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Navigating through pandemonium
Development and architecture
Everything posted by Stephen Hume
With 243,000 unvaccinated kindergarten-to-grade-fivers in BC there’s a lot of room for COVID-19 to wreak havoc—and no need for euphemisms. ONE DEATH IS A TRAGEDY. A million deaths is a statistic. So observed the brutal Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin, that self-styled “man of steel” of the Bolshevik revolution. Stalin, of course, like many a cold-blooded political zealot before and after, dealt mostly with his regime’s generation of statistics. He did not trouble himself overmuch with the tragedies. Government policy-makers, who mostly tend to see themselves as benign benefactors, also prefer to work largely with statistics. Bureaucrats use the generalizations inherent in statistics both to distance themselves from the specific consequences of their decisions and to obfuscate, deflect, redirect and obscure what’s actually going on. Often, it’s because they think we might not respond the way they’d like us to respond—with the calm and dispassionate disinterest that minimizes the political risk to their elected bosses. And they—and we—know exactly what they are doing, which is why we have freedom of information laws, however feeble, to purportedly help us at least try to obtain the knowledge that is rightfully ours (we paid for it, after all). But the information is often mislabelled, misdirected, shuffled into different jurisdictions, hidden behind cost-of-extraction barriers or simply filed in such a way that makes it difficult for the uninitiated to retrieve, buried in an avalanche of relatively undifferentiated numbered files, for example. That’s where I find myself now, wading through chart after chart, table after table, spreadsheet after spreadsheet and jurisdiction after jurisdiction just attempting to figure out the early consequences of British Columbia’s school opening plan. The effort is undertaken in the context of a recent and alarming local surge in British Columbia’s COVID-19 cases at a time when the New York Times reports dramatic declines in new daily infections (down 28 percent), hospitalizations (down 20 percent) and deaths (down seven percent) across the United States. As October began, however, BC still seemed on a steep upward trend in new infections, although the rate of hospitalizations was flattening and deaths were actually declining. Yet, as a report late last week by CTV’s Penny Daflos pointed out, as a proportion of population this province has people sick with COVID-19 in numbers that are nearly quadruple those of Ontario, Canada’s most populous province. The question is whether miscalculations by BC’s government are behind the surge here. After all, 17 percent of infections are now among children under age 11 and 30 percent are under age 18. These age groups are now important drivers of BC’s pandemic momentum. COVID-19 cases among BC school children seem to have risen more sharply and far more rapidly than in Ontario, which has four times BC’s school enrolment. The increase here was steepest for elementary schools. The BC rate of new infections for unvaccinated kids aged five-to-nine increased 73 percent between school opening and the end of September. The 9 - 11 age group saw a 53 percent increase. A presumed upside seems to be that statistically, the younger the patients, the less severe the symptoms. Nevertheless, the infection rate for kids under 10 was the highest per capita for any age group—not surprising perhaps, since it remains the largest unvaccinated group in the province. There are about 243,000 kids enrolled from kindergarten to grade five. They are not yet eligible to be vaccinated. That’s a lot of room for a fast-moving, highly-contagious virus to rapidly expand its reach. Additionally, there are those under five years of age, the kids not yet in school. The last census count showed another 237,000 children aged 0 - 4, many of whom are at risk of infection by older siblings returning from the classroom. On September 28, BC’s public health officer described this upward trend in school-aged children and those younger as “concerning.” How concerned should we be? Research normally lags real time events but one study reported by the American Academy of Pediatrics in early September found that children under the age of four are actually more vulnerable than older kids in the unvaccinated grouping. In fact, children in this age group have had the highest rates of pediatric hospitalization. Between late June and mid-August, as the Delta variant of the virus spread, the study discovered, their rate of hospitalization increased 10-fold. Of the children hospitalized, it said, about 23 percent were admitted to intensive care, the number requiring a ventilator increased 67 percent and the number who actually died in hospital over the same period doubled. Looked at another way, the hospitalization rate for children under 10 is about 2 percent—statistically small. That reassuring statistic comes of combining two numbers. For children aged 5 -1 1 the rate is 0.3 percent. But for children under 5 the rate is 1.7 percent. Those statistics indicate that in actual numbers, the risk for children still appears to be very low. Statistically, about 1,000 children were diagnosed with COVID-19 during the last week of September. Only 5 needed hospital care. In BC there are about 500,000 kids under 12 and therefore not vaccinated. Let’s do a little mind experiment. If 95 percent of them were to catch COVID-19 and “only” two percent of those who did get sick were to go to hospital, that’s 9,500 children needing hospital beds. If 23 percent of those in hospital were to require intensive care, that’s about 2,200 children. Hopefully, it never comes to this. A critical part of planning, however, is to prepare for the worst while hoping for the best. While the scenario just sketched may be an outlier, it certainly seems possible. Clearly, “only” is a statistical euphemism. If it’s your child heading for hospital with a one-in-four chance of going into intensive care and perhaps dying, there’s no “only” about it. Thus the statistics of the many give way to the tragedies of what individual parents face in real time rather than the cerebral abstractions of risk evaluation models. MY FIRST WEEKEND OF OCTOBER began with a cautionary message from some parents in Alberta. In their kids’ elementary school, I’m told, classroom attendance by just two children with unvaccinated parents resulted in 70 rapidly spread infections among an enrolment of 350 students. The school was forced to close. By comparison, at a middle school attended by an older sibling where there’s a high vaccination rate among the 12 to 15-year-olds, only one COVID-19 case has been recorded since school opened. Obviously, vaccinations are the key. So far, though, we still can’t vaccinate young and very young children. A strict precautionary approach would seem most prudent. Admittedly, circumstances are much worse in Alberta than they are in BC. And yet, there’s not much satisfaction to be taken from those statistics, either. As of October 1, federal data shows that BC ranked second among Canadian provinces for the infection count over the previous seven days. We find 17 percent of all Canada’s cases in a province where 81 percent of the population is now fully vaccinated. Only Alberta, with 11,445 cases—38 percent of all the cases in Canada—tallied more cases than BC. So the two western provinces representing about 25 percent of the country’s population went into October reporting about 55 percent of the entire country’s COVID-19 cases and 50 percent of the deaths. The CTV report points out that infection rates here for new cases, hospitalizations and deaths now exceed rates in Ontario by almost 400 percent. For every 100,000 residents of Canada’s most populous province, there are 34 people sick with COVID-19. Here in BC, it’s 127. In Ontario and Quebec, the fall surge in COVID-19 cases that began at the end of July with a return to school by large numbers of as-yet unvaccinated kids has begun to tip mercifully downward. Here on the country’s western fringe it’s still trending upward. Why? “It’s plausible that is due to what we’re doing in schools,” one physician and epidemiologist at the University of Toronto told CTV. Framed another way, perhaps the engine driving increases here is what wasn’t done in the schools here soon enough or vigorously enough. In BC, policy-makers focused on curbing the spread of the virus by vaccination. Schools were deemed safer than almost anywhere else. Kids weren’t considered a major vector for viral spread. Back in early August, the BC Teachers’ Federation was urging a proactive universal mask mandate in classrooms, even for primary grades, and it wanted a major re-do of school ventilation systems to include extensive use of high grade air filters. The province addressed ventilation by upgrading central heating and air conditioning. There was a partial mask mandate but a full K-12 mandate wasn’t imposed until October 4 when government apparently caved to growing parental pressure. But early on, Ontario acknowledged the role of airborne transmission and its importance with the highly transmissible Delta variant, the U of T epidemiologist observed for CTV. That province responded with a full mask mandate from the get-go and installed specialized stand-alone air filtration units in every classroom. So the question seems fair: Has BC’s pandemic management policy for schools been too cautious and reactive when it should have been aggressively proactive? IN HIS ESSAY Politics and the English Language, George Orwell compared bureaucratic rhetoric and its reliance upon generalizations, averages, euphemisms, platitudes and high-mindedness as a kind of intellectual and linguistic snow falling unobtrusively—but purposefully—“blurring the outlines and covering up the details.” George Orwell, c. 1940, by Cassowary Colorizations, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org We’ve had plenty of exposure to inconvenient details recently: dead children buried in unmarked graves at residential schools; the faces of the homeless—sorry, the “unhoused;” the circumstances of teenagers who end lives just beginning when they cannot obtain timely psychiatric treatment; the increasingly grim facts of how climate change will impact all of us and how deeply invested our government is in perpetuating the use of the fossil fuels behind it. Not to mention the pesky details of who’s in hospital with long-haul after-effects of COVID-19 infections and exactly how many of them there are. Only thanks to impertinent media scrutiny do we now know that government was under-reporting this phenomenon by about 50 percent every day. And so, on a Thursday it was 332 in hospital, then on Friday it was suddenly 484 with the explanation that the additional 152 cases were previously unreported because they had a different label—“discontinued isolation.” In Victoria, officials rushed to provide 50 additional housing units where homeless people—oops, “the unhoused”—could properly isolate after contracting COVID-19, but it took a leak of public health documents marked “for internal use only” to prompt that response. It turned out, the nosy reporters discovered, that on the day the documents leaked, people without shelter or in temporary housing actually made up one-third of all Island Health hospitalizations on that day and that hundreds of cases involved people living in 22 shelters and on the streets. Look, the health ministry, public health agencies, administrators for health regions, frontline social service and health providers, provincial and municipal politicians are all stressed by what, for this generation of government, anyway, is an unprecedented crisis. We all get that. Parents are stressed. Employers and employees are stressed. We all want this to be over. We also know it won’t be over without all of us doing our bit. But this is a democracy. Adults are expected to think for themselves. Perhaps we should start insisting a little more loudly that bureaucrats be less involved with massaging a blizzard of statistics that often seem opaque and even contradictory and just become a lot more forthcoming with the prospective tragedies. After all, the tragedies, not the statistics, are what the rest of us mostly have to live through and then must carry with us for the rest of our lives. What happened, what’s happening now, what’s most likely to happen if we do this or if we don’t do that is not beyond the grasp of the general public. Ominous news is not going to cause a panic. History demonstrates quite the opposite. Just give us the straight goods, however gloomy, and let’s all get on with doing what has to be done. Stephen Hume has spent half a century as a journalist writing about Western Canada, the Far North, BC and the Island.
