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  1. Posted August 4, 2020 Photograph: A peaceful demonstration outside the BC Parliament Buildings in 2019, with Queen Victoria nearby. Our province and city were founded by colonizers. Should they be renamed? Go to story
  2. While taking down monuments and renaming sports teams can seem Orwellian, why shouldn’t we rename “British Columbia” and “Victoria” given they were acts of renaming themselves. TWO YEARS AGO, following a full year’s discussion and cogitation, Victoria City council removed a statue of Canada’s first prime minister, Sir John A. Macdonald, from its prominent place outside City Hall. Sir John A. did represent Victoria as an absentee MP but his connection with the city is actually measured in the few days 134 years ago when he came out to drive the last spike in the now defunct Esquimalt and Nanaimo Railway. That, it should be remembered, was an era when politicians campaigned on platforms promising to keep British Columbia a “white man’s country.” Macdonald was the engineer of a bold attempt at cultural destruction using residential schools, as well as an Indian Act which disenfranchised and disposed indigenous populations. He was also behind the first Chinese Immigration Act which was aimed at excluding Asians, violent suppression of Metis language and land rights on the Prairies, and the ethnic cleansings and separation of First Nations from economic resources that resulted in “Indian reserves”—a far more comfortable euphemism than “concentration camps.” Council persevered despite affront from those who frequently wrap an apparent angst over social change in the increasingly threadbare cloak of patriotic loyalty to the monarchy, the supposed integrity of history, devotion to the continuity of Canada’s public institutions, keeping up tradition and so on. In retrospect, council’s decision looks downright prescient, which is saying something for the folks who spent more than a million dollars-a-metre to replace a bridge so short a good high school sprinter could cross in 10 seconds. A peaceful demonstration beside the statue of Queen Victoria in front of the BC Parliament Buildings. This demonstration was not directly related to Queen Victoria’s well-documented role in colonization and expansion of the British Empire. Victoria and British Columbia were colonized early in her reign. Should her statue be removed and Victoria and BC be renamed? Desire for decolonization, acknowledgement of the racialized ethnocentrism that has been the engine of imperialism, nationalism and a host of other unpleasant “isms,” and striving for reconciliation with the colonized seems to be gathering momentum, particularly with young people. Concerns have moved on from the graven image of Canada’s principal engineer. Everywhere, it seems, statues of merchants who created and benefited from the monstrous economic machinery of slavery, politicians and jurists who legislated and legitimized colonial theft, and the adventurers and soldiers who enabled and defended the slave trade are now being removed by officials or toppled in public protest. Are there excesses occasionally rooted in ignorance? Sure, but they pale in comparison to the excesses rooted in ignorance and malice that were perpetrated by the people whose legacies are now under review. We’re removing the names of racists once celebrated as upstanding citizens from schools and universities, public buildings, parks and landmarks. We’re now co-naming places with both indigenous and mainstream names that better reflect the dualities inherent in the emerging culture of our “here” as opposed to the psychologies of the colonized seeking to import and impose a distant “there” from Europe or Asia or Africa. The colonized mind gave us replicas of Greek temples, Roman pantheons, Gothic cathedrals, Egyptian obelisks, Bavarian villages, Japanese tea houses, Chinese pagodas and even English faux Tudor thatch cottages—in a rain forest, yet—almost everywhere we look. And the accusing finger of accountability has now properly moved on from the institutions of governance to those of popular culture, sports in particular. Some, alert to the changing mood, have moved swiftly to change common racialized nicknames. Junior B hockey’s Saanich Braves is changing the name because, its owners say, it’s just the right thing not to give offence to the many indigenous communities that surround and permeate the Capital Region. The Edmonton Eskimos, on the other hand, having resisted and rationalized for years in the face of calls to change a nickname that many Inuit find insulting, decided to find another moniker for the professional football team only after a major sponsor threatened to abandon ship, thus putting a whole new spin on the club’s colours—green and gold. In the US, the Washington Redskins reached the same conclusion when a major sponsor threatened to depart, causing wags to suggest the most appropriate new nickname might be the Washington Greenbacks. Plenty of other teams from high schools to college and professional ranks are getting the same message. You’d think, from the subsequent gnashing of teeth and cries of enraged anguish from some fans and sports pundits in Edmonton that changing a name that many find objectionable is somehow equivalent to blowing up the Parthenon or pulling down the temple of Solomon. Well, not quite. Sports franchise owners who make money from branding are quite happy to change nicknames, team colours, team logos and even cities whenever the prospect of greater returns from their business is perceived elsewhere. One need look no further than Victoria for a prime example. More than a hundred years ago, Victoria had a terrific professional hockey team, the Senators. The Senators renamed themselves the Aristocrats, then they moved to Spokane as the Canaries but came back to Victoria a year later as the Aristocrats, again. Then they played four years as the Cougars, won a Stanley Cup from the Montreal Maroons and immediately cashed in by selling all their players to new owners and moving to Detroit to join the new National Hockey League in which they first played as the Cougars, then became the Falcons and finally the Red Wings.. Their foes, the Portland Rosebuds, transformed into the core of a new NHL franchise in Chicago. They got renamed the Black Hawks and then were rebranded again from a double-barrelled to a single-barrelled name as the Blackhawks—almost the reverse of the geographical renaming going on here where Gulf Islanders reject single-barrelled Saltspring for double-barrelled Salt Spring, although perhaps a better change would be to the SENĆOŦEN place name for the island, W̱ENÁ¸NEĆ, which certainly has a longer and more authentic pedigree. The process of decolonizing won’t be quick, painless or as easy as toppling a few statues or changing the hurtful names, mottos and mascots of sports teams. It will involve reimagining the way we relate to the landscape itself—and through it to one another. A PALIMPSEST IS A PARCHMENT which has been repurposed for a new text only to have the script and images of the older story reemerge through the new narrative. It’s most often used in reference to documents from the ancient world in which pages capable of preserving text were so valuable and books so rare that as cultural values changed over lifespans and even centuries, one hand-written document might be erased so that a new one could be superimposed. Among the most famous examples are sections of Homer’s Iliad and Euclid’s writing on geometry that were transcribed in the 6th Century but then, 300 years later, erased and covered with the writings of a Christian patriarch. The only surviving section of a 4th Century copy of Cicero’s writings on Roman politics was found beneath a 7th Century copy of St Augustine’s writing. And the work of Greek mathematician Archimedes that had been copied onto parchment in the 10th Century was later found beneath a 12th Century liturgy. In a way, our whole cultural history is a series of palimpsests, and succeeding generations seek to edit and propagandize (one way or the other) the past and the accomplishments of previous generations they wish to either diminish or aggrandize as affirmation of their own worth. The United Kingdom, to which our monarchist enthusiasts and defenders of tradition so fondly hearken, is a series of overlays in which successive conquerors imposed their place names upon the landscape as a way of asserting control and superiority over the colonized. Eburos of the Eburorovices becomes Eboracum under the Romans then becomes Eoforwic under the Angles, becomes Jorvik under the Danes and finally becomes York. In a more brutal example of erasing evidence of what went before, Oliver Cromwell’s Puritan soldiers, fired by iconoclastic religious zeal, rampaged through cathedrals smashing the stained glass, carved crosses and effigies on 400-year-old medieval graves whose coats of arms they associated with the hated 17th-century monarchy. One can see parallels here in the use of residential schools to erase language and social cohesion, the wholesale looting and destruction of art and artifacts, the casual renaming of places and even people, the outlawing of cultural and spiritual rites and traditions and other transgressions against the colonized. And so it has been through history, from Egyptian pharaohs erasing the stone glyphs of previous and subsequently-reviled dynasties to Taliban zealots blowing up ancient Buddhas in Afghanistan. Lord Elgin, later governor of Canada, presided in 1860 over one of history’s great examples of such imperial vandalism, sending 3,500 drunken troops to sack China’s ancient Summer Palace in a vindictive orgy of looting and arson. China isn’t without fault, either. It has destroyed 6,000 ancient monasteries in Tibet since invading in 1946. Romans pulling down Jewish temples, Muslims and Christians seizing, renaming and repurposing the religious sites of each other—the unpleasant legacy is long and ubiquitous. In a way, all our maps represent cultural palimpsests. The movements of peoples bring new languages and as places are occupied new place names are superimposed. Sometimes it’s merely for the convenience of new settlers who can’t be troubled to learn the languages of people who preceded them. Sometimes it is to affirm and imprint the authority of new overlords upon previously-owned and since stolen landscapes. Sometimes it’s a conscious effort to make manifest George Orwell’s observation from 1984 that controlling the past ensures control of the future. And yet, what seems so permanent in the present can be entirely ephemeral in the passage of time. Thus, in the historical blink of an eye, the indigenous Camosack becomes Fort Camosun with the arrival of the fur trade in 1843, then becomes Fort Albert in 1845, then Fort Victoria with British colonial status, then just Victoria. Is there a compelling reason that it shouldn’t revert to Camosack, other than a desire to cling to the belief that for some reason the ugly icons of imperialism, occupation and the deliberate disenfranchising and dispossessing of indigenous minorities somehow deserve to be fossilized and commemorated? Place names change all the time. They reflect dynamic patterns of occupation, the amended political needs of the moment and evolving cultural values. Saint Petersburg becomes Leningrad and reverts to Saint Petersburg. Constantinople, the great capital of Byzantium, becomes the Istanbul of the Ottomans. The United Kingdom has changed its name twice and may have to change it yet again if Scotland, Northern Ireland or Wales decide they might have a better future inside Europe rather than out of it and dominated by England. On some ancient maps, what’s now British Columbia appears as Fusang from a legendary Chinese exploration, probably mythical, but who knows? On others, it’s New Albion, supposedly from an expedition by Sir Francis Drake who got his financial start as a pirate and trader in slaves. Captain George Vancouver called it New Georgia and New Hanover. Fur trader Simon Fraser, approaching overland from the northeast, called it New Caledonia because he supposed it looked like the Scotland he’d never seen and would never see. The northwest corner was the Stickeen Territory. To the south it was the Columbia District; to the west was Quadra and Vancouver’s Island, later shortened to Vancouver Island as English bureaucrats dumped the Spanish connection when it became a British colony; further north was Haida Gwaii—Santa Margarita to the Spanish—renamed Queen Charlotte Islands after his ship by a trader in sea otter pelts and finally, after 200 years or so, reclaimed by its original inhabitants as Haida Gwaii. All these names were changed, abandoned, subsumed or remerged from the palimpsest of colonization and decolonization. The Fraser River was Lhta:ko to some, Tacoutche Tesse to yet others. It was Sto:lo, the Quw’utsun’s River, Rio Floridablanca, New Caledonia River, Jackanet River, and finally was named by explorer, trader and cartographer David Thompson after Fraser, the first European to descend to its estuary in 1808. Indeed, many of the province’s place names were bestowed by upwardly mobile British surveyors to please friends or toady to bureaucrats, politicians or minor royalty who might look favourably upon them someday. And yet, the magnificent landscape we, for the moment, at least, call British Columbia is the same despite the startling transience in its names. Considering that the British presence here has been about 200 years out of probably 14,000 of occupation—which is about 1.4 percent of the time of human habitation—why not rename the province for something more representative of the braided narrative of our emerging collective history? How about Saghallie Illahie? It is a term from the Chinook trade language invented by European and indigenous traders to communicate with each other for mutual benefit. Saghallie Illahie can mean either Heaven, or the High Country, both of which seem to apply here. In any event, proposing a new name for our home, one that’s from here and not from half a planet and a couple of centuries away seems neither outlandish nor unreasonable. At least no more unreasonable than sticking with British Columbia which creates a strange amalgam of analogies. British, of course, excludes the people already here, not to mention the other European, Asian and African settlers who helped make the place what it is. And Columbia, at its kindest, evokes the female national personification of another cruel, imperialistic and colonial country—the United States—while at its unkindest, it evokes Christopher Columbus, the brutal and avaricious slave trader who unleashed upon the indigenous peoples of the Western Hemisphere one of the greatest calamities in human history. How about a name that seeks to speak to and for all of us and not the worst in some of us? Stephen Hume spent half a century as a journalist writing about Western Canada, the Far North, BC and the Island. His byline has appeared in most major Canadian newspapers. The author of nine books of poetry, natural history, history and literary essays, he lives on the Saanich Peninsula.
  3. Posted July 6, 2020 John Innes’ painting of the inauguration of the Crown Colony of British Columbia, and the installation of James Douglas as its first governor As the process of decolonizing gathers momentum—and with BC Day approaching—it’s timely to look back on the origins of the Province of British Columbia. Go to story
  4. Posted July 6, 2020 As the process of decolonizing and renaming our province gathers momentum, we consider the events that led to the founding of the Province of British Columbia. ON AUGUST 2, 1858, the British parliament passed a bill that formally created a government for what’s now the province of British Columbia. In did so by cobbling together several smaller colonies, fur trade administrative regions called New Caledonia, and remnants of the Columbia District and the Oregon Territory that had become American by treaty in 1846. The British legislation referred to “certain wild and unoccupied territories on the North-West Coast of North America” and cited the need to provide colonial government “until permanent Settlements shall be thereupon established, and the Number of Colonists increased.” The territories weren’t unoccupied, of course. And it could be argued that the occupants weren’t willing subjects of the British Crown, either. A few had signed treaties with James Douglas, the Black fur trader who was married to an indigenous woman and found himself at the crossroads of colonial history more by accident than intent. But most, we can be reasonably sure, didn’t consent to this abrupt change in their sovereign status. A famous painting of the installation of Douglas as governor of the new colony is significant primarily in the monoculture it depicts; white, bewhiskered men with bibles resplendent in the traditional regalia of their station—judicial robes, gilt-braided uniforms, cockaded military hats, and so on. John Innes’ painting of the inauguration of the Crown Colony of British Columbia, and the installation of James Douglas as its first governor There are no First Nations chiefs resplendent in their regalia. Save Douglas who is portrayed as a white patriarch, there are no Black officials present, although they would form the new colony’s first militia regiment, help lay the foundations of commerce and industry and one of them would be a delegate to the Yale Convention that drafted terms for entry into Confederation. No Chinese, although they would be crucial in building infrastructure and establishing a mercantile empire that reached from the Cariboo to San Francisco and back to China. None of the Hawaiians known—and not pejoratively for they were prized employees of the fur trade—as Kanakas. And there were no women. Women weren’t persons in the eyes of the law in 1858. They were chattels of their husbands and a man could still sell his wife at market for as little as a pint of beer, as happened in 1862. None of this was noted 116 years later when the government of British Columbia established the first Monday in August as BC Day, a statutory holiday honouring “the pioneers who built the colony.” But times and perceptions evolve. As the process of decolonizing public institutions, public attitudes and the collective psychology of the descendants of both colonized and colonizers gathers momentum—there are serious and legitimate suggestions that we consider changing the name of the province to reflect a decolonized present—it’s important to remember that history didn’t begin with the Gold Rush of 1858. It didn’t begin with the arrival of the fur trade in 1805; and it didn’t begin with the explorations of Captain George Vancouver in 1792, or the trading expedition of John Meares in 1786, or the scientific research expedition of Captain James Cook in 1778. If, for want of an arbitrary point of departure, we consider that the modern history of BC began with the initial braiding of First Nations and European narratives into our present reality, then we have to start near the end of July in 1774, and not with the British, but with a tiny Spanish exploratory mission. Ninstints: a 14,000-year-old Haida civilization BEHIND A LONG, SANDY CRESCENT, ideal for landing sea-going canoes amid rocky islets capped with trees sculpted by ceaseless spindrift, and backdropped by the dense, brooding green of rainforest, time-silvered totem poles at the long-abandoned village of Ninstints present a stunning representation of a 14,000-year-old Haida civilization at its cultural apex. Ninstints, the name under which it was designated a World Heritage Site in 1981, or Nan Sdins, or Nunstints, is the anglicized place name derived by Europeans from the hereditary name of a renowned chief, Nañ stîns, “He who is two.” To the Haida, the place is Sga’ngwa.i Inaga’-i, or S’Gang Gwaay Llanagaay, or just Skungwai—Red Cod Island Town. Anthony Island shields Ninstints from the fierce storms that sweep in from the vastness of the Pacific Ocean. Keel-runs, cleared for landings by the great dugout canoes, are still visible. Haida crews would travel thousands of miles by sea in these canoes—one crossed the Pacific Ocean in 1901. Their hull design later inspired that of fast clipper ships that raced tea from China to London. Ninstints in 2002 (Photo by C. Baertsch) On Ninstints, one can also still see the moss-covered ruins of the 17 great houses that once lined the beach, their cedar-planked front panels decorated with clan crests, lineages and indications of status. These were the Kunghit people and the Haida heraldry ranged from the chiefs who inherited the name Ninstints at the South end of the village to that at the North end, culminating with the great house of the famous chief Koyah, “Raven.” Koyah is infamous to English and American captains for leading resistance against European incursions, attacking visiting trading vessels on at least four occasions. But it’s the astonishing artistic richness of the surviving totems, mostly memorial or mortuary poles, that point to the richness of Haida culture. Some poles were destroyed in a fire said to be set in the late 19th Century by the crew of a passing sealing schooner from northern Vancouver Island in retaliation for an ancient but never forgotten Haida raid upon the Kwakwaka’wakw on North Vancouver Island. Other poles were removed by museum collectors trying to salvage the legacy—sadly, seven of these were destroyed in a fire at Skidegate where they had been sent for restoration. Those remaining still resonate with artistic force. About a dozen poles still stand at Ninstints, of global importance says UNESCO because they do more than memorialize important persons of the past; they now commemorate the living culture of the Haida and their relationship with the land and the sea since time immemorial. “What survives is unique in the world, a 19th-century Haida village where the ruins of houses and memorial or mortuary poles illustrate the power and artistry of Haida society…The art represented by the carved poles at SGang Gwaay LInagaay (Nan Sdins) is recognized to be among the finest examples of its type in the world.” Traditional art forms on the Northwest Coast, inextricably entangled with social hierarchies, ceremonies and cosmologies, threatened the imported cosmologies of Christian missionaries and the imposition of new systems of law and governance imposed by colonial authorities. Family and tribal crests were looted as curios; ceremonial regalia was destroyed or appropriated and sold to museum collections. Ancient ceremonies themselves were outlawed and practitioners arrested and imprisoned. There was a systematic attempt by government to eradicate native languages. The last totem poles from that ancient Haida culture were carved and erected in villages at Skedans and Tanu in 1878. If, as many art historians believe, Haida carving represents an apex of Northwest Coast artistic achievement and the work at Ninstints is the apex of the apex, the place also symbolizes the nadir of Haida fortunes. Once the seat of powerful chiefs, then a wealthy and important trading centre, it was later depopulated by lethal epidemics, its social organization wrecked by greed and violence. Ninstints was abandoned in the 1870s, then pillaged as a source of artifacts. Finally it was installed as an iconic historic site of global significance that celebrates the resurrection of Haida culture from the ashes of near-annihilation. The fate of Ninstints had been cast about a century earlier, when first contact between an expanding European empire and the Haida civilization that had occupied its homeland since before the end of the last Ice Age, resulted in a collision that would ultimately have catastrophic consequences for both. As with everything else in Haida Gwaii, that story is written in the wind and the waves. 1774: Spanish ship Santiago, checking up on Russians, meets the Haida FOAM-STREAKED FROM THE 8,000-KILOMETRE REACH of wind-swept ocean behind them, the dark swells heave landward without cease. They break in a glistening fringe along the forbidding 400-kilometre wall of reefs, cliffs and craggy headlands that form the outer coast of a sea-churned archipelago of unpardonable beauty. The more than 1,800 rain-washed, mist-draped reefs, islets and islands that comprise Haida Gwaii jut into the turbulent North Pacific about 650 kilometres northwest of the present boundary that separates Canada from the United States at Vancouver. Nutrient-rich upwellings from the cold abyss at the edge of the continental shelf on which the islands perch sustain one of the richest ecosystems on the planet. At Dolomite Narrows it’s said there is more life per square metre than anywhere else. One survey collected almost 15,000 different animals from 100 square metres of bottom. The waters surrounding what have been called the Galapagos of the North teem with fish, 200 species of seabirds, and sea mammals of astonishing variety—20 species of whales and porpoises, fur seals and Steller’s sea lions, massive beasts the size of a small car that slide through submarine kelp forests with fluid grace. And these remote islands, today occupied by 0.1 percent of the province’s population but with more than 500 identified Haida heritage sites, are the historical epicentre of the socio-economic earthquake in which our British Columbia first took shape. In geological terms, the archipelago—renamed in colonial times the Queen Charlotte Islands and then returned to their indigenous name by an act of the British Columbia legislature in 2010—mark a boundary where the huge Pacific plate slides northwest along North America. The friction generated as the billions of tonnes of rock in these two immense plates grind past one another along the Queen Charlotte fault create the phenomenon that engineers call stick-slip, a process of catch and release by two surfaces. The juddering that results makes this offshore region one of the world’s most unstable places, subject to constant shaking and occasionally to great earthquakes. Two of Canada’s most powerful known temblors have occurred in this offshore zone. The most recent, in 1949, releasing almost twice as much energy as the 1906 event that destroyed much of San Francisco. And one in 1700 released more than 44 times the energy of that 1949 event. The resulting tsunami caused coastal destruction as far away as Japan. In socio-economic terms Haida Gwaii, and in particular two specific places on the archipelago, are where British Columbia’s modern history began. And we know the precise date, right to the half-hour, the names of individuals, and the eye-witness accounts of the principals involved. The first historic event was accompanied by the fitful rain squalls typical in those waters even for the high summer month of Sqaana gyaas, the killer whale month, so named because the sound of bark being stripped from giant red cedars during the seasonal round of manufacturing clothing, mats and baskets was thought similar to that made by whales blowing. It was early afternoon on July 20, 1774 when a lookout from one of three adjacent Haida villages—Kkyuusta, Yaakkw or Dadens—glimpsed something utterly astonishing. Amid drifting patches of rain and fog just off Langara Island, its white wings flapping, swam a strange bird of supernatural proportions. The villagers were fearful, an informant later told geologist George Mercer Dawson. Their world was inhabited at its fringes by supernatural beings—animals with the power to take human form and language, cannibal ogres, a sea grizzly in whose thick otter-like fur a ghost collected the souls of the drowned and kept them in bubbles. A stretch of sea to the East was known to be populated by deep water monsters which occasionally surfaced to claim entire canoes with their passengers. But their chief, though he later admitted to sharing the people’s apprehension, decided boldness was required of a leader, for the sake of his own sense of dignity as much as anything. He put on his finest ceremonial regalia and prepared to greet the unknown. The name of the first person in what is now British Columbia to lay eyes on the fateful appearance of European colonizers off its shores—that Haida lookout—is lost to history. The name of the chief who bravely launched his canoe to investigate the apparition perhaps not. He probably owned the name Blakow-Coneehaw, a corruption of Gunia, a powerful chief whose influence extended to all three villages. The syllables of his name were first mangled in the mouth of a Scottish sea captain who visited 15 years after the momentous first encounter and then, again, during the attempt to render into English text the Haida words for which no orthography yet existed. In any event, in 1774 the chief had waited for slack tide. He launched his great canoe around 3 pm crewed by seven paddlers and a boy. It took about 90 minutes to reach the monstrous bird. When they were about 300 metres away, he greeted it, singing a welcome song, scattering eagle down on the water and extending his arms wide and then crossing them on his chest to signify peaceful intent. As the canoe drew closer, the chief and his paddlers saw and heard what they first thought were bird people, unintelligible cries coming from dark shapes that resembled cormorants perched on the rocks. They were keen observers. Preserved in the oral tradition is what they perceived to be the peculiar behaviour of what they now determined were human strangers: one would speak and the others would suddenly scurry up into a basket of ropes until he spoke again and they would all clamber back down. The great bird was the Spanish ship Santiago, a 200-tonne frigate on a top-secret mission from the naval base at San Blas, Mexico, a 5,000-kilometre sail to the South. The mission’s commander, Ensign Juan José Perez Hernandez, a native of the island of Majorca and considered the most able and experienced pilot in the San Blas naval department, had been sent to investigate intelligence reports leaking from St Petersburg about Russian expansion far to the north of Spanish-claimed territory. Juan José Perez Hernandez Beyond California, North America’s west coast was an unknown. The English pirate Sir Francis Drake had journeyed north while escaping with bullion and booty from raiding the South American and Mexican coasts in 1579. Another Spanish expedition in search of a northwest passage to the Atlantic was thought by some—and disputed by others—to have reached the South end of Vancouver Island and the strait later named for its pilot, Juan de Fuca, in 1592. But for Perez, the charts were blank and the coastline and its currents, prevailing weather and maritime dangers a mystery. He’d set sail from San Blas with the ebbing tide at midnight on January 25, 1774, with a complement of 84. Armament included six cannons, 500 cannon balls and 36 muskets with bayonets. In an age before electricity and on-board freezers, provisions included a tonne-and-a-half of dried fish, five tonnes of beef jerky and 15 tonnes of hardtack. The curious activities of the bird creatures observed by the Haida party that made first contact were the attempts by Perez to trim sails to account for the quartering, highly changeable winds that had been bedevilling him for the three days since he’d steered an eastward course in search of land after one of his crew had seen giant kelp. The Santiago’s lookout had actually sighted the coastline the day before and the ship had ventured closer but the wind had picked up sharply, the sky to the Southeast had suddenly darkened and the captain had prudently shortened sail, headed back to open water and hove-to 12 leagues off shore—about 60 kilometres—for the night. On July 19 at 4:30 pm, somewhere just west of Langara Island and fairly close inshore, the Spanish captain’s diary records first contact with the native inhabitants of what less than a century later would become British Columbia and Canada’s westernmost province. The canoe came alongside. It was big, befitting the stature of its chief, and almost half the length of the Santiago. The Spanish were impressed by its speed and the skill of the paddlers. Perez had specific instructions from the viceroy in Mexico not to interfere with, or harm or engage in commercial trade—although ceremonial exchanges of gifts would be all right—with any native peoples he encountered. He did plan to land, erect the massive wooden cross the ship’s carpenters had constructed, and claim the territory for the Spanish empire. When it became clear that the encounter was friendly, two more canoes approached. “The men were of good stature, well-formed, a smiling face, beautiful eyes and good looking,” Perez wrote in his expedition diary. “Their hair was tied up and arranged in the manner of a wig with a tail. Some wore it tied in the back and had beards and mustaches in the manner of the Chinese people.” The next day, unable to make headway against the strong current out of the East, Perez stood off Langara Island. This time, 21 canoes came out, two of them filled with women with babies at the breast and older children. All were led by an older man whom the Spanish commander likened to “a king or a captain.” They began exchanging sea otter, wolf and bear pelts and blankets “beautifully woven and made, according to what I saw, on a loom,” for items of European clothing, glass beads, an axe and some knives. Two came aboard the ship and he made gifts of bread and cheese. “They were all good-looking, white and fair,” Perez reported. “Most of them have blue eyes.” He also noted that the Haida had in their canoe a half a bayonet and a broken sword but before he could explore the origins—were they Russian items traded down from the North, or had they been traded north from Spanish territory?