He used to be a business-hating journalist. Today, he drives an SUV, owns a million-dollar home and draws a six-figure salary. He also runs one of the most successful environmental organizations in the country. Is Ian Gill the new face of the green movement?
Ecotrust Canada president Ian Gill squints into the sun and huddles against the wind as our water taxi pulls away from Tofino harbour on the 40-minute journey to the Ahousaht reserve on Flores Island. Around us, sandy beaches glimmer with the polish of white teeth and branches of an ancient Douglas fir sag under the weight of a bald eagle nest. Somewhere in the distant mists, grey whales break a surging cobalt sea. One can be forgiven for wanting to lock the whole place up, protect this beauty forever against the brutish indiscretions of modern man. That would not be Ian Gill’s vision. The 50-year-old native Australian with boyish good looks and charm is something of a guiding light between the old and new economies, between the extremism of pillage and protection. “There’s a third way, not just an industrial economy and not just calling it a park and throwing away the key,” he explains. “People want to live in a prosperous place, but not at the expense of nature or people or cultures.” Gill is part of a strange new breed of environmentalist. He is more likely to be found chained to a boardroom than an old-growth cedar or sipping cocktails with the corporate elite than herbal tea with a Raging Granny. He draws his strength from what’s becoming known as “the conservation economy,” a philosophy that sees profit as good, provided it remains respectful and sustainable. Since founding Ecotrust Canada 11 years ago, Gill has risen to the corporate top of B.C.’s environmental movement based largely on the generosity of America’s leading philanthropic foundations. Today his organization is spreading economic roots, seeking new strategies to become more self-reliant as it continues to quietly bankroll a green revolution: mapping and categorizing coastal natural resources; producing business plans for First Nations and other communities; and financing high- risk loans to help launch sustainable businesses that might otherwise be turned away by the more conservative banking establishment. “I’m not a financial genius by any stretch of the imagination,” he allows, watching the matchbox houses of the Ahousaht reserve come into view over the aluminium bow. “But I know that conserving capital and living off the interest is a lot smarter than blowing your brains out and spending all your capital at once.” The truth is, Gill views a ustainable economy as a cautious investment and the squandering of the world’s natural capital faster than it can be produced as the riskiest proposition of all. In any revolution, there are bound to be fallen soldiers. Even the temperate rainforest can be a cold and unforgiving business climate. Earlier in the week, bailiffs acting for Ecotrust Canada repossessed a $30,000 boat from an aboriginal entrepreneur on the Ahousaht reserve whose ecotourism business floundered. Now Gill is cautiously heading back to that very same village, this time to convince band officials to invest in a completely different venture, the purchase of a six-year-old seafood processing plant in nearby Tofino. Gill isn’t sure what to expect. “Watch what you say,” he advises with a smile. “We don’t want to be lynched.” It is a short walk from the village wharf along a dirt path to the band’s modest offices. Inside, we are shoehorned into a small square room distinguished by stained and chipped ceiling tiles. We take our place on blue plastic chairs alongside five Ahousaht representatives just as the room’s heavy steel door slams tight behind us. The president of Ecotrust Canada wastes no time in introductions. “Hi, I’m Ian Gill,” he says with a raspy Aussie accent. “Good East Indian name.” A moment of silence, then a series of belly laughs. So far so good. A lynching seems unlikely. Gill leaves the opening sales pitch to Brenda Kuecks, his program coordinator for the Clayoquot-Alberni region. She explains she has secured an option to purchase Trilogy Fish Co., the small but thriving seafood processing plant. The current owners, John and Donna Fraser, are about to sell, but are giving Ecotrust Canada first crack at putting together a pool of buyers from the local community. The plant primarily deals in live crab, the processing of sport-caught salmon and the sale of oysters processed outside the community. It’s worth noting that Gill loves to dine on oysters, especially at the high-end Raincoast Restaurant in Tofino, just down the street from his two-bedroom, waterfront condominium overlooking Meares Island. Problem is, it makes him sick to think that the ones on his plate might have been caught in Clayoquot Sound, trucked to Fanny Bay