Recent scientific studies show how resident orca populations are affected by diminishing chinook runs and—critically—why the chinook are disappearing.
RIVERS RUNNING INTO PUGET SOUND have perennially low returns of chinook salmon—currently estimated at just 10 percent of their historic levels—even though many of them are enhanced with hatcheries. Last year, scientific research connected this decline to secondary sewage treatment plants discharging partially-treated effluent into Puget Sound.
Last June, a group of Washington scientists published a study showing the extent to which the decline in the birth rate of the Southern Resident Killer Whale population, listed as “endangered” by both the Canadian and US federal governments, is linked to the precarious state of the Salish Sea’s chinook salmon. Puget Sound chinook, which were given “threatened” status under the US Endangered Species Act in 1999, have become a cross-border issue.
Recovery of both Puget Sound chinook and the Southern Resident Killer Whale population would require investment of many billions of dollars by Washington State in new sewage treatment infrastructure. While taking action to protect both the orca and chinook is required by US federal law, Washington State currently has no plans to make that investment. Is our southern neighbour ignoring its responsibility to be a good environmental steward?
Killer Whales can be long-lived (“Granny,” above, lived past 100), but their birth rate is dependent on chinook salmon, a threatened species in Puget Sound. (Photo: markmallesonphotography.com)
LAST JUNE, A BRILLIANT SEVEN-YEAR-LONG STUDY that correlated the declining birth rate of the Southern Resident Killer Whale population with falling chinook salmon numbers, mercilessly compared what’s happening to the remaining orcas to the mass starvation of the Dutch population at the hands of German Nazis during World War II.
The authors stated: “The Nazis closed off the borders of Holland between October 1944 and May 1945, causing massive starvation over a 5–8 month period, with good food conditions before and after. There was a one-third decline in the expected number of births among confirmed pregnant woman during the under-nutrition period. Conceptions during the hunger period were very low. However, women who conceived during the hunger period had higher rates of abortion, premature and stillbirths, neonatal mortality and malformation. Nutrition had its greatest impact on birth weight and length for mothers experiencing hunger during their second half of gestation, when the fetus is growing most rapidly.”
The inclusion of the word “Nazis” in a peer-reviewed scientific study on the reproductive dynamics of an endangered whale population may strike some as odd, but the Dutch Famine, as the above events are known, was highly unusual: it took place in a well-developed, literate population that kept excellent health records and the vast majority of those affected survived. Thus it was one of the first events in human history for which scientists had accurate, reliable records to help them understand what health impacts occur when a population of mammals is starved.
The orca scientists found that a similar dynamic between food availability and birth rate has been impacting the Southern Resident Killer Whale (SRKW) population, but with one big difference: For the orca, this is not a one-time event. For them, a months-long famine now occurs almost every year.
Dr Samuel Wasser, the study’s lead author, is a research professor of conservation biology at the University of Washington. Wasser’s team gathered evidence from 2008 to 2014. They found that 69 percent of detectable pregnancies in the SRKW population failed during that period. Of those failed pregnancies, the scientists found, “33 percent failed relatively late in gestation or immediately post-partum, when the cost is especially high.” That high cost included an increased risk of mortality for the would-be mother.
The scientists observed: “Low availability of chinook salmon appears to be an important stressor among these fish-eating whales as well as a significant cause of late pregnancy failure, including unobserved perinatal loss.” They added: “However, release of lipophilic toxicants during fat metabolism in the nutritionally deprived animals may also provide a contributor to these cumulative effects.”
In other words, not only are the orca being starved, but when a starved, pregnant orca begins burning off her fat reserves in response to the scarce supply of food, toxins bioaccumulated in her fat reserves—such as PCBs and PBDEs—begin to have more of an impact on her health, such as a reduced ability to fight infections. This could contribute to the demise of the fetus and increase the risk to the mother’s life.
As a consequence of these conditions, the study found “the 31 potentially reproductive females in the SRKW population should have had 48 births between 2008–2015. Yet, only 28 births were recorded during that period. The 7 adult females in K pod have not had a birth since 2011, and just two births since 2007. The 24 females in the remaining two pods (J and L) have averaged less than 1 birth per pod since 2011, with no births in 2013, but had 7 births in 2015. One of the two offspring born in 2014 died.” As of this writing, the population has dwindled to 76 whales. As recently as 1996 there were 98 orca in the 3 pods.
How did the scientists determine that 69 percent of all pregnancies failed? After all, many of the pregnancies terminated early on, and there would have been no visible signs that the females had been pregnant. How does one detect whale pregnancies? Detection dogs.
Tucker, one of Wasser’s orca poop detection dogs (Photo: University of Washington)
Over the seven years of the study, the scientists intermittently followed J, K and L pods through the Salish Sea and used specially-trained dogs stationed at the bow of the research vessel to sniff for orca poop, and then point out its location to the scientists. The poop was collected and later genotyped (associated with a known individual whale) and analyzed for hormone measures of pregnancy occurrence and health. The scientists also looked for chemical indicators of nutritional and disturbance stress in the poop. By making the same measurements over time, they were able to distinguish between nutritional stress caused by low availability of chinook salmon, and disturbance stress caused by the presence of nearby boats.
Fisheries scientists had previously estimated that 70 to 80 percent of the SRKW population’s year-long diet consists of chinook salmon. The whales are thought to prefer chinook over other species of salmon partly because they use echolocation to find their prey. Since adult chinook are physically larger (they can weigh as much as 55 kilograms) than adults of other salmon species, chinook might be easier for orca to find. As well, there are runs of chinook returning to spawn in different river systems in the spring, summer and fall (sockeye, coho and chum return only in the fall). In the past that meant a reliable, almost year-round supply of chinook. And chinook may be preferred by the orca simply because of its higher fat content compared to other salmon. Canada’s Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) estimates that reliance on chinook rises to 90 percent during July and August as the resident orca target returns to the Fraser River and rivers flowing into Puget Sound.
Although the link between the abundance of chinook salmon in the Salish Sea and the physical health of the southern resident population was known, Wasser’s research provides the first confirmation that low availability of chinook is suppressing the population’s birth rate and endangering the health of reproductive females.
Wasser included comparison over the seven years of the study of the two main chinook runs that are keeping the southern orcas alive: the Columbia River early spring run and the Fraser River summer and fall runs. Depending on the timing of those runs, and how many fish were in them, the southern resident orca experienced more or less intense famines through the winter months and between the spring and summer runs.
Estimating how many more chinook would need to be in the Salish Sea to make up for the southern orcas’ nutritional deficit wasn’t part of Wasser’s research. But in 2010, DFO estimated the nutritional requirement of the southern resident orca population, which then numbered 87, at about “1200 to 1400” chinook per day. Over the five-month period the orca occupy their critical habitat in the Salish Sea each year, that would amount to 180,000 to 210,000 chinook.
Wasser’s research shows the whales weren’t catching enough chinook in 2010 and the deficit is threatening the population. Yet in the Salish Sea in 2010, the total number of chinook caught by commercial and sport fisheries, plus the number of chinook that escaped to spawn, was about 500,000 fish. (These numbers are from the US EPA and the Pacific Salmon Commission.) Of those, 320,000 returned to their natal rivers to spawn. The 180,000 fish taken by commercial and sports fishers were split roughly in half between Canada and the US, even though 94 percent of the spawning fish were headed for the Fraser River in Canada. Only 6 percent were headed for rivers in Puget Sound. Note that the total catch taken by humans is roughly equivalent to the catch required by orca.
The quickest way to end the orca famine would be to end the commercial and sports fisheries for chinook in the Salish Sea, and Canadian scientist David Suzuki called for that action following the release of Wasser’s study. To recover chinook populations, however, will require a deeper understanding of why they are declining. A comparison of the Southern Resident Killer Whale population with their northern cousins helps in that understanding.
Wasser noted the “significantly lower” fecundity rate of SRKW compared to the Northern Resident Killer Whale (NRKW) population. From a 2011 study by Ellis, Tower and Ford, we know that in 1974 there were 120 whales in the NRKW population; by 2011 that had risen to 262. According to Canada’s Species at Risk Registry, the population grew to 290 by 2014. DFO used this number in its 2017 reports.
Above: Both NRKW and SRKW populations feed primarily on chinook, but one population of whales is growing while the other has stagnated since 1974. Data from DFO and The Center for Whale Research.
Over that same period, though, the SRKW population went from 70 to a high of 98 in 1996 and then dropped to the current 76. Although both resident groups experienced a decline in population after 1996-1997 following significant declines in chinook runs, the northern population then recovered and grew steadily while the southern population has languished.
As mentioned above, scientists have determined that both orca populations prey heavily on chinook as they return to spawn. It’s also known that, while their territories overlap, the northern orca rely on chinook returning to spawn in rivers north of the Salish Sea. The relative strength of the northern population compared to the southern, then, suggests the low availability of chinook that’s limiting growth of the southern orca population is a result of something that’s happening to the southern chinook that’s not happening to the northern chinook. What could that be?
The most dangerous period in a chinook salmon’s life, according to fisheries scientists, is its first year. Research scientist Dr James Meador, an environmental toxicologist with the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (Fisheries) in Seattle, estimates the current first-year survival rate of Pacific Northwest ocean-type juvenile chinook salmon at 0.4 percent. That’s four-tenths of one percent. Another way of stating that is that 99.6 percent of ocean-type chinook salmon die in their first year. That year is spent in their natal river, their natal estuary and marine waters not too far from that estuary. Since this is where almost all of the mortality occurs, it follows that any substantial recovery of chinook numbers would require conditions in these areas to improve. A doubling of the current rate of survival in that first year—so that only 99.2 percent of them die—could double the number of fish that return to spawn. We’ll come back to Meador later.
Wasser and his University of Washington team concluded their paper with this noteworthy comment: “Results of the SRKW study strongly suggest that recovering Fraser River and Columbia River chinook runs should be among the highest priorities for managers aiming to recover this endangered population of killer whales.”
What about Puget Sound, where chinook runs are listed as “threatened”? Historically, according to Jim Myers of the Northwest Fisheries Science Centre in Seattle, the Puget Sound chinook runs were about 25 percent greater than the Fraser River’s. But in 2010, according to the US EPA and Pacific Salmon Commission, Puget Sound returns were only 6 percent of Fraser River returns. The much bigger hole in chinook numbers is in Puget Sound. Shouldn’t international attention be focussed there?
Instead of accepting responsibility for the role it has played in the orca famine, Washington State has shifted public attention away from its lack of action, thereby reducing the chances of the Southern Resident Killer Whales’ survival. Now the situation is getting critical. The EPA recently downgraded the endangered whales’ survival status from “neutral” to “declining.” Time is running out.
Wasser, on sabbatical, was unavailable to explain why the recovery of Puget Sound chinook stocks shouldn’t be a priority in the effort to recover the southern population of killer whales. However, an examination of two scientific studies published by Meador shed light on why Wasser and other fisheries researchers might not regard recovery of the Puget Sound runs as a likely prospect to save the orca.
The decline of the Southern Resident Killer Whales may be linked to the low survival rate of juvenile Chinook salmon in contaminated Puget Sound estuaries. (Photo by Roger Tabor, US Fish and Wildlife Service)
IN 2013, DR JAMES MEADOR published the study “Do chemically contaminated river estuaries in Puget Sound affect the survival rate of hatchery-reared chinook salmon?” Meador was with the Ecotoxicology and Fish Health Program at the Northwest Fisheries Science Center in Seattle. NFSC is a division of NOAA.
In that study, Meador observed: “Ocean-type chinook salmon that rear naturally or are released from a hatchery migrate in the spring and summer to the estuary as subyearlings (age 0+) and reside there for several weeks as they adjust physiologically to seawater and increase in size and lipid content before moving offshore to marine waters… Conversely, juvenile coho salmon spend their first year in freshwater and migrate to the estuary in the spring or summer as yearlings (age 1+), generally spending only a few days in the local estuary before proceeding to more open waters. This major difference in life history can have a large effect on the degree of toxicant exposure in contaminated estuaries, which can affect fish in several ways, including impaired growth, altered behavior, higher rates of pathogenic infections, and changes to physiological homeostasis, all of which can lead to increased rates of mortality.”
The physiological process of a juvenile salmon acclimatizing to saltwater is known as “smolting.” The juveniles become “smolts.”
Meador examined the records from hatcheries on major rivers flowing into Puget Sound over the 36 years between 1972 and 2008. Some of the rivers had contaminated estuaries while others were considered uncontaminated. He determined the difference in the chinook smolt-to-adult return rate between rivers with contaminated estuaries and those with uncontaminated estuaries. Meador noted that the smolt-to-adult return rate is the “primary metric to assess life-cycle success.”
He did the same analysis for hatchery coho in these rivers. Coho pass quickly through their natal estuaries and so would be far less impacted by contaminants in that estuary. The coho data, Meador clarified, “was used as another line of evidence to test the hypothesis that contaminated estuaries are one of the main factors determining the rate of survival for chinook.” And that’s what he found: Coho survival was not substantially impacted by contamination in their natal estuary.
Meador noted that “Salmonid survival is dependent on a large number of factors, many that co-occur. The analysis presented here is simplistic, but highlights an important relationship between hatchery chinook survival and contaminated estuaries. Because this analysis examined the smolt-to-adult survival rate in fish from a large number of hatcheries and estuaries over several years in one geographical location, many of these factors were likely accounted for and therefore had less of an effect on the overall results.”
As mentioned earlier, mortality in the first year of an ocean-type chinook is high. Meador described this as follows: “Survival for first-year ocean-type chinook in the Pacific Northwest has been estimated at 0.4 percent. Rates of survival over successive years are considerably higher for 2-, 3-, 4-, and 5-year-old fish at 60 percent, 70 percent, 80 percent, and 90 percent, respectively. Clearly, first-year survival is important for chinook, and most of the mortality for first-year ocean-type chinook is attributed to predation, poor growth, pathogens, starvation, and toxicants.”
Meador determined whether or not a particular estuary was “contaminated” or “clean” based on existing records of contaminants found in juvenile chinook tissue in that estuary, records of sediment contamination, and whether or not the estuary had been listed as a contaminated site.
He noted that most of the data on contaminants he was able to access had focussed on polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs).
The scientists did not make their own measurements of contaminants in the estuaries, nor did they speculate on the possible sources of such contamination. They simply compared the statistical differences in survival rates for chinook smolts between apparently contaminated estuaries and apparently uncontaminated estuaries.
Meador concluded that “when all data were considered…the mean survival for juvenile chinook released from hatcheries into contaminated estuaries was 45 percent lower than for fish outmigrating through uncontaminated estuaries.” In other words, a contaminated natal estuary causes a nearly two-fold reduction in survival compared with uncontaminated estuaries.
Wow. That was quite a discovery: A single factor that doubled the mortality of a threatened species of fish that was known to be the cornerstone of the diet of an endangered species of whale.
Meador’s data was confined to juveniles that came from hatcheries. Does his conclusion apply to river-reared chinook? Meador’s study reported that, except for the Skagit River, Puget Sound rivers are all dominated by hatchery-bred chinook. But, for juveniles whose parents spawned in rivers, the effect of contaminants may be even greater than for hatchery-bred fish. Meador noted that “wild juvenile chinook spend approximately twice as long in the estuary as do hatchery fish, which would likely increase their exposure to harmful chemicals.”
If the incidence of a contaminated natal estuary was limited to one or two of Puget Sound’s smaller rivers, this effect might not be of too great consequence. But that’s not the case. Some of the Sound’s largest river systems have contaminated estuaries. For example, the Snohomish and Puyallup rivers have the second and third largest drainage areas in the Puget Sound Basin, an indication of their potential for rearing chinook. Two forks of the Snohomish—the Skykomish and the Snoqualmie—have, according to Washington fisheries scientists, the potential for up to 84,000 spawners. But over the last four decades these rivers have been averaging only 4,500, a mere 5 percent of this river system’s potential. Meador’s research suggests this and other rivers’ collective capacity to provide nourishment for a healthy Southern Resident orca population is being cut in half, year after year, by the contamination in their estuaries. But what contamination?
The Puyallup River—which once hosted one of the largest chinook salmon runs in Puget Sound—now hosts the Tacoma Central Wastewater Treatment Plant, which is permitted to discharge up to 10,000 kilograms of suspended solids per day into the river’s estuary, habitat critical to juvenile chinook.
IN 2016, MEADOR PUBLISHED “Contaminants of emerging concern in a large temperate estuary” in the scientific journal Environmental Pollution. The CECs targeted in the study included a long list of pharmaceutical and personal care products, hormones, and a number of industrial compounds. Many of these substances, the authors observed, “are potent human and animal medicines.” They considered their targets to be just a “representative subset” of CECs in the environment, not a comprehensive list of what’s actually there. The scientists estimated there are over 4000 CECs leaking out into the ecosphere.
Meador referenced his earlier study, noting that “juvenile chinook salmon migrating through contaminated estuaries in Puget Sound exhibited a two-fold reduction in survival compared to those migrating through uncontaminated estuaries.” His choice of targets suggests that he suspected secondary sewage treatment plants might be the source of the contamination that is causing that two-fold reduction in juvenile chinook survival. He noted that “some CECs are poorly removed by wastewater treatment plant processing or are discharged to surface waters, including streams, estuaries, or open marine waters due to secondary bypass or combined sewer overflows.” Having found no other research by other scientists along this line of investigation, Meador noted that “bioaccumulation and comparative toxicity to aquatic species constitutes the largest data gap in assessing ecological risk” posed by CECs.
Meador’s team targeted 150 contaminants. They focussed on three estuaries, two considered to be contaminated and one uncontaminated. The two contaminated estuaries (Puyallup River and Sinclair Inlet) each had one or more secondary sewage treatment plants discharging treated effluent into the rivers on which they were located. The third, the Nisqually River estuary, which doesn’t have a sewage treatment plant above it, was intended as a reference—an uncontaminated estuary to establish the extent to which the other two were contaminated.
The researchers took water samples from the estuaries and effluent from the treatment plants and analyzed each for the 150 target contaminants. As well, they netted juvenile chinook and Staghorn sculpin from the estuaries and whole-body tissue analyses for contaminants were performed.
