Tag Archives: energy

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.

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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.

Raccoon Stew

22 Jul

Manitoulin, we are told, has been called the Saltspring Island of Ontario: it’s inhabited by artists and other interesting characters. We stayed with people whose goal is to live sustainably and self-sufficiently. They are growing their own food and getting their own energy from solar panels. Their methods are based on the permaculture system.

Our host and permaculture extraordinaire, Justin, explains that the first thing he needed to figure out was a water source for growing the food. He set up a solar powered pump to get water from the closest water source – Lake Huron.

Not too long ago, the perma-farm went completely off-grid. Justin describes cutting off the electricity as a liberating and powerful experience. The house has a composting loo, collects rainwater, and is powered by rooftop solar.

The perma-farm also has, or rather had, a lot of chickens. Recently, a raccoon mauled some 30 chickens. Retribution was in order. The clever furry guy was trapped and shot, but no part of him was wasted: the meat was cooked, the fat was separated and is to be made into soap – a Christmas present for mom, and the skin is being cured and will probably go towards some sort of fashion item. As for us, we did not pass up the unique opportunity and tasted the surprisingly delicious ‘coon meat.

 

Not all is lost. The remaining specimens are very athletic. One could say that natural selection has occurred.

The farm members are also very active in the community and hold educational programs on permaculture. They hold courses and workshops to pass along their skills and knowledge to others.

Bargain Hunting

14 Jul

In Thunder Bay, we took a day off.

Maria needed some caffeine, which we found at a hole-in-the-wall place on a street undergoing construction that was simultaneously a coffee roasting house and a computer repair shop. The compact size of the shop prevents anyone from holding private conversations, so the owner and customers soon knew all about our cross-Canada trip and project. Tina, a customer, told us about her energy-efficient home: it faces south, with eaves to block the summer sun while letting in the winter sun, and solar panels on the roof (she mentioned the feed-in tariff program).

By necessity, we also explored the commercial wasteland part of Thunder Bay. People told us that Thunder Bay was once two towns, but urban sprawl filled in the gap with department stores and shopping centres. As we would find out later from Tony, a grocery store owner in Schreiber, Thunder Bay is the unofficial Walmart capital of Canada. It has the most profitable Walmart in Canada and, in fact, two more Walmarts are scheduled to open soon.

Apparently, people from the surrounding smaller communities flock to Thunder Bay to shop, because it’s cheaper and there is more selection. For a local shop owner like Tony, that’s bad news. He told us that people now use his grocery store like a corner store, only coming in for cigarettes and chips. There is low turnover for his products, so he can’t sell quickly spoiling items like fruit and vegetables anymore.

Our next stop was Nipigon, and we were prepared to spend the night with the bugs again. To boost our morale, we went to a cafe for dinner. We were shocked when the waitress asked, “Are you Anya and Maria?” It turned out we had sent her a couchsurfing request! Because there is literally no phone service anywhere around here, we didn’t get her text message. And that’s how we ended up couchsurfing with Al and Maria.

After dinner, Al gave us a tour of the town. Nipigon used to have a pulp mill, like many other towns in the area. But some years ago, the mill stopped making money and was shut down. More than half the town was out of work. To get their jobs back, the townspeople formed a cooperative and bought the mill. But only a year later, the mill burned down. Since then, Nipigon has tried to attract tourists by rebranding their town. The efforts went nowhere.

But tourism is picking up for a different reason. Al told us about the recently established marine conservation area reaching from Thunder Bay to Terrace Bay, with Nipigon right in the middle. Although the park does not have any special amenities yet, it has already attracted outdoor enthusiasts.

Since Al works for the Ministry of Natural Resources (MNR), we also talked about hunting laws. For most species, there are enough animals so that a license will be given to anyone who requests it. Moose are an exception.

In Ontario, moose hunting is done by lottery: applicants compete for a limited number of available licences, each permitting the owner to kill one animal. Unlike the regulations in Europe where you own any animal that comes onto your property, in Ontario the animals are owned by the people in the province. From Al’s perspective, Ontario’s system makes it easier to manage wildlife populations.

