“With the right support and mentorship, activism is a renewable resource!” Will Hamilton-Cole
The Comox Valley is known for many things but one aspect that attracted me to move here 18 years ago was its long record of activism. You merely have to take even a cursory look at all the different events, demonstrations, coalitions and campaigns and you can’t help being impressed by people’s commitment.
There was the labour agitation of the coalminers in Cumberland which echoes down to this day in the Miners Memorial Day and the May Day Bean Dinner. With the military bases here and in Nanoose Bay, nuclear disarmament was a big issue for many in the 1980’s. After the Gordon Campbell Liberals were elected in 2001 and began a blitzkrieg on social and economic programs, a Community Justice Action Coalition was formed to organize community resistance to these changes. Around 2012, when Idle No More began protesting against the racist policies of the federal and provincial governments, a number of large demos were held in the Valley in support of indigenous communities.
Environmentalism has always played a big part in the political sphere, from the civil disobedience of Clayoquot to the climate change protests of today. There are a number of organizations, issues and campaigns I have not mentioned but you get the picture. Activism was, and is, an important part of life here.
Why is that? I asked that question to a number of local activists and these are some of the answers I got back. Many people pointed to the influx of ‘back to the land’ hippies and draft dodgers in the late 60’s who were seeking land and freedom in rural communities like Merville and Denman Island. These men and women were already dissatisfied with the status quo and were used to challenging authority. Their values influenced their new neighbours and those of the next generation.
Nancy Gothard points out, “Our relatively small size (population and geographic) allows for people to actually know the various communities in which activism is practiced, allowing for relationships to form. Sometimes it may feel like we see similar people at similar activism activities and feel discouraged by this but in practicing together we’re investing in trust and that is the most important ingredient of collective changes.”
People also organized infrastructures to carry out the necessary work. The World Community Development Education Society not only gave direct financial support to Central American coffee growers but organized a documentary film festival focused on social justice issues. The Comox Valley Transition Society gave shelter to women and children fleeing male violence and, as an explicitly feminist body, supported diverse campaigns like ‘Walking With Our Sisters’ and the December 6th memorial. In addition to organizations, Anne Davis states, “There were inspirational figures such as Ruth Masters and Melda Buchanan who mentored and inspired a younger generation.”
Sam Gindin , a union organizer who knew a thing or two about activism writes, “Building that cadre of activists and activists-to-be is achieved by expanding educational opportunities, by establishing the widest range of forums and conferences, and above all by maintaining the unions’ constant involvement in campaigns and struggles. Activism creates activists.”
It is of value to look at how some people came to be activists. There is a diverse range of reasons and often there is not a single reason but a number of motivating factors. Will Cole-Hamilton says, “I have been involved in political activism (former NDP riding president and volunteer) since my 20s.” Tom Pater: “As a resident of the remote west coast of the island starting in the ’80s, I got caught up in community and environmental issues there, eventually becoming politically active as an elected member for several terms on the regional district board based in Courtenay.” Anne Davis had an activist mother and Cindy Gaboury “learned to be ‘active’ by mostly listening to passionate conversations at the family dinner table.” Nancy Gothard whose family was not political, said ”Through my ecological training (1st degree) and then planning (2nd degree) I learned the important role we all play in shaping our communities and it just made sense to be involved.”
A number stated it was through their union and/or jobs that they became activists. Anne Davis says, “Dealing with some unfairness in the workplace I got involved in organizing my workplace into a union and that struggle, though ultimately unsuccessful, opened doors to the labour movement and all the possibilities there.” Doug Hillian: “My first engagement flowed naturally from my professional work in the justice and social welfare systems where I engaged with others to develop needed social services like the Transition Society and youth programs.”
As to the future of activism in the Valley, most were optimistic or maybe realistic is a better way of looking at it. Doug Hillian: “While we have a demographic shift underway as aging baby boomers slow down we can see the engagement of a new generation of youth activists in response to the climate crisis. Our presence on the unceded traditional territory of the K’omoks First Nation and that Nation’s ongoing work towards treaty settlements also assures ongoing activism. I believe that as long as there are issues that warrant people getting organized to work for change and strive for a better world, the Valley’s legacy of activism will continue to thrive.”
The last word goes to Nancy Gothard: “As long as I am here and there are people to work with, I know I’ll be contributing to the Comox Valley activism legacy. We have to make it more inviting though, find ways to connect to messages that more people care about, and show everyone how much fun we’re having in the process because quite frankly, I am.”