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Under a malaria moon



These photos and rough notes were made in central and east Africa, where I spent nearly a decade covering news assignments and co-producing a book about Médecins Sans Frontières with Elliot Layton. My journeys,  from 1996 to 2005,  followed an arc through rural east and central Africa, from the Dadaab refugee camps on the Kenya – Somalia border, through South Sudan, Uganda, Rwanda to Lake Kivu in the Great Lakes region of the eastern Congo and Burundi. Many days were spent transiting in and out of my home base in Nairobi.  These photos of conflict, humanitarian crisis and daily life are culled from my travel diaries.  (…click on the thumbnails images to enlarge photos)

DADAAB, Kenya.Dadaab1

  • Hot night in the desert/ refugee camp/  bandit ridden no-mans-land.
  • Medicines sans Frontiers, CARE, WFP people and I gathered in open walled hut dressed up like a bar. I watch doctors fill out reports.
  • Listening to people talk over today’s events in the camps.
  • There are two soundtracks/dissonance: Insects buzzing, crackle of VHF walkie-talkies connecting aid workers/local staff. I hear voices in  broken English calling out the death toll.
  • Children here at risk from cholera and tuberculosis – but dying fast from cerebral malaria. Born with malaria. It’s killing them and often their mothers too.
  • I’m getting sick. Has Lady Anopheles has found me too, now? So much for the Mefloquin!



  • Frontier town. Kenya–Sudan border. Feels like the end of the road. Loki-1
  • Locals and friends call it “Loki.”
  • NGO City. Nothing natural about it. Built, literally, by  UN & aid agencies as base of operations for  relief/ aid work in southern Sudan.
  • UN World Food program  built the 8,000 foot runway. It’s littered with aluminum plane skeletons. Pilots who  ran out of talent?
  • What’s here: International Red Cross operating hospital. Logistics base for just about every international aid agency, construction company and charter air service working in S. Sudan/E Africa.
  • Foreigners mix  with local nomadic herdsmen, the Turkana and Samburu – who carry on their ancient pastoral tribal feuds here.
  • Hijacking of trucks and shootouts =  true frontier feel.
  • Hot, dusty outpost but not entirely without “civilization:”  entrepreneurship booming.
  • Where there’s money, there’s money to be made: hence Loki’s bars, restaurants, housing, warehouses, cellular and satellite phone service, internet connections for couple thousand foreign aid workers, pilots and UN administrators who come
  • Killer Kala Azar, AKA “Black Death” is endemic. Local. Not known in the west.
  • Other than the dirt, heat, mini dust storms, low flying aircraft, malaria-carrying mosquitoes & sand flies spreading Black Fever it’s just like  any tropical tourist destination:  Great pizza, cold beer, soccer on the TV, an internet café. An oasis …of sorts.
  • It’d be like a Caribbean resort village! (Except for the conversations about getting a 10-tonne Volvo truck with a drilling rig into  the upper Nile area without roads. Except for the Russian pilots whose fuel cache was stolen by a Sudanese warlord.
  • Africa at its strangest? Definitely.



  • I’m in the hands of The Lord. One of ironic, colourful (maybe prophetic?) names painted on Mutatus. Small minivans used by locals as bus service. Decrepit. Reckless. Pounding reggae music.  14 souls jammed inside. We careen through Nairobi streets.
  • I see why most foreign agencies forbid employees from using them. Like death trap sardine cans. Baptized by  lunatic pilots: “noms de guerre” — “Ride with The Lord,” “Bound For Glory,” “Mixed Nuts,” “Wheel of Fortune.” My personal favourite: “Jesus Wept”.
  • Names amusing until I board Eagle Air from Entebbe to Gulu, Uganda:  “Glory to the Lord” is painted on the nose. 
  • But it’s a nice new turboprop. Thankfully the naming habits the only thing this bird has in common with the mutatus. 
  • Whenever I leave for a while & come back Nairobi has changed — so much, every time. More paved roads, new car dealerships … condo bldgs. And AMAZING cell phone service! Canadian mobile provider back home could learn a lesson here.
  • Business is booming.
  • It’s World AIDS DAY … Tribal women in traditional dress and T-shirts are dancing by the hotel pool with business women in power suits, skirts and high heels …but they all know the dance.


GULU, Uganda.


  • A dozen turkey-sized birds with large round bodies, scrawny necks and big heads with powerful beaks sit on a 3-meter brick wall. They squawk at everything that goes by. I am walking to a Canadian doctor’s house for supper and suddenly they come screaming out of the sky at me.
  • The security guard opens the gate.
  • I scream: “What the Hell are those things?” 
  • He: “Don’t know. Not local birds. Come from Zaire …very mean.”
  • Just heard that a SUV owned by an American evangelical NGO ran over and killed a local Anglican priest. An apt metaphor about religion in Uganda it seems.
  • Joined a wedding procession through town …they had a marching band.


LACORE, Uganda.

  • Watching sun setting, watching a long line of children walking on dusty road.
  • West of Gulu. Northern town, near Sudan border. It’s the front line of 18 year old war – Uganda’s UPDF army vs Lord’s Resistance Army rebels.
  • These are kids looking for places to spend night where they may be safe from abductions, rape, robbery Lacore-1and torture.
  • At home they’re prey for by Lord’s Resistance Army  hunting parties. They go home in the mornings, spend days in their villages, going to school, roaming the dirt streets.
  • Nights they come here. Some protection found on the grounds and inside hospitals/churches/government buildings/camps of  international aid organizations.
  • The organizations here for humanitarian assistance: there are 1.6 million internally displaced persons (IDPs = refugees in their own country) driven from their homes since this conflict escalated in 1996
  • Tonight at St. Mary’s –  long-established Italian missionary hospital. Children greet you with a unexpected “CAIO!” 
  • In Lacore you walk always near shadows. Dark figures in the dimly-lit compound, on the hospital grounds.
  • My eyes adjust. The heaps of rags in unlit corners I thought were garbage are people sleeping. Thousands of them.
  • They’re given away by a barely perceptible rustling/the fleeting glimpse of a moving hand/ flash of eyes/crying baby.


AWERE, Uganda.

  • Morning. Sunrise filters through morning mists and cooking-fire smoke.
  • I leave the camp compound in this village of mostly huts. People are starting their day.
  • The village tailor and “Head Man” lifts an ancient sewing machine  and puts it on the front verandah of a brick building. He’s open for business.
  • Women go for water.
  • Big Landcruisers tactically parked for a quick escape —  reminders that this peaceful village is a fantasy, made up of people driven from their own villages by the war to the north.
  • That war that can still find them if it wants to.
  • Two young men in flip flops and irregular military fatigues carrying AK47s wander through town.
  • Music from across the road …young people play homemade instruments and dance.
  • TIA …this is Africa.


KIGALI, Rwanda.

  • QUESTION: Why do smart, young, educated middle and upper class westerners do international aid work in conflict zones?
  • ANSWER: Unemployment, under-employment, boredom, adventure and meaning.Kigali-1
  • MSF worker:  “ …if I was home I’d be working crappy shifts in a suburban hospital handing out pills and bed pans to people mostly suffering from self-inflicted health issues.  Here? I get to run a field hospital at age 24.”
  • Marilyn (MSF):  “We like this work, we like this lifestyle. It’s a culture of its own.” 
  • Elliott Layton: “ …there is an ecstasy of moral clarity.”
  •  “The world can afford a humanitarian ideal.” – MSF logistician …Karl?
  • The woman processing my press credentials has machete scars on her face and head. She is polite and efficient. I try to imagine how her physical scars compare to her psychological scars.



NYARAMA, Rwanda.


  • Our driver is named Hassan. Today he drives us to a small church in a village called Nyarama , south of Kigali.
  • During the genocide government militias took thousands of Tutsi minorities to this church. They fired machine guns and rocket-propelled grenades at the building after they got tired of killing them with pangas and machetes.
  • The orgy of murder took six hours.
  • That was two years ago — the bones are still in the building. Now villages are returning, removing them. It’s delicate work.
  • On the alter sit the skulls of three priests.
  • The smell….
  • As we leave Hassan asks to stop at the cemetery where his family is buried.
  • We watch him walk – quietly – through  rows of simple wooden crosses.
  • He  looks up — nearby a group of Hutu refugees are on their way, returning from the Congo.
  • Later, he tells us, he wondered if the killers of his family are among the Hutus.
  • QUESTION: will these ethnic groups ever be able to live together again in Rwanda after this?


GISENYI, Rwanda.

  • Over two days 800,000 men, women and children pass through this border town. They’re fleeing 3-way fighting in the refugee camps of eastern Congo.Goma-1
  • Roads, villages and fields in between are jammed with sick and dying.
  • The dead are left in the ditchs where they fall.
  • How to describe this? Biblical in its scope.

GOMA, Congo.

  • A tent city refugee camp between Goma and Sake — it was attacked by one of the militias fighting for control over region.
  • On this day it’s a smouldering plain. Refuse & mud everywhere.
  • Some survivors didn’t make it out. They’re begging the aid agency advance teams for help.

SAKE, Congo.

  • Local fisherman on the shore of Lake Kivu find a place to land their catch – a place not occupied by Rwandan refugees or militias.
  • A MSF doctor offers up medicine to treat a child’s eye infection.


DADAAB, Kenya.

  • I have malaria. Time to go.
  • I enter a dark, makeshift bar on a dirt street covered in three inches of brown water. I shake hands with a pilot, give him $50.00, and hitch a ride back to Nairobi.
  • On the plane I’m sick. He laughs.
  • We swing out over the Indian Ocean. The night cloudless. We fly low along the coast in the full glow of the malaria moon.


View our photo gallery, click on the image to enlarge and get additional photos and caption information.


© 2013 Greg Locke

Portions of this article originally published in Touched By Fire, doctors without borders in a third world crisis by Dr Elliott Leyton and Greg Locke. Published by McClelland and Stewart Canada in 1998.(ISBN 0-7710-5305-3). Also, The UTNE Reader #94 July-August 1999.

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Tokyo moves to boost military in response to Chinese “provocations”

Published: September 18, 2013.

Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is moving to loosen constitutional restrictions on the use of the country’s armed forces, in response to increasing military pressure from China over disputed islands in the East China Sea.

On Wednesday Abe asked a legal committee to report by the end of the year on ways to reinterpret Article 9 of the constitution — the so-called pacifist provision — so that Japan can have what he calls “ordinary armed forces.” The move comes as China has intensified its air and sea incursions into Japanese territorial waters and air space around the five uninhabited Senkaku Islands.

China claims to own the islands, which it calls the Diaoyu. In the last year it has sent Coast Guard cutters into Japanese waters around the islands on 59 occasions. Chinese Air Force warplanes and, in the last few days, unmanned drone aircraft, have repeatedly flown into Japanese air space over the islands, prompting Tokyo to scramble its own fighters. 

After the latest incursion last week, Japanese officials warned their jet fighters may shoot down Chinese drones. Japan’s Chief Cabinet Secretary, Yoshihide Suga, also said Tokyo will consider stationing government officials on the islands to reinforce its sovereignty.

This brought an angry response from Beijing. China’s Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei said if Japan takes “provocative” actions it must “accept the consequences.”

“We are resolute and determined to safeguard our territorial sovereignty,” Hong said. “We will not tolerate any provocative actions against China’s sovereignty.”

The long-standing dispute came to a boil last year when the captain of a Chinese trawler, found fishing in waters around the islands, was detained after he rammed a Japanese Coast Guard cutter. The incident sparked fervour among ultra nationalists in both China and Japan.

