The project seems to be a complete fiasco. But is that just a perception created by something in the air?
IN A REPORT HE DELIVERED to Victoria City council in late March, Johnson Street Bridge Project Director Jonathan Huggett did a 180-degree flip-flop on one of the project’s costly screw-ups. Before I tell you about that, though, I have to provide the reader with a caveat-emptor kind of warning about my story. The fact is, I may be suffering from a mind-altering overdose of carbon dioxide. I don’t think I’m making this up, but I might be.
I came to realize this was a real possibility after coming across a 2015 study by research scientists at Harvard, State University of New York, and Syracuse University. I was earnestly googling away for what might be in the air that could possibly explain the widespread mental confusion we’re seeing south of the border these days. Is it something in the water? No, it’s in the air.
These scientists reported that human cognitive abilities are significantly and adversely affected by the concentration of carbon dioxide that we are now regularly exposed to inside many buildings. Their work confirmed two previous but smaller studies that had come to much the same conclusion. The cognitive functions most severely impacted, the research found, were the ability to use information and the ability to strategize.
So I need to warn you: I wrote this story while sitting inside a building. Moreover, my subject—Mr Huggett’s flip-flopping report—was presumably also written while the author was inside a building. Even worse, because of the likelihood of elevated levels of carbon dioxide wherever you are right now, your ability to process my potentially confused reporting of a potentially confused report could be compromised. By the end of this story, you may be completely dazed and confused.
Before venturing into that minefield, consider this: The only real solution to adverse levels of indoor carbon dioxide is thorough ventilation with fresh, outdoor air. But, as the level of carbon dioxide outdoors continues to increase as a result of carbon emissions from human activity, ventilation will increasingly fail to make any difference. How bad could this get?
The worst-case scenario is that global concentration of atmospheric carbon dioxide will one day reach the levels that significantly affect human cognition. Confusion begins around 800 to 900 parts per million. Currently, outdoor levels are about halfway there and rising. Donald Trump seems eager to get all of us fully there, but being even halfway seems to allow for craziness enough.
So reader beware, and let’s look—for the billionth time—at the Johnson Street Bridge project, whose nine-year history so far provides plenty of circumstantial evidence that carbon dioxide levels during City council meetings in Victoria need to be carefully investigated.
JONATHAN HUGGETT, it turns out, is the most highly-paid official currently working for the City of Victoria. At $20,000 per month, he’s making more than even City Manager Jason Johnson, who hired him. Including expenses and taxes, Huggett is billing Victoria taxpayers approximately $295,000 per year. Not bad for a guy who lives in Surrey, only needs to report to City council four times a year, and isn’t required to answer questions from reporters.
Since he’s so highly paid—by taxpayers—and since some of his claims about the project have seemed to be at odds with the public interest, Huggett’s reports beg for a detailed examination by local media. He has told Focus he’s too busy to answer our emailed questions, although he has made frequent appearances on local talk-radio programs.
As Huggett’s open-ended contract with the City notes, the City also has a highly-paid “designer and project manager,” MMM Group. Since 2009 the City has paid MMM about $16 million for its services. As the “owner’s representative,” MMM, supposedly, would insure the City’s interests were given top priority by the company building the bridge, PCL Constructors Westcoast Inc. So why does the City need Huggett? Can’t MMM be trusted to do its job?
According to his contract, Huggett was brought in by City Manager Johnson in April 2014, to “undertake an independent review of the Project, including assessment of the relationship between the City, MMM and PCL, to evaluate the current status of the project and potential risks to its successful completion.” But after undertaking that review and providing a report in July 2014, Huggett was appointed “Project Director.” He has spent the time since then providing quarterly reports formerly written by City employees in collaboration with MMM.
The breakdown in trust between the City and its project manager became public in 2014 when both PCL and MMM began to present the City with claims for additional costs even though the City had been assured that project costs had been capped by a “fixed price” contract. Huggett’s first report to City councillor’s assured them that the City didn’t have a fixed-price contract. For some reason, councillors liked what they heard and Huggett’s monthly cost then escalated.
With an extended period of legal battles likely to follow physical completion of the bridge, Huggett can expect to receive a monthly cheque from the City at least through 2018. If that’s the case, his own work on the project will add roughly $1.3 million to the cost of the new bridge. It’s unclear whether that amount has been fully included in any of the quarterly updates Huggett has delivered to City councillors. It should also be noted that Huggett does not track the bridge’s costs. That’s done by the City’s finance department. As well, the City is represented by an outside law firm—as well as its own highly-paid legal staff—on legal issues related to the project.
Huggett has stated publicly a number of times that his job is to make sure the project gets completed. But Huggett has sometimes presented opinions to City council and the public that haven’t been based on facts. His use of—let’s call them alternative facts—have had the effect of protecting the reputations of professional engineers who have screwed up on this project rather than protecting the public interest.
One good example of Huggett’s use of alternative facts was his response to a story Focus published about how the level of seismic protection stipulated for the bridge—the seismic design criteria—was secretly downgraded from the level that MMM had recommended.
The essential facts of that story are these: MMM recommended to the City in 2010 that the new bridge be able to withstand a magnitude 8.5 earthquake and the City agreed to pay an additional $10 million for that recommended higher level of protection. However, after initial estimates from the construction companies bidding to build the bridge were received in 2012, project engineers realized that the bridge would cost much more than they had hoped. At least one of the companies also expressed concerns about the unusual design’s inherent seismic risk.
For whatever reason—whether it was to reduce costs in an attempt to save a failing project or because the engineers realized the peculiar design could not withstand a magnitude 8.5 earthquake without irreparable damage—the project’s target seismic protection level was lowered. The decision to build the bridge to a lower seismic standard was made in secret—that is, without City council’s knowledge—and that broke the agreement City managers had made to seek elected officials’ consent to change the project’s scope. More importantly, the downgrading of the seismic design criteria meant the bridge could be more easily damaged by an earthquake. It also made it more likely the bridge would be unrepairable following a smaller earthquake.
When Focus published a story pointing this out, Huggett’s response was to obscure what had occurred. His explanations never acknowledged the existence of the Johnson Street Seismic Design Criteria document which proved the change had been made. This document was an integral part of the construction contract the City signed with PCL. Instead, Huggett provided City councillors with a report in which a critical paragraph of the building code governing construction of bridges had been altered so that it appeared that the lower standard to which the bridge had been built was in accord with the requirements of the (altered) code.
This was a truly remarkable sleight of hand, and I have wondered whether carbon dioxide might have been involved. What else could explain Victoria City council’s utter lack of ambition to look more closely at the issue? The City was in a position to demand that MMM return $10 million of its $16 million payment for its failure to provide a bridge with the level of seismic performance it had recommended. And what explains Huggett’s course of action? Instead of pursuing MMM, he misquoted the bridge code.
A partially-redacted email (it was obtained by FOI) from an MMM employee to Huggett following the creative rewrite of the seismic code, expressed MMM’s relief “since the seismic issues appear to be contained for the time being.” Huggett never publicly admitted that such “issues” even existed, but it’s apparent that MMM expected the issue might resurface.
So now we come to Huggett’s 180-degree flip-flop.
(Also see the slideshow: Seismic rip-off on the Johnson Street Bridge)
I RECENTLY REPORTED WHAT HUGGETT has said about the issue of fendering on the north side of the bridge. Fendering is the protective barrier placed around the support piers of a bridge to minimize the damage that could be done if a ship or barge accidentally hit the piers. Huggett told councillors in July 2015 that more extensive fendering was needed on the north side of the bridge than had initially been planned because, as it turned out, “The new bridge is somewhat less robust than the existing structure.” In explaining why this would add significantly more cost to the project than had been stipulated in the so-called “fixed-price” contract, Huggett told councillors that the north-side fendering had been “clouded-out” in a contract drawing. That indicated, he said, “It is not in the original contract.”
But a review of the “fixed-price” contract by Focus strongly suggested that the cost of the fendering had been included, even if the final design of the north side fendering had not been fully worked out.
In response to an FOI request from Focus, the City said it could not find the “clouded-out” contract drawing that Huggett had referred to, further eroding the credibility of his claim that the contract did not include the north side fendering.
In spite of these facts, Huggett continued to maintain that the additional cost of the north side fendering could be substantial and would have to be borne by City taxpayers. The cost has been rumoured to be as high as $10 million.
A rendering of fendering on the north side of the new Johnson Street Bridge from Jonathan Huggett’s March 2017 quarterly report to Victoria City Council, in which it was described as “one option.” One Victoria engineer estimated the installation could add $10 million to the cost of the project.
Who was Huggett representing by taking this position? He is being paid $20,000 each month by Victoria taxpayers. Shouldn’t his positions reflect that? Let me boil this down to two points.
First, why would Victoria be getting a bridge that was “less robust” than the existing bridge? Questions raised about the ability of the existing bridge to withstand the forces exerted on it by even a minor earthquake was the very rationale used for building a new bridge. Yet, according to Huggett, the new bridge would be less robust than the old bridge. Rather than openly accepting this apparent project failure, shouldn’t Huggett have been advocating for a better outcome?
Secondly, why didn’t Huggett take the position that the cost of all fendering was in the PCL contract?
In his report to City council in March, Huggett reversed his position and admitted that PCL’s fixed-price contract was “supposed to cover all fendering costs.” Huggett also provided details about the issue that have been kept secret for two years.
Huggett revealed two errors that were made. One was made before the construction contract was negotiated with PCL and one afterward. Both subsequently “impacted” the design of the fendering, and hence its cost, Huggett reported.
The first error was the relocation in early 2012 of an underwater duct bank containing numerous telecommunications cables, including fibre optic cables connecting CFB Esquimalt to the world. That $1.6 million project was engineered and overseen by MMM. According to Huggett, though, the duct bank “was not moved sufficiently far enough to allow for easy construction of fendering systems. Without additional protection measures, piles cannot be driven close to the duct bank as in the event of a ship collision the piles might move and damage the duct bank.”
Unbelievable but—according to Huggett—true.
By the way, the duct bank was relocated even before the City had a final bridge design, let alone a signed construction contract. At the time, City managers insisted such work needed to proceed in order for the project to meet its March 2016 completion deadline so that federal funding would not be lost. (Arbitrary deadlines and high levels of carbon dioxide are a truly awesome combination of conditions under which City councillors are asked to make important decisions, don’t ’ya think?)
The second error identified by Huggett involved the City’s property at 203 Harbour Road. According to Huggett, “The City sold 203 Harbour Road to Ralmax as it was assumed the land was not needed for the construction of the bridge. This impacts an economical design since access to the water side frontage of 203 Harbour Road must be preserved.”
That’s not quite true, though. The City actually transferred 203 Harbour Road and other adjacent properties to the Province in 2014 in exchange for the Crystal Garden property on Douglas. The Province then sold the Harbour Road properties to Ralmax.
Regardless, Huggett is implying that whoever negotiated the transfer of 203 Harbour Road to Ralmax apparently neglected to obtain an agreement that would have allowed a minor intrusion on its riparian access to 203 Harbour Road to allow economical fendering for the bridge project. Wow. I bet the negotiating room had poor ventilation.
Following delivery of Huggett’s March report to councillors, he appeared on CFAX. Among other things, Huggett told listeners the City hoped to recover, through legal action, the additional cost of fendering from the bridge’s “designer.” In Huggett’s contract with the City, the bridge’s “designer” is identified as MMM.
A review of what MMM committed to in writing on the design and cost of fendering suggests that the City will have little chance of recovering that cost from MMM. But still, this is a complete flip-flop from Huggett’s previous position that the cost of north-side fendering was explicitly excluded from the original contract—and so the City would have to suck it up.
Could he also flip-flop on the seismic issue and assist the City in getting MMM to return $10 million for that fiasco? Not likely. To flip-flop on the seismic issue would require that Huggett explain why he rewrote the bridge seismic code for a council report. That would be awkward for him to explain. Perhaps he could invoke a carbon-dioxide defence.
SPEAKING OF CARBON DIOXIDE, one of the original premises used to justify building a new bridge in 2009 was that the existing double-bascule bridge presented a daily discouragement to thousands of would-be cyclists who, promoters claimed, were just waiting for a new bridge so they could abandon their daily commute by car. That would reduce carbon emissions, they said.
Bicycle access across the railway bridge was eliminated in April 2011. If the bridge was a choke point before then, it has been even worse in the six years since. The prolonged disruption of vehicle traffic—with long waits on both sides of the bridge only adding to overall vehicle emissions—was never part of the bridge promoters’ calculations. The longer the bottleneck lasts, the more ridiculous the claim of reducing carbon emissions becomes. When will it end?
The project has been on hold for months, waiting for completion in China of the lifting part of the bridge, which will span the remaining 41-metre gap. So far, fabrication of that one section of the bridge has taken over three years. How is that going? Explaining the project’s schedule—and why the bridge won’t be finished anytime soon, has been a major part of Huggett’s $20,000 per month assignment.
In his September 2016 report to the City, Huggett said that Chinese fabricators had been working at fitting the rings to the trusses in preparation for a “trial fit-up.” “Painting of the structure will commence shortly,” Huggett reported. Three months later Huggett’s report noted that Chinese fabricators experienced difficulty fitting the first ring to the first truss, but Huggett expressed optimism that what the fabricators had learned would speed up fitting the other ring and truss together. It didn’t. Almost four months later, Huggett presented photographs that showed most of the major components had been fitted together, although there was no photographic proof that the north-side truss and ring had been matched.
Photos published by the City showed Chinese workers apparently ready to lift the north-side truss into place on March 16.
The photographs suggest painting of the bridge parts might be weeks—if not months—away. Yet Huggett had reported six months earlier that painting would “commence shortly.”
So when is Victoria getting its new bridge?
According to PCL’s original construction schedule, it would take slightly more than six months between the date the steel components were delivered to Victoria and the date the bridge could be opened for traffic. It would take another three months after that before the Blue Bridge could be removed and the project completed.
So far, PCL hasn’t completed any of the tasks on its original schedule in less time than predicted. So, with the final shipment of steel components not expected to get to Victoria until September—according to Huggett—six months after that would put the bridge opening for traffic in February 2018, and project completion in early May 2018.
One has to wonder: If those Harvard scientists are right about carbon dioxide affecting human cognitive function, did Shanghai’s notoriously dirty air play a role in the Chinese fabricators’ stumbling performance on Victoria’s new bridge? That seems possible. And there’s plenty of evidence of mental confusion at play on this project right here in Victoria, too. If there’s something in the air that’s making it more difficult for people to make good decisions, it’s a global phenomenon. Which means, of course, I, too, could be dazed and confused on the Johnson Street Bridge. How about you?
Low supply, increasing demand, higher rents, and “renovictions”—is any relief in sight?
DOREEN BEGORAY, 61, knows how quickly life can unravel when financial circumstances suddenly change. After 11 years as a sessional professor teaching sociology at the University of Victoria, Begoray got laid off. Unable to find another job, she opted to sell the house she owned to extract the equity from it. She planned to sustain herself by using that money to pay her way in the rental market.
As the house proceeds got spent and rents increased, she could no longer find affordable accommodation that would allow her to keep her two dogs. “The dogs are the issue for me…so I moved into my car,” explains Begoray, who was by then living on a $320 monthly pension and $350 disability payment.
“I just couldn’t find a place. It was ridiculous,” says Begoray, who spent more than eight months, from May to December, living in her Jeep Liberty, which she parked at night on Dallas Road by the off-leash dog park. “It’s actually quite cozy in my car, but I really missed bathrooms.” She showered at the Y and, during the day, would hang out at coffee shops where she could sit on the patio with her dogs.
During that seven-month period, Begoray was not approached by police, despite sleeping directly under a sign prohibiting overnight camping. City of Victoria council is now looking at the possibility of taking down such signs and officially sanctioning the practice of sleeping in vehicles overnight.
Victoria Mayor Lisa Helps
This stop-gap measure to accommodate people facing the harshest realities of our near-zero vacancy rate is not, according to Mayor Lisa Helps, any sort of sustainable solution. “Sleeping in vehicles is not housing. I don’t want anyone sleeping in their vehicles…but, if they are sleeping in their vehicles, I think we should let them sleep,” Helps says.
Although Begoray was on the lengthy BC Housing waiting list, only two subsidized buildings in Greater Victoria allow tenants to have two pets. Seeing her situation as increasingly hopeless, Begoray approached the staff at MLA Rob Fleming’s community office. With assistance from the office staff and a subsidy from Pacifica Housing, she found a studio apartment in Cook Street Village, but worries about others in similarly dire straits.
“There was one person sleeping in the woods off Dallas Road who had mental health problems. It’s just barbaric that our society does not provide for people who need it,” Begoray laments. “Rental accommodation is just beyond expensive. The City and the Province and the country keep saying we are going to put all this money into housing, well let’s see some affordable housing…I want people to recognize this is a societal issue.”
