A Short History of the Gathering for Life on Earth
By: Sam Wagar
Although I had hosted two Gatherings for Life on Earth at Dragonfly communal farm near Bancroft Ontario in the early 1980s (left-wing Pagan get-togethers with a mixture of political and spiritual networking - the name, by the way, came from a conference title from the British Greens) the BC Gathering was not a direct descendant of those events, just started by the same person.
The way it came about - one evening after a coven meeting, while the group of us were lounging around eating, chatting and enjoying a glass of wine, the conversation turned to why there were no Pagan events that were family friendly. Most of the Pagan activities in the lower Mainland were explicitly not for children (which also meant not for parents either, except with extra expense and difficulty) or implicitly so - not organized to be family-friendly. As a group of Pagan parents, we felt excluded, and we felt concerned about the future of our religion if our children were not included.
We finally decided that if something was going to be done about it, it was up to us to do it, and that probably we wanted a weekend-long festival that was open to the entire BC Pagan community, also family-friendly. So, I went and wrote to the summer camp association to get a list of all of the summer camps in BC that we might be able to rent. When I received their brochure, the three of us (Roseanne H., Alice R. and me) drew up a list of requirements to keep in mind and decided to look only at campgrounds that met them. So I wrote all of the likely ones from the list and got their brochures.
By the grace of the Goddess we found Sasamat Camp right away and it suited us perfectly. We put down a $400 deposit in the fall of 1992 and pre-booked the space for September 3-6 1993. Although we solicited opinions and volunteers for the first event, it was substantially on the shoulders of myself prior to the event (registration, and publicity) and Roseanne (kitchen Witch), with assistance from coven-mate Sydney E., two other Pagans for Peace people (Blair C. and Maureen R.) and with representatives from Temple of the Lady (John T.), and the Pagans Book Place/Star Sapphire (soon-to-be-Fringe) Theresa F.and Steven C. The deposit came out of my then-wife Alice R's pocket.
Then came lining up publicity and trying to get people to work with us toward the project. Teresa and Steve originally came on board as representatives of the Pagans Book Place community, in early January 1993. PBP had begun to think about putting on an event but when they heard about our project they decided to co-operate with us. However, the blow-up of PBP and disintegration of the group around the store took place before the collaboration could advance very far. We had a couple of planning meetings to organize volunteers (and veto a proposal from a person from a wealthy family that we have people pay what they wanted to - since we wanted to have more than one event we decided to aim for a slight profit, coupled with the lowest possible costs so we could repay the advance and also gradually accumulate a nest egg of a year's advance rent and expenses). The budget I came up with aimed at breaking even with 70 people in attendance - it had 62 in attendance, 18 of them kids, plus a few drop-ins that paid partial rates - it lost $45 but subsequent events, while continuing to charge very low rates, made money.
Most basic principles of the Gathering were established in the planning for the first one:
1. The Gathering was explicitly a family-centred event with the children's area located at the physical centre of the action, reduced admission fees for children, and a childcare co-ordinator hired by the event.
2. The Gathering was a neutral community space open to anyone who wanted to come and behave themselves - it was not a project of and for any one faction in the community and it was advertised publicly.
3. The Gathering was not for profit - it was designed to make a small amount of money each year to be saved for a 'rainy-day' fund and a nest age to finance future events.
4. There were and are no stars - every person who attended the Gathering paid the same amount of money to attend, everybody put in a two hour work detail, and the advertising was not centred on any "big names'. Workshops were considered only by people who registered.
In the third year, my coven gave the Gathering to the BC Pagan community by establishing a non-profit Society to run it. Although my name was on the lease to the Sasamat site and the finances were run through my bank account, and I had the mailing list and other paperwork, it just seemed right that the Gathering should belong to the community. One key point in the bylaws establishing the Gathering was that only people that had paid and attended the Gathering could vote. So the Gathering is not the property of a single person or small group of owners, but by participants and it has been run in their interests ever since.
So far as I am aware, all other Pagan events in Canada, except a couple that were directly modelled on the Gathering, are the property of a small group of people and not the broader community. We should be proud that, despite disputes in the BC Pagan communities, the Gathering has survived as family-friendly neutral territory. It's now the third oldest Pagan gathering/festival in Canada (after WicCanfest in Ontario and BC Witchcamp).
