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The Sustainability Picture

14 Oct

After cycling all across the country, what did we find out about sustainability in Canada?

We spoke with over 50 people across the 10 provinces. Our encounters were amazingly varied, and each story was unique. We were inspired! Many Canadians we met are acting to move towards sustainability. Some of them don’t necessarily associate their actions with sustainability; others are aware of the way their actions fit into the sustainability picture. It is amazing that, even without seeking out “sustainable people,” we came across so many relevant initiatives.

Now, we can step back and look at the big picture, looking for patterns in the stories we collected and making some generalizations about the Canadian perspective on sustainability. Here’s what we found.

Consumerism and Waste

Q: What did one garbage can say to the other?
A: “I got totally trashed last night!”

Many Canadians are concerned about the vicious cycle of consumerism: work more, buy more, want more things, repeat. But once people are aware of it, they are better equipped to break free. Randy from Newfoundland sees this happen to people who go to work in the oil sands. Although he has worked in Fort Mac himself, he knows his limits: he won’t buy a skidoo or a big truck if he doesn’t need one!

There’s also concern about another side of consumerism: excessive production is detrimental to the environment and creates a lot of waste. Emily from Saskatchewan was inspired to minimize her own consumption: she re-uses things by shopping at thrift stores and garage sales. At the Nelson Food Co-op in British Columbia, a documentary about waste inspired the members to vote for banning plastic bags in the store. That’s 10 000 members reusing their bags every time they shop! Charlie from Nova Scotia used all reusable dishes and cutlery when she hosted an event for 200 people to reduce waste from single-use eating utensils.

Local Economy and Community

Lots of people had concerns about money draining from smaller communities and businesses to large corporations. Co-operatives offer one solution: they follow a business model that can be accountable to the communities they serve. In Grand Forks, British Columbia, a food co-op has re-started, providing an alternative to shopping at the chain stores in town. By connecting the residents with the local farmers and making the price fair to both farmer and customer, the co-op is improving the local economy. We found many other, similar food co-ops as well. For example, the Penokean Hills Farms co-op in Ontario is helping cattle farmers to butcher and sell their meat locally.

In some places, people were concerned about a lack of jobs in their area. The Bear Claw First Nations casino and hotel in Saskatchewan is a striking example of a community creating jobs for itself. The White Bear First Nations fought hard to make the resort a reality. Now it employs a large part of the community. The business is run by community members whose mandate is to keep the community in mind, providing income, job training, and funding for community projects. We also encountered a radically different solution to the jobs issue: people in Hutterite colonies live communally. Everyone helps out, and everyone gets what they need.

Self-sufficiency

Many Canadians are growing their own food. We’re not talking herb gardens: people manage to feed themselves, at least for most of the season. The Thiessens from Saskatchewan grow their own vegetables and only rarely need to buy food. Justin in Ontario grows vegetables and raises chickens on his permaculture farm. Gabriel in Quebec raised his own goat. Marianne from Prince Edward Island grows enough vegetables for 3 households and shares her harvest with her neighbours. Rose in Nova Scotia is fattening up two pigs for the winter. Kevin in Nova Scotia eats the mackerel he catches from his kayak and the organic vegetables he trades for his excess mackerel. If you’re lucky like Bridget in Newfoundland, and you have friends who are hunters, then you are guaranteed to have moose meat feasts for a while.

A significant number of people strive to be self-sufficient with their electricity and energy needs. This is especially true in Ontario, where we saw solar panels everywhere. Thanks to Ontario’s government subsidies and the FIT program, people see solar panels as an investment and even a source of income. Pat and Sherri, for example, have enough solar panels to supply them with 110% of their annual electricity needs.

Several people we met were self-sufficient for their water needs. At the permaculture farm in Ontario, a pump connected to a solar panel channeled water from Lake Huron to the house and garden. Dany and Maite in Quebec draw water from a well for household use, and obtain their drinking water from a nearby spring.

Health

Q: Why did the chicken cross the road?
A: It can go wherever it @#*&ing wants, it’s a free-range chicken!

In Calgary, Alberta, Maria was buying some free-run eggs at the grocery store and the guy behind her in line commented to the cashier about how ridiculous the term sounds in French. They had a full 15-minute discussion about it in franglais. But many people we met were much more interested to know how their food was produced and where it came from.

A lot of people care about staying healthy, and one way they can improve their health is by eating better. Fresh, organic fruit and vegetables are important. Equally important is dairy, fish and meat produced in a healthy environment where animals are fed quality feed without antibiotics or growth hormones. Whether through local food co-ops and farmers’ markets or by growing their own food, many people we met found ways to obtain healthier food.

