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Road Kill

Thu, 10 Jan 2008

New highway blocked by protesting “Raccoons”
The barricade at the end of the road is decorated with freshly-planted poinsettias in a mound of earth. Yellow plastic sunflowers, two graffitied TV sets and an oversize truck tire line a meter-wide trench just past the pavement’s end. They mark the boundary between the city and a protest camp occupied by a new generation of Canadian environmental protestors: the Raccoons.

The Raccoons are a ragtag mob of irregulars holding back a major highway interchange project designed to service Bear Mountain, a sprawling golf resort in Langford, just west of Victoria, B.C. A few dozen dumpster-diving, trash-talking, anti-authoritarians with a passion for undisturbed natural places have built a camp in the path of the new highway. The proposed interchange cuts through a pocket of forest packed with natural and cultural rarities: a sacred First Nations cave, a seasonal pond, garry oak meadows, arbutus bluffs, red-legged frogs and chocolate lilies.

Right now the Bear Mountain Tree Sit looks like a gloomy, swampy hobo camp, dotted with tents, tree forts at dizzying heights overhead, and a giant teepee covered with tarps. “A tarpee,” notes one of the campers.

“This is the only example of eco-anarchist action in Canada right now,” says Ingmar Lee, a Victoria environmentalist and camp supporter. “This is the grassroots, and it’s a totally different kind of protest.” Hundreds of people in the community directly support the camp with donations of food, camping gear, and funds for legal defense.

Almost all the Raccoons are under 25, and some are veterans of the Cathedral Grove treesit protest, which lasted two years and ultimately defeated a B.C. Parks plan to cut down giant trees to build a parking lot. Here, the first platform went up in April. Five more followed, and they are staffed 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

Kicking the protest camp off public property is a sticky legal issue, and so far no one has moved to start a court case. But Stewart Young, the gung-ho pro-development mayor of Langford, is ramping up his criticism. The mayor’s rumblings peaked with Young accusing the campers of poaching deer and rabbits at the site.

Young said bylaw officers found a deer carcass near the camp in the woods. “We’ve respected their right to protest, but killing deer and rabbits is absolutely disgusting,” Young told the Goldstream News Gazette in December. The city directed the RCMP and conservation officers to investigate and lay charges if they find out who is responsible. No one has been charged.

Two neighbors who live adjacent to the forest said it’s not the campers who are killing animals. “There’s been poaching in this area for decades,” said an elderly neighbor on Goldstream Avenue who declined to give his name.

“We’ve called the conservation officers about deer carcasses a couple times a year ever since I’ve lived here,” said Ron Rayner, a long-time resident who lives just north of the camp and the TransCanada Highway. “It’s an ongoing problem.”

Langford resident Bob Partridge is “skeptical” about the mayor’s claims. He writes, “[J]ust now, as construction is supposed to begin on the Spencer Road Interchange, the protesters/activists who have previously been requesting donations of whole grains, have apparently suddenly become carnivores, slaughtering innocent animals in the woods of Langford?”

“Are we certain they are also not sleeping on duvets stuffed with spotted owl feathers?” Partridge asked sarcastically.

Some of the campers admit they eat deer, rabbits and even raccoons – but they insist they are not hunting . The meat is road kill collected from the TransCanada Highway, one tree sitter told A Channel News. Another pointed out the hypocrisy of building a highway that will mangle more animals, while simultaneously trying to cast the environmentalists as bunny killers. A third wondered aloud if Stewart Young was vegan.

RCMP and bylaw enforcement officers tell us the Raccoons are “guests of the city of Langford,” and they even allow them to have a campfire without a permit. Back in April, Young huffed to reporters, “They are on provincial land right now and it’s going to be a year or so before we get to the point of having to go there, so they can sit there as long as they want.” The protestors took him at his word and set up a kitchen, where they cook raccoon stew, venison steaks, and bunny burgers.

