The gap between incomes and housing costs has grown so wide that bold action is overdue.
WHEN I MOVED HERE from Winnipeg 30 years ago, I quickly found myself a modest one-bedroom apartment on Quebec Street in James Bay. A three-story walk-up, my pad featured hardwood floors and a southern exposure. It had a tiny galley kitchen, a balcony, and a parking space. I loved it; it was the perfect nest from which to fly about my new city and start my life over. It cost me $315/month.
Having settled the housing facet of my life, I moved on to finding a job, doing freelance writing, taking some classes, and volunteering with local organizations. I couldn’t have done any of it without a secure home whose rental rate allowed me to afford the other basics along with a few frills, like writing and art classes, and listening to some great music at Harpo’s.
Contrast my welcoming environment to what people at the low end of the income spectrum face now: a rental vacancy rate of 0.6 percent—one of the worst in Canada—along with out-of-reach rents. My Quebec Street home was torn down years ago to make way for a strata-titled townhouse complex. But a search of rental listings yielded a similar apartment—without the hardwood floors and free parking—for $1250/month.
The tales of woe I am hearing personally range from students losing a shared rental house when the owner decided to cash out, to a family from the Comox Valley with two university-age children struggling to find a house to rent. Lisa Morgan says she is hoping for something around $2000/month, but after months of looking, she’s found the only suitable homes in terms of location and space all fall in the $2800-3000 price range. As the search continues, the family is camping out at the grandparents’ home in Brentwood Bay. Daughter Morgan will commute to UVic.
Another, much younger family, with their infant, was “renovicted” from their rental home recently. Unable to find an affordable replacement despite both parents working, they are moving into the unfinished basement of their parents. With only one kitchen and bathroom, “adjustments” are having to be made by all parties.
At another end of the spectrum is an active septuagenarian who owns a home with reasonable mortgage fees, but is considering selling and moving to Mexico because there seems no other solution in the face of needed costly repairs and rising utility bills.
Sixty percent of Victorians rent their home. Renting is the only way many young people, singles, seniors and families can afford to house themselves. They all add to a city’s diversity, vibrancy and potential. So it seems in everyone’s interest to help them feel more welcome in our city.
In researching the ISSUE of affordable housing, I kept coming across the name of Marika Albert—the author (often with others) of reports for both the CRD and the Coalition to End Homelessness. She also served on the City of Victoria’s Housing Affordability Task Force and is currently the managing director of the Community Social Planning Council of Greater Victoria.
During an August meeting, Albert and I discuss this community’s housing challenge, focusing particularly on rentals.
Together we look at the graph (shown above) from the 167-page Capital Region Housing Gap Analysis & Data Book that Albert helped compile. The graph puts the problem into stark relief, illustrating a fundamental mismatch between where our population is in terms of income, and the cost of available housing. Only 13.7 percent of the region’s homes are affordable for 50 percent of its households. The income at the upper end, just left of the dotted red line is $59,999. Put another way, there are only 22,000 units priced at 30 percent of the gross income of 79,000 households. And there’s an oversupply of housing for those in upper income groups. Since these figures are from data from 2011 to 2014, the gap is likely even more dramatic now.
The lower-income people who cannot find housing that “matches” their income are, says Albert, therefore overspending and experiencing a lot of stress and its attendant problems, and in some cases homelessness.
Albert and other members on the City of Victoria’s Housing Affordability Task Force looked particularly at ways to generate more housing for households in the $18,000-$57,000 per annum range.
“We really focused on immediate need and trying to resolve the real crisis or the tension that we have now. We talked a lot about inclusionary zoning, densification and diversified densification. How do we fit more people in an area, but without necessarily having to build massive towers? How do we fill in the corners of our neighborhoods a bit more?”
The task force came up with a list of things the City should consider, and these have informed the City’s Housing Strategy 2016-2025. Among the recommendations already prioritized in the Strategy are removing the minimum unit size (currently 335 square feet); reducing parking requirements for units (which can add $25-40,000 in costs to developers, which is passed on to tenants); removing the rezoning requirement for garden suites; and reviewing the Housing Reserve Fund guidelines for grants to developers of affordable housing projects. (Non-profit providers have expressed concerns that the $10,000 per unit cap on grants may soon limit their ability to build units that are affordable for people in the low-to-moderate income bracket.)
Other recommendations of the task force that will be looked at further down the road include fostering the conversion of older motels to apartments, and contributing City-owned land at no cost or at reduced market value for the development of affordable housing projects. (The City of Vancouver recently committed to building 400 affordable rental suites on its city-owned lands.)
Albert says, “I think that municipalities are in a position to be a bit more assertive [with developers] around what they see as their community needs. We have developers wanting to build here. Ultimately, it’s going to be lucrative for them.” She feels some progress has been made, but too often it’s just not enough. “It’s sad. It’s like, ‘Really? Just 10 [affordable units in a large complex]? What’s that going to do?’ I find it frustrating because I think a lot of effort has been put into lobbying for more units, changing how we do that whole process and then it’s just, ‘Oh, we’re just going to do this fast route, 10 units and then that’s it.’”
She is, however, excited to see that the City of Victoria is endorsing the creation of an “inclusionary housing density bonus policy” for the Downtown core. Inclusionary zoning essentially means that if housing is built in that zone, it has to represent the income distribution of the area—thereby maintaining its diversity. Albert believes, “The more diverse your community is the more it thrives. Jane Jacobs has talked about that a lot in her work.”
DESPITE HER WORK AND ADVOCACY at the civic level, Albert admits cities do not have the tools or money available to them that upper levels of government do. When it comes to the bolder measures needed to address the profound disconnect between incomes and housing, those upper levels need to come to the table.
On the income side of the equation, she notes, household incomes have been stagnating. “We are losing our purchasing power. Income assistance rates haven’t gone up since 2007.” Another graph we examine shows that the rate of the increase in shelter costs and the rate at which wages are going up have decoupled in the past decade. On the ground, this translates to a person working full-time at BC’s minimum hourly wage of $10.45 spending 50 percent of their income to rent a bachelor apartment at the 2015 regional average of $716/month. Looking at another scenario, a family of four would require both parents working full-time at $20.05/hour to afford the basics, including a 3-bedroom apartment with utilities and insurance amounting to $1488/month all-inclusive. Those wages, by the way, would not allow for vacations, savings, or debt servicing.
“We can’t just address one side of the coin,” says Albert—“especially for people who are on low incomes, who are living on disability, who are trying to scrape by in a rental market that has no vacancy and is becoming more expensive.”
Increasing minimum wage, income assistance and disability rates, of course, points us in the direction of the Provincial government.
With an election in May, the Liberals—along with both the NDP and Green parties—do seem to be paying attention to the dearth of affordable housing, which a recent poll found to be the top concern of British Columbians. The government’s actions thus far, however, have been aimed at cooling the over-heated real estate sales market, especially in Vancouver (e.g. a tax on foreign buyers) or, as in Victoria, funding much-needed new transitional supportive housing to address homelessness, a crisis made so visible by the tent city on the Province’s Law Courts grounds.
The Province is also the level of government where rent controls can be enhanced and legislative measures to deal with burgeoning renovictions can be implemented. The Province’s Tenancy Branch has received almost 5000 applications to dispute eviction notices in the past year, which likely represent the tip of iceberg (who has the time and money to file a complaint when hunting for a new place?). The penalty for landlords who are found to evict someone “in bad faith” is two months’ rent, which they can make back in no time, given the market and the loopholes in the Residential Tenancy Act.
The Province has far more tools at its disposal than the City to help those caught in the squeeze illustrated by our graph. With a provincial election come May, citizens have some influence as well.
THE OTHER DIRECTION TO LOOK for some bold measures to tackle housing affordability, of course, is the federal government.
In one of the reports Albert worked on, I had noticed a graph showing the age of this region’s rental apartments. It made clear that between 1961 and 1980 there was a building boom in purpose-built rental apartments; in fact, the ones still standing represent 43 percent of all rental units in the CRD. In the City of Victoria itself, of the current 17,000 or so purpose-built rental apartments, “nearly 70 percent of these units were built between 1950 and 1975 under a series of Federal tax measures and construction incentives,” states the City’s Task Force report.
Albert explains that during that era, “We had a national housing strategy. The federal government through CMHC was investing in the building of purpose-built rentals—both market rentals, but also subsidized units…There was actual incentive for developers to build them.”
By the mid-1980s, however, the feds had lost interest in subsidized housing and discontinued funding any social housing projects. Then came the Province’s turn to lose interest and halt their funding. One result: Where homelessness was virtually unheard of in the 1980s, by the 2000s people were sleeping in doorways and parks. There are now 235,000 people homeless in Canada.
The Trudeau Liberals, during the election campaign, acknowledged the need for the feds to re-engage on the housing front in a bold way: They promised to “prioritize investments in affordable housing and seniors’ facilities, build more new housing units and refurbish old ones, give support to municipalities to maintain rent-geared-to-income subsidies in co-ops, and give communities the money they need for Housing First initiatives that help homeless Canadians find stable housing.” They also said they’d remove all GST on new capital investments in affordable rental housing. And “conduct an inventory of all available federal lands and buildings that could be repurposed, and make some of these lands available at low cost for affordable housing in communities where there is a pressing need.”
In all, the federal Liberals promised that $20 billion would be invested in social housing over the next decade.
In Victoria recently, federal Minister of Families, Children and Social Development Jean-Yves Duclos said a national housing strategy could be in place before the end of the year. He also announced $150 million in federal funding over the next two years for housing in BC, $51 million of it for repairs and upgrades to social housing units.
So the feds are re-engaging with the issue—though with many promises to keep. And the Province, heading into an election next spring, is starting to engage as well. But in those years in which they were both missing in action, things got awfully difficult for many Canadians.
Leslie Campbell is the founding editor of Focus. She now lives, almost affordably, in a co-op heritage house in Victoria.
Sewage and the politics of contamination Another excellent article on the contamination of local politics, toxic promises, and confabulation in the name of serving the public interest.
It’s amazing how the fine print in an environmental legislation clause, private side trade deals between political leaders in BC and Washington state, and IOUs left over from the Vancouver/Whistler Winter Olympic Games can be used to over-ride the right of elector consent in order to plunder the public purse and build a regional sewage treatment system that could cost $3 billion over time.
I appreciate your investigative reporting about the vested interests involved in the newly appointed provincial board to oversee the development of this multi-billion dollar questionable infrastructure project. It seems a hand-picked group of political patrons with links to a major engineering consulting firm, Stantec, will now have the final say on the form of land-based sewage treatment that will be used, and the location(s) of the facility(ies).
My concern is that these tight political and business relationships seem to be pointing to more skullduggery in the awarding of another lucrative publicly-financed project close to home.
Installing rails on Ogden Point Breakwater for the Greater Victoria Harbour Authority (GVHA) was a low-risk project for Stantec. Now this engineering firm is the GVHA’s lead consultant on another multi-year, multi-million dollar infrastructure project. It is formulating a 30-year Ogden Point Master Plan and a rezoning application to the City of Victoria. Why? To justify the investment of more than $300 million to redevelop GVHA’s Ogden Point property (divested from the Federal Department of Transport in 2002).
GVHA, a $12-million private non-profit enterprise, is not known for its transparent and accountable business model. Its long-term development plan crafted by Stantec has all the earmarks of another pillaging of public funds for private interests. Their dream is the transformation of a contaminated marine site into an earthquake-proof property replete with refurbished piers, new cruise-ship terminals, not to mention an upgraded heliport site, and additional retail and commercial buildings including a boutique hotel to welcome more than 500,000 tourists annually to this prize waterfront site.
It’s not the polluters, the profiteers, or the politicians who pay. It’s the public who will bear the burden of “bold” boondoggles, mounting debts, and soaring taxes.
Re the letter in the July/August issue of Focus from fellow biologist and long-ago colleague Thor Henrich. He is one of the very few to mention the huge contribution of the freshwater input into the Salish Sea as a means of diluting and transporting sewage effluent. Tides ebb and flow, but the input of rivers is one-way. The end result is extreme dilution of effluent by the time it reaches the Strait of Juan de Fuca. Accurate measurement is beyond most instruments available locally. It has been estimated that the concentration of pollutants in the Strait is “a few parts per trillion.” That may not conjure up an immediate image of the situation. Do the math and it turns out that, if the figure is 10 parts per trillion, then a water sample that would fill the former ill-fated tanker Exxon Valdez 21 times over would yield just one cupful of pollutants.
Another point that should be made is that, in 1994—within the lifetime of the current sewage system—E.D.Cokelet, a Seattle-based oceanographer, studied the effluent in the waters off Victoria, analyzed it and traced it back to its source. He found that 52.1 percent came from the Vancouver area, 43.2 percent came from the Seattle area and only 4.7 percent came from Victoria itself. Not only does this give the lie to Washington State’s claim that Victoria is polluting that state’s beaches but it also means that those 21 tankers-full of water samples would yield only two teaspoons of Victoria-based pollutants!
Do we really have to spend a billion dollars to eliminate so little?
Bear in mind that much, most or even all of that Victoria-based effluent comes not from the sewage system but from the many residences whose sewage bypasses the sewage system and enters the storm drain system, either directly or through the pairing of the storm drain and sewer systems, designed to share the load during heavy rainfalls. (Hence the posting of beach closures due to e-coli contamination following heavy rains). A few years ago, dye studies confirmed the presence of sewage that bypassed the sewage system. Why has that not been followed up on? It would be very much more cost-effective.
Meanwhile, if the federal and local scientists are so far apart in their evaluation of the local sewage treatment scene, get the Feds out here, so that they and the locals can have a meaningful discussion on site. Let them take actual samples in situ. Let them see the flourishing populations of diverse species in the vicinity of the outfalls. Let’s get them talking facts. And sense.
Before we choose the ultimate sewage treatment system for the CRD core area municipalities, we should all be aware of some basic facts. The first is that in the 44-year history of Macaulay and 35-year history of Clover Point outfalls, there has never been any scientific evidence of shoreline pollution caused by the operation of their deep sea outfalls.
During this time, however, there has been continuing periodic discharges of raw sewage into the relatively shallow waters along our beaches and shorelines.
Why? Because in most, if not all, municipal sewage latterals there is a combination of sewage and household stormwater runoff. In periods of heavy rainfall, the hugely increased flow would “overcharge” the sewage trunk lines, necessitating overflow stations discharging to the relatively shallow, near-shore waters. Because there is not sufficient contact with full-strength sea water at these outfalls, some of the pathogens, such as e-coli, are not killed off and we have, or should have, health warnings posted.
This overflow problem was noted in a 1966 Greater Victoria Sewerage Study—50 years ago. It is still a problem today.
It should be noted that no matter what type of sewage treatment we eventually select, we will still have this shoreline pollution problem unless we separate the sewage from the household stormwater. To do this we need separate lines for each.
Surely it only makes sense to retain our tried-and-true deep-sea outfall treatment system and re-dedicate the billion dollars or more estimated for land-based sewage treatment to separate (twin) all the household sanitary and stormwater drainage.
It might also be noted that twinning sewage and household stormwater drains could be handled by local engineering and construction firms, thereby keeping the dollars circulating in the community.
Might one assume that the BC Liberals’ usurpation of the sewage impasse is driven by two factors—namely that there is an election on the horizon; and that this is yet another opportunity to direct some very large funds to friends and supporters of the Liberal Party? Because this juggernaut called sewage treatment apparently flies in the face of both reason and science, it must be driven by vested interests.
The same goes for the Mackenzie Interchange Project, where tens of millions of dollars will be spent to give the impression of progress, which again flies in the face of reason.
It seems the decision-makers don’t really give a damn whether any of these actually work, so long as they give the governing party “talking points.” And then there is the Massey Tunnel replacement, and of course Site C. The list goes on….
Well done! Great research, analysis and summation. I think David Broadland (and Focus) should get the Pulitzer Prize (or Canada’s equivalent) for his investigative reporting on the sewage issue. This is probably the best news reporting in Victoria for many years and its potential to prevent the waste of billions of taxpayers’ money should be recognized.
We must understand that the municipal politicians are limited by their constitutional subservience to the Provincial Legislature but the public still has final control—witness Brexit.
I can only hope the public will read your articles and then act on them to step forward to halt a travesty of public sector mismanagement and bureaucratic momentum.
Over the past decade, the public has repeatedly gathered its local mass indignation to block the location of the sewage treatment component of the sewage-handling issue (the most visible but much less expensive part). Maybe we can reset the whole agenda and rethink the timing of the whole project by redirecting that mass indignation against a more proper target.
Once the sewage investment money is spent, it is highly unlikely that any political party will investigate the outcome to determine if we got value for the spent billions. Why would our politicians bother? It is spent. There is little political value in digging up skeletons, especially when they each were a part of the hit team.
So we have a very narrow window of opportunity in preventing the expenditure of these billions. I think your articles should be used as the basis for all future sewage-related questions to our political leaders; they are that good. Treasury Board staff take note.
More nails in the coffin of the cholesterol hypothesis In a media world overloaded with conflicting health information, shoddy research, corporate lobbying and sketchy marketing, finding a trusted information source is like grabbing a life ring in a raging storm. Alan Cassels is one of those life rings. His last Focus article on statins is typical of his thoughtful science-based evaluation of the influential pharmaceutical world.
Critiques of their world are warranted but we shouldn’t lay total blame at their feet. We all want the “good life” and all the food, drink and pleasure that come with it. Unfortunately, with it comes all the negatives: obesity, high blood pressure, diabetes, cancer, heart attacks and strokes. And we want it to all go away with a pill. And we want our government to pay for that pill.