Several times the topic of vegetarian vs. meat diet came up – which is healthier? Jesse from Quebec became mostly vegetarian after moving to the city from his parents’ organic cattle farm. Fresh organic meat was in abundance when he was growing up but that was not so much the case once he moved to the city. On the other hand, Dwight who used to be vegan started eating local meat and dairy when he moved to Vancouver Island, British Columbia. When choosing between highly processed, genetically-modified soy products from overseas and fresh organic meat from across the street, Dwight prefers the meat.

Some people do encounter challenges with trying to eat healthy food. Everyone seemed to know the story of a couple in Quebec that transformed their front yard into a beautiful vegetable garden, but due to a ridiculous bylaw they were told by the municipality to tear down the garden or face a severe fine. A campaign was launched to save the garden and recent news celebrate their victory! Though it was an intense struggle for the couple, the campaign was all over the news and raised a lot of awareness, which brings us to our final category.

Education and Awareness

Spreading the message about living more sustainably can be a challenge. In some cases, information is not readily available: in New Brunswick, where the Irving family has a monopoly on the forestry and newspaper businesses, news is often biased. Several media co-ops have started up, providing people with a more objective and complete story.

Even when the information is there, it is not always easy to get people to listen. As Jesse from Quebec told us, those who work in inherently unsustainable professions, like mining and oil extraction, avoid the topic because they don’t want to be blamed or feel like they’re doing something wrong. Others, suggests Dany from Quebec, are just resistant to change and don’t dare to do something different. Aaron in Manitoba says that some people are just lazy.

At the same time, we did find several educational initiatives on our way, where dedicated people are taking on these challenges. Aaron in Manitoba started a sustainable campus group at the University of Manitoba to network and share knowledge among students. The permaculture farm on Manitoulin Island in Ontario holds permaculture design courses. Pat in Ontario teaches sustainable building design at Fleming College. Sustainable Antigonish in Nova Scotia invites guest speakers and sets up movie nights to raise awareness and share knowledge.

We also met parents who are passing on knowledge and values to their children. Charlie in Nova Scotia is teaching her kids about growing vegetables. Dany and Maite in Quebec are teaching their son Mateo about re-using by making crafts out of cereal boxes.

So many good things are happening all over Canada. Our project is not a scientific paper: we are not claiming to have gathered an unbiased statistical sample showing the current trends. But every story described and every person encountered is real. We hope that the stories we shared have informed and inspired our readers as much as they inspired us.

Roll the Credits

2 Oct

This project would not have been what it is without all the amazing
people we met along the way. So, in the order that we met, thank you:

To Daniel and Gary, for setting the standards so high for our next hosts
To Nat, for soup, books and cats
To Jarrett, for crazy firefighting stories
To Nancy, for the best yam soup in Canada
To Alison, Steven, Elliot and Bushy, for hemp beer and sky pie
To Jocelyn, for co-op insights
To Lia, for wine and art appreciation
To Katia, for the hot spring adventure
To Rose, for being wholesome
To Nicole, for furry ferret fun
To Emily, for the best bubble tea in the prairies
To Henry and Vivian, for an authentic Moroccan tea ceremony
To Alex, for philosophical musings
To Brennan and Edward, for luxurious hospitality
To Josiane and Robert, for chasing after us to invite us in
To Aaron, for the fun Winnipeg bike tour
To Eric, for a very pleasant ambulance ride to the lake
To Amanda, for the shiny rocks
To Al and Maria, for late night Carcassonne play off
To Pat, for a spontaneous welcome
To David and Cayla, for extending our couchsurfing
To Mary Jane and Dennis, for the thoughtful gifts
To Cory and Les, for a night with the pottery
To Justin, Shanti and Jeff, for a permacultural experience
To Yura, Katia, Nicola and George, for the fishing lesson
To Ed, for not arresting us
To Pat and Sherri, for architectural wonders
To Natasha and Ilya, for saving us from your cat
To Pierre, for a mindblowing four course dinner
To Sasha and Asya, for fireworks and Scrabble
To Cedric and Anika, for homemade kombucha
To Sharon and Andre, for the best free cyclists’ hostel
To Dany, Maite and Mateo, for not conforming
To Benoit, for garlicky goodness
To Iris, Alfred and Ernie, for pizza pockets and wine
To Charles and Marthe, for speeding uphill
To Amanda, for the Acadian partay
To Sebastien and Marianne, for homegrown dinner
To MacPhersons, for stagette madness
To Bob and Glenda, for real maple syrup
To Hamdi, for sailing and boardwalking
To Charlie, Ronny, Tessa, Jesse and Jaime, for backyard wilderness
To Kevin, for kayak-caught mackerel
To Rosie, for the fiddle music
To Allan, for random talks on the couch
To Bridget, for moose breakfast
To Randy and Sharon, for Newfie slang interpretation
To Jeremy, for spectacular views and history lessons

And most of all, a huge thanks to our dear parents, who provided us with constant moral support and occasional pampering.