—weather conditions abruptly changed. The canoes quickly made for shore, the Haida singing and apparently happy with the exchange of goods. “It was afternoon and everyone was cheerful,” his diary says. “But less so, I, who wanted to anchor but was unable to get help from the wind. It made me ill-tempered, and even more so seeing that without a wind the furious flow of the current was separating me from the coast.” A freshening off-shore wind, the inconstancy and confusion of the weather and supplies dwindling—Perez calculated that even on half rations he’d have barely enough water for the return voyage—compelled him to “submit to the will of God,” and he bore away to the South. Neither Perez nor Gunia could know it, but the aftershocks of their encounter would be profound. A century later, the Haida people would be teetering at the brink of extinction, their culture in tatters and the globe-straddling Spanish empire would be banished from the western hemisphere, reduced to a few shrunken colonial holdings in Asia and Africa. Sailing south, and hoping to replenish his water barrels, Perez turned landward again having spotted a dazzling, snow covered peak—likely Vancouver Island’s highest mountain, Golden Hinde—and on August 8, having passed through a fog so dense visibility was less than the length of his ship, dropped anchor near the entrance to a sheltered opening in the coast line. He named it Surgidero de San Lorenzo but it would later be named Nootka. About 3 pm, Perez recounts, canoes began coming out. At first three canoes carrying nine men, then eventually five canoes. But they remained at a distance and would not come close. As had the Haida at Kkyuusta, the Nuu-chah-nulth viewed the Santiago with great trepidation. Years later, José Mariano Moziño reported that elders told him that when they first observed the Spanish ship, they concluded it was the great copper canoe of a supernatural being named Qua-utz who was part of their creation mythology and who had returned to punish them for bad behaviour. That story of first contact was later corroborated by Joseph Ingraham, captain of an American ship who left a remarkably observant account of his time among the Nuu-chah-nulth. Some took refuge in the bush, others retreated into their long houses, but a few took canoes out to confront the threat. The next day, however, when the crew of the Santiago made it clear their intentions were peaceful, 15 canoes came alongside. They traded sea otter pelts and cedar hats for knives, cloth and large abalone shells from California. Several Nuu-chah-nulth men came aboard. One of them managed to pocket several spoons belonging to Martinez which the English noted as evidence of a Spanish presence when they reached Nootka Sound four years later. Then, with the weather turning for the worse, Perez weighed anchor and with sails reefed and turbulent seas set course for San Blas. He would never return. The following year, on a second expedition to the North, he died at sea. But one of those vessels, the Sonora, a small 14-metre schooner commanded by a young naval lieutenant, Juan Francisco de la Bodega y Quadra, explored and mapped the coast to what’s now southeast Alaska. He, too, would play a key role in the shaping of BC’s history. After Captain Cook’s 1778 visit, a rapacious fur trade and disease transform history ON MARCH 29, 1778, A WEEK AFTER uncharacteristically missing the entrance to the Strait of Juan de Fuca in severe weather—winds were gusting to 50 kilometres an hour—Britain’s greatest maritime explorer, Captain James Cook, found his way to the same narrow opening in the coastline that Perez had found four years before. But the English sailor, blessed with more congenial weather, sailed through into sheltered waters. Cook, like Perez, was on a secret mission. His orders were to seek a Northwest Passage between the Pacific and the Atlantic. His ship, Resolution, was accompanied by Discovery, among whose crew was a midshipman named George Vancouver who would also play a key role in BC’s future. This was Cook’s third great scientific mission and his officers and crew were shrewd and astute observers. Their accounts of the flora, the fauna, and Nuu-chah-nulth culture and society remain among the most valuable records of initial contact. As had the crew of Perez, Cook’s men traded with the Nuu-chah-nulth, who were shrewd and adept. The English had to pay for wood, water and even grass for the ships’ goats. John Weber, when he stopped to sketch figures in a long house, had to buy sketching time with brass buttons from his coat until he exhausted his supply. Metal items, the English traders discovered, were most in demand, in particular bits of iron, tools, utensils and weapons. These they traded for luxuriant sea otter pelts, carvings and art. Cook, himself, exchanged a broad sword with a brass hilt for a fur cloak worn by a leader that scholars now believe must have been Maquinna, the powerful whaling chief. Cook sailed away after a month of refitting, impatient to continue the mission that would take him to the Aleutian Islands and end a year later with his death on a beach during an altercation with Hawaiian islanders. But these two trade items, iron and furs, would utterly transform the social, cultural and political landscape of what’s now BC. When the two ships of the Cook expedition stopped in China to take on provisions for the final journey back to Britain, the crew found an astonishing demand among wealthy Chinese officials and aristocrats for the sea otter pelts they’d been using for bedding and clothing. James King, who had become captain of Discovery after Cook’s death and had inherited the furs obtained by both Cook and his successor in command, Charles Clerke, who had died at sea, sold 20 pelts in Canton for $800. Some crew members made even greater profits. In all, they sold their sea otter skins for an amount that, converted into current dollars, would exceed $300,000. For an outlay of about 12-pence, an investor might reap a return of 1,800 percent, or the equivalent of close to $15,000. When Cook’s official report was finally published in the September, 1784, a fur stampede began. Less than a year later, the first trading mission, commanded by Captain James Hanna, had been outfitted and set sail from Macao, China. Within five years, more than a dozen trading vessels had visited Nootka and more than 170 expeditions, dominated by flinty New England captains, had sailed to a Northwest Coast that only a decade before had seemed as remote as the moon. The fur trade was rapacious. More than 120 ships took almost a million sea otter pelts from the Aleutian Islands alone by 1808. A century later, sea otters were so scarce they were thought extinct. And so, almost, were the Haida. Captain Cook had not discovered a “new” world, he had opened a portal between worlds, both of them as old as time. Wealth, prestige and power flooded through in both directions. For the Europeans it was the soft gold of the fur trade; for the Haida and the Nuu-chah-nulth it was technological transfer—as iron implements entered a metal-poor economy, they set off an enormous cultural explosion in carving, canoe and long-house building. Guns altered ancient balances of power. Chiefs attained wealth and status that would have been unimaginable to their fathers—Maquinna had distributed 100 muskets, 400 yards of cloth, 100 mirrors and 20 kegs of gunpowder at a single potlatch in 1803—only to have it later slip away from them. Easy wealth meant more chiefs and it shattered the economic advantage of hereditary dynasties. Inter-clan and inter-tribal violence proliferated. And the newcomers created new markets—Haida artists became the first on the coast to commercialize their art, crafting stunning carvings of traditional imagery and mythological motifs from a soft, black stone called argillite specifically for sale to visiting sailors. But more came through the portal than wealth and the attendant perils of wealth. So did a portfolio of viruses that indigenous immune systems had never encountered. The first to arrive was smallpox. How it came remains unclear—perhaps with Russians from Kamchatka, perhaps with the Spanish from Mexico, perhaps with some indigenous carrier travelling north. Certainly, a vast and lethal epidemic was already sweeping through the Great Plains and lapping up against the Rocky Mountains in what some have described as the greatest demographic catastrophe in human experience. The Northwest Coast smallpox epidemic of 1862 is the one most embedded in the popular imagination. But that’s because it was most visible to European colonizers. In fact, it had been preceded by a whole suite of equally apocalyptic disease events. Measles, malaria, influenza and other unidentified diseases followed one after another. Robert Boyd, who made a lifetime study of introduced diseases and their demographic impact on the Northwest Coast, calculated pre-contact population by working backward using mortality statistics. He estimates an indigenous population of almost 190,000 in 1770. By the time British Columbia had emerged as a political entity and entered confederation that population had declined by more than 80 percent and would not reach its nadir until 1900. Smallpox ravaged the North coast in 1775. Subsequent 18th-Century fur traders reported deserted villages of collapsing houses strewn with bones. Nathaniel Portlock, who had been with Cook at Nootka and returned to trade for sea otter pelts in 1789, cited depopulated villages and one scarred survivor who had his arm tattooed with marks for each of his children whom had perished—there were 10. In 1795, Charles Bishop said a Haida chief told him two-thirds of the population had died. The Haida estimate their pre-contact population to be as high as 20,000; scholarly estimates are 10,000 to 12,000. What’s not in dispute is that by 1900 there were fewer than 600. Some time in the late 18th Century, disheartened by the impacts of smallpox and the disruptions of the sea otter trade and its destabilizing influx of wealth, Gunia abandoned Kkyuusta for islands to the North in what’s now the Alaska Panhandle. His people followed him. At Ninstints, the Eagle and Raven families were gone from Red Cod Town by 1874. The 17 great houses on the terrace above the beach collapsed back into the soil, the raised mortuary boxes of once great chiefs crumbled and spilled their bones, totem poles tilted and fell to be swallowed by the underbrush. It became a place of ghosts at the fringes of collective memory, although not Haida memory—or Kwakwaka’wakw—until a century later when it would be reborn, a global revenant from the richness of Haida culture, a reminder to everyone that although our stories are now inextricably braided, it’s in our first cultures that British Columbia was actually born. Stephen Hume spent half a century as a journalist writing about Western Canada, the Far North, BC and the Island. His byline has appeared in most major Canadian newspapers. The author of nine books of poetry, natural history, history and literary essays, he lives on the Saanich Peninsula.
  5. Stephen Hume

    One of Us

    June 17, 2020 Forty-five years ago, Barrie Gilbert had a part of his face ripped off by a female Grizzly bear. Yet he has spent his life devoted to undoing the demonizing of this complex, highly intelligent creature. Warning: graphic, bone-crunching description ahead. Female grizzly feeding cubs at Glendale Cove on the B.C. mainland about 35 kilometres north of Sayward where there have recently been numerous grizzly sightings. Photo by Shea Wyatt, courtesy Barrie Gilbert. ALMOST 45 YEARS AGO, not long after sunrise dappled the remote ridge they were climbing in Montana’s Rocky Mountains near the borders of Idaho and Wyoming, a Canadian wildlife biologist and his graduate student emerged from the stunted tree line on a cold, windswept height three kilometres above sea level. This was Bighorn Pass. For sake of comparison, that’s almost twice the altitude of Mount Arrowsmith, the craggy, snow-clad peak that so dramatically dominates the skyline above the pass separating Nanaimo from Port Alberni. The two men were there to observe and study how grizzly bears responded to back country hikers and mounted outfitters with pack trains. It was part of an ambitious research project at Utah State University, where Barrie Gilbert had landed a faculty position after graduating from Queens University, taking a doctorate at Duke and then doing field research in Alberta. To get there, they’d spent a week humping their 20-kilogram packs through the foothills, fording rushing creeks and paddling 30 kilometres across deep, icy Yellowstone Lake, itself almost 2.5 kilometres in elevation. It hadn’t been an easy passage. They’d endured a series of marching cold fronts which spawned thunderstorms, hail, drenching rain and lashing squalls that repeatedly forced them ashore when the short, steep waves threatened to swamp their aluminum canoe. The canoe itself was cause for concern. There was frequent lightning. The prospect of getting fried by a strike on the lake or while huddling under the up-turned hull to shelter from pelting rain loomed large in his imagination. So did grizzlies. At night, they’d camped well off the trail and they’d dragged in snags and branches from deadfalls to create crude barriers around their tent that, if they gave no real protection, at least offered an early warning should a bear approach. Eventually they reached their destination and, to their excitement and delight, soon encountered what they’d come to observe—a grizzly bear in pristine habitat. It was a female with three cubs digging roots in an alpine meadow. They watched enthralled as she stood down a male that approached, a mortal threat to her cubs. Male grizzlies, like lions, will kill the offspring of competitors. Later the bear family ambled down the meadow they shared with a small herd of grazing elk. The next morning, Gilbert decided they should circle behind and climb the back side of the adjacent Crowfoot Ridge so they could observe the bears more closely from above. Just as they left the scrubby trees at the top, Gilbert felt a call of nature and moved ahead of his partner to find a spot. He hunched over, keeping himself low to avoid spooking the elk with his silhouette against the skyline. That was when he met the bear. It had unexpectedly come up the other side of the ridge. Gilbert realized later that the unfortunate encounter—for him at any rate—was shaped by two things. First, because of the menace of the big male to her cubs, the female grizzly was already on hair-trigger alert. Second, approaching in a hunched-over stance, the biologist must have resembled a stalking predator. There was one explosive “woof,” a blur of brown hurtling out of the scrub and in seconds he was on the ground. “Her teeth felt like a row of pick-axes scraping across my head as she tore my scalp off,” he recalled later, although strangely, he says, he felt no pain in the moment. “Her second bite came down on my face, a big canine tooth punching into my eye-socket. ‘This is how you die,’ I thought as I felt bones crunch. One bite removed my cheekbone and sinus, exposing brain membrane. “As my life drained onto the ground”—it was later determined that he was hemorrhaging almost half of his blood supply—“I went limp and the biting stopped.” The grad student, Bruce Hastings, courageously yelled and the grizzly retreated. The bear, Gilbert later realized, was simply being a bear—reacting to his presence as a threat to her cubs. She wasn’t interested in killing him for the malicious reasons humans attribute in their deep trait of anthropomorphizing other animals. She simply wanted to neutralize an unknown and unidentified threat and once it was no longer a threat, she left. A less resilient person might have surrendered to the terrible wounds and died on the mountain. But Gilbert was tough. He was also very lucky. A team of highly trained medical technicians attached to a smoke-jumping crew had just deployed from a nearby fire base. And the helicopter pilot who picked him up had just done two combat tours in Vietnam war, landing under the most difficult conditions. Finally, a team of military surgeons experienced with battlefield trauma had just been assigned to the nearest medical facility. Gilbert’s first surgery, the one that would save his life following a bear mauling in the remote Rockies, took 11 hours and exhausted the hospital’s suture supply. The lead surgeon, Earl Browne, who has since died, later showed Gilbert photographs from before they began reconstructing what remained of his face. “All my facial skin and scalp was pinned out like a rat dissection in Biology 101,” he writes in the preamble to his astonishing memoir, One of Us: A Biologist’s Walk Among Bears. Scientific curiosity and a fascination with methodology trumped squeamishness. “I wasn’t repelled,” he writes. “I asked Dr. Browne if he had seen this kind of damage before. “‘Well, yes,’’’ the surgeon replied. “‘But not all on the same guy.’” So, through a combination of luck and fortitude, Gilbert survived the extraction and a round of intensive surgeries. His maimed face was rebuilt—although the massive injuries left him blind in one eye and his face permanently disfigured. Barry Gilbert closely observing a young grizzly bear on a river at Geographic Harbour, Katmai National Park, Alaska. Photo courtesy Barrie Gilbert. IF THIS STORY SOUNDS LIKE THE MAKING OF A BOOK, IT WAS. But not the book you might expect. This gripping story—a journalist like me might have made a whole book out of it alone—occupies a mere 15 pages at the beginning of Gilbert’s recently published memoir, One of Us: A Biologist’s Walk Among Bears. Gilbert went home to convalesce, to endure his 15-minutes of fame as the media descended to pester him for lurid details—mostly, he concluded, to advance a stereotype of grizzlies as “rogue killers in the woods eager to eat your children”—and to grapple with the post traumatic stress disorder that came with the cold reality of people staring at his facial disfigurement. Some might have withdrawn. “I chose to see the staring responses of others as their problem,” Gilbert writes. “I was a handsome guy and still am (inside).” Instead, he rejoiced that his hands still worked. And his scientist’s analytical brain. It reminded him of something equally important—point of view. Which is why the following summer found him sitting beside half a tonne of black bear just stirring from anaesthesia after being darted in his new research project. With only the slightest misgivings, Gilbert stayed with the bear while it recovered consciousness—staying with bears in such a state is essential, he notes, because a handicapped one invites opportunistic attacks from other bears, another trait they share with humans. “Fear of that bear was not an issue for me, but I could only guess why,” he writes. “Maybe long experience with animals and my short dose of terror carried the day.” We should all be grateful that Gilbert didn’t succumb to the kind of risk-averse apprehension regarding bears that might have gripped the rest of us, because he went on to almost half a century in the field, exhaustively studying bears in their habitat and in the most intimate proximity, at that. He sat with them, walked with them, observed them more closely than the benighted rest of us might get in a zoo with cages. His field work took him from the American Rockies to the Alaska wilderness and deep into Canada’s Great Bear Rainforest. One of Us charts that remarkable journey, not just through the bush in search of the great predators, but also through the devil’s club thickets of contradictory political policy; the technical disagreements spawned by what he calls “conservation contrarianism” and “science friction”; and the baser economic conflicts between the imperatives of ecological integrity for a threatened species and the special interests of industry, from tourism to timber harvesting to the powerful big game hunting lobby. There’s far more than the science of observation and dry statistical analysis here. Gilbert’s memoir takes us on an extraordinary excursion through the history—and pre-history—of relations between bears and humans. First, it explores the thousands of years of bears’ coexistence with indigenous peoples, an entanglement of mutual tolerance that populates the innermost of First Nations’ sacred spaces and endures into the present. Second, it examines the fatal contact between bears and a settler culture which demonized the animals as a precursor—and rationalization—for their systematic extirpation from vast areas of their range, particularly in the United States. Explorers, fur traders, cattle ranchers and sheepherders shot them, trapped them and poisoned them in great numbers. Trophy hunters preyed on the remnants. Then loggers, farmers and urban developers set about destroying their habitats. Once abundant in California, for example, the last grizzly bear was shot there in 1922 and the species survives only on the state flag, a reminder of our propensity to make icons of what we destroy. Grizzly populations dwindled to about 1,500 in the lower 48. There are 600 in Wyoming, 800 in Montana, 400 in Alberta, maybe 70 in Idaho and 20 in Washington. In Canada, there are about 25,000 bears, of which about 15,000 are in BC. When Europeans arrived by land it was estimated there were 25,000 in BC alone. One of Us takes us back to 1805 and the first scientific expedition of discovery by land across what’s now the western United States by William Clark and Meriwether Lewis. The party shot and killed 51 grizzly bears and wounded another 18, probably mortally. From then on it just got worse for the bears. And yet humans and bears can safely coexist, Gilbert argues, and provides the evidence from deep personal experience. He disrobes the enduring myth of the demon bear and reveals a complex, highly intelligent creature with a fascinating social system and crucial roles in the natural ecosystem. As I was reading One of Us, I thought about an incident that happened more than 20 years ago, when I was still young and agile enough to do some serious bushwhacking. I was deep in the arid rain shadow somewhere between Yalakom Mountain and Lillooet. The environmentalist I was with, my guide on a tour of another of British Columbia’s old-growth forests doomed to yet another chainsaw massacre with the blessing of politicians who know the price of everything and the value of nothing, led me on a side trek. He wanted to show me something special. In the forest floor, carved into a steep slope way out back of the outback, was a stairway. The steps were constructed from beaten earth and they had obviously been there for a long, long time. At the top of this staircase, in a fern-ringed hollow in the earth where a spring bubbled from the fractured rock of the mountain, was a natural basin filled with cool, clear water. My guide had come across it by accident. There had been a commune in the Yalakom Valley back in the 1970s, founded by a Simon Fraser University professor at the height of the back-to-the-land movement, but most of its adherents had dispersed again by the mid-1980s. Was this an artifact from a lost utopian dream? What my guide told me was astonishing. It belonged to the bears. Black bears would climb the mysterious steps, soak in the cool bathtub, then descend the steps again and vanish into the trees. Clearly, he said, the bears had worn the staircase into the hillside, probably over centuries of use, and they were still using it after who knew how many generations. “In many ways,” Gilbert writes, “grizzly bears cluster with wolves, dolphins, apes, and elephants as cultures, highly social civilizations that we barely understand.” What does he mean when he ascribes civilization to bears? He turns to American naturalist Henry Beston, who noted in 1928 an inherent hubris in human notions of superiority over other creatures, the assumption of a hierarchy with us at the summit and lesser beings beneath. Beston, who had volunteered with the French army in 1915 and had his faith in humanity upended by the indifferent carnage he witnessed, argues that in world older than ours—for modern humans have been around for only a paragraph compared to the long history of bears—many animals are more completely integrated with and attuned than we perceive ourselves to be. These animals are, Beston writes, “gifted with extensions of the senses we have lost or never attained, living by voices we shall never hear. “They are not brethren, they are not underlings; they are other nations, caught with ourselves in the net of life and time…” Gilbert points to the amazing richness of what he concludes is a bear culture—the ability to communicate, cooperate, retain and transmit knowledge over time, to express empathy and even altruistic behaviour. Black bears, for example, have extraordinarily large brains in comparison to their body size and some wildlife scientists think their intelligence is comparable to that of the great apes—chimpanzees and gorillas. They’re now thought to be able conceptualize at a basic level and mother bears will spend up to three years educating their cubs on how and where to obtain food while the cubs themselves demonstrate a powerful ability to form mental maps of their terrain, the territories of other bears and the location of food sources, and the timing of the availability of food. So, like humans, bears in the wild develop a seasonal round. They have a small vocal vocabulary of sounds but Gilbert’s observations also indicate a non-vocal communication system based on gestures and body language. For example, he writes, while in an Alaska salmon river’s estuary to observe bears closely in 1999, he watched a sub-adult bear move down the river bank foraging for spawned-out salmon. It strayed inadvertently into the fishing station of an immense male, hidden by the tall grass on the opposite bank. The bigger bear suddenly popped his massive head out of the grass. The small bear froze, realizing he was in a danger zone, intruding on someone else’s real estate. The big bear slowly shook his head. The small bear remained still. The bigger male slowly shook his head again. The young bear abruptly skedaddled. “I’m cutting you some slack here, so clear out,” was the message, Gilbert writes. “The entire routine looked rehearsed but it was probably some kind of communication ritual, not unlike our [human] face-saving tricks.” Bears, he writes, are smart enough to self-medicate—Gilbert recounts watching a bear eat a particular kind of mineralized mud repeatedly and after analyzing its content concluded that it was treating itself for tapeworms. And bears are smart enough to sneakily exploit humans to achieve what the bears want. In one case, he writes, a female in a protected bear-watching area would bring her small cubs to a floating observation bridge, leave them and go to feed on salmon. As excited bear-watchers crowded forward a park ranger would quickly intervene to keep the visitors back from the cubs. Usually, he points out, bears with cubs so small—scarcely the size of large house cats—are intensely protective, keeping them within a very short distance. “The biggest threat to a female with new cubs are large adult males, who sometimes kill cubs. However, on salmon streams with anglers and photographers, the adult males usually stay away…This avoidance of people by males appears to be understood by females. In effect, people present a shield for bears with cubs, somewhat like a tree for the cubs to climb, permitting mom to go off to fish, knowing her cubs are safe.” So, while some thought the bear a “bad” mom, leaving her cubs at risk. Gilbert concluded the opposite—he discerned “a brilliant plan for child care.” “The mental gymnastics for a bear to make all the connections in this picture looks Einsteinian, because mother bear had linked three insights: the threat of predatory male bears, an awareness of male bears’ avoidance of humans, and predictable benign humans. She recognized an opportunity to place her cubs in a secure location.” One of Us is full of similarly exhilarating anecdotes. And yet, if Gilbert’s book is filled with hope that the nation of humans will learn to coexist with the nation of bears, the reality seems to be that we’re still mostly driven by our misunderstandings and fears. Instead of learning to live with this marvel of evolution, we prefer to destroy it. In 20 years of wildlife “management,” British Columbians have slaughtered more than 85,000 black and grizzly bears. Think of this in another context. World War 2 killed about 45,000 Canadians. Canadians have killed more than twice as many bears. We hunt them with jetboats, with all terrain vehicles, with trucks. Mostly we kill them for fun or for our convenience. We shoot them on logging roads, at garbage dumps, in apple orchards, in suburban back yards where ill-informed and inconsiderate landowners don’t manage their garbage—we put out attractants and then punish the bears for responding to our lazy stupidity. We kill them with high-powered rifles, with shotguns, with cross bows and longbows, with traps, with cars and with trains. Gilbert remains an optimist. The abysmal trophy hunt for grizzly bears has finally ended in BC. Perhaps enlightenment will eventually come to the black bear slaughter, too. “When this uniquely sentient creature is perceived as responding to us according to how we treat him, a path to survival opens up,” he writes. “We are at the end of a long period of attempted dominion over this apex predator and my hope is that we can rise to the challenge of restraint and tolerance required of us.” As Vancouver Islanders get used to the idea that they might soon be sharing the outback with grizzlies, particularly along salmon rivers north of Campbell River, One of Us would be a good resource to put on the bookshelf. It’s $21 in paperback. Stephen Hume has spent half a century as a journalist writing about Western Canada, the Far North, BC and the Island.
