IN MEMORIAM: “Erik Karlsen had a long and unique career in the public service. He served the public interest almost without equal, with a style likely not to be seen again for a very long time. The Georgia Basin Initiative was so indicative of who Eric was and how he operated,” stated Joan Sawicki, a former BC Minister of Environment, Lands and Parks (during the period 1996 through 2000)

Note to Reader:

Erik Karlsen (1945-2020) was an amazing individual, and one of a kind. His career bridged the worlds of municipal affairs and environmental stewardship. The article below was contributed by Joan Sawicki, Member of the British Columbia Legislative for Burnaby-Willingdon from 1991 through 2001. The article is adapted from the speech that she delivered at Erik Karlsen’s ‘Roast and Toast’ Retirement Party on May 3, 2002.

The Partnership for Water Sustainability in British Columbia is indebted to Joan Sawicki for having had the foresight to preserve this historically significant testimonial. It provides a window into the people, initiatives and policies that set in motion changes in planning and engineering practices that transformed the face of British Columbia a generation ago.

Erik Karlsen’s ‘Roast and Toast’ Retirement Party on May 3, 2002

Editor’s Context

“British Columbia is large in area and small in population. Often, it seems, everyone is connected. In a small world, lives have a way of intersecting. Is it serendipity or random chance that things happen and then the ripple effects play out over time? To provide context for the reflections by Joan Sawicki, I first share the following personal story. By connecting dots, I hope it will help readers to see the big picture as shaped by Erik Karlsen,” states Kim Stephens, Partnership Executive Director.

When Joan Sawicki was on Burnaby Municipal Council….

“In 1988, Joan Sawicki was a first-time Councillor with the City of Burnaby. One Monday night, she successfully advanced a motion that changed the course of my professional career. In essence, the motion was a rejection of traditional drainage engineering and a call for a fresh approach, one that was environmentally based. The study area in question was the Big Bend lowlands alongside the Fraser River. At the time, it was largely undeveloped. Market gardening was a significant land use.

“After Council passed Joan Sawicki’s motion, the City Engineer convened a meeting of all his engineers and invited me to help brainstorm what he could do to satisfy Council in general, and Joan Sawicki in particular. Out of that came the first building block in what was, at the time, a precedent-setting interdisciplinary approach to drainage planning. Over the next decade, I evolved the approach through a building blocks process involving other municipalities.”

A Decade Later….

“Fast-forward to October 1997 and a consultation workshop hosted by the Union of BC Municipalities to address implementation of the Fish Protection Act. My Washington State colleague Bill Derry and I were asked to present our cross-border work on the relationship between changes in land use and stream health. Erik Karlsen was also there, and something clicked. ‘Eureka’, said Erik, ‘now we have the science’.

“Five years later, in June 2002, the Province of British Columbia released Stormwater Planning: A Guidebook for British Columbia. It was precedent-setting in a North American context because it was ecosystem-based, and because it introduced adaptive management to the local government setting.  The Guidebook was the springboard to the Water Sustainability Action Plan for British Columbia. Both reflect Erik Karlsen’s influence.”

The Arc of Time….

“Everyone is connected in some way, and we do influence each other’s lives. What if Joan Sawicki’s motion had failed? History would have been changed. Instead, her action set in motion a chain of events which continue to reverberate through time. The Partnership, for example, continues to build on and add depth to the Guidebook approach via the Beyond the Guidebook Series of guidance documents.

“Erik Karlsen has a special place in the history of the Partnership for Water Sustainability. He was our ‘eminence grise’. He guided us through a sharing and learning process that produced an intellectual foundation for ‘convening for action’ in BC. With Erik’s passing, we say thank you and goodbye.

Quotable Quote (May 2020):

“Everything is connected and Erik Karlsen was a really dominant thread that weaved through an entire era, with impacts well beyond his own personal actions.” – Joan Sawicki

Erik Karlsen (1945-2020)

“Erik Karlsen served the public interest almost without equal, with a style likely not to be seen again for a very long time” 

“Erik Karlsen had a long and eventful career in the public service,” stated Joan Sawicki. She was the 30th Speaker of the Legislative Assembly of British Columbia (1992-1994), and then served as Minister of Environment, Environment and Parks (MELP) during the 1996 through 2000 period.

“I first met Erik in action when we were assigned to work together, from mid-1994 to 1996.  I had just been appointed parliamentary secretary to Minister of Municipal Affairs, Darlene Marzari

“As it happened, Darlene was saddled with both of us. I was just out of the Speaker’s chair and needed something creative to keep me out of trouble and in line, so to speak.  She also had Erik, whom she had known for many years, but who also needed some tangible focus to keep him out of trouble and at least paying lip service to ‘in line’.

