Thursday, 22 October 2015

Teachers Are Mutant Freaks from Outer Space!

WRITTEN SEPT 27, 2014 - You know those Facebook challenges that either inspire you and knock your socks off OR they drive you bonkers and you find yourself deleting countless requests and nominations to do crazy things like dump buckets of ice water over your head or list 5 reasons for 5 days about why you’re grateful.  I usually dodge these nominations, not because I don’t believe in the cause it’s just that I have a to-do list that is already seemingly endless.  Recently, I was nominated by Pat Wilson for the “Gratitude Challenge” and when it comes to gratitude, I don’t know where to begin.  So I’m going to simply write about the most recent thing I am grateful for.

I have 2 kids.  Grant is almost 9 and Sara is 6.  I am ashamed to say that I have never spent a day in their classrooms.  While I have been in their class for a few minutes here and there or for a longer visit to watch a special presentation, assembly or cry unabashedly at the Christmas concerts, I’m kind of a deadbeat mom when it comes to helping out at the school.  I’m not the brownie-baking for the bake-sale kind of mom but I made the decision to be more active this year and I’m taking a 1/2 day from work each week to spend it in my son’s class.  My daughter has no problem with school or language, my son on the other hand…well, he needs a little bit of a push to get going.

Yesterday was my first day and it was AMAZING and it was utterly and completely exhausting.  Keep in mind that my regular work schedule sometimes demands several all-nighters to get work done, it’s full of stress and emotions,  it demands a ton of energy and time…but none of that could have prepared me.  Hell, if I had been a Gladiator during the Roman empire it wouldn’t have prepared me for this kind of exhaustion.

When I got to the school that morning, I was nervous.  My kids are both in French immersion and I don’t speak French well at all.  Basically, I know how to cuss, I can sing the French chorus of an ABBA song or order beer in French and none of these phrases were likely to come in handy at an elementary school.  I went into the class and my nervousness only increased, there were 25 kids from grade 4-7.  That’s right, 4 grade levels in a single classroom!!  I didn’t really know what to do or how to help and I found myself saying, “Bonjour!” a lot and when the kids replied with phrases in French I stared blankly at them and said, “OUI!”  

For the next 3 hours, I watched my son’s teacher expend more energy than a nuclear power plant.  He kept them engaged, motivated and excited about their work and about learning.  He used discipline in the most unnoticeable and yet effective way.  He pumped out all kinds of lessons and I found myself learning as much as the kids.  I would walk around and check their spelling pretending that I knew what I was doing but mostly I sat in the back of the class holding back my incessant urge to start clapping every time Monsieur finished a statement.  

Even with the extra help, it was really difficult to get to all the kids that needed the help.  One activity demanded more supplies than he had available and he stepped across the hall and borrowed some supplies from another teacher.  Monsieur also had to engage me as a parent and teach me how to help the kids.  It was clear to me that parents REALLY need to be in the classroom when classes are this big.

It was brilliant.  I was inspired.  I was motivated.  I was ready to take on the world.  Nothing would stop me now!  I left the school at lunch ready to tackle anything that came my way - I was almost floating and had all kinds of ideas about more ways to help at school.  Why hadn’t I been involved earlier?  Why didn’t I jump at the chance to help in class last year, or the year before?  I regretted not getting involved sooner.  I thought about taking another 1/2 day and helping out in my daughter’s class.  From only a half day, I found new ways to help my son at home.  I hopped on my bike and pedaled down the hill with the new kind of energy that one finds when they feel they’ve solved the mysteries of the universe.

I walked in my door and collapsed. I was completely spent!  This was a new kind of fatigue, one I don’t remember experiencing. I tried to get some work done but just couldn’t muster the energy.  I hadn’t eaten anything since breakfast and it was now 1:30 and I was starving but eating meant I had to cook something and that took energy…so I just didn’t eat.  I had about a dozen phone calls to make and I just couldn’t bring myself to dial, just the thought of having a conversation was exhausting.  My phone rang a few times but I just stared at it across the room from my chair…watching it ring, wondering who it was and wondered if it was important…but I didn’t actually care because all I could manage was to just sit there.  Ugh.

So I sat there until my head slumped forward and I dozed off.  I woke up with a jerk when I heard the kids come home.  I couldn’t believe that I had slept, I NEVER sleep during the day and I had been out for an hour!  And yet, it felt as if I had just closed my eyes.  

Even though it was 3:15, I had to make myself a coffee but it didn’t help.  I switched to auto-parent, stumbled through dinner, didn’t wash the dishes and went upstairs and turned on “Hidden Kingdoms” for the kids.  We all snuggled in my bed but I fell asleep at 8:30pm and didn’t wake up until 8:30am the following morning.

So this is my way of participating in the gratitude challenge - I am sending a salute to all the teachers and principals out there in the world.  Despite the fact that you’re likely nuclear powered mutants from another planet, you’re amazing and I am so grateful for you.

