AS AN ANTIDOTE TO THE BOMBARDMENT OF MODERN LIFE, I’ve turned to reading more books. Even when their message is unsettling, wallowing in a good book is somehow calming. And they certainly quench my thirst for deeper understanding more than the sound bites offered up by the news media.
So I’ve been reading more books in general, and—returning to my roots—more philosophy books in particular.
In so doing, I’ve been reminded that philosophers revere a good argument. As Socrates advocated, “follow the argument wherever it leads.”
“Argument” to philosophers does not have the same meaning as it does to many non-philosophers—that of people angrily, even abusively, hurling insults at each other or making threats and demands.
No, a philosophical argument is simply a reasoned analysis drawing from a set of premises or facts, and showing step by step where logic leads. This means avoiding what are called fallacies.
These days fallacies seem all the rage. Ad hominem attacks, red herrings, hasty generalizations, shifting the burden of proof, begging the question, appeals to motive, emotion etc. I once taught university students how to spot them, but I still commit them myself occasionally.
Our media for our messages—social media in particular—don’t help as they encourage sound bites over sound reasoning. Twitter comments these days often are the news. Strange times indeed.
The well-reasoned, civil argument seems to have gone out of style. Mark Kingwell, a philosopher who comments on contemporary issues, opened a piece in the Globe & Mail recently this way: “It can seem as if we are living in a world where fact, truth, and evidence no longer exert the rational pull they once did. Our landscape of fake news sites, junk science, politicians blithely dismissive of fact-checks, and Google searches that appear to make us dumber, renders truth redundant.”
I plan to read one of Kingwell’s many books this summer (Measure Yourself Against the Earth is his latest). Another book I’ll read is James Hoggan’s I’m Right and You’re an Idiot: The Toxic State of Public Discourse and How to Clean it Up. Hoggan is interviewed in this edition by Amy Reiswig. While not a philosopher, Hoggan interviews some in his book, as well as cognitive scientists, sociologists, and spiritual leaders, all towards understanding and reducing the smog of propaganda and adversarial rhetoric that pollutes the public square.
A book with similar themes that I am reading is philosopher James Garvey’s The Persuaders: The Hidden Industry That Wants to Change Your Mind (Icon Books, UK). Garvey likes to make philosophy super-relevant and accessible. Another book by him is The Ethics of Climate Change.
This latest book tackles the mammoth corporate PR and lobbying industries whose budgets dwarf those of journalists, scientists and other truth-seekers. These industries, in the employ of corporations, political parties and governments, have discovered numerous sophisticated techniques for persuading us—whether it be to buy something or go to war or ignore the risks of climate change or tobacco. Everything from astroturfing, viral marketing, agenda setting, newsjacking and decoy pricing is employed to influence you—estimates are hundreds to thousands of times each day, certainly far more often than you are given a logical argument from facts.
Not only do these techniques influence our behaviour, they are also removing reason from the whole equation. Why work out a solid argument when pushing an emotional button works better?
Here’s how Garvey explained what is happening—and why it’s so dangerous—in an interview a few months ago: “We’re in the middle of a revolution in persuasion, a shift away from giving reasons to something that operates outside reason. As a result, we’re starting to lose the ability to argue, as a culture. Listen to Prime Minister’s Questions or the literal dick measuring going on in debates between Republican presidential candidates. The ability to argue, to think critically, spot fallacies and work together towards the truth is a kind of intellectual self-defence at the heart of democracy. If we lose that, we lose what it protects. We’re also less able to get along with one another if all we can do is shout back and forth. Modern persuasion undermines not just democracy, but our chances of living happy lives in a peaceful, interconnected world. It would be good if we could learn to listen to reason again. A lot hangs on it.”
So how do we “learn to listen to reason again”? Obviously it would help to educate ourselves and be encouraging of those who do use more reasoned approaches to issues, while discouraging those who rely on other techniques. Garvey feels if enough people—a critical mass—get wise to the “persuasive” techniques used on us in the marketplace and community, there’s hope. If people understand what’s happening, they’ll get angry about being so tricked by others, usually for money or political gain. That anger, he admits somewhat paradoxically, will rise to the defense of reason. “It’s in a kind of measured, focused, thoughtful anger that a strategy of struggle lies,” he says at the end of his book.
The media can be influential here as well, and certainly in the past was relied on to act as a check on corporate and government power, by digging for facts and exposing the lies. But given what’s happened to traditional media’s funding in the past decade, the resources for investigations have dried up. The people-hours we saw applied in the movie Spotlight to expose the Catholic Church’s massive cover-up of abuse by priests just couldn’t happen anymore.
Who has the largest newsroom in BC? The government. This is not limited to BC. On government and corporate beats, journalists have to work with or try to stick-handle their way around “communications” people who work to control the message. Labour statistics from 2011 show there were four PR professionals for every journalist in Canada.
It’s not a good situation.
But it makes David and me and Focus writers even more determined to produce well-reasoned, fact-based analyses of issues—sometimes even investigative reports that take months of work. We don’t have all the facts, or the final word on anything, but what we report on might move this community closer to a clear understanding of what is going on—whether it be on sewage or seniors, pipelines or railways—so better decision-making stands a chance.
In this edition, David Broadland’s investigation of how politics rather than facts lay behind our current sewage treatment “debate” illustrates the severe impact on a community that starting with false premises can have. Besides the waste of money ($70 million spent so far with a billion-plus to come), oft-repeated falsehoods about contamination have blinded us to the more serious sources of toxic contamination of near-shore waters.
The billions of dollars at stake in the sewage solution are a precious resource. If the citizenry is not properly informed about the evidence, those billions are likely wasted—misdirected from helping solve other problems in our community, like homelessness, seniors care, and climate change.
When facts are not the sole basis for decision-making we get ourselves in trouble. We also get in trouble if we don’t follow democratic principles. The public needs to be involved in decision-making, so it needs to be granted all the facts and all the “logic” used along the way. Too often the facts are mediated through layers of politicians, bureaucrats and spin doctors, and sometimes simply buried out of sight. Consent is manufactured, engineered, rather than won through reason.
I’ll end with a thought from one of my favourite philosophers. Asked about what lessons he would like to pass on to future generations by a BBC interviewer in 1959, Bertrand Russell, then 87, said he’d like to say two things—one intellectual, one moral. “The intellectual thing is, when you are studying any matter…ask yourself only what are the facts and what is the truth that the facts bear out. Never let yourself be diverted either by what you wish to believe or by what you think would have beneficent social effects if it were believed. Look only and solely at the facts.”
The other lesson, the moral one, was this: “Love is wise, hatred is foolish. In this world which is getting more and more closely interconnected, we have to learn to tolerate each other, we have to learn to put up with the fact that some people say things we don’t like…If we are going to live together and not die together, we must learn a kind of charity and a kind of tolerance…”
Something also worth reflecting on over summer.
Leslie Campbell is the editor of Focus. You can find the interview with Bertrand Russell on Youtube—but he also wrote some great books. Have a wonderful summer.
Contamination of local politics by a false pretence and a toxic promise requires primary treatment at the ballot box.
OVER THE NEXT 30 YEARS, Victoria-area households will pay somewhere in the neighbourhood of $1.2-$2.2 billion to fund borrowing by the Capital Regional District for land-based sewage treatment. The costs of operating those facilities over that period will add another $650-$900 million to the cost of treatment—a service that numerous local marine scientists and health officials have said will provide little or no measureable health or environmental benefit.
Once initial annual costs have been settled, electors will be expected to keep paying for this service in perpetuity. The legal right of Victoria electors to choose by a referendum whether or not they are willing to incur the debt those billions in payments would finance was taken from them in 2006. That right is generally protected by provincial legislation, but in this case the need for consent was overturned by a never-
before-used section of the Environmental Management Act. That protected right now appears to have been taken under false pretences.
At the time, the Province claimed an area of the seabed around each of the city’s two marine outfalls was so contaminated that they could each be designated a “contaminated site” under BC’s Contaminated Sites Regulation. It was widely accepted in the community at the time that the pollution had to be stopped and recalcitrant taxpayers could not be allowed to stand in the way of environmental protection. Then-BC Environment Minister Barry Penner justified this action on the basis of what came to be known as the MacDonald Report. That report has since been exposed as fundamentally flawed and its main conclusion just plain wrong.
Commissioned by the Province, environmental scientist Donald MacDonald had analysed four years of data gathered by the CRD about what was in the sediment on the seafloor in the area adjacent to each outfall. Although MacDonald admitted he had “insufficient data” to “thoroughly evaluate sediment quality conditions,” he felt he could do “a preliminary investigation.” Based on this preliminary evaluation, MacDonald reported that sediments at the outfalls “are sufficiently contaminated to warrant designation…as a contaminated site.” His report didn’t include an analysis of the source, or sources, of the contamination suggested by the CRD’s data. The outfalls were assumed to be the source. MacDonald included in his report a flow chart that showed the five steps in the process of determining whether such a site was “legally contaminated.” He noted that the second step had not been completed. To determine whether a site is “legally contaminated” would have required completion of the second step followed by three additional, onerous steps.
Penner didn’t bother to complete even the second step. MacDonald’s report was dated May 2006, but by that July Penner had ordered the CRD to create a plan for treatment. His order was made under Section 24(3) of the Environmental Management Act. Its use implied that a significant environmental harm was occurring and suspension of the basic principle of elector assent was therefore justified. This allowed Penner to run around the step-by-step requirements of the Contaminated Sites Regulation, and it allowed him to order treatment without having to specify what, precisely, sewage treatment needed to stop.
Penner could have used the Abatement of Municipal Pollution section of the Environmental Management Act to order the CRD to address potential contamination, but that section would have limited such work to that “reasonably necessary to control, abate or stop the pollution,” or to remediation.
Under that section, the legal requirement for electoral approval would also have been suspended, but the changes that the CRD would be required to make would have been limited to what was “reasonably necessary” to meet provincial regulations. Penner’s ministry would have been obligated to detail precisely what was “reasonably necessary.” He didn’t do that. Instead, he used Section 24 and opened up Pandora’s box. In his order to the CRD Penner stated: “To ensure value for taxpayers, I encourage the CRD to consider new technologies and alternative financing and delivery options, including the potential for private sector development.”
Given that vague direction, it was perhaps inevitable that, 10 years later, the cost of the CRD’s considerations would have mounted to $70 million and the community would be divided into three camps over what action needed to be taken. But during that time, two facts have emerged that challenge the right of the Province to enable the CRD to proceed any further without seeking elector approval.
First, over the past ten years the CRD has continued to monitor the sediment chemistry at the outfalls. Report after report has shown that, aside from occasional exceedances of permitted levels of a few substances, neither outfall would have qualified as a “contaminated site” under the Provincial regulation.
Specifically, in 2011, environmental scientists with Golder and Associates completed an extensive study that looked at the trend in contamination at the outfalls between 1991 and 2009. They concluded the data “does not provide strong evidence that toxicity or other biological responses are expected.”
In 2012, a peer-reviewed scientific study authored by Mark Yunker, Avrael Perreault and Chris Lowe presented information that has explained the presence of unexpectedly high levels of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) in sediments to the east of the Macaulay outfall. In a wonderful piece of scientific detective work, their analysis eliminated both Penner’s theory—contamination by PAHs from wastewater—and a subsequent theory that the contamination was the result of the sinking of the collier San Pedro off Brotchie Ledge in 1891. By analysing the chemical signature of the predominant PAHs in the contaminated sediments, the scientists were able to determine a more likely source: “dredged sediment containing pyrolised coal waste from a former coal gas plant in Victoria Harbour” that had been dumped there long before the outfall was even built.
At Clover Point, it turns out, there is so little sediment on the rocky bottom to test that reliable samples are difficult for scientists to even obtain. Nevertheless, the data from the last sediment survey conducted there in 2012 showed only a single reading in one location for only one substance—copper—that was above the Province’s guidelines. CRD scientist Chris Lowe told Focus that the as-yet unpublished data for the 2015 sediment survey showed the latest reading for copper at that location was a little more than one-half of the 2012 reading.
In other words, although there is seabed contamination near the outfalls, the contribution from the outfalls to that contamination is limited and there’s no evidence of worsening environmental conditions. This is what local marine scientists have been saying for several years.
The second piece of evidence that has emerged that challenges the Province’s removal of the requirement for elector consent originated in Olympia, Washington. A letter written to Victoria Mayor Lisa Helps by Washington State Representative Jeff Morris and signed by 37 other Washington legislators confirmed that Penner’s order to the CRD was, in fact, motivated by an unpublicized agreement made between then-BC Premier Gordon Campbell and then-Washington Governor Christine Gregoire in June 2006. Campbell and Gregoire and their respective cabinets had met at that time as part of a process “to enhance trade opportunities and create stronger ties between the two jurisdictions.” According to the legislators, during discussions relating to Vancouver’s hosting of the 2010 Olympics, Gregoire told Campbell her government was unhappy about promises made about sewage treatment in Victoria that had not been kept. As a result of that, the legislators claim, Penner ordered the CRD “to make good on those promises.”
According to Morris, then, Penner’s order to Victoria was part of a trade deal. The contamination claimed by the MacDonald Report provided Penner with a plausible rationale for ordering Victoria to shift to land-based treatment. Invoking Section 24 ensured that Victoria electors would not be able to stand in the way of Campbell’s promise to Gregoire.
Last edition I wrote about the chemical contamination of Puget Sound by a burgeoning population there and the state’s dismal sewage treatment facilities. The cumulative impacts of all those people living and working around a small, constricted inlet threaten Chinook salmon and are pushing endangered southern resident orca to the brink. Washington political figures like Morris have been intent on shifting blame for the continuing deterioration of the Sound to Victoria’s outfalls. Slowing rapid population growth, regulating industry and spending billions on higher levels of sewage treatment are politically unpopular in Washington; it’s much easier to deflect constituents’ attention to Victoria’s easily misunderstood natural treatment system. Vancouver-area politicians, perhaps for the same reasons, have been happy to support the Americans’ claims.
Although MacDonald’s contamination has since been disproven by scientific study, it is still regarded in Victoria as the fundamental rationale for sewage treatment. For example, in a May 26, 2016 story in the Times Colonist about a recent development in the issue, a senior reporter noted, “The CRD has been trying to come up with a plan for sewage treatment since 2006, when an environmental assessment of the seabeds around the outfalls found them to be contaminated. As a result, the Province directed the region to put in secondary treatment.”
If there is no environmental emergency to warrant removal of elector consent for the imposition of such a heavy financial burden on the community, what else might justify such a draconian measure? Before considering the possibilities, let’s go back to the $2-$3 billion cost over 30 years mentioned above. Why would there be such a large range in the possible long-term cost? For this, too, Victorians have Penner to thank.
Penner’s encouragement to “consider new technologies,” coupled with his removal of the requirement of elector consent, has allowed local elected officials to, in effect, go crazy. In response to supposed contamination of the seafloor, “consider new technologies” exploded into schemes for recovering energy, producing drinking water and integrating liquid and solid waste streams. Each of these may be worthy goals, somewhere, but under the umbrella of Penner’s Section 24 order, none of these expensive add-ons would be subject to elector approval.
So that $2-$3 billion range in long-term cost arises from the difference between a secondary treatment project cost of $1 billion and a tertiary treatment project cost of up to $1.5 billion. Since maximum federal and provincial funding has been capped at $482.5 million (down $16 million from the original promise), the additional cost for treatment that goes beyond regulatory requirements would have a profound impact on the level of borrowing the CRD would need.
With no plausible environmental emergency as justification, what is the legal basis on which the Province would allow the CRD to proceed with such heavy borrowing without elector consent? BC Ministry of Environment spokesperson David Karn quoted Section 24 of the Environmental Management Act as providing the legal basis for proceeding without elector consent. “The legislation provides local governments with the ability to waive elector approval if they have an approved Liquid Waste Management Plan,” Karn said. He confirmed that a “plan” could go beyond current regulatory requirements and include advanced treatment, biosolids treatment, energy recovery and integration of a community’s liquid and solid waste streams through integrated resource management.
What safeguard do electors have against elected representatives sending the minister a plan that goes beyond community requirement? Karn explained, “During the development and/or amendment of a Liquid Waste Management Plan, the public consultation process must provide opportunities for elector participation, and the minister must be satisfied that there has been adequate consultation during the planning process before approving the plan. Once the plan is approved, further consent by electors is not needed.”
The utter inadequacy of the safeguard of “adequate consultation,” though, was demonstrated during the attempt to locate a secondary treatment plant at Esquimalt’s McLoughlin Point. In June, 2010 the CRD board, at an in camera meeting, voted to switch the official plan from a four-plant configuration to a single plant at McLoughlin Point in Esquimalt. This was a major change—just look at what has happened since. But at that point the CRD had conducted no consultation with the broad Victoria public on this one-plant configuration and, unbelievably, none about either configuration in the community expected to host the plant, Esquimalt. The CRD had obviously not consulted with the public at all, let alone adequately, yet Penner approved the plan anyway. In 2013 the CRD underlined the uselessness of “adequate consultation” as a safeguard by secretly purchasing property on Viewfield Road close to Esquimalt and Victoria West neighbourhoods. It then attempted to justify this as a good location for a massive sewage sludge biodigester, infrastructure that is known to be subject to explosion.
The Province is evidently unconcerned about stripping local electors of their legally-enshrined right to reject such arbitrary, unjustified and dangerous actions by elected officials. Are there other overriding issues beyond the “contaminated site” rationale that clearly justify such a stripping away of community control over spending for sewage treatment?
