Thursday, September 1, 2022

Down To The Waterline


This past summer there have been some disturbing photos about water, or the lack of it, in the news with Lake Mead being one particular example. A reservoir formed by the Hoover Dam on the Colorado River, it supplies electricity to 350,000 homes as well as irrigation and drinking water to 25 million people but, owing to a megadrought that started in 2000, it is now at a record low level. Currently the Lake Mead water level is 1,040 feet, a 160 foot drop since the year 2000 with the so-called "bathtub rings" on the hillsides indicating previous water levels. If the water level drops below 950 feet the Hoover Dam will cease generating electricity and at 895 feet a condition called "dead pool" occurs which means no water will flow past the Hoover Dam thus cutting off water to anyone in Arizona or California. In the meantime people are discovering all sorts of things that once rested on the bottom of the lake including boats, bodies, and assorted trash.

The Rhine River in Germany was another example of waterways falling to dangerously low levels and impeding river boat traffic. Ships are running aground and having to reduce their cargo so as to minimize the amount of draft, all of which is very costly and disruptive to the economy which is already struggling thanks to the war in Ukraine. 

Over in the Danube River there's a similar situation with low water levels and one made even worse by the exposure of German warships that were scuttled in WW2 and whose explosive laden hulks now threaten any shipping.

There was also the drought in Spain that has left reservoirs with less than half of their capacity and, as a result of the heat wave over western Europe, there were severe forest fires over Portugal, Spain and France.

In China the drought has caused the Yangtze and other rivers to dry up which has not only severely impacted shipping but also caused disruptions at manufacturing plants because of reduced hydro electric output. To try and combat the drought China has been resorting to launching rockets with cloud seeding silver iodide in an effort to induce rainfall. 

Drought in the Horn of Africa after four consecutive years of no rainfall has left millions of cattle dead as well as hundreds of thousands of people. The area is plagued with famine and war and millions are facing famine and water shortages. 

Global warming is of course the main culprit for expanding drought conditions around the world but pressure from an increasing world population, improving living standards, expansion of irrigated agriculture, deforestation, changing consumption patterns, and wasteful uses of water are also contributing factors. But in some places global warming is having the opposite effect of drought by bringing in extreme rainfall and causing glaciers to melt, which adds more fresh water run-off than areas can handle.

This year epic flooding hit Pakistan and left it with 1/3 of the country under water, more than 30 million people affected, and a death toll rising into the thousands. Heavier than usual monsoon rains and more than normal glacier melt in the Himalayas are the culprits with global warming being the root cause for both. 

Australia was also hit with epic flooding this year as a result of shifting global weather patterns that are bringing in extreme rainfall.

Water scarcity is where there is a lack of fresh water to meet the demand. Water scarcity of course varies around the globe with particularly arid countries and/or those with high population densities typically affected the most. Worldwide there is enough fresh water to meet the demand but there is a mismatch between water sources and where the people actually live. This is called physical scarcity.

Of more interest perhaps is what is referred to as economic scarcity which is caused by a lack of investment in the infrastructure or technology required to draw the water from rivers, aquifers, or other water sources to satisfy the demand. Because this is about money it affects poorer parts of the globe with sub-sahara Africa being particularly affected.

97% of the world's water is saltwater and only 3% is fresh. Of that most is tied up in glaciers leaving less than 1% accessible. Of that the African Great Lakes take up 29%, Lake Baikal takes up 22% and the the Great Lakes of North America take up 21%. Without adequate rainfall the rest of the world is extremely vulnerable to drought unless they can access the groundwater in aquifers. For those of us living in British Columbia we should never complain about the rain because, unfortunately, the rest of the world is increasingly getting down to the waterline. 

Thursday, July 28, 2022

Colour My World

From August 4-14th the annual Vancouver Mural Festival kicks off once again and this year promises to add another 30+ murals to the more than 300 that now exist. Formed in 2016 as a grassroots organization dedicated to social sustainability, cultural diversity, and artistic excellence the murals have addressed a wide variety of socio-cultural issues in Vancouver while at the same time brightening up the city landscape. But a picture is worth a thousand words and just a few of these colourful installations quickly demonstrate the power of art to enrich us all. 

Turning bland or boring walls into something vibrant and eye-catching is a gift in itself to all who get to view it and, when it also provides a message of social importance and awareness, that's an added bonus. Some of the most beautiful ones are located in the Mt. Pleasant neighbourhood, where the festival began, but the murals can be found all over Vancouver's neighbourhoods including the River District, Marpole, Cambie Village, Strathcona, Downtown, and the West End. The best way to see them is by going on a walking tour in one of the neighbourhoods.

But murals aren't unique to Vancouver and, on a recent trip to Estepona, Spain, I was pleased to see the city had also sponsored a mural competition to brighten up various buildings while contributing to social awareness and artistic creativity. The tourist office even provided a self-guided walking tour map to aid in exploring them.

But while art can be of social importance it can also be just for fun. Or colour, or whimsy as is the case with the Douglas Coupland murals that have been painted on the newly refreshed Berkeley tower on the corner of Denman and Davie streets. Eye catching from every angle this landmark building became even more of a landmark with its bright new coat of many colours. In a rainy city filled with bland concrete what could be more cheerful than this? A little colour in this world goes a long way in lifting spirits and is something to be encouraged.

Monday, June 20, 2022

This Land Is Our Land


The current dispute over Wetsuweten land is just the latest in a long line of attempted appropriations inflicted on various First Nations as our settler society continues to think it can help itself to anything it sees with little or no regard for Indigenous people who may have already laid claim to it. Trying to separate facts from myths has never been easy in the context of Indigenous land ownership but slowly the courts are coming around to clarifying things and, in the process, the Canadian public is beginning to understand the First Nations position. With National Indigenous Peoples Day coming up on June 21st it's worth taking a look at some of the history behind the legal decisions being made today.

For the first 250 years of the European invasion, colonists from France, Britain, Holland, and Spain settled along the ocean shores and various rivers from the moment they landed, with little consideration for the Indigenous people already living there. While the First Nations people initially helped the settlers and even had reasonable trading relationships with them, conflicts soon developed over competition for land.  In 1763, after the end of the Seven Years War, the French were out of North America and Britain was in control of all lands east of the Mississippi and as far north as Hudson's Bay. To try and end the murderous conflict between settlers and First Nations, the British king, George III, issued a proclamation that set aside land for the Indians. A line was drawn along the Appalachian Mountains that forbid any settlement to the west which was delineated Indian Territory, and it went all the way to the Mississippi River which formed the eastern border of the Spanish territory.

This Royal Proclamation states explicity that all lands not ceded by or purchased from Indigenous people is reserved for them. It states the people should not be molested or disturbed in the possession of lands not ceded or purchased and are reserved for them as their hunting grounds. The Proclamation also prohibited any private person from directly buying Indigenous lands. An Indigenous nation could only sell their lands to representatives of the British monarch and it had to be done at a public meeting. The proclamation and access to western lands was one of the significant areas of dispute between Britain and the colonies and would, in the end, become a contributing factor leading to the American Revolution. Nonetheless, the Royal Proclamation has a particular place in the history of aboriginal rights. It is the first legal recognition of aboriginal title, rights and freedoms, and is recognized in the Canadian Constitution of 1982 which states the Charter cannot override the aboriginal rights granted in the Royal Proclamation.

Unfortunately war broke out in 1775 with the 13 British Colonies seeking independance from Britain and, after it was over, the new country of the United States was awarded the bulk of this Indian Territory which they had no intention of maintaining for Indians. The first test of Indigenous rights came when the Loyalists, who had fought against American independance, fled to British North America and needed land to settle on. Referred to as the Upper Canada land surrenders, these various 30+ treaties that were negotiated provided Indigenous peoples with cash payments, goods, and sometimes reserves to live on depending on the particular treaty, in exchange for providing land to the settlers. Whether the terms of the treaties were fair is another issue but the rights of the First Nations to their land was confirmed.

The next group of treaties to be signed were the Lake Superior and Lake Huron Robinson Treaties in 1850. Beginning in the 1840's various mining companies had sent prospectors and surveyors into unceded territory to identify potential mineral deposits. They then acquired licenses from the colonial government to mine the region in spite of not having a treaty that surrendered the lands.  The Abishnawbe protested and demanded compensation and, after a violent clash erupted between miners and First Nation warriors, William Robinson was dispatched to negotiate a treaty and buy up land. One time payments and annual annuities were agreed to and huge tracts of land were surrendered. First Nations were also granted the right to hunt and fish in the treaty territory as long as there weren't any settlements or mining operations in place and land for reserves was also set aside. Despite the fact the annual annuity payments were never were adjusted over the next 200 years and are now the subject of a lawsuit, Indigenous land claims once again were confirmed.

From 1850-1854 another series of 14 treaties were negotiated by James Douglas, the Governor of the Colony of Vancouver Island, for small parcels of land for settlements, mining and sawmilling operations, and Hudson Bay Company trading posts. Aboriginal signatories relinquished any claim to the lands specified in the treaties in exchange for payment in goods and the right to hunt and fish on unoccupied ceded lands. The rest of Vancouver Island was presumed to belong to the First Nations living there.

After confederation, in 1867, the newly formed Confederation of Canada looked to expand its borders from sea to sea. Even though the government had acquired the former Rupert’s Land (the entire Hudson Bay drainage system that had been granted to the HBC 200 years earlier) they failed to have full control and use of the land as this transfer only provided sovereignty over the area. Title had reverted to the First Nations living there. One of the conditions to ensure British Columbia would join Confederation at the time was the construction of the Canadian Pacific Railway which would connect it to the rest of the nation. In order to satisfy British Columbia's request and the growing need for land by eastern settlers and new immigrants, treaties would have to be created with the First Nation people in the interior of the newly acquired land, which was all First Nation territory.

The Numbered Treaties are a series of eleven treaties signed between the First Nations and Canada from 1871 to 1921. These treaty agreements were created to allow the Government of Canada to pursue settlement and resource extraction in the affected regions, which include modern-day Alberta, Saskatchewan, Manitoba, and parts of Ontario, B.C. and the Northwest Territories.