on the east coast of Vancouver Island for processing, only to be hauled back again to Tofino to be sold. His solution: a small-scale plant run by the local community, processing local product under a Clayoquot Sound label. The Ahousaht aren’t convinced. Band councillor Sydney Sam is wrestling with an ethical dilemma: natives are concerned about the impact of sport fishing in their traditional area and the Trilogy plant makes a neat profit from sport fishers. They also want to see the plant for themselves, in part, to ensure it even exists. Gill assures them that it does, and that Ecotrust Canada is also for real and in the business of putting sustainable assets into community hands. “It’s not swamp land in Florida,” he jokes of Trilogy and its foreshore lease. “It’s swamp land in Tofino.” Which begs the larger question: exactly who is this man that artist and former Ecotrust Canada director Robert Bateman calls “the absolute key” to that grey area between environmental advocacy and the old economy? Ian Gill’s journey to the capitalist heart of the B.C. rainforest began in Adelaide, South Australia, as the son of a lumber broker who made frequent business trips to Canada’s West Coast. The family lived in a show home crafted from imported B.C. wood and kept a copy of Beautiful British Columbia magazine – a gift from one of his dad’s clients – on the table. Gill spent three years after high school roaming the island continent as a reporter for community and small dailies before following a girlfriend to Vancouver in 1981. He recalls the interview with an out-of-touch Canadian immigration official in Sydney who spoke of a surfeit of newspaper jobs in Canada. Gill knew different. The daily Winnipeg Tribune had just shut down, newspapers were consolidating, journalists were being tossed out on the street. Gill may be a talkative individual, but there are moments that cry out for stony silence. He soon found himself in Canada as a landed immigrant. [pagebreak] The Vancouver Sun gave him a job at age 26. “Ever edited?” features boss Mike McRanor asked. “Oh yeah, all the time,” Gill replied. This was, not to put too fine a point on it, total bull. Still, he adapted to the job, worked his way into the thankless position of city desk assignment editor before eventually turning to news reporting. Gill went to Paris in 1986 on a one-year journalism scholarship and quit the Sun when he got back. He wrote a scathing article about the place for Vancouver magazine, lamenting the paper had been turned over to “bureaucrats masquerading as newsmen,” an article that helped establish his reputation as a maverick prepared to forge his own path. “It frustrates me that so many good things can be written, but aren’t,” he says today. “The status quo should be rattled, but it’s not.” Gill then worked seven years as a reporter for CBC-TV news, specializing in aboriginal people and the environment, and writing the successful book, Hiking on the Edge: West Coast Trail and Juan de Fuca Trail (later followed up with Haida Gwaii: Journeys through the Queen Charlotte Islands). During an assignment to the Kitlope Valley on B.C.’s central coast, he met Spencer Beebe, founder of Ecotrust in 1991. The pioneering Portland-based organization with assets of US$22 million stands for sustainable management of forests and fisheries in the Pacific Northwest with special consideration for the plight of aboriginal people, something it describes as the triple bottom line of economy, ecology and (social) equity. Beebe had been working behind the scenes to help fund the Haisla First Nation’s effort to save the valley, a campaign that ultimately led to creation of the 321,120-hectare Kitlope Heritage Conservancy, one of the world’s largest intact temperate rainforests. Gill, with his trademark frankness, asked Beebe what Americans like him were doing up here meddling in Canadian affairs. “Our role is only catalytic,” he calmly responded. “We try to stay quiet in the background and listen. We just try to bring people together.” Off-camera, Beebe acknowledged that the question made him uncomfortable and reinforced the need for a Canadian organization. “We need someone who knows the politicians, knows the issues, who can write, who can talk, who can think, who cares about First Nations, who’s interested in conservation, someone who’s happy to be river rafting one day then in a board meeting the next day.” Could he think of anyone who might fit the bill? “Well, there’s me?” Gill answered back. A few months later, Gill ventured to Portland, liked what he saw, and agreed to launch Ecotrust Canada – a separate corporate entity from the U.S. organization but with some shared directors and jointly funded programs. In November 1994, in a subleased office in the David Suzuki Foundation building on West Fourth Ave. in Kitsilano, Ecotrust