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Get to know: West Kootenay EcoSociety

West Kootenay EcoSociety is a non-profit community-driven organization that brings together local residents to protect the natural environment while building just, equitable, healthy, and livable communities. Earlier this year, Jessie Golem spoke with Josh Drodza to talk about the Green Resilience Project community conversations they have been conducting in the West Kootenay region.

Jessie Golem (JG): Can you tell me a bit more about West Kootenay EcoSociety and the work that you’re doing?

Josh Drodza (JD): EcoSociety was founded 27 years ago out of opposition to a proposed ski resort in the Jumbo Valley. A large ski and tourist resort was proposed to be developed in the heart of the Central Purcell mountains, interfering with the grizzly bear habitat and one of North America’s largest wildlife corridors. The resort is also in the middle of Qat’muk, the name of the lands that belong to the Ktunaxa First Nations territory. It was only in 2020 that the BC government declared Qat’muk, including the Jumbo Valley, as an Indigenous Protected Conservation Land under the protection of the Ktunaxa First Nations, who view the land as sacred and the home of the Grizzly Bear Spirit. EcoSociety has [since] grown into more projects. We still do a lot of conservation work—for instance, we have campaigns to preserve old growth forests and a bigger project to help local communities in the Kootenay region transition to 100 percent renewables by 2050. So far eleven out of sixteen communities have signed on. 

The ways we communicate with community members have also changed over the years and right now we’re practicing a tactic called deep listening, or deep canvassing. It’s different from traditional political canvassing because it gives people more of an opportunity to say what they’re thinking, as opposed to coming to them with something to “sell.” Oftentimes these conversations end up being longer, but the rate at which we get signatures is one in three people—which is huge in the world of organizing. We want to make alliances and partnerships with the myriad communities and industries that work here, and with deep listening we gain those allies because we’re not telling them that their opinions are wrong but rather listening, engaging respectfully and finding a common ground.

JG: I love that. It’s building relationships so everybody feels involved and feels like they have a stake in the issue, which is why they would want to invest.

JD: Exactly. It removes so many barriers. Yes, the conversation does take a bit longer. But once you have it, you are able to bring those people on board a lot easier. In the United States, where this originated, deep canvassing happens more typically in urban centers. So the organizations that practice this have been interested in how we’ve been doing it in a rural area in Canada. It’s the first of its kind, but we’re approaching a point where we can help other organizations  implement their own deep canvassing programs.  

JG: You’re blazing a new trail here and implementing a new way of  doing policy while engaging with people. That’s amazing. 

JD: We also operate an online publication called Living Here, which tell stories from rural and small communities, but they’re all tied to climate change in some way. We just printed out the first 1,100 copies of Living Here in the community of Trail, and we’ll be sending those editions to everyone we’ve spoken to in the last year. Living Here is tied into everything that we do. The stories are very quality content. I would say they’re on par with any other publication that is currently writing about climate change.  They’re telling community stories from community perspectives. Just as an example, one story we did this summer was about a woman in Trail who took her two young kids to Ontario because the wildfires [caused them to be unable to] breathe.

We also run a Farms to Friends program. We’ve identified low-income families in the community and we deliver approx. 80 bags of fresh produce to 80 families every week, partnering with local farms. We also put recipe cards in the bags every week. During the winter, we’ll do a holiday organic chicken, locally roasted granola, local preserves and canned goods, as well as kids books from a local author.

JG: Everything is local. 

JD: If it’s not local, we don’t want to include it. 

JG: Also the things that you’re distributing are fresh and healthy. A part of me is thinking how wonderful it is that everybody’s donating, but another part of me thinks that of course they’re donating, they are literally helping their neighbors. 

JD: Exactly. We also do a lot of organizing around election times, to see which candidates support which causes and to encourage voter turnout. We also just launched our guaranteed livable income campaign this year. We are focusing on the environmental angle when we’re talking about GLI, which is different from the approach some other basic income organizations in Canada are [taking].

JG: Of course. Oftentimes the focus is on automation, social justice or the economic benefits of a basic income. 

