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Navigating through pandemonium
Development and architecture
Everything posted by Stephen Hume
ON THE THIRD DAY of the astonishing and historically unprecedented heatwave that brought Death Valley level temperatures to the Interior of British Columbia, I ventured onto my back deck to do some emergency hand watering of wilting plants. There I discovered that the plastic overflow trays under the plant pots in which I grow my kitchen herbs had simply melted. So had the gaskets and glue in the adjustable head on the water wand I’d neglected to hang up. Every seam now sprayed disconcerting leaks. Elsewhere on Vancouver Island people reported vinyl blinds melting, windows frames warping, window panes overheating and blowing out, the tempered glass in car windshields simply disintegrating. And on July 13, news media reported that BC Hydro cables to Vancouver Island were damaged during the timeframe of the heatwave, causing a reduction in power delivery. BC heatwave as illustrated on the Weather Network It wasn’t just here, of course. In Oregon people reported it got so hot the infrastructure began to melt. The plastic insulation on power cables sloughed off. Asphalt roads and concrete sidewalks heaved and buckled. Wags fried eggs on car hoods for their Twitter feeds. But it wasn’t so amusing for others. Heatwaves kill In the aftermath, BC’s coroner has reported at least 719 sudden deaths, many of them apparently associated with heat-related medical emergencies for seniors in sweltering rooms without adequate ventilation. There are likely more deaths yet to be tabulated. But the number confirmed so far was equivalent to an Air India disaster a day over the heatwave weekend. Why authorities didn’t anticipate this grim consequence as the disaster unfolded and overwhelmed ambulance services is a reasonable question. Only 20 per cent of British Columbians have air conditioning, so it wasn’t rocket science to predict that low income seniors in older housing would be extremely vulnerable to the heat. I haven’t seen the distribution figures but my informed guess would be that statistics will ultimately show a correlation between the deaths and poorer neighbourhoods. Poorer people can’t afford the air conditioners that the wealthy buy during heatwaves. The World Health Organization has been issuing grim warnings about the lethal consequences of heatwaves. It says they killed more than 166,000 people between 1998 and 2017. One summer-long heatwave in Europe killed 70,000 people in 2003. Another that lasted 44 days killed 56,000 in Russia in 2015. A 20-year medical study published in the medical journal The Lancet says that extreme temperature variations caused by global warming now cause more than five million deaths a year. A paper published June 4 in the respected science journal Nature analyzed data gathered over 28 years from 732 locations in 43 countries. It attributes 37 per cent of deaths related to heat exposure around the world between 1991 and 2018 to global warming caused by humans. While more air conditioning might help keep individuals who have them alive, air conditioning itself has consequences beyond this obvious benefit. The International Energy Agency (IEA) points out that if the rest of the world were to begin running air conditioners at a similar level to the US, which spends $30 billion a year to power air conditioners, that alone would add about two billion tonnes of carbon dioxide a year to the atmosphere. That’s because air conditioners are colossal electricity hogs. One IEA analyst told The Guardian newspaper in 2019 that during the previous year’s heat wave in Beijing, 50 per cent of that vast city’s electrical budget (much of it from burning natural gas, though other parts of China rely on coal) was diverted to powering air conditioners. Smashed temperature records call for decarbonization In the June heatwave, Lytton became the hottest place ever recorded in Canada at 49.6 degrees. It was just one of 59 heat records set around the sweltering province from Victoria—at 38.3, hotter than Hyderabad; Port Alberni—at 41.3, hotter than New Delhi; Fort Nelson—at 35.8, hotter than Mumbai. Just across the border from Osoyoos—at 45 degrees, already hotter than Uttar Pradesh, itself sweltering under a June heatwave across North India—a satellite sensor recorded a ground temperature near Wenatchee of 63 degrees. That’s the reading you get from your instant thermometer when the steak on the grill hits medium rare. Many of my media colleagues responded to these temperatures across BC, Washington and Oregon as a freakish event, a one-in-a-millennium marvel, the stuff of exclamatory headlines and breathless news clips, then shock and recrimination at the entirely predicable human toll. But examining my melted plastic trays, I concluded that we just got a glimpse not of an exception but of the hellish new normal about to descend upon us courtesy of the relentless physics of global warming. Though “climate change” or “climate emergency” is the politically preferred language these days, they seem almost Orwellian euphemism and dissimulation, suggesting we can have our cake and eat it, continuing to enrich ourselves with fossil fuels and enjoying the conveniences they bring while enthusiastically talking the talk about reducing greenhouse gas emissions. John Horgan and the New Democrats and the hapless Liberals and whoever they pick as a new leader can talk themselves blue about their green commitments, an endless blah, blah, blah of mission statements about carbon emission caps and magical thinking about electric futures, but their inability to fully embrace decarbonization means we should expect all this to get worse, not better unless we intervene as citizens. The truth is, our politicians are not stupid; they know what has to be done; but they don’t have the stomach for it. BC’s energy resource development heading in wrong direction Despite our self-congratulatory self-image as the greenest province, British Columbia remains a leading producer and exporter of that dirtiest of fossil fuels, coal. In the last 10 years, the province has produced and exported close to 300 million tonnes of coal. Loaded into hopper cars, that’s one giant coal train that would circle the Earth at the equator. Coal awaiting shipping at Westshore Terminal Then there’s oil, 100,000 barrels a day, making BC the fourth largest producer in Canada. And natural gas: five billion cubic feet a day, 32 percent of all Canadian production, much of it coming from a single field—the Montney Formation—in the Peace River district which contains 400 trillion cubic feet of gas, 392 trillion cubic feet of which remain as the recoverable reserve. This massive reserve is actually a driver of development and production in Alberta’s oil sands. Its natural gas liquids are used to dilute bitumen from Alberta’s oil sands so that it can be transported by pipeline and shipped by tanker. Mining that bitumen still generates 70 megatonnes of greenhouse gases a year. The Alberta government says it’s capping emissions—at 100 megatonnes. Thus, BC will be a critical enabler of the increased shipment of dilbit—diluted bitumen. Right now, about 300,000 barrels of crude oil and refined petroleum products flow through the existing pipeline every day. There’s another way to think of this. Natural gas liquids supplied from BC are enabling the flow of 129,000 tonnes per day of greenhouse gas emissions from Alberta. How? Because one barrel of dilbit, refined and burned, yields about 431 kilograms of carbon dioxide. Thus, when the current twinning of the pipeline is complete and another 590,000 barrels a day begin to flow—a tripling of the export of oil—the greenhouse gas emissions being exported will increase to about 385,000 tonnes a day. Oh, and there’s liquefied natural gas (LNG), also high on the province’s development agenda. It’s touted as a clean alternative to burning coal or oil. That’s generally true, but the devil is in the details. LNG Canada’s project in Kitimat is now under construction (Photo by LNG Canada) Every 42-gallon barrel of LNG yields about 236 kilograms of carbon dioxide. The standard LNG tanker carries about 150,000 cubic metres of cargo. So each anticipated tanker leaving BC laden with natural gas will actually be shipping 223,000 tonnes of carbon dioxide for release into the atmosphere. Then there’s the methane—it’s the largest component of natural gas and it’s 25 times more potent as a greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide. Methane leaks during production and BC’s oil and gas industry is a major source of methane emissions in the province. There’s no getting around the relatively simple math on these matters, although it’s maddeningly complicated by the way government and industry report using different values, scales and terminologies, and by the different greenhouse gas emission coefficients for different products. A cynic might think that there’s some sinister reason for reporting in barrels, cubic metres, cubic feet, metric tonnes, gallons, short tons, long tons, litres, pounds and kilograms which require a mind-numbing array of conversions. But perhaps this is less a sinister attempt to complicate and confuse than it is representative of the heedless, unthinking, topsy-turvy evolution that got us into this mess in the first place. In any event, the politicians in our successive provincial governments have been the leading proponents of the magical disconnect between what we do and what we say when it comes to mitigating global warming. Part of it is because investors, governments—and by extension the rest of us—are deeply addicted to the revenues and convenience that flow from fossil fuel commodities which have come to permeate almost every human activity. Reducing our reliance on fossil fuels will mean massive inconvenience A genuine shift to green energy globally will have immense financial implications for oil producing countries. One study by a prominent think tank estimates a genuine pivot to green energy would mean a cumulative total revenue loss for oil-producing countries of $13 trillion by 2040. Some countries would lose 40 per cent of their total government revenue. So there’s clearly a significant conflict. Hence, we tolerate the spin from politicians. Like that from Premier Horgan, who talks the politically correct green line we demand while simultaneously mowing down old growth forests that actually do mitigate against global warming, all the while prosecuting and preparing to stuff into courtrooms those few who are brave enough to object. BC continues to mow down forests that mitigate against global warming (photo by Alex Harris) Let’s put a little of this into the context of physics. Burning one tonne of BC coal produces more than two tonnes of carbon dioxide gas, a principal greenhouse gas driving global warming. So burning 300 million tonnes of BC coal contributes roughly 600 million tonnes of greenhouse gas. Where it’s burned—whether in steel mills in Japan or thermal generating plants in China—is completely irrelevant. Pretending it’s not part of BC’s carbon footprint because it’s been exported to some other less environmentally responsible jurisdiction doesn’t matter—or help. As the recent heatwave illustrated, we all share the same atmosphere and what goes down is bound to come around whether in the form of the recent heatwave or the emissions of fossil fuel particulates that one research paper published last month estimates killed a million people in 2017. Wait a minute, I hear, how can burning one tonne of coal produce a weight of carbon dioxide greater than the coal itself? For those of us who should have paid more attention in high school chemistry class, the atomic weight of carbon is 12. The atomic weight of oxygen is 16. When carbon oxidizes, which is what’s happening when you burn it, one carbon atom combines with two oxygen atoms which yields a weight of 44 for carbon dioxide—about 3.7 times the weight of the original carbon. It’s all more complicated, of course. Coal isn’t pure carbon and different types of coal have different concentrations of carbon, but generally speaking, the laws of physics dictate that burning coal creates twice its weight of carbon dioxide. Carbon dioxide, of course, is a volatile gas that disperses widely and thus has a greatly amplified effect, trapping heat in the atmosphere. So when we hear politicians pumping their own tires about their efforts to mitigate global warming while simultaneously promoting their success at generating revenue from commodity exports, the leading of which in BC are timber products—former sinks which stored carbon—and fossil fuels which amplify carbon emissions, we are actually being sold a talking point rather than a solution. And we accept this, of course, because actually reducing our reliance on fossil fuels for transportation, food production, energy to power everything would be massively inconvenient. For example, consider the ubiquitous cell phone. A cell phone has a particularly high carbon footprint due to the mining for the metals needed to make them; and also the massive amounts of energy used by immense data centres, servers and networks (upon which all our devices rely)—not solar energy, not yet, though there is a push in that direction. Use your cell phone for an hour a day for a year and the energy needed will contribute about 1.3 tonnes of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere. Now multiply that by five billion users worldwide. Let’s say you decide to send me an email commenting on these remarks. You just added four grams of carbon dioxide to global greenhouse gas emissions. Doesn’t seem like much until you multiply by the 306 billion e-mails sent in 2020, which are expected to increase by 70 billion before 2025. Let’s say you like these remarks and forward them as an attachment to 65 people on your contacts list. Using a formula worked out by a BBC analyst, that amounts to driving a kilometre in a car. The average e-mail user contributes 136 kilograms of carbon dioxide per