In the summer of 2011 I would drive by a small half-acre property, a corner lot on the main road, on my way home from the ferry or the village. Over the next few months there were signs of folks at work: a trailer was parked by a copse of trees, raised beds were made, fencing was erected, building materials were collected and I saw chickens. Nothing like chickens to get me to rubberneck at what might be going on. I pulled up to their place and introduced myself and found out a few things about the new owners, Thomas and Elizabeth.
Over the years I’ve been a frequent visitor to their place: I drop off produce from the food recovery program weekly, have given them cockerels I couldn’t find homes for and hatched chicks for them. I’ve roped them in to participating in Gabriola’s Tour D’Coop, a self-guided tour of chicken coops on the island. They’ve given me wood shavings and oyster shell for my birds, euthanized two sick birds and done necropsies on them. We’ve traded hatching eggs and salvaged building materials. It’s a reciprocal relationship where no one is keeping track of who’s done what.
They’ve led full lives and as they were approaching their 70s decided to take on one last big project to fulfill their bucket list.
Elizabeth (or as she was known back then, Betty) had come to Canada in 1969 from Virginia with her first partner, a consciousness objector resisting the draft to Vietnam. Like many of their generation they were hippy, back-to-the-land idealists.
Thomas and Elizabeth first met in 1984, when she, with four young children, was a student and he was a tutor, at the Vancouver School of Theology, UBC. But their paths diverged: he went off to Toronto with his three sons to complete his doctorate and teach theology at the University of Toronto. Later he worked as a coordinator for the various seminaries and theological colleges across Canada.
Elizabeth, ordained an Anglican priest, found her first parish in Alberta. In 1992, she was called to St Barnabas Church in New Westminister, popularly known as “The Little Church Of The Poor”. Her father had marched with Martin Luther King Jr. at Selma, Alabama. Her social justice theology was influenced by the civil rights movement, working with the disenfranchised and feminism.
Fast forward 12 years. Thomas was in town and looking for a church to attend a Christmas Eve service. Unbeknownst to him he ended up at Elizabeth’s little parish. She looked up, in the middle of the service, and upon seeing him in the pews said, “Thomas, is that you?.” I asked if that really happened, to which she replied “I was a pretty informal preacher”. They call it their Christmas Miracle.
He had recently retired, at 54, and was living on his 40’ sailboat. Thomas became Children’s Minister at her church and helped out with many of the numerous social outreach and community programs.
They found they shared a lot of the same dreams. Dream #1: as people raised in the church, to give back to the church: for him, as an educator and for her, ministering to marginalized people.
Dream #2 was fulfilled in the next chapter of their lives. They lived in Elizabeth’s house in New Westminster during the winter and on the boat during the summer, running a charter business for folks wanting to see the west coast, all the way up to Prince Rupert, Haida Gwaii and Alaska. It was a venture that expressed their philosophy – it wasn’t about making money, but helping people who wouldn’t otherwise have the opportunity to do so.
Their clients were single parent families and people with disabilities who got to experience what Thomas calls ‘participatory ecology’: not just looking at something in a museum but getting out into nature, foraging and co-existing with wildlife like grizzly bears and wolves. They say half their friends on the coast were these animals they’d see, year after year.
They’d moored at various places in southern BC and then began overwintering on Gabriola. It proved challenging to find a spot to keep their boat, but attribute Mark Shaw for their being able to do so, and ultimately, to stay here. He allowed them to raft their boat to his. Mark became a good friend and was one of the reasons they chose to stay here. (Sadly he died in 2018).
After Elizabeth’s retirement in 2004 they lived full time on the boat for seven years. Elizabeth’s daughter lives here and they had Mark, so it seemed like a logical place to set down some roots and build an eco-house. That was Dream #3.
Thomas had recently experienced the deaths of several people close to him, which was a wake up call for how he wanted to spend the rest of his life.
“Several friends slightly older than myself died. That’s when I decided to do what I had always wanted to do, before I died. And if I did what I always wanted to do, maybe I wouldn’t die just yet!” – Thomas
They’d both played with back-to-the-land ventures – and had lived them in various ways, shapes and forms. Both gained skills in their youth and in the hippy years. They weren’t interested in expensive and complex self-sufficiency with all the bells and whistles. They wanted to be green, but closer to the ways their great-grand-parents had lived. In short, a low-impact, small footprint way of living.