The headlines always go to the “new pill that promises…”, the “new machine that can find…” the “promising cancer drug that may…”. Yet little press goes to the well-proven, weight-losing, type II diabetes- and atherosclerosis-reversing, cholesterol- and high-blood- pressure-lowering world of plant-based foods—the world of whole grains, corn, rice, beans, legumes, potatoes, vegetables and fruits, a diet that fed millions of Chinese, Japanese, South American, Mexican and African people before meat and dairy were promoted.
Some of the leaders in this field are T. Colin Campbell, Drs Dean Ornish, Neal Barnard, John McDougall, Caldwell Esselstyn. The common denominators of these folk are their research, promotion of plant-based foods, and their lack of corporate sponsorship.
Are you thinking the plant-based consumers are a fringe group? The Ornish Plan is being paid for by Medicare in the US as well as a number of private insurers because it saves them paying out for stents, by-passes and other expensive treatments. US Health coverage provider Kaiser Permanente has written a physicians guide calling for no meat, dairy or oils. A win-win because Kaiser saves money and the patients improve their health. China recently announced a 50 percent dietary meat reduction to combat disease and global warming.
Speaking up for seniors: BC’s Seniors Advocate Focus writers Judith Lavoie and Alan Cassels never disappoint. “De-tox for public discourse” was interesting too; in my mind it fit in wonderfully with Leslie’s references to dear old Bertrand Russell, Mr Eloquence himself.
As for the article on old people, as an old person myself, I must say I bristled at the title, “Speaking up for Seniors.” Why do we need “others” speaking up for us anymore than aboriginals or disabled people or feminists or immigrants or prisoners? Isobel Mackenzie (very conservative; government-appointed) certainly doesn’t speak for me. I’d like to see an article on aging and ageism written by an old person, an old person who is comfortable enough with her age that she doesn’t resort to euphemisms such as “seniors,” “pensioners”, and “golden agers.”
The media bombards us all with phrases such as “age-defying,” “young at heart,” “takes years off your appearance,” “wrinkle erasing,” “85 years young”—illustrating that ageism is pervasive and damaging, and that fear of getting old is rampant. This topic needs a very thorough study and a radical, myth-bashing approach. No offence intended, just encouraging Focus to take it much, much further.
It was disappointing that your article failed to even mention the very serious rise of violence in care facilities. As someone who has considerable experience with this issue, the main problem is that residents are being taken off mood stabilizing medications as a result of the anti-psychotics campaign, without there being an effective, personalized care plan in place so that those residents do not harm other people. The result has been more seniors and staff being victims of violence, which is heart-breaking.
It is true that anti-psychotics have been used as a quick-fix “solution” for violent behaviour since it is cheaper and easier to administer a drug rather than have an adequate number of sufficiently-trained staff to deal with residents who are prone to aggression.
But it never occurs to some decision-makers that the reason they were prescribed mood stabilizing medications in the first place is that they are a danger to others when they are not receiving appropriate care and supervision.
Editor’s note: The Advocate’s report on aggression in care homes points out: “Recent work by the Canadian Foundation for Health Improvement found that, during a controlled study in 56 Canadian long-term care facilities, decreasing the use of antipsychotics not only did not lead to more incidents of aggressive behaviour, but in fact led to less incidents of aggressive behaviour. Findings such as this once again call into question the role of antipsychotics in treating aggressive behaviours. Our analysis did not find any relationship between use of restraints and occurrence of incidents.”
I often think that part of the systemic difficulties that occur are because our society sees “Seniors” as somehow “other” than the rest of the population. I don’t think anyone who is under the age of 65 would appreciate having to live in a facility with no real privacy, treated as children, having to report for meals at certain times, with everyone in the same age bracket surrounding them.
I also am struggling with an aged parent, who is presently at home. She has home care a couple of hours a day. Her body is frail, but her mind is active and lively. She has been falling regularly. Our family knows she will not do very well in an extended-care facility. And she may be past the point of residing in an assisted-living situation. There need to be other solutions, as all of us are quickly approaching our older years.
One of my ideas is to create townhouse/garden flat complexes with central courtyards that could be used by all ages: young families, singles, and the elderly.
Trans Mountain: Trudeau should just say No Thank you for an excellent report by Judith Lavoie on the Kinder Morgan pipeline. You might ask her if she publishes again to include the fact that this pipeline will add an additional 126 million tonnes of greenhouse gases to the atmosphere every year. This looks to me like a worse environmental disaster than even an inevitable oil spill on land or in water.
To put that in context, greenhouse gas emissions for all of BC—from all cars, trucks and buses, all house and building heating and from all industries including the high-emitting cement industry—totals 64 million tonnes per year. This one pipeline will add two BCs-worth of emissions and take the federal government in the opposite direction from its promise to reduce Canada’s greenhouse gases.
It seems we are supposed to look the other way if the bitumen is burnt outside Canada. It supposedly doesn’t count. Does anyone think it will not affect our own climate? This is not some silly counting game. It deeply affects the lives of our children and grandchildren.
I put some money and effort into buying an electric car and a heat pump, to replace my gas car and my oil furnace. I calculate I saved the atmosphere two tonnes of greenhouse gases a year. This pipeline will make a total mockery of my effort and a mockery of the efforts of the BC government to persuade people to reduce their emissions. No one else will follow my example once they see that the federal government will dwarf their changes by such a huge retrograde project. Just note the numbers: 126,000,000 to…2.
I believe that Canada’s economy will benefit greatly by diversifying the customer base for Canadian resources. I feel that it is quite safe to ship oil by sea because of great advances in tanker safety such as global positioning system navigation, double-hulled tankers, and the practice of using ocean escort tugs.
I have considerable sea-going marine experience in BC waters and in my judgement the navigation passage from Vancouver to the open sea is not particularly difficult and I have good faith in the very professional BC Pilotage Association and the Canadian Coast Guard Vessel Traffic Management System that oversees the safe navigation of deep sea vessels.
Not all your respondents are opposed to this important project.
Paul C. Leblanc
My congratulations on another absorbing issue of Focus. David Broadland’s continuing research into all aspects of the sewage issue is investigative reporting at its best!
However, I wish to “argue” about the main premise of the article on the Transmountain pipeline which is that, for global warming to be successfully limited before an uncontrollable catastrophe occurs, most hydrocarbon sources need to be “left in the ground.” And Canada’s tar sands should be a prime candidate for this.
Let me first say that I firmly believe that climate change is caused by humans, and that at its extreme, it will be an existential challenge for modern civilization if not the human race. So it is possibly the foremost problem facing the world today. All of the distinguished persons mentioned in the article are also highly concerned about global warming, but all of the quotes and citations used in the article seem to focus on just one aspect and ignore a much bigger and complex problem, namely, how does Canada sustain a prosperous economy while also acting responsibly in the climate change arena?
Economically, Canada cannot be self-sufficient, especially with respect to lower-value manufactured goods, specialized machine tools, entertainment, vacations in warm climates, and such. So we have to trade. Canada’s vast area means it incurs higher infrastructure costs; it cannot sustain a single national power grid which might optimize electricity use. We need to spend relatively more energy for transportation. And Canada’s location in the “frozen north” means it has relatively high heating costs. Nor is Canada physically located in an advantageous place for trade with any other nation than the USA. There are two implications for us in all this: One is that we must trade; the other is that we have relatively high energy needs even if we want to be responsible global citizens.
If we have to trade, what do we have to offer the rest of the world? For the most part it’s natural resources of all sorts (minerals, wood products, grains, gas and oil). Maybe some other country can afford to leave its hydrocarbons in the ground; we can’t.
And where do we get our energy? It would be great if we could shift more to electricity which is not generated by burning fossil fuels. So what are our options? Nuclear—makes a lot of sense but most if not all of the experts featured in this article oppose nuclear, despite the lack of objective scientific evidence to support such a position. Hydro—great, but I’m aware that at least some of the article’s experts are staunch opponents of BC’s Site C Hydro project. Seems inconsistent to me. And places like Saskatchewan simply don’t have a hydro option. Solar—also great, but we aren’t a particularly sunny place, and without effective and economic means to store solar for when it’s needed, solar will always remain a small contributor to Canada’s overall energy use. Wind—yes it has a future, but again only as a relatively modest contributor to the overall energy needs because wind requires too big a land footprint to be used on a massive scale.
Climate change and Canada’s impact (good or bad) is indeed a complex issue. It would be nice if Focus could source more balanced and scientifically sound articles on this important issue.
De-tox for public discourse Recently I have been wondering how to understand/digest/work with comments and letters to the newspaper in my own small community that are distressingly fractious. I don’t know the answer to my concerns, but reading the editorial and articles in the most recent Focus magazine certainly added clarity to what doesn’t work in building community.
Recently a reporter for our small newspaper on Gabriola wrote what I thought was an engaging, inclusive, and well-intentioned article about Justin Trudeau’s participation in Pride events across Canada. I know that this article was meant to build community locally and in a broader sense. However, the letters responding to the article in the following week’s newspaper berated the reporter for not including all the different terms for various transsexual stages and identities. She was harshly criticized for celebrating an event for which she apparently did not use the correct terminology. I’m fairly well-educated and well-read, and I probably would have fared worse if I had written the article myself.
I realized that my distress over the rude letters arose from a feeling that those same critical writers could have commented on the omissions and errors about transsexual terminology and sexual identities in a way that would have brought readers on-side with their complaints, instead of alienating readers like me who now wonder if I can say anything about those topics without being offensive. The feeling of community and inclusiveness that was intended by the reporter was parsed by angry people whose attitude seemed to say, “You forgot my special identity which is more important than anything!”
Building community, strengthening civil discourse, celebrating public space, and working for democracy requires everyone to argue and discuss issues with an open mind, integrity, and a will to work together for everyone’s benefit. The July/August issue of Focus is an excellent example of these intentions.
New calls for a moratorium on old growth logging There is a peculiar reference in Briony Penn’s recent report on seeking a land use agreement for Vancouver Island to consider the scientific principles and innovative planning found in the 2015 Great Bear Rainforest agreement.
Yet in that forward-thinking agreement there are some 25 million cubic metres of old growth to be logged from the GBR over the next ten years. To get some idea of that amount, take a look at the next logging truck you see, and then imagine 500,000 more.
Hope Jahren, the palaeobiologist who has written a new book, Lab girl: A Story of Trees, is of the view that in some 600 years, logging pursuits will have reduced most trees on the Earth to stumps, part of the broader outlook that our world is falling apart.
Guidance may be needed in preserving old growth forests on Vancouver Island. But as reading material to that end, the GBR agreement could hardly be a worse choice.
The search for a solution to the sewage treatment issue has lost sight of what it should be looking for; here’s a reminder.
IN MID-AUGUST, Victoria architectural firm D’Ambrosio Architecture + Urbanism released drawings of a design created by “an international team” for a wall around a sewage treatment plant on McLoughlin Point at the entrance to Victoria’s harbour. Writing in the past tense, as though the idea might have already been superceded by some better one, the firm stated: “The architectural strategy embraced the industrial nature of the facility. It consisted of a series of 184 concrete columns forming a palisade around the process and operation buildings. The buildings housing operational and administrative functions engage the columns, creating a visually calm and collected interface between the industrial facility and the sensitive harbour waterfront.”
Aside from obscuring the plant, the 184 sturdy concrete columns in D’Ambrosio’s design don’t suggest any utilitarian purpose. Instead they seem to be there simply to memorialize something big: A war, perhaps, or some other sad outcome of human misjudgement. Considering the evidence challenging the wisdom of moving the region’s marine-based treatment system to land, D’Ambrosio’s vision is, intentionally or not, one of the most honest public statements made about the treatment project so far.
Later in this story I’m going to follow D’Ambrosio’s lead and be creative, but in a different direction. Rather than artful, I’m going to be practical and answer these questions: What’s wrong with the current marine-based treatment system, and how can we fix that?
First though, I want to tell you about one of the great strengths of the current system, a very progressive approach to wastewater treatment that obviously has much potential but will likely be one of the first casualties of land-based secondary treatment: the CRD’s Regional Source Control Program. The best way for me to describe its potential is to show you what it has achieved since 2003.
Back in 2004, the Sierra Legal Defence Fund (now called Ecojustice) petitioned the federal government “to effectively address the pollution of the marine environment by persistent organic pollutants including PCBs.” Ecojustice targeted Victoria’s outfalls in their petition and named ten different contaminants it identified as “harmful”: Polychlorinated biphenols (PCBs), oil and grease, mercury, lead, silver, cadmium, copper, zinc, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) and “halogenated compounds.”
For each contaminant, Ecojustice provided an estimate of the amount being discharged over a two-year period. It based its numbers on CRD data obtained through an FOI, but some of those numbers now seem unsupportable—either too high or too low—based on data since made public by the CRD.
Using data collected by CRD scientists between 2003 and 2014 for the substances named in Ecojustice’s petition, reductions can be estimated: The discharge of oil and grease has been reduced by 93 percent, mercury by 95 percent, silver by 94 percent, cadmium by 72 percent, lead by 62 percent, and PAHs by 28 percent. Although there are several halogenated compounds found in the CRD’s effluent, consider the case of pentachlorophenol, once commonly used by homeowners in Victoria as an insecticide and a wood preservative. In 2004, PCP was detected in 100 percent of the CRD’s samples. By 2014, the CRD could no longer detect PCP in the effluent.
What about PCBs? Ecojustice took a single sample from each outfall in both 2001 and 2003 and included those in its 2004 petition. That 2001 figure was 2100 grams per year and was well-used in campaigns to discredit the marine-based, source-controlled system. In 2015, DFO scientist Sophie Johannessen published a peer-reviewed study that estimated the annual discharge of PCBs at 340 grams per year. Based on those numbers, there has been an 83 percent reduction in the amount of PCBs being discharged, even while the residential population using the outfalls increased.
The 95 percent reduction in mercury since 2004 is the strongest affirmation of the potential of source-controlled treatment. Victoria’s effluent now has even less mercury per litre than the Annacis Island secondary treatment plant on the Fraser River. But Victoria has done this without the immense cost of land-based secondary treatment or any of the environmental risks associated with land-based disposal of the chemically-contaminated biosolids that Annacis Island and other secondary treatment plants produce.
CRD scientist Chris Lowe, who has overseen the region’s wastewater monitoring program for many years, credits the reductions to the Regional Source Control Program and to reductions in the general use of certain materials in our culture. Digital photography has largely replaced silver-based photography, for instance.
To put the current level of chemical contamination from Victoria’s wastewater in some perspective, I compared the CRD’s 2014 data for the substances Ecojustice identified as “harmful” with Health Canada’s current Drinking Water Guidelines for those substances. That’s right, I compared Victoria’s sewage with Canada’s drinking water. The result is surprising (see table below).
Health Canada’s Guidelines specify an upper limit for the allowable concentration of contaminants for water to be safe for humans to drink. For example, the concentration of mercury allowed in Canadian drinking water is .001 milligram per litre. That turns out to be 100 times higher than the average concentration of mercury in the sewage that passed through the Macaulay Point outfall during 2014. Health Canada allows 25 times more cadmium and twice as much lead in drinking water than can be found in Victoria’s sewage.
Not all of the contaminants targeted by Ecojustice are limited by Health Canada’s Guidelines. For example, copper and zinc are considered beneficial to human health and the Guidelines set no health-related limits for these. The US EPA’s National Primary Drinking Water Regulations, however, has established a limit for copper in America’s drinking water. That level is 10 times higher than the level of copper currently found in Victoria’s wastewater.
Similarly, Health Canada’s Guidelines don’t give an allowable limit for polychlorinated biphenols (PCBs), but the EPA does. It allows PCBs in drinking water at a concentration that’s 50 to 60 times higher than is currently found in the effluent passing through Victoria’s two marine outfalls.
Two of the contaminants on Ecojustice’s list, copper and zinc, both of which come mainly from deteriorating domestic water supply pipes and fittings, have seen only minor reductions since 2004. Does the failure of source control to limit the amount of copper and zinc warrant the investment of billions in public resources over the life of a land-based treatment system?
Ecojustice might think it does, but environmental protection policy in jurisdictions around North America doesn’t reflect that view. Let me tell you about copper, zinc and “the initial dilution zone.”
While both copper and zinc are considered essential for human health, they are potentially harmful to aquatic life even at low concentrations. To protect organisms against such contaminants in wastewater discharged to bodies of water, the BC Ministry of Environment has developed “Water Quality Objectives” that are orders of magnitude more stringent than Health Canada’s Drinking Water Guidelines. These objectives must be met, but the undiluted effluent from secondary and tertiary treatment plants simply can’t meet them. In fact, sewage treatment is known to increase the amount of dissolved copper, which makes copper even more immediately available to cause harm to aquatic organisms. None of BC’s secondary treatment plants meet the Province’s standard for either copper or zinc. For example, Vancouver’s Annacis Island secondary treatment plant—located right on the migration route of Fraser River sockeye—exceeds BC’s water quality objectives by factors of 4 and 10 for zinc and copper respectively. How does the Province get around this conundrum?
It does that by incorporating into its environmental regulations what’s known in wastewater treatment policy as “the initial dilution zone.” What is that? It’s an imperfect place, a volume of water where conditions are moving from not-so-good to better. The BC Environmental Protection Branch, responsible for overseeing the appropriate implementation of BC Water Quality Objectives, states: “Objectives do not apply within an initial dilution zone, which is the initial portion of the larger effluent mixing zone. The extent of initial dilution zones is defined on a site-specific basis, with due regard to water uses, aquatic life, including migratory fish, and other waste discharges.”