Various features and traditions of the Gathering emerged in the first year
a. Aphrodite's Temple was established when my now ex-wife and I realized that there needed to be a private space for lovers and friends since the crowded small cabins provided no privacy and so we set aside the cabin furthest from the main lodge, furnished it with a bed, bowl of condoms, incense and clean sheets.
b. Cabin Five (now the generic name for the party area) was literally cabin #5. Although alcohol was forbidden in our agreement with Sasamat camp (and of course, non-medicinal drug use is illegal) a group of party types ended up together in that cabin and they had brought some alcohol and a boom-box and proceeded to party heartily. Every year that we were at Sasamat the Board "did not know" about Cabin 5 and did not visit it, but the alcohol use was more-or-less confined, and there was no problem with drug use.
c. Nude Moonlit Ritual emerged spontaneously on the first night the first year and I have written and Priested one every year since then as my gift to the Goddess. It's often the first nude ritual for many participants and sometimes the first group ritual of any kind.
Although different parts of the local BC Pagan communities have swept into the Gathering and had an influence, sometimes coming close to overwhelming it, its fundamental character has survived. It started as a project of Pagans for Peace and some refugees from Pagans Book Place, soon morphing into the Fringe community, adding a large dose of Society for Creative Anachronism, a strong representation from the poly and kink communities, the Star Sapphire / Caer Seren crew, now there has been a generational transfer to the Twinkies / Silver Spiral and their friends. The balance between the needs of children and families and the party-hearty crew has shifted back and forth with the children almost losing out in the last year or two at Sasamat. But now the families have come back.
There have been some difficulties to be dealt with.
A man called Bill Blew became involved in the Gathering after the first couple of years. He was involved in various New Age healing therapies, and also in massage. He became the co-ordinator of the Gathering's Healing Arts Centre and a member of the Board of Directors. In 1997 the Board of Directors received complaints that this man had been engaging in sexual assaults on women during the course of giving them massages at the Gathering over the course of the previous two years - he had targeted women that were new to the Pagan communities and to the Gathering and had presented himself as a well-respected Elder in the community. The Board received written complaints from three women and verbal information from a fourth. We were informed that Bill Blew had served eight years in jail for sexually assaulting his teenaged daughter and a friend of hers (a point which Blew confirmed to me personally in the presence of other members of our Board at an in-camera Board meeting called for the 27th of July 1997). There were no official minutes of that Board meeting so I am relying on notes taken by me personally to describe what happened - Blew was not kicked out of the Gathering but voluntarily agreed to not massage anyone at the Gathering - due to a strong desire to gloss over this issue, the desire of one victim of his assaults to have a "healing process" and other factors, including the reluctance of any victims to press charges, the Board did not act.
Blew attended the 1997 Gathering, massaged na´ve newcomers to the community and was thrown out by the Chair of the Board, Ernest J. (who had been out of the province and unable to participate in the summer Board meeting).
One other man was not permitted to register after sexually harassing some teenaged attendees in 1998. This issue of sexual boundaries and safety has continued to come up and has been inadequately dealt with ever since.
- 1993 - 62 full-time, 18 kids (-$40.52 - income $3580 and expenses $3620.52) - attendance from Sept 15th 1993 Pagans for Peace newsletter, finances from February 15th 1994 P4P.
- 1994 - 77 people registered - responding to Darren Koehn being arrested for killing his stepson, handfasting, 2nd degree initiation performed, also first degree
- 1995? - ended up with enough money to prepay the next year's rent
- Nude Moonlit Ritual attended by 12 people, an Initiation performed
- 1997 - the debut of the Twinkies, 30 people in NMR - Bill Blew blow-up and the self-appointed Council of Crones
- 1999 - 10 kids, 30-40 new people
- 2000 - The year of the Kali/Blood Sacrifice NMR with Caroline Visser as my Priestess.
- 2001 - 120 registrants , 8 rituals / 4 skyclad, Rite of the Bornless One, Gardnerian Descent of the Goddess (with 45 participants), performed 1st degree Initiation.
- 2003 - last Gathering at Sasamat
- 2004 - first one at Evan's Lake - 144 adults, 22 kids. Elusian Mysteries recreation
- 2005 - 168 adults, 17 kids
- 2007 - the first time the Gathering was cancelled. The access road leading to the area was cut off by a large landslide, which took several days to clear, and so the event was off. The Board allowed people the option to ask for a refund or hold over their registration monies to next year and called a Special General Meeting which decided to keep the theme of "The Fool's Journey" and did the legally required business.