No doubt the tree sit gives Young a royal pain in the ass, but the blustery mayor has bigger fish to fry. Langford City Council, in a “special” meeting convened two days after Christmas, made the unusual move of adopting two new bylaws, rather than just giving them first reading. One bylaw authorizes borrowing $25 million to build the interchange, while the second exempts the process from the usual counter-petition process, which normally would give citizens the right to challenge a decision.

The community’s response is a roar of outrage. Many residents of Langford, it seems, are more irate about the apparent abuse of process than about the imminent loss of green space, wetlands, and rare species. Dozens of volunteers are joining forces to canvass the city with a (non-binding) petition to reject the bylaws.

Steven Hurdle of Langford is organizing the petition drive. “While Langford may have found a legal loophole in declaring the interchange a ‘Local Service Area’ to let them avoid the referendum, we can still win the political war,” he writes. “Langford council might find this an albatross that’s unexpectedly hanging around their neck as this issue drags on.”

Back at the camp, tree sitters and visitors are critiquing the City of Langford’s annual levee tour. Every New Year’s, politicos across the region open up their offices to the public, with free booze and food for all.

Well, not quite all. “They only had bag lunches for like 25 people,” one complains. “I got there at the end and there was no more food. So I took all the tea bags that were left.”

Another camper pipes up, “That punch was weak.”

“Yeah, the punch was watered down, so we had to drink more of it to get a buzz.”

“Yeah, that’s why we brought our own cups. We did it up proper with the cups.”

“We asked if we could take their poinsettias with us, but they said no. ”

Laughter. “We kept asking and we wouldn’t leave. Then after a while, they gave us the poinsettias just so we would leave.”

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Why My Dad Killed Himself

Tue, 27 Nov 2007

Last Thursday night, right after Thanksgiving dinner, my father poured a glass of wine for his wife Karen and gave her a kiss. Then he went out, as he often did, to sit on the pier and enjoy the city lights reflecting on the ocean.

Friday morning, after looking all over the house for him, Karen found my father in the garage, hanging by his neck from the rafters.

He did not leave a note. The family is in shock. They can’t understand why a healthy, fit man who had everything would commit suicide.

At age 63, my father spent the better part of his days on his sailboat, tooling around the harbor, racing other sailors, and coaching disabled kids. He had a comfortable retirement income while his much younger wife worked part-time. They were happy.

Dad was famous — briefly and locally — thirty years ago as an Olympic athlete. In the past decade, he won the world sailing championship in his class for three years running. He was applauded for his volunteer service at the local yacht club. His friends and colleagues remember him as a pillar of the community, a champion, and a highly intelligent, educated man who didn’t mind hanging out with the common people.

Family secrets

I remember my father as a cruel and emotionally disturbed man who dealt out pain and punishment to his wife and children whenever it suited him. He started with me before I was old enough to talk. When I was seven years old, I made a sassy remark and he knocked me down, grabbed me by the hair and pounded my head against the floor until I passed out. It wasn’t the first time he beat me unconscious, nor was it the last.

We never discussed the beatings. Not even when I had a breakdown and tried to commit suicide at age 12. Or when I tried again at age 14. That year, he tried to smack me around one more time. I finally fought back and delivered one hard and fast punch to his solar plexus that doubled him over. That was when my parents decided to hand over custody to the authorities, who determined I would serve an indefinite sentence in a mental hospital.

My parents agreed with the juvenile court that I was delusional, a pathological liar, violent, immoral and incorrigible. That meant everyone could comfortably ignore my accusations of abuse and neglect, and when I raised the issue with counsellors and court workers, they took my statements as more evidence of my illness. Of course, this was the 1970’s, when child abuse was not often recognized as a serious or widespread problem.

I spent my teenage years in a locked ward at a mental institution, while my parents carried on with their lives as respected members of the community, coping bravely with the burden of a sick and demented child.

