My Own Story (or, parts thereof…)
Ever since I can remember, I have been a passionate advocate for nature, for wildlife and for the natural world. As early as about age 6 or 7, I can recall having a rummage sale where I sold off a bunch of my old toys to raise some money which I donated to the World Wildlife Fund. It wasn’t very much, but it was everything I had. I thought it was wrong that species should be going extinct and, I was determined that we should be doing something about it. Sounds a bit geeky, but to me it was the most natural of things and a very early recognition that “doing the right thing” was what was important to me and what gave me the greatest satisfaction and sense of accomplishment.
I was born in 1953 in Middlesbrough, a heavily industrialized town in the north east of England. Home to iron ore refineries, steel mills and huge petrochemical complexes, it was a pretty grimy town. But it was also surrounded by remarkable countryside – the Yorkshire moors in one direction, the Yorkshire Dales in another, and a string of captivating seaside towns and fishing villages along a magnificent coastline. Although I didn’t realize it at the time, the presence of this heritage – nature and culture, harmonious together – was burned deep inside me as the measure of how the world should be.
I was fortunate to live on the edge of town. Just down the street from our home were “the woods” – only a few hectares, and surrounded by roads and houses, but an oasis nonetheless. And next to the woods, the “big lake”. Not much more than a small pond (and so named because it was larger than the small lake, which was really just a ditch full of water), but large enough to support an active ecosystem, with two kinds of stickleback, two species of newt, frogs, toads, caddis flies, reeds and lots of other less noticeable but just as fascinating bugs and plants. For a bunch of pre-adolescent kids, these places were special indeed – they were “ours”, our realm, and they became our second home. It’s here that my connection and love for nature was seeded, and became a part of me.
When I was 13, my family moved to Canada, to Victoria. For the first few years, we moved around B.C., following my father’s work opportunities, and finally settling in Nanaimo. After graduation from high school, I left for a few years to attend the University of Victoria, where I majored in Biology and Environmental Sciences, working as a teaching assistant and at the Forest Research Centre to pay my way through school.
I also took a couple of years to travel. Hitch-hiking across Canada (in the dead of winter – perhaps not the smartest timing decision I’ve ever made) gave me a tremendous appreciation for the scale, abundance and magnificence of this country, and just how incredibly fortunate we are. I also did the obligatory (for “1970’s youth”) hitch-hike/train trip around Europe and North Africa. It left me overwhelmed. There is so much diversity, such richness and such a profound sense of place and belonging in those cultures that have such deep histories. But there is also an amazing commonality and connectedness among people. Regardless of our different backgrounds and experiences, the fact that we may see things differently and speak different languages, we all want the same fundamentals for ourselves and our families: to be happy and to be respected, to have things (and people) in our lives that we care about and to live our lives with a sense of integrity and purpose.
Returning home to Nanaimo, it wasn’t long before I met Sandra…we fell in love and began a new phase of our lives together, with our son Jesse. I began working at the Pacific Biological Station, first with salmon enhancement projects, then with crustacean fisheries and finally with the marine mammal program. While all of these projects were rewarding intellectually, this was at a time when the federal government was beginning to push its research more and more away from pure research toward industrial support (a.k.a. resource exploitation), and I began to question the real value of what we were trying to accomplish. Eventually the funds for the marine mammal projects largely dried up (i.e. they didn’t see any big financial returns), and my time in (pure) research ended.
During this same time, however, I was beginning to get more directly involved in local political activism. I’d already been involved with a few environmental groups, although in a fairly passive way. But since I returned from travelling I was also much more interested in the health of the community, as well as the health of the environment. What spurred on my activism was a proposal to rebuild the highway through the heart of Nanaimo and, incidentally, right through the living room of my house – kind of a no-brainer motivator. This was in one of Nanaimo’s oldest and lowest income neighbourhoods. The proposed new road alignment would have torn the community apart, and there appeared to be no-one able or willing to stand up against it. So, along with a few other local residents, we formed a community association and fought back. The highway project got shelved, and we went on to address a host of other community issues, both within our own neighbourhood and, in partnership with other community groups around the City, across the whole region.
This coalition of groups evolved into Nanaimo’s first progressive civic political organization. We contested a number of seats on City Council – for which I was a candidate – and the School Board, trying to bring a fresh and more democratic voice to local politics which, for years, had been dominated by development interests. While I was not elected, it was a tremendous experience that taught me a great deal about communications and about what it takes to get things done in the public realm.
Some time afterwards, Nanaimo’s Member of Parliament, Ted Miller, advertised a job as policy/political advisor in his Ottawa Office. He was the fisheries critic for the New Democratic Party, and was looking for someone who understood the fishing industry, but who also had local political knowledge and connections. Right up my alley. I won the job and so moved the family to Ottawa.