“So, she put us together – and the Georgia Basin Initiative was born.”

Quotable Quote:

“Erik and I worked together on the federal Georgia Basin Ecosystem Initiative (GBEI) and he was instrumental in helping to shape the program and bring together many partners and interests that would not normally fall into the federal sphere.”

The provincial GBI predated the federal initiative, a fact that Erik often reminded us of, and his participation in the federal partnership brought much of the growth strategy and municipal planning perspective to the development of the federal strategy and programs instituted through the GBEI.

“There has always been a bit of confusion between GBI and GBEI, as they were developed by different governments with differing mandates. Erik was able to help mesh many of the federal programs with more local government needs to provide science and tools that could and would be used by local government to improve the Georgia Basin ecosystem.”

Bruce Kay
(retired) Manager, Georgia Basin Ecosystem Initiative,
Environment Canada – Pacific & Yukon Region

The Georgia Basin bio-region drains into the Salish Sea (Puget Sound and Strait of Georgia)

Erik Karlsen and the Georgia Basin Initiative

“I’m not usually into astrology but Erik and I are both Virgos, born in the same year, just 3 days apart. That says a lot about how we approached forging together a strategic provincial response to the challenge of managing growth in our portion of the Georgia Basin.

“For Erik, the GBI was only the latest wave. He has been involved in many previous and subsequent similar initiatives and all of us expect him to continue to be so until his dying breath.

“Through Erik’s guidance, professional – and dare I say, political – wisdom and networking, together we charted at least a pathway, if not an enduring entity, towards ‘sustainability’ in the Georgia Basin bio-region.

“We were a very small staff at GBI – Judith Cullington, Charmaine Hall, and Brent Mueller. We were a small group but, with Erik’s energy and access to just about everybody everywhere, he created the illusion of something much larger.

“We had action plans – several versions of them. Watching Erik Karlsen and Joan Sawicki discuss the philosophical, pragmatic and political significance of every phase of every draft was indeed something to behold.

“We had projects, dozens of them, in every shape and form.

“We had speeches – everywhere. Erik managed to get me into just about every conference going, every community visioning process, the UDI, the Universities, the National Round Table.

“During this time, the province was also forging protocols and agreements with counterparts across the border. One of our key messages around GBI was that air pollution, water pollution and growth impacts don’t stop at the 49th parallel. Erik was instrumental in all of that.”

Brent Mueller & Erik Karlsen in 2004

Quotable Quotes:

“Erik got me started in my public service career as a researcher for the Georgia Basin Initiative back in 1995. He helped me hone my skills as a professional public servant and instilled in me what sustainability is all about both in terms of process and substance. He was a great mentor for modelling how to work at all levels to achieve positive change and never shied away from helping implement provincial policy and legislation at the local level. Erik’s legacy is sublimely positive and far reaching”.

Brent Mueller, Acting Executive Director,
Governance and Structure Branch,
BC Ministry of Municipal Affairs and Housing


“Erik Karlsen’s view of the world was both very simple—we should design communities better, protect and restore ecosystems, work collaboratively—and yet he understood the complexities of the many different governance structures.

“The Georgia Basin Initiative was itself a ground-breaker in its ability to cut across bureaucratic boundaries. Working for Erik Karlsen was mind-stretching (so many new ideas, new people to meet), sometimes confusing (managing staff was not one of his strong suits so I learned to read between the lines), and often just plain fun (the projects and goals were always worthwhile).”

– Judith Cullington
(former) Councillor, City of Colwood

Erik Karlsen on How Communities Should Grow

“As a fairly new elected official, I learned a lot in a very short time under Erik’s tutelage.

“For one thing, Erik had a peculiar and unique sense of accountability. It was a constant challenge to keep track of where Erik was at any given time, let alone where he would be tomorrow.

“Judith Cullington told me that when she was hired with GBI, Erik spent ½ day with her, then was gone for 2 weeks. The telephone was ringing – from all of the excitement Erik was generating out there about this new provincial program called GBI – and Judith had absolutely no idea what she was supposed to do.

“Erik and his cell phone – actually two or three of them – and his trusty vehicle logged probably 100,000 km each year – spreading his unique and powerful brand of environmental planning to local governments all over the province.  To anyone who ever breathed the question of ‘how should communities grow?’, Erik Karlsen was there with a tool kit, an ear, a helping hand – and a grant.”

