Arno Kopecky’s “Oil Man and the Sea” project

Busy Department of Writing graduate Arno Kopecky has a new project underway: raising his voice in awareness of BC’s threatened coast through a storytelling, art and new media endeavor called The Oil Man and the Sea.

Writing grad Arno Kopecky

This summer, Kopecky and his friend, photographer Ilja Herb, will board a 41-foot cutter and spend three months exploring the oil tanker routes along the central coast of British Columbia—a region that may soon be traversed by over 200 oil tankers a year, if Enbridge Inc.’s Northern Gateway pipeline proposal is approved.

“We’ll be sailing from Bella Bella to Kitimat, Haida Gwaii and everywhere in between,” says Kopecky. “Our mission is to raise awareness of the threat oil tanker traffic would pose to BC’s central coast, sending stories and images we’ll collect along the way to laptops, magazines and Kindles across the country. Ilja is producing a photo exhibit, I have a contract with Douglas & McIntyre to put a book out by April 2013, and Reader’s Digest is running a two-issue multimedia feature in early 2013 that will reach millions of Canadians.” (And, he promises, “there will be more to come.”)

This is a profoundly volatile marine environment that has already registered 1,275 marine vessel incidents (mechanical failures, collisions, explosions, groundings and sinkings) between 1999 and 2009 alone, notes Kopecky. “All indications are that it is a matter of when, not if, a catastrophic oil spill will occur once the tankers arrive,” he continues. “Our goal is to use a variety of media to raise national awareness around this extraordinary ecosystem and its inhabitants, and the threat that now hangs over them. The participation of the communities we visit will be central to the stories we create; our wish is not only to document our travels, but also to help the Haida, Haisla, Kitasoo, Heiltsuk, Gitga’at, and other First Nations make their voices heard.”

Two examples of the kind of double-exposure photography Ilja Herb will be taking along the route

Since graduating from Writing back in 2001, Kopecky has been busy making a name for himself writing about culture and the environment for the likes of The Walrus, Foreign Policy, the Globe and Mail, Utne Reader, the Toronto Star and The Tyee, among other publications. His dispatches have covered five continents over the past 10 years, ranging from Iceland’s attempt to become the first oil-free nation on earth, to Kenya’s 2008 brush with civil war. In 2009, Kopecky received a Gordon Global Fellowship to investigate free trade agreements between North and South America, and his first book—The Devil’s Curve, describing his journey through the Amazon and Andes (“travelling to Peru and Colombia, [Kopecky] follows radical left-wing politicians on the campaign trail, discusses black magic with villagers, winds up in gunfights and hallucinates in dark huts”)—will be published by Douglas & McIntyre in September 2012.

Their current plan is to depart from Victoria in June, sailing north up the east coast of Vancouver Island until they reach the southern fringe of the tanker zone; once there, the two will spend three months visiting key communities and individuals. “A central character in our narrative will be the Great Bear Rainforest,” says Kopecky. “We’ll visit the communities who call it home in places like Bella Bella, Klemtu, Hartley Bay and Kitimat, all perched at the shores of this two-million hectare wilderness. At the end of August, we will leave the inside waters and cross Hecate Strait in time to greet the sockeye salmon as they return from a lifetime at sea to spawn in Haida Gwaii.”

Their ambition is to bear witness—through photography, video and the written word—to the vital relationships between humans and animals, ocean and forest that characterize British Columbia’s central coast. In doing so, Kopecky and Herb will argue that “the 217 jobs and $86 million a year in tax revenue promised by Enbridge are a pittance compared to the national treasure that a single tanker-wreck would bankrupt.”

Why go now? “With the National Energy Board expected to make a decision on the Northern Gateway proposal by the end of 2013, time is of the essence,” says Kopecky. “Setting sail in June will give us the chance to add our voices, and those of the people we meet, to the national debate before it’s too late. Many people—from First Nations to artists, journalists and scientists—have already made enormous, even lifelong contributions to protecting this magnificent wilderness; more voices are needed still now that the full weight of our political establishment is lining up in support of Enbridge Inc.. Prime Minister Harper, eager to diversify our oil market by shipping oil to Asia, has declared Northern Gateway to be a ‘national priority,’ and Transport Canada recently lifted the moratorium on tanker traffic that has protected the central coast since 1977. The long-term future of our central coast will be decided in the coming months and years; the time to act is now.”

