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Musings about the environment and all it touches, from education to city planning

Archive for March 2017

Aqueduct (a quick read)

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Adele Perry’s latest book about the Winnipeg aqueduct is a little gem (no surprise, given that the author is a historian who won a Clio award for her On the Edge of Empire about BC’s history).  It’s a short book that exposes the dispossession of the Shoal Lake 40 Anishinaabe First Nation to make way for the aqueduct intake.  Why Perry chose the topic can be found here.

A quick synopsis: at the turn of last century, Winnipeg was growing rapidly, claiming the title of Western Canada’s Metropolis.  But disease, particularly typhoid, was rife due to of lack of sewers and bad water supply.  The city eventually decided to get quality water from Shoal Lake, all the way across the Ontario border.  This required the okay from the International Joint Commission, in one of the formative decisions for the commission that deals with watersheds that straddle the US-Canada border.  The 150km long aqueduct was built, on time and budget, al little marvel of engineering.  To ensure a supply of good quality clear water, a dam was built across one of the inlets of the lake, to prevent the waters of Falcon river, tainted brown by natural humic acids, from reaching the intake.

Of course, there was no consultation with the local Anishinaabe inhabitants; some government reports claimed that the aqueduct would not affect the local community in any meaningful way, contradicting other reports that claimed that there was not even a community there.  The deck was stacked, clearly.  There was a vibrant community there, self-sufficient not only from the local wild resources (abundant fish, wildlife, wild rice) but also from agriculture.  Among the complaints that were dismissed by Indian Affairs, there is a record of the efforts of Chief Redsky in 1918 to be heard and get compensation.  He described the loss of lands (over 1500 hectares) as “enormous, consequential, and deeply unfair…the best part of the reserve…very good farming, good timber, good hay land.”

This story is reminiscent of the so-called rape of the Owens Valley, in California, following the (mostly illegal) appropriation of the Owens River water by the city of Los Angeles for its own aqueduct.  This is the story that was the setting for the oscar-winning movie Chinatown; many people have heard that story.  But who tells our own stories?  What do we know about our own water? Perry quotes from fellow historian Patricia Limerick who argues that “the forgetting of where water comes from is made possible by modernity.”

Learning about the injustices of the past, and about how we continue to profit from them, is a first step on the road to truth and reconciliation.  Before we can even acknowledge the injustice, we need to know it, and Perry’s book is a great contribution to uncovering the past.

The slim book is illustrated by numerous historical photos; but one criticism of it would be the lack of maps, which makes following the details a bit difficult at times.  I googled the aqueduct and realized it is back in the news, in a key controversy.  The aqueduct, the sole water supply of the city of nearly 800,000 inhabitants is threatened by the proposal for the east-west oil pipeline. According to Council of Canadians, the proposed pipeline is in the worst possible location: “Where the groundwater drains north, the pipeline is south of the aqueduct; where the groundwater drains south, the pipeline is to the north.” Not to mention the impact to the local First Nations who live along the joint path of the aqueduct and the pipeline, who are once again (almost) forgotten in the process.

Perry, Adele 2016. Aqueduct: colonialism, resources, and the histories we remember.  Winnipeg: ARP books.  Proceeds from the sale of the book go to Shoal Lake 40 First Nation.

Written by enviropaul

March 22, 2017 at 5:18 pm

Willoughby and the missing middle

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The view from Willoughby.

The Willoughby neighbourhood, in the Township of Langley, is abuzz with construction.  There is something unexpected about what is being built there: a lot of townhouses and mid-rise condos.  In other words, the kind of density that is praised by urban planners and afficionados of smart growth.

It’s a bit unexpected: the township is at the furthest remote of Metro Vancouver.  This is where one would expect sprawling ranchers and large lots.  But maybe because land is cheaper this far away from downtown, these condos and townhouses  are more affordable than in Vancouver proper.  Townhomes are priced at about half a million, and condos start at a quarter million. It’s absurd that a quarter million dollars for a condo should be considered affordable, but that’s the crazy situation here; these new developments are a welcome addition to the housing stock.

New raingardens, new townhouses

And the construction is nicely integrated within the city’s fine plans for integrated stormwater management.  The Vesta development at Milner heights, for instance, has conspicuous raingardens and infiltration swales.

So what’s not to like?  Quite a bit, unfortunately.  I took a walk along 208th street.  Of course, there’s a lot of construction, and the street is a connector, so it’s not a bucolic environment.  But even where the condos are newly finished and occupied, it’s not very inviting.  I walked through a complex of three-story buildings, just across from the ambitiously named Willoughby Town Centre.  It is serviced by an access path that snakes around the buildings.  As a result every building is completely surrounded by pavement.  There is little green growth anywhere.  Adding to the sense of oppressiveness, all you see at ground level are garages.  Whatever happened to porches and flowered window sills?

