Vancouver model for money laundering unprecedented in Canada, B.C. inquiry hears

Criminology professor says model depended on professionals to clean cash through casinos and real estate

The Vancouver model for money laundering involves dirty cash from China and the drug trade moving through casinos and real estate transactions, according to a criminology professor testifying at the Cullen Commission. (Darryl Dyck/The Canadian Press)

The so-called Vancouver model is an outlier in the history of Canadian crime, a criminologist told B.C.’s public inquiry on money laundering Tuesday.

Stephen Schneider told the Cullen Commission of Inquiry into Money Laundering that this system for laundering illegal funds from China and revenue from drug trafficking is exceptional.

“I’ve never seen such a big operation … that is so geographically confined,” said Schneider, a criminology professor at St. Mary’s University in Halifax.

“We’ve never seen anything like this in Canada, and you probably won’t see anything like this any time soon.”

As Schneider explained it, the Vancouver model involves large amounts of money taken out of China through informal value transfer systems to avoid China’s limits on money leaving the country. Once in Canada, those funds are mixed with cash from the drug trade, and then the cash is cleaned through B.C. casinos and private mortgages.

“The Vancouver model was quite unique,” Schneider said. “So many different techniques were being amalgamated.”

The Cullen Commission, led by B.C. Supreme Court Justice Austin Cullen, was announced last year in response to a series of reports that attempted to capture the alarming extent of B.C.’s problem, including estimates that more than $7 billion was laundered in the province in 2018.

The role of the commission is to determine where and how money laundering is taking place, why it’s been allowed to happen and whether it can be prevented. The commission doesn’t have the power to convict or find liability but is expected to issue recommendations in a final report.

During his second day of testimony on Tuesday, Schneider spoke at length about the Vancouver model, saying it depended on the facilitation of professional money launderers.

Those professional groups allegedly included Silver International Ltd., the Richmond company at the centre of a high-profile money laundering probe that collapsed in 2018. The company and two directors were criminally charged, but the charges were later stayed in court.

“You wouldn’t have the Vancouver model without Silver International and their directors,” Schneider said.

Pushback from casino company

During his testimony, Schneider described casinos as central to the Vancouver model of money laundering, outlining how, in many cases, illicit cash is turned into casino chips and then exchanged for a cheque.

But his testimony on the prevalence of money laundering in B.C. casinos came under fire during cross-examination by Mark Skwarok, a lawyer for the Great Canadian Gaming Corporation, which operates many major casinos including the River Rock in Richmond.

Criminologist Stephen Schneider says casinos have played a central role in the Vancouver model of money laundering. (Jessica Hill/The Associated Press)


Skwarok pointed out that Schneider has relied heavily on the news media for his research into money laundering in B.C.

As Schneider has acknowledged, there is a lack of academic research into the issue in this province, and so his review of the literature has included a great deal of investigative reporting from outlets including Postmedia, the Globe and Mail and CBC News.

Skwarok suggested that news reporting is prone to certain “frailties,” including the fact that journalists aren’t typically scholars and news articles aren’t peer-reviewed.

“I would suggest that newspaper articles aren’t evidence of anything except the reporter’s opinion. Would you agree with that?” he asked.

Schneider laughed in reply and said he would not agree. He said that while it’s true news reports can sometimes be wrong, so can academic papers.

“I don’t think we need to engage in bashing the news media,” Schneider told Skwarok at one point.

Skwarok also suggested that Great Canadian has specific policies meant to prevent some of the activities that have been reported in its casinos.

Schneider said he has no firsthand knowledge of the casino company’s enforcement of its policies, but “just because you have a policy doesn’t mean that’s going to eradicate a particular money laundering activity.”

Schneider continues under cross-examination on Wednesday. He is the first in a series of expert witnesses who will speak to the commission over the next three weeks to give an overview of the subject of money laundering and various regulatory models.



Canada’s vulnerable to money laundering: expert

How a true circular economy could be the answer to our plastic problem

Illustration: Sebastien Thibault

The term ‘circular economy’ has become a popular buzzword in government reports, at industry conferences and even on the websites of popular consumer brands. In its ideal form, a circular economy is far more than a buzzword, it’s a vision for an economic system that operates within nature’s limits, creates more resilient communities and builds social capital. It’s the opposite of where we are right now.

Closing the loop

The concept of ‘closed loop’ or circular economies has been around since the 1970s, but it has become more popularized in recent years because of the growing recognition that our current linear “take-make-waste-repeat” economy isn’t sustainable and that continuing to turn our planet’s precious, and dwindling, natural resources into garbage doesn’t make environmental or economic sense.

Circular or closed loop systems…

      • are regenerative
      • use renewable sources of energy
      • prioritize zero waste through reuse-refill-return models, sharing, leasing, repairing, refurbishing and remanufacturing materials and products as long as possible
      • build social and natural capital in harmony with economic capital
      • design pollution out of the equation 
      • respect nature’s limits

How to start rounding our linear system

To transform to a circular economy, what do we need to do? We need to start by taking a bird’s eye view of our current system, dominant business models, and social structures to see where exactly we’ve gone wrong. The throwaway culture has been praised since the 1950s for its convenience. But in reality, this so-called convenience is based on a heavy extractive and wasteful model that has fuelled multiple environmental crises and social injustices we are facing today.

Plastic packaging on store shelves at a retailer in Virginia.

We need to rethink and redesign those business models, help shift people’s mindsets about our relationship with nature and quality of life, and create the conditions for positive and widespread social change that benefits the masses, including other beings on this planet, not the few.

It’s not only a system reboot, it’s a system reprogram. It’s no small task but it’s doable if we build on the momentum of existing corners of society that are already modelling a circular vision, and start to phase out key linear model crutches, such as multiple subsidies to the fossil fuel and petrochemical sectors.

Closed-loop models exist all around us. They are some of the oldest, tried tested and true ways of consuming in a more sustainable and socially responsible way. It’s not a new concept, it’s just one we’ve had to name as we’ve lost sight of co-existing with the natural world. Some examples? Organic farms that use regenerative agriculture techniques, deliver produce directly to people, without packaging, without travelling hundreds of kilometres, and where the food scraps go into a composter. Community bike share, tool share, or other share programs where items get repaired and refurbished and source materials are from non-extractive origin. Companies offering their products, sourced or created within nature’s limits, in reusable, returnable, refillable packaging that can be used hundreds of times before created again, not losing material value. Taking a look at how different models can fit and work together, to create one circular economy, is the scaling and holistic approach we need.

Disposables don’t belong in our circular future

Like oil and ocean water, certain things just don’t mix with a true circular economy. Single-use plastics is one of them. Disposable plastics are a symbol of everything we need to leave behind – fossil fuel dependency, waste-generating products, a throwaway culture, disproportionate negative social impacts, and a threat to biodiversity and planetary health.

The Canadian government has increasingly thrown around the term circular economy and zero waste when it comes to tackling our plastics problem, but unfortunately like various other terms denoting a greener approach, industry has worked to co-opt the meaning of circular economy and zero waste, creating confusion, watering down the concepts and working to convince government that we can have it all – disposables, a circular economy and a magical zero plastic waste future.

Wrong. To date, Canada has only managed to recycle 9% of its plastic waste. And the solutions proposed by the industry, such as 100% recyclable, biodegradable or compostable packaging, in no way meet the founding principles of a circular economy, such as limiting resource extraction or maintaining the value of materials used. As the Canadian government creates the country’s post-pandemic recovery plan, it must leave carbon-intensive, polluting industries behind, and that means cutting our reliance on non-essential plastics.

Keeping up the pressure for our single-use plastic-free future

The feds have said that they will be delaying the previously promised single-use plastic ban that was set to roll out in 2021. Choosing to look on the bright side, we can use this time to make it crystal clear to the government that this extension must be used to create a comprehensive ban list and not settle for a piecemeal approach to phasing out problem plastics.

If you haven’t already, take a look at the 5 actions you can take for a plastic-free future. We need to keep making it clear that we can move away from single-use plastics and a move toward a green and just economy.

Already ploughed through the action page? Ask your friends and family to join you in taking action.


On an individual level, if we collectively begin to break free from the ‘stuff’ we’re told we need, the habits we’re told are ‘conveniences’, and the lifestyles we’re told we should be living, we can model the future we want and amplify the work and vision of changemakers all around us. Join the Reuse Revolution work to Build Back Better.


Sarah KingSarah King is the Head of Greenpeace Canada’s Oceans & Plastics campaign, based in Vancouver on unceded Coast Salish Territories. From urging major seafood companies to clean up …  Read More


Post-pandemic, we need to look at energy efficiency

As the government shifts it focus from containing COVID-19 to repairing the damage done it should be looking at energy efficiency. Photos from Shutterstock.