year. In total, e-mails alone contribute as much carbon dioxide as seven million cars on the road. The lethal heat threshold Contemplating this background to our previously unprecedented but potentially soon to be commonplace heatwave got me thinking again about a troubling research paper I read last year in the journal Science Advances by three scientists from British and American universities and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory at the California Institute of Technology. The title of the paper was “The emergence of heat and humidity too severe for human tolerance.” It started with the fact that when high temperatures are combined with high humidity there’s a lethal threshold beyond which human beings cannot survive because their bodies are unable to shed sufficient heat. The term used for this threshold is “wet bulb.” The condition takes its name from an experiment in which a thermometer is covered with water-soaked cloth over which air is passed. The lower the humidity index, the faster water evaporates, cooling the thermometer. The higher the humidity index, the slower water evaporates and the warmer the thermometer will be. This relationship between temperature and humidity determines the ability of the body to shed excess heat through the evaporation of perspiration. The researchers determined that a wet-bulb temperature of 35 degrees marks the upper physiological limit beyond which the human organism cannot survive. Climate models, they report, projected that the first wet-bulb temperatures would begin to occur around 2050. But when they examined the actual weather station data from around the world, they found to their alarm that wet-bulb temperatures are already occurring in some coastal subtropical locations and that extreme humid heat overall has doubled since 1979. “Our findings indicate that reported occurrences of extreme TW (wet-bulb temperature) have increased rapidly at weather stations…over the last four decades and that parts of the subtropics are very close to the 35 degree survivability limit, which has likely been reached over both sea and land,” the researchers say. “These trends highlight the magnitude of the changes that have taken place as a result of the global warming to date.” Simon Lewis, professor of global change science at University College of London, pointed out in a Guardian article that in 2020, the 35 degree wet bulb limit was reached in both the Middle East and Pakistan’s Indus River Valley. Stop the magical thinking—cut emissions in half, soon It doesn’t take a great leap of imagination to reach the conclusion that in a rapidly warming world, coastal places like Vancouver and Victoria may not be the climate havens their residents have liked to think. They may, in fact, be more susceptible to lethal combinations of intense heat and high humidity. Clearly, we need to aggressively undertake the kind of planning that apparently did not take place before the just-finished heat wave that fried BC, Washington and Oregon, and killed enough British Columbians to qualify as a major disaster—although models have been predicting just such events for some time. A key component of that planning is going to be up to us as citizens. It’s essential that we start telling our politicians to stop the magical thinking, stop the dissimulation and euphemisms and start talking seriously about what we have to do to address the coming climate events which, 50 years ago, scientists told our federal government posed a greater threat to the survival of humanity than thermonuclear war. Like Winston Churchill or not, one can’t help but admire his speech telling the British people that for the imminent war against the Nazi, “I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears and sweat.” That’s the kind of direct talk we need from our politicians and each other as we face up to what lies before us. We need to get our imaginations onto a war footing in response to what’s coming. That means getting serious about cutting our carbon dioxide emissions in half and in doing it over the next 30 years; reducing our personal carbon footprints; revising our assumptions about travel, diet, transportation, housing and the consumer society of planned obsolescence. It means actually thinking about the consequences of what we do, for example preparing and planning for cooling refuges for those in the population who cannot afford air conditioning. Magic and wishful thinking won’t let us evade the hellish future we’re creating. Only action will do that. And the place to start is with the politicians who are afraid to be decisive on the painful decisions that must be made. Stephen Hume has spent half a century as a journalist writing about Western Canada, the Far North, BC and the Island.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
Exuberant denialism and magical thinking characterize our response to both emerging viruses and the climate and biodiversity crises—and their root cause. This is happening all over BC: A forest company burns half the public forest it just chopped down, adding to the climate and biodiversity crises, and quite possibly creating conditions from which the next pandemic will emerge. THE PREDICTED SECOND WAVE of the coronavirus pandemic appears to be arriving right on schedule although Vancouver Island has so far won a thankful reprieve. The rest of British Columbia, however, is now trending new cases at almost four times the rate at which they occurred in June. We knew the second wave was coming because epidemiologists warned this pandemic was following the classic pattern: pulsing new infections into the “fertile ground” of previously uninfected populations. Yet, we nevertheless eased up on safety protocols—in some cases outright resisted them—different groups arguing fatigue, boredom, inconvenience, age-related immunity, cost or overblown hoax. And now, to paraphrase Steven Spielberg’s classic horror movie Poltergeist, “It’s baaack!” Confirmed new cases of COVID-19 were sharply on the rise again by mid-October. Numbers were up for BC, for Canada, for the rest of the continent and for the world. In the United States, a new infection occurred every 1.25 seconds and a death from the virus about every 1.5 minutes, about three times the death rate from influenza last year. In fact, reports Scientific American, back in April the coronavirus became the third leading cause of death in the US, exceeding every cause but cancer and heart disease. But despite almost 40 million cases worldwide, with new infections hitting 80,000 a day in the US, in this weird alternative universe that BC sometimes seems to occupy, an anti-mask faction was noisily disrupting ferry sailings, menacing concerned public transit passengers, and hassling employees in retail outlets that had imposed mask requirements as a safety measure for staff and customers. It might seem self-evident that masks are a good idea for preventing transmission—that’s why health care workers wear them in hospitals and your dental hygienist puts one on to clean your teeth—but clearly this isn’t about logic or reason, it’s about emotions and magical thinking. For the rational, daily increases spiking back to levels that just a few months ago overwhelmed frontline health care providers and triggered unprecedented lockdowns should serve as a sobering reminder that even if we’re learning to cope—for now, at least—we’re nowhere near the end of this pandemic, we’re merely at the end of the beginning. Infection trends relentlessly upward everywhere: Germany, Italy, Spain, South Korea, Russia, India, South America, the United Kingdom, where hospitals in Manchester and Liverpool are now running out of intensive care beds in a grim reprise of New York and Milan during the first wave. It’s true that the death curve has flattened as medical research extends our knowledge of drug therapies and clinical practices that seem able to blunt the initial lethality of the coronavirus. Although, if you’re poor, an ethnic minority, elderly (10.7 million in Canada are at elevated risk because they are over 55) or have an underlying condition (3.1 million of us are diabetics, 2.4 million have cardiovascular ailments and 2.1 million have chronic obstructive lung disease) or one of the many immunocompromised by HIV, chemotherapy, radiation treatment or certain drugs, the chances of dying from the virus and associated complications increase up to 630-fold. Globally we’re now counting more than a million coronavirus dead. More than a third of those mortalities are in North America. And if that math takes one aback, so should the explosion of conspiracy theories—it’s a hoax; the medical profession is cooking the statistics for profit; Big Brother is taking away your right not to wear basic surgical masks to protect fellow citizens (this from folks who routinely abide by such infringements upon their freedom as the requirement that you shower before going into a public swimming pool and who wouldn’t dream of yelling at their surgeon for wearing a mask). Then there’s Big Pharma hyping the danger so it can sell you untested vaccines. Bill Gates, George Soros, genetic engineers in China; the scapegoats abound. Magical thinking about herd immunity ricochets through social media. And the outright denialism—the numbers are false; the virus is less lethal than common flu (indeed it is, if you’re a baby but if you’re over 50, beware!)—more resembles the Middle Ages of miracles and belief in the healing properties of amulets than a century in which science can land robots on passing comets. The coming economic costs are staggering Behind the clamour on Facebook, TikTok and Twitter, the actual tabulated cost of the pandemic clicks upward along with the case loads. Right now, the estimated personal costs to a patient hospitalized with the virus and later discharged from direct medical care to deal with lingering effects is about $4,000, calculates Bruce Lee of City University of New York’s School of Public Health. The math is pretty simple. If 20 percent of the US population gets sick, one year’s post-hospital costs would be $50 billion. If no effective vaccine emerges and 80 percent of the US population is infected, the cost soars to $204 billion says another report from the Reuters news agency. Statistical wiggle-room notwithstanding, in-hospital costs have been estimated at $35,000 to $45,000 per patient which means that in the US alone, admittedly one of the world’s most expensive systems, pandemic hospital costs are going to run to the hundreds of billions. There’s a lot more red ink coming, though. The economic fallout from job losses during lockdowns is just now being totted up by accountants. The International Labour Organization estimates initial job losses to the pandemic at 3 million jobs in Canada, 60 million in Europe, 70 million in the US, 45 million in Africa and an astonishing 235 million in the Asia-Pacific region, of which 122 million lost jobs are in India. Overall, the ILO estimates global job losses at 400 million, with a cautionary note. That total is calculated using the 48-hour work week that’s more common outside the developed world. Use the standard 40-hour work week of North America and Europe and the total estimated pandemic job loss hits 480 million. The total cost of the coronavirus pandemic will top $16 trillion—that’s equivalent to almost a decade of Canada’s total economic output at current nominal GDP—says a paper published in the Journal of the American Medical Association in mid-October. The takeaway from all this is that our slackness in preparing and sustaining a serious and comprehensive pandemic response strategy—we’ve had warnings from epidemiologists and virologists about the potential for a lethal plague like this for 30 years now—is going to cost us dearly in lives and money. Whole economic sectors are in shambles because we collectively failed to hope for the best while preparing for the worst. The airline industry is in trouble as passenger loads collapse. By mid-April, 65 percent of the world’s commercial passenger aircraft had been mothballed. Some major national airlines reported a 95 percent decline in passengers. The restaurant industry is in turmoil as small operators with small profit margins decide they can’t break even as mandated social distancing measures limit tables. Tourism is in trouble from luxury resorts to recreational fishing lodges. Movie theatres are in trouble as apprehensive audiences stay away in droves. Universities that relied on revenue from foreign students face catastrophic declines in enrolment and cash flow. Even the once-haughty province of Alberta, Canada’s economic powerhouse fuelled by oil exports, has been humbled by a perfect storm of pandemic and commodity price collapse. Accelerated by the economic slowdown, global demand for all oil shrank sharply just at the same time some developed nations began a pivot toward clean energy sources. With a world suddenly awash in cheaper oil, the more expensive oil suffered. Alberta, where median household incomes for decades exceeded those in Toronto and Vancouver by as much as $30,000-a-year, is suddenly faced with dwindling royalty revenues, a $24-billion deficit and correspondingly severe cuts to services. The diminished expectations appear too much for some to acknowledge, hence the din of outraged blame from some Albertans aimed at Quebec, Ontario, BC, the federal Liberals, the province’s previous NDP government, even teenaged environmentalist Gretta Thunberg—just about anybody makes a convenient scapegoat, it seems. BC’s damaged forest ecosystems could nurture the next pandemic If news from the pandemic is depressing, hang onto your hats, you ain’t seen nothin’ yet. The real takeaway from our coronavirus woes is far worse. It’s this: global warming increases the risk and propensity for more pandemics like this one and possibly far worse caused by emerging infectious diseases. How does that work? Harvard University’s School of Public Health explains: “As the planet heats up, animals big and small, on land and in the sea, are headed to the poles to get out of the heat. That means animals are coming into contact with other animals they normally wouldn’t, and that creates an opportunity for pathogens to get into new hosts.” The current pandemic is a classic example. It’s a new virus that apparently hopped from wild bats to us. Yes, that seems to have occurred first in China, but there are implications here, too. “Many of the root causes of climate change also increase the risk of pandemics,” the Harvard experts say.