Multi-generational trauma

Of all those who knew him, I may be the only one who is not surprised at my father’s suicide. The family’s deepest secret is the death of my paternal grandmother when my dad was in his twenties. She was depressed and drinking heavily, and one day my grandfather packed his bags and told her he was leaving her. Soon after, she swallowed a bottle of prescription pain killers and washed them down with a bottle of wine.

When I finally understood the mystery of my grandmother’s death, it struck me that my father might take his life the same way. He, too, was an alcoholic who suffered from depression. Fifteen years ago, in a rare moment of candor, he told me he was tormented by guilt about the way he treated my sister, my mother, and I. Then he changed the subject. It was the second to last time I saw him, and he never mentioned it again.

My father’s drinking habits didn’t raise many eyebrows down in Florida. Every day, he would crack open his first beer before noon and drink steadily until he stumbled into bed at midnight. But there was nothing unusual about that. Sailors love their grog, and the yacht club was known for its weekly keg parties and prodigious boozing.

The last time I saw my father was September 15, 1999. He picked me up in Vancouver and we drove up to Whistler. We sat on the patio in the late summer sun, ordered burgers and beers and talked about nothing. He stared in puzzlement at the massive hotels, construction crews, traffic jams, raw earth and fresh asphalt, trying to reconcile this scene with his memories of a rustic little village tucked away in the wilderness. The pub’s speakers pumped out Welcome to the Boomtown.

I made my peace with my dad years ago. After the visit to Whistler, he sent me a couple letters, but we never spoke again. With the help of a trauma counsellor, I was able to work through the pain of my childhood and the grief of my father’s rejection.

I spent this past weekend trying to comfort his wife, my mother and my sister. I told them no one could have known what he was planning, since we can’t read minds or predict the future. Even if we could, who has the power to fix someone who is broken?


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Dumb Asses Run Our Province

Thu, 18 Oct 2007


The BC Legislative Assembly (“The Ledge”) is a huge gothic fortress where we keep the idiots who make our laws and count our tax money. The Ledge is built on a former Songhees Nation village site in Victoria, the provincial capital, and it’s filled with old-timey crap like some truly hideous murals from your great-granddad’s generation showing the glorious domination of the white man over the naked savages. (Really!)

This week, the Ledge opened the fall session with fresh evidence that our democratic leaders have shit for brains. After years of debate, the assembly voted last spring to get rid of those asinine paintings. But guess what? The murals are still there. So when a high-ranking First Nations leader visits the Ledge, as Tsawwassen Chief Kim Baird did Monday, the bare-breasted slave girls are covered with curtains. Maybe this is a way of showing respect, like hiding the porn mags under the bed when Mom comes to visit. But you can’t stop yourself from pulling them out again as soon as she leaves, can you?

Inside the Ledge, Kim Baird was all agog over the brand-new treaty the province negotiated with the Tsawwassen First Nation to settle their land claim. Outside, a couple hundred indigenous people were royally pissed off. And it wasn’t just the usual rants about treaties extinguishing aboriginal rights, etc, etc. No, this time Vancouver Island native groups are furious that a huge chunk of Gulf Islands fishing territory that has been theirs for thousands of years – and recognized by the Douglas Treaty in 1852 – is being handed over to the Tsawwassen First Nation. Whoops!

The new treaty – which still needs to be approved by the Ledge – pits neighbour against neighbour for the masters’ amusement, but the game is rigged. First Nations participating in the BC Treaty process win cash and prizes, and non-participating nations with overlapping claims lose big-time. The whole stupid mess will soon be winding through BC’s Supreme Court, where the Sencot’en Alliance filed suit against the province in September.

We tried to crash the Visitors Gallery, but it was full and a hundred steely-eyed Commissionaires were patrolling the outer perimeter. One turned us away brusquely as journalists wearing fresh-stamped ID badges skipped past the blue ropes and into the inner sanctum. “But we’re journalists, too!” we insisted. “No, you’re not,” he snorted. “Not unless you have Press Gallery credentials.”