As governments across the country start to allow people to emerge from lockdown, their focus will start shifting from containing COVID-19 to repairing the damage it’s done. One area where they should be looking very hard is energy efficiency.

An investment in energy efficiency will deliver robust environmental and economic returns, ones that will stimulate job creation in the trades and manufacturing sector while simultaneously reducing greenhouse gas emissions and helping make homeowners and businesses more resilient.

Right now, in fact, there might not be a more compelling political proposition than investing in energy efficiency, especially since it taps into values every Canadian has in common. After all, who wouldn’t want to protect the environment and save money in the process?

According to a 2018 report prepared for Clean Energy Canada, energy-efficiency measures could help reduce our national greenhouse gas emissions by 52 megatonnes by 2030 — enough to get us 25 percent of the way to our Paris Accord targets.

In the process, we would add an estimated 118,000 jobs, and grow Canada’s GDP by one per cent. Canadian households would save a combined $1.4 billion each year on energy costs, while businesses and institutions would save $3.2 billion.

Estonia Already Lives Online—Why Can’t the United States?

Using secure identification, people there can bank, apply for government assistance, file for sick leave, order prescriptions, and get medical care—all online.

Advertising in Tallinn, Estonia, in 2002

An advertising billboard in Estonia’s capital, TallinnIAN BERRY / MAGNUM

For one corner of the world, life during the coronavirus pandemic has stayed shockingly the same. Like much of the globe, people there are dealing with cabin fever, a lack of physical contact, and collective grief, for both the loved ones they’ve lost and a way of life they may never see again. But they’re exempt from the crashing halt of state services, the bumbling distribution of relief funds, the pillars of government groaning under the weight of performing their basic business amid the pandemic.

This is not a faraway digital superstate or an isolated cooperative. Geographically, it is not even located in the proverbial West. This is reality in Estonia, a nation of 1.3 million on the coast of the Baltic Sea that traded its post-Soviet identity for one of technological innovation and digital democracy.

The continuity of life there despite the pandemic isn’t a result of a macabre decision to sacrifice the elderly, or a convoluted idea to build “herd immunity.” No, citizens are staying home, and doing so fairly happily. In part, that’s because they don’t really need to leave; thanks to an infrastructure that has been in place for 20 years, many of life’s basic tasks can be done online.

Estonia recorded its first case of COVID-19 on February 27, and by March 12, the government approved emergency measures to combat its spread. The next day, the government began conducting most of its business digitally, and instructed schools to transition from in-person to distance learning. If they weren’t already using digital tools (and many were), municipal councils quickly shifted to online operations.

None of this is much of a departure from normal life. Using a digital identification card and a secure electronic signature, people in Estonia can bank, apply for government assistance, file for sick leave, order prescriptions, and get medical care online—no mask or hand sanitizer required. If an election were scheduled to take place while the country was under lockdown, citizens would simply use their ID cards to vote securely from the comfort and safety of their homes, as they have done since 2005. In the most recent parliamentary elections in 2019, 43 percent of voters cast ballots online.

The United States, meanwhile, is experiencing a carnival fun-house version of attempted technological innovation, running into trick walls and watching as tasks that could be much simpler contort into nightmarish versions of themselves. In April, the website through which small-business owners apply for a loan from the Paycheck Protection Program crashed due to the unanticipated load. The Senate, without provisions to work remotely, has returned to Capitol Hill, despite warnings from health-care professionals.

These are shortcomings that the U.S. and other Western countries (Britain began allowing lawmakers to videoconference into Parliament only once the pandemic began) have created and perpetuated. If the coronavirus has one positive effect, it’s the opportunity to begin a technological revolution that could leave our governments better functioning, more accessible, and more representative.

“We have this expression that [Estonia] is ‘digital Narnia,’” Toomas Hendrik Ilves, Estonia’s president from 2006 to 2016, told me over the phone from Palo Alto, California. “It’s a lot better than other places, but we’re not digital Narnia. We don’t fax our pizzas!”

Now a Distinguished Visiting Fellow at Stanford University, Ilves said the secret of what made “e-Estonia” tick—leaving the country well prepared for the pandemic, from a governing point of view—is not magic, but the secure, microchip-emblazoned ID card issued to every citizen. The document is residents’ bridge between the physical and digital worlds, allowing them an extremely secure way to sign documents, pay taxes, and access their bank accounts and public records online. People in Estonia need to show up in person for only three reasons: marriage, divorce, and the sale or transfer of real estate. “For 20 years, we haven’t had to go anywhere, to any office, to stand in line,” Ilves said.

‘You’re out there alone’: whistleblowers say workplace abuse hides true impacts of B.C.’s trawl fishery

A months-long investigation by The Narwhal, including interviews with 11 current or former at-sea observers, reveals a culture of intimidation and harassment that has resulted in the vast and systematic under-reporting of deep-sea fish harvested from B.C.’s coastal waters

Jon Eis Fisheries observer The Narwhal

The people Canada relies on to ensure the West Coast trawl fishery is operating within the law are frequently subjected to threats and harassment, making it perilous for them to do their jobs. The result is millions of pounds of wasted fish and untold environmental impacts, a months-long investigation by The Narwhal has found.

Workplace abuse has led observers to under-report the adverse impacts of trawl fishing and resulted in an estimated 140 million pounds of wasted fish. Put another way, that’s $1 billion in unaccounted catch in just over two decades.

In 1996, Fisheries and Oceans Canada took the unprecedented step of closing the fishery for five months in the wake of years of over-harvesting.

B.C.’s bottom trawl fishery involves dragging a net through the water column or along the seabed, harvesting a variety of fish that live near the bottom of the ocean, including Pacific cod, hake, rockfish and pollock. The fishery was only permitted to reopen once it was guaranteed an independent observer would be stationed as a watchdog on each and every boat.

Yet an imperfect system means observers — whose reports could ultimately result in a shut down of a boat or even the entire industry — are vulnerable to intimidation from ship skippers and crew members who at times exercise pressure on individuals to under-report their findings or look the other way.

“It’s a very dangerous thing for observers to be out there,” said one observer, who spoke on the condition of anonymity. “You’re out there alone, often without cell service or contact.”

The Narwhal spoke with 11 current or former at-sea observers for this story. Many asked not to be named for fear of reprisal.

Under the at-sea observer program, observers are required to estimate bycatch on ships, often while mountains of fish are being dumped on deck and unwanted species are being thrown overboard. Observers are also expected to take biological samples and count and assess the condition of prohibited species, which can include valuable fish like halibut, all while staying out of the way.

In early April, Fisheries and Oceans Canada suddenly ordered the observers off the boats for 45 days due to safety concerns around COVID-19. But observers told The Narwhal they cannot safely and effectively perform their duties during normal times. The result is a fishery far less sustainable than the observer program is designed to guarantee.

“We’re totally destroying the [fisheries] for future generations. Completely,” Jon Eis, one of the whistleblowers, tells The Narwhal.


Big Oil suffers pivotal losses in 2 climate cases

King tide rises in Alameda, Calif. Oil companies lost two appeals in climate damages lawsuits led by California cities and counties after a panel of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals said the companies failed to prove why the cases belonged in federal court. eb78/Flickr

The oil and gas industry lost appeals in two major climate damages cases yesterday brought by cities and counties in California.

A panel from the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals said that attorneys for oil companies failed to show why San Mateo County and Oakland could not pursue state court battles for industry compensation for climate change impacts, such as sea-level rise.

“We hold that the state-law claim for public nuisance does not arise under federal law,” Judge Sandra Ikuta wrote in the Oakland opinion.

At issue were two climate lawsuits brought by a slew of California cities and counties against oil companies like Chevron Corp., Exxon Mobil Corp. and BP PLC.

The cases — which both seek to hold companies financially responsible for misleading the public on climate change consequences — were heard by the same 9th Circuit panel earlier this year. The appeals court was tasked with resolving split decisions from the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California (Climatewire, Feb. 6).

Ikuta, a George W. Bush appointee, and the rest of the three-judge panel affirmed the district court’s 2018 decision to throw the San Mateo case back to a state venue and revived the Oakland climate case for more proceedings in district court after the same bench — but a different judge — scrapped the case that same year.

Both of the lawsuits are now closer to state court proceedings, despite attempts by the fossil fuel industry to keep the litigation in federal venues where a judge could rule that the municipalities’ claims are preempted by the Clean Air Act.

Local officials from the California cities at the heart of the battles lauded the decisions.

“San Francisco and Oakland taxpayers are already incurring the costs of dealing with the damage these fossil fuel companies knowingly caused,” San Francisco City Attorney Dennis Herrera told E&E News in an emailed statement.

