Four stories involving one noun: cell phone games.
Four stories involving one noun: cell phone games.
Beyond an iron gate, with warning signs of “No Trespassing” and of hidden security cameras, an overgrown driveway stretches past young pines. It ends in a clearing dotted with sand pits where the Lee Road school house used to stand. The fruit trees that stood beside the school house are gone too. Three deer, ears twitching, skittish, keep a watchful guard from across an adjacent field of weeds.
“Dunster’s always been this open community, everybody knows their neighbours,” Chuck McNaughton, a short but burly lifetime resident of the area said. “Now there’s locks and gates and security cameras everywhere.”
A community meeting held June 4 in Dunster was organized to discuss what many in the valley have observed over the past decade or so: large parcels of land bought up and then, to varying degrees, abandoned; property prices as steep and harsh as the mountainsides that flank the valley floor; and how difficult it is for people of ordinary means—often young families—to move into the valley.
“Quite often when the face of a community starts changing, you don’t notice it at first, it has to reach a critical mass,” Linda Fry, who attended the community meeting, said. “I think we do have to realize that change is the face of our communities.”
But change from and to what?
“The ultimate result of abandoned properties is the death of the community,” LelaniArris, president of the Dunster Community Association, said. It’s not change people in the Dunster area fear; it’s the slow strangulation of their farming community as it becomes nearly impossible for new people to move in and find affordable land, while fertile land is left fallow or mostly unused.
“A lot of us are getting older,” Chuck said. “It’s the volunteer labour we’re running short on, and that’s what keeps this community going.”
The Mad Land Grab
All over the world, large groups of people and organizations are buying up farmland, says Dr. Lenore Newman, the Canada Research Chair of Food Security and Environment at the University of the Fraser Valley. Dr. Newman is tasked with studying the Canadian agriculture industry in the context of global trends.
“We’re in the middle of a global land rush. It’s not just your valley, it’s not just the province—it’s the whole world.”
In BC, foreign landowners don’t face any more restrictions than Canadians do.
“There’s a lot of big money sluicing around the world and land is one of the best investments going,” Dr. Newman said. “This incredible pressure on land in BC is pricing it out of the range of everyone who was born and raised here and who makes an average Canadian salary.”
Fraser River Landholdings Ltd is one company with extensive landholdings in the valley. A co-director of the company, Mark Walter, confirmed through a media representative that the company owns at least six properties, totaling about 1,000 acres, between Dome Creek and Valemount.
“The property is planned to be left as is, agricultural and recreational,” the email read.
Walter and co-director Robert Patton Jr. are wealthy American businessmen who, in 2012, bought the LA Dodgers for a record $2.15 billion as part of Guggenheim Baseball Management. Walter is also a founding partner, and current CEO, of financial assets management firm Guggenheim Partners LLC, with over $200 billion in managed assets, according to their website. Walter is also a trustee of the storied and powerful Guggenheim Foundation.
Newman said she doesn’t like to think of it as foreign capital, though. “The reality is there’s lots of people within the country in the same position, with tons of money, buying up land and sitting on it.” Only about 15 per cent of BC land is owned privately and with global capital hungry for investments, Dr. Newman fears the land rush will continue.
In the global village, where global capital permeates the local economy, national boundaries become almost irrelevant. Local community members can invest their time, labour and dreams, and can sow seeds for the future, for their children and the land they become a part of; but how does that stack up against pools of global capital, mostly impervious and ignorant to local community concerns?
“The problem,” says Dr. Newman, “is this idea of parking on the land; using land as a GIC or a safety deposit box.”
“If I were king,” Pete Amyoony says, chuckling, sitting in the kitchen of his small cabin in Dunster, sipping tea, “I would make a law that says, if you buy a piece of land and don’t put it to good use, don’t improve it, that you’re not allowed to sell it for more than you bought it.”
A fantastical notion, but one that belies a certain wisdom. Amyoony has called Dunster home for some 30 years, has worked hard to pay off his 10-acre farm and is very active in the community. But circumstances have changed since he first moved into the valley.
“Land has become a commodity: to be bought, sat on, sold for more.”
Arris knows this all too well. She sold the piece of land on Lee Road where the school house sat to Fraser River Landholdings. She still feels intimately attached to the property: her ex-husband perished in a tragic fire in one of the buildings, and she’s visibly devastated by the absence of the school house.
