Canada - The good, the bad & the ugly

Yvette’s experiences in Canada June 2011

My friend Gavin says: "My mum went to Canada in the 50s and said it was like a wet provincial Scottish town - shut with no alcohol or fun. I guess it's changed since then." We’ll see…


Sitting in the airport lounge waiting, as the plane is delayed due to storms on the east side of Canada! Good start! Thankfully we are heading west to Vancouver. Hey ho, looking forward to a month in a new place with no chores, no stress! I have bought a Kindle – and have downloaded the complete works of Trollope, Eliot and an Agatha Christie for 70p each!!

Long flight – Michael watches 3 films and I read ‘1000 Autumns of Jacob de Zoot’ by David Mitchell. Fascinating tale of early Dutch colonisation of Japan… keeps me hooked. Long queues for immigration when we land but soon we find our way to a mini airport where our pilot meets us and ferries us onto a float plane!


This takes off & lands on water – as I hate heights it is pretty scary but also beautiful flying over the sea to SALT SPRING ISLAND.

Jack & Glenda Woodward’s Harbour House Hotel has great views over …the harbour! The food is amazing – all grown on their organic farm and is the best we’ll taste in 4 weeks. Portions are enormous everywhere and we both rapidly learn to share dishes. We walk down to Ganges Harbour and peruse the many art galleries, take a walk in the local park which boasts tall, tall pines, have a fine time with our lovely hosts who are rather consumed with the ice hockey Stanley cup final – which unfortunately Vancouver lose to Boston.

So far, it isn’t a bit like Scotland! The weather generally has been, they say, 'the worst spring we've ever had' – which means the snow melted in May rather than April. We enjoy some sunny days and a time to unwind; ‘so all good’, as Freddy says.

Next stop via ferry is VICTORIA on Vancouver Island where Jack Woodward’s law firm is based

– and after a tour of the office and a long lunch with most of its members, where Michael effectively describes his career and updates them on the UK scene (legal aid cuts) – we grab some time to ourselves.

We have a challenging whale watching trip the next day - fortunately not in one of the small dinghies which get tossed around like flotsam, but in a motor boat which holds 20 and despite the day being warm & sunny, hits rough seas as soon as we leave the harbour. Michael is narked that we are ordered to leave the open deck and shelter from the waves inside – but soon goes up again to scan the horizon for signs of orcas. See them? Staying below I have better luck…!

Soon we are heading for KELOWNA - a sleepy suburban place and the weather here is grey & cold - normally 30C in June! The lake outside our hotel window resembles a bleak loch…Garry our host, is a local lawyer and generously lends us his newly acquired 1967 Mustang!

This is a trait we find often in Canada – generosity.

Michael speaks eloquently to around 60 local lawyers about his reasons for coming to Canada and the reopened Stephen Lawrence case. And we sell 30 copies of the Memoirs!

We are happy to learn that Kelowna is situated in the Napa Valley of BC (the Okanagan Valley) with excellent vineyards and have an interesting time at a charity wine tasting dinner enjoying masses of excellent wines from small vineyards that unfortunately don’t export.

It is an enormous country as we see on the overnight train journey from a cold and windy VANCOUVER through pines, over rushing rivers, via momentous Rocky Mountains to reach JASPER.

It’s really spectacular.

Michael spots a bear and we see a black wolf along the way. Honestly!

We stay in a cabin hotel room overlooking a beautiful lake with magnificent snow capped Rockies behind it; patches of blue sky. We brave the outdoor swimming pool which turns out to be heated to 90 degrees F!

Next stop after six further hours on the train is…

EDMONTON where they have had terrible floods but now it’s summer. We stroll, shop, see Warhol at the amazing new art gallery (not like London, 16 deep, peering over shoulders, there’s no one there – so it’s perfect) and experience three nights of fantastic jazz – Trombone Shorty, (the best gig we’ve been to for years – a New Orleans band which is genius), Wynton Marsalis and Tommy Banks – a great veteran Edmonton pianist.


Oh, and we ran into some of these…

Of course, our journey wouldn’t be complete without a day in court! The First Nation Cree band is mounting a difficult legal challenge to the desecration of their tribal lands. Members of the Woodward firm are taking on the Canadian Government to stop the extinction of native caribou due to the exploitation of tar sands. It appears a complex case but in the end comes down to a question of human rights. The result is not yet known… (update: the team won a partial victory when the court ordered the Government to reconsider their inaction and report back…)

Then the main reason for our trip – to see for ourselves Tar Sands and FORT McMURRAY. We visit the Suncor Discovery Centre and are shown films of the exploration of oil from bitumen which began as early as 1947, but really got going in the mid 70’s when oil prices soared – and it became economically viable to exploit Canada’s huge dirty oil reserves (second only to Saudi Arabia). They are doing a propaganda job on behalf of the oil companies. But the reality is worse than we imagined. The cost to the environment has been, and continues to be, catastrophic. It stinks. It’s desolate…the view from our hotel window says it all…

The pollution is horrific.

This is where the workers live, in one room portacabins ….they may earn $1000 a day – but it’s like a concentration camp.

It’s a relief to leave behind this raped land and head off in a truck on the last leg of our trip to LAC LA BICHE. It sounds so poetic, and the countryside is green and immense – but there is a real sadness here. As we learn from Len & Elaine, over a superb breakfast, many of the locals are either unemployed or have been forced to work in the oil industry. It’s a stark and painful choice. To betray their heritage, as they see it, or to make a living in a way that is totally alien to their culture.

We meet the newly elected Cree Nation Chief Henry (Hank) Gladue and his wife, Jackie along with cowboy Jack! at their annual Pow Wow. It’s not a talking shop at all but a dancing extravaganza over three days – and we are honoured to be their guests of honour.

Colin Baines from the Co-operative Bank (which is funding the legal actions) and a team of young environmentalist from universities all over the UK are there too – supporting the struggle to stop tar sands encroaching on any more of the Cree lands. Michael & members of his Chambers are doing the same – and we’d ask all our dear friends to support them too…for all our sakes.

Gavin, your Mum’s experience was unlike ours - Canada isn’t like 1950’s Scotland – it’s something else altogether…and Michael & I thank our new found friends for their great hospitality.

My Cree portraits are on this website as part of my Facing Threat London 2013 art exhibition