Mist Range Grizzlies

We knew there was a bear in the valley because we’d run into one on the trail two days earlier. We were bashing our way up the cutline trail from the Sheep River to the alpine meadows above Burns Lake when J, walking a little ahead of me, shouted “hey bear!” and a grizzly stuck its head up from the alders about a hundred meters in front of him. It only took the Griz a second to decide what to do and it was off, running into the woods and gone.

J and have walked thousands of kilometers in the back country together over the last two decades and this is the first time we’ve ever spooked a grizzly. We’d been around them before, like the time we hiked from Moraine Lake to Marble Canyon in a day and encountered hundreds of school-bus sized diggings, the delicate plants still green, still alive. That bear was somewhere in the narrow, storm shattered valley with us, but we never saw it.

I’ve also hiked above a big grizzly on Specimen Ridge in Yellowstone, and watched one from a kilometer or two away from a hilltop in BC’s Muskwa-Katchika region. But neither of us had ever walked into one on the trail like this before.

We stood in the heavily overgrown path together and discussed what to do. It was about this time that J realized that his bear spray was missing. To me it seemed like the sort of thing that you’d check right off when you see a bear, but that’s me. Sometime in the two hours since lunch it had come off the waistband of J’s pack without him noticing. Maybe this had happened when we made our way through a twenty foot high tangle of logs and other flood debris where an unnamed creek met Burns Creek? It didn’t matter: we didn’t know where it was and had no interest in going back to find it. The track was steep and our packs were heavy and we knew we’d never find it anyway.

What to do? Keep going? Wait a while and then proceed? Turn around? We’d rather take our chances with the bear than make our way back down the Sheep River, where more flood debris from the 2013 catastrophe awaited us. I took off my pack and stood on the trail, peering into the woods. All my adult life I’ve been hiking in these mountains and I’ve never really been afraid of bears; I wasn’t now. We decided to give it a few minutes – just to let the bear make some distance on us – and continue up the track.

Burns Creek is remote; it takes some effort to get into it. J and I had come via a long, undulated walk along Mist Ridge the day before. We were going to take five days to traverse the length of a notched massif of peaks called the Mist Range. The night before we’d intended to camp high on Gibraltar Pass but from above we could see clearly there was no water to be had there. We dropped into the basin ringed by Storm Ridge, Rickert’s Pass and Mist Ridge, hoping that the blue line on the map would materialize as real, cool, fresh water: no luck. The dry conditions that spring meant there was no water to be found, so we had to descend towards the Sheep. This was made all that much harder because the meadows just below the pass were filled with thick mats of wildflowers. I wanted nothing more than to camp among them so I could be there at first light: the photographers lament. Instead we had to sleep on the bank of the Sheep River, its braided course piled with logs and debris from the flood.

We reached Burns Lake without further fury encounter. Our path brought us to a high plateau a few hundred feet above the lake itself and before dropping J found a triangle of snow thirty feet high wedged between limestone cliffs. Beneath it clear cool water emerging from a crack in the earth. Elated, we made camp at 8,000 feet on the dry grass overlooking the serrated edge of Storm Mountain, the parade of gendarme on Mount Rae’s eastern ridge behind us.

Being in the alpine, there were no trees to hang our food cache from. This wasn’t a new problem and in the past we’d simply lowered our food bags over a steep cliff, but we couldn’t find anything suitable, so we improvised. Using a long length of cord, secured to a heavy stone, and employing the friction of the snow, we dropped the food bags over the edge of the triangle of snow, dangling them a few feet from the water below. A bear or other marauding animal would have to work really hard to get at this arrangement. That said, if the rope gave way we’d have a hell of a time retrieving our kibbles from the depths of the ice cave below the snow, but sometimes you’ve got to roll a hard seven.

The following day we explored the basin, hiking through the high, barren cirques above the lake, encountering a pair of mule deer bucks, somewhat out of place at 8,200 feet, which lead to some Brokeback Mountain comments, and then and climbing a 9,000 foot ridge that dropped 2,000 feet, straight down into Rae Creek on its eastern flank. I mean: straight down. In fact, I’m pretty sure the angle was more than 90 degrees by the look of the surrounding rock walls.

We scree-skied back down and walked through the basin to a tarn for lunch and commented that there didn’t seem to be much for a grizzly to eat up here. Mostly rock and lichen, through we’d seen a few pods of hedysarum closer to our camp.

After lunch we got caught up in a storm and made it back to our tents to dry out and nap and listen to the wind. Before supper we went for another hike and explored the little tarn below the Royal Wall and the high col that provides a faster, if not masochisticly steep egress into the Burns Lake region from Highwood Pass.

We turned in early, the weather growing foul again, the wind cleaving at the fabric of our light weight tents. I had just bought a new one-man job that weighs only three pounds and was pretty excited by its sleek design and compact size. As a genuine storm blew up I started to wonder at its tensile strength. The gales came in waves, alternatively ripping the tent from the west and then turning around and quickly coming back at me from the east. Lightning flashed across the sky, lighting up my little oblong bubble, and the thunder was simultaneous. Rain pelted the world around, driving in sheets and rapid staccato bursts. J’s tent was thirty feet from mine – just far enough so snoring would be inaudible – and from time to time we would yell to each other over the rampage outside to see if the other had been blow down valley. When the poles of my tent got pressed down by the wind so that the sidewall nearly touched my face I started to question the wisdom of camping so high.

The next time J yelled over the storm it was to ask, “What was that noise?”

You’re kidding me, I thought. There’s a gale storm blowing through the valley, thunder and lightning and a pelting rain. The noise is the world, I thought. “What noise,” I yelled back.

“Sounded like a bear.”

The next thing I said was pretty stupid in hindsight. “A bear would have to be crazy to be out in this storm.”

Where else would they be? At home by a cozy fire?

