Parks + Art: Renfrew Ravine Moon Festival and the return of the salmon

WCMT Fellowship 2016 research: innovation in participation in public urban green space.

Vancouver, Canada

Saturday 17th September, Renfrew Ravine and Park, East Vancouver

A procession down through the ravine, covered with thousands of lanterns, lights and candles. Balloon lanterns, fish lanterns, coloured, hanging, wolf lanterns, special sculptures and installations.

lights-on-the-trailThousands of candles in jars lighting up the trail path, and the ravine, and thousands of people carrying them, guided by them, down through the trees, along narrow paths, and finally up into Renfrew Park for music, performances and fireworks. It’s impossible to give over the scale or atmosphere of the event through photographs. The atmosphere is magical, bonding, mysterious and gregarious. And it’s pitch dark except for the lanterns.

fish-lanternThe first Moon Festival took place in 2003 and has been running annually ever since. The theme in 2016 is Songs for the Salmon, to appreciate and celebrate that the Chum salmon have returned to Still Creek.

I met up with Carmen Rosen, the Artistic Director of the festival and Still Moon Arts Society to talk with her about her work and this project – I was especially interested in that it brought together environmental change and the arts.

Carmen moved into the Renfrew-Collingwood neighbourhood a while back as it was one of few remaining affordable places to live in Vancouver. She soon discovered Renfrew Park, and the Renfrew Ravine and Still Creek, one of the only remaining ravines in the city, which no one seemed to know or care much about.

The Collingwood Neighbourhood House had been doing clean-ups in the ravine for 5 or so years, and sorting the path – about 25 volunteers removing enough rubbish to fill a dumpster, full of household rubbish thrown in to the ravine including a bathroom set and used diapers. (These ‘neighbourhood houses’ in each area of the city find out what people in that area want and need, and provide services and local support for the communities).

As an artist living in the neighbourhood, Carmen wanted to make a difference to the ravine and the creek (which largely runs underground until its emergence in the ravine) through working for environmental improvement, and by using the arts as a participatory tool for change and for celebration.

“How can I change people’s relationship with the Ravine? How can it become as asset for them – that was my premise.”



Carmen joined up with neighbours to start to create events that might change these relationships.

One of the first projects around the Renfrew Ravine in 2002 was to make a garden at the entrance. Helped by a small grant from the City of Vancouver and the Parks Board, she worked with volunteers to take out invasive species, and create pebble mosaic fish. They were offered a gift of semi-precious rocks from a local jeweller which were sliced to make a 9 foot centrepiece in the garden.

Ready to make use of local resources and opportunities, Carmen also noticed a huge boulder in a nearby street, removed as a new house was being built.  “It was there in the street, and I just asked the workmen what they were going to do with it, and they didn’t know. So I had them move it down to the garden. It’s an amazing boulder, it still has the scarring of the glacier that dropped it here, so it adds layers of meaning to the site.”

Making the garden made it clear to the neighbourhood that Carmen was committed to the Ravine project, and enabled her to win support and advocacy.

“I didn’t understand why the Ravine wasn’t a feature. It was dangerous. I thought, can I find a way to re-frame it as a place of beauty for people and nature?”

Carmen received a grant to do the first Moon Festival in 2003. She wanted the event to connect to the large Chinese population resident in the locality.

moon-face“The Chinese celebrate the fullest moon of the year, and have a traditional Moon Cake, with food and tea and traditional Chinese stories. I wanted to bring that together with the Harvest Moon, a cross-cultural symbol of fertility, with lanterns, lights, a procession – a festival.”

Carmen was in residence in the Slocan Park Fieldhouse for 2 years which helped her start up the project with a Harvest Fair and a lantern festival, with a parade to the ravine and Renfrew Park.

donationNow over 250 youth take part, with around 5000 people attending. The youth (and schools) are key to the support, and Carmen and her team have really enabled the young people to take ownership of the festival – they are the performers, make the lanterns, run the festival, volunteer on the night and clean up afterwards.

