Some people say that our province’s strong mental health laws save lives. A constitutional court challenge says they lead to discrimination, abuse, fear and the flight of psychiatric refugees.
THE PSYCHIATRIC NURSE held out a paper cup with pills. Sarah clasped a handwritten note. Having learned not to protest loudly, the 24-year-old gave the nurse her note that read, “I have a right to my mind and my body.” Then, she reluctantly put the pills in her mouth.
Sarah knew that she had to execute her escape out of British Columbia quickly, before the drugs seized control of her mind again.
Sarah (she requested her name be withheld) is sharing her story to show support for a constitutional court challenge recently launched by Community Legal Assistance Society (CLAS). The Vancouver non-profit is arguing that a key part of British Columbia’s Mental Health Act, called “deemed consent,” violates the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
“At CLAS, we’re routinely told that people are either considering leaving BC to avoid our deemed consent laws, or that they’ve done so in the past,” says Laura Johnston, one of the lawyers representing three plaintiffs in the case.
CLAS has many concerns about BC’s Mental Health Act, explains Johnston. However, this case is focused on how the “deemed consent” provision violates rights to security of the person and equality before the law. “This case isn’t arguing that forced treatment can never be constitutional,” says Johnston, “But it does say that forced treatment which is imposed unilaterally by a doctor with no checks or balances and no recourse to anybody else is unconstitutional.”
Every Canadian has the right to allow or refuse medical treatments, even if our choice could cause injury or death—such as choosing whether to undergo risky surgery. We can write advance directives about what we will and won’t accept if we lapse into a coma or otherwise become mentally incompetent, and appoint a “substitute” to make decisions for us. However, in BC, the moment we become an involuntary psychiatric patient, those rights are eviscerated. Mentally competent or not, and regardless of what’s in our advance directive or what our substitute says, we are “deemed” to consent to any treatments a psychiatrist recommends.
“I was shocked when I came across these sections of [BC’s] Mental Health Act. I thought I was misunderstanding things,” says Melanie Benard, a lawyer with the Council of Canadians with Disabilities (CCD) which is one of the plaintiffs in the case. “There’s a blatant violation of the equality and liberty rights of people with disabilities,” she says.
Benard says psychiatric patients’ rights were clarified in constitutional law 25 years ago and implemented in every province—except BC. For example, in other provinces, after being involuntarily committed, a person still cannot be involuntarily treated until a competency test is conducted. “You look at things like, does the patient understand their diagnosis? Do they understand the treatment that’s proposed, the risks and benefits of undergoing the treatment?” says Benard.
“It’s really discriminatory to assume that everyone with a mental health problem is mentally incapable of making their own treatment decisions,” says Johnston. She says it’s also important to understand how “wide-sweeping” involuntary treatment has become. “A lot of people believe that you have to be a danger to yourself or others to be involuntary, and that’s just not true.” In BC, anyone can be committed if a physician believes that the person has a mental disorder and that committal could provide “protection” or prevent the person’s “mental or physical deterioration.”
“It gives a lot of discretion to the doctor,” comments Johnston.
According to government statistics, BC psychiatrists have been involuntarily committing people at unprecedented rates: 13,641 people last year—a doubling since 2002, or 73 percent increase per 100,000 people.
Though statistics weren’t available, it’s widely believed that the use of “Extended Leave” has increased even more dramatically. This occurs when someone is considered well enough to be released from hospital and live at home, but is still being forcibly treated. And there seem to be more people like Sarah who voluntarily seek help, only to get committed if they disagree with recommended treatments.
Jonny Morris, the Canadian Mental Health Association’s (CMHA) provincial policy director, says involuntary treatment has been “a long-standing issue” of polarized contention among patients, family members, service providers and community groups. Morris hopes that this constitutional challenge will “raise public awareness about an often hidden part of the system” and promote “respectful” dialogue about how things could be managed differently.
The initial court submission from Community Legal Assistance Society provides a glimpse into this hidden world.
The dangers of psychiatric treatments Plaintiff Louise MacLaren is a 66-year-old retired nurse from Victoria. She’s been frequently treated against her will in hospital and at home over the decades. According to the submission, MacLaren experiences “extreme anxiety” when forced to undergo electroconvulsive therapy (ECT), which causes her “confusion and disorientation” for weeks afterwards, and permanent memory losses. While a typical ECT treatment involves 12 rounds of shocks over three weeks, MacLaren has received 300 rounds. “In 2010, staff administering ECT forgot to place a mouth guard in Ms. MacLaren’s mouth during the treatment,” says the submission. “Ms. MacLaren shattered her teeth due to the convulsions in her jaw[.]”
The other plaintiff is a 24-year-old Vancouver man with a Master’s degree in music and piano. Since 2015, he’s been forced to take antipsychotic medications at home that cause “involuntary movements, muscle stiffness, muscle pain, and loss of dexterity, all of which impede his ability to play the piano.” These side effects, the submission states, cause him deep suffering “because playing piano is such a fundamental aspect of his life.”
Apart from Council of Canadians with Disabilities, the plaintiffs aren’t speaking to media. Other people, though, paint an equally grim picture of involuntary treatment.
After what she calls a “bad event” in her life, Sarah went to a Lower Mainland psychiatric hospital seeking help. She asked for a sleep medication, but didn’t want anything more. “I wanted to be able to manage what was going on for me, especially relating to the emotions that I was feeling, and the negative feelings, without medication…That was very important to me.”
However, she was also given an antipsychotic. “It was an ugly, ugly feeling,” says Sarah, describing how the antipsychotic dulled her thinking and emotions. “If a family member came to visit me, I wouldn’t feel that happiness that they were there. Which was terrifying.”
Sarah asked to stop the antipsychotic. Instead she was made an involuntary patient and told that if she didn’t take it, then security would inject her. So she continued to take the drug orally, which was almost equally repugnant to her. “The fact that I had to do this to myself…It’s you actually taking the pill and putting it in your mouth.”
For many, involuntary treatment is often violent.
Irit Shimrat is the Vancouver-based author of Call Me Crazy: Stories from the Mad Movement, and editor of a magazine published by the recently shuttered West Coast Mental Health Network—BC’s only charitable non-profit service organization run by and for people who’ve experienced psychiatric treatment. (WCMHN had its $100,000 in annual funding axed by the BC government without explanation, while hundreds of millions in new funding has gone to conventional services run by mental health professionals.) Shimrat has twice gone for over a decade without any psychiatric involvement, but in between those periods has been forcibly treated over a dozen times. The last time that she “went crazy,” says Shimrat, was after both her closest friend and her mother died. “I was shattered emotionally, and I was behaving in ways that were very disturbing to my neighbours.” When in acute distress, Shimrat’s been apprehended after throwing her belongings out the window, and after running around naked yelling “Emergency!”
Shimrat says many people like her experiencing intense mental turmoil become afraid and “loud and feisty and angry and irrational” when threatened with forced treatment. In response, staff can become “mean,” she says. During one admission, Shimrat says she fought as she was stripped in front of male police and orderlies, tied to a gurney in four-point restraints, injected with an antipsychotic, and locked in isolation. “The experience of being locked up is brutal,” comments Shimrat. “But the experience of being locked up and then debilitated with antipsychotics is much worse.”
Antipsychotics are tranquilizing medications that are the most commonly used drugs in situations regarded as short-term “psychiatric emergencies” or long-term “psychosis.” While some people can find a tolerable dosage that quells their mind but leaves them still functional, for others—especially when they’re not allowed to participate in treatment decisions—antipsychotics can be debilitating.
“The whole time that I was ever on antipsychotics I sort of fluctuated between wanting to die and thinking that I had died and gone to hell,” says Shimrat. “All colour was drained from the world, like everything was grey, and I couldn’t remember where I was from moment to moment or why I was standing where I was standing, what I had been planning to do. There was just a sort of sense of grinding, endless tedium and pain, physical pain as well as the pain of not being able to think.”
Shimrat says she has also experienced akathisia, a restlessness and agitation that 30 percent of antipsychotic users sometimes experience and that can, in extreme cases, cause suicidal feelings and violent rages. “It’s horrible,” she says.
“I’ll never recover completely from the trauma of it,” says Shimrat. Her experiences of being involuntarily treated, she says, have been “infinitely worse than even the worst moments of my so-called mental illness.” Shimrat believes that many psychiatric patients are becoming worse and not better because “they’re having their brains tampered with” in these frightening and damaging ways.
For her part, Francesca Simpson says she’s “feeling pretty good” on medications because they “bring me down and take the edge off.” However, she wants more control over the types and amounts. She’s currently being administered a long-acting antipsychotic injection, plus two antipsychotics and a mood stabilizer daily, which she finds excessive. Since 2010 she’s been almost continuously involuntarily treated in her home by an Assertive Community Treatment (ACT) team. Simpson describes it as “intrusive,” “humiliating” and “demeaning.” She must be at home at certain times every day to have her meds “witnessed.” For the injections, she must pull her pants down. ACT staff change constantly; she prefers women but can’t refuse the “strange men” entering her home. Staff probe her personal life while looking for signs of any emerging need to re-hospitalize her. “Everything that I do is pathologized,” says Simpson.
The whole experience “used to just make me furious,” says Simpson, “but I’ve given up on that.”
Many people raise concerns that, over the long term, treating people against their wills dissuades even those who want help from seeking it, because it undermines trusting relationships with mental health practitioners. “It’s dangerous to ask for psychiatric help,” Simpson concurs. “Certainly when I get through this, if I’m ever in trouble again, I will go nowhere near that system.”
Trust and distrust of psychiatry Several health authorities declined to provide interviews about involuntary treatment. The BC government issued a written statement saying that some patients “may not understand or realize that they need psychiatric care.” That’s also the concern for Deborah Conner, provincial director of the British Columbia Schizophrenia Society, who says BCSS could intervene in the CLAS case.
Conner bristles to hear words like “outdated” linked to BC law. “The reality is our Mental Health Act is actually leading the charge in doing the least harm.” Conner says the “safeguard” that BC law provides is that people don’t “languish” in hospital but get treatment quickly and continually, which she claims prevents brain matter loss. “That’s been proven,” she says. “When you have early intervention which includes medication, those treatments actually prevent ongoing brain damage.”
“There are very many people in this world of psychosis who have no way—they don’t share the same reality—they have no way of stepping outside their illness and having insight into what’s happening to them,” says Conner. “We have lots of people who said, ‘Thank God you treated me forcibly, because if you didn’t, I would be dead.’”
I mention that others describe forced treatment as traumatizing.
“Unfortunately, in some cases that’s the only way to save that person so that they can get treated and get on a path to recovery,” says Conner. “Just painting [with a broad] brush, saying in all these cases it should be treated this way and nobody should be traumatized, that’s like seeing with rose-coloured glasses.”
BCSS shares a little common ground with CLAS. “We’ve always supported family or caregiver involvement in any situation,” says Conner. The BCSS wants policies allowing people to have psychiatric advance directives and to appoint family members or others to participate in admissions and discharge planning. But BCSS stops short of wanting anything legally binding. Conner says psychiatrists must retain powers to exclude appointees who aren’t “appropriate” and to bypass advance directives.
What about people seeking help at hospitals just for depression or anxiety at levels that might not unduly interfere with their competency to make treatment decisions? Conner points out that long-term involuntary treatment requires two psychiatrists to agree. “If people are involuntarily committed, it seems to us that there’s a reason why that happened.”
I suggest that it sounds like Conner is putting a lot of trust in psychiatrists. “When you have two psychiatrists who’ve done a thorough review and assessment and where they have family input, that’s the trust,” responds Conner. She concedes that such assessments can be difficult, but believes that medically-trained psychiatrists are best qualified to make them.
In contrast to Conner, Shimrat argues that involuntary psychiatric treatment is primarily a means for policing very upset and/or very socially disruptive but otherwise law-abiding people, that has become culturally acceptable because it is masked as science-based health care. “Psychiatry is seen as a branch of medicine and distress is seen as a form of illness,” says Shimrat. “And so with the mindset that they’re saving lives and improving things for people, the practitioners feel that they’re morally in the right.”
Certainly, pharmaceutical industry money and influence have had profound impacts on psychiatry and our cultural beliefs. Governments, families and patients alike are often swayed by psychiatrists’ assertions of “proven” and “evidence-based,” where more accurate would be “some studies seem to suggest…” Barely a day goes by, for example, that we don’t hear about blood tests for depression, brain scans for anxiety disorders, the genetics of schizophrenia, brain damage caused by psychosis, and unequivocally “safe and effective” psychotropic pharmaceuticals. If any one of these “discoveries” were ever truly validated, though, it would be Nobel Prize-worthy. However, the last time psychiatry garnered a Nobel was for lobotomies—since then, Nobel committees have apparently more rigorously vetted psychiatric claims.
Instead, the widely promoted “chemical imbalance” theory of mental disorders has been so resoundingly debunked that prominent psychiatrists like Ronald Pies have taken to insisting that it was only an “urban legend” which no “well-informed psychiatrists” ever believed. The American Psychiatric Association recently clarified that no mental disorders can be detected through any biological tests. “Anti-anxiety” drugs are just addictive sedatives. “Antidepressants,” “antipsychotics” and “mood stabilizers” are marketing names for drugs with clinical pharmacology descriptions stating that their “therapeutic mechanism of action is unknown”—while their known harmful side effects are legion, including sometimes brain damage. And there’s a growing body of research suggesting that, over long-term use, most psychiatric medications are doing most people more harm than good, while being extremely difficult to withdraw from.
The ultimate recourse for involuntary treatment proponents is to argue that disordered people “lack insight” while, as BCSS board member John Gray has written, “[C]ompulsory treatment will usually restore someone’s freedom of thought from a mind-controlling illness…”
Though superficially compelling, these are philosophical—not medical—assertions that provoke many questions. How often and for how long do we keep aggressively “freeing” someone’s mind, exactly, before the person becomes free enough to refuse our interventions? Who among us has the rightful authority to determine who has “proper” insight into reality? Is it crazy to be driven mad by an insane and destructive society, or is it a sign of sensitivity that should be nurtured and supported rather than drugged away? Meanwhile, if we simply claim that the answers are “obvious” to anyone “sane,” then we cut off an important human legacy and potentiality—our ability to deeply question ourselves and our culture.
Stigma, stereotypes…sanism If final judgments to psychiatrically treat people against their wills are not truly being driven by indisputable medical science, then what is driving them?
A person in BC can appeal a committal to a three-person tribunal. Hearings are not open to the public, not bound by rules of court process, and notoriously erratic. Patients are often forcibly drugged during hearings. Though every patient has a right to a legal aid lawyer, hundreds annually cannot get one because government hasn’t provided sufficient funding. Less than one-fifth of patients win.
In August, a patient sued to push the BC government to fund enough legal advocates. “It’s very troubling that despite numerous calls on the government to increase funding to ensure that everyone who is entitled to legal aid gets it, that they’ve pretty much ignored the problem,” says Kate Feeney of the BC Public Interest Advocacy Centre, co-counsel in that case. (Government began negotiating, so the case adjourned until December.) Many argue that this whole farce is but one example of how prejudiced society is against psychiatric patients—pointing to how even the BCSS and CMHA have done little over the years to raise alarm about this legal representation crisis.
Lawyer Benard believes stigma, stereotypes and sensational news stories about rare cases of violence drive much of society’s support for involuntary treatment. “We feel like we need to be protecting these people at all costs and that we know what is best for them better than they can themselves.” Benard notes that organizations run by people with disabilities or with experience as psychiatric patients, like Council of Canadians with Disabilities, often take different positions from most mental health organizations, which are typically run by mental health professionals and family members of patients. “Sometimes there is a conflict between protecting the rights of a person in crisis and the desires and wishes of those around them,” says Benard.
Because of these ubiquitous prejudices, Shimrat says that she’s “really happy” about the constitutional challenge but also skeptical. “Whatever is going to be on paper is unlikely to change what happens on the ground.” Indeed, Ontario’s rate of involuntary treatment seems to be only slightly lower than BC’s.
A former BC tribunal chair says she saw appeal panels frequently exhibit a “deference to” and “over-reliance on” psychiatrists’ perspectives. Michael Perlin, an expert on US mental health law, blames it on “sanism.” Perlin’s books show, in encyclopaedic detail, that a near all-permeating deference to psychiatrists exists within judicial processes, coupled with an “irrational prejudice of the same quality and character of other irrational prejudices” towards people diagnosed with mental disorders.
Sarah splits BC Sarah requested an appeal. Her psychiatrist didn’t have to, but chose to stop forcibly medicating her. Faculties back intact, Sarah researched and discovered that Alberta’s laws were different. She began preparing an escape plan, just in case.
The review panel for Sarah’s appeal reached a 2-1 split decision—leaving Sarah incarcerated. She began a silent protest, giving staff handwritten objections when they handed her drugs. For two days, her tight-lipped protest also provided a cover for tonguing and not ingesting the pills. But her psychiatrist soon proposed an antipsychotic injection that would keep Sarah drugged for weeks. Sarah worried that her thinking would become so foggy she’d never be able to execute her plan. “I knew I had to leave,” she says.
Into a small satchel bag she stuffed a change of clothes. Cash she’d been withdrawing to avoid using a trackable credit card. Her iPad. She acted like she was going for a smoke break, walked to where she could get a taxi, and got out where she could disappear into a crowd. She changed her clothes in a public bathroom and threw out the ones she’d been wearing at the hospital. She cut off her hair. Then she bought a ticket for a red-eye bus to Alberta.
“It was the most nerve-wracking bus ride of my life,” says Sarah. “I had a feeling every time we stopped that there would be RCMP waiting for me.”
