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Photo courtesy of Burnaby Now.

Chum salmon swimming in Still Creek. Photo courtesy of Burnaby Now.

For the first time in at least half a century, chum salmon have returned to Vancouver.

There have been efforts to clean up the heavily polluted Still Creek, which flows from central Burnaby to east Vancouver, going on for a few decades.

In early November, chum salmon returned to the creek and have swam as far up as the Renfrew ravine, marking the first salmon in the city of Vancouver for “at least half a century,” according to one expert.

“Sometimes a salmon’s olfactory memory isn’t as sharp and they’ll stray off, accidentally sort of stumble in there and colonize a new habitat,” said Ken Ashley of the Rivers Institute at BCIT.

Ashley explained over the phone how the salmon could have possibly known to swim through Still Creek to spawn after so many decades.

Ashley said that chum salmon use their sense of smell to follow the same spawning route year after year. If those routes are disturbed in some way, though, they are able to use their sense of smell to find another stream suitable for spawning that may have been used decades ago like Still Creek.

“It’s a good evolutionary device for salmon to have,” said Ashley, who said it’s useful in cases where a stream becomes flooded by rain or dammed up by humans.

Another explanation for the chum’s return to Still Creek is fish hatcheries that stock streams with chum fry and eggs from fish hatcheries in order to introduce them into a wild habitat.

What was once the Lower Mainland’s most polluted waterway is now home to one of the most amazing spawning habits in the animal kingdom. The high school biology geek inside me is stoked.

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News 1130 reported today that Bon Wong, proprietor of well-known East Van eatery Bon’s Off Broadway, received the Bad Boss Award from the Employee Action Rights Network (EARN).

Bon’s serves greasy spoon-style chinese and diner food, but is relied upon by many East Vancouverites (including myself) for its answer to a hangover cure on a plate: the $2.95 breakfast special. Two eggs any style, bacon/ham/sausage, toast, and hash browns (INSIDERS TIP: ask for garlic & onion in the hash browns. sends them to another level!) smothered in enough grease to coat your stomach and send you to the bathroom before the day’s over.

“One of the ways the costs are so low or the prices are so low perhaps is that people aren’t being paid what they’re legally entitled,” says EARN’s chairman Stephen Von Sychowski.

According to EARN, one current and one former employee have alleged that Bon Wong pays his employees under the table, below minimum wage and offers no overtime or vacation pay.

A sworn statement from a current employee says that bussers are paid $7 an hour (with a $10 tip-out from each server on shift) and servers are paid $6 an hour (plus tips). The statement also says the employee worked 11 an 12 hour shifts without overtime pay, was paid from the till, and provided with no T4 forms.

As reported in The Province, however, Wong denies the allegations against him. “A couple of staff got let go, so that’s where the story is coming from,” he told The Province. He upholds that liquor servers are being paid $9/hour and kitchen staff are being paid $10.25/hour.

Wong does, however, get tipped out $2 per hour from each server because he often works alongside them when business gets slammed during a rush.

“I’ve been working in this business for 30 years. If I was a bad boss, nobody would be working for me,” he told The Province.

I’d really like to look into this story further. Bon’s is a mainstay for my coworkers and I to converge and catch up or “recover” over the cheapest meal in town. Wong has always seemed like a pleasant man, rolling up his sleeves and working alongside his employees; it would be a shame were it all a sham, and I’m going to reconsider supporting a business which mistreats its employees.

However, working for an independent business owner myself, I understand that sometimes it’s hard to make ends meet and employers sometimes need to cut corners temporarily and employees need to either accept that and have some flexibility or quit if they’re unhappy with it. I can’t speak for what the conditions at Bon’s are like, obviously, but I know I’ve had to sit out late or bounced paycheques from my employer. It was maddening at the time and going to the Labour Board has crossed my coworkers’ minds on more than one occasion… but the money came through eventually, and I’m willing to sacrifice temporarily if it means my employer can stay in business and I get to keep working at a job I love.

On Wednesday, I went to the City of Vancouver’s event Finding Home at St. Andrew’s-Wesley Church. The building itself was beautiful, gothic architecture with high ceilings and stained glass.

Me and two other classmates were able to (briefly) interview Jean Budden, chair of End Homelessness Now, Councillor Kerry Jang, and DTES resident Danse Crowkiller on camera. Since the footage was for a broadcasting class assignment, we were there to get in, get our shots, and get out. Kerry Jang had some really awesome things to say about acknowledging that the homeless are people, not statistics. He reminded me how important putting a human face on an issue is.

The short interviews went great, and I got inspired to stick around and see all the speakers at the event. I was without a camera or recorder, which was a bad call on my part.

After dashing out to grab my notepad from my classmate’s car, I hurried back to the church for the rest of the event.

Patrick Oleman was the first guest I saw speak. He’s an aboriginal DTES resident. He’s been playing street soccer for three years, recently ran a marathon and is currently training for another. His success story was quite remarkable. After living in the Stanley Hotel for 7 years, he got into playing soccer on the Vancouver Street Soccer League, and eventually had the opportunity to go to Brazil with the team.

