One day, one thing gone

21 10 2012

What happens when you lose the one thing you thought you couldn’t live without?


I suspect everyone has a “one thing” they consider irreplaceable.
A spouse.
A dog.
A career.
A belief.
In some instances, maybe a car.

Something you believe that, once lost, can never be replaced. And even if something ever happens to potentially take its place, there would still be such a huge gaping hole in your life that you just wouldnt be able to get over it.

For me, my one thing was my childhood home. For thirty years it was unarguably my place of comfort. No matter where I travelled in my 20s, I always has the sweet sense that I could go home anytime, finding the big, barn-like house unchanged. When I lived in Etobicoke, Toronto, surrounded by industrial buildings and drab, low-income housing, buzzed by airplanes day and night, I was comforted knowing that back home, there were green rolling hills all year round and raspberry bushes bursting with berries in spring and blackberries in summer and coyotes howling all night long. No matter how far I went and how dreary my present circumstances, that was still there.


I carried the ideal of the farmhouse’s beauty with me everywhere. In Palestine and Israel, exploring the countryside and climbing Syrian hills, I contrasted its desert and rock-blasted landscapes with my home terrain. In Paris, I admired the layout of the arrondissements but decided I couldn’t get used to living that close to neighbours, with that little space. In Nunavut I ached with the beauty of white upon white land and seascapes, but longed for the greens of home. In China I was blown away by the Heavenly Mountains, but knew the view from my bedroom window of the distant Rockies was far more satisfying. There is nothing like travelling far to find you love best the land that you grew up exploring.

I was steeped in the farmhouse lore: how the planks for the curving staircase were once part of a dock, and its pillars, worm-ringed and knotty, had been reclaimed from a pier being torn down; that the upstairs windows came from a 100-year old Catholic church; that the original builder, a fireman, had installed a fireplace that wasn’t up to code and my parents had had to replace it.


It wasn’t the memories of the times I’d spent there, the Christmases with family, the parties and dinners I’d hosted, that kept me attached to the old homestead. I’d had fun there, countless bonfires around which beers were consumed and cloves smoked, berries picked and thrown and baked, gardens planted and harvested, people blessed and welcomed with hospitality and joy. It was more a sense of attachment to the place itself than to what happened to me there. Perhaps you can’t distinguish one from the other. But I felt I belonged there in a way I didn’t anywhere else in the world. The landscape was part of me, and I couldn’t live without it.

Or at least that’s what I believed.

Until I was uprooted against my will, I didn’t think i could be happy anywhere else. Until I moved to a little island with a little cabin by the sea, a warm stove and a room to turn into an edit suite, I didn’t think I could call anywhere else home. At least, not three weeks after the trauma of uprooting!

But that’s exactly what happened. I lost my “one thing”, thought the world was going to end, wailed and protested at length to anyone who would listen, made a “last film”, “last canning session”, “last pie”, “last garden walk through”, “last picture”, “last cry” and I finally walked away and I was… fine.

I am absolutely still fine. In fact, I think I’m better than ever, but what has happened since walking away from the farm is another story.

The point is, I only thought I needed a homebase, and I just made myself miserable for months thinking I was losing it. The truth is, I’m an adventurer. I love to explore. I am made for travel and transplants and new root systems every few years. It was shocking, really, to see how quickly I for used to the idea of living elsewhere, of loving being elsewhere, and let the ideal I held of the farm just… go.

That’s what happened when I lost my one thing. What happened to you when you lost yours?

Comments welcome.









New images of the horses for orphans project

7 12 2010

As we continue to put this story together, I’ve clipped some more images from the amazing footage we captured at last March.

— All images from footage shot by Charlotte Gentis

CAEPLA and craziness in the Peace

7 09 2010

EnCana natural gas pipeline

I think I’ll become an evangelist soon… or (God, no!!) an activist. The longer I stay in the Peace river region, the more I become infected with this crazy desire to make a movie about it. This whole sordid oil and gas mess makes me want to grab a camera and record everything – everything!

I got a chance to speak tonight to the head of CAEPLA (Canadian Association of Energy and Pipeline Landowner Associations), Dave Core, and I’m thankful – and blown away – by the scope he brings to the picture. I’ve been talking to farmers and landowners and trappers all around Farmington, Fort St. John, Rolla and Dawson Creek for a little under two weeks now, and while the stories are consistent and troubling, I didn’t have a holistic view of what is happening, and why, until we spoke.

Dave has been involved with a number of precedent-setting cases where a little group of landowners concerned for their land stood up to Big Oil and Gas and the National Energy Board, and won. They didn’t stop development on their land altogether – they’re not anti-development – but they did win some decent concessions that forced the oil and gas companies to acknowledge that landowners deserve to be treated fairly.

