Archive for the ‘activist happenings’ Category

Festival culture: Building Pacific community

I’m very proud to work with Pacific Peoples’ Partnership, a local non-profit dedicated to supporting the aspirations of South Pacific islanders and helping build Indigenous linkages across the Pacific. This year, we celebrated our 40th anniversary! To mark the occasion we held our 22nd Pacific Networking Conference and 8th One Wave Festival.

I wrote this article about One Wave Festival for a special edition of Tok Blong Pasifik, our journal of news and views on the Pacific. One Wave is coming up again on Sept. 10-11th, 2016! Stay tuned and follow us on Facebook!

All photos credited to Mark Gauti (see more photos of One Wave at his Facebook page)

warless dancing

Warless getting the crowd worked up!

I’m a big enthusiast of festival culture, which is why I love being part of One Wave: I get to co-create a festival that inspires people to get involved in making change.

I first became acquainted with PPP when I was hired to coordinate the second One Wave Festival six years ago. Since that time, the Festival has seen an incredible array of arts mediums, from slam poetry and storytelling to South and North Pacific dance and drumming, reggae shows, hip hop jams, art exhibitions, participatory art projects, theatre, chalk art, live painting, and traditional carving. It’s been a place for emerging artisans to sell their natural and locally-made products.

We’ve showcased an eclectic mix of artists—traditional and contemporary, professional and emerging, North and South—sharing thought-provoking performances. We’ve opened up space for dialogue about colonial histories, cultural appropriation, social justice, climate change, and our shared oceans. We’ve developed a diverse network of followers and our youth-driven committee has learned much from our mentors, our Executive Director April Ingham foremost among them.

One Wave aims to build Pacific identity and community, nurture changemakers, and engage youth. We utilize the power of the arts to inspire action on shared concerns and issues that affect the peoples of the Pacific because we recognize our communities are interdependent. We do this by creating a celebratory and inclusive atmosphere and modeling a positive vision for change.

What makes this festival unique is that it’s about sharing cultures: honouring diverse voices while creating unity in celebration of what we all share. As visitors and settlers, we have a responsibility to care for the land, the water, and our communities with the leadership of our Indigenous friends and neighbours. PPP and our partners are part of a solidarity movement—one wave—connecting the North and South Pacific.

This was never more clear to me than this year at our 8th annual festival, our largest production yet as we combined it with our Pacific Networking Conference. A major theme was Indigenous cultural resurgence, with inspiring speakers, artists, and filmmakers. A boundary-pushing performance by Anneda Loup and Coast Salish artist Francis Dick showed how artistic collaborations between Indigenous people and settlers can be a powerful community-level approach to reconciliation.

One highlight that really captivated the audience was 14 year old Ta’Kaiya Blaney of the Sliammon Nation and Kalilah Rampanen, of Cree heritage. The girls sung and spoke passionately about climate change and the importance of keeping cultures alive.

This year we were particularly honoured to have the blessing of Elder Joan Morris of the Songhees Nation, in addition to our friends Augie Thomas and the Esquimalt Singers and Dancers who regularly open our main stage as the event is held with gratitude on their territories.

Interactive installations, an arts station, and roaming human-sized puppets invited community members of all ages to be participants rather than simply observers. Centennial Square has become an important venue for One Wave because it’s very open and accessible—it’s a way for PPP to raise our profile with members of the public who wouldn’t have necessarily known about us. Over the years, we’ve engaged thousands of people and also raised our profile in the non-profit community by providing an important platform for social, environmental, and Indigenous organizations and local artisans to connect with the public too. This encourages a needed spirit of cooperation among our interconnected areas of work at a time when limited funding can drive competition.

Through it all, we’ve been committed to a goal of Zero Waste, showing that festivals don’t have to leave a negative environmental footprint. In fact, they are perfect places to model ecological citizenship (while having a blast!)

This festival would not continue to happen without immense contributions from our volunteers, staff, contributing artists, funders, partners, and supporters who keep showing up year after year. I’m so proud of what we’ve achieved, and I’m excited for what we will create together in 2016 and beyond.

volunteer team at VEC

 

 

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Letter of Comment on Kinder Morgan’s Trans Mountain Pipeline Expansion

Flickr: Mark Koltz

Flickr: Mark Koltz

17 August 2015

Attention: Sheri Young, Secretary of the Board

Re: Application for the Trans Mountain Expansion Project (OH-001-2014) Letter of Comment

Dear Ms. Young,

I have lived in BC for 20 years. I chose to move to Victoria BC 8 years ago because of its beauty and the quality of life here, and I am an active user of Vancouver Island beaches and coastal areas.

I’m very concerned about the increase in shipping traffic and risk of an oil spill that would be caused by this pipeline expansion; in particular, impacts to water quality, fish populations, marine mammals, migratory birds, and the sensitive Coastal Bluff ecosystems of Victoria. Trans Mountain has acknowledged in its application that the increase in tanker traffic would have significant sensory disturbance effects on resident killer whales—an endangered species whose critical habitat includes the area that would be affected by a spill. In my region, there are 1,147km of marine shoreline directly along the proposed shipping route, and over 1,200 species that could be impacted.[1] A spill could have devastating effects on this region’s economy, and the movement of toxic compounds from bitumen through local foodwebs and ecosystems would put my community’s health at risk. It became very clear in April 2015, with the spill of bunker fuel from the MV Marathassa in English Bay, that the current capacity for response to even minor oil spills along BC’s coast is woefully inadequate.

We know Kinder Morgan believes there are positive effects of oil spills and would financially profit from a spill. Its subsidiary Trans Mountain Pipeline owns 50.9% of the Western Canadian Marine Response Corporation, the corporation that would respond to a spill in BC and benefit from related business and revenue.[2] In its application, Kinder Morgan stated:

Marine spills can have both positive and negative effects on local and regional economies over the short- and long-term. Spill response and clean-up creates business and employment opportunities for affected communities, regions, and clean-up service providers, particularly in those communities where spill response equipment is, or would be, staged (Section 5.6.1.1).[3]

Given the City of Burnaby’s opposition to Kinder Morgan’s survey work and test drilling on Burnaby Mountain, it appears the community itself disagrees with Kinder Morgan’s analysis of what would be good for them. Kinder Morgan has already demonstrated how it will respond to the concerns of affected communities. It has used the courts to overrule this opposition, filing a $5.6 million SLAPP suit against Burnaby citizens for speaking out against it.

We cannot expect this Texas-based multinational firm to care about the interests of communities. That’s why your job exists: to protect and serve the interests of Canadians.

Instead, the NEB has shown itself to be acting in the interest of Kinder Morgan and unable to assess the public interest. It appears that, for all intents and purposes, the decision has already been made. If it is the Board’s position that this is untrue, perhaps you might review your own actions and decisions in the process thus far, and consider whether, as reasonable independent citizens, you would come to the same conclusion as myself and others. Since I am convinced that regardless of whether I continue to restrict my comments to the “12 approved issues,” it will not make a difference to the final decision, I will use this opportunity to bear witness to these concerns on the public record.

There are many people who would be directly affected by this proposed pipeline expansion that were barred from having a chance to comment in the first place when their applications were rejected. Over 900 people and groups had their applications downgraded or rejected. Furthermore, the Board failed to provide adequate funding to facilitate the meaningful participation of parties that were approved.