The storm died down around 2:30 and I finally fell into a restless sleep after that. I pretty much ignored my 5:30 alarm, poking my head out of my tent momentarily to confirm that sunrise was about the same as the day before and there was no need to shoot it.

I woke around 7:30 and retrieved our food cache and made tea. J was still asleep and I went back to my tent to patch up the blisters on my feet for what would be a long day on a hard trail. As I was doing this I was sitting, tent flap open, looking north. I had my head down, absorbed in my task, when I hear J’s voice.

“Steph, get your camera.” He sounded earnest. Then he added, almost as an afterthought: “And you might want to get your bear spray too.”

I’d been lugging a 300mm lens long the trail for the last few days and it quickly came to hand. I looked up to see a grizzly bear just 25 meters from my tent. It was sitting near the snow patch where we’d hung our food and drawn water for the last few days. The bear was looking back at us.

We all sat there for a few seconds, me in my bare feet (the bear in its), and my camera clicking away as fast as I could work it. Then the bruin got up and walked off. There was no panic in its stride; if the animal was in any way perturbed by our presence it didn’t show it. Curious, maybe, but stressed? No.

J came over to my tent, where I was now standing, watching Lord Griz make its way down a rocky game trail eastward. “That’s one crazy bear,” he said, or should have said, mocking my comment from the stormy night before.

We watched the bear go for another few minutes. He was on the trail we would be walking after we tore down and tents and had breakfast. We no longer felt any rush to be on our way. The Griz never looked back and seemed to care less about us as it walked off toward the Rae Creek Hills.

We never saw it again. The next morning we found a massive pile of very fresh – not steaming, though I would have loved to write those words – bear crap near our camp at Rae Lake. I had walked the path an hour before while out photographing sunrise and the dung wasn’t there, so that bear and I crossed paths sometime around 7am. There’s no way to know if it was the same bear.

It’s been a long time since I’ve written these words: the world is a better place for the presence of these animals in our mountains. They make the landscape come alive. A mountain with a bear somewhere on its flanks is a bolder, more dramatic, more energized place. The bear make the country flush with life. We flush with life because they are there; big animals, with powerful jaws and claws that from time to time do us harm, but almost always pass us as the bear did that morning in our camp: with mild curiosity.

It turns out that this bear came over the mountain, as well as went that way. The tag on its ear appeared in other photos I had taken earlier in the spring near Highwood Pass. That means this bear walked up through the alpine meadows of Arethusa Cirque and meandered over the high col between it and Burns Lake. I love the way one valley and another can be connected by these narrow ribs of stone.

I got to thinking while following the tracks of that grizzly the rest of the day, imagining – hoping? – that we might catch sight of it one more time. What I thought is this: how great is it that we have a place like the Elbow Sheep Wildland Park – and on the other side of the high col Peter Lougheed Provincial Park – to provide a sanctuary for a wild creature like this bear?

In the early 1990s’ the Alberta Wilderness Association made damn sure it would stay that way when they fought for and won protection for the headwaters of the Elbow and the Sheep Rivers. It was a decade’s long fight against a government that didn’t give a rats’ ass about wilderness, and only decided to protect the place when enough Albertan’s stood up and shouted loud enough that Premier Klein couldn’t ignore them any longer. Klein didn’t act until he was certain he could still lease oil and gas in the new “Park” which he tried to do a few years later.

Back then I was a long-haired, wet behind the ears, fire-brand radical environmental jerk that lived by Dave Foreman’s mantra of “no compromise in defense of mother earth.” I learned that leases had been written for areas of the Elbow Sheep to a Calgary oil giant and somehow managed to get a meeting with one of the companies most reasonable voices. I got a look at a letter from the company to then Minister of the Environment Ty Lund outlining concerns they had that the leases were in fact in prime grizzly country. The company, trying to do the right thing, asked to swap the leases with ones that would be less damaging to grizzly habitat and less destructive of their public image.

The area leased wasn’t the valley above Burns Lake, but further east, along the western slopes of Forget-Me-Not-Ridge.

Minister Lund had written back explaining that if the oil company didn’t drill the lease he’d find someone who would. There would be no swap. He didn’t use those words, but that’s what he said.

I leaked the information to the press. The public went bananas. I spent two years fighting with the Ministry and with the Freedom of Information agency to get the letter, but never was able. Just the same, I ruined my reputation with the oil company (no loss), and the reasonable man who I was dealing with there would never trust me again, and for good reason (that was a loss) but the lease was never drilled.

That was nearly twenty years ago. I’m no longer long haired, nor am I all that wet behind the ears. I’m even less of a jerk. But after seeing the grizzly at Burns Lake, just sitting there outside my tent, I know for certain I’d do it again in a heartbeat.

Home Range

The last few hundred meters are a push but the view of the tiny lake, still dotted with ice, makes the effort worthwhile. Jenn and I drop our packs and after a few minutes rest we set up camp. It was late in the afternoon when we get started but in the long light of summer we’ve got plenty of time. Soon we’ve got dinner in hand and are watching the sun paint Mount Smuts and Mount Birdwood a deep burnt umber. We’re alone, but not far from home, and feeling the magic of the landscape at work on us.

This is part of our home range. Smuts Pass, Commonwealth Creek, Burstal Pass, and the great circling range of mountains and valleys that extend in every direction. We’re at the southern end of the Spray Valley in Kananaskis Country, just an hour from Canmore, and home.

For nearly a quarter of a century the Bow Valley has been my base camp. I moved to Lake Louise in the early 1990’s to work for Parks Canada and have slowly migrated down valley. There have been plenty of detours along the way, but this range of mountains has always called loudest and it’s here I return to again and again.

Mount Lougheed and the Wind Valley, Alberta.

Mount Lougheed and the Wind Valley, Alberta.

