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General News · 29th July 2018
Deepa Narayan
An Interview By Deepa Narayan with Noreen Lillico

I Have Become a Senior
Norleen, 59, holds herself straight and walks toward me with a jaunt wearing a velvety long dress and a beautiful thrift-store-acquired embroidered jean jacket. She tells me without a trace of self-pity that she had to stop working at the food coop after being debilitated by living in a moldy low cost rental as a caretaker. She lives the “Cortes house shuffle,” moving houses constantly as owners come and go.

Expecting a soft landing, Norleen moved to Vancouver from Alberta when she was 22, but lost her job as a schoolteacher even before school started because of government budget cuts. “I started to get radicalized and learned first hand about workers rights and protests.” Norleen turned to her love of gymnastics to earn a living, she taught in private clubs for the next ten years.

A girl from the prairies, Norleen did some traveling and it was in Australia, that she discovered forests when she accompanied her friends to The Daintree Rainforest near the Great Barrier Reef. It about to be clear-cut. Her encounter with the rainforest shifted her consciousness forever. “It blew my mind, the blue and black butterflies were as big as my hand and that did it.”

On her return she went to Victoria to live and also volunteered at the Sierra club supporting scientists who were building structures high up in the canopy of the Carmanah forest both to do scientific research and prevent clear cutting. Norleen saw many protests. “I never got arrested as I worked in the kitchen, somebody has to feed the protesters! Later we got invited to teach and help out at Clayoquot Sound protests.”

“I went to the Wilderness Gathering there in August of 1990. There were people there with grey hair who were so skilled, it grabbed me. I was there for 10 years. It was there that I met Tzeporah Berman and Karen Mahon and got involved in organizing direct action protesting irresponsible logging practices. But everything changed for me when I had a baby in 1996. I realized I needed to do more than bush-wacking through clear-cuts so I could pressure my own government to enforce their own environmental laws. I had a child to raise! I searched for a community to live far and wide and Tzeporah kept saying come to Cortes. And so I finally ended up coming and teaching at Linnea school till it was time for Duskin, my son, to go to high school. I returned after he went off to college.”

“What I love about Cortes is the community feeling; the feelings of intimacy and trust among people who live like neighbours even when they live on another part of the island. People do things for others, they exert leadership in mindful ways,” she said.

How can a staunch environmentalist on the front lines and someone who has worked full time most of her life, except when her baby was young, be “homeless?”

Norleen, said wistfully, “There was only one time, when I came to Cortes in 2000, that we as a family, together with my mother, were able to come up with $25,000 for a down payment to buy a piece of land with a small house on it. It was the only time land was within my grasp and then it was gone with a flutter.” Despite their offer being accepted, someone outbid them.

It is only now that Norleen realizes that her own pre-conceptions about what it means to be a “Senior,” or “Seniors Housing,” may have blocked her access to decent housing. She said, “I had heard about seniors housing but I thought it must be for those really disabled, debilitated and really “old” people. Not for someone like me.”

She recently attended a design session with architects for the first phase of new mutli-generational affordable housing for all ages on new land bought near Manson’s Hall by the Cortes Community Housing Committee working through the Senior’s Society.

“I now have hope, that over time, I will live in a decent house. In the meantime, I am saving every penny to buy a little home one day.”

Posted by Hayley Newell on behalf of the Cortes Community Housing Committee.