The Board should not have the power to decide in advance who is directly affected “enough” to listen to. There are implications for the lives of all who live directly in the path of the proposed pipeline and tanker route, and all those who will be affected by its broader long term consequences for the climate and the health of our environment and economy. In a legitimate public process, all people who wish to comment on any impacts they are concerned about should have the right to be included. If they are not included, then the Board is unable to properly fulfill its self-stated function of serving the public and determining what projects are truly in the public interest.

The Board is also unable to provide a full and fair review because it has chosen to exclude the effects of the upstream and downstream activities of tar sands exploitation. The NEB does not consider that such effects, “including those of GHG emissions, are relevant.”[4] This is ironic since the NEB considers upstream and downstream economic benefits to be relevant. I don’t have to be a climate expert to know these social and environmental effects are highly relevant to the proposed project and to my community. The Board should be ashamed at its ludicrous error in judgment on this matter—or, perhaps more accurately, its intentional disregard for legitimate concerns of the public. The people, not the Board, should have the power to decide what issues matter to this decision.

Furthermore, the unexplained decision to allow Kinder Morgan to evade oral cross-examination serves Kinder Morgan’s interests. This is a critical part of oil pipeline hearings that is designed to increase the accountability of the Proponent in responding to important questions from the public. Canada’s Department of Justice has pointed out to the Board that “Canada’s position is that cross-examination is necessary to ensure a proper evidentiary record” and that evidence given without cross-examination should be rejected.

The Board stated that elimination of cross-examination could be addressed through written Information Requests from Intervenors. However, the Board is clearly not compelling Kinder Morgan to answer these important questions. When Kinder Morgan was unwilling to address approximately 2000 questions from Intervenors—including 80 questions from the Province of BC—the Board endorsed this decision, rejecting 95% of the questions. The Province stated that this failure to provide requested evidence “denies the Board, the Province and other Intervenors access to the information required to fully understand the risk posed by the Project, how Trans Mountain proposes to mitigate such risk and Trans Mountain’s ability to effectively respond to a spill related to the Project.”[5]

The Province also took issue with Kinder Morgan’s redactions to its emergency response plan, which were made without sufficient justification. The Board responded by endorsing Kinder Morgan’s decision to keep these details secret.[6] The Board has essentially said that it, and the public, do not need to know the full details of Trans Mountain’s emergency response plan in order for it to be approved.

This represents a new level of hubris and arrogant disregard by the NEB for the role of a democratically-elected government in representing its citizens. It puts citizens at risk, and undermines the Board’s basic credibility in the eyes of the public.

This lack of transparency and withholding of information also affects the ability of groups to provide free, prior and informed consent. Twelve First Nations whose unceded territories would be affected by the project have questioned the constitutionality of the approach, stating that the NEB and the Crown have failed in their duty to adequately consult First Nations. As a result, they argue that the NEB’s assessment “will fail to fully consider or assess potential adverse impacts on Aboriginal title, rights, including Treaty rights or interests and will not, therefore, provide the Crown with the information it requires.”[7]

In accordance with its own responsibility and inherent jurisdiction and laws, which exist independently of, and predate the assertion of sovereignty by Canada, the Tsleil-Waututh First Nation conducted a thorough review of the project. Because the project fails the first lens test of their Stewardship Policy, the Nation does not consent to the project, will not grant Kinder Morgan the legal authority to proceed in its territory, and will “take all lawful means necessary to ensure that Tsleil-Waututh’s decision in relation to the TMEX Proposal is recognized, respected, and enforced.”[8] An NEB decision in favour of the project would ignore the interests and authority of the First Peoples of this land.

With regard to the many other problems with this process, I refer to and concur with the comments of former BC Hydro CEO Marc Eliesen[9] and former president and CEO of ICBC Robyn Allan[10] in their letters of withdrawal as Intervenors. A few of the many instances they found in which the restricted scope of review was inappropriate included:

  • Not requesting assistance from Interveners to determine the issues to be included in the review, and denying their requests to expand the list of issues
  • Not holding Trans Mountain accountable for a known lack of source verification, references, or full disclosure in its studies
  • Restricting review to the applied-for pipeline capacity, not what it is designed to carry—thus allowing Kinder Morgan to receive future NEB approval to increase throughput by nearly 50% without the same level of review
  • Restricting assessment of marine shipping activities to 12 nautical miles offshore
  • Excluding from review the impact and risk of the existing 60-year old legacy line, terminals and storage tanks

Eliesen concluded that the Board is “engaged in a public deception” and that “this Board has a predetermined course of action to recommend approval of the Project and a strong bias in favour of the Proponent. In effect, this so-called public hearing process has become a farce, and this Board a truly industry captured regulator.”

In the past 3 weeks, the NEB’s actions have only served to reinforce public perceptions that it serves the interests of Kinder Morgan, not the public. On July 31st, 2015, Steven Kelly was appointed as a full-time NEB board member. In 2013, Mr. Kelly authored and submitted the 203-page Kinder Morgan report to the NEB providing an economic justification for the pipeline expansion.[11] The fact that Mr. Kelly will soon sit in a position of power in close proximity to those who will make the final ruling on this project is a major conflict of interest. Unfortunately it also seems to be par for the course for the NEB: the majority of NEB board members are now oil industry professionals.

The NEB has also shown disregard for the process by making multiple last minute changes to the deadline for commenters, and finally setting the deadline to be just 6 days after it released its Draft Conditions. This does not give commenters sufficient time to thoroughly review and provide feedback on the conditions, and certainly does not give Kinder Morgan enough time to meaningfully review and respond to the hundreds of Commenter letters—a mere 48 hours.

At least 35 Commenters and Intervenors have withdrawn from the process due to some of the same concerns I have mentioned.[12] It is clear that the NEB has already lost its credibility in the eyes of the public.

Under no circumstances should the Board approve Kinder Morgan’s Trans Mountain pipeline expansion, because it no longer has a social license to make a legitimate decision on this matter. It has failed in its key function of providing an independent, fair and thorough review. It has shown that it is completely inadequate to assess the health and safety risks of this proposed pipeline. This process is based on incomplete information and is not in the public interest. My participation in this process should not be considered as my endorsement of it.

I recommend that the entire process be put on hold, and I call on the Province of British Columbia to initiate its own environmental assessment of the process. In the meantime, I urge the NEB to review its own statements as to why it exists:

In order for the Board to effectively serve the Canadian public, we know they need to have confidence in the regulatory regime…We are here to serve the Public. We want to make certain that Canadians know they have a regulator they can rely on, because the Canadian Public interest is at the heart of everything we do.[13]

With all due respect, please do not forget who you really work for.