Dave told me enough stories and case studies that I feel more up to speed on what has been happening across the country. What concerns this post though, is how bad things are up in northeastern B.C., and if you believe the man who’s been fighting for responsible development for twenty years, according to him it’s as bad as it could get up here. Or worse.

Class 1 farmland, in the BC Peace River region

  • Ontario farmers and landowners at least have the rights to the minerals under their dirt. B.C. landowners don’t have a right to anything other than topsoil or the clay beneath it.
  • The land is actually not theirs to be held in total privacy because, at any time, a seismic imaging crew or a surveyor can come on your land to check it out, and you can’t turn them away.
  • If they find something under that dirt, you can bet a land agent will be at your door, or will start hassling you on the phone, until you sign something that gives the oil or gas company unfettered access to your land.
  • Once a pipeline is in, you can’t move a tractor, a lawnmower, or a bicycle over the line without getting permission from the company.
  • In some cases, they will take up 30 metres on either side of the pipe, in addition to the easement area of 18 metres for a total of 96 metres around that pipe, for however many hundreds of feet it takes up on your land, and you can’t do anything to it. No farming, no haying, no planting.
  • If the company currently taking up space on your land decides to deactivate the pipeline, they simply stop the flow of gas, and leave the pipe in your dirt. To rot. Or possibly cave in. Forever.
  • And if you damage that pipeline for any reason, you’re responsible. You pay. And if you hurt yourself on it, you’re equally liable.

So what does a farmer get for all this inconvenience, for a devalued piece of shit land that now he may not be able to pass on to his grandkids because it’s worthless or contaminated?
Nope, not royalties for the oil or gas passing through those pipes.

Nor a share of the bounty, which in B.C. amounted to $98 million in bonus bids IN AUGUST ALONE, bringing the total of land lease sales to oil and gas companies to $760 million for 2010 so far.

The average farmer might get a few thousand dollars, maybe $6,000, maybe $8,000, as a one-time payout for a lifetime of inconvenience and grief.

The government just announced it’s throwing some more money at the oil and gas companies – $115 million to build roads and infrastructure in underdeveloped areas specifically for oil and gas use. You know what that tells me? More wilderness thuggery, more dead animals, more expansion into B.C.’s bush and watershed.

The more I hear about how this land is being sold up the creek for a few million bags of gold (need to pay off the Olympics much, Mr. Campbell?)…

the more I hear about landowners being flat out lied to by land agents who come to their doors, uninvited, pressuring them to sign contracts that will strip the last of the few rights they have to their land…

the more I hear about out-of-province workers being brought in to do oil and gas work – labour that was promised to the citizens of these towns and villages….

the more I see of the bad roads, high gas and diesel prices, dead deer and moose from the ridiculous number of speeding truckers, driving back from some remote jobsite and eager to get back to the bar and raise hell…

the more I hear… (I just can’t believe what I’m hearing, but these are not the kind of people that would lie to you…)

the more I hear…

the more you’ll hear about it, because it’s not the kind of tiny-potatoes issue I could ignore.

Horses for Orphans: how orphaned boys began their journey into healing and horsemanship

28 08 2010

Two horses out of a herd of 15 that were donated to the orphanage. Photo credit: Ingela Larsson-Smith

I’ve been working on a project for the past month that I absolutely love, which has the working title “Horses for Orphans”. It’s the powerful story of how a natural horsewoman and her team tame and gentle a herd of unwanted, almost-wild horses in order to reach a group of orphans. Both the animals and the boys are wounded, have experienced abuse and neglect at the hands of those who were supposed to love and care for them, and have been “given away” because no one is able to look after them anymore. In learning to handle the horses, the boys begin to understand their own journey to healing.

A boy gets in close and personal with a young horse – but he’s gotten that far only because the horse is beginning to trust him. Photo credit: Ingela Larsson-Smith

A horsewoman and photographer, Ingela Larsson-Smith sets out to teach the boys first how read a horse’s body language so they can begin to understand what the horses are thinking and feeling as they begin to approach them in a new way – as friends. Most of the horses have had some traumatic experience at the hands of humans in the past, so they’re scared, untrusting, ready to fly  at the first sign of danger, and can’t possibly understand that this group of humans want to help them.  All they have known is being “used” for their ability to work, and when they were no longer useful, they were neglected or given away. So why should they trust humans?

A horsewoman who teaches a natural, respectful approach to animals, Ingela makes initial contact with an animal not with lassos or ropes, but only through trust, when the animal accepts that she’s not out to hurt it. Photo credit: Richard Smith

At the same time, the boys have been through much pain already in their young lives and although they have been brought to a safe place – the children’s home is a good place to live – they have only begun to heal. As Ingela and her team (husband Richard Larsson-Smith, horsewoman Katy Overton) and the children seek to establish a new relationship of trust with these horses, the hope is that the boys will see themselves and their own inner journey reflected in these animals.