“We will continue to hold these companies accountable for their decades-long campaign of public deception about climate change and its consequences.”

Attorneys for the oil supermajors have turned to the Supreme Court multiple times during the venue disputes, including over the recent decision to allow a climate lawsuit filed by Baltimore to proceed in the city’s circuit court (Climatewire, April 2).

The 9th Circuit decisions underscore the need for the high court to weigh in on whether climate damages cases can even be brought to the courts at all, said Phil Goldberg, special counsel for the Manufacturers’ Accountability Project.

“Selling us the energy we need to power our homes, businesses and communities is not unlawful and, therefore, not a subject for tort liability in any court,” he said.

Exxon is reviewing the decision and evaluating its next steps, said a spokesperson for the company.

The cities’ and counties’ “unsupported” claims won’t do much to address climate change, said Chevron spokesperson Sean Comey.

“These claims seek to penalize the production of affordable, reliable and ever cleaner energy, which for decades has been authorized and encouraged by law and government policymakers,” he said.

Ripple effects

Experts watching the cases said yesterday’s 9th Circuit rulings set an important tone for the broader climate damages fight.

The decision takes municipalities a “big step closer” to success, said Ann Carlson, a UCLA law professor who has also consulted for challengers in some of the cases.

“California has very favorable nuisance doctrine for the plaintiffs,” she said. “The closer plaintiffs get to being able to collect evidence and present it to a court, the stronger the likelihood that at least one of the cases succeeds.”

The 9th Circuit’s decisions also carry advantages for other climate cases that are just getting off the ground, said law professor Maxine Burkett of the University of Hawaii, Mānoa.

“The decision also allows recently filed cases — like those by Honolulu and Maui — to proceed with greater confidence that time and resources won’t be wasted determining the proper court,” she wrote in an email. “These are state and local concerns.”

San Mateo, Marin and Santa Cruz counties, as well as the cities of Imperial Beach, Richmond and Santa Cruz, said they “look forward” to finally testing the waters in California courts.

“The Californians we represent will have a chance to present the facts about what the defendants knew about the climate change-related dangers their fossil fuel products pose … and why those companies should be held accountable for the costs of surviving climate change,” the municipalities said in a statement issued after the 9th Circuit decisions.

Ninth Circuit Judges Morgan Christen, an Obama pick, and Kenneth Lee, a Trump appointee, also joined yesterday’s rulings.

We need a class war, not a culture war.

A reply to Angela Nagle and Michael Tracey.


Democratic presidential candidates former South Bend, Indiana Mayor Pete Buttigieg, former New York City Mayor Mike Bloomberg, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT), Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-MN), and Tom Steyer speak after the Democratic presidential primary debate at the Charleston Gaillard Center on February 25, 2020 in Charleston, South Carolina. Win McNamee / Getty

With the defeat of the Bernie Sanders campaign, numerous postmortems have attempted to diagnose what went wrong and what could’ve, should’ve, and would’ve been.Angela Nagle and Michael Tracey’s American Affairs essay, “First as Tragedy, Then as Farce: The Collapse of the Sanders Campaign and the ‘Fusionist’ Left,” aims to give a definitive reply, casting much of the blame on campaign mistakes and a fealty to left-wing cultural politics.

I agree that the Left has all sorts of alienating cultural practices, the product of years of insularity and a distance from the day-to-day demands and struggles of workers. But I’m not convinced that these factors were a primary, or even a significant, cause behind Bernie’s defeat.

While feigning a kind of no-nonsense analysis, Nagle and Tracey’s account of “what went wrong” is, at root, a cry for better messaging and more responsible leadership. It’s a grand narrative which puts a clear protagonist on the center stage of world history: intellectuals, media professionals, and other members of the chattering class.

Working people themselves — their limited choices and complex relationships with the Democratic Party — are given only passing mention in Nagle and Tracey’s essay. Larger historical and structural factors, from the decline of class voting all across the developed world to the exceptional weakness of the US left, are not seriously discussed. And somehow the only social force in world history that has ever delivered victory to left-wing political movements, organized labor, is not mentioned even once in their 10,000-word opus.

Twitter, however, takes center stage.

This is where Tracey and Nagle’s narrative falls apart. And where they have far more in common with their “woke” antagonists than they would ever admit.

This Was No Bitter Defeat

The authors open fire on those who would hide behind a belief that Bernie “never could have won.” To them, it’s nothing more than a pathetic excuse for bad leadership and insufficient will. They accuse Sanders adviser David Sirota and Jacobin, in particular, for using this excuse as a way to avoid thoughtful engagement with the campaign’s failure.

I don’t think that’s a fair or accurate account — and notably, Nagle and Tracey do not link or cite even one article that makes this claim.

Many Sanders supporters and volunteers, myself included, understood from the start that the odds were stacked against us. But we nevertheless believed that victory just might still be possible — you play the cards you’re dealt, after all.

If you asked me in 2015, I would have told you that a left-wing presidential candidate could only succeed in their campaign (and later in their ability to implement reforms) if they emerged from a vibrant union movement buttressed by mass political organizations.

Bernie turned that formula on its head. Instead of emerging out of a vibrant labor movement from below, he aimed to catalyze a popular force from above –a grassroots army of volunteers, small donors, and voters that just might get him over the finish line and into the White House.

A left-winger charting a path to the presidency with virtually no visible left, was a daring maneuver — and it almost worked.

Seen in this light, Nagle and Tracey’s suggestion that the campaign must “be understood as a bitter defeat — a defeat not just for the Sanders campaign but for the whole of the contemporary American Left” is overwrought, bordering on hysteria.

What they don’t understand is that the Sanders campaign wasn’t an attempt to save the American left. It was an attempt to build one.

Talk about “bitter defeats” would be apt for something like the UK Labour Party’s devastating loss in 1983, when a deeply unpopular Margaret Thatcher government was challenged by a mobilized working-class party with a left-wing program and an army of volunteers. Labour maintained close ties to mass working-class organizations, made their appeals directly to working-class voters, had the trust and support of a powerful union movement, and already occupied the position of junior partner in British democracy. Yet even with all these advantages the party still lost miserably — a truly bitter defeat that precipitated decades of agony for the Labour left.

The US left went into the Sanders 2020 campaign with nothing like any of these advantages — in truth, it barely registered as a national political force, with less than two percent of Congressional seats held by Bernie allies. The Sanders campaigns did far more to demonstrate the potential of future left-wing institutions than to damage actual ones, since before 2015 significant left-wing institutions simply did not exist.

Electoral defeat in these circumstances may be a disappointment, but it is far from an existential blow. The real question is not “why didn’t Bernie win,” but how did he get so close?

Yes, Sanders Was Suffocated By the Mass Media

Another explanation that Nagle and Tracey reject is that Sanders was the helpless victim of “a brutal corporate media determined to destroy him.” As if the very concept of a multibillion-dollar for-profit media industry was little more than a left-wing conspiracy theory, they ask:

If the corpo­rate media was so singularly decisive in orchestrating negative percep­tions of Sanders, how is it that he managed to score these public opinion plaudits prior to 2020, when his national favorability tanked at the ignoble conclusion of the campaign?

Nagle and Tracey are correct that the corporate media failed to tarnish Sanders’ reputation entirely. But was simple character assassination really their aim? A more reasonable view is that they sought first to limit Sanders’s airtime — very successfully, for the first half of the campaign — and then, as he gained steam in the winter, to paint him as unelectable in a general election. This explains both how Sanders favorability maintained consistently high marks (voters didn’t see much of him but what they saw they liked) and how he was ultimately unable to make his case early that he was more electable than Biden.

That electability was so central is also owed to the liberal media’s unprecedented singular focus on the evil of Donald Trump. This was the first time where Democratic voters insisted that “electability” trumped “issues” in their primary calculations. The authors later admit this themselves: “Voters’ priority, thanks to the propaganda onslaught in which the Left enthusiastically participated, may have been finding the ‘safest’ candidate to remove Trump as quickly and painlessly as possible.”

Still, Nagle and Tracey suggest that because Trump’s negative media attention didn’t ruin his candidacy the same must be true for Sanders. But Trump and Sanders are hardly comparable in their relationship to the corporate media. Trump has not one but two national television news stations with a mass audience, on top of a professional social media propaganda army that operates 24/7 spreading lies and capitalizing on resentment. Not only does Bernie not have a single television news station in his pocket, he barely had any television ads.

Even on social media, which Nagle and Tracey depict as the terrain of invincible Sanders propagandists, Bernie’s presence is obviously overwhelmed by Trump, who has five to eight times as many followers on Twitter and Facebook. Even the smaller figures in right-wing media — fringe types like Mike Cernovich to Bill Mitchell, far from regular guests on Fox News — have followings that dwarf the podcasters and poster-kings in the Sanders orbit.

