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The Life of ‘Dynamo’ Environmentalist Rosemary Fox

From the Himalayan foothills to Smithers, BC, the diminutive campaigner (and my neighbour) left an outsized impact.

Amanda Follett Hosgood 25 Jun

Amanda Follett Hosgood lives and writes amidst the stunning mountains and rivers of Wet’suwet’en territory. Find her on Twitter @amandajfollett.

Rosemary Fox lived many lives.

Born into a British military family in the foothills of the Himalayas, she was as comfortable dressing for dinner with Washington’s political elite as she was donning fleece and hiking boots for a week in the bush.

She worked for the British diplomatic service in Bangkok and Moscow, as an assistant to the British ambassador to the United Nations in New York, and then the Washington embassy. Eventually life took her north, to B.C., where she led conservation campaigns that shaped the province’s wildlife management policy.

She conveyed a no-nonsense British sensibility that frequently bubbled over into joyful laughter, as if the lightness of her spirit couldn’t quite be contained by the tininess of her frame.

In her later years, she even alluded to some Cold War espionage.

She was many things. Among the less distinguished was being my nearest neighbour for the past 12 years.

Fox died Jan. 20 in Smithers, B.C. She was 90.

She was born May 10, 1930, in a small mountain community in northern India that she would later compare to her Smithers home. “This was just ordinary life to me,” she said about her upbringing in a 2013 interview with CICK radio host Facundo Gastiazoro. “As a child, you don’t know how to discriminate. You don’t know what’s ordinary and what’s extraordinary.”

Much of her life was extraordinary.

Her father, Lt.-Col. Gerrard Wilkinson, was a British commandant in Lansdowne, a military base in Uttarakhand, India. Her mother, Kathleen, bequeathed her daughters with a sense of humour. “Her laughter would ring out of the house,” says Rosemary’s older sister, Sheila Loraine White.

It was customary to send expat children back to the U.K. for schooling, and Loraine White began her education in Dublin. But the advent of the Second World War meant Fox was educated at home.

F.W. Champion, a wildlife photographer and the local forest service officer, often took the family out at dawn on elephant back to watch wildlife. “Every river bar we came to would be just plastered with tiger tracks,” Fox told Gastiazoro in 2013. “You don’t get that now because tigers have become very rare, but the abundance of wildlife was just amazing.”

In 1940, at 14, Loraine White was evacuated from the U.K. and made the six-week journey by ship from Britain around the Cape of Good Hope to rejoin her family in India.

When she arrived, the sisters began studying at the Hallett War School, created for the hundreds of returning British children. (It continues today as Birla Vidya Mandir, a public school for boys.) Loraine White describes her two years at Hallett as “the best education I’ve ever had.” It was Fox’s only formal education.

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F.W. Champion (left), Judy Champion, Rosemary Fox, Kathleen Wilkinson, Gerrard Wilkinson and Indian mahout Karim Baksh travel in what is now the Jim Corbett National Park with Balmati, an elephant used by F.W. Champion on his photographic missions during the 1920s to 1940s because she wasn’t spooked by tigers. Photo courtesy of James Champion.
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Rosemary Fox (left) with her parents, Kathleen and Gerrard Wilkinson, sister Sheila Loraine White and her children, Alan Thwaites and Norah Morton, in England in 1960. Photo courtesy of Alan Thwaites.

In 1947, after almost 90 years of British occupation, India gained independence. The family returned to England, and at 16 Fox left the only home she’d ever known. It would be 65 years before she’d return.

“I didn’t like post-war Britain, and it was not my home,” she said. “I lost everything that had been important to me, really.”

Fox started making plans to leave England again, but as a woman her options were limited. She didn’t want to teach, so she took her secretarial qualifications. In the early 1950s, she and Loraine White lived together in Oxford, where Fox worked for British ornithologist Bruce Campbell, using her secretarial work as a platform for training in biological sciences.

In 1952, she joined the British diplomatic service, working at embassies in Bangkok and then Moscow.

