Pragmatic activist tells the coal story

Kitsilano's Kevin Washbrook played key role in putting issue of coal and climate change on B.C.'s political agenda

The first of the unlikely protesters arrived in White Rock at midnight. Casually but neatly dressed, the disparate group, made up of academics, professionals, workers, a retired union official and a local physician, all united by their concern about B.C.’s contribution to climate change and local health impacts of coal export activities walked through the spring chill and darkness of a May 2012 night.

They and their supporters gathered over the next 18 hours where the tracks of the Burlington Northern and Santa Fe run beside the water, tracks that often convey loads of coal to Jim Pattison’s Westshore Terminals, filling the freighters that annually carry 27 million tonnes of Canadian and U.S. coal to off shore buyers. (The BN&SF line hauls all the U.S. coal that arrives at Westshore.)

Although they arrived under the cover of darkness, they were not at all secretive about their plans. They had recently sent a letter to the railroad’s principal owner, Warren Buffett, announcing that they meant to block the tracks and prevent another coal delivery if they could. Many of them arrived in the May 5 chill prepared to risk arrest.

Once the sun rose, they waited through a long and sunny spring day, as the BNSF held its trains immobile on the tracks south of the border, perhaps hoping the crew of first-time activists would leave. But the protesters met amicably with RCMP officers and received regular reports from protest colleagues who were staked out beside the stalled train all day.

After 5 p.m., a call informed the activists the train was coming. Thirteen members from the crowd of over 60 moved onto the tracks when the train arrived, and refused to budge, despite the court order the railroad had obtained.

They were peacefully arrested under the Railway Act and eventually fined $115 each.  
Wearing a pristine white T-shirt, a hoody and a leather jacket and moving quietly among the other protesters, often on a cellphone with lookouts down the track or meeting with the RCMP and media, was Vancouverite Kevin Washbrook, a lean, graceful middle-aged father of two who has emerged over the past few years as one of B.C.’s least known and arguably most influential activists.

If you have attended any of the public events held over the past few years about the plans to increase coal exports from Lower Mainland ports (plans that would see already existing exports from North Vancouver’s Neptune Terminals upped nearly 50 per cent to 18.5 million tonnes and proposed new facilities at the Fraser Surrey docks and on Texada Island that would ship an additional eight million tonnes within five years), you may have noticed a quiet man, usually in a rumpled black suit, who seems to be present at them all.

This modest figure, who looks a lot more like a slightly distracted high school algebra teacher than a public policy firebrand, is Washbrook, one of the founding members in 2006 of VTACC, Voters Taking Action on Climate Change and according to both his opponents and his allies, a remarkably effective environmental organizer.

Sitting on the sunny front porch of a comfortably cluttered wooden house in Kits this summer, fondly surveying the lush garden that fills his front yard or puttering around his kitchen brewing lethally strong coffee and exchanging good humored barbs with his teenaged children, or patiently addressing the questions of an inquisitive reporter, Washbrook seems like an unlikely person to have put the coal issue on B.C.’s political agenda, as claimed by a recent Globe and Mail profile.

Although Washbrook would be the first to emphasize that the groups he works with, like VTAAC, are collective efforts, and to credit his colleagues with major contributions, some observers believe that he has played a key role in building the campaigns.

Even Alan Fryer, the former journalist who now heads up the B.C. Coal Alliance, a pro-industry lobby group, speaks of Washbrook in terms of grudging respect. Although Fryer said his group was founded because of a feeling that the pro-coal position was missing from the public conversation, and accuses Washbrook and other activists of not answering key questions, such as what the alternative to coal export is and how to deal with job losses associated with a change in coal policy, he does say that “from a public relations point of view, Washbrook is an effective campaigner.”


VTACC’S RECORD

In VTACC’s inaugural event in December 2006, Washbrook organized together with some of his neighbors a “No Coal for Christmas” rally on Kits Beach to highlight the dangers inherent in proposed new coal fired power plants in the province. They followed up the next February with a Valentine’s Day card project urging citizens to flood the mailboxes of MPs and other political leaders with cards asking them to love the planet. More than 4,000 cards were sent.

Another postcard campaign targeted MPs with a challenge: in the war against climate change: were they appeasers or warriors? VTACC spoke out in favour of carbon tax initiatives, including former premier Gordon Campbell’s provincial version, a stance that drew angry criticism from non-Liberals, especially some NDP members who resented any support for the governing party.  

Washbrook remains unrepentant about his organization’s relationship to the Campbell Liberals, which included both pressure and support, he says. He sees VTACC’s work as one of the many elements in winning a government decision to shelve the plans for two new coal-fired power plants.

“We really face a situation around climate change like FDR’s in the face of the Depression,” he said, referring to former American president Franklin Delano Roosevelt. “That president told activists that they had to push him to make the necessary reforms. VTACC  helped give Premier Campbell the cover of public pressure for change when he became willing to cancel the power plants.”

Other VTACC projects include an anti-coal export billboard near Roberts Bank and a campaign to place lawn signs reading, “I am voting for real action on climate change” around the province. Since last fall, when news about the proposed expansion of coal exports broke, Washbrook and VTACC have attended public meetings and mounted a number of demonstrations on the Vancouver docks calling for more thorough public hearings into possible public health and climate change downsides to coal exports.

VTACC lobbying clearly played a role this summer as both the City of Vancouver and the board of Metro Vancouver passed resolutions opposing expansion of the port’s coal export volumes.

Other voices also weighed in. Dr. Paul Van Buynder, chief medical officer for the Fraser Health Authority told me this week that he had corresponded with the Board of Metro Vancouver in June on this question, advising them that to date he had not seen enough data to determine whether coal dust at the proposed Fraser Surrey Docks coal port would represent a public health issue. He called for more extensive health impact studies before any decision was made.

