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Stephen Hume

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  1. Vancouver Island’s residential schools saw death rates of up to 40 percent among incarcerated children. A SPONTANEOUS DEMONSTRATION OF PUBLIC GRIEF over the finding of 215 unmarked graves for children on the grounds of a former residential school in Kamloops created a display of children’s shoes, candles and stuffed animals on the front steps of British Columbia’s legislature. Security staff stealthily removed them overnight. People replaced the display in the following days. June 13, 2021 at the BC Legislature The legislature is supposed to be the people’s house. In fact it is the seat of enduring colonial power in a province that has the sorriest record in Canada for acknowledging a prior indigenous presence. The legislature apologized for—at best—another example of blundering, tone-deaf governance by a system that put thousands of such children into unmarked graves across Canada, hundreds of them right here on Vancouver Island. It was one more apology in a long list of apologies that seem increasingly empty the longer it becomes. On Vancouver Island at least 202 children died in residential schools. They died at Kuper Island (now Penelakut), at Alberni, at Tofino, at Ahousat and at Alert Bay. Others may have died as a consequence but remain unidentified—dying in hospitals, infirmaries or sanitariums outside the schools or sent to small, remote communities to die at home. Data from the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation indicates that at the Kuper Island school alone, of the 264 First Nations children forcibly enrolled between 1890 and 1896, 107 were listed as having died. What had 12-year-old Edith Kruger experienced when she was moved to create this image of graves at a school in BC If this sounds like a death camp mortality rate—and it most certainly does to me—it is also a conservative estimate. Nobody knows exactly how many children died in residential schools or where the nameless ones, the forgotten ones, are buried. Redbreast, for example. Or Ackeepineskung. Nobody knows which schools they attended—or when they died or where they are buried, only that they were apprehended, taken away to be educated and vanished, never to be seen again. Some children are recorded only by a first name, like Arthur at Ahousat who died in 1913, exact day not known. Or Mona who died at Alert Bay. Some are known only to have died, with circumstances and date not recorded. Many never even had their deaths officially registered with the province, and searches for them in the archives draw only a blank. It’s as though, like students who vanished under Argentina’s ruthless junta, they never existed beyond that one name on an almost-forgotten list. Almost, but not quite. This is where almost ends, here and now. We conveniently tell ourselves that the “disappeared” students in Argentina or Chile were victims of brutal dictatorships that killed them for political reasons. Yet Canada’s residential schools were political, part of the grand government scheme for clearing the land for immigrant settlers. The federal government was encouraging a flood of settlers into the West to help it assert occupational sovereignty in reaction to American expansion westward. Consider: 107 of 264 children at a Vancouver Island residential school died in the school’s first six years under circumstances that include malnutrition, disease and harsh punishments. That’s comparable to the mortality rate in the notorious Japanese prisoner of war camps that resulted in highly publicized war crimes trials for the prison administrators. The residential school at Kuper Island Is it fair to compare a prison camp to a school? Well, if you are put in a place against your will, fed substandard food, not allowed to leave and subjected to corporal punishment if you try, it sounds a lot like the definition of a prison camp. The death rate for prisoners of war in the Japanese camps that so horrified their liberators exceeded 30 percent. At Kuper Island, judging from the statistics cited for 1896, the death rate for children incarcerated for re-education then exceeded 40 percent. Perhaps it’s not so surprising that in 1896, says the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation entry for Kuper Island, the students tried to burn it down. Or that more than half a century later two girls would drown trying to flee the place. Education weaponized for ethnic cleansing The architect of these humanitarian atrocities was Sir John A. Macdonald. Alberta’s pugnacious premier Jason Kenney was recently asked in an interview whether, given what we now know, Macdonald’s was the appropriate name to hang on a Calgary high school. Kenney seized the opportunity to pander to his political base by lamenting “cancel culture” and characterizing residential schools as an unfortunate “imperfection” blemishing the otherwise sterling reputation of a great leader who deserved celebration for his other accomplishments, foremost among them the very Confederation that some vocal Albertans on the farther right apparently wish to demolish. Let’s be clear. The brutal residential school system put in place by the Macdonald government was more than a mere imperfection, some unfortunate flaw in policy. The residential school system was a tool for the methodical abuse of human rights. Residential schools were education weaponized for moral brainwashing, ethnic cleansing and cultural genocide. Those are strong words. But they aren’t my words. They are the words of a Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Canada, used to describe what the country’s highest jurist called the worst stain on Canada’s human rights record. And that’s a record already deeply stained by race riots, the internment of minorities, enforced sterilization of people with disabilities, misogynistic massacres of young women, and religious and racial hate crimes. “The objective—I quote from Sir John A. Macdonald, our revered forefather—was to ‘take the Indian out of the child and thus solve what was referred to as the Indian problem,’” said Chief Justice Beverly McLachlin in a speech in Vancouver in 2013. “‘Indianness’ was not to be tolerated; rather it must be eliminated. In the buzz-word of the day, assimilation; in the language of the 21st century, cultural genocide.” Prairie historian James Daschuk, who said his discoveries made him rethink everything he thought he knew about Canada’s creation narrative, wrote this in a Globe and Mail article in 2013: “A key aspect of preparing the land was the subjugation and forced removal of indigenous communities from their traditional territories, essentially clearing the plains of aboriginal people…Despite guarantees of food aid in times of famine in Treaty No. 6, Canadian officials used food, or rather denied food, as a means to ethnically cleanse a vast region from Regina to the then-Alberta border. With buffalo gone, starvation was employed as a tool for forcing indigenous populations onto small reserves. Government officials, Daschuk says, withheld food while it rotted in storage “while the people it was intended to feed fell into a decades long cycle of malnutrition, suppressed immunity and sickness.” In the winter of 1883, Roman Catholic missionary Father Louis Cochin reported “gaunt children dying of hunger.” Even Conservative politicians were appalled at what they saw. Thomas Jackson, the MP for the Northwest Territories, saw starving, freezing Cree supplicants for food turned away by government agents. “In the case of one Indian,” he said, “within two months seven of his children died because they had not the necessaries of life.” Macdonald had described this policy to the House of Commons in laudatory terms. Refusing food until First Nations populations were actually starving was keeping costs down and weakening resistance to the colonization of the Great Plains. Residential schools were the second phase of this project to politically remake the West. The entire raison d’être of residential schools, cloaked in an Orwellian high-mindedness regarding their moral purpose was, put in plainer language, to erase indigenous culture—to deconstruct its economy, disrupt its social cohesion, extinguish its connection to the land, and abolish its language, its history, its literature, its religious beliefs, its traditions, ceremonies and, indeed, its entire sense of identity. Residential schools, Macdonald said, enabled the separation of children from their culture so that subsequent generations could be more readily remade as something else. “It has been strongly impressed upon myself…that Indian children should be withdrawn as much as possible from the parental influence, and the only way to do that would be to put them in central training industrial schools where they will acquire the habits and modes of thought of white men,” Macdonald said in 1879. The residential school at Port Alberni The object was to make an entire people disappear not by killing their bodies but by killing everything about them that made them distinguishable from the dominant society. The schools were only marginally about education. Really they were a vast exercise in cultural gaslighting intended to brainwash children into a sense of profound shame over who they were and whence they came. Duncan Campbell Scott, esteemed as a Canadian literary icon, ran the Department of Indian Affairs. He acknowledged that the schools, where children were packed into dormitories under unsanitary conditions, were pestilential. Food was strictly rationed; one former student at Ahousat told a Vancouver Sun reporter in 1995 that 57 years earlier one of his school chums had died following a beating for stealing a prune from the kitchen. Ahousaht, BC, students in the school cafeteria. British Columbia Archives, PN-15589 “It is readily acknowledged that Indian children lose their natural resistance to illness by habituating so closely in these schools, and that they die at much higher rate than in their villages,” Scott said. “But this alone does not justify a change in the policy of this Department, which is being geared towards the final solution of our Indian problem.” Canadians have chosen to look away—or seek scapegoats “Cultural genocide.” “Final solution.” “Disappeared.” “Died while trying to escape.” “Beaten to death for stealing a prune.” This is the context that frames residential schools and the unmarked graves of child inmates. So when the officials who represent the authority of the BC government—the keepers of its sacred precinct—carelessly removed that poignant public display from the legislature steps, they were symbolically delivering the same message that residential schools themselves sought to accomplish regarding indigenous narratives: erase them from public space. And really, why was anybody surprised? Like a generation of post-war Germans who professed not to have known about the Holocaust, Canadians have chosen not to look upon this dolorous narrative of national crime. Once again, that’s not my descriptor; it was the term used by Peter Bryce, the federal government’s own inspector who was utterly appalled by what he found, for example, one school where 69 percent of the pupils and former pupils had died. When his formal report met indifference from authorities, he took it to the press where it was a one-day wonder—front page of the Ottawa Citizen for one day, then off the radar—and then in 1922 wrote a book, The Story of a National Crime. It, too, was largely ignored by the broader public. Today, there appears to be a national awakening to this awful past of brutality, indifference and cruelty. But even now there’s a search for scapegoats. Blame past leaders. Pull down their statues. Blame former governments. Blame cancel culture. Blame the churches that ran the schools. Yet the truth is, there is no “them” to blame. There’s only “us.” Government was us. The authorities were us. The administrators were us. The churches were us. They did what they did to the victims for us. The big objective was to help us cover up, to evade responsibility and ultimately to help us absolve ourselves of the human rights crime upon which we have constructed our entire national edifice. Many of us are still in denial about this sin. But many more, it seems, led by young people, are now prepared for the painful conversation that comes with acknowledgment of what was done and who did it and on whose behalf. Personally I don’t care about pulling down statues of Sir John A. Macdonald or renaming Ryerson and McGill universities, high schools and streets. All that may be satisfying. But to me, the important thing is not the past, it’s the future. It’s what we do next to reconcile with those we have wronged and in many cases continue to wrong. When we think about Macdonald’s starvation policies, we should think about the 53 percent of First Nations children more than a century later who live below the poverty line in a country that became one of the wealthiest in the world by exploiting their former homelands. We should think about the 22 percent of indigenous families in 2021 who experience moderate to severe food insecurity. When we think about the fate of First Nations children in residential schools that were lethal dormitories of disease and illness, we should consider that today in Manitoba, although indigenous people are 10 percent of the population, they suffer 70 percent of COVID-19 infections. And First Nations families are 10 times more likely to be living in overcrowded housing, many with inadequate access to safe drinking water—of the 60 communities with water advisories in place, 47 percent have been in that state for more than a decade. The government still has no comprehensive regulatory regime for managing drinking water on the reserves it set up. The residential school at Alert Bay, circa 1970 When we think about the sad stories of two little girls drowning as they attempted to flee one residential school in mid-winter, or four little boys freezing in the snow after they sought to flee another in their shirts at minus-38 degrees, or the teenager reportedly beaten to death for stealing a prune for his six-year-old dormitory mate, we should think about the fact that anxiety remained the most prevalent mental health issue for aboriginal youth in 2016. The suicide rate for indigenous youth is three times that of the mainstream population; in some regions it’s 33 times the Canadian average and is the leading cause of death for children and adolescents. We owe it to Maisie—and 150,000 other children I planned to start this piece by saying that the events on the legislature steps brought to my mind the memory of Maisie Shaw. But to be honest, that wouldn’t be true, because since she came to my awareness more than a quarter of a century ago there’s seldom been a day when I haven’t thought of her. I never met Maisie Shaw. She departed this world almost 75 years ago just as I was coming into it. She’s a mystery, a revenant, an unknown. She’s been held up as a symbol of oppression, an icon of the brutality of residential schools for those determined to address the past, a metaphor for our collective failure to address the truth about ourselves. For me she’s an echo of the trauma from those days that will destroy this country if we don’t resolve it. Most important, she’s not a statistic, she’s not a number or a registration entry or a line on a list of names. She was once a person, embedded in a family like yours and mine. Maisie Shaw was a student at Alberni Residential School in 1946. She came from the tiny village of Nitinat on the remote West Coast. Her father was Walter Shaw, a fisherman, and her mother was Ella Williams. Maisie was born on August 26, 1932. In one of those odd occurrences of history, she shared her birthday with her father, who had been born August 26, 1905 in New Westminster. Her mother was born in Alberni in 1906. One of her brothers was born at Whyac where the Nitinat River reaches the sea, another was born at Clo-ose, a little farther down the coast. One brother died when he was one, the year before Maisie was born. Her mother died when she was five. And then she went to the Alberni school. What happened to her there is the mystery. Another former student, Harriet Nahanee, who died in 2007, said in 1995 that on December 24, 1946, when she was six, she had witnessed Maisie Shaw being kicked down a flight of stairs at the residential school and lying motionless on the floor with her eyes open and that she later died of her injuries; her body was sent back to Nitinat. The official documents tell another story: Maisie was admitted to West Coast General Hospital in Alberni on December 18 with an acute case of rheumatic fever; she died there on December 26 of a severe inflammation of the pericardium, the membrane that surrounds the heart, which is commonly associated with the illness. She was buried, a document said, in the Tseshaht band cemetery in Alberni. I went to look for her grave, but the undertaker listed on the death certificate had no records, and I was unable to find her burial site. When I called West Coast General to determine whether Maisie Shaw had been admitted on the date given on the death certificate, I was told records from that time had long been destroyed and the hospital itself had been relocated twice since then. Everybody associated with Maisie is now dead: Harriet, the school principal, the Indian Agent who signed the death certificate, the doctor who said she was his patient for a week, her parents, her brothers. All dead. Did Harriet Nahanee conflate events and people? There’s no doubt whatsoever that the Alberni school, like others on the Island, was a violent place. Students there were disciplined by corporal punishment. Some were repeatedly and brutally sexually assaulted by the school’s dormitory advisor over a 20-year period from 1948 to 1968; he was later jailed for 11 years and has since died. And memory is at best a malleable thing, particularly for traumatized children. Were official documents destroyed, falsified or altered? Also possible. Perhaps, though, seeking the details of Maisie Shaw’s fate reflects only an old reporter’s urge for precision, a way of trying to refute public amnesia. Ultimately the facts are less important than collectively remembering the historic truth of what was done to her and to 150,000 other innocents over a century of cruelty. On this coast First Nations were pushed out of their traditional fisheries and their lands were appropriated. Among the first acts of British Columbia on entry into Confederation was taking away their right to vote. First Nations were denied the right to own property; denied the right to practice traditional ceremonies and religious rites, denied the right to organize politically to address their land rights; and denied the right to hire lawyers. Finally, in the most intimate insult, their children were taken from them and sent to be brainwashed in prison schools where they were publicly whipped, forcibly confined, abused, raped and buried in unmarked graves. The message of the residential schools was simple: We can do anything we want and you are powerless to stop us. All these things are a matter of record. We haven’t had a national conversation about them because we haven’t wanted to face the truth about ourselves as a country founded on a national crime. The memory of Maisie Shaw and all the other lost children demand that conversation. It’s a conversation we cannot, must not, turn away from, however painful it becomes. Stephen Hume has spent half a century as a journalist writing about Western Canada, the Far North, BC and Vancouver Island.