Famous Again

27 Sep

You know all those things you were supposed to do before we’re famous? .. Too late.

Don’t live in Delta? Check out the online version of this article.

Moose-ion: Impossible

5 Sep

In Vancouver, when you have a ferry reservation you need to show up a half hour before it leaves. In North Sydney, it’s two hours! We became aware of this minor difference 70 minutes before scheduled departure time and with 30 minutes of cycling still ahead of us. To add to the fun, our reservation was only for 1 bicycle. We had to go through a complicated cancellation and re-booking process while the attendant radioed to the ferry guys to wait for us. It all worked out in our favour, and although we love an epic tale for the blog, we’re happy that we weren’t delayed another unspecified number of days.

This is the final round: our 10th and last province. Let’s review the wildlife scores. Bear sightings are 4-2 with Anya taking the lead. Moose sightings are 2-0 with Anya again in the lead. Since Newfoundland is famous for its large moose population, Maria has a fighting chance to see one before she flies home. Though the scores will likely still be in Anya’s favour, Maria is on a mission to improve her moose sighting score from nil to at least one.

We’re moving fast, but the seasons are moving faster. Fall has arrived in Newfoundland: it’s colder, and the days are getting noticeably shorter. The cold is pleasant, for now. As for the daylight, we need to budget our time accordingly and leave on time in the mornings. Also, Newfoundland is on its own, special time zone. The time here is not an hour, but just a half an hour later than Nova Scotia.

With the ferry arriving an hour later than expected, we did not have a lot of daylight time to cycle. We camped in JT Cheeseman Provincial Park, just 10km off the ferry. In Ontario we would always avoid the provincial parks due to the insanely inflated prices. But we were pleasantly suprised: camping was only $15 a night, there was a hot shower, and each site has its own blue box for recycling!

The next day the forecast was not promising. We had breakfast at the beach and enjoyed the majestic view of stormy clouds. As we were leaving, the rain started coming down a bit. To our surprise, the storm never caught up to us. We cycled with the the wind blowing at our backs and did the 144km to the Barachois Pond Provincial Park with no problem.

The day after, though, the weather gods figured we needed a thorough wash. Perhaps they thought we needed a blow-dry as well, because we got massive headwind. Somebody should tell the weather gods that blow-drying is usually after, not during, a shower. We hadn’t used rain pants in a while and of course forgot to put them on at the relevant time. Cold, wet, hungry, and more tired than one might expect, we stopped at the first restaurant we came across. We had covered just over half of what we had to do in total that day.

We really didn’t want to go back out and face the elements but the restaurant had no wi-fi and we needed to post. (Be grateful as you peruse our writings from the warm comfort of your favourite armchair.) Besides, we had a couchsurf set up for that evening and needed to make the distance. This time we used our rain pants — an improvement, although not total relief. “Waterproof breathable” is an oxymoron.

Wi-fi was available just 15 km further, in Corner Brook. We drank gallons of warm beverages at Brewed Awakening, the coffee shop beside a bike shop. By the time our blog was posted, it was really time to get moving. Just then, the clouds parted and the rain stopped.

How glad were we about couchsurfing that evening? Words can hardly express it. We were staying with Bridget, although we had originally contacted her daughter through Couchsurfing. Bridget’s daughter was out camping, so Bridget offered to take us in.

After eating a hearty dinner, Maria had the audacity to mention that she’s on a mission not only to see a moose but also to taste one. In Ontario, we were told that it tastes really good. Bridget happened to have some at her house! So that’s what we ended up eating for breakfast. It tastes very similar to beef.

The moose that we tried at Bridget’s had been given to her daughter by a friend who hunted the moose. Hunting moose is neither easy nor cheap. First, you have to win the license lottery and purchase a license. Then, you need to shoot a moose and transport it out of your area. And finally, you need to have the moose butchered, which usually costs money. Last year, Bridget says, moose hunting was allowed in the parks as well, but nobody wanted that license because you were not allowed to use a truck to pick up your dead moose: just muscle power!