It was the Cold War and travelling any distance from the Soviet capital meant getting permission from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Fox teamed up with a friend and the pair set off together, at times arousing the suspicion of authorities.

“We’d have fun spotting what people called the ‘goons.’ Inevitably, you know, you got out of a plane or train and went into whatever city you were going to, and then after a while you see the same hat in the crowd behind you,” Fox laughed as she recalled her 20-year-old self.

“We thought it was funny at the time, and we would sort of play games and tried to shake them off.”

In Moscow, she met British ambassador Sir Patrick Dean and joined him as his personal secretary when he was transferred to the United Nations in New York. Being at the UN felt like “history in the making,” she said.

Years later, at a dinner party in Smithers, a friend recalls someone banging on the dinner table. “Who do you think you are, Khrushchev?” the friend joked, referring to the Soviet Communist Party secretary who notoriously pounded a shoe on his desk to protest a speech in the UN General Assembly.

His comment was met with a long line of blank expressions — until he reached Fox at the far end of the table.

“I was there,” she quipped.

When Dean was made British ambassador to the U.S. in 1965, Fox moved to Washington, where the stuffiness of political circles paled against the glamour of New York. “But it led me to meeting my husband, so I can’t complain,” Fox said.

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Rosemary Fox briefs the British ambassador to the United Nations, Sir Patrick Dean, at a United Nations Security Council in May 1963. Photo courtesy of Mary Fox.

Irving Fox shared Rosemary’s small stature and her passion for the outdoors. They met on a hiking trip to the Grand Canyon, where Rosemary firmly rejected Irving’s offers to help with her backpack and attire.

Mary Fox, Irving’s daughter, describes their initial meeting as “fractious.”

But the relationship endured. Mary first learned about her future stepmother when Irving took her to the Smithsonian’s First Ladies exhibit. “He’d go, ‘There’s Woodrow Wilson. You know, his wife was much younger than he was,’” Mary remembers. “‘Jack Kennedy, you know, Jackie Kennedy was 12 years younger than he was.’

“I was like, what is going on?”

Her father, characteristically oblique, was trying to ease her into the news that he planned to remarry a woman 14 years his junior.

The couple wed in June 1966. Mary first met Rosemary later that summer. She had no way of knowing that, 50 years later, she would remain Rosemary’s closest family and greatest support north of the border in Canada.

Irving had been working in water resource management since the early 1950s, when he’d been a staff member on a U.S. government commission chaired by former president Herbert Hoover. In Washington, he co-directed Resources for the Future, which describes itself as “the first think tank devoted exclusively to natural resource and environmental issues.” In 1966, Irving’s work took them to Madison, Wisconsin, where he directed a water research program at the University of Wisconsin.

By 1970, he had been nominated to head the newly formed U.S. Environmental Protection Agency under Richard Nixon. He declined.

“He wouldn’t work for Nixon,” Mary Fox says. “There were a lot of very reputable people who wanted my dad to be head of EPA, but he just said, ‘I cannot do this. I can’t morally, ethically do this.’”

Instead, Irving accepted an offer to serve as director of UBC’s newly formed Westwater Research Centre, which would later become the Institute for Resources, Environment and Sustainability.

Vancouver offered outdoor opportunities the couple loved, and Irving believed that Canadian culture might suit Rosemary more than the American Midwest. They settled in a house overlooking the Pacific near the University Endowment Lands, regularly hauling their heavy Grumman canoe to the shoreline for a paddle.

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Rosemary Fox hiking in BC. She and her husband, UBC professor Irving Fox, furthered the idea of protecting wild spaces in order to protect wildlife. Photo by Irving Fox.

Rosemary Fox joined the newly formed Sierra Club BC, serving as a director and later board chair until the early 1990s.

It’s almost impossible to unravel the many committees and working groups she joined in the decades that followed. They included providing input into the province’s wolf management, helping to establish Stikine River Provincial Park and working on land-use plans for the Babine River and Kispiox Valley.

