As it turns out, a person really can’t get away from what we like to call civilization

As I’ve noted in a previous post, I’m an enthusiastic practitioner of reality tourism, a concept that in my usage of the term covers quite a bit more than visits made by affluent tourists to urban slums.

Any excursion anywhere, even from one room to another, can be viewed as reality tourism, in my understanding of the concept. It’s a process akin to Alice Munro’s preferred strategy for reading a short story.

In that context, I’ve been following with interest the story of the spill of chemicals in Likely, British Columbia.

I spent seven years in B.C. after graduating from Malcolm Campbell High School in Montreal. Eventually I graduated from Simon Fraser University. In one of my university years I took a year off to work and travel in the interior of B.C. and the islands off the West Coast south of Alaska. I did not have a car. Everything I needed, including an army jeep jacket, a cooking pot, and a camp stove, I carried on my back as I set out from Vancouver for a year of adventure.

When working at a sawmill in the early 1970s in the interior, on a day off I visited Likely, B.C. It was a delightful little town, very small, absolutely in the wilderness as far away from what we like to call civilization as a person can imagine. Some of the residents of Likely worked in the resource economy in the nearby forests.

On the road to Likely

Some of the young people from Likely that I met didn’t find it easy to adjust to life in their home town. Their families made a living running around in the bush chopping down trees. One time I got a ride with a group of young men from Likely on their way to one of their regular visits to Vancouver. The Vancouver hard-drug scene, as it happened, was the sustaining narrative of their lives.

I’ve since wondered how life has turned out for them. I much appreciated the fact they gave me a ride, as I had earlier that day walked 35 miles from a main road to Likely, and was on my way back to complete the walk when they stopped to give me a ride. Thanks to the ride, I got back home to my cabin in the woods before nightfall or at least not far beyond that time.

I recall the walk to Likely as a lot of fun. The terrain was quite hilly, with forests all around, meaning that you’d walk for quite a while before you were beyond the next hill on the horizon. That made the passage of the hours more interesting – perhaps, I wouldn’t know – than it might have been walking 35 miles along a flat terrain. In those days we spoke of miles, not kilometres.

Resource economy of Canada

My year in the Cariboo region of B.C. underlined for me that working in the resource economy of Canada is incredibly challenging and demanding. This was especially evident in those years, where much of the work was still being done using human labour, as was the case in much of Canada’s early history. Labouring jobs were not hard to find in those years, as I learned when I began to seek employment, in my mid-twenties, in the interior. The people I met – including residents of First Nations communities – gave me a sense of how Canada has been developed, during the course of its history. [Update: An Aug. 11, 2014 CBC article is entitled: “First Nations worry Mount Polley impact not as benign as claimed: Aboriginal and environmental groups seek independent testing of lakes, rivers.”]

Years later when I taught  Grade 4 in Mississauga, one year I found a cassette tape of traditional Canadian folk songs (English and probably French as well) about all manner of things I could relate to – including songs about good times in the woods, and about lumbermen, nimble on their feet, who liked to dance with the ladies. My students enjoyed the songs as well. We got to know the tunes really well. I’ve begun to track down such songs so that I can hear them again.

The introduction to  the CD entitled “Classical Canadian Songs” (see link in previous sentence) notes that the album “evokes nostalgia for a time when Canadian national identity was beginning to emerge from the mosaic of isolated communities scattered over disparate regions in a vast and often inhospitable land.” I’ve discussed one of the songs from the CD at this post.

Log Driver’s Waltz

With regard to Canadian folk songs, The Log Driver’s Waltz was a favourite among the songs that I used to play, from a audio cassette recording, during my years as a Grade 4 teacher.

The year of work and travel in the interior and along the coast of the province was beyond question among the key formative experiences of my life. It gave me a sense of purpose, a sense of direction, physical stamina, and a strength of character that has stood me in good stead in the years that followed. It taught me about Canada’s history, and about how people struggle to make a living and make sense of their lives. I encountered good times, struggles, and tragedies. I learned so many things, and in I’m so very pleased that I had the opportunity to learn these things, as a university student taking a year away from school.

All of this came back for me, in a flash of memories, when I heard about the recent situation involving the pollution of a vast network of river systems near Likely when a mining company tailings pond broke open.

Summary of chemicals in tailings pond

An Aug. 6, 2014 CBC article (see link in previous paragraph) notes that: “A summary of the material dumped into the tailings pond last year was filed with Environment Canada. It said there was 326 tonnes of nickel, over 400 tonnes of arsenic, 177 tonnes of lead and 18,400 tonnes of copper and its compounds placed in the pond last year.”

An Aug. 9, 2014 CBC article is entitled: “Mount Polley mine: Ex-engineers warned tailings pond ‘getting large.'” The article notes: “Knight Piésold Consulting, whose engineers had designed the Mount Polley tailings pond containment system, says the Vancouver company had warned mine owners in 2011 that the containment pond was ‘getting large.'”

Likely, B.C., the last place I would have imagined would ever have to deal with industrial pollution of any kind, is directly affected by a massive spill of chemicals into the nearby waterways. As it turns out, a person really can’t get away from what we like to call civilization.


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