  2. Greater conservations measure are needed if the fish—and fishing the river is known for—are to survive. FIFTY YEARS AGO, just as pale green catkins dusted with yellow pollen began to emerge on alders that scant weeks earlier had been merely a bleak, grey rattle in the wind, serious anglers like Art Webster would be getting out their split cane rods. We now inhabit the age of technical fishing, of mass-produced fibreglass, unbreakable alloys and the science of powerful, super-light carbon graphite rods. Anglers download coordinates from satellites to pinpoint favoured fishing holes and deploy digitized maps on hand-held computer screens to get there. A time in which anglers would walk three days to get to a good stretch of river and their prized rods were hand-assembled from bamboo strips—and not just any bamboo, either, not Tonkin or Calcutta, it had to be from Malacca cane—then hand-glued, hand-varnished, hand-rubbed to a luminous gloss, the blued steel and agate-lined guides hand-whipped to the rod with silk wrapping thread, well, that time can seem impossibly quaint today. So can the unwritten rules and occasionally stuffy conservation etiquette that proscribed certain unsporting and unmentionable conduct—one didn’t use “hardware,” one didn’t fish on spawning stocks, one didn’t bounce bait along the bottom and so on. But when the snowy summits had already begun shedding melt water from the glittering drifts and cornices more than a kilometre above, anglers still governed by a courtly Edwardian sensibility would check their floating fly lines for cracks and run them—metre by painstaking metre—through a basin of soapy water to wash off the winter grit. Screws would be tightened, leaders coiled, and the drag mechanisms checked and adjusted on their simple single-action reels. I know the routine because I once used to follow it myself, although my own rods have been in the rafters for years now and I doubt they’ll ever come out again. Photo from the Cowichan Bay archives of an angler with a chinook. The Cowichan once had runs of 25,000 of these very large salmon. Veteran fishing guides like Joe Saysell, who has lived on the Cowichan River for more than 70 years, would watch the resident belted kingfishers flashing in the spring sun, get their drift boats shipshape for the coming season and keep an eye peeled for signs of that first insect hatch dimpling the emerald current, signalled by the shimmering clouds of gossamer-winged flies drifting upstream on the invisible river of air that always runs counter to the flow of the water. “The thing is, we’d wait until April 16 for the upper part of the river to open and when the opening came, it always felt like winning the lottery,” Webster recalls. Lacrosse fans will better know Webster as the professional lacrosse star who came west from Ontario, won two Mann Cup titles playing for Victoria, and then won a fistful more as a coach. But spend a few minutes chatting about fishing and it’s clear his passion for the river runs as deep as his passion for lacrosse. “I’ve been fishing the Cowichan since the Victoria Shamrocks brought me out here [from Brampton] in 1978,” he says, and he fell in love with what’s long been considered one of British Columbia’s blue ribbon angling destinations with its long, slow pools, fast-moving riffles, deep holes and canyons and thundering waterfalls as it hurries from Cowichan Lake to its estuary on Cowichan Bay, 30 kilometres to the southeast, itself once a saltwater angler’s Eden for the vast run of huge slab-sided Chinook and aggressive coho salmon that would hold in the salt water awaiting the fall freshet before returning to the upper river to spawn. These days Webster and Saysell, a pair of icons from the halcyon days of fly fishing on the Cowichan, are part of a movement that’s lobbying the provincial government to put a stop to some of the most popular angling on Vancouver Island. They want the magical upper stretches of the river closed to angling from the end of October to mid-April. It’s difficult to argue their logic. Angling pressure on the extremely sensitive habitat is now so great, our knowledge of what’s happening so limited, the technology so efficient, and the possible consequences so dire that these wise old anglers say not to invoke the precautionary principle is irresponsible and, worse, profoundly unethical. “Look,” Webster says, “we don’t hunt grouse in the spring; we don’t hunt ducks or geese in the spring; we don’t hunt pregnant does; or elk, or moose. What would be left if we did that? Why is fishing on the upper Cowichan River any different?” Unprecedented pressure on vulnerable habitat It’s sure to be a controversial quest. October through March are the months when there’s the most intensive recreational angling on the 10-kilometre stretch of water from what’s called the 70.2 mile trestle, an old logging railway bridge, and the weir at Lake Cowichan, which holds back water for release in the increasingly arid summer months that are shaping into the new normal of global warming. But Saysell says winter fishing has simply got to stop or anglers’ love of the designated heritage river may wind up extirpating the very abundance and diversity that’s been bringing elite anglers from around the world for well over a century. Anglers come for prized but increasingly rare winter run steelhead, for rainbow, cutthroat and brown trout. Once-large but now much-diminished chinook and coho runs also return to the river each year, although a rebuilding program for chinook has been encouraging. Conservative observers like Saysell note, however, that while a couple of improved chinook returns may be hopeful cause for celebration they hardly represent a recovery at a time when stocks around the Georgia Basin are endangered or threatened, and steelhead returning to most other streams on the east coast of Vancouver Island are virtually on life-support. Veteran fishing guide Joe Saysell has lived on the Cowichan River for more than 70 years. “The Cowichan River has some of the finest trout fishing anywhere from late October to December,” announces one website still promoting the winter angling there. But that’s precisely the problem say Saysell, Webster and the Friends of the Cowichan, a local conservation group that shares broader environmental concerns. Because so many Island streams are in trouble, the enthusiastic marketing of recreational fishing simply channels more and more anglers and their professional guides to the upper Cowichan where they can still catch fish and where the experience provides an historic cachet that reaches back to that Golden Age when trophy catches were posted outside London’s exclusive Victorian clubs and were reported by the New York Times. That’s putting unprecedented pressure on vulnerable habitat precisely when the fish stocks are themselves most vulnerable. Letter urges more data collection and closure of critical spawning habitat In a letter from Friends of the Cowichan to Katrine Conroy, the provincial minister responsible for forests, lands and natural resources, Saysell points out that the opening on the upper river takes place right in the middle of critical spawning habitat for steelhead, chinook, coho and rainbow trout. Even worse, the heaviest fishing pressure takes place at exactly the time that already imperilled game fish are actually spawning the next generation of trout and salmon. Anglers in chest waders tramp through spawning beds where fish have just deposited their eggs; drift boats drop anchors that churn and drag through the redds where eggs wait to hatch; and the fishing pressure is both utterly relentless and intensifying. How much pressure is there? Nobody, apparently, really knows. It’s just open season. Anybody can fish there and seemingly without limit; whatever traffic the river will bear. “The upper river from the 70.2-mile trestle to the weir is where the vast majority of the chinook spawn. It is also where a large percent of the coho and steelhead spawn. And we also know that this area is where 95 percent of the rainbow trout spawn. The upper Cowichan River, below the weir at Lake Cowichan. “This area is one continual spawning redd at this particular time,” the letter says, “and is considered the ‘delivery room’ and ‘nursery room’ of the Cowichan River. Yet it is open for angling during the fall, winter and early spring, when fish are very vulnerable.” “People are getting out of their boats and walking through the redds,” Webster concurs. “People are just marching through. We have no idea how much damage is being done.” The Friends of the Cowichan letter raises that same question for the Province and for the minister in charge of managing what seems more like a bizarre mis-management policy. “How much damage to the redds are all the anglers doing by wading or anchoring on this fragile area, or how much damage is being done to fish that are in spawning mode (dark and laden with eggs)?” the letter asks.“We cannot say because there have not been any studies done on this subject.” Regulations haven’t caught up with technology Chris Morley, a fisheries consultant who has lived on the river for 29 of the 35 years he’s worked across BC and the Yukon, says he supports the concerns in the letter. Over the past decade, Morley says, he’s observed a steady increase in angling pressure on the upper river from both drift boats and shore anglers. “Based on my work experience and my observations on the Cowichan River, I believe that the upper river should be closed to angling during the winter months to protect spawning trout and salmon and their redds,” he says. “The Province should regulate the fishery appropriately to protect this resource.” There are some restrictions in place already. Fishing is permitted only with artificial flies on the upper stretch of river and it’s strictly catch-and-release. Yet Morley is doubtful about even that. There’s ongoing discussion and debate about mortality rates from catch-and-release angling, he notes, “however, there have been no studies done on the Cowichan to quantify these mortalities. “The Province should provide studies that can show some supportive data either for or against regulation changes. Until there are studies, we should err on the side of caution before it’s too late,” says Morley. Those concerns are echoed in the letter to the minister. It argues that technological advances in equipment call into question whether the current regulations restricting the upper Cowichan only to fly fishing are even relevant any more. “They are using extremely heavy lines, sinking leaders and extremely heavily weighted flies, which actually makes this angling bottom bouncing,” the letter says. It points out that the gear restrictions on the upper Cowichan were established in 1975 precisely to eliminate the practice of bottom bouncing which was then considered a factor in the collapse of trout and salmon populations there. “Technology has come so far today with the new weighted lines and new weights for flies that the method of fishing in the fall and winter in this area can no longer be described as fly fishing. The regulations and ministry are way behind the times and need to catch up.” Bob Hooton, one of BC’s leading steelhead experts until he retired from the provincial government, says a case can be made that wading anglers can have an impact on eggs and frequently hatched alevins, particularly if the foot traffic is concentrated in a small area at a vulnerable time. “Anglers, of course, will never be able to get on the same page with respect to an upper river closure. The typical demand is for science-driven decisions but no one is ever prepared to down tools long enough to facilitate the collection of the science demanded. “I’d be in favour of some thorough baseline data collection/assimilation on where, when and how much angling traffic of different types is occurring in areas alleged to be affected, assessing the juvenile salmon and steelhead abundance in those areas, closing the fishery for a year or two and repeating the same data collection. What are the chances? “There aren’t any clean answers here,” Hooton says. “If there were, we wouldn’t be having this conversation.” It’s just more traffic, more traffic, more traffic Ironically, Webster points out, when he first began fishing on the Cowichan River more than 40 years ago, there was then a complete winter closure for angling on the upper river between October and mid-April—to protect spawning fish. That closure was removed in 1988 under the government of Premier Bill Vander Zalm. “I was totally against them opening the river even at that time,” Webster says. “Now, with so much more pressure on the river than ever before—it’s just more traffic, more traffic, more traffic. I’m just glad there are no jet boats!” He says that at 68 he’s noticed one major change. Many younger anglers, some of them guides, appear to have never been schooled in some of the time-honoured etiquette of angling with the fly, the principal one being the duty to a deep and abiding respect for the river and its at-risk inhabitants. That, too, echoes a point made in the letter to Conroy. “In the past, anglers were considered conservationists as they did everything possible to protect fish, especially spawners. But today that does not describe the anglers who are fishing this area during December, January, February and March because real conservationists do not fish in spawning areas or over spawning fish. It is unethical to do so, yet this is exactly what is happening.” At very least, the letter urges the minister, current regulations should be amended to impose restrictions banning all but floating fly lines, banning use of weighted flies, and setting strict catch-and-release quotas that limit anglers to a single steelhead and four trout, although it acknowledges that with presently available resources, effective enforcement is not feasible. Rules that aren’t or can’t be enforced simply invite flouting of the rules. A far more effective protection for spawning fish on the upper Cowichan River would be a simple winter closure. “Since we do not have the science to justify keeping this section open during these four critical months, we believe that the ministry should close it until it is scientifically proven that no harm is being done to the fish and redds,” the letter says. “Err on the side of caution and conservation rather than angler opportunity.” Indeed, such a closure would leave almost 90 percent of the river still open to angling during the winter months, the letter argues, and it would represent both the right ethical and and the sound biological decision. All rivers need a sanctuary where fish can spawn undisturbed. Provincial fishing regulations recognize that for most other rivers in the province where there are seasonal and area closures to protect spawning fish when they are at their most vulnerable. ”Why not the Cowichan?” Saysell asks. It’s a fair question and it’s one the minister should answer. Promptly. Stephen Hume has spent half a century as a journalist writing about Western Canada, the Far North, BC and the Island.
  3. Image: The proposed Telus building in downtown Victoria Humans celebrate birds—bird-watching is now more popular than golf and even gardening—but North American buildings may kill close to a billion each year. Go to story...