JD: Exactly. Our traditional supporters are environmentalists, so we want to approach it from that angle to show folks how intersectional climate change and social issues are. If people can’t afford to meet their basic needs, they can’t afford to take action on climate change.

JG: Exactly. They’re not going to think about recycling better or buying more efficient light bulbs if they’re concerned about paying rent. That’s actually what really drew me personally to the Green Resilience Project,  the intersection between basic income and climate change. This is the first time I had seen that.

JD: So far the response to the campaign has been really positive. I feel like we’ve been successful in showing the connection between GLI and the environment. With the Green Resilience Project, we’re doing individual interviews. We’ve been interviewing the families in the Farms to Friends Program, and we’re learning a lot about them through this. We just ask them to tell us a bit about themselves, what their typical day looks like, and what they value in life. And then we talk about meeting their basic needs, such as the Farms to Friends Program, and what they like, or don’t like, or how it’s changed their household. We’ll then shift to the 100% Renewable Energy Project, and we come from the GLI focus, trying to understand their stance on renewable energy, the environment and climate change. Like I mentioned earlier, low-income folks don’t have the means to take action on climate change in the same way wealthier individuals or families do. We also want to know where they’re working and how they are traveling there. Are they using public transit? Are they driving? Public transit is very difficult in this area, so we’re trying to figure out solutions as part of the 100% Renewable Energy Plan.

The interviews are going pretty well. Our goal is to do 100 families and so far we have about 80 families on the program. So we’re interviewing all those families and also identifying other families to interview. We’ll ask them about their support and understanding of different environmental concerns, but also if they can refer other families to us that would benefit from this conversation. We also want to learn how to get these families off of the program, so we’re asking them what they need. Is it more education to further their careers? New work opportunities? Better access to transportation or affordable child care? If we can learn further, we can advocate for better solutions to help these families. We want to graduate families out of the program because they no longer need the program and we’ve recently had our first few families leave because of this. It was a big moment to celebrate. We’ve been doing the interviews both in person, and over the phone. 

JG: And you’re hoping for 100 interviews in total? 

JD: Yeah. We also have a campaign about fossil fuels. $18 billion is spent annually on fossil fuel subsidies when BC is dealing with flooding and wildfires. In one community a fire truck couldn’t even get out of the station in time, and the  station burnt down around it. While this is happening, billions of dollars are given to the Coastal GasLink Pipeline to go through the Wet’suwet’en Territory. So that’s one of our biggest concerns. 

JG: It’s honestly terrifying hearing about what’s happening in British Columbia, whether it’s Land Defenders protecting Wet’suwet’en Territory or Fairy Creek, or hearing about the climate disasters wreaking havoc upon the province.

JD: And we’re still doing quite a bit of organizing around local conservation efforts. An example is Grohman Narrows, which is a provincial park just outside of Nelson. There’s been a gravel mine there that’s contaminating local water sources and affecting the turtle population. We’ve spoken to our political representatives, and because of that they are recommending a public open-house consultation on the project. There’s also another ski resort proposal that has the potential to become the next “Jumbo.” The area, which is located near the village of Kaslo and New Denver, is a habitat for grizzly bears, mountain goats and other at-risk or endangered species. 

JG: Your organization is busy, that’s for sure. What have you learned from the interviews you’ve done so far?

JD: It’s been interesting, and definitely different from my expectations. We expected more opposition or a lack of understanding when it came to talking about specific environmental issues, but for the most part people have been fairly agreeable and on board with the approach were taking to these issues. They’re just as engaged and concerned as anyone else, but may not necessarily have the means to make a huge difference because meeting their basic needs is the top priority. 

Maybe what we’re doing is a bit different from other programs, but our goal is to always tie it back to the communities we work in, build meaningful relationships and approach everything with an environmental lens while building healthy, equitable and livable communities for all. 

JG: The work that you’re doing is really unique and inspiring. Thanks a lot for our conversation, I learned a lot today. 

More information about West Kootenay EcoSociety can be found here.