speculation tax “needed a second look,” Harcourt argued the solution is mostly about building affordable housing, and that the NDP government was on the right track with its commitment to build 114,000 new housing units over the next decade.
No one on the panel offered any ideas on how to accomplish this beyond letting developers continue unfettered with what they do best.
During the short Q&A, there was at least one dissenting voice. Nicole Chaland commented, “Many of us locals have noticed the intense building boom has corresponded to the greatest housing unaffordability…Increased supply doesn’t seem to be the most reliable way to meet the challenge.”
Panelist Michael Ferreira of Urban Analytics attempted a response by pointing out the “compounding of demand” with people wanting to live in cities, investors wanting to get into the market, and people like him who want to jump in and buy another house to ensure their adult children have a place to reside. “Supply is part of the solution,” he concluded.
But supply of what—more million-dollar condos? The developers’ own construction workers must find it difficult to afford decent housing here, not to mention the service workers in restaurants and shops. Even younger people with well-paying jobs fear getting permanently shut out of home ownership.
NICOLE CHALAND WOULD HAVE ADDED BALANCE TO THE PANEL. The former director of sustainability at Simon Fraser (2007-2017) is so immersed in community activism right now, she’s put aside plans to start a business until after the civic elections in October. She sits on the Fairfield Neighbourhood Plan Working Group and on the steering committee of Cook Street Village Residents Network.
I contacted her after the event and she sent me an op-ed she and Sheldon Kitzul penned in response to the forum and sent to the Times Colonist. In it they wrote, “This was not a genuine exploration of what possible policy solutions are available to solve the housing crisis. Far from it. This was a temper tantrum; a fist-bumping anti-tax political rally featuring an all-male panel of developers and former politicians.
“At no point did any speaker give us the impression that they had actually read and understood how the speculation tax works. At no point did anyone explain that one could simply avoid paying the tax by renting out their second home for six months, by selling their expensive home and buying one that is less than $400,000, or by making BC their primary residence and paying income tax like the rest of us.”
(Perhaps unsurprisingly, the T-C didn’t publish Chaland and Kitzul’s op-ed. The T-C’s before and after coverage of the Mariashes’ forum, along with three pages of puff pieces on the Mariashes last November, and a recent op-ed by Mariash, not to mention the big golf tournament the paper and Bayview jointly sponsor, all testify to the cozy relationship Mariash enjoys with the city’s daily.)
Chaland does not believe there will be any leadership from the private sector in addressing the lack of affordable housing. She wants the Province to “stay the course” with the new taxes. She is also advocating that the City of Victoria demand more from developers in the way of “Community Amenity Contributions” in return for rezoning and density approvals. A draft report she’s written states: “From 2016-2017, Victoria’s approach to CAC’s generated $3,086,000. Some analyses suggest that, given our current building boom, we’re missing out on tens of millions of dollars. This would pay for affordable housing, new parks in the Downtown core and childcare—all amenities which are desperately needed in Victoria.”
Chaland told me the City’s Director of Planning Jonathan Tinney seems overly cautious in his insistence that all such CACs must be voluntary. This is not the case in other cities, noted Chaland.
IN OUR CONVERSATION, Chaland referred to research by John Rose, an instructor in the department of geography and environment at Kwantlen Polytechnic University. He would have been another great addition to Mariash’s panel of speakers.
Rose’s research paper “The Housing Supply Myth” seems hard to refute. Rose reviewed the rate at which housing cost increased between 2001 and 2016, alongside how wages increased. He did this for 33 cities across Canada, using Statistics Canada data. He found that in most cities during those years, the rate at which housing costs increased was never more than double the rate of wage increases—a situation that would still degrade affordability. But Victoria’s housing increases were almost three times those of wages. In Vancouver they were six times more.
More number-crunching around building volumes allowed Rose to conclude: “the expensive markets are providing not only enough units to satisfy growth in the number of households between 2001 and 2016, but to also provide (in absolute terms) surplus units to the market at rates comparable to (indeed, slightly higher than) less expensive markets.”
He continued: “In all of the seven ‘severely unaffordable’ markets where housing affordability degraded most significantly between 2001 and 2016, the relative amount of surplus dwellings, as a percentage share of total dwellings, increased in number.” Or, as he put it in a Globe and Mail interview, “Here [in Vancouver] we’ve had more than enough supply and yet the housing costs have gone crazy.” The same is true of Victoria. Here, as Chaland told the luncheon audience, over the past 15 years, for every 100 new residents, 113 new units of housing have been added.
Other researchers looking primarily at Vancouver’s luxury housing boom have argued that a good number of new buyers of luxury homes are foreign buyers, some of whom are merely “parking” or laundering money this way. It is this global trend that is leading the Province to implement taxes and a just-announced public registry of who owns real estate in BC. Said Finance Minister Carole James, “Right now in BC, real estate investors can hide behind numbered companies, offshore and domestic trusts, and corporations. Ending this type of hidden ownership in real estate will help us fight tax evasion, tax fraud and money laundering.”
It could well be that such regulations and taxes will not lead towards more affordable housing. But as the research of Rose and others makes clear, neither will unfettered development. The market has proven that, at least given the current global scene, it cannot be relied on to provide what is most needed by BC citizens: affordable housing.
THE CRD RECENTLY REPORTED that this region needs 6,200 affordable units. Since these are unlikely to come from the private sphere, Mariash would have served his audience better by including in his speaker lineup some of the knowledgeable people building non-profit housing: Kaye Melliship, for instance, the executive director of the Greater Victoria Housing Society, an organization that has quietly been building non-profit housing for low-wage workforce members, people with disabilities, and seniors for decades. In 2018 the organization earned the “Non-Profit of the Year” Award. Among its 16 properties is Pembroke Mews, an apartment building geared to low-to-moderate income workforce tenants. Built in 2012, it is on the fringe of Downtown and offers 25 apartments on 2 floors above commercial space. Rents are pre-set and tenants are selected with an income no higher than $33,000.
Other agencies in the non-profit housing sector locally include Pacifica Housing with 36 buildings on the Island, Cool Aid, which runs 15 supportive housing buildings, and Greater Victoria Rental Development Society (which built the Azzuro on Blanshard and the Loreen on Gorge Road E.)
It’s in finding land for organizations like these, easing their approvals through local governments, and donating funding, that affordable housing will primarily be realized.
But private developers can get in on the action too. If Mariash had included David Chard or a speaker from BC Housing, we might have heard how private developers could build something like Chard Development’s Vivid on Yates Street. Chard partnered with BC Housing to make the 20-storey, 135-suite condominium project affordable for lower-income and mid-income buyers: they have to have a household income of less than $150,000 and commit to being the primary tenant of their home for a period of two years. Its below-market pricing—condos start at $289,800—was made possible through favourable lending terms backed by BC Housing. Only a dozen units remain unsold.
Another source of knowledgeable panelists is the BC Non-Profit Housing Association (BCNPHA), an umbrella group that has produced an “Affordable Housing Plan” with a ten-year roadmap towards sufficient affordable housing across British Columbia. Its extensive research shows exactly what we need and how much it will cost. After dealing with the backlog of nearly 80,000 units in BC (2016), an additional 3,500 affordable units will be required annually on average. How much will that cost? An estimated $1.8 billion per year over the next ten years. It’s a lot, but according to the organization, the non-profit housing sector “can bring $461 million to the table annually through land contributions, leveraging equity from assets, private donations and financing. This requires the provincial and federal governments to each commit an average annual investment of $691 million over the next ten years.” It notes the governments’ portions are not dissimilar to what they already committed in both the 2016 and 2017.
This sounds promising. But how is it working out as developers buy up more and more land for luxury housing and inflate land values? Are non-profits being priced out of the core area, thereby threatening the diversity that makes a city vibrant—and making it harder to solve long-term transportation and emissions challenges? Will Downtown be transformed into a resort town where more and more people are just passing through?
BCNPHA’s Policy Director Marika Albert (formerly director of the Community Social Planning Council of Greater Victoria) would have been perfect on the panel to address some of these questions.
Finally, another obvious choice for any discussion of affordable housing in BC would have been either Carole James or Minister of Housing Selina Robinson. Either could have discussed the government’s 30-Point Plan for Housing Affordability, which includes building 114,000 units over the next decade, along with various measures to dampen speculative-type investment. The ministers could have enlightened us about the new Building BC Community Housing Fund to which municipalities, non-profit groups and housing co-operatives can apply for funding of their affordable housing projects.
Ken Mariash is obviously a man of many talents. It takes a visionary with much business acumen to take on a project as large, costly and complex as the 20-acre Bayview site. But his dream project—and the projects of other luxury resort builders—are having the effect of driving up land costs. And they are taking up too much of the City of Victoria’s time and attention. Our civic leaders’ and workers’ efforts needs to be directed toward assembling land—at 100 units per acre, 70 acres would be enough—in parts of the City where denser, far more affordable housing can be created. The CRD accepts that 6200 affordable homes are needed. Let’s focus on that.
Focus editor Leslie Campbell has lived through a number of real estate boom-times in Victoria. This one feels different.
Two sorts of truth
Last month’s vote by City of Victoria council in favour of Abstract Developments’ 1201 Fort proposal at the former Truth Centre really solidified the neighbourhood’s sense of cynicism and despair about the development process and our representatives at City Hall.
Abstract used the “community engagement” process as an exercise in public relations. They began with a proposed scheme of 6-storey and 4-storey condominiums and 8 to 10 townhouses. Then, for their official submission, they padded their proposal to 6-5-12. When, as anticipated, they were forced by council to make “compromises,” they conceded storeys and townhomes back down to their original 6-4-9 scheme. Even the concession on the townhome height was only the removal of a variance for extra height.
By moving this proposal to a public hearing, council took the possibility of compromise off the table. As Councillor Madoff made clear, council was creating a win-lose situation where it didn’t need to. So rather than use its power to force a compromise between parties, City council created a crisis that it then resolved by being too worried about the terrible things the applicant might build.
Despite hundreds of nearby neighbours asking for a compromise, Mayor Lisa Helps, joined by councillors Margaret Lucas, Marianne Alto, Charlayne Thornton-Joe, Jeremy Loveday, and Chris Coleman, sided with the developer’s windfall profits at the expense of the community. So if council is wondering about the source of Victoria citizens’ apathy, cynicism, and anger, it has an answer. These councillors helped to make the City like this.
As neighbours and others stressed at several council meetings, under council’s current leadership, developers are cashing in by building expensive condominiums that most Victoria residents can’t afford. Abstract’s own presale video shows the development is for wealthier out-of-town folks who can afford these expensive condos and might move here. There’s a big mismatch between what Victoria citizens can afford according to their current income and what these expensive condos will sell or rent for. Councillors know this, but they keep approving these expensive condo developments anyway.
1201 merely adds to the problem. There is lots of evidence that just building more supply of these luxurious condos will not bring prices down.
What many of us resent most about 1201 Fort’s approval is not the additional densification or the decision that ultimately went against us. We resent the way, intentionally or unintentionally, City Hall has stacked the deck in favour of rich developers and against local residents.
We resent the way council has acquiesced to the City’s own Development Services unit in accepting their ludicrous explanation that no community amenity contributions or density bonuses were due for this application. Councillors seem to believe that the City will recoup costs through the municipal taxes paid by the new residents of the new units. But other cities do that too! However, on top of that, other BC municipalities ask for the developer to contribute to the true cost of the new amenities (bicycle lanes, parks, recreation centres) the new residents will expect.
We watched with dismay as council struggled to find money for its many reasonable additional needs. Yet it sacrificed a source of income that would offset the true costs of this development, and others, in effect creating an upward redistribution of wealth.
What nearby residents resented most of all is not that council made a decision against our wishes, but that council sold us out for so little: for the promise of only 10 slightly more affordable units somewhere else, in a deal that ties council to that later deal’s approval. Just weeks ago the Capital Regional District’s draft housing affordability strategy reported that we had a shortage of 6,200 units of affordable housing. Yet council traded the bonus density of this jewel piece of property for just…10 of them, maybe.
In another city, the 1201 development might have entailed $2.5 million in community amenity contributions and a density bonus, and might have involved some public art for residents to enjoy. But our council sold us out for so little. A bench and a pathway.
This experience taught us that rich developers can expect to manipulate neighbourhoods and council into building housing that current residents don’t need instead of building the housing we actually need. Council taught him and other developers that City Hall will not try to promote compromise densification, but will accept all kinds of rezoning for the purpose of personal enrichment—and that it can be backed into a corner through the development process led by Development Services, at which point council will feel forced to concede to the plan at the risk of the developer building a big ugly apartment block.
And council has taught the rich-developer community that they can successfully stack the public hearing process with their developer pals, all scratching each other’s backs the next time round.
Mayor Helps, and councillors Lucas, Alto, Thornton-Joe, Loveday, and Coleman have a lot to answer for.
This process has made it clear that Victoria needs an external review of its community amenity contribution and density bonus policies. Council should pass a motion to have a couple of directors of planning from similarly sized BC municipalities come to Victoria in order to investigate the question of why our community amenity contributions and density bonuses are so atypical. Council is forgoing millions of dollars that might be used to build the amenities Victoria citizens expect and hold dear.
I thank you for the article “Two Sorts of Truth” by Ross Crockford.
He said: “It’s debatable if 1201 Fort will be for ‘Everyone’: its one-bedroom units start around $400,000.”
I would like to offer a correction. The website for 1201 Fort indicates that prices start at $600,000. A 1,298 square-foot 2-bedroom+den condo on the 4th floor in the 6-storey building is listed elswhere at $1,275,000. A two-bedroom+den penthouse is $3 million.
These prices are before taxes, of course. Please add a monthly strata fee. Even for retirees who own an above-average house in Fairfield or Rockland, the selling price of the house will not translate well into downsizing into this particular development.
The majority of our council approved a massive rezoning and numerous variances for 1201 Fort project’s sake.
Who will benefit from this?
Kinder Morgan link to Enron discomforting
The latest issue of Focus was, in our opinion, the best. Everything from the fraudulent dealings with the (shall we say inferior) bridge; Horgan’s double-take on the LNG situation and Weaver’s waffle on that topic; the destruction being caused by Site C, another Horgan change of mind; the unhappiness in Oak Bay with the bid to build low-income housing on real estate which is the most expensive in the region; and, of course, the lies and falsehoods put out by our politicians about the Kinder Morgan pipeline, all of which makes us feel our province is going to hell in the proverbial hand basket. The fact that Richard Kinder was the past president of another infamous project—Enron—is discomforting.
But what can we as ratepayers and voters do to combat all this mistrust and destruction? Many will fight, but sadly the majority of the population will assume that typical Canadian attitude in times like this—shrugging their shoulders and saying “Oh well, what can you do!” As long as we Canadians take this weak-kneed attitude, politicians will walk all over us.
Ruth and Jason Williams
Good candidates need to step up
Ross Crockford has written a very accurate, appropriate and timely article. Well done and thank you.
Chris Le Fevre
If you’re not immersed in the minutiae of local political spats, you may be reflecting on the big picture—that which asks how a candidate serves the public interest? Where the common good lies in an economic and social environment dominated by private interests hungry for entitlements from the public purse? Who enjoys most benefit from an increasingly deregulated environment? Who bears the heaviest burdens?
The loudest, most influential voices in municipal affairs are property owners (both commercial and residential). Although tenants may represent six out of ten households in Victoria, and pay taxes like homeowners, they can be ignored by decision-makers. Rental tenure remains insecure. The presence of tenants is now diminishing in a city that places greater value on high-end property owners and speculative investors.
Ross Crockford suggests that “Victoria gets plenty of scrutiny in a town that eats and breathes politics.” If so, where’s the strong evidence of investigative reporting? Or even critical comment by the media in Victoria, other than Focus Magazine? That Victoria is home to the Provincial Legislature and City Hall is no guarantee any genuine public consultation exists. Or that openness, transparency, and accountability, which form the foundation of democracy, are upheld. Judging from the number of in camera meetings held, and stymied Freedom of Information requests, they are not upheld. What if we demanded that candidates or elected representatives reveal their monthly income and expenses? Their investments? Political donations? Potential conflicts of interest? Meetings with lobby groups or individuals?
Those seeking public office might encourage public trust by disclosing such information.
Crockford concludes as follows: “Victoria needs articulate people with common sense, experience handling employees and questioning consultants, practical ideas about how to improve the City, and the determination—and the time—to see them realized.”
These important qualities are expected of an elected official. What is critical, however, is whom these elected officials intend to serve among the special interests and power brokers.Will such individuals disclose their personal beliefs and any biases that frame their choices? Have they ever disclosed publicly an error or misjudgment, and if so, what have they done to remedy the matter? Where are the candidates’ red lines?
How easy it is—in our island paradise—to drift with the flow. What takes courage is challenging the City’s prevailing narrative, being open to criticism, and welcoming new ideas which may undermine our comfort levels. Individuals who can manage this kind of courage are rare. But they’re worth their weight in gold. We need elected candidates of this calibre if we are to build a healthy, inclusive and sustainable city. And, as informed and engaged citizens, we need to do our part to see that such candidates present themselves, earn our trust, and be held to account as valued members of Victoria City council.
