Gudrun Will revisits a 21st-century region
VICTORIA, 2013—Visualize, if you will, the flagpoles on either side of the entrance to the Parliament Buildings. They once flew the Province of British Columbia’s trusty colonial standard, but now, according to the latest edict issued by the Prefecture of British Columbia, they fly Cascadian colours. Fluttering in the breeze coming off the Inner Harbour (quite balmy with the advance of global warming), the newly installed banners are dominated by wavy blue-and-white stripes representing the Pacific Northwest's definitive features: its oceanside position and string of white-capped mountains. In the flags’ upper left, fields of deep green and crimson honour the region’s lush evergreens and underlying tectonic fire, joined together by the golden rays of a setting westerly sun. A pinecone, symbolizing rebirth, nestles in the sun’s core.
Sound far-fetched? Don't laugh—the idea of some kind of Northwest Coast regional collaboration, or even unification, was widely discussed during the 1990s as a plausible scenario for the early 21st century. Now that we've entered that new millennium, the question is where this imagined future went. Was it mothballed for a more auspicious time, or has it snuck into our daily reality? Certainly the concept of Cascadia, either as a political/trade entity or a symbolic movement, has been around ever since Lewis and Clark explored the West. Reasons are plentiful; anyone travelling through the region today would have to be sensorily deprived not to perceive the affinities of the coastal rainforest environments and their Asian-inflected populations.
The idea behind Cascadia is that the lands west of the Rocky and Cascade mountain ranges—extending (at least) through what are now the province of British Columbia and the states of Washington and Oregon—form a kind of naturally defined territory. This area, the argument goes, ought to work with its common interests for the benefit of the inhabitants, whether to create an economic bloc, a bio-region, or just a zone of interconnected culture. A more recent component of (and contribution to) this ideal symbiosis was a high-speed train that would connect the corridor's urban nodes—a people-mover along what has been dubbed Main Street Cascadia.
That troublesome division along the 49th parallel, established with the Oregon Treaty of 1846, has always presented Cascadian proponents with a problem. Academic articles discussing a joint region talk about “historical accidents” that led to the location of today’s Canada-US border. Enthused media commentaries of the past decade have had provocative headlines like “Bulldoze the Border?” But any proposed political unity is fraught, since a century of separation has created distinct societies with distinct values on either side, with the southern portion a powerhouse in every sense. Add in 9/11, with its resulting border-tightness stuck at paranoia, and there are serious obstacles to any hope for even European-Union inspired relaxations at that indomitable line.
Yet the Cascadia flame is fed by old arguments as well as emerging new ones. The partition of this continent, for starters, reflects antiquated notions of conquest rather than contemporary cultural realities. As we face problems like greenhouse-gas emissions and (sub)urban traffic congestion, it is downright irresponsible not to take action on a better and more eco-friendly north-south transportation system. And British Columbians’ Western alienation hasn’t yet diminished, even with (or perhaps because of) an Alberta-bred federal Conservative government; a Cascadian presence would give us more leverage in federal circles, especially with growing Western populations. Finally, Quebec’s newly declared nationhood within Canada lends legitimacy to the Cascadian dream.
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Although many of these issues are serious, the discussion around Cascadia has often been light-hearted. Starting with Ernest Callenbach’s catchy Ecotopia , the 1975 novel that launched Pacific Northwest environmentalist fervour, and moving on to deliberately tortured titles like 2002’s “Cascading Concepts of Cascadia: A Territory or a Notion?” (thank you, Patrick J. Smith for the International Journal of Canadian Studies ), playfulness characterizes the debate. The humour lives on in a relatively new website championing The Republic of Cascadia ( www.Zapatopi.net/cascadia/ ). Opening with a “demand [for] freedom from the oppressive governments of Canada and the United States,” it rambles on ungrammatically about “francophonic imperialism” and “condescendence [sic] from distant seats of power.”
