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  • Diane Carr: A community force for truth, beauty and justice

    Leslie Campbell

    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.”


    Diane Carr.jpg

    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.

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