  4. Humans celebrate birds—bird-watching is now more popular than golf and even gardening—but North American buildings may kill close to a billion each year. PLANS BY TELUS TO TRANSFORM Victoria’s downtown with “an iconic architectural landmark” featuring a massive, 11-storey high wall of glass on lower Douglas Street are generating a robust conversation about environmentally sustainable development. On the face of it, the planners set out admirable objectives: the structure is to bolster biodiversity with “lush tree canopies,” “pollinator eco-systems,” and a slew of other concepts from the green mission statement word hoard—low carbon compliance, rainwater harvesting, carbon sequestration, deep operational carbon emission control, renewable power generation through solar panels and so on. Of course, it’s not the only new building coming to Victoria. There’s been discussion about plans for a dramatic 20-storey flatiron structure at Fort and Blanshard which, as envisioned, would need a variance to exceed height restrictions by six metres. I’m all for imaginative iconic architecture. I’m certainly not obsessive about preserving stodgy, pervasive colonial symbols that emulate and evoke historic connections to Victoria’s unsavoury past as the seat of power for imposing systematic, anti-democratic, cultural oppression. But some aspects of the proposed projects do give pause. Can the planned Telus Ocean be bird-friendly? There’s that enthusiastically endorsed “wall of glass,” for one thing. Architects have been mesmerized by the aesthetic possibilities of transparency and reflective cladding surfaces for half a century now, ever since a revolution in the properties of building envelope materials made immense glass towers a reality. Our embrace of glass is understandable: it’s beauty, however, poses profound problems for birds. Many years ago, in a distant city, I’d walk silent streets in the predawn gloom, passing among the nondescript brick walkups and grimy business low-rise business fronts until I crested a slight rise. Suddenly before me, on the other side of the deep river valley that bisected that city—just as the earliest birds greeted the world with their dawn chorus—I’d see the recently arisen, luminous, 40-storey pillars of glass that comprised the urban core. I loved the sound of the early birds calling from gardens and from the forested parklands of the valley and I loved the stunning visual impact in that first sight of the city erupting from the still-dark northern horizon. Stacked against the black heavens, those skyscrapers rising above the commercial district at their base never failed to make me pause in their eerie glow and to stare at the stark, unpardonable beauty of that manufactured landscape. Some towers were suffused with a warm, golden incandescence; some glittered with internal light as hard as diamonds; yet others were pillars of pale emerald or a faint aquamarine. Red warning lights blinked above them. Neon signs splashed colour. Traffic lights blipped through their endless cycles of amber, red, green. Headlights from the occasional taxi jittered through the windy canyons of steel, glass and concrete. I always felt a bit special at the sight, as though I’d been allowed in for a private, personal viewing of some vast kinetic art installation. Never once did it cross my mind that I was also looking at a gigantic, mindless killing machine that threatened the existence of my other source of beauty in that moment—the untutored, spontaneous symphony of wild birdsong. A hawk colliding with a building. Photograph by Deborah Allen But a killing machine that built urban landscape was and still remains. An annihilation machine, ruthlessly efficient, entirely heedless, constructed for our convenience at the immense expense of the feathered species that we celebrate as spiritual envoys from nature and as symbols of freedom unfettered by, as the poet once put it, “the surly bonds of earth.” The billions of windows in millions of residential buildings in Canada and the United States, the display glass of commercial buildings, the aesthetically-pleasing glass towers whose possibilities inspire architectural imaginations, are estimated by some scientists to kill close to a billion birds a year. Attracted into the urban landscape by the habitation glow that encompasses every human settlement in developed economies, birds in flight collide with glass that’s invisible to them. The meeting is almost always fatal. Bird-friendly design not top of mind in Victoria “Unlike humans, birds cannot perceive images reflected in glass as reflections and will fly into windows that appear to be trees or sky,” observes a report for the Fatal Light Awareness Program (FLAP) in Toronto, a city-wide initiative which has been grappling with the problem. “Clear glass also poses a danger as birds have no natural ability to perceive clear glass as a solid object. Birds will strike clear glass while attempting to reach habitat and sky seen through corridors, windows positioned opposite each other in a room, ground floor lobbies, glass balconies or glass corners. The impact of striking a reflective or clear window in full flight often results in death. “Experiments suggest that bird collisions with windows are indiscriminate. They can occur anywhere, at any time, day or night, year-round, across urban and rural landscapes, affecting migratory, resident, young, old, large, small, male and female birds.” Flat glass panels are especially dangerous for birds. Photograph by John McHugh, Creative Commons via Wikimedia Commons FLAP hosts an annual dead bird layout to raise awareness about the dangers birds face in our built environment. Photo by Leighton Jones The concerned municipal planners and building envelope experts in Toronto point out in the report that the amount of glass in a building is the single strongest predictor of how dangerous it is to birds. As changes in production and construction techniques facilitated the greater use of glass, they note, cities have become ever-more dangerous for birds to navigate. “Today it is now common to see buildings with the appearance of complete glass exteriors. The increase of curtain wall and window wall glazing, as well as picture windows on private homes, has in turn increased the incidence of bird collisions. Today, the vast majority of Toronto’s new mid-to-high rise buildings contain more than 60 percent glass.” Developers of the Telus Ocean building appear to have committed from the outset to active exploration of mitigation strategies ranging from glass cladding modified to make it visible to birds, to the use of screens, latticework and louvres. Glass adjacent to vegetation is to be treated with elements that are visible only to birds, says a revised design submitted to the City late last year. And exterior and interior plantings are to be given “careful consideration” regarding location to reduce both the appeal of interior spaces to birds and possible confusion about available perches for birds in flight. There are also plans to reduce nighttime illumination that might prove hazardous to migrating birds. Although mitigation strategies like those outlined in the Telus Ocean application are both commendable and welcomed by environmentalists concerned about urban bird strikes, the overall magnitude of the problem remains immense. One concerned group, the Victoria Bird Strike Initiative wrote last November to regional municipalities urging them to pass bylaws mandating design to mitigate bird strikes as a required part of the application process for new buildings. The letter claimed North America has lost almost one-third of its bird population since 1970. Erin Dlabola, a former employee of the University of Victoria who said over a hundred dead birds had been found around only a few buildings on the campus, asked regional governments to get proactive about mandating design features that can substantially reduce fatal bird collisions. “When bird-friendly design is incorporated at the planning stage, it can be cost neutral, and complement other design goals like energy efficiency,” wrote Dlabola and co-campaigner Willow English. “In addition, there are ways to make existing buildings safer for birds using visual markers and other products and techniques.” “Those [municipalities] who responded were mostly positive,” Dlabola says. “A few municipalities we heard back from already had plans to implement bird-friendly design guidelines in upcoming community plans and or bylaws and it was good to see there was already awareness on this issue. “Next we would like to see bird-friendly guidelines mandated by municipalities because it is the most effective solution based on guidelines that have been implemented in other cities.” English said that in the City of Victoria, however, “the current wording of the design guidelines is not stringent enough to ensure that new buildings are bird friendly. “Of particular concern is the text encouraging large areas of transparent glass at ground level, and only asking for bird collisions to be considered on higher storeys. Most bird collisions occur within the first four storeys of a building, making this area the most important for bird-friendly design.” Ploughing through the City’s design plan guidelines, official community plans and other documents, however, doesn’t yield much in the way of easily discernible or rigorously expressed policy vision about what needs to be done to assertively address the problem. Search city websites in Toronto, Calgary, Ottawa or Vancouver and the issue is clearly top-of-the-mind for urban planners and developers alike. Search Victoria’s documents and bird-friendly design prescriptions are extraordinarily difficult to find—that’s a clear statement of priorities in itself. Indeed, do a web search for urban bicycle policy in Victoria and you are inundated with hits. Do the same thing for bird-friendly design, nothing, at least not in the first five search pages—another statement of priorities that seems odd in a city that often bills itself as one of the greenest in Canada. And yet, we love birds more than ever Let’s extend that mind-boggling billion bird collision fatalities a bit. The highest estimate would mean that since the turn of this century, in Canada and the US alone, about 20 billion birds have perished crashing into the entirely passive threat of windows they can’t see. To that colossal number, you can add another 10 billion killed by domestic and feral cats. Then there are the 3.5 billion birds killed by high tension electrical wires, the 1.5 billion killed by pesticides and rodent poisons and the 1.2 billion killed by cars. Add it all up and so far this century you get 36.5 billion birds killed by unwitting and unintentional human activity. More than half of those fatalities are caused by windows. Other numbers suggest that quite contrary to the dolorous reality of human-caused bird fatalities, most of us—ironically—appear to love the birds we destroy by the billion. Business and market statistics show that since the pandemic began, householders trapped at home by lockdowns have turned to the winged wildlife just outside their death-dealing windows for personal solace. Even before the pandemic, wild bird products comprised a $20 billion a year sector of the entangled Canadian and US economies. Since COVID’s arrival, sales of birdseed, birdhouses and feeders have leaped. Add the spending of bird watchers and their activities and one study estimates it exceeds $80 billion a year. There are 57.2 million birdwatchers in the US and another 7.5 million in Canada. Recreational surveys by various government and marketing agencies report that we now spend more time at birding than most other recreational activities. Canadians, for example, spent an average of 133 days a year watching, monitoring, feeding, filming or photographing birds compared to an average of 70 days we spent gardening. Bird-watching is more popular than golf these days When you start to crunch the numbers, it becomes a mystery why so many municipal governments and developers invest so much effort obsessing over golf courses when the real public need on the basis of interest alone, is for bird sanctuaries and for more undomesticated parkland that provides habitat for the birds that people are so eager to watch. Think about it. There are about 64 million birders in Canada and the US. That’s almost three times the number of golfers (24 million) in both countries. It’s almost three times the number of the total attendance for every National Hockey League team. It’s three times the total attendance of the National Basketball Association and almost four times the total attendance of the National Football League. And 17 million more people watch birds each year than attend theatrical performances in both countries. Bird watchers spend big money on their pastime. One economic study of birders in the US, before the pandemic, reported they spent $15 billion just travelling to birdwatching sites and spent another $26 billion on equipment. The 57,000 birdwatchers who visit the famous sanctuary at Point Pelee, Ontario, spend an average of $549—just to watch the migratory birds that will later perish crashing into the towers of Toronto flying north, and Detroit flying south. Out of sight, out of mind In the face of our appreciation of the aesthetic, spiritual and economic value of birds, one wonders why we don’t put a great deal more effort into rendering the urban landscapes that attract them less lethal. As far as I can determine, no diligent data-obsessive researcher has yet actually counted the number of glass windows or how many hectares of glass wall are created by our architectural fetish for cladding commercial high rise towers, up-market condominiums and apartment blocks in transparent and reflective materials. As noted above, the amount of glass in a building is the strongest predictor of how dangerous it is to birds. So not knowing how much glass there actually is remains a curious absence. About 56 percent of bird fatalities from collisions involve commercial glass—lower buildings are far more dangerous than skyscrapers simply because most birds do most of their flying close to the ground. The other 44 percent die colliding with residential glass. A simple, anecdotal check with window cleaners online suggests that the average home of 192 square metres has about 25 windows, (although about 25 percent of British Columbians live in larger houses with considerably more glass). Calculated another way, construction guidelines generally aim for a window or glass door in every room on the building’s external perimeter. The glass should be equal to at least 10 percent of the floor area of the room at a minimum. Most of us prefer more natural daylight and therefore more glass. In the Capital Region, according to census data, there were 172,559 private dwellings reported in 2016. A simple extrapolation from that—acknowledging that this is a conservative guesstimate because it doesn’t account for cladding and windows on commercial office, institutional and residential towers—projects at least 4.4 million windows across the near 700 square kilometres of Greater Victoria. Every one of those windows is a potential death trap for flying birds. Few are the householders who haven’t heard the thump of a bird colliding with a window, patio or other door. Sometimes we are left with the sad disposal of a dead bird, often we just hear the noise and never find the feathered corpse. We like to reassure ourselves that the bird survived the collision and flew away, but researchers at the American Bird Conservancy say that’s unlikely. A too common occurrence near buildings, though often hidden in the bushes “Birds suffer internal hemorrhages, concussions or damage to their bills, wings eyes or skulls,” they observe. “While they may be able to fly away temporarily, birds with even moderate injuries are much more vulnerable to predators and other environmental dangers.” The reason we aren’t presented with a constant litter of dead and dying birds, the researchers point out, is because they usually strike the glass at high speed, bounce off and land some distance away, often obscured by plants or other objects. And scavengers like rats, raccoons, crows and house cats will quickly carry off dead and injured birds. In fact, the scientists say, smart scavengers may actually check several times a day at a window where there are frequent bird strikes. Out of sight, out of mind, so we remain largely oblivious to the magnitude of the carnage, which Oklahoma State University researcher Scott Loss has characterized as “death by a million nicks.” All of which gives me pause whenever I read of striking architectural plans which feature more vast walls of glass surrounded by both external vegetation at the perimeter, rooftop gardens designed to attract pollinating insects and plants inside glass atriums. What’s the environmental ethic of designing structures that are aesthetically appealing to humans but may be lethal to the birds they attract? What to do? This isn’t to scapegoat architects or developers or householders, city planners or municipal politicians, it’s just to say we all need to start thinking differently about how we modify our urban environments. There are indeed ways to substantially reduce bird kill from window collisions but they demand that we rethink the balance between our aesthetic demands and the impact of those demands upon avian wildlife. Windows with clear glass are invisible to birds while reflective glass creates illusions of vegetation and sky into which birds will seek to fly at high speed. Changing the type and use of glass, angling windows to reduce reflection, minimizing the appearance of space as a pass-through, all work in different degrees and applications. So collaboratively designing buildings to mitigate risk should, in my opinion at any rate, be at or near the top of the agenda when municipal governments discuss development proposals. At the University of British Columbia, where an estimated 10,000 birds a year crash into windows and glass panels—a campus survey of just 45 buildings tabulated collisions averaging from 45 to 72 a day—researchers developed a strategy for mitigating bird fatalities. Among the solutions: increasing the visibility of new glass by acid-etching it with patterns; using ultraviolet patterned glass which birds can see; retrofitting existing glass with transparent film that’s invisible to us but visible to birds. Some are temporary and inexpensive, some permanent. UBC bookstore’s bird-friendly windows At UBC’s bookstore, for example, a large expanse of external windows is etched with the sentences from the favourite books of professors. The windows still allow light into the building and patrons can see out, but the dense pattern of text creates both an artistic feature appropriate to the building and a wall of visual noise that provide highly visible cues to approaching birds. The university’s forward-thinking Green Action Building Plan, adopted by the board of governors in 2018, incorporates a requirement for all new structures on the campus to have 100 percent compliance with bird-friendly design elements by 2025. Some of the fixes are low tech and low cost. Researchers at UBC and elsewhere report that, reducing vegetation near windows seems to reduce bird collisions with glass. So does certain structural angling of windows to reduce reflections that create an illusion of three-dimensional space. Both high-rise and low-rise buildings reduce bird collisions when they reduce or eliminate light emission at night from interior illumination. Meanwhile, there remains a great deal we still don’t know about the phenomenon: Interior illumination is associated with birds that migrate at night flying into the glass of commercial buildings at fatally high speeds—but is this also true for the many more residential buildings? There’s little data. Residential buildings outnumber skyscrapers—perhaps by a factor of almost 6,000 to one—so rethinking suburbia is as important a challenge as trying to reduce bird kill in downtown cores. And rural residences may be even more of a threat than suburban ones simply because they intrude more into bird habitats. Faced with choices between increased vertical density and broader urban sprawl, it seems clear that local municipal planners who talk a great deal about sustainability and biodiversity should, like their colleagues in other major Canadian cities, be engaging the public in a far broader, more vigorous conversation about what it means for the birds that surround us and bring so much pleasure and value into our lives. For more information see flap.org and UBC’s bird-friendly design guide. Stephen Hume has spent half a century as a journalist writing about Western Canada, the Far North, BC and the Island.