Loggers harvesting ridiculously young trees
Further to my letter to editor that ran in the past issue (“Why Bambi and Friends Moved to Town”), now I’ve learned that things have actually slipped farther down the tube here along the east coast of Vancouver Island. How? Well, after speaking with a few local residents here in the Comox Valley who are more up on what’s going down in the Oyster River Division, the local TimberWest private forest lands claim, word is that 40-year-old or possibly 30(!?)-year-old stands of timber have been harvested for some time now. Find this hard to believe? Then take a gander at the weigh station on the highway just north of Duncan. Perhaps if you are (un)fortunate enough you will catch a loaded logging truck just arrived from TimberWest’s Cowichan claim sitting on the scales stacked with what are no more than veritable sticks of trees on their trailers. You know, like the size of tree trunks in the cedar hedge you have planted along your property line.
Electoral reform referendum
The reaction from electoral reform opponents to last week’s report by Attorney General David Eby was as swift as it was predictable: “The deck is stacked!” and “it’s too complicated!” But is that really true? We find it normal that governments make many important decisions without holding a referendum, but now that we, the voters get to make the decision, the deck is somehow stacked? Really?
The first referendum question will simply ask us whether we want to keep our current system, or move to a more proportional system. That is no more complicated than deciding which shoe goes on which foot.
The second referendum question gives us the opportunity to express our preference between three voting systems. All three systems contain the principles which we find important: a local representative, more proportional election results, having (almost) all our votes count, a threshold of five percent to keep out fringe parties, no loss of regional representation, and little or no increase in the number of politicians or the cost of elections.
BC had multi-member ridings in our history before 1990, when the last dual riding was abolished (without a referendum), so the Dual Member Proportional (DMP) system is not really new to BC.
The Mixed Member Proportional (MMP) system would give us one vote for a local candidate, much like what we have now, plus a second vote for a regional candidate. Is that so complicated?
The Rural/Urban system proposes to use different voting systems in rural and urban areas because the Single Transferable Vote (STV) voting system works well when combining small urban ridings, but doesn’t translate to some of our already gigantic rural ridings, which instead would use the MMP system.
Much information is coming our way, and we have five months before we vote in November to find a little time to look at these three systems, any of which could work just fine in BC. Then, should we decide for a new system, there will be another referendum after 2 elections in which we can decide to go back to our current system.
This is about our democracy, about how we choose our governments. We are very lucky, because we, the voters get to make the decisions every step of the way. Considering the many benefits which introducing proportionality in our voting system could bring, a little effort to get informed is a small price to pay.
The business case for proportional representation
Successful corporations prosper because they spend valuable time building “goal congruency” for both short and longer term corporate goals. This is achieved by working as a team with all levels of management and their employees in the annual budget and planning process. Corporations that are divided, adversarial and do not spend time discussing short and long term goals will be outmanoeuvred by their competitors.
These benefits of goal congruency and objective setting can certainly apply to a country as well, especially if it has a proportionally elected minority government. A system where every vote counts makes voters feel more responsible. Coordination and cooperation are encouraged between parties to act in the interest of the people—goal congruency. Proportional representation ensures the most effective and economic use of labour, capital and energy in the long term.
Countries that have adopted proportionally representative electoral systems, such as the Scandinavian countries, Germany and New Zealand, seem to have more success in developing progressive common goals. Sweden, a country of only 10 million, tops the Global Green Economy index and is among the top ten countries in World Competitiveness. Germany is phasing out nuclear power by 2021, with an emphasis on energy conservation and green technologies. New Zealand has successfully settled the majority of Maori treaty claims with both right- and left-leaning minority governments since 1996.
Achieving common goals does not happen as naturally under “one party” government for they are essentially adversarial and there is very little opportunity to discuss common goals with other parties.
For Canada we just have to think back to the composition of our recent federal parliaments, that have been dominated by the two traditional parties with 40 percent or less support of the voters while holding absolute power. Not only do these parliaments neglect to hear the voices of other parties but they continually lurch from each other’s polarizing economic and social policies with all the consequences of correction that entails. For instance, the present Trudeau government (39.5 percent support) spent their first year in office changing taxation and immigration legislation that a Harper government (39.6 percent) had enacted, just as Harper had removed Chretien’s earlier legislative initiatives.
Probably the most important aspect of proportionally representative government is the more congenial style of party leadership, for any prospective premier must show some team-building skills and be able to work with other parties in the legislature. Government formation normally takes about a month and this a crucial time for all parties to review their positions on common goals in order to see what “goal congruency” exists between them.
After having survived 150 years of “one party” government under the present system, surely we can take this unique opportunity to catch up with over 60 percent of the world. BC would be the first Canadian jurisdiction to try a Proportionally Representative electoral system in North America for electing our politicians.
Gene Miller: to laugh and/or cry?
I want to thank you once more for producing such an important magazine for our times; it never fails to inspire me to continue social and political activism, no matter how dire the future appears.
Speaking of which, Gene Miller outdid his brilliant dark self in the May/June issue; sometimes I don’t know whether to laugh or cry (usually both) when I read his column.
Because of the volunteer work I do at our local school, I was especially taken by Gene’s comments on how modern technology puts us at odds with our biology (and our better human instincts, surely) by supporting solitude and putting us all in states of anxiety, fear, depression and anger.
Researchers like Dr Lucy Suchman at Lancaster University in the UK sounds similar alarms in her work, urging us to pay attention to what is happening to the parts of civil society that are being handed over to artificial intelligence. She gives examples like Google rebranding its research division as Google AI, and the fact that AI now controls important civic functions such as road safety, scholastic grading, health care and aspects of policing.
All of this goes to support Gene’s final comment in his most recent column: think community. Yes, that is where our only hope of activism can make a difference—with people we know and with whom we can (as Mother Jones said) organize, and not just mourn. The warrior mentality does not work in groups where stories, music, art, and projects for the public good are a priority.
With gratitude for all the work that goes into Focus.
Alan Cassels’ articles appreciated
Thanks to Focus Magazine for providing the public with well researched articles on pharmaceuticals. There are limited reliable sources for this type of information and good resources are invaluable to the public in forming decisions about drugs they may be prescribed. I’m not suggesting a person would refuse to take a drug as a result of an article in your magazine, but more likely be able to ask better questions of the medical profession and pharmacy staff before ingesting something. It’s good to know more about true efficacy rates, potential side effects etc. The articles provided by Alan Cassels are always helpful in raising awareness on drug testing, marketing, efficacy of drugs, and side effects, and where else are we going to get such well researched data? We can google until the cows come home, but would likely not be able to draw good conclusions from what we individually might glean from internet sources.
Editor’s note: Alas, in light of a new job with BC’s Therapeutic Initiative, Alan Cassels has penned his last Focus column for the forseeable future. We already miss him but congratulate him on his important new role.
Tar sands operations = ecocide
When governments cross a line and start destroying their own populations, we have words to label these actions: “genocide” and “ethnic cleansing.” These words tell the rest of the world that something is not right, and that action must be taken.
As of 2013, 715 square kilometres of boreal forest had been destroyed by the extraction of bitumen from the tar sands in Alberta. As of October 2017, 242 square kilometres (The Guardian) stand in poisonous, sludge-filled tailing ponds. Less than one percent of this land has been certified as reclaimed.
Alberta has destroyed much of it boreal forest (and plans to destroy more), poisoned its water, and accelerated climate change. Now, with the support of the federal government, it wants to extend its ecological destruction through the mountains and to the coast of BC, where the wreck of only one of a fleet of tankers would have disastrous consequences for the vital inland Salish Sea.
While the logging and mining industries have modernized their practises to be more eco-friendly, the petroleum industry has not.
Perhaps this bitumen should be left in the ground until a less destructive way of extracting it has been developed. (In the late 1950s, it was seriously being considered to use underground thermonuclear explosions to extract the oil. The proposed project was known as Project Cauldron. The Diefenbaker administration put a stop to it in support of an underground test ban that the USA and USSR were negotiating at the time, and aren’t we glad it did!)
In the meantime, we need a word to describe the situation when a state supports methods of resource extraction that endanger the common good and exceed an acceptable degree of environmental degradation. Perhaps the word “ecocide” should be used to alert other countries that what is happening in Alberta is wrong, and that action must be taken.
Hit the pause button on Crystal Pool
Hold on! Now we hear that the Crystal Pool rebuild in Central Park plan has morphed into “Let’s add in affordable housing.” The rebuild-instead-of-renovate choice by council was misguided to begin with. There was no consideration for the outdoor recreation facilities that the new pool would displace by moving from the northwest corner to the southwest corner of the park. No thought for the Steve Nash basketball court, the tennis court, the newly installed exercise equipment, the kids’ playground—all popular and necessary elements to the park. Instead, we were to get a parking lot with 140 spaces on the site of the current pool. When the optics in an election year of paving a park became obviously embarrassing, the tune changed to underground parking with affordable housing on top.
Does council not see the increasing value of green space in an increasingly dense core? How is it that the City hasn’t done a full survey of its City-owned properties and offered up land for housing on suitable lots? How is it acceptable to, first of all, come up with a plan that ignores all but the pool structure and increased parking, leading to a bad decision to rebuild that jettisons the amenities already there?
It looks to me like the agenda was hijacked by the regional swim clubs using the pool. Council went along with it, decided it didn’t need a referendum to spend the money [that may change given recent statements by the Province], and focused on the pool structure, ignoring those who use the green space and outdoor recreation facilities. Next thing you know we’re asked to consider building housing in the park, increasingly valuable in a city becoming more congested with development and traffic. Parks provide respite and space to breathe. We need parks to remain parks.
It’s time to hit pause and do a complete rethink, starting with the extravagant decision to rebuild a grander structure offering something for everyone in the region—the price tag: over $69 million. Is this starting to sound like the Blue Bridge debacle? Never mind the Di Castri-designed current pool that would be consigned to the landfill. Never mind the need to protect every bit of green space we have.
City aids Chinese bike companies at expense of locals
As a long-term tenant of the City of Victoria at various locations and most recently at 685 Humboldt Street, and as President of Cycle BC Rentals, I recently wrote Mayor Helps and councillors to voice my concerns and objections in regards to the dockless bicycle program that has spread throughout Greater Victoria.
I’m sure the mayor and council were full of good intentions when they headed to Asia, at local taxpayer expense, to attract foreign investment. However, they either didn’t do their homework or they didn’t care how their actions might affect local businesses when they rolled out the red carpet for U-bicycle, the Chinese company behind the green dockless bikes spreading throughout Greater Victoria. A quick check with cities such as Seattle, San Francisco, San Diego, Austin, Dallas, Beijing, Shanghai and on and on, would have shown that there are many problems associated with dockless bikes.
We now have Greater Victoria councillors and mayors actively promoting the U-bicycle company within their municipalities, bylaws are being changed to accommodate U-bicycle, and to top it off, free rent is provided throughout Greater Victoria for their equipment. Who could wish for more!? I know we’re not the only bicycle business in Victoria that would have appreciated a visit from the mayor, a councillor or anyone else from City Hall.
The cost to the Chinese company to buy and import the bicycles, using low-cost Chinese labour and Chinese steel, is less than what we pay the City of Victoria in annual rent, let alone what we contribute through local employment, taxes and community support. Within a two-year period we pay the City of Victoria in excess of $100,000 while a Chinese company, importing bicycles made and assembled in China at a cost of less than $100 / bicycle, can flood the City’s streets with over 1,000 bicycles for less investment.
The City should understand the adverse effects their actions have not only on bicycle rental businesses like ourselves, but on many other bicycle-related businesses. Bicycle retailers will be adversely affected by the thousands of dockless bikes scattered throughout the city, and many bicycle tour companies will not be able to compete against U-bicycle tours departing from City-owned land.
U-bicycles can park their equipment in areas that are unavailable to the rest of us, including but not limited to, the cruise ship facilities at Ogden Point, Fisherman’s Wharf, front of the Empress, Ship’s Point, Harbour Air, Provincial Museum, etc—pretty much any prime area in Victoria.
U-bicycles brochures are being offered through Tourism Victoria, offering day rentals on bicycles at a fraction ($10/day) of what any of the competing bicycle rental companies can offer. Existing cruise ship bicycle tour companies are being forced to cut their tour rates due to undercutting by U-bicycles. Easy when you don’t have to pay real estate rent, don’t have to pay property taxes, don’t have to pay local wages, don’t buy locally, and effectively have the City looking after marketing. Clearly it’s not a level playing field.
Think the U-bicycles are green? Do a Google search on “dockless bike piles” and you will see the only thing green is the colour.
I am asking that the City reconsider its position on dockless bikes, and that it consult with existing bicycle rental and retail businesses throughout Victoria. The dockless bicycle program is resulting in serious financial losses for many of the existing businesses, and if left unchecked, will likely result in the loss of several businesses that depend on the summer tourism trade.
Was the intent of introducing dockless bicycles to Victoria to provide short-term commuter transportation, as is the case with most docked bicycle programs, or to flood the streets with thousands of bicycles that will destroy many of the existing bicycle businesses and ultimately result in discarded bicycles clogging our waterways, sidewalks, parks and public spaces as has occurred throughout hundreds of other cities around the world?
Doug Turner / Cycle BC Rentals
The Malahat and the E&N
Premier Horgan suggests that a bridge from Mill Bay to North Saanich would be a better idea than the E&N to provide an alternate route to Highway 1 over the Malahat. I don’t think so. After paying for feasibility studies, environmental studies and interchanges on both sides, building a bridge across Saanich Inlet, widening secondary roads and purchasing land, we will be left with the Pat Bay Highway being more crowded or West Saanich Road being straightened out and widened, but only after successfully convincing three First Nations that this would be in their best interest.
Green Party MLA Adam Olsen improves on Horgan’s idea by suggesting a car ferry to cross to the Peninsula. On the west side of the inlet, the ferry will start at Cowichan Bay thus ruining that area with car traffic, and end at the Pat Bay float plane dock. Ferries will have to be purchased and terminals built; infrastructure will have to be provided to park and stage cars at each of the ferry terminals and to accommodate passengers. This idea would be good for anyone going to the airport, but how many would be doing that? While it avoids the construction costs of the bridge, where do the cars and passengers go from there: West Saanich Road? Pat Bay Highway? Where do cars line up to board? Where do the 50 cars that arrive at the same time go?
Horgan and others have suggested replacing the Mill Bay Ferry with one of a larger capacity. This would require replacing the docking and loading infrastructure at both ends to accommodate the larger ferry. Would the streets in Brentwood be able to handle the increased traffic when a ferry lands? Those vehicles would then have to use West Saanich Road or any of the cross-peninsula roads that were not designed for heavy traffic. We know from the Pat Bay Highway experience that ferry traffic puts a heavy burden on the roads for only a short period of time but they need to be able to handle it safely.
If there is going to be a ferry, picture what would happen when the Malahat was closed: hundreds of cars would immediately be diverted to a ferry that carries a maximum of 50 cars and would have a round trip of close to an hour. Of course, this is the same problem with roads: they have to be designed to handle rush-hour traffic, but for most of the time they are overbuilt for the amount of traffic they carry.
The above ideas assume that everyone using the Malahat is going to, or coming from, downtown Victoria. In reality, traffic will also be going to Esquimalt naval base, Royal Roads University, Langford, Colwood and Sooke. If those people have to take the bridge or a ferry to North Saanich, they will then increase the traffic on the connecting roads leading to those destinations. Finally, both ideas seem to ignore the fact that there is a considerable amount of truck traffic and some bus traffic on the Malahat, which will be more difficult for the infrastructure to accommodate than cars.
Another idea that has been suggested is to put a road through the catchment area for the reservoir that provides Greater Victoria with its drinking water. Victoria has a safe, secure supply of water that requires a minimum of treatment for drinking. Why would we want to build a road through that area to introduce pollutants that would then have to be removed from the water? An idea that I haven’t heard proposed yet is to tunnel through the mountain. It’s what the Swiss would do.
Every time there is an accident on the Malahat, ideas for an escape route abound. So far, the solution has been to widen portions of the highway and put in abatement barriers in an attempt to eliminate accidents. However, we know from experience that even the best designed roads have accidents, usually because of human error, so it is unlikely that road improvements are going to eliminate them.
I don’t see any of the above alternatives being better or cheaper than the E&N which would run on a frequent daily schedule, giving Islanders an alternative to driving the Malahat. They will learn to appreciate the safety and convenience of rail travel. Diverting vehicle traffic from the Malahat to an already traffic-burdened Saanich Peninsula is not a good solution.
Let’s face it: the problem is cars; there are too many of them and they go too fast. If you make the roads easier to drive on, there will be more cars, and they will go faster and they will cause more accidents.
FOIed emails show engineers forgot about a serious flaw until it was too late to fix properly. They then forgot that they had forgotten.
AFTER STALLING FOR SIX MONTHS, the City of Victoria finally released documents that provide details about why the lifting section of the new Johnson Street Bridge had to be repaired before it was even installed. “Repair,” by the way, is the word used by the engineers involved. The records the City released include emails from Ryan Andrews, PCL’s project manager, to private consultant Jonathan Huggett, whom the City has been paying about $300,000 a year to watch over Victoria taxpayers’ interests on the project. PCL is the Edmonton-headquartered company the City contracted to build the bridge in 2013.
The released records show Huggett and another engineer misled public officials about the circumstances that led to the need for the premature repair. In turn, those public officials, including Mayor Lisa Helps, misled the public.