He shared a story from that time: before he departed with his team, his uncle held a prayer and granted a sacred feather to the team – he told them to find someone who inspires the entire team and give them the feather, explaining its significance in their culture. While in Brazil, they were playing a pick up game and a 10 year old boy joined in. He ended up beating a few people on the team, and his drive and spirit inspired them so they gave the feather to him.

“I’m trying to represent the ‘hood and Native people as best I can – I’m getting there,” he said.

Andrew Clark from the At Home/Chez Soi speakers’ bureau was the next who really struck me. He was another success story of someone who once had all the odds against him. He was either in prison or some other government institution from the age of 11 to 41.

The At Home/Chez Soi program is a housing-first approach to helping solve the homelessness issue run by the Mental Health Commission of Canada. By addressing basic needs like shelter, other issues can then be focused on and the root of homelessness can be addressed.

Now you’re not spending every waking hour in a line and another line,” said Andrew. He said that once you’re sheltered indoors, and that worry is no longer on your mind, you have time to notice your other issues such as any mental illnesses. It can overwhelming and it’s the first time you have time to cope with what you were too distracted to notice before.

“Success is an individual thing … I’m a success because this is the longest I’ve ever been out of prison in my life.”

Andrew went on to say, “Housing is a right, not a privilege.” People began to clap.

“It shouldn’t be something you have to fight for,” he said as the entire church erupted into applause.

Bill Quinn’s video presentation affected me the most on an emotional level. I can’t do his story justice through text. He is an Aboriginal elder from Oppenheimer Park, and his humility and wisdom moved me to tears.

He described how it felt to be ripped from his grandmother on a reservation at the age of 7 to be placed in a residential school. How he lost so much of his culture and identity, and how the schools focused so much on reforming their behaviour and Catholic prayer rather than “teaching things worth anything.”

“My life was messed up instead of getting any education.”

At 17 or 18 he was already living on the streets. However, he is now clean and sober from drink and drugs. He’s the only of his friends from residential school who has survived so long.

Far from being angry at the injustices in the world, Bill Quinn’s attitude was overwhelmingly humble and forward-looking. His demeanour expresses a faith in humanity and an outlook that’s positive and hopeful for change.

When asked how he keeps positive, Quinn recalled advice his grandmother taught him.

“Honesty. Be honest, be truthful, and things will work out fine.”

Another highlight for me was seeing one of my instructors, Alexandra Samur, along with Jackie Wong talk about their DTES Community Journalism 101 course. Someone from the course got up to read one of his pieces about waiting in the welfare line that ran in Megaphone magazine.

At the end of the night, heading home, I felt more inspired than I ever have to do something in the community to help. I pondered why this was so – it’s not as though I have been unaware until now.

I came back to what Councillor Jang had said earlier, and I realized it’s something I’ve been taught in journalism school, too –

putting a human face on an issue is the best thing you can do to make people care.

Several places in the Downtown Eastside will be serving up free turkey dinners this Thanksgiving to those in need.

The Union Gospel Mission on 601 East Hastings will be open on Monday from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Keela Keepling, senior public relations manager, told the Vancouver Sun will be carving up 170 turkeys.

On Wednesday, to avoid overlap, The Door is Open at 373 East Cordova will dish out its turkey dinners.

Finally, on Sunday, October 14, The Salvation Army’s Harbour Light at 119 East Cordova estimates to serve 1,800 people from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m.

The dinners are available to both the homeless and the working poor who are not homeless, but unable to buy food.

It’s heartwarming to see the community providing for those in need all year round, but especially at holiday times. For people who have little else it must mean the world to know there are people providing and looking out for you.

Homelessness Action Week 2012

In the spirit of Homelessness Action Week, the Union Gospel Mission is also going to be holding walking tours of the DTES from October 9-13.

At the East Van Love 6.5 tweetup on September 27, Derek Weiss (Manager of Community Engagement at UGM) said the best gift you can give the homeless is “the gift of presence.” Simply looking them in the eye and acknowledging they exist can feel like a HUGE thing.

As someone who walks through the DTES often, this hit home for me – I started considering how often I do this myself. I do think it’s absolutely ridiculous that I have friends from the ‘burbs who try to avoid walking on the same side of the street as the homeless – REALLY!

But, I did think about how little I connect with people on the street and avoid their eyes so they won’t ask me for change.

So I started trying something new – looking them in the face, smiling at them, and if I don’t have any change I tell them “I’m sorry, I don’t have any today.”

It’s not much, but I hope that just knowing they aren’t invisible counts for something.

I’m going to attend a walking tour and try to get to a couple other HAW events, and I encourage anyone who’s hesitant to interact with the homeless to do the same.

They aren’t animals, they aren’t scum, and they exist.

Let them know you’re aware of that, at least.

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