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natural relations

By Briony Penn, April 2014

Have the BC Liberals made it easier for pipelines to be built through provincial parks?

In March, the Park Act that once enshrined the protection of our parks, was pried apart by Christy Clark’s government with no public discussion. The amendment to the Act opens the door on pipelines, mining and industrial development in our parks. One voice alone was allowed to comment in the legislature: Opposition Critic for Tourism, Culture and the Arts Spencer Chandra Herbert was given five minutes. He argued at least for one simple, non-partisan amendment to the motion: “I hope, out of the goodness of mind and heart, the government will take the call from thousands upon thousands of British Columbians to put a pause, take a moment, and ask people what they think—to really be open, to really engage the people who pay our salaries, to give them the chance to have their say about their favourite areas.”

By Briony Penn, March 2014

International courts and BC teachers try to make up for government and corporate abuse of human and environmental rights.

The extraordinarily rich forests of Vancouver Island have been fought over since James Douglas had 14 Vancouver Island chiefs sign a blank piece of paper. The frustration in losing virtually every battle by four generations of First Nations and concerned citizens has bred some sophisticated new approaches to the old task of protecting Indigenous rights and nature. These reach out internationally and to corporate shareholders. As a result, 2014 is off to a difficult start for Island Timberlands, the corporation most in the news these days for questionable logging practices.

By Briony Penn, November 2013

Permits for development over First Nations’ burial grounds raise the question: Would the government ever say “no”?

In the heart of Victoria lies a peaceful sanctuary of century-and-a-half-old gravestones and trees called the Pioneer Square Cemetery, the “Old Burying Ground” for pioneer families. Currently underway are respectful repairs to its gravestones, paths and landscape. Meanwhile, Grace Islet, a tiny picturesque ancient Coast Salish burial site amongst ancient oaks and juniper, just off Salt Spring Island shores, lies desecrated by proposed residential development. 

British Columbia’s Archaeology Branch, after a year of deliberation, chose Reconciliation Week to extend a provincial heritage site alteration permit to an Albertan businessman so he could build his luxury waterfront vacation home atop this First Nation cemetery.  

By Briony Penn, September 2013

Government’s reluctance to limit logging in wilderness areas makes no sense when you do the math.

Somewhere around July of 2005, the tourism sector in British Columbia, for the first time in history, outstripped the forestry sector in GDP—in fact it outstripped all sectors including oil and gas—and hasn’t relinquished that position. 

During the 10 years between 2001 and 2011, the GDP of forestry only increased 6 percent while tourism increased 23 percent. Vancouver Island and Vancouver Coast and Mountains regions attracted most (79 percent) of that tourism activity for BC, so the hot spot is right here on the coastal islands. In 2011, tourism on Vancouver Island increased 4 percent in just 12 months alone, beating all other industries hands down. 

By Briony Penn, July/August 2013

A recent symposium of whale researchers examined the progress we’ve made in understanding these once-reviled creatures.

As a child in the 1930s my mother saw a rare pod of what she called “blackfish” from her rowboat in Haro Strait and was terrified. The conventional wisdom of colonial society then was that they were “killer” whales, rejected by the whalers for not being oily enough and shot indiscriminately as ruthless killers. 

By 1955 there was still nothing that could dispel the aura of fear around these marine mammals. And fear unleashed brutality: A machine gun was mounted on Quadra Island near Ripple Rock, ready to shoot the killers as they passed by. Coincidently, that same year, Murray Newman, fresh from a doctorate in ichthyology at UBC’s zoology department, was hired as the first director of the Vancouver Aquarium, at the time hardly more than a series of fish tanks. 

By Briony Penn, June 2013

Three Peace River residents talk about the changes they’re seeing as resource extraction ramps up.

“The feeling you get up here is that the Peace region is the sacrificial lamb for bailing out the economic troubles of the province. For many people, we are out of sight, so out of mind. But even people in industry up here are thinking: ‘this is getting crazy.’” 

