Scott Vaughan, What Páll Makes, and Life Without ID

This spring, I’ve had the chance to peek into what life without ID looks like in Canada, interview one of Canada’s most interesting authorities on environmental policy, and produce the most music-centred story I’ve ever done for Terra Informa.

A close-up look of the stone harp.
A close-up look of the stone harp that Páll invented.

First off, the story I made for the many people who asked to hear the recordings I made of artist Páll Guðmundsson while I was in Iceland. This story was a mix of liquid luck and preparation that paid off. If ferry workers hadn’t been striking in south Iceland where we originally wanted to go, our friends at the tourist bureau in Reykjavík would never have recommended we go check out Páll’s rock sculptures in his tiny summer village of Húsafell. Fortunately I had packed my pocket-sized Zoom audio recorder just in case I met someone life changing, whose story I absolutely needed to tell.

Have you ever gone somewhere new and had the feeling that you’ve been there before? Imagine going away on a trip and finding that everything you see reminds you of home: the stores have the same shape and sell the same clothes, the restaurants serve the same sort of food, the people listen to the same kind of music…

What about somewhere embraces its own character and qualities? That’s what I saw in Páll Guðmundsson, an artist whose local and naturally inspired work makes his home feel one-of-a-kind. Listen from about 10:18:

scott vaughan
Scott Vaughan, plus my hand.

Next, my interview with Scott Vaughan, Canada’s former Environment Commissioner and the new President and CEO of the International Institute for Sustainable Development (IISD). IISD just took a big leap forward for themselves, and for aquatic science in Canada, by successfully negotiating to become the new operator of the Experimental Lakes Area in northern Ontario. It’s one of Canada’s most important (and most famous) scientific research facilities.

There, scientists have a unique ability to conduct experiments on entire lake ecosystems — in some cases, their research lasts over decades. The research there has caused major changes in the way we live in Canada: like how acid rain affects freshwater fish, and how phosphates in our detergents can cause algae blooms.

But in 2013, the federal government said it felt the Experimental Lakes Area’s research was no longer necessary, and to be be shut down. That set off a mad scramble from environmental groups, activists, and researchers around the world to find a way to keep it alive.

I got a chance to meet Scott Vaughan at the Zero 2014 sustainability conference in Edmonton to discuss how the year of upheaval will affect the research at the ELA, and what he learned about the federal government’s attitude towards research during his time as Canada’s Commissioner of Environment and Sustainable Development. We had a frank talk about whether he and the other parliamentary officers who’ve irritated the government ever get together and commiserate, but regrettably I had to cut it out of this Terra Informa story. The rest still makes for a fascinating story, I think. Listen from about 1:28:

Finally, this week I finally got a story out that I’ve had in my head for a long time. Last year, I noticed a flyer up in the Stanley A Milner library in downtown Edmonton, advertising an ID storage service at Boyle Street Community Services. I was intensely curious why anyone would need to have the centre lock their ID away. It led me down a rabbit hole of the frustrations that face seniors, homeless people, the recently-incarcerated, anyone who wasn’t born in Canada, and ultimately, our democracy.

You can check out the story online or on newstands in Vue Weekly.

CJSR Turns 30

Text: CJSR 88.5 FM 30th Anniversary. CJSR star cut out of the middle of the 0 in "30".

In case you want to hear me definitely ace my second-ever live interview on the radio, on Tuesday, January 7th, Terra Informa will be broadcasting live from Edmonton’s City Hall to celebrate the 30th anniversary of our home station: CJSR 88.5 FM. From 5-6 PM, tune in for a special one hour episode of stories about leaving a legacy.

You’ll hear music from across Canada, and stories about artist Richie Velthuis’ delicate carvings in ice and the echoes of Chinese immigrants on Edmonton’s food culture today. I’ll be interviewing Linda Duncan – Alberta’s sole NDP MP, an environmental lawyer, and a recurring guest on Terra Informa over the past few years.

Edmonton listeners can tune into the broadcast live on CJSR 88.5 FM at 5 PM on January 7th, and listeners in other communities will hear both halves of the live show over the next two weeks. There’ll be more celebrations throughout 2014 marking the history of one of Canada’s most outstanding community radio stations. Hope you can join us.

Follow your nose

A waterfall marks the beginning of Cheonggyecheon stream in Seoul
Seoul’s Cheonggyecheon stream is a symbol of rising economic tides as much as urban renewal.

When you’re interviewing someone for a story, preparation can be a double-edged sword. Last month, I travelled to South Korea to visit a bevy of friends and taste as much kimchi and spicy pork wraps as I could. I brought my audio recorder just in case I found time to work on a story for Terra Informa, and in my last few days I found a place that seemed to ripe for narrative.