  6. January 2019 As this historian shows, the Royal BC Museum has proved a resilient, adaptive and unusually far-sighted institution. MORE THAN 60 YEARS AGO, while my mother shopped, I’d laze away unsupervised summer afternoons in the public galleries of the ornate east wing of British Columbia’s iconic legislature buildings. It was another world from our present provincial museum’s post-modernist structure, purpose-built in 1968 for dramatic dioramas, dynamic displays and public engagement—even now being modernized for the next 50 years of our digitally-enhanced century. The building was ornately decorated, but crowded with specimens of the province’s fauna (Image A-0308524 courtesy of the Royal BC Museum and Archives). The old museum remembered from childhood flaunted all the imposing trappings that romanticized colonial hubris—Romanesque arches, Greek columns, pilasters, cornices and tiled mosaics, all the sympathetic magic of imperialism, symbols of past glory invoked to inflate one’s own. Whatever its future might be, as Patricia Roy’s meticulous new history of the Royal British Columbia Museum and Archives, The Collectors, reminded me with vivid intensity, our provincial museum indisputably began as Victorian trophy case. Where current visitors may stroll through a rather-more sedate version of Old Victoria, examine a full-sized mammoth in its Ice Age habitat, visit Captain George Vancouver’s spartan cabin or sit in a long house as Vancouver did with the whaling Chief Maquinna, I recall glass cabinets stuffed with skewered butterflies. Unusual marine specimens floated in jars of formaldehyde or were mounted like fishing trophies. Predators snarled amid big game shot by adventurers for whom specimen-gathering seemed an excuse for hunting expeditions. And there was a hypnotically-rich collection of First Nations ceremonial regalia, totems, tools, weapons and art, the display untroubled by cultural, social or historic context. When, as a child, I descended the time-worn stairs to the ethnographic gallery and its stunning Newcombe Collection, it was like stepping into some cool, stone-clad other-world suffused with the supernatural. Today, the museum cornerstones Victoria’s identity, commercial as well as cultural. Since 2008 it has attracted almost 6.5 million visitors. By way of comparison, that’s about two million more than attended BC Lions football games. It’s about 5.2 million more than visited Calgary’s Glenbow Museum in a market of more than a million. More locally, it’s nearly 4.8 million more than paid attendance at the Royal and McPherson theatres combined. The RBCM’s modest target for 2019 is to attract 12 visitors for every citizen in the City of Victoria. Our museum has generated almost a quarter of a billion dollars in revenue since 2008. Spending by the museum and its visitors contribute about $26 million a year to south Vancouver Island’s gross domestic product. More importantly, it’s changed from colonial trophy case to leading advocate for First Nations’ place in the fabric of a 21st-century British Columbia that emerges from the post-colonial braiding of many cultural traditions. And yet the museum did begin in unapologetic colonial eccentricity. Certainly that’s what is suggested by an 1889 report in the British Colonist. On Victoria Day that year, the museum threw open its collections and the public rushed to view “the many valuable natural curiosities, the treasures of mineralogy and the collections of well-mounted specimens of the wild animals and birds of the province,” reported the newspaper. Exhibits were heavy on the latter. Roy notes that the new head of the museum, John Fannin, was a skilled taxidermist. He had donated 12 cases of his own specimens. Visitors goggled at a “monster grizzly bear” rendered so realistic that “timid ladies trembled,” a mammoth bone, a brick from the Great Wall of China, and an ancient Spanish cannon found near Port Alberni. Fannin’s successor in 1904, Francis Kermode, was also a taxidermist, though he is now famous for bestowing his name on the white “Spirit Bear” with which the Great Bear Rainforest is associated. Yet, if the museum began as a curiosity cabinet during the rush for “primitive” spoils that characterized late Victorian colonialism, Roy, professor emeritus of history at the University of Victoria, tells us that it quickly evolved a deep and abiding relationship with First Nations. Concern for such a relationship was, in fact, evident in the impetus for the museum’s establishment in 1886—a petition signed by 30 prominent citizens worried about the pillaging of First Nations art and artifacts just as the federal government banned the potlatch. Among those citizens were two defenders of Indigenous rights and culture, Dr Israel Wood Powell and Chief Justice Matthew Bailie Begbie. Begbie, a defender of aboriginal rights and a founder of what would become one of an otherwise benighted province’s most important advocates of cross-cultural understanding, is now, ironically, a thoroughly-battered target of historical revisionism, ostensibly for purposes of reconciliation. These are difficult days for museums everywhere as they navigate post-colonial deconstruction and changing public sentiment. Political agendas of groups once ignored sometimes fuse with well-intended political correctness based in passionate ignorance of the wrongs it seeks to right. Roy’s account doesn’t flinch from just demands for the repatriation of artifacts and specimens obtained under dubious circumstance. Acquisitions involved everything from duplicity to bald-faced appropriation. Museums must now re-evaluate the assumptions behind what and how they arrange, order and prioritize their displays. But, so what? Museums and their missions have never been static. They’ve progressed from the curiosity cabinets of 18th-century antiquarians, to the trophy cases of colonial empires, to self-affirming displays of the dominant culture’s assumptions regarding science and social stratification, to protectors of cultural heritage threatened by greed, politics and propaganda. The Royal BC Museum’s collections include the commissioned work of Mungo Martin, whose genius triggered a coast-wide resurgence of Indigenous art. Martin—born Naka’pankam (Potlatch Chief Ten Times Over) at Tsaxis on the north end of Vancouver Island—was 10 on that luminous night in 1889 when the museum threw open its doors. Taught by his stepfather Charlie James, Martin carved his first commissioned pole while the potlatch was still outlawed. (It was illegal for 66 years.) He made it for a client in Alert Bay where the RCMP would arrest and jail 45 people for the crime of being themselves with an ancient ceremony. Yet in 1950, one year before the potlatch ban ended, Martin was hired as resident carver at the BC Museum. He collected 400 songs and oral histories. He trained the famous Indigenous artists Henry Hunt, Tony Hunt, Bill Reid and Doug Cranmer. In 1953, he gave the first legal potlatch since 1884—at the museum where he had built his Big House. Martin died in Victoria on August 16, 1962, having presided over the resurrection of an artistic tradition his government had tried to murder and which had subsequently been pronounced dead, even by famous anthropologist Marius Barbeau. He lay in state in a carved yellow cedar coffin in his own Big House at Thunderbird Park, part of the museum precinct. Hundreds filed past in a traditional Kwakwaka’wakw ceremony. His pallbearers included cabinet ministers. His body was carried home in honour by the Canadian warship HMCS Ottawa. As Roy’s thoughtful narrative points out, the Royal BC Museum deserves much credit for projecting work like Martin’s onto the world screen. From its early collection of argillite carvings by Skidegate chief Charles Edenshaw, to outreach programs for schools based on Son of Raven, Son of Deer by the Tseshaht artist George Clutesi (to whom Emily Carr left her paintbrushes), the museum’s profound efforts spanned a First Nations era from earliest contact to the Space Age. It even holds masks donated in gratitude by Kitty White, a woman from northern Vancouver Island who was “stolen” by people near Port Renfrew. The masks—for her and her children—were carved by her brother to mark his joy at eventually finding her. The Legacy, a 1975 exhibition, was the first of a series of remarkable exhibitions that toured in Canada and Europe. Roy quotes Neil Sterritt, the honoured Gitxsan historian, as saying it was “probably the finest display of contemporary Indian art assembled in North America.” If the democratization of knowledge, the flattening of social class into a more inclusive and pluralistic society, and the broadening distribution of education mean challenges to conventional thought, as Roy’s new history shows, the museum has proved a resilient, adaptive and unusually far-sighted institution. Faced with challenging ethical questions of cultural appropriation, the museum pioneered repatriation policies for artifacts. In 2016, for example, it returned 17 items to the Huu-ay-aht for permanent display in the First Nation’s government office at Pachena Bay. The museum negotiates custodial arrangements to preserve and protect other items held by the museum or repatriated from other museums until such time as they might be returned. IN ALL, THE MUSEUM HAS SEVEN MILLION ITEMS in its collections—including fascinating examples and insights into the flora and fauna, the natural and social histories of the province. As well, as Roy wryly reports, the museum’s own staff comprised some exotic specimens, too. E.M. Anderson was a talented museum collector. In 1908 he applied for paid leave as his wife’s serious illness required him to take her to Calgary. While on leave, however, Anderson was discovered touring the United States as drummer with a theatrical troupe. Then there was the chap hired to fill gaps in Indigenous inventory from BC’s Interior. His task was to find and buy rare art and artifacts for the museum’s “Indian collection.” Two museum officials happened to be visiting Vancouver Art Gallery when a call came. It was Calgary’s Glenbow Museum. Could anyone there authenticate a rare copper mask being offered for sale? The Glenbow provided a photograph. The BC museum’s experts could indeed verify. The mask, alas, was from their own collection, on loan from Victoria’s Christ Church Cathedral. It was being offered for sale in Calgary by the museum’s own collector. Violet Redfern was on the payroll as a 1920s stenographer but she actually worked as the museum’s botanist, collecting specimens and devising imaginative displays. Finally, after ten years of asking for a pay raise that reflected her work, the Province coughed up 7.5 cents an hour. She married the museum’s entomologist. They quit and went to homestead in Alberta. And there was the directive from “Glad Hand Dick,” early 20th-century Premier Richard McBride, that the museum’s skilled taxidermists obtain a grizzly bear rug for the Emperor of Japan. The museum complied. Maybe that’s why, at the outbreak of World War One, when powerful German cruisers menaced the South Coast, the Japanese sent even bigger battleships to defend the entrance to the Strait of Juan de Fuca. The Japanese sailors on shore leave were among the museum’s intrepid visitors. Among the eccentricities, of course, were giants of BC heritage and history. Roy cites Ian McTaggart Cowan, often called the father of Canadian ecology, who laid foundations in the 1930s for the museum’s transition to a genuine scientific institution. Clifford Carl, who completed the process in the 1940s, hired Wilson Duff, the anthropologist who shaped the museum into an astonishing First Nations treasure house. Duff was matched in vision by Willard Ireland, a brilliant young provincial archivist and librarian who succeeded William Kaye Lamb who left BC to become first the Dominion Archivist and then the first National Librarian of Canada. Reflecting the province itself—BC is the most biologically, topologically and geologically diverse region in Canada—the museum addresses natural history, our diverse zoological heritage, anthropology and ethnology, palaeontology, archaeology and modern history, entomology and ichthyology, botany and herpetology. If it opens doorways into BC’s past and future, the museum also opens windows on the cultural heritage of our wider world—this spring it celebrates UNESCO’s Year of Indigenous Languages with Maya: The Great Jaguar Rises, an exhibition raised from the immense civilizations that dominated Central America before Europeans found their way to the New World. Some of the items on display will be seen outside their country for the first time. Roy’s history meets all the benchmarks of scholarly work. It’s meticulously detailed, exhaustively attributed and extensively annotated. More important, it brings a sense of humour and a lively appreciation of Victoria’s historic museum—not as a collection cabinet for desiccated specimens of the past but as a throbbing, dishevelled, entirely human enterprise replete with surprises and astonishments. Patricia Roy will be the guest speaker at the Victoria Historical Society meeting on January 24 at James Bay New Horizons, 234 Menzies Street. Her focus will be “Flora, Fauna, and Fannin: The Early Days of the Provincial Museum.” Doors open at 7:15 pm. Admission is free for members, $5 for guests. www.victoriahistoricalsociety.bc.ca. Stephen Hume has lived in many parts of BC since 1948. He 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; he’s written nine books of poetry, natural history, history and literary essays.
  7. Posted June 17, 2020 Photo: Large female grizzly with cubs at Glendale Cove on the BC mainland. Barrie Gilbert had a part of his face ripped off by a female Grizzly bear, yet he has spent his life devoted to undoing the demonizing of this complex, highly intelligent creature. Go to story

    © Shea Wyatt

  8. Gilbert had a part of his face ripped off by a female Grizzly bear. Yet he has spent his life devoted to undoing the demonizing of this complex, highly intelligent creature. Warning: graphic, bone-crunching description ahead. ALMOST 45 YEARS AGO, not long after sunrise dappled the remote ridge they were climbing in Montana’s Rocky Mountains near the borders of Idaho and Wyoming, a Canadian wildlife biologist and his graduate student emerged from the stunted tree line on a cold, windswept height three kilometres above sea level. This was Bighorn Pass. For sake of comparison, that’s almost twice the altitude of Mount Arrowsmith, the craggy, snow-clad peak that so dramatically dominates the skyline above the pass separating Nanaimo from Port Alberni. The two men were there to observe and study how grizzly bears responded to back country hikers and mounted outfitters with pack trains. It was part of an ambitious research project at Utah State University, where Barrie Gilbert had landed a faculty position after graduating from Queens University, taking a doctorate at Duke and then doing field research in Alberta. To get there, they’d spent a week humping their 20-kilogram packs through the foothills, fording rushing creeks and paddling 30 kilometres across deep, icy Yellowstone Lake, itself almost 2.5 kilometres in elevation. It hadn’t been an easy passage. They’d endured a series of marching cold fronts which spawned thunderstorms, hail, drenching rain and lashing squalls that repeatedly forced them ashore when the short, steep waves threatened to swamp their aluminum canoe. The canoe itself was cause for concern. There was frequent lightning. The prospect of getting fried by a strike on the lake or while huddling under the up-turned hull to shelter from pelting rain loomed large in his imagination. So did grizzlies. At night, they’d camped well off the trail and they’d dragged in snags and branches from deadfalls to create crude barriers around their tent that, if they gave no real protection, at least offered an early warning should a bear approach. Eventually they reached their destination and, to their excitement and delight, soon encountered what they’d come to observe—a grizzly bear in pristine habitat. It was a female with three cubs digging roots in an alpine meadow. They watched enthralled as she stood down a male that approached, a mortal threat to her cubs. Male grizzlies, like lions, will kill the offspring of competitors. Later the bear family ambled down the meadow they shared with a small herd of grazing elk. The next morning, Gilbert decided they should circle behind and climb the back side of the adjacent Crowfoot Ridge so they could observe the bears more closely from above. Just as they left the scrubby trees at the top, Gilbert felt a call of nature and moved ahead of his partner to find a spot. He hunched over, keeping himself low to avoid spooking the elk with his silhouette against the skyline. That was when he met the bear. It had unexpectedly come up the other side of the ridge. Gilbert realized later that the unfortunate encounter—for him at any rate—was shaped by two things. First, because of the menace of the big male to her cubs, the female grizzly was already on hair-trigger alert. Second, approaching in a hunched-over stance, the biologist must have resembled a stalking predator. There was one explosive “woof,” a blur of brown hurtling out of the scrub and in seconds he was on the ground. “Her teeth felt like a row of pick-axes scraping across my head as she tore my scalp off,” he recalled later, although strangely, he says, he felt no pain in the moment. “Her second bite came down on my face, a big canine tooth punching into my eye-socket. ‘This is how you die,’ I thought as I felt bones crunch. One bite removed my cheekbone and sinus, exposing brain membrane. “As my life drained onto the ground”—it was later determined that he was hemorrhaging almost half of his blood supply—“I went limp and the biting stopped.” The grad student, Bruce Hastings, courageously yelled and the grizzly retreated. The bear, Gilbert later realized, was simply being a bear—reacting to his presence as a threat to her cubs. She wasn’t interested in killing him for the malicious reasons humans attribute in their deep trait of anthropomorphizing other animals. She simply wanted to neutralize an unknown and unidentified threat and once it was no longer a threat, she left. A less resilient person might have surrendered to the terrible wounds and died on the mountain. But Gilbert was tough. He was also very lucky. A team of highly trained medical technicians attached to a smoke-jumping crew had just deployed from a nearby fire base. And the helicopter pilot who picked him up had just done two combat tours in Vietnam war, landing under the most difficult conditions. Finally, a team of military surgeons experienced with battlefield trauma had just been assigned to the nearest medical facility. Gilbert’s first surgery, the one that would save his life following a bear mauling in the remote Rockies, took 11 hours and exhausted the hospital’s suture supply. The lead surgeon, Earl Browne, who has since died, later showed Gilbert photographs from before they began reconstructing what remained of his face. “All my facial skin and scalp was pinned out like a rat dissection in Biology 101,” he writes in the preamble to his astonishing memoir, One of Us: A Biologist’s Walk Among Bears. Scientific curiosity and a fascination with methodology trumped squeamishness. “I wasn’t repelled,” he writes. “I asked Dr. Browne if he had seen this kind of damage before. “‘Well, yes,’’’ the surgeon replied. “‘But not all on the same guy.’” So, through a combination of luck and fortitude, Gilbert survived the extraction and a round of intensive surgeries. His maimed face was rebuilt—although the massive injuries left him blind in one eye and his face permanently disfigured. Barry Gilbert closely observing a young grizzly bear on a river at Geographic Harbour, Katmai National Park, Alaska. Photo courtesy Barrie Gilbert. IF THIS STORY SOUNDS LIKE THE MAKING OF A BOOK, IT WAS. But not the book you might expect. This gripping story—a journalist like me might have made a whole book out of it alone—occupies a mere 15 pages at the beginning of Gilbert’s recently published memoir, One of Us: A Biologist’s Walk Among Bears. Gilbert went home to convalesce, to endure his 15-minutes of fame as the media descended to pester him for lurid details—mostly, he concluded, to advance a stereotype of grizzlies as “rogue killers in the woods eager to eat your children”—and to grapple with the post traumatic stress disorder that came with the cold reality of people staring at his facial disfigurement. Some might have withdrawn. “I chose to see the staring responses of others as their problem,” Gilbert writes. “I was a handsome guy and still am (inside).” Instead, he rejoiced that his hands still worked. And his scientist’s analytical brain. It reminded him of something equally important—point of view. Which is why the following summer found him sitting beside half a tonne of black bear just stirring from anaesthesia after being darted in his new research project. With only the slightest misgivings, Gilbert stayed with the bear while it recovered consciousness—staying with bears in such a state is essential, he notes, because a handicapped one invites opportunistic attacks from other bears, another trait they share with humans. “Fear of that bear was not an issue for me, but I could only guess why,” he writes. “Maybe long experience with animals and my short dose of terror carried the day.” We should all be grateful that Gilbert didn’t succumb to the kind of risk-averse apprehension regarding bears that might have gripped the rest of us, because he went on to almost half a century in the field, exhaustively studying bears in their habitat and in the most intimate proximity, at that. He sat with them, walked with them, observed them more closely than the benighted rest of us might get in a zoo with cages. His field work took him from the American Rockies to the Alaska wilderness and deep into Canada’s Great Bear Rainforest. One of Us charts that remarkable journey, not just through the bush in search of the great predators, but also through the devil’s club thickets of contradictory political policy; the technical disagreements spawned by what he calls “conservation contrarianism” and “science friction”; and the baser economic conflicts between the imperatives of ecological integrity for a threatened species and the special interests of industry, from tourism to timber harvesting to the powerful big game hunting lobby. There’s far more than the science of observation and dry statistical analysis here. Gilbert’s memoir takes us on an extraordinary excursion through the history—and pre-history—of relations between bears and humans. First, it explores the thousands of years of bears’ coexistence with indigenous peoples, an entanglement of mutual tolerance that populates the innermost of First Nations’ sacred spaces and endures into the present. Second, it examines the fatal contact between bears and a settler culture which demonized the animals as a precursor—and rationalization—for their systematic extirpation from vast areas of their range, particularly in the United States. Explorers, fur traders, cattle ranchers and sheepherders shot them, trapped them and poisoned them in great numbers. Trophy hunters preyed on the remnants. Then loggers, farmers and urban developers set about destroying their habitats. Once abundant in California, for example, the last grizzly bear was shot there in 1922 and the species survives only on the state flag, a reminder of our propensity to make icons of what we destroy. Grizzly populations dwindled to about 1,500 in the lower 48. There are 600 in Wyoming, 800 in Montana, 400 in Alberta, maybe 70 in Idaho and 20 in Washington. In Canada, there are about 25,000 bears, of which about 15,000 are in BC. When Europeans arrived by land it was estimated there were 25,000 in BC alone. One of Us takes us back to 1805 and the first scientific expedition of discovery by land across what’s now the western United States by William Clark and Meriwether Lewis. The party shot and killed 51 grizzly bears and wounded another 18, probably mortally. From then on it just got worse for the bears. And yet humans and bears can safely coexist, Gilbert argues, and provides the evidence from deep personal experience. He disrobes the enduring myth of the demon bear and reveals a complex, highly intelligent creature with a fascinating social system and crucial roles in the natural ecosystem. As Vancouver Islanders get used to the idea that they might soon be sharing the outback with grizzlies, particularly along salmon rivers north of Campbell River, One of Us would be a good resource to put on the bookshelf. It’s $21 in paperback. Stephen Hume has spent half a century as a journalist writing about Western Canada, the Far North, BC and the Island.