Tuesday, 10 December 2013

Bullshit, Rednecks and Development

The Allen Family, 2010
Some people call me an environmentalist.  What in the hell is an environmentalist anyway?  Growing up in my family, it was a dirty word to describe priviledged and over-educated people who got their education out of a book instead of the woods.  My upbringing taught me that hard work, hard damn work was the way to make it in life.  I was raised by a farming family in the Kispiox Valley and we made our way as loggers, guide outfitters, rodeo stock contractors and from time to time, we worked in the mining or oil and gas industry running heavy equipment. 

But when we weren’t working the land for food or in the bush for money, we were on the rivers or in the mountains.  My family vacations were spent on pack trips by horse going into the Skeena Mountains or the Atnas.  But of course, we couldn’t take a vacation for a mere vacation, that would have been considered a complete waste of time – we had to get enough moose, caribou, grouse and maybe a black bear to bring home for winter’s meat.  Black bear makes damn good ham, bratwurst and you can render the fat for lard.  We grew up growing or wild harvesting a lot of our own food because we couldn’t afford to buy it. Even though we raised cattle, we couldn’t eat much of it because that was money out of our pockets so we hunted wild game to fill our pantries.  The line between bankruptcy and paying the bills was incredibly thin but we certainly had an incredible life.

Living in the Skeena region has not been the easiest existence, especially in the winter.  Communities are bonded by enduring the cold months together and it’s the time where we get out and get more social to chase away the long darkness.  We dream of the warm summer sun, floats down the river, sitting with family and buddies around a picnic table and eating salmon so fresh that it curls when you cook it. 

Me and my Mom, Joy - 1978
I love this place.  It’s my home.  It’s been my home long before I was born.  More than 100 years with 6 generations in the Kispiox Valley.  We are known as the cowboy farmers…some might say rednecks.  Actually, everyone says rednecks.  My Dad was known for being one helluva boxer and regularly got into fist fights, I don’t know if he ever lost a fight but then again, I don’t know that he would ever tell me if he did.  He taught me how to go fist-a-cuffs and I was pretty good at it.  The fact that I grew into almost a 6-footer and spent the summer tossing hay-bales around for hours and hours everyday might have had something to do with it.  Still, I avoided conflict like the plague.  I despised conflict or disharmony, it made me cringe and still does to this day.  I would always try to walk away, feeling sick in my stomach wanting to run but growing up in the bush, you know that running away only encourages chase and the best way to deal with it, or at least the most instinctual way, was to face up and deal with things because it will only get worse if you don’t.
This is why I have trouble with the word environmentalist.  It’s not really inclusive of people like me or my family.  We aren’t fighting for the environment, we’re fighting for our homes and for our families because we need clean water and wild game.  If we protect habitat for salmon and wild game, we can eat good, clean food.  I can’t believe I said habitat…hell, I even catch myself talking about “ecosystems” these days. 

Working in the oilsands, SWCC logo on helmet
My husband is a rig-welder in the OilSands.  He makes a damn good living over there but he’s gone 16 days then home for 12.  When I first heard about Shell wanting to drill for coalbed methane in the headwaters, I thought it was a great idea.  Can you imagine how much money we could make?  Shell is no small potato, with a big company like them comes big money and I wanted a piece of it.  The history of my evolution into becoming an enemy to Shell’s proposal is a long one but the gist of it is that the more I learned about the development, the more my hackles went up.  I couldn’t believe what they were proposing and moreover, I couldn’t believe they were trying to tell us that it would all be okay. 

I did the only thing I knew how to do, I sat in people’s kitchens and drank coffee with them and asked them for help in figuring out how we deal with these sons-a-bitches who were coming into our watershed telling us that they were pushing forward with a development that we didn’t want and couldn’t stop.  I wasn’t branded an environmentalist, I was Gene Allen’s daughter so there was no worries about being a NIMBY or a CAVE’r.  Everyone around here knows that if anyone is going to get on the development band wagon, it would be my family.

My folks, Gene & Joy Allen
I went to my peer group, the rod and gun clubs, fishermen, the old farmers, the guide outfitters, hunters and trappers.  These were simply the people I was comfortable talking to because they were people I could relate to.  It wasn’t long before some people told us about the Tahltan and that I should head up there to meet some of them because they had blockaded some of these big developments.   The Tahltan had long been supporters of development with most of BC's major mining projects being proposed on their territory, so I was curious as to why they had changed their tune?

The Tahltan were no strangers to my family, my Dad had horse traded for decades with some of the Tahltan guide outfitters.  He would take his champion stud named Simon (after Simon Gunnanoot, the famous Gitxsan outlaw) to breed the mares in Tahltan country and in 3 years, he would take half the foals back as broncs while the other half became mountain horses.  Simon bred amazing broncs, some of the best in the world, he also had the perfect genetics for mountain horses with big, wide feet, strong backs and a quiet demeanor about them for packing hunters and gear. 