Eighty-one of the CEC’s were found in effluent being discharged from the treatment plants; 25 were detected in the estuaries. To the surprise of the researchers, nine (9) of the CECs were detected in the water column of the Nisqually estuary, which they had supposed was uncontaminated. Their data indicated an even more disturbing situation: “Collectively, we detected 42 compounds in whole-body fish. CECs in juvenile chinook salmon were detected at greater frequency and higher concentrations compared to Staghorn sculpin.” Finding more CECs in fish tissue than estuary water meant juvenile chinook were quickly bioaccumulating the CECs. Moreover, the chinook were absorbing a higher dose of toxins in just a few weeks than were the Staghorn sculpin, which spent their entire life in the estuary.
Of the targeted contaminants, 37 were found in chinook. This included, from A to Z: Amitriptyline, Amlodipine, Amphetamine, Azithromycin, Benztropine, Bisphenol A, Caffeine, DEET, Diazepam, Diltiazem, Diltiazem desmethyl… well, you get the picture.
How might multi-contaminant doses lower the survival rate of juvenile chinook? The scientists found “several compounds in water and tissue that have the potential to affect fish growth, behavior, reproduction, immune function, and antibiotic resistance,” all of which could lead to early mortality. But they also noted that even if individual contaminants weren’t at a lethal level in tissue or organs, the cumulative effect of so many different contaminants in the juvenile chinook at the same time could very well be lethal—the drug-cocktail effect that so many humans experience, sometimes with fatal results.
The scientists put this finding in the context of Puget Sound as a whole: “The greater Puget Sound area contains 106 publicly-owned wastewater treatment plants that discharge at an average total flow about 1347 million litres per day (Washington Department of Ecology (2010)). Our study examined two of these with a combined total of 71 million litres per day. The output for these two wastewater treatment plants alone was on the order of kilogram quantities of detected CECs per day into estuarine waters of Puget Sound. Considering the low percentage of commercially available pharmaceutical and personal care products analyzed in this study and the amount of effluent discharged to Puget Sound waters, it is possible that a substantial load of potentially harmful chemicals are introduced into streams and nearshore marine waters daily. If the concentrations from the two studied effluents are representative of that from other wastewater treatment plants in Puget Sound, then it is reasonable to assume that inputs to streams and nearshore waters are substantial and likely on the order of 121 kilograms per day (approximately 44,000 kilograms annually) and even higher if secondary treatment bypass, permitted flows, maximum outputs, unmeasured compounds, septic system contributions, and transboundary contributions are considered.”
Some of Puget Sound’s largest secondary sewage treatment plants. There are 106 publicly-owned sewage treatment plants in the Puget Sound Basin. Many are located on or near to the natal estuaries of threatened chinook salmon runs. All of Puget Sound is considered to be an estuarine ecosystem.
The data the scientists collected contained another ominous finding. The concentrations of the targeted contaminants found in the effluent from the treatment plants were unexpectedly high, by American standards. Meador found that “a large percentage of the chemicals detected in Puget Sound effluents are among the highest concentrations reported in the US, which may be a function of per capita usage of these compounds or the treatment processes used at these wastewater treatment plants.”
One final, noteworthy point: In the estuary that was thought to be uncontaminated—the mouth of the Nisqually—the researchers found 9 of the targeted contaminants in estuary water and 13 in chinook. Meador observed, “Based on our water and fish data, the Nisqually estuary was more contaminated than expected, which highlights the difficulties of establishing suitable non-polluted reference sites for these ubiquitously distributed CECs.”
This observation has an interesting implication with respect to Meador’s earlier study, mentioned above, in which he was comparing the survival rates of juvenile chinook between contaminated estuaries and those considered uncontaminated. The Nisqually estuary was on the “uncontaminated” side of the ledger in that study, but on investigation it was, in reality, merely less contaminated. Would Meador’s finding of double the rate of mortality have risen if he actually had a number of pristine estuaries to compare with those that are contaminated?
IN AN EARLIER STORY (“Washington’s phony sewage war with Victoria,” Focus, May 2016) we reported on the 32.4 million kilograms of suspended solids permitted to be discharged by 77 of Puget Sound’s largest wastewater treatment plants each year. Attached to those solids are many contaminants, including PCBs and PBDEs, not targeted by Meador’s study, but known to have a negative impact on the health of fish and their sources of food.
The additional impact on chinook smolts, after they leave their natal estuaries and migrate through this near-shore chemical soup—dubbed “Poisoned Waters” by the 2005 PBS film of that name—is hinted at by the Puget Sound Basin’s 10-fold decline in chinook returns from historic numbers. As the urbanization of Puget Sound’s shores has spread, and the daily recontamination of marine and estuarine waters has grown, the chinook and the Southern Resident Killer Whales have been pushed closer and closer toward extinction.
This intense urbanization—right beside the critical habitat of both whales and their prey—is not occurring for the Northern Resident Killer Whale population, and that difference may be the deciding factor in the different birth rates of the two populations.
Given the seriousness of the situation and the headlines in the media about drugged fish in Puget Sound, one might have reasonably expected that Washington State’s political leaders would respond to Meador’s findings. After all, what Everett-Seattle-Tacoma residents were flushing down their toilets into Puget Sound by way of sewage treatment plants was doubling the rate of mortality of a fish already listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act.
They did respond, but apparently only to deflect attention away from Puget Sound’s contamination from sewage plants. To do that they pointed at…Victoria.
Just two days after an embarrassing drugged-chinook story appeared in the Seattle Times, Washington State Representative Jeff Morris boldly announced a proposal to ban Washington State employees from claiming travel expenses for trips made to Victoria until Victoria built a sewage treatment plant just like the ones around Puget Sound.
A week later, Morris sent a letter to Victoria Mayor Lisa Helps claiming that “chemical loading” from Victoria’s marine-based sewage treatment system poses a “long-term risk” to “our shared waters.” Morris’ letter was signed by 36 other Washington legislators whose districts border on Puget Sound.
The legislators’ letter informed Helps: “We recognize the shared risk in short-term loss of tourism activity on both sides of the border from publicity surrounding [Victoria’s lack of secondary sewage treatment]. However, we believe the long-term damage to marine mammals, in particular, but all marine wildlife, does more long-term damage to ecotourism.”
Washington State Representative Jeff Morris
Morris’ idea that extinctions should be prevented because they’re bad for tourism highlights the gap between a politician’s level of understanding of this critical issue and the depth of knowledge that has been created by scientists like Wasser and Meador. If State legislators were drawing up an action plan for the recovery of Puget Sound, they could do worse than to put on their list: “Read some science about contamination.”
The Washington legislators’ proposal to discourage State employees from travelling to Victoria—a move they didn’t follow through on—wasn’t the only action precipitated by Meador’s science.
There was a bureaucratic response as well. The Puget Sound Partnership (PSP), which describes itself as “the State agency leading the region’s collective effort to restore and protect Puget Sound,” undertook two related “actions” after Meador’s study had been published. One of those was “Action 0156,” which directed the University of Washington to conduct an “analysis of impacts…from Victoria, BC sewage.”
Nowhere to be found on PSP’s long list of actions was any analysis of the impacts from the 106 publicly-owned sewage treatment plants around the Sound that are permitted to discharge over 32.4 million kilograms of suspended solids each year.
The PSP also committed to “Action 0048,” which was “Identifying sources of contaminants harmful to juvenile salmon.” PSP reports that after the expenditure of $273,000, the project is “off-schedule.” Contacted by Focus, the Washington State Department of Ecology—the agency responsible for undertaking the analysis—clarified that the study “was not actually funded.”
It appears that little else on the “Action” list for the Sound’s recovery is funded, either. PSP estimated its list of “Actions” for 2016 would cost $130 million, but acknowledged that only $17 million of that had been found.
Washington’s Department of Ecology confirmed that, as of 2016, the State had no plans to upgrade or relocate any of the existing large sewage treatment plants on Puget Sound.
Washington State says it’s commited to the recovery of Puget Sound. That would require the State to act on its scientists’ findings about the ecological impacts of ongoing contamination from its sewage treatment facilities. Unfortunately, the State’s current course doesn’t appear likely to produce anything that the Southern Resident Killer Whales will be able to chew on.
David Broadland is the publisher of Focus Magazine.
A referendum on electoral reform is coming next year. Terry Dance-Bennink of Fair Vote Canada explains why it’s important.
DURING LAST MAY’S PROVINCIAL ELECTION CAMPAIGN, electoral reform was a central promise of the Green Party’s campaign, while the NDP promised a referendum on it. The new government has now made it official: Before the end of 2018, BC citizens will have a mail-in referendum on electoral reform.
We’ve had two votes on it before: In 2005, after a Citizen’s Assembly recommended a single-transferrable vote (STV), resulting in a 57.69 percent vote in favour of it—but falling short of the government’s insistence on 60 percent; and then again in 2009, when 60.91 percent voted against STV.
This time the government has promised that a 50 percent-plus-one vote to replace our first-past-the-post system will be honoured.
So the year ahead is a pivotal one. During it, British Columbians will need to educate themselves on how best to modernize the voting system so that it allows for the fairest representation in all the land. If the vote is in favour of replacing first-past-the-post, we will have entered a new era that sees BC leading the way on electoral reform nationally.
But enroute to that shining future, some are predicting divisive debates on the question and on how riding boundaries may have to be redrawn. Meanwhile, proponents are warning that if the referendum fails this time, it will be likely decades before any party would revisit the question.
Among the most knowledgeable people locally on the subject is Terry Dance-Bennink, who is pretty much a full-time volunteer with Fair Vote Canada (FVC), a national, multi-partisan organization with chapters all over Canada and 12,000 BC supporters (see www.fairvote.ca).
She’s just the type of active retiree Victoria thrives on. Formerly a vice-president academic of Fleming College in Peterborough, Ontario, Dance-Bennink moved to Victoria 12 years ago. She devoted her first few years to Dogwood Initiative—again as a full-time volunteer, and has championed various campaigns for democratic rights—stopping the Kinder Morgan pipeline among them.
Currently, Dance-Bennink serves as the chair of Fair Vote Canada’s BC Steering Committee and is a member of the BC Referendum Alliance Steering Committee. She graciously answered some key questions about the promised referendum and electoral reform.
Q. Why did you get involved in Fair Vote Canada?
A. I’ve always been passionate about human rights, and fair voting is a basic right—it underlines all other rights. I grew up in the 60s and have supported many citizen-led campaigns around issues like adult education, climate change, pipelines, cancer prevention, and indigenous rights.
But I’m tired of hitting my head against the wall. I’ve rarely helped elect someone who shares my values and I’m not alone. I believe our election system is the real obstacle. In Canada and BC, we constantly end up with false-majority governments that represent only a minority of voters, and often the most privileged. In the last provincial election, almost 50 percent of BC voters cast ballots that did not help elect a representative.
What does this say about our democracy and our ability to influence the decisions we care about? We need a voting system that makes every vote count, so all voices are heard and policies reflect the wishes of a genuine majority of BC voters. That’s why I joined Fair Vote Canada (FVC) and am now leading our BC team as we prepare to win the referendum.
Q. Why do you believe the current system of first-past-the-post needs to change?
A. We live in the 21st not the 15th century, when first-past-the-post was first invented! It’s time we joined more than 90 western democracies using proportional representation [PR]. Countries like Germany, New Zealand and Sweden have higher voter turnout because their people know their votes really matter, no matter who they vote for or where they live.
BC is a rich province with educated citizens, so surely we can help all citizens participate in decision-making, not just the most powerful or the first to race past the post.
Q. With the BC government’s official October announcement that a referendum on electoral reform will be held by the end of November 2018, were you pleasantly or otherwise surprised? Do you like the idea of the mail-in vote?
A. I was delighted to see the NDP, with support from the Greens, honour their election promise to hold a referendum on PR and campaign in favour of the change. What a contrast to our federal government. Once Trudeau secured a majority, he disowned his electoral reform pledge in order to maintain power. He may pay the price for this in 2019. And yes, I’m fine with a mail-in vote which has been used in past referendums in BC, but I’d also like to see some in-person voting options, particularly for students, along with broad public education. There needs to be a fair funding formula for the two sides, one that rewards individual and educational contact and donations (perhaps through a matching grant system) rather than encouraging massive media campaigns. We want to avoid what happened in 2009 when the “no” side used their $500,000 to pay for fear-mongering ads, while the “yes” side organized at a grassroots level. Finally, I also want assurance from the government that it will honour the result, regardless of voter turnout. We want explicit confirmation, as the PEI Liberal premier discounted a favourable vote for mixed-member proportional representation [MMP] last year based on “low voter turnout”—after the fact! Our government could include this in forth-coming regulations. Voter turnout in municipal elections is often extremely low but always considered valid.
Q. When will we know what the question will be? What do you think would be the ideal question(s)—and why? Why is the question so important?
A. That’s the million dollar question! The question dictates the outcome—it’s that important. Our research shows that referendums that force citizens to choose between first-past-the-post and a proportional system have nearly all failed.
I’m glad the government plans to consult further before deciding on the best question(s). The public will be able to weigh in on what the question should be at the government’s new website, due to be up any day now. We should see clarity by early in the new year. The bottom line, however, is that 65 percent of BC voters want to move to a proportional system of voting (Angus Reid Poll, Sept 26, 2017) and support runs across all demographics. This gives the government a solid mandate.
FVC has presented a number of recommendations to government and we’ve suggested a generic question such as: Do you agree we should modernize the way we elect our MLAs through a proportional system that both preserves local representation and ensures the popular vote is better reflected in the composition of the Legislature?
If the government decides to invite voters’ views on specific PR options, we recommend this be done through a second question, using a ranked ballot with various PR options, as was done recently in PEI’s plebiscite.
But let’s not get into the weeds. We want to avoid a debate over an alphabet soup of electoral mechanics. Once you’ve chosen a plane to fly, you don’t need to know how it’s designed and how the costs are counted. Just that it will fly you to your destination, namely the land of fair representation. The real questions are: Should as many votes as possible count? Should voters be able to express their preferences? Should diversity of candidates be enhanced? Should we maintain some form of local representation? Should every politician be accountable to voters? Should parties work together? Should we be able to vote with our hearts instead of “strategically”?
Q. Can you give examples of the experiences with MPP and STV in other countries that have used them?
A. I listened to many of the international experts testify before the federal committee on electoral reform last year, and I was sure impressed with the 90 countries using PR, regardless of the system favoured. MMP is used in countries like Germany and New Zealand, STV in Australia and Ireland, but all share in common a higher voter turnout, reduced policy lurches, collaboration among parties, high scores on environmental performance and quality of life, and greater diversity of elected officials.
Fair Vote Canada believes there are three broad categories of PR voting systems: those that involve multi-member ridings; those that call for regional top-up seats; or a combination of both. And just to be clear, FVC doesn’t endorse any one system as “the best.” We’ll support any made-for-BC model that is truly proportional and reflects our diversity.
Q. How do you answer the critique that proportional representation is likely to be unfair to rural areas—which now enjoy a better ratio of representation than do urban voters?
A. The so-called rural/urban divide is a tactic of those opposed to proportional representation. In the 2009 referendum, the tactic was “PR is too complicated!” Now it’s “PR hurts rural voters.”
When I look at the map of 2017 election results, I see big swaths of red in rural areas, and orange/green in more urban and Island ridings. But half of BC voters outside of Metro Vancouver and the Island chose a party other than the BC Liberals, and yet the Liberals won 83 percent of the seats in those areas. In Metro Vancouver and the Island, the NDP won 64 percent of the seats with only 44 percent of the vote.
Proportional representation doesn’t shift the balance of seats between urban and rural BC at all. Instead it gives every voter within every region a voice. And all models of proportional representation have strong local and regional representation. Voters will keep local MLAs and no seats will move to the cities. Every region will be rewarded with a team of representatives. And most importantly, all regions will have MLAs who are part of the government, rather than regions being shut out. Finally, teamwork among MLAs in a district [even in different parties] promotes good regional decision-making.
Q. What systems still allow for the greatest “place-based” system, i.e. each community or riding would have a specific representative who knows the area—and the riding wouldn’t be overwhelmingly large?
A. There are several great “made-for-BC” proportional options. They all maintain strong local representation and more voter choice. I’m thinking of systems like MMP, Local PR, and Rural-Urban PR. FVC has prepared a User Guide to PR Options that goes into depth on these and shows sample ballots.
Q. Regardless of the form of proportional representation, it seems that riding boundaries would have to be revised. Would it make sense to have riding boundaries mirror those of the federal ridings, i.e., 42 BC ridings, with two MLAs elected from each?
A. I think it’s too early to comment on riding boundaries. Some proportional models use existing boundaries, some require a degree of redistribution. But they all make every voter count and maintain strong local and regional representation. Let’s look first at what we want our electoral system to deliver—fairer results and better government.
Q. Another complaint, particularly with STV, which was recommended by the Citizen’s Assembly in 2005, is that it’s too complicated. What do you think—can you explain it in a simple fashion?
A. If you can use a cell phone, you can vote in a PR system! Most people today have no problem placing an X beside a single candidate. What about an X beside a local as well as a regional MLA—two “Xs”? No big deal. Or ranking several candidates in order of preference? Again, it’s not complicated. We’re asked to choose and rank options all the time by pollsters and companies and in choosing party leadership candidates.
The ballot isn’t the problem. It’s true, the counting mechanism can be more complicated, depending on the system chosen, but that’s up to experts at Elections BC to master, not the voter. I don’t have to be a flight engineer to know which plane I want to fly.
Most voters are more interested in the outcomes than mechanics. They want fairer results, more efficient and collaborative governments, and accountable representatives. Proportional representation will deliver on all of these.
Opponents of PR will say every model is too complicated. They don’t give British Columbians enough credit—we are as smart as voters in New Zealand and Ireland.
Q. Speaking of the Citizen’s Assembly, that body took 18 months to come up with what they believed was the best or most democratic system. Are we rushing it to have a referendum in 2018?
A. The Citizens’ Assembly was a world-class democratic process which did amazing work on behalf of BC voters. So a lot of work has already been done. And 15 commissions/assemblies in Canada have recommended PR and models that are adaptable to BC. We don’t need to re-invent the wheel. The government needs to look at the excellent work that has already been done and deliver on what’s always been missing in the past—leadership.
Q. Premier Horgan has stated that his government will campaign on behalf of an alternative to first-past-the-post—and that he will accept “50 percent plus 1” as a mandate for change. How would you advise people to prepare themselves to vote in the referendum?