As for the liberal media, it’s true that they relentlessly criticize Trump’s lies, but they never go beyond this. MSNBC, CNN, and the major networks seldom interrogate the meaning of policies or the functions of government. They cover only the most headline-grabbing and petty catfights between politicians or whatever culture-war topic seems to be trending on Twitter. As a result, the media play a much more insidious role in American public life than the authors are willing to acknowledge, and the effects of that are felt before and beyond the bookends of the campaign cycle.

Since Ronald Reagan tore up the fairness doctrine, and after the drive for profit radically reorganized the newsroom, contemporary political media have sorted into two distinct lanes: right-wing and nominally non-partisan (or as we understand them: liberal). In their hunt for profits and larger audiences news producers seek the sensational and scandalous. The partisan media throws mud on their short-term political opponents, while their corporate conglomerates donate to both major parties to shore up their longer-term aims. Both sides do their best to legitimize the function of big business and delegitimize the idea of a muscular welfare state. No one today believes in the parties’ ability to wield the vast powers of the federal government for the benefit of the general public.

The overall result is to tarnish the average worker’s faith in government as a whole and to polarize the media landscape along sharply partisan lines — thus when liberal outlets began their relentless assault on Trump, Democrats “trust” in the mass media increased as Republican trust decreased. In this environment, it’s easy to see how Trump was significantly less damaged by liberal media attacks and how disaffected working-class voters can be attracted to a kind of apolitical non-partisan “throw the bums out” populism. Crucially though, if the predominant image of government in the media is an image of failure and dysfunction (no matter who is in charge) then right-wingers can comfortably ensure that the image meets reality.

Such a landscape hardly benefits a candidate hell-bent on proving the welfare state can not only function but that it could help create a more democratic society — one that we, as Americans, have never really known.

Rural Voters Didn’t Show Up… For Anyone

Rejecting the media critique, Nagle and Tracey identify a weakness in Sanders’ 2020 operation that they credit for his overall performance: his evaporating support in the Midwest. They claim:

Bernie’s strong performance among select demo­graphics —rural and midwestern voters in particular—[…] demonstrated that he would’ve been the superior general election nominee. But in 2020, those very same demographics abandoned him in droves.

Yet to whom did these voters flee? It’s an uncomfortable fact, but it was Pete Buttigieg who captured the largest share of them in both Iowa and New Hampshire. It’s hardly possible to imagine that Buttigieg was misread by rural voters as some great populist, instead it seems clear that they were drawn to his clean-cut Obama-like speeches, close ties to the party elite, and inoffensive policy agenda.

Glowing news coverage of Mayor Pete was beamed into every Iowa and New Hampshire living room, and his own television advertising operation targeted many of the Obama-Obama-Trump counties to great effect. Nagle and Tracey claim Bernie’s fixation on “the young, supremely ‘progressive’ and identity-fixated Left” cost him here. Yet it was Buttigieg who made every attempt to court younger voters with an awkward literal song-and-dance routine, and a robotic politically correct rhetorical style.

And even after the field thinned to just Biden and Bernie, do Nagle and Tracey think that older workers in Michigan thought Biden was an enemy of finance and free trade? Did they see in the Bernie campaign little more than a horde of Twitter anime avatars demanding #FullCommunism?

Or did those voters just simply believe that the Vice President to the most popular national politician in more than half a century was, in fact, the most “electable”?

I suspect Bernie’s weakness with rural voters has less to do with his failure to wear an American flag pin (which he also did not wear in 2016), than deeper shifts in the structure of American politics.

The larger story here is not that Buttigieg and Biden stole Bernie’s base, but that rural voters are not enamored with any candidates that have a “D” next to their name. And they are turning out in fewer numbers each election.

For years, in states like Michigan and Pennsylvania, Democrats have run up big Presidential vote tallies but failed to win state house majorities, due to their persistent weakness in rural areas. Many, including centrist liberal commentators like Mark Lilla, will chalk up this failure to identity politics.

The truth is, however, that the Democrats have long had a tradition of “boll weevils” and “Blue Dogs” who have rigorously avoided any concessions to liberal cultural positions (while equally eschewing anything like a social-democratic agenda) and even these candidates — flag-pins galore — struggle to hold onto their seats these days. In 2009 Blue Dogs, representing mainly rural conservative districts, accounted for 54 seats in Congress, more than 20 percent of the entire Democratic Caucus at that time. By 2018, their numbers dwindled to just 24 or about 10 percent of the congressional party.

American decline — in manufacturing, living standards, equality, unionization, infrastructure — has simply hit rural areas harder. These voters are likely more disaffected than any others, and they are physically harder to reach by standard campaign tactics. I agree that we should drop the alienating “woke” rhetoric which only amplifies this disastrous trend, but turning out rural working-class voters will take much more than savvy messaging.

Until left-wing candidates have the kinds of organizations — rooted in a revivified labor movement —  that can reach people year-round with credible appeals and instil in them a belief that the federal government can and should rebuild the economic foundations of neglected regions, these voters will likely remain elusive.

It’s another enormous structural hurdle so inconvenient for Nagle and Tracey’s score-settling analysis that it’s not even mentioned.

The Place for What-Ifs

Political outcomes are not preordained, but it is foolish to expect to turn straw into gold with “the right messaging.” For Nagle and Tracey, Bernie’s path to victory was clear, until he was sabotaged by ultra-liberal activists and their left-wing enablers online, who together derailed “the greatest electoral opportunity for major social democratic reform likely to be seen in a generation.”

As someone who’s fairly skeptical of much of the online activist set, I wish I could agree. But such a conclusion just gives them way too much agency. Not unlike many of their enemies, the authors put far too much faith in the power of words and of social media.

This isn’t to say that there weren’t avoidable gaffes and strategic mistakes. I think that some of Sanders’ mid-level campaign staff were worse than incompetent. And I wholly agree with the authors’ assessment when they quote a source reporting on “shocking levels of ineptitude, complacency, waste, and even fraud in the organization.”

No doubt the presence of hacks and morons hurt our chances. But this was not a primary or even major cause of defeat. Because, as much as that narrative would comfort me, every campaign is filled with incompetent, lazy, political hacks, camp-counselor social climbers, and idiots. Joe Biden’s team was hardly a phalanx of seasoned political whiz-kids.

Trotskyism, broadly speaking, tends to place too much blame for political failure on a lack of political will from leaders. If only “misleaders” listened to the demands of the masses and didn’t shy away from confrontation maybe things would have turned out differently. Nagle and Tracey, far from Trotskyists themselves, fall into this same trap: naturally, if they were at the helm, they simply wouldn’t choose to fail. This kind of voluntarism makes it very easy to condemn political defeats, while suggesting an alternative path forward: put me in charge. The result is a blinkered tendency to read history as a succession of great leaders, an ideal perspective for fringe sectarians, isolated polemicists, and progressive NGO hustlers alike.

The reality is, if we were really on the cusp of victory — if we had the kind of organization necessary to win a majority of voters — the hyper-liberal opportunists would never have been able to worm their way into positions of influence in the first place. Their presence was only possible because of the absence of a politically self-conscious working-class organization writ large. If the Left primarily operated in a blue-collar milieu, and if the union movement was our home base of strength, the kind of nonsense the authors condemn would be squashed before it got off the ground.

Leave the Culture War Behind

Nagle and Tracey are right about one thing: If we want to win, we have to leave the culture war behind. But in their attempt to tie Bernie to the failures of hyper-liberalism, they don’t marshal much evidence. I think it’s more likely that most of the electorate saw Sanders, as David Frum characterized him, as “Left but not Woke” — a very different political figure than Beto O’Rourke, Elizabeth Warren, or Kamala Harris.

Regular Democratic voters almost always liked Biden and Bernie best — two of the candidates that consistently eschewed identitarian pandering. And Bernie’s economic platform was wildly popular, even among Biden voters. Of course, when a progressive economic platform is paired with hyper-liberal rhetoric, as with Warren, it sinks like a stone. But in a year when voters were unusually focused on the pragmatic question of electability, the  VP to the last two-term Democratic president beat out the Vermont outsider universally despised by party leaders and television anchors. This is not rocket science.

This might be cause for some optimism for the future: couldn’t we strive to capitalize on Bernie’s popular economic agenda and ditch the Left side of the culture war? Nagle and Tracey are pessimistic. No doubt, it is a challenge. Left-wing candidates and campaigns are currently held hostage by a toxic brew of alienating language, like the term “Latinx” (unpopular with Latinos themselves), fashionable maximalist slogans that make heavy use of the word “abolish,” and bizarre postures like Kirsten Gillibrand harping about her “white privilege.”