“I just don’t understand, why did they have to tear down the Lee Road school house?”
Just after selling the lot, Arris wanted to move a shed from the Lee Road property to her home, up the street. She was pulling the shed up Lee Road with a tractor when her realtor called; somebody had seen her, called the realtor, who told Arris that she wasn’t allowed to remove the shed since the sale was already finalized. The shed was sold with the lot, its fate up to the new owners, who evidently tore it down.
Property ownership is absolute: once the transaction is complete, any emotional or psychological value it holds for the former owner is translated into memories and dollars and cents.
“People have a right to sell for whatever reason they have decided to sell, and people have a right to buy, for whatever reasons they decide to buy,” Linda Fry, who works as a notary public, said. “These are individual decisions.”
A warm burst of fish odour greets you at the door of Pete’s greenhouse this time of year.
“I farm organically, with fish fertilizer,” he explains.
Despite scaling back on farming as he nears retirement, Pete has an exuberance and tireless energy. He hops off his riding lawnmower—“Those clippings will go in my compost”—and points across a rectangular plot, tilled and planted, which stretches about 100 meters away from the greenhouse and ends just before a derelict school bus and the forest in behind.
“That’s the magic school bus,” he smiles. The soft sound of clattering dishes and murmuring voices escapes the open door and windows of the bus. “Tim and his wife Susan are living in there, with their two children.”
Tim Haus, a German native, and his wife Susan Umstot, an American citizen, first travelled through Dunster on a family cycling trip a few years back. They both fell in love with the area, especially the strong sense of community. They met in the Middle East, working for Doctors Without Borders; Tim as an engineer and Susan as a nurse. They decided to make Dunster their home.
“We came here to live in the nature,” Haus says at Pete’s kitchen table with coffee in hand, eyeing his loaves of bread in the oven. “To live for the nature, and with the nature.” His English is almost flawless.
Haus’ short hair is tousled, his hands slightly soiled. He’s rigged up a container to catch rainwater so his family can shower outdoors. It hasn’t rained much lately, though. “You can live well off the land here,” he says.
“You sure can,” Pete smiles broadly with a hint of pride. “I feel like one of the richest people in the valley when I walk into my root cellar or see my canning cupboard… the food that’s grown out of this place has been amazing.”
“See, even in Pete’s day, people moved here for philosophical reasons, more than economic reasons,” Tim says.
Pete amicably disagrees, shaking his head. “I wanted to find affordable land that I could grow on. Up until the 90s you could buy a quarter section for $25-$30,000, but now it’s $300-$400,000.” Many valley residents, especially farmers, are retiring now, Pete says. “And they sell their land to the highest bidder, and I understand that. They worked their butts off, and that’s their pension.”
“But the next generation, we know we won’t receive a pension, or as much of a pension,” Tim replies. “We have to deal with different parameters; hence we are not able to pay $300,000 for a piece of property because we will never make that kind of money living a lifestyle that we believe is good for the world, and not just good for the pocketbook.”
Haus has talked to some farmers who were willing to sell a portion of their farmland—tracts spotted with gullies and rocks that aren’t really farmable—but restrictions in the Regional District’s Official Community Plan (OCP) on subdividing land found within the Agricultural Land Reserve (ALR) have so far thwarted him. The Regional District, with delegated authority from the Agricultural Land Commission (ALC), ensures that farmable land is not divided into parcels smaller than 150 acres, as per the OCP. This way farmland is kept in larger, more productive tracts and intervening subdivisions are avoided.
ALR land stretches on either side of the Fraser River, on the valley floor. Residents mostly agree that the ALC’s aim is positive, but on the local level it makes it difficult to attract new families and farmers into the valley. With soaring real estate prices, larger parcels are that much more expensive.
The ALC includes incentives to farm land within the ALR, Lara Beckett, chair of the Agricultural Land Use standing committee at the Regional District said. “If you actually farm the land and make enough income on it for agricultural status, you can get a significant tax reduction.” But are there incentives to dissuade wealthy landowners who can afford the higher tax rates from abandoning their properties, leaving them unproductive?