For the last four years I’ve spent a lot of my time photographing and writing about the eastern edge of my home range, and pushing the borders of that demarcation south as far as the Rocky Mountain Front of Montana. During that time I shot more than 40,000 images for a book called Earth and Sky: A Journey Down the Front of the World, and as that project is coming to completion I’ve started to wonder what I was going to do next? I’ve got many other writing projects on the go, but the dream of being a professional photographer has been my greatest ambition since high school. I’ve learned to see the world in a complexly different way since setting a goal for my photography. I’ve loved every minute of the journey. Finding the next photographic endeavour to focus my intent has been on my mind for the last six months.

While Earth and Sky was exhilarating to shoot, it was also exhausting. The southern end of the geography for the book is an eight hour drive away. Last year alone I made over a dozen trips into the foothills of Alberta and Montana, and while some of them were coupled with my work in conservation, they never-the-less left me feeling a little bedraggled. I wanted something closer to home to work on next.

Kananaskis Country came quickly to mind. When I proposed the idea to my publisher at Rocky Mountain Books he suggested I do a statistically valid survey of local book sellers as to what they need. When I asked Jocey Asnong at Canmore’s Cafe Books she – without hesitation or prompting — said a book on Canmore and Kananaskis! That was good enough for me, and apparently good enough for my publisher. (Yes, this is really how decisions are made in the publishing business.)

This is a natural fit for me. I can get to most parts of Kananaskis Country within a couple of hours drive, and a short day hike. I know it well, having hiked and climbed there for two decades. I’ve got a big collection of transparencies to draw on, and a growing stock of digital images that I’ve been shooting over the last few years.

My passion for the landscape of the Bow Valley and Kananaskis Country runs deeper than that. In the 1990’s I spent six years as the volunteer Chair of the Kananaskis Coalition, lobbying the government and rallying the public to protect more of the multiple use landscape. Like many Albertans I was surprised that more of Kananaskis Country wasn’t protected as a park. Together with dozens – with hundreds – of other volunteers from recreation, conservation and community organizations, we worked doggedly to pressure Premier Klein and his government to turn down proposals for new ski areas, golf courses, resorts, heli-skiiing operations and marinas in the Spray and Kananaskis Valley’s. In the end we were successful. On the last day he was Minister of the Environment Gary Mar announced that he was rejecting proposals for development in the Spray Valley and instead creating a Wildland Park.

Around that same time a bunch of us nominated the Bow Valley as a Special Place. Thanks to people like Gareth Thompson, Mike and Dianne McIvor, Wendy Frances, Harvey Locke, the late Jim Kievit (AKA Captain Greenshirt), the late Andre Gareau, along with many others, we were able to secure the Bow Valley Wildland Provincial Park.

Not long after that I found myself flooded with calls from the media asking if I was attending an event with the Premier. Ralph Klein was going to be in Kananaskis Country to make an announcement on the Recreation Management Plan, under review for the last few years. I had sat on the advisory committee for that plan on behalf of the environmental community. I put on a sports coat, tied my hair back in a pony tail (this was a very long time ago) and drove out to Mount Lorette Ponds. The Premier wasn’t very happy to see me, but his announcement was good news, and I told him so as half a dozen media outlets let the cameras roll.

More protected areas followed though Special Places 2000, including the Sheep River and Blue Rock Wildlands, and the Don Getty Wildland. In all, around half of Kananaskis Country was protected from further commercial development. And while there are still major issues with oil and gas and logging in the eastern and southern portions of the region, progress has been made.

That time, between 1994 and 2000, when I left the Kananaskis Coalition to start a small national conservation group called Wildcanada.net, was about more than just fighting to protect a place: it was about falling in love with a geography. Deeply and intimately.

Now I get to fall in love all over again. Already I can feel the excitement buzzing in me as I think about where I’m going to go, and when, and how I’m going to shoot a particular landscape in order to ensure my passion for this place is felt through the pages of this book.

I’m calling it Home Range, though it may well have a different title when it hits the shelves. It’s my home range. And it’s the home range for hundreds of thousands of others who live in Canmore, in towns like Turner Valley, Black Diamond and Bragg Creek and of course, Calgary.

I’m inviting you to join me: tell me what they love about this place. If I’m going to capture this landscape and the people who love it, where should I go? What trail should I hike, and when? Where are the flowers blooming? What is the wildlife up to? I want to hear from people who live here, visit or work here about a favourite scene, an iconic image that has to be a part of this project. I can’t guarantee I’ll do it justice, but I’ll try.

I’ve got eight months to do what I did in four years with Earth and Sky. I’m going to have to push myself to capture what I love about this place in so short a time. But it’s close to home, and I’m motivated. This has been my lifelong dream – to be a photographer – and I’m willing to do whatever it takes to create a book we can all be proud of.

Here’s how you can be a part of it:

1) Go to the Home Range group on Facebook.
2) Tell me about an iconic scene that defines your home range in Canmore, the Bow Valley (defined for this book as south of the Banff Park Gate) or in Kananaskis Country .
3) Check back often. Share with the community when the first crocus blooms, when your favourite bird returns, when the snow is out of the high passes. I don’t want to miss anything and I’d love your help in doing so. I’ll post many of the photos I take there and you can let me know what you think.
4) In November 2015 I will randomly draw the names of three people who have participated in this effort to receive a copy of the final book when it is published in 2016.

Thank you for joining me on this journey.


Environmentalists and other Terrorists

Recently the Canadian federal government introduced new anti-terrorism legislation. This comes as a response to the growing, and very real threat of terrorism activity overseas, and from attacks on Canadian soil on two Canadian Forces soldiers at the end of 2014.

There is little doubt that we need to take the threat of terrorism seriously. There is a small, well organized, and no doubt clinically insane group of people in the world who have bastardized their religious beliefs to suit their homicidal intent and are killing innocent people as a result. There are also Islamic extremists to be concerned about.

As has been its modus operandi the federal Conservative government under Stephen Harper has used this excuse to attack its own political enemies. In this case they have introduced a piece of legislation thinly disguised to address a real problem while actually giving their own government and its law enforcement and security agencies the power to do something else entirely.