Do health safety issues require removal of elector consent? It was hot and dry on the south coast of British Columbia in August 2014, the kind of weather that drives thousands to beaches in Vancouver and Victoria to escape the heat. But even as the temperatures peaked and the waters of English Bay and West Vancouver’s coves warmed enough to encourage people to wade or swim, Vancouver public health officials were busily posting warning signs at many saltwater beaches around Vancouver’s shoreline. Starting in late July and running into early September that year, measurement of fecal coliforms and E coli in the water showed levels had spiked far above those considered safe for contact with human skin. At Sunset Beach on August 7, 2014, the level of bacteria in the water was nearly seven times the maximum considered safe for human contact. On August 29, the level of fecal coliform and E coli in the central part of False Creek was 11 times higher than safe. Beaches along the shoreline of West Vancouver, from Ambleside Beach near the Lions Gate Bridge out to Eagle Harbour near Horseshoe Bay were all found to be two to four times higher than safe.
At the same time, in the surface waters above the Clover Point sewage outfall in Victoria, the data recorded by all 14 floating water-quality monitoring stations showed that levels of fecal coliform and Enterococci stayed well below the levels required by the Province for shellfish harvesting—a considerably higher standard than that used for safe contact with human skin. The Capital Regional District’s records, published in its annual report on the Clover Point and Macaulay Point outfalls for 2014, show the surface waters above the Macaulay outfall that summer were even cleaner.
Why were Vancouver swimmers at such high risk of contracting disease from water-borne bacteria in August 2014, yet, at the same time, the surface waters off Victoria, immediately adjacent to its two sewage outfalls, were clean enough, according to the Province’s water quality guidelines, that seafood harvested from those waters could be safely eaten?
The source of the bacteria infesting the waters and beaches of Vancouver that summer was undoubtedly human sewage, but no single source was identified by health authorities in Vancouver. The Lions Gate Wastewater Treatment Plant, located beneath the Lions Gate Bridge, discharges 90 million litres a day of primary-level treated effluent at First Narrows. That’s the same volume as Victoria’s two outfalls, combined, discharge. Hydrographic modelling has shown that an oil spill at First Narrows would slosh back and forth through the Narrows many times before most of it washed up on Vancouver area beaches—the same beaches that were posted by health authorities during the bacteria breakout. Was the Lions Gate plant the culprit?
The source could also have been one of the 11 combined sewer overflows (CSOs) that discharge into Burrard Inlet. During periods of heavy rain, sewage can flow from sewers into storm drains and then to short stormwater outfalls that discharge close to the shoreline. CSOs act as a relief valve to prevent sewage from backing up into homes or overflowing across land during peak rain events. This situation exists throughout North America and is not resolved by building sewage treatment plants. That’s because the flow of sewage into storm drains in a CSO event occurs upstream of sewage treatment plants.
Public health authorities for Metro Vancouver carefully avoided—at least publicly—singling out any possible source. If such an event had happened in Victoria, the indignant furor from Washington State would have prompted, at the very least, the threat of a tourism boycott from Seattle and yet another Victoria-uses-international-waters-as-a-toilet editorial from the Post Intelligencer’s Joel Connelly.
But the long-term experience with Victoria’s two deep-water marine outfalls has shown they reliably provide a high level of public health safety. Six past and current public health officers—Dr Richard Stanwick, Dr John Millar, Dr Shaun Peck, Dr Brian Emerson, Dr Brian Allen and Dr Kelly Barnard—have all testified: “There is no measurable public health risk from Victoria’s current method of offshore liquid waste disposal.”
There is, however, a health risk posed by Victoria’s numerous CSOs. A very heavy rain in a summer month—an unusual occurrence in Victoria—could cause CSOs that contaminate Victoria’s shoreline at a time when people are also likely to want to be in contact with the water. This source of bacterial contamination is common in fall and winter months when there’s more rain. But the CRD’s proposed plan for secondary treatment at McLoughlin Point would have had almost no impact on this risk. That plan included construction of an attenuation tank in Gordon Head. That tank would have eliminated the necessity for having an unscreened CSO outfall on Saanich’s Finnerty Cove, and would have reduced the occurrence of CSOs at some Oak Bay and Victoria stormwater outfalls. But the CSO performance of most of the system’s stormwater outfalls would not have been improved.
The Province is responsible for enforcing water quality guidelines with respect to public health safety, and its reliance on the issue of chemical contamination at Victoria’s outfalls is a matter of public record. Simply put, the deep-water outfalls don’t pose a public health safety issue that could justify the removal of elector assent for borrowing for sewage treatment.
Do federal regulations override the right of elector consent? New federal regulations developed by Environment Canada and enforced by the federal Department of Fisheries and Oceans rated Victoria’s marine-based treatment system as being at “high risk” to endanger the health of fish and humans who eat those fish. Under the regulations, Victoria is required to treat its sewage effluent to a secondary standard by December 2020. Those regulations don’t include any provision to override the right of Victorians to approve or disapprove any long-term borrowing the CRD would need to do to meet the requirements of the regulations. Do they provide moral support for the Province’s removal of that right? Is there actual evidence of fish being killed or made unsafe for human consumption by the effluent? If there was, this would provide support for the Province’s removal of the requirement of elector consent.
Before I delve into that, let’s consider how the new federal regulations measured risk and why Victoria scored a “high risk” classification. The new regulations use a point system for assessing risk based on “effluent quality” and the characteristics of the receiving waters.
In terms of effluent quality, four characteristics are assessed by the regulation. Victoria passed on two of those—it was well under benchmarks for the maximum amount of chlorine and ammonia allowed in the undiluted discharge—but failed in terms of the amount of total suspended solids and carbonaceous biochemical oxygen demand. It’s important to understand that, other than those four characteristics of effluent quality, the federal regulations make no judgment about the many substances in Victoria’s sewage—like dissolved metals or PAHs—that could be deleterious to the health of fish.
Victoria received the best mark possible in terms of the physical geography of the receiving waters, even though the federal regulations give no consideration to such essential factors as water temperature, salinity, rate of mixing, the amount of naturally occurring dissolved oxygen or the speed of currents. These are all characteristics that local marine scientists have identified as providing Victoria with its unique potential for using natural processes to treat its sewage. In spite of all these highly favourable factors, the regulation’s emphasis on measurements of total suspended solids and oxygen demand inside the outfalls pushed Victoria into a high risk classification. Paradoxically, the more successful Victorians are at water conservation, the more dangerous their sewage is judged to be for fish—at least by these regulations.
Local marine scientists have argued that suspended solids and oxygen demand are not an issue in the Strait of Juan de Fuca, but Environment Canada has refused to listen. Remarkably, DFO scientists published a peer-reviewed scientific study in 2015 that concluded secondary treatment would have “negligible effect” on environmental conditions in the Strait of Juan de Fuca. As mentioned above, DFO is the federal department charged with enforcing the new effluent regulations.
In communities around Puget Sound, a body of water that has much less favourable physical conditions than the Strait of Juan de Fuca for breaking down solids and mitigating oxygen demand, permits have been issued for municipal sewage and industrial discharges that delivers six times as much solids and oxygen demand as Victoria’s outfalls. Why isn’t that a problem in Puget Sound?
The federal regulations, then, are demonstrably inadequate at assessing “risk.” So let’s go back to the question of whether Victoria’s effluent is killing fish or making them unsafe for human consumption, thus justifying the removal of the requirement of elector consent.
There have been no reported fish kills in marine waters off Victoria, but laboratory testing of the rate of mortality for rainbow trout immersed in effluent at 100 percent concentration for 96 hours, as required by the regulations, has shown Victoria’s effluent before discharge to be “acutely toxic.” Proponents of artificial sewage treatment have made much of this result, but the usefulness of this test is dubious.
The federal test uses a methodology that has been rejected by the US Environmental Protection Agency. The method amounts to testing the lethality of car engine exhaust for canaries by placing a canary in a sealable container filled with 100 percent car exhaust, closing off the container for 96 hours, and then checking to see how well the bird survived. Don’t try this at home.
Is there evidence that fish are being contaminated by the discharge from the outfalls, making them unfit for human consumption? Local residents continue to troll and cast for fish in the area between the outfalls at, for example, Ogden Point Breakwater. But the question of whether those fish are being made unsafe for human consumption by the outfalls’ discharge is made moot by the fact that there are so many sources of contamination in the area, most of which are the federal government’s responsibility. I’ll come back to this point later on, but let’s consider, for a moment, the interaction between science and politics around the question of trace contaminants in our local waters.
While local scientists have made the case for several years that the federal regulations fail to assess any real risk to the local marine environment, the federal government’s only public response—a comment piece in a local paper written by North Vancouver Liberal MP Jonathan Wilkinson last May—presumed the CRD would build two tertiary-level treatment plants, going well beyond the federal requirement of secondary treatment. As mentioned above, the new federal regulations confine themselves to how much ammonia and chlorine are in the discharge and have nothing to say about such contaminants as heavy metals, persistent organic pollutants, or microplastics. So Wilkinson’s pitch for tertiary treatment was as much a condemnation of the inadequacy of the federal regulations as anything else. Moreover, by the time Wilkinson’s letter had been published, the CRD had already stumbled over the question of whether one of those tertiary plants could even be sited at Clover Point.
While Wilkinson made it clear the Trudeau government would favour CRD residents spending more of their own money for a higher level of treatment, he wasn’t offering any more federal money to support that. The entire burden of a higher level of treatment would fall on local ratepayers, who would have no recourse to approve or disapprove the required borrowing. Yet in Wilkinson’s own riding of North Vancouver, federal funding for a new secondary treatment plant to replace the existing Lions Gate primary plant was announced in the recent federal budget. Why would secondary treatment be good enough for Wilkinson’s constituents but not good enough for Victoria? If secondary treatment is good enough for Vancouver, why shouldn’t Victorians be given the right to decide by referendum whether it’s good enough for them? It is, after all, their money.
Wilkinson and BC Environment Minister Mary Polak don’t have a good answer to that question. Moreover, even a cursory examination of physical circumstances in Victoria and certain facts about these two levels of treatment would lead a reasonable person to question why the community shouldn’t be given the right to vote about secondary treatment, too.
In the long community discussion in Victoria about what level of treatment should be built, those advocating the highest level of treatment have focussed on contaminants whose long-term risk is unknown—and in many cases unknowable—simply because those substances are in the Strait of Juan de Fuca at such low concentrations that their presence in the water column can’t even be detected. Some of those substances—like PCBs and microplastics—have been banned, or are in the process of being banned, by the Government of Canada. But there are more tangible reasons for concern about secondary treatment than its inability to remove all contaminants. For example, consider the concern about copper entering marine waters through wastewater.
First, what’s wrong with a little more copper in the water? Washington’s Department of Ecology notes, “Copper is a special concern. While people may not be harmed by small amounts of copper, even low levels of the chemical are a significant threat to salmon and other fish in Puget Sound. Copper interferes with salmon’s sense of smell, which reduces their ability to avoid predators, find their way back to their birthplace to spawn, and find mates.” A common assumption is that sewage treatment gets rid of—or greatly reduces—such problematic contaminants as copper. The actual case is more complicated.
Data published by Metro Vancouver for the Annacis Island and Lulu Island secondary treatment plants shows that they produce a higher concentration of dissolved copper in the effluent coming out of the plants than was in the sewage that went into the plants. Got that? The total amount of copper may be reduced, but the amount of dissolved copper actually increases. This effect is common with sewage treatment plants around the globe. But why does this matter?
Here’s what the US Environmental Protection Agency says about the dissolved state of metals: “The primary mechanism for toxicity to organisms that live in the water column is by adsorption to or uptake across the gills; physiological process requires metal to be in dissolved form. This is not to say that particulate metal is nontoxic, only that particulate metal appears to exhibit substantially less toxicity than does dissolved metal.”
In other words, the federal government’s requirement for secondary treatment—put in place to protect fish—could increase the immediate hazard to fish posed by copper compared with the marine-based treatment system now in place.
The data for the Annacis and Lulu plants show other dissolved metals of concern, including cadmium, increasing in concentration from influent to effluent. Both plants are discharging copper and cadmium in concentrations above the provincial water quality guidelines.
As well, research done by scientist James Meador in Washington suggests other ways in which secondary treatment’s purported benefit to fish is illusory. Meador has shown that juvenile Chinook salmon have a 45 percent higher rate of mortality if their natal estuary is contaminated. He has also connected chemical compounds (Amitriptyline, Amlodipine, Amphetamine, Azithromycin, Benztropine, Bisphenol A, Caffeine, DEET, Diazepam, Diltiazem, Diltiazem desmethyl… et cetera) found in the tissue of juvenile salmon in estuaries downstream from secondary sewage treatment plants, to the effluent released from those plants. Secondary treatment plants, Meador's research suggests, are doubling early mortality of chinook salmon, a threatened species in Puget Sound. Secondary treatment plants are obviously no panacea for what ails wild salmon.
On both the issue of dissolved metals and trace contaminants, then, the benefits of secondary treatment to fish aren’t as clear as Environment Canada’s new regulations would have us believe.
In Victoria’s case this may sound like an obvious argument for tertiary treatment, but there are scientific doubts about whether a higher level of treatment would be effective in reducing the trace contaminants Meador found were getting through secondary plants. UBC engineering professor Dr Don Mavinic, considered one of BC’s top experts on sewage treatment, told Focus, “The fact is that there really isn’t any effective technology out there in the marketplace yet to deal with these other contaminants. It’s coming, but it isn’t there. This is a very young science still. There’s a huge amount of research going on globally right now on this subject, including here at UBC, but the jury is still out.”
So while there may be a strong current of thought in Victoria that those contaminants should be removed, there’s no scientific or engineering consensus that it can actually be done. Why, then, shouldn’t Victorians have the right to listen to the evidence and decide for themselves whether or not they want to pay for such uncertain benefits?
Meanwhile, there is a huge pool of highly toxic chemicals contaminating Victoria’s near-shore waters that could be cleaned up using technology that’s already been proven: excavators and dump trucks. And, ironically, this is a situation for which the federal government is solely responsible.
Victoria’s 376 Federal Contaminated Sites In Wilkinson’s call-out to Victoria to put the question of sewage treatment behind them, he quoted Ken Ashley, an expert on the effects of wastewater on receiving environments: “Although the receiving water dilutes Victoria’s sewage to low concentrations, the marine food web will re-concentrate certain pollutants via food web biomagnification to the point where southern resident orcas are at risk, and classified as toxic waste when dead ones wash up on our beaches.”
No reasonable person would question that some contaminants bioaccumulate and biomagnify. But the question is, which sources of those contaminants is most important to address first? Local marine scientists have placed a higher priority on clean-up of near-shore contamination from stormwater runoff and combined sewer overflows than the wastewater going through the outfalls. Yet these two problems in Victoria will remain unimproved by either secondary or tertiary treatment. Near-shore contamination in Victoria is, in fact, an exceptional problem. That’s largely because Victoria has been the home of Canada’s Pacific Coast naval fleet in Esquimalt Harbour for well over a century. Over that time, military-related activity has created a legacy of highly-toxic chemical contamination of both marine sediments, soil and groundwater, from Colwood to Victoria Harbour.
Progress on cleaning up the 376 contaminated sites in the Victoria area that are listed on the Federal Contaminated Sites Registry is very slow. Not all the sites are military-related, of course. One non-military case—Site 17348008 on Rock Bay—is in the final stages of remediation of 207,404 cubic meters of contaminated material that contained metals, metalloids and organometallic compounds.The site has been contaminating groundwater for many decades, and that groundwater has been free to leach into Middle Harbour and from there to bioaccumulate and biomagnify in the marine food web.
But Rock Bay is just one of dozens of large, highly-contaminated sites around Victoria Harbour, Esquimalt Harbour, and numerous other bays and coves, that are—or are suspected of—leaching highly toxic substances into groundwater and near-shore waters. There are some surprises on this list. Both Discovery Island and Trial Island are home to contaminated sites. The federal registry indicates there are 2899 cubic metres of soil on Discovery Island contaminated with metals, metalloids, organometallic compounds, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons and petroleum hydrocarbons. On the southernmost of the Trial Islands, Site 17330001 contains 3060 cubic metres of soil contaminated with metals, metalloids, organometallic compounds and petroleum hydrocarbons. Both of these are likely contaminating near-shore waters.
But these are small problems compared with some of the many military-related contaminated sites, especially in Esquimalt Harbour. Some of those are large and contain all the scarey stuff: Site 17410007, for instance, better known as Esquimalt Graving Dock, has 185,930 cubic meters of sediment that contains everything mentioned in the sites above, but also PCBs, dioxins, furans and pesticides. The federal government has listed many of these as “high priority for action,” but has announced no plan to actually do anything beyond further study. Many other sites are in the preliminary investigation stage, so there’s no comprehensive understanding of the extent of the problem, how long it would take to remediate all these sites, or how much that would cost. The Rock Bay site took 11 years and $138 million to clean up. It could be a century or more before remediation of all the military-related sites is substantially complete. Meanwhile, contamination of groundwater and near-shore marine waters will continue.
Wilkinson wants Victorians to put behind them the issue of spending $2-$3 billion of local money on tertiary treatment that might or might not remove trace contaminants from the water even while the federal government drags its own feet on dealing with its long, long list of highly-contaminated sites. Does this make sense? We don’t know the answer to that question because Penner’s order was motivated by a promise to Washington, not contamination. That made it unlikely that public consideration of the broader context of chemical contamination—and how to most effectively reduce it—would ever take place.