I remember making the trip to Telegraph Creek every spring with a horse trailer full of 10 horses, 1 was Simon and the other 9 were Simon foals that just didn’t buck.  That was the thing about Simon foals, all of them were quiet and loved to snuggle, but some of them genetically loved to buck while the others wouldn’t buck, ever.  The ones who wouldn’t buck became great horses for kids or to work in the mountains.  We’d get into Telegraph, give the horses a days rest and protein-rich grain before turning them out into the hills.  Fletcher Day, a Tahltan Chief and guide-outfitter would send his Tahltan wranglers out to gather his horses and off they would go with some halters and a bucket of oats.  1-3 days later they would return with all the horses that had been turned out for the winter.  I don’t know what those wranglers ate or where they slept while they were out there but they came back looking as fresh as when they left.  They would gather in the round-pen and everyone from the community would come out to watch Tahltan cowboys get on the 3-year old foals to see which ones would make their living on the rodeo circuit and which ones in the mountains.  All the while, Simon was having a great time with the mares.

I didn’t enter into the Sacred Headwaters campaign as an enviro or a campaigner, I came into as a concerned citizen, a cowgirl, a hunting guide and just talked about plain old common sense.  People described it as a David and Goliath story but it never resonated with me because our region is where the power lies…not industry.  If anything, we would be the Goliath.  When we unite, we’re unstoppable.  We’ve seen it time and time again.  Industry has to come in here and try to convince us that their project is worth it, that they are good, corporate citizens.  They have to spend millions to figure everything out, to “consult” and try to earn social license.  Some companies have realized that you can’t buy social license in the north, you really do have to earn it.  Those are the companies I want to work with.

We don’t have millions, we don’t have slick PR budgets and executive types to woo government, we simply have our truth, our stories and our relationships with each other and to the land – those are assets I’d much rather have than vast amounts money any day.  These companies have to counter our truth with all that money and history has shown that it just isn’t enough – if they come to our watershed, our communities and they don’t tell the truth or genuinely have our best interests at heart – they will lose.  We have a culture of uniting against bad ideas, government knows it and they refer to us as the “Republic of the Skeena” with Kitimat included.  That makes me feel pretty damn good and has given so many others hope.  Hope that they can stand up to ill-advised development and the big corporations behind them.

"We simply have opposing world views," was a comment made by one corporate executive.  Well let me give you an education sir, you don't live here, you don't depend on the return of the salmon each and every year and you don't drink the water.  When PR teams come to our communities I wonder if they recognize that the First Nations territory they're proposing their development is the only territory that Nation has?  If you're Gitxsan and someone destroys your traditional territory, you don't get to pull up stakes and move.  You don't get another traditional territory, you have only the territory that has been passed down to you from countless generations that you are borrowing from the generations yet to come.  We are left with the consequences of our own decisions and those of industry and government whether they are positive or negative and as such, we should be the decision makers.

The thing about being a northerner (something us settler types learned from the First Nations), if the shopping sucks, or we don't like our kid's school, our jobs or the weather,  we don't move - we work our asses off to make our community better.  We have to because no one else will.  Opposing world views?  This place IS my whole world.  It's the centre of my universe.  It's my home.  It's where I was born, where my father was born and where my grandmother & great-grandparents were born and buried.  It's where I will be buried and my grandkids and their grandkids will continue on. 

No amount of money can counter the truth, it can’t counter our commitment to our home and to our future generations, it can’t counter our real connections to this place and to our neighbours.  We are the people who live here and as such, we have a say in what happens here.  We have a big say!

Citizen action groups have erupted in northwestern BC written off as enviro’s and First Nations so people can put us in a little box labeled “dope-sucking, tree-hugging freakshows” or "money-grubbing indians with a price tag." I’m certainly not denying there are a few that fit that description but the vast majority are citizens standing up for their home, their family, their culture and their economy.  We’ve got a lot of work to do and if there’s anyone that can get it done – it’s the citizens and First Nations of the Skeena watershed.  I’m not trying to blow sunshine up anyone’s ass or give a false sense of hope, I simply know that we are winning.

The thing that lies between the bullshit future being pushed for LNG/Enbridge and an economy and environment that actually works, is us.  By ‘us’ I mean the folks who make this watershed their home. We are the people we need to turn to, we tend to look around for someone to save us but we are it…and I thank the powers that be that it’s us. Who better?  But that also means we gotta get our ass in gear.

Wild Skeena salmon contribute $110 million to our economy every year.  Guide outfitting contributes another $28 million.  For a watershed of 50,000 people, that’s an awful lot of money.  Every 7 years it’s $1 billion just for keeping our watershed healthy.  That doesn't hardly consider the sustenance or cultural value of these things.

I get pretty grouchy when someone tries to say that we can’t be against everything because we are not.  There is over $10 billion dollars of development happening in NW BC right now, that doesn’t include Enbridge or a single LNG project.  People have been shipped in from the USA, South Africa, Alberta, etc. to work the jobs that are in our watershed, it’s happening right now.  We are already overwhelmed with development, hundreds of mining referrals, railway expansions, power projects, etc. then you add LNG and it becomes something out of a science fiction movie.  We are a resource extraction region, it’s what we do and we’re good at it.  Not one, single “enviro” group or First Nation is saying we need to stop all of it, they are ALL saying that we just need to stop the goddamn ridiculous proposals that give us more to lose than gain, that trade our wild-salmon economy for bigger corporate profits in some bank account with a mailing address in another country.   We are reasonable folks who want reasonable solutions and it’s up to us to help build those solutions.

