Renowned Victoria artist Robin Hopper died on April 6, 2017, at age 77. Hopper was named to the Order of Canada in December 2016 for his innovative techniques in ceramic art. He and his wife, ceramic artist and photographer Judi Dyelle, were founders of the Metchosen International Summer School of the Arts at Pearson College. In April 2016 FOCUS interviewed Robin in his Metchosin garden.
Robin Hopper’s legacy in ceramics encompasses production, education, publications, institutions—and a beautiful garden.
Robin Hopper (Photo by Tony Bounsall)
“THIS IS ONE OF MY GREATEST ARTWORKS,” says Robin Hopper, the ceramic artist. He’s referring not to one of his many functional or decorative ceramic pieces or his two-dimensional glaze paintings, but to his garden. “The reason I have a garden is I don’t have to go looking for inspiration; I can just walk out the door and it’s there. It feeds me all the time,” he says. If you see one of his pieces embellished with a clematis design, it is one of the 50 varieties that grow in his garden.
The pond in Robin Hopper's garden
At 77, Hopper is not as spry these days. He was diagnosed with cancer about six months ago. For five years now he’s not kept a regular studio practice. Still, he keeps busy with legacy projects like Swan Song, an autobiographical/ educational DVD he recently produced (available online soon). And he tries to walk in the garden “at least once a day,” he says.
A dear mutual friend and I are being given a tour of this celebrated, award-winning space by its creator, who bashed out the brambles and gradually nurtured it into being amidst resplendent Douglas firs shortly after he settled on this Metchosin property in 1977. The goal was to create an attractive space for family—he has two daughters and a son with his first wife—along with a studio and gallery area for potential clients to come and see his wares.
Hopper studied ceramics, theatre design, painting and printmaking at Croydon College in South London from 1955-61. After nine years working in theatre (both on and offstage) and as a travel guide, he returned to his “first love” with a ceramics studio and teaching. Having emigrated from his native England in 1968, Hopper then taught in Ontario, eventually setting up the ceramics and glass department at Georgian College in Barrie. By 1973, he turned to studio production full time, though he continued to teach workshops internationally for decades. Just before moving west, he gained renown as the first recipient of the Saidye Bronfman Award for Excellence in the fine crafts.
"Skyphos", high-fired porcelain with thrown handles Click here for a glimpse of Robin Hopper's ceramic artwork
“The first fall I was here,” Hopper recollects, “I was somewhat devastated because I had come from sugarbush country in Ontario, where the fall colours are fantastic.” So, as he does with any undertaking from glazes or gardens, Hopper dove in and “started to research all of the plants that had the best fall colour for this area. Invariably, they came from Japan, China, Korea. He refers to the resultant blend he created as “Anglojapanadian” in design.
A storyteller at heart, Hopper is an edifying and engaging tour guide. We learn about the types of Japanese gardens that he drew upon for inspiration, beginning with the Stroll Garden. Often narrative in their symbolism, they reflected the experiences of the owner.
At the start of his garden is a meandering gravel path. “This is not a pathway,” Hopper corrects, “this is a symbol for a river—and you are on a journey as soon as you go through that gate.” We breathe in fragrant viburnum (“Osmanthus delavayi,” he declares), while Hopper points out three large fan-shaped stepping stones, explaining, “The fan in Chinese and Japanese is a symbol for education and authority.”
Fitting that education is one of Hopper’s greatest contributions to the local and international ceramics fields. “Robin is a real teacher,” said Diane Carr, a leading authority on the ceramic history of British Columbia, when we met to discuss the artist. In her catalogue for Back to the Land: Ceramics from Vancouver Island and the Gulf Islands 1970-1985, an exhibition she curated at the Art Gallery of Greater Victoria, she writes, “Perhaps his most important contributions to ceramics have been his teaching, glaze exploration, and the several books he has written on various aspects of studio pottery.” His first, The Ceramic Spectrum, “has become an essential text for studio potters.”
A little further down the path, my friend delightedly points out several clumps of ceramic mushrooms with various glazes: some black with pocks of crackled white, some earthy swirls of red, all created by Hopper. “Fungus ceramicus,” he quips. “They come up all over the place.” Referring to his British heritage, Hopper remarks that English gardeners like to incorporate “things that make you laugh and things with a touch of history.”
Both are important to Hopper in life and in artistic influence. From a young age, he was fascinated with the ancient pots he would see during his many haunts of the Victoria and Albert and other museums.
Circumstances led to a fairly solitary childhood: he was born in London in 1939; his twin sister died ten days after birth. Save two older brothers who were working age, most of his five siblings were evacuated during the Blitz. He stayed behind, having contracted chicken pox. While his mother ran the family grocery business and his father was working in the war effort, he would wander among the bomb craters, scooping up the exposed clay. He sculpted birds and other animals that interested him—and still does: After a storm broke the branches off a cherry tree in the garden, Hopper fixed ceramic dog masks to the cut ends: “It became a dogwood tree,” he grins.
We walk on, past nodding chocolate lilies, pink and purple hellebores (helleborus orientalis), daffodils and ferns, whose tiny fists are being pulled upward by the dappled sun. Hopper stops in a grass clearing. “We came down the river, and this is an ocean. Once you are on an ocean, all the oceans of the world unite,” he explains.
In such a gathering place, one can find another metaphor for Hopper’s legacy. Carr had said of Hopper, “He drew other potters around him; he sparked energy.” With the help of his second wife, Judi Dyelle, herself an accomplished potter who shares their ’Chosin Pottery business, Hopper started the Fired Up! Contemporary Works in Clay exhibition group. In 1984, Hopper had returned with Dyelle from a year spent in the vibrant, colourful arts scene in Montreal to the depressed economy of Vancouver Island.
Sales were slumping for artists, they saw, and in contrast to the colourful glazes they had seen in the east, “everything was brown,” Dyelle laments with a laugh. So they gathered some local potters and sought a solution. After he and Judi spent weeks weeding, the first Fired Up! show and sale took place in the garden. It has since moved to nearby Metchosin Hall and is about to enter its 32nd year.
“The whole idea was the education of the public, to be continually showing them interesting and different things,” Dyelle relates, adding how, at the 25th anniversary show, “the potters were blown away by how people could talk to them, because they had a better understanding of what they were doing; they had grown alongside them.”
That same summer, Hopper saw a dearth of quality arts teaching and a nearby space to provide it. He was teaching part time at Pearson College and had recently travelled to Australia to teach workshops. While there, he saw a model for a summer school that could apply here, and he and four other artists (Carole Sabiston, Cheryl Samuels, Fleming Jorgenson and poet Rona Murray) co-founded the Metchosin International Summer School of the Arts. Four initial courses have grown into an internationally renowned multidisciplinary program with 45 workshops offered. Dyelle also deserves credit. “I’m surprised that Jude and I actually passed the first year, because I’m the idea guy, and she’s the person that makes it happen!” Hopper admits. Judi nods, smiling: “He’s the ideas, I’m the work.”
Back in the garden, we come to the “River Koi.” “In a lot of Japanese gardens there is a stone river or a stone waterfall,” he says. Embedded into cement, complete with removable Japanese bridge, we find a variety of ceramic “koi” with multicoloured glazes. The bridge is removable because for years, this was actually a functioning road for truck access to the septic field. “There are 100 fish in the river. Ninety-two of them swim downstream, and the other eight swim upstream. They represent me,” Hopper offers: always against the current, but steadfast in his thinking that “you might as well make it beautiful if you are going to make anything.” It’s that way of thinking that Carr calls Hopper’s “true genius.”
Bridge over the River Koi
Finally we settle on a sheltered bench in a private area of the garden. Fish bob to the surface of a sun-glazed pond. “In here, there are about 11 different types of Japanese maples. They change colour sequentially, starting at about the middle of August and going right through to the beginning of December,” Hopper says, his fatigue visible. He seems content to enjoy the sun on his face as my friend and I wander and admire the water lilies and the sparkling fountain.
We sit back down and I notice a small ceramic house just to our left among the foliage. “That’s actually a copy of a sarcophagus from Crete,” Hopper explains. “It is one of [Cowichan Valley potter] Cathi Jefferson’s. It’s one of my final resting places.” He continues, “We hope to keep the property in the family, but you just don’t know. I’m going to sit in there and cast evil spirits to anybody that does anything to this garden that shouldn’t be done,” he says, eyes twinkling.
