CBC Radio – Eco-partners: Fighting together for the health of an inlet

This is a story on Rueben George of the Tsleil-Waututh First Nation and Ben West of Forest Ethics Advocacy, which aired on CBC’s In the Field. The story can be found at 26:46 here. It was produced with Allison Griner and Yvonne Gall, and based on a multimedia story for UBC’s Reporting in Indigenous Communities course.

Globe and Mail: A vacation that can make a difference

This article originally appeared in the Globe and Mail

A performer wearing her traditional amauti, or woman's coat, in Cambridge Bay, Nunavut
A performer wearing her traditional amauti, or woman’s coat, in Cambridge Bay, Nunavut

Cruising into Pond Inlet is a memorable experience. Having left Greenland’s signature blood-red houses and soaring mountains 450 nautical miles (832.5 kilometres) behind us, Baffin Island’s majestic steep-walled fjords give way to rolling tundra that almost disguises the tiny hamlet of Pond Inlet. Dirt roads lead to nondescript houses; the town’s most prominent features are its hulking white fuel tanks and its name written in pale stones on the hill above.

The Akademik Ioffe is dropping anchor when a passenger asks, doubtfully, “Do people buy things here?”

The answer is yes. Artisans in Pond Inlet carve scenes of hunters stalking their prey into caribou antlers. They sew seal skins into beautiful mittens trimmed with fox fur. They whittle narwhal tusks down to tiny versions of the narwhals themselves.

Shopping might seem like a strange thing to think about when visiting the furthest reaches of our country, but for some travellers, the opportunity to bring home such rare artifacts is part of the allure. While it might seem frivolous, this is serious business: Their desire – and ability – to bring home pricey souvenirs is a vital part of the Arctic economy. But finding ways to integrate cultural practices into income opportunities is still a delicate balancing act this far north.

That day, passengers bought $4,000 in crafts from the visitors centre, according to the manager, Timothy Akoomalik. That’s about average, but the numbers can be deceiving. With carvings going for several hundred dollars – a caribou rack-turned-cribbage board was snapped up for $250 – a few thousand represents only a handful of items. The profits are entirely reinvested into buying more art to sell, with about 75 per cent of the selling price going to the artists.

Some artisans strike off on their own in the hopes of pocketing a larger share. Darlene Simonie, a young Inuit mother, was outside the centre trying to sell a 1.6-metre-long, pure white narwhal tusk for $1,000 to French passengers from another ship.

Money also finds subtler ways into the community. Most cruise ships visiting Pond Inlet pay landing fees and hire guides to give tours, although there is no requirement to do so; some simply drop anchor and come ashore. Colin Saunders, the hamlet’s community development officer, says that a mandatory $2,200 fee will be imposed starting this summer. In our case, the tour closed with a cultural show at the new community centre. Abbie Angetsiak was one of the performers, throat singing and performing traditional songs and dances with her cousins and young children.

“I love performing,” says Angetsiak, who has been doing so for 10 years. Pulling off her traditional amauti, she explains that the $100 she makes for each show supplements her income while she perfects her English at the community learning centre.

With the cruise season beginning to lengthen because of perennially receding sea ice, Arctic communities such as Pond Inlet are discussing how far to go to attract ships. Some hunters complain that they scare off the animals; others become upset when outsiders refuse to play by local rules.

The French-flagged vessel, for example, would be there for two days without paying a landing fee, hiring tour guides or setting up a cultural show. They would also run the stores out of milk and produce. Laurielle Penny, director of Worldwide Quest, the tour company that chartered the Akademik Ioffe, takes a hard line on this kind of behaviour.

“I think they should be driven away with harpoons, if necessary,” she says with a laugh. “It’s a tribute to northern communities, quite frankly, that they even put up with it. … You try to land a ship like that in the Mediterranean … they would never be allowed.”