  5. Image: A gray whale breaching The old whaling industry may be largely gone, but modern industry has polluted their habitat and massively increased shipping by larger vessels that kills them outright. Go to story
  6. The old whaling industry may be largely gone, but modern industry has polluted their habitat and massively increased shipping by larger vessels that kills them outright. WE’D CLAMBERED, SLIPPED and butt-skidded down-slope through mossy old growth, getting drenched in the chest-high salal where the littoral flattened abruptly. Just as we broke from the forest edge, the curtains of rain lifted and the breeze hissed through the canopy. A shoreline of rocky shelves punctuated by time-polished pebble beaches spread before us. The winter overcast shrouded the Strait of Juan de Fuca in battleship grey. We had paused to watch the sea slurping past slick ledges like a current of unpolished aluminum, when our momentary reverie was interrupted. A vast sigh. Then another. And another. Surging toward us along the shoreline, riding a current, breathing as rhythmically as a distance runner in performance mode, came a whale. I haven’t seen that many great whales in my life, at least not close enough to count myself skilled in identifying them. Orcas in their distinctive black and white I’ve seen in surprisingly close encounters, to be sure, and even, from my years in the Arctic, white belugas and mottled narwhals with their astonishing tusks—teeth tightly twisted into a single unicorn-like ivory spiral. But for me even the ubiquitous grey whales had been mostly faint columns of vapour spouting in the hazy distance off Tofino. The other blue water leviathans not at all. Logic said this one was probably a grey whale because of its proximity to the shore. Yet to my untutored eye it seemed far too big. It had an enormously long, dark grey back with a big spinal knob about two-thirds of the way to the flukes. Might it have been a sperm whale venturing into the Strait of Juan de Fuca for some unknown reason? Was it lost or disoriented? Was it on some mission into danger known only to whale kind? Probably not, but who knows? The sea is full of mysteries even as we explore it, chart it, traverse it, plumb its lightless depths, cruise it, commercially exploit it, and trash it with bilge pumpouts, oil spills, garbage, sewage and industrial pollutants. Walk even the most remote beach on the West Coast and you’ll find plastic. We’ve now been defined—or so we like to think—as lords of the anthropocene, the terraforming species that is changing the whole planet into a grid of linked urban nodes surrounded by vast modified hinterlands. Every living species now encounters the industrial reach of humanity. This wildlife ranges from checkerspot butterflies whose habitat has vanished because it conflicts with high value agricultural land to High Arctic polar bears stressed by bioaccumulating factory contaminants carried there on the jet stream from China. And from shamelessly over-harvested abalone that were once a mainstay food source for British Columbia’s coastal First Nations to Salish Sea orcas. Orcas so laden with industrial chemicals flushed out of the adjacent Cascadian megalopolis that they qualify as toxic waste when they die. A gray whale, photograph by Merrill Gosho, NOAA, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons Masters of pollution Once, standing on a steep bluff during a visit to les Îsles-de-la-Madeleine—the Magdalen Islands to anglophones—a tiny, remote, erosion-prone archipelago where sands and sediments lodge upon an ancient salt dome that bulges up from below the Gulf of St Lawrence, I was struck by the beach below and its gorgeous iridescent shimmer. I scrambled down the crumbling bluff to get a closer look. It wasn’t the beauty of shells shining in the wan sunlight. It was a vast layer of plastic tampon tubes. They were flushed by the tonne into sewers far up the river and cast up on the ocean strand, just like the drifting sediment that made the place. Walk the beaches on the outer coast of Vancouver Island and you can’t cover a hundred metres without encountering amid the driftwood the yellow flash of plastic oil containers, the orange of detergent bottles, the white of styrofoam, transparent water bottles, blue nylon rope, tangles of monofilament. Nature, acting on its own imperatives, is indifferent to the materials with which it works. We tell ourselves we’ve mastered the ocean with our bottom-sounding radars, GPS navigation systems and space-based meteorological forecasts. We certainly seem to have mastered it with pollution, whether it’s tampon tubes on the Magdalen Islands or bottled water containers bobbing in the Sargasso Sea gyre in mid-Pacific. And yet, for all our illusions of command, every shipping season, we lose an average of 70 or more huge freighters carrying cargos of wheat, livestock, consumer goods, oil and chemicals, iron ore and coal. Some simply vanish without a trace, perhaps snapped in half by a rogue wave or suddenly breaking up due to some unforeseen structural defect; perhaps looted by modern day pirates then sold off to be broken up or repainted and reflagged—the industrial maritime version of the urban “chop shop.” The Salish Sea Whatever the species of that whale which burst so dramatically into our awareness, it certainly seemed to be going somewhere at a determined pace. We watched, mesmerized, as its wake dwindled on its eastward journey into the Salish Sea. The Salish Sea is perceived by the people who live within it and on its surrounding shores, as a pristine natural landscape that’s endangered by growth. A large segment of it is now a national park reserve. But, of course, we, and the national park itself, represent the very growth that endangers the wild world. Contrary to our magical thinking about ourselves, we’ve already turned much of nature into a kind of urban, industrial landscape. New satellite research published recently in the science journal Nature finds that human-controlled reservoirs now represent an astonishing 57 percent of all surface water variability on Earth—more than half of all the ebb and flow in freshwater systems on our planet from immense dams on the Nile River to our own water-poor Gulf Islands with their myriad wells tapping precious groundwater and their myriad household septic systems discharging effluent. There are 90,000 septic fields in Puget Sound, maybe as many—or more—in and around the Canadian part of the Georgia Basin. On the American side, only 48 percent of septic fields were up-to-date with inspections. There’s concern that septic fields are a major source of what the experts call non-point pollution, that is, a kind of generalized seepage of contaminants. In 2017, over 1,400 square kilometres of shellfish beds were closed for both commercial and public harvesting in the Georgia Basin and Puget Sound, two-thirds of them in the BC portion of the maritime region. The primary cause of these closures—a combination of urban runoff carrying, for example, the unmanaged feces from Metro Vancouver’s estimated 350,000 dogs; uncontrolled sewage that gets flushed through storm drains when sewerage systems are overwhelmed by malfunction or high magnitude rainfall events; and failing septic fields. In 2018, an outbreak of norovirus sickened 79 people and appeared to be linked to consumption of BC oysters. Faced with a serious threat to confidence in the province’s $60 million-a-year farmed shellfish industry, authorities struck an environmental working group to investigate. It reported that “up to 80 percent of septic systems in coastal BC are in ‘performance malfunction’—meaning there is potential for human sewage to leach into the environment.” “The full extent of septic failure is unknown,” the team concluded. “Consensus from the working group was that improperly maintained septic systems are most likely another source of human sewage and norovirus into the marine environment and into oyster beds….” So the Salish Sea, for which that whale we observed was bound, is already a remarkable example of what appears to be a natural marine environment but which, in fact, has already undergone enormous industrial modification to the extent that separating the urban from the wild becomes a difficult task. An Eden became a ghost camp for whales Just over 230 years ago, Captain George Vancouver went on deck to take the morning air just south of Quadra Island. He was bound south out of Desolation Sound, so-called because of the dearth of good anchorages, the prevailing weather and an apparent absence of inhabitants—his visit came less than a decade after the first known major smallpox epidemic to devastate coastal communities and he’d already witnessed the aftermath elsewhere. But his spirits lifted at an amazing sight. “Numberless whales enjoying the season were playing about the ship in every direction.” The number and types of whales he reported in the Strait of Georgia were more, he said, than all the whales he’d previously observed on his great voyage of exploration. Since that remarkable morning we’ve mostly extirpated the whales for whom the Salish Sea was once a playground of abundance and plenty. In less than a century we turned a cetacean Garden of Eden into a ghost camp for whales. The abundance Vancouver observed is the more remarkable considering earlier log entries on his voyage North from California. On April 10, 1792, he reported large numbers of whales of “the anvil-headed or spermaceti kind” were cavorting around his ship. On April 19, he’d witnessed “immense numbers” around the vessel, most of them “finners” as he called them using Greenland whaling parlance. To us they are fin whales, the second largest of the whale species. A fin whale, once found in “immense numbers” in the Salish Sea ( Photograph by Cephas, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons) Two days later, after weathering an alarming gale and enduring torrential overnight rain, Vancouver’s crowsnest lookouts excitedly reported “strange vessels under sail” along the hazy eastern horizon. Only later did he discern that what they were watching weren’t ships at all, but whales so large that their spouts had been mistaken for billowing sails. These were likely blue whales, the largest animal known to have existed, a creature so big its heart is the size of a compact car. And if Vancouver’s “deception” seems unusual, on average, one of these whales would be about the same size has his 10-gun warship, Discovery. His ship was about 23-metres long on the keel, a blue whale averages 24 metres. Blue whale (NOAA Photo Library, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons) Yet between 1908 and 1967, a span shorter than my own lifetime, all the great whales observed in such abundance by Captain Vancouver had been eradicated from the Salish Sea. The records are both sad and stunning. In 59 years, whalers in BC waters killed 1,380 blue whales, 7,716 fin whales, 4,180 sei whales, 5,621 humpback whales and 6,514 sperm whales. Whaling had begun earlier, of course, but not until the 20th Century was it established on an industrial scale with fast steam-powered “whale catchers,” harpoon guns and explosive warheads designed to detonate inside the animal. Whales were butchered and their blubber rendered into oil—a sperm whale yielded about 40 barrels—at whaling stations on Texada Island, Hornby Island and Cortes. Uses ranged from industrial lubricants to soap to making margarine. Ironically, the frenzy of killing whales in BC waters reached its peak as the whole enterprise was failing globally—markets had superior quality substitutes and there was a rising tide of public distaste. Yet the residue of this bloody business is with us yet, found in the place names we now consider quaint and a lure for the tourists who expect the amenities that further urbanize the landscape we tirelessly market as an opportunity to experience the pristine—Blubber Bay, Whaletown, Whaling Station, Whaler’s Bay. As the Salish Sea’s whale population was exhausted, the industrial killing machine moved offshore. Other marine abattoirs were established on the West Coast of Vancouver Island and on Haida Gwaii. Historian Kate Humble pointed out in a 2015 article, for example, that one whaling station established on Piper’s Lagoon near Nanaimo was able to operate for only two years before the entire regional population of 95 humpback whales had been completely liquidated. BC’s whaling fleet was ruthlessly efficient. Humble estimates that the carcasses of approximately 25,000 whales of all species were processed at Sechart in Barkley Sound, Coal Harbour in Quatsino Sound, at Kyuquot and at Rose Harbour and Naden Harbour on Haida Gwaii. Look at a colour-coded map locating recorded kills off Vancouver Island and it resembles a sea of red, similar to that infamous Sea of Slaughter that writer Farley Mowat made a metaphor for heedless carnage on the Atlantic coast. Whaling in BC waters stopped in 1968 but not before many whale populations had been pushed to the brink of extirpation and even, in come cases, to outright regional extinction. More than half a century later, 19 of the 33 whale species that frequent Canadian waters are still officially listed as endangered, threatened or of special concern under the Species at Risk Act or by the federal government’s Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada. Blue whales, for example, are listed as an endangered species. There are likely fewer than 250 surviving in Canadian waters. The Pacific fin whale that Vancouver observed in such numbers is endangered. The Northern Pacific Right whale is endangered. The Pacific sei whale is endangered. While the migratory grey whale population is recovering on the West Coast after almost a century of rebuilding efforts, the small, distinct sub-population that stays to feed in waters off Vancouver Island while most of the migrants continue on to Alaska and the Aleutian Islands is still of special concern. The humpback whale has edged back slightly from the abyss of extinction—but even on the rebound from its population low of 1,400, it remains at only about a quarter of the population observed by Vancouver. Of BC’s orcas, one sub-population, the southern residents of the Salish Sea, is considered endangered. The other three populations—northern residents, a group that stays off-shore and a transient group—are all considered threatened. Shipping plays a leading role All these whales are at growing risk from the industrialization of their living space. There’s the constant din of ship traffic, amplified in enclosed waters with multiple vessels, which both disrupts whales’ communication with each other and the echolocation that enables them to locate food. There’s the risk of fatal entanglement with ocean fishing gear. And as with other urban wildlife and motor vehicles, there’s a constant conflict between wild whale populations and increasing volumes of marine traffic. The world’s shipping fleet has doubled in size just since 2005. There are now about 90,000 large vessels and at any given moment about 50,000 of them are at sea travelling the marine corridors charted for most efficient fuel use and for time management. Unfortunately, these corridors frequently intersect with the migration routes, feeding, breeding and social congregation areas of whales. Larger ship engines are required to propel larger vessels with greater payloads. Research indicates that there’s been a doubling of disorienting background noise in every decade for the last 50 years. The journal of Edward Bell, clerk of Captain Vancouver’s ship Chatham, records his fright on the night of October 23, 1791, while at sea off the coast of what’s now Tasmania. He was awakened in terror by “a violent shock as if the vessel had struck upon a rock.” But on rushing above decks to investigate, he discovered the 24-metre sloop-of-war had just collided with a large whale in the darkness. The species and fate of the whale with which Chatham collided isn’t recorded, but it was certainly at the beginning of a long, and dolorous record of accidental encounters between big ships and great whales, usually fatal for the whale. Fast, modern steel hulls with the momentum of hundreds of thousands of tonnes shatter whale skulls and break their spines; the huge propellors inflict lacerations and amputate fins and flukes. In 1951, the last of the endangered right whales ever to be seen in BC waters was killed when it was accidentally run over —the irony is monumental—by a whaling ship pursuing other prey. And then, on June 25, 2009, to the distress of walkers at the Port of Vancouver, the cruise ship Sapphire Princess berthed at Canada Place with a dead 16-metre fin whale jammed between the hull and its bulbous bow. Another dead fin whale came in to Vancouver harbour on the bow of another cruise ship, the Seven Seas Navigator, returning from a voyage to Alaska in 2015. And the problem increases. As the global fleet increases, so does traffic. Marine shipping grew by 300 percent between 1992 and 2013. In the warming Arctic, where there’s concern about the exposure of highly endangered bowhead whales to greater risk of collision, shipping along the already busy Siberian coastal sea lane increased 58 percent between 2016 and 2019. In less than a decade, estimates the International Whaling Commission, 21 blue whales were killed in shipping collisions off the coast of California. The number seems small compared, say, to collisions between deer and drivers in Victoria—until you realize that there may only be 2,000 blue whales in existence. In 2018 alone, there were 10 whale deaths due to shipping collisions off the West Coast, a 300 per increase. And as John Calambokidis, a biologist working with the Cascadia Research Collective in Olympia, Washington, told a Washington Post reporter in 2019, what’s recorded is likely far less than what occurs. “One doesn’t mean one,” he said, “one probably means 10 or 20 are occurring. So when you have 10, that’s a pretty big multiplier.” Something to consider the next time you look out over the “pristine” Salish Sea with its 500,000 marine transits a year by everything from ferries to container ships to oil tankers to aircraft carriers. You are seeing a mirage, an illusion, a dream of a world that has fled, driven off by you and me and our insatiable appetites for convenience. Stephen Hume has spent half a century as a journalist writing about Western Canada, the Far North, BC and the Island.
