Mona Woodward’s Downtown Eastside Revolution

Mona Woodward is the former CEO of the Aboriginal Front Door Society and this was written during her tenure. Today, she has a new job: co-chair of the Sisterwatch committee and a support worker for RainCity Housing.

11.15.10 news.aboriginal Mona Woodward, Exec Dir at the Aboriginal Front Door Society. Photo: Dan Toulgoet

A revving engine of a woman, Mona Woodward comes wheeling out of the modest store front known as the Aboriginal Front Door Society, just steps from Main and Hastings, Ground Zero for Vancouver’s infamous Downtown Eastside, the poorest postal code in the country.

High summer. Woodward wears a smart business dress, sandals and chic sunglasses and striking pink, beaded earrings.

She marches north past the courthouse, past the social services office — it’s Welfare Wednesday and people are lined up all the way to the Sunrise Market — to the foot of Main Street and a pedestrian overpass that loops over to Crab Park.

The park is an oasis overlooking Vancouver Harbour. And a world away from the Downtown Eastside. But there can no forgetting: in the middle of the park there is a shrine to the estimated 1,000 missing and murdered aboriginal women in this country. Woodward bows her head. Someone has placed fresh flowers on the shrine.

She takes a seat on a nearby park bench. Sitting quietly, exhaling, composing herself.

“Let me introduce myself,” she says with an engaging smile. “Share my street cred."

“I am Cree,” she explains, “originally from the prairies. My Cree name can be translated as Sparkling Fast Rising River Woman.

"Some say I’ve had a hard life, and I won't disagree. But I’m a survivor, too, and have a deep insight into the many challenges facing aboriginal women today. And that is my mission: to help them, protect them, encourage them, empower them. Every way I can.

“I’m calling for a revolution to help aboriginal woman. In fact, we’re already started. Just watch us.”

What guts. What commitment. But how did she get here from there?

Sixteen years ago, the former heroin addict and sex-trade worker woke up in a dumpster off Gore Street, after a “violent trick with a john.” Left for dead, groggy, she was able to climb out of the dumpster and out in the alley where a young woman held her hand as she called for an ambulance. There followed a stint in the hospital and, over the weeks and months to follow, a slow recovery, physical, mental, spiritual.

The incident changed her life. She made a promise to herself. She would get clean. She would respect herself. She would get a job. She would help others. She still has her struggles, yes, but takes each day as it comes.

She went to university to study social work. And today, she manages a society that reaches out to the poor, the lost, the lonely and confused.

“Look, we’re a community,” she says. “Despite all the bad PR, despite all the human tragedy. Many people live and work here. The Downtown Eastside is far, far more than the four-block stretch of crack, homelessness and human despair that too often leads the evening news.”

“We are a community,” she repeats with emphasis. And many make it their home: workers, pensioners and businesses.”

“We’re here to help aboriginal people — and non-aboriginal people too — who need help. Anyone. Period. We consider ourselves a “low-barrier” social service agency. That means we are many things: a drop-in with coffee and sandwiches, a referral centre, a listening post and much more. We have some of the best counselors going.”

Yesterday, more than 200 people came in the front door. Mid-afternoon, staff rushed out into the street to help an aboriginal man, bleeding head-to-toe, from an attack by someone wielding a sword on Hastings Street. One staffer called the ambulance; another attended to the victim.

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Some stories are beyond fiction. Last month, an aboriginal youth from Vancouver Island came through the front door. It was her first time in the Downtown Eastside and she was nervous and afraid. Over a cup of tea, she explained her boyfriend had been arrested for carrying a handgun. Together, she and the councilor telephoned her family. They were aghast and said they would pay for the bus to Horseshoe Bay and the ferry back to Nanaimo, where they would meet her and take her back home. And so they did.

“Such a day,” Woodward recalls. “They can take a toll on staff, all of whom are volunteers.

“But we’re making news,” she says. “And moving up to a bigger league.”

She’s referring to the recent launch of the society’s Red Jacket Campaign to reduce the damaging effects of high-risk behavior.

“We wear our Red Jackets when we are out in the community, raising awareness of our work, boosting our presence in the Downtown Eastside, and promoting AFDS as a safe, non-judgmental place for every member of our community. “

“And there is more good news coming,” she explains. “We’ve had non-profit status since 2013 and people and businesses who donate money receive tax deductible receipts.”

Back in the park, Woodward stares out across the harbour. Then, waving good-bye, she picks up the pace, and marches double time, back to work — back to the random chaos of aboriginal life at the corner of Hastings and Main.

  Photo credits: Dan Toulgoet and Lee Bacchus  
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Voracious Vancouver: Return to the Homeland

Thirty years ago, Edward Schuldt left Vancouver for a new life in London England. This past summer he returned to his homeland to take care of family matters. Below, he shares his observations of a place that has transformed from sleepy lumber town into a post-card pretty metropolis of glass and steel — with an economy driven by international real estate investors.

Captain Vancouver rests in a secluded rural graveyard just south of Richmond, Surrey, in England (not B.C.), about 100 metres away from the Thames and 80 kilometres away from the sea. I wonder what he would think now if he saw the thrusting, energetic, vibrant city of Vancouver that was named after him.

He might think, as I did on returning to my childhood home after 30 years, or, for that matter, what the Salish people did while witnessing what the constant influx of colonists and other immigrants did to their sacred mountainous, forested land by the sea.  OMG (to borrow the overused txt phrase), this place has changed.

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Growing up in Point Grey in the 1950s and 60s, I knew mainly people of European origin. They’d arrived in Gastown and early Vancouver in a steady stream. My maternal grandparents came from England in 1911 with my one-year-old mother; and my father, whose family was of German origin, came via the USA and then Calgary in the 1940s.  

Everyone in my Queen Elizabeth Elementary and Lord Byng High School was white: English, Greek, Danish, German, Scot, Italian or Eastern European. The only Chinese I knew ran a corner store on 16th and Camosun and the Roseland Market, another grocery shop on 10th Avenue.

The many oriental restaurants in the eastern part of Hastings Street were a mystery to me. We were told by our parents (and even the police) never to venture into that part of town after dark. I was 18 before I had my first Chinese meal at the Varsity Grill on 10th and Trimble, and 21 before my first curry, when I was actually in Fiji.

