I first met Brenda in the spring of 2016 when we were both participants on Gabriola’s Tour D’Coop, a self-guided tour of chicken coops on the island. She and her husband, Mark, had moved here the year before and were just getting integrated into the community. In addition, to showing off their coop and birds to a hundred people on the tour, they made the plywood chickens that all participants decorated and used to mark our driveways.
They had moved from Alberta where they’d been life-long residents. Brenda grew up in a small town, population 3,500. She married Mark right after high-school graduation when he was working as a Steam Engineer with Shell Canada. They moved around the province, following Mark’s job as a health and safety manager in the oil and gas industry. For six years, when their two kids were young, they lived on five acres with a menagerie: 120 goats, sheep, ducks, chickens, a horse and 4-H cattle.
When their son and daughter left home they moved to Calgary and became city folks. Brenda worked as an interior designer with private clients and contractors. Her favourite job was decorating show homes.
Mark loved sailing and had a boat he took out on the reservoir in Calgary. When it capsized in a wind storm, Brenda put her foot down, deciding not to go out again in unsafe conditions. If you know the coast here, you know it offers great opportunities for sailing. They bought 10 acres of raw land with the plan to retiring in 10 years. It really wasn’t Brenda’s dream – Gabriola felt like the boonies – but at that time it seemed like a distant possibility. Mark experienced some health issues, forcing him to take early retirement, which accelerated their move to Gabriola.
Their house sold in only nine days and they had a short occupancy of only 30 days. They packed up, stored their belongings in a shipping container on site and ordered a modular house. Until the house was in place they lived in a trailer. The first year was tough: Brenda had left her two kids, three grandchildren, a job she enjoyed and had to carve out a new identity. The first year was filled with more than a few tears, but four years later she’s happy to say she loves it here and can’t imagine living anywhere else.
I think more than a few people are happy to have her here as well. She’s involved in several social service programs: she cooks the lunch for the Stepping Up, Stepping Out program, which meets twice weekly at the Rollo Seniors’ Centre with activities and a lunch that aims to reduce social isolation; she works at People for a Healthy Community’s (PHC) food bank and is involved with the lunch program at the elementary school. Working with a cross-section of folks – some with physical and mental health challenges, or dealing with substance use issues and poverty – has been a real eye-opener. Even though she’s lived in a big city, it’s taken moving to a small community to see those issues up-close and personal, to really understand the lived experience of some folks. It’s work she enjoys and knows that the participants really appreciate all that she does for them.
She hasn’t lost touch with city life though – she visits Calgary to see her kids and three grand-daughters, a 3-year-old and five-year old twins. And they like to visit their rural family as well. Brenda jokes that she had to teach them to walk barefoot in the sand without worrying about getting their feet dirty. The chickens are a highlight of their stay: the girls have their own baskets and can’t wait to collect the eggs each day.
Her flock consists of six Orpingtons: Buff, Lavender and frizzled and two, gorgeous Silver Laced Wyandottes. Even though they have a secure coop and an attached run they’ve had their share of predators. One time, when Brenda and Mark were sitting on their back deck, just metres from the hens, a mink ran past them and into the pen. In a frenzy, it started to attack the birds. She managed to shoo it off, only to find as she was trying to get the girls back to the safety of the coop the mink was already in there. Not surprisingly, the girls refused to go in. Brenda went on autopilot, ran into the house, grabbed a gun, and never having fired one before, raised it to her hip and without really aiming managed to kill the mink. Unfortunately the mink killed one hen and injured two others before she was able to stop it.
They’ve also struggled with raccoons. A previous neighbour used to feed them and once he was gone the raccoons migrated over to their property. They are no longer an issue, but just last week an eagle swooped down to their pond and picked off one of their Muscovey ducks. The rest of their ducks are safe: two Muscoveys, three Indian Runners and three Khaki Campbells. They’ve also got two very large, very vocal African/Toulouse Geese. I had to be careful backing out of the driveway because they surrounded my car and I was afraid I’d hit one. It’s hard to believe any predator could enter the property without them sounding the alarm.
In Alberta, they once had 120 goats, now they are down to two – three, shortly, as one of them is pregnant. Nya and Osa are Nigerian Dwarf goats, very striking and full of personality. As Brenda and I were sitting on the bench by the pond, in a small sliver of fading sunlight, one of the goats stood on her hind legs and tried to head-butt the gander. He responded with a lot of squawking and promptly charged at her, pulling out a tuft of her hair with his beak. I wish I’d had my camera at the ready, but their altercation was over in a flash. Nya was properly chastened and kept a wide berth after that.
Brenda is a newcomer to the island, but I’m happy to see she’s not just embraced the chicken world, she’s involved in many aspects of community life and volunteering.