In other words, the effluent inside an outfall isn’t required to meet water quality objectives. It doesn’t have to meet the objectives a second or two after being discharged, either. It’s allowed a certain distance away from the outfall—usually 100 metres—to become diluted enough that it effectively meets the regulation water quality objectives. Notice that all of this is determined on a “site-specific” basis. Once the effect of the initial dilution zone is taken into count, the CRD’s discharge of copper and zinc meets the Province’s stringent water quality objectives just as well as Annacis Island’s secondary treatment plant does.
Why does the Province take this approach? The Environmental Protection Branch’s explanation is blunt: “If initial dilution zones did not exist, it would mean that effluent quality would have to meet water quality objectives, which would be costly and impractical.”
Costly and impractical. Say those words a few times, roll them around your mind and try to get a feel for why the Province, the US EPA and every other jurisdiction in North America—except one—has adopted the initial dilution zone (aka “mixing zone, “zone of initial dilution,” etc) as a fundamental policy tool for making practical decisions about environmental protection and wastewater. That one exception, of course, is Environment Canada’s Wastewater Systems Effluent Regulations, brought into being by Stephen Harper’s government.
Those regulations judged that Victoria’s effluent, before being discharged into the initial dilution zone, had too high a concentration of “suspended solids,” which, to translate as accurately as possible, means “digested food.” Obviously, “food” is not one of the substances that can be successfully source controlled by the CRD. As contaminants go, this one is all appearance and no cause for concern. According to marine scientists, the amount of digested food Victorians discharge to the ocean does not constitute an environmental risk. DFO’s Johannessen put it in context in her 2015 study: The discharge of digested food from the two outfalls represents .03 percent—that’s three one-hundredths of one percent—of the total suspended solids discharged by all sources to the Strait of Georgia and the Strait of Juan de Fuca. Yet that’s the only factor Environment Canada’s regulation used to push Victoria in the costly and impractical direction it’s now headed. There’s the appearance that something necessary has been done, but there’s no evidence that there is a problem that needed fixing.
The CRD’s highly-effective source control program will likely be one of the first victims of Environment Canada’s unhelpful regulation. The serious financial burden of a land-based secondary treatment system will inevitably result in a quest for cost-saving measures at the CRD. Other communities with secondary sewage treatment don’t have advanced source control programs, so why should Victoria? Chop.
Victoria’s unique approach to wastewater treatment—reducing contaminants by keeping them out of the environment in the first place—is a challenge for many to understand and appreciate. It has remained Victoria’s big secret. Why? Because the CRD has done a terrible job of communicating its successes to the community, and media here have largely ignored the story. The CRD’s unwillingness to toot its horn has likely reduced the impact of the program over what would have been possible with a better-funded, more broadly understood and supported initiative. That dearth of communication also applies to the marine-based treatment system’s strengths and weaknesses and its ability to protect public health.
IN A 2008 EDITORIAL in the scientific journal Marine Pollution Bulletin, nine Victoria and Vancouver marine scientists refuted the basis on which then-Environment Minister Barry Penner had ordered Victoria to abandon its carefully-engineered and smoothly operating marine-based treatment system. The scientists noted, “The concept of natural sewage treatment has been criticized in the media, but in fact waste treatment is well recognized as a useful ecosystem service contributing to human well-being. The focus of environmental protection is changing to preserving such ecosystem services to the benefit of both human beings and the natural environment. It makes no sense to replace a natural ecosystem service with a human creation that is energy inefficient and has other harmful environmental consequences.”
Let me remind you, briefly, how Victoria’s “natural treatment system” works. Many people know there are screening and settling plants at Clover Point and Macaulay Point where a lot of solids are removed, but they don’t seem to know what happens out in the Strait of Juan de Fuca.
The plants on the points remove from the wastewater anything solid that’s larger than 6 millimetres in diameter, which is roughly the size of a pea. Oil and grease are scrapped off in the settling tanks and the remaining effluent—99.9 percent water—flows by gravity down a pipe to the outfall. The outfalls consist of a pipe sitting on the seabed leading to a specially-engineered section called a diffuser. Located 55 to 60 metres below the surface, the diffuser has carefully spaced and oriented ports that direct the effluent upwards. Macaulay Point’s diffuser is 135 metres long and about 1700 metres from the nearest shoreline. Clover Point’s diffuser is 196 metres long and 1100 metres from the nearest shore. The ends of both outfalls are capped and the effluent is forced out of 28 small ports at Macaulay and 37 ports at Clover. It’s not “dumped,” as the Times Colonist relentlessly claims.
At Clover Point, the effluent is dispersed from 37 small jets into a 200-metre-wide by 60-metre-high wall of cold, turbulent, highly-oxygenated salt water that’s travelling at speeds of up to one metre per second, depending on the strength of the tides. At that speed, as much as 12,000 cubic metres of water passes over the diffuser in a single second, quickly diluting the effluent and beginning the physical process of killing off bacterial contaminants. Victoria’s treatment system harnesses a tremendous source of renewable energy—almost twice the peak spring flow of the Fraser River—to do that work. DFO’s Johannessen describes the turbulent river of water off Clover Point as “like a giant washing machine.”
The “plume,” as the rising effluent is known, is washed in the direction of the current. CRD monitoring of the plume shows it seldom reaches the surface of the water (four times in 2014), and then only during periods of intense winter or spring rains. But the top of the plume is generally trapped five metres or more below the surface. At that depth, while bacteria are rapidly dying as a result of the harsh physical conditions, there’s little possibility of contact with humans. The testimony from knowledgeable, local experts about the efficacy of this approach to killing bacteria is unequivocal: Six past and current public health officers—Dr Richard Stanwick, Dr John Millar, Dr Shaun Peck, Dr Brian Emerson, Dr Brian Allen and Dr Kelly Barnard—have stated: “There is no measurable public health risk from Victoria’s current method of offshore liquid waste disposal.”
In spite of their assurance, though, there are some pertinent questions about what might happen in the future as the region’s population grows and there’s more sewage. Would the plume break through to the surface more frequently? And what happens when the tides change? Doesn’t the current passing over the diffuser slow down, stop, and then change direction? Then what happens to the plume at slack tide? Does the rapid rate of dilution stop?
I’ve spoken with many local engineers, scientists and interested residents over the past several years about these questions, and they’ve provided all sorts of creative solutions. I’ve knit some of what they’ve told me into what follows.
According to these experts, there’s a way of improving the physical characteristics of the outfalls’ plumes that would make Victoria’s treatment system even more effective at dispersing chemical and biological contaminants and extend its life far into the future. The improvements become possible if a completely different problem—contamination of near-shore waters by the release of sewage during significant rainstorms—is solved first. Let me take you through these ideas, starting with solving a real problem for $50 million.
The nine local marine scientists who wrote the editorial in Marine Pollution Bulletin in support of Victoria’s “natural sewage treatment” system noted that, prior to Penner’s 2006 order to the CRD, “an independent expert scientific review had been completed under the auspices of the Society of Environmental Toxicology and Chemistry (SETAC). This independent review made an important point that appears to have been overlooked by the Minister and others in favour of secondary treatment. Specifically, stormwater, sanitary and combined overflows, and other discharges, particularly into the surface waters in Victoria’s harbours, present more pressing environmental issues than the current offshore submarine sewage discharges.”
None of those “more pressing environmental issues” have been addressed, and that has created bizarre and unpredictable results.
In March of this year, Washington State Representative Jeff Morris and 36 of his fellow legislators threatened an economic boycott of Victoria. The incident that triggered their outrage was an article in the Times Colonist about what’s called a “combined sewer overflow,” or CSO. Morris thought the paper’s story was about Victoria’s deep-water marine outfalls, but it wasn’t. It was about a very ordinary problem, common even in Morris’ 40th District. During heavy rainfalls, sewage collection systems that don’t have enough hydraulic capacity—the ability to absorb liquid—spill the excess through short beach outfalls into near-shore waters. When such events occur in Victoria, there’s a big fuss in the TC as CRD officials warn residents of the possibility of contamination of beaches. It’s common to blame these spills on the two deep-water marine outfalls, but there’s no connection. CSOs are a problem unto themselves, and land-based treatment plans developed by the CRD so far would only address a fraction of the problem.
Seattle is currently fixing a much worse CSO problem than Victoria’s, partly by increasing the hydraulic capacity of the Murray Basin collection system. That involves building a big storage tank that can absorb surges in the amount of liquid in the sewers during storms. Once a storm has passed, and liquid levels in the collection system have dropped, the contents of the tank can be slowly released, and a CSO is avoided.
The CRD’s McLoughlin Point plan included building such a tank in Gordon Head—the so-called Arbutus attenuation tank. Construction of that tank would have allowed the CRD to put a screen on one of three remaining unscreened beach outfalls on the East Coast Interceptor. Unscreened beach outfalls have given Morris and Mr Floatie much material to work with—“floatables” is the usual euphemism—in their misleading campaigns against Victoria’s marine-based treatment system. But only increasing the hydraulic capacity of the collection system will eliminate floatables, Mr Floatie and Representative Morris from the region’s politics. The cost of accomplishing that can be estimated from the projected cost of the Arbutus attenuation tank project.
The CRD and its consultants predicted the Arbutus tank would cost $9.5 million and its construction would eliminate all overflows in the East Coast Interceptor portion of the system for all downpours up to a “one-in-five-year storm event.” That’s the CSO standard required by the Province. To bring the whole system up to that standard would require a total of five Arbutus-like tanks scattered strategically around the core area. The total capital cost of such an increase in hydraulic capacity would be in the neighbourhood of $50 million. Imagine if the CRD decided to listen to the scientists and actually solved the CSO problem.
Doing that would also allow improvement of the marine-based treatment system. Here’s how that would work.
Those tanks, if used only to absorb downpours and eliminate CSOs, would be empty almost all of the time. According to the CRD, over a six-year period the region experienced 160 CSOs. This means that having the capacity to reduce CSOs down to the Province’s standard would result in storage tanks that would be empty about 90 percent of the time. During that time, they could safely be used for another purpose: controlling the outfall plumes. Let me describe how that would work.
The volume of liquid flowing to the outfalls as a result of human activity varies through a 24-hour period in a pattern that’s very predictable. See the oscillating line in the graph above, which shows how the flow to the outfalls varies over eight days. The consistent pattern of our daily use of sinks, showers, bathtubs and toilets results in a peak flow around breakfast, after which it falls off until mid-afternoon and then rises to another peak just before we go to bed. The flow falls to a minimum while we sleep, and then the cycle repeats itself.
Imagine if we could even-out the flow so that’s it’s more or less constant throughout the day (indicated by the red line in the graph above). That would reduce the maximum flow from the diffusers and that would be like going back several decades in time to when the maximum flow was about 65 percent of what it is today. The plume would then be even less likely to reach the surface.
How could the flow be evened out? The experts say that could be accomplished by using the CSO tanks to hold back some of the flow generated between breakfast and bedtime and then letting it go in the wee hours of the night.
Those tanks would also allow reducing or pausing the flow of effluent from the diffusers during the period when the tidal current slows, stops and then reverses direction. This would further reduce the likelihood that the plume could break through to the surface. It might also lessen the amount of organic material that’s deposited in the footprint of the initial dilution zone during slack tide.
There could even be bells and whistles: Large tanks full of sewage would contain a lot of thermal energy. The Southeast False Creek Neighbourhood Energy Utility in Vancouver, for example, uses thermal energy captured from sewage to provide space heating and hot water to nearby buildings. Perhaps the False Creek example points to where such tanks could be located: below the car-parking level in new Downtown condominium towers. In exchange for providing that service, or as an inducement to provide it, the City could allow a couple of extra floors on a limited number of new buildings.
These tanks could also act as a catchment for particles of lead, zinc and copper coming from corroding plumbing pipes and fittings upstream, thereby keeping those materials out of the marine environment. It would even be possible to fit the tanks with standard water-oil separators that would further reduce the amount of oil and grease discharged to the Strait of Juan de Fuca, allowing the oil to be recycled.
Why isn’t Victoria going to do this—or something along these lines?
Perhaps Franc D’Ambrosio’s grand vision of 184 decorative concrete columns hints at the answer to that question. His project isn’t meant to be a response to a compelling physical issue. Same with the treatment project. It’s an opportunity for some people to make money and for others to make a name for themselves as architects, political fixers, activists—even as journalists. Mostly it fulfills a promise made ten years ago by former BC Premier Gordon Campbell to former Washington State Governor Christine Gregoire. Whatever the original objective might have been, the actual environmental impact of what will be chosen has since become of little consequence. In fact, knowing the impact has been carefully avoided. Here’s a telling example of how pervasive the avoidance of truth has been on this issue.
Recall that at the beginning of this story I referred to a 2004 petition by Ecojustice to the federal government. The information Ecojustice used to press its campaign against Victoria’s treatment system turned out to be flawed, and in the years since, scientists have confirmed the CRD’s source control program has removed a big chunk of the contaminants. During that time, many local marine scientists publicly questioned the value of land-based treatment and expressed concerns about its associated environmental risks. By late 2012, enough doubts had been raised about the CRD’s direction that a motion was put forward at the CRD calling for “a full environmental study that will assess the comparative environmental impact of the current process and proposed process for disposing of liquid waste before the CRD plans are finalized.”
One might expect that an organization like Ecojustice would have been in full support of a truth-seeking exercise like a comparative environmental assessment. Who wouldn’t want to confirm that the best direction was being taken?
Apparently, Ecojustice didn’t want to know. In a letter sent to CRD directors before they voted on the motion, Ecojustice lawyers implicitly threatened the CRD with legal action under the Species at Risk Act if it approved the call for a comparative environmental impact assessment.
The motion failed.
The latest battles include the Sea Shepherd’s voyage and eviction notices served by First Nations on fish farms.
AS THE FULL EXTENT of this summer’s catastrophic Fraser River sockeye salmon returns unfolded, sending shock waves through fishing, First Nations and scientific communities, the dismal numbers did not surprise independent biologist Alexandra Morton. For more than 25 years she has warned of the dangers of allowing fish farms along salmon migration routes.
For Morton, the collapse added urgency to her virus-hunting voyage from Vancouver to northern Vancouver Island, aboard the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society’s research vessel “Martin Sheen.”
“I think people will be amazed at how well wild salmon will rebound once they are no longer exposed to the disease that farm salmon release into BC’s salmon migration routes,” said Morton. During the voyage, Morton took samples in the vicinity of fish farms, intent on scientifically proving they are spreading diseases, viruses and sea lice to wild fish.
It was projected that one million fish would return to spawn in the Fraser River this season—less than the 1.4 million 2009 returns that sparked the Cohen Inquiry. By mid-August, the Pacific Salmon Commission noted only 644,800 returns and all salmon fishing on the Lower Fraser was shut down.
Few would claim that the 70-plus active salmon farms which dot the BC coast are the sole cause of BC’s disappearing wild salmon. Climate change, warm water in the Fraser, and ocean survival are all acknowledged factors and the Cohen Inquiry concluded there are multiple stressors.
The low returns, however, are fuelling a growing conviction that all possible measures must be investigated and acted upon quickly. Such measures would include moving all salmon farming onto land as the ‘Namgis First Nation on northern Vancouver Island has done.
Ernie Crey, chief of the Cheam First Nation and fisheries advisor to Sto:Lo Tribal Council, who affectionately calls Morton the “Mother Earth biologist,” suspects the answers are more complicated than salmon farms. “But I don’t think people can dismiss it. It deserves attention…Something has happened out there over the past two decades, resulting in this decline,” he said.
“Some people want to see all the net pens along the coast closed down. I don’t know that that is necessary, but we need to be very cautious and somewhat suspect of what is going on,” said Crey, who is also director of the Fraser River Management Council, representing 84 First Nations in the Fraser River watershed.
The federal government has promised more scientists and more money for research and hopes are high that some answers will come from the study of microbes in Pacific salmon, being conducted by the Strategic Salmon Health Initiative, a partnership between the Pacific Salmon Foundation, Genome BC and Fisheries and Oceans.
Bob Chamberlin, chairman of the First Nations Wild Salmon Alliance, is happy to see the emphasis on science, but also wants quick action on fish farms.
Government should be adhering to the precautionary principle until all the gaps in science are filled, Chamberlin said.
“That means stop expanding fish farms, stop creating new licences, and stop setting the table for the industry. Science needs to be at the table,” he said.
A major concern for Morton is whether piscine reovirus (PRV), a muscle and heart-wasting disease that has raged through European farms and is now common at BC farms, is spreading from farm fish to wild fish and whether there are hotspots around the farms.
PRV has been linked to Heart and Skeletal Muscle Inflammation, a disease found in farms in Norway, Scotland and Chile and which was confirmed by Fisheries and Oceans Canada’s Kristi Miller to be present on a BC farm in Johnstone Strait this past May.
HSMI is not necessarily fatal to farmed Atlantic salmon, but wild Pacific salmon have to be supreme athletes. Muscle weakness combined with lethargy is likely to be a death sentence, Morton said. “The potential threat to wild salmon is enormous. A wild salmon with a weak heart is a dead salmon,” she said.
Coincidentally, while taking samples near the Mitsubishi-owned Cermaq farm where HSMI was confirmed, Morton and crew members witnessed a fish die-off. Photos show totes full of dead fish, but the problem was explained by Cermaq as mortality due to a “low dissolved oxygen event.”
Possible, but not likely, said Morton who tested water outside the farm and found dissolved oxygen levels suitable for salmon. “The behaviour of the Atlantic salmon fits the description of fish suffering from HSMI,” she said.