As you may recall, our January story pointed out that a one-metre by one-metre steel plate had been bolted to the underside of each of the new bridge’s 50-foot-diameter rings at the 12 o’clock position. The plates were not part of the intended design, and appeared to be a last-minute addition needed to reinforce some structural weakness in the rings. For our story we contacted Huggett and Helps for information about what had necessitated the plates.
A close-up of the large bolted-on plates that made a last-minute and unexpected appearance on Victoria's brand-new $115-million bridge
Huggett’s response to our questions at the time produced little factual information. Mayor Helps ignored our questions about whether she and council had been advised about the plates. Following publication of our story, Helps issued a statement through facebook claiming our story “contained serious factual errors and inaccuracies.” Her statement had apparently been created by then acting City Manager Jocelyn Jenkins, with Huggett’s guidance. Keith Griesing, a professional engineer with Hardesty & Hanover, the company that engineered the lifting section of the bridge, wrote a letter to the City explaining how the problem that led to the repair had been discovered. Griesing denied any responsibility for the circumstances that led to the bolted-on plates and blamed the Chinese fabricator.
In the six months since then, Helps and the City were unable to provide any examples of “factual errors and inaccuracies” in our original story. However, after receiving the records we requested by FOI, I am able to report that I did make a factual error. The size of the plates are actually six feet by six feet—almost four times as large as we reported. But the emails from Andrews to Huggett paint a rather different story than that told by Huggett, Helps, and Griesing.
In two emails from Andrews to Huggett, Andrews appealed to Huggett to intervene with Hardesty & Hanover to hasten resolution of a serious issue that became known as “NCR 155.” That referred to four weld access holes in each ring described in a non-conformance report (NCR) by Atema dated January 4, 2017. Atema was the company performing PCL’s quality-control inspections at the steel fabrication facility in China where the lifting section was built.
Atema’s report recorded that the weld access holes were “discovered” on December 9, 2016. The concern about the small holes, not openly stated in the Atema report, was that their location and physical nature would concentrate stress and could eventually lead to the formation of fatigue cracks in the rings. Such fatigue cracks could threaten the structural integrity of the bridge’s superstructure.
In Andrews’ first email to Huggett about the issue, which he sent on March 31, 2017 following a meeting with Hardesty & Hanover that day, Andrews wrote: “For a brief recap, you heard H&H mention this has been a known issue for over a year, yet it wasn’t communicated to PCL…until December 2016 at which point the NCR was initiated…”
I’ve added the italicization in that sentence to draw your attention to that point. It shows that Andrews told Huggett on March 31, 2017 that the problem created by the weld access holes “had been a known issue for over a year.” That would mean the problem had been evident to Hardesty & Hanover before March 31, 2016.
Both Huggett and Griesing have, in their separate public explanations of the issue, implied that the problem was discovered in December 2016 as a result of Atema’s diligent inspection and quality control.
So what’s the big deal about the eight months missing from both Huggett’s and Griesing’s explanations? During those eight months, as well as during the four months between rediscovery of the problem and the date when Andrews emailed Huggett, work had continued on the rings. That year of work made it more difficult to fix the problem properly.
Neither Huggett nor Griesing responded to requests for an explanation of why those eight months had disappeared from their public accounts of what happened. Perhaps there is no reasonable explanation for why the problem wasn’t addressed as soon as it was first identified. It appears the problem was simply forgotten. Did someone then wake up in the middle of a dark, December night and have an OMG! moment? How embarrassing this must be for those involved: Engineers forgetting that they forgot.
But that’s not the full extent to which Huggett and Griesing misled the City and the public.
Andrews’ March 31, 2017 email to Huggett continued: “Now it also needs to be noted that this so called ‘non-conforming’ condition has no design details and no comments were made on the shop drawings. We have not raised issue of this prior due to our interest in just getting it repaired and over with, but being that it continues to linger it now has significant impacts for both PCL and the City—those being time and money.”
Andrews, then, disputed that the weld access holes were the fault of the fabricator. He believed they were a result of design details and comments not being provided by the designer—Hardesty & Hanover.
Indeed, Atema’s NCR 155 included notations that pointed out the lack of clarity in the shop drawings for the weld access holes. Ultimate responsibility for approving those shop drawings lay with Griesing.
Martin Bache, a 40-year veteran of the heavy steel fabrication industry in Canada, described the proper procedure required for approval of weld access holes: “Weld access holes in fracture-critical members must be designed by the Engineer of Record [Griesing]. Competent detail draftspersons would be expected, during preparation of the shop drawings, to identify closed chambers where the Engineer of Record may have forgotten to show on his plans weld access holes without which the required welding cannot be performed. They would then issue an RFI [request for information] pointing this out, and asking the Engineer of Record how they should proceed.”
According to Bache, then, Griesing would ultimately be responsible for the completeness of the design of every weld access hole that was required, since every steel member in the rings was designated “fracture-critical.”
But in January 2018, after publication of our original story, Griesing wrote the City of Victoria and stated, “There was no ‘design flaw’ by Hardesty & Hanover nor any other of the City consultants involved; it was assembly by the fabricator that did not conform to the design plan requirements nor to the applicable detailing and fabrication standards required in the specifications.”
Andrews’ email to Huggett calls that claim into question.
And now we come to the nub of why Victoria got a new bridge delivered with such highly visible repairs.
Andrews’ email to Huggett continued: “I’m requesting your support by having a separate conversation with H&H/MMM on this subject and resolution thereof. Having to remove the cover plate to do these repairs should be the item challenged as this is what will create the delay expressed above. Or in other words, give me a repair that requires no removal of the cover plate.”
There were three general approaches that could have been taken to address the potential for fatigue caused by the weld access holes.
PCL’s fabricator proposed a welded repair limited to the weld access holes themselves, but Hardesty & Hanover rejected that approach.
A second approach was to add steel to the outside of the rings, and that’s the approach that was eventually taken.
The third approach would have been to remove steel plate (“the cover plate”) from the rings in the area around the access holes and rework the problematic area. That would have preserved the intended design. But Andrews lobbied Huggett to steer away from this latter course. Removing the cover plate at that point in the project could have created a problem that he outlined to Huggett in a second email a few days later: “[T]he whole reason the [cover] plate was installed was [because] it was continually discussed between all parties that all welding needed to be complete before proceeding [in March 2017] to vertical assembly due to concerns of the heat induced from welding causing the shape of the rings to change.”
The implication was that if the choice was made to remove plating and rebuild the problematic area of the ring, the fit between the rings and the other major bridge components—obtained during the month-long trial vertical assembly that had just been completed—couldn’t be counted on. Andrews estimated that taking the route of removal of plate and doing an internal fix would add a “week or more” to the schedule.
Compare that “week or more” to the year that had passed between the time the issue first became known and the point when trial vertical assembly had been completed. In that context, Griesing’s explanation to City council that “impact to schedule” was an important factor in the choice of bolted-on plates is…laughable.
Remarkably, the record of Huggett’s communications released by the City doesn’t include any communications coming from Huggett. He appears not to have responded to Andrews’ emails and not to have consulted with Hardesty & Hanover or with MMM as per Andrews’ request. Neither did he inform anyone at the City of Victoria about the issue or the options. It’s clear that an alternative to bolted-on plates was possible and would, by Andrews’ estimate, have added only a “week or more” to the schedule. But, according to the records released by the City, Huggett didn’t advocate for any outcome with anyone.
Let’s reflect on the absence of any emails from Huggett in response to Andrews’ appeals. Huggett is not a City of Victoria employee. He operates what appears to be a one-man project management business in the Vancouver area. His contract with the City does not require him to use the City’s email server, which automatically backs up all City employee emails and preserves them for the purpose, among others, of being available for access-to-information requests.
When Focus requested Huggett’s communications on this issue, the City had to ask him to go through his emails and find relevant records. In other words, the City created a situation where a private contractor could, in effect, decide what emails to provide. The problem here should be obvious. The City has no way of knowing what interactions took place between Huggett and employees of Hardesty and Hanover, PCL or MMM. The product these companies delivered was seriously defective, yet Huggett, when questioned about the bolted-on plates, provided little more than an airbrushed account of why that had occurred.
From what I understand, the City has now entered into a similar arrangement with Huggett regarding the City’s plan to build a new $75 million swimming pool. What is that definition of “insanity” again?
Does the City have any legal recourse to seek compensation as a result of the delivery of a defective bridge? As I noted in my story in our May/June edition, in April 2016 the City agreed to “release and forever discharge” PCL, MMM and H&H “from all debts, claims, demands, damages, expenses and costs (including without limitation, legal costs) of any nature or kind that are in any way related to the Project and either known or which ought to be known by the [City] as of [April 23, 2016].” According to PCL’s Ryan Andrews, the defects that necessitated the bolted-on plates were a “known issue” at the time the City signed away its right to seek legal recourse for anything related to known issues.
David Broadland is the publisher of Focus.
The City of Victoria's full release of documents related to the bolted-on plates can be downloaded here. (9.1 MB file size)
Bridge design flaw hidden for a year, then given quick-and-dirty repair
Victoria City Hall continues cover-up of bridge design flaw
Why are Victoria City councillors accepting a world-class bodge?
The Wounded White Elephant
The fuzzy thinking of Canada’s mainstream political establishment is driving some good citizens to despair.
DAVID DODGE, a former Bank of Canada governor, recently gave a speech in Edmonton in which he predicted “there are some people that are going to die in protesting construction” of the Trans Mountain pipeline. As reported in the Edmonton Journal, he was warning his audience to be prepared, that the deaths would be a test of will for the Canadian government and its people, but certainly not a reason to stop the pipeline. “It’s going to take some fortitude” to face the deaths and continue, he said, but continue we must: “We have to understand this is a resource where the long-term viability isn’t there, not because we’re running out of muck in the ground, but because we actually, collectively, as the globe, are going to have to stop using as much of this stuff.”
Dodge obviously understands the dictates of global climate change. His response is to urge Canadians to continue to exploit the main source of the problem in the closing window of time we’ll be allowed to. Even if it means people die.
Meanwhile sensible, caring people who try to stand in the way of such exploitation are viewed as fanatics and felons.
MURRAY REISS, an award-winning poet who lives on Salt Spring Island, is 72 years of age, just a few years younger than Mr Dodge. Arrested on March 23 for standing in front of the entry gate to Kinder Morgan’s Trans Mountain expansion construction site, he told BC Supreme Court Justice Kenneth Affleck: “nothing less than the impending end of the world gets me to put my body on the line. I wish I was exaggerating. Tripling the Trans Mountain pipeline’s capacity will recklessly escalate tar sands extraction. James Hansen, who knows as much about the science of climate change as anyone, has stated, repeatedly: maximum tar sands exploitation puts civilization at risk.”
“The laws of physics are non-negotiable,” continued Reiss, “the notion of selling more fossil fuels today to pay for climate action tomorrow is sheer delusion. By that ‘tomorrow’…runaway global warming will be locked into the system. Already every year—almost every month—sets a new record for heat, for flooding, for wildfires, drought.”
Lisa Baile of Pender Island, also in her 70s, had a long career as a medical researcher. The long-time mountaineer, wilderness educator, and author of the book, John Clarke, Explorer of the Coast Mountains, told Judge Affleck: “Knowing that climate change is reaching an irreversible tipping point, I cannot stand by and allow this pipeline to be built knowing that it will be contributing to a local and global catastrophe. I have to stand up for my home, the coast of BC and the planet—to do my utmost to leave a better world while there is still a chance—for my three-year-old granddaughter, my two grandsons and for all the youngsters and unborn children in the world. To do nothing would be irresponsible.” She is doing her 25 hours of community service at an alternative transportation organization.
Reiss and Baile are among the 203 people arrested and charged, mostly with criminal contempt of court, for protesting on Kinder Morgan’s construction site after the court granted the company an injunction—an injunction that now covers all BC work sites related to the pipeline. Criminal contempt is a step up from civil contempt. According to BC Civil Liberties Association, criminal contempt is “where a court order is breached, but the nature of the conduct interferes with the public’s interest in the ‘proper administration of justice.’”
Kris Hermes works with Terminal City Legal Collective and Protect the Inlet Coalition, helping to demystify the legal system for the protesters. He’s in court every day taking notes and reporting by email to arrestees what the judge is saying so people are more aware. He feels that from the beginning there seem to have been problems with the administration of justice. For instance, notes Hermes, “Despite being told by the RCMP that they were being charged with civil contempt of court, and signing a PTA [Promise to Appear] to that effect, arrestees were surprised to find out [later] they were being prosecuted for criminal contempt of court.”
He also notes that “people of colour and indigenous land defenders were often treated with a heavier hand, with some being violently arrested by the RCMP.”
Unlike other criminal court cases, arrestees are not being given access to “duty counsel” to make sure they understand the process and what pleading guilty means. As well, the vast majority of those arrested, says Hermes, fall into an income bracket that makes them ineligible for legal aid—which has a high threshold these days—yet unable to afford a lawyer.
Thus many people are representing themselves, which makes for interesting court sessions, says Hermes. They are given a bit of latitude by the judge but “they are often pleading guilty without advice of a lawyer on how to defend themselves.”
“A lot of people are struggling with this process,” says Hermes. “This has been raised numerous times…but the court seems not to care.” One defence lawyer complained in court that defendants were being subjected to a “factory cookie-cutter process” geared to expediting the 203 cases through the courts. Judge Affleck admitted he was aiming for an expeditious, though fair, process and added, “the issues are narrow, and on issues of whether the pipeline is an environmentally wise structure, I will not hear that evidence.”
Instead, the judge has ruled that people’s defence is limited to consideration of the evidence put forth by the Crown—were they standing or sitting at the gate or not? Despite that, says Hermes, there have been attempts to use unorthodox defences—“the necessity defence” for instance. The judge, however, ruled against it as there wasn’t evidence of “imminent peril,” and defendants had not exhausted all of their legal defences. They could, for instance, challenge or appeal the injunction (a costly process, no doubt).
The statement made in court by Barbara Stowe, a writer and movement teacher who lives on Pender Island, illustrates the gulf between the expeditious legal process and a citizen’s moral sense: “Coming to this court with no criminal record, never having been arrested before, I have been overwhelmed by this process and had much need for guidance. I recognize the fortunate position I am in, having legal counsel, and perceive that many have none and are at a disadvantage.” In pleading guilty, Stowe told the judge “if such a plea were allowed, nolo contendere would more accurately reflect what I feel in my heart, which is that I am guilty, but acted solely to oppose a greater crime. When doctors, professors, politicians and faith leaders start committing civil disobedience, it begs the question: who and what is the real danger to our society, to all that we hold dear? Are people sitting in front of a fence, putting their freedom at risk, willing to pay fines and do community work service or go to jail, displaying a greater contempt for the law than those riding roughshod over the rights and safety of tribes, communities, cities, this province, and the environment that sustains us all?”
Stowe’s brother, a physician, also protested and was arrested. He was fined $500, while Barbara will serve 25 hours of community service. She and her probation officer will determine where.
WHILE WE HEAR ALL SORTS OF STORIES that give the impression that our justice system is terribly bogged down and slow, they are moving through the pipeline protesters’ cases quickly.
The efficiency is due in part to a Crown-approved roster of sentences issued on May 23. The document shows how sentencing is being used to deter those charged from pleading not guilty, and to discourage others from further protesting. As time wears on, penalties increase. Those arrested in the early days of the protest (prior to April 16) who pled guilty quickly, received a $500 fine or 25 hours of community service. That escalates to a $4500 fine or, if unable to pay, 225 hours in community service for later arrestees, as long as they plead guilty quickly (usually meaning by the first day of their trial).
That latter proviso meant that the sentence for Victoria resident Gordon Bailey, a retired Capilano College teacher, was ten times that of other protesters arrested on the same day as he was. Says Bailey, “I was sentenced to a $5000 fine or 240 hours community service or jail time. If I hadn’t been sick earlier and had a medical test for which I’d waited three months, I might have had the earlier sentencing. Interesting.” (He is now volunteering 10 hours a week at Our Place in order to meet his November probationary deadline.)
Bailey, who has written books and articles on social theory, ideology, education, and a trilogy of eco-detective fiction, also finds it “interesting” that “the historic concept of civil disobedience carries no power or sway in the hallowed halls of our judicial system. To protest and resist injustice is now seen as not only civil contempt of a court injunction but also as criminal contempt. It’s as though the judge and the Crown prosecutors are historically illiterate. Tolstoy, Gandhi, Thoreau, and such celebrated people as Rosa Parks are deemed irrelevant to the modern intelligent consciousness.”
Those arrested after May 8 who plead guilty face a mandatory seven days in jail—and likely higher if they plead not guilty, go to court, and are found guilty.
The escalating sentencing appears to be giving the Crown what it wants: Few have protested since May 8. On June 19, however, 69-year-old grandmother Laurie Embree from 108 Mile House sat at the Westridge Terminal gate and was arrested. She said she wanted to tell the government: “We have the technology to make the change and to stop using fossil fuels and transition to renewables. We have the people to make these changes and there are jobs in making those changes. The only thing lacking is the political will.” She will likely be going to jail soon.
The escalating sentences, along with the sweeping expansion of the injunction to cover all BC worksites, says Hermes, mean that “Essentially the company is using the courts to stifle meaningful protest.” (After the sale of Trans Mountain is finalized in late summer, it will be the Canadian government.)
