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.

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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.