After two decades leading the University of Victoria’s Environmental Law Centre, and cheerfully fighting on behalf of the Earth and the communities that depend on its health, Calvin Sandborn is retiring (sort of).
CHOOSE OPTIMISM, CHOOSE LOVE, live a life of purpose. That’s Calvin Sandborn’s strategy for coping in a world faced with increasingly dire environmental crises including climate chaos, forest fires and the biodiversity crisis.
“I would argue that, in the struggle ahead, we must be guided first by love—by a love of nature and by love of all our brothers and sisters, including those we don’t agree with on everything,” Sandborn, 73, told guests at his I’m-really-not-retiring party.
After two decades leading the University of Victoria’s Environmental Law Centre—a non-profit organization which delivers pro bono legal assistance to Indigenous, environmental and community organizations and individuals fighting for conservation and sustainability—Sandborn is stepping down as ELC legal director.
However, he will continue to work on issues with environmental groups because there is so, so much work still to do, he said.
The gathering in honour of Sandborn drew a who’s-who of environmental activism—veteran environmentalists, politicians and up-and-coming environmental lawyers—representing decades of campaigns to make B.C. a better place to live.
At the centre of many of those campaigns, which, often against all odds, pushed governments and corporations to make changes, were the investigations and reports of Sandborn and his ELC students.
The need for mining law reform, the scourge of plastic pollution, agricultural pesticide use, right to roam, and water sustainability are among the many topics which came under scrutiny by Sandborn and his students.
“And we’ve had lots of wins. The urban air quality is better than it was in the 1960s by far and you don’t have problematic levels of lead—we’ve gotten lead out of the gasoline and you can eat the crabs in Cowichan Bay when you couldn’t in the 1990s,” Sandborn said in an interview.
Sandborn with community members
At the heart of all the conservation campaigns has been love of nature, he said.
“We have seen the photos of Earth from space—a fragile blue-green emerald with a very thin layer of air, water and land that supports the only known life in the universe. We have stood open-mouthed as orcas leapt out of the ocean. We have seen the heron silently stalk fish in a shallow lagoon at dawn. We have seen the salmon runs—tragic as Shakespeare, joyful as Easter. We have watched eagles clenched together, riding the updraft. Indigenous people have taught us to recognize Sister Cedar and they have taught us to welcome the Trout Children and all of our relatives,” he said.
BC’s Indigenous Relations and Reconciliation Minister Murray Rankin has known Sandborn since his days of social justice activism in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside. The friendship continued through Sandborn’s time at West Coast Environmental Law, the Commission on Resources and the Environment (CORE), the Forest Practices Board and then the—initially unpaid—position at the ELC.
“He’s been responsible for so much law reform,” Rankin said in an interview, adding that Sandborn’s unquenchable optimism has marked most of the campaigns.
“I think he feels that the only way to keep your head above water is to inspire younger people and you inspire younger people not with doom and gloom, but with the possibility of significant reform and his career is a testament to that…. His whole message is ‘be happy and engage,’” Rankin said.
In addition to optimism, Sandborn is unfailingly sincere, he added.
“What you see is such an authentic person—that’s what I love about Calvin. He’s the same for everybody and in every circumstance,” he said.
Despite his reputation for optimism, Sandborn concedes that the environmental future looks grim at a time that Canada is on fire, the public—despite all evidence—remains divided about whether climate change is real and environmental crises threaten to upend the world.
But there is still hope, he insists.
“We cannot surrender to climate fear, we cannot afford the luxury of pessimism, the stakes are too high for hopelessness,” he said.
“Such a people person, such a connector”
Over the years the biggest source of Sandborn’s optimism has been the procession of bright, enthusiastic students that have cycled through the program and the committed clients, dedicated to protecting the environment, who have come to him with issues that need addressing.
“And the work we have done with Indigenous people has been so fascinating. Just learning another way of looking at the world and another way of understanding our relationship with nature,” he said.
