This is a story about how dreams die. It’s about idealism and reality, yearning and deception, resilience and frustration. In these ways, it is an account—all too human—of how time can whittle a great plan down to nothingness. At Cape Scott, the ruins of an early 20th century Danish utopia—the collapsed homes, the rusting bedframes—are mute testimony that will and courage do not an Eden make. There is nothing left of the Sombrio Beach Commune as well, where for 25 years scores of young, freedom-loving surfers built homes and driftwood shacks and judged the perfection of the day by the curl of ocean waves rolling ashore. And the ’70s Marxists that founded what would become, in time, the Community Enhancement and Economic Development Society (CEEDS) outside 100 Mile House are now reduced to just a few members whose idealistic goals confront the attrition of age.
But on rare occasion, the renegade dream survives in British Columbia—fossilized in a way: revealing the impression, if not the obligations, of the original intent. The 118-year-old Finnish utopian/socialist village of Sointula (population 576) still exists off Vancouver Island’s northeast coast. So does the 65-year-old Quaker/pacifist village of Argenta (population 100), located north of Kaslo in the wilderness along Kootenay Lake.
Gone, however, except for its bizarre story, is Brother XII’s Aquarian Foundation, once located on DeCourcy Island south of Nanaimo. In the late 1920s, Brother XII offered mystically-minded theosophists a sanctuary from impending apocalypse, and many succumbed to his paranoid deceptions. Sadly, as history demonstrates, it’s only a step from paradise to purgatory. True Believers are often the first to be fooled.
No one knows more about efforts to establish these intentional communities than Andrew Scott, author of The Promise of Paradise: Utopian Communities in British Columbia.
“BC was the end of the road for restless souls and visionaries looking to create new ways of life,” says Scott of the ambition that propelled these vagrant dreams. “Some were searching for the perfection of the self; some for the perfection of the community… or the world.”
In the earliest wave of utopian immigrants to BC, hundreds of Scandinavians left their homes, fleeing poverty and religious persecution at the end of the 19th century for the chance of re-invention amid the province’s coastal wilderness. Some were socialists. Others fundamentalist Lutherans. Lured by BC government offers of free land, they allowed themselves to believe that on Vancouver Island’s stormy Cape Scott or in rainy Bella Coola it would be possible to create a perfect society, unfettered by the proximity of neighbours. There, they would work together as brothers and sisters, raise their children according to the precepts of their beliefs, and revel in the opportunities of this brave, new world. The Norse folksong “Oleanna” captures the settlers’ naive expectations:
In Oleanna land is free,
The wheat and corn just plant themselves,
Then grow four feet everyday,
While on your bed you rest yourself.
In early November of 1894, Reverend Christian Saugstad led a contingent of 85 Norwegians ashore at Bella Coola with the promise they’d find paradise there at the edge of the world. Amid cold rain and wilderness mountains masked in clouds, it seemed an inauspicious time and unlikely place to start building a utopia. Hundreds more Norwegians came in the following years, lured by the bearded prophet whose reports of the project were widely published. Every family would get 64 hectares. Free. There was salmon and game. And valley-bottom land for potatoes and pasture. He called the place “New Norway,” and assured immigrants they’d retain their Nordic culture by embracing fundamentalist Lutheran doctrine about submission, abstemiousness and piety. Religion would bind people together. And exclude those that didn’t conform.
Seventy-three-year-old Peter Solhjell’s great-grandparents had been part of the initial colony, and his mother, Orphan, recalled stories about what happened to the Bella Coola dream. Saugstad had died in 1897, leaving the community leaderless. The Norse farmers were soon making “potato Champaign” (vodka). Isolated and without a reliable economic base—twin problems that led to the downfall of the Danish utopia at Cape Scott—the adult men had to work at the distant Ocean Falls paper mill and canneries. The women tried to maintain Saugstad’s legacy: speaking Norwegian; baking traditional krumkake; doing needlepoint. But, in time, these became anachronisms, artifacts of a fading world. As often happens, the young drifted away from Lutheran worship, and then from the town itself. Along the road that runs through the Bella Coola Valley today, mailbox names reveal the Norwegian roots of the people. But few visitors know that the highest peak rising above the valley, 2,908-metre Mount Saugstad, commemorates the man whose utopian dream died there.
A second, larger wave of BC intentional communities drew their inspiration from the idealism of the 1960s and ’70s. Anything was possible, it seemed then. Just do it! Some sought spiritual perfection through meditation and yoga, like those who settled around the Yasodhara Ashram outside Nelson. Still others formed communes—the Slocan Valley and Georgia Strait islands were full of them—where DIY structures, organic farming, polyamorous relationships and New Age mumbo-jumbo bound followers to vaguely utopian, often anarchistic principles.