Most companies do make an effort to have a positive impact. But that means making tough decisions on what to do and where to go. Communities that emphasize cultural development and tourism naturally end up being rewarded with more visits, as well as bonuses such as crates of new sports equipment. With the cruise season limited by Mother Nature, other potential ports such as Kugluktuk and Resolute miss out.

On the final trip across the Davis Strait, we travel back down the Greenland coast, and the contrast between the two countries becomes stark. Greenland’s riches of shrimp, cod and halibut provide a good income for its people, and the Danish government subsidizes the economy to the tune of around $12,000 a person. The result is better infrastructure and a vastly different shopping experience. The passengers revel in Greenland’s souvenir bonanza: Artist co-ops sell crafts in quantity and variety unmatched anywhere in the Canadian Arctic.

I pick up some gifts for friends at a glitzy airport shop: sealskin earrings, muskox-wool bracelets and a CD of modern Greenlandic rock. As we fly back over Baffin Island I look down and wonder if Simonie has sold her tusk yet.

The writer worked as a naturalist and zodiac driver aboard the Akademik Ioffe. Worldwide Quest did not review or approve this article.

Globe and Mail: Clark orders review of Burns Lake sawmill explosion

This article originally appeared in the Globe and Mail

A WorkSafeBC investigation found ample evidence that combustible wood dust was creating a powder keg in a Burns Lake sawmill before it exploded in early 2012, killing two and injuring 20 in an accident the agency deemed “preventable.”

But there will be no penalties for the operators of the mill in the village about 220 kilometres west of Prince George because the Crown says WorkSafeBC’s investigation was so badly flawed – a situation that has prompted Premier Christy Clark to order a review into what happened.

While she welcomed Ms. Clark’s announcement, the sister of one of the dead said the “preventable” observation, included in an 88-page investigation report released Thursday by WorkSafeBC, is a blow that is creating new agony for her family.

“If it was preventable, how did it happen?” asked Lucy Campbell, the sister of Carl Charlie, a father of three, who died Jan. 20, 2012, at the Babine Forest Products mill along with Robert Luggi Jr., also a father of three.

The overview of one of the largest investigations in the history of the workers’ compensation agency says operators of the sawmill were well aware of shortcomings in managing sawdust, which fuelled the devastating blast after it was sparked by equipment in the mill. “Effective actions should have been taken to control both the airborne dispersal of wood dust as well as the excessive accumulations on floors and surfaces. Such actions might have prevented this accident.”

The report goes on to say, “The investigation shows that the explosion and fire that destroyed the sawmill constituted a preventable incident.”

The owners of the mill, built in 1976 and employing 250 workers at the time of the disaster, knew the operation had an “undersized” system for collecting dust, but realized the improvements could not be made because the mill’s power system was operating at maximum capacity, the report says. While preliminary work was underway on an electrical upgrade, “there was no reduction in production; in fact, production levels increased.”

No “adequate actions” were taken to reduce or control airborne wood dust, although this was the “root cause” of an occupational health and safety violation cited in December, 2011 – a month before the disaster.

Ms. Campbell said she held WorkSafeBC and the operators of the mill responsible for the tragedy. Her family is considering legal action. “With all the laws in place, somebody messed up. It doesn’t sit right with my family,” she said in an interview. “It’s hard to grasp, flipping through the papers and trying to get my head around this.”

Ms. Clark said she has asked the head of the B.C. civil service, John Dyble, to review the investigation into the explosion. The Criminal Justice Branch ruled out regulatory charges against the mill operators, noting such flaws as the failure of WorkSafeBC investigators to inform witnesses of their Charter rights before taking statements and a failure to obtain search warrants.

Still, WorkSafeBC is looking at options to levy fines against the operators. Babine Forest Products, which operates the mill, was acquired in 2006 by Portland, Ore.-based Hampton Affiliates. Calls to Hampton for comment were not returned Thursday.

Speaking at the annual B.C. Truck Loggers convention, Ms. Clark said the forest industry has a “fantastic” safety record but questions remain about why the Crown refused to lay charges based on the conduct of the WorkSafeBC investigation.