With his mix of charisma, passion, a knack for digging out details and unerring media savvy, Sandbar has inspired generations of students.
“I always tried to run the ELC like a summer camp,” said Sandborn when asked about the strong loyalty and motivation of his students.
“The guitar was important. I would pull it out in class or when we had dinners or whatever. The other thing is going for walks… I think people do think better when they are walking and it’s kind of a communal activity,” he said.
Erin Gray, now a staff lawyer with West Coast Environmental Law marine team who chose to study at UVic because of the ELC, said Sandborn is incredibly passionate about environmental conservation and training the next generation of environmental lawyers.
“He totally dedicates his life to both endeavours. He has achieved an amazing amount in his career,” she said.
“He’s such a people person, such a connector.”
Sandborn built up the ELC and has left an incredible legacy through his students and the work they are now doing, Gray said.
“He has worked on almost any issue you can think of. He focused a lot on climate lately, lots of plastic pollution work and he has done work in forestry and public access to land,” she said.
It takes talent to connect with a client, scope out a tangible legal issue that students can work on and then ensure the final product is something that can further the issue and get suitable publicity, she said.
“We learned law from him, but also learned how to be part of a campaign and speak to journalists,” Gray said.
In addition, there were always the new songs—accompanied by Sandborn’s guitar—relating to social or environmental justice, she said.
Calvin Sandborn playing his guitar outside the retirement party at the Gorge Park Pavilion (photo by Arifin Graham)
Sandborn’s ability to spot a potential news story—and his you-can’t-say-no calls to reporters—were instrumental in raising the profile of issues and his accessible writing style landed his views on the need for environmental reforms on the editorial page of numerous newspapers.
One of Sandborn’s high profile campaigns brought author Margaret Atwood into the mix.
It started with a 2019 campaign for a national plastics strategy, including a ban on single use plastics, and Sandborn noticed that Atwood was one of the 140,000 people who signed in support of a resolution to Parliament
“I wondered if Margaret Atwood would be open to co-authoring something, so I contacted her and she said she would,” Sandborn said.
Sandborn holding a not fully recyclable coffee pod
That joint article caught the attention of the president of the Keurig Canada coffee company, who claimed the single use K-cup pods were part of the solution to the plastic problem as they could be recycled.
It was a claim the company came to regret.
“I went and looked at the ads they were running for the Keurig K-Cup pods and I thought ‘well, that’s a pack of misleading stuff,’ so we filed a complaint with the Competition Bureau and they got a $3-million fine and they had to change all their ads and issue correction notices in every newspaper in the country,” Sandborn explained.
The Competition Bureau found that the pods were recyclable only in B.C. and Quebec and, even in those provinces, the process was complicated.
Atwood was among those who sent letters marking Sandborn’s ELC retirement.
Working together to keep this fragile boat from sinking
Sandborn’s taste for environmental and social justice stemmed from his mother who was a social worker in a notoriously redneck town in California, but, as he started his career in the 1970s, Canada was not on his radar even though his brother, a draft dodger, was living in Vancouver.
“I was signed up to go to Africa with the Peace Corps, but they delayed my departure for six months, so I came to Vancouver and I met a woman and never went back,” he said.
Before going to law school at University of British Columbia, Sandborn lived in the same Downtown Eastside house as Libby Davies, who later became a prominent NDP MP, and her then husband, social activist Bruce Eriksen. The three activists, appalled at the number of people dying in fires in single room occupancy hotels, began a campaign for sprinklers and then for more rights for those living in the poverty-stricken area, leading eventually to the formation of the Downtown Eastside Residents Association.
During law school, Sandborn embarked on a campaign to help farm workers improve their wages and health and safety standards, leading to heated exchanges with farmers.
Rankin recalled that someone called the Attorney General’s ministry to say a farmer had been heard saying that Sandborn should be careful or he might find himself face down in the Fraser River.