Sincerely,

Kat Zimmer

[1] https://docs.neb-one.gc.ca/ll-eng/llisapi.dll/fetch/2000/90464/90552/548311/956726/2392873/2450810/2478756/2797364/Letter_of_Comment_-_A4R1T4.pdf?nodeid=2796675&vernum=-2

[2] https://docs.neb-one.gc.ca/ll-eng/llisapi.dll/fetch/2000/90464/90552/548311/956726/2392873/2451003/2478117/B40-1_-_Trans_Mountain_Response_to_Allan_R_IR_No._1_-_A3X5V9.pdf?nodeid=2480550&vernum=-2

[3] https://docs.neb-one.gc.ca/ll-eng/llisapi.dll/fetch/2000/90464/90552/548311/956726/2392873/2451003/2393783/V8A_5.5.2_F5.5.2_TO_5.6.2.2_MAR_TRANS_ASSESS_-_A3S5Q3.pdf?nodeid=2393564&vernum=-2

[4] https://docs.neb-one.gc.ca/ll-eng/llisapi.dll/fetch/2000/90464/90552/548311/956726/2392873/2449981/2487600/A63-1_-_Ruling_No._25_-_A3Z5I4.pdf?nodeid=2487522&vernum=-2

[5] https://docs.neb-one.gc.ca/ll-eng/llisapi.dll/fetch/2000/90464/90552/548311/956726/2392873/2449925/2451398/2485159/C289-3-2_-_Province_of_BC_Notice_of_Motion_%231_-_A3Y8R3.pdf?nodeid=2484869&vernum=-2

[6] https://docs.neb-one.gc.ca/ll-eng/llisapi.dll/fetch/2000/90464/90552/548311/956726/2392873/2449981/2586924/A129-1_-_Ruling_No._50_-_A4G5I9.pdf?nodeid=2586142&vernum=1

[7] http://twnsacredtrust.ca/wp-content/uploads/2014/11/2014-11-28-FN-Open-Let-Rickford.pdf

[8] http://twnsacredtrust.ca/wp-content/uploads/2015/05/2015-05-21-TWN-BCR-re-TMEX.pdf

[9] https://docs.neb-one.gc.ca/ll-eng/llisapi.dll/fetch/2000/90464/90552/548311/956726/2392873/2449925/2451033/2543157/C118-6-1_-_Marc_Eliesen_Letter_of_Withdrawal_-_A4E1Q6.pdf?nodeid=2543843&vernum=-2

[10] https://docs.neb-one.gc.ca/ll-eng/llisapi.dll?func=ll&objId=2776410&objAction=browse&viewType=1

[11] https://docs.neb-one.gc.ca/ll-eng/llisapi.dll/fetch/2000/90464/90552/548311/956726/2392873/2451003/2385938/B1-5_-_V2_4of4_PROJ_OVERVIEW_-_A3S0R1.pdf?nodeid=2392869&vernum=-2

[12] https://docs.neb-one.gc.ca/ll-eng/llisapi.dll/fetch/2000/90464/90552/548311/956726/2392873/2449925/2452085/2810545/C387-2-1_-_Withdrawal_Letter_-_A4S1L8.pdf?nodeid=2810924&vernum=-2

[13] https://www.neb-one.gc.ca/bts/index-eng.html

Protecting the old, for the young

It’s not often enough that we hear about happy endings when it comes to old-growth forest campaigning. That’s why I just have to share my excitement that the Forest Trust for the Children of Cortes Island has been formed to purchase Island Timberland forest land holdings on Cortes Island and protect it in perpetuity for the children of Cortes. Here’s a great video about the project and an article my partner and I wrote to raise awareness about the campaign back in 2012. Keep up to date on Cortes forest campaigning with WildStands on Facebook.

 

Cortes Island: a West Coast Wildland Under Threat

By Marc deMontigny and Kat Zimmer

Published in The Martlet, March 2012

We recently had the great fortune of touring Cortes Island’s breathtaking stands of old growth forest. The island is truly one of the most remarkable wild places on the West Coast. Part of the last 1% of original Coastal Douglas Fir zone in the endangered “Dry Maritime” forests along BC’s southern coast, its majestic stands are in danger of being clear-cut on an industrial scale.

Island Timberlands (IT) recently announced they would begin logging their privately owned parcels, which consist of 2700 acres bisecting the island. According to WildStands, an alliance of concerned residents, these lands hold the deepest soils, the biggest trees, and the island’s central water recharge area. They are also home to 10 species listed as threatened, endangered, or of special concern, including the great blue heron and the northern pygmy owl. The same number of ecological communities are also in jeopardy.

Due to parasitic mistletoe on many of the old trees, they are no longer “ripe for the picking” in IT’s eyes, and will not make for good timber. However, they would likely be cut down regardless for ease of working conditions. This would threaten the habitat of several species of birds and other animals. The tape marking the cut line was well within wetlands in several spots, posing a severe risk to these sensitive ecosystems.

Our guides included three individuals who had been involved in the forestry industry for many years. One told us about a single parcel of land in the Maritimes that has been logged selectively and sustainably by his family for several generations.

The perspective of our guides was highly balanced: they explained that many in the community are not against logging in the area. They just want to ensure the integrity of the ecosystem and the watershed is not threatened when trees are harvested from an area. A balance must be maintained so that trees can continue to be harvested sustainably long into the future. Old growth stands provide habitat for threatened species, support for new generations of trees, and carbon capture.

The plans have been stalled by the community of 1,000 year-round residents, who have been battling industrial scale logging on the island for two decades. In the face of an outpouring of resistance, IT has postponed the logging until at least September. Though the company has agreed to further discussions with the community, there is no guarantee that it will adapt its plans. There is a chance, however, that IT might consider selling the land in the future.

If it does, the community plans to be ready. A Forest Trust has been formed to purchase IT holdings, which would provide the opportunity for youth to practice stewardship of forest lands and watersheds. A grassroots organization comprised of a large portion of island residents is seeking community tenure, ideally in collaboration with the Klahoose First Nation, over the forest reserve lands for the creation of an Ecosystem-Based Community Forest. This would provide long-term stability, rather than an explosion of jobs followed by high unemployment and environmental degradation long after IT is gone.

Their success in slowing the process is due in part to a support network that extends far beyond the island to people who have been touched by the beauty of Cortes. In January, a petition with over 6,200 signatures was hand delivered to the offices of IT and its parent company, Brookfield Asset Management, in seven cities around the world. If the name Brookfield sounds familiar, it’s because this is the same company that owns Zucotti Park in New York, from which Occupy Wall Street was evicted. Occupy London delivered the petition to Brookfield’s UK office, an interesting example of how the Occupy movement continues to have an impact on movements for change.

Under Brookfield, a number of BC mills have been closed, and the rates of timber harvest and export of raw logs to China have sharply increased. Brookfield Infrastructure Partners, which holds IT, avoids certain Canadian taxes and civil liabilities by keeping its headquarters in the Bahamas. Brookfield’s directors are also involved in run-of-river energy projects in BC, tar sands development, and the building of a massive private prison in Surrey for the BC government.

BC’s Auditor General John Doyle recently released a report showing that the government is badly mismanaging our forests, lacking reliable information on the state of BC forests and failing to replant trees at an adequate rate. The truth is that even if the Cortes campaign is successful, issues like this will continue to appear. We need stronger private managed forest land regulations in BC, and structural change that puts future generations and our critically important ecosystems first.

How can you support the Cortes Island community?

·      Sign the WildStands petition, send a letter, and pledge your support to the Cortes Forest Trust Project at wildstands.org

·      Sign the Ancient Forest Alliance’s petition to protect old-growth forests and ban raw log exports at: http://www.AncientForestPetition.com

Village culture in Portland and beyond

Portland

I just love that my research is the kind that necessitates a road trip to Portland. I’d take any excuse to visit, really. But although Portland carries a particular allure in the Pacific Northwest psyche, there are few tangible tourist attractions. The most interesting stuff going on in Portland is the kind of stuff you need to know someone in order to find out about. So that’s what I did.

