Gwen Barlee gets a lot of calls at work from ordinary people.
She remembers someone phoning the Vancouver headquarters of the Wilderness Committee last year from Summit Lake in southeast B.C.
It was about the western toads in the small community. Every year, more than a million juvenile toads move from the lake to the nearby forest, where they will spend most of their lives. The migration is considered one of the world’s great wildlife marvels.
The person at the other end of the line was telling the national policy director of the Wilderness Committee that the habitat of the amphibians is going to be logged.
Barlee recalled the person asking, “What can I do? Can you help me? Can we work together? I want to do the right thing to protect these toads.”
According to Barlee, people like these are her real heroes.
“I so much admire people that are working full-time, whose jobs aren’t activism, but who see something in their community that needs to be righted,” Barlee told the Georgia Straight in a phone interview. “They want to do the right thing, even though they don’t have any background in activism or they don’t even maybe call themselves environmentalists.”
This admiration is natural, because doing the right thing and caring about the environment have been engrained in Barlee since childhood.
“I’ve come from a family that was very, very involved in politics and social justice, and so that was always a topic of discussion,” she said. “And so I was always concerned, whether it was labour justice or social justice—and really, environmentalism is about environmental justice.”
She recalled growing up in a house where the likes of former premier Dave Barrett and cabinet colleagues of her father, Bill, in the B.C. NDP government during the 1990s would drop by for dinner.
“Even as kids, you know, we’d have these endless political discussions around the dinner table, and dinner would last two or three hours, and people nearly had to take turns to ask questions, and everyone was so animated,” Barlee related.
Next door was the house of playwright and family friend George Ryga. His works include The Ecstasy of Rita Joe, which deals with aboriginal issues.
“There’s also fascinating political discussions when we’d go down to the Rygas’, and so I was sort of surrounded by that, and a lot of those discussions weren’t just politics,” Barlee recalled. “It’s about political justice; it was about labour justice; it was about environmental justice; and it was about activism and being involved in your community and trying to change things for the better.”
Barlee, born in Penticton and raised in Summerland, grew up with an astonishing diversity of wildlife around her.
“There’s over, like, 250 species of birds that nest in the South Okanagan,” she said. “So when I go on trips with my dad, who at that time was involved in mining—he also produced a magazine called Canada West—I remember seeing the incredible diversity of birds, whether it would be bobolinks when you’re getting into Osoyoos, whether it would be, you know, hummingbirds. And then when we go by Keremeos, then you’d see the mountain goats, and then when you’d be going by Vaseux Lake, you’d see the mountain sheep.”
Her experience taught Barlee early on about the importance of the wildlife and wilderness heritage of B.C.
“That sort of seeped into me, became part of my DNA, and it’s part of what made me proud to be a British Columbian,” she said.
This is also part of the reason why the ongoing campaign to designate a national-park reserve in the South Okanagan–Similkameen region is very close to her heart. She has been working on this issue for more than 10 years.
“It has a huge amount of B.C.’s species at risk,” she said about the South Okanagan–Similkameen area. “It’s just incredible. To me, it’s one of the most beautiful places on Earth.”
Her childhood experience also partly explains why another campaign that is dear to her is to have B.C. introduce provincial legislation to protect wildlife.
“We’re one of only two provinces—the other is Alberta—that doesn’t have stand-alone legislation to protect species at risk, and we have 1,900 species at risk, including killer whales, including Vancouver Island marmots, including spotted owls.”
Barlee has been with the Wilderness Committee since 2001, starting as a forest campaigner.
Founded in 1980, the group is the largest membership-based wilderness-preservation group in Canada. It has 60,000 supporters and volunteers across the country
Most of the funding for the Wilderness Committee comes from its supporters, ordinary people who donate $20 to $100 a year.
The group doesn’t take corporate funding.
“That gives us autonomy,” Barlee noted. “That enables us enough to really listen to the people who support us. It enables us to do the right thing.”
This is what sustains the Wilderness Committee as an authentic grassroots organization. It keeps its ear to the ground, paying attention to things being talked about by people—like the person who called Barlee last year about the western toads of Summit Lake.