Aaren Madden can safely say the garden at Chosin Pottery feeds not only its maker, but all who visit.
Kwakwaka’wakw hereditary chief and renowned artist Beau Dick died in late March, 2017 at age 61.
In 2013, Chief Beau Dick led a nine-day march to Victoria to conduct a ceremonial shaming of the federal government. “Cutting the copper,” he explained, is a demand for an apology and also symbolizes “breaking the chains that bind us, freeing our hands so that we may create a better future for our children.” In 2014, he led another Kwakwaka'wakw delegation to Ottawa to, conducting the traditional shaming ceremony in front of the Parliament buildings.
On the steps of the BC legislature, Beau said, “We have endured as First Nation peoples 150 years of…near annihilation, subject to poverty, diseases inflicted on us, homelessness, alcoholism, drug addiction. Now they are poisoning our waters, destroying our homelands. Our old growth forests are disappearing, species are dropping off the face of the Earth, and it’s been accelerating for the last 100 years. These are dangerous times.”
He also said, “We are all connected. We must embrace that connection. We have to shift our values and realize that there’s something more important than money and the monetary system that’s been forced on us that in my judgement is immoral, corrupt and unjust.” He urged those attending the ceremony to “be as one and be good people together, to heal together, to find our path to righteousness. That’s all I ask."
Leslie Campbell first met Beau in 2010 on the first of three trips to Alert Bay, where he lived for most of his life. Below is one story from that first meeting, illustrating Beau’s talent for sharing stories of the past so that we can learn from them.
By Leslie Campbell
A FEW WEEKS AGO David and I found ourselves in Alert Bay, a community of about 1200 people on Cormorant Island, a 40-minute ferry ride from Port McNeill. The Kwakwaka’wakw culture flourishes in Alert Bay, despite many insults, past and present, to their way of life.
I plan to write about our visit at greater length in the future. But I think I am meant to share one of the stories I heard sooner rather than later.
Under a carving shed on the beach, we met master carver Beau Dick who was working on a memorial pole in honour of Patrick Alfred, a ‘Namgis chief who had died a few years ago in a herring boat accident. Though only roughed in, the pole was impressive already. We could see frog and raven, thunderbird and killer whale.
Beau is tall and lanky, with long brown hair and a grey beard. He wears a rumpled black felt hat with feathers and speaks very thoughtfully. Though we didn’t know at the time of our meeting, he is regarded as one of the most creative and versatile Kwakwaka’wakw carvers of his generation, with works in many top museums. He’s a chief, an accomplished singer, composer, historian, and an initiated Hamat’sa, the highest-ranking secret society of the Kwakwaka’wakw.
When we started talking with Beau at the beach, competition from a nearby chain saw proved intense and he suggested we go to his nearby house where he would “give us some information.”
That was an understatement.
Beau wanted to read us a story he had written, one that has been passed down through generations in his family. He implied that perhaps this was what we were there for, but warned us it might be disturbing.
Beau’s house is very modest and well-used. It’s obvious that chopping for the wood stove takes place right beside it. Every surface is well occupied, whether by cats, LPs, books, carving tools, stuff. While we were there, the front door opened frequently—to a fellow carver, a wife, a medicine woman—which barely interrupted the flow of Beau’s storytelling or our rapt attention, though each passerby discovered in turn that they couldn’t leave through the front door as the interior doorknob had disappeared. Oh well; they simply headed to the back door and exited that way.
As he begins his story, first acknowledging his uncle Jimmy Dawson “who kept the story alive,” Beau crosses his long legs and leans forward:
“Going back to the beginning of our story, it is when James Douglas proclaimed British Columbia the new found colony and he hired a man who was a topographer to make maps because Douglas had no idea about the coastline that they were laying claim to.
“It should be brought up again, the fact that they were laying claim to our coastline and they didn’t even know what it consisted of so how can they have any jurisdictional claim at all? Even looking back 150 years ago it is a great embarrassment and it probably still is for British Columbia when they look in the mirror and see the truth.”
Beau told us how his great-grandfather, Kakab, as a young man of high rank, escorted Dawson around his people’s territory and offered him protection “as it was still a pretty wild place.” Kakab and Dawson became very good friends and Dawson taught Kakab how to read and write and do arithmetic on paper, which Kakab appreciated and benefited from.
“In their friendship Dawson travelled further north, past Bella Bella making his maps and he always returned to Mimquimlees, the village of my great-grandfather. Whether he was on his way south to Victoria or heading north to continue his map making he would always stop and visit.”
Beau’s story shifts then, to talk about the Haida of that time, and how up until the 1860s there were probably 14,000 of them. They would often travel in large flotillas of canoes to Fort Victoria to trade, passing through Kwakwaka’wakw waters. After one mass migration, “Dawson told my great-grandfather to stay away from them when they returned from Victoria and of course Kakab asked him why. Dawson said they would all be sick and embarrassedly told him that he knew first hand that the government he worked for—that James Douglas and the Hudson’s Bay Company were holding hands, as he described it—and they had a plan to distribute smallpox-infested blankets amongst the Haida in the hopes that they would spread this disease to all the other tribes on the coast on their way home.
“Why would they want to do that?” asked Beau rhetorically. “The answer is very simple—they wanted to control the resources on our coastline and they were very successful because we know that after this there were only about 600 Haida left…”
When 24 canoes full of sick Haida showed up in Kwakwaka’wakw territory in 1862, they were escorted, said Beau, “to a place that is now known as Bones Bay, for obvious reasons.” There they had running water, and Kakab’s people made sure they had enough food and dry wood, but direct contact was avoided. “They were left to die there in peace,” said Beau.
“…The Kwakwaka’wakw were so grateful to Dawson for what he had done that my great grandfather took his name when it came to register with the white people—George Thomas Dawson. That is why my mother’s maiden name is Dawson.”
A couple of years ago, Beau hosted a potlatch in honour of the Haida people who died of smallpox in Bones Bay on West Cracroft Island, where a mortuary pole he helped carve was erected. Another stands in the burial grounds in Alert Bay.
There were more stories from Beau and others we met in Alert Bay, which I will share another time. As Beau concluded one of his other stories: “Gifts amount to nothing if you don’t share them.”
Leslie Campbell plans to return to Alert Bay. She is grateful to Beau Dick, Wayne Alfred and his brother George, and cousin Bruce Alfred, who generously shared their thoughts about art, politics and life during our visit. See Haida Laas, March 2009 at www.haidanation.ca.
For more on Kwakwaka’wakw culture see www.umista.org.
John Shields died on March 24, 2017. Shields lived a life full of purpose, dedicated to the pursuit of meaning and justice. A former Catholic priest, he also led the BCGEU, worked for women’s rights, explored the mysteries of consciousness, and recently led the Land Conservancy of BC out of its financial misery.
In March, 2012 Amy Reiswig interviewed John Shields about his book The Priest Who Left his Religion: In Pursuit of Cosmic Spirituality. As she writes: “Influenced by Joseph Campbell, Shields sees story as key to how we perceive our world and, therefore, how we act within it. And his version of the story is science pointing to a universe that is ‘not dead matter, but a living consciousness.’ Seeing the universe as conscious and ‘spirit-filled,’ where everything is interconnected, purposeful energy, means how we act matters profoundly because we are co-creating the universe every day, which leads to Shields’ fervent call for an Earth-based spirituality recognizing our connection to nature.”
The Mystery of Life
John Shields’ journey from priest to union leader to spiritual seeker.
By Amy Reiswig
HOW DO YOU approach mystery? Do you suspend disbelief and assert with Hamlet that “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio,/Than are dreamt of in your philosophy”? Or is your instinct to look behind the curtain—seek out the facts, test and prove? The seeming divide between faith and science has been the subject of debate for centuries, and their dynamic tension has led to rich exploration in many disciplines. In The Priest Who Left his Religion: In Pursuit of Cosmic Spirituality (Influence Publishing, Sept. 2011), Victoria’s John Shields—a former Catholic priest turned social worker and union activist—shares his own exploration and conclusions around “the potential of reuniting science and spirit into a unified way of knowing.”