“Deforestation which occurs mostly for agricultural purposes, is the largest cause of habitat loss worldwide. “Loss of habitat forces animals to migrate and potentially contact other animals or people and share germs.” What’s that got to do with us in BC? Well, we’re pretty good at stripping habitat, clearcutting watersheds, flooding entire valley systems, and encouraging urban sprawl. Instead of in-fill and vertical development in a contained urban footprint, we spend billions on highways access to land beyond surburbia and then complain when the displaced deer look for food in our urban gardens. Mountain caribou, marmots, bats, shrews, sea lions, orcas—more than 70 mammal species in BC—are endangered, threatened or of special concern. Then there are the species and subspecies of birds, insects, reptiles, amphibians and fish, a total of 1,900 at risk of being erased from the province’s collective gene pool even as surviving populations are compressed into shrinking, polluted and fragmented habitat. When it’s salmon or steelhead or moose at risk, there’s usually a commotion from special interests. If it’s pink sand verbena, badgers or rare butterflies, not so much. In Canada, a now-25-year-old comparative study found that a square kilometre of forest was cut, stripped or burned every 49 minutes and while BC is home to 6 of Canada’s 11 major forest regions, it’s also the place where up to 2,400 square kilometres of forest a year are logged, 90 percent of it by clearcutting, which is habitat erasure. Those numbers come from the provincial government. Taken as a whole, the gallery of dwindling habitats and their inhabitants is precisely what the public health experts at Harvard seem to be warning us about when it comes to creating propensities for future pandemics. The last one came out of Wuhan, China. There’s no reason the next couldn’t come out of damaged forest ecosystems anywhere. When climate change really starts to bite—and it’s nipping at our heels already as the weeks of wildfire smoke that choked Victoria’s capital region so densely last summer should surely instruct us—the coming costs, casualties and inconvenience are going to make the upheavals of the 2020 pandemic look like the good old days. Consider that if a $16 trillion bill for failing to prepare mitigation strategies for a viral pandemic seems onerous, what will a $530 trillion bill for failing to adequately address global warming seem? That’s the cost estimated as a worst case scenario by research published in 2017 by James Hansen, former director of NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies. More conservative estimates of the coming costs of failing to act aggressively to mitigate global warming are scarcely more reassuring. Citi, one of the world’s leading financial institutions, calculated recently that continuing on the present course could see costs of $72 trillion over the next 30 years. And it warns investors that perhaps $100 trillion in fossil fuel and other assets could simply be stranded by climate change should the public insist on a robust response to address global warming. Amplifying that, Andrew Winston, writing in the Harvard Business Review, notes the financial implications of climate change for ordinary folk. A recently graduated teacher in her mid-20s who is prudently contributing to a pension plan will expect a payout in 50 years, he points out. But if things continue as they have, she’ll be expecting returns on investments that may well be liabilities rather than income-generating assets—Alberta’s oil sands, for example—or real estate investments in what are now prime residential, commercial or agricultural properties that may be sharply devalued or made worthless by rising sea level, increased exposure to hurricanes and tornadoes, or exposure to drought or increased seasonal flooding. In fact, as another recent piece of investigative reporting for National Public Radio in the US points out, most of us currently invest in real estate with blissful ignorance of the looming risks from wildfire, floods, drought or sea level rise because it’s not in the interests of developers, sellers or regulators to disclose them. That report found that many millions of people have their life savings tied up in property that’s at increasing risk from climate-driven natural disaster. In the US, for example, easily extrapolated to Vancouver Island, 15 million residential and commercial properties are at significant risk from climate change flooding and another 4.5 million homes from wildfire. “None of the landlords, real estate agents, sellers, appraisers, bankers or home inspectors the families interacted with explained the risk of flooding or wildfires, because no one had to do so,” reports the NPR investigative team. “Numbers such as those will grow as climate change makes the Earth hotter and floods and fires get more frequent and severe.” Mario Alejandro Arisa, writing in Yale Environment, notes that while city planners in Miami and its surrounding districts are planning for sea level to rise about half a metre, current science increasingly points to a rise that will be four times that—close to the depth of your average living room. Such a rise would displace up to 800,000 people, about one-third of the urban and suburban populations in the Miami area. “Unlike the jet-set owners of high-end real estate,” writes Arisa,“the region’s middle-class residents—who have most of their savings tied up in their homes—face the prospect of generations of wealth being wiped out when the property market inevitably craters in the face of rising seas. “The science of what is going to happen here—higher seas, increased heat, intensifying storms—is certain. Still the developers, real estate agents and many buyers continue to play a long con against the rising tide pretending that all is well in South Florida, even though some 10 percent of its land area will be under water if the ocean rises just two feet.” “The coming market shift is inevitable as what’s now valuable seaside property becomes steeply devalued and the value shifts to real estate away from sea level,” Arisa predicts. BC’s magical thinking fuels climate calamity It’s been said of our increasingly globalized world of data flows that “here is everywhere and everywhere is here.” Anybody who has taken the effort to download interactive coastal elevation maps of Greater Victoria and the Lower Mainland can see how these warnings have plenty of application in this place. The same might be said of BC, where premiers from left and right blissfully conclude that when it comes to carbon emissions and global warming, they can have their cake and eat it, too. Somehow, they persuade themselves that the piper will never have to be paid—at least not on their watch—as they subsidize industries to mow down ancient forests and export them as lumber, pulp, paper, raw logs and sawdust, and to promote short term prosperity through fossil fuels. In 2011, professional forester Anthony Britneff warned, in a rigorous analysis of statistics so dispersed that one might be forgiven for thinking that obscurantism reigned in a provincial government whose mantra was transparency, the area of inadequately restocked forest lands in BC was larger than at any time in the history of provincial forest management. He calculated it at 170,000 square kilometres. Meanwhile, dirty old coal is still BC’s leading export. Include oil and natural gas and fossil fuels amount to almost 25 percent of the annual total of provincial exports with plans underway to dramatically expand exports of the very commodities that amplify global warming. This is something about which our 20-something teacher, frugally putting a bit of income aside each year toward her modest retirement in 2060, might want to start asking her pension fund managers. Just as we collectively turned a blind eye to the lesser viral outbreaks of ebola, SARS and bird flu—all dry runs for the pandemic that was sure to follow—we now sleep-walk toward the far greater menace of economic, political and social disruption that will arise from climate change. The gloomy omens of what’s coming—and the same exuberant denialism and magical thinking that characterize our response to the inconvenience of pandemic—are everywhere. Drought-stricken California, Oregon, Washington, BC and Alberta have been swept by fires that are radically configuring the forest cover we take for granted. It’s the same in Siberia and Australia. In BC, Washington, Oregon and California fires have consumed more than 40,000 square kilometres of forest lands, whole communities have been razed and more than 100,000 people evacuated—one in 10 Oregon residents had to leave their homes. At one point last summer, 500,000 people, 25 percent of Oregon’s population, were on immediate evacuation alert. And it looks like this is just the start. MunichRe, one of the giant capital pools that underwrites insurance companies, gloomily concludes after analyzing 50 years of insurance data that climate-induced risks from intense storms, relentless droughts, blistering heatwaves, flooding from heavy rain and snowfall events, coastal marine inundations and vast wildfires are all steadily trending upward with uninsured losses now almost doubling insured losses. Here on the West Coast, from California to Alaska, fires ripped through forests stressed by 15 years of drought and the insect infestations that have inevitably followed progressively warmer winters brought by global warming. Sea ice in the arctic is thinner than it’s ever been in human memory and getting thinner by the year, altering global geopolitics as the militaries of countries above the Arctic Circle begin their strategic moves to take advantage. While maritime shipping magnates and admirals salivate over the opening of Arctic Ocean sea lanes that shorten the distance between Europe and Asia, the melting permafrost vents methane, a greenhouse gas that’s far more potent than carbon dioxide. Further south, glaciers that feed the rivers carrying meltwater to big prairie cities like Calgary, Edmonton and Regina are losing mass faster than winter snowfalls can replace it. But Alberta has a plan. It’s about to spend $815 million to expand and modernize irrigation of its southern dry lands which sprawl in the rain shadow of the Rockies. It will use water from where? Oh, yeah, those disappearing glaciers that serve as fresh water banks for the dry summers. The balmy September just past turns out to have been the hottest since science began keeping records 140 years ago. Of the 10 hottest Septembers recorded, all have occurred since 2005 and the 7 hottest were recorded over the last 7 years with each September hotter than the previous year. This puts the pandemic year of 2020 on track to be one of the hottest years, perhaps even the hottest, since global records began, says the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in the US. Two cities in the American southwest, Phoenix and Palm Springs, had more than 145 days of temperatures over 100 degrees by this fall. Research published in the journal Science, which combines weather observations with tree ring data from the last 1,200 years, suggests this drought, amplified by global warming, has the potential to last 400 years or more. The last time there was a megadrought in southern California, the social disruptions were brutal as otherwise peaceful Chumash cultures dwelling on the coast suddenly found themselves warring to control increasingly scarce water and food resources. Brian Fagan, editor of The Oxford Companion to Archaeology, chronicles the drought and its social impact in his book The Long Summer: “Chiefs vied for control of territory and resources. They fought one another for food as hunger and malnutrition stalked their villages. At the same time, permanent water supplies shrank dramatically…The droughts created a new social reality…” The archaeological record, he says, confirms that reality. Anthropologists studying skeletons from pre-contact village cemeteries discovered a disturbingly sharp increase in the number of head injuries inflicted by clubs and stone axes (circa 700 to 1150 CE). “Warfare was not an innate propensity of the Chumash or somehow an outgrowth of their culture; it was a response to environmental conditions,” Fagan writes. Here on the BC coast, the archaeological record finds an abrupt and long-lasted period of village fortification from Victoria to the North and there were fortified sites at key fishing locations from the Fraser River estuary to the canyons above Yale, where massive stone walls can still be seen. Was this, too, sparked by competition for scarce resources in a time when climate change up-ended patterns of expectation? Is something similar on the books for us? Every society assumes it stands at the pinnacle of achievement and that there’s no going back. The builders of Mayan pyramids, of Angkor Wat’s elaborate temples, of the great baths of Mohenjo-Daro in the Indus Valley and of the Akkadian palaces of Mesopotamia doubtless thought they were the culmination of progress. Until climate change intervened and they weren’t. Their monuments were left to be reclaimed by wilderness and drifting sand. Perhaps what we should most learn from the trials of our present pandemic is the peril of not paying attention and of indulging ourselves in self-absorbed denial and the wishful thinking that leaves us unable to acknowledge and address the much greater potential calamity that’s barrelling towards us. Stephen Hume has spent half a century as a journalist writing about Western Canada, the Far North, BC and the Island.