This past weekend, while reading the paper-version of the Globe and Mail, Jenn asked me what I thought of the new legislation. I hadn’t finished reading the Globe’s coverage yet, but told her that I expected that very soon we’d be hearing how these new powers would be used to fight “domestic terrorists” like those of us who oppose Prime Minster Harper’s pandering to the oil and gas industry.

No sooner had I said that than I read this: “The new internal government information-sharing legislation blinks red. Critically, it paints national security broadly – including things like the “economic and financial stability of Canada.”(Not all proposed Security reforms guarantee Canadian’s safety, Kent Roach and Craig Forcee, Globe and Mail, January 31)

Joe Oliver, now the federal Minister of Finance, but then the Minister of Natural Resources already started framing the debate over forestry, oil and gas and hydro projects as being germane. In a letter published in the Wall Street Journal in 2012 he said: “Unfortunately, there are environmental and other radical groups that would seek to block this opportunity to diversify our trade. Their goal is to stop any major project no matter what the cost to Canadian families in lost jobs and economic growth. No forestry. No mining. No oil. No gas. No more hydro-electric dams.”

I’ve never been opposed to being called a radical by someone who doesn’t know what they are talking about. Being a radical means to get to the root of things and that’s what we need to do in the debate over Canada’s energy future. But that’s not what the Honorable Minister meant.

Prime Minister Harper’s anti-terrorism strategy, while doing little to stop the very real problem of actual radicalization of Islamist extremists, instead targets Canadians who simply disagree with the direction our current government have taken our country. Again in 2012 then Public Safety Minister Vic Toews outlined the government’s policy on terrorism that states it would be vigilant against “based on grievances – real or perceived – revolving around the promotion of various causes such as animal rights, white supremacy, environmentalism and anti-capitalism.”

Now we have legislation that characterizes threats to Canada’s economic and financial stability as terrorism. It’s likely that this will be explained away as necessary to protect infrastructure and property from rare instances of actual sabotage, but I expect that sooner than later crackdowns on protestors, environmental groups, First Nations and every-day average citizens concerned about our future will be justified under this new legislation. We’ve already seen a dramatic escalation in the response to protests, such as those in New Brunswick over concerns about fracking and in BC over the Kinder-Morgan pipeline on Burnaby Mountain. It’s only a matter of time before the Harper government stops insinuating that First Nations people, environmentalists and others are “terrorists” and starts labeling us as such under this act.

To End the Earth’s Suffering

“Now, as an old man, I realize the only thing I can change is myself, and suddenly I realize that if long ago I had changed myself, I could have made an impact on my family. My family and I could have made an impact on our town. Their impact could have changed the nation and I could indeed have changed the world.”

~ Unknown Buddhist Monk

Our suffering is killing us, and it’s destroying what sustains life on earth.

We suffer, in part, because we crave or desire material objects – a newer iPhone, a nicer car, a bigger house – as well as emotional safety, such as the illusion of stable relationships and certainty about life’s path.

No amount of material possessions can ever satisfy our longing because happiness and peace in life cannot be obtained from external belongings. Nor can we ever count on our relationships with other people, with our work, or even with our family for emotional grounding because these things are constantly in flux: friends move away, careers change with time, children grow up and leave home and loved-ones die. Happiness and peace are not found outside of the self; only within.

Across much of western society, and around the world, we have either forgotten this simple truth or have never learned it in the first place. We continue to try and ease our suffering through the accumulation of wealth and by denying the most basic fundamental truths of human existence: everything changes; everybody grows old, gets sick and dies; and everything is part of everything else.

Our difficulty grasping the interconnectedness of everything, not only on earth, but across all of time and space, leads us to feel a profound loneliness and a sense of isolation from one another. In turn, we try to ease this pain by filling our lives with material possessions, rather than practices that help us erase the barrier between ourselves and the rest of existence.

As humanity struggles to address the most pressing global issues of our time – a changing climate that will irrevocably alter life on earth, crushing poverty and inequality, and the loss of biodiversity that will cripple global ecosystems of which we are inextricably a part – we need to address not just the outcome of these challenges, but their root cause: our suffering’s impact on the world that sustains us, and on one another.

For almost twenty-five years I’ve been an environmental and social activist. I’ve taken a straight-forward approach to advocating for what I believe in: a patch of wilderness that I cherish is threatened, so I work with my community, scientists, and with other activists to fight oil and gas development, logging, mining or road building. An important animal like the grizzly bear or the bull trout is threatened with extinction so I rally the public to fight for stronger laws and regulations to protect it. I’ve had some success, but I’ve also watched so many things that I cherish slip away.

My advocacy was often fueled by anger, and its underlying cause fear, because of what we were losing. Around ten years ago that started to change; I realized that letting my love for other people, for wild places, and for the dignity of humanity fuel my work to make change was far more effective – and personally sustainable – than being driven by my fear. In 2006 I wrote Carry Tiger to Mountain: The Tao of Activism and Leadership to outline what I thought was a better path for people who want to make the world a better place to follow.

Since then I’ve been trying to use the three pillars of the Tao – restraint, compassion and love – in my everybody life, first as a consultant to non-profits and business, and once again as a leader in North America’s conservation movement.

In doing so I’ve stumbled upon a difficult reality: all of our victories to protect the fabric of life on this planet, all of our efforts to provide dignity, food and shelter for people who are in need of it, are temporary. Everything we do to protect the backbone of the globe’s biodiversity only lasts until our own insatiable appetite for whatever riches lie buried beneath that place as goal, oil and gas, or growing on it as merchantable timber, are needed by an ever more desperate human population.