Leah Oke, now 34, wasn’t even born when young transients—and more than a few Californian draft-resistors—coalesced around Vancouver Island’s Sombrio Beach in the mid-’70s and established a long-lasting surfing commune. Far from the scrutiny of authorities, they built makeshift shacks—plus a couple of solid homes—planted gardens, fished and smoked home-grown pot, all under the occasional authority of Steve Johnson and the big-mothering of Barbara Oke, Leah’s hippie parents. By age seven, Leah Oke spent most of her days alongside her siblings—in time they totalled 11—riding the waves that rolled ashore there endlessly. Home-schooled in the family’s 14-room house—with propane-powered electricity and a fire-pit beneath the bathtub—Oke describes her childhood as “free-ranging:” showering under a nearby waterfall; collecting blackberries; learning drumming and guitar-playing from other residents; all part of a commune where limitless freedom was its philosophy and surfing its raison d’etre.
“We were almost wild animals,” Oke says today of her childhood. “There were no rules.”
She surfed—summer and winter—almost every day of the year. By age 14, she’d won virtually every women’s surfing championships in North America. Her brother Jesse, who rode the scary five- to six-metre waves that arrived after Pacific storms, became one of the world’s top surfers. In 1999, with the establishment of the new Juan de Fuca Provincial Park, the squatters were evicted and every structure levelled. For the surfers of Sombrio Beach, paradise was lost.
The road that leads east from 100 Mile House passes through BC’s Cariboo country where aspen line hayfields, and the last outpost of a utopian commune survives. Forty-four years ago, a group of young North Vancouver radicals decided it was time to walk the walk—and not just talk the talk—and see whether they could create a community based on egalitarian, socialist principles. Rod Hennecker, now 63, was one of them. The men and women rented a farm on a remote piece of land, called themselves the Ochiltree Commune, and lived cooperatively, sharing tasks and income. Led by their founder, Jerry LeBourdais, it didn’t take long, however, for conventional beliefs to collide with Marxist doctrine. Owning property was wrong. Monogamy, conformist. The overthrow of capitalism necessary. “We have rid ourselves,” their Revolutionary Hippie Manifesto announced, “of all the bourgeois philosophy… food faddism, vegetarianism, mysticism, and spiritualism. There are no greys within the revolution, just black and white, right and wrong. Revolution is total change.”
This, not surprisingly, didn’t go down well with nearby communes, themselves often dedicated to those very “isms”: brown rice, astrology and all. But it resonated with Williams Lake First Nations who recognized allies in their own fight against oppression. The more the commune worked with the First Nations, Hennecker explains, the more they realized they themselves had to change. “We had to tone down our radical tendencies. We had to become less doctrinaire and more practical.” They started organic farming projects at First Nations’ reserves. They opened Williams Lake’s first food bank. And a farmers’ market. And a native drop-in centre. And a transients’ hostel. For these efforts in social action, they earned the enmity of local officials who saw the projects spotlighting their own civic failures. But that was long ago.
For the past 30 years—and with a name change to CEEDS—the project has been centred at a 54-hectare farm on Horse Lake’s eastern shore. Just a few members of the original group—their leader died 15 years ago—struggle in the face of weariness, and the disinterest of the young to keep alive the dream of a self-sufficient, socialist commune. Says Hennecker today, standing outside with dozens of chickens underfoot and a flock of baaing sheep beyond the fence, “I couldn’t live with myself without trying to do what’s best for society. It’s principles that hold people together. We’ve worked the land. We’ve helped our neighbours. We’ve fed people. But idealism’s tough. Succession’s tougher. We need young farmers… with a social conscience. It’s hard to say if the idea will survive.”
Beyond the counter-culture communes of the 1970s and ’80s are a few intentional BC communities that have drawn seekers of peace and spiritual awareness. In an age of cynicism, they carry on—greatly diminished—the once-bright flame of hope.
From the window at his kitchen table where household receipts, blueberry muffins and coffee mugs contend, 66-year-old Rik Valentine can see—across Kootenay Lake—3,089-metre Mount Cooper in the distance. And around him is eight-hectares of forested land he bought for $500 at age 11, cleared with a lot of stump-dynamiting by 15, and on which he built, by age 19, his two-storey, A-frame home. His Californian parents had fled the anti-Communist hysteria of America’s early-’50s to join other pacifist Quakers who’d found an abandoned, wilderness-surrounded mining village called Argenta, and decided it was the place to raise children and practice their beliefs: live simply; act cooperatively; and—in thoughts and deeds—do good. They shunned doctrine and authority. And valued humility.