Later Monday, Premier Gordon Campbell scared the hell out of our friend Carolyn K while she was hanging around the side of the Ledge. Gordo suddenly “came sneaking out the back door” with his two bodyguards, startling her. Carolyn notes he didn’t look drunk or coked up, but he is freakishly pale, like an albino or a cave-dwelling lizard. “He’s so white,” she shuddered. “They must put a ton of makeup on him to make him look human on TV. He’s incredibly creepy.”

BC Premier Gordon Campbell was a lot less pale but much more drunk shortly after his arrest in Hawaii for driving under the influence a couple winters ago.

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I’m No Action Hero

Mon, 16 Apr 2007

Photo: Ingmar Lee

I’m standing at the base of the tree leaning back on my harness and peering at the platform sixty feet above. Ingmar is encouraging me to get up there. The press conference is supposed to start in forty-five minutes and we need to get into position. Ingmar’s fully informed about my slightly spastic condition and I can tell he’s not sure if I can still do this. I give him a thumbs up and start up the rope.

Photo: Dan Eastabrook, Goldstream News Gazette

By the time the camera crews arrive, we’re both up on the platform with our feet dangling down. The cameras focus in as Ingmar rappels down the rope. I stay up in the tree. The CH TV guy comes over with a microphone and battery pack and attaches them to the end of the rope. I haul the rope up and clip the mike to my coat collar. The reporter calls her questions up to me and I shout back down at her, forgetting about the mike.

Photo: CH News.

The reporters and cameras finally leave and I’m alone up in the tree. The platform is a pair of four by eight foot plywood sheets reinforced with two by fours. It looks like a raft on the open ocean. Ropes and rigging are everywhere and the white tarps billow in the wind like sails. The plywood planks are not quite level and they creak and sway as I move around.

It’s a two-room platform: one plank is the bedroom, with a tiny tent nailed to it. The other serves as the living room (a folding chair) and kitchen (a camp stove and a pot). The bathroom is a bucket hanging below the tree-sit. Everything is lashed down or clipped in, but things fall overboard anyway: two pens, my lighter, the lid to my thermos.

I’m tied to the tree on a ten-foot leash tethered to my harness that stays on every moment, even when I’m sleeping. The thing wraps itself around my legs every time I turn around and threatens to knock small untethered objects off the platform.

The red webbing is Ingmar’s leash, and I’m yanking on it. Photo: Ingmar Lee

I’m afraid of falling. Everyone is; people are hardwired that way. Even though I have total confidence in the platform and the safety line, that giddy feeling comes and goes, especially when I’m moving around close to the edge or getting ready to descend down the rope.

There’s a constant wind up here and the roar of traffic is louder. Through the trees to the south I can just make out a bare knoll and the entrance to the Langford Cave, a 40-meter-long karst cavity that draws cavers from all over the region.

The Songhees First Nation named this place Spaet Mountain. The city of Langford calls it Skirt Mountain. The developer has re-named it Bear Mountain to go along with the marketing of their resort and property sales.

A pileated woodpecker flies into the grove of dead snags next to the platform and lands on a trunk at eye level. It hammers away at the wood for a few moments and then swoops over the trail and up a rotten stump. A hummingbird zips by, flashing green. The forest floor is carpeted with trillium and lilies.

As night falls, the traffic dies down and the frogs start up. The tree sways slightly in the wind and the thrushes sing their evening songs. I crawl into the tiny tent and curl up in my sleeping bag, tugging at the tether every time I turn over. Waking up in the middle of the night, I hear an owl hooting.

Photo: Chris Cook

Thursday morning I wake up with the sun shining through the trees and a winter wren scolding me nearby. I crawl out of my cocoon, bleary-eyed, and go through the routine of making a pot of tea, taking a shit in the bucket, rolling a cigarette and surveying the forest. I feel wonderful.

People come to visit: local supporters, more journalists, and curious neighbours. Food donations are piling up under a tarp Ingmar tied up for a base camp. The food has to be dealt with because there are raccoons (and possibly bears) in the area, so I haul it up to the platform and make a space in a gear bag for cans of soup, noodles, oatmeal, and cookies.