It didn’t take long to figure out what my new job was all about. Arriving at the office on Parliament Hill for the first day (a rather awe-inspiring experience in itself), I found a gift of a coffee cup left for me by my predecessor. It had the caption “Around here I have a very responsible position. Whenever anything goes wrong, I’m responsible.” It spoke volumes.
Parliament Hill is a place of egos and one-upmanship. It’s as much about getting credit as it is about doing the right thing. While I truly believe that (almost) everyone – politicians, their staff and bureaucrats alike – goes there with the best of intentions and an honest desire to make things better for the people at home and or the country as a whole, their passions quickly become captured in the political circus that drives so much of our public discourse. It’s no longer just a matter of doing the right thing, or even doing the best you can, it’s more a matter of figuring out how who will benefit (and who will pay)and then figuring out how to get your way. And, of course, to be seen to be doing what you want to be seen to be doing. It is always about shaping public perceptions and gaining ground – moving toward the next election. While some things do get done, they are not always (in fact, rarely) done in just the right way, and are not always (in fact, rarely) what is most needed – they are what evolves from an imperfect and self-absorbed political structure that inhibits change and has its own priorities.
Nevertheless, there are some remarkably dedicated and passionate people involved, and it is an exciting and dynamic environment in which to work. It demands a thick skin, but also creativity and an ability to focus. It is about applying strategy and tactics in all things, and exercising sound analysis and good judgment. And it’s about communicating, effectively and extensively. I learned a lot during my seven years in Ottawa.
I worked for only a year with Ted Miller and then, after the 1984 election which ushered in the rather nasty and vindictive Mulroney era, moved on to work with Iain Angus, a newly-elected MP from Northwestern Ontario, who was appointed as critic for Transportation. After the 1988 election, I helped establish a new position, that of Caucus Administrator/Assistant to the Caucus Chair, which I held until 1990, when I moved to Toronto to work at Queen’s Park with the new Ontario Government.
As exciting as it had been working with the “opposition” on Parliament Hill, working as a part of the Government was a quantum leap more rewarding. While we understood the constraints, our expectations of what we wanted to achieve were high. I worked with Ed Philip, a long-time MPP from the Etobicoke area in Metro Toronto, who was appointed Minister of Transportation. I was hired as his policy advisor. We were able to significantly advance rapid transit infrastructure in the Metro area, and begin a wholesale strategy for the “greening” of transportation across the Province. This included protection of the Red Hill Creek valley in the Hamilton area from destruction by a proposed new freeway development.
After a year or so, a Cabinet shuffle moved us to the Ministry of Industry, Trade and Technology, where I took on the role of Chief of Staff. This was a challenging portfolio, especially in light of the relative hostility of much of Ontario’s industrial sector toward the government. Nevertheless we were able to implement a more progressive industrial strategy for the Province, open new avenues of opportunity for small and medium sized businesses, and expand trade ties with key parts of the world, taking advantage of Ontario’s significant multicultural population. We were also able to take steps forward to reduce emission levels at pulp mills across the Province.
Another Cabinet shuffle eighteen months later saw us take on responsibility for Municipal Affairs and for the Greater Toronto Area. Now in the second half of the government’s mandate, we picked up initiatives started by our predecessors in the portfolio and we were able to complete creation of the Rouge Valley Park (Canada’s largest urban wilderness park) and the Waterfront Trail through Toronto. We were also able to complete a new Planning Act for Ontario, which provided, in my view, the best and greenest planning regime in the country.
Unfortunately, our government did not survive the next election, and much of the progress we’d made was quickly undone by the vicious Harris government that followed. Many of the most significant changes (for example, some of those in the Planning Act) never saw the light of day. It was a harsh reminder that political progress is fleeting and can be undone with a stroke of the pen. True change can only come when it is deeply embedded in the population, and made tangible.
With the loss of government, came a requirement for a new party leader. I was asked by Tony Silipo, a well-respected and passionate Toronto MPP, to manage his leadership campaign. I’d managed numerous riding-based election campaigns over the years, but this was a much larger venture, spanning more than six months and dozens of communities. We put together a dynamic and very visible multicultural campaign and, while we did not win the contest outright we were able to position our team to influence the final outcome and establish Tony as the deputy leader.
After the campaign, I took on a position as Executive Director of a community centre in the west end of Scarborough. However after only a few months on the job, came an opportunity (and an anticipated necessity) to move back to B.C., where we would be closer to our aging parents.
We moved on to a rural property just outside of Sooke (actually, it’s in Saseenos). Just an acre in itself, but it backs directly on to many thousands of acres of Sooke Hills wilderness. The property contains a fairly small, but solid, log house and an even smaller one bedroom cottage, which provides the opportunity for family to live with us.
