I’m back in Powell River, publishing a day late after a week traveling to the Kootenays for the annual Gathering of the BC Food Systems Network. This is now the third time I’ve attended this event, this year thanks to the generosity of the good people at the now-defunct BC Healthy Living Alliance, which has wrapped up after a couple years of seeding all kinds of food-security projects around BC, including the ‘Garden to Table’ workshop series and the Sliammon Community Garden here in our region.
I followed a wandering route to Ymir (rhymes with ‘rhymer’), via Vancouver and then Kamloops where I visited my ninety-year-old aunt, who is amazingly still living alone in the house she has lived in since 1957. We agreed that we both hope that I got some of that good genetic background, although without the glaucoma and macular degeneration.
I caught a ride with a couple of colleagues from 100 Mile House and we spent the day driving from Kamloops to Ymir, via Kelowna, Grand Forks, Castelgar, and Nelson. Since I don’t have a car and rarely get around to see the province, this was all new to me: the amazing range of climates and topographies between our rainy coastal forest and the misty-sided mountains and river valleys of the Kootenays. What a huge and beautiful province this is.
Eventually we rolled into tiny Ymir at about 9:00 PM and settled into the absolutely amazing Hotel Ymir, decorated to the hilt with art and sculptures from all around the world. An uncanny and bizarre little place watched over by a taciturn German and a voluble Québecois. Already other participants were gathering in the bar, so we caught up with old friends and made new ones over locally-brewed beer.
The next day we got going with a presentation on the theme of the Gathering, which was water this year. Kindy Gosal from the Columbia Basin Trust walked us through some of the basics about water, shortages, climate change, and patterns of use. And then Marilyn James, spokesperson for the Sinixt people, followed up with a blistering presentation on the terrible history of the Sinixt people, declared extinct by the Canadian government in 1956 and denied rights to their traditional lands and waters to this day.
I can’t begin to do justice to Marilyn James’ very powerful talk. But she said something that was very resonant: when we have exhausted all avenues for change through reform and dialogue, when we have knocked on all the doors and had no proper reply, then what we must do is go home, find the source of our water, and protect it.
This resonates with me because it cuts through a lot of the crap we hear and tell ourselves; namely, the ridiculous notion that we can always take on the powerful systems causing destruction and damage and win. This is not to swing to the other pole and give in to despair, but I feel that a huge reason for alienation and isolation is that people have been fed this story about taking on the big guys and winning; and if you don’t win then you’re nowhere. No wonder it’s so hard to get more people involved with the big and terrifying campaigns to right the wrongs of the world: the stakes are so high, and there is nothing out there but a remote and almost unimaginable victory — or a frankly more believable and foreseeable defeat.
How are we supposed to find more allies for all of the struggles in all of the places over all of the things which sustain life and which are under threat from so many directions? What do we promise people when they take on the defense of some part of their world which they are not willing to surrender to an oil pipeline; or a dam; or a powerline; or a new regulation? What will it mean to win in these struggles? Or to lose? And if we lose, what then?
I expect that all committed people ask themselves these questions, whether explicitly or not. Everyone who defends something outside themselves — especially when doing so pits them against the ruling mindset of constant and total war on our natural world (only we call it ‘resource extraction’ or ‘economic development’) — must face the possibility of defeat. In fact, the ability to live with defeat and continue fighting is a quality that we all admire, judging from how often it crops up in the stories we tell ourselves and have done for thousands of years. In these fictional accounts, the hero usually triumphs over long odds; as Oscar Wilde would say, “That is what Fiction means.” Life operates by a different playbook, however.
The reason why I found Marilyn James’ injunction to defend our sources of water so refreshing is that it boiled it all down to something so simple that anyone could understand it. Our struggles are usually so complex and depend so much on specialized knowledge that it’s unfair to expect more than a small percentage of people to comprehend them. And who can care about what they do not understand? The power of the food-security movement and the related and more politically engaged movement for food sovereignty is that they are, at bottom, nothing more than the actions of people beginning to find the sources of their food and defend them. Water is so fundamental to all life, so infinitely precious and irreplaceable, that there is a natural connection between the BC Food Systems Network and all of the local, regional, provincial, national, and international struggles to preserve our waterways from relentless privatization and despoliation by forces who do not care about our access to the basis of all life. After all, if our streams, rivers, and lakes are ruined, they can always move on. As the Canadian government did with the Sinixt people, they can declare us extinct so as not to have to recognize our claims, our existence, or our humanity.
I know that speaking in this vein makes some people uncomfortable. (To which I could reply: “Good thing you weren’t there for Marilyn James’ talk, ’cause that would really have sent you over the edge!”) We all have times when we start to feel that the darkness is getting to be too much and we need to back away. And the edge of the comfort zone is always shifting for us; sometimes we’re too frail and exposed to take much more of what William S. Burroughs called the naked lunch: “a frozen moment when everyone sees what is on the end of every fork.” But the inability to take in the whole picture or the inability to talk about it with one’s friends and allies is one of the greatest roadblocks to progress ahead of us. We’re all predisposed to remain stuck in infantile stories about creating a local revolution through opting out, going off-grid, having the grooviest parties, clicking on the right set of internet petitions, or what have you. When what we should do is go home, find the source of our water, and protect it.
And this brings me around to why I love the annual Gathering of the BC Food Systems Network: it brings together some of the hardest-working and most inspiring people I’ve ever met, who are engaged in tough work, often unrecognized (and always underpaid), able to contemplate the possibility of failure but unable to stop pushing forward even then. I am honoured to get to meet and know some of these heroic and hilarious people who can bring lightness and positive change out of what can be a very dark and difficult struggle. The Gathering culminated on Saturday evening with a beautiful feast of food from around the province followed by a dance. There were locals wandering in and out and dogs and kids running around on the dance floor, which was painted in the form of a traditional labyrinth. A wonderful symbol of traveling to the centre, following the lines at times and jumping over them at others; a precious noisy chaos and celebration of food and friendship and shared struggles.
Next year I intend to find a way to get more people from around here to the Gathering. There is talk that it will be held in July in or near 100 Mile House, July being a time of year when it’s easier to get farmers off the fields for a weekend. We need more locals who are connecting to the other folks around the province and getting inspired by the stories and projects that people bring with them to the Gathering. It really is one of the most wonderful feasts and festivals I can imagine. I hope some of you reading this will make the journey next year.
A HOUSEKEEPING NOTE
I’d like to sincerely thank my collaborator Tom Read for his service above and beyond the call of duty to this blog. As I have told Tom, I don’t know if I would have had the discipline to stick to a weekly publishing schedule without his good example. Without him blogging weekly, I hope that I will continue to keep to a regular schedule. If anyone out there relishes the opportunity to co-blog about matters of interest to our little corner of the world, please get in touch with me.