“No, not really,” Beckett said. “It’s private land, so to some degree people make their own choices… It’s unfortunate, especially if it’s been productive in the past, to see it being taken over by weeds and trees; it’s a lot of work to get it back into production.”
Over the past 25 years Chuck and a neighbour have been tracking land ownership for most parcels of farmland in the valley, labeling each subsequent owner on a series of maps. Wielding a pen in calloused, scarred hands of knobby joints – a farmer’s hands – he goes through some of the oldest names in the valley. Chuck can trace his roots in the Dunster area to 1920, when his grandfather bought land—the parcel right beside Chuck’s home, in fact. He brings the maps to the Ice Cream Social sometimes, and to other reunions where people happily regale each other with stories of days past. The maps paint a picture of absentee landowners too.
Sitting in his workshop with high ceilings, various machinery and works of art – paintings, drawings, little wood carvings all the way up the walls– Chuck is quick to point out that “absentee landowners” is too vague of a notion: there are oil-patch workers with land who visit on weekends and plan to return for good once the property’s been paid off; there are others who can’t afford to live on the land they bought, but rent it out to local farmers; these landowners contribute to the community, he says. So which absentee landowners are the real concern?
“The ones that buy it, lock the gate and walk away, and then keep buying more.”
Chuck is drafting a letter addressed to Mark Walter that he plans to bring to the next community meeting on July 15. “There’s a chance that guys like Mark don’t have any idea about this stuff, how they’re affecting our community.”
It’s long been a harsh reality that the economic basis of a community determines whether it thrives or perishes, regardless of history and the sense of home locals may derive. But in the small Dunster community, the economic basis—farming—is still viable. “Every parcel along the river is crucial to this community,” Chuck says. But farming is being undermined by the current land grab, and by a lack of policies that ensure farmland is actually farmed.
Is the value of farming and food security losing out to the power of global speculation? Co-director Patton bought property in Fort Worth in 2005 for $6.5 million, and then sold it two months later for $15.7 million, the Forth Worth Star-Telegram reported last year. But he’s also a farmer: he’s been buying enormous ranches all over the US, ensuring surplus hay for his cattle during droughts that devastates smaller farmers. He’s managed to keep a low profile despite his enormous wealth, which, in the interview with the Star-Telegram, he attributed to his own community: “If I had grown up in Dallas, it would probably have been different. But this is how you act in Forth Worth.”
Or is farming losing out, as Chuck fears, to hunting grounds for the very wealthy? When asked if Fraser River Landholdings or Guggenheim Partners uses land in the Robson Valley for hunting the company responded by writing, “Guggenheim is not involved with Fraser River Landholding in any way.”
Pete knows it’s only rumours that have been swirling for years about the “Guggenheims” and “the hunters” and he’s eager for some answers. “The thing is, I don’t know what’s going on, and I’d like to know what they’re doing with our community. Why are they buying up land and not using it? There are those that want to use the land but can’t.”
Another community meeting is planned in Dunster for July 15. When asked if a representative from Fraser River Landholdings would be present, the media representative wrote, “We don’t know if representatives of Frazier (sic) are going to the meeting,” spelling “Fraser” incorrectly.
“Everyone’s saying everywhere, small communities are dying. But bugger it, this one’s not gonna die,” Chuck said.
A fear fueled by weed and my urban paranoia—but of bears!—saturates. I sing, I whistle, I bang two rocks together in rhythm. I have no desire to die by a bear’s brute force.
Before hiking up Swift Creek trail I asked the woman at the hardware store about their bear deterrents.
Bear Spray: $39.99
Bear bangers: $29.99 (scare them off with a loud bang)
“You could just get a can, fill it with some marbles if you got some. Rocks’ll do too. Even just a pop can,” she said. “Tie it on your backpack.”
“I feel like the machete might be my best option,” I said.
“I’d hate to be close enough to a bear that I could use a machete.”
“Well, from how far away does the bear spray work?”
“Depends,” she said. “If you’re downwind…” She trails off, but makes big eyes.
Would I really be aware of the wind’s direction if a bear was close enough—advancing on me, teeth bared, claws at the ready—to use bear spray?
