Wendy Kotilla’s life has oriented around supporting salmon and the natural world, and she speaks up for the environment with passion and enthusiasm. With a background in commercial fishing and environmental activism, Wendy mentors youth in restoring watersheds and fish habitats with her program, Youth and Ecological Restoration – 2014 is their tenth anniversary. The interview was conducted by Matt and Makayla.
How did you first come here?
I moved to the Comox Valley from Campbell River. I graduated from Carihi high school in Campbell River and I moved to Merville in 1973.
Can you describe the neighbourhood that you grew up in?
Well, my father was in the Air Force so we moved around quite a bit. My father and grandfather were born and raised in Ladysmith, and when we came to the island in 1964 I felt like it was coming home even though I’d never lived here before. We lived in Ladysmith for one year and then in Holberg on the north end of Vancouver Island from 1965 to 1970 or something like that. And I graduated from high school in Campbell River in 1973 and then moved down here, so I’ve been in the Valley for 40 years.
What was your family house like? Did your home have electricity, indoor plumbing and bathrooms?
We moved around quite a lot. But my family built a home in Campbell River in, I guess, ’69 or ’70 and my mum still lives in that home. We didn’t live in a home with no plumbing or anything like that. We had all the modern comforts of a home that was built in 1970.
What activities did you do with your family?
Well, especially when you lived on the north end of Vancouver Island, really anywhere we went we did a lot of outdoor activities. I used to go fishing with my dad a lot, for salmon, or ling or rock cod on the ocean. And I’d go with him along the rivers. Up on the north end it was a really remote community, so that’s just what you did. We would go out and catch frogs, and in the winter time we’d have winter picnics. Mum would put together a thermos of soup and crackers. And up in Holberg my dad made a toboggan, this big long thing you moved with your feet for steering, and we used to tow it behind the car. I guess that’s not really considered a safe thing to do, especially these days, but we had a lot of fun with it.
What family traditions did you try to establish?
Being with nature was a really big thing with my father – and my mum was a prairie farmer’s daughter, so you just did a lot of things outside and I have carried that through my life.
Does your family have any heirlooms or objects of sentimental value?
I showed you earlier my grandfather’s radio. I just think it’s cool. It’s an old tube radio, and it reminds me of being with him in his workshop. He had a really calming presence. I have my grandmother’s cameo that my grandfather gave her when they got married, that I really cherish, and different pieces of china that were my grandma’s. I’ve got a little creamer that was my mum’s mum’s. This drying rack was my grandpa’s – I dry clothes on it. I don’t know if that’s a family heirloom but it’s an old way to do things, I guess.
What were your plans when you finished school?
Well, I was a very young mother. I had my son one day after my seventeenth birthday, so I finished school about six months after that. I was married and I was a mum and kept the home together and that didn’t last really long, but that’s just what I did when I went out of school. But over time, after commercial fishing, I wanted to learn more about salmon life histories and I took some courses. I just kept taking courses and going to conferences because I have quite a passion about wild Pacific salmon. And in my forties, I got a Restoration of Natural Systems diploma from the University of Victoria, and also a Negotiation and Mediation certificate from the Justice Institute, bringing together environmental work and communication skills which is really important.
So when I got out of school, I didn’t do what you are asking about work and career. That came later for me. I started commercial fishing when I was, I think, 28, which led to what I’m doing today, so I pretty much have had a career path and I’m fortunate it’s something I’m really passionate about. If we have to work for a living, might as well be something we really like, right?
When I started commercial fishing I was single and on welfare, so it was kind of a low point in my life. A friend phoned me up and said “you want to go halibut fishing? We’re leaving Port Hardy at midnight”. I said “uh, phone me back in an hour, I don’t know right now”. And I got off the phone and realized that if I didn’t go halibut fishing I was going to be sitting on the couch, because I didn’t have any money. And so I packed my stuff, I had a shower and something to eat, and asked my mum for 50 bucks for gas to go up to Port Hardy and that’s how I started commercial fishing. So you never know what’s going to happen. It’s important to pay attention to things that come to you, because they come to you for a reason.
Do you have any really good memories from commercial fishing?