  9. June 17, 2020 Forty-five years ago, Barrie Gilbert had a part of his face ripped off by a female Grizzly bear. Yet he has spent his life devoted to undoing the demonizing of this complex, highly intelligent creature. Warning: graphic, bone-crunching description ahead. Female grizzly feeding cubs at Glendale Cove on the B.C. mainland about 35 kilometres north of Sayward where there have recently been numerous grizzly sightings. Photo by Shea Wyatt, courtesy Barrie Gilbert. ALMOST 45 YEARS AGO, not long after sunrise dappled the remote ridge they were climbing in Montana’s Rocky Mountains near the borders of Idaho and Wyoming, a Canadian wildlife biologist and his graduate student emerged from the stunted tree line on a cold, windswept height three kilometres above sea level. This was Bighorn Pass. For sake of comparison, that’s almost twice the altitude of Mount Arrowsmith, the craggy, snow-clad peak that so dramatically dominates the skyline above the pass separating Nanaimo from Port Alberni. The two men were there to observe and study how grizzly bears responded to back country hikers and mounted outfitters with pack trains. It was part of an ambitious research project at Utah State University, where Barrie Gilbert had landed a faculty position after graduating from Queens University, taking a doctorate at Duke and then doing field research in Alberta. To get there, they’d spent a week humping their 20-kilogram packs through the foothills, fording rushing creeks and paddling 30 kilometres across deep, icy Yellowstone Lake, itself almost 2.5 kilometres in elevation. It hadn’t been an easy passage. They’d endured a series of marching cold fronts which spawned thunderstorms, hail, drenching rain and lashing squalls that repeatedly forced them ashore when the short, steep waves threatened to swamp their aluminum canoe. The canoe itself was cause for concern. There was frequent lightning. The prospect of getting fried by a strike on the lake or while huddling under the up-turned hull to shelter from pelting rain loomed large in his imagination. So did grizzlies. At night, they’d camped well off the trail and they’d dragged in snags and branches from deadfalls to create crude barriers around their tent that, if they gave no real protection, at least offered an early warning should a bear approach. Eventually they reached their destination and, to their excitement and delight, soon encountered what they’d come to observe—a grizzly bear in pristine habitat. It was a female with three cubs digging roots in an alpine meadow. They watched enthralled as she stood down a male that approached, a mortal threat to her cubs. Male grizzlies, like lions, will kill the offspring of competitors. Later the bear family ambled down the meadow they shared with a small herd of grazing elk. The next morning, Gilbert decided they should circle behind and climb the back side of the adjacent Crowfoot Ridge so they could observe the bears more closely from above. Just as they left the scrubby trees at the top, Gilbert felt a call of nature and moved ahead of his partner to find a spot. He hunched over, keeping himself low to avoid spooking the elk with his silhouette against the skyline. That was when he met the bear. It had unexpectedly come up the other side of the ridge. Gilbert realized later that the unfortunate encounter—for him at any rate—was shaped by two things. First, because of the menace of the big male to her cubs, the female grizzly was already on hair-trigger alert. Second, approaching in a hunched-over stance, the biologist must have resembled a stalking predator. There was one explosive “woof,” a blur of brown hurtling out of the scrub and in seconds he was on the ground. “Her teeth felt like a row of pick-axes scraping across my head as she tore my scalp off,” he recalled later, although strangely, he says, he felt no pain in the moment. “Her second bite came down on my face, a big canine tooth punching into my eye-socket. ‘This is how you die,’ I thought as I felt bones crunch. One bite removed my cheekbone and sinus, exposing brain membrane. “As my life drained onto the ground”—it was later determined that he was hemorrhaging almost half of his blood supply—“I went limp and the biting stopped.” The grad student, Bruce Hastings, courageously yelled and the grizzly retreated. The bear, Gilbert later realized, was simply being a bear—reacting to his presence as a threat to her cubs. She wasn’t interested in killing him for the malicious reasons humans attribute in their deep trait of anthropomorphizing other animals. She simply wanted to neutralize an unknown and unidentified threat and once it was no longer a threat, she left. A less resilient person might have surrendered to the terrible wounds and died on the mountain. But Gilbert was tough. He was also very lucky. A team of highly trained medical technicians attached to a smoke-jumping crew had just deployed from a nearby fire base. And the helicopter pilot who picked him up had just done two combat tours in Vietnam war, landing under the most difficult conditions. Finally, a team of military surgeons experienced with battlefield trauma had just been assigned to the nearest medical facility. Gilbert’s first surgery, the one that would save his life following a bear mauling in the remote Rockies, took 11 hours and exhausted the hospital’s suture supply. The lead surgeon, Earl Browne, who has since died, later showed Gilbert photographs from before they began reconstructing what remained of his face. “All my facial skin and scalp was pinned out like a rat dissection in Biology 101,” he writes in the preamble to his astonishing memoir, One of Us: A Biologist’s Walk Among Bears. Scientific curiosity and a fascination with methodology trumped squeamishness. “I wasn’t repelled,” he writes. “I asked Dr. Browne if he had seen this kind of damage before. “‘Well, yes,’’’ the surgeon replied. “‘But not all on the same guy.’” So, through a combination of luck and fortitude, Gilbert survived the extraction and a round of intensive surgeries. His maimed face was rebuilt—although the massive injuries left him blind in one eye and his face permanently disfigured. Barry Gilbert closely observing a young grizzly bear on a river at Geographic Harbour, Katmai National Park, Alaska. Photo courtesy Barrie Gilbert. IF THIS STORY SOUNDS LIKE THE MAKING OF A BOOK, IT WAS. But not the book you might expect. This gripping story—a journalist like me might have made a whole book out of it alone—occupies a mere 15 pages at the beginning of Gilbert’s recently published memoir, One of Us: A Biologist’s Walk Among Bears. Gilbert went home to convalesce, to endure his 15-minutes of fame as the media descended to pester him for lurid details—mostly, he concluded, to advance a stereotype of grizzlies as “rogue killers in the woods eager to eat your children”—and to grapple with the post traumatic stress disorder that came with the cold reality of people staring at his facial disfigurement. Some might have withdrawn. “I chose to see the staring responses of others as their problem,” Gilbert writes. “I was a handsome guy and still am (inside).” Instead, he rejoiced that his hands still worked. And his scientist’s analytical brain. It reminded him of something equally important—point of view. Which is why the following summer found him sitting beside half a tonne of black bear just stirring from anaesthesia after being darted in his new research project. With only the slightest misgivings, Gilbert stayed with the bear while it recovered consciousness—staying with bears in such a state is essential, he notes, because a handicapped one invites opportunistic attacks from other bears, another trait they share with humans. “Fear of that bear was not an issue for me, but I could only guess why,” he writes. “Maybe long experience with animals and my short dose of terror carried the day.” We should all be grateful that Gilbert didn’t succumb to the kind of risk-averse apprehension regarding bears that might have gripped the rest of us, because he went on to almost half a century in the field, exhaustively studying bears in their habitat and in the most intimate proximity, at that. He sat with them, walked with them, observed them more closely than the benighted rest of us might get in a zoo with cages. His field work took him from the American Rockies to the Alaska wilderness and deep into Canada’s Great Bear Rainforest. One of Us charts that remarkable journey, not just through the bush in search of the great predators, but also through the devil’s club thickets of contradictory political policy; the technical disagreements spawned by what he calls “conservation contrarianism” and “science friction”; and the baser economic conflicts between the imperatives of ecological integrity for a threatened species and the special interests of industry, from tourism to timber harvesting to the powerful big game hunting lobby. There’s far more than the science of observation and dry statistical analysis here. Gilbert’s memoir takes us on an extraordinary excursion through the history—and pre-history—of relations between bears and humans. First, it explores the thousands of years of bears’ coexistence with indigenous peoples, an entanglement of mutual tolerance that populates the innermost of First Nations’ sacred spaces and endures into the present. Second, it examines the fatal contact between bears and a settler culture which demonized the animals as a precursor—and rationalization—for their systematic extirpation from vast areas of their range, particularly in the United States. Explorers, fur traders, cattle ranchers and sheepherders shot them, trapped them and poisoned them in great numbers. Trophy hunters preyed on the remnants. Then loggers, farmers and urban developers set about destroying their habitats. Once abundant in California, for example, the last grizzly bear was shot there in 1922 and the species survives only on the state flag, a reminder of our propensity to make icons of what we destroy. Grizzly populations dwindled to about 1,500 in the lower 48. There are 600 in Wyoming, 800 in Montana, 400 in Alberta, maybe 70 in Idaho and 20 in Washington. In Canada, there are about 25,000 bears, of which about 15,000 are in BC. When Europeans arrived by land it was estimated there were 25,000 in BC alone. One of Us takes us back to 1805 and the first scientific expedition of discovery by land across what’s now the western United States by William Clark and Meriwether Lewis. The party shot and killed 51 grizzly bears and wounded another 18, probably mortally. From then on it just got worse for the bears. And yet humans and bears can safely coexist, Gilbert argues, and provides the evidence from deep personal experience. He disrobes the enduring myth of the demon bear and reveals a complex, highly intelligent creature with a fascinating social system and crucial roles in the natural ecosystem. As Vancouver Islanders get used to the idea that they might soon be sharing the outback with grizzlies, particularly along salmon rivers north of Campbell River, One of Us would be a good resource to put on the bookshelf. It’s $21 in paperback. More about Barrie Gilbert’s bear research coming soon. Stephen Hume has spent half a century as a journalist writing about Western Canada, the Far North, BC and the Island.
  10. March 2020 The clinic attracts Canada’s best aspiring public-interest environmental lawyers to work on cases for community groups. SHOULD YOU WANT TO TRACK DOWN one of British Columbia’s most important shapers of public policy regarding environmental protection, better have your GPS handy. There’s no glitzy storefront to brand the Environmental Law Centre at the University of Victoria. No swanky offices with plush carpet, oak panelling, and some elegantly-tailored watchdog receptionist. In keeping with its humble origins as a student initiative launched almost 25 years ago, it’s tucked away in a rabbit warren of austere cubicles, a Zen-like reminder that in the world of ideas, it’s the ideas, and not the trappings, that are the important currency. And the ideas for statutory and regulatory reform that emerge from this small, scholarly clinic have profoundly altered the legal and political landscape for generations of British Columbians yet to come. That’s quite a legacy for undergraduate law students with only their passion, brains, diligence and the judicious guidance of a few wise mentors behind them. As such, UVic’s ELC offers a refreshing antidote for the next time some grumpy elder from my generation holds forth about the failings of young people. On scales that range from the intensely local to the national arena, there’s no doubt that students who have passed through the ELC have worked critically important transfigurations in the administrative fabric of Canada’s environment. And they’ve gone on to work as federal litigators, to clerk with federal and provincial supreme courts, and to join leadingedge lawfirms working with environmental, civil rights, and First Nations’ issues. To find this quiet epicentre of change, visitors must navigate through the hushed expanse of the university’s newly-renovated Diana M. Priestly law library, with its vast high-tech access to more than a hundred extensive legal databases, and past a series of glass-fronted study and seminar rooms. Then—an abrupt change in atmosphere—through unmarked, metal crash doors and up a nondescript back stairwell graced with handrails of utilitarian steel pipe. Beyond the library’s upstairs book stacks with their 180,000 volumes, past the students lounging in a pair of moulded designer chairs and taking an introspective break with their AirPods, and down a drab corridor adorned with hand-scrawled directions, is the beating heart of environmental law reform in the province. Presiding over this unassuming heavyweight is a triumvirate. ELC'S Calvin Sanborn, Deborah Curran and Holly Pattison There is executive director Deborah Curran, a scarily well-informed expert in land and water law who is also an associate professor in both the law faculty and the university’s school of environmental studies. Curran does vital work in the centre’s background on governance, fundraising, liaison with the university, and program development. But in the foreground, Curran is also one of the centre’s big hitters. She has earned a reputation for a steely analysis of how those with environmental concerns can use something as simple as their own municipal bylaws to trigger powerful and effective protection for local ecosystems, particularly in terms of employing already existing regulatory tools to modify development so that it sustains and conserves healthy watersheds and clean water. She supervised one ELC study of urban storm water management that’s credited with transforming policy regarding urban rainfall runoff in Greater Victoria. Holly Pattison, a former UVic student herself, directs the ELC’s day-to-day operations and conducts financial oversight. But Pattison, who graduated from the university’s fine arts faculty, also multi-tasks as a writer, photographer and documentary filmmaker, and manages the communications that are so critical to any public policy agency in these days of spin, greenwashing and fake news. And last, but far from least, there’s Calvin Sandborn, whose formidable legal intellect on subjects as diverse as drilling regulations, the ethical duties of mining engineers, and the obligations of politicians to close statutory loopholes exploited at the expense of the environment, combines with a genial, avuncular style. He’ll bring his guitar to a legal seminar and deliver a not-bad rendition of some 60s protest song, invites human rights and environmental activists into his classes, and has pizza delivered to workshops on dry subjects like corporate media. Sandborn might be a poster-boy for effective environmental activism. He’s certainly a metaphor for the perils of environmental inaction. Born in Alaska, he moved to California as a young child and grew up at the centre of what became the 2018 wildfire inferno that erased whole towns—one of them the community of his childhood, Paradise, where 85 people died. “My entire childhood, turned to ash,” he muses. That which hadn’t already been drowned. He says his heightened awareness of the importance of environmental integrity coalesced around the fate of the Feather River, in whose canyons he spent one of those nostalgic Huckleberry Finn boyhoods. “I grew up swimming in the Feather River,” he recalls, “then they built the dam and flooded my swimming holes!” To make things worse, a politician came to town and scoffed there’d never been anything there before the damn dam anyway. That memory was a motivator in the ELC’s work to stop plans to log watersheds in the upper Skagit River Valley. Protecting the Skagit had been a joint Canadian and American environmental mission for an earlier generation of environmentalists, but then it came back for his students, some of whom hadn’t been born for the first go round. Student Caitlin Stockwell, he says, looked at the original agreement between BC and the City of Seattle. She found that BC, by approving logging in the “doughnut hole”—an unprotected patch of forest in the Upper Skagit set aside because of mineral claims and now surrounded by three state and provincial parks, a BC recreation area, and a US wilderness zone—was infringing upon Seattle’s rights under the 30-year-old international agreement protecting wilderness, wildlife habitat, and recreational resource values.“She finds that its provisions give the city of Seattle unilateral ability to take the BC government to court over the international treaty!” In 2018, on the basis of the ELC report, the mayor of Seattle politely reminded Premier John Horgan of this fact. Last December, the Province abruptly banned further logging in the ecologically sensitive valley on the US border. Sandborn, educated at a Jesuit university in San Francisco (“The Summer of Love was about to happen, and there I was in this place full of priests!”), cut his activist teeth on the civil-rights movement, anti-war protests, and efforts to organize California’s agricultural workers. He came to Canada to join his brother Tom, who had come north after ripping up his draft card and mailing it to President Lyndon B. Johnson. On arrival, Calvin promptly rolled up his sleeves and got involved helping organize farm workers in the Fraser Valley and setting up the now-iconic Downtown Eastside Resident’s Association that has successfully worked to reconfigure cruel stereotypes about the Vancouver neighbourhood and its often marginalized, low-income citizens. Curran, who was born in Kamloops and graduated from Trent University, had her environmental epiphany while working in Pacific Rim National Park when the Clayoquot Sound protests erupted. And Pattison, who came to Campbell River from Guelph as a teenager 43 years ago, was working in Victoria law offices when the flood of Clayoquot defences—the protest generated the largest mass trial in Canadian history—transfixed the legal community. IF THESE THREE REPRESENT the official face of the Environmental Law Centre, they are quick to point out that the real engine of environmental change is the ever-changing team of law students—about 30 a year—that cycles through its clinics, gaining experience in researching, writing, and advocating for the law reforms that have lasting community effects upon how we live and interact with our environment. For example, there was the work done by law student Neal Parker, who in the summer of 2017 investigated and reported on the growing problem of private landholders encroaching upon public access to publicly-owned waterfront lands on the Gorge waterway. Parker, under the guidance of Sandborn, found 11 public access points colonized as parking pads, misidentified with intimidating signage, developed as private recreation sites, incorporated into gardens, used as dumps for garden waste and construction debris, and blocked by structures, hedges, walls, car ports and private docks. Half a dozen of these effectively preempted public rights-of-way from members of the Songhees Nation a few blocks to the south, whose Douglas Treaty rights guaranteed them unfettered access to traditional hunting and fishing grounds on the Gorge in perpetuity. In Greater Victoria, Parker pointed out in a 77-page brief to both Saanich and Esquimalt municipal governments, that projected population growth of an estimated 100,000 people by 2040 means the inevitable loss of existing green space, at a time when it’s becoming even more valuable and important for urban livability. It also represents an attack upon the core values in some of the most successful marketing strategies and economic revival plans of forward-thinking cities in the world. It’s clear from what’s happening in cities like Austin, Texas; Lyon, France and even Winnipeg, which is upending its dowdy grey image, that cities embracing public access to green space are more livable, and that cities deemed more livable will be the economic winners over the decades ahead. Cities that don’t proactively develop public green space will have to reestablish it at great expense, if they are to compete with the Seattles, Portlands and Vancouvers. As a result of Parker’s work, those public access points have since been restored, Sandborn says. THE NON-PROFIT ELC, which celebrates its 25th anniversary in the fall of 2021, started as a dream, took shape as a hope, and was realized when professor Chris Toleffson, a specialist in environmental law, agreed to work with half a dozen students who wanted to study in the field. He became the ELC’s first executive director. “There was no funding,” Curran says. “It was run without funding until Calvin came on board as legal director [in 2004].” Sandborn didn’t even have an office to start. He was working from the students’ computer lab. Then entrepreneur Eric Peterson, who had made his fortune developing and then selling medical imaging technology and whom, with his wife Christina Munck, had created the non-profit Tula Foundation, provided the ELC with $1.1 million over a five-year period. “We had 10 years of angel funding with very few strings attached,” Sandborn says. Now there’s stable funding from BC’s Law Foundation, which provides 48 percent of the centre’s annual revenues, and from other philanthropic organizations, including the Oasis Foundation, Tides Canada, the Sitka Foundation, and the Vancouver Foundation. Small individual donors make up the rest. What the ELC does with this funding is provide students with a hands-on opportunity to learn environmental law, while simultaneously using it to empower individuals, small community organizations, First Nations, environmental and other groups. The students offer—at no charge—the statutory research and advice that enables the public to use existing legal frameworks to hold private, corporate, and administrative agencies accountable for ensuring that environmental regulatory requirements are met. Or, in other cases, to help press for reforms to environmental laws, and their enforcement, so that they serve the public, and not private, interest. Among their notable achievements, ELC students conducted research into the proximity of sour gas wells to schools, residences and other public buildings on behalf of the Peace Environment and Safety Trustees Society. Sour gas contains hydrogen sulphide, a compound so toxic that it paralyzes olfactory nerves at concentrations as low as 100 parts per million. Respiratory failure begins at 300 ppm, and at 800 ppm, 50 percent of those exposed will die within five minutes. The ELC students discovered that during one leak at Pouce Coupe in 2009, sour gas was released for 27 consecutive minutes before emergency shutoff valves cut off the flow. In 2013, ELC law student Jacqui McMorran, lawyer Tim Thielman, and Sandborn gathered information from DataBC and plotted it using Google Earth to locate active, suspended and abandoned wells capable of leaking sour gas. They reported that 1,900 children at 9 schools in 2 northeastern school districts were at risk from sour gas wells that, under provincial law, could be located a scant 100 metres from schools or hospitals. Worse, there were no minimum setbacks at all for pipelines carrying sour gas—although in 2010 the Province said it planned to establish safety zones of 2,000 metres. In some cases, provincial emergency plans for gas leaks were so primitive, they consisted of supplying classroom teachers with rolls of duct tape and instructions to seal cracks around doors and windows. After this inconvenient political bombshell, the provincial government announced it would increase the safety buffer for sour gas wells adjacent to schools and other public buildings from 100 to 1,000 metres. “Government seemed quite content to renege on their 2010 promise to extend the legislated safety buffer around schools—until we exposed the fact that the safety buffer had not been expanded,” Sandborn said at the time. “What about all the other issues that never get publicized? Day to day, who is looking after the public interest? Who is watchdogging the regulators to make sure that the Province doesn’t weaken regulations?” he asked. Luckily for the public, the ELC has been doing a first-rate job of watch-dogging. Among its most high-profile accomplishments: The ELC’s complaint to the federal government in 2013 regarding the muzzling of scientists on controversial issues like climate change. It triggered such a robust public response that government can no longer mute the voices of its own scientists just because their message is politically vexing. More locally, a complaint about metals contamination leaching from an old copper mine on the Jordan River beyond Sooke—it hadn’t even been checked for 20 years—prompted clean up efforts and a full scale remediation plan for later this year. But that’s just a start. In the aftermath of the Mount Polley mine disaster, in which the failure of a tailings dam dumped the equivalent of 10,000 Olympic-sized swimming pools of contaminated waste into one of the biggest salmon rivers in the Fraser River watershed, the ELC produced a report calling for comprehensive mining reform. It found that BC taxpayers are liable for more than $1 billion in mine clean up costs, and called for the Province to begin fully checking and cleaning up 1,100 mines like the one that killed the lower Jordan River. ELC students and lawyers also assisted local residents in the Interior, whose drinking water was being contaminated by nitrates leaching into an aquifer from agricultural applications of manure to fertilize fields. That work led to a new provincial code for agricultural waste management but, perhaps more important, it also earned a ruling from the Province’s information and privacy commissioner that government must promptly and proactively release, without charge, all government records that are in the public interest. Working with the World Wildlife Fund, ELC students supervised by Sandborn and Curran prepared a study last fall calling for remediation of beaches around the Salish Sea that were once critical spawning habitat for forage fish that serve as foundation species for the chinook, and other salmon, upon which threatened resident orcas depend. The ELC recently called for regulation of single-use plastics, and recommendations for how to go about it. It follows a report two years ago outlining legal reforms necessary to address the growing problem of marine plastic pollution. There isn’t room in a short article like this to list all the work done on the public’s behalf, or to name the students who have passed through the ELC’s clinics and left their enduring mark upon the laws that frame our collective relationship with the world in which we live. There is room to observe that for something that began with a handful of students, one professor who saw their potential and another willing to work from a computer lab to help them realize that potential, the ELC’s 25th birthday party will represent an extraordinary milestone in the evolution of BC. Stephen Hume spent half a century as a journalist writing about Western Canada, the Far North, BC and the Island.
