It’s August 1 – British Columbia Day.
This being a relatively new holiday, we have not really come up with a tradition such as we have on Thanksgiving and Christian holy days. One might think of May 24th, the significance of which could not be stated, I don’t think, by 1 in a 1000 British Columbians. It was the birthday of Queen Victoria and that did have significance when I was a boy, at least for those who were devout British Empire folks who sang the old version of O Canada which contained “at Britain’s side, whate’er betide, unflinchingly we stand.”
For some reason, one couldn’t go swimming or even run through the sprinkler until May 24th although no one could explain just how it warmed up so much from the previous day. It was also the day most schools had their sports day.
Perhaps, to use an oxymoron, we should start a “new tradition” and devote some time to thinking about our province, its traditions, its history, its beauty and how we can best pass all of this on to coming generations.
My recommendation for a book that best tells our story is The West Beyond The West by Jean Barman. It tells how BC was peopled by European settlers, where they came from and how the Province differed from the Prairie Provinces and the western states below the line in that regard. There are loads of both soft cover and hard covers available with the latter costing less than $10.
I have begun to see August 1 as a day to reflect on what I remember about the outdoors when I was a child and where that outdoors is today.
Of course there are huge differences – I’ve been around a long time and could write reams about being a boy on the west coast. Much as I like to reminisce with pals I used explore the North Shore rivers with – the days on the Musqueam Indian Reserve Tin Can Creek, in reality Musqueam Creek, which thanks to the people taking care of it, still has salmon spawning in it. I could talk about my friend Denis Hargrave and I skinny dipping at Wreck Beach, now not then (with the exception of Denny and me) a nudist beach.
I can tell stories about just how great fishing was in our waters…but there I go, doing what I promised not to do.
These days – and for some time now – I’ve worried about our attitude towards nature’s blessings. It’s not hard, to say the least, to see what we’ve ruined and are in the process of ruining. But why are we doing it?
George Santayana‘s famous aphorism “Those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it” is very apt.
When I was growing up the great makers of fortunes were in lumber and, to a lesser degree mining. To this we make fishing the triumvirate. There was always another valley to log, mines were usually out of sight thus out of mind and fish were in huge abundance up and down our coast. Today this is not the case yet too many corporations, governments and citizens act as if nothing has happened.
I have learned a great lesson over nearly 8 decades – none of the triumvirate gives a good god damn about the resources they exploit and depend on the demand for jobs to take them past the dodgy bits. As my colleague Damien Gillis is fond of saying, corporations exist to make profits for shareholders and if the directors don’t remember that they will be, and deserve to be fired. This isn’t cynicism but reality – the cynicism comes when these industries and government pretend that they really do care. Millions of dollars are spent in BC for flacks to paint pretty pictures to distract us from the great harm their clients do.
I well remember an incident back in 1992 when I was on CKNW and fighting the Alcan Kemano Completion Project. I got wind of a new bit of flackery about to be foisted on the public by way of glitzy, warm and fuzzy all over TV and radio ads. I also found out a bit of what they would look like so warned my audience to be ready for them, describing just what they would see.
Alcan was furious because this blitz was to come on suddenly. They cancelled the ads, which by no means pleased CKNW. Indeed, I thought I would be fired but that, as it turned out, was to be 10 years hence. The point is this – the public had no way of matching corporate advertising and when they turned to the government for help it wasn’t there. Environment ministries were badly underfunded and MLAs of both parties didn’t want, for their own reasons, to interfere with corporate plans. For the NDP, it was jobs; for the Socreds cum Liberals, holding companies feet to the flame ran against their philosophy.
BC arrived at the 21st century like the restoration of the Bourbons – we had learned nothing and forgotten nothing. With notable exceptions we still acted as if there were more valleys to log, lots of fish to catch and that making mines clean up after themselves would drive the miners away.
The threats to our resource business were very real. Entrepreneurs in lumber found safety and profits in jurisdictions to which environmentalism and concern for worker safety were non-issues and, of course, wages were appalling. While many corporations sounded like Peter and the Wolf, there was some truth to their concerns.
What all this means are stark choices – exploit our natural resources with the environment being of secondary importance, rules that make it impossible for resource companies to compete, or find some compromise. I find all these choices repugnant – the last one by no means the least. Compromise means that ultimate in weasel words, “mitigation”, which simply says, “you’re still going to get screwed but not quite so quickly.”
We must change our attitude as a society. It is possible to exploit our natural resources if we lower our expectations. If we don’t do that, we lower our standards to those in the other countries that we compete against. Our labour unions will not tolerate lowering their wages to those of other countries in order to keep their jobs. Nor should they be expected to, but does that mean companies should be allowed to literally rape the resources in order to make up for the higher wages? That indeed is a stark choice but there it is. It’s what we face, in a nutshell.
The bottom line is that forestry and mining cost more in BC than elsewhere and given the choice between lowered wages and safety standards on the one hand and desecrating the environment on the other BC will take neither and industry will have to accommodate themselves to the laws in BC, not those in South America and Asia.
Fishing is a story unto itself. It is a commercial industry with special rights for First Nations. It is a sports industry. But it doesn’t stop there, for salmon are part of two critical ecologies – at sea and in their home rivers. Many species above them in the food web rely upon them alive but also in a natural death process. They are also – and don’t underrate this – a symbol deeply important to many British Columbians. Our concentration must be directed to rehabilitation or we will lose that heritage.
Where the debate is at its sharpest is in fossil fuels. Here we are as a society trying to save our province from permanent and long-term environmental ruin in resources we own, about to let giant corporations “mine” oil in the Tar Sands (the world’s most polluting project) then pipe the results across our most environmentally sensitive land and ship it by tanker down the most beautiful and dangerous coastline in the world – and do so in the full knowledge that spills are not a risk but a certainty.
Here, then, is the nub of the matter.
Corporations don’t care that they are buggering up our rivers to make power we don’t need but must buy at egregiously inflated rates; companies will chop down the last tree and kill the last fish; oil companies and pipeline people see spills as a cost of doing business; and we have a government that’s not only OK with all that but wants more.
That leaves the people whose only long term defence is the ballot box and even then they need a good choice, not just a better one.
I sit here, an old man (in years) with only this hope – no matter how bad the fight looks we will never quit fighting it.