A. Get involved and get informed! The campaign for proportional representation is gearing up. We expect lots of town halls and community-led discussions, along with a government-led social media engagement strategy this fall/winter. Share your views on a new government website to be launched soon. Contact your local MLA. And join one of our local FVC chapters (visit https://fairvote.ca for chapter contacts and resources). You can also reach me directly at email@example.com.
It’s our third time up to bat in BC, and it better be a home run. Just think of how this could impact the 2019 federal election—BC can lead Canada!
Leslie Campbell is the founding editor of Focus. Please write with your views on this important subject: Do you feel like your vote has counted? Do you feel fairly represented in government? What system do your prefer? Email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Can a new government remove the stench of Big Pharma’s lobbying at the BC Legislature?
ONE THING I MOST REMEMBER about living in Asia 20 years ago was the ever-present smell of sewage. It was fairly subtle most of the time, but occasionally I would catch a powerful whiff of something rising from faulty plumbing or seeping up from the street drains. It’s the metaphor I think of when I consider politics here in BC, where every so often the stong scent of corruption wafts from the comingling of business and government.
But maybe that will all change if a breeze of transparency—in the form of campaign finance reform and limits to lobbying—starts to blow through Victoria. Getting big money out of the political system and changing the legislation that affects the behaviour of lobbyists could certainly help clear the air.
People who spend any time in the BC Legislature or work in the various ministries will tell you that lobbyists representing petroleum, real estate or pharmaceuticals (among others) roam the halls like they own the place. These “government relations” people (former MLAs among them) fill the calendars of our legislative members, snatching face-time to air their views and ensure the government maintains the “right” perspective on policies affecting their industry. Currently, other than being required to register that they are lobbying and who they might be lobbying, there is no way to find out who was actually lobbied or what was talked about.
The centrepiece of the new provincial government’s lobby reforms is a mere tweaking, a required two-year “cooling off” period where those leaving public office are prohibited from acting as lobbyists (this includes cabinet ministers, their political staff, and other senior people, down to the assistant deputy minister level). Lobbyists must also disclose the names of any staff person working in the minister or MLA’s office with whom they speak.
Dermod Travis with Integrity BC probably knows the activity of BC’s lobbyists better than almost anyone in the province. He is adamant that “we need checks and balances—knowing who was actually lobbied and what was discussed,” but unfortunately that information won’t be found in the BC Lobbyist Registry. Travis laments how close the relations can be between government and business, recalling a 2013 BC Chamber of Commerce private, $275-per-plate dinner with all of the Deputy Ministers. Participants (mostly lobbyists) paid to dine with the deputy of their choice. The Deputy Minister of Health at the time, Stephen Brown, was photographed with officials from Purdue Pharmaceuticals (famous makers of Oxycontin, believed to be the key gateway drug responsible for our opioid epidemic)—not exactly the kind of people you want to be glad-handing our senior bureaucrats.
So who is keeping an eye out for the public when it comes to pharmaceuticals? With BC Pharmacare spending upwards of $1.5 billion every year on public drug coverage, does this not make the BC Ministry of Health a prime target for drug lobbyists?
Let’s say you are a drug manufacturer producing many products you believe doctors should be prescribing. Your singular goal is driving profits and growing customers. You therefore put a very high priority on getting BC taxpayers to pay for your products; with over four million potential customers eligible for coverage through Pharmacare, government payors may mean the difference between success and failure. What complicates this is that you’re also competing with other companies who make similar products, and they want their drugs covered. Enter the lobbyists.
BC’s Lobbyist Registry is a good way to find out who has been registered to lobby for whom, and which ministers they wish to influence. In it are dozens of drug companies. Let’s choose one at random, starting with A: AstraZeneca Canada, a major pharmaceutical company making 50 or so drugs, not all of which are covered by Pharmacare. The diabetes drug exanatide, sold in two forms by AstraZeneca under the trade names Bydureon ($2,493 per year) and Byetta ($1,457 per year) are classed by Pharmacare as “non-benefits,” so if your doctor prescribes those drugs, there is a good chance you’re paying for them on your own, or hoping your employer’s health coverage will kick in. Brillinta (ticagrelor), another Astra product, is an antiplatelet drug used to prevent blood clotting, heart attacks and strokes. It used to be available for coverage through Pharmacare, but now it is not.
Drug companies like Astra are so profitable they can hire some of the best lobbyists (I mean, er, “government relations” people) around. If you are one of our newly-elected MLAs—and especially if you work in health, education, or economic development—expect to be on the sharp end of the lobbying activities of Big Pharma companies like Astra. On July 27, 2017, AstraZeneca Canada registered seven people as lobbyists in BC. Their “business or activity summary” on the BC Office of the Registrar of Lobbyists website says they focus on “Innovative Life Sciences/Economic Development Policies; Health as an Economic Generator of Wealth in British Columbia; and Health Policy/Reimbursement decisions.”
Let me translate: Even if Astra asserts that they “push the boundaries of science to deliver life-changing medicines” (according to their website), they are there to meet with our MLAs for business reasons. They will say their drug products might be beneficial to our economy, but the bottom line is to make sure taxpayers pay for Brillinta, Byetta, Bydureon and the dozens of other drugs they make.
In late September, the group tasked with assessing new cancer drugs in Canada (called the pan-Canadian Oncology Drug Review or pCODR) gave a positive “recommendation for the reimbursement of Lynparza® (olaparib).” Astra’s so-called “first-of-its-kind treatment for BRCA-mutated ovarian cancer” promises patients “improved progression-free survival.” Sounds great, and why wouldn’t you want the government to pay for that drug? As an MLA or a minister, it would be hard to say no to a drug that appears to help people suffering from what is often a fatal cancer.
We only know, broadly, what companies like Astra want from our politicians. Astra’s filing on the lobbyist registry says they are lobbying for “Information in support of provincial access and reimbursement of AstraZeneca’s medicines.” In other words, how do we get BC Pharmacare to pay for our drugs? Lobbyists have a financial incentive to paint their company’s products in the best possible light. (Some are even paid on contingency: If they earn their company positive cash flow from a policy decision, then ka-ching!)
BUT WHAT WILL OUR MLAs LEARN about the drugs they are asked to cover? Will they learn that Byetta (according to its product monograph) has been “associated with acute pancreatitis, including fatal and non-fatal hemorrhagic or necrotizing pancreatitis?” Will they learn that there are lawsuits against the company suggesting that the link between Byetta and inflammation of the pancreas means the drug may actually cause pancreatic cancer? Will they learn that Astra may have submitted false data to the FDA to get Brillinta approved in the US, and is alleged to have omitted information regarding deaths and other adverse events associated with it? When it comes to olaparib, are there going to be any lobbyists telling Adrian Dix and his staff that if you look closely at the clinical trials, it actually made life worse for patients? (Its cost, if covered by the Province, will likely be in the millions.)
What’s the takeaway? Seven lobbyists from one company, multiplied by dozens of drug companies, against one health minister.
We need a stiff breeze of transparency blowing through the halls of the legislature, especially when it comes to the millions we spend on pharmaceuticals. There is some suggestion that recent reforms are only a first step. Maybe there will be, somewhere down the road, some real deodorizing acts that can freshen up the close, sweaty relations between drug lobbyists and those who decide on how to spend our health dollars.
The future, if we choose, could smell really great.
Alan Cassels is a Victoria writer and health researcher. His most recent of four books is The Cochrane Collaboration: Medicine’s Best Kept Secret.
Congratulations Leslie! What an ingenious way to leverage older public assets—City-owned parkades—into much-needed affordable, workforce housing. (See July/August 2017)
Too bad, the City isn’t committed to affordably sheltering the majority of its citizens. “Trickle-down” economics propels their “trickle-down” housing myth. City politicians, staff, and real estate investors have only one vision for Victoria: to create premium-priced properties that cater to tourists and privileged members of society, many of whom live in their towers on a seasonal basis.
Developers want lucrative projects built in the shortest time, with as few restrictions as possible. Developers demolish affordable, older low-rise wood frame apartment blocks and erect expensive multi-storey condos for high-income retirees, well-paid high-tech workers, and professionals in government. What poses as city planning is rampant deregulation of unit size, increased density, and decreased parking requirements.
Our capital city is now unaffordable to a large number of residents. Many face displacement.
The City owns more than 600 properties and facilities, including the five parkades mentioned in Leslie’s editorial. Many of these are near the end of their life-cycle and will need costly seismic upgrading to avoid public liability. Two major geological fault lines lie beneath the city. These seem not to be a major concern to politicians, owners of rental properties, or even the financial institutions.
The City is reluctant to undertake any risk-assessments and serious mitigation measures to reduce liability from earthquakes, storm surges, or toxic contamination in soil resulting from leakage of industrial chemicals from old underground storage tanks.
What good is building high-priced Downtown condo towers, decorative pathways and segregated bike lanes when much of the City’s infrastructure (roadways, sewers and storm drainage system, and potable water pipes) need costly repairs and would almost certainly be destroyed during any major seismic event?
David Broadland’s article “Dumb questions and their (possibly) profound consequences” is also revealing and thought-provoking. “Due diligence” of major infrastructure projects such as the Johnson Street Bridge and “the need for public oversight of council and the City administration” seems beyond the scope of our elected officials.
Councillor Madoff’s admission re lessons learned from the Blue Bridge saga is an indictment of our current civic governance—the unwillingness of political representatives to face reality, assume responsibility, be held accountable for their own role (and that of the previous council who approved the project). All have contributed to this mess.
Council’s collective failure on the Johnson Street bridge replacement, to sniff out inaccuracy and under-estimation and overselling by experts, has real consequences for citizens. Taxpayers will bear a heavy burden of hidden liability and debt which can be traced to these elected officials’ poor decisions.
Those who do not recognize the two active fault lines that lie beneath our City have little interest in undertaking critical measures to mitigate the potential damage to property and loss of life during an earthquake. They are the same individuals who find no fault in their roles as elected officials. And find no problem with their decision to approve the construction of a less-than-fault-proof bridge.
Are the CRD’s climate change goals pie-in-the-sky?
Leslie Campbell’s hard look at the CRD and climate change is timely and apropos. (Sept/Oct 2017) Perhaps even a game changer. The game is governance. The subtext is that the CRD can’t do what people want it to do. She notes three areas where this is true: Growth, transportation inaction, and consequent upon that, pie-in-the-sky climate change policy.
The question is what should regional government look like? A recent report on CRD governance didn’t fully answer that, though it noted, “Getting to ‘yes’ on big contentious issues is a problem.” Well what are the consequences? Campbell pointed to important ones where the report did not. So where next?
I think the Province should take a look at how this region is governed and ask is this what we want—to be the cop when things go pear- shaped? The region as provincial ward? I say: the region. Amalgamation is another issue.
The sort of issues you raise are not going away.
Re: Leslie’s editorial on the conundrum of urban densification vs greenspace preservation (or compact vs sprawl): Please write Part Two, namely the unavoidable conclusion that without population control (local and global), no other ecological problem will be soluble.
I’m not sure why people, including environmentalists, always stop the discussion short of this stage, but it would be great if one of Focus’ writers tackled the issue. I find telling and haunting statistics at www.populationmatters.org. All our politicians are fiddling while Rome breeds. They fear to touch the subject. But Focus has been fearless in the past, so maybe about this?
Difficult conversations on the steep descent ahead
I am reading the letters to the editor in Focus’ September/October edition around “Mayor Helps 1.5 percent solution” and I feel compelled to add my first-ever letter to this magazine.
I just celebrated my 75th birthday. I did not ride a bike in my childhood. In fact I learned to ride one in my early 60s. I cycle on Dallas Road, in Oak Bay, around Fairfield, sometimes even up Shelbourne to Feltham. And on the Goose, of course. I love what’s happening with cycling paths in the core area. I totally support more protected lanes. It’s fine to nitpick how we go about it, but we do need to give more space to human-powered transportation.
I cycle a lot, and support efforts to provide more room for bikes on roads, with as little disruption to vehicles as possible, and as cost-effectively as possible. The bike lane project timeline on the Victoria website shows an evaluation and monitoring process, so I hope future phases will benefit from lessons learned, and that the project will eventually result in fewer car trips and miles.
I agree with David Broadland that, as the consequences of global warming worsen, our options for having a functional world in 80 years seem to be narrowing to a “moon shot,” or a collective generational effort like WWII. When looking for solutions, I urge readers to find Tony Seba’s “Clean Disruption of Energy and Transportation” on YouTube. Among other observations, he suggests that within a very few years, the convergence of driverless electric vehicles and web-based Uber-style services could provide a preferable alternative to owning a vehicle—at a tenth of the cost. In addition to climate benefits, there would be advantages in densification, affordable housing, clean air, less road congestion, productivity and less wasted time.
There are many factors that could prevent positive disruptions like this. They include the mighty oil and auto lobbies, and good old-fashioned resistance to change. Another critical problem could be the lack of politicians to champion such innovation.
Politicians often risk failure—think of all the time, money and effort spent trying to move the stars into alignment for LNG. Think of fast ferries, Site C (possibly), pipelines, seven-fold increases in tanker traffic, highway expansion, clean coal, and the local bridge and sewage projects examined in Focus. If politicians are willing to risk failure so regularly on projects like this, why not take a shot at carbon taxes, road pricing, vehicle standards, and public transport investment? Why not risk creating a city, province and country where existing innovations get us where we need to go?
Victoria’s mayor and City planners’ dream to create another Amsterdam or Copenhagen for bicyclists is a nice pie-in-the-sky dream, but there are a few important differences that can not be overcome.
First, Amsterdam and Copenhagen are very flat! No up and down hilly streets to master.
Secondly, both cities are much older than Victoria. Meaning, their citizens are accustomed to use bicycles for their daily errands—for many generations. And much of biking and walking is done in combination with other transport modes. Children grow up to use a bicycle to go to school. (There are few school buses and parents don’t line up in autos to pick up children.)
In much of Europe, grocery shopping is done almost daily, and the small amounts can be picked up with a bicycle.
Rigorous bicycle traffic rules are in place in Europe. No bicycle is allowed to sit in a car-lane in front of cars for a left-hand turn. If no bicycle lane is available the biker has to follow the pedestrian rules.
Extra bicycle-lanes will not encourage Victoria’s high percentage of senior citizens to suddenly climb on a bicycle and leave their BMW’s and Mercedes in the garage.
Europe’s high percentage of bicyclists and walkers has to do with the fact that many grew up without a car in the family. Teenagers with a driver’s license? No way!
As long as the world-wide car industry is rolling out new automobiles daily and electric cars are higher-priced than the fossil-fuel gobblers, not much will change in the foreseeable future, even as astonished voices cry: “I never saw such rising waters in my life. I never saw such hurricanes in my life. I never saw such wildfires in my life.” Right, baby—you never did! Hold onto your hat; it will get worse, not better.
One man’s trash…
I thought I was reading a lovely fairy tale with unicorns and rainbows when I finished the September/October Focus article “One Man’s Trash.” I have been involved in the recycling industry in Western Canada for almost 25 years and I can safely say that BC (and the rest of the planet) will never see garbage as “obsolete.” China has been responsible for the “recycling” of up to 85 percent of the world’s plastic. But as of September, China has notified the World Trade Organization that they would stop all recycled plastics and mixed waste paper from importation. In the last 30 years China has become the world’s home for the rest of the planet’s problems, and their government has had enough. Already the recycling industry worldwide is reeling from this development, and completely unprepared as to how to deal with it. So don’t expect any miraculous improvements in the future as far as materials going into your blue boxes—you may soon be putting some of that right back into your garbage container just like we used to do.
Trudy Duivenvoorden Mitic responds: It’s true that China has been the world’s leading importer of raw recycled goods these past few decades and has now stated its intent to ban plastic and mixed waste paper due to unacceptably high levels of contamination. (Canada does not seem to be on its list of offenders.) It’s also true that China in this same era has been the world’s biggest exporter of cheap finished goods, which means, ironically, that much of the world’s recycling is a boomerang that has quietly been ricocheting back and forth in recent years.
China’s ban will likely not affect us too much. The only commodity BC still sends whole-scale to China is mixed paper, and Recycle BC is working to change that by promoting new innovations and partnerships for keeping locally-collected materials in the local market. That’s the whole point, says Allen Langdon, managing director of Recycle BC. That’s the only way we will succeed in minimizing our carbon footprint and connecting recycling to manufacturing in a circular and more sustainable economy.
Vast improvements in collecting, sorting, cleaning, baling and transportation systems over the last decade, as well as the development of increasingly more local end-markets ensure that recycled materials are becoming a valuable commodity. The nearly 1300 businesses in this province that collectively pay $83 million annually to have these materials properly recycled would not consider the long road to the landfill via the Blue Box to be acceptable value for their imposed tariff. Add to that the thousands of people working in the growing recycling industry in BC, and the probability of it all being a charade becomes quite unlikely.
In the end though, recycling, even at a 100 percent recovery rate, is only part of the solution. As long as the world continues to buy a million plastic water bottles every minute, there’s a mountain of work to be done. I continue the discussion in this issue and recommend Recycle BC’s 2016 annual report, available online, for further reading. TDM
Annie Leonard has a stunning insight in her charming free online “Story of Stuff “animation: Even if we recycle 100 percent of everything in the Blue Box, that is only 1 percent of the world’s waste. And CRD is nowhere near that.
Recycle BC is the privatized and green-washed takeover of the formerly primarily public CRD program. The 1300 companies that comprise the “Stewards” list are not altruistic.
The biggest among them realized they could now profit from certain waste-stream products. They are now benefiting from the past 20-plus years of public subsidy. This is what created a high enough Blue Box participation rate for the companies to profit from it.
And the profitable products reflect inferior recycling quality: glass bottles crushed for roads benefit paving companies, but do little if anything to reduce the carbon footprint.
Most “recycled” paper has less than 30 percent post-consumer content. And the “100 percent recycled” definition allows wood chip debris from ancient-growth trees. It has to say “100 percent post-consumer recycled” to truly be so.
Same for recycled clothing and carpets. When companies pay us handsomely to get back and reformulate everything they sell us, including cigarette butts, then you’ll know we’re genuinely recycling everything. Better yet—lease products rather than sell them. That’ll keep plastic out of our waterways and off our beaches. It just takes legislation.
Don’t waste the Blue Bridge: park it
The impending completion of the new bridge must bring great relief to many people, but it is distressing to consider the idea of the Johnson Street Bridge being demolished. What a terrible waste. A much better idea would be to re-develop the historic Blue Bridge into a fabulous new enhancement for downtown Victoria by turning it into parkland that everyone could enjoy as The Blue Bridge Park.