We knew that people of the Far and Middle East resided somewhere in Vancouver, but we rarely saw them.  And we never saw any native people, now referred to as Aboriginal or First Nations people; they were relegated to reservations, which we didn’t talk about.

It’s odd, considering certain non-white cultures have played a large part in Vancouver’s history. The Chinese, for example, practically built the Canadian railway. In fact, if it weren’t for them throwing their empty oyster shells into the Pacific Ocean at the end of the line, BC might not have a thriving oyster industry. The eggs inside the “empty” discarded shells blossomed in the perfect combination of fresh river and seawater. Very few Vancouverites know this—or just how badly the railway engineer bosses treated the Chinese.

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Well, like the oysters they discarded, the Chinese now thrive in Vancouver business and academia, and Vancouver has one of the largest Chinatowns on the continent. Indeed, when we arrived at Vancouver International, we couldn’t help but notice that nine out of 10 of the customs officials waiting to greet us were Asian.

And for the past two decades, the overseas Chinese, particularly after the demise of Hong Kong, have been busy buying up Vancouver real estate, boosting housing prices to the point where many Vancouver residents can no longer get into their own housing market (“Go even further West, young man, to Vancouver Island, if you want a house.”)

Anyway, I now have a faint understanding of what the First Nations people, originally of Asian descent, must have felt at the steady influx of white strangers. Wouldn’t it be ironic if, on this second wave of Asian influx, the WASP population eventually ended up on reservations.  

Vancouver has also for some time had a Middle Eastern population—many of whom worked in the lumber industry. But their increase is less noticeable, except in parts of the North Shore, where grocery stores, bakeries, and restaurants cater to a significant Iranian population in North and West Vancouver. Oddly, Vancouver still has relatively few black people.

Along with this huge cosmopolitan shift, the land itself has changed too. Although arriving to the city by airplane has always been “awesome!” in the truest sense of the word—the view a bounty of pristine sea, inlets, lakes, rivers, and snow-capped mountains—this time round I notice something else. The change from small city to international metropolis comes at a price. Clearly, even from thousands of feet up, you can see buildings and housing encroaching on nature’s bounty. The word that comes to my mind is “stretch.”

Yes, there are still vast expanses of water, primal rainforests and the ubiquitous mountains stretching above it all. But new stretches of highway penetrate virgin land. And the residential areas and the commercial estates are stretching up the northern mountainsides; ever further down towards the American border, and eastwards towards Chilliwack and beyond.

This “stretching” has been more subtle as well. Walking through my old Point Grey childhood streets, the maple and chestnut trees that used to line the sidewalks neatly now stretch across roads to meet in the middle, forming an almost impenetrable canopy of leaves. Instead of being pretty, they are intrusive, creating claustrophobic shade in a rainforest city whose residents don’t get enough light to begin with.

The roads are used by an increasing number of stretch limos.  Many more and higher buildings are now stretching skywards in competition with the cedars and firs.  Houses in North and West Vancouver all the way to Horseshoe Bay now stretch into primeval forest.

Throngs of people stretch on the seawalls before jogging along the borders of the city and Stanley Park. The skyscrapers of the West End and Yaletown now reflect the stretching ambitions of their inhabitants.  Vancouver has stretch buses, stretch yachts and stretch passenger ships in the harbour.

This appetite for growth seems voracious. Must make all these successful nouveau arrives very hungry, hence the countless restaurants, cafes, neighbourhood pubs and bistros everywhere, all full in spite of the sky-high prices. Don’t tell me that London and Paris are expensive places to eat; Vancouver is up there with the costliest.

Yet practically everyone seems happy.  I don’t remember Vancouverites smiling and hugging so much. Yes, the post-hippy world in general is more touchy-feely, but Vancouver more than most big cities seems to personify post-hippy happiness. I walk the avenues of North Van or around the Stanley Park seawall in the early sunlit morning and almost everyone says a cheery “good morning.”  

In spite of the challenges of growth, people here are incredibly positive.  The roads may be clogged with cars every rush hour morning and evening, especially on Lions Gate and 2nd Narrows bridges (actually worse than rush hour in London or Paris), and yet good nature (mostly) prevails.

Or is this all a veneer, a Canadian version of the American Dream? After all, the headlines regularly call attention to a troubling drug problem, not to mention the gang wars, which often play out on some of Vancouver’s toniest streets. Can such phenomenal growth happen without something having to give?

The world may well need more Canada, but after a month in the city where I grew up, I can say that Vancouver certainly does not need more world.

Edward Schuldt

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BC’s Two Solitudes

THE LONG READ

The rough-and-tumble city of Terrace began as a crossroads carved out of the bush by George Little, a white land speculator, as the Grand Trunk Pacific railroad pushed through in 1914, effectively ending the days of the riverboat.

Since the name Littleton already belonged to a town in Ontario, the BC town was named Terrace instead, for the steep geology etched out in the last Ice Age that forms the banks of the Skeena River, part of one of British Columbia’s most spectacular river systems.

Today, non-aboriginals living here are individualistic, tough-minded people. Many come to start a new life, arriving from across Canada and other parts of the province. Living alone in the bush, some develop extreme philosophies similar to those of libertarians in the United States. According to Terrace Standard publisher and editor Rod Link, there are also a few religious zealots, gun nuts and New Age communitarians.

In a deadpan, ironic delivery, Link describes Terrace as a rough-and ready former lumber town. But with the long and steady decline of the forest industry, the city and the region lost significant numbers of workers who fled to jobs elsewhere. The city plunged into a deep recession for a decade and a half and, during the past few years, has been trying to reinvent itself as a service and transportation hub.

Link, 60, and wife Dina, an instructor at Northwest Community College, have raised two daughters here. The oldest is entering second year university at UBC this fall and the youngest is attending the middle school in Terrace. Both are products of the local school district's French immersion program.

Few have watched the interactions of the white and First Nations communities here more closely than Link. Throughout the 1990s, his newspaper covered the controversial story of the Nisga’a treaty. More recently he has covered business partnerships between the Tsimshian communities in the area and the white businesses. Lately, his paper reported, the Chinese have become economic players as well.