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Foster Village (straw bale house on the left)

With the Couchsurfing network, tapping into that community seemed almost effortless. The moment I arrived, my host, Christy, took me to a fundraiser at Foster Village, an 11-person urban intentional community in the Foster neighbourhood of Southeast Portland. There are two century-old houses, one natural strawbale house, and two tiny homes on two adjacent lots. The lots have been combined into one big shared garden, and the side doors of the original houses have been reworked as the front doors facing the garden. This public place has been transformed from pavement into a diverse, multistory forest garden with fruit trees, berries, medicinal herbs, other perennials, and veggies. There’s a happy flock of egg-laying ducks and a huge covered bike zone. The houses are common space, so all residents have access to the craft room, the workshop, the deep freeze, the soaker tub, and all the other perks of a big home, while keeping their individual footprints very small. The main bathrooms have even been remodeled with composting toilets.

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Auctioning baby chicks at Foster Village

The fundraiser was to support the community’s long-term aspirations for common ownership of all three homes. It was a “top dollar” auction: everyone could only bid a dollar at a time. Stacks of dollar bills would pile up as people competed to win each item by being the last person to throw a dollar on the table. It’s an ingenious idea for a fundraiser when you have a few key ingredients: loud and costumed auctioneers, a human bank machine with an endless supply of dollar bills, a close and supportive community beyond the official residents, and really fantastic auction items. Here’s where the fruits of Portland are sweetest: everyone is a maker. The auction was a showcase of homebaked pie, fruit liqueurs and specialty preserves from the Foster Village garden, mead and raw honey, and homemade gift certificates for massages, house cleaning, landscaping, garden design, and hand-knit mittens, all offered by friends of the village. Someone even brought two baby chicks to auction off! But hands-down, the hottest competition was for the Lite Brite. It was definitely a successful fundraiser: I had loads of fun drinking $1 drinks and meeting the community, and even though I didn’t walk away with any wins, I sure dropped a lot of dollar bills.

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Classic Lite Brite, the top auction item of the night

That sense of inclusive, engaged community was present at Christy’s house too. Her many roommates included Trip, a filmmaker and producer of SPOIL – a eco-documentary about the Great Bear Rainforest. Trip is working on starting a new cooperative homestead in the countryside outside of Portland. And there was Iain, a member of Iraq Veterans Against the War, who is facilitating weekly gatherings to share personal defense skills. Christy runs a forest preschool where the children are outside nearly all the time. Except on very rare snow days, one of which I happened to experience. It was like a snow day in Victoria – there isn’t really any snow on the ground, but the entire city shuts down.

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The ducks of Foster Village

The Willamette Valley

Needless to say, it’s a funny time of year to be visiting permaculture sites. But the season hasn’t fazed me. My first stop was in Forest Grove, where Fine Arts Professor Terry O’Day gave me a tour Pacific University’s B-Street Project. I first read about the project a few years ago, so it was neat to finally see it in person. Terry teaches permaculture at the university with focus on arts and design, and B-Street was developed as a 3-acre permaculture demonstration site. Students in a variety of programs use the site for experiential and community-based learning. Over time, the site has transitioned towards organic food production, supplying the campus dining hall. It also serves as an education and experimentation site for a local migrant women’s group aiming to generate sustainable livelihoods through food production. A local charter school started by Terry brings the children there regularly, where they learn how to weave living shelters with willow shoots.

2014-11-15 13.29.38

The Willamette Valley is one of the nation’s leading regions for local and organic agriculture. I’ve been told that it’s where the modern organic food movement really began to take hold. So it’s no wonder there are a number of Oregon universities integrating permaculture into education. Heading south to Corvallis, I visited Andrew Millison, a permaculture designer and teacher at Oregon State University. Andrew took me for a walk around his neighbourhood. Virtually every yard had been transformed into a big garden. He’s been working on a design with a new cohousing development down the block, and they are now in the early stages of implementation. The pathways between the front doors are lined with bamboo and edible perennials. Across the nearby floodplain grows a line of willows, which will eventually be woven together into a living bridge for traversing during the wet months.

Down the street, we landed at a front yard berry maze Andrew had helped to construct. The maze was at street level, with deep ditches for water recharge surrounding the pathways. Andrew invited me to try finding my way to the bamboo island in the middle. Even in November, it was really hard! I suspect it would take much longer if one were getting distracted by eating fresh berries along the way. These fanciful yet functional designs are a good reminder that getting prepared for a low-energy future can be fun, joyful and creative.

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My last permaculture stop was Wilson Creek Gardens, the home of Jude Hobbs. Jude’s name is known by many in my neck of the woods; she regularly offers permaculture teacher trainings at O.U.R. Ecovillage. The brains behind Cascadia Permaculture Institute and Agro-Ecology Northwest, she works with farmers to ensure their operations near creeks don’t harm salmon habitat and to design “multi-functional hedgerows.” These are cropland borders that can provide a huge variety of yields: wildlife habitat, nectar for pollinators, biodiversity, food for humans and farm animals, timber and firewood, erosion control, wind protection, and much more. Jude walks the talk at her home with a large edible landscape, including an orchard lined with berry canes and many vertical layers of perennials thriving amidst the forest canopy. It’s no wonder that creek restoration is an issue close to Jude’s heart: the day I visited, the creek beside her house was literally bursting from the November rains and had taken down some of the streambed with it.

Foster Village and Beyond

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Robin and I

My next couchsurf host, Robin, lives in a 9-person cooperative house with chickens in the garden and a slew of interesting roommates. The “Jungle People” have various skills and aspirations including Traditional Chinese medicine, naturopathy, medicinal herb CSAs, urban farming and homesteading education for children. Robin is working at a farm-to-table restaurant, hoping to transition toward food growing and creating an intentional community. I happened to land there on Robin’s birthday, so I invited him along to visit some new friends I had met at Foster Village.

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Bamboo grove in Robin’s garden

After stopping for shiatsu massage treatments from Alpha, an intuitive bodyworker, we headed to Foster Village where I’d been invited to return for dinner. After a delightful vegetarian meal from the Foster garden, I pulled out a locally baked marionberry pie to celebrate Robin’s birthday. Robin and the “Foster Villains” hit it off instantly, of course, and they already have plans to connect their two communities.

I had been invited back by a new friend named Jas, a fascinating individual who gave me the full tour of Foster Village. We went for a soak at Common Ground, a wellness cooperative with a mineral bath and sauna in one of the buildings he owns. We also spent a hilarious night at HUMP! Tour, a sex-positive film festival hosted by one of my favourite podcasters, relationship/love/sex advice columnist Dan Savage. Jas was a perfect companion for this: he’s the founder of Love Tribe, a network that celebrates and includes people of all orientations and is “committed to creating heart-conscious, touch-positive culture by fostering communal opportunities to share authentic connection, affection and play.”

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Having tea with Jas

With several new friendships and community connections sparked, Christy, Robin, Jas, me, and some other village friends joined forces to hear a talk at Portland State University by Jon Young. The founder of Art of Mentoring and the most recognized expert in Bird Language, Jon gave an inspiring talk about cultivating our ability to understand the language of birds. A master storyteller, he painted a picture of an emerging mass movement in North America founded on the recognition of the power of deep nature connection – one with the power to turn the tide on a disturbing downward trend in conservation engagement.

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Taking a tour of Foster Village with Jas

Jon was joined by Mark Lakeman, who is well-known in Victoria as the initiator behind City Repair. City Repair is an organized group action that began in Portland and has spread to communities across North America. Based on the premise that localization is a necessary foundation of sustainability, its focus is placemaking and empowerment through reclaiming urban space and connecting neighbourhoods. City Repair hosts the Village Building Convergence (VBC), where community members take part in natural building workshops and ecologically-oriented artistic projects to transform urban spaces and intersections into community-oriented, welcoming places. One of Jas’s properties, a holistic health centre, has been a major VBC site. In fact, a few of the Foster Villains have been intimately involved with the event. I’ve wanted to attend the VBC for a few years, and now I’ve been invited back to stay and join in the fun with the Foster Villains. Now that I have a community in Portland, I’m already planning my return trip!