These are serious liabilities for any candidate (and countless articles were written about how the “wokest” candidates did the worst). But fortunately for us, left-wing candidates don’t adopt these stances because big money donors insist on them. Instead, insurgent candidates run on issues they think their base will find it appealing. Therefore, shifting campaign rhetoric away from the kind of language that Nagle and Tracey rightly identify as alienating is possible, so long as we can prove that such appeals are unpopular among most social-democratically inclined working-class voters.

To me, this is an opportunity, not a death sentence for democratic socialists. Consider that the Left can avoid striking an ultra-liberal pose on culture, but the Center and the Right cannot as readily adopt a left-wing economic program — their donors won’t let them. For the Bidens and Trumps of the world, the culture war is a necessity, to divert and distract from the divide between the rich and the rest of us. For the Left, it’s a choice.

If Nagle and Tracey are correct that our chief problem is the activist frauds and alienating rhetoric, then we should rejoice. Those obstacles can be overcome and organized around. They are a consequence of weakness and alienation from a working-class milieu, but they are not permanent, endemic or structural features of American democratic political practice.

Counterfactual History

The limit of Nagle and Tracey’s analysis is demonstrated if we actually indulge in the counterfactuals their essay invokes. So, let’s imagine that Bernie avoided the activists, and that he successfully mimicked Biden’s rhetorical style. Let’s even imagine that by doing so he was able to win the nomination. He would enter a general election against a sitting president, who (as a result of Bernie’s success) would now have the backing of the entire business community, and, perhaps, the tacit endorsement of the leaderships of two political parties.

Worse, many of the upper-income so-called “Never Trump” Republicans and “Blue No Matter Who” Democrats would suddenly have a change of heart. A bleak prospect.

But while we are fantasizing, let’s say that even against all that Bernie harnessed the awesome power of infrequent voters and won the election. In order for his reform project to succeed, he would need sweeping sympathetic majorities in Congress, backed up by a powerful, highly mobilized labor movement, and allied mass political organizations that could credibly threaten the elite (not to mention the recapture of a dozen or so state legislatures).

Without these larger forces behind him, a President Sanders may have been able to slow the growth of (or possibly reverse) the gap between the rich and poor, and maybe he would have been able to win something greater than a public-option for health care.

But he alone could not stop the demobilization of working-class voters, the weakening of organized labor wrought by deindustrialization and anti-union laws, and the fall in the American standard of living. The decline of class voting and the Brahminzation of the Left, as Thomas Piketty has recently documented, is a global phenomenon — not an American quirk.

This was not a problem that could be fixed overnight. But the Bernie Sanders campaigns forced isolated leftists into real political practice for the first time in a half-century and made us confront questions about political power and organizing that we otherwise would only ever encounter in the abstract. Bernie ran a live experiment on the American polity: what happens when you embrace the kind of bold — but simple — democratic-socialist vision Sanders espoused?

Thankfully, after decades of mystification and misdirection, we now know the answer. It’s the first but crucial step in building a real left in the United States.

Reasons for Defeat, Not Retreat

Simply put, we lost for reasons any great athlete might lose a much-anticipated championship match: our opponents proved to be stronger. This was true in every field: media, party, mobilization, and money.

There was never a left available to reliably catapult Bernie to power. And Sanders knew this. He hoped to found a left that could win in the future — and, like a good democratic socialist, he always knew that was only possible if American workers led the way and took up politics. This was the “political revolution” he spoke of.

But Nagle and Tracey never once mention organized labor as a factor either in a potential counterfactual victory or in a future strategy. For them a better, more responsible “Twitter left” could have made the difference. Their outlook is the same as many of the woke culture-warriors they despise: listen to the internet, the driver of politics.

Of course, I agree that we should avoid the alienating cultural appeals that are so often grafted onto an otherwise popular political program. But we should similarly avoid the pitfall of assuming that identitarianism must be countered by social conservatism.

Nagle and Tracey don’t advocate for that, but it is clear that some in the post-Corbyn “Blue Labour” project do, and certainly some on the American left harbor similar fantasies that we could easily win elections and implement far-reaching reforms if we spent our time attacking the crazed campus lefties and whiny progressives. Yet this risks forgetting that a man named Barack Hussein Obama (who openly mocked flag pins) carried non-college educated white workers in Michigan and Pennsylvania. And won 46 percent of all white voters outside the south, well ahead of Gore and Kerry on that metric.

Cutting through the culture war was Sanders’s gift. Unfortunately, since his exit from the race it has come roaring back with even greater stupidity: liberal lockdowners versus freedom fighters in open-up USA; faux outrage at Nancy Pelosi calling Trump obese; China-virus versus COVID-19. The only thing all of these fights have in common is that none of them deal with socialist politics, none of them advocate for a particular policy or social reform that would help regulate our economy in working people’s interests, none of them help organize the have-nots together by virtue of their shared economic interest against the haves. In fact, all of them succeed in burying any analysis of political economy beneath an avalanche of cultural commentary.

In the fog of the culture-war you might miss just how much progress has been made. Working-class Americans are not social conservatives; in fact they are more tolerant today on every so-called social issue (including immigration) than their counterparts in virtually every other country. When polled, 51 percent of Americans agree that “immigration is good for the country.” Only 18 percent of French respondents are willing to say the same thing — a rebuke to both hyper-liberal progressive activists who see American workers as dangerous xenophobes as well as to Tracey and Nagle.

It’s not an exaggeration to say that the American working class is more liberal than it ever has been. Even so, an understudied and undercirculated survey found that almost 80 percent of Americans polled insist that the country has become too “politically correct.” Among those who don’t have a college degree, the number is 87 percent. And distaste for ultra-liberalism isn’t limited to white workers — who progressive activists often lampoon and too easily dismiss as backward. In fact, race has almost no bearing on the nearly universal hatred of “PC culture.”

This could and should be great news for the Left. Working-class voters don’t want candidates to use ultra-liberal rhetoric but neither do they want them to tear up the important gains of the 1960s Rights Revolution. They do want health care, a decent job and pro-worker policies that make it easier to unionize — it would be wise to pitch campaigns that meet those demands. A simple message built around destroying the obscenity of inequality and providing universal public goods would likely do well to unite workers across race, gender, region, and ideology; it just can’t be paired with an alienating “woke” aesthetic.

That means we should avoid the culture war and battles over online discourse and get back to the business of organizing within our unions and beyond to build an institutionally vibrant and working-class public sphere.

These are our rebuilding years — we probably won’t be back in the playoffs for a while. And while that’s the kind of offline, labor-centered project that might not interest Nagle and Tracey, it’s our only hope.



TAKE ACTION! The oil industry wants to derail modernization of Canada’s pollution law

Protecting environmental rights has never been more important

The Blue Dot Movement has long called for strengthening the Canadian Environmental Protection Act to recognize environmental rights. Government committed to modernizing CEPA, but a leaked memo reveals that the oil industry is using COVID-19 as a pretext for pressuring Ottawa to postpone amendments.

Don’t let the oil industry have the last word! Now is the time to raise your voice. Tell your MP and the environment minister that you want to see CEPA modernized by year’s end.

Ask your MP to support strengthening CEPA!

We’re encouraged that the oil industry’s call to roll back climate action in response to COVID-19 is not gaining traction. As the prime minister said, “Just because we’re in one crisis right now doesn’t mean we can forget about the other one — the climate crisis that we are also facing as a world and as a country.”

The David Suzuki Foundation supports the emergency relief government has provided to workers and their families, to see them through the pandemic. At the same time, we urge government to put the country on track to meet its target to be net-zero emissions by mid-century.

It’s never been more important to protect human health and the environment. That’s why we need to speak up in support of strengthening CEPA, Canada’s toxics and pollution law.

The House of Commons environment committee reviewed CEPA and made 87 recommendations for strengthening it, including amendments to:

    • Recognize the human right to a healthy environment.
    • Protect vulnerable populations.
    • Better control toxic substances.
Join us in calling on government to act on these recommendations without delay.

In the era of climate emergency, increasing toxic threats and multiple pressures on our health-care system, we need 21st century environmental laws to protect our health, as well as the environment.

Thank you for your support!

Izzy Czerveniak
Organizing and Public Engagement
David Suzuki Foundation

P.S. New research suggests a possible link between air pollution and coronavirus deaths. It’s never been more important to protect the human right to a healthy environment. Take action now!


We’re encouraged that the oil industry’s call to roll back climate action in response to COVID-19 is not gaining traction. As the prime minister said, “Just because we’re in one crisis right now doesn’t mean we can forget about the other one — the climate crisis that we are also facing as a world and as a country.”