Nothing is safe and no place is so sacred that we won’t one day sacrifice it if we grew desperate enough. There is no law that can’t be rescinded; there is no United Nations status that is so prestigious that it won’t be ignored if humankind continues on its current trajectory. Witness the status of South Africa’s black rhinoceros: hunted to near extinction for the aphrodisiac believed to be continued in its horn. Laws and even an armed militia aren’t enough to keep poachers from shooting these animals and leaving them to rot, and for what? So that someone somewhere can satisfy their sexual desire.

Witness also the full-out assault on Canada’s laws to protect our environment; laws that once made us the envy of the world, and now leave us the laughing stock. In just a few short years Canada’s Conservative government under Prime Minster Stephen Harper have dismantled the Canadian Environmental Protection Act, the Navigable Waterways Act, the Canadian Environmental Assessment Act and the Fisheries Act, once the strongest piece of legislation in Canada for safeguarding the Environment. The Species at Risk Act, which I helped advocate for from 1997 through late 2002, is next on the chopping block. Why? To make it easier for petrochemical companies to drill for oil and ship it to refineries around the world.

Until we address the underlying cause of the rampant destruction of the natural world, until we address the extraordinary disparity between rich and poor around the globe, every effort to protect life on earth will be fleeting. We need another approach; we need something in addition to our political and community advocacy in order to address what Wade Davis calls the “fire burring over the Earth, taking with it plants and animals, cultures, languages, ancient skills and visionary wisdom.”[1]

Through the practice of meditation, which I began in earnest during a period of personal upheaval in 2006, I began to understand the nature of my own suffering, and that of every other human being. Suffering is at once deeply personal and universal. We all suffer; it is the nature of humanity to feel the pain that comes from life, and our perceptions of it.

Twenty-five hundred years ago an Indian prince named Siddhartha Gautama felt that pain too. Raised in opulent luxury and sheltered from the world of sickness, disease and death, the young prince came face-to-face with these realities and fled his life of privilege and began to follow a spiritual path. After six years of wandering, meditation, and self-deprivation, the man who would become the first Buddha was no closer to solving for himself what is a universal paradox: life ends, everything we love is taken from us, and we and everybody we care for will one day die. Nothing we can do will stop that; we have to make peace with it.

Siddhartha sat down under the Bodhi tree and meditated on this quandary. He recalled that in his youth he had found the greatest peace of his life enjoying a profound interconnectedness with nature, and with all life on earth, and in that moment realized what Buddhists now call the two Great Truths: that everything is temporary and everything is interconnected with everything else.

In that moment he ceased to be Siddhartha the prince and he became a Buddha; one who has conquered suffering; an enlightened being.

All the riches in the world could not fulfill the young prince’s soul; he had to confront the most basic facts of human existence, and make peace with them, before he could be happy. From that moment on he dedicated the rest of his life – another forty-five years – teaching a simple message: that we are all the Buddha. Every human being who has ever lived and ever will are Buddha, and all that is needed is a profound understanding – not just intellectually, but an actual emotional and spiritual acceptance – of the basic conditions of life.

Let me be clear about this: I have not surmounted the obstacles to suffering. I have not achieved enlightenment; not even of the 25-watt kind. Enlightenment isn’t even my goal; peace of heart and mind is my simple ambition. But the world is careening toward disaster and I am no longer convinced that activism alone will abate the destruction, so I find myself writing about an end to suffering out of a moral imperative to preserve what, and who, I love.

In concert with activism of all kinds, I believe that a spiritual and practical application of the Buddha’s teaching could ease the pell-mell ruin of the earth’s wonders. Once we have experienced, first hand, the simple truths of the Buddha’s teaching, and put into place some basic tenants to guide our behaviour, we no longer feel the need to satiate our appetite for material objects to fill the hole in our hearts. It does not mean that we must live the life of an aesthete, shunning any material possession or pleasure. It means that we control our desire, rather than the other way around.

The Buddha taught that there are Four Noble Truths that we must confront before we can do so.

The first is the truth of suffering. We all suffer. Some have misinterpreted this to mean that all life is suffering, but that is not what the Buddha taught. He taught us that life entails suffering.

Second he taught that there is a cause to this suffering. Our suffering is caused by our lack of understanding of the two Great Truths: that everything changes and everything is connected. We become attached to things, to people, to loved ones, to objects of desire, and that attachment, our desire for these things, causes us to suffer when we can’t have them, or when they change. We suffer also because we perceive ourselves as separate from one another and the fabric of life on earth and across the universe.

Third, the Buddha taught that there is an end to suffering. If we can experience the interconnectedness of life and make peace with the nature of change, we can conquer our suffering.

Finally the Buddha taught that there is a path that we can follow to peace, joy, liberation from suffering and ultimately nirvana: the magic of living fully in the present moment in a state of enlightenment. That path is the Noble Eightfold Path, and it remains a guide that we in the 21st century can use to achieve peace while addressing the underlying cause of the suffering we inflict on the world.

The Noble Eightfold Path is not a mystical passageway that leads to a conversion or to a religious belief: it is a set of guidelines for living a life free of suffering. The Eightfold Path is right view, right thinking, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right diligence, right mindfulness and right concentration.  Right in this case means “in the right way” or “straight” or “upright.”[2]

For example, right view means developing a deep understanding of the Four Noble Truths about the nature of suffering and how to end it. Right view means developing personal insight into these truths and believing in our hearts that there is an end the pain caused by our misperceptions of life and having faith in ourselves that we can overcome this pain because many others have already.

When we have come to grips with the nature of suffering through right view, we then automatically begin to think more clearly about our lives and the choices we have to make, and so on. In this way we see that each of the Noble Eightfold Path’s steps are at once a logical progression from one to another and all interconnected.

My purpose in writing this book is simple: I want to help ease human suffering so that we in turn can ease the suffering we cause the world and one another.

