On a sunny Sunday morning in Crescent Beach, a group of nature lovers at the Blackie Spit Park wetlands ooh and aah at the sight of a dozen cormorants, their huge black wings extended like feathery sails at the mouth of the Nicomekl River.
The enthusiastic birders gaze out at the pastoral scene through binoculars or telescopes, and comment on wingspan and how high the tide is. But among the suburban soccer moms out walking their yellow Labs, the group stands out. They are the only Asians in the area, and they are speaking animatedly in Mandarin.
Anita Ling, 49, who arrived from Taipei recently, is delighted to see cormorants for the first time. Her husband saw them once, she says, when he was working in Japan, and told her about them. Taiwan has cormorants, she says, but you have to go to nature reserves, like the Yushan National Park outside of Taipei, to see them.
"In Vancouver, you can enjoy nature everywhere," says Taiwanese-Canadian teacher Wendy Chen, 55, pointing out the blue sky and abundant greenery and noting, "It's so important to preserve this for future generations."
The group, called the Green Club and led by Taiwanese-Canadian Joseph Lin, seems at odds with the stereotype of the B.C. environmentalist.
According to Western Canada Wilderness Committee executive director Andrea Reimer, the typical environmentally concerned British Columbian is a white, middle-class, middle-aged, divorced mother. But Ms. Reimer is hoping to expand her demographic base through a new outreach program to the province's Chinese-speaking communities.
Ms. Reimer says she realized the importance of outreach after doing an interview with the Chinese-language Fairchild Media about Al Gore's film An Inconvenient Truth, and had to explain global warming to her interviewer.
"I'd never had to do that with an English-speaking journalist before. So I began asking questions like, how do you engage the public, how do you build an environmental community that reflects the actual community, and how do you reach people who are culturally or linguistically excluded?"
Ms. Reimer discovered that there was a dearth of Chinese-language educational material about environmental issues. However, she also discovered that Dr. Lin had addressed many of these issues when he founded the Green Club in 1993 as a way to bridge the cultural and linguistic "enviro-gap."
Now Ms. Reimer and Dr. Lin, a medical doctor and long-time environmentalist originally from Taipei, work together in cross-promotional camaraderie.
"Easily half of our volunteers are Green Club members," says Ms. Reimer, who recruits Chinese speakers to distribute brochures about the wilderness committee's work at Taiwanese cultural festivals and the Richmond night market. In exchange, the WCWC disseminates information about the Green Club. Future joint projects include an overnight camping eco-tour of Lilloet with native guides.
But Ms. Reimer acknowledges that camping is not always the cultural norm in Asia. "If you're in a tent," she says, "you're probably a refugee. Going to provincial parks for picnics is one thing - but the idea of sleeping in the wilderness is not so common."
She says that while first-generation immigrants often feel a stronger sense of ownership here than some more established Canadians, "many immigrants come from places where the environment is more degraded than it is here, so it's hard for them to view green issues we might face here as a problem."
A strength of Ms. Reimer's new Asian recruits, she acknowledges, is their great sense of family and community. "We notice that in the white community, it's more often than not individuals who volunteer their time, whereas in the Chinese-speaking community, whole families sign up."
On the Crescent Beach wetland trip, one of the Green Club's new members is 28-year-old David Wu, who has come with his mother. Mr. Wu, a software engineer from Burnaby, moved here with his family from Taipei four years ago.
"It's great that in Canada children are exposed to the wilderness at an early age and learn a lot about the environment that way," he says. "When I was growing up in Taiwan, my parents, like many Asian parents, were more concerned with me studying hard to ensure future success in the professional world than with exposing me to nature. So I spent much of my childhood inside with my books.
"But it's never to late to learn," he says with a laugh, pausing to listen to Dr. Lin explain the habits of a shorebird that distracts predators from its young by feigning injury and then flying away.
"I find it really relaxing to be out in this kind of environment," Mr. Wu says.
Dr. Lin says most people join the 350-member club, which last year sponsored 17 ecotours and 86 nature walks, partly for the social aspect of going out with other Mandarin speakers.
"But much education can come from a pleasant walk," he says. As if to demonstrate his point, he explains to the bird watchers, awestruck by the sight of the cormorants, the complicated and delicate ecosystem they are witnessing.
"The birds come for the coho," he tells them. "If there are no fish, there are no birds."
He adds that pollution from overdevelopment can threaten the fragile wetlands.
Dr. Lin says British Columbians are lucky to have so much land migratory birds can use as feeding grounds, unlike many parts of Taiwan and the United States. He encourages the group to remain vigilant, pointing out the wooden boxes on poles that have been built for martins, which nested in barns before the farmland disappeared.
Environmental scientist Janet Yang, who left Taipei for Canada 30 years ago, says that birds are important in Taiwan both in terms of number of species and culturally. "In Taiwan," she says, "the symbol of two birds together means happiness, luck and prosperity.
"And Canada is a lucky land," she says, "to have such a clean environment and high standards in place. When I go back to visit Taipei, I am overwhelmed by the pollution."
Dr. Lin points out that in the past 10 years, environmental education has become part of the school curriculum in Taiwan, and B.C. still has many important issues to address.