A tall man with glasses and shoulder-length hair, Link, is a “show-me” skeptic when it comes to reporting on what he describes as “BC’s two solitudes.” The veteran newsman has been reporting in Northern BC for more than 30 years.

Long ago rejecting the dewy-eyed romanticism of some environmentalists and writers from urban centres, Link is a shrewd observer perched on the frontlines of Indian Country, where naïve apotheosizing on the relationship between nature and aboriginal peoples has little currency. To a hardened newsman, this kind of nonsense makes it that much harder for the “two solitudes” to communicate with each other in a meaningful way.

Today, well over a decade after the Nisga’a treaty was ratified, Link documents the treaty-making efforts of both the Kitselas and Kitsumkalum First Nations, whose territory, once a deal is signed, will encircle a significant chunk of the city of Terrace. As a local joke goes: “The Indians will surround the white guys.”

Link is well aware that these new relationships will, over time, define both the city and the Skeena River corridor, west to Prince Rupert.

But here on the muddy streets of Terrace, a visitor can see for himself.

A baby boom is under way on aboriginal reserves, a “population time-bomb” as it has been described. In Canada, as in most of the “first-world” economies, the general population is getting older, and fast. The one anomaly is on aboriginal reserves, where on average, more than half the population is under 25.

Aboriginals, it appears, are undergoing a spirited revival after a century of repression, depression and marginalization. More likely than not, the photo adorning the front page of the newspaper every year, the one celebrating the first born in January, will be that of a beaming aboriginal baby.

The baby boom seen on the streets of Terrace is but one part of a Canada-wide phenomenon. According to a study released by the National Household Survey in May 2013, Canada’s aboriginal population increased by 20.1 per cent between 2006 and 2011, compared to an increase of 5.2 per cent in the non-aboriginal population.

The data paint a grim picture of the challenges facing aboriginal youth in this country.

***

Like its coastal neighbor, Prince Rupert, Terrace is “Ground Zero” for several powerful tribal groups: the Kitselas and Kitsumalum; the Nisga’a to the north; the Tsimshian to the west; and surrounding Terrace, the Gitksan upriver to the east; the Haisla at Kitamat; Lax Kwa’laams and Metlakatla near Prince Rupert.

The Skeena River, the second-longest river entirely within BC, is an important transportation artery in the region, especially for the Tsimshian and Gitksan peoples. The Kitselas reserves and Skeena River run parallel to Highway 16, the main and only, roadway connecting communities to the Pacific Ocean and to larger centres to the east. Part of the Trans-Canada highway system, Highway 16 also stretches approximately 3,000 kms across the four western Canadian provinces.

White settlers first began to trickle into the area in the late 1880s, although the population remained skimpy until the railroad was completed. In those days the upriver town of Hazelton was an important hub, the last town on the riverboat route up the Skeena River.

In the late 1800s, the Omenica Gold Rush east of Terrace brought gold-seekers and miners to the region to stake their claims. Geologists and geographers came to survey possible routes for railway lines and to establish the telegraph system.

  Interactions between aboriginals and non-aboriginals began long before the late 20th and early 21st centuries. People worked together to survive. If one looks at a map of the area, travelling from Prince Rupert inland, the first place one can make a choice of which direction to travel further is in Prince George — 600 kms inland.

In 1914, when the Grand Trunk Railway was completed, Terrace was finally linked up to Prince Rupert and points east. The early days are reflected in pictures of small sawmills and tiny antique trucks hauling massive logs to be turned into lumber.

Terrace was called the pole capital of the world in the Roaring ‘20s when cedar poles were in demand. It was known as the pole capital of the world in another sense too: an astonishing number of totem poles made it distinct from other parts of the province.

Documented accounts describing relationships between Rod Link’s “two solitudes” exist as early as the last half of the 18th century. At that time, it was not only the fur traders seeking to exchange European goods for animal furs, but Russian missionaries coming across the Bering Sea and down the coast to proselytize about the Russian-Orthodox faith.

The arrival of permanent settlers in the mid-19th century on the North Coast and an increase in resource exploitation marked the first major industrial developments for the region. The clearest example is the salmon fishing industry, based in Port Essington on the coast, now a ghost town. It saw aboriginal, Japanese, Finnish and other European fishermen working together. Men worked the boats; women processed the fish.

Anthropologist Lidia Jendzjowsky documents this in her Masters thesis We Remember Where We Come From. Kitselas elders describe places on the coast where, as children, they would go to school, and later help their mothers working in the canneries.

Jendzjowsky notes in particular an area known as Spokeshute, which later came to be known as Port Essington, so named by founder and local entrepreneur Robert Cunningham who made an arrangement with the Kitsumkalum and Kitselas people to earmark the area as a joint-reserve. This agreement continues to this day.

After the Second World War, a wave of Dutch immigrants arrived to clear the bush, and start farms and small companies. Many were devout members of the Christian Reformed Church, its strict authoritarianism married to a conservative humanism.

Sympathetic to the plight of the local aboriginal people, often deeply committed to community initiatives and “good works,” some of the flock were critical of what they perceived as aboriginal apathy and aggressive dependency.

Over time, the two groups — neighbours who lived side-by-side — withdrew from each other, creating a tension and mistrust that is played out on the streets of Terrace today.

  White teens play eight-ball at a pool hall on Lakelse Avenue, the main street in town, while down by the railroad tracks aboriginal teens play the same game at Gus’s pool hall.

The region has become a cultural and economic hub for aboriginal people who frequent the Walmart, Canadian Tire and Real Canadian Wholesale Club. They test drive new pickups at one of five car dealerships and have their babies at Mills Memorial Hospital.

***

Editor Rod Link muses in his newspaper office, a squat, one-storey building just blocks from the railway line. He is in philosophical mode, puzzling the future of his town in the light of two dramatic new developments: new treaties by local First Nations and an unprecedented number of skilled jobs going begging.

The veteran newsman well knows that, seen one way, a treaty is simply a document that may help aboriginals and non-aboriginals live and work side by side. And, while it’s indisputably true an older generation of aboriginals saw treaty-making as their holy grail, economic development and the highly skilled, highly paid jobs that can go with it, has become the rallying cry for a younger generation.

In September 2012, aluminum maker Rio Tinto Alcan announced it was short 1,500 skilled workers for its $3.3-billion Kitimat smelter project, 60 kms south of Terrace. To address this critical human resources deficit, the company launched a Western Canada-wide ad campaign to woo people to the Pacific Northwest.

“Great jobs in the great outdoors,” read the ad that appeared in the Terrace Standard and other media outlets across B.C. and Alberta. The company’s 16 unions also put out the call among their affiliates for workers interested in heading north.

At peak construction, and depending on world demand for aluminum products, Rio Tinto Alcan will require an estimated 2,500 workers. By spring of 2013, it had about 1,000, with 500 of them living in what was described as a five-star construction camp.

To clear-headed observers like Rod Link, the Rio Tinto Alcan plea raises the critical issue of a “skills mismatch.”

Nowhere is that phenomenon more in evidence than here on the streets of Terrace, where unemployment remains stubbornly high, one of the worst in the province. But unemployment rates for aboriginals are far worse, claims Link. And, despite an endless litany of political promises, high-minded rhetoric and blizzards of news releases and talking points, few aboriginals here have the engineering and technical skills to work at high-paying jobs literally on their doorstep.

Truck drivers here make $100,000 a year, welders considerably more. Most of these workers are non-aboriginal, flown in from Denver, Houston, Edmonton and Vancouver.

From time to time, Link hears versions of a story known locally as the “Indian fade,” wherein aboriginal people hired to work at good pay soon lose interest in their new employment and, in the weeks or months that follow, begin showing up at the work site late or intermittently, until one day they simply don’t show.

As recounted by one local skills trainer who insisted on anonymity, some aboriginals in isolated communities do not have access to the transportation that most non-aboriginals take for granted. And others, living in isolated communities where inter-generational welfare dependency is a way of life, may find the world of work daunting.

Link dismisses such stories out of hand: old news, heard it all before. Most of the aboriginals he knows, and writes about in his paper, are tough, hard-driving business people.

Here on the frontline, aboriginals have made it clear: they insist on being major players in the new energy-driven economy. Stepping out of the shadows, evoking the great trading prowess of their ancestors centuries ago, they are taking their rightful place in the economic mainstream, entering the modern world.

“If this region is going to survive — no, make that thrive — wealth creation can only come about by finding and developing new markets — and ensuring we have the skills to serve them,” Link says.

“By ‘we’ I mean all of us. Aboriginals. Non-aboriginals. We’re in this together. We all live here — and we’re not going anywhere.”

 

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Post Card from Victoria; City of Obdurate Rumps

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Summer again in this fair and pleasant land. The American tourists are back in town.

Making their way down the gang planks of the cruise ships, jostling along the promenade in Victoria’s inner harbor, many of our American cousins are dumbfounded by the sight of Mr. Floatie (real name, James Skwarok), a brown cartoonish character, dressed to look like a turd.

When Mr. Floatie explains that Victoria, this fabled postcard of a place, uses the Strait of Juan de Fuca as an open toilet — no treatment, no nothing, just two long pipes and simple screens  — the visitors are startled, mystified. Some sniff with anger when they learn Victoria is the only city north of San Diego without a sewage-treatment plant. Through two outfalls, the city pumps out 130 million litres of raw sewage directly into the strait every day — or 34 billion litres a year.

Curious. Twenty-five years of newspaper clips provide documented proof that many governments — and the 300,000 residents who live in Victoria — apparently see little wrong with flushing their toilets directly into the deep blue sea. International embarrassment hasn’t shamed them into caring. Nor outraged U.S. media coverage likening Victoria to a Third World failed state. Obdurate rumps indeed.

(There is one way to shake people from a shared complacency: the threat of an American tourist boycott, a subject that swells up from time to time. Local officials turn apoplectic. Economic ruin if the Yanks stop coming.)

The sewage debate has been stewing for decades, with environmentalists and downstream communities saying the city is polluting the ocean. In toxicity tests on Victoria's sewage, fish died within 20 minutes. Compare that with identical tests on pulp mill effluent where fish routinely survive for more than 96 hours.

The currents near the outfalls do not carry the sewage out into the Pacific. Because currents change direction with the ebb and flow of the tide, a lot of the sewage either stays nearby or flows back into Georgia Strait. Also, dilution does not get rid of what’s in sewage (organics, pathogens like hepatitis, heavy metals or chemicals) and therefore it doesn’t prevent the long-term damage to the environment, or the waste of the energy and mineral resources carried by sewage.

But others reject such data. Many Greens and environmentalists poo-poo the need for sewage treatment. During last year's federal election campaign, Mr. Floatie was shown the door at a Green Party event. And during the campaign Justin Trudeau — now prime minister and globetrotting crusader against climate change — suggested the sewage money could be better used to treat autistic children and improve schools. Saving the ocean, saving the marine habitat for pods of orca and killer whales must be so yesterday.

New residents are initially appalled.  But living here, people soon lose all concern.  Fastidious escapees from other parts of Canada, other parts of the world, are not bothered in the least.

What to make of such complacency? Victoria is a government town, of course, where so many are married to bureaucracies that — excepting the tourist trade and local university — so utterly define the place.

By August the long grass in Beacon Hill Park turns to straw and life can become a gentle lobotomy. Cycling to work along Dallas Road with its wide-angle views across the strait to the Olympic Peninsula, all anxious thoughts are quickly banished — especially those relating to the Malebolges.

Classicists know that, in Dante’s Inferno, the eighth circle of Hell is known as the Malebolges. The doomed here are sunk up to their necks in a river of human excrement.

But today, citizens here know not to eat local fish and shellfish. Nor do they kayak near the outfall pipes. And they keep their children from swimming at Willow Beach, where human feces has, at times, covered the pebbled shore in a dull brown sheen.

If past behavior predicts, governments will delay, obfuscate, study and wonk-wonk. Then repeat again. The provincial government recently mandated that Victoria provide sewage treatment with a March 31, 2016 deadline for an agreement and a real-world plan. That deadline has since been extended to Sept. 1, 2016. There is now desultory talk of a plant by 2020 or 2040. Maybe.