The driver announced when the bus had crossed into Alberta and begun the descent from the mountains. “I actually got very emotional as I crossed the border,” says Sarah. “I’d spent the entire night in the dark…It was really beautiful, early in the morning, the sun was coming up…I was crying, and there was somebody sitting a couple seats from me, said ‘Are you okay?’ And I was like, ‘Yeah, I’m fine.’”
But as the bus sped into Calgary, she saw her picture appear on the RCMP website as a “missing person,” along with a warrant for her arrest.
There are other ways Media coverage of the CLAS constitutional challenge has been sympathetic, and there seems to be mounting support for possible mental health law changes in BC to remove “deemed consent” and allow people to have competency tests, advance directives, and substitutes.
The CMHA’s Morris says there should be general equality between the way people experience both physical and mental health care. “What would it take to ensure that people with mental illness are afforded all of the similar rights and protections [as everyone else]?” Morris also notes that forced treatment is often related to a late-stage crisis that might have been prevented with more voluntary supports in our communities, and improvements in other “social determinants of health” like housing, income, employment, and education.
Similarly, Chris Summerville of the Schizophrenia Society of Canada says that his organization is recognizing advances in understanding of how people can recover through self-empowerment and assistance in meeting their biological, psychological, social, spiritual and communal needs. In contrast to the BC Schizophrenia Society position, Summerville feels BC law could be updated to have “a little more care and caution” built into it.
Francesca Simpson and Irit Shimrat suggest that if we at least made our psychiatric hospitals warm, respectful places that provided plenty of options and supports for people to voluntarily explore enhancing their own wellness, we wouldn’t have to worry much about people not wanting to go for help, or “languishing” in them. Offering robust counselling and psychotherapy services in our hospitals would seem to be a logical start—rather than relying almost totally on drugs and ECT, as is now the case.
Shimrat points to alternative approaches such as exercise, arts, mind-body practices, and non-drug emergency response methods like peer respite homes and Open Dialogue family interventions. “There are other ways,” says Shimrat. “But that knowledge is suppressed and disrespected because of the strength of the status quo.”
Johnston says she’s “under no illusion” that the constitutional challenge will cure the mental health system or society. But she hopes that at least the BC government will “engage with stakeholders and many different people and organizations to craft a new, fair legal framework for treatment for involuntary patients.”
“Not detainable”—in Alberta Sarah turned herself in to Calgary police. She overheard the officer explain to her psychiatrist in BC that, under Alberta mental health law, Sarah didn’t appear detainable. “It was a good feeling,” she says. “But I knew it was a very scary next chapter of my life, starting it completely from the ground up.”
Sarah is now in Ontario, where she has supportive family, and is studying natural ways of improving well-being. “I’ve been very fortunate in certain respects,” says Sarah. “What am I missing? My friends. My family… I was seeing somebody, that was a positive thing in my life, and that’s gone now.”
She finds the term “psychiatric refugee” strong, but also feels it’s in some ways apt. “I would love to come back,” says Sarah. “If the laws change, I probably would.”
Rob Wipond has been reporting on the lack of civil rights in the BC mental health system since 1998. He is the recipient of a number of journalism awards for his writing in Focus.
The choice of the controversial site over Rock Bay will lead to hundreds of millions in costs that could have been avoided.
UNPUBLICIZED WARNINGS from the engineering company Stantec to the Seaterra Commission in 2013 show there’s a big difference between what the public has been told and what CRD bureaucrats and their corporate proxies know about a wastewater treatment plant at McLoughlin Point. Simply put, a plant squeezed onto the tiny McLoughlin site is going to present regional taxpayers and the environment with big problems. Soon.
Within a few years of the plant’s commissioning, costly new treatment capacity will have to be built elsewhere to avoid the expense and environmental impacts resulting from the heavy use of chemicals that will be needed to keep the plant operating to federal regulation standards. Senior CRD bureaucrats aware of these circumstances failed to disclose to the public McLoughlin’s serious limitations during a 2-year-long reconsideration of the site’s suitability.
As a result of these circumstances, and the CRD’s recent move to start planning for a second wastewater facility in Colwood, Victoria taxpayers will likely be facing a bill for three widely separated treatment plants at an additional cost of hundreds of millions of dollars above what it would have cost to construct a single expandable plant at the relatively spacious Rock Bay site.
Below I will describe a number of issues that arise from the diminutive physical size of the McLoughlin Point property, which a peer review had warned the CRD in 2009 was “extremely small” for a sewage treatment plant. It would appear that issues vital to the public’s understanding of this project have been deliberately hidden from both elected officials and the public. At the end of this article I will examine the question of whether the withholding of this information may have created an avenue for a court challenge of the project.
Let’s start here: In September 2013, Stantec engineers responded to what they called “pointed questions” about the capacity of a proposed wastewater treatment plant at McLoughlin Point to handle expected liquid flows and organic loads.
The engineers’ written response to these questions, submitted by the Seaterra Commission then overseeing the project, included the distinct possibility that the plant’s design capacity could be exceeded by the time the plant was expected to become operational in 2018. But, if that happened, the engineers told the commission, “CEP operation would most likely be implemented to maintain adequate capacity until 2040.”
Focus was given a tip that led to the Stantec memo. A search of CRD records indicates Stantec’s September 2013 warning was never shared by CRD staff with elected officials in a public meeting.
By “CEP operation” the engineers meant “chemically-enhanced primary treatment,” (CEPT) a costly and increasingly contentious add-on to primary treatment that is sometimes employed to reduce the level of phosphorous and/or nitrogen being discharged to waters that are particularly sensitive to eutrophication, such as lakes. During CEPT operation, three different chemicals are injected into the influent as it flows through a wastewater plant, increasing the rate at which solids are removed.
But those chemicals end up in the sludge produced by sewage treatment and create a big problem: The sludge can’t be incinerated, used as fertilizer, or recycled in any useful way. UBC engineering professor Dr Don Mavinic, an expert on sewage treatment, told Focus in 2014: “This is a huge problem in Ontario right now. It’s become very contentious. Very few landfills will accept the sludge now. Most incinerators won’t touch it. Ontario has ended up with this chemical soup that has to be stored somewhere because you can’t do anything with it.”
In Victoria’s case, DFO scientists have determined that eutrophication isn’t a concern. But CEPT is also used in plants that have reached the upper limit of their design capacity. The aging Lions Gate treatment plant in North Vancouver—slated for replacement by 2020—began using CEPT in 2014 as it bumped up against its capacity limit. That a new plant at McLoughlin Point would need to implement CEPT soon after it had been constructed in order “to maintain adequate capacity,” as Stantec acknowledged in 2013, is extraordinary.
In the recent 18-month-long consideration of optional sites, McLoughlin wasn’t on the table. As a result, questions about the site’s suitability lay dormant and Victorians were never informed that the excess capacity of a treatment plant there could be used up as early as 2018.
Prompted by a letter to CRD directors from this reporter, the issue of McLoughlin Point’s limited capacity was raised at a CRD Board meeting on September 14. At that meeting, elected officials voted to proceed with the McLoughlin treatment plant. But before that vote, CRD directors were given an opportunity to question members of a “Project Board.” The Project Board’s Chair, Jane Bird, and Vice Chair Don Fairbairn—both Vancouver residents who have no previous experience directly related to sewage treatment—took questions about the Project Board’s choice of McLoughlin Point over other options.
CRD Director Colin Plant asked whether the McLoughlin plant would have sufficient excess capacity. Fairbairn told Plant, “We have the highest level of confidence that under a low, medium, high population growth scenario, this plant will have adequate capacity for a minimum of 20 years…It can be very difficult for a non-technical person, such as myself, to understand. That’s why we do have to rely upon the expert opinions of firms like Stantec, as well as on the years of expertise with your staff.”
Fairbairn’s response ignored the advice Stantec had given the Seaterra Commission in 2013. Its expert opinion then was: “At an increased growth rate of 2.1 percent, the plant capacity is reached much sooner by the year 2018…To cope with the high growth rate scenario, CEP operation would most likely be implemented to maintain adequate capacity until 2040.” Now Fairbairn was claiming Stantec’s expert opinion was that, under any population growth scenario, capacity would last “for a minimum of 20 years.”
For clarity, the organic loading capacity of the plant referred to by Stantec in 2013—35,000 kilograms per day—was exactly the same as the plant Fairbairn was referring to. Various documents authored by Stantec and other consultants show the critical limiting design factor for a McLoughlin plant is organic loading—referred to by wastewater engineers as biochemical oxygen demand—not hydraulic flow. Stantec’s 2013 projection that peak organic loading in Victoria’s sewers could reach McLoughlin’s limited design capacity by 2018 was based on a population growth projection of 2.1 percent per year. At a growth rate of half that (lower than the CRD is currently using for its projections), Stantec’s arithmetic shows the McLoughlin plant could run out of capacity by 2023. That date is within a few years of the CRD’s hoped-for completion date of 2020.
Bird and Fairbairn did not respond to requests from Focus for information. The CRD refused to answer questions related to McLoughlin’s capacity limitations.
CRD directors have been told that CEPT would be employed during significant “wet weather events,” but they have never been told—in public—that its regular use could be needed as early as 2018 as a result of the plant’s capacity being exceeded.
Yet Mavinic’s 2014 concern that CEPT chemicals create sludge that “you can’t do anything with” seems to have been incorporated in the Project Board’s two recommended options for dealing with McLoughlin’s sludge. Both options included perpetual storage of the sludge in “biocell reactors,” which would be, essentially, permanent hills of toxic poop composting beside Willis Point Road, waiting for someone to figure out what to do with them.
Residents in the area worried about the impact of the piles on air and groundwater quality will have to hope that a safe way to dispose of the sludge will be found one day. The Project Board only suggested they could be “mined” for a “beneficial use” once such a use had been discovered.
The evidence indicates, then, that three vitally important pieces of information about a plant at McLoughlin Point were hidden by CRD staff from both elected officials and the public while the community evaluated other site locations: Its very limited excess capacity; the consequent need for ongoing use of CEPT soon after it is completed; and how CEPT limits what can be done with the sludge produced by the plant. Obscuring of these facts continues.
THERE ARE TWO OTHER CONCERNS arising from McLoughlin’s limited capacity that have also been kept out of view by the CRD: First, how McLoughlin’s small size limited what treatment technology could be used there; and second, the huge additional cost that will result from the need to provide additional capacity using a system of decentralized treatment plants. Let’s look at the former first.
The same 2009 peer review that judged McLoughlin to be “extremely small” questioned the CRD’s initial choice of membrane bioreactor (MBR) technology for secondary treatment and suggested the CRD assess biological aerated filter (BAF) technology as well. That’s the secondary treatment process the CRD eventually chose and, in 2013, the Seaterra Commission, in its “pointed questions” start-up phase, asked for an explanation of that choice.
Stantec engineer Dr Bob Dawson’s reply to the Seaterra Commission described the physical process involved in a BAF plant, and he made a number of observations. Dawson wrote, “BAFs are relatively recent proprietary systems developed in Europe over the last 15 to 20 years and have been gradually introduced into North America over the last 10 years—a similar development timeline as membrane processes.”
But if the technology was so new—Wikipedia calls it an “emerging technology”—then why would the CRD risk using it in Victoria? That’s covered by a second observation made by Dawson: “[BAF] is particularly applicable for locations where there is limited space for construction of a plant…” In other words, McLoughlin Point’s tiny size dictated the use of a highly compact form of treatment for which there was a very short track record.
So what is the experience with BAF in Europe, where it has been used for five or ten years longer than in North America? Here’s what AECOM engineers who were making a comparison of wastewater treatment technology options for Jersey, one of the Channel Islands, in 2014, said about BAF: “Biological Aerated Filters are not recommended for consideration due to the associated high capital and operational costs. Generally, BAF technology produces effluents with very low suspended solid concentrations. However, after backwash cycles, this can deteriorate resulting in poorer quality effluent, which will reduce the effectiveness of the UV disinfection plant.”
AECOM, by the way, is the global wastewater engineering company that’s one of three partners in Harbour Resource Partners. That’s the consortium that won the contract to build a BAF plant at McLoughlin Point in 2014, a contract recently resurrected by the Project Board.
So, because of McLoughlin Point’s tiny size, Victoria is getting an apparently problematic treatment technology that, compared to more proven technologies, has higher capital and operating costs.
Stantec’s explanation of BAF technology to the Seaterra Commission included information about the filter bed media utilized by the process. Stantec’s memo contained a photograph of expanded polystyrene beads, the filter media used, for example, in one of the few other BAF plants in Canada at Kingston’s Ravensview treatment plant. Polystyrene beads are a soft, friable plastic and since the polystyrene filter bed would be eroded over time by the effluent passing through it—especially if it contains fine, gritty precipitate introduced by CEPT—one can easily imagine a BAF plant being a perpetual source of microplastics flowing into the Strait of Juan de Fuca. When asked by Focus what filter-bed medium would be used at McLoughlin, Stantec replied, “The filter media for the BAF has not been selected yet as design is not complete.” The contract, however, has been awarded and the CRD would have no real control over what filter bed media is used.
A search of CRD records indicates Stantec’s August 2013 explanation of BAF technology to the Seaterra Commission was never shared by CRD staff with elected officials at an open, public meeting.
NOW LET’S LOOK AT how McLoughlin’s small size will lead to a system of decentralized treatment plants and huge additional costs. Stantec’s 2013 warning to the Seaterra Commission about the site’s limited capacity to accommodate future population growth in the region offered a mitigating strategy—the ongoing use of CEPT. But there’s another solution that would avoid the use of CEPT—building a second treatment plant at a different location. That strategy is actually incorporated in the CRD’s current Liquid Waste Management Plan. CRD staff have said, in several reports, that a second plant should be built in the West Shore because that’s “where most of the growth is occurring.” I’ll show later that this prognostication is demonstrably incorrect, but first consider how the strategy of building a second plant at a different location completely contradicts what the CRD has been saying all along about economy of scale.
If a second plant location could be avoided, wouldn’t taxpayers stand to save many millions—perhaps hundreds of millions—of dollars on capital, operating and borrowing costs? That had always been the position of CRD staff and pro-McLoughlin politicians when they were dismissing the idea of distributed treatment plants as being uneconomical compared to a single plant at McLoughlin. Indeed, the Project Board’s final report states that splitting McLoughlin’s capacity between two plants would increase the capital cost by $245 million. So, by the Project Board’s own reckoning, decentralization would have increased capital costs by 32 percent. That, in turn, would result in higher borrowing costs. Presumably, operating costs would be higher as well.
Paradoxically, then, although the Project Board’s report confirms there is a very high cost that comes with a decentralized system, its choice of McLoughlin Point guarantees that Victoria will get a decentralized system—and the higher costs.
Once McLoughlin’s capacity has been reached, what would an additional plant cost? The Urban Systems-Carollo options analyses, done earlier this year as part of the 18-month-long consideration of optional sites, estimated that by 2030 an additional $250 to $310 million would need to be spent for additional capacity. That estimate didn’t include additional conveyancing costs, which would likely add another $100 million. So with McLoughlin Point as the first step in a decentralized system, the experts are predicting additional costs of $350 to $410 million by 2030.
It’s noteworthy that an outlook to 2030, as was included in the Urban Systems-Carollo analyses, doesn’t appear anywhere in the Project Board’s final report, and isn’t reflected in its estimates of cost per household.
What’s readily apparent from the engineers’ estimates of the high cost of decentralization and the high cost of additional capacity is that a single expandable treatment plant could save the community hundreds of millions of dollars in capital costs compared to two widely-separated treatment plants located at McLoughlin Point and in Colwood or Langford. To save those hundreds of millions, though, a site larger than McLoughlin Point would have needed to be available.
As we know, such a site is available—at Rock Bay. Yet the Project Board’s comparison of McLoughlin with Rock Bay gave not one iota of value to Rock Bay’s ability to accommodate expansion far into the future. This, too, is extraordinary.
The Rock Bay site is 2.7 times larger than McLoughlin. Stantec’s rudimentary positioning of a treatment plant at Rock Bay for the Project Board’s report shows just how much of the Rock Bay site was left unused. That room for expansion would have completely eliminated the costly and environmentally-problematic reliance on CEPT “to maintain adequate capacity.” That advantage, too, was given zero value by the Project Board.
It’s also possible that Rock Bay is large enough to accommodate a form of treatment that has lower capital and operating costs than BAF. The Project Board’s comparison of McLoughlin Point with Rock Bay used essentially the same BAF plant on both locations. That must have made for an easy comparison of cost (they should be close to equal), but did Stantec consider a technology with lower capital and operating costs for the much larger site at Rock Bay? It claims, without providing any evidence, that Rock Bay wasn’t large enough to accommodate conventional activated sludge technology. But the new Lions Gate plant in North Vancouver will be sited on a smaller parcel of land than Rock Bay, will be able to process a greater liquid load than the McLoughlin plant, has enough room for on-site anaerobic digesters—and uses lower-cost activated sludge treatment. It’s expected to be expandable to meet the needs of the North Shore well past 2100.
While Fairbairn advised Plant to rely on “the expert opinions of firms like Stantec,” the expert opinions of Stantec have had a habit of selectively disappearing into the bowels of the CRD. Is there a memo somewhere in those depths explaining why Stantec never looked very hard at options other than a BAF plant at McLoughlin Point?