This is not really an original idea but rather a proven success in other cities. New York re-imagined a downtown elevated railroad track into the High Line Park, making it one of the premier destinations in the city and revitalizing the neighbourhood that surrounds it. Google “High Line” to see what a beautiful idea it is.
Stated simply, the approaches and the roadways of the existing Blue Bridge would be covered with grass and feature landscaped gardens, trees and pathways with strategically placed seating areas. The current approaches would become new parks on both sides of the water. I expect the passage would have to remain open since I doubt there would be any interest in funding the ongoing operation of the rising section. However, as a permanent tower the structure presents amazing possibilities in design and function.
There is a sore lack of green space to compliment all the development and growth Downtown. The Blue Bridge Park would be an accessible and inviting public place for people to walk, to play, to picnic. It could showcase events and public art and provide a unique vantage point for locals and tourists to enjoy the harbour and city.
Province must act on professional reliance
We have a fundamental problem in British Columbia, Canada, whereby the province is not living up to its constitutional obligation to look after natural resources in the public interest. The provincial government needs to re-draft legislation for all resources so that the respective statutes are subordinate to over-arching legislation for sustainability and for regional land-use planning. Professional reliance has done a good job of showcasing this fundamental problem of constitutional negligence. Now, our new provincial government must act to redress the problem—we expect no less.
The costs of Site C:
I attended the BC Utilities Commission hearings on Site C here in Victoria on October 11. I have hope for this review. If it is done honestly and with the deep interests of British Columbia at its core, it will determine what we’ve known for a long time: that we don’t need Site C and that it would open the way to enormous loss.
The usual arguments against Site C are well known. I won’t repeat them here. What I’m hoping for is long-term vision for BC’s health in the broadest sense, for an honorable understanding of what reconciliation really means, for deep humane, environmental and ecological thought. For support for farmland. And of course, bottom line, for what’s best for the economic future of BC in the broadest, most open-hearted way—one based on “full cost accounting” of the environmental, social and economical costs and benefits.
These are costs we sometimes overlook. Thus, the loss of prime farm land in a time of global warming is a huge financial loss.
The loss of a First Nations burial ground, safe fish and ungulates, and most importantly, the loss of belief in the possibility of a respectful relationship is an enormous financial loss.
The loss of one of the most beautiful valleys in the province is a loss to tourism, of course, but more importantly to all of us who love this land.
The loss of the opportunity for green renewable jobs rather than the over-inflated, over-promised jobs forecast for Site C is a financial loss and a deficit of vision.
The loss of wildlife corridors and their many species is an economic as well as an environmental loss. For First Nations and the rest of us, poisoning fish by methyl mercury is a huge loss.
The increase in methane gas, and thus GHGs, is a loss we absolutely cannot bear at this time. Big dams are fossil thinking, especially a dam which is planned to support LNG extraction, with its accompanying risks of poisoning ground water and increasing seismic activity.
We need now more than ever to apply both hearts and minds to the problems of our times. The fallout from the decisions we make may turn the Earth as we know it into a place where our grandchildren can’t survive. We need to feel our love and gratitude for our lives on this beautiful planet and then to act from that understanding.
We need, in fact, to Stop Site C.
I am a practitioner of Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) and I have treated shingles very successfully as any acupuncturist or Chinese herbalist could. Even difficult cases can be treated with TCM fast and effectively—without the controversial vaccine, utilizing the body’s own healing ability.
I feel overwhelmed thinking of the task ahead, of the level of public education needed, given that the shingles treatment in TCM is not yet known to the medical society or the public. Chinese medicine can be such a great complement in our modern reality. We need to be open, and not prejudiced, against other medical systems.
I enjoy reading Alan Cassel’s articles. I feel his work offers healthy criticism of the current medical system in our community.
Dr Katrine B. Hegillman, Dr. TCM, BSc. R.Ac.
A shadowy group has launched complaints with the RCMP and several other public agencies.
IN EARLY SEPTEMBER, Metchosin Mayor and CRD Director John Ranns, in the midst of an on-air conversation with CFAX’s Adam Stirling about the CRD’s sewage treatment project, dropped a bombshell: “There’s a group of engineers and lawyers that have put together the most remarkable chronology of events through this whole process and have filed complaints with the police. I have been interviewed by the police. They filed complaints with the ombudsman, with the society of engineers, I don’t know where that complaint has gone. Nobody wants to touch this.”
Ranns later introduced me by email to the person acting as the voice of the mysterious “group of engineers and lawyers.” In exchange for a promise not to reveal Voice’s name, I was forwarded all the documents that had been sent by the group to the Victoria division of the RCMP’s Federal Serious and Organized Crime office, the Association of Professional Engineers and Geoscientists of BC, the CRD Board Chairperson Barb Desjardins, the BC Attorney General’s office, and Ombudsperson Jay Chalke. Voice also provided me with an email exchange between RCMP Constable Erin Bajic and Voice.
The documents confirmed who was behind the complaints.
While Ranns had obviously been impressed by the information presented, the RCMP was blunt in its assessment. Staff Sergeant Steve Wetter of “E” Division Federal Serious and Organized Crime Section informed Voice by letter, “In thoroughly reviewing the correspondence you provided, and in speaking with witnesses you have named, our review has found no evidence of a fraud, breach of trust by a public officer, or other offence in this matter.”
Read the RCMP's response to the complaint
Why did Wetter come to that finding? He told Voice, “You have indicated that it is your belief, based on your research and received sewage treatment plan proposals from Pivotal, a competing company to Stantec, that the sewage treatment plan proposed by Stantec is not financially prudent to the taxpayer.”
Wetter seems to be suggesting that the complaint of criminal and professional wrongdoing had actually been motivated by commercial competition between Stantec and Pivotal.
The “Pivotal” Wetter referred to is Pivotal IRM, a Victoria-based company that has represented both a gasifier manufacturer and a Norwegian company that builds wastewater treatment plants. Pivotal isn’t, strictly speaking, a “competitor” to Stantec in the sense that Wetter seemed to mean. Stantec was appointed as the CRD’s treatment program management consultant. Its role was to guide the CRD toward decisions on what technology to use and the most suitable capacity of the treatment plant, sludge processing facility and conveyance systems. Stantec created the “indicative design” for a secondary treatment plant at McLoughlin Point and advised the CRD to use anaerobic digestion to reduce the sewage sludge that plant would produce. Stantec’s consultant role excluded them from being involved in any consortium of companies that would eventually bid to build the system.
Pivotal, on the other hand, represented one company that wanted to play a major role in building the treatment facility, and another that wanted to supply gasifiers to burn off the sewage sludge created by the treatment process.
From mid-2013 onward, Pivotal’s Chief Executive Officer Chris Corps criticized the program that Stantec had developed, both in public and in private, and promoted a distributed, multi-plant system equipped with gasifiers to burn off sewage sludge.
By mid-2014, even though the contract to build a plant at McLoughlin Point in Esquimalt had already been awarded, the CRD board was forced to consider other options after BC Minister of Environment Mary Polak declined to require Esquimalt to allow the project to proceed. Esquimalt had voiced several objections to the project, and one of Esquimalt’s appeals to Polak was that there appeared to be cheaper alternatives than the one the CRD had chosen.
A grassroots organization had emerged—The Rite Plan—that promoted Corps’ vision of many small distributed plants and gasifiers. Led by Richard Atwell, The Rite Plan claimed Corps’ approach would be significantly less costly than Stantec’s McLoughlin-Hartland plan. Corps appeared to be closely involved with that group and Atwell. That could reasonably be seen as an attempt by Pivotal to use a grassroots organization to apply pressure on CRD board members to shift the project away from Stantec’s recommendations so that the technologies that Pivotal represented might be considered for the project. So while Staff Sergeant Wetter’s assessment that Pivotal was in competition with Stantec was presented in blunt terms, it wasn’t wrong.
I recently asked Corps if he had instigated the complaints. In an email Corps wrote: “It’s not coming from me.”
Here’s the “group of engineers and lawyers” own summary of their complaint to the RCMP, verbatim:
• CRD staff have known, and been repeatedly advised, that the sewage project is over-scoped, which now calculates to at least 75 percent. Staffs are documented agreeing in writing that the project is over-scoped. Challenges by CRD Directors on the scope were overridden, even while multiple independent engineers documented the excess;
• Staff failed to act on evidence from potential providers that the project could be done more cheaply. Published evidence by CRD’s own advisors illustrates the excess scope is at least $280M ($192M conveyance avoidance plus $88M savings through gasification rather than digestion);
• Staff stated they did so in order to keep federal and provincial funding levels even though they knew the scope was falsely high, yet there are provisions at CRD and provincial level that require bureaucrats be fiscally prudent and minimize costs for the taxpayer - unless there is a reasonable justification to do so;
• Recently, the CRD’s Project Board was appointed by the province to verify the project. Not only did they ignore what the engineers have said, but they also based their decision on the original and flawed CRD mandate to arrive at their conclusion;
• The Project Board then forced acceptance on CRD, they direct-awarded and sole-sourced the project (via the original group) ignoring all standard procurement transparency and fairness practices and refusing to go out to tender, which prevented the issue from being exposed.
• Because the staff and Directors were aware of the flawed calculations and potential savings, this is a Breach of the Public Trust.
Now each of these claims can be refuted with evidence, but it’s not necessary. There’s an easier way to show that the overriding complaint—taxpayers are paying too much as a result of CRD staff’s wrongful actions—is at odds with reality. Consider the following:
At the same time as the CRD was responding to a federal deadline for creating a land-based secondary sewage treatment system for Victoria, Metro Vancouver Regional District was doing exactly the same thing. It had been ordered by the federal government to build secondary sewage treatment for the municipalities of North Vancouver and West Vancouver by 2020. Both the project on the North Shore and the one here are now at the same stage—construction contracts have been awarded and some work has begun. Because of similarities in the timing, size and technologies used in the two projects, it’s easy to compare their relative overall cost. If, as the “group of engineers and lawyers” claim, Victoria’s project is greatly “over-scoped” and more costly than it need be, then that would be obvious in any comparison with the Lions Gate project in Vancouver.
The Lions Gate project will serve an area with a residential population of about 158,000 (2016). The estimated project cost is $700 million. On a per capita basis, that’s $4430 per resident.
The McLoughlin-Hartland treatment project will serve areas with a residential population of about 298,000 (2016). The estimated project cost is $765 million. On a per capita basis, that’s $2570 per resident.
If Victoria’s project has been “over-scoped” by “at least 75 percent,” then Vancouver’s has been “over-scoped” by twice that percentage. Yet no one is claiming that project is too large or that there has been fraud or breach of trust in Vancouver.
The contracts for both projects were won—in separate, open, competitive procurement processes—by the same consortium of companies, Harbour Resource Partners. In Victoria, the initial cost estimate and indicative design was produced by Stantec. Stantec was not involved in the Lions Gate project.
Specific differences between the two projects suggest the Victoria system should, in fact, be considerably more expensive, per capita, than the Lions Gate project. For example, the Lions Gate anaerobic digester will be located right beside the wastewater treatment plant, whereas McLoughlin’s digester will be located 19 kilometres away at the end of a pipeline that is estimated will cost $90 million. As well, the Victoria project involves a costly under-the-harbour force-main tunnel. The Lions Gate project has no such tunnel or cost.
If anything, the CRD has likely underestimated the required capacity of the system and underestimated construction costs. We shall see.
Any responsible authority considering the “remarkable chronology of events” outlined in the complaint, in the context of the wider world of wastewater treatment construction projects, would come to the same conclusion that Staff Sergeant Wetter did: There’s no evidence of a fraud, breach of trust by a public officer, or other offence in this matter—unless it’s in Vancouver.
CRD staff and most elected directors did, however, commit an act of utter foolishness. They ignored what local marine scientists and public health officials told them about the existing, already-paid-for, tidal-powered, source-controlled marine-based treatment system and instead followed orders given by senior government bureaucracies who had little knowledge of the actual environmental conditions here. Those scientists and health officials made it clear that no evidence had been provided that the approximately $800 million project would produce an environmental or public health benefit. The CRD proceeded anyway. Now that should be a crime.
Science and First Nations are stepping up the pressure to remove fish farms from BC coastal waters.
CHANGES TO THE RULES GOVERNING OPEN-NET SALMON FARMS are in the wind as calls intensify for the federal and provincial governments to step in and stop the game of Russian roulette being played with BC’s wild salmon stocks.
What makes this debate different from preceding decades of polarized arguments is implacable opposition to fish farms from the majority of BC’s First Nations—underlined by the occupation of two farms off north-east Vancouver Island—along with a growing body of evidence showing that wild fish can be harmed by viruses and sea lice spread from captive fish.
Add in dismally low 2017 Fraser River sockeye returns and the much-publicized escape of 300,000 Atlantic salmon from a collapsed Washington State fish farm, and the climate appears ripe for change.
Young wild salmon swim close to open-net fish farm. (Photo by Tavish Campbell)
Perhaps the biggest switch can be seen in the attitude of the provincial government. While the new NDP-led government recognizes the economic benefits provided by a $1.5-billion aquaculture industry, employing 3,000 people, it is juggling those benefits with increasing concerns about that industry’s effect on wild salmon, and the push to move the farms to closed-containment pens on land.
“The BC government is making sounds I have never heard before,” said independent biologist Alexandra Morton, a fierce opponent of open-net salmon farms.
Though the federal government has prime responsibility for fish farms (including their promotion), the Province does have some power—it has responsibility for issuing and renewing the tenure licences of fish farms in BC waters.
At the provincial level, the change from the previous Liberal government was apparent when Premier John Horgan met this fall with First Nations leaders in Alert Bay, followed by his statement that fish farm tenures will be reviewed to ensure wild salmon do not face obstacles on their migratory routes.
Hopes of fish farm opponents are also pinned on an election campaign statement by Claire Trevena, now BC’s Transportation Minister, who told an Alert Bay audience that if the NDP formed government, the party would “make sure that these territories and the North Island are clear of fish farms.”
Also this fall, new BC Agriculture Minister Lana Popham, in a letter to Marine Harvest, criticized the company’s decision to restock farms in the Broughton Archipelago; those licences expire in June but the fish will not be ready for harvest for two years.
“The decision to restock occurs as we are entering sensitive discussions with some of the First Nations in the Broughton Archipelago who remain opposed to open-net pen salmon farming in their territories,” Popham wrote, reminding the company there is no guarantee tenures will be renewed. “The Province retains all of its rights under the current tenure agreements, including potentially the requirement that you return possession of tenured sites at the end of the current terms,” she warned.
All but two tenures in the Broughton Archipelago expire in June, but the company said it must restock, as it has growing animals that need the space. Marine Harvest spokesman Ian Roberts said he hopes discussions happen quickly, as salmon farmers need assurances they can continue to operate.
AT THE HEART OF THE DEBATE around salmon aquaculture is the fear that diseases can spread from farms to wild fish. Although few scientists would claim that salmon farms are single-handedly killing BC’s wild salmon runs, there is incontrovertible evidence that a deadly disease—heart and skeletal muscle inflammation (HSMI)—infected fish on a farm in the Discovery Islands.
More alarmingly, researchers have found that HSMI is caused by piscine reovirus, a virus that affects about 80 percent of farm fish in BC, but which the industry previously claimed was harmless.
In Norway—where major firms operating in BC have headquarters—HSMI is known to kill farmed fish, and Norwegian scientists have now cemented the link between piscine reovirus and HSMI. As well, a study by a team of scientists from Fisheries and Oceans Canada, Pacific Salmon Foundation and Genome BC came up with proof that HSMI is present in BC. “They debunked the myth that piscine reovirus was harmless because they found that HSMI was present in BC,” Morton said in an interview.
Adding fuel to the flames is a recent video, taken by aboriginal leaders, showing sick and deformed fish in the net pens. “The fish were showing classic symptoms of HSMI. They were emaciated and floating with their heads against the net,” Morton said.
John Reynolds, professor of aquatic ecology and conservation at Simon Fraser University, emphasized that it is not possible to pin responsibility for annual fluctuations in salmon runs on fish farms, as there are many issues with ocean survival. “But there’s a lot of evidence that salmon farms are contributing to the problems that wild salmon face,” he said. Even without proof of a major viral outbreak, damage caused by disease transfer may be ticking away in the background, explained Reynolds. “There’s a lot of research which confirms negative effects of salmon farming on the juvenile wild salmon. It is published in many of the world’s top peer-reviewed journals,” he said. “There’s no dispute about that except, perhaps, by people who have something to gain by questioning it. The science on the matter is quite clear,” he added.
All of which makes Chief Bob Chamberlin of the Kwikwasut’inuxw Haxwas’mis First Nation wonder when the federal and provincial governments will take decisive action. “How can they not listen to the clear messages that we do not give any consent to having these farms in our territory” asked Chamberlin, chairman of the First Nations Wild Salmon Alliance.
The salmon farming industry has agreements with some First Nations to operate in their territories, but Chamberlin said that about 90 percent of First Nations communities are demanding an end to open-net fish farming. “There’s the risk of disease and sea lice and the broad infringement of First Nations rights,” he said, reminding government leaders of their support for the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, which entitles indigenous people to giving “free, prior and informed consent on any project affecting their lands or territories and other resources.”
If the provincial government is worried about job loss, Chamberlin suggested it put research and development money into developing a viable closed-containment industry. He also predicted more tourism jobs would come to remote communities if wild salmon runs were restored, improving the health of bears and the surrounding ecosystem.
Chamberlin wants to see the federal government genuinely implement all the recommendations from the 2012 Cohen Commission of Inquiry, including the recommendation that the responsibility for promoting salmon farming be removed from the mandate of Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO) as it is working at cross purposes with DFO’s duty to protect wild salmon.
That is not going to happen, according to an emailed statement from a DFO spokesman, who wrote that “no further action is required on this recommendation as responsibility for production and export is split between several different departments.”
However, the federal government is drafting a five-year Wild Salmon Policy implementation plan and putting $40 million annually, for five years, into research, science and monitoring of Pacific salmon, which gives ground for optimism that wild salmon are moving up the priority ladder.
After more than three decades of fighting open-net pen salmon farms, opponents know the road to change is unlikely to be smooth, but Morton believes the tide is turning. Look at the occupations of the fish farms, she suggested. “The First Nations are immovable. They are endlessly creative and extremely brave.”