Erik Karlsen Got Things Done

“Erik had a job description like any other employee in the public service, but no supervisor, Assistant Deputy Minister or Deputy Minister, ever had the slightest idea what Erik actually did with his time.

“When hard pressed to justify his activities, or reprimanded yet again for not at least occasionally keeping the DM in the loop, Erik responded with his customary detailed explanation – and charm.

“I recall the time Erik and I were called into a meeting with George Ford, Deputy Minister. He wanted to know what we were doing out there. Things were all abuzz. Local community projects and action plans abounded and, his greatest concern, provincial dollars were flying out the door.

“Of course I had assumed all this had been duly sanctioned. I was somewhat surprised to discover that, while these expenditures were theoretically ‘in the budget’, we hadn’t actually been authorized to spend the dollars yet.

“But, what could Darlene and George do? They both believed in this stuff. Communities were excited. Worthwhile projects were being done. And government was getting lots of brownie points for supporting growth management initiatives.

“You could get exasperated with Erik because he seldom followed the rules – but he got good things done.”

Erik Karlsen Turned Networking into an Art Form

“Eric was always where the action was – where creative and innovative energies were flowing. His ability to gravitate to that action – and to ‘morph’ into whatever current political form it was taking – was a real feature of Erik’s career.

“Erik turned networking skills into an art form. Even in those ministries where the ‘p’ word (the ‘planning’ word) was not allowed to be uttered, you could count on Erik to know the one person in every agency or organization who shared even one common thread of commitment to ecosystem – based community planning. You could also count on Erik to nurture that fragile seed into yet another interdisciplinary cross government committee – of which he himself was always an active member.

“Indeed, at various times of his career, depending on what direction the political wind was blowing, it was difficult to determine in which ministry Erik actually worked.

“During GBI days, he seemed to spend as much time with MELP staff as with his own colleagues in Municipal Affairs.

“When the tables were turned and I became Minister of Environment, Lands and Parks, working to try to implement the Fish Protection Act, it was Erik Karlsen from Municipal Affairs who was our most effective front man.”


Erik Karlsen Opened Doors  

“Where MELP staff couldn’t get in the door with streamside protection guidelines, Erik not only got in the door, but managed to convince local governments to help write guidelines to which many of them were fundamentally opposed.

“As Minister, I accompanied Erik to what must have been his 20th meeting with Lower Mainland Councilors and Mayors on streamside protection guidelines. He was amazing to watch – very astute, very strategic, and very persuasive. And, if Erik was able to use language local government needed to hear in order to achieve what the province needed to achieve, it wasn’t because he was disingenuous. Far from it; rather, it was his secret formula for survival and, more importantly, the survival of the planning ideals he believed in with such passion.

“Erik truly cared about people, about planning, about making communities better. He made a personal connection with people. He also had infinite patience with democracy – and if he constantly pushed the envelope outward, he also had the ability to start from where people were at.

“That is why he was such a valuable asset to other ministries – because he had the pulse of local government. He always knew what would work with them and for them, and what would keep them talking and engaged.

Erik Karlsen Shared His Wisdom

“Erik never tired of spreading his message – and he did so in prolific fashion at literally 100’s of conferences and workshops. I cannot end my comments without saying a few words about Erik’s presentations to these conferences.

“Anyone who has had to sit through more than a few of them could be forgiven for thinking part of Erik’s motivation for speaking was to profile his newest computer program for diagrams and charts.  I think it is fair to say that when Erik Karlsen met PowerPoint, it was love at first sight.

“Erik thought in diagrams. Give him a computer program that does diagrams and he would work it to its megabyte limit.

“Now instead of 10 flow charts, circle graphs and hierarchical outlines that could take him 10 minutes over his assigned speaking time, he could pack in 20 diagrams and go 20 minutes overtime. Hey, squeeze in a couple more and let’s go for 25!

“There is a reason that, when Erik Karlson was asked to deliver a paper, he was usually scheduled at the end of the day, not the beginning.

“But, on the serious side, Erik was truly magnanimous in sharing his wisdom. He seldom cared whether he received personal credit or not.  His goal was always to spread the ideas, to find the fertile ground in which they could grow, then to nurture those persons, those agencies, those groups who would carry them forward and own them. Unlike so many other people, Erik never felt the need for ‘turf’.

“Erik served the public interest – the public hopes and dreams for a better tomorrow, for the environment, for human communities, and for future generations – almost without equal. And, he did it with a style likely not to be seen again for a very long time.”

The way-of-thinking captured in the graphic below is one of the many philosophical contributions made by Erik Karlsen during development of the Water Sustainability Action Plan for British Columbia: