Taking on Goliath

Salt Spring Forum and Salt Spring Island Conservancy hosted noted western Canadian journalist Andrew Nikiforuk Wednesday to hear details of his new book, Empire of the Beetle. It is an examination of “how human folly and a tiny bug are killing North America’s great forests.”

My wife and I were part of Nikiforuk’s capacity audience at Artspring, the island’s centre for the arts. By chance, I sat next to Dr. Michael Byers, a legal scholar and author who is Canadian Research Chair in International Law and Politics at the University of BC. Self-described environmental activist Byers is widely recognized for expertise in Arctic sovereignty and international relations. Last April, I wrote a short profile of the professor in this piece: Addition to list of blogs I follow.

Andrew Nikiforuk contributes regularly to The Tyee. Last year, founding editor David Beers appointed Nikiforuk the journal’s first writer in residence, calling him:

“Canada’s leading muckraker about Canada’s most controversial muck: the tar sands of Alberta.”

His book, Tar Sands: Dirty Oil and the Future of a Continent is an astonishing document. Until reading it, I had no accurate sense of my own ignorance about the tar sands. Nikiforuk says,

“To extract the world’s ugliest, most expensive hydrocarbon, we are polluting our air, poisoning our water, destroying vast areas of boreal forest, and undermining democracy itself.”

Clearly, I should have been more contemptuous of the industry’s high powered public relations campaigns. The author says that when his book’s first edition was published in the fall of 2008, Alberta government officials and industry lobbyists condemned it, charging the book was grossly inaccurate, despite Tar Sands being largely based on data created by government and the petroleum production industry. Others claimed it was hate literature aimed at oil executives or a lie that did not differentiate between fact and opinion. However, many insiders admit the book is an accurate, if unpleasant, portrait of disorderly development of the tar sands.

Empire of the Beetle examines another disaster in nature; one that is partly anthropogenic. The death of 30 billion trees and the unsettling of North American forests has something in common with the ravaging of Canadian fisheries, first on the Atlantic coast and now, the Pacific. I recently spent time listening to scientific testimony at the Cohen Commission, where both government and the fish farm industry focused on limiting the inquiry to the decline of one species within one river. The Commission’s terms of reference direct it to examine Fraser River Sockeye and proceed,

“without seeking to find fault on the part of any individual, community or organization…”

That charade is no effort to identify comprehensive and interrelated factors threatening west coast fisheries. The insincere effort will enrich limos full of lawyers and spin doctors and the ocean environment will decline until wild salmon are merely memories held by senior citizens. Had the government of Canada commissioned Andrew Nikiforuk to put west coast fisheries under his microscope, the public would have gained a concise, thorough and readable report explaining failures and lost opportunities in ocean resource management. Additionally, he would have been able to point his finger at those organizations deserving labels of fault.

Nikiforuk generates a mixture of moods in Empire of the Beetle. Perhaps surprisingly, the author maintains a sense of natural wonder and optimism. He acknowledges the role of insects in natural forest renewal but there is fault to be shared for uncontrolled outbreaks of destruction that began in the late 20th century. The book claims,

“Misguided science, out-of-control logging, bad public policy, and a hundred years of fire suppression created a volatile geography that, with the advance of global warming, released the world’s oldest forest manager from all natural constraints.”

My comparison with fisheries holds true for the science of bark beetle infestation in Canadian forests. At the Cohen Commission, testimony repeatedly referred to science that was inadequate for an understanding of fish stock declines or even year to year variability. In one example, Nikiforuk recounts beetle attacks affecting trees in Tweedsmuir Provincial Park. Two million acres of largely inaccessible wilderness seemed to be outside the range of the insects yet hundreds of thousands of lodgepole trees were fatally affected. Initially, authorities burned sections of forest but they came to realize that their efforts were in vain. They also learned that Tweedsmuir was only one outbreak among tens of thousands. Nikiforuk indicates why protectors of the forest were utterly impotent. They lacked necessary science.

“Normally, a fading forest on Tweedsmuir’s scale would have grabbed the attention of someone at Canada’s Forest Insect and Disease Survey (FIDS). “I think FIDS would have noticed it by 1995 at least,” says [Allan] Carroll, [one of Canada’s foremost insect ecologists]. But by then the federal agency no longer existed. Although trees cover a third of Canada, the world’s largest exporter of forest products decided in 1996 that it no longer needed a national insect intelligence or forest health service.”

Readers, if you want a better understanding of two of the largest environmental issues affecting western Canada, buy Andrew Nikiforuk’s books and dedicate time to read them carefully. Oil industry spin doctors have put considerable energy into an effort to discredit Tar Sands and, with hundreds of billions of dollars at stake, their offence has been well financed.

The Calgary writer is an extraordinary example of a dedicated journalist unafraid of confronting powerful economic and political forces. If you have the opportunity to meet and talk with Nikiforuk, take advantage; you will be proud you did.


Two years ago, The Toronto Star published A public tarring in Saudi Canada, Andrew Nikiforuk’s rather shocking account of appearances before the House of Commons standing committee on environment and sustainable development. Excerpts:

“We [A.N. and family physician Dr. John O’Connor] didn’t ask to appear; the committee invited us. As such, we naively assumed that we were doing our duty as Canadians to speak to the House about the impact of world’s largest energy project on water: 130 square kilometres of waste water, acid rain, fish deformities, rare cancers and city-scale withdrawals of freshwater.

