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Jack Knox: The poop on Mr. Floatie’s farewell tour down south

“I look forward to the day when we can retire Mr. Floatie.” Victoria Mayor Lisa Helps Letter to the editor, Seattle Times, August 2015 Helps got her wish Friday, joining Mr.
James Skwarok at the retirement party for his Mr. Floatie costume at the Canadian Consulate in Seattle on Friday, May 5, 2017.

Jack Knox mugshot generic“I look forward to the day when we can retire Mr. Floatie.”

Victoria Mayor Lisa Helps

Letter to the editor, Seattle Times, August 2015

Helps got her wish Friday, joining Mr. Floatie on a flight to Seattle (alas, not by float plane) to lay the mascot to rest — and with it, we hope, our American neighbours’ anger over Victoria’s lack of sewage treatment.

“It’s time to be relieved of my duties,” Victoria’s most famous feces declared as he prepared to peel off the suit one last time at a “retirement party” at the Canadian consulate in Seattle. Job done, as it were.

The $8,000 cost of the trip, with a delegation of seven, was borne by Tourism Victoria, which has spent decades squirming every time our southern neighbours, flush with indignation, began muttering about a boycott of the capital.

Because here’s the truth: If some still argue whether Victoria’s sewage-disposal practices pose a risk to our marine environment, no one disputes they have hurt relations with the U.S.

Can we quantify how much business has been lost?

“No, but I know it’s been holding us back,” says Tourism Victoria CEO Paul Nursey. Conferences have been lost. Ditto for leisure travellers. Non-tourism business, too.

Consul General James Hill became aware of how seriously Americans took the issue as soon as he landed in Seattle two years ago. “I was surprised how much resonance that had, not only in the civic or political sphere, but how much it had crept into the minds of the average citizen.” To Joe Seattle, Victoria was synonymous with a beautiful harbour, Butchart Gardens and sewage pollution.

Hence Friday’s grand gesture. Shovels are in the ground at McLoughlin Point, Helps told the crowd. A treatment plant will be running by Dec. 31, 2020. Put down your guns. (OK, I made up that last bit.)

Victoria’s practice of piping screened sewage a mile into the strait has angered Washington state residents for decades. There was an actual tourism boycott in 1993.

That failed to move Victoria politicians, who cited scientists who said the flushing action of the strait negated the need for sewage treatment.

So things sat until April Fools Day 2004, when Mr. Floatie — aka UVic student James Skwarok — and the People Opposed to Outfall Pollution bobbed to the surface.

Patterned after the South Park character Mr. Hankey the Christmas Poo, Mr. Floatie was cobbled together from aluminum backpack frame, plastic garden mesh, bedding foam and brown velour. Standing seven feet tall (Skwarok would peer out holes in the bow tie) he resembled the love child of Mother Nature and Mr. Peanut.

Mr. Floatie forced the sewage issue onto the political agenda. A fixture at protests and parades, his towering presence was hard to ignore at all-candidates meetings as he spewed out charmingly cheesy toilet humour in a falsetto voice.

He ran the TC 10K in 2005, the same year he tried to run for Victoria mayor. When election rules barred him from doing so under the Mr. Floatie name, the story made Britain’s Guardian newspaper. His antics drew headlines from Arizona to South Africa.

This was not good for tourism, or for the self-image of Victorians who like to think of themselves as slightly greener than David Suzuki.

He also angered those who thought he symbolized the triumph of emotion over reason.

“When the hijinks of Mr. Floatie and politically correct ignorance trump the reasoning of objective science and expert opinion, clearly Victoria has a leadership problem,” thundered a typical letter to the TC. In reality, scientists were split on the need for sewage treatment.

If Victorians often reacted with a curled lips, the Americans loved him.

“Mr. Floatie has focused nationwide media attention on Victoria’s use of an international waterway as a public toilet,” wrote the Seattle Post-Intelligencer’s Joel Connelly in 2005. “Somebody ought to give this guy an award.”

In 2006, after the pro-treatment side triumphed and the province ordered the Capital Regional District to get on with things, a victorious Mr. Floatie sank out of sight (an “endangered feces” a letter writer called him).

Although the — how best to describe it? — sedate pace of the capital region’s progress on the sewage file irked our neighbours, they muted their grumbling as long as we were headed in the right direction.

Then came 2014, when Esquimalt, feeling bullied, derailed the sewage-treatment train (and the provincial government refused to get it back on track).

“It’s time for the grown-ups to say: ‘Enough already’ ” thundered the Seattle Times that June. It demanded Gov. Jay Inslee “elevate the matter to the level of international scandal.”

Inslee did indeed go on the offensive, not that it had much of a result.

Our neighbours fumed. Congressman Derek Kilmer ripped into a delegation of Canadian parliamentarians visiting Washington, D.C., in March 2015.

“Maybe it’s time for a Mr. Floatie comeback tour,” declared Port Angeles’s Peninsula Daily News that month.

Connelly weighed in again, accusing the B.C. government of losing interest in the issue once the potential for embarrassing pre-Vancouver Olympics publicity was gone.

“The premier has not lifted a finger,” Connelly wrote. “Clark blew off the governor.” All Inslee got was a “vague, squishy, cliché-laden response” from B.C.’s environment minister.

I tried to defend us by explaining that we were not intentionally dragging our feet, just grossly incompetent.

“Good lord, this is Dysfunction-by-the-Sea we’re talking about. Greater Victoria’s 91 mayors and councillors can’t co-ordinate anything: police, fire, regional transportation, bike routes, food-scrap disposal, whose turn it is to call out the grief counsellors when it snows. … Never mind sewage treatment, we couldn’t co-ordinate a three-float parade without driving off in four directions and killing two of the clowns.” This failed to placate our friends.

The Seattle Times ripped us again in an August 2015 editorial: “If the planning bogs down — again — it is time for Washington to renew a tourism boycott and a return of Mr. Floatie.” That was the salvo that prompted Helps’ letter to the editor.

Friday, she brought along rocks from the McLoughlin Point ground-breaking. Mr. Floatie himself attracted plenty of attention, including that of passing Seattle firefighters, after cutting a retirement cake bearing a poo emoji.

Skwarok, now a 46-year-old elementary school teacher, isn’t sure what will happen to the costume. He would like it to go to the Royal B.C. Museum, but the guy who made it would like to take it to Burning Man.

In any case, it’s adieu to the poo.

“So long,” he said. “Farewell. And don’t forget to eat a bran muffin.”