Let’s bring back Birth Days worth celebrating

Scarlet, Southern Resident Orca
The world celebrated the birth of Scarlet (J50) who is now a critically ill three year-old.
Clint Rivers, Showtime Photography and Eagle Wing Tours

If there was any excitement at the birth of a new calf to the dwindling population of Southern Resident Orcas on July 24th, it was short-lived. The baby died just half an hour after birth, and its mother, known as Tahlequah, made sure the world knew it.If somehow you missed it, Tahlequah carried that baby for 17 days.

The general consensus is that the mama whale was sending us a message and plenty of writers and researchers have made speculations about the contents of that message.

I’ve been wondering what it was that hit us so hard about Tahlequah’s “grief tour.”

Is it the fact that we cannot un-see that limp and yellowing corpse, the baby whose life we should be celebrating?

Maybe it’s not just the grief, but the injustice that gets us. Yes, babies die, but Tahlequah’s shouldn’t have and we know it. What we felt watching Tahlequah carry her child around was the same devastation we felt seeing images of a child’s body washed ashore because his parents tried to take him to a safer place. It was the same gut-sick feeling we held for the children taken from their parents by immigration officials at the US-Mexican border earlier this summer. It’s the same horror we feel when we hear about a teenager in our own city dying of “professional indifference.”

The more I learn about these whales, though, the more convinced I am that our grief is even deeper than this. We are bearing witness to the death of birth*, to extinction.

In an interview by Mark Leiren-Young in his orca-focused podcast, Skaana, researcher Ken Balcomb laid out the hard truth about this population:

There have been dead babies in the past and there will be dead babies in the future, and the problem is, there will be no successful reproduction if we don’t have a viable ecosystem for them to live in. That’s the problem.

Just look at the past few years in the life of these whales, and you’d be inclined to think Balcomb is on to something.

In 2014, an eighteen year-old named Rhapsody was found dead near Comox, an autopsy revealed she was pregnant.

In February, 2016, a whale named Nigel disappeared, researchers say his ribs were showing on the last day they saw him.

Throughout that summer, researchers followed 23 year-old named Polaris and her young son, Dipper. The pair appeared to be starving, and in October of that year, they disappeared.

Researchers announced the loss of Granny, believed by some to be more than 100 years old, shortly thereafter.

In the past month, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) has been trying to help three year-old Scarlet, who is also starving, but these efforts have ground to a halt now that she’s in Canadian waters.

In an article about the current situation, and his struggle to get answers from the Canadian Department of Fisheries and Oceans, Leiren-Young writes:

Today, if I thought anyone would answer me, it’d be time for hardball questions like: “If Scarlet starves to death because no one signed off on feeding her in Canada, which Canadian official or organization would be responsible?”

It’s a great question.

Governor Jay Inslee could order the breaching of the Lower Snake River dams assisting in the recovery of salmon populations and cut Washington State’s tanker traffic. Premier John Horgan could let the licenses for 20 open-net salmon farms expire, and he could encourage the federal government to cut the allowable catch for the commercial chinook fishery by more than 25%. Prime Minister Trudeau could come up with a better way to spend  $4.5 billion in taxpayer dollars than to twin the Trans Mountain pipeline (especially now that the Canadian courts have rejected the legitimacy of the project’s approval).

If these things happened and the Southern Residents made a miraculous comeback, we could celebrate these leaders as heroes.

If their action are weak and ineffective, can we hold them responsible for the subsequent deaths?

I’ve left voicemail messages urging these leaders to act, and intend to follow up in writing (I’m better in writing). Honestly, my efforts feel scant and futile. The chances are low, I figure, that our leaders will take more than half-measures. A determined policy shift aimed at protecting our Southern Resident friends and rejuvenating the ecosystem they live in would probably be pretty disruptive to the status quo, and let’s face it, the status quo is quite comfy for most of us.

If every last Southern Resident disappears into the deep abyss of the ocean, we will mourn their passing and carry heavy hearts on our sleeves, but I doubt we will change much. As J.M. Cotzee writes in his novel Waiting for the Barbarians: The jackal rips out the hare’s bowels, but the world rolls on.

