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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.

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Excluding Greenland

19 Sep

We’ve cycled 9601 km in 114 days. Hard to believe, but this journey is over. In our minds we’re still labeling these as ‘rest days,’ but there is nowhere further east to go. We made it before Hurricane Leslie hit, and that’s a good thing.

After it passed we had a chance to explore the city. St John’s has a rich history. It is the oldest English founded city in North America. The city was destroyed by fires several times, so very few old buildings remain, but there are some scenic historical sites here. We visited Signal Hill, Fort Amherst, and of course Cape Spear – the easternmost point in North America, excluding Greenland. “Canada begins here — or ends, depending on your point of view,” reads a sign at Cape Spear.

For city people, Hurricane Leslie meant a school closure, a few power outages, and some toppled signs. But on the agricultural land surrounding the city, the hurricane’s aftermath had a more immediate effect. At the weekly farmer’s market (where Maria stocked up on souvenir jam), a couple was selling their last tomatoes for the season, salvaged from a toppled greenhouse.

Maria also had the opportunity to visit the Seed to Spoon Co-operative in Portugal Cove. Their farm had not been as damaged by the hurricane, with the decorative flowers being the most damaged of their crops. The co-operative is run by its 4 members, younger farmers who are passionate about what they do but who can’t (or would rather not) purchase farmland of their own at this stage. The land belongs to a lady who had her own organic farm there for 40 years before deciding to rent it out.

It seems that working collaboratively as Seed to Spoon does, there is a lot of energy and exchange of ideas going on. Sarah, one of the members, keeps bees, and the knowledge as well as the pollination gets passed around to everyone. The four members are signed up for their own weekly harvest box, experiencing their own produce the way their customers do. Maybe that’s why their vegetables are so tasty! Maria had an omelet made with duck eggs and vegetables from the farm when she was there, and can attest to the amazing taste qualities of all the ingredients. The journey finishes on a delicious note.

So what’s next?

We are making our way home, on motorized transport. Anya is off to Toronto (with some detours), and Maria is off to Vancouver. It’s a funny feeling, to see the speed difference in the return trip. At the same time, there is a feeling of power. The world has shrunk from an unfathomably large size where we are infinitesimally small in comparison. We can get anywhere on our own power, on a very tangible though extended time scale.

There are so many memories to sort through. In the immediate future, Maria will be putting together a slideshow, so stay tuned.

We’ve collected lots of sustainability stories. Though we’re done cycling, the journey is just beginning for these stories. We hope they’ve inspired you, and will continue to inspire others. And there are other stories waiting to be discovered all over the country.

Coasting Along the Cabot Trail

1 Sep

The day we hit our 8,000km mark we also arrived on Cape Breton Island. The highway loop around the northern part of the island is called the Cabot Trail. Like Anya’s bike, it is named after the explorer John Cabot, who set sail from England over 500 years ago. After risking his life and enduring great difficulties, Cabot (probably) found this beautiful place. Today, getting here still poses a challenge for the cyclist: the loop is famous for its steep hills as well as its breathtaking views. In the clockwise direction, the most intense climb is North Mountain, with a 13% grade for 3km and a total elevation gain of 445 metres over 4km. Although it was possible to avoid this loop en route to Newfoundland, we accepted the challenge on our quest for rugged coastlines.

We started out on the scenic Trans Canada Trail along the coast. In Judique, we camped on the beach without setting up a tent. It gets quite windy around here. When we tried cooking on the beach, the lighter wouldn’t light, so we had to take it to the sheltered picnic table, where it worked just fine. We made a mental note to buy some matches at the first opportunity, just in case the lighter was running low on fuel.

Luckily, the next day our Warm Showers host, Kevin, cooked us a warm dinner with freshly caught mackerel. Kevin goes fishing for mackerel in his kayak practically every day. He says it’s a very cost-effective vessel. Though it lacks some of the comfort and reassurance of a sailboat or motor boat, and the locals think he’s crazy, Kevin loves fishing out of the kayak. He strives to enjoy life without excess, so that he doesn’t need to work a job that causes a lot of stress and takes away all his time. A lot of people, he says, work and save until they are old and unable to enjoy their savings, or they buy useless things just to be like the neighbours. The mackerel feeds Kevin both directly and as a bartering item: he trades his homemade smoked mackerel for fresh organic vegetables with a local farmer. To reduce cost on other things, he hunts thrift stores and garage sales for quality and unique household items.

Kevin told us about the limited work opportunities here. Tourism and fishing are the big ones and they’re seasonal. During the winter, an overwhelming number of people rely on unemployment insurance. Many people leave to work elsewhere, especially in the tar sands, where they earn big money. But Kevin wonders whether they are able to control their materialistic urges when they are suddenly given so much freedom.

The next day we summited two mountains, including North Mountain. We arrived in Cabot’s Landing and got ready to cook dinner on the beach. Again, the lighter was not cooperating. Of course we hadn’t bought any matches. Anya, who is not a big fan of pasta, suggested that perhaps a salad for dinner would do just fine. But Maria was outraged, and managed to light the stove just by using the sparks from the flint in the lighter. That’s what happens when you desperately want a warm dinner!

In the morning we woke up to see the sunrise and walked along the big spit closing off Aspy Bay from the Gulf of St Lawrence. We found some birds. We swam naked. It was pretty.

After cycling a long 15km, we stopped to feast on the deservedly famous fresh oysters on the half shell at Hideaway Campground. Continuing our seafood mission we took an ‘alternate scenic route’ (aka, hilly detour) off the Cabot Trail. We suffered on the uphills, but were generously rewarded. Stopping at the Chowder House was a particularly sound decision: we ate crab, clams, scallops, prawns, haddock, and mussels.

We were rather late getting to our next Warm Showers host, Rosie. Her friend, Mary-Beth, was visiting from Newfoundland. Mary-Beth told us about the ferry trouble that had been happening since the previous weekend: one of the two ferries was out of commission, causing overbooking and delays. We checked on the internet, and sure enough, the following morning was booked solid, even for cyclists. The next available space was not until two days later. So we were forced to take a rest day the following day. After all those steep hills, it wasn’t such a bad thing.

Rosie’s house has a composting toilet. Yep, inside her house. There are haiku instructions for how to use it and following them, we were able to set its wondrous mechanisms in motion ourselves. What an experience.

Rosie also keeps pigs and chickens, and grows vegetables. Her pigs will reluctantly eat store-bought animal feed, and they will not eat Rosie’s vegetable scraps which go in the compost. But they love the fatty or doughey food scraps, like the ones Rosie gets from the nearby cafe. It’s her first year of pigkeeping and she’s been pretty successful so far. But the big challenge lies ahead: she’s going to ask for help in killing and butchering the pigs in exchange for gifts of knitted things and bacon.

On our unexpected rest day, we visited a bookstore, conveniently located next door to Rosie’s. The store owner played his fiddle for us. He said the young people aren’t learning to dance, although fiddle music is meant for dancing. Later, we went to hear some local fiddlers in the nearby church. Sure enough, everyone was stomping their feet but both the audience and the performers were an older crowd, and nobody was dancing.

In an effort to keep their Celtic heritage alive, Cape Bretoners added the Gaelic town names to the English ones on all their highway signs. Oh, Canada, land of many cultures and heritages. Most people are confused enough by place names derived from French and various First Nations languages — and now this? Here’s a pronunciation guide.

In the end, taking a later ferry worked in our favour: we waited out two days of mediocre weather, and a reporter contacted us for an interview. We made a brief appearance on the Cape Breton Information Morning show on CBC Radio. It’s on one or several of the the Aug 30 shows, but only our most dedicated viewers would listen to hours upon hours of radio just to find it…

The Fertile Banks of the St. Lawrence

14 Aug

Cycle touring is great because you often stay in rural places. Our St-Vallier hosts, Dany and Maïté, live in a part of town that’s not even connected to the town’s water supply. The house’s water comes from their well, but it’s not pleasant to drink because of a light sulphur odour. Many people purchase expensive filtration systems, but Dany and Maïté make trips to the nearby woods where there is a natural spring, and get their drinking water from there. Just what we needed after a full day of cycling in the sun!

Maïté has a beautiful vegetable garden in their backyard. She grows variety of veggies including some extra large and very tasty zucchinis. She was full of creative ideas for her garden.

Maïté figured out a three-stage compost system that’s suitable to their house. First, they collect the compost in a bin. Once the bin is full, usually after a year, they transfer it to a raised bed; this year, she planted some zucchinis and geraniums on it for aesthetic appeal. After another year, the ready compost goes into the garden.

The family does without a lawnmower. In the spring, they buy some rabbits and set the rabbit cage on the grass. Once that area has been ‘mowed’ they move the cage to the next area. In the fall, they eat the rabbits, although their 5-year-old son, Matéo, doesn’t know that yet, but is starting to catch on that the rabbits each year are different and it makes him sad.

They also do without herbicides for killing dandelions, and in the early summer their lawn turns bright yellow. Instead of stressing about it and working against nature, they enjoy it.

