Drew McLachlan
The Navigator

Meldy Wilton standing in front of the Lower Dam, reads a satirical poem criticizing those who plan to tear down the dams.
Photo by: Drew McLachlan

Meldy Wilton has been at the forefront of the movement to save the Colliery Dams in Harewood. To further the initiative, Wilton formed the Dam Poets, a group of local artists using the craft to spread the word on why the dams deserve to stay. I got the chance to speak to her last week at the Lower Dam, where the group often holds readings.

The Navigator: Why is saving the Colliery Dams important to you, and why should it be important to all of Nanaimo?

Meldy Wilton: The dams are important for a variety of reasons. They’re a part of our heritage, and the heritage of Nanaimo. When the city is saying “they’re a hundred years old,” you have to take into account that the Empress Hotel was only built two years before the Colliery Dams. The Colliery Dams were built by miners, and part of that is connected to our history of settlement on Vancouver Island. The heritage that connects us to the mining days,  connects us to the settlers, so that’s part of it. If you keep tearing down things that are significant to your heritage, then you never really have a history, and it’s really important to have an inclusive cultural history. You have to know where you’ve been, where you are now, and where you’d like your society to be in the future.

N: Do you think the people of Nanaimo are really in touch with what’s going on in their backyards?

MW: No. Did you know the dams were slated to be torn down during the summer? The structure was slated to be fenced off for two years, and they were going to log the trees. Nobody would be allowed in these 65+ acres for two years. The city wanted to do this, while a lot of students use this area for leisure or to cut through. That was all going to be done without anybody knowing. They would have arrived back and it would have been fenced off, logged, drained, dam’s gone. That would have happened if it weren’t for the citizens who are connected in one way or another, for all their own reasons. That tells you how connected your municipal, provincial, and federal politicians allow you to be. Nobody knew this was going to happen. Students, even though they’re busy looking at their own education and their own future, are pretty well aware and take in a lot of things that are happening in the community. It wasn’t really let known [by the city]. This is important to their use, and a lot of them aren’t aware that it wouldn’t have been there if we hadn’t encouraged the city to keep it to this point.

N: So why have you chosen art, and specifically poetry, to get this message across?

MW: Well, spoken word has a lot of strength—poetry especially. Historically, poets have been jailed for writing poetry. Whether it’s media or art, it gets citizens to start looking at and questioning things that are going on. Poetry is also a way to get people to come out. We’ve had a lot of people at the dams—we’ve done several readings here—and we didn’t expect anybody but ourselves, honestly, but people of all different backgrounds showed up. It spreads the word and gets them thinking about society, and it’s also an enjoyable, non-violent way to protest. Plus, it’s entertaining. You get tired of hearing about everything that’s so desperately sad in the world that eventually you close your mind. It’s really important, also, to give them an opportunity to listen to what’s going on without telling them what to think.

N: And how have the dams themselves inspired your work?

MW: You’re sitting here. You’re watching the water. You’re out in the wilderness. It’s really important for a human being’s existence  to have an area that will help calm your body, calm your mind, and retreat to a certain extent. So anything that happens—be it political issues or social issues—can be incorporated with the very fact that you have a place you can walk through and be part of nature, and to see it and have that within a city setting is very inspiring.

N: Can you tell me about the Dam Slam that happened in July?

MW: Well, the Dam Slam on July 14 was definitely in the midst of protesting. First of all, in order to meet or have a gathering in any city park, you must register with the city and pay $100 down payment, and then you have to pay to do it, so anybody meeting in the park or doing anything in the park is protesting because you didn’t register with the city. This is a bylaw the city is saying “this is our park—we’ll do what we want, we own it.” That was the original attitude. The Dam Slam, was the birth of the Dam Poets, and we [organized] it through social media. We had a good variety of people ,which, for their own reason understood why this area is so important. We had a guy who was walking past while we were wrapping it up and said, “hey, can I do a rap?” So he did a rap on the spot—it was phenomenal. That was his first time at the dams, and he found it inspiring. He saw that we were there as our way to be heard, and he wanted to be a part of that. The Dam Slam was kind of an “everybody meet here, we’ll say our piece, then leave” event. I was actually contacted and told that somebody was going to call bylaw officers and have us removed—just for doing poetry. People understand that you’re spreading the word, and not just to people who have already bought into the idea that we should keep the dams, but suddenly there are intellectuals in our society who are connected all around the world, so the Dam Slam, which was just a seed of a thought, grew into something more.

N: Who are the Dam Poets?

MW: There’s an official group. We did have an official ceremony and  gathering, and we have spoken four times in the past. Vancouver Island Regional Library does recognize us as poets of the grass movement. The poets have done research—they are artists, filmmakers, musicians, and writers in their own personal lives. It really is a group of different genres of arts.

N: How has the public reacted to your work so far? Are you seeing a lot of support for the dams?

MW: We’ve seen both sides, but it definitely has gained momentum towards keeping the dams. We were doing something in the summer at 6pm every night—we were making noise for the dams. I contacted people in New York who were playwrights, and there were some people in Australia, and my cousin in Boston, so all over the world people were making noise at other events about theatre or art. Many of those people have walked through the dams while they were tourists here, so the momentum to keep the dams is adding more and more people all the time, and it doesn’t matter what your reason is for keeping the dams. Sometimes people may not have the formal education to understand why something is wrong—they just know it’s wrong. I have to mention that if Chief Douglas White [of Snuneymuxw First Nations] hadn’t come to the council meeting and spoken, I fear the city would have just plugged through. The more information they got, and the more we spoke at council meetings, the more they plugged. The city councillors and staff do not own the property—it is paid for by tax dollars. Everyone that’s here needs to take care of the wilderness, the environment, and make sure our community has input on what happens to our properties.

N: What other activism work have you done in the past?

MW: It’s interesting that you ask that, because I never thought I was an activist, and I recently saw something that mentioned me as a 30-year-old activist for the environment. I thought that was just part of the human connection, human rights, and being part of your community. When I was 15 or 16, it was not unusual for all of us to go and find out, with our parents and other adults, what was happening in a lot of areas that were being devastated. And a lot of our parents were either loggers or worked in mills, and even when they would come to the dinner table, they would say “this area should not be logged. This is old growth; it should not be touched ever.” There were quite a few of us who took part in rallies to keep those areas, which still exist today because of that. I’ve never considered myself an activist, because activist has now become a dirty word. Someone says “oh, that’s a treehugger activist,” but an activist is someone that believes in all human rights. Personally, I never thought it was activism—I just thought it was part of being open-minded, inclusive, and part of your society and community.

N: If somebody wants to help save the dams, how can they get involved?

MW: Well, I would go to the website, <collierydamspreservation.com>. Another thing is to check the City of Nanaimo website, check their council meetings, and you can see ahead of time what is on their agenda. If there are issues to save Colliery Dams or Linley Valley, you will see their names on the agenda. Please do show up, even if you just want to sit and see what’s going on and aren’t ready to jump in. Just knowing that you’re there for support is really important.

N: If there was one thing you could say to people to encourage them to support the dams, what would it be?

MW: One thing is difficult to say, because it encompasses so many issues. I would say that there is an initiative by the City of Nanaimo, VIU, and the Chamber of Commerce called Inspire Nanaimo, Successful Cities Initiative. Within that, one of the five pillars for successful cities to continue so that you have a good way of life and your city doesn’t die like Detroit did, is to have a good built environment, and to make every effort to keep that for citizens, for travelers, and for the future. So the City of Nanaimo needs to think and negotiate a way to keep such environments, because it’s part of their mandate.