In her later years, she sat on boards for the Bulkley Valley Research Centre, Bulkley Valley Community Resources Board, Environmental Mining Council of BC, Nature Canada and as conservation committee chair for BC Nature.

Ric Careless, a founding member of Sierra Club BC, worked with Fox on several campaigns, including one that established Spatsizi Plateau Wilderness Provincial Park in 1975. As a cabinet employee during Dave Barrett’s NDP government, it was Careless who wrote the order in council that protected the region of the northwest known as “The Serengeti of the North.”

But he credits Fox with making the legislation stick.

Careless got the legislation through cabinet five days before the provincial election, when the NDP lost power. The incoming Social Credit government, he says, was intent on undoing it.

But that fall, a Spatsizi guide-outfitter was charged with several violations under the Wildlife Act when he was caught with what Careless describes as a “trailer load of illegally taken animals.”

Public outrage ensued.

In what Fox would later describe as a “parallel argument” to the Spatsizi debate, she led a campaign that culminated in a public inquiry into wildlife management in the province.

“I don’t think anything like that had ever been held before,” she told master’s student Michael Begg in 2006. “I think that the motive behind [the inquiry]… was to crush the Sierra Club, which was being too, I guess, annoying in repeatedly raising questions about the wildlife management.”

Instead, the inquiry forced B.C.’s Fish and Wildlife Branch to recognize that a significant portion of the population wanted sustainable wildlife management in addition to hunting regulation.

“We wanted wildlife management to be based on protecting the ecosystem and not favouring one species over another,” Fox told Begg. “I think this did in a way help pave the way for much more of a focus on ecosystem management and the general position that there was more to wildlife than just shooting it.”

The commission led to a “major, major restructuring in how wildlife was managed in British Columbia,” Careless says.

“I think there was a very good chance that Spatsizi would have been dismantled shortly after if this issue hadn’t come along and Rosemary hadn’t gone into it with the fierceness and tenacity that she did,” he says. “She really led to a higher standard of wildlife management in British Columbia.”

In November 2019, at Sierra Club BC’s 50th anniversary gala in Victoria, Careless became the 10th recipient of the Rosemary Fox Conservation Achievement Award, which recognizes those working to protect wildlife and wildlands.

Fox was there to present it in person. It would be the last time Careless saw his former colleague.

“She’s really special to me,” Careless says. “We spent lots of time over the years, and she was always so tenacious.”

It was during the Spatsizi hearings that Pat Moss first saw Fox in action. Moss was working with an environmental coalition in Vancouver and describes Fox as a “dynamo,” fiercely cross-examining government officials and refusing to accept evasive answers.

“I was impressed. At that time there were not a lot of women playing prominent roles in environmental groups and she was a real inspiration,” says Moss, who would later replace Fox on the Sierra Club BC board.

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James Champion (left), Rosemary Fox and two guides, Manoj Negi and a colleague, at the entrance of a tiger reserve in India. Champion’s grandfather campaigned against tiger hunting in the 1930s and 1940s, something that would have a profound influence on Fox’s life and environmental advocacy. Photo courtesy of James Champion.

While the Fox family was still living in Vancouver, Smithers became a jumping-off point for adventures in the far north. On one trip, in the late 1970s, the heavy fog that notoriously descends on Smithers’ airport held them down. To pass the time, they went real estate shopping.

The result was seven acres on the southern shoulder of Hudson Bay Mountain, with a view that gazed east across the foothills of the Coast Mountains. They built a garage, staying in it part-time as they began designing their home. When Irving retired in 1983, they moved to Smithers permanently.

“For Rosemary and my dad, going to Smithers was like being somewhere incognito,” Mary says.

It was around that time that Moss, who had also recently moved to the Bulkley Valley, met the Foxes in person. They made a dynamic team, she recalls, Irving’s role in academia grounding Rosemary’s advocacy in science and research.

“He was very much the academic. She took that a few steps further, and she would argue strenuously for things she cared about, but she was always coming at it from a science-based perspective,” Moss says.