A proposal for Indigenous “guardians” to act as the eyes and ears on the land provides a dramatic win-win for resource management. BRITISH COLUMBIA TAXPAYERS are probably on the hook for a $100-million bill to clean up an abandoned copper mine on the northwest coast that for 67 years has been leaching acid runoff into a rich trans-boundary salmon river critical to the Douglas Indian Association of Alaska and the Taku River Tlingit First Nation in BC. And that’s just the start. The public cost of remediating the environmental impact across the province of similar abandoned mines with environmental liabilities is going to run as high as $3 billion according to Mining Watch Canada, which surveyed unfunded taxpayer liabilities. Then there are potential liabilities from pollution that deprive First Nations of resources guaranteed by treaty. First Nations also suffer the depletion of resources, their use of which was understood to be guaranteed in perpetuity. Yet it doesn’t have to be that way. A new proposal from the BC First Nations Mining and Energy Council suggests that one solution could simultaneously satisfy calls for greater protection of the environment for all British Columbians, take a major step towards mutual reconciliation between indigenous and settler societies, provide economic benefits to small indigenous communities, and save taxpayers’ money by preventing resource development from morphing into costly liabilities in the first place. The organization is urging the governments of Canada and the Province to collaborate with First Nations in establishing a network of Indigenous “guardians” with power to monitor and protect the lands, waters and wildlife within the boundaries of their traditional territories by applying traditional knowledge as well as modern science. They wouldn’t supplant mainstream obligations for monitoring and enforcement, but would instead enhance them by serving as the “eyes and ears” of First Nations themselves, contributing to an emerging capacity as co-managers of resources on their land. Industry is inflicting great harm on the environment, much of it unseen and unacknowledged. Above, the mine tailings pond washout at Mt Polley near Quesnel, the largest environmental disaster involving a mine in Canada’s history. Guardian programs supply jobs, data and prevent environmental destruction BC’s government has already acknowledged that lands and resources should be managed in ways that find congruency for both provincial and Indigenous law, and the federal Truth and Reconciliation Commission urged for the respect and revitalization of First Nations laws. Both judicial scholars and the courts have long said Indigenous laws were never simply extinguished and replaced by British common law but, in fact, were subsumed into and became part of it. Indeed, the proposal offers a way to pragmatically realize the ideals expressed in the Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples Act passed unanimously by the BC legislature last November. “Guardians [would] monitor the activities of resource users, enforce federal, provincial and indigenous laws, gather data on the ecological health and wellbeing of traditional territories, compile data to inform First Nation resource decision making, and engage in community outreach and education about conservation of cultural and natural resources,” the proposal says. Researched by law students at the University of Victoria’s Environmental Law Centre, the proposal notes that there are 70 such Guardian and Guardian-type programs already in place and thriving around the world from Australia to Africa. They include a number of successful systems in Canada, perhaps the best-known being the Canadian Rangers, in which volunteers from remote Indigenous communities provide the military with remarkable reconnaissance, intelligence-gathering and patrol capabilities relying on their traditional knowledge and skills on the land which require minimum resources. Other examples within Canada range from “Watchmen” employed to safeguard important cultural and historic sites on Haida Gwaii, to fisheries and game management in the Arctic, on the Prairies and in BC’s rugged interior. One major benefit of the programs would clearly be economic. They would provide local jobs and enhance community capacity for everything from mounting search and rescue operations and managing wildfire hazards to rehabilitating mismanaged fish stocks, monitoring environmental compliance in forestry, mining and other development and enforcing fish and game regulations to prevent poaching. In addition to growing both individual and community capacity, though, a Guardian program has benefits that are less tangible but no less valuable. For example, they can help amplify the intergenerational transfer of traditional knowledge, a process that was severely damaged by the residential school system which intentionally separated children from their parents and grandparents for reeducation with another’s culture’s values, history, language and belief sets. This, too, offers important spinoffs. It helps revitalize self-government and contributes to community health by instilling the cultural pride that enhances community wellbeing. Costly environmental destruction not being addressed by government Many studies, the UVic Environmental Law Centre research team discovered, report that public investment in Guardian programs generates returns of up to $10 in returned value for every dollar spent. At least one study indicated that there were $20 in benefits for every dollar invested. Compare returns on investment like that to the inflating long-term liability costs from resource extraction projects that weren’t properly managed and it looks like a dramatic win-win alternative to the short term gain, long-term pain models of the immediate past. In BC we are discovering the public penalties are very long-term indeed and will likely have unforeseen consequences that extend far beyond the tax burden of even the simplest remediation. For example, an abandoned copper mine west of Victoria still leaches fish-killing toxic metals into the Jordan River at a site where the Pacheedaht people, now reestablished at Port Renfrew, locate their creation story. Think of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, Mecca or the Temple Mount repurposed as toxic waste dumps and then having devout Christians, Muslims and Jews told to, like, just get over it and move on. Spiritual and moral dimensions aside, acid leachate into the Jordan River also has an economic cost. It has for a century deprived the Pacheedaht of access to a traditional fishery they own and have always owned. Another abandoned copper mine on Mount Washington straddles the headwaters of the Tsolum River. It operated for three years and required a 40-year effort and massive public expenditure to reduce acid drainage that is finally—for now, anyway—back below levels lethal to salmon and trout stocks which should be worth, by the accountants’ estimate, about $3 million a year. The toxicity of the metals basically killed the main stem of the Tsolum, a rich salmon-bearing tributary of the Puntledge River at Courtenay, once famed for its now-extinct race of giant chinook. Anglers who came from around the world to fish for them nicknamed the massive, deep-shouldered salmon “Puntledge Torpedoes.” And a dam supplying power to coal mines in the vicinity put paid to a sockeye salmon run that spawned in Comox Lake. So add another $150 million to that overall cost just in foregone value from lost salmon returns. One might calculate the costs of foregone recreational angling too, but let’s leave that for some grad student in economics. It’s sufficient to say the cost-benefit of the abandoned mine does not look good. Whether the Mount Washington remediation is permanent—it involved putting a gigantic synthetic raincoat on the exposed acidifying rock—only time will determine, although common sense suggests that it won’t last forever and constant monitoring will be needed. At the long-abandoned Britannia Mine on Howe Sound south of Squamish, the initial public cost of controlling acid drainage from the site was $46 million but there’s an ongoing annual cost of $3 million to maintain the treatment “in perpetuity.” My dictionary defines “in perpetuity” as forever, which is a long time for everyone to pay for something that profited a few shareholders for a few years. Then there’s the aftermath of the Mount Polley accident, the worst environmental mining disaster in Canadian history, in which a tailings dam failed and spewed 24-million cubic metres of mine waste into the Quesnel watershed which provides habitat for one of the richest and most abundant sockeye runs in BC. There are thought to be at least 84 abandoned mines and industrial sites in BC, a number with insecure tailings dams and ponds, some—similar to the notorious Tulsequah Chief—possibly leaching acid into ground and surface water from seldom-monitored tailings fields. That’s in addition to hundreds of abandoned and leaky oil wells. Scores of unlicensed dams associated with oil and gas development pock the northern landscape. Forestry infractions range from shoddy road construction and subsequent erosion, to encroachment upon the riparian zones of fish-bearing streams, to inadequate or improper reforestation of logged lands. In 2018, about 4,000 forestry infractions alone were recorded. There is habitat degradation from agricultural runoff. Near-industrial scale poaching strips abalone and clam beds, while undersized crabs, endangered rock fish sanctuaries and salmon streams closed to commercial and recreational fishing for conservation reasons are pillaged. Recent estimates for poaching run to 8,000 tonnes or more of shellfish and thousands of tonnes of rockfish which is peddled to restaurants on a backdoor blackmarket. The Vancouver-based news website Tyee several years ago cited one ministry of environment report that in BC it’s now estimated that poachers may steal as much fish and game as is taken legally. And the fact is that these are all merely indicators. Many more environmental problems remain unknown and uninvestigated. That’s because for decades cash-strapped government agencies have been downsizing investigation and enforcement abilities. Since 2013, BC’s Forest Practices Board has complained about a reduction in forestry inspections and in 2014 it reported that the provincial forest branch’s ability to enforce the law no longer deserved the public’s confidence. Right now, to enforce fish and game regulations and resolve human conflicts with wildlife, about 165 conservation officers are expected to patrol an area which is larger than 164 of the world’s countries. BC’s Compliance and Enforcement Branch was not long ago down to about 150 staff, which included the 83 natural resource officers expected to make inspections, patrols and investigations. It’s hard to get accurate counts because government agencies tend to bury the data, perhaps because numbers change so rapidly and on the penny-pinching whim of who’s in power at the moment. Nevertheless, the arithmetic is compelling—each natural resource officer is responsible for policing 11,386 square kilometres. A Sierra Club report in 2010 said that the provincial forest service had reduced field inspections for compliance and enforcement by 46 percent and that what inspections are done now go for the low-hanging fruit—those infractions that are easy to spot and don’t require expensive travel to remote regions or complex investigations. Guardian program an answer to the erosion of governmental monitoring More than half a century ago when I was still physically fit enough to hike and wade up the small salmon and trout streams that once teemed with coho and late summer steelhead, it wasn’t uncommon to run into a stream walker contracted by the federal government to count spawned-out salmon carcasses, which gave a pretty exact accounting of returns. These fish counters were often local, knew the land like the back of their hand and could report poaching, habitat damage and the apparent health of fish populations year to year. I would occasionally encounter them when I was exploring ephemeral Vancouver Island streams that showed up only after the first rains in October when coho would slither up the beach in rivulets little deeper than a hand span, then disappear with a flip of the tail to spawn in sloughs and marshes behind the beaver dams higher up. I’ve met them on unnamed streams in the northern Interior where little runs would spawn after their 1,000 kilometre ascent from the sea and in trickles deep in the outer coast rain forest, jotting down notes about a couple of tenacious steelhead, and on the distant Stellako where spawned out sockeye would form stinking drifts on the bars. On one small creek on the rain-sodden West Coast of Vancouver Island, I went out with just such a stream walker. Every morning, downpour or not, she shrugged into her chest waders and walked the creek from estuary to the impassable falls above which there wasn’t really any fish habitat. Then she’d slog back again. She counted migrating salmon, resident trout, marked and observed the movement of gravel bars and logging debris as it flowed slowly downstream. She knew immediately when a run came in and whether is was late or early, bigger or smaller than previous years, what the timing for different species was, where the cutthroat and rainbows lay in wait to feast on stolen eggs and where the fingerlings hid out from other predators. But that was then. Those days are long gone in the aftermath of relentless rounds of downsizing under successive Conservative and Liberal federal governments. It’s become like that old proverb about the weather; everybody talks about the pillaging of the environment but nobody ever does anything about it. Moreover, as an article in the Globe and Mail pointed out almost 20 years ago, the problem now afflicting us is the arrogance of a kind of science that prefers statistics and mathematical models to the old-fashioned data-gathering of sloshing through the rain with a pencil, a notebook and an eye cocked for bears in the willows. As it pointed out: “Today, fisheries managers know more and more about fewer and fewer stocks. They look at a limited number of rivers, gathering detailed information through tagging programs, test fisheries and hydro-acoustic counting stations. Then they apply mathematical models to estimate the overall status of stocks. But they may not know when a tiny stream that usually had a run of 500 salmon now has none.” A number of dedicated fisheries managers never lost sight of feet on the ground and helped organize volunteer stream watchers. But they aren’t the grizzled old-timers who used short-term fish counting contracts to supplement incomes largely earned in the outdoors. They are householders, parents, part-timers with full-time jobs and they tend to monitor streams close to home, not those that require running a tinny up on a remote beach, serious bushwhacking, coping with bears come to feed on the spawners and camping out in the rain. Putting to Indigenous Guardians the renewed task of monitoring salmon streams and their health at first hand seems blindingly obvious in its merits. This is especially true for those streams apparently beyond the scope of fisheries science that’s focused on big, high-value salmon runs, to the detriment of all those small runs that contributed so heavily to the diversity, abundance and richness of life on this coast. The proposal from the BC First Nations Energy and Mining Council seems such an indisputable win for everyone that we should all nag our provincial and federal governments to act swiftly and vigorously to put Guardians in every watershed and to do it sooner rather than later. Stephen Hume has spent half a century as a journalist writing about Western Canada, the Far North, BC and the Island.