IN ALL THE STATEMENTS I READ, people alluded to their concern for First Nations. Sentenced on May 29 (the day the federal government announced it was buying the pipeline), Nan Gregory, a retired storyteller, children’s writer and lay chaplain of the Unitarian Church, told Judge Affleck: “I’ve never before been an activist…I’m here to stand up for a just and honourable reconciliation with Indigenous peoples.”
Murray Reiss, mentioned earlier, asked, “How could I not oppose this pipeline, whose sole purpose is to gouge ever more bitumen from the ancestral lands of Lubicon, Mikisew and Beaver Lake Cree, Athabasca and Prairie Chipewyan First Nations? Whose existence would make a mockery of Canada’s pledges of climate action in the Paris Agreement and decolonization in the United Nations Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. Whose construction would mean turning our back on negotiating free, prior and informed consent with First Nations, with whom we must learn to share this land.”
George Rammell, a sculptor (who assisted Haida artist Bill Reid for 10 years) and retired art teacher, told the judge, “We were there because we saw a multitude of injustices perpetuated by our prime minister and Kinder Morgan to push this reckless pipeline expansion forward at the expense of Aboriginal nations, animal species and the environment. Our actions at Kinder Morgan’s gates were necessary to help press the pause button until real justice is restored.”
He noted, “It was under [the] Canadian apartheid system that the first pipeline was built from the Alberta tar sands to Burrard Inlet in the early 1950s. The Tseil-Wauthuth were vehemently opposed to it then as they are to Kinder Morgan’s current proposed expansion. Many Aboriginal Nations in BC were not adequately consulted or warned of the dangers of the proposed massive increase in dangerous diluted bitumen moving through their territorial lands and waters. These people’s rights are being violated by our own Federal government that espouses to be championing reconciliation, yet we’re expected to stand idly by in complicity.”
FOCUS CHOSE TO GIVE THESE CITIZENS a little space here, not just because of the strength and eloquence of their words, but because of the resounding lack of coverage in the mainstream media of what’s happening to them in the courts. With the exception of the arrest and court appearance of Members of Parliament Elizabeth May and Kennedy Stewart, Victoria’s local daily hasn’t covered the protesters’ court cases at all. In fact, the Times-Colonist’s editorials have been consistently in favour of the pipeline. On May 30 it wrote: “We don’t believe [MP Elizabeth] May should lose her seat…but she should perhaps consider what would happen if everyone decided to be selective about the laws they obeyed.” This is over-simplifying things in a way that would rule out any cases of civil disobedience ever.
An earlier T-C editorial, shortly after Kinder Morgan threatened to pull out, urged the federal government to “fight for the pipeline.” In June, the paper ran a highly partisan op-ed on the subject by Gwyn Morgan (retired founding CEO of Encana Corp) in which he stated, “the battle has been zealously joined by [MLA Andrew Weaver’s] many local ground troops and international NGO professional protesters who share his fantasy that the end of fossil fuel era is nigh.”
I think the protesters would protest: it’s not a fantasy; it’s a moral imperative if we want to prevent death and destruction from climate breakdown.
Gordon Bailey wrote an op-ed, as yet unpublished, in which he cited H.L. Mencken’s observation on the subject of civil disobedience: “The notion that a radical is one who hates his country is naïve and usually idiotic. He is, more likely, one who likes his country more than the rest of us, and is thus more disturbed than the rest of us when he sees it debauched. He is not a bad citizen turning to crime: he is a good citizen driven to despair.”
Leslie Campbell is the editor of Focus.
Indigenous communities in the path of the oil sands and its pipelines have been left with no good options.
IN NORTHERN ALBERTA AND BC, anger at environmental damage and fears that traditional cultures are disappearing are competing with economic pragmatism as Indigenous leaders struggle to decide where the future lies. Is it more beneficial to fight, or take a place at the negotiating table in hopes of mitigating damage? It’s a complicated and sometimes soul-crushing balancing act. First Nations have little faith that their objections will have any effect on development decisions, given the history of approvals.
In Alberta, out of more than 170 oil sands projects, almost none have been turned down, despite First Nations investing years of research and spending millions of dollars on court cases. “There has been 50 years of mining and there is still no protection of our rights. Governments don’t seem to care,” said Lisa Tssessaze, Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation lands and resource management director.
Around Fort Chipewyan, a hamlet on the banks of Lake Athabasca, the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation and Mikisew Cree are preparing to fight the massive Teck Frontier project.
The Teck Frontier mine is a $20-billion development, which the company says would provide 7,000 construction jobs and 2,500 permanent jobs.
Buffalo in northern Alberta (Photo by Louis Bockner)
It would sit 110 kilometres north of Fort McMurray and 30 kilometres south of Wood Buffalo National Park, a World Heritage Site which a UNESCO report says is already under threat from rampant oil sands development and other pressures.
If approved after joint federal-provincial review panel hearings this fall, Teck Frontier would rip up 292 square kilometres, with much of the development on land where the buffalo roam.
Not just any buffalo, emphasized elder Roy Ladouceur, who, for more than half a century, has lived off the land at the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation’s Poplar Point reserve, which is 16 kilometres from the Teck site. The area, explained Ladouceur, includes calving grounds for the Ronald Lake Bison Herd, the only disease-free, genetically-pure wood bison herd in the area. The herd is already in trouble because of proximity to the oil sands and poaching. He believes that, if Teck goes ahead, it will be the end of the Ronald Lake Bison Herd.
Roy Ladouceur (Photo by Louis Bockner)
“They say they can find ways and means of preserving the habitat and I just can’t see it happening, no way, no how,” said Ladouceur. Ideas of relocating the buffalo and caribou make no sense and are likely to result in the animals contracting diseases, he said. “You can’t do that to any animal. You are breaking Nature’s law and Nature has its own way. It’s not their home,” Ladouceur said.
Freddie Marcel, another Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation elder, concurs with this judgement. He talks with sad resignation about the future of the land where generations of his family have hunted, trapped and fished. “That Teck Frontier development is going to happen regardless of what we say and whether we fight. The buffalo are there and the caribou are there, but that’s right where the mine is going to be,” shrugged Marcel.
THE AREA HAS BEEN EXPERIENCING the environmental impacts of industrial development for decades now. Around Wood Buffalo National Park and the Peace-Athabasca Delta, pollution and dropping water levels are evident and problematic. Much of the pollution is traceable to oil sands development. The dropping water levels are largely attributable to dams on the Peace River, climate change, and industry withdrawing water from the Athabasca River. Together they have changed centuries-old lifestyles that relied on the land and water for food, medicines, clothing and shelter.
Simultaneous with the environmental damage, however, has come a steady flow of oil money into communities, which is altering attitudes and forcing First Nations communities to examine priorities.
Indigenous communities in both provinces are increasingly looking at benefit agreements with companies in hopes of having their voices heard and bringing injections of cash and jobs to their bands. Fort Chipewyan Metis Local 125, for instance, has already signed a participatory agreement with Teck Frontier in return for economic benefits and opportunities to negotiate traditional land use and environmental stewardship.
Teck Frontier spokesman Chris Stannell said the company has signed similar agreements with 11 Indigenous groups. “These agreements identify economic and social benefits and opportunities—such as employment, contracting and training—and include environmental stewardship planning,” Stannell said in an emailed response to questions.
Even Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation, though offically opposed, is involved in talks with the company on topics such as buffer zones and protection for wildlife.
Matt Hulse, the Nation’s regulatory affairs coordinator, admits the question of how to deal with projects such as Teck Frontier is complicated. He said, “There’s a lot of grey. Everyone realizes the jobs are down there [in the oil sands] and that’s where the money comes from. People don’t want the [Teck Frontier] mine to go ahead, but, because we have so little confidence in the regulatory process, Indigenous communities are forced to find ways to benefit from the project to offset the impacts. There isn’t any good option.”
THAT AMBIVALENCE IS UNDERLINED by a surprise announcement last month that Athabasca Tribal Council—made up of five First Nations, including Athabasca Chipewyan and Mikisew Cree—is considering buying a stake in the Trans Mountain pipeline in an effort to obtain Indigenous control and ensure the environment is safeguarded.
The controversial pipeline, opposed by many British Columbians, was purchased by the federal government from Kinder Morgan for $4.5 billion to ensure a planned expansion goes ahead.
The Athabasca Tribal Council move caught pipeline critics and some community members off guard, particularly as Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation Chief Allan Adam, who is also president of the Tribal Council, has been known for campaigning against the pace of oil sands development alongside such celebrities as Jane Fonda, Leonardo DiCaprio and Neil Young.
Athabasca Chipewyan elder Alice Rigney, who has lived off the land all her life, blames the oil industry for destroying the delta and the lifestyle that has sustained her family for generations, and she wants no part of a pipeline. “I could not believe that my community wants to be part of this pipeline. They have forced us into a corner where we have nowhere else to turn,” Rigney said sadly. “Just think 100 years from now what this planet will look like. They are destroying the land.”
Ironically, the Trans Mountain pipeline is likely to transport oil from the Teck Frontier development, although Stannell said that, if the project is approved, the first oil is not expected to flow until 2026, so shipping plans have not yet been determined.
So why would First Nations, who are continuing to fight oil sands projects, want to buy a piece of pipeline?
Winds of change are blowing through First Nations communities, said Mikisew Cree Chief Archie Waquan. In Fort Chipewyan, where many young people take fly-in-fly-out shifts in the oil sands, a new affluence is taking hold and traditional activities, such as a moose-hide tanning workshop, are failing to appeal to the new generation.
Waquan, who describes himself as a former tree-hugger, believes he must lead efforts to modernize the economy for the sake of the younger generation. “Do we remain the same and be anti or get on the boat and deal with industry and be able to be part of what is happening there? I look at what is happening south of us in the tarpits and the oil sands and, if we don’t partake in it, we will be left behind and I will be to blame,” he said.
Chief Archie Waquan (Photo by Louis Bockner)
If the pipeline purchase plan goes ahead, it will be the second foray into the industry for Mikisew Cree, who, last year, together with Fort McKay First Nation, bought a 49 percent interest in a Suncor Energy storage facility.
A pipeline share is a logical next step, said Waquan, acknowledging that there are continuing concerns, but insisting that participation will help mitigate problems. “I have to look to the future, beyond my time on Earth. Times have changed and we have to realize that. We need to go to a modern lifestyle—which I think my First Nation wants—and that means we have to deal with industry. We have to keep them in check,” he said.
Waquan believes that, despite the scars left by oil and gas extraction, the land is resilient enough to recover. “You can’t reverse it now, but in time, when all the development is gone from this territory, our land will always come back to where it used to be,” he said.
Others see it differently and say Indigenous communities are being coerced into deals. Eriel Deranger, Indigenous Climate Action executive director, believes that economic benefit agreements, with companies promising to transfer millions of dollars to communities, amount to bribes.
“I have watched government and industry work very diligently to wear down the leadership—the way we are allowing this to happen is absurd,” she said. “Our communities are not making decisions freely, free of intimidation and free of coercion and free of bribery. Let’s be real, these impact benefit agreements are bribes,” she said.
Projects are approved despite admissions of irreversible and adverse impacts on the people and the land, and that can destroy the spirit of the people, Deranger said. “They are saying, in order for you to survive in the economic system we have imposed on you, you have to join us. There’s no choice any more. The rights of industry and corporations have taken precedence over Indigenous rights,” she said.
Judith Sayers, Nuu-chah-nulth Tribal Council president, said the same story plays out in BC, and companies regularly try to coerce First Nations into signing agreements by telling them that they will get nothing if they don’t sign on. “So you sign on to make sure you get money and jobs and benefits for your community,” she said.
But communities should realize that they do not have to sign agreements, especially given the adoption of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) by the federal and BC governments, and recent emphasis on the need for free, prior and informed consent, Sayers said. “Losing your right to fish and hunt as opposed to having a job is no contest. There are other ways of making money and having meaningful economic development without selling your soul,” she said.
When Kinder Morgan owned the pipeline, the company signed 43 mutual benefit agreements with Indigenous groups in BC and Alberta, but some chiefs have since said that they do not support the pipeline expansion project and felt signing the agreement was the only way to either get benefits or ensure there was funding to clean up spills. “It’s not really support. If we opposed it, we would have no way of addressing spills because we would be disqualified from funding from Trans Mountain,” Ditidaht Chief Robert Joseph told the Times Colonist in 2016.
Chief Bob Chamberlin, Union of BC Indian Chiefs vice-president, said the history of Canada is that government makes the final decision over lands Indigenous people have never given up. That, he said, has resulted in a sense of resignation that, whatever you do, someone else is going to make the decision. “As much as we object, as much as we point at case law and the constitution, Canada’s long history of disregarding all that is still alive and well,” Chamberlin said. “We are waiting for free, prior and informed consent to become real, but, until it’s real, First Nations are still faced with ‘the government’s going to do what it’s going to do. We might as well get what we can.’”
Now, with the underpinning of UNDRIP, it is up to Indigenous communities to shed those feelings of resignation, and for other Canadians to educate themselves on those rights, Chamberlin said. “We are talking about human rights and that’s a big evolution for Canadians to understand,” he said.
Judith Lavoie spent eight days in June in the communities of Fort Smith and Fort Chipewyan reporting for The Narwhal on how Alberta oil sands projects and the Site C dam are affecting the Peace-Athabasca Delta and Wood Buffalo National Park. An overflight of the delta was funded by Sierra Club BC.
The recent renewal of fish farm tenures is just the latest in a long saga of denial of First Nations’ fishing rights.
IN 1930, a group of First Nations fishermen gathered around a fire to wait out a storm on Langara Island. They were sheltered by their rowboats pulled up on the beach as the storm set in. Salmon prices were so low, gas so high, and federal policy so targeted to support commercial companies, the fishermen had abandoned motors and returned to hand-trolling to make ends meet.
Visiting them that night was Haida elder Alfred Adams, Nangittlagada. He had come with an idea that he had picked up in Alaska—he wanted to form a Native Brotherhood (and Sisterhood) for increased recognition of aboriginal rights in hunting, fishing, trapping and timber harvesting in off-reserve traditional lands. And he wanted to meet with Ottawa officials about these matters. The BC Native Brotherhood was founded in 1931.
Another leader of the Brotherhood, Guy Williams (Haisla), who went on to become a senator in 1971-82, wrote, “The men listened long into the night, no one noticing that the fire had gone completely out and the great rollers were still pounding the beaches heavily from the grey cloud wall at the edge of the world…”
Ninety years later, at the edge of the world, the Brother and Sisterhood still fight on against a metaphorical grey cloud wall: that of the corporate fish industry, morphed into its latest permutation of farming Atlantic salmon.
Three Dzawada’enuxw First Nation Hereditary Chiefs, including Willie Moon (r), deliver an eviction notice to workers at a Cermaq/Mitsubishi fish farm in 2016. (Photo by Tamo Campos)
When the NDP government recently announced their decision to continue to allow open net-pen salmon farms until 2022, it was no surprise to the activist descendants of the fishermen on that Langara beach. Dzawada’enuxw First Nation Elected Chief and Traditional Leader Okwilagame (Willie Moon) of Kingcome Inlet stated, “We’ve been fighting fish farms in our territory for over two decades, and that battle does not end with today’s announcement. We will fight it in court through the various legal tools at our disposal…”
Fighting fish farms is just one chapter in a century of fighting for aboriginal fishing rights, a battle where traction has only been gained through the courts. Politically, there has been little progress, federally or provincially. The pattern of pushing on ahead with ever more aquaculture, followed by token slow-downs, usually in the form of moratoriums, is all too familiar. The provincial government has no real jurisdiction for regulating the federal fisheries other than the granting of land tenure permits for the farm itself. It has only ever used slow-down-and-study approaches to fish farms over the last 30 years.
In the 1980s, a Namgis fisherman, Chris Cook, joined the board of the Brotherhood right about the time the fish farms were being brought into his territory around Alert Bay. He was one of the first to warn his community about the impacts of the farms. He had already experienced the devastating social impacts of the 1971 Davis Plan, which implemented a fishing license buy-back program. The commercial fishing fleets were blowing locals out of the water, at the same time that stocks were declining. The buy-back program was the final nail in the coffin for small-scale native fishermen; it favoured those with capital who could improve the efficiency of their boats to meet increased operating standards. Through the buy-back program, the DFO reduced the number of boats; those who couldn’t afford to upgrade had no alternative but to sell. DFO further consolidated the fleet by giving larger boats the ability to obtain rights to fish in other areas.
A token grandfather clause provided a special Native licence, but it only provided a right to fish, not the ability to sell the licence. The Brotherhood had some influence on the Indian Fishermen’s Assistance Program, in which capital was made available to upgrade equipment, but again it favoured existing boat owners who had the down payment necessary to get in on the scheme.
Fishing policy did not change substantially when, in 1996, the federal Mifflin Plan replaced the Davis Plan—and neither did the results. Corky Evans, then Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food for BC, summed up the two world views of fisheries at a standing committee on fish: “If you’re an economist, you would say that the Mifflin Plan to reduce the fleet to increase the viability of the remaining operators was a perfectly rational response to a changing technology and market conditions. If, however, you were a resident of Ahousat, or maybe a lot of the people in this room, you would say that it’s the elimination of half the jobs in your community.”