LET'S BACK UP TO CONSIDER THE CRD'S PLAN to build a second treatment plant in either Colwood or Langford. If you think this is unlikely, or not particularly imminent, consider this: When CRD directors voted to go ahead with a treatment plant at McLoughlin Point, they also committed to spend $2 million on initial planning for a second treatment plant in Colwood. Why would the Project Board have made this recommendation if, as Fairbairn put it, “under a low, medium, high population growth scenario, [McLoughlin] will have adequate capacity for a minimum of 20 years…”?
The Project Board, CRD staff and Stantec know that building a plant at McLoughlin Point with limited capacity for future growth means the development of a plan for a second plant needs to start immediately, and that’s what the CRD is doing. The extra business is obviously good for Stantec, but why would the CRD prefer that course instead of choosing Rock Bay, where hundreds of millions of taxpayers’ dollars could be saved by avoiding a decentralized system?
The Project Board claimed a plant at Rock Bay would cost $155 million more than one at McLoughlin. Much of that difference is in the higher cost of land at Rock Bay. The Project Board said the cost difference was “material,” meaning significant, but it didn’t give any material value to the highly valuable room for expansion at Rock Bay. No, the relatively small difference in capital cost doesn’t explain the Project Board’s choice of McLoughlin over Rock Bay.
If Rock Bay had won out over McLoughlin, that could have been construed as a professional and political defeat for all those CRD staff and elected officials who have insisted that the $80 million spent on planning and 10 years of talking had correctly identified McLoughlin as the best location. With careers in the balance, McLoughlin was the emotional favourite.
Other than that, though, there doesn’t appear to be any real justification for the choice. In fact, when the question of why the CRD would choose to put a second plant in Colwood is examined carefully, it becomes clear that a third plant—likely located in Victoria—will be needed in about 20 years.
Even though Colwood and Langford contribute little more than seven percent of the current wastewater load, the CRD plans to put a second plant there anyway. Why? The CRD’s rationale is based on an out-of-date belief that “most of the growth is occurring” there. But over the last six years this belief has proven to be a delusion. The CRD’s own figures show that the increase in the number of people living in the “Core” municipalities has been almost twice that of Langford and Colwood combined.
Moreover, when all sewage-generating development is considered—residential, commercial, institutional and industrial—the wrong-headedness of the CRD’s strategy is even more evident. Over the past 6 years, based on the value of building permits issued in each municipality, the core has seen 2.5 times as much growth in long-term wastewater-producing development as Langford and Colwood. The vast majority of that growth is occurring in Victoria and Saanich. Witness the numerous construction cranes in the Downtown core right now. There is nothing like this happening in Langford and Colwood.
This recent reversal in the focus and form of development, from the suburbs to urban cores, from low density to high density, is taking place elsewhere in North America, including in cities like Vancouver and Toronto. Inevitable changes in public policy around energy, housing and transportation in response to the threat of climate change and ocean acidification will accelerate this phenomenon.
As a result of the CRD’s miscalculation of where most growth will occur, putting a limited-capacity plant at McLoughlin and planning for a second plant in the West Shore will put taxpayers in jeopardy of having to pay for three plants. There’s two reasons for that.
First, a second plant on the West Shore won’t be able to serve future growth in Saanich and Victoria without a hugely-expensive reconstruction of the sewer trunks. That’s never going to happen.
Secondly, after a plant is built in Colwood or Langford, the small portion (about seven percent) of McLoughlin’s capacity that would be freed up would soon be gobbled up by growth in Victoria and Saanich. So, 20 years from now, Victorians will be looking for a third treatment site—one that will have to be located in either Victoria or Saanich, where most of the region’s growth is occurring. Where will it go? Clover Point is a likely candidate.
If the cost of decentralization—going from one to two plants—is about 30 percent of the project cost, as the Project Board’s numbers indicate, what would be the additional cost of building three plants instead of one? Forty percent? Fifty percent?
A far more logical, less expensive alternative would have been to put one central plant at Rock Bay—followed by incremental expansion of capacity there as required. The remediated contaminated site at Rock Bay was identified during extensive public consultation as the location for treatment most preferred by the public. Its First Nations owners were eager to sell. The site is already surrounded by industrial operations that provide essential building materials for constructing a city—gravel, concrete, asphalt and beer—businesses that are unlikely to go away in the future. The location was also supported by the mayors of Victoria and Esquimalt.
In spite of all those strong positives, the previously rejected McLoughlin site magically became the recommended option—even though it wasn’t even part of the recent 18-month-long consideration of options. But wait…by not being on the table, the CRD avoided examination of any of McLoughlin’s strong negatives (see above).
THE CRD HAS HIDDEN FROM THE PUBLIC many significant aspects of this project: McLoughlin’s limited capacity, the need for the use of CEPT, the way in which CEPT would restrict what could be done with the sewage sludge, the known problems with BAF technology, the need for—and cost of—additional capacity, including the certainty of a second plant and the likelihood of a third plant. Yet the provincial Environmental Management Act allows the CRD to proceed with its flawed plan without the need for elector consent through a referendum. In ordinary circumstances, such issues as I’ve outlined here would have been hashed out in public by opposing sides in a referendum.
A citizen’s right to be asked by a municipal government for permission to borrow large sums of money to provide that citizen a service is a basic right in Canada. The Environmental Management Act takes that right away in the case of implementing a Liquid Waste Management Plan. But the Province’s published guidelines promise that electors will be “adequately” consulted. Given the circumstances I’ve described above, there is grave doubt that consultation has been adequate.
With the failure of Victoria’s political representatives to address these issues— they, too, have been kept largely in the dark—do Victoria electors have any avenue through the courts?
I outlined these issues to Victoria lawyer John Alexander, a litigation partner with the law firm Cox Taylor. I noted the EMA’s promise of adequate consultation and asked Alexander if there was any avenue for a judicial review of the Province’s expected approval of the CRD’s McLoughlin-based Liquid Waste Management Plan (LWMP).
Alexander replied, “From a legal perspective, the question would be stated: Does the Province’s published non-statutory consultation requirement create a legitimate expectation that an Order imposing a LWMP would not be made without consultation?”
Alexander pointed to a 1990 Supreme Court of Canada ruling which states, in part, “[the doctrine of legitimate expectations] is simply an extension of the rules of natural justice and procedural fairness. It affords a party affected by the decision of the public official an opportunity to make representations in circumstances in which there otherwise would be no such opportunity. The court supplies the omission where, based on the conduct of the public official, a party has been led to believe that his or her rights would not be affected without consultation.”
“In other words,” Alexander wrote, “the court sets aside the decision on the basis that [it was] as if some required procedural step was not properly taken.”
Focus readers interested in supporting a legal challenge of the Province’s approval of the CRD’s plan for McLoughlin Point can express that support by contacting us at 250-388-7231, email at email@example.com, or by using the "Contact Us" form on this website. If a legal challenge is organized by Victoria electors, Focus will connect you with the organizers of that challenge.
David Broadland is the publisher of Focus Magazine.
The quest for affordable housing Leslie Campbell’s article in Focus [September/October 2016] presents an excellent examination of an issue critical for Victoria residents, Canadians, and many around the globe. While the gap between incomes and housing costs has grown exponentially, particularly over the past two decades, having a roof over one’s head, although a necessity, is not available to over 235,000 of our fellow citizens across the country.
Although the United Nations has recognized that access to decent, secure and affordable housing is a fundamental human right, this has never been recognized by any level of Canadian government.
In the past, post-war housing was subsidized by the Canadian government to alleviate the shortage of accommodation for returning soldiers and their families, or as an urban economic revitalization tool in the late 1960s. Today, housing support has been shifted from the federal government to the provinces, who in turn have pushed it onto local governments—woefully undercapitalized to take on the responsibility.
The fact is that governments subsidize property ownership. Why? Because this is the way politicians secure votes and pass on benefits to homeowners who represent 65 percent of the Canadian population and 40 percent of Victoria residents. Individual property owners are entitled to home improvement grants, home-ownership grants, defrayed taxes, and untaxed income from “mortgage helper” Airbnb vacation rentals. No such benefits are available to renters who are considered second-class citizens in the housing world.
Regional statistics indicate that almost 80 percent of the housing supply is earmarked for high-income occupants who represent only 36 percent of the population. As Campbell points out “only 13.7 percent of the region’s homes are affordable for 50 percent of its households.” Indeed, Victoria’s house price-to-income ratio comes in second in Canada at 7:1 after Vancouver at 11:1, the second highest ratio in the world behind Hong Kong.
Victoria’s development approval office has no inventory of housing, and has demonstrated no ability to plan how to accommodate more than 20,000 newcomers to the city by 2041. Today the developers of high-priced condo towers call the shots, and it’s the City which stamps their plans to demolish old properties, refurbish heritage homes, and build gated vertical communities. The City’s decision to remove bylaw restrictions on the size of housing units and onsite parking requirements will not solve the housing affordability issue but rather put more profits in the pockets of developers by reducing their costs.
Just as Victoria has dismantled Tent City and displaced these residents to surrounding municipalities, offering the CRD use of the City’s “Housing Reserve Fund” to house the homeless, it fails to address the growing number of “renovictions” facing tenants throughout the city—tenants who have few places to live in a city with a vacancy rate near zero. The rent on refurbished rental suites is often hiked 40 percent or more. What homeowner faces a 40 percent hike in mortgage payments? Interestingly, this practice is not considered illegal, but just “good business.”
As we speak, rental property agents are writing fixed-end leases, some only six months in length, after which the tenant must either move out or agree to pay a higher rent. So much for British Columbia’s motto, Splendor Sine Occasu—“Splendour without End,” and Victoria’s endearing emblem, Semper Liber—“Forever Free.”
Leslie Campbell’s article “The quest for affordable housing” is fine as far as it goes, but ignores the 17-foot anaconda in the pool.
Stroll around Downtown, dear readers, and behold the giant City of Victoria surface parking lot for Royal Athletic Park. Not far away, another huge one for the Save-On Arena, and way more across the street on Caledonia. By the Legislature, yes, more acres of paving for government employees, and at Ogden Point, an eye-achingly vast expanse of pavement. Every supermarket, every mall—parking, parking! Most of these expanses of land sit empty the majority of the time.
Delve into Victoria history, and do an RIP for Rose and McBride Streets, bulldozed in order to make Blanshard into a semi-freeway. The Province has come up with $85 million for the McKenzie Avenue interchange. Even today, that’s mucho dinero, that could build a thwack of housing. Oh wait, there’s tens of millions more to widen out Highway 1, even though it'll just get clogged up again.
Our cars and trucks are Drug #1. Like all junkies, we’ll sacrifice anything, including affordable housing, to get our fix.
The sewage question The article by David Broadland in Focus was spot on. How can we residents of Victoria still opposed to the sewage treatment plant—that we currently do not need—make a big statement somehow?
The well-respected and late Bill Wolferstan told me years ago that we would only need a sewage treatment plant in case we had 30 million people living in South Vancouver island. That has resonated with me and should be communicated to the public. The only case I can think of that we would need a treatment plant is if we were to start encountering severe droughts with global temperatures rising. In which case we need to reuse our wastewater and filter it for drinking purposes. Only in that case does this debate make sense.
Thanks to David Broadland for continuing to inform us about this crucial issue. In a province known for boondoggles—bridges, stadium roofs, highways and other public projects that balloon over budget to the grave detriment of taxpayers—Victoria’s land-based sewage treatment plan promises to set a new precedent: a billion-dollar-plus project that will achieve nothing beyond lining the pockets of the contractors, who will likely funnel some of that money back to their political paymasters, if they haven’t already.
Keep it up, David. Maybe someone will see the light and save us from this path of darkness.
John Horgan, are you listening?
New pot laws could bust rural BC’s economy Laws, ideally, protect us and guide us, making our daily lives more secure and productive. Sometimes, however, laws are based on misinformation, are malicious in intent, or have simply outlived their usefulness. Both expert opinion and public attitudes to marijuana laws indicate that the time for real changes has arrived. Most folks seem to agree with former US president Jimmy Carter that “Penalties against possession of a drug should not be more damaging to an individual than the use of the drug itself.” Jeopardizing the educational, travel and social choices of otherwise law abiding and productive citizens has damaged too many lives for too long. Bad pot laws belong in the ashcan of history.
The promises of our federal government to change these laws should be guardedly welcomed. As Lisa Cordasco’s article makes clear, however, some things are happening which are undesirable—particularly for rural people in BC and for those using marijuana as medicine. Those who live in areas formerly sustained by logging and mining have had to turn to the pot industry as an alternative. Allowing people to grow their own will keep the price down, crucial for the increasing numbers of medical users. Marijuana is a useful plant which was widely (and legally) used until the American “war on drugs.” Regarding it simply as an investment opportunity—which, right now, seems likely—profits urban areas and the relatively rich at the expense of those living precariously in our countryside. The police and the courts have better things to do than playing cat-and-mouse with small-time pot farmers and their customers.
The way tobacco and alcohol are currently handled provides us with possible guidelines. They can be grown or made, but not sold, by anyone. Advertising is limited—though, in the case of alcohol, extensive. Both of these drugs are demonstrably more dangerous than marijuana. Marijuana is also a source of pleasure and solace—as well as a medicine—to millions of people. Full legalization would recognize these facts.
Professional reliance—a regulatory failure Briony Penn concludes her troubling article on the BC Liberals’ penchant for so-called “professional reliance” by stating, “Quesnel, Keller and many others frustrated with the system will be watching with sharp eyes as to whether genuine change is afoot or simply more delaying tactics. Meanwhile the two tourist operators are confident that the business case for logging is losing out to tourism values in their regions. Quesnel calculates ‘our one business generated more income in less than four years than [forestry generated] from the entire cut—which can only be done every 60 years or so.’”
If one was to compare the donations made to political parties in BC by the respective businesses in this article, would that lend substance to the apparent hesitation of regulatory enforcement, despite the lopsided income generation between the two?
The diabetes diagnosis About four months ago I was diagnosed with type 2 diabetes and my GP labelled me a “diabetic.” My research turned up Dr Roy Taylor, a medical researcher from the University in Newcastle, UK, who is an expert on MRI. He noticed an anomaly with patients having stomach and intestinal surgery (e.g. bariatric): 100 percent of them lost their diabetes; 30 percent got it back a few months after their operation but the rest were clear to this day! The theory was that visceral fat (that stored in the abdominal cavity around organs such as the liver, pancreas and intestines) reduces the effectiveness of the insulin (called insulin resistance). Three million pound sterling is being invested in a field trial in Glasgow and Newcastle to check this theory. I was not willing to wait the two years for the results to be published so I used the 5:2 Fast diet to reduce my visceral fat and my last three blood readings were well below diabetic levels. It’s possible that I have shown that diabetes is not a permanent condition but reversible.
Roger V. M. Sandford
Alan Cassels misses several things in his attack on diabetes medicine. He talks of risk of hypoglycemia from medicines but omits that metformin’s reputation is of low risk of that condition—that’s why it is popular, whereas earlier medicines have significant risk. He throws out names of medicines like Trajenta and Onglyza without informing readers that those are supplementary medicines, intended to enhance the effect of metformin.
He rejects medicines because there is no proof they help with cardiovascular health risk judged by deaths, but he lists bad conditions resulting from high blood glucose levels (though he omits sexual function in males—a rather strong motivator), thus the medicines may well be worthwhile. Cassels effectively dismisses those conditions as not “clinically relevant.”
As for death rates of persons taking meformin, he does not tell us if the UK study controlled for the poor health of the individuals (lack of exercise and obesity, for example, obesity coming from lack of exercise and typically bad nutrition practices).
Certainly there’s a need for objective evaluation, rather than the verbose vague blathering of the Canadian Diabetes Association, which can’t distinguish between correlation and causation, and meddles in fields served by other organizations such as cardiovascular health. Certainly doctors should be communicating more with their customers, instead of being rote hacks in the government-controlled medical system that slices lives into short visits—the system exploits providers and fails to serve customers well. And enables inefficient bureaucracies like pharmaceutical companies and Island Health.
But progress won’t be achieved with such an article.
Alan Cassels responds:
As I said in my article, metformin might be low risk, but it is also of low benefit. The supplementary medicines do nothing to enhance the effect of metformin and are a lot more expensive and a lot more risky. They are there to lower blood sugars and make pharmaceutical companies a lot of money, but do nothing to extend the quality and length of one’s life. People become obsessed with their diabetes because they think it will kill them. That’s my perspective.
The UK study was in a population of patients that had all those bad things (lack of exercise, obesity, etc) and if barely any effect could be shown in this really unhealthy population, how could they show an effect in a healthier, fitter population—the majority of whom are the main consumers of metformin today?
I measure “progress” by more informed patients and better health decision-making. If anyone can show my articles don’t achieve those ends for some people, I will quit writing.
The Canadian Diabetes Association (CDA) would like to respond to Alan Cassel’s recent article.
Recent reports published on the treatment of type 2 diabetes have led to questions about the use of medications to control blood sugar. The CDA would like to stress that people being treated for type 2 diabetes should not stop taking their medication.
The CDA recommends working with your health-care team to ensure that your diabetes treatment plan is right for your particular circumstances. For most people, that will include medication to lower blood glucose levels.
For many people, the risk of complications such as damage to eyes, kidneys and nerves may be reduced by treatments that tightly control blood glucose. At the same time, others may not benefit and a small percentage may be harmed. Accordingly, our “Clinical Practice Guidelines for the Prevention and Management of Diabetes in Canada” (CPGs) call for individualized care that takes into account both the risk and benefit of treatments for each person.
Over the past two decades, we have seen a more than 50 percent reduction in complications, such as heart attacks, stroke and amputations. We don’t know exactly which components account for these improvements, but better blood sugar control has been part of the treatment regimens that have led to those improved outcomes.