“We assumed that all committee members would be interested in rigorous dialogue regardless of political affiliation. But that’s not what Ottawa delivered. Instead, several Tory MPs subjected us to abusive Republican tactics geared to dismiss, discredit and dishonour.

“… four Conservative MPs on the committee, Peter Braid [Kitchener-Waterloo, ON], Mark Warawa [Langley, BC], Blaine Calkins [Wetaskiwin, AB] and Jeff Watson [Essex, ON], spent most of their time attacking our credibility. They didn’t want to talk about water.

“…they expressed no interest in the conservation of trees and water. They simply belittled me for writing an opinion piece about how oil hinders democracy. They couldn’t even hear the irony in their own frat-boy mockery.

“At the end of the session, both O’Connor and I reflected on the hearing in disbelief. In Norway, we civilly engaged investors, politicians and environmental groups. We had the right to express differing opinions. We enjoyed the great freedom of association. Yet in Canada, several so-called parliamentarians openly belittled these basic freedoms.”

7 replies »

  1. Norm, when I see photo's of the beetle killed trees, I think of my step-father. He was a faller for over 50 years here in BC…retiring in the early 90's.

    He tells of travelling to the Kamloops office of the Forests ministry in the early 60's to warn them of the damage this beetle was inflicting in as yet, a very small area just outside of Prince George. He also tried to give them some advice on how to control and eradicate it. Their answer? “What university did you get your degree from?”

    When he told them he wasn't university educated, that he was a faller…they all but laughed him out of the office…they did completely ignore his advice, and him.

    When he sees these photo's, his heart breaks…knowing that something could have been done back then, but that it is now far too late to win this “bug war”.


  2. My grandfather was a BC Forest Service ranger based in Chilliwack when he retired in 1950. He lived for about 30 years more and loved to tell stories (over and over again, as I recall) about life in the bush. He didn't have too much respect for university educated foresters, although he pushed his sons in that direction. Grandfather claimed that if you told a graduate forester to cut the limb off a tree, he'd sit on the branch that he was cutting. Because of that, guys who were too educated didn't last long outside their offices.


  3. Mike Warawa obviously doesn't know “didley squat” about environmental issues and good public health and education.

    I single him out because, prior to getting into local politics in Abbotsford, he owned and ran a vacuum cleaner store !!!! I doubt that he was university educated either.

    It is usually the not so bright – empty heads if you like, that make the most noise !!! To ridicule professional people (author and doctor) on a very serious issue that the MP's obviously either know nothing or were told to humiliate and scorn, shows a contempt equal to that of Campbell and Harper.

    Some elected officials, it appears, never managed to grow up and mature in the normal way – shame really, as if they had they might have been able to be constructive and actually contribute to both society and government.



  4. Regardless of whether Warawa is bright and/or well educated, he showed contempt for the citizens of western Canada. Apparently the Conservative Party of Canada couldn't argue the merits of the presentation by Nikiforuk and O'Connor so they had to attack the individuals. Instead of protecting the interests of Canadians, these MP's would rather serve big money plutocrats and multinational oil producers.


  5. Get used to it people. Canada is corrupt, and BC even more so. The thugs rule now, whether they be ex-vacuum cleaner salesmen, media or BC Supreme Court judges who protect biker gangs and other scum and lawyers who run up legal bills until they’ve stripped the client’s capacity and then “recommend” that they “negotiate”.

    These thugs all rake in obscene bucks while they give off PR stink trying to look like they really, really want to beef up legal aid or help a kid who’s been put in a group “home” (there’s an oxymoron for ya) or get grandma off the drugs that were pumped into her at the old folks “home”, or save another species that we depend on, or…

    What Nikiforuk described at the hands of these four smug, smirking thugs was just what was displayed in public. One might imagine what goes on behind closed doors, outside the glare of public scrutiny. I would have said “outside the scrutiny of the media glare”, but they're too laughable as a force of ethical behaviour now. The media have descended into court jesters, and not even up to that level really.

    When our leadership, in the broadest sense and across the board (govt bureaucrats, corporate puppeteers, the courts, etc) throws out the rule of law, we have no hope. That is why the thugs have become so smug — they know they can get away with anything. That's why politicians are now routinely “unavailable for comment” when the feeble media comes calling. That's why police can just slough off brutal violence against citizens, incident after incident. By the time enough people wake up and realize what has happened, it will probably be too late.

    Contempt of the public by officials is the new normal. The more skilled ones are clever at covering that up in public. Behind the scenes, another matter. The moral disease that has infected BC and Canada will wipe us out even more thoroughly than the pine beetle has wiped out the forests. The period we're living in now is just the beginning of our descent into hell.

    I wish I could be more optimistic, but there is just too much precedent in recent history for that. Argentina comes to mind. This is just the beginning of our descent into hell.


  6. I can't understand why people run on about hopelessness and future hell … why bother? It's worse than pointless because (if you accept that forecast) you've just allowed yourself to be disarmed, and shoved farther into the quicksand.

    How much better, in my view, to read what Brigette DePape has to say. You remember Brigette? Of course you do. She's the Parliamentary Page who stepped in front of Steve Harper, in front of the TV camera, thence in front of the nation she loves, during the Speech from the Throne. Quietly Brigette held up a sign with two words on it:


    Didn't you hear that loud cheer sweeping across Canada? Didn't you feel a surge of hope in that courageous young figure with her sign? Couldn't you imagine the residual power we have?

    Brigette has a lot to say about constructive protest. Interestingly, her essay is entitled “Thinking outside the ballot box”. It's available online.


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