This was how Green Party leader Elizabeth May appeared in the program for the 1989 Get High on Nature conference in Nelson.

This was how Green Party leader Elizabeth May appeared in the program for the 1989 Get High on Nature conference in Nelson.

The federal leaders’ Kootenay connections

Elizabeth May, Justin Trudeau, and Stephen Harper have all visited West Kootenay for reasons political and otherwise.

When Canadians go to the polls on Monday, it will be 25 years to the day since Green Party leader Elizabeth May addressed the second Get High on Nature conference in Nelson.

May was actually at both the 1989 and 1990 environmental forums by that name, hosted by the Nelson school district. May, at the time a lawyer and executive director of Cultural Survival Canada, delivered speeches with the theme “The Challenge of Survival.”

In the first year, Nelson Daily News reporter Kathleen Rodgers wrote May’s “emotional speech … had students on their feet, giving their own views about the planet’s future.”

“The crowd applauded enthusiastically when she called for ‘sustainable development, that meets the needs of the present, without sacrificing the needs of future generations. If we constantly buy stuff and buy stuff and buy stuff … we won’t feel very much better at the end of it.”

May branded Canada the “world’s worst energy waster” but urged students to “stay cheerful,” recycle, use transit, conserve energy, and write to government ministers.

“Don’t worry if the letter you get back is manifestly stupid and misses the point,” she said to laughter. “It’s been counted.”

At the end of her speech, May asked conference participants to imagine the year 2050, “flying through the sky like an eagle and seeing clean air with no smog below, swimming through the sea and seeing clean water and schools of fish and dolphins with no sewage outfalls or driftnets, strolling through the forests and seeing beautiful lush growth with many wild animals.”

She received a standing ovation.

The following year May moderated a panel discussion and delivered a similar address that again closed with what freelance reporter Bonny Klovance called “an emotional visualization activity which took participants through the world of the future which was environmentally sound.”

That last part sticks out in Michael Jessen’s mind. He was among the presenters at the 1990 conference in his then-new role of recycling coordinator for the Regional District of Central Kootenay.

“[That] part of her talk was so incredibly powerful that a number of students were crying,” he says.

“She did a visualization exercise asking the students to think of the kind of world that they wished to live in, one devoid of the pollution that was prevalent in that day’s world. I remember being impressed that she used this technique to get the students to think of a better future.”

Local resident Frances Welwood, who attended both conferences, says that while not everyone had heard of May before, afterward they all spoke about and quoted her.

“Her enthusiasm, knowledge, humour and positive spirit were contagious,” Welwood says. “We had acquired a new focus and a new vocabulary. ‘Environmentalism, sustainability, advocacy, global impact, responsibility to nature, and recycling’ were the neo-buzzwords of the day.”

Twenty-five years later, Welwood wonders how many teenagers at that conference, now in their 40s, recall the “spirit and awareness of their future generated by Elizabeth May and her cohort of environmentalists.”

ABOVE: Justin Trudeau and daughter Ella-Grace arrive aboard Streetcar 23 to Lakeside Park in Nelson in July 2013. (Bob Hall/Nelson Star photo)

Liberal leader Justin Trudeau has an exceptionally close relationship with West Kootenay, but it’s borne out of tragedy: in November 1998, an avalanche swept his younger brother Michel into a lake in Kokanee Glacier Provincial Park during a back-country ski trip. At the time, Michel was living in Rossland and working at the ski hill there.

In his autobiography, Common Ground, Justin recalled he was finishing a stint as a substitute teacher at a school in Coquitlam when his mother called at 5 a.m. to say there had been an accident.

“I knew from the tone of her voice that it involved one of my brothers. I discovered that the cliche phrases were all based in reality: I went numb, my heart sank, and my blood ran cold all at the same time …

“I felt a spasm of guilt. What was Michel doing out on that glacier? What hadn’t I, as his older brother, found some way to protect him? We lived in the same province. I should have visited him more, called him more, watched over him more, done something to keep him from danger.”