That’s where my head is at these days. I want solutions.  I want to help figure out economic developments that will help us more than hinder us, build infrastructure that gives us employment and energy and does so without messing with our clean air, wild salmon or water.  The more we look into this, the more we discover that there are alternatives – good ones.  Ones we can implement right now.  Machines that convert plastic into oil from plastic we can mine from our own landfills.  Wood to gas electricity systems using sawdust from lumber mills, wind power, solar heat and power, and the list goes on and on.  The more we research, the more solutions we find.  If we had a tiny fraction of the PR budget being spent promoting LNG, we could be completely self-sufficient and even export power as additional income.  The solutions exist.

LNG is Natural Gas that has been frozen to -160 Celsius to turn it from a gas to a liquid.  The name “natural gas” is another slick PR deal.  Because it’s called “natural” gas, it invokes a vision of some kind of organic product naturally emitted from the Earth that we capture and use for clean, green energy.  I call bullshit. 

The Enbridge pipeline will never be built, of that I have no doubt. It doesn’t mean there isn’t a lot of work yet to be done, it simply means that we have a big, bright light at the end of the tunnel. LNG is far worse than Enbridge in my opinion and we’ve got a government who has put the blinders on to try and bulldoze it all right through.  Proposing terminals as big as oilsands infrastructure in our Skeena estuary where our wild salmon and steelhead go.  Air quality assessments conclude these terminals will more than double the pollution in BC and result in acid rain.  The gas supply will be obtained by drastically increasing fracking all over the Province when more and more countries are banning that practice daily.  They’re changing our entire economic structure to be based on LNG and we don’t have a single buyer for our product.  Even if we did, there are some pretty knowledgeable folks who say we don’t have the gas supply to keep the industry going long enough to pay back the investment.  The problem I have with learning and educating about LNG is that there is so much wrong with this industry that it makes it confusing.  It’s so hard to keep track of all the government promises versus the contrasting reality. 

The BC government is trying to get support by motivating people with fear, telling us how LNG will save us from the impending economic peril. They tell us that it will keep schools and hospitals open, that infrastructure will be maintained and the story goes on and on.  Meanwhile, schools are being closed, hospitals are slammed and underfunded, ferry routes are being canceled and foreign workforces are still being shipped in. 

Bottom line, it’s all bullshit and no matter how much perfume or potpourri you put on it, it’s still shit.  Being a farmer, I’ve shoveled my fair share of bullshit and in the end, if we put it in its proper place, it can fertilize our gardens. 

Time to get your shovel.

Wednesday, 24 April 2013

Fortune Minerals in UnFortunate Location

What is the Arctos Anthracite project being proposed by Fortune Minerals?

Let’s go back to 2005. 

Caribou standing in what will become the open pit for the 
Arctos Anthracite coalmine proposed by Fortune Minerals
Eskay Creek mine was winding down and Galore Creek was planning the next big mine but there was little certainty that anything would go through. The safe assumption would be that communities would jump at the chance for jobs in the mining sector on an emerging project like Fortune Minerals. 

3 commonly known rules in building a successful business: Location, location, location...which automatically makes me think the company should be called unFortunate Minerals.

Grizzly Bears on Mt. Klappan
Fortune's open-pit coal mine they call Arctos Anthracite, proposed for Mt. Klappan, rises above the iconic valleys of the legendary Spatsizi Wilderness Plateau in the heart of the Sacred Headwaters. Generations old Tahltan hunting camps dot the caribou rich flanks and the headwaters of the Nass, Skeena and Stikine are visible from the summit. 

Moose of Mt. Klappan
Fortune Minerals pushed hard even though community members turned down their jobs and blockaded the company.  The very first Sacred Headwaters Gathering was held at Beauty Camp, the camp that the Quock family has used for generations and known to Fortune as their rock pit site.  

Like a bully in the playground, Fortune had 15 community members arrested, including 13 elders from Iskut. These arrests rattled the community and broke the hearts of the grandchildren who stood helpless as their grandparents were dragged  away in handcuffs. This sparked an international campaign to protect the area from large-scale industrial development. 

Tahltan Grandmother, Jenny Quock getting
arrested for protesting Fortune Minerals
It was Fortune’s arrests that uncovered Shell’s plans to drill for coalbed methane.  The Tahltan Nation collaborated with downstream residents to oppose Shell’s ill-conceived idea while Fortune waited quietly in the background. Municipal Governments and First Nations from all three watersheds supported a unified campaign to protect the Headwaters. It didn't make sense to transform the source of our wild salmon rivers into an industrial wasteland.