North of the Han River, I read, downtown Seoul was thinly sliced in two by an ancient stream: Cheonggyecheon. There’s a pretty well-established history that’s told of Cheonggyecheon’s life over the past hundred years: slums grew up around its banks, it became increasingly polluted as a home for laundry and sewage, and eventually the municipal government decided it was easier to cover the whole area over with a freeway than to clean it up. Then around 2000, Seoul’s mayor decided to lead the charge on rehabilitating the stream, and the city transformed it at great expense into a fashionable, healthier tourist attraction. The project bolstered mayor Lee Myung-Bak’s reputation, and helped catapult him into the presidency.

Like any good reporter, I wanted to be more than just a stenographer for this official narrative. I landed on two approaches for getting a fresh angle. First, I’d interview a local historian and ask some hard questions about what happened to the people who lived in those slums. It seemed like an obvious injustice that while they were told to move, billions of dollars were later poured into cleaning up the stream for tourists and nearby financial analysts on their lunch break. Second, I’d ask a scientist who studied water quality in Korea to give me context on how polluted other bodies of water are around Seoul.

I was able to arrange for Seoul’s city government to assign a storyteller/tour guide named Ho Park to walk me down the stream and answer some questions about its history over the past 600 years. I had my questions ready, and as we strolled past symbolic pieces of stone and renovated ancient bridges, I tried to press him on why the poorer residents were moved, rather than being able to benefit from a cleaner waterway themselves. While he gamely told me the name of a neighbourhood they’d been relocated to and tried to answer my questions, I could tell he was getting tired of them.

Finally Park said, “Have you ever been hungry?” I admitted that I hadn’t.

Then he told me a different story about Cheonggyecheon. Look at it from the perspective of the country after the Korean War, he said. Millions of casualties, both countries in ruins, and many of those left were desperately poor. South Korea didn’t have the kind of money to think about environmental health, he said. The whole country, and certainly its iron-fisted dictatorship, were focused on economic growth.

Models show off high-tech camping and climbing gear.
Models show off high-tech camping and climbing gear.

Today, Seoul is a mostly-affluent, sometimes futuristic city. You can swipe your RFID-enabled transit card to get on about a dozen subway lines that snake through the city, have your butt heated the whole way, and be right at home watching soap operas on your smartphone along with all the other passengers enjoying seamless 4G connections through the tunnels. When I first visited Cheonggyecheon, I wandered past a crowd of photographers gathered around a fake backdrop for a North Face photo shoot.

Now, said Park, was the time to think seriously about cleaning up air quality downtown and get carp and marsh snails back in the streams. Ecological health is a luxury for the rich, essentially.

It wasn’t the story I came for, and it wasn’t one I was comfortable with. But it was the honest perspective I found from both Park and the scientist, so it’s going to be the thread of my story. Sometimes, you have to be willing to toss out your well-prepared notes and follow your nose.

Streetcars, Satan, and other successes

This has been a bit of an action-packed week, so I just wanted to reflect on some recent successes and thank the people who’ve contributed to them.

First is that thanks to you guys, we reached our fundraising goal on indiegogo to send An Evening With Satan on tour! On behalf of everyone at Punctuate! Theatre, thank you to everyone who chipped in. For a new, small theatre company, $1000 is a great boon to our performers, and will definitely make life easier this week as they bring the show to the Vancouver Fringe Festival.

Second, last weekend’s Shareable Neighbourhood walk on Streetcars had far and away the best turnout so far. It was really inspiring to see so many people with such zeal for learning more about Old Strathcona, especially on a chilly Saturday morning. This time it was led by Earl Grotzki, a local history buff who’s been volunteering with the Edmonton Radial Railway Society for about a decade. You can check out the pictures on the Facebook group.

One of the Shareable Neighbourhood walkers takes a picture of me taking a picture of him on the streetcar
We had some comedians in the crowd for the streetcar ride with last weekend’s Shareable Neighbourhood.

Did you know that when the North Saskatchewan River flooded in 1915, they put a train on the Low Level Bridge to keep it from being torn away by the current? I do now.

Third, Terra Informa has just been picked up on a new station in BC: Kootenay Co-op Radio on CJLY 93.5 FM in Nelson. Sure, it’s just one more slot on one community radio station, but I take it as a big vote of confidence for the show. Not only is Kootenay Co-op Radio the station that produced the highly listenable Deconstructing Dinner, Terra Informa has gone through some dramatic transitions lately.

Relentlessly positive long-time producer Steve Andersen left this summer, as did a bevy of other great interviewers, so Kathryn Lennon, Matt Hirji and I have stepped in to take on some of his work in cultivating new voices for the show. Every week, I go back and listen to stories from the old team to understand how they made thoughtful, engaging radio out of everything from garbage sorting to the worst coal plants in the world. It’s a testament to the hard work of the new contributors like Annie Banks, Morgana Folkmann and Hamdi Assawi that a station like Kootenay Co-op has added us to their lineup.