Atlantic salmon open-net fish farms arrived on the coast in the early 1980s as mom-and-pop operations around Vancouver Island and the Sunshine Coast. There were just 10 farms in 1984, but within a couple of years, the industry had consolidated and grown ten-fold, and started shifting from farming local species of salmon to Atlantics.
In the north, only the tiny remote village of Klemtu brought fish farms in. The village didn’t have much choice: it had lost all its fish boats through the Davis and Mifflin plans. It had a fish processing plant standing empty and few other options to sustain its community.
Cook says Indigenous bands were left with no choice but to turn to aquaculture because of erosion of their fishing opportunities. He speaks about the divide-and-conquer tactics and his people “being used as pawns by the aquaculture industry.”
A moratorium on further expansion of fish farms was put in place in October 1986, after pressure from fishers following a massive bloom of phytoplankton on the Sunshine Coast that killed an estimated 100,000 fish. That same year, a commission led by David Gillespie explored some of the stickier issues of growth.
Again the Brotherhood raised alarms on the impact to their own salmon fishery, the commercial fishery, and the environment. But many fishing families had already lost their fish boats and livelihoods and so were left with no alternative to get any fish. The recommendation of the Gillespie commission was to lift the moratorium but introduce stricter, clearer guidelines. The moratorium was lifted in 1987 by the Socreds.
During the early 1990s, salmon farms became increasingly owned by transnational corporations and more operating processes became automated, resulting in fewer jobs. Farm locations became concentrated off the coasts of the mainland and east Vancouver Island.
In 1995, the NDP instituted a moratorium on the issuance of new salmon farm licences. Production at existing sites, however, was allowed to intensify. During this time, aquaculture companies ramped up their operations, forging an agreement with some Native villages, and increasing tension between neighbouring First Nations who had placed their own moratoriums on the farms.
By 2000, the aquaculture industry accounted for 15 percent of BC’s total agriculture production. In 2001, fish farm expansion once again hit the pressure valve. The federal Auditor General’s Report came out, followed by the Standing Senate Committee, and the David Suzuki Foundation-funded Leggatt Inquiry. Not one of the three inquiries gave green lights to fish farms.
Stuart Leggatt, a retired judge, was given independence to hear and review the evidence. Leggatt gave a definite red light and recommended a permanent moratorium and switch to closed-containment, land-based operations. Cook spoke at its release: “I’m tired of sending letters. I’m tired of talking. I hope my people stand up and start to fight.”
The Standing Senate Committee recommended the precautionary approach, while the Auditor General reported that DFO was “not fully meeting its legislative obligations under the Fisheries Act to protect wild Pacific salmon stocks and habitat from the effects of salmon farming.” It recommended keeping the moratorium while more public review was conducted.
In 2001, a Liberal government was elected provincially. Despite the recommendations of the three bodies, the moratorium on new locations for fish farms was lifted in 2002. The south was now wide open for expansion, while a battle was waged in the northern communities where there were still livelihoods to be made in the wild salmon fishery. By 2008, a total ban was placed on open-net fish farms on the north coast (north of Klemtu).
In 2012, the $37 million Cohen Commission reported on its examination of the decline of sockeye salmon in the Fraser River, making 75 recommendations, most still unmet, though a moratorium on fish farm tenures around the Discovery Islands was put in place by the Province. In 2016, Chief Bob Chamberlin noted to the press, “The part I find disingenuous with freezing [licences] of the farms in Discovery [Passage], is that just up the coast, five or ten miles from there, they’re expanding the industry and creating new farms.”
In 2017, Chris Cook was still fighting in his territory on Vancouver Island for a southern moratorium. His First Nation, the Namgis, led the way in setting up the first closed containment, land-based fish farm. At age 75, Cook told the press: “What happened to us, the coastal First Nations people? My words would be ‘economic assassination.’”
Most recently, on June 20, 2018, BC Minister of Agriculture Lana Popham announced that any fish farm will need approval of local First Nations to operate beyond 2022. Fish farm operators will also have to “satisfy Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO) that their operations will not adversely impact wild salmon stocks.”
Is this a true turning point, or just another twist in the tale of fish farms destroying the wild salmon fishery? Does it spell the end of open net-pen salmon farming on BC’s coasts? What happens if the NDP government gets defeated? How much damage has already been done?
While the Union of BC Indian Chiefs views the new plan as “an initial step on the pathway to preserve and safeguard the future of wild salmon,” others are disappointed and wary.
Chief Willie Moon of the Dzawada’enuxw First Nation is leading the legal challenge. The Dzawada’enuxw First Nation is not waiting around for another four years of negotiation with the fish farm operators while fish stocks continue to decline. The Nation’s lawyer, Jack Woodward, said, “What the Dzawada’enuxw require is legal rights now, not political promises four years from now, when there may be a new government in power with no obligation to follow its predecessor’s policy.”
Meanwhile, six Kwakwaka’wakw First Nations, including the Dzawada’enuxw, continue their occupation of a Broughton Archipelago fish farm, which they began on August 24 of last year.
As for the requirement that fish farms show they are not harming wild salmon stocks, many of the Indigenous salmon protectors of the north island have no trust in what they see as a politicized scientific community.
Yet another standing committee has formed, and the prospect seems probable that the struggle over salmon fish farms on BC’s coast will become a 100-year war.
Briony Penn is currently working with Xenaksiala elder Cecil Paul, Wa’xaid on Following the Good River, Stories from the Magic Canoe of Cecil Paul. Rocky Mountain Books, due out in 2019.
Is Fisheries & Oceans Canada ignoring Washington State research on chemical contamination from sewage treatment plants?
ARE THREE LARGE SEWAGE TREATMENT PLANTS located on the Fraser River estuary contributing to the decline of the Southern Resident Killer Whale population? Between them they discharge 1.1 billion litres of effluent every day of the year into the estuary and nearshore marine waters. The largest, Iona Island, provides only primary treatment and has been permitted by Fisheries and Oceans Canada to continue at that level until 2030.
We now know that the reproductive health of the orca population depends heavily on the availability of Fraser River chinook salmon, but, according to fisheries scientists, chinook runs on the Fraser are now only 25 percent of historic numbers. Recent research in Washington has found a strong link between the survival rate of juvenile chinook salmon and chemical contamination of their natal estuary. Is the survival rate of Fraser River juvenile chinook being similarly impacted by contamination from the Annacis Island, Lulu Island and Iona Island wastewater treatment plants? Currently, these three plants provide treatment for over 1.8 million people, and that population is not declining.
Vancouver’s three largest sewage treatment plants all discharge into critical chinook salmon habitat.
The physical processes involved in this chinook-sewage-orca death spiral have become better understood in recent years thanks to research by Dr James Meador, an environmental toxicologist with the Northwest Fisheries Science Center in Seattle, and Dr Samuel Wasser, a research professor of conservation biology at the University of Washington.
Since 2013, Meador and his team of researchers have published three studies that considered the impact of chemical contamination on juvenile chinook salmon during the period they reside in their natal estuary.
Meador’s first study found that the survival rate of juvenile chinook that smolted in contaminated estuaries of rivers flowing into Puget Sound was cut in half compared with juveniles coming from a relatively uncontaminated natal estuary. Let me repeat that: Survival rate is cut in half.
In his second study, Meador analyzed the discharge from secondary sewage treatment plants, located upstream from chinook estuaries, for the occurrence of 150 “chemicals of emerging concern,” or CECs. These are chemicals associated with pharmaceutical and personal care products, as well as industrial compounds. Many are known endocrine disruptors, which can affect hormonal balance and result in developmental and reproductive abnormalities.
The researchers also analyzed the tissue of juvenile chinook and resident sculpin in the estuary for the presence of the selected CECs.
That study became widely publicized in 2016 because cocaine and antidepressants—and many other chemicals—were found in both the treatment plants’ discharge and in fish tissue. Indeed, Meador’s team found unexpectedly high levels of certain CECs in the treated effluent.
The study’s findings suggested that chinook juveniles have a significant vulnerability to bioaccumulation of CECs. Many contaminants that were found in juvenile chinook tissue were at concentrations below detection limits in the estuary waters. The scientists also observed higher levels of contaminants in juvenile chinook than in resident sculpin, even though the latter were permanent residents of the estuary.
Meador’s team observed that the contaminants found in chinook tissue, although present in sub-lethal concentrations on a chemical-by-chemical basis, were, in some cases, present at levels that would be expected to cause detrimental physiological effects. The scientists noted the potential for a drug-cocktail effect: “The fact that we observed multiple pharmaceuticals capable of interacting with a variety of molecular targets in our two fish species, leads to the potential for mixture interactions on critical physiological processes. These interactions can be additive, synergistic, or inhibitory.”
Meador noted that these effects could be responsible for the two-fold reduction in survival rate found in his earlier study.
In a third study (click link below to download), released this past April, Meador’s team found that the contaminants were also causing metabolic dysfunction, which “may result in early mortality or an impaired ability to compete for limited resources.” Again, Meador noted that metabolic dysfunction induced by CEC contamination could contribute to the two-fold reduction in the survival rate of these juvenile chinook, compared with chinook migrating from the uncontaminated estuaries, that he had found in his first study.
Adverse metabolic effects in fish exposed to contaminants of emerging concern in the field and laboratory.pdf
The US EPA has listed Puget Sound chinook as a “threatened” species, and the decline of those runs has been even more profound than the Fraser decline.
Historically, according to Jim Myers of the Northwest Fisheries Science Centre in Seattle, Puget Sound’s chinook runs were about 25 percent greater than the Fraser River’s. But by 2010, Puget Sound chinook returns had collapsed to only six percent of the size of the greatly-reduced Fraser River returns.
Although the link between the abundance of chinook salmon in the Salish Sea and the physical health of the Southern Resident Killer Whale population has been known for some time, Wasser’s seven-year-long study, published in 2017, provided the first confirmation that low availability of chinook is suppressing the population’s birth rate and endangering the health of reproductive female orca.
Wasser’s team collected orca poop and analyzed it for hormone measures of pregnancy occurrence and health. The scientists also looked for chemical indicators of nutritional and disturbance stress in the poop. By making the same measurements over time, they were able to distinguish between nutritional stress caused by low availability of chinook salmon, and disturbance stress caused by the presence of nearby boats.
Wasser’s team correlated periods of nutritional stress with the timing and strength of the two main chinook runs that are keeping the southern orca alive: the Columbia River early spring run and the Fraser River summer and fall runs. They found that—depending on the timing of those runs, and how many fish were in them—the southern resident orca experienced more or less intense famines through the winter months and between the spring and summer runs.
The scientists observed: “Low availability of chinook salmon appears to be an important stressor among these fish-eating whales as well as a significant cause of late pregnancy failure, including unobserved perinatal loss.” The scientists surmised that “release of lipophilic toxicants during fat metabolism in the nutritionally deprived animals may also provide a contributor to these cumulative effects.”
Not only are the orca being periodically starved, but when a starved, pregnant orca begins burning off her fat reserves in response to the lack of food, toxins bioaccumulated in her fat reserves—such as PCBs and PBDEs—begin to have more of an impact on her health, such as a reduced ability to fight infections. This could contribute to the demise of the fetus and increase the risk to the mother’s life.
As a consequence of these conditions, the study noted, “the 31 potentially reproductive females in the Southern Resident Killer Whale population should have had 48 births between 2008–2015. Yet, only 28 births were recorded during that period. The 7 adult females in K pod have not had a birth since 2011, and just two births since 2007. The 24 females in the remaining two pods (J and L) have averaged less than 1 birth per pod since 2011, with no births in 2013, but had 7 births in 2015. One of the two offspring born in 2014 died.”
As of this writing, with the presumed death of “Crewser,” the population has dwindled to 75 whales. As recently as 1996 there were 98 orca in the 3 pods.
Wasser noted, “Results of the Southern Resident Killer Whale study strongly suggest that recovering Fraser River and Columbia River chinook runs should be among the highest priorities for managers aiming to recover this endangered population of killer whales.”
Let’s make the obvious connection between Meador’s and Wasser’s findings.
Meador’s research strongly suggests that the chemical contamination in Puget Sound rivers that’s quickly bioaccumulating in juvenile chinook is coming from sewage treatment plants discharging into their natal estuary. Removing that contamination could double the number of chinook returning to those rivers as adults.
Wasser’s study shows the Southern Resident Killer Whale population’s decline is strongly correlated with the availability of chinook and he recommends, for one thing, that managers of the Fraser River fishery make chinook recovery amongst their highest priorities.
A rational conclusion, based on the two groups of scientists’ extensive research, would be that Fraser River fisheries managers should be determining whether the impacts Meador measured in Washington estuaries are at play in the Fraser estuary. But that’s not happening.
DFO recently published “A science based review of recovery actions for three at-risk whale populations” that listed 98 specific actions. DFO acknowledges that only 2 of the 98 measures are “specifically directed toward recovery of chinook salmon stocks in Canada.” None of those 98 actions include examination, let alone reduction, of the impacts of chemical contaminants on chinook juveniles in the Fraser River estuary.
DFO paper on SRKW recovery efforts.pdf
DFO has been caught flat-footed on chemical contamination of the Fraser River estuary in the past. The Cohen Commission of Inquiry into the decline of sockeye salmon in the Fraser River produced a technical report in 2011 that stated: “There is a strong possibility that exposure to contaminants of concern, endocrine disrupting chemicals, and/or contaminants of emerging concern has contributed to the decline of sockeye salmon abundance in the Fraser River.” Despite that, the technical report noted, “Due to limitations on the availability of exposure data and/or toxicity thresholds” it could provide only a “qualitative evaluation.”
Cohen Comm report on chemical contaminants re sockeye decline.pdf
That was in 2011 and the information gap was related to sockeye. With chinook runs on the verge of collapse, you would think that Meador’s published research on chinook estuary contamination, only 200 kilometres away, would have prompted DFO to narrow the gap in their knowledge. We contacted DFO, but as of our press deadline a spokesperson had been unable to confirm whether or not any DFO-affiliated scientist was investigating the impact of the Fraser River estuary wastewater treatment plants, or other sources of chemical contaminants, on the survival rate of juvenile chinook.
The presumption may be that because sewage effluent is being discharged into the Fraser River estuary through outfalls that achieve legally required dilution ratios, no further consideration is required. But the rivers Meador considered in Puget Sound are meeting similar if not higher requirements, and he found chinook survival rate is being cut in half.
Meador has said it’s unlikely these contaminants can be effectively filtered out of the huge volume of wastewater that’s being flushed into Puget Sound. In the case of the Fraser River it seems possible that the three plants could be connected to a super outfall that diverts the discharge away from the estuary and into deeper marine waters. But without any examination of chemical loading of Fraser chinook juveniles being conducted by DFO, there will be no public pressure mounted for such a measure. Mr Floatie ought to find a new costume (Cocaine Man?) and relocate to Vancouver.
Victoria’s deepwater marine outfalls, by the way, are located about 70 kilometres away from the nearest chinook estuary.
While DFO wasn’t certain about what research is being done, it’s more certain about the magnitude of the chinook decline. In its 2018 outlook for the six different populations of chinook in the Fraser Basin, fisheries managers found that only one was at a level considered necessary to maintain a healthy population.
David Broadland is the publisher of Focus.
The orca famine and Puget Sound's poisoned rivers
Washington's phony sewage war with Victoria
There’s a lot happening in Grant Leier’s bursting-with-colour paintings.
ARTISTS AND PARTNERS Grant Leier and Nixie Barton live in Nanaimo. Their home on a hill resembles a small castle and certainly holds many treasures. Artwork and wondrous paraphernalia, collected over their 30-year relationship and careers as full-time professional artists, enliven each room. In 2015, the couple received an Excellence in Culture Award from the City of Nanaimo, recognizing their community involvement and national reputations as exhibiting artists in North America. In 2005, The Romance Continues, an illustrated hardcover book by Goody Niosi, featured their art and gardens and offered a wealth of details about the couple’s exceptional artistic journey.
During July and August the public can view a number of Grant Leier’s paintings at Victoria’s West End Gallery. His education in graphic and textile design is evident in these large—five-foot square—cheerful multi-coloured artworks. Colour and texture are woven together in an eye-catching assortment of patterns and shapes, and they each provide an astonishing amount of visual information. “I incorporate imagery from many sources, and then reinvent and reposition,” says Leier.
It’s no wonder Leier’s paintings are enduring favourites with collectors. Look closely at “Quilt” and you might see: a Chinese vase sprouting flowers, a burgundy crow, a pink camel, sparrows on the wing, a baby blue warthog and a polka dot horse. By overlapping the shapes and patterns, Leier creates a sense of depth. Textural interest is added by a variety of detailed brushwork. Long sweeping strokes define the flower petals, meticulous hand-drawn circles radiate outward, and spirals swirl.
Completing a large painting like “Quilt” takes hundreds of hours. “It’s a good thing I love my work,” says Leier. He’s in the studio at 5am each morning, and often paints eight hours a day, six days a week—happily. Always working towards the next deadline, the artist stays on track about delivery dates to galleries. Leier believes that discipline and longevity are important for building a career, noting, “it takes stamina and determination to be a professional artist.” When mentoring emerging artists, he urges them not to be precious about their work, and to keep moving along with new ideas and images. Connecting up with commercial galleries in a small country like Canada is very important. “All the dealers know each other,” he says, “so they’ll know about you.”