When you come to a small town on a weeknight, you don’t necessarily expect a beach party. But that’s what we found in Kamouraska. Our hosts, garlic growers from the nearby St-Germain, were celebrating a friend’s birthday, and we were invited!

At the afterparty, we talked to Jesse, who works for Greenpeace. He is cycling around Quebec with a colleague, encouraging people to get involved with Greenpeace. Many people have been very receptive and welcoming, he tells us. However, in Canada people are reluctant in having convesation about the environment: many of them have jobs in industries like mining or oil extraction that are damaging to the environment. So they feel a bit guilty or responsible and do not want to get themselves into a conversation where they will be blamed or accused.

One of the friends had recently butchered his goat, and some of its meat was roasting over the fire. Our conversation naturally turned to food. Jesse had grown up on an organic farm, where fresh, organic meat was a big part of his diet. When he moved away, he realized that grocery store meat is not nearly as good as what he had been eating all his life. He gradually learned to eat mostly vegetarian and stopped buying meat. But Jesse does not promote strict vegetarian diets: he likes to challenge vegans and vegetarians on their values. For example, can a vegetarian eat roadkill, which already died anyway, and is going to waste?

One day Jesse would like to learn to hunt. He says if people got their meat hunting, they would better understand the value and ecological context of the meat they were eating, and would adapt their diet accordingly.

Fruits and Vegetables du Terroir

10 Aug

After two culture filled rest days in Montreal,  we stayed with Cedric and Anika in Joliette. Cedric works at the farm market and gets fresh local vegetables, which we got to try in the form of tasty homemade quiche by Anika. The farm market is unusual because people order their food online. On pickup day, the farmers bring the requested goods to the market, and people come to pick up their orders. As Cedric explains, this helps the local economy and in particular, the local farmers.

What better way to get to a car race than on a bicycle? We arrived in Trois-Rivières just in time for the Grand Prix, and the sound of racing cars created a constant background noise during our stay. Our hosts, Sharon and André, were not very pleased with the route of the race track, as it passes between the seniors’ homes and the hospital.

In response to hearing about the Tour de Sustainability project, Sharon told us a story she read in the paper. In Drummondville, a couple decided to grow their own vegetables to start eating healthier food, and the only place sunny enough was their front yard. After a season’s worth of hard work, they set up a wonderful garden. But the municipality has a law requiring 30% of the front yard to be grass, so they were told to remove the garden and put back the lawn. The couple is fighting with the municipality for their garden, but the prospects are grim: the municipality is planning to introduce a law banning all vegetable gardens in front yards.

The story seemed to have gone viral, and a lot of our hosts had opinions about it. As Sharon and André said, the people who had vegetable gardens in their backyards sided with the couple: to them, a garden is a beautiful thing. But the others sided with the municipality. Dany, our St-Vallier host, suggested that the ridiculous law is due to conformist mindsets. To some people, it’s just important that everybody’s house and front yard should look the same.

Thanks to Anya’s parents, who came to visit for the long weekend, we were able to go sightseeing in various places along the north shore of the St. Lawrence. We saw Quebec City, Portneuf, and one of the oldest streets in North America.

We also enjoyed some of the produits du terroir (French for local food). For example, we discovered the ground cherry (cerise de terre) at a fruit stand, and found it very addictive. We also tried ground cherry liqueur, which was almost as delicious.

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.

Superior Swimming

17 Jul

Okay, I’ll just spit it out. All this biking is too hard, so we decided to fly to Mexico and enjoy the beautiful beaches.

Just kidding, that’s Bathtub Island. You can wade out to this place from the sandy shore, it’s not far at all. On the island there is a small, shallow pool filled by waves sloshing in over the edge, and because it is so small it gets as warm as a bathtub. We passed it on our way to Sault Sainte Marie, or as the locals call it, the Soo.

In the Soo, we stayed with David and Cayla. David is interested in the food security aspect of sustainability. One initiative he has worked with is the Penokean Hills Farms Co-op. The members are cattle farms looking to process and sell their product locally. The alternative is to ship the cows to southern Ontario or even to the USA, where the meat is processed and then shipped back for redistribution. This is not only inefficient but also reduces the freshness of the meat. With the co-op in place, the farmers are able to get a better price while delivering a superior product to the consumers.

Interestingly, Penokean Hills Farms sells their product mostly in bakeries. The meat shops prefer to sell the cheaper, lower quality meat instead. Since the Penokean Hills Farms meat is often frozen, it does not look as appealing on display. However, the co-op has strict rules: the cattle must be naturally raised, without antibiotics or hormones. You get what you pay for. As for us, we are mostly consumers of bread and cinnamon buns at the bakeries these days: the BBQ didn’t fit in our panniers.

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