Nothing computes Penner’s politically-motivated haste to condemn both outfalls as contaminated sites also obscured an important fact about Victoria’s marine-based treatment system that has been observed by scientists: physical conditions at Clover Point are significantly better at reducing the risk of contamination of the seafloor than at Macaulay Point. The waters off Clover Point have stronger currents to disperse discharged solids and there is a rocky bottom. The bottom near the Macaulay outfall contains much more sediment, which acts like a sponge for such contaminants as polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons.
Since contamination of seafloor sediments was the only physical rationale given by Penner for ordering Victoria to build land-based treatment facilities, one would have expected that the best location for an outfall would have been a primary concern of engineers charged with planning a new system.
Instead, the location of a central plant at McLoughlin Point was chosen simply because land was available there. That plant’s single outfall would have discharged a volume equivalent to the combined flows of the Clover Point and Macaulay Point outfalls. Since secondary treatment removes only some of the contaminants, an outfall with twice the discharge would still have meant a lot of potential contamination.
In fact, the site where engineers planned to put the diffuser of a new McLoughlin outfall is already contaminated by historical dumping of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, and likely other contaminants. According to the MacDonald Report, the location could already be designated a contaminated site under BC’s Contaminated Sites Regulation. It’s not hard to imagine what mischief some future politicians could make of that situation:Victoria’s ancient treatment plant at McLoughlin Point is contaminating the seabed! We must find a new site for a new plant!
Unlikely? See Campbell, Gregoire, Penner et al, 2006.
When a very significant, long-term allocation of community resources is going to be made, it’s obviously unwise to do that for reasons that aren’t connected to some identified and agreed-upon need in the community. In this case, the Liberals’ promised allocation of Victoria’s resources was made because Vancouver politicians desired a successful Olympics. As a consequence, most of the planning that has been done in Victoria—including where a super outfall would be located—makes no sense. Nothing computes.
To the ballot box we must go The Liberals removed the legislated requirement of elector consent for borrowing for sewage treatment for a good reason. Victorians had already shown they understood the high value of the natural treatment system they have been blessed with, and were unlikely to give that advantage up at the ballot box.
In 1992, Victorians were given the opportunity to choose through a plebiscite whether they wanted to use preliminary treatment, primary treatment, or secondary treatment to regulate the impact of their sewage on the environment. The “preliminary treatment” option came with the proviso that the CRD would develop a source control program to reduce contaminants of concern. That source control program would cost money. At the ballot box, 57 percent chose source control and preliminary treatment. The rest of the vote was evenly split between the other two options. Afterwards, the CRD developed what has become one of the most advanced source-control programs regulating municipal wastewater in North America.
The actual physical impact on the environment of that choice is now evident in the numerous studies conducted by scientists from the CRD, DFO and private companies over the 24 years since. An extensive 2011 study by Golder and Associates on what contaminants were in the wastewater being discharged by the outfalls—a companion to the previously-mentioned Golder study on sediments that examined data gathered between 1991 and 2011—found “evidence of stable or decreasing concentrations and loadings of substances in the wastewater stream.” Golder’s scientists noted, “Source control initiatives appear to have yielded significant benefits in terms of concentrations and loadings of priority contaminants.”
Interestingly, this latter study was not shown to elected officials at the CRD until April 2013, and I can find no evidence that its findings were ever publicized by the CRD or Victoria media. Some of you will recall that in late 2012, Oak Bay Mayor Nils Jensen called for “a full environmental study that will assess the comparative environmental impact of the current process and proposed process for disposing of liquid waste before the CRD plans are finalized.” At the time that Jensen and other elected officials were calling for that study, the CRD was sitting on the Golder research that had found source control was working. Jensen’s bid for that study was unsuccessful.
The obvious takeaway from Golder’s examination is that an expanded source control program would provide increased reductions of contaminants. This course of action would save Victorians billions of dollars over the next 30 years, money that could be spent in areas where a need has actually been proven. But the Province clearly doesn’t want that to happen. They recently removed the last vestige of local control over the issue by ousting elected CRD officials from the process.
After a year-long search by the CRD for an alternative to McLoughlin Point, the elected directors suddenly found themselves trapped between two unpopular ideas: McLoughlin and Rock Bay. They tried to find their way out of that fix by proposing two plants located immediately upstream of each of the existing outfalls. That move, in turn, prompted a “Save Clover Point” neighbourhood revolt and the project was on the edge of either complete collapse or a return to McLoughlin Point. The Province quickly moved in and threatened the elected officials with the loss of the aforementioned $482.5 million in provincial and federal funding unless critical decisions about the project were handed over to an appointed board. The elected directors, faced with being held responsible for losing $482.5 million and knowing that agreement amongst them was unlikely, capitulated. The appointed board will now decide what form of treatment to use and where a plant—or plants—will be located.
The chair of that board, lawyer Jane Bird, is reputed to be a close personal friend of Gordon Campbell. During the time Campbell has been Canadian High Commissioner to the UK in London, Bird received an appointment with Canada’s Department of Foreign Affairs, International Trade and Development as an “Attaché.” An Attaché is a person on the staff of an ambassador with a specific area of responsibility. Under Campbell, Bird served as “Project Manager” for the $18 million redecoration of Canada House in London. Incidently, the other main decision-maker involved on that project, besides Campbell, was Noel Best, who is a principal of Stantec’s Vancouver office.
Now Bird is in control of Victoria’s sewage treatment project, a project Campbell ordered and one in which Stantec’s costly involvement has been controversial. The connections between Bird, Stantec and Campbell will do little to assuage the concern in Victoria that taxpayers here are being forced to underwrite debts incurred by Campbell during Vancouver’s Olympic party.
A lot of people think the new board will choose secondary treatment at McLoughlin Point. No matter. At some point, whatever they propose has to come back to the CRD’s elected directors for their approval. With the information that has now emerged about the dubious origins of Penner’s 2006 order, it’s hard to see how those directors would believe they have the moral authority to approve a project without first seeking electors’ consent in a referendum.
David Broadland is the publisher of Focus. He believes contamination of democracy by toxic political promises that are unrelated to a community’s real needs does require primary treatment—at the ballot box.
BC’s Seniors Advocate Isobel Mackenzie makes the case for more government intervention on behalf of seniors.
I MEET WITH BC SENIORS ADVOCATE ISOBEL MACKENZIE weighed down by personal experience of aging parents and relations, and complaints about “the system” from friends and fed-up professionals in the health and homecare fields. Much of my baggage points to at least some systemic dysfunction and an apparent disconnect between what is claimed about the government’s respect for seniors and what’s happening on the ground.
After reading through most of the eight reports produced by Mackenzie’s office over the past two years, I discover the data largely dovetails with my experiences. It certainly makes clear that we are not doing enough for a significant number of seniors, particularly those with lower incomes or who reside in rural and northern areas of the province.
Mackenzie was appointed BC’s Seniors Advocate—the first such in Canada—in 2014 after an 18-year career with Victoria-based Beacon Community Services. As Beacon’s executive director, she led the implementation of a new model of dementia care that has become a national best practice.
In her office on the main floor of the Blanshard Street Ministry of Health building, Mackenzie is keen to talk about anything and everything related to seniors.
We get right into her recent response—in no uncertain terms—to a June 7 column by Globe & Mail writer Margaret Wente. In “Time to Soak the Seniors,” Wente suggested the federal government is throwing too much money at seniors. Mackenzie described the column as a “generationally divisive and stunningly inaccurate generalization of a group of people based on their age.” Contrary to the image painted by Wente of seniors who use their Old Age Security (OAS) “to pay the air-conditioning bill for the winter place in Florida,” Mackenzie points out that “fully half of single Canadian seniors are living on less than $26,000 a year.”
She tells me she does not disagree with Wente’s questioning of OAS payments made to those who do enjoy a high income: “People with $100,000 in income don’t need…OAS. I agree with that.” And in fact, she says, many BC seniors are doing just fine. “But offices like this don’t exist for the majority,” she comments.
And she certainly takes issue with Wente including seniors’ health care costs in her calculations of government largesse towards them: “Before we go blaming seniors for the fact they need a new hip or bypass surgery, we should first thank them for the billions, yes billions of dollars they save the health care system by taking care of each other.”
BC seniors, she tells me, “have the lowest median income of any age cohort. Median is a much more meaningful number than average, because average is skewed if there are some high income earners, and conversely if there are some low income earners. So we know that half of the seniors in this province live on less than $26,000 a year. We know that they disproportionately live alone, relative to the rest of the population, so it’s one income for the household.”
Mackenzie’s research shows that it’s income that largely influences other determinants of health. A low income can play out in many ways, from not being able to afford hearing aids, which in turn cuts one off from others, which leads to depression, to forcing a senior out of a beloved home when maintenance costs mount.
BC has a host of programs aimed at helping low income seniors—programs like the Shelter Aid for Elderly Renters (SAFER), Medical Service Plan Premium Assistance, Fair Pharmacare, Property Tax Deferment Program, and Home Adaptations for Independence. Ironically, Mackenzie’s research indicates, it is exactly the people most in need who are least aware of them.
Hurdles with home support The Seniors Advocate’s 2015 Seniors’ Housing in BC report provided a snapshot of the places seniors call home: A rather surprising 93 percent of seniors live independently. Twenty-six percent live alone. Twenty percent rent. Eighty percent are homeowners, four-fifths of them mortgage-free. Only three percent live in assisted living facilities and four percent in “residential” or long-term care (LTC). Among those over 85, 15 percent live in LTC.
BC seniors who are living independently constitute by far the largest group of seniors. Some need and receive subsidized support services to be able to remain independent. They’re charged a reduced rate based on income. This might mean a care worker dropping by daily for an hour or two to help a senior get up and dressed, do regular meal preparation, medication checks, weekly showers and other personal care. Housework is generally not provided.
Despite the rising population, such assistance, Mackenzie tells me, is decreasing. The number of hours of home support went down in three out of five health authorities (Island Health was one of them), while the number of clients increased in four out of five.
Yet she acknowledges that all the research shows that helping people stay in their own homes not only keeps them happy, but helps save taxpayer dollars. And, she says, “I believe the government is genuine when it says ‘We want to keep people in their homes.’”
So why the apparent disconnect? Why are home care hours being cut back or limited when a bit more might, in the end, save the government money?
The delivery of services, she notes, is driven by funding decisions and human resources. “I think what happens is there are so many layers and people involved, and different perspectives, and different values…” Case managers are people, after all, and each applies their own values at least to some degree; the evaluation process for care, making a judgement about what is safe, is not an exact science, she says.
And clients are living longer, with complex needs and evolving expectations. To illustrate, Mackenzie says, “I looked at the assessments of our home support clients and found 53 percent meet the clinical complexity of people in residential care. When I started 20 years ago, that number was about 10 percent.” Additionally, she points out, we’ve “fragmented the system.” Even something as simple as approving the installation of a raised toilet seat for a client can now mean home visits by two professionals with attendant communications—and delays.
In keeping with Mackenzie’s penchant for fact-based decision-making, a survey was recently completed by her office of the 22,000 people receiving subsidized home support 9000 surveys came back. Results will be reported on later this summer, but she gives me some hints about what it shows.
“I think about 79 percent say that the program is usually or always meeting their needs. When it’s not meeting their needs, the number one thing that people want is housekeeping, followed by meal preparation.”
She was surprised that while the survey results point to some frustration with the multiple workers sent out to provide care, it wasn’t “to the degree we expected to find.”
“The other thing it shows is about medications. Some of the good news is most people knew the medications they were taking and why they were taking them, but they didn’t know the side effects. And so, we have to remember that part of the job is to say, ‘Okay, Leslie, this is your statin pill, this is your blood pressure pill. This is why you’re taking them.’ The other half is to say, ‘Now, some potential side effects from these drugs could include…mental confusion, or dry mouth, or lethargy…” This is particularly important with seniors as many drug side effects could be mistaken as just another challenge of aging.
Mackenzie has now visited communities all over the province and thinks those of us in Victoria and the lower mainland have it pretty good on the home support front—at least compared to rural areas where just finding people to do the work is a big problem. It was, she tells me “an unbelievably eye-opening experience when I started to go to other parts of the province.”
Home support programs are supposedly province-wide, but she’s found stark differences across BC. She tells me one part of the province has cut meal preparation from care plans whereas others include it. Even between South Island and North Island there are “different approval processes for maximum hours.” She explains, while there’s no formal maximum hours, the general rule of thumb was always 120 hours a month, or 4 four hours a day, of subsidized care for lower income seniors.
But some health authorities aren’t doing that, she says. “In some health authorities, the discharge nurse will come in and say, ‘Well, you need four hours of home support a day. We can provide two. How are you going to provide the other two?’”
Which leads to the matter of affordability.
Tapping into home equity As mentioned, 80 percent of BC seniors are homeowners. For low income senior homeowners, Mackenzie is advocating the BC government come up with a plan—two plans actually—that would allow them to access the equity in their homes.
Together they would give such seniors needed funds to fix the furnace or roof, and afford more care services. The Office of the Seniors Advocate has already calculated that the average monthly cost of homeowning, without a mortgage, is $1000. Some seniors, especially when single or widowed, are being forced to move simply for lack of funds—while their home could easily be worth $500,000 or a million, at least in the hot markets of Victoria and Vancouver.
To force someone to sell such a home for want of the cash to pay for a new furnace or to keep up with utility and insurance payments seems absurd. Where could they go in such low vacancy times and pay less than their mortgage-free home? Some could well be forced into subsidized assisted living or residential care facilities.
To address such realities, Mackenzie has asked the government to establish a “Homeowner Expense Deferral Account” which would allow seniors to tap into the equity in their homes to pay for housing costs such as hydro, home insurance and major repairs. The government is thinking about it.
Meanwhile, she’s thinking about a broader application of the concept of tapping into home equity. “The question is, in my mind, does government have an interest in allowing seniors to access as much equity as possible to support their independence? I think they do. Any of that equity that they’re paying to commercial interest charges [with reverse mortgages], is money they can’t spend on themselves. And so, if we had a provincial program, under similar financial rules as property tax deferral, it doesn’t make the Province money, but it doesn’t cost the Province money, either.”
Regarding the broader program, she notes, “By the time you need full-time live-in care, you’re not talking 20 years of life, right? You’re not talking about 20 years of financing. You might be talking about 5, maybe 10.”
This type of program, she feels, would allow a more sustainable way for seniors to access their equity than do commercial reverse mortgages.
Both the Expense Deferral and this broader program could be offered at no cost or risk to taxpayers. And given the cost of subsidized care—for example, LTC costs are $7000/month, with clients charged a maximum of only $3157—the plans should ultimately save the government money.
Mackenzie believes the government is receptive, but cautious. “The government’s concern is, number one, they want to make sure that there’s enough equity left in the house to pay off what’s owed when the house is sold. Fair enough. Certainly you shouldn’t allow it at 55, like we have started to allow property tax deferral, but you may want to say these are the triggers for accessing it.” She says the government tends to like simplicity and prefers to not interfere with the market. “So it’s my job to remind government that [it could put] an income test on accessing this money. These are folks you’re going to be taking care of one way or another, and it’s convenient, it’s serendipitous that what people want actually happens to be what will cost the government less.”
Mackenzie is also concerned about appropriate housing in rural areas. Think of a widow, she suggests, who wants to move from a farm into the nearby town—or just wants to downsize to a more manageable home. “There are no condos. There are no patio homes. There’s no assisted living,” she says. “Because the private sector isn’t going in there and building these kinds of things because there aren’t enough people. So, for those folks, the government’s going to have to look at its role in the supply of suitable independent housing.”
The “FAB” system not so fab Once an elder is deemed, through a formal assessment process, to have needs that make it impossible for that person to be safely cared for in the community or assisted living, his or her name goes on a waitlist for one of BC’s 300 publicly subsidized LTC facilities. They are told to choose a facility—referred to as “Preferred Bed” (PB)—but are also informed they must take the “First Appropriate Bed” (FAB) in their chosen geographical area. They are warned to be ready to move within 48 hours of approval for a bed.
Time spent on the waitlist seems to vary wildly among regions, and Mackenzie’s numbers appear rosier than the present day realities that have come to my attention. Those statistics, for 2013-14, show Island Health seniors spent an average of 41 days on the waitlist before getting a bed. Caseworkers have told me it’s now averaging six months in Victoria.
Mackenzie believes that 5 to 15 percent of BC seniors living in residential care may be incorrectly housed—they are more suited for assisted living or being back in the community with supports. She has called for a reassessment of certain residents, allowing them—if desired—to move elsewhere. This could free up needed LTC beds as assisted living facilities have a 10 percent vacancy rate.
This May, a 600-page downloadable Residential Care Facilities Quick Facts Directory was published on the Seniors Advocate website. It provides standardized, easy to read, comparative information on each long-term care facility in BC—definitely not a marketing brochure, says Mackenzie. For each facility it indicates the number of beds, shared rooms, percentage of the residents on antidepressants and antipsychotics, the number of reported “incidents” (falls, aggression, etc), when it was last inspected, and what percentage of the residents get recreation and other therapies.
Given my own experience with elders on LTC waitlists, this knowledge is a mixed blessing. Stated preferences seem to count for nothing. Mackenzie’s own data is a little less grim. During 2013/14, clients got their “Preferred Bed” 23 to 45 percent of the time, depending on health authority. Even after they accepted the “First Appropriate Bed” (FAB) and applied for a transfer, only 4 to 22 percent of the time—depending on health authority—did they get to move to their desired facility.
