Today I awoke knowing that a rare, remarkable and ecologically important bear will forever fish for salmon, sleep in the hollows of ancient trees and walk through the mist shrouded forests it has known since time began. For the first time in two decades, it can be said with confidence that the spirit bear is not just safe, but saved.
On February 1st, 2016, the government of British Columbia announced yet another land use agreement for Canada’s west coast – or what is now officially known as the Great Bear Rainforest. Built upon the 2001 foundational agreement between multiple stakeholders – including the Spirit Bear Youth Coalition – and advanced through a series of subsequent deals, this latest proclamation truly is news worthy, especially as it protects the Green watershed – the final piece of the puzzle needed to save the white Kermode or spirit bear.
Two decade journey to save the spirit bear
When I began my work on behalf of the spirit bear at the age of 13, I was an impassioned teenager amazed that a creature as unique as the spirit bear could exist in my home province, while equally shocked by the plans to log their last intact habitat, thereby threatening their future. The issue quickly became a hornet’s nest of complex politics, with the spirit bear acting as the pawn for more agendas than one could rationally imagine.
What started, for me, as a high school letter writing campaign grew into the largest youth-led environmental initiative in the world, with the creation of the Spirit Bear Youth Coalition and its more than six million supporters. While we were far from being the only environmental advocate involved in this issue, we sought to focus on a few specific, unique strategies that we hoped would add up to saving the bear.
The Youth Coalition united the voice of youth. We changed the tone of how the issue was discussed, allowing for support to grow across ideological lines in BC and across Canada. We helped bring international awareness with initiatives such as making the spirit bear the 2010 Olympic mascot and by cultivating unique media profiles and campaign endorsements. And we worked diligently to advance policy goals through quiet diplomacy with decision makers. Of course, we also made many mistakes.
Two years ago, it became apparent that while we had succeeded with 90% of what we set out to achieve, the final 10% – saving the Green watershed – wasn’t going to happen with the Youth Coalition leading the push. However, if the Youth Coalition left the stage quietly, there would be an opportunity to protect the Green.
Saving the Green
And why is the Green important? On top of being a remote, roadless wilderness that is home to an incredible diversity of life, this watershed is basically the donut hole in the ring of protected areas around it. Without its protection, sustaining the genetic equilibrium of the Kermode (a subspecies of the black bear that is found only on the BC coast and requires a healthy gene pool to survive) becomes more challenging. Logging the area could displace bears – grizzlies and non-Kermode black bears – and force them into places where the white bear lives, creating an unnatural predator (grizzlies) or leading to the dilution of the gene pool (non-Kermode black bears mating with Kermode black and white bears).
So while the decision to dissolve the Youth Coalition was far from easy, it was the obvious choice if it meant helping truly save the spirit bear for good.
Thanks to the hard work of many stakeholders – some of who stood on stage with BC premier Christy Clark on February 1st – that agreement has now come to pass. The Green watershed and, along with it, the spirit bear, are now saved.
Is it a perfect deal? No, but nothing is. In the premier’s remarks, she said it was the byproduct of compromise, a very Canadian ideal. Yet I’ve never been a fan of compromise, as I believe too often it leads to a politically expedient result that forces too many to sacrifice their bottom lines. I’m more of a believer in balance and though the difference between balance and compromise is small, it’s important. Balance allows for innovation and patience to win the day, and usually ensures bottom lines are upheld. On the whole, this agreement is more about balance than compromise.
Room for improvement
The agreement failed to protect Gribbell Island – a small island that was left off the initial protected area proposals put forward by various groups, including the Youth Coalition, but has since been proven to have a high density of Kermode bears. But the door is open to its possible protection if the Gitga’at First Nation wish to see it saved down the road. For now, they have been vocal in wanting logging to continue, but are said to be willing to reconsider, given the boom in eco-tourism on the coast and the subsequent jobs it’s creating for their community.
I also know of a few other areas that I, personally, would like to have seen protected, but all areas in this particular ecosystem will be managed with the Kermode in mind, including pledges to protect den sites and retain significant tree canopy. So in many ways, a buffer zone has been established around the core protected land.