Judith Lavoie is an award-winning journalist specializing in the environment, First Nations, and social issues. Twitter @LavoieJudith.
We want to repair our assets. Why don’t our governments do the same?
PSST. Elizabeth? John? Andrew? Got an idea. You’ve heard of hygge, that Danish word for “contented cozyness” that’s become a lifestyle, spurring the sales of hand-knitted socks and wooden furniture. Well, there’s another concept from northern Europe that’s far more important, and it’s just waiting for someone to brand it.
Last January, Sweden implemented a series of tax reductions for repairing household goods. They cut sales tax in half (from 25 to 12 percent) on repairs to shoes, clothes, and bicycles. For repairs to appliances like refrigerators and dishwashers, Swedes can now deduct half the labour cost from their income taxes.
“We don’t anticipate that this will make people avoid buying things overall, but hopefully it will be easier for people to buy high-quality products because they know it’s affordable to have them fixed if something breaks,” explained Deputy Finance Minister Per Bolund, just before the changes were introduced. “So it’s a lessened incentive to buy as cheap as possible and then scrap something.”
Bolund, a biologist by training, said part of the government’s motivation was environmental, to nudge Swedes away from disposable consumerism. But it was also economic: “Repairs are more labour-intense than production, which has been largely automized, so expanding repairs could actually contribute to an expanding labour market and a decrease in unemployment. Especially because repair services often require high skills but not very high education, so we believe there’s a currently unemployed part of the labour force that could benefit.
“Of course it is [also] a boost for the local labour market because repairs are by their nature done near where you live,” Boland continued. “So hopefully this will contribute to the growth of jobs locally all over the country. Whereas large-scale manufacturing is very centralized and can only happen in a few locations around the nation and internationally.”
Smart, right? Swedes call this shift a skattereduktion på reparation. Not catchy. We can do better. Like BC’s revenue-neutral carbon tax — another measure Europeans created, and for which we earned acclaim by being the first to implement in North America — a repair incentive, a fixcentive, could do a world of good.
Citizens across the planet are struggling to transform our linear, take-make-dispose economy into one that’s “circular”, keeping limited resources in use for as long as possible. In some places, they’re doing it with consumer-protection laws. In France, activists are suing four computer-printer manufacturers, claiming their products are designed to stop working after a pre-set number of pages—a crime of planned obsolescence, punishable by two years’ imprisonment and a fine of €300,000 under a new French statute. In several US states, the Open Repair Alliance is pushing new “right to repair” legislation, requiring companies to make products that can be opened and fixed by independent shops, instead of expensive dealer networks. (So far they’ve succeeded with automobiles, but not with electronic devices like smartphones, which the companies claim would violate owners’ privacy.)
Sweden is taking a different tack, by simply making repair more attractive. Swedes seem to be on board: 100 kilometres west of Stockholm, there’s a municipal recycling centre with classrooms, workshops, and a 14-store mall that sells toys, clothes, furniture and electronics that its students have repaired. The project has created 50 new jobs.
Victorians figure out a blender at a recent repair café. (Photo by Gayle Bates)
A FIXCENTIVE WOULD PROBABLY WIN FAVOUR IN VICTORIA TOO, judging by the local popularity of “repair cafés” — by-donation events where volunteers fix broken items that folks have carried in, from sweaters to toasters to chainsaws.
“The demand is definitely here; the only limiting factor is the number of fixers we have,” says Michelle Mulder, who co-founded the downtown Victoria café in 2015. (Repair cafés started in Amsterdam in 2009.) She’s seen hundreds of objects revived at the bimonthly cafés, and there’s often lineups, especially for electrical items, which many people are afraid of tackling themselves.
“Everybody once knew how to repair things, or knew someone who did,” Mulder notes. “But those skills are falling by the wayside, because it’s so easy, and often cheaper, to replace things.” Consequently, part of the café’s mandate is educational: The volunteer fixers don’t just take broken objects away and repair them, they show the owner and other volunteers the process, so more people have the skills. “We encourage people to bring in toys, because usually kids come along with them,” Mulder says, “and the more kids we have learning how to repair things, the more we can change the way society works.” (The next café is on Saturday, November 25, 9:30-12:30 at the central library. For more dates, see http://repaircafevicbc.ca.)
Unfortunately, kids can’t look to Victoria’s elected officials to provide similar good examples. As Focus readers know, City Hall ignored 2008 estimates that the durable old Johnson Street Bridge could’ve been repaired for $8.6 million, and bought the promises of a mechanically unique “100-year” replacement that’s $105 million and counting. As the project nears completion, practically everyone is wondering how long it will be before some unforeseen problem appears, and whether we can rely on the bridge’s extended two-year warranty to correct it — or if we’ll be left out in the cold like the customers of Sears Canada.
But recent events suggest that, despite all the difficulties with the new machine they’re building Victoria councillors still aren’t very curious about how it works or will be repaired. At his October 19 update, project director Jonathan Huggett passed around a hardened sample of the thousands of litres of epoxy grout that’s filling the cavities of the toothed rack of the bridge’s “wheels,” and assured them the grout would last longer than the bridge itself; none of the councillors asked how it would be possible to inspect or replace the parts sealed inside the grout. Huggett advised that City staff are acquiring parts and equipment for future maintenance of the bridge; nobody asked what was needed, or how much it would cost.
A similar failure to ask hard questions is leading to the replacement of Crystal Pool. Councillors claim the 1971-built pool is at “the end of its life” and can’t be repaired — even though in 2004 both Esquimalt and Oak Bay successfully refurbished their pools of similar vintage, built in 1974 and 1975 respectively. The mayor claims a new Crystal Pool will have “low carbon emissions,” but hundreds of tonnes of greenhouse gases will be produced making all the concrete for it, and even a new 50-metre pool needs a lot of energy to heat all that water. (Besides, Victoria hasn’t done much over the decades to improve the old pool energy-wise — again, compared to Oak Bay, which has won climate-action awards for the continual improvements to its pool, including its rooftop solar panels, there since 1985.) At least the old bridge’s steel will be recycled; the old pool, if replaced, will end up as landfill.
Nevertheless, the City is commissioning designs, with plans to start construction in mid-2018, even though it doesn’t know where most of the $69-million budget will come from. The new federal infrastructure program has earmarked $157 million for community centres, including pools, across British Columbia — but the money will be allocated on a per-capita basis. So the 80,000-resident City of Victoria will probably only get about $2.7 million in federal cash for the project, and a couple of million more in provincial and gas-tax funds. It will have to hold a referendum to borrow the rest.
Victoria’s councillors should instead tell their staff that they can’t countenance such waste, and won’t ask residents to pay some $50 million to replace a 46-year-old facility, especially when the City has repeatedly balked at spending even small fractions of that to refurbish it. If Council won’t change the costly neglect-and-replace culture at City Hall, voters could be making some fixes to it in next November’s civic election.
Ross Crockford wrote this on a 2011 Macbook, likely to be rendered obsolete by Apple’s next operating-system upgrade.
The organization appears to offer addicts a needed route to recovery, while preserving farmland. What’s the hold up?
RYAN COLWELL WAS ONCE ON THE FAST TRACK TO DEATH. Addicted to heroin and fentanyl, the former Surrey resident found himself living on the streets of Victoria at the age of 24, bouncing from shelter to shelter for a place to lay his head. Every day was the same routine—search for more drugs and money, which he’d steal and rob from people in order to get his next fix.
“It’s pretty sad,” said the soft-spoken Colwell, sitting on a pile of hay bales at Central Saanich’s Woodwynn Farms. “You do whatever you have to do. You just want to be blissful.”
Eventually, friends and family lost their patience, and cut ties with Colwell’s drug-fuelled life. He started seeking fentanyl to get high, even though he knew the dangers of using the deadly and highly-addictive opioid that’s 100 times more potent than morphine and 20 times more potent than OxyContin. Even one dose can be fatal.
So far this year (October, 2017), 1,013 people have died of suspected illicit drug overdoses in BC compared to 547 deaths at the same time last year. Fentanyl was detected in more than 80 percent of the deaths—an increase of 151 percent over the same period in 2016.
Colwell never overdosed on fentanyl, but has seen plenty of people who have. He just never thought it would happen to him.
“You see people around you die, but you think that you’re not going to die because ‘I don’t do as much’ or ‘I don’t shoot it with a needle,’” said Colwell, who’s watched many acquaintances receive multiple injections of naloxone—a prescription medicine that blocks the effects of opioids and reverses an overdose. “It’s scary, but you’re mostly scared for that person. You think they’re going to die.”
Battling his addiction since the age of 18, following the death of his father, Colwell has been in and out of numerous treatment facilities, but none of the tools he learned from them ever stuck long- term. Last January, sick of life on the street, he wound up living at Woodwynn Farms, waking up every day at 5 a.m., slinging hay bales to feed the livestock, and whatever else is required among the lengthy list of daily chores.
The 193-acre organic farm has been operating for eight years now, providing those struggling with addictions, homelessness or mental health challenges with a therapeutic community that gives them the tools needed to integrate back into society. Those who come to the farm are mainly men, ranging in age from 19 to 60, and stay for an average of 18 months.
Although the facility has attracted a large crew of volunteers, and thousands of donors, service clubs and church groups to help out, it’s still trying to get fully off the ground, due to an eight-year battle between the Creating Homefulness Society (Woodwynn’s operator) and municipal authorities over the housing and operations of the farm.
Woodwynn Farms' Richard Leblanc (Photo by Pamela Roth)
RICHARD LEBLANC, WOODWYNN’S FOUNDER and executive director, worked as a contractor for much of his career, but couldn’t help notice that Victoria’s homeless problem was spiraling out of control. Feeling like there had to be a better solution, he stumbled upon a free therapeutic community in Italy called San Patrignano, which has become the largest therapeutic work community in the world with 1,800 participants at a time. In 30 years, San Patrignano has helped more than 20,000 people. Seventy percent of them are still drug-free years later.
“Everybody has something meaningful and purposeful to do here every day,” said Leblanc about Woodwynn. “Over and over again you’re watching people that might die. You help them out and they move on with their life.”
Each day begins with a morning yoga session at 5:45 a.m., followed by a healthy breakfast from food grown on the farm, then a group meeting. The rest of the day is spent tending to the daily duties of running a farm that has 400 livestock consisting of chickens, cows and pigs; food crops (60 different fruits and vegetables); and a woodworking shop that’s helped spruce up the property immensely.
The goods created there, which range from salad dressings, jams, pickled zucchini, soaps and herbal teas to meat and produce, are sold in a market at the farm, providing what Leblanc calls an “incredible showcase” of what those who work there can do.
But it’s only scratching the surface of the farm’s potential. Most of the property is currently used to grow hay, noted Leblanc, who wants to use more of those hay fields for even more food crops and livestock, with a small portion devoted to housing farm workers.
A dozen donated recreational vehicles for housing are parked in a meadow on the farm, but only eight people can be housed on the property at a time, due to Central Saanich zoning restrictions. In mid-September, four people were living at the farm, but the average is closer to eight.
Leblanc’s vision is to house 96 people at a time, who would arrive through a gradual process in order to build the necessary staff and management required. First they detox for seven to nine days at Royal Jubilee Hospital, and then go to Woodwynn, as long as they’re willing to commit to the farm’s long-term abstinence-based program for a minimum of 90 days.
Leblanc has worked with an architect to design a cluster of eight small dorm buildings (housing up to 15 each), along with a communal dining room that will sit on 1.5 acres (.08 percent) of the large site so it wouldn’t detract from the amount of land available for farming. But first he needs a zoning permit from the municipality in order to proceed.
Despite the society’s commitment to farming, some people and politicians are still firmly opposed to Woodwynn. Central Saanich council has refused to amend bylaws to permit the facilities necessary to house the labour force needed to grow more produce, and has even taken the matter to BC Supreme Court. Effort is now being made to settle the matter out of court.
Most recently, council requested that the Agricultural Land Commission (ALC) review the Society’s application for temporary housing for up to 40 farm workers, to ensure it is consistent with uses allowed on the Agricultural Land Reserve (ALR). The matter remains under review by the committee, with no timeline set for the decision. And the final outcome still lies in the hands of council, which rejected the society’s 2012 application to the ALC to spot-rezone a couple of acres for housing.
CENTRAL SAANICH MAYOR RYAN WINDSOR has been watching the matter unfold ever since he was elected to council in 2013. He understands the concerns around the opioid crisis, but noted the issue at Woodwynn simply revolves around land use.
According to Windsor, the municipality has communicated many times that farming is the primary purpose of that land, and it’s what he believes it should be used for as well. Windsor acknowledges the Society’s plans to increase farming on the Woodwynn property, but noted the problem still lies with the number of people the organization wants to house. Regardless of what the ALC recommends, he suspects the application will likely lead to a public consultation process. When that could happen is anybody’s guess.
“Agricultural land has a very specific use and we want to see it used for productive farming. It wasn’t reserved for housing or other uses,” said Windsor, noting it’s up to Woodwynn to gather support from the community—something that will be seen when the matter proceeds to public consultation.“It’s important when you have a significant piece of land like this that farming remains the primary use and a couple of acres for housing and therapeutic activities that maybe are beyond farming, I don’t think are in the spirit of the agricultural land use. I think most of my council feels that way too.”
Comprising just five percent of BC’s total land base, the ALR is a provincial land use zone where agriculture is the priority use, but regulations do not require the farmland to be farmed. ALR regulations also stipulate any housing “must be necessary for farm use,” but what’s seen as “necessary” is influenced by what the local authority advises.
About 60 percent of the land base in Central Saanich is designated as farmland. But how much of that is actually farmed? Central Saanich’s CAO told Focus they do not track such usage, but a 2011 report by the Agricultural Area Plan Steering Committee District of Central Saanich noted that “The farmland base used for crops, other than tame hay, represented less than 30 percent of the total farm area. About 21 percent of the farms did not have any land in crops and were kept in tame seeded pasture, natural pasture, woodlands and wetlands.” Over half of the cropped area, it stated, “is in tame hay grown for the local livestock and equine feed market.”
The 2011 report spelled out the pressures leading to a “deteriorating” use of farmland, and made a number of recommendations. Key among them was reducing non-agricultural demand for farmland by limiting the size of housing through bylaw amendment and other disincentives to non-farm use. Central Saanich has never done that, though maximum heights of structures on agricultural land are specified.
Though focused on the Lower Mainland, a May 2017 Postmedia investigation explains why such disincentives are important as farmland crucial to BC’s future food needs is “increasingly falling into the hands of speculators and builders of luxury property.” Stories of huge houses—often 12,000-square-feet-and-up—abound on farmland in the Richmond area. With minimal effort, such investors (showing $2500 in farm revenue) claim major (often 50 percent) tax breaks, which are prompting politicians to look for ways to crack down on the trend of farmland being used for trophy estates.
Meanwhile, Leblanc feels Woodwynn has already bucked the trend: Since the Creating Homefulness Society took over Woodwynn’s 193 acres, more food crops are coming off its land than in previous decades.
THIS YEAR THE PROVINCE IS ON PACE to lose more than 1,500 people to drug overdoses, compared with an average of about 200 from 2000 to 2010. Last year there were more than 900 overdose deaths, with fentanyl at the root of the epidemic.
Victoria is among the three cities in BC experiencing the highest number of illicit drug overdoses this year, with 65 deaths recorded so far this year. A supervised injection site, to be located on Pandora Avenue next to Our Place, was recently given the green light from Health Canada, but won’t begin services until the spring or summer of 2018. Four overdose prevention sites have been set up in the meantime and continue to be heavily used, but they don’t provide any treatment.
Victoria police started noticing fentanyl creep into the city’s drug culture in 2012, and now officers see it on a daily basis. Staff Sargeant Conor King said the drug seems to be replacing heroin as the opioid that’s available on the street due to its powerful, euphoric affect that users are becoming accustomed to. Drug dealers are also seeing there are profits to be made, since fentanyl is relatively easy to procure.
One of the most concerning things for King is that the drug is now being detected in samples of other drugs, such as cocaine and methamphetamine, but the user is likely unaware it’s there.
In response to the crisis—King believes it will only get worse—police are now targeting dealers selling the deadly drug. Those who go through the court system are also getting slapped with tougher sentences. A recent investigation by Vancouver police resulted in a 14-year prison sentence for trafficking fentanyl.
“Every two to three weeks we are laying new charges in our ongoing fentanyl operations plan, so it’s a regular occurrence. We have a good basis of knowledge for who the traffickers are on the South Island,” said King. “Where we get frustrated is that we will arrest one trafficker and incarcerate them, but another trafficker will fill the void. Where we feel there is some light at the end of the tunnel is there has been some very stiff sentences handed out in BC.”
As police and paramedics continue the fight against fentanyl on the front lines, addicts keen on transforming their lives are still left with few options. A handful of detox facilities exist in the capital region, but they only last for a week or so. The only long-term recovery programs are privately run and can cost thousands of dollars, putting them out of reach for those eking out an existence on city streets.
Seeing a need for more solutions, Our Place Society is proposing to set up a long-term, live-in, locked-down treatment centre for addiction and chronic homelessness at the former youth custody centre in View Royal. The facility is owned by BC Housing and is currently being used as temporary housing for the homeless, but it’s slated to shut down at the end of the year.
According to Our Place spokesperson Grant McKenzie, the society plans to model the proposed centre after the same therapeutic community program in Italy as Woodwynn does, housing up to 50 men at a time for a minimum of 12 months and up to two years. The facility already has a gymnasium, a woodworking shop and an art room, which could allow for some social enterprise. The days will be busy, with various programs taking place to change criminal thinking and street mentality so people have a higher chance of success. Some participants could also be bussed to Woodwynn to work on the farm during the day.
The plan is to have the facility up and running by early 2018, but the matter has yet to go to View Royal’s council for rezoning. So far McKenzie said that council has been supportive about the proposal, along with the provincial government, which would provide funding for operations during the first seven years.
DESPITE THE HURDLES HE CONTINUES TO FACE, Leblanc feels a facility like Woodwynn is needed more than ever, as the ballooning homeless and opioid crises continue to show no sign of slowing any time soon. Every day he receives calls from people in despair about the risk of losing their loved one. He’d like to help, but continues to be challenged with the number of people Woodwynn can accommodate, due to government restrictions.
Leblanc received pushback from some neighbours at the get-go, even though police have only been called to the property twice to deal with two minor incidents involving program participants over its eight years. But he feels like he’s gaining support, noting some key people at the provincial level are doing their best to make things happen.