Local residents are outraged by the disruption of wildlife and peace, and fear the introduction of COVID-19 from the revellers. RETIRED HOUSEHOLDERS, some of whom have lived on the Cowichan River for half a century, say intoxicated recreational tubers who don’t practice social-distancing are turning their quiet, rural gardens into a rowdy carnival midway from hell. “They seem to think the river is a roller coaster ride on which they can get drunk because it doesn’t hurt to fall off,” says Joe Saysell, a retired logger and fishing guide. “It’s getting really out of hand. They are getting more and more brazen all the time.” Rosemary Danaher calls it “the Booze Cruise.” She says up to 3,000 people, many with tubes rafted together, boom boxes blaring music and riders consuming large quantities of alcohol, will drift past her deck on a sunny weekend day. “The traffic is so heavy I can’t even swim—I wouldn’t want to, so many of them are drunk and wee-ing in the river. They’ve really got to do something about the complete lack of toilets.” Last Sunday, she said, one large group of tubers came ashore on her neighbour’s property and treated the householders to the spectacle of young women squatting, pulling aside their bikini bottoms and urinating on their lawn. Other residents complain of finding human feces in their shrubbery. Mavis Smith, who lives near Little Beach where tubers pull out after drifting about two-and-a-half hours downstream from Cowichan Lake, just says: “ARRRGHH!!!” She says neighbours are plagued by people leaving garbage and cutting through their yards to get back to the narrow stretch of Greendale Road where they’ve parked their cars. Chris Morley, a retired biologist who moved to what he thought was blissful rural solitude 30 years ago, says the parking so congests the narrow, winding road that it’s often blocked to emergency vehicles. “Last week an ambulance was called and it couldn’t get through. One of my neighbours was blocked and they couldn’t get into or out of their home. About 5 pm on Sunday [July 26] I walked to a neighbour’s place a little less than half a kilometre up Greendale Road. It was jammed with cars parked on both sides. It was to the point where no vehicles could get through at all.” Aaron Frisby, who rents out tubes at Cowichan Lake, runs a shuttle bus service so that people who want to drift the river don’t have to park near the pull-out point. He concurs that parking along Greendale Road is “absolutely a problem.” Frisby says his tube rental company has provided a shuttle service for tubers, even those who don’t rent from him, but the congestion is even restricting his company’s ability to responsibly operate its minibuses. “In the past we have had a shuttle-only service for people bringing their own tubes and due to COVID-19 we have had to heavily restrict that because of shuttle capacity. What this has caused is people to find their own transport and park at Little Beach. It’s affecting our service too as we are struggling to get our buses in and out.” Frisby says his tube rentals are limited to a maximum of 20 leaving every half hour in order to maintain proper social distancing but householders downstream complain that once on the river, tubers raft-up to drink and party as they float downstream. “Social distancing is not occurring,” Danaher complains. “They get on the water [at Cowichan Lake] and start roping tubes together to make rafts of 15, 20, 25 people, then they start drinking as they float down the river.” So far this year, she says the biggest raft observed consisted of 53 tubes tied together. She says the on-river congestion scares off wildlife like the blue herons and kingfishers which vanish from her stretch of river during tubing season. Saysell and Morley concur. They point out that the Cowichan is one of only three rivers in BC designated a Canadian Heritage River of national historic and environmental significance, is a BC Heritage River and is the core of Cowichan River Provincial Park. For more than a century it’s been a destination revered by anglers who came from around the world to fly fish for prized brown trout and steelhead. Daily catches on the river were once posted in the major newspapers in New York and London. “There’s now virtually no wildlife from my place to Cowichan Lake, it’s all been driven off,” says Saysell. “And cans that litter the river bottom are death traps for crayfish which are crucial for the large trout.” Morley says he’s observed tubers taking buckets of crayfish from the river and says the noise and congestion are stressing the larger game fish, which are already stressed by warm water conditions and seek refuge in the cold water in a few deep pools on the tubing route. “We are still seeing wildlife and fish right up to the weir [at the river’s mouth in Cowichan Lake]. Lots of activity up at our dock and morning runs see lots of wildlife on the way down,” counters Frisby of the tube rental firm. Of equal concern for householders, though, is fear that the heavy tourist traffic and what they perceive as inadequate attention to social distancing protocols will bring the COVID-19 pandemic into the heart of their rural community of mostly vulnerable seniors. “I believe there is a high probability that tourism locations like ours will be the root cause of the second wave of COVID this summer,” Danaher says. In late July, provincial public health authorities confirmed that a cluster of COVID-19 cases linked to parties in Kelowna led to broad community transmission of the virus and that there are now 130 new cases linked to the partying, half of all active cases in the province as of the BC Day long weekend. “We now know the situation has shifted to a more broad community transmission beyond these initial cases in downtown Kelowna,” an official from Interior Health confirmed to media on July 29. Danaher says she has a right to enjoy the tranquility, privacy and safety of her property but that it’s being compromised by the economics of tourism and that there seems to be a double standard for urban and rural residents. “If I were to descend en masse [into town] with a group of irate river homeowners and we were to trespass, urinate on people’s lawns and flash genitals in the process; if females were to take off their bathing suit tops, scream at the slightest opportunity, throw beer cans and garbage around and use the F-Bomb after every third word, we would no doubt be faced with a series of fines for unacceptable public behaviour and hauled off to jail. However, our ever-increasing Booze Cruise visitors seem to think this sort of gross behaviour is perfectly fine in the country.” Morley says he noticed a big change this year. “Until this year it was mostly families, very quiet, very little alcohol. This year it seems to be mostly young people, late teens to early 30s, and lots of alcohol. The yelling and screaming is just unbelievable.” Danaher points out that it’s a small, rural community and many of the householders are retired people who fall into high risk groups. “We really don’t need hordes of young people bringing the virus into a high risk area just because they think it won’t affect them. We simply do not know where these folk have been, who they’ve been with and what they’ve been doing, so the chance of COVID-19 being introduced into our high seniors population is real and alarming,” Danaher says. Morley agrees. “Social distancing? Totally out the window,” he says. “I can see big implications going forward with COVID-19.” That’s a correlation that makes Frisby wince. “My concern is that some are going to attack this issue as a COVID-19 issue. There are absolutely issues with idiots on the river but this is not a social distancing problem. “Tubers are outside and keeping away from each other, he says. “There aren’t many activities you can do during a pandemic, but tubing is a safe one, which is why it is so popular. We just have to find a way to get everyone to respect the river and residents.” But the social distancing issue for outdoor recreation is clearly a concern for public health officials as well as worried residents. Sharp upticks in reports of new daily infections appears to be related to outdoor partying in BC, Alberta and Ontario. BC’s Provincial Public Health Officer Dr Bonnie Henry confirmed in her official briefing that most of BC’s current surge originated in Canada Day events at Kelowna. And elsewhere, from Hong Kong and Australia to Europe, infections appear to be increasing again where social distancing was relaxed after new cases had almost vanished, a reminder that the risk is far from over. Meanwhile in Lake Cowichan, in what looks a bit like barring the barn door after the horses have bolted, at least as far as complaining residents are concerned, Acting Mayor Tim McGonigle issued a warning in a media release July 27: “The town is working with the local RCMP to get a handle on the inappropriate activities of a few unruly visitors who are ruining the enjoyment of many visitors and residents,” he said. “If you are looking to come here and rowdily let off steam, so to speak, don’t bother.” He urged visitors to not gather in large groups and expressed concern for the safety of citizens. “Their lives should not be put at risk simply because of your desire to have fun with little regard for following required COVID-19 protocols.” Frisby agrees that a stronger police presence would help curb a lot of the behaviour associated with alcohol consumption on the river. “Ten years ago, there was this exact same issue on the river, where there was a party culture to tubing,” he says. “The RCMP did a great job curbing this by ticketing those with open alcohol and even going to the lengths of having a human chain on the river confiscating alcohol from tubers.” Which raises a question: If the activity on the river that concerns residents has been a subject of vigorous community discussion and provincial, regional and municipal authorities have a well-established kit of tools for managing the problem, why weren’t the alcohol, parking, littering, trespassing and crowds in a vulnerable residential district dealt with weeks ago at the beginning of the season rather than in the middle of it? Stephen Hume has spent half a century as a journalist writing about Western Canada, the Far North, BC and the Island.