Mackenzie says her office hears from many frustrated seniors and their families about this. “Some seniors in more rural and remote regions of the province can find their spouse placed hundreds of kilometres away under the FAB policy.” The FAB system was to be used in tandem with “a fair, equitable and transparent transfer process that would ensure seniors got to their preferred facility as soon as possible.” But that, says Mackenzie, is not happening.
She has recommended health authorities “be diligent” in filling available beds first from the preferred facility transfer list. She knows this is a bit more work for everyone, as it can mean multiple domino-like moves, but if it’s “implemented, monitored and enforced in all health authorities, then seniors and their family members will have greater certainty. They will know exactly how many people are ahead of them on the transfer list and there will be a general idea of how often a bed becomes available in a certain facility. The current situation gives no ability to predict because beds are getting filled first by people on the waiting list, not from the transfer list.”
Mackenzie has also asked the government to ensure that by 2025, 95 percent of all residential care beds in the province will be single room occupancy. Meanwhile she’d like to see those seniors who end up—through no choice of their own—sharing a room, get a rate adjustment.
Mackenzie and her team are currently gearing up to do a massive survey on long term care facilities from the user’s point of view. Her office’s biggest undertaking to date, trained multi-lingual volunteers will interview all 27,000 seniors in care and their most frequent visitor. The survey, says Mackenzie, “[will let us] see if and how the quality of experience is different depending on which care facility, which health authority, which area within the health authority. Are there differences? We’re going to find out.”
But again, I wonder how that knowledge will serve seniors if they cannot choose a facility with much certainty of ending up there. Finding themselves placed in a facility they purposely avoided choosing because of negative reviews might actually be quite worrisome and depressing.
Funding all over the map Some of BC’s 300 subsidized facilities—two-thirds in fact—are operated by non-profits or private companies on contract to the health authorities. The 27,000 residents in these facilities pay 80 percent of their income towards their care to a maximum of $3157. Asked why there are only 2000 BC elders in totally private beds, Mackenzie notes simply, “Because it costs them eight grand a month.”
The government calculates funding for operators of LTC facilities on the basis of 3.36 hours of care per resident daily for such tasks as toileting, feeding, medication management, and bathing. When compiling information for the Quick Facts Directory, says Mackenzie, “we asked every facility what their funded direct hours of care were, and we found out that 82 percent came up short of the recommended 3.36.”
Yet, she points out, there is no penalty. “Right now, if you run a care facility and you aren’t meeting standards, or you have licensing infractions, [inspectors] come on-site, and it’s embarrassing, and you [generally] fix it, right? But there’s no financial penalty if you don’t. The ultimate penalty is they’ll close you down…But [the government] doesn’t really want to do that because where are they going to put the people who are living there?” She believes there should be a financial incentive for compliance.
The funding, she says, is all over the map. “We’ve done the analysis seven ways to Sunday. We’ve looked at the resident assessment instrument…to see if there is a pattern of higher complexity with higher funding. But there’s nothing.”
Mackenzie says the ministry is looking at it. “I’ve said I believe the 3.36 is what everybody should be funded for, and then you do something called ‘case mix adjust,’ which is you look at the profile, you look at the assessments of the folks, and if there’s higher complexity than norm, you would staff more. If there was lower complexity, you might adjust the staffing downwards. But that’s not happening right now.”
When she hears health authorities making arguments claiming they will look at increasing their staff as funding allows, she says: “Whoa, wait a minute. We’re not talking about when we can afford to upgrade the car…We’re talking about the people in the care facility today who aren’t going to benefit from that tomorrow. They’re the ones who are not getting the [correct level of services].” She cites recreational therapy as an example, noting that BC’s residential care facilities provide less per person than Alberta’s do. Moreover, “We use more antipsychotics and antidepressants in BC for people who don’t need them than they do in Alberta.”
While admitting that, at this point, a causal link isn’t established, she does say, “A population that is more sedated is going to be less likely to engage in recreational therapy [which] does require resources, staffing. And so if you’re lower on the staffing, and you’re higher on the drug use, yes, they could be linked.”
47 percent on antidepressants The statistics show that the use of antipsychotics has come down from roughly 50 percent of all BC’s LTC residents several years ago to closer to 30 percent—still high considering that they are being used “off label” on a group of frail elders who can experience severe side effects.
“The good news is, it’s coming down,” says Mackenzie. “It’s coming down everywhere. People are becoming aware of this. The not-so-good news is BC is still one of the highest. Alberta, Manitoba, Ontario are all better than we are.”
Asked about the doctors’ role in prescribing these powerful drugs for so many elders, she says she has talked with them and, “depending on the doctor…many will acknowledge that there’s over-prescribing—but they don’t over-prescribe.” She also points out that “within the medical community, there is ageism. Again, I don’t like generalizations, so not all doctors. But a lack of either awareness or understanding of alternatives, a lowered expectation for seniors around life experience, maybe. I think families play a part in this as well: You know, ‘mum’s not happy, or mum’s behaviour is [problematic]. What can we do?’ It’s no different than you and I seeking antibiotics—just give me the pill I can take to feel better, right? We do this at any age. It doesn’t stop when we get older. When we get older, we sometimes have our family members [making requests as well].”
“The antipsychotics are about wanting to regulate their behaviour…On the behavioural front in care facilities, there’s a desire for compliance. It’s communal living, and maybe we need to be more tolerant of different behaviours. Not dangerous behaviours, but different behaviours.”
And on the antidepressant side, she says, “maybe we need to be more tolerant…and recognize that unhappiness and clinical depression are not the same thing.” Still, it’s disconcerting to learn that, on average, 47 percent of residential care clients are being prescribed antidepressant medications—especially when only 24 percent of them have been diagnosed as depressed.
Mackenzie’s staff is examining the data to figure out what medications people were on prior to entering a facility. She wonders if it isn’t a completely “normal” reaction for a person entering a care facility to feel unhappy, even upset. The desire to “fix” the situation, she feels, sometimes overrides accepting that an elder may simply need time to adjust.
Keeping government on the ball Given the rising tide of the elder demographic, the time seems ripe to adjust “the system” to be more efficient, effective, compassionate and fair at helping seniors navigate the last decade or two of their lives. Seniors already represent 17 percent of Canada’s population, and according to Statistics Canada, by 2031 they will be closer to 24 percent.
Being Seniors Advocate means Mackenzie is in a key place to help us change the system. But is the government listening?
Mackenzie points to at least two areas where the government has taken action: First, it has relaxed the rules that in the past would have forced a senior to move from his or her assisted living unit into a residential care home. For instance, they can now, up to a point, have more assistance with eating, dressing, personal hygiene, medications and rehab therapies without rocking the boat. Secondly, the government has increased the number of seniors who qualify for a subsidy for MSP payments.
But, as her numerous reports attest, there’s much more that can and should be done.
Armed with all the data she’s gleaned over the past two years, Mackenzie will keep at it. She recognizes the need for both patience and persistence when it comes to dealing with the government and existing institutions. “You’ve got to get their attention, you’ve got to keep their attention. I’ve learned that lesson. You may think you’ve got them, but, then there’s a shiny red ball over there and they’ve moved on. So you’ve got to go back and say, okay, we haven’t forgotten about this. We gave you some time. Where is this? And keep harping on about it.”
Leslie Campbell recommends that readers visit www.seniorsadvocatebc.ca for further information on the seniors situation in BC.
On the heels of the NEB’s approval of Kinder Morgan’s pipeline proposal, a raft of research points in the other direction.
THERE IS A STRANGE IRONY to the timing of the National Energy Board’s recommendation that the controversial $6.8-billion Kinder Morgan pipeline expansion should get a green light from the federal cabinet.
Almost simultaneously with the May release of the NEB report, which concluded that, subject to 157 conditions, the Trans-Mountain pipeline would be in the national interest, a flurry of reports and scientific studies appeared documenting the risks of continuing to extract and burn fossil fuels. These were followed by a number of court challenges to the NEB recommendation.
The studies gave momentum to the leave-it-in-the-ground movement and added to public discomfort with the prospect of Kinder Morgan tripling the amount of diluted bitumen flowing from the Alberta oil sands to Burnaby. The expansion would also mean 400 tankers a year—a sevenfold increase—carrying dilbit through the sensitive waters of the Strait of Georgia and Strait of Juan de Fuca.
Opponents are emphasizing the project’s climate change implications and questioning how the increase in oil sands output, as the pipeline opens up new Asian markets, can fit with Canada’s commitment at the Paris climate talks to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to 30 percent below 2005 levels by 2030.
“Expanding fossil fuel production flies in the face of what is needed to tackle climate change,” said David Suzuki in an email to supporters. “So why is the government still talking about building fossil fuel infrastructure?”
The NEB report looked only at direct emissions from pipeline construction and operation, and made nine recommendations. For the first time in its history, the board recommended offsets to ensure no net emissions, but it did not look at upstream or downstream emissions or at the overall effect on climate change.
The final pipeline decision will rest with the federal cabinet. Natural Resources Minister Jim Carr has appointed a three-person panel to hear from BC residents, with promises that at least upstream greenhouse gas emissions will be examined in detail. The panel will finish its’ report in November and Carr has promised a government decision no later than December 19, 2016.
In the meantime, scientific evidence of harm—both from the processes used to extract bitumen from the oil sands and from greenhouse gas emissions released later on—continues to mount.
A STUDY, led by Environment and Climate Change Canada scientists, published in the journal Nature in May, found the oil sands pose another big problem, beyond their contributions to greenhouse gas emissions: They are one of the largest sources of “secondary organic aerosol” pollution in North America. The pollution is now “comparable to downwind of megacities such as Mexico City and Paris, and is higher than that observed in Tokyo and New England.” The tiny airborne particles, which result in what we call smog, have been linked to major health problems like respiratory and cardiovascular diseases.
Other studies examined the impacts of climate change on Canada. As carbon dioxide continues to be released into the atmosphere, Canada’s future, according to different scientific papers, includes both increasing droughts and floods. David Schindler, ecology professor at the University of Alberta, in a paper published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, said the Prairies are likely to see droughts worse than the 1930s. Meanwhile, the Fraser Basin Council warned that climate change is increasing the risk of major floods in the Lower Mainland.
Tim Takaro, Simon Fraser University health sciences professor, finds it difficult to understand why the NEB did not adequately consider climate change.
“Climate change is huge. You can see the evidence happening in Fort McMurray. It affects our health and you can’t ignore that in a project of this scale,” he said. “It is unconscionable to me that we can be discussing this dramatic expansion of fossil fuel infrastructure without considering climate changes and the health impacts,” Takaro said in an interview.
Health problems could come from a spill of diluted bitumen, but the effects of air pollution, temperature increases, flooding and sea level rise must also be considered, said Takaro.
“The International Panel on Climate Change of the UN has very clearly said that, if we [are to] have any chance of getting hold of this tiger and controlling it, we have to stop building super-large fossil fuel infrastructure,” he said.
An examination of what will happen if we don’t take such action came in May from a team of climate scientists, led by University of Victoria PhD student Katarzyna Tokarska. Published in Nature Climate Change, their study warned that if the Earth’s remaining untapped fossil-fuel resources are burned, the average global temperature is likely to rise between 6.4 and 9.5 degrees Celsius by 2300, with Arctic temperatures warming an astounding 14.7 and 19.5 degrees Celsius by that year. These increases are a far cry from the 2.0 degrees of warming that is accepted as the upward limit to avoid the most serious effects of climate change. Such warming would end life as we know it on planet Earth.
Tokarska applied sophisticated climate models to the current estimate of known fossil fuel reserves, with their conservative associated five trillion tonnes of carbon emissions when burned, to project “considerably more profound climate changes than previously suggested.”
“What we are doing is showing it’s relevant to know what will happen if we don’t take any action to mitigate climate change—if we don’t ever implement the Paris agreement or other such agreements. It’s a worst case scenario if we don’t do anything now,” Tokarska said in an interview.
Climate scientist and MLA Andrew Weaver, a co-author of Tokarska’s paper, said in an interview that if Canada is serious about the Paris agreement, the government should not even consider the Kinder Morgan pipeline expansion.
“Signing that agreement says we shouldn’t be building pipelines and we shouldn’t be building new LNG facilities,” said Weaver, who is also leader of the BC Green Party.
“Canada investing in infrastructure to enhance its extraction of a resource, 80 percent of which, globally, has to be left in the ground if we are going to meet our targets, makes no sense,” Weaver added.
CONTINUED RELIANCE ON FOSSIL FUELS also does not make economic sense, said Weaver. He pointed to Saudi Arabia’s decision to move to an economy that does not rely on oil and Norway’s decision to eliminate fossil fuel vehicles.
“Canada is in a very precarious position. If we double down on the 20th century economy, which is dependent on resource extraction, we are going to be very poorly positioned when other jurisdictions transition away from fossil fuel,” he said.
The economic uncertainty is echoed by a federal government think-tank that, in a draft report obtained by the CBC in May, said the rapid transformation of the world’s energy landscape could jeopardize economies based on fossil fuels.
Policy Horizons Canada, which provides future-looking advice to federal bureaucrats, said in the report that electricity from wind and solar is becoming competitive with electricity generated by fossil fuels and nuclear power.
“The shift to an electricity-dominated global energy mix will be accelerated as decreasing costs combine with increasing government and private sector concerns over climate change, energy security and air pollution, particularly in developing countries where the need for additional energy capacity is greatest,” says the report.
David Hughes, former research director at the Geological Survey of Canada, agrees that the economic case for new pipelines is flawed. In another new study, he noted that the international price of oil is no longer significantly higher than North American prices.
“The idea that exporting more oil sands bitumen to Europe or Asia will boost returns to Alberta simply doesn’t hold water,” Hughes wrote in the study conducted for the Corporate Mapping Project, led by the University of Victoria, Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, and Alberta’s Parkland Institute.
“Oil sand bitumen will always sell at a discount due to its lower quality, regardless of whether it’s sold in North America or on international markets,” says the study.
Hughes also eviscerates claims by politicians that it is possible to meet climate commitments while significantly expanding oil and gas production and building new export pipelines.
“Short of an economic collapse, it is difficult to see how Canada can realistically meet its Paris commitments in the 14 years remaining without rethinking its plans for oil and gas development,” he wrote.
Hughes, who also factors in the five liquefied natural gas export terminals envisioned by the provincial government, found that with projected oil sands growth, emissions in other sectors would have to shrink by 55 percent to meet Paris Agreement commitments.
“If Canada is to have any hope of meeting its Paris commitment, the aggressive oil and gas growth ambitions of the Alberta and BC governments will have to be reconsidered and reduced,” he said.
Environment and Climate Change Canada, in a May review, estimated that, if the pipeline expansion is approved, upstream emissions—those associated with the production, processing and transportation of oil—could be between 20 and 26 megatonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent per year. The NEB previously estimated that the pipeline itself would generate about one million tonnes of greenhouse gases during construction and another 400,000 tonnes annually once in operation.
The government review, however, also noted that the upstream emissions might occur whether or not the Trans Mountain pipeline is built; if oil sands production does not happen in Canada, investments would be made in other jurisdictions and global oil consumption would be materially unchanged in the long-term.
That assumption is being challenged by critics such as Ecojustice lawyer Dyna Tuytel who wrote in her blog that it amounts to a failure to take responsibility for Canadian upstream emissions.
“This means that Environment Canada will not consider the emissions from additional tar sands production itself and, instead, will focus on the difference in emissions intensity of oil production in Canada compared to other hypothetical jurisdictions if Canada were not to produce it here,” she wrote.
ECOJUSTICE, REPRESENTING the Living Oceans Society and Raincoast Conservation Foundation, is among the groups now challenging the NEB report in the courts.
Lawyers for Ecojustice have filed for a judicial review of the report saying that the board failed to adequately consider the adverse effects of tankers on endangered southern resident killer whales and their habitat.
The Squamish Nation has filed for a judicial review, as well, claiming that the First Nation’s concerns were not adequately taken into consideration and that the NEB process was flawed. And in June the City of Vancouver filed for a judicial review saying the NEB report is “flawed and biased” and ignores scientific evidence about the consequences of a major spill and the effect on greenhouse gas emissions.
Meanwhile, the federal Liberal government has launched a lengthy review of the NEB process and other legislation governing the way major projects are assessed.
Many of the laws, such as the Fisheries Act, Environmental Assessment Act, and the Fisheries and Navigation Protection Act, were changed in 2012 by the former Conservative government in an effort to get industrial and resource projects fast-tracked and approved more quickly.
Expert panels will now review the legislation and issue a report in January. Some of the laws will also be studied by two parliamentary committees. However, the Liberal government has already said that projects already in the process—such as Kinder Morgan—will not be required to go back to square one and instead will face additional regulation through already-announced interim measures, including more consultation with First Nations and more emphasis on the effect projects will have on greenhouse gas emissions.
Despite the continuing controversy, Kinder Morgan is confident that it can meet NEB’s conditions, including controlling emissions. A communications spokesman said in an emailed statement that the company welcomes the NEB’s requirement for a GHG offset plan. Although pipelines account for only about one percent of Canada’s greenhouse gas emissions, the industry is ready to do its part, he said. “It is a sign of the times and an appropriate reflection by the NEB, taking into consideration an issue of great public interest and importance,” he said. “We understand climate change is an important global issue requiring action across many industries around the world.”
PROVINCIALLY, KINDER MORGAN’S pipeline faces hurdles into 2017 when it will likely become a provincial election issue.
Before that it will have to face a provincial environmental review following a BC Supreme Court ruling that the province cannot rely solely on the federal process and, so far, the provincial government is not ready to give a go-ahead.