A small, noisy, illogical minority is endangering our health care system and the rest of us. THE NOISY CLAMOUR against public health precautions gets noisier while the moderate majority contemplates a fourth wave of COVID-19 infections surging through the unvaccinated population this winter. Just as the Alberta provincial government’s official triage strategy for deciding who gets scarce hospital emergency beds and who gets sent home to die was leaked—to great public consternation—another protest of unmasked anti-mask, anti-vaccine, anti-proof-of-vaccination factions convened in Edmonton. There was a protest in the BC capital too, where politicians had just said no to an Alberta request to transfer critical COVID-19 patients to BC as available beds in Alberta dwindled. COVID-19 admissions were flooding into Alberta’s intensive care units at a rate that grew by 16 percent the previous week. Rally at the BC Legislature, September 18, 2021 (photo by Leslie Campbell) BC declined on grounds that while Alberta’s health care system seemed poised to collapse—at current rates of infection all the province’s remaining intensive care beds could be filled in two more weeks, some experts said—BC’s own supply of intensive care beds was already moving steadily toward the same danger zone. Remaining available beds were the margin preventing a similar public health disaster here. So, preparation for a possible airlift of patients from Alberta to distant Ontario—all that nasty “let the Eastern bastards freeze in the dark” rhetoric now parked for some sunnier day—got underway. Alberta’s health care unions bluntly asked the government to seek federal aid from the military and from the Red Cross. Rallies, specious claims and the surveillance society It didn’t take cynics long to point out that given COVID-19’s 14-day incubation period and the way the new Delta variant is ripping through the unvaccinated population (about 90 percent of all new infections are in that group) that the unmasked and unvaccinated mingling at mass rallies are likely going to start falling ill and looking for emergency beds in around two weeks, just about the time that stress on the system might trigger that triage protocol. Triage is a term that comes to us from the ghastly horrors of the First World War. A deluge of severely wounded from battles which could see 60,000 casualties in a single day descended upon primitive field hospitals and forced medical officers to divide the casualties into three streams. Those who could still walk got sent on to the next hospital down the line. Those with severe wounds but a better chance of survival went into the field hospital. Those deemed to have less of a chance got sent to the “dying tent,” where they were abandoned to their fate. The idea that a rich, advanced economy is now possibly on the cusp of triaging patients who could have easily avoided serious illness is a bizarre revelation, but there it is. The current protest movement seems to be largely composed of folks who perceive science as an oppressive tool employed by highly suspect intellectual elites. Not least among the dissenters are those who challenge the legitimacy of the “germ theory” that has been a foundation of medical practice since the scientific method discovered that if obstetricians disinfected their hands before delivering babies, maternal deaths from childbed infections declined sharply. And that when sewers were separated from drinking water, cholera epidemics abruptly disappeared. Others dissenters advance specious claims—the COVID-19 vaccine causes fertility problems for women; it causes men’s testicles to swell; the vaccine causes the same disease pathology as COVID-19 does; it’s a sinister government plot against racialized minorities; and so on. Then there are the earnest libertarian constitutional conspiracy theorists. They argue that being asked to show that you’ve been vaccinated for a disease that’s now killed one of every 500 people in the United States (and adds about 8,000 a day to the 4,550,000 it’s already killed world wide) before being allowed into crowded space is an assault upon protected freedom. The freedom to give somebody else a potentially lethal disease presumably trumps the right of the uninfected to mitigate the chance of infection. And there is just plain delusional paranoia—how else does one characterize claims that a molecular-level vaccine injected in liquid form by transparent hypodermic needle while you watch is secretly embedding a microchip that will report your activities back to government? News Flash: Government doesn’t need to embed a microchip in your arm to monitor your activities. It can already listen to you, observe you and track your movements using your smart phone’s microphone, camera and GPS functions. Your smart TV, the computer chip in your car, the chip in your bank card, the chip in your credit card, the chip in your computer, your tablet, your modem. So many chips. All of which can be compromised. Should it so desire, government can use your Facebook account, your Netflix account, your Amazon account, Yahoo, Google, Tik-Tok, Instagram, Skype, YouTube, Apple, your tax returns, your pension funds, your medical and pharmaceutical claims, your driving record, your shoppers’ rewards cards. Even your library card is tracking you. My library account, for example, not only lists what I’ve read, it tells me how long it took me to read each book, interrupts with finger-wagging notifications about when the book is due, how long it will take me to finish if I will just buckle down to it and how many people are lined up awaiting the book over which I’m so inconsiderately lingering. Has it stopped me borrowing books? No, because I’ve decided the trade-off is worth it. Just as people flock to social media because they value convenience of communication over privacy—vaccine conspiracy theorists included. The surveillance society has been here for some time, alas. It doesn’t need to stealthily embed microchips in you; you’ve already embedded yourself in the personal data-gathering matrix. Indeed, the best way to avoid Big Brother intruding into your life isn’t refusing vaccination—or spitting on nurses—it’s to stop using all that convenient technology. The same technology used to plaster social media with angry rants against invasive government while organizing rallies where protesters gather and take selfies which can be harvested by authorities and then scanned by facial recognition software. A small minority The hard take-away from the September 15 public health briefing is that 81.7 percent of the COVID-19 patients in BC hospitals are unvaccinated. The same data shows if you are unvaccinated your chances of going into hospital are 43.5 times greater than if you are vaccinated. Those odds are not ones I’d happily bet at any race track. And yet, across Canada, the highly vocal minority so vehemently opposed to proof of vaccination requirements for certain activities—deemed by public health authorities to place other vulnerable people at risk of infection—was at it again on social media and in person this week. Rally at the BC Legislature, September 18, 2021 (photo by Leslie Campbell) In Ontario, the target was once again hospitals. In Vancouver, at least, the protest shifted to city hall. In Victoria it was at the legislature. But in Kamloops protesters swarmed school corridors where virtually all the kids are also unvaccinated. Let’s get this straight from the get-go, though. Although protesters inflate their importance, they represent a small minority. In all of Canada, adherents probably number less than the population of Calgary. The number of Canadians voluntarily vaccinated so far—and that number rises every day—is roughly 85 percent of the population. So about 15 percent remains unvaccinated. But of this percentage about 10 percent is under 12, can’t yet be vaccinated and isn’t likely on Facebook fomenting an anti-vaccination revolution. So that leaves five percent unvaccinated, of whom who knows how many are actually opposed to vaccines and how many are just needle-phobic, uninformed, ill-informed, caught up in the political exhilaration of saying “No!” or perhaps simply find it inconvenient or think they’re unlikely to be exposed and get sick. Meanwhile, Canadians in the actual majority are fed up with anti-vaxxer antics that are clearly imported—right down to the slogans—from the United States where public health responses to the pandemic have been uncoordinated, marked by government policy that that verges on medical lunacy, blizzards of lies, dissimulation, fake news and good old incompetence. British novelist Martin Amis, writing a collection of essays about his sojourn in America, titled his book The Moronic Inferno. Enough said. An Angus Reid poll taken last week indicates that the vast majority of Canadians conclude that their right not to be exposed to a lethal virus trumps those of people who think their rights entitle them to go anywhere under any conditions regardless of the risk they pose. Requiring proof of vaccination not new or odd There have always been vaccination requirements curbing participation in certain activities, not only in Canada but in the 122 other countries, from Australia to Zambia, which at this moment reserve the right to refuse entry to anyone who can’t produce proof of vaccination for certain diseases. You need a vaccine card to get into Costa Rica for that tropical beach vacation, for example. Not only that, you must produce proof that you have medical insurance that will cover up to $50,000 in COVID-19 medical treatments and enough money to cover your quarantine period. Seems reasonable considering that the average cost per hospitalization for a COVID-19 patient in Canada—the vast majority of whom appear to be unvaccinated—is estimated at $23,000. And for those who go into an ICU bed—again, mostly the unvaccinated—the cost per patient is estimated at $55,000. Thinking of some winter snorkelling in Belize? You need an official card showing you’ve been fully COVID-19 vaccinated for at least two weeks. The Galapagos? Ecuador wants proof of full vaccination status. So how, exactly, does this differ from BC universities saying that if you want to sit in a crowded lecture theatre you need to reassure your fellow students, teaching assistants, professors and cleaning staff that you’ve been fully vaccinated? Yet of these requirements, one set is arbitrarily framed as a constitutional invasion of personal freedoms while the other becomes merely the inconvenience necessary to take international winter vacations in a warm climate. Typical signage at rally at the BC Legislature, September 18, 2021 (photo by Leslie Campbell) Nor are these COVID-19 requirements a recent invention. Many countries require proof that you’ve been vaccinated for yellow fever before entry. Others want proof of polio vaccinations and for meningococcal meningitis. Indeed, on my left arm is the faint white scar left by a smallpox vaccination. I had to be able to prove that I’d had one to get into Canada as an infant immigrant almost three-quarters of a century ago. Smallpox was just one of the 86 reportable diseases on Canada’s list for public health regulation dating back to 1924. The current list has 57 reportable diseases. All can be regulated when and if authorities deem it necessary. These diseases range from AIDS and HIV to viral hemorrhagic fever and yellow fever. Regulations governing many of them have been dropped as their risk, thankfully has diminished with vaccination programs, public sanitation, improved hygiene and better public education. So, when those convinced that vaccination mandates for COVID-19 are some kind of exceptional invasion of their civil liberties, they clearly haven’t read their own Charter of Rights and Freedoms very carefully. Nor have they read the long-established federal Quarantine Act, which offers some jaw-dropping penalties for those who might think of flouting it. Here’s Section 15(2): “Any traveller who has reasonable grounds to suspect that they have or might have a communicable disease listed on the schedule…or that they have been in close proximity to a person who has, or is reasonably likely to have, a communicable disease listed in the schedule…shall disclose that fact to a screening officer…” And here’s Section 72: “Every person who contravenes subsection 15(2)…is guilty of an offence” liable to a maximum fine of $500,000 or a three-year prison term or both! Aggressive public health powers have been around since before Canada was formed in 1867. There were mandated quarantines for cholera, for smallpox and there were official if primitive vaccination campaigns, one of which was conducted by the Hudson’s Bay Company in the late 18th and early 19th centuries in an attempt to limit the impact of a smallpox epidemic. So is it surprising that more than three-quarters of Canadians now support restrictions on unvaccinated individuals preventing them from attending crowded public events? While that level of support for mandated vaccination proof falls off when it comes to requiring proof of vaccination to attend work, even there two-thirds of Canadians still want restrictions. And frustration is clearly growing. Angus Reid polling shows 77 percent of Canadians think government should use its regulatory powers to keep public spaces safe from unnecessary exposure to unvaccinated individuals who are the greatest risk to others, if only by their far greater propensity to become infected. The elderly, for example, even though vaccinated, remain vulnerable to breakthrough infections that are the more lethal the older that they are. Polling shows Canadians—almost half—think that those who decline or refuse vaccinations should move down the priority list as hospital resources are flooded with seriously ill but unvaccinated individuals. Ethically, that’s not really a defensible argument. We don’t deny medical treatment to smokers or other substance abusers. Although it is noteworthy that alcohol abusers who are in need of liver transplants and won’t stop drinking don’t get the same priority as those who do stop drinking. Nevertheless, we don’t deny emergency services to drivers who don’t wear seatbelts or cyclists who don’t wear helmets. The financial and moral burden of the unvaccinated The willful refusal to vaccinate raises another ethical issue, the matter of cost, both financial and moral. In BC, data indicates that unvaccinated individuals are 34 times more likely to be hospitalized with COVID-19. And data from September 15 showed that of the 661 new cases in BC, 68 percent involved people who had not been vaccinated. Of those who went to hospital, 81.7 percent had not been vaccinated. As mentioned, the average cost per hospitalization for a COVID-19 patient in Canada is $23,000, and $55,000 for those who go into an ICU bed. Of the 70,000 COVID-19 cases who have so far been hospitalized in Canada, almost 69,000 were unvaccinated and they have so far cost the taxpayers at least $1.5 billion in medical care. (Some of these cases occurred before vaccinations were available.) Canada did well in keeping costs down by vaccinating fast, in greater numbers and across a broader cross-section of the population, thus lowering the burden on the health care system. In the US, the demand for hospital services by the unvaccinated—about 10 times the rate for vaccinated patients—cost more than $5 billion since June alone. Most of this cost, point out medical economists, was almost entirely avoidable. The US Centre for Disease Control, which has been closely tracking, says the number of preventable COVID-19 hospital cases in the US ballooned from 32,000 in June to 187,000 in August, almost all of it attributed to unvaccinated patients. “Based on approximately 530,000 hospital admissions with confirmed COVID-19 diagnosis in June-August 2021, we estimate 98.6 percent of hospital admissions with COVID-19 during this period were among unvaccinated people.” Next, the moral burden: In Alberta, in order to redeploy trained staff to emergency and intensive care beds, government cancelled all elective and non-critical surgeries. At the province’s children’s hospital, only “life and limb” operations were still being done. All because of the surge in unvaccinated COVID-19 patients who, if they’d gotten vaccinations in a timely fashion, mostly wouldn’t be in hospital. Procedures cancelled ranged from orthopaedic surgery to brain operations. Patients expressed deepening anxiety and stress as long-scheduled procedures were postponed indefinitely. Now, hip replacement surgery is considered elective. But if you’ve spent time with somebody dealing with the agonies of severe osteoarthritis in the hip joint, constant fear of falling on stairs, severely restricted mobility and the need for constant—however unwanted—pharmaceutical pain relief just to be able to sleep, it quickly becomes clear that “elective” is a relative value and that for the patient awaiting surgery it’s less an issue of choice than an imperative. Doctors putting together their triage plans to determine who lives and who dies, plans to airlift patients between provinces, other provinces saying “No room at the inn!” to friends, neighbours and relatives, children being told that long-awaited surgery to correct a deformed limb or seniors needing hip replacements told to put up with their suffering for whatever it takes of whatever time they have left—it didn’t have to be this way. Stephen Hume has spent half a century as a journalist writing about Western Canada, the Far North, BC and the Island.