  11. Posted June 2, 2020 Stephen Hume observes that bears are in much more danger from humans than vice versa. Go to story
  12. AFTER HUMANS, who include in their arsenal everything from rifles that empty a 30-bullet magazine in 7 seconds to atomic bombs that obliterate entire cities faster than you can think, bears are North America’s most dangerous large predators. They can be huge—the biggest bear ever seen (in Alaska in 1960) weighed more than a tonne and exceeded 3.4 metres in height when it stood up, which made it bigger than a small car and about 1.5 metres taller than the tallest National Basketball Association player. Although an old Oblate missionary once showed me the skin of a polar bear shot a century ago on the shores of Hudson Bay that measured 5.8 metres from the tip of its nose to the tip of its tail. Maybe it had stretched over time. But maybe not: once, flying down the east coast of Baffin Island, we banked hard to look at a huge crimson splash on the snow where a bear was devouring a beluga whale it had dragged from a lead in the sea ice, killed and dismembered. These impressive, highly intelligent animals populate our collective imagination—from the sea grizzly of the Haida, a supernatural monster in whose fur the souls of the drowned form bubbles, to the giant grizzly that hurtled out of the bush to maul one of explorer Simon Fraser’s voyageurs in 1805. Yet dangerous is a relative term. Although popular media is rife with the recent report of mountain bikers followed by a curious black bear and a hiker in the Interior chased up a tree by another black bear that displayed unusually predatory behaviour, for the most part the risk of a bad bear encounter is almost infinitesimally low. Estimates vary because reporting is localized and not consistently tabulated, but since 1986 there has been, on average, a fatal bear attack every two years in British Columbia. In the two years prior to this summer, curtailed by the imperatives of the on-going pandemic, there were about 44 million day trips to provincial parks in BC. So the chances of those visitors having a really bad day with a bear on some park trail are about 0.0000045 per cent. By comparison, over the same period about 180 people in BC will be murdered by their fellow humans. Another 15,000 or so will experience violent criminal assaults. Continent-wide, about 75 people a year are killed in hunting accidents—in January, an Island man was killed on a hunting trip to Alberta; and in South Carolina a hunter and his nine-year-old daughter were killed when a fellow hunter mistook them for a deer. In BC, a trophy hunter was shot by his guide in 2014. In Canada and the US about 1,000 a year are injured by the accidental discharge of a firearm while hunting. Then there are the 4.5 million people injured by dog bites each year and the up to 50 who are killed every year in attacks by family and neighbourhood pets. So when you go into the woods, you are at much greater risk from fellow humans and their pets than from any bear you are likely to meet. On the other hand, it’s a lot more dangerous for the bears. Problem encounters between humans and bears are on the rise and are far more likely to end badly for the bear. As the interface between human and bear habitats expands, the number of human-bear conflicts in BC has risen to an average of more than 15,000 a year. The average number of black bears killed in what are euphemistically called “enforcement actions” is now up to about 500 a year. Another 3,900 or so black bears are legally shot by hunters according to provincial government statistics, We should be cautious about averages, of course, because on average most of us are nowhere near a bear. The risks for those of us who are in proximity may be slightly higher, but usually it’s not because the bears are hunting us, it’s because we accidentally surprise them while intruding into their habitat. After centuries of regional extirpations, the appearance of grizzlies in Island habitat where they haven’t been seen much before should be cause for wonder and celebration not hiker’s angst. More on that in my next post. Stephen Hume has spent half a century as a journalist writing about Western Canada, the Far North, BC and the Island.
  13. Photo: Black bear, Ursus americanus We all seem to have a story to tell about bears. Go to Stephen Hume's stories

    © Public Domain

  14. Stephen Hume

    Bear stories

    BENEATH THE WIND-SCULPTED CORNICES crowning the massif beyond the tree line, long, purpling shadows had begun to pool. Rock faces slid from battleship grey towards steel blue. Even gleaming snow fields had begun to take on a softer, burnished hue, offset by flushes of pastel where they fell away from the slant of light. It dawned abruptly in my distracted 12-year-old brain that this signalled a problem. First, it was late enough in the day that it would soon be getting dark farther down the trail where it wound beneath the already gloomy old growth. Second, that the shouts and laughter of the other boys I’d come up with had fallen into silence. They were already on their way back down the mountain. Off in hot pursuit, I came pelting around a very tight, very steep corner and slammed full-bore into the backside of a small black bear. The bear was as shocked as I. It streaked up-slope and I ran even faster downhill and didn’t slow until I reached the bottom where my companions had just noticed my absence. We all seem to have stories about bears I have other bear stories. Polar bear stories. Grizzly bear stories. A cinnamon bear. But none quite so intimate as that one. Sometimes it seems that everyone in British Columbia who ventures beyond the limits of the cities where most of us spend most of our time has a bear story. My brother Mark recalls paddling through a rain squall on Bowron Lake to set up a soggy camp with his wife and two young daughters. They’d be sharing the beach with a young moose browsing in the willows behind. Except, the next morning Maggie quietly informed Mark: “That’s no moose.” They’d spent the night next to the biggest grizzly he’d ever seen. But it gave no trouble, just sauntered away. My wife’s bear tale is from a fishing trip to the Atnarko River up the mid-Coast. I was fussing with a rucksack. She suddenly declined to take the trail with me. “A bear just walked behind the car,” she explained. Now, Susan doesn’t scare easily. I must have raised an eyebrow. “It was bigger than the car,” she said. The car was a little Vega but a bear that big is pretty big. “You go if you want. I’m staying here.” Call me foolhardy, perhaps, but after enduring 500 kilometres of gravel road, I wasn’t about to let a bear chase me off, so down the trail I went. Before I could open my fly box, I heard a splashing. Up a side channel, shoulder to shoulder, swaggering like hockey fans on a game night pub crawl, came three young grizzlies. I went back to the car. The fish could wait for another day. And, now, with seven sightings of grizzly bears around Sayward, a black bear and cub in Beaver Lake Park, a bear in Thetis Lake Park, bear sightings in Saanich and Central Saanich, the entire Island has bear stories to share. It’s not surprising, really. There are an estimated 7,000 black bears on Vancouver Island, a small proportion of the 150,000 in BC but a dense concentration nevertheless. And, now, with maybe seven grizzlies on the North Island, the adrenaline factor for hikers and anglers will be jacked right up. Of course, maybe it’s just seven sightings of the same grizzly; bear stories do have a way of taking on a life of their own. Historically, there have been almost no resident grizzlies on Vancouver Island except for the odd adventuresome cherchez la femme specimen who returns to the mainland when he discovers that Island life means flying solo. Still, seven grizzly sightings is a lot for the Island. And, judging by the sad ending for the bachelor wolf from Victoria who was relocated only to be shot by a hunter, then the wandering grizzly from the Broughton Archipelago who was relocated at the request of First Nations elders only to later be shot by a frightened householder, things may yet go badly for the bears. Part 2 of this story is here; watch for Part 3, coming soon. Stephen Hume has spent half a century as a journalist writing about Western Canada, the Far North, BC and the Island.
  15. May 20, 2020 Photo: Situations we felt comfortable with two months ago now seem dangerous We live in medicine’s golden age and yet this tiny virus disrupts everything we took for granted. Go to story
  16. ON MY UPPER LEFT ARM, faint now after more than 70 years, is the white scar of a smallpox vaccination required before my entry into Canada. I am a visitor from the time before the last big North American smallpox outbreak. It began in New York City, now lashed by the coronavirus, not long after I was born, still in the first half of the last century. That event marked a signature response to the threat of pandemic. Authorities swiftly launched the largest mass vaccination in history—more than 6.3 million people in three weeks. The looming epidemic was snuffed out after just two deaths. In 1947, American public health authorities were ready, had a plan and a vaccine. A far cry from the 2020 response in which authorities were unprepared and leaders took refuge from responsibility in magical thinking, a fascination with voodoo cures, denunciations of science, and xenophobic scapegoating while the virus marched through America. I’m old enough to remember the fear of polio, the virus that left withered limbs and condemned paralyzed victims to life in an Iron Lung that did their breathing for them. The fear stalked parents taking their kids to summer swimming pools or sending them to camp and was a national crisis in the mid-1950s. My mother put on a brave front. She never talked about her concern except to caution her kids about proper pool and playground hygiene. But the worry simmered. Her own father had been partially paralyzed by polio. She’d long lived in its gloomy shadow. So I recall the sense of relief with which parents responded to a polio vaccine, the apprehensive line-ups for our elementary school inoculation and our sense of betrayal at our parents’ jocular enthusiasm. Now I read stories that ask the question: what if we get a vaccine for coronavirus and half the population refuses vaccination? I thought about this as I bid farewell to the journalism class I taught at Vancouver Island University this spring, sending them off to complete their assignments on-line from France and India, Wellington and Campbell River. What began for them as a classroom assignment in early January—find out what you can and write about this viral outbreak in Wuhan, China—had morphed into a major upheaval of their lives. Some raced to get home before national borders closed, others scrambled to find accommodation here before a possible lockdown, yet others worried about money running out. I thought about how a world had just ended for them and how they would now have to invent a new one. The principal ending was an assumed certainty. Most of them had never experienced a world in which existential threat lurks in the breath of friends or at restaurant buffets or on washroom door handles or in the seat next to them at a concert or a Mariners basketball game. Now they are urged to maintain distance even after restrictions ease, to wear masks lest they be a silent carrier of pestilence to grandparents—or to old men like their journalism instructor. This psychological shift represents a vast lurch backward into the near-forgotten. My own childhood of polio and, beyond that, into the pre-antibiotics childhood of my father—at 96 bearing his lockdown in assisted living with aplomb. Lethal microbes took two of his brothers, a sister, a step-sister, his father’s first wife and an uncle. We live in medicine’s golden age and yet this tiny virus disrupts everything we took for granted about the economy, the power of science to protect us, our social lives, the institutions that sustain our social order, how we conduct ourselves in public and private. Those students will return—those who do return—to a reconfigured education in a few months. Most classes will be virtual except for a few—labs, studio work—in which their physical presence is deemed essential. And that may be only a small element of how the pandemic transforms the world. How will schools cope with social distancing? The guidelines, rendered as a circle, require 12.5 square metres per person but standard classrooms normally allot 2.5 square metres per student. Grade six arithmetic suggests that either classes must be radically smaller or classrooms radically larger. Then there are the teachers themselves. If the plan is to open gradually while protecting high risk segments of the population, how will the plan address the fact that 38 percent of teachers fall into the high risk group more likely to suffer serious illness because they are over 50? And how does a professional hockey team that puts 19,000 fans into a 44,000 square-metre arena deal with the fact that under social distancing rules they’ll need a 238,000 square-metre arena? In this newly apprehensive social order, can air travel return to anything resembling normal? Airlines operate on minuscule profit margins earned by jamming passengers into fuselages which recirculate particle-laden air through passengers’ lungs many times on a long flight. Decreasing density can only mean ticket prices that return air travel to its niche as a luxury service for the very wealthy. Similar problems beset public transit. Packed buses and trains are the preferred norm. They keep fares low for low income commuters. In Metro Vancouver, public transit moved about 435 million passengers annually to and from work in the city core, university, college and high school campuses and to shopping districts. How travel at that density might continue in the age of social distancing and the coronavirus is a conundrum. And yet it seems impossible for those commuters to move to private vehicles without strangling the city. As air travel and public transit go, so goes tourism. It produced $1.7 billion in provincial taxes in 2018 and contributed $8.3 billion to provincial GDP. In Victoria, tourism generated about 17,000 jobs, close to $500 million in wages and almost $700 million in GDP. Changes to this sector promise huge impacts on the city’s economic health and well-being. Work itself seems destined for enormous upheaval. How many of those forced to work from home during the closing of office buildings, whose tight floor plans and closed ventilation systems work like giant virus distributors, will continue work at home? The arithmetic of social distancing suggests many won’t be going back to the office soon. That brings its own economic fallout. If corporations aren’t simply to offload office overhead costs onto home officer workers, tax structures must be reworked. The global economy itself is in the throes of transformation. The half-century mantra of Neo-liberal fiscal austerity in service of globalization seems dead. Governments everywhere suddenly rediscover the virtues of Keynesian spending powers. And assumptions about the efficiencies of bigness and vertical integration and the inefficiencies of small, local and dispersed now implode in the face of disruptions to global supply chains. If meat processing in Canada concentrates in three plants and they are contaminated with coronavirus outbreaks, the efficiency of size suddenly transmogrifies into a horrifying inefficiency for the national food supply. The small local and travelling abattoirs that were once common now look like not such a bad idea. Yes, pandemics change everything, and the world my former university students have just inherited will be extraordinarily different from the one they knew in their December break.
  17. Posted May 2019 Photo: Aerial view of the former lumber loading terminal in the Cowichan estuary for which there is an application for rezoning to permit metals manufacturing and fabrication. How is a metals manufacturing plant in the midst of a fish-bearing estuary even possible? Go to story
  18. January 2020 Photo: Low-lying Willows beach and the upland area would be impacted by sea-level rise. Scientists are now saying global climate change will usher in even higher seas and more flooding than previously predicted. Go to story
  19. SINCE WE’RE NOW ESSENTIALLY A TEXT-BASED CULTURE, there’s a strong tendency for social memory to focus on that history most easily accessed through documents. The Vietnam War seems more real than World War II which seems more real than World War I because the documentary record is richer. And there’s an equally strong tendency to assume text-based records have greater credibility and importance than that history which comes to us through other means—stories, memories, artifacts, and so on. The great coastal smallpox pandemic of 1862 looms extraordinarily large in the imagined history of the West Coast. “Imagined” because all history is mostly imagined. It’s reconstructed from fragments gleaned from the past and is frequently revised to reflect the biases inherent in those doing the reconstructing, the biases of record-keepers and the biases of those interpreting to serve present agendas. Anyone who wants a quick lesson in this would do well to read Jaroslav Pelikan’s remarkable Jesus through the Centuries, a study of how successive generations of historians reinvented the fragmentary historical evidence to serve and to shape the cultural demands of their particular time. What happened in 1862 plays a central role in British Columbia’s collective identity precisely because documents of colonial settler culture recorded it even as it ripped apart the oral histories of its victims, the once-populous First Nations sustained by the rich coastal ecosystem of estuaries, rivers, inlets and sheltering islands. And yet 1862 was only an aftershock to an earlier epidemiological cataclysm of Biblical proportions. A massive transformation of coastal demography had already occurred. That first shock depopulated entire landscapes, erased collective memory, brought demoralizing confusion and disarray to a system in which lineages and hereditary titles and ranks were central to social identity, political power and economic organization. The second episode dismantled economies as dwindling populations were separated from their traditional resource bases and eventually from the practical ability to exercise sovereignty over them. The third shock was, in effect, geo-political. As the pendulum of pandemic swung again and again through populations, it reshaped the balance of power. Before, First Nations were a powerful majority. Even up to 1862 they still felt able to assert interests with what, for want of a better word, might be characterized as military actions in Nootka Sound, in the Peace River district, the Fraser Canyon, the Chilcotin, the Gulf Islands, on Vancouver Island and elsewhere. But over the century between 1780 and 1880, recurring epidemics reduced the coastal First Nations population by 90 percent. Should a catastrophe of similar magnitude afflict today’s Canada, the surviving population would dwindle to Greater Vancouver’s numbers. Over that century, intensive seasonal rounds to harvest the resources of traditional territories collapsed, languages and the world view they contained vanished. Colonists gave themselves permission to settle lands abandoned by what they perceived as a dying race. In addition to at least five outbreaks of smallpox—one for every successive generation born without immunity—measles, malaria, influenza and other diseases identified by the few fur traders only as “the mortality” or “fever and ague” contributed to a population decline of unprecedented dimensions. The 50 percent surviving the initial outbreak were next reduced by another 10 percent, then by 14 percent, then by 22 percent, then by 50 percent and so on down a relentless ladder of dwindling. We tend to parse this awful experience into its individual outbreaks, smallpox in 1782 and 1801, “the mortality” of 1824, malaria in 1830, smallpox again in 1836, dysentery in 1844, measles in 1847, smallpox again in 1853 and then another coast-wide smallpox pandemic in 1862. The dreadful century culminated with the formation of British Columbia amid the ruins. As settlers poured into the region on the discovery of gold on the Fraser River, people already there were quickly marginalized economically and separated from their resource bases. The new overlords then set about trying to neutralize what power remained by dismantling the cultures themselves—outlawing language, religion and cultural practice, ethnically cleansing the landscape and establishing concentration camps under the euphemistic rubric “reserves,” disenfranchising ethnic groups and, the ultimate insult, seizing children for brainwashing to accept subservient roles in the new “normal.” This, of course, is the takeaway from our dolorous past, after enormous transfiguring events there is no return to “normal.” Pandemics take normality and contort it into something else, something few of us can foresee. The Black Death ended a thousand years of feudalism. The economic change it unleashed shaped the wage economy we share today and to which—like the serfs and lords of of 1345—we can’t imagine an alternative. The pandemics of the 19th Century changed the world of proto-British Columbia in ways unimaginable in the century before. So we can all be sure of one thing about our pandemic. Survivors of the medical and economic carnage will inherit something but whatever it is, it won’t be the normal we knew in 2019. The new normal around the globe: “social distancing” Stephen Hume has spent half a century as a journalist writing about Western Canada, the Far North, BC and the Island.