In 2008, the province responded with a 4-year moratorium on coalbed methane in the headwaters.
In December 2012, Shell voluntarily withdrew its plans and the BC Government permanently banned all future oil and gas activities citing, “The Klappan is an area that has been identified by the Tahltan Nation as having significant cultural, spiritual, and social values. It is also an area of vital salmon- bearing waterways such as the Stikine, Nass, and Skeena rivers, and as such has importance for all British Columbians who rely on those rivers.” 

Just as Shell’s plans headed to the shredder and the BC government commits to a planning process with the Tahltan for the headwaters, Fortune Minerals rides in on its black horse kicking up dust in everyone's eyes. The Tahltan and communities didn’t fight for 10 years to protect the headwaters so Fortune could proceed with an open-pit coalmine right in the heart of it. 

The only thing standing in the way of permanent protection is Fortune Minerals.

Let’s have Fortune admit the truth, their mineral claims are in an unfortunate location. Their plan to re-construct the 60 year-old crumbling railway from Fort St James to Dease Lake and run 24,000 tonnes of coal every 3 days for 25 years is an irrevocable blow to the Klappan and upper Skeena river. That’s 100km of railway right beside our pristine Skeena as it flows from the Sacred Headwaters. A 1977 BC Royal Commission into the condition of this abandoned railgrade regarded it, “ one of the most serious unresolved environmental problems in British Columbia”. Those problems continue to this day and Fortune’s proposed reconstruction of the railway for an industrial corridor would drastically increase the likelihood that other companies will jump on the train and pursue lesser known coal tenures scattered along the Skeena and its headwater tributaries. Our wild salmon and steelhead swimming through it all. 

The mining sector has a whole lot going for it along Highway 37- Mining, exploration, hydro projects, transmission lines, etc. all moving forward. What we need in the Sacred Headwaters are healthy rivers, 
wild salmon and areas of cultural identity that we can share with our children. Will Fortune Minerals continue to waste tax-payer time and money on this bad idea when we all know it will never happen? 

Friday, 15 February 2013

Random Acts of Howardness

In Honour of Jim Howard and his family.

The northwest is a pretty dynamic community made up of all types of folks.  We’ve got something for everyone and everyone seems to fit in…for the most part.  But we’ve got a little something extra, a secret weapon if you will and while everyone knows this weapon, they don’t fully understand its power until they are standing right smack in the middle of all it’s glory, getting showered with an immeasurable energy.

This energy gives you hope and inspiration, it ignites your faith in humanity, it helps you understand that there is a higher purpose for all of us and demonstrates first hand that anything is possible.

I’m talking about inner Howardness.  What does it mean to be a Howard?  How does one achieve Howardness?  It’s futile to ask a Howard as their Howardness is something that comes from within them, it’s simply their natural course of action, it comes with such ease that to conjure it they only have to think it.  For the rest of us, to do a Howardful act takes careful thought and consideration and you will likely fail many times before achieving true inner Howardness. 

I count myself extremely lucky to know several Howards and have studied their methods thoroughly for a number of years in hopes that I will one day bring Howardness to the rest of the world.  How does one identify a Howardly act?  Here are a few simple indicators:
1.)   Is it selfless?
2.)   Does it involve a serious commitment of time?
3.)   Would you refuse or not require money to do it despite the fact that it likely cost you money?
4.)   Does it make people feel good?
5.)   Does it make people question your intentions simply because it’s so amazing that it’s hard to believe it’s real?
6.)   Does it attract media attention even though you’ve tried to thwart it?
7.)   Does it create a better community?
8.)   Does it teach important lessons?
9.)   Does it inspire others to do things of a similar nature?

Some specific examples of random acts of Howardness include:
·      Pie Day – Bake dozens of pies and hand our free slices every other year on main street in Smithers.  For no other reason than to do something fun and selfless for the community you call home.
·      Swim the Skeena – Dedicate 2 years of your life (and risking it) to training, educating, swimming, touring and speaking about the watershed while uniting and inspiring communities along the way.  Have a beautiful film created that airs on major television networks and gets translated into Japanese.
·      Teach kids to Ski – take a bunch of youth who can’t afford or just simply don’t have the opportunity to go skiing and pay for them to do it out of your own pocket simply because you think it’s a good idea.  You will do this weekly all winter but it’s not just the skiing part, you pick them up, drop them off and be their chaperone.
·      Be Beautiful – while others look upon you and wonder how it’s possible to be so handsome or beautiful, you teach them that it’s possible to be beautiful on the outside AND the inside all at the same time.
·      Be present – you will always find a Howard at community functions, waving a banner or supporting something worthwhile regardless of how many things they have taking up all their time.  You will also find them immediately at your side at the drop of hat should you ever need emotional, financial, political or physical support.
·      Do things well – If you’re going to do something, you might as well put your entire heart into it, there’s no use doing something half-assed. 
·      Be Thoughtful – Remember things that people say or feel so that when the time comes, you remember those things and shock those people with how special you’ve made them feel by remembering random things like their favourite food (and you make it for them), their favourite movie or music, etc.

