It started as the sound of rustling underbrush behind the heavily wooded Salt Spring Island hillside where I live. It’s not a deer, I thought. It’s not a cougar. Way too noisy. It must be people. Now it’s highly unusual, you understand, to hear people in this neck of the woods. There are miles of uninhabited bush behind our cabin; I refer to it as supernatural nowhere BC. If Walden had a bush, this would be it.
Salt Spring Island, British Columbia, located 35 minutes by ferry from Vancouver Island and three hours from Vancouver, has a population of 10,000 people spread out among 182 square kilometres of lakes and woods with most of the population concentrated near the bustling town of Ganges. The South End, where I live with my sweetie and son, is far from Ganges and “the last of lawless Salt Spring,” as a friend of mine puts it. For me it symbolizes what west coast life ultimately represents: freedom, a chance to live off the grid as I have done all my adult life, grow vegetables in a Mediterranean climate—and now, continue to do so with my family and create a home.
So when I looked out from the cabin we have rented for three years and saw two men in bright orange work vests pounding stakes into the ground, I was surprised to say the least. A “rich American” had bought the property adjoining our place, one explained, sight unseen, online. These surveyors had been hired to drive a stake into the ground every five feet across five acres of land to mark Mr. Cyber-American’s property line.
The next day I came back, ripped out every single stake and chopped it up for kindling. I left the ones painted white and pounded them deep into mother earth with my sledge.
Salt Spring Island was originally claimed as Coast Salish territory, and still is. Property lines have no place here—it’s all stolen land. No, really. First Nations here never signed treaties surrendering land. Any pacts the natives signed were friendship pacts. To the colonizers they were legally binding documents, and often land deeds.
At the top of Cyber-American’s place is a midden, a garbage dump of bones and shells indicating habitation by First Nations. The Cowichan people have been coming here for more than 5,000 years, collecting oysters and clams, harvesting plants and hunting wildlife. In the 19th century, African Americans came to Salt Spring escaping slavery, and a little later Hawaiians travelled here as shipmates with the Hudson Bay Company and decided to stay. Now I’m adding to the midden heap.
During the early years of transition, nobody questioned citizenship. Even today what does it really matter—we’re all global citizens right? But to understand here, you have to live here in relationship to the land and its people, develop an understanding of its ecology and the effect it has on you. It’s what makes us so damn weird out west. We love the land. A case of nimbyism? Hardly. I don’t own this backyard.
So, yes, ripping out those stakes was incredibly therapeutic. It also, I discovered later, placed me within an intriguing subset of public opinion. It’s the subject of Environics cofounder and social scientist Michael Adams’s Fire and Ice: The United States, Canada and the Myth of Converging Values (Penguin Canada). Canadians are actually becoming ever more different than Americans. The book is based on interviews with 14,000 Canadians and Americans over a 10-year period and two years’ worth of analysis of trends in more than 100 key indicators of social and cultural values.
Nowhere are these differences more apparent than in British Columbia. Of 16 North American geographic regions, British Columbia is the least driven with consumerism, and the most interested in life’s nonmaterial rewards. The United States, Adams points out, is “lacking in ecological values,” which indicates a detachment from the land. Ecological fatalism is up in the US, he adds, while empathy for your neighbour is way down.
“The whole island is being bought by Americans,” the surveyor working on the property next door—a longtime Salt Spring resident—points out. He should know, they are employing him. Finding out the numbers to support such a comment, however, is a lot more difficult. As of January 1, new provisions in the Privacy Act make it impossible to find out the nationalities of landowners in Canada.
But after talking to a number of real estate agents, one gets a pretty good idea about who is buying property—not only on Salt Spring Island, but on the rest of the Gulf Islands and Vancouver Island as well. One Salt Spring realtor told me that one-third of all waterfront property on Salt Spring is owned by Americans, and there are areas of Salt Spring that are 50 percent American-owned.
On neighbouring Mayne Island, one sale out of 40 went to an American three years ago. Over the past year, one in five properties that sold went to an American. On Salt Spring Island, the buyers are the big-money kind. Goldie Hawn, Al Pacino and Robin Williams own places but don’t live in them. People who don’t have to think twice about the price of a home are driving up land prices. In the past three years housing prices on Salt Spring have increased by half.
There are three types of US real estate refugees: those who immigrate here and gain citizenship, those who seek citizenship but are denied it, and those who simply want real estate holdings here. It is the latter that make up the bulk of purchasers here. “They disapprove of American foreign policy and the current Bush administration, they fear that in America they will be under terrorist attack and they want to have Canada as a safe place to retreat to in the event of such an attack,” says Jan MacPherson, another Salt Spring realtor.