  20. PANDEMICS, LIKE BIRTH AND DEATH, have always been with human populations. History is composed of pandemic layered upon pandemic as far back as written records extend. The plague of Antonine, almost certainly the smallpox virus from the description of its symptoms by the Greek doctor Galen, rode home with troops returning from a Middle Eastern war, swept through the Roman Empire, and killed an estimated one in 10 of its 75 million citizens. Victims included the Roman emperor Lucius Verus, co-ruler with Marcus Aurelius, who is perhaps better known for the Stoic philosophy that must have kept him going while plague was killing 2,000 people a day in Rome. The current daily death total in the US during the COVID-19 pandemic is now 2,000-a-day and projected to rise to 3,000 a day by June. The more things change, the more they get the same. Later, in 735 Japan, the smallpox virus killed about one-third of its population over the course of two years. When smallpox arrived here on the West Coast for the first time in 1782, travelling its perambulatory path from an outbreak in Mexico, it killed every second person, a mortality rate about double that which had afflicted ancient Rome and early medieval Japan. Viruses leap from animal to human populations when they find fertile ground and then they leap from concentration of humans to concentration of humans until they’ve either killed off enough hosts that they reduce their transmission options, or their hosts adapt their immunity, or the viruses adapt to their hosts so that they can live in a symbiotic, sometimes mutually beneficial relationship. It doesn’t make evolutionary sense to kill off the host that keeps you alive; viruses that do soon disappear along with their dwindling transmission possibilities. And so it does make sense that some viruses which reside in the mucus that lubricates human respiratory, digestive and reproductive tracts, for example, protect the medium in which they live—and thus us—by killing harmful bacteria. They are helping to keep the world in which they live intact. Our quirky, sometimes uncomfortable coexistence with microorganisms is hardly surprising considering that we live in a vast ocean of them. The math is astonishing. As part of the global biomass, humans, it’s been pointed out, amount to little more than a rounding error, about one ten-thousandths of the total. Microorganisms, by comparison, amount to 13 percent of the total. Viruses alone represent about three-and-a-half times the total biomass of 7.5 billion humans. In fact, microorganisms comprise a big part of us from the day we’re born until the day we die and they begin to dismantle and recycle us. For every cell in the human body, there are 10 microorganisms, most of them benign, many—including viruses—which are essential to our survival. Only a few are temporarily lethal to us until we eventually learn how to adapt to them or they to us. The variety of coronavirus that’s disrupting global civilization for the moment—the inconvenience of social distancing may seem interminable to us but it’s a tiny fraction of our time on Earth and a minuscule fraction of a fraction of a fraction in evolutionary time—tends to be anthropomorphized as “the enemy” and demonized as though it were following some nefarious conscious imperative. Electron microscope image of the new coronavirus SARS-COV-2 Yet, if it weren’t for viruses, we likely wouldn’t even be here to complain about them. It turns out that viruses kill 80 percent of the bacteria that inhabit the ocean deeps. This in turn releases the nutrients upon which bacteria higher in the water column feed. Those bacteria are themselves crucial nutrients for the single cell organisms upon which the entire marine food chain rests. At the top of that food chain are humans. And so, even as we curse the COVID-19 virus and its hazards and inconveniences, the tuna melts we make for lunch actually come to us courtesy of its very convenient cousins. Stephen Hume has spent half a century as a journalist writing about Western Canada, the Far North, BC and the Island.
  21. GEORGE VANCOUVER’S LOGS from his 1792 circumnavigation of Vancouver Island note that any one of the large deserted villages around the Gulf of Georgia appeared big enough for the entire indigenous population he had encountered. He rightly guessed this was the scattered remnant of a much larger population. How large? As many as 200,000 people likely lived on the Northwest Coast when the first Europeans visited. Warriors and traders, they travelled in swift sea-going canoes whose hull design inspired the clipper ship. The biggest were capable of crossing the Pacific Ocean, which one of them did in 1901. Great houses were adorned with the crests of mighty chiefs—the Europeans thought them “kings”—and the heraldic emblems of clans. Warriors dressed in armour that resembled that of Japanese samurai. Trade routes for prized fish oil, obsidian, precious shells and stones reached deep into the continent. Sophisticated traditions produced oral heroic epics and for any student of classical antiquity the broad similarities between Northwest Coast societies and Mediterranean’s culture of the Homeric age are difficult to ignore. But the post-apocalyptic scenes witnessed by Vancouver were evidence of the pandemic that laid waste to that rich human pageant. Perhaps 100,000 of these people had perished—at least 400 percent more than died during the 1862 outbreak that later became a horrifying icon in British Columbia’s historic timeline. Think of this another way. Imagine a BC in which COVID-19 kills 2.5 million people over the next 18 months—about half our present population. In that first pandemic people died so rapidly that the death rate overwhelmed society’s capacity to respond. Hence an archaeology of normal burials, then hurried mass graves, followed by simply burning houses with the dead and their personal property still in them, concluding with the final indignity, the dead abandoned where they fell. Smallpox was far from unknown to Captain Vancouver. In the 18th century it killed about 400,000 people a year in Europe. Enlightenment Sweden lost one in every 10 children to the virus. In the final century between 1870 and its eradication, smallpox still killed 500 million—and that was with an effective vaccine. First described by Chinese, Indian and Egyptian writers 3,000 years before Vancouver was exploring our coast, the virus came ashore in North America in what is now Mexico with the soldiers of Hernan Cortes in 1521, and then swept through the “virgin soil” of Indigenous populations without immunity. Graphic illustration of the historical spread of smallpox, leprosy and malaria around the globe Explorer Alexander Mackenzie, travelling overland to the Pacific through northern BC in 1792, witnessed it on the Great Plains. “The smallpox,” Mackenzie observed, “spread its destructive and desolating power as the fire consumes the dry grass of the field.” It was so terrifying, he said, that when it first made its appearance in camps, the bravest warriors would kill their wives and children and then themselves to escape the malevolent, inescapable “spirit of pestilence.” What Vancouver’s midshipmen and maritime fur traders found from Port Angeles to southern Alaska were the cultural ruins left by a pandemic that erupted in central Mexico in 1779. Following ancient trade routes, it raced across the Great Plains, dispersed by a new transportation technology—the jet plane of its day—the horse. Along the Missouri River, it killed 60 percent of the population. American explorers reported abandoned villages of collapsed houses and widely-strewn human and animal bones. Smallpox, it is now thought, came to the Northwest Coast following the Snake River to the Columbia and then sped north and south with the canoes that sought to flee before it. In its path, it left famine. Food production and distribution collapsed. Lineages ended. The suffering lingered in collective memory, which itself was rent, so that the early disasters became conflated with the more recent. Smallpox pulsed through newly vulnerable generations again in 1801. Then 1836. Then 1853. Memories of these merged with those of the fifth great smallpox pandemic in1862. It, too, was followed by outbreaks in 1868 and 1874. Once, as we stood on the end of a dock while a gale lashed us with sleet and spindrift, a Heiltsuk chief told me about two ancestors. They’d been recently married and gone into the mountains to hunt for the summer. The Heiltsuk then occupied 50 villages over 15,000 square kilometres of the mid-coast, centred on what’s now Bella Bella. Their canoes traded from Alaska to Oregon. Their bent boxes, cunningly constructed from single pieces of carved and painted cedar, were in demand everywhere. The newlyweds came home that fall, travelling back to the outer coast. They found only empty villages. Everyone was dead. “Every day I think about those people,” he said. “I try to imagine the terror and confusion. They must have believed the end of the world had come and they had been overlooked.” Stephen Hume has spent half a century as a journalist writing about Western Canada, the Far North, BC and the Island.
  22. January 2020 Scientists are now saying global climate change will usher in even higher seas and more flooding than previously predicted. FIFTY YEARS AGO, I was an indifferent student drifting through random courses. In my post-teen ennui, I mostly hung around the student newspaper office drinking terrible coffee in the hope of chatting up a girl. The furthest thing from my mind was that my life was actually an après nous le déluge moment; that in my lifetime I’d be contemplating floods of biblical proportions that, over the next 50 years, will likely force close to a million Canadians from their homes, including thousands in communities on the South Island, Sunshine Coast and Lower Mainland. Willows Beach and the adjacent upland area could disappear beneath the rising sea. Evidence is mounting that it might happen sooner than previously believed. (Photo by Stephen Hume) From Oak Bay to Campbell River to Port Alberni, homes, resorts, industrial sites and businesses are now at discernible risk of future flooding wherever they have been built along walk-on beach front or on the flood plains and alluvial fans where scores of streams and rivers that punctuate the coast of Vancouver Island meet tidewater. It seems like a science fiction scenario from that Kevin Costner sci-fi flick Waterworld. Whole city centres drowned? Previously high-demand neighbourhoods rendered uninsurable? Billions of dollars in residential, commercial and industrial real estate written off the board by the environmental consequences of climate change? Here, in our Island Eden? Yet that’s what new research published last October now points toward. It used advanced neural network computing to correct earlier digital models forecasting sea level rise. Earlier calculations of land elevations—and therefore of how much farther inland the high tides of the future might reach, particularly if amplified by a storm—turned out to have underestimated by 30 percent. The study “New elevation data triple estimates of global vulnerability to sea level rise and coastal flooding” by Scott Kulp and Benjamin Strauss of Climate Central in Nature Communicationswarns that over the next 30 years, about 500,000 Canadians living on coastal lowlands may have to deal with significant annual flooding. And worst-case scenarios—in which atmospheric carbon emissions continue without abatement on the current trend—will make about 850,000 coast-dwelling Canadians vulnerable to annual floods by the time 2020’s first-year students are my age and wondering how their half-century flew by so quickly. Worldwide, the researchers warn, about 250 million people now live within one metre of sea level. Even conservative estimates point to the near-inevitability of a two-metre rise by the end of the century. Other scientists suggest—and the new research correcting older models lends credence to their alarm—that the geological record warns us that more rapid and higher sea-level rise is not only within the realm of possibility but, perhaps, even probability. A research team from Australia observes that 125,000 years ago under conditions similar although not identical to the present—atmospheric carbon dioxide levels were then about a third lower than today—sea levels rose quickly to about 10 metres above today’s levels. “What is striking about the last interglacial is how high and quickly sea level rose above present levels,” write Fiona Hibbert, Eelco Rohling and Katharine Grant, ocean and climate researchers at Australian National University. “Temperatures during the last interglacial were similar to those projected for the near future, which means melting polar ice sheets will likely affect future sea levels far more dramatically than anticipated to date.” They point out that polar warming did not occur simultaneously during that melt. But thanks to human-caused greenhouse gas emissions, warming and loss of ice mass are now happening in both the Arctic and the Antarctic at the same time. “This means that if climate change continues unabated, Earth’s past dramatic sea-level rise could be a small taste of what’s to come,” the Australian scientists say. It seems reasonable, then, to consider people living up to 10 metres above present sea level to be at potential future risk from combinations of rising seas and higher seasonal tides with storm surges. Those parameters increase the number of people at risk globally to one billion. At 20, I couldn’t imagine being 40. So I understand how these timelines seem unimaginably long for some, even some scientists. But when the predicted events are occurring, the time between then and now will seem like the blink of an eye. BACK IN MY DAYS OF BLISSFUL IGNORANCE, I’d consider the dolorous prospect of another afternoon researching overdue essays on Greek epitaphs or Wordsworth’s view of the metropolis. Instead I’d ride my motorcycle down to Cadboro Bay and take the waterfront past Willows Beach through the Royal Victoria Golf Course to McNeill Bay. From Crescent Road, I’d follow Penzance past the Chinese Cemetery out to Harling Point, named for a local resident who famously expired of hypothermia following a tragic marine rescue in Gonzalez Bay 35 years before my visits. Harling Point’s real name, its first one, at least, is Sahsima—Coast Salish for “harpoon.” And it’s an important spiritual site. It was here that Xals, the transformer who mediates between the natural and the supernatural and brings order and balance to the world, changed a seal hunter to stone, simultaneously granting him power over the seals hunted by the Songhees. As Royal BC Museum curator Grant Keddie once observed, Sahsima is a place that signifies the gravity of the natural balance in maintaining the world’s order, a notion that seems ever more important as we relentlessly upset the equilibrium of local, regional and global ecologies. I’d clamber through a dense fringe of broom and prickly gorse and onto the inexpressibly ancient rocks. They still bore recent scars of an Ice Age, left 22,000 years ago by boulders dragged beneath glaciers flowing over the Saanich Peninsula. Those ice sheets were two kilometres deep at maximum, and over the Saanich Peninsula weighed about 250 gigatonnes. The number is incomprehensibly large, like so many in geological time. It represents 250 kilograms with 12 zeros behind it. (That immense mass of ice, by the way, would be equivalent to less than a quarter of the greenhouse gases released into the atmosphere by us since 1850.) I knew this only because one of those fascinating young women at the student newspaper told me about a geography field trip. She urged me to look for the fault line where rock from ancient continents had collided. And so there I’d sit with an apple and a piece of cheddar on a blustery afternoon, straddling two vanished continents. The sun gleamed on the last remnants of ancient ice fields on the Olympic Mountains. I watched the endless Pacific suck and gurgle into the deep fissures that ice and moving water had carved into the basalt and chert from 40 million years ago when Wrangellia collided with what geologists call the Leech River Complex. On a day when the tide was right and the swells were big, bulked up by the surge from some storm beyond the horizon, the seas would boom into the rocky chutes with enough force to make the rock vibrate. Glistening white foam would jet upward, spindrift twisting away on the wind. My procrastination around schoolwork wasn’t wasted time. In fact, it was my first genuine encounter with the idea of time, relativity and what that might mean. There was synchronicity and yet there wasn’t. I thought of how those 2000-year-old Greek epitaphs, which had seemed so distant in the classroom, might have been written that very morning, compared to the epitaphs scrawled by glaciers 20,000 years before upon the very rocks where I sat. And the slow glaciers themselves—what were they, in a time frame of 40 million years? Even Wrangellia was young compared to eternal, changeless Mother Ocean, who was herself writing an epitaph for the vanished continent, grain of sand by grain of sand, even as I watched. The timeless tides come in and go out, I thought, and nothing changes except us, as ephemeral as the spindrift. But the ocean is changing. It’s increasing in volume as it heats, and as polar ice caps and high elevation ice sheets melt at faster and faster rates. Most of us have noted the retreat, for example, of the Comox Glacier, the dwindling snow on Island mountains, the Coast Range and the Olympic Mountains. But these are mere glimpses of something vast. In Alaska, about to log its hottest year ever, glaciers shed mass into the sea at record rates. Some show consecutive years of record ice loss. Others show near-record loss but can’t set new records because they’ve lost so much mass already. Glaciers in the St Elias Mountains of northwestern BC and the southern Yukon lost about one-quarter of their mass since I was a first-year university student. Glaciologists estimate that over the next 50 years, about 80 percent of the Canadian Rockies’ ice fields—the water supply for carbon-pumping Alberta—will melt away. Greenland, Antarctica, Iceland, the Rockies, the Himalayas, the Alps, the Andes—ice is vanishing at a rate that now astonishes scientists used to dealing with change over millennia and geological epochs. “These [glacier] collapses would drive up sea levels, devastate marine life and disrupt ocean and atmospheric circulation patterns that dictate temperatures and rainfall around the world,” says one late-November report by James Temple in the MIT Technology Review. “The death of forests [from drought and fire] would release vast stores of greenhouse gases while the melting of ice would reduce the planet’s reflectivity—and raise the risk of setting off still more tipping points.” Thawing permafrost releases greenhouse gases. Ocean acidification caused by warming releases greenhouse gases. Burning forests release greenhouse gases. Humans show no sign of curbing their release of greenhouse gases. CLIMATE CHANGE DENIERS frequently accuse science of exaggerating the threat of climate change. A report in Scientific American by three scholars, studying how scientists disseminate their findings, says it’s precisely the opposite. Not only have scientists not exaggerated, they have seriously underestimated and understated the speed and scope with which change is occurring. The United Nations’ much-vilified Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change turns out not to be the extremist conspiracy touted by denialists. Instead, it’s been too conservative. There is bias, it turns out, but it’s toward exaggerated caution. What current data really shows, the report says, is that “disintegration of ice sheets and glaciers is occurring far faster than predicted by theory—as much as two orders of magnitude faster—throwing current model projections of sea level rise further in doubt.” This concern seems to be corroborated by research of American glaciologists, who reported earlier this year that Antarctica’s annual loss of ice mass increased 600 percent between 1979 and 2017. “As the Antarctic ice sheet continues to melt away, we expect multi-metre sea level rise from Antarctica in the coming centuries,” said Eric Rignot of the University of California, the study’s lead scientist. Climate scientists with the World Meteorological Organization, which just released its 2019 report on the state of global climate, conclude that Greenland lost 350 gigatonnes of ice this year, that the melt is accelerating, and that it’s accelerating in the Antarctic, too. Another worrisome study reported in Nature during the UN summit on climate change in December stated that Greenland’s glacier was melting seven times faster than what the IPCC had predicted in the 1990s. Based on observations by 96 polar scientists using satellite imagery and measurements of flow and volume since 1992, scientists labelled it a huge concern, as tipping points might be breached sooner than expected. Greenland’s ice sheet is melting seven times faster than it was during the 1990s (Photo courtesy of NASA) There’s uncertainty about what will happen between now and the end of the century, but it’s clear that if the rate of melt on those two big ice sheets—Greenland’s and the Antarctic’s—has been significantly underestimated, all hell can break loose in the oceans. There is enough ice in those two sources to raise sea levels by more than 60 metres. That’s not expected to happen or, if it does, to happen over centuries, but so far expectations have regularly been confounded by events. As climate science writer Eugene Linden pointed out in the New York Times in late 2019, had a scientist in the early 1990s suggested that within 25 years a single heat wave would measurably raise sea levels while scorching the Arctic and producing temperatures worthy of the Sahara desert in Paris and Berlin “the prediction would have been dismissed as alarmist.” But that happened last summer. In parts of Florida, residential neighbourhoods have endured more than 80 consecutive days of ocean flooding. For some, the worst-case future has already arrived. WHAT HAS ALL THIS TO DO WITH US, living in our complacent West Coast Eden? Well, many on the Island, surrounded by the rising sea, already live or work at or below the two-metre elevation that’s now the conservative estimate for sea-level rise. The entire Windsor Park area in Oak Bay, for example, has two metres of elevation. The entrance to the BC Provincial Archives building is one metre above sea level. So, if on the evidence and given the consistency of underestimation, it seems reasonable to assume that a 10-metre rise is now a possibility, then the risks for householders, businesses and infrastructure begin to look large, indeed. For example, the steps of the provincial legislature building are six metres above sea level, as is the foyer of the Royal BC Museum. Bastion Square is five metres. New residential complexes around the Selkirk Waterway are four metres. The entrance to St Anne’s Academy is six metres. Esquimalt High School is four metres. Shopping centres in downtown Campbell River are all less than eight metres. Interactive maps created by the same researchers who found previous estimates of coastal elevations to be wrong, calculate flooding from sea-level rise at different temperatures. At four degrees of global warming, Oak Bay is bisected by a new sea channel that extends from Oak Bay Marina to Beach Drive at McNeill Bay. Willows Beach, with its multi-million-dollar homes, is inundated as far back as Beach Drive. Cadboro Bay Village is below the tideline as far as Arbutus Road. Much of Tsawout Indian Reserve at Saanichton Bay is under water. Downtown Sidney is almost entirely flooded from just north of the airport interchange to North Saanich Marina. Swartz Bay ferry terminal is under water. Land east of Patricia Bay is flooded inland almost as far as Pat Bay Highway. In Victoria, James Bay becomes an archipelago. The historic buried stream flowing from Fairfield to near the Inner Harbour becomes an inlet. Rock Bay floods up Discovery and Pembroke streets almost as far as Douglas. The sea extends up Bridge Street from Bay Street to Ellice. Along the Selkirk Waterway, all the land below Tyee Road is drowned. Properties fronting the Gorge are largely flooded. High-value areas in the potential danger zone near Victoria are found in Cadboro Bay, Telegraph Cove, Maynard Cove, Cordova Bay, Sayward Beach, Saanichton Bay, Ferguson Cove and Bazan Bay. Farther up Island, Cowichan Bay, the estuaries of the Chemainus, Englishman, Qualicum, Somass and Campbell rivers, Parksville, Lantzville, Rathtrevor, Saratoga and Miracle beaches would all be at risk from sharply rising sea levels combined with storm surges and seasonal high tides. For rural residents, saltwater intrusion into wells, septic fields and farmland becomes an issue. Already flooding on some high tides, sea level rise could inundate Cadboro Bay’s waterfront (Photo by Stephen Hume) Are these scenarios extraordinarily far-fetched? Is it sensationalist fear-mongering to raise them for discussion? Well, if anybody has a vested interest in figuring out what might lie ahead, it’s the insurance industry. And the insurance industry is worried. Several US studies conclude that real estate values in coastal risk zones already feel the impact. Researchers at the University of Colorado’s business school estimated that properties exposed to sea-level rise are already selling, on average, for seven percent less. A sea-level research group called First Street Foundation says that on the US East Coast and Gulf Coast, exposed properties have lost $16 billion in appreciation value since 2005. In Canada, the senior research director at the Bank of Canada’s Financial Stability Department warned earlier this year that climate change has the potential by the end of the century to reduce global annual GDP by up to 23 percent. Those who thought the recession of 2008 was bad should imagine one ten times deeper. Lloyd’s, a global player in insurance, carefully studied the damage claims following Hurricane Sandy, which struck New York in 2012. It concluded that sea-level rise increased flooding losses by 30 percent. During the storm,16 historical records for high tides were broken on the Atlantic seaboard. New York’s subway flooded. “Rising sea levels around the world could have significant implications for insurers in the context of storm surge,” Lloyd’s concluded in its 2014 report. And Munich Re, one of the corporate giants that insure insurance companies, says that significantly higher insurance premiums for property owners in areas vulnerable to sea-level rise are already emerging. So one prospect that Island waterfront property and coastal flood-plain property owners may face is whether their properties will in future be deemed uninsurable and possibly become unsellable. All this raises important questions for policy makers, provincial and municipal governments, insurers, taxpayers and property owners that deserve a robust public discussion. It’s time for a clear-eyed and serious exchange of views about who pays the bill for risk and damage which, it seems inevitable, will increase year by year. What should happen when property becomes increasingly vulnerable to a known risk? Some jurisdictions in the United Kingdom, for example, already plan to move entire low-lying coastal communities to higher ground lock, stock and barrel. Others, including Richmond on the Lower Mainland, are betting on dykes, levees and flood-control infrastructure. Where does future liability lie if development is zoned by provincial and municipal authorities for real estate that lies in risk areas vulnerable to flooding should the sea level rise more dramatically than current predictions? What about taxation? Right now walk-on waterfront is taxed at a premium, because it’s a high-demand commodity that generates high value. But what if the value depreciates rapidly because of flooding risk and an eventual inability to insure? Most municipal taxpayers could never afford to buy beachfront homes. Where should the burden for mitigating risk to such properties from sea-level rise fall? That is, should all taxpayers be paying for anti-flooding infrastructure that protects high-value residential districts that most of those taxpayers are financially excluded from living in? Should we be having a conversation about if, when, or whether provincial and municipal governments should start restricting development in flood-prone areas, or even providing incentives to shift residential and commercial occupants to safer ground, or planning to dyke areas to make them flood-proof? And, of course, the big question for all of us is, who pays and how? 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. How might future global temperature increases affect sea level in Victoria? Readers might be interested in visiting Climate Central's interactive map for this area.