More than a memoir, Shields’ book is a spiritual autobiography, a memoir of the soul that goes beyond “Here’s what I’ve done in my life, why and with whom.” We move through his narrative of life in the church, his dizzying array of secular work experience (Victoria Family and Children’s Service, Victoria Day Care Information Services, Vancouver Island University, Leadership Victoria, the BC Government Employees Union, The Haven, the Centre for Earth and Spirit, among others) to, finally, his spiritual reawakening. What becomes apparent is that the book unfolds two stories: Shields’ and the readers’ own as they react to his ideas, some of which offer bold challenges to mainstream thinking.
The first part of the 230-page book chronicles Shields’ experience of institutional religion: his childhood as the only son of Irish Catholic parents in New York, Brooklyn Prep education, seminary studies and eventual ordination in 1965. Backdropping Shields’ theological studies and work was the civil rights movement, Kennedy’s brief presidency, the Vietnam War and, most importantly for his spiritual development, Vatican II. It was a time of profound national and global questioning, and the potential for grand change was everywhere. Shields was particularly excited by advances in areas like archaeology and textual criticism that reoriented Biblical interpretation and, therefore, the role of the church itself. This, alongside a growing involvement in social justice, meant Shields’ life was brimming with a sense of sacred purpose.
However, Shields writes that when Pope Paul VI “rejected every insight that emerged at the Council,” he felt profound disillusionment, abandonment and betrayal. The silencing of theologians—including Shields’ own removal from his teaching and preaching duties—and the general suppression of new scholarship and ideas “shattered my sense of spirituality,” Shields writes. He left the priesthood. “I was leaving a failed relationship with the church…but I believed that my church had left me.”
This sense of betrayal was shared by those who longed for meaningful church reform, and Shields identifies them as a main audience. “It’s that group in the middle who have left religion but haven’t yet found anything else,” the bespectacled, avuncular and enthusiastic Shields tells me over morning coffee in Cook Street Village. “I’ve crossed that threshold and I want to report back. I’m like a pioneer who has gone over the mountains into a beautiful valley and want to tell people: ‘Hey, there’s something really magnificent! Let’s go there.’”
But what is over the mountain of disbelief? Shields reveals years of grief and confusion, of learning how to live, love and work in the secular world, and it becomes clear that even defining the term “spirituality” is a tricky task that can turn people away. For instance, over his 25 years in union work and, eventually, as president of the BCGEU (the John T. Shields building stands named in his honour), he came to see working on behalf of others and integrating one’s inner values with outer action as a spiritual endeavour. He explains “spirituality” to me as “a level of quality, of value, of relationship—being in harmony with the deeper nature of the universe.”
Which leads to another question: what is the nature of the universe? Which is where the second story begins—that of what the reader believes.
Shields became fascinated with “secular science,” and in it found the basis for a new cosmology and spirituality. Citing various thinkers and research initiatives, like NASA’s Cosmic Background Explorer (COBE), Shields discusses evidence for the Big Bang, the expansion/evolution of the universe and the idea that all things are essentially made of the same stuff. He writes: “What shines out from all the work done on the new story is that everything in the universe is interconnected.”
Influenced by Joseph Campbell, Shields sees story as key to how we perceive our world and, therefore, how we act within it. And his version of the story is science pointing to a universe that is “not dead matter, but a living consciousness.”
Seeing the universe as conscious and “spirit-filled,” where everything is interconnected, purposeful energy, means how we act matters profoundly because we are co-creating the universe every day, which leads to Shields’ fervent call for an Earth-based spirituality recognizing our connection to nature. It also means that boundaries between life and death, body and spirit become fluid, and Shields mentions using copper dowsing rods to communicate with his first wife after she died from cancer.
“I know these ideas are controversial and that people will be twittering me,” Shields laughs. “But being in the conversation of challenge is why I wrote the book. I didn’t see anyone else saying these things.” The Priest Who Left His Religion therefore opens a space for readers to do some self-questioning on the nature of mystery, which Einstein says is “the source of all true art and all science”: What do I think of these ideas? Why do I have the reactions I do? What are my beliefs, fears, assumptions, and in what are they rooted?
While Shields is clearly seeking converts to his new cosmology and nature-focused world view, he also invites us simply to look through his lens and enter the dialogue. As Einstein also says, and Shields quotes him: “The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious.”
Writer and editor (and lapsed Catholic) Amy Reiswig thinks believing in what can’t be seen or proven makes life much more interesting.
See also the May 25, 2017 New York Times story "The Remarkable Death and Life of John Shields" by Catherine Porter
Vic was broadly admired for his principled approach to civic politics. Focus interviewed him three times, the first in December 2012. We've gathered those stories below.
Stumbles on the Path Forward
by David Broadland, January 2013
Saanich councillor Vic Derman worries the six-year effort to envision an environmentally and fiscally sound sewage treatment plan is, so far, a failure.
FOR A MOMENT the board room on the sixth floor of the CRD’s Fisgard Street headquarters erupted in pandemonium. Shouted insults, derisive laughter and expressions of disbelief filled the room. As two people stalked out of the December 12 meeting in apparent disgust, chairperson Denise Blackwell pounded her gavel and called for order.
That little moment of drama followed the opening words of City of Victoria councillor Ben Isitt, who had just told fellow members of the CRD’s Core Area Waste Treatment Plan Committee, “I understand why Oak Bay council and director Derman have buckled to the tax revolt coming from the Uplands....” Isitt, sometimes impolitic in his choice of words, was making a point about a motion made by Oak Bay Mayor Nils Jensen. With the unanimous support of his council, Jensen was calling for “a full environmental study that will assess the comparative environmental impact of the current process and proposed process for disposing of liquid waste before the CRD plans are finalized.” Jensen had told the meeting, “The motion does not seek to abandon the idea of treatment, nor does it seek to overly delay the project.”
It wasn’t so much Isitt’s unexpected equation that an environmental assessment equals a tax revolt that had elicited such an angry response from some of those witnessing the meeting. Or even his misplaced inclusion of Saanich councillor Vic Derman in that calculation. It was that in a few short words he had managed to cram a richly complex 30-year community-wide debate into a political statement about class conflict.
Isitt went on to say, “ARESST is trying to stop the plan at any cost and they’ll deploy every possible argument. And this environmental assessment issue is just another red herring trying to delay action.”
ARESST—the Association for Responsible & Environmentally Sustainable Sewage Treatment—self-described as “a group of ordinary, taxpaying Greater Victoria residents, deeply concerned about the local and marine environments, who believe that potentially disastrous mistakes are being made in the rush to develop a secondary sewage treatment system,” was well represented at the meeting. Their yellow-shirted members seemed to slightly outnumber a contingent of blue-shirted pro-treatment supporters. The latter, though, were boosted in stature by the appearance of an out-of-uniform Mr Floatie decked out in a sea-blue shirt.
In the discussion that followed, Isitt’s view that Jensen’s motion was just a last-ditch effort to delay the project was shared, a little less bluntly, by other directors. Saanich councillor Susan Brice—who once served as mayor of Oak Bay—told her fellow directors, “Everything has been exhaustively gone over... I do not support the motion that’s on the floor because I do think it’s a motion to delay and I am not interested in delaying this any more.”
But the question of whether the proposed plan should be examined to determine whether it will provide any real environmental benefits compared with the current ocean discharge of 90 million litres of raw sewage each day was debated more directly by some other committee members.
Esquimalt Mayor Barb Desjardins told the meeting her council had unanimously endorsed Jensen’s motion, and she appealed to directors to listen, “because I get the sense sometimes that ears are closed when certain speakers are speaking.” “We should be using climate change,” she suggested, “as one of the overall lenses” through which projects like this are considered.
Derman, the alleged tax revolter, told the committee the benefits to the marine environment were unknown and the cost of the treatment plan, which has been estimated at $783 million, could hobble the region’s ability to address other problems. And he linked one of those problems, the high degree of single-occupancy vehicle use in the CRD, to deterioration of the marine environment. “The primary source of greenhouse gases in this region is transportation, which accounts for around 60 percent,” he reminded his fellow directors. “We know there’s way too many people moving around in single occupancy vehicles. We need to spend a lot of money to change that situation and put infrastructure in place. The biggest problem facing the marine environment globally today, by far, is the level of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. The acidification of the ocean is the biggest threat, by a mile, and that comes from greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. This is a huge concern to marine scientists.”