Type 2 diabetes is a complex disease and the CDA’s Clinical Practice Guidelines indicate that the treatment of blood glucose in type 2 diabetes must be individualized. Tight glucose control may not be appropriate for all and our CPGs give guidance as to which people with diabetes are most likely to benefit. To learn more, visit diabetes.ca or call 1-800-BANTING (226-8464).
Regional Director, British Columbia and Yukon
Canadian Diabetes Association
City council should stick to its knitting Victoria City Council loves to reach outside its areas of jurisdiction. Labelling of GMO food is a good example. Making GMO labelling compulsory is the “Star of David armband” for food. It’s a way to stigmatize these products without any scientific justification.
On the other hand there are real health and safety issues Victoria City Council could address if people’s safety is truly their priority. For example, making carbon monoxide detectors mandatory in all residences. Requiring testing for lead in drinking water and for radon gas when occupancy permits are issued and every five years thereafter. These are steps that could identify real hazards and actually help make people safer—but probably wouldn’t get councillors as big headlines.
Sewage sludge alert British Columbians have been invited to review and provide feedback on a policy intentions paper for the Organic Matter Recycling Regulation (OMRR), including new requirements for managing the use of biosolids (sewage sludge).
In 2011, the CRD banned the land application of sewage sludge amid worries that farmland and the food grown on it could be polluted by pharmaceuticals, heavy metals, pathogens, and other toxic elements, the majority of which are not tested. In 2013, efforts to lift the ban failed, but pressure to overturn the ban still exists.
Please participate in the review so as to provide the Province with sufficient input and clear guidance for local governments, as well as compost and biosolids producers, on how to dispose of organic material while protecting soil quality and drinking water sources.
Many individuals and organizations have a particular interest in an updated regulatory regime for sewage sludge believing that land application of sewage sludge should no longer be considered a safe method of disposal anywhere, not just in the Capital Region.
Focus readers are urged to provide feedback on the OMRR policy intentions paper for organic matter recycling. Google “BC OMRR”.
The opportunity for public comments ends December 2, 2016.
While most citizens oppose the bear trophy hunt, BC’s politicians seem reluctant to offend hunters.
IT'S AN INCREASINGLY POPULAR CAUSE that, in BC’s politically sensitive, pre-election months, should have the two major political parties tripping over each other in an effort to adopt it as their own.
Instead, provincial Liberals are literally sticking to their guns in support of the controversial grizzly bear trophy hunt while the NDP has not yet settled on a position.
Polls have consistently shown that British Columbians dislike trophy hunting, a blood sport that sees foreign hunters paying upwards of $16,000 for the chance to shoot a grizzly bear for the sake of a head on the wall or a furry rug on the floor.
An October 2015 Insights West poll found that 91 percent of British Columbians and 84 percent of Albertans oppose hunting animals for sport. The margin of error for BC is plus or minus 3.1 percent.
But, so far, with the exception of the BC Green Party, those numbers are not enough to spark political support. Instead, a proliferation of diverse non-profit groups are taking up the challenge to protect the grizzly, which has been listed as a species of special concern by the federal Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada.
Organizations such as Raincoast Conservation Foundation and Pacific Wild have approached the hunt from a scientific perspective for decades, while the newly-formed Justice for BC Grizzlies is appealing to would-be politicians to look at the ethics of killing for sport. Nine area First Nations, who comprise the Coastal First Nations, want to end the commercial grizzly hunt in their traditional territories and, together with Raincoast, have been buying up hunting tenures in the Great Bear Rainforest to reduce the threat to the bears.
Another unusual approach is being taken by the fledgling Grizzly Bear Foundation, headed by philanthropist Michael Audain. The Foundation has launched a board of inquiry, holding meetings around the province, looking at threats such as habitat loss, food supply and climate change as well as hunting. The panel will submit a report to government by February.
For those who are uncertain how to get involved, the University of Victoria’s Environmental Law Centre, on behalf of the David Suzuki Foundation, has prepared a legal toolkit “Facilitating Public Participation in Grizzly Bear Hunt Management in BC.” The toolkit first addresses the question: Why are grizzly bears important? Grizzly bears, it asserts, “are a vital ecological, cultural and economic resource in BC. They are apex predators that interact with other plant and animal species in their habitats and their population health is therefore a key indicator of the overall ecosystem’s health.”
Lush Fresh Handmade Cosmetics is the latest business organization to become involved and will be launching a campaign this November at its 240 stores around North America. Lush is also producing a 30-minute documentary on the hunt. “I think people will be appalled that, in BC, trophy hunting of grizzly bears is still happening,” said Carleen Pickard, Lush ethical campaigns specialist.
Meanwhile, Auditor General Carol Bellringer is looking at whether the government is “meeting its objective of ensuring healthy grizzly bear populations throughout BC.” Bellringer’s report is due this spring, but it is not known whether it will be released before the May election.
While the Liberal government is showing no sign of changing course, the NDP is having internal discussions.
“A couple of caucus meetings are coming up. Stay tuned…We know this is important and it’s on our radar,” said NDP Environment spokesman George Heyman.
Back in the dying days of the last NDP government, in 2001, a three-year moratorium was imposed on the grizzly bear hunt. Immediately after the election, however, it was almost immediately rescinded by Gordon Campbell’s Liberals when they swept to power.
Martyn Brown, Campbell’s chief of staff in 2001, said he believes the moratorium was probably lifted by ministerial order, rather than after any in-depth discussion or cabinet debate, and was likely the result of pressure from rural MLAs, many of whom were ardent pro-hunters.
“It certainly wasn’t something that was a broad discussion that I can recall,” said Brown, who suspects the issue got lost in the many policy decisions and budget cuts made immediately after the Liberals came to power.
Brown believes the grizzly hunt should no longer be ignored and he wants to see trophy hunting banned throughout the province, for grizzly bears and all other species.
“It’s [because of] uncertainty about the management of the population and principally the ethical concerns,” he said. “Precious animals and wildlife are being taken for nothing but a trophy. They are not being taken for food or ceremonial purposes, they are simply for people’s self-aggrandizement and whatever twisted, distorted satisfaction they get from killing an animal,” he said.
Brown is surprised the NDP are silent as he believes they have little to lose by coming out against the hunt. “If they really thought about it I think they would realize there’s a very small percentage of seats that might be at risk, if any,” he said. “The risks are so minimal and the rewards would be so much greater if they would just stand up and say and do the right thing and say this is a barbaric, out-dated hunt that needs to be stopped,” Brown said.
Premier Christy Clark would also have little to lose by restoring the moratorium, Brown said. “But I don’t think the BC Liberals are even slightly interested in revisiting their position because of the likes of [Energy and Mines Minister] Bill Bennett particularly and others from rural BC who are defenders of the trophy hunt ostensibly for its economic value and its importance to rural lifestyle,” he said.
Another factor is that the Guide Outfitters Association of BC (GOABC) is a generous contributor to the Liberals, with records showing that between 2011 and May 2015 GOABC contributed almost $37,000 to the Liberals compared to $6,000 to the NDP.
The government position is that there is no need to halt the hunt as the grizzly population is healthy, with an estimated 15,000 bears, and the hunt puts money into the economy.
“A Scientific Review of Grizzly Bear Harvest Management System,” commissioned by the Province and written by three biologists, concluded that, despite difficulties in monitoring and a lack of sufficient funds, BC’s procedures “have attained a high level of rigor, with a solid scientific underpinning.”
The review, released October 18, recommended that there should be more opportunities for public consultation, increased cooperation with adjacent jurisdictions, and that BC should investigate whether conflicts exist between bear hunting and viewing.
The Province should regularly be looking at elements such as habitat conditions and food availability and should provide additional funding, according to the review. “The future of grizzly bears in the coming decades will be challenged as the human population in the province increases. Rigorous planning, habitat monitoring, conservative harvest levels and a predictable level of research, monitoring and data research is essential for the continued conservation of this species,” says the report.
Steve Thomson, Forests, Lands and Natural Resource Operations Minister, said the recommendations “will further improve grizzly bear management decisions in BC.”
The notion that the province makes its decisions based on the best available science is challenged by critics who question both the Province’s population estimates and the economics of the hunt.
Estimates of the number of bears in BC’s 57 individual grizzly bear population units usually rely on models, using known population densities from other areas, or the number of bears expected to survive in that particular habitat.
The methods inevitably lead to uncertainty and some researchers believe numbers could be as low as 6,000, with kills much higher than the approximately 300 grizzlies killed by licenced trophy hunters each year that the Province reports. In addition to such hunting, a toll is taken by poaching, road kills, destruction of “nuisance” bears, and loss of habitat.
A study by Raincoast, Simon Fraser University, the University of Victoria and Hakai Institute found kill limits are regularly exceeded and several sub-populations of grizzlies are on the verge of disappearing.
On the financial front, research shows that bear viewing is far more profitable than bear hunting. A study by the Center for Responsible Travel, in conjunction with Stanford University, found that, in 2012, bear viewing groups in the Great Bear Rainforest generated “more than 12 times more in visitor spending than bear hunting.”
The same researchers found that bear watching sent $7.3-million to government coffers, compared to $660,500 from hunters, and created 510 jobs, compared to 11 jobs created by guide outfitters.
Retired university professor Craig Smith said such facts make the government’s stance completely inexplicable; bear viewing and hunting industries cannot co-exist. Smith recently threw his support behind Justice for BC Grizzlies. “Every bear you shoot is one you can’t view, so they’re killing the viewing industry,” he said.
The Province maintains that BC has 100,000 resident hunters—and that hunters and guide outfitters combined put $350 million into the economy each year, a figure involving multipliers questioned by critics—and likely far lower than any comparable number for wildlife viewing. (Minister Thomson admitted in a 2014 legislative committee examining budget estimates that direct revenues from the grizzly trophy hunt amounted to $414,000.)
Most hunters are not trophy hunters, of course. “I am a hunter, but I have never shot a bear,” said David Lawrie, a retired Provincial forests engineer and member of Justice for BC Grizzlies.
Even the pro-hunting BC Wildlife Federation, with 50,000 members, is against trophy hunting. The Federation supported a bill, introduced last year by Green Party of BC leader Andrew Weaver, requiring all hunters to pack out edible meat from grizzlies and all other animals—which, in a round-about way, would ensure few grizzlies were hunted. “I suspect many a trophy hunter would find it difficult, if not impossible, to pack out several hundred pounds of trichinosis-laden grizzly bear meat across international borders,” he has written.
Weaver’s bill died when the session ended and he has since clarified that he is against trophy hunting—making him one of the few MLAs clearly opposing the hunt. Trophy hunting is a “cruel, selfish and barbaric practice that is packaged and sold as sport,” he wrote, explaining that his bill—which was not supported by the guide outfitting industry—aimed to protect the rights of First Nations and resident hunters.
Alan Martin, BC Wildlife Federation director of strategic initiatives, would like to see a similar bill reintroduced. “The BCWF only supports hunts that are sustainable and, when the animals are harvested, that the edible parts are taken out. If they don’t do that then it’s not appropriate to hunt grizzly bears or any other animal,” Martin said. “If you are going to utilize fish or wildlife then it should be consumed appropriately and not done just for sport,” he said.
Martin also feels there needs to be more work in areas where there is uncertainty about populations and a close look at the effect of non-hunting mortality and changes in habitat, such as in the aftermath of the mountain pine beetle infestation. “If you don’t vary the harvest rates and manage accordingly, it will catch up to you as it has done in the south-east part of our province,” he said.
Although grizzly bear meat is often thought to be inedible, as it sometimes carries the parasite that causes trichinosis, BCWF spokesman Jesse Zeman finds it tasty and healthy. The meat has to be cooked to a high temperature, which is why it is best in sausage, pepperoni or burgers, said Zeman, who lives almost entirely off wild fish and game.
However, Zeman admitted, there are questions that need to be answered about the sustainability of the grizzly bear population. “That’s the big concern. That’s what keeps people up at night now,” he said.
Chris Genovali, Raincoast executive director, however, is not in favour of Weaver’s type of pack-the-meat-out bill, calling it “daft.” “It is simply an endorsement of killing grizzly bears as long as we turn them into sausage or soufflé,” he said. “That’s nothing but a way to hoodwink the public into believing the trophy hunt is a food hunt…That would be worse than doing nothing,” he said.
Genovali feels that the growing proliferation of organizations opposing the hunt, including business and tourism groups, shows that it is an issue that resonates with the public and crosses political lines. He finds it disheartening that, towards May 2017’s provincial election, neither the Liberals nor NDP are opposing the hunt. Unless political parties, or individual candidates, come out strongly and loudly against the hunt, there will be limited opportunities for voters to get their views on the subject across on election day.
Judith Lavoie is an award-winning journalist specializing in the environment, First Nations, and social issues. Twitter @LavoieJudith.
WHEN MY FRIEND DIANE CARR was asked late in August by a Hospice nurse if she had any hobbies, she asked right back, “Is hell-raising a hobby?”
Diane was the best type of hell-raiser. She did it in the name of community, of righteousness, of art and friendship.
Unfortunately, Diane died on September 1, at age 75, after a very short struggle with pancreatic cancer.
I was honoured to be one of Diane Carr’s many close friends. She had a knack for getting to know people and then sticking with them over the years, always there for them when needed. Her friends came from many different circles: students who had boarded with her, cousins who moved to town, but often the bond had formed around a mutual fight on behalf of truth, beauty or justice. “And she was always very loyal to her friends,” says Bev Norman, a longtime friend. As a result, she had a vast network, one that knitted our community together and made it stronger.
Carole Witter, who developed a close friendship with Diane during the past five years through their mutual fight for a sensible solution to the area’s waste-water treatment, says: “I loved Diane’s passion for community and her dedication to successful land use. She worked tirelessly to make the world a better place for others. Diane enriched our lives far more than she ever knew.”
But though she had a serious, natural commitment to making the world a better place, Diane wasn’t just serious—she had a great sense of humour and her interests ranged far and wide. As Carole Witter puts it, “Conversations with Diane were always varied, energetic and delightful. We shared stories about sailing, cars once owned, favourite recipes, or any number of topics. Our discussions were stimulating and full of good cheer.”
I concur. At least a couple of times a month I relished getting together, usually over Diane’s perfect espressos in her modest, art-filled home, to discuss local politics as well as her thoughts on Focus stories (she was our diligent proofreader for many years). She was also my theatre-buddy. David and I cat-sat her beloved Cleo and she picked up my mail and deposited cheques when I was out of town. Towards Christmas, she dropped off her homemade shortbread to her many friends.
During her last few days on this Earth, I was one of her caregivers. During those hours, as she told me stories of her past adventures, I felt awed by her influence on our community and her richly textured life—and with her willingness to discuss her impending death. She told me about how when she was 10 years old she had an obsession and fear around dying. True to what became a life-long pattern, she dove into the subject intellectually and resurfaced with this realization: “I decided the best way to deal with death was to have lots of great friends and lots of wonderful experiences.” Then she added, “I think I’ve done pretty well on both counts.”
During those last days, she told me of her early years involved in the “human potential movement” when Cold Mountain Institute (a forerunner of Hollyhock) on Cortes Island was a sort of Esalen North. Later, she sailed the world for four years aboard a 23-metre ketch, visiting Scandinavia to South America, 40 countries in all. In the mid-1980s she lived at The Baca, a spiritual retreat founded by her friends Hanne and Maurice Strong (who held key UN roles around the environment, multilateralism and peace) in Colorado, working as Hanne’s assistant. Longtime friend and artist Katherine Surridge says, “In 1987 Diane invited me to spend a month at The Baca Grande, a large ranch in Colorado where she was living for the year. I am a painter and she wanted to give me an opportunity to paint in what she told me was an inspiring landscape. It was—but Diane was the one who inspired. She introduced me to the owners of The Baca, Hanne and Maurice Strong, then to people who lived there: Carmelite Monks, a Hindu Princess, a Buddhist Monk, an amateur astronomer who invited us to view the cosmos through his telescope, the largest privately-owned one in the US. We explored the Sangre de Cristo Mountains in her Volkswagen Camper and went to the Ute Sundance Ceremony. Diane told me that summer that one of her life’s wishes was to be surrounded by interesting people. That wish was fulfilled but I don’t think she ever realized she was the truly interesting one.”
Diane studied art history at the University of Victoria and did graduate studies in urban design (with a focus on community development) at the University of Calgary and was very involved in the arts community over the years, with a particular interest and expertise in ceramics and other crafts. She believed the reputation of crafts needed uplifting, that they should properly be regarded as a fine art. Starting in 1970, she ran a shop called the Potter’s Wheel in Victoria where she showed the best Vancouver Island potters’ work, and which became a centre for the craft’s promotion and networking among potters. In the 1980s, she founded the Cartwright Street Gallery in Vancouver which evolved into the Canadian Craft Museum in 1990. More recently, in 2012, she guest-curated an impressive exhibit, “Back to the Land: Ceramics from Vancouver Island and the Gulf Islands, 1970-1985” at the Art Gallery of Greater Victoria.
Artist Katherine Surridge says, “When I met Diane I was impressed by her curatorial skills but soon after I found out what a true patron of ‘the artist’ she was. She encouraged, inspired and challenged me for 35 years.” Such support is echoed by other artists Diane admired.
Diane served on numerous boards and committees over the years—some I only learned about by reading an old resume after her death. These included the Canada Council, the Hallmark Society, the BC Coalition for the Arts, the Community Arts Council of Vancouver, the St Ann’s Academy Restoration Project, and the Metchosin International Summer School of the Arts.
