Briony Penn is speaking on early environmentalism in the Okanagan on May 22.

An uncovered history of B.C. environmentalist

Briony Penn was given the huge task of writing environmentalist Ian McTaggart Cowan's biography. See her at the Meadowlark Nature Fest.

As often said, history is written by the winners.

This adage lends to the lost history of environmentalism in B.C., according to Briony Penn, author of The Real Thing: A Natural History of Ian McTaggart Cowan.

Penn has spent some time digging up that history, often ignored due to the contention between environmentalism and the resource industry, she said.

Now the winner of the Roderick Haig-Brown Regional BC Book Prize, Penn was given the monumental task of writing Cowan’s biography, meeting him for the first time when he was 90 years old.

Cowan was a highly acclaimed biologist, broadcaster, educator and researcher. Cowan spent a lot of time in the Okanagan and a lot of his early work led to many of the conservation initiatives that are still relevant today. He played a key role in the creation of the Nature Trust of B.C. as well as other conservation agencies.

Penn is a writer and broadcaster as well and came across Cowan while exploring the early environmentalists in B.C.

“There is a legacy of all these people who really loved this province. They worked hard as conservationists to try and protect areas,” Penn said. “There was a real culture of conservation in B.C.”

She was exploring the legacy of early environmentalists for a book entitled Beautiful British Columbians, when Cowan’s name constantly came up.

“Everyone I interviewed said ‘you’ve got to talk to Ian McTaggart Cowan because he was our mentor,’” Penn said. “I realized that there was this amazing history really of passing on this love of the province.”

When Cowan died, three months shy of 100 years old, Penn was asked by his family to go through his journals and catalogue his writing as well as write his biography.

“He’s certainly one of B.C.’s most esteemed heroes, so for me to go into his life was daunting because who was I?” Penn said.

While working on that monumental task, Penn stumbled across something interesting.

“It was called the ‘B’ which was really this secret society of scientists and naturalists that formed way back in 1925,” Penn said. “They were already being subjected to sort of cycles of suppression by their political masters because there have always been political cycles.”

While a “secret society” sounds somewhat nefarious, their ways of getting the message out included field guides, lectures and even tie into the origins of the Meadowlark Festival, Penn said. It is a contentious history between science and the resource industry that continues repeatedly throughout history. Competing resource interests were already butting heads with scientists and environmentalists prior to the Second World War.

“The easiest thing for the resource interests was to discredit scientists and that was happening as early as 1925 and they had formed a secret society to try and get the message out in other ways,” Penn said.

Penn said the Okanagan was one of the most threatened ecosystems in Canada, as early as the 1940s with the expansion of orchards taking over wild grasslands. As well, it was a hot spot for early environmentalists.

“They were already recognizing these areas were under huge threats, and continue to be. If it hadn’t been for the early conservationists none of these areas would be there,” Penn said. “That’s always a different message in a society that values progress.”

Before he died, Cowan commented to Penn that the current political cycle was more suppressive for scientists than any he had seen before.

“He had been through three cycles himself,” Penn laughed. “That’s an important story for people to hear, for British Columbians to hear,” Penn said.

The list of his accomplishments is seemingly endless, receiving the Order of Canada, the Order of BC, he founded the National Research Council of Canada, the Arctic Science Council. He aired the first CBC television nature series, Web of Life, and even hired David Suzuki.

“His accolades go on and on and on. And yet he’s probably the most famous British Columbian people have never heard of,” Cowan said.

His research, work and activism are still felt today. Like a scientific hipster, Cowan was exploring topics before they made news headlines.

“He was talking about pesticides in 1951, he was talking about climate change in 1975,” Penn said, noting in her book that scientists were worried policy makers were not listening to them in the ‘70s.

“The victors write the history and the victors, by and large, have been the resource industries that have been, especially of late, financing the educational institutions. They are not in the business of writing the history of those who have challenged them,” Penn said.

Penn is speaking at the Meadowlark Nature Festival on May 22. For more information visit


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