Mary Fox remembers the collaborations that took place around the couple’s dining table in Vancouver and Smithers, where they successfully tied the concept of species conservation to land management.

“They built ideas together. I mean, hours they sat at that round table,” she says. “I think a lot of B.C. environmental policy was written at that table.”

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Irving and Rosemary Fox made a dynamic duo, with Irving’s role in academia grounding Rosemary’s advocacy in science and research. Photo by Pat Moss.

When Irving died in 2006 at 89, Rosemary reinvented herself.

“This was a rekindling for her,” Mary Fox says. “It was a reignition.”

I first met Rosemary Fox a few months later. At 76, standing 4'10", she walked into the outdoor gear shop where I worked looking for snowshoes — high-quality, technical snowshoes for climbing the slope above her house.

As she described it, I knew the place, its keyhole driveway that left a bend in the road and the steep grade that ascended to a ridge behind. I’d later learn that the couple had hiked a trail on the ridge, later named the Irving Fox Memorial Trail, every day.

In addition to leaving with the best snowshoes in the store, Fox left an impression.

She was also planning her return to India. In 2011, she made the first of three trips she would take during her 80s. “Lansdowne, the community where I grew up in, remains remarkably the same,” she told Gastiazoro in 2013. “It’s grown some, but it’s still only a military cantonment.”

After the first trip, Fox connected with James Champion, the grandson of the forest service officer and close family friend who had taken her tiger-watching in her youth. The pair planned to travel back to India together in 2014.

They met for the first time in the departure lounge of Heathrow Airport. Searching for Fox, Champion began to worry that her connecting flight hadn’t arrived. As he prepared to board alone, he heard a voice call his name from where she’d been seated behind the check-in desk.

“James, how nice it is to meet you,” Fox said. “I recognized you by your ears.… They’re just like your grandfather’s.”

The pair discovered they shared a similar philosophy, both inspired by the same man. Champion’s grandfather had campaigned against shooting tigers at a time when trophy hunting them was popular, persuading his colleagues to shoot with their cameras rather than their rifles.

“I think that really inspired her to take up the conservation work that she got so involved with later in her life,” he says.

Their itinerary highlighted ecological bucket lists and family history. They spent three weeks in the Himalayas, toured Bhutan, visited rhinos in Kaziranga National Park and spent several days cruising the Sundarbans, the mangroves at the delta of the Ganges and Brahmaputra rivers.

They returned again in 2015. Each time, Mary Fox remembers, her stepmother would return home dressed in colourful outfits, wrists jingling with bangles.

Mary tried to persuade her to move closer to her family in Victoria, but Rosemary remained defiantly independent. She didn’t want to leave the home she’d built with Irving. “I can’t think of a better place to live,” she said in 2013.

She was often seated at her living room window, taking in the view over the Bulkley Valley. Nature books and copies of her favourite newspaper, the Guardian, were always stacked on the coffee table and CBC Radio blared from the kitchen.

“She always wanted to talk about the latest issues,” Moss says.

The last time I saw her was in December. I knocked and let myself in, her dog Skeena barking at the intrusion. When she emerged from her kitchen to investigate, she took one look at my masked face and dissolved into laughter.

“Well of course she’s barking,” she said, failing to hide her amusement. “Just look at you!”

Fox was admitted to hospital a week later. She died in January, a few months shy of her 91st birthday. Her passing leaves a hole that’s felt around the globe.

“Oh, I miss her,” her sister Sheila, 95, says from her home in Britain. Despite living on separate continents for nearly 70 years, the pair remained close, connecting every weekend on the phone.

Over the years, Fox and I fell into that neighbourly relationship that ranges from the mundane (grocery runs) to the intimate (holiday dinners). We could go months without visiting, but I always felt her presence above me.

Today, as I gaze past my laptop across the valley she watched over for decades, I still feel that presence in her enduring work to preserve B.C.’s wild spaces.  [Tyee]

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