The David Suzuki Foundation supports the emergency relief government has provided to workers and their families, to see them through the pandemic. At the same time, we urge government to put the country on track to meet its target to be net-zero emissions by mid-century.

It’s never been more important to protect human health and the environment. That’s why we need to speak up in support of strengthening CEPA, Canada’s toxics and pollution law.

The House of Commons environment committee reviewed CEPA and made 87 recommendations for strengthening it, including amendments to:

  • Recognize the human right to a healthy environment.
  • Protect vulnerable populations.
  • Better control toxic substances.

Join us in calling on government to act on these recommendations without delay.

In the era of climate emergency, increasing toxic threats and multiple pressures on our health-care system, we need 21st century environmental laws to protect our health, as well as the environment.

Thank you for your support!

Izzy Czerveniak
Organizing and Public Engagement
David Suzuki Foundation

P.S. New research suggests a possible link between air pollution and coronavirus deaths. It’s never been more important to protect the human right to a healthy environment. Take action now!

Energy efficiency helped the Empire State Building save money and cut carbon. It can help you, too

The Empire State Building, as seen from 26th Street and 5th Avenue, has undergone a massive, if imperceptible, retrofit that has cut its carbon footprint by about 40 percent.

In 2009, the owners of the Empire State Building made a bet that they could cut carbon emissions from the decades-old, 102-story behemoth and save money at the same time.

Their gamble paid off: Ten years later, the building’s emissions are 40 percent lower, its annual electric bill is $4.4 million smaller, and the entire retrofit project is well on its way to paying for itself more than twice over. And the owners want other buildings to do the same.

Your home is not the Empire State Building. You probably don’t have 6,514 windows or a multibillion-dollar operating budget. (And if you do, can I move in?) But many of the same tools the Empire State used to cut carbon and save money can still work for you.

Here’s how:

Step 1: Improve insulation

The easiest and most important thing you can do before making upgrades to your home is make sure that whatever energy you use actually stays inside it.

According to the Energy Department, an estimated 25 to 30 percent of household heating and cooling is lost through windows. That means a quarter of what you spend on heat and air conditioning is wasted.

You don’t have to buy new windows to fight this. By refurbishing existing glass panes, the Empire State Building was able to make its windows several times more efficient.

Homeowners should check their windows for air leaks and plug them with caulk or weatherstripping. Cover the glass with a solar film or other treatments that can filter out certain wavelengths of light and prevent the transfer of heat. Install blinds or drapes; one Cornell University analysis found that a simple roller shade can reduce heat loss through a window by 24 to 31 percent.

Sealing off attics and garages, insulating air ducts, and other weatherization measures can also dramatically reduce energy use. One Energy Department study of New Jersey homes that overhauled their “envelopes” in this way found they saved 25 percent on their energy bill without replacing appliances.

Step 2: Increase indoor efficiency

When the novel coronavirus pandemic forced the closure of most Empire State Building offices, its owners discovered a monster lurking in the empty edifice: vampire energy use. This is power that gets pulled from outlets by devices that are left plugged in when they’re not in use. Phone chargers, coffee pots, computer cords and cable boxes are all culprits; the Energy Department says these vampires can account for as much as 10 percent of a homeowner’s monthly electric bill.

The Empire State Building combats vampire usage with artificial intelligence; computer programs can shut off outlets on nights and weekends. But the average homeowner doesn’t need to go high-tech — just unplug your phone when it’s done charging, switch off power strips and use energy-saving features that come with your devices. You can also buy advanced power strips, which will prevent electronics from drawing power when they’re not being used.

Efficient dishwashers and refrigerators are an obvious option for cutting energy use, but they can also be expensive. Yet there are plenty of measures that cost very little — or nothing — to implement. LED lightbulbs last longer and use a quarter of the energy of ordinary incandescents. Routinely changing the filter on your air conditioner will reduce its energy use by about 10 percent. Lower the temperature of your water heater, wash your laundry in cold water, keep your home a few degrees warmer in the summer and cooler in the winter. Simply turning on a fan will allow you to raise the thermostat setting four degrees in warm weather without affecting comfort, according to the Energy Department.

Step 3: Downsize

Once a building has been streamlined as much as possible, the equipment that heats, cools and powers it can be replaced with smaller, more efficient devices. For the Empire State Building, that meant refurbishing the chiller plant and ventilation systems. For an average homeowner, it might mean getting a smaller water heater or scaling down air-conditioning units.

These measures are meaningful. According to the Energy Information Administration, the U.S. electric grid emits about a pound of carbon dioxide per kilowatt hour of power produced. (Kilowatt hour, the standard unit for measuring power consumption, describes the amount of energy that can power 1,000 watts in one hour; one kilowatt hour will power a standard 60 watt incandescent lightbulb for two-thirds of a day.)

According to a study by the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, highly insulated windows save about six kilowatt hours of energy a day. Over the course of a year, that’s about 1.5 metric tons of carbon dioxide saved — equivalent to emissions from a cross-country road trip in an average car.

Dana Schneider, the Empire State Building’s vice president for sustainability, pointed out that even renewable energy sources such as solar panels have an environmental footprint from construction and transmission processes.

But reducing the amount of energy that’s needed in the first place — “that’s carbon free,” Schneider said.


Canada’s forgotten rainforest

Less than one-third of the world’s primary forests are still intact. Deep in the interior of British Columbia, a temperate rainforest that holds vast stores of carbon and is home to endangered caribou is being clear-cut as fast as the Amazon

Forest ecologist Michelle Connolly surveys old-growth cedars in B.C.’s inland rainforest to estimate the amount of carbon the area holds. Photo: Taylor Roades / The Narwhal

On a balmy day in mid-July, in the heart of British Columbia, Dominick DellaSala steps out of a rented truck to examine the remains of one of the rarest ecosystems on the planet.

DellaSala, a scientist studying global forests that hold vast stores of carbon, is silent for a moment as he surveys a logging road punched through an ancient red cedar and western hemlock grove only days earlier.

A spared cedar tree, at least 400 years old, stands uncloaked in the sun beside the road, an empty bear den hidden in its hollow trunk.

“I haven’t seen logging this bad since I flew over Borneo,” says DellaSala, president and chief scientist at the Geos Institute in Ashland, Oregon, a partner in an international project to map the world’s most important unlogged forests.

“It was a rainforest. Now it’s a wasteland.”

Dominick DellaSala, president and chief scientist at the Geos Institute, in front of a slash pile waiting to be burned in the Anzac River Valley of British Columbia. Photo: Taylor Roades / The Narwhal

Vast majority of rare inland rainforest slated for clear-cutting

To encounter a rainforest more than 500 kilometres from B.C.’s coast, with oceanic lichens that sustain endangered caribou herds during winters, is something of a miracle.

By all accounts, a rainforest shouldn’t be scattered in moist valley bottoms stretching from the Cariboo Mountains east of Prince George to the Rocky Mountains close to the Alberta border. Other temperate rainforests, far from the sea, are only found in two other places in the world, in Russia’s far east and southern Siberia.

Scientists wonder at the alignment of nature that made it possible for coastal species to hitchhike here thousands of years ago and flourish undisturbed in the sheltered dampness that kept fire at bay. Tiny flecks of coastal lichens no larger than a millimetre stuck to the feathers and feet of migrating songbirds, while stowaway seeds sunk roots into valley soils, watered by year-round rain and the constant trickling of snow.

Following decades of industrial logging, much of what remains of B.C.’s undisturbed and unprotected inland rainforest is now at risk of being clear-cut — including the few unlogged inland rainforest watersheds between Prince George and the U.S. border, 800 kilometres to the south.

The Goat River valley is one of only a few inland temperate rainforest watersheds that haven’t been logged. Photo: Taylor Roades / The Narwhal

Thousands of spruce and balsam fir logs are piled at Canfor’s Polar Mill near Prince George, B.C. Photo: Taylor Roades / The Narwhal

The Goat River valley is one of only a few inland temperate rainforest watersheds that haven’t been logged. Photo: Taylor Roades / The Narwhal

Years of salvage logging for the mountain pine beetle in B.C.’s interior are drawing to a close and timber companies, permits in hand from the provincial government, are moving into the ancient rainforest’s hemlock and spruce stands to feed interior mills running out of wood.

Without a rapid change in B.C. government policy, old-growth hemlock and spruce will be milled into two by-four and two by-six planks, and wood waste will be ground into pellets and shipped overseas.

Cedars that were seedlings 1,600 years ago, when Mayan civilization flourished in cities in the tropical jungle, will wind up as fence posts, shakes and garden mulch, or burned in huge slash piles that line logging roads like a giant’s game of pick-up sticks, adding to B.C.’s uncounted forestry emissions.