  7. Photo: A Black-tailed Columbian buck in a Rockland neighbourhood Stephen Hume tells his own story of backyard deer, and asks some hard questions about our attitudes toward wildlife. We want your stories—and photos—too. Go to story
  8. Stephen Hume tells his own story of backyard deer, and asks some hard questions about our attitudes toward wildlife. We want your stories—and photos—too. CARVED FROM A CORNER OF OUR GARAGE is a tiny office. It’s monastic in its austerity. Writing table, chair, nothing else. I retreat there when a deadline presses and when I want to evade the incessant 21st-century distractions of e-mail pinging, phone ringing, Twitter tweeting, Flipboard flipping or the CBC and the New York Times urging me to some news item to which I must pay immediate attention. The first attraction of this small space is simple—silence. The only sound is the papery rustle of the breeze through a stand of reed-thin bamboo. This settler-society immigrant provides a light-filtering privacy screen for the large south-facing window. Beyond it is a dense, glossy, knee-deep tangle of native Oregon grape that’s now reclaimed half the garden beneath the canopy of dry-belt Douglas fir and arbutus. I long ago came to the conclusion that beating back what wants to be here and replacing it with exotic imports is more than hubristic insanity; in botanical terms it’s a full-on manifestation of precisely the colonized mindset from which we’re all ostensibly trying to move on. Soon the spiky leaves of the natural ground cover—its plump blue fruit provides a dozen jars of tart jam every summer—will be embroidered with the gleaming stars of fawn lilies, chocolate lilies, blue camas and inky columbine. Native fawn lilies, a favourite snack for black-tailed deer I know this for sure. The snow drops are already unfurling, the nodding onions are up and nodding, the wild currant is in bloom, its snowy little blossoms erupting amid the small, defiant fists of green buds just beginning to unclench against a sombre backdrop of mountain rhododendrons. When this seasonal machinery clicks into gear there’s no stopping the momentum. I can set my calendar by it, give or take a few brief February snow storms. A week seems forever in the Twitterverse but on the celestial time scale it’s barely a blip. This morning as I sat contemplating how to begin the piece I’d promised Focus on the rising tide of urban wildlife and how we respond to it, I reached for my coffee, looked up and found myself eye-to-eye with a doe, her delicate face pushed through the unappetizing fringe of bamboo we planted long ago precisely because deer won’t eat it. Wild deer in the garden and browsing suburban boulevards are a common sight these days, and not just out here in the dishevelled hinterlands. They are seen among the most manicured of upscale and urbane flowerbeds. To me the deer are a marvel, a reminder of our place not as rulers but as sharers of a natural world that includes them. To others, of course, they are a pest, invaders of the gardens that symbolize how we assert aggressive colonial control over the landscape, just as we do with our practice of naming streets, schools and public buildings after people who got rich and powerful by the very same colonial process that adulates them for exerting cultural, economic and political hegemony over the natural world. Municipal councillors and the writers of compelling letters to the editor frequently characterize the phenomenon of urban wildlife as a problem of populations out of control almost everywhere. The urban deer are subversions of the natural balance, although that balance is entirely unnatural considered in the larger context. Black-tailed Columbian deer hang out in a Rockland neighbourhood front yard. Are there as many as it seems? Too many deer in Oak Bay eating the dahlias! Wild otters are devouring the introduced ornamental koi in a traditional Chinese garden in Vancouver! Too many yipping coyotes and growling raccoons menacing tourists in Stanley Park, itself a manufactured fabrication of the wild, built on the site of long-expunged indigenous villages and populated with imported non-native squirrels! Too many sea gulls in Victoria! Too many bears in North Vancouver! Too many noisy, stinky sea lions eating the salmon at Cowichan Bay! Too many elk in Youbou and Jasper! Too many wolves in Wyoming! Too many Canada geese just about everywhere there are Canada geese. Too many badgers and too many foxes in British cities. Too many monkeys in Hyderabad. The list is long. A Roosevelt elk in a Youbou front yard The migration of wildlife from backcountry to downtown is a global and continental phenomenon, one of the fascinating developments of the 21st Century. “Synurbization” is the scientific term. It represents a growing recognition that cities themselves are a new evolutionary force, an explosion of new and strange types of artificial environments arising in the midst of natural landscapes to which wildlife had millions of years to adapt. Those are now under siege from resource exploitation, from commerce—ship noise is rendering some ocean tracts unendurable for marine wildlife—and from the expanding footprint of human population growth and its biggest doppelgänger, anthropogenic climate change. Now suddenly, in conjunction with dwindling native habitats there’s a portfolio of new ecological niches in urban environments for wild animals to occupy. Why would that surprise anyone? We humans are part of the process. Human relocation from undeveloped hinterlands to constructed landscapes occurred first and represents one of the most rapid and extensive species migrations in the evolutionary record. A century ago more than 80 percent of us lived rural lives, some of us hunters and gatherers—part of the natural ecosystem—others were agricultural intruders but still largely wedded to the natural cycles of those habitats. Today, fewer than 15 percent of British Columbians are rural inhabitants, and many of those are actually urban but on the scale of small towns instead of huge cities. It’s now the wild that intrudes into the domesticated and built spaces where most of us live and the wild is exotic. It’s not just Bambi moving into your neighbourhood Vancouver Island is an example of natural landscapes transformed by rapid human population expansion (almost a million people arrived in a brief century); vast industrial denuding of the original forest cover (over 80 percent of its old-growth forest cover has been removed); the altering of hydrology by damming of rivers, draining wetlands and carving through watersheds with a network of roads that now fragments about 67 percent of the landscape. Finally, urbanization itself in which 32 distinct population centres—one for every 1,000 square kilometres—create heat sinks, enmesh themselves in transportation grids, and transform the native flora and fauna with astonishing rapidity and reach. For example, while Island wolf and cougar populations decline, domesticated canine and feline populations favoured by the colonizing human population, explode. It’s estimated that one in five households on Vancouver Island owns a dog. That math says we now have almost 400 domestic dogs for every remaining wild wolf. There are now more than 500 domestic felines for every bobcat or lynx—although we know almost nothing about these trace populations of small wild cats. We know more about cougars but even there the ratio is now roughly 118 domestic felines for each of the big predators. Should a cougar, having had the ancient food sources in its natural habitat disrupted, start preying on the abundant domestic food source of dogs and cats, we are quick to call for conservation control which usually results in the killing of the cougar. One 2016 study of a 30-year data set found that in British Columbia more than 1,200 cougars—equal to more than 35 percent of the present provincial cougar population—were killed in conflicts with humans and their pets or livestock. Add hunting, trapping, road and train mortalities and it rises to 8,500. This pattern is significant because it’s not just Bambi who’s moving into your neighbourhood, either. Deer moving uptown have brought company. Their main predator, the shy and reclusive cougar, has followed its principal food source. Media is now rife with sightings in back yards, on patios and even in downtown parking lots. It’s something to contemplate when walking the dog off leash. If there are deer, there is most likely a cougar not far away, usually invisible but there, nonetheless, and while a human and a dog give it pause, a small dog alone in the underbrush might look more like an appetizing meal. 24 generations of fawns I thought of that as I exchanged glances with the deer at my window. I took note of the hand-sized discolouration on her right haunch. A couple of years ago she was one of a pair of fawns frisking around my back lawn. Now here she is, doubtless preparing to deliver another small spotted miracle, part of that larger cycle that surrounds us and to which too few of us pay much attention amid the distracted, increasingly frantic, sheer busyness of urban life. “I know you!” I thought. Her large liquid-brown eyes implied the same recognition. We gazed at one another. Then she demurely withdrew, her hooves tick-tocking down the walk as she headed for the back garden. I left my keyboard and followed to observe. She stopped to nibble the leaves of the old-fashioned stock that volunteers here and there. Some people are unenthusiastic about the dusty green straggle of leaves, spindly stems and unassuming flowers but I like them—they seem to survive just about everything. When you’re getting well into your eighth decade, the ability to endure and survive no matter what seems an increasingly admirable trait. She moved on to sample the tender tips of the watershoots freshly pruned from the Cox’s Orange Pippin and the Sunrise apple trees, piled up awaiting their trip to the compost, turned her nose up at the thimbleberry canes with their still sparse buds—perhaps that’s part of their strategy, don’t put out your leaves until the rest of nature’s buffet is already stocked—looked over and dismissed the lavender, stopped to browse on new grass on the lawn and ambled off into the salal. By my count, this will be the 24th generation of fawns to find safety in our backyard. Some of our neighbours are not so sanguine about the visitors. Fences have gone up, although as one bemused neighbour pointed out, your fence is not so hot if a deer gets inside and the dining options are suddenly restricted to your garden buffet until a breakout can be effected. The bigleaf maple that towers over the western side of the yard—I love it for the stunning wall of wind music and visual texture it provides from May to October—has begun to dismantle the tree house we built almost 25 years ago for a long grown-up child, a reminder of nature’s relentless resilience. Like other urban spaces we used to think of as belonging exclusively to people, the tree house has been repurposed by generations of raccoons. They use it as a nursery before trooping their little ones off into the wider world. Every few years we’re lucky enough to witness the procession. Not so lucky, perhaps, when they return to banquet in the grape arbour—they seem to have an unerring ability to arrive the night before I decide the fruit is finally sweet enough to harvest. The other day we had a river otter cavorting outside our window—there’s a marsh across the road and the otters rear their pups up in frog hollow before migrating down a seasonal creek. It connects to the marsh through a culvert that provides safe passage under the road for mother and babies, and the creek bed leads to the beach. Facts and context regarding Oak Bay’s deer population There’s an irony here. Road safety for humans is often cited as a reason for stringent animal controls directed at deer. These range from simply killing them to trying to manage local populations with experiments in chemical sterilization. Yet much of this deer anxiety seems misplaced. In Oak Bay, for example, where the rumpus over deer management has been prolonged and occasionally raucous, data gathered using GPS collaring and remote cameras in 2019 was able to identify a total population of as few as 72 deer, perhaps 128, mostly found in Uplands where there’s a large park—and big gardens—and the Royal Victoria Golf Course. This doesn’t exactly resemble the plague of black tailed locusts threatening to denude the landscape that some rhetoric suggests. Preconceptions are a powerful engine of perceptions, though. Thus the insistence by suspicious municipal councillors and members of the public that the data is wrong and that deer populations are obviously out of control, destroying gardens and parks and creating traffic hazards. And, of course, traffic safety is a genuine issue. It’s true that startled deer darting into a street or trapped on a highway by centre barriers can result in unwelcome collisions, most often fatal to the deer. But in risk analysis, perspective and context are everything. Another comprehensive study of deer carcasses recovered in Oak Bay alone in 2017 estimated that about 30 had been victims of traffic. Deer, like people, die for many reasons. Some of natural causes, some from disease outbreaks—for example, the fast-moving epidemic of a hemorrhagic virus that’s recently been claiming deer in BC—some killed by dogs, some as a result of other injuries, and some by traffic accident. Police shot about 60 injured deer across the entire Capital Region in 2018, although it’s unclear how many were injured by traffic as opposed to dogs or traumatic accidents with fences or other urban infrastructure. Context helps, though. We routinely euthanize deer injured by traffic because it’s more convenient. Humans we send to hospital emergency rooms. Interestingly enough, about the same number of pedestrians as deer are struck by cars in Oak Bay in a given year according to the Insurance Company of BC’s data for the city. That’s the average tabulated by ICBC from the last five years. Twice as many cyclists—almost 60—suffer collisions with vehicles in an average year in Oak Bay. Considering that 78 percent of cyclists and 86 percent of pedestrians are injured in collisions with motor vehicles, fretting over the threat from and to urban deer seems a bit of a displaced moral panic. Some complaints cite aggressive deer. This too is reasonable and true, particularly during the fall rutting season when large bucks can become assertive and territorial about their harems. In October 2016, a homeowner in Oak Bay reported a buck injuring a small dog that was on its own lawn and another woman jogging with her dog reported being knocked down by a buck. A Black-tailed buck with a full set of antlers can be intimidating to some. But is it any more dangerous than a dog? These are certainly alarming incidents for those involved, but once again there is a larger context to be considered. In fact, pedestrians and their dogs in Oak Bay are far more likely to be confronted and injured by another aggressive domestic dog than by a wild deer. Animal control agencies are not transparently proactive when it comes to records of dog bite incidents—nobody seems to want to pay for collection of the data—and the emphasis is on encouraging the adoption of pets in their custody. One can understand why dog bite statistics wouldn’t be top of the mind for adoption marketing, I suppose. But across the Capital Regional District, municipalities appear to average a dog bite incident every two days. The total number of dogs in Oak Bay hasn’t been consistently indexed, but based on one well-done 2012 study for a dog-owners’ association, there are about 12 dogs in the district for every deer. Once again, context is everything. Based on the deer count from the 2019 study, the human population density of Oak Bay is about 1,710 people per square kilometre, the dog population is about 150 per square kilometre, the deer population is about 12 per square kilometre. Comparing the risk from deer to the risk from fellow humans offers another perspective. On average, calculating from crime rate indexes, there are about 80 criminal assaults a year in Oak Bay. This is extremely low compared to other places—the district remains one of the safest places to live in Canada. However, the hazard residents face from their fellow citizens vastly exceeds any menace from deer. Despite concern about a perceived overpopulation of deer creating road hazards and menacing the public, in fact, Oak Bay residents face the same risk of colliding with a pedestrian, twice the risk of colliding with a cyclist or of being attacked by a fellow citizen or a pet dog and drivers face 10 times the risk of colliding with another car. Deer population on Vancouver Island has collapsed