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Naked Defiance in Rural B.C.

Hinterland activists are using art, satire and theatre to protest Liberals' cuts. Here's a front row seat, courtesy of a long time local.

By Bill Horne 2 Dec 2003 | TheTyee.ca
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Six whiskey-swilling, ceegar-smoking female poker players and their male valet adorn the cover of the 2004 Nude Cariboo History Calendar. The photo is a spoof of one taken around 1900 in Barkerville, the heart of BC's 1860's gold rush. The poses are the same, and like the original, one person is visibly cheating. But there are three significant differences: not only are the players women, they're playing for brownies and toonies instead of dollars and gold dust, and they're naked.

Many of the sepia-toned photos in the calendar reverse gender roles in historic settings: women wield cross cut saws and pan for gold, while men cook and do laundry. The posers, including a local mayor, town councilor and the president of the area's Chamber of Commerce, braved bugs and hypothermia to raise money for Island Mountain Arts. IMA has offered arts courses in B.C.'s north Cariboo to adults and young people, beginners & professionals, for more than 27 years.

The calendar comes out of a cauldron of rage and creativity in a region hard hit by the B.C. Liberals' policies.  (See Ghost Town Blues in today's Tyee)

Tiny Wells, near Barkerville, with a population of 200, was "the little town that could", when it organized a hunger strike to save its elementary school in the summer of 2002. Fifty people took part in the strike, including the Mayors of Quesnel and Wells, and BC Federation of Labour President Jim Sinclair.

Trying anything, everything

The hunger strike was part of a multi-pronged campaign of letter writing, demonstrations, street theatre and music which succeeded in preventing young children from being bused more than two hours a day on a winding mountain road to a school in Quesnel. The community paid a big price for its success - locals are paying extra to keep the school open - but its unorthodox and gutsy resistance inspired activists throughout the province.

But just when the town thought it could stop fighting Victoria and the Quesnel School Board, along came a bigger challenge: the "devolution" of Barkerville Historic Town, the biggest historic site in western North America. Operated by BC Heritage, it's an award-winning, giant museum of over 100 buildings and hundreds of thousands of artifacts, which comes to life every spring and summer.

All the shopkeepers, street actors and musicians dress in period costume and speak as if it's 1870. They share a contagious passion for this place that accelerated confederation and hastened BC's entry into Canada. And in spite of their proper Victorian clothes, they're getting really pissed off.

Government cut Barkerville workforce

In September, 2003, the government announced it was laying off more than half of Barkerville's staff, and eliminated all the security and maintenance positions. This followed a failed attempt earlier in the year to fob off the site to the private sector. The District of Wells had considered taking it over, then backed off, after realizing it wasn't financially viable.

Although entry fees don't cover the costs of maintaining Barkerville, the site attracts so many tourists to the region that the spin-offs into provincial tax coffers far outweigh its operational costs to the government. The "subsidy" that the government wants to eliminate is actually - like so much of Victoria's relationship with the hinterland - the other way around.

Ironically, the private sector is already heavily involved in the operation of Barkerville through the many contracts to run shops, B&Bs, restaurants and the theatre. There's not much left to privatize. Business people in the region are exasperated by the way the government has ignored their economic arguments. And they're furious about the plan to download responsibility for the province's history onto a tiny tax base.

Olympics resentment

A bogus brochure which appeared in the summer inviting tourists to "Visit the New Ghost Towns of British Columbia" gave Barkervillians and their supporters a big boost. This guerrilla media version of official promotional material, designed by Vancouver artist and activist, Murray Bush, cried, "See abandoned schools, hospitals, courthouses, forestry offices, entire towns!" and urged readers to write Premier Gordon Campbell about Barkerville. "Even ghost towns are becoming ghost towns!"

The brochure's caption "Bulldozing a path to the 2010 Olympics" puts Barkerville's struggle in context. To people in Wells, the BC government appears so fixated on the money-sucking Olympics that it is prepared to let its most prized public possessions collapse under the heavy snowfalls of the Cariboo Mountains or from under-financing. And it just doesn't care what happens beyond Vancouver, Victoria and Whistler. Besides, there aren't enough voters out there in the boonies to make them worry.

Tired of being ignored, and risking reprisals from the government, Barkerville's merchants, actors, musicians and supporters marched up its main street in late September singing "God Save the Queen." After several historic figures made fiery speeches, the Barkerville Coalition decided to go en masse to Victoria a month later, all dressed in period finery.

"Queen Victoria" invited the Premier for tea on the steps of the legislature. She had of late "not been amused" by his cuts to B.C.'s heritage. Other historic figures like Judge Matthew Baillie Begbie, Judge Arthur Thomas Bushby, Isabella Hodgkinson, and Thomas Patullo joined the Queen, while the Royal Engineers in their red serge uniforms contrasted the more drably dressed tea-sipping crowd.

The Premier didn't show up, but George Abbott, the Minister responsible for Heritage, invited a small group of organizers inside for a meeting. He refused to budge on his government's plant to privatize Barkerville and slash its budget.

Close to boiling point

Losing patience, people around Wells like to point out that B.C.'s hinterland could, if organized, easily shut off the southward flow of resources that enrich the Lower Mainland and bring less and less back in return.

Northerners in particular are wondering what's left to lose when they see Barkerville destabilized, BC Rail sold off to CN, schools and courthouses closed, and the devastating pine beetle epidemic, while billions pour into Olympic infrastructure. It's just a matter of time before they funnel their fury and creativity into economic action, and the long, vulnerable rail line might just become a target.

After eight years in Wells, BC, Bill Horne now lives in Naramata, BC.  [Tyee]

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