And though the premier promised an end to trophy hunting in the Great Bear Rainforest, that’s not actually quite true. The good news is that licenses that have or will be purchased from guide outfitters at market value by First Nations and environmental organizations will be honoured. Up until now, the government could take licenses purchased for conservation away – without financial compensation – unless a minimum number of bears were killed. This important policy change is one that the Youth Coalition had fought to see become a reality – and one we were told would be in this deal. And it’s a policy change that does help the spirit bear, creating a quasi-sanctuary in the areas we helped to save.
However, the BC government hasn’t taken bold leadership to stop all trophy hunting in this environmentally sensitive region or in the Great Bear Rainforest or in BC, as the premier suggested and as was reported by the BBC and Washington Post. While the government seems to finally accept the concept of wildlife sanctuaries and while they have taken steps to help safeguard the white Kermode from trophy hunting, it falls short of what 90% of the BC public demands and what science dictates should happen for the coast as a whole. This isn’t about being anti-hunting, but about recognizing that while humans should have places where they come first, wildlife also deserves to have their space – one free from human interference and, in this case, flawed management. (You can take action here and here.)
Bottom line for the spirit bear
Yet there is room to tweak and enhance the vision for the coast now that some of the biggest issues have been addressed, including the newly imposed tanker moratorium in place for the waterways around the spirit bear’s habitat. As the Youth Coalition always stated, the proposed Enbridge Northern Gateway pipeline, which would have triggered tanker travel through the narrow passages of this area, was never going to be built with the current route given the lack of social license, its legal failure to negotiate with First Nations, and the reality that the federal government (who had championed the project) would eventually change.
The most difficult obstacle to saving the spirit bear and creating a successful Great Bear Rainforest agreement, in my eyes, was getting the Green protected. Now that this hurdle has been overcome, it does seem like anything is possible. While it’s rare to get absolutely everything you want, the spirit bear got a balanced deal that delivers what it needs. And then some.
But there was a cost to this success. This agreement should have been reached in 2006 and created more goodwill and established more funds for environmentally friendly economic development projects. Yet because of the actions of a few (and I’m not referring to anyone on stage for this announcement, nor the vast majority working behind the scenes), a decade was lost and instead of using time and funds to create additional wins for nature in other areas of the world, too many advocates were forced to double down to continue fighting for something so obvious to so many. The ramifications of these actions can still be felt by many – personally and professionally – and it diminishes, to some degree, this teachable moment for our world.
Still, we can’t lose sight of the fact that what seemed impossible for so much of the last twenty years is now a reality. And while the Youth Coalition is gone, from its ashes has risen two very different projects: CoalitionWILD (which seeks to help emerging leaders to create a wilder world) and GhostBearPhotography.com (an education platform that seeks to use storytelling to inspire people to look at nature differently – and give it a voice). Small chunks of our once vast network linger within these new entities and, for that reason, I want to reach out to you to say one thing: Thank-you.
Millions – yes, millions – cared enough to take a stand for a bear that they didn’t know and will likely never see. You gave a voice to the bear – and the Green watershed – in many different and personal ways. For that, I am forever grateful.
I’m grateful to people like Maleea Abel from Utah who handmade spirit bear ornaments to help raise funds for the Youth Coalition; and to Alison Wright, my high school’s business manager, who would allow me to make long distance phone calls to decision makers during school time – and would then pay the bills.
I remain thankful to Erin Andreychuk for spending many of her weekends as a teenager stuffing envelopes and licking stamps for Youth Coalition mail-outs, and to Paul George, for giving us the space, printer and stamps to mail our letters.
We succeeded because people like Joe Margetson would skip school to drive me to speeches in transit dead-zones; and because of people like Elano Ferraz Rodrigues who, at 16, helped organize students from across Brazil to write letters to save the spirit bear.
I still can’t get over the selflessness of people like Dawna Robertson or Judi Wild – two artists who would constantly find new ways to create profound work to bring the issue to life, donate their art to the cause and organize events to mobilize those in their communities. Or the dedication and compassion of people like Andy Wright, a tireless advocate to stop the trophy hunt, who always found time to be a sounding board and a friend.
