Islands in the Salish Sea: A Community Atlas
November 4, 2013
Review By Coll Thrush
In 1999 a small group of Salt Spring Island activists decided to mark the coming millennium by inventorying and mapping the unique resources of their island home. Inspired by bioregional writing and mapping projects in British Columbia, England, and elsewhere, and by new technologies such as geographical information systems (GIS), the activists began working not just with their fellow Salt Spring residents but also with activists, writers, and artists who lived on other islands in what is increasingly being referred to as the “Salish Sea.” Over the next few years, more than 3,000 people participated in an effort that resulted in this “community atlas” of seventeen islands in the Strait of Georgia, a work of remarkable creativity and insight that is compelling and interesting on at least two levels: first, for what it tells us about the islands and, second, for what it tells us about the people who live on them.
The Islands in the Salish Sea project coordinators chose a total of seventeen Strait of Georgia islands for their study. They range from Saturna and the Penders in the southeast to Cortes and Quadra in the northwest, and they include both “official” Gulf Islands like Salt Spring and outliers like Howe Sound’s Bowen and Gambier. The editors chose to leave out smaller and mostly uninhabited islands as well as the intensely urbanized islands in the mouth of the Fraser – the latter an omission that raises interesting questions about the kinds of places that are deemed worthy of such investigations. While each island-based chapter includes a brief statistical profile – population in 1991 and 2001, the island’s size, hectares of farmland, protected areas, and green space – there is little else that is standardized here. In fact, the island chapters are nothing if not idiosyncratic, each being made up of themes and sidebars chosen by project participants. On Bowen Island we learn about both local frogs and newts and the crisis facing the world’s amphibians; on Mayne, we are told of a rich pre-internment Nikkei heritage, represented in greenhouses and gardens; on Denman, the emphasis is on an abundance of orchard fruits, many of which are heirloom varieties. (Sometimes, the information is just plain odd: what are we to make, for example, of the fact that the residents of Gambier Island have arms that are on average two inches longer than are those of Canadians as a whole? Not much, I would think.) The maps themselves are as varied as the islands and their communities: Hornby’s was obviously done on a computer, Kuper’s is carved in cedar, and Salt Spring’s is a purple-bordered cloak. Be sure not to miss the remarkable painted toilet at the very end of the atlas; a less subtle or more fitting metaphor for the region’s current predicaments would be difficult to find. (It’s also surprisingly pretty.)
For all the wonderful local colour and specificities of small places, there are also patterns here. Most notable among them perhaps is the profound anxiety, shared by many islanders, over a growing population and the effects of that growth on ways of life and senses of place. This is reflected, for example, in Hornby’s map. As on other islands, residents worried that publishing the location of things such as groves of old-growth forest or pristine beaches would only put such local treasures at risk; the result is that the map of Hornby is almost empty. Indeed, there is no small amount of I-Got-Here-First syndrome in this collection, throwing contributions such as “Be Own Island,” an anagram for Bowen, into somewhat harsher light. But given the sharp and sudden increase in island populations – and the shortages of water, arable soils, and undeveloped land – these people do have a point. Aboriginal histories and places are also highlighted throughout the atlas. While not every map includes references to indigenous place-names, those that do illustrate the density of First Nations presence in these islands, both historically and in terms of present-day land claims. (The extent of Aboriginal participation in the project is not entirely clear.) These and other common threads are complemented in the atlas’ last section by a series of regional maps that focus on issues such as energy and transportation systems as well as sites protected by the Islands Trust Fund.
And so at one level – that of being a rich description of a diverse and yet somewhat unified set of places – this atlas works wonderfully. But there is a second level at which this atlas also works – that of being a narrative. In this respect, the atlas serves as an incredibly rich source for those of us interested in the cultural, historical, and political nature of place-making in the modern world. In the essays that make up the first section of the atlas, the editors and others are quite explicit about how they see themselves fitting into the broader context of maps as representations of power. Editor Sheila Harrington argues, for example, that the maps in this atlas are quite different from those used to incorporate the Gulf Islands into the British Empire and Canadian nation, as well as from those used by present-day federal and provincial entities to manage resources and people:
“Maps like these express the interior of a place, rather than the exterior boundaries of territoriality, surveillance, and control. They offer an outward portrait of a local intimacy, providing an opportunity to share, to empathize, to know and to care. They are a collective portrait of a community – a face – expressed beautifully and lovingly, with all the lines and marks of experience and age.” (19)
It is this narrative of “interiority,” of creating maps as a way to reorient notions of power and place, that makes Islands in the Salish Sea interesting on more than one level. Whether such an atlas truly departs from earlier geographical traditions of “territoriality, surveillance, and control” is not entirely clear; that participants in this project think it does is. So, while this will be a particularly useful book for teaching the whats and wherefores of a particular region, as well as the how-tos of community mapmaking and environmental advocacy, it will also be a particularly useful source for insights into the culture of a particular BC region, into the rhetoric of place, and into popular understandings of social and environmental conflicts over the lands and waters of the “Salish Sea” – a geographical neologism that, in itself, merits discussion and debate.
It would be easy for more cynical readers to dismiss Islands in the Salish Sea as a wishful-thinking project of stereotypical Gulf Island progressives. Certainly, there is an aura of Birkenstocks and organic hobby farms, of the ndp and purple tie-dye about this book; however, the temptation to dismiss this project and its collaborators as something less than significant or well-thought-out should be avoided. There is much here to digest, dissect, and debate as well as to celebrate, support, and even emulate. For those of us interested in place – and I would hazard a guess that every person reading this review fits that particular bill – Islands in the Salish Sea is a model for thinking critically about our part of the world, for doing good research, and for actively building community and engaging in advocacy of place. Just imagine: what if every place in British Columbia, from Oak Bay to the Downtown Eastside, from Surrey to Fort Nelson, from Haida Gwaii to Whistler, was home to something like this? What if community groups, schools, and universities throughout the province (and beyond) engaged in this kind of work? Then where (pun intended) would we be?