I am grateful to live in a community that has not 1 but 3 Howards.  Every community needs a Howard or someone who has achieved Howardness. Just how is it that we’re so lucky here in the north? 

Some people leave this world and leave their mark…when a Howard leaves this world – they leave a legacy.

Wednesday, 2 November 2011

Building Bridges...Literally

What is the first thing you think about when you hear the word "government?I can guarantee that most of your conversations don't go anything like this, "Wow, they sure did a good job.  Feels pretty good to have them working so hard and getting things done for us.“  Believe it or not, that's how I've been talking about our regional government this summer.  Don't worry, I haven't been drinking the Koolaid, I will always be an active citizen that holds government accountable but I believe in giving praise when it's deserved.

A few years ago, the Gitxsan Watershed Authority completed a report about fish passage problems along the Kispiox road.  The report looked at all the places where salmon were blocked from getting to their spawning habitat by beaver dams, culverts and other obstructions.  It was the culverts that seemed to be the biggest problem.
Assessing the culvert at Murder Creek

How can a culvert block fish from getting to the other side of the road?  Well, if the river was high, the culvert acted like a cannon shooting water so fast that the salmon couldn't get through.  Other times the water was so low that it made a waterfall too high for the salmon to jump into.  The part of the report that really caught my eye was the statement that replacing these culverts with bridges would result in 18,000 more coho in the system from the replacement of just one of these!  Skeena Watershed Conservation Coalition (that's who I work for) was asked to organize a community meeting about these issues. Tim Wilson of Gitxsan Watershed Authority and Ken Rabnett were the authors of that report and came to the meeting with Department of Fisheries and Oceans, Ministry of Transportation and members of the Kispiox community.

If you know anything about the community of Kispiox Valley or the Gitxsan Watershed Authority, you would know that we are dedicated in our ability to stand together, to protect each other and our wild steelhead and salmon.  This is why we can make government a little bit nervous when we ask for a meeting, especially when we request it happen on our turf.

We didn’t just want to talk about culverts, we wanted government to repair a section of road that had been washing away into the river each and every year with the high water. Let's be realistic, what the community wanted was a $1.5 million investment in infrastructure for a community of about 180 people.

We had written several letters and most of them strongly worded.  It was through the promise of collaboration and the fantastic report by Gitxsan Watershed Authority that the meeting finally happened. "I felt like I was walking into the lion's den!" recalls Greg Ross, Regional Project Manager for the Ministry of Transportation.  After Greg survived the meeting without a single scratch, he assembled the teams for each of the 4 projects (3 bridge installations and repairing the washed out road) and coordinated the work.

Rip Rap Road Repair
Where the river was eroding the road, it is now stabilized with large rock (rip rap) and is the first armoring known to happen in the Kispiox River. Willows were placed along the bank, don't worry that they are all dead and brown; they will propagate and grow new willows. Live willows were planted this fall to help stabilize the bank as well. Erosion is a natural process and there are always downstream changes when you interrupt a process like this. This spot will eventually fill up with gravel and silt which will force the current to straighten out the river.

From a timeline perspective, this was a serious education for most of us. We saw the need to get the work done and felt that government didn't share our same sense of urgency. Didn't they understand that our salmon needed and deserved their immediate attention? We even offered to supply some of the heavy equipment and volunteers for environmental monitoring. We were willing to do anything to make the work happen immediately. Now, if we lived in a dictatorship, the big boss could simply say, "GET TO WORK NOW!" and there would be nothing to worry about...except that we don't live in a dictatorship. A democratic government works a little differently and has to be accountable. There was a litany of approval processes from engineering designs, acquisition of the bridge building materials, bidding of contracts to do the work, figuring out the best window of opportunity so the work won't disturb salmon, budgets, etc.  It's enough red tape to paint the lips of every Angelina Jolie photo ever taken. (If you don't know who Angelina is, just know that it's a LOT of red tape)
Taking out the old wooden culvert at Clifford Creek

The report was written in 2007, the community meetings happened in 2008, the engineering designs and budgets were done in 2009 with the hopes of getting to work in 2010 but due to a few other road repair type emergencies, the work was completed at the end of this summer.

Another lesson learned in my evolution as an activist is that government is made up of people.  It's easy to write government off as a big, fire-breathing dragon but essentially it's just people. Normal people who have families, hectic schedules, back problems or trouble with teenagers; people that might like to lip sync in their car to Rachelle van Zanten or people that really love smoked salmon. That isn't saying that all decisions made by the people in government are good ones but just like a family or a community, you've got the ones you're proud of, that work hard, saved the neighbour's dog from drowning and brought you over some cookies just because they felt like it; and then you've got the others, the ones that always fart at the table, steal your lawn furniture and sell it for beer money or tell the world that you wet the bed until you were 7 - the ones you wished would fall face first into a pile of cows@!t.