This is the message that local Peace River valley farmer Ken Boon wants people in the capital region to hear. Decisions about the Peace will be made in Victoria, yet many local residents and First Nations don’t sense that urban British Columbians are hearing their voices over the clamour of LNG boosters, political fear-mongering about job losses, and corporate ad campaigns. 

By Briony Penn, May 2013

The Liberals have fumbled the biodiversity ball; so what are the alternatives offering, and what are they hedging on?

As mentioned in last month’s article, the BC Liberals have left a perfect vacuum for other political parties to fill on the biodiversity file. It’s been five years since government scientists warned that immediate action was necessary to avoid rapid deterioration of BC’s flora and fauna, especially in light of climate change.

During the last provincial election, the NDP’s axe-the-carbon tax policy cost them seats in tightly-contested ridings as environmentally-concerned voters migrated to the Greens. This time round, the wedge issue could be around the very stuff that sucks the carbon out of the atmosphere: BC’s biologically rich flora—and the fauna that digest it. 

By Briony Penn, April 2013

What the auditor general and the scientists are saying.

Nature rarely makes it onto political platforms, but this election it could become a wedge issue amongst the progressive parties—especially in the capital. Here, if there is one thing that we rally around it’s the natural world. We gather in large crowds to save the salmon, the old growth or other iconic symbols of nature.

Yet the political parties are, as ever, reluctant to lead with the words “nature” or “biodiversity” in their platforms. 

By Briony Penn, March 2013

BC Liberals go ahead with another giveaway of publicly-owned land to corporations.

Three years ago, in a feature report entitled “The Big Burn,” Focus revealed the findings of a dozen retired forest service professionals about BC Liberal plans to privatize BC’s forests under pressure from what are called “distressed asset managers.” These are the mega-corporations like BAM (Brookfield Asset Management; now the top performing company in Canada) and TAM (Third Avenue Management) that buy up majority interests in distressed logging companies (including Canfor, Weyerhauser, Catalyst, Western Forest Products, TimberWest, Island Timberlands etc).

By Briony Penn, February 2013

Climate policy experts are speaking out against various schemes to export more carbon from BC’s coastal ports.

Truck driver John Snyder retired to bucolic Fanny Bay to live the life, only to wake up one morning three years ago to find a notice on his doorstep—an invitation to an information session on the Raven Coal Mine, proposed five kilometres upstream of his home. 

After attending the meeting, Snyder launched into his new career as a citizen researcher on the impacts of coal mining on his community. With others, he set up the group CoalWatch. As he says, “It started with concerns about how the mine might contaminate our wells, and took off from there.” 

By Briony Penn, January 2013

Pension-owned companies may be liquidating our forests, but some communities are fighting back.

John Woolley, a retired public school teacher, recently blockaded a logging road with family and fellow islanders on Cortes Island to protect the 2,700-acre forest from an unlikely adversary—his own pension funds. Woolley is the latest kind of Vancouver Island activist: a pensioner appalled at the way his pension is being invested in the liquidation of private forest lands on Vancouver Island by companies in the portfolio of BC Investment Management Corporation (bcIMC). Says Woolley, “We are killing our own local economy and we are doing it to ourselves.” 

By Briony Penn, October 2012

The restorative powers of nature help immigrants as well as grandparents and their grandchildren.

There’s a different type of grandparent on the island these days—they play games, but it’s unlikely golf or bridge, and instead of Alaskan cruises with their peers, it will be a ferry ride to Galiano for an overnight camp. 

These are the grandparents-raising-grandchildren and they are heading for the newly-established Galiano Restorative Learning Centre. According to Ken Millard, the driving force behind the Centre, providing a place to relax and play on beaches, lakes and in forests, prepare home-grown food, and sleep out under the stars with other families is one of the main goals of the new Centre as a project of the Galiano Conservancy Association. 

By Briony Penn, September 2012

Victoria becomes a hub for re-connecting children to nature.