Looking at the experience of other provinces and nations with school children in the past few weeks gives us some clues to what to prepare for in BC. HERE WE ARE IN THE SECOND WEEK of the school year. The pandemic deepens. The numbers of as-yet-unvaccinated kids exposed to the COVID-19 virus is rising. Hospital intensive care units fill up and the insufferable and distracting culture wars over vaccination mandates get noisier. On the Island, the first week back saw schools in 10 communities linked to at least one case of COVID-19 says BC COVID Tracker. The independent website is run by parents and claims to monitor official notifications on a volunteer basis—valuable since the Province now only reports full-blown outbreaks. Four schools in the Greater Victoria region had reported exposures. Others extended from Mill Bay to Campbell River and Port Alberni to Nanaimo. This isn’t surprising. Almost 30,000 COVID-19 infections in children have now been identified by the BC Centre for Disease Control. They appear on the agency’s surveillance dashboard. Most are aged 18 and under—but more than 10,000 cases are among children under 10. Children are one of the largest remaining unvaccinated segments of the population. That makes them a prime vector for the virus as it moves into fertile ground. No wonder there’s parental concern similar to that which manifested in Sointula. There, as school opened, parents yanked 28 of 34 students out of their small school until a teacher who declined to wear a mask for what the North Island Gazette said were medical reasons could be temporarily reassigned. This parental concern is not unreasonable. In Israel, which was the model for fast and extensive vaccination early in the pandemic, a new study now finds that of 13,864 children aged three to 18 who were diagnosed with COVID-19, more than 10 percent developed long term symptoms. The effects lingered up to six months after the primary episode. If the rate of incidence tracked in Israel were to emerge in BC, we’d face thousands of kids grappling with the “long haul” version of the disease, many of them infected in a school environment that is charged with keeping them safe. The same survey found that 30 percent of the parents of infected children who developed COVID-19 in Israel also reported that they experienced a degrading of their “neurological, cognitive and mental health abilities.” And, yet another report by Reuters says that a British survey found that 14 percent of children who test positive for COVID-19 display symptoms associated with the coronavirus for months afterward. Then there are reports from the United States which has just passed a grim COVID-19 milestone. The virus has now killed one out of every 500 Americans. Most of the dead are in vulnerable high risk groups. But observers there now note that the US hospitalization rate per 100,000 children was 0.3 at the end of June but by mid-August, as fall school terms began, the rate suddenly spiked five-fold to 1.4 per 100,000. The percentage is still small. It’s the trend that is worrying. The spike appeared to track the emergence of the Delta variant that’s been troubling epidemiologists because of its high rate of transmissibility. The American Academy of Pediatrics and the Children’s Hospital Association, a couple of gold-standard medical organizations, said that children’s cases are now increasing exponentially in the US, with 750,000 new cases added over the month of August and another 250,000 cases in the first week of September alone. So, parental apprehension about the graduated—some say hasty—opening of schools just as what’s now looking a lot like an aggressive fourth wave of the pandemic gathers momentum doesn’t seem entirely misplaced. In Ontario, the Province has reported more than 300 known active cases in schools. Some districts report hundreds more students who are not showing symptoms but who were sent home to quarantine for two weeks because of positive tests. These followed school-environment exposures. A number of schools in eastern Ontario were already cancelling classes during the second week of school because of exposures and outbreaks. In Quebec, 600 schools have reported education-based cases. In Atlantic Canada, New Brunswick confirmed 11 schools with confirmed outbreaks and closed a high school. Prince Edward Island had no sooner opened schools than it began closing them again in Charlottetown, the island province’s biggest city, because of an outbreak that the chief health officer describes as “a serious situation with COVID-19 transmission…involving children.” In Saskatchewan, the teacher’s federation urged the provincial government to impose more stringent public health controls to grapple with rising infection rates among children. The union asked for smaller classes, broader indoor mask requirements and a vaccination mandate for everyone one eligible—children over 12, teachers and staff. The federation’s president described the situation as “dire” and called for a requirement that there be mandatory isolation for any students, teachers or staff testing positive for the virus. Even Alberta, where schools aren’t officially tabulated as experiencing an outbreak until 10 percent of the student body is sick and absent, some schools were already declaring that they had outbreaks. Is this trend going to get worse? In Alberta they appear to think so. At a special news conference September 15 the province’s upbeat premier Jason Kenney, who not long ago was promising “The Best Summer Ever” and defeat of the virus, seemed subdued when he announced sweeping health-care restrictions to start a day later in response to what’s a developing health care crisis. The usually pugnacious premier didn’t just blink, he flinched. On the heels of his announcement, Calgary’s three largest post-secondary institutions abruptly cancelled all in-person classes for the remainder of the week. And The Calgary Herald reports that 40 Alberta schools are now being investigated for outbreaks while parents complain of a growing information void around how many positive cases are actually affecting schools and how close they may be to closing. ARE THESE EVENTS in school systems elsewhere a possible portent for BC? One hopes not and nobody can say for sure but COVID-19 modelling and experience with what happens to respiratory illness rates when people begin to congregate indoors during the cold winter season, hints that they might be. In many of these school cases, some public health experts have said, the children were apparently infected at home, then carried the virus to school where it spread rapidly to other children, who then carried it back to their own homes to infect siblings, parents and relatives. At least one event involved a school bus. BC’s authorities say school buses are safe and require only regular seating for the 110,000 students who ride them twice a day, sometimes for several hours in total. One route in Northern BC, for example, requires a round trip of 230 kilometres. Meanwhile, exposures on school buses are now being reported from Oregon to Ontario. Not surprising, then, that in Alberta, nine post-secondary institutions have now arbitrarily ignored the province’s advisories. They simply unilaterally imposed much stricter regulations governing access to classes. Not only must faculty and staff be fully vaccinated, so must students—and students are to be required to provide verifiable proof of vaccination to attend class. Is it time to start thinking about mandating vaccination and proof of such for all students over 12 in all BC schools from university down? Judging from the Province’s own statistics, the majority of parents have already embraced vaccination as a safe and effective protection against the worst effects of a COVID-19 infection. As of the first week of school, almost 80 percent of adults in the province were fully vaccinated, but the school-aged population between 12 and 17 lagged at 67 percent. Good, but not good enough by the government’s own targets. The ministry of education’s website is cheery and upbeat about all the benefits of returning to the classroom with the safety protocols it’s put in place. They include masks indoors from kindergarten to Grade 12, flexible regulations that permit the deployment of rapid response teams as necessary. And it cites studies that schools in BC were not a significant source of COVID-19 transmission. These studies found during the 2020-2021 school year that 90 percent of school-associated cases were acquired at home or in the community, not the school. But that was before the Delta variant, with its jaw-dropping 10-fold increase in transmissibility, came roaring onto the scene to upset models and projections. Delta variant is now the most prevalent strain circulating in BC. It is responsible for almost 100 percent of COVID-19 cases in both children and adults. About 17 percent of cases in the province and two percent of hospitalizations now involve patients under 18 years of age, says the BC Children’s Hospital in Vancouver. “Children get less sick from COVID-19 than adults—but rarely they can get quite sick. And we still don’t know if the Delta variant is more severe for children,” says Dr Laura Sauvé, a paediatric infectious disease specialist, on the hospital’s website. What’s been occurring in other provinces suggests that BC’s optimistic approach might need a cautious re-think. And in the meantime, since the kids are congregating at school, maybe that’s the place to locate province-wide pop-up vaccination clinics in addition to inviting those who want to be vaccinated to travel to community drop-in clinics, public health clinics and so on. Maximizing vaccination coverage for the remaining 30 percent of teenagers seems like the most effective and painless way to further limit transmission, amplify school safety and reduce anxiety for parents. Some school districts are setting-up COVID-19 vaccination clinics—there are three scheduled for Mission over the next week; clinics were scheduled for Vernon, Armstrong and Keremeos; Cranbrook and Kimberley also planned clinics. And most of BC’s post-secondary institutions have already provided students with on-campus clinics and held vaccination drives. They seem to have been generally successful. This is good news for anxious parents, but it could be better news if it were rolled out as a comprehensive provincial program rather than a piecemeal, regionally-driven program—which is what seems to have emerged. And perhaps it should be developed as a strategy for the next pandemic. Because there will be a next time, maybe even more stressful than this time. Stephen Hume has spent half a century as a journalist writing about Western Canada, the Far North, BC and the Island. (Image at top from Province of BC)
As per capita rates skyrocket throughout BC, requiring proof of vaccination for students to attend class is not a violation of their civil liberties. AS COVID-19’s HIGHLY-CONTAGIOUS DELTA VARIANT rips through British Columbia’s still-considerable unvaccinated and only partially-vaccinated population of almost 1.3 million, the provincial government has finally blinked on its rosy reopening plans. Not surprising, the way the actual case counts are rocketing up. The BC Centre for Disease Control dashboard Monday, August 30 showed a count of 1,853 new cases over the weekend. Recall that on July 5, the 7-day average was only 38 new cases. So here we are after several months of cautious opening up with a 1,666 percent increase in the moving average for actual number of cases just a week before school starts. The blink was appropriate. But it’s still just a belated blink, symbolized, perhaps, by Premier John Horgan’s casual if controversial wink at the rules by appearing with six other maskless diners at a restaurant in Vernon where infection rates have just increased from 12 to 195 per 100,000—that’s a 1,525 percent increase. Here on Vancouver Island the increase is the lowest in the province, yet it’s still up 1,350 percent in a few weeks. In Northern BC, the infection rate increased a jaw-dropping 16,333 percent with almost 40 percent of cases among First Nations although they represent only 17 percent of the overall population there. Frankly, government should be taking the blinkers off entirely, as faculty at the University of Victoria warned last week. Allowing university students to attend campus unvaccinated with no requirements for rapid testing to track potential exposures shows lack of concern for risk to faculty, staff and other students, said Lynne Marks, president of UVic’s faculty association. Worse, it doesn’t appear to deal with the dynamic of either university or high school campuses in which classes shuffle and reassemble every 50 minutes—and at universities these classes can be in excess of 300 students. A typical university class can have 300 students. Think about that. An 18-year-old