While taking down monuments and renaming sports teams can seem Orwellian, why shouldn’t we rename “British Columbia” and “Victoria” given they were acts of renaming themselves. TWO YEARS AGO, following a full year’s discussion and cogitation, Victoria City council removed a statue of Canada’s first prime minister, Sir John A. Macdonald, from its prominent place outside City Hall. Sir John A. did represent Victoria as an absentee MP but his connection with the city is actually measured in the few days 134 years ago when he came out to drive the last spike in the now defunct Esquimalt and Nanaimo Railway. That, it should be remembered, was an era when politicians campaigned on platforms promising to keep British Columbia a “white man’s country.” Macdonald was the engineer of a bold attempt at cultural destruction using residential schools, as well as an Indian Act which disenfranchised and disposed indigenous populations. He was also behind the first Chinese Immigration Act which was aimed at excluding Asians, violent suppression of Metis language and land rights on the Prairies, and the ethnic cleansings and separation of First Nations from economic resources that resulted in “Indian reserves”—a far more comfortable euphemism than “concentration camps.” Council persevered despite affront from those who frequently wrap an apparent angst over social change in the increasingly threadbare cloak of patriotic loyalty to the monarchy, the supposed integrity of history, devotion to the continuity of Canada’s public institutions, keeping up tradition and so on. In retrospect, council’s decision looks downright prescient, which is saying something for the folks who spent more than a million dollars-a-metre to replace a bridge so short a good high school sprinter could cross in 10 seconds. A peaceful demonstration beside the statue of Queen Victoria in front of the BC Parliament Buildings. This demonstration was not directly related to Queen Victoria’s well-documented role in colonization and expansion of the British Empire. Victoria and British Columbia were colonized early in her reign. Should her statue be removed and Victoria and BC be renamed? Desire for decolonization, acknowledgement of the racialized ethnocentrism that has been the engine of imperialism, nationalism and a host of other unpleasant “isms,” and striving for reconciliation with the colonized seems to be gathering momentum, particularly with young people. Concerns have moved on from the graven image of Canada’s principal engineer. Everywhere, it seems, statues of merchants who created and benefited from the monstrous economic machinery of slavery, politicians and jurists who legislated and legitimized colonial theft, and the adventurers and soldiers who enabled and defended the slave trade are now being removed by officials or toppled in public protest. Are there excesses occasionally rooted in ignorance? Sure, but they pale in comparison to the excesses rooted in ignorance and malice that were perpetrated by the people whose legacies are now under review. We’re removing the names of racists once celebrated as upstanding citizens from schools and universities, public buildings, parks and landmarks. We’re now co-naming places with both indigenous and mainstream names that better reflect the dualities inherent in the emerging culture of our “here” as opposed to the psychologies of the colonized seeking to import and impose a distant “there” from Europe or Asia or Africa. The colonized mind gave us replicas of Greek temples, Roman pantheons, Gothic cathedrals, Egyptian obelisks, Bavarian villages, Japanese tea houses, Chinese pagodas and even English faux Tudor thatch cottages—in a rain forest, yet—almost everywhere we look. And the accusing finger of accountability has now properly moved on from the institutions of governance to those of popular culture, sports in particular. Some, alert to the changing mood, have moved swiftly to change common racialized nicknames. Junior B hockey’s Saanich Braves is changing the name because, its owners say, it’s just the right thing not to give offence to the many indigenous communities that surround and permeate the Capital Region. The Edmonton Eskimos, on the other hand, having resisted and rationalized for years in the face of calls to change a nickname that many Inuit find insulting, decided to find another moniker for the professional football team only after a major sponsor threatened to abandon ship, thus putting a whole new spin on the club’s colours—green and gold. In the US, the Washington Redskins reached the same conclusion when a major sponsor threatened to depart, causing wags to suggest the most appropriate new nickname might be the Washington Greenbacks. Plenty of other teams from high schools to college and professional ranks are getting the same message. You’d think, from the subsequent gnashing of teeth and cries of enraged anguish from some fans and sports pundits in Edmonton that changing a name that many find objectionable is somehow equivalent to blowing up the Parthenon or pulling down the temple of Solomon. Well, not quite. Sports franchise owners who make money from branding are quite happy to change nicknames, team colours, team logos and even cities whenever the prospect of greater returns from their business is perceived elsewhere. One need look no further than Victoria for a prime example. More than a hundred years ago, Victoria had a terrific professional hockey team, the Senators. The Senators renamed themselves the Aristocrats, then they moved to Spokane as the Canaries but came back to Victoria a year later as the Aristocrats, again. Then they played four years as the Cougars, won a Stanley Cup from the Montreal Maroons and immediately cashed in by selling all their players to new owners and moving to Detroit to join the new National Hockey League in which they first played as the Cougars, then became the Falcons and finally the Red Wings.. Their foes, the Portland Rosebuds, transformed into the core of a new NHL franchise in Chicago. They got renamed the Black Hawks and then were rebranded again from a double-barrelled to a single-barrelled name as the Blackhawks—almost the reverse of the geographical renaming going on here where Gulf Islanders reject single-barrelled Saltspring for double-barrelled Salt Spring, although perhaps a better change would be to the SENĆOŦEN place name for the island, W̱ENÁ¸NEĆ, which certainly has a longer and more authentic pedigree. The process of decolonizing won’t be quick, painless or as easy as toppling a few statues or changing the hurtful names, mottos and mascots of sports teams. It will involve reimagining the way we relate to the landscape itself—and through it to one another. A PALIMPSEST IS A PARCHMENT which has been repurposed for a new text only to have the script and images of the older story reemerge through the new narrative. It’s most often used in reference to documents from the ancient world in which pages capable of preserving text were so valuable and books so rare that as cultural values changed over lifespans and even centuries, one hand-written document might be erased so that a new one could be superimposed. Among the most famous examples are sections of Homer’s Iliad and Euclid’s writing on geometry that were transcribed in the 6th Century but then, 300 years later, erased and covered with the writings of a Christian patriarch. The only surviving section of a 4th Century copy of Cicero’s writings on Roman politics was found beneath a 7th Century copy of St Augustine’s writing. And the work of Greek mathematician Archimedes that had been copied onto parchment in the 10th Century was later found beneath a 12th Century liturgy. In a way, our whole cultural history is a series of palimpsests, and succeeding generations seek to edit and propagandize (one way or the other) the past and the accomplishments of previous generations they wish to either diminish or aggrandize as affirmation of their own worth. The United Kingdom, to which our monarchist enthusiasts and defenders of tradition so fondly hearken, is a series of overlays in which successive conquerors imposed their place names upon the landscape as a way of asserting control and superiority over the colonized. Eburos of the Eburorovices becomes Eboracum under the Romans then becomes Eoforwic under the Angles, becomes Jorvik under the Danes and finally becomes York. In a more brutal example of erasing evidence of what went before, Oliver Cromwell’s Puritan soldiers, fired by iconoclastic religious zeal, rampaged through cathedrals smashing the stained glass, carved crosses and effigies on 400-year-old medieval graves whose coats of arms they associated with the hated 17th-century monarchy. One can see parallels here in the use of residential schools to erase language and social cohesion, the wholesale looting and destruction of art and artifacts, the casual renaming of places and even people, the outlawing of cultural and spiritual rites and traditions and other transgressions against the colonized. And so it has been through history, from Egyptian pharaohs erasing the stone glyphs of previous and subsequently-reviled dynasties to Taliban zealots blowing up ancient Buddhas in Afghanistan. Lord Elgin, later governor of Canada, presided in 1860 over one of history’s great examples of such imperial vandalism, sending 3,500 drunken troops to sack China’s ancient Summer Palace in a vindictive orgy of looting and arson. China isn’t without fault, either. It has destroyed 6,000 ancient monasteries in Tibet since invading in 1946. Romans pulling down Jewish temples, Muslims and Christians seizing, renaming and repurposing the religious sites of each other—the unpleasant legacy is long and ubiquitous. In a way, all our maps represent cultural palimpsests. The movements of peoples bring new languages and as places are occupied new place names are superimposed. Sometimes it’s merely for the convenience of new settlers who can’t be troubled to learn the languages of people who preceded them. Sometimes it is to affirm and imprint the authority of new overlords upon previously-owned and since stolen landscapes. Sometimes it’s a conscious effort to make manifest George Orwell’s observation from 1984 that controlling the past ensures control of the future. And yet, what seems so permanent in the present can be entirely ephemeral in the passage of time. Thus, in the historical blink of an eye, the indigenous Camosack becomes Fort Camosun with the arrival of the fur trade in 1843, then becomes Fort Albert in 1845, then Fort Victoria with British colonial status, then just Victoria. Is there a compelling reason that it shouldn’t revert to Camosack, other than a desire to cling to the belief that for some reason the ugly icons of imperialism, occupation and the deliberate disenfranchising and dispossessing of indigenous minorities somehow deserve to be fossilized and commemorated? Place names change all the time. They reflect dynamic patterns of occupation, the amended political needs of the moment and evolving cultural values. Saint Petersburg becomes Leningrad and reverts to Saint Petersburg. Constantinople, the great capital of Byzantium, becomes the Istanbul of the Ottomans. The United Kingdom has changed its name twice and may have to change it yet again if Scotland, Northern Ireland or Wales decide they might have a better future inside Europe rather than out of it and dominated by England. On some ancient maps, what’s now British Columbia appears as Fusang from a legendary Chinese exploration, probably mythical, but who knows? On others, it’s New Albion, supposedly from an expedition by Sir Francis Drake who got his financial start as a pirate and trader in slaves. Captain George Vancouver called it New Georgia and New Hanover. Fur trader Simon Fraser, approaching overland from the northeast, called it New Caledonia because he supposed it looked like the Scotland he’d never seen and would never see. The northwest corner was the Stickeen Territory. To the south it was the Columbia District; to the west was Quadra and Vancouver’s Island, later shortened to Vancouver Island as English bureaucrats dumped the Spanish connection when it became a British colony; further north was Haida Gwaii—Santa Margarita to the Spanish—renamed Queen Charlotte Islands after his ship by a trader in sea otter pelts and finally, after 200 years or so, reclaimed by its original inhabitants as Haida Gwaii. All these names were changed, abandoned, subsumed or remerged from the palimpsest of colonization and decolonization. The Fraser River was Lhta:ko to some, Tacoutche Tesse to yet others. It was Sto:lo, the Quw’utsun’s River, Rio Floridablanca, New Caledonia River, Jackanet River, and finally was named by explorer, trader and cartographer David Thompson after Fraser, the first European to descend to its estuary in 1808. Indeed, many of the province’s place names were bestowed by upwardly mobile British surveyors to please friends or toady to bureaucrats, politicians or minor royalty who might look favourably upon them someday. And yet, the magnificent landscape we, for the moment, at least, call British Columbia is the same despite the startling transience in its names. Considering that the British presence here has been about 200 years out of probably 14,000 of occupation—which is about 1.4 percent of the time of human habitation—why not rename the province for something more representative of the braided narrative of our emerging collective history? How about Saghallie Illahie? It is a term from the Chinook trade language invented by European and indigenous traders to communicate with each other for mutual benefit. Saghallie Illahie can mean either Heaven, or the High Country, both of which seem to apply here. In any event, proposing a new name for our home, one that’s from here and not from half a planet and a couple of centuries away seems neither outlandish nor unreasonable. At least no more unreasonable than sticking with British Columbia which creates a strange amalgam of analogies. British, of course, excludes the people already here, not to mention the other European, Asian and African settlers who helped make the place what it is. And Columbia, at its kindest, evokes the female national personification of another cruel, imperialistic and colonial country—the United States—while at its unkindest, it evokes Christopher Columbus, the brutal and avaricious slave trader who unleashed upon the indigenous peoples of the Western Hemisphere one of the greatest calamities in human history. How about a name that seeks to speak to and for all of us and not the worst in some of us? Stephen Hume spent half a century as a journalist writing about Western Canada, the Far North, BC and the Island. His byline has appeared in most major Canadian newspapers. The author of nine books of poetry, natural history, history and literary essays, he lives on the Saanich Peninsula.