I’ll never forget people like the teenage girl I once met in Montreal who was homeless, but wanted (and did) help save the bear, or the young children diagnosed with terminal cancer at Canuck Place who, in spite of their overwhelming situations, wanted to learn about and help save the Kermode.
I think about the extraordinary time and advice Willard and Gail Sparrow gave the Youth Coalition, and how former environment minister Ian Waddell went out of his way to expand protected areas for the spirit bear by a hectare here or there with minutes to spare before order papers hit the cabinet table.
And then there is Italia Gandolfo who has given up so much more than anyone will ever know to help find an innovative way to get the Green saved.
Of course, I’ll always be touched by the generosity of Bud Norquist, a gentleman I never met, who always wrote us a note of support, along with a donation, at the most remarkable times – just when it seemed like we were losing hope. Equally, I’ll never forget the kindness of the Norquist family – especially LaVey and Wendy – who, after losing Bud to cancer, rallied behind us time and again – without any recognition – in order to see Bud’s dream of saving the spirit bear become reality.
There are just so many stories, so many people. They all inspire. They all had an impact. A profound impact. On the campaign. On me.
A special thank-you
Of course, I’m endlessly grateful to have wonderful friends and an incredible family who loved and supported me on the few good days and, more importantly, on the many bad days. Any success I’ve had is because of them.
And, indeed, any success enjoyed by the Youth Coalition is a byproduct of the many emerging and established leaders we were fortunate to work with. From champions like Dr. Jane Goodall, to volunteer staff like Kerrie Blaise and Justin McElroy and Lauriel LeBlanc, to board members like Dev Aujla and Nina Bast and Larissa Vingilis-Jaremko: They made saving the spirit bear possible. Of course, one student I met in 1999, Salimah Ebrahim, would become a founding member of the board and stay with me on this roller-coaster ride until the very end. Her passion and stick-with-it-ness was what the Youth Coalition was all about.
The media spotlight will shine, rightfully, on those who carried the baton across this marathon’s finish line and the world owes a thank-you to the premier, the environmental groups, the members of industry and the many First Nation communities who came together to agree the Green is worth saving after all.
But the media spotlight will likely forget to thank three very important people and, without them, the world may never have even known about this remarkable part of the world.
Wayne McCrory and the Valhalla Wilderness Society first put lines on the map to save the spirit bear. It was Wayne’s science and vision that gave birth to this campaign that would eventually grow into a movement. Wayne was my early mentor and taught me everything I know about bears. No one deserves more credit for this victory than him.
Charlie Russell wrote the first book on the spirit bear and it was through his storytelling that the world first began to learn of this magical creature and its rainforest home. For a long time, his tales underpinned the narrative of this campaign.
And Ian and Karen McAllister – and their families – were the ones that navigated every watershed of the Great Bear Rainforest, documenting what was to be lost and grew the vision from saving the spirit bear into saving the Great Bear Rainforest. Their frontline appreciation for the land was always personal and passionate and it gave hope to what has now been realized: A massive swath of interconnected, protected wilderness up and down the coast that saves far more than just the spirit bear. And their work, through Pacific Wild, continues.
One last note
Though a campaign requires sacrifice and often becomes intensely personal for those on the frontlines, it should never be forgotten that the only successful issues are the ones that outgrow the advocates and become owned by the world as movements. You did that. You made this movement. You gave this bear a voice. You saved the spirit bear.
Though I wrote two years ago that the Youth Coalition’s journey had ended, today is when the journey to save the spirit bear ends for me personally and, I know, for so many of you. It’s been a long road and we all did our best. Indeed, we can be judged by watersheds protected and lost and the bears that will always be wild and free.
The true gift of waking up today is knowing that any one of us, at any time, forever, can go to the land of the spirit bear and see an animal just as nature intended, in a land time forgot. In other words, today is just as it should be.
With appreciation and thanks for helping save the spirit bear,