In an effort to calm the situation, the Japanese government bought three of the five islands from their private owner on September 11 last year. But the move backfired. Beijing interpreted the purchase as “nationalisation,” and began the campaign of incursions by its Coast Guard ships and armed forces.

A brief meeting between Abe and the new Chinese President Xi Jinping on the sidelines of the G-20 summit in Russia earlier this month failed to cool the issue. Indeed, the Chinese incursions have intensified in the days around the first anniversary of Tokyo’s purchase of the islands.

Even more threatening military displays have been held by all branches of China’s People’s Liberation Army on the East China Sea coast facing the Senkaku Islands. State-controlled Chinese media reported that an exercise was intended to “demonstrate the power projection of the People’s Liberation Army to the disputed Diaoyu islands in the East China Sea.” It involved 40,000 soldiers of the 31st Army Group, warships from the East Sea Fleet and South Sea Fleet, and fighter aircraft, attack helicopters and bombers.

China has been engaged in a massive modernization and expansion of its armed forces since 1990. But despite Beijing’s evident determination to be able to project power overseas, in quality and sophistication its forces remain inferior to the Japanese military, whose systems and equipment are designed to allow joint operations with its major ally, the United States.

Tokyo, however, is restricted by Article 9 of the constitution, imposed on Japan by the U.S. after the Second World War, on how its forces can be used. The constitution allows Japan to maintain only sufficient “self-defence forces” to ensure the security of the country if it is attacked. Japan’s military is prohibited from either attacking another country or joining with allies in offensive operations, such as the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq and Afghanistan.

In the face of considerable public disquiet, successive Japanese governments have in recent years pushed the boundaries of Article 9. Japanese forces have provided logistical support for allied operations and Japanese naval vessels have joined the anti-piracy patrols off Somalia and the Horn of Africa.

Since his return to the prime ministership in December last year, Abe has made no secret of his wish to either revise Article 9 or reinterpret the section to allow greater freedom of action by Japan’s armed forces.

This is being encouraged by the U.S. administration of Barack Obama, which wants greater support from its allies as territorial disputes in Asia become more threatening, accompanied by a significant regional arms race.

Abe has repeatedly given two reasons for wanting to loosen restrictions on Japan’s military, neither of which is very convincing. One is to enable Japanese forces to counter-strike if a U.S. warship is attacked while on a joint exercise. The other is to allow Japan’s military to attempt to shoot down a missile aimed at the U.S.

Some Japanese legal experts say their military already has the authority to aid a U.S. vessel in a joint operation as part of its mission to defend Japan. As for shooting down a missile fired at the U.S., perhaps from China or North Korea, it’s highly questionable whether the current level of missile defence technology would allow such a feat.

Much more to the point were remarks by Abe earlier this month, remarks clearly pointing at China.

“We cannot look away from the reality of repeated provocations against our sovereignty, of the worsening safety and security situation surrounding our nation,” Abe said. “We must not conclude with a mere pretence that diverges from reality and thereby put strain on the self-defence forces that are on the ground.”

“We have continually walked the road of peace for 68 years after the end of the Second World War, with the U.S. security alliance as our bedrock. We can be proud of that. But this will not guarantee future peace,” he said. Jonathan.manthorpe@gmail.com  

Copyright © 2013 Jonathan Manthorpe

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MOVIES: Cold War Relics Fight On

By Brian Brennan
CALGARY, Alberta, 1989

On the eastern edge of the Rocky Mountains, in a mock English pub converted temporarily into a Bavarian inn, the night air holds a solemn stillness as the director John Frankenheimer shoots the pivotal scene of his latest movie.

A uniformed Soviet army officer appears, suddenly and unexpectedly, in the smoke-filled bar of the Gasthof Zum Goldenen Rossel, situated on the western side of the German-Czechoslovak border. He points his automatic pistol at a United States Army colonel played by Roy Scheider and warns that he will kill the American if he continues venturing nightly across the heavily-guarded border to taunt the soldiers on the other side. ”You’ve been making such a habit of coming to me,” says the Russian with measured sarcasm, ”I thought it was time I returned the compliment.”

It’s the kind of breath-catching, international-level confrontation that Mr. Frankenheimer has explored before in such thrillers as ”Black Sunday” and ”The Train,” but with a difference. In this film, tentatively titled ”The Fourth War,” there are no heroes or villains. ”These guys are dinosaurs,” says Mr. Frankenheimer, a rangy 59-year-old with a perpetually exasperated expression. ”In the age of glasnost, you don’t need them. They’re yesterday’s business.”

The $14.5 million action drama, being shot near the site of the Calgary 1988 Winter Olympics, is meant in Mr. Frankenheimer’s mind to show how a dangerous game of one-upmanship played across the border by two trigger-happy colonels could easily escalate into a major East-West conflict. As it happens, the only person to get killed, early in the film, is a Czechoslovak defector. That’s why Mr. Frankenheimer and Mr. Scheider, both antiwar advocates, are not happy with the working title.

”What we’re trying to show, without hitting people on the head -boom, boom, boom – is that war is an unthinkable alternative,” says Mr. Frankenheimer. Adds Mr. Scheider, ”We’re sick of it. The Russians are sick of it. The people who wage war now are the lunatic fringe. Alternative titles being discussed by the two men are ”Game of Honor” and ”Face Off.”

The movie, which also stars Jurgen Prochnow as the Soviet colonel, Tim Reid as the United States second-in-command, Harry Dean Stanton as the United States commanding general, and a newcomer, Lara Harris, as a Czechoslovak dissident, is on a 10-week shooting schedule here, up to the end of April.

This has meant a race against time to complete the key outdoor scenes before the snows recede. Fourteen months ago, during the Winter Olympics, southern Alberta was sunning in 50-degree temperatures, and similar weather this year would have spelled major trouble for the film.

Robert Rosen, the line producer, who was in Calgary during the Olympics, working with Mr. Frankenheimer on the Don Johnson film ”Dead-Bang,” says he came prepared this time to have artificial snow made, if warranted, ”but when the Olympic Games – I think their budget is bigger than ours – couldn’t make snow because the weather was too warm, what did I think I was going to do?” Mr. Rosen says he decided eventually to gamble on Calgary again, after scouting winter locations in Europe and eastern Canada because – according to local weather office surveys – springtime in the Canadian Rockies doesn’t usually arrive until the middle of April.

As it turned out, temperatures in southern Alberta dropped to 40 below zero during the first week of filming in mid-February, and snow fell steadily during the weeks after that. ”It wasn’t the ideal stuff to act in,” says Mr. Scheider, who cracked a rib during a fist fight scene with Mr. Prochnow, which finished in a hole in the ice of a frozen river. ”But we damn well had to take advantage of it.”

Mr. Prochnow, a flinty-eyed 47-year-old Berliner who has appeared in such American films as ”Dune” and ”Beverly Hills Cop II” since he starred as the U-boat commander in the 1980 German film ”Das Boot,” dislocated his knee in the same fight, which took two weeks to film, and which both actors insisted on completing without time out for recovery after their injuries.

”I cannot tell you the hardships these guys had to go through,” says Mr. Frankenheimer. ”It’s been a very tough physical picture for both of them.” Despite the hardships, Mr. Prochnow says he welcomed the chance to play a Russian who isn’t a stereotyped villain. ”In this film, there are good guys and bad guys on both sides. The politics have changed, and they don’t know how to cope. The enemy is gone, so what do you do?”

For Mr. Frankenheimer, the film brings another opportunity to re-establish his place in the American commercial mainstream after an up-and-down 32-year directing career. It ascended last year with the hit re-release of his 1962 classic, ”The Manchurian Candidate,” and then dipped again with the disappointing ”Dead-Bang,” a thriller in which Don Johnson plays a Los Angeles homicide detective pitted against a neo-Nazi killer.

”I have no second thought about ”Dead-Bang,” says Mr. Frankenheimer. ”I obviously think the movie is a hell of a lot better than some of the critics do. But in this business, you have to be willing to take the chance, to let the chips fall.”

With ”The Fourth War,” developed from an original concept by a Los Angeles writer, Stephen Peters, the director has what Mr. Scheider calls ”a subject that’s finally worthy of his talents” after a string of recent disappointments. For Mr. Scheider, the film brings an opportunity to tackle a juicy tough guy role again, after such technological extravaganzas as ”Blue Thunder” and ”2010,” in which the 53-year-old actor played second banana to the special effects.

The part of the renegade American colonel in ”The Fourth War” isn’t as substantial as that of the self-destructive Bob Fosse in ”All That Jazz” (”that, in my career, is like ‘Citizen Kane’ – I don’t even count it”), but it is ”certainly as good as any other part I’ve ever had.”

Mr. Frankenheimer says he is ”cautiously optimistic” about the film’s chances for success. The script has been rewritten and updated by Kenneth Ross, who collaborated with the director on ”Black Sunday,” to reflect the easing of tensions between the United States and the Soviet Union, and to take into account such contemporary events as the recent Soviet elections, and the upcoming ”Glasnost Bowl” football game in Moscow between the Universities of Southern California and Illinois. ”We’ve tried to make the picture in terms of today,” says Mr. Frankenheimer. ”I think it has a real shot.”

No domestic release date has been set for the film, produced by Wolf Schmidt through his company, Los Angeles-based Kodiak Films Inc. Foreign release is scheduled for Christmas of 1990. Could it play the Soviet Union? ”I’m making it in a way that it could – the Russians certainly don’t come off in this thing as heavies,” replies Mr. Frankenheimer. ”But let’s put it this way, I’m more interested in it playing Kansas City.”

Copyright © 1989 Brian Brennan

Originally published by The New York Times, April 30, 1989

References and further reading:
The Fourth War trailer on Youtube


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Risky Business: The Facts Behind Fracking

Gas flare from drill rig near a home in Hythe, Alberta, Photo by Greg Locke © 2009

“Fracking:” could the fossil energy industry have chosen a more loaded term for the process of sending a long hard pipe down a deep hole and violently exploding liquid from the end to stimulate the release of precious gas?



Bouncy music and colouring book graphics introduce A Look Underground, a short video uploaded to YouTube1 by the Calgary-based Encana Corporation “to educate children about natural gas development.” In the demonstration, engineer Mark Taylor explains the principles of hydraulically fracturing shale and recovering natural gas to a dozen kids ranging from toddlers to preteens. The children stand gathered around a structure built from cupcakes arranged in a horseshoe, its top iced a vivid green and decorated with plastic trees and farm animals. A thick layer of white icing represents the shale layer below. Taylor shows how drillers push steel pipe down deep through the chocolate “earth” to the coveted shale, an operation depicted with plastic tubing. Next, he says, “we basically load it up with explosive charges like big firecrackers, and we blast holes into spots all along the way, so the gas can come out of the white shale here and into our well.”

It’s not a bad description of the process that has transformed North America’s fuel forecast and global energy politics within the lifetime of Taylor’s audience. And the subtext is one the gas industry hopes consumers will easily digest: that unconventional natural gas is as wholesome and safe as kindergarten. The hydraulic fracturing the video describes, also known as hydro-fracking, or simply fracking, is the sine qua non of the new gas, the key that has unlocked massive supplies of fossil energy once thought to be out of reach. Conventional gas sits in discrete underground pools; all it takes to get at it is to stick a straw down into the right place. But geologists have long known that much more natural gas remains sequestered in the minute pockets between the grains of certain types of rock. In most cases, fracking uses water with additives to shatter the rock, creating fissures that enable the gas to flow into a well.