“We had a job to deliver the highest standards of investigation, to make sure justice was done and it was seen to be done,” Ms. Clark said, adding she isn’t second-guessing the independent Criminal Justice Branch. She later told reporters she ordered the “urgent review” of the investigation to quickly come up with possible lessons from the disaster.

Jeff Dolan, the head of investigations for WorkSafeBC, said he welcomed the review. “It’s a good opportunity for the facts to be laid out in a clear and objective way,” he said.

But Adrian Dix, Leader of the NDP opposition, said the review falls short because Mr. Dyble is not the independent party he has said should look at the situation. “What’s required is to have someone indepdendent look at this and give advice.”

There’s a sense of urgency around issues involving the investigation because WorkSafeBC is to submit a report to Crown next month on an explosion at a Prince George sawmill three months after the Burns Lake incident. Mr. Dolan has said WorkSafeBC will be mindful of lessons in the Burns Lake submission in filing this new report.

Globe and Mail: Get flu shot, young people urged, as H1N1 season approaches peak

This article originally appeared in the Globe and Mail on January 6, 2014

About 30 people have been admitted to intensive care units in B.C. so far this flu season, and the resurgence of the H1N1 virus has prompted health officials to warn young people to get immunized.

There has been one death attributed to the virus in this province, although laboratory results have not yet confirmed whether H1N1 was the cause.

Despite the notorious strain of the virus, doctors are not expecting this year’s flu season to be nearly as severe as the 2009 pandemic. That year, 8,678 Canadians were hospitalized with the virus, and 428 died. Now, many Canadians are immune to the virus, making another pandemic unlikely.

“The sky isn’t falling,” said Danuta Skowronski of the B.C. Centre for Disease Control. “But there are certain people that we recognize may be at particular risk this season, and that includes young and middle-aged adults.”

Last year’s H3N2 strain of the influenza virus caused numerous outbreaks among the elderly in care homes over the course of one of the worst seasons in a decade. By contrast, the H1N1 strain is most dangerous for the young.

“Normally, flu affects the very young and the very old,” said Michelle Murte, a medical health officer at Fraser Health. “Many people over 65 have been exposed to H1N1 when they were younger, whereas younger people wouldn’t have been exposed to it.”

When the H1N1 virus does strike younger people, its symptoms appear to be more severe than those of the H3N2 virus.

“We don’t normally see that age group requiring the type of acute care and intensive care we’re seeing now,” Dr. Murte said.

The risk is the most severe among people 20 to 60 years old with risk factors like pregnancy, obesity, heart and lung conditions, or impaired immune systems.

Walter Hiebert, a 56 year-old man living with HIV since 1988, said he makes sure to get his flu shot every year. But he says that despite the encouragement of urban health authorities, who were among the best prepared for the 2009 pandemic, not all HIV-positive people get the shot.

“They’re doing so well on the [antiretroviral] drugs,” said Mr. Hiebert. “They’re pretty much in the same boat as everyone else” in terms of how vulnerable to the flu they think they are.

Saskatchewan has seen a run on flu shots after three confirmed deaths from H1N1 there. On Monday, Alberta’s chief medical officer acknowledged many pharmacies in that province ran short of flu vaccine. Last week, hundreds of Albertans lined up for shots after it was revealed there have been 965 lab-confirmed cases of influenza in their province. Almost all have been H1N1.

A spokesperson for the B.C. Ministry of Health said there are no vaccine shortages here.

Still, Dr. Skowronski said that’s no reason for people to be casual about getting a shot.

“People shouldn’t delay immunizations for a number of reasons,” Dr. Skowronski said. “First of all, we can’t guarantee an endless supply. Secondly, you’re going to maximize your benefit if you get the vaccine before, rather than during or after, the peak.

“It’s not too late to get immunized, but we’re on the cusp. People shouldn’t delay too long.”