first year student with three large lecture classes and a couple of regular sized classes can mingle with maybe 2,000 strangers a week in an environment where nobody knows who is and who isn’t vaccinated, social distancing is minimal and who knows what standard the ventilation meets. Let’s see, a 300-student class that meets three times a week is a potential for at least 270,000 contacts among strangers outside their social bubbles—a week! This is like turning on a giant social Mix-Master for exchanging viral loads among virus carriers. Research now indisputably shows that even vaccinated people with no symptoms can be carrying 10 times the viral load of people who were infected by the less contagious original virus in the first wave, History is rife with accounts of generals losing wars because they continued applying the tactics that won past campaigns to the battles being waged by different foes with new weapons and new strategies. Nobody deserves to be the victim of yesterday’s generals in tomorrow’s fight against this rapidly changing, highly opportunistic virus. Earlier BC government modelling proved far more optimistic than reality, as shown in graph presented by Ministry of Health on August 31, 2021 The fourth wave of the COVID-19 pandemic is not a replay of the first, second or third waves. Rather than signalling that the end of this dreary campaign is in sight, this fourth wave more likely represents another holding action in a long game that’s already brewing. What comes next isn’t easily predicted. From the initial scary encounter with the virus—Italian hospitals in chaos, bodies lying in the streets in China, and mass graves from New York to Barcelona—we’ve now got what the World Health Organization classifies as four additional “variants of concern” and four “variants of interest.” They emerged from the 216 million infections world-wide which are now rising by 676,000 new cases a day. The variants have been piggy-backing around the planet on jet planes which we’ve decided must keep flying to keep the economy ticking over. The precautionary principle & half a million unvaccinated students Nobody anticipated the aggressiveness of the Delta variant that is now the principal cause of infection, hospitalization and death in Canada. And now we have a fistful of new variants to start thinking about. Lambda, a mutation from South America which is already showing up in Texas and California, for example. Its contribution to the worrying mix is an apparent ability to evade the protections that come from the vaccines now in main use. Will it, like Delta, emerge as another aggressive threat? Who can say? But it might. And giving it and perhaps other unidentified permutations of COVID-19 an opportunity to spread and further adapt among a large population of unvaccinated school and university students while assuming that measures taken to bend the curve during the third wave are the way to stop them in the fourth wave just seems like an invitation for a fifth wave. We’re all tired of the impositions, the inconvenience, the economic burdens, the isolation, the physical and emotional stress. Everybody gets that. But we’re also only 16 months into this. If this were World War Two, we’d be eight months away from Pearl Harbour, with four more years of grief awaiting us after that. So perhaps instead of griping, denying, evading, obstructing, lying to ourselves and whining about it, we should suck it up as our parents and grandparents did and start buckling down to what needs to be done to face what might be a long, painful and unpleasant grind. The latest (August 31, 2021) projections from Government of BC shows that cases and hospitalizations pretty much depend on vaccinations rates We were supposed to be back to normal by the time schools reopened. Instead we’re now back to masks indoors for all teenagers and adults with a new safety regulation added—proof-of-vaccination requirements for attending some non-essential public gatherings from indoor weddings to large-scale sporting events. But not schools. There’s been a nod to caution by requiring masks in the classroom—well that’s a move in the right direction—but still no imposition of strong rules for appropriate social distancing and enhanced ventilation in classrooms. One grim epidemiological flow chart from California where public health authorities are worriedly monitoring the arrival of the Lambda variant, gives a glimpse of the risk. A single unvaccinated elementary school teacher read to her class without a mask and infected half her students who then took the virus home and infected their parents. The spread of the virus in the classroom was directly associated with students’ proximity to the teacher. In a few days, 26 people had been affected. The Centre for Disease Control in the United States, referencing the California incident, said it encourages school authorities to “do the right thing to protect the children under their care.” It urges multi-layered mitigation strategies which included: universal masks in schools “to prevent outbreaks and reduce the risk of children bringing the virus home to others who are vulnerable;” improved ventilation in classrooms to reduce infectious particles circulating through the air and, a side benefit, to reduce exposure to other respiratory viruses that can mask or resemble COVID-19 symptoms; and, finally, vaccination for everyone who qualifies. In BC that’s every student over 12—because “when our children who are not yet vaccinated are surrounded by vaccinated people, they are more protected.” In BC, with about a week to go before classes commence, we still have roughly 655,000 kids under 17 who are not fully vaccinated and another 184,000 in the college and university age group. Of these, about 425,000 are not vaccinated because they are still too young to qualify for vaccination. The precautionary principle here points pretty clearly to the value in a plan for vaccinating as many unvaccinated kids as possible in order to protect the large body of students—and by extension their parents, teachers, coaches, dentists, and so on—that can’t yet be vaccinated. What we don’t want is an aggressive virus with its emerging subsets of mutating variants swirling around in a pool of half a million unvaccinated individuals. Which leads to the question—why aren’t we making vaccination a requirement for all those eligible if they want to attend or teach a class the same way we make it a requirement for other activities? Indeed, schools are an ideal place to organize mass vaccination of 12-17 year olds as we’ve done for measles, polio, mumps and so on. And the way to do it is to vaccinate on site, delay the start of classes for two weeks while kids’ immune systems kick in then bring them back to appropriately ventilated and socially distanced classrooms. Is this a pain in the neck for administrators? Sure, but for administrators the priority is the safety of their charges, not the convenience of the administrative process. Is it expensive? Sure, but we spent $18 billion and 20 years prosecuting a war in Afghanistan that was a complete failure. Requiring vaccination is not a violation of civil liberties Trips to the mall, the hockey rink, your local diner, the library and so on will all now require proof of vaccination before entry—although some businesses are objecting that they shouldn’t have to ask people for their health care status on privacy and enforcement grounds. This is a bogus, self-serving argument, though. Establishments routinely ask patrons to produce proof-of-age before serving them alcoholic beverages. If they serve underage customers alcohol, they can be arbitrarily closed and patrons who lie about their age to obtain a drink can be charged and fined. Restaurant kitchens are subject to public health inspections and if they are deemed not to meet strict standards or to pose a risk to customers, they can be closed on the spot. All work places are subject to safety checks. If they are deemed unsafe, they get closed and the workers sent home. And insurers routinely ask clients for a full declaration of health status and can unilaterally void insurance if the information provided is false. Somehow providing accurate information about your health status for travel insurance you can enjoy a beach holiday in Florida is no imposition but providing it to protect kids in a classroom is an affront to civil liberties. It’s not. So the argument that requiring vaccination—or even asking about it—status is some kind of new violation of civil liberties just doesn’t fly. The question for government, faced with growing evidence that unvaccinated individuals are a health risk to everyone, most immediately other unvaccinated people but also to many of the already vaccinated, is why it isn’t simply mandating vaccination as a classroom requirement for everyone who qualifies for a jab. And please, spare us the sanctimonious privacy/civil liberties mantra since government already collects more data than it can use on all of us from which drugs we purchase to compiling every traffic offence to having police rip medical masks off protesters at Fairy Creek—that couldn’t be to make sure they are identifiable to facial recognition software, could it? Just asking, since it seemed pretty methodical in the videos I’ve watched. However, reassuring as the government’s ability adapt to changing circumstances may seem, it’s been as much a case of the politicians and their advisers following the public as it has of them doing what we elect them to do—actually leading us. Before the province adjusted its alignment we’ve already had private organizations from sports franchises to retailers simply stepping up and saying “No mask, stay home.” Over the last week of August, with a return to the classroom looming, the Province says the number of registrations for vaccinations by people under 40 has more than doubled. At that rate, another 165,000 people will be vaccinated by September 7, when schools open and students return to campus lecture theatres. That’s the good news. The bad news is that teachers, students and staff are still saying the provincial government isn’t providing the kind of strong, assertive leadership that’s required to avert increased danger for at-risk school teachers and college and university faculty and staff if they are forced to mingle in crowded classrooms and lecture theatres where there’s no requirement for social distancing. As a piece in Focus on Victoria recently observed, about one in 10 of these falls into groups made vulnerable to much higher risk because of age and the underlying medical conditions that exacerbate symptoms, even for those who are fully vaccinated. But there’s concerning evidence of growing numbers of breakthrough infections for fully vaccinated people, most seriously among older groups with underlying conditions but also for children previously considered at very low risk. The New York Times reported last week that a survey of children’s hospitals across the United States finds a growing concern among health care experts there that “children not yet eligible for vaccination in places with substantial viral spread (are) now at higher risk of being infected than at any other time in the pandemic.” Most children still display only mild symptoms—that’s not in dispute. But that doesn’t mean the blinkers should be on for the other ominous signs that are emerging. As The Times reported, for the first time in the pandemic “The crush of COVID-19 at Children’s Hospital (in New Orleans) grew so intense this month that the state called in a federal “surge team” of emergency responders” from the government’s national disaster medical system.” So here we are, a week before school starts. Teachers say: Schools need safety upgrades to classroom ventilation; vaccination clinics on site; comprehensive testing; N95 or medical standard masks for staff and students. University faculty say: Modelling by scientists teaching BC universities points to rapid increases in COVID-19 infections and hospitalizations; current plans for reopening are inadequate and universities should have the authority to demand vaccinations for students, faculty and staff where deemed necessary. University unions say: Requiring vaccinations for students in classrooms is the most important step necessary to protect both students and staff. They point out that students have the option not to attend classes they feel are unsafe but university employees don’t have the option. Dr Bonnie Henry, however, says the government’s “complicated, risk-based assessment” means a vaccination mandate is not warranted for school attendance. Basically, the government is saying: “Don’t worry, we’ve got this.” Clearly, a lot of well-informed folks don’t think they do. Stephen Hume has spent half a century as a journalist writing about Western Canada, the Far North, BC and the Island. He has been vaccinated.
