The Protest Song of Squamish

Saxby (2)

Tracey Saxby was in Mexico when she wrote A Fight to Win as council mulled over the FortisBC application. Pic: Gagandeep Ghuman

By Gagandeep Ghuman
Published: March 23, 2015

Tracey Saxby was thousands of miles away in Mexico but her mind roamed Squamish. It was the day Fortis application to test borehole in the Squamish estuary was to come up before the Squamish council.
For the last one year, Saxby had led and mobilized the anti-LNG movement with My Sea to Sky.  But as luck would have it, she was about to miss the first major test for the project. The council was packed that evening, but Saxby was alone in her rented Mexico home when she picked up her guitar and began plucking at its strings. 
Many in Squamish know Saxby as an anti-LNG voice, but a few may know that she is also a professional singer with an album, Barefoot Acoustics, to her name. Saxby has been writing songs and playing paid and unpaid gigs since she was 16.
At one point in her life, around 10 years ago, she even took a two-year break to focus entirely on her music career. Yes, she has written soulful love songs but one of her early songs was about GMO foods. It was inspired, she says, by a farmer who took on Monsanto.
On that early morning in Mexico, as her fingers felt the strings of the guitar, Saxby thought of the Squamishers who had inspired her in standing up for what they believed was right.
The song began as a finger-picking song, but then Saxby started strumming.  As she riffed, she realised the song had to be more upbeat. “The song just happened, it’s almost like the song wrote itself,” she says. She couldn’t be in the council chamber that day, but perhaps her words could travel. “I couldn’t be there, so it was a way for me to show my support,” she says.
Tears were cascading down her face by the time she had finished writing the song. “It’s been intense year for me and the song felt very powerful,” she says.

IMG_3520 - Desiree Wallace
Every protest spins its own narrative, creates its own rhythms, and sings its own songs. Songs and art of the protest can sometimes be its most powerful symbols. Beyond clever placards, funny one-liners, puns such as ‘frack you’, there is a silent explosion of creativity. Emotional involvement in a community event, the sense of being wronged and  the melodramatic effect of David taking on the Goliath unleash creative energy. When people surrender their daily lives and routine issues to a larger common cause, they can tap into their hidden or long-forgotten creative reserve.  Protests become the muse for many. When art for art’s sake becomes difficult to pursue, politics can provide the reason to explore a long-forgotten artistic side.
The anti-LNG movement in Squamish revived for Michelle Neilson an art she was once very good at: cartoons.
Born into a family of artists, Neilson was mentored in the art of making cartoons by an uncle who used his art on family functions to poke gentle fun at family members. At Concordia and University of Alberta, she used her art to deal with the pressure of being a university student. But it was while working for a newspaper in Golden, B.C. that she first tried her hands at political cartoons.
One which she recalls fondly and which even earned her an editorial award was a cartoon that mourned the loss of forests: cars drive from Golden to Banff on a tree-lined road, but beyond the trees was a land barren and stripped. Another one of her cartoons mocked Jean Chrétien as Dracula sucking blood from social services.
But then the cartoons stopped as she busied herself with setting up her business. Now, almost two decades later, she has picked up her pencil and paper again. “Woodfibre LNG revived the cartoonist in me,” she says, smiling.
She has made about 10 cartoons by now, some of which have been published in a local paper. One of her favourite cartoons is that of a whale, an orca, a dolphin, a seal and herring looking at a giant LNG tanker from the Sea to Sky Gondola. “Well, there goes the neighbourhood,” says the whale. The seal chips in with, “We’re moving to that park in Tofino.”
By evoking laughter, cartoons can also provide a space for dialogue. “It’s an accessible platform from which we can start the conversation,” she says. Dissent through words can sometimes be tiring. There was a lot of breathless debate on social media and letters to the editor, but it was one-dimensional and boring, she says. “Cartooning was a personal way of shifting the dialogue. It has allowed me to have a voice,” Neilson says. Now that it’s known that she makes cartoons, she occlusionally hears from friends who call to suggest an idea for a cartoon. 