Cheryl Bryce, the lands manager for the Songhees First Nation, stops by to lend her support and videotape the tree-sit. She’s disturbed that some members of the band council are supporting the development rather than voting to protect the environmental values of their traditional territory. I come down the rope and we chat for a half an hour. </p

The clouds gather and an icy wind picks up. I go to bed early, snuggled down in the bottom of the sleeping bag with an extra fleece blanket.

Friday dawns with threatening clouds. Then a threatening little man with a mustache: the lands manager for the Provincial Capital Commission. He’s been sent to determine whether I’m on PCC land, and to grumble at me about the commission’s liability if someone gets hurt and sues them. I promise I won’t hurt anybody and I won’t sue anybody. He suggests if I’m trespassing, he may get the police involved. I invite him to the salmon barbecue scheduled for later tonight. He studies me for a minute without responding and then marches off into the forest with his maps in hand.

I don’t know if he’ll call the police, but even if they show up, they won’t be able to arrest me because I’m sixty feet up in a tree. The RCMP in Vancouver has a special climbing team for these kind of situations, but it takes a few days to assemble. I contemplate the legal implications of criminal trespass charges and court injunctions.

Later: I’m bored, so I use my borrowed cell phone to call the developers’ head office. Bear Mountain Resort and Bear Mountain Properties are the forces behind this project and I figure it’s only polite to introduce myself. But it seems no one is available on this Friday afternoon, not even a receptionist, so I leave a cheery message in the general mailbox describing the wildlife in the area and inviting them all to the salmon barbecue.

Bear Mountain development. Photo: Google Earth

The rain holds off, miraculously. At dinnertime, three dozen tree-huggers are gathered around a small campfire devouring barbecued salmon, roasted wieners, mashed potatoes, and bags of fruit and cookies. Mary Vickers, a Heiltsuk Nation woman from Bella Bella, provided the salmon, and she gets us all to join hands while she says a prayer to the spirits and the ancestors to bless our work here. Ingmar stands up on a stump and lays out the plan: seven people are needed to take charge of the tree-sit for one day a week. Each person would either sit in the tree for twenty-four hours or find another person to do it. He’ll provide the training.

By Saturday, I’m thoroughly weary of the tiny platform, the harness, and the shit bucket. My legs and arms are shaky from climbing up and down the rope. I’m longing for a hot shower and a soft bed. But still I sit for hours mesmerized, staring out into the forest, listening to the birds, and feeling my senses expand to the limit of hearing and vision.

On Sunday morning, the relief shift arrives. Keith lives nearby and he has no idea how to climb a tree, but he’s willing to learn and Ingmar’s willing to teach him. I rappel down for the last time. My man Dan is there to give me a ride home.

Back on the ground. Photo: Chris Cook

I don’t want folks to get the idea that I’m some kind of action hero. I’m retired from all that now. This was just a one-time special event – more of a vacation than an action; more of a cameo than a comeback. I joked with the folks watching me climb that I’m living proof: almost anyone can do this shit. And it’s true – the biggest obstacle is conquering the fear of falling, the fear of failing, the fear of powerlessness. The campaign is just now beginning, but folks are digging in for the long haul. Cheers to the Spaet Mountain defenders!

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First Nations Activist Dies After Release from Jail

Sun, 25 Feb 2007

Harriet Nahanee under arrest at Eagleridge Bluffs in 2006. (Photo: Christopher Grabowski)

In memory of Harriet Nahanee, age 71

A community is in mourning following the death of a great-grandmother who fought to defend aboriginal rights and the environment. Activist Harriet Nahanee died at St. Paul’s Hospital in Vancouver on Saturday, February 24, one month after she was sentenced to fourteen days in jail for protesting the destruction of a wetlands for a highway bypass.

