Lessons Sister Rosa Can Teach Us In BC

Simple actions can change the world.

Almost 50 yearsago on December 1, 1955 a woman who wason her way home from her secretarial job took a simple courageous action thatsome say changed a nation.

She refused to give up her seat on a bus.

That simple, yet brave, act of refusing to stand up and turn her seat over to awhite man had profound consequences for her, her community and the world.

The woman was Rosa Parks. 

Sister Rosa’s story has become a part of American and world history.  Herstory includes: her arrest and trial, the 381-day Montgomery bus boycott,and the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling that segregation on transportation wasunconstitutional.

But Mrs. Parks was not acting alone. Just like Martin Luther King Jr, she was part ofa movement for change that included churches, students, janitors, radicalsand a whole cross section of people who put their lives on the line for an alternativevision of the future.

If you can’t tell already, from a very young age I was inspired by the civilrights movement.  I was stirred by the famous leaders like Martin LutherKing, Malcolm X and Paul Robeson; I was encouraged by the stories of ordinarypeople like Rosa Parks who had the courage to do great things; but most of all,I was moved by the accounts of the unnamed thousands that did all theun-glamorous work – knocked on doors, registered voters, cooked meals, gavemoney, sat at lunch counters, stuffed envelopes – all because they believed insomething greater than themselves.

Today, the day after Sister Rosa’s passing, I wanted to honour her by taking timeto celebrate the untold stories of courage, perseverance, & unity from ourown home, British Columbia.

And there aremany, many examples.  Too many to do justice to in a few short paragraphs,but it is important that we begin sharing these stories, learning lessons fromthe successes and the well-intentioned failures, but most of all celebratingourselves and our colleagues that share our dreams of a Promised Land in BC.

I have noticed that we as progressives seldom pass on the stories and lessonsof our predecessors.  How many of you really know the story of ClayoquotSound or the Kemano Completion Project in the 1990s? Or the defeat of theSite-C dam in the Peace region or the creation of the world’s best park, GwaiiHannas, in the 1970s and 1980s?

Not many do,and remedying that is a lesson we need to learn from Sister Rosa.

Passing on stories is one of the things we can also learn from FirstNations.  First Nations in BC honour the stories of their ancestors. The stories of the ancestors are the source of their strength, they have helpedthem persevere against often formidable odds.

By now we should know we can’t rely on anyone else to tell our stories for us.The media will continue to inundate us with stories about conflict and novelty:the car crash of the hour, the sex scandal of the day, the corrupt politicalofficial of the month. 

Where are thestories of inspiration? Where are the stories of people coming together tochallenge power and do something greater than themselves?  Where are thestories of people redefining progress and creating collective visions for thefuture? 

There are a lotof them in BC, but they are not being told.

Dogwood Initiative is trying to change that. With our newly announced Strengthin Community program we plan on sharing stories of homegrown heroes, untoldstories of British Columbians coming together to do great things.

So what are some of the inspirational stories from across BC?

Haida Gwaii

The story of courage, inspiration and innovation, must begin with Haida Gwaii.

Some of you may have heard of Guujaaw, thecharismatic leader of the Haida Nation.  You may have heard about theHaida’s success at the Supreme Court of Canada, which imposed new duties on theCrown to involve First Nations in decisions affecting their lands.  Youmay have also heard about the recent uprising where the Haida and the majorityof non-native residents on the Queen Charlottes joined together with loggersand stopped unsustainable, business-as-usual logging on the islands they callhome.

If you watch the media closely and don’t blink too often you may have heardreference to these events. But what hasn’t received media attention is thelong, complex story of how the Haida, non-profit groups and local activists (includingloggers) came together and worked for many years to develop a community-basedplan for a new, sustainable economy that integrates diverse cultures,provides jobs and protects the forests for future generations.

The collective actions of dozens if not hundreds of natives and non-natives onHaida Gwaii has succeeded in illustrating that government can be forced torespond to community pressure. Their actions have shown that government and bigindustry can be forced to make concessions.

Just lastspring the BC government agreed to:

  • Protect 45% of the island on an interim basis;
  • An innovative government to governmentland use visioning process based on ecosystem based management;
  • Rescind two bear hunting licences;
  • Create special rules to protect cedar and  culturally modified trees.

Thesesuccesses did not just happen; they were the result of thousands of combinedsmaller actions of many people working long and hard for change

Andthey are just beginning.

Community Forests Movement

Haida Gwaii is just a part of another untold story in BC: the story of thesmall but growing community forests movement.

This movement-led mostly by volunteers-is working to build vibrant localeconomies that respect natural limits.

People like Dennis Morgan in Bamfield; David Shipway, Bruce Ellingsen and NobaAnderson from Cortes Island; JenniferGunter & Susan Mulkey in Kaslo; and others are working hard to connectlands and people in their communities. You can read some of the stories in ourreport Connecting Lands and People,available at  http://www.dogwoodinitiative.org/documents/CFReport/cfreport.pdf

Communitiesand First Nations are lining up to get Community Forests. Unfortunatelylogging corpations like Canfor, Interfor, Brascan and West Fraser have avirtual monopoly on our public forests, so there are few areas available forCommunity Forests.

Butthat has not stopped dozens of people in a growing number of communities fromcoming together and demanding change. They have banded together in the upstartBC Community Forest Association and are exploring ways to protect theirforests, their water and their future while creating jobs and wealth. And slowly theyare succeeding. With more support they could have a dramatic impact on thefuture of our province.