“So we need something,” Derman implored, “that says ‘What’s the net result going to be?’”
Derman reminded directors that one configuration for a treatment system that had been briefly considered had the potential for six times greater greenhouse gas reductions than the plan chosen—“an incredible difference in environmental benefit—but no explanation was ever given by CRD staff as to why that option was dropped.”
“If the rationale is to improve the marine environment, then we really do need to make sure we have a study that tells us exactly how much benefit we’ll receive...” Derman said.
City of Victoria councillor and Regional Board Chair Geoff Young disagreed that another study was needed. “I really do hate to spend the committee’s time re-discussing an issue that has been discussed, but I think some response is required.”
Young told fellow directors, “We’ve heard that we cannot prove sewage treatment is necessary. I think what we have really heard is that the level of uncertainty is so great that we can never prove that it is unnecessary.” Young expressed concern about “the effects of the many chemicals going into our ocean in our sewage at low levels. We see bioaccumulation in top level predators. Can we prove where it comes from? Maybe not easily. We hear evidence of impacts. It’s certainly not something I would want to dismiss out of hand. Someone mentioned greenhouse gases as our major environmental problem. It took 80 or 90 years for people to recognize the impact of GHGs on our environment. Some of those impacts [from bioaccumulation] may take as long to show up, and they may be as serious.”
Young said he hadn’t hear any arguments from around the table “worthy of slowing down this project.”
Jensen’s motion was defeated by a vote of ten to five.
THE NEXT DAY I met with Vic Derman at a White Spot on Quadra Street. It was just after four but already young families were wandering in for an early supper. We found a booth with a big window and, over tea, talked about the perplexing politics of sewage treatment. On this issue there probably isn’t a politician in the CRD who knows more than Derman.
His roots go deep down in this community. Born here in 1944, he still lives in the part of town where he went to school before attending UVic. He had a long career as a teacher, the last dozen years at Cedar Hill Junior where he started BC’s first multimedia computer lab.
Derman has impeccable credentials in the environmental community. He, along with Briony Penn, Bill Turner, Bob Pert and Don Benn founded the Land Conservancy of British Columbia in 1997, and was the organization’s vice-president for their first five years.
Penn told me she first met Derman in 1991 when he helped her in her fight to preserve a Garry oak meadow on Christmas Hill that was threatened by development. In 2002 Derman was named the CRD’s Environmental Citizen of the Year.
An interest in the regional growth strategy brought Derman to civic politics, first through the North Quadra Community Association as vice-president and then as president. He retired from teaching when he was 55 because the many hours taken by his outside interests “weren’t fair to family.”
First elected to Saanich council in 2002 and the CRD board in 2005, Derman characterizes his political style as “Not a wall-flower. I try to hold my powder and use it on the big issues. If I think there’s something wrong, I dig in as hard as I can.” Derman says he tries to look at local issues from what he calls “the 40,000-foot view.” In considering the sewage treatment issue, he says, that means “I can’t consider this by itself. What’s its impact on other issues, even on environmental issues?”
At the CRD meeting the day before, his complex argument that spending on sewage treatment might mean not being able to afford transportation infrastructure improvements that, because of their greenhouse gas implications, could have a bigger benefit for the marine environment than treatment, might be seen by some as a call to inaction. But Derman says there are many politicians “that don’t really take the time, or have the inclination, to really get that understanding of the big picture of what we face, and so we have trouble really prioritizing things. There’s a lot who are satisfied with being incremental, moving forward by baby steps.”
Like Desjardins, Derman thinks the treatment project needs to be part of the regional response to climate change. “I strongly believe that the biggest issue we face is climate change, by a mile, and that everything we do should go through a climate change lens.” He seems unwilling to settle for “baby steps.”
Over tea, Derman launches into an hour-long recounting of several significant events in the past six years that left him with deep concerns that the process that produced The Path Forward—the current plan for treatment—was so flawed that the final product itself was bound to be likewise flawed.
Soon after provincial Environment Minister Barry Penner ordered the CRD to prepare a treatment plan in 2006, Derman says he realized, “There is a certain environmental cost to treating. Is this the right thing to do? I didn’t know. So I suggested to the committee that we should challenge the minister on this. But the committee wouldn’t push back.”
Instead, the long chain of events that led to Nils Jensen’s motion on December 14 began. In 2006 CRD staff put out a request for “Expressions Of Interest,” (EOI) to, as Derman put it, “see what was out there.”
Derman says he made a pitch to the committee that the EOI be “wide open so we would get the best and brightest ideas,” and was given “assurances” by CRD staff to that effect. He told staff he wanted to read the submissions that came in himself, “without a filter.” About four months later Derman was given a box of 21 binders, submissions that came in response to the EOI. After reading through them all, he says, “I was really disappointed. There was nothing innovative. I thought, ‘Maybe I’m wrong, maybe there isn’t anything out there.’”
In April 2007, Derman says, “CRD staff introduced The Path Forward, which is essentially the plan that’s there now.” But a few months later, in the summer of 2007, he was having lunch with Terry Williams, who Derman describes as “one of the greenest architects in town,” who told Derman he was disappointed his submission to the EOI had been rejected out of hand. “I asked him, ‘What submission? I read them all, and you didn’t have one.’” Williams pulled the submission out of his briefcase, which turned out to be based on resource recovery. Williams told Derman CRD staff had rejected the submission because it didn’t fit the terms of reference for the EOI. Derman says, “I was green, I had these assurances from staff,” but when he went back and looked at the EOI, he saw that it had been structured so that any proposal that didn’t fit into the existing network of pipes and pumps wasn’t considered. “Since then I’ve had concerns,” Derman tells me. “It seems that somebody believed they had the answer before they asked the question. The answer was The Path Forward.”
Derman began doing his own research once he realized there were alternative technologies that weren’t being explored, and in September 2008 he brought a motion forward calling for a second EOI. The vote was six “for” and six “opposed,” which meant it failed. However, within minutes of the meeting’s adjournment, staff told him the vote had not been properly counted. There were actually 13 directors at the meeting and the motion had passed seven to six. But soon after he returned home, the CRD’s Kelly Daniels phoned Derman and told him that because it had been recorded at the meeting that the vote had been defeated, that result would have to stand. “That was disappointing for me,” he says. “It would have allowed the opportunity for less conventional processes to come through.”
There were other signs the process was somehow being guided by an unseen hand toward a pre-determined end. Derman knew that a Technical and Community Advisory Committee had been set up to advise the sewage committee, but whatever they did wasn’t coming to his attention. So he asked a member what was going on. “They told me they did virtually nothing. One man told me, ‘All we ever do is read reports that you fellows have already passed, have our sandwich and go home.’ That kind of thing really alarmed me,” Derman says.
He recounts his exploration of an option to The Path Forward’s plan for dealing with the sludge that would be produced by the treatment plant at McLouglin Point. The McLouglin site is too small for the biodigesters that would gasify the sludge. They would require five acres more than is available, and a search for a suitable nearby site was unsuccessful. So the engineering consultants devised a plan to locate the biodigesters 18 kilometres away, near the CRD’s Hartland Landfill. That would require a pipeline connecting the two sites.
Derman told me, “The pipeline is about $30-40 million, the total capital cost is $265 million, and there would be an operating loss of $3-4 million a year.” The plan was to gasify 40-50 percent of the sludge, dry the remainder and—hopefully—ship the resulting “biosolids” to Vancouver where they would be burned in cement kilns. “The backup plan,” Derman tells me, “is to landfill it at Hartland, which is completely inconsistent with our goal of extending the life of Hartland.”
So Derman did some research. “I went to one of the modern gasifier companies and said, ‘Can you guys handle this?’” After some back and forth between the company and CRD staff, Derman got a cost estimate for a plant with “100 percent redundancy” that would gasify “65 to 85 percent” of the sludge and produce an easily-disposable ash from the remainder. Derman says such a plant would require just over an acre of land and that could open up many options nearer to McLouglin Point that would work. “The estimate came back and capital costs would be $50-60 million and the operating cost would be $300,000 to $400,000 a year. I took it to the committee and said, ‘This is a saving of $200 million plus $3-4 million in [annual] operating costs. That’s pretty huge. So shouldn’t we look at this further?’ And the response I got from the committee and the staff was, ‘Oh, no, that can come at the procurement stage.’”