****

Some 20 years ago, the citizens of Salt Spring Island joined together to save a copse of old-growth trees near Ganges. A B.C. timber company owned the land and was set to fire up its chainsaws. Alarmed, the locals held bake sales, and bingo nights. A young woman rode naked through the streets on a horse. Alas, they were only able to raise a paltry sum. Until, that is, through circuitous networking, someone was able to contact Paul Allen, co-founder of Microsoft. (At that time several U.S. billionaires had taken a fancy to the B.C. Coast and every summer, a flotilla of mega yachts was seen making its way through Canadian waters and into Desolation Sound.)

The pitch was made to Allen in his hometown Seattle. Soon after, he cut a cheque so the locals could buy the land and save the Ganges forest. And so it came to be.

This modest proposal then. A bright and bearded Millennial — anyone who doesn’t work for government! — arranges a meeting with Allen or, better yet, his former partner Bill Gates in the hope of persuading him to write a cheque to pay for the sewage plant.

Just might work. Consider the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation is on a singular mission: solve environmental crises throughout the Third World.

satire by Lars Kohesiv

photomontage by Lee Bacchus

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Death in the Outports

Death in the Outports

A Town Called Fortune

Edited excerpt from the book, Who Killed the Grand Banks by Alex Rose

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Utter devastation should never look so lovely.

By late summer a post card: the town of Fortune, near the southern tip of Newfoundland’s Burin Peninsula, is bathed in a translucent light slanting in from the south, reflected off the sea. It picks out a row of tidy, salt-sprayed saltboxes perched on a spit of granite here at the edge of the Grand Banks.

Up top, the widow’s walk of a dowdy bed-and-breakfast affords an unobstructed 180-degree view of this great big sea, the fabled and frightening body of water that has, in almost every way, so absolutely defined every aspect of life on this rock-ribbed island for 500 years.

Until, that is, King Cod was slaughtered in the catastrophic, made-in-Canada collapse of one of the world’s greatest and most valuable resources. In 1992, with northern cod stocks overfished to near extinction on the Grand Banks—the nutrient-rich underwater plateaus where the Gulf Stream and the Labrador Current merge — the Canadian government imposed a moratorium on cod fishing, the lifeblood of these communities for 500 years. In that one single day of infamy, 40,000 jobs disappeared, changing forever the history and landscape of thousands of Newfoundland outport communities. Allocating them to a bitter history and the post-card sensibilities of tourist brochures.

Fortune has never been the same. Dying a slow and insistent death since 1992.

That’s when federal fisheries minister John Crosbie announced the closure of the Northern cod fishery in St. John's. In essence he was also admitting that the fisheries management scheme set up by Ottawa in 1977 after the declaration of the 200-mile fishing zone had failed.

For the thousands of Newfoundland inshore fishermen who had warned for years that the federal government's strategy would lead to the destruction of the Newfoundland fish stocks, it was cold comfort indeed to say "We told you so."

Of course Mr. Crosbie did not admit — does not to this day — that government policy was at fault. Instead, he blamed first his fisheries scientists, then continued to advance the official government line that the collapse of the fishery could be attributed to three causes: foreign over fishing outside of the 200-mile limit; a rapid increase in the seal population; and various oceanographic phenomena such as cold-water barriers impeding migration into inshore areas. He was wrong. It was a lie.

Since then, these and other explanations have been offered up as the reasons for the catastrophic Grand Banks cod collapse, which has tarnished Canada’s reputation around the world. There followed a series of willful, labyrinthine and quasi-scientific obfuscations, practised denials and state-sanctioned silence. Politicians, senior fisheries managers and officials and industry leaders, embarrassed and afraid, chose to stay silent on a mystery that obliterated 40,000 jobs, destroyed a way of life, cost taxpayers billions of dollars and changed forever the landscape of the province of Newfoundland.

Until now, that is. During the summer of 2007, the author, after examining sheaves of technical documents and data, traveled to Newfoundland to investigate the facts of the cod collapse. In St. John’s and in the outports and bays, he interviewed hundreds of people who shared their stories. And, in these pages, offers documented proof, buried deep beneath the official story, that explains why so many have had so little to say about one of the world’s worst ecological catastrophes.

In modern times, no other country has so absolutely destroyed a sustainable resource once considered the eighth wonder of the world. No other country—not Brazil and its rainforests—has practised killing with such rapacity, with such greed, such monumental stupidity. This, despite the once-stellar reputation of Canada’s fisheries scientists.

The truth of the cod collapse is an inconvenient one indeed. Especially for a country that so incessantly hectors others with a made-in-Canada morality, particularly when it comes to conservation and sustainability. Today, playing the blame game, there are those who affect a philosophical view, that everyone is guilty of killing the Grand Banks cod, and so, quote the parable in the Bible in which no one dares throw the first stone.

Wrong. Categorically, indisputably wrong. Surely, the first step in any authentic remedial action is to accept responsibility. Because only then can we set a course of action for the regeneration of the Grand Banks cod. But in sixteen years, no one has stepped forward to take responsibility for this sea of slaughter. Not politicians, nor scientists, corporations, managers, fishermen themselves. It has been a conspiracy of silence.

In the summer of 2007, the author made his way down the Burin Peninsula and came to understand that cod was directly linked to every historic event and every building in every village he visited.

Here can be found the wild, boreal seascapes for which the island is justly noted, as well as historic villages where one could start to unravel the various strands of Newfoundland's colourful history.

The pretty towns of Burin are gradually seeking more tourism to offset the collapse of the fishing industry. In towns such as Grand Bank and Fortune, a series of upmarket bed-and-breakfasts, often heritage buildings with commanding views of the Grand Banks themselves, tower over tidy homes of white clapboard and wood shingles, with handsome old churches tucked on small lots along narrow lanes, many edged with picket fences. Each village has a dollhouse scale to it, and is reminiscent of both Ireland and New England. Yet it remains distinctly Newfoundland, with its squarish, no-nonsense white homes trimmed

with tropical colors.