A few weeks ago, the paper reported a grizzly attack near Jasper. The grizzly attacked a hiker, who had curled into the fetal position, only to bite into a can of bear spray in a pocket of his backpack. The hiker was suspended above the ground, his backpack in the mouth of the grizzly, at the time. The bear dropped the hiker and ran off. The punctured aerosol can leaked the remaining liquid onto the hiker, burning his skin. He jumped into a river. So the story goes.
I used to tell people I had a “feeling” I would die fighting off a bear. I spent a lot of time in nature, growing up and in my adolescence, and a lot of that by myself. Besides, I’d just finished reading Song of Myself and Thoreau.
“People have seen a grizzly up there,” the woman at the hardware store said. “And there’s definitely a black bear up there.”
“Were there any cubs?” I asked.
“I don’t know. Some people say to wear a bell on your backpack, like a dinner bell…”
“Ya that’d scare them…”
“…that way they know where dinner is.” A broad smile, and big eyes again as if to say, I’m kinda joking. KINDA joking!
My solution: a battery-powered radio. Preferably with a tape deck or CD player for more variety. A buffer of safety created by noise. So that I can enjoy the view. And my joint. And do some writing or reading. Next time.
Kerrin McNamara and I each wrote a story starting with the same scenario. The scenario arose from a Skype conversation we were having. I had brought my computer outside to the front landing and had gone in to get a gin and tonic, leaving Kerrin to enjoy the mountain view. When I came back Kerrin and I imagined what would’ve happened had somebody come up to the house and stolen my computer, with Kerrin still on the Skype call.
Our stories were written as exercises in imagination, in a pretty short time, so they’re not meant to be perfect or flushed out or well edited. Just for fun and just for the hell of it. Here they are.
Valemount sees its fair share of transient people. Contractors from different industries who live in nearby communities, international tourists, Canadians making a ritualistic cross-country trek, cyclists, bikers—people from all walks of life and every corner of the globe it seems. In this column The Goat presents a sketch of our short-term guests, observed and written by a transient himself—RMG intern Thomas Rohner.
“All you see on public transit are students and old people, we’re the ones that can’t afford to drive,” an older lady, in her 60s, said to the bartender as she was paying her bill. She was part of a group of three ladies passing through the Valley, all seniors. It was impossible not to think of the movie Steel Magnolias watching these three women.
The one who spoke was the bumbling, good-natured sort. She had accidentally sent her fork flying across the patio, and her steak knife clattering onto the cobblestones during dinner, giggling at every turn. She fumbled and dropped change while paying her bill.
One of the ladies she was with—the only one wearing makeup—was the first to enter the bar and had said to the bartender, “I’ll have a glass of wine please. I’d like to be inebriated.” The other two ladies deserted her after their meal. When she was by herself, this lady said to the bartender, “I’d like you to pour yourself a glass of wine now and sit with me on the patio. I’d like some intelligent conversation, please.”
The third lady seemed to be the prudent and responsible one among the three. “I”ll come and wake you up tomorrow, Clair. We have to be on the road bright and early,” she had said to the sweet and bumbling lady during dinner. The three ladies were traveling from Edmonton to an acreage outside Kelowna for a three-week getaway. From the sounds of conversation over dinner, they were on a shoe-string budget.
When the one lady, wearing the make-up and fond of wine, came in to pay her bill, she fumbled for her glasses and with her wallet looking for money. “I can’t count right now, you make me kind of dizzy,” she said to the bartender. “How lucky for you, you get to schmooze with people all day.”
An older man, with a faint Irish accent, sat at the bar talking to the bartender. He was on a business trip, from Edmonton-area to Prince George, and had taken his wife and their grandson along.
“Man, he’s a weird kid,” the man said to the bartender. “All he wants to do is play on his phone or iPad. Look around you, I say, it’s beautiful out here. We went to the pool, and he wasn’t having any fun there either. He couldn’t wait to leave to get back to his games. Now he just wants to sit by himself and eat. Pizza bread, that’s all he wants. What a weird kid. I can’t get through to him. He makes me nervous.”
He told the bartender of immigrating from Ireland four or five decades ago, of his struggles to find work, and his eventual settling near Edmonton. He recalled his days in Ireland working as a bartender.