Derman says that struck him as “hugely irresponsible.” “We knew then that the procurement stage was run by a commission, and local politicians have very little authority over that commission. As long as they stay within the budget and scope of the project, they control what happens.”
I ask Derman if part of the impetus to delay the project was coming, as Ben Isitt suggested, from a concern about the affect it would have on property taxation. “Some people,” Derman says, “are simply saying ‘I’m over-taxed now, I can’t afford more.’ And then there are those who say ‘I want to make sure my tax dollars are spent well. If I think this is really necessary, I’m willing to spend the money. But I don’t think it’s necessary.’ I’m in that second group.”
Derman worries about the “legacy” he’d be leaving for politicians who come after him “to do things like transportation improvements, health care, affordable housing. Victoria, I understand, has huge financial issues with infrastructure replacement down the road. Whoever is mayor and council, their ability to respond to that is going to be severely impacted by the costs of this project.”
That cost, currently set at $783 million, was based on an estimate done by Stantec Consulting in June 2010. That was the very same month Stantec was peer-reviewing and approving a Class C cost estimate for the new Johnson Street Bridge that subsequently proved to underestimate costs by over 20 percent. A copy of Stantec’s sewage treatment estimate, titled “Probable Cost Breakdowns,” obtained by Focus through an FOI request, had price information redacted. But the nature of the document—it appears to be a single page in length, each line of the estimate consisting of a broad category of costs, such as “Siteworks” and “Struvite Recovery Plant”—suggests it may not even have the level of certainty of a Class C estimate.
Asked about the estimate, Derman says, “It’s not a great estimate in terms of exactness. I think any competent engineer would tell you that. We don’t even know for sure what we’re building yet. I’m hoping it will be less. I’m hoping there will be a rational approach to the biosolids, which I’ve already suggested might make a very substantial saving.” But, Derman says, “We’re responsible 100 percent for any cost overruns. That’s scarey as hell.”
Derman’s “40,000-foot view” has been hard for some of his fellow committee members to appreciate. “I’m sure there are those who regard me as a complete pain in the back end, that I’m there to be a nuisance, to try to make sure we never treat, or whatever. But that’s not the case at all. I want to make sure that we do something that is fiscally and environmentally the most appropriate thing we can do for the region.”
David Broadland is the publisher of Focus.
Courage, not lip service, please
By Leslie Campbell, October 2014
With civic elections coming, we need to demand bold, visionary action on climate change.
At the Climate Change Summit in New York City, our prime minister was conspicuously absent, and Minister of Environment Leona Aglukkaq committed to only modest reductions in transportation emissions, something the US is forcing on us with its car manufacturing standards anyways.
The People’s Climate March, however, offered more hope—that a movement of the people might be powerful enough to force the political and corporate foot draggers to get on with an appropriate response to the threat to all species posed by climate change.
Politicians at all levels are great at paying lip service to the need to change course, to rein in greenhouse gas emissions. They are not so great, however, on the follow-through—implementing policies and laws strong enough to have a real impact. Some no doubt are in thrall to their corporate donors and cronies (see “Sleeping with the fossils” in this edition); others fear getting voted out of office. Citizens will need to convince politicians they will lose votes if they don’t act boldly on climate change. Andrew Weaver, in a recent CBC interview, lamented: “When I look around the legislature and see my colleagues not wanting to step up and deal with [climate change], I wonder where their courage is.”
Saanich Councillor Vic Derman has similar concerns about the courage of his colleagues at the municipal level.
At a September lecture on the “Natural City” at UVic’s Geography Department, Derman described a toolbox for making cities more in tune with ecological systems. Foremost in this toolbox is the climate change lens, which Derman says we must now apply to any project or decision. Among the mostly student audience, I noticed Richard Atwell of the RITE Plan—and Saanich mayoral candidate. Both Derman and Atwell believe that if the sewage treatment problem had been viewed through a climate change lens, we would likely have distributed enhanced tertiary treatment with resource recovery underway now. Instead we are wasting money, time, and emissions on the stalled megaproject. (The Johnson Street bridge is another good example; we’d likely have a fully rehabilitated Blue Bridge if the climate change test had been applied there.)
Derman, a former teacher, Saanich councillor since 2002, and CRD director since 2005, has been the lone voice among the five Saanich councillors on the CRD questioning the sewage treatment plans in a rigourous way—and particularly from the perspective of climate change. (Seaterra has stated that the current CRD plan would reduce emissions by 6000 tonnes per year; the most pessimistic estimate of emissions reductions in a 2008 study of tertiary treatment with resource recovery was 367,500 tonnes per year. See “Mayor Jensen’s Flip-flop,” Focus, July/August 2014.)
At his lecture, Derman outlined the bleak prognosis for a planet on course for 4-degree Celsius rise by 2100: ocean acidification, mass species extinction, crop failures, and hundreds of millions of refugees giving rise to social instability. By fiddling with the primary systems that support us, we are, he says, “creating a hostile environment for our children.” We need “to mitigate like crazy,” he says, and fast.
While he discussed many ways to address climate change through his Natural City approach, key among them were transportation and land use: “They are unavoidably linked. Bad transportation choices encourage sprawl. If you choose sprawl, you end up with a transportation nightmare.”
Because 62 percent of Saanich’s emissions come from on-road transportation, tackling that sector makes sense. (By comparison, City of Victoria’s emissions from transportation are 40 percent.)
Density—compact land use—matters. Derman believes no building or subdivision —even those with LEED construction—is sustainable if it fosters urban sprawl.
He feels most politicians know this. It’s embedded in the Regional Growth Strategy and Saanich’s Official Community Plan. The latter states: “Incorporate climate change, its potential impacts, and mitigation measures when reviewing new development applications and undertaking long-term planning initiatives.”
Yet, too often at decision time, politicians forget to do this. “We say climate change is a priority, but then we make all sorts of decisions that exacerbate it,” said Derman. For 15 years now the CRD has been committed to three priority “modes”: walking, cycling and public transit. Yet on-the-ground improvements are slim. Other cities with far colder weather (e.g. Stockholm) have fostered a much stronger cycling culture. Derman—who rode his bike to the lecture—said, “We need to make it safe, convenient, attractive and comfortable. Most of us don’t like cycling with a double decker bus beside us.”
But the most crucial thing to do on the transportation emissions front involves land-use planning. “If you want people to walk, you need to give them pleasant pedestrian walk ways—and give them somewhere to walk to.” Unfortunately many regional neighbourhoods do not have grocery stores and other services within walking distance.
“We need to create cities full of people places and green spaces…Great urban streets provide rich opportunities for interaction and exchange,” said Derman. Conduits-for-cars like the Douglas corridor and Blanshard (Mayfair Centre to Uptown) are good examples of how to create community dead zones.
To sell people on denser cities, we must plan adequate green space, as well as commercial and cultural hubs within walking and biking distance.
Again, Derman feels many of his colleagues know this, but don’t bring that knowledge to their decision-making. He cites his failed attempts to get Saanich council to “decouple” parking from housing units. Right now each unit constructed must have an off-street parking space. Not only does that add $55,000-$70,000 to the cost of the average housing unit, it also encourages car usage—and penalizes car-free people who not only pay for parking they don’t need, but subsidize the car ownership of others.
Recently Derman opposed allowing secondary suites throughout Saanich, north of Mackenzie. (It’s already in place south of Mackenzie and he’s OK with that.) While increasing the housing supply is a worthy end, Derman argued in his submission to council: “Some neighbourhoods are remote from services, involve difficult topography and are not well served by transit. Unfortunately, placing suites in such areas is akin to placing a thin layer of sprawl on top of an existing layer. It provides some additional density but not enough to encourage new local services or substantially improved transit. The result is increased automobile use…[This] adds to problems of traffic congestion. Much more problematic is the fact it also results in more greenhouse gases and is contrary to OCP goals aimed at addressing climate change.”
Yet not once do the words “climate change” appear in the 13-page staff report which recommends approval of secondary suites north of MacKenzie. Council voted to proceed to public hearing on the issue (October 7).
