The Island, the border, and the plague

On March 30, the MV Coho exited Victoria Harbour without ceremony on its last voyage after the COVID-19 curtain had come down on cross-border travel, with just a handful of last U.S. returnees. Canadian snowbirds had come home in the weeks prior, as the pandemic gained traction.

From the aft passenger deck, a lone crew member wanly waved toward the shore as Coho plied past Laurel Point. No one appeared to notice.

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We thought Coho would be back in a month or maybe two, and the Clipper to Seattle, and float plane traffic, and that cruise ships would by summer deliver their thousands of Alaska travellers.

While Dr. Bonnie Henry knew the pandemic’s spread and damage would get much worse in North America, we were then in a state of innocent disbelief, not denial, but unable to imagine how much and for how long our lives could change.

Almost half a year later, today’s Harbour water is like glass, undisturbed by boats, with a solitary Harbour Air landing in the last hour. Gulls, ducks, flotillas of geese, and kayakers relish the new – but old – freedom and natural calm. The season’s grayling gull chicks who just started to fly are in their first swimming lessons, spread contentedly across the bay instead of hugging the banks.

B.C. Health Minister Adrian Dix warns the pandemic will be with us at least through 2021. Coho’s not coming back this year. Our U.S. border will remain closed for the first time in a century.

What has it changed for Vancouver Island’s 870,000 inhabitants? What have we lost? Will the many hospitality jobs that depended on cruise ships and other summer visitors seeking our Island’s inimitable beauty ever return? Our daily norms are upended, how we live, shop, connect socially, and organize family and community life around schools and activities and pastimes.

Islanders are a diverse people. A few hundred yards from this window is a totem honouring the Esquimalt and Songhees First Nations, here from distant ages, but long marginalized in our community built literally over their ancestors by settlers, and then surges of migrants.

Newcomers first arrived as colonists, mostly from Britain, and the wars of Europe, then mostly from bigger cities in the colder East; waves of retirees sought comfort in Canada’s most clement and nature-blessed place. Some had fortunes from lifetimes of work to deploy on dream mega-homes on the ocean. Many retain corporate and other links, packing flights back to where the money comes from, and where family still is. Many more added winter breaks to U.S. golfing deserts and Hawaiian winter condos, and cruises, incessant travel.

Now we’re all grounded. I haven’t been in one place so long since leaving Montreal at 16 for university and the wider world. Zooms to family and head offices and editors that now substitute for travel offer virtual meetings, but remind us vividly the reality is that we’re here, not there.

While Covid crushed lives in so many places, Vancouver Island was barely brushed. Is it because it’s an island?

Or was it behavioural? Our chief medical officer told us to “get outside,” while authorities elsewhere admonished,”stay inside.” My cherished permitted daily runs to Clover Point, passing and being passed by hundreds on the way, everybody tripping to the side, committed to protocol, made it clear we all knew we had got off lightly here.

Henry also urged us to “be kind.” Now that cases have spurted upward, she’s reminding careless people to smarten up. Spotting her in James Bay walking home from work, socially-distanced patrons at The Bent Mast, guitar strummers on the bench outside Thrifty’s, or patient shoppers on sidewalk marks, smiled and signalled our buy-in with a thousand thumbs-ups.

Despite some op-ed quibbling about the right mix of trade-offs between health protection and economic stimulus for recovery, the overwhelming Canadian opinion is that our political class did the right things the right way, by the science, with very little politics in the mix, and with acute hearing. (The Pew Survey reports 88 per cent of Canadians approve the handling by our governments; as opposed to only 47 per cent approval in the U.S.)

Canadians are staggered by the grotesque incompetence, selfishness, and grandstanding that reign in the U.S., a cauldron of discontent roiled (and armed) by anger and fear. Canadians with lifetimes of like-minded American friends share their grief and confusion over the Republic’s decline, disinformation, dysfunction, and unfairnesses.

But gone for most of us is the comfortable old assumption that Canadians and Americans are more or less the same people. Never have the discrepancies between the founding principles of the U.S. in its vaunted individual freedoms, and Canadian belief in community and order, been so vivid.