While there’s a perception that there’s an overabundance of urban deer, it masks another, more grim reality, which is that the native black-tailed deer population on Vancouver Island has collapsed. Fifty years ago, the Island’s black-tailed deer were estimated to have numbered up to 350,000. Today the most optimistic estimates put that population at 60,000. More conservative estimates say it may be only 45,000—or fewer. In any event, over the past half century, for every two additional humans added to Vancouver Island’s population, four or more black-tailed deer were subtracted. Vancouver Island has become a landscape of countless clearcuts that have greatly reduced and fragmented wildlife habitat, including for black-tailed deer. The clearcuts shown above are west of Victoria. These declines were all forecast by wildlife biologists as the backcountry food supply was disrupted by industry. First there was a sudden increase in forage as old growth forests were rapidly logged. Then there was a sudden decrease in available forage as fast-growing second growth forests matured. Logging then moved into winter browsing areas. Urban footprints expanded. Deer were never part of this social and economic equation. One particularly bitter winter about 100,000 starved to death without much notice by anyone. The survivors voted with their hooves and began migrating into urban areas where there was better, more abundant browse. Now, faced with an illusion of over-abundance where we’ve actually caused a catastrophic depletion, we’re attempting to dislodge that remnant population from its urban refuge. I doubt it will work. It hasn’t worked elsewhere. Maybe it’s us who should adapt Culls almost always result in breeding rebounds. Relocations are thought more humane, but studiers show they initially result in 50 percent or greater mortality—and then survivors often return or are replaced by others who migrate inward from the margins. Reducing breeding through contraception will likely encourage more in-migration to maintain population equilibrium in exploiting the available ecological niche and besides, it doesn’t address complaints about garden browsing or traffic interactions. Most urban complaints about deer and touted solutions are cosmetic. They have little to do with any comprehension of our place in and duty to the larger ecological framework. They are about perceived affronts to convenience and revolve around native deer browsing upon introduced ornamental flowers and exotic shrubs that symbolize the colonial order, the imposition of a sensibility from elsewhere upon what’s already here. As mentioned, by my count this will be the 24th generation of fawns to find safety in our garden. I’m grateful for their presence, although it doesn’t come without adjustments. They love tulips, so those flowers are gone. They ate the Japanese holly to a nub, so it’s now in a pot on the deck where they can’t reach it, replaced by native Oregon grape. Frankly, it’s not such a big deal for me. I like to garden but I’m less enamoured of the colonial footprint I’ve increasingly come to recognize. Deer have been evolving to adapt to North American landscapes for millions of years. It seems the height of hubris to be trying to eliminate deer for trying to adapt to the destructive changes we’ve made to their habitat in our brief sojourn. Maybe it’s us and not them who have the moral and ethical duty to adapt. Got a photo or a galling, appalling or appealing story about your encounter with urban wildlife? Send it along. We’ll run the best of them here and offer modest book prizes for the five we like best, chosen entirely at the judges’ whim and not subject to appeal! Stephen Hume has spent half a century as a journalist writing about Western Canada, the Far North, BC and the Island.
  9. Posted January 20, 2020 Image: Sunken barge off Port McNeill leaks fuel. The greatest risk to our coasts is not oil tankers, but all the other marine vehicles that carry oil—from tugboats to BC Ferries and container ships from China. Go to story
  10. The greatest risk to our coasts is not oil tankers, but all the other marine vehicles that carry oil—from tugboats to BC Ferries and container ships from China. ENCOUNTER THE DIABOLICAL AFTERMATH of an oil spill and the evil consequences it inflicts upon wild creatures and the sacred spaces they inhabit and you can never forget. It’s three decades now since I retrieved oil-soaked seabirds from the coastline that reaches from Sooke Harbour to the mouth of the San Juan River at Port Renfrew—what’s now the Juan de Fuca trail with its iconic tourist brochure beaches Mystic, China, Sandcut, Sombrio, Botanical. Indelible images remain as stark as ever, stirred to life by reports of “small” oil slicks spreading again: one from a 52-year-old shipwreck near Yuquot; another from a barge sunk at dockside in Port McNeill on Christmas Eve. On that day 30 years ago, oyster-coloured banks of fog settled on the dark sea, shrouding the whole of the distant southern shore of the Strait of Juan de Fuca. A single white sail scudded down its distant outer edge, a big sloop catching the combined currents and light airs, making way for Neah Bay or somewhere beyond. Above the mist, a darker band of forest, then paler rain cloud, its grey-bottomed layer pierced abruptly by the glittering, snow-clad peaks of the Olympic Mountains. In the foreground, the Aurora massif, Sourdough Mountain, and behind them Snowdome and eventually the crags of Mount Olympus itself, flanked by ice fields. I had paused to contemplate this view, still and vivid as a landscape painting. If there’s a sight to stop the breath quite the way that vista does, expanding from the South Island across foam-flecked, ultramarine straits into the vast rain shadow of those austere mountains soaring two-and-a-half kilometres into the sky, I’ve yet to find it. It was one of those otherwise bleak and narrow days that populate the weeks before Christmas. The light seems uncertain. There’s a bite of snow in the air — but not quite. A hint that any precipitation might decide to come as sleet — but not just yet. Or rain — more likely, but maybe not until tomorrow. I was walking Whiffin Spit, that long bar of sand and gravel thrown up by tireless tides and swirling currents. It curves its white mile of beaches into Sooke Narrows, a perfect natural breakwater sheltering the finest natural harbour on Canada’s West Coast. These days it’s a destination for walkers, birdwatchers, amateur botanists, landscape painters and practitioners of Zen-like mindfulness, all heeding the accolades plastered over Facebook, TripAdvisor, Nature Canada, Victoria Trails and the various websites of enthusiastic real estate developers, tourism marketers, bed and breakfast operators and lodge owners from Port Renfrew to Victoria. All those years ago, Whiffin Spit still seemed a relatively out-of-the way spot. It had its local aficionados but appreciation of its charms had yet to spread much beyond Victoria. Today, appreciation of its Ruskinesque charms makes it one of the better-known landscape features of the region. And not without reason. It’s a living symbol of the beauty that surrounds those lucky enough to live on the South Coast of BC. Combers come sweeping in to spend themselves in creamy patterns on the shingle. The muscular, glass green coil at the end of the spit where tides turn the corner into its lee and spill into Sooke Harbour is a menacing evocation of the serpent-like sisiutl, the supernatural shape-shifter who reigns in the deeps. And, in the background, that stunning view—what’s not to celebrate? Those timeless things didn’t change in the long millennia before Manuel Quimper anchored the Spanish navy’s sloop Princesa Real there 230 years ago and commented on the beauty of the place, its first known entry into European consciousness. They haven’t changed since. But as I made my way past the stunted, wind-sculpted underbrush where the end of the spit widens, my reverie was interrupted. A volunteer crashed out of the scrub. His arms cradled a heavily oiled merganser, its bright, unblinking golden eyes the only part of the bird not matted with black tar. “We might save this one,” he said. So back we went down the spit, hurrying to get the bird to an emergency washing station set up 30 kilometres away at Victoria’s SPCA. I held the merganser while he drove. Oil oozed from its feathers, soaked into my jacket and dripped onto the car seat as we headed for Victoria and the rescue station. The bird gasped, fluttered a little, too weak to do anything but wait, powerless to avoid its fate, whatever it might prove. The oil had begun coming ashore on Whiffin Spit and all down the southern Outer Coast of Vancouver Island days before. Now we walked the beaches trying to save as many of the oiled seabirds struggling ashore as we could — those birds that hadn’t sunk to the bottom already, encased in their small coffins of tar. The oil was heavy, sticky, bunker-type crude, probably pumped out of some passing freighter’s bilge beyond the horizon, far off shore and safely distant from the consequences. By the time I was walking the spit, the Province’s environmental authorities had already pronounced the beaches clean and had moved their major efforts farther west. “Clean,” like “risk,” is a relative term. There’s risk. And there’s risk. Jaywalking downtown at 3 a.m. carries significantly less risk than jaywalking on the freeway at rush hour. One risk might seem acceptable, the other a lot less so. I was reminded of this both remembering my encounter with bunker oil and its repercussions at Whiffin Spit and in having that recollection jarred out of the sediments of an old reporter’s memory banks by reports of oil seeping out of corroding fuel tanks aboard a half-century old shipwreck. The wreck is off Bligh Island in Mowachaht/Muchalaht territory, about 37 kilometres west of Gold River and not far from Yuquot, where naval commanders George Vancouver, Juan Francisco de la Bodega y Quadra and the whaling chief Maquinna resolved the Nootka Crisis in 1790, averting a war between two of the day’s imperial superpowers and giving shape to what’s now British Columbia. The MV Schiedyk ran aground and sank in 1968. Its fuel is still surfacing 52 years later (right) The oil has been surfacing from the wreck of the freighter MV Schiedyk. The ship was loaded with pulp and grain when, on January 3, 1968, it struck a ledge that opened its hull like a can opener. The crew of 40 took to the lifeboats and it sank in 66 fathoms of water, deep enough to disappear from public memory until a few weeks ago. The present slick is thought to be from oil seeping out of tanks made rotten by corrosion and time. It’s a small one as oil spills go and we’re assured that the Canadian Coast Guard is working with BC Spill Response and the area’s First Nations to assess the threat and try to contain it. But that recollection from Whiffin Spit which bubbled up from the depths of my own memory reminded me that there’s actually no such thing as a small oil spill. One litre of oil contaminates about a million litres of water. The contamination is widely dispersed. A coffee mug of oil can create a slick that covers the area of a football field. One barrel of spilled oil renders the area of 300 football fields lethal to waterfowl, not to mention the seals, sea lions, whales and porpoises that have to breach the toxic film to breathe. So the idea of a small spill is false, even when it’s made in comparison to larger and more devastating spills. Sure, the Deep Water Horizon catastrophe, spewing 53,000 barrels a day into the Gulf of Mexico for three months is vast in its implications. But for birds landing in the “small” slick off Bligh Island, the consequences are the same. As an 18th Century poet pointed out, long before the observation’s attribution to Joseph Stalin, one death is a tragedy, a million deaths is a statistic. Dismissing a spill as small seems like telling a pedestrian who’s been hit by a VW beetle on a quiet side street not to worry because it was a small accident compared to getting run over by an 18-wheeler on the freeway. To the person run over, the difference matters not a whit. For that merganser, struggling to live in spite of its soaking in a “small” spill of oil that had been deemed cleaned-up, the consequences loomed large and permanent. Oil affects seabirds in many different ways. The principal threat is that it clogs their feathers and reduces buoyancy. Oiled birds must spend much more energy swimming just to stay afloat. They have less energy to spend on feeding. The natural insulating quality of their down is destroyed, exposing them to the strength-sapping cold of the North Pacific. Desperate to restore their flotation, oiled birds preen frantically. Each time, they ingest a bit of oil which then slowly destroys their internal organs. Some birds, as they weaken, sink and drown. Others perish from hypothermia. Yet others starve to death as they become too feeble to feed. Some get smashed to pieces on the rocks. A few, lucky enough to make it to shore, are too weak to avoid predators. Even fewer are found by some beach-walker. They have a ghost of a chance to survive, although they most certainly then become statistics for the beancounters of ecological tragedy. The washing station, when we got there, was tucked away on Napier Street among the machine shops of the industrial crescents just off Burnside Road. Four makeshift pens had been thrown together from wooden frames and netting. They were covered with old blankets and warmed by heat lamps. Out back, a kid’s blue plastic swimming tank made do as a washing station. One pen was filled with terrified horned grebes. Other pens held loons, guillemots, murres, mergansers like the one I was carrying, and a number of birds I couldn’t identify. The tank was thrashing with murres, diving birds that look like tiny penguins, their wings cunningly adapted to “fly” through the water, each one a tiny miracle of evolution and adaptation. The volunteer in charge picked a dying grebe out of the pen, its crimson eyes just starting to glaze. He expected 85 percent of the birds in the pen to die, he said, like this one, unable to recover from energy loss and organ damage from ingested oil. A log book told the grim story. So far, 123 birds recovered, 60 dead, 45 more expected to die. And I recall with great exactness what he said next: “That bird’s life is as important to it as your life is important to you. That bird knows it’s dying. It feels pain and terror just like you. I wish everybody could come here and experience this. If there’s one message we have to get across it’s that life is not a bottomless pit. We just can’t keep on doing this.” Where the real risks lie But, or course, we do keep on doing it. Ahead of us, even then, lay the Prestige spill, 70 million litres; ABT Summer, 193 million litres; MV Selendang Ayu, 1.3 million litres; Deep Water Horizon, 8.4 million litres a day for three months; and so on up to the Husky platform spill off Newfoundland in 2018, right in the middle of a wintering area occupied by 40 million seabirds. How many birds are killed by oil in the ocean? The fact is, nobody knows. Mortalities are desperately difficult to estimate. Evidence is hard to find because much of it sinks. But one might start with the stark fact that for decades about 300,000 fatally oiled seabirds have been found each year in the waters off Newfoundland alone. As I was saying, there is risk and there is risk. We tend to focus on the catastrophic spills, the really big ones with dramatic TV footage and large numbers. When we calculate risks, for example, from a completed TransMountain Pipeline expansion which could increase tanker traffic through the Gulf Islands and Juan de Fuca Strait from one ship a month to one ship a day, we model the effects of worst case spills from a wreck on Arachne Reef or Race Rocks and try to figure out the habitat that would be affected. The models cited in the pipeline application suggested up to 46 percent of the “available habitat” has a very high probability of oil contamination with marine bird habitat at greatest risk. Depending on where the accident occurred, available habitat might include the Fraser River estuary, the Gulf Islands and San Juan Islands, the beaches of Victoria and the South Island and so on. An honest risk analysis, however, suggests that there is an extremely low probability of a catastrophic spill of this nature. That’s not to say the possibility doesn’t merit concern. It is to say that we shouldn’t allow concern to deflect attention to the least likely catastrophe and away from the most likely—the death by a thousand cuts posed by “small” spills. Federal safety experts conclude that the probability of a major accident is minuscule, some marine transport experts say the risk