MLA Fleming also worries about the many others who are finding themselves in situations like these, and recently saw a garage listed as a two-bedroom apartment. The potential backlog of renovictions, he says, which would remove hundreds of units of housing stock, also looms darkly on the horizon. There’s no adequate safety net in place for those who would be displaced. “When we try to find housing in the affordable, non-profit portfolios, there’s a 2500-person waiting list,” he says.
The supply-and-demand disparity also puts renters at the mercy of unscrupulous property owners. Stories abound of landlords being surreptitiously offered, and accepting, an instant lump payment to boost an applicant to the top of the list.
Student Stephanie Cameron-Johnson, 23, describes how the owner of a house she rented tried to wring thousands of dollars from her and her roommates. After putting the house up for sale, her landlord insisted that, if they wanted to stay on as tenants, he would pocket both their $800 damage deposit and $800 pet deposit. He also asked them to pay for new floors and other renovations, and demanded additional compensation for utilities. “He wanted more than $7000 from us,” Cameron-Johnson says. While she’s grateful that a mediator appointed by the Residential Tenancy Branch advocated for them, the dispute left a bad taste and meant a long, unfruitful search for a new rental. She eventually gave up, and moved back in with family.
THERE ARE THOUSANDS MORE CASUALTIES of the current affordability crisis, with some more visible than others. Greater Victoria “officially” has almost 1400 homeless, according to last year’s Point in Time Count. That number includes 175-plus “chronically homeless” individuals, another 353 in shelters on the night of the count, and 842 “provisionally accommodated,” meaning couch-surfing, in motels, or in other temporary housing. These numbers are always in flux, says Don Elliott, executive director of Greater Victoria Coalition to End Homelessness.
As well, these numbers are only the most-obvious tip of a much more substantial iceberg, one that is amplifying in a self-perpetuating cycle of high rents, desperate demand, and meagre supply. “There’s a huge group of people who are employed and are not able to access affordable housing,” Elliott says; not surprising when the vacancy rate remains stuck at a stubborn 0.5 percent, and average rents in Greater Victoria keep rising (5.5 percent in 2016 alone).
Social service providers on the front lines see exactly who is ending up in shelter beds—and why. They report an alarming and steady increase of people who have become unexpectedly homeless because they can no longer afford to pay their rent, have been renovicted (when a property owner legally terminates a lease to improve a rental unit, then re-rents it at a much higher rate or sells it), or just cannot manage to locate adequate housing in such a competitive market, where landlords often receive 30 or more applications for each available apartment.
Don McTavish, director of residential services for the Cool Aid Society, concurs with Elliott, saying that between 15 and 20 percent of those using Victoria’s shelters are indeed employed. In an effort to keep them out of shelters and in their homes, Cool Aid administers a one-time subsidy program for people who are more or less making ends meet, but are about to lose their rental because of a missed utility or rent payment. The program is well-used, McTavish says, indicating the growing number of households teetering on the edge of homelessness. “Most of the time [those receiving this subsidy] are people we have not seen in the shelters before.”
During the homeless count, 721 individuals agreed to be interviewed. While 20 percent said they were homeless because of addiction or substance abuse, 18.9 per cent gave job loss as the primary reason and 13.6 percent had been evicted because they were unable to pay the rent. When asked about the main barrier to finding a place to live, 60 percent said their income was too low and 56 percent that rents were too high.
Statistics make it clear that many renters are stretched to the limit. The Canadian Rental Housing Index reports that 24 percent of all renters in the CRD spend more than half their gross, pre-tax income on shelter. The Community Social Planning Council has calculated that the Living Wage for Victoria is $20.02 an hour, yet BC’s minimum wage is only $10.85 an hour.
The situation is worse, of course, for those on income assistance, where rates have remained frozen since 2007. A single person on basic income assistance receives $610 per month and a single parent with one child receives $946 a month. Average rents in the CRD are now at $785 for a batchelor suite and $912 for a one-bedroom. (CMHC)
“So, there are two very significant economic drivers and that is what we are trying to focus on,” says Elliott, whose research shows that a minimum of 250 to 500 units of supportive housing and 1500 units of affordable housing are needed in Greater Victoria.
A new report by Housing Central and the BC Rental Housing Coalition, which includes groups such as the BC Non-Profit Housing Association, LandLord BC and the BC Seniors Living Association, analyzes what it will take to get everyone adequately housed. It calculates that it will take $1.8 billion annually over the next decade to solve the province’s affordable housing crisis. In its 10-year road map, the group recommends the cost be shared among the federal and provincial governments and the non-profit sector (non-profit investment could come from leveraging land assets and using community land trusts to attract government and private-sector investment to construct rental housing). (See www.housingcentral.ca.)
Their research indicates almost 70 percent of renters in the province are spending more than they can afford on housing. In the Capital Regional District, that translates into 3024 households with average incomes less than $22,378 in core housing need, and 12,164 in need of income support.
In addition, the report notes, more than 3000 households with average incomes of $55,511 are living in inadequate housing because they cannot find suitable, affordable accommodation. Almost $177 million is needed annually to upgrade the rental housing supply in the Capital Region. The organization stresses that its estimates are “conservative.”
ALTHOUGH THE FIGURES APPEAR DAUNTING, Mayor Lisa Helps believes the region is making progress. The missing piece of the complicated puzzle, she feels, is federal funding. “In 1989 the federal government spent $114 per Canadian on affordable housing and in 2014 the federal government spent $15 per Canadian on affordable housing. At the same time, the population of Canada grew by 30 percent, so that is the root of the problem,” she says.
She notes that the new federal Liberal government has made significant commitments to housing, but says it’s a challenge to make up for the 30-year gap in federal funding.
While there is abundant construction around the region—including new, market-price rental units being built for the first time in decades—it isn’t enough even for the newcomers arriving. Helps notes that between 2011 and 2016 a total of 5775 new residents moved to Victoria, but only 2802 new housing units were built. (Victoria averages 1.8 people per household, so the math shows a shortfall of over 700 units.)
And the new units have not reduced rental rates on older units. “There is so much demand, landlords are charging almost the same for old stock as for new stock,” explains Elliott of the Coalition to End Homelessness. “So, yes, we are seeing a lot more construction, but no, it’s unlikely that homeless or low-income individuals will be able to take advantage of that increase in supply.” A 1970s one-bedroom rents for as high as $1100 or $1200 a month, he says, “and that is about a five-percent increase compared to last year.”
Helps believes that all the construction, along with other steps being taken by the City, Region and Province will lead to some relief in the next couple of years.
The BC government, for instance, in the wake of Victoria’s tent city, spent more than $25 million to buy and renovate properties, creating about 190 spaces. It also announced another $45 million for housing projects that will provide 510 units for those with low to moderate incomes.
At the regional level, Helps points to the CRD’s Regional Housing First Program, with $30 million coming from taxpayers and $30 million from the Province. That program will see 880 new rental units built over the next five years with rents ranging from $375 a month to 85 percent of the market rate. She says the first two buildings have already been approved for funding, and will include 50 units to be rented at $375 a month.
Helps also points to moves by the City: Council just voted to allow garden suites in single-family zones; applications for rental buildings are being fast-tracked; and developers are being encouraged to include affordable units when going to council with a project. “We are on the right track,” she says, adding, “We have got all the things we need in place except federal funding for housing, so hopefully that will flow.”
Meanwhile, those working in the housing field are delighted to see the issue topping party priority lists during the provincial election campaign, and are keeping their fingers crossed that promises will translate into concrete action after the election.
The Liberals are promising to build 5000 more units of affordable housing over three years, with $855 million for social housing; expand the existing home renovation tax credit to help homeowners add rental suites; and close loopholes landlords use to evade rent controls.
The NDP is promising to use partnerships to build 114,000 rental, social, student residence and co-op homes over the next decade, and pledging to bring in a $400-a-year tax rebate for renters together with additional protections from landlords who use renovations as an excuse to sidestep rent increase rules.
The BC Greens are promising $750 million a year to support construction of about 4000 new units of affordable housing annually, an investment of $100 million a year for retrofits of older units and more protection for renters through the Residential Tenancy Act.
Kathy Stinson, Victoria Cool Aid Society CEO, is encouraged to see not-for-profit groups and different levels of government working together. “Even some of the private developers have committed to putting in five percent of the units as affordable housing,” she says. “I am more optimistic than I have been for some time.”
But the question for those looking for somewhere to live, without handing over more than half their paycheque every month, is whether the various initiatives will be translated into bricks and mortar in time to prevent their slide into homelessness.
This article has been updated. In the original version, we quoted Mayor Helps as stating that the federal government spent $15 per Canadian on affordable housing in 2014. Helps says the correct number is $58 per Canadian.
Judith Lavoie is an award-winning journalist specializing in the environment, First Nations, and social issues. Twitter @LavoieJudith.
Great writing (Alan Cassels’ “Letter to Victoria soccer moms,” March/April 2017) and—wow—I am surprised that Focus published this article on HPV in the time of prohibited discussion of vaccine issues, but good for them! The Gardasil vaccine has been associated with many severe side effects and long-lasting immune system dysregulation, likely for several reasons:
First, the vaccine uses a novel, more immunogenic form of aluminum adjuvant. Aluminum is strongly immunogenic as well as neurotoxic and capable of inducing all sorts of auto-immune and neurologic disorders. For a list of research in this area, please see the Children’s Medical Safety Research Institute, cmsri.org.
Second, during trial phases of this vaccine, the control group received an injection containing all the adjuvants, including the novel aluminum adjuvant present in the vaccine, minus the antigens. This is completely unacceptable and unscientific, as the control group was given something that was anything but inert. The researchers concluded that the rate of side effects in the vaccine-treated group versus the control group was similar.
And last, there is evidence that the antigens in the Gardasil vaccine share many similarities with human proteins, increasing the likelihood of a cross-reaction, i.e. auto-immune disease. (Quantifying the possible cross-reactivity risk of an HPV16 vaccine, D. Kanduc, J Exp Ther Oncol. 2009;8(1):65-76.)
Therefore, the potent aluminum adjuvant, in combination with this particular antigen, creates an especially problematic vaccine.
Dr Anke Zimmermann, ND, FCAH
I appreciate you bringing the issue of vaccination against cancer-causing viruses to our community. As a carer who has witnessed the colossal suffering and deaths from cervical, tonsillar, laryngeal, tongue, anal and penis cancers, I have long dreamed of practical preventative approaches as opposed to the current “wait for it to get big enough to be detected then slam it with surgery, radiation and chemo” default which is always difficult and expensive, and sometimes unsuccessful. Whether you feel that these viruses are the “major risk factor” for these cancers (like many felt HIV was for AIDS) or the direct cause, there is no doubt immunization will reduce these diseases. While “90 percent of these infections are asymptomatic and resolve spontaneously,” with only a few going on to cancer, I would suggest the “crime against humanity” is more the lack of vaccination against preventable diseases rather than a family’s human rights suit to obtain the vaccine!
I was interested to read Alan Cassels’ idea [in "Letter to Victoria’s Soccer Moms”] that by vaccinating boys who identify themselves as being at “increased risk” for contracting the virus, we will have adequate coverage. Few grade 6 boys that I know would self-identify (“Sir, I am thinking of having high-risk sex in a few years”) just to have the joy of a needle in the arm. Years of biology and public health research suggests that vaccinating populations can bring “herd immunity” with drastic reductions in disease occurrence for all members if we can achieve high enough rates of acceptance. Vaccine refusal and failure will always ensure a reservoir of the virus, but going forward, women, too, will be protected by the vaccination of boys in terms of reduced exposure to these cancer-causing viruses.
Attacking governments and the pharmaceutical industry is easy pickings, as is citing case reports of possibly-linked adverse reactions, and while I respect much of Alan Cassels’ past work, the picture looks different form the vantage point of a front-line carer. I have not investigated the economics in terms of overall cost/benefit, but likely the government has, and if you want to attack the program on economic grounds, go ahead and present the case. I just know that I paid hundreds of dollars to get my kids immunized, as there was no government funding at that time, and I could never live with myself if they contracted one of these largely preventable diseases. The time has come for a more universal approach to preventing these cancers, and these vaccines are our best hope.
Dr Stephen Ashwell
Alan Cassels responds: While I can understand Stephen Ashwell’s earnest desire to use whatever means possible to tackle preventable diseases that cause a lot of suffering and death, I wish I could share his sense of certainty that the HPV vaccine will reduce these diseases. When he says there is “no doubt that immunization will reduce these diseases,” I, and many of my colleagues, beg to differ.
In fact, I’d argue that what we do have is a lot of doubt around the ultimate effectiveness of HPV vaccines. As you know, cancers can take many decades to grow, and exposure to the human papilloma virus is only one of many potentially causal factors. I admit that, on this one, I remain old-fashioned and ultra-conservative, believing that we do need to have solid proof that a vaccine will do what its proponents claim before we start offering it, en masse, to the entire population. If there is one thing I’ve learned in studying drug policy, it’s that technology bites back, and the history of medicine is littered with numerous instances where the early, enthusiastic embrace of a new medical technology often involves unforeseeable downsides.
While those in the oncology community may say my caution is irresponsible, I think it is equally irresponsible to write off the mounting global numbers of case reports of adverse reactions. As Anke Zimmermann correctly points out, major questions around the safety of the HPV vaccine that linger—particularly the risk of auto-immune diseases associated with them—cannot be ignored. Worldwide, we have witnessed girls who appear to have been hurt by this vaccine, and thankfully those numbers seem small, but we also know it has been administered to those girls without any definitive proof it affects the rates of cervical cancer it is supposed to reduce. I wonder what is the proper response to parents who say: “I could never live with myself if my child was hurt by an as-yet-unproven vaccine?”
I thank both Stephen Ashwell and Anke Zimmermann for taking the time to weigh in with their thoughts, because I think our “best hope” is a global conversation about new technologies and whether they may involve more harm than benefit.
In your last edition of Focus you have an article by Mr Alan Cassels recommending that we do not vaccinate boys against the Human Papilloma Virus (HPV). This is the virus that is the cause of cervical cancer in women. The argument is that as men do not have a cervix, they cannot get cervical cancer.
During the South African War, the British Army had the greatest loss of life due to disease. The prime cause was enteric fever, which killed more men than the enemy action. Research into this matter by Sir Almroth Wright identified the cause, and a vaccine was produced. Since then, every British soldier has been vaccinated as part of his initial training. During WWI, there were six deaths due to enteric fever. Enquiry showed that these six were men who “knew better” and had managed to dodge the needle.
In my early professional career, because of a distressing family history I was determined to know something about cancer, so I became a house surgeon at the (then) Royal Cancer Hospital in London.
Young women would be diagnosed with cervical cancer often at their first visit to confirm a pregnancy. Treatment then would involve a radiotherapist packing the vagina, under anaesthesia, with packets containing radium needles. Then, knowing the amount used, he would calculate the dose and when the radium would have to be removed. This was my job, regardless of when the time came for the removal. It was often in the middle of the night.
The immediate result was a miscarriage as she suffered the effects of the radiotherapy. She would be sterile, and subsequent treatment was often disappointing. We knew that the cancer virus had been brought into her body by a penis, but this was never mentioned.
Vaccination has now almost eradicated smallpox from the Earth. Poliomyelitis is now rare: it persists in some countries as a result of ignorance and prejudice. Please let us eliminate this cruel and horrible cancer of young women.
With regard to the high cost of drugs, research is very expensive because everything must be tested and retried. M&B 693, the first drug to have any effect against syphilis, was named because it was the 693rd medication to be tested against the disease. How much do you think that research cost? Who paid for it?
As a student, I was told that the penicillin doses we were injecting into really sick patients cost 600 British pounds a shot. In those days, it was a green mould growing in a flask and had to be cultivated, collected, extracted and condensed.
But it saved lives. A little later, a penicillin tablet could be purchased for a few cents. Is not life worth the cost?
Dr Donald North
Alan Cassels responds: I think the key point made by Dr North is that we have seen great advances with vaccines in terms of eradicating the threat of smallpox and polio. I agree and we should be thankful we have those vaccines.
At the same time, if we had any proof that there were similar lifesaving effects of the HPV vaccine, which was the subject of my article, I would be very pleased to see those vaccines used. The problem is that worldwide experience is pointing in the other direction and sometimes medical preventative treatments can harm. If the vaccine turned out to save lives of women dying of cervical cancer, yet injured many thousands of girls along the way, we would hardly say this is a huge medical advance. Life is priceless, but a vaccine that may protect your boys from genital warts seems a stretch to me.
