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Vital Signs 2012: Clayoquot Sound

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Each year, more than half a million visitors flock to Vancouver Island's Clayoquot Sound for sun, sand and surf. It's about as far west as you can get in Canada, and the region is well-known for its exquisite views of the Pacific Ocean.

It's also a dense, temperate rainforest teeming with a vast range of wildlife, and boasts a number of ecosystems including estuaries, lakes, rivers, streams and mud flats. Tourists love the sandy beaches and abundance of outdoor activities, while residents – no matter where they live – can get to the water in five minutes flat.

Alongside the idyllic beauty is a rich heritage of First Nations culture. The Nuu-chah-nulth people have lived in the region for thousands of years, and their language and traditions are kept alive by the region's elders and youngest residents.

Yet even paradise has a dark side. Those who live there year-round struggle with job security, high living costs, poor transportation and limited access to vital services. This year, the Clayoquot Biosphere Trust (CBT) produced its first Vital Signs report to highlight the region's challenges, in hopes of creating a stronger, focused community.

About the Clayoquot Biosphere Trust

Although the CBT is the newest foundation to join the Community Foundations of Canada, the organization has a lengthy history of supporting research, education and training initiatives that promote conservation and sustainable development.

In January 2000, after many years of conflict in the forestry and fishing industries, Clayoquot Sound was designated a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve to ensure the area's resources would be protected, while respecting the rights and treaties of First Nations communities. Later that spring, the CBT was created and entrusted with an endowment fund to ensure the needs of the community would be served.

Clayoquot Sound is comprised of eight communities across Western Vancouver Island, six of which are First Nations. The CBT is guided by the Nuu-chah-nulth First Nations philosophy, Hishuk ish ts’awalk or everything is one, and this inspires the community to connect with one another and the natural environment.

Perhaps the most famous Clayoquot Sound spot is the city of Tofino, a popular surfing and holiday destination for travellers from all over the world. Adrienne Mason, the CBT's researcher, is quick to point out that underneath the surfer dudes and wealthy tourists, the region is far more diverse and vibrant than people might expect.

“It's a challenging place with lots of passion,” she says. “There are lots of people with love for this place and ideas for how they'd like it to be. As a community foundation, we're really trying to build on that passion, but also start to work as a region to improve the conditions for all the communities.”

A young and growing population

While most of the country bemoans its aging population, Clayoquot experiences the opposite. In 2011, the median age in the region was 34 years, compared to 41.9 years in British Columbia and 40.6 in all of Canada. Some communities even have an average age as young as 23, like the Esowista First Nations Reserve. Since 2006, the region's population has grown by 9%.

Mason says some of the area's young people have lived there since birth, while others are drawn to the island for the sun and surf and don't want to leave.

“Tofino and Ucluelet are very popular places for young people,” she says. “There's the surfing culture, it's a fun place to be. It's a really desirable place to spend time and live.”

Many residents in Clayoquot are self-employed too – nearly 21%, compared to 14% of the entire British Columbia population. While that number isn't broken down by age, in Mason's experience, it's the young population leading the charge.

“A lot of young people are starting their own businesses,” she says. “There is definitely an entrepreneurial spirit here where people come, they love it and they want to figure out a way to stay.”

Still, being young in Clayoquot is not without its challenges. For those who are not self-employed, finding a full-time, year-round job is difficult. Given that many spots in the region are meccas for tourists from all over the world, the summertime is flush with opportunity. Yet summer wages can be low, housing is expensive and limited, and food and transportation costs are high.

Plus, in some cases, very young people don't have the opportunity to experience the wonderful activities that tourists enjoy. That's why the CBT implemented a What I Learnt About My Biosphere program, which allows students at local schools to participate in activities like kayaking and whale watching to teach them about the magnificence of the region.

An engaged and passionate community

Young or old, people in the Clayoquot region are engaged with their families, friends and neighbours. Though the population is small (about 5,000), there are more than 80 community organizations in the area that span a broad range of mandates.

As the community developer for the Coastal Family Resource Coalition, a network of providers that serve children, youth and families, Marcie DeWitt sees the strength and compassion amongst the region's inhabitants.

“The community support is really quite amazing, there are a lot of close communities that are quite family-orientated and seeing that is always very positive,” she says. “People are very good at connecting, making sure that their neighbour gets a ride into town, or picking up the youth who are hitchhiking to get to school in the morning.”

Voter turnout in the area is strong, too – at 68.3%, compared to 61.1% in national and provincial polls.

“I've lived here for over 20 years and it's a super engaged place,” Mason says. “People seem to want to have a say in the community, if they see if something's not happening they'll try to make it happen. They see a need and go, 'Oh, well let's just get this done'.”

One of the priorities for the CBT is to harness those passions and support other organizations so the entire region will benefit.

“There is a high level of engagement, and people committed to working hard for their communities,” Mason says. “We don't need to duplicate that, but we're looking at ways we can strengthen those networks and facilitate their work. We're in the position to be the catalyst that helps groups come together.”

Cultivating healthy communities and access to food

One prominent area identified in the Vital Signs report is the need for health initiatives and food security. Rates of obesity and diabetes in the region are high, and on the rise. Clayoquot has the second highest rate of diabetes on Vancouver Island, and the obesity rate is 19.1%, which is above the provincial average of 15.1%.

The scattered population makes is difficult to offer a wide range of health services that are needed in the region. Clayoquot residents must often travel long distances, sometimes by boat, to visit doctors and specialists. Sometimes, they stay overnight to ensure they get to their appointments on time, which adds an extra cost. For the last five years, birthing services have not been available in the area, forcing women to travel to neighbouring cities to have their children.

Food prices are 19% higher than further inland, and a number of communities don't have grocery stores forcing residents to travel by boat to buy food.

To strengthen food security, the CBT is working with community kitchens, food banks, community gardens and greenhouses to facilitate connections between groups in the region.

Dewitt, who also participates in a network called Eat West Coast, says that awareness about food preparation is also key to supporting community health.

“Education seems to be one of those big barriers for so many healthy food programs,” she says. “You can give somebody a huge bag of fresh local vegetables, but if they don't know how to prepare them, they're kind of useless.”

A fresh, regional approach

A key value of the Vital Signs report in Clayoquot Sound is it offers an opportunity for regional collaboration and growth. With a small population spread over a large swath of land, communities don't always have the chance to talk to one another or even recognize that another area mirrors their own challenges and triumphs.

The CBT is working to encourage community connections that will unite the area's residents.

“This really helps paint a picture of what the region is like and how we can improve together as a region,” Mason says. “It's a stunning place that we live in, and we feel really lucky to live here, but it's not without its challenges for the people trying to make a living. When everybody is employed, living in a safe place and eating healthy food, it benefits us all.”

Sondi Bruner is a Vancouver-based freelance journalist, holistic nutritionist and food blogger. Find out more about her writing services at, and explore vegetarian, gluten-free and dairy-free recipes on her food blog, The Copycat Cook.

Photos (from top) via the Clayoquot Biosphere Trust. All photos used with permission.

Please note: While we ensure that all links and email addresses are accurate at their publishing date, the quick-changing nature of the web means that some links to other websites and email addresses may no longer be accurate.

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