The purpose of Buddhism is not to make more Buddhists, nor is that my purpose. While I identify myself as a Buddhist – one who has accepted the basic truth about human suffering and who is trying to ease it – I also am a father, a husband, an activist, a writer, a community member and a friend. The teachings of the Buddha are not aimed at converting people to a certain religion. People from any faith can learn about the Four Noble Truths and the Eightfold Path – along with many other teachings – and adopt them as part of their own personal trajectory towards happiness and peace. While there are certainly schools of Buddhism that verge on the worship of the man who was Gautama Buddha that is not what the Buddha taught. He taught that we are all Buddha, and that each and every one of us can wake up to the peace that comes with liberation from suffering.

Nor is my purpose in writing this book is not to replace what I think of as traditional activism with a spiritual practice. Buddhism has existed on earth for more than two-thousand, five hundred years; the process of seeking and finding nirvana – everyday freedom from suffering – is a slow process. We will need to use all of our skills and tools to save what we love about the earth, its cultures and its people. We must continue with political pressure, with protests and marches, with letter writing and economic pressure; but to win in the long term, we must remove the desire that drives the hunger for more; more things, and the precious resources that must be consumed to make ever more material objects.

My purpose is this: if we want our success in preserving life on earth and human dignity to be lasting then we must quench the fire that burns in the heart of humanity that must constantly be fed by more and more material demands. Until we do nothing will be sacred. Once we begin to make peace with our selves and the basic truth of human existence everything will be sacred.

This is the first piece of writing in a series of essays I am completing for a book. What do you think? I want your feedback to improve the ideas, and to collect first-hand examples. Please chime in.

[1] Wade Davis, The Clouded Leopard. pp 231. 1998, Douglas and McIntyre Ltd.

[2] From The Heart of the Buddha’s Teaching; Thich Nat Hanh, page 11. Broadway Press, 1998.

Respect, not Contempt, needed from Ottawa for Idle No More

My MP in Ottawa is an earnest young man from Airdrie named Blake Richards. He’s a backbencher with the Conservative Party, and I get a lot of mail from him extolling the virtues of his efforts on my behalf in Parliament, and those of this Party.

It’s pretty rare that we agree on much of anything. We’re both in favour of open, accountable government, but he isn’t a part of one. The F-35 fiasco has proven that beyond a doubt. Apparently we’re both in favour of responsible spending, but the Conservatives hand $1.4 billion dollars every year to oil and gas companies in Canada, which in turn record massive profits at the expenses of our environmental and health: hardly a wise investment.

Otherwise, I find that my voice is completely absent from Ottawa as my MP could really care less about someone like me: fish-kissing, gay-rights supporting, pro-democratic-reform whack-job from Wildrose.

Now I’ve found something else Mr. Richards and I can staunchly disagree on: I am one Canadian who has NOT grown “increasingly frustrated and disappointed with the actions of those who blockade highways and railways” as Mr. Richards suggests in his January 18 “Richard’s Report.”

“There can be no doubt that Canadians have had a lot of patience with the recent Idle No More protests taking place across our country,” he says in his Report.

I’m pretty sure that the First Nations people he’s referring to are also Canadians; the First Canadians in fact.

The MP then goes on to say that thanks to the dedication of the Conservative Government, 80 land claims have been settled and 10,000 units of housing built on reserves. This is all well-and-good, but it doesn’t seem to have helped the poorest people in Canada pull themselves out of poverty, nor does it address some of the fundamental concerns that have lead to the Idle No More movement across this country.

Bill C-45, among other pieces of federal legislation, is at the centre of this dispute. The massive omnibus bill threatens to further destroy Canada’s environmental protection by gutting the Navigable Waterways Act. Already the Fisheries Act, the Canadian Environmental Protection Act and the Environmental Assessment Act have been reduced to shadows of their former selves. The Species at Risk Act is next. First Nations people argue that the federal government has a duty to consult them on the most recent desecration of Canada’s environmental safeguards, and that destroying those provisions amounts to a violation of their treaty rights.

Mr. Richards concludes his newsletter by saying this:

“Our government respects the rights of all Canadians to legal, peaceful protest. In the case of Idle No More, this movement has done a lot to engage our First Nations citizens. This sort of awakening can be useful in helping us make progress on matters of mutual concern like economic opportunity, housing, education and accountability.”

So true: what the Idle No More movement has come to realize is that as Canadians we can have our awakening and “make progress” until the cows come home, but it’s not solving the problems that lead to the moment of reckoning in the first place. The rest of us Canadians should be out there in the cold with our First Nations colleagues, neighbours and friends fighting for what makes Canada great: the vast beautiful green land that until recently was considered one of the most pristine on earth, but is rapidly becoming a toxic sewer, ever fast now under the Conservatives.

Mr. Richard’s government is running Canada into the ground. We’re an international pariah on the environment, deliberately sabotaging any effort to curb green house gas emissions and make meaningful progress on other important global issues such as poverty and meaningful aid to developing nations.

And meanwhile, this nation’s First People’s are still living in government sanctioned squalor. Yes they have problems; some of their fiscal management is almost as bad as our federal and provincial governments. But for ten thousand years these First Canadians lived good lives on in this extraordinary landscape of prairie, forests, lakes, mountains, tundra and sea-shores and in the last two hundred years all of that has been ruined for the sake of profit and the progress that Mr. Richard’s espouses. Nobody expects First Nations people to live as they once did; but nobody should expect that when our country continues to break promise after promise made to them that they will sit still and say thank-you for building a few houses and settling the occasional treaty.

What the Idle No More movement seems to be saying – at least to me, an outsider who shares many of their concerns – is that respect is as important as anything else that we can share with our First Nations countrymen and women. And what Mr. Richards makes clear on behalf of his government is that he has very little of it when it comes to his relationship with this country’s First Peoples.

The root of the sickness

“The time to address gun control laws in the United States was Thursday.” This statement, made to a CBC reporter when he asked a question of a Newtown, Connecticut resident yesterday, will almost certainly dominate the debate over the most recent mass shooting in America in the coming days. And while I think this conversation is vital, there is a deeper, more radical question that must be asked.