Victoria’s iconic, world-class blunder The comparison of France’s Milau Viaduct, which came in on time and on budget, to the disastrous Johnson Street Bridge fiasco was very interesting. Closer to home, the Tsable River Bridge, 15 kilometres south of Courtenay on the Inland Island Highway, is another excellent example of a well-designed bridge, engineered to fit a unique river crossing, that was completed in 27 months and within a budget of $15.3 million. The 400-metre-long, 4-lane bridge reaches a height of 60 metres above the valley floor. Construction of the bridge took place between 1996 and 1998. Several construction options were considered to meet Provincial specifications, which included protection of the Tsable River salmon spawning runs, a forest floor with trees up to 60 metres high, and seismic strengthening requirements. A cast-in-place design was chosen over a heavier steel structure. Besides coming in on-time and on-budget, this bridge won an Association of Canadian Consulting Engineering Award of Excellence in 1999. Properly managed, large bridge projects can be completed on time and on budget, as was the case with the Tsable River Bridge. Colin Nielsen
In the Spring issue of This England magazine there is a small article about operating the Tower Bridge in England. Some statistics mentioned were that it was built 120 years ago and sees 40,000 people go over it every day: motorists, cyclists and pedestrians. The bridge is lifted, on average, 15 times a week and the lifting mechanism is much more complex than Victoria’s Blue Bridge. Everyone can visit The Tower Bridge Exhibition and it has its own website. It is a true icon of England. Will we say the same thing about our new bridge?
The power of words I admire Focus very much, and I always feel relieved when I read the articles you publish, because I feel strongly that they represent me! I just want to draw your attention to something that seems small, but that has come to bother me more and more. The subtitle in your article “The refugee crisis” reads, “America is slamming its door...” The United States is not America. It is in North America, a continent that includes Mexico, United States and Canada. As a Chilean-born person, I have been tolerating the appropriation of the name of our huge continent, America, by one of its countries, the United States, for a long time! Specially now, with Donald Trump at the helm, with his racism and arrogance, it feels even worse.
America (including North America, Central America and South America) is a wonderful, exciting , diverse continent that includes many languages, ethnicities and cultures. We, as a continent, are great because of our diversity, and hopefully we will succeed in living, collaborating and understanding each other peacefully.
Again, my congratulations for the wonderful work you do. We are so lucky to have you in Victoria!
Lina de Guevara
Tales of two booksellers Ross Crockford calls a couple of bookstores in Victoria “monuments to the written word” and Timothy Vernon reportedly said about one of them that it was a “temple to the life of the mind.” Crockford’s comment is a monument to the written exaggeration and Vernon’s speech is a temple to the life of his own hyperbole. I have nothing against Munro’s Books and Bolen Books, but I am all for Russell Books. This is because the best books are used books; all used well, but not all used up. Anyone who goes to Amazon but not Munro’s and Bolen will not hug a tree. Yet anyone who goes to Munro’s and Bolen but not Russell cannot let it be.
The sewage treatment issue The president of the James Bay Community Association recently circulated a document stating that our new sewage plant’s standards to reduce odour will not be consistent with best practice.
The document states the “no odour promise is no longer believed as the Esquimalt agreement shifted from a best practices approach to outdated odour maximum targets, with the plant to be constructed to a standard of 5 Odour Units; 5 on a 10 maximum scale. Other jurisdictions are constructing plants to a 3 Odour Unit standard in non-residential areas and 1 Odour Unit when residences are nearby. If the plant emits an odour of 5 OU during a period of dominant westerly winds, there is a serious risk of a very unpleasant odour spreading across the harbour.”
If this information is correct, the CRD must act immediately to correct the problem. Otherwise we will live with the results of bad planning for generations to come.
According to a little-known June 2010 CRD impact study, the massive trench required to adequately bury the 4-foot wastewater pipeline from Clover to Ogden Points will follow the Dallas Road right-of-way, which dissects Beacon Hill Park. This was confirmed in a September 27, 2012 CRD procurement document.
However carefully the work is done, it will have an enormous impact on the park, whose lands were first set aside by James Douglas in 1858. Founded by the City of Victoria in 1882, the park has been subject to 25 applications for major projects since 1882: All have been denied.
Where in the Dallas Road right-of-way (rights-of-way are usually 66 feet wide) is there room for the pipeline?
The pipeline, according to award-winning wastewater engineer John Motherwell, would need to be buried 12 feet deep to avoid existing underground services and achieve a one-foot underlying protective bed.
However, WorkSafeBC requires that unless shored, a trench of this depth must be at least 40 feet wide to protect workers from collapse. There must also be room to deposit the huge mounds of excavated soil and the heavy equipment. Heavy equipment placed in the park will destroy the fragile vegetation. Then, along the inner side of the Dallas Road waterfront, homes are virtually on the curb, with no boulevard, most of the way from Clover Point to Ogden Point.
Third, excavating the trench along the ocean side of Dallas Road would require the removal of many ancient trees and the distinctive seaward-slopes scrub close to the curb.
This permanent transformation of Victoria’s scenic marine drive would be unacceptable if not intolerable to many residents.
Fourth, tearing up the 36-foot-wide pavement of Dallas Road to accommodate the 40-foot trench for the 3.3 kilometres to Ogden Point would cost an estimated 35 percent more. (Installed asphalt now costs approx. $300 per square metre.)
Now to the archaeology.
These lands were for centuries the home of the Lekwungen (Songhees) people, who lived in a defensive village on Finlayson Point directly below Beacon Hill. Their burial cairns marked the hillside and the park preserves this sacred Songhees area in perpetuity.
Museum Curator of Archaeology Dr Grant Keddie reports there was a second defense location at Holland Point near the southwest corner of the park, and a third on the bluff at the northwest corner of Clover Point. Carbon-dating of the midden at Finlayson Point shows that the site was first occupied about 1000 years ago.
Accordingly, Victoria’s 165-acre jewel gained heritage status in 2009 and “is considered one of the most significant Canadian public parks of the nineteenth century, comparable to Mount Royal Park in Montreal.” According to Senior Heritage Planner Steve Barber: “The heritage designation will provide an appropriate level of protection and recognition and provide a mechanism for heritage values to be considered in future changes to the park.” (Planning Report, October 8, 2009).
Seemingly oblivious to this, and lacking transparency, the land-based sewage planners have called for at least four registered archaeological sites to be intersected by the pipeline between Clover and Ogden Points; indeed the whole proposed route through the park is believed to have archaeological potential. Then there is the flora and fauna.
The park preserves much native flora: Friends of Beacon Hill Park list 51 wildflowers, noting that these are vulnerable to soil compaction. In the giant field where the totem stands, over a million blue camas bloom each May; present also are shooting stars, wild bleeding heart, and the rare yellow prairie violets.
The park is home to 72 bird species (Christmas bird count 2010), and to raccoons, squirrels, river otters, and deer.
The proposed noisy ongoing construction cannot fail to stress the park’s flora and fauna, perhaps driving species away, as indeed three eagles drove dozens of herons away from their nests in 2007.
According to a CHEK-TV poll last week, over 80 percent of local residents believe that “brakes should be applied” to this project. CFAX polls have consistently shown that two-thirds of people are opposed, raising questions as to why there has been no referendum for the largest mega-project ever conceived for the capital region.
The CRD plan is not the solution to a low-risk ocean problem. It is time to insist that the provincial and federal governments take a close look at the science and do comparative cost-benefit analyses and environmental impact studies on the existing vs the proposed sewage treatment project. Before one back hoe hits the ground. Before the CRD makes costly and irreparable mistakes.
Board Member, ARESST
How many big infrastructure projects can the City of Victoria tackle at once?
CRYSTAL POOL IS A CHALLENGING PLACE to navigate if you’re disabled. You need a key to turn on a power lift to climb the eight steps from the lobby to the men’s locker room. You need another lift on a different staircase to get to the top floor’s tiny weight room, too crowded with equipment to fit a wheelchair. Anyone who’s visually impaired could smack their head on the concrete bleachers overhanging the pool deck. And if you want to get wet, you need someone to hand-winch you down into the water in a hoist.
“The staff here over the years have done everything they can,” says Doug Nutting. “But they’re working with a facility that had no consideration in its original design.”
Nutting is the executive director of Recreation Integration Victoria, an intermunicipally- funded group facilitating active lifestyles for people with disabilities. In December, as Victoria councillors debated the future of the 1971-built Crystal Pool, he wrote a letter urging them to replace it. If you include the debilitating effects of aging, Nutting says, 18 percent of Victorians live with some type of disability, and a public pool should be available to everyone. “If you just retrofit, you’re sentencing people with disabilities to at least another 10 or 20 years of having a substandard, partially accessible facility.”
Such inaccessibility was one of the reasons why Victoria councillors voted in February to replace Crystal Pool, at an estimated cost of $70 million. “That [18 percent] is a big chunk of the population, and that for us was a real eye-opener,” says Thomas Soulliere, the City’s director of parks, recreation and facilities.
UBC says its new pool cost $40 million, all in. Victoria is budgeting $70 million for a new pool.
In 2015, the engineering firm Stantec said $6.3 million in repairs would keep the pool operating. But the City was interested in “current and anticipated community need” for the facility, and hired HCMA Architecture and PERC recreation consultants to assess it. Last December, they said the demand for indoor swimming—by recreational and club swimmers, and elderly and disabled residents—was 22 percent greater than the pool could currently handle. They said a 30-year repair of the pool would cost $40 million, and expanding it to satisfy the “latent demand” for swimming would cost $60 million. The uncertainties of renovation, plus a year-long closure to do the work, persuaded a majority of councillors to vote for a new pool.
Why not simply undertake Stantec’s minimal repair? “We didn’t think doing just the behind-the-scenes systems work was a viable option for the long term,” Soulliere replies. “That keeps the building functioning, but is that really the best overall value, given the service gaps?”
Consequently, Soulliere will go before councillors again in June with HCMA’s designs for a new pool. If they approve, the City will hold events throughout the summer to tell voters about the costs and benefits of the new facility, leading up to a referendum in the autumn. “There’s a lot of zeros there,” he says, smiling. “It should attract attention.”
BUT THE POOL ISN'T THE ONLY IMPENDING PROJECT with a lot of zeros attached. Victoria and the other core municipalities are about to start building a $765-million sewage treatment system, and the City of Victoria’s share of that cost—after senior government grants have been applied—will be $90 million or more. The City will also have to deal with its problem of rainwater and groundwater flowing into older sewers. The City’s allocation of the capacity of a new treatment plant is only 35 percent of the total and it will have to pay financial penalties if it exceeds that use. According to the CRD’s 2012 Core Area Inflow & Infiltration (I&I) Management Plan, the City will need to spend at least $47.5 million repairing its sewage pipes by 2031. If the treatment plant is near capacity when it opens, as Stantec has predicted it might be, the City would have to reduce its I&I faster and to a greater degree, or the region will be pushed into building a second plant.
Rendering of the a sewage treatment plant at McLoughlin Point. City of Victoria's share of the treatment project costs will be $90 million or more.
Then there’s the replacement of Fire Hall #1, which the City hopes to have built by a private developer, with adjacent housing to offset the cost. In a closed meeting last September, City council directed staff to start negotiations with one firm—and those negotiations are still “underway,” said Susanne Thompson, the City’s director of finance, in an email. “There will be a report to council in camera within the next few months. Next steps will depend on direction provided at that time.”
There’s also the Bay Street Bridge. In 2013, an engineer’s report said the bridge was in poor condition, and needed $11 million in work, mainly to replace its concrete deck. But in 2015, Stantec said the deck was OK, and the City could get away with $3.6 million in repairs; the City applied for grants for that work, and this March, the feds and the Province said they’d provide two-thirds of the funding. (The City balked at spending a further $11 million to cantilever bike lanes off the bridge.) Those repairs will start in 2018, after the Johnson Street Bridge is completed—and, one hopes, operating trouble-free—because the work will require closing at least one of the Bay Street Bridge’s lanes of traffic.
The City also needs to perform catch-up maintenance on its other facilities. In 2015, the consultants Morrison Hershfield assessed all 97 City-owned buildings, and rated them on a Facilities Condition Index. Crystal Pool rated the worst: In addition to Stantec’s $6.3 million, the consultants said the pool would need a further $3.2 million by 2025. But over the next decade, the Conference Centre will also need $13.3 million, the police station $7.8 million, City Hall $4 million, and the parkades from $1.1 million to $4.5 million apiece, to continue providing acceptable service.
And that doesn’t include seismic upgrades. In 2010, Read Jones Christoffersen conducted seismic risk assessments of 14 City buildings, to prioritize those that should be upgraded to the highest “post-disaster” standard. They estimated such upgrades would cost $34 million, $20 million for the conference centre and its parkade alone. While a few on the list have been upgraded since then, such as the Oaklands Community Centre, many have not. Other key buildings, such as the police station, Downtown library, and Crystal Pool—which Stantec didn’t recommend for seismic upgrading in 2015 in any case—weren’t included in the study.
THE SEWAGE TREATMENT and Bay Street Bridge projects have already been partly funded by grants from upper levels of government. But it’s impossible to guess how much more the City might get for the rest—and without grants, the City will have to fund these projects from its capital budgets, through tax increases, or by tapping its financial reserves.
In February 2016, City council allocated $30 million “in principle” from the City’s debt-reduction reserve for the fire hall; if the City spends all of that, it will only have $16 million left in the fund, below the minimum in the City’s reserve policy. The City also has $15 million in its infrastructure reserves (it adds $8 million per year), but with the Johnson Street Bridge still unfinished, it’s reluctant to tap that fund—which is why staff recently recommended taking money from the parks budget, or tax increases, to pay for the new parks and plazas around the bridge. If any of the big upcoming projects go sideways as badly as the bridge, tax increases may be the only remedy.
Final price tags are also hard to predict in a hot construction market: Currently, construction costs are escalating by 0.4 percent every month. (And one councillor told me that two projects the City recently put out to tender got no bids at all.) The City says it’s accounting for this with its new “Project Management Framework,” requiring hefty contingencies for early estimates—a “lesson learned” from the Johnson Street Bridge—and third-party evaluations of a project’s costs and benefits. That’s why it’s budgeting $70 million for a new pool: $35 million for construction, $10 million for “soft costs” (design, project management), $10 million in cost escalation, and $15 million for contingencies.
But such careful padding has also faced criticism. Ben Isitt, the only councillor to vote against a $70-million pool replacement, has pointed out that UBC built its new 50-metre aquatic centre for $40 million. (A 2014 report to UBC’s board of governors budgeted $26.7 million for construction, and UBC says $40 million was the final cost for everything.) Online pundits note that YMCA’s new 25-metre pool, built by the Westhills developers in Langford, cost $26 million. And Surrey recently opened two 50-metre pools costing $45 million and $55 million, all-in.
“It doesn’t really matter what UBC did, or the Y, or Surrey,” Soulliere replies. “For this particular project, given what we’re dealing with, at this particular time, in this market, it is good value.” He was in charge of recreation at the City of Vancouver when UBC announced its new aquatic centre, he says, “and all hell broke loose: ‘You’re going to pay what for a pool?’ But these things are bloody expensive. And depending when you hit the construction market, there are going to be these inconsistencies that make [an] apples-to-apples [comparison] difficult.”
Ultimately, though, deciding whether a new aquatic facility is worth the cost will be up to voters. While touring Crystal Pool, I met a young woman in a red knit cap who had to ride her scooter around to the side of the building in the rain, and ring a doorbell so staff could let her in to use the facility’s one universal change room. “It’s not ideal,” she said, laughing. She’d moved here from Revelstoke, which opened a new pool in 2005. “It’s more accessible to more people in ways that the older facility wasn’t,” she told me. “So I can totally see the benefit of having some newer structures in place. But it’s a matter of who’s going to pay the bill.”
Award-winning journalist and author Ross Crockford is a former editor of Monday Magazine and a director of johnsonstreetbridge.org.
Corporate donations and lobbying make meaningful climate action—and democracy—impossible.
THIS MONTH OUR MAGAZINE features art on the cover (above) by Luke Ramsey. It seems to reflect perfectly the sort of magical thinking that abounds these days. Just as the dinosaurs did not dodge the asteroid, humans will not dodge catastrophic climate change unless we quickly wean ourselves off fossil fuels. Donald Trump’s dinosaurish insistence on bringing back coal, and, closer to home, the Trudeau government’s magical belief that it can be a climate champion while developing and exporting as much bitumen as possible, illustrate the magical-thinking theme well.
Another deep vein of magical thinking here in BC is the idea that political parties can accept vast sums of money from industry without being influenced by it. Or, in reverse, that corporations and unions can donate millions with no expectation of access or payback. While it applies to many different industries, donations from the coal, oil and gas industries seem especially worrisome. The climate has already changed in dangerous ways; if we are to have any success at maintaining a liveable planet, we must leave most known fossil fuel reserves in the ground (68-85 percent, according to Oil Change International, to avoid going beyond a 1.5 to 2 degrees Celsius temperature increase).