Although there are more earnest groups out there—among them the Cascadian Independence Project (www.cascadianow.org )—I enjoyed the absurdist platform, apparently authored by one Lyle Zapato of Washington State. I even stole the website’s mock-design for a Cascadian flag and its preposterous prefecture proposition for my opening paragraph. The webmaster’s insistence on using the “patriotic” Microsoft Tahoma font, as well as his decision to introduce Metric Time, were strokes of cleverness. It gets sillier with a postage-stamp series based on regional beverages (Starbucks and microbrews) or the phallic geoduck, as well as a section that calls plaintively for the preservation of an endangered tree octopus. There’s also a link to Cascadian anthem lyrics penned by someone in Parksville, BC:
Cascadia, Cascadia, of ever-present rain
Cascadia, Cascadia, the drugs help ease the pain.
We come here from Newfoundland, Quebec and Ontario
And call our folks in wintertime, to laugh cuz they’ve got snow.
Sang de revolte je prends partant mon grandpapa et père
On viens ici pour faire squeegee et prendre le welfare
Cascadia, Cascadia, Oh fault line under me
You wouldn’t want to be here when we fall into the sea.
Ridiculous as they are, the joke website’s components mirror legitimate arguments for regional collaboration. Unquestionably, we Cascadians experience economic, cultural, geographic and environmental commonalities that override official-but-tenuous eastward bonds on a daily basis. Ask British Columbians whether they’d rather take a trip to Calgary or Seattle, and I’ll bet that that 90 percent would favour the latter. We already pop down for the Bumbershoot weekend or the Wagner Ring, browse happily at Elliott Bay Books and Powell’s Books, and take leisurely drives (or bicycle treks) down the Oregon Coast, and who can deny the pleasure of Widmer Hefeweizen on tap? Even our literature reflects these predilections; consider this passage from Doug Coupland’s City of Glass:
In looking through the souvenir book from my high school’s twentieth-year reunion (Sentinel Class of 1979), I noticed that dozens and dozens of classmates had married Americans from Washington, Oregon and California. This makes sense; Vancouverites have much in common with West Coast Americans, and at the same time remain highly distinct from them... There’s nothing unpatriotic about Vancouver’s psychic disconnection from the Rest of Canada—it’s a reality fostered by Vancouver’s distance from Canada’s centre,and from a tradition of abandoning that very centre to try something new. To ignore these factors would be foolish.
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Unpatriotic or not—and at least one maple leaf-tattooed, Dominion of Canada-loving colleague will pillory me for even bringing up Cascadia—the 1990s were a time when we dared to discuss a post- or at least para-national future. In September 1992, BC Business magazine splashed the big question across its cover: “ WHAT IF British Columbia, Alberta, Washington, Oregon, Alaska, and, say, Montana and Idaho became economic kindred spirits, bound by joint ventures in business and infrastructure, and political cooperation? WHAT IF this bloc made its own rules about environmental standards and blurred the U.S.-Canada border to a mere political wisp meaningful only to far-off federal governments? The result: a region dubbed CASCADIA.”
Gordon Price, a former Vancouver city councillor who represented the city in cross-border discussions during the ’90s, recalled the era’s dialogue. “[Cascadia] was a good discussion point, and there were always related agendas to it,” he said over coffee, across the street from the Harbour Centre campus of Simon Fraser University, where he now directs the City Program. “Really, it was a discussion for economic strategies, transportation infrastructure—that’s about it. No one, I don’t think, took it very seriously that there would be some kind of political unification. The idea being that the Americans would only think of it as a one-way. We would be absorbed into them; this would not be a coalition of equals.”
Price raised the spectre of a redirected Manifest Destiny ( a 19th-century term expressing a belief in a US mission to expand westward ) along with any move towards political unification. But business leaders during the heyday of 1990s Cascadian speculation strictly focused on commercial opportunity. The mantra was “cooperating regionally to compete globally,” and BC bigwigs like Jimmy Pattison, as quoted in that BC Business article, embraced closer ties with the Northwest States (along with free trade) as anything but a threat. International business gurus emphasized the success of “region-states” in the global market, with a joint Cascadia potentially constituting the world’s 10th-largest economy. Paul Schell, then of Seattle’s pro-Cascadian think-tank Discovery Institute, made this comparison: “As Venice was once to the Mediterranean economy, Seattle/Vancouver could become to the emerging New Pacific economy.”