Thomas and Elizabeth recognize that not everyone can do what they’re doing. They’re retired with small pensions and live modestly. They believe in simple abundance, in sharing what you have when you have it. A ‘what goes around, comes around’ philosophy. Their experience in the co-operative movements taught them that you can’t accomplish things on your own and want to be seen as a symbol of hope, of the way that some of us could choose to live.
The first 4 years were spent living in a 25’ trailer before they built their first eco-cottage: a 16’ x 24’ cabin, with reclaimed materials and more importantly, without a building permit. They recognized they were taking a chance, but their hope was to challenge the strict building codes that favour using conventional building methods and materials, that also make it difficult for self-builders, especially for young folks.
The lot is small and because of how it’s situated couldn’t support a well or conventional septic system. Their cottage was an example of ‘simple sustainability or sustainable simplicity’ – an off-grid tiny home with rainwater catchment and grey water systems, a composting toilet and solar power (they tried wind power, which proved unfeasible).
Unfortunately we live in a complaint driven system and when you go up against the law, the law usually wins. It did in their case. Sadly, they were forced to tear down the cottage, that they’d lived in for less than a year, and start over from scratch.
They had lots of support from the community including volunteers who came to disassemble it – in what Elizabeth calls a Demolition Celebration.
Actually they didn’t have to start entirely from scratch as they had saved much of the timbers and honed their ideas about what they wanted. The second iteration of the cottage is in a slightly different spot and a tad bigger – 24’ x 24’. Building with all materials and systems to code also cost considerably more. They were able to address the code issues with the assistance of a draftsperson and an engineer. The beautiful cedar cottage interior has cob walls and a vaulted yellow cedar ceiling.
Right from the get-go they started planting with the goal of self-sufficiency. 100% of the produce they eat comes from their year-round garden: kale, collards, broccoli, chard, lettuce, carrots, potatoes, beans, peas and fruit trees. 25% of their grain comes from their own corn, rye and flax. They make their own salt by dehydrating seawater and dry, can and freeze as much as possible.
Their place is right across the road from a beach access to the ocean, which makes it easy to forage for seafood: clams and oysters. They’ve got a 12’ boat with a 2hp motor that they use to catch crabs, but are finding it more difficult hauling up prawn traps.
They’ve both had some health issues: Thomas had a heart attack 16 days after they took possession of the property; the following April, Elizabeth had a hip replacement and in building the second cottage, he fell off a ladder breaking his shoulder. Good thing they are resilient and have lots of support.
And of course they have animals: a Nigerian dwarf goat, Emma and her two kids; Buff Orpington ducks and loads of free-ranging chickens: a barnyard mix of descendants of Buff Orpintons, Ameraucanas, Appenzeller Spitzhaubens and Polish to name a few.
Their location – near the water and being on an open lot – is a bit of a magnet for predators. They’ve had to contend with ravens, hawks, mink, raccoons, dogs and even the occasional car that has hit a bird that’s ventured out to the road. I’ve heard stories of them being awoken in the night by shrieking chickens and having to rescue them. Or the sad tales of animals that have killed ducks or hens sitting on eggs, predators stealing eggs or injuring birds. That’s a part of keeping chickens that I’ve had little experience with.
They’ve learned to milk Emma, using not just her milk, but turning it into yoghurt and soft cheese. They eat their birds and their eggs. Each chicken is named, and when humanely butchered, it’s put into the freezer with a name tag. It’s a way of staying connected with each living creature, honouring their lives and recognizing that life is sacred. Thomas and Elizabeth do draw the line somewhere: they love their goat and can’t imagine eating her. Her companion died a few months ago after suffering a seizure.
They’ve now got four grandchildren – a new baby and three other urban-kids – that enjoy spending time with the animals when they come to visit. I’m hoping that they’ll feel inspired by the example set by Thomas and Elizabeth. They may not want to live the way of their forebears, when life was both simple and tough, but I hope they take something of the spirit of their endeavors: co-operation, sharing, empathy and most importantly, love. Thomas and Elizabeth been a great part of our community and an example to aspire to.
Additional photos courtesy of Thomas & Elizabeth