But BC’s industry-friendly policies won’t get us there. At the very least, the next government must remove the extraordinary ways we’ve allowed the fossil fuel industries (and others) to have influence over public policy.
BC has no limits on how much donors can give to political parties. And it’s all tax deductible. The real estate, pharmaceutical, tourism and fossil fuel industries have fuelled the Liberals for decades, and unions have donated generously to the NDP. Besides the lack of limits on amounts, unlike most other provinces and the federal government, BC has not banned corporate and union donations. Worse, political parties in BC are allowed to accept unlimited generosity from outside the province and country.
It’s truly scandalous. And it’s earned BC a lot of negative attention. A recent story in the New York Times was titled “British Columbia: The ‘Wild West’ of Canadian Political Cash.” A Globe and Mail investigation showed that lobbyists were breaking one of the few lax rules that do exist—often being illegally reimbursed by corporations for donations made under their own names (some felt they’d be blacklisted if they didn’t give regularly). That led to an RCMP investigation, and to the BC Liberals returning $174,000.
This spring, Postmedia investigated the connection between Liberal Party donors and government-awarded contracts, and found that “Among the top 50 donors to the BC Liberals—who have collectively given more than $30 million in the past decade—more than half have received supplier payments or transfers from the BC government.” The Dogwood initiative also did impressive analysis on the relationship between top donors and road-work contractors. Laughably, or perhaps magically, both Liberal politicians and corporate donors dismissed as “ridiculous” the idea that donations could influence contracting.
Integrity BC has reported on donations from Chinese and Malaysian state-owned companies, international cruise lines, and other generous foreign corporations—and, for the NDP, foreign-based unions.
The Wilderness Committee recently noted that “donations to the BC Liberals from fracking, gas pipeline and LNG companies have totalled $1,007,456 since the last election.” The Committee’s Peter McCartney stated, “This industry receives billions of dollars in Provincial tax breaks and subsidies from the very government they’re paying to elect.” Local concerns lose out as a result. “We see time and time again this government side with frackers and LNG companies over the people they represent. All this money in our politics sooner or later costs local communities and the global climate.”
Democracy Watch and the PIPE UP Network have gone to court (the case will start to be heard a few days before the election), claiming that $560,000 in political donations from project proponent Kinder Morgan and other companies connected to the pipeline sector tainted the Province’s environmental assessment so it should be overturned. Their lawyer, Jason Gratl, told the Globe the facts are not in dispute so “The legal test is whether a competent, informed observer would consider the amount sufficient to taint the decision making so as to lend the decision making a conscious or unconscious bias.”
Well here’s a hint about what that “competent, informed observer” might think: A March 2017 Angus Reid poll found that 76 percent of British Columbians felt that the Liberal government “is only interested in helping its political donors and big business.”
The Liberals, however, seem blinded by the money they rake in. They’ve had lots of opportunity to change things in the last 16 years, but all they are willing to promise if elected is to establish an independent panel to “recommend” possible revisions to the rules. Fortunately the two other main parties are ready to overhaul the rules quickly, banning corporate, union, and foreign donations and setting a limit on individual ones (e.g. the federal limit is $1550/year). The Green Party voluntarily refused to accept corporate and union donations starting in September 2016.
As I write at the end of April, I don’t know who will form the next BC government. But the chorus for change on the donation front—and the evidence for its need—is loud and consistent. So there is room for cautious optimism that the rules around donations will change.
Unfortunately, a lot of damage has already been done. And, as a new report notes, lobbying rules are also working to corrupt governance on the climate action front, so they too must change.
“MAPPING CORPORATE INFLUENCE,” released in March by the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives (CCPA) and the Corporate Mapping Project, zeros in on spending-for-influence practices of the fossil fuel industries. It found “a remarkable and disturbingly close relationship between industry and the provincial government—one that not only contradicts the Province’s stated aim to fight climate change but also undermines democracy and the public interest.”
On the donations front, its team of researchers combed through the Elections BC database, taking a line-by-line approach, explained Nicolas Graham, a doctoral student in sociology at the University of Victoria. This was very time-consuming but necessary because, as Graham told me, “a lot of companies give under different names, so you can easily miss companies.”
UVic Professor Bill Carroll and doctoral student Nicolas Graham comment on Mapping Corporate Influence
The researchers found that, since 2008, the fossil fuel sector donated $5.2 million to political parties in BC—92 percent of which went to the BC Liberals. “The top 10 fossil fuel industry donors account for more than three-quarters (78 percent) of total donations, with the two top firms—Teck Resources and Encana—contributing nearly half.”
A “distinct geography of giving” was noted, with the majority of the top 10 firms headquartered in Calgary. Only two of the companies are headquartered in BC.
Their generous donations to BC parties allow fossil fuel firms to be heard by key political decision-makers. As Graham told me, “If you have a political party that feels heavily indebted to political donors, it’s certainly going to help [donors] gain access or at least develop this familiar relationship.”
Like so many others who have looked at the facts, Graham and his co-authors recommend simple, straightforward fixes: banning corporate and union donations to political parties outright; and limiting individual donations to people whose primary residence is in BC—“and these should be capped at a modest level that prevents those with deep pockets from skewing the democratic process in their favour.”
What’s not so simple to fix, and constituted the second half of their report, is the undue influence fossil fuel corporations have on public policy through lobbying. Donations and lobbying work hand-in-hand, said Graham, and “paint a troubling picture, a kind of troublingly close relationship between the sector and the government and raise concerns about the ability of the government to regulate the industry in the public interest.”
Lobbying activity was more difficult to research than donations because, said Graham, “there are major transparency issues” to contend with. Still, going on the basis of what information was available, the team came up with 22,000 lobbying contacts between fossil-fuel companies and government officials between 2010 (when the lobbyists registry was set up) and 2016. By comparison, environmental organizations had only 1324 contacts over the same period. Almost all of the corporate contacts (19,517) were made by 10 firms—many of them the same as the top donors.
Graham found the sheer volume shocking, especially when he realized that it worked out to 14 lobbying contacts per business day from that sector alone. Ministries lobbied by the fossil fuel corporations and associations include Energy and Mines, Natural Gas Development; Environment; Aboriginal Relations and Reconciliation; Finance; Forests, Lands and Natural Resources; as well as the Oil and Gas Commission.
Rich Coleman is the most targeted cabinet minister, but as the report notes, “Twenty-eight percent of lobbying by the top 10 most active lobbyists is with cabinet ministers—an unrivalled level of access.”
And then there are all the bureaucrats (48 percent) and MLAs (24 percent)—both NDP and Liberal—who are also lobbied. NDP leader John Horgan is one of the top three lobbied MLAs.
Remember, this is just from the fossil fuel industries. The real estate industry is even more active. Which means BC’s public servants are spending a lot of their precious taxpayer-funded time listening to skilled pitches from corporate lobbyists.
As the report states: “Considering that a handful of organizations and state officials are the target of most lobbying by the fossil fuel industries, the network amounts to a small world, dominated by the few large corporations that control much of this economic sector. While it is not possible to determine the extent to which a given lobbying effort directly influences a specific policy outcome, what shines through is the extent to which well-funded and well-organized corporations (and their industry associations) exert continual pressure on, or work in tandem with, key decision-makers to develop policies that align with their interests.”
Co-author Bill Carroll, a UVic Sociology professor and co-director of the Corporate Mapping Project, drew my attention to the fact that the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers (CAPP)—with 29 registered lobbyists in BC—is the most active lobbyist, bar none, at both the provincial and federal levels.
This helps explains a number of things. Like why the provincial government ended up endorsing a weak climate plan despite their Climate Leadership Team’s recommendations for a more aggressive lowering of emissions. CAPP alone, in an 11-month period, made 200 lobbying contacts with government in relation to development of its Climate Leadership Plan—a plan condemned by environmentalists for doing little to reduce global warming.
It’s also now clearer for me why pipelines have been approved despite so much opposition and their role in fostering climate change. One of the Liberals’ most generous donors and most active lobbyists is pipeline promoter Encana.
The lobbying efforts—combined with hefty donations—also explain how LNG became so central in the 2013 election and why in spite of everything, the Liberals continue to beat that drum. If proposed LNG processing and export facilities come to fruition, they would represent a major new source of emissions. Christy Clark said it was about jobs, but maybe that’s because so many gas promoters had her ear long enough and often enough to help her figure out the way to sell it. They also had the ear of the Oil and Gas Commission, which was heavily lobbied, including by its former CEO Alex Ferguson.
The corporate largesse and lobbying pay off in policies favourable to the extractive industry. Issues such as royalty rates from hydrocarbon extraction, land access, corporate taxation, consultation processes with First Nations, greenhouse gas emissions, and LNG development, are among the areas lobbyists weigh in on. “The influence can most clearly be seen in the government’s strong advocacy for the development of an LNG export industry,” writes the Corporate Mapping team. Cited as examples are credits provided to industry for deep drilling and road infrastructure assistance. It notes too that natural gas royalties have plummeted in BC since 2008/09 despite substantial increases in production levels, and that in 2014 the Liberal government cut its proposed LNG income tax in half (from 7 to 3.5 per cent). “This made its already highly unlikely claim of a $100 billion ‘Prosperity Fund’ arising from LNG over 30 years (Office of the Premier, 2013) even more far-fetched. In addition to a reduced LNG income tax, companies can deduct the full capital costs of their LNG plant investment before they pay the full tax (locked in at 3.5 percent).”
IT’S HARD TO SHOCK PROFESSOR CARROLL. He’s done scads of research over the years on corporations and their influence. He knows corporate power is highly concentrated. Still, he admitted, “It was interesting to see the extent of overlap between the top lobbyists and the top corporate donors. Seven out of ten are the same company, and these companies account for three quarters of all the lobbying and all the corporate donations coming from this key sector. So it’s an extreme concentration of corporate influences. And, obviously, that’s very worrying from a democratic perspective because the logic of this runs against the grain of one person, one vote.”
When I asked about the Liberals’ promise to set up an independent panel to review the situation, Graham characterized it as “dancing around the issue” and “ a bit of delay tactic.” The only argument proffered by the Liberals in defense of the current donation free-for-all is that without corporate and union donations, taxpayers would have to fund election campaigns. Carroll dismissed this as perplexing if not hypocritical, especially in the face of glitzy pre-election-period government ads—paid for by tax payers. The government spent $15 million, in fact, of taxpayers’ funds blanketing TV airwaves and social media bragging about their 2017 budget; the auditor general expressed her concerns, though had no power to stop it.
In terms of what to do about lobbying, Mapping Corporate Influence advocates an overhaul of the Lobbyists Registration Act, “which creates major loopholes that impede true transparency.” At minimum, it recommends lobbyists be required to report who they have lobbied—rather than to list who they expect to lobby—including the specific date of communications and a more detailed description of the type of contact that occurred, and its subject matter. “Lobbyists should also be required to disclose meetings initiated by public officials. And disclosure of the costs of lobbying—fees paid to professional lobbyists and firms by clients—should be reported.”
It’s not rocket science; and many others have recommended similar interventions. Who knows—maybe we’ll have a new party in power come May 9. Both the NDP and Green Party have promised to change the rules around donations at least. That would give developing a good climate change strategy a fighting chance, despite the baggage left behind by all the cozy corporate-cash-for-access-and-influence of past decades.
In the words of the Mapping Corporate Influence authors, “At this climate crossroads any realistic strategy for tackling climate change must involve a gradual wind-down, rather than expansion, of fossil fuel industries, leaving the majority of oil, gas and coal reserves in the ground and fully transitioning to renewable energy sources.”
In an atmosphere befogged by carbon and money from the fossil fuel industries, that’s just not possible.
The Corporate Mapping Project hopes to encourage dialogue on this subject. On May 10, it will present David Lavalleé’s award-winning documentary To the Ends of the Earth. 7pm and 8:45pm at Cinecenta at UVic. www.cinecenta.com.
Leslie Campbell is the founding editor of Focus. See www.corporatemapping.ca for more information on this topic. For another instance of provincial magical thinking, see Briony Penn’s article in this edition.
The Ombudsperson’s 500-page report delivers condemnation, but leaves us hungry for an answer to “Why?”
IN JANUARY OF 2013, I took a felt pen, and wrote on a sticky note: “Who killed Rod MacIsaac?” I stuck it in the corner of my computer monitor and it stared at me for the next two years, a daily reminder of a big unknown that many of us have struggled to piece together and understand. What kind of cruel, twisted logic operating within the bowels of the BC Ministry of Health would have ordered the termination of this UVic co-op student three days before his work term was set to complete, an event which undoubtedly contributed to his suicide three months later?
While the 2012 firing of six other Ministry drug safety researchers and a contractor was utterly dumbfounding, nothing was more inexplicable than the brutal efficiency of MacIsaac’s termination. With the April publication of the BC Ombudsperson’s report Misfire: The 2012 Ministry of Health Employment Terminations and Related Matters some say the whole sordid episode is over and we now have answers.
The report is a complete and total vindication of all of those fired employees, and is a monumental attempt to explain how this train wreck happened. While its 512 pages identify many wrongs, and recommend measures to ensure no fiasco like this ever happens again, one can still be left feeling hungry after parsing its contents. It explains in great detail how Rod MacIsaac and his colleagues were fired, but it fails to deliver on the most important question of all: “Why?”
Maybe the best way to describe the health firings scandal as summarized in the Ombudsperson’s report is: “Mistakes were made (but not by me).” Carol Tarvis’ excellent book by this title delves into the self-justifying human brain that, in response to mistakes of our own making, creates fictions which “absolve us of responsibility, restoring our belief that we are smart, moral, and right.” The corollary to this, of course, is that these fictions can work to keep us on a “course that is dumb, immoral, and wrong.”
The most obvious missing ingredient in the report is responsibility. No one owns this mess, and no heads will roll—neither the premier, the various political operatives, ministers of health, their deputies and assistant deputies who oversaw the investigation and firings, nor the staffers who carried out the investigation with the élan of Gestapo police. The biggest human resources scandal in BC government history, and not a single person will be punished. Astonishing, no? Produced after apparently reviewing millions of documents, and interviewing 170 people under oath, the Ombudsperson has officially captured the obvious: This has been an unmitigated disaster, a gross miscarriage of justice, and was followed by a cover-up that has left an essential part of BC’s health system in smoldering ruins.
Despite the apologies, settlements and promises of ex gratia payments to demonstrate goodwill to those who were so wronged, the lack of any accountability is stunning. In fact the opposite has occurred. The deputy minister who signed the letters terminating the employees was himself fired, with a nice $461,000 golden handshake to guide him on his way as he turns his health file connections into a lucrative job in the medical marijuana industry. Other high officials who dishonestly said the RCMP was involved, and tainted everyone with an unjustified criminality, are still in office. Some of the staffers have been promoted, moving on as people do in a government town to other ministries and other jobs. And other senior executives have retired and moved to warmer climes, living worry-free knowing that whatever destruction they may have helped orchestrate in the Ministry of Health, it will never come back to haunt them.
The investigation which led to the firings, was, according to the Ombudsperson, heavy-handed, mean-spirited, and acted far beyond the standards expected of the public service. The descriptors “flawed,” “biased” and “unfair” litter the document, yet any fingerprints that may have linked the fiasco to the BC Liberals, and their pharma-friendly policies, have been “disappeared.” Nothing to see here, folks.
Most of us knew all along that the investigations and the firings were unjustified, but the most troublesome thing is how long it took to try to refloat the ship. Once eight people were thrown out the door in September 2012, it took nearly two and a half years of foot-dragging, public demands for justice, and one failed mini-inquiry (the Marcia McNeil Report) before the matter got handed over to Jay Chalke, the Ombudsperson.
While it was even clear several months after MacIsaac was terminated that mistakes were made, no one owned up or tried to fix things. Why? That question still haunts me. I know I’m not the only one to notice the happy coincidence between the needs of Big Pharma (not wanting independent drug safety research done on their products) and the politicians (on the receiving end of drug lobbying and political donations) who kept staff in the Ministry from really trying to get to the bottom of this and fixing things.
JAY CHALKE'S REPORT contained 41 recommendations, all of which were accepted with alacrity by the government. Those 41 items mostly relate to reparation payments to those affected, and suggestions to improve Ministry policies. The most important, in my mind, relate to resuming the culture of research we used to have in the Ministry of Health. For instance, the report recommends: “By September 30, 2017, the Ministry of Health review and assess the extent to which the termination of evidence-based programs during the internal investigation may have created gaps that now remain in providing evidence-informed, safe, effective and affordable drug therapy and related health care services to British Columbians.” The government promised to release a plan to address any identified gaps by December 31, 2017.