In addition, Washbrook and VTACC organized a series of actions at the downtown Vancouver docks when cruise ships were loading, in an attempt to get cruise passengers concerned about coal exports. I contacted Port Metro Vancouver for comment on Washbrook and the coal export issue and was told the Port would not comment. Neptune Terminals and the Surrey-Fraser docks also declined to comment.

Dennis Horgan, who runs the Westshore facility, the coal port targeted by Washbrook and his colleagues in the 2012 civil disobedience, also declined to comment on Washbrook. He did say that he thought public health concerns about coal dust were “overblown and hyperbolic,” saying that there had been “a lot of fuss” about coal exports from Vancouver recently, and adding that he was confident any coal dust exposure related to exporting the material through the port of Vancouver would have negligible impact.

Although the civil disobedience on the tracks leading to Horgan’s Westshore facility in 2012 was not a VTACC event, it did embody many of the signature approaches to organizing that Washbrook has honed in his VTACC efforts: the focus on small group activism, the programmatically moderate language and presentation of self by the demonstrators and the call for other small neighbourhood-based groups to respond not by joining an umbrella group or sending a donation, but rather by inventing and elaborating new and thought provoking tactics.

Renee Rodin, a Vancouver writer who is one of Washbrook’s neighbours and has been active in VTACC told me, “Kevin (along with Donald and other VTAAC members) has become a model
of political prowess and patience in confronting the Port Authority over this issue.”

The “Donald” Rodin mentions is Donald Gordon, another neighbour of Washbrook’s and with him one of the founders of VTACC. He told me that his neighbor’s greatest strengths were his “iconoclastic sense of humor,” and his willingness to work “tirelessly.” Gordon sounds both impressed and rueful as he tells me about often getting emails from Washbrook date stamped at 1 and 5 a.m.

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THE MAKING OF AN ACTIVIST

Washbrook’s activism got its start in one of Canada’s industrial wastelands that still, paradoxically, held some small pockets of unspoiled nature.  Washbrook was born in 1963 in Windsor, Ont., then a booming automobile industry town.

He remembers being a loner, a “dreamy, in my head kind of a kid,” who would sometimes wander around in big fields or woodlots near the edge of town or ride his ten-speed bike through the surviving remnants of pin oak forest and tall grass prairie to the river bank and look across the water at the hellish visual of the Ford River Rouge factory complex, dark and lit by chimney flames.

His father was a local homicide detective “who never talked about his work at home,” and he had two brothers and a sister. One brother went into the military, and the other into the auto plants, while his sister is retired after a career as an admitting nurse.

Washbrook says he first developed his love of nature on those lonely childhood walks and rides, and on visits to relatives who lived in a lush river valley near Mississauga. Later a volunteer stint with the Katimavik program took him to B.C. After Katimavik, Washbrook decided to stay and while he studied, first for a credential in outdoor recreational leadership at Capilano College and then on a BA and a masters in anthropology from UBC, he became increasingly involved in volunteer work like trail building for the Western Canada Wilderness Committee and attending events like the Stein Valley gatherings.

“The fight to protect the Stein really resonated with me,” Washbrook told me. “Why do we have to destroy everything?”

After completing his degrees, Washbrook worked for a year for the Stó:lo nation around Chilliwack doing a study of traditional resource use practices. It was during that period that he met and married his wife, a physician here in B.C. who is very supportive of Washbrook’s activism but keeps a lower public profile.  

After his year of work with Stó:lo, Washbrook returned to SFU to study resource environmental management with Mark Jaccard. Jaccard, who joined Washbrook in the May 2012 civil disobedience, is a world-renowned expert on climate change. He remembers the young Washbrook with obvious affection.

“He was an amazing student,” he told the Courier. “His thesis as a master could easily have been a PhD — theoretical basis, survey design, statistical analysis, etc. An incredibly rigorous and careful analysis. Kevin never ceases to amaze me. I find him truly inspirational. In part because he is very smart and very strategic, but also because he is humble and has a great sense of humor. He is striving for the right thing, and yet he knows how to laugh — often at his own expense.”

Others who know Washbrook, including VTAAC members Kathy Harrison, who teaches political science at UBC and Dr. Quincy Young, a psychologist with the heart transplant program at St. Paul’s Hospital, agree with Jaccard, praising Washbrook’s humour and willingness to work hard as important elements in the successes that their group has accomplished. They also joined Jaccard in praising Washbrook’s intellectual rigour, inventiveness and willingness to deeply research new issues. Harrison called her colleague an “unsung hero” and Young said she credited Washbrook for the continued existence of VTAAC.

Young highlighted Washbrook’s creativity, a quality she sees not only in his political inventiveness but also in the playful good humour he brings to the neighbourhood parties they organize together.

“I have a clear memory of working with Kevin to launch a lighter than air inflated pig to mark the site of one of the parties, and of all the laughter that involved,” she said.

Washbrook hopes that VTAAC and other small groups will advance the public conversation about fossil fuels and climate change, not only on coal but also on B.C.’s liquid natural gas export plans, on which he feels there has been “no real debate yet,” calling the NDP “as bad as the Liberals” on LNG policy.

“I wouldn’t keep doing this work if I didn’t think we could make a change,” he told me sitting on his front porch one sunny summer Kitsilano afternoon. Invoking his children and a need to protect their future, Washbrook calls the current status quo “madness, getting closer all the time to a collapse of civilization. “
“All I know for sure,” he said, “is that we need to fundamentally change how we live.”

Tom Sandborn welcomes feedback and story tips at tos65@telus.net

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