You can read much more about the project and follow their journey through their website,, or via their Facebook page, but in the meantime they’re also looking for financial help to make this project a reality. As such, they’re having a fundraiser at Royal Roads University from 7-9pm June 19 (in Hatley Castle’s Drawing Room), where Kopecky and Herb will present a slideshow about their proposed journey, as well as have a silent auction and an introduction by Tsartlip First Nation elder Greg Sam.

“We’ve raised $8,000 so far, but we still need $20,000 for things like a dinghy with outboard motor, GPS/satellite communication system, a new sail, diesel, food, etcetera,” says Kopecky. “Expenses for a three-month journey like this one pile up quick.”


Award-winning Medieval Studies student is on her own elf quest

When it comes to planning her academic future, Courtney Burrell looks to the past—which, for a Medieval Studies grad, makes perfect sense. Just don’t chuckle when you find out her current passion is elves.

Courtney Burrell

One of the highest-achieving students in the Medieval Studies program, Burrell not only runs the MEDI Student Union and helped organize this year’s interdisciplinary undergraduate  research conference, but has also twice won the Jamie Cassels Undergraduate Research Award and will be the only Canadian student presenting a paper at the prestigious sixth Nordic-Celtic-Baltic Folklore Symposium, happening in Tartu, Estonia, this June. Her subject? The Álfar—ancient Icelandic elves.

“In Iceland, there is still a belief in elves, and I’m looking at where that comes from,” says Burrell. “My main study interest is Old Norse language, as well as literature, and the Álfar are part of Old Norse mythology.” Her paper, Álfar and the Early Icelandic Settlers, is an ideal match for the Estonian conference’s theme of “Supernatural Places.”

“I’m looking at it on more of an analytical level,” she explains. “I’m tying the elves to how the Icelanders approached the landscape when they first arrived. Was it the very dramatic landscape that influenced the Old Norse settlers to create new ideas about the elves, or did they make the environment mystical and supernatural because they already had these ideas about elves and trolls and other beings? It’s the same as looking at Odin or Thor and their functions in society; I’m just looking at elves.”

Burrell presenting her findings at UVic

But we’re not talking about Santa’s little helpers here; think more along the lines of The Lord of the Rings. “J.R.R. Tolkien’s representation of elves—especially in The Similarion—is very close to what we actually have that talks about elves,” says Burrell, referring to Old Norse Eddic poetry and the Prose Edda, a compilation of Old Norse myths by 13th century Icelandic historian and poet Snorri Sturluson. “What little there is written about Icelandic elves matches Tolkien’s description: they’re smiths, they’re beautiful, they shine like the light, they’re warriors . . . of course, Tolkien knew Old Icelandic and was a major scholar in that field.”

While this will be Burrell’s first time presenting at an overseas academic conference, she has spent time living and studying in Denmark—where she first got interested in Old Norse culture (“Old Norse is a broad term for the Viking culture that came to Iceland,” she adds)—and plans to pursue a Masters degree in Nordic Philology in Germany.

More than just studying mythology, however, Burrell has a passion for preserving the past. “It’s not just the history and the stories,” she insists. “I believe it’s really important to keep those languages alive. As science and technology become more important, I hope universities and high schools don’t lose that focus of teaching history and literature.”

Note: this piece originally appeared in June 2012 convocation issue of The Ring.

Adventures in Beaverland

When Senator Nicole Eaton publicly derided the beaver as a “19th-century has-been” late last year, little did she realize she was also justifying the research of graduate student Frances Backhouse.

Frances Backhouse takes her first-hand research seriously! (Photo: Pete Wise)

Backhouse, who just received an MFA in Writing for her work on Castor canadensis, well knows why Canadians should give a dam about this hard-working national iconand why Senator Eaton, who described the beaver as both a “toothy tyrant” and a “dentally defective rat” and called for its replacement by the polar bear as our national symbol, was so off-base with her comments.