But Diane’s interests spread far beyond spirituality and arts and culture. In dealing with a diagnosis of breast cancer in the early 1990s, Diane found the system lacking and, as was her way, decided to do something about it. She realized that patients should have a say in the direction of research and their care. She found powerful allies and was instrumental in forming a survivor-directed organization dedicated to helping patients navigate the system and have more influence on policy. The Canadian Breast Cancer Network continues that work to this day.
Artist Carole Sabiston, who met Diane in the ’80s in Vancouver, tells a story of Diane’s creative, positive approach to her diagnosis: She threw a party to celebrate her body before having her mastectomy. “Diane had this idea of all the women at the party making casts of their breasts...and they did. There was so much joy in the air that night! It was heaven.” The breast casts were eventually hung on display at a conference for survivors.
When Carole herself received a diagnosis of breast cancer just this past January, she called Diane, who simply said, “I’ll be with you at every appointment.” And she was.
Heritage planner and former Oak Bay councillor Pam Copley met Diane at a museum studies course in the ’90s. Says Pam, “I was always struck by her incredible and intense integrity and determination. No matter what she took on…she’d become an expert in it.” Pam, who credits Diane with inspiring her to go into municipal politics as a form of community service, says “Diane was selfless in a way that is striking and rare these days.”
David’s and my friendship with Diane dates back “only” 10 years, when she decided to gather a group of her associates together to “solve” homelessness in late 2006. This was in answer to a challenge put to readers by Focus Magazine. Diane subsequently told me how the idea was born: She was at a cabin with a couple of friends on Thetis Island, sitting by the fireside, feeling blessed—and reading Focus. “I decided it was perfectly possible—with the right people involved—to solve the city’s homeless problem,” she told me.
Diane pulled from her wide-ranging network to develop the “Independence Settlement Project.” Her committee included developer Joe Van Belleghem, architects Peter Ole and Heather Spinney, lawyer Irene Faulkner, realtor Tom Croft, social worker/entrepreneur Jane McCannell and others.
The group’s fully documented and illustrated plan was so impressive it was the hands-down winner of the contest, and we decided to hold a forum to present it to the public. Over 800 people came out to the presentation at Alix Goolden Hall on a cold January night in 2007.
I believe that night in 2007 helped to light a fire under the powers-that-be in Victoria. Diane’s group continued to lobby for more progress on the homeless front. She was suspicious of the “homeless industry” and had hoped that some movers and shakers from outside of it could change things more quickly. The bureaucracy, to put it succinctly, proved stubborn and Diane turned some of her energies to helping Richard Leblanc establish his Creating Homefulness Society and finding property (Woodwynn Farm) to settle it on.
In this, as in other causes she worked for, Diane’s research and communication abilities, combined with her impressive network and passion, made her a force to be reckoned with—though often behind the scenes.
For many years Diane was involved with the Victoria West Community Association, serving as its president and chairing its land use committee. In those roles she was deeply involved in fighting the mega-yacht marina in the Victoria Harbour, as well as the clean-up of derelict boats in the Gorge. Audrey Whittall first met Diane in 2005 at a public meeting on the proposed marina. Over subsequent years they became good friends as they raised awareness around the environmental and safety risks for other users of the harbour. Says Audrey, “Diane was always concerned about the political influences that are used to push through the marina. She will be missed.”
In all such issues Diane was adamant about the public’s right to participate—meaningfully—in decisions that affected the community. It was Diane who drew my attention to the accepted principles of public participation—and how the City of Victoria failed to live up to them around the Johnson Street Bridge replacement project and other issues.
She was president of the Victoria West Community Association when the CRD announced that they were considering placing a biosolids sewage treatment facility on Viewfield Road on the border of Victoria West. She organized presentations on sewage treatment and, after in-depth research on the question, became dismayed at the CRD’s plans and actively worked for a better plan and decision-making process. She predicted the recent panel recommendation on wastewater treatment and (excuse the clichés) is likely rolling in her grave about it and those politicians with “feet of clay” who support it.
Recently, she was the vice president of the Friends of Maltby Lake Watershed Society, an organization dedicated to safeguarding Maltby Lake as one of the last undisturbed ecosystems in the Capital Region. Carmel Thomson credits Diane with the strong foundation the Society established from the start. “Diane knew the Societies Act and knew how bureaucracies worked, how we needed to present ourselves…What we’ve done in 18 months is remarkable, thanks in part to Diane.” She says, “While Diane was not afraid of being direct, she was always encouraging and supportive—and she cared.”
These are just some instances of Diane’s community service. I don’t know how she found the time for it all.
On the last day of her life, John Shields, an old friend and former Catholic priest, leader of the BC Government Employees Union and more recently The Land Conservancy, conducted a rite of passage. Writing of his ritual, he says he blessed “her remarkable brain that has contributed a lifetime of insight, brilliance, keen analysis of people and events. With her mind she had left a legacy among her fellow citizens of Victoria. I told her that I had always respected her mind with its keen analytic powers, her ability to articulate her thoughts, and the potency of her ideas.” Though she seemed unconscious on that last day, she reached out for John’s hand after he blessed her voice: “She had raised her voice to speak for justice, proclaiming her belief in a better world. She had whispered prayers, and sung joyful songs. She had spoken truth to power, and words of regret and apology. Her voice carried her thoughts into the marketplace and to the council chamber, and to community meetings. Her voice had expressed her passions and argued her convictions. It had done her work in the world.”
Many will miss that voice. Diane was the epitome of an engaged citizen, a person whose activism strengthens our democracy. Through her passion for the arts, for justice and community, and the application of her significant talents and skills, Diane left a legacy in a wide range of cultural and civic causes. I know she will continue to influence me—and many others—with her wisdom and spirit.
THE DIANE CARR COMMUNITY SERVICE AWARD: In recognition of the kind of spirit and activism embodied in Diane Carr, who died on September 1, 2016, each year Focus will honour a citizen of Greater Victoria who, with wisdom, integrity and determination, works to make this community a better place. Details of the award will be announced in a future Focus Magazine and on the website, with the winner announced in our September/October 2017 edition. Meanwhile, readers are encouraged to notice all the deserving nominees who volunteer their time, talents and energies on local issues involving social justice, the environment and the arts.
As the editor of Focus, Leslie Campbell has been blessed with meeting—and being inspired by—many Victorians who in myriad ways understand that they can make a positive difference in their community if they take up the challenge and connect with others of like dreams.
A local doctor helps wind back the harms of too much medicine.
IT'S PRETTY EASY TO FEEL WORRIED about health care. Doctor shortages. Unvaccinated children. Fentanyl overdoses. Neglected seniors. Wait lists. Zika virus. The things that concern us about our health and medical care make for a long and overwhelming list. And the one-word response to the slow and sometimes inept nature of our health care system always seems to be “More.” We need: more doctors, more nurses, more vaccinations, more operating rooms, more long-term care, more overdose prevention medications, more funding, more, more, more.
At the same time, and out of the glare of marquee health headlines, there’s a growing movement that sees many major problems in health care in another light. This movement maintains that a lot of health care turmoil is due to medical excessiveness—particularly the overuse and inappropriate use of medical interventions. It warns that for people who are otherwise healthy, overdiagnosis and overtreatment are real and worrisome problems and despite some clear underserviced areas of the medical system, there is a need to wind back the harms of too much medicine. Currently, pockets of resistance are springing up around the world attempting to put the brakes on medical overuse, overdiagnosis, and overtreatment and there are even international conferences of resistors meeting to discuss what to do about this problem.
One of the resistors is Dr. Jessica Otte, a physician who took a small break from treating her mostly elderly patients in Nanaimo to go to Barcelona last month to present at the annual Preventing Overdiagnosis conference. She was one of over 400 researchers, health policy makers, clinicians and consumer activists who came together to discuss, debate and ultimately try to strategize ways to rein in the worst excesses of medicine.
Otte exudes enthusiasm and energy, the kind of articulate and thoughtful doctor you’d want at the bedside to help sort out your elderly grandmother’s medications. While she could have come to Barcelona to talk about what she does everyday—overcoming the challenges of reducing the medication burden of frail seniors, for example—this time she facilitated a workshop about the many organizations around the world that are working to prevent overdiagnosis and overtreatment. (In the interest of full disclosure, I was in Barcelona, too, working on a different campaign and Otte invited me to be part of her presentation, though I assure you, she did all the work.)
As I listened to her talk about the dozens of groups around the world tackling overdiagnosis, I looked out over a packed audience that included people from every country in Europe, Canada, the US, and even China. It struck me what a global concern this has become. Then something else dawned on me: The person who probably has the best grasp in the world on the global movement to prevent overdiagnosis lives in Nanaimo. Now, how cool is that? (See Dr Otte’s website www.lessismoremedicine.com.)
Among the many organizations and researchers tackling overdiagnosis, cancer screening is a particularly strong focus. This is due to the fact that although we once believed that early detection was key to fighting aggressive cancers, it hasn’t borne out. When you screen healthy populations for cancers you inevitably capture a large numbers of people with “pseudo disease.” Through an X-ray or blood test you may capture something—a shadow, a nodule or something else unusual—that will be labelled as cancer, but will never go on to hurt the person. Yet the very nature of the testing means you’ll turn that person into a patient, and treat them anyway, sometimes with disastrous consequences.
In Barcelona over three days there were whole workshops discussing just the overdiagnosis that comes with particular types of cancer screening. For example, one group of researchers from Korea, experts on thyroid cancer overdiagnosis, presented a study that showed when thyroid cancer screening took off in Korea in the early 1990s (because there was a new ultrasound test paid for by the government), the rate of thyroid cancers grew by 1500 percent over the next 20 years. The ultimate kicker: Despite the near “epidemic” rate of people in Korea being told they had thyroid cancer, the actual death rate remained unchanged over that nearly 20-year span. Which is to say, all the screening, treating and surgery on those unsuspecting Korean patients didn’t change one iota the number of Koreans who ultimately died of thyroid cancer.
This is one example, and there were oodles of them at this conference, of how putting a screening program under strong scientific scrutiny can reveal a motherlode of pseudo disease, the treatment of which causes untold suffering to no overall benefit.
Barcelona saw numerous workshops around the two most popular yet most overdiagnosed types of screening in Canada: Prostate cancer screening and mammographies for breast cancers. It’s clear that both those types of screening programs are undergoing a deep global rethink. Countries like France have pledged to “radically redesign” its mammography screening programs because of all the harms related to overdiagnosis. Just last month, the storied New England Journal of Medicine published a damning study of mammography which found that women were more likely to be overdiagnosed with breast cancer screening than to find a tumour that was going to go on to get large and possibly hurt them.
But perhaps the poster child for overdiagnosis is the PSA test, a blood test which is used as a screening test for prostate cancer. For over two decades, men have been told that, once they reach the age of 50, they should get a PSA test. A study last month in the New England Journal of Medicine showed how bad that advice is. It looked at a study of more than 1,600 men in the UK, aged 50 to 69, diagnosed with localized prostate cancer (via a “high” PSA or prostate specific antigen reading). Many things could affect a PSA reading, but once you get a high reading and are diagnosed with prostate cancer, you are advised to get surgery, have radiation, or just “do nothing” and wait and see what happens.
The researchers did a randomized trial. Dividing the men into three groups of roughly equal size, the first group were given radiation, the second had surgery, and the third were given “active monitoring,” which is to say the last group essentially had no treatment whatsoever. The trial followed these three groups of men for 10 years, and found that 99 percent of them were still alive, regardless of which path they were on. Those men who had surgery and radiation didn’t live any longer than those who avoided such treatment. And they didn’t live any healthier either, as some of those treated faced the adverse effects of the treatment. Sadly, there are thousands of men in Canada and several million in the US who have been made incontinent or impotent due to the overdiagnosis that comes with the last 20 years of PSA testing.
This is the real face of overdiagnosis and the problem is that most men may never be told that they are about to get a life-altering test. The conversation they needed didn’t happen.
Of course, there are few absolutes, and appropriate health care is really about having the right conversation. Otte spoke to me about the campaign she is most familiar with, the Choosing Wisely Canada campaign originally started to foster discussions between physicians and patients around unnecessary and harmful tests, treatments, and procedures. Doctors themselves recognize the problem, and one study in the US found that 75 percent of doctors report prescribing an unnecessary test or procedure at least once a week and about half the doctors surveyed said that patients are simply receiving too much medical care.
Otte tells me: “The broad idea is that more is not always better in health care; when someone is sick, they need help, but when they are healthy we should encourage them to stay that way and not try to turn them into patients.” She pauses to add, “If we would address overuse, harm, and waste in the medical system, we will have the resources to tackle areas of significant need, like treating poverty, food insecurity, and inactive lifestyles.”
I asked for another example of where she sees waste and overdiagnosis. Without a pause she points to a single recommendation: “Do not screen for thyroid function in a patient who doesn’t have any symptoms.” Why? “Well,” she says, “we often over-order that test and are surprised when the result is high or low. We label people with minor abnormalities as having a disease. Attaching labels and diagnoses to people is not always helpful, as for the rest of their life they can never feel truly healthy again.”
Jessica Otte, like many of her colleagues in Barcelona, recognizes that part of the problem with overdiagnosis is the strong motive of health care workers to do good, to not miss anything. But doing something can be more harmful than doing nothing beyond having an educating, reassuring discussion.
Alan Cassels is a Victoria author and pharmaceutical policy researcher. He has written four books on the medical screening and pharmaceutical industry including the latest, The Cochrane Collaboration: Medicine’s Best Kept Secret.
On the eve of the Kinder Morgan decision, an oil-carrying vessel tests marine disaster response—and finds it lacking.
IN JUNE 2015, Focus ran a story on the risks to the coast posed by the Nathan E. Stewart, an articulated tug barge (ATB), potentially spilling millions of litres of hydrocarbon fuels from its two 300-foot barges. The article, entitled “Ingmar’s Worry,” profiled Denny Island citizen Ingmar Lee, who had been trying unsuccessfully to raise awareness for over two years about the potential of a spill from this Alaskan vessel that regularly transported bunker oil, heating oil, gasoline, aviation fuel and diesel to Alaskans through the Inside Passage.
As Lee pointed out in his Facebook blog (10,000 Ton Tanker), moving 14,000 tonnes of petroleum product in the “voluntary exclusion zone,” (the zone applies to loaded oil tankers servicing Alaska from Washington) was a mini Exxon Valdez waiting to happen. “It is just a matter of time,” he had said. Lee’s correspondence with Transport Canada had made no inroads with an agency which had shored up its concerns with a regulation requiring double-hulls for the barges as of January 2015. The Pacific Pilotage Authority had also covered themselves by a seemingly compulsory requirement for pilots in sensitive or busy waterways.
The Nathan E. Stewart, however, was given a special exemption from this rule and allowed to operate without a pilot despite a near-disaster in Alaskan waters in 2011. Ingmar Lee pointed all this out in 2015.
On October 13 of this year, Ingmar’s “worry” became Ingmar’s “fulfilled prophecy” and the consequences are being felt from here to Ottawa—but nowhere more so than the heart of the Great Bear Rainforest. That’s where the tug sank with over 200,000 litres of diesel fuel, considered one of the most acutely toxic oil types. The only consolation is that it wasn’t the full load, which could have meant millions of litres of fuels being released. The petroleum barges it was pushing were mostly empty when the Nathan E. Stewart struck a reef.
In a terrible irony, however, the spill couldn’t have been more devastating to the two communities that have worked so hard to protect the coast from oil spills.
The tug hit Edge Reef near Athlone Island in the heart of Heiltsuk First Nations territory. Athlone is a classic outer coastal island with white sandy beaches on the windward western shores, sheltered estuaries full of clams, eelgrass and salt marshes, gnarly rocky reefs alive with fish, deep blue-green lagoons where dozens of species of shorebirds forage, and mossy, bog uplands where fishing wolves make day beds with vistas out over Hecate Strait.
Glimpses of Athlone can be seen in the background of Lee’s videos of the Nathan E. Stewart as it disappears underwater on October 14. As he reported in a recent blog post: “The last, lonely stand of the wretched Nathan E. Stewart, sunk and swaying on the reef, and continuing to pollute Seaforth Channel.”
The outer island of the Seaforth Channel archipelago, Athlone is only 25 kilometres from Campbell Island where the Heiltsuk community of Bella Bella is located and Denny Island where Lee lives with his partner, biologist Krista Roessingh.
Environmental organizations, Pacific Wild and Raincoast Conservation Foundation, both very active in compiling research on the region’s fish and wildlife populations, base their research operations there. The spill is an hour by skiff from where the royals were gathered this summer to pay tribute to the efforts of First Nations and environmental allies to protect the region.
Jess Housty, councillor and a spokesperson on the spill for the Heiltsuk First Nation, called the spill “an environmental disaster.” The respective blogs of Lee and Housty (#heiltsukvoice) paint a very different picture of the response to the spill than what people are reading in mainstream media.
The Vancouver Sun ran the headline, “A race to drain diesel fuel from sunken tug underway off BC coast.” Roessingh characterized the response as hardly a race on October 17: “I was told that when I volunteered to come out that the WCMRC [Western Canada Marine Response Corporation] folks would be paired with each of the volunteer boats to guide us in what we were supposed to do with the clean-up. [But] this is the first time I have seen any of their crew up here and it is the third day. I don’t think people from the outside have a very good sense of what things are like up here.”
Heiltsuk Chief Councillor Marilyn Slett described the response as “slow and frustrating”—definitely not world-class, as is so often touted. Both supplies and personnel were delayed in arriving, she said. One immediate cost will be the clam fishery that was due to open in November and normally generates a crucial $150,000 for the Nation.