These so called “gaps” are what affects us all, because halted research doesn’t just affect the people who do it (including myself), it endangers public safety. Anyone in this province who takes drugs for cholesterol, high blood pressure, infections, Alzheimer’s disease, smoking or ADHD is affected because programs we had to study drug use, and try to educate physicians, have been halted and not resumed. The state of data analysis paralysis, which consumed the Ministry of Health in the wake of the firings, continues to haunt it today.
If the Liberals wanted to kill the research and evaluation activities of its Pharmacare branch, they couldn’t have found a more effective way to do it. Many of the staffers in the Ministry of Health know this, and want to fix things—and they need to know that the public and the politicians have their backs. But it’s going to take time, and, most of all, political will.
BC has an asset that is truly “world class,” established by an NDP government back in 1994. It is PharmaNet, one of the most comprehensive, linkable pharmaceutical databases in the world. Having this makes BC one of the world’s best places to study drug policies, and could also likely make it the easiest place in the world to ensure we use pharmaceuticals safely and wisely.
The biggest potential downside to this fiasco going forward is fear about using BC data to evaluate policies. Not evaluating our own drug- use data and using it to improve prescribing will continue to foolishly sacrifice lives. The starkest example of inaction on that front is the current opioid epidemic, where BC could be a world leader in safe, appropriate opioid use, instead of the epicentre of a disaster that kills, on average, three people per day.
What do we need going forward? We need risk-takers in government. I know it’s awfully hard to change any organizational culture, especially one that has been through the wringer like the Ministry of Health. We need people to make decisions in the right direction, and people willing to rebuild a culture of inquiry committed to using public data in the public interest.
You don’t get let off the hook when public health is at stake. The politicians need to realize this: that what happens under their watch is their responsibility. People in the senior civil service serve “at the pleasure” of the politicians. There is no “off the hook” with public health.
We don’t know who killed Rod MacIsaac, but maybe we can make sure he didn’t die in vain, and that the career he aspired to—doing independent analysis of drug-use decisions—is something that can grow and thrive in BC.
The Ombudsperson recommended establishing a scholarship in memory of Rod MacIsaac at UVic. In a gesture that is highly symbolic, it could also be seen as hugely aspirational. We cannot begin to undo the damage done until we recognize that we are all wearing the mistakes that led to Rod MacIsaac’s death. We have allowed a government to be tainted by pharmaceutical interests, where a fiasco like this can happen and the perpetrators go free. Future governments that forget where the public interest lies will do so at their peril, and ours.
Alan Cassels is a Victoria writer and health researcher. His most recent of four books is The Cochrane Collaboration: Medicine’s Best Kept Secret.
CTV legislative reporter Stephen Andrew filed this story about Rod MacIsaac's death in January 2013:
City filed this report in October 2014, including a statement by Rod MacIsaac's sister:
Management of public forests by the forest industry isn’t in the public interest.
BC’s forests have become a vast patchwork of roads, clearcuts and mainly young trees. Of the latter, critics say, there has been no reliable inventory. As well, the Province has relied less on its own scientists and more on forest industry professionals to conduct management of public forests, blurring the distinction between public and private interest.
FORMER GOVERNMENT FOREST SCIENTIST Andy MacKinnon’s battle cry, as he knocks on doors as a Green Party candidate in the upcomming provincial election, is: “Wake up British Columbians!” He’s one of an increasing number of scientists who are getting into politics to raise the alarm about what happens when proper government oversight is put at risk through budget cuts and political interference.
MacKinnon believes the threat to BC’s greatest public asset—tens of millions of hectares of forests—should be one of the election’s foremost issues. “We have rapidly disposed of it for too few jobs and too little money,” MacKinnon says, “and this is all happening within our provincial model of ‘professional reliance,’ as the BC government sheds scientists of all sorts—professional foresters, biologists, engineers—and hands responsibility to professionals employed by the forest companies. Some have called this ‘the fox guarding the henhouse’ model.”
This apparent loss of ability to properly manage BC’s forests isn’t just Green Party rhetoric. “We were hearing this from scientist after scientist,” says Katie Gibbs, one of the co-authors of an April 2017 report, Oversight at Risk: The State of Government Science in British Columbia. The report, commissioned by Evidence for Democracy, an Ottawa-based watchdog for promoting the transparent use of evidence in government decision-making, interviewed scientists across BC ministries. The aim was to assess their independence and capacity to produce and communicate reliable data. Highlighted in this review was the scientists’ response to the BC Liberals’ Orwellian term “professional reliance,” which is described in the report as “outsourcing both research oversight and decision-making activities that were formerly done by government.”
Evidence for Democracy chose the BC situation for its first provincial review, says Gibbs, “because there had been lots of rumours that BC’s public sector was particularly dysfunctional in Canada and badly in need of an independent review.” When she and her co-author started interviewing, she says, “I couldn’t believe what I was hearing from these scientists: That monitoring was outsourced to the professionals who were contracted by the very companies that they were monitoring? Was this for real?”
It appears to be. The 64-question survey was circulated to 1159 government scientists this past November, with most of the responses coming from the Ministry of Forests, Lands and Natural Resource Operations (FLNRO). The report provides the historical context for the survey, which includes the dramatic reduction of provincial staff-scientists starting in 2001. BC now has the smallest public sector per capita of all Canadian provinces, despite its wealth of natural resources.
Of those government scientists still working for the Province who were allowed to participate in the survey (and not all were), around half “believe that political interference is compromising their ministry’s ability to develop laws, policies and programs based on scientific evidence.” One FLNRO scientist wrote, “The reduction in staff and financial resources has caused us to not be able to conduct the scientific work that would best support changes in policy. Instead, policy is most often developed as a result of political pressure from select interest groups, in particular forest industry stakeholders.”
The survey didn’t include scientists who are members of the BC Government Employees Union which, according to Gibbs, denied a request to distribute the survey to their members because “it was not in line with their priorities at the time.”
IN A BRISTLING REPORT delivered to the Coastal Silviculture Committee this spring, authors Anthony Britneff and Martin Watts, non-partisan forest professionals, dug deep into the structural details of how “professional reliance” without independent third-party oversight has set off a domino effect of poor policy decisions affecting everything from stumpage rates, tree planting and water quality to the health of moose and grizzly populations. Britneff describes the resulting and ongoing grab of timber as “the rape of the land.” A 40-year career forester with the provincial government, Britneff says that during his last ten years in government, “[I experienced] radical budget cuts and changes in policy that I saw as being detrimental to the forests and to the life within them.”
Katie Gibbs Anthony Britneff Diane Nicholls Andy MacKinnon
The biggest problem, according to Britneff, is the corrupt data and unreliable models for determining the inventory of the forests—known as the “Timber Supply Review”—that’s used by the Chief Forester to determine how much forest can be cut each year, the “Annual Allowable Cut” (AAC).
“If this information is wrong, which it is,” Britneff says, “then we put whole communities at risk. Job losses, mill closures, community hardships, very little stumpage [royalties] flowing back to the community, have all resulted because there is no reliable inventory or analysis to determine [appropriate] rates of cut.”
One of the clearest indicators that there is a problem is the discrepancy between the allocation of timber in the AAC and what is actually cut. As Britneff puts it, “Industry can’t even find the wood allocated to them for the cut because the Timber Supply Review is an economic fiction, supported and informed by unvalidated computer models. Companies are pushing further and further into previously protected areas like the wildlife habitat areas and right up to the edge of provincial parks. They are making no provisions for climate change, and have used beetle kill to escalate the cut. To add insult to injury they are giving it away at 25 cents for a telephone pole.”
In response to Britneff’s allegations, Chief Forester Diane Nicholls told Focus: “The people of BC can have complete confidence in Allowable Annual Cut (AAC) determinations as they are based on robust complex analysis of many factors that pertain to timber supply and other forest values. The process that supports my AAC determinations is open to public and First Nations for review and comment. All documents generated, including a detailed description of how I arrived at my decision, are available online.”
Nicholls also noted, “The uncertainties in the analysis and data are managed through sensitivity analyses that allow me to assess the impact of these uncertainties on my decision. We continuously improve and update our data and analysis based on field audits and assessments and new or additional information.”
But Britneff takes issue with Nicholls’ defence. He notes that “uncertainty” is a technical term used in the international accounting world when measurements “are based on estimates, judgments, and models rather than on exact depictions.” The absence of independent auditors to verify the data means there is no sound basis upon which to trust Nicholls’ numbers. Britneff and Watts also believe that the sensitivity analyses to which Nicholls refers are incorrectly applied.
Remarkably, there is no legal requirement for Nicholls to conduct an actual inventory of provincial forests. That used to be a statutory responsibility of the chief forester, but changes to the Forest Act in 2002 transferred the inventory function to what was then called the Ministry of Sustainable Resource Management. When that ministry was disbanded, inventory staff returned to the Ministry of Forests and Range but the legal requirement to conduct inventories didn’t. It simply disappeared.
Both Oversight at Risk and Britneff point to problems beyond the uncertain timber supply, including insufficient capacity and budget within the Ministry to do an inventory. There is also no legal requirement for foresters working outside of government to maintain their data and records.
There is also evidence that a political agenda at least partially determines the Annual Allowable Cut. This is perhaps best illustrated by an historic directive issued in 2006 by then Minister of Forests Rich Coleman to “maintain and enhance” the timber supply. This directive is still in force and, in effect, means that the AAC would never go down. This approach has left towns like Merritt with no timber and a long wait until the trees grow back.
As Britneff notes: “It isn’t AAC that’s ‘maintained and enhanced,’ it is forests!” Foresters on the ground are the only ones who can determine whether what grows—or doesn’t grow—lines up with what the models predict. As Britneff argues, “When one has a centralized high priesthood of timber supply analysts, inventory gatekeepers and ivory-tower computer modellers, most of whom are out of touch with what the forestry staff on the ground are observing, then, by convenient omission, timber supply estimates and AAC determinations become economic fiction and AACs are maintained fraudulently high to align with Coleman’s directive—to keep raising the cut.”
While Gibbs and her co-authors don’t use the word “fraud” to describe what they found, they do note, “The results from our survey show that around half (49 percent) of government scientists surveyed across ministries believe that political interference is compromising their ministry’s ability to develop laws, policies and programs based on scientific evidence.”
As Gibbs states, “This ‘professional reliance’ system is a huge public interest issue but it hasn’t received the attention it should because it is a difficult thing to communicate precisely. It sounds all fine, and people think that qualified professionals are looking after their interests.”
But the growing record of scrutiny of professional reliance—by bodies including the Centre for Public Policy Alternatives, the Environmental Law Centre, and the Auditor General in his scathing 2016 report—suggests otherwise. Professionals aren’t able to look after the public’s interests when they have no legal requirement to do so; they are employed by the companies they are expected to monitor; and their professional organizations are not at arm’s length from the forest companies that employ them. Last year, only one disciplinary case was brought to the Association of BC Forest Professionals—and it was thrown out. The year before, five cases were brought forward; three were thrown out and two are still in play.
The findings of Oversight at Risk suggest that the professional reliance experiment has not only failed but should be scrutinized for fraud. Industry and government remain complicit and unaccountable to the public. Fifty-seven percent of BC government scientists are concerned that government’s reliance on external professionals compromises the ability of their Ministry to use the best evidence or information in decision-making. One forester wrote: “Decisions and objectives are fettered to the industry interests due to government/industry working groups. The industry-sympathetic administration does not always permit us to assess evidence, and even when we have evidence it does not easily accommodate providing direction to industry or changes in policy that may negatively impact (even in a small way) existing mainstream industry and their interests.” Another scientist working in FLNRO reported, “government rarely or perhaps never suppresses scientific findings. They do, however, by way of lack of funding, suppress research and data collection which are necessary for proper science based management.”
Cases like the Mount Polley disaster, the green-lighting of the Site C project through exemptions of the Wildlife Act, and Elk River selenium risks are cited in the report as the most egregious examples of the failure of professional reliance, so the problem extends well beyond forest management.
On the issue of being free to communicate their concerns to media, only 3 percent of scientists stated they could do so without approval from their bosses; 32 percent said that they were not able to communicate at all with media; 42 percent had to seek approval; the rest didn’t know. During my own 16 years of writing on the subject, no permissions have ever been granted to speak to a government scientist without public relations approval, even for data as seemingly apolitical as the population of black bears.
COURT CHALLENGES—at both federal and provincial levels—are tackling the issue of scientific muzzling. A recent court case initiated by Martin Watts against the Province of BC is over “blacklisting” professional foresters for raising concerns with the Ministry of Forests, Lands and Natural Resource Operations over the quality of inventory data, and being excluded from contract opportunities and given only limited access to information. On May 11, a judge in the Supreme Court of BC will decide if the civil claim will proceed. As Britneff states: “Couple this apparent negligence with the fact that the chief forester is operating without a statutory mandate to maintain an inventory of the lands of the province, and one has a pernicious boondoggle of proportions sufficient in seriousness to cut rural jobs, close mills and harm forest-dependent communities, which is exactly what has been happening over the last 15 years.”
Another insider scientist, who spoke to Focus on condition of anonymity due to fear of being fired or blacklisted, makes even stronger allegations: “Industry and government are inextricably bound, providing the conditions and potential for monkey business at every level. This failure has gone unseen for 16 years by bullying the civil servants who found problems with this model. Untouchable teams moved, fired and ignored people who did not support this model. Some districts simply suspended all staff meetings for years to hide this fact. One need only look as far as the way that volumes used for cutting permits are calculated. The Province uses outdated tables, ‘Loss Factors,’ which date back to the sixties. The more precise ‘Call Grade Net Factor’ volumes are also collected, but not used to assess stumpage volumes because business prefers lower taxes. This speaks to the influence that business has over government policy.”
WITH LITTLE ABILITY TO GET EVIDENCE, no jurisdictional oversight to even enforce against fraudulent activity, and little confidence that the current government wants to change the status quo, some scientists like Andy MacKinnon are turning to the political sphere.
Yet, strangely, the management of public lands (94 percent of this province) is not a big election issue. Raw log exports have grabbed more attention, but their revenue impacts are small compared to the scale of the economic problems created by the diminishment of proper government oversight.
NDP leader John Horgan, who comes from a forestry background on the island, released his party’s forestry platform in April. Aimed more at top-of-mind issues like curbing log exports and job creation, it doesn’t mention reforming the professional reliance system, raising stumpage, or bringing back the scientific research branch—not surprising because it is hard policy to explain.
MacKinnon admits the communications challenge of this issue. “What I have found works, though, is that if you tell someone that our vast provincial forests and wildlife are being looked after by just a handful of foresters who work for the companies that cut them down, they get that there is a problem.”
Katie Gibbs, a scientist herself, feels a better job needs to be done in connecting the dots for people. “Public science affects all of us—from clean drinking water to making sure bridges and roads are safe—it’s in all of our best interest to ensure that government science is independent, robust and openly communicated.”
Briony Penn’s most recent book, The Real Thing: The Natural History of Ian McTaggart Cowan, won the Roderick Haig-Brown Regional Prize and the inaugural Mack Laing Literary Prize.
Luke Ramsey’s multidisciplinary art practice is all about collaboration—with other artists, and with viewers.
VICTORIA ARTIST LUKE RAMSEY creates pen-and-ink drawings that are whimsical, melancholy, eccentric, orderly, complex, straightforward, humorous, sober, hopeful, dark, friendly, and strange—sometimes all at once. As the eye follows his mark’s labyrinthine journey around the page, one finds unexpected motifs that give pause—guns worked into what looks like a peaceful forest scene, for instance. Other drawings are more loosely composed, but a wriggling, effusive energy remains. Meaning is elusive, but larger, overarching suggestions are implied, and personal interpretations invited. “The message is there for the people who are going to look for it, and find it, and have that ‘aha’ moment,” says Ramsey.
“Organized chaos” or a “tidy mess” is how he has described his work, whether it be ink on paper, or writ large on the side of a building. Alone and in collaboration with others, Ramsey has created public murals across Canada and in Europe, among them “Transition” with Josh Holinaty. Located on the John Howard Society building in Edmonton, the work won an award of excellence from the City and a National Urban Design Medal from the Royal Architectural Institute of Canada.
Click the image above for a short slideshow of Luke Ramsey's art
“Fuel and Empathy” is a recent local mural located on Cormorant Street between Blanshard and Quadra, a gathering place for addicts. Integrating the pre-existing graffiti into this bright, appealing landscape lends it a particular poignancy, acknowledging its past as it injects hope into this fraught public space. In his statement about it, he notes how the area was considered an eyesore, adding, “I wanted to look beyond the wall’s surface and consider the story behind it, to work with the texture and subtly preserve it.…To find beauty in its ugliness, to re-contextualize the graffiti like a collage into the work. This wall has a connection to people and place, and these are ingredients to beauty and colour.”