After a few months of the “country gentleman” lifestyle (a.k.a. employment insurance), I found a job managing a community centre in the Fernwood district of Victoria – an eclectic, mixed neighbourhood with lots of challenges but lots of potential – and quickly found myself back into the community development work I’d been involved with years ago. It was rewarding. There were many tremendous people involved with the centre, and we developed some great programming that made a real difference in many people’s lives. But it also had its frustrations: there were very few resources and little consensus in the community about what it wanted and/or needed. As a result there was a resistance to change and progress was very slow. I felt, often, like I was simply spinning my wheels.
A couple of years later, I came across The Land Conservancy of BC. They were, at that time, attempting to purchase the 3,400 acres immediately adjacent to my property. That area, it turned out, was owned by a company with tentative plans for a potentially massive housing development. It had also become, in the past couple of years a playground for off-road vehicle enthusiasts, and was rapidly being degraded. TLC wanted to protect the area from inappropriate development and activities and see its natural values permanently protected as a park. I offered to help, and provided some observations and documentation about the kind of inappropriate activity that was occurring on the site.
Not long afterwards, I was offered a job with TLC. Finally, I thought, after all my years of doing so many other things, this was an opportunity to put all my energies directly into conservation – my first passion. TLC was a marvellous place to work. Its executive director (and founder), Bill Turner, had pulled together a dedicated and incredibly passionate group of staff and volunteers, and imbued the organization with his own “never-say-die” brand of optimism. Everyone at TLC truly believed they could achieve great things, and they did.
TLC was about taking direct action. Simply talking about conservation, or trying to convince someone else to do something no longer held any interest for me. I’d been doing that for years (particularly in my “political” work) and it leads, at best, to a giant spinning wheel. It’s a mug’s game that goes nowhere but in circles. It had become abundantly clear to me that if we are to effect real change and see real progress in our society, we must take direct and personal responsibility for what we want to see happen – we can’t leave it to someone else. As Gandhi said, we must “be the change that we want to see in the world.”
And that’s what we did. As Deputy Executive Director, I helped build TLC into a highly effective and well-respected force for conservation in BC (and across Canada). By cultivating a broad-based and high-profile approach to protecting special places that were of value to communities, we were not only able to protect hundreds of sites – directly owning and managing over 50 – covering 130,000 acres across BC, but we were also able to positively influence and help other conservation organizations and government agencies to enhance their own conservation work as well. And we were able to encourage thousands of people to get directly involved as volunteers, tens of thousands to help with donations, and hundreds of thousands to get outside and enjoy/appreciate the special places we had all worked to protect.
The work at TLC produced great rewards, but it was never easy. Right from the outset, TLC never had enough resources – particularly money – to do what we wanted/needed to. However, when you’re out to change the world, not having enough resources simply goes with the territory. It’s always a juggling act and it’s always nerve-wracking, like walking a knife edge. But that’s what it takes if you want to make a difference.
Twice over TLC’s 15 years, the Board of Directors lost its nerve, and lost its way, in response to very difficult financial challenges. Naively believing they could find a quick and easy path to stability and sustainability, they looked for solutions in cutbacks and personnel changes (including myself and the Executive Director), and tried to change the nature of the organization into something much more limited in scope and actions – but, unfortunately, also in effectiveness. The first time (in 2009) we fought back through a Board election process, and the membership responded by installing a new Board and reinstating us with a strong majority. However, as much as we wanted to believe otherwise, the cancer had been seeded and we were never able to fully recover. We were unable to operate again with the same effectiveness and support as we had achieved earlier. So when we ran into difficulties again, in 2011, and the Board reacted again with much the same ill-advised approach as in 2009, the cancer had spread further and there was nothing we could do about it.
While TLC is now being dismantled, and its future is in doubt, it is also in the hands of others. While we still care a great deal about the properties we protected, about the many people who supported us along the way, and about the integrity and the potential of the land trust movement, we’ve had to wash our hands of TLC. However, that does not mean that our vision of conservation – or the need for the kind of conservation infrastructure we were trying to build – has to be dismantled along with TLC. So, continuing to work together with Bill Turner and other key people from TLC, we are beginning to create a new organization, the National Trust for Land and Culture, which will in time pick up from where TLC left off, and create a proactive, democratic and broad-based conservation movement focused on the protection of special places not just in BC, but across the country.
To help support ourselves and provide a base for our charitable work, we have also established our own consultancy – Change Canada Consultants Ltd. – that provides a range of services to non-profits, businesses and governments, designed to bring about positive change in our communities.
That’s it for now. And on to tomorrow….