Oh yeah. It was really hard work but an amazing place to be, out in the ocean. Like, wow – seeing a sperm whale at the top of Vancouver Island. I was on different trollers every year, what they call gear-type, bringing in the big salmon, the Chinook salmon, and running the gear and trying to figure out what kind of bait to use. We didn’t use so much fish kind of bait, but spoons and plugs. I was a hundred miles off shore one time tuna fishing, and I remember coming back down through Queen Charlotte Sound and yelling from the back of the boat “I love you, Pacific Ocean!” Being there in that ocean environment is just, wow. So even though it was hard work and long hours, it is something that I carry with me.
What became your main line of work?
I would say, the thread has been working with wild Pacific salmon – from when I used to do that with my father as a girl, to commercial fishing, to now, passing on that knowledge and passion. The most important thing is to pass on the passion you have. You could say, I do this and I did that – but if you’re real animated and passionate about it, people want to listen and learn more. It hooks them more.
I commercial-fished for nine years, and I’ve been involved in salmon enhancement work since 1986. I did forestry research with Fisheries, understanding the impacts of logging on fish and their habitat, and worked for eight years in Barkley Sound. I was also involved with the Clayoquot blockade, and worked with Clayoquot Biosphere Project for five years. That was a really, really important thing, because of the blockade and all those people that got arrested. That protest was instrumental in saving some watersheds. A scientific panel was established with many experts from the province on it, and I was very proud to be part of that. I also created a program ten years ago called the Youth and Ecological Restoration Program, where I take youth out and work with them in the rivers and streams and forests in our community, so that’s really a piece that I have carried throughout my life.
What was your proudest moment? What accomplishments are you most proud of?
I worked at Carnation Creek Experimental Watershed Project on the west coast of the island. It’s a long term study of the effects of logging on fishing and habitat, when I was involved in the Restoration of Natural Systems diploma at U Vic. I did my final project on what I call social restoration, and put together the Carnation Creek Community History Project. I interviewed 13 people, Carnation Creek researchers and Huu-ay-aht First Nations people, that’s whose territory Carnation Creek is in. It’s the hereditary territory of the head whaling chief of the Huu-ay-aht First Nations.
Through showing an interest, the Huu-ay-aht people gave me more information because they could see I was committed. It’s a piece of work I’m really proud of, because when Carnation Creek started being researched for science they really ignored the First Nations, the people who had lived on that land for thousands of years. My work in Clayoquot Sound I am really proud of too. That watershed is still not logged and I played a part in it. The youth program I created has been going for ten years, that’s another piece of work that I am proud of. I have a son who is 41 now, and a grandson who’s three so that’s pretty important work too. I’m really proud of them and love being a grandma.
So, what do you think is easier now? What has changed for the better?
Hmm. Well, I think communication is a big one. With computers, communication and networking is a lot quicker. We used to have phones that were on the wall and you’d have to stand there and talk to people. Then you’d have a party line and if your neighbour was on the phone, you couldn’t be on the phone. So I think it makes communication better, but it takes people away from being outside and face to face with other people, and it’s part of what disconnects people from nature. So it’s good and it’s got its drawbacks as well.
More and more people are taking over the natural world and it’s really important to speak for them. My first protest ever was when I was 15 years old. That was the year Greenpeace formed over nuclear bombing in the Amchitka Islands in Alaska. So me and some of my friends made a banner in school in Campbell River, and we marched down the streets of Campbell River, “Save Amchitka”. So I’ve been protecting the environment and doing environmental sort of work most of my life. It’s so important. People don’t realize but when you think about it, the air you breathe and the water you drink and the food you eat are all dependent on having a healthy environment.
I’ve been here on this property for 24 years, and it was really a dream of mine to own my own place. On the property there is a cedar grove. It’s not an old cedar grove, it’s mature second growth, because this place has been logged, the early pioneers logged off quite a bit of it. Four out of the last seven years, great blue herons have nested in my cedar grove. It’s just so amazing. Last year they came back, and they are just so welcome when they come.
One year there were eleven nests. Sometimes the babies fall to the ground, and eagles predate on the babies. They are quite tasty for them. And a lot of other food sources for the eagles are not as healthy, because of human interference with the natural world. And great blue herons are also endangered. They are such big birds and they need big trees, and some people consider trees to be in the way if they want to build a house. Cutting down those cedar trees would be like cutting off my arm. It’s part of the land here – I’m really honoured to be here and have the cedar grove. I didn’t even know I owned it until after I moved in. After I moved in I went, “wow, this is mine too, oh my goodness!”