“It’s frustrating. The doors should be flying open. People should be tripping all over themselves to rewrite zoning, to rewrite bylaws and [issue] permits to make the obvious rational decision of helping us in any way possible to bring more people here,” said Leblanc, noting the services are free, depending on an individual’s financial situation.
“We have a solution to an enormous public health crisis and we are not being allowed to even give it a try.”
Current Woodwynn worker/resident Ryan Colwell admits life on the farm, with its structured routines and hard physical labour, hasn’t been easy. But after watching many of his acquaintances overdose and die from fentanyl, he knows staying at Woodwynn is necessary if he wants to save his life.
“Conquering any addiction is hard work,” said Colwell, who’s not sure he would have been ready for it a couple of years ago. He understands that “there is no magic pill, no special fix. You have to find a different way to cope and to live.” Now, after nine months at Woodwynn, he feels he has never been in as good shape physically, emotionally or mentally, though he said he still has a lot of soul-searching to do. “There’s a lot of solidarity, peacefulness, just being in the moment and being okay with that. It’s always been go-go-go, excitement and chaos for me. You have to be super-willing to change and put in the work.” Woodwynn is giving him the space, time and training needed to do just that.
A journalist since 2003, Pamela has spent the bulk of her career covering court and crime for various newspapers in western Canada, including five years at the Edmonton Sun. An avid traveller, Pamela also specializes in travel writing and recently published a true crime book called Deadmonton.
On November 9, 2018, Woodwynn Farm’s application to house up to 40 worker/rehabilitation participants on its 193-acre property was denied by the Agricultural Land Commission.
The Commission’s executive committee, led by Frank Leonard, stated: “Based on the current and proposed agricultural activity…the Executive Committee finds that the level of agricultural production, both current and proposed, is insufficient to justify the placement of 40 farm worker accommodations. Furthermore, the Executive Committee finds that the addition of 40 farm worker accommodations would increase the residential footprint and non-farm based infrastructure on prime agricultural land that is currently in production.” It also noted that “the Proposal could be located on lands outside of the ALR.”
As noted in Pamela Roth’s Focus article, Woodwynn’s proposal for housing only involved 1.5 acres of the 193-acre property. A prime purpose of the Creating Homefulness Society is to offer therapeutic rehabilitation to people recovering from addictions and homelessness—and it does this by engaging them in farming the land.
In a press release after the ruling, Richard Leblanc stated: “As the founder of this project, I cannot quite articulate my oh-so-deep level of disappointment. While our Board of Directors and our core funders are somewhat at their wits end, my own resolve is only temporarily shaken. Daily, our phones ring and our email inboxes fill with desperate requests for help.” He referred to the latest record-breaking number of overdoses in BC: 1,100 as of the end of September for 2017.
It seems worth noting that if the Creating Homefulness Society gave up their fight to provide a sorely needed rehabilitation program and sold the Woodwynn property, the ALC would be powerless to stop a new buyer from completely ignoring all the farming (and rehabilitative) potential of the land and merely using it as a trophy estate. This has happened to many properties in the Agricultural Land Reserve.
The complete ruling of the ALC is here: ALC ruling on Woodwynn Farms.pdf
Bi Yuan Cheng creates internal and external landscapes of truth, feeling, and sense of place.
BI YUAN CHENG IS A SEEKER OF THE TRUTH. Not truth in facts, but in feeling; not in evidence, but in experience. His pursuit as an artist is to convey the world as he sees it and share its impact with the viewer, to impart the sense of wonder it brings to him. “I always think if you do art, it has to come from your heart, from your inside world. That makes it really true,” he says.
He was an artist from day one. Born in 1957 in Jinan, China, as a boy of six, Bi could often be found sitting at the side of the road with pencil and paper, sketching the passing cars or bicycles. “It just came naturally,” he says.
Bi Yuan Cheng
His interest and aptitude did not go unnoticed by his mother, a homemaker, or his father, an architect. By the time he was in grade six, Bi was spending every Sunday with a prominent watercolour artist, a friend of his father’s. “I would do a lot of painting during the week, and on Sunday I would go to his house, bring him the paintings, and he would look at each painting,” Bi recalls fondly. He would give feedback to young Bi, who would return home to apply the advice for the next week’s work. Working in the western style, the man had an immense impact on Bi as a teacher and mentor; he died in 1995. “I still miss him so much,” he says.
“He gave me a strong foundation in colour,” Bi continues. “Even today, I still remember his words: ‘You do everything on paper, which is flat. But on paper, you have to make space. Do not think, ‘This is flat,’ think ‘This is space,’ from close to middle to far; you have to create distance on paper—with colour. If you have three trees beside a road, even if the colours are the same [to look at], if you paint it, you cannot paint the same colour for the three trees,” Bi declares. These are essentially the principles of atmospheric perspective, one of the many ways in which colour became Bi’s tool for expression and description.
The Sunday sessions with his teacher expanded to include oil painting, and continued for at least ten years until Bi went to ZiangXi Art University from 1979 to 1983. With stiff competition to get into the painting program, Bi ended up majoring in sculpture and pottery. “I still did a lot of oil painting,” he says, because art education in China places such emphasis on foundational skills. The first full three years of his university art education focused on fundamentals: drawing, colour theory, some three-dimensional work. Western universities typically offer a single foundation year, so it’s hard to imagine such a rigorous art education.
After graduation, Bi worked for Shandong Architectural Company doing sculpture, murals, and design work for city squares. He quickly made a name for himself, winning awards and ascending in prominence to be named a Chinese Art Master by the Province of Shandong in 1987.
His path took a turn when, in 1990, he and his wife decided to go to the University of Alberta to learn English. In Edmonton, they found warm, friendly people and great educational opportunities for their then-four-year-old daughter. Importantly for Bi, though, he found colour. “In China in 1990, the pollution was not as bad as today, but it was still bad,” he explains. “You did not see blue sky very often. Most of the time, the sky was always a little bit grey; everything looked grey. In Edmonton, I said, ‘This is really colourful! Green is green, red is red, blue is blue, clouds are white.’ I said, ‘I can do colour here. This is beautiful. It is a totally different way of looking.’ For me, it was so exciting.” Needless to say, though it was not easy to do at the time, they remained in Canada.
Bi opened his own studio in 1992, painting portraits and commissions, as well as the fields, hills and mountains of Alberta in acrylics and oils. Over the years, he created dozens of murals in Alberta, including at the Edmonton International Airport—and sketched charcoal portraits of untold thousands at his booth at Edmonton’s Klondike Days and the Calgary Stampede.
Twenty years later, Bi moved to Richmond, and he now lives in White Rock. Moving to the coast inevitably had impacts on his art practice. In the past ten or so years, his compositions have loosened up considerably. Combining this tendency with his thorough understanding of colour, and its potential for expression and description, his landscape paintings have become documents of memory and geography—or rather, the memory of geography.
“A Rocky Beach” and “Fog at Moraine Lake” are both acrylic paintings; both convey the sense of space Bi learned to achieve from such a young age. However, the palette of the beach scene—dun-coloured sand, soft sky, steely waters and green shock of sea lettuce—is such that one can practically taste the salty mist. The lake scene plants the viewer squarely in the high, dry Rocky Mountain elevation, where the sharp blue sky is barely filtered through the thin air. What they have in common is an abundance of colour and an economy of technical information: The seaweed is a series of dashes; the deep glacial blue-green of Moraine Lake is expressed in a few dry-brushed lines.
"A Rocky Beach" 24 x 48 inches, acrylic on canvas
"Fog at Moraine Lake" 40 x 60 inches, acrylic on canvas
"West Winds" 36 x 48 inches, acrylic on canvas
"Cedar Grove" 48 x 48 inches, acrylic on canvas
“Every [piece] has to be a feeling,” he urges; “You have to have the ocean’s feeling.” It’s not just about impressionism, though; other art forms that contain worlds within a few marks are sources of admiration for Bi. A visit to Haida Gwaii left him with great admiration for the local Northwest Coast First Nations artworks. Of the totem poles and other work he saw, he says, “They are just really, really true. Nothing more is needed. You need less detail to give you the most thinking. It’s a very simple thing, but you know there are so many stories inside. That’s really high art.” In homage, he paints some landscape scenes containing totem poles (see this month’s cover).
Achieving this dichotomy, with information and mark in inverse proportion, takes time, thought—and sketching. Bi does work from photographs to a point, but “You don’t want to just follow the photograph, or you will lose something of the truth,” he argues. “Sketches give me the [memory] of the time I was outside, what I was really thinking. You look at the photo, then you do a lot of sketches to bring you back to that first feeling. Once you get that, you are getting close,” he says. “Close to the truth.”
“Coastal Reflections,” featuring new works by Bi Yuan Cheng, runs November 16—27 at The Avenue Gallery, with an Artist Reception on Saturday, November 18, 1-3pm. 2184 Oak Bay Ave. 250-598-2184, theavenuegallery.com.
Having lived in Calgary and attended the occasional Stampede, it is possible that it was Bi Yuan Cheng who Aaren Madden watched in fascination as he sketched his charcoal portraits.
UVic’s School of Music turns 50 with one of its first grads at the helm.
BACK IN THE 1960s, when the University of Victoria’s music program was in its infancy—and classroom space at a premium—there was a fortuitous juxtaposition of audio and visual, one that birthed a fundamentally collaborative community. The physical spaces may have improved and expanded, but the prevailing spirit of the place is one that supports cross-pollination of the disciplines, leading to the boosting of creative potential that launches graduates on paths toward fulfilment and success.
“When I was a student, we didn’t have a music building; we were at the end of the education building, right across the hall from the visual arts department,” says Christopher Butterfield, a composer, professor and current director of UVic’s School of Music. “We all hung out together; it always made me fond of an interdisciplinary approach.”
Christopher Butterfield (Photo by Ken Straiton)
Butterfield took his first classes in the music department in 1969, but recalls with a laugh, “I bombed completely—flunked out.” He went back a couple of years later, more prepared to participate in the new program. “It was kind of an amazing place; there were incredible teachers here, we did wonderful stuff. I remember the four years I spent as a student being a very happy time. I don’t think the school has fundamentally changed,” he says, even though enrolment in the department has nearly doubled, and ample classroom space allows for full encapsulation of the musicians and composers.
The journey that led Butterfield from cradle to captain of the University’s music department had both visual arts and musical components, but music was consistently the predominant expression of his own creative spirit. “When I was at school, I learned a lot about visual art, and hung out with a lot of artists—I married one at one point,” he laughs. “I think it’s important for people to know about other disciplines; they have a lot to teach a composer about form, time, structure. We need all the help we can get, so it’s useful to look at things outside music: architecture, poetry, film, cooking, whatever.”
Like many musicians of his generation, he started out in an atmosphere of fierce rigour and harsh exactitude—the polarity of the free-wheeling, “anything goes” 60s and 70s arts paradigm. When that openness was offered to him at UVic, it built on his foundation of solidly-won skills, and Butterfield is cogent of the fact that now, in the post-hippie digital age, some particular skills can’t be glossed over; they are essential to supporting the creative process.
“I teach first year composition, and have for 25 years. We don’t use computers; we use pencil and paper. It’s like drawing; it’s good to be able to draw from the subject and sketch, sometimes your pencil goes off in funny ways, you say, ‘I wouldn’t have done that if my hand hadn’t gone to sleep…’ You have to have some real knowledge of instruments in order to compose successfully, that’s what it boils down to. It’s not a matter of picking out any note and plunking it down; you have to get there from somewhere, and you have to leave there and go somewhere.”
Butterfield advises his composition students to “know the common sense of the instrument” they are writing for, and “what works and doesn’t work. The only way around that is to work with instruments, work with people, get them to show you things. Ask about range—can you get from here to there? It never ends, you never get to the end, figuring out what will work and what will not.”
UVic, Butterfield explains, is somewhat unique in being exactly the sort of place where composition students and student musicians can learn from each other this way, by working collaboratively—where composers can delve deep into how to play instruments, and musicians can have fresh opportunities to apply their artistry to new, exciting, creative work. “It’s always been part of the culture of the school that you can get your peers to play your pieces. That isn’t always the case in other [schools].…it’s something that contributes hugely to the spirit of the place. What the composers are writing can be pretty demanding and challenging, and the [student musicians] get right in there and do it.”
His students can trust that he knows whereof he speaks, since his credentials and successes have contributed to the arts far beyond the confines of UVic. His stage, chamber, vocal, and multimedia works have been performed across Europe and North America. He studied as a boy chorister with Sir David Willcocks at King’s College, Cambridge from 1961–66; earned his bachelor’s of music in composition with Rudolf Komorous at the University of Victoria; studied at the State University of New York; and co-founded a rock group and did performance art. He was resident composer of the Victoria Symphony from 1999 to 2002, and his works are recorded on the Artifact and CBC labels. In 1992, he was appointed assistant professor of composition at UVic, and in January of this year, became director of the UVic School of Music.
I ask if this recent ascendance to such an enormously significant leadership and administrative role has impacted his experience on campus. “To say it’s different would be an understatement,” Butterfield says wryly, but, “I have extraordinary people in my office. That’s the pleasure of it. In the administration end of things, they’re all way smarter than I am. They save my bacon daily.”
Part of agreeing to the director post was taking on the happy—but behemoth—task of coordinating of the School of Music’s 50th anniversary festivities. The musical programming aspect is clearly Butterfield’s “happy place,” and he is especially excited about the “big concert” scheduled for early December. “We thought we’d go to town on performing—have lots and lots of performances, mostly using alumni who we would bring in to do recitals and concerts, and that has worked really well,” he enthuses.
To celebrate their 50th anniversary, from December 1-3, the school will be having their first-ever reunion, and the December 2 Gala Concert evening’s scale is magnified by that context. Maestro Timothy Vernon will conduct the UVic Chorus & Orchestra in G. F. Handel’s Utrecht Te Deum, Hindemith’s Symphonic Metamorphosis, and Beethoven’s Coriolanus Overture. School of Music faculty pianist Arthur Rowe and trumpeter Merrie Klazek will appear as soloists in Shostakovich’s Piano Concerto No. 1 for Strings and Trumpet. “That’s a big show,” Butterfield comments. “It’s kind of exciting to have Tim here to do it with us…Tim’s in the amazing place of having this opera company [POV] for the last 25 years; it’s an amazing thing to have in a town like this.”
Butterfield's greatest satisfaction, he says, comes from seeing UVic graduates go on to shine. “I’m passionately interested in…what happens to students I might have taught here…It’s amazing what’s being done by people who used to go to school here.” To name just a few: Gordon Wolfe (BMus ’93) is Principal Trombonist with the Toronto Symphony Orchestra, and teaches the country’s top young brass players at the Glenn Gould School. Cassandra Miller (BMus ’05) is an artistic director, composer, and winner of the 2011 Jules-Léger Prize for New Chamber Music. Elsewhereless, a chamber opera composed by Rodney Sharman (BMus ’80) with libretto and direction by Atom Egoyan, has been staged over 35 times in several countries. A recent facebook page set up for alumni got inundated with positive recollections naming the specific qualities of collaboration, connection, and community that Butterfield himself revelled in as a student—and continues to foster as an instructor and school director. “[This school] seems to generate its own community,” he says. “People are definitely part of the thing in a larger way than just coming to classes.”
UVic Chorus & Orchestra Gala Concert, December 2, 8pm, Farquhar Auditorium, UVic. Cake reception follows. $10 for alumni (ONECard required), $25 regular, $20 seniors, $10 students. www.finearts.uvic.ca/music or 250-721-8480.
Victoria writer and musician Mollie Kaye enjoys collaboration and community-building as the soprano voice in The Millies, an a capella vocal trio.
Pacific Opera brings two completely unique operas about past and current chapters in the Canadian story.
IN NOVEMBER, Pacific Opera Victoria (POV) is presenting two brand-new Canadian operas: Rattenbury, by local composer/librettist Tobin Stokes, and Missing by Toronto composer Brian Current (with libretto by Vancouver playwright Marie Clements).
I was interested to hear what the artists involved in these projects had to say about how each one was developed, what some of the challenges were in bringing them to the stage, and what they hope audiences will take away from the experience. With the help of POV’s publicist Heather Jeliazkov, I was able to get emailed responses to my questions. Below is a constructed interview based on what I received from POV Artistic Director Timothy Vernon (TV), Tobin Stokes (TS), Brian Current (BC) and Marie Clements (MC). It would have been impossible to have had all these extremely busy people in the room at the same time. I am grateful to each of them for taking the time to send me their thoughts.
Left to right: Timothy Vernon, Marie Clements, Tobin Stokes, Brian Current
MP: Let’s begin with Rattenbury, about prominent British and Victoria architect Francis Rattenbury, who built both the Empress Hotel and our provincial Parliament Buildings. As most here will know, Rattenbury came to a scandalous end, killed by his wife Alma’s teenage lover, their chauffeur. Timothy, what can you tell us about the inception and development of this piece?
TV: POV has not been directly involved in this production, but functions as presenter. Rattenbury’s life could easily provide the fodder for a few opera projects, with varying emphases and points of view. Tobin has chosen, wisely I think, an episodic treatment. Before he began, I had dreamt of an opera with the Empress and Parliament buildings as singing characters, and the use of some of the songs Alma wrote for her club/cabaret appearances…also, of course, the bludgeoning on stage…
TS: I became interested in exploring Rattenbury’s story as an opera about ten years ago. An opportunity came when The Other Guys Theatre Company received a grant from the City as part of Victoria’s birthday celebration a few years ago. I began some of the libretto and music, and we presented that with Kathleen Brett and Richard Margison singing the lead roles as a concert event at the Empress Ballroom.
Then I entered a 12-minute teaser version, pared down to four singers, into a competition at the King’s Head Theatre in London. While we didn’t win the competition, the audience was very enthusiastic, and the theatre’s management urged me to carry on.
MP: Tobin, what have been one or two of the biggest challenges you’ve faced in the creative process?
TS: I realized the story I could tell was less large-style about Rattenbury’s entire life, his grand facades, and failed business dealings, and more about how his ambition, left unchecked, got the best of him. I realized the intimacy offered by using just four singers: this puts the audience close, like they were a jury in a court case. The result is more visceral I think, while the themes I’m exploring have a universal relevance.
MP: What do you each hope audiences may take away from seeing the opera?
