Kooky in the Kootenays


Photo by Jim Lawrence www.kootenayreflections.com

As I approached the spot where the protest was to be held, hundreds were already milling around looking expectant and the local police – all three of them – were out in force.

“We’d better park the car around the back so when the fighting begins it doesn’t get damaged,” I said, turning to Gillian, our second guide.

She looked at me strangely. “Nobody’s going to fight. Nobody’s going to trash the car,” she said laughing. “This is Canada.”

A protest without the possibility of a scrap? I thought. How reasonable.

As a foreign correspondent with a British broadsheet until I hung up my notepad four years ago, I had spent half my professional life covering protest and conflict.

There was the storming of the parliament in Belgrade when half a million angry protestors gathered to overthrow the Serbian strongman Slobodan Milosevic.

As I stood there that day, tears streaming down my face from the waves of CS gas and fighting the urge to vomit, I remember the euphoria that coursed through my veins as the riot police turned tail and ran.

Then there was the 100,000-strong throng I joined as they stormed through the streets of Tbilisi in 2003 to seize the seat of national power and oust the corrupt old leader, Eduard Shevardnadze, defying government thugs wielding skull-breaking iron clubs. I even kept one of the clubs for a while as a memento.

There were other revolutions too that I followed from the street – in Ukraine, in Albania, in Romania. Sometimes there were bullets, sometimes just clubs and batons. Each time it was only when the authorities were faced with the unstoppable force of people power that they finally gave in.

As Gillian and I emerged into the crowds outside Kaslo’s Secondary School last month the scene couldn’t have been more different. Instead of flying stones and bottles there was singing, multi-coloured banners and happy clapping.

Two young ladies, angelically adorned, passed by high above my head on stilts with drapes of muslin streaming behind them. Drummers beat a steady beat with their hands. Others tapped tambourines in time.

“No to greed,” read the banners. “No to greed,” chanted the crowd in a lilting tenor. The total size of the crowd was a little over a thousand.

Nevertheless for the West Kootenays, the small and kooky region of British Columbia that we now call home, it was quite a turn-out.

For a while, as I stood, I tactically considered the layout, as I might have done in downtown Teheran, the journalist in me scanning for escape exits, crush points and agent provocateurs with weapons under their jackets. But I needn’t have bothered.

The most menacing characters there that evening were a smattering of federal and provincial MPs, a First Nation chief or two and a few hoary old backwoodsmen who had arrived in rusty pick-ups.

Alongside were hundreds of ordinary Kootenay folk, some washed, some not, some in ordinary summer wear and others resplendent in organic sandals and eclectic biodegradable dress.

They chanted and they sang. A lady from one of the First Nations spoke emotively about the sanctity of the wilderness. Another decried the greed of the politicians. The speeches were passionate but hardly rabble-rousing. People hugged each other. Not even a whiff of violence.

The issue at stake was certainly important as local matters go.

A private power company had hatched a plan to dam two much-prized and boisterous mountain rivers in our backyard, some of the most pristine wilderness left in southern British Columbia.

Cables would be run through virgin valleys, the wildlife would suffer, the wilderness would retreat a little further, and a distant investor would make a small return. In exchange they promised a few local jobs.

The entire process was skewed from the start.

In an attempt to ram this and other such projects through, the right-of-centre provincial government had annulled legislation requiring the support of local MPs and hearings such as this one I was attending had been downgraded and were now merely “advisory.”

Government officials, seemingly working in cahoots with the power company, had called the meeting I was now at to allow the locals to have their say. But the presiding bureaucrat, squirming a little on his plastic chair, admitted that the numbers and nature of the protest would have no effect on the outcome.

For a while I stood and watched the proceedings, detached, cynical and a little bored. Over the years I had watched rulers use countless tricks to hoodwink their hapless subjects.

As the protestors clapped and sang, I stood, arms crossed and silent.

But then, slowly, as the evening wore on and one indignant local followed another to the microphone to protest, I felt something inside me begin to soften.

Perhaps it was the gentle reasonableness of the protestors. Or their naïve hopes. Or the ham-fistedness with which they expressed their ardour.