Posted July 6, 2020 John Innes’ painting of the inauguration of the Crown Colony of British Columbia, and the installation of James Douglas as its first governor As the process of decolonizing gathers momentum—and with BC Day approaching—it’s timely to look back on the origins of the Province of British Columbia. Go to story
Posted July 6, 2020 As the process of decolonizing and renaming our province gathers momentum, we consider the events that led to the founding of the Province of British Columbia. ON AUGUST 2, 1858, the British parliament passed a bill that formally created a government for what’s now the province of British Columbia. In did so by cobbling together several smaller colonies, fur trade administrative regions called New Caledonia, and remnants of the Columbia District and the Oregon Territory that had become American by treaty in 1846. The British legislation referred to “certain wild and unoccupied territories on the North-West Coast of North America” and cited the need to provide colonial government “until permanent Settlements shall be thereupon established, and the Number of Colonists increased.” The territories weren’t unoccupied, of course. And it could be argued that the occupants weren’t willing subjects of the British Crown, either. A few had signed treaties with James Douglas, the Black fur trader who was married to an indigenous woman and found himself at the crossroads of colonial history more by accident than intent. But most, we can be reasonably sure, didn’t consent to this abrupt change in their sovereign status. A famous painting of the installation of Douglas as governor of the new colony is significant primarily in the monoculture it depicts; white, bewhiskered men with bibles resplendent in the traditional regalia of their station—judicial robes, gilt-braided uniforms, cockaded military hats, and so on. John Innes’ painting of the inauguration of the Crown Colony of British Columbia, and the installation of James Douglas as its first governor There are no First Nations chiefs resplendent in their regalia. Save Douglas who is portrayed as a white patriarch, there are no Black officials present, although they would form the new colony’s first militia regiment, help lay the foundations of commerce and industry and one of them would be a delegate to the Yale Convention that drafted terms for entry into Confederation. No Chinese, although they would be crucial in building infrastructure and establishing a mercantile empire that reached from the Cariboo to San Francisco and back to China. None of the Hawaiians known—and not pejoratively for they were prized employees of the fur trade—as Kanakas. And there were no women. Women weren’t persons in the eyes of the law in 1858. They were chattels of their husbands and a man could still sell his wife at market for as little as a pint of beer, as happened in 1862. None of this was noted 116 years later when the government of British Columbia established the first Monday in August as BC Day, a statutory holiday honouring “the pioneers who built the colony.” But times and perceptions evolve. As the process of decolonizing public institutions, public attitudes and the collective psychology of the descendants of both colonized and colonizers gathers momentum—there are serious and legitimate suggestions that we consider changing the name of the province to reflect a decolonized present—it’s important to remember that history didn’t begin with the Gold Rush of 1858. It didn’t begin with the arrival of the fur trade in 1805; and it didn’t begin with the explorations of Captain George Vancouver in 1792, or the trading expedition of John Meares in 1786, or the scientific research expedition of Captain James Cook in 1778. If, for want of an arbitrary point of departure, we consider that the modern history of BC began with the initial braiding of First Nations and European narratives into our present reality, then we have to start near the end of July in 1774, and not with the British, but with a tiny Spanish exploratory mission. Ninstints: a 14,000-year-old Haida civilization BEHIND A LONG, SANDY CRESCENT, ideal for landing sea-going canoes amid rocky islets capped with trees sculpted by ceaseless spindrift, and backdropped by the dense, brooding green of rainforest, time-silvered totem poles at the long-abandoned village of Ninstints present a stunning representation of a 14,000-year-old Haida civilization at its cultural apex. Ninstints, the name under which it was designated a World Heritage Site in 1981, or Nan Sdins, or Nunstints, is the anglicized place name derived by Europeans from the hereditary name of a renowned chief, Nañ stîns, “He who is two.” To the Haida, the place is Sga’ngwa.i Inaga’-i, or S’Gang Gwaay Llanagaay, or just Skungwai—Red Cod Island Town. Anthony Island shields Ninstints from the fierce storms that sweep in from the vastness of the Pacific Ocean. Keel-runs, cleared for landings by the great dugout canoes, are still visible. Haida crews would travel thousands of miles by sea in these canoes—one crossed the Pacific Ocean in 1901. Their hull design later inspired that of fast clipper ships that raced tea from China to London. Ninstints in 2002 (Photo by C. Baertsch) On Ninstints, one can also still see the moss-covered ruins of the 17 great houses that once lined the beach, their cedar-planked front panels decorated with clan crests, lineages and indications of status. These were the Kunghit people and the Haida heraldry ranged from the chiefs who inherited the name Ninstints at the South end of the village to that at the North end, culminating with the great house of the famous chief Koyah, “Raven.” Koyah is infamous to English and American captains for leading resistance against European incursions, attacking visiting trading vessels on at least four occasions. But it’s the astonishing artistic richness of the surviving totems, mostly memorial or mortuary poles, that point to the richness of Haida culture. Some poles were destroyed in a fire said to be set in the late 19th Century by the crew of a passing sealing schooner from northern Vancouver Island in retaliation for an ancient but never forgotten Haida raid upon the Kwakwaka’wakw on North Vancouver Island. Other poles were removed by museum collectors trying to salvage the legacy—sadly, seven of these were destroyed in a fire at Skidegate where they had been sent for restoration. Those remaining still resonate with artistic force. About a dozen poles still stand at Ninstints, of global importance says UNESCO because they do more than memorialize important persons of the past; they now commemorate the living culture of the Haida and their relationship with the land and the sea since time immemorial. “What survives is unique in the world, a 19th-century Haida village where the ruins of houses and memorial or mortuary poles illustrate the power and artistry of Haida society…The art represented by the carved poles at SGang Gwaay LInagaay (Nan Sdins) is recognized to be among the finest examples of its type in the world.” Traditional art forms on the Northwest Coast, inextricably entangled with social hierarchies, ceremonies and cosmologies, threatened the imported cosmologies of Christian missionaries and the imposition of new systems of law and governance imposed by colonial authorities. Family and tribal crests were looted as curios; ceremonial regalia was destroyed or appropriated and sold to museum collections. Ancient ceremonies themselves were outlawed and practitioners arrested and imprisoned. There was a systematic attempt by government to eradicate native languages. The last totem poles from that ancient Haida culture were carved and erected in villages at Skedans and Tanu in 1878. If, as many art historians believe, Haida carving represents an apex of Northwest Coast artistic achievement and the work at Ninstints is the apex of the apex, the place also symbolizes the nadir of Haida fortunes. Once the seat of powerful chiefs, then a wealthy and important trading centre, it was later depopulated by lethal epidemics, its social organization wrecked by greed and violence. Ninstints was abandoned in the 1870s, then pillaged as a source of artifacts. Finally it was installed as an iconic historic site of global significance that celebrates the resurrection of Haida culture from the ashes of near-annihilation. The fate of Ninstints had been cast about a century earlier, when first contact between an expanding European empire and the Haida civilization that had occupied its homeland since before the end of the last Ice Age, resulted in a collision that would ultimately have catastrophic consequences for both. As with everything else in Haida Gwaii, that story is written in the wind and the waves. 1774: Spanish ship Santiago, checking up on Russians, meets the Haida FOAM-STREAKED FROM THE 8,000-KILOMETRE REACH of wind-swept ocean behind them, the dark swells heave landward without cease. They break in a glistening fringe along the forbidding 400-kilometre wall of reefs, cliffs and craggy headlands that form the outer coast of a sea-churned archipelago of unpardonable beauty. The more than 1,800 rain-washed, mist-draped reefs, islets and islands that comprise Haida Gwaii jut into the turbulent North Pacific about 650 kilometres northwest of the present boundary that separates Canada from the United States at Vancouver. Nutrient-rich upwellings from the cold abyss at the edge of the continental shelf on which the islands perch sustain one of the richest ecosystems on the planet. At Dolomite Narrows it’s said there is more life per square metre than anywhere else. One survey collected almost 15,000 different animals from 100 square metres of bottom. The waters surrounding what have been called the Galapagos of the North teem with fish, 200 species of seabirds, and sea mammals of astonishing variety—20 species of whales and porpoises, fur seals and Steller’s sea lions, massive beasts the size of a small car that slide through submarine kelp forests with fluid grace. And these remote islands, today occupied by 0.1 percent of the province’s population but with more than 500 identified Haida heritage sites, are the historical epicentre of the socio-economic earthquake in which our British Columbia first took shape. In geological terms, the archipelago—renamed in colonial times the Queen Charlotte Islands and then returned to their indigenous name by an act of the British Columbia legislature in 2010—mark a boundary where the huge Pacific plate slides northwest along North America. The friction generated as the billions of tonnes of rock in these two immense plates grind past one another along the Queen Charlotte fault create the phenomenon that engineers call stick-slip, a process of catch and release by two surfaces. The juddering that results makes this offshore region one of the world’s most unstable places, subject to constant shaking and occasionally to great earthquakes. Two of Canada’s most powerful known temblors have occurred in this offshore zone. The most recent, in 1949, releasing almost twice as much energy as the 1906 event that destroyed much of San Francisco. And one in 1700 released more than 44 times the energy of that 1949 event. The resulting tsunami caused coastal destruction as far away as Japan. In socio-economic terms Haida Gwaii, and in particular two specific places on the archipelago, are where British Columbia’s modern history began. And we know the precise date, right to the half-hour, the names of individuals, and the eye-witness accounts of the principals involved. The first historic event was accompanied by the fitful rain squalls typical in those waters even for the high summer month of Sqaana gyaas, the killer whale month, so named because the sound of bark being stripped from giant red cedars during the seasonal round of manufacturing clothing, mats and baskets was thought similar to that made by whales blowing. It was early afternoon on July 20, 1774 when a lookout from one of three adjacent Haida villages—Kkyuusta, Yaakkw or Dadens—glimpsed something utterly astonishing. Amid drifting patches of rain and fog just off Langara Island, its white wings flapping, swam a strange bird of supernatural proportions. The villagers were fearful, an informant later told geologist George Mercer Dawson. Their world was inhabited at its fringes by supernatural beings—animals with the power to take human form and language, cannibal ogres, a sea grizzly in whose thick otter-like fur a ghost collected the souls of the drowned and kept them in bubbles. A stretch of sea to the East was known to be populated by deep water monsters which occasionally surfaced to claim entire canoes with their passengers. But their chief, though he later admitted to sharing the people’s apprehension, decided boldness was required of a leader, for the sake of his own sense of dignity as much as anything. He put on his finest ceremonial regalia and prepared to greet the unknown. The name of the first person in what is now British Columbia to lay eyes on the fateful appearance of European colonizers off its shores—that Haida lookout—is lost to history. The name of the chief who bravely launched his canoe to investigate the apparition perhaps not. He probably owned the name Blakow-Coneehaw, a corruption of Gunia, a powerful chief whose influence extended to all three villages. The syllables of his name were first mangled in the mouth of a Scottish sea captain who visited 15 years after the momentous first encounter and then, again, during the attempt to render into English text the Haida words for which no orthography yet existed. In any event, in 1774 the chief had waited for slack tide. He launched his great canoe around 3 pm crewed by seven paddlers and a boy. It took about 90 minutes to reach the monstrous bird. When they were about 300 metres away, he greeted it, singing a welcome song, scattering eagle down on the water and extending his arms wide and then crossing them on his chest to signify peaceful intent. As the canoe drew closer, the chief and his paddlers saw and heard what they first thought were bird people, unintelligible cries coming from dark shapes that resembled cormorants perched on the rocks. They were keen observers. Preserved in the oral tradition is what they perceived to be the peculiar behaviour of what they now determined were human strangers: one would speak and the others would suddenly scurry up into a basket of ropes until he spoke again and they would all clamber back down. The great bird was the Spanish ship Santiago, a 200-tonne frigate on a top-secret mission from the naval base at San Blas, Mexico, a 5,000-kilometre sail to the South. The mission’s commander, Ensign Juan José Perez Hernandez, a native of the island of Majorca and considered the most able and experienced pilot in the San Blas naval department, had been sent to investigate intelligence