Wesley Vickers and Ron Martin, two of the Heiltsuk volunteers at the spill, told of the intertidal areas covered with diesel. Housty, manning a Heiltsuk rescue operation from her office in Bella Bella and clearly exhausted after helping coordinate the local volunteer efforts, described their work as heartbreaking. A release from the Nation noted, “We have limited resources to house, feed, and manage the influx of people in our community. We are bridging fuel costs for the dozens of community members who have put themselves and their boats forward to protect and clean their precious waters. Our staff and leadership are working around the clock to ensure we’re doing everything we can in this trying time.”
After the WCMRC crews arrived and attempted to pump out the submerged tug’s fuel tanks, the storms began to hit, preventing oil-removal activities. The high winds and swells caused concern that the tug would move, causing further oil leakage and making subsequent recovery efforts even more difficult.
Chief of clean-up operations for the Heiltsuk, William Housty, lamented, “The damage has been done.”
But more came. On October 21, the Heiltsuk reported that a boom caught on a rock at low tide created a breach in a barrier, allowing diesel to escape into Gale Passage and surrounding waters, important herring spawning grounds. “We’re fighting a losing battle because the technology to fully and effectively clean up a spill doesn’t exist,” said Jess Housty.
On October 23, 50-knot winds were expected and the Heiltsuk were reporting containment booms had totally failed and that the community was in a state of shock. (WCMRC was planning to bring in more seaworthy booms.)
The slow response to the incident led Premier Christy Clark to condemn the federal government’s lack of commitment to disaster response on Canada’s West Coast. Federal Transport Minister Marc Garneau did, however, quickly suspend the exemption from piloting in the Seaforth Channel for the Nathan E. Stewart and all other vessels owned by the Texan company Kirby Corporation. Lee commented: “Too little, too late.” His recommendation has always been that the 50+ ATB deliveries of Alaska’s fuels should be consolidated into one or two tankers which, like all the other deliveries by tankers, stay 20 miles offshore instead of plying the Inside Passage. Part of Lee’s worry was that the increasing use of the ATBs were “normalizing” the movement of large volumes of hydrocarbons in the Inside Passage.
Minister Garneau’s statement speaks about “a coastal strategy to improve marine safety in a meaningful way.” But many doubt there’s any meaningful, reliable way to prevent oil spills without preventing marine oil-carrier traffic itself. The Nathan E. Stewart’s demise, and the slow disaster response, have crystallized BC residents’ worst fears around transporting hydrocarbons in coastal waters.
The disaster highlights the inherent conflicts of interest that still persist. The WCMRC has a monopoly in marine oil spill response. Fifty percent of it is owned by Kinder Morgan and partners Suncorp, Shell, Imperial Oil and Chevron. Kinder Morgan’s Westridge terminal was one of Nathan E. Stewart’s fill-up stops. Is there an end in sight for this arrangement?
Another worrying trend is the appearance of the organization Clear Seas, which was set up by the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers, the federal and Alberta governments, and the shipping industry to research and report on safe, sustainable marine shipping in Canada. Clear Seas had no media releases on the spill and were not picking up their phone on October 18. On their website it was noted Clear Seas’ executives were attending the Salish Sea Oil Spill Risk Mitigation Workshop in Seattle that week, presumably while the good people of Bella Bella were cleaning up the mess. The organization and its funders seem more invested in mitigating future oil spills in the Salish Sea than preventing or accurately reporting on existing marine safety and oil spills in real time.
We can anticipate a whole lot of shiny words coming out of this body towards December. That’s when the federal government will decide on the Kinder Morgan pipeline. Government approval of that project would mean close to 400 additional oil tankers plying coastal waters.
Meanwhile, besides working to contain and clean up the spill, the Heiltsuk Nation has launched an investigation of the Nathan E. Stewart incident. Their report will likely be the best one to read—and the one most ignored—unless a true sea change is about to begin.
Briony Penn’s latest book, The Real Thing: The Natural History of Ian McTaggart Cowan, won the 2016 Roderick Haig-Brown Regional BC Book Prize.
BC’s treaty process has taken a quarter-century of effort, with only four final agreements to show for it.
IN RATHER EXCORIATING TONES, Douglas White III (Kwulasultun) states, “The treaty process has become a ludicrous proposition for First Nations in British Columbia.”
White worked for Snuneymuxw’ First Nation’s treaty team before negotiations stalled in 2001. Elected chief in 2009, in 2010 he was also elected to the First Nations Summit, the political body advocating for First Nations’ interests in the treaty process. In 2013, disillusioned by the continuing lack of progress at the Summit, he stepped down again. Three years later, White is unequivocal in his current view of the treaty process: “It’s dead in the water right now.”
Only four treaties have been concluded since 1992, when the process began. Seven non-binding agreements-in-principle have been reached, but there is little indication they are anywhere close to finality. The remaining 49 negotiations are mired in the gulf between First Nations’ expectations for meaningful treaties and meagre government mandates that are failing to meet them. The parties have significant differences on substantial issues such as fisheries, governance, and fiscal relationships, and in the 24 years to date that the process has been underway, have failed to resolve them.
Of particular concern is the refusal of governments to recognize constitutionally-protected Aboriginal rights and title. Kathryn Teneese, chief negotiator for the Ktunaxa Nation in southeast BC, says that flies in the face of agreed principles for negotiations set out in the 1991 “BC Claims Task Force Report,” a report approved by all three parties at the start of the process. “If you read the recommendations regarding what should be included in negotiations, they’re very clear about that,” says Teneese. “The Task Force rejected the blanket extinguishment of Aboriginal title recognized in the Constitution and stated plainly that First Nations negotiating treaties should not be required to abandon those fundamental constitutional rights.”
Despite that, the federal and provincial governments have ever since refused to recognize Aboriginal title in treaty negotiations.
Both Doug White and Teneese believe that may be the single biggest impediment to progress: “A treaty without recognition of title will never happen on my watch,” confirms Teneese. “Ktunaxa have never, ever given up our title nor implied that we would approve an agreement that would extinguish it.”
It’s a position shared by many, if not most, First Nations. There is no way to move forward, says White, until governments are prepared to back down.
On June 7 of this year, the federal and provincial governments and the First Nations Summit released a report entitled the “Multilateral Engagement Process to Improve and Expedite Treaty Negotiations in British Columbia.” The report proposes seven actions to advance progress on modern treaty-making, including consideration of substantial changes to government mandates. Does this finally spell the change that First Nations are looking for?
White doesn’t believe it for a moment: “It isn’t going to make the slightest bit of difference,” he says scathingly. He’s read the report: “There is nothing new here that we haven’t seen before and which hasn’t already failed. For goodness’ sake,” he exclaims, “talk about ‘expediting’ the treaty process was already old back in 2010 when I joined the Summit, with nothing to show for it. It’s foolish to pretend it was meaningful back then. Clearly, it still isn’t.”
On its face, the new report does come across as a tired rehash of old ideas. Most of the proposals echo recommendations made in a 2002 report by the same parties’ similarly-entitled “Improving the Treaty Process,” which included improving mandating processes (e.g. enabling negotiators more leeway to accept proposals at their local negotiating tables); using incremental agreements to make faster progress; and addressing the rapidly-mounting debt faced by First Nations in negotiations (estimated at about $500 million, which means that some First Nations could owe more than their eventual capital transfer). The recommendations gained little traction and the report was shelved.
Similar recommendations were made again in 2011 in yet another report on expediting the process commissioned by then-Minister of Aboriginal and Northern Affairs Jim Duncan and undertaken by consultant Jim Lornie. Lornie called on governments to re-evaluate their mandates, including the way in which Aboriginal rights are recognized and expressed in treaties. Yet again, nothing happened. Why should anyone expect anything different this time around?
Provincial Minister of Aboriginal Relations John Rustad responds: “Because things are different now. All of the parties are more engaged. I think we have a real opportunity here.” When Rustad is asked whether that means his government is willing to make substantial changes to treaty mandates, however, he passes the buck: “I understand the federal government is looking at these issues, and they do need to be addressed, but we aren’t ready to discuss that together yet.” When will they be ready? “We haven’t set a timeline to discuss it.”
No federal government representatives were available for comment prior to deadline, despite several interview requests. But Cheryl Casimer, a current Summit representative, says she is confident the federal government is prepared to step up to the plate. “Ottawa proposed undertaking the report in the first place,” says Casimer, “and federal officials have been more than willing throughout to discuss all the issues.”
Despite Rustad’s talk of engagement and “real opportunity,” Casimer isn’t anywhere near as sure about BC’s commitment. It’s a significant concern: “I think we need a strong champion at the provincial level, or this won’t work. To be honest, I don’t think we have one.”
Certainly, Premier Christy Clark has not been a robust advocate of the treaty process. Instead, Clark’s government appears to prefer negotiating agreements outside the treaty process, such as forestry tenures and pipeline benefit agreements.
“That’s all very well,” observes Casimer, “but these are short-term agreements and they’re not constitutionally protected. They aren’t treaties and they aren’t going to last. I’ve got this sense,” she adds, “that the provincial government is simply continuing an agenda of ‘look what we can do without treaties’ and there isn’t any real commitment to this.”
Like Casimer, Kathryn Teneese has serious concerns about the provincial government: “My impression is that Canada is genuinely interested in looking at ways to address the issues substantially. They seem to be talking the real talk for the first time. I’m not getting that feeling or messaging from BC at all.”
Teneese also thinks that the provincial government has a different agenda: “In recent times BC tends to want to find the ‘easy’ button instead of dealing with resolving the hard issues, like reconciliation of Aboriginal title. It’s fundamental to achieve that in a meaningful way to reach treaties, but every time you hear from Rustad and Clark, it’s all about these piddling little short-term resource agreements they have with First Nations. They aren’t reflective in the slightest of what we are trying to achieve in constitutionally-protected treaties.”
After two decades of struggling to make progress, Teneese is angry. “I’ve met with Rustad and he goes on about how frustrated he is that after all these years there is no progress, and I think, how dare he say that? He has no idea, or maybe he’s just chosen not to listen to us about what it will take to move us forward. Mostly it seems to be about tweaking the status quo.”
Despite all that, says Teneese, Ktunaxa are committed to staying the treaty course. Being in the process has helped Ktunaxa build stability and capacity, and establish predictability in its approach to various issues at the table. “We have an excellent track record now that shows we’re in a position to move into a different and better relationship with governments. We’re going to keep working towards that goal. Perhaps I’m naïve, but I truly hope the new report signals that the governments are willing to do the same and that there’s light at the end of the tunnel.”
“It’s fundamental, however,” repeats Teneese firmly, “that our rights are recognized in order for us to reach a meaningful government-to-government relationship. We just have to look back at why we started the treaty process. We wanted to resolve the issues without extinguishing our Aboriginal title.”
“That is still the imperative that keeps us here and which must be achieved,” she concludes. “I can’t accept the approach to co-existence with First Nations that has ruled the day for the last 150 years, denying the existence of our Aboriginal title and rights. It’s unfinished business. It can’t stay this way.”
Katherine Palmer Gordon is a former BC Chief Treaty Negotiator. She is currently working on New Zealand’s final treaties with First Nations there.
While Blu Smith’s artistic expression has seen shifts both major and subtle, his fascination with light remains constant.
BLU SMITH'S HOME is tucked into North Saanich, nestled among towering Douglas firs. It sits on a sweep of green lawn that joyfully displays a clutch of toys belonging to his two young sons. His wife, a chiropractor, seems used to graciously leading arts writers and other visitors through their light-filled home to Smith’s basement studio, dubbed “the cave.”
It is not so oppressive as the moniker suggests: The ceilings are high; the walls are a crisp white and large enough to accommodate several paintings hanging and leaning. However, there is a marked lack of natural light, the windows having been covered to prevent it from wandering into the space.
It’s interesting, considering Smith’s practice revolves largely around seeking light out, in making the intangible manifest in pigment on an opaque surface. “Why is light important in my pieces?” Smith reflects. “It’s the pot of gold. It’s the elusive; what I have always been striving for. It’s the push behind me to always keep going,” he says; it’s “the prize.”
His reach for it happens in a predominantly abstract expressionist style, in which meaning can be elusive. However, through his luminous canvasses he has been able to connect with viewers. “Shedding a little bit of light—and life—that people can grab ahold of and gravitate towards, I think that’s one of the reasons why people enjoy my abstracts,” he notes. Abstract art operates on an intuitive, emotional level in its making and in its viewing, and that is where opportunities for communion between artist and viewer exist. “You get a lot of visceral reactions from people; it moves them. It’s amazing, because I spend all my time down here, and to put it out in the world and get these kinds of responses from people, it’s an honour,” he says.
Imagine, then, going back in time to tell Smith, a young University of Victoria art student, that this was how his career would play out. He would likely react with a derisive scoff. Early on, Smith had no time for abstract art. He laughs now. “I was just a naïve kid, because I could paint and draw realistically, so I thought that was being an artist. These people who did abstract, I thought it was a cop-out; that they didn’t know how to be artists. And I was vocal about it,” he admits.
This, mind you, was once he adjusted to the notion of even having an art career. Born in 1968 in Kamloops and raised in Vernon, Smith was playing junior hockey when, at age 18, a motorcycle accident put an end to that career path. As a kid, when he was not on the ice, he could be found drawing famous goalies (his own position)—or members of the rock band KISS—so he turned to art studies on the advice of a college counsellor.
At 21, he moved to Vancouver Island and worked as a sign painter before finishing his Fine Arts degree at the University of Victoria. Later, he worked in commercial art—“signage, murals, logos, chalk art for pubs and restaurants,” he lists, which demanded tight precision and technical skill. In a departure from an art-based vocation, he then spent some time as an electrician on luxury yachts. But any spare moment was an opportunity to paint.
Initially, his steadfast adherence to representational and figurative work left him frustrated. “It was just really lacking something,” he relates. “I knew that I had something to say as an artist; I just had to find what it was.” So in what would be an intense personal challenge, he immersed himself in what he had previously derided. “I would have 20 pieces of paper taped up to the wall. I would go from each to each, and I would work rapidly,” he explains, intuitively laying down colour and form. Eventually, hundreds accumulated. “I could pick and choose which ones I found interesting and build off that piece, and they would continue to build off one another. So this evolution started happening,” he explains.
That was 20 years ago now, and ever since, he has seen his work as part of a continuum. Now, five years focused full-time on his art practice, Smith works with combinations of acrylic paint, latex house paint, gel mediums, heavy molding paste and, recently, a return to oils. Part of the luminous effect is achieved by applying layer upon layer of colour—“just big stacks of colour” that he will rebalance “until the colours sing together.” He often uses charcoal lines to pull images out of these layers that can remain purely gestural or coalesce into a topographical quality.
His final step is to bring each piece “to life” by rendering the light. “Sometimes you want more of a glow; other times you want it where it’s just burning,” he says. The latter calls for big, bold brushstrokes that result in a luscious impasto. The light in each piece follows a path that leads the viewer through the composition. “Light is like water: It will find the path of least resistance,” Smith observes. “Same with electricity. Any way it can get through, it will find its way.”
He notes that his family’s move to their current property three years ago has affected the way light moves through his work. Previously, “we were up on the side of a hill and we had a gorgeous view of Mount Baker, so I would get the intense morning light from the sunrises every morning,” he says. “That’s what really started the light getting into my abstract work.” Now, nestled among the trees, “there is this fascinating light popping through little places in trees, just trying to get through.”
A desire to express that has brought Smith back to representational work in his latest series. He is aware of coming full circle, but now with his artistic voice ringing loud and clear. “I am able to really retain things I have learned with abstraction and apply them to this,” he says. His signature bold, expressive colourways prevail, as the light pushes its path through fauvist blue-grey-purple groves of trees in works like “The Long Shadow Stretch.” From the rippling surface of a pond in “The Willow” the light and colour leap onto three more purely abstract canvasses. Soon, Smith plans to build a studio in the backyard of his property, replete with windows and light. “I know [my work will] be completely affected being in there, but my work always changes. It moves and it grows,” he says. Following its inevitable path, as does a beam of light.
Smith’s new works will be on display at Avenue Gallery November 3 to 14 in a show aptly titled “Rage, Rage Against the Dying of the Light.” 2184 Oak Bay Avenue, 250-598-2184, www.theavenuegallery.com. Blu Smith can be found online at www.blusmithgallery.com.
Aaren Madden lives in a house with west-facing windows that bathe her kitchen in the golden light of the setting sun.
Victoria Jazz Society presents the Jerry Granelli Trio and the Victoria Children’s Choir.
BY 1965, Christmas in North America was beginning to get a bad “wrap.” The overt commercialization and commodification of the Saviour’s Nativity was being analyzed and discussed, after enjoying a blithe bloating into 20th-Century capitalism’s most essential yearly selling event.
Meanwhile, cartoonist Charles Schultz was making tens of millions each year creating the world’s most successful syndicated daily comic strip, populated by characters who were plenty jaded and analytical themselves. Nevertheless, they were still very attractive to the executives at Coca-Cola, who were keen to find a way to purchase and air a children’s animated Christmas TV special as a promotional vehicle for their products. They approached CBS, who approached Schultz.
The cartoonist jumped on the opportunity and created a moody, religion-trimmed, somewhat subversive anti-commercial tale, employing his perennially-depressed leading man Charlie Brown to lament the fact that no one seemed to be remembering the “real” meaning of Christmas.