This is a baby heron wing. You can see the colour. The juveniles often have different colours than the adults. You can see that the feathers are not totally developed yet. At this stage this juvenile heron would not be able to fly. I just love the brown colours. This is a feather from an adult so you can see it’s quite different in its form, right? These ones are not fully formed yet and this one is.
These are gifts to me, I consider them to be gifts from nature. I’ve stood up for the herons. One day about four years ago, there were some guys cutting brush over there – and there’s a few hundred meter radius around heron rookeries to protect them from noises. I told them the herons were here and they finished up and stopped. But then there was another crew out here, BC Hydro – and they didn’t stop. I made a lot of noise about it and got hold of the biologist from BC Hydro. The problem was that the Ministry of the Environment had mapped the cedar grove and the nests, but kept the information to themselves – so how could BC Hydro know unless they shared that information? I ended up getting a letter of apology from one of the head guys from BC Hydro.
What has provided you with the greatest satisfaction in life?
It always comes back to the natural world for me. Being in the natural world is a really calming place to be. It feeds me and calms me, and being able to share that with others, and all my history with salmon, that’s given me a lot of satisfaction. Being out in the back of a fish boat and running the gear, and not having much sleep and your hands hurting or whatever, when you’re in the middle of it you don’t realize it but I’m glad I did it. I wouldn’t want to do it now. It’s too hard, but I was younger then.
Was there a time in your life when you were afraid and you used your courage?
Lots of times, like the story I just told you about standing up for the herons. I was scared to do that. And when I used to work. I mentioned Carnation Creek, on the west coast of the island. I worked there by myself most of the time. I was scared. Not afraid of nature, but just being alone. Nature doesn’t scare me. People say “aren’t you scared of the bears or anything?” It’s like, “no, I’m not”. I go down to the bottom of the Trent River canyon and I climb down there by myself. I go on trails. There’s an old deer trail that I never showed anybody where it is. And they’ll say “well, shouldn’t you call somebody and let them know?” But that changes the energy of it, you see. Then somebody knows that I’m there, and they’re worried if I’m going to get back. A few times, I told people I was going down there and then I just don’t. So it’s not a situation where I’m afraid, whereas lots of people would be.
That’s what courage is, doing something that you know is right. People might not like what you do but courage is when you just do it anyway, right? It’s important also in your own personal growth, to move through that fear and speak out.
How do you feel about the future?
I have concerns because humans on the planet generally doesn’t seem to be that good for the earth. But the earth’s been around longer than we have – and even though it might not be what humans have in mind, the earth’s going to do whatever it needs to do to survive, because the earth wants to survive too as a planet, you know. We hear all kinds of things – climate change, global warming – I’ve even heard that there’s a mini-ice age coming. I don’t think any of us really know, and we’re just going to have to flow with it and adapt. I don’t want to call them disasters. They might be disastrous for us but they’re not disastrous for the planet. The earth survives these things. But it might bring us together more as community if we have to work together for our survival. We need to learn to grow more food in the Comox Valley, for example.
What is one thing you want people to remember you by?
My work with the natural world. The work I did at Carnation Creek, studying logging effects on fish, and the work with Clayoquot that resulted in our watershed not being logged. It seems like these things come around and you have to speak up about them again. Being an environmentalist, I guess. Passing on that knowledge to youth, and passing it on to my grandson is, wow, so amazing.
Are there other experiences that you want to share with us?
For me, a few years ago, I thought “well, what can I do to make a difference?”. I realized that I needed to start in my own backyard and just speak up for things in my own backyard. There’s a mature second growth forest on my neighbour’s property that I’m allowed to go to. I bring the youth in my program there. We’ve done two ecological inventories to understand what lives there in regards to the ecology of the place and set up a monitoring of water quality and quantity.
I’m really proud I created this program ten years ago. Not everyone thought I’d still be involved in this work, but here I am. I don’t really see it ending. There’s lots of youth who need to be out in nature. I always find ‘youth at risk’ to be difficult because I think all of us adults are at risk too, you know. It’s just youth are vulnerable and struggling to connect with school and family or community.