“Our government position has always been clear and consistent. We will only support heavy oil pipelines in BC if our five conditions are met,” said Environment Minister Mary Polak. “We are not there yet.”
Polak noted that some conditions set by the NEB do address BC’s concerns, but there is work yet to do on issues such as marine spill response, First Nations and benefits for BC.
The provincial conditions include a world-class response to spills and for BC to receive its fair share of benefits, but do not mention climate change or emissions. That’s because pipeline greenhouse gas emissions are a federal responsibility, explained BC Ministry of Environment spokesman David Karn. “As the regulator of interprovincial pipelines, it is the federal government’s responsibility to ensure emissions are managed so that federal commitments are achieved,” he said.
The province will rely on information from the NEB environmental assessment, but provincial Environmental Assessment Office staff will meet with aboriginal groups to determine whether Kinder Morgan has adequately consulted First Nations, Karn said.
The provincial cabinet decision is likely to be made after the federal ruling in December and it is not clear what will happen if the two do not dovetail.
Leading towards May 2017’s provincial election, where do the parties stand on the pipeline?
George Heyman, NDP environment critic, says the NDP has consistently opposed the project, partially because of the NEB failure to consider climate change and lack of information on what part the pipeline plays in an overall climate plan.
“This not in British Columbia’s interest,” Heyman said, counting off potential risks to the environment and the economy and accusing the BC Liberals of trying to have-their-cake-and-eat-it-too by taking an ambivalent stance.
During the last provincial election, the NDP loss was partially blamed on then-leader Adrian Dix coming out against the pipeline during the campaign, but Heyman said that there are no concerns that it will deter voters next spring. “One of the reasons we took this position clearly and early is so people know where we stand. We will go forward into an election telling people what we are going to do to create jobs and a healthy economy as well as what clear measures we will take to have a good climate action plan,” he said.
Weaver also believes the issue could still be knocking around during next spring’s provincial election and, as Green Party leader, he wants to see the Province just say “No.”
“I have said very clearly that Kinder Morgan is simply not going to happen on my watch and they should not be wasting people’s time going through a process that is not in the interest of British Columbians or Canadians,” he said.
The government always seems focused on “getting to yes, no matter what the question is,” Weaver said. “But with some projects the answer should be ‘No’—and Kinder Morgan is one of those projects.”
Judith Lavoie is an award-winning journalist specializing in the environment, First Nations, and social issues. Twitter @LavoieJudith.
New studies provide further evidence that cholesterol-lowering statins and other new drugs may be a costly dead end.
THREE NEW STUDIES in the past few months are like nails in the coffin of the Cholesterol Hypothesis, which has only seemed to become more questionable as our knowledge advances.
This hypothesis, simply put, posits that by measuring your blood cholesterol levels, and then altering those levels by taking cholesterol-lowering drugs, people can avoid heart attacks, strokes and an early death.
Society has developed a near obsession with cholesterol over the last few decades, despite the fact that some patients with high cholesterol levels do not go on to develop heart disease, while many heart attack victims don’t have high cholesterol levels.
The emergence of statins, a class of drugs designed to alter cholesterol levels, seems to have fuelled the obsession. Their ability to lower cholesterol has led to them being prescribed to many patients without cardiovascular disease—including the elderly, women, children and men—as a form of “primary prevention.” Statins now constitute the leading drug cost in all provincial drug programs, amounting to a cost of almost $2 billion annually in Canada.
Unsurprisingly, it has been the juggernaut marketing of the pharmaceutical industry, and not the science, that has turned statins into one of the most lucrative classes of prescription drugs in the history of the world.
High quality studies do show statins can effectively change your cholesterol levels. But they only show a modest effect in reducing cardiac events in people with established heart disease, and an even more modest effect for those at low risk of heart disease.
Gordon B. (who asked that I not use his surname) from Kelowna had no personal or family history of heart disease, yet was put on Lipitor (atorvastatin) in 1997 at age 50. He told me, “My family doctor said I had elevated cholesterol levels, particularly with the bad cholesterol.” By “bad” cholesterol, he means low-density lipoprotein, or LDL. When Lipitor didn’t change his cholesterol levels he was switched to Crestor (rosuvastatin). He said the drug “worked almost immediately at lowering my bad cholesterol,” and he took it for nearly eight years before the side effects grew intolerable. “I experienced sleeplessness and erectile dysfunction (ED) at the onset, and later, anxiety, sharp abdominal pains, muscle weakness, and loose teeth,” he said. He believes that while “the sleeplessness and ED may have been coincidental,” the other side effects he attributed directly to Crestor. Now, with more than 20 years of statin experience behind us, those adverse effects are widely known.
Part of the reason that statins grew to be so popular is that physicians and patients believed that the drugs were both very effective and very safe. Now with new research coming out, much of it highlighted at the American College of Cardiology’s annual conference in Chicago in early April, both those assumptions are being directly challenged.
A Canadian-led study, the HOPE-3 trial, looking at the effects of statins mixed with various antihypertensives (drugs to lower blood pressure) in 12,000 patients, was published with much hoopla. The authors said their study provided an “extensive body of evidence of a significant clinical benefit in a broad group of persons of diverse ethnic backgrounds.” They reported that the risk of muscle pain, the most commonly-reported statin adverse effect, was “low.”
How effective were statins in this trial? A close reading of HOPE-3 found that over five years, the rate of heart attack, stroke or heart-related effect was 3.7 percent on statins versus 4.8 percent on placebo, a difference of 1.1 percent. People taking the statins had an increased risk of cataracts (3.8 percent of patients on statins had cataract surgery, versus 3.1 percent on placebo) and muscle pain (5.8 percent on the drug versus 4.7 percent on placebo). In other trials, statin users also report higher rates of diabetes and memory loss.
Dr John Abramson, a health policy expert from Harvard Medical School, looked at the HOPE-3 trial and told me the effects were meagre indeed: “91 people have to be treated with a statin for 5.6 years in order to prevent 1 non-fatal heart attack or stroke.” Another way to say this is 90 of the 91 people who take statins for that long won’t see a benefit (and some will experience adverse side effects).
Another trial, called GAUSS-3, reported an unusually high level of statin adverse effects. The drug company Amgen, which makes an injectable LDL-lowering drug called evolocumab (Repatha), was testing its drug in a special type of population: people who don’t tolerate statins because of the muscle-related statin adverse effects.
Evolocumab was extremely good at lowering LDL cholesterol over another non-statin drug, ezetimibe, often used for those intolerant of statins. But both drugs caused muscle symptoms in a significant number of patients: 28.8 percent of ezetimibe-treated patients and 20.7 percent of evolocumab-treated patients.
It’s something else, however, that most concerns Dr Jim Wright of UBC’s Therapeutics Initiative in Vancouver. He told me the research so far hasn’t reported outcomes data from long-term studies of drugs like evolocumab (known as PCSK9 drugs) so no one really knows if these new drugs will ultimately prevent cardiovascular events. The PCSK9s can expertly lower LDL cholesterol, likely at a cost in excess of $10,000 per patient per year, but it’s premature to think about covering them through drug programs like Pharmacare. Dr Wright says there are some patients and physicians clamouring for approval for these drugs in BC but “paying for them through the public purse, without long-term outcomes data would be wrong.”
A third study, this one looking at another class of drugs to alter cholesterol, was being carried out with much excitement, but then suddenly halted. The patients taking the drug evacetrapib lowered their LDL cholesterol by 37 percent and increased their HDL cholesterol by 130 percent compared with patients taking a placebo. (HDL is sometimes referred to as “good cholesterol” because it can transport fat molecules out of artery walls.) Dr Stephen Nicholls, the study’s lead author, told ScienceDaily that despite this effect on cholesterol, the drug had “no effect on clinical events.” Surprised and disappointed by the research, his team stopped the study.
The lack of effect on cardiac events didn’t surprise Dr Wright who has seen other drugs in this class, known as CETP inhibitors, fail. In fact this is the third drug in that class that has failed in crucial clinical trials and been sidelined. What surprised Dr Wright most is how much money the industry has been pouring into drugs like the CETP inhibitors to chase lower LDL targets. “The study of evacetrapib was a huge trial,” he said, “and they abandoned a huge trial.” The vast amounts of money that companies like Eli Lilly have poured into these kinds of trials is mindboggling and, in Dr Wright’s opinion, it’s proving to be futile. “It tells you that they’re grasping at straws,” he told me.
Three pretty definitive studies in one month have definitely revved up the need to rethink whether it is even worth bothering to chase lower cholesterol. Said Dr Wright: “This is strong proof that the cholesterol hypothesis is wrong.”
It’s worth stressing that drug research trying to develop drugs to prevent heart attacks or strokes is a laudable, even commendable endeavour given the toll that heart disease takes on our society. Even drugs with small benefits in individuals could have a huge benefit for the population. Yet driving for lower and lower LDL targets, with new drugs aiming to replace statins, may well be a dead-end task (though lucrative for some pharmaceutical companies).
It also seems that the one sure thing we have learned about the experience with statins is that we have an incomplete picture of their possible adverse effects. Even if costly drugs like the PCSK9s or the CETP Inhibitors get approved and are prescribed widely to people with high cholesterol, chances are we won’t know about the rates of adverse effects until they are used by many thousands of patients.
For Gordon B. in Kelowna, the side effects stopped right after he stopped taking Crestor. He said the improvement to his health was “immediate.” He was left feeling happier, without the sharp pains and loose teeth. He has since been avidly following new research on cholesterol-lowering drugs and so I asked him what he would say to a relative, a friend, a stranger about his experience with statins. He didn’t hold back: “I’d tell them about the scam, the payola, the side effects, the class action suits” which, he says, are now well known in relation to statins. He adds that “the conversation with doctors who want to prescribe statins should be one-sided. Just say NO!”
Research marches on. There are a raft of new drugs coming that may alter cholesterol levels. Given what we are learning, maybe more physicians and patients will think twice about eagerly tinkering pharmaceutically with cholesterol levels.
Alan Cassels is a Victoria author and pharmaceutical policy researcher. He has written four books on the medical screening and pharmaceutical industry including the latest, The Cochrane Collaboration: Medicine’s Best Kept Secret.
Business interests, scientists, environmental groups and First Nations call for new policy on the Island’s remaining old growth.
WHEN THE BC CHAMBER OF COMMERCE and the Association of Vancouver Island and Coastal Communities (AVICC) recently came out championing the protection of old-growth forests on Vancouver Island, it was hailed as a historic and tectonic shift by environmentalists. Yet it’s probably more accurately described in earthquake terms as “fault creep”—the “slow, more or less continuous movement occurring on faults due to ongoing tectonic deformation.”
Political and business associations have finally caught up with the economic reality, climate change, public attitudes, business opportunities, and scientific data—and not a moment too soon.
In typical island fashion, it takes a poster boy from elsewhere with home-spun prairie logic to signal that shift. Handsome Dan Hager, the head of the Port Renfrew Chamber and business owner of Handsome Dan’s Wild Coast Cottages, looked in his guest books one day and noticed that his guests were coming year round to visit old trees at the Avatar Grove. Since then, with just a handsome Saskatchewan smile and anecdotal stories of full beds and full-time staff, he’s managed to convince the entire BC Chamber of Commerce of the value of leaving old growth close to towns.
This likely amuses botanist and Metchosin Councillor Andy Mackinnon. His 30 years of collecting compelling scientific data on the value of old growth on Vancouver Island is not as “hot” on the current media radar, although he’s being effective in other ways. With his own moniker the “fun guy” (pun on fungi, his research specialty), Mackinnon has spread his own charismatic mycelia alongside Hager’s in the slow and continuous movement towards improving Vancouver Island land use planning.
Mackinnon, a forest researcher with the provincial government, has recently retired from public service and jumped into political life. He won a seat on Metchosin council in 2014 and has been looking for ways to get science back into policy and planning ever since. Mackinnon managed to get a resolution asking for a moratorium on the logging of old growth on Vancouver Island passed by his Metchosin Council, and then Colwood’s, this spring. That was subsequently endorsed at AVICC’s AGM in April. His advocacy was triggered by his frustrations as a government scientist. He says, “You felt you were gathering a lot of good information that wasn’t being incorporated into policy and management.” Mackinnon’s first priority was to stop the old-growth logging while Vancouver Island still had some left to save.
His resolution for a moratorium was borrowed from the Ahousat chiefs—also known as the Hawiih of Clayoquot Sound— who had announced their own moratorium on industrial logging of old-growth forests in October last year. It hasn’t gone unnoticed by Mackinnon that the Ahousat have been slowly, more or less continuously, suggesting to Western governments the values of old growth. Their data goes back several thousand years. Their resolution included a community “Land Use Visioning” process intended to protect a traditional way of life while diversifying livelihoods.
The mayor of Tofino shared this resolution with Mackinnon and he fashioned a similar moratorium for Metchosin with a request to the provincial government to revise the old Vancouver Island Land Use Plan. The resolution’s preamble states that old-growth forest is increasingly rare on Vancouver Island and has significant values as wildlife habitat, a tourism resource, a carbon sink and much more. It also noted that current plans on provincial Crown land call for logging the remaining old-growth forest outside of protected areas, Old-Growth Management Areas (OGMAs), and similar reserves, over the next 10-20 years.
Mackinnon is not new to the science of why it is important to protect old growth. He was on the scientific team that wrote the provincial Old Growth Strategy (OGS) starting in 1989. At the time, the OGS was cutting-edge policy. The 1992 report began with the acknowledgement that old-growth forests “represent a wide range of spiritual, ecological, economic and social values” and outlined the framework to plan for conserving old growth. It was the time of the “war in the woods”—from Clayoquot Sound to Carmanah—and logging still constituted the dominant industry in parts of northern Vancouver Island. The same year, the NDP created the Commission on Resources and Environment to provide independent land use recommendations to cabinet for Vancouver Island, and the OGS was folded into this new Vancouver Island Land Use Plan (VILUP) and the Forest Practices Code. (Clayoquot Sound was excluded from VILUP because it came under a separate scientific commission.)
According to Mackinnon, “those were exciting times with the opportunity to do broad land use planning and establish new protected areas.” Before 1992, only 6 percent of Vancouver Island had any protected status and what was protected was mostly rocks and ice at the top of mountains. By the end of the planning process in 2000, the protected areas reached 12 percent of Vancouver Island with a slightly better representation of diverse lowland ecosystems. That included some of the big, old trees in valley bottoms known as “productive lowland old-growth forests.” The VILUP decisions established the upper Carmanah Valley, the lower Walbran Valley, Tashish Kwoi and Brooks Nasparti Provincial Parks as large protected areas.
The target of protecting 12 percent of the land base had come from the international Bruntland Commission and its landmark report Our Common Future. The report called for doubling the area of protected areas globally—which, at that time, also sat around 6 percent.
Mackinnon supported the plan then because it at least doubled the protection and was achievable politically, but it fell short in many regards. Many scientists had recommended quadrupling the area protected to take in forest stand and ecosystem diversity, and climate change wasn’t being factored in yet. The compromise was partly addressed in a series of special management zones created to maintain areas of old growth and high biodiversity within forest tenures on Crown land.
In 2001, with a change in provincial government from NDP to Liberal, the Old Growth Strategy and VILUP were sent to the shredders, special management zones were cancelled, and the Forest Practices Code was gutted. Since then, apart from a handful of tiny isolated groves, like Avatar Grove, being designated OGMAs or Land Use Objective areas, no ancient forests have been set aside in protected areas on Vancouver Island.
In the absence of any provincial leadership on island old growth, the Sierra Club has taken the lead role in mapping island forests. Mackinnon says, “When people asked my ministry how much old growth there was left, I would have to say: ‘Go talk to the Sierra Club.’” Jens Wieting of the Sierra Club of British Columbia notes that, as of 2012, less than 10 percent of the productive lowland old-growth forests remain. These are the forests that businesses like Handsome Dan’s benefit from, not the older, scrubby trees in the mountain tops that the provincial government still includes in their tally of old growth.
According to Wieting, the state of old growth on Vancouver Island is now an ecological emergency. Of that 10 percent that remains, only 4 percent has been set aside in parks or OGMAs and 6 percent is up for grabs. The Sierra Club’s recent Google Map press release visually shows how that remaining unprotected old growth is at risk.
This situation has brought a return of the wars in the woods, with conflicts over Walbran, Klaskish and East Creek. The battle is being led by the Ancient Forest Alliance, Western Canada Wilderness Committee and others. These last watersheds of remaining unprotected old-growth lowland forest are where the greatest value are for all stakeholders. The stakes are even higher with an increased understanding of the value of these forests for sequestering carbon.
Sierra’s data shows around 9400 hectares of Island old growth being logged annually and 17,000 hectares of second growth, some of it highly endangered ecosystems. Second-growth forests eventually become old-growth forests so we need to pay attention to these as well. Only saving old-growth forests is like only looking after elders and not nurturing the young. For forest ecologists, this is a compelling rationale for reopening the Vancouver Island Land Use Plan and reconsidering the mix of different forests and age classes of stands. This would entail planning for future reserves of old growth in forest types where there is hardly any old growth left, like the Douglas-fir forests of Vancouver Island where old growth has been reduced to 1 percent of the remaining stand.
Wieting’s argument is that “with every new clearcut, more biodiversity of the original ecosystem disappears.” That’s the ecological argument for a new target of quadrupling protected areas—nature needs half. But what about the economic argument?
