Children play near a stream during an afternoon at a Rainbow Family gathering on North Vancouver Island. Photo by Binny Paul/Campbell River Mirror

Inside the undefined world of a Rainbow Family gathering in B.C.

Celebrations are underway to mark the annual gathering of the controversial Rainbow Family of Living Light

“Welcome home.”

These are the first words anyone who attends a Rainbow Family of Living Light annual gathering will hear. It is both a greeting, and an affirmation that you found the right place and made it safely.

At a rest area near a remote north Vancouver Island river, colourful ribbons tied to branches of trees mark the way to the encampment, until you see several vehicles (some registered from out-of-province) parked alongside the trail.

Dread-locked hair, colourful attires, and smiling faces greet you along with the ‘welcome home’ chant at the entrance. Nobody asks who you are, or where you are coming from. Everyone here has come to escape ‘Babylon’ — a Rainbow term to describe the evils of modern life, such as technology and capitalism.

Members of the Rainbow Family of Living Light movement say they want to propagate a general ideology of acceptance and non-judgment. A deep sense of community and respect for individuals is fostered on these shared values.

“You can be comfortable being whoever you are and believing in whatever you want to,” said a man at the gathering who called himself Coco.

Another attendee, a young woman from Montreal, had flown in on Friday to be a part of the ‘celebration,’ her third. Several others are also returning attendees, some of whom have travelled around the globe to attend ‘world-gatherings’ of Rainbow Family. The gatherings are free and open to anyone as long as they have a “belly button,” said another attendee.

Rainbow Family — which originated in the U.S. sometime in the 1960s as a nondenominational, non-political counterculture group — has held annual gatherings all over the world since 1972. These gatherings attract a loosely-knit community of hippies, bohemians, nudists and itinerants, among others.

Based on Utopian ideals, Rainbow Family has no structure, no leadership, nor any spokesperson. Everything anyone says is expressed as ‘personal opinions’ and no one can tell anyone what to do.

Their gatherings usually takes place in July based on the lunar cycle, from full moon to new moon. There’s no end-date; people stay and leave at will. This year’s Vancouver Island edition has been in progress for more than two weeks.

It is taking place inside a remote forest area near Eve River in the vast, sparsely inhabited stretch of the Island between Campbell River and Port McNeill, where cellphone service ends and GPS coordinates are of no use.

A gas station employee at the Sayward junction is the best bet to ask for directions.

“I wish they wore shoes,” she says before pointing towards the direction in which she saw “many vans” heading over the past few weeks.

On Monday afternoon, at the gathering spot, colourful camping tents were spread across along the banks of a semi-dried-up pebbled river. Maybe two dozen people are visible. Children and pet dogs are playing by the stream of water outside their tents. A nude man practices yoga.

There’s a communal kitchen, featuring groceries that attendees packed in from farms or food banks. A sanitation spot with signage and a spray bottle has also been set up near a tree near the entrance.

“We’re practicing handwashing for COVID-19,” said Coco.

A small group of people have gathered around a fire pit where coffee is brewing. Full moon celebrations the previous evening went on from dusk until dawn. Musicians strum guitars softly and hum soft tunes as the smell of coffee and marijuana floats around. Everyone seems to be very relaxed or slowly waking up to the day.

The ‘sacred fire’ which was lit last week was still crackling in the afternoon. According to Coco, it will be kept “alive” throughout the duration of the gathering.

There are also ‘healing sessions’ that take place around the sacred fire before the evening gives way to music, dance and celebrations. A stick is passed from person to person around the circle and they are given the chance to speak and be heard. Some talk about their life journeys while others talk about traumatic, tough experiences. People also exchange and teach skills that they know to those who wish to learn.

Some were already packing to leave. A young woman from Vancouver who attended the gathering for the first time with her brother, said she will be back next year for the gathering as she found the experience of cutting away from technology and spending time in nature “personally uplifting.”

This year, the number of people who turned up was far less compared to previous gatherings, mostly because of the pandemic. While no one was wearing masks, people seemed to be cognizant of personal space.

A lot of people within the group have fluid beliefs when it comes to coronavirus. Some spoke about “preventive lifestyle” and the body’s capacity to self-heal and fight off any virus. Some dismissed the virus altogether as a conspiracy theory. None seemed to be overly perturbed by COVID-19.

Most learned about the gathering through informal Facebook announcements toward the end of June. Although there is no “leadership” for the Rainbow Family, a volunteer-based organizing council or “Seed Camp,” heads out to “scout” for a gathering place. The scout team also takes into account the ‘geopolitical’ nuances of the place, said Coco.

Over the years, the Rainbow gatherings have garnered controversy and an unfavourable reputation after incidences of violent behavior, drug abuse, murder and environmental littering in the U.S. was highlighted in the media.

In 2014, a news report by VICE highlighted the “dark side” of these gatherings, following a series of misadventures that took place at a gathering in Utah. A woman was arrested for stabbing a man and law enforcement also had to respond to drug overdose and people crashing a nearby wedding. The report also highlighted the group’s frequent clashes with forest authorities in U.S., saying “arrests and police run-ins have always been a hallmark of these gatherings.”

In 2013, Vancouver Island’s remote Raft Cove Provincial Park was shut down after authorities and locals found out that more than 2,000 people were looking to attend a planned Rainbow Family world gathering there.

Concerns of campfire bans, waste management and the fact that authorities had not been notified about the gathering were some reasons cited.

READ MORE: All but one North Island provincial park remains open

Rainbow Family members in this year’s Island gathering were quick to point out that a lot of people who attend are environmentally conscious. At the end of the gathering, groups of people volunteer to clean up, said one of the attendees. But without a structural hierarchy or ‘people-in-charge,’ it is difficult to say if the clean-up plan has been successfully implemented until after everyone has left the place.

Local authorities are aware of the Rainbow Family gathering. Constable Francios Veillette from the Sayward RCMP detachment, said that they are “monitoring the area” and there seems to be “no issues so far.”

People who have been attending the gathering for the past three or four years in B.C., have hardly noticed any problematic run-in with authorities.

“We’re peaceful people, we don’t incite violence or suport it and we respect everyone who comes to the gathering,” said an attendee.

For him, every year, coming to the gathering has been a pleasant experience almost like “coming home,” to familiar faces and new ones. His sense of belonging has never changed.

“Everyone is family here,” he said.

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Flames of the ‘sacred fire’ is kept alive during the day. Photo by Binny Paul/Campbell River Mirror

An attendee from the Rainbow Family gathering poses for the camera. (Photo by Binny Paul/Campbell River Mirror)

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