Installing the bridge at Murder Creek
While this area is the center of our universe, it is a small blob on Greg Ross' map. The area that he manages for Ministry of Transportation and Infrastructure is all the way from Haida Gwaii to the Alberta Border and from the Yukon Border to Blue River just north of Kamloops. That's bigger than Germany and slightly smaller than Sweden! Imagine all the projects coming at him every, single day.

Greg and his wife Cheryl live on a farm at the mouth of the Copper river near Terrace, BC. He's got 2 kids in college, LOVES fishing and is a build-a-fire-and-drink-a-beer kind of a guy. Before his government job he worked at Nass Camp and BC Timber doing lay out work for the logging industry. He started working for Highways as a surveyor back in 1983 and remembers the Copper when it only had a few humans.

I asked Greg what his favourite part of this project was and his face lit up, "Dealing with the people and their passion about their valley and knowing there would be visible results in the near future We would see lots of fish moving up those creeks when they haven't been able to do it for years. This wasn't about the bridges, it was about the fish. This was a feel-good kind of project." Greg also talked about how well all the government agencies collaborated. The Ministry of Transportation managed the project.  Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) were supportive and constructive with input and were onsite all the time. Some of the DFO folks even came out and volunteered to do instream work with chest waders and snorkel gear! The Gitxsan Hereditary Chiefs were consulted on each project and the Gitxsan Watershed Authority was the spark for getting the fire lit to address the problems. The results are already evident with pink salmon seen spawning above one of the bridges in numbers this fall.

Salmon that have made it to the other side of the road!
So what can we learn from all of this? Well, there was a well-written and researched report that outlined solutions instead of only complaining about problems.  Add a few firm phone calls and letters from locals, a friendly invitation to discuss these things with the community at large, treat the government officials as if they were real people and VIOLA!!  We've got a safe road to drive on and thousands more salmon to thrive in the river. This project was something I was proud to be a part of. I think Greg summed it up best, "This was for the betterment of society - the residents, the Gitxsan, the fish. All that new habitat is opened up and knowing that we would see thousands of coho in those creeks instead of 3 or 4, that makes this a fun project. People made this happen, people are the government and that's sometimes forgotten."

Feel free to email Greg Ross and let him know that he's done a good job!

Monday, 29 August 2011

Roots - The Source of Power

Great-Gramma Anna Love with Grandchildren (my Dad is 2nd from the top right)
I am grateful for my past and the connection it has helped me make to this land.  Traveling and going to school elsewhere has taught me that a connection to a place is not common in North America.  If people don’t like something about where they live or if there's little work, they just simply move.  Without roots to keep us grounded, we don’t care about the future of the land and will soon run out of places to escape to.

The First Nations have been saying this for years and it’s only recently that I understood why.  My family has 6 generations in the Kispiox Valley.  That's over a 110 years of history here, a drop in the bucket compared to the Gitxsan but a helluva long time for a settler family.

My introduction to politics was sitting around my Gramma Dorothy Allen's table.  From as far back as I can remember, folks would sit around that table and talk about the ways of the world and the issues of the day. 
Gramma & Grandpa Allen on their wedding day
My Gramma’s table was always full.  Whether it was fishermen from Jersey, birdwatchers from Britain, berry pickers from the village or a bunch of relatives – her table was never lacking for people or good conversation.  She would shove all sorts of her homemade desserts right in front of you with a plate, fork and a cup of cowboy coffee brewed from her wood cook-stove.   It didn’t matter if you didn’t want or ask for any of these things, it was understood that you were to eat it.  She had a grand selection of treats and was known all over the world for her cooking.  In a single day from her wood cook-stove she made cake, regular buns, cinnamon buns, pie, cookies, and a fridge dessert (either fig bars or pineapple cheesecake squares) and slices of the many fresh veggies from her garden or greenhouse.  That enormous amount of food was consumed in a single day and gives you an idea of just how many people sat around her table. She turned 93 this August.
My Great Uncles started a guide outfitting business called Love Bros. and Lee
Then there's my Grandpa Marty Allen who worked just as hard.  He was a farmer, had cattle, grew his own feed & grain, chickens for eggs and eating, a milk cow and sometimes a couple of pigs.  It has always been hard work to be a farmer and it seems to be getting harder.  My Mom often joked that they had to work so hard to afford all the groceries that went into Gramma's baking.  It was the best coffee shop in the north but no one paid for their coffee...well, not with money.
To supplement his farming income Grandpa monitored, recorded and called in the weather station stats twice a day and maintained an active trap-line.  He died a few years back and I miss him a lot, especially his loud and contagious laugh.
Some of the people that visited came solely to talk politics as Grandpa was the Regional District representative for the area.  A Regional District is sort of like the rural people’s mayor and council.  Others would pop by on their way up the road where they were going to log, pick berries, trap, hunt or fish.  Even my school bus would stop and let all the kids off for a few minutes to eat snacks and treats before loading back up to complete the ride home.  Chiefs and friends from the Gitxsan nation were always fun because they would talk about the old days and the shenanigans they got into with my grandparents.  There didn’t seem to be a type of person that didn’t visit that table, even some of the hippies (as Grandpa so lovingly referred to them) often sat around the table.  My Grandpa was known for making his opinions obvious and he thought hippies were weird but still had a great deal of respect and got along with most of them.  One always knew the goings’on by stopping in at the Telegraph Trail Ranch.
While some conversations were regular gossip, most conversations were about the government.  I remember Grandpa Marty slamming his fist on the table several times using words like “sonofabitch” and “crooked-ass”.   The word, ‘politician’ was always preceded by ‘dirty’.  He was usually upset by decisions the government had made and the lack of anything getting done about it.  I used to wonder how all these injustices my Grandpa talked about were possible.  How can the decision makers get away with it?  It was obvious that he felt helpless, that little could be done, government was all powerful and they just don’t care about the little guy and the farmer seemed be worth less than ‘the little guy’.  You can be damned sure he kept on top of issues and consistently shared his thoughts about each of them with whoever graced his table. He was salt of the earth and even when talking about the government, he still had a smile on his face.  He never realized for one second that he was an active citizen who was affecting change in his region.  He kept his spot on the regional district for many years, and while he berated all the politicians in the world, he was one.
The apple surely didn’t fall far from the tree as my father’s table hears very similar conversations.  My father, Gene, is a very tall, Irish-looking man who made his mark in the world as one of the finest rodeo stock contractors on the planet.  He worked for 40+ years as a logger and often had to work in logging camps away from us.  It was the price you paid for living in the north but the reward of living here made the price worthwhile.  I have always been proud of my Dad for standing up the way he does.  Sometimes he goes against the grain to fight for what he knows to be right.  He protested the logging of the headwaters of the Kispiox River stating that 45 days of logging wasn't worth destroying our river.  He had to fight against his own livelihood, his source of employment and lost a few friends in the mix.  But after decades of collaborating with other Valley folks, fights in the New Town Pub, meetings, death threats and legal threats, that place is now protected under the Swan Lake Wilderness Area and our river is healthy.