Bridget said that her daughter only eats organic meat or non-farmed fish. Thanks to her daughter, Bridget has switched to a pescetarian diet herself, and avoids eating farmed fish because of the health risks of eating a fish brought up on an unnatural diet. But you won’t find Atlantic wild salmon in the supermarket: commercial fishing for salmon is not allowed here anymore because the stocks have been depleted. A personal fishing license only allows the holder to catch 6 salmon a year. With that kind of limitation, people tend to ration out their salmon for special occasions like holidays or birthdays, instead of mindlessly munching on it daily.

Salmon are not the only over-fished species: trout and cod stocks are also low. Bridget said that the cod stocks were depleted because of insufficient regulations as well as too much foreign fishing in the nearby waters. For many people here, cod fishing was their livelihood. But before you rush to ship parcels of food to your Atlantic friends, don’t worry! There are new iconic Newfoundland foods: moose and unique local berries.

Mmmm. Bakeapple cheesecake — delicious and unique local flavour.

Setting Sail for Nova Scotia

28 Aug

Avast ye, mateys! Lower the sails and drop the anchor. We approach a new land.

Aye aye, captain! Though we did not land in the port city of Halifax, we did spend a few days there. Anya’s friend Hamdi showed us the multitudinous ice cream and drinking establishments. We also went for a stroll along the vibrant waterfront boardwalk.

We even explored the Halifax harbour on a 30-foot sailboat, circling around Georges Island. The island has a fort and many, many snakes. We are told that an underground tunnel connects the island’s fort to the Citadel, which towers over Halifax.

It was time to replace our chains again, and we stopped by the Bike Pedaler bike shop in Dartmouth. The shop is involved in promoting cycling culture. For example, they have free bike parking for anyone working in downtown Dartmouth.

The shop owner, Marc, told us about an unfortunate new law that has aggravated cyclist-driver relations: drivers must give cyclists 1m distance when passing. The law is not enforced and cannot be regulated: even evidence like helmet camera footage cannot be used in court, although some have tried it. With the passing of the law, drivers feel like they’ve had some privileges taken away from them and now drive more aggressively, giving cyclists even less space when passing them and generally being unfriendly.

We took the scenic route out of Halifax, passing through the Salt Marsh and Shearwater Flyer trails. The trails are part of the Trans Canada Trail and are built on the old railbed. Birds love the salt marsh and you can see them feeding on small aquatic life. It’s also neat to see the tides rush through the narrow spots and into the shallow warm pools of the salt marsh.

In Antigonish we stayed with the Ten Brinkes: Charlie, Ronny, and the kids. They’re actually a family of 5, it’s just part of their last name! Charlie is really energetic and inspiring lady who’s involved in everything. Between working at the university, getting the kids to hockey practice and such, cooking for the family, and acting with a dinner theatre troupe, she also does a tonne of sustainability stuff.

The Ten Brinkes live just outside town, on a big beautiful piece of land. It hasn’t always been this nice: they built the house themselves and transformed the property from a rocky, rather barren field to a wooded area and garden. Charlie loves the trees and made a network of hiking trails for the kids. The wild critters love the trees too, and at one point Charlie had her yard certified with the Backyard Habitat Program. At the time, she ran a daycare where the kids could play around and connect with nature. Her two boys, Jesse and Jamie, have a fort in the trees. Charlie helped them build it using recycled materials.

Charlie also grows herbs and vegetables in her yard, to avoid the rising food prices. Feeding three kids is not cheap, especially if you want to give them fresh, organic vegetables. She also involves the kids in gardening. The two boys each have their own square of vegetable garden. At first, it was just a small patch, but this year they asked for a bigger area and now have a considerable garden plot each. Charlie says the boys feel very proud when the family eats vegetables from their garden plots.

In Antigonish there is a small but dedicated group of people who organize various talks and events to promote sustainabiity. The group is great for exchanging ideas, but as Charlie tells us, they have trouble reaching out to the rest of the community and getting them to see the importance of moving towards a sustainable lifestyle. Case in point: Charlie and Ronny recently hosted a 200-person picnic and Charlie decided she wouldn’t use any single-use dishes.

Yes, read that sentence again. 200 people. No plastic cups, plates, or anything. Let it sink in.

Anyway, Charlie said that people were so used to disposable dishes and so unaware of what she was trying to do that some of them threw her dishes in the garbage. She had to fish through the garbage at the end of the event to get her dishes back. These are the challenges she and the Antigonish sustainability crowd is up against.