The 1992 VILUP included a careful economic analysis with projections to 2012. What is most interesting is how accurate those projections were. They predicted continuing declines in the resource sectors and continuing increases in importance of tourism and other service industries like high tech and filmmaking, light manufacturing and pension and investment incomes. The plan states, “These shifts in economic structure will be reinforced by the in-migration of retirees to the Island, the aging of the resident population, increasing demand for and scarcity of wilderness recreation opportunities, technological change, and resource depletion.”
According to the VILUP, back in 1992 forestry and logging provided 10,565 jobs (3.6 percent) on Vancouver Island. By 2012, StatsCan numbers show, that had declined to 4700. Pulp and paper mills employed 12,900 people in 1992, but by 2012 that had fallen to one-half of that.
Compare that to 4800 jobs in the “information and cultural industries,” 9800 in the “arts, entertainment and recreation industries” and 5800 in the mysterious-sounding “personal and laundry services.” The largest employers—by far—on Vancouver Island are in the service industries with 20,000 to 50,000-plus jobs, per sector, in health, education, professional services, high tech, trade and tourism (accommodation and food services). Even the recent Vancouver Island State of the Economy report by the Vancouver Island Economic Alliance, in a curiously conservative analysis, points out the only fast growth areas are in the professional, scientific and high tech sectors—the people who fill up Handsome Dan’s Wild Coast Cottages.
The age-old problem for northern Vancouver Island rural communities of boom and bust resource-based economies was pinpointed accurately in the 1992 plan, with various recommendations for diversification.
In the ensuing years, though, there was minimal action taken to diversifiy. There was little public investment in a number of critical areas: infrastructure for making value-added wood products, transportation systems, an old-growth strategy, marketing of tourism to these areas, and creating value for ecosystem services. The BC Liberals weren’t, apparently, paying heed to the shifting economic landscape. New Zealand, with roughly comparable economic forecasts, land base and population, looked at its data back then and brought in a moratorium on old-growth logging while investing heavily in ecotourism infrastructure and marketing. Total tourism expenditure today in New Zealand is $29.8 billion, increasing at 10 percent per year. Vancouver Island tourism generates $2.2 billion annually.
Better late than never, Mackinnon’s resolution will now go to the Union of BC Municipalities AGM in September. So far the provincial government hasn’t responded to his request for a meeting. With Hager working the business community on a modified resolution specifically referring to old growth close to settlements, both Mackinnon and Hager argue that it will be hard for the provincial government to ignore both local governments and the business sector.
Once a moratorium is in place, Mackinnon would like to see innovative planning—with a foundation based on scientific principles—adapted for Vancouver Island. He points to the land use plans for Clayoquot Sound and the Great Bear Rainforest, both of which he participated in and which were spearheaded by First Nations. The Great Bear Rainforest Agreements in particular incorporated First Nations concerns, economic realities that included real conservation financing, and carbon credit projects for First Nations.
As Jens Wieting suggests, “We have a lot to learn from what went on in both these regions—and fast, because climate change means that we have even less time to save rainforest as we know it.”
As for Handsome Dan, he says, “I’m no treehugger and I don’t need to rely on any science. I just see the logic because the economics are black and white. The trees left standing are good for my business.” Hardly earthshaking, but a welcome tectonic nudge to an island that has so much natural capital to offer its inhabitants and the world.
Briony Penn has been living on and writing about the BC coast pretty much all of her life. She is the author of the new book, The Real Thing: The Natural History of Ian McTaggart Cowan.
A First Nation’s claim to Vancouver Island’s rail corridor could spell the end of the E&N revival.
RUN A TRAIN, OR LOSE THE CORRIDOR. That’s the latest message from the Attorney General of Canada, in its response to a First Nation’s lawsuit.
The Snaw-Naw-As is calling for a return of the land taken from its reserve more than 100 years ago for the purpose of extending the E&N rail line to Courtenay. In December, it filed a civil claim in the BC Supreme Court against the Island Corridor Foundation and the Attorney General. This spring, the AG filed its response, sending a clear message to the ICF: the clock is ticking to fix the tracks and revive the railway.
When the Right-Of-Way through Snaw-Naw-As territory ceases to be used for “railway purposes,” the land reverts to Canada in trust for the Snaw-Naw-As, reads the AG’s response. If successful, the lawsuit could remove a 1.4-kilometre section from the midpoint of the 225-kilometre railway line, ending any hope of reviving passenger service from Courtenay to Victoria. The ruling could also set a precedent for the other 12 First Nations whose reserves the corridor intersects.
“The Island Corridor Foundation says it was founded to protect the Corridor. Unfortunately, they’ve also inherited a bunch of historical grievances,” said Snaw-Naw-As Chief Brent Edwards.
These grievances date back to the creation of the reserve.
In 1877, the Joint Indian Reserve Commission carved out the boundaries for what is now the Snaw-Naw-As reserve on the south shore of Nanoose Bay. At the time, a wagon road intersected the reserve. In 1912, the reserve was spliced a second time when the Canadian Pacific Railway was granted a 10.79-acre Right-Of-Way through the 140-acre reserve for $650.
Today, that sleepy dirt road has grown into a four-lane, divided highway, effectively cutting the community in two, without so much as an intersection to connect both sides. Adding to the frustration is the E&N’s current state of limbo.
It’s been five years since the emergency suspension of the E&N’s passenger rail service, and almost two years since the last freight train travelled this section of rail. For the 250 members of the Snaw-Naw-As, the unused corridor represents nothing but an opportunity cost.
“That railway is in our way,” said Chief Edwards. “For us it’s really simple. That piece of property is not being used for what it was expropriated for…so the civil claim is basically asking to have that portion of property returned to us so we can make better use of it.”
Hypothetically, the same logic could apply to the road: “If they invented flying cars, and they stopped using Highway 19, we would expect them to give that property back,” he said.
“Snaw-Naw-As is really pushed to its limits of its ability to develop,” said Robert Janes, the lawyer representing the Snaw-Naw-As. For instance, the rail corridor monopolizes highway-side land that could be commercially developed. Where the tracks split off from the highway, they create a wedge of unusable land. Also, the Nation is working on building a new traffic light to better connect the community, but the adjacent rail crossing adds complexity and expense, Janes explained.
“Snaw-Naw-As needs are such that it cannot just stand by and wait until some day somebody decides to do something about the railway,” said Janes. “My hope is the political actors behind the Island Corridor Foundation use this (case) as an opportunity to evaluate what really are their needs…We don’t anticipate there will be any significant rail traffic between Nanaimo and Comox at any time in the future.”
To win its civil suit, the Snaw-Naw-As must convince the judge of a two-point argument: first, that rail is dead, at least running north of Nanaimo; and second, that in this scenario, the Snaw-Naw-As has an historical claim to the corridor within its reserve boundaries. We’ll look at the case for both.
IN ITS NOTIC OF CIVIL CLAIM, the Snaw-Naw-As argues the Right-Of-Way through its territory is no longer being used for the railway, and there is no reasonable prospect that railway infrastructure will be restored to a condition sufficient to operate trains.
It’s an argument the Island Corridor Foundation rejects entirely.
“The railway continues to operate” according to its filed response. The ICF continues to maintain tracks and crossing signals, and continues to consult with stakeholders, it argues. Further, the ICF says it intends to refurbish the rail corridor, and has raised more than $20 million to do so.
On this issue, the Attorney General takes no position, claiming no knowledge of the state of rail operations.
It’s a conspicuous silence, considering track upgrades have been waiting on federal approval for more than four years, thereby tying up a matching provincial grant. To quickly recap: In April 2012, Infrastructure Canada pledged $7.5 million for the E&N, pending completion of five conditions. For instance, the ICF must confirm no further federal investment will be required, and must pass a federal project review.
To this day, Infrastructure Canada will not say which of the conditions have been met, or give a timeline for a funding decision. Instead, it says only that it “is reviewing the (Snaw-Naw-As) lawsuit to understand any potential impacts,” according to a written response.
It’s a bit of a circular argument: The federal government won’t hand over the money because of the lawsuit, and the lawsuit could win because of the lack of federal funding required to kickstart track upgrades.
Meanwhile, regional funding commitments are now starting to unravel, poking holes in the ICF’s $20.9 million plan to upgrade the tracks. What’s more, there’s plenty of evidence to suggest the upgrade plan does not pass muster to begin with, and may not pass a federal review.
So is rail dead? Officially, no. Realistically, maybe.
IF THE ISLAND CORRIDOR FOUNDATION is eventually forced to abandon its mission to revive the rail line, the future of the corridor depends on whom you ask.
According to the ICF, the answer is straightforward.
“The corridor is owned by the Island Corridor Foundation as fee simple,” said ICF chair Judith Sayers. “I’ve never seen a court take away fee simple lands from anyone…If we ever get to that point where we can’t get the train going…then of course we’ll continue to use it as bike paths and trails.”
This Plan B might not be realized without a fight, however. If the Right-of-Way reverts to Canadian ownership in trust for the Snaw-Naw-As—as the AG argues—it’s clear the First Nation will have little appetite for cycling trails.
“How can we support people utilizing that as a recreational thoroughfare when we administrate poverty?” asked Chief Edwards. “One of the reasons we administrate poverty is our access to infrastructure and lands…are being hindered by a corridor that’s not being used.”
Resentment toward the E&N is not unique to the Snaw-Naw-As.
“Songhees does not support the Island Corridor Foundation,” said its Chief Ron Sam in an email. “We share the same frustrations of Snaw-Naw-As and other Nations whose lands this rail line impacts.”
Judith Sayers says she can sympathize, though she doesn’t agree. She has a unique insight into the issue, as chair of the Island Corridor Foundation, but also as a former Hupacasath Chief and former chair of National Aboriginal Economic Development at UVic.
“The E&N land grant has been a huge issue for most of the First Nations on Vancouver Island; it’s an outstanding issue that needs to be resolved,” she said. However, Sayers insists the federal government created these problems and needs to be the one to resolve them—not the ICF.
“We’ve always looked at this as an opportunity for First Nations to have a say in the rail running through their communities,” Sayers said, adding the E&N promises new economic opportunities.
Now, her challenge is to prove the case for rail, and convince her funders. It will be no small job and time is running out.
Roszan Holmen, a producer for CFAX 1070, has covered the E&N and ICF’s challenges in previous Focus articles, including her Webster award-winning feature “More Red Lights Ahead?” (Dec 2014) and “Critical Crossroads for Rail on the Island” (May/June 2016).
Dana Irving’s background as a mural painter and her love of coastal forests have resulted in a grand, sweeping style.
IN DANA IRVING'S OIL ON CANVAS PAINTING “Special,” the Salish Sea laps onto a rocky shore. Not far from the water’s edge, a stand of wind-blown trees rises from mossy rocks. In just about the centre of the image, an island large enough for one lone tree is surrounded by the waves. Clouds sweep overhead. Any number of coastlines in this region could claim such a scene, and anyone who has scrambled over similar rocks knows that these are places teeming with life: growth and decay, wind and weather, salt and sun and rock supporting an intricate ecosystem.
In confoundingly simple forms, Irving’s paintings evoke that multitude. Those clouds culminate in Art Deco spirals that, like the sand and waves, vibrate with sculptural plasticity. Stirred by the unseen wind, trees twirl branches that are represented in green swathes, like fine satin skirts woven thick with the richness of fondant. Information is economical and highly designed, but also highly evocative, speaking to the essence of place.
Irving’s is a style that has been described as “Emily Carr meets Dr Seuss,” but could be taken further: Lawren Harris was certainly the host of that party, and one imagines it was held in the Art Deco splendour of Radio City Music Hall, circa its 1932 opening with Lolita de Lempicka bumping into Diego Rivera and Thomas Hart Benton. Irving counts all as inspirations that are manifested in a visual language she uses to convey her deep appreciation for a place that she feels lucky to call home.
The forests full of swaying trees near her North Vancouver home are not far from her door, and she hikes them at least twice a week. Nature has been an important part of her life since she was born in Prince George in 1959. She grew up roaming the outdoors with her two brothers. “We didn’t have any neighbours, and our playground was the woods,” she recalls.
It grew into a love of the natural BC landscape that keeps her happily rooted. “I’m not too interested in travelling the world, really. I feel like there is so much here for me. These big cedars and Douglas firs, they’re just it for me—they’ve got the big skirts!”
As a girl, however, she longed for broader horizons than Prince George offered. Her mother owned a clothing store and was a seamstress, and her father ran a lumber mill, always making things in his spare time. “My brothers and I just grew up knowing you can make stuff—and that it’s rewarding,” she says.
Equally important was her parents’ recognition of her artistic tendencies. Though many parents would have balked at its seeming impracticality, “I was always encouraged to be an artist,” she appreciates. From the age of four, she was enrolled in “just about everything artsy they could think of,” she remembers, including music, which is still part of her life: She is a singer-songwriter who plays guitar and ukulele, and has released two CDs. She also took ballet with an “eccentric” Norwegian ballet teacher, an anomaly in Prince George, to be sure. “As a kid, I had not seen antique furniture or original paintings.” The woman’s persona and her house full of exotic finery made Irving realize, “I want more of that.”
Growing up brought more small epiphanies. At 16, she came across a book of Lawren Harris paintings that stirred her. “I just thought it was an amazing way to interpret all these things I had grown up seeing: lakes and rivers and weather.” Later on, after becoming dissatisfied with interior design studies at Douglas College, she moved to Jasper, Alberta for a “gap” year. Surrounded by many of the very landscapes Harris painted and a milieu of artistic types, she took watercolour courses and did plein air painting. “I just got the bug from landscape and nature. The seeds got planted at that point,” she says.
It prompted her to study at the Victoria College of Art from 1979-81, where she became immersed in the foundational skills of an artist, along with the knowledge that behind that one finished canvas hides countless hours of reaching toward excellence.
That education served her well. Moving to Vancouver in search of work, Irving found employment with a high-end house painter. At the time, there was an affinity in the interior design world for faux marble finishes, trompe l’oeil effects and murals that mimicked old-world frescoes. The pair founded Famous Painters, a very busy company specializing in such techniques in the grand homes of Vancouver and occasionally beyond. “Because I was an artist and had been trained so well in realism and really classical stuff, murals just became a natural evolution,” Irving says. She created several around Vancouver, including the one on the side of the Stanley Lodge and in a few restaurants, often in a style wittily reminiscent of the monumental murals created in the 1930s by Diego Rivera and the like.
Eventually the mural market waned, but her final project in 2001 helped her transition into a gallery artist. She was commissioned to paint the dining car on the Whistler Northwind, a luxury train which ran, fittingly, from Vancouver to Prince George. “The idea was to depict the journey,” Irving explains, adding, “It seemed fitting to use the Group of Seven style. I thought, ‘Oh, now’s my big chance. I can try that language on, see how it fits.’” It fit so well that, after painting similar scenes on canvas for a gallery owner friend on Saltspring Island, she sold six in two months. She’s represented there still and, here in town, at West End Gallery (with a show in September).
Along with stylistic influences, compositional techniques she developed doing murals have found their way onto her canvases. Often, she says, murals were very wide and needed a cohesive element. She explains, “I’d do little scenes and then wrap some kind of ribbon around them. It seemed to evoke a wind or energy or weather. So that really influenced how I approached my work, no matter the shape.” In her current landscapes, that ribbon often reappears in the gestural forms of those dancing trees.
Another legacy of her mural painting background is her tendency to plan out each composition very carefully. “I’ve talked to other artists who do very organic, in-the-moment abstract things and they never know what it’s going to be in the end,” she observes. “[My work is] much more calculated, but when I am finished it often reflects my feeling for the place, or the mood of the weather. It’s still there, somehow. It all comes through. It often surprises me.”
Therein lies the deception of a simple visual language such as Irving’s. The experiences and influences it is distilled from are bound to convey more than colour and form.
View Dana Irving’s work at West End Gallery (1203 Broad Street, 250-388-0009, www.westendgalleryltd.com). She will have a solo exhibition at West End for two weeks in September. Dates TBA. Find Dana Irving online at www.danairving.com. There you’ll find a link to a short YouTube video Sun Comes Out which showcases the parallels between her painting and music practices.
As the parent of two small children with big dreams, Aaren Madden hopes she can have as positive an impact on their future success as Dana Irving’s supportive parents have had on hers.
Six summer concerts offer a “less fearsome” way to start conversations about classical music.
THE "MUSIC OF FRIENDS" is how chamber music is sometimes described, due to its requirements of good-natured give-and-take during performance. Goethe described the string quartet as “four rational people conversing.” Cooperation and connection are a fundamental part of the genre, and there is less separation between audience and performers than there would be in a large concert hall.
It seems fitting, then, that the Victoria Summer Music Festival (VSMF) affords both performers and listeners ample opportunities to engage in musical conversation.
Arthur Rowe, pianist and artistic director of the VSMF, says the delight of bringing together a community of musicians, together with the “human-scale experience” of chamber music, inspire him to create the programming for the festival, now in its twenty-first season. Rowe explains that while the concerts in the series typically sell out, and the enterprise has a very loyal following, chamber music provides a “less fearsome entry point” for those who might otherwise shy away from the perceived “stuffiness” of symphony concerts. He hopes a few more “newbies” will be inspired to attend concerts this year, all held at UVic’s Phillip T Young Recital Hall from July 26 to August 11.
The formality often associated with classical music “is not something one feels in summer festivals,” Rowe remarks. “It’s a very open and friendly atmosphere; we try to encourage that personal connection with a pre-concert talk with the musicians who are featured that night.”