Massive new fossil fuel infrastructure would contribute greenhouse gas emissions for many decades to come, argues Environmental Law Centre A $5.6 BILLION PETROCHEMICAL COMPLEX proposed for Prince George should go to public hearings as part of an impact assessment conducted by an expert independent panel before any provincial approvals, say environmental law scholars at the University of Victoria. Calgary-based West Coast Olefins Ltd wants to tap into a natural gas pipeline through northern BC to extract liquid ethane, propane, butane and natural gas condensate as feedstock for manufacturing plastics and synthetic rubber for export to Asian markets. It would represent a dramatic expansion of fossil fuel infrastructure in British Columbia, one of three co-dependent plants. They would include: a natural gas liquids recovery plant; an ethylene plant to produce a million tonnes of polymer-grade ethylene a year; and the polyethylene plant producing plastic. Following controversy from a citizens’ group in Prince George worried about possible air pollution from the proposed plant and local First Nations concerns, the company said it hoped to relocate the project 140 kilometres north to McLeod Lake where it was in talks with the McLeod Lake First Nation about negotiating a potential benefits agreement should the project go ahead. But talks fell through and the company subsequently dumped that plan and said it wanted once again to build in Prince George. Prince George already has a long history of serious industrial air pollution (photo Creative Commons) Both the Lheidli T’enneh Nation in Prince George and the McLeod Lake Indian band have since publicly opposed the proposed development and rejected future negotiations. In a 26-page letter to George Heyman, the minister of environment and climate change strategy, Calvin Sandborn, legal director of the university’s Environmental Law Centre, says the proposal contradicts provincial climate objectives. With every major long-term investment in infrastructure whose existence depends upon fossil fuel use into the future, it becomes more difficult for all of us to deal with the climate emergency, Sandborn’s letter points out. The letter was delivered to Heyman Wednesday morning, August 25th. Tuesday the US government ordered a delay in development of a $9.4 billion plastics and petrochemicals complex in south Louisiana in response to environmental concerns and community backlash. It is calling for an extensive environmental assessment following objections that the complex would double toxic emissions in the local area and release up to 13 million tonnes of greenhouse gases, equal to the pollution pumped out by three coal-fired power plants reported The Guardian newspaper. The letter to Heyman observes that Prince George already has a long history of serious industrial air pollution because of strong inversion effects that trap pollutants in the city’s air shed and cites a 2011 study published in the Canadian Journal of Public Health estimating that as many as 81 deaths a year could be attributed to fine particulate air pollution. It cites objections from First Nations and from Prince George citizens who are worried about impacts upon air quality, occupational health issues for workers associated with petrochemicals, risks of fire and explosion, potential impacts upon water quality and fish habitat and the proposed site of the complex which it says is too close to the Fraser River. All these deserve an independent assessment, the letter says. “Approval of this complex may be one of the most consequential climate change decisions your government ever makes.” It says the proposed complex poses “profound risks” to the global environment because expansion of plastics manufacturing infrastructure “could lock in greenhouse emissions for decades to come” at the same time that the Province has pledged to reduce emissions dramatically. And the development would be an incentive spurring expansion of fracking and other natural gas production activities, add to the plastic pollution already linked to widespread environmental harm, undermine provincial and federal efforts to reduce plastic waste and undermine efforts to encourage plastics recycling. Ken James, the CEO of West Coast Olefins, did not respond to a request for comment made last Tuesday. But “there are a lot of us here who are worried about the potential consequences such projects might bring, says Zoe Meletis, a geography professor at the University of Northern BC. She speaks for Too Close 2 Home, a Prince George citizens group concerned about potential environmental consequences for the city of 74,000 about 800 kilometres north of Vancouver. “We have a lot of questions and concerns as there has been so little public discussion and information shared,” said Meletis. Meletis said the group approached the Environmental Law Centre at UVic for help preparing a request to the Province for a more comprehensive and public environmental assessment because “we want to know more about the exact nature of the many sites that are part of WCO’s long term vision for the two sites, and all of the costs, benefits and impact those are likely to entail, particularly when overlaid on top of everything Prince George and area are already dealing with, for example air pollution, particulate matter etc..” The letter to Heyman warns that limiting an environmental assessment to one element of the complex—the ethylene plant—risks being uninformed about the full potential impact of the proposed project. “You have to see the entire thing—the whole petrochemical complex—to come to any rational conclusion,” Sandborn’s letter says. “British Columbians must have an assessment of the overall project, to see what real-world, cumulative impacts are likely.” In fact, it argues, the $2.8 billion ethylene project requires a second facility—a $1.3 billion natural gas liquids recovery plant—to provide its feedstock and a third facility—a $1.5 billion polyethylene plant plant which would turn the ethylene into plastic pellets for export to overseas plastics fabricators. The three projects and their impacts have to be assessed as a whole not as individual projects, the letter says, because if billions of dollars have already been spent on an extraction facility those sunk costs are highly likely to skew assessments of subsequent projects. “The pressure to complete an ‘overall project’ that is halfway there will be substantial.” And government has an obligation to transparently obtain a fully objective assessment of whether the proposed project is congruent with the Province’s oft-stated commitment to fight climate change, reduce plastic waste and enhance recycling of materials to create a circular economy. The letter argues there is evidence that the proposed project will seriously undermine all these stated government objectives, which makes an independent expert review imperative. An independent panel is needed to consider other potentially serious impacts on Indigenous people, local citizens and the region’s environment, Sandborn argues. And, he says, there’s a risk that creating a massive petrochemical complex there would both foreclose a more prosperous and sustainable future for Prince George and put the Province at risk of having a major asset stranded and made worthless as the rest of the world pivots aggressively from fossil fuels to mitigate the growing climate emergency that as brought repeated summers of unprecedented fire and drought to BC. “We are very wary about the two sites being ‘too close to home’ in terms of proximity to neighbourhoods, agricultural lands, and greenspaces that we value,” Meletis says. “We know that oil and gas is a dying industry, and that plastics are part of the push to eke out a final stage or rebranding of that industry. “Why should Prince George suffer ill effects for a plastic product that we are going to send elsewhere? How does all this fit with recent ongoing efforts to make our city and region more sustainable, diverse and resilient in the face of climate change? “Just because people of Prince George have learned to live with the ‘smell of money’ in terms of pulp mill and other emissions, it doesn’t mean they want the same for their kids and grandkids.” Stephen Hume has spent half a century as a journalist writing about Western Canada, the Far North, BC and the Island.
Even in our perfect Eden we are experiencing drought, ravaging fires, disappearing salmon and a viral plague. SO, HOW ARE WE LIKING the unwelcome drop-ins by a variant of the Horsemen of the Apocalypse? Let’s see, here in our “perfect Eden”—as the first Europeans to lay eyes on the landscape of Garry oak and wildflower meadows described what they promptly paved over and turned into an endangered ecosystem—we’ve had recent unannounced visits from Pestilence, Drought, Fire, Flood, Heatwaves, Wind Storms, Deep Freezes and that rider on the pale horse we generally don’t like to talk about, Death, who generally canters in to clean up after the others. It’s been a busy time in Eden for Thanatos over the last 18-months what with (by mid-August) at least 1,800 dead from COVID 19 in BC—and that’s an almost certain undercount; 500 more heat deaths; wildfire deaths; flooding deaths and so on. Forest fires and smoky air are just a couple of the apocalytic outcomes of global heating (these flames from the Chutanli Lake Fire, July 30, 2018 were fuelled by clearcut slash) It used to be that the Horsemen show up every couple of generations, sometimes longer. Now they are as persistent as spam robocallers or ill-disguised overseas call centres demanding pre-paid gift cards if we want to avoid prison sentences for tax evasion or unpaid duties on stuff we never ordered. War and Famine haven’t yet rung the doorbell but don’t worry, the main takeaway from the UN’s latest depressing memorandum on global warming and what we’re generally not doing about it provides ample evidence that the heavies are almost certainly waiting in the wings for their own grand entries. Indeed, the Pentagon now classifies climate change as the source of “catastrophic and likely irreversible global security risks” for what’s generally conceded to be the most powerful military machine assembled in human history. And the Centre for Strategic and International Studies characterizes climate change as a strategic “existential threat” to global food production and distribution. There’s big science behind these big fears of growing global instability, too. One major paper published in the journal Science back in 2013 correlated increases in interpersonal violence and intergroup conflict directly with major changes in rainfall triggered by global warming—whether in prolonged droughts or floods. Too much or too little—dramatic swings from wet to dry and back again have major impacts of food production and distribution. In the meantime, here in Eden, we cope with tens of thousands of fire-dislocated environmental refugees, hundreds of vulnerable people dying in urban ovens, a plague disrupting everyday life, and whole economic sectors facing massive job loss because of our environmental mismanagement, of which there is a great deal. It ranges from rapacious harvesting of natural resources (“Trees pay for our hospitals!” “Fish pay for our highways!” “Coal pays for our universities!”); to heedless me-first pollution (“That’s jobs you smell, not pulp mills!” “LNG exports mean jobs, jobs, jobs!”); and the corruption of public policy by private interest groups that empower regulatory capture of the very agencies which supposedly protect us from environmental excess. How long, then, before the Horsemen all decide not merely to visit every few years like that badly-behaving party-animal relative we all dread, and instead just move in permanently? Not long, says the data tabulated by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. As I write, we’re told that the present heatwave, the second scorcher in a month, has put 150 million people at risk across North America as extreme weather generates lethal temperatures that in turn spawn tornado swarms—one mid-western state got 14—and are driving huge wildfires, one of them now the largest in California history. Here in BC we’ve had 1,231 wildfires since April 1, 253 were burning last