When the CBC asked Washington DC resident Roger Wood to describe the impacts that the summer’s freak storms, heat waves and electrical outages were having on his family, his response was not one that earlier generations could ever have anticipated. He replied that his three-year-old son Jordan “was bored.” Wood recounted how Jordan, cut off from television, internet and video games was miserable, revived only by the Cooling Centre where the Boys and Girls Club had set up a generator-run, air-conditioned computer room. 

By Briony Penn, July/August 2012

The magic canoe is getting bigger as artists, journalists and others join the battle against oil tankers in coastal waters.

When local writer Arno Kopecky returned to Canada in 2011 after an assignment covering the Garcia regime in Peru, he had a bad case of déjà vu, or, as they say in Peru, yo visto. He had been documenting the impacts of mining, oil and timber extraction on the indigenous people during then-President Alan Garcia’s reign for his new book, The Devil’s Curve. Prime Minister Harper’s rhetoric on tar sands and pipelines was sounding awfully familiar. Says Kopecky, “I heard Garcia spouting all this stuff down in Peru about locals and foreign radicals standing in the way of progress. But then to come home to hear exactly the same thing coming out of our leaders’ mouths here…well I thought it only happened in banana republics.” 

By Briony Penn, June 2012

How environmental protection in Canada went the way of the dodo.

Last month, my 16-year-old son’s class was flown to Ottawa, housed, fed, lectured to and trotted around the capital’s institutions and memorials devoted to war for a full week—courtesy of Stephen Harper’s government. According to David Pugliese, a veteran defense policy journalist, this youth indoctrination program is just a taste of what is to come. 

And, as the defense “booster” budget explodes, the environmental budget implodes. It appears they are inextricably linked by the Harper agenda.

By Briony Penn, May 2012

The logging happens on private land, but the damage and costs are borne downstream.

In the last 10 years alone, Vancouver Island has had more severe flooding problems damaging homes, infrastructure and fish habitat than in the last 50. In the last five years, we’ve seen disaster-level flooding in central and southern Island (Dec 2007), Sooke and Langford (Jan 2009), Duncan (Nov 2009), central and north Island (Sept 2010, Dec 2010), and southeast Island (Nov 2011). Every year, sometimes twice a year, severe events are causing damages. The once exceptional has become the norm.

By Briony Penn, April 2012

Links between election fraud and oil interests are so thick, it appears bitumen itself is lubricating the connections.

OVER TWO DAYS in January, 2010, the Manning Centre for Building Democracy held a campaign school at Delta Ocean Pointe Resort in Victoria in preparation for the 2011 election. Revelations of what went on during those two days has yielded intriguing insight into what might lie behind the current robocall scandal. The Manning Centre is a Conservative think-tank operating out of Calgary, headed by Preston Manning, and board members include Gwyn Morgan, ex-CEO of EnCana Corp and other luminaries of the oil and gas industry.

By Briony Penn, March 2012

Author Wade Davis will be in Victoria March 7 to talk about efforts to save the Stikine, Skeena and Nass headwaters.

"This isn’t a souvenir coffee table book that the mining companies will take back home under their arms,” says Wade Davis about his new book, The Sacred Headwaters: The Fight to Save tbe Stikine, Skeena and Nass (Greystone, Oct. 2011). 

By Briony Penn, January 2012

The story of bees could possibly be the great allegory for our times.

It is a gorgeous Friday morning just outside of Bellingham. A flock of trumpeter swans are grazing in the fields, and I am with a large human flock hanging on every word of a hip young bee dude with a wicked sense of humour and two props—a collection of native bees and a bunch of sticks drilled with nest holes. The event is called Protecting Native Pollinators and there are farmers, students, scientists, teachers, grannies and young men jostling to learn the difference between a sweat bee and leafcutter bee; which native plants are best for bumblebees; and how to encourage mason bees (which mostly consists of doing nothing and being messy). 

By Briony Penn, December 2011

A massive increase in the winter herring fishery threatens recovering stocks and resident orca.