I finished Cotzee’s book last week. Although it was written in 1980, I felt like it was incredibly timely. It’s about empire and oppression, but it’s also about seeing the future and making a half-baked attempt to change its course. The unnamed protagonist is an aging, lecherous man who holds (at the beginning at least) a position of relative power. The protagonist makes muffled protests against the injustice he sees around him, but ultimately, he is a party to the crimes of his empire.

The same could be said for most of us, myself included.

If our leaders take half-measures and turn our whale friends from living, breathing, sentient gems into artifacts for natural history museums, they are guilty. If the rest of us fail to speak up with the required force, we’re guilty too.

The good news is, we’re not at the end of the story yet. We still have Tahlequah and her fellow chinook-eating orca swimming the ocean. We still have the chance to listen when they send us a message. As far as I know, there’s no single solution to bringing this population back to health, but hope for these whales lies in a genuine commitment to saving them. A commitment to saving is also a commitment to saving their ecosystem and our own. If there was ever a challenge worth stepping up for, here it is.

We might not succeed, but also, we might, and when we do there will be babies to celebrate.


  • “The Death of Birth” is a chapter in Paul Hawken’s book, “The Ecology of Commerce,” but I think that EO Wilson is the one who coined the phrase.

Feel like making some calls or writing some letters?

Premier John Horgan:
Telephone:(250) 387-1715 (Legislature number)
Email: john.horgan.mla@leg.bc.ca

Prime Minster Justin Trudeau
Telephone: 613 992-4211

Canadian Minister of Oceans, Fisheries and Coast Guard 604.775.6333
102 W 3 Street
North Vancouver, British Columbia
V7M 1E8

Governor Jay Inslee
Telephone: 360-902-4111 | Fax: 360-753-4110

Rage, vulnerability and getting to a better place

Lee Maracle writes: More art, more song, more dance will bring us to wellness. Cross cultural dance will get us to know each other.” Photo by Len Gilday

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada wants Canadians to educate themselves on “residential schools, Treaties, and Aboriginal peoples’ historical and contemporary contributions to Canada.” My friend Pauline Le Bel has started the Knowing Our Place Book Club to that end. She explained her choice of name to the group who met at our local library.

“As I see it,” she told us, “We’re not at the reconciliation phase yet, we’re still soaking in the truth, and also, I think it’s our job as settlers to know our place.”

Lee Maracle doesn’t much like the word “reconciliation” either, at least not the way it’s being thrown around lately. Maracle is the author of My Conversations with Canadians, the book that kicked off my participation in the Knowing Our Place Book Club. Her response to the question, What is reconciliation to you? Goes like this:

Well stop killing us, that would be a good place to begin… then maybe stop plundering our resources, end colonial domination–return our lands, and then we can have a talk about being friends.

I can imagine this woman, this voice in my head for the past 137 pages standing up on stage and taking a breath before offering up the answer. Her answer is so straightforward it is awkward-making, and there is an edge of humour in it too. Yet I can see this response being received like an exploding bomb, as an imagined attack on a well-meaning, wide-eyed innocent.

This passage mirrors the tone of Maracle’s book, and several book club members seemed put-off by it, stating their sense that she was being “divisive.”

Of course I noticed Maracle’s bite, but was too eager to keep reading to let it bother me. By the end of the book, I wanted to become friends with Maracle. I say this, though, realizing that if it ever happened she would probably mock me relentlessly, on good days. On bad days, she’d tear me into tiny shreds for my ignorance. I would like to envision myself persevering in this relationship, but truthfully I am pretty fragile. How far would I really get?

I’m not sure I would have felt this way a few years ago but I’m also not entirely sure what’s changed for me. As I contemplate this, my friend Chris Corrigan walks into the coffee shop where I sit with my computer. Chris spends his days thinking and talking about this kind of thing, so we dive into the topic.

“It’s the job of settlers to feel unsettled,” he says. “Being unsettled, if you can admit to that, it makes you vulnerable. It is through that vulnerability that you can start to build relationship with the people that you’ve unsettled.”

