Creating a Salish Sea Sense-of-Place

The use of the term “Salish Sea” region to define the watershed that drains the lands surrounding the Strait of Georgia, the Strait of Juan de Fuca, and Puget Sound has been approved by both the United States Board on Geographic Names and the Washington State Board on Geographic Names. With approval in principle by the office in British Columbia responsible for geographic naming (which represents a recommendation to the Minister responsible), the last barrier to official transboundary recognition of the name change is the BC Cabinet – which is expected to consider the recommendation this month.

Bert Webber (professor emeritus at the University of Western Washington) deserves the credit for making this happen. As I like to say, it takes a long time to do things quickly – and Bert Webber started this effort about 20 years ago. Now that there is such rapid momentum behind this effort, it is easy to forget how controversial this idea was only a year or two ago. (I’m ignoring the ongoing objections to the renaming because you can always find someone who objects to anything – those who object to the term “Salish Sea” and claim it will be confusing to mariners also blame the Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald on the confusing use of terms like “Great Lakes” and “Gitche Gumee”).

In 2007, I was Canadian Chair of the Georgia Basin Puget Sound Research (a.k.a. Salish Sea) Conference. Since 2005, this international conference had used the Salish Sea moniker as an unofficial synonym for the longer, bureaucratic Georgia Basin Puget Sound. At the time, I co-wrote a paper with my old friend and colleague Tony Hodge arguing that government acknowledgment of the term Salish Sea would not only be appropriate recognition of the First Nations history in the region, but would contribute in no-small-way to the building of a transboundary, ecosystem-wide “sense of place” in the region that does not currently exist. Such a sense of place would enhance the effectiveness of ecosystem-based management approaches in the region.

To confirm how far things have come in not only the 20 years that Bert Webber has been plugging away at this, but in just two years, when I tried to advance this issue in early 2007 my vision was to have the Premier of BC and Governor of Washington jointly announce at that 2007 conference that they were endorsing the name Salish Sea as the new name for the entire region. I used two analogous situations to argue why this wasn’t a huge legal or administrative undertaking (similar collective regional namings can be found in the Great Lakes and, closer to BC, Haida Gwaii), though I still believed that it would be enormously symbolic and potentially influential for the future of a sustainable region.

To make a long story short, we came very close to having the Premier at the conference, but weasels within the BC government bureaucracy were very effective in killing the initiative at that time, proving yet again that if you really want to make sure nothing happens, join the civil service. The weasels have done quite well since then, and I’m sure once the Cabinet endorses the name change the weasels will confirm that they supported it all along. I did get some satisfaction by taking on the weasels in a little piece I did for the Maritime Awards Society of Canada at a workshop on oceans governance in mid 2007.

In the earlier paper with Tony Hodge, published by the Canadian federal government’s Policy Research Initiative in its Horizon’s journal, we argued that:

in the case of the Georgia Basin, natural ecosystem boundaries are not consistent with “cultural system” boundaries as illuminated by the concept of a “sense of place.” This discordance may be a fundamental reason why application of ecosystem-based management (EbM) approaches in the Georgia Basin Ecosystem has had little acceptance by policy makers, politicians, and the public. The key lesson is that where such discord exists, EbM approaches may be less effective. Conversely, when ecosystem and cultural boundaries are aligned, an EbM approach can be expected to be embraced more readily. The key here is to ensure an understanding of the relative concordance between ecosystem boundaries and peoples’ “sense of place.”

The dilemma illuminated in this paper leads to our central conclusion: when crafting ecosystem initiatives, designers must be mindful of the sense of that place as humans understand it – as much as they seek to understand the complex dynamics of plants, animals, and features of the physical environment. An ecosystem perspective cannot simply be pushed onto people when the ecosystem definition is either inconsistent with or unimportant to their sense of place. When sense of place and natural ecosystems are aligned, the resulting resonance provides a tremendous impetus for success that can lead to vibrant institutional arrangements rooted in natural landscapes. When they do not coincide, the dissonance represents a major challenge to be overcome. Being mindful of the sense of place will naturally lead to an ecosystems approach that is built from the ground up, rather than imposed as an elegant structure from the top down.

Yet the current dilemma does exist. In the Georgia Basin, the ecosystem lacks a corresponding sense of place. This raises the practical question: what can be done with the conflict between the need to address ecosystem concerns from an ecosystem perspective and the absence of a sense of place in respect of the Georgia Basin? To move forward in British Columbia, two clear options present themselves: either tear down the Georgia Basin Ecosystem concept, or build a transboundary ecosystem-wide sense of place.

Despite the effort of many dedicated people over the past 15 years, it may be time to consider whether the lack of a sense of place coincident with the Georgia Basin Ecosystem fatally imperils efforts to adopt an EbM approach in the region. We do not imply that ecosystem approaches are misguided; rather, the search for the right ecosystem remains. An alternative approach to the Georgia Basin might rest in viewing Canada’s Pacific Islands – from Vancouver Island, through the Gulf Island, Broughton Archipelago, and numerous coastal islands all the way to the Queen Charlotte Islands/Haida Gwaii – as a collective entity, worthy of its own ecosystem-based approach. Pressures on the environment and resources in this area call for an ecosystem-wide perspective. And given the common maritime heritage and the shared sense of place of islanders up and down the mainland coast, a focus on Canada’s Pacific islands might provide a better ecosystem-based foundation.

But perhaps the problem isn’t with the ecosystem, but rather with us. It may be possible to rehabilitate the Georgia Basin, to build on the nearly 40 years of effort and finally start to think and behave in an ecosystem fashion. But such an effort will require the development of a corresponding sense of place. Doing so will require not only that we transcend the existing senses of place, but that we strive to make the whole ecosystem meaningful to its inhabitants.

This is certainly easier said than done. But one significant place to start would be with the name of the ecosystem itself. Rather than referencing the distant King George III of nearly two centuries ago or a subordinate of Captain Vancouver from the same era (Lieutenant Peter Puget), if the bureaucratic and scientific sounding “Georgia Basin/Puget Sound Bioregion” were renamed as the “Salish Sea”, we might begin to re-establish the link to the natural ecosystem that exists among the region’s Aboriginal groups. Rather than a futile exercise in semantics, we believe that renaming the ecosystem as the Salish Sea would resonate with residents and their heritage, and represent an important step in developing a broader sense of place.

This paper concluded:

Thus stands our challenge, to not only the Government of British Columbia, but of Canada, Washington State, and the United States of America: give this ecosystem a chance. Start with a simple, small, but potentially powerful first step: honour the past while looking to the future in the Salish Sea.

Well, the final three in that challenge have responded. It’s now up to the BC Cabinet to make it unanimous (as unanimous as things like this will ever get).

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One comment on “Creating a Salish Sea Sense-of-Place

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