is close to nil. The far greater risk to the Strait of Georgia, Puget Sound, the Gulf Islands and the South Island is a bunker fuel spill from any number of bulk carriers, container ship, passenger ferries, warships, tugboats and community fuel barges that already ply those waters in very close proximity to shorelines. Some of these vessels carry 10,000 tonnes of bunker oil in their fuel tanks, equal to the amount that the pipeline applicants’ modelling for a worst-case tanker accident estimated would contaminate from 29 to 39 percent of the Strait of Georgia. One federal study planning spill response reported in 2013 that more than a billion litres of petroleum already moves through coastal waters in the tanks of vessels other than barges. These vessels, in 2017, accounted for perhaps half a million sailings, almost 320,000 of them by BC and Washington State Ferries. The ill-fated Queen of the North, the BC ferry that sank on the North Coast in 2006, went down with almost 250,000 litres of oil in its fuel tanks and the chronic leaking of that oil remains an environmental concern. The same year, a cargo carrier spilled 243,000 litres of crude into the Squamish River estuary when its starboard fuel tank was punctured on a metal piling. A year later, a logging barge moving equipment lost its deck cargo which went over the side in Robson Bight, the ecological reserve created because of its importance to killer whales which congregate there to rub on sandstone shelves along the shoreline. Among the equipment lost, a tank truck loaded with 10,000 litres of oil. In 2016, the Nathan E. Stewart, an articulated barge returning from Alaska, ran aground on a reef—the second mate on watch fell asleep and a course-correcting alarm had been turned off. It released 110,000 litres of fuel and lube oil into Gale Pass (near Bella Bella), an important Heiltsuk food harvesting site. The Nathan E Stewart, an articulated barge that sunk in 2016 near Bella Bella In Victoria, where two barges ran aground off Dallas Road in 2016, there are more than 500 fuel barge movements in and out of the harbour each year. They transport an estimated maximum of 8.2 billion litres of oil and petroleum products. According to the Transportation Safety Board’s report for 2019, there have been 1,059 marine accidents involving 1,228 vessels in the Pacific Region since 2009. On average, the Pacific Region experiences 46 percent of all marine accidents in Canada. Over the last 10 years, accidents involving barges and ferries amount to three times the number involving cargo ships or tankers. As a consequence, according to Transport Canada, the southern BC coast has one of the highest probabilities of a marine spill. And the Georgia Strait Alliance warns that if all the proposed traffic expansion in the Salish Sea takes place, the risk of a spill will increase by 68 percent. Ironically, any such spill is least likely to come from a tanker and most likely to come from a fuel barge accident. It’s the “little” spills that often pass below the media’s radar. And it’s the chronic exposure of the environment to low and less dramatic levels of oil that we should be thinking about. Media responds energetically to catastrophes and gives them exhaustive coverage. The dreary daily litany of bilge pumpouts at sea, chronic leaking tanks on sunken wrecks, accidental overflows while refuelling, “small” leaks from small collisions, the leaky outboard motors of recreational boaters and anglers, not so much. The truth is that large marine tanker shipping is vastly safer than it was and is getting much safer with double hulls, sophisticated navigation systems, pilotage and tug escorts. Smaller vessels, non-tanker marine traffic, already sunken vessels—that’s what we should be thinking hard about. For example, there’s the ticking time bomb of ships, many of them tankers, sunk during hostilities in World War 2. When Trevor Gilbert of the Australian Maritime Safety Authority put together a global data base of leaking wrecks, he listed 8,569 of which 1,583 are oil tankers with cargo and on-board fuel of up to 20 million tonnes of oil. Transport Canada reported in 2013 that sunken vessels, the zombie threat to Canada’s marine environment, are estimated to be in the thousands. One of them, a US Army transport with a load of 500-pound bombs and 700 tonnes of bunker oil sank in 1946 not far from where the Queen of the North went down. When the oil began to leak, a dangerous recovery operation cost $27 million. In the Strait of Georgia, four railway tank cars loaded with chlorine went to the bottom in a very deep part of Malaspina Strait when the barge carrying them capsized on February 21, 1975. These zombie threats, it turns out, are everywhere. “They lie forgotten by time, dormant until corrosion reawakens their potential threat,” said the chilling Review of Canada’s Ship-Source Oil Spill Preparedness and Response Regime. All of a sudden that “small” spill at Bligh Island and the leaky barge at Port McNeill begin to feel like part of a much larger and more consequential but far less dramatic spill. We’re all participants in this. If we shop for groceries, catch a ferry to Salt Spring, take the bus to a concert, go for an oil change, drive the dogs to the off-leash park, drive the boards and wet suits to Sombrio for a surf session. All of us are complicit. So perhaps I fully deserved the accusation I felt in the golden eyes of that small bird as it lay dying in my arms so long ago. And that’s why I remember what that volunteer at the washing station said. “Now it’s the birds. Next it’s you and me and my three kids. When are people going to figure that out?” Stephen Hume has spent half a century as a journalist writing about Western Canada, the Far North, BC and the Island.
  11. Posted November 27, 2020. Image: The weir on Cowichan Lake A reprieve for the Cowichan River offers a rare good news story. Go to story
  12. A reprieve for the Cowichan River offers a rare good news story. PERHAPS IT’S A GOOD MOMENT to let our attention drift from the pandemic-propelled collapse of the Trumpian snake-oil-sales dystopia to the south and the daily litany of coronavirus woes across Canada to some good news that promises to yield benefits long after our current griefs have receded into gloomy tales for grandchildren. After decades of dithering, hand-wringing, seemingly interminable committee meetings, political buck-passing, corporate two-steps and protests from curmudgeonly self-interest groups, it looks like we are finally going to get serious action to rehabilitate the beleaguered Cowichan River, including raising the weir on Cowichan Lake. The weir on Cowichan Lake It’s one of Canada’s iconic heritage waterways, still achingly beautiful and a lynchpin ecosystem for the larger Georgia Basin. Yet it’s been ravaged by residential developers, entitled waterfront landholders, and by industry. It’s been used as a sewer; as a kind of giant waterslide for thousands of recreational tubers; as a source of massive water extraction for municipalities and factories. It’s been channelized, the foreshores intensively modified, the steep slopes above it stripped of forest cover, and the river itself choked with migrating gravel and sediments released by increased erosion. This is a problem that’s long needed addressing and it’s something we’ve known we could effectively mitigate for a long time now but simply haven’t. The federal government now says it’s going to put $24.2 million into a new 7-year program led by the Cowichan Tribes that’s intended to remediate the watershed of BC’s blue ribbon heritage river and to salvage it from brutal seasonal yo-yoing between desperate summer droughts and rainy season floods in the lower reaches that are the consequences of rapid climate change. But just to put the initiative into perspective, welcome as the federal funding may be, the contribution amounts to but one-quarter of the $96-million budget allocated to improve a single intersection at McKenzie Avenue and the Trans-Canada Highway. Those improvements are intended to reduce commuting time from Colwood by eight minutes—a cost of about $12 million a minute. Think about the relative priorities. The amount allocated to salvage a heritage river that’s the ancestral homeland of an indigenous culture which has been there 10,000 years is what we spend shaving two minutes off commute time to Downtown from the suburbs. Look, we should all be pleased that authorities have finally decided the Cowichan River is worth rehabilitating. The Cowichan Tribes, who deserve genuine congratulation for having worked so tirelessly toward this objective for so long, are putting up $5.3 million of their own funds to help repair what others have wrecked and are generously co-managing with partners on the Cowichan Watershed Board, another group that’s worked arduously for remediation. If this is what reconciliation looks like, we should enthusiastically welcome it. And yet perhaps public gratitude toward government is not the entirely appropriate response for something that should have been pursued far more aggressively from on high a long, long time ago. We’ve watched the painful and undeniable impacts of climate change unfold on the river for decades, amplifying problems created by heedless development, starting with deluded and short-lived attempts a century ago to use the river to float log booms to tidewater. Chinook salmon runs that numbered in the tens of thousands collapsed. Legendary steelhead diminished. Coho fell by the wayside. Most recently, egg-laden fish have had to be trucked from the lower river to their ancient spawning beds as the river suffered through repeated severe summer droughts—8 over the last 17 summers—while volunteers with buckets struggled to rescue by hand millions of fry stranded in drying pools. Snow retention on surrounding mountains now averages just 15 percent of what it was half a century ago and this means substantial declines in summer flows into Cowichan Lake where the river rises. This is a dramatic contrast from winter when heavy rainfall raises lake levels, surplus water spills into the river and frequently results in severe flooding downstream, particularly where homes of Cowichan Tribes members are located in low-lying areas. Just last February, 175 homes were affected by high water with some residents evacuated in dangerously swift water. And these conditions are going to get worse. Maximum daily summer temperatures are forecast to increase from 1.5 to 2.5 degrees over the coming decades. While a single degree of warming may not look like much, it’s actually a lot in climate time. One degree of warming will mean significant increases in the frequency of both severe drought and extreme rainfall events, warns the US National Aeronautics and Space Administration. Average summer rainfall over the Cowichan Lake watershed is expected to decline by up to 30 percent. Summer inflows to the lake that feeds the river are predicted to decline in volume by up to 16 percent. But fall rains are forecast to increase in volume by up to 38 percent over the next 50 years and winter rains by up to 26 percent. These are immense changes. Sixty-three years ago a weir was installed at the outlet to the 45 kilometre main stem of the river. The intention was to hold back flows into Cowichan Lake and to store the abundant winter water so that releases in summer months could maintain adequate flows of cold water for fish. In fairness, this wasn’t ecological altruism. The weir was constructed so that a pulp mill at Crofton could safely extract sufficient water to keep operating during summer months without draining the river dry. Dr Goetz Schuerholz, a distinguished wildlife ecologist and chair of the Cowichan River Estuary Restoration and Conservation Association, estimated in an open letter to the local newspaper five years ago that more than 370 million litres a day were being extracted from the river for just industrial use at the mill and municipal water requirements at Duncan and North Cowichan. On top of that, while the city of Duncan returned waste water to the river as sewage effluent, Schuerholz, whose career with the United Nations involved wildlife conservation in Africa, Asia and South America, noted that about 128 million litres of extracted water per day was never returned to the river but was discharged directly into the ocean as industrial effluent. None of this water use anticipated the effects of global warming-induced droughts. Over the last decade, inflows to Cowichan Lake have declined in volume by about one-third. And a succession of long, hot summers that signal a new normal will mean even more loss to evaporation. Last year, lake levels fell so low that storage behind the weir hit zero, meaning there wasn’t sufficient water to normally spill into the river. That spelled disaster for already struggling fish stocks. It also threatened community drinking water, sewer systems and the mill. Sometimes flows have been too low to adequately dilute sewage effluent, resulting in public health emergencies that adversely affected recreational use of the river below the outfalls. Despite the late hour, if the planned mitigation project comes to fruition, it will indeed be a big deal. “This is great news,” said Tom Rutherford, executive director of the Cowichan Watershed Board, in the organization’s official statement. “Today, I feel more hopeful than I have in decades for the future of wild salmon in the Cowichan watershed, and for all the communities whose well-being is dependent on that.” He, too, acknowledged the Cowichan Tribes constancy in the push for rehabilitation. The caveat, of course, is that the proof is always in the pudding when it comes to government funding promises. Governments change and priorities have a way of evaporating for ideological reasons. Parks once considered inviolate are suddenly on the table for logging, or mining, or tourist resorts, or road improvements. Lands designated exclusively for forestry are suddenly deemed more valuable as residential real estate. Industrial companies that assured environmental cleanup are often nowhere to be found after the profits have been extracted, leaving taxpayers holding the bag. But this plan, if it comes off, does represent the right decision for all the right reasons. The wounded Cowichan River still sustains important runs of steelhead, chinook, coho and chum salmon and all the other species that depend upon them, from birds to bears to endangered orcas. There are resident populations of trophy-sized brown, rainbow and cutthroat trout. All are keystones to a world-famous recreational sports fishery and are crucial traditional and cultural resources of the Cowichan Tribes. Fresh water angling on Vancouver Island, of which the Cowichan River has historically been one of the most important branding elements (daily creel counts were once posted in the New York Times and in the exclusive gentlemen’s clubs of London) generates more than $100 million a year in spending, wages and GDP. And salt water angling perhaps that much again, although sport fishing for coho and chinook in Cowichan Bay today is but a tattered remnant of what it was 50 years ago. Old timers used to tell me nostalgically of the days when runs were so abundant that you could hear them moving down the coast, and when they were holding in the bay for rain to bring the river levels up, you couldn’t look to a point on the compass without seeing a jumping salmon in the air. The pulp mill is still a critical employer in the Cowichan Valley, providing about 600 jobs locally. In the 1990s, advocates for the river began calling for the old weir to be raised to capture more of the winter inflows to Cowichan Lake. The plan was to stabilize river flows, establishing an equilibrium that would provide adequate summer flows for fish, maintain constant feedstock for the pulp mill, secure drinking water supplies for Duncan and ensure sufficient dilution for any effluent. After waiting for so long, it’s satisfying to see genuine progress at last. It’s been estimated that $10 million would cover the cost of raising and renovating or building a new weir. Replacing the old structure with a new one that can help stabilize summer flows is eminent good sense, it serves people as well as fish and other species. So is the seemingly more mundane commitment to remediate the effects of gravel flows and to restore riparian zones and reduce erosion. The $25-million bundle represents a holistic approach to restoring this fabled river and its watershed. And if anyone deserves thanks for that, it’s less the federal politicians than it is the Cowichan Tribes and the community’s many environmentally concerned volunteers and dedicated activists. Stephen Hume has spent half a century as a journalist writing about Western Canada, the Far North, BC and the Island.