“I used to work weddings at our local club, working until early in the morning. I was young then, maybe 18 or 19. But finally one day my mother had enough. I’d come home, inebriated, guests feeding me drinks, and fell asleep with my leg draped out the window. I could’ve fallen out of that window, my mother said, and she boxed me on the ear. Ha! Ha! That was the end of that job. I could’ve fallen out that window, it’s true.”
A white-haired couple sat with a woman, presumably their daughter in her late 30s. They were travelling from Alberta to Kamloops. They had just sold their acreage where they had raised their family and lived for the past thirty years.
“Just this morning we sold it,” the older lady said to the bartender. “It’s gone, just like that, we sold it.” She laughed nervously but with bright eyes.
“We had a few head of cattle, a few crops,” the man explained to the barkeep.
“But they were nice people we sold it to, weren’t they? A nice young family.”
“And now we’re going to live in Kamloops.”
“If we like it,” the wife reminded her husband. “We’ll spend a few months there, and if we don’t like it, we can always go back home.”
I wondered what she meant, since their acreage had already been sold. But it amazed me that this couple, in their 60s or 70s, were willing to relocate, to begin a whole new experience at this stage of their lives.
“Ya, if we don’t like it, we’ll go back,” the husband said.
The federal government introduced new regulations on medicinal marijuana last month, but local users still complain of social judgment and stigma.
While researching last week’s story on the new medicinal marijuana regulations, The Goat contacted more than a dozen local users and growers. Four were willing to speak on the issue, but nobody was willing to speak on the record. Even those legally permitted to possess or grow medical marijuana refused to speak on the record.
Pot taboo? or Pot-a-boo!
One local said they feared being targeted for break-ins by those looking for marijuana, a fear created by the black market. But this local was also wary of social stigma.
“Some people think, ‘Oh, he’s just a pothead getting a free ride.’ And that couldn’t be further from the truth.”
This local suffers from debilitating back pain, and medicinal cannabis is the best medication he’s found to alleviate the pain without inducing a host of side effects.
Another local who lives close to a grow-op and dislikes the odour, feared being judged by friends who wouldn’t agree with her opinion that marijuana should not be grown at home.
“It’s a touchy subject for a lot of people, and I don’t want to offend anybody.”
Another comment by this local points to a stubborn social stigma: “Where I come from, it’s people who are lower class that use weed.”
Don Skogstad, a criminal prosecutor in Nelson, says the taboo around medicinal use of marijuana has resulted in ridiculously strict rules about where and when it can be consumed.
“If you look at the rules in US states where it’s been legalized, you can drink in a lot of places, but you cannot consume marijuana anywhere in public view.”
Skogstad said he recently gave a lecture on medicinal marijuana at the University of Toronto, but that the university didn’t want “medical marijuana” and “the University of Toronto” to appear in the same ad.
“And yet it’s a perfectly legal, viable, court-ordered constitutional right.”
Skogstad pointed to a number of documentaries that suggest marijuana was treated with a racist paranoia in the early 20th century, targeting minorities more than dealing with the scientific aspects of the drug.
“And that persists today, that it’s a really bad thing, when in fact it’s got genuine, proven, medical benefits.”
Medicinal value still questioned
But the BC College of Physicians and Surgeons does not acknowledge any proven medical benefits. A letter in their College Quarterly publication this past March, written by CEO Heidi Oetter, said “in the absence of scientific evidence, many physicians have been reluctant to authorize its use.” Oetter wrote that the medical community acknowledges possible relief to those suffering from a terminal illness or chronic pain “when conventional therapies cease to have an effect.”
This point is untrue, however, to patients who choose cannabis instead of “conventional therapies”. The local suffering from chronic back pain, for example, says that while he used narcotics prescribed by his doctor, he experienced a series of complications including appetite and sleep problems.
“You can’t take narcotics every day of your life. Otherwise you’re just not you.”
Dr. Paul Hornby, a pathologist from the Vancouver area, has been studying cannabis for 15 years, focusing on its applications for cancer patients for the past six years. He says there’s “tonnes of scientific evidence” on cannabis’ medicinal applications. He says the power of the pharmaceutical industry and their lobbying efforts prevent cannabis from being recognized for its medicinal use.
“As a medicine, there’s no way the pharmaceutical industry can afford to have [cannabis] legal because they’ll lose their analgesic market, they’ll lose their anti-depressant market, and they can’t have that.”
