John Buchanan is no more than 50 feet out into the Mamquam Blind Channel when he stops his boat, grabs a rod and fishes trash out of the water. It’s a chip bag, and he starts a collection he’ll bring back ashore.
The rain has already started to trickle down and it’s just the beginning of several hours on the water, collecting garbage, explaining the threats to the local environment to me and wondering aloud about the commitment of Squamish people.
“We have this fantastic, beautiful environment and we just aren’t here to protect it,” he tells me, gesturing to the ocean waters and mountains that surround us. “I don’t think people in Squamish care about the environment.”
A resident of Squamish since 1966, Buchanan, now 51, has been labelled many times during recent years: Environmentalist. Conservationist. Environmental watchdog.
He rejects the labels as he says everyone is – or should be – an environmentalist. If you’re not an environmentalist, he asks, what are you?
“I’m just a common sense Canadian,” he explains. “That’s what we should all strive to be.”
Buchanan, a married father of one and a railway carman by trade, has been a member of various local environmental groups but says he is most effective when he’s not on a board. “Once I’m a director, it limits what I can do..... You just can’t say, ‘This is a really bad idea. I am going to chain myself to it.’”
He explains that’s also the reason he has never run for Squamish council. He feels he’s more effective on the outside. “I stay on the fringe,” he explains, grinning.
Buchanan stops the boat again and plucks another piece of trash from the water. This time, it’s a plastic bag, which he calls the “scourge” of modern society.
He points to a raft piled high with debris. It’s a shelter, he explains; a homeless man lives there. It’s beside an abandoned wooden fishing boat where another homeless person has made a residence. Buchanan is quietly respectful as his boat passes.
But he is upset at the collection of derelict, rusting boats in the harbour. “No one is doing anything about it, because they can’t.”
Buchanan explains there’s nothing illegal about acquiring a collection of old rusty boats and just parking them in the harbour. But he’s still trying to solve the situation. He has a meeting lined up with a visiting law professor.
Buchanan loves to learn. A highlight of his recent years was when he was invited to tag along to a scientific conference about oil spills. The 2006 Westwood Anette oil spill of 29,000 litres of fuel at Squamish originally ignited his environmental activism. He was passionate and angry about the spill, partly because it was an emotional year; at the time, his mother was dying of cancer.
It begins to rain fervently, but Buchanan does not head for shore. Instead, he drives his boat to the old Woodfibre mill where the proposed liquefied natural gas (LNG) plant will be operational. He’s not an LNG supporter, but he questions why the plant is being built in Squamish when there are more suitable locations elsewhere for a single, larger facility. Buchanan thinks it’s because Squamish is close to Vancouver and the premier can fly in for photo ops. But when I question his logic on this point, he gladly debates the point with me.
His real concern, however, is the proposed construction of the 7th Avenue Connector road to allow for an easier truck route to transport pipes and lumber from Squamish Terminals to Vancouver.
The environmental impact, he says, would be “even bigger than the LNG.”
“The biggest disaster happening here is this bloody road,” he explains. “They want to fill in the estuary.”
He is confounded by the plan, which he says simply makes no sense. “If something makes sense, I am not so passionate. I can be watered down.”
But the plan to build a road directly through the estuary baffles him. Filling in parts of the estuary for the truck connector will dredge up poisonous mercury from a former chemical plant, mercury that will be consumed by fish, re-entering the ecosystem. The estuary, he explains, is like a “fast-food restaurant for wildlife” – it’s where many come to feed, including herring, salmon, ducks, seagulls, cormorants and other species. “It’s an important environment.”
He is coming up with alternative solutions he hopes council will adopt, like a bridge over the estuary.
After several hours in the rain, Buchanan is headed back to the boat ramp, but he stops the boat again and plucks another chip bag and a cooler lid floating on the water. He now has a collection of garbage, a morning’s work completed as he explained local environmental problems to me during the boat ride, then later over coffee.
He pulls the boat ashore, lifts me off gallantly, and smiles as he picks up his garbage bag, satisfied he has made a difference cleaning up Squamish.
Coffee with Christine is a new regular column about Squamish people written by Squamish Chief Editor Christine Endicott.
John Buchanan often shoots videos of wildlife in the region. Here's his latest, of the eagles arriving in Squamish: