Faith fuels Sandborn’s eco-activism
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By Steve Weatherbe

THE NEWS media on southern Vancouver Island have been transfixed for months by the question of whether forests minister Rich Coleman should have allowed Western Forest Products (WFP) to sell some of its forestry land – around Jordan River, west of Victoria – to a residential subdivision developer.

In mid-July, auditor general John Doyle ruled that Coleman had ignored the public interest and failed to consult key stakeholders in approving WFP’s plan.

The whistleblower whose submission instigated the investigation is a lifelong Christian, inspired by the example of his devout mother to stand up for the oppressed.  To that end, he got involved in helping Vancouver eastside residents and farm workers.

Calvin Sandborn, now the director of the University of Victoria’s Environmental Law Centre, sees his faith as crucial to his life of advocacy.

“I’m no theologian,” he admits. “Nor was my mother. She didn’t talk much about her faith. She lived it.” A social worker who took her four children to church each Sunday in California, she “drilled into us” a Christian’s duty to help the downtrodden.

Sandborn remembers as a teenager seeing a family of migrant farm workers emerging from beneath their pickup truck, where they had sheltered during the night. “I thought, ‘Hmmm, this isn’t right.’”

He was clear in his mind that he was entering law school (at the University of British Columbia) with advocacy for such people in mind. He helped organize the Downtown Eastside Residents Association during this time. Later, when Chiran Gill was organizing the Canadian Farmworkers Union and gave a speech at the law school,  Sandborn decided to sign on. He got a research grant to look into why British Columbia’s labour and workers’ compensation laws excluded farm workers.

“I found that it was explicitly racist,” he recalls. When labour standards for hours, safety and wages were set in the 1920s, legislators made no bones about the exclusion of domestic, cannery and farm workers; Asians dominated in these fields.

Armed with this information, the  Farm Workers persuaded the B.C. Human Rights Commission  to recommend one law for all; but fierce lobbying, by the Social Credit government of the day, delayed reform until the New Democrats under Mike Harcourt took over.

Sandborn had worked on the issue of pesticide use for the farmworkers, which led to a shift into environmental issues and a job with the West Coast Environmental Law organization. Since then, Sandborn has been using existing laws to push for  environmental protection.

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The spiritual side of environmentalism came easily to Sandborn, who remembers making “powerful spiritual progress” during his teenage years, through camping experiences with the YMCA in the High Sierra Mountains. “These were crucial to my sense of a connection with God.”

Though the classic environmental critique blames Judeo-Christian scriptures for teaching that humanity has “dominion” over nature, Sandborn has always put more emphasis on the idea that humanity is “steward” of the earth. As well, he says, “ I see it as living out the commandment to love other people and our children and our grandchildren, by protecting nature for them.”

In the case of Western Forest Products so easily getting the forest minister’s permission to sell off forest land for subdivisions, Sandborn says the issue was whether Vancouver Islanders wanted their cities spreading out into sprawling suburbs, without any planning.

He hopes the auditor general’s report will force the government to consider public opinion and not just the interests of forest companies.

Sandborn now attends The Place, a community focussed mainly on 20- and 30-somethings, which operates from Victoria’s Lambrick Park Church.

Steve Weatherbe is editor of the Business Examiner.

September 2008