The predictable and often repeated debate over gun control in that country will once again be replayed in the wake the death of 27 people on Friday, December 15. On one side of that debate will be advocates for gun control arguing that without the easy access to guns, madmen like the one who killed innocent children and their teachers on Friday in a Connecticut school would not be able to take as many lives. On the other will be the zealots from the National Rifle Association and other industry funded “right to bear arms” groups saying that possessing firearms is protected by the US constitution and that Americans should preserve that privilege in order to defend themselves. Never mind that in any one of the twenty mass shootings in the US in 2012 nobody has successfully defended themselves and their fellow citizens with their own weapon.

This debate is bound to reach a fevered pitch in the US, and elsewhere, in the wake of the most recent school shooting. I predict it will reach its apogee just before Christmas, and then, as it always has, will fade from our minds, replaced by more mundane concerns, and by the holiday season.

And if that happens, twenty young children, some as young as five years old, will have been gunned down by a madman in vain. There can be no sense made from such violence; there can be the impetus drawn from such malice to cure what ills us as a society and has, this year alone, claimed sixty-eight lives in mass-shootings (The FBI defines a mass-shooting as one where there are four fatalities, not including the gun man) and 543 since 1982.

If you use the Brady Campaign to End Gun Violence’s statistics, the story is even bleaker. They report that since 2005 there have been 431 incidents where more than one person has been shot at a time in the US alone.

The gun law debate aside, we must address another question: what is it about the human condition that makes the sickest among us want to pick up a pair of handguns, walk into a school, shoot your own mother and then proceed to kill her students? What makes someone want to walk into a crowded theatre and randomly shoot strangers?

There is a profound illness that underlies these acts of random violence and has made them the norm, not just in the United States, but here in Canada, in Europe and elsewhere. Psychopathy – the mental illness that renders a person unable to feel empathy for others – must surely be part of the root of this predilection of mass violence. But there must be more.

If our communities are like giant, interactive living organisms, these people who emerge to cause such unspeakable violence are the symptoms of a vast illness that permeates our being. At the root of this illness there is a lack of value for the sacredness of human life, and a fundamental failure to grasp the interconnectedness of all living beings. Every day as a society we cause great violence to one another and the world around us. These gunmen are simply the most obvious – and most disturbing – outward manifestation of our illness.

There is an anger and a fear that lies just beneath the surface of humanity that every now and again finds an outlet through these psychopaths and sociopaths and just-plain deeply disturbed individuals. We live in a way where our desires can never be satisfied, because what we want – more – is never enough. We seek our fulfillment from without – from things, from other people – and not from our own peace and well-being, and that frustration simmers below the surface of our everyday lives like a cancer waiting to metastasise.

When that illness finds the perfect host to express its rage – the utter lack of caring for the holiness of all life, of humanity, of the pure unbridled potential of a child – it can have disastrous results. The combination of a society without an understanding of our interconnectedness, and a mentally ill person with easy access of guns and you get Colorado, Columbine, Connecticut and too many other examples of list, or even make sense of.

We can, and we must, (but likely won’t) address gun control, not just in the United States, but everywhere that firearms are so easily available. But as a society we must also consider the underlying illness that makes it possible for sick individuals to fester up like a lesion and destroy lives so wontedly. Until we view all life as sacred, until we see ourselves not just as individuals who are isolated from one another but as a part of all life, we can justify perpetuating great violence against each other, and against the earth and its creatures. We are not separate, and when we harm our so-called enemies, and when we rip into the earth and poison it, we are slowly killing ourselves too.

The death of so many children and those who loved them and were sworn to their care yesterday is just another deeply painful example of why we must seek to find peace in our own hearts, and teach that peace to one another and our children. It’s for the sake of our future as a species that we must bring an end to this terrible suffering that we have created.

Dependence Day

Happy Independence Day America. As someone who spends a huge portion of his working life traipsing around your environs, I feel like I am getting to know you. And seeing how we’re all this – whatever the hell this is – together, I think I’ve earned the right to ask a simple question:

What exactly are we celebrating our independence from?

In 1776 the United States of America declared its freedom from the United Kingdom, earning the right to make its own laws and govern itself: of the people, for the people and by the people.

Two-hundred and thirty-six years later, we seem to have developed a few unhealthy dependencies.

White the first War of Independence was fought against taxation without representation; the next War of Independence will be fought against more complex, self-imposed forms of repression.

The next War of Independence will be fought against our reliance on dwindling fossil fuels that have chained our economy to the health of petroleum companies that by default rule much of the world;

The next War of Independence will be fought against our predilection to pick a fight with anybody and everybody, especially if our reliance on dwindling fossil fuels is at stake; and the defence companies that quietly urge us on.

The next War of Independence will be fought against our dependence on a handful of genetically engineered food crops and the companies we’ve allowed to take over and slowly destroy our heartlands, the greatest food producing region in the world.

The next War of Independence will be fought against our insatiable hunger for resources that no law, no park, no promise will ever protect our land, our wilderness, our wildlife, skies, and water from.

The next War of Independence will be fought against our fear that we will never have enough, and that we must always be accumulating more in the vain hope that somehow our homes, our cars, our smart phones and our grown-up toys will protect us from the inevitability of life, and death.

The first War of Independence was fought with muskets, swords, and pistols; with military cunning, bravery and courage. The next War of Independence must to be fought with courage too, but with our hearts and our minds and our love for one another, for our families, our future, and our nations.

The next War of Independence will be fought within ourselves: this revolution begins inside, and in the spirit of independence and the thirst for freedom that characterizes a nation with such extraordinary promise, blooms outward to create a world liberated from the factors that are leading us to destroy ourselves.

The next War of Independence will be fought hand-in-hand, across the borders that segregate us. None of us are independent from one another, and so we must wage a war of peace with love for our liberty from our self-imposed oppression.