When they last spoke, a few days before the fateful trip, Michel told him: “It’s early in the season, so we have to be careful.”

Justin replied “in the assertive tone of a concerned parent or older sibling: ‘Yes, you must be especially careful at this point in the season.’ He burst out laughing. He knew that I knew little about avalanche dangers and the steps that need to be taken to avoid them … I learned so much more when, after MIchel’s death, I became a director of the Canadian Avalanche Foundation.”

Trudeau wrote that his brother ventured into the park because it contained everything he valued: “a remote wilderness location, stunning scenery, challenging skiing, and the kind of stillness that is so rare in our hectic world.”

Michel once presciently said “When it’s my turn, just leave me down at the bottom of the mountain where I lie.”

Kokanee Lake was at the bottom of the mountain. His body was never found.

“I still miss him. I will always miss him,” Trudeau wrote. “Michel was just 23 when he died, but he had already found his calm zone, a private place that eludes many of us.”

While brother Sacha came to Nelson in the immediate wake of Michel’s death, Justin has since been here several times. His family supported the campaign to build a new cabin in the park — which put him in close contact with current New Democrat candidate Wayne Stetski, then regional parks manager.

Trudeau last visited Nelson in July 2013, where he was welcomed by about 300 people at Lakeside Park after arriving aboard Streetcar 23.

During the same trip he took his wife and children to see Kokanee Lake.

“It’s where my little brother is, in one of the most beautiful places in the world. I want to share it with my family,” he said.

ABOVE: Then-opposition leader and future prime minister Stephen Harper visited the Brilliant Dam expansion project in March 2005. (Lana Rodlie/Trail Times photo)

Prime Minister Stephen Harper has visited West Kootenay at least three times at different stages of his political career.

In late 2001, while seeking the leadership of the Canadian Alliance, he came to Castlegar at the invitation of local MP Jim Gouk, whom he had been elected alongside in 1993 as part of the initial wave of Reform MPs.

Harper didn’t seek re-election but Gouk always encouraged him to return to politics. He spoke to a modest gathering of mainly party faithful at the recreation complex.

Harper came back to Castlegar in March 2005 as Conservative and opposition leader, and toured the Brilliant expansion project. “It’s pretty impressive,” he told reporters. “It obviously fits in with a lot of plans of various governments to put more emphasis on hydro-electric power.”

He also took the opportunity to bash the then-Liberal government.

“If you look at the way the government has treated the minority parliament, it’s insulting. Bringing forward [all sorts of] legislation, piling all kinds of controversial things onto the same bill … if they carry on like that, you wonder how long a minority parliament will last.”

Harper said he’d been to the Kootenays many times, both for political travel and on vacation.

He returned to Castlegar as prime minister in November 2007 to cap a swing through western Canada. His 20-minute speech to about 275 supporters at the Fireside Inn attacked the opposition, reiterated Tory accomplishments, and praised local candidate Rob Zandee. He took no questions.

Harper was also poised to visit Castlegar in December 2005 in support of Conservative candidate Derek Zeisman, who was then in a hospital bed after a highway crash, but Harper’s plane couldn’t get in.

It was probably just as well, for soon after, smuggling allegations surfaced against Zeisman and the Tories dropped him.

ABOVE: NDP leader Thomas Mulcair (right) visited local candidate Wayne Stetski (left) in Cranbrook last month. (Barry Coulter/Cranbrook Daily Towsman photo)

Unlike his predecessor Jack Layton, who visited Nelson in 2002 and 2005, New Democrat leader Thomas Mulcair isn’t known to have ever been to West Kootenay. But he came close last month, spending an afternoon in Cranbrook — making him the only leader to visit Kootenay-Columbia during this election campaign.

Mulcair met with residents to hear personal experiences about caring for family members with Alzheimer’s and dementia and then announced the NDP’s national strategy on the subject.