At the cutting edge of the Community Forests movement are the adjacentcommunities of Harrop & Proctor in the Kootenays.  Their story beganas opposition to industrial logging in their drinking watersheds, and throughhard work and some inspiration it has evolved into an innovative, sustainable,community-driven business.

After many years of community planning led by people like Rami Rothkop andRamona Faust they are now logging under an ecosystem based plan: creating jobsand redefining how a community can engage in sustainable forestry.

Their biggest claim to fame is that they are the official supplier of HarryPotter “Quidditch” brooms.  And their story is an inspiration for other”official” community forests, and for the more than 100 communities nowpursuing community forestry or local management of a sustainable industry.

Coalbed methane in BC

One of the biggest untold stories over the last few years is how anassorted bunch of F
irst Nations and communities are standing up to governmentand industry attempts to drill for coalbed methane in their neighborhoods.

Coalbedmethane is the gas that surrounds coal deposits that killed the proverbialcanary in the coal mine. 

The current BC government is pushing coalbed methane hard.  Throughsubsidies, royalty holidays and weak regulations, our government is trying tocreate the impression that BC is the new Alberta for fossilfuels.  They don’t seem concerned by the fact that there is not one exampleof commercial coalbed methane and salmon coexisting. In fact little science existson the impacts to water and salmon from the potentially vast amounts of toxicproduced water. 

But communities are standing up and objecting.  Municipalities from acrossBC are demanding cumulative impact assessments, baselines studies, and theright to say no. And because of these combined efforts coalbed methane has-for the timebeing-been all but shut down in BC.

Flathead-Elk river watersheds

One of the more compelling stories of community action on coalbed methaneis from the East Kootenays.

It is a story of how people like Casey Brennan from Wildsight and FernieCouncillor Dave Thomas mobilized concerned citizens, businesses, municipalleaders and environmentalists on both sides of the border to stop the BCgovernment’s attempt to exploit coalbed methane in the Flathead near Fernie.

This diverse group has organized themselves and implemented a sophisticatedstrategy that reaches into corporate boardrooms; into the legislatures inVictoria and Helena, Montana; into the International Joint Commission (oncross-border water disputes); and into the offices of the U.S. Secretaries ofState Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice.


Another little known story that is playing out as we speak involves theTahltan’s standoff with Shell Canada over coalbed methane drilling in the placethey call Sacred Headwaters.  This extraordinary place contains theheadwaters of four great river systems the Klappan, Spatsizi, Skeena and Nassrivers.

Last spring Tahltan elders and youth stood up to Shell Canada and demanded thatthey shut down their environmentally destructive drilling operations. 
In addition to Shell, the Tahltan are facing an insane number of unsustainabledevelopment proposals.  About 20 plus projects are moving forwardsimultaneously: mines, new hydro lines, pipelines, extensions to BC rail lines,and new roads to Alaska.  This hurricane of projects threatens Tahltanculture, wildlife, fish and some of the most spectacular natural areas left onearth.

Against this overwhelming backdrop of resource proposals the Tahltan Eldershave issued a moratorium demanding no further projects until certain conditionsare met.

Through the efforts of people like Rhoda Quock,Terri Brown and Oscar Dennis, theTahltan are coming together and creating new accountable governance structuresand against all odds they are succeeding. Shell has temporarily agreed to haltoperations, and with some hard work we expect the mines and other projects tofollow suit.

Other BC stories

These are just some of the stories of resistance, courage and vision forBC.  Many other inspirational stories have happened but haven’t been told. 

Stories about how coalbed methane was shut down inHat Creek near Cache Creek, about how the GSX Coa;lition stopped a pipeline and coal fired power plants, how First nations like the Hupacasath, Gitanyow, Haida, Huu-ay-aht have brought lawsuits to unravel the BC governments’corporatization agenda, how the District of Kitimats is fighting Alcan and the BC government’s plan to get rich by taking more water from the Nechako River to export power to the U.S., how the St’at’imc nation have developed a plan to protect all remaining old-growth in their territory.

These are justsome of the stories that need to be told, but we cannot delay.

Our opposition continues to inundate us with their vision for the future. A world withrestrictive ideas about family and religion.  A world of economic incentives for the rich  and reduced services for everyone else.  A world that commodifies our land, water and air.

We need to counter them by sharing our stories.  But just telling stories is not enough.

Reaching the Promised Land

As an activist who has dedicated his professional life to helping people fundamentally transform how they relate to themselves, to their communities,and to the environment, I believe each of you needs to become heroes in your communities.

What Sister Rosa taught us is that we are not going to reach the Promised Land because of a few speeches, or marches, though these are important. 

ThePromised Land is only attainable if we work together, if we step out of our comfort zone and do what we can to catalyze change. 

It will take each and every one of us, our friends and family, and work colleagues, pushing the envelope, harnessing our creativity and courage to achieve what is possible forBC.

As people from around BC struggle to reach the mountaintop, what does thePromised Land look like?  What is our collective vision? 

We have tochange how we talk about our aspirations.  We need to ground our vision ofthe Promised Land in values that connect with peoples’ hearts and their minds, that touch them and inspire them.

So this is our challenge, the challenge of honoring Sister Rosa’s example-if we want to reach our Promised Land we need to develop and articulate a newcollective vision linking conservation and social justice, to develop the discipline to communicate it better and more broadly, to connect with peoples’ desire for love and hope, justice and equality, and to inspire people to act intheir broader interest, and in the interests of their children and future generations. 

I don’t haveall the answers, but Dogwood Initiative believes that sharing the story of our successes is animportant step to creating the dialogue necessary to succeed.  We hopethat you will journey with us as we march forward.  It won’t be easy, but by working together we can accomplish great things.

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