A few days before the border-stake incident, I saw a Humvee with Oregon license plates at the recycling depot. So I was in a certain frame of mind, let’s say, when I chopped up the stakes. While considering my feelings and discussing them with friends, an intriguing bumper sticker started showing up on vans, island beaters, road signs and hydro poles: “USA Out of Iraq and The Gulf Islands.” Apparently I wasn’t alone in my thoughts.
To be fair, the American migration is part of a larger trend of gentrification on the islands. In the 1960s and ‘70s, young people moved here searching for a simpler way of life. The hippie dream was alive and well and the growing conditions for marijuana perfect for a down payment. Today, back-to-the-land has been replaced by back-to-the-bland, comfortable middle-aged city-dwellers investing in country property (preferably on the waterfront) where they can develop estates for weekends and holiday retreats. Here it isn’t often a case of trying to live off the land; more often it’s living off stock options in an expensive second home with a hobby garden and an electric fence.
“I’d like to see an economy where people who are investing their lives here have the opportunity to buy property,” says Ellen Garvie, a community development consultant. Garvie suggests that back to nature at $500-per-square-foot properties such as the one built by Randy Bachman of BTO and the Guess Who (which reportedly employed 400 people) are not sustainable. The effect of
the value of the house outweighs the short-term employment opportunities it provides. And the people who work on the house won’t be able to afford to buy property here.
The island has a zero vacancy rate for renters, and as Garvie notes (and I have experienced) there’s a shocking decrepitude to places available for rent. The last place we rented was 400 square feet, with no tub, for $750 a month and the landlord and his barking dog Bubba adding to the midden pile outside our door.
In the 1996 federal census, 17 percent of locals reported earning gross personal incomes below the federal low-income cut-off level of $14,473 for a single person and $27,235 for a four-person household. Almost half the households on Salt Spring enjoy an income of less than $30,000, with 30 percent of households surviving on less than $20,000. Can one experience “the good life” under such conditions?
To make sure the good life remains accessible to longtime residents, a few have gathered together to form the Salt Spring Island Coalition, whose goal is to develop an independent political entity—an Island State—to ensure a sustainable community. According to Eric Booth, who was born and raised on Salt Spring Island and has raised two children here, chances are that only one or two percent of the 100 children graduating from high school each year on Salt Spring today will be able to remain here and raise their own kids.
Booth, who worked as a real estate agent on the island for close to a decade, bases this statement on the fact that there are only 6,500 subdividable lots on Salt Spring Island, which can support a population of 15,000 to 18,000 people. “After that, the population of Salt Spring will have maxed out,” he says. “There will be no more land available to build. Once that happens the price of real estate here will go through the roof.”
But you can’t stop people from wanting to come here, can you?
“Oh but you can,” says Booth. “What is the current immigration criteria for coming to Salt Spring now? If you have the money you can come. What definition of citizenship is that? If Salt Spring were to become an Island Nation like the Isle of Mann or the Channel Islands we could define what criteria make for a citizen. In the future the people who contribute to the uniqueness of Salt Spring, the artists and craftspersons, the musicians and farmers, won’t be able to afford to live here. Then the Island will be only for the rich. We can insure that there will always be room for a culturally diverse population if we define it by our citizenship.”
Prince Edward Island has taken one small step in that direction. Property owners who were born outside its boundaries pay double the property tax of the indigenous population.
“People who come here from out of country don’t make the same connections to community in most cases,” says Garvie, “If you are younger and raise your children here, you can put a face to the community and invest energy into it. It is in your best interest.”
Four cedars, each at least 500 years old, have already been chopped down on my neighbour’s property. Cedars my two-year-old son and I have placed our hands upon countless times, But it cuts deeper than that. There is now a daily assault of chainsaws outside our rented home. It truly does feel like an American invasion. In just weeks the ecosystem here has been reduced from a relatively undisturbed 10,000 years of post-glacial forest life to a redneck mud pit of man conquering trees. (I have a chainsaw; I cut down four trees a year for firewood. This is not about raving environmentalism.)
The bush is abuzz with the sounds of building another weekend retreat for Americans. And with the silence goes the idea of living on the land and raising your kids here. And, of course, for my sweetie, son and I the question remains where to go next? With all the US immigration headed this way I hear there are some great real estate bargains just south of the border.