“I see the beaver as something where biology and history intersect,” Backhouse explains. “But I didn’t want to write a standard natural history of the beaver; I wanted to get into it more as an iconic animal—so I’m looking at the beaver as a history maker, a landscape shaper and a national symbol.”

No stranger to biology, history or writing, Backhouse already has five books under her belt (including studies of North American woodpeckers and owls) and was the 2010 winner of the City of Victoria Butler Book Prize for her acclaimed work Children of the Klondike. A longtime freelance writer with a zoology degree and a background that includes teaching high school in Africa, Backhouse decided to tackle an MFA for both the immediate learning and future teaching opportunities it presented. “I wanted to be stimulated in new ways, to take my writing in new directions,” she explains, “and one of the appeals of the Writing program here is that it’s multi-genre—so I’d be studying with students and professors who work in other genres, which I really enjoyed.”

Backhouse (with fellow winner Sylvia Olsen) at the 2010 City of Victoria Butler Book Prize gala

But when it comes to the beaver, Backhouse quickly realized that despite its role in Canadian history, ecology and iconography, the definitive cultural study had yet to be written. “Nobody’s brought it all together,” she says. “We’re so used to them being an icon that we don’t actually give them that much thought. I think we take beavers for granted.” (Stay tuned for her next book, tentatively titled Beaverland: In Search of a Canadian Icon, projected for a spring 2014 completion.)

From a hands-on lesson on how to skin a beaver to on-the-ground research in Alberta and Saskatchewan (as well as a trip to our local Beaver Lake, where, alas, there are no more beavers), Backhouse says one of the tricks has been sifting through the sheer volume of information. “There is actually a lot about beavers scattered between scientific papers, popular history and academic papers, so the challenge has been narrowing it down to what I was actually going to talk about.”

As for the brouhaha with Senator Eaton—which prompted a response by Backhouse in the form of a well-received essay for the online magazine The Tyee—she remains grateful for the opportunity to bite back. “It seemed to hit a note with people,” Backhouse chuckles. “I didn’t hear from her personally, but I gather that once she got this outraged reaction from the public, she just backed right off. For me, it was great affirmation that I’m on the right track with this book.”

Note: this piece originally appeared online for The Ring.

Legacy Gallery undergoes a Transformation

Don’t worry—downtown’s Legacy Art Gallery isn’t getting another facelift. This Transformation is simply a retrospective of works by one of UVic’s honourary degree recipients.

Duncan Regehr

No strange to either local galleries or local stages, Duncan Regehr is one of those rare multifaceted talents who has found success in a number of artistic venues—painting, writing, sculpture and acting. This summer, the Legacy Gallery will honour Regehr with a retrospective of his artistic career to date. (Although somehow we doubt they’ll be showing any of the Star Trek: Deep Space Nine episodes in which the Victoria-raised actor had a recurring role.)

Instead, the exhibit—Transformation: A Retrospective, Works and Writing by Duncan Regehr—will pair both his visual art and poetry as it brings to life this artist’s remarkable investigations of the notions of transformation and metamorphosis. As Legacy states, “His recent series Omiscience, Revenant and Doppelganger reflect a new intensity and scale of Regehr’s reflection on the human experience and bring together the recurring leitmotifs of his work.”

Duncan Regehr “Untitled” (Oil, mixed media on canvas)

“Through a wide-ranging presentation of media, the viewer will become acquainted with the artist’s working method: to develop a  series of paintings, sculptures, drawings and writings that project and explore a common theme or philosophy. By delving into the collective subconscious and the psyche, Regehr produces images of an intensely personal nature, which invites reciprocal identification by the viewer.” Regehr was awarded an honorary degree from UVic in 2008 for his accomplishments in both theatre and fine arts, and the Legacy Art Gallery is pleased to feature the work of this distinguished honorand.

Over the past 35 years, Regehr has evolved as a prolific multi-media artist of international prominence, with numerous exhibitions in Canada, the USA and Europe. His paintings, sculpture and written works are found in important collections worldwide, including the Smithsonian Institute (USA), the Jilin Collection (China), the Kunsthallen (Copenhagen), Focus on the Masters Archives for the Getty Museum (USA) and the Syllavethy Gallery (Scotland). In 1996 he won the American Vision Award of Distinction in the Arts, and was granted the RCA in the year 2000 by the Royal Canadian Academy of Art for his outstanding artistic achievements.