Pace of clear-cutting comparable to logging of Brazil’s rainforest 

In the interior, older cedars are almost always hollow and are of little commercial value to forestry companies like Carrier Lumber, which has flagged cut blocks along the Fraser Flats logging road where DellaSala stands, a 90-minute drive east of Prince George.

One cutblock borders a designated old-growth management area, now bisected by the muddy road. The old-growth area’s shaved boundaries, approved by the local B.C. forest district manager, are marked by letters in orange spray paint on the furrowed bark of cedars: OGMA.

The new boundaries of an old-growth management area are marked with orange spray paint along the Fraser Flats forest service road in B.C.’s inland temperate rainforest. In B.C., old-growth management area boundaries can be moved to accommodate logging, with no requirement that the amount of forest lost be replaced elsewhere. Photo: Taylor Roades / The Narwhal

Clear-cut logging in B.C.’s inland temperate rainforest, found in valley bottoms that are part of a much larger ecosystem called the interior wet belt, is taking place at a rate “if not faster, then comparable to what we’re seeing in the tropical rainforest of Brazil,” says DellaSala, who carries binoculars and a professional camera.

“And that’s just unacceptable,” he tells The Narwhal. “We can get our timber needs met in a lot of other places. We shouldn’t be going into our last primary and intact forest landscapes … We just have so little of this left on the planet.”

In 2017, as DellaSala considered which North American rainforest to choose for the international study, led by Griffith University in Australia, at first he zeroed in on B.C.’s Great Bear Rainforest and Alaska’s Tongass National Forest.

“These old-growth forests are not renewable. They’re not coming back after you log them.”

But few people outside the Prince George area knew about what DellaSala refers to as “Canada’s forgotten rainforest,” and for that reason he chose to focus on the lesser-known rainforest instead.

He partnered with Conservation North, a non-profit society created by Prince George scientists and forest ecologists to draw attention to the critical role of the inland rainforest in storing carbon and sheltering a myriad species in the age of extinction, as scientists worldwide warn of a global biodiversity crisis and potential ecological collapse.

“It took hundreds and hundreds of years for this forest to develop,” says Conservation North director Michelle Connolly, a forest ecologist.

“And it will take a really short period of time to eliminate this beautiful mature forest. It takes us days to knock it down, push the stuff we don’t want into a huge pile, burn the pile and then that’s the end of this stand … These old-growth forests are not renewable. They’re not coming back after you log them.”

Inland rainforests rich in species at time of unprecedented global extinctions

A black bear rests beside a logging road cut through the inland temperate rainforest. Photo: Taylor Roades / The Narwhal

Connolly, who is touring DellaSala through new logging cutblocks and previously logged valleys with names like Anzac and Goat, pulls out an iPad and zooms into a map of the rainforest. It shows logged areas in red, the remaining unprotected old-growth in forest green.

Most of the forest lands are red. Dozens of petite, raggedy green pieces are splashed unevenly throughout the map, denoting unprotected ancient forest. Some border popular protected areas like Bowron Lakes Provincial Park, making them ideal candidates to spare, Connolly points out.

Conservation North Map of Old Growth Logging

Map of logging in B.C.’s interior, including in the inland temperate rainforest. The remaining old-growth areas of the rainforest are in dark green. Map: Conservation North

But with so little ancient rainforest remaining in B.C.’s interior, and only 30 per cent of the world’s primary forests still intact, Connolly and DellaSala believe every single splotch of unprotected forest green on the map deserves immediate protection.

Old-growth management areas provide only minimal protection because they are routinely moved and chopped at the discretion of district forest managers and include young forests and replanted clear-cuts, set aside on the grounds that they will be old in hundreds of years, Connolly says, noting that many are too small and fragmented to protect biodiversity.

A new road being carved into the old-growth inland temperate rainforest east of Prince George, B.C., in preparation for logging. Photo: Taylor Roades / The Narwhal

“We need to start thinking about old-growth forests in the interior of B.C. in terms of how it relates to the global loss of biodiversity and the global loss of habitat,” she says.

“We’re in an era now where we’re losing species, hundreds a day, and we need to think of the value of these last places in an international sense.”

Scientist Michelle Connolly in a burnt slash pile

Forest ecologist Michelle Connolly sits in front of a slash pile in B.C.’s inland rainforest, one of the rarest ecosystems on the planet. Logging contractors attempted to burn this pile and others but were stymied by wet weather. Trees grow to be many hundreds of years old in this rainforest because fire can’t gain a foothold. Photo: Taylor Roades / The Narwhal

As if on cue, along the Fraser Flats logging road the scientists spot four black bears and a young cinnamon-coloured grizzly bear, a species vulnerable to extinction in many jurisdictions, traversing a wetland on a fallen tree bleached grey in the sun.

A moose, a Canada lynx and a red fox follow the next day — only some of the rainforest’s charismatic megafauna, which includes species at risk of extinction such as southern mountain caribou, fisher, wolverine, goshawk and bull trout, which spawn in cool, sheltered streams in two old-growth rainforest valleys, the Goat and the Walker, both open for logging.

As Connolly takes stock of a new addition to the logging road, which has grown by several kilometres since her visit less than two weeks earlier, a wayward western tanager flits from bush to bush along the forest fringe, flashing tropical yellow and scarlet. Blue dragonflies suddenly appear like apparitions, whirling over the road where it tops a burbling creek, now running through an industrial culvert.

Politicians destroying ‘part of what it is to be Canadian’

Scientist Trevor Goward, who has studied the inland temperate rainforest for four decades, calls clear-cutting the grand cedar and hemlock stands an “international tragedy.”

“Our political leaders are destroying a major part of what it is to be Canadian,” says Goward, who lives near Wells Gray Park, close to the the rainforest’s southern and western fringe.

For Goward, one of North American’s leading lichenologists, the rare ancient trees are only the largest members of what he calls B.C.’s inland rainforest “biological archives,” which hold more than 2,300 plant species, including 400 species of moss.

Some plants are immediately recognizable to anyone who has spent time in a B.C. coastal rainforest: frilly horsetail, skunk cabbage and the rarer deer fern, whose feathery fronds resemble ostrich plumes. Dozens of inland rainforest plant species, including the white adder’s mouth orchid and the dainty and mountain moonworts, a type of fern, are vulnerable to extinction.

Goward focuses on the hundreds of lichen species in this rainforest, including oceanic species so far from their place of origin he says their presence is “almost inconceivable.”

“The number of oceanic species is beyond belief. It’s an absolutely incredible phenomenon.”

Goward has formally described dozens of lichens, including rare and endangered rainforest species, giving them evocative common names such as green moon, peppered paw and mourning phlegm.

Trevor Goward examines a lichen sample in the laboratory in the upstairs of his house. Photo: Louis Bockner / The Narwhal

a variety of lichen species from BC's inland temperate rainforest

A variety of lichen species from British Columbia’s inland temperate rainforest. Photo: Taylor Roades / The Narwhal

Many more await description, says Goward, who continues to pull out new biological gems from the vast inland rainforest archives. Five years ago, he and seven other lichenologists published a paper describing eight new species of inland rainforest lichen, including crumpled tarpaper, a lichen now listed as globally threatened.

“When you know something about the organisms that live in these forests, particularly the mosses and especially the lichens, you feel like you’re Gulliver in Gulliver’s Travels,” Goward says.

Caribou depend on inland rainforest valley bottoms

Inland rainforest lichens range from toad whiskers, resembling five o’clock shadow, on the underside of leaning trees, to Methuselah’s beard, which grows up to three or four metres in length and is wrapped around tree branches by the wind.

Leafy lung lichens, named for their resemblance to human lung tissue, grow only in places with clean air, yet include a species with the common name of smoker’s lung, for its black upper surface resembling cigarette tar.

Hair lichen in the inland rainforest, draped over tree branches like wiry wigs, is an essential winter food for woodland caribou, whose stomachs carry special bacteria that help them digest lichens.

Hair lichens die when buried in snow and can be out of reach for caribou in early winter, Goward notes. In years following winters of exceptionally deep snow, herds are forced to migrate to rainforest valley bottoms for prolonged periods — “a critical but much overlooked part of their lifestyle,” says Goward, who has studied the relationship between hair lichens and caribou since the 1980s.

“Part of the reason the caribou are disappearing is because they’re logging the lower elevation forest.”

Clearcuts in the anzac river valley of British Columbia

Clear cut logging in the Anzac River Valley. The valley bottom, where caribou migrate to find lichen during deep-snow winters, is also slated to be logged. Photo: Taylor Roades / The Narwhal

Thirty of B.C.’s 54 caribou herds are at risk of local extinction, including six of the remaining ten herds whose habitat includes the inland temperate rainforest. Little more than a decade ago, there were 18 deep-snow caribou herds, but eight of those herds no longer exist.