reports leaking from St Petersburg about Russian expansion far to the north of Spanish-claimed territory. Juan José Perez Hernandez Beyond California, North America’s west coast was an unknown. The English pirate Sir Francis Drake had journeyed north while escaping with bullion and booty from raiding the South American and Mexican coasts in 1579. Another Spanish expedition in search of a northwest passage to the Atlantic was thought by some—and disputed by others—to have reached the South end of Vancouver Island and the strait later named for its pilot, Juan de Fuca, in 1592. But for Perez, the charts were blank and the coastline and its currents, prevailing weather and maritime dangers a mystery. He’d set sail from San Blas with the ebbing tide at midnight on January 25, 1774, with a complement of 84. Armament included six cannons, 500 cannon balls and 36 muskets with bayonets. In an age before electricity and on-board freezers, provisions included a tonne-and-a-half of dried fish, five tonnes of beef jerky and 15 tonnes of hardtack. The curious activities of the bird creatures observed by the Haida party that made first contact were the attempts by Perez to trim sails to account for the quartering, highly changeable winds that had been bedevilling him for the three days since he’d steered an eastward course in search of land after one of his crew had seen giant kelp. The Santiago’s lookout had actually sighted the coastline the day before and the ship had ventured closer but the wind had picked up sharply, the sky to the Southeast had suddenly darkened and the captain had prudently shortened sail, headed back to open water and hove-to 12 leagues off shore—about 60 kilometres—for the night. On July 19 at 4:30 pm, somewhere just west of Langara Island and fairly close inshore, the Spanish captain’s diary records first contact with the native inhabitants of what less than a century later would become British Columbia and Canada’s westernmost province. The canoe came alongside. It was big, befitting the stature of its chief, and almost half the length of the Santiago. The Spanish were impressed by its speed and the skill of the paddlers. Perez had specific instructions from the viceroy in Mexico not to interfere with, or harm or engage in commercial trade—although ceremonial exchanges of gifts would be all right—with any native peoples he encountered. He did plan to land, erect the massive wooden cross the ship’s carpenters had constructed, and claim the territory for the Spanish empire. When it became clear that the encounter was friendly, two more canoes approached. “The men were of good stature, well-formed, a smiling face, beautiful eyes and good looking,” Perez wrote in his expedition diary. “Their hair was tied up and arranged in the manner of a wig with a tail. Some wore it tied in the back and had beards and mustaches in the manner of the Chinese people.” The next day, unable to make headway against the strong current out of the East, Perez stood off Langara Island. This time, 21 canoes came out, two of them filled with women with babies at the breast and older children. All were led by an older man whom the Spanish commander likened to “a king or a captain.” They began exchanging sea otter, wolf and bear pelts and blankets “beautifully woven and made, according to what I saw, on a loom,” for items of European clothing, glass beads, an axe and some knives. Two came aboard the ship and he made gifts of bread and cheese. “They were all good-looking, white and fair,” Perez reported. “Most of them have blue eyes.” He also noted that the Haida had in their canoe a half a bayonet and a broken sword but before he could explore the origins—were they Russian items traded down from the North, or had they been traded north from Spanish territory?—weather conditions abruptly changed. The canoes quickly made for shore, the Haida singing and apparently happy with the exchange of goods. “It was afternoon and everyone was cheerful,” his diary says. “But less so, I, who wanted to anchor but was unable to get help from the wind. It made me ill-tempered, and even more so seeing that without a wind the furious flow of the current was separating me from the coast.” A freshening off-shore wind, the inconstancy and confusion of the weather and supplies dwindling—Perez calculated that even on half rations he’d have barely enough water for the return voyage—compelled him to “submit to the will of God,” and he bore away to the South. Neither Perez nor Gunia could know it, but the aftershocks of their encounter would be profound. A century later, the Haida people would be teetering at the brink of extinction, their culture in tatters and the globe-straddling Spanish empire would be banished from the western hemisphere, reduced to a few shrunken colonial holdings in Asia and Africa. Sailing south, and hoping to replenish his water barrels, Perez turned landward again having spotted a dazzling, snow covered peak—likely Vancouver Island’s highest mountain, Golden Hinde—and on August 8, having passed through a fog so dense visibility was less than the length of his ship, dropped anchor near the entrance to a sheltered opening in the coast line. He named it Surgidero de San Lorenzo but it would later be named Nootka. About 3 pm, Perez recounts, canoes began coming out. At first three canoes carrying nine men, then eventually five canoes. But they remained at a distance and would not come close. As had the Haida at Kkyuusta, the Nuu-chah-nulth viewed the Santiago with great trepidation. Years later, José Mariano Moziño reported that elders told him that when they first observed the Spanish ship, they concluded it was the great copper canoe of a supernatural being named Qua-utz who was part of their creation mythology and who had returned to punish them for bad behaviour. That story of first contact was later corroborated by Joseph Ingraham, captain of an American ship who left a remarkably observant account of his time among the Nuu-chah-nulth. Some took refuge in the bush, others retreated into their long houses, but a few took canoes out to confront the threat. The next day, however, when the crew of the Santiago made it clear their intentions were peaceful, 15 canoes came alongside. They traded sea otter pelts and cedar hats for knives, cloth and large abalone shells from California. Several Nuu-chah-nulth men came aboard. One of them managed to pocket several spoons belonging to Martinez which the English noted as evidence of a Spanish presence when they reached Nootka Sound four years later. Then, with the weather turning for the worse, Perez weighed anchor and with sails reefed and turbulent seas set course for San Blas. He would never return. The following year, on a second expedition to the North, he died at sea. But one of those vessels, the Sonora, a small 14-metre schooner commanded by a young naval lieutenant, Juan Francisco de la Bodega y Quadra, explored and mapped the coast to what’s now southeast Alaska. He, too, would play a key role in the shaping of BC’s history. After Captain Cook’s 1778 visit, a rapacious fur trade and disease transform history ON MARCH 29, 1778, A WEEK AFTER uncharacteristically missing the entrance to the Strait of Juan de Fuca in severe weather—winds were gusting to 50 kilometres an hour—Britain’s greatest maritime explorer, Captain James Cook, found his way to the same narrow opening in the coastline that Perez had found four years before. But the English sailor, blessed with more congenial weather, sailed through into sheltered waters. Cook, like Perez, was on a secret mission. His orders were to seek a Northwest Passage between the Pacific and the Atlantic. His ship, Resolution, was accompanied by Discovery, among whose crew was a midshipman named George Vancouver who would also play a key role in BC’s future. This was Cook’s third great scientific mission and his officers and crew were shrewd and astute observers. Their accounts of the flora, the fauna, and Nuu-chah-nulth culture and society remain among the most valuable records of initial contact. As had the crew of Perez, Cook’s men traded with the Nuu-chah-nulth, who were shrewd and adept. The English had to pay for wood, water and even grass for the ships’ goats. John Weber, when he stopped to sketch figures in a long house, had to buy sketching time with brass buttons from his coat until he exhausted his supply. Metal items, the English traders discovered, were most in demand, in particular bits of iron, tools, utensils and weapons. These they traded for luxuriant sea otter pelts, carvings and art. Cook, himself, exchanged a broad sword with a brass hilt for a fur cloak worn by a leader that scholars now believe must have been Maquinna, the powerful whaling chief. Cook sailed away after a month of refitting, impatient to continue the mission that would take him to the Aleutian Islands and end a year later with his death on a beach during an altercation with Hawaiian islanders. But these two trade items, iron and furs, would utterly transform the social, cultural and political landscape of what’s now BC. When the two ships of the Cook expedition stopped in China to take on provisions for the final journey back to Britain, the crew found an astonishing demand among wealthy Chinese officials and aristocrats for the sea otter pelts they’d been using for bedding and clothing. James King, who had become captain of Discovery after Cook’s death and had inherited the furs obtained by both Cook and his successor in command, Charles Clerke, who had died at sea, sold 20 pelts in Canton for $800. Some crew members made even greater profits. In all, they sold their sea otter skins for an amount that, converted into current dollars, would exceed $300,000. For an outlay of about 12-pence, an investor might reap a return of 1,800 percent, or the equivalent of close to $15,000. When Cook’s official report was finally published in the September, 1784, a fur stampede began. Less than a year later, the first trading mission, commanded by Captain James Hanna, had been outfitted and set sail from Macao, China. Within five years, more than a dozen trading vessels had visited Nootka and more than 170 expeditions, dominated by flinty New England captains, had sailed to a Northwest Coast that only a decade before had seemed as remote as the moon. The fur trade was rapacious. More than 120 ships took almost a million sea otter pelts from the Aleutian Islands alone by 1808. A century later, sea otters were so scarce they were thought extinct. And so, almost, were the Haida. Captain Cook had not discovered a “new” world, he had opened a portal between worlds, both of them as old as time. Wealth, prestige and power flooded through in both directions. For the Europeans it was the soft gold of the fur trade; for the Haida and the Nuu-chah-nulth it was technological transfer—as iron implements entered a metal-poor economy, they set off an enormous cultural explosion in carving, canoe and long-house building. Guns altered ancient balances of power. Chiefs attained wealth and status that would have been unimaginable to their fathers—Maquinna had distributed 100 muskets, 400 yards of cloth, 100 mirrors and 20 kegs of gunpowder at a single potlatch in 1803—only to have it later slip away from them. Easy wealth meant more chiefs and it shattered the economic advantage of hereditary dynasties. Inter-clan and inter-tribal violence proliferated. And the newcomers created new markets—Haida artists became the first on the coast to commercialize their art, crafting stunning carvings of traditional imagery and mythological motifs from a soft, black stone called argillite specifically for sale to visiting sailors. But more came through the portal than wealth and the attendant perils of wealth. So did a portfolio of viruses that indigenous immune systems had never encountered. The first to arrive was smallpox. How it came remains unclear—perhaps with Russians from Kamchatka, perhaps with the Spanish from Mexico, perhaps with some indigenous carrier travelling north. Certainly, a vast and lethal epidemic was already sweeping through the Great Plains and lapping up against the Rocky Mountains in what some have described as the greatest demographic catastrophe in human experience. The Northwest Coast smallpox epidemic of 1862 is the one most embedded in the popular imagination. But that’s because it was most visible to European colonizers. In fact, it had been preceded by a whole suite of equally apocalyptic disease events. Measles, malaria, influenza and other unidentified diseases followed one after another. Robert Boyd, who made a lifetime study of introduced diseases and their demographic impact on the Northwest Coast, calculated pre-contact population by working backward using mortality statistics. He estimates an indigenous population of almost 190,000 in 1770. By the time British Columbia had emerged as a political entity and entered confederation that population had declined by more than 80 percent and would not reach its nadir until 1900. Smallpox ravaged the North coast in 1775. Subsequent 18th-Century fur traders reported deserted villages of collapsing houses strewn with bones. Nathaniel Portlock, who had been with Cook at Nootka and returned to trade for sea otter pelts in 1789, cited depopulated villages and one scarred survivor who had his arm tattooed with marks for each of his children whom had perished—there were 10. In 1795, Charles Bishop said a Haida chief told him two-thirds of the population had died. The Haida estimate their pre-contact population to be as high as 20,000; scholarly estimates are 10,000 to 12,000. What’s not in dispute is that by 1900 there were fewer than 600. Some time in the late 18th Century, disheartened by the impacts of smallpox and the disruptions of the sea otter trade and its destabilizing influx of wealth, Gunia abandoned Kkyuusta for islands to the North in what’s now the Alaska Panhandle. His people followed him. At Ninstints, the Eagle and Raven families were gone from Red Cod Town by 1874. The 17 great houses on the terrace above the beach collapsed back into the soil, the raised mortuary boxes of once great chiefs crumbled and spilled their bones, totem poles tilted and fell to be swallowed by the underbrush. It became a place of ghosts at the fringes of collective memory, although not Haida memory—or Kwakwaka’wakw—until a century later when it would be reborn, a global revenant from the richness of Haida culture, a reminder to everyone that although our stories are now inextricably braided, it’s in our first cultures that British Columbia was actually born. Stephen Hume spent half a century as a journalist writing about Western Canada, the Far North, BC and the Island. His byline has appeared in most major Canadian newspapers. The author of nine books of poetry, natural history, history and literary essays, he lives on the Saanich Peninsula.