week. So far they’ve blackened an area about twice that of Luxembourg. It’s not just here, either. Conflagrations have swept through Greece and Turkey and are laying waste to Siberia. Entire underground subway systems were drowned during floods in China and rainstorms of mind-numbing intensity roared through Germany carrying away whole town centres in flash floods. Oh, yes, Campbell River got a flash flood, too. Campbell River's flash flood in August 2021 (photo by Mike Maxwell) On top of all this we learn that the Gulf Stream may be about to stop carrying warm water from the tropics to New England, Atlantic Canada and Western Europe. If that happens, Halifax is going to feel like Iqaluit in mid-winter and Trafalgar Square in London may feel more like Red Square in Moscow. The message in last Monday’s IPCC report really does signal an apocalypse that’s coming for all of us. IPCC's latest report warns of Code Red for Humanity “It’s just guaranteed that it’s going to get worse. Nowhere to run, nowhere to hide,” one of the report’s authors told Seth Borenstein of the Associated Press last week. This July now goes into the books as the hottest in human history. I kind of guessed that when my thermometer hit 39 degrees on my back deck the other day. The rivers are running dry, particularly in regions where logging has denuded hillsides and the stream beds that filled with migrating gravel now look more like paved roads. Severe drought conditions grip southwestern BC from the Okanagan to Vancouver Island. And the south Okanagan has announced a Class 5 drought, which is the worst on the scale, with water rationing and serious risks from irrigation farming—that would be orchards, vineyards, mixed farms, etc. The salmon are disappearing—the total return of steelhead to the once-abundant Chilko River system has just been tabulated, I’m told. The count was 19 steelhead—that was the complete return of the prized game fish to an area larger than 32 of the member nations of the UN. And salmon runs in general, one of the miraculous gifts of nature, are now in collapse almost everywhere from California right around the North Pacific to Japan. Bears, eagles, orcas, seals, sea lions, sea birds are starving and dislocated as they try to adapt to the fish famine even as powerful lobby groups agitate for a restoration of trophy hunting of grizzly bears, and culls of seals and sea lions so that the vast recreational fishing industry can enjoy business as usual. Gardeners demand culls of urban deer that have fled to the suburbs in search of safety and browse from the wastelands we’ve made of their wild range. The extinction of trout populations is deemed a fair price for the tax revenue generated by open pit coal mining. Wells run dry in the already arid and vastly overpopulated Gulf Islands. Entire lakes that supply water to the even more densely populated Sunshine Coast are drying up. Water rationing is now in place from California to BC. Indeed, one of the dire warnings in the IPCC report is a confirmation of what earlier models forecast. As more energy gets injected into the vast machinery of the atmosphere in the form of heat, swings in the water cycle can only become more extreme, more erratic, more frequent and more intense. The laws of physics compel. You can’t bargain, negotiate or deny them away. The new norm that’s emerging is for once-in-a-century events to start happening every 10 years, then every five, then every year. As air heats up, it expands and that creates more space for moisture, which means higher humidity (this is why the tropics are muggy and the Arctic experiences dry cold), which makes heat waves far more unpleasant and also means that when that atmosphere cools there’s the potential to shed rain in Biblical volumes. But the corollary to more frequent rainfall extremes in places that already get a lot of rain is extended hot spells and prolonged, more intense drought in the dry season. If this scorching, smokey summer spell of abnormally low water on the South Island seems inconvenient, consider that you may look back on this one with nostalgia as the good old days. As one web wag puts it, think of today’s scorcher as the coolest summer of the rest of your life. The new normal is going to be a lot more brutal than you imagine. This is just the foreplay. Forests surrounding our urban centres on Vancouver Island and which thread through our Shire-like urban sprawl from Coombs to Hornby and from the Discovery Islands to the Outer Gulf Islands are as dry as a tinderbox in the midst of what’s now the second worst drought in recorded history (it would be the worst but for one brief afternoon spray of rain that evaporated as it hit the ground). Those of us on the city margins await a dreaded spark—one Island fire was deemed to have been started by a broken piece of glass that focused the sun’s rays—to set off some conflagration like those that have already consumed small towns like Lytton, Paradise, Monte Lake, Greenville and Fort McMurray. Which brings me back to what we’re not doing about it. Well, hats off to the fire fighters, smoke jumpers, rap attack crews and pilots who are trying to limit the damage but a big raspberry to the woman in the white SUV who left me gaping as she cruised down a road in the Saanich Peninsula last week, puffing away on her cigarette, window down, flicking her ash and who knows what embers into the breeze. I’ve spent enough hair-raising—perhaps that should be razing—time on fire lines to know how quickly an ember in the dry grass transmogrifies into a 50-metre high wall of flame coming toward you at racehorse speed while whole trees explode in puffs of vaporizing flame. One recent fire whose dynamics were analyzed by comparing satellite images was found to be consuming a hectare every 10 seconds. One has to see a fire tornado to fully absorb the power of a forest fire under optimum fire conditions. And, if you actually look at the fuel load of dry grass and underbrush in our urban parks, gardens and untended ditches, patches of scrub, vacant lots and even unwatered back yards, you quickly realize that the urban fire conditions are optimum. In a way, perhaps that heedless SUV smoker serves as a fine metaphor herself—for those of us who don’t seem to have quite grasped the magnitude of what the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change signifies for what’s coming if we continue to suck our collective thumbs and wait for somebody else to do something about it. That light ahead is growing, the IPCC is clearly warning us, not because we are nearing the end of the climate mitigation tunnel but because the global warming freight train is barrelling toward us so fast. Because it’s a fully loaded freight train and is moving so quickly, it can’t stop. The momentum it has will run right over the spot we now occupy. Our best hope is to try steering it onto a siding where it can slow down as it runs out of fuel. That “runs out of fuel” phrase is the important bit. As long as we’re simultaneously playing rabbit frozen in the headlight while furiously stoking the speeding locomotive’s boiler—yeah, I know, it’s a mixed metaphor but bear with me—that train is going to barrel right over us and everybody behind us, too, a whole generation of young people, their children, their children’s children and their children’s children’s children. The IPCC report warns us to expect “very large” temperature increases across the temperate regions of North America. We are going to know more frequent and far more intense heatwaves than the one that recently cooked a billion marine creatures in BC’s intertidal zone and brought temperatures sufficient to barbecue a steak to sidewalks in the Interior. The charred ruins of Lytton and Monte Lake are just the opening act in a show that’s coming soon to a major suburb near you. Sea level rise is accelerating and will continue to do so for centuries to come. This does not bode well for neighbourhoods at sea level. Oak Bay, Sidney, Parksville, Richmond, Mission and Chilliwack—are you paying attention? You’ll soon be out of time. Fresh water resources are dwindling. BC has always thought of itself as having a surplus of fresh water. The illusion has been fostered by the glaciers and the winter snows in the Interior mountains. They serve as a bank, storing fresh water from the winter and releasing it into the rivers that carve though the arid Interior rain shadow during the summer. This cool water flow in summer and fall is what has sustained salmon runs. But as it dwindles, water temperatures rise and oxygen levels fall. In recent summer they have frequently approached the lethal level for fish, amplifying the effects of parasites and pathogens and in some cases exceeding the physiological boundaries that dictate fish survival—not so different from the plight of those humans who perished in this summer’s heat wave (although fish can’t purchase air conditioners or escape from the heat in the local supermarket). There’s an economic price tag here, too. Less water from winter snow and ice means less potential energy to be stored in the hydroelectric reservoirs which supply 95 percent of BC’s electricity needs So what to do? Well, let’s start with what not to do—throw up your hands and do nothing. The runaway climate change can’t be stopped but it can certainly be slowed and that buys time for adaptive policies that we perhaps haven’t even thought of yet. Special interests that benefit from exploiting fossil fuels keep saying we have to focus on adapting. Indeed, we do. And one way of adapting is to reduce our profligate use of fossil fuels for inefficient transportation, technologically primitive heating, convenient but expedient recreation, cheap entertainment and so on. It’s true that in the short term we can’t simply stop using coal, oil and gas. But we can certainly use a lot less. Which means addressing those who want us to use more coal, more natural gas, more methane and so on. How do we get there? Go big, not small. Put the same kind of effort into the transition to clean, renewable energy that will help us avoid a runaway greenhouse effect that we put into developing an atomic bomb to incinerate cities. “Think globally, act locally” is one of the mantras of the environmental movement. It has merit, incremental improvement is good. But when the IPCC report told us it was delivering a “Code Red” for humanity, it was warning us that we’re almost out of time. Put another way, bike lanes in Victoria are certainly good but it’s equally certain they are not good enough. In fact, they primarily are a way for politicians to appear to be doing something. Getting cars with internal combustion engines right off the streets of Downtown is better. Truly adaptive thinking is figuring out how to enable people to travel to Downtown to shop, dine and enjoy themselves without using their cars. That means a major radical rethink of our attitudes toward public transportation and how we deliver it. Cost recovery models may be the exact opposite of what we should be considering. In the big picture, the cost of cars on the road may far outweigh the cost of subsidies to public transit. The usual clamour of denialism from vested interest groups arises whenever a report like the IPCC’s comes down but the denial seems irrelevant now, marginalized and clearly delegitimized. Of much greater concern should be the political policy makers who so often seem willing captives of the agencies they are supposed to regulate. So one thing everyone can do is tell elected representatives that we’re done with greenwashing and talk, talk, talk about reducing carbon emissions while carbon emissions continue to climb. Scientists are warning us of an existential crisis; we need our leaders to lead. And if they can’t lead, we want them to get out of the way and make room for somebody who can. That message needs to be delivered forcefully. Deliver real, quantifiable solutions or depart. Delivering that message to leaders is something constructive that everyone can contribute to managing the climate crisis. There’s an election coming. Get involved. Hold the folks asking for your vote accountable. Stephen Hume has spent half a century as a journalist writing about Western Canada, the Far North, BC and the Island.