He admits he himself “dabbled in tags and stencils” in his youth, but realized it was “better to open doors by not tagging on them.” Still, street-art remains an important influence on all of his work. “A lot of it is influenced by growing up in the punk-rock community in Victoria, being in bands, going to shows.” Ramsey was inspired by the “do-it-yourself attitude” of that scene. “You want to put out a magazine, you just do it yourself. You want to start a band, you talk to your friends and you just do it.” While in high school, he was in the punk band Shrunken Heads, and still “messes around with music.”
Ramsey was born in High Wickham outside London in 1979, the oldest of four children. When he was about eight years old, his family moved to Toronto, then travelled around, finally settling in Victoria. “I know I got a lot of my entrepreneurial sensibilities from being around my dad,” he says, and gives credit to that influence for gaining him illustration and mural clients like Emily Carr University, Mountain Equipment CO-OP, Patagonia, The New York Times, WIRED, and The BC Children’s Hospital, among others.
He might have inherited the travelling bug from his father as well. Right after he graduated from high school in 1997, he hitchhiked across Canada. Sketchbook always at hand, he then travelled with his now-wife through the Mediterranean, Morocco and Turkey. Southeast Asia followed, where he taught English in Taiwan while travelling to nearby countries.
“My art education was going to museums and galleries in Europe and taking all that in, and then living in Taiwan really impacted my art in a huge way,” Ramsey reflects. “There is just an abundance of drawings and cartoons in the signage over there, and in pop culture and everyday life, so it got me thinking differently about art and pursuing a career in art.” His first mural is still on a toy store wall in Taiwan.
For the most part, Ramsey’s drawings begin intuitively. “I just go to the paper and see what happens,” he says. “I have a toolbox of shapes and lines that I pull from, but I don’t really have an idea of where it’s going to end up…and there are these surprises that happen.” With a drawing, Ramsey says, “I am making mistakes constantly, but that’s really good for me, because it forces me to accept that thing that I did, and make it work.” In an essay he wrote some years ago, Ramsey quoted Albert Camus as having said, “One recognizes one’s course by discovering the paths that stray from it.”
Painting, however, is “totally different, because I am stepping back and planning and taking my time,” he says. The medium is relatively new territory for Ramsey, having taken it up in just the last few years. He spent the spring working on a series for his upcoming exhibition at Madrona Gallery. The palette and imagery are similar to those of the Cormorant Street mural: Orca motifs are plentiful, and sloping islands bask under blue turquoise skies dappled with Calder-esque clouds.
In several paintings, forms (hills, orcas) are dissected to show a teeming energy within, a complexity beneath the simplicity of colour and form. “It’s alluding to this vibration, this core of the Earth; this beating heart that is the centre of the Earth, the centre of living things, the centre of us,” Ramsey explains.
“Us” is an important notion to Ramsey, and he encourages it in the exchange between work and viewer. When he published his illustrated book Intelligent Sentient? in 2015, he deliberately left out the narrative he had written for it. Though it was about his personal ideas, “I didn’t want people to get fixed on those words; I wanted people to create their own interpretation of it,” he says.
It’s this spirit of non-fixed interpretation that also feeds his desire and ability to join forces with other artists. He has engaged in collaborations from Hong Kong to Cape Dorset—over 100 of them so far—and given workshops for youth in Haida Gwaii, Powell River and Victoria.
Ever-shifting perceptions of the world, and everything in it, fuel Ramsey’s creativity. Turning a basic, familiar object on its head suddenly transforms it into something equally recognizeable, and yet totally different. Demonstrating this simple truth in his image-making carries a lot of meaning for him.
“I think that’s really important in life, to not just see things as one stuck way—even the simplest of things,” he offers. “That is the problem with war and hate… Sometimes you have to just step outside yourself and try to see the other person’s perspective in some way. Maybe not agree with it, but just try and see where they are coming from a little bit more.”
Ramsey is a natural fit for his current position as 2017’s Artist in Residence for the City of Victoria, where he will be working with various City departments, running workshops and collaborating with different groups. Ultimately, all this exchange will result in at least one original piece of public art for the City. Given Ramsey’s approach, it will likely engage the viewer in such a way that we also become partners in a collaborative process which urges us to think when we play, and play when we think.
Luke Ramsey’s exhibition of drawings and paintings will be at Madrona Gallery June 8 to 22. 606 View Street, 250-380-4660, www.madronagallery.com. Find out more about the City of Victoria Artist in Residence Program at www.victoria.ca and find Luke Ramsey online at www.lukeramseystudio.com.
Aaren Madden lives near the Trackside Gallery, where Luke Ramsey honed his street-art skills. She laments the deterioration of the programs there and vibrant, youth-created murals that once graced its exterior walls.
Playwright Janet Munsil directs a painfully timely American classic at the Roxy.
THERE'S A BITTERSWEET NOSTALGIA evoked by a play like Born Yesterday, the comic morality tale about unlikely heroes interrupting schemes of illicit influence and profiteering in Washington, DC. Garson Kanin’s classic post-war piece is a biting political and social commentary, calling out both the underestimation of women’s intelligence and the corrupting influence of money on politics. The nostalgia comes from the sweet, and now seemingly quaint, notion that underhanded, back-room dealings (much less overt, broad-daylight corruption) could be spoken to, and ultimately thwarted.
For those unfamiliar with the play, smarmy junkyard magnate Harry Brock brings his showgirl mistress Billie Dawn with him to Washington. He frets that her lack of erudition is a liability to his business dealings, so he hires righteous young journalist Paul Verrall to polish and educate his arm-candy. Billie Dawn awakens, and realizes how corrupt Harry is. She then attempts to interfere with his efforts to bribe a Congressman into passing legislation that would make Brock’s business even more profitable. Hilarity ensues, albeit edgy and uncomfortable hilarity.
Blue Bridge Theatre brought esteemed local playwright and director Janet Munsil on board to wrangle their staging of this American chestnut. Of taking on this particular directing gig, a year or so after leaving her longtime post at Intrepid Theatre, she says, “I gravitate toward comedies for sure. It is a comedy; sometimes it’s billed as a ‘screwball comedy.’ Billie Dawn is one of the iconic ‘dumb blonde’-mold chorus girls, who over the course of the play is introduced to education, and is revealed to be a highly intelligent woman. It’s not that her outer trappings are being changed; this is about the opening of her mind. About her empowerment to stand up to the oppressive situation that she finds herself in.”
Seventy years after its original run on Broadway, the play haunts us with its relevance. How have we not come farther in seven decades? Did Blue Bridge Theatre decide to program this piece specifically to highlight the events unfolding in Washington today? “Although it was written in the ’40s, there are certain things in it that really resonate right now,” agrees Munsil, who says it’s a “tragic accident” that the appearance of the show in the theatre’s 2017 lineup is so excruciatingly apropos. “Not just with [Billie Dawn’s] personal story…but the bribing of a congressman, corporate corruption angle, political angle—it’s very timely right now. We don’t have to push on it very hard in the show; it feels like a satire for today.”
Actress Casey Austin will play Billie Dawn, which, Munsil says, is a “very iconic role. In the film, she’s played by Judy Holliday, and it’s the role she was most associated with.” Jacob Richmond plays her “junkman millionaire boyfriend” Harry Brock, and Jonathan Mason, who currently lives in the UK, plays Paul Verrall, the fine young upstanding journalist, who, we can imagine, would bristle mightily if he were ever accused of propagating “fake news.”
Directing at the Roxy Theatre is new for Munsil, who says, “I’ve been really impressed with what they’ve been able to do with sets, considering there isn’t a backstage. They…give an impression of having a lot of space in what is really a tight area.” Born Yesterday set designer Barbara Clarahue and costume designer Graham McGonagle both have experience with the Roxy, making Munsil’s job easier.
As Victoria audiences witness this revival of a vintage play that couldn’t be more current, Munsil imagines that, yes, many theatres worldwide will surely be reviving it too. “It’s so on-the-nose, but this stuff is right there, in the script. It will be fun and entertaining from that perspective. It should be funny and uncomfortable,” she says, “which is my favourite kind of comedy.”
Born Yesterday, at Blue Bridge Repertory Theatre, directed by Janet Munsil. May 30-June 11, The Roxy Theatre, 2657 Quadra Street. Tickets, $20-$47, phone 250-382-3370, online at bluebridgetheatre.ca, or in person at 2657 Quadra Street.
The June concert series celebrates the natural power and intimacy of chamber music.
I HAVE VIVID MEMORIES of my cellist father hosting some of the other local symphony musicians to play chamber music in our home. During the summer, I would be allowed to stay up and listen, perched at the top of the stairs in my pyjamas. Nothing about those evenings was sedate; there was no chance of me falling asleep as they played. My recollections are of raucously dynamic music-making—quiet passages and sudden, impassioned chords flying from the strings, percussive flourishes ringing out from the piano, all of it punctuated now and then by booming cascades of adult conversation and laughter. Every molecule of the drywall and furniture seemed to be reverberating; it felt as if the house might explode.
The energy and intimacy of those evenings, and the power of that music, was a privilege to know. While grand orchestral works played in large halls certainly yield magnificent experiences, there is something precious that gets lost. For each instrument in the orchestra is a powerhouse unto itself. It’s easy to lose sight of this when eight violins, six violas and five cellos are on stage, all blending into one sound.
When one player performs each part in a smaller venue, it’s astounding how much volume and richness reverberates through the air. There is a visceral connection one feels to the music and the musician. It is a pleasure to hear the individual instrumentalist’s style, timbre and phrasing, each one of their notes in the co-created texture easily identifiable, yet supporting the whole.
This is the essence of chamber music. Victoria concert pianist Lorraine Min is passionate about sharing it with other musicians—and small, fortunate local audiences. She is co-artistic director of the Eine Kleine Summer Music festival (EKSM), a delicious, petit-four miniature of a music series that takes place each year in the verdant splendour of West Saanich, and typically sells out.
The 30th anniversary season of the EKSM sounds like it won’t disappoint. It kicks off with an afternoon performance at the Unitarian Church on June 4. One of Canada’s brightest young stars, concert pianist Jan Lisieki, was previously featured in a Victoria Symphony concert, and this will be his first time playing a solo recital here.
There will be some well-known Bach on the menu, as well as some familiar Chopin and Schubert, but also a little-known Schumann piece which, says Min, was written later in the composer’s life. “As a pianist and performer, I find the warmth of [Schumann’s] spirit incredible,” says Min. “He wasn’t just looking to further his own music and career. He wanted to celebrate and encourage other musicians around him.” Whether Min is conscious of it or not, she clearly is engaged in the same mission.
Now in her third year of being co-artistic director of the Eine Kleine Summer Music festival, Min says the festival began with a Victoria couple whose daughter played the cello. “They wanted her to have good musicians to perform with, so they started to present concerts with more professional musicians in town, who played in the symphony or at UVic. They wanted her to have that wonderful experience…They valued and cherished the idea of chamber music, and the ambience that goes along with it, to have it be in an intimate setting, in the country…that’s what makes Eine Kleine so unique.”
The popular series of concerts take place in two small venues “outside the hustle and bustle of the city,” explains Min. They are indoor events, but, she says, “You see rolling meadows, trees, flowers, the beauty of nature…that was very important, and that has remained a tradition with this festival.” The First Unitarian Church, she says, “has lots of windows and natural light” and offers scenic views of the countryside.
While the concerts at both the Church and at a new venue—Church and State Winery—are not “lawn-chair and picnic blanket with animals and babies running around” concerts, Min says the modicum of formality indoors offers an enhancement to the intimate and powerful experience. The silence, she says, “allows for that wonderful dynamic range, where you can play very soft, like a whisper, or have silence, which is powerful, palpable—then play big, and with body. It really does need to be in an environment where there is silence, so everyone can feel the music come to life that way.”
Chamber music, Min says, is “so very different from playing in a larger ensemble. Each instrument has its own individual voice, and they are all interconnected together…there is something really magical about that.” She adds that playing music “with colleagues you admire and work well with on a personal level elevates the music as well. Something that we treasure and do our best to maintain at [Eine Kleine] is that feeling…that can only exist with this small group of you on stage together.”
On June 11 and 12 the program will feature the EKSM debut of dual instrumentalist Barry Schiffman. “He is an equally beautiful violinist and violist,” Min enthuses, and the repertoire chosen will feature him playing both. The concerts will also feature founding Lafayette String Quartet cellist Pamela Highbaugh Aloni, Min on piano, Terence Tam and Julian Vitek on violin, Kenji Fuse on viola, and Laura Backstrom on cello.
The Muse Ensemble takes centre stage for the third presentation of the series on June 18 and 19. Tam, Backstrom, Fuse and Min comprise the quartet. Min says The Muse will bring an extra element of celebration during this 30th anniversary series. “We are excited to perform the program that is going to be on our upcoming CD; we will have our CD launch during that weekend.”
The fourth and final concert on June 25 and 26 features Suzanne Lemieux, principal oboe of the Symphony of Nova Scotia. Min says the program will feature a contemporary virtuoso piece that features not just show-off moments for the piano, which, she says, is “typically the case—it’s not unusual to hear a pianist having to play very technically challenging and dazzling music, but to hear an oboist do the same is quite remarkable. This piece is extremely virtuosic and challenging.” The Bach double concerto for violin and oboe will close the EKSM, the symmetry of which pleases Min. “We begin the season with Bach, and we end the season with Bach.”
Eine Kleine Summer Music concert series, June 4, 11, 12, 18, 19, 25 and 26. Tickets, $25-$110. Order form available at eksm.ca, or call 250-413-3134. You can also order online at eventbrite.ca.
Writer Mollie Kaye performs with The Millies, a Victoria-based vocal trio.
For those who can't make it to the Festival, here's Lorraine Min with the Emily Carr String Quartet playing Chopin's Concerto No. 1, 3rd movement:
Site-specific theatre brings history to life in Bastion Square.
THEATRE HISTORIAN AND PLAYWRIGHT Dr Jennifer Wise has long held a passion for site-specific dramatic performances based on little-known histories. Her works on historical drama have been published in four countries, and she currently teaches courses ranging from Greek and Roman theatre to 19th-century opera at the University of Victoria.
In 2013, her site-specific comedy The Girl Rabbi of the Golden West was first performed in Victoria as part of the 150th-anniversary celebrations of Victoria’s Congregation Emanu-El, Canada’s oldest synagogue. Later staged at the Toronto Centre for the Arts and elsewhere, it won the Canadian Jewish Playwriting Competition in 2013.
It was while researching for that play that she stumbled on the little-known story of John Butt, an openly gay man who stood trial in Bastion Square in 1860 on charges of sodomy and rape. Wise was fascinated by the fact that he managed to escape conviction under jury in the mid-19th century. After delving into the archives, she wrote A Queer Trial, based partly on verbatim 1860 police-court transcripts.
“I realized this story would serve as an ideal project for students to learn about site-specific theatre,” says Wise. With funding from UVic’s Office of Community-University Engagement, a course was developed, and, starting last January, students in the class began researching and consulting with members of BC’s Indigenous, LGBTQ2, Jewish, Black and legal communities; and took on all key roles—acting, singing, musical direction, choreography, and costume design—save directing, which was provided by Matthew Payne, artistic producer of Theatre SKAM, a Victoria company acclaimed for its site-specific productions.
How Butt escaped conviction is the big riddle addressed in the play. Says Wise, “Thirty years after the story of John Butt, Oscar Wilde was condemned to hard labour in jail for the same crimes. So, how was it possible that this off-the-beaten-path nowhere city, off in the Pacific Ocean, in the wild west of Vancouver Island, was 30 years more progressive than cosmopolitan London?”
Wise says that what makes Butt’s tale all the more astounding is the fact that he was very open about his sexual life and tastes with the rest of the community, despite the explicit anti-homosexual laws that remained widely enforced.
“He made no secret of it,” Wise says. “He went into butcher shops in downtown Victoria and openly propositioned men by saying, ‘Hey,’ you know, ‘I’d like to have you in bed with me.’”
According to Wise’s research, the trial of Butt itself reached its seemingly unlikely conclusion due to a variety of local factors unique to the City of Victoria in 1860. The local community of the period contained a large African-American population, owing to Governor James Douglas’s promise of residence and full citizenship to the disenfranchised black population of southerly California, along with large numbers of Jews, immigrant Russians, and other minority populations—who found themselves united in distrust of a recent influx of American prospectors. One of the initial jurors in the Butt trial, for example, was Peter Lester, a black Californian cobbler who had taken advantage of Governor Douglas’ immigration program after suffering a prejudice-motivated assault by two members of his former community. Professor Wise theorizes that the general unity of minority populations against a tide of outsiders helped to galvanize the population in favour of their fellow citizen. Whatever the case, a jury which included both Peter Lester and two Jewish members remained hung, at a vote of seven to five in favour of conviction.