At the time, tourism reps loved the concept; by 1996, they were targeting foreign visitors for a “Two-Nation Vacation.” That excitement fizzled in the aftermath of 9/11 and its ballooning border restrictions. According to Tourism BC’s corporate-communications director, Ray LeBlond, current cross-border tourism initiatives are limited to promoting “passport culture”—i.e. getting people to apply for the documentation required to move between The Evergreen State and Beautiful British Columbia by this month (for air travellers) and next January (for all travellers). Clearly, it’s a huge step backward, especially given the general passport-bereftness of Americans. As for the swirling idea of a joint Seattle/Vancouver Summer Olympics bid, LeBlond had no progress report.
It’s also hard to find concrete evidence of increased business links since the giddy 1990s. Cross-border trade increased with the 1989 North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), but BC continues to compete with Washington and Oregon when it comes to forest products, and Boeing and Microsoft never found reason to set up north of the line. One thing working in Cascadia’s favour are fewer trade restrictions going north-south than east-west internally within Canada; however, that’s about to change with the ground-breaking Alberta-BC Trade, Investment and Labour Mobility Agreement (TILMA) slated for spring. The speedy PACE (now Nexus) lane for frequent border-crossers, too, goes back to NAFTA rather than being due to Cascadian zeal. There was one win during the era: Amtrak reinstated one train per day between Seattle and Vancouver after a hiatus since the early ’80s, but it’s still slower than driving (15 miles per hour through White Rock!) and badly scheduled for BC-ers.
Staying in better touch is obviously the crux of fostering stronger Yank-Canuck links along the West Coast. But as the majority of commuters face ever-increasing gridlock and snail-paced border waits—ever baked in sun for an hour at the Blaine crossing or tried to drive into Seattle at rush hour?—it’s increasingly deplorable that transportation execs did not move on the high-speed rail link, which could have been in place today. After all, what Vancouverite doesn’t share the fantasy of convenient and relaxing working daytrips or weekend getaways by rail to Seattle or Portland? Since the cost has always been significant— millions for an upgrade, billions for high-speed —the longer we wait, the more prohibitive it becomes. As Price put it: “This is the era we should have been building that stuff.”
He had—and has—personal reasons for caring about the issue, since he got involved in a medium-distance relationship with a Portlander in the 1990s (whom he has since married). Consequently, Price is even more than familiar than the rest of us with the shortcomings of the I-5. “Now pretty much everything from Everett to Olympia is in one way or another congested. And you just don’t put your foot on the gas pedal like you used to, getting from Olympia to Portland. When you add in the real economic driver here—goods movement—you can see why there’s still so much discussion around transportation corridors.”
He blames politicians on this side of the border for inaction, in particular a lack of financial commitment at a time when the Americans were taking action (Amtrak now has five trains per day running between Seattle and Portland). Alan Durning of Seattle’s sustainability think-tank, Sightline Institute, shares this opinion, although he believes that the affordable solution is for the BC government commit to improve the rail bed to allow for faster (if not high-speed) service, and for Amtrak to add runs so that travellers from the north have options beyond arriving in Seattle in the evening. Even if the trip ends up taking the same amount of time as a car, he argued during a phone call from his office, the lack of driving stress, opportunity to spend travel time working (for example, by phone or laptop), environmental benefits, and sheer enjoyment factor—“You get to have a glass of wine and look out the window”—will impel folks to choose the train.
VR ’s calls to the BC Ministry of Transportation to talk about the possibilities were fruitless yet tantalizing. Minister Kevin Falcon did not manage to call back in a full week—perhaps too busy celebrating his #1 spot on Vancouver magazine’s Power 50 list. However, the ministry’s communication director Mike Long mused about the “interesting timing” of this article and hinted at a major announcement on this subject sometime this January. We can only hope the plan is more forward-thinking than the Sea to Sky Highway improvements.
