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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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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.

The Microprovince

26 Aug

We hereby claim intellectual property rights on “PEI is so small” jokes. For example:

PEI is so small that the bridge to the island is bigger than the island itself!

PEI is so small that if someone doesn’t know you, they’ll ask your last name because they probably know your relatives! Actually, this one’s not a joke. But it’s still funny!

PEI is so small that it doesn’t have a provincial welcome sign. Wait, that’s not a joke either. We did not find any provincial welcome signs. We had to take a picture at Granny’s Tea Room instead:

The tea room is conveniently situated just off the Confederation Trail, a cyclist’s paradise. It’s an impeccably-maintained gravel path, built atop the old railroad. It covers the entire island and is used by pedestrians, cyclists, and cross-country skiers in the wintertime. It inherits the convenient railroad grade, avoiding PEI’s many hills.

On our first of two nights on the island, we couchsurfed with Sebastian and his mom, Marianne. Marianne has an amazing food garden in her yard, as well as a chicken coop. She’s got two kinds of chickens: some for laying eggs and some for eating. We were there at just the right time: the chickens had just been slaughtered and we ate really fresh chicken for dinner. Marianne grows enough food for two and a half households. She does a lot of food preserving so that she has food from the garden through the winter months. This involves freezing the chickens and preserving a lot of the vegetables.

Sebastian is in PEI for the summer working on an organic farm, but lives in Halifax for the rest of the year. He travels between Halifax and PEI a lot, but since he doesn’t have a car, he hitchhikes or takes the bus. However, the inter-provincial bus company providing service to the Maritime provinces, Acadian Bus Lines, will stop running this November. This will significantly limit the travel options between cities for people who do not own cars and will certainly increase traffic.

Sebastian has also done tree-planting in New Brunswick and mentioned that a lot of forest there is owned by the Irvings. As Amanda told us earlier, in the Maritimes there are several powerful families with a lot of money who own a lot of land and businesses. The Irvings are one such family. They started out with just a few gas stations, but now they own most of the forests, mills, trucking companies, gas stations, and newspapers. Since the Irvings own the entirety of the newspaper business, from the raw material to production and distribution, it is difficult to get independent newspapers in these provinces. Of course, the Irving-owned news media is biased in reporting on Irving-owned industries.

On our second day on the island, we visited Charlottetown. We met Guy, a guitarist from Montreal who comes to Charlottetown for the summer to busk. He asked us to watch his guitar and amp while he went to grab a snack.  When he came back, he had some cool drinks for us. We ended up talking to him, sitting around for a few hours enjoying the sun and the sea. It all ended with Guy passing the guitar to Maria, and her classical tunes brought in some cash. Still got 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.

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