Let’s say you hit the jackpot: you got a licence and killed a moose. Legally you are not allowed to waste its meat. You are also not allowed to sell the meat. So hunters either share the meat with their neighbours and friends, or freeze it, or both.  Everyone who has tried it says that it is the best meat they’ve ever had. So it’s no wonder none of our hosts had any moose meat to share with us.

Here’s Anya saying hi to Henrietta. We don’t know who shot this one, but maybe it was the late Bill Young of Young’s General Store.

Sunny Side Up

8 Jul

We’ve officially left the prairies. Instead of fields stretching to the horizon in every direction, we now travel on roads surrounded by trees on either side. The sky has become smaller. By force of a quickly formed habit we try to check the weather forecast by observing the clouds, but they are blocked, and we feel a little claustrophobic.

After doing 284 km in two days, a rest day was in order. Luckily for us, Maria’s parents flew in for the long weekend and made sure we relaxed to the max.

We stayed in a cabin right on Lake of the Woods, near Sioux Narrows Provincial Park. We swam in the lake, hiked the trails of the park, and picked mushrooms and wild strawberries. We also spotted a beaver in the area:

Well rested and fed, we got ambitious again. We rode 90km in the scorching heat to the town of Finland, where we stopped to eat. The host informed us that there would be Canada Day fireworks at 10pm in Fort Frances. Well, it was 7pm and with Fort Frances 60km away, we figured we could make it! We quickly settled up the bill and booked it. Full of partiotism we finally arrived at 10:30pm, just barely making the tail end of the fireworks.

We camped in the park in town and in the morning Anya received a gift from the heavens.

Bon appetit. We ate breakfast in the Chinese restaurant in Fort Frances. We would never have thought to go there but it was recommended by a local guy named Kasey. We randomly met in front of Safeway and he ended up joining us for breakfast. Upon hearing about our project, he told us about his dad, who wants his house to be the first in Fort Frances to go completely off the grid. He has already installed solar panels on his roof for electricity, and he has obtained a large cistern for collecting rainwater, which he will be hooking up to the house’s plumbing system shortly.

We spotted quite a few solar panels on our way to Fort Frances, and asked Kasey about them. Ontario has a program for subsidizing clean energy projects. This program pays owners of solar installations for the energy they generate. In particular, energy produced by residential rooftop solar installations is bought at a rate 8 times the cost of buying the same amount of electricity. As a result of the subsidy, many people have installed the panels. Many community-use places such as schools and municipal halls had the panels installed as well.

Farming in the Wind

21 Jun

According to statistics, about half of Canada’s farmland is in Saskatchewan.  Sure enough, most towns along the railway have a grain elevator.

Through Couchsurfing, we had the opportunity to stay with Henry and Vivian, who live on a farm. They grow most of their food on a tennis court sized piece of land: potatoes, rhubarb, gooseberries, cilantro, squash, onions, and lots more. When they visit their children in the city, they are surprised at each other’s grocery bills. Henry and Vivian eat mostly what they grow; their kids might pay as much in a day as they do in a month.

Henry took us to see the lake near their property. The lake is home to many birds, first and foremost to Saskatchewan’s provincial bird, the mosquito. However there are also pelicans, gulls, curlews, blackbirds, and more. Henry and Vivian are surrounded by lovely scenery: “On a long weekend, people will rush to a park for camping, but we have the best camping in the world right here,” Henry says. Judge for yourself:

 

From the lake, you can see a big wind farm, Centennial Wind Power Facility. There are about 80 wind turbines on that farm and each turbine can power a town the size of Swift Current. We asked Henry why there aren’t more of them, and he said another one of even bigger capacity is planned to be built nearby, in Chaplin. With the amount of wind in the flat lands, it is really a no brainer for Saskatchewan. Check out this windstorm that we were lucky enough to sit out in a cafe:

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