Oetter’s letter says, “If and when appropriate research is conducted, physicians may eventually have accurate information in the form of a clinical practice guideline on the use of marijuana.” But Hornby points out that to develop a clinical guideline, clinical trials have to be run and “we’re not allowed to right now because there’s no licensing for that.”
Jamie Shaw, communications director for the BC Compassion Club Society, calls the letter by Oetter “ridiculous” but acknowledges the difficult position the new regulations put doctors in. She points to the preamble of the new rules which says that nowhere in the world is cannabis acknowledged as a therapeutic remedy.
“You’ve got Health Canada claiming it’s not a therapeutic treatment, and then you have them asking doctors to prescribe it. They’re asking doctors to prescribe a substance illegal in any other context.”
In her letter, Oetter wrote, “It is irresponsible of Health Canada to download the risks, legal and otherwise, to physicians as gatekeepers to marijuana.” Oetter did not respond to an interview request by press time.
Despite the College’s stance on medical cannabis, doctors and nurses can dispense the drug directly to patients under the new regulations. But as the licensing and regulatory body for all physicians and surgeons in BC they have considerable influence. At least one doctor local to the Valley cited this letter as his basis for refusing to prescribe medical marijuana.
Meanwhile, taboos persist
Shaw says that patients who come to the BCCCS wellness centre often don’t realize the social stigma they’re under until talking to somebody without being judged.
“It’s a huge relief, but they didn’t know anything different.”
Shaw says many patients have medical conditions that already have a stigma attached, like HIV or mental health issues. And many can’t even tell their neighbours or family about their use.
“Their families can’t figure out why they’re doing better. They’re happy they’re doing better, but the patients can’t tell their families a lot of times.”
As long as the social stigma persists, patients using medical marijuana are unlikely to lobby for their constitutional right to the medication.
New rules won’t improve community safety, lawyer says
Every press release issued by Health Canada on the new medicinal marijuana regulations last month said that Canadian communities would be safer as a result of the new regulations, but none of them said how or why that was the case.
Presumably, the government is implicitly referring to the same-old fears associated with cannabis grow-ops: fire and mould risks and drug-related violence. But the reality, according to experts, does not support these implied fears nor the government’s assertion that communities will be safer.
John Conroy, a criminal lawyer who has dealt with marijuana cases for 40 years, says he’s talked to a lot of lawyers in different BC municipalities who admit there hasn’t been a single fire from a medical grow-op yet, let alone a death from a fire, but they fear being the first municipality to have either.
“Statistics show that most house fires are in kitchens, and we’re not about to take kitchens out of people’s homes.”
Conroy said if grow-ops were properly inspected and permitted, mould wouldn’t be any more of a risk “than a person with a lot of house plants.” And he doubts the new rules will make Canadian communities safer since it’s the prohibition of the drug that creates the circumstances for violence.
“If you can’t go to the police when you’re ripped off, when you can’t resort to peaceful remedies, presumably you resort to violent remedies. We’ve known that since booze prohibition in the early days of the 20th century.”
As for young people, Conroy says it’s easier for them to access a drug on the black market than on a regulated market.
“The content of the drug is regulated then too, so you don’t have people dying from other stuff put into the drugs. That wouldn’t happen if the stuff was under control. It’s out of control because of prohibition.”
Last year the federal government brought in mandatory minimums for illegal grow-ops. The sentences range from 6 months for five plants up to two years for 500 plants. Conroy says organized crime will just get someone willing to carry out the jail sentence, while “mom and pop” operations will disappear.
“So the effect of mandatory minimums is that they squeeze the market and push the price up. When things on the black market become worth more, people shoot each other more because there’s a greater value when they get ripped off.”
Conroy said the regulations introduced in 2001 created a glut in the black market, mostly because many designate growers are growing beyond their allotment and selling it “out the back door”. The glut has driven black market prices down and subsequently reduced violence, but the government hasn’t acknowledged that, he said. Instead they’ve created regulations based on the exaggerated fear of gang-violence.
“A lot of this is based on the same old emotional, gut-reaction, stigma stuff of reefer madness, exacerbated by people thinking the drug war is still so bad that someone’s going to get shot in the crossfire because of a grow-op at the end of your street.”
