Longtime B.C. environmental activist Gwen Barlee dies

Friday, June 23, 2017 (All day)
The Vancouver Sun
 
She was a successful environmental activist known for her research skills and ability to back up her claims, but while Gwen Barlee’s death Thursday is a blow to B.C.’s environmental movement, others will continue her work.
 
“She really laid the groundwork on some magnificent things. She laid it so well I’m confident we’ll have success even though she’s gone,” said an emotional Joe Foy, a fellow Wilderness Committee director.
 
A few months ago, she fulfilled a long-time goal, presenting a 40,000-signature petition at the legislature asking for the creation of a provincial endangered species law.
 
“She kept that issue alive even when others moved on,” said Jennifer Deol, a program coordinator at the David Suzuki Foundation who began her career working with Barlee at the Wilderness Committee. “She came to the legislature with stacks and stacks of paper and presented them to an MLA. She was happy to see that through.”
 
Endangered species law was one of Barlee’s passions. She began her career with the Wilderness Committee in 2001, pushing the federal government to adopt federal species-at-risk legislation. The campaign was a success — the first of many.
 
“Part of her brilliance as an activist was her ability to bring out information that was not previously available,” said Mount Royal University journalism professor Sean Holman, who shared a common interest in Freedom of Information requests with Barlee. “She wasn’t just someone with strong beliefs. She was always able to back up her beliefs with facts and information — and that made her extraordinarily effective.”
 
Barlee went on to question provincial run-of-river hydro projects, uncovering inspection reports that demonstrated some of their negative environmental impacts. She helped to mobilize thousands of B.C. residents to protect the Upper Pitt Watershed, Bute Inlet rivers and Glacier and Howser creeks from power projects.
 
The daughter of former NDP cabinet minister and B.C. historian Bill Barlee, who died in 2012, Barlee grew up in Penticton in a home where debate was common, said Foy. She connected easily with rural folks. She had a great sense of humour and optimism. She loved poker and cards, but didn’t like to lose.
 
“She was tough in a not-tough way,” said Foy.
 
Deol, who called Barlee her mentor, said she always had time to encourage her amid “everything she had on her plate.” She was open to collaboration and communication with everyone, and the two women often spoke, even when Barlee was sick. 
 
“I think she identified as an introvert, but if you got her on the phone talking about an issue, there was an instant change. She was fierce, unapologetic, unwavering,” said Deol. “But she never lost her sense of humour or hope.”
 
Some of Barlee’s most beloved causes will continue to move forward without her involvement. She fought for the establishment and protection of provincial and national parks and helped to halt government plans to put large private resorts in provincial parks. Recently, she was working on the campaign for a South Okanagan national park. Foy said he hoped to see significant developments on that proposal in the near future.
 
In the somber Wilderness Committee offices on Friday, colleagues were discussing Barlee and what they’d miss most, said Foy. One mentioned a habit she had of disappearing without a word at the end of a party — a practice sometimes called an “Irish goodbye.”
 
“You’d look for her, and she’d just be gone,” he said. “It feels a little like that right now.”

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