The combination of Morton—a thorn in the side of fish farmers—and the Sea Shepherd Society, which has been known to take direct action such as ramming Japanese whaling boats, put up alarm signals for fish farmers, although Morton emphasized the voyage would be peaceful.
But Jeremy Dunn, BC Salmon Farmers Association executive director, said the use of cameras and drones has put stress on fish and employees. Salmon farmers are passionate about the health of their fish and their licences could be revoked at any time if they are not living up to licence conditions. Dunn also disputed Morton’s claim that Cermaq mort totes—crates for fish that die before harvest—contained some Pacific salmon. “I have spoken to Cermaq and they are pretty unequivocal that there were no Pacific salmon in their mort totes,” he said. Dunn applauded federal funding of more scientists and the aim of making science-based decisions for all Canadian fisheries. “But it is important to distinguish between advocacy and science,” he said.
When the virus-hunting voyage was first broached by Sea Shepherd’s Paul Watson, Morton—who has fought long and hard to prove the validity of her science—was reluctant to tie herself to such a controversial organization, with a ship that flies the Jolly Roger. After talking to the group, however, she became convinced of the advantages of having a research vehicle at her disposal.
It is not a decision she has regretted.
“I am so grateful to Paul Watson. At first, when he put it up on Facebook, I literally asked him to take it down, but the crew are highly-trained volunteers. They are dedicated and honourable,” Morton said.
The launch also gained high-profile support from celebrities, ranging from actress Pamela Anderson to veteran environmentalist David Suzuki, who took the opportunity of a news conference to make his views on fish farming absolutely clear: “As a scientist, it makes no sense to grow animals in open nets where you use the ocean as a shithouse,” he said.
However, fish-farming foes were dealt a blow in August when Fisheries Minister Dominic LeBlanc said the government would not implement the 2012 Cohen Commission’s recommendation to separate the department’s duty to protect wild salmon from its promotion of aquaculture.
That has some First Nations, including Dzawada’enuxw (Kingcome) councillor and fisheries coordinator Melissa Willie, wondering about Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s election promise to build a new relationship with indigenous people.
“There are 27 farms in Musgamagw Dzawada’enuxw territory and we have never given them permission to be there. We just continue to write letters opposing them,” said Willie, who spent time on the Martin Sheen. (The Musgamagw Dzawada’enuxw are an alliance between four tribes: Gwawa’enuxw [Hopetown], Kwickwasut’inuxw [Gilford], Haxwa’mis [Wakeman] and Dzawada’enuxw [Kingcome].)
Damage from the farms is evident not only in declining salmon runs and the number of sea lice, but also in clam beds, Willie said. “All that shit going into the water. I don’t believe it is being flushed out. And the beaches are becoming muck. It’s our whole food chain. We want them totally out of our territory and I just hope someone is listening,” she said.
While some First Nations have accepted fish farms in their territory and did not welcome the Martin Sheen, the ship and its crew were welcomed in Musgamagw Dzawada’enuxw territory, which contains one-third of all farms, and whose leaders have been resisting them for 30 years. Indeed they used the visit as an opportunity to conduct a ceremonial eviction of a farm, with letters and copies of the notice going to the federal and provincial governments. Morton wrote on her blog: “The rudeness with which the salmon farm employees were told to conduct themselves was in stark contrast to the integrity of the people performing ceremony with cedar bows. It was hard to witness…This Nation is on the front lines for all of us and for future generations.”
Hereditary chiefs say notices will be issued to all 27 farms in their territory. The four-tribe alliance is demanding that no more farm fish be transferred into their territories, removal of all salmon within three months, access to all farm fish “so that we know what diseases exist in the farms,” and that the band office be contacted prior to harvest so an observer can be on site.
In a widely-shared video, the leaders emphasized that the fish farmers are trespassing and destroying their way of life.
Last spring, 40 percent of young salmon leaving the territory were killed by sea lice, said band spokesmen. “The salmon farming industry is infringing on our way of life by breaking the natural cycle of life that has sustained First Nations people for time immemorial,” said hereditary Chief Willie Moon. “Our people have spoken. We want salmon farms out of our territory.”
“One of our youth asked if we were prepared to die for this and I said ‘I think we are now,’” said Melissa Willie. “The fight is on.”
Judith Lavoie is an award-winning journalist specializing in the environment, First Nations, and social issues. Twitter @LavoieJudith.
The war on blood glucose is stupid, costly and bloody.
AT 66, SANDRA B. IN VANCOUVER was feeling great. She lived a healthy lifestyle and was exercising. After the death of her mother a few years ago, however, she found herself inexplicably losing weight. The weight loss became noticeable and her partner suggested she go to the doctor and “get that checked out.”
She went to a walk-in clinic where the doctor sent her for a battery of tests. She wasn’t, however, prepared to hear the results.
“I got a call three days later and the doctor told me to come in and see her,” said Sandra. “So I went to the doctor and she looked at me and said: “You’re a diabetic.’”
It was unexpected for both of them. “The doctor said to me: ‘Geez, you’re in great shape, you walk, exercise, lift weights…’” and then began examining her.
“She looked at my feet, looking for gangrene,” Sandra said about her doctor, adding, “She completely reinterpreted who I was. She told me to get to an ophthalmologist, to get my eyes checked out, and I got a script right away for metformin.”
Thus began Sandra’s journey into the diabetes world, a journey which many of us will be navigating as we get older and face the common conditions that define aging. While a routine blood test is the start of the diabetes journey for many people, the cascade of interventions that typically follow will catch many people off guard. Type 2 diabetes, also known as adult-onset diabetes, involves frequent measurement and alteration of blood sugars, with the thought that high sugars will predispose you to a higher risk of heart attacks, strokes, kidney or eye problems. What many people don’t realize is how much about diabetes and “pre-diabetes” (its controversial precursor) is a minefield; much of what passes for wisdom is anything but wise.
The blood test that defined Sandra as a diabetic is a hemoglobin A1C or glycosylated hemoglobin test, a marker of how well one’s blood sugar has been controlled during the previous two to three months. If it is much higher than “normal,” it is appropriate for the doctor to suspect damage to the blood vessels in the legs, kidneys or eyes, as these represent the kinds of “microvascular complications” that are linked to diabetes.
The Canadian Diabetes Association Clinical Practice Guidelines say that lowering A1C values to below seven percent is important to prevent complications, while the ultimate reason to control your blood sugars are the more dreaded “macrovascular complications,” such as heart attacks or strokes.
The standard advice for anyone identified as having a high hemoglobin A1C level is to lose weight and manage the condition with diet and exercise. Controlling one’s diet—especially carbohydrates—and getting more exercise is the closest thing to a cure for most people identified as having high blood sugars. The exercise doesn’t have to be strenuous. In fact just daily walking can help many people traverse from “diabetic” to “non-diabetic” territory.
Yet for many people, exercise and dieting only goes so far, and has to compete against a powerful diabetes industry that demonizes blood sugars in order to sell blood glucose test strips, insulins, and, of course, a cornucopia of drug treatments.
Sandra, like most newly-diagnosed with diabetes, was immediately started on metformin, the standard treatment for type-2 diabetes, and later was given glyburide, a drug from a class of drugs called sulfonylureas. What was Sandra told about the metformin or the glyburide? (This is a question I always ask when people tell me what drugs they’ve been put on.) Her reply was a surprise: “Nobody told me anything. Nothing.”
Metformin is one of the oldest and most studied drugs for type-2 diabetes, yet it is also highly controversial. The simple fact is that when you consider all the major trials of metformin, you find it effectively lowers blood sugars, but it has almost no effect on “clinically relevant outcomes” (i.e. heart attacks and strokes). A January article in the British Medical Journal questioned the widespread use of metformin, noting that the UK Prospective Diabetes Study “found a significant 60 percent higher death rate in patients given metformin plus sulfonylurea compared with those given sulfonylurea alone.” Other studies have had similar findings.
Canadians spend nearly $750 million per year on prescription drugs that lower glucose, an amount that works out to about 628 prescriptions per 1000 people, about the same rate at which we consume antibiotics. In Canada in 2015 there were over 13 million prescriptions written for metformin, making it the fifth most prescribed drug in Canada that year.
In BC, according to a just-published letter from UBC’s Therapeutics Initiative, about 100,000 people take a single drug (mostly metformin) to lower their blood glucose. But that’s only the beginning: Nearly 65,000 BC residents take two or more diabetes drugs and nearly 30,000 take three or more. The costs of diabetes drug treatments in the province are staggering. The Canadian Diabetes Association has projected medications in BC to cost $115 million by 2020.
Yet here’s the kicker: Most of the people taking those drugs will not benefit from taking them. Sure, they may have lower blood sugars, but does that mean they will live longer or healthier lives? Not necessarily.
Cochrane is a global independent network of researchers, professionals and patients. Their information is considered the gold standard for trusted medical information. A 2013 Cochrane review examined almost 30 trials looking at “intensive glycemic control,” that is, trials that attempted to keep the hemoglobin A1C at or below the seven percent mark. Cochrane found that the incidences of cardiovascular death, non-fatal stroke and end-stage kidney disease—or any health-related death—were not improved by intensive glucose lowering. In fact, those who were subjected to intensive glycemic control had more serious adverse events, including severe hypoglycemia (which often resulted in hospitalization). In other words, the taking of multiple drugs to drive one’s blood sugars lower and lower comes with a costly toll.
Part of the problem here stems from how the drugs are approved. Many of the glucose-lowering drugs for people with type-2 diabetes are approved by Health Canada “without evidence that they reduce mortality or major morbidity,” according to the Therapeutics Initiative. The very basis for the approval of all the newer diabetes drugs—that are only proven to lower glucose but have no specific evidence they prevent heart attacks or strokes—should be seriously called into question.
Who stands to benefit from the war on glucose? One has to look no further than the latest edition of the Canadian Diabetes Association Clinical Practice Guidelines, which lists 12 pages of conflicts of interest between the doctors writing the guidelines and almost every drug company in Canada. In other words, the drug companies are putting their own people on the committees that are defining diabetes. Driving for lower and lower blood sugars is big money in Canada.
While there is little to be made flogging metformin or the sulfonylureas, which are mostly generic and cheap, the really big money comes from a smorgasbord of newer on-patent drugs that lower blood glucose, including the Gliptins—sitagliptin (Januvia), saxagliptin (Onglyza), linagliptin (Trajenta), alogliptin (Nesina); the Tides—exenatide (Byetta), liraglutide (Victoza) and albiglutide (Eperzan), dulaglutide (Trulicity); and the Flozins—canagliflozin (Invokana), dapagliflozin (Forxiga), empagliflozin (Jardiance).
As for Sandra, her story continues. She has an appointment with a diabetes clinic which will teach her how to manage her condition. No doubt she’ll learn about these new drugs and be told to drive relentlessly for that “seven percent” target.
We end our discussion with her telling me: “So far, I’m following doctor’s orders, but I’m not happy that the doctor’s first step was to sign me up for a diabetes clinic with, as far as I can see, a lifetime of metformin (or possibly insulin), daily multiple (expensive) glucose test strips, and a new identity as a diabetic.”
Alan Cassels is a Victoria author and pharmaceutical policy researcher. He has written four books on the medical screening and pharmaceutical industry including the latest, The Cochrane Collaboration: Medicine’s Best Kept Secret.
BC growers worry they will be cut out of the equation as governments move towards legalization.
PRIME MINISTER JUSTIN TRUDEAU'S promise to legalize marijuana could cripple an underground economy in British Columbia that experts at Simon Fraser University’s Sauder School of Business estimate is worth $2 to $5 billion dollars a year.
“Cannabis is the economic backbone of most small towns across this province,” says Theresa Taylor, co-founder of “Craft Cannabis,” a BC-based group of small marijuana producers who supply dispensaries, medical marijuana patients and recreational users. The self-described “farmer’s daughter” is a second- generation pot grower from Grand Forks who claims she is not unique. “In my small town, I know many people who keep their legitimate businesses afloat by growing cannabis.”
A study for the Cannabis Growers of Canada estimates up to 100,000 British Columbians are employed in the BC bud business, but its executive director, Ian Dawkins, says those jobs could go up in smoke. “Right now, we are absolutely excluded from this conversation by the federal government.”
Dawkins says MP Bill Blair (the former Toronto Police Chief and current Parliamentary Secretary of Justice in charge of legalization) has refused to meet with his group. “Where would you ever have a trade organization of our size being completely frozen out of deregulating our industry?” asks Dawkins. He points out that Blair has sung the praises of Ontario’s licensed pot producers, while vilifying medical marijuana dispensaries by suggesting they sell potentially dangerous products. Dawkins says, “The federal government is trying to create a monopoly for the benefit of a few wealthy corporations, based in Ontario.”
Currently, Health Canada’s Medical Marijuana Access Program allows 33 licensed producers to grow and/or sell cannabis via mail order to the 28,000 Canadians who have government-approved permits to consume it. More than half of these large operations, with facilities ranging from 50,000-100,000 square feet, are in Ontario and have hired politically well-connected advisors, including former Prime Minister John Turner and former BC Justice Minister Kash Heed. Venture capital companies like the publicly-traded Canopy Growth Corporation and US-based Privateer Holdings are buying up federally-licensed producers, in anticipation of expanding into recreational production, where sales are estimated to be three times higher than the legally-sanctioned market.
BC’s small growers (who currently dominate the underground market) are anxious about what Taylor calls “Prohibition 2.0,” where new federal regulations create a monopoly for large, licensed medical marijuana producers, backed by corporations with deep pockets. Dawkins says that will hurt thousands of otherwise law-abiding citizens.
“If you go to Port Hardy, Trail, Castlegar, almost everyone works in cannabis. Forestry, mining and all these secondary industries have left these places, so people have turned to cannabis. It’s been employing people in BC for decades and if the feds change to a larger, licensed- producer model, what they’re doing is taking five, six, seven billion dollars of economic activity from rural British Columbia and transferring it to factories in Ontario. They will be destroying jobs. You can’t just move billions of dollars out of the province without an effect.”
Much will depend on a federally-appointed Task Force on Marijuana Legalization and Regulation. It will make recommendations ranging from who can grow and sell cannabis, oils and edible products, to how, where and whether they can be sold, as well as who can consume them for medicinal and recreational purposes. The expert panel of mostly law enforcement and medical professionals will report to the federal Ministers of Justice, Public Safety, Health and the Attorney General by November. Federal legislation is expected next spring.
Despite its tight timeline, the Task Force has pledged to meet face-to-face “with municipal and provincial governments...and other stakeholders, including those groups with expertise in production, distribution and sales.” BC bud lobbyists hope that means the task force will grant them some face time. Meanwhile they are trying to convince the provincial government to ensure that small producers and dispensaries which are currently illegal have a place in the new federal regime. Dawkins believes they are getting some traction.
“The BC Liberals have been much more receptive to us than their federal counterparts. They understand jobs. This is not theoretical to them. They don’t want to go into an election in 2017 having lost hundreds of jobs in every riding. They know they have to figure this out and if they don’t, I am also meeting with the NDP and the Green Party who are very interested in turning this into a provincial election issue.”
The Premier, BC’s Solicitor General, and the Minister of Health would not comment on the politics of creating cannabis policy, but the Ministry of Public Safety and Solicitor General provided a written statement, saying it has “created an inter-ministry committee of assistant deputy ministers from Health, Justice and Public Safety to identify concerns and to develop a provincial strategy.”
It states: ”We agree with Prime Minister Trudeau that there needs to be appropriate restrictions in place around sale and distribution.” It does not elaborate on which “appropriate restrictions” it is considering or which level of government should enact them. “We can’t speculate what the outcomes will be but will monitor the federal government’s plan as it is developed.”
BC’s Green Party has wasted no time in supporting the small producers’ position, with its leader, Andrew Weaver, calling on the federal government to take a minimalist approach to legalization. “The feds should simply remove cannabis from their Controlled Drug and Substances Act and stay out of the business of saying who can or can’t produce it,” he says. “We favour policies that support a craft cannabis industry that is provincially regulated, tested, taxed and is local.”
The NDP’s public safety critic, Mike Farnworth, admits his party has no official policies on marijuana legalization yet, but he and the party’s health critic, Victoria MLA Carole James, have met with regulators in Washington State and have talks planned with BC cannabis groups this month. Farnworth says in broad terms, “The NDP supports a provincially-regulated system that is responsive to BC producers and protective of consumers.”
A report by the Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce predicts the federal and provincial governments will collect $5 billion dollars a year in tax revenues from the sale of legal marijuana. Farnworth is warning the Province not to view it as a cash cow. “If governments get greedy and the taxes are too high, you aren’t going to get rid of the black market,” he says. Perhaps the Province is signaling the same concern by stating it is “waiting for federal legislation before reviewing provincial tax treatment.”
Craft Cannabis wants Victoria to be proactive by helping black market growers make the transition to become licensed, taxpaying businesses. “There are a lot of stereotypes that exist about cannabis cultivators, but we’re just farmers,” says Taylor. “And many will need a bit more support in becoming legitimate businesses because they’ve never had to track their product from seed to sale.”
Taylor says the public health discussion has so far focused on negatives and unproven assumptions. She accuses many in the medical community, including BC’s provincial health officer, of overstating the dangers of cannabis. “Dr Perry Kendall has campaigned for a ban on edible marijuana products even though no one has ever died from a marijuana overdose,” says Taylor. The statement by the Solicitor General’s Ministry considers Kendall one of “British Columbia’s representatives on the task force, which government is relying on to provide a crucial public health perspective.”
Travis Lane, CEO of the Victoria-based Internet Dispensary, hopes it won’t be the only public health perspective considered by federal and provincial legislators. Lane says, “Craft cannabis producers have their products tested in the same federally-approved labs used by the licensed producers. We don’t irradiate our cannabis, unlike federally-approved medical marijuana factories. We sell organically-grown products and conduct random testing for pesticides and metals which Health Canada does not require for medical marijuana.” Lane believes the feds should abandon regulating “medical marijuana” in the future, unless private insurers and provincial pharmacare programs agree to pay for the medicine and research is funded.
Craft Cannabis predicts if “a Reefer Madness mentality” prevails, only big corporations like Shoppers Drug Mart and government-owned liquor stores will be allowed to sell medical marijuana. Taylor says BC dispensaries “have created self-imposed regulations that include product testing, labelling, best-practices and a code of conduct that forbids sales to minors and bans consumption of cannabis on their premises.” The City of Victoria has followed Vancouver’s lead by creating bylaws and regulations that mirror how most dispensaries already operate.
Judging from its statement, the Province seems happy to let Ottawa handle that hot potato. It says, “The federal government is responsible for any changes to cannabis policy and how it chooses to respond to the decisions by Vancouver and Victoria will have to be addressed by it.”
BC’s small producers believe if the federal government opts for a highly-regulated regime, it will lead to the concentration of large production facilities in Ontario, and an ongoing underground market here. They are calling for a regulatory regime run by the Province that they claim would better support small communities across BC and generate new tax revenues from its largest, albeit illegal, agricultural product. BC “pot-repreneurs” like Travis Lane say they’re taking a public stand to fight for their survival, and are hoping the federal and provincial governments will do the same. Says Lane, “The governments need to understand we’re not going to stop growing because they regulate us out.”
Lisa Cordasco is a former CBC Radio news reporter and morning show host who has made Victoria her home for the past 25 years.
The use of fentanyl has exploded and more Victorians have died from overdoses in the first half of 2016 than all of 2015.
IT'S A HOT AUGUST AFTERNOON at the office of Society of Living Illicit Drug Users (SOLID) on Caledonia Avenue, one of a dozen needle exchanges in Greater Victoria. As users come and go, the bustling office manager Jill Cater shows me around its four rooms, past racks of pamphlets, a small library, new overdose reports posted on the walls, and the needle lockup.
Seven days a week, 365 days a year, SOLID provides outreach services, user counselling and education in the downtown Victoria area. “We are the only service provider on the Island that is completely peer-run,” says Cater. “To be on the board, one must be a current or former drug user. We don’t ask for names, so some folks come here who have nowhere else to go. We’ve never had a break-in and we’ve never called police.”
That would hardly be necessary, because directly across the street sits Victoria Police headquarters. “We started in 2007, but it took them a few years to figure out where we were!” recalls Cater with a boisterous laugh.
Things turn serious when talk tuns to the fentanyl-laced street drugs and the burgeoning overdoses and deaths. Assistant manager Wolf Madge brings out a kit of naloxone, a lifesaving antidote to fentanyl. He opens it to show its three vials and a syringe, and demonstrates how it works. “I’ve talked kids out of doing [fentanyl],” he says gravely. “Every time you use fentanyl you’re playing Russian Roulette.”
Cater points out it’s not just kids. “Drugs have no class, or age, or race, or boundaries,” she says. “We know that some of the outstanding citizens you see sitting beside you in meetings use more fentanyl than people in the streets. They just don’t get caught.”
The opioid is now showing up in recreational party drugs like ecstasy and cocaine, and at music festivals or concerts—prompting some organizers to employ fentanyl-detection equipment.
Motives for usage vary. While some are thrill seeking, the drug is often used to dull the physical pain of a workplace injury or cancer, or the psychological trauma of childhood sexual abuse. “It’s a downer,” says Cater. “When I took fentanyl, unknowingly, it makes you feel comfortably numb, there’s no more pain within seconds.”
Across the street from SOLID, Victoria Police Department Staff Sergeant and drug expert Conor King agrees with Cater about who is taking fentanyl, noting, “Fentanyl crosses all gamuts of society. It’s high school kids, blue-collar workers, university students, educated and uneducated, white-collar workers.”
FENTANYL IS A PAINKILLER 50 TIMES STRONGER than heroin. Two milligrams, the size of two salt grains, can kill a user. Relatively cheap, and addictive for some, it appears mixed in nearly all street drugs now, with most users unaware they’re taking it. Greenish pills posing as OxyContin 80 mg tablets, which are crushed and mixed with water for injection, are the most common source of overdose fatalities. Its street names include beans, green apples, greenies, shady eighties, fake oxy, and Drop Dead. Early signs of fentanyl poisoning may include sleepiness, trouble breathing (it may sound like snoring), clammy and bluish skin, and unresponsiveness to a person’s voice. Finally, it can cause you to stop breathing.
On April 14, BC’s provincial health officer Dr Perry Kendall prompted national headlines when he stated that fentanyl was a public-health emergency, a declaration usually reserved for a contagious disease outbreak. (Also in April, the rock star Prince died of an accidental fentanyl overdose.)
Since then, the numbers have become even more startling. In August, the BC Coroner’s office reported 433 drug overdose deaths in the first five months of this year across the province, a 74 percent rise over the same time last year. Fentanyl showed up in toxicology tests in about 62 percent of those deaths, either alone or more often in combination with other illicit drugs.
In Victoria there have been 34 deaths in the first 6 months of 2016—far outstripping 17 deaths in all of 2015.
In this frightening new BC reality, if the trend continues, well over 600 people will die from drug overdoses this year—news that prompted the group Yes2SCS (Yes to Supervised Consumption Services) to plant 600 symbolic white crosses on Pandora Street’s Harris Green in June.
MOST FENTANYL COMES FROM CHINA, where it’s produced in pharmaceutical labs. It can be imported on cargo ships, or across the American border hidden in truck compartments. The mail order business is also booming, partly because Canadian Border Services Agency guards are not allowed to open packages weighing less than 30 grams without the recipient’s consent. A Globe & Mail investigation found fentanyl is being shipped in the small packages of dessicant commonly found in vitamin containers. Pill presses are also being imported from China. A former deputy medical officer at Health Canada estimated that one kilogram of pure fentanyl costs less than $100,000 and produces one million tablets. At even $20 apiece, the profit is astronomical.
In July, Premier Christy Clark publicly pleaded with Ottawa to restrict access to pill presses (which can churn out 18,000 counterfeit Oxycontin tablets laced with fentanyl in an hour), bring in stronger penalties for fentanyl importers, and give the Canadian Border Services Agency the power to search packages under 30 grams.
Some fentanyl also reaches the street from pharmacy burglaries and possibly hospital theft. Users squeeze or scrape out liquid from stolen fentanyl dermal patches, a prescription drug used primarily in hospitals as a slow-release painkiller.
By law, hospitals must report their narcotics losses to Health Canada within ten days. A freedom of information request to Island Health for the numbers since January, 2015 showed no losses from any Victoria hospital. But a similar request to Health Canada in Ottawa came back with a startlingly different result: Island Health had informed Ottawa that it had lost 1251 millilitres of liquid fentanyl solution in late 2015—in a category only called “loss unexplained.”
Kendall says one cannot tell how likely it is it that any of the Royal Jubilee fentanyl made it to BC users or contributed to overdoses. He added this loss is a very small amount in the context of so many kilograms of fentanyl on the streets overall, but “still worrisome.”
King says Victoria police were never informed of this particular Jubilee loss but, in general, “hospital drug losses should be reported to police.” By contrast, fentanyl losses from Cowichan and Nanaimo hospitals were reported to local RCMP.
In response to Focus’ inquiries, Richard Jones, director of pharmacy services at Island Health, stated that Island Health was not required by law to report such losses to police, but “we are reviewing our policy on this matter.”
THE FENTANYL CRISIS HAS LED TO the growing use of another drug—the antidote for fentanyl, naloxone. Also known as narcan, this antidote has been applied in many overdose situations, often by friends and families, and has saved countless lives in Victoria. While paramedics and firefighters carry and apply it, Victoria police as yet do not, though King says that might change.
Since the start of BC’s Take Home Naloxone Program in 2012, Island Health has given out 1700 free kits on the Island, including 950 in Greater Victoria, to street outreach workers, agencies and pharmacies.
“The first time applying it can be nerve- racking,” says Island Health Medical Health Officer Dr Murray Fyfe, “but it’s easy to learn in 10 minutes, and there are very good videos online showing how.” (A nasal spray version is coming soon.)
“Usually we give two or three doses in here before the paramedics arrive,” says Heather Hobbs, harm reduction coordinator for AIDS Vancouver Island on Johnson Street which sees 100 users a day. Her staff also do CPR and artificial respiration, and have helped some people who needed five or six doses of naloxone before reviving.
“When folks are revived by us, they are just embarrassed and confused after the naloxone, but not violent. Some are grateful, but others are upset you took their high away, not realizing their life was saved.”
Beyond working to get more naloxone kits out to agencies, users and their friends, Victoria advocacy groups have pushed for many years for safe consumption sites. They look to Insite in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside as one model. Such sites provide drug-users with a clean, safe space to use drugs under the supervision of health professionals. Supporters say they prevent overdose deaths and reduce the transmission of HIV. Another benefit is that drugs can be tested for fentanyl before use.
But obtaining federal permission to establish a site is arduous. The federal government under Stephen Harper passed Bill C-2 which Dr Kendall and colleagues described as “a thinly-veiled attempt to end supervised injection services.” Many would like to see the Act repealed. The Trudeau Liberals expressed support for safe consumption sites during the election campaign but have since indicated they have no immediate plans to repeal Bill C-2.
In July, however, Victoria was invited by the federal health minister to apply for an exemption from the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act to enable an injection site. Mayor Lisa Helps emphasizes that because the users here are so diverse, the Victoria plan should differ from Vancouver’s Insite. It would be “not one safe injection site, but safe consumption services at several locations across the region,” she says.
Education—of the right kind—is also key. Hobbs says, “Young folks need more honest, realistic education, none of that old ‘Just Say No to Drugs’ stuff, which seems to be making a resurgence.”
Officials seem to be getting the message. Posters are popping up in Facebook feeds and in local bars, part of a campaign by BC’s Drug Overdose and Alert Partnership (DOAP) “The key message is don’t use it alone,” Fyfe told Focus.
This summer, Premier Clark announced the formation of a joint task force to tackle the fentanyl crisis, to be led by Dr Kendall and Clayton Pecknold, BC’s Director of Police Services, Policing and Security Branch. Yet Hobbs notes, “That new task force has no funding commitments or tangible action yet,” and worries too little money will go to it. “There are no pre-committed funds,” Kendall confirmed, adding, “When we have business cases for additional funding we will submit those requests.”
A year from now, Mayor Helps, Drs Kendall and Fyfe, and the staff of SOLID are hopeful new drug consumption sites will be in place and reducing the overdose rate. Yet Sergeant King appears worried by the future. “I’m fearful that it’s going to get worse, with more fatalities,” he says, adding the situation could improve if the new anti-drug laws requested by Premier Clark are passed. Heather Hobbs at AIDS Vancouver Island, too, seems pessimistic. “I don’t see it getting better any time soon. It’s everywhere. Fentanyl is the new norm.”
Stanley Tromp is a longtime investigative reporter. He specializes in freedom of information requests, wrote a book on world FOI law, and last year was a finalist for a Jack Webster award.
Tourism operators on the coast have been forced to watchdog forestry operations since government introduced self-monitoring.
JOHNSTONE STRAIT, around Robson Bight, is one of the most scenic and busy sections of the Inside Passage for Vancouver Island tourism in general, and for whale watching in particular. Across the water from the Bight, in Boat Bay on West Cracroft Island, is Spirit of the West Adventures’ base camp. There owner Breanne Quesnel is juggling her busiest time of year for kayak guiding, looking after her two under-two-year-olds, and fielding my questions on an issue she has been watchdogging for the last five years. Quesnel has been monitoring harvesting operations by TimberWest, the company that holds the Tree Farm Licence in the area.
It all started in June of 2011 when she found cutblock boundary marker ribbons near her licenced camp. Since then she has been researching, meeting with government and TimberWest, and offering recommendations on how best to conserve local viewscapes.
Managing viewscapes is a legal requirement of BC’s forest practices that has been around for a long time. WAC Bennett popularized the concept because he knew that visitors to Beautiful BC actually came to see trees—not stumps. Since those days, it has become a more exacting science than just keeping a strip of trees between the highway and the clearcut—and an increasingly contentious issue. Quesnel and others involved in tourism in the area know that clients choose other destinations when they start seeing too many big, ugly clear-cuts.
Focus spoke with Quesnel back in 2013 when she went public about concerns not being addressed by TimberWest or the district manager of the North Island Central Coast Forest District—concerns also voiced by the Sea Kayak Guide Alliance of BC, the Wilderness Tourism Association, the North Island Marine Mammal Association and others.
Three long years later, triggered by TimberWest’s submission of a cutting permit application, Quesnel filed a complaint with the Forest Practices Board (FPB). She argued the concessions to visual quality were inadequate, the process flawed, and government wasn’t acting in a timely manner. The FPB is an independent board that investigates complaints with forest practices and makes recommendations to the regulator, the Ministry of Forest, Lands and Natural Resource Operations, and companies holding licences to log Crown land.
Quesnel’s chief frustration lay in the lack of opportunity for the public to review and comment, specifically on cutblock layouts. The mechanism by which a company can legally get away with no input from the public is by requesting an “extension” or renewal of an existing Forest Stewardship Plan (in this case a plan developed more than a decade ago). There is no legal requirement for public input on an extension.
A Forest Stewardship Plan is a regional plan that describes how the area will be managed for a variety of values. It is the only legally-binding planning document under the Forest and Range Practices Act (FRPA). Quesnel describes it as “so vague, it allows forestry companies the ability to push through cuts just about anywhere once it is approved or extended.” The public has no recourse except a cumbersome legal appeal process in which they need to prove that stopping the logging plans would not unduly impact the supply of timber on the coast or the economics of the logging company, and that the public benefits outweigh any constraints or impacts on the licencee. As Quesnel asks, “How does a member of the public prove these tests?”
The answer is they aren’t supposed to. The onus is on the professionals to weigh up the varying priorities of serving the interests of the company, the government and the public.
THIS IS CALLED "PROFESSIONAL RELIANCE" and it finds its way into much of our legislation these days. The Province recently rescinded it for the real estate industry, but it’s alive and kicking in the Forest Range and Practices Act. In theory, it allows government to cut costs and “get out of the way” of business.
In his previous employment with UVic Environmental Law Centre, lawyer Mark Haddock, now a lawyer for the Forest Practices Board, wrote in a 2015 paper: “Just over a decade ago, the British Columbia government embarked on a significant regulatory experiment. It adopted an ambitious goal of cutting or deregulating one-third of the regulations, coupled with an equivalent reduction in the size of the public service. Natural resource management and environmental protection laws and agencies were a prime focus for this initiative as government believed resource companies were significantly over-regulated.”
To assure the public that standards wouldn’t diminish, the responsibility of managing our forests for aspects such as wildlife, tourism and water—as well as timber—was to be put in the hands of the professionals instead of government. Professional reliance is preferred by business for its flexibility and lack of regulatory controls, but it has been characterized by many as the fox guarding the chicken coop. Government’s role was converted to reviewing the “results.” Results are what you see once the harvesting is done; they provide evidence of whether the professionals did their job—or not.
Under this deregulated system, the responses of the FPB to Quesnel’s concerns were predictable: 1) that there was little more that the district manager could do other than encourage her to continue to discuss concerns with TimberWest and, 2) that TimberWest did voluntarily reduce some of the visual impact of the cutblocks to accommodate non-forestry business interests.
Is Quesnel assured that the experiment is working? As she points out, “Well you can’t stand the trees back up!”
The Ministry’s own study on the effectiveness of managing visual quality objectives (VQOs) found they were only achieved, across the province, an average of 61 percent of the time. The most stringent category of visual quality (which represents 13 percent of scenic areas) was effective less than half the time.
After five long years of gathering a large body of evidence in a field she’s worked hard to learn, Quesnel now wonders: “Why do members of the public have to do all of this? And where are all the foresters on this issue? I can’t even dig a pit toilet here without getting an archaeological impact assessment and they are blasting a road behind us?”
Mike Larock of the Association of BC Forest Professionals supports the professional reliance system, pointing to 90 percent compliance in terms of government monitoring. He sees the Association’s key priority as educational, working closely with government advisory and appeal boards, watchdogs and members of the public. He notes that every allegation raised by any of these groups is investigated. Around 10 complaints are reviewed annually. He says there have been some suspensions of licences (unconfirmed at time of press). In the online case digests, it is evident that in the majority of cases offending firms didn’t end up with fines. And the number of citations in 2014, listed in the Association’s annual report, was zero.
A minimalist approach to penalties also appears to be the policy of the Ministry. With a results-based system, if a district manager is alerted that legislated standards might not have been met, he or she informs the Compliance and Enforcement (C & E) branch who monitor “the results.”
West Coast Environmental Law did an analysis of the Ministry’s C & E branch, called Few Inspections—Low Consequences. Since 1999/2000 the number of inspections has dropped from 34,046 to 7,976. Despite so few inspections, inspectors are finding the same number of non-compliance actions. However, the amount of fines collected has plummeted from $561,511 to $72,585.
TIME RYAN, CHAIR OF THE FOREST PRACTICES BOARD, has concerns similar to those of Quesnel’s. “I have heard many of these issues myself and have seen the efforts [members of the public] make to gather the information, and I agree, they shouldn’t be in that position.” The FPB has reviewed numerous complaints about impacted viewscapes. In a 2014 complaint brought forward by the Council of Haida Nations, for instance, the FPB found that the results on the ground for visual quality were not in compliance and, more importantly, that the Ministry’s C & E branch itself “did not provide an adequate rationale or a reasoned decision for stopping the investigation, nor was the pace of the investigation satisfactory. Government’s enforcement of Forest Range and Practices Act was not appropriate.”