“So the whole jury actually spent a night in jail,” explains Wise, “because of these five minority voices for John Butt. So the first jury, because they were hung, they were put back out for deliberation for another day. And they spent an entire day in deliberation, but the stalemate was not broken.”
That jury was dismissed and another appointed. The new jury acquitted John Butt within no more than five minutes. Of the two indictments brought forth, both concerned John Butt’s well-known sexual partner William Williams. The first simply alleged to a sexual encounter between the two men; the second, now generally regarded as a fabrication and lacking any proof, claimed that Butt had raped Williams. Judge David Cameron, a brother-in-law to Governor Douglas, before whom the rambunctious Butt had found himself several times before, and who had a reputation for sympathy to his charges, then made note of a mistake in the dating of the first count of the indictment. With this accusation quashed, the jury was left only with an unprovable count of rape, thus securing Butt’s acquittal. Adding to the sense of community justice that accompanied the public perception of the case was the fact that the plaintiff, Crown Counsel (and Attorney General for Vancouver Island, age 28) George Hunter Cary, was regarded by many as a “drunken madman,” according to Wise.
Wise felt that the expression of the story’s theatrical adaptation in musical form was important, due to the role that music played in the period in which the performance is set.
“In 1860, there wasn’t even a phonograph,” she says. “There was no recorded music in existence. If you wanted music, you had to make it yourself. So to convey the feeling of Victoria in that period, I think music is pretty important. But also, thematically, I wanted to celebrate John Butt. And how do you best celebrate someone’s life? You sing about it.”
Wise says that she also discovered in researching John Butt’s life that he was known for his tenor voice and sung in a choir. “Many of the people who knew him and reminisced and told stories about him—in fact, all of them—remarked on his beautiful singing voice. So, I thought, ‘How can I do justice to this guy if I don’t have music in the play?’”
The staging of the performance in Bastion Square was of particular importance to Wise and her team. “That was part of the concept from the very beginning, that it would be the most moving for an audience to see these events reenacted on the very soil where they took place originally. To have an actor standing in the very place where the original person stood, and speak the very words that that original historical person spoke is so moving to an audience. Obviously it brings history alive, but it moves them on a deeper level than having those events just re-enacted in an ordinary theatre.”
Wise paid especially close attention to her portrayal of the normalized bigotry which played a central role in Victorian society of the time, particularly as scores of American immigrants brought with them less tolerant views than many of those found in Victoria.
“So how do you deal with racism or homophobia? How do you deal with really awful obnoxious views? I think you have to laugh at them,” says Wise. “That’s the only way. So I do have some American characters in the play and some racist and xenophobic and homophobic characters, but we laugh at them. We let them say what they want to say and then we show how absurd and ridiculous those ideas are.”
The nature of satire in the recent work also underscored Dr Wise’s intention to bridge the gap between minority groups who have previously suffered stigma in Victoria’s community, and those who continue to do so today. “Theatre is the most political of the art forms, it’s a public art form. You tell a story in the public sphere. You’re necessarily doing a political act. There’s no real distinction there.”
A Queer Trial was staged in Bastion Square on April 14 to capacity crowds. With the students going their separate ways, there are currently no plans for further productions.
Aaron Stefik loves storytelling and satire, history and fiction. He is a contributing writer with Camosun’s Nexus, where a shorter version of this article appeared in March.
Be part of the change. Get off the couch and see live performances.
PROMINENT CANADIAN PLAYWRIGHT, director and actor Daniel MacIvor wants to know: What’s theatre for?
In the opening event of the Intrepid Theatre UNO Festival, MacIvor will be presenting his own take on “What’s Theatre For?” No doubt the dialogue that ensues will be a meaty one. My own sense is that theatre is for memory, community and learning.
Theatre companies document and archive their shows, to varying degrees, with videos, photos, and files kept of reviews, posters and programs. But all of that material is only a distant echo of the lived experience of the actual performance. The archive of theatre lives in the memory of its audience.
All of the performing arts share the essential qualities of being transitory and ephemeral in nature. You have to be there, as part of the live encounter between artist and witness, to play your essential role as a conduit of memory.
Our consumer culture tends to frame theatregoing as just another product to purchase and consume, often mindlessly. But what happens if we reframe it in a more mindful way? If we engage with the sense that we, as viewers, hold a privilege and obligation to carry the memory of a performance (if it was, in fact, memorable, of course) into the future?
As a regular and dedicated theatregoer, I carry with me a mental list of the top theatre experiences of my lifetime. These are the highlights of my own personal memory archive. I have to reconsider my list after seeing something that leaves a powerful residue of artistry and meaning. I have wonderful conversations, sometimes in theatre lobbies during intermissions, with colleagues, family and friends about what’s on my list compared to theirs.
It is these kinds of conversations that lead us from our more individual experience of theatre to the more social one of being part of a theatregoing community, together. Like most of us these days, I have an ongoing Netflix addiction. It’s too easy to just stay at home and zone out with another series or movie binge. Going out to see theatre, a concert, dance show or opera takes energy and effort. Fundamentally, the performing arts require you to show up—with brushed hair and suitable attire!
Yet the rewards of showing up are the rewards of becoming, for a couple of hours, part of a community. This community enters the playing space as part of an unspoken but understood social contract. We agree to turn off our cellphones and open up our crinkly candy wrappers before the lights go down. We try not to disturb our neighbours or the performers during the show. We respond with laughter, attention, consideration, gasps, and, on occasion, tears. We demonstrate our enthusiasm and gratitude in applause, at times on our feet. We talk to our companions about what we have seen and heard. We spread the word.
For me, as someone who has lived and breathed theatre for most of my life, there is a utopian impulse at play in this process. Something hopeful and generative is created, albeit temporarily, when groups of people come together to share in the witnessing of performance. Of course I am aware of the limits of this idea. Too often the people I see around me in these communal events are people who are very much like me: white, educated, and middle-aged or older. I would be happy to see a more diverse, intergenerational mix in audiences. I do worry about the future of the mainstream performing arts if the most established companies cannot attract a younger and more diverse audience to sustain their futures. We all need to feel that we are a valued part of the community, and the theatregoing community is no exception to that rule.
Finally, as I am a theatre educator by trade, I have to believe in theatre’s educational power. In this belief I sit with philosophers as far back as Aristotle and Horace who understood theatre’s power to both enlighten and instruct. Human behavior, revealed through stories of characters who are deeply tested by life, is analyzed and interpreted in dramatic action. Theatre is a laboratory for the study of humanity.
I have always found the many-layered complexity of the art form to be illuminating as well. In addition to the text of a play is the interpretive work of the actors and their director. Then the worlds of set and costume design enliven the play. The way light and sound are applied add more layers of meaning. (On the sound front, recently I was stopped in a rare moment of aesthetic arrest by the use of Joni Mitchell’s song “Blue” in a National Theatre Live screening of Ivo van Hove’s production of Hedda Gabler. The song revealed the psychology of Hedda, her self-proclaimed lack of “talent for living,” in a new and memorable way.)
On an even more idealistic level, I believe in theatre’s potential for making the world a better place. My work in the field of applied theatre, also known as community-based or grassroots theatre (among many other names), has taught me plenty. It has shown me how theatre-making can open up spaces within communities for the sharing of stories and the consideration of alternative possible futures. I have seen this happen in my work with William Head on Stage, Canada’s only inmate-run prison theatre company.
I think about how Ibsen’s plays shocked European society of the late 19th century. How Caryl Churchill’s Top Girls attacked Margaret Thatcher’s neoconservative regime in the 1980s. How Tony Kushner’s Angels in America woke up middle-class audiences to the realities of the AIDS crisis in the 1990s. These plays, and many more, bolster my faith in theatre as a tool for awareness and social change.
If these thoughts provoke some of your own, perhaps you can bring your live self to Daniel MacIvor’s “WTF” talk, then will yourself off the cozy couch in the days that follow so you can play your sacred role. Be part of the community bearing witness to the often edgy, social-change-themed Uno Fest performances, then compare your list of memories to another’s.
Intrepid Theatre’s 20th Annual UNO Fest runs May 17-27, 2017 in the Metro Studio, Intrepid Theatre Club and more. Daniel MacIvor’s keynote talk, “WTF: or What’s Theatre For?” Wednesday, May 17 at 8pm, Metro Studio, 1411 Quadra Street. Go to intrepidtheatre.com for more info, a listing of all performances and a link to purchase tickets and passes. Tickets can also be purchased over the phone at 1-855-842-7575, or in person at 101-804 Broughton Street.
Monica Pendergast is co-editor and chapter author of a forthcoming e-book, Web of Performance: An Ensemble Workbook for Youth, also being published by the University of Victoria.
A coming-of-age story invites us to step out of the comfortable.
ON THE OPENING PAGE of Eden Robinson’s new novel Son of a Trickster (Knopf, February 2017), we learn that Jared is different. As a small child, his maternal grandmother called him Wee’git—“Trickster”—and told him: “You still smell like lightning.” While she’d treat his cousins to fudge and caramel apples, for his birthday she gave Jared a jar of blood and animals’ teeth.
Like the reader, Jared has a lot of learning to do. For in this book, the seemingly normal and the magical inhabit the same space. Telling them apart can be, well, tricky. But that seems to be part of Robinson’s point, as she explores simultaneity and the opportunities that come when you have to face it.
The story takes place in Kitimat, 10 kilometres north of Kitimaat Village, where Robinson spent her own youth. It follows Jared, a 16-year-old living in his mother’s basement, who has to navigate shifting mysteries within and without as the world he thought he knew turns into something he doesn’t know at all.
Dealing with more than just the typical teenage escapades with booze, drugs, sex, and fickle social circles, Jared’s world of domestic dysfunction teeters between extremes of tenderness and violence. This young man, who says things like “good gravy” and cries over his dying dog, has to define himself. He must choose how to be in the face of his addicted and gun-toting mother’s mantra, which is part warning and part command: “The world is hard. You have to be harder.”
But how can you know how to be when you aren’t sure who you are? How do you untangle all of what makes you who you are in the first place? How do you determine what is real and what isn’t? Not small questions for someone who had been hoping he could finish grade ten “before all this shit blew up.” Yet the coming apart is where Robinson shows us Jared’s learning happens, and she seems to take delight in blowing up the limitations of his knowledge and perspective. In a description of magic early in the novel, she reminds us that “our reality is shaped by our limitations.”
“When I left Kitimaat,” she tells me by phone, “I assumed everyone knew who the Haisla were, that we make the best [oolichan] grease. I assumed everyone knew what grease was! Across North America, we all have the same blind spots. We assume our reality is the only reality. But there’s more than one reality.”
A member of the Haisla and Heiltsuk First Nations, Robinson once again makes her home in Kitamaat Village, population 700, on BC’s central coast. Growing up in a community rooted in oral tradition meant everyone told stories, and many of the stories Robinson heard around the family table were about the transforming trickster Wee’git.
Oral storytelling wasn’t her forte, though. “I wasn’t very good at it,” she laughs. “I tend to wander.” Instead, in grade 11 Robinson started writing, a medium that could encompass her containment-resistant thinking. “Originally, I wanted to be an astronaut,” she says, “but then I found out NASA had a height requirement.” So, science geek that she was, she started writing short science fiction and, from there, branched out to the dark stories of Traplines (winner of the UK’s Winifred Holtby prize); the downtown Vancouver Eastside-based Blood Sports; and her critically-acclaimed novel Monkey Beach (shortlisted for the Giller prize and a Governor General’s Literary Award, and winner of the Ethel Wilson Fiction Prize). In 2016 she was awarded the Writers’ Trust Engel Findley Award, honouring a mid-career body of work making a significant contribution to Canadian literature.
It’s not surprising that Robinson began exploring her talent as a teen. In both Monkey Beach and Son of a Trickster, young adulthood is a particularly powerful time, where that universally awkward experience of self-discovery includes awakening to, and shaking hands with, unusual gifts. While most teens won’t discover that their parent is a supernatural being or start seeing the dead, Jared’s story of painfully growing into the truth is important for young people. And its lesson of listening to and learning to accept what sets you apart is good for all of us.
Robinson is also interested in exploring what makes us similar. In a series of interstitial moments stepping out of the ground-level, expletive-laden action, a narrative voice—perhaps the aeons-old Wee’git—shares more meditative thoughts about the Earth’s past and present history.
“Every living creature, every drop of water and every somber mountain is the by-blow of some bloated, dying star.” We’re told that the difference between one human and another “is probably one DNA base pair in every thousand” and that we are “transitory vessels built from recycled carbon like every other living thing on this planet. Bits and parts of you have probably been a cricket or a dinosaur or a single blade of grass on the prairies.” In these moments, Robinson’s love of science peeks through and shows us a way of seeing another kind of magic, in our world and in ourselves.
One of the strengths of this kind of magic realism is that it forces us to look with new eyes at the so-called “real world” we already inhabit. For instance, when Jared sees a monster underneath an old woman’s skin, it doesn’t really match the submerged monstrousness of his mother’s ex-boyfriend, who took perverse pleasure in a scene of torture I won’t describe here. Robinson shows us that the seemingly “normal” can be just as bizarre—in both beautiful and horrific ways—as anything the supernatural world can offer.
“The Earth has had so many purges,” Robinson says. “If we get purged, it won’t be a big deal—well, to the Earth, I mean,” she notes, laughing. But she’s not laughing when she adds: “Now we’re doing it to ourselves.” Living so close to Kitimat, the threat of the Northern Gateway pipeline provided what she calls “a non-stop drumbeat of activism” that slowed down her writing of this story, which began in 2008 and is the first book of a trilogy.
Not surprisingly, political and environmental themes lurk on the edges of Jared’s teenage maelstrom. “When I was young,” she explains, “there was always a moral we had to pull away from the books we read. I tend to go in the opposite direction. The goal is not to tell you what to think. I just introduce the characters, and let people come to their own conclusions.”
Despite having created characters that literally and figuratively push the limits of humanity, Robinson, hilarious and ultimately undampened by cynicism, also reveals the unexpected beauty of different kinds of relationships, and of expanded vision. Hers is an invitation to step out of the comfortable and throw off the limitations that shape a restricted reality. In that sense, Son of a Trickster is a little like a run through a dense forest. You’ll be scratched up, a little bruised, maybe scared—but you’ll also be exhilarated and newly attuned to what’s different around and within you, things you otherwise might have never seen, never understood, and never valued.
Writer/editor Amy Reiswig believes that indeed there are more things in heaven and on Earth than are dreamt of in our philosophy.
On YouTube, Miriam Toews interviews Eden Robinson:
As waves of newcomers arrive, opportunity and peril loom over our urban identity.
FROM New York Times movie critic Stephen Holden’s review of director Alexandr Sokurov’s 2002 film, Russian Ark:
“This ultimate display of wealth and privilege in the movie is so heady it would be easy to infer that Mr. Sokurov…harbors a lingering nostalgia for the pre-revolutionary era of czars and serfs. But this extraordinary sequence—courtly social life set within the Hermitage Palace in St. Petersburg—even more powerfully evokes the historical blindness of an entitled elite blissfully oblivious to the fact that it is standing in quicksand that is about to give.”
It was 1971 and I was a newly-minted Victorian, having arrived here the year before from New York City via Prince Rupert (the story of that long rail journey some other time). I had just founded Open Space, the warehouse cultural centre on lower Fort Street that still bears my name (I swear, a letter showed up one day addressed: Open Space, 510 Fort Street, Victoria, BC and began: Dear Mr. Space…).
I could barely conjure the next month’s rent, let alone funds for programming and physical plant improvements to sustain the cavernous, cruddy warehouse. “Go see Pam Ellis. She’s a patron of the arts,” said knowing friends over beers at the Churchill. They filled my head with tales of fabulous wealth earned, via her husband, Geoffrey, from the One-Hour Martinizing chain and, if I remember correctly, an English beer fortune thrown in.
I made an appointment through Mrs. Ellis’ factotum, and on the day arrived a bit early at her 30-room bungalow on Runnymede Avenue. (Years before, God had thoughtfully created South Oak Bay around her home to provide a windbreak from the rude ocean breezes.)
Mrs. Ellis was closeted improbably with Princess Chirinsky-Chikhmatoff (formerly Jennie Ross of Ross/Butchart Gardens fame, and wife, for a while, of dashing but impoverished Russian aristocrat Prince André Chirinsky-Chikhmatoff—a name evoking fairy-tale royalty, onion-domed castles, Glinka mazurkas, satin window swags, and flattering candlelight). So I waited in an anteroom, sipping flavourless tea, almost within earshot of their animated repartee.