 First used to access gas in the American and Canadian West, where the process has been used on tens of thousands of wells, fracking has made a growing number of unconventional gas beds viable for recovery. Formations rich in gas micro-pores are strung in a patchy U across North America, beginning in British Columbia’s far northeast; trailing down the eastern slope of the Rocky Mountains (with significant stores through Alberta, Saskatchewan, and North Dakota); and then sweeping across the southern US to a long band of gas-bearing shale that runs under half a dozen eastern states and up into Canada. The last in particular—the Marcellus Shale, which lies tantalizingly close to the energy-hungry markets of the eastern seaboard—has the industry salivating. Based on usage today, according to the Canadian Society for Unconventional Gas, Canada has enough frackable gas to maintain current production for about a hundred years.

Fracking has altered North America’s fuel supply so explosively that a gas bubble has saturated the market, driving down prices in recent quarters. Simultaneously, however, estimates of the abundance of unconventional gas have rescued producers from inevitable eclipse as conventional production declines. Instead, the industry has embraced a bold new ambition: to position gas as the economy’s energy mainstay, a fossil fuel as cheap and plentiful as coal, only cleaner and greener. Environmentalists, meanwhile, link fracking to a host of injuries to water, air, humans and wildlife, and to the integrity of ecosystems. France has banned the practice, and the European Union is toying with similar prohibitions.

Industrialized humanity exhausts more than 500 exajoules of energy each year, for every purpose from growing food to opening the door. That’s roughly the equivalent of setting off a Hiroshima-sized bomb every five seconds. In Canada, gas supplies more than one-quarter of the energy we use (I heated my shower with it this morning) but barely half the amount we extract from coal and oil—sources that environmentalists deplore even more than frack gas. And as much as we might like to see those sources replaced by renewable energy, that also comes with limits and costs.

The story of fracking, then, is a story about risk, about those unavoidable contingencies we face and trade off every day as individuals and communities, weighing our wants (income, a warm home, a good Christmas sales season) against the effort, cost, or hazards of getting it: a collision on the commute, a dammed-up river somewhere, a slightly warmer climate. Rarely is the answer kindergarten-simple.


With her feet tucked under her for warmth, Ernst cradles a mug of tea. ‘I see this as domestic violence. Albertans are being raped.


East of Calgary, the snow-dusted prairie is the white of the December sky. Dropping into a coulee, the bare two-lane blacktop turns sharply right at the hamlet of Rosebud, and I follow a side street buried under fresh snow before circling to a dead end in front of Jessica Ernst’s house. A shy environmental biologist with long, straight, greying hair, she ushers me in and offers me hand-knitted socks to ward off the floor’s chill. Her living room and kitchen are cluttered with the artifacts of daily life: house keys, small tools, correspondence—lots of correspondence. Several walls hold examples of her one financial indulgence, art. Prominent are works by Marianna Gartner, a Vancouver artist who sets disturbing portraits of pale children—some with tattoos, or skulls for heads—in surreal landscapes that might be dreams or nightmares.

Ernst’s reality has been mostly the latter since early 2005, when she began to suspect something was wrong with her plumbing. Her bathtub faucet whistled loudly, as though air were being forced out of it. Small black grains clogged her kitchen tap. The water in her toilet fizzed as if it were full of Alka-Seltzer. She developed a skin rash so severe that her doctor compared it to industrial burns. In a touch out of Stephen King, her dogs backed away from their water dishes.

Ernst has worked in the oil patch for decades, mainly advising companies on how to lighten their impact on the communities where they operate. She knew that Encana, one of North America’s largest unconventional gas producers, with operations in the United States, British Columbia, and Alberta, had been drilling in a coalfield beneath the nearby hills, known as the Horseshoe Canyon Formation. She also knew that her own water well, which had run clean and pure since 1986, drew on parts of that same formation. She conducted a simple test, running tap water into a mug, then lighting a match and waving it beside the lip. A yellow-orange flame spread across the water. For her next homespun experiment, she partly filled a plastic pop bottle with water and tightened the cap. A minute later, holding a lit match near the bottle’s neck, she unscrewed the cap. The bottle exploded, shooting a blue flame like a rocket.

Formal testing identified the mystery fizz in Ernst’s water as methane, with traces of petroleum distillates, BEHP (Bis(2-ethylhexyl) phthalate, a possible carcinogen), and heavy metals—all linked to oil and gas activity. At airborne concentrations of between five and 15 percent, methane can explode, and in the fall of 2005 she borrowed a methane detector. After the second alarm indicating that gas was building to unsafe levels in her home, she disconnected her well. Two large tanks in the basement now hold water trucked in from Drumheller, 25 kilometres away. 

Like most Albertans, Ernst has almost no say over gas development adjacent to, beneath, or even directly on her 20 hectares of prairie. In common with most of western Canada and many other parts of the country, title to surface real estate in Alberta generally doesn’t include the gas beneath it. Instead, with some exceptions, that belongs to the Crown, in its provincial or federal capacities. Government owns the gas, sells rights to access the gas, banks the cheque, and deploys its legal weight to guarantee that the companies get what they pay for. Drillers must indemnify landowners for inconvenience caused while accessing their properties, but the owners cannot turn them away. Those who feel under-compensated can take up their cases with a government arbitration board. Everyone else is on his or her own.

Ernst is not the only Alberta resident to protest this arrangement. The libertarian Wildrose Party campaigns on changing the law to restore Albertans’ property rights. Groups such as Water Matters and the Pembina Institute have raised environmental concerns about fracking. But no one is as consumed by the issue as Ernst is. Describing herself as “a business person who’s doing what’s right” rather than as an activist, she writes letters to regulators and elected leaders, circulates fracking news to contacts as far away as India, and has testified before a parliamentary committee studying the environment. This past spring, she made a presentation to the United Nations Commission on Sustainable Development in New York.

Her tenacity has cost her. Consulting jobs have all but dried up. One rancher I spoke with declined to be quoted for this article, for fear of being publicly discredited, “like that ‘crazy’ lady in Rosebud.” She has also been called a Canadian Erin Brockovich, the whistle-blower portrayed by Julia Roberts in the 2000 biopic. But compensation for her ruined well has eluded her, along with the admission of responsibility she feels is warranted. Her lawyers have filed suit in the Court of Queen’s Bench of Alberta,2 seeking more than $30 million in restitution and damages from Encana, the Energy Resources Conservation Board (an independent, quasi-judicial agency of the Alberta government), and the provincial Crown. (Encana3 declined to comment on a case before the courts; at press time, neither the company nor the province had filed statements of defence.)

With her feet tucked under her for warmth, Ernst cradles a mug of tea. “I fell in love with Alberta,” she says softly. “I fell in love with that fierce independence.” But the way the provincial government and the gas industry roll over Alberta’s citizens, she says, has been traumatic: “I see this as domestic violence. Albertans are being raped.”


Two stories circulate about the practice that has liberated unconventional gas from its rocky pores. Neither is quite true.


Two stories circulate about the practice that has liberated unconventional gas from its rocky pores. Neither is quite true. One extols a game changer, a seismic shift for energy supply and the climate. New methods, this meme tells us, have liberated a wealth of energy so vast, so cheap, and so convenient that ExxonMobil Chemical president Stephen Pryor predicted that by 2030 natural gas will supplant coal as the world’s second-largest fuel source, after oil. Its selling features include an established distribution network, consumer familiarity, and round-the-clock availability. “Versatile,” “reliable,” “affordable,” “abundant”: these evocative adjectives beam across the Canadian Gas Association’s elegant website,4 where gas is described as “a foundation of Canada’s clean energy future,” with “low greenhouse gas emissions.” This last claim is the industry’s key argument for putting gas at the heart of the economy, as a “transitional fuel” to carry North America from reliance on coal and oil to a shimmering future powered by renewable energy. One more thing Canada’s gas producers want you to know: this bounty of cheap green fuel is “safe energy, safely delivered.”

It’s an oft-repeated industry assertion. According to Janet Annesley, vice-president of communications at the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers5 (CAPP), 167,000 wells have been fracked in Alberta since the method was introduced there, and yet “there has never been a documented case of groundwater being contaminated, not a single one.”

Security of supply constitutes another part of the industry’s strategic sell. Local gas, the claim goes, will reduce energy dependence on unfriendly foreign regimes. The prospect of home-tapped gas appeals to small and vulnerable countries such as Poland (where fracked gas slated to flow next year may free Poles from reliance on Russia, a serial invader, as an alternative to coal) as much as it interests developing giants. Che Changbo, a senior energy adviser to the Chinese government, told Bloomberg News, “Once we start large-scale production, shale gas won’t be an unconventional fuel for China anymore, and it will play an important role to supply China’s energy needs.” The country’s frackable reserves are estimated at twelve times what it possesses in conventional gas.

Then there’s the money. Encana, for example, pocketed $1.5 billion in profit last year on $9 billion of revenue. The industry also boosts the broader economy: in 2007, roughly $12.7 billion flowed into Alberta and $2.9 billion into British Columbia to lease trucks, buy steel, and employ wildlife biologists and derrick hands. Between 2005 and 2010, the British Columbia government cashed $5.4 billion worth of industry payments for leases to drill the Horn River and Montney areas in the province’s northeastern corner; royalties from gas production added more revenue. Last spring, with so many nations flirting with fracking, the International Energy Agency6 gushed that the global economy may be entering a golden age of gas.

Environmental groups such as Canada’s David Suzuki Foundation and the Worldwatch Institute in the US, countless blogs devoted to excoriating big oil, and Gasland7 (an Emmy-winning documentary by filmmaker Josh Fox) tell a very different story. In it, gas companies are rapacious invaders of landscapes whose operations suck up water by the streamful, disrupt rural peace, pollute the air, unsettle subsurface geology to the point of triggering earthquakes, introduce poisonous compounds and explosive gases into ground- and tap water, and produce enormous volumes of toxic waste water. All without appreciably reducing greenhouse emissions, and possibly even adding to them. A Council of Canadians fact sheet titled “No Fracking Way!” states that “any energy resource that sacrifices water protection and threatens people’s health and environmental safety in such significant ways should be halted. 

Governments in Britain and Australia, and the Canadian provinces of New Brunswick and Saskatchewan, have given fracking the green light, at least in principle. Meanwhile, New Jersey’s state legislature joined France in banning the method, although its decision was later vetoed by Governor Chris Christie. The province of Quebec put fracking on hold, pending study. And while the United States Environmental Protection Agency is still researching the issue, an expert panel assembled by the American energy secretary, Steven Chu, concluded last August that “there are serious environmental impacts underlying these concerns.” Unless industry addresses those impacts, the experts added, “public opposition [to fracking] will grow, thus putting production at risk.”


The possibility that a hard fracking could allow gas or fluid to migrate through the ground is not remote; it’s the point.



 The truth about the environmental cost of fracking, as you might guess, lies somewhere between these two poles. Unconventional gas is useful, but it can also produce significant damage. Fracking was first used commercially in Texas and Oklahoma in the wake of World War II by roughnecks who pumped jellied gasoline—better known as napalm—into oil wells to loosen the rock and improve the flow of crude. Licensing rights to the practice were snapped up by an enterprising oil field engineer named Erle Halliburton. His company (yes, that Halliburton) already supplied cement and related equipment to oil drillers, who use them to secure wellheads. With that expertise complemented by a new approach for stimulating the flow of money-making crude (treated wells could produce 75 percent more oil than untreated ones), Halliburton’s business boomed. Today it operates in more than 80 countries, and in July it reported a $739-million profit on second-quarter revenues of over $5.9 billion.

