While his time at the lake was comparatively short, the late Gerald Thom’s impact on the Cowichan Lake and its surrounding waterways, particularly the Cowichan River, was immense. Last month, Thom’s efforts were recognized with a national award given out every three years to men and women working to protect Canada’s heritage rivers.
The National River Conservation Awards of Merit have been awarded since 1994 at the triennial river heritage conferences sponsored by the Canadian Heritage Rivers Board. On Oct. 18, Thom was one of three people to receive merit awards at a ceremony in Saskatchewan.
“I was deeply moved and honoured and I just love the fact that he’s left this legacy,” said Thom’s wife, Caroline. “All the work and planning and passion is being acknowledged. It’s wonderful.”
Thom grew up in northern Alberta near Christina Lake where his parents had a fly-in fishing lodge. He was always helping tourists and guiding, and his childhood in this area cultivated in him a deep respect for the natural world.
As an adult, he was a successful businessman, and in 2007 he chose to retire early. He and Caroline moved to Youbou in 2007. They had looked at a number of different possible locations, such as Sproat Lake and upper Campbell River.
“We found that we really liked Lake Cowichan because it was so untouched. There was not a lot of development on it,” said Caroline.
However, Thom quickly became aware of increasing pressures on the area’s natural assets, such as rapid residential development along the lake and river shorelines. In 2011, he founded the Cowichan Lake and River Stewardship Society and took a leadership role in public education, engagement, and practical demonstrations of environmental stewardship.
“He had this vision that no one else had had before,” said Genevieve Singleton.
Singleton, a nature interpreter and longtime CLRSS member, went to Saskatchewan to receive the award on behalf of Caroline who was unable to attend. It was Singleton, along with Craig Wightman of the BC Conservation Foundation, who nominated Thom. In their nomination documents they highlighted his most recent accomplishments such as organizing the first Cowichan Lake Shoreline Management Workshop, leading early relationship-building meetings with the Lake Cowichan First Nation, championing ‘neighbour-to-neighbour’ education about the value of natural shorelines, and promoting the purchase of key shoreline habitats for future public use and enjoyment.
Singleton said not only was Thom very smart, but because of his professional background “he was able to go to these highly technical fisheries meetings that are hard to understand… He got all that stuff.”
Furthermore, he was highly personable and had an ability to bring people together.
“His ability to work with people was phenomenal. And his ability to be with people and make them feel good and get them excited — whether it was a child or even if it was someone he didn’t share opinions with, I don’t think there’s anybody who could say they didn’t like him,” said Singleton.
Thom’s life was cut short in 2014 when the single-engine aircraft he was flying with a friend crashed at a golf course near the Nanaimo airport.
For Singleton, accepting the award on his behalf last month was nerve-wracking, and when the time came to give an acceptance speech, Singleton said she almost couldn’t find her voice. But standing up in front of so many people from all over Canada, she was moved to speak and share Thom’s story.
“I talked about how I was there for a whole community. Not just Cowichan Lake and the society but all of us in the Valley. All of us, the whole length of this river. Hundreds and hundreds of people,” she said.
Norman Shields, director of Heritage Designations and Programs at Parks Canada, said the National River Conservation Awards of Merit help draw attention to river heritage and foster a belief in environmental stewardship and conservation among the Canadian public.
“I would just observe that while Mr. Thom’s remarkable life and environmental achievements were cut short by the tragic accident, his legacy has not diminished over time,” said Shields. “In fact, the society’s board and members and have really rallied in his name and picked up that mission to get like-minded citizens to work together on stewardship projects.”
Shields said one of the reasons the board felt it particularly important to recognize Thom was his special connection with young people and how he got them engaged with local environmental issues.
In many ways, it was his genuine passion for the lake’s wildlife and natural habitats that people young and old gravitated to.
Caroline said her husband was always drawn to water, that it brought him an inner peace, whether he was diving or swimming or just spending time on the shoreline.
“And he loved the river. There was something about the Cowichan River that he just felt really connected to,” said Caroline. “It was a real calling.”