Goward suspects that ongoing loss of old-growth at lower elevations promotes occasional “starvation winters,” periods when caribou suffer from malnutrition. Such winters, he says, are likely to exacerbate caribou decline by, for example, increasing the mortality of calves born the following spring.

“Caribou biologists wedded to predator control are at a loss to explain the rapid decline of some herds,” Goward notes. “In my view, episodic starvation is certainly part of the story.”

Inland rainforest stores far more carbon than tropical rainforests

The B.C. government calls the inland rainforest a “rare and hidden treasure” in promotional materials, yet only small patches are protected.

Those patches are found in three provincial parks that straddle Highway 16 between Prince George and McBride, where Boreal BioEnergy, a B.C. forestry company, plans to open a biomass plant to turn wood waste, including from the rainforest’s ancient red cedar and hemlock, into pellets for export to Japan. All of the parks include large areas that have been clear-cut.

The Ancient Forest Park and protected area — Chun T’oh Wudujut in the local Lheidli language — was conserved by the B.C. government in 2016 but given short shrift because all eyes were on far more extensive new protections in the Great Bear Rainforest. Almost one-quarter of the 12,000-hectare Ancient Forest Park and protected area was clear-cut before the designation, according to Conservation North.

Clearcut near Highway 16, west of Prince George, B.C. Photo: Taylor Roades / The Narwhal

An information display near the park entrance singles out the largest tree in the conserved area, measuring five metres in diameter and thought to be more than 2,000 years old.

In the coastal rainforest, trees are generally big and some are old, Connolly points out.

The giants of the inland temperate forest are all old, yet a much shorter growing season means that only some reach the Leviathan proportions of the coastal behemoths, 54 of which the B.C. government recently protected from logging on the grounds that some of the largest trees deserve to stand.

Size matters in the world of B.C. politics, where both of the two major political parties, the Liberals and the NDP, promote industrial logging of the province’s remaining unprotected old-growth forests.

But here in the inland rainforest, it’s age that counts. The stately red cedars and hemlocks designated for logging have been absorbing carbon from the atmosphere for hundreds of years, in some cases well over a thousand.

“What we’re looking at is the accumulation of tons and tons of carbon that has been pulled out of the atmosphere and stored in these trees for centuries, helping to keep our planet cool,” DellaSala says. “It’s like outdoor air conditioning.”

A grove of ancient cedar trees in B.C.’s rare inland temperate rainforest. Some cedars in this globally unique forest are estimated to be more than 1,500 years old. What little remains of the unprotected rainforest is now slated to be clear-cut. Photo: Taylor Roades / The Narwhal

As part of the international study of primary and intact forest landscapes, Connolly and her colleagues at the Conservation Biology Institute in Corvallis, Oregon, are quantifying the above-ground carbon stored in the unprotected inland rainforest.

According to a peer-reviewed article by Australian scientists, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, temperate rainforests store twice as much carbon per hectare as the most carbon-dense tropical rainforests.

DellaSala says B.C., which is legally committed to slashing carbon emissions, is sitting on a world-class carbon sink.

“This is not being recognized as a potential carbon sanctuary,” says the scientist, whose PhD focused on forest fragmentation. “We’re missing an opportunity to slow down the pace and velocity of climate change by squandering this resource.”

Spruce beetle logging poses new threat to rare rainforest

Wearing thick rain pants and gloves as a shield against the copious spines of devil’s club, a medicinal shrub that grows like Jack’s beanstalk in the damp stillness of the rainforest, the scientists hike a short distance from the road into the designated old-growth management area. Connolly, wearing a bright safety vest and yellow rainproof overalls, carries a can of bear spray and a ringed notebook.

Tall cedar trees, some in clumps of three or four, stretch as far as the eye can see. Raindrops begin to plop onto the leaves of wild ginger, blackcurrant, bunchberry and foam flower, which looks like constellations of tiny white stars on the forest floor.

Here, in the old-growth management area, beside the planned clear-cut, Connolly and her colleagues have marked out a circular area one hectare in size, one of 28 such areas they are studying in different locations in the rainforest.

The scientists are measuring everything inside the circles, from saplings to towering cedars, by girth and height, using equations to estimate the carbon. Fallen trees on the forest floor, known as coarse woody debris, are also counted, although rainforest soil, also a carbon sink until it is disturbed by logging, is not part of their study.

When the rainforest is logged, “only a small fraction of the carbon goes to the mill,” Connolly points out. “The rest of it goes into the atmosphere.”

Notably, hidden and uncounted emissions from B.C. forestry exceed the province’s official emissions by threefold, according to a recent report from Sierra Club BC.

The value B.C. derives from logging primary rainforests, which provide ecosystem services such as clean water, carbon storage and air filtration, pales in comparison to the value of leaving them intact, according to DellaSala.

“We come in here and just take the trees, which do have an economic value. But, when you add up all the other ecosystem benefits that we get for free from these forests, they greatly exceed the one-time benefit we get from knocking them down and converting them into wood products. It’s really short-sighted.”

B.C.’s forest industry in transition

And now there is a new threat to the inland rainforest: the spruce beetle.

A cyclical spruce beetle outbreak in the Interior has accelerated logging plans for the inland temperate rainforest and other areas of the interior wet belt, even though Connolly points out there is no scientific evidence that logging shortens an outbreak.

“[Logging companies] are coming after the spruce and everything else is just going to be laid to waste,” she says.

Driving back to Prince George, whose city mascot is a Sasquatch-sized log man known as “Mr. PG,” Connolly and DellaSala pass ghost towns abandoned decades ago by the forest industry.

All that stands of an old Canfor mill beside the railroad tracks in the town of Upper Fraser is a beige-coloured tower with protruding pipes, now occupied by swallows, and a tumbledown trailer with a broken window.

Out of sight, lining the railroad tracks, are piles of rusting metal and cylinders filled with concrete, long-abandoned parts from an industry that underwent major reconstructive surgery decades ago, emerging as the major employer in a region known in forestry circles as the “fibre basket” of B.C.

A long-abandoned Canfor mill in the logging ghost town of Upper Fraser, B.C. Photo: Taylor Roades / The Narwhal

Metal Debris from abandoned saw mill

Rusted piping and metal debris left behind when Canfor’s Upper Fraser mill closed. Photo: Taylor Roades / The Narwhal

Prince George is still home to three pulp mills, a paper mill, seven lumber mills, a chip mill, a pole and post mill and two pellet mills.

But with few forests left to fill the shrinking fibre basket, forestry giant Canfor — which since 2006 has purchased a dozen plants in southern U.S. states — recently announced it will reduce operations at two Prince George pulp mills and at sawmills in Prince George and Mackenzie. The company also plans to close its sawmill in Vavenby, putting more than 170 people out of work.

Canfor Sawmill in Prince George British Columbia

Canfor pulp mill at sunset in Prince George.** Photo: Taylor Roades / The Narwhal

As B.C.’s forest-dependent communities brace for an inevitable transition, Connolly and her colleagues are calling on B.C.’s NDP government to take immediate measures to protect the remaining inland rainforest it promotes to tourists as “irreplaceable.”

Connolly says the current system of old-growth management areas does not provide nearly enough protection for the antique rainforest.

“We need to look at where the old-growth is on the landscape, everything older than 250 years,” she says. “We need to legally protect these areas in a system of old-growth reserves. We need to connect them to other areas of primary forest so that species can move through.”

“That’s the way to take old-growth protection here in this part of B.C. seriously.”

The Goat River valley west of Prince George. Much of the valley, including ancient cedars, is open for clear-cutting. Photo: Taylor Roades / The Narwhal


This article was produced in partnership with the Small Change Fund.

* Article updated at 2:30 p.m. on August 6, 2019, to correct a typo. Canfor announced it will reduce operations at sawmills in Prince George and Mackenzie.

** Photo caption updated at 8:10 a.m. on August 7, 2019, to say pulp mill instead of sawmill. 

Sarah Cox (@sarahcox_bc) | Twitter

Sarah Cox is an award-winning author and journalist based in Victoria, B.C. She got her start in journalism at UBC’s student newspaper The Ubyssey and went on to work as a staff reporter for the Vancouver Sun and Ottawa Citizen. Sarah is the author of the 2018 book Breaching the Peace: The Site C Dam and a Valley’s Stand Against Big Hydro. The book won a B.C. Book Prize and was a finalist for the Shaughnessy Cohen Prize for Political Writing and the George Ryga award for social awareness. 
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