Under the new regulations, private individuals can no longer grow in residential areas. Instead Licensed Commercial Producers will operate secure facilities.
Click HERE to read The Goat’s story on the new medicinal marijuana regulations.
Going back to Prince George, and visiting the UNBC campus, evoked strong emotions for me. How could I separate the place from Daniel? How could I forget the youthful excitement we shared in coming out here in 2001? Seeing the Rockies for the first time; moving away from Toronto for the first time; flexing our newfound freedom from high school and Etobicoke; the world seemed like such a big place then with endless possibility.
It’s easy to get overwhelmed in reflecting on the two days that I spent there this week. So to keep things simple, I’ll relate the experience through a story I know Daniel would’ve been entertained by.
I drove there with Andru, the mayor, and Laura, the newspaper owner; my roommates. The 4-hour drive was spectacular, winding along the Valley floor with the Rockies on one side and the Caribou Mountains on the other. The weather alternated brilliant sunshine with sudden downpours, leaving a trail of arcing rainbows in the rear view mirror. We saw black bears and deer too. We stopped at an ancient rain forest along the way, where a newly constructed boardwalk lead through towering cedars that twisted awkwardly into the sky. I felt like I was in a cartoon where the world was enormous and I was miniature. Daniel and I saw similar trees when we went camping out on the coast near Kitimat.
We got into Prince George around 9:30pm. Andru had to go to a Regional District meeting the next day, and Laura wanted to pick up her car from the mechanic, which had been nearly totalled by a run-in with a moose two months before. Laura and I were going to crash in Andru’s hotel room, but before going to the hotel Andru wanted to stop at a bar where a friend of his—and somewhat of a musical legend in Valemount, especially with my roommates—was hosting an open mic. After a few beers we were ready to leave. But when Andru phoned the hotel to let them know we were coming, he was told his room had been sold because he didn’t confirm earlier. We had nowhere to sleep.
Andru’s friend hosting the open mic, Raghu, offered to let us crash at his place. He lived with his partner and her child. Back at Raghu’s we sat outside on his back deck and smoked a joint. The conversation was immediately easy and edgy and intellectual and funny.
“That flag over the roof there is from the Sikh Temple.”
“Is that a sickle on it?”
“No, I don’t think so.”
“Maybe it’s a turban, that’d be more appropriate.”
“Or a bomb. Sorry, that’s not right.”
I zoned out for a bit, and when I came back Raghu was talking about Shiva. I listened intently and then said, “I can’t even wrap my head around all of the characters in the religion that I grew up with. I can barely begin to with other religions. Say Archangel Michael. Was he good? Bad? Rebel?”
Converation turned to Greek mythology.
“Theseus was interesting. They say his story is an allegory for the birth of language.”
“But what’s a speed belt gotta do with it?”, Laura asked.
“Nothing,” we all said.
“No, but how does it compare to a speed belt?”
“It doesn’t, only in your head,” we said.
Laura wasn’t even stoned.
When I lay down on the inflatable mattress in the spare room stuffed with bookshelves and a little girl’s paraphernalia, I noted that this was certainly not a hotel bed. Andru and Raghu had spent 15 minutes pumping the mattress up with a foot pump, except they used their hands trying, in vain, to mute the squeaky, farty sounds from waking up Leah, the little girl. I slept alright, considering every time I moved a muscle I was woken up by the sound of twisting latex.
The next day Laura and I spent an hour on the campus of UNBC. Among the stories that Daniel and I used to tell when we waxed nostalgic about that time:
-we had the idea of setting up a business in our residence room offering home-cooked meals to poor, malnourished students. We did a few trial meals for some friends, but that was about it.
-we’d test each other’s tolerance for mould and filth. One time Daniel left a pot of rice on the stove in the kitchen for weeks if not months. Green and grey and turquoise fluffy mould started poking over the edge of the pot. Eventually Daniel just threw the whole pot out. I clogged the toilet one time and it stayed that way for days. Man Daniel hated me for that for a while.
-we signed up for a natural resource class that promised wilderness first aid and survival skills. The class was a bust. Our field trips were cancelled because of a cougar in the area. And our teacher was a master’s student who couldn’t get his grammar in order on the exams.