These treaties came in two waves—Numbers 1 through 7 from 1871 to 1877 and Numbers 8 through 11 from 1899 to 1921. In the first wave, the treaties were key in advancing European settlement across the Prairie regions as well as the development of the CPR. In the second wave, resource extraction was the main motive for government officials.

In these treaties, the First Nations were coerced and tricked into giving up aboriginal title to vast amounts of land, in exchange for small reserves for their exclusive use and various promises of schools, food, and farming assistance as well as other entitlements such as hunting and fishing rights. Unfortunately none of these treaty terms were ever completely adhered to but the fiction of recognizing First Nations ownership was maintained.

When the Colony of British Columbia joined Confederation, in 1871, it did not recognize Indigenous title so it felt there was no need for treaties and, other than the Douglas Treaties and Treaty 8 signed by the Federal government to resolve problems related to the Klondike Gold Rush, treaties were not signed with any First Nations for the rest of British Columbia. With most of B.C. now considered unceded land, this was clearly both a mistake and a shorted sighted strategy. In 2000, the historic Nisga'a Treaty went into effect and set a precedent in forcing the issue of unrecognized Aboriginal title. This has resulted in over 50 other Indigenous nations in B.C. now negotiating agreements at various stages of the treaty making process.

Elsewhere in Canada modern treaties have been signed that include the James Bay agreement in Quebec, various agreements in the Yukon, and the largest and most significant of all being the Nunavut agreement that ended up creating a brand new, self-governing territory out of the Northwest Territory. While it's obvious now that many of the older treaties were hopelessly unfair, didn't represent what was agreed to orally, the negotiations were duplicious, and some of the written terms were not lived up to, they at least showed recognition of Indigenous title. First Nations today have access to the finest legal minds for their negotiations, in contrast to being forbidden legal assistance in the past, and the courts have recognized they have exclusive rights to the land and to associated benefits and profits, and must grant their consent before any economic development occurs. This land was always their land, not ours, and it was confirmed by a Royal Proclamation over 250 years ago. We need to remember that.

Saturday, May 7, 2022

Cold War


Faced with all the heartbreaking images of bombed out buildings and long lines of refugees in the Ukraine, there's no question Canadians are feeling lucky these days living where they do in a world far removed from the war in Europe. Whether it will turn out to be something even larger is yet to be seen but it has governments everywhere increasing the size of their defense budgets in anticipation of changes to the world order. After more than 30 years since the end of the Cold War it's hard to believe it could all be starting again.

The Distant Early Warning Line (DEW Line) was a system of 63 radar stations installed across the Canadian Arctic in the 1950's to detect incoming Russian bombers or any sea and land invasion. A classic Cold War initiative that lasted until 1988 when it was replaced by a jointly operated upgraded radar system called the North Warning System that could detect intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs). The North Warning System has now been declared obsolete and it will in turn be upgraded to handle the new hypersonic missile technology that Russia and China have developed. The more things change the more they stay the same and the money spent on this oneupmanship is truly mind boggling.

When you look at the world from an arctic perspective, Russia and Canada are much closer than you would think. Yes they are separated by an ocean that is mostly frozen year round but that's rapidly changing, and both countries have identified passages through the Arctic Ocean that could serve as a major Euro-Asian shipping lane and shortcut to the traditional shipping routes. While both routes are within each country's 200 mile limit they also have the potential to be disputed as an international strait allowing free and unencumbered passage.

As Canada, Russia, the U.S. and others file competing claims of sovereignty over parts of the Arctic, a new Cold War rhetoric is being heard. The U.S. rejects Canada's sovereignty claim to the Northwest Passage and is disputing the maritime border of the Beaufort Sea while meanwhile Russia, Denmark and Canada are disputing ownership of the Lomonosov Ridge as an extension of their respective continental shelves and claim to the underwater resources. To try and assert its sovereignty in addition to committing to a new radar warning system, the Canadian government has promised to open up the Nanisivik naval facility on northern Baffin Island which will service the Canadian Navy and Coast Guard's new fleet of icebreakers and arctic offshore patrol boats currently under construction. With 18 icebreakers Canada has the second largest fleet in the world after Russia which has more than 40, including 6 that are nuclear powered. Russia also has 13 arctic ports compared to Canada's two.

Meanwhile the 40,000 predominantly Inuit people who live in the 25 landlocked communities of Nunavut, the largest and northernmost territory of Canada, that is accessible only by plane or boat, are wondering if some of the billions spent on warships couldn't be better spent to improve their living conditions. If you really want to assert sovereignty in an area then you need to have people living there and make it habitable. In addition to a chronic housing shortage, many communities also have a clean drinking water problem, and suffer from pervasive food insecurity.


In a country that has to endure bitter cold winter for half the year, the words "cold war" have many connotations. In spite of our proximity to Russia we hope it doesn't mean another military front. But with global warming we are losing the real cold war and, over the next few decades, the country will see itself becoming more and more open to development and traffic in the North. How we balance the northern challenges of harsh living conditions, resource extraction, and territorial sovereignty, will determine the winners and losers of the next cold war.