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Cascadia’s roots hold fast, regardless of progress (or lack thereof) on the transportation or trade fronts, and the mythical power of its vertiginous mountains, lush rainforests and salmon-filled rivers have a lot to do with it. One weird strand of regional pride reaches back to 1924, when the Seattle Chamber of Commerce put out a pamphlet titled In the Zone of Filtered Sunshine: Why the Pacific Northwest is Destined to Dominate the Commercial World . Its writer, Erwin Weber, frothed at the mouth (and betrayed a racism that’s highly ironic, given today’s dynamic ethnic mix) as he called the Pacific Northwest one of the Earth’s “few favored regions... which possesses all the basic requirements necessary and desirable for the development of the most virile types of humanity, and the highest attainments of civilization.”
Durning instead began his intellectual history in the “deep ecology movement of the 1970s,” when the Portland-based magazine Rain picked up the discussion where Ecotopia had left off. “So this is all about harvesting rainwater to grow hemp on the rooftops to weave our own baskets,” he said. “I’m caricaturing, but that was the milieu of the ’70s Cascadia concept.” The idea of a common bio-region had activists from both sides of the border banding together to save old-growth forests two decades later during the Clayoquot Sound showdown, and gave the impetus to a multi-government initiative to clean up the Puget Sound-Georgia Strait basin.
To me, Durning’s Sightline Institute has put its finger on the most effective 21 st -century interpretation of the Pacific Northwest—one that involves a collective mindset rather than business objectives or secession. The institute’s annual publication, Cascadia Scoreboard (launched in 2004), analyzes and compares data from the region (which it has defines by the watersheds west of the Continental Divide) in the areas of health, economy, population, sprawl, forests, pollution, energy and security. The organization’s former name, Northwest Environment Watch, betrays its roots in environmentalism, but today’s object is sustainability—a goal able to bridge all interests. Since the yearly booklet compares achievements (or lags), it gives business and government leaders, educators and the popular media a tool with which to keep Cascadia chatter alive.
From this and other studies, we know that the healthiest, most literate and most secular people in North America congregate in the Cascadia corridor. “This is a part of the world that people look to for examples,” During said, adding that BC and the Northwest states are also “doing a lot of very innovative things to reconcile people and place.” The ports of Seattle and Vancouver, for example, are working together to limit freighter pollution, and the Vancouverism school of city planning (promoting high-density residential development in civic cores to prevent sprawl and ease traffic) is being embraced in Portland and beyond. For their part, BC politicians could take a page from Washington State and index minimum wage to inflation. It’s these kinds of policy interchanges that add value to the talk conducted under the Casacadian umbrella.
The region’s name has also shed its extremist connotations. It no longer signifies “a nefarious capitalist plot” or a “crunchy granola ultra-greeny concept,” said Durning, but has simply become an alternate term for the Pacific Northwest. Before naming Cascadia Scoreboard , the Sightline Institute polled people on their feelings toward the term, and found that it is now a confident lifestyle brand. “It meant something distinctly positive, vaguely environmental and forward-looking, but also prosperous.” He pointed to its popularity among Washington entrepreneurs—a major Puget Sound planned community has been named Cascadia, and the state’s biggest organic-foods brand, owned by General Mills, is Cascadian Farms.
So this is how Cascadia snuck into mainstream sensibilities and became today’s cultural reality—it filtered into our consciousness through progressive ideas rather than being imposed through dogma or with fanfare. The region’s common values have gradually emerged. Price and Durning reeled off similar lists of these: the population’s sense of self-identity as shaped by a highly intact ecological endowment; a resulting conservation ethic; an openness to change and innovation due to the influence of waves of immigrants and migrants from a variety of ethnic backgrounds; and a willingness to accept lower incomes for a higher quality of life.
The discussion point of Cascadia per se may have fallen victim to 9/11 fallout, with the US feds working hard to exclude (or at least control) the so-called alien cultures at their country’s northern and southern borders. Anything that smacks of closer ties with terrorist-harbouring or wetback-issuing countries is a no-no, and presumably the new Democratic congress will be more protectionist and opposed to trade deals, too. This makes it even more likely that TILMA (which may expand to include Saskatchewan and Manitoba) will give Canada’s West increasing economic and even cultural clout, lessening the motivation for cross-border regional discussions. But these are issues blown around by the winds of political change, and cannot undo the rain-washed geographic determinism underlying Cascadian ties.