A visitor will succumb to indolent reverie when wandering the winding streets — more lanes, really — of half-empty town, visiting cemeteries and sitting on a bluff looking out at the Atlantic Ocean. One can begin to imagine a past of cod drying in front of many homes on wooden racks. The sour-sweet aroma wafted across the road, suggesting maybe, that one day, the cod will return.

Once each outport had its wharves and warehouses, factories producing cod-liver oil, and a payroll of including blacksmiths, boat builders and storekeepers. And when the men, in schooners and dories, were working the Grand Banks, the women and children would climb the stairs to the widow’s walk to see if a black flag, signifying death at sea as was very often the case, was flying on the schooner mast. If all was well, and the catch and been good, the vessels would be unloaded in a cacophony of shrieking sea gulls, the village would share in the celebration and, on Sunday morning, handsome old churches would swell with Anglican and Catholic hymns.

But King Cod is dead now. Village life gone forever.

Down at Fortune, past the shuttered fish plant, past the hulks of a fleet rusting idle at the dock, a clutch of tourists lurch off the catamaran and straggle back onto land after the 25-km run back from St. Pierre & Miquelon. One does not have to be bilingual to understand the crossing has been less than gentile. A broken two-metre chop with Force 5 winds adds up to a wicked, running sea.

The sole remnant of France's once-extensive possessions in North America, the Atlantic islands of St Pierre and Miquelon lie off the Canadian island of Newfoundland. The ferry run is one of the few reasons that people come to Fortune anymore, and then only in summer.

Since the cod collapse this once proud outport has been gutted and filleted like the fish that once sustained it. More than 2,000 people lived and worked in what used to be a thriving community, its residents either fishing or processing Grand Banks cod. Now, less than half remain, and they are the old, the pensioned, the resolute. Some practise an obstinate denial. But most live off the mathematical formulas of complicated federal government schemes of social assistance provided since the 1992 cod collapse.

Walk the main street of Fortune to see the faces: many are old, worried and lost in distraction. Sixteen years after the moratorium, they have stopped believing King Cod will ever return. Despite brave talk—the latest is oil royalties from Hebron—and a patented made-on-the-Rock optimism that stretches long into a hardscrabble past. In fact, there is compelling evidence that the billions of resource-based profits exported every year far exceed the net income received by federal transfer payments.

Ironically, there is a new kind of economic activity here today: vulture capitalism. As the old people die, and the young leave for the oilfields of Alberta, homes here are going up for sale.

Up and down the rock-ribbed coast of Newfoundland in centuries-old fishing villages like this one, foreigners are taking advantage of a struggling regional economy to buy seaside summer homes.

Not long ago, the number of foreigners in Fortune could have been counted on one hand. Today, the summer people arrive each June and July from Tennessee, Ohio, Washington, California, New York and Massachusetts. And from nearby St. Pierre, of course.

This same scene is repeated down the road in nearby Grand Bank and in countless post-card pretty outports right around the province.

In Grand Bank, a handful of up-market bed-and-breakfasts regularly book Americans and Europeans, far more today than just two decades ago. The tourists come to mellow out from the frenzy of big city life, to nose about the history of this fabled place now allocated to memory. Several times each summer a big sailboat may arrive from Boston, but this is rare. Only a skilled skipper can navigate the unforgiving waters of the Grand Banks, a forbidding body of water that has, over the centuries, taken the lives of so many dorymen. By late September, the visitors have gone and cold mists and terrifying winds batter the coastline. As near-constant rain, fog and drizzle drape over Fortune, many bed-and-breakfasts, especially those without insulation, close up for winter.

Even with the Canadian dollar hitting a 30-year-high against the U.S. dollar, the tiny white cottages can be found for as little as $10,000, the price of a used car. Realtors crow the cheapest places to buy recreational properties tend to be the places that are the farthest from major Canadian cities.

Not including a six-hour ferry ride, the drive between St. John's, the capital of Newfoundland, and Montreal, the closest major Canadian city, is 1,600 miles. Direct flights from both the U.S. and London, however, have increased in recent years and that has helped to attract more Americans and Europeans.

Here in Fortune, the influx is making some locals uneasy. Some say the Americans have built enormous homes utterly out of sync with the area's architecture and history.

The jump in demand for local real estate by foreigners as well as among mainland Canadians comes as the province of Newfoundland continues to endure a prolonged out-migration.

Since the 1992 cod moratorium the population of Canada has risen by 16 per cent while the population of Newfoundland has fallen by 11 per cent. The majority of the 61,000 people who left the province were from rural fishing villages like Fortune, where populations have routinely shrunk up to half. Before the moratorium, Fortune was home to 2,000 people. Today, its population is less than 1,000. Many headed west to work in the oil, gas and mining industries.

In 2006, more people died in Newfoundland and Labrador than were born. The population peaked 15 years ago at 580,000 and dropped 70,000 by 2006. In 1971, half the population was under 21. The median age was the lowest in all of Canada. Today, at 42, it is the highest. In 1971, this province had 163,000 kids in schools. This year, that figure has fallen to 70,000 and is falling still.

When a visitor sees the empty schools and abandoned sports fields, he begins to understand the pervasive sense of despair that, like the Atlantic mists and fog, cloak the island.

In his op-ed in a national newspaper Memorial University political science professor Michael Temelini wrote, “ … that Canadians simply do not know, or care, that this 500-year-old civilization is disappearing. We are witnessing an entire generation without hope, enthusiasm or meaningful, steady employment.”

Mere steps from the ferry terminal, in the shadow of the shuttered FPI fishing plant, Charlie’s Bar serves as a community centre for the locals. Here in late summer, tourists are introduced to a fast-talking Newfoundland accent that falls somewhere between Dublin and the East End of London. Talk is friendly, inclusive. But once the summer people have gone home, the regulars ruminate about the death of their single-industry town. The tone is modal and minor key, an Irish lament.

Locals stop by and fall into easy conversations which embrace scores of people, their illnesses, marriages, relationships and deaths. Here, in Fortune, it is still possible to know almost every family. As they speak together extensive networks of relationships spring to life, conjured back from the dead and mingled with the living in the afterlife of the unforgotten.