Fracking illustration 3

Other companies now offer fracking services, among them global oil field giant Schlumberger. Directional drilling, in wide use since the 1980s, enables engineers to turn a well bore ninety degrees and extend it for kilometres through horizontal shale, exposing much more of it to fracking. But the essence of the task remains unchanged: use a hydraulic hammer to shatter stone. The hammer, however, has bulked up by orders of magnitude. The first commercial fracks used the equivalent of a seventy-five-horsepower outboard motor to force 180 kilograms of sand, slurried in 2,800 litres of frack fluid, down a well—once, or at most twice. Modern fracking can take the power of several diesel locomotives to drive anywhere from 220,000 to 3.7 million litres of water and fracking fluid underground, each time forcing up to 2.2 million kilograms of sand or another “proppant” (a material to keep the resulting fractures open afterward) into the fissures. Now, instead of just one or two fracks, most wells undergo a dozen or more over a period of months; some take up to fifty individual fracks.

Napalm no longer seems to be the frackant of choice, although this is difficult to ascertain, because frack constituents have been closely guarded in Canada and in most American states. Much of what is pumped down most wells—over 99 percent in many cases—is water. Not all of it is fresh: some operators inject non-potable brine; and Shell Canada recently paid $9.75 million for treated sewage water from Dawson Creek, British Columbia, for its fracking operations in the region. The remainder is a complex cocktail that varies from well to well, depending on the provider and the local geology. Some ingredients, such as tallow soap and crushed nutshells, are benign. Others are pure poison. Diesel fuel has been a common additive, although some companies have sworn off it. A 2011 United States congressional study examined some 2,500 frack formulas, and reported that it had found more than 650 ingredients listed as possible carcinogens, air pollution hazards, or regulated compounds under the United States Safe Drinking Water Act. 

Blame Halliburton for helping to keep this information a secret for so long. In 1995, the company recruited a consummate Washington insider as its new CEO. His name was Dick Cheney. Five years later, Cheney left the company to join former oil executive George W. Bush on the Republican ticket for the presidency. In his second week in office, President Bush assigned Cheney to craft a new energy policy. The 2005 energy bill that emerged contained, among other features, a plum for the fracking industry: a unique exemption from the United States Safe Drinking Water Act’s prohibition on injecting any substance underground that might endanger potable groundwater. Canadian regulators fell into line: none insisted on knowing what proprietary fracking cocktails contained. Under mounting pressure, and amid a wave of state-level concessions to greater disclosure in the United States, where even Texas now requires it (and Halliburton provides it), Alberta and British Columbia claim to be working through technical challenges with the aim of publicly releasing the details of frack fluid contents in their jurisdictions. CAPP announced in September that it “will support the disclosure of fracturing fluid additives.”

The possibility that a hard fracking could allow gas or fluid to migrate through the ground is not remote; it’s the point. “If you enhance the permeability of the rock mass, which is the purpose of hydro-fracking,” explains Diana Allen, a groundwater scientist at Simon Fraser University in British Columbia, “it expands existing fractures and opens up new ones. So if you put something into the ground, it’s going to go somewhere else.” Yet CAPP’s Janet Annesley may be right when she insists that no case has ever proven that fluids released during a frack have contaminated groundwater. The industry’s explanation is that most fracking (although not that in Rosebud) occurs thousands of metres underground, sealing the fluids beneath multiple layers of rock. 

Of course, proving a link between chemicals in a well and chemicals in fracking fluid is made harder when the latter are kept secret. But in any case, frack fluid leaking deep in a drill hole may be the least of the ways the new gas boom makes itself felt. Much greater risks are posed by drilling activity above ground and just beneath it—in the shallow zone where Jessica Ernst’s suit alleges that methane migrated from Encana’s well and into hers.


The drilling enterprise represents a phenomenal accomplishment. At every stage, something can go wrong. And it has.


The drilling enterprise represents a phenomenal accomplishment. Men (almost exclusively) and their machines force a spinning, half-metre-thick column of steel two kilometres straight down through solid rock, then turn it sideways and, guided by the shadowy squiggles of seismic printouts and downhole instruments as sophisticated as anything aboard the International Space Station, push it along for hundreds or even thousands of metres more. Steel and cement seal the hole where the bit entered the earth, and fracking starts. Diesel engines run continuously. Tank trucks haul in the liquids required, from water to drilling mud, making hundreds of round trips for a typical well. When the hole has been adequately “stimulated,” the injected water will come back up, laced with frack fluid, mud, and ground-up rock. All of it is toxic and must be contained until it can be treated or disposed of in deep wells. Later, when the drilling and fracking equipment has moved on, other machinery will remain, rumbling twenty-four hours a day to push the gas down a pipeline to consumers. 

At every stage of this enterprise, something can go wrong. And it has: 

  • In 2010 in Pennsylvania, poor drilling pressure control caused a well to blow out, spewing gas and frack fluid over a state forest for sixteen hours.
  • In Ohio, faulty cementing of the uneven gap between a steel well casing and the exposed rock of a drill hole allowed gas to leak out of a well into an underground source of drinking water. A residential basement exploded in 2007 (no one was hurt). 
  • Frack contamination of water wells may not be documented, but in early 2010 the British Columbia Oil and Gas Commission reported a large kick (a sudden rise in back pressure) at a well that “communicated” frack sand to a second well two-thirds of a kilometre away.
  • While the industry acknowledges that frack flowback (the excess liquid pushed out of a well at the end of the process) is toxic, it emphasizes that it dilutes frack concentrates in water. But when a United States Forest Service researcher spread flowback waste over an experimental forest plot in West Virginia, all of the ground foliage died within two days. Over the next two years, more than half of the trees on the plot also succumbed.
  • In western Colorado, frack waste leaking from a holding pond poisoned an outfitter after he drank water from a nearby spring. In 2010, Pennsylvania documented 130 cases of waste water spilled into its streams over the previous two years. 
  • Since 2009, more than thirty earthquakes have been registered in the Horn River area of British Columbia, where there has been extensive fracking activity.

…click to enlarge

Most of those incidents were caused by procedures gone wrong. But fracking has its perils, even when the process goes as planned. It takes more wells to extract a given quantity of energy from tight sources of unconventional gas than it does from free-flowing pockets: more drill sites, more diesel engines, more trucks. More fracking. Such production also drops off faster than it does from conventional pools, meaning replacement wells must be drilled sooner. The industry needs to drill an estimated 800 new producing wells per year in Canada, just to keep up with the decline of existing ones. The cumulative effect has yet to be calculated, but concerns run from the mostly unmetered use of fresh water to the impact of constant industrial activity on the love life of Alberta ovenbirds.

In Texas, where the shale gas boom got rolling a decade ago, diesel exhaust and fugitive emissions (assorted gas leaks) from a thousand drill and production sites inside the Fort Worth city limits create more smog than all the cars, trucks, and aircraft in the metropolitan region the city shares with Dallas. The small town of Dish, to the north, lost its mayor when Calvin Tillman sold his house and moved away, saying his family couldn’t bear the nosebleeds, headaches, and other symptoms he blamed on the local concentration of gas operations. The town is now suing six companies, claiming their noisy compressors, truck traffic, and air pollution have reduced property values by an average of $75,000.

Just south of Fort Worth is where I first heard of fracking. I was researching a book about water and climate in 2007, and I met with nursery owner Jim Stegall to talk about his experience with drought. I found his premises down a dogleg road not far from where a neighbour’s illegal fighting cocks were crowing. He was a walking Texas contradiction: jeans, boots, and swaggering opinion juxtaposed with a sideline of teaching art and restoring fragile Rembrandts and Monets.

He blamed the death of some big trees on three years with barely a whisper of rain—but he ascribed the loss of two long-reliable wells to the fracking operation less than a kilometre from his greenhouses. “Now they’re everywhere,” he told me when we spoke again recently. Three more drill pads have joined the first near his nursery, with more to come. Gas production “is taking it out so much faster than the public would in a hundred years,” he said. “One day, they’re going to wake up, and there won’t be any water. We’ll end up begging to put in a pipeline to Canada.”

The gas lobby’s cleaner-than-thou comparison of its product with coal is hardly a fair fight, although some studies (contested by the industry) contend that fugitive emissions of methane, flared and vented gas, leaks from neighbourhood distribution pipelines, and the fossil fuels expended in drilling add up to a carbon footprint only marginally better than that of coal, and possibly a bit worse. That doesn’t count mountaintops blown off and miners killed to reach coal, of course, nor the problem of disposing of non-carbon wastes.


There is at least a case to answer that gas is a cleaner alternative. That is the pragmatic truth fracking’s opponents ignore. Its promoters ignore Murphy’s Law.


But the energy choices we face are more tangled than simply “frack gas—yes or no.” Even the purest green of renewable energy casts some shadow on the landscape. Want an economy where wind and sun do the heavy lifting? Meet the residents of upstate New York and rural Montana who have been protesting the construction of the transmission lines needed to deliver it. And try not to think about the mines in China that produce the rare earths amping up the power of wind turbines and photovoltaic cells. Hydro? Say goodbye to a little more of the lower Churchill River. Biofuels? They take even more water than frack gas, and the grain required to keep an SUV on the road for a year would feed two dozen hungry people for as long. Geothermal? It has been blamed for earthquakes in Switzerland, and has stalled in California due to the same concern.

In the search for alternatives to oil and coal, these are risks we are ill-equipped to judge. As if reading a menu that lists dishes but no prices, we simply don’t know what our energy options—including the radical one of using less energy altogether—will cost, once we fully account for everything we will give up to pursue them on the scale our appetites demand. For that, we need to know the price of labour, financing, and equipment required to extract a joule of gas out of the ground—or from the wind—and also the value of the streams likely to be ruined, the vistas damaged, the climate impacts incurred, and the incremental cost of health care for headaches, nausea, and dizziness (all of which have been blamed on proximity both to gas facilities and wind-farms) by either choice.

That’s not impossible. Efforts are under way in several places to develop inventories of natural capital and its contribution to financial and social well-being. Britain recently completed its first National Ecosystem Assessment,8 a four-year multidisciplinary effort to “provide a high level assessment of the status and trends of the ecosystems and the services they deliver,” and to place an economic value on their contribution to British well-being. It found that wetlands, for instance, control erosion and purify water to an annual value of $2.4 billion. 

Canada is a long way from a similar study, but earlier this year Statistics Canada released a compilation of data selected to shed light on human activity and the environment. A private group led by Toby Heaps, whose Corporate Knights magazine advocates socially conscious business, is behind Canada’s natural capital accounting project, a proposed “balance sheet, income statement, and well-being return on investment analysis” of national ecological assets and liabilities. Such inventories could one day help us better calculate what we risk, as well as what we reap, from energy choices.

Meanwhile, gas accounts for about 40 percent of the energy captured in Canada. Selling the surplus to the United States (and perhaps Asia in the future) makes money. Until national environmental accounting improves there is at least a case to answer that gas is a cleaner alternative to filthier fuels as we move to some combination of sustainable energy. That is the pragmatic truth fracking’s more fevered opponents ignore.

Its promoters ignore Murphy’s Law. Risk, Canada’s gas producers believe, is something you can literally rule out. As Janet Annesley put it, by “getting regulation largely and substantially right in the beginning… we can trust the regulator.” Then, if things go wrong, “[the industry] can go back to the regulator, and the regulator takes on that responsibility.” This sounds a lot like sending the rules committee to the penalty box for a player’s high sticking, but it aptly captures the slippery synergies when industry and government undertake joint ventures in the gas business.


We have developed a highly effective means to reduce the risk of things going wrong and deal with the mess when they do. We call it insurance.