Kat photo by Corey Hodge

Photo Credit: Corey Hodge

And that’s where I’m going to leave this series. Thanks for sticking with me through to the end! I hope you enjoyed following along as much as I enjoyed my travels… These past five weeks have been exploding with inspiration and have stoked up my energy and passion, and I hope some of this got passed along. I promise there will be more in 2015 (especially if I’m going to the Village Building Convergence!) and I’ll be posting up my video about permaculture in higher education when it’s ready.

Till next time ~

Living the New Economy

An industrial landscape has dominated the part of Songhees territory known to most people as Vic West for at least a century. In its heart, there’s an unassuming and drafty brick building called the Roundhouse. Now surrounded by high-rise condos, it’s slated for redesign as a marketplace to serve the swelling crowd of urban dwellers. Over seven days in December, where railway workers tinkered with the train cars of a century ago, a new economy was being midwifed into existence. “Living the New Economy” was an exuberant convergence of visionaries and idea jammers who are working together to create and articulate this new economy.

Living the New Economy

The old economy is crumbling: globally, this has been obvious since at least 2008. The old models just aren’t working anymore, and many have started to realize they probably weren’t worth saving in the first place.

What does the new economy look like? This city’s dilapidated heavy industrial base is being transformed into a burgeoning knowledge economy of tech firms and services. In Victoria, at least, the trend isn’t toward globalized chains and big box stores: it’s small-scale entrepreneurs producing high quality goods for a niche market. It’s local renewable energy projects like the Art Turbine that are not only functional, but are truly pieces of art. It’s an explosion in DIY culture, with creative startups like the Makehouse and the MakerSpace, where makers of all sorts will share tools, resources, and knowledge. Or Remove and Reuse, an online hub where upcyclers and artisans can share salvaged building materials and reduce the need for consuming new. It’s people realizing that together, we can achieve so much more:Raven Wireless, a proposed nationwide co-operative telecom company, hopes to provide an alternative to the “Big Three.”

The new economy tastes like dark and thick microbrews handcrafted locally. It smells like locally cured and smoked meats, crisp vegetables harvested within a hundred miles, and specialty baked goods prepared in Victoria’s proposed new food hub, a shared kitchen space for local food producers. I took part in a collaborative session to redesign the downtown core with hubs for enjoying these delights together, in community. The vision is to create a vital space where people “live out loud.” In the new economy, shopping isn’t a substitute for this kind of creativity. The new economy feels like community being built in a thousand different ways. The Fernwood Urban Village cohousing project and O.U.R. Ecovillage are reclaiming what it is to be in community, while creating options for community to invest in community. It’s individuals moving their money to credit unions, which in turn reinvest it locally: Vancity’s support of “social purpose real estate” is a great example. It’s people stepping up to lend to each other through the Victoria Community Micro-Lending Society. A new Community Investment Fund being launched in 2014 by the Community Social Planning Council (CSPC) will finally give people an option for local retirement savings investments.

This is the power of raising local forms of capital: putting our money where our homes are. CSPC’s Sarah Amyot says that redirecting even 2 percent of the investment money that flows out of this region every year would allow us to reinvest 7.5 million locally.

But why does this seem so revolutionary? In the past few decades, we’ve made it virtually impossible to invest locally. People who are interested in doing so (apparently a very high proportion of investors) are discouraged by their advisors, who say there’s no money in it. Not so, says Stephen Whipp, a specialist in socially responsible investment. By grabbing the reins of large capital and redirecting it into local projects, Whipp says we can generate good income and make good local projects happen at the same time.

Yes, the cost of living is high, and most of us don’t have much extra cash lying around for making big investments. But we need to understand the incredible privilege we have in this region – despite the struggles – and recognize that we have a responsibility to use this privilege to make changes in how we act in the world.

Critically, it’s acknowledging that many of the struggles we’re facing – and the privilege we have – are a result of living in a colonial system. Without a radical shift in the Indigenous-settler relationship, colonialism can simply be re-entrenched by such new forms of ownership and economy. So asking for and supporting Indigenous leadership amid these rapid changes is going to be essential. This recognition was embodied at a session called “Indigenomics,” where we learned from Indigenous women that have modeled leadership in redefining what economy is. As Carol-Ann Hilton of the Indigenous business group Transformation pointed out, a new economy questions the pathway by which we came here: who was left out? Who’s included in the new economy? And will it be a decolonized economy?

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Ana Maria Peredo, Director of UVic’s Centre for Cooperative and Community-Based Economy, pointed out that the new economy is the OLD economy – and the REAL economy. It needs to be reclaimed from its brief sojourn into global market capitalism. There are many kinds of economy – green, sharing, collaborative, gift, social – that can bring value to society.

Peredo shared a story of a visit she made to an Andean village in Peru. Arriving hungry, she went to try to purchase some food to eat. Although she could see plenty of people with food, nobody could sell to her: for them, money wasn’t worth using because nobody needed it to meet their daily needs. People would ask how it was that, in their poor country, everyone had a home – yet in our rich nation, so many are homeless.

In most of the Western world, the economy is framed by those in power as the overarching structure of existence. As Peredo pointed out, the “modernization theory” of development says there’s only one way to approach economic development – and that’s to submit to the global forces of the market. This ethnocentric model perpetuates a narrative about developing an “entrepreneurial spirit” among Indigenous people that assumes they have none.

Meghan Champion of Cowichan Tribes debunked such mainstream myths. In her culture, Indigenous people have always had a very strong entrepreneurial spirit. Trade and forms of currency have been a feature of life on this coast for thousands of years. The potlatch ceremony was, in her words, a form of investment through a system of debt obligation and relationship building. The way people earned prestige was not by accumulating wealth, but by giving it away. As Champion points out, it’s pretty hard to practice your culture if you don’t have an economy to sustain it. But one thing that makes this new economy distinct from the old one is that reputation is key: in the age of social networking, it’s a lot harder to hide when you rip someone off. It’s about building relationships.

It’s with this in mind that Champion created the Cowichan Tribes’ Tetla Dollar. Community currencies keep value circulating within the community, rather than flowing out. Lately, the’ve been springing up all over the region: SeedStock in Vancouver, Salt Spring Dollars, and the Comox Vally Community Way. The fully digital Vancouver Island Dollar is in the process of being launched.

“Living the New Economy” aimed to be a living example of an economy that encourages us to redefine value locally and build inclusive community. After each session, people could receive 100% of their money back with no questions asked; they could hold with the original ticket price, or they could add an extra donation if they felt the event had particular value. Or, they could exchange the full dollar amount for the same number of Vancouver Island Dollars.

As permaculture designer Ethan Roland told us, we need to reclaim the real meaning of the word “entrepreneurship,” which is simply “to take on a project.” In the Andean community-based economies, Peredo says, the community acts collectively as both entrepreneur and enterprise. In this regard, it’s about every single one of us considering ourselves entrepreneurs.

One part of this involves changing our unhealthy relationship with money. And I don’t just mean becoming less driven by it. I’m also talking about the revulsion to money that many “do-gooder” types have: the way that when the word “economics” is used, many of us plug our ears. I’ve always had an uncomfortable relationship with economics. I don’t really understand it, and I know it causes a lot of harm these days. I also know that some kind of economy is essential.