Owner Frank Fizzard is a former schoolteacher, a man of a clever asides and a certain erudition. Fate, he ruefully acknowledges, has cast him a role in a tragedy. He must bear witness to the death of Fortune.

Like almost everyone here, he has his theories about who killed the Grand Banks cod, about its effects on Fortune and the rest of Newfoundland. Attuned to every nuance of outport life, he hints – but won’t quite say — that foreign overfishing, bunk science and bad management — from Ottawa, of course — that led to the cod collapse. But, he really doesn’t want to go on the record. But he will allow he knows more than few people who consider Confederation a fraud and disaster: we should have joined up with the Americans instead.

(This sentiment was a stapled of outport life. Resting two nights in a tidy bed-and-breakfast near Marystown, a visitor was charmed by the attention and huge plates of food proffered by the hostess, a spinster and grandmother of six. Rattling around the place, she doted on her guests, mixing shards of local history with the story of her ancestry. She may have been lonely, too: all her children had left Newfoundland to look for work – to Boston, Halifax, Toronto and Calgary. But she still made bread every morning, working the flour with what can only have been the largest pair of hands on the Burin Peninsula. Friendly with a lively and inclusive sense of humour, she shared, over a glass of sherry one evening, another side of her personality: a hatred for all things Ottawa — its fisheries department, its scientists, its managers and what she called fish cops. Ottawa alone, she insisted, as her voice hardened, had brought suffering to rural Newfoundland. Policies dreamed up in Ottawa were directly responsible for the poverty, high unemployment and every other aspect of social dislocation and bewildered malaise that so defines outport life today. “We should have never joined Canada, in the first place,” She said. “The Americans wanted us. We should have gone to the south.”)

Like almost everyone else, Fizzard’s children left the province to find a better life. A life beyond the “six-and-two” of state sanctioned forms of welfare and make-work programs in a province with the highest rates of employment insurance.

If, as befits the owner of a pub, Frank has perfected a relaxed presentation to the world, his deadpan observations are delivered with a kind of weary cynicism, reflecting painful truths. He and his wife will soon join their daughter in her new home in Alberta.

Here in Fortune, people have little discretionary income. “I have to keep my prices down,” he says. “Bottled beer is three dollars here. If I moved it up to $3.50, they just wouldn’t come anymore.”

He points to Luke, the local fisherman, who chuckles, a practised routine. But today, they have an audience. Luke, a former cod fisherman, is a regular at Charlie’s. He now fishes lobster from a rusting 39-foot trawler. And, like many here, he has a story to tell. It goes back in time, down the centuries of schooners and dories when cod was king and the most dangerous job in the world was one of the most lucrative, most prestigious. To a visitor’s ear, the accent evokes the speech of settlers from England and Ireland who were drawn here centuries ago by the cod.

Proud, fiercely independent and brave beyond all meaning of the word, they skippered the Grand Banks schooners now showcased in a nearby museum. It was a great and noble age. The men fished for cod and the women salted and dried them on the flakes here just down the road, and across the province.

All along the waterfront were the fish-merchant warehouses, where the salt cod was brought ashore, dried and stored and later stacked in the holds of ships bound for England, Europe and the West Indies, where it was consumed at ten times the rate per person that it was in Newfoundland. Barge cranes moved back and forth all day, loading, unloading stacks of salt cod the size of houses. The technology of preserving fish had not changed in five hundred years. Soak it in brine until its every fibre was so salt-saturated it would be safe from rot for years, and then dry it in the open air.

Salt cod would lie drying everywhere within several hundred feet of Fortune’s harbour. It lay on the rocks in backyards and on elevated fish-flakes near the water; cod split and cured in brine and set out to dry. When it rained, everyone rushed out to turn the cod over so that the side with the rain-impervious, leather-like skin faced upward. The docks reeked of fish and brine.

Luke’s ancestors were among thousands of fishers who fished from the schooners and dories plying the treacherous waters of the Grand Banks, just to the south of Fortune. The dorymen fished in bitter cold, often in thick fog. It was a dangerous occupation indeed. When storms hit, everyone had to face the towering waves on his own.

Consider this log entry from Captain Walters when the famous Bluenose was hit by a storm on the Grand Banks on Sept. 16, 1935:

“The day beings blow hard; bad sea running; sky looking very heavy. Wind hauled WSW with hurricane force…. Vessel labouring very hard and terrific sea running…. Vessel pounding very heave aft. Impossible to do anything…. Tons of water going below doing the damages, causing vessel to leak very bad. Hard to keep continue pumping. So ends this say.”

Many Grand Banks fishers were not as lucky as Captain Walters who saved his famous vessel, which limped into port one week later.

Luke was a little boy when came the change. In the 1950s and 60s, industrial fishing started up on the Banks: all that steel, ice, and the weighted nets that went on forever. They marked the beginning of the end. In a few short decades the inshore fishery was wiped out as the cod were overfished to near extinction. And outport communities in every bay around the province were dealt a death knell. A provincial economy, built on a single resource, had been destroyed forever.

Once Luke made more than $100,000 a year fishing cod. Today he makes less than $30,000 fishing lobster and shrimp on the Grand Banks, scouring the shallows for fish the cod once ate, scouring and tearing at the habitat that once served as spawning grounds for the immature cod. “I’ll be out of this within five years,” he says. “I’m going into tourism. Fishing is no good any more.”

“But who’s to blame for the cod collapse?” the visitor asks.

“Blame enough to go all around,” Luke says. “And who knows maybe one day the cod will come back. But it will never be the same. And lots of people will have to change their thinking. There’s an old saying on this island: ‘If it runs, walks or flies, kill it.’”

Meanwhile many have fled the province. Barry Shortt moved from Burnt Point, N.L., to Leduc in 2005 and now works as a mechanical engineering technician doing piping design for refineries and oil sands plants. Shortt bought a house, got engaged and is expecting his first child, so it would be difficult to move back to the East Coast. "I'm not interested in going back to Newfoundland because you have to look at the opportunities and the position Alberta is in right now," he says

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Chief Joseph Gosnell’s residential school days

Today, universally reviled, Canada's residential schools system is rightly seen as a colonial bulldozer, designed to obliterate indigenous cultures by breaking the connection between aboriginal children and their heritage.  Spirits and bodies were broken and torn. Little wonder that this was the central finding of Canada's Truth & Reconciliation Commission. But Nisga'a Chief Joseph Gosnell recalls another far more nuanced story of his years at St. Michael's Residential School in Alert Bay, as described in the book Spirit Dance at Meziadin by Alex Rose.  