  23. November 2019 As they are logged, whole ecosystems disappear forever, along with their superior ability to sequester carbon. GLOOM AND SILENCE lodged in my memory first. An occasional shaft of golden light lanced between immense trees. They towered like the columns of some ancient Greek temple. If there was a breeze in the foliage, its rustle was muffled by the dense canopy hundreds of feet above. It was 1956. I was nine. My father had taken me on my first real hike into the back country. A stand of old-growth Douglas fir on Vancouver Island (Photo by David Broadland) The temple allusion seems apt. The only other times I would feel that sudden, deep-shaded sense of sacredness—imprinting itself for the first time upon the virgin sensibility that art critic Roger Shattuck has called “the innocent eye”—occurred years later. Then I stood in the vaulting nave of an 800-year-old cathedral. Its construction began about the same time those Island trees of childhood memory were seedlings, pushing their first roots down into the decaying bole of a fallen ancestor, repeating the endless pattern of regeneration that had recurred over ten or more of their unimaginably long generations. The ancient forests of Vancouver Island are ancient, indeed. The south coast was one of the first places deglaciated at the end of the last ice age. Palaeobotanists studying plant pollen in lake-bottom mud discovered that more than 12,000 years ago, when most of what’s now the province still slept beneath glaciers as deep as Mount Waddington, these forests were growing here. On my first encounter with the ancient forest that once covered all of Vancouver Island, the trees seemed timeless, inexhaustible. And yet, that primeval forest, the living connection with our Palaeolithic origins in the natural world, was already in rapid retreat when my father took me to experience its miraculous, never-to-be-forgotten presence. It is utterly astonishing to think that in my brief lifetime, less than 10 percent of the life span of one of those trees, that same primeval forest has almost vanished from Vancouver Island. Seventy years ago, my father, now 96, was still hand-logging old growth west of Sooke with double-bitted axe and misery whip. “We thought it would never end,” he recently said—sadly I thought. But ending, it is. “We’re down to the guts and feathers now,” laments Erik Pikkila, a forester at Ladysmith who is assembling the “big data” needed for accurate, detailed analysis of BC’s practices and their consequences—what he calls “forgotten history”—both long and short term. “Here in BC we run forestry in a black box,” he says. “We need a technological revolution. The Province has run away from inventories. We don’t even know what is out there. If we don’t know what’s in the bank account, how do we manage that account sensibly going forward?” A decade ago, the Liberal government’s cost-cutting mania resulted in a savage downsizing of the Province’s forest service. In 2010, a BC auditor-general’s report concluded that despite high-minded declarations about preserving ecological integrity, the Province was falling short of its goals. “We should know where every tree is, where every log is at any given moment in the forestry cycle,” Pikkila says. “This is how you achieve real efficiency and sustainability in forest management. It’s how you eliminate waste. They can do this in Scandinavian logging. We can do it here.” “What is the state of the forest? We don’t really know anymore. We have to do things differently.” One step might be, as the Province has done with threatened grizzly bears, to boldly declare an immediate moratorium on logging the remnants of the ancient forest until we can gather the best science to determine what we should preserve, what we can preserve, and what we must preserve. Where to start? Perhaps with all trees still standing that were here before Europeans arrived—say 300 years old. The governments of Washington State and Canada, with the support of British Columbians, pledged more than $1 billion to attempt to save the iconic Southern Resident killer whales from extirpation. Yet BC not only tolerates, but enables and even encourages the killing of 500-year-old trees to manufacture disposable products. Today, probably 85 percent of the original ancient forest that covered Vancouver Island has been mowed down and turned into toilet paper, newsprint, dimensional lumber and plywood—purportedly a sustainable use, although most construction lumber goes into landfills after 50 years, the usual lifespan of a building in our throw-away culture of planned obsolescence. Tattered remnants remain in the North Island’s littoral zone and in a few parks and protected areas. Pockets survive in the most remote river valleys. To fly the Island from Cape Scott to Greater Victoria is to witness a landscape modified almost beyond recognition on an industrial scale. Ten thousand-year-old ecosystems have been stripped and replaced with artificial plantations that are, themselves, already in some places being stripped for a second time in less than a century. Forestry is now agriculture. Loggers, their historic self-perceptions notwithstanding, have become well-paid farm hands. Government, industry, academics and technicians reassure us that they can reconstruct ancient forests. Others don’t think so. “By treating 500 to 1,000-year-old forests as if they were a renewable resource, we are acting out a fiction and thereby making a grave mistake,” wrote Peter Raven, then-director of the Missouri Botanical Garden, in a prescient forward to the book Ancient Forests of the Pacific Northwest. “Once they have been removed from a particular area, the ancient forests…will never appear again, given the human activities in the contemporary world and their consequences,” Raven wrote. “We not only kill the trees that are cut, but we annihilate the possibility of such trees for all time. No manifestation of the anthropomorphic causes of tree death could be more permanently fatal than this.” NOMINALLY, GOVERNMENT FOREST POLICY supports jobs and the economies of small forestry-based communities. But this, too, is a lie of self-deception. Government decoupled forest resources from workers and their communities a generation ago. In 1980, says Natural Resources Canada, about 100,000—one in 10 BC workers—were employed in the forest sector. By 2018, Statistics Canada listed 18,600 as employed directly in forestry, logging and support. Over that 38 years, though, the annual allowable cut remained the same. So that 20 percent of the original work force—and the communities depending upon it—now cuts the same amount of wood. The wealth from that productivity gain did not go to workers. It went to government and corporate bottom lines. Industry rationalizes liquidating old-growth forests on the fiction they are “over-mature.” The real reason, however, isn’t concern for the well-being of the forest, it’s because, as Charles Little pointed out in his book The Dying of the Trees, “Plantation trees are worth only about one-tenth as much as the 500-year-old pre-Columbian veterans.” Ironically, liquidating what’s left of old-growth forests merely accelerates the problem for forest-dependent workers and their communities. When the high-volume old wood runs out, the replacement feedstock can only be low-volume plantation wood of inferior quality. This warning isn’t a radical idea cooked up by naive environmentalists. The Vancouver Province ran a major newspaper series more than 80 years ago warning about the coming “fall down” effect. LOOKING DOWN FROM A LIGHT PLANE cockpit upon the patchwork quilt of clear-cuts, newly replanted cut blocks, immature growth, and the few protected areas and crannies too rugged to log, and you’d be forgiven for thinking the Island is being defaced by some disastrous case of disfiguring psoriasis. Satellite mapping shows as shamelessly optimistic estimates that 15 percent of old-growth inventory in moderate-to-high-value forest remains intact. Image analysis shows what remains is about a third of that or less. Only about 10 percent of the biggest trees, the 1,000-year-old giants from river bottoms and lower elevations, still stand. So, 90 percent of the most majestic trees are already gone—flushed down your toilet; used to wrap fish and chips; used to make disposable forms during construction of steel and glass skyscrapers, and then discarded. Break it down by actual ecosystems, and the picture is grimmer yet. Of low elevation coastal Douglas fir and the Douglas fir adapted to the Island’s dry east coast rain shadow, only about one percent remains. For mountain hemlock in the very dry zone, about seven percent is left. “This is crazy policy,” Pikkila says. “Ecologically, we need to be leaving all those big trees. Between 60 and 80 years in the growth cycle of those trees, the volume of wood doubles. The bigger the tree, the greater the volume of wood, the more carbon captured from the atmosphere and sequestered for a thousand years.” He adds, “The best tool we have against climate change is forests—but we have to let them get old. We have to plant a trillion trees, but the catch is to let them get really old.” While vigorously growing young trees sequester atmospheric carbon, they have to grow for 500 years to match the carbon sequestered in old-growth veterans. On a per-hectare basis, temperate old-growth rainforests in BC sequester better than twice the carbon in equivalent forested areas of the tropical Amazon basin, whose deforestation has been so much in the news of late. More than 1,000 metric tons of carbon is sequestered in one hectare of BC rain forest, compared to about 400 tons in the Amazon. Ecologist Elliott Norse points out in a seminal study of the ancient forests of the Pacific Northwest that timber operations in old growth “release a huge pulse of carbon dioxide in the few years after logging.” This doesn’t square with the carbon budget targets bloviated by the NDP in the provincial legislature. Based on the best current science, Ken Wu of the Endangered Ecosystems Alliance calls for a dramatic expansion of targets for protecting remaining old growth. The United Nations target is currently 17 percent. BC has achieved 15 percent. Wu says we need to go to at least 50 percent protection by 2030. Ken Wu stands beside an old-growth Douglas fir on McLauglin Ridge (Photo by TJ Watt) “To continue logging the last giants is akin to slaughtering the last herds of elephants or harpooning the last great whales,” Wu has written. “It’s unnecessary and unethical, given that second-growth forests dominate more than 80 percent of BC’s productive forest lands and can be sustainably logged. “Indeed,” he continues, “the rest of the Western world is focused on logging 50- to 100-year-old second- or third-growth trees. BC is one of the very last jurisdictions on Earth that still supports the large-scale logging of 500-year-old trees. On Vancouver Island alone, about 10,000 hectares of productive old-growth forests are logged each year while only 8 percent of the original is protected.” As with cancer patients, it’s easy to get drawn into a confused and confusing realm of contested statistics when it comes to evaluating survival rates, statistical probabilities, fretting over what the numbers actually mean—or if they mean anything. Yet for any lay person trying to sort out the facts, one thing is certain: government and industry data have gaps, sometimes large ones, and whether by incompetence or designed obscurantism, it’s opaque. Spending an hour trying to extract intelligible data from the equivocating, jargon-laden labyrinth hosted by the Provincial Ministry of Forests feels like the same mind-numbing paralysis that follows sucking in a Freezie too fast. Government, which is responsible for managing about 20 percent of timber sales (through BC Timber Sales), and industry, which has billions vested in business-as-usual, both argue that more old-growth forest has been protected than environmental groups acknowledge. But Wu, a long-time campaigner for expanded old-growth protection, says the spin cycle has been cranked up to high for government and industry statistics. He argues, for example, that provincial statistics mislead, because they include in protected old growth all the low commercial value forests growing on terrain so rugged it can’t be logged; stunted forests in shore bogs; treeless high alpine zones of rock and snow. They lump together fundamentally different ecosystems, from temperate coastal rainforest to arid rain shadow. Wu likens this greenwashing of provincial forest policy to a politician combining Vancouver’s impoverished Downtown East Side, where the median household income was $13,000 in the last census, with West Vancouver, where the median family income was $90,000, and then huffing that everyone, including those in the Downtown East Side, is doing just fine because median household income averages $50,000. Well, it does, but it’s misleading. Furthermore, he argues, if you include protected parklands in your annual old-growth inventory, the proportion of protected to unprotected old growth will appear to increase as unprotected old growth is logged. Eventually, when you’ve liquidated all the unprotected old growth, you’ll be able to claim that 100 percent of your old growth is protected, although it will represent only a minuscule fragment of what was once present. The fact is that at least 80 percent of the moderate-to-high-value forest—those are the big trees—has already been extirpated on Vancouver Island, Wu says. Another 15 percent is unprotected. Only about five percent is protected by parks or ecological reserves. So, the NDP government’s plan, inherited from the opposition Liberals, appears to be to adopt a legacy of having stripped 95 percent of our ancient forest from the landscape, all the while congratulating itself on its environmental commitment. Vicky Husband, another battle-scarred veteran of the fight to save what’s left of a vanishing ecosystem, concurs. “Our ancient, old-growth forest of giant tree ecosystems is seriously endangered and irreplaceable,” she says. “Less than 15 percent of the original extent of ancient forest remains. There is very little valley-bottom ancient forest. Most [of what does remain] is seriously fragmented across the landscape by rampant clear-cut logging, with no regard for protection of other values.” A typical clear cut with grapple-yarder that hauls bucked logs up to the cold deck where they are sorted into truckloads. When dragged logs disturb the surface of the forest floor they can create furrows that channel winter runoff down steep slopes, contributing to erosion. (Photo by TJ Watt) She observes that the temperate coastal rain forests never amounted to more than about 0.5 percent of the world’s original forest and yet it’s still being logged to near extirpation. “The kind of extreme mismanagement and liquidation of the last of our ancient forests is a total crime against nature. We have the best remaining ancient temperate rainforests in the world, and we are losing them so fast,” she says. Continuing, Husband says, “We have protected only 5.5 percent of the original extent of the ancient forest on Vancouver Island. Does anyone think that is enough? The NDP has totally betrayed us all. They have continued the Liberal regime with regard to mismanagement of our forest, no consideration or protection of other important values, only timber.…and they are massively overcutting what we have left as fast as they can.” MORE THAN 60 YEARS AGO, when my father hiked me up into the old growth, it covered the lower slopes of Mount Arrowsmith, flanked the Cameron River where it winds from Labour Day Lake under Mount Moriarty, and swept over to Cameron Lake. He showed me liquorice ferns, deer ferns, maidenhair ferns—a whole palette of vivid greens—offset by the pale, corpse-coloured ghost pipes that live in parasitical symbiosis with living tree roots. Another persistent recollection, embedded like a kind of muscle memory, is the springiness underfoot. Moss that seemed knee-deep in places moved beneath my feet like a trampoline, although it was a more fragile kind of trembling. We looked at nurse logs, huge trunks of ancient trees that had died, stood for another century or so, then fallen to the forest floor to begin a new cycle of growth. The moss, explained my dad, was so deep that nothing could take root, and the canopy so dense that there was little light. But these falling giants laid down a nutrient-rich bed into which seedlings had a brief window in which to push tiny roots into crevices and capture light slanting in through the opening left in the canopy. We gorged on the fat, red huckleberries that take root in decaying stumps and took home a couple of cups, which my mother tossed with lemon juice, some sugar and promptly baked into a tart, tangy pie—another indelible childhood memory. As we climbed towards the tree line, spring-fed rills bubbled up and frothed down the slope, tumbling over deadfalls and rock ledges. It was a landscape as magical and mesmerizing as any I’d found in the books at the tiny Port Alberni library where I was often deposited while my mother shopped. Timespans are different in childhood. Summers seem so long that their end is always a shock. But it was nothing like the shock when I went looking for that vividly remembered ancient forest of childhood. It was a ruin of debris. All that remains of that forest of my memory is the beautiful but ecologically insignificant postage-stamp park called Cathedral Grove, a thin ribbon of trees in the steep canyon of the Cameron River, and a few veterans here and there left to blow down in some big storm. Logging in old growth on McLaughlin Ridge. Only about 5 percent of ancient forest is protected. (Photo by TJ Watt) Provincial forest policy, and the attitudes of our elected politicians, seem maddeningly obtuse. The forest sector supports fewer and fewer people who are used to mow down the last intact bits of unprotected old growth at a time when children are taking to the streets demanding that we do something to preserve their future and their heritage. BC’s parks recorded 200 million visits over the last decade. Pacific Rim National Park Reserve gets about a million visitors a year. If hikers continue to reserve places on the West Coast Trail at the current rate, 75,000 will complete the arduous wilderness trek over the next decade. Government brochures, reports, and websites celebrate and promote these visits because they inject billions into the provincial economy—certainly more than logging does. The promotions are plastered with dramatic photos of pristine forests, hikers gazing at huge trees, and campers setting up in a pastoral paradise. But it’s really more of the Big Lie to which our children object. Beyond the park boundaries—and parks are now so jammed that reservations months in advance are a necessity—the landscape is still being shaved bald. 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.
  24. September 2019 The logic of a watershed, including development and forestry’s role in its demise, is playing out sadly in the Cowichan Valley. A NEAR-SILENT CURRENT SLIPS THROUGH WILLOW RUN. The jade-green swirl of eddies and back-eddies causes darker reflections of trees to ripple in the August glare. Here and there, the slick surface boils over a hidden boulder, or abruptly sucks down with a wet slurp into some bottom declivity. I’ve been coming to the Cowichan River for more than 60 years. It never fails to offer instruction in the mysterious, miraculous, astonishingly complex interconnectedness of the natural world. Stephen Hume looks over fast water on the Cowichan River in 2004, just before a cycle of recurring summer droughts began to affect summer flows For example, running counter to the visible river is a second, invisible stream. Comprised of air, it’s evident only by a rustling passage through dangling willow leaves. It flows uphill and upstream, graced occasionally by a gleam of dancing thistledown or a wisp of cottonwood fluff. Every river has an atmospheric doppelgänger ghosting in the opposite direction and pulsing cooler air from the ocean up the veins and capillaries of the watershed. Rivers are not just segments of perception, they are continuums; they connect the sky above the mountains where they rise to the deep sediments of the marine environment where they empty. Down the centre line of the watercourse, shining through a narrow opening in the forest canopy, a band of brilliant blue sky lays down the image of a third river. It manifests as silken light. Sudden shafts illuminate the slow pools and faster water, highlighting the riffles with a palette of transparencies as the river of liquid slips beneath the river of light. That light brings life to the river, to the aquatic plants and insects that support all the higher forms. It’s the seasonal cosmic switch that turns the deciduous riparian cover on and off. Beneath the mirrored light is yet another river, this one tangible, tactile, comprised of water-worn cobbles and smaller, smoother pebbles. It mumbles and grumbles its way imperceptibly seaward. It, too, has its back-eddies. Exposed flanks of gravel emerge from riverside shallows where they drag more slowly along the banks than does the submerged flow in the main current. And there’s a fifth river here. It, too, is hidden. A river of groundwater flowing parallel to the main stream but slithering beneath it like some dark salamander easing through the seams of fractured bedrock below the gravel. All rivers simultaneously inhabit these multiple identities. Most of us see only the one we want to see—the one that serves us best. In the Cowichan’s case, many see only the main current. Once it provided a chute for log drives, now it delivers 120 million cubic metres of water to a pulp mill that provides 500 local jobs (and 5,500 elsewhere in BC). It dilutes urban sewage effluent. It irrigates farmers’ bountiful fields; offers pools to swimmers; provides a route for canoes, kayaks, the drift boats of angling guides, and the inner tubes of those content with a languid float. It’s also habitat for the fish that bring anglers from around the world. If we cast dry flies, however, the river of air instructs us which insects are in hatch and which pattern to use. Or, if considering a well, we look to the groundwater that we can tap. Others look to the gravel that can be mined for construction aggregate. These many-faced reaches of the upper Cowichan River provide prime spawning habitat for chinook and coho salmon and elusive steelhead. For brown, rainbow and cutthroat trout. But water is dangerously low again this August, following the hottest July in recorded history. Half our summers in the last 20 years have yielded drought—a compelling signal of the “new normal” imposed by global warming. The exposed, sun-bleached flanks of gravel bars bake in the sun. The river narrows. Side channels dwindle to brackish puddles. A tributary of the Cowichan—sensitive trout and salmon habit—gone dry And so, another hot, dry season. Another bout of nail-biting angst in the Cowichan Valley for anglers, conservationists, householders, recreational users, mill workers and civic governments, as British Columbia’s blue-ribbon heritage river once again threatens to run dry. River flows are regulated by a one-metre-high weir at the outlet from Cowichan Lake into the river. The weir, built in 1957, is designed to hold back the water which floods into the lake all winter. This permits summer releases to maintain a flow during dry months, sufficient to sustain fish populations, provide water to the Catalyst pulp mill at Crofton, and dilute sewage discharges at Duncan. Any recreational use comes after these priorities. The 62-year-old weir, designed before global warming reduced flows The optimum flow is 25 cubic metres per second. The minimum flow for sustaining fish populations is seven cubic metres per second. That’s the nominal target. But with a prolonged dry spring and early summer, flows fell below that as early as June. By late July, they hovered around five cubic metres per second, and occasionally dipped to 4.5. If the flow dwindles to 4.3 cubic metres per second, the mill shuts down, affecting not just jobs but $20 million in annual tax revenue and the $1 billion a year it contributes to the provincial economy. There’s a scheme for pumping water over the weir to provide the minimum flow. Counter-arguments arise: it’s a false economy that simply delays the inevitable, trading one deficit against another, robbing Peter to pay Paul. Lowering the lake will exacerbate problems for fish stocks—a unique, endangered lamprey, for example, might be seriously threatened, triggering federal species-at-risk protections. Fishing guides, their double-ended skiffs beached, have already spent days desperately rescuing salmon and trout fry stranded in drying puddles where side-channels of the Cowichan River once ran. They scooped them up in buckets and carried them to the diminishing main stem of the river. Not surprising, since freshwater angling contributes $100 million a year to the Island’s economy. Tributaries supplying Cowichan Lake were dry by early August. Meade Creek looked like a logging road rather than a critical salmon- and trout-rearing nursery. Side channels had weeds carpeting the bottom. Wardroper Creek was the same. None seemed worthy of the forlorn habitat signs designating them “sensitive trout and salmon habitat” and enjoining the public—perhaps “begging” is the better word—to “please protect our heritage.” IF MUNICIPAL AND PROVINCIAL AUTHORITIES let things continue as they have, there’s not likely to be much heritage left to protect. The river’s dry-weather woes are just one symptom in an array of problems whose solution will require a holistic imagination regarding the river, the lake, the surrounding watersheds, and their interconnected value. Assessed property values in Lake Cowichan rose 16.5 percent in 2019, three times the increase for assessment rates in Oak Bay. New residents are loving the place to death. They have now disturbed more than 30 percent of the shoreline. But it’s not just householders. The lure of idyllic surroundings in the midst of the natural beauty of Cowichan Lake and its river has brought development and the swimming rafts, boat docks and retaining walls that come with it Forestry accounts for another 48 percent of shoreline disturbance. Logging in the watershed occurs on cycles vastly shorter than originally envisaged. Forest management once called for logged areas not to be harvested again until replanted trees were at least 120 years old. The plan was to let second growth mature until it, too, became old growth. Automation, efficiency and markets brought pressure to harvest on half that cycle. And now, with insufficient wood supply a looming issue, the pressure is on to reduce the logging cycle to 40 years. Land held for working forest at lower tax rates, and then sold to developers who bid up value for desirable beach-front has sparked a property boom. Subdivisions now sprawl along lakefront once reserved for logging every 100 years. New householders strip riparian cover to improve views. They install boat docks (there are now 600 of them on the lake), groom natural beaches to remove natural imperfections, and then build concrete retaining walls and embed rip-rap to stabilize banks and control erosion. Wash from powerboats and fluctuating seasonal water levels wear away the modified foreshore once held in place by vegetation. Joe Saysell, a retired logger who’s lived on the Cowichan River for 70 years and is one of those fishing guides who goes out with a bucket to salvage trout and salmon fry, likens the process to death by a thousand cuts. Everybody, he says, reasonably wants to make their own small modification to the landscape for convenience or esthetics, or to increase market value, and few take heed of the unreasonable incremental impacts. “It all adds up,” Saysell says. “Cutting down willows whose roots stabilize the banks so you can have a better view. Taking rocks out of the bottom to create a swimming hole for your kids. Putting in a boat dock and then mooring a boat with a big motor that leaves a big wake. Each one another little nick. But after a while, all those little nicks add up, and you really start bleeding big time. Then, without knowing it, you discover you’ve cut an artery.” Retired logger and fishing guide Joe Saysell rescues stranded fry in a drying side channel of the Cowichan River The river, he says, is the small canary in the bigger coal mine shaped by climate change, population pressure, and a dithering failure of political will to address critical problems before they cascade into interconnected catastrophes. “The canary is still alive, but he’s really starting to gasp,” Saysell warns. “People don’t see things until they’ve already happened. They don’t see it until it’s too late.” There’s a high-tech analogy. We’re all flying along at 10 kilometres altitude in a spanking-new passenger jet. But back there in the cabin, some folks are pulling rivets from the fuselage for souvenirs. The aircraft is over-designed, it’s got many redundant safety systems. It can certainly withstand the pulling of a few rivets. But pull enough rivets and eventually you’ll come to the one that ensures the integrity of the whole complicated structure. Pull that rivet and the air frame disintegrates. So, what’s the rivet for the ecosystem of which the Cowichan River is just one part? Nobody knows. But, Saysell says, we should now be looking at every problem as though it could be the tipping point. “Look,” he says, “we used to have great steelhead runs into the Englishman River, the Qualicum River, the Nanaimo. Runs that went on year after year. Year after year they went up and down. Then they started going down just a tad more than they went up. Then one year there were none. They were just gone. Overnight. Just like that. I worry that we are going to lose the Cowichan the same way. This [river] is the gem of all gems in this province. And yet we dicker and dicker and dicker over what to do. Everything can only take so much. One day it’s just going to end.” AT 82, DAVID ANDERSON, the former federal fisheries minister, still looks the rangy, raw-boned athlete who won a silver medal in rowing at the 1960 Olympic Games. Loved and hated for his tough conservation policies, he arguably had the biggest impact for West Coast salmon of any fisheries minister before or since. He’s now a member of the Cowichan Watershed Board. Anderson, too, thinks solutions to problems facing the beleaguered ecosystem will be found in a holistic approach. That means, he says, having a mature discussion about the connections between logging in watershed headwaters and downstream problems which, in turn, can have serious implications for industry, municipal governments, and the general public. “We have to take a new look at forest management policies,” Anderson says. Saysell, once a logger himself, concurs. He recently wrote to the provincial government, raising concerns. None of the accelerating changes he’s witnessed in logging practice on private lands surrounding Cowichan Lake have been for the better. “I now see a complete destruction of our watershed, and especially the Cowichan River, all because of irresponsible headwater second-growth logging done on private forest land,” says Saysell. “The second growth on our mountains, especially in the Cowichan watershed, is being ‘mined’ at an unsustainable rate, and is being harvested 60 to 100 years too soon. Proper regulations would require all second growth to be as least 100 to 150 years old before it can be harvested.” Second-growth timber from forest surrounding Cowichan Lake stacked up at a log sort He argues that large stands of maturing old growth are crucial for the upper catchment basins of the 53 streams feeding into the watershed, because such forest creates a vast natural blotter. It absorbs rain and delays snowmelt, releasing it gradually throughout hotter, increasingly rain-free summers. As climate warms, scientists point out, weather extremes are amplified. The outlook for Vancouver Island is for wetter winters and drier summers. It’s estimated that summer rainfall into the watershed will decrease by up to 30 percent over the next 30 years, while most of the annual precipitation—less and less of it snow—will occur over a few winter months. Reducing or eliminating clear-cuts in upper watersheds reduces downslope erosion during heavy winter rains. More old growth creates a better-balanced flow of water into the lake, the river’s vast holding tank. Equally important, Saysell says, more old growth provides a mechanism for industry obtaining the same yield but with far less environmental impact. By allowing trees to mature for 150 years, he says, far less timber must be cut to produce the same quantity of superior quality wood. Thus, while maintaining wood supply, the erosion footprint is greatly reduced, lake and river hydrology are stabilized and made more sustainable, winter range for deer and elk are improved—and mature forests are larger carbon sinks, another way of mitigating global warming. Anderson, whose great-uncle was a fishing guide on the river a century ago—he used to pole his way upstream in a dugout canoe—says evidence of the impact of watershed logging shows up in the “yo-yo effect” of rapidly rising and falling lake levels following big rain events. Spikes in runoff erode hillsides, cause side-streams to blow out, spill silt into spawning beds, wash away fish eggs, undercut banks, and push torrents of gravel downstream. What’s the solution? First, Saysell says, the provincial government should intervene. It can end a decade of dithering by corporate, municipal and private interests regarding potential liability, and raise the weir at Cowichan Lake so it holds back more winter rain for summer release. It’s estimated that $10 million would cover the cost of raising and modernizing the weir, although other estimates say it could be done for as little as $3 million. In any event, considering that government spent $12.5 million on three traffic signs to tell drivers to slow down when it’s snowing, the amount required to save the river doesn’t seem excessive. By comparison, one bridge replacement in Victoria cost $105 million, a couple of local interchanges cost $120 million, and the regional district estimates a final overall cost of $275 million for upgrading bike routes to “a standard where cyclists of all ages and abilities will feel comfortable.” IN THE BIG PICTURE, perhaps the remaining second growth would be more valuable if it were never cut. The future of the Cowichan Valley is trending to tourism and away from resource extraction. Tourism has generated more than $200 billion in revenue over the last decade in BC, growing by an astonishing 41 percent. It brought more people to BC in 2018 than there are citizens, just over six million. Consider this example provided by the BC Chamber of Commerce: in 2012, there were plans to log 60 hectares of old-growth timber in a coastal cut block on the North Island. A wilderness kayaking camp was operating in the middle of a proposed clear-cut. The value of the logged timber was estimated at $3.6 million, but the trees could only be logged every 60 years. So, the timber was actually worth about $60,000 a year. The kayak enterprise, however, brought in about $416,000 a year. It operated every year. Over 60 years it would generate $24,960,000—about seven times the value of the timber. The trees were worth far more, left standing, for the kayak operation, the Chamber acknowledged, than logged. Does government have the right to impose logging standards and practices on private land? Well it does on mine. I must obtain a permit from the municipality to cut trees, even if I deem them a hazard. And it does on Anderson’s. He pointed to a number of Garry oak trees in his back yard that are strictly protected. Similar restrictions govern most small, private property owners. But Saysell points out that logging companies with timber holdings on private land are not subject to the same forest management policies as those with timber rights on public land. Under the Private Managed Forest Land Act, he says, such companies pay far lower taxes than other private land holders. This is purportedly an incentive to replant for future harvesting. The lower taxes nevertheless represent a subsidy. The public has a right, indeed an obligation, he says, to recover that subsidy, should the company decide to sell forest land for other purposes after logging it. If they sell forest land to developers, Saysell argues, “then they should be taxed at the higher land value [for housing] retroactively, right back to the time they first purchased the land.” “In my experience,” says Anderson, “if somebody takes the benefit of lower taxes, then the state has a say in management.” Saysell, the former faller, makes a cogent argument for imposing the same management practices, guided by environmental science and rigorous cost/benefit analysis, on both public and private forest land. “Government has to enact new regulations for private managed forest lands, especially for harvesting methods and annual cut rates that will have sufficient rules and laws in them to stop these unsustainable and irresponsible practices that are destroying our beautiful Cowichan River and Cowichan watershed.” Stephen Hume spent half a century as a journalist writing about Western Canada, the North, BC and the Island. His byline has appeared in most major Canadian newspapers. He’s the author of nine books of poetry, natural history, history and literary essays.
