Arno Kopecky grew up on Canada’s West Coast, where he was routinely surrounded by bears, eagles and orcas. He has travelled all over the world, trekking out on safari in Kenya and reporting from the frontlines of rainforest conflicts between oil companies and the indigenous communities of the Amazon. But no experience has influenced his environmentalist worldview more than seeing the Great Bear Rainforest’s pristine wilderness firsthand.
“The closest I’ve come to being able to describe it is that it’s like being on a Canadian safari. I’ve seen some truly amazing rainforests, and I’ve seen a lot of different animals, but none of it was as in-your-face as up there — humpback whales breaching, rivers full of salmon, everywhere around you wolves and lynx and bears,” Kopecky, who will be the guest author for the upcoming Kootenay Book Weekend, told the Star.
“And now they want to drive oil tankers through that zone.”
That’s the basic gist of Kopecky’s memoir, The Oil Man and the Sea, which he will be discussing during an author talk on Sept. 20 at the Best Western in Nelson. The book is the result of a collaboration with photojournalist Ilja Herb in which the pair shared a 41-foot sailboat on a trip from Vancouver Island up to Kitimat, and the story recounts their adventures while exploring the contemporary geopolitics of oil and gas extraction.
“With the Northern Gateway project the parallels with Peru were amazingly striking. In Peru, Canada was the big bad guy. Suddenly that seemed to get flipped on its head a bit, and we were the little country. Here we’ve got this remote, globally significant wilderness that almost nobody has ever seen, and they just wanted to blaze right through it.”
Kopecky was reminded of the violent conflicts he covered, and wondered how the situation would play out on a first world stage.
“These big multi-national corporations, many of them from Canada, were acting almost with impunity in the Amazon. The terms of their engagement were favourable to the companies, somewhat favourable to the Peruvian government, but not good for the people who live there. There was an Amazon-wide native uprising, and a lot of blood was spilled.”
However, the longer Kopecky spent in the Great Bear Rainforest while researching The Oil Man and the Sea, he found the environmental themes starting to take a back seat as he was engaged by First Nations groups and grew to understand what they’d been through.
“Neither of us had spent any time in reserves or with that culture, and here we are two white guys barging into their reserves with cameras, voice recorders — but they welcomed us in, told us their stories and showed us their beautiful places. We learned a lot about their history.”
And most of that history has an apocalyptic flavour.
“It’s so striking, because here’s a people that went from 30,000 down to 197 people, and I think they’re up to 2,500 or so now. Hearing that kind of history and seeing where they’re at today, they’re quite hopeful for their new generation. There’s a new sense of optimism in the air.”
That’s long overdue, according to him.
“With the truth and reconciliation committees there’s been this dawning awareness about these First Nations and how badly we’ve treated them through residential schools and everything else. It’s only now, this year, that BC at least is putting aboriginal education into the curriculum province-wide.”
And that history is crucial to understanding the situation we’re currently in, Kopecky says.
“There is a good news that is coming out of the bad news. We have a resilience built into nature, and even though the Great Bear Rainforest was devastated in the 20th century, the ecosystem is doing well with just a brief interlude.”
He said salmon schools, whale populations and other ecological systems were in danger, but they’ve bounced back since the local industries closed up shop.
“That’s the message I would like to share in this age of despair — the resilience of nature. It’s not as grim and dire as we sometimes think. There’s still a lot to save.”
Kopecky will deliver his talk at 11 a.m. on Sept. 20.
The cost for the full Kootenay Book Weekend is $95. For more information visit kootenaybookweekend.ca.