A sea of pavement

This is precisely what problem is with these new developments: they are designed for cars.  They have to.  There is public transit, yes.  Since the development started, there is now a bus along 208th.  I use the singular because I have never seen it.  I have to believe that one can actually catch this 595 bus, and take it all the way to the Carvolth exchange, maybe, and have to wait there for another bus to somewhere.  It’s dispiriting.  No wonder that folks in Langley voted against a new tax to improve transit, if this is what their experience with transit is like.

Smart car, sure, but smart growth, not really




This is not to slight the Township.  But good development needs good transit, but that essential tool is not one the planners can wield.  It’s all decided in Victoria.  That’s the basic flaw in how Metro Vancouver is run: we have no say on transportation.

This is another form of the missing middle.  In urban planning, the expression usually refers to the lack of smaller houses and townhomes, in mid-density developments, that is typical of cities like Vancouver: a lack of availability for the middle of the market, between subsidized housing and million-dollar single-family homes.  But the missing middle could also refer to this Willoughby plan.  It may be a fine development, but it is in the wrong place, far from the centre, away from transit. It – or developments of a similar density – should be located much closer to the centre, to be useful to a larger number of people that should not have to depend on cars.

I went back to the Willoughby Town Centre.  It’s too new to have any charm, obviously, and there’s too much space for cars.  All the stores are the same chains you’d see everywhere, from Shopper’s Drug Mart down the line.  But at least there is an independent coffee shop with character, Mattu’s.  On a Monday morning, around 10:30, it was quite busy.  Locals seem to use it as a community focal point.  Maybe there’s hope after all.

Written by enviropaul

March 20, 2017 at 8:46 pm

The unexpected costs of oil

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The (oil polluted) community of Tadoule, Northern manitoba

It’s easy to be single-focussed about the environmental consequences of using oil and other fossil fuels.  Many of us think about climate change but we easily forget other aspects, especially those that are unexpected.  It’s not just climate change, nor even just air pollution.  I was reminded of that after reading a couple of excellent books recently.

I recently posted a review of one of these books, Shaun Loney’s An Army of Problem Solvers.  He describes the situation in the first nations community of Northlands, in northern Manitoba just south of Nunavut:

There is more money spent on diesel and its cleanup that on housing, economic development, and healthy food combined.  It is another instance of abundant government money available to spend on a problem.  The diesel is job killing, environmentally backwards, and brutally expensive.

On my flight into Northlands from Winnipeg, I met reps from a soil-remediation company who were familiar with the community. They had been there many times before on lucrative government contracts.  They were on their way to undertake a half-million dollar contract to take soil samples and come up with a remediation plan.  A multi-million dollar contract to actually clean up the soil would follow.  None of this creates local jobs.

Northlands uses diesel mostly for power and heat.  Their situation is far from unique (a good review of the situation in other northern communities can be found in BriarPatch magazine on-line).

The 2013 I-5 bridge collapse over the Skagit River (Seattle Times).


I always have a few books on the go.  I was just finishing Elly Blue’s 2016 Bikenomics (how bicycling can save the economy.  Portland: Microcosm Publishing) on the heels of Loney’s book, meditating on some of the more absurd costs of oil dependence, when I read Blue’s comments about the Skagit River Bridge collapse.  This is a bridge that is part of Interstate 5 in Washington State.  But this wasn’t another case of poorly-maintained, crumbling infrastructure: the bridge was in fine shape before the collapse.

The part of the story that never got more than a passing mention in the media is that the bridge did not collapse because of structural defects…The cause of the collapse was a truck that struck the bridge overhead structure several times.  The truck was too large for the bridge, taller than the maximum height indicated for crossing and larger than the bridge’s designers, half a century earlier, had likely ever imagined a truck could be.  At the time of the collapse, the truck was in service delivering heavy oil-drilling equipment from the Port of Vancouver, Washington, to the Alberta Tar Sands oil fields.  The equipment was housed in large containers for the trip, and it is one of these empty containers that struck the bridge struts on the southbound trip.

These are just two examples of costs that we don’t often associate with oil, just two among many.  Oil pervades the economy, of course, and so one expects issues associated with oil to crop up in unexpected places.  This isn’t to say that we should get off oil overnight.  But, at the same time, oil shouldn’t get a free pass; the damages that oil causes, from air pollution and soil contamination to unexpected infrastructure accidents should all be part of the tally.  Then we can make wiser decisions.