Producer Lee Mendelson, a jazz aficionado, was a big fan of Vince Guaraldi’s work and contacted the musician to commission a soundtrack for the animated special.
The project was done in a rush over a six-month period and aired in December of 1965, with most of the creative people involved anticipating a colossal flop. Guaraldi and his trio had recorded the soundtrack in just three hours. Jerry Granelli, Guaraldi’s drummer at the time, was 24 (it was his first paid recording gig). The musicians hadn’t seen the animated special and were given minimal information about its story. “We were just trying to play good music,” Granelli recalls.
Instead of flopping, the special was a runaway hit, an instant classic, and is rebroadcast annually. “A Charlie Brown Christmas” received the Emmy Award for Outstanding Children’s Program in 1966. The soundtrack album was voted into the Grammy Hall of Fame in 2007, and added to the Library of Congress’ National Recording Registry list of “culturally, historically, or aesthetically important American sound recordings” in 2012.
The Vince Guaraldi Trio’s recording includes edgy re-imaginings of carols like “What Child is This” and “O Tannenbaum” (my particular favourite is a meditative riff on “Little Drummer Boy”), along with Guaraldi originals like “Linus and Lucy,” which endures as one of the most recognizable jazz recordings ever made, and serves as many a child’s introduction to the form. “Christmas Time is Here” employs a children’s choir singing plaintive lyrics (hastily penned “in about 15 minutes” by producer Mendelson, who couldn’t find a lyricist) encouraging us to seek goodwill year-round, set against a relentlessly melancholy series of descending arpeggios, and has taken its rightful place as a modern classic, performed worldwide by choirs young and old.
It seems every organization involved with musical endeavours inevitably puts on a holiday-themed show each year, but not so for the Victoria Jazz Society. According to executive director Darryl Mar, this offering of Jerry Granelli’s touring reprisal of 1965’s “A Charlie Brown Christmas” is “our first Christmas-related presentation in all of the 30-plus years I have been involved.”
Granelli, the drummer and only surviving member of the trio who recorded the original soundtrack, emigrated from the US to Canada in the 1990s, and for 48 years, had never played the repertoire again—until he convened a new trio and performed it as a fundraiser in Halifax a couple of years ago. It was received with such enthusiasm that Granelli agreed to tour across Canada, which took him as far west as Vancouver last year, but not quite to Victoria.
Mar explained that the timing last year just wasn’t right. “They offered it to us for a date in November, and we felt that it was too far away from Christmas,” he said. But this year, the timing was right, and he expects a sellout show at the Oak Bay High School’s brand-new Dave Dunnet Community Theatre.
Granelli, for whom the Charlie Brown project was but an early and bright blip in an illustrious, decades-long professional recording career, has performed in Victoria before, and brings along celebrated Canadian musicians Simon Fisk on bass and Chris Gestrin on piano.
The Victoria Children’s Choir will provide the vocals for the performance, says Mar. “In each city the trio hires a local children’s choir to perform, and we arranged for the VCC,” who, incidentally, performed recently at the Legislature for the visiting royals.
The entire original soundtrack will be performed, and Granelli will share plenty of intriguing background and juicy anecdotes (hence the “Tales” part of the title of the show). There is no limit to how much nostalgic fervour this album brings up in those young enough to have been children when it started airing annually, and the Granelli shows have sold out in most locations.
For the Jazz Society’s first Christmas offering, this is a fitting one, since Mar was unwilling to compromise on quality or musical integrity. “It’s the perfect project,” he says. “The time of year is right, and it’s been highly recommended by colleagues across Canada.”
Perhaps channelling Charlie Brown himself, Granelli commented to the CBC in 2013 on reprising the album and speaking about the experience. “There are so many memories. All my friends who were on it are dead.” And why didn’t he perform the music for decades, when it had been so incredibly successful? “I think I was a little too serious and immature, but this had a life of its own. It crept up on me…What really touches me is that people know that music, and they enjoy it.”
Tales of a Charlie Brown Christmas, with the Juno-nominated Jerry Granelli Trio and the Victoria Children's Choir is on Saturday, December 10, 8pm, Dave Dunnet Community Theatre at Oak Bay High School. Tickets: $35 advance/VJS members/students, $39 at the door. Advance tickets, Victoria Jazz Society Office, 202 - 345 Quebec Street or 250-388-4423, Lyles Place, and the Royal & McPherson Box Office 250-386-6121, or online at www.rmts.bc.ca.
Mollie Kaye remembers anticipating the special airings of “A Charlie Brown Christmas” each December, and thought the music—and the Peanuts characters’ dance moves—were the best parts.
Phoenix Theatre at UVic celebrates 50 years of making theatrical waves.
THE FIRST WEEKEND OF NOVEMBER will see the 50th Anniversary Alumni Weekend bringing together former faculty, staff and students in the University of Victoria’s Department of Theatre, otherwise known as the Phoenix.
I will be there as an alumnus and former sessional instructor. I was a graduate student in the department between 1999 and 2006, taught Applied Theatre courses for a number of years, and continue to work with Phoenix colleagues and their students in my current faculty position in Education. My memories stretch back 17 years, but that’s only a third of the time that the Phoenix has been training generations of theatre artists and producing hundreds of theatre productions.
The history of the department can be viewed on an interactive timeline created as part of the 50th anniversary celebrations at finearts.uvic.ca/theatre. I won’t repeat much of what is so effectively laid out there, but will briefly cover the early years from tales I have heard from colleagues and friends at the Phoenix. Then I have some memories of my own to share, as a small contribution to this celebratory landmark year.
The stories of the Q-Hut, a repurposed military Quonset hut that served as the first Phoenix theatre and teaching space in the 1960s, are legendary. The facility might have been a bit primitive, but the creative energy was powerful in those days under founding faculty members Roger Bishop and Carl Hare. When faculty members Linda Hardy, John Krich and Harvey Miller were recruited in the 1970s, they began a summer repertory company and high school training and performance program that were very successful for many years. Long timers at UVic recall Barbeque Theatre, outdoor summer theatre productions staged at the Faculty Club around the pond, perfect for Shakespeare’s pastoral comedies or even Peter Pan.
My mentor and writing partner Juliana Saxton arrived at UVic in 1981 and spent the next 25 years leading the Theatre in Education/Drama in Education (TIE/DIE) program that trained a generation of artists and practitioners who work in educational and community settings across Canada and elsewhere. Each year a class of TIE/DIE students would create and tour an original show to local Victoria schools. These productions tackled important social issues, introduced theatre to young people, and also often served as an effective recruitment tool.
The 1980s saw a partnership begin with William Head on Stage, the prison theatre program that is marking its 35th year out in Metchosin. Many Phoenix students have directed or performed in WHoS shows, and the connection with the Phoenix and its alumni remains strong to this day. (I have performed in two recent WHoS productions myself, in 2012 and 2015).
The ’90s saw the arrival of design professors Mary Kerr and Alan Stichbury and theatre historian Jennifer Wise. More faculty have joined since then, too many to mention here, but all experts in their respective fields.
When I arrived to begin working with Saxton and her close colleague in Education, Carole Miller, I also had the chance to return to the stage. I had been a high school drama teacher in Toronto in the 1990s. Going to grad school at the Phoenix gave me the chance I was denied as a teacher to return to my acting roots.
In the fall of 1999, I found myself cast in faculty member Peter McGuire’s production of Wendy Lill’s The Glace Bay Miners’ Museum. I will never forget standing on the stage of the Roger Bishop Theatre in a tech rehearsal thinking to myself, “I am on a set designed by Allan Stichbury being lit by Gerald King, two of the best designers in the country.” And if that wasn’t enough, I also was working with talented Phoenix students who would go on to thrive in the professional theatre world: Meg Roe, Greg Landucci and Jay Hindle.
Three years later I was cast by professor and director Brian Richmond in his production of The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui, Bertolt Brecht’s play about the rise of Hitler. This time the design was by the hugely imaginative Mary Kerr, and I was performing alongside one of Canada’s foremost actors David Ferry, who was doing his MFA with Richmond. Phoenix acting students in that show have also gone on to have strong careers, including Trevor Hinton and Zachary Stevenson.
These memories are for me a signifier of the depth and value of what the Phoenix offers both students and audiences in their mainstage seasons.
The theatre spaces in the Phoenix Building are topnotch, both the Bishop proscenium theatre and the Chief Dan George, each seating around 200. However, the general public does not often get to see the black box Barbara McIntyre Studio. It is a teaching and performance space that can seat about 60-80 on movable risers. It is here that students present their own season of theatre through the Student Alternative Theatre Company, or SATCo. Alumni Ian Case, David McPherson and Tim Sutherland began SATCo in 1991 and the program has allowed many Phoenix students to try out their ideas in a supportive in-house environment. Thriving companies such as Atomic Vaudeville, Theatre SKAM, Theatre Inconnu, SNAFU Theatre and ITSAZOO Productions all had their start with SATCo.
The reach of the Phoenix extends beyond Canada as the program has internationalized with partnerships and projects in Mexico, Thailand and India in the past decade. Graduate students from across Canada as well as from Australia, Nigeria, Thailand, the Philippines and America are all drawn here by the department’s reputation.
November’s Phoenix production of Christopher Hampton’s Les Liaisons Dangereuses (November 10-26) is a period piece that will no doubt show off the talents of the design faculty, staff and students. Phoenix productions are often some of the best-looking theatre productions in the city, rivalling the Belfry, POV and Langham Court for terrific sets, costumes, lighting and sound.
Director and faculty member Fran Gebhard will likely showcase the sense of dramatic ensemble that is another strength I regularly see on stage there. Phoenix students, like all “theatre kids,” are passionate about their art form and work together with instructors for very long and dedicated hours to perfect their craft. Spotting students napping in lobby chairs or backstage hallways is a common occurrence in the building during the day.
The anniversary celebrations continue into next year with an exciting and innovative project happening in March. For one week all classes will be suspended at the Phoenix and students will be working with a team of five invited guest artists. These artists, including alumnus actor and director Meg Roe, will be drawing on Shakespeare’s The Tempest as their source text for experiments in acting, devising, movement, research and design. The week is bookended by public presentations on the project. Be sure to keep an eye on the Phoenix website for more information.
There is much to celebrate in the legacy and present day accomplishments of the Department of Theatre. Here’s to the next 50 years of post-secondary theatre training and leadership at the University of Victoria.
Monica will be raising a toast with her Phoenix friends and colleagues in early November. She is also celebrating her tenth year reviewing theatre for CBC Radio Victoria.
Jennifer Manuel explores the complexity of belonging through the reflections of a nurse in a First Nations community.
A SENSE OF BELONGING is critical to our quality of life, but what exactly does it mean? While our connection to neighbours, friends, family and other local networks is obviously part of it, as soon as I shift my view to a wider perspective of, in my case, being a settler on unceded territory in BC, the notion of belonging becomes much more complicated.
In her new, debut novel, Duncan resident, writer and educator Jennifer Manuel looks head-on at the complexity of belonging in such a situation. The Heaviness of Things that Float (Douglas & McIntyre) centres around the dying days of nurse Bernadette Perkals’ 40 years of service in the fictional northern Vancouver Island reserve community of Tawakin. Her story draws on Manuel’s own experience of living and working in isolated aboriginal communities, and her realization that no matter how far she went from home or how close she became with those around her, she could not escape her difference and her privilege.
That struggle is part of the conversation that Manuel felt needed to be included in our literature at a time when all of us sharing this land must work towards long-overdue reconciliation—another word not so easy to define.
Manuel is a 40-something non-aboriginal transplant to coastal BC. Born in Toronto, she grew up in White Rock and now lives with her husband in Duncan. Over her years here, Manuel has worked for the Ktunaxa Treaty Council; chaired a national committee on aboriginal archives; worked alongside aboriginal non-profits to deliver education to vulnerable adults in Vancouver; and taught for several years on the lands of the Tahltan and Nuu-chah-nulth peoples, first in Dease Lake and later on the exposed northern edge of the Island at Kyuquot, where she was eventually adopted by elder Kelly John and given the name aa ap wa iick—Always Speaks Wisely.
Manuel has continued to advocate for First Nations education issues generally, and now in this book she gives non-First Nations readers some valuable lessons: about self-awareness, self-questioning, and the need to work at understanding others without ever assuming you completely can.
Though the novel begins with Bernadette’s imminent departure, it’s also about arrival and what we each bring with us in that moment of meeting. Bernadette was in her 20s when she came to the nurse’s outpost, situated across a cove from the 100-person reserve. A week later, a local man asked her “Do you know about Raven?” and she answered: “Tapping at my chamber door.” She didn’t know then how revealing it was to complete Poe’s line: “Only this and nothing more.”
Gradually, Bernadette becomes open to the stories she is told to listen for—that she’s told grow in the eelgrass, fly on the crows’ wings, unfurl in the ferns, or turn with the tide among the kelp. The new ways of hearing, seeing and being she learns in Tawakin shift her understanding, and over time, Bernadette becomes more aware of—and in tension with—her privilege living among people she has come to deeply love.
The novel’s plot driver is the disappearance of Chase Charlie, a 33-year-old man who Bernadette had delivered, known all his life, and cared about as if he was her own son. That love breaks her heart open to the fact that she feels the people of Tawakin are her family, the outpost the only home she’s known as an adult. But she’s also torn by having to break away and return to south Island city life “made to fit people like me.” In doing so, she must confront her assumptions about the nature of her belonging, uncomfortably asking herself: “Exactly who was I to the people of Tawakin?”
Being the nurse, the “secretary of secrets,” means Bernadette shares people’s intimate and often hidden histories. But as a mamulthni, a white person, she painfully discovers that she’s kept out of the loop of people’s lives. Despite her intentions and her commitment, there are things the local people feel she just wouldn’t understand. “My heart,” Bernadette says, feeling that pain of divide, “filled with sand, with stones.”
As the title suggests, the book deals with concepts of weight, displacement, and the thin line between floating and sinking. And the physical landscape, described with sensuous detail, teaches that where some might see ambiguity or uncertainty, there is possibility. “Like how the gathering of black clouds might bring rain, or maybe hail, or maybe no precipitation at all…Neither the sea nor the sky nor the stories can ever be controlled.” Indeed, in navigating the land and the people of Tawakin, it is important to learn that “Things in the world were not all they appeared to be.”
“It took being in a couple of faraway places to change perspective,” Manuel tells me of her own experience. Working as the treaty archivist in Cranbrook changed her life, she says, referring to a moment when she realized some elders were laughing at her in their own language—that uncomfortable position on the other side of the fence gave her a completely different view. Of her then-20s self Manuel now laughs: “You think you know so much.”
She was also changed by the women who ran the treaty council and the nation, women she worked with, like Sophie Pierre. “Savvy and powerful, driven with vision,” Manuel says. “I wanted to be them.” Then, when she lived in Kyuquot, she watched her young daughters flourish, excited by new ways of living and learning.
Like Manuel, Bernadette eventually sees the presumptuousness, the unconscious bias inherent in the concept of measuring aboriginal communities in relation to urban centres, of thinking of them as being “far away from everything.” One person’s middle of nowhere is somebody else’s rich and beautiful centre of the world.
Structurally, the story unrolls like an incoming tide. The narrative pushes forward incrementally, pulls back over the polished stones of Bernadette’s reflections, then, collecting power, surges ahead a little more. In this way, knowledge and insight are uncovered slowly, rhythmically, over the pulses of her life story and the story of her relationships with Tawakin’s people. And as with a rising tide, you find yourself surprised by how far and how gently things have moved to close the space between you.
Ultimately, that’s what we can all do: try and close the space between ourselves and others. One of the lessons to be learned from Bernadette’s sadder moments of connection in Tawakin, both as a nurse and a human being, is that even when you haven’t managed to understand someone the way you’d hoped, you still help each other out of a sense of empathy and human respect that transcends difference.
“People who come up to me at readings are so passionate,” says Manuel, fresh from several appearances at the Victoria Festival of Authors. “People want to make things right.” To the obvious question of “how?” she admits: “I don’t have an answer. People will flounder and might feel hopeless. Maybe that’s okay—as long as hopelessness is not the end. But it can be the start.”
The award-winning Manuel, who has previously published short fiction, also started the online TRC Reading Challenge, where people sign up and commit to reading the Truth and Reconciliation report. So far, about 3,500 people have taken the pledge. “People know it’s not enough, but it’s a way to publicly say ‘I’m listening.’” Manuel believes an important step in confronting colonial privilege is to “listen deeply when you have the chance, including with the TRC, and that means having an openness to be changed by what you hear.”
Perhaps the foundation of belonging is built on that kind of curious and humble self-opening—an exchange where we both reach out and take in, creating, as Manuel writes, “the invitation to believe something new.”
Writer, editor, and musician Amy Reiswig is going to give herself the winter/holiday gift of taking on the TRC Reading Challenge and doing some serious listening.
Meditations on “why” while collecting trash in Beacon Hill Park.
OVER THE SUMMER, someone tagged a large rock in Beacon Hill Park with black spray paint:
I know we’re not acquainted, but can I call you D and ask what were you hoping for? Were you looking for presence, identity, substance, legend? I know, anonymity’s tough, D. Who wants to be a nobody?
After you sprayed the rock, did you feel manifest and three-dimensional, more real? Or maybe this is a territorial thing, something like flag-planting: “I am here! This is mine!”
Of course, I hasten to advise, you’re not here, and it’s not yours, and if “DVS” in black paint on a rock is the best you have, it might as well be CBC, or OMG, or RIP.