Chris describes Maracle’s anger as “authentic rage.” He says he’s felt the blunt force of that kind of rage more than a few times, and then brings up a moment last summer when a CBC reporter named Julie Van Dusen got hammered with it during a press conference on missing and murdered Indigenous women.

The reporter asked the group of women on stage whether Prime Minister Justin Trudeau had a better track record on Indigenous affairs than Stephen Harper. Jocelyn Wabano-Iahtail, from Attawapiskat First Nation, quickly informed Van Dusen that the question itself was inappropriate, and disrespectful. After several re-iterations of the question (despite pleas from the press conference hosts to “just stop”) one of Van Dusen’s male colleagues stepped in to defend her, repeating the question, escalating the conflict. Here’s how Wabano-lahtail wrapped things up:

As far as how Justin Trudeau is doing, one of the things we have to keep in mind is we’re asking the United Nations to help us … Because your Liberal party was also responsible – every party, your every government that has been in power, there’s been a war conflict… Look how many people came to bat for you, white lady. And you’re a guest here. Without us, you’d be homeless. This is over.”

Chris describes the escalation, the defence made by the male reporter, as pure patriarchy. This may be so, but my first instinct is to side with Van Dusen. It’s easy for me to see the world through her eyes. I’ve been a reporter and made plenty of mistakes that I’ve been called out on, it feels terrible. The idea of being called out so harshly, so publicly, well it’s my nightmare.

Standing at my safe distance, I toy with perspective and suddenly Wabano-Iahtail’s rage makes sense to me. The women standing up at the press conference that day were brought to the stage by a nightmare more real, and a thousand times more devastating than my own: their sisters and mothers and daughters have been going missing and turning up dead for decades. The women who organized the press conference did so because they had something to say and needed to be heard, not because they wanted to play politics. Were the reporters gathered around them that day actually listening? If they were, they were too focused on their own agenda, too entrenched in their own perspective, to consider the problematic nature of the question they insisted be answered.

I doubt Lee Maracle was surprised to hear about this conversation gone awry. Her book, after all, is an attempt to push her own conversations with Canadians forward to a place of improved understanding. She could’ve spared us her rage and allowed us a more comfortable read, but that would have denied us her truths. Her rage explained is a gift, and if that makes us uncomfortable, maybe we need to face, explore and even explain our own feelings.

Maracle’s anger and sometimes harsh retorts may leave some feeling hopeless, but I find hope in the fact that this book was written at all. While Maracle may have rejected “reconciliation” outright, she clearly has not abandoned the idea of progress, of healing and the potential for human connection. How could she? There’s too much at stake for indigenous people in this country. She sees the pathway to that strengthened humanity in art, and by delving in and sharing, we all stand to benefit – and our conversations do, too. 

Exposed but not quite naked

Listening to CBC Radio the other day, I heard this piece of advice from a writer being interviewed: the only way to move forward creatively, is to allow yourself to be judged.
Ding, ding! That statement spoke my truth and my struggle.
So, here I am writing this first blog post feeling EXPOSED, feeling VULNERABLE, feeling like instead of writing I should really put some more damned clothes on (you know, like hide the feeling with a cloak of silliness).
Journalism has served as a handy cloak for me over the years. For me, at least, it is way easier to tell someone else’s story than it is to tell my own. It’s easier for me to be the platform than the person standing on it.
As the editor of a newspaper, I owed my readers some vulnerability, a sliver of it at least. Without all the people willing to put their stories out there through me, there would’ve been no paper. Also… people willing to actually step up and write their truths in print made the paper infinitely better. I appreciated these rare occasions, in stark contrast with endless rants and raves on social media.
I spent a lot of time wondering about the difference between the two platforms: what made the newspaper seem so weighty and terrifying to people who would happily rant indiscriminately on Facebook? I decided that this particular form of terror is actually a good thing, and that I want to work with people to get through the terror so they can start to write what’s important to them, but to do so in a way that they would actually WANT to see those words published.
So, that’s where I’m headed.
And for now I’ll be here: filtered, but still exposed.