We’ve forgotten that money is simply a tool – a very useful one. At “Permanomics,” a session linking permaculture and economics, Roland showed how redefining “capital” can allow us to meet human needs while increasing the health of ecosystems. Roland identified eight forms of capital: living, material, social, experiential, intellectual, spiritual, cultural, and – of course – financial. Understanding these many forms of capital can help us see how the system functions as a whole, and where the leverage points for creating society-level changes are. Roland says we need not abandon financial capital: we can use it to cultivate other forms of capital that it has been decimating of late. Financial capital can grow or decrease, as long as shared cultural capital and living capital (Earth’s life systems) are being regenerated.

Regeneration, as opposed to the much-abused word “sustainability,” was an overriding theme throughout the week. Through new kinds of enterprise, we can not simply sustain, but regenerate our communities and the natural world. It’s a tangible shift in what the economy looks like – social finance, green buildings, cooperatives, and cohousing projects.

But what’s going to truly make the difference is a shift in the interior dimensions that what we can’t always see: the stories, the culture, and the values. It’s the community.

Kat gratefully acknowledges a prize from SFU’s Certificate Program for Community Economic Development, which allowed her to attend the week of events.

Speaking tour gets the facts straight on GMOs

There’s a lot of misinformation on the internet and in the mainstream media about genetically modified organisms (GMOs). Some science associations and companies like Monsanto would have us believe that genetically modified (GM) foods are perfectly safe, and necessary to “feed the world.” A growing number of organizations and scientists are telling a different story: that GM foods pose significant risks to human health and the environment. Who am I, the average eater concerned about my health, supposed to believe?

In my attempt to set the record straight, I joined over 200 people at UVic Monday evening to listen to Dr. Thierry Vrain, who is beginning a cross-Canada speaking tour on GMOs. He’s the former Head of Biotechnology at Agriculture Canada’s Summerland Research Station, and he used to be a supporter of GMOs. Clearly, I wasn’t the only one with worries and questions.  As the crowd continued to swell, the whole group had to move en masse to a bigger room.

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I could sense high emotions: it seemed that most people (and I’ll admit, myself included) had already made up their minds about GMOs, and were burning to let forth into charged rants about the corporate control of food. But our quirky facilitator, an Aussie pharmacist with a Movember-style stache, shook up our preconceived notions right away. He invited us to try out a different stance: as scientists, with a critical eye for validity and reasoned examination of claims about GMOs. Dr. Vrain’s goal was to counter four common myths about GMOs with facts.  I still have my science goggles on, so bear with me as I share these myths and facts with you along with more sources, so that you can investigate for yourself and come to your own conclusions about GMOs.

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MYTH: GMOs reduce the use of pesticides.

FACT: GMOs are causing farmers to spray crops more, not less. 

Dr. Vrain began by pointing out one of the most important facts about GMOs: over 90% of GM plants are engineered to be resistant to Monsanto’s RoundUp pesticide. Herbicide spray rates are rising as a result of GMOs, not falling. Biotech giants Monsanto, Dow, Bayer, and Syngenta are, first and foremost, chemical companies. This isn’t about feeding the world: it’s about a really ingenious way to sell more pesticides. As Dr. Vrain pointed out, it’s a great long-term business strategy. Resistant weeds are creating a constant demand for new pesticide products – and major concerns for farmers. There are now at least 24 weeds resistant to RoundUp, affecting perhaps a million acres of Canadian farmland. Even research backed by the pesticide industry states that the number of resistant weeds is increasing “at an alarming rate.”

The industry is using this as justification for introducing other chemicals to the mix.  RoundUp is now being teamed up with 2,4-D: one of two chemicals in the infamous Agent Orange (produced by Monsanto) that shriveled entire landscapes during the Vietnam War, with disastrous human health effects. 2,4-D is a hormone disruptor that is detectable in the urine of children and has been linked with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. This chemical is approved for use in Canada and we will begin to see residues of it on conventionally grown food in the future.

MYTH: GMOs increase crop yields.

FACT: Increases in yields are a result of traditional breeding and improved agricultural practices, not genetic engineering.

Have you ever noticed how proponents of GMOs always use the same line about “feeding the future”? The independent Union of Concerned Scientists set out to test this claim.  Their downloadable report “Failure to Yield: Evaluating the Performance of GE Crops,” looked at two dozen peer-reviewed studies. They found that in 20 years of industry effort, herbicide-tolerant corn and soy haven’t resulted in crop yield increases. Only insect-resistant corn might be responsible for an increase of 0.2-0.3% per year. Impressive? No.  Especially when you consider that corn production in the U.S. is not about “feeding the world.” Most corn in the U.S. is grown as feed for factory farms, a highly inefficient way to feed people. The rest is used to produce environmentally disastrous biofuels and high-fructose corn syrup for processed junk food.

According to Dr. Vrain, the genetic engineering process is physiologically hard on the plant, causing it to be less productive and resulting in lower yields. This view is supported by a large-scale academic review and a USDA report cited in “GMOs: Myths and Truths,” another downloadable resource with a wealth of information on GMO myths not covered in this article. “At best,” the authors write, “GM crops have performed no better than their non-GM counterparts, with GM soybeans giving consistently lower yields.” (P. 72).

MYTH: GMOs don’t impact the environment.

FACT: GM crops have many negative effects on the environment.

One of the biggest threats GM crops pose to their environments is contamination. The Canadian Biotechnology Action Network (CBAN) asserts that GM alfalfa threatens the future of organic food and farming in North America. Alfalfa is unique because many organic farmers grow it to feed livestock and build soil. It grows year-round and is pollinated by bees, so contamination of organic alfalfa will be certain. Japan and the EU won’t buy crops from Canada if there’s any risk of contamination by GMOs. According to Dr. Vrain, Canada risks losing hundreds of millions of dollars in exports if GM Alfalfa is allowed, and this will hurt conventional growers too. Canada has already lost its Japanese and European markets for canola due to GM contamination.

Insect resistant crops are engineered using Bt, a bacteria that produces a protein toxic to insects. Every cell of the GM plant is toxic to insects. These plants are literally registered as pesticides. Bt crops have adverse effects on a range of different organisms, including humans – not just the insects they’re supposed to target (GMOs: Myths and truths, p. 51-52.) Monsanto’s use of Bt genes is also causing the evolution of Bt-resistant “superbugs,” posing serious risks to food production. But what if you want to eat real food, not pesticides? Bt sprays are a biological pest control method widely used by certified organic farmers and backyard gardeners. With the rise of superbugs, organic farmers risk losing their ability to use Bt. Farmers across North America will have no choice but to buy the next Monsanto product just to be able to grow a crop.

MYTH: GM foods are safe to eat.

FACT: GM foods are more toxic or allergenic than their non-GM counterparts.

My note-taking couldn’t keep pace as Dr. Vrain cited a dizzying number of studies showing harmful effects of GM foods on human health.  If there are so many studies, I wondered, how is it even possible that the industry can continue to make this claim of safety?  The various ways this information is masked by Monsanto and other biotech companies is explained in detail in “GMOs: Myths and Truths,” (p. 72) which cites an even more dizzying number of studies about health impacts on humans and animals.  Here’s a taster: stomach sores and ulcers; allergic-type responses; disturbances of the immune and digestive systems; disturbed function of testes, uterus, ovaries, and pancreas; consistent toxic effects on the liver and kidneys; intestinal damage leading to pre-cancerous-type conditions; enzyme function disturbances in kidney and heart; slower bodily growth; and changes to blood biochemistry and gut bacteria. Whoah.