The lack of restrictions in schools and universities don’t jive with Health Canada’s sensibly cautious recommendations around COVID 19. UNLESS THINGS CHANGE DRAMATICALLY over the next few weeks, British Columbia will launch a massive experiment in pandemic management strategy involving about a million children, teenagers, young adults and their families and teachers. It begins when students, at least a quarter of a million of them completely unvaccinated, return to crowded classrooms—some university classes number 300 students or more—with (so far) few requirements for masks or social distancing. With a month to go before schools reopen, about 85 percent of kids under 17 were still unvaccinated. About 40 percent of those aged 18 to 29 still had not been fully vaccinated as of August 9. BC’s allowance of crowded lecture halls with no requirement for masks or vaccinations is contrary to Health Canada’s recommendations around COVID 19. Some students, parents and teachers want masks and a more conservative approach to classroom safety protocols. Some even advocate that high schools and university students require proof of vaccination before admission to classrooms and university events. One recent poll found that 77 percent of British Columbians want mandatory vaccination as a prerequisite for university attendance and even more—about 80 percent—think the same should apply to attending sports events or to flying anywhere in the province or, for that matter, to the rest of Canada. But so far the province is standing by its announced position that these additional safety measures are not necessary and that a continued gradual easing of restrictions is the proper response. It says it’s finding a balance between public safety and opening up the economy. Anticipated rules might change, though, after an announcement August 16 that the province had recorded 1,434 new cases in the previous three days—about 50 percent higher than was reported a week previous. The number of hospital cases had increased by over 50 percent, with those admitted to intensive care doubling over the past week. The present calculation is that high vaccination rates in BC’s adult population—the government certainly deserves its praise for that—and rising vaccination rates among the population aged 12 to 29 (which currently has the lowest vaccination rate but is also least susceptible to serious illness) will nevertheless blunt both the rate of transmission and the lethality of the virus for those who do get infected. The best case is that transmission of COVID 19 stalls and, while we don’t exactly return to normal, at least we get back to a semblance of normal. That is the plan. But as every wise general knows, few are the plans that survive engagement with the enemy. The threat to the reopening plan is what looks suspiciously like a troubling fourth wave. New infections have been increasing on an exponential growth curve, doubling every 7.5 days. Most of the new infections are among the unvaccinated. The unvaccinated provide a fertile field for the virus, particularly the aggressive delta variant which now comprises most infections and is about ten times as transmissible as the first. Even the vaccinated who are exposed to the delta variant but develop no symptoms can carry heavy viral loads which can then be transmitted to others, including those who are vaccinated but for some reason have less robust immunity. FACED WITH THE PROSPECT of a return to business as usual in classrooms where few are vaccinated, masks are optional and classrooms are expected to be used at maximum levels, parents and teachers and university faculty associations are protesting the moves and urging stronger precautions. At Simon Fraser University, the biology department simply defied the administration. The chair of biological sciences at SFU ruled that masks would be required in all biology classrooms and lecture theatres and that staff would have the right to refuse unvaccinated individuals entry to biology offices and labs. The student society at SFU told media it’s detecting a lot of anxiety among students, not because they fear disruption but because making masks optional, eliminating social distancing requirements and failing to limit capacity in most classes, lecture halls and at campus events puts them and their teachers at greater risk. At the University of Victoria, the faculty association asked for mandatory vaccinations for faculty, staff and students. The graduate students there moved unilaterally to require masks for entry to their society’s buildings and offices and the UVic Students’ Society says it supports the faculty association’s request. Unions at the university representing teaching assistants, sessional instructors and other staff at UVic want a mask mandate and urge that vaccination be required for residents and workers in student housing. (I should disclose here that I’ve taught—and still sometimes teach—the occasional university course in journalism, creative non-fiction, research methods and so on.) As with many policy decisions based on big picture statistics, the devil is often in the details. For example, while most teachers and faculty are vaccinated and therefore assumed to be safe, many younger university students still are not, most teenaged secondary students are not, few junior secondary students are vaccinated and no students under Grade Seven are. So they are at primary risk for infection which makes them a greater threat to their older teachers and their own generally older contacts from partners to frail elderly parents. There’s growing evidence in the research literature that the older one is, the greater the risk of lower immunity, even if vaccinated, simply because immune systems degrade over time. So, older teachers have a higher risk. How much higher? Well, we don’t really know because we haven’t had sufficient time for the baseline research. We do know from emerging research, though, that five out of every 100 people in the general population could still get infected even after two doses of either of the leading mRNA vaccines now in widest use in BC. And we know from research that these “breakthrough” infections are most likely in persons over 65 and among those who have underlying medical conditions that put them a greater risk of serious complications—whether actual disorders or therapies which compromise the immune system. Diabetes, high blood pressure, asthma, congestive obstructive pulmonary disorder, being overweight and so on are all indicators of greater risk. Okay, how many teachers are in these higher-risk age and health brackets? Well, according to an age profile of the teaching profession tabulated by the BC Teachers’ Federation, there are about 5,500 teachers in the province’s schools who are over 50. And one compiled by the Canadian Association of University Teachers for 2018 on a discipline-by-discipline basis found that more than 10 percent are over 65. Of these, statistical averages suggest about 20 percent of teachers aged 50 to 64 will have high blood pressure and for those over 65 it jumps to about 40 per cent. On average, about 23 percent of those over 50 will have diabetes. So one in five teachers in a school or university classroom is at elevated risk of a serious outcome should they contract COVID 19, even if fully vaccinated. That’s a minority, but it is a significant minority. Remember, less than half BC’s population aged 18-29 and less than a quarter of those aged 12-17 had been vaccinated. As of July 30, almost half the new cases in Canada, virtually all involving the delta variant, were in people under the age of 29. A reopening of campuses with no mask or social distancing requirements in classrooms means that the least vaccinated age cohorts—in which symptoms are expected mostly to either not present or to be mostly mild—will be unavoidably mixing with several age cohorts which are at considerably higher risk for serious adverse effects from an infection even if they are fully vaccinated. Federal safety guidelines affirm this concern, which may alarm the groups affected but doesn’t appear to worry the provincial government. Here’s what Health Canada was saying the last time I checked its website. The caveat “last time I checked” is required because, as the federal public health office observes, circumstances are fluid and “the risk of getting COVID-19 is evolving daily and varies between and within communities. Overall, the risk to most people in Canada remains high.” “Deciding what personal preventive practices, like masking or physical distancing, you can safely ease up on and when and in what settings depends on several things,” Health Canada advises. “The decision isn’t just based on whether you’re fully vaccinated.” It says other factors are age and personal health status and warns that the potential for severe illness following infection increases with age, underlying conditions (like high blood pressure or diabetes) and the age and health status of those immediately around the exposed person. “The impact of you being infected is greater when you’re with older people and/or people with certain medical conditions,” Health Canada says. “This is because they’re at higher risk of severe illness.” Thus we have one group that’s not largely vaccinated or is only partially vaccinated and is therefore more exposed to infection, even if the outcomes are mostly mild or asymptomatic, and another population which is mostly vaccinated and therefore has greater protection but which also has components that are at higher risk if infected, not only in themselves but to others in their immediate circle who likely have elevated risk due to age and medical status—very old parents, say. The 95-year-old parent of a 65-year-old teacher, for example, is about 600 times more likely to die from contracting COVID 19 than is a 22-year-old student. Not surprising, then, that teachers, university professors, students and parents are all expressing anxiety at what seem to be contradictory messages from the BC government and from Health Canada. Canada’s top public health agency is saying that we shouldn’t be engaging in what it calls “least safe activities” on the basis of age, personal health, medical conditions and the age and health status of those around us. It defines “least safe activities” as large indoor gatherings, especially where masking and physical distancing are not undertaken and/or being physically close to an unvaccinated or partially-vaccinated person when the virus continues to circulate in the community. A first-year lecture with 300 students jammed into a lecture hall with no requirement for masks doesn’t seem to meet Health Canada’s “keep your distance” benchmark. Nor does exposing a 60-year-old public school teacher with diabetes or asthma or high blood pressure to a classroom of unvaccinated kids who aren’t required to wear masks. And it gets more complicated. A just-published study of 50,000 vaccinated patients by the famed Mayo Clinic found that the effectiveness of the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine with comprised the first dose for most of BC’s higher risk population had declined to 42 percent effectiveness against the newly emerged delta variant which now represents 95 percent of the new cases in here. And in Oregon, 20 percent of July’s documented COVID 19 infections were among already vaccinated individuals. The upside to that gloomy news is that the number of breakthrough infections that are serious is small—for now. Yet another variant could change that. The present strain of COVID 19 rampaging through vast numbers of unvaccinated people in our neighbour to the south provides an ideal natural laboratory for developing new vaccine-resistant strains which, as we well know, pay no attention to borders. All of which helps explain, perhaps, why Health Canada is warning that notwithstanding vaccination, if you are older and/or have pre-existing medical conditions, you are at greater risk of severe illness if you are infected and you may not get as much protection from vaccination compared to a younger person. For this reason, the agency says, you should “keep wearing a mask and avoid getting close to others in public even if you are fully vaccinated.” But BC’s plan for all teachers to return to small, enclosed classrooms with students who may not be vaccinated and for whom not wearing a mask is an option for personal choice, seems to ignore such advice. A recent report in the New York Times quotes epidemiologists warning that seniors and people with immune systems compromised by advanced age and/or underlying medical conditions “could be particularly vulnerable in a surge, even if they were fully vaccinated, because their bodies might not produce a strong immune response from the vaccine.” None of this is to suggest that vaccines aren’t the most important and valuable weapon for suppressing that exponential growth curve and minimizing detrimental health effects from infection. But it’s a bit more complicated than simply basing policy on the assumption that a vaccination is the silver bullet in this campaign. Sending potentially vulnerable teachers back into classrooms with students who are not fully vaccinated and for whom wearing a mask is a personal choice is to ask those teachers to risk become potential transmission points to others who might be at even greater risk of severe illness or even death. Setting up mass vaccination clinics for returning university students who already say they want mandatory vaccinations and telling them to wear masks in classroom settings doesn’t seem particularly onerous. After all, students and faculty can’t drive to campus without proof that they have a driver’s licence; they can’t park on campus without a permit; use the towels in the athletic facilities without paying a fee; take books out of the library without first obtaining a card; or attend classes without putting on their pants. Asking them to get vaccinated and wear a mask doesn’t seem unreasonable. Stephen Hume has spent half a century as a journalist writing about Western Canada, the Far North, BC and the Island. He has been vaccinated.