To that end, the FPB has made various recommendations over the years to the Ministry to improve the process. Chief amongst them was stopping the practice of approving “extensions” of Forest Stewardship Plans that preclude any public review, and increasing the discretionary powers of district managers so that if they see the runaway train coming they can do something about it. As the FPB wrote in a December 2015 report, “In recent years, the Forest Practices Board has seen situations arise where forestry development was putting local environmental and community values at risk, yet district managers could do little to affect the development and protect the public interest.” The FPB has also prepared reports on contentious issues like visual quality, endangered ecosystems and professional reliance. It cites the Haida Gwaii visual quality complaint report, and the Mount Polley mine disaster report as examples that “point to the need for a review of all parties’ roles and responsibilities in supporting professional reliance, including effectiveness and monitoring.”
Key to effectiveness is a genuine penalty for the non-compliers. In one of the first cases of its kind for visual quality, the Ministry’s C & E branch successfully brought a non-compliance case against Interfor. It concerns the visual quality objectives of Stuart Island, one of the Discovery Islands, another high- profile tourism area south of Johnstone Strait that Focus reported on in 2013, alerted by another tireless tourism operator, Ralph Keller of Coast Mountain Expeditions. Keller’s experience was similar to Quesnel’s with no real opportunity for input and huge investments of his limited time. After investigation of the complaint by the FPB, the case was heard and it was found that “Interfor had erred on the side of risk instead of on the side of caution” and that the company “had failed to take all reasonable care to avoid a contravention.” A penalty of $20,000 was levied.
When Interfor appealed to the Forest Appeals Commission, the FPB provided its evidence and Keller and others were invited as witnesses. Interfor’s appeal was turned down this summer. (Legal costs assuredly exceed the $20,000 penalty.)
One of the findings in the Interfor case was that a forester involved failed to do a “proper peer review because of his earlier involvement with Interfor in the design of the cutblock” and was found not to be independent.
INDEPENDENCE LIES AT THE HEART of concern over professional reliance. How can foresters whose work is controlled by so few companies be independent of them? Haddock put it this way in his report: “In some cases the same individual can be the evaluator, planner, approving professional and the supplier of goods and services. In many cases that professional may be an employee or contractor of the proponent, with duties of loyalty that may conflict with optimal environmental outcomes.”
And then there’s the matter of discipline and penalties. The Association of BC Forest Professionals’ Mike Larock could not comment on any disciplinary action for the foresters named. He said they would be looking at the case and that they take objectivity very seriously under their professional legislation, the Foresters Act.
The FPB’s Tim Ryan feels the economics make it challenging to ensure consistent standards and practices across a big landscape where there are lots of complicated technical problems. The Association of BC Forest Professionals operates on a budget of $2.3 million to cover the education, monitoring and disciplining of 5000 members over the entire province. Larock admits, “We are stretched pretty thin.” Ryan’s own agency has not had any increase in funding for 10 years and operates on $3.8 million. Is this enough to provide independent education, monitoring, investigation and enforcement for a profession overseeing an industry generating $15.7 billion dollars in sales?
Keller feels the Interfor/Stuart Island case may make a positive difference. Interfor had already had a case brought against them earlier for another infraction in Pryce Channel and so a second strike against them could be more damaging. In 2015, the Forest Practices Board made a recommendation that the cases of non-compliance should be made more public on an easily accessible website to act as a deterrent. Keller couldn’t agree more. “The professional reliance around how well the companies do is hollow since monitoring and enforcement is underfunded, understaffed and underpublicized. Most members of public are so cynical they don’t even bother writing complaints any more,” he said.
The Association of BC Forest Professionals’ Mike Larock says the decision on Interfor’s performance on Stuart Island was welcome and “will shape the management of visual quality objectives.”
When Focus asked Interfor about its next steps in light of the case, its Director of Economic Partnerships & Sustainability Karen Brandt responded: “Before the Tribunal’s decision, Interfor and tourism groups had already begun to work together to improve communications and collaboration. Interfor is now a member of the Discovery Island Tourism-Forestry Group, shared its 10-year harvesting plans with tourism operators, hosted open houses and developed new operating procedures and training for staff to guide visual management. The recent Tribunal decision provides further learnings to improve independent peer reviews.”
Quesnel does feel things might be improving, citing the forester from Interfor for finally bringing maps to the table for their Tourism-Forestry Group. Still, she cautions, “While all of this is going on, logging is actively taking place. None of the companies have agreed to halt plans until agreements can be reached with the tourism sector.”
And what of the Ministry of Forest, Lands and Natural Resource Operations? Is it listening to the Forest Practices Board? In a letter addressed to its chair, Deputy Minister Tim Sheldan wrote, “Now that FRPA has been in effect for over a decade it is appropriate to acknowledge and address areas of learning and longstanding concerns. And begin integrating them into our administration and implementation of the Act and framework.” The Forest Practices Board chair Ryan believes the government is beginning to take a more “aggressive” stand on the over 270 Forest Stewardship Plans up for renewal. “We will see some improvements,” he predicts. Sheldan stated that “province-wide expectations are also being set for the submission of new plans that will be subject to full review and comment by the public and stakeholders. Achieving a new standard will take time and collaboration.”
Quesnel, Keller and many others frustrated with the system will be watching with sharp eyes as to whether genuine change is afoot or simply more delaying tactics. Meanwhile the two tourist operators are confident that the business case for logging is losing out to tourism values in their regions. Quesnel calculates “our one business generated more income in less than four years than [forestry generated] from the entire cut—which can only be done every 60 years or so.”
Briony Penn is the author of the new book, The Real Thing: The Natural History of Ian McTaggart Cowan. She recommends Daniel Pierce’s Heartwood videos on forestry issues on the Island.
The Province’s failure on First Nations burial sites is leading to more Grace Islets and potentially another Gustafsen Lake.
IN THE EVENING OF March 17, 2015, the Tseycum longhouse in Saanich was permeated with a sense of profound relief. The desecration of 18 ancestral graves on Grace Islet, a First Nations’ burial site in Saltspring Island’s Ganges Harbour, had finally been stopped.
Hundreds of people gathered together in the longhouse not only to express their thankfulness that the desecration had ended, but to share their grief over the spiritual insult done to their ancestors. Provincial Minister of Forests, Lands and Natural Resource Operations Steve Thomson was also there, but for a different reason: to apologize for the fact that the violation of the burial ground not only occurred under his watch, but with his approval.
Nine months earlier, with a Heritage Conservation Act (HCA) permit in hand issued by staff at Thomson’s Archaeology Branch, a property developer had begun building his retirement home in the midst of Grace Islet’s graves. First Nations, horrified at the wilful destruction of their ancestral cemetery, pleaded repeatedly with Thomson to revoke the permit and protect the site instead, which the government had the authority to do under the HCA. Their protests were brushed aside, however, and onlookers watched in acute dismay as building materials were piled on the tiny islet and construction began in mid-2014.
Threatened with an Aboriginal title lawsuit, Thomson finally caved in, paying more than $5 million to buy the island and stop the building work from continuing. That was too late, however, to prevent significant damage occurring to the graves, and searing emotional and cultural injury to the people whose ancestors had been so disrespected. An apology was the least that Steve Thomson could offer.
Thomson also promised: “I give you my sincere commitment to work with you to ensure that something like this never happens again.” He reiterated the commitment to Focus shortly after the Tseycum event, stating that he had instructed his staff to review how the HCA is implemented with respect to First Nations burial grounds, specifically to avoid any future “Grace Islet-type situations” (see “Saving Grace,” Focus, April 2015).
One might think that—faced by a roomful of people hanging on his every word, and by such palpable grief—Thomson would keep his word. But, 18 months later, it looks very much like he hasn’t.
Thomson’s communications staff did not respond to requests for an interview with him. Focus received only a short email instead, insisting that a review has taken place and that as a result, the Archaeological Branch has “tightened up procedures” and “is paying closer attention to areas that may contain burial sites.” That closer attention may include “more frequent site visits by a branch archaeologist, and greater detail required from proponents for any planned development.”
In other words, as far as anyone can tell, nothing has been put in place to ensure a “Grace Islet-type situation” cannot be repeated. It also seems no First Nations were involved in the “review,” despite Thomson’s promise to work with them.
Dr Judith Sayers, a member of the Hupacasath First Nation, is co-chair of the Joint Working Group on First Nations Heritage Conservation, established in 2007 by the provincial government and First Nations Leadership Council to help improve the protection of First Nations cultural and heritage sites. You’d think Sayers of all people would have been involved in a review. But Sayers says: “As far as I am aware, nothing has happened.”
Union of British Columbia Indian Chiefs President Grand Chief Stewart Phillip, who witnessed Thomson’s promise at Tseycum, says he is also not aware of any review at all taking place, let alone one that involved First Nations: “That’s very disappointing to me.” If Thomson’s goal was to prevent another “Grace Islet-type situation,” Phillip believes Thomson’s failure to keep his promise makes the opposite outcome inevitable.
Indeed, there may be more than one such situation already brewing. In New Westminster, a school built over a burial site which is believed to contain the remains of a Tsilhqot’in chief is about to be torn down. Tsilhqot’in Nation has already put the Education Ministry on notice that they will not permit any desecration of his grave to occur.
Further east, in the Similkameen Valley, the ancient remains of five people were uncovered and seriously damaged on February 29 this year when an unsuspecting Cawston property owner began clearing part of his land. He reported the incident immediately, and the Lower Similkameen Indian Band (LSIB) was called in to recover what they could of the scattered bones—fewer than half to date, according to LSIB Chief Keith Crow. “We’ve been able to repatriate maybe 400 bones so far, but that means there are at least 600 left there, if not more.”
Crow says that the existence of burials on the Cawston site has been known to government since as early as 1952. Despite that, efforts to have the area protected under the HCA have been unsuccessful to date. “I just want to take care of our poor ancestors,” he says in frustration. “These are our great-great-great grandparents. They were properly laid to rest on that place and it is our sacred duty to ensure we look after them.”
On April 25, Crow’s frustration at the lack of action by government to help protect the site boiled over. In a scathing letter to the Premier, Crow aimed a warning shot across the government’s bows: “Oka, Ipperwash, and Gustafsen Lake all proved very costly and involved the deployment of hundreds of police and the Canadian military. LSIB is prepared to begin a highly publicized protest unless you take immediate action.”
The 1990 Oka crisis involved a land dispute in Quebec that lasted more than ten weeks and resulted in the death of a police officer. In 1995, it was Ojibway protester Dudley George who was killed by police at Ipperwash. The Gustafsen Lake standoff in BC, a protest by First Nations over an ancient sacred site, took place the same year and lasted a month. The cost of RCMP involvement was the highest of its kind in Canadian history.
Crow’s implied threat that the government faces a similar scenario at Cawston didn’t achieve the result he hoped for. On June 7, LSIB issued a further press release stating: “Premier Clark told Chief Crow that her government would engage in a meaningful and responsive way. That has not yet happened. Our patience is running thin. Failure to act is not an option.” Nonetheless, by the last week of July there was still no movement. To his dismay, Crow was told by a provincial official that nothing would happen “this close to an election.” (The next BC provincial election is in May 2017.)
On July 27, the Okanagan Nation Alliance (ONA)—of which LSIB is a member and Stewart Phillip Chair—wrote again to the Premier, as well as Aboriginal Relations and Reconciliation Minister John Rustad and Steve Thomson, urging them to re-engage on this “escalating” matter. This time they left no room for doubt about their intentions: “Direct action is the next step in moving this issue forward.”
Asked by Focus for the government’s response, Thomson’s ministry staff replied by email: “The Province shares the concerns about the recent discovery of human remains and is currently working with the LSIB, the ONA and the landowner in a collaborative manner on solutions to protect the remains. The next meeting between all interested parties is scheduled for the end of August.”
If it’s aggravating for journalists to receive that kind of non-response from government, it must be triply so for Crow. He says LSIB is committed to finding a solution to protecting the remains and is using every effort to engage government, but doesn’t feel it’s reciprocated. It was LSIB who organized and planned the August meeting, not the government, and if he’d had his way, the meeting would have been held much sooner: “I find it frustrating that it seems no-one else is taking this seriously except for the LSIB.”
Crow did not comment on the likelihood of protest action occurring if discussions at the August meeting failed, but as things stood at time of writing, the potential for a positive outcome was not promising.
Grace Islet wasn’t the first situation of its kind—think Bear Mountain, Nanaimo’s Departure Bay, and Musqueam’s Marpole site in Vancouver. Given the government’s apparent unwillingness to respond to First Nations and implement any meaningful changes to the way the HCA is implemented, it seems likely that it will not be the last. And the next one, whether it is at Cawston or elsewhere, could have even more serious consequences for government.
Stewart Phillip believes that direct action may be the only alternative left to First Nations pushed to the wall over the mistreatment of their forebears: “It seems there will have to be a full-pitched battle before the Province will act to find a resolution and protect these ancestral remains.”
Katherine Palmer Gordon is a former BC Chief Treaty Negotiator and the author of six books, including We Are Born With the Songs Inside Us (Harbour, 2013). She is currently working on New Zealand’s final treaties with First Nations there.
Lindsay Delaronde’s collaborative photography project uses images to defy the language and attitudes that marginalize indigenous women.
LANGUAGE PLAYS A POWERFUL ROLE in the history of colonialism, racism and sexism. Even small words have major implications: there is a big difference between, say, the history of Vancouver Island and a history of Vancouver Island. The former leaves no room for alternative tellings or voices, while the latter acknowledges that as the whole point. That single mark carries with it a powerful paradigm shift.
Even the way we refer to a place is meaningful: the part of Vancouver Island in which these words were written is, after all, unceded Esquimalt and Songhees First Nations territory. Place names carry weight. And then there are those words that, in an utterance of single syllables, can deliver the blows of colonialism, racism and sexism with visceral force. Words like squaw.
When someone says it, “they are stereotyping native women,” explains Lindsay Katsitsakatste Delaronde, an Iroquois/ Mohawk artist living and working in Victoria. “They are saying, ‘You are a low- class citizen. You are the other.’ It implies oppression, marginalization, exploitation and sexualization,” so much so that, since the turn of the 21st century, it has been removed from place names around North America.
With “Project Squaw,” a unique photography-based initiative three years in the making, Delaronde has examined the word and the long shadow it has cast. “It’s looking at that word, looking at the history of it,” she says, from “first contact with fur traders and explorers [who ‘took’ First Nations wives]…continuing to all the problems that come with the Indian Act and Bill C-35, where they took away a woman’s status if she marries out. All of these legislations and laws and policies based on an indigenous woman’s identity, on what she is and what she isn’t. This power.”
Delaronde’s aim is to offer alternative manifestations of identity and power. “I have a tension, a conflict in my art,” she observes. “It’s not about going into battle, but about creating a place of change. This project is really about providing space and working with virtues that are particularly related to our cultural teachings around respect and love and joy,” she explains.
Its concept combines all aspects of Delaronde’s education, intertwined with an art practice that reaches back to childhood. Born in Montreal in 1985 and raised on the nearby Kahnawake First Nation, Delaronde experienced domestic violence and trauma in her youth. She always turned to art-making, including traditional forms such as beadwork, for solace. “Art is my place of healing,” she says. “It is a sacred place. It is something you partake in and you go into a different realm. You have power there; you have control. You have personal agency. You can reconstruct things, deconstruct things. And that process is very mindful and focused and was very much a contrast to my home life. So art has been a means of understanding myself and the world.”
At 16 years of age, Delaronde attended the Fine Arts program at Dawson College in Montreal, then came west to do an undergrad degree at Vancouver’s Emily Carr University of Art and Design. At the end of her final year, she moved to Victoria, where her daughter, now 9, was born. She completed a Master’s of Fine Art at the University of Victoria in 2010. Throughout her education she studied and worked in a wide variety of media, from printmaking, drawing and video to performance, exploring her own voice and role as an artist.
All the while, Delaronde has been aware of the impacts of colonialism personally and culturally. “Looking at those larger themes and trying to find [her] role in that,” she completed the Master’s in Indigenous Communities Counselling at UVic, which combines First Nations and Western counselling methods. Realizing how an art practice helped her in her own healing, she has been finding points of cohesion. “As time went on, I was really interested in narrative therapy, person-centred therapy,” she relates. “I was looking at my own cultural background in terms of what does group look like, community-based gathering. Looking at different ceremonies and rituals. We don’t heal in isolation.
Our worldview is about coming together and doing ceremonies so we could be visible; we could be seen. We could be part of community. The individual healing is the group healing—one is the other,” she explains.
“Project Squaw” takes this into account. It is a collaboration between Delaronde and 32 First Nations women ranging in age from 22-56 years, whom she photographed in a style and setting completely of their own dictation. It will appear at UVic’s Legacy Gallery downtown from October 8 to December 24 in an exhibition titled In Defiance. In it, each woman will have “individual narratives and stories, but the viewers will see this collective, a community voice that will counteract the term squaw. It’s ‘in defiance’ of that word.”
Important in the process was the full control each woman had over how they were represented, given that the project deals with deeply personal responses to sexuality, female identity and the body. Also important to Delaronde was that she be the first to be photographed. “You can’t ask somebody to do something that you are not able to do yourself,” she states. For the participating women, she saw herself as facilitator, her counselling education coming into play.