Eventually, the princess departed, and I was shown in. Awkward, bumptious, full of myself and my life-changing cultural vision, I launched, after introductions, into some unscripted and feverish explanation of Open Space and its cultural mission, hoping to convey the idea that, eclipsed only by the domestication of wild herds, the invention of the steam engine, and one or two other equally significant human milestones, Open Space was inarguably the most important cultural advance on the planet. All of this was larded with the worst eyewash and mangled promises of an ovation in this life and sainthood in the next for any benefactor whose dough might be leveraged to make this precious dream come true.
I had to stop mid-peroration to catch my breath, which gave Mrs. Ellis an opportunity to interject an incongruous, loopy soliloquy about dieting. On and on she melodiously maundered about her efforts to reduce, gesticulating and patting her plump arms and generous middle. I adopted the glazed look of the fascinated listener: a treacly, sickeningly interested grin that in a more just cosmos would have been removed by a lightning bolt. To look at my face, you would think she was rattling off long swatches of flawless Tennyson verbatim.
During this weird monologue about her weight-loss efforts, Mrs. Ellis spoke energetically to the middle distance above my head, as if to some balcony audience. Then, winding down, she turned straight toward me, her eyes penetrating deep within my shabby soul. The notes of caprice and gossipy self-absorption never left her voice as she said, “You know, Mr. Miller, its so hard being fat in a skinny world.”
THOSE WERE THE DAYS. The wealthy could express metaphor and refinement (however synthetic); the aspiring rest of us had the sufferings to which we were fairly accustomed (apologies to Auden). And if there were reason to grumble about the rich, at least it was a microscopic consolation that they followed socially-approved protocols for cultural largesse via carefully-managed endowments. (God, listen to me! Where’s Tevye, from Fiddler, singing “If I Were a Rich Man,” when you need him?) Also, there was a faint sense that such plutocrats, less outright crooks than clever and aggressive opportunists, had at least made their fortunes by tapping legitimate and tangible market veins like beer and dry cleaning, and not asset-backed securities, derivatives, credit default swaps, leveraging, money bundling, or other dark and suspect financial arts.
You may also accurately conclude that Victoria, while not immune to the winds of change, was “a little bit of Olde Inertia” those forty-five years ago, and still under the frosty and disorder-averse social influence of proper and vaguely British (roll your r, please) Oak Bay social aristocracy. Then, as now, provincial government was present, but a world apart from the city’s daily life.
The Hudson’s Bay stood stolidly, massively, at the north end of Douglas, forbiddingly vending yesteryear’s styles, while a slightly less un-welcoming and “with it” Eaton’s at View and Douglas jumped Broad Street with an elevated pedestrian bridge. I have a possibly imagination-inflamed memory of busty, heavyset sales matrons in both stores, disapproving lifers whose body English and angry punching of the cash register keys proclaimed that spending money on frivolities like clothing was near to biblical sin.
Murchie’s on Government Street, back then, likely sold more Earl Grey than coffee. You understand, these reminiscences send us back to the pre-Starbucks Pleistocene! Honestly, can you even imagine a time before lattes?
There was a Downtown residential population of sorts, but more of a single- room-occupancy crowd, as longstanding citizen and City councillor Pam Madoff notes. You “commuted” home to the James Bay, Fairfield, and Fernwood suburbs from a day at the office or shop, and journeyed to the double-wide-strewn hillbilly hinterland of Langford and Colwood only for banjo lessons or to blast at small, furry animals.
But all of these memories—truth and legend alike—are about to be swamped by something new. As I’ve noted in previous writing, Downtown is in the middle of a transformation: Residential growth which, if unabridged by any near-term economic hiccups, will, in under a decade, swell the population to between ten and fifteen thousand, contained within a tiny, forty-block area—roughly Broughton to Herald, Cook to Wharf, with some further help from expanding residential colonies in Songhees and Vic West.
Disorienting change: Former McCall Brothers Funeral Home has a new life as a sales office for the new condo across the street.
Those numbers may seem fantastic, but you have no idea what’s coming. Look past the visible hoardings, excavations and construction cranes to many other candidate properties or property assemblies—yes, including one whole city block—either acquired or in play for new development.
Why here, why now, what’s driving it? Who knows? Does the current boom have legs, or will some market plunge leave many Downtown sites as holes in the ground and half-completed works for a generation? We’ll see (I assume the inevitable).
Importantly, who are these newcomers steadily swelling the Downtown residential population? Can these newcomers be Victorianized, harmonized with the city’s culture, or will they redefine that culture? Will the physical structures housing this human flood result in some dismal, isolating West End of tombstone high-rises and irreparable damage to Downtown character, or in an economic, social, cultural and energetic renaissance? Pointedly, are you ready for six-hour breakfast lineups outside Jam on Herald?
But what most interests me is cultural transmission: the challenge to all of us, to the city, to successfully convey story. Not history, exactly, but the singularity and character of this place, so newcomers are welcomed by a context and continuity.
Discussing W.G. Sebald’s last novel, Austerlitz, Colin Dickey remarks that buildings and the entire urban fabric are human acts, projecting not just a functional message, but also a cultural one: ideas, values, preferences, importances. “No historical [condition or monument] arrives ex nihilo. Patterns are laid out decades in advance, in plain sight. They draw attention to themselves, even if we have no desire [and little skill] to recognize them.” (You need look no farther than the hundreds of now-a-generation-old cracker-box apartment buildings visually littering the Victoria landscape to appreciate Dickey’s potent thought.)
Of course, so as not to get too lost in rhapsody, it’s helpful to add social critic James Kunstler’s theory of history: “Things happen because they seem like a good idea at the time.”
In other words, opportunity and peril loom over urban identity. Newcomers will change, but also need to be changed by, the city’s identity, and by its public realm, cultural aspirations and accomplishments…in aid of which, we might even prevail upon Open Space to put up two plaques on its lower Fort Street exterior: one a bas-relief likeness of Pam Ellis with her thoughts about being fat in a skinny world, the other of Mr. Space.
Co-founder of Monday Magazine, Gene Miller has, with partner Rob Abbott, launched the website FutureTense: Robotics, AI and the Future of Work.
A century ago, Robert Butchart’s cement works used the inlet as a dump; help is finally on the way.
TWO YEARS AGO, Alice Meyers had just arrived in Victoria to complete research for a PhD focusing on revitalization of the Sencoten language. On advice from Judith Arney, ethnoecologist for SeaChange Marine Conservation Society, she went out on a rainy Saturday and got drenched to the bone, working to remove invasive plants from the shores of an emerald inlet in Saanich. She lights up at the memory of sloshing around in the mud and the cold. “It was the best time,” she tells me. “It was like having a hazing from nature!”
SṈIDȻEȽ (pronounced sneed-kwith), or Tod Inlet, forms the upper reaches of Saanich Inlet and is part of Gowlland Tod Provincial Park. SṈIDȻEȽ is the area’s WSÁNEĆ (Saanich First Nation) name, and means “place of the blue grouse.” After that first visit, Meyers quickly became a regular in the park, removing blackberry and ivy in all weather and occasionally rewarding herself by planting native species. Working alongside volunteers from the Garth Homer Society and SeaChange, she developed a deep and sustaining relationship with the history-laden land. Now, her work has become one part of a significant ecological restoration project currently underway.
Alice Meyers (l) and Nikki Wright at Tod Inlet. (Photo by Tony Bounsall)
There’s an undeniable feeling upon arriving at the protected upper reaches of SṈIDȻEȽ—a ghostly sense of loss and palpable history, layered over one of the most beautiful watersheds in the South Island. Emerald Douglas-fir, cedar and spruce blanket the inlet’s steep surrounding Partridge Hills. Tod Creek, in late winter, runs thick and fast as a mountain river, and joins the bay at its southernmost reach. The inlet itself gleams. Deep, still and protected from wind and tides, it warms to swimming temperature in summer and is a destination for those who enjoy trilliums and rattlesnake plantain orchids in spring, or carpets of maple leaves in fall. But the water’s glossy surface hides a complex past that many are now trying to rectify.
“This is a magical watershed,” agrees Nikki Wright, the executive director of SeaChange. Tides in SṈIDȻEȽ empty and change completely only once per year, helping to create the feeling of a place unhinged from time.
But the inlet’s recent history also contributes to a feeling of loss. SṈIDȻEȽ was the place of creation of the first human, according to WSÁNEĆ oral literature. WSÁNEĆ peoples lived there until 1904, when, travelling back from their summer harvesting grounds, they found their winter village had been replaced by a cement quarry and pier, built by Robert Butchart’s Vancouver Portland Cement Company.
The factory, using workers from China and India who lived in insubstantial shacks near the inlet’s head, operated until 1913. Typhus and tuberculosis were common. The park’s soil still yields artifacts of Chinese pottery, metal and glass. As Meyers notes, it’s both a gorgeous place and an amazing, sad story. The cement plant was only operating for nine years, but “100 years later we’re still cleaning up the mess.”
Meyers, through SeaChange, has been involved primarily in the organization’s terrestrial restoration projects. But this year her work dovetailed with an ambitious foreshore restoration project. It’s one that everyone hopes will continue (pending funding) until the inlet’s ecosystem biodiversity is restored.
When I visit with Wright, markers in the bay indicate underwater debris—concrete, sunken vessels and other navigational hazards—slated for pick-up by SeaChange in the coming weeks. The debris, left over from the cement factory’s tenure, provides an ideal surface for jellyfish polyps to grow, which eventually mature into moon jellyfish. Though a native species, overpopulation of these creatures, which feed on plankton, causes a trophic cascade in the ecosystem: Less plankton means less small fish, which in turn means fewer salmon. Though the inlet looks rich in wildlife, the ocean bottom is a moonscape low on biodiversity. Little life can survive the leachate from the former factory’s contamination of land and water.
Jennie Butchart began her family’s gardens in the abandoned excavated limestone quarries after the cement factory’s closure, but SṈIDȻEȽ wasn’t acquired by BC Parks until 1995, during the NDP’s last push for parkland acquisition. Restoration of the terrestrial portions began soon after, including removal and burning of invasive species and plantings of acres of native species right up to the water’s edge by volunteers from around the region.
“You develop a familial relationship with the plants,” Meyers says of the native species she’s added. Many of the plantings are tucked beside the remains of cement house foundations left over from factory housing and cottages that dotted the inlet in the decades after the factory’s closure (terrestrial cement remains aren’t as ecologically damaging as those in the inlet itself).
On February 10 of this year, SeaChange arrived to haul concrete, contaminated soil, and abandoned bricks off the foreshore, piling it further inland at the park’s northern edge. The beach was then levelled out to a gradual slope and covered with gravel and sand, which will soften into an erosion-resistant shore. The soft shore provides protection against rising sea levels and creates an ideal habitat for marine life in the inlet. Wright said that less than a week after the restoration project was completed, she came down for BC Family Day, happy to see children playing in clean sand and families enjoying the beach’s gentle slope.
Shoreline restoration funding for SeaChange’s project was provided in part by the Recreational Fisheries Conservation Partnerships Program (Fisheries and Oceans Canada) and by the Pacific Salmon Foundation. SeaChange partnered with the Tsartlip First Nation and BC Parks to complete the work. Tsartlip, Tsawout and Tseycum First Nations have all expressed support for the project.
“The whole intent of our work is to bring it back to some semblance of health for First Nations,” explains Wright. Her hope is that management can eventually be shared or even pass from BC Parks to the Tsartlip First Nation, allowing the original inhabitants to take responsibility for and shape the future of their former village.
Wright hopes BC Parks will agree to cap and cover the debris left on the shore, as trying to remove all of the contaminated material in SṈIDȻEȽ would be a monumental task, and one that would likely involve disturbing the returning Douglas-fir and other streamside ecosystems.
Eventually, SeaChange’s goal is to restore much of the foreshore around the wharf, as well as to cap and cover the inlet’s sea floor, so that marine life can return. Stories abound of historical herring, oolichan, and salmon fisheries in the inlet, with abundant shellfish beds. The intertidal zone below these cliffs is currently littered with old bricks, concrete, metals, and potentially contaminated sand.
“It’s a disgrace,” sighs Wright, “but what do you do with all that anger? You act.”
For Meyers as well, who has returned to work at SṈIDȻEȽ time and time again, ecological restoration has become a way to connect with nature and history, to enjoy a sense of community, and to give back to the WSÁNEĆ Nation from whom she’s learning. “You can see that the land has absorbed this love,” says Meyers. “I feel a deep connection now that I’ve been out there for so many hours.”
While visiting SṈIDȻEȽ, Wright brainstorms with my friend’s children on how to build an outdoor amphitheatre with some nearby abandoned stacks of concrete pilings. In half a minute they’ve come up with a new solution that won’t involve cutting any trees and could provide an ideal setting for sylvan performances of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. If the dreams and energy of Meyers, Wright and SṈIDȻEȽ’s original inhabitants keep flowing, the future may indeed be able to heal the past.
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.
Also see the Victoria Foundation's video on the Tod Inlet restoration project:
Are we hurting ourselves when we oppose mixed housing?
HERE IN THE SLEEPY VILLAGE OF CORDOVA BAY, we amiable residents have recently been stirring quite the commodious cauldron of consternation. We hasten to explain that it’s not our usual style. It’s just that, well, we like the sleepy aspect of our village, and want to keep it that way. It’s in our bones and our history, stretching all the way back to when we were just a country vacation destination.
In the days when the Great Northern Railway rolled up from Victoria on what is now Lochside Drive to bring campers and cottagers to our remote sandy shores, eating, drinking, basking in the sun, and dancing in the moonlight on the famous McMorran’s maple sprung floor is what we did. (Although there was one tense day in 1942 when an RCAF bomber accidentally rained five unarmed missiles on our idyllic little burg, one of which found its bull’s-eye on a resident’s roof and came to “within a tea towel of taking her out at the kitchen sink.”)
We even had a landmark to epitomize our idyll: The Fable Cottage, which for years drew busloads of curious tourists from everywhere. In 1993, the storybook structure was pulled off its foundation, sawn into three pieces, and barged to Denman Island. Turns out that was our bellwether sailing away.
In its wake, we got Fable Beach Estates, featuring 25 luxury townhouses. Then the old waterfront cottages began falling like dominoes to make way for mega-houses, which triggered further development around town.
Luxury homes and condos sprouted up behind Mattick’s Farm, and a nearby soccer field became a high-end townhouse development. Over the last decade, Sayward Hill has grown 200 “luxury waterfront golf course condos” (as well as the golf course itself). Its eight-storey final and most luxurious phase is pending. And the old Trio Ready-Mix site on the other half of the hill is being prepped for the construction of more than 300 new homes.
Property subdivision and in-filling is common. In my neighbourhood, a developer is currently squeezing in six huge homes. The first just sold for $1.6 million.
Residents have mostly been chill with all of this.
Until now, it would seem. In the village centre stands our old plaza (think “tired and outdated” rather than “charming and vintage”). For the last two decades, it has endured empty stores, fuel-contaminated soil, and protracted legal battles. Then a developer came along with a revitalization plan and, long story short, all finally seemed ready to make way for new retail space and up to 88 modest-sized condos, all kept to a maximum of four storeys.
A stone’s throw away, on Doumac Avenue, another developer firmed up plans for a four-storey, 25-condo building on two lots that currently each feature a dilapidated home.
Cordova Bayers grew perturbed. We’re losing our charm, our atmosphere, we protested. The projects are too high, too modern, too dense, too paved. The influx of new residents will be too great, too sudden, too changing, too busy. Once a certain crescendo was reached—and that doesn’t necessarily take a lot of voices—Saanich began weighing in as well, councillors extolling our charm and character as if we all still lived in little cottages, as if we hadn’t all been building expansive housing for the last 20 years.
The protests worked: The Doumac project has now been mothballed, and the plaza, well, let’s wait and see.
I wonder what we’re protecting with our resistance. If it’s green space, the plaza overhaul would be a clear winner over the soccer-field townhouses. But if it’s our views and property values, well, motives become more personal. Who wants their investment compromised by mixed housing, especially if it also obstructs views (even though it might be a prospective young family’s only chance at a toe in the door)?
Do we Boomers, who’ve had a relatively easy ride through our little segment of history, really know what we’re doing? By closing the gate firmly behind ourselves, are we depriving our community of diversity and a sustainable future? Do we inadvertently risk turning our own overpriced and oversized homes into exorbitant albatrosses down the road (or do we all hope for offshore buyers)? And when we do finally downsize, will we then be forced to move out of the community, having rejected the very housing that could have accommodated us? I just don’t see the charm in that.
Years ago, Trudy watched several homes go up across the street on Water Board property after being assured the land would never be developed.