Canada was born and Ian Gill was reborn as one of the first in a new breed of environmental executives. Along his sustainability journey, Gill has come to believe that while living with less is good, living smarter is better. He enjoys fine wine and food, travel, carpentry and surfing. He owns one vehicle, a 1992 Nissan Pathfinder SUV, and has two property holdings. His waterfront condo in Tofino is currently for sale for $429,000 so he can renovate a million-dollar home with wood beams and wood floors on a large treed lot off Commercial Drive, purchased from Doug Bennett of Doug and the Slugs shortly before the singer-songwriter’s death last year. Gill married his long-time partner, Jennifer Jordan, a lawyer who is not currently practicing, two years ago during a break in the rain on Chesterman’s Beach near Tofino. They have three children: Jasper, 13, Fergus, 10, and Lucy, who, at the innocent age of six, has already been to New York and Haida Gwaii and has asked of dad, “Can you take me to Paris?” In total, it’s pretty heady stuff for a man who never used to balance his chequebook and who once saw business as the villain. “It’s not where I thought I’d end up,” agrees Gill, helping his children off to school one morning. “I’m just some little snotty-nosed kid from Adelaide, who’s pitched up different places for different reasons.” Ecotrust Canada is today based in a rather ordinary brick building at 1238 Homer St., the most fascinating aspect of which is the boardroom table, a slab of ancient western red cedar harvested from the crawl space of the Shaughnessy home of late forestry magnate Walter Koerner. “It’s a lovely irony,” says Gill, pointing to the tightly compressed tree rings. “It’s very old. We think it might be from Haida Gwaii.” The organization differs from most other environmental groups in B.C. in that it is not member-based. Its board of directors have included the likes of Jacqueline Koerner, granddaughter to Walter; Salt Spring Island wildlife artist and conservationist Robert Bateman; Vancouver Quadra Liberal MP Stephen Owen, B.C.’s former ombudsman; First Nations advocate and ex-B.C. Supreme Court Justice Thomas Berger; Vancouver book publisher Scott McIntyre; and Chicago’s Ronald Grzywinski, chairman of Shorebank Corporation, a community development bank.
Bateman first met Gill in the Carmanah Valley when he was a TV reporter in 1989. A group of prominent artists had hiked in to paint and generally draw attention to saving the area and its monstrous stands of Sitka spruce. After Gill formed Ecotrust Canada, he convinced Bateman to serve two years on the board of directors, which he rarely agrees to do because he lacks the time or inclination to read reports and do homework when he could be spending time with his family, painting or out communing with nature. Bateman loved the organization’s concept of helping coastal communities work with nature rather than perpetuating the damaging industrial approach. “It seemed to be the future of the planet because we obviously can’t turn the planet into a museum, it has to benefit mankind, but, I hope, at a grassroots level.” Moreover, the artist considered Gill to have the personality and talent to get the job done. “I admire his frankness and Australian iconoclastic go-for-it attitude. He’s got backbone and is a man of action. I admire that. I do think he is the absolute key. He’s no-nonsense, down-to-business, yet has a wonderful sense of humour and not a pretentious bone in his body. That is a good way to get the best efforts out of people – and to get money out of people, too.” The organization today boasts 28 employees, including Rick Kohn, ex-chief financial officer for Mountain Equipment Co-op who is now director of business strategies. EC’s environment fund brought Kohn into contact with Gill, a man he describes as “visionary.” Kohn jumped ship to Ecotrust Canada in 2004 – the same year Maclean’s magazine named the organization one of Canada’s top 10 small employers. While providing the leadership glue that binds Ecotrust Canada’s vision, Gill also employs a hands-off management style. “He likes to hire people who are very good at what they do, and let them go about managing themselves,” Kohn says. Of Gill’s broader philosophy, Kohn says, “There aren’t that many people who can see the opportunity for a conservation economy . . . Many people say, ‘That’s interesting work for a non-profit, but it’s not business.’ Ian says it is business.” That business approach to the environment has earned Gill criticism from some green activist groups. The strongest comes from the Friends of Clayoquot Sound, which believes that given the extensive clear-cutting of B.C.’s coastal temperate rainforests over the decades there can be no sustainable logging of old-growth timber. Director Michael Mullin runs a coffee shop in Tofino and a commercial oyster operation just off Meares Island. He argues that Iisaak Forest Resources (funded in part by Ecotrust Canada) is a fairly typical logging company despite its certification by the Forest Stewardship Council and is distinguished mainly by “natives carrying the lunch buckets.” He describes Ecotrust Canada as “bankers, not environmentalists” who are essentially into making money. As for Ecotrust’s support for issuing commercial oyster-growing permits to aboriginals, Mullin believes that for now, efforts should go into developing markets for existing growers facing an economic slump. “All of a sudden farmers are going bankrupt . . . and meanwhile Ecotrust and the provincial government continue to beat the expansion drum.” Joe Foy, national campaign director for the often-confrontational Western Canada Wilderness Committee, can understand the conflicts between environmental groups offering different strategies in Clayoquot Sound. “We’re like sled dogs. If we’re not pulling that sled, we’re biting each other’s asses.” He first came to know Gill as a TV journalist who really cared about wilderness protection issues and would go out of his way to report them. “It surprised the hell out of me when he moved into the environmental movement.” Since then, Foy has come to admire Gill’s gift for finding common ground among diverse factions, recalling the way he deftly chaired a community meeting in 2000 over logging by Interfor in the contentious Elaho Valley near Squamish. “He was just awesome, able to speak in a way that brought together a logging company whose employees had been beating the crap out of environments, and environmentalists who’d been blockading a logging company. He gave a strong environmental message but was still able to keep everyone under one roof.” As for Gill’s privileged salary, Foy is not fussed: “We are all tribal to an extent. If you’re going to be fundraising with a certain tribe, a certain income level in our society, maybe it’s a good thing that you’re part of that.” For his part, Gill responds, “I think I’m well paid, although I can’t remember when I last had a raise. Let’s put it this way, there are no stock options in a non-profit.” Terry Glavin is a prominent B.C. environmental writer and author whose forthcoming book will explore what he describes as the folly of fragmenting landscapes. The big challenge of the 21st century, he argues, is how to reconcile, not segregate, human use of the planet. “It’s a point that Ecotrust Canada actually gets,” says Glavin, a former Gill colleague at the Sun. “I don’t know how good they are at their work – I’m a bit skeptical about the relevance of most environmental groups these days – but I’m a fan of what Gill and Ecotrust Canada are trying to do.” Gill first impressed Vicky Husband, conservation chair of the Sierra Club of B.C., with his CBC news coverage of Clayoquot Sound. She remains enthusiastic about the natural-born communicator and the niche he has carved out of the coastal rainforest, even though Ecotrust Canada keeps its distance from the rest of the environmental movement. “They’re a step apart. They want to say they’re different, trying to work with business. There is room for every kind of organization promoting conservation. Ecotrust is one end of the spectrum, but an important one because our job is to reach beyond the committed, to the much broader community.” On any given work day, Gill is up at 7 a.m. Thirty minutes on the rowing machine. Breakfast with the family. Walk and SkyTrain to work or to a breakfast meeting by 9 a.m. He typically splits his week between the office and travel: on the B.C. coast, between Clayoquot Sound and Haida Gwaii; down the U.S. coast to the Portland office of Ecotrust; fundraising to Calgary, Toronto, Montreal, Seattle, Portland, San Francisco, Boston, New York and, once a year, to Europe. The meetings never end: both within the organization and outside, with community contacts, clients, staff, colleagues, board members and other organization leaders. [pagebreak] He tries to finish work by 6 p.m. After the kids are in bed, he typically puts in another couple of hours on the computer getting on top of his emails and schedule, reading, writing proposals or strategizing. With luck, he’ll catch an episode of the West Wing or a Liverpool soccer match before heading to bed at midnight. With all the travel, Gill is strict about getting home on a Friday night to spend time with the kids at the soccer field or renovating the house. Sunday mornings, he allows himself two hours at a coffee shop to pore over a large weekly package of information related to his newly elected role on VanCity’s board of directors. There is little time to consider triumphs along the way. When pressed, he mentions the $1-million purchase in 2001 of the 74-hectare Koeye