Through discussion and collaboration, she helped each woman in the group—community workers, mothers, educators, scholars and more—find the power in their vulnerability, both in the final image they chose for the exhibition and the personally written statement that accompanies it.
That power is visible in the confrontational gazes of those who face the camera head-on. No matter where their eyes are directed, these women claim, act in and declare their spaces, which include rivers and fields, forests and mud puddles. Seen in context with their statements individually and collectively, no meanings need be inferred. “The woman has already defined herself—she’s telling you; she’s showing you,” Delaronde states.
The frequent natural settings give way to an underlying theme of the female body as connected to the land, both as givers of life and receivers of violence: “Violence against women is directly related to the exploitation of the land as commodified, objectified, sexualized.”
Describing her role in this project as “a great honour,” Delaronde is understandably protective of how these images are understood and received. “There are people who are part of this project that have family members who are missing, who are murdered, so this history is very alive and real in a lot of us. When we are looking at being sexual, the repercussions of that have been fatal,” she says.
“Violence against indigenous women is a fact—it happened and it’s happening. Looking at the word squaw was a touchstone for everything that followed, sifting through what is real, what is authentic, asking who am I really, underneath all of these labels,” Delaronde concludes. “In Defiance is looking at the stereotype; it’s looking at what Canadian culture thinks of native people; it’s addressing it, and then it shows something else.” Something that can be put into words like consent. Safety. Honour. Agency. Authenticity. And other small words with major implications.
In Defiance is on from October 8-December 24, 2016, with an opening reception October 21, 7-9 pm and “In Conversation with Lindsay Delaronde and Sarah Hunt” on October 22, 2-4 pm. Legacy Art Gallery Downtown is at 630 Yates Street, 250-472-5619, www.legacy.uvic.ca.
Aaren Madden is a Victoria writer with an education in Art History and Museum Studies. As such, she spends a lot of time thinking about the power of words—and the power of pictures.
An arts oasis faces challenges without CRD funding—so throws a dance party.
ART IS A FORM OF LIFE SUPPORT. That’s not hyperbole. There’s enough bona fide quantitative research—and plain old anecdotal evidence—supporting this truth. Every small and large municipality in this administratively pixellated region has collectively invested hundreds of thousands of dollars in studies and public meetings to craft Official Community Plans (OCPs). These OCPs clearly demonstrate that citizens prioritize public funding of the arts as a vital part of their neighbourhoods and lives—and that dollar for dollar, no investment of civic resources offers a better return than building an arts infrastructure.
Yet the government-dispersed funds in the West Shore keep flowing toward… sports. This is the exasperating reality the dedicated visionaries of the Coast Collective Arts Centre (CCAC) face as they create the kind of multi-faceted, essential and accessible arts resource clearly defined in their West Shore municipality’s OCP, yet cannot access the significant coffers of the Capital Regional District (CRD) Arts Development Service grants, since Colwood doesn’t contribute. Cindy Moyer, executive director of Coast Collective, points out the window. “If we were two minutes that way, in View Royal, we would be eligible for those funds.”
Walking into CCAC’s new home, a generous expanse of pristine, modern, well-lit gallery space incorporated into a brand-new hotel complex adjacent to the Juan de Fuca Rec Centre, one could imagine they were visiting an auxiliary wing of the Art Gallery of Greater Victoria. After moving last winter from their charming but impractical heritage-home startup digs at the Havenwood Estate in Esquimalt Lagoon, their presence in this elegant and efficient space signals that this eight-year-old arts organization has fully matured.
Everything about the CCAC is top-notch; the art on display is stringently juried, skillfully executed and professionally presented; the gift shop’s elegant, diverse and affordable wares are all produced by the artist members of the Collective, who live in every one of the 13 municipalities that make up “Victoria.” A bright and spacious workshop offers artists of all ages and levels of ability year-round opportunities to learn new techniques. Everything about the place says “public institution.” And yet it is a private enterprise, run by dedicated, regular people—with little or no pay, and no safety net.
“The Coast Collective is the only non-profit art centre of its kind in our community,” explains Moyer. “We bring the arts alive for the public in a free-access gallery, showcase Vancouver Island talent, and contribute to the livelihood of hundreds of local artists and artisans. Now, in this new location, we can welcome people though our double glass doors, even with walkers or wheelchairs. We couldn’t do that before. Having accessibility for people with mobility issues was a deal-breaker. We’re also well-served by public transit. This location is better on all levels.”
This summer, within days of an August board meeting where the top agenda item was the CCAC’s potential demise come December, the organization’s first-ever gaming grant came through, securing their future—but only for the coming year, and no further. “We asked for $50,000, and got 30,” says Moyer; “30 was the absolute minimum amount we needed to keep going for another year.” The next big push is to petition Colwood to grant a permissive tax exemption on the property tax portion of CCAC’s lease at Westridge Landing—shaving a possible $10-12,000 off their annual rent payments.
Until CCAC is able to access more consistent sources of public funding, they must continue, as they have since their start in 2008, to earn their own way, relying on a steady stream of workshop participants and gift-shop sales. While no one would expect the Royal Theatre or the AGGV to cater solely to Downtown-core-dwellers, neither would one expect a resource like CCAC to be utilized only by residents of the West Shore. But this is the unique conundrum of our region: with all of the fragmentation brought on by having so many separate municipalities in a relatively small geographic area, how do you get people to overcome their perception that it’s “too far” to go “way out there,” even if it’s only a distance of 10 or 15 kilometres?
Perhaps a party will help. “Raise the Roof” is planned as a fundraiser for CCAC on October 15, featuring beloved local Latin-funk band Groove Kitchen, whose bass player happens to be Moyer’s husband. The band will play from 8pm till midnight, with light snacks served at 10pm. The organization is banking on healthy ticket sales, as well as generous bidding for silent auction items, which feature a diverse array of artists’ works and donations from area businesses.
If a few folks from Victoria find out that they don’t have to pack extra provisions for the short jaunt to Colwood, and have a great experience to boot, perhaps they’ll make a habit of it. As a collective community who benefits from a thriving and diverse arts landscape, we’d all be healthier for it.
“Raise the Roof” fundraiser for Coast Collective Art Centre, featuring Groove Kitchen. Saturday, October 15, 8-pm-12am, Royal Canadian Legion Branch 91, 761 Station Avenue, Langford, BC. Tickets $22.40, www.coastcollective.ca or 250-391-5522. Coast Collective Gallery & Artisans Gift Shop hours: Wednesday to Sunday 11am-5pm, #103 - 318 Wale Road, Colwood.
Victoria writer and musician Mollie Kaye would like to see all of the arts resources in our region honoured, recognized, enjoyed, and supported financially.
Hard-hitting Pulitzer Prize-winning rock musical about mental health and family opens the season at Langham Court Theatre.
WHEN NEW SEASON ANNOUNCEMENTS came out this spring, I was delighted to see that Langham Court Theatre had programmed the contemporary American musical Next to Normal as its 2016-2017 season opener. A rock musical, with book and lyrics by Brian Yorkey and music by Tom Kitt, it’s a somewhat surprising and risky choice for Langham.
That said, over past years I’ve admired a number of the more out-of-the-box shows our local and longstanding community theatre company has offered Victoria audiences. A couple of examples are 2011’s The Beauty Queen of Leenane by Martin McDonagh or last year’s August: Osage County by Tracy Letts, both of which were dark and daunting dramas (albeit with plenty of black comedic elements) that Langham tackled very well.
I would have considered Next to Normal to have been of interest to the Belfry Theatre, our resident professional company in town. Or I might have had to travel to Vancouver, Seattle or elsewhere to catch a road tour production. It is exciting that Langham has taken it on and we have a chance to see it right here.
Next to Normal is a 2009 Broadway musical about a “normal” suburban middle class family trying to navigate through the challenges of both grief and mental illness. Mother Diana is trying to cope with bipolar disorder with its manic highs and depressive lows. Husband Dan has been supporting her for many years but is beyond weary with the role of caregiver. Daughter Natalie is an ambitious and talented young musician who worries about her parents whilst navigating through a new romantic relationship with fellow student Henry.
When Diana suffers a breakdown and an attempted suicide, she is offered electro-shock treatment and the family has to deal with her consequent loss of memory. Hovering over all of this is their son, Gabriel, in a kind of absent presence. Finally, Diana has to make a difficult choice in order to move her life forward, letting go of some painful memories and relationships in order to do so.
The musical won a number of New York theatre awards, including Tony Awards for Best Original Score and Best Leading Actress for Alice Ripley as Diana. But the musical also won a Pulitzer Prize, the first one awarded to a musical since Rent in 1996. Only a handful of musicals have been given Pulitzer Prizes which are more usually bestowed on dramatic plays. This speaks very well to the dramatic content of the book of Next to Normal as it sits alongside other Pulitzer musical winners South Pacific, Sunday in the Park with George and A Chorus Line. This year saw yet another Pulitzer musical win, the hugely popular Hamilton: An American Musical. All of these well-regarded shows have a psychological depth of characterization and significant themes blended into their musical structure.
The historical development of the American Broadway musical is a fascinating one. The song and dance revue style performances of the early 20th century have morphed over time into a more hybrid form. At its best the Broadway musical can transcend its own crowd-pleasing limits and be as transformative for audiences as the greatest dramas, or even operas. Think of Gershwin, Sondheim and a few others, perhaps including the red-hot Lin-Manuel Miranda, creator and star of Hamilton in this regard.
So this is clearly not your usual romantic or otherwise lighter musical plot. Next to Normal sits alongside contemporary musicals such as Rent (addressing AIDS), Spring Awakening (sexual awakening) and Fun Home (based on an autobiography by a gay daughter discovering her father’s closeted homosexuality). These rock musicals offer audiences a mash-up of dramatic characters struggling with life-and-death issues and delivered in popular musical styles.
I was curious how and why this season’s production co-chairs Roger Carr and Keith Digby had selected this demanding but very moving musical. Keith Digby (on his and Carr’s behalf) responded to my email interview questions by letting me know his thoughts on the appeal of the show: “It’s a high energy, let’s-get-this-season-really-going-gangbusters, rock musical. It’s also a compellingly told, highly accessible story of a family in crisis with words and lyrics with heart and depth. Hence the 2010 Pulitzer to go with its 12 Tony nominations and 4 wins. Previous productions have shown that it transcends age and gender divides.”
The production’s director Gregg Perry echoes Digby’s thoughts, telling me, “The show has a constant flow of engaging music and emotion. It succeeds as a musical that draws the audience inside the experience of the family, shares the pathos and the hope. It feels real, leaving us neither deflated nor triumphant. Instead, we have shared a genuine human experience that many of us can identify with.”
When asked what their previous experience of the musical had been, Digby relayed that he had listened to the soundtrack (as have I, and composer Tom Kitt and lyricist Brian Yorkey have crafted many effective and memorable songs) as well as seen YouTube clips of the Broadway production. Perry tells me, “I happened to see the [Nanaimo-based] Schmooze Productions presentation of the show in November last year. Jennifer Kelly played Diana and her voice was a treat to hear and she knew the play inside out.”
Successful casting of this musical, with its high level of drama and emotional intensity, will be key. Digby commented on this aspect of the production by saying, “Casting this musical, granted all in it can sing well, actually takes the same talent and sensitivity as any other play that deals with a major human theme. I expect that director Gregg Perry will agree with this thought: You cast people who can play the roles believably and who will engage audience members and move them. The text deals with the theme and situation. Each actor plays the urgent needs of his or her character, moment by moment. This is also a text one can trust, so just do it.”
Indeed Perry does agree and tells me, “We all have to be crazy to tackle this one! The music is quite challenging with a variety of odd time signatures. And there is no break in the action during each act. It is quite intense all the way through.”
I also wanted to know what Digby and Perry hoped their audience at Langham Court Theatre might take away from seeing Next to Normal. Digby replied, “I hope and believe that the audience will love it and engage with its characters and story as much as I do. I believe that, in terms of numbers, it will be a big hit for us as well.” Perry said simply yet directly, “They can’t help but be moved by the emotional pain and courage.”
We will all have the opportunity to meet this “normal” family as they struggle with the universal dramatic themes of love and loss, and sing their hearts out to boot.
Next to Normal opens September 30 and runs until October 15 with tickets available at www.langhamtheatre.ca or 250-384-2142.
Monica Prendergast teaches and researches drama/theatre education at the University of Victoria. The second edition of her award-winning textbook, Applied Theatre (with Juliana Saxton), is available now from Intellect Books.
Kathy Page’s new collection of short stories explores the transformative power of one-to-one encounters.
IN THE GLOBAL VILLAGE, our world has grown so big. Our care and concern is called on by people from around the planet, and we are mentally and emotionally stretched in endless different directions. Locally, too, as Focus showcases, there’s no shortage of capital “B” Big issues to be aware of and involved in. Being engaged is one of the great parts of living in a vibrant community like Victoria, but it’s sometimes easy to lose one’s boundaries and bearings amid the tide of so much outward pull.
So I found it incredibly refreshing, especially as I was planning my wedding, to take time to breathe deeply within the covers of Kathy Page’s new book The Two of Us (Biblioasis, September 2016). In this collection of short stories, Page invites us to settle into a series of closer relationships, more homey twosomes, and to expand our awareness inside that smaller and deceptively simple dynamic by questioning who we see, who we are and what we might become.
Tucked away on a winding Salt Spring Island road, Page’s peaceful home is the perfect spot to talk about (and experience) the power of the one-to-one. Attention focuses, stories unfold, and the pattern of listening and responding teaches you something about the other and yourself. That transformative kind of intimate interaction is at the heart of Page’s stories in this 200-page collection, each of which relates to what she calls “the most fundamental thing”: the relationship between the self and another.
Whether it’s a father and daughter exploring a cave, a visiting professor negotiating culture and communication with her contact in a foreign country, a hairdresser and client who is facing cancer, a young girl and a dog “big as a wish,” spouses, squatters, strangers, Page’s characters find themselves in pairs—some momentary and some lifelong—in which there is an opportunity to change one another and be changed.
“How relationships work fascinates me,” Page tells me: “How a relationship is structured and built, and what that does to you.” Originally from Bromley, England, Page has published seven novels, including a Governor General’s Award finalist and nominee for the Orange Prize, as well as the short story collection Paradise & Elsewhere, nominated for the 2014 Giller Prize.
But she has also, she says with a smile, had to improvise her day job and is trained as a carpenter and joiner as well as a counsellor and psychotherapist—drawing on an interest to know how she came to be who she was. She has worked in settings that vary from Vancouver Island University to Estonia, a men’s prison and a therapeutic community for drug users. What she has developed is a sharp-eyed and open-hearted curiosity about self and others.
“I’m interested in difficult characters, in when I run up against a difficult person. I find it surprising,” she explains with a lock of her intense but serene sky-blue eyes. “I’m interested to explore them without judgment.” That non-judgmental curiosity not only saved her from resentment when partnered with a somewhat stony carpentry mentor back in England but has made her a writer that pairs probing insight with gentle but direct handling.
For instance, she tunes into the kind of prickly honesty of thoughts and feelings many of us would feel guilty admitting and would never have the guts to say out loud. She presents an older woman who both loves and is bored—even appalled—by her husband and his now slowness in just putting on his shoes. And a husband, awaiting his wife’s genetic testing results, asks himself: “What if there is bad news? How will I be for her? What will I do, what will I say to her as she turns to me?” He wonders if he will change himself into what is needed or just run.
Page reminds us of the simple but important truth that we are mystery. We are always more than one thing at a time, and who we are and how we get there isn’t visible at the surface. “From the outside, no one would guess any of this, not in a thousand years,” one young man thinks while reflecting on his various abilities. In another story, a nervous, tongue-tied man turns out to be a surprising lover—“in the flesh, so articulate.” In a short two-pager, a child considers dragonfly nymphs, how “inside, they produced glittering wings, lungs, and enormous eyes” before splitting their skin and emerging new. She wonders: “Suppose we were just the beginning of something else?”
Skills, sorrows, incredible transformations—Page reveals the hidden and encourages us to look for it, to look differently at the people in front of us or beside us in our own lives, to understand, to forgive, and to wonder about our own new beginnings. A trip into her world is, as one of her characters says, “a day for seeing things.”
Sometimes, Page explains, she begins with just a person or a predicament, other times with something as simple as a staircase. “With short fiction you can improvise,” she says. “It’s freeing. Novels sweep you up in momentum. Short fiction is more like a plunge into the lake” where, Page hopes, you come up and out with a bit of a shock. “You can then sit back and keep the whole thing in your mind.”
Her swimming image recalls a description of free diving in the book’s final story, centred on a swim coach and his prized protégé—a description that applies perfectly to Page’s own writing: “Depth is about the water pushing in on you and separating you from the familiar.” Page’s skill lies in separating us from the familiar by taking us deep into the everyday, making the seemingly typical or unremarkable newly remarkable, from the clink of milk bottles against a step to the slightly moldy smell of damp summer towels and the lake’s response to its swimmers: “The thick green water breaking into golden streaks and swirls with each dive, then resealing itself, perfect each time.”
“All those things suggest human life,” Page says passionately, “and every human life is full of stories. Everywhere you look or listen, there’s a whole rich story.”
A plunge into the intimacy of The Two of Us, Page hopes, helps readers to feel they’re in a different place in the end, even if it’s just a change in what we’re able to notice as we come back up for air ready again for the wider world—“more alive,” she says, “and aware.”
Newly married writer, editor and musician Amy Reiswig is extra appreciative of having a new perspective on the power of pairs.
