Stephen Cannings

Stephen Cannings is pictured out on the field.

EDITOR'S NOTE: In recognition of Canada's 150th birthday The Herald is running local historical stories. For the next several weeks we are publishing stories from our archives on prominent builders in our community. The following story appeared on Feb. 13, 2007 in The Herald as part of a series on local builders.

Born in Penticton in 1914 when the Okanagan River still coiled across the flatlands, Stephen Robert Cannings grew up immersed in nature’s marvels. So captivated was Cannings by all living things, including people, his life became the cornerstone of knowledge about the extraordinary environment of the Okanagan.

His gentle, yet outgoing nature, coupled with an intense love of the natural world, made Cannings a vigorous force behind the preservation of the Okanagan Valley’s natural areas. A Second World War air force veteran, he was active in the formation of the South Okanagan Naturalists’ Club, the Okanagan-Similkameen Parks Society, the Federation of British Columbia Naturalists and the Canadian Nature Federation.

An eloquent public speaker, at the age of 15 Cannings represented the South Okanagan in the provincial elocution finals in Vancouver in 1929. Today, the information he gathered and the knowledge he dispersed during his lifetime have helped people in the Okanagan recognize the uniqueness and fragility of the ecological treasure in which they live.

His efforts, together with those of other members of the Okanagan-Similkameen Parks Society, created Cathedral Provincial Park, Okanagan Mountain Provincial Park and the Vaseux-Bighorn National Wildlife Area.

Cannings worked tirelessly for 15 years with friend Doug Fraser of Osoyoos to establish the Haynes Lease Ecological Reserve at the north end of Osoyoos Lake — one of only a few areas of protected antelope-brush habitat in Canada.

For more than 56 years, Cannings kept meticulous daily notes on natural history events, particularly bird sightings. He organized the first modern-day Christmas Bird Count in Penticton in 1958 and participated in it for the following 41 years. Now, his son, Dick, of Naramata is the national co-ordinator of Christmas Bird Counts, Canada.

An accomplished nature photographer, Cannings’ work has appeared in many magazines and in books published by the Audubon Society and Reader’s Digest. Locally, he presented countless slide shows on natural history, subtly encouraging conservation. In the 1960s, he produced some nature films for CBC’s Klahanie and for several years, he wrote a column for B.C. Outdoors magazine titled Naturalist Notebook.

In 1999, Cannings was awarded an honourary doctorate from Okanagan University College for his contributions to public understanding of Okanagan natural history and his achievements in conservation.

THE CANNINGS FAMILY

Cannings’ enthusiasm for nature was transmitted to all four of his children, particularly his three sons, now all professionals who spend their lives studying, learning and educating others about the natural world.

“He passed it on to all his children — his love of nature,” said his son, Richard, of Penticton, an author and consulting biologist, “not only love of nature, but love of this land — the Okanagan — as well as . . . pride in the Okanagan; that it was such a wonderful and special place.”

(In 2015, Richard was elected Member of Parliament for the South Okanagan West Kootenay riding.)

Richard's twin brother, Sydney, is also a consulting biologist. He lives in Victoria, while their older brother, Rob, is curator of entomology at the Royal B.C. Museum in Victoria. Their older sister, Bette Cannings, recently retired from her position as a librarian in North Vancouver.

All four contributed to articles about their father appearing in the spring 2003 issue of B.C. Naturalist and the 2004 issue of Okanagan History — the 68th Report of the Okanagan Historical Society.

Their father, Steve, was born in Penticton on March 22, 1914. His father, Walter Cannings, emigrated from Bristol, England, to the Okanagan in 1907. Walter’s fiancé, Harriet Ellen (Nellie) Penty, arrived in 1910 and the couple established a grocery business. After joining the military during the First World War in 1915, Walter contracted tuberculosis at training camp in Vernon. He died at home one year later. Steve, then two years old, and his sister, Bess, four, were raised by their mother.

His love of the outdoors began during numerous outings with two lifelong friends, Chess Lyons and Carleton McCall. The trio spent countless days roaming the Okanagan hills on foot and paddling local waters in their home-built kayaks.

Cannings’ early interest in birds was reflected in his collection of bird cards from Sportsman cigarette packages. How he compiled the collection is unknown, because Steve never smoked.

Always passionate about airplanes, he entered Vancouver Technical School following graduation from high school in Penticton, starting a year-long course to qualify for entry into the Royal Canadian Air Force. However, financing for the program ended prematurely at the height of the Great Depression in 1932 and Steve returned to Penticton.

Still fascinated with flight, in 1936 he entered an aeronautical course at Curtiss-Wright Technical Institute of Aeronautics in

Los Angeles. Offered a drafting job at Fleet Aircraft in Fort Erie, Ont., he learned to fly but did not become a pilot. In 1940, he was sent to England to help plan the production of British aircraft in Canada. Seeking a more active role in the war, Cannings joined the RCAF, working on radar stations along the English Channel.