The talks start around 6:40, concerts at 7:30. “A surprising number of audience members really enjoy them, and we get a pretty full house coming to the talks as well. There’s a loose, joking atmosphere discussing the music, and the performers take questions from the audience.”
I had a few questions of my own for Rowe, regarding what exactly constitutes “chamber music.” At what point is a performance either too few, or too many musicians to fit the moniker? “We think of chamber music as anything that involves at least two players,” he explains.
“The limit goes up to a nanette—nine players—and once you get to ten, you’re talking about a small chamber orchestra. There are a number of octets written as well; anything up to eight or nine is considered chamber music.”
I then enquire about the two-performer thing. Rowe, as a pianist, has performed for decades, throughout the world and at the University of Victoria, where he is acting director of the School of Music. Does he see himself as an accompanist when he plays a duet with a violinist, for example? “A violin and piano is still chamber music, not a violin recital,” Rowe insists. So what constitutes a recital, then? A soloist? Rowe chuckles. “Yes, I’d say a soloist is giving a recital.”
He says delineating between “recital” and “chamber music” also depends on the repertoire. “Certainly as a pianist, if you’re playing a showpiece with violin—or just a lovely lyrical ballad—you are, in a sense, trying to support the other instrument. Whereas if you’re playing a Brahms violin sonata, the piano is equal to—or even more important than—the violin. No matter what I’m playing, I think of it as an equal partnership. That doesn’t mean I need to be louder or heard more; it means we are both working together to create the best possible interpretation of that music.”
The collaborative flavour of music performed without a conductor also seems to lead to a convivial atmosphere in the social circles of chamber music quartets and trios performing in Canada. Rowe explains that a few of the VSMF concerts have overlapping musicians, and the first concert of the series is a well-loved, double-bass-and-piano duo who bring together 18 bassists from across the globe to workshop and then perform on stage in an offering called “Basses Loaded.”
Gary Karr is on the double bass, and Harmon Lewis, piano. This concert for VSMF will be their last, marking their official retirement. Karr will spend the month of July leading the 18 participants at the KarrKamp summer bass workshop. The concert will include Haydn’s String Quartet in E-flat major, also known as “The Joke,” due to its teasing of the audience with a series of “false” endings. Ravel and Coulthard will also be on the program. If you’re fortunate enough to be one of the 220 audience members taking in this farewell performance, it will likely be a memorable one.
Another somewhat unusual offering on the VSMF menu is a concert featuring songs. That’s right—a singer in a chamber music festival. Again, I’m a bit surprised, thinking that somehow, singers can’t be part of “chamber music,” instead being relegated to “recitals” as soon as they’ve stepped away from an orchestra.
Yet a little research yields the information that during the Middle Ages and the early Renaissance, it was singers who anchored the “chamber music” experience, and the instruments just played along with the vocal lines. Of course this evolved into instrument-only compositions, but throughout the 18th and 19th centuries, vocalists were most definitely part of the chamber music mix.
Mezzo-soprano Anita Krause will perform some of that 19th Century repertoire—Beethoven, to be exact—singing with the Duke Trio and offering Ludwig Van’s rarely performed Scottish Songs for Voice, Violin, Cello, and Piano. What a perfect Canadian offering, I enthuse. “And this is not a transcription,” Rowe explains, saying these songs were actually written originally for that format. So why is it so very rare to hear voices performing chamber music?
“We think of chamber music as an instrumental thing,” Rowe says, “yet a number of composers, such as Schubert and Brahms, wrote for voice. The intimacy of a vocal program fits very well within the chamber music festival concept.”
The real issue, says Rowe, is logistics. Outside of an academic setting, where you have a static pool of musicians and vocalists to draw from, touring quartets and trios don’t typically bring along a singer. It just so happens, though, that Krause is the wife of the Duke Trio’s cellist, Thomas Wiebe, making this grande finale concert a very “friendly” one indeed.
There are six concerts being offered in the summer festival, with a “bonus” concert happening in October, performed by violinist James Ehnes and pianist Andrew Armstrong. “It’s a special fall concert that we wouldn’t ordinarily be putting on,” says Rowe. “James will be on a cross-Canada tour, and asked if there was any chance they could do something in Victoria. I knew we could present it, so I wanted us to be part of that, and I’m glad it’s worked out.”
2016 Victoria Summer Music Festival: “Basses Loaded XX,” Tuesday, July 26, 7:30pm; The Lafayette String Quartet, Thursday, July 28, 7:30pm; Cecilia String Quartet and Arthur Rowe, piano, Wednesday, August 3, 7:30pm; Ensemble Made in Canada, Saturday, August 6, 7:30pm; St John, Wei, Rowe, and Krause, Tuesday, August 9, 7:30pm; Duke Trio and Anita Krause, Thursday, August 11, 7:30pm. All summer concerts at Phillip T Young Recital Hall, UVic. In addition to the summer festival, the VSMF will offer an autumnal concert featuring acclaimed violinist James Ehnes and pianist Andrew Armstrong on October 20. Tickets: vmsf.org or call 250-294-7778.
Writer and communication facilitator Mollie Kaye sings in what she now realizes could be called a chamber ensemble, performing close-harmony a cappella classics from the 1940s and ’50s.
The past year’s theatrical highlights included ghosts, tears, music and silliness.
THE SUMMER MONTHS are a bit quieter around town in regard to theatre. The Belfry always has a summer show and this year it’s a remount of the ever-popular Mom’s the Word. There are the outdoor options of the Greater Victoria Shakespeare Festival or Theatre SKAM’s SKAMpede. And, of course, the end of August brings us the Fringe Festival’s grab-bag of theatrical delights. Yet compared to many other months of the year, things slow down and Victorians turn their attention to nature-based activities, getaways and holidays.
For me it is a good time to think back on the previous theatre season and reflect. I am a theatre educator in my work, so it feels only right that I consider what going to the theatre teaches me. What did I learn from this past season of local theatregoing and reviewing?
Let’s begin with the two professional theatre companies in town: The Belfry and Blue Bridge Repertory Theatre. I admit to missing the Belfry’s sell-out show of the season, the Leonard Cohen anthology Chelsea Hotel, that many seemed to love. Next season Artistic Director Michael Shamata has programmed a similar musical revue show, this time using the music of Joni Mitchell rather than Leonard Cohen. No doubt it will also prove to be popular. But my most memorable show of the Belfry season was Joan MacLeod’s The Valley.
I interviewed MacLeod for my February Curtain Call column and am a big fan of her work. This play tackled the tough topics of mental health and police intervention. It brought these hot-button issues down to the level of the lives of two families and their struggles before and after a Vancouver Police officer has injured a young man suffering from anxiety and depression. MacLeod walks a fine line in not judging her characters. She gives us a story filled with compassion, complexity and a sense of hopefulness that, working together, we can support both those who are struggling to regain their mental health as well as those whose job it is to protect us from harm. The production was well-directed by former Belfry AD Roy Surette and the cast of four was compelling. I was moved to tears by the end, a testament to the empathy good theatre can evoke.
Blue Bridge’s 2016 spring and summer season has just begun, so I can comment here only on their first production, Long Day’s Journey into Night. It was definitely a highlight of the year for me. Performing the play is like climbing Mount Everest for the four main actors in it, clocking in as it does at three acts and nearly four hours running time.
Eugene O’Neill’s autobiographical play was not performed until after his death, according to his wishes, as it is so revelatory about himself and his highly dysfunctional family. The play is an emotional marathon for both performers and audiences. I saw it on Broadway in 2003 with Vanessa Redgrave, Brian Dennehy, Philip Seymour Hoffman and Robert Sean Leonard. It was a shattering experience, so seeing it again I was definitely haunted by this memory. This happens often in theatregoing practice when seeing more than one production of the same play. The haunted sensation of seeing a play through your memory of a previous incarnation can be highly pleasurable or can be difficult, depending on context.
Brian Richmond did an excellent job directing this Blue Bridge production with Toronto actors David Ferry and Kyra Harper as the parents James and Mary Tyrone, and Elliott Loran and Jacob Richmond as sons and brothers Edmund and Jamie. As the mother Mary slips back into her morphine addiction, the father and his sons fight and drink whiskey and spill secrets and resentments. The play leaves an audience with little hope of any improvement in the lot of this early 20th century Irish-American theatrical family. To lose oneself, as Mary does, in the dope-filled haze of past memories is a temporary balm that avoids facing the challenges lying ahead: poverty, illness and death.
Great art such as O’Neill’s masterwork reminds us that denial is a tactic doomed to failure and that (as Leo Tolstoy opens Anna Karenina) each unhappy family is unhappy in its own unique ways. I left the theatre feeling drained but a little bit wiser, another gift theatre can provide.
The one other professional company in town is Pacific Opera Victoria. They gave us a solid season but my highlight was The Barber of Seville for one reason. I took a group of my drama education students from UVic to see the show. I always take my students to the theatre. A comic opera felt like a good choice to introduce the art form to them and to encourage them to consider taking their own students to the opera and the theatre in future. Pacific Opera provides free classroom workshops for their shows so we were well prepared (including a viewing of the famous Bugs Bunny cartoon!) before we went. The production was terrific, but my memory of it is coloured by the pleasure of accompanying my students to the dress rehearsal and witnessing the enjoyment of their first time at the opera. Introducing young people to the performing arts has been a big part of my career. It feels very rewarding each time I am able to do so.
The three most memorable non-professional shows I saw this season were all musicals. I find this remarkable as I am usually more drawn to plays than musicals. But the Phoenix’s Threepenny Opera, Canadian College of Performing Arts’ Into the Woods and the Victoria Operatic Society’s Spamalot were all first-rate.
Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill’s Threepenny Opera, directed by Brian Richmond (a UVic theatre professor as well as founder of Blue Bridge Theatre), was a strong production of an important piece of pre-WWII German theatre. Brecht’s anti-capitalist and anti-fascist politics are in clear evidence, wrapped up in the entertaining plot and razor-sharp lyrics of Weill’s songs. The continuing relevance of these critical perspectives (President Trump?!) was what I carried out the door with me that night.
At CCPA I enjoyed seeing one of my favourite theatre artist’s work performed by a group of talented students and capably directed by Sara-Jeanne Hosie. Stephen Sondheim is a notoriously difficult composer, but this cast tackled Into the Woods with plenty of gusto. This is another haunted show for me as I have seen productions of it in New York, Toronto and Vancouver. So, while I was definitely seeing and hearing some “ghosts” while watching this student production, I enjoyed the evident delight this young company took in tackling Sondheim’s heights. And the takeaway lesson here? Every fairy tale has an ending beyond its happy ending; “Sometimes people leave you/Halfway through the woods/You are not alone/Believe me/No one is alone.”
Finally, I recently covered Eric Idle’s musical adaptation of Monty Python and the Holy Grail renamed Spamalot. The musical was a huge hit on Broadway and in many subsequent remounts and tours. It proved to be a huge hit here as well in director Roger Carr’s skilled hands and with a terrific ensemble of actor/singers, designers and dancers. The show was a sellout at the MacPherson Theatre and rumour has it there will be another run of the show in the fall. Not all theatre has to carry a message or a lesson to be learned. I left the MacPherson with a big smile on my face and giggled all the way home. Sometimes pure silliness shared with a few hundred others can carry the day.
Readers might be interested in performance theorist Marvin Carlson’s book The Haunted Stage: The Theatre as Memory Machine (University of Michigan Press, 2001) as the source for some of theatre educator Monica Prendergast’s thinking here.
James Hoggan’s new book makes us look at our own communication practices, including our critical thinking, compassion and integrity.
WHEN I WAS YOUNG, trolls were merely fearsome fictions hidden beneath bridges. Today they lurk under virtually every online news story, find their way into Twitter feeds and Facebook conversations, heaving insulting and ignorant comments, even rape and death threats into people’s personal space. They are no longer hiding, and the narrative world they inhabit is not safely contained by the covers of a book but is the story of our own daily lives.
Internet trolls are just one manifestation of what PR guru James Hoggan identifies as a much bigger problem: the increasing pollution of the public square. In his new book I’m Right and You’re an Idiot: The Toxic State of Public Discourse and How to Clean it Up (With Grania Litwin, New Society 2016), Hoggan shines light into the dark places of contemporary communication, exploring what he calls “one of the most urgent and unexamined human relations problems of our time.” Ad hominem attacks, polarized and polarizing rhetoric, verbal shoving matches, misinformation and propaganda are not just nuisances, he argues; they are the noise that distracts us and allows us to waste time wounding each other rather than working together on slaying the real demons we all face. As Hoggan writes, “toxic conversations stall our ability to think collectively and solve the many dangerous problems that are stalking everyone on Earth.”
Initially, Hoggan began his project looking at the toxic discourse impeding our ability to move forward on climate change. President of the Vancouver PR firm Hoggan and Associates, an operation he started in the basement three decades ago while completing his law degree in Victoria, Hoggan is also chair of the David Suzuki Foundation board, author of Climate Cover-Up: The Crusade to Deny Global Warming, and co-founder of the influential DeSmogBlog—a website dedicated to clearing the air of spin around climate science. He’s known Suzuki from back when the foundation was just being formed. “At that time,” Hoggan laughs during our phone interview, “it wasn’t cool for a businessman to be associated with David Suzuki.”
Self-described as more right of centre than left, Hoggan got more and more interested, read voraciously on climate science and became convinced, as he tells me, that “you can’t argue with the reality of these problems.” Essentially, no matter where you stand on the political spectrum, we all live in the same environment, on the same planet. Invited to sit on the foundation’s board in 2003, Hoggan recounts how after a board meeting in Montreal, Suzuki asked him: “Why aren’t people paying more attention? There is enough evidence we are destroying the planet…How do we motivate the public to demand action?” That question was the first seed from which I’m Right grew.
But Hoggan’s direction for a book aimed at understanding apathy in the face of facts was subtly changed when another seed was planted, this time under the Indian sun in far-off Dharamshala during an interview with His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama. Yes, the environment was of topmost importance, the Dalai Lama told Hoggan, but he also said: “I think you acknowledge sometimes the Western brain looks more sophisticated, but in Tibet we operate from the heart and this is very strong. So combine these two…and then we will have real success.” The project then became, Hoggan explains, to write “a different kind of book,” one that wasn’t just about how to turn down the noise but how to tune into and educate the heart.
The book is therefore not what you expect—at least not what I expected. Based on the title, I came to it thinking: “Yeah, why are all those aggressive, manipulative jerks out there being such aggressive, manipulative jerks? Let’s take ‘em down!” I imagined I’d have my outrage and indignation mirrored and see perpetrators satisfyingly shamed. On the contrary. While Hoggan does offer concrete examples and case studies of bad behaviour, I’m Right ultimately makes you look at your own communication practice, your participation in the public square, and calls you higher in terms of self-awareness, critical thinking, compassion and integrity. “Democracy doesn’t work on its own,” Hoggan tells me. “It’s not too late to change your own role in it.”
To that end—helping us understand our role in shaping what goes on in the public square and demanding change within it—Hoggan interviews more than 20 of the world’s heavyweight thinkers: philosophers, professors, authors, facilitators, social and cognitive scientists. Just as scientists from many disciplines study pollution in our physical environment, these multidisciplinary experts delve into what underlies the polluted discursive environment in terms of human patterns of thought, action and reaction. Some names will be familiar, like Noam Chomsky, Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh or Joel Bakan, the writer and filmmaker behind The Corporation. Others might be lesser known locally but have incredible knowledge and wide-ranging experience on the global stage.
“The reason it went that way,” Hoggan explains from his home office in Vancouver, “is because [the problem] is so complex. Who sits around thinking about the nature of public discourse?” He admits that we all kind of do in that we see it, whether in the rise of cyberbullying; in the divisive, racist and misogynist rhetoric of Donald Trump’s presidential campaign; when Enbridge conveniently deleted multiple islands from their map of the Douglas Channel (in order to make their tanker route appear less challenging); or when news outlets, including Victoria’s Times Colonist, shut down their online comments sections to dam the flood of verbal violence. The toxicity surrounds us, often draws us in, and we rarely have the time to cogitate deeply upon just what exactly is happening, why, and how to respond constructively. But Hoggan’s interviewees bring a diversity of perspectives and approaches to what is, at base, the subject of I’m Right—namely, Hoggan writes, “how we tell stories and how we treat each other.”
The first half of the book describes and analyzes the polluted public square while the second half explores solutions and also issues some powerful challenges to change our behaviour, like Thich Nhat Hanh’s seemingly simple statement: “Speak the truth but not to punish.” While Hoggan’s book clearly has a sense of moral imperative, it’s humbling rather than preachy. In the same way that non-violent civil rights protests helped reveal status quo ugliness for what it was, Hoggan believes that civil dialogue can do the same and slowly replace acrimonious debate if we treat each other with more empathy and, above all, more curiosity rather than knee-jerk judgment.
“That’s what is hopeful,” Hoggan says passionately, explaining how if people pay attention they can do more than just resist the new norms; they can change them. “As systems problems go—energy, financial, banking—one system that we can have influence over is social systems.” Despite the efforts of vested interests like government and industry to control the narrative, he says, “Public narrative needs to be community-developed not injected. We need public spaces.” Hoggan’s book can help us step in confidently, compassionately, unafraid.
Writer and musician Amy Reiswig works by day (and sometimes into the night) as an editor for the provincial government.
PETE SENDS YOU AN EMAIL titled “Be Smarter Forever.” Your indecisive forefinger wears an arc between “delete” and “open,” but anticipation is out-shouting your cautious angels and you’re seized by a reckless courage: “I’m immortal! I spit in Death’s eye! I’m gonna live for-ev-ah!”