A Canadian attempts to understand American explanations of Donald Trump
SO, YOU SPEND HALF YOUR WAKING MOMENTS trying to work out the difference between “cloudy with sunny periods” and “sunny with cloudy periods?” Well, lucky, nuance-free you! If the sky falls, it’s all your fault, you… you hippie.
And speaking of falling skies, even in this transmundane publication, no self-respecting catastrophist could fail to confess to spending obsessive amounts of time reading and fretting about the foreboding political weather south of our border—code, of course, for news and commentary about Donald Trump, who is both Republican presidential candidate and personification of the crazy vibration, the soul echo, the steadily coalescing angry Om emanating from a worryingly large percentage of US society.
I poach from a recent James Fallows piece in The Atlantic: “Trump’s speech is no longer looked at as carrying actual content. Instead, it has become pure gesture, layered with dog whistles and emotional words that modify no actual nouns or verbs, merely indicating moods and relationships rather than explicit ideas.”
Of course. Trump doesn’t want to be president of an accommodationist United States that goes quietly into the night, or slinks offstage, or mediates reality. He wants to be president of a United States that is numero uno, calls the shots, grabs the prize—a country with big brass balls and sheer ego. A country, in other words, cocky in victory, not unlike… why, Donald Trump!
I could swap Fallows for The Atlantic’s Senior Editor David Frum, or for the NY Times’ quartet of terrific opinion writers David Brooks, Ross Douthat, Tom Engelhardt, and Thomas Edsall, The New Yorker’s Adam Gopnik, Media-Post’s Bob Garfield, Joel Kotkin in the Daily Beast, the Guardian’s George Monbiot, and many others in the commentariat.
Pitched at the tone of gnawing worry and genuine existential panic, recent columns by such writers reveal an unsettling ditto: “Dangerous World.” “Are We on the Path to National Ruin?” “Is a New Political System Emerging in This Country?” “The Seven Broken Guardrails of Democracy.” “Revolt of the Masses.” “Why the World is Falling Apart.”
Why is the world falling apart?
Writing about the loss of a binding social identity, in the US and elsewhere, New Perspectives Quarterly Editor Nathan Gardels (a friend and colleague of our former prime minister, the senior Trudeau) labels it a “mutiny against globalization so audacious and technological change so rapid that it can barely be absorbed by our incremental nature.” After all, what, in such a context, do normative and normal even mean? Gardels adds: “the greater the threat—of violence, upheaval or exclusion—the more rigid and ‘solitarist’ identities become.”
That is, you have to stand back far enough from this election to study not the man, but the historical moment. Trump the presidential candidate is nothing—a “bizarre political footnote,” a writer in Salon calls him. But like Hitler, Mussolini and other oratorically skillful demagogues who found their opportunity and caused endless mischief, Trump, with his eponymous, self-amplifying real estate and his freedom to promote his life in some heady realm of self-glorification, tugs at the souls of millions who want to consider him only as a personification, a champion, of some pop-infused American Promise. Their promise.
And what does Hillary have to throw against that? Policy. A political world almost immobilized by its own complexity. A reminder that the game is rigged by big capital. Stewardship over a more mature, gravitic and less hopeful stage in national identity.
Oh, you can’t translate those whispers in Mandarin you’re hearing? They’re saying “We’re Number Two, but not for long!”
David Frum in The Atlantic, channelling his inner Canadian, fusses there are now “so many marginalized Americans who don’t understand the rules, who don’t think that rules of personal or civil conduct apply to them, who have no notion of self-control.” Any Canadian would resonate with Frum’s threnody; but what else could one expect from the American social experiment dedicated, as it is, to a long-developing imbalance between appetite and obligation?
There’s something doom-y, fourth-act-y in the air south of us. The case for a social climax is ripening. The pressure’s up and the social particles are moving faster, orbiting eccentrically and drifting toward collision. Increasingly, media reports of violence—mass killings, cop-shootings and all the rest of that gruesome menu—are passing beyond news and into the realm of metaphor. You say you don’t understand? You mean, folks are not murdering and graphically face-eating their neighbours in the front yard in your part of town? Catch up, huh?
Okay, a bit less hyperbolically, the meaning of what is going on right now may be seen as a mainstream revolution, an open revolt, taking place in America against an economic aristocracy and all of the institutions, policies and programmes through which it operates. That Trump, a high-flying (in his own plane) billionaire should personify the revolt, and not the aristocracy, is perverse, but not entirely beyond explanation.
Putting his pathological self-absorption and other loony traits to the side, Trump makes it clear that he opposes the entire trans-national framework that supports and protects the interests of capital not labour, the banker not the worker.
I was just reading an Economic Policy Institute study revealing that the top 1 percent of American income earners captured 20.1 percent of all the US income in 2013 and took home 85.1 percent of total income growth. “In the face of this national problem, we need national policy solutions to jumpstart wage growth for the vast majority,” the study thunders. That kind of fist pounding and 20 bucks gets you home in a taxi, but it’s also why the keys to the White House seem to dangle within Trump’s reach.
Jill Lepore, offering notes from the Cleveland Democratic Convention in a political diary for The New Yorker, quoted a delegate—presumably, a Sanders supporter—who didn’t believe the US will last much longer if Hillary Clinton is elected, and who imagines the country is poised for a descent into anarchy. “It won’t take as long as four years. I give it two or three, tops.”
Now, all of this column’s moody content has a purpose: It’s not the colour, but the setting. The NY Times’ Ross Douthat cites surveys registering a “general dissatisfaction with the American trajectory” and a public that doesn’t feel sweeping optimism about the country’s future. Ask yourself: Is this just a shocking, novel moment in history, a blip, a ping, a nervous dream we will soon wake from, or is this some spreading social virus, a new game with new rules, worrying not just for its near-term impacts but also because it pushes us toward some precipitous, risky, unknowable and sweeping social future, one of history’s corner-points? In other words, a new normal may come eventually, but for now it’s a new crazy between normals.
I say again, it’s the why of Trump, not the man, that’s interesting: The historical inevitability, the accident that had to happen now, the social expression America has been building toward. Trump himself? Just a “ludicrous outrider of the apocalypse.”
Writing six hundred years ago, Niccolo Machiavelli, analyzing the mutations and reversals of Florentine and Italian politics in the 1400s, noted recurrent oscillations between “order” and “disorder.” He theorized: “When states have arrived at their greatest perfection, they soon begin to decline. In the same manner, having been reduced by disorder and sunk to their utmost state of depression, unable to descend lower, they, of necessity, reascend, and thus from good they gradually decline to evil and from evil mount up to good.”
In a spasm of late springtime worry, I registered the domain, trumpisanasshole.com, but did nothing with it, mostly because everyone knows Trump is an asshole and the domain increasingly seemed like nothing more than a franchise to re-state the obvious. And while I truly don’t want to see Trump in the White House, I’m not sure that Hillary, or anyone else, can raise an imperial hand before history’s rising tide.
James Kunstler, my favourite we’re-all-gonna-die-nik (he makes me look sunny), suggests broadly: “The techno-industrial fantasia is drawing to a close. The financial structures of everyday life look more fragile than ever. We are heading into a long-term contraction of activity, productivity, and population and the salient question is how disorderly will the long emergency of the journey be to that new disposition of things? What we face is discontinuity, the end of old spent dynamics and the beginning of new dynamics.”
It would be foolish to believe that the trends noted in this column will be contained by US national borders. The economic and social tectonics ripple out far beyond the American geography. These aren’t things we’ll be simply reading about in the “Elsewhere” section over morning coffee.
It must be an absolute coincidence that “jump” and Trump rhyme, but right now, in my view, things in America and elsewhere are all jump, no parachute.
A founder of Open Space and Monday Magazine, Gene Miller is currently promoting ASH, an affordable housing concept and, with others, has initiated the New Economy Network.
Metchosin uses citizens and volunteer scientists to create a low-cost but impressive inventory of species.
FIVE YEARS AGO, a group of naturalists in the Capital Region realized there was no comprehensive list of species that inhabited the varied ecosystems in their rural district of Metchosin. Despite containing rare ecosystems like coastal bluffs, Garry oak meadows, and Douglas-fir forests, naturalists Kem Luther, along with Moralea Milne and Andy McKinnon (the latter two now serving on Metchosin’s council) decided to see who they might be sharing their community with (other than humans). The result of their work, which continues to expand today, is one of the most complete species listings of any community in Western Canada. And the actual search for those species? “It’s like a treasure hunt,” Luther tells me proudly. Come November, it’s a hunt in which local residents can also participate.
Since 2002, Luther, Milne and McKinnon have been working to empower the public and increase knowledge of local ecosystems—Metchosin’s in particular—through citizen science. They started the Metchosin Biodiversity Project—metchosinbiodiversity.com—in 2002. They began with a now-popular Talk and Walk series, inviting local experts to lead a Saturday evening talk followed by a local ecosystem walk the next morning. The project has hosted 87 events so far, on topics ranging from local butterflies to fungi, amphibians and songbirds. When they started, Milne tells me, they had to convince people to show up; now they regularly host 70-100 attendees.
Metchosin occupies a distinct place in the CRD. It is the only municipality to experience a drop in population over the past 20 years (from 6170 people in 1986 to just under 5000 by 2012). It also has a higher- than-average population per dwelling unit than most of the rest of the CRD (2.8 persons per dwelling as opposed to the CRD average of 2.3).
Home to over 50 red- and blue-listed species, its official community plan’s objectives are pointedly conservation-centred, foregrounding the support of biodiversity, protection of sensitive ecosystems and minimization of development impacts.
This ethos, felt Luther, made Metchosin an ideal place to begin a species count known as a bioblitz, one of only two bioblitzes that occur in Western Canada (the other takes place in the municipality of Whistler). Specialists in botanical, animal, and insect species volunteer from around BC; together with local residents, they help count the huge variety of species found within Metchosin’s boundaries. “We let the experts nerd out together” during the one-day blitz, McKinnon tells me. The scientists work for free, but, says McKinnon, “a lot of those people will come up at the end of the day and thank us. Every year we find new things.” Though Luther and his colleagues would like to see expansion of the bioblitz to other municipalities in the CRD, they also recognize that their expert volunteers create a kind of catch-22. If interest were greater, they might not be willing to do all the work for free.
Bioblitzes provide a key method of tracking the diversity of distinct ecosystems. They are usually volunteer-run, grassroots efforts without ties to government funding (of which there is little), and take place within a short time period. “We wish there was some international or national organization that could step in and tell people how to do this,” Luther says. Instead, he, Milne and McKinnon plan their events from the bottom up, which aids a feeling of community but makes the coordination and dissemination of information gathered harder down the line.
The Metchosin Bioblitz allows amateurs to accompany experts as they count species in the field. It’s a kind of collaboration that Luther wishes would happen more often in North America. For Luther, there are currently two main approaches to natural science. In North America, he writes in his 2016 book Boundary Layer, science is affiliated almost exclusively with universities and government; to be credible, one has to be academically trained. In Europe, however, citizen science forms a large part of the naturalist work done in the field. Passionate amateurs are encouraged to contribute their knowledge of species and ecosystems, and they’re respected for doing so. “If there was a way of getting that going here,” muses Luther, “that would be lovely.”
Involving citizens in science, however, means less ground can be covered during the day a bioblitz takes place. To attempt to streamline the event, Luther, Milne and McKinnon tried a different approach this past spring. Rather than sending professional biologists out with resident volunteers, a team of six naturalists travelled together by car to specific sites throughout Metchosin. They ultimately recorded a different species every 40 seconds over six hours. The final count this spring was 2300 distinct species, including many that had never before been identified in the area. Still, the count was collaborative, with a botanist finding a bluebird and a birder discovering a rare violet.
Key to the success of Metchosin’s Bioblitz events, however, is the collaboration between volunteers and scientists and, surprisingly for such a quantitative activity, a feeling of connection with the natural ecosystems that surround residents. “It’s more fun than Christmas,” says Milne. Though the data gathered during Metchosin’s events helps local government clarify the biodiversity value of an ecosystem, the point is also to build understanding about the natural world. “We have to try to respect and preserve this environment in order to have somewhere for all of us to coexist,” says Milne.
The Metchosin Biodiversity Project has a budget of a few hundred dollars; results are posted online and passed to local government, parks and Whistler’s bioblitz organizers. “As councillors, we’re often talking about biological value,” McKinnon tells me at the Broken Paddle café in Metchosin’s village centre. “It’s very practical to be able to say ‘this is where these species are living.’”
The best example of how species information translates into practical information for residents, says Milne, might be the Propertius duskywing butterfly, which overwinters in last year’s oak leaves when they are left lying under the trees. When people rake leaves off the grass, they destroy nesting sites for these rare butterflies. “It’s not the oak trees that are the [whole] ecosystem,” clarifies Milne. The more residents can learn about the interdependencies of these species, and how many we share the region with, Luther concurs, the more an ethic of protection can be built.
The species lists can be used when Metchosin’s council makes decisions about possible development projects. It’s also used by the properties that the teams roam over when making their discoveries—William Head prison, the Department of National Defense lands at Rocky Point—and as an inspiration for future bioblitzes. Both Parks Canada and Government House have expressed interest in doing their own identification events. The group has visited schools and they offer templates to share with communities that would like to start their own projects.
This November, residents can participate in the project’s final 2016 activity. In the Pacific Northwest, fungi aren’t as visible as other species in the spring. So this fall the Biodiversity Project will hold their fourth mycoblitz event. Scheduled for early November (check their website for final dates and locations) this year’s blitz will feature a scavenge for local mushrooms, a talk on local species, and an opportunity to peruse the findings, which will be laid out and identified by expert mycologists from as far away as California. Says Luther, with a smile, “As an analogy, imagine you’d collected a house full of junk, and then an antiques collector came through and pointed out all the rare objects. That’s what it’s like. We’re told we have something special.”
Maleea Acker is the author of Gardens Aflame: Garry Oak Meadows of BC’s South Coast (New Star, 2012). She is currently completing a PhD in Human Geography, focusing on the intersections between the social sciences and poetry.
Victoria and the Province are blind to the real costs of gambling.
THROUGH SUMMER, the wires crackled with the news that Victoria has become the latest winner in the BC Lottery Corporation’s coveted casino lottery. Yes, a casino is coming to town, and while we don’t yet know exactly where and when, there’s plenty of political keenness on the accompanying plum, an annual cheque for about $2 million for the bother of “hosting” the venture. Mayor Lisa Helps has called the coup a “win for everybody.”
But is it all good news? While the easy message, the officially-sanctioned one, is that government-sponsored gambling in general, and casinos in particular, are always an asset because they return copious wealth to community coffers and fund altruistic projects that otherwise might not happen, the plain truths about gambling have always been these: 1. Players bear all of the risk and most are certain to lose their money. 2. The gambling establishment operates risk-free and never loses.
If it were otherwise, the government wouldn’t be in the business, because it couldn’t afford the risk. Fifteen years ago the Liberals might have been on higher moral ground when they promised during their 2001 election campaign not to expand the gambling industry, but that ground and principle have long since crumbled. Instead, the powerful, crown-owned BCLC has succeeded in creating a lavishly-branded, happy-face industry that quietly and unfailingly harvests hefty profits for the Province by providing an ever- increasing array of “exceptional entertainment for adults.”
The 2014-15 fiscal year alone brought in a net profit of $1.25 billion, according to the BCLC website. Even after subtracting various routine payouts, including a transfer of $13.5 million to the government’s own Gaming Policy and Enforcement Branch, there was still $829 million left over for deposit into general revenue. Who knew fun could be so lucrative?
The not-nearly-as-pretty downside of gambling is much more difficult to assess. The non-partisan, non-profit Toronto-based Wellesley Institute claims that’s partially because, “Problem gambling is not well-defined in debates about gambling, [which] can lead to the assumption that unless the gambling is compulsive, it is healthy, responsible and low risk.” (The Real Cost of Casinos, 2013).
The BCLC website’s own breezy language might leave you convinced that gambling-related issues are minimal and under control, but many studies show clear correlations between access to casinos, increased problem gambling, and increased social dysfunction. Much of that dysfunction is costly—think medical intervention, policing and social assistance—and all of it is misery pouring outward onto innocent others, including children. Typically, one problem gambler’s fallout negatively impacts up to 10 other people and can cost between $20,000 and $56,000 annually. Given that BCLC’s own commissioned research has identified at least 125,000 known problem gamblers in the province, that’s a huge liability. (Victoria, take note: Much of it falls on municipal shoulders.)
The added paradox, the real controversy, is that problem gamblers—who bring in an estimated 40 percent of all gambling revenue—are both the industry’s best clients and most urgent candidates for addictions treatment. Since BCLC both grows the industry and funds the treatment that, if successful, will reduce gambling and therefore revenue, the conflict of interest is starkly obvious. And given that BCLC allocates only a paltry .5 percent of gambling’s net profits to “prevention and services,” its penuriousness speaks volumes about its priorities, as did its detached response to a recent troubling story in the media about an elder who lost $300,000 to gambling.
Gambling is every government’s dilemma, a Pandora’s Box just too good to keep closed. Singapore tried to have it both ways when it began allowing casinos in 2010. Hungry for gambling tourists but not gambling strife among its own people, it imposed on residents a per-visit admission of about $100 CAD. The hefty deterrent led to nothing: Singapore now has twice as many residents seeking gambling addiction treatment as it did in 2010.
All this is just a scratch on the surface of this mercurial industry, but one thing is quite certain: Victoria would do well to dig a lot deeper before taking any gamble.
Trudy isn’t much of a gambler but couldn't resist a game of Chicken Shit Bingo at the recent Salt Spring Island Music and Garlic Festival. The chicken did not pick her number.