A radical's journey

By Aaren Madden, May 2011

With income and housing accessible for all, people in Janine Bandcroft’s dream city would be free to live their values.

It’s the late 1980s and Janine Bandcroft, a student at De Anza College in Cupertino, California, is filled with trepidation. Her History of Latin America teacher has urged her class to engage in social change instead of just studying it, so she ventures out to a meeting of the local Communist party. But instead of braving the red menace, she feels her entire worldview shift.

Sitting in a favourite Victoria café in April 2011, she remembers that day in the ’80s: “I am a product of the mainstream, dominant culture, and in northern Alberta we were all a little bit afraid the communists were going to come over the north and drink our beer and beat us at hockey,” she jokes. “I had this image of people marching in their red cloaks and hats, and I was really scared, but I went. It was in this old bookstore, and there was this African-American woman talking about how everyone has a right to health care and education, and I just thought, ‘What’s so scary about this?’ That was a turning point for me. That’s where I really got radicalized,” she shares. 

Today, nearing her 50th birthday, Bandcroft is the founder and coordinator of Victoria Street Newz, host of the radio show Winds of Change on CFUV, and tireless activist for dozens of environmental, human rights and social justice causes.

Well before that fateful meeting, she was “living the life” in Vancouver working at a small accounting software start-up. PCs were just emerging onto the scene. Smart, and motivated by her family’s work ethic, she landed the dream job four years out of high school, after just a bit of office experience. “It was the glory days; we rode this wave of popularity. Then the company grew, and they sold it to a corporation… we [became] just a number,” she says. 

Disillusioned, but with enough savings to support her desire to study, Bandcroft set out for California and, eventually, that bookstore. She was there for the San Francisco earthquake in 1989 and it made her realize, “This earth is really powerful, and I am just this little thing. It was different from that corporate cog-in-the-wheel feeling. It was more a profound awareness of the precarious situation on our planet,” she recalls. 

Drawn home to Canada, in 1990 she came to Victoria and again immersed herself in learning and activism. During years of wide-ranging study at UVic, she began (and became rather famous for) the much-valued “Left Coast Events,” a weekly emailed list of meetings, screenings, talks and various events related to social and environmental justice. (Though Vancouver Island Public Interest Research Group at UVic now compiles it, Bandcroft still forwards the “Left Coast Events” list.)

After graduating with degrees in English and education, Bandcroft recalls, “I knew there was no going back for me. Once my eyes were opened, I couldn’t go back to a pencil-pushing job that didn’t fulfil my sense of values, of wanting to make a difference somehow,” she shares. At a meeting of the Victoria Intercultural Association, a discussion about the lack of alternative media in the city inspired her to create Street Newz in 2004. Vendors pay fifty cents for a paper and keep what they make, and can sell when they wish. One day, she dreams, enough papers will sell to consistently cover the cost of printing. It happens, but rarely. Providing an alternative voice while contributing to a dignified livelihood for the vendors is her main motivation. “A lot of people are on disability or senior pensions, and it’s not easy when your income doesn’t increase with the cost of living. This helps pay the rent, but it also helps them be able to help their friends, buy Christmas presents, and have a little fun now and then.” 

Constant immersion in weighty issues can take its spiritual toll, so to supplement her own small income from Street Newz, Bandcroft has a dog-walking business. Getting into the woods she loves and focusing on the animals helps her stay grounded. “I feel really blessed and honoured to be able to truly live my values. I am not going to be a millionaire, but that was never the goal,” she reflects. 

Allowing others to live their values forms the basis for her dream city. In 2008 and 2009, she participated in the Pastors for Peace program bringing humanitarian aid to Cuba and taking back an understanding and appreciation of their ways. Quick to point out it’s far from a perfect system, she saw some ideas she would apply here. One is the guaranteed liveable income. “Everybody gets enough—barely. It’s tough because of the economic embargo, but they get enough, and if they want to be a doctor, their education is paid for. Whatever you want to do as a kid, the whole society will support you.” 

Bandcroft doubts it would make people layabouts. “I don’t think people are inherently lazy. I think that happens because people get depressed because the world is such a screwed-up place. If we weren’t scrambling constantly and worrying about how we were going to pay the rent, we could really start to flourish as the creative human beings that we are,” she suggests, adding, “There is research proving that it would be much less expensive than trying to manage two or three hundred thousand homeless people a year across Canada, which is just shameful,” she notes.

That’s why, hand in glove with income, Bandcroft would see a much more innovative housing strategy. She offers Portland’s Dignity Village, a self-governing, city-recognized community, as one of many approaches. Though it began as a tent city on city-owned land, it has evolved to a community of small homes built by its members in sustainable, cooperative ways. “If people want to invest in land and property that’s fine, but not all of us want to or are able to, so we need to provide affordable rental, cooperative, and eco-village style alternatives,” she suggests.

A tall order in our profit and power-driven world. It requires major changes in thinking, starting with breaking down current structures. “When people are truly free, when they don’t feel indebted to any financial institutions or political parties or ideologies and belief systems, I believe that a shift to a more just and equitable and peaceful and safe world will commence. When people feel they’re able to liberate their imaginations, I believe they’ll be more accepting of [these ideas],” she predicts.

Bandcroft knows we’ve a long way to yet towards such a vision. But she continues to strive for it. She says, “Maybe it will happen after the next disaster; maybe people will say there’s got to be a better way.”  Let’s hope all it takes is more bookstores holding the odd meeting.

Having her worldviews challenged and expanded every month makes Aaren Madden feel continually honoured and blessed. Find Street Newz and links to Bandcroft’s blog and photography sites at http://web.mac.com/bandcroft. She’s also on Facebook and Twitter (envirovegan).