  25. July 2019 Climate change is exacerbating forest fires, including—perhaps especially—where the wild meets suburbia. FOR TERRIFYING SPECTACLE, few events match the full-throated fury of a crowning forest fire. Such a fire moves fast. Sheets of flame flash through the canopy under a seething orange wall as high as a 30-storey skyscraper, with pillars of smoke that can tower 50 times that height. I live in Greater Victoria’s forested fringe—the “wildland-urban interface” in Fire Boss lingo. Like many, I’m watching trees around me die from climate warming. I confess, there is now seldom a day during the still, tinder-dry afternoons of high summer when the leaves suddenly rustle in an abrupt breeze, that I don’t step outside to nervously sniff the air for that smudgy whiff of woodsmoke. Forest fires menacing Williams Lake residential district in July 2017 (Photo: courtesy Ministry of Lands, Forest and Natural Resources) Big fires make their own weather. They suck moisture out of the atmosphere, drying and heating to a flashpoint what’s already dry and hot. They create windstorms to feed their appetite for oxygen. Tornadoes of superheated flame spin away. Trees shriek as they vaporize at 1,200°C—although physics says the noise is sap transforming instantly to steam. Should this holocaust scenario concern most of us in our comfortable, tree-shaded city homes? Increasingly, warn scientists and emergency measures specialists, the uncomfortable conclusion is “Yes.” Chris Bone, an expert on the role of climate change and forest policies in driving wildfires and other events, contemplates wildfire from above a native plant garden at the University of Victoria. He thinks that like the great earthquake which may happen tomorrow—or a hundred years from now—the visitation of urban wildfire is not a question of “if,” but “when.” We generally live as though catastrophe weren’t imminent. In truth, conditions already exist here that make fires like those in California or Alberta possible. “A lot of people think we live in the rainforest and that’s exacerbating the problem,” says Bone, an assistant professor in geography. “We don’t live in the rainforest. We have more of a ‘coastal California’ climate. The south island does not get a lot of rain in the summers.” If climate models are right—so far, they’ve been accurate—climate warming will make this region even more susceptible to wildfire. He’s careful to point out that while people crave certainty in the face of uncertainty, and simplicity rather than complexity, the impact of our looming climate emergency won’t be linear in progression. There’ll be variability in seasonal weather. Trends are the concern—frequency, length, and intensity of extreme weather episodes, whether wet or dry, cold or hot. One consistency in those urban wildfires devastating communities in the United States for the past few decades is this: they occur during dry spells after three to four days of very hot temperatures and then, as winds tick up, they overwhelm firefighters. Since 2014, almost 50 firefighters have been killed trying to contain wildfires in the US, 19 of them one entire crew of “hotshot” specialists. They perished together in a conflagration threatening the town of Yarnell, Arizona in 2013. Crowning fires first flash through the dry canopy and then incinerate what’s beneath, fed by ground cover and debris. The speed with which they can accelerate is mind-boggling. Artist Frank Ebermann built his house and studio in a pristine, tranquil forest landscape about a 20-minute drive south of Houston on the Yellowhead Highway, midway between Prince George and Prince Rupert. At the end of May, 1983, he heard heavy equipment thundering past his studio. The trucks carried fire suppression specialists. But they weren’t going to a fire; they were running from one. Ebermann scooped up his little daughter Amai, his wife Sophia, and fled, too. That blaze, dubbed “Swiss Burn,” was a monster, set loose by an angler’s campfire. Eight minutes later the fire covered a square kilometre. Two hours later it was 10 square kilometres. It expanded by one square kilometre per hour. Smoke eclipsed the sun. Flaming embers showered out of the darkness. After seven hours, smouldering ash and charred snags covered an area the size of Victoria, Oak Bay, Esquimalt, View Royal and Colwood combined. “It was like Dante’s Inferno,” Ebermann told me. “Valleys boiling with flames. The burn made its own firestorm, uprooting the trees as it went.” In minutes, he and seven other families were homeless. The experience had one other big effect. “This fire tore me away from any materialism,” he said. “We want to own the beautiful scenery. But we never really own anything.” Aerial drop of fire retardant near an Ashcroft home (Photo: courtesy Ministry of Lands, Forest and Natural Resources) In 2018, similar fires swept through Paradise, California. They burned so hot, car tires melted. So did the sneakers of those trying to flee on foot through the streets. Images from that fire, in which people burned to death in their escape vehicles, haunt Bone—especially when he considers them in the context of new residential developments in Greater Victoria’s wildland-urban interface. “I think about Paradise and how trapped those people were. Those people had no way to escape. I look at an area like that [wildland-urban interface development in Langford, for example] and I have real concern. How strategic are we being?” Not very, according to a 2018 study for the B.C. government. Addressing the New Normal: 21st Century Disaster Management in British Columbia by George Abbott and Chief Maureen Chapman is a disturbing restatement of warnings provided by successive provincial auditors-general over almost 20 years. “Despite earnest efforts,” it said, “BC has made disappointingly little progress on the goal of enhanced community safety since 2003.” It said at least 80 communities have completed wildfire protection plans but half of them still haven’t done anything to actually mitigate risk by reducing on-the-ground-fuel, clearing underbrush, or thinning forest stands adjacent to residential districts. A 2015 study by the Institute for Catastrophic Loss Reduction, a think tank for Canada’s insurance industry, concluded that in Kelowna, where 239 homes were burned during a wildland-urban interface fire in 2003, present conditions could result in a repeat disaster. Reasons for inaction given by municipal politicians, the BC government report said, are that tax dollars are committed to building and maintaining water, sewer, roads, street lights, parks, recreation, and solid waste disposal. The infrastructure supports residential growth and thus an expanded tax base. Forests adjacent to residential development are deemed somebody else’s problem and responsibility. But whose problem does it become if a crowning wildfire rips through a city’s residential fringe? THAT'S A QUESTION WE SHOULD ALL ASK our municipal governments. In Slave Lake, Alberta in 2011, planners said that the city’s evacuation seemed unthinkable. The next day thousands bolted through flames and smoke so thick they couldn’t see where they were driving. In Fort McMurray, in 2016, thousands were again forced to run a gauntlet of fire, escaping while fire destroyed 2,400 buildings and insured losses approached $4 billion. In Portugal, in 2017, 30 people burned in their vehicles while trying to escape a blaze; 17 more died trying to flee abandoned vehicles on foot. Scores of tourists in Greece died when they were trapped by wildfire. And the risk here grows, it does not diminish. Research published last year in the International Journal of Wildland Fire estimates more than 55,000 square kilometres in B.C. now lie in the wildfire-urban interface. The authors of Mapping Canadian Wildland Fire Interface Areas, Lynn Johnston of Natural Resources Canada and Mike Flannigan of the University of Alberta, conclude that this danger zone both expands and becomes more hazardous with climate warming. In Greater Victoria, for example, expect the frequency of very hot days to reach an average of 36 per summer. Hottest day temperatures are projected to rise to 36°C. And while we’ll get more precipitation overall, summer rainfall will dwindle by at least 20 percent while days of drought will lengthen by 20 percent. Vancouver Island was already rated at a Level Three drought—one notch below the driest tier—before the end of May this year. In the Comox Valley, only 34 per cent of normal rainfall arrived. In Kelowna, the rainfall was 50 percent less. And it’s been hot. More than 30 daytime high temperature records were broken across the province on a single day in March. Furthermore, as it gets hotter and dryer, lightning storms will become more frequent. Right now, Canada gets about 2.25 million lightning strikes per year. They are responsible for almost half our wildfires—humans start slightly more than 50 percent. There will be 12 percent more strikes for every degree of global temperature rise. For every two lightning strikes today, there will soon be three. In BC, Addressing the New Normal found that more than 16,000 square kilometres of forest pose high to moderate risk of wildfires expanding rapidly into major residential areas. Worse, it warns that such wildfires—which are now bigger, burn hotter and move faster because of global warming—are becoming the norm. “The wildfire zone is not only getting closer to people, but people are getting closer to the wildfire zone,” the study points out, citing BC Auditor General Wayne Strelioff’s 2001 report Managing Interface Fire Risks; former Manitoba Premier Gary Filmon’s report Firestorm, triggered by events in 2003; and present Auditor General Carol Bellringer’s 2018 assessment of subsequent foot-dragging and inaction. This too is a concern, considering that people caused more than half the wildfires that cost BC taxpayers $3 billion between 2003 and 2017. “British Columbia has the highest risk of interface fires in Canada because of its climate and topography,” the report by Abbott and Chapman reiterates. The risks are increasing as a result of two key factors—the continuing growth in the number of people choosing to live in or near the forests and grassland areas and the significant buildup of forest fuels resulting from years of successful fire suppression activities. “Fire experts fear that, if actions are not taken soon to reduce the risks associated with interface fires, it is only a matter of time before these fires will exceed firefighters’ ability to contain them and that this might lead to significant loss of life and property,” the report warns. Clearly, it’s time we had a vigorous, engaged, adult conversation at the community level about the danger zone at the fringes of Greater Victoria, where residential districts bleed into forest land and forest intrudes into the built landscape. Often, these fringes are among the most desirable neighbourhoods. They offer shady, countrified respite from the noise, heat, traffic and pavement of downtown. Developers like them because they sell quickly. And, in the short term, revenue-hungry municipal politicians appear to discount long-term hazards against short-term revenue gains. The wildland-urban interface on the Saanich Peninsula north of Victoria, as seen from the top of PKOLS/Mount Douglas (Photo: Stephen Hume) Wildfire science calls it “the expanding bull’s-eye effect.” As a city expands from its centre, the fire-exposed perimeter lengthens, placing larger areas within the danger zone. Visit Greater Victoria’s tony, up-market neighbourhoods at Broadmead, Dean Park or some of the newer subdivisions in Langford, for example, and houses and gardens are deeply integrated into heavily forested slopes. Yet housing developments zoned on forested hillsides are also at highest risk. Fire moves fastest (in California they moved with explosive speed) while burning up-slope, where canopy and underbrush are close to structures. This forest-city interface is where risk is greatest for conflagrations like those which forced evacuations of 200,000 people in BC and Alberta alone over the last 15 years. More than 36,000 wild-land-urban interface homes and businesses have now been razed across California, BC and Alberta. As environmental writer Glen Martin recently observed in California Magazine: “From a firefighter’s perspective, wildland-urban interface combines the worst of both realms (suburb and forest): interface areas are not only cheek-to-jowl with fuel-rich forests, they’re also often characterized by dense housing tracts landscaped with lush, highly flammable vegetation. Today’s wildfires, in short, are not your grandpa’s wildfires; they’re usually hybrid-human started fires, involving both structures and forests, which greatly complicates the task for wildfire fighters and escalates the cost in life and property.” GREATER VICTORIA might serve as a textbook model of wildland-urban interface fire hazard. The city expanded from a 75-kilometre bull’s eye to one with a 1,650-kilometre circumference of wildland-urban interface. In addition, an urban forest covers much of its footprint. A Habitat Acquisition Trust study published in 2008 calculated that about 40 percent of Greater Victoria’s 696.2 square kilometre land area was then under tree canopy. Considering that the urban core of Victoria has 150,000 trees in a scant 19.5 square kilometres, similar density would mean perhaps five million trees over the rest of the capital region, even with declines in forested area. This forest is highly valued by residents—for good reason. It’s a central element in regional identity. It provides shade and greenery to offset pavement. It lessens runoff. It adds to biodiversity by offering habitat to urban wildlife. It produces oxygen, stores carbon and absorbs both air and water pollutants. Yet there’s a tradeoff. Many trees are non-native and drought-intolerant. They contribute to the deepening fire hazard. This alone warrants frank public discussion about what faces the City as summer rains diminish, temperatures rise, and very hot days and very dry spells become more frequent and last much longer. “We need to rethink our approach to urban landscape and start planning it in a much more holistic way,” says Johan Feddema, who studies the consequences of human actions on the environment and the effects of climate change upon society. The UVic scientist has examined the impacts of climate conditions upon severe crown fires. Everybody loves the urban forest, he notes, but it has a downside. During transpiration, trees extract water from the ground and transfer it to dry air. US Geological Survey scientists calculate that one large deciduous tree can extract 150,000 litres a year from surface soil—most during summer months when foliage is heaviest. And the hotter it gets, the greater the rate. Our beloved shade trees may actually be helping to dry out their surroundings faster during extended droughts. Does that mean we should mow down the urban forest? Of course not. Trees are important for sequestering carbon, and deciduous hardwoods like native oak and maple are among the top carbon-storers. Feddema says we should be aware of these natural processes and think about different kinds and mixes of vegetation—drought and fire-resistant native plants—and how to design urban infrastructure for cooling rather than for convenience or architectural aesthetic. Plan for more open green space, but with warming-appropriate vegetation. Even the shape and placement of green space and tall buildings in the urban core can enhance or inhibit circulation patterns that might be cooling other parts of the city. “Yes,” muses Feddema, “we need to think creatively about advocating for a holistic way of planning, designing and building our city.” Bone echoes that idea. If municipalities continue with zoning that permits residential dwellings in the wildland-urban interface hazard zone, he says, they have an obligation to engage in vigorous proactive education of residents about the dangers. An example of the education needed is warning people that one of the biggest risks that their house will burn down during a wildfire is as simple as needles collecting in rain gutters. And how many of us actually know our urban evacuation routes, have mapped alternative routes, or have even thought about what we will do if those carefully planned evacuation routes are blocked? The Capital Regional District voted unanimously last February to declare a climate emergency. It’s a worthy initiative. But, like many such programs, it seems heavy on mission statements and global plans for reducing greenhouse gas emissions, and less emphatic about practical but painful local decisions like reforming building codes or enacting stringent zoning bylaws which address the threat of urban wildfire. Emergency measures planners provide clear directions about what needs to be done: reduce ground fuel; increase the allowable margin between houses and forest cover; mandate flame-resistant building materials; regulate garden shrubbery and landscaping. One 2010 study found that by treating 10 percent of the adjacent forest landscape as a buffer zone in which ground fuel is removed, trees thinned and limbed, and underbrush cleared, risk of wildfire loss is reduced 70 percent. Considering that between 2014 and 2017, wildfires in western Canada and the US cost insurers almost $60 billion (CAD) in structural losses, this is something to think seriously about. IN CANADA AND BC, the danger trend is relentlessly upward. Wildfire scientists don’t doubt this is a direct consequence of our developing climate emergency. Right now, on average, 70,000 people and 20 communities a year in Canada are directly affected by wildfire events. That’s a 40 percent increase since 1980. BC tops the national list. And the trend will accelerate, not slow, as climate warms and summers get hotter and dryer. Ottawa expects the annual cost of fire protection to double by 2040. Some experts now argue that the former worst-case looks more like a future best-case as human beings pour planet-warming carbon dioxide into the atmosphere faster than at any time in human history. Fires of once-unimaginable intensity that happened every 20 years now occur every year. And the risks today are greater because wildfire-urban interface areas are vastly larger. By mid-May, half a month early, the 2019 fire season was already in full swing. Almost 14,000 fire refugees had already been evacuated from a vast arc through northern BC and Alberta and culminating in northern Ontario. Last year, 2018, was the worst on record for wildfires, dislocated populations, secondary health effects—emergency admissions for respiratory ailments doubled in BC as smoke became pervasive—and soaring fire suppression costs. In California, 81 people were dead, 870 were missing and almost 19,000 buildings had been destroyed in four hours. The year before that, 2017, had been the worst until 2018. In 2016, more than 88,000 people were evacuated as wildfire ripped through Fort McMurray in Alberta and destroyed 2,400 buildings. The year before that, 2015, was the worst-ever fire season for the US, representing a 133 percent increase over the long-term 50-year average in wildfire burn. No one welcomes a bearer of bad news, but it’s obvious that some version of the fire demon is waiting to visit itself upon Greater Victoria. We can’t prevent wildfire, it’s part of our environment, but we can adapt intelligently. Time to start thinking and talking seriously about that. Stephen Hume has spent half a century as a journalist writing about Western Canada, the North, BC and the Island. His byline has appeared in most major Canadian newspapers.
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