An uneasy emotional premonition. Self-chastisement for giving in to the irrational, as though I had a choice. What is a place? I’ve learned it can change by unrelated events in a time removed. Suddenly a place can don the cloak of significance never imagined and unwanted.
“Thanks for breaking my balls,” the mayor said to me when I came home for lunch. He cracked a smile. “Nah, It was a good article.”
Things had been tense for the past week or two while I worked on a story about an accident on an unsafe accessibility ramp at the local community hall—owned and operated by the Village—that left a 98-year-old man and a pregnant woman injured. The tension was mostly in my own my mind, but not entirely.
Email communication I had with the Mayor’s office and other Village staff in researching the story was chafing me. It had been convoluted and difficult. And the complications of living with the Mayor, being friendly with Village staff on the streets, bumping into them in the most informal of settings like the grocery store or coffee shop, was starkly contrasted with the inaccessibility and formality of official correspondence.
For example: I had emailed the building inspector and public works officer at the Village requesting interviews to cover this story. I got an email reply from the Chief Administrative Officer saying that all media requests went through the mayor, “his Worship”. Balking at the formality, I wrote an ironically formal email to the Mayor with the same interview requests. That irony was lost, though, as the mayor didn’t respond, and then the weekend was upon us. He avoided the topic when I saw him at “home”, so finally on Sunday night I asked him what the status of my interview requests were. He told me the CAO was going to handle it after all. So on Monday I emailed the CAO asking when I could have an interview. She had forgotten to send me an email the Mayor sent her before the weekend in response to my questions. She had vetted the email, added some comments (who knows what other edits) and then forwarded it to me.
My initial response was akin to rage. Could an interview request really be satisfied by an officially vetted email response? If physical interaction can be made obsolete between journalists and interview subjects then journalism fails. I was angry at the Mayor, who used to run his own newspaper because it was a “great way to stir up shit”, for not acknowledging the journalistic principle at stake here. I was angry at myself for assuming that communication between media and municipal officials in a small town would be more straightforward and honest, not like the antagonistic and cynical rapport between media and municipal officials in Toronto. And I was disillusioned with the CAO who I thought was a very sweet person on the few occasions I’d met her, and now had no choice but to view her kindness as a façade behind which she operated, foremost, as a bureaucrat. The kind, sincere bureaucrat is a journalist’s formidable foe.
But whenever I have a strong emotional reaction to a situation, and especially when righteousness is involved, layers are revealed with time and the simple, strong conviction I first felt is burdened and enlightened with context.
“I’ve been making a documentary about my fall into politics,” the Mayor said to me on the night after my story was published. He had been working on a documentary in private for the past few years, chronicling his transition from media into politics, which he obviously had a guilty conscience about. In an honest attempt to be a good politician, and probably to mitigate the guilt, he was reading books on non-violence, Abraham Lincoln and diplomacy. “Maybe you can help me with the documentary. We have to get you comfortable in front of a camera,” the Mayor said. Unlikely, but I appreciated the Mayor’s candor and personability, despite the constraints and challenges in mixing formal and informal life.
In fact it inspired me to wax idealistic. This antagonism between media and politics is unnecessary, I said. And this situation of living with you, the mayor, in a small community was a perfect situation to prove that. What it boiled down to, I said, was being conscious of communication. The influences that made us react defensively or offensively found controlled but unacknowledged outlet in “formal” communication. We could hide behind the facades of our professionalism. The structures in place not only made that possible, but encouraged it; in fact nearly dictate that we nurture an antagonistic rapport. But if we committed ourselves to monitoring those defensive and aggressive reactions in our communication, which are emotionally based, we could define a new type of relationship between media and politician.
I’m not sure anything will come of those ideals, or even if they’ve been formulated and articulated carefully enough to be true. But in trying to navigate the complicated boundaries between reporting on municipal affairs and living with the mayor, two of his often-expressed sentiments come to mind: government can’t please everybody and shouldn’t try to, on the one hand, and the insecurity of what people are thinking about him on the other. He has good intentions and noble ideals and his attempt to bring those to office is inspiring. But his desire to appear honest and his conviction in communicating honestly leaves something to be desired. And without an ongoing, frank dialogue on motivations, that discrepancy will only become entrenched. The best way to appear honest, after all, is, simply, to be honest.