The woman who once said that natives need an “aboriginal Malcolm X” to restore their pride will be sorely missed by many, including her children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren. Nahanee, age 71, was weak from the flu and asthma when BC Supreme Court Justice Brenda Brown ordered her to the Surrey Women’s Pre-Trial Centre in January.

Nahanee was hospitalized with pneumonia a week after her release from jail. Then doctors discovered she had lung cancer. A news release on Sunday, February 25 briefly announced Nahanee’s death from pneumonia and complications.

Fellow activist and great-grandmother Betty Krawczyk, age 78, was among those who attended a prayer vigil for Nahanee Friday night. “Me and Harriet really bonded” at the Eagleridge Bluffs blockade, she told me. “We were the only great-grandmothers there. It was up to us to bring it forward.”

In January. Krawczyk urged Justice Brown to refrain from sending Mrs. Nahanee to jail. “I am very worried about Mrs. Harriet Nahanee,” Krawczyk wrote. “Mrs. Nahanee is not well. She has asthma and is suffering the after effects of a recent bout of flu that has left her very weak.”

On March 5th, Justice Brown will sentence Krawczyk for her own part in the Eagleridge Bluffs protest. Krawczyk expects to be sent to the same Surrey jail as Nahanee.

“Harriet believed Eagleridge Bluffs belonged to the Squamish Nation, and she felt her band – the elected chiefs – were trading the land away for development,” Krawczyk told me by phone from Vancouver. “She wanted the land preserved for her great-grandchildren. She put her life on the line for that.”

Krawczyk reports that Nahanee was “challenging the right of the elected chiefs of the Squamish Nation to negotiate away traditional Squamish Lands off the Squamish Reserve, lands that include Eagleridge Bluffs. This action potentially has serious ramifications for the entire band concerning who has the right to negotiate away traditional Squamish Indian lands,” she wrote in her blog.

Nahanee was born on the Pacheenaht Indian Reserve on Vancouver Island in 1937. Along with the other children on the reserve, she was taken from her parents at age 5 to live at the Ahousaht Residential School. Five years later she and 300 others were transferred to Alberni Residential School. In 1998 she testified about the horrific abuse she and other native children suffered, including beatings, rape, and murder.

According to Lloyd Dolha, Nahanee reported that children were punished for singing their traditional songs and speaking their own language. They were so poorly fed that they were beaten for stealing vegetables from the root cellar. She disclosed that she was sexually abused for four years in the school.

“I didn’t bring it to mind until 1984, when my daughter committed suicide. Then I began to look at myself. Why I was addicted to alcohol? Why I wasn’t a good parent?” When Nahanee visited a psychiatrist she told him, “I think the church and the government did this to us deliberately in order to take the land and resources. It was all about keeping us dysfunctional, to keep us dependent.”

On December 24, 1946, Nahanee witnessed an altercation between Rev. A. E. Caldwell, and a female supervisor at the top of a staircase at the school. They were arguing about a little girl who was running up and down the stairs.

“Mr. Caldwell was always drunk. You could smell the liquor on his breath all the time,” Nahanee recalled.

“He kicked the little girl and she fell down the stairs and died. That’s murder. There were other kids in the infirmary who had their appendix burst. That’s murder. Other children were beaten so badly they died. That’s murder. No one bothered to take them to the hospital.”

“The worst part of it was the loneliness. When you’re a little kid and you can’t reach out to your mom for a hug – it really hurts. It’s a wound for a lifetime,” said Nahanee.

On February 23, the day before Nahanee’s death, the Indigenous Action Movement held a rally and prayer vigil for Harriet. Almost 100 people gathered outside the Supreme Court for a ceremonial walk to St. Paul’s Hospital.

The group prayed with drums and sang the Women Warrior’s Song outside Nahanee’s hospital room to give her support and strength. They brought flowers, cards and a picture of the Larsen Creek Wetlands at Eagleridge Bluffs before they were demolished.

Details about Nahanee’s memorial have not yet been confirmed by her family.

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