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.