  13. Posted October 29, 2020 Image: Father Charles Brandt at the hermitage Father Charles Brandt, who died in late October, was a tireless advocate of the idea of nature as a sacramental commons in which all living things, including us, have dignity and place. Go to story
  14. Father Charles Brandt, who died in late October, was a tireless advocate of the idea of nature as a sacramental commons in which all living things, including us, have dignity and place. Father Charles Brandt at the hermitage near the Oyster River THE LAST TIME I went to see Father Charles Brandt, who died of pneumonia in Campbell River on the morning of Sunday, October 25, a stiff southeaster had come blustering up from Seattle and was pushing around a high tide. White-laced rollers hissed over the shallows off the Oyster River estuary, the same shoals on which Jim McIvor’s schooner had wrecked in a similar sudden blow more than a century before. McIvor came ashore clinging to a spar, abandoned his plans to join the Klondike gold rush and, from the salvaged wreckage of his ship, built a cabin in the giant timber where farm pasture now sprawls about halfway between Campbell River and Courtenay. I was early for my meet-up with Charles, so instead of taking Catherwood Road to the secluded hermitage he’d helped found more than half a century earlier—and where he was the last hermit, sustaining himself by repairing rare antiquarian books—I took the old forestry bridge across the lower Oyster, parked my battered truck and killed time walking down to the river mouth. I took The Padre’s Walk, the trail named for my wife’s grandfather, another man of the cloth who loved and fished the wild river as a way of bleaching the bloody nightmares of The Somme and World War One out of his memory back when McIvor still lived in his shack near the beach and Father Brandt was a toddler on Euclid Avenue in Kansas City, Missouri. The Oyster is a river that wanders when it takes a mind to, so I dawdled through the back channels, stopped at the pool where Susan cast her grandfather’s ashes, watched the brindled backs of several small trout sheltering from a rising freshet in a back eddy behind a knot of willow roots and thought of her father, the grizzled old newspaperman who first brought me here to fish in my own distant youth 50 years ago. His ashes, too, and his wife’s, the life-long fishing companion he met on the Oyster as a leggy teenager, are scattered on the next beloved trout stream south, Black Creek. I pushed on to the beach. Wind roared through the canopy above, a strange counterpoint to the gloomy green silence below with its dripping underbrush adorned by glimpses of the river sliding past. At the beach, a screaming helmet of gulls above the surf, their wings gleaming as the light from a westering sun slanted in under dark layers of cloud. The gulls dipped and wheeled before they dropped to the sea, taking nature’s allotment from the surge, a little epiphany of abundance emerging from chaos. It struck me then that stepping out of the forest was a passage between worlds; a transition as abrupt as passing through the film that separates the world of fish from the world of birds, both of which Father Brandt thought as sacred as the world of humanity, to which he also ministered—as much by stepping outside its turbulent currents as by plunging into its chaos. I’m not a religious man, far from it. I’ve lived my entire life in the gritty, utilitarian pragmatism of journalism where there’s little time for reflection, let alone deep meditating upon the natural rhythms of wild places. But I always looked forward to my meetings with Charles, the quiet spirit of contemplative calm. He lived in a world as different from mine as the world of those noisy seagulls was from the world of those trout idling at the edge of the racing current, dreaming whatever fish dream. Yet after 30 years of talking about the natural world with the hermit of the Oyster River, I’m increasingly inclined to think that everything alive has some level of consciousness, even trees, however incapable we may be of discerning what that might mean or of translating that awareness into intelligible terms of human reference. I picked up a cobblestone for my garden, one of the rounded Oyster River pebbles distinctive for the snowflake-like quartz intrusions created when the rocks were ejected from some ancient volcano, another reminder of natural boundaries, this one between ancient past and immediate present. Every visit to Charles was rich with these puzzlements, they seemed to coalesce out of the air. He was 94 on this visit. Below the hermitage, the Oyster grumbled through its channels, the winter rains turning the sunny song of summer into something more ominous. He told me about surprising a cougar in the woods nearby—it stared at him, a tawny apparition, then vanished into thin air. He told me about a visit by an exotic bird that sized him up and then departed, some passing migrant he hadn’t seen before. He showed me a photo of a lighting redwing blackbird and another of an owl taking unblinking note of its observer. We chatted about an essay by the British writer Russell Hoban. He wrote about the moment, waking at night next to his sleeping wife in a hut on a Greek island, in which he realized that the world was talking to him in languages most of us have forgotten—the wind snuffling around the eaves, the water dripping into the cistern, the distant susurration of surf, the sound of rain spattering against the roof tree; how we use “our little language of words to describe the big language of nightfall”—or of steelhead cutting through surging rivers like silver scalpels or cougars that come and go from our noisy lives unseen and unheard. Charles was always turning thoughts like these over in his mind, always considering meanings. He was a tireless advocate of the idea of nature as a sacramental commons in which all living things, including us, have dignity and place. And even things that don’t live as we conceive the notion: snowflake rocks, water moving over stone, the wind over vasty deeps, the rosy flush of sunset on a mountain glacier. He brought a remarkable humility to these meditations. One of the jokes he loved to tell on himself was the day he had travelled to Campbell River and was looking for the post office. He asked a young man on the street for directions and, as he went on his way, invited him to visit the hermitage. “I’ll show you the way to heaven,” Charles said. “No thanks,” came the reply. “You can’t even find the post office.” Perhaps, though, that young man should have taken him up on the offer. Many have discovered that his teachings were really about self-worth—about how the sacred infuses the natural world and that to disrespect, degrade and destroy it is really to disrespect, degrade and destroy what is divine both in our shared humanity and in the home we also share. Charles was 97 when he slipped away in the embrace of what some who see dying as a natural part of living call “the old man’s friend.” I’m sad to have been deprived of his friendship but, as he’d have pointed out, that sadness is really a bit of selfishness, a desire to keep for ourselves something that was never ours to keep. Charles has simply gone where he was always meant to go and after a long, fulfilled and fulfilling life of helping the rest of us at that. He was trained as a scientist, served three years as an Army Air Force navigator in World War Two, was ordained as an Episcopalian, found himself drawn to Roman Catholicism and then met the mystic Trappist monk Thomas Merton, who told him of the eremitic tradition in the early Christian church, the desert brothers who built huts in the wilderness, or lived in caves, or even holes in the ground in order to dispense with the busy distractions of civilization. The idea stuck with him. In 1966, he was ordained by Bishop Remi De Roo as the first hermit monk in several hundred years of Catholic Church history. The bishop granted permission to find an appropriate site and then found a hermitage. He did so, at first with eight and then with 13 other monks near Merville, a farming community founded in 1919 to settle returning World War One veterans and then razed by a fast-moving forest inferno in 1922, seven months before Charles was born. The Merville religious community dispersed, but Charles established an individual hermitage on the Oyster River in the spring of 1970. Hermit monks are expected to sustain themselves. Charles found his way in his own past. He’d earned a merit badge in bookbinding as an Eagle Scout in 1937. It was a portable skill and one that loaned itself to solitude. He went back to school, refreshed his knowledge and became one of Canada’s leading conservators of antiquarian books and manuscripts serving as chief conservator for artistic and historic works on paper for the Manitoba Archives, teaching a course on curatorial care for ancient documents at the University of Victoria, and building a conservation lab with library and study at the hermitage. Merton’s philosophy remained with him, too. In 1985, when he heard of the fate of the Tsolum River, a tributary of the Puntledge River in Courtenay that had been poisoned by acid leaching from waste rock at a briefly-lived mine on Mount Washington, he began to organize support for a local effort to pressure government to restore and preserve the river. Today, salmon, trout, otters, eagles, bears and all the other creatures that the river sustains have returned. On the Oyster River, he launched a similar initiative to restore a river that had been badly battered by heedless logging on the steep slopes of the upper watershed; by landowners who sought to tame the wild river’s propensity to wander by channelizing the lower reaches with riprap that speeded the flow and altered the natural hydrology; and by industrial recreation that gouged a boat basin into the previously natural estuary. Some felt despair but Charles provided a unifying vision of what might be. He framed it with the idea of the sacramental commons. A community rallied, determined to do better by the little river—and by each other. Forestry workers, scientists, environmentalists, anglers, and farmers were encouraged to find common ground and so they did. Collective management of the Oyster River watershed, still imperfect as human causes always are but nevertheless a remarkable coalition of interests, emerged as a model for cooperative stewardship of something that’s now alive as a stewardship idea, as a resource and as part of the bigger fabric of life itself. There’s a popular misconception that hermits must cut themselves off from the world, rejecting the hurly-burly of living in society for asceticism and austerity. Hermits did once retreat to the wilderness so they could distance themselves from the distractions of humanity and so they could better dedicate themselves entirely to the service of God. But sometimes God wants a more engaged service and so the completely isolated hermit was never the hermit that Charles became. If the world was infused with the divine, then that’s where he was called to be, deeply engaged with both the natural world around him—the society of plants and animals—and the human community with which that natural world is inextricably entangled. Father Brandt the hermit priest departs this world deeply esteemed for his great accomplishment: the reconciliation of factions that thought themselves opposed; the creation of consensus about what needs to be done to restore the natural world in sustainable ways; the persuasion of government, industry and community to take up the mantle of stewardship that he argued was their duty, as much to themselves as to the environment. His friend Kathryn Jones tells me that Charles made arrangements to donate his property to the Comox Valley Regional District with a reserve around the hermitage established half a century ago. It’s to be maintained by the Brandt Oyster River Hermitage Society. I’m told another contemplative soul is already in residence. And that’s the sacred mystery and wonder of it that Charles understood. We all must perish in this life. Yet life goes on. Our duty is to nurture it as best we can. Stephen Hume has spent half a century as a journalist writing about Western Canada, the Far North, BC and the Island.
  15. Posted October 27, 2020 Image: This is happening all over BC right now; forest companies are burning half of the forest they just chopped down. Exuberant denialism and magical thinking characterize our response to both emerging viruses and the climate and biodiversity crises—and their root cause. Go to story
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