Last but not least, I’ve been scooped up as the Alberta Council for Global Cooperation’s new communications officer. I’ve been a fan of ACGC for many years (and were a fan of mine earlier this year with the Top 30 Under 30 profile). Starting at the office today, I was even more excited to see that they take international development and cooperation as seriously and critically as Trent University does.

So from a rich new intellectual environment to the efforts of my colleagues being recognized, this has been a pretty good week. Thanks to everyone who’s made these things possible.

Alberta Election 2012: Parties barely competing for votes on the environment

Laurie Blakeman writes on the schedule dominating the wall of her campaign office in Edmonton
Liberal candidate Laurie Blakeman had some strong opinions to share with Terra Informa on carbon emissions and reclaiming land in the oil sands.

With a week to go until the provincial election, every other conversation I have these days is about the latest polls or what to think about the rising fortunes of the Wildrose Party. There’s plenty to scrutinize about their candidates’ “fiery” (ahem) opinions on sexual orientation, abortion rights, and launching a wider inquiry into doctor intimidation.

If you’re like me though, you probably watched that whole televised debate last week wondering when any of the four major parties would mention the environment. Sadly Liberal leader Raj Sherman couldn’t come up with a slogan about shale-bed methane as catchy as “fudge-it budget.”

Fortunately for you, the team at Terra Informa did the hard work and put together a story on the environmental platforms from the PCs, NDP, Liberals and Wildrose. For the sake of time, we couldn’t get to the Alberta Party or EverGreen for this segment. Our questions mainly targeted what to do about our dependence on coal-fired generation for electricity in the province, and the shoddy job oil sands developers have been doing replacing wetlands.

I will admit to taking a small amount of pleasure interrupting Alison Redford for this story to correct her about coal. She was trying to suggest we’re not still building coal plants in this province. Incredible as it is, we absolutely are.

Edit: Almost forgot: if you’re in Edmonton Tuesday night, you might want to check out Candi{date}, a meet-your-candidates event that Next Gen and InterVivos are hosting. It promises to be very shmoozy. I’ll add it to the Community section.

Destroy the environment before it destroys us

Caption: Positive effects of environmental degradation. Man in clear-cut forest smiles, "Hey, my allergies are gone!"This week’s episode of Terra Informa was a labour of love and the most fun I’ve had helping produce the show so far. We decided to use April Fool’s Day as an opportunity to make fun of our usual earnest environmental news reporting. We call it Terra MisInforma.

You can download the podcast on iTunes, stream it online or listen live in Edmonton tomorrow at 5 on CJSR 88.5 FM. Hear how the federal government passed up a huge opportunity for a parking lot with the new Rouge Valley National Park, the Top 5 Environmental Threats to Our Security and Freedom, and the Ezra Levant Award for Excellence in Excellence in Journalism.

I’ve also updated the Community section with a new Lawrence Hill lecture coming up, details about the Pride Centre re-opening, and a link to the bike lane consultations happening around Edmonton right now. The headlines might be all election all the time, but there’s still plenty of other stuff happening around town.

Fighting for environmental health in Durban

Desmond D'Sa, coordinator for the South Durban Community Environmental Alliance
Desmond D'Sa, coordinator for the South Durban Community Environmental Alliance (Photo credit: idex.org)

It’s hard to miss the major UN climate conference going on in Durban, South Africa right now (this one’s better known as COP 17), if only for the almost-daily embarrassments from Canada’s Environment Minister Peter Kent. He’s really good at sticking to his talking points about wanting major emitters like China and India included in any binding global agreement to lower carbon emissions. He seems unwilling to admit the uncomfortable fact that in a cumulative sense Canada is also a major emitter, because we’ve run an industrialized economy on fossil fuels for well over a century.

We were throwing ideas around at Terra Informa on how to cover what’s been happening in Durban, and decided an interesting approach might be to see what kind of work environmental organizations in the city have been up to. As it turns out, this is a big story. Fellow Terra Informer Kathryn Lennon and I tracked down a man named Desmond D’Sa who’s been working for over 15 years in South Durban to protect the health of locals from pollution in the area.

Des helped start an organization called the South Durban Community Environmental Alliance when he was part of a household survey that noticed diseases like asthma and cancers were much more common in their part of the city than elsewhere. Through research and environmental monitoring, they’ve been able to connect that to the industrial sites like oil refineries and paper mills that are concentrated in the poorer neighbourhoods in the south of the city. And as you can imagine, he had a lot to say about fossil fuel industries and the UN talks.

Listen to the interview online here.