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Many would shy away from starting a new infection-themed job during a pandemic. Castlegar, British Columbia’s Olga Hallborg, however, does not shy away from a challenge. As a registered nurse, mother, student, wife and volunteer, she is a busy bee. Olga works at Trail’s Kootenay Boundary Regional Hospital as an Infection Prevention and Control nurse, and occasionally, she still works at her previous nursing job with elderly patients in long term care at Nelson Jubilee Manor. 

Olga, originally from Ukraine, lives with her husband Murray and 14-year-old daughter, Elizabeth. The family moved from Saskatchewan to Castlegar for Murray’s job at Castlegar’s Celgar pulp and paper mill six years ago. After living and working in the Kootenays for only two years, Murray lost his job unexpectedly, and the family faced some challenges. For the past four years, he has driven weekly to Vancouver to work as a mechanic at the Swiss Water coffee company plant. Murray still applies to Kootenay jobs regularly.

Murray comes home on weekends to be with his family. For Olga, it has been hard to parent alone more days of the week than not. 

“I’m trying to work on so many things all at the same time.”

When the Going Gets Tough

She understands that it is not personal but that the job situation can be tough here.

“It’s kind of upsetting that people who are established here, with families, are unable to find a job here. It’s really sad.”

Murray, Elizabeth & Olga Hallborg.

According to Savina Kelly, Employer Outreach and Communications Manager at Kootenay Career Development Society (Trail, Castlegar and Nelson), unemployment has been historically a little higher in the Kootenays compared to the provincial average. Interestingly, over the last few years, things have improved. 

“Up until this past year, we were seeing a downward trend over the years in unemployment rates. The Coronavirus has changed a lot.”

“There are some pretty interesting dynamics happening within the regional labour market. You have some people who are highly qualified and with a lot of knowledge, skills and education in jobs that maybe don’t require it, and then we also have a lot of employment opportunities that are entry-level and fairly low pay considering the rising cost of living in these communities. It takes a lot of creativity, resilience and patience for people to find sustainable and suitable employment.”

In the trades, in particular, job demand can vary greatly, says Savina, especially due to the Selkirk trades program. 

“There is a surplus in some trades and shortages in others and unfortunately, not always enough opportunities for apprentices to complete their training.” 

The Tough Get Studying

Focusing on her own goals helped Olga move through this challenging time of doing so much care with little support. Along with working thirty hours a week as a long-term care nurse, much of her “spare” time over the past five years has been spent on her Master’s Degree in Public Health. She is nearly finished and this spring will be done entirely. As she works on her final assignment, the importance of this achievement is hitting her. 

Olga’s studies in Public Health taught her many things. In 2017, she attended a Public Health Association of BC conference that showed her how human health connects with where we live. 

Registered nurse Olga Hallborg is completing her Master’s Degree in Public Health.

She learned how humans are impacting our world with our actions. The main speaker at the conference, legendary public health physician and retired professor, Trevor Hancock, spoke about the importance of having a full range of life on earth (biodiversity) to keep people healthy. For Olga, this was a shock. 

“I had no idea. Living in BC, looking around, I didn’t see it as a loss. I didn’t see a problem,” Olga remembers “However, now when I’m looking through almost pristine areas as a nurse, even though I’m not a nurse of the forest, I’m a nurse for humans, I do see specific changes to health and it’s heartbreaking. I do see bodies suffering.”  

When Olga moved from Ukraine 15 years ago, the wilderness of BC seemed endless, comparatively. 

“I came from Ukraine which is a highly agricultural and industrial country. It’s not a very large territory. The area is like Saskatchewan but the population is probably more than 30 times more. There’s hardly any wildlife left.”

So when she learned that our forests, lakes and rivers are also under threat here in beautiful BC, Olga knew it was time to act. 

“Maybe I can appreciate more than Canadians seeing what we still have. Comparing with Ukraine how it looks right now I would like to warn people around the area and tell them: where we’re heading right now, it’s not a healthy direction.”

For Olga this is tied right in with the health of people in our communities. 

“I became very concerned about the health habits of populations in the country, and overall on earth. The medical industry makes advances, but at the same time overall people are not getting healthier.” 

Olga attributes this to two factors.

“How we relate to our environment and how we treat each other. This is critical for us to stay healthy. This is what I believe strongly.”

This understanding changed the way she approached her life.

“I didn’t realize how much environmental degradation affects health.”

Olga’s learning about the significant forces affecting human health changed her life in two ways: she bought a new ride and a cloud of butterflies flew her way.

An SUV and a Lawn Full of Butterflies 

Olga decided she needed to shake up her life. As previously mentioned, she doesn’t shy away from a challenge: she let go of one of her prized possessions. 

“I decided to get rid of my beloved SUV. I owned it for ten years, and I found it to be convenient. However, it was a huge polluter.” 

Through British Columbia’s Scrap It program, she was able to get cash for taking her  SUV off the road. With this cash and other federal and provincial government incentives, she decided to go for an electric vehicle. 

Elizabeth and Olga check on some of the plants in the butterfly garden at the Kootenay Gallery of Art.

“The SUV offered a little more space and comfort but the thing is that I don’t think I needed that much space and comfort. That’s what I’m learning from this experience, that people don’t need too much. When we strive to have too much, it causes many environmental problems.”

Olga projects that such vehicles will only keep getting more affordable, and it will be possible for many people to buy electric cars. 

“I strongly suggest other people consider it.” 

You are probably wondering what butterflies have to do with scraping an SUV. Around the time she got her electric car, Olga transformed her lawn into a garden for flowering and wildflower plants. This type of garden offers food to pollinating insects like bees and butterflies. 

“They are quite crucial for our health. Without them, our food production would not be sustainable. Many plants and animals would not survive without pollinators.” 

Olga hopes that many people will adopt this idea, and all together we can make a difference. 

“There is a responsibility for people living in the Kootenays to provide this care and not just use what nature has to offer us. But offering something to nature as well.”

Bees, birds & butterflies are some of the pollinators benefitting from new flower gardens.

Growing Towards a Strong Tomorrow

Olga’s daughter, Elizabeth, is a great help with the butterfly garden, and she is always looking to lend a hand volunteering. Together they are working with the Kootenay Gallery of Art to establish a native flowering plant garden to attract butterflies.

For Olga, one of the best things about living here is getting outside with her friends and family, and this is something she hopes to enjoy for years to come. 

“Accessibility of nature is excellent. We are basically living in nature.”

Olga wants what every mother wants: to pass on a better world to her child. When asked what is at stake for her personally, as a mother, with climate change, she tears up. But it’s so important to stay hopeful about the future, she says. 

For Olga’s family, like yours, there are challenges. More importantly, there is hope. Olga hopes her husband won’t have to continue to commute and that soon he will find work near the family’s loved home in Castlegar. And she hopes her daughter will be part of building a better world for all of us. Olga will keep driving her electric car, and tending to her butterflies and nursing our residents. And hopefully, her care will be contagious.