In fairness, there’s every reason to believe that the hundreds of geologists, engineers, and biologists who work for Alberta’s Energy Resources Conservation Board and British Columbia’s Oil and Gas Commission take their responsibility to the public seriously. The Alberta board performed 25,373 site inspections in 2009, and reported finding only 1.4 percent in high-risk violation of their operating requirements. But as fracking expands, so does the opportunity for things to go wrong. It’s a numbers game, much like the rising odds of a fatal car crash once traffic density reaches a certain point. Alberta’s violation rate of 1.4 percent represents more than 350 sites where the public or environment were at risk. In Pennsylvania, at the epicentre of the Marcellus Shale gas rush, inspectors cited eighty-four wells for improper cementing and casing in 2010; in the first eight months of 2011, sixty-five more wells were for cited for the same offence. Not everyone follows the rules. Mistakes get made. Accidents happen.

We are an ingenious species however. In other spheres of activity we have developed a highly effective means both to reduce the risk of things going wrong and deal with the mess when they do, largely free of government’s direct intervention and usually free of the expense and emotional distress facing Jessica Ernst. We call it insurance.

“The one thing the insurance industry does well, is it’s always re-evaluating risk,” says Anastasia Telesetsky, a law professor and an insurance expert at the University of Idaho. “It’s extremely invested in making sure its numbers have accuracy.” Every driver is familiar with what else the industry does well: putting a price on that risk. The riskier your driving, the higher your premiums. As Telesetsky tells it, there’s a reason why landlords rushed to install automatic sprinklers in offices when they were introduced, even though the chances were small that their buildings would ever catch fire: their insurers made them do it.

She has proposed requiring American industries to carry liability insurance for damage caused by their activities’ contribution to climate change. Mandating energy producers of all kinds to insure against environmental liabilities and damage to infrastructure, she says, could improve the management of fracking risk—and of all those other more or less risky energy choices—in several ways. Private sector insurance mandates would take the job of assessing ecological risk away from industry and governments vested in gas production, and give it to independent agents with a financial interest in candour. It would acknowledge that some risks can’t be prevented—only mopped up after. But as with fire sprinklers, the prospect of lower risk premiums would reward greater care. Energy producers would no doubt pass on the cost to consumers. But that would accomplish additional good, closing the circle of responsibility for the impact of energy choices, and putting our ecological liabilities as consumers in our faces every time we open the gas or power bill. And that might even motivate us to change our choices and reduce our consumption.

Ecological economist Mark Anielski, Heaps’s partner in the natural capital accounting project, is a fan of eco-liability insurance for another reason: it could help us learn to appreciate natural assets before we destroy them. Insurance accepts that things get broken, but must be paid for. In this use, it would acknowledge that all energy companies, or for that matter any large industry, now and again damage nature and impair its services to society or the economy; but it would also require the marketplace to put a price on making that damage whole. As the cost of restoring damaged ecosystems became apparent, Anielski believes, it would inevitably reveal the far lower cost—and greater value—of preserving natural assets from destruction to begin with. “When the insurance industry begins to evaluate ecological risk,” he says, “the real market value of eco-services emerges.” That in turn would help us know the real risk we run, and the price we may pay, for every energy choice we face.

Professionalizing the assessment of fracking risk wouldn’t leave government without a role—on the contrary. For eco-liability insurance to work, governments would need to make it mandatory and stand behind plaintiffs’ right of action. These are hardly novel ideas. They constitute the central features of compulsory car insurance, and the reason why we aren’t all obliged to sue each other over every fender-bender. It may be too late for the Alberta and British Columbia governments, which have grown habituated to gas revenues, to contemplate exposing their private partners to independent audits of their activities. But bullish hyperactivity has delivered an unintended consequence for North American gas producers: a glut of product that’s expected to keep prices low for years in a struggling economy. Regulators under pressure to permit fracking in central and eastern Canada could enjoy a breather, and a chance to think twice before they swallow whole the industry’s childlike assurance that getting the rules right means the rules will always be followed—or that they can cover every circumstance in what will always be a risky business.

Gluttons for energy that we are, we’ll still want that sweet icing, of course. But it would be better to know beforehand what it will add to our waistlines, and what it will cost to get the stains out of the carpet. 

Copyright © 2011 Chris Wood

Originally published in The Walrus, Nov. 2011

Epilogue: August, 2013. Almost everything I reported about the fracking debate in 2011 continues to be so—only more so. Jessica Ernst is more than ever the Canadian face of a growing global anti-fracking movement—even as the practice itself has continued, expanded, and, as predicted, transformed the world energy marketplace.

Ernst’s suit proceeds, slowly, through Alberta’s courts. In March of 2013, Alberta’s top judge, Chief Justice Neil Wittman, took charge of her case against EnCana, Alberta Environment and the Energy Resources Conservation Board of Alberta (ERCB), after the previous trial judge was named to a higher bench by the federal government. 

Meanwhile Alberta’s frack regulator, the ERCB, one of the defendents in the Ernst case, continues to approve the practice—including allowing another defendant, EnCana, to drill and fracture more wells near those at issue in her claim.

The ERCB may not be in business much longer however. Since my story appeared—and many others focused attention on lapses in Alberta’s oversight of the Athabasca tar sands—the provincial government has overhauled both its environmental and energy regulatory regimes. On October, 2012, it announced that it was creating a new, centralized but arm’s-length, Alberta Environmental Management Agency (“AEMA”). 

Seven months later, Alberta announced that the Energy Resources Conservation Board would be merged over the coming year with several other agencies, including the Environment and Sustainable Resource Development branch, into a new Alberta Energy Regulator. The new agency’s independence promptly came into question however, when it was disclosed that its first chairman would be Gerry Protti, the founding president of the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers and a former Encana executive.

In British Columbia, newly-elected premier Christy Clark placed the sale of liquid natural gas fracked from wells in that province’s northeast at the centre of her economic program. Elsewhere, contention has followed fracking’s continued American expansion in the northeast, the so-called ‘Bakken Shale’ in North Dakota, and in Texas. Proposals to expand fracking in other parts of the world continue to prompt pushback from Europe to China. 

Nonetheless, the sudden surge of fracked gas—and fracked oil as well—has had its predicted disruptive effect on world energy markets. Until the recent crisis in Syria, OPEC had struggled to keep oil prices high. Analysts in the United States have speculated that the nation’s long-sought goal of oil independence might at last be in sight. The owners of a number of U.S. coal-fired power plants announced that they will close—in part because they are no longer competitive with the cheap availability of frack gas.

Over the same time, however, numerous reports have confirmed the occurrence and persistence of essentially all the deleterious effects previously alleged to be associated with the practice—from polluted water to earthquakes. 

In July, 2013, the peer-reviewed Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences published the finding by Duke University researchers that water wells as far as a kilometre away from fracked gas wells displayed rates of contamination by natural petroleum gases including methane, ethane and propane at concentrations (in the case of methane) six times what was found in more distant wells. 

A month later, the UK-based international newspaper The Guardian reported that for the first time a small town in Texas had run out of water and blamed its dry civic well on nearby fracking activity (when more pro-business media challenged the Guardian’s piece, the non-partisan Texas Observer did an admirable job of bringing perspective to that particular credibility contest).

While the (Prime Minister Stephen) Harper government in Canada has continued to step away from all aspects of environmental oversight of the fossil-fuel industry, from science to enforcement, and the idea of environmental liability remains a non-starter in Canada, it’s surprisingly alive and well in another NAFTA petro-powerhouse.

Mexico recently put into force a ground-breaking law to establish a new network of courts to hear such environmental liability claims. The new Environmental Liability Law will allow individuals, communities and non-government groups to bring alleged polluters to account and obtain restoration of the damages, compensation and/or “exemplary” fines against offenders. (I hope to write more about this development in F&O in the weeks ahead.) cwood@factsandopinions.com


References and further reading:
1. Encana video on Youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=X9qr1DiYTPo
2. Ernst vs Encana: the case website of Jessica Ernst’s legal counsel http://www.ernstversusencana.ca
3. Encana’s newsroom http://www.encana.com/news-stories/
4. Canadian Gas Association http://www.cga.ca
5. Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers http://www.capp.ca/Pages/default.aspx
6. International energy Agency http://www.iea.org/topics/naturalgas/ 
7. Gasland, the documentary http://www.gaslandthemovie.com
8. United Kingdom National Ecosystem Assessment http://uknea.unep-wcmc.org

Fracture Lines: An assessment of the danger to Canada’s water from fracking, by Ben Parfitt for the Program on Water Issues Munk School of Global Affairs at the University of Toronto.

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Incendiary performance: from Gumboot Lollypop to the Olympics

Dolly Hopkins

Dolly Hopkins

 As a teenager in Vancouver, Dolly Hopkins was torn between athletics and drama; she spent her high school years rushing between sports-team practices and theater rehearsals. She eventually chose drama, and so it was a tad ironic that in 2004 she was invited to represent Canada at the Athens Olympics.

 For seven nights of the Games, Hopkins’ team of eight fire dancers and producers staged Fireweaver, Canada’s only cultural entry at Athens. Hopkins, who is artistic director and co-founder of Vancouver’s Public Dreams Society, directed the whirling melee of dancers–some on stilts with flaming batons, others gyrating madly with fiery metal swords blazing from hilt to tip–in a wildly abstract representation of Canadian elements from water to eagles to forests. Word spread, and each night hundreds more people showed up until 5,000 spectators were crammed into a space meant for 2,000. It was the first time Hopkins had taken her mix of street performance, gymnastics, dance, theater and circus arts before an international audience, but her work is a familiar sight in Vancouver. There, Public Dreams stages free community spectacles throughout the city, which are attended by some 100,000 people each year.
Hopkins, an effervescent woman whose body, hands and smile are constantly in motion, graduated from an area high school in 1968 and spent years traveling and working throughout the world. In 1978 she went to California to attend Lily Tomlin’s open-forum workshops on character development, then studied the work of Chicago’s Second City before returning to Vancouver to write her own material. The result was Gumboot Lollypop, a one-woman family show she performed in theaters, at festivals and on television.
 Along the way, Hopkins befriended actors Paula Jardine and Leslie Fiddler, and the three dreamed up a scheme to connect performers from disparate arts to produce lavish, even outlandish, community celebrations. Public Dreams was born in 1985.
 Hopkins describes Public Dreams as a collective. With a core group of managers and producers, she runs the society from an east-side studio crammed with torches and fire tools, giant puppets, gossamer angel costumes, evening gowns, bolts of fabrics and Hopkins’ antique sewing machine. With donations of money and material, grants and profits from corporate performances, she keeps a roster of 350 Vancouver artists on call. Perched amid the creative chaos, she says, “I see myself as a catalyst, facilitator and mentor.”
Originally published September 19, 2005, in Time Magazine Canada.

Copyright © 2005 Deborah Jones


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Vancouver: Fool’s paradise, or model for 21st Century?

Vancouver struggles with a rare opportunity to create a lasting urban paradise.

F&O vancouver by Gavin

Photo by Gavin Kennedy © 2013.

Vancouver, Canada 1996

High-tech hotbed Seattle has Bill Gates. Manhattan, city of comebacks, has Donald Trump. Vancouver has David Duchovny of The X-Files, the happening sci-fi TV series filmed in B.C.’s happening Lower Mainland. As civic icons go, Duchovny might be the most fitting of those three examples. Sure, it’s a bit of a stretch to say that the booming Greater Vancouver area has a paranormal personality to match a TV program built on special effects and suspended disbelief. But the city’s powers to be a body double are certainly being tested. U.S. actor Duchovny and the rest of the Hollywood crowd use Vancouver’s stunning scenery as a backdrop for stories that are set anywhere but here. Hong Kong expats are drawn to the city for its advertised civility and balmy climate. Transplanted Americans expect to find a more caring society. As a magnet for software writers, medical researchers, New Age ecologists, financiers and film-industry entrepreneurs from around the world, Vancouver is confronted with the task of adjusting to its status as one of the most dynamic of North America’s major cities–and the expectations that come with that mixed blessing. Probably no other city on the continent — possibly excepting New York during its great waves of immigration early in this century — has been asked to be so many things to so many people from so many places.