This story was not only our story to tell, most of the families in the area lived a similar life.  It didn’t matter if you lived in town, the villages or in the valleys, life in the north was tough and forged a hardy breed of people that seem to have a zest for life.  There’s a strong sense of culture in the north that guides us to take matters into our own hands and not to rely on others to protect our interests.  We have an 85% unemployment rate and yet people aren't willing to sell our salmon, wilderness and water quality for a few jobs.  People seem to understand that the bust always lasts longer than the boom and it's the natural landscape that sustains us through the long busts.

There has always been conflict in this place, in any place really.  We want to approach the present and future issues with the knowledge of the past but without the baggage.  We are connected to each other through the understanding of enduring long winters together and by the mighty Skeena River and its tributaries that run through our communities carrying bountiful salmon stocks.  We want to celebrate the fact that it’s a messy process of working things out and dive into the goop knowing that we will be better for it in the end.  Much of this work is being done by individuals at the community level, not by institutions or government. If you were born with roots in this soil or have come to replant yourself here, there’s one thing that anyone who lives in the north understands – you mess with our salmon, our people or our land and you’ll get a folk storm crashing down on you so fast that you won’t know what hit you!

It all boils down to roots.  We don't get another place with 110 years of history, the First Nations only have 1 traditional territory.  This is all we have and we will fight for as if our very lives depend on it because in reality...they do.

Sunday, 28 August 2011

Heart of the Valley - Prelude

Kispiox Valley is a community with heart!  Not only do we live in the most beautiful place in the world, we have the greatest people.  Where else can you go to the community hall with blankets, a bag of your own popcorn and pillows to sprawl about on the floor to watch a movie with dozens of friends and neighbours?  I would like to add that the movie is preceded by a gourmet meal prepared by a local volunteer chef and food donated by the local farmers and residents.  The Prime Minister would be lucky to be served such a meal.
There's also the other random events like the Holly Artzen and Kevin Wright concert that was complimented by more donated food in the order of chocolate delights that came in all sorts of arrangements including a chocolate fountain.  Where else in the world can you go where Rachelle vanZanten and Roy Henry Vickers happen to be in the audience and jump on stage to jam for a few songs?  It's a little piece of heaven and I don't mean the chocolate cake.

As the 2011 steelhead fishing season is newly upon us, I am already anxiously awaiting its end when residents will again have time on their hands to attend community events.  There is one event, however, that will be certain to sell out right smack dab in the middle of the fishing season.  Impossible you might think but this very event sold out last year.  The 2nd annual Heart of the Valley Fundraiser is sure to pack the house with people seeking exquisite food, heart-felt & compelling presentations by a person of local fame, fine wine and an opportunity to bid on items in a fundraising auction with the world champion auctioneer himself, Keith Dinwoodie.  Last year, this little valley of gumboots, flat tires and plaid earned $20,000 for the community association to pay off our community hall renovation with such an event.

If you want to be a part of a community with a heart so big it starts to bulge into Smithers and Terrace then I strongly suggest you be a volunteer for this fundraiser.  The first meeting will be September 7th, 7pm at the Kispiox Valley Community Hall.