TV: I think a renewed interest in earlier Victoria history (we are still living in his buildings) could be forthcoming. Such treatments also tend to “classicize” artistic and civic achievements—a good thing in view of the City’s propensity for tearing down the past.
TS: While most of the audience probably knows the story of Rattenbury already, they may not be aware of many of the details and intrigue that unfolded. But the story isn’t just about an event that happened once upon a time, it’s about youth, love, and addiction. Opera communicates emotion, and there is a whole lot to get emotional about in this story. I enjoy giving great voices a chance to shine and I hope I’ve delivered that here. I’ve let the innocent popular music of the 1930s seep into the score, while digging deep into ambition, guilt, and legacy.
MP: Let’s turn our attention to Missing. Timothy, how did this project unfold?
TV: The initiative came from City Opera Vancouver, who commissioned the well-known Métis theatre and film artist and author Marie Clements to write a libretto treating the fate of women and girls who have disappeared, or been found murdered, on BC’s “Highway of Tears.” POV was then invited into a co-production arrangement, and participated actively in the choice of composer Brian Current, and in the casting, and exclusively in the choice of Timothy Long, the only Indigenous conductor in North America with serious and extensive opera experience.
MP: So Marie, your writing is the basis of this project. How did that come about?
MC: I was asked to submit a treatment, a synopsis of a proposed story line, and they accepted this and I began to write. I worked on a first draft, and then worked through it with dramaturge Paula Danckert and rewrote to second draft. We then went into a script workshop with actors, and I revised and wrote a third draft which was sent to composer Brian Current. He began his composition and we then had a workshop where the words and music were brought together with a room full of singers.
MP: And what about for you, Brian?
BC: Marie was recommended by Tomson Highway, which turned out to be a wonderful choice. Her text for the opera is extraordinary. Once the libretto was written, they commissioned four composers to anonymously submit a couple scenes, which were presented to a jury who did not know who they were listening to, and made a choice from there. So I was brought in relatively late in the process. It has been a remarkable process working with Marie, who I believe is a major talent.
MP: Given the subject material, what have some of the challenges been throughout the development phase of “Missing”?
TV: The libretto stipulates four native and four non-native singers. At a time when sensitivities are flaring around appropriate casting, we felt it important to find indigenous singers for the native characters, which added a layer to the usual challenges.
MC: I think we were very aware of the gravity of the story. Not just the creative challenge of bringing the story to life, but that this story does not live in the past. It is very relevant today.
BC: There is much text in the opera sung in Gitxsan (the beautiful language spoken by Indigenous groups up the BC coast and along the Highway of Tears), as well as the depiction of some drumming and a traditional wedding scene. These aspects had to be handled with absolute respect. From the beginning this has always been about “appreciating” Indigenous traditions and not “appropriating” them, which is surprisingly easy to do if we are not vigilant, and would be yet another example of the broader population taking from the Indigenous community. Being very mindful of this, we worked closely with native Gitxsan speakers in both Victoria and Vancouver. The real hero of this piece is Vince Gogag of Vancouver, who did the translation of the Gitxsan text and has been helping with pronunciation throughout. All the rhythms and nuances of the language are intact, so the piece also acts as an effort in language preservation.
For the drumming, we collaborated with our Indigenous collaborators to make sure that there were no traditional rules that we were unknowingly breaking as to who could hold the drums and how. Only Indigenous members of the cast will be drumming in the show.
Finally, for the wedding scene, the text was written by Vince and the music was constructed, with his permission, from recordings of his grandfather singing traditional songs. We wanted to just get out of the way and give Vince’s community the stage for that scene.
MP: What do each of you hope the audience for “Missing” takes home after seeing it?
TV: We hope, modestly, that the portrayal of the suffering endured by the Indigenous community will provide a cathartic moment, and help them feel that the settlers around them are beginning to understand. For the non-Indigenous audience, we hope that the deeply moving story of those who have suffered—as victims and survivors —will have a jolting effect, and help them to realize the terrible urgency of reconciliation and an attempt at reparation, however late and inadequate.
BC: The story of the missing and murdered Indigenous women of Canada must be told immediately. It is an unspeakable tragedy for our nation that is still largely, and unconscionably, invisible to the wider public. It’s getting lost in the wash of the 24-hour news cycle. 1250 women. Imagine if 1250 non-Aboriginal women disappeared all at once from Ottawa or Quebec City or Victoria. There would be an urgent and international outcry. Our goal in writing this piece is to humanize these women and their families and to show that each and every one of these missing women is deserving of our heartbroken attention. Each death is really one hundred deaths, as it affects all those who have loved and cherished the victim.
MC: I hope that audiences understand that the issue of missing and murdered women in this country is not an Indigenous issue. It is a human issue which we are all accountable to. I also hope the story of “Missing” can bring audiences together by unifying our voices.
Both operas will be performed in November at POV’s Baumann Centre. For more information, go to www.pov.bc.ca.
Monica Prendergast reviews theatre for CBC Radio Victoria’s On the Island. She will be appearing in Langham Court Theatre’s production of Les Belles Soeurs by Québécois playwright Michel Tremblay (Nov 15 to Dec 2).
In his new book, award-winning writer Tim Lilburn begins the process of “personal decolonization.”
HOW WOULD YOU ANSWER THE SEEMINGLY SIMPLE QUESTION: Where are you? Not the political construct of municipal boundaries or overlaid names from colonial mapmakers, but the land under your feet—where are you? How do you meet it, belong to it, and why does that matter?
Tim Lilburn has been wrestling with such questions in his writing, his classrooms, and his heart for decades. In his new book of essays, The Larger Conversation: Contemplation and Place (University of Alberta Press, October 2017), he continues his search by zoning in on the issue as it particularly confronts descendants of European settlers: How to be here and, as he writes, “What does justice ask of us?”
An award-winning poet, philosopher, creative writing teacher, editor, and former Jesuit and CUSO worker, Lilburn is an existential and intellectual explorer who keeps coming back to ideas of home. Born in Regina and attached to the landscapes of Saskatchewan—evident in poetry collections like Moosewood Sandhills and To the River—his transplantation to Victoria was difficult. He felt like he was bouncing off of things in unfamiliar territory. But no matter where he’s been in his life, his sense of being “unmoored” has rooted his research and thought as he walks the long interior path of trying to understand, and seeking nourishment to appease, a deep hunger and sense of loneliness for place.
The Larger Conversation picks up threads from his two previous books of essays—Going Home (2008) and Living in the World as if It Were Home (1999). But this new volume adds Lilburn’s relatively recent insight into how his malaise, his feeling unsure of how to be at home where he is, is related to colonialism and the worldview that drives it. Therefore, as he writes in the introduction, “This book represents a ragged beginning at a personal attempt at decolonization” which aims to dig underneath the foundations of imperialist thinking. It’s a process he calls “psychic archaeology.” This personal renovation, he says, is necessary work.
In a series of essays, lectures, confessions, and interviews, all based on years of reading and research, Lilburn shares not new but old, reclaimed ways of thinking—long-ignored riches from the Christian, Judaic and Islamic contemplative wisdom traditions in thinkers like Plato, Ibn ’Arabi, Julian of Norwich, Marguerite Porete, Suhrawardi, 14th-century Flemish mystic John Ruusbroec, and more. Their phenomenologies are based on the kind of interior practice that results in what Lilburn calls “a feasting attention.” Values of courtesy, humility, and permeability can help him, and us, lay groundwork for a meaningful relationship to place that is the wellspring of ethics—ethics reaching beyond the individual self.
It is fitting that on October 10, Lilburn was awarded The European Medal of Poetry and Art, also known as the Homer Medal, whose jury considers artists whose works offer “a universal message to the world, close to the ancient patterns.”
Over coffee on a sunny Friday afternoon, Lilburn soft-spokenly yet passionately explains that for him, philosophy, which grounds politics, is interior practice. “I have a deep personal—as opposed to professional—interest in this. I feel that these folks can help me. It’s not like a hobby. It’s a fighting for air, fighting for intellectual and interior air.”
As a result, this book is more personal than his previous essay collections, and he opens up about his own difficulties and despairs, as well as transformative non-rational experiences of beauty that cast doubt on an ultimately deficient Cartesian system which he calls “the starvation rations of a brutally literal single-ply empiricism.”
He’s seen that other people are desperate, too, and has recognized a similar hunger in seekers also “floating above land,” as he says, in late-capitalist modernity. “I’ve been long convinced that there is not enough in the culture, as it’s narrowly and usually construed today, to support a deep interior life,” he tells me. “There’s no grounding in wisdom that our culture provides. We live in the midst of this lack. It’s become normalized for us. We tolerate it to the point that we forget that it actually exists.”
The book is one not just of renovation but retrieval. In order to undo the Western extractive, colonial approach to land—one that uses, warehouses, and dominates—we have to return to our former strengths, what Lilburn calls “cognitive rebar.” “Primarily,” he says, “what we lost was a valuing of, and our capacity to practice within, a contemplative discipline. It’s as simple as that, really. There are stories, belief systems and spiritual exercises all around it, but that’s the core. It doesn’t matter what your background is.”
I’m not going to lie: Lilburn’s book is a hard read. Sometimes I felt lost. Often I felt dumb when hitting phrases like “tesseraic understanding,” “sacerdotal ascesis,” or flipping to the glossary or reaching for my dictionary for terms like apokatastasis, haecceity, phronesis, anachoresis. “But then,” Lilburn laughs with delight, “you realize a word isn’t even in the dictionary!”
Lilburn has a quiet but impish sense of humour, and he’s keenly aware that some readers will see the book as too scholarly or too dense, despite his protestation “I’m not a scholar. I’m just a panic-stricken individual who has a library card.” My own master’s thesis focused on poetry in the eremitic tradition, meaning I could hear the faint ring of a few bells as I went. Yet, I confess I almost gave up several times. But I’m glad I didn’t. Abrasive as the process could be, it peels you. And this is precisely what’s needed. The more I persevered, the more I realized how little I’d critically examined my own inherited Eurocentric culture. I can tell many of the myths surrounding our names for planets and constellations, but how many native species can I identify in my Fairfield backyard? Where exactly am I?
“This kind of disorientation that you experienced is not wasted time,” Lilburn affirms after my confessions of difficulty. “This is an important contemplative moment, this kind of rearranging of the intellectual molecules.” I’m glad I ultimately gave up only on the dictionary, and started trusting the text to give me what I needed, trusting myself to rise up to meet it. I became attentive, humble, permeable. And it became a conversation.
The book brings a sense of urgency, set against the backdrop of climate change and of this past strangely-twinned “Year of Reconciliation” and “Canada 150” celebrations. What Lilburn shows us is that the settler side has a long way to go to get its philosophical (interior practice) house in order if we want to come to the table meaningfully in terms of the land and those we share it with.
“This retrieval will be helpful,” he says. “It will give us a set of interior skills, capacities. This book is interested in the possibility of a new start, a new epistemological start for Europeans here that includes the possibility of spiritually deep conversations with First Nations.” What justice asks of us is that we do the work to prepare for conversation.
Writer and editor Amy Reiswig is grateful for every moment of being able to call this place home and will approach it and its people with deeper attention and listening every day.
A ceremonial trip into grizzly territory with the Kitlope’s elder watchmen.
IT'S 6 AM AT THE DOCK IN KITAMAAT VILLAGE. The spiders are busy weaving their last webs around the dock lights before the winter storms catch up with them. It’s drizzling and the morning light is just beginning to creep under the blanket of cloud. Cecil Paul, Waxaid, a Xenaksiala elder, clambers aboard the fish boat despite his recent broken foot and an illness that has reduced his solid frame to a lean one. He looks more like a young grizzly in March than the grandfather bear that he should be at the end of salmon season.
Next to board is Gerald Amos, Haisla elder, who also shows a surprising agility, given his recent cardiac arrest from extreme sepsis that robbed him of much of his mobility and his famous oration skills.
The two men, with family and friends, are taking their friend, Bruce Hill, back to the Kitlope where their work together on a coastal grizzly moratorium first began over 25 years ago. The voyage was originally planned to unite the three of them in a last trip to Qos Lake. Bruce Hill’s cancer overtook him, so they are taking their friend’s ashes in a glass jar to Qos to be watched over by Paul’s ancestors. Otherwise known as Kitlope Lake, Qos translates to sanctuary, or cathedral, in Paul’s Xenaksiala language.
Bruce Hill, telling a story
Hill died on September 18, 2017, one month after the grizzly bear trophy hunt was banned in the Great Bear Rainforest. It’s a fitting tribute to a man who, to quote Paul, “put his power saw away and came aboard the canoe.” Paul is referring to what he calls the supernatural canoe that he launched with Amos and his sister, Louisa Smith, in 1990 to guide the protection of the largest intact temperate rainforest in the world—the Kitlope or Huchsduwachsdu. The metaphor of the supernatural canoe captured the idea that no matter who came to save the Kitlope, there was always room for them.
Bruce Hill, a one-time logger, sawmill operator and sport fisher guide was one of the first non-native people to turn up to help the Haisla—an unlikely ally being a “hippy ex-logger,” as Hill described himself. The Kitlope Agreement that established the Huchsduwachsdu Nuyem Jees/Kitlope Heritage Conservancy was eventually forged with the provincial government in 1996, the genesis for the later Great Bear Rainforest Agreement. It followed a ban on grizzly bear trophy-hunting, which was the forerunner to the ban in the whole Great Bear that is in place today.
In the late 1980s, the impetus for the grizzly bear moratorium started with the elders, people like the late hereditary Chief Kenny Hall, coming to the Kitamaat Village Council with reports that the grizzlies of the Kitlope were disappearing due to trophy-hunting and poaching. Grizzlies are considered the guardians of the forest, so the Haisla started training band members as guardian watchmen to monitor and enforce the protection and stewardship of their Kitlope territory. They also started a children’s rediscovery camp, introducing a new generation to culture and science and providing hope for a community in crisis. The programs were run under the banner of the Nanakila Institute, which was the brainchild of the Haisla, along with Ecotrust, a group that joined the magic canoe early on. Nanakila Institute invited Hill to be its first executive director.
A tipping point came very early on when Paul was with a group of children from the rediscovery camp. A grizzly-hunting guide, angered at the presence of children in prime grizzly area, threatened to shoot through the kids if a grizzly was there. Hill brought a deep understanding of how the trophy-hunting lobby and resource industries thought and worked. He helped point out that the Wildlife Branch had no capacity to accurately count the grizzlies in this huge remote watershed, monitor for poaching, or enforce regulations. Hill and the Haisla argued that, given so many unknowns, the grizzly quota, according to their scientific habitat modelling, should be brought down to zero.
The next strategic step of the Nanakila Institute was to generate its own data by hiring independent wildlife biologists to do an inventory, with the Haisla watchmen to help. The inventory was the final bit of evidence that convinced the government to ban trophy hunting in the Kitlope, which met with international support on one hand, and threats of litigation from the trophy hunting lobby on the other.
The Kitlope was one of the first places in BC to have trophy-hunting banned, and it helped precipitate the first-ever provincial grizzly management strategy. Hill, Amos and Paul continued to work for the protection of indigenous culture and the land, welcoming a growing community of British Columbians who stepped into the canoe to join them. The fledgling watchmen program has since spread to the Coastal Guardian Watchmen Network, an alliance of the coastal First Nations, one of the big success stories of the coast.
Bruce Hill went on to help in every major campaign in northwestern BC from the Sacred Headwaters of the Skeena (the river he lived beside), the Nass and the Stikine, to Lelu Island. His obituary describes his ability to “foster unstoppable alliances between First Nations and non-indigenous conservationists.” Those alliances were formed in the magic canoe that Paul attributes to the teachings of his granny and matriarch of the Xenaksiala people, Annie Paul, born in the Kitlope in 1870. She lived to the age of 96 and weathered every arrow that came her way, from influenza to tuberculosis, and her grandchildren being taken away to residential school.
IT'S AT THE VERY PLACE WHERE ANNIE'S GRANDSON CECIL PAUL was abducted in 1941 by government representatives that Amos, Paul and I arrive in our boat at dusk: the old village of M’skusa, at the mouth of the Kitlope River. At M’skusa is a replica of the Gps’golox pole, from which a supernatural grizzly bear looks over us as we load everyone into a smaller boat to get up the river to the watchman cabin before dark. The original pole was carved when Chief Gps’golox lost all his children and many members of his clan to smallpox, which was brought by white traders in 1863. Cecil Paul’s great grandfather was one of the carvers. As we trade boats, a real grizzly stands up close to the pole to see who has arrived in the estuary, and his well-beaten stomp trail around the pole marks his territory in the estuary. Diggings for rice root and browsed sedges are everywhere.
The next morning, we travel the rest of the way up the Kitlope River in the smaller boat, layered up in wool and rubber raingear. Getting to the lake, Qos, is never guaranteed; the channels shift and get blocked with huge spruce trees and debris during seasonal floods. In Xenaksiala there is a word for the person who steers the canoe, dla laxii layewy. To be a true steersman requires skill and judgement.
We come round the huge granite cliffs, cloaked in mist, that form a portal where the vista opens up to a lake flanked by ice-capped mountains that plunge into the milky blue water. We get to one of the old village sites that has a fine golden sand beach and unload the precious cargo.
A fire and lunch are prepared, and then Paul begins the ceremony to ask his ancestors to welcome his brother, Bruce Hill, back to the Kitlope and watch over him. Paul is the last male fluent speaker of his language; his two sisters and a cousin are the last three fluent matriarchs. His beautiful language floats out over the lake like birdsong.
Paul asked his ancestors for a sign that they will welcome a non-Xenaksiala man to the valley, and at that moment the skies parted, a beam of light lit up the group, and a rainbow appeared. A red-necked grebe swam by too, the last little joke from Bruce Hill that there is room for everyone, even rednecks, in this canoe.
The ban on the grizzly trophy hunt will generate much more than many of us will ever understand. It is part of the process of reconciliation for culture, nature, the survival of humanity and rich ideas—beautiful ideas that will continue to help us all get in the canoe and paddle together with skill and judgement through the troubled waters of our time.
Donations can be made in Bruce Hill’s honour to the SkeenaWild Conservation Trust for a bursary that will be used to provide leadership training to young conservation activists in the community. SkeenaWild.org. The new grizzly ban in the rest of BC excludes grizzlies hunted for meat. Consultations are being carried out with the Haisla, other First Nations and other stakeholders like Raincoast Conservation Foundation, which bought up coastal guide outfitting licenses to stop the hunt.