By the 1970s, Argenta was probably the best example of a utopian community—although the Quakers would never claim that—in Canada. Despite the little village’s size and remote location, its progressive Friends School drew young students from around the world. Argenta had a publishing house, several co-op businesses, a theatre group that specialized in Gilbert and Sullivan light opera, and a global service program that acted like a community-based Peace Corps. Each week, the villagers joined together in helping neighbours—raising a barn or harvesting crops. Unlike many intentional communities that are meant to be sustained on doctrinal obedience, Argenta thrived on creativity and initiative “If you have a community that’s ruled by a set of rigid principles,” says Valentine today, “it’s already gone off the rails. Different ideas and dissent are a natural part of life. Change is inevitable. Self-righteousness is where dictatorship begins.”
However, as the decades passed, the young left, outsiders moved in and Argenta gradually lost its Quaker-based cohesiveness. But not its timelessness. In the village’s forested cemetery, Michael Mloszewski’s tombstone reads: 1956 – . The sidewards 8 is the symbol for eternity.
A plan to find communal perfection in BC took root under cattleman/mystic Martin Cecil, who established The Emissaries of Divine Light on a section of his British family’s vast 100 Mile House ranch in 1948, and who spent the next 40 years creating a sort-of New Age utopia there. He and his 120 followers believed there was a universal power of love within each person, and that the goal of existence is to discover his or her selfhood through connecting to that power. Once this state of Divine Light is achieved, it radiates outward—a sort of cosmic supernova—and promotes the spiritual evolution of humanity. Or so said Cecil, also known as Lord William Martin Alleyne Cecil, the 7th Marquess of Exeter—and renegade member of Britain’s House of Lords.
But when high principles encounter hollow practice, conflict often results. Hugh Duff, now 77, spent 43 years as an Emissary at 100 Mile House and got to see the utopian project there blossom and then collapse. The spiritual community flourished in the 1960s and ’70s as idealistic youth found a place and a philosophy where hope prevailed. Members often ran Emissary businesses and lived communally, sharing work, chores and profits. They also attended Cecil’s biweekly spiritual talks. “The idea,” says Duff, “was to radiate love without concern for results. To radiate unconditional love.”
In time however, three things brought an end to Martin Cecil’s utopian project. Among Emissaries, women were seen as subordinate and, in a situation where love was supposed to be unconditional, some men took advantage of their perceived dominance to have affairs. Women rebelled, and some left. As well, Cecil’s authoritarian leadership style bred resentment. As an Emissary official wrote then: “Challenging Martin… would have been like challenging God!” More members left. In 1988, Cecil died. He’d held the Emissaries together through his cold authority, and—not surprisingly—the community gradually disintegrated with his demise.
By the early 2000s, the Emissary community at 100 Mile House was virtually defunct, its followers scattered. A dozen disenchanted members settled at a 47-hectare Emissary farm in Abbotsford, where they still practice their occult faith today, and run the Edenvale Retreat Centre, catering to clients working in holistic health, environmental action, justice and peace. The centre is focused, Duff says, “on making the world a better place.” An abiding belief in universal love still sustains the remaining Emissaries. But they are now old.
It is too easy to dismiss these idealistic efforts as quixotic. Each utopian project was initially built on the laudable principles of hope, cooperation and community. Across cultures, across time, humans have sought paradise. The idea is embedded in the world’s great myths. What Culture Gap author, Judith Plant, wrote in her poignant reflection on the failed, 1980s Camelsfoot utopian commune northwest of Lillooet is even more urgent today than then: “We are a species blown apart, in serious trouble. We have been easy prey for the forces of separation and greed. There is no other sane response to the human crisis before us than to look to each other for another way. Can we turn and face the dragon? Another world is possible.”
The Promise of Paradise
Andrew Scott’s The Promise of Paradise: Utopian Communities in British Columbia (Harbour Publishing, 2017) explains how—over the past 130 years—BC became the destination for thousands of idealists determined to find perfection amid community. Over 200 intentional communities were created; Scott focuses on 15. Some were communal, some mystical, some political and some religious. The Promise of Paradise contains stories of longing and struggle as people seek an elusive place called Utopia, a word in Greek that means… nowhere.
Brother XII—the False Prophet
The story of Edward Wilson, aka Brother XII, and his Aquarian Foundation is one of hocus-pocus, gullibility, sex and madness. In the 1920s, Wilson became a spiritualist and gathered often-wealthy followers to his centre of safety south of Nanaimo. There, he said, they’d survive global calamity—and live in a utopian future. Wilson drew those of occult beliefs to his colony, collected their money and put them to work. In time, they came to suspect their leader was a charlatan. It didn’t help that his latest paramour, Madame Zee, was fond of whipping those who questioned Brother XII’s authority. Rebellion ensued. Amid a series of sensational legal proceedings, Brother XII and Madame Zee disappeared. Brother XII: The Strange Odyssey of a 20th Century Prophet, by John Oliphant (Twelfth House Press, 2006), tells the incredible tale.