What is it about GMOs that causes this harm?  One reason being examined is the issue of “rogue proteins.”  Only 5% of the genome actually codes for genes; the other 95% are non-coding genes.  They used to be called “junk DNA” in the genetics world.  But in the past decade, scientists have discovered that this 95% is not junk at all: it’s where genes collaborate to create around 100,000 proteins for all sorts of needs.  When it comes to GM plants, you don’t only get the “pest-fighting” protein, you get new and unexpected proteins altogether. According to Dr. Vrain, expert toxicologists at the FDA predicted these “rogue” proteins produced by GMOs could cause toxicity, allergies, or nutritional deficiencies.  This prediction has been backed with evidence from the Institute of Public Health (Belgium), the Journal of Proteome Research, and the journal Biotechnology.

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By now, you’ve probably seen the revolting photos of the now-famous Seralini study, which showed massive tumours in rats fed GE maize. Seralini was criticized by some scientists for his methods, and France has invested in a follow-up research study.  However, the issue prompted the European Food Safety Authority to review and change its guidelines for research, and the updated version validates Seralini’s methods. The tumours in his study showed up after two years. Most studies by the industry only involve a three-month time period, because longer term trials correlated with the human life cycle (required for pesticides and pharmaceuticals) aren’t required for GE foods by regulators anywhere else in the world.

That’s a big problem, because it’s upon such dubious 3-month studies that Canada’s health regulations rely. In Dr. Vrain’s words, biotech companies operate under two different paradigms based on what suits their profit margins. When they’re pursuing a patent for a GMO, they argue that it’s a unique and unprecedented new product. When they’re jumping through the regulatory hoops, their policy is the following: it looks like corn, it grows like corn, it tastes like corn, so it must be no different from…corn. This principle is called “substantial equivalence.”  There’s been no FDA testing to come to the conclusion that GM and non-GM corn are substantially equivalent.  Substantial equivalence is also the reason why GMOs have been allowed in Canada, with absolutely no federal testing.

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RoundUp: the toxic bedfellow of GMOs 

It’s important to remember that 90% of GM crops are designed to be used with glyphosate, the main chemical in RoundUp. Even if it’s not genetically modified, says Dr. Vrain, all conventional grain in Canada and the US is sprayed with RoundUp 3-4 days before harvest to make the harvesting process easier. Glyphosate is widely considered to be a relatively safe pesticide. There are, Dr. Vrain pointed out, other chemicals in RoundUp that are considered more toxic than glyphosate. But is glyphosate itself really that safe? “GMOs: Myths and Truths” (p. 68) cites several studies showing otherwise: humans are widely exposed to glyphosate in air, rain, and waterways, and it poses serious health risks at the low doses approved for use, including DNA damage, cancer, neurological disorders, premature birth, birth defects, and miscarriage. Glyphosate harms beneficial gut bacteria and inhibits an enzyme called cytochrome P-450, causing diabetes, heart disease, cancer, infertility, Alzheimer’s, depression, autism, obesity, and gastrointestinal disorders like IBS and leaky gut syndrome. There’s increasing consensus that gut bacteria powerfully influences brain chemistry and function, and can exacerbate anxiety and depression through conditions like leaky gut syndrome.

According to Dr. Vrain, 90% of the cells and 99% of the DNA in your body are not yours: they’re bacteria. We are symbiotic organisms that depend on bacteria for our existence.  When you read about studies like the ones I’ve just mentioned, it begins to make sense why so many people have digestive problems these days. Dr. Vrain showed that human incidences of conditions like celiac disease and autism have risen sharply in a curve that directly matches the rising rate of pesticide use since the mid-1990s. He was quick to point out that this shows correlation, not cause and effect, and that the glyphosate studies were done on rodents and poultry, not humans. Research ethics simply wouldn’t allow a study to be run on humans if it could potentially lead to such harm. But the reality is that by eating conventionally produced food, we’re all participating in a science experiment on a massive scale.

Antibiotic resistance and GMOs

Scientists and physicians are sounding the alarm about the global rise of antibiotic resistance, which threatens humans’ ability to use them for medical treatment. GMOs will only contribute to this increase. In genetic engineering, a gene gun shoots millions of microscopic gold pellets painted with DNA into the plant’s cells (microscopic violence?).  This is a terribly inefficient process – far from the elegant and highly specialized process biotech companies claim. To find the spots where the DNA has been transferred, an antibiotic resistant “marker gene” is also painted onto the pellet.  When different bacteria rub up against each other, they can transfer genes. Because of this gene transfer, says Dr. Vrain, bacteria from GM crops have the potential to alter the soil and human gut bacteria in unexpected ways, by creating “superbugs.” Antibiotic resistant marker genes enter the soil and waterways, and may well contribute to the global rise in antibiotic resistance. 

While the jury’s still out on whether marker genes will have a significant impact on antibiotic resistance, there’s no doubt that the industrial food system – in which GMOs play a central role – is having an impact. Glyphosate is classified as an antibiotic. Bacteria like salmonella and the bacteria that causes botulism have already become resistant to it. And don’t forget that the vast majority of GM crops are grown to feed livestock.  The industrial meat production industry uses 80% of all antibiotics produced in the US (75% in Canada). Why are we allowing one of the most important treatments in conventional medicine to be piddled away on factory farms?

What’s happening in Canada?

GM canola, corn, soy, and sugar beet are grown in Canada, and several other crops and foods are being proposed for approval.  Canadian farmers are currently losing the battle against GM Alfalfa, despite significant organized opposition.  The Canadian Wheat Board successfully opposed the introduction of GM wheat in Canada, but now that fundamental changes have been made to the Wheat Board by the Harper government, Monsanto could push GM wheat in Canada again, risking similar losses for farmers.

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Canada is the only place where GM sweet corn has been allowed, giving us the dubious honour of the world’s guinea pig for the past two years.  When you buy corn at harvest time, Dr. Vrain recommends asking if it’s genetically modified.

Developments on GM salmon are being closely followed by CBAN.  The US-based company AquaBounty is close to approval of GM salmon for sale in the US, and may have already asked Health Canada for approval in Canada.

To find the most up to date news and download resources on GMOs in Canada, go to http://www.cban.ca/

The BC battle and the “Arctic Apple”

In a Q&A session after Dr. Vrain’s talk, panelists included Nicholas Simons, BC NDP Agriculture Critic and MLA for Powell River.  Powell River was the first BC jurisdiction to go GMO-free nine (nine!!) years ago.  Since then, over sixty communities have followed suit.  In September, the Union of BC Municipalities passed a motion asking the BC government to prohibit the importing, exporting, and growing of plants and seeds containing genetically engineered DNA, and raising GM animals within BC.  When informed of the situation, Agriculture Minister Pat Pimm said he would pass on the information to the federal minister responsible.  Despite Mr. Pimm’s copout, this is an important victory for BC. 

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Simons surprised us with a new issue emerging in BC: the fight over the “Arctic Apple.” Okanagan Specialty Fruits, a BC company, has applied for government approval of this GM apple, designed not to become brown for 15 days or more after being cut. Simons made his point by asking if anyone in the crowd cuts their apples 15 days before eating them. This apple is a sign that we’re going to increasingly see GMOs grown not to “feed the world,” but to feed a questionable desire for cosmetically attractive foods. There’s significant opposition to the apple among growers, but no public comment will be allowed before the government makes its decision.

No public comment??