"I'm very concerned about the negative impact the Olympics will have on the environment," he tells the assembled group at the end of his tour, encouraging them to become aware of municipal and provincial government policy on green issues, and the club's online bilingual petition to save Pacific Spirit Park.
But the path from nature walks to full-fledged activism is not an immediate route.
For accountant Nerisa Cheng, originally from Hong Kong, the green club excursions have helped foster a greater awareness in her daily life.
"Now when I go to the grocery store," she says, "I'm careful about not purchasing items with too much packaging or plastics."
Rebecca Wu, 70, a recently retired Richmond clerk who likes to paint nature scenes, says that Green Club activities have encouraged her to "help educate others" and to that end she has promoted her newfound passion for the environment to friends and family. She admires Dr. Lin's efforts and good-naturedly calls him "our David Suzuki."
TAILORING A CAMPAIGN FOR SUCCESS
In 2003, BC Hydro and the Greater Vancouver Regional District ran an English-language-only conservation challenge - a campaign that encouraged participants to fill out a form detailing how they would cut their water and energy consumption. But they were disappointed with the number of respondents.
So they hired Susanna Tam of Mango Communications, a firm of multicultural specialists, to design a conservation challenge in 2004 targeting the Cantonese-speaking community.
The campaign had original Cantonese content, rather than direct translations from English, and partnerships with Cantonese media and groups like the Chinese-Canadian service agency SUCCESS. Three times as many people responded to the survey than to the initial English-language campaign.
According to Lara Honrado of Mango Communications, "there can be a cultural and linguistic disconnect with non-English speakers when it comes to environmental issues, but it's not for a lack of interest or concern. It's all about tailoring the message."
One of the ways Mango tailored the message was by using the Chinese tradition of couplets - two-line rhymed poetic proverbs - essentially the Cantonese equivalent of English sayings like "a stitch in time saves nine" - focused on ways to conserve energy.
The campaign slogan, which translates less eloquently into English, was: "Wise and careful use of resources/we all have a responsibility."
Traditionally, couplets are written on banners displayed around the time of Chinese New Year. But Mango had them adapted for radio and print media.
"We designed environmental-awareness minutes," Ms. Honrado explained, "which were played constantly on AM 1320." Mango also had ads featuring the environmental couplets placed in the newspaper Ming Pao, announcing prize draws for items like low-flow showerheads, aerating faucets, timers for lights and compact fluorescent light bulbs. Radio ads also promoted special editions of Ming Pao with features on environmental issues.
"The response was huge," Ms. Honrado says. "In a nutshell, it's all about the best ways to craft a message for a particular community. It's not rocket science; it's what marketers do all the time."
Although the Cantonese conservation challenge was successful, Ms. Honrado is cautious.
"Unfortunately, these can be short-term, one-off projects with no follow-up or continuity. There have been some positive initiatives, but there's lots of room for improvement. Environmentalists need a long-term vision to really engage the multicultural community."
COVER STORY: GROWING THE GREEN CAMPAIGN
How green is your neighbourhood?
... and how green is becoming less white
Take a piece of sophisticated software from Computer Applications Inc., add some Statistics Canada data, and you'll end up with astonishingly precise pictures of which Lower Mainland neighbourhoods are the most green.
The typical B.C. environmentalist has long been a white, English-speaking, middle-class woman. The Mandarin-speaking Green Club is one way activists are trying to expand beyond that demographic. URBANE VILLAGERS
Who they are: Upscale West-siders who can say "Prius" 10 times fast but can't last a day without an espresso.
Enviro-Potential: An environmentalist's dream - politically engaged, they donate and volunteer.
ASIAN UP AND COMERS
Suburban Upscale Ethnic
Who they are:
Young Asian families
on Vancouver's Eastside
with some disposable income.
Low Maybe. This is
a group that needs
to be engaged culturally
MR. AND MRS. MANAGER
Who they are: The new face
of suburban flight. Boomers who look back fondly on their days of college activism but now spend more time calculating retirement plans.
Enviro-Potential: Some possibilities. They love the outdoors. If only they could
be weaned off their SUVs.
Who they are:
with kids on the North Shore.
Enviro-potential: Not bad. Would probably even canvass for causes if they could find the time. Free babysitting
and tax incentives might move mountains.
Who they are: Look for them at the Fraser Arms
on a Friday night. You
may encounter mullets.
Enviro-Potential: Not great. But an enterprising activist might consider persuading them that going green will save money for beer!
Suburban Upscale Ethnic
Who they are: Single-family home dwellers. Aspirational. May speak Farsi or Cantonese
as first language.
Enviro-Potential: Not promising. More Farsi and other non-English enviro-education might improve prospects.
GRADS AND PADS
Who they are: Twenty-something, often politically engaged university graduates.
Enviro-Potential: There are definite possibilities here. They don't have much dough left
after paying the rent, but will volunteer and write letters.
SOUTH ASIAN SOCIETY
Suburban Upscale Ethnic
Who they are: Mainly Punjabi-Canadian demographic in Fraser Valley.
Enviro-Potential: A sensitive Punjabi-language campaign that taps into existing community structures could work wonders.