Photo: British Columbia has an identity crisis

British Columbia is now the last safe haven for most of the large animals left on the continent (Credit : pmorgan via Flickr).

By David Suzuki with Faisal Moola

If you live in or have visited British Columbia recently, you'll have noticed a campaign to sell the province as "The Best Place on Earth". The government has spent tens of millions of dollars branding the province, and the tag-line for its PR campaign appears to be everywhere: on television and radio, on billboards, bus shelters, licence plates, and just about everywhere else you look. And as we enter the home stretch to the 2010 Olympics hosted by B.C., the campaign is reaching a fevered pitch.

Those of us who live among the towering mountains, old-growth forests, and pristine lakes and rivers feel we deserve these bragging rights on occasion (especially in mid-February, when folks in Vancouver can go jogging on the beach while people in the rest of the nation are freezing their butts off). And ecologists tell us that B.C. is blessed with an exceptional diversity of wildlife and wilderness, on par with some of the greatest places on the planet, such as the Serengeti and the Great Barrier Reef.

My home province is Canada's richest region biologically — home to 76 per cent of our nation's bird species, 70 per cent of its freshwater fish, 60 per cent of its evergreen trees, and thousands of other animals and plants. More than 3,800 species are found here, and many of these, such as mountain goat and mountain caribou, live mostly — or only — in the province and nowhere else on the planet. For others, such as the trumpeter swan and sandhill crane, B.C. is a critical wintering ground or stopover in winged migrations that extend over thousands of kilometres.

Most remarkably, unlike most places in North America, B.C. still has all of the large and charismatic megafauna that were present at the time of European settlement, including grizzly bears, wolves, and cougars. Indeed, British Columbia is now the last safe haven for most of the large animals left on the continent. For example, grizzlies still roam, feed, and breed throughout much of the province, whereas in California, this majestic bruin is now only found as an image on the state's flag, having long been eliminated from the wild.

B.C. has a rich legacy to protect, yet the experts tell us that we are squandering our unique biological inheritance. Earlier this year, scientists revealed that more than four dozen species have disappeared from the province, and the casualty list is growing. A further 1,600 species (43 per cent of all the plants and animals thought to exist in the province) are also in decline and are perhaps facing a similar fate unless action is taken.

These statistics are not just an abstract tally. To the contrary, many residents and visitors to the province have personally experienced these plants and animals in nature — perhaps seen a grizzly bear while on a camping trip, or hooked a salmon on one of our pristine rivers, or been dazzled by a pod of orcas while kayaking. You don't even have to go far from populated areas: the remaining patches of Canada's most endangered forest ecosystem, the Garry oak savannah, can be found in downtown Victoria!

Given the biodiversity crisis that is unfolding in my home province, I'm shocked that the government can claim we're the "best place on earth". We lag behind virtually every other place in North America in providing legal protection for our wildlife. B.C. stands out in Canada for not having an endangered species law, while smaller provinces such as New Brunswick and Nova Scotia have gone to great lengths to legally protect endangered species and their habitat. Even developing countries, such as Mexico, Costa Rica, and "the glorious nation" of Kazakhstan (to quote Borat) have a leg up on us, with endangered species laws on the books.

I'm proud of my province, and like most residents and visitors to British Columbia, I want to make sure that the natural heritage that we're blessed with is protected for my children and grandchildren to enjoy. However, in light of the government's ad campaign, I think the province needs an identity check. The government needs to reconcile its efforts to brand this province on the basis of its natural wonders with our true identity as one of the "last places on earth" without an endangered species law to protect the very things that make my home great.

November 14, 2008