Or perhaps it was the hopelessness of the cause, the way that the politicos had snidely skewed the outcome before the process had even begun, or the fact that so many people had travelled so far in a fruitless attempt to have their voices count for something.

I’m still not sure what it was that I found so overwhelmingly endearing about the gathering. But even as I chided myself for being such a naïf, I felt a lump come into my throat.

The people were trying to have their say. The rulers were having none of it. Exposing such injustice was exactly what had motivated me in my years as a journalist.

And as I stood there surrounded by my mountain neighbours, the smell of unwashed feet gently wafting up from a set of unusually hairy toes beside me, I felt a warmth towards my fellow souls in the Kootenays – this wonderful collection of hippies, homesteaders and non-conformists who inhabit a dozen small communities nestled in the foothills of BC’s Selkirk and the Purcell ranges.

They might not be sophisticated or particularly lucid but they were so colourful, so earthy, so human, so honest and, ultimately, so loveable, especially compared to the cardboard cut-out officials and company representatives arrayed on the other side of the table in their drab grey suits with their carefully-manicured doublespeak.

***

A few days later we threw a party down by the river. We invited our friends and neighbours and they turned up in numbers.

Sunny – neighbour, friend, carpenter, crooner and model of simple, wholesome living – was, as ever, responsible for the music.

I watched him as he lovingly took his most precious possession, a $5,000 hand-made Marten acoustic guitar, from his $400 rust bucket of a car and somehow I found the financial differential between the two, which said so much about his priorities in life, immensely pleasing.

Gillian came too with an unusual entourage that included her new boyfriend – a young man making headway in the local tree-planting community – and two children that she had borrowed for the evening.

Michael, the local bear biologist, appeared in a ragged old cowboy hat.

Forest and Jen, fellow residents of the upper valley who homestead on a beautiful plot of land in the forest, arrived with their four children, the younger ones traipsing after their mum like ducklings after a mother duck.

As the conversation ebbed and swirled, the river flowed past blue and powerful, the campfire burned, all flickering oranges and yellows, and the guests ate huge sticks of Russian-style shashlyk. There was cider, beer and a few bottles of vodka.

Fortified, I even brought out my guitar and tried out some of the tunes Sunny had taught me during the long winter evenings. I don’t think anybody clapped, but they didn’t hiss or whistle either.

***

That weekend we ran the river in our whitewater raft for the first time this year.

This first descent is always something of an event and I picked four of the hardiest men I knew – Sunny, Steve, Forest and Michael – and brought a chainsaw and coils of rope to try and keep us all out of trouble.

Despite some wicked waves in the rapids we made it down unscathed.

Then we ran it a second time, just for fun.

This time Sunny and Michael, not content with the adrenalin rush that the first run had provided, took out a beautiful virgin cedar canoe that Sunny had lovingly hand-built.

It was a madcap idea and I told them so.

Against all the odds they made it through the rapids upright but were unhorsed by a freak wave and plunged into the icy torrent, heads struggling to stay above the surface.

It took a rescue with emergency throw ropes to save the two as they were swept down the swollen river. The casualty list included some badly strained muscles, acres of bruising and scraped skin and a canoe smashed beyond repair on its maiden voyage.

As I watched Sunny struggling to catch his breath, I felt a wave of affection for this crazy man who was willing to risk his live on a whim. And I realised, not a little shamefully, that my earlier judgment had been far too harsh.

Were my new friends and neighbours reasonable? Perhaps. They certainly eschewed conflict and physical violence. But boring? Hardly. Insipid? Not a bit of it.

Slow to flare and fiercely proud, they could be some of the craziest and most daring people I have met. Mad as a Montenegrin. Rash as a Russian.

And as I reflected on the hardy men and women that have made these hardscrabble mountains their home, I realised that that the grey suits in charge in Victoria are extremely lucky that they are apolitical as they are.

If they chose to direct their fervour into politics and rebellion, it would have taken more than a few weasel words from the emissaries of the men in power to keep the lid on their anger.