A massive majority of Canadians insist U.S. border crossings stay closed as needed to keep out the virus as best we can, but also to resist inroads of toxic attitude contagion that could dilute the standards of tolerance, decency, and inclusivity that bind Canada together.

Despite trends around the world toward populist nationalism, opinion surveys show Islanders have a pretty normal and healthy mix of multiple identities. When we’re in Kelowna, we primarily feel our inner Islander; in Montreal or Toronto, like British Columbians; in the U.S., we’re inalterably Canadian; in Europe or Asia, Canadians self-present as being from the “other” North America.

What is clear is that our sense of Island affiliation has deepened this summer, as we stayed in place, filling our Island’s camping grounds, beaches, and multiple places of discovery, It sunk in that this Island is more than just the place where we came to live; it finally became for more of us the place we are from. Many born here always knew that. Now more of us are on the same page.

Will it help in the necessary design of a common fix for the Island’s future? The pandemic can be an opportunity to “build back better.”

Wilderness and dramatic primeval beauty will continue to draw mass tourism and more and more migrant-retirees with economic benefits but also risks to harmonious social and environmental eco-systems insisting on thoughtful handling.

We’re not going to freeze time to keep things as they were, a nostalgic showcase for what others have lost. Californian visitors extol Salt Spring Island and other locales as “like Napa in the ’60s,” i.e., before becoming commercialized, Disneyfied, high-priced and exclusive.

Vancouver Island has to grow, for all Islanders, but intelligently, and fairly, including for ambitious and creative younger people.

We have super schools but too little respect from government for culture and creativity. The University of Victoria needs to shoot for excellence.

Transformational creative technology and research activity are gaining traction. Victoria’s globally connected tech and design start-ups are doing $2 billion of business.

A few wealthy migrants from the East have backed successful local industry. Viking Air has world rights to build De Havilland aircraft, with advanced avionics. Our unique Harbour Air flies the world’s biggest fleet of floatplanes from Canada’s busiest float plane hub. Point Hope Maritime and United Engineering in Sidney are top-tier West Coast marine industry builders.

We have to better valorize the Island’s fabulous natural resources while making sure people are “at the front of the equation,” as Premier John Horgan put it regarding forest products, a crucial backbone for island communities, but vexed by labour disputes, in need of re-vitalization and innovation.

Commercial fishing whose supply chains were broken by Covid-19 needs urgent attention, including for indigenous fishing boats and communities.

In the 1950s, Island farms produced 85 per cent of our food supply, now down to between five and 10 per cent. There is abundant arable land – but development speculation from urbanization inflates land costs too much for agricultural capitalization. Industrialized commercial food chains deepen dependency on imports. Remedial efforts proceed – such as the “Island Good” grocery promotions, and revitalization of the Agricultural Land Reserve to assist new farms, but it’s piecemeal.

There is a governance issue. It’s hard to develop a whole-of-Island perspective with a mosaic of fractured and often semi-voluntary municipal governments. Additionally, the overwhelming centre of gravity of the province’s political culture has for decades been the Lower Mainland, making Vancouver Island politically dispensable to most premiers. However, having now an Island Premier from Langford could improve prospects, perhaps via a comprehensive ministry dedicated to the Island’s development.

Islanders generally embrace custodial commitment to the greenest political culture in North America. But are we as conscious of our need to embrace our pluralism? Terry Glavin recently wrote movingly of how founding Governor James Douglas nurtured a multi-racial community here, sadly swept away later by incoming bigoted colonists. Can we re-set the vital indigenous relationship?

It’s a daunting time. Outcomes depend on us. The crewman from Coho was waving goodbye to the Victoria we knew six months ago. Has COVID helped us since see more clearly our stake in this unique place where we’re from? Will it support a pivot to healthy enduring change? So, when we welcome Coho back, it might be to Vancouver Island “woken?”

Jeremy Kinsman served as ambassador in Moscow, Rome, London, and Brussels, and is Distinguished Fellow at the Canadian International Council.

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