"Quilt" by Grant Leier, 60 x 60 inches, acrylic on canvas
"Display Turquoise" by Grant Leier, 48 x 48 inches, acrylic on canvas
"Tulip Koi" by Grant Leier, 30 x 30 inches, acrylic on canvas
For Leier, making a painting has many steps, and demands much patience. Each painting begins with a detailed ink drawing on the canvas. A few coats of liquid acrylic seal the drawing. Shapes and patterns are delineated with undercoatings of acrylic in cool colours. Overpainting involves several layers of opaque paint in warmer tones. “The fun begins when I start positioning colours side by side,” says the artist. “Sometimes the shades clash and I have to repaint.” Leier’s skills as an expert colourist become evident when the pigments start to sing and the canvas comes to life. After all his expended energy, this is a gratifying moment.
But Leier has a variety of styles and subject matter in his repertoire. On his studio wall during my visit is an acrylic painting called “Prince.” “Prince” is a glowing ochre horse resplendent against a gritty distressed background. The horse’s noble head and attentive ears are clearly defined, but more gestural brushwork suggests the body and legs. “Prince” sports an electric blue mane. His flank, muzzle and belly are outlined with single strokes of crimson paint. Drips of paint add an atmosphere of casual disarray, or energy unleashed, whereas the shiny resin surface is all about control and containment. “These paintings only take a couple of hours to complete,” Leier says, “and are a wonderful change of pace.” A new series of animal portraits may be coming soon.
“A small home well filled is better that an empty palace.”
This is Leier’s favourite maxim and it’s evident during our house tour. One room holds a series of red-painted shrines with shiny blue doll faces. The artist’s love affair with shrines goes back many years. He’s intrigued by their role as ritual objects and memory keepers. The shrines offer a creative repository for his vast array of found objects: jewellery, knick-knacks and shiny bobbles. “Junk” is in the eye of the beholder for Leier. He enjoys playing with the idea that a tacky plastic toy, when mounted on a painted surface and placed in a gallery, can morph into “fine art.” The artist extols the “beauty of everyday things” and finds pleasure in the natural world of gardens and growth.
Grant and Nixie downsized in 2014 to their current Nanaimo home from a nine-acre property near Yellow Point, where they had lived and worked since 1994. It’s a big change, but all good. Their former destination property featured an on-site gallery and grounds to wander. Visitors delighted in the whimsical creations, architectural follies, and tangled greenery. They and their garden were even featured on the Guerrilla Gardeners TV show. Two hardcover books (Artists in Their Gardens and Artists in their Studios) also showcased their fantasy retreat.
Though not as large or lavish, their newer home’s backyard garden is a lovely green oasis. A fountain burbles, statuary stands guard and pots overflow with cascading abundance. Off in the distance, Departure Bay gleams. “We like to sit out here,” says Leier. Not having to run a gift gallery or manage extensive gardens means more time to focus on the things they love doing. Like painting.
Leier was born in Lloydminster, a prairie town on the border of Alberta and Saskatchewan, in 1956. His drawing skills were evident and encouraged from a young age. At the Alberta College of Art, he excelled in textile design and illustration. After graduation in 1978 he worked as a commercial artist receiving major commissions for the Calgary Winter Olympics and Expo 86. Leier has an astonishing 36-year connection with the West End Gallery of Victoria and Edmonton. In 1982, the family-run gallery booked shows for him in Edmonton.
In 1984, the artist moved to Victoria. Nixie Barton was an art student at that time and they began to share a studio. This was a formative time for Leier. After 15 years of graphic design (painting smiling women and ducks) he looked over Nixie’s shoulder at her lively brushwork and fell in love. A series of paintings of alley cats and bull terriers evolved, simple shapes to hold the bright colours he arranged on a flat washed background. These paintings became more refined and complex as his skills grew. Thirty years later, it’s a treat to view his more recent dog series on the Barton Leier website. These confident gems of swirling colour and form capture the essence of canine energy with effortless charm. Effortless charm combined with hard work, a winning combination summing up the life and achievements of Grant Leier.
To see more of Grant Leier’s work, go to www.bartonleiergallery.com or visit West End Gallery’s Summer Salon, throughout July and August. 1203 Broad Street, Victoria, www.westendgalleryltd.com, 250-388-0009.
Kate Cino writes about the arts for Victoria publications and her own website, www.artopenings.ca.
First Nations artist Calvin Hunt’s first solo exhibition celebrates family, culture and a giving spirit.
CALVIN HUNT WAS BORN IN 1956 in Alert Bay into what has become a dynasty of renowned figures in Northwest Coast First Nations art and culture. Descended from the celebrated Tlingit ethnologist George Hunt, he is the youngest son of Kwagu’l (Kwakwa̱ka̱’wakw) Hereditary Chief Thomas Hunt, and Emma, daughter of the celebrated Mowachaht (Nuu Chah Nulth) Chief and Shaman, Dr Billy, from Yuquot (Friendly Cove). His grandfather, Mungo Martin, is known to anyone who has visited the Royal BC Museum’s Thunderbird Park: from 1952, he worked there as a carver demonstrating Indigenous methods, teaching other First Nations carvers to carry on, and creating artworks, including prominent totem poles in and beyond Victoria. Two years after the potlatch ban was lifted in 1951, Martin held the first potlatch at Wawadiťła (Mungo Martin House), which is on the park grounds and is still in use for such purposes.
Calvin Hunt’s family played a key role in many potlatches and celebrations. His father was a great singer and orator who had retained knowledge passed down from his elders. “Any time there was any kind of culture going on in the city, they would phone my father to help,” Hunt says, “because a lot of families had lost that. So my father was always willing to help—with names, with singing songs, with doing dance presentations.”
The family moved to Victoria when Calvin was young. Being among friends and family of the First Nations youngsters who would hang out at Thunderbird Park, he was carving by the time he was 12—and making a bit of money to boot. “We could get 25 cents for a paddle,” he grins, “which was big money back then.” Two paddles sold equalled a ticket to the Saturday matinee, plus popcorn, pop, and money for the bus ride home. “We were rich! We just thought it was so cool,” he laughs.
It was more than that, though. Every summer, his family returned to Alert Bay for potlatches. “As a child growing up, and you’re seeing this great big mask, and some of these phenomenal dancers you just think, ‘wow, this is so cool. I want to be a part of this,’” he says.
While his three older brothers would become seine boat skippers, Calvin, at age 15 years, announced to his parents that he would become a full-time apprentice to his second cousin Tony Hunt at Arts of the Raven, a thriving Victoria gallery in its day and another of his favourite haunts. To his mother’s initial chagrin, he spent the next ten years learning from his second cousin Tony Hunt and adopted Kwakwa̱ka̱ʼwakw carver John Livingston. They travelled all over Canada, the United States and Europe, working on countless projects and demonstrations. He enjoyed interactions with curious locals in various places: “It was just sharing. It was really pretty easy. We’d get somewhere and just start talking to people,” he relates.
In 1981, he and his wife Marie followed his parents back up Island and, just outside Port Hardy, opened a workshop called The Copper Maker, expanding it into a gallery in 1989. He has carved original poles significant to his family and community, restored aged poles and re-created historical works for important exhibitions that continue to celebrate and expand understanding of Northwest Coast First Nations artwork and culture. With his nephew Mervyn Child, he has carved several canoes as well. For 30 years, he has performed locally and worldwide with the Copper Maker Dancers, for which he also creates masks. All while also creating original contemporary artworks that celebrate the continuum of his culture.
Busy is an understatement, but Hunt is still generous with his skills and time. “A lot of people over the years have asked me to make something for a potlatch and I will gladly do that, because not everybody has a carver in their family,” he says. “It’s a really good feeling in your heart at the end of the day that you’ve helped them. Watching my parents do that growing up, it’s just my way of giving back, as my father had done.”
The joy he derives from sharing the accumulated skills of a 47-year carving career and a lifetime of cultural knowledge will be evident in the works he has done for his exhibition at Alcheringa Gallery (remarkably, his first solo show anywhere). There will be power boards, traditionally used to spectacular effect in a potlatch dance, but compelling works of art in their own right. There will be masks, including a large round moon bound in cedarbark rope, the velvety smooth curves and planes of its face adorned with the formline image of a raven. Ovoids and u-forms in sage green, black and red circle around the face of a moon with mirrored eyes. “It’s the raven releasing the sun and the moon,” Hunt explains, adding that the mirrored eyes were “just something that I wanted to try” based on a historical Tsimshian mask he always found intriguing. The rim of the moon’s glow is painted with images of salmon. “I just thought it would be appropriate to do,” he says, given the ongoing issues with fish farms and salmon habitat we are facing.
Cougar Mask, by Calvin Hunt
Komokwa Mask, by Calvin Hunt
Mourning Mask, by Calvin Hunt
The formline, colour and content are a marriage of traditional and contemporary Kwakwa̱ka̱ʼwakw style, but as we know, Hunt’s ancestry is diverse. A Nuu Chah Nulth “spin-top” mask depicting a serpent exemplifies the flat-planed style and vivid, swirling designs distinct to the western Vancouver Island group. Giving context, Hunt explains, “In the dance presentation, when they come out to bless the floor, the wearer would pull a string that would spin the top and release eagle down, which would float up into the air and land on the floor. What it would do is bless the floor.” The mask celebrates this side of his family; in 1998, he became fourth primary chief of the Mowachaht, the hereditary chieftainship coming from his grandfather Dr Billy. His chief’s name is Nas’am’yus (Nas soom yees), meaning “the waters are always calm around you.”
Hunt’s Tlingit side are present in a large paddle and, among other works, a mask painted the blue of a September sky with delicate black formline, adorned with bear fur and synthetic hair. A feather duster replaces the traditional plume of feathers that emerges vertically from the centre of the mask for some contemporary whimsy. Called a Gitakhanees, meaning “intruder,” it represents the visitors to a potlatch. “I’ve worn this a number of times,” Hunt says, explaining, “this is the chief singer, so he would come in with other masks, strumming and singing a song, coming from another tribe for the potlatch.”
For Hunt—father of four, grandfather of eight (and counting), great-grandfather of two—the carvings, prints, masks, drums, and other unique works on offer are another opportunity to share his heritage, his culture, his family, and his art practice. His pride in doing so is expressed succinctly by the exhibition title: Yuxan’s K’is’o, a Kwakwa̱ka̱ʼwakword meaning, “these are our treasures.”
Yuxan’s K’is’o: These are our Treasures is at Alcheringa Gallery from August 25 to September 22, 2018. 621 Fort Street, 250-383-8224, www.alcheringa-gallery.com.
Aaren Madden feels incredibly wealthy, having learned from and about so many interesting and inspiring people by writing for Focus Magazine for over ten years. This is her last assignment for the time being, and she will miss it dearly. It has been her absolute privilege.
Aerialist Kaelyn Schmitt plans to ignite the circus arts scene in Victoria.
I PLUG THE METER ON HERALD STREET and head into the Union Pacific. Winding my way past the people and pastries I spot a young blonde woman who must be Kaelyn Schmitt, sitting quietly with her latte. The only giveaway of her profession—aerialist, acrobat, and founder of Ignio Circus Company—is her unusually strong-looking shoulders. I wonder if anyone else in the cafe realizes she’s capable of amazing feats—flipping, contorting, and suspending herself by one foot from a trapeze, flying through the air.
Like Elastigirl from The Incredibles, Schmitt looks like a regular person, but has hidden superpowers. She spends six months of each year in Europe, performing at hundreds of shows for rapt audiences. But her goal is to base her personal and creative life in her beloved hometown, and help establish Victoria as a centre for circus arts.
Kaelyn Schmitt (Photo by Warren Zelman)
Growing up, Schmitt didn’t dream of running away and joining the circus, but that’s how it turned out. All four kids in her family were extremely athletic; she started competing as a gymnast at age 10, training exhaustively and travelling far and wide. “Like any kid, I wanted to go to the Olympics,” she recalls. “At 14, I started to realize I wouldn’t be going.” The repetitive requirements to perfect the same moves wore her out. “I loved gymnastics,” she says, “but I just wanted to keep learning acrobatics, new tricks. That’s not the way it works—you do your routine.”
When Schmitt “retired” in grade 11, she went from “25 hours a week of training, to ‘what do I do with myself now?’” Like most teens, she partied on the weekends and got into trouble here and there. To stay active, she played rugby, and started working as a gymnastics coach. She found out about circus school in grade 12, and something clicked. She would train, audition, and get accepted into a class of 30 students at the intensive, three-year circus college École Nationale de Cirque (ENC) in Montreal.
Since graduating from ENC, Schmitt has performed as a professional trapeze artist for 10 years in 27 countries. Though it’s been exciting and rewarding, she yearns to put down roots and be closer to her family here. At 29, she also knows she’s got about five years left of doing daily shows on a trapeze for months on end “or I won’t be able to walk when I’m 50.”
To make her living here, though, she must create a professional context for herself. Not a lot exists in Victoria, as far as contemporary circus goes. “There’s Cirque du Soleil every year or two years, but not a lot of professional shows for people to see,” Schmitt observes. Contemporary circus, in her view, is a mix of dance, acting, and acrobatics, offering opportunities for myriad artistic collaborations and thought-provoking social commentary. “I think it’s extraordinary, and I want to share it and make it more accessible on Vancouver Island.”
Schmitt was behind the scenes of the launching of two brand-new circus schools here. Island Circus Space (ICS) at 625 Hillside, which she co-founded with performers Jake West, Lisa Eckert, and Coral Crawford, offers classes for students aged 6 through adult, and aims “to build a contemporary circus infrastructure for Victoria.” Because of her overseas commitments, Schmitt advises and teaches at ICS, but can’t be consistently present for all the practical aspects of running the business. She is grateful to Eckert and Crawford, “talented, hardworking women, who did incredible job of setting up a beautiful space.”
Then there’s the Victoria Centre for Circus Arts (“The Rising”) at 1047 Langford Parkway, offering classes for everyone from toddler to adult. It was founded by Sarah Scheunhage, who shares Schmitt’s passion to bring circus arts to her hometown after performing worldwide.
“It’s super exciting,” Schmitt enthuses. “Now there’s two places in town for people to learn…and we can grow that community. Both are excellent schools, with excellent teachers. They’re really well-set-up, safe environments, very professional.”
Last winter in Berlin, stationed as a performer and artistic supervisor of a long-running show, Schmitt saw a performance at a theatre she’d once performed in. “I wasn’t impressed,” she says, “but before I can talk down someone else’s work, I should try it myself—do a whole show. So I thought, ‘Let’s bring circus to Victoria, let’s build a circus community here in Victoria. I can perform, and also build the [production, direction and management] skills at the same time, to be ready for when I can’t perform anymore.”
Schmitt founded her brand-new production company, Ignio Circus, to create cutting-edge, contemporary local circus shows. In early July, Ignio (Latin for “ignite”) is offering their first production, “Eyes Up,” examining smart-phone culture and how we connect with each other. International performers are being brought in to join Schmitt and other local artists and musicians. “Often we use technology as a vehicle for communication, but when we take it away…there is awkwardness and beauty,” she explains. “Each of us has an inner desire to connect…it’s becoming a lost art, face-to-face interactions. ‘Eyes Up’ is exploring what it is to be human, what it is to communicate with technology, and without it.”
Working with youth, Schmitt has found that circus arts provide powerful healing for many emotional issues. “Circus is physically denying what you think is possible,” she says. “Everyone has similar potential from birth to do something physically extraordinary. Circus is a neat little reminder to push the limits of what you’re capable of.” Some of the troubled or disabled kids she’s coached “couldn’t catch a beanbag, and had been written off by society.” Soon, though, they learned to juggle, even though “they thought they were never going to accomplish anything physically.” While they had a slower learning curve, it was “profoundly humbling to witness them progress, to see how much confidence and enjoyment they had learning. Circus is a powerful tool.”
On Saturday, August 11 at 7:30pm, Ignio Circus is staging “The Open Hearts Gala” at the Metro Theatre to support NEED2, a Victoria nonprofit providing live online chat and in-person suicide prevention support every day through counselling, workshops, and education to youth in grades 8-12. The evening will showcase international circus professionals along with new local talent, offering an “awe-inspiring evening” of acrobatics, magic, comedy, music, and dance. All proceeds benefit NEED2 Suicide Prevention Education and Support. All-ages tickets are $25 and available at www.ticketrocket.com beginning July 3.
In 2004, performance artist Mollie Kaye relocated to Victoria. As the then-mother of two young children, she was disappointed there wasn’t a circus school here. She is delighted this is now being remedied.
Theatre SKAM and a cast of young people present the award-winning Concord Floral.
JORDAN TANNAHILL is one of Canada’s most exciting and inventive young theatre artists. Winner of the Governor General’s Award for playwriting in 2014, at the age of 26, Tannahill has already built an impressive track record. His plays have been performed across Canada and his video projects have toured internationally including to the 2017 Venice Biennale. Tannahill has also published a book, Theatre of the Unimpressed, that castigates mainstream Canadian theatre and calls for new performance forms. Most recently, he published his first novel, Liminal, that was, in part, inspired by his mother’s struggle with cancer.