River Lodge property on the central coast for the Heiltsuk First Nation, for which he dutifully thanks U.S. philanthropists Howard and Peter Buffett. Smaller rewards have included making it possible for students from the Britannia Outreach School on the Downtown Eastside to visit Clayoquot Sound to “experience something outside the cycle of poverty and drugs they live in every day.” The list of entrepreneurial projects funded by Ecotrust Canada are as diverse as Gill’s work schedule: shellfish operations in Clayoquot Sound, an industry whose livelihood depends on fresh water; a land-based salmon-farming business (currently in rocky financial shape) near Nanaimo; a manufacturer of seaplane floats in Courtenay (Ecotrust Canada has its own Beaver floatplane, which it also leases out); the native-owned sustainable logging firm Iisaak Forest Resources Ltd., harvesting old-growth timber from Clayoquot Sound, no less. Gill makes no apologies for any apparent contradictions. “The environmental community has done a very good job of telling everyone what they can’t do. That’s vital and necessary work. A 60-mile clearcut is not a smart proposition. But the environmental community has not done a particularly good job of telling people what they can do.” Ecotrust Canada is also a key player in the Richmond-based Canadian Eco-Lumber Co-op, which expects $2 million a year in sales this year. Its 8,000-square-foot office and warehouse markets lumber products that have been okayed by the Forest Stewardship Council – an international body, endorsed by groups such as Greenpeace and the Sierra Club, that ensures harvesting is environmentally, socially and economically sustainable. The thinking: if an old-growth tree must fall in the forest, make damn sure the logger has a certified sustainable harvesting plan. Ecotrust Canada enjoyed annual revenues in 2004 of $3.5 million, which, as a measure of its financial success, compares with $1.5 million in revenues for B.C.’s largest member-based environmental group, the 27,000-strong Western Canada Wilderness Committee. Still, Gill appreciates he cannot rely forever on freebies. Foundations can be fickle, supporting a cause for a few years, then setting their sights on new possibilities. “It’s hard to stay in the headlights of foundations for a long, long time,” he confirms. The organization has struck a development committee – chaired by Julia Levy, chair of Vancouver biotech QLT – to diversify, expand into the consulting business and establish a private equity fund. Ecotrust Canada would also like to develop the historic Domtar building at 85 West First Ave., on the yet-to-be-developed southeast side of False Creek. Prior to infilling of False Creek, commercial fish boats used to pull right up to the salmon-coloured Domtar plant to load salt. Ecotrust Canada is interested in taking the historic, 16,000-square-foot wooden building off the city’s hands for a dollar, then investing $4 to $5 million to convert the place into a showcase for the green economy. It could serve as an interface between urban and rural sensibilities and showcase products from environmentally friendly businesses. “It’s one of the few buildings that retains the industrial character of False Creek,” says Gill. “It’s interesting to think that a building from the old economy could help to regenerate the new one.” It’s that kind of openness to irony that is gaining Gill and his green revolution some street cred out in the increasingly competitive and confusing world of the new economy. Creating this new “conservation economy” is much like the propagation of the rainforest. Of all the seeds tossed to the wind, some root while others die. It requires the willingness of not just markets but of people – who must accept the challenge of nourishing the notion. The Trilogy fish-processing plant idea was one of the seeds that fell on barren earth. The Ahousaht band balked at the proposal and Ecotrust Canada cancelled the purchase. But it is still working on a revised proposal with a new potential shareholder, the Nuu-chah-nulth Shellfish Development Corp. Whether the proposal ultimately perseveres or not, Ecotrust Canada knows it walks a delicate balance, taking care not to get ahead of the communities it seeks to help – especially First Nations, whose process of decision-making can be slower and more cumbersome than those of the corporate boardroom. “There is always a classic tension,” confirms Gill, the unrelenting industrial do-gooder from the Big Smoke. “There is a real trust issue, and that plagues any organization trying to change things. People will hang on to a status quo, even if it is one that doesn’t serve them well ... ”You can even sense him hint at his own reinvention from boy reporter to corporate crusader when he adds: “Going down that new road can be a terrifying journey.”