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Victoria’s first Canada Day drone show could be a test for the future of fireworks

The show in the sky will take off on Monday, mixing high-tech and traditional Coast Salish art

Robyn Bell
June 30, 2024
Environment
News
Based on facts either observed and verified firsthand by the reporter, or reported and verified from knowledgeable sources.

Victoria’s first Canada Day drone show could be a test for the future of fireworks

The show in the sky will take off on Monday, mixing high-tech and traditional Coast Salish art

Robyn Bell
Jun 30, 2024
Photo: Minhyung Kim / Shutterstock
Photo: Minhyung Kim / Shutterstock
Environment
News
Based on facts either observed and verified firsthand by the reporter, or reported and verified from knowledgeable sources.

Victoria’s first Canada Day drone show could be a test for the future of fireworks

The show in the sky will take off on Monday, mixing high-tech and traditional Coast Salish art

Robyn Bell
June 30, 2024
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Victoria’s first Canada Day drone show could be a test for the future of fireworks
Photo: Minhyung Kim / Shutterstock

Canada Day celebrations are set to kick off Monday and Victorians can expect a variety of entertainment in the Inner Harbour.

A new feature of this year’s holiday event is a drone light show, taking place before the usual fireworks finale. Drone light shows have been rising in popularity over the last as a silent and emission-free alternative to fireworks shows.

Island artist’s sky show blends traditional & futuristic art

Victoria’s drone show was designed by Kwakwaka'wakw artist Rande Cook. Cook is an adept creator whose work combines traditional Coast Salish art and contemporary mediums. 

Art skills run in the Cook family—he learned his traditional artistic practice from his grandparents, in particular his grandfather. Now Cook is sharing his knowledge with his children, who he says love to create. 

Even with his wealth of knowledge across artistic mediums, this drone show will be a first for him. He was approached by the city to create the design that will then be executed by the drone operators.

While the show itself is rather high-tech, he started by hand-drawing his ideas. As he sketched it out, he began to create the story that will soon unfold in the sky above the harbour.

Being able to create a narrative that centres Indigenous culture was one of the main reasons Cook took on the project.

“It is a really beautiful way to share a story through art, and especially in the sky,” said Cook.

The project was a “massive collaboration” according to Cook. He and the other collaborators wanted the show’s message to be one of support for Indigenous people in Canada, especially given the horrific reminder in 2021 of the abuses Indigenous children suffered at residential schools, with thousands of unmarked graves discovered on school properties throughout the country.

“It’s really about mindfulness, healing and unity, but also just making sure that people in Canada are holding a place of compassion within their heart,” said Cook. “What we really wanted to focus on was celebrating diversity and celebrating all the different cultures that make up Canada, but also talking about virtues and values—what are the values that we hold on to as Canadians?”

Engaging respectfully on Lekwungen lands

The drone show will be accompanied by a spoken word piece, written by Victoria’s Poet Laureate Marie Specht, which will include sections read in the Lekwungen language. This was an important factor for Cook who says he sees himself as a guest on these lands.

“I’m traditionally from the northern tip of Vancouver Island, so when I was thinking about the drone show, I'm always very mindful as an artist about respecting the traditional people of this area,” said Cook. “I don't normally even like to submit to city projects or anything, I’m very, very cautious about how I represent myself here, and trying to give space to the local Lekwungen and all these artists and make sure that their messages are coming through.”

Because the drone show is a temporary artform that will disappear after its seven-minute design, he says it doesn’t feel like he’s overstepping in the same way as making something more permanent like a mural or sculpture. 

“It was a nice way for me also to engage as an artist and to still be respectful,” said Cook.

Working on a project that offers an alternative to the not-so-environmentally-friendly fireworks was another bonus of the project. Cook has a passion for protecting the environment—he’s one of the founders of the non-profit forest protection organization Awi’nakola, which he describes as “the braiding of Indigenous knowledge, art, and science.”

With some cities making a permanent shift toward drone shows as they phase out fireworks, Cook says he “could see that happening” in Victoria someday. 

Drone show is safer—and cheaper—than fireworks

Victoria has no plans to get rid of fireworks at the moment, according to city spokesperson Colleen Mycroft. But it has received complaints about the annual Canada Day fireworks. This year’s show could be a key test for a safer form of entertainment. 

Drone shows are also slightly more affordable, costing the city $25K compared to the $29K price tag of the fireworks show. These drones can also be reused for future shows, making them even more cost-effective. If drone shows eventually replace fireworks, a host of issues related to the explosives could become a concern of the past.

The case against fireworks 

Fireworks caused fire on small local island

Some may remember when fireworks for Oak Bay’s Centennial celebration in 2006 caused Mary Tod Island—unofficially known as Jimmy Chicken Island to many locals—to catch fire, with fire crews brought out by boat to extinguish the blaze.

Mary Tod Island—which is located next to the Oak Bay Marina—is an uninhabited island made up of grass and rock, which led to the decision to use it as a launch point for the fireworks. But more than a decade later, our understanding of the unique ecosystem on the island—and its at-risk inhabitants—shifted, leading to the decision to end firework launches from Mary Tod in 2017. 

While the 2006 blaze was quickly snuffed out, the risk of a much larger fire does exist when these fireworks explode near forested areas.