All of these issues bring up a big question: why is the public being ignored?

Co-panelist Carolyn Herriot, writer of “The Zero Mile Cookbook,” believes it’s because there’s a media blackout in Canada and the U.S. We need to ask why very few of the studies I’ve cited have actually been taken up by the press. Certainly, the multimillion dollar advertising campaigns launched by biotech and food industry giants to kill GM food labeling bills in California and Washington is evidence of their influence.

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But despite these losses on labeling in the U.S., another of the Q&A panelists is staunchly hopeful. Gurdeep Stephens, of Nature’s Path Organic Foods, reminded us that two or three years ago there was very little public awareness about GMOs. Now, she says, it’s growing exponentially.

So what can we do to keep this awareness growing?  I propose we listen to the mustachioed Aussie, and take a scientific stance. Yes, I know, scientists in this country aren’t getting much respect these days. But no matter how much a person is opposed to Monsanto on a visceral, emotional level, using science to make our arguments is key. We need to reframe the debate entirely – away from whether it would be nice if our apples didn’t brown, and toward whether this whole system of industrial food production makes any sense at all, scientifically or socially. To do this, we need to be able to debunk the myths propagated by the industry, while constantly asking questions like “who funded this study?” We need to stop letting the biotech industry choose which science gets heard, and assert our right to make informed choices about what’s in our food.

Even if you don’t care about having a choice as to what’s in your food, we must allow future generations the choice about what’s in theirs.

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How to avoid GMOs: the quick and dirty

  • Buy local food from farmers you can trust, and ask them about their farm practices.  Better yet, grow your own!
  • Buy certified organic or “Non-GMO Project Verified” foods when you have to buy them from far away.  Certified organic food in Canada cannot contain GMOs, contrary to what some (including myself) have heard.  Labels like “Natural” are meaningless.  If the label is unclear, the food probably contains GMOs: 90% of corn, 93% of soy, 100% of sugar beet crops in North America and 43% of cotton crops in the world are genetically modified.
  • At the grocery store, avoid canola and cottonseed oil, and certain squashes and papaya imported from the U.S.
  • Avoid processed foods with ingredients like “High fructose corn syrup,” glucose or fructose – corn products can hide under many different names.
  • Buy 100% cane sugar (not beet sugar).
  • Buy certified organic dairy, meat and eggs: animals bioaccumulate and concentrate toxins present in their food, and this gets passed to humans.

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What you can do to take action:

PowerShift: Unleashing a New Generation

Meet Ta’kaiya Blaney. At 12 years old, she’s the face of the newly unleashed chapter in the movement for climate justice. This past weekend, over 1000 youth and elders converged on the unceded Coast Salish territories commonly known as Victoria to participate in the biggest climate summit in BC history. Though many who attended the opening night of PowerShift may have been drawn in by the chance to listen to David Suzuki, it was Ta’kaiya who won everyone’s hearts.

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From the Sliammon First Nation, Ta’kaiya captivated the crowd with her remarkable voice, singing an Indigenous welcome with her aunt Rose Henry, a local Indigenous activist. With steady strength, Ta’kaiya spoke of her own motivation to protect the lands of her ancestors from toxic pollution. She ended the night by belting out her own original songs like “Earth Revolution,” backed by Vancouver-based band the Boom Booms in an example of what can be possible when Indigenous and settler energies are joined in creative solidarity.

This is why PowerShift was a milestone in the fight for a clean, safe future for our communities. The history of rocky relationships between environmental groups and First Nations was summed up by Janet Rogers during the Idle No More rally at the close of the weekend: “Don’t poach us for your issues and then forget about us when we need help.”

The event was far from perfect, of course. But PowerShift was built on the recognition that this movement must be Indigenous-led and anti-racist at its core. Not only is it simply the right thing to do based on the historical dispossession of First Nations, but there’s a recognition that their rights and title are increasingly the only legal force standing in the way of more dirty energy projects in BC.

So we listened to youth voices from the front lines in the north. Voices like 19-year old Satsi Naziel, who has been successfully blockading pipeline development on her ancestral territories by building a community with traditional pit houses and permaculture gardens at the Unist’ot’en camp. Or Caleb Behn, a young Dene hunter who went to law school to fight dangerous fracking operations in the northeast, now ironically silenced from telling much of what he knows about the industry as a result of his career choice. Or Melina Laboucan Massimo, a Lubicon Cree who witnessed the destruction of her lands when 4.5 million litres of oil spilled into its wetlands and river systems, exacerbating the epidemic of rare and unusual cancers and other health problems faced by her community as a result of tar sands development. Melina lost multiple women in her life this year, including her little sister, to the violence against First Nations women that is a sad reflection of structural injustice and the violence reaped on the land.

As we bustled from one workshop to another on the UVic campus, I couldn’t help but think about these stories. I was uplifted to see so many youth younger than myself at PowerShift – not just the “usual suspects,” but many privileged high school students and undergrads wanting to get involved, a large number of whom were obviously being confronted with the idea of decolonization for the first time. This was one of PowerShift’s real successes.

Another of PowerShift’s real successes was the diversity of content. I gravitated toward the skill-building workshops, which included topics like non-violent direct action, community oil spill response, investigative journalism, working effectively in organizations, and practicing self-care. All pretty positive-sounding. But I found that even in these kinds of sessions, which were meant to be empowering, a lot of energy was spent on problem identification, leaving little time to get down to business figuring out solutions.

I met with my friends to debrief and compare notes. It seemed that this experience was a common thread. All the stories of destruction were wearing people down. It was a microcosm of the constant tension many of us feel in the work that we do: how can we strike a balance between being fighting against the urgent problems and working to build the solutions we so desperately need?

There is no final answer to this question, only a lifetime dedicated to that careful dance. But ultimately I did find some answers at PowerShift that stoked my motivational fire. For one thing, it was clear that people want more permaculture, so I’m going to keep throwing my energy into building that community. For another, this weekend empowered me with the knowledge that I, too, could step into more of a leadership role, and I know others felt the same.

Most importantly, though, the space was created for people from all backgrounds and corners of this province to meet, build relationships, and strengthen our community. It counters the feeling of isolation this system breeds – the sense of being alone in a huge struggle that powerful interests rely upon for their success. This was only the first of six regional PowerShift events to be held across the country. When you want to build a movement, you have to think in much longer timescales than our instant-message generation is used to. And you need to take the time to define the problem together. Seeing Indigenous youth and elders who have endured this destruction of their heritage for centuries, now reaching out to take our hands and share their songs with us, was a historic moment. Our willingness to be present and bear witness to their struggles was, as Indigenous hip hop performer JP The First Lady told us, “real reconciliation.”

legislature rally

The weekend ended the way it had begun: led by Indigenous women singing a women’s warrior song to the beat of their drums. But this time, they shared it with us. As a visitor on these threatened lands and as a woman angered by the authorities’ neglect of the countless missing and murdered Indigenous women from coast to coast, I was honoured to be invited to sing their song. On the steps of the legislature, on the 250th anniversary of the Royal Proclamation of 1763, we linked arms to say “No” to pipelines, supertankers, tar sands, and fracking, and “Yes” to a new generation of relationship.

Because it’s not a Right or Left issue; it’s not just a “Native issue”. As Maude Barlow and so many others insisted this weekend, it concerns every single one of us. Because we all drink water, and we all breathe air.

Top photograph courtesy of Priscilla Skylar Lee
Bottom photograph courtesy of Zack Embree @ zackembree.com

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