With her kids, of course, it’s a different story: day in and day out, Charlie teaches them about recycling and not wasting water or electricity. Some days the kids still throw the compost in the garbage or leave the lights on in the entire house. But it’s not about getting it right each time, it’s about creating consciousness/awareness and instilling values. Charlie hopes to make the kids think about sustainability because she believes it’s important to their generation.

Strawng and Effishient

31 Jul

Toronto is difficult to escape. It’s like an enormous sea creature, its tentacles reaching far beyond official city limits and pulling you back. For three days after we officially left Toronto, we were cottage-hopping, first staying at Anya’s parents’ cottage, and then with Anya’s family friends at a cottage they were renting. We took another rest day and went fishing.

Of course it had to be perfect cycling weather on our rest day and when we actually started going it had to rain all day. Our cycle computer got so wet that it stopped working after 75km. Our grandiose plans for making good progress crumbled. When we reached Bancroft, Anya suggested that we should do everything in our power to find a couchsurf. And that we did! We found an awesome Warm Showers host, Ed, who also has a hot tub at his house.

As usual, we had trouble leaving, and only reached the town bakery around noon. By 1:30pm we were ready to get back on the road, but the lady at the bakery heard about our project and decided to introduce us to Pat and Sherri, who run a natural building design business, Haven Craft. They just happened to be eating brunch at the table beside ours.

We started talking and before we knew it, Sherri offered us a tour of their straw bale home, which they built themselves in 1999.

The roof is made of recycled car tires, the beams and posts are trees from the backyard and the walls are straw bale and plaster. But the big bad wolf won’t be blowing this house down: some straw bale buildings are 600 years old!

Back in the day, Pat and Sherri decided to design and build their own home, and were looking for inspiration. They came across a book on straw bale construction, and the pictures captured their imaginations. Straw bale offers advantages such as excellent heat retention, moisture control, and soundproofing. It’s also a non-toxic building material, healthier for the inhabitants. Visually it can be striking, because it is easy to create rounded surfaces and curvilinear walls.

This is the shed, designed especially for the solar panels. The roof faces south and is large enough to provide most of the electricity for the house, on average. For example, last year the panels produced 110% of the annual electricity usage. The output varies with the season: more in the summer, less in the winter. It is part of the microFIT program that we mentioned previously: electricity generated by the panels feeds back into the grid.

For Pat and Sherri the learning curve was steep, but the result was a sound and very liveable structure. Since then, they’ve been sharing their knowledge with others, both through their business and through a hands-on course that Pat teaches for the Sustainable Building Design and Construction Program at Fleming College. They’ve accumulated a lot of knowledge about materials: which ones are non-toxic, which ones work well in certain situations, and so on. Each project, Pat says, has its trade-offs, prioritizing the needs and desires of the client while staying on budget.

Financing a natural builiding project is a challenge, but not for the reason you might think. Although it doesn’t cost any more than a conventional custom-built house, the banks are hesitant to give loans. Admittedly, these houses can sometimes be hard to sell as well, but there have been exceptions to this rule.

Fear and Cycling in Toronto

25 Jul

Those who know Maria will be surprised that in 5500km she has not once flipped the finger at an erratic driver on this trip. But never has she been so close to breaking this marvellous track record as when we entered Toronto city limits. Immediately drivers change from friendly and road-sharing to stressed and angry. For the first time on the trip, we were honked at and we knew for a fact the message was not “hello.”

Once past the initial hurdle of getting into the city, we were cordially greeted by Anya’s parents. Some of their friends were excited to hear about our journey, so they hosted a BBQ/storytelling session, so that we could be fed while recounting exaggerations about our cycle tour.

One of the guests suggested that because of the second law of thermodynamics (entropy always increases), sustainability is a pipe dream akin to a perpetual motion machine. This theoretical limitation would not apply to the earth alone because energy can be exchanged between the earth and the rest of the universe. Then we are talking about the universe. But the fate of the universe is a hotly debated topic and perhaps it will be renewed in a big crunch followed by another big bang. Also, this is so far into the future that first, giant crabs will take over the world, then the sun will engulf half of the planets in our solar system, and only much much later can we anticipate the heat death of the universe.

We also visited Evergreen Brick Works, where they had a fascinating exhibit called ‘MOVE‘ about transportation in Toronto. It was put together by Evergreen in collaboration with Institute Without Boundaries. It shows the history of transportation in Toronto, has cool data visualizations for current transportation stats, and suggests a whole host of ideas for how to make transportation more sustainable in the future.

Here’s one amazing guy’s collection of bicycles, displayed as part of the MOVE exhibit.

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