How green are the royals? Great Bear Rainforest will give William and Kate glimpse of 'stunning' natural world

The Duke and Duchess of Cambridge will visit the Great Bear Rainforest on Monday as their royal visit to Canada continues in British Columbia.

Duke of Cambridge's environmental interests include protecting endangered species

A kermode bear, better known as the spirit bear, is just one of the many species at home in the Great Bear Rainforest, which will be the focus of a visit Monday from Prince William and Kate, the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge. (Jonathan Hayward/Canadian Press)

Jess Housty hasn't followed too closely whether the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge have any interest in the environment and looking after the natural world.

But she will be among those welcoming Prince William and Kate on Monday to the "stunning" British Columbia place she calls home. And she has "very high hopes" the royal attention will further enhance efforts to protect its environmental richness as of one of the largest tracts of coastal temperate rainforest in the world.

"Of course, we're not normally having conversations with folks in the U.K.," says Housty, a 29-year-old member of the Heiltsuk First Nation whose family has lived in Bella Bella and the Great Bear Rainforest for five generations.

Jess Housty, with her son Noen, has 'very high hopes' the royal attention the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge will bring to the Great Bear Rainforest will enhance efforts to protect its rich natural and human environments. (Simon Kreitem)

"But I have certainly seen over the years that when there's a fundamental disconnect on issues or when decisions are being made in Victoria or from Ottawa that really don't align with our values or priorities on the ground, that that can often be corrected by having people here to see for themselves what this place is."

For Housty, that is more than just the lushness of the natural environment.

And there certainly is a lushness there, with the big, old trees, islands and deep fjords, the spawning salmon, humpback whales, orcas, porpoises, grizzly bears — even the rare and elusive spirit bear.

But for Housty, what is especially significant is the way those people who live in the Great Bear Rainforest are intrinsically joined to its lands and waters.

"The human history and the natural history of my territory are so beautifully linked together it's just a really wonderful thing to feel enmeshed in."

The royal attention on the Great Bear Rainforest, which will be officially endorsed under the Queen's Commonwealth Canopy initiative during the visit, is just the latest focus William has placed on environmental causes.

"For Prince William in particular, we've seen that as a very key cause that he has taken in recent years, spearheading the United for Wildlife initiative, bringing together different organizations that work toward the conservation of endangered species," says Carolyn Harris, a Toronto-based royal historian and author.

Let's turn the tide

Last year, in widely reported remarks, William said: "Let us not tell our children the sad tale of how we watched as the last elephants, rhinos and tigers died out, but the inspiring story of how we turned the tide and preserved them for all humanity."

And he's not alone in the Royal Family in such pursuits.

"There's a very strong family tradition of interest in the natural world," says Harris.

Prince Philip, William's grandfather, has been heavily involved with the World Wide Fund for Nature. William's father, Prince Charles, has long focused attention on organic farming and recycling, among other environmental causes.

"Prince Charles's environmental interests that at one time were seen as rather eccentric — now it seems quite prescient," says Harris.

Still, as high-profile as such royal attention is, can it actually move the dial on issues?

Harris thinks so, pointing in particular to polling data in the United Kingdom this year that found royal support for charities plays a "crucial" role in getting young people in particular to support them.

Perhaps interestingly, that same data found the William's younger brother Prince Harry, who is bringing his Invictus Games to Canada next year, was the most influential royal in this regard. Kate also had a higher impact than William, according to the data.

Higher profile

"When royalty become involved in philanthropic initiatives, the public profile is raised considerably," Harris says.

Still, as much as the royals support environmental interests, their focus contains shades of hypocrisy for some who can't help but point out that some members of the Royal Family also like to hunt.

William found himself the focus of criticism for going to Spain in 2014 to hunt wild boars and stags.

Prince William touches a baby rhino as his wife Kate, the Duchess of Cambridge, watches at the Centre for Wildlife Rehabilitation and Conservation at Panbari reserve forest in Kaziranga, in the northeastern state of Assam, India on April 13.

And earlier this year, he was criticized for "claiming trophy hunting can be justified" in some instances, according to a headline in the Independent newspaper.

The Independent's report noted remarks by William in a TV interview, where he said: "There is a place for commercial hunting in Africa as there is around the world.

"It's not everyone's cup of tea, but the argument for regulated, properly controlled commercial hunting is that the money that goes from shooting a very old infirm animal goes back into the protection of the other species."

Those remarks saddened the U.K.-based charity Lion Aid, the Independent reported.

"With likely less than 15,000 wild lions left in Africa there is no place for commercial hunting of lions," its director, Pieter Kat, told the newspaper.

Still hunting

One royal observer considers it unlikely royals such as William and Harry will set aside their interest in hunting.

"The fact that they both shoot and boar hunt sits uneasy with some, but it's a sport they won't give up," says U.K.-based royal biographer and correspondent Katie Nicholl, author of Kate: The Future Queen.

"They see their role as putting the spotlight on major conservation issues, the illegal ivory trade and poaching in Africa. If they could give up their official roles to be conservationists I think they'd do it in a flash."

Prince William feeds a baby elephant at the Centre for Wildlife Rehabilitation and Conservation in Kaziranga, India, on April 13.

But William and Harry also see hunting as the norm, she says.

"It's how they were brought up and they can't understand how anyone would compare it to trophy hunting big game in Africa, for example. I don't think they'll stop shooting. It's part of their upbringing and being royal."

Back in the Great Bear Rainforest, as much as it has been the focus of conservation efforts such as the Great Bear Rainforest agreement, observers and those involved in the region see environmental issues remaining.

"The conversation about the Northern Gateway [pipeline] is still a pretty live conversation in this part of Canada and apparently going to continue to be one for a bit," says Jenny Brown, director of conservation for TNC Canada, an affiliate of The Nature Conservancy that has been working in the Great Bear Rainforest for a decade.

"There is ongoing discussions about fisheries management, other wildlife management like bear management in this area, so there's really a lot of issues."

Some irony?

But Brown welcomes the interest William and Kate are showing in the Great Bear Rainforest.

"I think having the Royal Family recognize this place will really help to elevate those conversations and management issues as well and help people understand."

Housty welcomes it, too, although she does point out some potential irony in the timing of the visit.

Bears frolic in the Great Bear Rainforest, where management of the grizzly population remains an ongoing issue. (Canadian Press)

"As the Duke and Duchess and all those dignitaries come to Bella Bella, they're coming in the middle of the bear hunting season where there are trophy hunters in camo with their guns out in our lands and waters looking for bears to kill."

Housty hopes William and Kate will "grow to appreciate the vastness of our territory … and by the same token they grow to appreciate the depth of connectedness that people have to it.

"It's a hard thing to take in until you've been here, to see just how big the trees are and how big the water is and also how the love of those things are, but I really hope that's something they take away."


Janet Davison is a CBC senior writer and editor based in Toronto.


To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.

Become a CBC Member

Join the conversation  Create account

Already have an account?