When you take the kids out, how do they see you? Are you a mentor?
Oh, I’m all kinds of things! I’m a teacher, mentor, program coordinator, ecologist. In working with the kids, I pass along my passion for the natural world but I also have to be really firm with them sometimes and say “No, you can’t do that. That’s not okay.” Other times, I have to be a counsellor and listen to their stories and be compassionate.
When you say you go out and work with youth, what do you do?
I bring them out to places where I work one-on-one with them. But I also bring them to places where they are involved with other people, like at the Oyster River Enhancement Society. Thirty old retired guys go there every Tuesday morning. One of the girls last fall, she said they’re like a clan of salmon grandpas. I thought, yeah, there’s no other better way to describe them, you know. At the beginning they didn’t trust the youth, they looked at them in a negative way. But that doesn’t happen anymore. The youth used to be suspicious of the old retired guys, the salmon grandpas, but that doesn’t happen anymore.
There are four different places I would bring each youth. For example, I’m starting work on Monday unless it snows some more on the weekend. The Tsolum River Restoration Society has a rotary screw trap in the river that’s used for catching some of the juvenile salmon that are migrating out to the ocean. We catch them in the trap and identify them as to species, do some measurements and count the numbers. On Tuesdays, we go up to the Oyster River Enhancement Society. We might do egg takes and feeding the juvenile fish they have in their channel. We walk up Morrison Creek and measure water levels. It’s just a beautiful place to walk. Do you know about the relationship between fish and trees? Trees help fish and fish help trees. The trees help the fish by shading the streams to keep the water cool. Their roots keep the banks stable so not too much sediment gets into the stream. There are different insects that fall into the stream and the leaves help make the stream bed healthy. Salmon help trees by the bears and the birds taking them into the forests and they fertilize the trees. Everything’s connected.
We also go to Mountainaire Avian Rescue Society, that’s a place that helps sick and injured birds in Merville, and we help them out. Sometimes it’s raking leaves or cleaning bird poo inside the pens but that’s all part of that work, so it’s not just the glory things, you know. I take the youth to four different places, one day a week for four weeks, 20 hours is the program, and in the end they have to do an oral presentation to a community group. Then they become teachers. They learn about nature through the program and then they teach. It’s pretty cool, actually.
My program is about building relationships with nature and community for the youth, about them having a sense of worth and belonging in place, feeling the worth of themselves. Doing meaningful work and feeling like they belong in this community, and knowing this place where we live and what lives here with us. You think of your community as being Comox, and Courtenay and Cumberland. Well, our community is Rosewall Creek, and Trent River and Tsable River and the Puntledge River, and Millard Creek and Morrison Creek, and Little River and Oyster River – that’s our community too, and people don’t remember that. Our well-being, our lives, depend on having actual healthy watersheds and ecosystems in our community. It’s not just about the towns and the cities here.
There’s different places where I go in nature and it’s about building a relationship with the land, like the cedar grove. I walk the property here just about every day, my neighbour’s property, and sit different places. It’s the same as building a relationship with other people. You build a relationship with people by spending time and sharing time, right? And you do the same with the land. I go to the bottom of the Trent River canyon. I have this poem that I wrote. There’s this big fir tree down there, and this fir tree is four hugs around. Think about it. If four of us here held hands, it’s that big around, right? And so, I wrote a poem about it. It’s called “In the Presence of Elders”.
I’m honoured to be sitting here
like an old friend sharing time and space
learning about how it feels
to have lived so long
that you become an old soul
who radiates wisdom
from the centre of your being
to your surrounding community
so all your relations may be guided
by the knowledge that you carry
To me, that old tree is the same as an elder in the community. It supports the young, the young plants and the young trees. I showed you the heron wing. Over here, I’ve got a rock from the Clayoquot River. I told my assistant, “listen, we’re not going to be packing rocks out” – and when we got back, we both had rocks in our packs! (shows a rock) This one is really special to me. One day I was walking along the bottom of the Trent River canyon. There is a lot of shale in there. On the bottom of the canyon, there was a piece of shale like this, and right in the very middle of it was this perfect form. And so this is older than the shale. I found out from the Courtenay Museum that this rock is 80 million years old. It’s a crustacean or something, there’s a little sea creature inside there and this is built around it.