Little more than a generation ago, Vancouver was a sleepy town in no particular hurry to shrug off its past as a colonial outpost and railway terminus, its intoxicating scenery its only indisputably unique asset and its remoteness from the continent’s business, cultural and political centres back East both an obstacle to its progress and an undeniable aspect of its charm.

Today, with its population poised to jump more than 50% during the next decade or so, natives and newcomers alike entertain visions of Vancouver as the last, best chance to create in North America a nearly perfect major metropolis, a world city of ethnic diversity and determined civility that might just serve as a model for 21st-century urban planners on every continent. Business and political leaders see an extraordinary future for Vancouver as North America’s chief gateway to Asia, the world’s fastest-growing economic region; as the next Silicon Valley; as a multiethnic cultural entrepot, as a classy tourist and retiree playground and as a testing ground for the most progressive ideas in environmental protection.

 This is the promise of Vancouver, whose inhabitants once were accustomed to watching the world unfold elsewhere, and who now find themselves at the centre of attention as hosts to international political and scientific summits, including powwows among federal Liberals mindful of B.C.’s growing clout in Parliament. Suddenly this city for which Central Canada’s prolonged recession was a distant rumour is now home to a new National Basketball Association franchise, a state-of-the-art new terminal at Vancouver International Airport that Fort Worth-based American Airlines Inc. has chosen as its principal gateway for flights to the Pacific Rim, and a cluster of consulates opened by European governments seeking a window on Asia and on the newly vigorous capital of Western Canada — a city whose vitality B.C. Premier Glen Clark cites in proclaiming his province to be the economic engine of the entire country. An even more exuberant David Bennett, managing director of the Business Development Bank of Canada, declares, “We will be the Geneva of the New World.”


“We’re living in a fool’s paradise.”


Yet there is a superficial quality to Vancouver’s current dynamism, beyond which its earlier standing as a scenic branch plant on the fringes of North American business and politics is still plainly visible. Vancouver has staked an impressive claim to prominence in the information industries that will dominate the world economy in the 21st century, but remains significantly dependent on the volatile, low-skilled resource industries of this century. Local venture capitalist Michael Brown, for one, worries that “We’re living in a fool’s paradise.”

F&O Vancouver Fraser

Fraser River, Vancouver. Deborah Jones © 2010

Some 200 executives have gathered to dine on West Coast salmon accompanied by Okanagan Valley wines under the white canvas sails of Canada Place, a landmark convention centre that just majestically into one of the world’s busiest and most panoramic harbours. Groups such as this represent Vancouver’s best chance for long-term prosperity. These men and women run some of the most dynamic companies in the Lower Mainland’s high-tech sector, which is small by Silicon Valley standards but growing by an impressive 13% a year in revenues.

To showcase the potential of high-tech to transform the local economy, organizers of tonight’s gathering have invited speakers from QLT Photo Therapeutics Inc., which recently raised a stunning $73.3 million in expansion funds in a North American share offering. The audience settles in for an upbeat description of how Vancouver-based QLT has cut a swath through the global pharmaceutical industry and has charmed investors. Yet one of the main themes is the need for persistence: A QLT vice-president says local companies simply must ignore the many naysayers who tell them that high-tech cannot be done here. It’s a familiar exhortation in a city still regarded as home to an overwhelmingly resource-based economy. Forestry alone accounts for about 60% of B.C.’s exports. And exports, which account for about a quarter of economic activity, still determine B.C.’s economic health: A $1-billion decline in exports in the first six months resulted in a downturn in GDP for the first two quarters of 1996. Still, the region increasingly is drawing strength from non-resource industries. Seven million tourists pump about $2 billion into the economy. The film business is a $500-million boon. And transportation, arguably Vancouver’s biggest growth industry, has been skillfully nurtured, continually attracting new airlines, shipping lines and thousands of well-paying jobs to the region’s revamped airport and its aggressively marketed port services. Serendipity places Vancouver about 90 minutes closer by air than San Francisco and Los Angeles to the major airports of Japan, giving Vancouver a shot at becoming North America’s principal airline gateway to the Pacific Rim.

Without question, though, Vancouver needs to slip the yoke of dependence on still-dominant resource industries, using technology firms to balance the cyclical nature of forestry and mining and the low-paying jobs of the tourism sector. Historically isolated by daunting geography and trade barriers, the city stands to gain from break-throughs such as the Internet and the rise of value-added industries such as pharmaceutical research, where the high cost of shipping is not a factor. There are signs of progress. Vancouver is the headoffice location for the national genetics disease research network which, says Frank Gleeson of Toronto-based MDS Health Ventures Capital Corp., gives it “tremendous potential in biomedical high technology, with an outstanding research base.” High-tech firms such as IBM Corp. and Kanata, Ont.’s Newbridge Networks Corp. have announced that they will set up Vancouver-area branches, and Walt Disney Television Animation recently opened an animation studio in the city in order to tap local talent that is unwilling to relocate to Disney’s Burbank, Calif., headquarters. Even traditional resource industries are shifting gears, exporting their expertise through newly launched consulting services that operate around the world. “We are the world leader in mining — it’s all centred here,” boasts Wayne Deans of Deans Knight Capital Management Ltd. Canada’s Big Five banks all are headquartered in Toronto, but the country’s biggest foreign-owned bank, Hongkong Bank of Canada, have chosen Vancouver for its headquarters in part because new technologies allow it to operate worldwide from the city. Says bank chief economist David Bond, “Geography is no longer destiny. You can do just about anything you want anywhere you want, as long as they have electricity and phone lines.”


Vancouver aims to attract high-tech businesses, but competition is stiff

But will enough people want to run high-tech businesses in Greater Vancouver, given stiff competition from cities elsewhere and the impediment of Vancouver’s high taxes? If the chosen people of the knowledge age can live anywhere and telecommute, will Vancouver’s beauty, social environment and temperate climate be enough to attract and keep them? “In the modern world economy, cities that are highly desirable places to live generate economic activity,” says U.S. urbanist Neal Peirce, who notes that Vancouver is regarded throughout the continent as a choice location. But the world is chock-full of cities recruiting such New Economy workers. Just by crossing the nearby U.S.-Canada border to scenic, lower-tax states such as Washington and Oregon, educated workers can take home tens of thousands of dollars more in disposable income. According to one contentious study, the income differential between the two countries is $40,000, even accounting for the cost to U.S. residents of private health insurance. This figure helps to explain why top graduates at the British Columbia Institute of Technology are snapped up every year by recruiters in Washington state, merely two hours from Vancouver by car and home to Seattle-based industrial giants Microsoft Corp. and Boeing Co.

The tax burden weighs heavily on employers too. Victoria levies extra taxes on corporations, which seldom can be offset by tax credits. Former Vancouver mayor Gordon Campbell, who now heads B.C.’s Liberal Party, cites a recent Washington state report of 140 companies (and 3,230 jobs) that recently relocated from British Columbia to Washington as proof that provincial taxes and policies are driving businesses out of British Columbia. “Capital is mobile, and it’s easy to move head offices elsewhere,” Campbell says. “People will still live here, but they move the core of their economic enterprises elsewhere.” Local governments don’t help: In most of Greater Vancouver’s 20 municipalities, business property taxes are disproportionately high. In the City of Vancouver, says credit union economist Richard Allen, the ratio of business to residential taxation is 5.5 to 1–one of the highest in North America.

Vancouver is, of course, famous for its lifestyle. It really is possible for the energetic outdoors lover to spend the morning skiing at Whistler and the afternoon sailing in English Bay, within a few minutes walking distance of the financial district. Unfortunately, though, fewer and fewer people can afford that lifestyle. A billboard near the Lions Gate Bridge last summer invited Vancouverites to move to Edmonton, where, the Alberta city cheekily advertised, house prices average $149,000, compared with Greater Vancouver’s $299,000. Office rents also are sky-high: Prime space in Vancouver goes for $18 to $20 per square foot, almost identical to the rate in Toronto, Canada’s business capital. Rents will go still higher if current forecasts are correct that Vancouver office demand will exceed supply by 1999.

F&O Vancouver Khatsalano Days

Khatsalano Days, an annual street festival in Vancouver. Photo by Deborah Jones © 2013

Many economic observers worry, though, that the onetime spending generated by immigration has masked a fundamentally weak economy. Warns economist Richard Allen, “We can’t sustain the economy forever by just building new houses.”

Yet the money that immigrants bring, if used wisely, can help finance upgraded infrastructure for newcomers and existing residents alike, says economics professor Don DeVoretz, co-director of the Centre for Excellence in Immigration at Simon Fraser University. If self-employment is a good yardstick, Greater Vancouver’s business environment already is more entrepreneurial than the rest of Canada’s. (Some 11% of Vancouverites are self-employed, compared with 9% of Torontonians and 8% of Montrealers.) QLT’s CEO Julia Levy credits the tide of immigration for Vancouver’s new economic vigour: “People from the Pacific Rim, who are so used to doing stuff for themselves, are changing attitudes here,” Levy says. “We’ve been forced, kicking and screaming, into thinking about work in a different way. You can feel the energy in this city now.”

 An injection of entrepreneurial spirit can go only so far in establishing the base for a sustainable New Economy on the West Coast, however. Allen worries that too much noise is made about how the information age is expected to carry the entire future economy. “If you look at the economies around the world that are doing well,” he says, “they’re goods-based. In Vancouver, our refrigerators and computers are made elsewhere. If we’re going to sustain a large and growing population, we need to increase our goods-producing sector.”

“Winning regions in the world will apply market economics to air, water, land, energy, financial capital.”

 Those who champion making Vancouver more competitive in attracting business differ on means. Cutting taxes and making government more efficient frequently are cited as solutions. Ken Cameron has a broader definition in mind as he views his domain from his 15th-storey window in the Burnaby office centre that houses the Greater Vancouver Regional District. “The winning regions in the world in the next 20 to 30 years will be the ones that apply market economics to air, water, land, energy, financial capital,” says Cameron, chief planner for the GVRD. “And nobody,” he claims, “is addressing the issue of growth management as a factor in competitiveness to the extent that we are.”

The big “if” attached to Cameron’s dream is the prospect for success of a blueprint for Greater Vancouver development called the Livable Region Strategic Plan, a document exhaustively developed over the past two decades by local government officials and politicians, and recognized by the provincial government. “Vancouver is taking a giant step toward the kind of futuristic planning all city-state regions must make,” says urban affairs expert Peirce, “unless they want to face a 21st century of dire traffic congestion, foul air, shattered community and declining economic prospects.” Lauded by planners worldwide, the GVRD’s elegant regional plan proposes to channel population growth into areas of relatively high density, to preserve zones of green space, reduce the use of cars and build “complete communities” in which people can live and work with a minimum of commuting. “The plan tries to achieve a balance among housing affordability, urban containment and environmental sustainability by trying to ensure that we get sufficient housing construction in the most appropriate parts of the region,” says Dale Wall, executive director of the Growth Strategies office of the B.C. Ministry of Municipal Affairs and Housing.

The ambitious GVRD blueprint covers a region half the size of Prince Edward Island, whose population is a mere 137,000. Vancouver, Surrey, Richmond, New Westminster and the other communities of the Fraser River Valley and delta must accommodate some 1.8 million people today, and as many as 3 million within the next generation. Residents of this region live in a mix of areas, from highly urban to pastoral. Some highly developed areas, like the city of Richmond, lie in the path of floodwaters on alluvial soils that would turn jelly-like in the large earthquake feared to someday strike the region. Other areas up the valley lie in the path of wind-borne pollution from the rest of the metropolis.