As they begin to understand why the horse flees to a safe place when it senses danger, the boys will perhaps make the connection why they hide behind walls of self-protection with their own behaviour, to prevent being hurt again. They might see that the battle to win the horses’ hearts and minds can only start when they themselves begin to trust and open up.

The project leaders hope not only to teach the children horsemanship, but also communication and leadership, essential skills in any part of life. They are creating a program that includes English lessons and a horsemanship curriculum from which the children can graduate to be certified to work with horses once they leave the orphanage. It is about real life-skills, but also about healing the heart and soul.

The footage was shot as a gift to the Horses for Orphans project by my friend and business partner, Charlotte Gentis, a videographer who freelances for CBC Vancouver, over a 14-day period in 2010.

Charlotte films Katie_IMG_7039

Charlotte’s challenges included:

– tropical rainstorms that lasted for days, during which the work of building an arena and of recording important milestones with the horses and children had to continue;

– an issue with language, as specific natural horsemanship terms had to be translated by a non-professional Brazilian translator, extremely challenging;

– working in the field as a one-woman production team, trying to manage sound capture, perfect image capture and do interviews;

– all the while learning a brand new camera (Sony EX1r) that is very very unlike the heavy shoulder-mount cameras she uses at CBC.

So it was a challenge, but so very worth it, as I can see now logging the video. We have about 60 hours of to wade through, so much of it usable that I think we have a problem of too much rather than too little. Going through the moments, I discover what the team faced when they got there, how they overcame their challenges day by day, and what ultimately happened in the end. It’s a daily delight.

Stay tuned for news of the next project, which I’m getting ready to dive into this week with a trip back up to Northern B.C., to my dearly loved frontier towns, Dawson Creek and Fort St. John.

So long and thanks for all the fish…

5 07 2010

That is the inimitable line from one of Douglas Adam‘s Hitchhiker’s Guide the Galaxy books (I think it’s the fourth in a trilogy of five). My brother Matthew is reading it right now, and it’s a trip down memory lane to pick it up again and dive with childlike delight into one of Adams’ weirdly constructed paragraphs about Ford Prefect and Arthur Dent’s excellent adventures. No one writes like Adams. If you’ve never read it and have any sort of a sense of humour at all, you might consider picking one of his books up for fun. Just leave the custard and sperm whales behind because they tend to get damaged on these trips.

But I digress.

Mist rises from the Niagara Falls high above the constant crowds. We "digressed" with a side trip there so my brother could see the Falls for the first time before heading out West for real.

I feel I’m going back in time because I’m on yet another road trip across the continent. My sixth. One could argue this many trips in ten years is un de trop, but I never get tired of road trips. It’s for a good cause: I need lots of time to think about my reasons for heading back to my native land, British Columbia, after 12 years living and working in Toronto and Montreal, to start my own documentary production company.

Sounds grand doesn’t it? And it is, until you consider the current production climate working directors et al. are suffering though. I believe Canada will fare better than most, although worse than we would have done without Harper at the helm, but still I get the sweats thinking about it.

Why am I starting a production company at this particular time? What am I, a woman of 31 years of age with virtually no field experience, doing, entering this industry at this point in time? When many esteemed directors, producers, sound techs and videographers are grasping for any work they can find? Why?

No one yet knows how to make money from webdocs. No one can figure out distribution figures when everything is being given away for free, and the consumers are now trained to expect everything to be free. No one has figured out how – aside from going to those excellent institutions the NFB/ONF and SODEC and the like – how to get money to make a film. And the only people who are getting THAT kind of money are the already working filmmakers, those who have produced at least two or three decently well-regarded films, and even THEY are having trouble getting the funds together.

I should be running straight back for the hills of Montreal, begging someone for an internship in network TV and moonlighting at McKibbon’s bar, praying there will be a job in 3-5 years when some reporter finally releases their white-knuckled grip on their job and moves on. But I’m heading out West to start editing our first project, a mini-doc about an encounter between Brazil’s orphans and a natural horsewoman.

Why? Because in spectacularly depressing scenarios like this, when everything media-related has been thrown against the wall and all the rules have changed, people can create their own opportunities. I have faith that starting out in the middle of chaos puts everyone on a level field. Chaos even creates an advantage for those who have nothing better to do than grab the tail of opportunity and see what corner they will be whipped around next. I believe that the current climate we’re living through is the most exciting, terrifying, thrilling, open-source, open-ended, adventurous time we’ve seen since New Wave met mullet hairdos. I think that if anyone can tackle this new environment, it’s those people like me, who have nothing to lose and everything to gain by jumping in now.