This issue illustrates the challenge. Citizens like the secondary suite allowance because it helps with affordability, providing housing for lower income folks and revenue for mortgage holders. Their main concern was that off-street parking be required—another car-centric measure that must make Derman wince.
We do need courageous, visionary leadership, as Derman urges. But we also need to inform ourselves. Many of us are not making the connections. Since we live in a democracy and believe the public should be thoroughly consulted, we need leaders and citizens who understand the issue—and the policies, opportunities, and limits climate change implies. We must all be willing to do more than pay lip service when it comes to changing our ways.
Leslie Campbell is the founder and editor of Focus.
Focus' last interview with Vic Derman, in December 2016, was included in Leslie Campbell's story on the CRD's regional growth strategy.
Mel Bolen and Jim Munro built monuments to the written word.
IN 1963, Jim Munro was managing the fabric department of an Eaton’s department store in Vancouver. A mundane job. But he had a secret dream: to own a bookshop.
“He was not really a team player, and he did not play golf, so he really wasn’t going to advance very far at Eaton’s,” his daughter Sheila told the audience gathered at Jim Munro’s memorial service, held on February 20 at Alix Goolden Hall. “His friends told him he was crazy, there was no money in books, Victoria was a backwater, and so on. But it made no difference. One of my father’s great virtues was that he didn’t necessarily pay attention to the advice of others.”
Victoria lost two pillars of its literary community late last year, when Jim Munro, the founder of Munro’s Books, died in November at the age of 87, and Mel Bolen, the founder of Bolen Books, died just before Christmas at age 72. Though their obituaries have been written, their legacies endure, and it’s worth reflecting upon how their unique personalities and shared determination helped make Victoria the city it is today.
As Sheila said in her tribute to Jim, “All the things he loved came together in his bookstore.” Jim grew up in Oakville, Ontario—not a place famous for aesthetic interests—but rode the train into Toronto to attend art college, and travel around town with his grandfather, a United Church minister who taught him to appreciate grand architecture and a good argument. At age 14, Jim was so moved from hearing The Magic Flute on the radio that he started collecting records and inviting friends to listen to them. “When he discovered something he was passionate about,” Sheila said, “he had to share it.”
At the University of Western Ontario, Jim met Alice Laidlaw, an aspiring author, and they married in 1951. Jim started working for Eaton’s (his father was chief accountant for the company), and they moved to Vancouver where he often entertained their three young daughters so Alice had time to write. But Vancouver’s book market was dominated by the local Duthie chain, so Jim decided to build a store in Victoria, and he and Alice established Munro’s Books on Yates Street, across the street from the Odeon movie theatre. Their shop, known for its hippie decor, was a success, partly because it was the only one in Canada to stock the work of the Beat poets, which Jim got from regularly visiting Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s bookstore in San Francisco.
Alice Munro won the Governor General’s award for her first collection of short stories in 1968. She and Jim separated in 1972, but they remained friends, and he persisted with his dream. In 1984, he chanced on an art show in a former Royal Bank on Government Street that had been “hideously” renovated with linoleum floors and dropped ceilings concealing the building’s neoclassical columns. He haggled with the owners for two years, bought the building for $360,000 (it’s now assessed at $4.1M), and his second wife, the fabric artist Carole Sabiston, designed the store, turning a bank—as Pacific Opera Victoria artistic director Timothy Vernon told the audience—“into a temple to the life of the mind.” In 2015, National Geographic Travel named Munro’s one of the Top 10 bookstores in the world.
Jim was also a great citizen. He was one of the founders of POV, and once financed an opera performance in Beacon Hill Park. Passionate about local history and politics—longtime Victoria councillor Pam Madoff said Jim was her “barometer” for the mood of Downtown businesses—he served on numerous City committees and the Provincial Capital Commission, and was instrumental in getting Ogden Point cleaned up to welcome cruise-ship passengers. Dave Hill, a manager for 40 years at Munro’s, said one of Jim’s favourite tasks was polishing the brass nameplates outside the store, because regular customers or total strangers would come up and chat with him. “Jim enjoyed people. That’s part of what made him a great businessman.”
MADELINE “MEL” BOLEN also came from an unlikely background for a bookseller. She grew up in Saskatchewan, only received a Grade 8 education, and worked in a bakery. She got into the book business when her husband took over a small bookshop in Hillside Mall in 1975. But they split up soon afterward, and Mel had to take over the business to raise their two children, putting in long hours to make it succeed.
“People loved her work ethic,” said Mel’s daughter Samantha, in her office at Bolen Books. In the 1970s, banks wouldn’t give loans to single women, but the manager of the mall was so impressed by Mel’s determination that he co-signed a loan so she could expand her store, which she did several times. Today, at 20,000 square feet, Bolen Books is one of the largest independent bookstores in Canada.
One would think a mall would be an unusual place for a thriving bookstore, but as Samantha told me, Victorians are unique in our support for independent businesses, and our tendency to shop in our neighbourhoods instead of driving across town. Unlike most malls, Hillside is also surrounded by houses, so it serves as a kind of community centre. “We also have a college and a university nearby, and Uplands. That’s diverse. You’ve got students who want to get a coffee and look at books, you’ve got people who have more money, and right behind us, you’ve got working families. This could not be a better area for a bookstore.”
Mel made it work because she knew her customers, and she took chances. “She was very daring, she would order 50 or 200 copies if she saw a book she liked and knew it would do well,” Howard White, the founder of Harbour Publishing, told me. “She would really get behind it, she’d put the author out in the concourse of the mall with a big stack of books, put ads in the newspaper, and really push it.” While Munro’s tended to host book signings by politicians (Brian Mulroney, Jean Chretien) or literary authors (Margaret Atwood, Michael Ondaatje), Bolen celebrated popular writers in a wide variety of genres, whether it was comedy (Charlie Farquharson), gothic erotica (Anne Rice), science fiction (William Gibson), or sports (Ken Dryden).
“The experience at Bolen Books taught me what people really read,” said Robert J. Wiersema, who organized many of those author events, and now is a successful novelist. “When you work in a bookstore you see the value that whole genres of books that are often disparaged hold for people, and why. As a writer, that was really valuable. It doesn’t have to be Can Lit, or literary fiction—what’s important is the connection the book makes, and the effect it has on the reader.”
Mel and Jim’s instincts were so refined that they also knew when it was time to pass their businesses to another generation. Mel retired and sold Bolen Books to Samantha in 2010, and Jim turned Munro’s over to four senior employees in 2014, the same year he was named to the Order of Canada.
Asked then what advice he would’ve given his younger self about getting into books, he replied, “Don’t do it, too uncertain…It’s a tough time for the book business.” But as he noted, it’s often been tough.
Book publishing remains strong: The industry is still worth almost $1 billion in Canada alone. The current challenge for bookstores comes mainly from online dealers, which account for half of all books sold. But even Amazon is opening bricks-and-mortar stores (in Seattle, Portland and San Diego, and six more coming soon), perhaps realizing that many readers still crave the tangible pleasures and communities of learning that surround real, physical books.
Mel Bolen and Jim Munro built monuments to the written word, and made Victoria known as a place where it is celebrated. Now it’s up to us to see that their legacies continue and thrive.
Ross Crockford is a journalist, former editor of Monday Magazine and author of Victoria: The Unknown City.
Former mayor of Victoria Peter Pollen died in early January, 2017. The four-term mayor played a significant role in shaping Victoria. In 2012 Leslie Campbell talked with "Mayor Peter" about—among other things—preserving public access to the waterfront.
PETER POLLEN HAS BEEN OFFICIALLY RETIRED from business and politics for many years now, but he still likes to talk about them. During our wide-ranging conversation in his gracious Uplands home, I had to work hard to keep the focus on his life—he often seemed to be trying to interview me.
The den we meet in looks out onto a Garry oak meadow, with feeders attracting many chattering birds. The room is full of art—including a large Herbert Siebner—and family photos and books. Pollen is an avid reader, especially of Shakespeare and history. Today he has The Collected Essays of George Orwell open.
His wife MaryAnn brings us tea, then joins the conversation and is especially good at recalling specific dates and names as we drill down through the decades.