Three years ago, an American couple was charged with 30 crimes after causing an out-of-control blaze that scorched 9,500 ha of forest in California—and killed a firefighter—after the fireworks from their gender reveal party sparked the flames. 

This week, a wildfire believed to be caused by fireworks broke out in Arizona. Another was sparked last week in Hydra, Greece after partiers on a yacht set off fireworks, with 13 people arrested.

Canada is expected to have one of its hottest summers on record this year—though Victoria and the rest of coastal BC will be spared from above-average temperatures—leading to calls from the Canadian Association of Fire Chiefs to exercise extra caution when using fireworks this year. 

Though we won’t experience heat waves like the rest of the country, the Island has experienced years of droughts, starting in 2022, making many areas more vulnerable to fire.

Animal and human welfare concerns

Anyone with a pet likely knows—and dreads—the terror fireworks can cause their furry family members. But dogs and cats aren’t the only ones who flee when the booming sound begins. Fireworks have been shown to cause young birds to leave their nests prematurely, putting them at risk of predators and disrupting colonies. Great blue heron colonies in Campbell River failed two years ago because of multiple sources of loud noises. Herons are most vulnerable to these disruptions during breeding and nesting season, which should end sometime in June. Still, they’re not immune to these issues at other points in the year.

One night in 2010, 5K blackbirds died en masse in Arkansas after a New Year’s Eve fireworks show, with scientists saying they likely fled their nests at night—atypical behaviour for these birds—and were unable to see where they were flying.

The Inner Harbour is part of the Victoria Harbour Migratory Bird Sanctuary. First established in 1923, it’s one of the oldest bird protection areas in Canada. Species at-risk that live and breed in the area include the great blue heron, marbled murrelet, short-eared owl. 

Animals are often able to prepare for loud noises when they come from a natural source like thunderstorms. But there are no warning signs before fireworks begin.

The shock of fireworks can also affect people, especially those with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). 

For veterans and those who have lived through warfare, the bang of a firework can be reminiscent of bombs and gunfire. In addition to this, flashing lights and the burning smell left behind can all act as triggers, bringing back unwanted memories.

Even when mentally prepared for a fireworks show, those suffering from PTSD can still feel a sense of panic when fireworks begin. If a show begins nearby without the opportunity to prepare, the effects can be even more upsetting.

Air pollution could linger

It likely doesn’t come as a surprise that blowing up particles in the air doesn’t contribute to good air quality. But the pollution from fireworks is far more dramatic than one might expect.

Fireworks get their signature colours from a mix of different metals; copper salts create blue, lithium salts create pink, barium creates green, and strontium creates red. Some poorly made fireworks have also been known to contain lead.

As they explode, these metal compounds turn into aerosols that, if inhaled, can lead to a host of short and long-term health effects, from respiratory issues and nausea to certain types of cancer.

Despite the infrequency of fireworks shows, a 2007 study notes that the high concentration released contributes significantly to annual metal emissions in the air. Fireworks have also been shown to release a burst of ozone, carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide and nitrogen dioxide—all potent greenhouse gases

Add in the aforementioned risk of forest fires, which have been causing poor air quality across the country each summer, and the chances of inhaling unwanted particles becomes much higher.

Even the birthplace of fireworks, China—where the explosive entertainment was invented around the second century—is looking to find alternatives to fireworks to improve pollution levels. In 2016, Zhengzhou prohibited the use of fireworks in order to improve air quality in the smoggy city. This policy was then expanded to other regions. Ahead of the Beijing Olympics in 2022, the capital banned fireworks before the games and subsequently recorded its cleanest air quality for a Lunar New Year.

The toxins left behind

What goes up, must come down—these metals don’t only remain in the air.

Areas where fireworks are launched and debris lands have been found to contain higher levels of perchlorate, a compound that, if consumed, can affect thyroid function in humans. It has been found in groundwater and surface water post fireworks. Surface water has been found to be more acidic when particulate matter from fireworks lands on it. As metal particles and toxins leach into soil and water, fish and other small wildlife consume these particles—which then make their way up the food chain.  

Much like the effects of inhaling the aerosols of these metals and contaminants, consuming them can lead to a host of health problems.

Microplastics are another concern left behind. A study conducted four years ago on the River Thames in England showed a dramatic increase in microplastics left behind by New Years festivities—between Dec. 30, 2019 and Jan. 1, 2020, microplastics increased roughly 1000%. This was unrelated to rainfall, which can cause a spike in contamination, as road chemicals and debris are washed into the river. Since the weather was dry during the period recorded, the cause was determined to be the celebratory fireworks.

Fondness for tradition

Of course, fireworks have a special place in many people’s hearts. Gathering with loved ones on holidays like Canada Day or New Year's Eve can provide happy memories and parting with a tradition we’ve come to expect at these events is much easier said than done.

We asked Capital Daily readers if they preferred fireworks or drones; of the 1,269 people who answered, 23%, or 293, said they would rather see fireworks, 25%, or 320, said they like both, and 40%, or 513, preferred drones. The remaining 11% said neither would be best. 

Tonight’s drone show will be the first test of this format’s ability to captivate Victorians, who will be able to compare and contrast both back-to-back. With Rande Cook’s artistry and Marie Specht’s words adding narrative to the drone show, we could be witnessing the future of Canada Day entertainment in the city.

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Robyn Bell
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