Tobi has finally found her true function: Amy Minksy holds up the Tobi clothes steamer.

This is a time for the pioneers and time-shapers, the innovators and inventors, the experimenters and the agitators… and the young. I may qualify in only the last category, but that’s good enough for me.

But in the meantime, on the scenic route to the exciting new world of starting a production company in the midst of all this chaos, I’m stuck inside a beige-themed RV, doing nothing much without access to the Internet.

Our trip west is taking the molasses-slow route. With two excellent drivers on board, Matt and my Dad (who never lets me forget that I’ve wrecked 4 cars in a total of 8 accidents) who don’t let me take the wheel for anything, I’m doing a lot of reading. 

Since we left Montreal a week ago I’ve already finished one ENTIRE novel – what a luxury! – Wally Lamb’s The Hour I First Believed, and I’m starting Alexandr Solzhenitsyn’s In the First Circle – the first-time-ever-issued uncensored edition. Other pieces of note: the latest issue of Maisonneuve magazine that features some heavy reading (AI, Singularity theory and the end of humanity) and heavy breathing (how one copy writer almost ended up writing excerpts for hard-core porn videos.)

So long, and see you on the other side.

How beautiful is Canada, hey?

Stories to come..

26 06 2010

I have been extremely remiss in keeping this blog up to date. Not because nothing has been happening, but because… because…

I don’t know.

I guess I’m working on other people’s blogs more than my own! Ha! More on that to come.

I hereby promise to write more regularly and be faithful to my reading public...

In the month+ since the last update I have managed to:

– attend a fancy dinner at Rideau Hall to witness the awarding of the Michener prize for journalism [Linda Gyulai of The Montreal Gazette won for her coverage of corruption in Montreal’s civic politics.] Pics to come.

– finish my three year degree at Concordia University, which took a really circutiuous 5 years, and sit through the correspondingly long convocation ceremony. [The President of Concordia managed to fit into her address a justification for the perpetually broken escalators in the 12-storey Hall building. Something to do with, “We built a brand-new building for the business school, c’mon.” Which is great for business students but not so much for the poli sci and the rest of the student population stuck walking up those escalator stairs in the Hall building.]

Pomp and Circumstance, which I endured fairly well thanks to texting and Twitter.

– assist documentary filmmaker Magnus Isacsson put together proposals seeking funding for some of his upcoming projects. [Learning the art of pitching, writing one-sheets, and arguing the merits of a story you need to know inside and out before you shoot or write a frame.]

– interview documentary filmmaker Kevin McMahon about interactive online docs vs. traditional longform films. [Managed to insult him mildly by referring to his work-in-progress as having to do with nuclear energy, instead of nuclear weapons. The interview will appear on Magnus’ blog Documentary Fieldnotes and Flashpoints.]

– host and entertain three members of my family, visiting Montreal for their first time, from Abbotsford, B.C.

Longtime friends David and Charmaine Hicks on the left, and sibs Sharla Vanderwoude and Matthew Elliott on the right, enjoying a pitcher in the Old Port.

[In which the Elliott family, who possess at least 10 cars between them back on the Ranch, are shocked to learn how far one can go using only public transit and bicycles.]

Here we are in all our Polarized glory: sisters Sharla and Tobi, and my bro Matthew Elliott, together on the metro for first time.

One of the STM's 'green' bus shelters with leafy things growing out of the top.

– pack up 12 years worth of stuff acquired while “out east” and ship it “out west”. [I own 2 articles of furniture: a solid wood coffeetable from Brazil, and a bookshelf, and waaaay more books than I can afford to ship. This is the sum of my valued (non-electronic) goods. Electronic goods and software have a value of approx 10,000 times the rest of the stuff. And my people are worth a million times the value of my electronic goods. Below, Matte Downey, aka Martha, and Charmaine Hicks, two of the people I would like to pack back west with me.]

– and now I’m en route to Quebec City for more wine and dining, more sights and pastoral landscapes, and the beginning of a family bonding road trip that promises to be fairly congenial, perhaps to the point of actually enjoyable.

Matt meets Kim, our escort around Montreal’s Old Port.

So. Many stories to come.

After all, there’s not much else I’ll have to do in an air-conditioned RV for ten hours per day on the 6+ days it will take to reach Vancouver.

Filmmaker Magnus Isacsson’s take on Hot Docs

11 05 2010

Bloor Theatre: glowing in all its gritty glory in the sunshine of a May day in Toronto

I’m interning with documentary filmmaker Magnus Isacsson for a few months. Here’s his take on some screenings he took in at the Hot Docs festival (Toronto, May 2010.)


Bloor Theatre Hot Docs Marquee