In what many are calling a dangerous and reckless move, the Honourable James Ashfield, Minister of Fisheries and Oceans, has just opened a massively scaled-up winter herring fishery in the Salish Sea that could knock back all the recent small recoveries of local resident herring populations from Saanich Inlet and the Gorge to Ganges Harbour and Howe Sound. 

By Briony Penn, November 2011

A First Nations case before an international court could spell trouble for the government pension funds that purchased TimberWest.

For the first time in Canadian history, an international human rights tribunal, the Inter-America Commission (IAC), will hear a human rights complaint against Canada, one brought forward by six southeast Vancouver Island First Nations of the Hul’qumi’num Treaty Group (HTG). With the failure of our provincial and national treaty process, First Nations are taking their cases to such international bodies to seek justice and, judging from comparable cases in the Americas, are likely to succeed.

All of us in the Capital region should be paying attention to this case as it could have broad and far-reaching implications—whether you are interested in human rights, urban sprawl, water quality, the future of our endangered forests…or your pension. 

By Briony Penn, September 2011

Two inquiries central to the health of coastal ecosystems are underway in Vancouver.

As Focus hits the street on August 30, schools of salmon researchers, fishers, First Nations, and advocates from all over British Columbia will be converging around the federal courthouse in Vancouver for the next stage of the Cohen Commission inquiry. They are coming to bear witness to the release of key evidence into the collapse of Fraser River sockeye stocks in 2009. This month, testimony shifts to the highly-charged topics of the role disease and aquaculture played in the deaths. 

Concurrently, upriver at Simon Fraser University, an enquiry is being made into declining herring stocks—with another school of researchers, First Nations, fishers and herring advocates.

By Briony Penn, July 2011

China’s premier admits the massive Three Gorges Dam has created “urgent problems.” Is anybody at BC Hydro listening?

The premier of China, Wen Jiabo, recently made an official announcement that the Three Gorges dam, the world’s largest hydroelectric project, which has created a reservoir twice the length of Vancouver Island and displaced 1.3 million people, is experiencing “urgent problems.” Urgent on every front—dead water zones, pollution of drinking supplies, siltation, landslides, earthquakes, erosion, and drought. The project is also generating less power than it was designed for because of the danger of raising the reservoir to optimum levels; there’s been more displacement of residents, and massive destruction of the river ecosystems. 

By Briony Penn, June 2011

A few thoughts on the lifeboats that pulled away from the wreck on May 2.

On the evening of May 2, along with the majority of Canadians, I was stunned. “Like winning bingo on the Titanic” was the saying that captured the mood of progressive islanders. Saanich–Gulf Islands had made history by electing the first Green Member of Parliament in Canada, while NDP undergrads fresh out of McGill were heading off to Ottawa as the official opposition. But as one of my friends remarked, it was a homeopathic remedy for a very serious illness—that of a Conservative majority. 

Now that the dust has settled, I have come to realize that young Canadians have been handed an opportunity—one that is larger than the tar sands and more exciting than being in a crowd with a cellphone in Cairo. First, a little bit of background.

By Briony Penn, May 2011

Will the Nuu-chah-nulth Nation log the ancient forests of Flores Island?

Nuu-chah-nulth territory, the edge of the world where Captain Cook decided to anchor his boat and step ashore, is back in the news again—indeed it has hardly been out of the news over the last 200 years. It has a habit of making us reconsider how the West relates to aboriginal cultures and the rich natural environment that supports their commitment to self-sufficiency.

The deep sheltered sounds and forests on the west coast of the Island have been branded as bonanzas for two centuries. From fur traders to sealers, miners to missionaries, and loggers to fish farmers, they come from all over the world. They come to conquer but inevitably fail. They come to domesticate and the wild inevitably wins. The priests’ feral cows, Cougar Annie’s dahlias, and the Norwegians’ Atlantic salmon don’t linger long. 

By Briony Penn, April 2011

How much does your daily dose of water weigh?