Pollen grew up in Saskatchewan and Ontario. He credits his engagement in public service largely to his education at a small boarding school which preached social responsibility, along with teaching him table manners and ancient history.
He initially came to Victoria when he was 34 and an employee of the Ford Motor Company. It was supposed to be a two-week trip to help out the local dealer. But, in short order, the dealer convinced him to leave his job and take over running the dealership. It was a rather daring move for the young family, but Peter thrived at business and eventually owned both Ford and Honda dealerships.
It was a former mayor, R.B. Wilson, who came to Pollen one day and urged him to run for city council. For Pollen, who equates luck with “preparation and opportunity,” it was good timing.
After being an alderman for two years, he served four terms as mayor of the City of Victoria: 1971 to 1975 and 1981 to 1985.
“I liked it and I didn’t like it,” muses Pollen, adding, “It’s not where you make money, not where you get medals.” But it is, he acknowledges, an opportunity to make a difference to one’s community.
One theme of Pollen’s time as mayor—one that still runs in his veins—is his love of Victoria’s downtown and Inner Harbour. In recent years, that’s translated into his vocal opposition to the marina for mega-yachts.
Though the City was able to reduce its overall size, it’s still going ahead. He complains that the province has leased the water lot for only $40,000 per year (for 50 years), while the developer is selling the 26 individual slips for $800,000 apiece. Pollen and MaryAnn are active sailors and have no problem with a smaller-scale marina, but find the idea of “billionaires parking their boats there” distasteful. It’s Pollen’s view that the harbour and its walkways and vistas should be accessible by all citizens. He compares selling off that waterlot to the “filthy rich” to selling off our resources to China.
Pollen’s politics are hard to categorize. Though he once ran as a Conservative (unsuccessfully) in a provincial election, he tells me, “In a way I’m a bit of a socialist; one of my primary duties in life is to care for the people who need caring for.” He says he admired former premier W.A.C. Bennett because he didn’t have a political bias: “If something needed to be nationalized—like the ferry system—he nationalized it. If capitalism wasn’t delivering hydro power, he’d make damn sure somebody did and set up BC Hydro.”
Around heritage issues, too, he’s not a purist. He’s not opposed to highrises and he thinks the Northern Junk Building is, well, junk. But last year the Hallmark Society presented him with an Award of Honour “for long service to heritage in Victoria”—even amid a record building boom which he supported in other ways. The Society cited his engineering of the purchase of the Esso Service Station that now functions as the Visitor Information Centre, a ban on billboards, wrangling a free three-acre park at Laurel Point, saving the Malahat Building from demolition (he bought it and still owns it), a moratorium on building heights, the creation of the Lower Causeway, saving the Royal Theatre, and stopping “the Reid three-tower project,” a development proposal that involved three highrises—19-23 storeys high—on the waterfront near the foot of Bastion Square.
That’s quite a legacy. Regarding the causeway, Pollen says he had a vision—and drawings from Arthur Erickson’s firm—to make a beautiful, terraced walkway by the sea. Knowing the City couldn’t afford the $600,000 price tag, he called up then-Premier Dave Barrett and gave him a pitch. The next day Barrett called back, saying, “Build it; we’ll get you the money.”
Preserving the Royal Theatre was another favourite accomplishment. “We were confronted by the fact that Famous Players were going to sell the lot and tear down the theatre. So council said ‘to hell with that; we’re going to save it’—and we bought it for $265,000. And spent three times more fixing it up. It’s got lots of character; I love it!”
Pollen and his councils can also be credited with rejuvenating Government Street, broadening the sidewalks and planting trees, with the idea that it would become a pedestrian mall with no car traffic. But that was one battle he couldn’t win. The merchants then (as more recently) felt their business depended on cars being able to drive on Government.
Pollen’s philosophy of running the city was not unlike that for running a business: “Surround yourself with people who are smarter than you.” And remember the taxpayer who has to pay for everything. He worries about businesses in Victoria who pay 3.5 times the general tax rate. “You’re going to kill them if you’re not careful,” he warns.
In keeping with his focus on the Inner Harbour, heritage and taxes, Pollen is appalled at the decisions around the Johnson Street Bridge. He believes the replacement is too costly and unnecessary. He asks, “Why didn’t they service the bridge for six years?” and characterizes the lack of rail capacity on the new bridge as “absolute madness, outrageous.”
Pollen is the first to admit Victoria has been very good to him and his family—four children and 13 grandchildren all living within 10 blocks of him—and that’s one reason he went into politics in the first place. As mayor, he was able to make a difference and make many good friends. He and MaryAnn were able to go to China in 1982 when it was just opening up. Closer to home, but just as memorable, was a trip with his friend, naturalist Bristol Foster. They circumnavigated Haida Gwaii’s Moresby Island in “a tin boat, with a nine-horsepower motor” doing a pelagic bird survey (fuel was dropped off by plane).
These days he admits he’s slowed down some. “In your 70s,” he says “you might as well be 45, but when you hit your 80s, you…can’t fight any more dragons because the armour is too heavy.” If something moves or riles him, he jokes “I think about it and then I sit down!” But he can and does still write letters to the editor and lobby various authorities on his causes.
“The most important thing is to get the hell out of bed in the morning,” he concludes.
Leslie Campbell is the editor of Focus Magazine and will miss Mayor Peter.
WHEN MY FRIEND DIANE CARR was asked late in August by a Hospice nurse if she had any hobbies, she asked right back, “Is hell-raising a hobby?”
Diane was the best type of hell-raiser. She did it in the name of community, of righteousness, of art and friendship.
Unfortunately, Diane died on September 1, at age 75, after a very short struggle with pancreatic cancer.
I was honoured to be one of Diane Carr’s many close friends. She had a knack for getting to know people and then sticking with them over the years, always there for them when needed. Her friends came from many different circles: students who had boarded with her, cousins who moved to town, but often the bond had formed around a mutual fight on behalf of truth, beauty or justice. “And she was always very loyal to her friends,” says Bev Norman, a longtime friend. As a result, she had a vast network, one that knitted our community together and made it stronger.
Carole Witter, who developed a close friendship with Diane during the past five years through their mutual fight for a sensible solution to the area’s waste-water treatment, says: “I loved Diane’s passion for community and her dedication to successful land use. She worked tirelessly to make the world a better place for others. Diane enriched our lives far more than she ever knew.”
But though she had a serious, natural commitment to making the world a better place, Diane wasn’t just serious—she had a great sense of humour and her interests ranged far and wide. As Carole Witter puts it, “Conversations with Diane were always varied, energetic and delightful. We shared stories about sailing, cars once owned, favourite recipes, or any number of topics. Our discussions were stimulating and full of good cheer.”
I concur. At least a couple of times a month I relished getting together, usually over Diane’s perfect espressos in her modest, art-filled home, to discuss local politics as well as her thoughts on Focus stories (she was our diligent proofreader for many years). She was also my theatre-buddy. David and I cat-sat her beloved Cleo and she picked up my mail and deposited cheques when I was out of town. Towards Christmas, she dropped off her homemade shortbread to her many friends.
During her last few days on this Earth, I was one of her caregivers. During those hours, as she told me stories of her past adventures, I felt awed by her influence on our community and her richly textured life—and with her willingness to discuss her impending death. She told me about how when she was 10 years old she had an obsession and fear around dying. True to what became a life-long pattern, she dove into the subject intellectually and resurfaced with this realization: “I decided the best way to deal with death was to have lots of great friends and lots of wonderful experiences.” Then she added, “I think I’ve done pretty well on both counts.”
During those last days, she told me of her early years involved in the “human potential movement” when Cold Mountain Institute (a forerunner of Hollyhock) on Cortes Island was a sort of Esalen North. Later, she sailed the world for four years aboard a 23-metre ketch, visiting Scandinavia to South America, 40 countries in all. In the mid-1980s she lived at The Baca, a spiritual retreat founded by her friends Hanne and Maurice Strong (who held key UN roles around the environment, multilateralism and peace) in Colorado, working as Hanne’s assistant. Longtime friend and artist Katherine Surridge says, “In 1987 Diane invited me to spend a month at The Baca Grande, a large ranch in Colorado where she was living for the year. I am a painter and she wanted to give me an opportunity to paint in what she told me was an inspiring landscape. It was—but Diane was the one who inspired. She introduced me to the owners of The Baca, Hanne and Maurice Strong, then to people who lived there: Carmelite Monks, a Hindu Princess, a Buddhist Monk, an amateur astronomer who invited us to view the cosmos through his telescope, the largest privately-owned one in the US. We explored the Sangre de Cristo Mountains in her Volkswagen Camper and went to the Ute Sundance Ceremony. Diane told me that summer that one of her life’s wishes was to be surrounded by interesting people. That wish was fulfilled but I don’t think she ever realized she was the truly interesting one.”