An Army of Problem Solvers (a book review)

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an_army_of_problem_solvers_coverA friend loaned me a book called “An Army of Problem Solvers”, by Shaun Loney.  She didn’t push – “You may find it interesting, I dunno”.   Usually I’m weary of books with that kind of titles;  they tend to cause the eyes to glaze with a mix of dry-as-dust policy discussion and naïve, feel-good stories.  So I started the book in the middle, chapter five, because this is where some community energy projects were described.  I figured there’d be some meat there, at least.

Indeed.  Loney starts with a description of the Rainy River $160 million, 25 MW solar farm.  This is an Ontario installation of 130,000 solar panels that covers about 120 ha.  All of it is community power.  The band makes money form it; most of the income goes towards paying back the financing, but that still leaves about one million in annual profits, which are plowed back into the community.  This project has given the band more independence and clout in self-governing, as do all community power projects.  This one, incidentally, was made possible by the much decried Feed-in-Tariff (FiT) created by the government of Ontario.

Manitoba Hydro has a Pay As You Save (PAYS) system.  This is used for financing energy efficiency retrofits and insulation for some first nations projects, such as the Fisher River first nation, which has led to the creation of a self-supporting company, Fisher River Builders, who are providing energy retrofit services to a variety of clients.

But the federal government gets in the way; the financing fee on the utility bill is considered an ineligible expense for people in social assistance.  An $8 million partnership between Aki Energy and the Waywaysecappo First nation in northern Manitoba was turned down by Indian and Northern Affairs (INAC).  INAC ruled that the social assistance money can’t be used to pay such projects.  The case hit the media; this embarrassed the government into backing down and offering to “restore the funding”.  They were then doubly embarrassed to learn that there was no funding to be restored; this is an independent contract, driven by the bottom line, and not some kind of subsidy.  They offered to pay the $8 million themselves; the partners declined.  Why? Because this would not only be unfair to others who have paid earlier, but mostly because it reinforces the vision of bands as immature wards of the state.  Argues Loney:

The reason they offered the money is because this way they can maintain control.  We often hear that INAC is a colonial department.  This is a good example.  Force the high-cost, low-impact so that they can maintain control.  Apparently, this is preferable to the low-cost, high-impact approach that gives communities the tools they need to be successful.

There are no food stores in the Garden Hill First Nations community.  Food is brought in from away, distributed periodically.  17% of the community members suffer from diabetes.  Yet Garden Hills used to be self-sufficient: country food (the product of hunting, fishing and gathering) was available, but also locally grown vegetables, as well as meat and dairy produced by members of the community.  What happened?  The Indian Act.  One case illustrates the situation.

Stan McKay told me that his parents sold one of their five cows so Stan would have pocket money when he was away [in school].  But this was done only with permission from the Indian Agent and at a cut-rate price.  They had to go through him because it was illegal for Indigenous people to sell anything off-reserve without permission of the Great White Mother’s agent [this was only repealed in 2014].

The historical overview is full of depressing stories like this.  Thankfully, the bulk of the bulk is just the opposite: examples of effective solutions (Garden Hill is now home to the Meechim community farm and orchard).  I was aware of some of the issues, but many of the petty rules and frustrations described were completely new to me.  A bit of a shock, one that shook me out of my complacency that, as a non-aboriginal person, this is not my issue, but a mere historical wrong that “others” should fix.

This is where the book is particularly important and salutary.  Loney asks what the role of a non-aboriginal – a settler, in other words  – should be:

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission reports reminds us that a key part of the reconciliation process involves those of us who are not Aboriginal becoming aware of our own personal stories and how they connect to the past and present lives of Aboriginal people.  Through this we gain a better understanding of the broken spirits among us and the role we must all play on the road to reconciliation.  The Indigenous reality is not an Indigenous problem.  It is a Canadian problem.  Or, more accurately, it is a Canadian opportunity.  As Stan McKay says, reconciliation is a path we must all walk together.  One of the most important steps we can collectively take is to create the conditions to allow local economies to re-emerge.

Wow.  That is true for First Nations, but it is also true for the whole country: community projects, be it food or energy, create jobs and reinvest money in the local economy.  What is true for a community like Garden Hills First Nation is also true for Prince George or a Vancouver downtown eastside.

Need I specify?  I read the whole book, and my eyes never glazed.


Loney, Shaun 2016An army of problem solvers: reconciliation and the solutions economy.  Available from

Shaun Loney is a former Manitoba civil servant turned social entrepreneur; he is an Ashoka fellow (look up the association up here).

Written by enviropaul

March 5, 2017 at 6:45 pm