By Catherine M Gilbert
Few people can say they’ve placed their head inside the mouth of a killer whale, talked to black bears, or put themselves in harm’s way to save a seal on the icy terrain of remote Belle Isle.
Yet for Canadian environmental activist David Garrick, these were only some of the risks he took in a lifetime devoted to protecting our planet. Known to his many friends and collaborators as “Walrus Oakenbough,” a name he adopted while writing for this very paper, Garrick was a true eco-warrior who worked with an almost superhuman dedication to right the wrongs he saw around him.
Although educated in anthropology and archaeology at Trent University in Ontario, Garrick turned down a position with National Historic Sites in Ottawa upon graduation in 1970, and decided instead to explore new ideas in living cooperatively. After purchasing a Volkswagen van he drove west to Vancouver, where he connected with the city’s counterculture community. Soon he was writing for the Straight on various topics including cooperative housing, organic gardening, herbal medicine, and community events.
Reporting on the All Season’s Park protest in May of 1971 presented an opportunity for Garrick to become engaged in an activist movement that was aimed at preventing the Four Seasons Hotel chain from building a complex adjacent to Stanley Park. Protesters occupied the site for a year, and Garrick helped supply food, bring in live bands for entertainment, and do clean-up. He forged lifelong friendships with fellow participants Rod Marining and Paul Watson, who later that year joined in Greenpeace’s inaugural voyage to protest atomic bomb testing in Amchitka, Alaska.
Garrick headed south to attend a Gathering of Peace in Colorado and to research alternative communities. In his autobiography, he cites a sojourn with a Navajo community in New Mexico as a turning point in his life. When his hosts showed him sheep with swollen eyes and unexplained coughs, he suspected that the cause was environmental contamination. This was confirmed later in 1978, when Garrick began studying the effects of radiation exposure, and realized the sheep were ill from radiation originating in nearby uranium mines. Collaborating with the Canadian Scientific Pollution & Environmental Control Society (today’s SPEC) and the Voice of Women, he worked for the next decade to educate the public about the dangers of radiation from uranium mining and nuclear fallout.
In 1973, Watson alerted him to the Lakota Nation’s land claim occupation at Wounded Knee in South Dakota, and the two brothers-in-arms, with backing from Greenpeace, set out to investigate. As they became embroiled in violent confrontations between the resident Oglala Sioux and government forces, they feared for their lives. Both men were eventually honoured in an Oglala Sioux ceremony, where Garrick received a vision of his life’s purpose.
“Wounded Knee was a powerful and profound experience for me,” Garrick said. It inspired him to write a series of articles on Indigenous land claims, treaty violations, and ecological challenges in Canada. For the rest of his life, he would engage with First Nations in Canada and the US on these issues.
Two years later, Garrick and Watson joined the Greenpeace crew on the fishing seiner Phyllis Cormack for the first whale campaign. The crew’s encounter with Russian whaling ships in the Pacific garnered world attention, bringing fame to the small Vancouver-based environmental organization. After the trip, Garrick and a friend broke into Victoria’s Sealand of the Pacific to protest keeping whales in captivity, and it was here that he put his head inside the mouth of the captive orca named Haida.
“For years afterward,” he said, “I felt the orca’s eye always with me, watching.”
The commercial hunting of baby harp seals for their white fur in Newfoundland also caught the attention of him and Watson; in the winter of 1976, they planned an expedition to protest at the hunting grounds under the Greenpeace banner.
In the mid ‘80s, while visiting Paul Spong at OrcaLab on Yukusam/Hanson Island near Alert Bay, Garrick learned that old-growth trees on the island were slated to be logged. Setting up camp in the forest, he independently researched the proposed logging area, documenting a number of culturally modified trees (CMTs). His identification of over 2000 CMTs assisted the ‘Namgis Nation’s fight for protected status for the island, achieved finally in 2001.
By 1993, Garrick’s off-the-grid ecological camp had become home, and he spent his remaining working years surrounded by forest and wildlife. When asked if he was concerned about bears getting into his food supplies he explained, “I would talk to them and show them where I had food for them. They left my stash alone.”
For several years, he taught CMT identification—until illness forced him to relocate to Alert Bay in 2018. He died on May 23, 2023; the community honoured him at a celebration of life organized by ‘Namgis chief Don Svanvik and Paul Spong. His tireless efforts over a lifetime of activism will not soon be forgotten.
Catherine Marie Gilbert is an award-winning, best-selling author and Vancouver Island historian. She has a passion for uncovering unknown stories of British Columbia’s past. She is currently writing the life story of Garrick from his role in the formative years of Greenpeace in the 1970s, to his involvement with numerous environmental campaigns throughout the 1980s, to his groundbreaking study of CMTs on Hanson Island, BC.