I have been a fan of Tannahill’s since meeting him at a playreading event in Toronto. I was moved by his writing for young audiences, especially one of the plays in Age of Minority that went on to receive the Governor General’s Award: rheannaboi95. This play tackles a common topic in Tannahill’s work, that of homophobia and bullying. He is a queer artist and so has understandably been interested in addressing these challenging topics on stage. However, in rheannaboi95 there was no stage; the play was webcast live to audiences who tuned in to catch the one-man performance. The play invited audiences to comment directly in real-time messages to the actor as he portrayed the life of Sunny, a young South Asian-Canadian who has been discovered by classmates posting lip sync videos online. Sunny is proud of his performances of Rhianna’s songs, but has been hiding himself from his family and his peers. The consequences of his actions lead to fear and violence, with an open-ended conclusion that leaves the audience implicated in what happens next in Sunny’s life. The innovative web-based approach appealed to many young people who might otherwise never have had the chance to go to a theatre to see this work.
So it was with great pleasure that I heard that Theatre SKAM will be mounting one of Tannahill’s plays, Concord Floral, in August. While this is not a play for young audiences, it does feature a youth cast. Tannahill was inspired by The Decameron, the 14th century collection of novellas by Italian writer Giovanni Boccaccio. In these works, a group of young people flee the plague and hide out in a villa outside Florence. There, they wait out the Black Death and entertain themselves by storytelling. In Tannahill’s play, the hideout is an abandoned glass greenhouse in a suburban field outside of Toronto. The young people who gather there to party are escaping their various fears of the future, their sexuality, relationships, and the consequences of past actions.
Concord Floral was originally produced in Toronto in 2014 after a three-year development period. In 2015 it won the Dora Award for Outstanding New Play. It has subsequently been produced in Ottawa at the National Arts Centre, at the Vancouver PuSH Festival and as part of the Magnetic North Festival. Every production has a cast of local teenagers, as Tannahill and his collaborators (Erin Brubacher and Cara Spooner) have been adamant that youth performers are required.
Jordan Tannahill and Kathleen Greenfield
This is where Theatre SKAM comes in. Theatre SKAM Co-Founder and Artistic Director Matthew Payne and local director Kathleen Greenfield saw Concord Floral at Magnetic North in Whitehorse in 2016. SKAM is now operating a theatre school program, in which Greenfield teaches the youth classes. When Payne and Greenfield saw the play, they immediately saw it as a great fit for their students and other Victoria youth. As well, it is the kind of site-specific play that SKAM has successfully done many times in the past (in the backs of cars and trucks, at Macaulay Point, and along the Galloping Goose, among other locations).
I got together with Greenfield, with whom I have worked on productions at William Head on Stage, to discuss the play and her vision of the production. Greenfield is a founding member of SNAFU Dance Theatre and has directed a number of that company’s shows (Little Orange Man, Kitt and Jane) as well as Sleeping Giants, the 2016 production at William Head.
I asked her about the appeal of Tannahill’s play. She replies that, for her, the play explores very relevant issues for young people, such as “not having space in adult society and needing a place to be themselves, free of confines.” She tells me that “teens love this play because it’s written in their language and doesn’t shy away from reality.” In fact, the play has become quite popular with young people, even though it is not intended for young audiences. Greenfield tells me of fan groups online who share character portraits and quotes from the play.
She says that her own teenage students at SKAM’s theatre school love the play, “with its blend of surreal and naturalistic elements and its messages about the consequences of bullying.” Characters in the 10-person cast include The Greenhouse, a Fox and a Couch, so the surrealism seems clear. For Greenfield, the play is an opportunity “to explore great writing and to experiment with abstraction. The play is structured like a horror story, in a way, and has shocking and haunting elements.”
The play will be staged on a piece of land near Dockside Green, overlooking Rock Bay. Greenfield hopes that the cast of 10 will surround the audience (who may possibly stand on a revolving platform) with their choral storytelling, and that the lighting may include car headlights coming on as the sun goes down. Her production team includes Patricia Reilly (set), Tori Isaak (lighting), Carolyn Moon (sound) and Pauline Stynes (costumes). The production features a doubled cast of 20, so Greenfield will be working with Assistant Director Kai Taddei. The doubling makes more demands on the production team, with a doubled set of rehearsals, but will free the youth performers throughout the 3-week run to enjoy some time off before school begins again in September. The youth cast are being paid a weekly honorarium and were selected from over 50 young people who auditioned; six of those cast are SKAM Studio students.
I also wanted to hear from Greenfield what she hopes adult audiences might take away from seeing Concord Floral. It seems clear from my reading of the play that one of Tannahill’s intentions is to create an intergenerational encounter. Greenfield agrees, saying, “One of my favourite lines in the play is ‘Life without beauty is unbearable.’ I want adult audiences to really see these young people. I want the audience to see how beautiful these teenage lives are, amongst all the chaos.”
For me, Jordan Tannahill plays a large part in crafting the future of Canadian theatre. His career is one to follow, and the chance to see one of his plays performed in Victoria by Victoria youth is overdue.
Update: The venue for this play has changed. Please see the website below for the latest information.
Concord Floral runs from July 31-August 26 . Tickets are available at www.eventbrite.ca. For more information on this and SKAMpede (July 14-15) go to www.skam.ca.
Monica Prendergast’s newest publication, Web of Performance, a curriculum guide on performance studies intended for youth 16-20, is available for free download or purchase.
Writer Eve Joseph stretches herself and her readers’ imagination and intellect in her new prose poetry book Quarrels.
MOST OF US MOVE through our day-to-day lives with a strong sense of what we call reality. It’s a little like staying on the sidewalk: straight, flat, solid. But one might also call it un-nuanced, inflexible, and keeping us at the edge of things. Reality, if we look a little sideways, is much less structured, more surprising, and can lead us into the deepest mysteries.
In her new book Quarrels (Anvil Press), Victoria writer Eve Joseph presents us with a series of short prose poems like windows into the weird and wonderful that is all around us but which we often don’t turn our heads to see. She invites us to bravely enter into our own little quarrels—the back and forths of “it’s this; it’s not”—with the perception of literal truth. For instance, in her work, equally mystifying is a man clapping his hands and filling the yard with owls, and a mother simply answering the phone and turning a house into a room of grief. We encounter a poet’s jar of commas, “like the sheared ears of voles...soft as apricots,” and elsewhere, at a party, enjoy the loving discovery of someone who is “a new music.” Which, really, is the more marvellous?
In these half-page verbal sculptures, Joseph reveals the arbitrariness of our common evaluations of things—of what’s normal or possible, of what or who fits where, and why. “I love where the real can take you,” she tells me, with the smile of someone sharing a secret.
Joseph has previously published two books of poetry and the award-winning memoir In the Slender Margin. These prose poems are something quite different. While they may be somewhat more surreal, they aren’t about escaping reality; rather, following it wherever it might lead. Take the capon that exploded out of a pressure cooker and became stuck on the ceiling. “That’s absolutely true!” she says, laughing. She was 9 years old, and her mother, who ran a salon business from their home, had left it unattended. “You think about that,” she says, “and it just becomes a black chandelier.”
And why not? Things can be what we see them to be. In that, we have some choice. For instance, Joseph’s mother told a questioning client that the barking noise, really from their wringer-washer, was a seal in the basement. And for months, the client brought a dead fish wrapped in newspaper every second Saturday, until she was finally told the seal had been given to the aquarium.
“I never knew what was truth and what was fiction,” Joseph explains, laughing. “And in the end, it didn’t matter. What I understood was that literal truth was far less important than metaphoric truth and the stories we tell ourselves.” So when she found the prose poem genre, it felt familiar. “The prose poets I’m drawn to have a surreal take. That was a form that came out of my life. I like that everything gets invited in, but only the strangest things stay.”
This slim, 85-page volume is divided into three sections. In the first, Joseph highlights the surreality of the everyday through unexpected juxtapositions, slidings, allusions. Non-narrative, these prose poems rely on image, rhythm, tension, relationship, allowing her to follow the real into the shadows, up to the door of Prometheus’ sulphurous bedroom, onto the back of a marvellous fish, or, with her grandfather lying still under the bedspread, “coming and going through the open window, a little further each time.” Playful and heart-wrenching, arresting and disorienting, each page, to me, is the verbal equivalent of stepping into a Joseph Cornell assemblage, where the beautiful, discrete pieces combine into a mysterious harmony where you want to linger because you sense you have something to learn.
The book’s second section is a series of responses to the photographs of Diane Arbus, someone who equally sights directly into the shadows and frames the surreal within the real. Arbus’ lens finds what we walk past every day, and Joseph felt every image was like a prose poem. “This world disappears and you see that.” These are the only works in the book with titles—the titles of Arbus’ photos so that readers can look up Joseph’s inspirations. Seeing them together is another form of juxtaposition, another shift of the gaze that helps us enter Joseph’s experience.
The last and incredibly poignant section centres on the ten days Joseph spent in California when her father called all his children to him as he neared death and then passed away. While death is a reality Joseph is intimately familiar with, having worked in hospice for 21 years, she admits that it’s still new, visceral. “It sounds like a cliché,” she says, “but you are literally at the heart of the human story. There’s no time for niceties, no time for the social ways we enter things. You’re simply there.” But being there means being face to face, as always, with paradox, with things side by side that can’t really be reconciled or explained. As I deal with the aging of my own father, now in his 80s, this section made me consider the many different ways to see someone you love, and yet the impossibility of ever completely doing so. “The line that came to me,” she says sombrely, “is: ‘why hadn’t we met before?’”
The prose poem form may feel familiar to her, but it was also a struggle. “I had a stroke in 2013,” Joseph tells me, “and I didn’t know if I could write again. Throughout the writing of this book, it felt many times like I would strike that flint and no sparks would catch.” A number of writers have used the concept of collision to describe prose poetry as a genre, an idea with which Joseph agrees. “For me it wasn’t a gentle melding of prose and poetry. There was nothing gentle about it. It was a collision. I wrestled with these guys. It is the hardest form I ever worked in.”
After meeting her, I think that not only her tough, determined character but her project here can be described in her line: “Because they said it couldn’t be done, I did it. Everyone agreed it was impossible. It wasn’t hard. The trick was not to think.”
I don’t at all mean these aren’t thinking poems, but they are so strong and limber that they deke around conventional thought, hop the fence, and are exploring up a tree before you can even get across the front yard. Many of us have forgotten how to leap like this. Part of what Quarrels does is show us the valuable skill of being able to enter a mystery not knowing where you’re going to end up.
Writer and editor Amy Reiswig recently moved to Mayne Island in order to lift her head away from the sidewalk a little more often.
Wild Fierce Life: Dangerous Moments on the Outer Coast; Listening to the Bees; Anna, Like Thunder
THE COASTAL EDGE IS ALWAYS A ZONE OF TUMULT, what Tofino writer Joanna Streetly calls “a land of endless motion.” It’s the perfect place to repeatedly find yourself a hair’s breadth away from death and to literally ride the waves of self-revelation. In the 15 essays of her new book Wild Fierce Life: Dangerous Moments on the Outer Coast (Caitlin Press), Streetly takes us with her in her storm-tossed sea kayak, on trails lit only by lightning, and into the turbulence of her heart’s loneliness and love as she reflects on the perils and unexpected gifts of living in close rhythm with the wild coast.
Streetly grew up in Trinidad as the youngest of five siblings in a family of risk-taking adventurers. At 19, she embarked on her own adventure by moving to Tofino, on Vancouver Island’s rough outer edge. Living and working remotely in all kinds of situations, back in the days before the cellphone connectivity revolution, Streetly writes about grappling not only with beasts, boats, weather, and waves but often with isolation and crashing breakers of fear and self-doubt. She writes: “I shook out my wings and wondered if they would lift me.”
In theme books such as this, there lurks the danger of repetitive reflections and lessons learned. Streetly avoids this trap by combining beautiful close-up observational nature writing, well-paced downright good yarns, and her intimate sense of where and how we fit into the bigger landscape. She’s as honest about her fear at being pulled out to sea swimming (with only the direction of kelp streaming in the current as a directional clue) as she is with becoming a new mother and raising her daughter on a sometimes precarious floathome in an unpredictable environment. And she shares the unlooked-for treasures that rise up in hairy situations—humility, learning, a sense of our own fragility, and a recognition of how illiterate most of us are when it comes to listening to how the planet tells us what we need to do to survive.
Ultimately, the land of endless motion is not just out there on the coastal edge, but inside as well. Streetly explores the wild and fierce world within that gets exposed in moments of crisis and survival: the beauty of both storm and calm, the balance of complexity and simplicity, and the importance of examining our connection with the wild, fierce world we’re all inseparably part of.
WHAT DO YOU THINK ABOUT WHEN YOU THINK ABOUT SCIENCE? That could well have been an alternate title to Listening to the Bees (Nightwood Editions), and the answer would most likely not be: poetry. But in this collaboration between the world-renowned SFU-based bee scientist Mark L. Winston and award-winning Surrey poet laureate Renée Sarojini Saklikar, we’re steered away from any narrow preconception of science as sterile, jargon-based, and impersonal, and encouraged to listen to its cultural, social, philosophical, and even spiritual insights. Together, Winston and Saklikar help us see—and hear—that both disciplines rely on curiosity, questioning, perception, resonance, and always, as Saklikar says, “the dance most of all.”
Winston’s essays about his career and the lessons he’s gleaned from the bees are interspersed with Saklikar’s poems in a kind of call and response—a dance. They represent different kinds of listening and learning, all derived from the humble bee. For centuries, the hive has been a symbol of industrious collaboration, but as a scientist and a human being, Winston’s interest is in dialogue. Like different bees with their waggle dance, there is variety with how we share information—and there must be contact.
Also like the bees, we will flourish only through diversity. So whether it’s reflecting on the meaning of home, seeing colleagues willing to be proven wrong, or spending time on the Downtown Eastside with Hives for Humanity, Winston shares his gratitude to the bees for teaching him, among other things, the role of selflessness in creating prosperity and the role of storytelling in science. The laboratory, he says, “was a hearing aid, amplifying the subtle messages to be learned when we listen, truly listen, to the bees.”
Of course, colony collapse due to pesticides, mites, habitat loss, and industrial agriculture practices out of step with pollinator needs must also be heard if we’re to truly listen to the bees. Like Saklikar in her formally innovative poems that slip in and out of languages and spread wing-like across pages, we need to be specific in our practice, take care in our response. As in scientific dialogue, so in poetry and environmental stewardship: structure and meaning must work together, collaborate.
In this collaboration, Winston and Saklikar demonstrate that like bees building a comb and filling it with the sweetness of survival, science and poetry and all successful attempts to reach one another are about process, possibility, taking things forward. But first, you have to listen closely.
IN THE COLD, COASTAL WET NOVEMBER OF 1808, Anna Petrovna Bulygina was just 18 years old, yet already married to a navigator for the Russian-America Company and sailing aboard the Russian ship Saint Nikolai when it ran aground off the Olympic Peninsula of what is today Washington State. She and the other survivors were captured by, and traded among, coastal First Nations.
From the historical record we know that when rescuers came for her, Anna refused to go, instead advising the Russians to surrender. In the novel Anna, Like Thunder (Brindle & Glass/TouchWood Editions), Victoria writer Peggy Herring combines written and oral history, Russian legends, years of research, and a brilliant, heartful imagination to tell Anna’s story.
In the novel’s preface, Herring explains that the two written records of the shipwreck—one from a Russian survivor and one based on Quileute oral tradition—share remarkable consistency. In both, Anna is a minor character, but her decision was pivotal. Here is another woman whose actions shaped the historical record, but who has been largely written out of it.
While its impulse came from history, this is a work of fiction. Told in the first person, we are plunged into the unforgiving sea and unknown forests with Anna as she flees the broken ship with the crew. We enter the confusion and longing for connection as she slowly begins to communicate with the First Nations who house, feed, and clothe her. And as she starts to work gathering wood, harvesting and cooking mussels, or cutting and drying salmon, she not only learns to enter the rhythm of a new culture, but questions and unlearns much of her inherited cultural values and assumptions.
Having consulted the Makah, Quileute and Hoh extensively on language, culture and history for this project, Herring is able to bring readers into an incredibly detailed world. And by weaving in recalled stories of Russian folklore from Anna’s mother, as well as Enlightenment science from her father, Herring makes it clear that issues of what we know, how we know it, and what our minds can be open to, are all key, not just to this story and the era of contact, but of ongoing relationship-building between peoples.
Amy Reiswig wishes Focus readers a summer full of place-based explorations by foot, bike and book.
Would amalgamation lead to the creation of a place we care less about?
WHICH DO YOU PREFER: Saantoria or Vicnich?
Me? I’m voting for Shitsville.
On a Wednesday evening in April, in a nearly subterranean, acoustically reverberant gym at Vic High—chosen, I assume, to make an idiotic proposition sound braver—invitees Victoria Mayor Lisa Helps, Saanich Mayor Richard Atwell and two out-of-area panelists spoke before an audience of a hundred about Victoria/Saanich amalgamation and the mandated process required to approve such a consolidation.
The presence of the two mayors at the event, organized and promoted by local initiative Amalgamation Yes, lent an ambiguous but undeniable propriety to the prospect of such a merger, even though Helps more than once was careful to blunt expectations with the quip, “Amalgamation Maybe.”