Regehr in his Star Trek: Deep Space Nine guise

A classically trained actor, Regehr began performing Shakespeare at the age of 15 and has acted in and directed national and international productions for stage, film, radio and television. And if you’re a keen Netflix user, you can probably find some of Regehr’s less gallery-bound TV work on the likes of The New World Zorro (in which he played the swashbuckling title role), Deep Space Nine (where he had a recurring role as Bajoran Minister Shakaar), the original 1980s sci-fi miniseries V, and as the villainous Count Dracula in the under-appreciated kids cult classic The Monster Squad.

But, no question, his gallery work is far more interesting.

Transformation: A Retrospective runs June 13 to August 18 at the Legacy Art Gallery, 630 Yates (on the corner of Broad Street). Gallery hours are 10am to 4pm Wednesday to Saturday, and admission is always free. 250-381-7645.


Curtain calls

Congratulations are due to a whole whack of Phoenix Theatre alumni this week!

The cast of Atomic Vaudeville’s Ride The Cyclone

Local theatrical success story Ride the Cyclone picked up a pair of awards at the Toronto Theatre Critics Award at the end of May, including Best Musical and Best Director of a Musical (Britt Small and Jacob Richmond). And it’s currently in the running for Best Touring Production in the forthcoming prestigious Dora Awards, due to be announced June 25.

Ride The Cyclone is a classic overnight success story that was, of course, years in the making. Springing from the twisted genius of Atomic Vaudeville co-creator Richmond and noted local composer Brooke Maxwell, it was originally workshopped for three years here in Victoria before premiering at a two-week run in October 2009 at Intrepid Theatre (at the time run by Phoenix grads Janet Munsil and Ian Case, the latter of whom is now back at UVic as the new Director of University Centre Farquhar Auditorium). After that, it went back into workshop and a shorter, slicker version was presented as part of the National Series at the acclaimed SummerWorks Festival in Toronto in August, 2010; Cyclone was then picked up by the local Belfry Theatre for its 2011 Summer Series, where the current cast wowed sold-out audiences before heading out on a short Canadian tour.

Among the cast and creators are Phoenix-trained actors Sarah Jane Pelzer, Rielle Braid, Kholby Wardell and Matthew Coulson, as well as choreographer Treena Stubel and co-director Small (as well as Jacob Richmond, who is technically just a “previous student” but we’ll consider him a Phoenix-er). And if that last name sounds familiar, yes, Jacob is the son of former Theatre chair and current acting & directing professor Brian Richmond.

Comedy kings Peter N’ Chris are up for an award before stepping into the Spotlight on Alumni this fall

And in other talented alumni news, it was announced recently that popular comedy duo Peter N’ Chris—who just happen to be in Phoenix’s Spotlight on Alumni this fall—were nominated for Best Sketch Troupe in the Canadian Comedy Awards & Festival, a Toronto-based national award supported by the Comedy Network.

Longtime Fringe Festival favourites, Chris Wilson and Peter Carlone write and perform all their own work and are a hit with audiences wherever they go. Don’t miss the chance to see them in hilarious action when The Mystery of the Hungry Heart Motel returns to Victoria from October 11-20 at the Phoenix Theatre.

Meg Roe

Finally, award-winning fellow Phoenix alum Meg Roe just got a hearty thumbs-up from the Globe and Mail for her direction of The Taming of the Shrew for Vancouver’s Bard on the Beach Shakespeare festival. “In [Roe’s] hands, Shrew is the absolute romp Shakespeare designed it to be, with a strong, believable and yes, even beautiful love story at its heart,”  writes Marsha Lederman.

“Roe focuses on two essential elements of the play: its humour, and what she interprets as a real love match between Kate and Petruchio. In Roe’s vision, Kate isn’t just a challenge to be won – and conquered – by Petruchio, but a woman he truly desires.

“Roe (who is best known as an actor) highlights the humour—with varying degrees of success—refusing to not have a blast with a play that was fun before it was controversial.”

Congratulations to all!