Skip to main content

Environmentalist Gwen Barlee, seen at an art gallery event in Vancouver, worked to raise awareness of endangered species and tirelessly fought to protect the homes of B.C. animals.

Michael Wheatley/Wilderness Committee

For nearly two decades, Gwen Barlee, who has died at 54, was a dogged environmental activist in British Columbia. Combining a tenacious drive with a sharp intellect, she built allegiances among different groups as she challenged governments and corporations. She lobbied for more parks, campaigned to save endangered creatures and organized residents to protect waterways from private power projects.

"She was a tireless champion of the environment and a good personal friend of mine," NDP Leader John Horgan, who will be sworn in as premier next week, told the B.C. Legislature. "Gwen always sought consensus and co-operation. It may not always have felt that way to ministers on the other side, but each and every day, Gwen got up to try and make life a little bit better for herself, for her community and, most importantly, for the wild spaces and those that live there: the animals of British Columbia."

Confronted by stonewalling governments, she proved a savvy user of Freedom of Information laws. She scoured reams of documents to unearth hidden or unnoticed facts. In 2005, she embarrassed the provincial government by revealing that a controversial plan to put parking meters in provincial parks was costing more money than it raised.

Story continues below advertisement

About a decade ago, she contracted Lyme disease, which is transmitted by infected deer ticks and causes headaches, joint ache and chronic fatigue, among other symptoms. Ms. Barlee became a dedicated advocate for those suffering from the disease.

Striking in appearance and dynamic in personality, Ms. Barlee was hired as a campaigner in 2001 by the Western Canada Wilderness Committee. Her skills were such that she quickly moved into a management position at the non-profit society dedicated to environmental preservation and became its national policy director.

"She was not restrained by the possible. She liked to take on the impossible," said Joe Foy, the group's national campaign director. "Every now and then, she pulled it off."

Diagnosed with cancer last year, Ms. Barlee continued campaigning, presenting a 40,310-signature petition to the B.C. Legislature in February calling on the province to adopt laws to protect more than 1,900 endangered species.

Patricia Gwen Barlee was born on March 29, 1963, in Penticton and raised in nearby Summerland in British Columbia's scenic Okanagan region. She was the second of three girls born to Kathleen Kyle and Neville Langrell (Bill) Barlee. When she was 5, her father quit his job as a high-school teacher to embark on an unlikely career as author, television host and amateur historian, which later led to his being elected to the B.C. Legislature and serving as tourism minister in an NDP government.

The girls joined in expeditions to the province's interior, exploring forgotten mines and abandoned hamlets in search of relics. One of Ms. Barlee's fondest memories involved scavenging for coins beneath the rotten boardwalks of Sandon, formerly a silver-boom town of 10,000 fortune-seekers, which was reduced to a few derelict buildings.

The family haunted ghost towns in the Cariboo, the Kootenays and the Okanagan while their father, a wonderful raconteur, told stories about settlers, prospectors and the First Nations peoples who first occupied the land.

Story continues below advertisement

At home, the girls explored the surrounding countryside on their own, hiking through fruit orchards, swimming in Lake Okanagan and exploring Giant's Head Mountain, an extinct volcano that looms over Summerland. If the girls were known to be in the neighbourhood, which included the home of the playwright George Ryga, their mother summoned them home for dinner by ringing a cowbell.

After they got older, the girls learned to pan gold in icy streams, a venerable family practice as their great-grandfather had been a Klondike prospector. They worked as camp cooks while their father showed paying tenderfoots the best prospecting techniques.

As a young woman, Ms. Barlee worked as a model, a cocktail waitress at a swanky Vancouver hotel and as a blackjack dealer in Dawson City, Yukon. She studied painting at what is now the Emily Carr University of Art and Design and later completed a degree in women's studies and political science at Langara College, both in Vancouver. Her interest in film led her to a short stint as a production assistant on movies and later found fuller expression with the Wilderness Committee when she produced a short documentary about endangered species, including rattlesnakes, western toads and badgers, all of which were filmed in their natural habitats, the result of days on end spent on location in the wilderness.

Going on site was a hallmark of her campaigning, whatever the cause. Ms. Barlee paid personal visits to residents concerned about private hydroelectric projects designed to encase small waterways within pipes.

"She sat on their front porches and at their kitchen tables," Mr. Foy said, "and she thrashed through bushes to see their creeks."

When a forest known as home to spotted owls was threatened by development in the Chilliwack Valley, she donned three coats as protection against the winter chill to sit beside a campfire while talking to television reporters.

Story continues below advertisement

Ms. Barlee died of cancer in a Victoria hospital on June 21. She leaves her sisters, Veronica Barlee and Diane Barlee; her mother, Kathleen Kyle; and a niece, Laura Barlee-Morris.

While always friendly, she had a steely, competitive spirit that found expression in word games, as she was a wizard at both Boggle and Scrabble. The many skills Ms. Barlee brought to campaigning – a calculating mind, an ability to read other people, a keen eye for spotting patterns in both statistics and behaviours – also made her a formidable opponent at the card table, where she was especially adept at the poker game Texas hold 'em.

"If you ever beat her," Mr. Foy noted, "it wasn't because she let you."

Report an error
Comments

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff. Non-subscribers can read and sort comments but will not be able to engage with them in any way. Click here to subscribe.

If you would like to write a letter to the editor, please forward it to letters@globeandmail.com. Readers can also interact with The Globe on Facebook and Twitter .

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff. Non-subscribers can read and sort comments but will not be able to engage with them in any way. Click here to subscribe.

If you would like to write a letter to the editor, please forward it to letters@globeandmail.com. Readers can also interact with The Globe on Facebook and Twitter .

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff.

We aim to create a safe and valuable space for discussion and debate. That means:

  • All comments will be reviewed by one or more moderators before being posted to the site. This should only take a few moments.
  • Treat others as you wish to be treated
  • Criticize ideas, not people
  • Stay on topic
  • Avoid the use of toxic and offensive language
  • Flag bad behaviour

Comments that violate our community guidelines will be removed. Commenters who repeatedly violate community guidelines may be suspended, causing them to temporarily lose their ability to engage with comments.

Read our community guidelines here

Discussion loading ...

Due to technical reasons, we have temporarily removed commenting from our articles. We hope to have this fixed soon. Thank you for your patience. If you are looking to give feedback on our new site, please send it along to feedback@globeandmail.com. If you want to write a letter to the editor, please forward to letters@globeandmail.com.
Cannabis pro newsletter