The urgency of the blueprint’s champions owes much to concerns that current rates of population growth could harm the fragile valley environment. Already, commuters are stuck for long hours on the lone major highway serving the region, the Trans-Canada, which resembles a parking lot much of the time.

Outsiders who regard Vancouver as a paradise in the rain forest would be surprised to know that ground water in the Fraser Valley has become so polluted with nitrates from poultry farms that scientists warn that water in some aquifers may never be drinkable again. And the air, trapped in the valley by the mountains and ocean breezes, is so laden with a sun-cooked brew of toxins that, for several days each summer, residents with respiratory problems are warned to stay indoors. In the City of Vancouver, which Bob Hope once likened to a car wash because it rains so much, watering of lawns is rationed because of water-storage facilities that are inadequate to the needs of local residents, who are Canada’s highest per-capita water consumers. And the water that does come through the pipes often exceeds acceptable levels of contamination.

Limits to growth are more apparent here than in the Prairies or Central Canada, where newcomers can spread out in all directions. In the Lower Mainland, the population influx is crammed into the funnel between the mountains and the U.S. border. That distribution pattern contributes to higher pollution levels. Warns one planning document: “Urban sprawl into the rich agricultural lands of the Fraser Valley is continuing, traffics congestion is worsening and the environment [measured in terms of air and water quality and the amount of green space] is deteriorating rapidly.” Cameron puts it succinctly: “Every year that goes by, there’s a new population the size of the city of New Westminster living here-most of them in the wrong way.”

Using zoning, bylaws, financial incentives and other tools of government, the GVRD’s strategic plan will encourage people to live closer to one another; leave their cars at home and walk, take the bus or Sky Train, bike or car pool to work; and to buy into a shared vision of a clean sustainable environment and healthy community.

In an achievement rightly viewed as a minor miracle, the sweeping GVRD blueprint has been approved by each of the 20 GVRD municipalities and the provincial government. Each municipality has until February, 1998, to write into its own municipal plan how it will implement the GVRD plan-and then get down to the nitty-gritty of designing changes to neighbourhoods that will put it into effect.

Changing neighbourhoods will be no easy task, as the “haves” with single-family housing units strive to hold onto what they have, and the “have-nots” fight for increased density. Alan Artibise, a professor at UBC and former head of the International Centre for Sustainable Cities in Vancouver, warns that while talented people have produced an excellent overarching plan, “The real planning takes place on Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday nights at local council meetings, in thousands of small decisions.” A more hopeful Neal Peirce notes that change for the better is perhaps “more possible in Greater Vancouver than in American cities because American cities are filled with prickly independent don’t-step-on-me types. The Canadian culture might be more willing to accept planning.”

For some Vancouverites, it’s too late for preventive medicine in an economy marked by a widened gap between haves and have-nots. The City of Vancouver endured a whopping 19,000 break-and-enters last year. Within a few blocks of the Vancouver Stock Exchange squats Canada’s biggest skid row, a 20-block area that includes the poorest postal code area in the country and a thriving drug trade. There is a weary resignation among Vancouverites that rising crime is an inevitable byproduct of rapid growth.

But at least for now, Vancouver’s buoyant economy does much to alleviate social unrest. And despite the high numbers of multiracial immigrants new to the region, racial incidents have been relatively few. Economist Roslyn Kunin of the Vancouverbased Laurier Institution, an organization that researches and promotes understanding on social issues, gives Greater Vancouver a B grade for race relations. To maintain or improve that grade, though, the livability of the community cannot be allowed to decline because of a reversal in economic fortunes or a failure to implement progressive urban planning concepts.

This year, Vancouver has been celebrating the 10th anniversary of Expo 86, the world’s fair often seen as a civic turning point. Before Expo, the economy was stagnating, and British Columbia suffered an outflow of residents. The fair helped jolt residents into an awareness of their city’s larger potential.

Yet Vancouver still seems uncertain of what it wants to be. Some say it should scale back its expectations. “Vancouver is not a world city, because it lacks the normal functions associated with a world city,” especially the requisite corporate headquarters, which instead have chosen Calgary as their base, says urbanist Doug Webster of Bangkok, senior urban planning adviser in the office of the Thai Prime Minister. A Canadian on leave from the University of Calgary, where he is a professor of urban planning, Webster says, “Vancouver still has to develop more of its own identity. There’s a certain affectation that mimics San Francisco. It strikes me as not having much of a distinct character other than what’s pushed on it from the surrounding rain forest.”

Urban scholar Artibise says that during the past two decades Vancouver has acquired a cosmopolitan air. “It’s more urbane, there are more points that people with different backgrounds can relate to.” But Artibise says the region’s residents and governments are too parochial for Greater Vancouver to claim great-city status.

It falls to Cameron of the GVRD to offer a vision of the future to match the spectacular view from his office of mountains, valley and water. He sees it this way, that Athens fostered democracy, Vienna pioneered in music and London in theatre. And Vancovuer can earn its fame by finding a formula for blending economic prosperity with social diversity and environmental quality.

Is it practical to place much hope in such a vision coming about? Vancouver architect Arthur Erickson, who thinks Greater Vancouver’s population will climb to 15 million over the next century, says, “The city could be absolutely magnificent, one of the extraordinary cities in the world. But we’re losing it so fast to endless sprawl. We’re not prepared to handle growth-everybody has their head in the stand.”

Another Vancouver architect, Bruno Freschi, now views Vancouver from the distant perspective of his post as dean of architecture at the State University of New York at Buffalo. Freschi uses the example of Los Angeles to place Vancouver’s future in context. In the 1950s, Freschi points out, Los Angeles was hailed as a perfect model of urban planning because of its development of modern planned suburbs and an extensive freeway system built to accommodate the North American preference for big cars. Today, lowdensity suburbs and emphasis on automobiles are discredited concepts, and the Los Angeles model, with its pollution and congestion, is widely condemned. Vancouver, which never got around to building a network of freeways and has relatively less suburban sprawl, has become the model for big-city planning in North America. “You don’t know how good it is here until you leave,” Freschi says during a recent visit from New York, watching the Rollerbladers and beach volleyball players from the vantage point of a quiet cafe overlooking English Bay. “And then you always want to come back.”

Copyright © 1996 Deborah Jones

Originally published by the Globe and Mail Report on Business Magazine, November, 1996. Photos updated 2014.


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The Rankin Family

Nothing – politicians, fame, or drunks – fazes this Canadian Celtic folk band, named group of the year at the 1993 Canadian Country Music Awards

BADDECK, Nova Scotia, Canada 1993

It’s late afternoon on a hot August day, and several members of The Rankin Family band are relaxing around a sidewalk table outside a deli in Baddeck, N.S.

Raylene Rankin is biting into her sandwich when a drunk shuffles up and plunks himself down at the table.

Hello, what’s your name?” asks Raylene.

Carl,” says the drunk. Glassily, he eyes the food. The Rankins are eating a light supper before the concert they’re to give tonight for Canada’s 10 premiers plus the territorial and aboriginal leaders, who are holding a meeting in Baddeck.

Do you want some coffee?” offers Raylene, whose impish crop of dark hair belies the serious intelligence in her eyes.

No,” says Carl. “I’d like a sandwich.”

Raylene goes into the deli and comes out with a thick chicken sandwich and tea, which she hands to Carl the way she’d pass the ketchup to one of her siblings.

Thanks,” he says.

As Carl eats, the Rankins ask him if he knows anyone from Mabou, their hometown, about an hour’s drive away, and they discover a mutual acquaintance. Across the table, Cookie Rankin slips the word “damn” into a conversation with her brother John Morris. “Watch your language!” he says, cuffing her lightly on the shoulder.

Carl finishes his sandwich. “Can I have two bucks?” Cookie hands him a bill, then, worried he’ll buy booze, asks, “What are you going to do with it?”

Raylene interjects: “It’s none of our business!” Carl staggers off and the siblings finish their meal, blending, in their shorts and casual shirts, with the locals and tourists in this Cape Breton village.

National success as Canada’s premier Celtic folk band hasn’t changed much about the Rankin family, who formed the band in 1989. Today, they teeter on the edge of international success. Their eclectic blend of pop, eastern country and timeless Gaelic tunes (a language they don’t speak but get phonetic coaching in) draws sellout crowds in Canada, the United States and Britain. After gold and triple – platinum sales of their first two recordings, The Rankin Family and Fare Thee Well, Love, they launched their third CD, North Country, this fall, under a worldwide record deal with EMI Music Canada. In September, they picked up two Canadian Country Music Awards, for group of the year and “rising stars.” The five band members come from the middle ranks of a close – knit family of 12 children. John Morris, 34, sandy – haired and gentle, is the band’s musical centre, playing fiddle and keyboards. He has a bachelor of arts degree and has mostly supported himself with music. He lives in Cape Breton with his wife, Sally, and two children, Molly and Michael.

Raylene, 33, the matter – of – fact older sister, sings and writes some of their songs. She lives in Halifax with her husband, Colin Anderson, a garage supervisor. Trained as a lawyer, Raylene practised law for nine months, but found it stressful and happily put it on the back burner to sing.

Jimmy, 29, of the wild grin and joking manner, belts out songs, plays acoustic guitar and writes most original Rankin music. He lives in Halifax with his wife, Mia Nishi, a former New York investment banker. In 1989, he finished a fine arts degree at the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design in Halifax.

Cookie, 28, whose childhood nickname stuck better than her christened name of Carol Jean, and Heather, 26, provide vocals. Cookie recently gave up her Halifax apartment and now lives with her mother in Mabou when not traveling. Spunky dark – haired Heather lives in Halifax. Both sisters graduated in 1989 from Acadia University with bachelor’s degrees in fine arts, and both are single. Filling out the band are three hired musicians on bass, drums and fiddle, as well as low – key brother David Rankin, 36, who works offstage as sound man. The band’s distinctive sound has charmed fans. In a review early this year, The Vancouver Sun gushed: “Listening to the Rankins sing a traditional song … is like being transported back to another time. Heather, Raylene and Cookie Rankin blend their voices in heavenly harmony, sending shivers up the spine singing in a language few listeners understand.”

The Rankins epitomize two potent symbols that hark back to simpler times — The Family and Tradition. Will this down–east family band survive the notoriously bitchy world of stardom? Will they want to?

But another part of the Rankins’ popularity is that they epitomize two potent symbols that hark back to simpler times — The Family and Tradition. Cloaked by the reserve of clannish Cape Bretoners, they have managed to remain unpretentious and really, well, nice. But the siblings are protective of each other and painfully thin – skinned, harboring a litany of perceived slights in the many public encounters not to their liking. They were hurt when TV host Dini Petty pointed out that they’re short (the women stand barely five feet tall). They’re angry about being described in a 1992 issue of Maclean’s as wearing tartan (they don’t). In the presence of strangers, they seem completely at ease only onstage. And as they tackle the capricious mass music market with its attendant publicity, the biggest question is whether this down – east family band will survive the notoriously bitchy world of stardom — and whether they’ll want to.

