COLUMN: Remembering Suzy Hamilton

Reporter Bill Metcalfe reflects on his decades-long friendship with one of Nelson's most active citizens who died this month.

In about 2008

Since Suzy Hamilton’s death on September 11 at the age of 69, I keep hearing her voice that soft, distinctive voice and accent. Sometimes it’s a memory of Suzy as the host of The Ecocentric on Kootenay Co-op Radio; at other times it’s an imagined chat with her in a chance meeting on the street. Or sometimes it’s just her voice, in no particular setting.

I first met Suzy in the late 1970s when I lived in Smithers. My friend Doug Aberley had purchased the entire abandoned town of Pacific on the railway line between Hazelton and Terrace, on the other side of the Skeena from the highway, off the grid. He thought it would be a good place for an intentional community. Suzy and Earl Hamilton, American refugees from the Vietnam War draft, bought the town from Doug, moved there, built a house, and had two kids.

Suzy was a trained journalist and sometimes wrote northern BC news for the Vancouver Sun and Province.

She has said she found her calling as an environmentalist during her years in Pacific because she could see where her water came from, and it was there she saw her first clear-cut. Her engagement with water, forestry, and wilderness conservation started there and continued until two weeks ago.

Eventually the Hamiltons and I moved to Nelson, at different times for different reasons. Pacific, in the meantime, is fading, abandoned again, back into the forest.

Suzy and I were both involved in the beginnings of Kootenay Co-op Radio, where she and John Alton started The Ecocentric in 1999 and co-hosted it for many years. The show still continues, hosted by other people over the last few years.

From the start, Suzy knew what she wanted to do at the station and she had the skill to do it. She wasn’t trying to promote herself or serve her own needs. Her calm professionalism, alert mind and friendly smile were a grounding force there. She was wide awake and undistracted.

Zoë Creighton, the founder of the station and its manager in the early days, told me this week that that every time she talked with Suzy she knew she would learn something new.

“We all benefitted enormously from her dyed-in-the-wool commitment to independent media and volunteerism,” Zoë said.

My conversations with Suzy over the years were about radio, writing, politics, and the state of the world around us, not so much about our personal lives. But I found my friendship with her very comforting, and I still do.

On The Ecocentric, Suzy was an environmental advocate who used many of the techniques of journalism, but she did not claim to be neutral. She wanted the people in the environmental trenches, and those affected by environmental problems, to be able to tell their stories.

She could be a tough and unsentimental interviewer or a friendly and supportive one.

Suzy dedicated much of her time in the 1990s to starting and running Kootenay Barter, which had its own currency and newspaper. That project did not survive long-term, but the West Kootenay EcoSociety did. It has become an influential and successful mainstay of life in Nelson. Suzy was the driving force behind its formation and a major presence there in its early years. She also led the revitalization of the Kokanee Park Visitor Centre and started the Nelson Garden Festival.

In all these activities there were, of course, other people around her, contributing also. But they all know who the real leader was.

I interviewed her in 2004 and asked her what kept her going.

“I keep it focused on my own life and the people around me,” she said. “The changes I try to make have to be personal and it radiates out from there. I keep informed. Despair won’t get us anywhere and I am inspired by the clean air and water we still have here.”

Sometimes we take people for granted. At least I do. Now, when I hear Suzy’s voice in my mind, I am reminded that I need to stop doing that. The sound of her voice is a wake-up call, even now, as it always has been.

There will be a celebration of Suzy’s life at the Kokanee Creek Park Visitor Centre on Sunday, October 9, at 2:00 p.m.

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