“The end of this story has been written, because there is only one ending acceptable to the people of Shawnigan - that this permit is revoked and the site is cleaned up. We will persevere until this outcome is reached. We will persevere no matter how long it takes, no matter what it takes. We will persevere because we are on the side of what is right, we are on the side of justice, we are on the side of clean drinking water, and we are on the side of the future of Shawnigan.
We will not give up." - Sonia Furstenau, speaking to the Save Shawnigan Water rally at the BC Legislature.
Recently, the Shawnigan community received the news we’ve been waiting for nearly four years to hear: Cobble Hill Holdings’ permit that allowed them to dump 5 million tonnes of contaminated soil into our watershed was - at long last- cancelled by Minister of Environment Mary Polak.
This decision was pivotal for a community that has long been worried about the safety of its drinking water. No longer would CHH and its various operators be allowed to dump a total of five million tonnes of contaminated soil on top of an un-mapped aquifer. No longer would volunteers be spending countless hours of their time monitoring the site, gathering evidence of non-compliance, alerting the government to it, figuring out creative ways to protest it, taking the story forward again and again, keeping media informed, and generally putting their lives on hold.
While the news was welcome, the personal cost to the community has been enormous. It is unbelievable that in this day and age. and in Canada, we have had to fight our own government to protect our drinking water. Losing faith in the very institutions designed to protect us is profoundly disturbing, and left unchecked, has deep ramifications.
People are disillusioned with our government.
Until the day the permit was cancelled, not once did it seem that the provincial government was in Shawnigan’s comer. The tone was set the day that 15,000 signatures against the permit were brought to the legislature - and both Premier Christy Clark and Minister Polak walked out during its presentation. Nothing could have signalled more strongly to the community what we were in for.
The fight has been costly from every perspective.
The Shawnigan Resident’s Association and the Cowichan Valley Regional District both filed BC Supreme court challenges, with combined costs approaching $2 million. We don’t even know how much the provincial government has spent fighting their own citizens, but when you consider the judges, bailiffs, court recorders, Ministry of Environment staff responding to countless letters and requests from the community, monitoring of the site, plus the lawyers’ fees, the number must be high.
This obscene process, where profit is privatized, and the taxpayers pick up the tab for everything else, has to end. We haven’t even talked up clean up and removal of the soil. Who will pay for that? The taxpayer, again?
Perhaps the only difference between Shawnigan and other communities in BC facing similar issues is this: we were able to effectively organize and challenge the status quo. Out of roughly 100 key volunteers, 13 groups were formed, with the team leads forming a core group that kept us going forward under Sonia Furstenau’s direction. Special mention must go to the research team that has gone above and beyond, putting in countless hours to counter, with fact and science, the government’s opinion that everything was just fine.
It is difficult to convey how much time, effort, and heart the community has put into fighting this. It truly has been a massive. Outside of the core group, hundreds have helped out - from the smallest of ways to the biggest, and with many donors of all stripes. It would almost be ridiculous but for the silver lining - how much stronger the community is for it all. We know what it takes. We know what it means to have each other’s backs. We are the forces of know, and we're not going away.
Every group has to have a leader. It would be remiss to not mention the one one key player throughout it all who kept the ball rolling, who didn’t give up, who displayed hope and courage when we were hit with setbacks, and led with integrity. Sonia Furstenau spent four years rallying the community, reminding us to never give up hope, fighting hard for what she believed in, and always promising that the outcome we desired was within our reach, as long as we persevered. It was the ultimate symbiotic relationship. Here’s the last word:
“This victory is a testament to what can be achieved when a community decides to truly work together. By focusing so much of our energy on the positive - the community building, the compassion and love at the centre of our efforts - we were all able to support each other through even the darkest moments of this fight. Shawnigan is the example that proves that a group of committed citizens who choose to be rooted in integrity, honesty, and kindness can indeed change the world."
Laura Colpitts is a photographer and storyteller splitting her time between Shawnigan Lake and Calgary AS. She is a key contributor to the Save Shawnigan Water Community Action Group, and is involved in the campaign to elect Sonia to the legislature. This article is entirely her own opinion, separate to the election.