by Ellen Leslie
I grew up in Westridge, a post-World War II development at the eastern margin of Burnaby, below what is now Simon Fraser University. They skinned the ground to make way for family housing. It was, in those days, a neighbourhood of stay-at-home Mums and working Dads. There were lots of kids. Families had as many as five children. At the foot of our street was an area of undisturbed land that belonged to Shell Oil. We played “down at the bush”. We dragged props and costumes to a clearing in the woods. Big and little kids all played together, with games and stories created by the older kids. Weather permitting, we played outside until dark.
We walked to school on a trail through the bush to the main road. Sometimes I rode my bike. When the salmonberries were in season I parked my bike and dawdled. One day I found a tiny bird, blue veins showing through pink skin, no feathers. I could see that it had fallen out of the nest above the trail. I had never seen anything like it and it frightened me a little at the same time that I was fascinated. This gave me lots to wonder about – nature and how creatures sometimes died before they had a chance to live. I was alone when I found the bird. This was an extremely important ‘contact with nature’ event in my life, too precious to share with anyone, then.
We swam “down at the Inlet” (Burrard Inlet). There was no formal beach. To get there, we walked down our trail, crossed over the train tracks, and scrambled over the rocks. For family picnics at our beach, my mum packed dinner in an old green wicker picnic basket. She almost always included potato salad and cold chicken. We ate all together on a big plaid blanket. My father taught me to swim down there.
My father, now 95 years old, still lives in the house in Westridge. When I visit him the neighbourhood is familiar, but changed. So much has changed over the 64 years I have known this place. There is a chain link fence around Shell Oil property. When I walk to the bottom of the road I can see a set-up of booms around the shipping dock, to contain an oil spill. A little east from where we swam is now a municipal park and beach. Our trail to school is the Barnet Highway. The few kids in the neighbourhood play hockey on the paved lane, close to home. They are driven to school. The Vancouver real estate market has hit there, and tract houses are rapidly being replaced by 3-storey, multi-million dollar mansions.
A few years ago, I received a disturbing phone call. A young woman RCMP officer was on the line to tell me that she “had my father”; he was safe and they would keep him until it was okay for him to go home again. The Kinder Morgan pipeline buried under Barnet Highway had burst and oil spewed into the air and drenched several houses, the closest two properties away from my father’s. His house was untouched, but the stink of oil saturated the whole area. The neighbourhood became a huge construction zone for several months thereafter. Workers and equipment and fences and the noise of re-building the houses that had been most severely damaged, the ones closest to Barnet Highway. Most people had not even known that they were living next to, or above the pipeline.
My father was deeply disturbed as were his neighbours – the ones whose homes and gardens were damaged and the ones whose homes had barely escaped being covered in oil. I used to accept the Shell Oil flame and oil tankers as part of my natural landscape and now I know they are a threat. Kinder Morgan pipeline with its ‘twinning’ proposal would hugely expand the capacity of the refinery and the activity in the inlet. After my father is gone, I will not choose to return to my old neighbourhood unless I am carrying a picket sign.