As the ferry pulls up to the wharf on Hornby Island, a blast from its horn cuts into the silence and sends sea gulls squawking in flight. Visitors have to take two ferries to reach the remote island, 50 miles northwest of Nanaimo in British Columbia’s Georgia Strait, but for Hornby’s
approximately 1,000 permanent residents the inconvenience of the trip contributes to a slow pace of life amid beautiful, uncrowded surroundings. Because a disproportionate number of the island’s inhabitants are artists, architects and academics, area residents wryly comment that Hornby Island proba-
bly has received more Canada Council grants per capita than any other place in the nation. Now, residents are turning their talents to protecting their island from land developers.
The island has proven to be especially attractive to academics disillusioned with city life. Some of those who quit the classroom in favor of simpler jobs on Hornby Island have lived there for more than 15 years. The bakery and the pizza parlor are run by former professors; the electrician has a masters degree in philosophy and the plumber is an accomplished poet. More than 40 full-time artists live on the island, including well-known painter Jack Shadbolt, who summers there, as well as architects, potters, musical instrument makers, fabric artists and even a builder of Chinese sailing junks.
Despite increasing numbers of tourists, the island remains uncrowded. Hornby Islanders have jealously guarded the unspoiled nature of their habitat by ensuring that more recent developments blend with the landscape. Hornby’s renovated community hall, with its sod roof, cedar-log construction and driftwood doorway, has won the admiration of architects from North America, Europe and Japan. Potter Wayne Ngan speaks for many of those among the island’s creative population when he says that he is inspired by his environment. Said Ngan: “Hornby is like living in a park.”
But some residents are now concerned that the beauty and tranquillity of the islands between Vancouver Island and mainland British Columbia may be in jeopardy. They say they believe that Social Credit Premier William Bennett’s government is planning to permit large-scale real estate development on the island, despite a longstanding agreement with residents on controlling growth. Hornby and 12 other strait islands are protected by the Islands Trust—a form of local government established in 1974 to “preserve and protect” their natural state.
The trust took shape after clashes during the 1960s, when local residents and young back-to-the-earth people opposed land developers who were eager to exploit the islands’ natural splendor. In 1968 a Vancouver development firm purchased a large portion of North Pender Island, 80 miles southeast of Hornby, and subdivided it into small cottage lots. Residents there protested that the island’s fresh water supply was incapable of meeting the needs of the proposed cottages. As a result, six years later the NDP government, under Premier David Barrett, set up the Islands Trust to determine the rate of development, even though many cottages had already been built.
But four years ago Bennett’s minis-
ter of municipal affairs, William Vander Zalm, proposed abolishing the trust in order to centralize control. At first the government agreed with his proposal, but then it backed down in the face of protests from islanders. Some islanders say that his successor, William Ritchie, is also committed to reducing its effectiveness. Ritchie claims that he supports the trust, but last summer he absorbed the formerly independent authority into the ministry of municipal affairs and reduced its staff. Hornby Island trustee Carol Martin charged that the right-wing provincial government is suspicious of the trust system. Said Martin: “The government seems to think that it made a preserve for hippies. But a lot of professional and wealthy retired people have made their homes here because they enjoy the island.”
At the heart of the residents’ new concerns is a fear that the government might weaken the trust’s prohibition against wholesale real estate development. Many islanders have said that they would rather see logging companies work the verdant forests temporarily than have the trees removed permanently by developers. Said trust chairman Michael Humphries: “Many developers are urban people who see land as a commodity to be bought and sold and have little sense of long-term stewardship.” For their part, developers resent the restrictions on small lot subdivisions on the islands, and they are lobbying Ritchie to soften the curbs on land development.
The islanders claim that their rules have not stopped development, only controlled it. Indeed, the population of the 13 islands has increased by 50 per cent to a total of 15,000 during the past 12 years. Even under the controls imposed by the trust, another 18,000 lots remain to be developed throughout the archipelago. And despite the new challenge, most islanders say they are optimistic that their unique way of life will survive. Said Humphries, who lives on Lasqueti Island, 15 miles east of Hornby: “Initially, I was apprehensive about the trust’s future, but I am less so now. It’s still a wait-and-see game.” And for Hornby Islanders who are worried about land development and encroaching tourism, the overriding concern is that the trust remain intact. Added island handyman Timothy Biggins: “We must keep the
trust—it gives us the local autonomy to ensure that we can stay together as a community.” For Hornby Islanders who retreated to a quiet, isolated community, their way of life is clearly threatened.
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