Diane studied art history at the University of Victoria and did graduate studies in urban design (with a focus on community development) at the University of Calgary and was very involved in the arts community over the years, with a particular interest and expertise in ceramics and other crafts. She believed the reputation of crafts needed uplifting, that they should properly be regarded as a fine art. Starting in 1970, she ran a shop called the Potter’s Wheel in Victoria where she showed the best Vancouver Island potters’ work, and which became a centre for the craft’s promotion and networking among potters. In the 1980s, she founded the Cartwright Street Gallery in Vancouver which evolved into the Canadian Craft Museum in 1990. More recently, in 2012, she guest-curated an impressive exhibit, “Back to the Land: Ceramics from Vancouver Island and the Gulf Islands, 1970-1985” at the Art Gallery of Greater Victoria.
Artist Katherine Surridge says, “When I met Diane I was impressed by her curatorial skills but soon after I found out what a true patron of ‘the artist’ she was. She encouraged, inspired and challenged me for 35 years.” Such support is echoed by other artists Diane admired.
Diane served on numerous boards and committees over the years—some I only learned about by reading an old resume after her death. These included the Canada Council, the Hallmark Society, the BC Coalition for the Arts, the Community Arts Council of Vancouver, the St Ann’s Academy Restoration Project, and the Metchosin International Summer School of the Arts.
But Diane’s interests spread far beyond spirituality and arts and culture. In dealing with a diagnosis of breast cancer in the early 1990s, Diane found the system lacking and, as was her way, decided to do something about it. She realized that patients should have a say in the direction of research and their care. She found powerful allies and was instrumental in forming a survivor-directed organization dedicated to helping patients navigate the system and have more influence on policy. The Canadian Breast Cancer Network continues that work to this day.
Artist Carole Sabiston, who met Diane in the ’80s in Vancouver, tells a story of Diane’s creative, positive approach to her diagnosis: She threw a party to celebrate her body before having her mastectomy. “Diane had this idea of all the women at the party making casts of their breasts...and they did. There was so much joy in the air that night! It was heaven.” The breast casts were eventually hung on display at a conference for survivors.
When Carole herself received a diagnosis of breast cancer just this past January, she called Diane, who simply said, “I’ll be with you at every appointment.” And she was.
Heritage planner and former Oak Bay councillor Pam Copley met Diane at a museum studies course in the ’90s. Says Pam, “I was always struck by her incredible and intense integrity and determination. No matter what she took on…she’d become an expert in it.” Pam, who credits Diane with inspiring her to go into municipal politics as a form of community service, says “Diane was selfless in a way that is striking and rare these days.”
David’s and my friendship with Diane dates back “only” 10 years, when she decided to gather a group of her associates together to “solve” homelessness in late 2006. This was in answer to a challenge put to readers by Focus Magazine. Diane subsequently told me how the idea was born: She was at a cabin with a couple of friends on Thetis Island, sitting by the fireside, feeling blessed—and reading Focus. “I decided it was perfectly possible—with the right people involved—to solve the city’s homeless problem,” she told me.
Diane pulled from her wide-ranging network to develop the “Independence Settlement Project.” Her committee included developer Joe Van Belleghem, architects Peter Ole and Heather Spinney, lawyer Irene Faulkner, realtor Tom Croft, social worker/entrepreneur Jane McCannell and others.
The group’s fully documented and illustrated plan was so impressive it was the hands-down winner of the contest, and we decided to hold a forum to present it to the public. Over 800 people came out to the presentation at Alix Goolden Hall on a cold January night in 2007.
I believe that night in 2007 helped to light a fire under the powers-that-be in Victoria. Diane’s group continued to lobby for more progress on the homeless front. She was suspicious of the “homeless industry” and had hoped that some movers and shakers from outside of it could change things more quickly. The bureaucracy, to put it succinctly, proved stubborn and Diane turned some of her energies to helping Richard Leblanc establish his Creating Homefulness Society and finding property (Woodwynn Farm) to settle it on.
In this, as in other causes she worked for, Diane’s research and communication abilities, combined with her impressive network and passion, made her a force to be reckoned with—though often behind the scenes.
For many years Diane was involved with the Victoria West Community Association, serving as its president and chairing its land use committee. In those roles she was deeply involved in fighting the mega-yacht marina in the Victoria Harbour, as well as the clean-up of derelict boats in the Gorge. Audrey Whittall first met Diane in 2005 at a public meeting on the proposed marina. Over subsequent years they became good friends as they raised awareness around the environmental and safety risks for other users of the harbour. Says Audrey, “Diane was always concerned about the political influences that are used to push through the marina. She will be missed.”
In all such issues Diane was adamant about the public’s right to participate—meaningfully—in decisions that affected the community. It was Diane who drew my attention to the accepted principles of public participation—and how the City of Victoria failed to live up to them around the Johnson Street Bridge replacement project and other issues.
She was president of the Victoria West Community Association when the CRD announced that they were considering placing a biosolids sewage treatment facility on Viewfield Road on the border of Victoria West. She organized presentations on sewage treatment and, after in-depth research on the question, became dismayed at the CRD’s plans and actively worked for a better plan and decision-making process. She predicted the recent panel recommendation on wastewater treatment and (excuse the clichés) is likely rolling in her grave about it and those politicians with “feet of clay” who support it.
Recently, she was the vice president of the Friends of Maltby Lake Watershed Society, an organization dedicated to safeguarding Maltby Lake as one of the last undisturbed ecosystems in the Capital Region. Carmel Thomson credits Diane with the strong foundation the Society established from the start. “Diane knew the Societies Act and knew how bureaucracies worked, how we needed to present ourselves…What we’ve done in 18 months is remarkable, thanks in part to Diane.” She says, “While Diane was not afraid of being direct, she was always encouraging and supportive—and she cared.”
These are just some instances of Diane’s community service. I don’t know how she found the time for it all.
On the last day of her life, John Shields, an old friend and former Catholic priest, leader of the BC Government Employees Union and more recently The Land Conservancy, conducted a rite of passage. Writing of his ritual, he says he blessed “her remarkable brain that has contributed a lifetime of insight, brilliance, keen analysis of people and events. With her mind she had left a legacy among her fellow citizens of Victoria. I told her that I had always respected her mind with its keen analytic powers, her ability to articulate her thoughts, and the potency of her ideas.” Though she seemed unconscious on that last day, she reached out for John’s hand after he blessed her voice: “She had raised her voice to speak for justice, proclaiming her belief in a better world. She had whispered prayers, and sung joyful songs. She had spoken truth to power, and words of regret and apology. Her voice carried her thoughts into the marketplace and to the council chamber, and to community meetings. Her voice had expressed her passions and argued her convictions. It had done her work in the world.”
Many will miss that voice. Diane was the epitome of an engaged citizen, a person whose activism strengthens our democracy. Through her passion for the arts, for justice and community, and the application of her significant talents and skills, Diane left a legacy in a wide range of cultural and civic causes. I know she will continue to influence me—and many others—with her wisdom and spirit.
THE DIANE CARR COMMUNITY SERVICE AWARD: In recognition of the kind of spirit and activism embodied in Diane Carr, who died on September 1, 2016, each year Focus will honour a citizen of Greater Victoria who, with wisdom, integrity and determination, works to make this community a better place. Details of the award will be announced in a future Focus Magazine and on the website, with the winner announced in our September/October 2017 edition. Meanwhile, readers are encouraged to notice all the deserving nominees who volunteer their time, talents and energies on local issues involving social justice, the environment and the arts.
As the editor of Focus, Leslie Campbell has been blessed with meeting—and being inspired by—many Victorians who in myriad ways understand that they can make a positive difference in their community if they take up the challenge and connect with others of like dreams.