I think places gift you with things. It’s about that relationship I mentioned, when you spend time and then you see things in a different way. If you go to a place lots and lots of times, you notice things. You notice the change of the seasons and then you notice a rock inside a rock. One time, I was sitting at the top of the Trent River canyon and the wind blew some grass beside me. And when I looked at the blades of grass, I realized that I was just as important in that place as the blades of grass, no more or no less. Lots of times we put ourselves above nature. We think that we’re somehow better than. And I think that’s part of the problem, not realizing that we’re a part, we’re as important as blades of grass.
What does being a Canadian mean to you?
I’m very proud to be a Canadian. My family, many of us emigrated here. I think all of us in this room did, or our families did. My father’s family has been on the island for five generations, and my mother’s family has been in Canada for about seven generations. I think that Canadians are looked at in a good way. At the Olympics, did you see where someone lost his ski and this Canadian came and gave him a ski? And people tell us we say “eh” all time. I love saying “eh” all the time. And we’re always saying “sorry” as if it’s a joke, but we’re kind of polite and respectful. I think I’ll stay!
I’m moved by a lot of things that you’ve said. It comes across really powerfully. We had talked before about the value of speaking out, and speaking up for the voiceless.
Well, it’s really important to speak up, like I was sharing about the herons. By me speaking up maybe sometimes, people won’t disturb them so much. And speaking up for the land in my neighbourhood, there’s been an autobody shop and it’s not so active now but I spoke up about that. Sometimes it’s easier to sit around and not use your voice, but it’s really important. It’s empowering too. You have a voice, use it! While it’s scary sometimes, it’s really important to speak up for what you believe in. All those people who put themselves on the line at Clayoquot, and parts of the Clayoquot are still not logged because of that. I’ve been involved in lots of protests over the years. The Idle No More movement and standing together with First Nations people.
There was a guy, Beau Dick who came down from Alert Bay, and he walked a copper. A copper, they’re in First Nations families, they’re about this big. And he walked with other people and took this copper down to the legislature steps in Victoria. I didn’t go there, but I walked through town with him, because I think it’s important to stand up and support people. I don’t it for every single issue that comes along, but when something is really important… I was really nervous about walking with Beau Dick through our community, because he’s kind of a radical First Nations guy. And I was thinking, oh my goodness – some people might see me that I know, and how might that affect my work with youth, could it affect if I get a contract or not? I did think those things but it didn’t stop me – I went, I have to do this. This is courage, right? It’s about that knowing inside yourself when something is really important, and not sitting that one out, going “yeah, I’m gonna show up”. And sometimes that can mean people, friends, family, community members, looking at you in a different way. Or it can affect friendships and your work.
I’m really proud of any issue that I’ve spoken up or stood up for, or gathered with community members for, marched through town. You have to do that, I think. They’re going to come along in your lives too, so don’t sit them out. Put yourself out there, and have the courage to stand up for the natural world or First Nations culture or nuclear bombing in Amchitka. There’s a synchronicity that happens when you know you’re doing the right thing, and you show up at the right time. And if you follow your passion and follow that synchronicity, things are laid out in front of you. (she shows a large, glass ball)
What’s the story behind that?
Well, I was commercial fishing. And sometimes when the weather got really bad, we’d have harbour days. We’d throw out the anchor and row ashore. This one time I was on a boat called the Arbutus Isle, and there was another boat called the Nighi Isle. We rowed ashore and were on the south end of Rose Spit, walking along the beach. We’re walking along beside this young man. I’m about 30 and he’s like 17. And we had this conversation: it’s not the person who sees the glass ball, it’s the person who gets to it first, who actually lays their hands on it. So about ten minutes later, I watched this ball get deposited on the beach right in front of us. I couldn’t believe my eyes. I just said, “oh my god, oh my god!”– and ran as fast as I could because he could have outrun me, so I got the glass ball. I love that story. This came all the way from Japan and I saw it get put on the beach, so that’s my glass ball! Cool, eh?
We would like to thank you for doing this interview with us and sharing your stories.
I’m honoured. I was really honoured to be asked to do this, and I think it’s a wonderful project that you guys are involved in. I really commend you for showing an interest in learning about people in the community.