Go to the Globe and Mail homepage

Jump to main navigationJump to main content

No. 10: Roderick Haig-Brown Add to ...

Long before a group of radicals founded Greenpeace, the British Columbia-born organization that became the world's most famous environmental group, and long before David Suzuki began proselytizing on television about the importance of sustainability, Roderick Haig-Brown defined what it meant to be a conservationist.

Mr. Haig-Brown was an immigrant who had a profound impact on the province he adopted, after settling with his wife, Ann, in a farmhouse on the banks of the Campbell River, on Vancouver Island.

A logger, trapper, guide and lay magistrate, Mr. Haig-Brown, who was born in Sussex, England, in 1908, and settled in British Columbia in 1931, wrote a series of books on fly fishing and conservation that are considered classics.

He is revered within fly-fishing circles because of such definitive works as The Western Angler (1939), A River Never Sleeps (1944) and four books that trace the seasons of a fisherman. But Mr. Haig-Brown's most significant contribution is that he helped forge a conservation ethic in British Columbia by educating the public about the importance of protecting salmon and the watersheds that sustain them.

He was warning about environmental threats long before others were, and often set aside his writing to actively fight projects he considered environmentally damaging. He led an unsuccessful battle in the early 1950s to stop a dam on the Campbell River that flooded Buttle Lake and Strathcona Provincial Park but succeeded in a fight against the High Moran Dam, which would have blocked the Fraser River. Today, the free-flowing Fraser remains one of the greatest salmon-producing rivers in the world.

Mr. Haig-Brown's influence also can be seen reflected in hundreds of community groups around British Columbia that involve tens of thousands of volunteers in salmon-restoration projects.

In 1950, long before environmentalism became a trend, he wrote: "I have been, all my life, what is known as a conservationist. I am not at all sure that this has done myself or anyone else any good, but I am quite sure that no intelligent man, least of all a countryman, has any alternative. It seems clear beyond possibility of argument that any given generation of men can have only a lease, not ownership, of the earth; and one essential term of the lease is that the earth be handed on to the next generation with unimpaired potentialities. This is the conservationist's concern."

Mr. Haig-Brown died at his home on the Campbell River in 1976. He left behind a collection of literary works that continue to shape the environmental outlook of British Columbians.

In considering his place in B.C. history, the panel of experts -- Thomas Berger, Daniel Francis, Jean Barman and Lily Chow -- concluded that although he never reached as big a global audience as Mr. Suzuki, Mr. Haig-Brown's message had a more profound impact on the province he made home.

Initially, Mr. Haig-Brown was not on the list of great British Columbians compiled by The Globe and Mail, but Daniel Francis suggested he be added as "one of the founders of the environmental movement in B.C."

That prompted a debate about his importance versus the role played by Mr. Suzuki, who has undoubtedly reached a wider global audience with his popular television series.

At first, the panel tilted toward Mr. Suzuki, who Mr. Berger described as "the foremost environmentalist in the country from B.C.," but soon the four experts were leaning toward Mr. Haig-Brown.

"Suzuki overshadows Haig-Brown, but if we talk specifically B.C. figures, I go with Haig-Brown," Mr. Berger said.

"Suzuki grew up here and is an inspiration for B.C. He did not come from elsewhere and plunk himself down. Haig-Brown came from somewhere else," Ms. Chow objected.

Mr. Berger agreed, but said despite that, Mr. Haig-Brown was "distinctively British Columbian" because he had dedicated himself to issues that were important to British Columbia, while Mr. Suzuki has tackled global issues.

"It just never occurred to [Haig-Brown]to go beyond B.C.." he said. "It's tough [to decide]"

After mulling it over, Ms. Chow tipped the majority in favour of the dignified, fly-fishing, British immigrant who founded environmentalism in British Columbia, saying simply, "I'd go for Haig-Brown over Suzuki."

This is the third of an ongoing countdown to the greatest British Columbian of all time. Tomorrow, we unveil No. 9.

Follow on Twitter: @markhumeglobe

 

In the know

Most popular video »

Highlights

More from The Globe and Mail

Most Popular Stories