About 1,500 people live in the hills and glens around Mabou, a tiny community on the windswept western shore of Cape Breton Island. In the mid – 1950s, newlyweds Kaye and Buddy Rankin, a mechanic, set up housekeeping on Mabou’s Highland Street, and started a family that swelled to 12 children in 13 years. With Buddy on the fiddle, the Rankins filled their home with the laments and raucous reels of their ancestors, who’d come from northern Scotland in the early 1800s. It was common for Cape Bretoners to entertain themselves with music, but pushed by their ambitious parents, the Rankin children took their talents far beyond the local kitchen circuit. Now 56, matriarch Kaye Rankin says she urged her kids into the limelight partly to help them earn pocket money and partly because she thought their talents should be developed. She was a strict taskmaster, and for the young Rankins, there was more duty than joy in practising for their performances at local fairs and ceilidhs (a Gaelic word pronounced kay – lee, meaning party), singing mostly the Celtic folk songs that are the core of the band’s repertoire today. The roster kept changing, with each successive child making his or her stage debut between ages 5 and 8, singing, step dancing and, later, fiddling or playing piano.

As children, we didn’t like to rehearse,” recalls Cookie. “But in my day, you listened to your mom.” Laughing, she admits that Kaye’s prodding paid off. “When we were young, singing was a geeky thing to do. It’s fun now that I know it’s okay and I’m fun now that I know it’s okay and I’m better at it.”

Cookie’s modesty aside, there was never any question the Rankins were good. They had virtually no formal music training, and even today, the band members admit they don’t read music well. Yet, all had an ear for music; John Morris especially, who quickly learned to play several musical instruments by ear. Daniel Goode, an associate professor of music at Rutgers University who became a friend after meeting the family in 1972, ranks John Morris among the best traditional fiddle players he’s encountered.

In the early years, the sole family bread – winner was Buddy, a hard worker and an occasional hard drinker who neighbors say could fix anything. As the children grew up, performing at community events like weddings and dances, the money they brought in provided extras that Buddy’s salary would not cover. As Kaye recalls over coffee in her living room: “In the ’60s, times were tough. There was no money and no luxuries, although there was plenty to eat. The kids all know how to work, I’ll tell you that.” In 1970, Kaye began working as an aide at a Mabou home for mentally – handicapped adults.

Today, photographs of Kaye’s children and grandchildren adorn the walls of the big, comfortable cedar – sided house that was built plank – by – plank by Buddy and the boys, as money allowed. The family moved in in 1980. The following year, Buddy died suddenly, when the youngest child, Nancy, was just 12.

Their father’s death was a huge upheaval, which the Rankins still flatly refuse to discuss with reporters. Always slightly guarded, they become icy when asked about a matter they consider inviolately private. Whatever the lasting impact of Buddy’s death, with Kaye left supporting the family on her aide’s salary, the young Rankins seemed more determined than ever to do their share for the family — and to do well. Today, all 12 children have either acquired trades, such as carpentry, or put themselves through university by working and playing musical gigs. Although they’ve had to spread out as far as Los Angeles in their search for work, all are employed, and all come home to Mabou as often as they can for family get – togethers.

In 1989, when the five Rankins decided to turn their musical hobby into full – time jobs, “We were all at a crossroads,” says Heather. She, Cookie and Jimmy were fresh out of school, Raylene was reexamining her law career, and John Morris was supporting his family by playing gigs. (The other siblings were either busy with careers or school, or not interested in the venture.) Deciding to take a chance, the five registered a business called the Rankin Family Band and plunged into show biz, recording their first album, The Rankin Family, with a $15,000 loan from an older sister, Genevieve. “There was a great feeling of independence and, at the same time, a fear that we weren’t quite sure where it was all heading,” says Cookie. “Yet, we were all young enough not to worry too much.”

They piled their new tapes and CDs into their mother’s car and drove about Nova Scotia selling them to gas stations, roadside restaurants and stores.

Their marketing strategy required help from other family members. They piled their new tapes and CDs into their mother’s car and drove about Nova Scotia selling them to gas stations, roadside restaurants and stores. Says Rosalie Fraser Pino, owner of a gas bar in Baddeck, “I sell tourists a Rankin Family tape when they start driving around the Cabot Trail (which goes through Cape Breton Highlands National Park) and I tell them if they don’t like it they can get their money back when they return.” Pino sells about 300 tapes a year; not one has come back. Since March 1992, when the band signed a record contract with EMI, the family has been able to leave most of the marketing to others. Still, the work is hard: between rehearsing, practising on their own, writing new songs and hunting down old ones, it’s a full – time job. In 1993, they’ve spent about 20 weeks on tour. (On the road, the sisters’ devotion to exercise and health food sometimes sets them at odds with their cigarette – smoking brothers, who prefer hamburgers and fries.)

For all their successful albums, the siblings still live modestly. First – class travel is out of the question, and while they can fill concert halls in Canada, they play mostly festivals and some bar gigs in Europe and the U.S. There are perks, of course, the biggest being that all band members delight in making music together. “We’re making a living doing it. There’s not too many artists that can,” says Jimmy. “It’s a hard business. We’re lucky we’ve gotten popular.”

I’ll sound like a squawking stork,” frets Cookie, worried the band will be rusty at tonight’s concert for the premiers, the Rankins’ first gig after a three – week rest from their tour of the United Kingdom. The three sisters are in the girls’ changeroom backstage at Baddeck’s high school gym, waiting for the 300 or so banqueters out front — premiers, ministers and senior bureaucrats — to finish eating lobsters so the concert can begin. As Cookie holds up two flowing stage robes, deciding which to wear, Heather tries on shoes, and Raylene flips through a songbook. Bored, Jimmy saunters to the kitchen, where he loads two big plates with lobster and scarfs them down before changing clothes and slicking his hair back a la James Dean. John Morris and the other players are relaxing down the hall. Finally,at 10:15, 75 minutes late, Nova Scotia Premier John Savage introduces the band.

Instantly animated, the Rankins run onto the stage and launch into Orangedale Whistle, one of their trademark tunes. As the enthusiastic applause dies down, Raylene announces she’s trying something new with audience participation. She descends from the stage and approaches a tall blond man.

What’s your name?” she asks.

“Bob Rae. My children are going to be so embarrassed,” groans Ontario’s premier.

“Where are you from?” queries Raylene.

“Saskatchewan,” jokes Rae.

“And what do you do for work?” asks she.

“I’m looking for alternative employment,” says he.

“Oh, I was going to ask if you liked your job,” says she.

“I like my job, but my job doesn’t like me.”

The audience howls with laughter, Rae grins, and Raylene bounces back onstage, where the Rankins continue to dish out their mixture of keening harmonies and stomping, down – home crowd pleasers. Soon, the roomful of premiers and bureaucrats, who’ve spent two days wrangling over trade issues, a stagnant economy and rampant unemployment, are slapping their tables, tapping their heels and singing at the tops of their voices. At the end, they refuse to let the minstrels go, and everyone stands and yells and yells and yells for an encore. After swallows of bottled water backstage, the band obliges.

Solemnly, Raylene stands before them. A hush falls over the darkened gym. “You have a big job to keep this country together,” she tells the premiers and the bureaucrats. “We hope you do well.” She glides into Rise Again, a spine – tingling Cape Breton ballad holding out hope for the future. Her sisters join in, and soon, the clear strong voices of all three Rankin women soar over the heads of Canada’s policymakers, through the open doors of the gym, over Bras d’Or Lake and up into the starry night sky.

Copyright © 1993 Deborah Jones

Originally published in Chatelaine magazine, December 1993

 References and further reading:
Fare thee well, Raylene: Cape Breton Post story on Raylene Rankin’s 2012 death
We Rise Again: Youtube video

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Spider Robinson moves on

Sci-Fi writer Spider Robinson used to say home was “wherever I plug in my stereo and computer.” To his astonishment it hurts to leave “this cold, grey town, which starves its artists and then imports its art from points west . . . I am one of the rare, fortunate artists who can earn a living here – because my art can be put in an envelope and mailed elsewhere .”
By Deborah Jones
HALIFAX, Nova Scotia, Canada, 1987
 It came as a shock to Spider Robinson when he realized he’ll miss Halifax. A self-confessed cave dweller, the internationally known science- fiction writer rarely ventures outside his house, where his imagination roams the universe unfettered by the clutter of the 9-to-5 life.
“For years I have been telling journalists that home is wherever I plug in my stereo and computer,” Robinson wrote recently in a bittersweet treatise called Leaving Home, published locally in Cities magazine. “I’ll follow my wife Jeanne wherever her dance career takes her. Now I’m doing so, preparing to ship out for Vancouver, and I discover to my astonishment that it hurts.”
“He found out inside his guts he loves this place when I told him we’re moving because I can’t dream here any more,” Jeanne says.
Jeanne Robinson ‘s Nova Dance Theatre folded early this year. She started the only regional professional dance company against formidable odds in 1981, and for six years poured all her energies into building it, achieving successes and critical acclaim along the way.
But the problems of the small Atlantic market and the “Catch 22” of funding were daunting. Corporations were reluctant to donate to a new professional dance company until the Canada Council bestowed its seal of approval via a grant. The Canada Council was reluctant to fund it until it achieved a certain financial and artistic strength on its own.
In the end, the lack of funds defeated Nova Dance.
Next week, the Robinsons will close the doors of their rented Halifax house (affectionately dubbed Tottering on the Brink). With daughter Luanne they will pile their belongings into a second-hand Honda and head west.
When the Robinsons married, they made a deal that Spider, with his portable work, would go where Jeanne’s ambitious dance career took them. A decade ago, Jeanne chose to dance, teach and then choreograph in Halifax. Now, shunning a return to the couple’s native United States, she chooses to dance in Vancouver, where she “can dream again.”
The Robinsons’ stay in Halifax was not without rewards. Jeanne grins, remembering how Nova Dance Theatre progressed in a city hardly known for its indigenous dance. “For our first shows we had two nights at the Dunn Theatre and nobody came. Eventually we had five nights, packed, with matinees.”
But Halifax, a city that typifies Canada’s disregard for its artists, has not celebrated the Robinsons’ contributions, although others have.
As well as the individual grants and critical acclaim received by Jeanne for her dance works, the couple received the international science fiction Hugo and Nebula awards for the novel Stardance, published in 1978, which they wrote together. Along with other awards for his numerous books, Spider has also received two individual Hugos.
Wrote Spider in Leaving Home: “How could anyone miss this cold, grey town, which starves its artists and then imports its art from points west . . . I am one of the rare, fortunate artists who can earn a living here – because my art can be put in an envelope and mailed elsewhere . . .
“So it does not cripple me to live where culture, recreation and fitness are administered by a single, underfunded department. . . . I’ve been published in nine languages, so it was only an annoyance to be told by a rack jobber that no, he would not stock my books in the airport because you may like that guy Robinson, but he just doesn’t sell in Atlantic Canada. He’s from here.”
Nevertheless, “I’ve been comfortable here,” Spider says in an interview. “I know where to find stuff. It will hurt to leave the lovely places behind and even more to leave the people.
“But Halifax had one of the world’s best choreographers and dancers here, for 10 years, and it let her slip through its fingers. And I am not going to make the same mistake. On to Vancouver.”
In Vancouver, which they hope to reach within three weeks after a cross-Canada drive, Spider is committed to write, in just one year (he usually takes at least two), his next novel, a collection of short stories set in a brothel and modelled as a sequel to Callahan’s Crosstime Saloon.
Jeanne, in return for Spider’s devoting three months to the move and in order to restore her psychic energy, plans to help him just by being there and doing the everyday chores, and contributing research.
In time, she says, she’ll explore her own artistic options, which may start with teaching dance.
And what about Nova Scotia, the province in which they met while living a hippie lifestyle in the Annapolis Valley? The Robinsons still own several acres in the valley, and say, before they realize it’s slipped out, they may just return here to retire.
Originally published by The Globe and Mail, June 24, 1987

Copyright © 1987 Deborah Jones

References and further reading:
Spider Robinson’s web site

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