“I’m relieved to say that never materialized, but it gives you some idea of the climate he was working in,” Rankin said.
The next high-profile campaign was reform of agricultural chemicals and pesticides, during which Sandborn found himself battling farmers and the Social Credit government.
“Finally, the regulations were enacted. They saved many lives,” Rankin said.
In 1992, Sandborn was asked to join the Commission on Resources and the Environment (CORE). There he he participated in negotiations that which introduced the concept of getting-to-yes. Despite massive controversy, they led to an unparalleled expansion of BC Parks.
“Getting to yes” remains part of Sandborn’s life philosophy.
“We must abandon finger-pointing, sneering, cynicism and blaming other people and invite all people to work together,” Sandborn said.
“The fact is that we are all in the same boat, all on the same earth. We need a little less calling people out and a whole lot more calling people in. We need to invite and persuade everyone to work together and keep this fragile boat from sinking,” he said.
Polarization and fragmentation, often fuelled by social media, is discouraging, Sandborn admitted.
“You know, if we are divided we will fall, so how do we get to that unity to understand that we’re all on the Earth. We’re all in this together, so we have to patch up the hole in the boat,” he said.
With his usual optimism, Sandborn sees signs that the ubiquitous obsession with social media and the distraction of devices is starting to change.
“In the last five or six years I started to see a positive trend where my brightest students are coming into class and carrying a notebook and pen instead of a device. They have figured out that if you are typing notes on a computer you are basically doing stenography instead of taking it in and learning,” he said.
ELC job pro bono in first year
Following CORE, in 1997, Sandborn went to the Forest Practices Board. As legal counsel to the Board, he acted at the request of the Haida Nation and successfully blocked logging of marbled murrelet habitat in the Eden Lake area of Haida Gwaii. But in 2003, Sandborn was one of the casualties of the Liberal government’s massive cuts.
The upside of that job loss was a severance package that allowed him to accept a position as senior counsel at the ELC even though there was no money to pay him.
“But, as Bob Dylan would have put it, there was a simple twist of fate. One day a letter arrived from Quadra Island from one Eric Peterson asking what amount of money would be needed for ELC to have a five-year budget,” Rankin said.
Philanthropist Peterson and his wife Christina Munck bankroll the non-profit Tula Foundation which funds environmental initiatives, most of them in B.C.
“I am happy to report that the ELC is now in much better financial shape and many people are recognizing its remarkable success” Rankin said.
Sandborn never regretted his decision to take on the ELC position.
“I am a truly blessed person in that I was given a job that was a perfect fit for me,” he said.
Sandborn also found time to pen books such as A Pocket Guide to B.C. Law, Green Space and Growth, Law Reform for Sustainable Development in B.C. and Becoming the Kind Father: A Son’s Journey, a book which explores his relationship with his alcoholic father and sets out the case against patriarchy.
Longtime environmental activist Vicky Husband said Sandborn has given the ELC 20 years of total dedication.
“He took on so many incredibly important issues and he was the driving force. Calvin had a good team and he inspired them,” Husband said.
Vicky Husband, Green Party MLA Adam Olsen, and Calvin Sandborn (photo by Arifin Graham)
“He helped his students to understand what their role could be as environmental advocates and many of them have gone on to do really wonderful things. It’s so important,” she said.
As Sandborn stepped away from the podium where tributes to his ELC work had rolled in, he threw in advice for the next generation.
Build bridges with people and win them over, he said.
“Have fun. Dance. Play music. Share joy with others. Love each other. It’s in community that we break the epidemic of alienation that drives environmental destruction,” he said.
“The environmental crisis is daunting. The work will not be easy, but take heart. As Martin Luther King told us, the arc of history is long, but it bends towards justice. We shall overcome.”
Freelance journalist Judith Lavoie has spent over 30 years as a reporter in the Greater Victoria area. She has won four Webster awards and has been nominated for a National Newspaper Award and a Michener Award.