This new millennium’s regional identification is far less rooted in Western alienation—although this would come in handy when dealing with federal politics, like bumping up BC’s number of senate seats—as in the pride of belonging to an enlightened people in a blessed corner of the world. Rather than being a symbol of division or domination, Cascadia now embodies a benign ideal. I f they weren’t lucky enough to be born here, its inhabitants can congratulate themselves for having had the foresight to move or stay here; in an essay for a glossy 1996 coffee-table book titled Cascadia: A Tale of Two Cities , Vancouver writer/editor Jim Sutherland even suggests that the Pacific Northwest is a kind of pleasant suburb for the whole continent.
One of our region’s most effusive boosters has been noted US author Robert D. Kaplan, who in 1998 penned an almost embarrassingly flattering (and slightly erroneous) ode in his Atlantic Monthly article-turned-book An Empire Wilderness: Travels into America’s Future . Here’s his report on Vancouver: “Cliffs of glass and polymer stood out against a background of ice-polished fjords. Geography, abetted by nineteenth-century politics, defends Vancouver against sprawl and keeps it an amphitheatre from which to observe crystalline natural beauty.” He marvelled at the “well-dressed people” on his bus ride downtown, Robson Street’s “shiny, rose-bedecked benches,” the “panorama of Asian-Caucasian courtship,” and “nearby glaciers and volcanoes, visible from many an urban street.”
It’s true that Cascadia successfully exports ideas, sometimes in the form of products and services. The southern side of the border can claim a bigger share of economic trailblazers, including Microsoft, Starbucks, United Parcel Service and Nike. On the northern side we’re making less money (except for the game-maker Electronic Arts, perhaps) but having similar influence, with locally born organizations like Greenpeace spreading worldwide. More recently, Vancouver scribes Alisa Smith and J.B. MacKinnon came up with the 100-Mile Diet, a movement promoting global sustainability by encouraging people to eat foods grown only in that radius of one’s home. (Conveniently named for continent-wide comprehension—no kilometres here—it’s now a book to be published this spring in the US and Canada.)
It may be hard to exactly define Cascadia, but the region’s supernatural appeal and intimately related value system hold it together. Some say its territory should stretch as far as southern Alaska, Alberta, Idaho and northern California, but physical borders are beside the point for now. With the American “500-pound gorilla” on Canada’s doorstep (as per Price), everybody knows that political unification would pose a giant threat, and god help us if the Yanks come after our water. After more than a century, we British Columbians are attached to our sovereignty and cultural distinction—even if it means we’re just more polite and less militant. Yet there’s a growing sense of kinship within the region, as well as a rising outside awareness; after all, no less an arbiter of pop legitimacy than Wikipedia has given Cascadia a serious entry.
So whether or not we really are “Children of a Common Mother,” as engraved on the Peace Arch at that frustrating Blaine border crossing, the odds are pretty good that Cascadia, however it is understood, will help form basis for the Pacific Northwest’s future. It’s a bond and a strength that we can, and should, pursue.
[Sidebar:] WHAT’S IN A NAME?
From the Republic of the Pacific to Columbia, alternate names to Cascadia have been proposed for this region over time.
Since British Columbia has the Coast Mountains and Rockies while Washington and Oregon have the Coast Range and Cascades, does it follow that the name Cascadia is biased towards the US? No way, said Alan Durning of the Sightline Institute. Its first source, he explained, is geological and refers to the Cascadia Subduction Zone, which is the tectonic fault line running off the coast from California to the northern end of Vancouver Island that will eventually cause The Big One.
Above all, Durning said, the name “has to do with the [region’s] large number of waterfalls, because we’ve got this incredible rain coming in off the Pacific and smashing into one range after another of mountains. So when I think about Cascadia, the image I have in my head... is that weather pattern, these cascades, these waters falling back toward the ocean... and creating our climate and the mass of evergreen forests and the rivers full of salmon, and that relationship between the Pacific Ocean and the land, that cycling of waters back and forth.”
Copyright © Gudrun Will, 2006