As a boy, Gosnell played in the long grass along the Nass River’s banks and he and his friends paddled the river’s complicated tides and whirling currents.

In those days, long before the road was built from Terrace, the river was the highway to the Nisga’a villages, serving both as an obstacle to posterity and a geographical line of defence against further incursions by white settler society.

When he was seven years old, the government intervened in Joseph’s life in dramatic fashion: the local Indian Agent decreed that all Nisga’a children were to be sent away to a church-run residential school.

In 1943, Gosnell was one of 15 Nisga’a children lined up to board a steamship idling at the wharf at Inverness Cannery near present day Prince Rupert. His mother stood by weeping. "As I stood on the dock with my brother Ben, my mother kept saying to us in Nisga’a—we didn’t know any English then—‘You are going away to learn, to learn and to be educated.’”

After a two-day sea voyage, with stops at Klemtu and River's Inlet to pick up more aboriginal children, the steamship arrived at St. Michael’s Residential School (Anglican), a foreboding structure in Alert Bay on Cormorant Island north of Campbell River.

For the next six years, Gosnell survived a harsh discipline. Although he neither experienced, nor heard, of the sexual abuse and physical brutality that has since been exposed in many other residential schools, his experience wasn’t easy. “That was a rough life. The discipline was extremely hard. Oh, well do I know the taste of soap,” Gosnell says, recalling the Anglican brothers washing his mouth out with soap for speaking Nisga’a.

“Every night you could hear children crying in the dormitories.” Forbidden to speak their own language, the Nisga’a children whispered secretly to each other in Nisga'a. But over time English become the common language.

Like many aboriginal people of his generation, Gosnell recalls always being hungry. "We never had enough to eat and we had to eat the food that was placed before us, whether we liked it or not."

Despite the suppression of his language and culture, always running through his dreams in the prison-like building so far from home was the great, dark Nass River, from which his people draw their very identity—the first schools of oolichan in spring and the silver flash of the first coho salmon as they enter the river. “I’ve been to the headwaters of the Nass,” he will say today. At Lake Meziadin the water is so clear you can see 400 feet down into the lake."

Though vivid, the memories of his homeland were not enough to sustain him against a government determined to "enlighten" him in European ways. On his return from residential school— his Grade 5 certificate in his back pocket — Gosnell returned to his village without a history. He had to be de-programmed, working hard to re-learn the Nisga'a language and re-discovering who he was.

Today, the 65-year-old Gosnell doesn’t blame his parents for sending him away. "Like all Nisga’a parents they faced incredible psychological intimidation to conform. They were ordered by the Indian Agent to send us away, part of the assimilation policy. On the contrary, I thank them for what they did for me, instilled in me the importance of the culture that we maintain today. My mother always said, ‘Don’t ever forget our language.’”

Over the years, Gosnell has been able to reflect on the impact of the residential schools, an impact still felt throughout Nisga’a communities today. He has never once considered a lawsuit against the church or the federal government. "I wouldn’t want to put my children through the same thing — never in a thousand years. When I first arrived at St. Michael’s, I didn’t know a word of English, not even a yes or a no. When I came out of there after six years, I had almost forgotten my own language. We were little kids; we didn’t even know we were Indians then. We watched so many cowboy and Indian movies and we always rooted for the guys with the ten-gallon hats. It explains to some extent the dysfunctional nature of some of our people. When you are taken away from your parents at a young stage, removed from a closely knit family and placed in a completely alien atmosphere, you lose an important sense of parental guidance. I see that happening today and it is like a sickness passed from one generation to the next. Very few people recognize that. It explains the depression you see in the faces of the people, the alcoholism, and now the drugs."

Gosnell doesn’t hold a grudge against a schooling system that wrenched him from his family because it became one of the defining moments of his life. He did, after all, learn to read and write the English language and counted among his classmates a generation of men who would one day become leaders in the struggle for aboriginal rights.

The friendships he forged then against a common enemy would translate into political support. "Whenever the tribal groups from across the province meet, I greet my friends from those days," Gosnell says. "It taught me discipline. It put backbone in my spine. I walked away from that and I knew I could stand up to anything.”

He also met his wife Adele there—she had arrived from the Nass on a later steamship—watching her across the strictly segregated playground. In May, 1999 both returned to visit St. Michael’s for a reunion to mark its construction 100years ago.

 

 

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Anvil Island, poems 1&2

Photo by Alexandra Rose

Photo by Alexandra Rose

Peter Hill and family have been boating to Anvil Island in Howe Sound for six decades. His cabin at Fern Bay has a wide-angle view looking south down the fiord. Peter is a professor of education and a fine amateur guitarist. During "living room sessions," he is often accompanied by his wife Pam who sings jazz standards. He also writes poetry: Anvil, poem 1 These tiny pink and purple buds peek from brambles where the bumblebee seeks their early nectar Yet only one or two of a million are open and the bee frantically hovers from bud to bud so early in this sunny hallowed spring.   A cloud from burning slash on another island seeks out its level and ebbs and flows as the gentle winds blows it into a line about the sound They too hover in the air, but are calm and sinuous.   No snow on the mountains where snow should be in this spring so beautiful and free from rain.   To arrive here relaxed already Not needing days to ween myself from the self-made poison brought on by workmates and misplaced policy. To arrive calmly wanting more of the purple bud Like the bumblebee I prowl.   Anvil, poem 2 They would have know the summer pattern for thousands of years, they would have known it. Squamish wind at night and early morning blowing their canoes out of the north, taking them to the places in the Sound where the fish teemed under the Two Sisters. The huge Spring and the Pink salmon every two years boiling on the surface by Potlatch creek. Calm for two hours fishing and crabbing then a Southwest to bring them home. The strong canoe with a swift wind behind as the drummer chanted the songs long and rhythmic.    
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