“Open.” Oops! Another dream of imperishability bites the dust.
Mortal, according to Wikipedia, means “able to die, susceptible to death,” death-able, you might say—in any case, the natural prospect that makes “see-you-next-year” a real knee-slapper.
Wikipedia references a condition called mortality salience, which is “when an individual becomes aware that his or her death is inevitable.” The term is commonly bandied in terror management theory, a field of study that claims, “mortality salience causes existential anxiety.” Existential anxiety, presumably, is less worry over running out of milk, more running out of heartbeats.
A final notation states that religious fundamentalists are less vulnerable to the “manipulations” of mortality salience—yet another dividend of being Chosen instead of choosey.
I can remember how, as an impatient and vital youngster, I would be offended and scandalized when my parents dragged me to family get-togethers and the oldsters did nothing, it seemed, but sit around sighing about their own and everyone else’s infirmities, declining health or medical crises. It felt like the opposite of living. Of course, my candle was long, then.
Now, I’m somewhat closer to guttering, and have noticed that my own conversation with friends about our acquaintances increasingly features “decrepit,” “could hardly recognize her,” or “forgot his own name”—recalling the joke about the hard-of-hearing seniors: “I want a divorce.” “Did you look in the fridge?”
What puts any of this in mind is a heavy, solid brass mortar and pestle—damn thing must weigh ten pounds—inscribed in Russian (Cyrillic) I can’t read, and which normally sits on a shelf in my place catching dust and the occasional suicidal yellowjacket. It was my grandparents’ and was given to my mom, the second of their five daughters, as a house present when she married. It was kid-proof, indestructible, and six-year-old me used it to experimentally pulverize everything from filberts to quartz pebbles. Consideration of this heirloom drew me impulsively to a cluster of framed family photographs—usually just wallpaper, but this day animated and meaningful.
A photo of my young dad standing in a white t-shirt beneath a tree stirs an incongruous memory: my parents have driven us a hundred miles north of our New York City home for a Catskills resort vacation (“more Jews than cows”), where I hear for the first time in my life the phrase, “Rise and shine!” which, once back home, turns into menacing Professor Reisenschein in my kid’s written fantasies.
There exists an archival photo of aging but still dashing virtuoso pianist Vladimir Horowitz, shown in profile, taking a bow at the conclusion of a January, 1943 recital at New York’s Carnegie Hall. The photo captures Horowitz, in tails, mid-bow beside the piano, and the enraptured audience on its feet, giving the pianist a standing ovation. A woman, thirtyish, but looking younger, girlish, stands and applauds adoringly from the lower balcony. This is my mother, Rose; the woman standing beside her, her sister Elise. Composer Sergei Rachmaninoff, Horowitz’s great friend, will die in two months and my mom will, to far less applause, give birth to me seven months after attending this concert.
“Nothing distinguishes memories from ordinary moments. Only later do they become memorable by the scars they leave,” says the narrator in Chris Marker’s film, La Jetee.
My mom’s parents, Mendel and Bessie, came from Russia; my dad’s, unknown to me, from Germany. For reasons he never explained with any persuasive clarity, my father, born in 1910, changed his name—“Americanized,” they called it—from Pfau to the characterless and ordinary Miller. As a young teenager under the spell of Erich Maria Remarque’s novels (Arch of Triumph, All Quiet On the Western Front, Heaven Has No Favorites, etc.), I imagined myself not Gene or the dreaded Eugene (bellowed, for maximum humiliation, “Yew-geee-un” by my mom in her most nasal Bronx twang in the most public places, of course), but Eugen (as in the German, Oy followed by the hard G of get, so, Oy-gen). Eugen Pfau: Man on the Bridge. Eugen Pfau: Courier at Midnight. Eugen Pfau: Amsterdam Rendezvous.
My mom, inheriting her father’s passion for classical music (he endlessly reminded everyone that he had once shaken Toscanini’s hand at a New York Philharmonic Orchestra concert), studied violin for years at the Manhattan School of Music and fashioned herself a serious and talented musician. At the end of one impromptu family musicale (two of her sisters were pianists), my grandfather muttered to me, in a confidential but hardly inaudible whisper, this verdict: “Woodchopper.” Poor mom, a woodchopper, not a celestial prodigy, and clearly destined always to be in the balcony, never on stage, at Carnegie Hall.
I’ve been narrating these bits of my own past well aware that each of us navigates in a “furnished void,” the subjective and almost fictional space of our own life. We grab at meaning, mostly through one form of story-telling or another. What at one moment feels edifice-like and substantial in its verity, the next seems evanescent, movie-like, speculative, almost imagined. We easily understand this about our own and other individual lives, but it’s equally true of wider human systems—organizations, institutions, social geographies. After all, what is history but fiction we all agree to believe? (Talk about managing terror!)
This column has been making its meditative way toward a question, more of a proposition with a question mark, actually: Can whole cities, even as they appear to continue to function, lose their meaning and identity, and drop out of currency and public memory?
I don’t mean that cities vanish; after all, there they are. But entire urban places do run out of “mission,” life force, story. Consider resource-based mill or mine towns in BC, whose ruins or residue are there to see. Or wickedly imagine Calgary post-oil.
If you need more evidence, visit online the physical and social collapse of Buffalo, Detroit, Flint, Gary, Youngstown and others—once-great US places defined by their muscular industrial roles, their resources (steel, coal, human brawn) combined with the market gift of rail or a wide, flowing river or a lake port—in total, their “moment.”And when industry, economy, technology or mobility changed, the world’s regard shifted from these now-tragic legends towards other cities with more current or more durable aptitudes.
Such places don’t die well or picturesquely—no Carthage with its photogenic columns and ruined stones on the hillside, or Atlantis, intact beneath the waves (coming sea-rise may someday create a hundred such). Today’s gut-punched cities finish without glory. Myth and memory hold on for the space of a long held breath and then are replaced by welfare lines, abandoned buildings, social anger, jungle law and the other telling signs of urban distress and disinvestment.
Cities are simply accidents, or expressions, of the calculus of opportunity, and what is given by opportunity and circumstance can, and will, be taken back.
“The ability of a city’s physical structure to organize and encode a stable social order depends on its [sustained] capacity to master and manipulate matter,” notes Mike Davis, in Dead Cities, a book of pensive essays about cities in human civilization. More quizzical subject-mate Italo Calvino in Invisible Cities exposes us to a string of fictional cities less geographic facts than emotional jurisdictions (“Cities and Desire,” etc). Calvino writes: “Cities, like dreams, are made of desires and fears. The catalogue of forms is endless: until every shape has found its city, the cities will continue to be born.” He might have added “and die.” After all, moods are not permanent.
All of his cities are, of course, one city: humankind strategically or whimsically arranging itself on a landscape. And if you’re finding all of this a bit fanciful, I would ask: do you not see the entry sign, “Welcome to Vain Hope and Folly,” as you cross into the precious bubble of the Uplands—terror management at the urban scale?
Intense discontinuity and dislocation are now affecting the world. It’s impossible to over-imagine the transformative impacts of globalization; the Internet; the massive jobs disruption of deindustrialization and technology; oligarchic consolidations of political and economic power; spreading citizen disappointment; and vast, unpredictable ecological payback from a stained and altered world. I have read some glorious, hopeful predictions, but they seem synthetic. I would put my money on messy.
And somehow, in the middle of such churn, circumstances have conspired to sustain Victoria as a rare example of urban sanity and stability. This is our city’s role in destiny, our identity and our appeal in a jumpy world, our singular message: that traditions of civility and urbanity are not lost.
Yes, but is it a local illusion, a fiction?
Of course not.
Will we endure?
Yes, we will be this same place forever.
A founder of Open Space and Monday Magazine, Gene Miller is currently promoting ASH, an affordable housing concept, and, with others, has initiated the New Economy Network.
Habitat Acquisition Trust volunteers help to save local frogs, salamanders and other amphibians.
ONE NIGHT LAST SPRING, when John Potter and Joan Hendrick were out scanning a kilometre of dark, rainy road by their house in the Highlands, a woman stopped her car to ask if they were looking for something. “Yes,” replied Hendrick, “dead amphibians.” She laughs as she tells the story, but she can’t picture a rural road on a warm, wet night these days without thinking of the casualties likely happening around the region. “I didn’t understand,” she says, “until I started walking. You see them everywhere.”
During summer’s heat, as residents enjoy the local lakes and the winding roads of Saanich and the Highlands, it’s easy to forget the creatures that live alongside in forests, fields and wetlands. But come September’s rains, amphibians like rough-skinned newts, long-toed salamanders and red-legged frogs will make a treacherous journey across these lanes of traffic.
The region’s amphibians complete two migrations a year. In early spring, they move from upland forests to lower wetlands to find mates and lay eggs. In August and September, they journey in reverse, back to their winter forests. Unfortunately, many of the region’s rural areas have roads that bisect this migration route. On parts of West Saanich Road and Munn Road, the mortality of these species can be shockingly high. In one night in 2015, volunteers counted 369 dead amphibians (mostly Pacific tree frogs) on one curve of West Saanich. Almost 100 more were counted at the hot spot near the Potters’ house on Prospect Lake Road.
Potter’s and Hendrick’s observational tasks are part of their work as long-term volunteers with Habitat Acquisition Trust (HAT), a non-profit conservation organization that helps to preserve and restore native ecosystems around the south island.
HAT began its Amphibian Roadkill Project in 2015 and now coordinates with volunteers around the region. Volunteers—usually clad in raincoats and reflective vests—complete counts of amphibian mortalities, including species type and number and GPS location, recording the data on waterproof paper that HAT supplies. They also help amphibians across the road, picking up the slow-moving newts and salamanders and carrying them from one side to the other. Since learning the places where amphibians tend to migrate, Hendrick says that she’s become more careful. “I’ve been yelled at for hitting the brakes for a frog when driving,” she admits.
More than 20 species of frogs and salamanders make their home in BC, with many concentrated in the southern part of the province, where low, temperate wetlands provide ideal habitat. The word amphibian means “double life,” and refers to their larval and adult stages, when they transform from aquatic, gilled animals into air-breathing, land-based animals.
Amphibians are key players in the planet’s web of life. They eat insects, help to protect agricultural crops, and serve as prey for larger animals. But amphibian numbers are in decline world wide; their sensitive, porous skin makes them among the first casualties from pesticide run-off and other water pollutants, habitat change, and ecosystem fragmentation. Because they are so sensitive, they act as an indicator species, warning of potentially dangerous environmental conditions that could also harm human health.
Despite their key role, Alanah Nasadyk, the Community Outreach and Development Coordinator for HAT, tells me that relatively little is known about breeding ground locations for amphibians in the region as well as the species that inhabit them. The Environmental Studies department at UVic came into being only in the late 1990s, she explains; for the Capital Region, knowledge of habitat and number of species is research that just hasn’t yet been done.
Potter and Hendrick, along with other volunteers who patrol local roads, pass their information to HAT, who have created species maps for Highlands, Metchosin and the CRD as a whole, as well as hot spot maps where casualties tend to be particularly high. “We’re really relying on citizen science,” stresses Nasadyk. HAT hopes that zeroing in on hot spots could help convince governments to build amphibian tunnels to provide safe passage under, instead of over, roads, as well as to post signage, warning drivers of crossings. They would also like to see increased study of diseases specific to amphibians, which is where broader scientific collaboration comes into play.
The results of the volunteer field work and HAT’s mapping efforts aren’t useful just to the region. HAT also works with the University of Victoria’s Microbiology Department, where the department’s lab focuses on applying what is known about human health to animal health. Some HAT volunteers recover the remains of amphibians who have died crossing the region’s roads. If they’re in passable condition, they donate them to UVic, where Caren Helbing, professor of microbiology and biochemistry, is happy to receive them. “It’s an exciting and critical partnership,” says Helbing, as HAT provides much of the fieldwork that the lab can’t always do. Helbing stresses that UVic’s research concentrates on non-lethal methods as much as possible. In one nook of the lab, four bullfrogs in various stages of transformation from tadpole to mature frog bump their noses against their plastic bucket. But the acquisition of a rare species, even if it’s no longer alive, is a welcome gift.
Helbing’s lab recently completed the first sequencing of the frog genome. When I visit, she pulls out small test tubes of a white, nebula-like material floating in liquid: pure DNA, millions of strands in each vial. Using DNA pulled from species collected by HAT, Helbing’s lab is advancing research on how metamorphosis occurs in amphibians, how their health can indicate wider patterns of health in the animal world (in species such as Beluga whales, spot prawns and mussels), and the health of a region’s water supply. In the CRD, persistent organic pollutants (POPs) like polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs), which can act as endocrine disruptors, have recently been found in the region’s river otter populations. Endocrine disruptors change hormone levels in animals. Higher levels of thyroid hormone can disrupt or alter metamorphosis for amphibians and cause changes in sex organs and the development of tumours. Tracking the presence of POPs can help indicate amphibian health—and human health—around the region.
HAT’s goal is primarily to raise awareness of impacts amphibians face not just through road mortality, but through the introduction of amphibian diseases from Europe and Asia. Many families buy foreign salamanders or newts as pets; diseases can accompany them. When the aquarium has served its purpose, too often the water is dumped into local waterways or down the toilet, which can spread fungal diseases like Bsal, an amphibian fungal disease responsible for significant amphibian deaths in other parts of the world. Helbing thinks it’s only a matter of time before these diseases reach North America, and wetlands like those in the Highlands.
During my visit to Potter’s and Hendrick’s home, over a dozen bird species mob the feeders outside their windows. They also have a neighbourhood bear that visits from time to time. They boast of not having to mow a lawn, and it’s obvious that the region’s natural habitat is impetus to their need to volunteer, not only through amphibian counts but by installing bat boxes for HAT, restoring native ecosystems with the CRD and enjoying work parties on Haliburton Farm. “Your level of awareness,” she tells me, “really increases. There are lots of little creatures out there, you just have to look for them. You think of that on rainy, warm nights.”
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 brave new world of GMO salmon joins other absurdities like flooding the fertile Peace River Valley.
WHEN IT COMES TO RANKING SPECIES dumb enough to skunk their own food supply, I’d say we’re far enough in front of the pack to be placed in a class all our own. Perhaps it all started some 30 centuries ago with the invention of currency, which turned everything into a measurable commodity and made way for the storing of wealth. The traditional fruits of bartering—fresh figs, fish and falafel, for example—had not been well suited for hoarding, but coins and tokens certainly were, and over time that changed everything.
Along the way bigger players jumped in and shifted the focus to yields and profit. That led to the 19th century invention of synthetic fertilizers and rudimentary selective breeding in both plants and animals. Then food scientists started tinkering in labs and factories, which launched much grand-scale chemical cookery and the advent of “processed food.” The best known food-like product is probably Kraft Dinner, invented in the US in 1937 and shortly thereafter selling up to 70 million boxes annually in Canada.
Corporate cookbooks also gained favour at this time. After the troubles of the Depression and war, homemakers reportedly found it comforting to be guided by professional instructions (that invariably called for a can of soup or box of cake mix). Times were favourable for the rising food giants, and for the remainder of the century they rolled out ever more modern foods that kept us all full and happy.
And so we moved forward, one seemingly good and sensible step at a time to the place we are today, which is a dizzying height above the fertile land where we once all stood so solidly rooted.
Feeding the planet has become a $7 trillion industry that’s been reconfigured so many times it’s now largely owned by 10 huge companies, according to Behind the Brands, a comprehensive 2013 Oxfam report. Every brand you cherish very likely belongs to one of these conglomerates. And that’s not all. Could you handle knowing how deeply the tobacco industry has insinuated itself into the food business? No? I’ll leave that for another time then.
The Oxfam report slams every single one of the Big 10 for exploiting the environment, the workers, the food supply and the consumer. Workers are routinely squeezed out of decent wages and now-epidemic diseases such as diabetes and obesity are being directly linked to the consumption of junk food and pop. It’s obscene that we’re being harmed so knowingly and wilfully.
All over the world we’re damaging the very systems that nourish us. In BC we have, among other degradations, the planned flooding of the fertile Peace River Valley and the ever-increasing threat to our food-rich coastal waters. Our government’s blinkered ambition to choose foreign coinage over local health and well-being is ruining us. (And this under the deceitful guise of helping China repair its contaminated environment.)
There is no end to our food myopia. Last year in BC we ground 55,000 tonnes of wild Pacific hake into meal for poultry and farmed salmon after Russia, the anticipated buyer, became politically miffed and cancelled its order. That’s 55,000 truckloads of quality local food going into the grinder while we cross our fingers and eat mediocre farmed seafood from Asia.
Then there’s the brave new world of GMO. Two months ago Canadian grocers gained federal permission to begin selling genetically modified salmon. AquaBounty, an American company, will “produce” the altered eggs in PEI, grow them to full size in Panama where they’ll also be processed, and ship the fillets back to Canada for sale. GMO labelling will not be required. I don’t know how this makes sense, but do watch for unlabelled, giant, farmed, Atlantic salmon coming soon to a store near you.
The land-based scenarios are equally appalling. Clearly the industry doesn’t care about our health; they don’t have to because our need to eat keeps us tethered to them. But we can make choices and boycott the junk. We can support local food and farmland, and take advantage of long seasons and the option to garden. We can educate ourselves and help guide food policy. We must. Coins won’t save us when all the good food is gone.
Trudy Duivenvoorden Mitic gets much of her family’s fruits and vegetables from her back yard garden. Gardening also helps keep her healthy and sane.