Moon Festival volunteer T-shirts have become a status symbol at the school.

‘Training days’ take place in the schools giving young people the chance to learn about and become directly involved in running the event, and there are of course, lots of lantern making workshops in the run up of the event. Fish are the key symbol and design on the lanterns.

tiger-face-lantern“We made another garden at the bottom of the ravine too. By framing the ravine with gardens, we’re saying that something in the middle is special. We have changed the space. Now just a couple of bags of garbage are removed in the clean-ups. We talk with our neighbours – we can’t assume about what the value of nature is to people.”

“It’s been 15 years of work. Kids have grown up in it, and the ones that were small when it started, are now team leaders!”

For Carmen, the whole project is also focused on the environment, on the biodiversity of the ravine and the creek. And her long term focus has been to get the Salmon spawning once again in the ravine, the first time since the 1930s. This would be a real mending and repair of the ecosystem both for the fish and people.

“Salmon are spawning for the first time in years just down the hill from the ravine. We’ve done water quality testing. The stream is a massive run off when it rains which is really challenging. We are educating people about the need to have cleaner water. We have issues with plumbing infrastructure, with cross connections meaning sewage runs into the creek. But we’re starting to get people aware of the watershed. We do this through creative workshops with kids, through the Moon Festival book ‘Still Creek Stories‘ to be published this year which tells stories of the last 100 years of the creek, and through self-guided tours and materials. We are collaborating with ecologists to raise awareness. My job as an artist is to feature the environmental work.”

In 2009 Metro Vancouver installed a fish ladder to enable Salmon to come up into higher reaches of the stream in the neighbouring city of Burnaby. Then, as part of a road infrastructure development to add lanes to the local freeway, environmental regulations required a second pipe with baffles for the fish to rest in high water events be installed for Still Creek as it passed under the new road work into Vancouver itself.

“There have been many groups lobbying governments for many years, particularly the Sapperton Fish and Game Club, and world rivers advocate Mark Angelo, who started BC Rivers Day which became World Rivers Day.  Mark has been doing this work for over 30 years and lobbying for the health of local streams, especially Still Creek. I think when there is enough public enthusiasm and public pressure, it makes it easier for people within the infrastructure of governments to spend the money required to improve the health of our waterways.”

In 2012, an amazing thing happened – salmon were seen for the first time in Still Creek in Vancouver.

“We cannot talk about food security unless we talk about Salmon. The whole process of the Salmon lifecycle is part of the environment. This is First Nations shared territory, and we want to have a meaningful relationship with First Nations.”

Carmen and some local young people joined the Wild Salmon Caravan in June 2016, drove to the Rockies, to the headwaters of the Fraser River to be part of an important ceremony to celebrate wild salmon – ‘to build capacity of coalitions and campaigns that link Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples, artists, food systems networks, individuals, organizations, and communities who are working to protect, conserve and restore wild salmon and it’s habitat in the Fraser Basin and Salish Seas corridor’.

“This has been an interesting time for me – to think locally, geographically. As an artist, my community had always been other artists, and this made me look locally. When you start to make things happen in your local geography, that changes things. You create a vessel and you let people fill it. They do the content and the variations. People are empowered.”

In November 2016, for the 5th straight year, chum salmon have come back to Still Creek behind the Canadian Tire on Cornett Road and Natal Street, with 2016 being the most prominent year in terms of number and size of the salmon.

“People can and do change when they have an emotional connection. When they care, when they are inspired. We have found that inspiration is a better motivator for change than guilt.”

Watch Carmen Rosen’s inspiring and moving TED Talk ‘Shedding Light on the Ravine’:


And from their website: Still Moon Arts Society acknowledges that we are on the unceded, occupied, ancestral and traditional lands of the Sḵwx̱wú7mesh (Squamish), Xʷməθkwəy̓əm (Musqueam), and Səl̓ílwətaʔ (Tsleil-Waututh) nations on which we live and work today.

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