Woodfibre LNG revived the cartoonist in me, says Michelle Neilson

Song writing is also a medium of communication for Amber Gould, who has written poems and prose about her connection with Mother Earth. A part-time Doula and academic researcher, Gould writes about how our current economic models impact the natural life. She hasn’t written a protest song about LNG industry, but the voice of those suffering from neo-liberal economic model will find a shared rhythm in her poems. These lines from her song, Woodcarver’s Lament, offer a glimpse into how nature and human life are intertwined with one another. I’m memorizing green so it’s safe inside my head/Gathering the stones from the river bed./So if one day I wake up and everything is gone/I’ll hold them in my hands, and feel the river’s song. “It’s a place where I can speak our truth, and it’s less abrasive and polarized,” she says.
Local musician Will Ross has always tried to put his environmental and social concerns in the songs he writes. Music for him is a tool to spread the message about why we should take care of our planet and all its inhabitants. One of his favourite songs is on the subject of fracking and the oil and gas industry. Called Freeloader, it was recorded in Britannia Beach at a studio which offered an excellent view of where the plant would go. A conversation between MotherEarth and human beings, the song is about how greed overshadows the mind. Another of his favourite songs, Not the Predicate, is an upbeat track about the need of our time to step outside our comfort zones. “I believe that protesting and using our voices, and being civilly disobedient is the best way to get our point across,” he says.
Reaction to his songs has been both positive and negative, Ross says. “Just like all art, you can’t please everyone, but for the most part people have been really positive about it though.”
He recently did a show with Beyond Boarding up in Whistler to raise money for Klabona Keepers, a society of elders dedicated to protecting the indigenous resources in Tahltan territory in BC. “I was inspired to meet so many strong, beautiful people, and I was given some really positive messages about what I am doing and to keep it up,” Ross recalls.
Melyssa Hudson knows how to enlist art and craft for politics. As part of the My Sea to Sky, Hudson has helped coordinate Art Builds, where community members gather to discuss the movement and talk ideas for signs and slogans. “We encourage people to get creative and think outside the box,” she says. She aims to create a discourse that is less abrasive by using the fine art of communication.
Hudson has learned the idiom of protest through her jobs and political action. She learned the creative process of shaping words for action while working at an advertising firm. Being part of a groundswell movement to question Enbridge pipeline taught her how to give a personal but positive urgency to words. At the Art Builds, Hudson says she asks people about issues that are important to them. Building on their own voice helps people to make a statement in a more constructive way. She also advises people to keep it civil and inventive and avoid using anything vulgar, the F-word for instance. “It doesn’t have to be the coolest slogan, but just what people care, just what they can connect to,” she says. A good slogan or sign should also attract the attention of passersby, and also leave them curious about the issue.
Giving an example, Hudson says a simple sign saying ‘Protect our Howe Sound’ can stimulate curiosity among those driving by and inspire some of them to dig deeper. “If they walk away curious, they can perhaps learn what is at stake there,” she says.


  1. Patricia Marini says:

    What a great career she is having and good music? Did she walk to Mexico or take a fossil fuel gussling Airplane???????????

    • just saying says:

      No worries, as long as the fuel comes from the gulf of Mexico or wherever else, but has nothing to do with her back yard, its OK to take an airplane. Out of sight-out of mind!

  2. tjay says:

    Ha ha, good comments… don’t stop now!…

  3. Jon S. says:

    I wonder what her carbon footprint looks like with all of this holidaying in Mexico and occasional work visits to the east coast?


  4. e says:

    Its always better to make jokes and insult people then to look at the bigger picture, right? Tracey is fighting for your children and grand children, so they may see the beauty that we so often overlook in the name of economy.

    We all use gas, we all have cars and heat our homes…. but some of use want to change the WAY we use these things. so we can focus on healthy, alternative technologies and grow on this planet.

    Unless you have billions, or are buddies with Elon Musk, the only way to create change is to have a voice.

    • Jon S. says:

      Hypocrite isn’t an insult…. it’s simply what Tracey is.

      In BC the vast majority of our electricity comes from renewable resources. In fact, because so much of our electricity comes from hydroelectric sources most of us simply call it hydro.

      Sure the big picture is great, but change starts with each and every one of us. If no body changed their behavior then change would be impossible. In Tracey’s case, no one forced her to fly to Mexico…she chose to. It’s pretty much common knowledge that air travel is detrimental to climate change as it is extremely carbon intensive. It she absolutely wanted (not needed) to go to Mexico and minimize her impact then she could have taken the train. But did she? Of course not.

      Now what about the fuel that she uses to heat her home? In a recent news article Tracey stated that she was switching the fuel that she uses to heat her home to natural gas from fuel oil. Hello! Remember in BC over 90% of our electricity comes from renewable resources. Sure electric heating is more expensive, but if she really cared about her carbon footprint that’s the change she would make.

      What about her car, or the car that many other activists drive? Many activists say if that had a choice they would choose a renewable fuel for their automobiles. Well don’t I have great news! The Nissan Leaf is 100% electric, and remember where our electricity comes from? The leaf has a range that is acceptable for both commuting to the city and local use. Sure it’s smaller that the beloved Toyota Tacoma, but its also cheaper! It’s a sacrifice for the earth right? I haven’t seen Tracey’s “my” Sea-to-Sky once advocate for the Leaf.

      For all things noted above she is a hypocrite, the worst kind of activist. If you’re only looking at the big picture then you’re not even in the picture.

    • MKnight says:

      My prob with My Sea to Sky is twofold. One, i dont like people who just moved here recently representing themselves as the only authentic voice of Squamish. The second is their cowardly methods. If you want to get at the fossil fuel problem, you have to change end user behaviour. But anti-fossil fuel people don’t really go after the end user. They target the producers. The producers are easier targets being mostly big faceless corporations. Its sorta the same tack the west took fighting drugs. Doesnt work. And its cowardly because MSTS knows if they attacked the public anywhere near as viciously as they do the corps, they’d be cast off the island on whatever flotsam the locals could strap them to. Plus its an uncomfortable subject for them since every one of them, including our jetsetting Saxby, uses oil products every day. Targetting the corps is the easy way out. It deflects blame and sets up a more palatable David vs. Goliath narrative, rather than the David vs. Himself narrative it really is. Its a fantasy though. People arent giving up their gas heat, their plastics, their computers. All MSTS and its ilk can hope to do is make those things a bit more expensive.