Imagine walking from Royal Oak into downtown Victoria to fill up a large plastic container with water and then walking home with the 20-kilogram load supported by a narrow head strap. Then imagine that you have to do it every other day while feeling weak, sick and hungry, and with children to mind along the way. Add in the fact that a prolonged drought has left the rivers low and harbouring disease and hungry crocodiles, and you’ll understand the plight of the Masaai women of Oleleshua, Kenya.

By Briony Penn, March 2011

With feds like these, who needs enemies?

Southern resident orcas are set to swim back into Canadian and US courts this spring with the hopes of jumping two major legal hoops that could finally protect the marinescape for these endangered species. 

The Canadian courts are reconvening after the federal fisheries minister launched an appeal against Justice James Russell’s historic ruling in December 2010. That ruling said it was unlawful for the minister to exercise discretionary powers regarding the protection of critical habitat under the Species At Risk Act (SARA). 

By Briony Penn, January 2011

The vicissitudes of life in the intertidal zone mirror that of today’s middle class.

A new term has been coined to describe the disintegrating middle class of the western world—the precariat—who live a precarious and frantic existence of juggling jobs, families, mortgages and civic duties within a crumbling social and environmental net. 

The British economist Guy Standing, who coined the term, suggests that half the British population—shortly to swell ever larger as another 300,000 civil servants are dismissed by the Cameron regime—would describe themselves as members of this class. 

By Briony Penn, December 2010

Offsets could be used to save nature—but a lot can go wrong.

I am a carbon cowgirl. For the last three years, I’ve been riding the range on my pony Green Gold, trying to find out if carbon offsets can help us buy both time and threatened natural ecosystems (which function as carbon sinks) in the climate-change countdown. 

If ever there was a wild-west frontier, the carbon markets are it, with cowboys from Texas to Hamburg lassoing carbon deals. 

by Briony Penn, November 2010

Delicious revenge or deep forgiveness? We have apt role models for each.

There are two good women on my mind this month: Lisbeth Salander, the girl who played with fire and Helen Stewart, the woman who aches for beauty. They have nothing in common. Yet, they have everything in common. Both are sick of the relentless exploitation of the vulnerable. 

One is a fictitious Pippy-Longstocking-turned-punk-hacker who takes out the bullies with cunning and force in a gritty crime novel set in urban Sweden. The other is a real mother-artist-turned-naturalist-writer who endures great loss and destruction by calling on the restorative quality of nature and art in a children’s book set in the forests of BC. 

by Briony Penn, October 2010

Heroes of coastal ecosystem protection are not extinct… yet.

Last month, I wrote about unreported crimes against the natural world, and got feedback that the next column should be on the unreported heroes trying to prevent those unreported crimes.

Some of you will have come across Laura Matthias before. She’s a Balkan Babe—one of the talented, young, all-female singing group that won a prestigious place in the national showcase of top Canadian singing ensembles this time last year. She’s also the author of ExtraVeganZa—a best-selling vegan cookbook that makes eating vegan a culinary adventure, not an ethical ordeal. 

by Briony Penn, September 2010

The birds and the bees are missing in action and so, as Stockwell Day says, what we need are more prisons.

I couldn’t agree more with Stockwell Day that there is a rise in “unreported crimes.” I have been keeping a tally this summer of crimes against our life systems that no one reports. The interesting thing about such unreported crimes is that not only is the activity itself a crime, but the lack of reporting is one too. And both are escalating precipitously. 

I have absolutely no data to prove the degree of assault on ecosystems. All I have are my eyes and intuition, because the federal scientists who normally gather statistical data on population declines and environmental impacts and threats have either been let go, muzzled or resigned in passionate frustration. 

As for evidence of lack of reporting, I only have the absence of data to go on. 

By Briony Penn, July 2010

Caribou and conservation need to be part of the conversation around the Site C dam.

It’s 2005. Award-winning aboriginal musician/TV host and researcher Art Napoleon is standing on top of the WAC Bennett dam. I’ve joined him in Peace country to work on a documentary film proposal. Called Disturbing the Peace, it will raise awareness about the potential impacts of the proposed Site C dam on the Peace and the other energy projects that riddle the northeast corner of BC.