He returned to Canada for aircrew training and married Summerland native Jean Munn — a girl he first met in the summer of 1934. His dream of becoming an air force pilot ended when the RCAF informed him he was too old to command — over the hill at age 30. He switched to flight engineering and flew 22 missions over Germany in Lancaster bombers from January to April 1945.

Following the war, he trained as an industrial arts teacher and taught for a few months in Vancouver. Though teaching was not his career choice, his training came in handy later. His drafting, woodworking and electronic abilities were exercised as he put finishing touches on the family home, built toy planes and helicopters, bird boxes and many other useful items. His draftsman’s handwriting was legendary and even at age 88, he wrote precisely and beautifully.

In 1946, Cannings left his teaching job for a new position at the Summerland Agriculture Research Station. His 27-year career there began as a plant pathology technician and evolved into the station’s professional photographer — a position he held until retirement.

BIRDING BEGINS

Just after the Second World War, there was only a handful of birders in the Okanagan, said Richard. The first field guide to any birds in North America was published in 1934, the Peterson Field Guide, by Roger Tory Peterson who lived in the eastern United States. It was not until 1941 that a field guide to western birds was published.

“Before then, it was difficult to go out birding because you had no idea what you were looking at,” said Richard, “so it was frustrating.

“Peterson is often credited for being the grandfather of the environmental movement. The field guides get everybody out there looking at nature. It started this whole series of field guides on birds, flowers, mammals — everything you can name now, they have a field guide for. That’s what started this whole thing about naturalists’ clubs.”

Richard’s father got hooked on birding in 1946, years before he and Sydney were born.

His father was the first to record flammulated owls nesting at Max Lake, noted Richard.

“Now we know a lot more about flammulated owls in Canada, and that’s what started it. My mother, Jean, had a lot to do with Steve’s activities. She went with him all the time. She was out with him the night he discovered the owls.”

Richard and Syd, youngest of the Cannings children, were born in March 1954, just weeks after the family moved from Trout Creek to the West Bench. There, the natural world marched right up to the front door.

“We grew up in a natural environment on the edge of the Penticton reserve,” said Richard. “We saw burrowing owls. There was a pair that nested just south of our house in 1970.”

The Cannings home was a mecca for biologists from all over the world who worked at the Summerland Research Station. Steve wished he’d studied biology in college, said Richard, but his close connections with scientists enabled him to continue learning throughout his life. “There were always interesting people around doing interesting things.”

Richard's memories of his parents mostly surround family outings where the four children were immersed in nature while having fun.

“We’d always go out on the weekends — spring, summer and fall, go out on a picnic. We would drive out to White Lake or someplace like that and have a picnic and roam around finding birds and flowers. Dad was always looking for things to take pictures of.”

His own intense interest in nature occurred by osmosis.

“They didn’t take us out there to teach us, it was just that we were going out on a picnic. I think it’s the most successful way to get kids interested in something — not force it down their throat, but just to let them have fun. You want to make those excursions pleasant.”

Steve’s years of recording birds in the Okanagan formed the foundation of the writing of The Birds of the Okanagan Valley, British Columbia, co-authored by his three sons in 1987.

Jean died in 1997 after 54 years of marriage and Steve found it difficult to remain on their West Bench property alone. In 1999, he married Hazel Street, a family friend who shared his love of nature, and moved to Chilliwack to be near her extended family. He died there in January 2003, after a brief struggle with cancer.

AN INSPIRATION

Jim Bryan and his wife, Anthea, met Steve in 1969 while taking a zoology class at the University of British Columbia with Steve’s son, Rob.

They saw him from time to time after moving to Vernon in 1974, but became close after relocating to Penticton in 1981.

“I lived with Steve and Jean for a couple of months while we were building our house,” recalled Jim, then a pollution biologist with the B.C. Ministry of Environment. Anthea worked with environmental groups promoting stewardship of endangered species on private land.

Steve shared information up and down the Valley with naturalists of all ages, recalled Jim.

“He was very patient and kind and inspired a lot of young people to go out and study. Some people have said he was very inspiring at difficult times in their lives. He steered them into biological endeavours they might otherwise not have gotten into.”

He led an exemplary life, said Jim, often putting his own plans aside to assist other naturalists, many from outside the province or the country, find whatever natural specimen they sought.

Steve Cannings was one of the first people she made contact with when she moved to the Penticton area in 1995, said Doreen Olson.

“I mentioned my interest in birds and someone suggested, ‘You should call Steve Cannings.’”

Though she was nervous about calling a man she’d never met, Olson is glad she did.

“He was so friendly and gave me all kinds of ideas,” she said. “He was very warm.”

Olson became the first chairman of the Okanagan Similkameen Conservation Alliance, supported in part by the Meadowlark Festival with which she was deeply involved.

“He was the calmest man I ever knew,” she said of Steve. “His wife was a wonderful woman, too — always supporting Steve in whatever he did.”

Retired horticulturist Ted Swales of Penticton got to know Cannings well while working at the Summerland research station.

“He was always highly organized. He was prepared for the unexpected every time. I think Steve’s family is a good testimony to his life.”