What, no half-written novel, or sheaf of poems? Still, you wrote. It has to mean something. After all, it was transgressive, a knowing act of sacrilege, so it must have given you a tingle. Of course, I’m not ruling out the possibility that it simply meant “Fuck you,” addressed to no one in particular; as if the spray paint can itself was empowering, talismanic, your Canadian Beretta. American novelist James Boice writes, “…walking around with a piece, having the ability, the option, of killing anyone at all whenever he feels like it but choosing not to, allowing them to live, makes him feel much better about himself.”
Elsewhere in the park, however, love and sanity reign: Someone has strung a dozen twig whirlygigs on the low-hanging branches of a tree.
So, half-empty or half-full? Author Darran Anderson, in his almost-600-page, high-wire-act of a book, Imaginary Cities, writes, “Banished to the innards of the Earth, Milton’s fallen archangel Lucifer declares, ‘The mind is its own place, and in itself/Can make a heaven of hell, a hell of heaven.’”
On a spring day, you’re standing beneath a leafy poplar. Sensing movement, you look up and see one, just one, of the tree’s healthy tulip-shaped leaves doing a zigzag air dance on its way to the ground. Why that leaf? Why that moment? In spite of science, Nature won’t answer why. A perverse, infuriating, answerless silence—a cosmic “why not?”—hangs over all of this, is built right into existence. All of us are managed by some code, a mix of genetic tattoo, strange organic prompts and non-negotiable physical have-to’s—conditions governing all matter and all life. Why a heart beats, why you suddenly feel horny, why there aren’t bright blue chickens that cackle perfect major thirds, why people pucker when they kiss, why waterfront homes sell for a premium (sorry, “Because it’s waterfront” is not an answer).
Why, why, why? Or, as the spiritual have been attesting for a very long time, there’s a mystery at the heart of Creation.
Doesn’t it seem a miracle how reason has managed to find a tenuous foothold in such randomness, illegibility and chaos?
Over coffee, in meetings, or visiting with our own thoughts, we produce gorgeous, perfected plans. We have a remarkable ability to define problems, sense possibility and potential, and craft elegant responses. Housing and social management for the pinballing homeless is half the cost of cleaning up after their free-range street life—not just the physical mess and behavioural emergencies, but also the ominous, shadowy, Dickensian, social worry-fever they represent—but we don’t make the commonsense moves. Some obstacle—inertia, other demands on attention, limits to social energy, maybe a failure of values or courage—subverts the intention. Or it just might be that humanity’s a work-in-progress, “evolution’s plaything,” someone quipped.
Writes Valters Bruns, “With cities as with people, the condition of the bowels is all-important. Slums may well be breeding grounds of crime, but suburbs are incubators of apathy and delirium.” In other words, half-full and half-empty are not adjacent conditions, but a wide gulf apart.
It’s a challenge to be a successful, modern city when ancient drums—sub-cellular, murky and primal—are still beating far underground.
A few months back, Jim Geiwitz (a friend of the now-deceased local legendary social systems thinker, Mike Littrell) loaned me a copy of The Biology of Desire by Marc Lewis. Jim may have offered it at some earlier time, but I was busy with other pursuits and never cracked the cover.
This time, I did.
Lewis, a neuroscientist, makes the case that addiction is not a disease, a “sickness” from which people “recover.” He argues that the human brain is wired for desire; that is, desire has its own neural circuitry that selects for and reinforces around pleasure; it stimulates an architecture of preferences built on attraction. As with drugs or booze, so with love, Lewis contends. It makes me wonder about other behaviour shaped by various neurological preferences and predispositions—which is to say the very way our human material is put together, implying natural forces not so easily governed by will or won’t-power.
We see an intimate narrow treed street, and we say “How lovely!”—shorthand and reflex for something hidden and more complex. The eye delivers a view of a small-scale street to the brain, and the brain, perhaps our entire physical system, somehow absorbs this street image as code for safety, intimacy, human warmth, protection.
Of all of our clever human arts, marketing and advertising, I suppose, have come closest to making a science of these mysteries: “Come Home to Arbor Village.”
And so back to the park. I’ve spent a lot of time this summer cleaning litter in Beacon Hill Park—a couple of large garbage bags daily. As any end-of-day walkabout will show, un-mindful visitors of every type and stripe can diminish the park’s appearance, power and value.
One beautiful August evening, I cleaned out a long-abandoned nest of junk accumulated by one park denizen under a tangle of bushes at the Southgate end: a fetid and repulsive accumulation of papers, rotting clothing, bits of wire and wood, spoiled and mouldy food in bags, plastic cups and containers, syringes and other drug-taking discards—in all, enough to fill four large garbage bags.
Park campers with their leave-behind fungus of crud; tissue-dropping joggers; beer-can-hucking partiers; disposable-diaper-tossing mommies; walk-away dog-owners who find the treetops infinitely fascinating just when their pet is taking a crap on the lawn…the park asks all of you: “Are you in or out?”
In or out of what?
We’re perpetually at risk. Danger stalks the verges of the narrow path of the human endeavour. It takes the form of an essential truth about the elemental forces that we call energy and matter: Everything has a life cycle, an arc of existence. Things become tired of being what they are. They lose intention, yield to fatigue. Rocks crumble, we die, stars wink out, civilizations collapse. We know this intuitively. For every religious Creation myth there is a Destruction myth.
The writer of the liner notes to some Scriabin piano music claims that the composer “began to believe he was a messiah whose music would restore human beings to Paradise.” If this is true, Scriabin may be chided for crafting an over-ambitious job description, but there’s no gainsaying his hopes. The composer himself wrote program notes describing the last movement of his “Sonata No. 3”: “The soul is thrown about in a storm of unleashed elements, and in the ecstasy of struggle suddenly begins to sing with the voice of the Man-God. But the song of victory is cut off when He falls back into the abyss of nothingness.”
Danger stalks the verges.
Consider all of this an effort to frame our civic mission, our task, as the urban social experiment called Victoria. To protect the rhythms and scale of this place, to retain its heritage, to preserve its connection to nature? Of course. But maybe also to refine and broadcast a fresh understanding of what it means to be a city.
If we were to produce an energetic map of Victoria, the Inner Harbour and its surroundings is where we as a city, a community of people, perform our ceremonies and rituals of commerce, political management, social power, and cultural expression. Beacon Hill Park’s our Eden, where we conduct our rites of renewal and return. It is a perfected place. All the park workers mowing, pruning, seeding, fertilizing, planting, cleaning: View them as performers in a Breughel painting, a vast and complicated tending effort to preserve this Eden, to maintain its fecundity, its ability to deliver the seasons and cycles—really, a message and promise of renewal. Crud and litter profane the place, subvert the park’s effort to fulfill its purpose. How might a city more palpably convey this symbolic meaning and importance of the park? Clearly, parental signage isn’t the answer.
In taking on this challenge, we could open up an entirely new industry of transcendental tourism, make Victoria an intentional living laboratory for the study of the Question of the Ages: How do we not fall back into Scriabin’s “abyss of nothingness”?
The highway sign itself could introduce our new exegetic mission: “Welcome to Victoria. Why, why, why?”
A founder of Open Space and Monday Magazine, Gene Miller is currently promoting ASH, an affordable housing concept and, with others, has initiated the New Economy Network.
Adolf and Oluna Ceska’s fungi and the coastal ecosystems they nurture.
IN THE WORLD OF MUSHROOMS, Adolf and Oluna Ceska aren’t just well known; they’re heralded. They’re also incredibly modest. When I first contacted them they demurred. “We are just preparing a talk to the Pacific Northwest Key Council on our (basically Oluna’s) work on Observatory Hill,” Adolf told me by email, and then passed me a dozen links that had more to do with fellow mycologists’ work than with their own achievements.
Both Ceskas are members of the Natural History Society and the Southern Vancouver Mycological Society, a 200-member group they started 20 years ago. Oluna, with Adolf as her research partner, has contributed to mycological research through the categorization, classification, and discovery of new species of fungi on Observatory Hill in Saanich. She also participates in knowledge-sharing that reaches far beyond the world of mushrooms, into the biodiversity work of dozens of scientists around the South Island.
“Even Adolf has agreed that mycology is more interesting than botany,” teases Oluna, during our eventual meeting at a Saanich Starbucks. Adolf swats her hand and laughs. “I couldn’t have a better partner,” she continues, “he’s a fantastic photographer.”
The Ceskas arrived in Canada from Czechoslovakia in 1969, just after invasion of the country by Soviet and other Warsaw Pact forces. After studying at the University of Victoria, Adolf became curator of vascular plants at the Royal BC Museum, and a specialist of rare plant communities for the BC Conservation Data Centre. Oluna worked as an associate researcher in cellular biology at UVic before returning to her own research in the late 1990s, concentrating on the mycology of particular regions in BC.
Fungi, or mushrooms, might seem like a minor genus to focus on in the natural world. Popping up in the Capital Region after late summer and fall rains, their fruiting bodies rise from roots that spread through forest soils like thick mats. Some are edible, some poisonous, and their ragged forms, by late November, can seem insignificant, even eerie, amongst the stately firs and fire-red trunks of arbutus. But their importance to a forest’s health is still being uncovered.
In the last 12 years, Oluna has categorized over 1,300 species of fungi in a 185-acre area of Observatory Hill. In their biography on the Mushroom Observer website, Adolf (despite his serious botany credentials) lists his involvement as consisting of “driver, field assistant, photographer, computer operator, library liaison, and chef.” The two work side-by-side collecting, categorizing and identifying new species of fungus. “Our methods are not conventional,” says Oluna. Using an “intuitive path” method for finding species, they “just wander and observe.”
The Ceskas recently donated 3,316 specimens (stored in over 52 shoe boxes) to the University of British Columbia’s Beaty Biodiversity Museum, which accounts for more than one-third of the museum’s current collection. The Canadian Botanical Association provided $16,000 toward the costs of preparing the collection for donation. The museum is eager to accept whatever they provide. “We need more collections,” says Oluna. Adolf laughs; he describes their house as already full to bursting with gathered species; “We don’t need more collections!”
The Ceskas began work on Observatory Hill in 2004. The hill, sometimes called Little Saanich Hill, is crowned by the Dominion Astrophysical Observatory and managed by the National Research Council’s Herzberg Institute of Astrophysics. Large areas of the federal property were left undeveloped in order to protect night sky observations. This has conserved some of the region’s last untouched swaths of open Garry oak and Coastal Douglas fir ecosystems.
Since 2004, the Ceskas have visited the hill 380 times, collecting, drying and storing samples, recording species through photographs and drawings, and ultimately creating the first comprehensive study of fungi in the varied ecosystems of the hill. The results of their work can be found online at www.goert.ca.
Professor Joseph Ammerati of the University of Washington has called Oluna’s work “the longest, most detailed biodiversity study in North America.”
After 2013, when the $4000/year funding for her work was cut by the Astrophysical Lab (which also resulted in Federal closing of the facility itself), she continued collecting data, but has not compiled the results into reports.
Many species of trees—including Douglas fir and many coastal rainforest species—depend on fungi. About one-third of mushrooms are mycorrhizal, which means their roots have intertwined with tree roots underground. In BC’s coastal forests the tree roots of oak, fir, arbutus and pine depend on a variety of mycorrhizal mushrooms. The higher the tree species diversity in a forest, the higher the diversity of mycorrhizal fungi. Oak milk caps only grow under oak trees; chanterelles prefer Douglas-fir forests of 80-100 years old, where roots have had a chance to develop symbiotic relationships. Mycorrhizal fungi help protect trees from pollutants, cleanse heavy metals from the soil and keep them from passing to the tree itself. They increase a tree’s vitality, helping it to resist disease and insects.
Mycorrhizal symbiosis also allow trees to access nutrients otherwise unavailable. The mycelium of the mushrooms provide minerals to the trees in exchange for sugar from the tree. A tree’s roots are too large to absorb minerals like nitrogen, phosphorus and copper from the soil, so mushroom roots harvest the minerals for them. They actually mine them from rocks, passing the nutrients not only to the connected tree, but from tree to tree, including between two species of trees. Without the minerals that mycorrhizal mushrooms provide, trees wouldn’t be able to grow taller than a few feet.
This shared economy also increases overall forest health through far-reaching and species-crossing effects. Come fall, a spawning salmon dragged out of a river by a black bear can end up feeding not just the closest tree, but an entire grove. Salmon cells, in other words, are digested by the mycorrhizal tubular roots and end up dozens of metres away, in the cellular structure of a grand fir, an alder or a cedar. It’s the fungi that make that communal meal possible. In such ways, it’s clear the Capital Region’s biodiversity depends on healthy fungi populations. Unfortunately, over the last few years, due to drier summers, some early fruiting varieties of mushroom have not appeared at all. This, in turn, causes stress to trees that depend on the fungi.
Long-term monitoring of the Coastal Douglas Fir Biogeoclimactic Zone provides an important way of monitoring not just plant, fungi and animal ranges, but also the changes in climate, including rainfall and temperature, that southern British Columbia is increasingly facing. Many of the species Oluna found on Observatory Hill are at the northernmost edge of their range. “We are so lucky we started this research before the effects of global warming became visible here,” says Oluna.
Other researchers appreciate the Ceskas’ comprehensive approach and huge data bank. This year, the first Oluna and Adolf Ceska Mycology Award, created by the late fellow mycologist Jean Johnson, will provide support to a UBC mycology student. When asked about the award name, Adolf demurred, “It was an extremely touching moment, and I did not know if I, Adolf, should accept that honour, since I am just Oluna’s assistant.”
Oluna also submits specimens for DNA sequencing, which has resulted in the discovery of several previously unknown species. More may be forthcoming. “Mycology is now in revolution,” she says, explaining, “sequencing the DNA proved that it is a superior method to just morphological identification.”
While much of Europe has taken a holistic view of ecosystem study, North American scientists have tended to concentrate on individual species (usually endangered ones). That, say the Ceskas, has to change. “We are so behind in BC,” laments Oluna. “Southern Vancouver Island is so exceptional, we have to save what’s left.” Saving what’s left will depend on first knowing what’s there.
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.
FOR MY LAST COLUMN OF THE YEAR, dear readers, I bring you a cautionary tale from the garden. No, don’t stop reading if you’re not a gardener because this story applies to anyone who steps outside.
I mostly know the rogue plants in my garden, the ones that can maim if given a chance. I’m careful around the euphorbias that, with the slightest provocation, will ooze a milky alkaloid that burns like acid on the skin. I respect the stately monkshood, knowing that every inch of it is deadly when ingested. Also the beguiling foxglove—from which the heart medicine, digitalis, gets both its potency and name—and the irises, calla lily, lily of the valley, yew hedge, fig tree, and so on. The average garden is full of beauties that quietly have a darker side.
During fall cleanup I become a bushwhacker, but never without the protection of gloves, long pants, long sleeves and thick socks. I comb out and cut away the spent seasonal growth, trim the shrubbery and re-edge the beds. (This year several were also mulched with chips from trees felled just up the road.) On some days the chaff creeps into my clothing and a disturbed insect or two exact their revenge. It’s all part of gardening and I take it in stride.
But a few weeks ago after one such marathon, I awoke with an angry rash on my arms and torso. Even as I waited my turn at the clinic, the itchy hot redness crept up into my neck, encircled my jawline and drifted up to the tops of my ears. “Antihistamines and calamine,” the doctor directed, after deducing that I was probably reacting to a combination of spider bites and skin irritants.
Such are the hazards of communing with nature, and they certainly don’t end at the property line. A Saanich Parks employee once knocked on my door to tell me her team was removing a stand of Giant Hogweed in the neighbourhood. Would I keep a sharp eye out for new seedlings? Giant Hogweed can grow up to five metres tall, with sap and leaves toxic enough to cause temporary or permanent blindness as well as scarring burns on the skin. It plunders through our native flora, which is why it’s on Saanich’s invasive plant list.
Also on the list is poison hemlock, an equally robust intruder that occasionally drifts into my garden. All parts of this plant, which famously killed Socrates in 399 BC, are quite deadly when ingested.
Daphne laureola is another loathsome menace I’ve seen around town, including in a garden where children play. Don’t let this rhododendron look-alike fool you: Its berries are toxic and its sap can blister exposed skin.
Check your municipal parks website for a complete list of invasives and call them if you spot any of these baneful thugs. Never handle them yourself without protective gear and never compost or burn them. Many have seeds that can survive composting; several release poisonous fumes when burned. Bag all parts carefully and place in the garbage.
A bit further afield, stay alert for marauders such as stinging nettle, indigenous devil’s club, and poison oak. According to Healthlink BC, poison oak is rare in Canada except on eastern Vancouver Island and nearby islands. In the end I think that was my culprit, a nasty skin irritant that came in with my free wood chips. Poison oak releases urushiol, an oily sap that not only burns the skin but sticks to clothing and garden tools, thus making them toxic as well. By the time I figured out what was going on I’d infected my arms, torso, neck and face, and contaminated my bed, other clothing, and probably also my yard.
It’s a sobering lesson and I’ve been duly admonished. Poisoning in the garden is not uncommon and I’m now reassessing everything I grow. There are ways to reduce the likelihood of injury. Know what you have—a good exercise anyway considering we live in a culture where children can identify 1000 corporate logos but can’t identify 10 plants found in their own backyards. Teach children to not eat or touch plants without adult permission. Get rid of anything toxic to pets. Don’t import anything unsterilized unless you trust the source. Had I followed that last rule, I wouldn’t be sitting here festooned in blisters and calamine pink.
Writer Trudy Duivenvoorden Mitic, a Master Gardener, notes that in all her many years gardening this is the first one in which she ran in to this sort of trouble.