While both mayors appeared, thankfully, to have their wits about them, there was a nutty tang in the air, the kind of true-believer, I-drank-the-Kool-Aid vibe that automatically sends oh-oh juice coursing through any sound mind, same as happens when you’re among folks who gather in stubble fields awaiting the arrival of wise aliens in flying saucers.
So, why all the craziness here? Why is this place becoming InSaanitoria? Maybe it’s atmospheric, and all the local oxygen molecules have picked up another electron, turning air into ether and conking people’s reasoning function and common sense.
Let me state yet again: I’ve read the studies, and they are there for you to read. Amalgamation, in spite of the reductive logic of “one mayor’s cheaper ‘n two,” generally doesn’t save taxpayers a dime and doesn’t produce operating efficiencies, even though these are the two pillars upon which the amalgamation idea rests. It’s as flawed as its cousin belief: “greater density will produce affordable housing.”
People love to hear sober-sounding lingo purling from their tongues, like “efficiency of scale,” but if analytics counts for anything, they might as well crazily utter “fish and kale.” Amalgamation, instead of delivering real benefits, boils down to nothing more than feelings, as in “I feel Victoria would be a better place if it was amalgamated” or “I think it’s stupid keeping all these small, adjacent municipalities.” That is, the amalgamation argument is entirely non-evidentiary and offers a logical quantum roughly the equivalent of “I like pizza” or “blue’s a pretty colour.”
The amalgamation idea seems to trigger some murky, bigger’s better impulse in mental adolescents who obsess about the heft of their package and wail how this place doesn’t have the testicularity to be a real city. You know, like Switzerland’s problem: it’s not Germany.
And at the head of the small’s-a-disease/amalgamation’s-the-cure parade is the Chamber of Commerce leadership, drum-beating and banner-waving with absurdities like “We’re Better Together!” “A Remarkable Core City For Our Region!” and so on. And if you timidly ask “But, doesn’t the region already have a remarkable core city called Victoria? You know, the Inner Harbour, Empress, Legislature, tall buildings, lots of talent, energy and thousands of people moving in?” the answer you get is “We’re Better Together!” “A Magnificent New Metropolis!”
Citizens: dare to keep your Chamber off drugs.
In spite of the 501 words you have just read, this is not a column about amalgamation, but about the worldview—the philosophy of society, you might say—that allows people to believe that amalgamation is a good idea.
The genius of this place, so apparent that it’s almost invisible, is the beautiful, precious localness fostered by the multifarity of municipalities in the region. It isn’t some idiosyncrasy, deficiency or flaw that needs correction. It’s not an embarrassment, our “shame,” some quirk or retrograde behaviour, but one of our great strengths. It reinforces the scale, values and protocols of human community at a time when community (not to mention humanity) is at risk everywhere; and it reminds our various mayors and councillors that the number one job we hire you for is not sound municipal management, which a skilled administrative executive can provide, but the care, protection and well-being of your publics; that is, the quality and reality of the “conversation” between citizens and elected.
In too many places, social values have become grievance-driven, tribal (identitarian) and defensive, at great cost to the human family, the community. There is enormous stress in the world right now. Victoria is one of the remaining places where the formulation “if my community does well, I do well” operates functionally, if imperfectly. In my view, this is the powerful “something” that people pick up when they visit here—not simply our harbour vistas, rich historic architecture, cute streets, intact neighbourhoods, and verdant tree canopy, but their semiotic promise, what these things are code for: a place of human balance and comfort, the tantalizing promise of heaven on Earth.
And what this asks—no, requires—of local political leaders is that they be social innovators, constantly searching for new opportunities for community expression, new ways to vitalize the individual/community connection.
The think-big types can be remarkably dismissive of “dotty” locals—people, that is, with their all-too-human preferences, tugs and pulls, hopes and worries—as if the purpose of life was not human well-being, but some dehumanizing abstraction like “Progress!” or “Growth!” or “Making Victoria Great!” In my experience and my reading of history, such abstracting has ritually come with a cost…and produced a sorrowful (and repeatedly unheeded) postscript.
Fascism, neo-Nazism, systemic racism, anti-Semitism, follow me-autocracy, flag-waving national tribalism, economic aristocratism, and other dark and disturbing social tectonics are on a sharp rise globally. Worldwide, the number of democratic states has diminished—a “democratic recession” in the words of Stanford sociologist Larry Diamond.
“Never again” is yet again yielding by dangerous increments to “here we go again.”
These emergent conditions are accompanied by a trending ecological violence—violence to one’s home. Under such conditions, the geography of human community—literally, the place and space for healthy social functioning—is changing, diminishing. This is a time less of place-creating than place-abandonment and destruction, forced cultural forgetting and the collapse of memory. Humanity is culturally molting, here, everywhere, preparing for some convulsive Big Next.
Such generalized fungibility—where anywhere is anywhere else—has already slithered into town and turned Victoria (I don’t know about Saanich) into a devil’s playground for all the smoothocrats in local government, as if memory were a plaything with the value and durability of a Cracker-Jacks toy. Look for telling cultural shifts. Used to be “Five Points” at Moss and Fairfield? Now, it’s a “Small Urban Village” or SUV (big-sistered, of course, by LUV’s) to planning practitioners. Says the City, in essence: “No, no, we’re not proposing the removal or elimination of place, simply the substitution of authenticity with, well, er, jargon.” However unintended, this is civic organizational sociopathy cleverly packaged as professionalism.
Back in the good old days, when something reeked it was greeted and treated with revulsion. Now, jaws agape, we citizens—increasingly re-cast as “stakeholders” in some “all-gain” “community engagement” process—just stupidly watch it happen, witnesses to the ruin of hope. It’s practically Orwellian.
It’s our own fault: we give up, or give up on, memory, our past, the third dimension. What’s that classic stoner line? Oh, right: “If you don’t know where you’ve come from, you can’t know where you’re going.”
A key purpose of memory is to give direction, a true north, to our moral compass as we steer into the future. Now, as memory evaporates, we are adrift.
Policy—vital and rich with social intention in its moment of creation, then quickly forgotten—takes on a life of its own, a target for unintended consequences, accumulating un-challenged ideas, un-tested assumptions, lingo, precedents nobody thought of, all of which favours an impenetrable professional culture and a social engineering bias. Flashing yellow lights, my friends.
Zoning and related land use policies are, in fact, a kind of massive paraphrase of the life we intend for ourselves. But zoning is a tricky tool, and it requires us to be perpetually mindful of the risk of bad outcomes and of the need to course-correct. I’m reminded in this moment of social critic James Kunstler who spoke at a Victoria conference long ago and remarked how we North Americans are, as expressed in our social practices and in our urban design and land use policies, creating “places that are not worth caring about.”
Very much in line with Kunstler’s concern is the contemporary idea of solastalgia, which describes ecological grief brought on by the experience or anticipation of ecological loss. This includes the loss of meaningful landscapes, familiar built forms, human communities and sustainable environments, and is reinforced by a sense of powerlessness to hold back the loss.
Oh, and amalgamation? Think of it this way: 40 communities in one consolidated municipality are less important, meaningful, individual, attention-worthy than 20 each in two. Call it the first lesson in the solastalgia handbook.
It is an imperative: we cannot allow technocrats or technocratic “solutions” to define the terms of response to what are ultimately existential and moral concerns…social concerns. We need our local political and civic leadership to read the horizon for risk, and to invoke all the means (land use not least, but not alone) by which Victoria can remain a place of communities, a place of places.
Gene Miller is currently promoting ASH, an affordable housing concept and, with partner Rob Abbott, is writing the book Futuretense: Robotics, AI and Life in a Jobless World.
Digging, planting and watering together produces food, strengthens community and helps the bees help us.
THERE'S NOTHING QUITE LIKE planting a garden in an urban area to garner attention. It raises interest, creates detractors and supporters, and gets people talking—to one another and to those doing the transforming. And when that garden gets built in a municipal park, over top of a former lawn, there’s a sense of revolution—taking back the history of lawns as European pleasure grounds, as demonstrations of wealth or conformity. We can do so much more with a patch of earth than grow a ground cover that doesn’t feed anyone.
Thanks to the Gorge Park Community Gardens (GPCG) team in Saanich, led by Gabe Epstein, there’s a new example of what a lawn can become. The transformation is strengthening community, building biodiversity, supporting pollinators and providing a beautiful way of feeding a neighbourhood. And, perhaps most importantly, it’s giving people a concrete and positive way to connect with nature when they gather in a public space.
“Because of this project, I now talk to my neighbours,” Epstein tells me, sitting with fellow GPCG members Jane Bond, Laurie Jones and Brenda Pilon in the shade of the gardens’ tool shed, as pollinators float through the warm air around us. All four serve as coordinators for the site. Pilon is the native plant expert. Bond, who is the site manager, concurs with Epstein: “We help each other. That’s what it’s all about here for me. I come down and get talking to people and build that association.”
Jane Bond, Gabe Epstein and Laurie Jones (Photo by Tony Bounsall)
Epstein, the spearhead organizer for the GPCG, first held a visioning workshop on the future of Gorge Park (at the corner of Tillicum and Gorge Road) in 2011. Epstein, who used to be president of the Gorge Tillicum Urban Farmers group, is a retired school teacher and was looking for a way to focus on food security in his neighbourhood. The park was underutilized, and drug use was common. One suggestion that came out of the visioning workshop was a community garden. After consulting with Saanich, whose vision statement includes a plan to create a community garden in 12 neighbourhoods by 2036, GPCG polled neighbourhoods to determine levels of support; after a two-year process, the gardens gained approval in November 2013.
The difference between an allotment and a community garden is key for Epstein, who rallied during the gardens’ planning process for the latter. He wanted a garden that could serve the needs of a diverse population, including native species. And he wanted the focus to shift from only private plots to a more inclusive model. “Communities grow in community gardens,” Epstein tells me. Brown concurs, telling stories of apartment dwellers who met at the gardens, then ended up holding communal dinners with neighbours they’d previously only passed in the hall.
Gardens are proven to help us connect to nature, even if we are growing kale and carrots, not camas. Soil microbes have been shown to have an anti-depressive effect on those who sink their bare hands into the earth. Learning the timing for plantings, ways of building soil health, and seed-saving connects us to the seasons and to our neighbours. Educational events held at the GPCG foster informal conversations, which build knowledge and passion. “There’s a thread of environmentalism spread out as we talk with one another,” says Epstein.
Design of the GPCG involved consultations with First Nations; Earl Claxton and Judith Arney came and sat at the site before building began; Will George participated in the gardens’ groundbreaking ceremony. The coordinators are hoping that future collaborations might involve First Nations and nearby schools, which could use the site as an outdoor classroom.
Several groups collaborated to initiate the GPCG, including the Gorge Tillicum Community Association, the District of Saanich and the Capital Regional District, along with many community members. Each group provided something towards the construction and maintenance of the gardens. In 2013, GPCG was awarded a $20,000 startup grant from Saanich, which paid for archaeological assessment of the 1600 square-metre area; the CRD contributed $10,000 in storm water management, and many of the supplies for irrigation and the garden shed were donated by local businesses. Total cost for the gardens so far has been about $65,000, says Epstein, with money now coming in from allotment rentals, plant sales and other fundraising activities.
Community gardens have a long history in the CRD. The Spring Ridge Commons, a thriving food forest in Fernwood, was a parking lot rescued by nearby residents in 1999. Saanich’s Capital City Allotment Gardens were originally started in the 1970s on Crown land, which was transferred to the municipality in 2005. Many smaller gardens around the city have similar histories—locals gathering together to take back an unused parcel of land and make it productive and beautiful. But increasing development pressures mean that it is harder and harder to find an unused piece of land that a developer doesn’t already have eyes on. Hence, the transformation of grassy spaces in parks.
What the GPCG plants in the gardens interests Epstein and his fellow coordinators as much as who comes to use and visit them. Saanich forbids any use of pesticides or invasive plants, but provides free deliveries of compost and wood chips for paths and winter mulch. The GPCG strives to use plants that either feed people or wildlife, and encourages drought-tolerant choices. It’s a choice that will contribute toward the creation of pollinator corridors that many are arguing are a way to save native bee populations, like the yellow-faced bumblebees that took up residence in my swallow nest box this spring. Use of native flowering shrubs in the GPCG—red osier dogwood, snowberry and red-flowering currant—also provides food for insects and birds, as well as nesting material. Readers may notice that non-native shrubs like laurel and boxwood hedges tend to attract invasive house sparrows; native bushes attract and support native birds and insects.
The construction of the gardens has also had some fortuitous benefits. Hummingbirds, Jones tells me as we walk around the site, use the spider webs from the garden’s rock walls to line the insides of their nests.
The plan includes a living arbor over the event space that could turn the gardens into a neighbourhood hub. That will take long-term vision, which the coordinators are hoping to receive from neighbours. “We want to encourage people not to just plant seeds, but to volunteer, and actually get involved,” says Jones.
Epstein and his colleagues are happy about the outcome of the gardens, though they’re hoping that the model they’ve created—collaboratively managed, with opportunities for residents to become members even if they don’t have a garden plot—will encourage a succession plan that includes ways to get involved that are both large and small.
When describing her hopes for the future, Jones quotes Marian Wright Edelman: “You can’t be what you can’t see.” She smiles, “There are people looking at this place and seeing what we’re doing, and it has an impact. It’s a way of modelling behaviour.”
After our talk, I pluck a leaf of spinach from one of the common beds as I’m leaving. Nearby, kale flowers are loaded with bumblebees and mason bees. The leaf tastes like summer, and like hope.
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.
The heavy carbon footprint of most manufacturing processes gives added incentive for re-using material goods.
OUR CLASSIC LIST of favourite family outings has long included the Cordova Bay United Church Annual Country Fair, our community’s very own big fat recycling project. For years we’ve been part of the Saturday morning crowd that gathers at the church parking lot each spring with kids, dogs and visiting relatives in tow. Eagerly we wait for the signal to begin sifting through the heap of castoffs we’ve seemingly just finished dropping off the day before. (How they manage to wrestle all this stuff—almost overnight—into a neatly arranged cornucopia of merchandise in almost every imaginable house-and-home category remains a mystery to everyone except the smiling worker bees ready at their stations when we bargain hunters come surging in.)
Over the years we’ve brought home armloads of good clothing, toys, books, shoes, tools, plants, pet supplies, and gifts for upcoming birthdays or the Christmas stockings. I’m always amazed, and a little saddened too, by each year’s vast new stockpile of fine china and antique linen, the hallmarks of glory days inevitably winding down. Fittingly, they draw much admiration and by day’s end many will have been taken home by a new generation of enthusiasts. One year I rescued a delicately textured, white linen tablecloth—for a dollar—and turned it into a cottage-style curtain. Last year a toonie got me an elegant cake knife that’s become prized and useful for our own special occasions.
The kids, long since adults living in their own homes, still come out for the morning if they can, motivated by both nostalgia and the realization that a dollar here has the stretch of a rubber band. You could set up an entire apartment with the wares on offer, and it’s not all cheap stuff originally from Zeller’s.
We always run into friends and familiar faces and everyone remarks on the bargains they’ve scored. I overhear one young woman telling another, “When I have children I’m doing all my shopping here.”
At one time buying or accepting used goods of any kind came with a badge of shame attached, but thankfully no more, and certainly not in these parts. Astute consumers have figured out that the used market can provide what they need without gouging into their food and shelter budgets. Many of the millennials I know are stylishly outfitting themselves and their living spaces with used treasures, thereby also sparing themselves the angst of monthly payments and overdrawn bank accounts. They’re also doing it to decrease their environmental footprint and shop more conscientiously.
The ensuing demand has created a bounty of local used-goods opportunities ranging from goodwill and consignment stores to antique attics, rummage sale basements, and on-line community bulletin boards. Several, including the WIN (Women in Need Community Cooperative) Resale shops, the Habitat for Humanity Re-Store, and thrift shops operated by Beacon Community Services, the Society of Saint Vincent de Paul, and the Salvation Army, funnel their revenues back into the community in a myriad of altruistic ways.
Of even more benefit is their collective steering of untold tonnes of goods away from the landfill. The Salvation Army in Canada estimates that less than one percent of all its donated wares ends up as waste, and that in 2016-2017 alone, it redirected more than 33 million kilograms of cast-off clothing, household items and furniture to another round of use.
That’s all very significant, given, among other considerations, the heavy carbon footprint of most manufacturing processes. Take textile production as an example. It requires massive amounts of energy, pesticides and water—typically 2700 litres per shirt—to grow cotton and turn it into clothing. Denim, the making of which requires harsh dyes and repeated rinsing, exacts an even heavier toll. Synthetics fare no better, not at the manufacturing stage and certainly not in their problematic shedding of microfibers each time they’re washed. Clearly, every garment that doesn’t have to be made because another is being reused saves the Earth significant resources. The same thing goes for every single possession we have.
Surely one of these days we’re going to get politically serious about entering this Age of Transition that we’ve all so earnestly talked about for years. In the meantime, and among ourselves in our communities, the Cordova Bay United Church Country Fair and many other like-minded ventures are already connecting many of the dots in the blueprint of our future.
Summer will find Trudy in the garden, looking for ways to make it more drought tolerant as the climate continues to show subtle change.