Reflections on our rightful place on Earth. Earth rises above the moon’s horizon, as captured by Apollo 9 A CORRESPONDENT WHO IDENTIFIED as a member of the Haida Nation recently commented on a piece I wrote for FOCUS about the role of renaming in the process of decolonizing our thinking about this province, one still draped in the symbols of oppressive colonial authority, from place names to architecture to public art. It was a thoughtful comment and raised points about which I’ve been reflecting and trying to think through responses that are respectful and equally thoughtful, entangled as they are in a perplexing complexity. First there’s the observation that: “You and your people were not invited here.” Well, there’s no disputing that. I wasn’t invited. And yet here I am. The implication of the statement, of course, is that since I came uninvited, perhaps I should disinvite myself. But the uncomfortable fact is that for three-quarters of a century I have known no other place. I’m here and for me, really, there is nowhere else to go. I didn’t come here of my own volition. I came as a tiny infant. I wasn’t consulted and I was offered no choice in the matter. And this is even more true of people who aren’t part of Indigenous communities but who were born here—my brothers were all born here, for example, so they aren’t from somewhere else, they’re from here—as are our children, our children’s children and in a few cases, our children’s children’s children. Others who are not Indigenous have even longer lineages in what’s now BC. Some can trace their genealogies back to the early 1800s. Telling somebody with perhaps seven generations of ancestors born here that they’re not invited may be satisfying to say but in pragmatic terms it doesn’t really move us in a meaningful way toward a lasting or just solution. I’ve run into challenges to the legitimacy of my presence here before. And not only from some members of Indigenous communities whose expressions of resentment and anger over the whole ugly, abusive legacy of colonialism I certainly understand and, to some extent, accept as inevitable and perhaps even just. In the larger context, though, I believe allowing anger and resentment to shape what we say or do is almost always counterproductive. Anger, if you permit it to own you, never leads anywhere good. Even our bodies, faced with constant inflammation, cease to function properly. So, I believe, it is with the spirit. For example, consider the exculpatory, deflecting “whataboutism” and defensive rhetoric that has arisen from some non-Indigenous quarters of mainstream society upon having the cruel injustice of the residential school system drawn to its attention and then being asked to think about accountability. Who should be held accountable? What should redress look like? That angry response leads nowhere except into an unsustainable and dysfunctional swamp of denial. There’s no denying the reality of what happened, nor is there any excusing it. Denial prevents us from dealing with what happened. These were children who we victimized. Children! Blaming the victims for drawing our attention to the injustice of their victimization by us is unconscionable. Misguided non-Indigenous response I’ve also been told by non-Indigenous people who were born in BC that as an immigrant I have no right to comment upon events here and that I’m unwelcome and that I should either shut up or get out and “go home.” A few even offered to come and physically assist me in departing—“I’ll come and punch your lights out,” said one cheery note from Port Alice. Some of this I found amusing, since in most cases it turned out that I’d actually been in the province half a century longer than had the folks saying that as a newcomer I had no right to be here. Most of this ill will erupted into my in-basket whenever I wrote about resource exploitation issues, or shoddy environmental standards and the impending crises of global warming, loss of biological diversity, or the need for less rapacious harvesting of forests, fish and minerals. A significant number of these non-Indigenous correspondents, however, took greatest affront at my writing about the obligation upon the dominant culture to face up to the need for justice for First Nations; to address their indisputable rights not to be economically marginalized, socially victimized by stereotypes; to govern themselves locally instead of being governed by distant bureaucrats in Ottawa; to have what has been done acknowledged instead of consigned to a collective national amnesia; and to expect redress rather than a gloss of “what-aboutism” and excuses. I understand the source of that resentment. It comes out of fear, uncertainty, historical ignorance, a sense that there were powerful forces at work marginalizing individuals who had no power to resist what threatened their families and their livelihoods. Just as I understand the resentment expressed by some Indigenous voices at the heedless non-Indigenous majority which has enriched itself by appropriating and exploiting resources to which it had no unilateral right and which until recently seemed incapable of bearing witness to its own wrongdoings. Which brings me to the second point made by the note from Haida Gwaii: “You and your people are not welcome here.” The expression of that feeling, however understandable to me or satisfying for the speaker, doesn’t advance the conversation very far. I’m here—that’s a simple fact. I’m not welcome—well, that’s a feeling about a fact. A fact that has to be addressed before we can get to addressing the feeling about it. The numbers The fact is this. I’m here and I’m not going anywhere. And neither are the 5.1 million other British Columbians, 4.8 million of whom are not Indigenous, and who, whether welcome or not, are not going anywhere either. Indeed, the math indicates the real growth of non-Indigenous numbers in BC is going to continue to exceed the real growth of the Indigenous population here in illahie (meaning ‘country’ or ‘earth’ or ‘land’ in Chinook) for the foreseeable future. The birth rate for the Indigenous population is high, about four times higher than that of the non-Indigenous population, but it is nevertheless subject to the tyranny of numbers. There are about 8,200 Indigenous births in BC each year, but there are about 32,000 non-Indigenous births. Add to that the net population increase of 10,000 from inter-provincial migrants and immigrants to Canada and the difference is even greater. By 2031, at those rates, the Indigenous population will have grown from 270,000 to 352,000 people. Over the same decade the non-Indigenous population will have grown by about five times that—around half a million—and the overall population will have grown from 5.1 to 5.9 million. Even though the First Nations population has now surpassed what it’s thought to have been around the time that the colonial era began (and is now 10 times what it was at its nadir), the culturally dominant non-Indigenous majority is probably going to remain numerically dominant for centuries to come. One thing seems clear. In a society with such disproportionate asymmetry between Indigenous culture and the mainstream, a progressive engagement is essential. Angry yelling at one another, retreating into self-justifying bubbles of cultural solitude, will simply mean that natural entropy will lead to the dominant culture unilaterally imposing its interpretation of how things should be, likely without even thinking about it. The only thing we can change is the future The pragmatic reality is that the past is messy. It’s filled with both despicable people and saintly ones; with great injustices and with ethical triumphs. We discover wicked acts among our ancestors and virtuous ones; there are the venal and there are the incorruptible; the misguided and the wise; there’s structural privilege and there’s altruism. But the past is also changeless. As a wiser writer than I once pointed out, the past is a foreign country. We can read reports about it from a few who have been there but we can never go there ourselves. We can’t change it. The only thing we can change is our future. So how do we do that? Where do we go from here? What can we change in our immediate future, the same future which will become our children’s past? How do we make the future better than the past from which our troubled present derives? These are knotty, difficult questions. Yet that’s where we need to focus our energy, even if for some of us the engine of that energy is anger or resentment. The worst side of us will always urge us to angry rhetoric that’s often intended more to wound than to engage; or to excuse and absolve ourselves of past injustices rather than take collective responsibility. But remember this—the best side of us will always strive to do our best for each other and for the home we are going to have to share. Okay, as the Haida writer observed, I wasn’t invited. And I and my people are not welcome here. I hear that. But since we’re here to stay, and we’re not going away, what next? And who, exactly are “my people”? Well, one of “my people,” at least in my immediate family, is First Nation by birth with ancestry in northern BC that goes back at least 10,000 years, probably far longer. And then, of course, there’s me, fresh off the boat but nonetheless here longer than about 90 percent of BC’s population—at my age there aren’t many who have been here longer than me. Quick generalizations (and I’ve made a few myself in my time), generally, are a bad place to start a conversation. We hear disgruntled rhetoric from everywhere in these parlous times. Claims that Canada has no legitimacy because it was founded in an undeniable injustice; that Canada should be dismembered because of ancient wrongs perceived in Quebec or because of recent wrongs perceived in Alberta, or, indeed, even that Vancouver Island should separate from British Columbia because it doesn’t get a fair shake from the mainland; claims that the fabric of Canada’s identity is threatened by people who are of different race, culture, religion, even sense of personal self. Muslims, Jews, Asians, Americans, Blacks, Christians, atheists, First Nations, white people, the transgendered—the list of grievances is long. But all this griping leads to a question. If not Canada, what? If not British Columbia, what? If not a culturally diverse nation, what? The question brings to mind the old aphorism that dishevelled, unruly, frustrating, irritating, maddening democracy is the worst possible choice for a government—until you consider the limitations, impositions and inherent injustices that all the others represent. Canada, at least, has the power and flexibility with which it may remake itself as a better version of what went before. So, how do we go forward in this complicated time to make our shared home a better place? Do we burn it all down, as some propose? If we do that, what do we build in the ruins we create? And how do we do it in a way that means justice for all and not just for some? Do we ignore past wrongs? Then how do we ever reconcile with those who were wronged—or who wronged us? The notion of ownership is an invention The last point made by my critic from Haida Gwaii had to do with ownership. If I own property in BC, the writer observed, the title to it only derives from laws passed by Queen Victoria. Perhaps I should instead write a piece making awkward legal arguments as to how I’m the rightful owner of what the writer describes as “my people’s land.” Well, there’s indeed truth in that statement, although in my case I actually live by choice on treaty land and while there’s disagreement about what the two parties understood their original agreement to mean, further complicated by the passage of more than 150 years and the vast demographic, social, political and economic changes that none of them could have imagined, there’s a process for sorting those differences out by discussion, negotiation, good faith and, if necessary, the law, which however imperfect is what we have. Several years ago, I had the privilege of being invited to be one of the formal witnesses at a conference jointly hosted by the Songhees First Nation, elders and cultural leaders from other First Nations around Victoria, and scholars from the University of Victoria to discuss what it meant to be treaty people. I found it a remarkable and heartening coming together of wise men and women who were, indeed, trying to make respectful sense of who we are and what we want to become together. The notion of ownership is an invention. It’s a way of trying to create an illusion of certainty for ourselves in an existence in which the norm is uncertainty. Ultimately, none of us owns anything, we just prefer to think we do because it gives us a feeling of certainty, Yet we are all only sojourners for a brief time and we’re all heading for the same exit, however much we surround ourselves with the material possessions, personal relationships, families, communities, tribes, nations and empires with which we create an illusion of permanence. Live long enough and we’re destined to lose everything: what we own, the people we love, our memories and the consciousness that’s the sum of our perceptions. Naked we come, owning nothing, and naked we depart, taking nothing. Am I the rightful owner in moral terms of Indigenous people’s land? No. Am I the owner according to the legal conventions of the moment? Yes. Could those conventions change? Perhaps, if we can agree on how. For example, joint sovereignty is not exactly an unusual concept. Our political landscape is already layered with overlapping jurisdictions—federal and provincial, provincial and municipal, legal and social, private and public tenures. In terms of overlapping Crown and aboriginal titles, why not add a small tax to all private and residential properties and direct it as a reliable, predictable revenue stream to the First Nations that have underlying claims to original title? We do it for libraries, schools, volunteer fire departments, sidewalks and street lights. It needn’t be onerous. Frankly, adding a couple of mills to the property tax rate and directing it to First Nations governments probably wouldn’t even be noticed by most property owners. But those are details. There’s a more important question. Do I have a right to my place on Earth? Yes. And where is my place? Well, it’s here regardless of any wrangling over who owns what and to what degree. A conundrum perhaps best answered by two young Dene hunters I met in the sub-Arctic bush more than half a century ago. They were gutting and butchering a caribou they had just shot. I remember them grinning at me, up to their elbows in entrails, while I asked them about the magma pool of hostility that had recently welled-up in the resource-reliant non-Indigenous community in response to the filing of a land claim against the entire Mackenzie River Valley where both oil and gas pipelines and a highway were planned. One of them looked up laughing and said: “They think we want to own the land. That makes them mad. We can’t own the land. Nobody can own the land. The land owns us.” I’ve thought about that wisdom many times since, the way it frames the prevailing illusion that any of us actually owns anything. We don’t, of course. All of us are just passing through, brief sojourners in the vast rolling tapestry of life. Everything we think we have must be surrendered and lost. The people we love most. Property. Material possessions. The beauties of sunsets and wind storms and seasons unfolding. All this will pass from our hearts, from our memories and finally from our minds and our ability to even sense their existence. Perhaps, as some believe, spirits return. Perhaps, as others believe, they don’t and we simply dissipate into the everything and the nothing that comprises the universe. Nobody knows. Our ideas of ownership, property, permanence, certainty are all illusions. We do have a duty though. A duty to good stewardship on behalf of those who will be here after we have departed, a duty to kindness to those with whom we share our brief journey, a duty to justice, a duty to do our best to act in good faith. We’re all in the same canoe In this time of fire and flood, vanishing species, environmental refugees in the tens of millions—including here in BC in our present moment—the looming imminence of catastrophic climate change that is reshaping the global ecosphere, perhaps we’d all do better to heed what a Tseshaht elder told me many years ago. I was not long out of high school. It was the year after Canada’s 100th anniversary and in a flash of youthful enthusiasm after hearing him speak at a public lecture, I decided I had to go to Port Alberni to talk to George Clutesi about art. I persuaded my 19-year-old girlfriend to drive me there in her ancient and unreliable Volkswagen Beetle and she bravely took me over the hump from Nanaimo in a blinding snow storm. I’d first met him as a nine-year-old. He was a friend of my dad. George was a janitor at the Alberni residential school where he’d once been an inmate for 11 years. At least, that was the day job that supported his writing, art, and shepherding a resurgence in dance and song. Emily Carr had bequeathed him her unused canvases, paint and brushes when she died which tells you the esteem in which he was held. While he was working at the residential school—despite being told not to by administrators—he began re-introducing a new generation of children to their traditions of song, dance and art. He invited his two unexpected young visitors in and talked for a long time about art both in the context of Tseshaht traditions and of its place in the larger world of European and Asian art. But the one thing that he said that has stuck so vividly in my memory that I can still hear him saying it, his old dog snoring on the rug and the rich scent of a roasting tyee salmon wafting out of his kitchen, was this: “We’re all in the same canoe,” he said. “We can learn to paddle it together or we’ll capsize it and we can drown together.” Learning to paddle together into the future, that’s the objective of reconciliation. What does reconciliation look like? I don’t know. Different people have different ideas about that. Which vision is right? I don’t know. That can only be determined by agreeing what it looks like and talking out how to get there. Finding consensus can only come of talking it through. Reconciliation, it seems to me, requires finding what we have in common and celebrating those things while learning to accept, respect and tolerate our differences. The canoe is already at sea. There’s a big storm coming. Everybody in our canoe has a right to be here. Where it goes is up to us. Paddle together or drown together. Seems like a pretty straightforward choice. 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.
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.