Follow me on Twitter @stephenlegault

Gone Dark

1st anniversary: Stephen Harper’s war on nature

I was wrong.

One year ago I wrote a blog post in which, among other things, I advocated trying to find a way of using the ancient Chinese philosophy of “capturing whole” to minimize the damage a Stephen Harper majority government might do to the environment.

Here’s what I said:

We’re going to have to, as Sun Tzu, the author of The Art of War, suggests: “capture our opponent whole.” That means moving carefully to make it so our values, our vision, our passion, slowly becomes their own. We must find what they respond to – be it positive reinforcement or public accolades, as difficult as that may be to stomach – and exploit them as an opportunity to advance a progressive vision for Canada.

If we do not, we’ll find ourselves on the outside looking in, and watching all that we cherish about this beautiful nation slipping from our grasp. And we will only have ourselves to blame for its loss. Every moment in life is a choice. This choice is clear: accepting the reality of a polarized politic and gaining what we can, or raging against it, and losing it. It’s that stark a dichotomy.

Reading those words now, today, on the first anniversary of the Conservative’s majority government election victory, makes me feel both naive and foolish.

The first year of Stephen Harper’s Conservative government has been the worst 365 days for Canada’s environment in our nation’s history. It’s been that bad. If Stephen Harper and his Minister of Natural Resources Joe Oliver have their way it’s going to get a lot worse. While I still hold with the philosophy of capture whole – of defeating your opponent without a fight – I must remember one critical disclaimer from the Art of War: avoid a fight if you can. If you can’t, fight hard, and fight to win.

It’s time to fight: to fight smart, to fight clean, to fight fair, but to fight to win. What we’re fighting for is far more than we could have imagined one year ago today. We’re fighting for the soul of Canada: our National Parks, our magnificent wilderness, our wild creatures, our natural heritage: our future. That might sound like hyperbole, and maybe it is. Looking at what we’ve already lost after one year of the most neo-conservative government this country has ever seen, I believe a fair statement. Apparently my friend Tzeporah Berman thinks so as well but then, like me, she’s a radical environmentalist too.

Lets consider for a moment the damage that this government has done in 365 days. As Elizabeth May points out in her widely circulated story “How the conservatives stole the environmental protection in broad daylight,” they have waged an all out war on nature, and on those who protect it. They started by withdrawing from the Kyoto Accord, something that must have burned Prime Minister Harper’s gut during his five years in a minority government. Then they attacked environmental groups, focusing their wrath on those who were opposing the Northern Gateway pipeline, but tarring them all (pun intended) with the same brush: radicals, suckling at the teat of US based lefty-foundations.

Never mind that much of the money used to promote the whole-scale sell off of Canada’s petroleum resources, in the tar sands and everywhere else, comes from the US, Europe, and China. If you take foreign money to continue to narrow Canada’s economic development and destroy the environment, you’re a patriot; if you take money to advocate for the protection of the environment, First Nations cultures while diversifying the economy, you’re a radical, bent on destroying Canada.

Now the Conservatives want to re-write of the Canadian Environmental Assessment Act, making it easier for industry to win approval of mega-projects like those in the tar sands, and gut the Fisheries Act to remove the scant protections we currently have for nature. Rumour is that the Conservatives have their sights set on the Species at Risk Act, a law that is particularly close to my heart as I dedicated more than five years of my life to its passage.

Budget cuts are a convenient way to disguise the Conservative war on nature. Stephen Harper and his Ministers have cut positions that monitor and clean up oil spills, research the impacts of climate change on the arctic, and most recently, present and safeguard our national parks.

And this is only the first year.

But it’s not. Not really. Stephen Harper is the wiliest and most strategic Prime Minister Canada has seen in a generation. He’s a patient man. He waited. Five years of minority governments and he waited. It must have tried his considerable fortitude not to push ahead with his offensive, but he waited. And when he seized – stole — complete power in May of last year he was able to reshape Canada in the image crafted by the elite, far right wing of Canadian politics who funds his party.

It was almost as if the Prime Minister himself was a student of The Art of War: his war on nature could serve as a text book example of how a superior army confronts an inferior force. His opening attack, delivered by Joe Oliver, and escalated with Senate hearings and the allocation of an additional $8 million to Revenue Canada for “education” and other Orwellian indoctrinations of Canadian environmental charities, is a perfect example of how to use a strategic strike to weaken your opposition in advance of an all out assault.

If I wasn’t so livid I might almost be in awe of the man’s strategic prowess.

What to do? As I said a year ago, and I still believe, there is no time for hand wringing. Capturing whole isn’t going to work either; there is no room to “exploit an opportunity to advance a progressive vision for Canada.”

Many are already acting. Dr. David Suzuki left the board of directors of the organization that he founded a quarter century ago so he could speak with impunity. Forest Ethics, one of the most ardent and outspoken organizations in the environmental community has made the calculated move of splitting in two: one organization will continue to undertake charitable work while another will go head-to-head with those who are destroying Canada’s environment. I say power too them.

But there is more work to be done. The Conservative war on nature has just started. And while I no longer believe we can find a way to capture this enemy without a fight, we must be very careful in how we confront them. They hate us and what we stand for, and they will use every resource at their disposal to eliminate us as an opponent so that their greed and nepotism can endure.

If Stephen Harper is a smart strategist, we must be smarter. If it appears as though his Conservative government has torn a page from the Art of War and is using it against Canada’s environment and those millions of Canadians who stand to defend it, we must learn how to beat them at their own game.

Over the coming months I’m going to continue to write on this topic, and I invite you to do the same. Post a comment, write an essay, send a tweet: if we’re smart and if we work together, we can stop this war on nature in its tracks and reclaim the soul of this great country.

The day after Earth Day

This is the day that matters.

Even Joe Oliver, Canada’s Minister of Natural Resources, Stephen Harper’s puppet in his war on nature, can appear green-tinged on Earth Day. Today is the day where what we do counts.