Briony Penn’s most recent book The Real Thing: The Natural History of Ian McTaggart Cowan won the Roderick Haig-Brown Regional Prize and the inaugural Mack Laing Literary Prize.
JAMES KUNSTLER, social critic and author, writes that “Narratives are not truths.” It’s his point that manufactured good news and progress “selfies” from government, often amplified by ideological advocates or benefitting private interests, merge with lazy social agreement and public habits of passivity or indifference to produce fictions that stand in for reality.
Once in place, these fictions require energy to dispel or refute; exhaust critical assets and blunt activism; and frustrate common-sense understanding and response. After all, if fiction and fact—somebody’s story about reality, and reality—are simply “competing perspectives” deserving equal consideration, then reality’s compelling claim is diminished, and decisions and plans are likely to be made on shaky credentials. Current conditions can be read (and, worryingly, the future projected) in just this way.
Yes, it’s tempting to make Trump “Exhibit A,” but let me localize Kunstler’s thinking. I live beside Beacon Hill Park and spend a lot of time tramping the park’s contoured landscape. I can attest to the more or less “tent city” numbers of homeless dispersed throughout the park, particularly in more clement seasons, and the “rush hour” of campers and floppers leaving the lawns, meadows and groves in the morning, heading, presumably, for breakfast with Reverend Al, or at Our Place, or to begin a day of…whatever.
Some denizens, un-tempted by the breakfast commute, and inventive enough to end-run the formal terms of the City’s no-daytime-camping rule, have made more or less permanent homes in various copses, forested side-paths and corners of the park.
City parks staff, understandably uncomfortable with the potential for direct encounter, have told me that they don’t feel completely safe in certain parts of the park, especially when working solo. I understand why they might feel that way, and I’m also sympathetic that current budgets or deployments appear not to allow for the thorough pickup of a widely scattered dumpster’s-worth of daily leave-behinds.
The coded violence, if I can put it that way, of discarded needles and other drug gear (staggering amounts), human excrement, tossed food packaging and camping crud, clothing, cardboard ground cover, bloody bandages, shopping carts, remnant objects, and the embedded humans themselves can be found throughout. The conditions of living rough diminish the park’s painterly, paradisiacal landscapes. They change the park experience, compromise its confected arcadian design, and force guardedness in any park user with eyeballs and a brain.
But in spite of the fact that parts of the park sometimes look and vibe like the opening scene of a zombie movie, the public, fed some mumbo-jumbo by the City about assiduous bylaw enforcement and police oversight (both, though well-intentioned, are spotty and largely ineffective), is advised it needn’t fear. And if you step in a napkin-festooned “crap sandwich” while rambling, well, that’s just part of the park experience, isn’t it?
Whistle along with me:
In their own way….
The wonder in all of this is surprise from any quarter that such conditions have materialized. What did the City—what did anyone—think would happen when large numbers of people at the margins, with limited material, emotional or transactional wherewithal (along with bad habits and bad attitudes, in some cases) were charged by society with their own shelter, well-being and survival, and were treated like outsiders, symbolically and literally? Don’t they write textbooks about stuff like this?
The park tents, sleeping bags, shopping carts, tarps and piles of camper crap, plus the homeless crashed all over Downtown’s streets do not exactly shout “civic triumph” for Victoria, city or region. But there it is, so we have to ask how did this current state of things—to be clear, I’m referring to homelessness itself, not the “cosmetic” impacts—work its way inside the porous and elastic definition of “socially acceptable” here in Victoria?
This is not how to operate a city, especially in these times. We are at, if I can use an un-patented phrase, one of history’s corner-points: a time when both conventional social practice, and the sensibilities undergirding it, are facing assault (political, cultural, economic); and no, the new Downtown bike lanes are not a for-instance. As someone with a talent for brevity has noted: the future doesn’t come with a guarantee.
I believe the changes coming our way—not in some tomorrowland, but soon—call for recognition and preparation, and I believe the word “survivability” nicely defines the stakes. I invite you to meditate on the state of things in 2040, when half the current jobs have been transferred to AI and robotics, the economy has been turned upside down, and a lot of people have too much free time.
Yes, I’m a hysteric; and no, I don’t want to debate this future with you. It’s my immediate point that even leaving aside the familiar litany of legitimate hand-wringer concerns about the homeless, continued homelessness is a social failure time-bomb whose impacts are guaranteed to diminish the city’s character and identity, and these can materialize with unexpected speed. There is an exhaustive literature about cities that squander and never regain character and composure as a consequence of under-responding to some critical social problem or need and, through the very act of procrastination, unwittingly help to author its messy, hyperbolic climax. Remember the recent tent city on Burdett and Quadra? Such conditions and outcomes are corrosive; social animus is corrosive: cities lose their souls.
VICTORIA'S APPEALING IMAGE in a jumpy world and its high marks with visitors (the money, honey) are based on its ability to convey an authentic, lovely, gentle yesteryear-tinged social health and stability, a coherent sense of urban community and continuity, a place where memory and an entire set of social principles and conventions still guide human actions. The key word above is “authentic.”
Jennifer Senior, in a May, 2016 review of Sebastian Junger’s Tribe, a book concerned with the conditions that foster social belonging, writes: “It’s not just that our personal loyalties have shrunk to a universe the size of a teacup (family, a handful of friends). It’s that we have so little regard for what’s collectively ours.” Senior’s concern is highly relevant to local identity as we nervously balance, these days, in the narrow psychic space between a large Victoria and a small Vancouver, and especially as Chamber types are braying for a one-city regionalism guaranteed to intensify placelessness, reduce and abstract cultural memory, and further hobble the skills, responsibilities and arts of localism, of community.
Our current municipal and regional entities demonstrate a brilliant competence (I stretch a point to make a point) in future-planning when it comes to urban systems, but the local m.o. with homelessness is to wait until there’s a near-crisis, then stitch together the minimum resources necessary, altogether ensuring that we do the worst job, take the longest possible time, achieve minimum outcome, and provide maximum pain and continued social risk for everyone. All in favour?
Maybe spending authorities believe that “current economic conditions” and “spending priorities” (phrases that should always land with a here-comes-horseshit warning flag) don’t allow for a commitment adequate to ensure the shelter of all. But we’re spending, through emergency services and other ad hoc social management responses, dollars equivalent to or greater than the costs of permanent housing; not to mention real social and reputational costs. But don’t let that cloud your judgment.
(I pause here to express appreciation for the extraordinary efforts of the region’s many values-driven housing and social services organizations and individuals. This saintly crowd does what it can with what it’s given, and we owe them our gratitude...and a much larger budget.)
Maybe we assume that the ubiquitous “they”—the Department of This, or the Office of That—are looking after housing and social management of the homeless: a classic example of “everywhere, elsewhere.” Maybe, in spite of fatuous Canadian chest-thumping, we are—courtesy of darkening geopolitics, worrying economy and growing social insecurity—turning, or returning, to a Dickensian playbook. Maybe, nuanced apologetics aside, we just don’t give a shit. I mean, Victoria, in spite of all efforts at camouflage, is part of a hardening world. You can feel it in the air: a strong tang of devil-take-the-hindmost.
Ironically, we might best achieve homeless housing outcomes if there were a Department of This, adequately funded and charged with the provision and maintenance of homeless housing and services; that is, remove it from the moral landscape and just put it on the to-do list, like pothole repair.
Identity, municipal “story,” if I can use such a term for community, is a fragile thing. We need always to be careful that what pushes us into the future doesn’t push us out of the past—which is to say, social memory.
Historian Barbara Tuchman suggests: “Social systems can survive a good deal of folly when circumstances are historically favorable or when bungling is cushioned by large resources or absorbed by sheer size. Today, when there are no more cushions, folly is less affordable.”
Founder of Open Space and co-founder of Monday Magazine, Gene Miller and has launched, with partner Rob Abbott, the website FUTURETENSE: Robotics, AI, and the Future of Work.
Peter McCully and his volunteer team are passionate about their work with the Goldstream Hatchery.
WHEN I ARRIVE AT THE FIRST SET OF GATES to the Goldstream Howard English Salmon Hatchery, weekly volunteer Steve Atamanchuk greets me with a wave and sets upon me with a dry sense of humour that pushes away the cobwebs of the morning. “Yup, I’m a volunteer here. Last year they offered me a 20 percent raise. I told them not to give me so much.”
Atamanchuk is part of the “Tuesday Crew,” comprised of six retirees from the ranks of over 20,000 volunteers that work province-wide six days a week to restore habitat and run salmon hatchery programs. Atamanchuk and his cohorts are coordinated by Peter McCully, Technical Advisor, part-time contractor and volunteer with the Goldstream Salmonoid Enhancement Association, located at the Goldstream Hatchery, in the Greater Victoria Water District lands. “Teachers, engineers, posties, geologists, journeymen, ex-military; the membership is eclectic at best,” says McCully. The only thing they’re missing, he rues, is more young people. Atamanchuk, his voice full of respect, whispers McCully’s own background to me. McCully served with the Royal Canadian Navy for 25 years before retiring. He went back to school, finished his biology degree, and returned to the river he first visited during spawning season in 1949 with his father, who took him to see the magic of the run.
This summer, McCully and his cluster of volunteers learned that the Goldstream’s education program, which allows school children to learn about salmon lifecycles and help incubate salmon eggs, was due to be cut. Countless volunteers and non-profits rose up to protect the outreach programs, which are part of the Department of Fisheries and Oceans’ (DFO) education, stewardship and salmon enhancement programs. If the cuts had gone through (the activists won, this year), they would have saved the Federal government a mere $400,000. The costs, argue many, would have been immeasurable.
Peter McCully (Photo by Tony Bounsall)
McCully’s history as a uniformed serviceman seems incongruent with his gentle demeanor and incredible attachment to the natural world. While driving through the various locked gates that lead to the hatchery, he tells me of a conversation he had earlier that morning with a giant black beetle. To his amusement, a couple of park rangers hiking the Trans Canada Trail caught him bending over the road, asking the beetle how its day was going. “I believe everything can communicate on some plane,” he laughs, and gets out to open another gate in the watershed lands. “This keeps me young!”
The Goldstream River cuts through the mostly pristine wilderness of the Greater Victoria Watershed Lands and Goldstream Provincial Park before emptying into Finlayson Arm, south of Saanich Inlet. Few invasive species grace its banks (though some yellow perch and bullfrogs have infiltrated), making it an ideal spawning habitat for five species of salmon, including prolific Chum and the many Coho. The hatchery program, BC’s largest, includes fish counting, a school education program, and the hatchery itself. Over 100 incubators currently operate in school classrooms around the region, nurturing salmon eggs into fry, which are released after 18 months into Goldstream River, Colquitz River and other salmon-bearing streams.
“It’s almost laughable, the cutbacks to DFO in recent years,” says McCully. “Without volunteers to do citizen science, we’d be in sad shape.” With the recent escape of Atlantic salmon into West Coast waters, and continued concerns about open-net fish farms, watershed contamination, and pipeline construction, volunteer work at the Goldstream Hatchery is as pertinent as it was in 1971, when Howard English, a local outdoorsman, began streamside incubation of salmon eggs after noticing declining salmon stocks. Funding was secured for the rearing of salmon, habitat enhancement, and public education in 1977 from the DFO.
Last September 19, the Tuesday Crew and volunteers from Stantec Engineering assembled a Japanese floating weir on the Goldstream River, just east of the hatchery. The weir is a removable fish fence that gets installed every September in advance of the fall salmon spawn. Originally, salmon were supposed to be corralled by the weir and driven naturally into a counting fence at the river’s edge. But, as McCully tells me, “Coho are tricky!” They didn’t use the fence. So now, volunteers in hip waders lift the floats and dip the salmon out along the wide expanse of the fence. They are sorted by species, gender and by whether they are hatchery or wild born. Hatchery fish have their adipose fins removed. Some fish are then selected for brood stock, and taken to the hatchery to collect their eggs and milk. The rest are returned to the river, where they travel back to the exact place they were born, spawning before they die. “It’s a magical part of the food chain,” says McCully, gleefully, watching his volunteers nudge sections of the floating weir into place.
The Tuesday crew seem just as pleased to shoulder their work with enthusiasm. At the hatchery, the cookies (and the Lamb’s mickey) I spotted at 8:00 a.m. disappear from the lunchroom within the hour. An endless pot of coffee sits warm on its element, and despite the rain, the goofiness of the crew is contagious.
The fall spawn won’t mark the end of the volunteers’ work. In January, McCully tells me, comes the fun part: the Carcass Toss and the Mark Recovery project. “It’s miserable work,” he says, grinning. To complete the Mark Recovery, volunteers walk the river, noting any Coho marked by a hole punched in their gill cover. Data provides a sense of how many hatchery and wild fish are returning. During the Carcass Toss, volunteers of all ages deposit dead fish into nearby waters, like Douglas Creek, in Mount Douglas Park. “Our rivers are low in nutrients on their own,” explains McCully. “Without these fish coming in, it would be a lot poorer environment. Wonderful fish!”
“He’s an incredible teacher,” confirms Dorothy Chambers, who volunteers on the Colquitz River salmon count and whose own work on salmon enhancement on the Colquitz River Focus covered in October 2015. “He’s been my mentor for years.”
McCully doesn’t see the hatchery program ever becoming superfluous, in part due to increasing population numbers in urban area, and in part due to our insatiable appetite for seafood. “You can have wild salmon, but you won’t be able to enjoy a harvest without artificially enhancing them,” he says.
McCully seems resigned to open-net aquaculture techniques like those which resulted in an escape of thousands of farmed Atlantic salmon this summer. “In an ideal world, I wouldn’t be a booster of aquaculture. But if you want to enjoy seafood, then you have to have it. I don’t think we should be commercially harvesting our wild salmon. That’s my personal opinion.” McCully argues that Pacific salmon are much more aggressive than Atlantic salmon species. They outcompete in streams and don’t interbreed with Pacific wild species, thus posing less of a risk than some believe. (Biologist Alexandra Morton, for instance, cites piscine reovirus and sea lice as just two of the long list of reasons Atlantic salmon don’t belong in open-net pens. In late September, after a large escape from a fish farm, the City of Victoria Council passed an emergency resolution calling for an end to open-net fish farms in BC.)
Thanks to pushback from local environmentalists and educators, McCully’s contract at the Goldstream Hatchery will continue for another year, and 35,000 BC school children will keep learning about salmon lifecycles through the incubation boxes provided to their classrooms.
“This is a resource centre for many things beyond fish,” stresses McCully, citing research on the migratory habits of Rufus Hummingbirds and DNA testing of local waters. But salmon, for McCully, are the most beautiful of all. “If you don’t imbue in the children a sense of stewardship and the importance of this marvellous creature, you’re dead in the water.”
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.
We can recycle nearly everything. We still need to buy less stuff.
THE RECYCLING PRIMER I STARTED in the last issue of of Focus continues here, just in time for the festive season, when the garbage bin with its wide-open maw is all too easily mustered for clean-up after jolly holiday times. Last time I synopsized the recycling industry in BC and examined the journeys and destinations of our Blue Box contents; this time, I’ll explore what else can be recycled, and how and in what form some of these materials resurface.
What quickly becomes obvious is that most of what once was garbage no longer is. Indeed, the old garbage bin could well get lonely in our parts. The BC recycling industry is growing exponentially, intently mining our urban landscape for used or “recovered” resources. Just about every castoff can now be turned in for transformation into new and valuable goods. There’s a cost involved, of course, but it’s far less than the monetary and environmental costs of new products made of virgin resources. Add to that the heavy financial and carbon footprints of unfettered garbage collection and storage, and you begin to see at least some sustainability in recycling.
Trying to feature every recyclable item in this short piece would be like trying to play cards with an entire deck fanned out in one hand. Suffice it to say that the CRD’s online My Recyclopedia is your roadmap for steering everything, from aerosol containers to zinc, away from the landfill.
Here’s what happens to some of these commodities: The old tires your dealer recycles for you go to Delta—either to Lehigh Northwest Cement as a fuel supplement, or to Western Rubber Products for grinding into crumb rubber for flooring, etc. (Our roof was made in Calgary out of about 500 tires. Even up close it looks like old-growth cedar. The 50-year warranty is nice too.)
Used motor oil is rejuvenated for a third of the energy required to refine new product. Oil filters go to steel mills to become rebar, nails or wire. Oil containers become plastic flower pots, pipes, furniture and more.
Crushed mirrors, glass panes and ceramic dishes become aggregate for asphalt. (Toilets once did too, but currently seem to be going to the landfill.) Mattresses are dismantled and mostly recycled. Leftover paint is processed in BC for reuse. Latex paints are sorted by colour and made into new paint or used as a binding agent in concrete. Mills in Alberta accept oil-based paint for use as a fuel blending agent. Steel propane tanks are depressurized and then refined into new metal products.
Wood waste is sent to various customers who use it for fuel, instead of oil and gas. Batteries of all kinds are locally collected for Call2Recycle, which sends them to sorters and processors in Canada and the US where they are separated into raw materials for making new batteries, stainless steel and cement.
Retailers are becoming proactive as well. London Drugs will take back much of what it sells, including all Styrofoam packaging. This goes to Coquitlam where it is compressed—65 truckloads in equals one truckload out—and shipped to South Korea for remanufacturing.
H&M wants your old and tattered fabric, which is shredded for many new uses, including insulation.
And then there are the refundable drink containers. Nine thousand tonnes were collected in the CRD last year—an average of 218 containers per resident. The aluminum was shipped to the US for processing into new cans. The plastics were pelletized for new product at Merlin Plastics in Delta. Glass went to a bottle-making facility in Seattle, and the remaining assortment mostly went to international markets not including China.
It’s clear that we’re diverting a tremendous motherlode from the landfill, and while that’s great progress, it’s still not enough. We cannot simply recycle our way back to sustainability and environmental wellness. Frenetic buying, using, and now recycling must inevitably give way to something more enduring—sparser and more deliberate consumerism. The challenge will be to find security and contentment in buying less, repairing more, reusing and repurposing. The coming festive season could be timely for rethinking how we might begin doing this.
However you plan to celebrate the holidays, may you find yourself with everything you need. May it be your cup of happiness that runneth over—not your garbage, food waste and recycling bins.
After finishing this article Trudy dashed down to a Repair Cafe in Fairfield to have an old crock repaired. The cafes are offered every few months. Go to www.repaircafevicbc.ca for details.