Author, conservationist and former superintendent of Banff National Park, Kevin Van Tighem, wants Albertans to reimagine themselves.
At a time when social, economic and environmental changes confront and confound Alberta, Van Tighem, a fourth-generation Albertan, says we need better ways of remembering our past, knowing our present and imagining our future.
But you don’t have to have far-reaching familial history to care for this province.
“It’s not how deep your roots are, it’s how firmly they grip,” Van Tighem says.
The Jasper Local interviewed Van Tighem in anticipation of his upcoming book of essays, Wild Roses Are Worth It: Reimagining the Alberta Advantage, published by Rocky Mountain Books.
The following conversation has been condensed and edited to fit this space.
The Jasper Local: The Alberta Advantage was this concept that Alberta’s position as an energy superpower engendered the best roads, the best schools, the cheapest healthcare and the lowest taxes. What is problematic about that narrative?
Kevin Van Tighem: The overall premise [of the book] is that we’ve come to see ourselves, and be spoken about, and imagine ourselves as primarily being defined by oil and gas and the quality of life that comes from being able to exploit it. But that’s not who we always were and that’s not who we will be in the future. That doesn’t mean we don’t have Alberta advantages, but we’ve let our stories be defined by others, and as your story shrinks your imagination shrinks, then as your imagination shrinks the landscape of possibilities shrinks.
The concept of Alberta as a land of mavericks has been glommed onto, and appropriated by those who can only see the province as a place of plunder.
JL: Early in your career, you were surprised that your presumptions about the relationship between bears and cattle ranchers were proven wrong. What other narratives are out there that Albertans unconsciously play into, and what harm can they do?
KVT: One of the things we assume is that the green places on the map are green and will always be there. We have this sense of abundance, particularly around the forestry trunk road, that there’s lots of room there. In truth, you go to these places and see how heavily they’re being used. They’re very tired, with marks of wear and tear, and signs of negligent and irresponsible use everywhere.
Another is redneck culture. This is not Alberta culture. When we focus on that we drown out or ignore other stories that define who we are. We sell ourselves short in doing that.
JL: Do you, like your rancher friend Charlie Russell, take the view that only those with lasting roots in a place can be trusted to care for it?
KVT: No. It’s not how deep your roots are, it’s how firmly they grip. We who care about this place are the ones who are going to stay. We’ve got a lot at stake here, so we’ve got to get it right, and one of the ways is to take control of our stories again. One of the things that’s happening right now that excites me about the landscape on which this book is landing is this incredible explosion of concern about strip mining. This has pulled people together from every walk of life—ranchers, First Nations, conservatives, new democrats—people of every cut of every cloth have mobilized in defence of our foothills and mountains. People are waking up to the idea that where we are is who we are and if we matter, where we are matters.
JL: You call climate change a war for a liveable planet and it seems to me one of your battlegrounds has been against Off Highway Vehicle users. How nasty has that battle been? What would you say to folks who might not believe the lengths to which this group is willing to go to discredit you and others who’ve been outspoken against OHVs?
KVT: First of all let me say there are an awful lot of people who use OHVs for the same reason I use my Subaru: to get as far away from other people and as deep into nature as possible. I don’t fault them for that. But there is a piece of it which goes to that brash, redneck, let-me-get-rich-and-have-my-toys culture, and they tend to try and drag everybody else along with them into their politics.
It’s been actually really nasty. People who have that attitude have no real commitment to society and community. It’s all about them, and they’ll fight dirty. I’ve been subject to all sorts of trolling and name calling and lying and efforts to discredit me. But what I tell myself is the same thing I’m trying to say in this book: That’s not us. You can ignore that and focus on us, and everybody else, because everybody else vastly outnumbers the trolls and the vandals. They’re noisy, but they aren’t worthy of attention.
JL: You provoke a lot of discussion and create calls-to-action on social media, and your audience there is growing. However, it wasn’t long ago that you swore off Facebook and quit the platform, before jumping back on again after a short break. What led to the decision to log off and why did you ultimately decide this platform can do more good than harm?
KVT: Social media is an addiction. It’s affecting our brains. So part of it was just trying to manage my life, because there’s a general negative energy that can drag you down. But then I stepped back and decided you need to manage things, not surrender things. Social media has huge reach, so some of us probably should be trying to use it for the good it can do. So yes, I went back on. But I now have a much stronger sense of why I’m there and what I’m trying to do there.
JL: Your essay Better Contagion suggests ways we can feel empowered by local action, and offers hope for change in a world engulfed by hopelessness. Why is it so hard for us to connect our small actions to change that, as you say, can become contagious and unstoppable?
KVT: It’s the world we live in. We’re inundated with information. We know what’s going on in South Africa, in Texas, in Europe. We’re swamped with the sheer magnitude of the world’s problems and it sucks the hope and optimism out of our existence. But we don’t live in the whole world. We live in our home places. We live here. If you can shrink your horizon more determinately to where you live, choose your geography, and ask what’s happening and what you can do, suddenly there’s a lot more possibilities.
JL: As a follow-up, then, what’s something that Jasper Local readers can do to affect change?
KVT: Doing stuff at home is one way which you, without even trying, shrink your carbon footprint and increase connectivity to place. Filling your mind with the possibilities of where you are, rather than the impossibilities of where other people are, increases that connection to place. That’s also a way to keep our souls from gathering wounds.
Bob Covey // email@example.com